Moving in together downstairs was a big mistake. Well, it would have been if I hadn’t got a better room out of it in the long run.
I don’t even really know why I did it. He got under my skin I suppose. Promised me the earth, marriage, family, everything. Despite his mother’s objections and his father’s insults.
The room downstairs in the brothel was bigger, big enough for two, and cheaper for two. It was like a long, narrow cave with a low window at the end and a shower room in the middle. I liked it because it was tucked away in the basement round the corner from the kitchen and I could more easily keep the rest of the house out of my hair. It was quieter and I could concentrate on my work better down there.
Or so I thought. I hadn’t bargained on the Spanish Toyboy’s mates!
All through the summer I’d been trying to wean myself off the sherbet, doing less each day and getting progressively fatter. A week before our official graduation ceremony I’d had enough. I couldn’t watch my life going down the toilet like this. I had to do something. Instead of waiting until the bag was empty I emptied it myself, down the very same toilet I didn’t want my life to go down. That meant that I spent the week before the most important ceremony of my life sleeping. That also meant that I began to see things more clearly. A lot more clearly.
The graduation ceremony was a natural turning point. It fell three weeks before the beginning of term. Three weeks before I was due to begin my MA. I still didn’t know how I was going to pay for it, but I was looking forward to getting started on it.
Minnie and her Mum and Dad came to my graduation all dressed up. The Spanish Toyboy fetched my robes from college for me while I put on my makeup and the clothes I’d been preparing for weeks. It was probably the last time I let him do anything nice for me. I was so fed up with him hanging around me wherever I went. I was so fed up with having to make sure he was never in the same square mile as the Tutor.
It went well. I felt a sense of achievement as I walked across the stage to collect my degree, although it wasn’t the high I’d thought it would be, more an inevitable part of the process. The Tutor smiled at me from his seat on the stage as I passed by and I hope that my Spaniard wouldn’t notice that I smiled back.
The champagne reception in the cloisters afterwards went particularly well, I thought. I threatened the Spanish Toyboy that if he dared to go anywhere near the Tutor for any reason whatsoever he would find the consequences so regrettable that he’d wish he’d never bothered. Thankfully he heeded my warning. To be honest I was fast getting to the point where I would have engineered a meeting just so I could do something dramatic like finish with him, but that wouldn’t have been fair on anyone else, would it?
It was a joyful day. All the smiling made my head ache. I was glad when it was over.
Then it was back to preparing bibliographies for the next instalment of further education.
Somehow I managed to get the Spanish Toyboy to take out a huge student loan for the new MA course he’d managed to get himself onto which would also pay the first year of mine. I reasoned that if we were going to get married anyway, then what was his was in effect mine and he should feel honour bound to assist in any way he could. I probably meant it at the time. He fell for it. Problem sorted.
We both started studying again at the same time, he at Queen Mary and Westfield, which was a huge step down for him from UCL and he still carried the stigma of failure almost visibly, me in the History department at UCL. It was murder trying to study in one room together. Within a couple of weeks I knew that if I didn’t get rid of him quickly I probably would murder him, quietly suffocate him while he was asleep or something. Imagine his mother’s grief! How could I do that to him? No, he had to go before it got to that.
Then these strange things started happening to me. I started acting like a six-year-old. Not all the time, just during arguments. But as the arguments got more frequent so did the six-year-old time slips. It was scary stuff and I phoned the Shrink to ask him what I should do about it. He said, as ever, go with the feeling and find out what causes it. He also said he agreed with me that it might be the link from my past that we’d been looking for in explanation of my strange outlook on sex trying to push its ugly head to the surface. That’s when I twigged the Cambridge connection that I told you about so many days ago now. And that’s when it got itself sorted out, well, after a fashion. It’s always sad when something has to be sacrificed to the greater good of the whole; in this case it was the Spanish Toyboy being sacrificed for my mental healing and so that some lucky man in the future might have a chance of a normal and meaningful and healthy relationship with me. He didn’t much like having been the scapegoat, but that was just the way it worked out.
No, these things take time to work themselves out. The Americans would probably describe it as taking time to achieve closure or something. And there were some pretty heated arguments during which I was the one getting hot and he was the one taking the heat, like a school-mistress disciplining her pupil.
It all started when the priest at the Roman Catholic church I’d been going to since living in the brothel asked me to help teach the Confirmation class for him. I couldn’t see how I could teach the moral values of the Church to a group of impressionable teenagers and expect them to espouse those values if I was openly flouting them myself. I withdrew all privileges that didn’t adhere to that moral code forthwith. The Spanish Toyboy hated that even more than he hated me just lying there and taking it so that he could satisfy his never-ending urge. I was only too glad to have a good reason to give him, a concrete no rather than a personal one. I told him that if he really loved me then he would practice restraint willingly and not want to dishonour me further by degrading me to suit his physical need.
He skulked off back to mummy and daddy and I didn’t even feel guilty, just bloody relieved.
But he kept coming back. Nearly every night too. To make sure I was all right. To make sure I wasn’t seeing anyone else. To make sure he could still stamp me as his property. He even bought me an engagement ring and asked me to marry him. It was awful.
He proposed to me while we were sitting in a restaurant in Chinatown, over the wonton soup and prawn crackers. I was on the edge of a brainwave concerning a synopsis for a Mills and Boon book that I was intending to write and my concentration was elsewhere. I think I probably said yes just to shut him up quickly. On the way home the brainwave struck and I told him about the storyline. It involved a Czech secret policeman and an English archaeologist who get thrown together in Prague Castle where they both have offices. Sounds familiar? Well it did to him as well, and he was furious. Furious that I couldn’t find a plot for my sloppy romantic novel that included him rather than the ex I’d been getting over when I met him. I tried to tell him that two penniless students living in a brothel opposite the back entrance to Euston station was hardly a comparison for the above. He couldn’t see it.
By Christmas I was the size of a bus again. The Spanish Toyboy went to Tenerife with his mother and I mistakenly went to my mother’s and got very bored indeed. My step-father let me use his car, so at least I got to visit the Jazzman and my best friend from grammar school, even if I did get accused of treating their house like a hotel with its own private hire car. Shame they didn’t have a swimming pool and a health club, I thought.
New Year was different.
Minnie suggested that we go to a prayer meeting at this church she’d been to in Kensington. It had a ripe reputation for strange happenings, movements of the Holy Spirit that most nominal Christians didn’t really understand or want to be a part of, but I was curious. I’d always been curious about the charismatic outpourings of the Spirit that most Roman Catholic priests I’d talked to had warned to steer clear of and claimed charlatanism for. All the nuns I’d ever known had smiled broadly when I’d questioned them about such things and told me I’d know when I was ready to experience them.
Holy Trinity Brompton was the church. I say the name with some wonder now, but I had no idea that my life was going to change so much, nor in what ways it was about to do so, when I agreed to go with Minnie to that prayer meeting.
I’d never been to anything quite like it. Some of the pilgrimages I’d been on with the nuns a few years earlier had been known to get a bit warmed up, eventually. But this was really hot.
The whole church was so full I thought the sides would split. And it was a big church. It was right in the heart of London’s yuppie population, a couple of hundred yards from Harrods, yet it seemed to be filled with ordinary people, like me and Minnie. Minnie actually knew a lot of them, so there was no danger of them being anything like yuppies. She was far too down to earth to have time for all that stuff.
There was someone on the stage leading the prayer for most of the time, praying about different things, exhorting everyone to something called corporate prayer. It involved a lot of shouting, everyone praying really loud about things together. It was a bit alien to me but it was New Year’s Eve and I was in an anything goes kind of mood, so I joined in.
Then they started praying especially for something called Alpha, then more specifically for Catholic Alpha. I had to find out what this was all about. Something that included my church was perhaps something I should be involved in myself.
I asked Minnie what this Alpha thing was. She said it was a course in basic Christian instruction. So why, I wondered was it necessary in my church. Didn’t we already have RCIA, which I’d been teaching for years? I picked up some leaflets about this thing and read them quickly.
There were three courses a year and the next one began in a couple of weeks. I talked Minnie into enrolling for it with me. If this thing was going to be taught in my church the least I could do was to do it myself to find out what it was all about. And of course there was another motive. My Spanish Toyboy, who admittedly wasn’t top ten on my list of favourite people for certain reasons, may not have been completely beyond redemption. I still would have considered him as an infinite marriage possibility if he were to openly embrace the Christian lifestyle and all that it stood for.
I really was hoping for miracles from this Alpha thing, wasn’t I?
He only came with me twice, then made up hapless excuses for why he couldn’t come again. I told him that if that was the way he saw our relationship, as something he could get out of doing the right thing in as quickly as that, then he could just get out of my life forever because I wasn’t interested in him any more. It takes commitment to live the Christian life and he wasn’t even willing to give it a try, not even for me.
He still kept showing up most evenings, annoying the hell out of me by pleading and begging me to drop my standards and get back to the way we were. The way we were? What, when I was so out of it on the sherbet that I’d let him come much closer than I would have done if I wasn’t? Or when I was so dreadfully unhappy because I’d let my standards fall low enough to do the things that were contrary to my beliefs and made myself ill in doing so? Which one of those did he want back? Oh, just the sex! Well, silly me for even contemplating a higher motive.
His visits got fewer and further between.
I carried on getting fatter. That seemed to be keeping him away for longer.
Alpha worked by getting everyone together for a kind of lecture, breaking off for a coffee, then splitting up into small groups of around ten to twelve people to discuss what had been talked about in the lecture. Holy Trinity Brompton is the place where the Alpha movement started. Most Anglican parishes now run the programme and quite a lot of Roman Catholic ones too. Numbers might not be high in the more provincial parishes, but at HTB there’s always huge numbers. The church was full every session and the small groups were at breaking point.
Minnie and I had stayed together in the same small group. Ours was a strange but oddly unified group. We all got on well together and after a few sessions we started to meet up socially for weekend outings and the like.
My birthday fell somewhere near the end of the programme and what a surprise party they organised for me!
Minnie told me nothing. She collected me from Euston and drove me to Northolt. I knew that it would be a boat trip but not which boat or where we would be going. Two of our new friends had boats at Northolt. It was the bigger of the two, a big Dutch canal barge, that I was hijacked onto. The whole of our small group was on board with a huge picnic lunch and lots of champagne. They sailed me down to Camden lock where we had a party on board. No one had ever given me a surprise birthday party before. It was the best birthday I could remember.
When I got off the boat after the party and walked down Eversholt Street back home to the brothel, the Spanish Toyboy was waiting for me in the TV room. He’d been there for hours, he said. He began to have a go at me for something, his jealousy rising to a level I considered completely unacceptable, especially in view of the fact that I’d given him the flick nearly a week before. I made him sleep on the sofa in the TV room.
He took me out for dinner the next day. It wasn’t half the celebration that the party the day before had been. I knew which birthday present I preferred. He was definitely history, whatever his decision about Christianity. I was enjoying being single again.
He’d always said how much he loved my hair. When I’d been thin it had been longer, but now it framed my fat little face with lovely little wispy bits that made me look really quite sweet. If he wouldn’t leave me alone when I told him to, I’d have to think of something that would make him leave me alone because he wanted to. While the honey still smells sweet the bees will still hover, or something like that.
I had all my hair shaved off.
I wanted the hairdresser to give me a flat top because it seemed the most extreme statement I could make, but she said it would look better if it was spiky on top instead. Whatever, it was a dramatic enough statement.
I only saw the lovelorn and devastated Spaniard once after that. Shows how much he cared for anything of intrinsic value.
There had been a weekend away on that first Alpha course. Minnie and I had gone along in trepidation, fearing the worst. She feared repetition; I feared things I knew nothing of. It was called the Holy Spirit weekend and it was geared up to make people feel at ease with the gifts of the Spirit, most of which most people feared for some reason, possibly the bad press things like that get from uptight and neurotic nominal Christians who fear themselves. It was a revelation. The whole weekend was just the most brilliant revelation I had ever had. I felt free for the first time in my life to really let go and let the Spirit into my life. It was the kind of abandon I’d only ever dreamed of achieving.
Then came Alpha 2.
I was so into the process that the first course had started that it seemed only natural to continue on into the life of this new church, even if it was an Anglican one and I was still a Roman Catholic. Of course I inveigled Minnie into it too. I think she would rather not have bothered, she didn’t attend so regularly anyway. Again it was spread over ten weeks, but every other week it was held in the home of the group leaders instead of in the church. And it was a much smaller group than before, filling only perhaps a third of the church. Nice and cosy, I thought. Less people to have to get to know.
All through that summer I had been concentrating on this course, rather than on the academic work that I should have been turning out, and rather than on the writing that I wanted to be doing. My history course had gone particularly well, even the exam had been a triumph, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue for another year, nor if I’d be able to find the money to do so. The romantic novel had changed shape when I realised that the story I had in mind to write was just too brilliant to get wasted on a short romance. It had more substance than that. It was turning into an epic in my mind. More than that, it was turning into a comedy series about this dead straight English archaeologist who goes a little crazy when she gets mixed up with this dishy Czech secret policeman. They were beginning to have wonderful adventures cavorting all over Europe solving historically derived mysteries involving stolen artefacts and Interpol and everything else I could think of. All in my mind of course. But I desperately wanted to sit down and write all this stuff. And the best of it was that I’d found a home for Harry. You remember, Harry Ballantyne, the erstwhile archaeologist, who I’d cooked up to make my life seem that bit more interesting in my first year at the Institute? Well, in my thoughts she’d stopped being erstwhile and started being just plain reluctant, at least to be an archaeologist. She just didn’t know how to be anything else because it was all she’d ever known how to be. Imagine the possibilities for growth in a character like that! The tension I could create was endless. Then there was the MA essay that I should have written for the History Tutor by the end of the summer term.
By the time of the Alpha 2 “Gifts of the Holy Spirit Day”, which was in late June, I still hadn’t done it. But as I sat there quietly exploring my own spiritual gifts, directed by our group leaders, who’d also become good friends by that stage, something very strange and wonderful happened.
The other members of the group were filling in a huge questionnaire about spiritual gifts to determine their own, but as we’d already been given them in advance to look at I’d already filled mine in. This gave me about half an hour of free reflection time. I was using it to reflect on my own gifts, particularly on my writing, and, like it was flowing down from heaven and just using me as its vessel, a wonderfully detailed synopsis splurged out through my pencil and onto the blank page in front of me. I was speechless. And that hasn’t happened often in my life.
It didn’t last for very long, speechlessness. I wanted to share it with the whole group. Then they were speechless too. Probably more at the sight of this fat, shaven-headed excitable person jumping up and down in such ecstasy than at the deeply spiritual ramifications of my revelation. But that was okay.
The whole story was laid out on the paper for me. That night I went home and drafted a highly detailed synopsis for it, intending to start writing it as soon as I’d finished the history essay.
It didn’t quite work out like that.
I spent the whole summer not writing that essay. Which meant that I also spent the whole summer not writing the best story I’d ever thought up. Meanwhile I carried on getting fatter and wishing that my hair would grow as fast as my waistline.
I spent the whole summer getting more and more involved in the life of my new church, my Anglican church. The first thing I’d noticed that was so different from my Roman Catholic church was that people actually prayed about stuff, in home groups, in the church, after services, one on one, in groups, everyone was doing it. It was like a breath of fresh air blowing the cobwebs out of my head. It gave me permission to do it on my own too. I mean do it properly, not in the covert half-hearted and very stuffy way that I’d been doing it for the past few years, kind of talking at God and not to Him.
That summer I really learnt how to have a truly meaningful two-way relationship with God. I didn’t reject all that I’d learnt from the nuns, in fact if anything I learnt how to use more effectively what they’d taught me. I looked, I mean really looked at the Holy Spirit prayer that Sister Madeline had given me and really applied myself to making it work for me.
In his introduction to the prayer Cardinal Mercier had said that every day for five minutes I should control my imagination, close my eyes to the things of sense and my ears to all the noises of the world, so that I could enter into myself. He said that in the sanctity of my baptised soul, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, I would be able to speak to that Divine Spirit and that He was the one I should say the prayer to, uttering the words slowly….
O Holy Spirit, belovèd of my soul,
… I adore You.
Tell me what I should do
… give me Your orders.
I promise to submit myself
to all that You desire of me
and to accept
all that You permit to happen to me.
Let me only know Your will….
He said that if I did this, my life would flow along happily, serenely and full of consolation, even in the midst of trials.
But when it came down to it, and I began to unwrap Sister Madeline’s beautiful gift with the intention of making it a household item and using it every day, I didn’t really know how to.
I couldn’t bear not knowing. It was almost like a resentment, thinking about this thing I wanted to be able to do, this thing that was beyond me. Then I sat down and prayed about it. I said:
“Please. Will You show me how to control my imagination? Will You show me how to close my eyes to the things of sense, my ears to all the noises of the world? How do I enter into myself exactly? Please help me to find that Divine Spirit within my baptised soul, so that I may indeed speak to It and It to me!”
And the answer came back:
“Your imagination has wings, they just need to grow a little: I’ll teach them how. The things of sense and the noises of the world won’t go away, but in learning to relish them, to celebrate them as a part of the Creation, you can fade them out by tuning them in: I’ll teach you how. That Divine Spirit is Me. I am always in your soul. Just open it up and speak: I’ll give you the words.”
Then I asked:
“Will You find me a room fit for You in which we can speak?”
And again He answered:
“Think of it and there it will be.”
I thought of it. I thought deep and hard, and in the privacy of my own heart I saw a tiny white-walled little room. It was like a single-vaulted crypt only warm and safe, or like the inside of a whitewashed heart.
And as I made myself comfortable in that small room my Jesus came and sat beside me. He listened to all my troubles and helped me to find answers. Then he asked me if I’d like to go for a walk with Him and the walls of my white room melted into a corridor of trees, a canopy of green leaves above us with dappled sunlight speckling us as we walked.
Each day as I returned to that place in my heart He showed me more and more, and the journey began to take a lot longer than five minutes. But every day I longed to go there and be with Him. I felt safe there and loved, important and real.
As I prayed like this day after day, my Jesus was exhorting me to new heights of spiritual achievement and stretching my confidence in such a way that He gently reminded me of the call He’d put on my life some years earlier.
Then came the Catholic Alpha Conference.
I was there as a prayer minister for HTB, which meant that I could quite easily have found myself praying for a Roman Catholic bishop. But that’s the way God works, no one is too great or too small in His army. Luckily I didn’t have to. In fact, as things worked out during that two days, it would have been more beneficial if a Roman Catholic bishop had taken the initiative to pray for me!
This vocation thing had been building up for a couple of weeks. My prayer journeys had been more and more filled with a sense of urgency concerning the shape of it, but I really can be quite slow to grasp the point sometimes. Sometimes it just has to reach out and grab me! And that was exactly what it did.
During a break in the conference on the second day I’d slipped into a quiet side chapel in the cathedral to pray on my own. I was kneeling in front of the little altar asking God for clarity of vision about this vocation thing. And very suddenly He gave it to me. With amazing clarity I could see what He’d been trying to tell me for weeks, what He’d been trying to tell me for years only I was in the wrong denomination to look at it in the light He wanted me to with any seriousness. Mine was, and had been all along had I but known it, a vocation to the priesthood.
I was gobsmacked.
The tears poured down my face as I knelt there. And all I could think of was that I didn’t have a tissue and couldn’t let them pour for very long without needing to find something to mop them up with.
I couldn’t go back to the conference looking like that so I went into the shop in the square outside the cathedral to look for some tissues.
Then another miracle happened.
There in a cabinet was the ring I’d been looking for for years.
It was a strange thing, but ever since my first visit to the convent in Wimbledon the thing that had struck me most about nuns was that they wore a wedding ring, professed nuns that is. I think I’d always wanted the wedding ring more than the habit or the teaching. Maybe subconsciously I really wanted what the wedding ring symbolised, maybe that was why it was so very important to me. And everywhere I’ve been since then I’ve been looking for the right one, the right ring.
And there it was. A simple solid silver band with an inscription around the outside and a tiny raised dove in the centre. I understood the Latin in the inscription as I had taken a Latin course as part of my MA in medieval studies. Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit.
I managed to wipe away the debris from my face somehow and pluck up the courage to ask if I could try it on. It was far too big. The woman in the shop measured my ring size and told me she could order the right one for me. She said it might take some time. I told her I’d been waiting years, I could probably wait another few months. So she ordered it.
That night I prayed again, taking all these things that had happened out of my heart and giving them to Him, like offerings on my altar. I asked God what He wanted me to do about this new twist, this priesthood thing. For a moment I even considered changing my denomination and becoming an Anglican priest. Then Catholic guilt set in and I prayed some more. No, it was plain to me that God would want me to be faithful to my own church. That if a Roman Catholic woman’s fight for the priesthood was to be a long and drawn out one, as it probably will be, He would want me to campaign for future generations of Roman Catholic women to be admitted into the priesthood. That of course meant that I would be considered, at least in religious terms, to be a subversive, a dissident, someone nasty and slimy and disobedient. I had to let the thought go there for that night, so I thanked Him for my ring and instead.
The next thing I needed to do was a little more practical.
I needed to get a job!
I was only a part-time student. I didn’t get any grants or bursaries or any funding of any kind. I was on the dole. And the council paid my rent. I was always broke and slipping further and further into debt. I hated it.
So, against my heartfelt desire to remain either a student or a struggling author, I left the brothel one bright sunny summer morning with the intention of getting a job. Actually it was nearer lunchtime.
I managed to get a few yards from the front door when I heard someone calling my name. It was too loud for me to realistically pretend that I hadn’t heard, as I usually did, especially when the sound of running footsteps brought the voice ever closer.
It was Mr Strange from the club next door.
I usually managed to avoid him and his wife pretty successfully. That day I didn’t.
He said that they had a job for me and pushed me inside the club and down the stairs. He was polite and fawning but still very forceful. He ushered me into his wife’s office and she fawned too.
“Darling! It’s so nice to see you. Where have you been? We’ve been trying to contact you for weeks, leaving messages that nobody answers….”
And so she went on. I tried to explain that I’d had a lot of work on finishing my history course. And of course my Latin took up so much of my time. And no one ever passed phone messages on in our house, especially not if they had to run down from the second floor where the phone was to the basement where I now lived. Why was I even bothering to make excuses? Why didn’t I just come right out and tell them that nobody liked them, everybody avoided them like the plague, and why didn’t they just piss off and leave us all alone? Well, I just didn’t, that’s why!
And I wish I had.
She said they had a job for me over the summer. Their secretary person was going to be away through the summer holidays and they needed someone to answer the phones while she was away. That was all, just answering the phones. And only part-time. I’d have said no immediately if she hadn’t said that she’d pay me the same as the secretary was getting.
My mercenary little mind quickly added up the damage. Seven weeks work, so I could get away from them again at the end of the summer. Only 11 ‘til 4 each day, so I didn’t even have to try and get up any earlier than I already did. Seven fifty an hour, about the same as I’d get for a full day’s work with an agency.
“Okay,” I said. “You’re on!”
What an idiot.
I was ushered out without ceremony and pushed back out onto the street. Deal done. No further need for fawning or sugary talk. They’d got what they wanted. Oh well, could it really be so bad? At least I didn’t have to trawl the agencies all day.
This arrangement worked well for a while.
Apart from the fact that I did far more than answer the phones.
When their office manager left to run his own bistro in Lavender Hill they had me doing his job too.
It worked well until I got fed up with being dumped on and exploited beyond belief and told them that I’d found another job.
At the end of the seven weeks I’d gained so much confidence in the work place that I’d managed to get a seriously good job with an agency at ten quid an hour. I was due to start on the day the secretary person was due back and the only pitfall was that it was a full-time position and probably only temporary. Why did I tell them anything?
They took me to lunch. They lauded my capabilities and praised me to the hilt, telling me that they valued my loyalty far too much and how could they ever manage without me now. They asked me what it would take to get me to stay with them and ditch the new job.
So I told them.
I needed the equivalent of ten quid an hour full-time. They worked out a package that did indeed equate. It included rent-free accommodation on the premises, which would solve a lot of my problems and get me a fresh start somewhere that hadn’t been a brothel, at least not officially. So I went for it.
What an idiot!
But there was always the chef to console me when times got rough.
I got very used to coming downstairs in the evenings and finding a wonderful haute cuisine meal ready for me. I got even more used to the exhilarating conversations I had with the chef while we ate. All the other staff ate together at one of the big tables in the restaurant part of the club, but I took my dinner upstairs with me, until I realised that I preferred to be in the kitchen chatting with the chef.
We had a lot in common. And a lot not in common.
Like me, he was a student. Unlike me he had funding to continue into his next year. Like me he was intelligent enough to see what went on in the club and to rise above it before any of it affected him in any serious way. We talked about the mad owners and their peculiar ways, concluding that for them the place was a game, a dangerous hunting ground where they played emotional hide and seek with each other using the rest of us as bait. We laughed about that. Like me he understood the nuances of intellectual creativity, its caprices and its joys. We talked a lot about things we’d written, things we would write and the lure and promise of publication, never really expecting it to happen to us. Like me he understood religious commitment. As a Shi’ite Muslim, he said, regimented discipline was nothing new to him. He said he would be as prepared to let his faith shape his career as I would mine.
Unlike me he was a Muslim.
Unlike me he was married.
I asked him why he seemed to get on better with me than with his wife. He told me that he was not in love with his wife.
Then he explained to me that she had been his friend. That he’d only married her in order to be able to stay in the UK, that that was why he’d got funding to finish his studies. He told me what life in Tehran was like for him, how poor his family was, and why it was so important for him to be here. Then he told me how sad he was that he didn’t meet me before he’d got married because he would have married me for love. He would have been the happiest man on earth, he said.
I told him that I wouldn’t have married him unless he’d converted to Christianity.
He laughed and pointed out that I hadn’t told him that I wouldn’t have married him. I laughed back and pointed out that one of the good things about the Anglican priesthood was that marriage was a possibility but probably not to a Muslim.
It pushed us into a more aware phase of friendship.
We became acutely aware of the physical attraction that was bubbling away all too close to the surface of our daily lives and conversations with each other, until the meals he cooked for me became merely the excuse we had to see each other every day. I began to spend more and more time in the kitchen, preferring to secretly watch his busy routine and savour the aromas of his cooking to the solitude of my own private apartment upstairs. We cast lingering sidelong glances at each other while the other staff were around and gravitated precariously close to each other to talk during the precious moments when they were not.
Before I knew it the summer was gone and the beginning of term was only a week away.
But now I had a dilemma.
I couldn’t finish my MA in medieval studies at UCL because I had no money to pay the fees. I asked if they would let me pay by monthly instalments but it was two big payments at the beginning of this and the next term or nothing. I deferred for a year.
But my brain kept ticking over on the issue of women in the priesthood and I found a course that I could do, that I could also pay for monthly, and which would help me into the priesthood. Well, it would at some stage. I didn’t expect the male dominated boys’ club to accept me with open arms just because I’d done an MA in pastoral theology, but I couldn’t see it hurting to get another string to the bow, so to speak.
Within a week I’d got myself onto the course. It was all the way over in Kensington at Heythrop, a Catholic college.
A week into the course I loved it. Two weeks in and theology was beginning to make sense to me. Three weeks in and the chef was missing me on the days I wasn’t at the restaurant.
He kept my dinner warm until I got in.
One of these nights the club closed early, but he stayed to cook for me anyway. I wasn’t surprised that he’d stayed, more pleased. It gave me a warm fuzzy sort of feeling that I was beginning to like. No one had ever wanted to cook for me before. But then he wasn’t like other men. He was kind and considerate. I found myself wondering how long that would last for. Women in his culture weren’t known for their independence or freedom, and cultural habits had a tendency to die hard. What was I even thinking of? He could never be mine!
It seemed silly to stay downstairs in the kitchen to eat, so I asked him upstairs to my apartment. When I’d finished eating we sat and talked for a while, skirting around the issue of mutual attraction, his wife, our faiths.
Then he kissed me.
It was gentle and full of depth and slow-release passion. It made me feel safe and secure. I wanted him so badly it almost hurt.
For the next few weeks I carried on working, going to college in Kensington one day a week, going to my Roman Catholic church on a Sunday morning and HTB in the evening. I carried on avoiding the issue with the Chef, trying not to put myself in a vulnerable situation with him, as much for his protection as for mine.
Then one night it just got too hot to handle.
The club closed early again. He stayed behind to clear the kitchen up. It was just him and me and a whole load of passion neither of us wanted to resist any more. He lifted me up onto the clean work table in and slowly began to remove my blouse. I stopped him and ripped it open myself, buttons flying off in all directions and fabric ripping. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it felt as his hands moved over my breasts, as his tongue followed suit.
And then something happened.
Something clicked into place in my brain that had never bothered to click before.
“I’m sorry,” I said, pushing him away from me. “But I can’t do this.”
Of course he wasn’t happy, but he took it better than most any other man I’d ever known would have done. He backed off and said he was sorry. He was so sweet.
I had this image in my mind of the perfect husband, of the perfect marriage, and all I was doing was defiling that image by carrying on like that. My ideas had certainly changed. I wanted to do things God’s way so much more than I wanted to keep on defiling my life. And God’s way, I knew because I’d been teaching it only a year before to the confirmation class, and I’d been trying to work it out for myself for over ten years, was to get to know your partner first as a friend, then as a betrothed couple, and finally as a husband. The world’s version of it was to jump into bed and hope that the rest would follow. I’d been doing that all my life and in my experience it never did. All that ever followed were pain, rejection and humiliation. I wanted to try God’s way now.
But I had already unleashed a desire that was battling very hard within me for supremacy and every time I saw the Chef my knees would go weak.
Then something else happened.
One evening after he’d gone home and the club was quiet I was so overcome with desire for him that I nearly ran across to Euston station to catch him before his train arrived. A voice within me stopped me from doing it. But all night long I battled with the physical desire to give myself to him and the spiritual desire to give myself first to God. It was like a wrestling match. I cried and shouted at God and told Him that there was nothing so stupid as holding onto such virtue, that it could do no real harm and that I would give him everything next time I saw him. Then I broke down into sobs of sorrow and remorse and asked Him to help me and to give me the strength to resist this awful temptation and to claim me for His own. I carried on like this for hours, well into the morning, wrestling and reasoning, reasoning and wrestling, until I was too exhausted to do either. At last God won through and I knew that He’d given me the strength to resist. I concluded that I never would give in to that particular temptation again, as His place in my life was paramount and I would not jeopardise my relationship with him for one night of sordid passion ever again. I felt calm at last and I finally went to sleep in deep peace.
Then several things happened.
When I went downstairs to start work the next day I took a phone call from the Westminster Cathedral bookshop. My ring had arrived. The one I’d ordered all those months ago and then forgotten all about.
I nicked off for an hour in the afternoon to collect it. It was only a ten-minute tube journey to Victoria. No one would miss me.
I collected the ring and started to head back to the tube station, but something tugged me…pushed me…in the direction of the cathedral entrance. I looked around me to see who had knocked into me but there was no one even remotely near me. I knew then that it must be Divine Inspiration and walked up the steps to the huge arched doors. It was still and serene inside, as always, but there was something expectant that hung in the air, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I walked slowly down the main aisle and I felt as one in a daze, one who has no knowledge of a surprise birthday party perhaps, lost in one of those mists that lifts to reveal all of life’s desires in remarkable clarity.
A group of school children were gathering on the steps at the front of the altar, looking into the cathedral so I could see their faces. They were still wearing their coats and scarves and a teacher was arranging them into some semblance of order. The teacher raised his arm and the children began to sing. It sounded like a choir of angels who’d assembled there just for me, and I knelt to pray.
As the strains of those voices were lifted up to heaven so my eyes were lifted up to my Jesus hanging there on His huge Byzantine cross many feet above the ground. I found myself taking the thick silver ring out of its package and slipping it on the third finger on my left hand and whispering in the purest joy, “With this ring I thee wed”, while gazing up at the figure on that cross, my Jesus, my Husband. As I said the following words, “With this ring I thee— ”, a voice gently stopped me. It said: “You don’t need any more vows at the moment. I’ll tell you when you do, and what they will be”. I felt the greatest feeling of intimacy it is possible to feel right there, on my knees, giving myself to my true Husband. I smiled as He told me how much He loved me. Then the children reached the end of their song, stopped singing and slowly filed out. And I myself rose to return to work.
But on the tube on the way back I felt different. I felt as if I was glowing. I wanted to tell everyone that I’d just got married. I wanted to tell everyone about my Husband. I felt wonderful.
When I got back to the club I took another strange phone call. This time it was from the Chef’s wife. She said he wouldn’t be in that night, and probably not for the next month, because he had just been rushed to hospital and operated on for appendicitis. I asked her what time he’d been under the surgeon’s knife and she said it had barely been an hour ago. Exactly the same time as I had been on my knees in the cathedral.
That was on the last day of November.
25th December 1999
And today is Christmas day.
And here I am in Cambridge. Trying to piece the thoughts of the past twenty-four days together so that I can put it all behind me and go forward into the rest of my life without it.
It seems strange now, looking back on that point where the Christmas journey began. With the ring on my finger, the Chef in hospital and my physical desires brought under control; almost as if they were all three in some way linked. And I was promised a New Life at the end of it. I gave up pastoral theology shortly before that. After a couple of months on the course there only seemed to be old life in it, old life and the Word of God twisted through nearly two thousand years to fit man’s ever-changing agenda.
Well, where do I begin with what has happened since then? I was never sure how I was going to piece together, for the benefit of this story, the events that went between its happening and its being written about. In fact I wasn’t intending to at all. Then I realised that I would be cheating you, and myself of watching God’s promises in action, of seeing for ourselves that lives don’t change overnight with the issue of a new order. No, it takes determination and hard effort to transform God’s will into the habits of New Life. Would it have been fair of me to leave that out?
If you’ve been paying attention to Elysia’s journey, you’ll already know what happened after the last day of November. Did you pick up all of the clues I left along the way that hinted at who she really was…who she really is?
But what happened after she…I…we had concluded our Advent journey is almost another story in itself. Yes, I was promised a New Life, and I certainly got it. I’ve already tried to include some of it. I remember some of these past twenty-four nights feeling all kinds of emotions from ecstatic joy, through pity and sorrow and into the realms of anger and even bitterness about my father and about what happened while I was visiting him in Colorado. If it seems a bit of a blur to you that’s probably because it was the same for me. I felt that there were things I needed to write about that had no framework here and yet they were bursting through and creating some kind of structure for themselves anyway. You see, that’s what happened after we’d finished that miraculous Christmas journey, Elysia and I, we went to Colorado to visit daddy. To sort out those last lingering ghosts from the past and tell them exactly what we thought of them.
Look at me! I’m running away with myself, getting all out of sync. You need me to tell you about my victory…I mean Elysia’s Victory…oh, what the heck, our Victory. And all I can do is wander off into wonderland on this beautiful crisp Christmas day evening. I can think of worse nights to wander, less symbolic times and places when I would do just the same, but tonight I ought to focus. I’ll try. I promise.
I had so many visions and dreams while I was 9000 feet up in the mountains. God spoke to me every day. And my father scoffed. My Jesus led me every step of the way for the whole ninety days that I was there. My father tried to push me away. And so many very special things happened. My mother’s healing for instance, which my father denied. And I even planned to build a monastery, a monastery designed by Charlemagne. I think he thought I’d gone mad, my father, when I told him about that one. But where does it all fit in now, two years on, in Cambridge, where, apart from my God and a couple of really good friends, I’m alone. Alone and penniless, but here’s not the place to gripe about money.
Back to the tying up of all the loose ends.
There’s one face I can’t get out of my mind, one man who haunts my dreams. One rat I’d like to be able to exterminate from my memory. He’s not brown and furry, he doesn’t have a long rubbery tail and he doesn’t wear a little golden crown, but I’d still call him the King of the Rats. Why does he haunt me so? I should be able to let go by now, shouldn’t I?
So why can’t I?
The purpose of writing down this Christmas journey was to let go of all of it, the whole of my life so far, all except for the previous Christmas journey that is, oh and the Colorado bits. To let it go and to walk into God’s new life for me, the life He promised at the end of that first journey. But how do you let go of forty years of your life?
It feels like I’m running a chariot race, only I’m not the one holding the reins, I’m on the back of the horses. At first I was on the back of the last horse and gradually through these past twenty-four days of Advent I’ve been climbing forward, like a circus rider, from one horse to another, creeping forward and relieving each one of its service as I took the control myself. And now there’s only one horse left to subdue, the fastest, the wildest, the hardest. Now I must scramble onto its back and claim the whole victory.
What kind of package does victory come in?
Is my victory won at the cost of someone else’s fall? My dad for instance, standing at the gates between heaven and hell and wondering which way to go. Does my enlightenment, then, plunge someone else into the darkness? Or does it just illuminate an already existing truth for what it really is?
And what about the priesthood? I was so zealous about it when God revealed His plans to me on my knees in the cathedral. But then I’ve always been zealous about the call to vocation each time He’s stepped up the pace, at least until I ran out of steam. Maybe it’s been a huge learning curve with different landmarks divinely designed to lead me ever onwards towards my true destiny. Maybe destiny isn’t just one place but the many places that we pass along the way, and maybe the true test is in our strength of character to deal with each of those places, and the only right answers are those born out of God’s wisdom, His truth, His righteousness and His justice.
It used to worry me so much that I might die never having made a name for myself, in one way or another. And although I have never questioned the validity of God’s call on my life, at any stage, I do wonder how much of my drive to enter first the convent then the priesthood has found its fuel in that need to be remembered for something. Okay, without it I would have sat on my backside, done nothing, and probably saved myself a lot of anxiety and embarrassment, but aren’t all of us as Christians given the responsibility of the priesthood in every interaction we have with another human being? Do we not all take the face of Christ Jesus to every person we meet?
Being known doesn’t seem important to me now. As a priest, as a writer, as a woman. What’s important to me now is being the person that God wants me to be, not full of my own sense of self-importance as I have been at most other times in my life, but just to let myself be filled with God’s will. Anything that takes us away from a life of humility must also take us away from Him, so maybe my life is meant to be this way, hidden in Him where only He sees what use I am rather than on the front line of priesthood, authorship or feminist activism where I can be noticed. At least for now.
The only glory I want is the glory of the victory I am about to unfold to you.
To pick the story up at the right place you have to remember the things you’ve just learned: that Elysia is the other side of me, she’s my spiritual nature; and that the place where we became two people, for the purpose of this story, was on the last day of November, the day I slipped that ring on my finger in Westminster Cathedral when the children were singing their beautiful song just long enough for Jesus to look down from His cross and hear my vow.
Throughout this journey I’ve asked you some quite sharp questions about your own reaction to Elysia’s trials. I really wanted to ask you how you would have coped with my trials, but I didn’t have the nerve. It would have seemed rude. But I have no problem with asking you to share my joy, both for the miracle birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, on this His two thousandth birthday, and for His grace at accepting me as His chosen bride. Neither do I have a problem with asking you if you’d like Him to change your life too!
I stared at the heap of dust on my mother’s throne. There really was a tear in my eye as I turned away. Yes, I knew that she would be completely healed, that the process already begun would reach a whole conclusion.
And as I turned I noticed what had happened all around me. How the walls had rebuilt themselves into the Holy City; how the river of living water welled up in its spring at the summit of the mountain and poured forth its life-giving jewels in a river that ran in tributaries all the way throughout my Promised Land.
I heard choirs of angels singing as I looked out over my new land. I could just make out what they were singing. The spirit and the bride say, “Come!” Let him who hears answer, “Come!” Let him who is thirsty come forward; let all who desire it accept the gift of life-giving water. I remembered the words from my reading of my Beloved’s books. They were the last words of the final page of the ultimate book.
And as I turned back to those thrones where my mother and father’s wooden thrones had stood it was indeed to see that they had replaced themselves with those cast in gold.
And as I took in my own transformation from warrior to bride my Beloved’s voice said to me:
“Yes, you are beautiful, my dearest love. And now we are together in paradise.”
With angels as witnesses, and in the sight of the Lord God Our Father, we were joined together on the mountaintop. As we sat side by side, Bride and Groom, on our golden thrones, choirs of angels sang to us again, in voices of such purity and sweetness.
And my nightingale sang too.
“So, what do we do next?” I asked.
“Pick up your book, Eartha-Elysia!” He commanded. “And tell me what is written there.”
My leather-bound book with its blank parchment pages lay on a little golden table beside my throne. I picked it up and opened it. “But there’s nothing there,” I said, a little puzzled.
“Keep looking, my love!”
And as I watched three words began to write themselves across the middle of the first parchment page…Worlds Without End…and then they stopped.
“But why is there no more?”
“Because you have to write the rest yourself, Eartha-Elysia.”
When I looked again there was a quill there too.
Well, that’s the end of Eartha-Elysia’s journey – actually it’s the beginning of another one, too! I hold in my heart the above image of Cair Paravel, courtesy of concept art from the Chronicles of Narnia production team, as my Promised Land. Find an image of your own personal Promised Land and hold onto it, fiercely. It will underpin all your efforts to become the person you wish to become, and provide you with a place to go to in your heart that is truly yours, whenever you need it :-). I hope you’ve enjoyed this Advent Journey and that your Christmas is now full of the wishes you have wished along the way.
Brightest Blessings and a Happy Christmas to any and all of you who are still 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. You won’t get the wonderful pictures I’ve found to accompany this Blogging Advent Journey though, so I hope you have a good memory!