BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED

When you are a child you imagine that everything will continue to be as it always was. You think you’re in the driving seat and that time, space and people are yours to command. This isn’t true, of course, but it’s a realisation that tends to sinks in slowly. Re-reading my post ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL and the Methodist chapel, reminded me that I have been there since – since those days, I mean – and it has not stayed the same.

Five, or maybe six years ago my sister was visiting from Canada. Normally this would happen in September/October but this particular year it was December. The British weather was not playing ball. Although undoubtedly warmer – or at any rate less arctic – than Canada in December, it had chosen to be rainy and black. Day after day dragged by. Rainy. Black. Black. Rainy. We were running out of things to do and foolishly came up with this idea to revisit the Methodist.

I had vivid childhood memories of services there, but when I ceased to go, when I lost interest, married and moved away the actual physical Methodist didn’t just vanish. Somehow you think things ought to do that; how dare they go on, existing, living a life of their own? There it sat, getting older and uglier. The seventies flitted by, then the eighties, the nineties; the arched front door got painted pillar-box red, then royal blue, when once it had been a sensible kind of brown; the nettles round the outside gave way to gravel and the corrugated iron lean-to attached to the far end was replaced by a concrete-looking one. The notice board outside continued to announce the times of church services, but now there seemed to have been a take-over by some multi-faith conglomeration. The services were no longer Methodist, but Christian. What did that mean?

But what did it matter?

So we went back, and of course, wished we hadn’t. It was a Sunday morning and the Christians were inside – so that was OK. What wasn’t OK was that all the wooden pews had disappeared. And the tiered choir seats. And the wheezy organ with the missing notes and the dusty purple silk. And the pulpit and stained-glass windows. All that remained was acres of bright blue carpet and people sitting around in a circle on hard-backed chairs. We subsided into the rear tier of the circle, separately wondering, but each knowing that the other was wondering, how, having entered, we might manage a quick exit. There was some nondescript singing and a bit of praying. Maybe we could slip out while their eyes were shut? But it was too late: we were being zeroed-in on. We were having our hands shaken.

They were pleased to see new people – nice new ladies, wanting to know Jesus. I felt I already did know Jesus, at least as well as they did. Hadn’t I sat in those now-invisible pews year after year, listening to stories about Him? Hadn’t I sung hymns and carols to Him and about Him in shafts of dusty sunlight beneath those now-vandalised stained-glass windows? What were they doing in my church, these happy-clappy Johnny-come-latelys? It was awkward.

Presumably because we were there under false pretences we felt compelled to explain. We told them that we had attended services here as children and had just wanted to see… They continued to be polite, but the light of conquest died in their eyes. They had stopped listening.

Sometimes it’s best not to see what happens. I was forced to see Nan and Grandad’s house when they both had died. My parents were clearing it out prior to sale and I was called to attend, for some reason. Nothing of my grandparents was there – the furniture, the fire, the rheumaticky labador; the pictures; the sideboard with the brass pen-holder and Nan’s two amber hat pins; her little box of rouge; Grandad’s pipe and pipe-cleaners; the books I grew up with, my Sunday reading; the conservatory with the rusty mangle and the view of London Pride and yellow roses. It smelt of hoover-dust and linseed oil. It echoed.

That night Grandad made a walk-on appearance in my dreams for the first and last time. I standing in the kitchen and he pushed right past me, an old man muttering under his breath. It was as if I had become the ghost. I still visit my mother and, since the two houses are in the same road, I am forced to drive past Nan and Grandad’s house every time. Usually I don’t look. Grandad’s carpentry workshop has been demolished and replaced by a double garage with up-and-over doors.

The only way to keep places or people is in your head. That’s something else you learn. It’s better than a film or photograph – you can replay them if you want to; they simply exist in another form. My ‘writings’ once existed on paper; now they exist  in cyberspace. Nan and Grandad were once flesh and blood, now they, and the house they lived in, and the Methodist chapel and a gallimaufry of other people and things exist in potential as electrical patterns within my brain. Nothing is gone, as long as I can still remember.

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
To His Coy Mistress: Andrew Marvell

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