16. Free in Maidstone
17. Edges on the Page
18. The Drunken Gambler & the Rosary Crusade
19. Work to Forget
20. The Convent Changes Everything
Free in Maidstone
I walked out of East Sutton Park open prison on 4th November 1988. And if it weren’t for the event that took place on 2nd November 1988 I know I would have gone back, some time.
My baptism was the first really nice thing I can remember happening to me, the first thing that was really mine, really for me. I’d been to the church every week for six months. I’d got to know some members of the congregation quite well, especially those who collected me from the prison each week in their own cars. I didn’t really know why they were all so nice, but it didn’t matter somehow. All that mattered was that they were nice. I found it hard to accept that anyone would want to be nice to me. Nobody ever had been before. Okay, some people may have been, but I had usually asked myself what they wanted then looked around to see what was missing. These people were genuinely nice to me for no particular reason.
I wore a pretty blue floral dress and shoes that matched. Some of the congregation I’d got to know were there. One of them, the lady who visited me each week to teach me catechism, had agreed to be my sponsor. I preferred to think of her as The Godmother. Would my sense of humour ever be brought into line?
It was beautiful. It was dark outside and the church was lit with candles. The modern stained glass panels at the sides of the altar reflected the soft beams and glinted richly. I said my vows. Everyone else said them too. I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t need to. But something was happening.
When I got back to the prison one of the screws made a crack about the candle I’d brought back with me. It was my baptismal candle. The prison chaplain, who I now called Father, had lovingly told me its significance and instructed me to light it once a year on the anniversary of my baptism. I knew something in me had changed because I didn’t laugh at the screw’s crude joke. I felt offended, like there was some sensitivity in me that hadn’t been there before. When I was lying in my bed that night I knew I wouldn’t go back to my criminal ways. I knew that it was time to do things right and to change my life. And I knew that I would.
The reality wasn’t so easy as the recognition that it had to happen.
Father had found somewhere for me to live. We’d found it together actually. He picked me up from the prison a few days before my release and took me to see this place. An Anglican priest he knew who lived on the same road had recommended it to him. This place was weird, but it would do. A huge rambling old house on the Tonbridge Road that had been converted into many rooms, it was only for working young ladies. So, having found a home I now had to find a job in order to keep it. That was the deal.
The 4th of November was a Friday. I dumped my s off at Westborough House, my new home, and went to the agency I’d been told to go to by the chief education officer. They found me a position that was due to start the following Monday morning, at Royal Insurance. It was only a temporary job inputting data onto the computers in the accounts department, they said, but I was happy to take it. Happy and surprised. Happy that anyone should trust me enough to give me a job in the first place. Surprised that I’d found one that quickly.
Father had been very excited that my release date coincided with the beginning of his RCIA course. It was something I was not entirely unfamiliar with, at least in concept. While I’d been on remand in Pucklechurch, a nasty little jail in Bristol, one of the sisters who used to visit us had told me about this RCIA thing. It seemed it was just the thing I needed if I was serious about being a Christian. It wasn’t specifically a Roman Catholic thing, except that the documents used by the early church had been found at the beginning of this century in the vaults of the Vatican. Sister had been very excited about this course too. I liked the idea of a course that had its origins in 1st century documents.
The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, was its full un-four-letter-abbreviated title. It’d had more than a yearlong build-up for me, snippets of its merits reaching me periodically during this time and whetting my appetite, and even I was excited when I arrived at the church at seven-thirty that same night, freshly released from jail and probably very rough at the edges. The story was that an unsuspecting nun who’d been rummaging around in the depths of the Vatican had found the documents. She’d read them and realised their worth as aids for teaching the vast numbers of adults who were coming into the church, much like they did in the early church. I wondered if I was the type of person that she’d had in mind only decades ago for her newly revamped course.
I felt a little exposed at first, but not for long. I’ve always had the ability to fit in wherever I find myself. I’ve always had the ability to bullshit as if I know what I’m talking about. I’d never known the difference. Maybe I might be about to find out. And maybe I’d be allowed the free expression that would let me find God in my way. After the teaching bit, much like a lecture but nicer, Father let us discuss what we’d heard in small groups and answer a few pertinent questions on a sheet he’d prepared for us. This was easy; all I had to do was call upon my experience and let myself be taught to see what God could do to help me understand it. Not so much thinking up new things as making sense of the old things. This was a process that I would grow to love, dearly.
My first day out had been a great success.
My first visit to the church as a free woman was another milestone for me. I’d never been inside a Roman Catholic church without having been taken there by a screw or driven there as a prisoner. The times when I’d sat in my flat in Lyndhurst Road and longed for the sanctuary the church offered went through my head as I made my own way to that lovely little church in Bearsted for the same Saturday night mass I had attended as a prisoner. I’d never had the confidence to go then. I’d always felt that people would shun me, or at best stare at me as if I had degenerate junkie written across my forehead. I didn’t know I could just walk in and ask a priest for help. Not then.
People were warm and friendly, they welcomed me, hugged me, told me how wonderful it was to see me, free. I didn’t really think about it in those terms; it was more of a natural progression from one stage to another. What was wonderful was that I believed I could be a part of something real like that, and that I felt I could make that transition. Freedom was the easy part, they opened the door and out you went. The difference was what you made of your freedom. And I knew that I could make this life, this loving church community life, mine. My very own. Just by walking in week after week.
My first day at Royal was also, for me, a great success.
Given that I had more to prove than most other temps they would probably ever have had I was very eager to please, to do my job to the best of my ability. I raced through the tasks I was given with a speed and efficiency that did not go unnoticed and my section head gave me more and more complicated things to do as the day progressed. The time I’d spent working on those old BBC Micros in the education department of ESP, when I’d lost the newly transcribed and re-worked version of Just Another Winter’s Tale, had not proved a waste of effort after all. At least I’d acquired a transferable skill.
By the end of the week I’d even made a friend.
I called my new friend Minnie because she was small and had a big smile. I told her that I was learning how to be a Christian, left out the bits about prison and being a lesbian, and as she was a Christian too, that was the beginning of a long friendship.
Because I was so good at my job they kept me on.
The house where I lived seemed like prison without the bars to me. We ate downstairs in a big dining room every night, weren’t allowed to have men in our rooms, and had to be quiet after eleven. It all seemed a bit Victorian, but there had to be much worse places to live in Maidstone. Bail hostels for instance, where I would never have got away from the criminal types who’d brought me down. At least the women there were honest working types who didn’t do drugs, or at least so I thought.
We had a television room, but only two of us ever used it. We got talking, inevitably, during the adverts. She was a strange girl, the other telly watcher. Sort of defensive and hostile, like she was guarding her patch of the playground against the New Girl. It didn’t take me long to figure out some home ground with her. She was gay. She asked me how I knew. I told her it was obvious if you knew what to look for. She asked me why I’d know that sort of stuff. I smiled.
After watching some weird film about rival US gangs in which all the Hispanic characters eventually ended up calling each other Homes, we called each other Homes too. She took me out with her to meet her gay mates. We hung out in the gay pubs and clubs around the Medway area. I didn’t really know whether I was still a lesbian or not by then, but it was better to be with people than on my own and they were a fun crowd. I liked to think of myself as a casual observer but before long I began to think more of fitting in and started to look around for someone.
Miss X was never far from these thoughts and nor was the thought of whether or not I should contact her. How? By letter? Where would I send it? Holloway? I did write. I did send it to Holloway. And she wrote back. Then she phoned. It was like all my Christmases rolled into one. Someone loved me. Someone loved me! Did it matter who it was? Then she phoned me at work one day.
She was across the bridge at the Crown Court. She’d brought a prisoner down on court duty. Could I get away to see her. Yes, during my lunch hour, I could.
I was nervous. I’d never seen her in a situation that didn’t involve a key on a chain and some kind of locking ritual that put her on the other side of a door for most of the time. I found myself hoping that she wouldn’t try anything. Why was I so nervy?
I knew why. Because I’d written all that stuff to her just because I could, not because it meant anything. And now it felt like I was being called to account for my words, to put my money where my mouth was. Well, what could she do on a sunny day by the river with a hundred other people around taking their lunch hours there too? Not a lot, I hoped.
I met her on the bridge on her way over from the Crown Court to meet me. We sat on a bench beside the water and talked. After all the stuff I’d written to her I couldn’t find much to say now that I was sat next to her. Please don’t kiss me, I kept saying to myself over and over again. She didn’t. She said she wanted to, but was afraid of being seen kissing an ex-con while in uniform. That was fine by me. I was pleased to get back to work.
I didn’t know what to think about any of it. I knew all I really wanted was someone to be with, to do things with. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted another woman, or if I was still being outrageous, or even if I just wanted to be accepted by the gay people I hung out with.
I had an affair with a girl who Homes had been going out with. Her name was Marina. It happened after they’d had an argument. She’d sought refuge in my room. She told me that she’d fancied me for weeks then kissed me. I didn’t stop her. Homes wasn’t pleased at first but her playground mentality accepted it as part of the ongoing game. It didn’t last long before I realised that this was definitely not for me. I didn’t end it, I just behaved so badly that she did. Then she hated me for it.
I only thought about any of this during the week. Fridays I was at the church and Saturday nights straight after mass I went to Broadstairs to stay with mother and see my boys. She liked to think that she was keeping me out of mischief by getting me to go there, that if I was in her house I couldn’t be getting into any more trouble. She was right in a way, but I did wish she would at least let me visit Daisy. It was only ten minutes away by car. She wouldn’t even let me send her a Christmas card.
16th December 1999
As I sit here nine days before the last Christmas of this millennium I wonder what happened to that first Christmas of my freedom. I expect I spent it at mother’s, in front of the television, so unmemorable that it’s slipped easily into the realms of the forgotten. Just like so many other Christmases. Not even a decent argument springs to mind that might have marked it out from the rest.
Nine days before the last Christmas of the millennium! I haven’t thought about that so far in my reflections. Maybe this should be my offering. This work. My offering to Jesus for his 2000th birthday. When I look back over this chapter I’m not so sure He’d want it. It makes me sick now to think of the things I did. Every priest I’ve ever talked to would now say that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, that I should look at the way I am now not at the way I was. Maybe that’s what I find so difficult. I mean, everyone thinks I’m so good and kind and helpful, but I know me just a little better than they do. I know what thoughts and feelings I’ve had while I’ve been writing this. I know the insecurities that are still a part of my programming, that I just manage to live with now. They don’t go away all those badly programmed parts of us, we just learn to cope with them.
There I was worshipping in my new community, going to these RCIA meetings every Friday night and mass every Saturday night, but what else had really changed? Well, okay, so I didn’t steal any more. And, yes, okay, I didn’t go sticking needles full of sherbet in my arm any more. But I hadn’t really thought this lesbian thing through, had I? If I had I would have seen how wrong it was. The Shrink had already told me the reasons why I went off in that direction. The hurt at the hands of men, the need to be outrageous and always be doing something different to everyone else…etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum. I knew it wasn’t who I was naturally, even if my meeting with Miss X on the riverbank hadn’t already been enough to tell me that. Yet I still let myself get inveigled into that way of life so much that I ended up hurting one friend and losing another through my torrid little affairs. I didn’t confess that!
At the time I remember thinking how well I was doing. Perhaps I was, relatively. My friendship with Minnie was healthy at least. And my new friends in my church made my life seem so different, so promising, so good. They made me realise that I really could be a part of something real, something worthwhile. I could have a place in a decent, loving community and become a half-decent human being after all. That had a profound effect upon me. The help I received from Father had a profound effect upon me. So did RCIA. I’ve never found another church like that little one in Bearsted and I still miss it now, but perhaps I was just extremely lucky that it was how it was meant to be then. And perhaps there was a little more than luck involved.
How do you feel nine days before the last Christmas of the millennium? Have you had more important things on your mind the past sixteen days too? What would you give Jesus for his 2000th birthday? I hope your life has been filled with more peace than mine has and that your offering will be more full of joy. I hope you’re not so hard on yourself as I am. If you are then take this opportunity to lighten up and go easy on yourself.
Elysia, of course, is always filled with a sense of doing the right thing. Does she learn more quickly than I do, or have we perhaps caught her at the time in her life when doing the right thing is more important to her than self-willed egoism? She had a bit of a shock the day before yesterday when she nearly let the enemy get the better of her, but she’s got armour to protect her now, and I’m sure she’ll be more than ready the next time she encounters danger like that.
What about you? Will you be ready to fight off spiritual baddies the next time you encounter them? Or will you just give them a wide berth and pass on by? What would you like to find waiting for you on the other side of the sixteenth door of you advent calendar? What will you find? I wish you all the best. It’s not nice to find demons lurking in wait for you and I pray you don’t, or that you’re amply equipped to deal with them if you do. Let’s step into Elysia’s world for a few moments again now and see what her Beloved’s got up his sleeve for her today.
Elysia’s Gospel-Tipped Arrows
Elysia stood on the top step of the porch. With her hands on her hips and her back straight she surveyed her garden. The fresh vibrant colours almost made her head swim. Familiar fragrances washed over her senses. They mingled with the sounds of running water from the brook that ran under the bridge before falling over the edge of the cliff and with the birdsong that filled the air so sweetly. She would soon have to leave it all behind, at least for a short while. She wondered what the tunnel would look like, how its darkness would affect her soul so used to the light as it now was.
Then she saw him.
He moved towards her as if in slow motion, his hair flying out behind him in slow languorous waves and his arms outstretching with each slow step that he took. For several long slow seconds everything came into sharper focus. She could see essence. In each flower that grew, each tree that stood, she could see its being, its heart. And she could see his heart, yearning for her to be free, loving her into the depth of eternity. In those long seconds she reached out her own hands to him, stepped off the porch step, her movements slow and liquid, no sound accompanying them, just essence. Her hands stretched out before her, palms facing up, her soul lay bare upon them, an offering to him.
In those long slow seconds.
She passed through infinity and came back again.
When the spell broke and movement and sound had been restored to normal she realised that something was different.
Something was very different. She was different. Her heart was more keenly focused. It felt sharper and cleaner. It was the heart of a warrior, and it was ready to do battle for the one it loved.
Suddenly she knew that she was not going to return to her garden. Sadness almost overwhelmed her. But he caught it in his hand and wrapped it up in his love, as he wrapped her up in his arms.
“Don’t be sad, Elysia! Everything has its time and its place. For everything there is a season. You will outgrow this humble house and its garden and be ready for the palace I have already prepared for you.”
Understanding dawned quickly. “You mean this place is only for my preparation?”
“Yes, my darling. You are only here for the purpose of the journey; once it’s complete you must leave this place behind and go to new places. Think of it as a warrior’s refinery in which you have taken off the chaff of softness and revealed the true mettle of the grain. You needed to learn how to turn suffering into celebration.”
“And do I know how to do that now?”
“These will help you to do that.” He rested a long leather case with a strap in her hands. She looked at it in wonder. It was a quiver full of arrows. She pulled one out. The tips were made of gold and engraved. “Gospel-tipped they are. Everyone they pierce will be filled, as you are, with knowledge of my word. They will be healed of all infirmities of body, mind, soul and spirit.”
“Wow!” She watched as the engraving on the tips slowly changed shape, constantly moving slowly and surely as if it had a mind and a will of its own.
“I am the light at the other end of your tunnel, Elysia. That is why I cannot come with you, but my spirit will be with you always, I promise you that. Just keep looking into the light and you will be sure you are travelling in the right direction.”
See you all on December 17th with Chapter Seventeen! Happy wishing.
Brightest Blessings and a Happy Advent Journey to any and all of you who are reading this,
PS: If you’d like to read Worlds Without End whole and uninterrupted on your Kindle, or on iBooks, you can go to the My Books tab at the top of the page, or just click on the ad in the sidebar on the right, to download the complete book now.
*In choosing an image for Elysia’s gospel-tipped arrows I could hardly overlook Legolas’ quiver and arrows from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, could I now?! I hope no one will mind this liberty too much.