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I posted Chapter 1 on 13 January. Subsequent chapters have appeared each Friday, and will continue to be posted until all 50 have featured here. You can find those already posted via the archive; just search by chapter number. If you missed the start, you’ll find it here: http://stuartaken.blogspot.com/2012/01/read-free-my-novel-here.html
Read, enjoy, invite your friends along. I’m an author; I want people to read my writing, simple as that.
Sunday 15th August
‘At last! We’ve all been frantic, wondering where you were, Faith.’
‘I needed time alone, Ma. I must phone Mum.’
I realised her grief was unexpressed, locked up. I didn’t like that. ‘I called Eric to find out where you were. I phoned Matilda and told her. Come and have some supper, you look all in.’
She sat where she was and gave a single nod as if further movement was too much.
‘Anything but tea!’
Coffee? And she would eat some toast. There was about her something deeply troubling, something I couldn’t identify at once. And she’d shed no tears. Netta was surprisingly sympathetic to begin with; almost demure, and silent for the most part.
Faith ate in silence, looking at nothing, simply staring into the distance and passing food and drink into her mouth. Had I asked what she’d consumed, she couldn’t have told me.
I sent her to bed and she went without a word, though I doubt she slept.
‘She’s weird, Leigh. Creepy. I don’t like it.’
‘People respond to grief in different ways. Faith’s had a hell of a lot of adjusting to do in a very short time. Think about it, Netta. How do you think you’d cope with so much change in such a short space of time?’
She shrugged. Netta had no capacity for consideration. A hedonist through and through, all her thoughts and actions were informed by her body’s responses. Nothing else was of significance. ‘Come on, Leigh, she’s made me feel miserable. I need a good seeing to by a cunning linguist.’
She was safe in bed for the night and Netta’s need was so tempting and something I could usefully comply with. It would do no harm to Faith for us to indulge a little.
I waggled my tongue and she undressed me. Later, with my head between her delicious thighs, I was vaguely aware someone had come into the kitchen and passed the table where we played.
‘Came down for a drink of water.’ Netta told me afterwards. ‘Think she was a bit surprised to find us there.’
‘I expect she was.’
I let her work during the days; hoping activity would help her face the death. She remained silent except for the essential connections of business and everyday contact. She wasn’t hostile, simply uncommunicative. I couldn’t fathom whether it was grief or anger, sorrow or rage that held her in that withdrawn state. But it was deeply disturbing.
Eric arranged the closing that David had desired. We journeyed the long, hot miles to the crematorium in a short cortège of hired black limousines; Matilda, Eric, Netta, Faith and I sharing the lead car. He and Faith were silent throughout the journey in spite of Matilda’s outpouring of comments and observations about David.
The cleric who greeted us was all unction and professional sympathy. Daily contact with death and the bereaved had killed any capacity he may have had to empathize. Death was routine; he made the right noises, formed the right expressions, even adopted the appropriate body language, but he fooled nobody, especially Faith.
‘Can you perform a ceremony that will satisfy Eric who’s a partially lapsed Roman Catholic, myself, my father and Leigh, all atheists, my mother and sister, part time protestants in the Church of England tradition, and the mixed bunch of mourners here who either believe in no god at all or certainly not the limited one of your imagination?’
Having been silent for so long, Faith’s challenge came as a shock.
The cleric was jolted from complacency into a gesture of condescension guaranteed to make the blood boil. ‘I understand your grief, my dear. Please don’t concern yourself with details. I’ll send your father off properly, you can be sure of that.’
‘Will you perform a eulogy based on firsthand knowledge? Will you despatch him without reference to your own peculiar god?’
‘Well, now I don’t think it’ll do any harm to give him the protection of…’
‘I do. Please, if the law or whatever regulations surround this process, mean you have to be present, simply stand wherever you must, in silence. I’ll lead the ceremony.’ Her glance at Matilda dared her to disagree; her look at Eric was more conciliatory. Both nodded their assent with differing degrees of surprise and reservation.
‘I really think it would be much more satisfactory if you were to just…’
‘Satisfactory? For whom? For you? I don’t give that for what you think. I don’t belong to your club and Dad was never a member either. He hated your false ideals, your hypocrisy, your exclusion. Let him take his leave the way he wished. At least have the grace to let me do this without opposition. It’s hard enough as it is, without the condescending interference of a Godbotherer.’
He started to speak again and I stepped in. ‘Let her be. What’s it to you? You’ll still get paid and no one here will complain if you let Faith have her way.’
‘It’s not right…’
‘Not right for whom? It’s right for Faith and it’s right for her father. Aren’t they the ones who matter here?’
He was very unhappy but knew he couldn’t go against our wishes without making a fuss and causing real problems. Not the sort of thing even the most determined conservative clergyman would want. He shrugged his resignation, made no effort to hide his disapproval, but led us into the small chapel.
Faith asked him about the mechanics and he had the good grace to show her before he took up his seat facing the congregation.
Once the black-suited pallbearers had departed, Faith stood by the foot of the coffin, her hand resting lightly on the polished oak. She waited for the piped Gounod’s Ave Maria to die away.
‘Thank you for coming. David Lengdon was a life-long atheist. That’s why the priest has generously stepped aside and allowed me to perform this last farewell. Only a few of you know me. Most of you weren’t even aware that David had a daughter. I met him a few short weeks ago. He was as unaware of me as I had been of him. Matilda, my mother, brought us together. He loved her dearly and her name was the last word he spoke.’
Matilda hadn’t known and she leant against me and began to sob silently. Others in that small chapel muttered quietly with surprise or indignation.
‘Eric cared for him these last years, since cancer invaded his body and brought him to this parting we call death. He’s been a prince of kindness and I thank him with all my heart for his devotion and selfless courage. I came on the scene late, when Dad was already dying. I was warned and given the chance not to know him, but I chose to try to understand him and came inevitably to love him. I know he loved me, too.
‘Dad was a brave man in many ways, a coward in others. He loved the truth but was willing to compromise for the sake of ease and to shield those he held dear. I lack that gift. I’m unable to do more or less than tell the truth. Had he not gone overseas, or had he known I was on the way, he would’ve married Matilda and all our lives would have been immeasurably better.
‘But that was not to be and he lost the love of his life. Literature, without his beloved, became a sham for him. He discovered the sordid incest and facile insincerity that infects parts of the world of literary education and criticism and it destroyed his love for it. Had Matilda been with him, he would’ve understood that running from the false and self-delusional wouldn’t shift it one iota. With her beside him, he’d have battled all his life to change that superficial world into a place of passion and truth where creativity did not depend exclusively on antecedents and where true originality was as valid as recognisable derivation. His words.
‘Dad was scholar, poet, philosopher and a builder of walls. I asked him about the barriers he erected and he justified them on practical grounds I couldn’t fault. Dad was a man who loved and was loved. His only physical love was Matilda and I am the fruit of their early passion. Spiritually, he loved many, finding it easier to like people than to dislike them. He was forgiving, tolerant, just and wise. He lived for years with Eric as his friend, no more, no less. He loved him as a brother. And admired his skill with stone.
‘In the few short weeks I knew him, Dad gifted me with more knowledge and more love for life and all the world can offer, than I had found in the twenty years I had lived till then.
‘I loved my father. Time is meaningless in such cases. I loved him as much as any daughter my age can love her father; maybe more. I’ll miss him every day of my future and he’ll be ever in my thoughts. My life is enriched for knowing him. He was a remarkable human being who will be sadly missed by all who knew him.’
She turned away and leant over the casket, her face close and her voice so quiet only our first row could hear. ‘I love you, Daddy. I’m proud to be your daughter and proud to have you for my father. Go now to the place you know and love. Leave the flesh that has betrayed you and rise to join the web of life for all eternity. Goodbye, my darling, wonderful Daddy. I love you now and always will.’
She forced herself away from the coffin and swayed as she addressed us again. ‘I’ve had my say. It’s your turn, now. Please; come and say a private or a public goodbye to David Lengdon.’
I knew they would be reluctant and English about it. I took the lead, guiding Matilda, against her will, and walking to the coffin where I said a few words of goodbye and where Matilda eased her conscience with a whispered but heartfelt apology for her absence in his dying days. Others followed until Eric, proud and upright, took the last turn as the cleric tried to rush us to make way for the next body on the conveyor to the oven.
Whatever Eric said was private and remained between him and David but it seemed to help with his grief. Of all the people at that extraordinary parting, only Faith remained dry-eyed.
We trailed our way back along roads bathed in inappropriate sunshine to Longhouse, where Ma fed us traditional cold meats and sandwiches and the ubiquitous tea.
Faith, in charcoal grey jacket and skirt to her knees, walked through the house and onto the back lawn where she stood alone, facing the fells. The other mourners, one by one or in small groups, thanked her for what she’d done. To each she nodded her acknowledgement but there was no emotion in her, no real response.
I watched her in her desert of dry grief and wondered when the wind and rain would sweep away the dust of sorrow and wash her free of all that pain.
With Eric, she exchanged a few words before he left, but she spoke nothing to Netta or me after the ceremony itself. I watched her make her way upstairs when the last of the mourners had gone. She didn’t reappear until breakfast time the following day.
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