Authors: Laura Marney
Laura Marney’s first novel,
No Wonder I Take a Drink
, was voted by the public in
magazine poll as one of the Top 20 Scottish books of all time.
“At last, a funny novelist with guts.” – Henry Sutton,
Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby
“A rollicking earthy humour.” – Zoe Strachan on
No Wonder I Take a Drink
“Marney is a marvellous comic writer.” –
My Best Friend Has Issues
“Laura Marney’s wickedly dark sense of humour is such that she could write about anything and get away with it.
Only Strange People Go to Church is
a book of few boundaries… Any awkwardness in Marney’s choice of subject is glossed over by her style and tone: matter-of-fact, punchy, pacey, with a keen eye for description. The plot has more kinks than a corkscrew and a strong sense of momentum maintains suspension of disbelief until the very end… Her characters are typically comedic: ordinary people with ordinary jobs and lives, whose small faults or vices render them recognisable to the reader while also becoming a source of humour.” –
“Hilarious…Read it for the sharp wit and delightfully soft feeling it’ll give you.” –
“Divine comedy… a joyous celebration of human imperfection.” – Louise Welsh, author of
The Cutting Room
One Month Later
Reading group questions
Why I wrote Only Strange People Go to Church
Also by Laura Marney
About the Author
‘Look!’ says Fiona, pointing. ‘That man’s got his thing out!’
Although Maria would rather they didn’t, everyone stares. Martin, Jane and Brian follow Fiona’s lead and gawk at the man. Unfortunately she’s right. The man has got his thing out.
is too grand a word for it. At this distance it’s a slimy wee snail in the palm of his hand, that’s all. Hardly worth making a fuss over but they’re all squinting at it, giving him exactly what he wants: attention. The real obscenity is his face, or what they can see of it. He is of the shy bashful school of exhibitionists: his nose and chin are demurely hidden behind a thick scarf. He’s looking at them but his eyes are slits, jaw tilted up, his face curling in on itself. That’s the shocking thing, thinks Maria; really it’s quite pathetic, a man exposing himself on a public street to a group of mentally disabled people.
He’s a sad case, and his nether regions are pitiful to behold: fly undone, pants a thousand-wash grey, underbelly slack and wanton, pubic hair like an ounce of
. His heavy leather belt is unbuckled. The ends of it writhe and flap like a peacock’s display as he jerks, pulling at his poor flaccid dick, tugging out his resentment, exposing his contempt, his desperation.
His cock is the least of it.
‘Just ignore him,’ Maria orders her group, walking smartly, forcing Brian to speed up in his electric wheelchair.
But, as usual, Fiona refuses to do as she’s told. She continues to stare and point at the man, giggling like a teenager.
Maria shakes her head. It’s obvious to anyone that Fiona and the rest of them have learning difficulties or disabilities, that they’re
Mentally Handicapped, Mentally Disabled, Learning Difficulties, Special. She’s lost track of what this week’s politically correct word for it is. Spazzies, nungies, loonies are some of the more colourful names the kids shout at them.
The man seems to be taking Fiona’s laughter as encouragement and with his free hand beckons her. He tugs and waves, moving towards her, calling her on. His body language insinuating: come and get it baby, oh yeah. Perhaps Fiona’s lack of understanding is adding to the thrill for him.
With this thought a surge of rage passes through Maria. The idea that someone would abuse Fiona’s innocence makes her want to vomit. She’d like to rip this pervert’s dick off and throw it to a passing dog, but her first priority is to get Blue Group away from here.
‘Come on, Fiona, pet,’ she says, gentle but insistent. ‘Let’s get back to the centre and we’ll get our juice and crisps.’
Maybe it was a mistake to take this quiet back street. At one time this was the busiest street in Hexton. Four times a day it was a slow flowing river of men in working boots and overalls. Men with woolly hats and newspapers rolled into batons who brought home a small brown pay packet along with the sharp smell of hot metal and Swarfega. But the factory is closed now. Despite every government inducement it has lain empty for years, the deserted street an opportunity, not for heavy industry, but for a shrewd pervert.
There is no immediate danger. The man is at a safe distance, skulking on the opposite side of the road from Maria and her clients. Clients, Service Users, Key Group, Blue Group, whatever the phrase of the moment is. She would never let them see that his behaviour is in any way threatening, it would only frighten them and she’s far too professional for that. But the man is keeping up with them and he’s getting closer. ‘Right, that’s it,’ she shouts across at him, pulling her bag to her and rummaging, digging for her mobile phone. ‘I’m calling the police.’
At this the man stops. He laughs but it’s a nervous laugh, and it doesn’t stop him mauling his penis. If anything, the tempo
increases. He persists with his frantic wanking, turning his attention now to Maria, staring at her with shark eyes.
Until a few minutes ago he might have been the average man in the street: unobtrusive, of modest comportment, a plumber or a photocopier salesman, probably married with a couple of kids. Then he claps eyes on Blue Group and boof! He’s a raging sex maniac. His eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot, clogged with lust. Not even the threat of Maria phoning the police has frightened him off.
It is only a threat, an empty threat it turns out, because she now discovers that she’s forgotten her phone. While her phone lies impotently in the staffroom back at the centre Maria is forced to watch this pervert waving his bits at adults who are as innocent as children. He won’t do them any physical harm, he’d have crossed the road by now if he was planning to and he’d have to get past Maria first, but still and all. What he’s doing isn’t harmless. This could be the first step, the beginning of an apprenticeship in sexual deviancy that could end in rape or murder. But at last he backs off.
‘He’s going away!’ cries Fiona, sounding disappointed.
The man slowly turns and begins casually walking into a side street.
‘Good,’ says Maria. ‘He’s not a nice man.’
Fiona bolts across the road.
‘Fiona! Come back here right now!’
There is no traffic on the road and when she reaches the other side Fiona follows the man into the side street. What is Maria to do? She can’t very well let a client disappear up an alleyway with a sexual deviant, but on the other hand she can’t desert the rest of them.
Martin, a small, rosy-faced, sleepy-eyed young man finds this turn of events exciting. He’s jumping up and down on the spot. Jane is scared and begins to cry. Jane is small and mousy with a runny nose and a metal plate in her head, everything scares her. Brian, the boy in the wheelchair, the nineteen- year-old baby of Blue Group, the most physically disabled, storms into action.
‘Get. Her. Back.’ says Brian’s Dynavox machine.
The words come out slow and calm but his electric wheelchair zooms out on to the road, bouncing Brian almost out of his chair as it crashes down off the kerb. Forgetting everything Maria has taught them all about the Green Cross Code, Martin is right behind him.
Maria has no alternative. She grabs Jane’s arm and hauls her across the road, barking a command as she runs.
She tries never to raise her voice to clients but these are extreme circumstances.
‘Jane, hold on to the chair. Martin, you round this side, now hold on. Run together, come on now!’
Ahead of them in the alley Fiona is catching up with the man. He’s moving slowly, his head is down, his hands busy now with trying to stuff away the offending articles. Unfortunately, due to his masturbatory zeal, he seems to have burst his zip. He’s no longer strolling. He seems to be experimenting with a range of walking speeds. His strolling has become striding, then yomping, trotting, eventually settling into a light jog. So far he has resisted actual running.
For a flasher, running away from the people you are attempting to frighten might represent a loss of face, an admission of failure. Besides which, running with your tackle dangling is undignified, not to say painful and potentially dangerous. Running away is probably an occupational hazard for sexual exhibitionists, but run he now must. Although Fiona hasn’t yet managed to catch up with him, the gap between them is narrowing.
Fifty yards ahead of the others Fiona is now chasing the man full tilt down the alley.
‘We’re coming Fiona, wait for us!’ Maria shouts.
Maria pulls Jane and Martin in close. They group defensively behind Brian’s chair and run in step, one two, one two, one two, their feet beating out a rhythm on the tarmac. As if about to storm a medieval castle, Brian and his wheelchair have become both defence and weapon, a battering ram. This formation is effective in keeping them together but, as they are almost falling over each other, it’s impeding their progress. The gap between Blue Group
and Fiona is widening. Suddenly, the man dodges to the left and out of sight. Worse: a second later Fiona follows him and Maria loses visual contact with her headstrong client.
Decision time: allow Fiona to disappear up an alley with a flasher or abandon the rest of the group? Maria is in a quandary. Again it is Brian who suggests a plan.
‘Maria.’ says the Dynavox in its languorous voice. ‘You. Run. Ahead. We’ll. Follow.’
‘Okay, but try to keep up!’ Maria yells as she breaks free of the group.
She instantly doubles her speed. Brian’s right, she thinks, this is a matter of priorities. She is surprised by how fast she can run. Fear and rage make her body light and her long legs powerful. Within seconds she reaches the left turn into which Fiona and the man have disappeared.
Maria is generally a positive thinker, always trying to stay positive, but right at this moment she can only picture Fiona lying murdered in the alley, her belly ripped wide, her innards spilled, a look of disappointed confusion on her lifeless face.
The left turn leads to a street on a steep hill. The gradient is so sharp that instead of pavement there are multiple flights of steps with a metal handrail running up the side. The man has not yet cleaved Fiona’s belly, thank God. Fiona is still chasing him, though he shows no signs of tiring. He bounds up the stairs two at a time. A morbidly obese forty-one-year-old asthmatic, Fiona is no match for him, but she will not give up. She’s made the sixth step, hauling her large frame up, hand over hand, along the railing. Her cheeks are flushed almost purple and she is wheezing noisily.
‘Stop!’ Maria shouts.
Maria once again rifles her voluminous handbag. Please God
don’t let Fiona’s inhaler be in the staffroom along with the phone. She has commanded Fiona to stop for fear that she’ll give herself an asthma or heart attack, but so authoritative is Maria’s order that Fiona is not the only one to obey. From the relative safety of two flights of steps above, the man stops. He leans forward, chest heaving, hands on thighs.
Maria holds the back of Fiona’s head and inserts the inhaler into her panting mouth. Underneath her long tousled hair Fiona is hot and damp. Sweat steams from her.
‘Take a deep breath, hold it. Hold it.’
Maria shakes her head in frustration: three years in the job and still unable to keep her clients under control. Fiona is by far the worst, as untameable as a stampeding buffalo. As if to demonstrate this she exhales with a snort and tries to speak.
‘Eh, no you don’t.’
Maria pops the inhaler back in Fiona’s mouth.
‘And again, in. Hold it.’
Fiona this time complies but her eyes are popping and Maria prays that this is the excitement of the chase rather than a myocardial infarction.
‘You’re okay, everything’s okay, pet. I just need you to calm down. Can you do that, Fiona, can you calm down for me?’
Fiona nods, she can do that for Maria, but her eyes never leave the gasping man. Maria knows that he’ll probably bolt as soon as he gets his breath back, and that if she doesn’t stop her, Fiona will too.
The infantry arrive. Martin and Jane, still holding on to Brian’s wheelchair, bring up the rearguard. They run steadily, not slowing until they reach the bottom of the stairway.
With their positions on the steps, Fiona, Maria and the man have formed the outline of a triangle. Maria has her arm about Fiona, Fiona has her eyes raised to the man, the man is clearly suffering. Something about the shape of this formation reminds Maria of a religious print that hung in her old flat. But instead of the man being an angel of the Lord with spiky golden rays around his head, he is a pervert with his willy hanging out. The man does
not share this aesthetic perspective because, when the others turn up, he legs it pronto.
Martin and Jane begin to yell.
‘He’s getting away!’
‘Quick, get him!’
What began as a rescue mission to bring Fiona back has become a manhunt.
Maria restrains her. She will not be able to hold Fiona for long; she weighs twice what Maria does, or more.
‘Leave it. Let him go. Just calm down.’
Fiona strains against Maria, reluctant to give up the chase. But the man is now almost three flights of steps away, he cannot be caught. As he disappears over the brow of the hill Maria feels the fight go out of Fiona. She begins to cry as Maria leads her back down the steps.
‘He’s unlucky,’ Fiona sobs.
‘No,’ Maria corrects her, ‘he was lucky. He got away.’
Maria should know better than to contradict Fiona, especially when she’s this upset. She’s likely to get angry and if she does there’ll be no holding her. Instead she gets surreal.
‘He’s got a strawberry. It’s unlucky.’
Surreal and affectionate. Fiona now throws her arms around Martin in a fierce hug. This is better than trying to hit him, something she sometimes does when she’s overexcited.
‘Did you see his strawberry?’ she asks Martin.
Martin is unable to reply as his whole head has been engulfed in Fiona’s bosom. Jane receives a similarly passionate embrace and Jane rubs Fiona’s back in a comforting gesture, patting her to signal that she’s had enough.
‘He’s a bad man,’ says Fiona.
‘Yes,’ says Jane. ‘He’s a bad man.’
Brian has sicked up his lunch, a common enough occurrence and, with all the banging around in his chair, hardly surprising, but this doesn’t put Fiona off. She vigorously pulls him to her. Brian’s thin arms are bent across his chest and Maria often worries
that Fiona will break his delicate sparrow frame with her rough handling but he never seems to mind. Fiona now moves towards Maria for the last and final cuddle. Maria tries not to look at the splodges of Brian’s masticated spag bol lunch Fiona carries on her chest. With a heavy sigh and the acid smell of Brian’s bile sharp in her nostrils she opens her arms and lets Fiona mush the sick into her favourite pale blue jacket.
A van pulls into the side street and draws to a stop beside them. What the hell is it now? The driver leans across and opens the passenger door, or tries to, but he can’t seem to reach. Before Maria has a chance to stop him, Martin jumps on to the footplate and opens the door. He is about to climb into the cab when Maria’s piercing scream of ‘Martin!’ stops him and he returns to the safety of the group.