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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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By the time dawn broke, he had fallen in love.

He lent her a Motorhead t-shirt since her Lurex boob tube was unsuitable for the early morning walk home. It also provided a perfect excuse to see her again. Melissa was an art student. Her moderately wealthy parents had set her up with digs near the School of Art and they began to meet each day to drink coffee in her pretty little kitchenette, talking about everything from politics to George Michael to Rubens and surgical procedures.

They didn't kiss for three weeks. When they did, it felt right. A Liebfraumilch-fuelled mutual loss of their virginity sealed their couple status. Melissa moved into the Burley Park terrace, sent Simon’s tenants packing and started saving for Laura Ashley wallpaper. Anxious to start her life as a grown-up, and realizing that she had expensive taste in soft furnishings, she dropped out of her art degree and took a part-time job in the glove department of Marshall & Snelgrove’s Department Store.

Even now, twelve years later, it still felt right. Mostly. The last two years had been hard. The worry, the overnight vigils at the hospital and the constant fear for Sarah had an impact on their relationship. Simon felt they had drifted apart a little. Sometimes it felt as if they were little more than friends. Friends who happened to sleep in the same bed and share a bank account. But, after all he assured himself, it had been twelve years. Of course some of the passion had gone.

He put the photo of Melissa back on his desk, next to one of Sarah and Porridge. He’d nip over to Sainsbury’s later and grab a bottle of wine before the practice meeting. He knew better than to buy Melissa supermarket flowers, but perhaps he’d get her a box of chocolates or a special bubble bath as a treat. Things were so much better at home now. It was time to spend some time on his marriage.

* * *

“Wine and bubble bath. I am a lucky girl. What’s the occasion?” Melissa stretched luxuriantly in the gardenia-scented bath water and took the glass of Gewürztraminer Simon held out to her.

“Being married to you. Getting home on time for once. Loving my family and thinking perhaps I ought to say it more often. Want me to do your back?”

“Ooh, yes please. God, it must be two years since you washed my back for me, Simon. Do you remember that hotel? We did two bottles of champagne in the bath. It seems so very long ago now. Like we hadn’t grown up yet then.”

“A lot’s happened since then.” Simon unclipped his cufflinks and laid them on the edge of the bath, then rolled up his sleeves. “Anyway, we have grown up. You’re getting to the wrong end of your thirties. What do you want for your fortieth, old lady?”

“I’d like to be 21 again, please.”
“Not possible. How about a tumble dryer?”
“Done.”

* * *

“…
David Cameron threw down the gauntlet last night, when he told Jeremy Paxman that Labour were out...”
Simon switched off the morning news and slipped his hands around Melissa’s waist.

Melissa jabbed one elbow into his ribs and he grunted. “Oi! I was listening to that. Give Sarah a shout will you? She’s still not surfaced. Do you want a bacon sandwich as well?”

“Yes, and I’ll pretend you said muesli. I’ll go get lazy bones.” Simon gave his wife a lingering kiss on the neck. “Last night was fun. I should bring you goodies home more often.”

“Yes, you should.”

Simon patted his wife fondly on the bottom and went off in search of Sarah. Her door was plastered with colorful ‘Girls Rool’ and ‘Kids only -
keep out!
’ stickers, and it was closed. He was surprised to find the room still dark, Sarah's hunched shape still curled under the covers. “Sarah! It’s ten past eight.” Simon pulled open the High School Musical curtains. “Sarah?”

“I’m sleepy. Leave me alone.”
“Sarah, honey, are you ill?”
“No, Dad, I’m just tired. Can I stay at home today?”

“Sarah, sit up. I want to look at you. Do you think we should take you in? How long have you been feeling tired? Do you have any pain? Headache?” Simon sat down on the bed and pressed his fingers against his daughter’s neck. “Does this hurt? You don’t feel swollen.”

Sarah groaned and turned over to face him. “I’m just tired, Dad. That’s all. I’m OK, I’ll get up now.”

“Okay, but you’re sure you’re alright? Just tired? You can stay home if you want. I’ll call Grandma Aitch, have her take you back to her house…”

“I’m fine, Dad. Really.”

“Alright. But call me at lunchtime if you want picking up, okay? Now hurry up, you’ve got ten minutes and I want you downstairs. Mum’s made you a bacon sandwich. Hey! Last monthly check-up session next week, isn’t it? Shall we do something to celebrate? How about Pizza Hut and a film?”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Can I bring a friend? Can Izzy come?”

“Yes, tell her to ask her mum today. You can invite someone else as well if you like. Come on now, up and at 'em.”

Simon grabbed a tie from his wardrobe and headed back to the kitchen. “Have you noticed any changes in Sarah recently? Is she more tired at the moment?”

“No, I don’t think so. I certainly struggle to get her to bed at night. I think it’s just that she’s back at school full time; she’s got a lot on, keeping up with the rest of them. Who does want to get up at this time of year? I hate getting up in the dark.”

“Alright. Well, keep an eye on it, yeah? Last monthly check up’s next week, yes?

“Yup.”

“Good. We’ll take her and her friends out for pizza to celebrate.” He peered at the sandwiches that Melissa had prepared and left on the side.“ Has this one got brown sauce in it? Can I grab it and go? I’m running behind. Thanks, love. See you tonight – I’ll be a bit late, I’m going down to St Matthew’s to help move the stacks of chairs out of the small hall. Have a good day. Get
down
, Porridge.”

Simon kissed his wife and dashed out of the door, bacon butty in hand, briefcase in the other. It was barely light outside, the street lamps shining orange dapples on the wet tarmac. He swung open his car door and tossed in his briefcase, then lowered himself into the driver's seat. Inside the car, he balanced his breakfast on one leg while brushing off blonde Labrador hairs from his suit. He wondered if eight years old was too late to send a dog for training, then slid his key in the ignition and steered his Jaguar out of the drive.

* * *

The Scouts were already helping the Rev Duncan Hughes when Simon turned up a little past seven that evening.

“Sorry, sorry – I got held up. I see you found some helpers, though.” Simon watched a small boy attempt to lift a stack of eight chairs before coming to his senses and splitting the tower into more manageable twos. Trying not to sound like an overbearing grown up, he stepped toward the next stack of chairs. “Here, let me give you a hand.”

“Simon, it was good of you to offer at all. I do have some excellent helpers. I think Mrs. Hughes is planning to reward them all with squash and biscuits in the vicarage. We may be able to find something a little more fortifying for ourselves, if you take my meaning. Harry, ask Akela to bring you all over when you’ve finished, will you? Come on, Simon. There’s not much more to do here and I want to show you my new bantams.”

Simon followed the amiable vicar out of a side door of the church and across the road to the small house that served as a vicarage. The original Victorian vicarage had been sold off long before. It was considered too grand for a modern vicar with his small family, and too big an asset to be wasted on the vicar of a minute and shrinking congregation in the backwaters of West Yorkshire. The 1960s dormer bungalow opposite St Matthew’s now served as accommodation for the Rev Duncan Hughes and his wife.

Having no children to fill the four-bedroom property, Rev and Mrs. Hughes had fulfilled their parental instincts by acquiring a bewildering number of animals. Two Jack Russells yapped at the window, their claws tappetty-tapping on the wide windowsills. When Simon stepped inside, he was immediately nearly bowled over by an enormous husky.

“Rasputin, leave him alone.”

“It’s alright. He can smell Porridge. You’re a handsome boy, aren’t you? Hullo, Mrs. Hughes. I hear you’re expecting the entire Brighouse West Scout Brigade for tea.”

“Simon, how lovely to see you. I am. I’m just getting some biscuits out. Would you like a cup of tea, or is Duncan going to sort you out with a whisky?” Mrs. Hughes, a tiny lady, with exquisite bone structure who habitually wore her hair in an elegant grey bob, looked up from the kitchen table, at which she was pouring twenty cups of orange squash. “Have you come to see my new girls?”

“I’m just taking him to see the harem now, Muriel. We’ll get a drink in my study. Call us if you want help feeding the five thousand, won’t you?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll manage.” Muriel said breezily, removing a cat that was winding its way around the plastic cups.

Simon trailed after Duncan through the back door and into the garden, followed by a motley assortment of dogs and cats. “Is it appropriate for a Church of England vicar to be keeping a harem in his back garden, Duncan?”

“Absolutely not, which is why I wanted one. Look. What do you think, aren’t they beauties?”

No. They were not. Simon took in the appalling cluster of hens that stood with a rigid, un-chicken like stance in a large coop in a corner of the garden. Largely without feathers, they were the ugliest birds Simon had ever seen. “Aren’t they missing something, Duncan? Feathers for instance?”

“Don’t worry about that, they’ll be back in no time. They’re battery chickens. Rescued them from a charity. They’re all a bit shell-shocked at the moment, if you’ll pardon the pun, but I’m assured they’ll perk up in no time. We’ve got a cockerel coming as well. Caligula. It’s his harem really, not mine.”

“So will they lay?”

“Oh yes. They just need a few days to get comfortable with their surroundings. Leonidas! Come away from there.” Duncan shooed away an enormous longhaired ginger cat, which was taking more than a passing interest in the hens. “It’s alright, he won’t get at them. Let’s get a drink, shall we? Tell me how everything’s going.”

They went back into the house and into the dining room, which now served as Duncan’s study. Theology books lined the walls whilst more books quivered in unwieldy towers around the corners of the room. A glass vivarium housed a slow worm. Duncan had found the little legless lizard, so often confused with a snake, during a walk and had valiently rescued it from an attacking crow. The Reverend poured two generous whiskies from a cut glass decanter and gestured to a scruffy armchair covered in dog-haired blankets.

“So, Simon. How is Sarah? How are you and Melissa? It’s been a rough ride.”

“We seem to be coming to the end of the ride. Sarah comes out of monthly supervision next week. Chemo was stopped three months ago. Things are looking up. I admit there were some very bleak days. Overwhelming. You know, I don’t think I would have got through it all without you. Thanks for all your help, Duncan.”

Duncan had supported Simon through some of the darker days. When they first got the diagnosis, Simon had raged against the Church and against God. Brought up by mildly religious parents and sent to a Church of England primary school, Simon had always kept a quiet faith. Neither pious nor devout, there had been periods in his life when he had not gone to church, when he had questioned the existence of God. Certainly as a medical student there were many times when he doubted the traditional idea of a pre-organized world, a universe in which he was merely a puppet to a grand puppeteer.

Then, a couple of years into Simon’s career, Melissa and he had married. A year later, when Sarah was about a year old, they had started going to church weekly, believing an understanding of religious culture and tradition to be an important part of education. Simon enjoyed the simple comfort that came from being a member of a congregation, cushioned from the worries of life for just one hour each week. He enjoyed the ritual, the words and the music. He began to reclaim his faith and to trust there was a good and evil, an afterlife, a heaven. He offered his services for the occasional fête or community clear up and struck up a close friendship with the charming vicar and his elegant, generous wife.

Then Sarah got ill.

Two words: “It’s Leukemia”, and Simon's whole world, his happy life, came crashing down around him, his ordered existence immeasurably damaged, and it became clear to him that there was no higher being making great spiritual decisions. No Grand Master, looking over us and guiding us through life. How could he believe in a God that could torture a child? How could there be a deity that necessitated the need for Bone Marrow Aspiration from a terrified seven year old? That needle – so big, so brutal, plunging through skin, flesh, fat and finally into the child’s actual skeleton, was not the product of a celestial being. It was a man-made instrument made to deal with man’s own weaknesses. There was no supreme Father orchestrating a pre-formed plan that day. Only a biological father, scared, shaking and trying to be strong for the weeping little girl in his arms.

So he had stopped going to church. Couldn’t face the blind optimism, the promise that we were all loved and would eventually be happy. How could God love his daughter and yet subject her to all this? How could God possibly love him? How was Simon supposed to love a God that had cursed his daughter?

His parents tried to get him to go with them. He refused. Melissa attended when she wasn’t required at the hospital. She lit candles and prayed. She read books on theology and spent hours on the Internet reading studies on the power of prayer, trying to find a spiritual solution, an explanation of what was happening.

She brought Duncan home with her one Sunday. Over roast chicken and Chablis, the Reverend reached out to his troubled friend. Simon, having reached a point of mental exhaustion needed a buoy in his emotional storm and trusting his friend and wanting a sense of belonging again, returned to the flock.

Now, sitting in Duncan’s cramped little study, Famous Grouse in hand, Simon felt a great sense of calm. The separate components of his life were dropping back into place and the anxieties that had plagued him for two years were slowly seeping away.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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