‘Learning to Dance. Michael Mayne. He was Dean of Westminster Abbey. I’m sure Stephen will know his work.’
‘Oh, I doubt it,’ Ruth said, waving her hand in Cat’s direction. ‘By the way, do we get to discuss novels and things or is it all religious? If it’s novels, you’ll lose me, never read them, but I’d like to have a hand in choosing the Christian literature.’
Not wanting to leave at the same time as Ruth and risk further questioning, Cat carried on clearing up, putting cups in the dishwasher and emptying the coffee dregs, until Ilona came back from seeing Ruth out, counting aloud.
‘… Nine, ten. Cat, will you give your lovely brother a message from me?’
‘He’s away, but when I’m next in touch, yes of course.’
‘Tell him if that woman is found with her neck wrung I’ll have done it.’
‘I doubt it, Ilona, because I’ll have got there first. God, I’ll never be the Dean’s best friend and I hate some of the things he’s doing here, but I can sort of bear him, only …’
‘Only not Mrs Dean. Now, Cat dear, Duncan’s in London at the RSCM so I’m entirely alone. Stay and have a cheese salad with me, I need you.’
Cat glanced at her watch. She had made herself come to the St Michael’s book group, as she made herself do a number of things she had felt like ducking since Chris’s death. She liked the people – or had until Ruth had arrived – she read a lot and enjoyed discussing her reading and she knew it was important to make a social effort when it would be easier to curl back into her shell and never emerge again, other than to work and for the domestic round. The club had been set up to discuss books which were in some way, however loosely, related to faith, not to chatter about the latest fashionable fiction. There were, as Ilona said, plenty of other book groups which did that. They had roamed widely and tackled some difficult titles, not always with success, but Cat would come away feeling that her mind and sometimes her beliefs and principles had been challenged, as well as having enjoyed the company of the others. It had also helped her through bad patches by giving her something to address outside her own unhappiness.
‘I only have to call in to Imogen House, then pick up Hannah and Felix. If you’re sure …’
‘Thank God. I think I might explode.’ Ilona held up a bottle of sherry but Cat shook her head. ‘Pity. You’re quite right though, it might loosen our tongues.’ She started setting out plates.
‘Oh, mine doesn’t need any help.’
‘No. You don’t mind eating in here, do you? Even if our kitchen hasn’t been done up and has come out of the ark. Cat, stop me, stop me. She is a woman I am never going to like, and OK, that’s my problem, but what he is doing is far more serious. How they could have appointed him I can’t think. He doesn’t fit in, he isn’t right, he’s hell-bent on destroying everything that’s been built up over years, he has no sense of what is fine, what is excellent, of tradition, of … It’s making Duncan ill you know. And as for David Lester – I really fear he will leave. Apparently he was talking about other cathedral organist posts that might be coming up.’
‘He can’t! We can’t lose David. We need them both to stay put and fight.’
Ilona shook a plastic colander of salad so angrily that drops of water sprayed onto the wall behind her. ‘Are we stuck in the past, are we out of touch, does the cathedral need a shake-up? In some areas, yes, it does – we have to accept that. Not everything can just go on as it always has, there are some cobwebs, and we should welcome a new broom to help us sweep them away. But not to destroy the liturgy, the music, the high standards of the choir and the organ, the great services of the church. Yes, add to those, and do look at attracting more young people – the students for instance – but to vandalise what there is, to kick out 1662 altogether, dumb down the choral services, to have the lowest common denominator of modern hymns sung to an electronic keyboard, to … Oh, Cat, stop me. But it’s breaking my heart.’
‘I know,’ Cat said, taking the colander from her and shaking the salad into a bowl. ‘And mine and those of most of the congregation. Vandalise is the right word.’
‘And when madam talks about the flower rota in that patronising, supercilious way, I … I think I will kill her.’
‘No, Ilona, you won’t. Let me grate that cheese – you slice the tomatoes. And nor will I. But she is going to try our tolerance and forgiveness to breaking point.’
‘I don’t think I have any tolerance and forgiveness left,’ Ilona said sadly.
‘I do wonder what sort of books she’d choose for us.’
‘I can imagine.’
‘Are there happy-clappy books?’
‘Of course there are. They’re all about what Lewis Carroll called “writhing and fainting in coils”. Did you know she speaks in tongues? They go to some huge evangelical holiday camp and do it there apparently. And of course we all have to learn how to arm-wave properly.’ Ilona sat down. ‘Am I going to laugh hysterically or cry?’
Cat looked at her. ‘You have first go, laugh or cry. I’ll do the other. Shall I get some bread?’
‘Please … and let’s talk about something else or we’ll get indigestion from all that bile. Only just before we do, have you had a message about this new bee Webber has in his bonnet? The Magdalene Group?’
‘Yes. The first meeting’s on Friday the third. I think I ought to go. You?’
Ilona sighed. ‘I don’t know. I feel like just steering clear of everything, to be honest. Who else got that email from Aisling?’
She took a carton of apple juice from the fridge and started to pour it absently into a jug until she caught Cat’s eye and dumped it as it was onto the table.
‘Miles Hurley obviously, Sally from St Hugh’s, me, I think someone from the police as well but I’ve no idea who … Miles ought to invite the Baptists because they run the Reachout van.’
‘What’s on the Dean’s mind, do you suppose? Why is this a cathedral thing?’
‘Well, there are girls working in the Lanes round here, you know.’
‘No. I didn’t know. I’m stupid, aren’t I?’
‘Of course not. You wouldn’t necessarily realise they were prostitutes. The red-light area is mainly out beyond the canal bridge and the Old Ribbon Factory. I see them if I’m coming back late from the hospice.’
‘Dear God! I had absolutely no idea.’
‘It’s nothing new here. Don’t kid yourself that there is a city in this country without its prostitutes and its drugs. The girls being trafficked from Eastern Europe have made it a lot worse – especially in Bevham. I think Stephen Webber is right actually – the cathedral is in the heart of the city, the centre of the community, we should be trying to do something. I’m just not sure what. But I’ll be at the meeting.’
Ilona stared at her salad. ‘Now I feel ashamed of myself,’ she said. ‘So let’s talk about you. How’s the beautiful Sam?’
‘Not sure,’ Cat said. ‘He’s got an away hockey match today and is staying with one of his friends which will cheer him up.’
‘Does he need cheering up?’
‘I honestly don’t know, Ilona. I don’t know what Sam needs. He’s an oyster, closed up tight. He’s getting more and more like Simon.’ Even as she said it, Cat realised how true that was. ‘I sometimes wonder if they both intend to stay closed to the rest of us forever.’
The Reachout van was parked under the street lamp near the factory gates and already people were queuing at the counter. It had turned cold suddenly, the side streets like funnels for the wind to tear down. Abi had thought twice about coming out, but Hayley had arrived early, it was her turn, and besides, if she wimped out every time there was a breeze how was she going to do as she’d promised herself and make enough money to quit for good? She’d been busy. The punters were out in force, God knew why – there was never much of a pattern to it, except that it was busier on Saturday nights and at the end of the month when people had been paid, and dead when it was raining.
She saw the Reachout van as she got out of the car and headed for it, needing the brightness and the hot drink, but more, needing people, normal people who didn’t want anything from her except to give her another leaflet about their church. She had a load of the leaflets. She never liked to refuse or to dump them in the litter bins, though sometimes for a laugh she’d leave one behind in a punter’s car.
She knew both people on tonight and the one serving the soup winked at her as she got in the queue. They towed a caravan where you could go and sit, and which had a needle exchange, a lot of posters round the walls and another load of leaflets. Unless the weather was very rough most people sat outside, at the metal table and chairs, or on the bollards by the factory gates.
‘Hi,’ someone said behind her.
She was small and pasty and was wearing a weird lime-green nylon jacket. Abi had never seen her before, but there were always new ones. Usually new ones came for a night or two, maybe a few weeks, then went again.
‘Is it free?’
‘What do you get?’
‘What you like – tea, chocolate, soup, sarnies. Crisps. You just ask. They have bananas and apples and stuff like that as well.’
‘Like a proper café then.’ She lit a cigarette, threw away the match. ‘Sorry, only it’s my last.’
‘You’re all right, I don’t smoke.’
Her nails were bitten down but she’d painted them black, as if that helped. Her eyeshadow matched the nylon jacket.
Abi asked for a hot chocolate and a Wagon Wheel, which she wouldn’t eat, but put in her pocket for Frankie later.
‘You from round here?’
Abi pretended not to hear.
‘How are you tonight?’ Darren said, winking again. ‘We’re having a big open-air rally – music and that. Sunday week. The old aerodrome. Can I give you a leaflet?’
‘Yeah, right, thanks.’
‘You’d be really welcome, Abi.’
‘Anything else I can get you? Got some nice satsumas. You should eat more fruit.’
‘I know, only I hate fruit. Thanks anyway.’
‘Cheers, Abi, God bless, you take care now.’
She walked over to the bollards. The other girl followed.
‘What’s it like here?’ She relit the end of her cigarette. ‘Punters. You get many?’
‘Don’t seem too bad. Don’t seem many working this way either.’
‘Depends, doesn’t it?’
‘Only asked.’ She half turned away and pulled at her cigarette to get it going.
Abi felt guilty. It was the bloody leaflet. Whenever she took one, she started to feel guilty about something. At least when Loopy Les came round with his little packets of sandwiches he didn’t hand out Jesus leaflets.
‘Four or five regulars,’ she said at last. ‘A few others, only they come and go. We look out for each other.’
‘Get much work?’
‘No good in Bevham any more, I tell you.’
‘Used to be steady, you know, and the same girls. Coppers knew us, punters knew us, no trouble. Then all of a sudden they turned up – Eastern Europe they come from, got pimps, everything. They dumped them on a corner, maybe a dozen or fifteen at a time, it was ridiculous. And I tell you what, at least half of them was kids – thirteen, fourteen? Bloody disgrace.’
‘They got raided, last I heard.’
‘Right. Dawn raid, yeah, rounded up a load of them, cleared a couple of houses. Illegals. They just brought more in. There’s hundreds of them all over the country, they move them around.’ She ground out the cigarette end under the heel of her boot. ‘Bloody disgrace. Anyway, someone said it was good over here, nicer sort of place. So I thought I’d come. Try it. Came on the bus. Get a lift back. See how it goes.’
‘Right.’ Abi stood up.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Hi.’ The girl put out her hand. It seemed weird. But Abi took it. It was cold and small, like a kid’s hand, like Frankie’s. ‘Chantelle.’
There were cars going by at the top of the road.
‘You better get right away from the van.’
‘I dunno. Just better you do. Fan out as well. No point standing together.’
‘There’s, like, plenty of space,’ Chantelle said.
‘Yeah. Maybe some others’ll be out later.’
‘Kelly, Amy, Marie … there’s loads.’
‘OK.’ Chantelle turned and went down the road, looking hard at every car that passed. ‘See you.’
‘Right. See you later.’ Abi crossed over and headed nearer to the bypass. She knew the best corner to bag and, as she reached it, a Renault Mégane slowed beside her. Vince.
‘Hi, Vince,’ Abi said, opening the passenger door. She didn’t know if Vince was his real name but it didn’t matter because he thought she was called Bella.
She caught a glimpse of Chantelle, looking towards the Renault as it drove away.
An hour later, she got a text message from Hayley, saying that Frankie had been sick twice and was asking for her. It was worrying that he couldn’t seem to get rid of the bug the way the others had. Maybe she ought to take him to the doctor again. He didn’t look right either, always pale and clammy-feeling, and whiny, when he wasn’t really a whiny kid.
It was a lot colder and she jogged a bit. The Chantelle girl hadn’t reappeared and the Reachout van was packing up.
Abi felt suddenly depressed, fed up with everything. If she’d been a drinker, this was just the sort of time when she’d have got in a few bottles. She could see why people did, and why they got onto crack, why it would be easy, because sometimes you needed to get out of it for an hour, times like now, when she was frozen and on her way home to spend half the night holding a bucket so Frankie could throw up into it. But she knew she was right never to start on anything at all, never go down that road. She had sixty quid in her pocket, another hundred in the tin, and tomorrow that would go into the post office as well. This time next year …
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com