Denise strode down the High Street, looked up at the blue May sky above, remembered the blonde girl twirling before the mirror in a cream silk dress, and mentally totted up the shop’s profit. Hopefully, if they did well this summer, she and Colin could afford one of those wonderful-sounding cruises that her friends kept going on. But if sales fell, she’d really have to consider opening on Wednesday afternoon. The thought of losing her free afternoon brought a slight frown to her face.
When she reached home, Colin was deftly chopping herbs. He nodded briefly as she came into the kitchen and slung her bag onto the table.
“Omelette and salad for dinner, OK, lass?” He said.
“Yes, fine. Your day OK?”
“Aye. Busy though. Four sessions with kids who’ve never been taught to brush their teeth and have got mouths full of fillings. How was today?”
“Not so bad. Sold a ball dress, from the sale rack, to one of the High school girls. I hope she’ll tell her friends about us, and maybe we’ll sell a few more. Could do with that. I really don’t want to have to open six full days.”
“Yeah. You said.”
“Well, I do need that afternoon off! I need it to help people. Like last week, like I told you, I needed the time to cook some meals for that couple with the new baby.”
“I know! Aren’t they the couple on Cavendish street with the Audi?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
Colin raised his eyebrows.
“Anyway, they still needed help,” she said. “And the week before, I had to visit Mrs Peterson. She doesn’t get out much!” Denise didn’t want to mention that half the church visited Mrs Peterson. The optimistic, encouraging 80-year old was a pleasure to spend time with and to pray with. Colin wouldn’t understand. Instead, she started to lay the table as he whisked up the eggs.
As they sat down to eat, Colin said, “This evening, you hadn’t got anything planned, had you?”
“No. Just a nice quiet Saturday night in.”
“Er, well, I’ve been asked to help out with a car. Friend of a friend, er, she’s called Louise, and it sounds like it’s just the alternator needs replacing. It should only take an hour and it’s light enough this evening.”
Denise looked at him. His eyes met hers and then flicked away sideways.
“Is that OK with you?” he said.
“Yes…” she said slowly, then smiled. She was being silly. He wouldn’t have mentioned the woman’s name if there was anything to worry about. “Yes, fine. No problem. I can watch that film, ‘God’s not dead.’ It’s not your cup of tea anyway.”
Denise waved the ‘Mail on Sunday’ at him over the toast and marmalade.
“Look at this!” she exclaimed. “This woman – she gets seventy thousand in benefits! Look at the size of her telly! And she doesn’t lift a finger. I work fifty hours a week, some weeks, for the shop and you know I’m lucky to get a quarter of that.”
Colin picked it up and read it.
“Seventy thousand pounds’ worth of benefits, it says,” he murmured. “Not actually seventy thousand.”
“Even so! She looks foreign to me. I bet she is. Polish or Romanian. Does it say? How many kids has she got? Five! As bad as that family down the road. You know, the one with the single mum, with weeds and drinks cans and stuff in the front garden. I wish they’d tidy it up. It looks awful. Makes the street look such a mess.”
Colin stood up.
“I’m going,” he said.
“I’m playing golf.”
“Really. Again? Oh. I didn’t know. I hoped … Oh, Colin, I wish you’d come with me, just once. We’ve got a visiting speaker from an African mission this morning. I’m sure you’d find it interesting.”
“Er, maybe another time. I’m promised this morning.”
“Honestly, you’re turning me into a golf widow! That’s eight, nine Sundays in a row! Just don’t start playing Saturday afternoons as well, that’s all I ask.”
Denise slammed the kitchen door and went to get her bible and sermon journal. By the time she came back down the stairs, Colin had his coat on and was heading out of the door.
“Well…bye,” he said. “Back about one.”
“Bye,” she muttered. “Hope you have a nice morning…not!” Before he took up golf six months ago, she was sure he’d been on the verge of coming to church with her. But now if she even mentioned it, he’d go really quiet, or change the subject, or make some excuse to leave the room.
When she came back, the house was still empty. She dropped her bible on the table, shrugged, and decided that she’d do a bit of gardening after lunch, so she went to get her tools ready. The lawn needed edging but the shears weren’t in the shed. Colin must have put left them in the garage – he’d said something about sharpening them. She opened the garage door, paused, dropped the keys onto the ground and stared.
Denise was peeling the potatoes for lunch when Colin came in. She whipped round and jabbed the peeler in his direction.
“Colin, you – you – sod! Where have you been? Really? And don’t you dare lie to me!”
He stood, his coat half-off his shoulders, and stared at her.
“Golf, my foot! You must think I’m stupid,” she snapped.
“Denise? What are you on about, lass?”
“Your golf clubs. You forgot to take them. They were in the garage. You were so clever, telling me you were playing golf, but you messed up, didn’t you? You forgot to actually take your clubs!”
Colin sat down at the table. He looked down and breathed in deeply. He clasped his hands, with their long, practical, deft fingers, together. Then he looked up.
“Er…” He paused.
“Er? Is that all you can say! Come on, Colin. Out with it. You’ve been – ” she gulped and stopped. If she said the word, ‘affair’, it would become real. She shut her eyes, dropped the peeler into the sink, and sat at the table opposite Colin. “Please,” she said. “Please, tell me. It’s not that woman, Louise, is it?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Well? What is going on? Is it just extra work? They’re not making you open the surgery on Sundays as well as Saturdays, are they?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Well… Aye, you’re right. I haven’t been playing golf. The fact is…”
He stopped. Denise stared at him. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. It must be something awful. It was an affair. She stood up.
“It is – It is, isn’t it? You – you are having an affair. With that woman, Louise…How could you? After all these years?”
“No, I ain’t! It isn’t that. For God’s sake, sit down, woman, and listen.”
She sat and glared at his shame-faced countenance.
“Going on then. What is it?” she said.
“I’ve, er, I’ve been going to church.”
Denise drew back. In the silence the clock’s ticking filled the room. She breathed in, out, in again. Tears filled her eyes.
“Oh. Oh, Colin. Oh, thank God! I’ve been praying for this for years. Why didn’t you tell me? You’ve been going to church! How long for?”
“About five, six months.”
“Colin, oh, I’m so relieved. You’re saved!” She smiled, reached across and took his hand. “We should open a bottle of champagne to celebrate.”
He shook his head. “Nay, lass. It’s not that simple. I don’t think I’m what you might called ‘saved’. Seems to me it isn’t like that.”
“What is it like? Tell me, please, Colin!”
“I’ve, er, well, you know I started playing golf Friday afternoons. With Eric. And a couple of others. One of them was a vicar. We got talking. Got on really well. He was a decent chap. Seemed to practise what he preached. Anyway, the upshot is…”
He looked directly at her.
“I’ve been going to St. Luke’s,” he said defensively.
She pushed her chair back and snatched her hand away from his.
“St. Luke’s! Not St. Luke’s? The vicar there – was it him? That you played golf with? Simon Cartwright? He’s… But he’s.. He’s all woolly, and liberal… not…”
“You were going to say ‘gay’, weren’t you? Aye, he is, as gay as they come. He comes prancing down the aisle in his embroidered dress; camper than Butlins, he is. But he doesn’t care. He’s – you know, lass, he’s happy. He’s easy-going, honest… And I don’t know what you mean by liberal, but he certainly ain’t illiberal.”
“How could you? When I’ve been praying for you, asking you to come with me… for years? How could you do this and not tell me? And with someone like that! A church like that! Easy-going? That’s just an excuse to be – to go right off the rails, to do anything you like! There have to be – to be rules, to be standards!”
“Rules! Mayhap you should read your bible a bit better, Denise. Mayhap you should read Matthew seven more often.”
“What do you mean? I read my bible every bloody day! Don’t you tell me what I should be reading!”
She stood up and slammed her bible onto the table. Several bookmarks fell out. Colin stood up too.
“It doesn’t seem to sink in, does it, Denise?” he said. “You disapprove, to say the least, of gay vicars. You nearly had an apoplexy when the gay marriage bill went through. And you sit there, reading that paper, and tutting about everything and everybody.”
“You do. You rant about gay vicars, anyone gay, for that matter. And single mothers and immigrants and feminists and people from public schools. Anyone upper-class, except the royal family. They’re all right, according to you – I never could work that one out.”
“The royal family?” Denise said in confusion.
“And people who have four-wheel drive cars in town, the unemployed, all MPs except Boris bloody Johnson ‘cos he makes you laugh, all Americans, Germans, East Europeans, in fact all foreigners except Canadians and New Zealanders for some reason. You can’t stand Channel 4, modern music, hymns written after 1875, parking wardens…”
“Colin, stop it…”
“The bloody list goes on and on. Drug-addicts, homeless people, bankers…”
“Too many for me to remember! You criticise the lot. Dog-walkers, footballers, transvestites – you actually cringed when that man, the drag queen with a beard, what’s his name – Conchita – won the Eurovision. Oh, mustn’t forget, anyone with a tattoo or nose stud, cyclists on pavements… I’m surprised you can bear anyone’s company!”
“That’s just not fair! I don’t criticise. I just – I just try to love the sin, hate the sinner – no, it’s the other way around. I try! I try to love the sinner, but hate the sin!”
“Well, it looks to me like you don’t make any difference ‘twixt one and t’other. You ought to practise what you preach about loving enemies and forgiving others. Listen to yourself! What you said about that single mum down the road!”
Denise shook her head. What was he on about? How could this be happening?
“What did I say?” she said.
Colin didn’t reply. He sighed, and walked out of the room. She heard him go up the stairs, then the sounds of doors closing and opening, drawers slamming shut, footsteps in the bedroom overhead. She waited. Breathing seemed hard. She tried to pray, but she couldn’t concentrate. What was Colin talking about? Criticising footballers? No, no, she didn’t do that. She shook her head, like someone trying to dislodge a buzzing sound from their ear, and went back to the sink. As she picked up the potato peeler, she noticed that her nail varnish was chipped. She tutted. Maybe she should try some of that gel varnish instead. It would be expensive but it would look a bit more sophisticated and would last longer. Colin’s words, ‘you ought to practise what you preach’ suddenly echoed in her head. That didn’t make any sense. Of course she did. Mechanically, she continued to peel potatoes. Whatever he said, they still had to have lunch. Anyway, he said he’d started going to church. That was good. That was the main thing. If he was getting a bit of wrong, non-biblical teaching, then she could do something about that, couldn’t she? Pray, talk to him. The love of a good woman was surely worth something. She allowed herself a small, complacent smile, at the thought of Colin finally, after all these years, walking into St. Agnes with her.
The sounds overhead stopped, and she heard him come downstairs. He dropped something heavy into the hall. When he came into the kitchen he had his coat on, and he looked tired. So old, so tired. He worked so hard. She knew he liked ‘giving people back their smiles’ but honestly, that dental practice was wearing him out. She dried her hands and went over to him.
But he stepped back.
“Don’t, Denise, lass,” he said.
“You’re off? Where are you going?”
“I’m, er, look, Denise, I’m leaving.”
“I don’t understand. Leaving?” She stepped back, put a hand out to lean on the counter, then sat down and stared at him.
“Going? You mean…You mean it?”
“Aye. I’m leaving. I’ll take my keys, for now. I’ll need to come back to get the rest of my stuff. But I’ll understand if you want to change the locks.”
“What?” Denise clenched her hands, and stood up. “You can’t be. You said you’d become a Christian! How does that fit, leaving your wife?”
“I’m just moving out for a bit.”
“For a bit? For how long? It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Colin, you can’t do this!”
“I guess I can.”
He picked up his keys from the hook, and did up his coat. Denise grabbed his sleeve.
“Why? For God’s sake, why? I don’t understand!” she cried.
“It’s not going to work, is it? You going to your church on Sunday and me going to mine. I won’t get a moment’s peace.”
“Don’t be stupid, Colin! I can cope with that! That’s just an excuse…”
“I just can’t take you and your tutting and sighing at the news and everything, any more. And, as well as that, I suppose you could say that I’ve just about had my fill of hypocrisy. Like making meals for a family that have got an Audi, who could easily afford to buy ready-meals for a month without a problem, when you sneer at the single mum down the road. Talking about forgiveness, yet moaning about muggers getting early release. Calling the unemployed lazy.”
Denise let go of his sleeve and collapsed back onto the chair. She put her head in her hands. The tears started to fall. “No, no. Please, no…” she sobbed.
“Think on it, lass,” he said, in a softer voice. “You didn’t used to be so – so harsh and annoyed with everything and everyone. Anyhap, I’ll be in touch.”
“But, but – where are you going?”
“I’ll stay in a B&B for a bit, until I can get sorted. I’ll let you know.”
He went into the hall. Denise ran after him, but he picked up his suitcase, strode out and shut the door firmly behind him.
Denise sat on the bottom step of the stairs, gulping down sobs and staring at the door. After an hour, she got up and walked slowly into the kitchen. The half-peeled potatoes and twists of brown skin still floated in the murky water in the bowl. There was no point in finishing them or cooking the fish. She gripped the worktop and tried to understand why he’d left. Because she was harsh? But that was wrong. She was always helping people. Everyone at church knew how much she did. How she’d lent money to Susannah to set up a website for her new catering business. How she’d visited old Mr Mandeville in hospital. How she’d set up the toddler group. If that wasn’t love in action, what was?
She poured the bowl of potatoes through a colander and took it into the garden to put on the compost heap. As she passed the garage she remembered finding his golf clubs. Colin had lied to her. She flung a potato at the shed, hissing “swine!” as it hit the wood. She flung another, then another. Swine, lying, faithless swine! How dare he call her a hypocrite! She wasn’t! God knew what she was. She was a Christian! Just because she saw the evil in the world and named it. She was trying to be light to the world – to be a good person. Cyclists who rode on the pavements were being lawless and dangerous. What was wrong with pointing that out?
“I don’t hate cyclists!” she yelled, flinging another potato. “I don’t! Or dog-walkers or tranvestites or – or anyone! I don’t! I don’t!” She threw a handful of peelings after the potato, and then the colander, then crouched down on the grass. “I don’t… I don’t,” she whispered. “I’m a good Christian…” She stood up. Her face hardened. “It’s all a lie. Just an excuse to leave me,” she muttered. “He’s wrong, not me. He’s got it wrong!”
Two days later, Colin texted her an address. She hadn’t heard anything from him. She’d cooked meals, washed up, opened the shop, closed the shop, tidied, read, prayed, flicked through her bible then put it aside. When her phone beeped that evening, and she saw it was from him, her first thought was that he was sorry and he was coming back. But it was a terse message with an address and something about he’ll come round next weekend to get the rest of his clothes and books. The coward hadn’t even dared to phone her and talk to her directly.
Denise rushed into the hall, grabbed her coat and keys, and dashed out. Fifteen minutes later she stood on the step below the door of a scruffy-looking terrace house on the other side of town. She breathed in deeply and knocked. The door was opened by a dark-haired, slightly overweight woman, with red cheeks and clear blue eyes. She had an eyebrow ring and a toddler balanced on her hip, and Denise could see a tattoo snaking up the arm holding around the toddler.
“Yes?” she said, leaning casually against the wall and looking down at Denise.
Denise stared at her.
“What’d you want?” the woman said.
“Who are you?” Denise exclaimed.
“None of your business.”
Colin appeared behind the woman. He was wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon. “Who is it, Louise?” he said.
“What!” Denise shrieked. “Louise?”
“Oh. Er. Denise. Er, hi,” Colin said.
“Denise? This your wife?” Louise said. “Oh blimey! I said this was a bad idea…”
“Bad idea!” exclaimed Denise. “I’ll give you bad idea. You slut – you little slut. You whore…”
“Hey, just you can it!” Louise snapped back.
“Now then, steady on, lass,” said Colin. “Louise, you take Maisie inside. I’ll deal with this.”
“Fine, no problemo, you deal with her,” Louise said. “I’m not staying here to be insulted. You sort her out. Come on, Maisie, let’s go finish that drawing.”
“Colin – you swine, you scumbag, you lying, cheating, low-life…” Denise yelled, as Louise flounced off down the hall. “All that rigmarole about leaving me because of church and you’re holed up with some cheap tart!”
“Stop it! It ain’t what you think! I ain’t having an affair with Louise. Of course not! I know her, through Simon, through his church. She’s got a room and needed a lodger, so I arranged to stay here for a few months, until we’ve sorted things out.”
“Oh, yeah, sure! That’s not what it looks like, you liar.” Denise pointed at his apron. “Rent and cooking?”
“Oh, you mean this? Well, I’m helping her out with the cooking. Shepherd’s pie.”
“You’re what? I don’t believe this! For God’s sake, Colin, you stand there, waving a spoon at me and talking about cooking as if it’s all normal. Come off it! You’ve left me for her! Haven’t you?”
“No! I’m just staying here to help her out with money. She’s a bit short, and the rent helps.”
“Well, I need help too. I think I get priority. I’m your wife, remember!”
Colin took a step closer, leaned forward and gripped onto her wrist.
“You don’t need help. Well, not what I can give you,” he said, in a low, serious voice. “Now, you listen, Denise. You ought to recognise Louise. She’s one of those single mums you go on about. Three kids, partner walked out on her. And she’s met you before.”
“At your Mums and Toddler’s group. Louise came once. Do you remember?”
Denise shook her head.
“Pity. No-one spoke to her. She said they all stared at her like she was dirt. She was eight months pregnant with Maisie, Danny was a handful, and Rhees was in a strop.”
“Oh, I see you know all their names now,” Denise sneered.
“Aye, I do! Anyhap, you listen! She was there at your toddler group. Her kids kept running around, and she couldn’t do owt, being as how she was eight months gone. Someone – probably you! – told her off because Danny nicked another kid’s toy. Then Rhees was sick. She said she wanted to curl up and die because of the way everyone stared down their posh noses at her. She left as quick as she could. You were there. One kind word – you could have done that. But you didn’t. Not even a single word, let alone an offer of help. Too busy cooking bloody beef lasagne for that rich couple, when Louise was living on budget spaghetti hoops trying to ensure her kids were fed. It wouldn’t have cost you owt to have helped her instead.”
“But… I don’t remember her. But… I would have been busy.”
“Oh, running it, putting the drinks out, making coffee, talking to the mums.”
“Aye! Talking to everyone except the one who really needed it.”
“That’s not fair! She should have disciplined her kids a bit more! She could have come back the next week!”
Colin shook his head.
“Too late, anyhap. Well, she’s getting some help now. She went to the ‘messy church’ at St. Lukes, and got on really well there. Even got Maisie christened. She thinks Simon’s – well, cool, I guess, and the people there really friendly and helpful.”
The sound of beeping drifted towards the door, along with a distinct smell of burning onions.
“Right, I’d better go. Think on it all, Denise, lass.”
Louise sauntered back into the hall. She moved close to Colin, and for a moment rested her hand on his shoulder.
“You coming?” she said to him.
Colin nodded, stepped back, muttered “I’ve got to go” to Denise, turned and walked quickly away. Louise looked down at Denise. There was a definite smirk on her face. Then she closed the door, leaving Denise outside in the darkness, in the place with the wailing and gnashing of teeth.