Written for issue 5: Mountains, Whispers and Betrayal. Work in progress- as yet unfinished.
Let me know if you want to know the ending!
As always, Sonia woke up a few minutes before the alarm clock. She turned towards its face, though, as always, its numbers were a fuzzy haze that bled glowingly. As always, she reached for her glasses, which, once in place, magnified her eyes to alarming proportions. 5:56, it showed obligingly.
For four minutes Sonia lay staring ahead, thinking, waiting. Then, as 5:59 flicked to 6:00, her hovering index finger pressed down, cutting it off before it had finished the first bleep. She closed her eyes and, as always, pressed her hands together.
Her prayers were always the same, give or take a few topical additions. Earthquake victims or people off work sick. Sometimes Pastor Neil would urge them to pray for something, and she’d add that to the list. But mostly it went:
Jesus, please look after Mum… and let her ankles go down.
Please watch over me and protect me
Please help me to do the right thing and keep me in your grace, Lord
Then she would wash her hands, dress from the clothes she had laid out the night before, go downstairs and make a cup of milky tea. She would cradle it with both hands, and blow on it very thoroughly. There was nothing worse than a burnt mouth- Sonia knew from experience. Finally she would make sure Mum was comfortable, wash her hands again, and wait for Sue.
As she shut the door, the familiar sound of Mum greeting the paid carer with a list of complaints and ailments faded to nothing. Sonia walked the same way up the same path to the same station she did every day. She stood on the platform for the same train, and took a Kleenex out of the packet in her handbag, as always, pinching it between finger and thumb..
When the train pulled in, Sonia made herself as small and thin as she could, bony-shouldering her way between the suited commuters, and gripping the pole with her tissued fingers. She always shuddered when she remembered the time she’d dropped the tissue. As the train lurched forwards, and the little patch of cleanliness slipped into the abyss, she’d been forced to grasp the pole with her bare fingers. Immediately she’d felt its greasy germs starting to ooze into every pore. She could see it, a grey sludge, leaving oleaginous stains on everything it touched. She tried to wipe her hands but could not wipe them on her clothes, lest she spread wriggling germs everywhere. She daren’t touch anyone or anything else for fear of picking up more and more of that dirty, gelatinous slime that others smeared liberally around. Instead she had walked to work with her right arm outstretched, keeping it quarantined from the rest of her body.
Sonia’s workplace was both a calming safehaven and a snake’s nest of danger.
She loved the handwash, the gel dispensers at every gleaming turn. She loved the alcohol wipes, the swabs, and hearing the squeak of the surgeons’ shoes as they walked past in their scrubs.
But germs were all around. She took care to use her elbow when turning off the tap.
She avoided breathing too near any patients. And when handling the patients’ notes, which were so often grimed with dirt just waiting to bury itself under your fingernails, Sonia took care to put on a pair of surgical gloves. Better safe than sorry was her mantra. And if she were to be part of Jesus’ army, tending to the poor and sick, she could not afford to be struck down by a superbug. She should care for herself- after all, God had blessed her with a healthy body, unlike poor Mum- and make every effort to keep it that way.
So every day Sonia wiped down the entrance buzzer, telephones, mouse, keyboard, monitor, printer and desk with an alcohol wipe. Every day she washed her hands before and after most jobs. Every day she pulled a cardigan over her fingers, clutched a tissue, or pulled on the latex with a snap. Every day Sonia went home on the same train, and walked down the same path, and every night she relieved Sue. Then she’d talk to Mum about what they would watch that evening, and massage her ankles. Then she’d cook some tea, and wash up, and they’d watch a programme. Then Sonia would make Mum comfortable, and take herself off up to bed. She would shower, and wash her hair if it was a hair-washing night. Teeth cleaned, flossed, mouthwashed. Talc. Nightie.
She would wait, every night, until 10:00. The red digits changing, hauntingly slow. Then she would clasp her hands together and pray. The same three prayers, as always, perhaps with a few little topical additions.
On Thursdays she would clean the bathroom, scrubbing the sink and scouring the shower.
On Saturdays she’d hoover, dust and mop the kitchen floor.
On Sundays it was church, and Sonia would walk the two miles uphill to the New Life Church.
Coffee beforehand, and then the service. Pastor Neil was a fantastic speaker, Sonia thought. If there were ever any new people milling about at coffeetime, she never found it hard to summon enthusiasm for the Pastor. In fact, she’d often gush, and then catch herself and blush, smiling shyly at the parquet floor.
Sonia’s life could be measured out in minutes. It was as timetabled as the trains that ran from her suburban station. It could be counted in coffees, and tracked and ticked as each week passed, as always, the same.
But Sonia was not boring. Deep in Sonia lay a yearning that terrified her.
One Sunday, an exciting announcement came. And with it, that yearning seemed to leap from its depths straight into her heart, and fill it up so that she felt like a gasping fish in the top of a net.
“We are truly blessed”, said Pastor Neil, “to be able to take this wonderful opportunity. To walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus. To climb the Mountain where Moses delivered the ten commandments. To see the ruins of Hazor, that Joshua and his army burned to the ground as they entered the promised land. To be close to God”- he leaned towards the front row, and Sonia felt he was looking right at her, and burned- “…perhaps as close as we can get.”
He went on to talk about other things, but all Sonia could think about was the pilgrimage. At the end of the service, she found the sign-up sheet and the payment plan and wrote her name without a shiver of hesitation. It was only later, making Mum’s Light Options Chicken Korma, that Sonia started to worry about the costs. Still, she would do it. Scrimp here, save there. The bigger worry was Mum herself.
Sonia prayed that Mum would understand, and for Jesus to watch over her whilst Sonia was away. Sonia prayed for Mum’s ankles to give her some relief. For the man next door to stop drilling in the daytime, as it ruined Mum’s dose of Diagnosis Murder. She prayed and prayed but she knew what she was doing was trying to shift some of the responsibility onto God, when, really, she was the one who’d have to tell her.
She chose her time carefully. Mum was settled with a packet of Rich Tea and the Puzzler.
In her most gentle, soothing voice (the one she reserved for angry relatives of patients who’d been left sitting in a wheelchair for hours), she explained to Mum where she would be going. How fantastic an opportunity it was. What she’d be seeing. How she’d arranged for Paula from number 12 to drop in every evening. How she’d cook dinners in advance. As she went on and on, hoping she was covering every possible objection her mother might make, Sonia noticed that her mother was completely silent. This was extremely unusual.
“And I can label them for each night, so all Paula has to do is heat them up in the microwave…”
Sonia trailed off and was forced to confront her Mother’s expression.
It was one of complete and utter bewilderment. She looked as if Sonia had told her she was flying to Venus on the back of an egg.
Silence filled the living room, and seemed to swell, plump as the cushions.
Eventually Mum spoke.
“But why, Sonia?”
Sonia slowly and carefully explained again the significance of the Holy Lands, and how important it was to her.
“Well, I don’t understand it. But if you want to leave your invalid mother to go and visit a few old bits of wood and rock, and a load of dirty old dust…”
Shivering slightly at the mention of dirt, Sonia supposed that was the best she’d get.
When the calendar had finally flipped round and the numbered boxes were all crossed through, Sonia sat on the end of her bed and stared at her list again. In small, neat and laboured letters the blue biroed list spelt out the numbers of pairs of socks, knickers, trousers and shoes, as well as tops, suncream, scarves, a first aid kit that was better-stocked than a regional branch of Boots, various anti-bacterial sprays and gels, a bathroom bag, bumbag, passport, money and bible. Here Sonia ticked- small, neat, laboured ticks next to each important item. She was ready. Her first time abroad since the day trip to Boulogne with Paula. And that had been- no, it couldn’t have been? Twelve years ago. She zipped up her bag, and sat, and stared. The yearning was starting to leap into her chest and make her heart pound so hard it hurt.
That night she barely slept.
Bleeeeep. Pray. Dress. Ablutions. Tea. Mum- who pretended to have forgotten and affected a casual air with Sonia- suitcase- how its wheels grundling along the road gave her a thrill! Train- antibacterial gel- tube- tissue and antibacterial gel- airport- meeting point- and there was her group, all be-socked and sandalled, luggage be-ribboned, with backpacks and bumbags and oh! There was Pastor Neil, talking to the lady at the desk. He turned round and greeted her with a generous smile.
Sonia felt so excited she didn’t quite know what to say. She was nervous that if she opened her mouth she might start babbling, so she smiled, and nodded furiously whenever she was asked a question. She felt like she might burst with happiness.
When they finally touched down at Ben Gurion airport, Sonia stood on the first step down to the runway and marvelled at the thick blanket of heat that hit her. She stared out of the windows of the coach,