In the final book of The Cult of Following Trilogy, the drifting existence of Percy Field is manoeuvred in a firm direction. Slightly puzzled by it all, Percy decides he has nothing to lose by making the most of what is on offer. Astoundingly, in a feat comparable to turning water into wine, Percy’s usual negativity is transformed into something bordering on positive.
For the first time experiencing what it is to be widely adored, Percy begins to believe his admirers’ estimation of him, feeling he is finally sailing through life.
But what happens when a ship loses its rudder?
The Cult of Following, Book Three by Barbara Jaques
1. LEAP OF FAITH
Norm rested a hand on his wife’s plump belly.
‘Do you think it will show?’ she asked.
Norm thought she sounded sad. The question was straightforward, but equally it brought with it complication. He did not know what answer she required of him. To say yes may suggest the already large Verity might grow to a size that did not sit comfortably with her. To say no could make her feel as if she were going to miss out on the visible baby bump that made other people smile. She was not the sort of fat that strangers ever mistook for pregnant; she was altogether too big. Perhaps now she wished for a differently shaped body.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, honestly.
Verity was lying on a sun lounger, wrapped in her favourite sarong; turquoise silk, a gift from Norm. Beneath, she wore a sheer black swimming costume. With her dark glasses and thick dark hair, Norm thought she looked like a film star.
She laid a hand over his. ‘I would have lost weight had I known I was going to get pregnant. At least, I think I would have.’ Her soft Welsh accent, usually touched with wryness, sounded wistful.
‘The doctor thinks you might lose weight anyway. It happens sometimes. For bigger people.’
‘It’s never bothered me before, not really. I am what I am.’
‘And nor should it now. You are beautiful and always have been beautiful. Some people never have that, not beauty through youth or beauty through pregnancy. They miss out entirely, utterly grim from start to finish.’ He smiled, hoping he was cheering her up. He was not.
‘That’s cruel, Norman Sullivan. Everyone has beauty somewhere inside of them.’ Verity withdrew her hand.
‘I wasn’t talking about what’s inside,’ he corrected. ‘But you are right. We think too much about what people look like.’
‘Right. I see. So you think I look totally gross?’
‘I really didn’t say that. And to be fair, you didn’t ask me how you looked. You asked me if I thought the bump would show.’
‘You didn’t need to say it. I know exactly what you meant.’
Thinking it best to walk away, Norm left his wife lying on her sun lounger and made for the safety of the pool. As he strolled, he looked down to admire his new swimming trunks. He was pleased with the fit; the way the stretchy red fabric firmly cupped his vital parts. He had tried wearing surf shorts, but stopped after catching a glimpse of himself in a window, his first thought to pass judgement on the old man pretending to be a boy, his second recognising the impostor as himself. Later, Verity reprimanded him for being self-conscious and announced with her usual no-nonsense enthusiasm that the shorts had looked amazing. She claimed his white hair and deep tan made him seem like a proper old school surfer, the sort that might be found on a remote beach somewhere hot and shark infested. He did not believe her elaborations for one moment.
Norm took hold of the pool ladder; he didn’t feel like diving, more like sliding in and floating about for a while. As he lowered himself into the deep cooling water, the polished metal was hot in his hands. Four days straight had seen no rain, only clear skies and soaring temperatures.
‘Sorry,’ Verity called out. ‘I didn’t mean to snap.’
‘It’s probably your hormones,’ he replied, before hoofing a hearty kick into his slack brain. He pushed off into the water, waiting for the attack; he was learning that hormones were not a thing to mention unless someone else mentioned them first.
‘You’re probably right,’ his wife agreed, unexpectedly. ‘But I can’t stand feeling this weird. I’m not sure it’s even normal. I don’t know anyone else who says they felt quite this peculiar in the first trimester. My sister certainly didn’t. She says she felt fine all the way through. I don’t think it is my hormones, in any case. It feels more like I can’t resolve something. Do you know what I mean, Norm? That nagging feeling, like when you’ve come from a dream you really want to remember but it sits just out of reach. It’s annoying, is what it is.’
Norm said nothing and waited, treading water.
‘There is one thing it could be,’ she continued. ‘Can I ask you something? Something delicate.’
‘Always. Ask away.’ He watched as she looked about, making sure they were alone. The condo was emptied of children. Most were at school and those too young to go were playing games and lurking elsewhere. The very first blindingly hot day had filled the sun-drenched pool with joyful screams, but now most parents seemed to prefer keeping their delicate-skinned offspring confined to shadier spots.
‘Does it bother you, Norm? I mean, honestly?’
‘Does what bother me?’
‘What?’ For a moment, he could not think what she meant. Then he understood, ‘No. It doesn’t. Not how you think, anyway.’
‘So how does it bother you, then?’
‘I can’t help but wish it was mine, even though I know it could never be that way. That’s all.’
The look she gave him was long; an expression filled with regret. ‘I am very sorry about that, my love. I wish it could have been you. But the fact is, you will be our baby’s father in the only way that matters. And I know for a fact that you’ll be bloody brilliant.’ She sighed. ‘What I’d give for an ice-cold prosecco.’
‘Would one hurt?’
‘Probably not, but I won’t. Easier to have none at all. No more wine, no more coffee or tea. None. Not until the baby is born.’
‘The moment I give up my faith you start following it.’
‘Coffee or tea.’ Norm smiled, his white teeth gleaming in the sunshine. Though also a lapsed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Verity had never been devout in the way Norm was, before he’d met Percy Field.
‘Might as well cut it all out. I haven’t gone all Mormon on you, Norm. I just don’t want the baby filled with unnecessary chemicals, that’s all. I am going to eat healthily, drink plenty of water and take some exercise. You’ll see. I’ll be a model expectant mum.’ She pushed her glasses up onto her head, ‘It’s too warm for me. I might have to go inside. Will you be okay out here on your own?’
‘I’ll be fine. I’m going out soon anyway. You’re blooming, you know. You look lovely.’
‘Thank you. And so do you, though I think I preferred your other swim shorts. They were a bit more modern, more you, I suppose, though there is plenty of you visible in those, I noticed,’ she chuckled. ‘I’m starving. I hope we’ve something to eat in that fridge. She’s been so lax lately.’
Norm rolled onto his back and closed his eyes, drifting slowly. He was not thinking about whether their maid had stocked the fridge, though she was becoming lazy. Instead, he thought about the hours ahead at Hester’s, wondering whom exactly would be there. The space she had converted into a temple room, where believers in Percy Field as Prophet of God could freely worship, was a place Norm loved to be. White from floor to ceiling, sparsely furnished, a large portrait of Percy on the wall, it was somewhere to be at peace with oneself. It was in this room Norm could appreciate the magnitude of what was happening. He and Verity were bringing a tiny new life into the world, but not only did this deliver them a child of their own, longed for by Norm, but the flesh and blood of a prophet.
Percy Field could not believe his luck. So far, the pool had been entirely his all day, deserted by the tiny monsters that often ruled the hours between school pick-up and drop-off. He’d taken a swim and slept on a lounger, wandered home to collect food to eat back by the pool, enjoyed four bottles of Tiger beer, had another long swim, and was still by himself. No one had stolen the lounger, no child had kicked him in the balls, and best of all, no one had attempted to make conversation. The biggest mistake most new expats made when they saw him sitting alone was to think Percy was like them, keen to make conversation with anyone and everyone, simply because not doing so might mean never making a single friend. Percy had come to realise that acting familiar with absolute strangers was a regular method for expats trying to connect. But Percy rarely acted familiar with anyone, not even many of those he’d known for a lifetime. Acting was not something the introverted Percy ever thought of. At least, he rarely thought of it.
He was lying back feeling too hot, weighing up whether to fetch a bagful of cold beer or just take a cooling swim, when Joyann Tan came into view. His heart gave the tiniest flip at the sight of her.
‘Hey, stranger!’ he shouted. ‘Over here.’
She turned and waved. Percy got up and hurried over to meet her. It had been some time since he had seen Joyann and he assumed that she was looking for him, so when she kept walking and called back to say she would catch him later, he was shocked. She always made time for him, a pleasing trait and one that wasn’t plainly a Singaporean thing, a woman thing, or a Joyann thing. Whatever it was, he liked it.
‘Hold on a minute. Why are you here?’
She paused, seeming to hang mid step. ‘Book group.’
‘Book group?’ Percy caught up. ‘What book group?’
‘Amanda invited me to join. So sorry, Percy, but I am late.’
‘Amanda. Percy, you know Amanda!’
‘Of course.’ Joyann raised the book she was holding. ‘We’re going to discuss Kristen’s novel. The one you told the author herself was terrible, even though you did not read it.’
‘I tried to read it. And I didn’t know that she’d written the bloody thing.’ He watched his friend’s pretty eyes light up with amusement.
‘You did not try very hard,’ she said, ‘but never mind that. I really must go, Percy. The meeting was arranged for now because this is the only time we could all make it for the next month. I think it would be rude to miss any more of it.’
‘Book club,’ Percy muttered as Joyann took off.
‘I’ll find you afterwards,’ she called back. ‘Okay?’
As Percy watched her round a corner and disappear, he decided he would take her for a drink. She might moan, of course, about going to The Tired Turtle, but he expected that she would come with him, regardless.
Instead of going home for more beer, Percy went back to the pool and threw himself in with a long, shallow dive, accidentally smacking hard onto the water’s surface. Soon after, belly-skin red and smarting, he stood up and took a breath of thick tropical air, feeling only marginally cooler. The swimming pool was warmer than he had ever known it to be. Even the tiles beneath his feet felt warm.
‘Book club,’ he grumbled aloud.
He crouched, pushed back and began gently kicking his feet, slowly manoeuvring through what could have been a giant bath. Floating with his face turned to the blue sky, Percy’s forehead started burning. Ignoring it, he closed his eyes, allowing a magnificent watery silence to envelope him. His hot face flushed a little deeper as he thought of Kristen, the attractive New Zealand writer he had insulted without meaning to, caring only because she was beautiful. He’d hoped they might come together and make the beast with two backs. He smiled. This was a schoolboy expression forgotten until that moment. He wondered if Kristen might have come back to Singapore for the Book Club meeting; was she there, as guest author? It would be a long journey to make, just to hear people moan about your work. But they wouldn’t be moaning, Percy knew. Throughout, they’d be politely congratulating Kristen on her success. He wasn’t convinced any of them could genuinely like any book as much as they would be claiming to like hers.
If she was there, at the meeting, he decided he might understand a little of what she’d be feeling. Held up as something special, she would be asked to give meaning to her words, offer reasons for writing what she did; for producing drivel requiring a leap of faith to read. A massive leap, as far as Percy was concerned. All things in life required a leap of faith of some sort, he mused: books, films, conversation, friendships, moving abroad. Being left by one’s cheating wife did not tie in with this model, no matter how hard Percy tried to make it. Getting married in the first place, however, fitted perfectly.
He both floated and pondered on. Kristen was a manufacturer of disappointment. She was offering something she had failed to deliver, whatever Joyann or anyone else claimed to think of her book. And she’d disappointed him, no end.
‘Leap of faith,’ he murmured to himself, disparagingly. ‘Leap of bloody faith, my arse.’
‘Leap of me!’ came a great squealing cry, shortly before a ball of excitement plunged into the water beside him. ‘Hello Uncle Percy!’
Forced to stand, Percy acknowledged his boy neighbour with a grumble, before pushing the child’s head beneath the surface. When the boy emerged, he was laughing. Why this boisterous savage persisted in liking Percy remained a mystery to him.
‘What were you doing, Uncle Percy? I thought you had drowned. I was going to save you like you saved that girl. Remember?’ The boy began swimming tight circles around him.
‘Not much to save if I’d already drowned, you twit. And yes, I remember. I could hardly forget something like that.’
‘Imagine if she’d been dead.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Imagine if she was rotten.’
Percy stared at the boy, who had stopped swimming and was looking at him eagerly.
‘Imagine,’ the boy went on, ‘if her arms had come off and one of her hands grabbed you by the throat as you dived in. Imagine that!’
As always, Percy knew not to engage in conversation unless he was prepared to become puzzled, frustrated or angry. Wading to the edge, he clambered out. ‘You need to get out, too.’
‘Why? I’ve only just got here.’
‘And why aren’t you in school?’
‘I figured that part out for myself. Why?’
‘Come on. Out you get.’
‘Because I’m going now. There’s no supervising adult. And the guards won’t want bits of your decomposed body blocking the filter. Come on. Out. Get your maid to watch you.’
‘You send her.’
‘Piss off. You go and get her.’
‘I’m staying here.’ The child stood up and folded his arms, defiantly. No longer smiling, his face bore a deep scowl.
This was a new, never-before-seen, attitude. The boy, normally painfully compliant with his overbearing good-cheer, was pulling something fresh from his bag of tricks. Percy stood and waited under the beating sun, the water running from his shorts evaporating almost as quickly as it spread about his feet. There would be no point in batting words back and forth in a game of you will-I won’t, you will-I won’t, he realised. And, in all likelihood, the boy would be perfectly fine while Percy informed the maid. But he wasn’t going to. It was a matter of principle. He, an adult, had told him, a child, to leave the pool for his own safety. Before the near drowning of the little French girl, Percy might have walked away without a second thought. Before allowing religion to become part of his life, he would have had no opinion, either way. But times were changing.
‘Get out now.’
The boy dropped below the surface, gliding for a few feet before re-emerging with a smirk.
‘I said get out.’
Percy could, he knew, jump back in the pool and forcibly remove the boy. The boy would scream blue murder. ‘No. You’re old enough to do as you’re told. You know why I don’t want to leave you alone. Out now. Last chance.’
‘Or I will go to your house, collect Kojak, and let him go over there,’ Percy waved in the general direction of the jungle, opposite the condominium. He hadn’t planned on issuing an ultimatum, the idea forming only as each word left his mouth. Once out, it seemed a fairly solid threat. ‘That bald little body won’t last five minutes.’
The boy grinned, before lowering his mouth beneath the surface. He stretched out and floated, legs straight, arms trailing, slowly weaving his body from side to side, as a crocodile. He was not heading for the side, and so clearly did not believe Percy’s wild threat to kill his skinny pig.
Percy watched him, irritated. When Percy’s friend Art’s sister had visited, unable to control her daughter’s rude behaviour, he’d viewed it as weakness on the mother’s part. There was always a solution, he’d felt. In the girl’s case, it had taken the form of a five hundred-pound bribe, courtesy of an unwitting Art. Percy wasn’t about to offer the boy any money; he’d squared up to Percy, and Percy was determined to win.
‘I don’t care about little animals,’ Percy shouted, ‘that’s why I gave it to you. I think the cobra will be very pleased to come across an oven-ready guinea pig. So, get out. Last chance.’
‘Again?’ The boy suddenly erupted from the water, thrusting his arms forwards, opening and closing them whilst roaring, as if they were grasping hungry jaws; his fingers long jagged front teeth.
‘Just to remind you: I hate the bald little bastard!’ Percy barked, before snatching his towel and phone from a small table and marching off. He was livid. Often, he felt fed up with the boy, frustrated by the constant questions and endless scenarios, if the strongest man on earth had a fight with a lion that could do karate, who would win, and his repeated use of the term Uncle, but he had never felt so thoroughly cross with him before.
Percy strode along the path furiously, until he reached the boy’s house, only a few doors from his own. He opened the wooden gate and walked across the short terrace, before knocking on a glass door. The maid was there in seconds.
Percy explained what had happened and what he wanted, and she disappeared for a moment before returning with Kojak. After handing over the skinny pig, she then grabbed a towel and raced off to the pool.
The rodent rested in Percy’s hand as a full bag of offal, much fatter than the little sack of bones it once was. It had been a long time since he’d looked at the animal properly; the misguided gift from Norm that he’d been very pleased to give away, especially to a bereaved boy with an allergy to furry things. Percy noted the few hairs on Kojak’s nose, plucked out before handing the animal over – a time when it was still named Sinead – had grown back quite thickly.
‘Sorry about this, mate,’ he said, ‘but some lessons are not easy to learn.’