Where the Rubber Meets the Road
21. The Process of Change
22. The First Step
23. An Uphill Struggle
24. A Personal Victory
25. The Plain
On the way back from the convent, the weekend of the Walsingham vocations pilgrimage, my car blew up. I was on the M25 when it happened!
It had just been treated to a head replacement too. All through my tempestuous relationship with the Drunken Gambler, and my occasional away days to see Adam, my beat up old Audi had stood by me, almost as if it knew that I needed the freedom it provided me with. I could run out on the Drunken Gambler any time it got too much to handle. I could hurtle up the M2 with my tail between my legs, or in a flying rage; stay away until he begged me back. Then, like the true sap I was, I could sail back down the same stretch of tarmac again, Cyndi Lauper shouting about how she could drive all night from a tape on my stereo, and all in my own time. But without the car…
Well, I couldn’t really afford to keep it anyway. Not if I was going to be off to college on nothing more than a local education authority grant.
I got a motorbike instead.
I used the money I’d been saving to go to Spain with. Mother and my stepfather had bought an apartment in a little fishing village somewhere near Alicante. At least it had been a little fishing village when they bought it. By all accounts there were more Brits living in apartment blocks than there were boats by the time I was going to pay them a visit. They only lived there in the wintertime, so I could visit them just as easily in the summer when they would be in their caravan in Devon. It just would have been nice to travel. And I had a friend who was doing eight years in a prison in Algeciras for smuggling cocaine across from Algeria who I could have visited in the same trip. But I needed the transport more.
I had to put up with all the nuns-on-motorbike jokes from the tyrannical independent financial advisor. The Despotic Boss as I called him. I must have looked pretty strange though. I’d put on loads of weight from the svelte size 10 I’d been the previous summer. I wore thickly padded protective clothing over the top that must have made me look like a sweetly angelic Michelin Woman with long blonde hair. And, at only five feet and two inches tall I had to stretch every inch of my little short legs just to get on the back or touch the ground either side.
It was only a little bike, with L-plates, but I soon got the taste for a bigger one.
I changed my job after Christmas. From one Despotic Boss to another! I was so desperate to get away from the independent financial advisor that I leapt a bit without looking. The next Despotic Boss was setting up his own motorcycle rider training school and needed a receptionist. That was me. In that environment I passed my test first time, even if I still had to put up with being shouted at. Then I looked around for a bigger bike, and another job.
I soon found a bigger bike. And I didn’t have to try too hard to get my stepfather to agree to lend me the money to buy it either. He must have known he’d get hold of it himself one day.
It was a bit of a paradox, even for me, this vocation thing brewing away under the surface alongside the hardened biker thing. It seemed to fit me like a pair of gloves; lily-white refined kid on one hand, rough black toughened and studded leather on the other. I didn’t understand it, but I did like it. I should have done it years sooner.
My Access Course was two evenings a week. I’d turned up on my little red 125cc Honda most evenings for the best part of two terms, but turning up on my new black and gold 550cc Yamaha was just something else. I was a legend in my own lifetime.
I was fast turning into a legend elsewhere too. Or so it seemed to me.
My first interview for university was at York.
I’d long since decided that I’d be bored stiff doing a four-year Bachelors in Education degree and opted to do Medieval Archaeology, which I’d got it into my head my father would be more pleased with. Sister Zena still came up second to him even though she had far more to say that was worth listening to and couldn’t really understand why I’d go that route. I invoked the help of Sister Madeline’s prayer that day, very fervently.
York was beautiful.
I went there with an American friend from church who was doing the Friday night course that Father had asked me to help teach that year. In fact I went most places with him. He looked like a Greek god, so I called him Hercules. Not my type at all, even if I hadn’t given men up for Lent. I’d given up makeup too, but my lipstick and eyeshadow didn’t ask me where I saw our friendship heading after a few weeks of disuse. But he was good company and happy to have someone to show him around li’l ole Britain in his flash little two-seater sports car.
Hercules came into the college with me and waited, which was nice because I was more nervous than I can ever remember having been before, or after for that matter. I needn’t have worried. The lecturer who interviewed me turned the tables on the whole thing. I thought that I was going to have to try so hard to sell myself to him, that he would grill me rigorously. But after asking me a few of what I thought were relatively simple questions, and almost leaping out of his seat in excitement when I got them very obviously correct, he proceeded to sell himself to me. He told me that my reference from my Access Course tutor had been so good , as was the standard of the work I’d submitted for him to see, that I was the one who would be making the decision about where I wanted to go. I’d been picking up the scraps from whichever table was offering them for so long that I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I was astounded. No one had ever told me that they wanted me before, that I was a desirable academic commodity. Not an educational body. Maybe the brick wall I’d erected to keep the establishment out could come down now? Brick by brick though, not all at once.
Yes, York was beautiful. It marked a turning point in my life. A point at which I climbed about twenty rungs up the ladder of confidence all in one leap.
I awaited the outcome of my interview with bated breath. When I got the letter of acceptance I still couldn’t believe that I’d been accepted to go to university. I half expected someone to ring up and tell me they’d made a mistake and put my refusal in someone else’s envelope. But it had my name on it, so I had to believe it.
I still went to the other universities that asked me to an interview. I wouldn’t have but the tutor who interviewed me at York had made me promise that no matter how much I might think I wanted to go to there I’d still attend my other interviews. After all, like he said, I just might like what they had to offer more.
I didn’t like Cardiff.
Herc came with me there too. We visited Frizz who lived only a few miles away in Newport and stayed for dinner. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t go for Hercules, but she was dead chuffed at the thought of my going to a university near enough to visit her regularly. She said I always was a clever cookie. It was good to hear someone from that part of my past say something positive like that, even if I didn’t really feel so clever myself.
And I went to University College London for my interview.
I only went because I had nothing better to do that day and couldn’t be bothered to cancel it. I knew I was going to York, even though UCL had been my dream when I was in Cookham Wood.
I got to Euston station, crossed the Euston Road, found my way to the Institute of Archaeology in Gordon Square, thinking my mind was made up. I went into the interview, sat down and talked, still thinking my mind was made up. The tutor remembered me from my last application, the one I made from Cookham Wood. He said he’d been waiting for me to apply again, hoping all these years that I would. He’d been so disappointed that the department had turned me down before. I felt as if the whole world was at my feet. First the bloke up in York, and now this guy. What was I, some sort of queen?
It was incredible. He offered me the place there and then.
Suddenly my mind wasn’t so made up.
Two things made the decision for me. York was hundreds of miles away from anything or anyone I knew. UCL was the only university in the country that could offer me a degree in Medieval Archaeology. And of course it was the third best university in the country. So, after much deliberation I forsook the quaint little streets full of Viking ghosts for the more modern ones full of black cabs and big red buses.
That was in spring. Six months away from the beginning of the autumn term.
21st December 1999
It’s getting really exciting now. Everyone’s bustling around like their lives depended on it. I’m not sure what they’re the more excited about, Christ’s 2000th birthday or the dawning of a new millennium. To me the one is the other, but most people don’t seem to have made that connection. Most people are zipping round Sainsbury’s with frenzied looks on their faces as they frantically try to stock up for the holiday. There’s the added fear that the millennium bug might just muck the whole thing up, that there should be a few more loaves than usual in the freezer, but that gets pushed to the backs of their minds as a something that’s too obscure to think about. You can see it in their faces, a moment of sheer panic in the bakery aisle, before the comatose frenzy continues. Some stare vacantly at the candles in the household aisle for precious seconds wondering if there’s something other than the dinner table they should be picking them up for, but power cuts are too far from most peoples reality for it to click properly in place.
As with everything I’ve ever felt passionate about the priesthood has slipped into that part of my brain I refer to as the pending tray. It’s the place I store things while they’re working themselves out and trying to determine their eventual shape in my life. The priesthood is, was, will be something I feel passionate about. I can think of no better way to serve the God I love. Or at least I thought that was what I think…will think. Vocation is an animal that is constantly changing her spots. It’s a part of my psyche, I think, a part that I cannot, nor would want to control. I used to want to. I used to control it to the point where I could make myself quite ill trying to fit into the artificial constraints I had created within it. It was a temple that I had constructed. It’s meant to be a temple that God constructs, a temple that we allow ourselves to be gently moulded into rather than shaping it to fit us. I don’t know quite where I stand within my temple at the moment and it doesn’t really matter. God will show me how He intends to build it.
I was so intense about things then. I had to find the answers to my questions as soon as I’d thought up what they were. Then I wanted to act upon those answers immediately. I didn’t like to be told that I must wait for this, that and the next thing before I could enter the convent. I wanted to enter there and then. I took the same energy into my search as I took with me everywhere else in life. Only, it didn’t work like that. I couldn’t have everything I wanted just because I’d decided I wanted it. Good job too. I’d have been stuck in some pretty awful messes if I had. The pendulum may have been swinging in the direction of Sainthood but it inevitably came back the full range of its arc to Sinsville City sooner or later. That pendulum just kept on swinging, with or without Sister Madeline’s special prayer that I was supposed to be in the habit of saying every day.
Men were its main occupants. Not that they were the sinners, although for that matter they probably were, but men were my Nemesis. Not my arch-Nemesis, no, that was my mother, as I’d found out the hard way. No, men were my temptation. I’d never realised until I gave them up for Lent that year how much truth there was in that. I’d always been carried along on a tide of something-or-other where men were concerned, never really thought about what I was doing or whether I actually wanted to be doing it. It was as if life had no meaning if there were no man in it, as if I were sailing a ship without a pilot. Ridiculous really. Did that make me take whatever was available without being too selective about the process? And why did I always pick the bastard? Line nine perfectly decent men up with one bastard and I’d pick the bastard. Why?
All of this was just beginning to dawn on me the further into Sainthood I got and the further away from Men. It didn’t mean that I didn’t succumb to temptation every now and then, in the days when they still found me attractive. Old habits die hard. It just meant that fewer got past the tighter criteria that was beginning to evolve in the selection process and for different reasons. Like the one from the M20 building site. He got through because he wanted to prove to his mates that my shell was crackable, that he could be the one to do it where every other stud on the project had failed. He called round every week, even after I’d left. I got fed up with it eventually, let him catch me in a moment of weakness, had my evil way with him several times in the back of his van, all the time knowing I’d never see him again. It wasn’t the only way I could have got rid of him, but it was certainly the most effective. Men don’t like women who take control and, like I said already, old habits die hard.
Then of course there was the continuing saga of Miss X, who I was determined never to tell the truth to. It would have been so much easier of I’d just said to her, “Look, it was all a big mistake. The girls told me to get a screw in my pocket and you were so obviously pocketable material so I went for it. But you’re really not my type. In fact you’re so far from being my type that….” But how could I do that? She had so many problems of her own, she was no longer in the job of locking prisoners up because of them and I was still such a soft touch for society’s rejects that I played along with it.
She visited me at Minnie’s mum and dad’s house while they were away on holiday. It was the height of summer, that time of year when summer madness made me do things I wouldn’t normally do, usually with men. I was prepared for what might happen. Prepared to resist her advances, that is. But what happened was something I wasn’t prepared for.
She sat on the sofa and burst into tears, saying that she shouldn’t have come, going on about how she was being unfaithful and hated herself for it. I eventually managed to drag the whole gory picture out of her. She was seeing some woman who was a night club singer – it was the big, full-on relationship type thing – but this woman treated her pretty badly and the effect of her continual rejection had finally made Miss X turn to me for…for what? For a diversion that would make the Night Club Singer jealous. Well, if all I could be was a diversion, even if I didn’t really care, then I wasn’t particularly amused. She left shortly after this admission. I was glad she did, very glad.
I still didn’t belong solely to God. I didn’t actually know I was supposed to. My own will was still very strong inside me. Okay, it might have been changing some of its parameters, but it was still changing them within the limits of its own desires, not God’s. My university course was the prime example of that. I’d found it hard to understand Sister Zena’s look of puzzled sadness when I told her I wasn’t doing the B.Ed she’d suggested. I know now that she was sad because she was watching me slip back into the wilfulness I was so determined to leave behind, that she knew she was losing me. I was so determined that I could do things my way, on my terms, and that was of course precisely what I shouldn’t have been doing if I was also determined to enter the convent.
Do you want your own way all the time? Are you blind to the fact that everything has to be on your terms? Or perhaps you’re the one who has to watch someone else getting their own way so that your feelings are never consulted? Either way, perhaps it’s time you re-evaluated your philosophy of equality.
How is Elysia doing? She has this will thing pretty much in check. She’s striding out in faith on the first day of her journey, without fear, doing what she knows to be right, her own will in tune with that of her Beloved’s. In fact her will is to be doing His will.
Four days to go now. What’s behind the 21st door of your imaginary advent calendar? Is it still something material like the people in Sainsbury’s, or has your focus adjusted? Do you still wish you were Elysia, or is the idea of her journey a little too hazardous for you yet to contemplate?
Elysia Steps out in Faith
The greedy sense of blackness that would have overcome her only days ago did overcome her now. It permeated more than just the air around the gatehouse. As she stood on the top step of a rough stone staircase she could not see the bottom of as it fell into total darkness, it’s malevolence put her momentarily off stride. She wasn’t prepared for it. She could never be prepared for it.
His words filtered through to her conscious mind as it spun and reeled with something like vertigo, as she stood poised on that top step, envisioning darkness and the creatures it was made of. “And you are ready for them,” He had said. “Step out in faith, my beloved, without fear. Darkness itself cannot hurt you, only the forces that hide there.”
She glanced back and waved her staff in the air once more. As she did so it began to glow. As if it were made of luminous wood, it emitted a glow that illuminated the darkness sufficiently for her to see each step she took. She smiled. “Step out in faith,” she said to herself as she stepped off the top step and onto the next, and the next, and the next. “And without fear…I’ll see you in Paradise.”
The song of the nightingale became more and more distant until she could hear it no more. The angel harps faded from hearing as she stepped further and further into the still, cool malevolent darkness underneath the gatehouse. She knew He watched her still, even though she could no longer see Him. She knew that He would continue to watch her.
She knew other things were watching her too. Things she could do no more than sense. Things she could not see. Things she could not hear. Fear again threatened to engulf her, but she realised that if these things were not harming her there probably wasn’t anything to be afraid of, except the dark, which wasn’t so dark any more now that it was lit by…lit by what? A luminous staff! Which appeared to be doing a very good job of lighting her path down the never-ending stone stairway now that she was far enough in for the doorway at the top to have disappeared into a tiny pinprick of light.
Either side of the steps were rough-hewn walls. It seemed to her that the staircase must have been cut right into the centre of the earth’s rock. It twisted and began to spiral until she had lost all sense of direction, and just as she thought it really must be never-ending it came to an end. Her legs went all wobbly as she realised that her feet were on level ground.
She stood still and took stock of what she could see and hear around her. The silence was so deafening it buzzed. The darkness was so dark that there were no shadows. The luminous staff lit no more than the immediate vicinity. Its light was intimate rather than exploratory. She wondered how on earth she was ever going to be able to find her way around down here in the dark if she couldn’t see anything, then a thought crossed her mind. A similar thought to the one that had once crossed her mind in the Secret Garden when she’d wanted to do something that seemed undoable. She reached out with her imagination.
Her imagination hit a solid stone wall, thirty yards away to her right. It hit another one thirty yards away to her left, and another one sixty yards ahead of her with a narrow gap in it directly opposite her. She was standing at the entrance to a large underground cavern with a passageway that led out of it on the other side.
She began to walk through the middle of the cavern. As she did so the sense of Things was suddenly amplified into manifold Thingness and she felt acutely aware of Them watching her. She did not let her imagination get to work on Them, just kept on walking. She held the staff out in front of her and kept her imagination focused on the passageway that offered the only other way out of the cavern. Her steps were tentative, not yet confident enough to be firm. This was just as well.
Her imagination had left out the wide gaping hole in the cavern’s floor through which she would have plummeted to almost certain death had she not felt its edge with the toe of her soft moccasin before putting her foot right into it. She made a mental note to imagine the whole picture of the next cavern, very carefully, should there be another one.
The passageway felt less full of Thingness but far more oppressive than the cavern. Its walls were cold and damp, its floor uneven and rough, and its lack of fresh air stifled her. It wound through the rock as if it too were never-ending. Then it forked. She thought she ought to have trouble deciding which of the prongs to take but the voice of instinct buried deep inside her told her to stay left. The next time it forked she didn’t bother to even think about it, just let instinct have its own way. At least the Things weren’t bothering her, just lurking somewhere slightly outside the reach of her senses.
She began to feel tired. The tunnel took her on and on, forking now and then, winding round and round. Then she sensed a slope, a very slight slope, and a difference in the airflow. A slight breeze brushed her face and caught the ends of her hair. The tunnel broadened out as it sloped and around the next bend she could see light. It wasn’t sunlight, or anything even nearly so bright. It was the sort of light she imagined she would be able to see if she were looking through a red filter, all washed out and a bit bloodstained looking.
The tunnel ended on a cliff top. Elysia looked over the edge of the cliff as she reached it. “How in the name of Him am I ever going to get down there?” she said to herself.
Then she looked to her right. There was an extremely narrow path that led around the side of what looked to her to be a huge mountain with a sheer face up and down. And then she remembered that she was afraid of heights.
A voice inside of her told her that she must rest. But where? She sighed and fell back onto the mountain rock in despair, and kept on falling, through the rock that should have supported her. She caught the edges of what must have been a door as she fell and turned to look at what she had fallen into. It was a little room with no more furniture in it that a traveller stopping for a night’s rest would need: a wooden cot to sleep in, a table to eat at and a chair to sit on while eating. The table was laid with bread and butter, a jug of creamy milk, some fruit and some ham. There was a wash bowl on a stand in the corner next to the cot and a fluffy towel on a rail underneath it. She stood transfixed. “Imagination, are you working on your own here?” she asked. Her inner voice told her to shut the door and sit down. She wondered momentarily how one shuts a mountain then laughed at herself and did as she was told.
Her crystal started to glow. She picked it up and looked into it. Her face lit up with happiness as she saw His face reflected in it.
“You’ve done remarkably well on your first day’s journeying,” He told her. “Got the hang of it quicker even than I thought you would. Well done. I’m proud of you.”
“Nearly slipped up in that cavern though, didn’t I?”
“Forgivable, I’d say,” He laughed. “Now, get as much rest as you can because you’re going to need your wits about you for the next day’s work. And, remember: I’m always with you in one form or another, the voice of your Instinct, the light in your Staff, the reflection in your Crystal. And I’ll always love you more than you’ll ever know.”
See you all on December 22nd with Chapter Twenty-Two! Happy wishing.
Brightest Blessings and a Happy Advent Journey to any and all of you who are reading this,
PS: If you’d like to read Worlds Without End whole and uninterrupted on your Kindle, or on iBooks, you can go to the My Books tab at the top of the page, or just click on the ad in the sidebar on the right, to download the complete book now.