Mike is the sporty type, always was, possibly always will be. Tall (6ft 2), well built, fit, good looking. Not the blue-eyed, blonde haired god that Tod is, that’s true. But there’s probably only room for one Tod in the school. Tod and Mike aren’t best friends but they rub along okay. They fit into the team well as the two wing forwards. They understand each other and make a powerful front line with Mike (Micky The Brit to distinguish him from Mike) in the centre. Powerful in more senses than just good. Mike and Tod moved over from American Football, Micky played muscular soccer when in the UK and was happy to continue his hacking, slashing approach to tackling in the school team. The school dropped American Football two seasons ago as the scandal of brain damaged players began to get worse. At first parents were outraged at their kids being treated like pussys or wimps, fathers would often say ‘if it was good enough for me... ‘ or ‘I played and it never did me no harm’ (to which the obvious riposte – how do you know, maybe you were a genius before you started to play – would be lost on them); then Graham McIvel (from another school, thankfully) collapsed during a game after a little knock; dead, before he left the field, of a massive stroke brought on by the multiple collisions his head had suffered. Mothers first began to feel maybe they weren’t so upset after all. Fathers came into line after a row or two and sleeping on the couch and stuff. The opposition died away. Some realised that Graham’s death had happened, for Mike’s school at least, at just the right time; no-one could argue for more danger for the boys. The cheer leaders got used to cheering Soccer instead. Some players gave up, others (like Mike and Tod) found they were fast enough, manoeuvrable enough, and also tough enough, to be a scary front row. Girls still threw themselves at these handsome sports jocks. What more could a testosterone fuelled male want?
Not overly endowed in the brain department it’s true, but Mike’s self-aware to realise that and maximise what he does have. He likes history, even if most of what he learns comes from the History Channel rather than books, but he isn’t really academic.
Fiona is a geek. A math geek specifically, but she’s good at most subjects, top quartile in all the sciences and top 3% in math (which she would immediately tell you means that she’s the best in the class of 32). Nice face, but not a figure that would draw many looks: small bust, slim waist but just as slim hips mean she tends to look straight up and down in certain lights and angles. She’s not quite that undeveloped, but the clothes don’t help. She isn’t (as she would tell you) a clothes horse for fashion, she wears what she is comfortable in – button up shirt, trousers, flat shoes. Smart but not fashionable. Her face is nice, pretty rather than stunning; like a pixie. Her small, round, face contains brown eyes with a life of their own, they are deep and lustrous. Her nose is small and in keeping with the delicate face. She seems capable of maintaining a smile in most situations and the smile encompasses her eyes as well as her mouth. It’s real, not the fake smile of the ‘have a nice day’ (but I couldn’t give a damn) set. Her auburn hair is cut to reach her shoulders; not so short as to be severe, but not so long as to get in her way. Also not so long that she can swing it in the way girls have of attracting attention. If she grew it the lustrous shade would definitely balance her lack of bust in second looks from boys; but she isn’t that kind of girl. She’s not small like a pixie though, she’s 5 foot 10 inches, so she is a slim, fairly attractive, fairly tall young woman. That’s the physical description of her, every aspect is ‘fairly’ this or that. She’s ‘good’ both because she’s interested in math first and sex about fifth and because she’s a member of The Church of Glorious God. A Baptist church founded in 1759 (they claim, though the early documents were all destroyed in the town fire of 1902), it still maintains a fairly rigid moral code. Since sex comes only fifth on her list, she can cope with the moral code fairly well. The occasional mouth exploring kiss from one of the boys in the church was as far as they ever got, though often both boy and girl found themselves later apologising to God for their sexual fantasies and resultant masturbatory sessions alone in their (own) bedrooms.
Fiona, then, came from a very respectable, though not overly wealthy, family. Mike’s mother worked, as he liked to say ‘8 days out of every 7’. She was a successful consultant in the burgeoning new market of Big Cloud AI. No one was sure what that was, but every big company was absolutely sure it was an area they had to buy into. She had been the headline sales consultant for 11 years for International Big Data, a one-time start-up that had taken the world by storm and the IT giants by surprise. What it meant was that from the age of 13 he had been left alone for a lot of the time. He could have become an uncontrollable wild child, that he didn’t was a tribute to his own character and that of his uncle, his father’s brother, who acted as a father figure for those crucial few years. His father had cleared off when he was 13, tired of playing a very minor role in the income generation. Rather than accept that his wife earned more and he should enjoy domestic life, he drank, got the sack (twice) and then left the scene. Mike moped, then coped and finally, mostly flourished. His only visible flaw was his timekeeping. Which is how, after 3 years, Fiona and Mike came into contact.
The year-group trip to the zoo was due to leave at 9am. At 8:59 every student bar one, plus two teachers, was on the bus and waiting. Only Mike hadn’t turned up. Then there he was, mumbling apologies. He was 16 and responsible for getting himself up, he wasn’t good at that. He roared into the carpark, and sprinted for the bus. One of the benefits of being the product of a rich, single parent family was that he had access to a Jaguar when his mother wasn’t there, a souped up Volvo when she was; but also an old Harley Davidson which his father had left in the garage in bits when he left. His uncle and he had steadily rebuilt it; giving him a fantastic understanding of engines and an unplanned training in dedication to a long project at a time when the average teenager’s attention span was less than a minute.
He got on the bus, looked around. The bus was for 44 people, there were 42 students and 2 teachers. The only spare seat was beside the geeky Fiona. He could have rolled his eyes (he did sigh softly) and make some loud ‘jock-speak’ comment; but no, he was polite. He sat down and said “Hi, I don’t think we’ve ever spoken. I’m Mike” Now she knew who he was, she knew he’d have no idea of her name.
“No, I’m pretty sure I’m called Mike” he smiled a poor joke, but they were able to laugh, which broke any ice there might have been.
“You play English Football don’t you?”
“Soccer yes, don’t you watch it?”
“Sorry, I’m not much into sport”
The conversation drifted on, jumping from subject to subject. The other two sporting heroes – Tod and Micky – would have rapidly lost interest and been rude and uninterested. Mike wasn’t like that. But eventually the conversation faltered and Fiona and Mike brought out books to read. Fiona produced Fermat’s Last Theorem. Mike produced a comic book. He felt embarrassed when he compared what she was reading to his book. He resolved, there and then, to up his game. Why? Why did he care what she thought? He couldn’t explain it. If he’d been sitting by his friends they would have joked about the geeks reading books, made lewd comments about the female super-heroes clothing which was apparently deliberately designed to titillate the male super-heroes, and ogled any females (any females at all) in cars overtaking the bus. Now, beside this studious, intelligent, girl, he felt lessened, like he had to live up to some standard.
At the zoo he bought Dawkins’ The Delusion, and made an effort to sit beside Fiona on the way back. When she saw what he was reading she asked if he knew what it was about, if he had read any of Richard Dawkins’ other books.
“Ahh, no, I just saw the title to be honest and thought it might be interesting”
“Well, it is, kindof, he’s suggesting that the belief in God was a behavioural, a survival, strategy that has run its course. Look, I’m not being patronising, but you’re jumping in at the deep end here. You should at least read some of the Selfish Gene first; it isn’t easy going though, but it does give you an idea where he’s coming from”
“But he’s a professor at Oxford”
“Yes, doesn’t mean he’s right. This is the world of ideas. Look, it’s like one of those set piece plays you sportos are always coming up with. It might work, or it might not. It’s just an idea.”
“That’s my short hand for sporty types playing all sorts of physical games”
They veered off science, talked about other things, names the ‘sportos’ gave to the fashionable girls (‘lollipops’ – “why?” “well, they are kind of sex on a stick and then someone said they’d like to...” “Lick, yes, yes, I see”) and what the geeky people called them (‘FDW’ “What does that mean?” “It’s an acronym to protect us from retaliation” “But what... ?” “Fucking Dim Wits” “Oh, that’s cruel, crude and really rather funny.”).
He tried reading it, it was not easy reading. The book went on the shelf at home.
On Monday a book called “10 Scientific Ideas that Changed the World” was in his pigeon hole. No note, there didn’t need to be; he knew who it was from and set himself the task of reading on idea a night.
So that’s how they met, but it doesn’t really explain what happened next.
The next thing to strengthen their friendship was the math class. Mike was struggling as usual with anything beyond simple long division. Mr Hamble made some sarcastic and hurtful remark about him having space in his head for his sandwiches or something. It wasn’t particularly insulting, but he did tend to ridicule the weaker members of the class. As he turned to go back to the blackboard, Fiona’s voice – quiet but deliberately loud enough to be heard – said “At least he’s not an insulting bastard”. Which was a surprise both because she wasn’t the kind to answer back, nor the kind to use language like that.
“Fiona, here’s a note for the Principle” And that was it, for the first time in her life she was expelled from a class.
Mike was stunned, no-one had ever stood up for him, he was big and strong and could look after himself, he was used to insults about his intellect and he ignored them – did they hurt, somewhere, deep down? Probably. Now here this girl had just shot a teacher for him. Incidentally, Mr Hamble moderated what he said after that.
They got on well enough, but just as friends. Occasional comments would float around about their friendship – the comments from the sportos were graphic, rude, lewd and totally untrue. The comments by the geeks were, to be honest, worse, sometimes. Suggestions that she ‘rode his prick up her arse until it came out her mouth’ (she being small, and him being assumed to be huge) were both disgusting, and physically impossible – as she pointed out to Alan and Ginge (Melissa McCartney – ginger haired and proud of it), the only long-standing couple in the group where knowledge was their first partner.
Fiona helped him with his math sometimes, he took her to some games, where she drank her first beer (so ‘lite’ that any alcohol effect was probably imagined), ate a hot dog (‘we call them donkey dogs because we reckon – ‘ ‘they’re made out of donkey, yeah, I get it ... they aren’t are they?’ ‘don’t think so, they save the donkey for the burgers’). She was able to hold her own when the conversation got basic. “I swear this is true. In Algeria, during the war – the war of independence? No? Nevermind – a medical student was grabbing a quick bite between lectures and recognised the meaty sausage in his roll as ... well what you were just calling your meaty sausage. It caused a riot. Yes, people were eating body parts! Good way to ‘disappear’ people eh?” “Fiona ... that can’t be, I mean ... well ... I...” “Well what about Leningrad? The people who stayed healthy and rosy cheeked were often found to be recycling dead bodies into stew. And after all, why not? Why are we so special?” “You are gross! But you can eat me any time.” “No thank Deke, I like to know where my food’s been.” His friends tolerated her because Mike liked her, and she wasn’t so straitlaced as they’d assumed.
Mike was invited for tea on Sunday. That involved being there at 4:30 to have tea so Fiona could get to evening church and then stay for the young persons meeting. She hadn’t intended him to feel obliged to come to them too, but...
“Mr and Mrs Towton, nice to meet you. And this is Johnny? Hi.”
“Say hello, Johnny. He’s a little shy.”
“Fiona says you play soccer. Why don’t you play proper football?” Johnny found his voice.
“Because the USA has a low enough average IQ without bashing the brains in of our young men.” Said Fiona from behind him. Not quite the explanation that he would have offered, but it would do for now. Fiona, Johnny and Mike went outside and kicked a ball around. Mike showed the lad some tricks (like ‘keepy-uppy’ and balancing the ball on your head) and made a convert of one of the family at least. Mum and Dad weren’t sure of playing football on a Sunday was allowed, but wisely opted to let that ride. Back inside, they talked around the table as Mrs Towton and Fiona finished preparing tea (seemed it was alright to work in the kitchen, but not anywhere else).
“So, you don’t go to church regularly, son?” asked Mr Towton.
“Ah, no sir. I’m nominally Episcopalian, I think, but never been to a Baptist church, this will be a first.”
“Oh? You’re coming? I hadn’t realised. You are very welcome.”
Fiona came in “Neither had I, you don’t need to, you know. I didn’t mean that.”
“No, I’d like to. Only...”
“Well, Mandy Zimbali, she’s Baptist isn’t she?”
“Yes,” replied Fiona “different church, but Baptist still.”
“She ... she told me once how her church is very ... loud. Lots of ‘hallelujahs’ and ‘praise the Lord’. I think she was trying to invite me, but it kind of put me off.”
“Ahh,” said Mr Towton “and you wonder if we do that too? I’m guessing she is black? Yes, the black Baptists are often more vociferous in their services. I went to one in Jamaica once – 3 hours long and exhausting with it. Nope, son, relax. We white-folks take our religion a bit slower and quieter. Maybe the hymns are more vibrant than the Episcopalians, but you won’t be shouting out during the service ... unless you want to of course, it isn’t exactly forbidden. Do you remember when Tony brought those two drug addicts Isobel?”
“Oh yes, that was wonderful.”
“Halfway through the sermon, the pastor said ‘and we don’t... ‘ oh, what was it? I think it was, no...”
“Anyway” Mrs Towton interjected as her husband got hung up on the details “Pastor Michael said we didn’t do something regularly, and this girl, oh she was soo thin! Red eyes and sad face, she just looked up and said loudly ‘WHY NOT?’ and the pastor, he didn’t miss beat, he looked at her and said ‘exactly! WHY NOT? We need to be more outgoing, brothers and sisters’ and he carried on. I do like Pastor Michael, he’s so natural.” She looked up and then added “Pastor John is good too, of course.” It didn’t do to even seem to criticise by omission.
Mike smiled, hoping it would seem he understood the enormity of someone interrupting a sermon. He didn’t. Though, he had to admit, he’d never have spoken out of turn to Mr Hamble, like Fiona had.
The service was confusing. The stood up to sing, they sat down to pray, they stood up to greet each other, they sat down to be prayed over, they stood, they sat, they didn’t have a collection (‘people give by bank direct debit now’ whispered Fiona as the pastor started to pray thanks for the gifts. Then they had the blood and bread; that, at least, he understood. Nobody said not to take it, but he figured he shouldn’t. They usually had it in the morning service, but once a month they had it in the evening. “But the Last Supper was a party, not a solumn wake, wasn’t it?” Mike asked at the end. A couple of seventy year olds looked round. He expected a lecture.
“That, young man, is a very perceptive comment. Though it was a kind of wake as well.” They smiled again and walked on.
“Well done. You pass the Joubert test.”
“What now?” he asked, confused.
“Mr Joubert used to run the Men’s Group. I really believe he knows the bible by heart. He is the theologian that the pastors are frightened of, because he can tear a new thought to pieces for unscripturality.”
“See you after Young Person’s Church? Come in for coffee if you have time Mike.” Mike had time, all the time in the world. Mum was in Los Angeles signing a deal with Amazon-Warner-Sony Inc. It involved putting the whole film library on Big Data and then letting AI find connections between them. Even his mum had said it was a horrible idea, it would take the magic away of some damn computer could tell you that Dorothy’s red shoes were a reference to the baby in Battleship Potemkin; but business is business.
“Welcome, young man. Welcome. We are going to be talking about ‘freedom or obedience’ and how we decide.” The man in front of him was a youth worker. Dedicated, impassioned, keen to be part of the young scene, and as neat and tidy as a Mormon. He would fit in like a nun in a brothel, Mike thought. And that thought made him wonder, because he found the idea of young nuns quite sexy. David called them all into the back and they got tea or coffee or juice, and a biscuit. “No beer I’m afraid, heheheheh” David was trying too hard.
“He means well.” A voice beside him said. It was Rachel from two grades down. Rachel of the cheerleading squad; Rachel of the tight top and tighter behind; Rachel of the short cheerleading skirt and yellow scanties (as the uniform denoted them); Rachel of the blond bombshell hair that hung in waves to her shoulders. “I’m –”
“Rachel, I know. I didn’t know you came here.”
“Why would you? But I guess now you know why Micky The Brit and Tod haven’t got an arm round me at the games. You never tried to ask me out; not your type?”
“Oh, you are, but ... I dunno.”
She laughed, “I think I do. Hi Fiona what did you have to promise to get him here then?” she laughed again; Fiona playfully punched her.
“Yooouu! You are so naughty.”
So, Christian girls could tease each other that they offered sex to get boys to church? Life was very confusing. Though if Rachel had offered; no, no, don’t go there, he thought.
David (‘just call me Dave’ – no-one did) gave a long talk about obedience to elders, parents, authority and pretty well every adult; all backed up by scripture. No-one challenged a word. “Questions? No? Well –”
“I know I’m a stranger, but can I ask?”
“Of course, we’re all friends here.”
“Well. You talked a lot about how we, I mean Christians –”
“Everybody really, this is God’s teaching after all.”
“Yes, okay, so everybody should obey authority. What if they are wrong? I mean globally there are plenty of authority figures who want to do bad things, should we obey?”
“No, no, only authorities that are in line with God’s teaching.”
“But even then – what about the Catholic Priests who ... well, you know. And the preachers who have fallen short, been caught with money or prostitutes or drugs. The thing is we only know that now. At one time they were regarded as good leaders. How do we know?” David looked at him, his whole 45 minutes of exposition had been demolished, and he knew it, he knew it, but wouldn’t admit it, and he knew that not admitting it was a failing.
“Well, we’d have to pray for guidance.”
The meeting broke up and Fiona grabbed his arm. “Good question, a lot of us were thinking the same thing, or similar.”
“But said nothing?”
“I suppose to speak up would be to challenge authority.”
“You did that to Mr Hamble.” Mike said.
“I know, but ... it’s deeply ingrained I think.”
They walked back to the house, he’d cycled there so as not to appear to be a show off. All in all, Fiona thought, he’s quite considerate. He could have turned up in the Jaguar since his Mum’s away. “Who cooks for you when your mother is away?” she asked as they walked.
“Me, I can cook Pizza, Pasta and Paella; oh and pies.”
“That’s a lot of pees” Fiona said, laughing again.
“Indeed it is. I don’t suppose you’d like to come over to share a Pizza sometime?” she looked pained at him “No, no I suppose that wouldn’t be right when Mum’s not there. Sorry.” How about going to the Museum of Modern Art in Minneapolis next Saturday? The game’s been scratched because St Paul’s home for the terminally insane can’t raise a team.” This was what they called the school they were meant to play.
“That’s a cruel slur on truly insane people; none of them are as crazy as that lot.” She left a gap. “And I’ll ask my parents; don’t you ask. You’d do it wrong. I know how to approach this.”
Coffee was drunk and Mike set off on the pavement because, as Mr Towton said: “there are a lot of bad drivers, especially at night.” By the time he got home, he had a text, it simple said YES with four smiley faces after it, three exclamation marks and an x. He looked at the x. “Fuck, am I falling for a geek, flat chested, pixie? Maybe I should have asked Rachel.” But he knew he wouldn’t have. Anyway, she didn’t like art, not modern art, any art. Actually he didn’t see the point of a block of stone with a fork stuck in it (or was it a spoon? – he’d seen the picture somewhere, that was what inspired his suggestion; that and the fact it was a two hour drive each way.
He picked her up at 7am, deliberately. It would give them the whole day, and he hoped only she would be up (tick). This time he brought the Jag. Not that he would drive fast, but it was fun to drive it and occasionally blow off some boyracer in his souped up VW Rabbit. “eeeeee!” Fiona screeched, as they hit 110 on a very quiet stretch. If the police saw him now, he’d be dead meat; what the police left intact, his mother would chop off. He slowed down and said that to Fiona. “Is she strict – she does know you’ve borrowed it, doesn’t she?”
“Course! Well, she knows I do borrow it. I may not have said I was going to use her charge card to pour petrol into this beast. She won’t mind as long as I get receipts, all chargeable you see – business mileage. Uhoh.”
“Blue light coming up fast.”
They were flagged down. A State Trooper got out, walked to the window and tapped. “License.” Fiona bridled, he should be polite. Mike handed over the license, and the insurance, and the letter he always had signed by his mother saying he could drive it. What car hijacker would think of that? The trooper looked at him and scoffed, then walked round the car, twice, looking for some defect. “I couldn’t afford one of these in ten years, how come a putz like you gets to drive one?”
“Just lucky, I guess. Anything more sir?” Mike was scrupulously polite. The trooper returned to his car and drove off. Fiona suddenly leant over and kissed him.
“You were brilliant. So calm. I was ready to read him the constitution, fourth amendment. ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, [a] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized’”
“You know that off by heart, no, wait, you know the whole thing, and the amendments?”
“Only the first nine. I learnt them one summer for fun.”
“Funny idea of fun, now, about that kisssss” she leant in and kissed him again, longer, more heartfelt. “I think we’ve moved on from ‘just friends’?”
“Yes, but let’s stay friends whatever happens.” Fiona replied. They drove on, now he was wondering what he was meant to do. They’d known each other for a while, under normal circumstances, that kiss would mean ‘nor get into my pants’; but this time? No, he felt sure that wasn’t the case.
Fiona was thinking ‘will he take the hint? I’ve waited until the right person comes along. What should I do without saying ‘get into my pants, kindly’ no, not kindly, firmly but carefully. I can’t say that to him, he’ll think I’m a slut ... but I want to be, I want to have him before much longer, else I’ll go crazy. Fingering yourself every night mustn’t be good for you. I wonder if the bible forbids it? Yes, I think it does. So if I’m already breaking the rules, maybe it doesn’t matter if I get Mike in on the act.’ She looked across at him, as Mike drove on. They stopped at one of those small, half awake mid-western towns that used to be the core of mid-America and were now wasting away as people just drove on most of the time. They walked down the main street, called, with admirable accuracy, ‘Main Street’. It looked to be the only street actually. The first café was shut, then there was a small café with lots of dusty jugs in the window. They went in for coffee, surprisingly it had a few tables occupied. Old ladies looked up and smiled. At the counter were chocolate, coffee, and strawberry cakes, cheese scones, and a menu offering toast and breakfasts (upto 11am); it was 9:15am. Fiona and Mike looked at each other. “Toast and cake or breakfast?” asked Mike, he was enjoying this trip.
“Just toast for me. Oh, okay, and an egg.”
“The bacon is cooked to perfection here, dearie.” Said a lady with blue hair. The older women all liked the young people coming in, which was a surprise in itself. In their town, young people in the chintzy café were viewed as rampaging bulls likely to break the china cups and stomp the creamy cakes. Fiona was persuaded to have some bacon with her egg and toast. Mike copied her, he would have gone for the full cholesterol overload, but didn’t want to seem greedy. They chatted quietly, drank their orange juice (‘on the house, dear, you young people don’t get enough fresh food’) and coffee, and so Fiona visited the Ladies at the end. The lady with blue hair was in there. “He looks nice, a bit of a hunk.” She said
“Umm, yes. Yes, he is nice. We’re just friends, but I do like him.”
“Listen dearie, that look he gives you isn’t just friendship. Wouldn’t you like to know what he’s like in bed?” Fiona, looked shocked, first at how quickly it had come round to sex, second that the questioner was an old lady with blue hair, and thirdly that she was a stranger. Why did she answer?
“Well, yes. But I don’t want to be too keen. I mean.”