Chapter 16 – cont’d
There was a moment of silence. Mary had told her story without faltering, but now they could see she was struggling to control her emotions. Sandra got up to go to her, but Mary waved her away, giving her friend a brief smile through her tears. She picked up the glass from the table beside her. The water splashed over the top of the glass as her hand shook. She took a sip, placed the glass carefully back on the table and spoke again.
“You may be wondering why this story meant so much to me. Let me tell you a little bit about my background, at the time of the class.
“My father used to abuse us.”
There were one or two gasps around the room. The group was obviously not aware of this. Mary felt their sympathy. This was the hard part and she took a moment to collect her thoughts.
“I had a little sister – Melanie – who died when she was six. She fell down the stairs. But it became obvious there was foul play, and my father was arrested and found guilty of murder. He was sent to prison for life. Both my mother and I are still afraid of him and have never visited him.
“He is due to come out in the next six months.”
Dean was horrified. How could he, as her teacher, not have heard what had happened in Mary’s home? Many of the others were frozen with shock. It was obvious this was a well-kept secret. He admired Mary for sharing it now, especially as it was all so relevant with her father’s release being imminent.
Mary stood motionless for a moment as if trying to process the thought of her father’s release.
“My mother and I moved to Ranburne to start a new life. She found work cleaning houses while I worked in a supermarket, packing shelves in the evenings and every weekend. It didn’t leave a lot of time for homework or a social life. So I became isolated from my classmates and you guys, even though I would have loved to have spent time with you.
“The only friend I really had was Sandra, and later Mike, who has been like a brother to me. Week by week my self-confidence slipped away. I had to work to help put food on the table and was really too young to do anything else.
“I was unhappy and afraid. I didn’t want to bother my mother with how I felt. She had enough to worry about. She was withdrawn and I had no other role model. We sort of lived around one another; passing in the kitchen and on the stairs. I often had to get supper when I arrived home because my mother had an evening job cleaning an office block. I remember eating a lot of sandwiches, which didn’t help my confidence as I put on a great deal of weight.
“Life was a challenge. I found people frightening. It took all my courage to go to the Old Testament class. No one made me go – in fact, I didn’t even tell my mother – but it was as if something was drawing me there. I joined in the sixth week – the week when you told us the story of Joshua, Dean. It was late into the term but I could no longer fight off the feeling I needed to attend. So I crept into the back of the class, hoping no one would notice me. Nobody did.
“I’d never heard the story before. I found I could empathise with Joshua. He was unsure of his ability to do the work God called him to do. In fact, it was only his faith in God which gave him the courage to go forward. I asked myself if God could do that for Joshua, could he do it for me. Or was it just a pretty story?
“That night, when I arrived home, I went straight upstairs to my bedroom, knelt at my bed and asked God to help me. I didn’t expect much to happen. But I remember feeling as if a wave of peace washed through me. I felt wonderful. Brave. And there was a deep sense of contentment inside me, like nothing I’d ever felt before.
“None of my circumstances had changed. Only I had changed. I remember whispering a prayer of thanks and going downstairs to prepare our meal. For once, my mother and I ate together. She asked me, as we were eating, what had happened to make my eyes shine like they were. Why was I so different? I told her. My mother, who was not at all sure about this, whispered a question.
“It was similar to the one I had asked just hours earlier. If God had done that for me, would he do it for her too? I didn’t know, so I suggested we ask him straight out. And we bowed our heads right where we were sitting at the kitchen table and asked God to do the same for my mother. When we opened our eyes my mother gazed at me, her eyes full of wonder. She felt different. She knew something had happened. God had answered our prayer!
“We found a church the following Sunday and became involved in church life. There was never very much money, but there was always enough. I began to teach a few primary school children in Sunday school. I loved it so much I realised I wanted to be a teacher. Somehow, with God’s help, I managed to win a scholarship and have now been teaching for many years.
“During that time I have managed to save enough money to buy a tiny cottage. It’s a pretty little place. My mother lives with me and contributes to the running expenses. We’ve been there for quite a while.
“My earliest pupils have finished their education and are out in the workplace now. I’m still in touch with some of them. I really enjoy hearing from them. It amazes me what they have accomplished.
“God has given me the confidence to do the work I love. I believe he has both called me and equipped me. At times I am still unsure of my own ability, like when I wrote to you, Dean. I laughed at myself because I felt I was still the same young insecure teenager, trying to please my teacher.”
Dean smiled at her.
“I noticed the beautiful way the invitation was written,” he said, grateful he had actually noticed and was able to pay her a real compliment.
She returned his smile and continued. “I still teach Sunday school. I enjoy it because I’m free to talk about Jesus there. I’ve spent a couple of summer holidays at orphanages abroad where I share Jesus’ love with the children. So many are deprived. I don’t do much else for them. Just love them.
“As I get older, and the time draws nearer for my father’s release, I have begun to dream of reconciliation. I don’t know if it’s possible. It’s hard to forgive someone who treated me and my family the way he did. But I feel God is calling me to make the effort. Only Sandra has known about this dream of mine, and now I have shared it with you.
“God has given me the courage to do all the things I have accomplished up to now. He has made me into the person he wants me to be. If my father and I are to be reconciled as part of God’s plan, God will give me both the opportunity and the courage to take the appropriate steps. It’s in his hands and in his time.”
People nodded in agreement as Mary stopped speaking. The silence was broken by Sandra.
“What Mary didn’t tell you, was the influence she has had on the children she has taught and loved. They adore her. She has made a huge impact on many lives. She may not be permitted to teach Jesus’ story in the classroom any more, but she lives out his love and the children respond to it. She doesn’t just keep in touch with a few. Even in this day and age, she writes letters by hand to over a hundred of them all around the world. Those special letters mean a great deal to their recipients. I know she has been the turning point in their lives, just as Dean was for us. I also know she doesn’t realise how she has nurtured them, loved them, and enabled them to fulfil their own dreams.”
Dean looked intently at the attractive woman Mary had become. She had been nervous when she had come out to greet him the previous afternoon, but even so, on the whole, she came across as a woman who was confident in her own field. She was slim and elegant, even in her jeans and loose necked shirt. He wondered at the change which had obviously taken place in her life and was pleased for her. He still found it hard to accept his teaching, during that term, had had such an influence on these lively people. But it was becoming apparent something had changed them. It really did seem to be a turning point in their lives.
Simon announced they would break for supper and could meet in the bar for a drink when they were ready. Supper would be served at seven. As the group began to disperse, Mary came straight across the room to Dean.
“Thank you,” she said, “you’ll never know how your story changed my life and how it’s still helping me through my relationship with God, to deal with every challenge I face. I know God will not let me down but will help me with the biggest challenge of them all. Meeting my father again. I will always be grateful to you, Dean.”
Dean was at a loss as to how to reply. All this talk of God was overwhelming. They all seemed to believe in him. Well, he didn’t. And the familiar wave of unease washed through him and left him feeling uncomfortable.
He nodded at her in acknowledgement and muttered something under his breath.
“I must get some more water after all that talking. Would you like some?” she said.
“Thank you that would be nice.” He watched her walk towards the water dispenser, speaking to the few still left in the lounge. She brought him a glass of ice-cold water and sat down beside him.
“How are you doing?” she asked. “I’m sure it must be rather overwhelming for you. Most of us know one another quite well. Some haven’t been part of the closer group, but we at least know who everyone is. You have come in as an outsider not really knowing any of us. When you left the school we lost touch with you. At that stage, of course, none of us quite realised what an impact your stories would have on us. Did they affect you in the same way? Which one touched your life the most and changed you?”
Mary thought he looked tired. Perhaps they had been wrong in bombarding him with all this. Maybe it would have been kinder if they had not invited him. She was anxious about him.
Dean picked up on her anxiety.
“I had a dream today.” The simple words made her start.
“Yes …just like the ones you are all talking about now. But it was different. It was as if it was for me, this time. I never felt that about any of my other dreams.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
Dean thought for a moment. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think I’d like time to process it a little bit before I say anything.”
“Oh, of course, I didn’t mean to pry.”
He put his hand on her arm.
“Mary, it’s fine. I just need some time. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be able to share it with you and the others.
“But now, I think I need a scotch. I know it’s a bit early, and the others will only join us in half an hour, but can I buy you a drink?”
“Well, yes, that would be nice, thank you. Are you sure though? You don’t want to go and rest a little?”
“No, thank you. I rested this afternoon. I don’t want to sleep again. What I need is a drink. Come on, let’s go.”
He took her arm as they walked out of the lounge together. She wondered what on earth he had dreamt about that had shaken him so. Well, she’d just have to wait, but she’d keep an eye on him for the rest of the weekend and make sure he was okay. Perhaps she’d warn Simon too. They didn’t want the old boy keeling over from exhaustion or having a heart attack.