In December last year, as I'd just started writing 'Amy, Terry, Tom..." a reader gave me a character outline. I commented it sounded like a real person and he said yes, it was, but that he hoped I could make something of it; I had the permission of everyone involved to use it. I sent the first draught and he approved of it, so I sent it to Jerry for editing. It's perhaps not my usual style, but I hope you like it. It's posted hoping the original 'Charity' (not her real name) can find her 'Joe' – or whatever she needs to know – can find peace, hope, joy ... and love.
This isn't a story about me, but you need to know something about me before I start on the real matter. They call me Joe. My name's Joseph; my father was on a Bible trip when I was born. I don't mind, it could have been worse, my mother wanted to call me Cassivellaunus. I went straight into training as an electrician from school; did quite well and got a good job. Met a lovely woman and we moved in together. Everything was peachy until I started drinking too much. It sort of crept up on me and I had all sorts of excuses when I made mistakes. Eve tried to tell me but of course I didn't listen. I lost my job and my girlfriend within a month of each other. There I was, mid thirties with no job, no girl, and alcoholism. If you're an alcoholic, you get moments when you have a choice – go on drinking or get help. Help sounded like a good idea at that point. My G.P., an old family friend was helpful and prescribed stuff to help me avoid withdrawal symptoms. I joined AA. One of the things AA tells you to do is to look for a source of spiritual help – look to whatever you understand about God and religion. I was picked up by a group called the 'Jesus Army'. They really cared for, supported and helped me and I'll always be grateful to them, but their style of worship, 'happy clappy', didn't really suit me and I ended up in my local Anglican church where I made myself useful. They helped me to get a job as a cleaner and eventually I managed to work up to 'caretaker' in some nearby flats. Not so well paid or with the status of a tradesman, but a solid job.
Ten years after my turning point, I was alcohol free and had been for ten years. I had my own little flat in the complex so I was available if needed; I had my place in the church congregation and I was happy. I didn't try to make a relationship with another woman; I just didn't ... well, feel worthy. I didn't want anyone else to risk their happiness with me. I lost myself in books and music and in practical help for others.
Don't get me wrong. I liked women. I thought they were God's gift to anyone who enjoys beauty whether in art, science or nature – I still do. Someone once said, 'there's no such thing as an ugly woman, only ugly people, some of whom happen to be female'. You may have to think about that for a while. So one of my pleasures was watching the ladies. I hope I did so discreetly; I really wouldn't want anyone to be upset.
Another pleasure was ... is ... any bookshop or library. One of my favourite places in town is Sanderson's. A bookshop with (as so many businesses these days) a coffee bar as well. Unusually, they didn't just sell new books, but had a second-hand and antiquarian section, which I thought just wonderful. Not that I could afford the beautifully bound classics of literature and reference. I could, though, browse the second-hand books, and occasionally take down one of the special ones, just to feel the calf-skin cover. Which is how I first saw Charity Perkins. Physically, she pressed all the right buttons for me; fairly tall, slim, nice legs, but that wasn't what really got my attention...
She walked across the room (did I mention she had nice legs?) to the antiquarian section; scanned across a shelf to identify a largish, leather-bound volume and carefully reached it down. Holding it like ... precious china, maybe, she lifted it to her face and sniffed. Then she opened it ... and sniffed. She closed the book, and, cradling it like a baby, took it out of the room. I was lost.
After that, I looked out for her whenever I was in the store. Several times she passed behind whichever young person was dealing with me; just in passing, let me say the store is unusual in its tolerance of individuality. As long as the staff wear a 'Sanderson's' t-shirt or sweatshirt with dark trousers or skirts, almost anything goes. Pink hair, blue or green hair, spikes, tattoos ... you name it. But without exception they are polite, considerate and helpful. Somehow, I never seemed to be in the right place to speak to her.
I watched her, though. Some people just look sad. Usually, it seems to me that such people walk around as though they've got a little, black, personal cloud over their heads. She wasn't like that. But she had an indefinable aura of sadness. It didn't affect her work. She was polite, thoughtful and helpful whenever I saw her dealing with a customer. But I never saw her smile.
One day I was in town and called in at Cassie's Coffee shop. They were very busy and I had to look around for a free table. Well, there weren't any empty tables, but there were one or two empty chairs. I recognised her from across the room.
"Excuse me ... do you mind if I sit here?"
She looked at me. Was that a smile momentarily on her face?
I was halfway through my coffee before I found the nerve to speak.
"I, er, think I recognise you from Sanderson's."
She looked at me speculatively for a moment before responding.
"Yes, I work there. I've seen you about in the store fairly regularly."
"I really like books," I commented.
Yep! That was a smile. Gone as quickly as mist in the morning on a summer's day, though.
"So do I. There're whole worlds of information and fantasy in books."
I sipped at my coffee, not able to think of anything further to say and the silence stretched out. She stood.
"I need to be on my way," she said, "it's been nice talking to you."
I really wanted to see that smile again.
The University occasionally arranged lectures – usually by outside speakers – open to the general public. I went to one entitled 'The Books and the Parchments' – How We Got Our Holy Book'. The speaker was an elderly Biblical scholar, who walked us through the subject of textual authority and criticism, language and source, humorously and authoritatively. It was fascinating. At the end I didn't rush out – I rarely do; I prefer to let the bulk of an audience get out of the way and anyway I had a bit to think about. Sitting there, I saw someone else doing the same thing, a somewhat familiar figure though I couldn't be sure from behind.
The speaker was having a conversation at the front of the hall, though not on the dais, with another scholarly man; I rose as they began to walk down the hall toward me. I'd thought I would speak to the man and thank him for his clear and enjoyable presentation, but as I moved toward him he stopped at the other 'laggard'. I was close enough to hear some of their conversation.
"Why, Doctor Perkins! How good to see you again!"
"Thank you, Professor. And thank you for a most edifying and fascinating talk."
"I always thought it was a pity you went for Mathematics rather than Classics..."
"I don't think it would have made much difference to the result in the end."
He moved away from her and the other man stooped to speak quietly in her ear. I intercepted the speaker to compliment him, which he graciously received.
"Had you considered studying the texts in Hebrew or Greek?"
I replied that I had, but couldn't find anyone willing to tutor me – my hours of work being erratic an evening class would have been impractical.
"Doctor Perkins there is a Greek scholar," he commented, nodding toward the object of my interest.
I raised my eyebrows. "Is that so? I'll have to have a word with her." Minutes earlier, before the overheard snatch of conversation, his words would have been a surprise.
"She was an excellent teacher of mathematics, and one of the best classical scholars I had, once."
I nodded, without comment, and moved towards her as the other man moved away.
"Excuse me..." I stopped beside her; she looked up.
"Hello again," she said. Her expression was ... neutral? Weary?
"Professor Burkinshaw suggested you might be able to tutor me in ancient Greek."
I recognised that expression... 'someone is interfering in my life' irritation.
"Attic, Epic or Koine?"
"Koine ... that's Biblical, right? I'm interested in reading the Bible in the original language and I thought Greek would be a good start. Not that I'd be against reading Homer in the original."
She nodded and I thought I detected a little interest.
"Classical Greek has several dialects. Koine is ... sort of like... 'Sun' Newspaper English as against BBC English."
I nodded, having been told something of the sort before.
"I will think about it," she said after a moment. "Would you give me your contact number?"
As I made my way home, I was reflecting on the evening. It seemed at least possible I would have a chance of being closer to the lady than I'd thought, 'if unlikely', I had to add to myself.
I'd about given up after nearly a week. I'd considered tackling her at work, but felt that would have been unfair, if tempting. Then one evening my phone rang – the land-line.
"Mr. Wright? Charity Perkins."
"Doctor Perkins, good evening. Most people just call me Joe."
"I don't use the title, Joe. 'Charity' will do quite well. If you're still interested in studying Greek, perhaps we should meet. I finish work tomorrow at two; would you meet me in the in-store coffee shop?"
"Certainly," I said, "it'll be a pleasure."
I was there in good time (I just wrote goood time – which might be more accurate) and sat sipping my Americano. I was a little nervous. Okay, I was very nervous. Why? I was only there to negotiate arrangements for some language lessons, right? Wrong. I was there because I was beginning to obsess about the woman.
I saw her arrive at the counter a few minutes after two and stood as she approached the table with her coffee.
"Please, sit," she said, "I'm sorry I'm a little late. I got caught helping a customer and it took longer than I thought."
"After you, ma'am," I said. That smile flitted across her face momentarily before it settled into her customary neutral expression. She sat, and I followed suit.
"Very well," she began, "I am willing to teach you, though I am very rusty myself. Conditions. Are you willing to promise to put in an average of thirty minutes study a day – a minimum of fifteen minutes – and meet me for one hour a week at a mutually convenient time and place?"
I thought about that. It seemed quite reasonable and manageable. "Yes. Barring serious emergencies."
"Very well. You will need a grammar – a text book – and sooner or later, an analytical lexicon. There are several recognised books. I'd recommend McNair – 'Discovering New Testament Greek' – I like his approach. I think it's out of print, but you should be able to get a second-hand copy through Amazon. In the meantime, you need to learn the Greek alphabet, not just the names of the letters but the order so you can find words in the lexicon, along with the standard pronunciation and the breathings."
"Breathings?" I was a little breathless myself...
"Greek has no aitch," she said. "Words beginning with a vowel or 'rho' have a little comma over the top which indicates whether or not you pronounce the aitch sound."
We arranged a time a couple of weeks hence for a first meeting and agreed that initially at least she would come to my little flat. I was relieved that she didn't turn up her nose at the place. I keep it clean and tidy, but it's very small and tucked away in the corner of the building. The view from the windows ... well, there isn't one.
I made tea and found her perusing my bookshelves; which, I suppose was hardly surprising.
"It's a pretty eclectic mix," she commented.
"I'm just interested in all sorts," I said, "and I like books."
"You've got some George Eliot ... Jane Austen ... no Dickens."
"Depressing man," I said and she snorted.
"Lots of theology..."
I shrugged, "I know what I believe but I like to be able to argue my corner." I set the tray down and we sat.
The first few weeks she was all business. I made progress, though it didn't really seem like it, with the Greek, that is. Then one week she turned up with a bottle of wine.
"You're making such good progress and working so hard, I thought a reward might be in order," she explained.
"I ... cannot drink," I said. "I'm what we refer to as a 'recovering alcoholic'. I haven't touched a drop in ten years, not even communion wine. Once someone has the addiction it's the safest way to go."
She looked stricken. I could tell from the way her colleagues treated her in the shop, the way she related to customers, that she was caring, considerate and sensitive and this was more evidence; more reason to like and respect her.
"Please, don't be upset about it. I don't mind other people drinking or anything. It's just ... I don't want to ever ... it's a sort of slavery, you see."
"I don't know much about you, do I?" She looked at me thoughtfully. "I'm sorry about the wine," she said. "Can I make amends?"
"It's not necessary," I said, "but ... if you're willing, I'd like to know how a Doctor of Mathematics, who could have been a classical scholar, is selling books in a chain-store.
She nodded and sat in one of my easy chairs.
"Shall I make tea?"
She nodded again and once we were all sorted out, she began to talk.
"I was what nowadays people would call a nerd in school. The work never bothered me; I enjoyed learning so it was straight 'A's. At Uni I read Mathematics and Classics. Somehow Classics didn't seem relevant to modern life though, so when it came time to move on to a Masters, I chose mathematics..."
It was later I found out that she finished her undergraduate course with a double first; she was never one for blowing her own trumpet.
"Well ... all my life I've had mood swings. Not to really interfere with my life; if depression made me get behind the following high usually had me caught up. Do you know anything about Bipolar Disorder?"
I shrugged. "What a layman might know. Mood swings – depression, mania."
"The treatments are all chemical. You can't just take antidepressants because of getting high and you can't just take neuroleptics, and all of them make you feel dreadful. Besides, I hate having some damn chemical tell me how to feel. There's lithium. That's actually quite good. If you don't mind looking like a blimp and risking the toxicity. Not to mention the blood tests. Anyway, at Uni I also discovered boys, you might say. None of them lasted long; they just didn't want to deal with ... well, some of them found it difficult when I was high. Some just couldn't cope when I was down. The same things made a decent job difficult." She stopped and sipped tea thoughtfully.
I looked at her. Perhaps not every man's idea of feminine perfection, I thought her very attractive. She'd be, what, five foot nine, long slim legs showing under her usual skirts – mostly just above the knee – slim figure, curves in the right places, just not an awful lot of them. Slim neck, oval face framed by longish, medium brown hair just beginning to grey. Straight nose. Untrimmed eyebrows over brilliantly blue eyes, her face just lined enough, imperfect enough, to make her human.
She sighed. "Then I met Rob. He seemed to be able to cope with me. It was good while it lasted. He was a loving man, and I loved him ... but I was scared of, well, the responsibility of having children, the stability they would need, that Rob did need, really. We were together maybe five years. I gradually realised that he ... was holding back on something. I challenged him, and he admitted he was struggling to find a way of telling me he'd met someone else. He didn't want to hurt me, you see. I'm fairly sure he hadn't been ... well, you know ... before we had the conversation. I ... told ... him ... I wanted him to be happy. That he should go, marry her, have kids. I met her. Lovely woman. They're happy together, have a couple of great kids, send me cards at Christmas and my birthday ... we meet from time to time."
What a woman ... I'd been convinced of her essentially good character before, but her story, told wholly without self-pity and apparently without any sense of 'look what a great person I am' ... told so matter-of-factly...