In Book Two of The Cult of Following Trilogy, after stepping far beyond the warm-beer and soggy-chip comforts of England, Percy Field has finally accepted his lot. While the move to Singapore was everything Percy expected, finding joy in this new place was both inexplicable and unexpected.
But life for the disagreeable expat is not destined to be easy. When providence plays an unlikely hand in the form of a manipulative elderly resident, Percy finds himself sliding towards trouble. Like it or not, there are people who think a great deal of him, but how far can friendship be pushed?
The Cult of Following, Book Two by Barbara Jaques
1. FIVE CARD FLUSH
Percy Field sighed. What was apparent to everyone was that he was bored of Norm asking them all to repeat the rules. ‘We’re not placing bets,’ he said for the fourth time, ‘just winning hands.’
‘But what about the dealer? What does the dealer do?’
‘Everyone is dealt a hand of seven cards, and after that, the game begins.’
Norman Sullivan’s focus shifted from studying the remainder of the pack in his hand, to meeting his hero’s weary gaze. ‘So it’s the same for the dealer?’ he asked, shuffling his chair closer to the table and away from the edge of the swimming pool. Though it was after dark, two young families were playing a game that occasionally sent plumes of water everywhere.
‘Precisely what I am saying, Norm; it’s the same for the dealer. You deal, just as you have, then you join the game like any other player.’ Scowling now, Percy’s sour gaze briefly visited the faces of others sitting around the table, shadowy in the low light.
‘For Christ’s sake, yes! Exactly like life, Norm, a random deal then off you go. Except life is harder than Rummy.’
‘You’re saying that life’s a game and a tough one?’
The frown deepened.
Norm watched as Percy began organising his cards into some kind of order. ‘Is that what you’re saying, Percy?’ he pressed.
Without raising his gaze, Percy responded to Norm’s repeated question with barely a grunt.
‘I like that,’ Norm declared, brightly, ‘we’re dealt a random hand and have to make the most of it.’
Percy silently slipped his cards into different positions, within the fan pinched between his fingers, visibly assessing and reassessing his hand.
Norm enjoyed the pleasant sensation flooding across his chest, as if the warm hands of the God he had always loved were caressing him. He considered that in his own morose way, Percy so often picked truth from circumstance, drawing metaphors that helped others rationalise the difficulties of life. He did it succinctly and with total confidence, Norm felt, brushing aside the frivolity of discussion. At that moment, with good friends gathered around the lovely pool that served his welcoming condo, playing cards – something he never dreamed he ever would – Norm felt change leaning upon him like never before.
While he’d been thinking, the game had begun and his turn had come.
‘Norm,’ Percy prompted.
Percy nodded to Norm’s hand.
‘Oh. Oh, hang on. One more moment. I haven’t worked out what to put down… so I need… what was it? Oh, I have it. A five card flush?’
‘That is the wrong game, Norman,’ came the patient voice of Joyann Tan. ‘We have moved on to something simpler.’ She smiled kindly, pretty brown eyes twinkling. ‘Perhaps if we take a short break, to refresh our glasses or use your bathroom, you might permit me to explain it again for you? Okay?’
Norm nodded in agreement, ‘But I feel a fool,’ he said, dully, ‘it’s probably very straightforward.’
‘It is,’ interjected Percy.
Joyann admonished him, ‘Percy, anything is straightforward once you know how.’
Without replying, Percy left the table and stretched his legs, reaching for a wine bottle as he did so.
Norm remained seated, waiting for Joyann to begin, wondering if it was the Singaporean way to offer such gentle patience, or simply the person she was.
‘May I look at your cards?’ she asked. ‘That way I might better demonstrate my meaning.’ She paused thoughtfully. ‘Actually, no; we can use mine, then you will be able to play your own cards as you see fit.’
The card session had begun shortly before dark. It had been arranged for some time and hung over Norm as a guilty cloud. Though his faith was loosening at the seams, he wasn’t entirely comfortable engaging in what he had been raised to believe was a sinful pleasure. In some ways, rather than freeing him, his growing doubt of the Mormon faith was making his approach to life all the more difficult. There was no longer a clear-cut division between behaving sinfully and acting piously, just a fuzzy non-choice that felt entirely alien. Being one thing or another had been easier. But it was too late, because Norm had discovered already that temptation was a key in a lock turning in one direction, and one direction only.
In essence, temptation might be considered to have no variants, representing a single state: desire. Whether carnal desire or desire for guidance from a higher being, the longing for something more is the same. But in the unforgiving actuality of real life, temptation comes in many shapes and sizes. The temptation to which Norm was succumbing, however, was straightforward: to shake off the poorly justified rules which had always bound him.
Avoiding the dangerously fuzzy middle ground was something Norm had always done but never before viewed it that way. His private life had witnessed a precise choice between sin and piety, Norm regarding any slip into fantasy as a reminder of the importance of spiritual strength. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he didn’t meet and marry his wife – all the while burying the fact of his homosexuality – expecting anything other than for his character to grow in strength.
Norm’s wife, Verity, had shown little patience for the guilt that he felt over the card game, saying, ‘For goodness sake, why would playing cards be a sin? What God would look down upon Man and choose to deny him Snap? What next, Top Trumps?’
He’d been hurt by this, because she had chosen to mock the one game that meant something to him. He had played Snap secretly as a child, with a non-Mormon friend, until they’d been caught by Norm’s mother who’d told her weeping son that Snap really wasn’t all that sinful, providing he didn’t try to win. Snap lost its pleasure, and Norm his one childhood vice. The subject of the card evening was soon dropped in the Sullivan household, Verity bored by Norm’s angst and he by her flippancy. He carried the uncomfortable feeling privately, the sense that even intention made him somehow dirty, until the card evening was upon him. Much to his surprise, he discovered that any sin present was not easily detectable.
‘So you enjoyed it?’ Verity asked, once the final guests had gone and she’d hefted her large frame onto a breakfast-bar stool. She sipped prosecco, while watching Norm make herbal tea.
‘It was fun. Nothing like I imagined and not as hard as it first seemed.’
‘So you won’t be struck down tonight then?’ It was said softly, kindly, as if Verity was apologising for her Snap remark.
Norm smiled. ‘Honestly, I don’t know why I was so bothered. No one played for money and no one seemed very interested in winning. In fact, they were more excited when I won something than when they did.’
‘Especially Percy; he seemed very happy every time I made my choice and put down my cards, or picked some up, or whatever. It’s so hard to choose what to do at first. Anyway, it was nice.’
Verity asked Norm to top up her drink. He obliged. ‘When are you seeing him next?’ she asked.
‘We’ve a Discussion Group meeting on Monday.’ He took a moment before continuing; knowing he did not mean the invitation he felt obliged to make. ‘If you’re around, you could join us.’
‘That’s so sweet of you, Norman, but no. I’m away, and as I told Percy, I’d never be a reliable member.’
‘You and Percy talked about you joining The Discussion Group?’
‘Only in passing.’ She paused, inspecting Norm’s expression. ‘Don’t worry; it’s your thing. I won’t tread on your toes. But why not invite some of them here for dinner one night? They’re a nice bunch, and though I don’t want to join the group, I quite enjoy their company.’
Norm was unsure what to say. He knew she got on well with them all, particularly Percy, and so it could be a fun evening. But something niggled, jealousy perhaps; or a sense that he’d be losing control of the only thing in his life not influenced by his wife.
‘Up to you,’ she smiled, carefully sliding from the stool and heading for a sofa. Gathering her long skirt, she sat down and curled up. ‘I’ll be in Jakarta all week, but then I’m around for a while. Organise it, if you’d like to. Sounds like your card evening was a great success, so I’m sure they’ll be keen for a nice supper.’
‘Cards weren’t my idea. That was Percy.’
Verity laughed, knowingly.
‘What do you think? He’s a naughty man, is all.’ The huskiness of Verity’s soft welsh accent made her sound seductive.
Hoping this was not how she was feeling, Norm took his tea and settled on the sofa beside her, feeling her toes moving beneath his leg. He sensed her looking.
‘What?’ he asked again, trying not to smile at his wife and her apparently amorous mood. It wasn’t something he would choose, but he enjoyed her interest; he liked to think he and she made a good team as husband and wife.
Verity smiled back, her beautiful face glowing. She wiggled her toes again, the movement shifting the fabric of his shorts to touch his bare leg. She laughed, her hand reaching for his.
Norm put down his tea and with an indulgent smile, braced himself.