The most soul-destroying thing in the world, Liza thought, was the lack of choice. Choice over what to wear, what to eat—but mostly choice over what to think. For example, what should she wear today? The short crimson skirt – the colour of blood, her blood, if she wore it or the shapeless cardigan and slacks designed not only to ward off the Devil, but the entire opposite sex.
Dad’s words thundered in her head. ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Devil by wearing revealing clothes.’ Was the skirt worth an argument? She sighed. The skirt was supposed to have been the key to a new life—a life of earning and freedom—when she’d purchased it with her first pay packet nine months ago. Yet it remained unworn; the price tag still attached. Another secret in a house weighed down in secrecy.
Pulling on the cardigan and slacks in readiness for her job, junior accounts manager for the Faith, she ground her teeth. Lord knows the job wasn’t taxing, but the pretending was killing her. She just had to survive a few more weeks, get a bit more money.
Painting a false smile on her face, she grabbed her bag off the floor and rocked to her feet. After a brief glance in the mirror—shouldn’t have done that—she struggled towards the crushing normality of the kitchen and the morning routine.
BBC Big Ben boomed seven times from the TV welcoming her to a kitchen caught in a time warp—the 1970s trapped in the 1990s. After the money they gave to the Faith every month, Mum and Dad never had enough to update the stove, replace the threadbare carpet or purchase matching mugs. Not that either of them cared. Apparently ‘material possessions’ were not critical for passage through the ‘Pearly Gates’.
The two of them sat there, like gulls circling the cornflakes, bespectacled eyes focused on the TV from which the BBC voice droned. ‘Seventy-six dead in a horror fire; many of them children. Initial investigations suggest all were part of a little-known American cult and that many parents knowingly sacrificed their children at the request of cult leader…’
Despite the horror of the words, they flowed over Liza. She was entirely focused on Dad who, as the master of routine, was behaving strangely. Spoon stopped half-way to his mouth, milk spilling over the lace placemat, he turned, caught sight of Liza, dropped the cutlery and, raising himself with effort to his feet, jerked towards the TV remote.
The BBC words pounded in her brain making her gasp and then lunge towards the remote. She needed to know more. Her parents called it a ‘Faith’ but it was all semantics. The Faith was little more than a cult. And those children had died at their parent’s hands. Might this be her one day?
‘Give me that!’ Pointing at the remote Dad unfurled his hand, holding it open-palmed towards her.
Her fingers loosened, she’d never disobeyed before – not about the skirt, the school disco or her stated wish to leave home last June, nearly none months ago. Then they tightened, rebellious.
‘Get ready for work!’ Dad slammed his fist on the table making the mugs clatter.
What the heck? Work? ‘But the news? Those kids died because of that Cult. Because of their parents.’
‘They died for a greater purpose.’ Dad used his church voice, the one that usually made her crawl back into her meek shell of obedience.
‘What? Would you make the same decision? Make me die for the Faith?’ Liza surprised herself with this bravery, but her blood was boiling with horror and suspicion.
‘Why don’t I make you both a cup of tea?’ Mum got up, pleading eyes sheened in tears.
Liza kicked the chair and glared at Mum. Why couldn’t Mum ever speak up? Women had a voice, had fought for that voice, even gone to jail for it. And Liza had always thought that it was only Dad who was the Faith’s zealot, not Mum. Surely Mum would stand up for her?
But Mum slumped back down.
‘As a Believer, Liza,’ Dad’s eyes burned into her, ‘it is your duty—’
‘Duty? Duty to die? Duty to a corrupt Faith!’ Liza’s doubts popped out, too late to call back.
Dad’s glasses steamed; Mum stroked the mug handle. Liza bit her lip. Perhaps she should have kept quiet. After all she would be be gone after a few more pay packets.
‘Corrupt?’ Dad’s voice caught.
Hope surged. She’d made him question. Secret forgotten, head held high, shoulders back, relishing her five foot and six inches she delivered thoughts that had burned within for months. ‘They take your money; promise rewards they can’t deliver.’ She pointed to a chipped mug, kicked at the worn carpet. ‘But the Pastor drives a Mercedes, comes back suntanned from a spiritual retreat.’ She jabbed a finger. ‘Not only our money. Large payments from China too. The Faith is nothing more than a controlling cult. It controls you. And you know it.’
Dad jiggled his leg.
Mum’s left eyelid twitched, like when she put three ounces of currants into the cake rather than the recommended two. Liza could see Mum’s Adam’s apple bob as she whispered, ‘You’ve had a shock, dear, let me make you that cuppa.’
Heat burned Liza’s cheeks. What an idiot. They would never believe her. After all, the China angle was only her guess, formed after months of dealing with bank statements from a bank whose name was indecipherable – written as it was in those Chinese characters. She unclenched her fist, swallowed and forced herself to breathe; deeply and evenly. Hopefully they wouldn’t call Pastor George or she might be like Bob last year. After his outburst he’d never been seen again.
‘I’m sorry. That news was just so confronting I lost myself. I don’t want to be late for work so I’d best be going. I’ll see you tonight.’
Biting the inside of her mouth till it hurt, she returned to her room, carefully not slamming the door behind her. She was done with being a child. She wouldn’t wait any longer. She must go today.
What to pack? Passport – I can’t stay in England; it’s riddled with Believers of the Faith. Bank book – ignore the pathetically small digits. The red skirt? Why not? A perfect outfit for a new life. She tugged and its label tore off.
Admiring the way it hugged her hips and caressed her thighs it was a while before her attention drifted to the mirror and the straggly hair tucked behind her ears and the DIY fringe. She looked just like Mum – timid like a mouse. I can’t do this. I can’t go.
Weeping silently she plumped onto the bed. The house throbbed with silence—like a heart, too scared to beat. Until a hushed voice, quaking, shattered the quiet. ‘Not now. Give her time.’
‘Out of my way woman, it’s my duty. She must be punished for such blasphemy.’
Then there was the whir of the ugly plastic telephone before Dad spoke again in the familiar sycophantic wheedle reserved for his religious idol, the Pastor. ‘Sir, it’s me. We heard the news and now we have a problem. Liza heard it too and then said some awful things.’
Liza clenched, picturing the freakishly hooded eyes, deafening voice and meandering hands of the Pastor. Teeth gritted; she pressed her ear against the door.
‘Yes, correct, Sir. We thought it best we tell you … Wouldn’t want to jeopardise the plan, Sir … No obviously, she is the Chosen One … Coming now? Of course, Sir … We look forward to it.’
The Chosen One? She’d heard these words whispered late at night between her parents and the Pastor. Now, after the news of that cult massacre, the whisper became a roar. She clasped her hands to her ears and stepped away from the door. Was the ‘Chosen One’ her? What did it mean to be the ‘Chosen One’? It couldn’t be good. Nothing to do with the Faith ever was.
She had to go, there was no choice. And she must be gone before the Pastor arrived. Throwing t-shirts and shorts into the bright blue backpack hidden for the last four months in the bottom of the wardrobe she stopped to consider her clothing options. Her daydreams always involved a beach, but she added a sweater, trainers and a rain jacket, just in case.
One more thing to pack. The book, a present on her nineteenth from Beverley, her boss whilst working for the Faith and her only friend. When the Pastor shouted at Liza, Beverley took her out for a cuppa and told her about life beyond the Faith and the Lake District. When Liza questioned the pensioner cheques made payable to the Faith, Beverley pursed her lips and tore them up.
The book was a strange choice about a spy in an area intriguingly called the Golden Triangle. When she’d questioned Beverley about it, the woman had said, ‘Because you can change all this,’ and her arm had fluttered around the Faith’s Convocation Centre before adding, ‘Because you’re the only one who can.’
Shaking away the memory, Liza wrapped the book in an old t-shirt, and placed it in the backpack. One last glance around the room and her eye caught sight of the smuggled brochure. The dog-eared pamphlet didn’t look much, but oh, the hours spent imagining herself as the slender cover girl relaxing on a white sandy beach under the headline, ‘Phuket, an exotic southeast Asian hideaway’. But she didn’t need it; it had no sentimental value.
Bam bam! A rap on the front door and six foot six inches of the Faith’s Lake District leader, Pastor George, thundered into the house. The shaking of the kitchen sent shock waves throughout their tiny bungalow.
He’d been too quick. Or she’d been too slow. And now she was as good as dead. Bitter defeat stopped her at the bedroom door.
‘Good morning, Pastor; good of you to come at such short notice.’
‘Why let ‘er listen to the news?’ Footsteps clomped down the hallway. ‘Where is she?’
If he came in here, it would expose more than her escape plan. Kicking the backpack under the bed, she was struggling with the skirt zipper when she heard Dad stammering a question.
‘Liza thinks … the Faith receives large donations from China?’
She paused in her efforts to escape the sinful skirt. She had made him think after all. Immediately taller, her confidence perked up.
‘Bah!’ The Pastor snorted. ‘Liza knows ‘nout about money! The Faith is funded by its Believers.’
Dad stayed quiet. She wilted. No one, not even her parents, ever stood up for her. But Pastor George was lying. She’d seen those payments in the ledger, the cheques with the strange characters. The ones she’d had to research before she knew they were Chinese. The Pastor, son of a redundant steel maker from West Cumbria, was no better or smarter than her – he just thought he was. Stomach churning, she closed her eyes. I will never be the ‘Chosen One’. I’m leaving today - even if I die trying.
‘Let’s sit. This way, Sir.’ Deferential as ever, Dad opened the living room door, the thud of its shutting door a blessed mercy. She could slip past whilst they deliberated. Shouldering the backpack, she ran.
She knew, like a hunted rabbit knows the deepest burrows, to take the bridleways. Years of early morning runs had turned their stones, slopes and steps into something as familiar as the patches of colour in her crocheted quilt. Grateful for those lonely miles, she ran, breath sobbing in the crisp morning, until the quaint, stone station buildings clustered next to the estuary viaduct came into sight.
Between a wild privet hedgerow and the stone post of a rustic farm gate, she ducked down and, rotating like a periscope, inspected the roadsides, waving yellow with cowslip and buttercup, for the sinister red of the Pastor’s Mercedes. She dreaded these last few yards because she would be exposed by the beacon of her beaming blue backpack.
Shushing the pounding of her pulse, she listened; a kid shrieking on a backyard swing, pigeons flapping in the eaves of the catholic church – even the wind trembling the spring leaves of the silver birch. Amongst these, the most welcome of all – the click-clacking of the London train crossing the viaduct.
Optimism, fuel for her exhausted legs, flooded her body and she ran, gaining on the station, yard by panting yard. The click-clacking, her friend, paced her to the platform. As its brakes squealed, another, different engine screeched. A quick glance to her left revealed red.
Feet sprinted up the ramp. The train stopped. The breeze hesitated. A door slammed.
A roar: he who demanded obedience. ‘I forbid you to get on that train.’
Defying an order from the man she most feared? The idea terrified yet thrilled.
The train doors slid open. He strode up the station ramp. The train whistled. Her foot moved. Doors closed. The Pastor thumped. And their eyes locked—separated by glass. Hers dilated in fear. His screwed in shock. The train shunted forwards.
Disintegrating onto an empty train seat, she craved its velvety embrace. But she couldn’t not look for the little red Volvo waiting at the level crossing. She couldn’t unsee its passengers; the people who’d murdered her childhood—the same who’d stuck plasters on her bloody knees. Liza sobbed. I’m sorry Mum and Dad. But you left me no choice.
She wept until she was past Crewe, crying because there was so much she would never tell anyone; because there was so much she wanted nobody to ever know. She cried because she was still not yet free, not until the Faith was destroyed.
When the train spilled Liza, clutching her bright blue backpack, onto the Heathrow platform, she may as well have landed on the cratered surface of Mars. This was a chaotic hornets’ nest. People snaked in lines from the entrance to the busy check-in desks; they marched, dragging shiny, ferocious wheeled suitcases, they thrust passports and tickets to sullen clerks. All this with the exaggerated aplomb of locals waiting for fish and chips.
Backpack hoisted into position, she struggled to the departure board, craning her neck to scan destinations as foreign to her as elephants were to Eskimos. She was free to fly anywhere, and the choice was petrifying.
What she needed was a cup of tea at one of the café kiosks lining the wall. She swung around and her backpack caught on something. It’s all over. They’ve come to haul me away. Jutting out her chin, she turned ready to face her opponent—and looked down on a pair of hazel eyes brimming with unshed tears.
‘Sorry.’ Liza knelt, steadying her heart rate. Hopefully the girl was braver than the shiny eyes suggested. ‘Where’s Mummy?’
The girl waved in the direction of WH Smith. Liza pushed at her hair escaping from behind her ears, she didn’t have time for this.
A large fat tear slid down the girl’s plump cheeks.
The irritation ebbed as quickly as it had come, replaced by a warmth oozing from Liza’s toes to the tip of her nose. ‘Let’s go find Mum.’ It was good to care about someone else. And as a bonus she would look for a magazine in the bookshop.
Browsing the intellectual section, she saw the photo and its headline. A gnarled old man, skin brown as rich chocolate, his drooping lips sucking on a strange pipe below the words ‘The Opium Dilemma’. Beverley’s book had been about opium. Liza recalled Beverley’s face when she’d given her the parcel on her birthday. Beverley had an expressive face; soft like freshly baked rolls when they shared a cup of café tea; angry like a brewing storm when Pastor George scolded either of them. But on that day, Beverley’s face had shone with hope, maybe pride, but Liza, having no experience of the latter, hadn’t been sure. Whatever, Liza had felt a fullness, as if something delicious had been poured into her. It was the first and only time before today she’d believed she had choice over her life.
She could almost feel Beverley tapping her on the shoulder, telling her what to do. Squatting on the floor, she dug into her backpack, fingers closing around the hardback. Shaking away the t-shirt, a small paper fluttered from the flapping back cover to the floor, a single phrase in Beverley’s neat handwriting written on it. ‘Find my friend Li Wei on Lamma Island, Hong Kong.’
Hong Kong then, if that’s what Beverley wanted. It was easy, once the decision was made, to dodge back to the ticketing desks but it was less easy to remain resolute when, through the fluorescent window of a travel agent, she saw the same brochure she’d chucked to her bedroom floor this morning. A traveller in Thailand swinging in a hammock dressed in a skimpy bikini. She could feel the grains of sand slipping between her toes even inside her sensible Clarks. She’d dreamt of that beach for months.
Collapsing onto the nearest seat, she put her head in her hands. She’d ached for choice her whole life. Now she had it, she was drifting unsure what to do with it. The airport tannoy squawked. Café shutters crashed. Coins clinked, shuffled by cashiers impatient to go home. She had a choice – beach or Beverley. Instant gratification or doing the right thing. Her head hurt with the choice – maybe life was easier when someone else told you what to think.