A forlorn cry of sea gulls accompanied Susie’s thoughts as she lay, fully clothed in jeans and thick red sweater, on Millington Beach. She’d found a sheltered place by a sea break wall and was glad of the chance to be alone with her problem.
A flock of wheeling gulls had blocked the sun. She brushed her hand across her closed eyes, attempting to wipe them away, wishing the same could be done with last night’s memories.
James, with his expensive image, had not been his usual, light-hearted self. Despite trendy gear and his stylishly cut black hair, he really hadn’t acted like a gentleman.
“You and your standards,” he shouted, as they were saying good night in the car. “I’m tired of them. We’ve been going out for five months now, and you might as well know you won’t change me. Either you love me or you don’t. I’ve even asked you to marry me, though I can’t for the life of me see why we shouldn’t live together like the rest of the world. I’ve had enough. I expect an answer by tomorrow.” She barely had time to close the car door before he accelerated away.
Rising to her feet, Susie walked down the shore. She rubbed sea spray from her face, determined not to let tears join the salty taste. “All my Church life it seems I’ve been hearing of this sort of mess,” she thought, sniffing hard at the seaweed smell blowing up from the tide line. “But I never thought it would happen to me.”
“Please, Mum, I’m 18 now, so can’t I make up my own mind?” she begged. “Can I go just this once? The rest of the sixth form will be there. At least I stay away from those places normally.”
Mum looked perplexed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Susie. I know you have high standards. It’s just that … ”
“I know, I know—the atmosphere’s wrong, and I meet the wrong people,” she replied wearily. “But Mum, they accept that I don’t drink, and there’s not much going on at church in our small ward. I mean, Chris and John are fine, but not to date. So what if I do get asked out tonight? Actually, James Johnson wanted to know if I was going.” She hesitated, looking down. “But what’s the harm in that?”
“Susie, there will be opportunities to meet other Church youth around the country. And there’s an old saying about you marry who you date, so date who you might marry—remember?”
“Oh, Mum, come off it. As if I’m ready for marriage. I’m ready for a good time, you know, a date here, a date there. Please understand, Mum.”
Mother had given in.
Moving close to the sea edge, Susie idly watched sea gulls dodging the swishing back and forth of the waves. As worm holes appeared, full of bubbles, the birds poked their beaks down, grabbing at the juicy creatures, sucking them forth with triumphant jerks. “I know how you feel,” Susie sympathized with the worms, “being pulled out of safety like that.”
“It’s not that I don’t like your Church friends, Susie,” James said. “They’re just too goody-goody for me. You know, all that mixed fun and games, dancing, road shows—it’s not my scene—just too religious.”
Susie flushed, “But don’t you enjoy … ”
He interrupted “They’re not adult enough for you and me. There’s a big wide world out there, you know. Fun of a different kind, all ready for experimenting.”
Susie turned, bending to remove her trainers. She began trailing along the beach, her feet pushing uncomfortably against rippling ridges left by the waves. “What was it Dad used to say when we were small?” she wondered. “Copy the crabs. Walk sideways and your feet won’t feel the bumps.”
It had been like that at home for a while, walking sideways to avoid bumping her growing feelings for James against Mum and Dad. But eventually they collided.
“Susie, Susie,” James murmured against her hair as they embraced on her doorstep. A kiss was beginning when the door opened.
“Ah, Susie, you’re home. I was getting uneasy, dear,” Dad said, standing there in his pajamas.
“Sorry, Mr. Blake. We meant to be back by 11:30, but the … er … traffic was bad,” lied James. He pushed Susie forward with a laugh. “See you tomorrow, Sue. I’ll pick you up at 7:00. My mate’s getting a video. We’re invited to his flat.” He jumped down all three steps at once, then stopped. “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Blake, I’ll have her back by 11:00 this time.” With a boyish grin, he dived into his silver mini, revved the engine, tooted the horn, and was gone.
Susie tried to move with equal swiftness upstairs, but Dad was faster. “Er, one moment, young lady,” he said over his shoulder, locking the front door. “Into the lounge, please. I’d like a few words.”
They sat on the sofa. “It’s not what you think, Dad,” Susie was guarded. “James is a gentleman. He’d never harm me. He’s just a friend. We’re … ”
“Susie, love, I’m sure that’s so, or at least, I’m sure that’s how you wish things to be, but at this time of night you’re letting temptation have full power. Don’t you think you ought to put this ‘friendship’ in the fridge for a while, perhaps see less of each other?” Dad looked troubled.
Susie moved nearer. Her dad had always been special to her. From a tiny age, she’d known how close to the Lord he lived. Scriptures and Dad seemed to go together like sea gulls and webbed feet.
“Listen,” he pulled Susie round to face him. “Will you do me and your Mum a favour? Start coming to church again more often? You’re really missed. Share us a little with James, will you please?”
He gave a yawn and helping her to stand, added, “Oh, and by the way, when you get a minute, look up D&C 132:15–16, will you?”
She smiled. “All right, Dad. I’m sorry to keep you up so late. I’ll begin work on all this tomorrow.”
But tomorrow never seemed to come.
She turned again to the sea, dabbling her feet in the water. As wavelets curled round cold toes, her feet arched against the icy tingle. She squirmed both heels deep into the sand, then, pulling out each foot in turn, felt a sucking squelch which left the ground wobbly, no longer secure. Susie watched, fascinated at the time it took to regain sure footing.
“If I leave James now, I’ll feel like that,” she decided. “I can’t do it. I can’t. We’re too close, too comfortable, with too much shared. And he’s so attractive. Maybe marriage is the answer. Perhaps Dad’s scripture doesn’t mean me. Maybe I’m different.”
Mum had brought up the same subject only last week, while they were preparing the evening meal.
“Susie, before matters get too serious between you and James, there’s one or two ideas I think you should consider.”
Susie felt familiar “here we go” signals creeping around her brain but decided to play interested rather than argue. Mum usually finished quicker that way.
“There’s more to marriage than dates and fun, you know.”
“You need to pull together in all things, share goals, see eye-to-eye over child rearing and finance.”
“Do you know James’s views on children?”
“Are they the same as yours?”
At this Susie put down her knife. Resting chin in hands, elbows on the table, and with a frown creasing her forehead, she exclaimed, “Mum, I know they’re not his thing at the moment. He has no time for them. But I’m sure when … I mean if we marry, we’ll think along the same lines. Don’t worry.”
“Susie, love, I’m sorry to be a pain, but these things are important. There’s nothing worse than being unequally yoked. You wanting babies and him not. You wanting to save for the future, him not; you wanting to attend church, him not—it’ll pull at your heartstrings.”
“But doesn’t love overcome all that?” Susie sounded less sure of herself.
Mother sighed. “For a while, maybe.” She stopped working and touched Susie’s arm. “For a while, but I’ve seen marriages break because of the strain. The worst part of all, for a Latter-day Saint married to a nonmember, is the lack of spiritual unity.”
Susie pouted. “Oh, come on, Mum, it’s not that bad. And how about the ones who get converted?”
Mum shook her head. “This may sound silly at your age, but the older you get, the more important the spiritual side of life becomes. To be forever tugging in different directions can be anguish. Not many conversions take place, and children are torn between you.”
She picked up a fresh carrot, briskly slicing again. “Think hard, Susie, think and pray hard about the future. If you can’t communicate about the important things now, you could be in for big trouble later.”
She returned to the still-quivering, waterlogged sand. A tame grey gull, with a black patch over one eye, resembling some cheeky pirate about to plunder, edged forward, expecting food. “But I love him,” she told the gull. “At least I think I do. I get this incredible feeling when he looks at me, when he’s next to me, but you wouldn’t begin to understand, would you?”
Slumping into the same sandy shelter as before, she hunched her knees and clasped them tight with both hands. As her head dropped forward, the words in her head were closer to prayer than they had been for a long time. “Father, help me, please.”
Susie sensed a shadow moving between herself and the sun. Her gasp of alarm soon turned to pleasure as she recognized the voice. It was soft and cajoling.
“Guessed I might find you here,” James said. “Here, your favorite.” He dropped two Mars Bars at her feet.
“Your Mum said you needed a change of scene.” His tone altered. Susie was conscious of a defensive note. “She said you’d gone for a think.” He kicked puffs of sand around the base of the sea break.
“Come on then, out with it. I need to know your answer sooner or later. May as well be sooner.”
Susie bit her lip. She took a deep breath. “I think I love you, James. And I do think it’s right to … to …” She was interrupted by an inquisitive sea gull sidling nearer and nearer the chocolate. It was Pirate.
In one smooth move, James bent, grabbed a pebble, and yelling harshly, aimed it straight at the trusting bird. “Get lost. Go find your own kind of food. There’s better fish in the sea.”
“Oh, James,” Susie begged, as Pirate gave a distressed cry, flapped his wings in panic. “Don’t hurt him. He … he’s sort of a friend,” she finished lamely, digging deep into the sand with her fingers, aware of his look of scornful disbelief.
“Friend! Grow up, Susie. You’ll be telling me next he brings you messages from heaven. Do you think I’m a wally or something? It’s only a stupid bird. Anyway, what were you saying?”
Susie rose to her feet and looked him in the eye. “I think it’s right to stop seeing each other from now on,” she finished in a rush, loudly.
Her voice softened when she saw the hurt amazement on James’s face. She hesitated, “This isn’t going to be easy, James. We’ve become close, comfortable … no, don’t stop me now,” she raised her hand as he moved forward. “Let me finish for once. This afternoon I’ve discovered eternal things are as important as the present, probably more so.”
“Okay, okay, cool it.” James raised his eyes skyward. He turned away, only to swing back abruptly. “Look, I’ll be baptised this weekend, especially for you. How about that?”
Susie wavered. He looked so hopeful, and it was hard to resist the way his mouth curved in that pleading smile. What was it a seminary teacher once said? Something about doing the right things for the wrong reasons can be as bad as not doing them at all for all the good it does you.
She shook her head. “It won’t work like that, James. I can’t explain properly. We’re on different wavelengths spiritually.”
Bending to pick up another stone, James strained as he flung it far out to sea. Marching away, he called over his shoulder, “Don’t bother ringing when you come to your senses. You’ve had your chance. You’ll not make a fool of this man twice.”
The crunching of his feet on the shingle faded, mingled with the noise of ebbing surf. Susie’s heart shared those wrenching tugs as each wave pulled at resolute grit. She shivered. The sun had disappeared behind clouds of rain.
Miserably picking up the chocolate bars, she was about to turn homeward, when a beating sound caught her attention. It was Pirate heading home too. Only this time he didn’t dip and swoop aimlessly. He was firmly on course, flying straight and fast, strong wings taking him in the direction he wanted to go.
Susie straightened, a slow smile touching her lips. “James was right about one thing, anyway,” she called after the bird. “There are better fish in the sea.”
Her step became light and quick. She turned her face to the rain as it poured from the clouds, washing and freshening her skin.