‘Well, then,’ Lydia said to the empty room. ‘Let’s get started.’ But all her motivation seemed to have evaporated.
This slice of attic was one of the most desirable bedrooms in Richmond Hall, and Richmond was one of the University of Stancester’s more desirable halls of residence, a three-storey Victorian mansion whose once-spacious bedrooms had been subdivided into narrow cubicles, just big enough to sleep and study in. Empty, however, it did not show itself to its best advantage. Fractious September sunshine, trapped by the locked window, made the room uncomfortably stuffy; a couple of dead flies lay on the windowsill, legs in the air. The walls were peppered with drawing-pin holes and blu-tack stains, and a blob of chewing gum had got itself trodden into the carpet. A whiff of illegal cigarette smoke (or worse) in the corridor must be a legacy of the summer school that had vacated the place this morning. The silence was unsettling.
Lydia looked at the motley collection of cardboard boxes and polythene bags, and wondered where to start. She ought to unpack as quickly as possible. She ought to make her room neat and tidy and welcoming. She ought to start wandering the halls looking for Freshers, introduce herself to them as their Christian Fellowship Hall Officer, identify four or five committed believers who might form the nucleus of a group, and generally let the Spirit of God work through her.
She couldn’t be bothered.
It was not a good start to the new year. She had, she reproved herself, looked forward to this for so long, relishing the challenge that the responsibility would bring, privately grateful to be staying in catered halls. Now, however, she was wishing she could be on the other side of town, with Mel and Rose in their new, exciting student house (and she could, she knew, so easily have been part of it). By now they would be settling in and catching up and having a laugh. A glum wave of envy washed over her as she thought of it: a household full of Christians, sharing teaching and faith and fellowship together, like the early Church. Meanwhile, here she was, all alone atop the hill, setting out on a mission for which she felt spectacularly unprepared. The sense of déjà vu was oppressive; she felt as if she were starting all over again, as if she had learned nothing, changed nothing. She had thought, a year ago, that she would find freedom in Stancester, but she was as constrained as ever by her own fears and scruples, and the secrets she tried to keep even from herself.
The smallest box was the one marked sponge bag and wash stuff. She dumped it in the basin and saw her own face flash through the mirror as she straightened up: a curl of sun-streaked brown hair, brown eyes, sharp nose, strained mouth. She could, she supposed, text Rose and see whether they would be up for a drink after dinner. No. Freshers really would be turning up by then, and it was her duty to be there to welcome them. Well, then: perhaps she could go out for a walk, just as far as the off-licence on the corner of Dorchester Road, to get some air and buy some Fresher-welcoming biscuits…
‘No,’ she told herself sternly. ‘Not until you’ve unpacked.’ She sighed and turned to the boxes. Winter clothes; this semester’s books; a month’s worth of Bible notes: unpacking seemed to take forever, and by the time she had finished it was already dinner time. She pulled on her official Hall Officer hoodie and trudged down to the dining room, where fifteen or twenty Freshers were already seated. It was subdued compared to what would follow when Richmond Hall was up to its full complement of residents, but after a summer spent with her uncommunicative family the clatter of plates and cutlery and the excited bellow of conversation were deafening.
She accompanied a gaggle of Freshers to the Curzon Arms afterwards, but failed to recruit anyone to the hall group.
Still, tomorrow was another day, and God’s mercies are new every morning. The Freshers’ Week Guide reported that, should any Freshers wish to attend church, representatives of the various congregations would be waiting outside the Union to show them the way, and Lydia had volunteered on behalf of St Mark’s.
The air was crisp, the grass lush and dewy as she walked down after breakfast. A representative cluster had already gathered. She recognised James (there on behalf of the Baptist church, she supposed), Rory (Centrepoint Church) and Ellie (St Mark’s). The Catholics had printed R.C.: CHAPLAINCY and R.C.: SACRED HEART out on pieces of sturdy cardboard and were holding them up like taxi drivers at an airport. Two other students were squabbling over a pad of ruled A4 paper and a marker pen; she did not know either the tall, skinny, black Anglican (UNIVERSITY CHAPEL AND ASK ME ABOUT ALL SAINTS) or the short dark-haired Methodist (WARDLE STREET) with him. She smiled at them warily and went to join Rory and Ellie.
‘Hey, Lydia,’ Rory said. ‘How’s things?’
Lydia looked to see what cheesy message was on today’s T-shirt. I follow a man who is tougher than nails. They always looked slightly incongruous on him: he was a slight, intense-looking man, with close-set eyes, bushy dark eyebrows and a long nose. ‘Good, thanks,’ she said. ‘Settling back into halls. You?’
‘Yeah, it’s good. I’m out on Balton Street with these guys this year.’ He nodded at Ellie.
‘With Mel and Rose,’ Lydia said. ‘I know.’
‘Yes, and Jake, too, of course,’ Ellie said reverently, lest anyone forget that she lived with the President of the Christian Fellowship.
‘Of course. How was your summer?’ Lydia asked her.
Ellie beamed; she pushed her sunglasses up her forehead, where they tangled in her hair. ‘Yeah, it was great! I went to Rwanda with this group from my home church.’
Lydia nodded. ‘Oh, yes, I remember you talking about that before the holidays. How did it go?’
Ellie laid a confiding hand on Lydia’s arm. ‘Really, really well. We did ministry after this football match – this guy Dave, he’s one of the pastors at my church, preached about a football boot – but it was relevant – and they were all following us around, because we were white, but that was fine – and about forty people came to Jesus.’
‘Wow,’ Lydia said, dutifully. She almost thought she saw the Anglican rep rolling his eyes at his Methodist friend. (Had Ellie offended him?) She glanced away, fast.
‘But what about you?’ Ellie asked. ‘How are you feeling about being a hall officer?’
‘I don’t know…’ A proper Christian would of course have answered, ‘excited’, and ‘nervous’. These were acceptable responses, expected of a Christian student who had been appointed by the Christian Fellowship and deemed worthy of the privilege of living in university accommodation for the duration of her academic career to provide Christian support and Christian teaching to Christian Freshers.
‘Mm?’ An expectant smile flickered across Ellie’s face.
‘Oh. Excited. Nervous.’ Feeling guilty, she fell silent. The eight of them stood for some minutes in the cool sunshine before Freshers appeared. Some sorted themselves into the Catholic group. Two of them were asking ASK ME ABOUT ALL SAINTS about St Mark’s. ‘These ladies, I think,’ he said, waving at Lydia and Ellie.
Ellie nodded frostily to him. ‘Thank you, Peter,’ she said, and then, to the new pair, ‘Hello – I’m Ellie Ford, I’m a third-year Theology student. This is Lydia Hawkins, she does English and she’s hall officer for Richmond. What are your names?’
‘Louise,’ said one.
‘Ben,’ said the other.
‘Great to meet you both. Have you heard about the Christian Fellowship here at Stancester?’ (Ellie was so gifted in this welcoming ministry, Lydia thought. She was so confident, so friendly.) ‘We meet at the Venue, which is the big meeting room in the Students’ Union building, every Monday night.’
‘No,’ Louise said, ‘but I have now. My minister said I should look out for the Christian Union – I guess this is the equivalent?’
‘Tomayto, tomahto,’ Lydia said, and felt stupid. She was distracted by the arrival of a gaggle from Richmond. She resolved to talk to them later about joining the hall group. One of them, Simon, had sought her out over breakfast. Two others she recognised. (One girl headed straight for the Chapel guy; well, she supposed, that was allowed, even if the Chapel lot were a bit weird.)
Lydia looked at her watch. Quarter to ten. ‘Had we better move off?’ she asked Ellie.
‘I suppose we should. We’ve got further to go than this lot. Right, everyone!’ she called. ‘Let’s go! I’m afraid you’ve got a long walk, but there’s a great church at the end of it!’
Lydia followed Ellie and their trio of Freshers off campus, down the hill, and into the city. The houses in the student quarter were sleepy but mostly inhabited. The church bells were ringing in St Andrew’s peculiar octagonal tower. Behind her, the tall, elegant finger of the Sciences Block was flashing insolently white. The morning sun was turning the cathedral to warm honey, and glinting off the swift, silent river.
All the way to church she pointed out the places that it might be useful for the new students to know. The off-licence on Dorchester Road. The Curzon Arms, which they would refer to as ‘Curzon’s’ soon enough whether or not they were the type to spend any time in there. Southview, the good shopping street, and Broadway, the rubbish shopping street. The only really safe spot to cross Western Road, if you worried about that. All the other churches that they could have chosen to go to (but St Mark’s really was the best choice).
And there it was. Certainly not the oldest church in Stancester, definitely not the easiest to get to from campus, and hardly the most beautiful, but her church, and the soundest. Chris was standing at the door wearing his loudest shirt and his widest smile, ready to welcome the new intake. Ellie led the new crowd in and showed them to the reserved seats; Lydia followed with an undeniable sense of pride, and, satisfied at last, sat down for the few minutes before the band started up.
Dear Lord Jesus, she prayed, please help me to get a hall group together. And please change me. You can change me. You know what I struggle with. Please show me the way to be.
Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Jowitt
If you want to read more, there’s an extended preview at Google Books.