Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Generation Gap Part 1

These were written when daughter was about 16 and I felt about 127, and were published as part of a series of articles under the title 'The generation gap', in a woman's magazine.

Letters from the trenches
The mother's view
A battle is being waged in our house. Quite separate from the everyday rucks and mauls, this is a war of subtlety where the main tactic is Wearing Down the Resistance.

The first blow was struck a couple of years ago although at that stage I didn't realise it was a war. Anna wanted to have her ears pierced. I held out until I felt she was old enough to make such a decision and then quite happily accompanied her to the shop. In fact, I went one step further and had my own ears pierced as well!

So that was that I thought. But I hadn't taken fashion into account. Next it was "Mum, can I have another earring in the top of my ear." "No definitely not."

I honestly can't remember agreeing to it or even when it happened. It must have been battle fatigue numbing the brain. Suffice it to say, Anna now has a second earring in one ear - not that you can see it under her hair anyway.

So one boundary has been exceeded and a new one created.

"Can I have my nose pierced?" "Absolutely and positively NO!" The trouble is, I can't really think of a good reason why not. I only have the parent's favourite "Because I say so" to fall back on. Which brings me to today’s dilemma — to bleach or not to bleach? Anna has dark brown hair which she would love to transform to white. My gut reaction is that “It’ll ruin your hair and it will all fall out.” Of course, as I have no actual scientific backing I have to do a lot of waffling. I suspect a compromise is around the corner and that we will allow her to bleach some streaks before she sets off for Greenbelt otherwise I fear what she might take it into her head to do while there.

But now, of course, the cracks in Mum's armour have shown. It has been proved that I am quite likely to crumble under pressure. I've always tried to be consistent. If I said no I meant no.
Surely I'm not so weak that I can be bullied by my children not to mention the dog...or the cat?
Ah well, if all else fails, I'll have to call in the big guns...."Michael".

The daughter's view

And so began the Bleach War.

Battles such as this, with my parents as the opposition, in the past have had a 50/50 success rate to either side. Admittedly, the Ear War in 93 (I wanted the top of one ear pierced) resulted in me being grounded when I won - they denied everything. That was my one proud win.
However, in 1995, the tables turned and I lost (for now). I am not having my nose pierced on the grounds of “I say so”; or at least not til I’m 18. I think they’re hoping that I’m going to turn into a boring sensible person overnight on my 18th. But you see it’s become principle now. Even if I do change my mind about having my nose pierced (and I haven’t yet) clearly, they’ve left me with no choice.

And now we’re into a new one. War III, thus smashing all world records. The chances on either side are equal....

The only reason I’m struggling on is that my parents have agreed to allow me to bleach streaks in my hair. What I’m hoping for is to bleach all of it. But I wouldn’t leave it white; that would look horrible. I want to dye it pink on top, so it comes out really bright. I’m going to a music festival, Greenbelt, and I need to be outrageous for it. It’ll be worth my hair falling out! (Which, by the way is my parents’ sole argument. My hair will fall out if I bleach it. Yeah.... right. Personally I think they’ll just be too embarrassed to have a daughter with pink hair). I’ve found the dye and rung the hairdressers about the bleaching - there’s only one problem to overcome.

The Other Side.

I tried the Mature Persuasive tactic, the calm, reasonable argument.

I used the Other Parents tactic (other-people-let-their-children-be-responsible-for-their-own-hair ).

I even resorted to the sulky “I’m doing it anyway” tactic, and the “what will you do if I do it?” and even foot-stamping in order to get my way. All plans to stay calm have flown the nest by this stage, and all the early childhood methods have come back into play. You see I’m very organised really. If all else fails, cry.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A joy forever

Aunt Maude kept a pianist in the conservatory. From early morning until late in the evening, he played beautiful music, music that drifted through the house, touching every room .

Today there’s no beautiful music. As soon as my mother and I are shown into the office, I look around for the pianist. I know he will be here. He is. Sitting at the end of the front row, staring straight ahead. I would sit next to him but there’s only one empty seat. My mother pulls me into a seat at the other end of the row, next to Uncle George and his wife.

There are twelve chairs set out in two rows, slightly arced around a huge dark oak desk. The row behind is filled by Uncle George’s daughters and their families. The children are restless, wriggling in their seats.

Uncle George’s wife pats my mother’s hand, makes whispered comments, ‘funeral went well, lovely spread, such a shame, George so busy, President of Rotary, couldn’t see her as much as would have liked’.

A side door opens and the solicitor strides in. A tall thin man, he stands behind his desk, glances around. He nods the briefest of greetings before he sits, places his briefcase on the desk and opens it. He takes out an assortment of papers and sorts through them. He is not in a hurry. Uncle George shifts his weight in his chair. He drums his fingers on his legs. His wife pats his hand. Yesterday, at the funeral, she patted mine.

I glance across at the pianist. He is still staring, apparently at the portrait of a judge on the wall behind the solicitor, but he is nodding almost imperceptibly. I know he is keeping time with the music he plays in his head. I wonder what it is and try to guess from the rhythm whether it is merry or mournful.

At last the solicitor adjusts his glasses and speaks. ‘Good morning. Thank you for coming.’

The pianist glances around, sees my mother and me and smiles. I smile back and then raise my finger to indicate that the solicitor has started to speak. The pianist and I both give him our full attention.

But I am not good at concentrating and soon my thoughts wander from this room to the conservatory.

The conservatory is full of light even though there are blinds drawn at each of the long windows. The rest of Aunt Maude’s home, a solid Victorian detached house in large grounds, is dark and rapidly deteriorating but the conservatory is wonderful. In the centre is the very grand piano at which the pianist sits. His name is Edward but no-one ever calls him that. He is always simply the pianist.

When Aunt Maude first bought the Steinway Baby Grand and declared her intention of keeping it in the conservatory my mother asked if it were wise, wouldn’t the fluctuating temperature affect the performance of the piano, even maybe damage it permanently. Aunt Maude had already considered this. The next day the builders moved in to repair the cracks in the window-frames before installing a thermostatically controlled heating and humidity system.

The pianist arrived the same day as the piano. He was installed in a guest bedroom and stayed there until the day Aunt Maude died. He insisted on moving out then, to a bed and breakfast place in town.

Uncle George is asking a question. ‘Which painting does the cleaning woman get, d’you say?’
The solicitor raises his eyes above his glasses. ‘The seascape by Gerald Richards.’
‘Which one’s that?’
‘You remember, dear, the one in the hall,’ his wife tells him.
‘I think you’ll find it above the fireplace in the dining room,’ the solicitor says to her.
‘Oh, that one, of course, yes, silly me.’ She pulls her handkerchief out of her handbag and dabs her cheeks.
Uncle George gives her a look and she shrinks back in her seat.

I only ever remember him coming to Aunt Maude’s house once. My mother and I visited her every Wednesday throughout my childhood, and then as she grew older, one or other of us would call in most days to see her. Her sight started deteriorating when she was in her eighties but rapidly worsened when she passed ninety. I was there one day when she tripped over a turned-up corner of a rug. I hurried to help her and realised she was crying, ‘Aunt Maude, have you hurt yourself?’ But it wasn’t pain that made her cry.

‘Damn, damn, damn. These blasted eyes of mine, letting me down when I need them. Stupid eyes, stupid, stupid.’ I helped her into a chair and went to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. When I returned, she was sitting back in the chair, fingering her glasses. She leaned forward, waved her glasses at me, and said, ‘Right, Kathryn, I might be losing one sense but I still have the others. It’s time to put my grand plan into action.’

The grand plan was to compensate for the loss of one sense by lavishing treasures on the others. It was then that she bought the piano and began filling every room that she used in the house with highly scented lilies. Throughout the year she had a twice weekly delivery from the local florist.

It was a sensory experience to enter her home and I delighted in it. The music of the pianist distracted visitors from the shabby wallpaper and frayed carpets and the perfume of the lilies overpowered the decaying smell of the old house.

The time Uncle George came, he grumbled about the scent. ‘What’s that damn awful smell?’ He sneezed. In the background, the pianist had reached a particularly intricate section. ‘How d’you put up with that damn noise? Can’t hear yourself think.’

He didn’t stay long. ‘Meetings, you understand, vital. Get wife to call in. Make herself useful. Make a change.’

His wife now nods sagely as the solicitor continues to explain minor bequests. I look again at the pianist, longing to ask him what music he plays in his head so I can hear it too, instead of this legal talk.

I am so used to the house being filled with mazurkas and sonatas of Beethoven and Chopin that to enter it yesterday, before the crowds arrived, to silence made me cry, more than I had cried before. It was a silence so heavy that I could understand how the pianist must feel and I wondered if that was why he played so incessantly. To stop others from knowing the oppression his deafness brought on him. I was glad when the mourners arrived.

The pianist went for a walk during the funeral tea. I had hoped he would play but my mother said it would be unfair to ask that of him. So the only music that afternoon was the discordant tones of the whispered murmurings that grew louder as the afternoon went by.

I watched people, people I’d never seen, study the ornaments, touch and handle them, turn them over, looking for a hallmark or famous name. Some said loudly, ‘Maude always promised me this was to be mine after she was gone.’ They had short shrift from Uncle George, ‘It will be in her will then, won’t it?’ he’d say, returning the object to the wrong place on the shelf.

As it turned out it was a good thing the pianist wasn’t at the funeral tea as guests persisted in putting their cups and saucers on the closed lid of the piano. Between us, my mother and I kept guard, gathering up the dirty crockery instantly and polishing the lid with our sleeves.

Now the solicitor is saying something about the pianist and I listen properly. ‘For the immense pleasure his music has brought me over my last years, I leave him the piano, with my eternal thanks.’ Uncle George, his brow wrinkled, leans forward and grunts in the pianist’s direction. I imagine he is working out the value of the piano.

Meanwhile the solicitor begins to speak of Aunt Maude’s vast collection of books including some rare first editions. She has left her entire library to my mother and me ‘in the certain knowledge that it will bring them as much joy as it brought me.’

I can’t help smiling as I remember. When I was about seven, while her eyesight was still reasonably good, she led me into the hall one day and told me to stand on a chair. Then she pointed to a small embroidered wall-hanging. ‘Can you read what this says, Kathryn?’

I studied the words. The stitches were fancy and faded but I could just make it out. I nodded.
‘Then read it aloud to me,’ she said. ‘Can you do that?’
‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness;’ I stumbled over some of the words but Aunt Maude was nodding so I carried on. ‘but still will keep a bow-er quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.’
‘Now, Kathryn, that was written more than a hundred years ago by a man called John Keats. It is one of the truest things you will ever hear.’

She helped me down from the chair. ‘Love and beauty, Kathryn,’ she said. ‘Love and beauty are all that matter.’ She sighed, ‘I have been fortunate in my life to have known such love and beauty. And now that you have shown me what a good reader you are, it is time you helped your mother.’

Every week when we went to Aunt Maude’s house, after tea, we would sit in the parlour and my mother would read aloud to us. It was all her old comfy favourites in their worn covers that Aunt Maude preferred, the ones that would fall open at a beloved poem. She would often join in and recite those she knew by heart and my mother would stop reading, draw me close to her, and we’d sit back together and listen. From then on, my mother and I took it in turns to read aloud to Aunt Maude.

I put my arm through my mother’s then I realise she is crying. I rummage around in my pocket for a clean tissue but she finds one first and blows heartily.

The solicitor stops reading for a moment.
‘Shall I continue?’ he asks. ‘Or would you like a short break?’
‘Get on with it, man,’ Uncle George growls. ‘Haven’t got all day.’
The solicitor looks at my mother who nods her acquiescence.
‘Very well, there’s not much more. We now come to the remaining estate.’

Uncle George and his wife both lean forward in their seats, while their daughters loudly shush the children. Uncle George has, on his forehead, shiny globs of sweat. His lips are parted and his tongue darts in and out.

‘I wondered long and hard about this decision,’ the solicitor reads from Aunt Maude’s will, ‘and it is not one I have made lightly. I considered the pianist but decided it would be an unnecessary burden for an artist. Then I thought of my two dear girls who have read to me so faithfully — but for them also the responsibility would weigh heavy’

Uncle George’s wife pats my mother’s hand. ‘She did it for the best reasons, I’m sure, dear,’ she says.
The solicitor looks up, raises one eyebrow.
‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ Uncle George’s wife purrs.
‘So, after much consideration, I am leaving my estate and my business affairs in the safe hands of my nephew, George, who will know how best to deal with it.’
There are a few more paragraphs in the same style before the solicitor puts down the will and takes off his glasses.

‘Can we go now?’ the youngest of Uncle George’s grandchildren begs. Her mother quietens her with promises of ice cream before she leans over and tells her parents that she will speak to them later. She congratulates them, which seems strange to me. They haven’t done anything. I begin to feel slightly resentful. I realise that I had been hoping the house would be left to my mother and that the pianist would be able to stay. We have a spare room in our house but I doubt if we’d get a grand piano in the dining room.

I notice the pianist has left. I am sorry that he didn’t say goodbye to us. I wonder if we will meet again. The general hum in the room lessens as the children are led away but it is necessary for the solicitor to almost shout to attract our attention.

‘There are a few more things that Maude wanted me to say while you were together,’ he says. ‘About the value of the estate.’

This seizes Uncle George’s attention and he shakes his wife’s hand off his arm as he re-arranges himself in the chair. By the time the solicitor finishes speaking of loans and debts and re-mortgaging, Uncle George is slumped back in his chair, his mouth hanging open. His wife fans herself with an estate agent’s brochure she has in her bag. My mother and I avoid each other’s eyes.

We thank the solicitor and leave. The pianist is waiting outside. ‘Did you know?’ my mother asks him.

He smiles.

We return to the house once more and the pianist plays. My mother and I lean on the piano and watch. My mother’s eyes are on his face but I watch his hands. I love to see his fingers fly over the keys. He begins to play a polka and I grab my mother’s hands. We dance around the conservatory.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Psalm 18

Attending a writing course just after my husband had recovered from cancer, I was asked to rewrite a psalm. During his illness, psalm 18 had become my creed.

Psalm 18 Verses 1-19
I love you, O Lord, my strength.

Where would I be without you, Lord?
You’re the ground I stand on —
and more than that.
You build walls around me of pure granite,
walls to shelter and protect
and, as if that was not enough,
you place yourself between me and the world,
forestalling my enemies and safeguarding my path.

I remember a time, Lord,
when I cried out to you
and you rescued me.

It was a time when everything I hold dear was under threat,
when my enemy towered, leering, over me,
when malignancy, and death itself,
came creeping on its slimy belly
and wormed its way in,
gloating, hinting, tormenting.

What could I do but call out to you?
In the realms of heaven,
amongst the honeyed choruses of angels,
you somehow heard my puny cry.
It had no poetic beauty to move you;
others would have laughed at its lack of fluency.
But you moved heaven and earth to come to my aid.

I can see you now, the original braveheart,
leaping to your feet, arms raised, fists clenched,
your face gripped with righteous anger,
sweat and tears mingling as you storm,
roaring, from your throne room
and stride through eternity.
The forces of nature have seen this before
and cower, trembling, before your approach
but my enemy, oh foolish one, is too intent
on his own schemes to give heed to the signs.
And is caught unawares when you stamp on him.

You could have left it there, warrior king,
but no, with anger spent, there was another job for you.
You lifted me gently in your hand,
closed your fingers around me
and whispered oh such words,
words of reassurance and peace,
words without sound
which told of your joy in me.

Then you took me to a meadow which stretched
as far as I could see, a lush green pasture, and you told me
I was free.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The day we saw Elvis

Mam was making chips when she burned down the house. It was the first time she’d made chips since Da had died eight years earlier. Before that she’d always made chips on Wednesdays. It’d been egg and chips for tea on Wednesdays for as long as I could remember. I suppose in the beginning it was because Da didn’t get paid until Thursday then it became habit. She stopped making chips when Da died. It was too much effort, I suppose, to make them just for her.

The firemen were packing up and Mam and me were standing in the back garden staring at the carbon-black skeleton of the house that had been her home for the last forty nine years when Howie arrived. He looked like a replica of Da walking up the path, his mouth opening and shutting as soundless words formed, making him look like a boxer who’s fought one too many fights.

He exploded as he reached us, ‘Bloody hell, Mam, how did you manage that?’
‘She was just making a few chips for tea,’ I said hurriedly. ‘It’s very common, the fireman told us most house fires start in chip pans.’
‘Start maybe, but most of them don’t get any further than the kitchen. What the hell were you doing, Mam, while the house was burning down?’
‘She was in the garden. It was a nice afternoon.’
‘It was a lovely afternoon before all those clouds came,’ Mam said. ‘Just enjoying a bit of sunshine I was when I spotted all those weeds in the flower bed. You know your Da hates weeds so I started pulling them up.’

She held out her muck-covered hands for inspection. In one were the remains of a stalk, all that was left after she’d picked all the leaves off. The rest of the weeds formed a trail on the grass at the edge of the flower bed.

The shock and frustration made Howie speak sharply. ‘Da’s dead, Mam, you know that. He’s been dead for eight years. For pete’s sake, didn’t you notice the smoke?’
‘The smoke?’ Mam looked puzzled.

Howie shrugged his shoulders impatiently, and turned to me. ‘Well, that settles it. We’ll have to do it now, what we talked about. She can’t stay on her own; she’s a danger to herself and everyone else.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Howie, I still don’t like the idea.’

The firemen were about to leave and one of them came over to us. ‘We’ll be off now, Mrs Jones,’ and then looking at me, he said, ‘she’ll be all right tonight won’t she? She’s got somewhere to go?’
‘Oh, yes, she’ll come home with me,’ I said. ‘Thank you very much for all your help.’
Howie started speaking at the same time as me, ‘Yes, it’s all sorted, I’ve been in touch with the authorities.’

I waited for the fireman to go before turning on Howie. ‘You’ve spoken to the authorities already?’
‘They’ve got a place in High View. We can take her straight there.’
‘What, right now?’
‘Yes, we’ve had a bit of luck: an old lady died yesterday.’
‘You can’t be serious. Mam’s had a dreadful shock, she could have been killed. We can’t put her in a home straightaway.’
‘She won’t even notice, look at her, in a world of her own. And you know what these places are like, spaces are like gold dust. If you take her home with you, even if it’s just for one night, the council will try and say that she doesn’t need the place, that she’s got family to look after her, and we’ve agreed that’s not a good idea, not with us all out at work all day.’ He softened his tone, ‘Mam always said she wanted to go in a home when the time came, didn’t she? And you know High View is one of the best ones, just like a home from home, and it’s handy for visiting. If we miss this chance, she might have to go into Riverside or one of the others on the other side of town.’

I knew what he was talking about when he said Mam wanted to go in a home. We’d been sitting round the dinner table, it was before either of us were married, and what Mam actually said was, ‘If I ever go doolally,’ and Howie had interrupted, ‘what do you mean “if”, you’re already there aren’t you?’, and she’d given him one of her looks, then continued, ‘no, seriously, I mean it, if I ever go doolally, put me in a home and forget about me.’ She’d been quiet ever since she’d come back from visiting great aunt Maud in the nursing home in Brynhyfryd, but now she said, ‘There’ll be no point coming to visit me because I won’t know you, or if I do, I’ll forget you’ve been ten minutes after you leave. So just book me in, make sure it’s a good one, mind, where I’ll be well looked after, and then forget about me. I would hate to become a burden to you.’
‘Don’t be silly Mam’ I’d said, ‘you’d never be a burden to us.’
‘Tell you what, Mam,’ Howie said, ‘to save the money, when you go doolally, I’ll just shoot you, shall I?’

‘Oh, you’re cheeky, you are,’ Mam smiled at him. ‘Now, who wants the skin off the rice pudding?’

But that was then; this was now. I looked at the frail woman standing before me. Wrapped in a blanket, she looked older than her years. She wasn’t listening to us but her face bore a slightly puzzled expression, as if there was something she needed to remember. Suddenly she smiled brightly as it came back to her.
‘It was smoke,’ she said, ‘not clouds. I am a silly so’n’so. I thought the smoke was clouds. I should have realised it was no good when Maggie Thatcher appeared.’ She pursed her face in disgust.

Howie looked at me as good as to say, ‘what’s she talking about now?’ but I knew. ‘The cloud pictures, Elvis and JFK, Johnny the chip shop, Winnie from the pub, you must remember’ I said. He looked baffled. I could almost see his mind leaping ahead to the day his sister went the same way as his mother. He looked as though he thought it wouldn’t be long.
‘Think,’ I said, ‘think about the castle field.’

After school or in the holidays, if the weather was nice, Mam would take us up to the castle field. First thing we’d do would be run up the side of the hill to the foot of the castle, then roll ourselves down. Roly poly, roly poly. Mam would join in too sometimes; she loved it in spite of the others looking at her as if she wasn’t all there. The best place was just before the bushes, where the hill was longest. If there weren’t too many people and we could roll from the top, we’d be dizzy by the time we reached the bottom.

Then when we’d had enough, Mam would take us up the hill on the other side. We’d go right to the top so we could see the bay. Mam had often told us stories about the Vikings and the Normans who built the castle and we’d imagine the longboats sailing in, or pretend we were soldiers defending our land, then we’d lie down in the grass and watch the clouds.

As they drifted past we’d try and work out what they looked like. Mam could always see faces, sometimes famous ones, sometimes family or locals from the village. Once she made a whole crowd of people lie down and look because she swore she could see Elvis. If Da was on the six till two shift at the steelworks, he’d come with us and he would always see Jaguars and big American cars. He used to say, “That’s what I’m going to get when my ship comes in” and when I saw big boats coming into the bay I used to wonder if it was Da’s ship, and if we’d get a big posh car like Auntie Connie who’d married a florist, instead of our fifth-hand Austin.

‘Danny Blanchflower.’ Howie interrupted my reverie. ‘I could only see Danny Blanchflower but Da reckoned he could see the whole Tottenham Hotspur team.’ He looked at me seriously. ‘Do you think he was lying?’

I grinned. ‘Probably, knowing Da, but it didn’t matter, did it? It was fun, that was all that mattered.’ I looked at Mam. ‘Being together, enjoying ourselves, and we did that all right.’

‘I’m hungry,’ Mam said. ‘Have I had tea?’
Howie and I smiled at her and at each other.
‘Come on, Mam, let’s go home,’ I said. ‘I’ll make us some chips for tea, shall I?’

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The fatherless child

I can call him Lord, God, faithful one, saviour, creator, anything, except Father. I can’t call him that.

I never knew my father. He disappeared before I was born. I can only assume he didn't think I’d be good enough to make hanging around worthwhile.When you’ve never known a father, it’s hard to accept a father’s love. When all you have is an empty space how can you relate to one others call father?

All the parables, all the stories in the world, don’t make it real, can’t fill a void, make known the unknown. You can say, ‘Our father, who art in heaven,’ without feeling a word of it.

And yet.

Most of my life, I’ve lived a half life. But now, I is becoming me. I’m learning how to uncover the person I was created to be.

Through my words, written and read, I’m discovering who I am. My writing is an extension of me, it makes me wholeThrough it my thoughts are given shape and substance. I have something worth saying, something worth hearing.

Through my writing I can view myself as valuable, worthy, not because I write or because of what I write but, by its very being, my writing earths my existence. My words are as much part of me as my eyes or my toes. Before finding them, I was missing an element as vital to my well-being as calcium is to my bones.

Releasing them allows me to be me, wholly me.

And the key to that release has been meeting God, being accepted into his family.So I live in that new life, no longer a fatherless child. Instead one whose family has demonstrated a father’s love and allowed me to experiment, learn, develop and build confidence without fear of being knocked back.

I used to think that growing up without a father was my loss but maybe it was his.I still can’t call God Father but one day, when we meet, it’ll be the only word I’ll need.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The wood for the trees

I used to keep God in a box. Well, actually it was a tin, a Golden Virginia tobacco tin that my grandfather gave me. I kept the tin on the bookshelf in my bedroom next to Five Get Lost at Sea. Every night before I went to sleep, I’d take down the tin, open it and talk to God.
Then, one day, I caught chickenpox. I soon discovered how boring it was staying in and it made me wonder if God got bored in my tobacco tin so I put him in the pocket of my jacket with my Polos instead. That way he came everywhere I went and, as I kept my jacket in my wardrobe, I could still talk to him at night. He stopped smelling of tobacco and started smelling of mints.

But one day I was getting ready to go out and I couldn’t find my jacket. I said, ‘Mum, have you seen my denim jacket?’
She said, ‘That old thing? You’re getting too big for that. I thought I’d get you a new one for your birthday.’
‘But where is it?’ I said.
‘Oh, some people were collecting for starving children in Ethiopia so I gave it to them,’ she said.
‘What good’s my jacket to starving children? And how could you do that without asking me?’
‘Haven’t you got any homework to do?’ my mother said.

I found out which shop it had gone to and I went to get it back but they must have packed it up and sent it already because it wasn’t there. I was upset at first but then I thought God would probably be more use to a starving child than to me ‘cos I had plenty to eat and he was good at making food go round. And after a while I got used to it, not talking to God, I mean. I missed our chats at first but then I met Kevin and I forgot about God.

Then not that long ago I got friendly with a girl called Sue. One day we were having hot chocolate in Verdi’s when she suddenly looked at me, all intently. I thought I must have cream on my nose and I went to wipe it but she said, ‘I’ve got to ask you – have you met Jesus?’

I was about to say that I used to know his dad when she said, ‘only I’d love you to come to our church and I could introduce you to Jesus.’

I thought I might as well go so I did and Sue introduced me to lots of people but none of them was called Jesus. I thought perhaps he was using a different name so as not to stand out, so I sniffed a few just in case. But no-one smelled familiar.

I was a bit disappointed because I’d been looking forward to meeting Jesus, but I kept on going because they were nice people and I didn’t want to hurt Sue’s feelings. Then one day, the man at the front was talking about God being omnipresent. He said that means he’s everywhere, ‘in the sky, in the trees, in the clouds, in the wind,’ he said. ‘Mmm,’ I thought, and the next day I went for a walk around the cliffs. And, do you know, he was right. God was there. I could see him in the brightness of the sunlight; could hear him in the crashing of the waves; taste him in the salt of the spray; smell him in the coconut gorse; feel him in the wind on my face. He’d put poetry in my soul. It was bad poetry, but it was a start.

I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to tell Sue. I phoned her when I got home. ‘Sue, I’ve met God round the cliffs.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ she said.
‘And he smells of coconut.’
‘Oh,’ she said.

I kept going to church but I used to sit there feeling smug. All these people who’ve got it wrong I’d think. I wanted to tell them God wasn’t in church but round the cliffs, I could show them the exact spot, but I thought that was being a bit cheeky as I was a relative newcomer so I just sat there and hugged my secret to myself. It was a bit like having God in my tin again, just for me.

Then one day, a few weeks ago, I was in a meeting, and listening to someone speaking. Actually I was half listening because I was looking around at the same time. At the other side of the room I could see a man with a beard. He was making coffee for someone who’d just arrived late. Standing next to him was a man with a shaved head and lots of tattoos; I’d seen him deal gently with a drunk. Sitting at one side was a woman. You can see from her face that her life hasn’t been easy but her eyes were shining. Near her was another woman. Her eyes were closed but her skin that only months ago had been furrowed was smooth. Across from them were two lads who, despite having their own troubles, help others in charity shops. And then there was the man whose wife is seriously ill. And the girl whose intelligence and thoughtfulness can stay hidden unless it’s looked for. And the woman who doesn’t often speak but when she does, you want to listen. And the man and his dog who share everything. And the woman who’s come into the warm to sleep. Then I caught the eye of the speaker and he’s grinning as he talks over the snoring.

And suddenly I realised. I’d been looking so hard I couldn’t see.

God was in church, just as real-ly as he is out on the cliffs. And maybe he does smell of coconut or tobacco or mints - or alcohol.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Thomas the Doubter - my story

Let me introduce myself. My name is Thomas. Better known to the world and its mother as Doubting Thomas. And for why? I’ll tell you for why. Because of one little thing I said. One little doubt I happened to mention. And suddenly I’m known from now to eternity as the Doubter.

I wasn’t the only one. No-one else gets mentioned by name but they had their doubts too. But no, it’s just me goes down in history.

Before it all happened I was just one of the boys. Nobody special. Nobody picked out by name. I was just one of the twelve disciples. I was with Jesus from the early days, almost right from the start when he started travelling and teaching. I was there through it all. I saw the miracles. I saw the dead brought back to life, the blind man made to see, the paralysed man made to walk again. I saw him feed thousands of people from just a few fishes and a bit of bread. And there was enough left over to keep us going for days. I was there through all of that. I saw him walk on water, heal lepers, quiet a storm.

And what’s more when he wanted to go where the crowds were out to get him I was the one who said, ‘come one, we’ll have to go and die with him, we can’t let him go alone.’

And I was there when they did come for him. When the soldiers arrested him, I was there. When he was brought before the crowds, I was there; when he was crucified I was there. At the foot of his cross I wept.

It wasn’t just him dying you see. It was everything. Everything I’d hoped was going to happen, the changes, the freedom, the man who was going to change the world was being killed by it. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. How was anything going to change if he was dead? He’d given us such hopes and now they’d come crashing down.

After it was all over, we – the boys – stuck together. We didn’t know what else to do. We just sat around like dummies, wondering what had gone wrong. In the end I couldn’t stand it any more and I took myself off for a long walk over the hills to try and clear my thoughts. Then when I got back the place was in uproar. ‘What’s going on?’ I said. I couldn’t get any sense out of them. They just kept saying, ‘He’s alive! He’s alive!’ When I finally got one of them to explain to me what had happened and he told me that Jesus wasn’t dead but had been with them, I laughed. I thought they’d been drinking too much. But they kept insisting, and that’s when I said those words that have got me marked down in history as doubting Thomas, ‘I’ll believe it when I can put my finger in the holes in his hands.’

You know the rest. Jesus came to us again and told me to put my fingers in his wounds. I didn’t need to. I fell to my knees and wept into his robe. I thought he was really mad at me but when I looked up he was smiling. He understood. As far as he was concerned I’d never said it, but try telling the others that.

Still it could be worse. I could be Peter. Now he really made a fool of himself. But I’d better let him tell you about that another time.