"Come out with me on Sunday, Den!"
Shani and I were strolling past the tennis courts one Friday afternoon at school lunchtime. The morning had dawned with shrouds of mist drifting across the land, but now it was a fair October day, with a graceful breeze and a romantic rosiness, and the foreboding remnants of fog had thinned and faded away.
"Whereabouts?" I repeated, as she hesitated, her lips hung on a word - such a word, what was it, I wanted to know?
"Church," she said.
"Where?" I spluttered. Church? Was she crazy? She knew I didn't believe in God. She knew I thought religion was children's games.
"I didn't tell you," she murmured.
"What? Tell me Hell-damn what?" I nearly spat. Usually I was gentle with my sunny Shani - now I was furious, and did not rein in my anger. I felt the ripples in the air as her sensitive chin wobbled, but her voice was steady.
"When I went to Canada, my dad wanted to take me to church," she said. "I was baptised, you know, Den. We used to go every week. But when my parents split up, my mum vetoed God and never took me again. She didn't exactly say it, but we kind of forgot."
My head spinning like a top, and my eyes fixed on the amateur game of tennis on the courts without even seeing the flash of the ball, I gritted my teeth.
"But dad went back not so long later. He found a new church, and that's where he met his girlfriend. They're...engaged, Den. Getting married next summer."
She gulped, but I remained impassive, scarcely noticing as her emotions bubbled to the surface. She continued.
"And I said I'd go with him - just once. To please him, yeah? I couldn't not. So I went."
"And what?" I felt the words drop from my lips like stones, cold and hard and grey.
"I found a family," whispered Shani. "But you'll find that out for yourself on Sunday."
"I will, will I?" I said grimly.
"Yes, you will. My mum won't come with me. She won't even consider it. But I thought you would, Den."
"What? To one of those places?"
"Yeah." For me, I heard the murmur of her heart.
I shut my mouth as expressively as I could.
"Won't you come?"
I looked down at her. Her eyes were fixed on me, expecting, imploring. She was convinced that I could not refuse her. Her fingers rested on my arm, so tentatively - but the touch and the gaze only set my resolution further.
"No," I said, shrugging her away.
She took her hand away from my arm, and took a step forward with me. She did not speak; she did not run off crying. She just stood by my side - and that was what provoked the guilt the most.
Why guilt? Why should anyone be able to persuade me to do something? Why did I have to oblige them? Wasn't that my motto? - don't put yourself under obligations to other people.
But Shani wasn't just another person. She was...she was Shani. But she wasn't Deanna Macpherson. I'd have gone anywhere with Deanna Macpherson, if she had asked me - wouldn't I? Would I have gone to church with her? Surely not! I scoffed at myself. That was just too far.
Why do I hate the whole concept of Christianity? Well, I just think it's stupid, basically. But I guess it all comes down to Vere. If Vere hadn't died, we'd have been as strong believers as most people. But there's no reason to love a God who kills your best friend and doesn't do anything to help you get over it.
But it's not just up to God, is it? some voice said to me. It's up to you as well. You can make yourself happy or sad, and you have that power.
I remembered the coast wall and the rain, the bleakness and the laughter, such contrasts, both so easy, but distinguished by a conscious decision. If God was cruel to me, I could make myself happy, couldn't I? The warped thought made me smile. But then I frowned once again.
Deanna Macpherson... Her dear sister had died too - Aileen, she was dead. But Deanna and her parents still went to church every Sunday morning. They still believed, even after everything that had happened. I had seen them go, though I had never heard Deanna talk of it. Or had I? Something I remembered...
I think it was her wordless sympathy. As you can be sympathetic without spoken language, you can convey a remark without spoken language. Deanna had wished me to find God. She believed that everything would be better once I had found Him. I had never seen it, or realised it - but, the thought was: it had been there.
I sighed for Deanna Macpherson's stabilising presence, and, almost immediately, Shani piped up: "Do you like tennis, Den?"
I pulled myself from my reverie, searched in my surroundings for the subject of Shani's remark, and consciously adjusted myself to her line of thinking.
"Not specially," I replied, trying to make myself cheerful again, though feeling shaken at the previous conversation.
"Neither do I," said Shani. "It's such a silly game. Getting a ball over a net. I prefer rounders and netball."
Instantly I remembered a girl I once knew - a girl who loved tennis, and hated rounders and netball. I sighed again, as the school bell vibrated in the distance.
"There's the bell," said Shani. "Oh, I was supposed to see Mr Harris five minutes ago about that Spanish assignment. He'll kill me if I don't run now. See you tomorrow night, Den."
She looked me in the eye with significance, and I took a step backwards. Then she turned, and I watched her go, skipping across the field with as much of the carefree bounce of any small girl in the first grade.
Smiling, wanly, I knelt to tie my shoelace on the damp grass, and thought of Deanna Macpherson, fun-loving, but dignified and sedate.