The jumble sale was in full swing. Dozens of people were milling past the stalls laid out round the edges of the Millennium Centre's main hall and dozens more were sitting at the tables in the middle, sampling the tea and scones. Everywhere was noise and bustle in a world of bric-a-brac, cakes and craft items. Thankfully the fire-breather had had to cancel, though. Kids were being entertained by the local community police officer and his racially-diverse, drug-free, stranger-fearing sock puppets instead. It wasn't quite the same but at least there were fewer health-and-safety issues.
Mike was there, wearing his dog-collar and representing the church. "How did you persuade the children to part with all that?" he said, pointing to the vast collection of toys, books, tapes and clothing on the trestle in front of me.
"In the end, I told them they wouldn't get any Christmas presents unless they had a clear out of their stuff."
"A combination of threats and bribery? Hmmm, I'll have to start trying that on the church elders."
"I take it they're still not up for buying an overhead projector?"
He grimaced. "They want to hold on to the money for a rainy day."
"To be fair, the church roof does leak a little so I can see where they're coming from."
"Once the roof is fixed, the steeple will start falling down. Then the heating will break. After that the wiring will need replaced. By the time that's approved, the roof will be leaking again." He shook his head in exasperation. "There's always rain. Sometimes we need to concentrate on where the boat is going not just on stopping it from sinking."
"I'm with you," I said, shrugging. "If the elders are anything like my kids, though, don't rely too hard on coercion. Fraser figured that computer games don't take up a lot of space so he wouldn't have to get rid of much to make room, and Lewis claimed he didn't want any Christmas presents anyway. Marie transferred ownership of all her possessions to her favourite doll and then started thinking of things to go on her list for Santa. I had to work rather hard to convince them they were in serious danger of missing out. There's probably a sermon in that."
"There's a sermon in almost everything."
"I suppose..." I realised the morning was half over and I hadn't sold very much. I picked up the first thing which came to hand. "Want to buy a xylophone?"
"Hey, grandchild on the way. You should stock up on toys and Teletubbies videos now. Speaking of which..." I reached towards the collection of tapes at the end of the stall but Mike waved his hand to stop me.
"Not a chance."
"No." He was polite but firm.
I gave up. "Some use you are. You'd better help me round to the charity shop later with whatever's left over, that's all I can say."
"That can be arranged." He paused long enough to put me off my guard and then added, "How's life?"
I wasn't fooled by his offhand manner. He was checking up on me again. "You mean, 'how's life now that Marie's at school?'"
"I mean, 'how's life?'. If Marie being at school is on your mind, then..." He let the words trail off and waited for me to respond. As always, I found myself telling him what he wanted to know. I think it must be some special sage-like interrogation technique they teach at minister school.
"I'm still adjusting," I said. "It doesn't really feel like it's happened yet. I've helped out on a couple of school trips and the kids have had some days off sick and now they're on holiday for a week. So far, my extra freedom hasn't amounted to much - I've had a few hours of rest and done some cleaning. Maybe in a month or so things will have settled down and I'll have time to devote to the huge list of projects I thought I might be able to get round to once Marie started full-time."
"Sounds like bailing when you should be steering. Want to become a church elder?"
I snorted. "Yeah, funny."
"Serious question actually."
"Oh, er..." I was taken aback and, while he had me staggered, he pressed home the advantage.
"Think about it. First things first, anyway: There's a family service coming up next month - I'd like it if you and Sarah and the kids could help lead it. Read the readings, make up a prayer, look young. That'll do to begin with."
"So let me get this straight," I said, my brow furrowing as I tried to gather my wits, "you're warning me not to hastily commit myself to whatever comes along while simultaneously giving me other things to do?"
"You don't have to do them."
I rubbed my forehead as I felt another migraine coming on. "Is this some kind of test?"
"What does that mean?"
Mike grinned. "It means I could do with some help and ministers can be just as human and illogical as everyone else."
"Oh, right. There's definitely a sermon in that."
At that moment, I was distracted by the boys running over.
"Can we have another go on the tombola?" asked Fraser.
"Yes," chipped in Lewis. "We've won three prizes already!"
I perused the winnings they were waving around. They had two tins of mushy peas and a colouring set, all of which I'd handed in to the tombola in the first place. The peas had been in the hamper which Marie won in the nursery Christmas raffle. I'd been very much hoping to never see them again.
"What prizes are left?" I asked.
"Soap!" said Lewis, hopping from one foot to the other.
"There's an elephant statue as well," said Fraser, "and a book about fairies."
I wasn't convinced. "Do you really want an elephant statue or a book about fairies?"
"No, but Marie might. It's only a pound for five tickets."
Lewis hopped even harder. "And the soap's green!"
"Well, that makes all the difference..." Personally, I didn't feel the brief excitement of unfolding a handful of tickets was worth the financial outlay if the best loot on offer was unusually-coloured hygiene products. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity to vainly attempt to teach them the value of money. "You're welcome to have a go but I'm not giving you the cash. You'll have to pay with your own."
They were delighted and immediately went off to blow an entire week's pocket money on a quick thrill and the chance of soap.
I maybe need to work on my fiscal prudence lessons.
Scary Karen shouted over from where she was helping serve the refreshments. "Tell Trevor we need more hot water."
Trevor was only a few feet away from her, standing on a step-ladder to re-attach some bunting to one of the ceiling beams. "He's just there," I shouted back, thinking she hadn't seen him.
"Well, tell him we need more hot water."
"But..." I began to argue, then withered under the full force of one of her glares. She was busy and stressed and I didn't want to take the brunt of it. "Er... OK."
I walked over to the foot of the ladder and spoke to her boyfriend. "Karen says she needs more hot water for the teas."
He took out the tack he'd been holding between his lips. "Tell her I'll get to it in a minute."
"I, er..." I said, beginning to explain that Karen was almost next to him, but then I realised he already knew that. With horror, it dawned on me that they were having a quarrel and that somehow I'd become part of it. I turned to Karen. "Trevor says he'll get to it in a minute."
"Tell him to hurry up. We're almost out."
I turned back to Trevor, becoming acutely aware for the first time in a while that he's short, squat, made of bricks and has tattoos of automatic weapons. "Karen says they're almost out."
"And that he's to get a flaming move on," added Karen sharply.
"She'd also like me to stress that it's quite urgent."
Trevor grunted as he stretched up and hammered in tacks with his bare knuckles. "Tell her I'll be done when I'm done. If that's not good enough, she'll have to get it herself."
"Er..." I really didn't fancy telling that to Scary Karen.
Luckily, she didn't wait for me to relay the message. "Tell him to get down off that flaming ladder and get into the kitchen before I get you to give him a piece of my mind."
I began backing away. "How about I just go and get the water and..."
"Right," said Trevor, the step-ladder wobbling with irritation, "tell her to tell you to let me get on with the job she already told some other person to tell me to do."
Karen slammed down a cup in rage. "That does it, nobody tells you to talk to me like that. Tell him I don't want to talk to you anymore and I don't want you to tell me what he tells you to tell me about that. He'll just have to find someone else to tell. I'm going to get the hot water myself." She stormed off.
Everyone in the surrounding area had gone quiet and it was a few moments before the clink of tea spoons and the murmur of chatter returned. I took a couple of deep breaths and checked I still had all my limbs. "She's not in the best of moods today," I muttered to myself.
"Tell me about it," said a voice above my head through a mouthful of tacks...
I went back to my stall. Sarah and Marie were there. Marie had a butterfly painted on her face and Sarah had a bag of books and clothing.
"What was that about?" she asked.
"I have no idea and, right now, I don't dare ask. Did you find anything interesting?"
"This and that. It's mainly for the kids. Marie had a go at guessing the name of the teddy bear."
I looked over to the table where Karen's friend Tess was being dwarfed by a virtually life-size cuddly polar bear. People were guessing the thing's name for fifty pence a shot. At the end of the day, the person closest to the correct answer would get to carry home half a ton of Arctic-themed stuffing.
"I hope Marie chose something unlikely. We'd need to build an extension just for the bear."
"Yap-Wap. I think we're safe."
The boys returned with some green soap and a book about fairies. Lewis was pretty pleased with the soap and was happily wittering away about where best to put it on display in his room. Fraser, meanwhile, seemed disappointed he hadn't won anything better. I suggested he put the book on the stall and try to sell it.
...and Marie immediately insisted on buying it. Then we all went for a cup of tea and a scone.
There's maybe a sermon in that too.
Yours in a woman's world,