Tabitha is a so far unpublished novel in which a fourteen-year-old grows up to discover the world is more wonderful than she had believed as a child. This extract is from a chapter leading up to Christmas 2010.
“Over two million died in southern Sudan between 1983 and 2005,” explained Mr Thomas, Ashol’s father. “We owe it to their memory.”
“Two million!” exclaimed Tabitha, amazed. “That’s like … everyone in the whole of West Yorkshire!”
“You see why we pray for justice …” said Mr Thomas.
“… and peace, and love,” continued his wife, Mama Sarah. “Jesus coming into the world is our only hope. We all have to follow him, together, for there to be any chance of peace.”
Tabitha could see how important the Advent wreath with its prayers for justice, peace and love was to the Thomas’s, and why all the Christmas things mattered so much. She had become used to thinking of Christmas as being mostly about pretending things were OK, and secretly knowing (but not admitting) that, in fact, they weren’t. You covered it all up with cheesy Christmasy songs in which everyone was supposedly ‘having fun’, and getting the ‘Christmas feeling’ mostly through an alcoholic haze. It was supposed to be about families coming together, yet actually so many of them were broken – it seemed to her that more people seemed to fall out at Christmas than at any other time of the year. For Tabitha there was the business of going to see her estranged dad which meant leaving her mum on her own to drink to her loneliness. Tabitha never wanted to go, and her mum was always in a foul mood smelling of alcohol and tobacco when she got back. So, for her, the Christmas carols did not often resonate with joy, despite their words. Last Christmas the neighbours at fifty-seven refused to have their family for Christmas because the year before their son-in-law had got drunk and had apparently said some nasty things, which had not been forgotten. And then the people over the road had had a row on Boxing Day when someone was locked out and told to “f*** off”, and a slanging match between the excluded man in the street and someone in an upstairs window when on for over half-an-hour before the police arrived and took him away. So Christmas for Tabitha had not been all that great – she used to look forward to being on her own again in the new year.
But for the Thomas family, despite all the terrible things that had happened and were still happening in Sudan, they really believed that Jesus coming into the world made a difference. It was not just about family, it was about God and his love and heaven for ever. They really felt that God was with them still in 2010. “The world is a very dark place,” stated Mr Thomas, “but God has come into it and shines in the darkness.” That was what the candles were all about Tabitha discovered. She hadn’t thought of that before. When you lit a candle – for justice, love or peace – you were kind of connecting God with it – and he was bright and lovely and actually brought those things to life in the world. Well at least to the Thomas’s and the other people who believed in him. That’s cool, thought Tabitha.
Not for the first time, she asked herself if she believed in God. Ashol and her brother, Deng did. Well, they were brought up to. Did they ever ask themselves if God was real, or did they just know He was? Perhaps they just took it on trust. And their mum and dad before them and so on. God might be someone people had made up at the beginning of human beings – or someone they thought they had seen in a miracle or something – and then just got their kids to believe in it. She supposed that even ordinary things, like new babies being born, must have seemed amazing before anyone knew the science of it. But now doctors knew everything about having babies – even mending them in the womb. So you didn’t need God to explain things any more. Yet Nature, even if you knew how it worked, still seemed wonderful. Tabitha didn’t think she would ever change her mind about that even if she got an A grade in biology. There must be something more to life than just how it worked—
“What are you and your mum doing at Christmas?” asked Mama Sarah, breaking into Tabitha’s reverie.
“Oh,” said Tabitha remembering where she was. The only thing that I have to do is go to Dad’s on Boxing Day. He’s coming for me in the morning and I go for the day. Mum hates it because she has to be on her own and there is nothing to do except watch tele.”
“Would you like to come to us?”
“Well I mustn’t leave my mum any more than I have so. So I can’t. But thanks, it would have been great.” How wonderful to be with these people who actually believed in Christmas – the whole religious bit. They were going to be really happy. But no way could she, or would she, leave her mum. She was all Cindy had.
“No, I mean both of you,” said Mama Sarah. “Why don’t you both come on Christmas Day and then your mum can spend the day with us on Boxing Day while you go to your father’s.”
“And you could come and sleep over,” said Ashol excitedly. “They can come and sleep over can’t they, Mum?”