One Wednesday Morning
I hit myself on the ankle with the Paschal Candle, an extraordinary event that arises from Fr Aidan being on sick leave and myself, ever helpful, lending Fr Barnabas a hand (last Sunday) with a Baptism. (Welcome, young Charles David, to the fold.)
“Ouch, that hurts!”I protest, silently, as I process up the aisle with the Paschal Candle, which is considerably taller than me, and features a heavy brass base. Note the absence of profanity. A cause for pride.
The upshot of this minor injury is, yesterday, I stayed in the Mission Hall instead of doing my usual, which is roaming the streets of Gloucester with a trolley full of drinks and sandwiches for the 'Not Actually Managing At All' segment of the population. The drinkers, addicts, mentally ill and others with complex problems, that beg and borrow to keep their heads above water, and don't get much to eat or drink without the charitable efforts of the rest of us.
An eventful morning ensued. I have been away since early April, swanning across the USA, then catching up at home, doing this and that. Dave, Our Leader, greets me warmly. He used to be a Catholic, so he would understand my happening with the brass base of a very large candlestick. He now belongs to one of those independent churches that do so much good around the place. I like him. He hugs. Pope Benedict didn't approve of hugging, so we tend to shake hands now. Rather a pity, I think.
There are a few changes. Michael the community artist is absent. Cancer, I hear, not doing so well. Not coming back. He used to take a group for pottery, he will be missed. Some discussion about what to do with his materials. I am sad. I liked Michael's quiet unassuming presence, I admired his gentle refusal to get saved.
Cafe Guru are still providing a nourishing stew. Lots of organisations express interest in what we do. This small business actually does something. Week after week, year in, year out, the cafe sends in a hot meal for our sixty or so takers. They don't advertise the fact, they just do it. I tell everyone I know to go there.
It's a fraught morning. One young man thinks another young man is trying to take his stuff. Shouting and a punch-up, quickly resolved. Sam, with his underpants on the outside of his trousers, gives an impromptu sermon on the fact that all Christians are hypocrites and are going to hell: some good-hearted applause, including from the Christians. Then I chat to Maggie.
She speaks softly, I have to move closer to listen. We are friends. As her story draws to a close I'm in tears. It has taken her four years to open up and it's no wonder.
“I kept my daughter away from men, no father, no grandfather. No uncles, for fifteen years.” Oh my God! Fifteen years??? “She's married now, and has children.” Maggie beams with pride. Can you guess why I'm weeping?
“Don't cry, don't cry for me!” Maggie has not asked for sympathy, she has just asked for the right to tell her story.
No name, Maggie is not her name, no location, this did not happen here. Just her story:
“I wasn't put in the laundry, because of my chest. You know what that was like, you've seen the film. All that steam! I was in the orphanage until I was sixteen. We worked all day every day, from the time I was thirteen, and were given £13 a month.” …
“When our abusers became grandparents to girls – we went to the police. We couldn't let what happened to us happen to another child … ”
A ghastly story, Maggie didn't go into a lot of detail. She, her and her sister, won their case and received compensation. A lot of it. But:
“I couldn't let go of it, the compensation didn't help, not for years and years, not until I got cancer. Funny. I thought I was going to die, and I let go. Now, I'm free.”
“For years and years.”
The next time I hear another abuser gather his family around him and swear his innocence, I'll remember Maggie, and how HER innocence was stolen, her body used for the gratification of perverts employed to take care of her, her peace of mind destroyed, her mental health never fully recovered.
“I'm not crying for you, Maggie, but for the children still suffering from bastards like those.” I said, which was partly true.
So a piece that started with a light-hearted run-in with a large candle, ends sombrely. I think that's the point. In the middle of the ordinariness of my lovely quiet life, a brutal reality intrudes, and I weep.