She arrived in my office, a whirlwind of carroty hair, swishing skirts and jangling bracelets.
“Pastor Kenneth! Welcome to our church!”
Plump arms embraced me and she squeezed like I was an empty toothpaste tube. From the corner of my eye, I saw Marlene, my secretary sniggering. Detaching myself, I smiled as broadly as I could. “Pleased to meet you ...”
“Paradise. Paradise Chatton.”
As she swirled out, Marlene straightened some files on my desk. “They say every church has one you know.”
I held up my hand. “I’ll find out in due course. No use confusing me with everyone’s history.”
“Just watch out for her, Kenneth. This side of Paradise is by far the best.”
Over the next few months, I learnt a number of things about Paradise. She was wildly enthusiastic, friendly to the extreme, threw her heart and soul into church ... and no one really liked her. I caught snippets of gossip. “Over the top, excessive, moody, attention seeker.” Struggling to cope with her myself, I didn’t join the character assassination ... but neither did I defend her. In fact I privately named her ‘my ginger explosion’.
Six months later, I took a two-week break and when I returned, her absence was conspicuous. “Where’s Paradise?” I asked Marlene.
“I heard she went to visit family.”
I pondered on that for a while, then realised what was bugging me. I went back to Marlene’s desk. “And she didn’t make a public announcement, write me a letter and give you her phone number in case I needed her.”
Marlene shook her head. “I just heard from someone else that she was away.”
It bothered me all day and eventually, I decided to check her house on the way home. I’d previously been there for a potluck lunch and it was a pristine, white bungalow with neat flower beds and an emerald lawn. I was dismayed to see the state it was in when I walked up the pathway. The grass was overgrown and flowers wilted in the heat.
“Paradise!” I knocked loudly and called through the letter slot. “Are you in there?”
I walked along the side wall, avoiding yellowed blooms that sagged from the waist. “Paradise!” Cupping my hands around my eyes I stared into her living-room and saw a dishevelled mound lying on a sofa. Frizzy ginger curls hung over the armrest and the room was in total disarray. I broke the door down, heart racing as I crunched my way over broken plates and crushed pizza boxes. “Paradise! Can you hear me?”
“Kenny boy ...”
I bent over her, forming the gossip of six months into coherent sense. “Are you bipolar, Paradise? Have you stopped taking your meds?”
She rolled her eyes towards me. “Maybe.”
I called emergency services and knelt down next to her. How long had she been lying like this? The couch was soaked in urine and her breath was fetid. An image of the woman I knew flashed through my mind and I realised what Marlene had tried to tell me. This was the other side of Paradise. The depressed side after she slid out of a manic phase.
A picture formed and I didn’t like what I saw. I was standing in the middle of the church, surrounded by a nucleus of smiling people with trim bodies, powerful careers and inflated egos. Around the perimeter, a fringe of human flotsam circulated. It was made up of those we considered inappropriate, annoying, and undeserving. That I considered inappropriate, annoying, and undeserving.
“I’m sorry, God.” I felt sick as I looked at Paradise.
What do you see, Kenneth?
I tried to be honest. “A ginger explosion. A noisy woman with wild hair and a crazy personality.”
And what do I see, Kenneth
A picture formed and tears prickled.
Tell her, the inner voice whispered.
“Paradise,” I stroked her cheek. “Look at me.”
She slit her eyes open.
‘You’re a beautiful princess, Paradise. Your heart is overflowing with love and enthusiasm and you’re kind and hospitable. You’ve served God and His church with joy and He sees that. He thinks you’re fantastic.” I squeezed her hand as the paramedics came bursting in. “And so do I.”
A slivered smile lifted her mouth; a tiny glimpse of hope.
I whispered in her ear as they wheeled her out. “I mean it, Paradise. You’re incredible. You’ll get through this and we’ll be with you all the way.”
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