Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories


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Also by Michel Faber
Some Rain Must Fall and Other Stories
Under the Skin
The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps
The Courage Consort
The Crimson Petal and the White
The Fahrenheit Twins
The Apple
The Fire Gospel


 

 

THE BOOK OF
STRANGE NEW
THINGS
Michel Faber



 
Published in Great Britain in 2014 by
Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TE
www.canongate.tv
This digital edition first published in 2014 by Canongate Books Copyright © Michel Faber, 2014
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library ISBN: 978 1 78211 406 2
Export ISBN: 978 1 78211 407 9
ePub ISBN: 978 1 78211 409 3
Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologises for any errors or omissions and would be grateful to be notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.
Typeset in Perpetua, ITC OfficinaSans LT Book and We Come In Peace by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire


 

 

 

 

 

 

For Eva, always.

CONTENTS


I Thy Will Be Done

 


1 Forty minutes later he was up in the sky

2 He would never see other humans the same way again

3 The grand adventure could surely wait

4 ‘Hello everybody,’ he said

5 Just as he recognised them for what they were

6 His whole life had been leading up to this

7 Approved, transmitted

8 Take a deep breath and count to a million

9 The choir resumed II On Earth

 


10 The happiest day of my life

11 He realised for the first time that she was beautiful, too

12 Looking back, almost certainly, that was when it happened

13 The engine kindled into life

14 Lost in the mighty unison

15 Hero of the moment, king of the day

16 Toppling off an axis, falling through space

17 Still blinking under the word ‘here’

18 I need to talk to you, she said

19 He would learn it if it killed him

20 Everything would be all right if she only could III As It Is

 


21 There is no God, she wrote

22 Alone with you by my side IV In Heaven

 


23 A drink with you

24 The Technique of Jesus

25 Some of us have work to do

26 He only knew that thanks were due

27 Stay where you are

28 Amen Acknowledgements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NB There is script throughout the book used to denote the Oasan language – the appearance of these characters is intentional and does not constitute an error in the text


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I
THY WILL BE DONE


1


Forty minutes later he was up in the sky
‘I was going to say something,’ he said.

‘So say it,’ she said.

He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city’s outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.

‘God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it,’ he said.

‘Well,’ she sighed, ‘He knows already, so you may as well tell me.’

He glanced at her face, to judge what mood she was in as she said this, but the top half of her head, including her eyes, was veiled in a shadow cast by the edge of the windscreen. The bottom half of her face was lunar bright. The sight of her cheek, lips and chin – so intimately familiar to him, so much a part of life as he had known it – made him feel a sharp grief at the thought of losing her.

‘The world looks nicer with man-made lights,’ he said.

They drove on in silence. Neither of them could abide the chatter of radio or the intrusion of pre-recorded music. It was one of the many ways they were compatible.

‘Is that it?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘What I mean is . . . Unspoiled nature is supposed to be the ultimate in perfection, isn’t it, and all the man-made stuff is supposed to be a shame, just cluttering it up. But we wouldn’t enjoy the world half as much if we – man . . . that is, human beings . . . ’

(She gave him one of her get-on-with-it grunts.)

‘ . . . if we hadn’t put electric lights all over it. Electric lights are actually attractive. They make a night drive like this bearable. Beautiful, even. I mean, just imagine if we had to do this drive in total darkness. Because that’s what the natural state of the world is, at night, isn’t it? Total darkness. Just imagine. You’d have the stress of not having a clue where you were going, not being able to see more than a few metres in front of you. And if you were heading for a city – well, in a non-technological world there wouldn’t be cities, I suppose – but if you were heading for a place where other people lived, living there naturally, maybe with a few campfires . . . You wouldn’t see them until you actually arrived. There wouldn’t be that magical vista when you’re a few miles away from a city, and all the lights are twinkling, like stars on the hillside.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘And even inside this car, assuming you could have a car, or some sort of vehicle, in this natural world, pulled by horses I suppose . . . It would be pitch black. And very cold, too, on a winter’s night. But instead, look what we’ve got here.’ He took one hand off the steering wheel (he always drove with both hands laid symmetrically on the wheel) and indicated the dashboard. The usual little lights glowed back at them. Temperature. Time. Water level. Oil. Speed. Fuel consumption.

‘Peter . . . ’

‘Oh, look!’ Several hundred metres up ahead, a tiny over-burdened figure, standing in a puddle of lamplight. ‘A hitchhiker. I’ll stop, shall I?’

‘No, don’t.’

The tone of her voice made him think better of challenging her, even though they seldom missed an opportunity to show kindness to strangers.

The hitchhiker raised his head in hope. As the headlights enveloped him, his body was – just for an instant – transformed from a vaguely humanoid shape into a recognisably individual person. He was holding a sign that said HETHROW.

‘How strange,’ said Peter, as they zoomed past. ‘You’d think he’d just take the Tube.’

‘Last day in the UK,’ said Beatrice. ‘Last chance to have a good time. He probably used up his British money in a pub, thinking he’d keep just enough for the train. Six drinks later he’s out in the fresh air, sobering up, and all he’s got left is his plane ticket and £1.70.’

It sounded plausible. But if it was true, then why leave this lost sheep in the lurch? It wasn’t like Bea to leave anybody stranded.

He turned towards her darkened face again, and was alarmed to see teardrops twinkling on her jaw and in the corners of her mouth.

‘Peter . . . ’ she said.

He took one hand off the steering wheel again, this time to squeeze her shoulder. Suspended over the highway up ahead was a sign with a symbol of an aeroplane on it.

‘Peter, this is our last chance.’

‘Last chance?’

‘To make love.’

The indicator lights flashed gently and went tick, tick, tick, as he eased the car into the airport lane. The words ‘make love’ bumbled against his brain, trying to get in, even though there was no room in there. He almost said, ‘You’re joking.’ But, even though she had a fine sense of humour and loved to laugh, she never joked about things that mattered.

As he drove on, the sense that they were not on the same page – that they needed different things at this crucial time – entered the car like a discomfiting presence. He’d thought – he’d felt – that yesterday morning had been their proper leavetaking, and that this trip to the airport was just . . . a postscript, almost. Yesterday morning had been so right. They’d finally worked their way to the bottom of their ‘To Do’ list. His bag was already packed. Bea had the day off work, they’d slept like logs, they’d woken up to brilliant sunshine warming the yellow duvet of their bed. Joshua the cat had been lying in a comical pose at their feet; they’d nudged him off and made love, without speaking, slowly and with great tenderness. Afterwards, Joshua had jumped back on the bed and tentatively laid one forepaw on Peter’s naked shin, as if to say, Don’t go; I will hold you here. It was a poignant moment, expressing the situation better than language could have, or perhaps it was just that the exotic cuteness of the cat put a protective furry layer over the raw human pain, making it endurable. Whatever. It was perfection. They’d lain there listening to Joshua’s throaty purr, enfolded in each other’s arms, their sweat evaporating in the sun, their heart-rates gradually reverting to normal.

‘One more time,’ she said to him now, above the engine noise on a dark motorway on the way to the plane that would take him to America and beyond.

He consulted the digital clock on the dashboard. He was supposed to be at the check-in counter in two hours; they were about fifteen minutes from the airport.

‘You’re wonderful,’ he said. Perhaps if he pronounced the words in exactly the right way, she might get the message that they shouldn’t try to improve on yesterday, that they should just leave it at that.

‘I don’t want to be wonderful,’ she said. ‘I want you inside me.’

He drove for a few seconds in silence, adjusting quickly to the circumstances. Prompt adjustment to changed circumstances was another thing they had in common.

‘There are lots of those horrible corporate hotels right near the airport,’ he said. ‘We could rent a room just for an hour.’ He regretted the ‘horrible’ bit; it sounded as though he was trying to dissuade her while pretending not to. He only meant that the hotels were the sort they both avoided if they possibly could.

‘Just find a quiet lay-by,’ she said. ‘We can do it in the car.’

‘Crisis!’ he said, and they both laughed. ‘Crisis’ was the word he’d trained himself to say instead of ‘Christ’, when he’d first become a Christian. The two words were close enough in sound for him to able to defuse a blasphemy when it was already half out of his mouth.

‘I mean it,’ she said. ‘Anywhere will do. Just don’t park in a place where another car’s likely to run into the back of us.’

The highway looked different to him now, as they drove on. In theory it was the same stretch of tarmac, bounded by the same traffic paraphernalia and flimsy metal fences, but it had been transformed by their own intent. It was no longer a straight line to an airport, it was a mysterious hinterland of shadowy detours and hidey-holes. Proof, once again, that reality was not objective, but always waiting to be reshaped and redefined by one’s attitude.

Of course, everybody on earth had the power to reshape reality. It was one of the things Peter and Beatrice talked about a lot. The challenge of getting people to grasp that life was only as grim and confining as you perceived it to be. The challenge of getting people to see that the immutable facts of existence were not so immutable after all. The challenge of finding a simpler word for ‘immutable’ than ‘immutable’.

‘How about here?’

Beatrice didn’t answer, only put her hand on his thigh. He steered the car smoothly into a truckstop. They would have to trust that getting squashed flat by a 44-ton lorry was not in God’s plan.

‘I’ve never done this before,’ he said, when he’d switched the ignition off.

‘You think I have?’ she said. ‘We’ll manage. Let’s get in the back.’

They swung out of their respective doors and were reunited several seconds later on the back seat. They sat like passengers, shoulder to shoulder. The upholstery smelled of other people – friends, neighbours, members of their church, hitchhikers. It made Peter doubt all the more whether he could or should make love here, now. Although . . . there was something exciting about it, too. They reached for each other, aiming for a smooth embrace, but their hands were clumsy in the dark.

‘How fast would the cabin light drain the car’s battery?’ she said.

‘I’ve no idea,’ he said. ‘Best not to risk it. Besides, it would make us a sideshow for all the passing traffic.’

‘I doubt it,’ she said, turning her face towards the headlights whizzing by. ‘I read an article once about a little girl who was being abducted. She managed to jump out of the car when it slowed down on the motorway. The kidnapper grabbed her, she put up a good fight, she was screaming for help. A stream of cars went past. Nobody stopped. They interviewed one of those drivers later. He said, “I was travelling so fast, I didn’t believe what I was seeing.”’

He shifted uncomfortably. ‘What an awful story. And maybe not the best of times to tell it.’

‘I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’m a bit . . . out of my mind just now.’ She laughed nervously. ‘It’s just so hard . . . losing you.’

‘You’re not losing me. I’m just going away for a while. I’ll be . . . ’

‘Peter, please. Not now. We’ve done that part. We’ve done what we can with that part.’

She leaned forward, and he thought she was going to start sobbing. But she was fishing something out from the gap between the two front seats. A small battery-operated torch. She switched it on and balanced it on the headrest of the front passenger seat; it fell off. Then she wedged it in the narrow space between the seat and the door, angled it so that its beam shone on the floor.

‘Nice and subdued,’ she said, her voice steady again. ‘Just enough light so we can make each other out.’

‘I’m not sure I can do this,’ he said.

‘Let’s just see what happens,’ she said, and began to unbutton her shirt, exposing her white bra and the swell of her bosom. She allowed the shirt to fall down her arms, wiggled her shoulders and elbows to shake the silky material off her wrists. She removed her skirt, panties and pantyhose all together, hooked in her strong thumbs, and made the motion look graceful and easy.

‘Now you.’

He unclasped his trousers and she helped him remove them. Then she slid onto her back, contorting her arms to remove her bra, and he tried to reposition himself without squashing her with his knees. His head bumped against the ceiling.

‘We’re like a couple of clueless teenagers here,’ he complained. ‘This is . . . ’

She laid her hand on his face, covering his mouth.

‘We’re you and me,’ she said. ‘You and me. Man and wife. Everything’s fine.’

She was naked now except for the wristwatch on her thin wrist and the pearl necklace around her throat. In the torchlight, the necklace was no longer an elegant wedding anniversary gift but became a primitive erotic adornment. Her breasts shook with the force of her heartbeat.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Do it.’

And so they began. Pressed close together, they could no longer see each other; the torchlight’s purpose was over. Their mouths were joined, their eyes clasped shut, their bodies could have been anyone’s bodies since the world was created.

‘Harder,’ Beatrice gasped after a while. Her voice had a harsh edge to it, a brute tenacity he’d never heard in her before. Their lovemaking had always been decorous, friendly, impeccably considerate. Sometimes serene, sometimes energetic, sometimes athletic, even – but never desperate. ‘Harder!’

Confined and uncomfortable, with his toes knocking against the window and his knees chafing on the furry viscose of the car seat, he did his best, but the rhythm and angle weren’t right and he misjudged how much longer she needed and how long he could last.

‘Don’t stop! Go on! Go on!’

But it was over.

‘It’s OK,’ she finally said, and wriggled from under him, clammy with sweat. ‘It’s OK’.

They were at Heathrow in plenty of time. The check-in lady gave Peter’s passport the once-over. ‘Travelling one-way to Orlando, Florida, yes?’ she said. ‘Yes,’ he said. She asked him if he had any suitcases to check in. He swung a sports bag and a rucksack onto the belt. It came across as dodgy somehow. But the logistics of his journey were too complicated and uncertain for a return booking. He wished Beatrice weren’t standing next to him, listening to these confirmations of his imminent departure into thin air; wished she’d been spared hearing the word ‘one-way’.

And then, of course, once he was handed his boarding pass, there was more time to fill before he would actually be allowed on the plane. Side by side, he and Beatrice meandered away from the check-in desks, a little dazzled by the excessive light and monstrous scale of the terminal. Was it the fluorescent glare that made Beatrice’s face look drawn and anxious? Peter put his arm around the small of her back. She smiled up at him reassuringly, but he was not reassured. WHY NOT START YOUR HOLIDAY UPSTAIRS? the billboards leered. WITH OUR EVER-EXPANDING SHOPPING OPPORTUNITIES, YOU MAY NOT WANT TO LEAVE!

At this hour of evening, the airport was not too crowded, but there were still plenty of people trundling luggage and browsing in the shops. Peter and Beatrice took their seats near an information screen, to await the number of his departure gate. They joined hands, not looking at each other, looking instead at the dozens of would-be passengers filing past. A gaggle of pretty young girls, dressed like pole dancers at the start of a shift, emerged from a duty-free store burdened with shopping bags. They tottered along in high heels, scarcely able to carry their multiple prizes. Peter leaned towards Beatrice’s face and murmured:

‘Why would anybody want to go on a flight so heavily laden? And then when they get to wherever they’re going, they’ll buy even more stuff. And look: they can barely walk.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘But maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe this is a display put on specially for us. The sheer impracticality of it all – right down to the ridiculous shoes. It lets everyone know these girls are so rich they don’t have to worry about the real world. Their wealth makes them like a different creature, an exotic thing that doesn’t have to function like a human.’

Bea shook her head. ‘These girls aren’t rich,’ she said. ‘Rich people don’t travel in packs. And rich females don’t walk as if they’re not used to high heels. These girls are just young and they enjoy shopping. They’re having an adventure. They’re showing off to each other, not to us. We’re invisible to them.’

Peter watched the girls stagger towards Starbucks. Their buttocks quivered inside their wrinkled skirts and their voices became raucous, betraying regional accents. Bea was right.

He sighed, squeezed her hand. What was he going to do without her, out in the field? How would he cope, not being able to discuss his perceptions? She was the one who stopped him coming out with claptrap, curbed his tendency to construct grand theories that encompassed everything. She brought him down to earth. Having her by his side on this mission would have been worth a million dollars.

But it was costing a great deal more than a million dollars to send him alone, and USIC was footing the bill.

‘Are you hungry? Can I get you anything?’

‘We ate at home.’

‘A chocolate bar or something?’

She smiled but looked tired. ‘I’m fine. Honestly.’

‘I feel so bad about letting you down.’

‘Letting me down?’

‘You know . . . In the car. It feels unfair, unfinished, and today of all days . . . I hate to leave you like this.’

‘It’ll be awful,’ she said. ‘But not because of that.’

‘The angle, the unfamiliar angle made me . . . ’

‘Please, Peter, there’s no need for this. I’m not keeping a score-card or a balance sheet. We made love. That’s enough for me.’

‘I feel I’ve . . . ’

She stopped his mouth with her finger, then kissed him. ‘You’re the best man in the world.’ She kissed him again, on the forehead. ‘If you’re going to do postmortems, I’m sure there’ll be much better reasons on this mission.’

His brow furrowed against her lips. What did she mean by ‘postmortems’? Was she just referring to the inevitability of encountering obstacles and setbacks? Or was she convinced that the mission as a whole would end in failure? In death?

He stood up; she stood up with him. They held each other tight. A large party of tourists poured into the hall, fresh from a coach and keen to travel to the sun. Surging towards their appointed gate, the babbling revellers split into two streams, flowing around Peter and Bea. When they’d all gone and the hall was relatively quiet again, a voice through the PA said: ‘Please keep your belongings with you at all times. Unattended items will be removed and may be destroyed.’

‘Do you have some sort of . . . instinct my mission will fail?’ he asked her.

She shook her head, bumping his jaw with her skull.

‘You don’t feel God’s hand in this?’ he persisted.

She nodded.

‘Do you think He would send me all the way to – ’

‘Please, Peter. Don’t talk.’ Her voice was husky. ‘We’ve covered all this ground so many times. It’s pointless now. We’ve just got to have faith.’

They sat back down, tried to make themselves comfortable in the chairs. She laid her head on his shoulder. He thought about history, the hidden human anxieties behind momentous events. The tiny trivial things that were probably bothering Einstein or Darwin or Newton as they formulated their theories: arguments with the landlady, maybe, or concern over a blocked fireplace. The pilots who bombed Dresden, fretting over a phrase in a letter from back home: What did she mean by that? Or what about Columbus, when he was sailing towards the New Land . . . who knows what was on his mind? The last words spoken to him by an old friend, perhaps, a person not even remembered in history books . . .

‘Have you decided,’ said Bea, ‘what your first words will be?’

‘First words?’

‘To them. When you meet them.’

He tried to think. ‘It’ll depend . . . ’ he said uneasily. ‘I have no idea what I’m going to find. God will guide me. He’ll give me the words I need.’

‘But when you imagine it . . . the meeting . . . what picture comes to your mind?’

He stared straight ahead. An airport employee dressed in overalls with bright yellow reflective sashes was unlocking a door labelled KEEP LOCKED AT ALL TIMES. ‘I don’t picture it in advance,’ he said. ‘You know what I’m like. I can’t live through stuff until it happens. And anyway, the way things really turn out is always different from what we might imagine.’

She sighed. ‘I have a picture. A mental picture.’

‘Tell me.’

‘Promise you won’t make fun of me.’

‘I promise.’

She spoke into his chest. ‘I see you standing on the shore of a huge lake. It’s night and the sky is full of stars. On the water, there’s hundreds of small fishing boats, bobbing up and down. Each boat has at least one person in it, some have three or four, but I can’t see any of them properly, it’s too dark. None of the boats are going anywhere, they’ve all dropped anchor, because everyone is listening. The air is so calm you don’t even have to shout. Your voice just carries over the water.’

He stroked her shoulder. ‘A nice . . . ’ He was about to say ‘dream’, but it would have sounded dismissive. ‘Vision.’

She made a sound that could have been a croon of assent, or a subdued cry of pain. Her body was heavy against him, but he let her settle and tried not to fidget.

Diagonally opposite Peter and Beatrice’s seats was a chocolate and biscuit shop. It was still doing a brisk trade despite the lateness of the hour; five customers stood queued at the checkout, and several others were browsing. Peter watched as a young, well-dressed woman selected an armful of purchases from the display racks. Jumbo-sized boxes of pralines, long slim cartons of shortbreads, a Toblerone the size of a truncheon. Hugging them all to her breast, she ambled beyond the pylon supporting the shop’s ceiling, as if to check out whether there were more goodies displayed outside. Then she simply walked away, into the swirl of passers-by, towards the ladies’ toilets.

‘I’ve just witnessed a crime,’ Peter murmured into Beatrice’s hair. ‘Have you?’

‘Yes.’

‘I thought you might be dozing off.’

‘No, I saw her too.’

‘Should we have nabbed her?’

‘Nabbed her? You mean, like, a citizen’s arrest?’

‘Or at least reported her to the shop staff.’

Beatrice pressed her head harder against his shoulder as they watched the woman disappear into the loo. ‘Would that help anyone?’

‘It might remind her that stealing is wrong.’

‘I doubt it. Getting caught would just make her hate the people catching her.’

‘So, as Christians, we should just let her get on with stealing?’

‘As Christians, we should spread the love of Christ. If we do our job right, we’ll create people who don’t want to do wrong.’

‘“Create”?’

‘You know what I mean. Inspire. Educate. Show the way.’ She lifted her head, kissed his brow. ‘Exactly what you’re about to do. On this mission. My brave man.’

He blushed, gratefully swallowing the compliment like a thirsty child. He hadn’t realised how much he needed it just now. It was so huge inside him he thought his chest would burst.

‘I’m going to the prayer room,’ he said. ‘Want to come?’

‘In a little while. You go ahead.’

He stood up and walked without hesitation towards Heathrow’s chapel. It was the one place in Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh, Dublin and Manchester airports that he knew how to find without any bother. It was always the ugliest, dowdiest room in the entire complex, a far cry from the glittery hives of commerce. But there was soul in it.

Having found it again, he perused the timetable posted on the door in case he’d arrived just in time for a rare Communion. But the next one wasn’t scheduled till Thursday afternoon at three, by which time he would be an unimaginable distance away from here, and Beatrice would have started her long months of sleeping alone with Joshua.

He pushed the door open gently. The three Muslims kneeling inside didn’t acknowledge him as he walked in. They were facing a piece of paper attached to the wall, a computer-printed pictogram of a large arrow, like a traffic sign. It pointed to Mecca. The Muslims bowed, thrusting their rumps in the air, and kissed the fabric of the brightly coloured mats provided. They were immaculately dressed men, with expensive watches and bespoke suits. Their polished patent-leather shoes had been tossed aside. The balls of their stockinged feet squirmed with the enthusiasm of their obeisance.

Peter cast a quick glance behind the curtain that divided the room down the middle. As he’d suspected, there was a woman there, another Muslim, shrouded in grey, performing the same mute ritual. She had a child with her, a miraculously well-behaved little boy dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy. He was sitting near his mother’s feet, ignoring her prostrations, reading a comic. Spider-Man.

Peter walked over to the cabinet where the Holy Books and pamphlets were kept. The Bible (a Gideon edition), a separate New Testament and Psalms, a Qur’an, a tatty book in Indonesian that was probably another New Testament. Stacked on a lower shelf, next to the Watchtower and the Salvation Army newspapers, was an optimistically large pile of leaflets. The logos looked familiar, so he bent down to identify them. They were from a very large American evangelical sect whose London pastor had been interviewed for this same mission. Peter actually met him in the USIC foyer, leaving in a huff. ‘Bunch of time-wasters,’ the guy hissed as he headed for the exit. Peter had expected to be unsuccessful too, but instead . . . he had been chosen. Why him and not someone from a church with loads of money and political clout? He still wasn’t sure. He opened one of the leaflets, immediately saw the usual stuff about the numerological significance of 666, barcodes and the Whore of Babylon. Maybe that was the problem right there: fanaticism wasn’t what USIC was looking for.

The quiet of the room was interrupted by an intercom message, piped through a small speaker attached, limpet-like, to the ceiling.

‘Allied Airlines regrets to announce that there has been a further delay to Flight AB31 to Alicante. This is due to technical problems with the aircraft. The next announcement will be made at 2230. Any remaining passengers who have not yet picked up their meal vouchers are requested to do so. Allied Airlines would like to apologise once again for any inconvenience.’

Peter fancied he could hear a collective moan of lamentation start up outside, but it was probably his imagination.

He opened the Visitors Book and leafed through its ledger-sized pages, reading the comments scribbled one beneath the other by travellers from all over the world. They didn’t disappoint him; they never did. Today’s entries alone filled three pages. Some were in Chinese characters, or Arabic script, but most were in English, halting or otherwise. The Lord was here, poured forth in this welter of biro ink and felt-tip pen.

It always struck him, whenever he was in an airport, that the entire, vast, multi-storied complex pretended to be a playground of secular delights, a galaxy of consumerism in which religious faith simply did not exist. Every shop, every billboard, every inch of the building right down to the rivets and the toilet plugholes, radiated the presumption that no one had any need for God here. The crowds that queued for snacks and knick-knacks, the constant stream of passengers recorded by the closed-circuit TVs, were wondrous proof of the sheer variety of human specimens, except that they were presumed to be identically faithless inside, duty-free in every sense of that word. And yet these hordes of bargain-hunters, honeymooners, sunbathers, business executives preoccupied with their deals, fashionistas haggling for their upgrades . . . no one would guess how many of them ducked into this little room and wrote heartfelt messages to the Almighty and to their fellow believers.

Dear God, please take all the bad parts out of the world – Johnathan.

A child, he guessed.

Yuko Oyama, Hyoyo, Japan. I pray for the children of illness and peace of planet. And I pray for finding a good partner.

Where is the CROSS of CHRIST our RISEN LORD? Wake UP!

Charlotte Hogg, Birmingham. Please pray that my beloved daughter and grandson will be able to accept my illness. And pray for everyone in distress.

Marijn Tegelaars, London/Belgium. My dearest friend G, that she may find the courage to be who she is.

Jill, England. Please pray for my late mother’s soul to rest peacefully and pray for my family who are not united and hate each other.

Allah is the best! God rules!

The next entry was indecipherably crossed out. A nasty, intolerant rebuttal of the Muslim message above, most likely, deleted by another Muslim or by the caretaker of the Prayer Room.

Coralie Sidebottom, Slough, Berks. Thanks for God’s wonderful creation.

Pat & Ray Murchiston, Langton, Kent. For our dear son, Dave, killed in a car crash yesterday. Forever in our hearts.

Thorne, Frederick, Co. Armagh, Ireland. I pray for the healing of the planet and the awakening of ALL peoples on it.

A mother. My heart is broken as my son has not spoken to me since my remarriage 7 years ago. Please pray for reconciliation.

Awful smell of cheap air freshener you can do better than this.

Moira Venger, South Africa. God is in control.

Michael Lupin, Hummock Cottages, Chiswick. Some other smell than antiseptic.

Jamie Shapcott, 27 Pinley Grove, Yeovil, Somerset. Please can my BA plane to Newcastle not crash. Thank you.

Victoria Sams, Tamworth, Staffs. Nice décor but the lights keep going on and off.

Lucy, Lossiemouth. Bring my man back safely.

He closed the book. His hands were trembling. He knew that there was quite a decent chance that he would die in the next thirty days, or that, even if he survived the journey, he would never return. This was his Gethsemane moment. He clenched his eyes shut and prayed to God to tell him what He wanted him to do; whether it would serve His purpose better if he grabbed Beatrice by the hand and ran with her to the exit and out to the car park, and drove straight back home before Joshua had even registered that he was gone.

By way of answer, God let him listen to the hysterical babble of his own inner voice, let it echo in the vault of his skull. Then, behind him, he heard a jingle of loose change as one of the Muslims jumped up to retrieve his shoes. Peter turned around. The Muslim man nodded courteously at him on his way out. The woman behind the curtain was touching up her lipstick, primping her eyelashes with her little finger, tucking stray hairs inside the edges of her hijab. The arrow on the wall fluttered slightly as the man swung open the door.

Peter’s hands had ceased trembling. He had been granted perspective. This was not Gethsemane: he wasn’t headed for Golgotha, he was embarking on a great adventure. He’d been chosen out of thousands, to pursue the most important missionary calling since the Apostles had ventured forth to conquer Rome with the power of love, and he was going to do his best.

Beatrice wasn’t in the seat where he’d left her. For a few seconds he thought she’d lost her nerve and fled the terminal rather than say her last goodbye. He felt a pang of grief. But then he spotted her a few rows further towards the coffee and muffin kiosk. She was on the floor on her hands and knees, her face obscured by loose hair. Hunkered down in front of her, also on its hands and knees, was a child – a fat toddler, whose elasticated trousers bulged with an ill-concealed nappy.

‘Look! I’ve got . . . ten fingers!’ she was telling the child. ‘Have you got ten fingers?’

The fat toddler slid his hands forward, almost touching Bea’s. She made a show of counting the digits, then said ‘A hundred! No, ten!’ The boy laughed. An older child, a girl, stood shyly back, sucking on her knuckles. She kept looking back at her mother, but the mother was looking neither at her children nor at Beatrice; instead, she was focused on a hand-held gadget.

‘Oh, hi,’ said Beatrice when she saw Peter coming. She brushed her hair off her face, tucked it behind her ears. ‘This is Jason and Gemma. They’re going to Alicante.’

‘We hope,’ said the mother wearily. The gadget made a small beeping noise, having analysed the glucose levels of the woman’s blood.

‘These people have been here since two p.m.,’ explained Beatrice. ‘They’re stressed out.’

‘Never again,’ muttered the woman as she rummaged in a travel pouch for her insulin injections. ‘I swear. They take your money and they don’t give a shit.’

‘Joanne, this is my husband Peter. Peter, this is Joanne.’

Joanne nodded in greeting but was too bound up in her misfortune to make small talk. ‘It all looks dead cheap on the brochure,’ she remarked bitterly, ‘but you pay for it in grief.’

‘Oh, don’t be like that, Joanne,’ counselled Beatrice. ‘You’ll have a lovely time. Nothing bad has actually happened. Just think: if the plane had been scheduled to leave eight hours later, you would’ve been doing the same thing as you’re doing now – waiting, except at home.’

‘These two should be in bed,’ grumbled the woman, baring a roll of abdominal flesh and sticking the needle in.

Jason and Gemma, righteously offended by the allegation that they were sleepy rather than maltreated, looked poised for a fresh set of tantrums. Beatrice got on her hands and knees again. ‘I think I’ve lost my feet,’ she said, peering nearsightedly around the floor. ‘Where have they gone?’

‘They’re here!’ cried little Jason, as she turned away from him. ‘Where?’ she said, spinning back.

‘Thank God,’ said Joanne. ‘Here comes Freddie with the food.’

A hassled-looking fellow with no chin and a porridge-coloured windcheater lumbered into view, several paper bags clutched in each hand.

‘World’s biggest rip-off,’ he announced. ‘They keep you standing there with your little voucher for two quid or whatever. It’s like the dole office. I tell you, in another half an hour, if this lot don’t bloody well – ’

‘Freddie,’ said Beatrice brightly, ‘this is my husband, Peter.’

The man put down his packages and shook Peter’s hand.

‘Your wife’s a bit of an angel, Pete. Is she always taking pity on waifs and strays?’

‘We . . . we both believe in being friendly,’ said Peter. ‘It costs nothing and it makes life more interesting.’

‘When are we gonna see the sea?’ said Gemma, and yawned.

‘Tomorrow, when you wake up,’ said the mother.

‘Will the nice lady be there?’

‘No, she’s going to America.’

Beatrice motioned the little girl to come and sit against her hip. The toddler had already dropped off to sleep, sprawled against a canvas backpack filled to bursting point. ‘Wires slightly crossed,’ said Beatrice. ‘It’s my husband who’s going, not me.’

‘You stay home with the kids, huh?’

‘We don’t have any,’ said Beatrice. ‘Yet.’

‘Do yourselves a favour,’ sighed the man. ‘Don’t. Just skip it.’

‘Oh, you don’t mean that,’ said Beatrice. And Peter, seeing that the man was about to make an off-hand retort, added: ‘Not really.’

And so the conversation went on. Beatrice and Peter got into rhythm, perfectly united in purpose. They’d done this hundreds of times before. Conversation, genuine unforced conversation, but with the potential to become something much more significant if the moment arose when it was right to mention Jesus. Maybe that moment would come; maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe they would just say ‘God bless you’ in parting and that would be it. Not every encounter could be transformative. Some conversations were just amiable exchanges of breath.

Coaxed into this exchange, the two strangers relaxed despite themselves. Within minutes they were even laughing. They were from Merton, they had diabetes and depression respectively, they both worked in a hardware superstore, they’d saved up for this holiday for a year. They were none too bright and not very fascinating. The woman had an unattractive snort and the man stank terribly of musk aftershave. They were human beings, and precious in the eyes of God.

‘My plane is about to board,’ said Peter at last.

Beatrice was still on the floor, the head of a stranger’s child lolling on her thigh. Her eyes were glassy with tears.

‘If I come with you to Security,’ she said, ‘and hold you when you’re about to go through, I won’t be able to cope, I swear. I’ll lose it, I’ll cause a scene. So kiss me goodbye here.’

Peter felt as if his heart was being cleaved in half. What had seemed like a grand adventure in the prayer room now bereaved him like a sacrifice. He clung to the words of the Apostle: Do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.

He bent down and Beatrice gave him a quick, rough kiss on the lips, clasping the back of his head with one hand as she did so. He straightened up, dazed. This whole scenario with the strangers – she’d engineered it to happen, he could see that now.

‘I’ll write,’ he promised.

She nodded, and the motion shook the tears out onto her cheeks.

He walked briskly to Departures. Forty minutes later he was up in the sky.

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