“Iona! I don’t like books!”
There was a stunned silence. Then, “What?”
“I don’t like them.” I bit my lip. “Well, no, that isn’t true. I mean, I haven’t got anything against them. Really. And I suppose some are quite good. Not unless I have to – for school.” I attempted a half-laugh but it got squashed because the voice on the other end of the phone sounded so disappointed.
“Oh, Sammy. I really liked that book. I did so want you to read it and enjoy it as much as I did.”
I sighed. It was a very big, loud sigh. It was meant to be big and loud so Iona would get the idea that I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings but I did not want to sit and read some dreary novel when I didn’t have to. Wasn’t life hard enough without having people lend you thick novels you didn’t want to read and then ringing you up to see if you liked them? I took a deep breath.
“Iona, we’ve got loads of books to read this term. I mean stack. By the time I’ve got through The Annals of Ancient Wherever for history and that awful thing we’ve been doing in English which was written a million years ago and has characters called Obadiah Flood and Cross-eyed Will, and then the poetry by that man who went mad and lived in a lavatory all his life – Iona, I don’t really have time to read your book. You see?”
“Oh, it didn’t take me long, Sam. Really, it didn’t. And I’ve got my exams to think about. It’s relaxing.”
“I don’t want to read it! Stop hassling me!” That’s what I wanted to say. But I didn’t. It was obviously important to her that I read it. I likedd her. She was my friend. So I gave in. “OK.” I put the phone down, went upstairs into my bedroom and flopped face downwards on my duvet feeling very sorry for myself. Why couldn’t I just say “NO!” when there was something I didn’t want to do? I sat up, and snatched up the offending novel—which had accidently slipped to the floor. (And before you start wondering, yes it was an accident, I didn’t throw it there and I didn’t jump on it either).
I propped myself up against my pillow. Better start reading the boring thing, I thought. Sooner I start the sooner I’ll finish. I’ll skip-read it. Pick up enough to answer any questions. Honestly! Iona had been going on about that book for ages. Well, mostly, she’d been enthusing about the hero and how she wished she could meet a boy like him in real life. I glanced at the shiny bright cover. The hero was on it. Yeah, he looked OK. I began to read. Surprisingly, it was quite good. In fact it was so gripping a story that I didn’t hear my mum thundering up the stairs; the handsome prince was just galloping across a bridge, with his sword in hand, off to save the peasant girl from a horrible enemy, shouting, “I will rescue her!” when my mum came galloping into my room brandishing a tea towel, yelling, “I will murder you!”
“What?” I said.
“Samantha! I’ve been calling you. Three times I shouted up the stairs – I could do with a hand, Sam, with the washing! Samantha! Are you listening to me?”
“Eh? Oh, sorry, Mum, it’s this book. It’s good. And the hero’s a hunk!”
She ignored me and moaned on about the washing getting wet in the rain. So I shut the book and went downstairs wondering why she panicked so when the washing was already wet. What harm would a bit of rain do to it? And why did mothers always make such a big thing about stuff that really was so utterly dull, like washing? It wasn’t just my mum; my friends’ mums were the same. Perhaps something happened to your brain when you reached 20 that made you care about such trivia. I determined to be different.
The sun had come out by the time we reached the kitchen. Mum decided to leave the washing our after all, but she moaned about it like mad, so I sat at the kitchen table in case she changed her mind, and buried myself in Iona’s book again.
When she calmed down a bit she obviously thought she’d over-reacted a little and tried to start chatting to me. It was irritating. And then, even more irritatingly, our neighbour, Mrs Kettle turned up. They talked about the rain for a while and how annoying it was, and how you never knew what to do with your washing with all these spring showers. I would have gone back upstairs but Mum brought out some of her freshly baked fairy cakes so I hung around.
“So, what are you reading, then?” asked Mrs Kettle.
“A school book,” said Mum, and I felt cross. Why did she have to answer for me? Anway, she was wrong.
“It isn’t, actually,” I said, rather smugly, “It’s a novel someone leant me.”
“A novel!” Mrs Kettle’s over made up eyes flashed behind their gold rimmed glasses. “I read novels. Is it rude? Let’s have a look.”
I started sniggering but Mum looked quite shocked.
“Don’t worry, Mum. It’s not. It’s called In the Service of the King and it’s an adventure story about this handsome prince, Perah, who’s looking for the Sword of Truth. Look – that’s him on the cover. Cool, isn’t he!”
“Aha,” Mrs Kettle sipped her coffee and began eating one of Mum’s cakes. “Sword and sorcery!”
“I jolly well hope it isn’t, Sam!” exclaimed Mum, “You know I can’t stand those sort of books!”
“It isn’t. It’s just a story. Iona said it’s about good versus evil. There’s a witch in it somewhere and the –”
“A witch!” Mum grabbed the book, plonked herself down at the table and read a bit of it, made a few clicking noises and then said at least the witch was portrayed as evil and horrid and was apparently vanquished by a good hero. Then Mrs Kettle suddenly said, “Mrs Faggis from the sweet shop’s a witch. Did you know that?”
“Well, she says she is. She offered to read my palm. Look at the tarot cards for me. Read my star chart or something. Always on about star sign, she is, the sun in this and the moon in that. I wonder if I’m a bit psychic myself, actually. I once saw a ghost you know. Mind you, it could’ve been the result of the radishes I’d had for tea; they give me the most frightful problems. My great uncle Nigel was the same. He had radishes for supper and when he went to the loo that night he thought he saw a cow in the bathrom.” And Mrs Kettle happily took another fairy cake.
“I didn’t know you were interested in the occult,” said Mum.
“What’s the occult?” I asked.
“The supernatural,” Mrs Kettle answered through her cake.
“Bad supernatural!” Mum said.
Mrs Kettle raised a finely pencilled eyebrow. She wasn’t a Christian like my mum – and me – so she didn’t see things in quite the same way.
“Always thought it was a load of old rubbish, but, well, who knows? Mrs Figgis might tell me I’m about to meet the man of my dreams.”
Man of her dreams! She was ancient, at least 40! I snorted with laughter but managed to turn it into a cough. And I think Mum would’ve liked to have said quite a bit to Mrs Kettle right then, but our neighbour had changed the subject. She was now gassing on about the amateur dramatic society’s latest offering which apparently starred ‘the most gorgeous young man’ and Mum couldn’t get a word in for ages. When she eventually was able to, spiritual thoughts had been cast aside in favor of the mundane. It was raining again.
They shot out into the garden and began unpegging the washing which flapped around soggily in the early spring breeze, and just as they collected it all, it stopped raining. I rather cruelly laughed as I watched them through the kitchen window. They had obviously decided not to take a further change with the weather, and were bringing the washing in when Mum stopped and showed Mrs Kettle a batch of yellow crocuses which came up every year under the silver birch tree. I couldn’t remember a time they hadn’t been there. I suddenly felt quite old, quite grown up. But then, I was; there were only a few weeks to go till my 14th birthday.
I opened a new packet of gum and began chewing as I started to read Iona’s book again and forgot about Mrs Kettle and what she’d said – until later, when she’d gone home, and I was helping Mum peel the potatoes for tea.
“Mum,” I said, “Do you think Mrs Faggis from the sweet shop is really a witch? I mean, she hasn’t got a hooked nose or anything. She’s not bad looking for an oldie. I mean, she must be at least 40 like Mrs Kettle and surely all witches are over 90 or something?”
Then Mum quietly explained to me that there were three ways of looking at witches and witchcraft and all the occult stuff that Mrs Kettle had mentioned. She said either there was nothing to it in which case it was harmless – that witches were just ugly old hags from story books with hooked noses like I’d said; or witches were real and quite benign fold just practising their own religion and that astrology and other things like it were alternative beliefs; or, as the Bible said, witchcraft and other kidns of occult activity were not what God wanted us to get involved in and something that would lead us away from him. She showed me a part in the Bible called Deuteronomy which made it quite clear that God didn’t want his people to take part in all that sort of stuff.
“God wouldn’t warn us about it if it wasn’t dangerous to get involved in,” she said, “because as you know, Sam, he loves us.”
“Yep,” I said. I did know that. I’d known it for sure ever since I had asked God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to come and live in my heart by his Spirit a few months ago. “OK, Mum, I get it. I understand. It’s gone in. Are we having sausages tonight? Only the ones we had last week made me burp. They did, Mum.”
“We’ll have bacon,” she said, ironically, “Can’t have you burping, can we?” and I giggled. I didn’t think any more of what she’d said. All that had happened, I thought, was that I had a bit more information about how Christians viewed life in general and the occult in particular. So I just got on with my life as usual. And life for me revolved around school, of course.
We had a new temporary teacher for RE because the usual one, Mrs Foster, was on maternity leave. The new teacher was a young man with a wispy beard and squeaky shoes and he was pretty weird, with bushy hair and staring eyes. His name was Mr Fairhead, which was unfortunate because most of the kids immediately changed that to Mr Fathead. He always wore the same brown corduroy jacket and kep bringing his guitar to lessons and playing it very badly.
Of course, we all urged him to play it, because whilst he was strumming and singing daft songs – like the one with the lyrics “Wish I could spread myself like margarine on the world, oh yeah, little pieces of me everywhere, minglin’ with everythin’, my brain’s in shreds, let me fly away”, which he proudly announced he’d written himself – we didn’t have to do any actual work. One of the prettier girls in the clase would only have to say “Oh sir, do sing another one!” and off he’d go again for another quarter of an hour, his face and awful nasal voice full of angst and most of the class trying to keep a straight face until the bell sounded for next lesson. People were always laughing at him, exploding in the corridor after the lesson, but not in front of him, because they wanted to keep him singing and not giving us homework.
That grey and dismal Wednesday, Mr Fairhead’s features were a study of woe as he regaled the class with his thoughts about the planet before singing a song called The Answer to Life is Planetary Unity which I thought was even worse than the rubbish he usually sang because the answer to life wasn’t planetary unity or spreading yourself like margarine over fields or whatever silly stuff he’d said before. The answer to life was Jesus, who I believed loved me and died for me on the cross two thousand years ago. He’d done this for me, Sammy, to take the punishment for everything I ever said and did wrong, so I could be God’s friend. Mr Fairhead didn’t know about Jesus and the peace he could bring to a person’s heart and mind and life. So as he sang what I considered to be a load of trash about the answer to all life’s problems being planetary unity I got In the Service of the King out of my bag and began to read it quietly whilst my friend Amanda yawned loudly and doodled the name of her latest crush ‘Jay’ on her exercise book.
Mr Fairhead stopped singing and began squeaking almost as much as his shoes as he said the time was right to share some of his own ideals with us. I glanced up from my book wondering what boring drivel he was going to come out with now.
“I’m one of The Few,” he said and a boy called Denzil Hartley who thought he was clever said “Never mind, sir, we still like you,” and the class laughed.
“No, I’m one of The Few, a select band,” said Mr Fairhead.
“A band? You ain’t the lead singer, are you?” asked a big masculine looking girl called Trina.
Mr Fairhead seemed exasperated and went into a very long and dreary explanation of a band of people he was part of who liked to worship nature, the sky, the trees – I thought of my Aunty Ann’s boyfriend Bo, who was into the same sort of thing – then he talked about how he was an astrologer and could tell the future and how star signs ruled the cosmos and how for centuries people had believed the occult was dangerous and witches were evil but they weren’t, they were spiritual and good. And I thought wow, this is just what my mum was talking about the other day, and found myself saying, “Mr Fat – I mean, Mr Fairhead, if they’re so spiritual and good, why does the Bible say God doesn’t want us to have anything to do with them?”
That was it. Just a simple sentence. I didn’t think anyone had heard me properly at the time, because no-one mentioned it, especially with all the fuss that happened later (Mr Fairhead may have claimed to be able to see the future but he certainly hadn’t seen the bit where he got the sack for inappropriate behavior in the classroom).
“Weird,” said Amanda, as we watched him being escorted from the school, protesting and waving his guitar in the air.
“Truly,” I agreed. And so did the rest of the class.
It was only later that I found out that my few words, the result of a little bit of info Mum had given me, words that I thought no-one cared about or even remembered, were lodging themselves in someone’s malicious brain right then.