The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
Is it nothing to you, all ye that passby? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. Lamentations 1 vs 12
Loneliness often drives me to ask for advice from others instead of relying on my own judgement. Being a woman does it too; I haven't developed the unshakeable confidence in my own opinion that seems second nature to men of my acquaintance.
That's where the psychotherapist helps me. She validates both my experiences and judgement. In her little room she feeds me a new diet of affirmations. But I resented being wet-nursed. It's expensive milk at over £35 a session.
"Will I ever get better?" I ask as I sign yet another cheque. "Will it ever go away?"
"No, it won't go away, " she says, "but you'll learn to live with it."
I may run out of money before I progress to solid foods.
My sisters deal with it in different ways. Esther refuses to see it and I've never summoned up the courage to ask her. After leaving home, she distanced herself from the family. Her highest aspiration was to create a shield of normality around herself. She married a policeman and moved to Stoke-on-Trent where she produced three children in quick succession and now works part time for the pneumoconiosis unit.
When I meet her at my parents' house she's as buttoned up as her lemon twin-set and prims up her lips when I try to explain that I'm thinking of leaving the priesthood.
"Well, I've never understood why you did it in the first place," she says pouring stewed tea into Royal Doulton seconds. "Why on earth did you give up teaching. Brian and me always said it would lead to trouble. And I don't have to remind you what St Paul says about women in leadership"
"St Paul was a product of his time," I respond. "You can't apply what he wrote to the 21st century."
"Why not? You're living proof that ordaining women doesn't work."
"That's so unfair," I protested. "I didn't know it was going to turn out like this."
"Me on my own. Cancer. Institutional bullying. Lydia being ill, too."
"Yes, well you know what I think about that, "she sighed. "It's all attention seeking. What she needs it to pull herself together and get on with it. You've always been too soft on that girl."
"Esther, "I interject firmly. "Lydia can't help being bi-polar."
"I get down and don't like going out sometimes,"she says,"but no one gives me pills for it."
I roll my eyes.
"Oh, come off it,"the pitch of my voice starts to slide upwards, "that's not the same and you know it. Don't you remember what Ruth was like. It could well be genetic."
"Rubbish. If you ask me mother and father were right to throw her out," she was drinking like a fish and behaving like a tart."
I grip my hands together so tightly that my fingernails cut into the flesh making weals that remain visible for days after.
I struggle to control my words but they tremble in my mouth.
"You know exactly why Ruth began drinking. How can you blame her when you saw it too?"
Her eyelids blink rapidly as she sucks in her breath and her chest shudders. I wait. But she feels the teapot, then picks it up and stands.
"I'll just freshen the pot shall I. Mother and Peter will be back from the hospital soon. I expect they'll be wanting a cuppa."
He hath builded against me , and compassed me with gall and travail. he hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old. He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out; he hath made my chain heavy. Lamentations 3 vs 5 - 7
When Ruth rings I tell her about Esther. There's a lengthy pause before she breathes into my ear. "And ever was it thus, Lizzie darling, you'll have to let it go."
"As much as I can," she says.
When she was 16 he gave permission for her to be sectioned. None of us ever visited her in the unit. And she never came home, instead, she was moved into a one-bedroom flat on the local housing estate, a high-rise, concrete decked, flat-roofed barren wasteland.
Peter could tell a similar tale. He left school and moved out within 40 days. Father gave him money to buy a place in Croydon. Its Pakistani vendors had painted the walls masala red and a perfume of coriander and cummin lingered.
Ever after the money father loaned Peter remained a bone of contention. Was it a gift or a loan? Eventually Peter re-paid his debt.
The same happened when father bought us a car after ours was written off in an accident. Without it Nathaniel couldn't get to work. Our humble-pie gratitude was emotional currency for ten years. Yet, the day after my decree absolute arrived father asked for the money back.
It's made me wary of gifts. I reckon gifts to the less well-off are a way for a richer patron to indulge in an easy fix of feel-good factor. But I was a sitting target and pathetically grateful to receive cast-offs. On the day I moved into my training parish the rector's wife stood watching our meagre belongings being unloaded.
"My dear girl," she said twinkled gaily. "What on earth are you going to sit on. Don't forget you'll have lots of meetings in your house. Where are the parishioners going to sit. I don't think they'll be happy on the floor!"
She insisted that I take their old sofa, I was too disorientated and scared of giving offence to refuse the musty pink, sagging monstrosity. The meetings in my home never materialised but they dined out on their generosity to the single-parent curate for months.
Charles would lean back expansively at suppers and say;
"Poor thing, we're so glad she came to us."
"We feel, you know, that God's put her here, so we can look after her,"agreed Dorothy. "Of course, we don't expect her to do as much as our previous curates. After all, they had wives."
The assembled guests would turn as one to look at me.
The LORD GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.; he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. Isaiah 50 vs 4
My mother always says that I think too much.
"You see things that don't exist. People are just trying to be kind and you won't let them. Don't dig too deep, it's not good for you."
As if I can control my thoughts. I would happily blot them out. They ricochet around my head, synapses firing endlessly and exhaustingly. I am assailed by glimpses of mysteries. A foot step in the hallway, the creak of my bed, soft ticking beside my ear.
"Leave me alone, leave me alone," I hammer my hands against my head. "I will not think of it. It didn't happen"
"But Ruth saw it as well, didn't she," the psychotherapist reminds me. "She was there too."
I stare at the swirls on her mat, counting them; ten up, 20 across.
Back in the hospital, father pleads for absolution with his eyes.
"I never hurt anyone," he says, "or at least I don't think so."
I can't speak, instead I reach out and grasp his hand.
Mother arrives while he sleeps, she sits with her legs dangling, furtively swinging them. So small my mother. We sit in silence, my father still holding my hand.
Eventually, she shuffles awkwardly and says;
"I can't have him home. It's too much for me, I can't cope. The nurses say it'll be all right I can get help. But I'd have to move all the furniture."
I look at my father's gaunt, yellow face. I can feel his long delicate fingers twitch slightly, the tortoiseshell strapped watch hangs loose above his boney wrist.
"Would you like to hold his hand now?" I ask.
She stares at our joined hands and fiddles with her wedding band before sliding from the chair.
"I need a cup of tea," she says.
I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. Psalm 116 vs 13
Next day, I return to the parish where my diary is filled with synod meetings and pastoral visits. Running up her unweeded path through driving rain I call in on Gladys. She's wafer thin and lives in the shadow lands of her own death.
She has a wood burner which she feeds with kindling and coal. She clatters out the ash-pan and riddles it.
"I put the ashes on the fire at night, " she rasps."I don't throw them away because they keep the heat going."
I arrange the dolls' house communion set on the grubby tray cloth she has placed in readiness on a rickety occasional table. The tiny silver salver and chalice flicker with the flames' reflections.
After the service, she insists that I have tea and shambles into the kitchen to return with tannin ringed cups and age softened gariboldi biscuits.
She is just one of the many elderly people I visit who offer me hospitality in dirty vessels and whose homes are fetid with the smell of decaying bodies and aging dogs. I struggle to conceal my revulsion at stained jumpers and urine scented trousers.
It's not their fault, but as the years pass my sympathy has dwindled and my compassion is dying. The only way I survive is by pulling on my professional persona and hiding behind liturgy.
Exhaustion engulfs me and I can no longer accommodate the endless stream of lonely, damaged people who stretch my over-burdened heart.
Charles used to say that it wasn't a hardship visiting the sick; it was a privilege. I wonder whether there is something wrong with me for it's not a privilege I've ever came to relish. Maybe Charles had enough good going on in his life to compensate for the perpetual bombardment; a wife waiting with a cup of tea, meals and sympathy ready at hand when he came back from such visitations.
Later that day I walk through my front door to the mill stone responsibility of Lydia and Josh.
My back-bone crackles under their weight and pain crushes my temples.
Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities. Lamentations 5 vs 7
The telephone goes at 6am. Blearily, I listen as Jan cries down the line.
"I just woke up and he was dead next to me. He said that he didn't feel well in the middle of the night, but I just thought it would go away. But when I woke up he was cold."
I agree that I will come round and say prayers later in the morning.
"I've called Karen and Darren, and my sisters, they're coming straightaway. But I said you'll know what to do."
When I ring, the door opens to reveal the whole family standing in the hallway. Jan pushes through and says;
She leads me up while the rest of the family watch but don't attempt to follow.
"He's here, I tucked him up in bed."
Tony lies with his eyes closed and mouth open.
I've never seen a dead body at such close quarters, they've all neatly coffined before I meet them at the crem or church.
Jan looks at me with enquiry in her eyes. So I calmly approach the corpse and make the sign of the cross in oil upon his forehead. Then I rustle up an Our Father and extemporise a short prayer and shared silence.
She seems satisfied and sits on the edge of the bed. I go to stand beside her and she suddenly flings her arms around me, pressing her head into my belly and keening so fiercely that I can feel her tremors in my feet.
When I get home, I punch out 1571 and hear Peter's monotone pronounce.
"Father died this morning. You were out. Give us a call."
In the bare hospital room, the little wooden areoplanes on the mobile twirl slowly. Father hadn't wanted them there but we'd put it up anyway, we needed something to look at.
Esther, Peter and mother sit one side of the bed. I sit the other, clutching my book of pastoral services. I've placed a small, carved wooden holding cross in father's hands and draped a silken, purple shaded scarf across the bed.
"What's that for?" asks Esther.
"It's just beautiful," I say.
"The nurse says he went very quietly, slipped away when no-one was here, "says mother.
"Probably for the best, " says Peter.
"Let us pray," I begin.
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© Helen Terry April 2012