"On your knees, avoid the fees,” Duncan had said, matter-of-factly. Amy looked glumly at him over her coffee. Glumly, because it was their only option now that little Edward hadn’t made the list for Down Park, the oversubscribed London private school they’d hoped to get him into. The local comp was unthinkable – three-form entry and a “good” rating from Ofsted, which, as everyone knew, meant stabby pupils and teachers with tattoos. So that left St Ignatius: a faith school about which the on dit was that it made Down Park look like a borstal.
And yet Amy – who felt as though she’d spent half her time at public school in chapel – viewed the prospect of Taking Up Church with dread. Sunday morning was the only time in the week that was for her, when Duncan took all four kids to the swings and, for a couple of hours, she was allowed to lie in bed with the newspaper. Now she was going to have to spend it singing hymns and saying prayers.
But because she would chew off her own arm for her children, she acceded. The Parkers became regulars at St Ignatius – as had, it appeared, every smart couple in west London with a child Edward’s age. Look at them, she observed icily, grinning like loons and pumping the vicar’s hand on the way out as if, simply by pumping hard enough, a school place might pop out of the poor man’s mouth.
Churchgoing turned out to be a competitive sport and, as the long months until school-admissions time stretched ahead, the Parkers made themselves indispensable.
They baked cakes for community coffee mornings, manned stalls at fundraisers, arranged flowers and read the lesson. They even tried, repeatedly but unsuccessfully – everyone was at it –to get the vicar round for Sunday lunch. Yet Amy was secretly thrilled that he had such a busy social schedule, as she’d begun to loathe the man not just for the length, but for the very existence, of his sermons.
One Sunday morning, about three months into their quest for the Holy Grail, something unexpected happened. The previous night had been hell. Baby Noah was up five times, one of the twins had a nightmare and ended up sleeping in their bed, and Duncan had left the house at five in the morning to cover a work crisis. Amy was deranged with tiredness, but she dragged herself and the children to church nevertheless, Noah sleeping in a papoose on her chest.
Amy dozed through the sermon and then stood like a zombie for the hymn. My Song is Love Unknown: she remembered the tune from school. Halfway through the second verse, the key changed. “But O! My Friend/My Friend indeed/Who at my need/His life did spend…”
Amy found herself welling up. By the time the organist played the final bars, tears were pouring down her cheeks. And she knew – knew beyond any question – that God was real and that he cared for her.
When she told Duncan about her epiphany, he said she just needed a good night’s sleep. When her faith was still holding firm a week later, he was so worried about her he asked his mother to take the kids for a weekend.
Slowly, however, Duncan adjusted to the idea that his wife was a believer. She was happier and they got on better. Plus, surely it would bolster their school prospects if Amy shared her “experience” with the vicar.
But then school-admissions time came round. All that reading, all those cakes, the early mornings, even the outbreak of genuine belief… and still Edward hadn’t got a place. Duncan was murderous. “We should bloody sue,” he said. “At least we can stop going to church.”
Amy reached over and squeezed her husband’s hand. Of course, she would have liked Edward to go to St Ignatius – and dreaded Duncan suggesting she homeschool their brood instead – but she had, after all, got something much more valuable out of the whole experience. She felt sure this was all part of a higher plan.
“I’ve got an idea,” she said. “We can give up reading the lesson. Besides, I promised we’d join the choir.” Sam Leith