The cafe sits on a small side-street in a South London suburb. It is a small private business, but is trying to give an impression of being a branch of a large international chain of coffee shops, with prices to match. Helen sits at one of the poetry-inscribed tables with a drink that the menu has promised will be a ‘taste-bud extravaganza’ but which tastes remarkably like the supermarket coffee that she drinks far too often in her own home. She is waiting for her sister Maisie to arrive, and Helen is feeling uncharacteristically nervous. She hasn’t seen Maisie or any other member of her family for five long years. Taking a mouthful of her coffee to try and moisten her dry mouth and settle the butterflies fluttering in her stomach, she wonders whether Maisie will even show up. Helen would not blame her for staying away, would not even be surprised, for she knows that Maisie only grudgingly agreed to this meeting with her estranged sister. No doubt she expects Helen to intimidate and manipulate her, as she has always done in the past. The butterflies start to beat their wings harder as Helen remembers the way she has treated her younger sister, ever since Maisie’s dramatic entry into their family all of those years ago. She sends up a silent prayer for courage, and for humility before Maisie, and feels some peace settling upon her heart and mind. She feels slightly calmer as she reminds herself that God has led her to this place, to this meeting with her sister.
So much has happened in the five years since she last saw any of her family. The last time they met, Helen had felt nothing but hatred for them, and she had not held back from making that feeling clear to them. Now all that she wants is the opportunity to show love to them, first to her sister, and then to her mother and stepfather, if any of them will give her the chance. Looking back, Helen can hardly believe the transformation that has taken place in her life. Her heart fills with gratitude as it always does when she considers what God has done. It is only the change in her that has given her the courage to contact Maisie; knowing that God can work such a miracle in her life has given her faith that He can do the same in her family. She feels a sudden surge of excitement about seeing Maisie again, allowing herself to dwell on the hope that this meeting could be the beginning of the reconciliation that she so badly wants. She reminds herself that it might not be that easy, but cannot suppress the anticipation that has risen in her.
Maisie is now over twenty minutes late. Helen wonders if the other customers in the cafe have noticed her sitting alone watching the door, if they think that she has been stood up, whether they feel sorry for her or are discreetly laughing at her. As she looks around she momentarily catches the eye of an older woman, who quickly drops her gaze to the table in front of her. When Helen looks that way again, the lady is absorbed in conversation with her friend. Almost instinctively, Helen begins her game. It is something that she has always done when alone in public spaces like this one; she starts to create the characters of the people that she is seeing and the situations that they are in. The middle aged lady whose eye she caught a moment ago was looking at her with suspicion, as she is on the run from the police and knows that she can trust no one. She is wanted for the murder of her husband after finding him in bed with another woman. The friend that she is sitting with is a trusted member of the family who has agreed to give her money to aid her escape. Any minute now an envelope bulging with cash will be passed under the table. The man sitting nearby, his face half-hidden behind a tabloid newspaper, is dressed in jeans and a grubby t-shirt and looks for all the world like a builder or plumber on a break between jobs, but he is really a private investigator hired by the murdered husband’s family to track down the criminal and trick or force her into a confession.
The bell on the door of the cafe jingles lightly, and Helen looks up hopefully, distracted from the dramatic story unfolding in her imagination. A man, a stranger, walks in unbuttoning his heavy winter coat as he feels the caress of the warmth inside the small room. Helen looks down again, disappointed, and fails to notice her sister slipping through the door behind the man. She senses rather than sees someone coming towards her and glances around, expecting it to be the waitress coming over to offer a refill. Instead Maisie stands beside her table, her arms crossed, looking defensive and unfriendly. The long forgotten scent of Maisie, fresh flowers and girly soap, fills Helen’s nose. A few long seconds pass as Helen struggles to register Maisie’s sudden appearance, and then she stands up abruptly, sliding her chair noisily across the tiled floor.“You came”, she says, “I mean, I know you said you would but I wasn’t sure whether you had maybe changed your mind, but I’m glad you didn’t, I’m glad you’re here, it’s been so long”. Helen trails off, aware that she is talking too fast and sounding somewhat crazed. She takes a deep breath and gestures to the chair across the table from hers. “Please, sit down, let me call the waitress. It’s my treat; it’s the least I can do.” She laughs nervously and unconvincingly, telling herself to calm down and stop babbling. She tries hard not to dwell on the fact that Maisie has, so far, said nothing at all, has not even smiled.
Maisie sits down and looks directly into Helen’s eyes. Helen sees the animosity in the gaze, and hears it when Maisie speaks. “I’m here Helen, even though it is against my better judgment, and I’m sure I’ll regret it later. But I’m not here to have a cosy chat with you over drinks. Say your piece and let me go, and then you can leave me alone again.” Helen’s heart sinks even further. She was not expecting this to be easy, but nor was she expecting Maisie to be this cold and hostile towards her. Her sister had always been so sweet, so kind and gentle, and had never shown any trace of bitterness or cynicism. Naive, Helen always called her, naive and gullible and impressionable. Now she can see the truth; Maisie had been genuinely loving and open, and that all that has happened over the years has robbed her of that spirit and left her angry and resentful. Helen feels the sharp stab of remorse and regret that has become so familiar in recent years. Tears prick at her eyes. She sees Maisie take notice of them, and determines not to break down in front of her, knowing that she would get no sympathy from her sister, would in fact be more likely to receive scorn and derision in return for her tears.
Maisie sits and watches this woman who used to be her sister, but who is now a stranger to her. She is feeling extremely uncomfortable. Helen has called her up out of the blue and asked to see her after five years of silence. She has come to the cafe reluctantly, certain that Helen is going to be her usual spiteful and self-righteous self. Instead, Helen looks scared, and unless Maisie is imagining it, guilty. And are those tears in her eyes? Maisie cannot help but wonder what on earth is going on. She almost wishes she hadn’t spoken so abruptly to Helen when a few moments ago. Helen’s face has registered the comments with pain, but she has made no response. The Helen that Maisie knew in the past would have been ready with a sharp comeback, and would have risen to her own defence immediately.
They sit in silence for a few moments. Helen glances at her sister, taking in the blond curly hair and the striking blue eyes, an inheritance from Maisie’s father and a painful reminder to Helen of the man who had been her stepfather, who had tried so hard to be her dad. Maisie has put on weight in the last five years and looks beautiful; soft and welcoming. Helen is aware of her own slight and angular frame, and of her narrow brown eyes, and feels an old familiar stab of jealousy at being the plainer of the two sisters. She swallows it down, reminding herself that she and Maisie are both created in the image of a beautiful God, and that there is no place for jealousy in her new life.
She wonders how to begin. Should she dive straight into the speech that she has summoned Maisie to hear, and begin the discussion of the topic that sits like a massive barrier between them? Or should she try some small talk first, at the risk of further irritating her sister. She sends up a silent cry to the heavens for wisdom and courage. Finally, she looks up, and although her eyes show her nervousness and shame, her voice is calm and unwavering.
“Maisie”, she says, “I wanted to see you today to tell you that I regret all of the things that I’ve done in the past that have hurt you and our family, that I’m truly sorry for everything. I’m sure that it sounds trite and meaningless after everything that I’ve done, but I want to ask you for your forgiveness. If there is anything that I can do to make amends, I’m willing to do it. I really am truly sorry.”
Maisie stares, speechless, at her sister. Again, tears are forming in the corners of Helen’s eyes. If this is just another performance, another trick, then it is an extremely convincing one. Still, Maisie cannot quite shake off all of the memories of previous deceptions, and she warns herself to be wary, not to trust Helen just yet.
Helen had forgotten the way that Maisie is always so readable, such an open book. She can see every emotion in her sister’s heart flickering across her face; surprise, bewilderment, caution, suspicion. She realises that it might be much more difficult than she had hoped to convince her sister of the sincerity of her words, and to show Maisie that the change which has taken place within her is real and will last. “Oh God” she prays in her heart, “give me the strength to do whatever it takes to convince her and to make amends as I’ve said that I will. And soften her heart to believe me and to see You in my story”.
Maisie searches for words. Eventually she speaks, calmly and so quietly that Helen is forced to lean forward to hear her.
“What could you possibly do that would make amends? Can you bring James back? Can you give back the years that my family has lost? Can you bring dad back to where he belongs, with me and mum? No, I don’t think that you can. I don’t think that anyone can do that. I think that you are trying to ease a guilty conscience. Well, let me tell you something, Helen. You deserve to go to your grave with that guilty conscience, just as the rest of us have to go to our graves with the pain of what you did to us. Don’t come to me asking for forgiveness so that you can feel happy and peaceful, until you find some way that I, as well as mum and dad, can also feel happy and peaceful. And even then, I’m not sure I could forgive you. You ruined my life. You ruined all of our lives.”
Although her voice remains calm and quiet as she talks, Maisie is unable to hide the emotion within her words, and Helen can clearly see her anger and pain. There is only one thing that Helen can say, although she is unsure of how Maisie will react to her words.
“Maisie, there is a way”, she says urgently, “a way that you and I can feel happy, can feel peaceful, even a way that what was lost can be restored”. Maisie stares at her disbelievingly, anger rising on her face, but Helen ploughs on before she can say anything.
“I know you think it’s impossible, and so did I. For such a long time I was sure that there was no hope for me or for our family. But then I learnt the truth, that God is the healer and the restorer. I met Jesus, I mean really met Him personally, and He is the way. Everything that has gone wrong, He can put right. Everything that has been lost, He can bring back. All that we have to do...”
She stops as Maisie abruptly pushes her chair back and stands up. Maisie places her hands flat on the table, and stares down at Helen with revulsion on her face. Her words ring with hatred as she spits them at Helen through clenched teeth.
“I don’t want to hear about God or Jesus. He didn’t help us last time, and he won’t help us now. If you think that God can get you out of the responsibility of what you did, you’re wrong, and I don’t want anything to do with any religion that tells you otherwise. You deserve to rot in hell for all the misery you’ve caused. If this is why you’ve called me here today, to try and win me back to that crackpot cult so that I write off everything that’s happened, then you had better forget it. I’m going, and don’t call me, not now and not ever. I never want to see your face again.”
Maisie turns, almost knocking over her chair in her desire to get away from Helen. She takes two steps away from the table and then turns back, a hint of malice flitting across her pretty face.
“I told mum I was coming to meet you. Do you want to know what she said? She told me that she doesn’t know anyone called Helen. I’m her only child now, just like you have always wanted to be”.
The words pierce Helen’s heart like a knife, and she leans forward onto the table for a moment while she struggles to maintain her self-control. Fury surges up in her, and she turns, ready to respond in spite and anger, but Maisie is gone. Helen takes a few deep breaths. She is keenly aware that the other people in the cafe have seen Maisie stand and storm out, and are now glancing in Helen’s direction. Maisie’s parting shot has hurt her to the core, mainly because there is so much truth in it. Helen knows that she has spent much of her life resenting Maisie for coming into their family, missing the time when she had been the apple of her mother’s eye. Recently, she has recognised what a spoilt selfish person she had been, in her unwillingness to share her mother’s love. Now she would give almost anything to have just a small part of that love again. She would share it with as many people as she had to if she could just see her mother smiling at her again, hear her saying her name the way she had said it back when Helen was still a precious part of her life.
She gulps her coffee, grimacing as she finds that it has gone cold, pulls on her coat and leaves without meeting anyone’s eye, glad that she has not succumbed to tears in front of Maisie or the other customers. As she steps outside onto the busy pavement, the cold bites into her and she pulls her coat tightly around herself, feeling around in her pockets for her gloves. Walking home, she feels exhausted, emotionally drained. She had been so sure that meeting Maisie was the right thing to do, that it was what the Lord had asked her to do. Had she heard it wrong? Doubt fills her mind as she wonders whether Maisie is right about her just wanting to appease a guilty conscience. She feels a lump rising in her throat as she replays Maisie’s words over and over again: “I never want to see your face again... you deserve to rot in hell... I’m her only child now.” Fighting back tears, she hurries towards her flat, concentrating on the feeling of the cold air slowly numbing her ears and cheeks, rather than on the pain inside her heart. With a sigh of relief she spies the bright blue front door of her building, lets herself in and wearily climbs the two flights of stairs to her storey. Unlocking the door of her flat with cold, clumsy finger, she falls inside, slams the door behind her, and slides gently to the floor in the hallway as she finally allows her tears to flow.
She sits and sobs bitterly over the disappointment of the meeting with Maisie, a disappointment heightened by the high hopes that she has held. She cries for Maisie and the angry and bitter person that Helen has caused her to become, and for her refusal to consider the God who loves her and who can heal her. She cries for the loss of the only sister she has, and for the loss of the mother who had once been her best friend and confidante. She cries for the sins that she has committed which have led to the destruction of her family. She cries for James, the brother who lost his life because of her actions, and for her step-father, who still has his life but has lost the ability to live it. She cries for the world of regret inside her, knowing that even though she has been forgiven by her Heavenly Father she is still facing the consequences of what she has done. She cries with longing for forgiveness from Maisie and her parents, for reconciliation with them.
Helen has no idea how long she has sat there, weeping, when she senses a peace, almost like a tangible thing, washing across her heart. She continued to cry, but without the anguish that she had been feeling moments earlier.
“God”, she whispers hoarsely, “is that you? Help me, please help me”. The sense of peace deepens and surrounds her like a blanket, and she remembers the words that she has read so many times: ‘cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you’. These words of scripture written so many years ago bring comfort to her now in her sorrow. She turns her heart towards her Saviour, her Redeemer, and feels her burden lift slightly. She feels His love poured out on her, His arms holding her. The grief is still there in her heart, but she is no longer alone with it, no longer weighed down beneath it.
“God, did I do the right thing? Why didn’t she listen? What can I do now? How will I ever make her understand?” The questions pour forth from her heart to the only one with the answers. “Lord, Father, please tell me what to do next. Please make this restoration possible”. As she sits in silence on the cold floor, a whisper echoes through her soul. “Child, why do you doubt me? What I have promised I will bring to pass, for I am not a man that I should lie.”
Helen thinks back over the many things that God has promised her in the last year. The biggest one is that He will restore the relationship between Helen and her family, that He will use for good everything that has been intended for evil. She silently repents of her doubts. She knows that she had been acting in obedience to God by meeting Maisie. She prays that God will use the few words that she has been able to speak, that He will begin to open Maisie’s heart to the message that Helen has tried to communicate. She prays that He will open the door for her to see Maisie again, to try again to tell her what she so desperately needs to hear; the good news of Jesus Christ. And above all she prays that God will somehow find a way to bring her family back together, healed and whole, after so many years of separation.
Her mind carries her back in time, memories coming unbidden to the surface of her brain from the deep places where she has tried for so long to hide them. She sees herself, as a small girl, laughing hand in hand with her mum, so happy, and naively expecting nothing to ever change.