That’s what it said.

I was in my usual mode for walking about outside: eyes forward, determined-if-glazed expression on my face. If someone had shouted at me from across the street, complimented my bust, or enquired after my mother’s sexual preferences, I wouldn’t have flinched.

Pretty standard, you might say, but that was why when I saw those words, sprayed in a row of clumsy, white stripes in the glow of a Cardiff twilight, I don’t think I took in their meaning. Not at first. Then a little part of my brain went, What? That’s not right, and before I knew it, I’d marched back the way I came and was poring over that ugly bit of graffiti for any further clue as to what the fuck it meant, or who wrote it.

God has Foolishly Answered your Prayers

I had no idea back then as to why those words triggered such a powerful response inside me, this unexplainable but vehement revulsion. Even thinking about them now makes me feel like I want to retch, or choke. Like there’s something jagged and unnatural in the bottom of my throat.

I mean, for a start, they’re just plain wrong, those words. God has foolishly answered your prayers? Well, isn’t God supposed to be omniscient? How could a being that’s supposed to know everything ever be said to act foolishly, right?

And what are my prayers? I would never pray for anything bad, or evil. I rarely pray for anything selfish, like those idiots who are always hassling God to help their team beat Arsenal. I wouldn’t pray for anything I’d regret. That just doesn’t make sense. Nor would I pray for someone else to get hurt, physically or otherwise. I’d like to think that’s beneath me.

So, what do I pray for?

I needed a second to think. My family’s safety; that was one. That people I know to be sick will get better. Occasionally, if I’m feeling sentimental, I’ll pray for people living in war zones, for the vulnerable to be protected, and for evil to be punished. And on occasion, I pray half-jokingly to win the lottery or something.

So there, looks like I am selfish sometimes after all.

Sue me.

But anyway, I decided that this sign wasn’t for me. Probably wasn’t for anyone. It was probably put there by some moron with an abstract sense of humour and a can of paint, and in the morning, the lady who ran the Sailor’s Arms would see it on the side of her pub and pressure-hose it out of existence.

I consigned it to a similar fate inside my head and started walking again in the direction of Newport Road, my arms folded over my coat as further proof against the November night that was poised, waiting for the last glimmer of red to fade from the horizon.

It wasn’t for me, I thought. It wasn’t for anyone.

I suppose I was wrong.


The following day, I had an early lecture. Well, not super early. 10am, to be precise, but I’d smoked a bit the night before and stayed up late talking to my flatmates about old TV shows and 90’s pop songs, as well as this odd graffiti I’d seen on the way back home.

“Moral Philosophy” was the name of the module, and the Abrahamic religions (you know, that lot) were the subject of todays lecture.

“Christian religion normally talks in moral absolutes,” said Dr. Fechner, who managed to make any subject more interesting by being young, animated, and most importantly by possessing the merest suggestion of a European accent. Most days, I would just watch him stot around the Russel Lecture Theatre like he had no idea what a hangover was, and, if I was lucky, I’d also catch a bit of what he was saying.

“Morality is fixed for everybody, no matter who or where you are. Right and wrong are as rigid and unchanging as stones and trees and everybody knows, or feels inside themselves, what the right or wrong thing to do is in any given situation. Therefore, to commit an act of evil, one has to choose to act evilly.”

Christian morality, I thought to myself. Probably didn’t get out much.

It could probably do with meeting some humans. Actual, everyday humans.

The way I see it, nobody acts evilly on purpose; how could they? I mean, if a person knows an act to be wrong, they wouldn’t do it. Who goes out of their way to do something they know to be evil?

No. If a person does something you think is wrong, it’s because they’ve thought it through and decided that it’s actually right. It’s justified.

There are certainly people out there who wake up in the morning and quite happily think to themselves, “I’m gonna kill that girl because she’s sleeping with my husband” or “because she’s part of an ethnic group which I don’t much like,” or maybe even “because she’s a right twat.

And if two people can think about an act like murder and come to different conclusions as to whether it’s right or wrong, then morality obviously isn’t as solid and unchanging as stones and trees. And all you have to do to figure that out is to talk to some human beings.

You’ll find they disagree an awful lot about what’s right and what’s wrong. I find it amazing to think that those desert scribes that laid down the first writings of what became Christianity didn’t pick up on this while they were alive. But maybe this sort of thing is easier to see living in the modern age.

But then again, how should I know?

And I take it nobody bothered to tell either them or Dr. Fechner that even stones and trees disintegrate into nothing given enough time. Or effort.


The graffiti was gone when I walked home that day.

There was even a slight darkening of the tarmac below, where the water hadn’t evaporated yet. I smirked and patted my predictive abilities on the back. Then I happened to glance through the pub window.

It was typical Irish pub-type fare, the kind that exists in any town over a certain size. This one also had a nautical theme, perhaps to distinguish itself from the Irish pub opposite the castle on Queen Street. Various photos of ships hung on the walls alongside men in navy uniforms and watercolours of port towns. A miniature anchor sat above the bar, and even its name, “The Sailor’s Arms,” seemed to reach out, perhaps with a little desperation, for that maritime identity.

There was a big, old TV on a platform near the back of the room. It was showing images that were presumably taken from a helicopter, of a large, square building amongst fields of green, with a kind of jumbled line crossing half the frame like a chain of paperclips.

And that was when I did something I’d never done before. I went into the pub in the middle of the day, by myself, and with my arms still full of shopping, and I ordered a drink.

I pulled myself up into a stool at the bar, heaving my shopping bag into the one next to mine, and I craned my head to look at the telly. It was currently being occupied by a politician of some kind, or at least a greasy-skinned man in an expensive-looking suit. He was gesticulating wordlessly about something he obviously felt very strongly about. Or perhaps he was deflecting blame; I don’t know. After a while, the screen changed again to the shot of the building taken from the air. This time, I was close enough to pick up every detail, including the headline.

“Can I have the sound, please?”

“Sure,” the barman said, and he flourished a remote control. Then the room was occupied by a loud, clear woman’s voice.

“—king news once again that a train has come off the tracks in rural Powys and has collided with a secondary school. Reports are early at this stage and it is still not certain what caused the accident, but is has been suggested that poorly-maintained tracks buckled beneath the weight of the train, causing it to dislodge from the rail line and strike St. Gwilym’s School, which was, sadly, during class hours. It is believed at this stage that as many as 60 students, teachers, and passengers may have lost their lives.”

And that was it. Now I understood. I’d thought there was something familiar about the picture when I’d seen it through the window; I just hadn’t been able to recognise the building from the air.

It was my school. The school I’d gone to for seven years.

There was the rail line. My friends and I had made the habit of sneaking under the fence that separated it from school grounds and messing about on the tracks; or at least we had until we were spotted. Then we’d had detention for six solid weeks and the most severe scolding I’d ever received from a teacher. And there was the train lying twisted on the ground, like a great, tin caterpillar, until it ended abruptly in a shower of masonry, its head still inside the school.

The news report shifted from the sky to the ground and there was my old history teacher Mrs. Brith on the screen. It was only two years since I’d last seen her, but she looked like she’d aged a hundred or more. In my memory, she was formidable: you crossed her at your peril. She was in fact the very same teacher who’d given me a row for messing around on the rail lines, and here she was, red-faced and drenched with tears and snot.

And she was mumbling.

Words I didn’t understand, but spoken so quickly, like they were scalding hot and she needed to get them out of her. Her strained and cracked North Walian, like wind through a broken flue pipe, and spattered with words in Welsh that I didn’t understand. It was almost comical. It wasn’t until I felt the tears coming down my own cheeks that I realised I was crying too. And behind her—

Behind her…

There were duvets and bedsheets and towels and curtains with the rings still attached and coats and carpets and dust sheets and builder’s tarpaulin, and they stretched all the way to the rugby posts at the end of the field, and I realised that they were shrouds.

A coherent phrase punctured through Mrs. Brith’s grief and reached me in that Irish pub sixty miles away.

She said, “How could he let this happen?”


I left for home that weekend. There were funerals to attend. So many funerals. And a candlelit vigil was planned at St. Probert’s Church for the Sunday night.

I’d spoken with my mother a lot, the night I saw the news. She was devastated, naturally. Like Mrs. Brith, sometimes it was hard to understand her through the tears. Her friend Val had lost both her girls, 13 and 15, and Miss Anwen, who’d lived over on Alarch Street, was also gone.

In total, 77 people were killed when that train came off the tracks. Both myself and my mother were so relieved that none of our family were amongst them, although my nephew Simon, who was in year eight, had been there at the school. Thankfully, he’d been on the opposite side when the train hit.

It was funny; St. Gwilym’s had been the central setting of my life for the best part of my teenage years. Almost one third of my life. Now that this had happened, it was hard to believe. Hard to believe anything this interesting or terrible could have happened in that shitty little school.

I never made it a secret that I hadn’t enjoyed my time at St. Gwilym’s very much.

I’m sure that will come as a big surprise: a teenager disliking school.

You probably also won’t be surprised to hear then that I was different from a lot of the other kids. Not in any way that you could plainly see, but people never struggled to see it anyway, and I wasn’t allowed to forget it. Not even for a day.

Now, St. Gwilym’s was destroyed. The damage to its structural integrity was so great that it could never be certain that one day it would not just collapse on itself. They were going to bulldoze it down and build a whole new school, which was disorientating. When I was there, those grey walls had seemed indestructible. Permanent. Like the mountains and valleys that enclosed them. Or Christian ethics.

All that was left for us to do now was to bury the dead and work out who would be doing the high jump for all this. Several names had already been suggested. And yet with this short itinerary, my mind kept coming back to Mrs. Brith’s question. How could God let 77 people, most of whom were just children, die in such a stupid, pointless way? How could he justify the suffering, the terrible pain that had been inflicted upon their families?

I imagined putting the question to the delightful Dr. Fechner and heard my own thoughts marshalled in a perfect impersonation of his German (Austrian?) lilt.

Some people obviously would say that God works in mysterious ways, as I’m sure you’ve heard a hundred times. Who’s to say what good might come in the long term from even the most terrible of disasters? In this sense, one could argue that God is a utilitarian.” Dr Fechner chuckled. “Others would probably argue that God is unknowable. That such tiny, insignificant and unintelligent beings as humans are incapable of understanding the morality of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent deity. Perhaps we are like ants to Him, and He affords as much concern to our individual existence as we would to the insect. Perhaps God is just alien, and any ideas we can come up with about the nature of right or wrong are simply incompatible with whatever He might believe.


It was the day of the first funeral. A double funeral, in fact, for Val’s girls. Mother was already over there, providing what comfort she could. I had caught sight of Val briefly as we passed in front of her house. She wasn’t crying, as you might expect. Perhaps she had no more tears left in her. Her cheeks were hollow and gaunt and her eyes were sunk back in sockets of yellow flesh. I remember thinking that I couldn’t recognise anything in that face. Nothing human, or alive. Certainly not Val. Maybe, I thought, it’s not possible to feel so much pain and survive. And even if she recovered from this, remarried, had more kids, a part of her would remain as dead as the children she’d lost.

Mother had left a black dress on my bed. One I hadn’t seen or even thought about for years. Dresses have never been my thing, really. I was surprised it still fit—it had been so long—but it did. I sat down on the bed and waited for the doorbell to call me to church.

To pass the time, I leafed through some of the old books that were left dusty and abandoned on my shelves. There was an anthology of Beatrix Potters, and the whole set of the other notable Potter, of course. I’d loved those stories as a kid. Dearly. For a few seconds, I allowed myself to forget everything that had happened, just by opening the pages and reading whatever popped out. I even allowed myself to smile.

There were a few of my old dream journals up there as well. Throughout my teenage years, I’d filled three whole notebooks with the things I’d seen with my eyes closed. You won’t be surprised to hear that most of them were the usual nonsense. Illogical, and frequently mundane, but they still managed to elicit a pulse of nostalgia, and occasionally, actual memories of the dreams themselves.

And then there was that entry. The odd one out. Odd because it didn’t actually describe the dream I’d had. In fact, past-me seemed to have made the deliberate choice not to write it down, and it was a dream of which I retained no memory. It started like this:

I had a dream last night. Well, a nightmare. Bad one. Worst one I’ve had in a while. I won’t go into it, but I still feel a bit shaken writing this down.

And this I couldn’t wrap my head around. I always wrote down my nightmares. Even the horrible ones. Especially the horrible ones. I liked telling them to my friends afterwards.

I read on and finished the entry, and as I did, a single shard of memory returned to me. The only piece that I have recalled since from my missing dream. And for that, I think I’m grateful.

I recalled the speaker the entry went on to not describe. Those sneering, rotting lips that took such joy in the awful words they spoke. And at the same time, I remembered the 13-year-old girl I had been, who had woken one morning crying because she didn’t want to go to school, and I remembered what that girl had prayed for. Prayed for with all her heart.

The entry concluded:

I will say this, though: there was a sentence spoken in the dream, and I don’t understand why it upsets me so much. The sentence was this: “God has Foolishly Answered your Prayers.”