Jennifer has returned for the first time in almost three months. I’m in the kitchen, making Ted his breakfast, smearing toast with jam. There’s a click of keys, the creak of hinges and there she is, my daughter.
‘Hello Mum,’ she says.
She looks unclean, dressed in the same shabby fleece and stained jeans she left in. Her hair is pulled back into a greasy knot. I find myself thinking what I often think of her: it’s hard to believe you’re a miracle.
‘So…’ She chews on her filthy thumbnail. ‘I was just passing by and thought-’
‘We’ve been worried sick.’ I’m still applying jam to Ted’s toast, now a thick coating I start to scrape back into the jar. ‘Do you know how hard we prayed?’
She says nothing. Jennifer has never responded well to my faith.
‘Have you any idea how upset your brother’s been?’ I indicate, rather stupidly, at the toast. ‘Did you ever think-‘
She cuts me off, says ‘Mum’, but nothing further. I turn my attention back to the toast.
I suspect she wants drug money. Of course she does. It gives me no pleasure to see her like this, to refuse her, but it’s easier – kinder – than engaging with her. I’ve always had trouble with Jennifer, ever since she was born – speaking to her, relating to her, even making eye-contact with her. I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole thing – her accusations, her leaving, this return – were designed solely to upset me. I often wonder what my Gary makes of her, whether he looks down from Heaven full of disappointment. Jennifer is a miracle – I can’t deny that – but a difficult one.
I turn around to say as much but find she’s gone, the door still open.
Alan comes round for tea after our prayer meeting. Afterwards, Ted disappears into the corner to play on the computer and I relate what happened. He leans back into the armchair and tells me that the Lord has a plan, that these things happen for a reason even if His purpose isn’t immediately clear.
‘But why doesn’t God want me to know His purpose?’
‘Carla,’ he says, ‘ the intricacy of His design is so vast that to try to understand it is not just misguided, it displays a lack of belief.’
Blood rushes to my face. Lacking belief? Me? I take a gulp of wine.
Alan lifts a pardoning hand. ‘We all lack belief. That’s why they call it a leap of faith,’ he says. He can come out with these wonderful things so casually. ‘You have to make the leap into what seems unbelievable. You’ve always said it yourself: Jennifer is a miracle.’
Alan is tall and bald and thin and has one of those curiously pleasant faces where you can just tell all he thinks is good thoughts. We met after my Gary died. I quickly became involved in his Church: communions, going door to door with leaflets, campaigns, helping him preach in the square outside BHS. Early on there were people who said he was taking advantage, that I was still grieving. I can see how it might appear that way but, really, anyone who has got to know Alan and see how caring he is, how wise and friendly, can see the good he’s done me. Of course, there are friends and neighbours who I know still baulk at our talk of miracles, of spirits, of the dead rising – I remember baulking at such talk myself – but the Church is now a large part of my life, is my life. It has been for almost fifteen years: I’ve known Alan longer than I’ve known Jennifer.
‘She is a miracle,’ I say, rather stung by his you’ve always said it yourself. We’ve agreed as much. It’s true, it’s doctrine.
It’s late when I give Ted the haircut I promised. I’m a little tired after speaking with Alan and a little emotional after this morning’s altercation with Jennifer. I take off rather too large a chunk of Ted’s fringe, leaving it uneven. He can’t see what I’ve done but senses I’ve made an error.
‘You need to stop wriggling,’ I tell him. Although this isn’t really the cause of the crooked hairline I’m now trying to tidy up, Ted has always had a problem with keeping still. His father used to make fun of him for it. At the time I thought it rather cruel – no doubt he imagined it would sort Ted out, make him more normal. Maybe he had a point: since Gary died Ted’s fidgeting – his hand-wringing, his teeth-grinding, his stuttering and his murmuring to himself – have all become much worse.
Carefully, I snip away at the hair around Ted’s temples. It’s grown much greyer since his previous haircut and I can see creases around his eyes. He looks older than he is, a trait he shares with Jennifer.
He’s twenty-six now, was eleven when the miracle happened and she came along. I was hopeful that he’d look after her, be protective and fatherly like my big brother had been to me, and that she’d bring Ted out of himself. Poor lamb, he’s never fitted in. He interacted poorly with the other boys at school and wasn’t suited to lessons. He has a job – he’s a shift manager at the local Premier Inn – but he never brings back stories of what went on at work or goes drinking with colleagues. And he’s never mentioned any girlfriends. Perhaps this is why people are quick to make rather base assumptions – and accusations – about him. Naturally, I’m not one to pass judgement, but it does sadden me to see him go to waste because he’s so handsome, criminally so. I suppose I’m bound to think that, not just because I’m his mother but because he looks so like his father, something I never cease to find wonderful.
I often think one of the reasons I’ve had trouble with Jennifer is because she looks like Ted.
Involuntarily, my hand jerks. The scissors slice through the tip of Ted’s ear.
‘Mum!’ he cries, leaping out of his chair, his hand at his ear, blood already between his fingers and leaking onto the towel around his shoulders.
‘Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!’ I tell him. ‘Oh Teddy, I’m sorry!’
He kicks the chair. ‘Christ! You stupid drunken bloody bitch!’
‘I’m so sorry, I’m so-‘
But he’s already marched out of the room and upstairs. Once again I’m abandoned.
It’s after midnight by the time I finally get him to settle down and apologise. His injury isn’t serious. I sit by his bed, stroking his hair and listening to his mutterings grow softer and quieter until he’s finally asleep.
Still awake, I go into Jennifer’s room. It’s bare in here now. There’s only a bed and an empty wardrobe. I got rid of everything she owned the night she left. Not a sensible course of action perhaps, but I was angry. She’s always had a way of getting under my skin but never as much as during that final argument: the things she’d said, the things she’d written. I can no longer reprimand her physically, of course. She’s grown too big, too aggressive.
Before she left she asked me about her father.
‘Just tell me: who was he?’
I told her what I’ve always told her: ‘Gary is your father.’
‘Please,’ she sighed. ‘It’s important that I know. Gary was dead. He died months before I was born.’
‘Your father’s ghost came to me,’ I said – I’m so used to telling her this, word for word. ‘I awoke and there he was. You were conceived in this house, in the living room. Gary is your father. It was a miracle. A simple, wonderful miracle. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but it’s true.’
It was true. I could picture Gary sat at his desk in the corner, back from the dead, boyish and naked and excited to see me. Within a couple of weeks I’d discovered I was pregnant – a dried-up widow in her forties carrying this miraculous child who turned out to be the worst possible daughter.
‘Either Ted goes or I do,’ she said.
And so she went. I grabbed a bin-bag and filled it with her things: school-work, pop magazines, clothes, photographs. Everything except that awful diary of hers which I took into the back garden and torched in a steel bucket.
A fortnight later a new couple agree to come to a prayer meeting and Alan decides to celebrate by taking me and Ted out to Nando’s. It’s a warm day and we sit outside.
For some reason Alan’s you’ve said as much yourself has stuck with me, still smarts a little. I feel I need some concrete details from him about how miracles work. Our drinks arrive and, whilst Ted plays with his phone and laughs and chatters away to himself, Alan and I talk about spirits – the ways in which they manifest themselves, their purposes, their desires.
‘What makes you think spirits have desires?’ Alan asks.
‘Gary,’ I say. ‘Gary returned with desires.’
Alan smiles. ‘That’s true.’
Ted stands up, mumbles that he needs the toilet and wanders inside. Poor baby, he doesn’t like to hear this sort of talk: desire, intimacy, conception.
‘In the Bible you never read about people like me,’ I say, ‘who’ve had a miracle happen to them but it’s gone all sour.’
‘Actually,’ says Alan, ‘in First Corinthians, Paul does briefly mention a-‘
He breaks off. A figure has approached us and is standing over our table. It’s Jennifer. She’s wearing the same clothes I’d last seen her in.
‘Fancy seeing you here!’ She grins at Alan – she has grown up with him around – and I see her teeth are yellow and misshapen.
Alan smiles back, but says nothing.
‘Mum, can I collect some of my stuff tomorrow?’ she asks. The afternoon heat has left her smelling bad.
‘I threw everything away,’ I say, looking into the distance, pretending I’m not interested. ‘I told you that.’ I don’t like Alan seeing this side of me, the tough-love side.
There’s a silence between us, then Jennifer says, ‘I’m thinking of going to the police, about Ted.’
I don’t want to cause a scene but I find something inside me – anger, I suppose – is making me shake. I’ve never given Alan the full story, have always tried to protect him from the true ugliness of my relationship with Jennifer. As far as he’s concerned, she’s an exceptionally difficult and immoral child, one with whom I had an argument after which she left. I never told him about the diary.
My body language must somehow transmit these thoughts to Jennifer because she picks up on them straight away.
‘He doesn’t know, does he?’ she points at Alan. She’s shouting. People – other diners and passers-by – look over at us. I worry Ted will come back. ‘Jesus! All this time and you’ve not told him what happened, have you?’
‘Nothing happened,’ I say. ‘You know that. And don’t use The Lord’s name in that way.’
‘I kept a diary, right?’ she’s addressing Alan now. He sits there, lemonade in hand, calmly looking at her as though what she says is worth listening to. ‘In it I wrote everything I did. And yeah, okay, some of it wasn’t good stuff – I hung around with boys, smoked pot, got pissed – and I slagged off Mum for all her mad talk about my dad being some ghost. But that’s not the worst thing I wrote about, is it?’ The question is directed at me.
‘I wrote about Ted,’ she says. ‘About him touching me, about him coming into the shower with me, about him finding me in the garden when I was hanging out laundry and-‘
‘That’s enough!’ I tell her.
Despite his cool demeanour I can see that this is now awkward for Alan – he doesn’t know where to look, what to say. I need to defuse the situation. Of course, I want to tell him that there were things in that diary that made me sick to my soul, that there were drugs mentioned I’d never even heard of, that it wasn’t just boys she wrote about but grown men, and that those evil accusations aimed at her own family created images which I know I’ll never shake from my head.
Instead, I decide to start crying. When I was growing up my own father was abusive to me and, I suppose, to hear of anyone making light of the subject or appropriating it for their own wicked ends upsets me greatly.
‘I- I honestly wish you’d not been born,’ I tell Jennifer. ‘Just looking at you makes me ashamed… ashamed and nauseous… just… just go away…’
There’s silence from the surrounding tables when she leaves, muscling through the shoppers like any other hopeless shambles you’d see around town.
Alan puts his arm around me and says, ‘It’s alright. Remember, these things happen for a reason.’’
I lean into him heavily, sobbing and fretting, and grip his leg, his thigh. Silently, he removes my hand.
‘God will make it right,’ he says. ‘You’ll see.’
Later, it’s still hot. Even though I’ve drunk nearly a full bottle of wine to help me to sleep, I’m still awake. I lie on my bed in the darkness thinking about Jennifer, replaying that final image of her walking away. There was something about that walk which told me that I’d got through to her, had finally driven the nail in, made it clear just how little I think of her. But, somehow, I know that rather than changing her ways she’ll go in the opposite direction. It was the stride of someone intent on doing something reckless. Some drug-binge, some unstable boyfriend. Maybe she’ll simply commit suicide.
I finish off the wine and nip downstairs to fetch another bottle. In the kitchen it occurs to me there’s a strong chance Jennifer is already dead. This, I have to say, would come as something of a relief. Not that I’d ever acknowledge as much to Alan, of course: this way of thinking isn’t exactly in keeping with the Church’s tenets, I know as much. But I’ve never claimed to be a paragon of virtue. We all have our crosses to bear. Mine is that I still have some way to go in my spiritual development.
As I’m about to take my wine back upstairs I see there’s a pale glow coming from the living room. At first I think Ted has left the computer on, but then I see he’s actually sat there at the desk, wearing his underpants and a t-shirt.
‘Alright?’ says Ted. Only of course it isn’t Ted.
This is how miracles happen. They aren’t grand or explosive as supposed by those who never experience them. They are gentle occurrences, unfolding quietly in an unlit living room. And their logic is quite simple: those of us who want things are given them.
I cross the room slowly, moving towards Gary. Our instinct – we believers, we patient faithful – is always to touch, to make sure that what we see is really there and, when he’s within reach, I run a hand down his chest. He’s older – last time he seemed little more than a boy. He clears his throat, avoids eye-contact as though reproaching me. How curious that a spirit can be so coy, can tremble. I must remember to mention it to Alan. But I know this spirit. It won’t take him long to recall how to handle me. I can feel his familiar desire, it is hot and already heavy in my hand.
We failed with Jennifer. She was a test we couldn’t understand. This time we’ll get it right.