PROLOGUE: A DEED WITHOUT A NAME

 

This is so rude and shocking that I can hardly bear to write it down but write it I must, for I can keep it in no longer.

When I say, shocking, I mean, shocking to me, because it’s about me. If you didn’t know me, then you probably will think my warning preface is exaggerated. I’m hoping that you’ll tell me that my confession isn’t so unusual and shocking after all. Well, maybe I’d like you to be a little shocked.


But...who are ‘you,’ anyway? Who am I writing this for?

‘We read to know we’re not alone,’ said a character in William Nicholson’s Shadowlands.

I think that we also write to know we’re not alone...in the hope that the very things we fear sharing will gain the approval and acceptance of a wider audience - particularly those things which we cannot share with anyone that we actually know.

           

This is meant to be utterly secret, this notebook I’m starting, but is there always the knowledge, even the desire, that one’s words will not remain forever unseen. There’s a catharsis in writing, a release... the need to express oneself, and even a slightly vain self consciousness - especially where one writes one’s own story. As Matthew Arnold said of Jane Eyre, the author is in dialogue with herself.


 There’s almost a mission about writing - there is for me. I hope not only to help myself, but that my writing may somehow encourage and liberate someone else who is going through this. The fact that this confession may resonate with others is comfort enough.


I think that I’m alone now, and hope to remain undisturbed. I am so afraid of this being found - or even of admitting this to myself - that I still hesitate. The secret involves someone not so very far away - and I could be discovered at any minute.

           

This seems such an odd place to make such a revelation - both incongruent and ironic. If I tell you (my imaginary collective audience) that I am in a convent, on our church retreat weekend, what I am about to say will seem even worse. If I told you that I am in love with a member of the clergy – that sounds kind of honourable, doesn’t it? But wait - is it a priest? you ask, knowing that such a relationship is forbidden.

    Yes, consummation of this love is prohibited. But I’m not Catholic, so I don’t believe in celibacy for men of the cloth. I may have to believe in celibacy for other reasons.

    If I say that I’m in love with my vicar, that sounds shocking, doesn’t it - in a juicy gossip sort of way - but not wicked. Unless he is married. I can confirm that is not the case. There is not anything in status nor age difference that would make this match controversial.

     But we couldn’t ever wed.

    We couldn’t have a proper legal Christian wedding in this country.

    Isn’t that ironic: a vicar can’t marry in a church?!

 

Someone’s at the door. Help! Where can I hide this?

 

I stuffed the notebook under my pillows, trying to resettle on my bed innocently. I picked up my Bible from the bedside table and opened it randomly on my lap, pretending to be in the middle of deep spiritual devotions.


Harriet came in. She’s thirty - four years older than me - and about the same height (around 5’6’’), attractive, feminine and curvy with long reddish brown hair.

   What she would see is a thin (in places, not in others!) olive skinned creature called Elspeth [not me, the author] - unusual by name and nature! I’ve got shortish straight dark hair, just enough to cover my ears and to kink up at the bottom; rather uneven features, the best of which are my chameleon eyes, green at present like my light khaki ethnic top and short skirt which shows my long legs.

   “You look as if I’ve disturbed you,” she said.

   “No you haven’t,” I replied unconvincingly, trying to work out if I’m glad to see her or not. Being alone with a guilty secret is never good for me, and I really like Harriet, she’s in many ways my closest friend.

     The notebook fell out from under the headboard. I jumped.

     “What was that?” asked Harriet.

    “Oh, nothing, nothing.” I sounded over nonchalant.

     I sat up, trying to forget about the notebook which I could just see lying open on the floor through the gap between my pillow and my headboard.

    She looked intrigued, and wanted me to tell all. Sadly, I can’t tell even her...

...especially her.

    “It’s nothing exciting,” I lied, shrugging. “In fact, I was just wishing I was doing something more sociable. It’s 9.30 on Saturday night and I’m away with friends!”

    “I’m glad that you said that.” Harriet rummaged in her bag and produced a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of wine. “Fancy a walk?”

*

The red Victorian Gothic convent was floodlit dramatically. There were still a few glowing yellow triangles, like pumpkin lanterns, in its lancet windows and the sounds of children were heard distantly. Harriet uncorked the wine bottle and passed it to me, saying, “I hate coming to these things alone. Everyone else goes back to their rooms in couples, in their happy little family units.”

   “Well, I’m here. I’d be in just the same boat if I wasn’t sharing with you.”

   “I know, Elspeth, and you’re lovely, but don’t you wish that you could go back to a nice husband?” That really hurt, as I was very happy to come away with a good friend, particularly as she had spent the preceding week persuading me not to pull out, for her sake. Her company is in no way inferior to a man’s, but it seemed that mine is for her. She read my thoughts. “It’s not that I’m not enjoying this with you...I just meant, well, that I wish I wasn’t single any more. It’s been three years now since I was with someone, and I can’t keep on like this.”

    She got out the cigarettes and lit one – the only time I ever saw her smoke. “Want one?” she asked. I knew she thought I’d decline, but I was feeling a little rebellious and low.

     “Alright,” I said, which caused the desired look of surprise. “I feel like it’s something I should cross off life’s list of things to do.” That list is still pretty long. She leant across to light my cigarette. I held it out to her between two fingers.

     “You need to put it into your mouth and inhale,” she corrected. Harriet was amused but kind, seeing my humiliation. “It doesn’t matter.” She popped it in my mouth with a brush of my chin and showed me how to draw it in and breathe it out.

     “I’m not sure what I thought of that,” I said after my first drag, trying hard not to splutter.

     “You don’t have to smoke it if you don’t like it. There are better new frontiers to conquer in life than the cigarette.”

     “I’m glad I’m with you, and not in front of anyone else. You’re a good person to have first times with.

     There would be many more things that I would like to pioneer with her.

     A nun scuttled past - the image instantly recalling the end of a powerful recent film where one such sister had scurried out into the night, forsaking all. How close I had come - and still might - to emulating her!

    “Are they allowed to be up this late?” asked Harriet. “I’d hate to be a nun - there’s so many things that you can’t do - such as anything I brought in this bag with me.” She pulled out a book - Lady Chatterley’s Lover! “Tailor made for the church weekend,” she grinned.

    “I’ve not read it, but I’ve heard about the legendary plaiting scene - and it’s not this hair that they put the daisies in!” I tugged at my locks. We laughed wickedly.

      “That’s the main reason that I just couldn’t be a nun!”

      “This is what I like about you...you’re honest, and not a boring Christian.”

      “Well, it’s ‘better to marry than to burn with passion,’” she quoted.

      “I knew someone impatient who underlined that in her Bible... but she was younger at the time than I am now,” I remembered sadly.

     “We’ll find someone. At least the possibility’s always there. If you were a nun, the door would be closed on principle.”

     “Sometimes I feel I’m may as well be a nun,” I muttered. “At least they chose to be forever celibate.

     “Elspeth! Don’t say that. You’d hate being a nun. Anyhow, nuns aren’t in the Bible.”

     “Neither are vicars, but we still have those.”

     Harriet was a little taken aback. “What are you saying? That vicars are wrong and unnecessary?”

     “Well, we’d governed our little church without one for several years quite happily.”

     She stared at me. I knew I had to justify my remark.

     “I know you’re very pro-clergy... and I did think, before we got a vicar, that we didn’t need one...but now our vicar is safely installed, well, it’s the best thing to happen to our church since I’ve been there. And I’ve come to be...we’ve all come to be” I amended quickly “very fond of our reverend.”

    Harriet smiled radiantly. “I’m pretty impressed with the vicar too.

     I laughed and gave her a little push. But only you know how true my statement is!

*  

Back in our dormitory, as we got ready for bed, Harriet said:

   “You’ve really cheered me up, Elspeth. It’s been a great evening.” 

   “You’ve done the same for me,” I replied as she hugged me.

    Then I suddenly remembered the notebook and began fishing under my bed.

    “What are you looking for?” Harriet asked.

    “Er...oh - there it is.”

      I sneaked the notebook I was writing in earlier into my dressing gown pocket, took my toiletry bag, and went to the bathroom. I stuffed my jottings into my toiletry bag amidst my Tampax, and returned to the dormitory, pleased with my cunning. No-one would go snooting round in my feminine hygiene products.

      I put the box inside my luggage and got into bed. Harriet was in the single bed next to me. She reached for the light, and we said goodnight to each other. In the darkness, I could make out the outline of the offending bag. It almost seemed to glow as if radioactive. It would be just as dangerous if touched.

 

My plan had not taken into account just how bad I am in the mornings when my defences are extremely low. While still half asleep, I vaguely perceived Harriet standing at the foot of my bed with a towel round her, asking to borrow a Tampax. I groaned an affirmative noise, then added the lethal: “Help yourself. It’s inside my bag.” Harriet was just pulling them out when I realised what else was inside. I sat up suddenly and snatched the box from Harriet’s hands, yelling, “NO!! I’ll get it!”

       Harriet was shocked and confused. “What on earth is wrong with you!? They’re only tampons.”

       “Maybe there’s not just tampons in there.”

       “Is there an intimate prescription in there too?” She paused. “I know why you went to the doctor’s this week. I can read through your euphemisms.” She knelt down. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s me.”

      I handed her a couple of tampons, feeling sheepish. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.”

      Harriet sighed and playfully hit me over the head as if the tampons were drumsticks, and left the room. I pulled a ‘that was close’ face to myself, then decided on a new hiding place, and stuffed my little notebook underneath my mattress, inside the sheet.

 

At breakfast in the dining hall, Hereward - a gracious, cultured and handsome man in his late thirties - made an announcement: “The Nuns have asked that we take off our bedsheets and put them into the laundry baskets provided on the landings. Thank you.”

      “I’ll take our sheets off,” Harriet offered as she got up, and walked away. I nodded absent mindedly, not taking in what Harriet had said, as I am slow to wake in the mornings. I was attempting a conversation with Len. Then I leapt up as if electrocuted, flew out of the dining room and ran up the spiral stairs as if my life depended on it - which it did. I rushed into our room, breathless, as Harriet was about to pull off my sheet.

      “I’ll do that!” I cried urgently.

       Harriet stood back, bewildered. “What’s the big deal?”

       “I’ve...er...you can’t see my sheets!!

       “Have you bled on them?” Harriet is not one for beating round the bush.

       “Might have.” I hoped I sounded a little embarrassed, if not elusive, so that I might lead her off the truth.

       “It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I’d seen.”

       “It quite possibly might.”

       “Why? Is it something else? Does your intimate prescription have a side effect?”                      

       I decided this was a convenient subterfuge, so I pretended to be awkward, without actually lying: “Harriet...I can’t speak about it. I’ll sort it out. Look away.”

       Harriet did so as I pulled off my sheet, checking to see if she was looking. The offending prose fell out with a flutter. I dived over the bed to retrieve it.

      Harriet turned to see what the commotion was. “Elspeth!”

     “What!?” I replied in a squawk, stuffing the notebook up my jumper.

     Harriet folded her arms, and sounded authoritative: “Right, what is it?”

     “Nothing.”

     “You’re not leaving this room until you’ve told me.”           

     “And that I never shall.”

     “Elspeth! You tell me everything. Let me see.”

       She reached out towards me, but I turned away and crossed my arms over my jumper. Harriet came closer and undid my arms. She is stronger than me, but I was so determined that I became vicious.

     “Elspeth! What on earth is it? Have you recorded some erotic fantasies?”

     “It’s not erotic...”...Yet, I thought. If Harriet hadn’t disturbed me last night, it may have been, but there was enough written for Harriet to know everything.        

      I blushed. This was getting too close. Harriet was encouraged at her own detective work. I looked down, shifting uncomfortably.

     “Am I right? Ha ha! Your secret is uncovered!” Harriet deduced triumphantly. “Who? You must tell me!”

     “I can’t, so please don’t ask me. It’s...something best just got over and forgotten.”

      She looked at me expectantly.

     “It must be in my power to get you together, if it's someone at church.”

     Had I be so careless as to let her assume that?

      “When did I say anything about church? I do have other means of meeting people,” I blushed. Our small church has few men, none of whom are single or really in the right age bracket. Any suggestions would be discomforting.

     “Who can it be - Len?”

     “I assure you I don't see him in that light.”

     “Hereward then?”

     “I really can’t tell anyone, so don’t mention it, will you? And we’ve got to be at the service now.”

       She checked her watch - it really was time to go.

      “I shall extract this out of you by the end of the day.” She looked wickedly at me. “Tell anyone - no. But as for forgetting it!”

      Yet she would not be as successful as she imagined.

      The truth is far more shocking than she realises.

*


The whole of our church was in the chapel for the start of our morning communion service. Harriet and I were sitting next to each other in the front row. As usual in churches which follow the liturgy, our service began with the confession:

      “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known,” we all said together. Harriet nudged me and winked.

I looked away, appalled, yet amused. She continued to pronounce with extra emphasis, looking at me, personalising the words:

      “...and from whom no secrets are hidden,

       Cleanse the thoughts our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit...”

 

A little later in the service, a matronly retired lady with very Norfolk school teacherly booming voice read from the Bible at the front:

      “At one time we too were given over all kinds of passions and pleasures of the flesh...”

      “Those were the days!” Harriet said to me longingly. I fell about in hysterics. Harriet remained demure and composed, with the slightest hint of a smirk. I bit my jacket to contain myself.

       “What is it - pleasure or flesh that sets you off?” Harriet whispered, emphasising the offending words provocatively. I was almost in tears. Jean finished the reading and handed over to Hereward, now in his full ecclesiastical robes, looking pure and holy. He saw me struggling to gain control. I felt ashamed.

      “Gird up the loins of your mind!” said Harriet in mock admonition, which made me laugh all the more.

     Hereward preached on that passage Jean read from Titus, and spoke at length about desires which enslave us and estrange us from god. He spoke of being cut off from the church, and ultimately, from God’s elect, to spend eternity in torment; and how we must take desperate measures, as Jesus taught, to sever contact with anything that makes us sin.

      I listened with flashes going through my mind, like at the beginning of the news:

-My mind replayed Harriet beside me whispering ‘pleasures of the flesh’ juxtaposed with Hereward's pure, composed face

-a flickering thought of nudity, which was immediately cast aside

-familiar scenes to me which will not as yet make sense to you: a dizzying moving image of a winding spiral staircase made of mellow red bricks, and the back of a woman in a Victorian cloak fleeing down them with a suitcase

-the same staircase, but with the hem of a different robe, that of a deep crimson Flemish silk, its wearer out of sight

-momentarily, a woman in period costume being flung against the mast of a ship, her skirts ripped, and a man - oily and stubbly and leathery -thrusting her from behind

-the ship crashing into rocks, its splinters seen from underwater

-(live) Hereward calmly saying, “There is such a place as hell, my friends”

-flames leaping up against a high, dark frescoed wall, featuring a cat’s mouth jammed with naked sinners, tumbling down into the pit below

-“and what must we do to avoid hell?” asked a looming pillar of clergy as if I were the size of a child

-The answer came as the sound of white puffs of hard breaths of a young woman running across a field into the cold night, a fiery glow behind her.

     “We are not worthy to gather the crumbs from your table,” the congregation was chanting. No I was not worthy; and communion, like marriage, is not to be taken ‘lightly or irreverently’ or with unforgiven sin. I had giggled in the confession instead of seeking absolution, although a few moments of prayer were hardly enough to purge the enormity of what I had done, and was still doing.

      I did not want to cause a scene, but i told myself that it would be a sin to stay and receive the bread and wine, especially from his hands...so I whispered to Harriet, “I’m not well. I need to go.” She asked me something but I ignored her, and moved swiftly to the door without looking back. In my head, I heard a snippet of a song - ‘I will not be a lot’s wife’ – a contrasting strain against a threatening cacophony which drowned out the service. I must flee the evil and let it be destroyed, or like Mrs Lot, dire consequences of a transmutant nature would immediately befall me. 

 

When I reached our room, I packed everything, and planned how I could get out of the rest of the weekend and continue my life. Should I run away? or hand myself over to the nuns? I tried to picture myself in a habit. Was there anything less drastic I could do? The blood was pulsing in my head, my stomach heaving involuntarily. All I could hear myself think was “you must leave.”

       Harriet popped her head round the door. I dreaded and longed for her footsteps. I hardly knew how to behave, but my body decided for me: the turmoil inside had actually made me physically sick. Now I couldn’t go to lunch, which was a relief. I found I needed to stay near a bowl for the rest of the afternoon.

       I feared how I would get home as I wasn’t up to travelling. I was supposed to go with Harriet. I hated the thought of being sick in front of her in her car, but at least I had a rationale for my running out of church and not feeling myself. What would be hardest was knowing that the sickness was a psychosomatic symptom of a very desperate woman, and that despite being one of my closest friends, I could not unburden myself on her

 

I slept in the car for much of the journey until we neared the outskirts of our home city.

      “This is one of your stomachs, isn’t it?” she asked. “I know how you always say you’ve got stomach ache when you’re upset.”

      “But I really have been sick - lots of times,” I protested.

      “Then it must be an extra bad concern today. Has something over the weekend upset you? You’ve been unhappy for some weeks.”

      I could bear it no more, so I blurted: “I’ve got to leave.”

      “Why? Leave where - Norwich or church?’

      “Everything.”

      “But you love Norwich - it’s your favourite city. You said that when you came here, it was the Promised Land. No-one likes Norwich like you do - I’ve never met someone with such a passion for a city. So what on earth has made you want to leave it all of a sudden?”

       The view now before us had made me fall in love with Norwich. My eyes leapt across the sloping heath as they had on the first time I’d seen Norwich, down on to the eastern prospect of the city. In the foreground stretched the green of playing fields in the Close, out of which sprang the shapely, superbly proportioned spire of the queen of Cathedrals over a tower whose pattern reminded me of the surface of Lego pieces. Its cream Caen stone assumed an amber hue in the receding sun. The backdrop for this simple yet soaring outline are the distant towers of the other 30+ churches (including the stocky gothic Catholic cathedral) and the decorated Norman cube (koob, as locals would say) of the castle. Norwich’s minor blemishes are largely hidden from this angle. living here had not dulled the sense of magic I felt on initial acquaintance.T

    When I moved here, I felt the dimsy days of failure, disappointment and limbo were at last over. After my own journey though a desert, this was the Promised land of new opportunity and hope in what had come to be my ideal city.

     I still quoted the rhyme about the Man on the Moon, saying he did well to choose Norwich above all other cities for his earthly visit. To me, Camelot or even the Heavenly City itself could scarcely be more beautiful. Like the New Jerusalem, Norwich has twelve gates. As we drove under one, I remembered my thought on moving here, that it was a burly but friendly doorkeeper, formally accepting me into the city.

     But today, I saw Norwich not as one moving here, but one preparing to leave. I took not my first views, but what felt like farewells. The narrow streets which pleased me so, with their distinctive weaver’s gables and mix of red brick, coloured     “Why must you leave?” Harriet asked. “What was it about the weekend? Was it the sermon this morning?”

    “It was,” I began carefully, almost emotionally, “the whole thing about a, a, wickedness that will divide me from God.”

    “What kind of wickedness? I can’t imagine what you can be thinking of.”

    “It’s not something you could easily tell. What we think is as bad as what we do. We all have stuff that no-one sees.”

    “Are we talking sins of the flesh?” Again, Harriet pronounced that last word with deliberate naughty emphasis.

    “Kind of.”

    “But sexuality is good and normal.” 

    “But mine’s not right. It’s forbidden,” I countered, afraid of how near I should let this conversation get, and of what ideas I had already put in her head.

    “it’s not evil if it’s not hurting anyone and between equals,” Harriet replied. “Love is from God.”

    “I can’t believe this is.”

    She looked at me with concern, if not, I thought, alarm.

     “Is it someone you can’t have, or is it...?”

     I nodded, afraid of giving something away.

     “Because it’s wrong? Or because it’s someone who’s attached?”

     “Some of each,” I said, although I was lying about the second bit. “I think I should leave Norwich. Jesus said it is better to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin, so...I need to take desperate measures.”

   “Would it be a better pain to not see this person again? Or would you hurt them and yourself more if you cut them off? Where would you go? Where would you work?”

   “Doesn’t matter,” I muttered, “but what if it happens again - and I’m doomed to wrong loves all my life!? I’d rather die!”

   “That’s silly.” 

   “No it isn’t, unfortunately. It’s happened before.” 

    She looked at me quizzically. We were at my flat now, in a historic street in the heart of the city.

    “Don’t go and upset yourself. You need to rest and give yourself a break. Don’t do anything drastic that will hurt you and others.”

     I sat in the passenger seat with the door open, not able to move. I couldn’t bear to turn that key and go inside my flat and be alone and...I knew how desperate I felt. For once, I really didn’t want to talk to Harriet about this.

     Yet once again, my stomach made my decision for me. I had to say goodbye and rush indoors to reach the toilet. After being sick several times, I lay on my sofa, weak, yet strangely calm. I needed to write this all down.