1st Year at University
I kept a diary from my first day at college. Not a real diary about me, more of an imaginary one about another character I thought was more interesting than me. The Institute of Archaeology in Gordon Square had always been a bit of an ivory tower for me, since my dad used to bang on about how clever all the archaeologists who were housed within its walls were. It seemed like a dream to me that I should be allowed to study there and make it into a place where I undertook ordinary activities like studying. There was always something a bit gung-ho about the place in my memory. So I created a person who fitted that description and kept a diary for her. Nobody knew she was a her. Anyone who read it would think she was a him. Her name was Harry Ballantyne. Harry as in Harriet.
On my first day I described all my movements in Harry’s diary and put them down to her, in the third person just to keep it as detached as possible. I probably elaborated on everything to make it seem that much more interesting too. It wasn’t exactly uninteresting attributed to me, but things always seem that bit more exotic when they’re someone else’s, not so tedious. I wrote about how Harry met a new friend in the medieval department on her first day. How they stuck together through the introductions to tutors and subjects. How they got lumbered with another mature student who went on and on about nothing all the time because they were too polite to tell her to go away and find some other mugs. And, finally, how she went home with a headache at the end of the day. I made Harry enjoy all the things that I found so tedious and difficult, like first year archaeological science lectures and the lumbering attachment who soon proved unshakeable. It helped me to ease myself in without too much of a shock I suppose. Once I was used to my new way of life, living in London and studying in this place I’d lived in awe of for so long, I didn’t seem to need Harry so much and I let her diary entries slip. I didn’t forget her altogether though, and I became more honest with myself about what I liked and didn’t like. My medieval friend looked like one of the Avenger girls, the one who played Purdey. I liked her. The other woman had all the endearing qualities of super-glue, six children and a husband who regularly appeared in the Bill. She earned herself the universal nickname of Earth Mother, rapidly. I didn’t exactly dislike her; I just didn’t exactly like her.
Sister Madeline’s prayer, along with most all other prayers, got forgotten in the wake of new things that were happening to me. Spirituality took a back seat for a while, at least until I met the Geography teacher and began to spend most of my time at his flat in Hendon.
He was the best friend of a strange and tormented girl I met at college. She took me out to Hendon one night to meet him and he fell in love with me. I had on a green medieval-looking velvet dress and Doctor Martin boots. My hair had grown way down past my waist and looked particularly good. So, I thought, did I, even if I was a little over my ideal weight. It had been a long time since anyone had fallen in love with me and even though I didn’t fancy him at all I consented to go out with him when he begged me nicely.
I’d never been out with a Geography teacher before. I’ll probably never go out with another one. Certainly not one who comes from North Wales. I’m only glad I didn’t fancy him enough to overcome my own new rule not to sleep with any more men. Terribly virtuous though it may have been, I would have done if I had fancied him. I knew that.
He saved me from the noise and confusion of college halls of residence. He saved me from a miserable Christmas. He saved me from myself in many ways. I spent more time in his flat in Hendon that year than I did in the dark and dingy room I had opposite the Institute. I even got involved with the local Roman Catholic church enough to participate in their RCIA programme. It ran on Wednesday nights, which seemed a little strange until I got used to it. He kept his hands to himself under sufferance at first, then just kept them to himself because he couldn’t be bothered. He’d fallen out of love with me. Was it something I did? Or something I wouldn’t do? I was so sure he would ask me to marry him. I was so sure I wanted to be married. I thought marrying someone I didn’t fancy was a wonderful idea because true love rather than the type based on superficial lust would flourish, naturally. When my birthday present turned out to be anything but an engagement ring I was devastated.
That was the beginning of the end.
But something really strange had already begun to happen.
I felt secure with the Geography Teacher for long enough to start bringing down some of my barriers. Barriers that had been up so long that I didn’t even know they were there and certainly wasn’t conscious of them coming down. The nasty side effect of this psychological advance was that I began to deal with that part of the past that was buried the deepest and that had caused me the most pain. It made me want to rewrite Just Another Winter’s Tale.
But when I reread the twenty-one-day-reign-of-terror it sent me over the edge.
I felt all the things I should have felt at the time. I felt like I had just been raped. The Shrink said it would happen, that one day I’d feel the pain I’d had to push away from me just to survive. He said I’d feel it when my subconscious felt secure enough to deal with it.
My subconscious was on its own there because I couldn’t deal with it. And neither could the Geography Teacher. Within weeks he’d taken away everything that had given me the security to deal with it. He’d reduced our relationship to being just friends, although he said it was okay for me to stay in the flat with him until the summer term was over. He gave me no support at all with the rape thing. And he said my inability to manage finances scared him into remembering things about himself he’d rather not confront. At least he still lent me money when I asked him for it. I expect he felt guilty about all the other things.
I felt worthless.
Worse. I felt unmarriageable.
I had an appointment with my tutor about fieldwork at the beginning of the summer term, shortly after my birthday. He asked me if anything was wrong. I told him how stupid I felt about the engagement thing, about getting it so wrong. I don’t know why I told him, it just came out.
He kissed my hand.
I’d never had my hand kissed before. I was embarrassed.
He told me that he’d have been honoured to marry me if I’d been in the right place instead of his wife. I didn’t take him seriously. Then he told me how he’d waited for me to come back after my first application. He said he’d waited so long he didn’t think I was going to apply again and when he met his wife at a party there didn’t seem to be anything else for it but to take the opportunity that was there rather than wait for one that may never happen.
Then I’d come back.
I couldn’t take in what he was saying. What was he saying? That he’d fallen in love with me through my first university application, the one I’d made from my prison cell in Cookham Wood? Why?
Then it all came out. How he’d become a little obsessed with my father’s work, first on the Anglo-Saxon cemetery we’d dug up on the edge of the rubbish tip in St Peter’s, then on another cemetery in Eastry. My father had turned him down to work on the rubbish tip cemetery. He’d been an undergraduate at Oxford then and full of enthusiasm. It seemed he’d never forgiven him. No wonder he fixated on me. He probably wanted revenge. Or something worse.
He’d got what he wanted: my confidence.
I told him all about the rape, about how I was dealing with it, how traumatic it was to be going through all of that stuff at that point. He was sympathetic, told me that I could talk to him any time I liked, his door would always be open to me. Then he invited me to a lecture. It was being given at the Institute by someone I considered to be one of the great contemporary heroes in the world of medieval historians. There was to be a buffet party in the foyer afterwards.
I went. I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to talk to my hero as the Tutor introduced me to him. My father’s name was dropped a few times. I was applauded for following in his footsteps. I felt a little light-headed with all the attention and fuss. The Tutor kept filling my glass up with the free wine and hardly left my side. Eventually, as the party was beginning to wind down, he told me he had something in his office he wanted to show me. I can’t believe I fell for it.
I said no. I really did. I distinctly remember saying no at least three times. But he still pushed me to the floor and rearranged my clothing. It all happened so fast that I was hardly aware it was happening. On the train going back to Hendon I tried to piece together what had happened, tried to make sense of what I felt like. I felt dirty and disgusting. I had said no. Yet the Tutor had continued to manhandle me as if I was only joking. When he’d finished he’d actually asked me if I’d enjoyed it as much as he had. Did he not realise that I’d said NO?
When I got back to his flat the Geography Teacher could see that there was something very wrong with me. He asked me what it was. I told him about the party, how the triumph of meeting one of my heroes had been ravaged by the Tutor, how he’d forced me to that horrible brown linoleum floor in his seedy little office. I told him how I couldn’t get rid of the picture in my mind of the legs of the Tutor’s desk, how they towered above me as my head got wedged against one of them. He was horrified, the Geography Teacher, but not with the act of sex that had been done against my will. No, he was horrified that I’d let it be done by the Tutor, who was nearly old enough to be my father, rather than with him!
I felt more isolated than ever.
I finished my first year with the idea that I’d cocked everything up. I wasn’t even that confident that I’d pass all my exams, especially archaeological science. All I had to look forward to was my fieldwork trip that was coming up in the summer break.
But there was still something that I needed to sort out before I went.
I still had to see the Tutor about my work.
He didn’t even realise that he’d done anything wrong. He asked when we could do it again. I was so horrified. I tried to explain how it felt to have lived the life of a nun for nearly two years, then to have been plucked so brutally when under the influence of alcohol. He laughed and said that no woman should ever have to live like that and he’d probably done me a favour by putting my abstinence to its timely end. I pointed out that I’d said no, three times, and he laughed again and said, “mmm, but you meant yes, didn’t you?”
I didn’t know any more. Maybe I did. Maybe I’d always meant no and just been too polite to say it.
I told him the only way we could do it again would be if he could provide the perfect scenario. I wanted a perfect sunny day, a riverbank, a picnic with champagne and strawberries. I was making things difficult, giving him some impossible requirements to fulfil, knowing that he wouldn’t. I was astonished when he said he’d arrange it. I didn’t have to go through with it. I could chicken out any time I wanted. But in a way I did have to. I had to do it on my terms, just once. I had to know that it really was as bad as I thought. I had to know that it hadn’t been my half-cut mind playing sleazy tricks on me in his office.
My romantic riverbank lunch emerged from its chrysalis as a walk in Epping Forest, with a tuna and cucumber roll and a packet of crisps munched after a five minute fumble under not so dense leaf cover on top of rough bark chippings.
At least I knew I hadn’t been missing the opportunity of a lifetime. At least I’d said yes that time.
I was so confused about it all I threw myself in several directions at once, none of them at all successfully. I figured I should never have denied the Geography Teacher when I’d done so much worse. I offered to undeny myself and when he gracefully declined saying that friends didn’t do that to each other I knew he was lying. I forced the truth out of him. Eventually he shouted at me that he didn’t fancy me any more.
In desperation I phoned Miss X and arranged to meet her. She at least would always fancy me, wouldn’t she? That was a dreadful mistake. Of course she did! I felt mortified when I found myself in bed with her and unable to feel anything but sick at the aspect of her laying bare before me.
A week later I left for Prague.
I was to spend three weeks working for the Prague Castle Archaeological Unit. I jokingly said that I’d stay three months if I liked it, and if they’d let me.
I was so excited I couldn’t sit still on the bus all the way there. My travelling companion was one of my fellow medieval archaeology students, a manic mixture of Aussie laidbackness and German strictness, with a dash of oriental thrown in for good measure. The Aussie part of him drank Czech beer for three weeks like it was going out of fashion. The German part dug a trench like his life depended on it. The oriental bit just made him look pretty while doing both. I called him Digger.
Digger and I were joined by two more Institute students the day after we arrived. A girl in the second year who was my roommate in the hostel we stayed in, and another first year guy who was Digger’s roommate for the next three weeks too. We all trooped off down to the castle together on the tram for our first day’s work. We were given passes for the canteen where all the castle employees ate their meals and a lot of earth to shift from several trenches around the cathedral. Digger thought we were supposed to shift it all before lunch and worked like the clappers. At lunchtime we found out it was all we had to do for the duration of our stay and he eased off a bit in the afternoon.
We worked hard, then we played hard too. After we finished in the trenches we all went to a little pub that nestled into a corner halfway down a long stone staircase cut into the side of a steep hill. It was called the Hanging Coffee Cup. U Zavěšenýho Kafe, in Czech. Its owners had a delightful little black puppy dog called Franta. We all fell in love with him and played with him as we sat on the steps drinking coffee and Czech beer.
It all seemed so Famous Fivey, up until we went back to the canteen for supper. Then a couple of strange things happened that broke the clean-living spell. One of the waitresses fell in love with Digger’s new roommate. She kept looking at him in a particularly painful-looking lovelorn manner. We looked at him, then back at her, and concluded that it must be a Czech-girl thing, that they must be gagging for puny dark-haired men with funny little goatee beards and a stoop. Digger christened him the Sex God.
After supper we walked down from the castle to the Old Town and found another pub by the river that we liked and stayed there until bedtime. When we got back to the hostel my roommate disappeared into the room next door with its Arab occupant and didn’t come back until morning. She told me a peculiar story about how in the throes of passion he’d asked her if she would like to smoke. It seemed to lose something in the translation from Czech to English via Arab means, but the implication was that where an English girl blows her Czech sister would smoke. I called her Head Girl after that and couldn’t stop laughing until lunchtime.
The weather was glorious. Sunshine and blue skies. I’d never felt happier. Our Czech colleagues in the castle were so friendly we wondered if it was all some hideous trap to lure us into the offices used by the Czech Secret Police during the communism and torture us until we told them where we’d hidden our trowels. It seemed eerie walking through the labyrinth of corridors in the very same offices where so many people must have been roughly interrogated by the Russians during the awful days of that regime. It haunted us. What if they were preparing files on us?
A funny little man who spoke hardly any English took us under his wing and marched us around Prague to look at things we wouldn’t find in the guidebooks. He walked much too fast for us, but it was kind of him to help. He was a baritone with one of the Prague chamber choirs and got us in to see performances of things we’d never have been able to afford otherwise.
On one of these high speed trips he took us to a church. It was a very special church, he said. The shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague, he said, because I was a Roman Catholic. And it was a very special church. And something very special did happen in it.
Something that changed my life. Again.
Our funny little fast friend took us into the church. The shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague was set into a beautifully decorated glass cabinet mounted on the wall in amongst a plethora of baroque gold fittings and architectural features. It was quite stunning in its own way, a wax doll dressed in an ornate costume, but that wasn’t what changed my life.
Digger, Head Girl and the Sex God had gone off on their own and were disappearing into a doorway they probably shouldn’t have been going through. Our mad little friend dived after them making profane apologies to two men in brown dresses behind the door. When he explained to these men that they were English archaeologists one of them seemed to be getting very excited. I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The second of the men in brown dresses started talking to us in English then, English with an Italian accent.
As the story unfolded we were taken down some steep steps into a barrel-vaulted crypt. There were row upon row of decaying wooden coffins, some stacked two and three high. The place hadn’t been touched since long before the advent of communism. All the churches and monasteries had been sealed up during the regime and these Carmelite friars had just come back to the church of Jezulátko, all the way from Italy. I had seen plenty of skeletons lying in their graves before, having been virtually brought up in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, but none as recent as these. They dated from the eighteenth century, the friars told us as they conducted us from one end of the crypt to the other, and I marvelled at how intact most of them were. I could see hair and nails, things an archaeologist rarely sees. They told us how all the Carmelite nuns were buried in these stacked up coffins, and how the monks’ and priests’ coffins were slid into a labyrinth of catacombs built into the walls at the far end of the crypt.
Back above ground they gave us a tour of the sacristy, the room where they put on their vestments to say mass. The room was incredible. Diagonal black and white flagstones and heavy dark wood mingled with large chandeliers and midnight blue velvet. As I stepped over the threshold I felt as if I’d been there before, in another life or something. I stepped back in time.
The whole of Prague was like that. It made me feel that I’d been there before, as if I belonged. I often joked about it, said I must have been a Czech in a previous life, but that was really the way it felt. It felt like I’d come home. But how could I have done? That evening in the church only reinforced that feeling and made me reach out for more.
As I crossed the sacristy, one flagstone after another, as I took in the aura of that room, something strange began to happen that defies explanation. My legs began to go weak and I felt light-headed. As I stood in the doorway to the friars private prayer chapel I sank to my knees, sobbing. “It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying, over and over again.
The man in the brown dress who spoke English caught hold of me and sat me down in the little chapel away from the others. I tried to apologise, to tell him what was going on inside of me, but I didn’t know where to start. Somewhere in the midst of it all I could feel God speaking to me, telling me that He wanted only the best for me, that He was giving Himself to me. How could I tell this to a man in a brown dress I’d never met before? Somehow that’s what I did. He seemed to understand. He invited me to go back and see him there any time I wanted to. His name was Father Paulo.
When we left I was a different person. I couldn’t say how or why. I just knew that I was. We went back to the pub on the steps afterwards. And something else happened. It was as if I’d been there before too. When we went inside to get another drink I had a flashback to a dream I’d had before we came. I told Digger what was behind a door to our left. I knew what the room behind it would look like. I’d dreamt it! He had a look and came back to tell me it was exactly as I’d described it, and he knew I’d never seen it before.
When we got back to the hostel I lay awake for hours thinking over what had happened. It all seemed so significant, so much a sign of something that I really shouldn’t be ignoring, but what? I could understand the bit where God had spoken to me in the church. He was trying to pull me back into line with His call on my life after my first year of college. I hadn’t strayed badly, but there were things in my life that weren’t in complete alignment with what I considered would be His will. I’d run up a huge overdraft at the bank indulging in retail therapy in moments of weakness, and there had been a few of those. I’d got involved in things in college to the extent that my focus had maybe wavered from the straight path I had been trying to envisage in front of me. But what about all these been-here-before incidents that I’d been experiencing all over town, and my dream about the pub? That night I dragged Sister Madeline’s prayer out of its hiding place among my papers and resolved to say it more often from then on.
The next day an American priest came past as we were digging and started talking to us. He got very excited when I told him about Jezulátko and what had happened there the night before. He told me he’d say a mass for me in English there and we arranged to meet later. The two Italian friars remembered me; Father Paulo even gave me a hug and asked if I was feeling better. The American priest said Mass. It was beautiful, the first I’d heard in English since I got to Prague. It was said in the little chapel right underneath the glass cabinet that held the Infant Jesus doll, and I got to read the readings myself.
I had a personal revolution of faith and started to go to Jezulátko for Mass every night from then on. I didn’t understand much of it at first in Czech, but Father Paulo found me a sheet with the words on so that I could at least say the right ones. Seeing him every night like that I got to know him quickly and often got invited to join the monks for supper in their refectory. It felt like a great privilege, being included in their routine like that, made me feel like I belonged.
A week before Digger, the Sex God and the Head Girl were due to leave all kinds of things began to happen. There seemed to be more people from the Institute in Prague than there were in London. First of all Digger’s girlfriend came to dig with us, accompanied by another first year girl. A couple of days later another team arrived, led by a second year student who was hoping to find a Roman fortress somewhere in Slovakia, and stopping off in Prague for a few days en route. They were all staying in our hostel, on the same floor too. The Earth Mother was one of them.
This Roman fortress in Slovakia was a bit of a joke really, but no one dared tell the guy who’d organised it. For one thing he was bigger than everyone else, hence the name Fat Bloke, and far more bossy. My pet hate amongst archaeologists was one who twisted his evidence to fit what he hoped to find, rather than looking at what was there and piecing it together to build a satisfactory picture. The ones I hated the most were those who took their location for the Roman fortress from a dubious article in an old history periodical, teamed it with a probably fake inscription, written by someone else who’d read the article when it was originally written and detailing where said fortress might be found to exist, and then went on to dig up a farmer’s field using Institute money with the intention of making whatever they found fit exactly, even when it didn’t. I laughed about this before they went. Digger did too, and his girlfriend, and the Sex God, the Head Girl and the other first year girl. I said that it wasn’t even going on a hunch. At least hunches were honest, about looking at what was already there and seeing what you could come up with. No, this was cutting your suit to fit your cloth and I hated it.
I hated it because it was all about people making a name for themselves, not about building up a true picture of the past. I hated it because my father had spent all that money that was supposed to be used to send me to an expensive boarding school excavating an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. And because despite plenty of promises from various archaeological societies to uphold this extremely important work both financially and morally he was given precious little help from anyone. I hated misappropriation of Institute funds for personal vainglory.
I knew there would be a tale worth listening to when they came back, and of course there was. It was a corker too. Fat Bloke had been made such a mess of things. The farmer who owned the field they were digging in was up in arms because he hadn’t got the paperwork from the Institute that permitted them to dig at all. None of the equipment turned up until the second week, so all they had was two farm mattocks and a bucket one of the team managed to scrounge. When the heavy plant machinery eventually turned up it was twice the size Fat Bloke said he’d ordered, so their trial trenches looked more like an attempt at quarrying. If he’d handled his people decently that would have been an end to his troubles, but he was as pompous and fatheaded with them as he was wheedling and obsequious with the local landowners who were dishing out the permits to dig. They all downed tools and walked off site. All except one. Earth Mother. It was rumoured that she had a crush on him.
I was told all of this by various disillusioned bods as they trickled down from the hostel to the pub on the steps, after a long and torturous trip on a rickety old bus from Slovakia, during which time more people were not talking to each other than were. We were all agreed: Fat Bloke should never work again. Not as an archaeologist anyway.
By this time I was seeing Paulo regularly as my spiritual advisor. I was never sure if I was more pleased that I’d found another spiritual advisor or that it happened to be him. He was so gorgeous. Dark hair, blue eyes, wonderfully charismatic personality, mid-thirties, and definitely very unmarriageable. He would have to be the perfect match not to ever have to make a commitment to. All the girls at the church thought so. There was never any shortage of female companionship for the gorgeous Italian friar.
Thankfully our love affair never got far enough for me ever to have the luxury of avoiding the commitment bit. It never got further than my own head. By the time I realised I was madly in love with him he’d gone on holiday for three weeks, which was just long enough for me to counsel myself out of it. I would be content to give him up for the greater good of God’s will.
I’d confessed all that stuff that happened during the past year to him before he went though. I thought I still had a problem with it all, that I’d been bottling it up and suppressing it. I knew that wasn’t a good thing to do. I asked him what he thought I should do about it all.
“What do you want to do about it all?” he asked me.
“I just want to heal from it and put it all behind me,” I replied.
“Sounds to me like you already have,” he said.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realised I actually had, that I was only hanging on to it because it somehow represented who I was in some warped way. From that moment on I let it go, forgave all concerned in the secret of my own heart and started to go forward into my life like I’d only just noticed I had one.
Then it happened.
The Big Call.
I didn’t believe it at first. Didn’t want to. I cried.
I told Paulo about it the moment it happened. It was during the Sunday evening mass. I told him straight after it.
“God wants me in His army,” I said. “He just told me so.”
“How did He say it was to be?” he asked in his lyrical Italian accent.
“Um…in the convent…now…wants me in a brown dress,” I replied through the tears and sniffles. “But I…I thought all that was…done with…I thought…but I don’t WANT to…didn’t want to…” I erupted into loud uncontrollable sobs at that point and he hugged me, more to muffle the sound against his robe than anything else.
Once I’d calmed down a bit he tried again. “And what exactly do you think you can do about this? Which convent door can you go knocking at?”
He meant that I didn’t have to do anything about it immediately. And he was right. I couldn’t even talk to the sisters at the church, the ones who floated around in their own brown dresses looking calm and sophisticated. They didn’t talk a word of English and my Czech wasn’t that good by then. There was one girl who would have understood. Her name was Kateřina and she spoke very good English, but I’d only met her once in the monks’ refectory and that had been the day before she’d entered the other Carmelite convent, the enclosed one on the hill by the castle, herself.
The first thing I did after I noticed I had a life and before I heard God tell me that I should give it up to Him again was to stay in Prague. The Prague Castle Archaeological Unit were as pleased to have me as I was to stay. Then I went forward into my life with such energy that within a month I collapsed of exhaustion. I was in the middle of recording a complicated layered double burial at the time, which had got itself into the local newspaper with a large picture of me pointing my trowel at something. It kept getting flooded every night by torrential rain and was covered by a dodgy framework of driftwood, large stones and plastic sheeting. All my friends had long gone. There were only two Swedish girls and myself left there. I stayed under the tarpaulin every night for a week with my ruler and pencil long after they’d gone off to supper in the canteen. I didn’t understand why it was taking me so long to draw and lift two stiffs, even given the flooding factor. It was a job I’d have done in a couple of hours ordinarily.
22nd December 1999
I still remember how much I loved Prague. It was like all my Christmases rolled into one. I lost a lot of weight while I was there and felt attractive for the first time since I’d left the Drunken Gambler.
I still remember how ill I felt too. It was awful. I collapsed in the sacristy of Jezulátko shortly before Sunday evening mass. Of course Paulo wasn’t there to catch me romantically in his arms. The other Italian friar did that. He wasn’t half so attractive as Paulo and didn’t speak very good English, so we spoke to each other in Czech. He got one of the sisters who served them as sacristans to come and take care of me. Sister Irenia her name was. She swished around me in her brown dress, beads of sweat forming on her forehead where the starched white linen underneath her black veil sat.
It was wonderful getting to know the Carmelite sisters so well. Sister Irenia took me to the hospital and stayed with me while they did tests on me to see what was wrong. The friars paid for my medication once I’d been diagnosed as suffering from complete exhaustion and half the hospital pharmacy had been prescribed. I was ordered to bed for at least a month. I had to go back to the convent with Sister Irenia because she couldn’t look after me otherwise. That month in bed recovering should have been awful, but it was a plump, clean, white-sheeted bed in the convent with nuns I loved to have around me and I loved every minute of it. None of them spoke any English and my Czech was hardly brilliant but we communicated fine. They fed me, cared for me, sang to me and prayed with me. There was always a smile on their faces for me. I was very happy.
Then I had to go back to London. The day I was due to leave I said goodbye to my friends at the castle and went to the church. I was still very shaky and couldn’t stand up or walk for long. It was the Abbess’s birthday and we were all invited to supper with the friars to celebrate. At nine o’clock when I had to leave there were many tears and hugs.
Paulo tried to console me. He told me it didn’t matter where I was, that God would still love me just the same. Then he, Irenia and Sister Monica drove me to the bus station. But there was no one there. It was completely deserted. I was an hour late. I’ve never been so happy to be late for anything in my life. We all walked back to the car arm in arm, all our tears forgotten. Until the next day.
And there I was, sitting on a coach going back to a city I didn’t want to be in, leaving behind me more friends than I’d ever had in one place in my whole life in a place I’d fallen in love with. I felt like I belonged there. I was accepted by all my archaeologist friends at the castle. I was loved by all my Carmelite friends in their brown dresses. I’d never felt like that before. I saw all of it slipping away from me. The further from Prague we got the more it seemed to slip.
I thought about all that had happened that year. The only good thing seemed to have been the RCIA programme at the new church in Hendon. I was only going back to Hendon because I liked that church so much, because it gave me the security I’d lost when I left Maidstone.
I thought of the Geography Teacher and wondered how I could have been so stupid as to actually believe that he’d cared enough to marry me when all the time he was only being considerate of my views on pre-marital sex because he didn’t fancy me any more. It amused me to think of the look on his face when he saw how much weight I’d lost. There had to be some consolations. I was pleased that I’d stuck to my beliefs, even if I didn’t fancy him. A couple of years before that I’d have done it anyway. And we did have a good Christmas, climbing mountains in Snowdonia and swanning around Chester in his mother’s car.
I still had the Tutor to face, but I thought I’d dealt with that.
Then there was Miss X.
Miss X who’d been writing stupid lovesick letters to me almost every day for the past three months. I hadn’t told Paulo about her, had I? She was meeting me at the bus station. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would be prepared to pick me up and look after me. She knew I was sick.
The darkness was nice. As the bus glided along through the night it felt comforting. The darkness was like a mirror for my thoughts. The nearer it got to London the more ill I felt.
When I look at it now it all looks like a giant test. Each day was a test in itself, all the days of my life making up one big test. I’m not sure I did so well. I’m not sure I even learnt from my mistakes. I suppose I must have or I wouldn’t be writing about them now from a point of anything like understanding. Did I take the wrong turn? Should I just have done what Sister Zena said? No. That would have been her way of living my life. I had to live it my way and let God steer me through the wreckage and the pain of it all.
University. It seems from here, three days before the last Christmas of the millennium, that it was a series of three tests. Three vows if you like. If I was being tried out as convent material I had to be tested on all three: chastity, poverty and obedience. That first year chastity had been tested to breaking point. I’d felt so righteous about not sleeping with the Geography Teacher that I’d been dealt a serious blow by the Tutor as if in reflex action. That leaves poverty and obedience.
I wonder how Elysia would cope with the three vows. She’d probably romp through them in double quick time and still have plenty of courage, grace and humility left over. How perfect. And she’d understand the virtues and pitfalls in them all. It makes you want to clone her and hire her out, give one of her to every parish as a shining example of what a human being can and should be like. Doesn’t it? Do we all have it in us to reach that standard of perfection? Of course she would say she was far from perfect, I’m sure. But to the rest of us I’m betting she’s about as good an example as it gets.
She even handles darkness and strange unfamiliar tunnels with courage and strength. We all have our dark tunnels; the difference is in how we deal with them. How do you deal with yours? Do you cower in the darkest corner hoping that whatever is down there will pass on by without finding you? Or perhaps you run up to it shouting and try hitting it square in the face, more than once? Maybe you even deny the existence of the tunnel altogether? It takes a lot of courage to look at your life objectively, rise above all its depressing factors and chuck out all the crap. So, Elysia’s recognised that she has issues – demons – whatever – that need to be dealt with in her tunnel, and, yes, okay, she’s one step ahead of the rest of us because she’s actually down there looking for them…but how she’ll handle them yet remains to be seen.
Who am I kidding? She’ll doubtless deal with them honourably, intelligently, swiftly, boldly, conclusively. She’ll cut them down in her stride and make mincemeat of them in no time. Or will she?
Elysia Fights the Infidel
The stillness of the silence awoke her. It was a rocky, grey sort of silence.
In that moment between sleep and consciousness the edges of her cot and the grey stone walls around it panicked her. Then she remembered the tunnel, the stone staircase that had led her deep into the heart of her rock prison, and how she had entered into it of her own free will for something she prized more highly than her fears: the love of her Beloved. She smiled.
As she sat down at the table to eat the simple meal of milk, bread and honey that appeared magically upon it her crystal began to glow, hazy purple at first, through all shades of pink and into a soft pearly white. She picked it up and held it in her hand. As she gazed into it the pearly mist cleared and a face began to form. A face she knew. His face.
He smiled at her and said: “Be fearless, Elysia! Don’t let them push you around! And stick to the path prepared for you, no matter what!” Then he faded from view and the crystal faded down through its red spectrum until it looked as it usually did.
Into her head came the plan that her panic attack had been blocking.
“I must go out and fight!” she said to no one at all. Then she laughed at herself. “Silly me, I’m talking to myself.” As she glanced down at the crystal still in her hand she fancied that it glowed again ever so slightly.
She dressed in all her armour once more, checked the contents of her bag, picked up her shield and staff and imagined the door open.
The previous night she had been too tired and careworn to be much bothered with what lay over the edge of the cliff she was standing on. As she stood and looked out now she had to brace herself against the side of the mountain. What lay spread out before her was not what she had expected to be looking at.
Cragscape was how she would have described it if she’d been pressed to find the words. Tunnel may be the collective description for her journey, but this was no tunnel, unless it was a very wide, very deep one with mountains and valleys and clouds inside it. Red clouds with grey fluffy bits that made them look pink at the edges. Black mountains with grey peaks that blended indistinguishably into the clouds. Dark shadowy valleys with snakelike black rivers oozing menacingly through from there to nowhere. Everything was shrouded in a fine mist that tinged it all in varying shades of grey and pink.
And it was all a considerable distance underneath the spot where she stood with no visible means of getting to it without treading the treacherous looking path that wound itself around the mountain like a very thin snake. That was the path she would have to take.
Trying not to look down she took her first step along the mountain path.
Then a miracle happened.
The path, which was barely wide enough for one of her feet, suddenly broadened. She watched in amazement as the whole scene she had visualised restructured itself before her very eyes. The steep and narrow mountain path had straightened, broadened and flattened itself into a road that appeared to head straight through the mountains in her cragscape scene. The high cliff where she had been standing was now level. It was now the beginning of the road.
“Well done imagination!” she cheered.
A voice from somewhere near the crystal said, “That wasn’t imagination. That was faith.” But she couldn’t be absolutely sure she’d heard it. If she hadn’t recently feasted so well on the milk and honey of her imagination she would have sworn it was her stomach rumbling.
Then she took her next step, and her next and her next. The broad road stretched out before her, strangely light and golden amongst a sea of dark and gloomy shadows. She kept her eyes on the road, half-fearing that it might disappear if she didn’t. It took her through a mountainous wasteland devoid of all but the scrubbiest vegetation. And had she looked to the left or to the right she might have seen that it was gradually rising above the cragscape, creating its own promontory and extending it way up high beyond the bounds of logic and reason. But she didn’t look.
Not until there was no road left.
A bridge, high up and dangerous, was what lay in its place. Wooden slats encased in a framework of rusted and rotting wrought iron, and there was something stirring on the other side. What was it? Whatever it was, it appeared to be growing, rapidly, and heading straight for the spot where Elysia stood. She stepped back to let it pass. It stopped. It stood in front of her, Grendel-like and fearsome, as if it were guarding the bridge. Its bulk would certainly hinder anyone from crossing. Then it defiantly kicked the bridge and roared as it jumped up and down shaking its fists. Elysia watched the bridge fall away into the deep ravine it had spanned, turning and tumbling against the mountainside, smashing into a thousand fragments of sawdust and iron filings.
“NO!” she shouted angrily. “Whatever you are, you won’t stop me from getting across.” She turned and walked a few paces away, her head in her hands, thinking, praying. His words about fearlessness and not being pushed around came back to her. Then she turned and walked back again. She looked up at the creature. Nobody could ever love something that looked like that: huge, hairy, lumbering, and somehow very sad. She let the love that was in her heart beam out through her face. Then gently but firmly, in a calm and low voice she spoke. “Give me my bridge back please. You cannot hold me. I have a task that must be completed. Be forgiven for your sins and go in peace.”
The monster stopped at once, mid-jump, mid-roar, with its fists still raised mid-shake. It was so surprised at being spoken to like that. It didn’t seem to know how to behave now that it had been forgiven. It lowered its fists, looking embarrassed that they were ever raised, pulled its face into a sheepish smile, which made it appear more grotesque than ever, and shuffled nervously from one foot to the other. “Err … sorry Miss … Umm … Thank you, please, Miss?”
“Umm … bridge … Err … Yes, Miss … Bridge … Bigger and better bridge, Miss?”
With that the bridge began to rebuild itself, strong and safe, with solid wood and newly wrought iron. As it reached the other side of the ravine Elysia said goodbye to the creature, which was looking less and less like a monster and more and more like a being that understood the concept of forgiveness, and walked fearlessly across her bridge.
When she reached the other side she felt too tired to continue much further. The voice she’d nearly mistaken for hunger at the beginning of the day told her to dig in and get some sleep. But where?
As she looked around her she could see the road again. It was as broad as before but a little more winding. It wound its way through woodland. Woodland with broad verges between it and the road. Verges that were made up of red and grey streaks of what would have been grass in a world she knew better. She wondered what sort of creature would dig itself in to get some rest. “Well, Hobbits, of course,” she said. “So, I’ll just imagine myself a cosy little Hobbit-hole.” And before she could screw her face up in concentration to imagine one she spotted a little pink door with a grey handle right there in the middle of one of the verges.
But as she reached for it she thought she heard something. Something on the edge of hearing … on the edge of the forest. She turned. Too slow.
See you all on December 23rd with Chapter Twenty-Three! Happy demon bashing – it really is very cathartic, I’d thoroughly recommend it!
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. You won’t get the wonderful pictures I’ve found to accompany this Blogging Advent Journey though!
*You’ve probably noticed the many references to the music I’ve listened to and loved throughout Eartha’s journey, and the other-worldly music that Elysia plays on her harp and listens to in the sanctuary of her study. When Elysia stepped out to fight the infidel in this chapter I immediately envisaged the land she was stepping into in grey and pink. Perhaps the image of the Caravan album cover of “In the Land of Grey and Pink” was so strongly imprinted into my deep subconscious from so many years of loving both the album and its artwork … I hope the members of the band won’t mind me using that beautiful cover for Elysia’s exploits in this chapter! Actually, I’d be ecstatic if they just got to see it 🙂 … must write a story that draws on the imagery of Blind Dog at St Dunstan’s some time …