SAFE IN THE ARMS OF JESUS
[Excerpts from this memoir are used in my novel, the working title of which is 'What Must Be Broken'.]
I left home, one day on the spur of the moment
just after my eighteenth birthday. I went to say
goodbye to my two youngest sisters at school.
It was break-time and crowds of laughing girls rushed past me. I found my sisters and said, I'm going now. My little sister stood wide eyed and silent. My other sister was grave and solemn. I said, you'll have to look after Helen now. I walked away, knowing they would be too frightened to lie to my father and mother. They would tell them they had seen me.
Our past is split in two. For me the first part lasted seven years. For my youngest brother, the first part ended before he was born.
My father was in a home for old people. We had put him there. My sister had found him wedged in the bath one day, bone-thin, weak, unable to gather the strength to haul himself out. Months before, he’d rigged up a complicated alarm system of strings and pulleys, out of the bathroom window to a neighbours house. He’d been stuck in the bath before. Now, he was too feeble to remember his invention, let alone pull on the string hanging above the bath. He lay there in the water which grew colder and colder, while above him the room heater glared red, heating the air like an oven. They took him to hospital, where he pissed in the sinks and threw porridge at the windows.
The home was down a lane leading to the sea. My father had a room with small ugly furniture looking onto a yard full of dustbins. I went to visit him. There were things I wanted to know before he died.
He was watching television. The room was very hot, and stinking, noisy with the television. "He can't be bothered to get up and go." they’d said to my sister.
"Hello, Daddy, it’s Celia.” I said. His great head swung slowly towards me and pale puzzled eyes looked up.
"You ran away." he said. Flatly, accusingly. My throat filled with tears. The next day, I took him a hymn-book he'd wanted, "The Little Flock Tune Book". The Little Flock are the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict and repressive Christian cult. We'd been members until I was seven, then suddenly we weren't and no-one had ever told us why. I thought perhaps my father might now.
His loss of memory bridged back into his childhood. Everything that had been between us was forgotten. I doubted he knew who I was, just a voice, naming names, dredging up his past. He told me things I’d never known before. He told me of his mother’s conversion to the Brethren. She'd sat silently at the back of the meeting for weeks while they tested her integrity and commitment. My grandfather, humiliated by this, refused to have anything to do with the Brethren.
He told me of the time an angel touched him. It was 1919. He was twelve, free-wheeling on his bicycle along a busy London road, one hand gripping the platform rail of a tram. The fierce hot presence of the angel instructed him to let go. Be safe.
One Sunday morning, late summer, I was seven, Rosalind six, Patricia five. John and Helen even younger. They didn't count. We three were the big ones. We brushed our own hair before breakfast and got dressed in our complicated clothes, and our hair was plaited by our mother as we ate. No-one could cut their hair because if you did it was a sign of vanity. If you had vanity, you couldn't be Exclusive Brethren.
We played in the playroom after breakfast. My father prayed. My mother had the babies and the washing up and her hair, which was more complicated than plaits. Now it was time to get ready. We went upstairs, washed our hands, made sure no boiled egg had got stuck in the smocking of our dresses. Our coats were waiting downstairs. We were going to the meeting, where we would be in the presence of God, which was strange because he was also in our hearts, put there by our father when he baptised us in the bath, when we were babies.
We stopped on the landing. Downstairs in the hall, my mother and my father were standing. They didn't move. They looked strange. I looked at Rosalind and Patricia. They were covered in red and blue dots of light from the coloured glass in the landing window.
My father looked up. "We aren't going to the meeting today."
That was the end of the first part of my life. After that, everything changed. First, the hair. I suppose my mother was tired of plaiting and twisting, and ironing ribbons, and so she cut our hair off, me first. Now we were like everybody else. We felt naked.
Next Saturday I was sent to buy a small cottage loaf. I carried it home in a paper bag. Sunday morning after breakfast, I was sent into the drawing room with instructions to dust the vases on the mantelpiece. As I dusted my father appeared with a small pedestal table which he placed in the centre of the room. His face looked very stern. He looked as he did when I had been especially bad, but he didn't speak. I stood silently by the bookcase watching while my father opened the piano and placed a copy of the "Little Flock Tune Book" on it. Then he went out of the room. Suddenly I wanted to hide. In front of the bay window was a carved oak bureau. I often stood alone behind it looking out across the drive and front lawn, towards the road. Now I stood there holding the yellow duster. Someone came into the room and put something down. All I could hear was silence. Maybe everyone had gone to the meeting. Why had they left me behind? Why had I been dusting on the Lord's Day? Doing housework on the Lord's Day was a sin.
"The world is sin!" my father said. That was why we had been Brethren. I twisted a corner of the duster and pushed it into a hole in the back of the bureau. I poked my head around the corner. The little table was laid with a stiff white cloth. I crept out and stared at it. There was the loaf I'd bought the day before, sitting in a round basket, on a folded linen napkin. Beside that was a glass full of wine. My hand reached out and put it to my lips. The liquid made my nose tickle. I quickly put it down. I heard footsteps in the hall. My mother entered the room.
"Celia! There you are! The others are in the garden. Off you go!"
I ran, down the hall, through the door, down the stone steps, across the lawn to the swing, where my brother was sitting and pushing himself back and forth, and I pushed him hard, so he landed in the grass. I sat on the swing and kicked him. He got up and staggered towards my little sister who was sitting in her play pen under the pear tree. I swung my legs furiously into the air and back. I could see into the orchard of the nursing home next door. The old people were propped up in chairs. I thought they may as well be dead.
At the end of the lawn were two cedar trees. Cedars of Lebanon, my father had told me. I hated him for naming them. At one side of the trees, before the gate into the bottom garden, was a pillow of grass cuttings. I liked to put my hands into the warm centre. It smelt applely and liquid, like my rabbit cage.
The bottom garden had been left to go wild for thirty years, my father said, and it had grown up like a forest. We’d carved tunnels through the brambles. Once we found a strange boy. We tied him to a tree and stuffed cherry leaves into his mouth. Then we let him go.
When I became eleven, I began to lose interest in the garden. Till then, I had felt it pulling me, from school, at lunchtime. The afternoons would pass slowly, then I would walk home, holding my anticipation like a precious baby.
I had stolen Rosalind’s Mars Bar and hidden it behind the hymn-books. She had turned red with fury and thrown a toy fire-engine at me. It had flown straight through the window and smashed on the stone balcony outside. Surely, I thought, this is worse? I refused to feel responsible. Anyway, I hadn't actually eaten the Mars Bar. In the kitchen my mother looked at me with the pain of disappointment as my sister cried loudly, blaming me for the Mars Bar, the window and the fire-engine.
I decided to go and do my piano practice. The drawing room was cold and forbidding. I sat still and upright on the long piano stool and contemplated my fingers on the keyboard. I tried to imagine a golf ball clenched in each palm as my piano teacher had told me. Just as I had the golf ball in place and the first notes in my mind, my father walked in. His face had a concentrated expression of concern. "There’s a devil in you," he began in a conversational way, as he sat down beside me on the piano stool. A slight inclination of his head towards the piano and towards me. His hand on my arm. I made myself turn to stone.
His voice was tender and hypnotic as he explained that I was possessed by an evil force which was destroying the very fabric of our family, literally driving my mother mad.
"She weeps every evening," my father said, "she feels she has failed as a mother. It brings on terrible migraines."
I turned for an instant to glare righteously at my father. He was busy trying to get his message across and my glare was lost. I knew that what he said about me and my mother was untrue. If my mother was going mad, then it was him who was causing it. I hated my father intensely at that moment, as I always did during our chats on the piano stool. I prayed, willing God to strike him down. In case God had forgotten, I silently reminded Him of His obligation towards the little ones.
I saw my father in the presence of the Almighty. My father was very small and was wailing and gnashing his teeth. I heard the voice of God booming out, "Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones…" I saw a millstone lowered around my father's neck. God’s arm shot out and a jet of light from His pointing finger knocked my father flying. The millstone pulled him down towards a dense black sea. I held my breath.
Beside me my father was silent. I became aware that he was staring at me. I smiled, reached out my hands and began to play.
"There is no love like the love of Jesus,
Never to fade or fall,
Till into the fold of the peace of God
He has gathered us all.
Jesus' love! Precious love!
My voice soared out. Slowly my father got up. He walked to the door and put his hand on the door knob. I watched him from the corner of my eye. He looked tired. I went on singing and playing. He cleared his throat. I stopped and looked up, expectantly. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. His hand twisted, the door opened, he was gone.