At just after eight o’clock on what promised to be a glorious spring day, Jerry hopped on board the Northern line service at East Finchley station to begin his daily commute to central London. He sat down, the doors glided shut and the train pulled away.
A glossy leaflet lay on the vacant seat next to him and Jerry idly picked it up. It was a religious tract, although its content was somewhat unconventional for that genre of publication. A colourful cartoon depicted a mythical red beast with seven heads being ridden by a beautiful young woman with long, raven-black hair, alluring eyes and a body which was, to Jerry’s mind, to die for. She was wearing a bikini, cut from purple and scarlet silk, revealing athletic thighs and a magnificent chest which the fully-stretched material was struggling to contain. The leaflet explained that the lady was none other than the Mother of Prostitutes and the Abominations of the Earth, aka, the Whore of Babylon. It went on to say that the Book of Revelation had her committing adultery with all the kings of the earth, getting drunk on the blood of the saints and generally sowing despair and misery amongst all those she encountered. Exactly the kind of behaviour, Jerry thought to himself, that would give harlotry a bad name.
With unwavering theological certainty, the leaflet revealed the message behind the biblical narrative: just as the kings of the earth had been seduced by the Whore, so were the modern day leaders of the world being misled by false religions. The answer was to embrace true religion and become a Jehovah’s Witness before the impending apocalypse arrived and the chance of salvation was lost forever.
Jerry read a little more, but soon became bored. He wasn’t in the mood to be converted – he never was – so he turned his attention to the newspaper he had picked up at the station a little earlier. The paper was still in the process of wringing its hands over the causes of the spontaneous riots that had taken place a couple of weeks ago in an upmarket suburban shopping mall just five miles from Jerry’s flat. The event had unsettled the whole area and, for the first time, Jerry had been uneasy walking the streets of the capital, especially after dark. Copycat riots had flared up in other cities and a sense of menace seemed to have crept into the entire country, along with an irrational anticipation that worse was to follow. As Jerry read the paper it started to look to him as if “worse” had already arrived elsewhere in the world. He scanned one story after another that read like a miserable cliché of international news in the twenty-first century: widespread crop failure had re-ignited two brutal civil wars in Central Africa; a calamitous earthquake had left countless dead in Pakistan; and an alarming increase in military tension in the Middle East had, despite the best efforts of the UN, reached nerve-jangling proportions.
Jerry closed his eyes and set his mind to a happier thought: Rachael. He was still thinking about her as he pushed his way up the claustrophobic escalators and back out into the morning sun. Moments later, as he walked down the steps leading away from the Embankment tube station alongside the River Thames, his mobile let him know that a text had arrived. It was from Rachael.
Hey J, my stars say I should expect surprise 2day. U got hot date 4 me? Flashy dinner? Hope so! R xx.
Jerry knew that Rachael placed as much faith in horoscopes as he did, which was precisely none. However, it was clearly necessary to respond to her shameless appeal to be indulged, so he thumbed his own text in reply.
Sure. Table booked for 8. Surprise is, you’re paying!
With a smile Jerry pressed Send. It was to be the last thing he ever did on this Earth.
Rachael’s aspiration to become an actress of international repute had failed to become a reality. This, in spite of the fact that five years earlier, while in her mid-twenties, her portrayal of Stella in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire had been described by her local newspaper as “exquisite”. Disappointingly, this now appeared to have been the pinnacle of her thespian achievements rather than a stepping-stone to stardom. Following “exquisite”, there had been no exciting call from a well-connected agent promising her auditions in the West End. Instead, a few days later, the Regal’s artistic director had taken time out from his job as a solicitor to phone and ask Rachael if she’d like to play Buttons in the Christmas pantomime, Cinderella. Even Rachael’s love of performing had baulked at the thought of yet another re-run of tawdry cross-dressing and tamely choreographed farce, so she had declined and, in so doing, had quietly closed the door on a dream that had accompanied her since childhood.
Subsequently, working in an office had gradually evolved in her mind from being a temporary expedient to becoming a necessary and not unpleasant way of funding her modest standard of living. Most days she rather looked forward to interacting with people she considered to be good friends. Her current role in the finance department of an international publishing company was interesting and her colleagues, with one exception, were a boisterous, knockabout group who generally had a lot of fun together.
Rachael had arrived a few minutes earlier than usual this particular morning and was intent on reading the article that had caught her eye as she was flicking through a magazine on her journey into work. “Ten Ways to Make a Baby” promised to reveal up to nine methods of which she was so far unaware. She had persuaded herself that it was curiosity rather than latent broodiness that had sparked her interest.
She was half-way through reading about a complicated procedure involving lots of needles when her colleague, Fiona, placed a fresh cup of coffee on her desk, without even having been asked.
“Oh thanks, Fi.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Fiona as she hummed her way round to her own desk, opposite to where Rachael sat.
“You sound happy,” said Rachael.
“I am,” replied Fiona.
“Well don’t be,” growled Charlotte from behind a partition. “It’s annoying.”
Fiona raised her eyebrows in Rachael’s direction and received a knowing smile in return.
In many ways the two women were complete opposites, Fiona being petite and bone-snappingly thin, with a voice to match, wearing saucer glasses that tended to exaggerate the sense of timidity that pervaded her gentle personality. She was also unusually prim and no matter how quiet and restrained Rachael tried to be in her presence she often felt she was being slightly vulgar and loud; a raucous crow overwhelming the soft warbling of a dainty songbird.
Since Fiona’s arrival a year ago, Rachael had felt the need to shield her from the rough-house playfulness of the rest of the group and, as a consequence of her protective instincts, had been rewarded with a somewhat unlikely friendship with the girl who was nearly ten years her junior.
The office currently comprised a dozen women and only two men, and, as could be expected, female perspectives dominated most topics, none more so than the mating game. Several of the older women were married, but the majority of the pack was not and they tended to possess liberal and relaxed attitudes to relationships with the opposite sex. Here again, Fiona was different. Her fanatical Christian parents had schooled her rigidly in the need for sexual abstinence prior to marriage and, so far, she had been faithfully obeying their teaching. She had been dating Pete, a guy she met at church, for a couple of years and, as far as Rachael knew, the two of them were very happy together in spite, or perhaps because, of the rules of physical non-engagement.
Rachael had gathered from Fiona’s regular Monday morning de-briefs on Yesterday In Church that the services were energetic and entertaining. The congregation consisted of families and young professionals with plenty of genuine commitment to their faith. This was rather different from Rachael’s own limp religious upbringing. Even her grandmother had eventually stopped attending the relentlessly dull Beth Shalom synagogue located in the spectacularly inappropriately named Easter Gardens. Rabbi Bernstein had tried for years to get the local council to re-name the street and thereby remove an irritating theological juxtaposition, but they had doggedly refused, pointing out that the road and its name were there first. Despite half-hearted claims of anti-Semitism, and even a three-minute feature on local television news, everyone ultimately got bored with the whole argument and the controversy, such as it was, faded away. In much the same way, Rachael’s family gradually lost interest in the synagogue as a whole and simply drifted off and left it alone.
Although Rachael didn’t mourn the absence of organised religion in her life, she maintained a hold on the family values it had helped to reinforce and she still liked to celebrate the festivals of Hanukkah and Yom Kippur with her parents. This only really amounted to having dinner together, the vestigial religious traditions such as grinding through unintelligible Hebrew prayers having, much to her relief, long since disappeared.
But, whatever the decline of her own faith, Rachael was not about to defect to somebody else’s, no matter how enthusiastically endorsed by personal recommendation. So, the first two or three times Fiona had plucked up the courage to ask her to come to church, Rachael had excused herself on the grounds of prior engagements. However, when it had happened once more she decided she needed to be straight with her well-meaning friend. Looking her in the eye she had explained, “Fiona, I’m Jewish.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
“It’s just that you don’t… ”
“Please don’t say I don’t look Jewish,” interrupted Rachael. People often said this about her when they discovered her background and she always found it mildly vexing.
“No. Well, you don’t, actually.”
“I know. My hair’s too blonde and my nose is too small. You may have noticed I cheat with my hair colour.” Rachael pinched her nose between her thumb and index finger, and added, “The nose, however, is one hundred per cent natural.”
“I’m sorry Rachael, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Fiona answered meekly. “It doesn’t matter to God what you look like or even that you’re Jewish. Jesus was Jewish after all, to begin with at any rate. But church is for everyone now; God is for everyone.”
“Even for the Jews?”
“Yes, even for them. I mean, for you. It’s for all sinners.”
The word “sinners” stumbled into the conversation like a pork sausage salesman at a Bar Mitzvah. It hung around for a while not quite knowing what to do with itself until Rachael decided to grab it by the scruff of the neck and ask what it was doing there.
“Sinners? Is that what we Jews are?”
“Everybody is a sinner, Rachael, even Christians. The only difference is that we’re forgiven.”
“And the rest of us aren’t?”
Fiona bit her lower lip and said nothing.
Rachael looked at her nervous friend and a thought crossed her mind. “If I come to your church, would you come to my synagogue?”
“Do you go to synagogue?” replied Fiona, clearly startled.
“Not for the last twenty years, but I’m sure they’d be pleased to see me. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure,” murmured Fiona.
An awkward silence ensued until Rachael decided to bring the conversation to a close.
“Fiona, I appreciate you asking me. Honestly. I just don’t think I’m ready for it right now, OK?”
“All right, but come sometime soon. It’s really important and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Since that discussion a few months ago, Rachael had felt no overt pressure from Fiona to comply with her evangelistic ambitions. She had, in fact, largely forgotten about it and certainly wasn’t pondering its implications as she took a last gulp of coffee and finished her baby-making article.
“Very interesting,” she said, to no-one in particular.
“The coffee or the magazine?” asked Fiona.
“Both, if I’m honest. Here, have a look.” Rachael turned the magazine back to the start of the Ten Ways feature and handed it over to Fiona before fishing out a brush from her red leather handbag and dragging it through her thick, shoulder-length hair a few times. She switched on her computer and, while it was warming up, collected the empty coffee mugs and took them back to the small staff kitchen.
On Rachael’s return to her seat, Fiona pushed the magazine across the desk towards her.
“That was quick,” Rachael said.
“Yes, well, I don’t really need any help in that department any more.”
“What?” gasped Rachael. “Fiona! Oh my God! Are you…?”
Fiona nodded rapidly in reply.
Rachael skipped round the desks and embraced the grinning young woman. “I’m so pleased for you,” she said excitedly as she squeezed her congratulations into Fiona’s meagre frame. Momentarily, Rachael wondered how Pete had managed the necessaries without damaging any of Fiona’s vital organs and, suddenly conscious of the new life within, stepped back a pace so that she could look properly at her happy friend.
“Fiona, I’m amazed. Do you have a date?” she asked.
“Not yet. To be honest we’re just so thrilled we haven’t really come back down to earth.”
Before Rachael could suggest that they must have some idea of timescales, Charlotte interrupted in a voice loud enough for the whole office to hear.
“Did I miss something? Is this National Hug-A-Friend Day, or what? And if it is, why is no-one hugging me?”
“Because you don’t have any friends, you old trout,” volunteered the office veteran, Martin, as he tried to coax a mangled sheet of paper from the tenacious grip of the photocopier. Charlotte gave him the finger but kept her quizzical gaze on Rachael and Fiona.
“Is it OK to tell everybody?” Rachael asked quietly.
“Yes,” came the reply, but with sufficient reluctance for Rachael to realise that, even in her moment of triumph, Fiona’s diffidence was going to render her mute.
“Would you like me to tell them?” Rachael offered, to which Fiona responded with a grateful, “Yes please.”
So Rachael took charge, turned her friend to face the rest of the room, stood behind her and placed her hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“Quiet, please. We’ve got an important announcement to make,” she called out confidently. The room quietened, people stopped what they had been doing and looked in their direction. Once she was sure she had everybody’s full attention, Rachael continued.
“Great news everyone. Fiona’s pregnant!”
Rachael had been a little surprised herself by Fiona’s revelation and from the look on their faces most of her colleagues were also somewhat taken aback. But this was as nothing compared to how Fiona herself reacted to Rachael’s statement.
“No I’m not!” she squeaked hotly, indignation and hurt immediately flushing her face. “I am not pregnant,” she added, almost spitting the denial as she stood up and turned to Rachael before momentarily burying her face in her hands. It was in that instantaneous flurry of her hand movement that Rachael’s eye caught the unmistakeable sparkle of eternally-promised love. But by then it was too late; Fiona had pulled away and was running out of the office.
All eyes watched Fiona leave and, as soon as she was out of sight, they turned back to Rachael.
Confused and momentarily dumbstruck, Rachael looked down at the magazine where it lay open on the desk. She picked it up, searching for an explanation, and saw to her consternation that on the page opposite the article she had intended Fiona to read was another entitled, “Finding the Perfect Partner”. The penny dropped with a doleful clunk in Rachael’s mind.
“She’s engaged; not pregnant.”
The tension in the room was immediately broken as ribald laughter greeted Rachael’s mortified clarification. “Shh, she’ll hear you,” she said.
“Well don’t blame us,” countered Charlotte. “Christ, Rachael, what were you thinking? I mean, she’s not up the duff, is she?”
“No, of course not. I should have realised. I mean, she and Pete barely snog, never mind…”
“Screw,” added Charlotte helpfully.
“Yes, thanks Charlie, screw. Well I’ve certainly screwed up, that’s for sure. How could I have been such a schmuck? I’d better go and find her.”
She picked up her handbag and retreated from the scene of her disgrace with one or two of the office staff still sniggering behind her. Following Fiona’s earlier exit, she guessed, correctly, that her upset friend would have taken the elevator down the five floors to the ground level. A short time later, Rachael was there too and spotted Fiona just outside the main entrance sitting on a street bench looking down onto her lap at a sodden tissue crushed tightly into her fist.
“Shit,” muttered Rachael to herself and pushed her way through the heavy glass door into the bright morning sunshine. She walked slowly over to the bench. Fiona shifted in her seat as she saw Rachael approach and looked away.
Rachael perched on the bench and wondered how to begin. As she searched for the right words she was suddenly overcome with an insane urge to giggle at the absurdity of her earlier gaffe. She forced herself to concentrate on the task in hand and began, a little shakily, “Look, Fiona, I’m really sorry.”
“How could you have said that, Rachael?” cut in Fiona abruptly. “You know I couldn’t be pregnant. You know Pete and I have promised to keep ourselves for each other until we’re married. It’s what we believe in.”
“Yes, I know,” replied Rachael as gently as she could. “I’m afraid I just got hold of the wrong end of the stick.”
Fiona said nothing.
“I’m utterly ashamed of myself,” continued Rachael. “It was a terrible thing to say; a stupid way to let down a friend.”
Fiona took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She took off her glasses and squinted into the middle distance. The sunlight glistened on her wet eyelashes.
Conscious that her communication skills were having something of an off day, Rachael decided the best path to reconciliation was by way of physical comfort. She slid along the bench and put an arm around Fiona’s shoulder, whereupon the recently betrothed slumped into her embrace and cried some more. It wasn’t long before Rachael could feel the dampness of Fiona’s tears soaking through her blouse.
“Sometimes I wish I was more like you,” Fiona suddenly remarked, sitting up and making momentary eye-contact with Rachael.
“You mean always being able to find just the right words for every occasion?” replied Rachael.
“No, not quite,” smiled Fiona wryly. “It’s just that you seem so at ease with everyone, and they all like you. I always feel I’m on the outside somehow.”
This time it was Rachael’s turn to keep quiet.
“I wanted them all to be happy for me.”
“Fiona, they are happy for you. Why wouldn’t they be? If I hadn’t messed up they would still be congratulating you now and making a big fuss of you; you know they would.”
“Maybe,” said Fiona.
Rachael held her friend’s left hand and carefully inspected her new ring. “It’s beautiful,” she said, and Fiona smiled.
A bus hissed its pneumatics as it came to a standstill a little distance away, disgorging another dozen office workers onto the pavement.
“When did he ask you?” Rachael enquired after the bus had pulled away.
“Well, we’ve been praying about it for ages and both of us felt led that this was the right thing to do; we were just waiting for the Lord’s timing. Then, when we were praying together the other evening, Pete really felt the Lord prompting him that the time was right, so he just came straight out and asked me.”
“Wow! I guess you were obliged to say yes then, as he had it on such high authority.”
“Yes! That’s one reason why I love him; he’s so in tune with the Holy Spirit.”
“That’s lovely,”’ said Rachael a little weakly. She was pretty sure Hotline to God would not have been included as a requirement for finding the perfect partner in the article she had inadvertently given Fiona earlier.
“Come on, Fi,” said Rachael at last. “Let’s go back in and let them enjoy your good news. We can’t stay out here all morning.”
Rachael stood up, adjusted her skirt and waited. But Fiona remained on the bench and, looking up, said, “You go on, I’ll join you in a minute. I’m afraid I got very angry earlier and now I just need to pray and get myself right with God.”
“Oh, OK. I’ll see you back upstairs then,” replied Rachael a little nonplussed, not for the first time, by the proximity of Fiona’s faith and her ability to access it so effortlessly.
Within a minute or two Rachael was back on the fifth floor, but decided not to go straight back to her desk. Instead she walked over to the large window at the end of the landing where the big rubber plant lived, idling its time away in dusty neglect. She looked across the top of the ancient plane tree outside to the ornate red-brick Edwardian building across the street, and tried to compose her thoughts. Something had been disturbing her ever since Fiona broke her news and, now that she had forced herself to be still for a moment, Rachael was able to recognise it for what it was: envy. It happened every time; whenever a friend announced their engagement or that they were pregnant she couldn’t help asking herself why these happy events were occurring to other people and not to her. She despised herself for it, but at the same time couldn’t ignore the fact that, along with a real sense of rejoicing in her friends’ happiness, she also felt a little anxious that maybe time was starting to pass her by. The more often it happened, the more she worried about ending up alone.
She allowed herself a few more moments of introspection before pulling herself together and reminding herself just how happy she was with Jerry, and how content he seemed with her. If there was one person who could cheer her up it was him: she would postpone the diet for one more day – again – and get him to take her out that evening for an expensive meal. “Life’s too damn short,” she said to herself while extracting her mobile from her handbag and beginning to compose a text. Remembering her zodiac reading that she had looked at earlier that day, she included a reference to it as a way of winding him up. She smiled as she sent the message and then plunged back in to face the music at last, doing her best to avoid the mischievous looks that came her way. But as soon as she had sat down again, Charlotte glided over and enquired after the bride-to-be.
“Recovering, no thanks to me,” Rachael told her.
“The little stick insect doesn’t know how lucky she is getting someone to propose to her. I wish it would happen to me.”
“It has happened to you. Twice,” said Rachael.
“Yeah, I know. A right couple of losers they turned out to be. I mean, I would like it to happen with someone who knew the difference between a wife and a mother.”
“Well when that happy day arrives, let’s hope that the person who tells all your colleagues manages to communicate that you and Prince Charming are planning to tie the knot rather than suggesting that you are with child.”
“Yes. I’ll have to make sure I choose someone bright enough to tell the difference, won’t I?”
“Very funny, Charlie.”
“Actually, you must admit, it was pretty funny when it happened, Rachael.”
“Not for Fiona it wasn’t.”
“Yeah well, I’m sure she’ll get over it. I mean, it’s not exactly the end of the world, is it?”