A short story by
John P. Asling
This is Grace’s moment.
Just step into the aisle. Make your way up to the front of the church. To the microphone standing erect beside that man framed in the colour photograph. That man perched on a pedestal. That man smiling down on the incense-shrouded congregation. That man dwarfed by the looming wooden cross.
It is the first moment of silence in the hour filled with precious words sung by the royally garbed women’s choir, spilled with tears of grief, solemnly pronounced by the ageing pastor before the grey suits, black dresses, bowed heads.
Like ‘hero’, ‘courage’.
Clutching a scribbled note in her blood-red painted nails, Grace turns toward the aisle. She’s a bloke away from stepping from her usual seat in the back pew and she hesitates, hoping he will discreetly let her past. In that moment, Bible words read by the dead man’s brother echo in her soul.
‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’
For everything? Every matter? There is no season for what he did to me. No season and no reason.
Everett and Grace were paired for the night at the homeless shelter in the basement of their church not far from the city centre. This was the first time they had worked so closely together, though she knew him from church. He talked to her a little about his children.
‘Thanks for taking care of the girls. They love you looking after them. You’re so good with them,’ he said one Sunday.
She didn’t offer much in reply, partly because she was shy, but she was also somehow wary. If you asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.
‘It’s okay, they’re very well-behaved, those girls.’
Everett and Grace worked side-by-side, blowing up mattresses, putting on the thin fitted sheets, threadbare blankets, bleached pillow slips. How uncomfortable those narrow beds looked to Grace crowded into that basement meeting room, but at least it was warm inside. Outside it was a bone-chilling January. Everett and Grace made tea and set it on the communal table and kept the supply of broken biscuits donated by the factory replenished. The men and women booked for the night – twenty-five – were hungry and thirsty when they first arrived from around the borough. Some of the ‘guests’- the shelter leader insisted on calling them that – perused the box of used clothes Everett and Grace had set out, trying on woolly hats and jumpers.
Grace was always surprised they never looked like the homeless people she saw on the street near the station. They didn’t look to be much worse off than her. And that scared her. Was this her next stop now that she had been let go at the nail salon, her rent overdue? Everett explained that the borough had ‘screened’ the people using their church shelter because it was run by volunteers. ‘We do this out of our best Christian instincts, but of course we aren’t trained.’
Everett and Grace warmed the lasagnes baked by the church ladies group, prepared the garlic bread the men’s group made, set the tables, prepared the tea and filled the water jugs. Then they took a break.
‘The demographics are changing,’ he said, adding milk to his mug of tea. And to hers. She just watched. He was up on the refugee situation because he is an elder and spoke often to the minister. Grace listened, blowing softly on her steaming tea.
These ‘guests’ were mostly Eastern Europeans and North Africans working in restaurants or doing day labour. One was a tall man with a thin moustache who grew up not far from where Grace’s father was born. Grace heard him talking to one of the locals who got tired of sleeping in his car and came to the shelter for the first time.
‘I can’t go back to my country. I’m a dead man if I go back there. No way, I’m going back there. But God, it’s cold here now. I sure could use that hot sun on my back,’ the African said.
The other man laughed a moment then caught himself. ‘You’ll be alright here. It’ll come good.’
Grace was wiping tables nearby, took it in, especially the part about her father’s country in Africa, but kept her thoughts to herself.
Two volunteers were missing from the overnight roster and Grace said she would stay on, not having to get up for work in the morning. She’d get breakfast, cut down on expenses, every little bit counts. She was thinking that way more and more since losing her job.
Everett said he was available too.
‘Keep the team together,’ he laughed easily but his eyes were stern. She had noticed that over the years since Everett joined the church from the other side of the city. She knew him from his greetings at the church door, his speeches at meetings and the time he preached on ‘charity’ when the pastor was on leave. Some Sunday mornings she worked in the nursery where his two youngsters were an island of serenity in an ocean of manic children.
Grace wondered why Everett wouldn’t want to get home to his wife and two small girls with bows in their hair. Grace had looked after them in the church nursery again last week. They played together with Barbie dolls and didn’t need any fuss from the carers. She guessed he just wanted to help out. He had that kind of reputation at the church.
It was a long night at the shelter. The aroma of the vegetarian lasagne eventually gave way to the stench of men’s feet, body odours. The three women in their curtained-off corner hid under their blankets. Just before lights-out an older man with shaking hands began cussing out the youngster next to him for shifting his mattress too close. Everett went to calm them down. The leader had to step between the two labourers wearing coloured ball caps trying to use the same plug for their phones. Grace finished cleaning the kitchen. Things quieted down by midnight.
Grace looked through her emails on her smart phone, then closed her eyes, just resting. Everett read a book in the dimly lit hallway, stayed awake all night. The leader read her Bible.
In the morning Everett offered to drive Grace home. She usually walked but agreed when the shock of frigid air hit her as they left the shelter at six o’clock. Frost enveloped Everett’s sleek red car but it started immediately. He reached very carefully across her to help with the tangled seat belt.
‘There, that’s better, Grace. The children get them messed up,’ he laughed. Those eyes. Grace nodded, thinking of the pretty bows and the Barbie dolls.
‘Those girls are lovely,’ she offered, too tired for much talk.
‘The joy of my life,’ he responded. ‘They love it when you take care of them.’
They drove in silence towards Grace’s cramped flat but Everett suddenly steered the humming red sports car down an alley, stopped abruptly, and locked the doors. Grace’s heart nearly stopped. Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t speak. This time Everett’s reach was sudden, brutal. She smelled his foul breath, felt her clothes ripped from her body. She gritted her teeth, managing to spit out, one word, ‘No.’ He was deaf to her. The touch of him, the sound of him, the rocking of the car. Grace thought she would die, wished she had died.
Back in her flat, Grace let the hot water of the shower mix with her wailing tears. She stayed under for a long time, thinking. I am no longer a woman, just a piece of dead meat. Because of that man. Everett. He has eaten me up, tossed me aside like a carcass. She tried to pray but somehow God had died when that man, that Everett forced himself on her.
‘Where is the pastor’s loving God now?’ Grace collapsed onto her bed, falling into a morbid sleep.
Grace stayed in her bed for days, ignoring her buzzing phone, not eating, not answering the door, not caring about anything, anybody. Like she was dying. That man, that Everett, he did this.
Then she got up, pulled her curtains. Fuck him. I ain’t letting him kill me.
‘It’s not your fault just because you got in that posh car with that Everett,’ Grace’s friend Frankie fumed a week later. ‘You gotta say something. You gotta go to the police. You gotta tell.’
Grace knew Frankie never trusted Everett, his young wife, perfect kids. She’d say, ‘What’s the matter with women his own age? There’s something about that man, Grace. You see it too.’
Grace never responded to Frankie on this.
Frankie sent Grace a text early one Saturday morning a few weeks later saying Everett had been stabbed to death. Grace felt like her heart stopped beating. Again.
She went online and read about it herself, sitting up in her frigid flat as the groan of morning traffic started growing on the street below. ‘Jesus,’ she whispered. ‘That man, that Everett. Dead.’
‘A 45-year-old man was stabbed to death early this morning as he attempted to stop a gang fight outside an after-hours club. Everett Winston, a broker, was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 4 a.m. A Met spokesman said the investigation was ongoing. However, one woman, who refused to give her name, hailed Mr. Winston as a “hero”. ‘He told them all just stop fighting. He put his body on the line, took a blade.’ The Met said while they were still gathering information, it appeared the slain man’s “courage” prevented major bloodshed. Mr. Winston leaves a wife and twin three-year-old daughters.’
Frankie phoned Grace a few minutes later. ‘Hero? What’s that Everett doing down there at that hour? I’m sorry ‘bout those two little kids but what’s that man doing there with all those bling girls and those gangsters?’
‘Looks like he was some kind of hero, Frankie.’
‘You know better than that, Grace. It’s like that Hollywood guy. They never who they say they are.’
‘Maybe none of us are, Frankie.’
‘Don’t talk shit to me.’
‘I just don’t know.’
The bloke looks over at Grace like he knows what’s on her mind. Was he Everett’s friend? There’s nobody at the ‘open mic’ and the pastor is asking if anyone else has anything to add about ‘Brother Everett, who laid down his life for others’. There’s been plenty of folks talking about all the good things Everett had done at the church, leading that building committee last year, donating money for Syria. Grace makes herself skinny so she won’t be touching the bloke beside her as she moves closer to the aisle. He doesn’t move but Grace gets by. The pastor is talking about what the newspapers have been saying about Everett but Grace still hears those Bible words spoken by Everett’s brother.
‘A time to be born and a time to die.’
Shit, when’s my time to be born, my time to live?
Grace never told Frankie about the envelope. Frankie would have shrieked like the time her father hit her for smoking weed. She’s loud about protecting her rights. That just scares Grace.
She had stopped helping at the shelter after Everett attacked her. She told the shelter leader she needed to spend more time looking for work after losing her job. Grace had done Frankie’s nails and then Frankie flashed her silver sparkled fingers at the mall and told their friends Grace needed business. Grace set up shop in her squat kitchen and a few of the girls came over the next week and got their nails painted. She charged them a few quid, helped her get groceries. But she knew she had to find another job.
Then the envelope arrived.
‘Sorry for what happened the other night. I possibly misread the situation. Hope this ends the matter.’
‘This’ was £100 in twenties. Grace looked at it spread out like a fan as it fell from the envelope. Misread? Fuck. The matter? The rape.
She took the envelope to church next Sunday, sat in her back row, eyeing Everett and the pretty wife in their pew. When elders came for the Offering she put the envelope with the £100 in the basket. The note was there too.
Grace met Frankie after church for coffee at the cheap café beside the station. Frankie grabbed her best friend’s cold hand across the table at the back where they always sat.
‘You gone to the police yet? Grace, you can’t keep this all to yourself.’
Grace took a sip of her coffee, dabbed her unpainted lips with the napkin.
‘No police, Frankie. I got other plans. Maybe I forgive him.’
‘Well, maybe I’m gonna’ talk to his pretty wife, then.’
‘No, you ain’t.’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘No, Frankie, this is my battle.’
That was before Everett became a hero.
Grace thinks the pastor is going to close down that open mic before she gets to the front of the church. Grace moves toward that stiff microphone, thinks about those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.
‘A time to mourn and a time to dance.’
I’m not mourning and I am not dancing. I am moving up there.
After coffee in the café, Grace ignored Frankie’s phone calls for a few days. She didn’t tell her about the envelope and she didn’t tell her about going to the ‘Memorial for a Hero’ at the church. Frankie’s folks would be there so she would know about it but Frankie mostly does the opposite of them, like staying out late and avoiding church. Grace used to be like that. Since her father died from drinking and her mother moved to America with that Warner, she’s got no one to protest against. Except now there’s Everett. Fuck him. What’s he done to me?
Grace dressed for church like it was Sunday, sat down at her kitchen table and took her notepad, ripped out a few sheets and started scratching out all the words that had been bouncing around inside her head. Her whole body shook like she was on some carnival ride while she wrote. Then she headed out the door to church.
Grace’s short legs are moving quickly towards the front of the church and she is almost there. The pastor doesn’t want her up here. His drag dog face is telling her that. The choir of sweet-scented ladies are glaring down at her. The big cross is judging her. She hears those words again, ‘hero’, ’courage’ and but can’t fit them alongside Everett’s – ‘Keep the team together’. She can see the fan of twenties on her kitchen table. Grace hears those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.
‘A time to keep silence and a time to speak.’
Grace’s time of silence is over.
‘The Good Book says…’ SLQ
John P. Asling is a writer and editor living in Blackheath, London, and has published poetry and fiction in Canada and the United Kingdom.