Between the Stones

Copyright Adam E. Smith

The girls who didn’t care that the gale dismantled their hair were stooped, looking inquisitively at the pebbles. Once Patrick had told them what to look for, the pupils had spread out over the shingle. A gang of boys immediately commenced a stone-throwing contest. Patrick took a deep breath – the salty air of his own youth – and looked around proudly at his class. Most pupils were searching obediently. He confirmed one boy’s find as a fossilised half of a small bivalve. The boy nodded cautiously then rushed away to show his friends, one of whom snatched the fossil and sprinted away.

When Patrick turned he noticed Chloe standing alone, inactive. Most of the other girls were still making an effort.

“Chloe?” he whispered softly, approaching her from the side.

Her head dipped a little in acknowledgement but she did not say anything. Instead she stared at the cliffs. Patrick followed her line of sight and he too began to admire the steep complexity of the rock face and its shrubby ornaments where plants were successfully clinging on, some even apparently stretching for control. He took a breath to comment on the cliffs but, upon turning to Chloe, Patrick noticed that she was actually looking through the rough rock face, as if it had never existed.

“Everything OK, Chloe? Found any good fossils? Anything we can name after you?”

She shook her head, and then held out her hand. In her open palm rested a perfectly round ammonite fossil. The tight, intricate spiral was no larger than a five-pence piece.

“Wow,” said Patrick, looking closer. “Chloe, that’s amazing. Look at—”

“Sir, so an octopus is ‘related’ to that?”

“That’s it,” Patrick smiled, relieved she was talking.

“But that’s stupid,” Chloe claimed. “Sir… I just… don’t get it.”

“Which part don’t you get?” asked Patrick honestly, grateful for the second chance. His own fourteen-year-old daughter would have stormed off and slammed a door if she failed to understand something.

“Why?” Chloe said firmly. “Why would God go to all that trouble changing this into an octopus when He can just create an octopus? I’m pretty confused, sir. Here you are telling me that those cliffs—” she waved a hand in that direction “are, like, millions of years old. But that’s not what I’ve been told. And how do we know they’re that old?”

Patrick looked down at Chloe’s brilliant eyes and could think of nothing to say. Her cheeks, although painted red by the pinching wind, had lost their characteristic buoyancy. Patrick pressed his hands into his pockets. If he had been very aware of what he could and could not say as a biology teacher at the start of his career, now he had no idea. Teaching had always been a challenge – and he had always enjoyed students’ questions – but now he desperately wanted to be able to flick a switch and have Chloe see the fault in her own inquiry. His silence noticeably irritated her and she deliberately turned back to the cliffs. Patrick, still calculating what to say, considered how to rely on her intelligence in his answer. To him, the answers in the cliff faces were as clear as chalk on a blackboard.

But none of this helped Chloe. Glancing at her sideways he could sense her sincere but angry confusion.

“Chloe,” he stuttered. “I’m a science teacher and it’s no secret that science and religion don’t mix.”

Chloe now watched her patient teacher, feeling that her father had been right. Suddenly she saw no reason in persuading him to sign her consent form.

Patrick continued. “Evolution is the history of life, Chloe, and you’re holding the evidence in your hand. As scientists we have to rely on proof not faith.” Patrick had never enjoyed feeling defensive but he couldn’t help adding, “Religion tells some fantastic stories, Chloe, about how we got here. And religious people follow blindly, not needing an explanation. I can give you an even more fantastic story, but it has an explanation. Christians can only tell you how you got here; I can show you.”

Patrick watched as Chloe looked down again at the perfect relic resting in her palm. He admired her sense of pure enquiry. It was the making of a canny scientist and refreshing, given how most students accepted what he told them willingly, only asking questions for clarification. But Chloe’s inquisitiveness was flawed, coming as it had from an unscientific basis. He was even a little unnerved that some children were still raised with religion.

“My dad said we rely on faith every day. It’s a good thing.”

By now a few of Chloe’s classmates were listening in. They shuffled, clinking stones beneath their feet, and looked to Patrick. To conceal his raised eyebrows, Patrick looked down. He could think of nothing that would incite a remark about him from his own daughters with the same sense of honour. But Chloe’s argument disturbed him still and he knew it would be inappropriate to respond. He looked up at her again and felt exposed in her glare – although he could not admit why.

She dropped the fossil to the ground and Patrick fought his instinct to save it from slipping between the stones.

The old Victorian building loomed in the grey evening light. Gordon instinctively walked straight past the main entrance and silently ducked into the school through a door at the far end of the yard. A solitary cleaner was buffing the linoleum floor. Gordon walked down the hall, glancing nervously into the abandoned classrooms. The buffer’s hum faded as he approached the laboratory near the cafeteria. He heard a stool scrape across the floor and slowed his pace. A door clicked closed somewhere, allocating Gordon chance for further delay. He stopped and looked about him. The cleaner was gone.

When he finally reached the laboratory, Gordon hesitated. He may have been trying to collect his thoughts but instead he began to pick at the ragged edge of the corkboard on the wall. As he loitered Gordon’s mind spiralled down to the extraordinary sensation that he had somehow been deposited back into his own adolescence, that he was waiting to be called in by the teacher, meanwhile meddling with the corkboard outside. The itchy anticipation of starting an argument with the same man crept up on him again after all these years. This time the uncomfortable feeling was mixed with outrage, for he felt that his values had been rejected wrongly. Apparently, her biology teacher had said that Gordon could offer no explanation for God, that he was being led blindly. How dare he say those things to Chloe? Briefly he closed his eyes and thought about the endless stream of children passing through this school…

Finally, Gordon moved cautiously until he could glimpse through the shatter-proof glass into the laboratory. At first he saw only wooden benches, stacked stools and the window on the far side. Then he saw Chloe’s biology teacher, busy at the front desk. Gordon glanced back down the gloomy corridor then made a quick knock and gradually pushed open the stiff door.

“Ah,” said Patrick, standing formally. “Chloe’s dad.” He did not smile, but Gordon did not notice anyway. He was looking past Patrick at the notes on the blackboard.

“I can come back. If you’re busy, I mean.” Gordon’s gaze finally came to Patrick, and he felt a little easier when it did.

“Not at all,” said Patrick. “Pick a stool. I assume you came about yesterday’s trip.”

Sighing, Gordon walked heavily to the front of the laboratory. He pulled down a stool, sat it squarely on the other side of Patrick’s desk and nodded. “Yeah,” he answered, running his hand along the pockmarked workbench. “I’m not happy with the field trip or the related lessons. And neither is Chloe.”

Patrick sat down tensely, perceiving reluctantly that how he handled this conversation would be very important. “Can you explain why?” asked Patrick politely. He looked across at Gordon who, all of a sudden, was holding his stare with small, alert eyes.

Inside, Gordon felt uneasy, but he said, “Yes.” The ensuing pause betrayed his assertion; Gordon had to force himself to continue. “Chloe and I are Christians,” he murmured finally. To him, that statement meant everything, as if he did not need to supply further explanation. But he had grown accustomed to having to offer more; judging by Patrick’s silence, he needed more. Gordon continued, “We believe that God created the Earth and people.” He inhaled, hoping that Patrick understood the implications of his lesson on someone like Chloe.

Patrick relaxed somewhat, realising that he admired Gordon’s resolute manner.

Gordon felt stronger but he stared at Patrick neutrally, like a chess player watching his opponent.

“As I explained to Chloe, I am a science teacher so my job is to teach science. I hope I didn’t offend and I apologise if I did.”

“You did.”

The silence that followed left Patrick’s apology floating like space dust, its presence outwardly irrelevant against an expansive backdrop. Gordon sensed a wave of disapproval coming from the teacher, and it made him feel terrible inside. He had lost Patrick all over again. The gulf between them was expanding once more. Just as before, the fact of the disagreement did not hurt half as much as the distance. The terrible feeling of losing a loved one, a brother, dropped Gordon unexpectedly into turmoil again after all these years.

“I’m raising Chloe the way I see as right,” he argued now, disliking the defensive tone of his voice. “Unless it is to do with her education, I won’t entertain criticism from a teacher.”

“This is to do with her education,” argued Patrick, pleased with his emphatic reason.

“Wrong. It’s to do with her spiritual wellbeing, her relationship with God and her morality.”

“Morality? Is that even relevant here?” Patrick murmured.

The facetious question angered Gordon; judging from his subtle smugness, Patrick apparently knew it would.

“That’s where atheists always go wrong,” sighed Gordon. “It’s to do with her spirituality, her understanding of why we are here. This is much more important than learning about algebra or Tudor monarchs. Yesterday you told Chloe that I could not explain to her this crucial understanding – you closed her mind, Patrick.”

“On the contrary,” Patrick murmured, leaning forward. “Science can only widen her perspective. Chloe is already one of the most thoughtful students I’ve had—” Patrick stalled momentarily and fixed his eyes on Gordon’s chest. Parents usually melted when you said something like that; Gordon barely moved. His impassiveness irked Patrick because he would be so grateful to receive such a compliment of either of his own daughters. He pictured Amelia, the eldest, slouched in front of the computer screen, glancing protectively between it and him when he arrived home.

Gordon shuffled on the stool; it was as unpleasant in the laboratory as he remembered. Looking away from Patrick he wondered what this man really felt. Did everything Patrick said have the premeditated veneer of a wily teacher or was it his own genuine conviction?

“I appreciate your coming in this evening,” Patrick muttered. “But as you know I cannot deviate from the curriculum – nor would I wish to, personally. The government sets an exam and I teach what the pupil needs to pass it. In this case I’m teaching evolution. And all the proof, such as the fossils found on our beach.”

Patrick suddenly looked nostalgic, encasing his final words in sadness. Gordon meanwhile looked down, shunned from his own memory by Patrick’s authoritative tone. “Fossils,” Gordon stuttered, trying to steady his voice, “are indicative of the complexity of life. Complexity implies design. I don’t see your fossils as proof; I can’t see evolution through your fossils.”

“You can’t see that the Earth is round unless you go to space, but you believe it is, don’t you?”

Gordon laughed – almost desperately – and shook his head. He knew that later he would intellectually pave a way through Patrick’s logic but for now he was confounded; Patrick just did not understand – some time ago he had chosen not to. And that had now reduced the pair of them to spouting reactionary clichés. Gordon knew Patrick must have closed himself off from spiritual enquiry, but he did at least look a lot calmer than he, Gordon, felt.

“That’s the thing I find most alarming about religion, religious culture: the apparently universal notion of accepting what you’re told with no basis, no scope for proving it yourself. It’s like brainwashing.” Patrick bit his tongue quickly: he was afraid of making reckless arguments that endangered the academic detachment he had promised himself.

“Faith,” said Gordon bluntly. “It’s called faith. This is a much more philosophical experience than your science can ever offer. In trying to explain everything with numbers, science misses the point. Only through a relationship with God can a person understand how we got here. Only with faith in that…” He stood up, and nudged his stool disapprovingly. In Patrick’s presence, it seemed, words tumbled out of his mouth thoughtlessly. “I went through a terrible time when Chloe’s mother and I separated,” he heard himself saying.

Patrick nodded as supportively as he could.

“My faith – our faith – was what got us through. Chloe’s mum did some terrible things.”

Gordon was standing beside the bench by the window with his hands resting firmly on the scarred wood. Outside the darkness deepened. He stared out at the desolate schoolyard and wondered where Trish was, whom she was with, and why Chloe had not heard from her since two Christmases ago. After living with Trish for ten years Gordon still thought of her, sometimes expecting her coat to be hanging behind the front door when he arrived home.

Now that the laboratory was silent again Gordon’s last words curled around the two men, binding them together. Patrick had noticed Gordon move but instead concentrated on what he had said. He looked at Gordon’s back and then, only briefly because it felt like prying, his reflection in the dark glass. Over and above Gordon’s existing grief Patrick knew he had stood on the edge for a long time after his marriage dissolved – had almost fallen. Patrick could not help but admire his tenacity once more – this time in a different context – but the emotion was toppled by a heavy feeling that dragged Patrick’s thoughts homeward. Welcoming the diversion brought by Chloe’s dad was short-sighted, for he would have to return home inevitably. It came as no surprise that his wife had not phoned to see why he was late; Kirsty’s sullen estrangement stretched into lack of concern. Recently, Patrick had grown quiescent, had accepted that his home life was careering uncontrollably, but he feared that when he got to the edge, he had no safety net like Gordon’s – flawed as it was.

Now Patrick stood but still neither man spoke. Gordon did not even turn back to face Patrick who, for something to do, picked up a board rubber and started wiping the blackboard. The diagram of foetal development was obliterated in two seconds; tomorrow would be a new day, Patrick mused, and he’d have to draw it all again for the other class. The blank board stared back at him, but Patrick did not want to turn around and face Gordon, whose presence pecked at him belligerently. He wondered if Gordon felt the same, and whether he could tell how Patrick felt. Dropping the board rubber onto the desk, Patrick saw the truth clearer. For months he had not understood how he felt. But now he could see that having no safety net paralysed him; previously it had been his incentive. His outlook had been completely different as a young man. He still regretted the consequences of his actions but not the motive nor the end result. Up until now he had felt satisfied that his daughters would not have to go through the same misery he had endured; but of course they would. Their rebellions would just fight different battles.

“I just want Chloe to be strong,” said Gordon, abruptly turning back into the classroom and folding his arms. He started to speak again but could summon no words, so instead he pictured Chloe. But suddenly, in his mind, his daughter’s expression was burdened with the limiting indecision that had plagued his wife. With time her character had seemed to dissolve. One Sunday after church Trish explained to Gordon with great concern how she could not remember a word of the sermon. Even now, in Gordon’s memory, her presence was a wavering one. Refocusing on Chloe, he conjured up her image. Gordon wanted to be with Chloe right now, to hold her tightly and protect her. To explain everything so she would not ever be confused. He could not understand why but he felt an urge to keep her close. Seeing less of her every day upset him.

Patrick said, “Not believing in God – as a reasoned, positive affirmation – made me strong.”

Gordon’s eyes rose to Patrick and then immediately shot to the other side of the room.

“Look, this is a sensible conversation between two adults, right?” Patrick asked quietly. After a while, Gordon nodded once and looked across at Patrick.

“There is no god,” Patrick continued. “We were not created. You’re right, the history of life is complex, which is all the more reason to try to understand it rather than explain it away with a story. Atheism, as much as I dislike the context of that word, is the sensible response, and science is the reason.”

“But I find Christianity reasonable. Treat others as you wish to be treated. What’s more reasonable than that?” Gordon moved forward, back to his stool though he did not sit. “And, as I said, it helped me survive the hell Trish put me through. There’s my reason.” Gordon heard his own words echo inside his head – and then the arguments he knew Patrick would make. But Gordon did not know God’s reason for famine. And for the first time, he could not see the sense in Christ’s suffering.

Patrick did not say anything; he just looked at Gordon seriously as if he expected him to unpick his own point. Meanwhile Patrick stopped himself from arguing for atheism in raising children. He had made the personal choice never to adopt atheism as a framework – least of all when talking to his daughters, or even Kirsty. Living outside a framework that even through negation could be wielded to infer religious meaning was, he felt, the correct way. Only now did he realise the futility of trying to prove that – and the arrogance of ever assuming that it would be possible. His heart sank as he admitted to himself the stark fact that Chloe was much more polite and respectful than his own daughters.

“I had plenty of reasons for leaving the church, Gordon. And raising a family the way I saw best was one of them.”

Gordon leant forward. “But you know how good Chloe is and how strong our relationship is.”

“Yes, I know!” Patrick recoiled at the pitch of his own voice. “And my family’s disintegrating, OK, Gordon. But I still had a hundred and one reasons to leave the church. And one big one: that god does not exist. If only my father—” he stopped and looked squarely at Gordon.

Gordon held the stare. “I’m not going to talk about what your father did, Patrick. He’s my reverend and I respect him.”

“Respect,” Patrick spat. “He had no respect for me. And how you can respect a man who shunned his own son at eighteen and now, every Sunday, stands up to talk about family and unity is beyond reason, Gordon.”

Gordon closed his eyes and dropped his head. In spite of the compassion he felt for Gordon, Patrick did not move.

“I’m a stronger, better person, Gordon.”

Gordon was silent. Slowly, he began to nod. “You are a good person, Patrick. But Kirsty’s an alcoholic and you know it. It’ll destroy your family. That is what I don’t like about you losing faith: I can cope with your science but not the grief I know you’ll feel. You wouldn’t ever accept the help I could give. You won’t let God help you…”

“Because it’s superstition! And it didn’t ever stop Trish having an affair did it? Or running off and leaving Chloe like she did?!”

Patrick watched Gordon closely, a little uneasy with the things he had said.

“I didn’t want this to happen when I came in here tonight,” Gordon sighed. His eyes were closed. “I didn’t want this to happen.”

“You said yourself I’m a good man, Gordon. Again, there’s your proof that Christianity is not the way to virtue. Just like evolution: I offer you the proof but you won’t look at it, let alone accept it. Better the devil you know, eh, Gordon?”

Once silence returned Patrick felt dreadful; he had, inevitably, resorted to hurtful words – and he disliked himself for it.

Gordon shook his head but said nothing. Walking in here seventeen years after their childhood friendship ended was not a good idea. He could see that now. Patrick’s words would stay with Gordon, he knew, for some time. He resented the thought that his religion had merely become engrained, like the marks scratched into the workbenches.

Patrick felt terrible; in hindsight his outbursts were unfair, not least because he had reneged on his personal pact not to attack churchgoers he used to know. But he had grown tired of smiling at them in the supermarket and of letting them get away with misleading their kids on something he knew more about.

Patrick closed his eyes and shook his head. He looked up at Gordon, who smiled uneasily at his old friend.

Neither man spoke again.

Once he had paced down the hill, rounded the corner and joined the main road, the school was out of sight and Gordon did not feel so deflated. He slowed down and idled past the houses, triggering a security lamp on one and incensing a dog outside another. When the German shepherd rushed to the gate barking, it reminded Gordon of Patrick’s old dog. Gordon could still remember the time he and Patrick, both age ten, were permitted to walk her on the beach without an adult. Later, Patrick walked the dog as an excuse to escape the house, often calling at Gordon’s on the way down to the beach.

Although he could still hear the turmoil in Patrick’s voice during those conversations, Gordon remembered never feeling anything negative towards his friend. Patrick was about to go to university, indicating that their lives were taking a new turn, so perhaps Gordon had felt it would be vain to argue. But now he realised that as a young man he had not fully understood the consequences of those dialogues. That he and his close friend had been set on very different paths. Once Patrick left, they soon grew apart. Gordon told himself that was what happened to all childhood friends. But that explanation offered no comfort from the pain of losing a close friend. And now, with great sorrow, it had never been clearer to him that the distance between him and Patrick was too expansive ever to be closed.

That regrettable thought had to be discarded though, Gordon knew: for the same issues were affecting Chloe – and that was much more pertinent. Could he stop her going through the same torment he had watched others endure? The same emotional and spiritual agony that had nearly claimed him? Gordon had never expected the problem would touch Chloe, not even when he learnt that Patrick would be her teacher. He felt that Patrick would be a good teacher. Of course Gordon knew the content of the curriculum and had equipped Chloe with their beliefs, but he was still shocked that it had happened. He blamed himself, not Patrick. But how his old friend could teach a doctrine as incomplete as Darwinism was beyond Gordon.

Turning into his street he realised that he would have to face Chloe straight away. She would be at home expecting an explanation as soon as he arrived. But he was not sure exactly how to approach her: whether to tell her about his conversation with Patrick, which had quickly diverted from the biology curriculum, or to stay with the debate that had reopened old wounds. Gordon quickly realised that he could not tell Chloe about his former friendship with her teacher and how its end had shaped their lives. To do so would be like asking her to choose. Chloe would not understand. She was too young.

Instead he would just have to reaffirm their beliefs and vow to teach her himself. In doing so he would strengthen their bond and her Christianity. At least Trish’s absence from their lives allowed him to steer Chloe down the right path, he thought, fishing his front door key out of his pocket.

The house was silent and cold. The central heating had not been turned on.

“Chloe?” Gordon said, locking the door behind him.

There was no answer. He draped his jacket over the back of a chair and climbed the stairs to check Chloe’s bedroom. Standing amid the still room’s angular grey shadows, Gordon felt foreign, even unwelcome. He glimpsed at his daughter’s possessions, the canisters, tubs and tiny bottles that had not been there a year ago. And now she was not here…

When he turned to the window Gordon first saw his reflection but quickly refocused on the street outside. He remembered standing before the same window with Trish by his side and Chloe sleeping soundly in a cot behind them. As he tried to see that memory more clearly, later arguments with Trish eroded it until he was left with the mere residue of her presence, needing and fragile. Then, once again, Trish vanished.

When Gordon looked back at the street he saw Chloe approaching, walking slowly but purposefully. Her distance afforded him the chance to watch her secretly as if she would act in a way that would explain how Gordon should speak to her. Instead she just kept her hands in her pockets and paced up the drive, her face expressionless.

Gordon moved quickly, leaving her room, turning on the hallway light and stepping down the stairs.

“Hey Dad,” Chloe said, closing but not locking the front door.

“Hi,” he replied awkwardly and she looked at him curiously.

Chloe wanted Gordon to go into the kitchen, or the study, or somewhere else, but he seemed frozen to the spot. She flicked on the television and sat on the sofa.

“I went to see Mr Tonkin today,” Gordon said quietly, now standing by the front window.

Chloe studied his reflection in the television screen, and said, “About yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

The thought of him talking to Mr Tonkin in her absence was enough, but the subject of the conversation made her very anxious. She couldn’t even imagine how both men had acted: did Mr Tonkin give her dad a lesson? Did her dad preach? Maybe, Chloe thought, her dad had done something drastic like pull her from biology classes. Was that actually allowed? It would be a nightmare; she might as well leave school altogether.

“Chloe, can you switch that off for a moment?” Gordon asked, turning into the room.

Chloe hit the standby button and shuffled on the sofa. Gordon sat opposite her. Chloe’s stomach knotted and she grabbed her necklace. “So what did he say? What did you say, Dad?”

“As I expected he said it’s nothing to do with him. It’s all decided by the government.” With a sigh, Gordon murmured, “And we’re apparently a Christian state. So Mr Tonkin will teach you what you need for your GCSEs, and I’ll teach you what’s in the Bible, which is what we believe. Evolution’s just a theory that’s been around for 150 years, Chloe. The Bible has been around for thousands of years, and it explained a whole host of things before Darwin came along. Chloe?”

Having curled her legs underneath her, Chloe was fiddling with her chain and looking at the floor. When Gordon said her name again, she looked up. Instantly he knew she was unhappy. He could not tell why.

“But…” she started, then sighed and looked away.

“But what?” Gordon asked, anxious to hear what she had to say. She usually finished sentences.

“But isn’t that all a bit confusing? Is it worth me learning two different things when one of them has got to be wrong?”

Gordon did not like the doubt in his daughter’s voice; he wanted to hear her assert that it was evolution that was wrong.

Gordon thought for a moment, and then said, “It’s the way it’s got to be, Chloe. Unfortunately. You’ve got to get your GCSEs if you want to do A-levels and go to university. And you’ve also got to be a good Christian.”

Chloe scoffed and instantly regretted it when she saw the disappointment in her dad’s face. She would have let it drop but when he said her name she could not stop herself from muttering, “This is exactly what you did to Mum.”

Gordon had never seen Chloe so argumentative. Usually when they talked about something important she accepted obediently. He gave her a confused look, demanding an explanation.

“It’s like you’re strangling me, just like you did to Mum. Strangling me with your way.”

Gordon knew that that did not sound like him at all. The accusation stung.

“And… and you’re not trusting me to be myself. University is four years away – I don’t even know if I’ll want to go! ‘He wouldn’t let me be,’ Mum said.”

“You were too young when your mother left to understand anything she said.”

“She said that this summer! I—”

Gordon muttered, “But we haven’t heard from her since the Christmas before last.”

“I saw her in August.” Chloe said it slowly but surely, as if drawing blood.

“Oh,” Gordon looked away.

“Every so often she texts me and we meet up in town. That’s all.”

“Sneaking around.”

“No, Dad. It’s not like that.”

“Is that where you were tonight? With your mum?”

“No! I was at Anna’s!”

Gordon guiltily dropped his head and begged God for help. After a long, cold silence, he said, “Your mum’s not a good person, Chloe.”

“She’s just weak, Dad. She doesn’t have the same self-confidence you and I have. She’s timid, nervous all the time.”

“That didn’t stop her sleeping with another man, did it?!” Gordon shouted, then closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. Forcing out his breath he looked through his fingers at Chloe, ashamed to look at her squarely because of the appalling way he had spoken to her.

“She didn’t,” Chloe said, and Gordon almost did not hear her. “She didn’t have an affair, Dad. She just told you that because it made it easier to leave.” Chloe’s calmness surprised her, but it was no consolation. Her dad looked sick, and she knew she could not do anything for him.

“She made a lot of bad choices, Dad, but that doesn’t automatically made her a bad person.”

Gordon was stunned into silence. He could not even move. Instead he stared at the corner where the fireplace met the wall and barely noticed Chloe’s hand touching his shoulder. History and fate had conspired to drive his daughter, the one true, pure person in his life, to crush him with mere words. Gordon’s thoughts sliced through his mind, two more cutting than any others: that Chloe did not even know what her words meant, and that he felt shattered, dismantled violently, like a pocket watch hit by a hammer.

Copyright Adam E. Smith

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Copyright Adam E. Smith

Between the Stones

The girls who didn’t care that the gale dismantled their hair were stooped, looking inquisitively at the pebbles. Once Patrick had told them what to look for, the pupils had spread out over the shingle. A gang of boys immediately commenced a stone-throwing contest. Patrick took a deep breath – the salty air of his own youth – and looked around proudly at his class. Most pupils were searching obediently. He confirmed one boy’s find as a fossilised half of a small bivalve. The boy nodded cautiously then rushed away to show his friends, one of whom snatched the fossil and sprinted away.

When Patrick turned he noticed Chloe standing alone, inactive. Most of the other girls were still making an effort.

“Chloe?” he whispered softly, approaching her from the side.

Her head dipped a little in acknowledgement but she did not say anything. Instead she stared at the cliffs. Patrick followed her line of sight and he too began to admire the steep complexity of the rock face and its shrubby ornaments where plants were successfully clinging on, some even apparently stretching for control. He took a breath to comment on the cliffs but, upon turning to Chloe, Patrick noticed that she was actually looking through the rough rock face, as if it had never existed.

“Everything OK, Chloe? Found any good fossils? Anything we can name after you?”

She shook her head, and then held out her hand. In her open palm rested a perfectly round ammonite fossil. The tight, intricate spiral was no larger than a five-pence piece.

“Wow,” said Patrick, looking closer. “Chloe, that’s amazing. Look at—”

“Sir, so an octopus is ‘related’ to that?”

“That’s it,” Patrick smiled, relieved she was talking.

“But that’s stupid,” Chloe claimed. “Sir… I just… don’t get it.”

“Which part don’t you get?” asked Patrick honestly, grateful for the second chance. His own fourteen-year-old daughter would have stormed off and slammed a door if she failed to understand something.

“Why?” Chloe said firmly. “Why would God go to all that trouble changing this into an octopus when He can just create an octopus? I’m pretty confused, sir. Here you are telling me that those cliffs—” she waved a hand in that direction “are, like, millions of years old. But that’s not what I’ve been told. And how do we know they’re that old?”

Patrick looked down at Chloe’s brilliant eyes and could think of nothing to say. Her cheeks, although painted red by the pinching wind, had lost their characteristic buoyancy. Patrick pressed his hands into his pockets. If he had been very aware of what he could and could not say as a biology teacher at the start of his career, now he had no idea. Teaching had always been a challenge – and he had always enjoyed students’ questions – but now he desperately wanted to be able to flick a switch and have Chloe see the fault in her own inquiry. His silence noticeably irritated her and she deliberately turned back to the cliffs. Patrick, still calculating what to say, considered how to rely on her intelligence in his answer. To him, the answers in the cliff faces were as clear as chalk on a blackboard.

But none of this helped Chloe. Glancing at her sideways he could sense her sincere but angry confusion.

“Chloe,” he stuttered. “I’m a science teacher and it’s no secret that science and religion don’t mix.”

Chloe now watched her patient teacher, feeling that her father had been right. Suddenly she saw no reason in persuading him to sign her consent form.

Patrick continued. “Evolution is the history of life, Chloe, and you’re holding the evidence in your hand. As scientists we have to rely on proof not faith.” Patrick had never enjoyed feeling defensive but he couldn’t help adding, “Religion tells some fantastic stories, Chloe, about how we got here. And religious people follow blindly, not needing an explanation. I can give you an even more fantastic story, but it has an explanation. Christians can only tell you how you got here; I can show you.”

Patrick watched as Chloe looked down again at the perfect relic resting in her palm. He admired her sense of pure enquiry. It was the making of a canny scientist and refreshing, given how most students accepted what he told them willingly, only asking questions for clarification. But Chloe’s inquisitiveness was flawed, coming as it had from an unscientific basis. He was even a little unnerved that some children were still raised with religion.

“My dad said we rely on faith every day. It’s a good thing.”

By now a few of Chloe’s classmates were listening in. They shuffled, clinking stones beneath their feet, and looked to Patrick. To conceal his raised eyebrows, Patrick looked down. He could think of nothing that would incite a remark about him from his own daughters with the same sense of honour. But Chloe’s argument disturbed him still and he knew it would be inappropriate to respond. He looked up at her again and felt exposed in her glare – although he could not admit why.

She dropped the fossil to the ground and Patrick fought his instinct to save it from slipping between the stones.

The old Victorian building loomed in the grey evening light. Gordon instinctively walked straight past the main entrance and silently ducked into the school through a door at the far end of the yard. A solitary cleaner was buffing the linoleum floor. Gordon walked down the hall, glancing nervously into the abandoned classrooms. The buffer’s hum faded as he approached the laboratory near the cafeteria. He heard a stool scrape across the floor and slowed his pace. A door clicked closed somewhere, allocating Gordon chance for further delay. He stopped and looked about him. The cleaner was gone.

When he finally reached the laboratory, Gordon hesitated. He may have been trying to collect his thoughts but instead he began to pick at the ragged edge of the corkboard on the wall. As he loitered Gordon’s mind spiralled down to the extraordinary sensation that he had somehow been deposited back into his own adolescence, that he was waiting to be called in by the teacher, meanwhile meddling with the corkboard outside. The itchy anticipation of starting an argument with the same man crept up on him again after all these years. This time the uncomfortable feeling was mixed with outrage, for he felt that his values had been rejected wrongly. Apparently, her biology teacher had said that Gordon could offer no explanation for God, that he was being led blindly. How dare he say those things to Chloe? Briefly he closed his eyes and thought about the endless stream of children passing through this school…

Finally, Gordon moved cautiously until he could glimpse through the shatter-proof glass into the laboratory. At first he saw only wooden benches, stacked stools and the window on the far side. Then he saw Chloe’s biology teacher, busy at the front desk. Gordon glanced back down the gloomy corridor then made a quick knock and gradually pushed open the stiff door.

“Ah,” said Patrick, standing formally. “Chloe’s dad.” He did not smile, but Gordon did not notice anyway. He was looking past Patrick at the notes on the blackboard.

“I can come back. If you’re busy, I mean.” Gordon’s gaze finally came to Patrick, and he felt a little easier when it did.

“Not at all,” said Patrick. “Pick a stool. I assume you came about yesterday’s trip.”

Sighing, Gordon walked heavily to the front of the laboratory. He pulled down a stool, sat it squarely on the other side of Patrick’s desk and nodded. “Yeah,” he answered, running his hand along the pockmarked workbench. “I’m not happy with the field trip or the related lessons. And neither is Chloe.”

Patrick sat down tensely, perceiving reluctantly that how he handled this conversation would be very important. “Can you explain why?” asked Patrick politely. He looked across at Gordon who, all of a sudden, was holding his stare with small, alert eyes.

Inside, Gordon felt uneasy, but he said, “Yes.” The ensuing pause betrayed his assertion; Gordon had to force himself to continue. “Chloe and I are Christians,” he murmured finally. To him, that statement meant everything, as if he did not need to supply further explanation. But he had grown accustomed to having to offer more; judging by Patrick’s silence, he needed more. Gordon continued, “We believe that God created the Earth and people.” He inhaled, hoping that Patrick understood the implications of his lesson on someone like Chloe.

Patrick relaxed somewhat, realising that he admired Gordon’s resolute manner.

Gordon felt stronger but he stared at Patrick neutrally, like a chess player watching his opponent.

“As I explained to Chloe, I am a science teacher so my job is to teach science. I hope I didn’t offend and I apologise if I did.”

“You did.”

The silence that followed left Patrick’s apology floating like space dust, its presence outwardly irrelevant against an expansive backdrop. Gordon sensed a wave of disapproval coming from the teacher, and it made him feel terrible inside. He had lost Patrick all over again. The gulf between them was expanding once more. Just as before, the fact of the disagreement did not hurt half as much as the distance. The terrible feeling of losing a loved one, a brother, dropped Gordon unexpectedly into turmoil again after all these years.

“I’m raising Chloe the way I see as right,” he argued now, disliking the defensive tone of his voice. “Unless it is to do with her education, I won’t entertain criticism from a teacher.”

“This is to do with her education,” argued Patrick, pleased with his emphatic reason.

“Wrong. It’s to do with her spiritual wellbeing, her relationship with God and her morality.”

“Morality? Is that even relevant here?” Patrick murmured.

The facetious question angered Gordon; judging from his subtle smugness, Patrick apparently knew it would.

“That’s where atheists always go wrong,” sighed Gordon. “It’s to do with her spirituality, her understanding of why we are here. This is much more important than learning about algebra or Tudor monarchs. Yesterday you told Chloe that I could not explain to her this crucial understanding – you closed her mind, Patrick.”

“On the contrary,” Patrick murmured, leaning forward. “Science can only widen her perspective. Chloe is already one of the most thoughtful students I’ve had—” Patrick stalled momentarily and fixed his eyes on Gordon’s chest. Parents usually melted when you said something like that; Gordon barely moved. His impassiveness irked Patrick because he would be so grateful to receive such a compliment of either of his own daughters. He pictured Amelia, the eldest, slouched in front of the computer screen, glancing protectively between it and him when he arrived home.

Gordon shuffled on the stool; it was as unpleasant in the laboratory as he remembered. Looking away from Patrick he wondered what this man really felt. Did everything Patrick said have the premeditated veneer of a wily teacher or was it his own genuine conviction?

“I appreciate your coming in this evening,” Patrick muttered. “But as you know I cannot deviate from the curriculum – nor would I wish to, personally. The government sets an exam and I teach what the pupil needs to pass it. In this case I’m teaching evolution. And all the proof, such as the fossils found on our beach.”

Patrick suddenly looked nostalgic, encasing his final words in sadness. Gordon meanwhile looked down, shunned from his own memory by Patrick’s authoritative tone. “Fossils,” Gordon stuttered, trying to steady his voice, “are indicative of the complexity of life. Complexity implies design. I don’t see your fossils as proof; I can’t see evolution through your fossils.”

“You can’t see that the Earth is round unless you go to space, but you believe it is, don’t you?”

Gordon laughed – almost desperately – and shook his head. He knew that later he would intellectually pave a way through Patrick’s logic but for now he was confounded; Patrick just did not understand – some time ago he had chosen not to. And that had now reduced the pair of them to spouting reactionary clichés. Gordon knew Patrick must have closed himself off from spiritual enquiry, but he did at least look a lot calmer than he, Gordon, felt.

“That’s the thing I find most alarming about religion, religious culture: the apparently universal notion of accepting what you’re told with no basis, no scope for proving it yourself. It’s like brainwashing.” Patrick bit his tongue quickly: he was afraid of making reckless arguments that endangered the academic detachment he had promised himself.

“Faith,” said Gordon bluntly. “It’s called faith. This is a much more philosophical experience than your science can ever offer. In trying to explain everything with numbers, science misses the point. Only through a relationship with God can a person understand how we got here. Only with faith in that…” He stood up, and nudged his stool disapprovingly. In Patrick’s presence, it seemed, words tumbled out of his mouth thoughtlessly. “I went through a terrible time when Chloe’s mother and I separated,” he heard himself saying.

Patrick nodded as supportively as he could.

“My faith – our faith – was what got us through. Chloe’s mum did some terrible things.”

Gordon was standing beside the bench by the window with his hands resting firmly on the scarred wood. Outside the darkness deepened. He stared out at the desolate schoolyard and wondered where Trish was, whom she was with, and why Chloe had not heard from her since two Christmases ago. After living with Trish for ten years Gordon still thought of her, sometimes expecting her coat to be hanging behind the front door when he arrived home.

Now that the laboratory was silent again Gordon’s last words curled around the two men, binding them together. Patrick had noticed Gordon move but instead concentrated on what he had said. He looked at Gordon’s back and then, only briefly because it felt like prying, his reflection in the dark glass. Over and above Gordon’s existing grief Patrick knew he had stood on the edge for a long time after his marriage dissolved – had almost fallen. Patrick could not help but admire his tenacity once more – this time in a different context – but the emotion was toppled by a heavy feeling that dragged Patrick’s thoughts homeward. Welcoming the diversion brought by Chloe’s dad was short-sighted, for he would have to return home inevitably. It came as no surprise that his wife had not phoned to see why he was late; Kirsty’s sullen estrangement stretched into lack of concern. Recently, Patrick had grown quiescent, had accepted that his home life was careering uncontrollably, but he feared that when he got to the edge, he had no safety net like Gordon’s – flawed as it was.

Now Patrick stood but still neither man spoke. Gordon did not even turn back to face Patrick who, for something to do, picked up a board rubber and started wiping the blackboard. The diagram of foetal development was obliterated in two seconds; tomorrow would be a new day, Patrick mused, and he’d have to draw it all again for the other class. The blank board stared back at him, but Patrick did not want to turn around and face Gordon, whose presence pecked at him belligerently. He wondered if Gordon felt the same, and whether he could tell how Patrick felt. Dropping the board rubber onto the desk, Patrick saw the truth clearer. For months he had not understood how he felt. But now he could see that having no safety net paralysed him; previously it had been his incentive. His outlook had been completely different as a young man. He still regretted the consequences of his actions but not the motive nor the end result. Up until now he had felt satisfied that his daughters would not have to go through the same misery he had endured; but of course they would. Their rebellions would just fight different battles.

“I just want Chloe to be strong,” said Gordon, abruptly turning back into the classroom and folding his arms. He started to speak again but could summon no words, so instead he pictured Chloe. But suddenly, in his mind, his daughter’s expression was burdened with the limiting indecision that had plagued his wife. With time her character had seemed to dissolve. One Sunday after church Trish explained to Gordon with great concern how she could not remember a word of the sermon. Even now, in Gordon’s memory, her presence was a wavering one. Refocusing on Chloe, he conjured up her image. Gordon wanted to be with Chloe right now, to hold her tightly and protect her. To explain everything so she would not ever be confused. He could not understand why but he felt an urge to keep her close. Seeing less of her every day upset him.

Patrick said, “Not believing in God – as a reasoned, positive affirmation – made me strong.”

Gordon’s eyes rose to Patrick and then immediately shot to the other side of the room.

“Look, this is a sensible conversation between two adults, right?” Patrick asked quietly. After a while, Gordon nodded once and looked across at Patrick.

“There is no god,” Patrick continued. “We were not created. You’re right, the history of life is complex, which is all the more reason to try to understand it rather than explain it away with a story. Atheism, as much as I dislike the context of that word, is the sensible response, and science is the reason.”

“But I find Christianity reasonable. Treat others as you wish to be treated. What’s more reasonable than that?” Gordon moved forward, back to his stool though he did not sit. “And, as I said, it helped me survive the hell Trish put me through. There’s my reason.” Gordon heard his own words echo inside his head – and then the arguments he knew Patrick would make. But Gordon did not know God’s reason for famine. And for the first time, he could not see the sense in Christ’s suffering.

Patrick did not say anything; he just looked at Gordon seriously as if he expected him to unpick his own point. Meanwhile Patrick stopped himself from arguing for atheism in raising children. He had made the personal choice never to adopt atheism as a framework – least of all when talking to his daughters, or even Kirsty. Living outside a framework that even through negation could be wielded to infer religious meaning was, he felt, the correct way. Only now did he realise the futility of trying to prove that – and the arrogance of ever assuming that it would be possible. His heart sank as he admitted to himself the stark fact that Chloe was much more polite and respectful than his own daughters.

“I had plenty of reasons for leaving the church, Gordon. And raising a family the way I saw best was one of them.”

Gordon leant forward. “But you know how good Chloe is and how strong our relationship is.”

“Yes, I know!” Patrick recoiled at the pitch of his own voice. “And my family’s disintegrating, OK, Gordon. But I still had a hundred and one reasons to leave the church. And one big one: that god does not exist. If only my father—” he stopped and looked squarely at Gordon.

Gordon held the stare. “I’m not going to talk about what your father did, Patrick. He’s my reverend and I respect him.”

“Respect,” Patrick spat. “He had no respect for me. And how you can respect a man who shunned his own son at eighteen and now, every Sunday, stands up to talk about family and unity is beyond reason, Gordon.”

Gordon closed his eyes and dropped his head. In spite of the compassion he felt for Gordon, Patrick did not move.

“I’m a stronger, better person, Gordon.”

Gordon was silent. Slowly, he began to nod. “You are a good person, Patrick. But Kirsty’s an alcoholic and you know it. It’ll destroy your family. That is what I don’t like about you losing faith: I can cope with your science but not the grief I know you’ll feel. You wouldn’t ever accept the help I could give. You won’t let God help you…”

“Because it’s superstition! And it didn’t ever stop Trish having an affair did it? Or running off and leaving Chloe like she did?!”

Patrick watched Gordon closely, a little uneasy with the things he had said.

“I didn’t want this to happen when I came in here tonight,” Gordon sighed. His eyes were closed. “I didn’t want this to happen.”

“You said yourself I’m a good man, Gordon. Again, there’s your proof that Christianity is not the way to virtue. Just like evolution: I offer you the proof but you won’t look at it, let alone accept it. Better the devil you know, eh, Gordon?”

Once silence returned Patrick felt dreadful; he had, inevitably, resorted to hurtful words – and he disliked himself for it.

Gordon shook his head but said nothing. Walking in here seventeen years after their childhood friendship ended was not a good idea. He could see that now. Patrick’s words would stay with Gordon, he knew, for some time. He resented the thought that his religion had merely become engrained, like the marks scratched into the workbenches.

Patrick felt terrible; in hindsight his outbursts were unfair, not least because he had reneged on his personal pact not to attack churchgoers he used to know. But he had grown tired of smiling at them in the supermarket and of letting them get away with misleading their kids on something he knew more about.

Patrick closed his eyes and shook his head. He looked up at Gordon, who smiled uneasily at his old friend.

Neither man spoke again.

Once he had paced down the hill, rounded the corner and joined the main road, the school was out of sight and Gordon did not feel so deflated. He slowed down and idled past the houses, triggering a security lamp on one and incensing a dog outside another. When the German shepherd rushed to the gate barking, it reminded Gordon of Patrick’s old dog. Gordon could still remember the time he and Patrick, both age ten, were permitted to walk her on the beach without an adult. Later, Patrick walked the dog as an excuse to escape the house, often calling at Gordon’s on the way down to the beach.

Although he could still hear the turmoil in Patrick’s voice during those conversations, Gordon remembered never feeling anything negative towards his friend. Patrick was about to go to university, indicating that their lives were taking a new turn, so perhaps Gordon had felt it would be vain to argue. But now he realised that as a young man he had not fully understood the consequences of those dialogues. That he and his close friend had been set on very different paths. Once Patrick left, they soon grew apart. Gordon told himself that was what happened to all childhood friends. But that explanation offered no comfort from the pain of losing a close friend. And now, with great sorrow, it had never been clearer to him that the distance between him and Patrick was too expansive ever to be closed.

That regrettable thought had to be discarded though, Gordon knew: for the same issues were affecting Chloe – and that was much more pertinent. Could he stop her going through the same torment he had watched others endure? The same emotional and spiritual agony that had nearly claimed him? Gordon had never expected the problem would touch Chloe, not even when he learnt that Patrick would be her teacher. He felt that Patrick would be a good teacher. Of course Gordon knew the content of the curriculum and had equipped Chloe with their beliefs, but he was still shocked that it had happened. He blamed himself, not Patrick. But how his old friend could teach a doctrine as incomplete as Darwinism was beyond Gordon.

Turning into his street he realised that he would have to face Chloe straight away. She would be at home expecting an explanation as soon as he arrived. But he was not sure exactly how to approach her: whether to tell her about his conversation with Patrick, which had quickly diverted from the biology curriculum, or to stay with the debate that had reopened old wounds. Gordon quickly realised that he could not tell Chloe about his former friendship with her teacher and how its end had shaped their lives. To do so would be like asking her to choose. Chloe would not understand. She was too young.

Instead he would just have to reaffirm their beliefs and vow to teach her himself. In doing so he would strengthen their bond and her Christianity. At least Trish’s absence from their lives allowed him to steer Chloe down the right path, he thought, fishing his front door key out of his pocket.

The house was silent and cold. The central heating had not been turned on.

“Chloe?” Gordon said, locking the door behind him.

There was no answer. He draped his jacket over the back of a chair and climbed the stairs to check Chloe’s bedroom. Standing amid the still room’s angular grey shadows, Gordon felt foreign, even unwelcome. He glimpsed at his daughter’s possessions, the canisters, tubs and tiny bottles that had not been there a year ago. And now she was not here…

When he turned to the window Gordon first saw his reflection but quickly refocused on the street outside. He remembered standing before the same window with Trish by his side and Chloe sleeping soundly in a cot behind them. As he tried to see that memory more clearly, later arguments with Trish eroded it until he was left with the mere residue of her presence, needing and fragile. Then, once again, Trish vanished.

When Gordon looked back at the street he saw Chloe approaching, walking slowly but purposefully. Her distance afforded him the chance to watch her secretly as if she would act in a way that would explain how Gordon should speak to her. Instead she just kept her hands in her pockets and paced up the drive, her face expressionless.

Gordon moved quickly, leaving her room, turning on the hallway light and stepping down the stairs.

“Hey Dad,” Chloe said, closing but not locking the front door.

“Hi,” he replied awkwardly and she looked at him curiously.

Chloe wanted Gordon to go into the kitchen, or the study, or somewhere else, but he seemed frozen to the spot. She flicked on the television and sat on the sofa.

“I went to see Mr Tonkin today,” Gordon said quietly, now standing by the front window.

Chloe studied his reflection in the television screen, and said, “About yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

The thought of him talking to Mr Tonkin in her absence was enough, but the subject of the conversation made her very anxious. She couldn’t even imagine how both men had acted: did Mr Tonkin give her dad a lesson? Did her dad preach? Maybe, Chloe thought, her dad had done something drastic like pull her from biology classes. Was that actually allowed? It would be a nightmare; she might as well leave school altogether.

“Chloe, can you switch that off for a moment?” Gordon asked, turning into the room.

Chloe hit the standby button and shuffled on the sofa. Gordon sat opposite her. Chloe’s stomach knotted and she grabbed her necklace. “So what did he say? What did you say, Dad?”

“As I expected he said it’s nothing to do with him. It’s all decided by the government.” With a sigh, Gordon murmured, “And we’re apparently a Christian state. So Mr Tonkin will teach you what you need for your GCSEs, and I’ll teach you what’s in the Bible, which is what we believe. Evolution’s just a theory that’s been around for 150 years, Chloe. The Bible has been around for thousands of years, and it explained a whole host of things before Darwin came along. Chloe?”

Having curled her legs underneath her, Chloe was fiddling with her chain and looking at the floor. When Gordon said her name again, she looked up. Instantly he knew she was unhappy. He could not tell why.

“But…” she started, then sighed and looked away.

“But what?” Gordon asked, anxious to hear what she had to say. She usually finished sentences.

“But isn’t that all a bit confusing? Is it worth me learning two different things when one of them has got to be wrong?”

Gordon did not like the doubt in his daughter’s voice; he wanted to hear her assert that it was evolution that was wrong.

Gordon thought for a moment, and then said, “It’s the way it’s got to be, Chloe. Unfortunately. You’ve got to get your GCSEs if you want to do A-levels and go to university. And you’ve also got to be a good Christian.”

Chloe scoffed and instantly regretted it when she saw the disappointment in her dad’s face. She would have let it drop but when he said her name she could not stop herself from muttering, “This is exactly what you did to Mum.”

Gordon had never seen Chloe so argumentative. Usually when they talked about something important she accepted obediently. He gave her a confused look, demanding an explanation.

“It’s like you’re strangling me, just like you did to Mum. Strangling me with your way.”

Gordon knew that that did not sound like him at all. The accusation stung.

“And… and you’re not trusting me to be myself. University is four years away – I don’t even know if I’ll want to go! ‘He wouldn’t let me be,’ Mum said.”

“You were too young when your mother left to understand anything she said.”

“She said that this summer! I—”

Gordon muttered, “But we haven’t heard from her since the Christmas before last.”

“I saw her in August.” Chloe said it slowly but surely, as if drawing blood.

“Oh,” Gordon looked away.

“Every so often she texts me and we meet up in town. That’s all.”

“Sneaking around.”

“No, Dad. It’s not like that.”

“Is that where you were tonight? With your mum?”

“No! I was at Anna’s!”

Gordon guiltily dropped his head and begged God for help. After a long, cold silence, he said, “Your mum’s not a good person, Chloe.”

“She’s just weak, Dad. She doesn’t have the same self-confidence you and I have. She’s timid, nervous all the time.”

“That didn’t stop her sleeping with another man, did it?!” Gordon shouted, then closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. Forcing out his breath he looked through his fingers at Chloe, ashamed to look at her squarely because of the appalling way he had spoken to her.

“She didn’t,” Chloe said, and Gordon almost did not hear her. “She didn’t have an affair, Dad. She just told you that because it made it easier to leave.” Chloe’s calmness surprised her, but it was no consolation. Her dad looked sick, and she knew she could not do anything for him.

“She made a lot of bad choices, Dad, but that doesn’t automatically made her a bad person.”

Gordon was stunned into silence. He could not even move. Instead he stared at the corner where the fireplace met the wall and barely noticed Chloe’s hand touching his shoulder. History and fate had conspired to drive his daughter, the one true, pure person in his life, to crush him with mere words. Gordon’s thoughts sliced through his mind, two more cutting than any others: that Chloe did not even know what her words meant, and that he felt shattered, dismantled violently, like a pocket watch hit by a hammer.

Copyright Adam E. Smith

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