The hospital was more than just one building, but a complex of buildings, carparks, and gardens. It was located on the edge of the city centre. The whole facility was surrounded by a red brick ring wall with a small cottage for the original groundskeeper when the hospital was first built. The days of indentured caretakers tied to the land were passed of course, but the original building still stood there as a reminder of quainter days. It was a tall white wooden building with high ceilings and a steep wooden roof. Green fungus had taken over patches of the roofing tiles with obvious gaps where old tiles had been replaced with new ones in recent years. The cottage was located at the corner of the hospital estate closest to the city centre and had been taken over by a Christian charity for the homeless organised by a local church.
Paul was busy making sandwiches with the other volunteers who came in from the parish. Every night the volunteers made hundreds of ham and cheese sandwiches for the homeless. Sometimes they had a huge pot full of soup as well to share, and tonight was one such night so Paul had to go in and out of the kitchen to check on the soup. He had just ducked out when a woman dressed in a short skirt, leg warmers, and stylish leather jacket walked into the area where the volunteers were busy preparing the sandwiches. She looked at each volunteer’s face coolly observing them. Some of the volunteers noticed her and bid her a warm welcome which she ignored. When she spotted Paul through the doorway to the kitchen she drew herself up to her full height on each high heel and allowed a hungry smile to emerge from the sea of cosmetics covering her face. The woman walked quietly into the kitchen, all sense of apprehension now missing from her thin body. She was standing right behind Paul as he was carefully stirring the huge pot of soup.
“That’s a big dinner you’ve got there,” said the woman slowly.
Paul looked over his shoulder to see the newcomer, “Actually this is soup for the homeless, are you interested in volunteering?”
“Er, no, I am actually from the hospital. My name is Deaspara and I work there as a logistics manager, I haven’t been in this building before and I wanted to know what happens here.”
“Oh! Well, I am Paul, but I am just a volunteer, you should talk to Marcus, he co-ordinates the charity work here.”
“Is Marcus here tonight?”
Paul shook his head.
“Then why don’t you come and grab a drink with me and tell me what you do here. Don’t worry about money, it’s my treat.”
Paul blushed and looked about awkwardly for support but the only other person nearby was his friend Rick who gestured at Deaspara’s attractive figure approvingly and gave him a thumbs up. Deaspara pretended not to notice this and fixed her grey-blue eyes firmly on Paul’s. Paul’s eyes darted down at the exposed cleavage at the front of Deaspara’s top and hoped vainly she hadn’t noticed him do this. She smiled warmly, stepped forward, and took hold of his elbow.
“Come on, I know a really nice little place just near here.”
Paul blushed, smiled, and allowed the strange woman to lead him away. Rick was grinning mischievously as they left the cottage together. Because of his knee injury Paul wasn’t much use helping out at the soup van, so he decided it wouldn’t do much harm if he left now, besides, Rick had taken over looking after the soup. Deaspara led Paul to a small quiet café that was poorly lit and bought him tea and jam donuts. Paul explained to Deaspara about the soup kitchen and how they wouldn’t just give out the sandwiches but would actually sit and chat with the homeless people as often as possible.
“You see,” explained Paul, “one of the biggest causes of homelessness isn’t a lack of jobs, but mental illness brought on by traumatic experiences and loneliness. A lot of these people desperately need someone to sit with them and listen to their stories.”
Deaspara seemed to devour every word Paul said with intense interest, “and you Paul, who listens to you when you need someone to listen to you?”
Paul swallowed uncomfortably, “I have a friend who listens to me. Her name is Oriana.”
“Is she your girlfriend?”
Paul’s cheeks turned imperceptibly pink in the low light conditions, “No, she’s just a friend.”
“I see, such a shame, a kind hearted young man such as yourself would be a great catch for a young lady.”
Paul’s cheeks were now so rosy that Deaspara could see the colour even in the dark. She pulled her head back and smiled coyly at him. Then broke eye contact to look at her hands: her right hand covering the left.
“I feel embarrassed asking this question, but do you, do you believe in god?”
Paul nodded enthusiastically, “Yes, I am a believer in our lord Jesus Christ.”
Deaspara smiled warmly, “I am so impressed by any man with the courage to believe in god. I wish I could have faith like that.”
“Didn’t you grow up religious?”
“Oh I did, I even went to Sunday school and participated in mass. I wanted to be a nun at one point.”
“You’re going to laugh at me,”
“No I won’t.”
“Oh you will when you hear how silly this is.”
Paul plied the immaculately dressed woman with all the assurances he could to convince her to share her mind with him. Deaspara beamed at him with her broad lips painted in lipstick and fluttered her eyelashes at him furtively. Eventually Paul believed he had succeeded in convincing the seemingly shy woman to explain why she no longer believed in god.
“I started to get very scared of god.”
“Scared of god?”
“Yes. It struck me one night. I was lying in bed saying my prayers when I realised there was no point in saying my prayers out loud because god was able to read my mind. It then occurred to me that there was nothing I could do to stop him looking at me. Clothed or naked, at home or in the forest, awake or asleep… he was watching me. Judging me. I just couldn’t escape him, his tyrannical laws, and the punishment he had waiting for me in the afterlife.”
Paul starred wide eyed at Deaspara, “but that’s not true, god’s not like that.”
“Is god not all seeing? Is he not all knowing? Is he not all powerful?”
Paul professed that’s what he believed.
“Then god is a tyrant and we have no free will at all. If we dared turn against him he would throw us into a late of fire. When I realised how cruel and controlling god was, I realised that I was afraid of him, and being afraid of him I could not freely choose to love him. Feeling coerced into worshipping him at the threat of eternal Hellfire, I concluded that I could never love such a loathsome beast.”
“But we have free will, we have to choose to love him,” said Paul feebly.
Deaspara went on to explain in great depth citing scientific experiments proving how predictable the universe was, and how randomness, if indeed it existed, wasn’t the same as free will. That all our actions are predetermined and that there could be so such thing as free will. Paul tried to argue back against what Deaspara said but he found himself agreeing with her every point. He felt sure that free will was a fact, yet faced with the avalanche of arguments from Deaspara he found he just couldn’t push back against her assertion that what we call free will was merely an illusion.
“And when I realised how controlling and petty god must be… well that’s when I decided that I wasn’t going to believe in such nonsense. But I still admire people who can believe in god. I really wish I could have some faith in the goodness of humanity,” Deaspara trailed off looking tearful.
“What’s wrong, Deaspara?” Said Paul his voice wet with sympathy.
“Oh, don’t worry your noble head about me, I am fine,” but her eyes and voice were laced in uncried tears.
“You don’t look fine.”
“It’s getting late, I should go back home,” she reached into her handbag and pulled out a business card and handed it to Paul. This was the first time he noticed her wedding ring.
“Here, why don’t you send me a text? We can meet up again soon and talk more about the kitchen for the homeless. Maybe I can convince the hospital to donate something to your charity?”
Paul took the card and slipped it into his pocket. He then walked her, albeit slowly on his bad leg, back to the hospital. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek gently, tears glinting from the corners of her eyes. Then she took off and disappeared inside the main building. Paul made his way home, but his mind was ruminating over this unhappy woman and the idea that god was actually a cruel tyrant and all the world’s people his instruments for petty amusement.