The scream must have been audible all the way around Parson’s Green.
Serena was having a party.
She’s very good at parties, Serena. She collects people in the way she collects animals: a rabbit easily mistaken for a fluffy slipper; a Great Dane the size of a Friesian calf; a punk chicken. As a teenager, she would smuggle them all into her bedroom and somehow enable them to rub along. Except the terrier and the baby budgie, one of which ended up in the other.
It’s the same with friends. Serena has a way of throwing a party so all sorts of disparate people, from very different backgrounds, collide happily on a bouncy castle, laughing together. She was the one most often found at midnight, when we lived in Parson’s Green, operating the toasted sandwich machine for some tatty, extremely cold and usually not entirely sober visitor.
So there was often an eclectic mix of guests under our roof.
Nevertheless, despite Serena’s gregarious and hospitable nature and an ecclesiastical house and garden designed for nothing so much as peopling it, it was a while since we’d done anything so frivolous and important as entertaining. Barely since the Florence Nightingale Unit, and all it had done to Bink and us.
You can wear away a stone with dripping water.
This particular party was for a bunch of young people who had recently been on holiday together. I believe I have already mentioned the Christian holidays Shaun and I used to run, taking over a boarding school for ten days in August and organising thirty or forty older students and young professionals to provide activities, sport, entertainment and Christian teaching for a hundred or more teenagers. Ironically, by the time our own children were old enough we’d handed the baton on. They continued to attend without us though, having got a taste for the fun and games and lovely people when they tagged along as toddlers.
But of course, by her mid-to-late-teens it was extremely difficult for Bink to join in with anything, let alone something so purely enjoyable. The organisers – fortunately, close friends – had to find washing facilities for her sole use, so they allocated a 30-shower changing room in remote part of the school which no one else knew about. They would need to turn a blind eye when she was the only teenager breaking the rules, missing obligatory meals, the brief morning or evening meetings, or the bedtime Bible-study get-togethers with the other girls in her dormitory. I’m not sure she could even share a dormitory, which was how they all made friends. And she had to be welcomed several days late… by the time she’d bought all the wet wipes and loo paper she needed and was ready for me to drive her to Dorset.
I would have loved to have stayed and watched her enjoying herself: such a rare treat, to see her having some semblance of normal adolescence. But I was several years behind on my own work – and not needed for the next few days.
Here is the contradiction that was Bink. And still is. Friends on the team reported back to us the longed-for news which most parents of teenagers never need. How she and Alex got everyone vying to win their week-long competition to guess the number of dead wasps in a jar. How the two of them jumped up in the dining hall at breakfast and spontaneously sang, in harmony, in honour of someone’s birthday. How her high jinks were the highlight of the “Daily Dross”, the tabloid entertainment read out at the end of the day.
Despite her devastating illness, in a group of nearly two hundred people Bink still emerged as the star, her charisma catching the light.
Enabling me to imagine what her sparkling youth might have been like, without this cancer…
Serena’s party was a month later, in early autumn. She had been helping in the kitchen that summer, along with others too young to be leaders. So naturally, she organised a reunion. And because of the essence of the holiday, most of them were exceptionally well-behaved, courteous young Christians: the sort you’d be happy to have partying in your house any time.
Now, if you found yourself in a Vicarage full of young people who had just given up their scant time and money to help on a children’s summer holiday overseen by Scripture Union, your guard might be down. You might not be expecting – or not as much as at a usual teenager party – to find them smoking dope, throwing up or using the bedrooms illicitly. Possible, perhaps: but rather less likely.
Or indeed, wandering around with no clothes on.
Until the scream…