“What’s your favourite animal?”
“Mine’s a black labrador, with floppy ears. What’s your favourite food?”
“Rocky Road ice cream. What’s yours?”
“Chocolate doughnuts. Do you believe in God?”
“Of course, silly.”
I had been humming to myself and looking forward to a beer after dropping the girls off, but now I tuned swiftly back into the conversation. Becky had said that morning: “If there’s any heavy evangelical stuff in the car, make sure you nip it in the bud.”
“Heavy evangelical stuff? They’re six years old!”
“You know what I mean, Jim. It’s a slippery slope.”
My daughter’s voice from the back seat: “How do you know God’s there?”
Amelia’s voice: “I just do. He’s with me all the time, watching over me.”
“Because He loves me. And he wants me to be good.”
“What if you’re not good?”
“Then He helps me be better.”
“How does He help you?”
“He tells me how to be good. In the Bible.”
“What happens if you don’t do what He says?”
“I always do.”
“But if you don’t? Does He get angry with you?”
“No, he never gets angry. He forgives you and gives you another chance. And another and another.”
“But what if you didn’t? What if you were bad again and again?”
“Then I might go to Hell.”
“What’s Hell like?”
I cleared my throat loudly and said: “How about an ice-cream?” The two small girls squealed agreement.
After that, Becky and I agreed we would keep an eye on Jenny and Amelia’s future conversations. Although religion had not come up much in parental chats at the school gates, we knew that Amelia and her parents went to the sort of church sometimes called ‘happy-clappy’. We rehearsed what we would say when Jenny questioned us, as she was certain to do. People believe lots of different things… There are good people who believe in God and good people who don’t… You can listen carefully and then make up your own mind.
But the expected questions did not come. The school holidays began, and Amelia went off to France with her family. When the subject did resurface, it was during our own camping holiday in Wales, as though the passing landscape had triggered a memory of theological matters. The three of us were searching for our campsite in surroundings that were wild and spectacular, but navigationally awkward.
“At the next roundabout, do a U turn.”
“I will not,” I said firmly. It was not my first disagreement with the satnav, and in other circumstances I would have told it to fuck off, but with Jenny in the back this was not an option.
“I think you should have turned left at the crossroads back there,” said Becky, with the road atlas open on her knee.
“No, the sign said Brecon.”
“We’re supposed to go through Brecon.”
“Sodding satnav,” I muttered, executing a bad-tempered five-point turn in the narrow road, and getting hooted at by several cars.
“Silly Daddy!” said Jenny.
“Recalculating… Continue on route,” said the satnav calmly.
That evening, when the campsite had been located, the tepee erected, and the vegetarian spaghetti sauce was simmering on the stove, Jenny said: “Daddy?”
“Is the satnav the voice of God?”
“What? No, of course not!”
“But it tells you what to do and you don’t listen.”
There was a suppressed snort of laughter from Becky, who was unrolling sleeping bags and pummeling pillows inside the tepee.
“And it’s always right.”
“But it never gets angry with you.”
“I don’t really think—” I said weakly.
“And even when you go the wrong way, it gives you another chance. And another and another. But, Daddy?”
“Next time you should do what it says, otherwise you might go to Hell.”
“That or Cardiff!” called Becky from inside the tent, as thunderclouds gathered above the mountains.
Patience Mackarness lives mainly in France, and spends part of each year travelling with her husband in an elderly VW camper van. She is interested in wildlife, wild swimming, and what people believe.