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by Steven John

As newcomers to the village they went through a phase of attending Sunday services on a monthly basis, proud to show off their young family, walking them up the country lanes, the youngest still in his pushchair. All three had been baptized in the church; a chance to buy a new dress and throw a party. As the children had got older their appearances had tailed off to Christmas, Easter and junior school Harvest Festivals, and then to never.

From their cottage Sandra can hear the church bells’ call to prayer on Sunday mornings and a wedding peal on a Saturday. She can hear the bells chime the hour from her place at the bathroom mirror as she applies her going-out lipstick. Sandra had helped to raise money for the bells’ restoration, pouring cups of cocoa at the jumble sales in the village hall, baking quiches for the church fête. Now she volunteers to skim a duster around before any funerals. At Christmas she goes alone to the crib service to see the little ones in their costumes. She weeps surreptitiously on the back pew as she recalls her own three in their shepherds’ gowns and three wise men’s crowns. Sandra rarely sees her grown up children now, miles or misunderstandings having come between them.

She and her husband hadn’t done anything together for over a decade. They shared a roof, a mortgage and a mutual loathing. What little social life she enjoyed revolved around a congregation she wouldn’t join and a belief she didn’t have.

On the way to the hospital Sandra parks her car outside the church gate. The tall wooden doors are left unlocked during the day. She walks up the aisle, past the meek pews and the balustraded compound for the gentry, their ordinary bones now beneath the smooth flagstones. She stands before the plain silver cross on the altar and crosses herself but has no idea why, she’s never done that before. She hopes no-one saw her. She waits for a bolt of something and tries to say a prayer but can’t think what to say. Instead she runs through “Our Father who art in Heaven”, inscribed in her head since Sunday school. God had never accepted Sandra’s open invitation to enter her.

On the wall by the pulpit there’s a cork noticeboard with a sheaf of jaundiced cartridge paper hanging by a piece of string. Above the noticeboard, a laminated notice blue-tacked to the stone that reads “Holy Space. Be Real”.

Sandra takes a ballpoint from her handbag and tears off some paper. She doesn’t know what “Be Real” means. She wonders whether she has ever been “real”, or whether anyone has ever been “real” to her.

She writes, “For my husband. In his bitter struggle. Praying for a recovery,” and hangs it up with a single drawing pin. As an afterthought she writes “Amen”.

Sandra leaves with the profound faith that it’s too late for prayers.

Steven John lives in the Cotswolds, UK, and writes flash, short stories and poetry. He’s had work published in pamphlets and online magazines including Riggwelter, Bangor Literary Review, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed and formercactus. In 2017 he won the inaugural Farnham Short Story Competition and has won Bath Ad Hoc six times. Steve has read at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Stroud Short Stories, and Flasher’s Club.