The next morning dawned clear and mild. Sarah climbed from her childhood bed, wrapped herself in a thick flannelette robe, and crossed to the window to remind herself of the view she had grown up loving. The view extended from the foot hills of the Southern Alps in the distance, across the plains, to the tree-studded entrance to the property below her.
The crowd below had swollen to perhaps 40 to 50 mainly older people since Sarah’s arrival yesterday. But it’s a school day, and anyway, kids probably aren’t looking for what these people want.
She wasn’t surprised to see Eddie Nolan in the midst of the crowd. Look at him. He’s in his element. Just chatting casually, mainly listening really. He doesn’t say much, but when he does, it seems to help. He’s a good man who cares about people’s problems. He wants to help if he can, and he seems to have a real affinity with all comers.
She saw Eddie break away from one group and move to join another of perhaps half a dozen. These were less fashionably dressed and probably came from a poorer background. Eddie had no trouble engaging them in discussion almost immediately.
Next she saw her aunt carrying out what looked like a huge basket of scones. She called to Eddie, who excused himself to get a folding table from the garage. Colleen’s providing refreshments! Sure enough, a few minutes later, Eddie re-appeared, this time carrying several Thermos® flasks with what had to be tea and coffee. And there’s Colleen again, carrying a tray of cups and mugs. The smiles from the crowd followed her.
Sarah dragged herself away from another of Colleen’s little country dramas and disappeared into the bathroom to prepare for what could be a long day. Ten minutes later, she appeared at the kitchen door to find Uncle Henry loading the dishwasher.
“Good Morning, Uncle Henry,” she commented brightly. “It looks like you’ve been feeding an army or at least cleaning up after one.”
Her uncle looked up from his task. “It’s been a while since I did K.P., Sarah,” he said with his version of a smile. “But it’s a bit like riding a bike, I suppose. You don’t easily forget how. Did you sleep well?”
“I slept like a log, thanks. I’ve always liked that bed.” She paused and looked out the kitchen window. But she could see little of what was going on outside since the kitchen was at the back of the house. “Things are starting early out there.”
“Your aunt decided we, meaning she, needed to do something for those who’ve decided to camp out there. She opened up the toilet at the back of the garage and then decided they needed breakfast. She’s loving it. And your priest friend is enjoying himself and all. If this keeps up, heaven knows what will happen next. You’d better eat while there’s still food in the house. Jug’s just boiled.”
“And I’m starving,” she added. She crossed the room to place two thick slices of bread in the toaster and went in search of a tea bag to complete her morning routine. “Any tea bags hiding somewhere, Uncle Henry?”
“Probably outside with the starving hordes, Love. You might have to go out and fight for one.”
Sarah knew her uncle well enough to recognise his brand of humour. While he was probably just humouring his wife’s hospitable streak, Sarah knew he would quietly give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. He came from a generation that didn’t make a fuss when helping others. They did so quietly, behind the scenes.
Sarah could see the parallel with her father and what he’d done as the angel. It was the same. No fanfare—just do it and move on. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess. Maybe the world could do with a little less public grandstanding. But she knew her chosen profession helped to foster the desire for recognition. They fed on each other. They needed each other.
“Excuse me.” A delightful Irish lilt snapped her back to the present. She turned to see Eddie Nolan waiting with a tray of cups and plates, hoping to get past her to the sink.
“Sorry, Eddie,” she apologised as she slipped sideways to let him through. “I was miles away. Do you need some help with those?”
“No, thank you, Sarah. I’ve pressed this fine fellow into service, and I’ve almost got him trained properly. I couldn’t face having to go through all that again.”
“Took a while did it?” she carried the story on.
“Well, he’s a good learner, your uncle. He picked it up right enough, didn’t you, Henry?”
“Bloody foreigners,” grunted Henry loud enough for all to hear. “And a bloody papist to boot. Maybe you should choose your friends more carefully, Sarah. You’re getting into questionable company.”
Their light-hearted standoff, such as it was, was broken by the popping of the toaster. Sarah ignored the subsequent trading of insults as she buttered her toast and covered it with the creamy honey she knew had come from their own hives. Coming home was great—all the old memories, the banter around the kitchen table, the smells and tastes of the country, and the sounds of family. It’s what Eddie would probably call good craik. No wonder he looks right at home.
“Uncle Henry tells me you stole all the tea bags, Eddie,” she said. “Are there any left out there?”
“I should think so. Most of them seem to prefer coffee, so you should be right. Coffee,” he added with feigned disgust, mainly to get a rise out of Henry. “Coffee at this time of the morning. I can’t believe I would ever see such a thing in a place calling itself a civilised country.”
“We were bloody civilised,” Henry muttered, “until bloody foreigners started coming in and telling us what to do.”
“Oh, be quiet, the pair of you,” she scolded. “There are more important things to worry about, like me finding a decent tea bag. Out of my way, Shamus, or you’ll get run over. I’m a woman on a mission.”
Sarah left the room before they could respond, although the laugh that trailed her down the long, wood panelled corridor suggested the two men had finally found something to agree about.
She pushed open the front door and emerged out into the daylight, holding her arm up to shade her eyes from the early morning sun, still low on the horizon. She spied a trestle table holding the discarded remnants of food and drink near to where Colleen was talking to some of her uninvited visitors. Looks like a good spot for a tea bag, she thought as she strode purposefully forwards.
“Good morning, Sleepyhead. I wasn’t sure if we’d see you this morning or not,” her aunt chided her.
“What is it with you country people?” Sarah asked with a lot more civility than she might have used if they were still inside with just the four of them. “Just because the sun is up, you seem to think the rest of the world should be too?”
“But it’s such a beautiful morning, isn’t it, Mrs. Deacon?” Colleen deferred to a tall well-proportioned woman of about 40 who was wearing a stylish tweed jacket. “Sarah, this is Mrs. Deacon. She has come all the way from Australia hoping to meet your father.”
Sarah sized up the lady as she was being introduced. Country money. No. Old, established country money. She’s worth a bob or two and has plenty of time on her hands. Hell, I have to remember I’m not on the job here; I’m just another country girl being polite to a visitor.
“How do you do, Mrs. Deacon,” she said pleasantly. “You’re certainly a long way from home. What part of Australia do you come from?”
“We farm a few miles out of Ballarat, about an hour from Melbourne. It’s a lot like this, but without the mountains.”
“Yes, I know Ballarat,” replied Sarah. “I holidayed in Melbourne a few years ago, and I spent a couple of days doing the historical tour around Ballarat. It’s a beautiful part of the country.”
“I saw you on the television, Miss Long, when they interviewed you on the American warship. Was that the last time you saw your father?”
Yeow. She is one intense lady. No time for the pleasantries—just straight to the point. I wonder if she’s one of us, cunningly disguised. Naaah. The voice, those clothes—they’re the real thing. She must be too.
“Yes. Although you probably heard about the commotion over the plane we were to fly in, I’m certain I saw him then. No one else did, so I’m not sure if that counts.”
“You seem very relaxed about it all, Miss Long. Doesn’t it worry you that he seems to have disappeared?”
Mrs. Deacon was obviously a worrier. Maybe she has issues to worry about. Or maybe she’s got some Calvinistic streak that makes her life something to be endured. Pity, especially for Mr. Deacon.
Sarah continued in a light-hearted vein. “You don’t know my dad. He would often enjoy going off by himself—you know, fishing or something. So no, I’m not too worried. But like you, I would like to see him and find out what he’s been up to.”
“But surely he wouldn’t just go away somewhere now.” Mrs. Deacon started to climb onto her soapbox or into her pulpit. “Not now,” she continued, “when so many need his help. Your father has been given a gift, Miss Long, and it must be used. Not to do so would be a great sin.”
A what? What is this woman on about? Why is she lecturing me like this as if it’s all my fault?
A crowd gathered around her, ignoring the Deacon and her sermon.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Where do you think he will go next?
“Are you expecting him to come here soon?”
“Is that why you’re here?
Sarah held her up hands. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know any more than you do about his plans. I had hoped he might be here. And like you, I’m very disappointed he isn’t.”
What do these people want from me? I can’t tell them anything. Oh, God, look at them. Some of them look like helpless puppies in the dog pound—desperate for someone to rescue them, someone to love them. And they think Daddy can help them. My flippancy probably doesn’t help, but come on, there’s no point in being morbid about it all. That won’t help anyone.
“You saw him healing people, didn’t you?”
Sarah recognised the woman as part of the small group she’d seen with Eddie from the upstairs window. She’s in a very different place than the Deacon woman. I need to go carefully here. “Yes, I came in on the end of him working in a village, and I saw him in the ship’s hospital.”
Sarah felt the whole crowd pressing in on her. Hell, I only came out here for a tea bag! Some of this lot look like they want to kidnap me, and the rest want to cry on my shoulder. I could be here for hours.
The same woman asked in a low, almost reverent voice, “What was it like?”
“Pretty awesome really,” Sarah admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. I loved the people’s reactions. I knew something had changed them. They were alive! It’s not the ideal description, but it’s the best I can do.”
“It’s the anointing,” Mrs. Deacon decreed with great authority.
“Do you think he could do the same thing here?” The woman was obviously desperate.
“What’s your name?” Sarah asked as gently as she could.
“Jenny, Jenny Striker,” the woman replied, barely holding back her tears.
“I really am sorry, Jenny. I don’t know. I was more surprised than anyone when I found him. He didn’t tell me much about what he was doing or why. I’d love to promise you he will come here, but I know no more than you do. I wish I did, but…” Sarah held up her hands again, shrugging her shoulders in the way that denotes ignorance.
“Can we stay here, Miss Long, just in case?” Her plea came from deep in the heart of one in great need.
Sarah didn’t know what to say, but she settled for “I guess so, Jenny, if you really think it will help. But, as I said, I can’t guarantee when or even if he’ll come here.”
Jenny’s weary features, so obviously laced with pain, relaxed a little. She smiled and said, “Thank you so much. May God bless you for your kindness.”
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Dear God, what have I done? If anyone needs your blessing, it’s her. Even with whatever it is that’s troubling her, she wants to bless me? With faith like that, how come she needs Daddy so much? I don’t understand. If You are God, then You can see her pain, and You can heal her. Why don’t You bless her? She’s the one who needs it, not me.
Instinctively, Sarah reached out and touched Jenny on the shoulder. It was purely an act of sympathy and consolation, nothing more. Jenny’s smile changed as she felt Sarah’s hand touch her. A sort of radiance began to grow around her. No, I must be imagining it. No one else seems to see anything.
“I wish I could do more.” It was all Sarah could think to say.
“You don’t know how much you’ve done already.” Jenny’s reply was in a voice so soft that only Sarah heard her. Their eyes remained locked onto each other for a few more second, then Jenny broke the connection and melted away through the crowd.
“Sarah?” She heard Colleen’s voice saying, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s a phone call for you, Dear.”
Thank God, the cavalry has arrived. “Thanks, Auntie Colleen. Would you all excuse me, please?”
The crowd seemed to part quite naturally, but Sarah could see the wistful looks when they realised they were losing contact with one of the only people who had seen the angel at work.
Sarah breathed a long sigh of relief. “Thank you. That was all becoming a bit too much for me.”
Her aunt looked Sarah over while they walked back towards the house, but she was unusually silent, except for a statement that she was glad to help.
“Oh, bother,” Sarah stopped before they mounted the steps to the front door. “I’ve just remembered that I still haven’t got my tea bag!”
“You get your call, Dear. I’ll get your tea bag.”
“You’re a wonder, Auntie Colleen. No wonder you’re my favourite auntie on my father’s side.”
“I’m your only auntie on your father’s side, Sarah. But I’ll still take that as a compliment. Now, for heaven’s sake, go and take the call.”
Melissa handed her the phone. “It’s some guy named Bjorn. He sounds kinda cute.”
Melissa noticed the change in her cousin’s complexion as soon as she passed the message. Sarah noticed it too, but too late to disguise it. Her hand had instinctively flown up to her face which became flushed, no doubt from the extra blood forcing its way up by an increase in heart beat. Sarah smiled conspiratorially and whispered, “He is.” But she changed her tone back to professional when she spoke into the phone.
“Good morning, this is Sarah Long.”
“Hi, Princess. What’s up?”
She allowed her voice to mellow a little, but she wasn’t about to reveal the bubbling up from inside her. “Is that you, Bjorn? What a surprise. I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear from you. Where are you?”
“Too far away, I’m afraid. I’m in Kuala Lumpur visiting a friend. I’ve been working through all the drama of boat insurance, but things are looking pretty positive. My friend here mentioned they build a good boat down in your part of the world. I thought I might come down and say hello to you guys. It would be great to see your dad and, of course, to make your acquaintance once again.”
She turned slightly as she sensed her aunt appearing beside her, bearing the gift of a small paper sachet complete with a dainty string to hold it out of the water. She accepted it, along with the knowing wink that accompanied it, and watched Colleen cheerfully depart back out into the sunshine and her new-found foundlings. Then she remembered where she was and what she was doing.
“Well, I wish you luck with Daddy. No one here has seen him since our little drama back on the ship. But I’m hopeful we can track him down sometime soon. Do you have any idea when you’re likely to get here?”
Did she sense a slight hesitation before he replied? “I need a few more days here to sort out some details. I don’t know, perhaps a week. They tell me the best boats are all in Auckland. Is that right?”
“I have to confess, I don’t know much about boats, Bjorn,” she managed. Then she turned away from the open door to the throng beyond and towards the family portraits that decorated the hallway where the phone was located. She tried, but failed to avoid her cousin’s curious gaze. It just made Melissa more interested, and Sarah could hardly tell her to go away. Mel lived here too now. “But they do call Auckland the City of Sails, so I expect you’ll find something there.”
“Is that where you are too?”
“No, I’m afraid we’re now all a little scattered around the rest of the country. Eddie and I are down near Christchurch in the South Island. Terry is back home in Wellington. If you’re looking forward to some sort of reunion, then either you would have to come south, or we would have to make a special trip. That wouldn’t be too much of a drama. I’ve taken a couple of weeks’ leave, and I must have a zillion air-points up my sleeve. I’m sure we could connect somewhere. It’s not a big country.”
“What are you up to without me?”
She felt the flush returning. Damn. “We’ve hardly got ourselves settled, let alone found time to get up to anything. We’ll keep trying to track Daddy down, but we don’t know where to start. You saw what happened over there, Bjorn. If he doesn’t want to be found, I don’t think we can force the issue, do you?”
“You’re right there, Princess. Well, good luck with your hunting. Perhaps I’ll get lucky and meet him when I come down. I’ll let you know when I have flight details.”
“That’s great, Bjorn,” she allowed a little more warmth to creep in. It was hard to prevent it.
“Cool,” he replied. “You almost sound as if you meant it. I’ll be in touch. Later, Princess.” And he was gone.
Sarah swallowed a little harder than she had for some hours and breathed out slowly as she cradled the phone.
“That good, huh?” Melissa was still shrewdly reading everything on display in front of her. “What’s he like, Sar?”
Melissa and Sarah had often confided in each other in the past, and Sarah trusted her. “He’s a cross between an old-fashioned pirate and Albert Schweitzer—a solo round the world sailor marooned by the tsunami. He ended up helping run the hospital Daddy arrived at.”
“And you might be happy if he swept you off your feet?”
“Let’s not get too dramatic about it,” Sarah cautioned. “But yes, I’d go out of my way to meet up with him again.”
“And I take it you may well get the chance?”
“He said he was coming down to look at buying a boat to replace the one he lost. We may be nothing more than a pleasant social diversion from the pressures of boat buying.”
“Yes, and maybe not,” Melissa pushed.
“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we. He’s a long way away right now, so there’s not much point in speculating until he gets here, is there?”
A knock at the front door interrupted Melissa’s reply. She turned and saw Jenny Striker standing there with one of her children, a little girl of about seven or eight. The child looked very slender and pale for the time of the year.
“Miss Long,” Jenny said gently as Sarah moved towards her. “Can I speak with you, just for a moment?”
Sarah would have preferred not to, but it was now very difficult to avoid doing so. Such was the curse of celebrity. You couldn’t escape from those who wanted to say they had met you in the supermarket, or while having a quiet coffee with a friend, or wherever. She had gotten used to dealing with it. At least it’s not that dominating woman from Australia.
“Hi, Jenny. What can I do for you?”
“I just wanted to thank you, Miss Long,” the woman said quietly and without great fuss, “from the bottom of my heart. I didn’t want to make a huge fuss out there because I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
“But I haven’t done anything, Jenny.”
“You may not think so, Miss Long…”
“Sarah, please call me Sarah.”
“You may not think so, Sarah, but I knew it as soon as you touched me.”
“When I touched you?”
“When you leaned across and put your hand on my shoulder, I felt a fire run through me. I knew God had touched me. Don’t look surprised. I know you just reached out to a fellow human being in need. But I’m telling you, fire went right through me, and I know it cured me.”
“Cured you?” Sarah had no idea what to say. She looked at her cousin. Mel had heard her too.
“Sarah, I came here because I believe God told me to come. No, don’t look so shocked; it’s not a big deal. I’m not some psycho here to mess with you. I thought I had to come, so your father could lay hands on me and allow the Lord to heal me. But I was wrong. It wasn’t your father. It was you.”
Sarah could see some of the other ‘campers’ starting to take undue interest in the discussion. “Look, Jenny, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Can you come in for a moment and help me to understand what you’re saying.”
“I know you don’t, Sarah. I could tell that then, and I can tell it now. No, we won’t come in. It would only draw more attention to you. You’ll have more than you’ll know what to do with soon enough. But I believe you need to know God used you this morning. I was suffering from cancer. I have been for months. The doctors told me I had only a few weeks to live. But it’s not just me. Little Emma here has really bad Asthma. I can tell you that she has also been healed. Don’t ask me how I know; I just do.”
“But how can you know?”
“I remember you saying in the interview I saw on TV that you couldn’t explain some things. You just knew them. Well it’s just like that for me too. I’ve been following God for most of my life, and I know His voice. And I know He is going to work through you. Thank you for having the courage to reach out to me. May you continue to work with Him, just as your father does. We’ll leave now before the others learn too much. But I would like to be able to get hold of you when the doctors confirm everything I have just said. May God richly bless you, Sarah Long. Good bye.”
“Good bye…” Sarah stood there with her mouth open as Jenny and little Emma walked quietly down the path towards the rest of her family.
“Sar. Sar. Come inside. And close your mouth and let me close the door.” Melissa did so and swung her still dazed cousin round to face her. “Did I hear her right? Did she say what I think she said?”
Sarah slowly nodded her head, but remained speechless. Finally, she said slowly, “Get Eddie for me will you, Mel? I need to talk to him. He’s the only one I know who can make any sort of sense of all this.”
“You can’t leave me out of this, Sar. I heard everything she said. Please don’t cut me out. I want to know what’s going on just as much as you do.”
Sarah was walking slowly through the sitting room, heading for her favourite chair. She didn’t even notice the sweat-soaked remains of the tea bag still clutched in her left hand. “Sure, Mel, sure. You can tell him everything Jenny said. I’m not sure I can believe it myself.”
Melissa didn’t wait for any further instructions. “Eddie,” she called out at the top her voice as she left Sarah curled up, foetal like, in the big armchair.
* * * * * * *
Bjorn replaced the receiver slowly and deliberately. He looked at it for what seemed like a long time. In his mind, he could see Sarah doing much the same thing half a world away. Was she thinking what he was thinking?
A low sultry voice interrupted his thoughts. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Bjorn looked across the sensuous curves of Diane Walker, not really focusing on their undoubted splendour.
“I guess not,” he said. Few people would have been convinced by his answer. “I’m just not really that comfortable about this whole thing, you know?”
“Look, Bjorn,” Walker said with more than a shade of annoyance in her tone, “we’ve been over this plenty of times. We’re not asking you to do anything wrong, and we certainly don’t want you to do anything to hurt the woman or her father. Come on, man. All we want is to get a bit of warning about what they’re up to and why.” Her tone warmed significantly as she then added with a dose of deliberate double entendre, “Don’t go all soft on me now.”
But Bjorn wasn’t convinced. He’d enjoyed his past few days in Diane’s company, and he didn’t doubt the feeling was mutual. But he had a doubt nagging him in the back of his mind.
These people are going to a hell of a lot of trouble just to get inside information on Long’s movements. It sounds innocent enough. So why am I not convinced? But what choice do I have. These people can help get me a boat again. The insurance thing could take months, and who wants to go through all that hassle? Besides, it would be great to see them again—and this way, someone else is paying. Can’t argue with that. He paused in his musing and looked at his reflection in the mirror on the hotel room wall. Or can I?
He looked at the woman’s reflection in the same mirror. She was smiling back at him with an invitation that was impossible to deny.
“You hungry, big man?” she asked in the type of voice that confirmed every possible dimension of the invitation.
“Come to think of it, yes. I am feeling a bit peckish,” he answered, avoiding her eye and deliberately choosing to misread her offer. “I know it’s early, but why don’t we go down to the restaurant for a proper meal? I have nothing against room service, but it would be good to get some air and have a look around. What do you think?”
He got the impression that Diane didn’t answer quite truthfully when she finally agreed.