There’s a dirty brown puddle at the bottom of West Street where the snow has melted and turned to sludge. Not that many years ago she would have dived in with both feet, splashing till her socks and trousers were soaked through, but she skirts around it now, crossing over to the other side, and struggles up the hill. Her Dad is nearly at the top, his head burrowed down against the wind, his hands buried deep in his coat pockets.
He stops near the war memorial in the market square and waits for her. Rooted to the spot, like there’s an invisible line he can’t cross.
“You go on,” he says when she’s caught up with him. He nods towards the church. “I’ll wait here.”
He’d told her he wouldn’t be joining her. Had enough of them churches, I’m telling you. I ever have to set foot in one again it’ll be too bloody soon. He’d cackled like an old witch. ’Cept when I’m in a box. A one-way ticket, and that’ll be just fine by me.
He coughs and reaches for his cigarettes. Stamps his feet to keep the cold at bay and tells her to get a move on or she’ll be late. She could do with a cigarette, just a few puffs, to help her on her way, but she turns and makes her way up the steep path through the graveyard, the wind coming straight at her, pinning her back. She stops outside the porch, breathless, and looks back down the path. He’s still trying to light his cigarette, his hands cupped against his face, the lighter flickering on and off. Even from here she can see that he’s all fingers and thumbs. He drops the cigarette, stamps it into the ground with his boot, and fumbles in his coat pocket for another one.
They go upstairs, into the long, narrow function room that smells of dust and stale sweat. Megan remembers being dragged here for Sunday school, her mother helping with the refreshments, filling her pockets on the way out: left-over sandwiches, sausage rolls, breadsticks. The Lord provides, she’d say, winking, stuffing a Scotch egg into her handbag before making a quick getaway.
The vicar disappears into the kitchenette at the far end of the room. She hears drawers opening and closing, a squeaky cupboard door, a tap running. He comes back with a glass of orange cordial in a plain white mug. There would have been biscuits, he says, apologetically, but someone has eaten them all.
“I’m not naming names,” he says, pulling up a couple of plastic chairs. For a moment, Megan thinks her mother has finally been rumbled and that he has only asked her here today, after all these years, to atone for past sins.
“I’m a man of the cloth,” he says, “and I like to think I’m above all that, you know. The loose-talk, the tittle-tattle. But between you, me and the gatepost, Megan, it was Mrs Renshaw.” He shrugs. “She helps out around here, God bless her, but Christ All Fucking Mighty she could eat biscuits for England.”
“Truth is, Megan,” he says, “this whole thing is really fucked up.”
She likes that he swears. Like a fucking trooper, her Aunt Vee had said, disapprovingly. Megan likes that he has a tattoo, a pale crescent moon, on his left wrist. She’d glimpsed it while he was shaking her Dad’s hand, and he’d winked at her, the same way her mother had done. Their little secret. She wanted to tell him she is going to get her own tattoo when she’s old enough, something with teeth and claws, a splatter of blood, but her Aunt Vee whisked her away straight after the service.
“Your mother passing like that,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m not going to pretend it’s not fucked up, because it is.”
She doesn’t tell him she’s fine. That it’s been four weeks now and she’s already started to forget what her mother looked like.
“I’m okay,” she says, sipping her cordial. The mug is chipped near the rim and it tastes like old pipes.
He gets up, walks over to the window and peers out.
Her Aunt Vee said there was something not quite right about him. Something in his eyes. Megan wasn’t sure, though. From what she’d seen, during the funeral, it was her Aunt Vee who couldn’t take her eyes off him the whole time. The way she looked at him.
“It’s raining,” he says, his nose against the glass.
She wonders if her Dad is still waiting for her. She’s suddenly angry with him. She’s told him a million times that she’s nearly fourteen now and what she doesn’t need is a chaperone. But she worries about him, the old fool, and hopes he’s had the sense to go home or at least take shelter under the arch next to the pub.
“I wish there was something I could do,” the vicar says, turning.
“You don’t have to do anything,” Megan says. “Or say anything.” She runs her finger over the chip in the mug. Scrapes it with her nail. “I’m not looking for answers.”
He smiles, nods. “I think I should try, though. How about, everything will be fine in the end? That God moves in mysterious ways? That it’s all part of His great plan? Something like that.”
He sits down again, their chairs almost touching. He places his hand on her knee, and looks up at the ceiling.
“You’re going to tell me He’s up there, aren’t you?” Megan says.
He nods. “He is. Watching and listening.”
Megan looks up, tilts her head all the way back till it hurts. She can’t see anything, just a clump of cobwebs and a damp patch in the corner where the plaster is coming away.
She takes his hand.
“Maybe we should pray, then,” she says.
Gary Duncan is a freelance writer and editor based in Northumberland, England. His flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices. Recent credits include Train Lit, Gravel and The Cabinet of Heed.