Where else would you go on a Wednesday evening to unburden your soul? Tell a story at 10×9, go on, I dare you. It’s a free event, so will save you a fortune in therapist’s bills. Here’s the tale I told last night: have a look if you want to read about SWB’s evangelical phase.
(Many thanks to the lovely Caroline Orr for her generous introduction and photo credit to Pádraig and Paul).
Story on the theme of Lost
My story isn’t about losing my wallet, or my engagement ring, or my car in Forestside’s underground car park. It isn’t about getting lost in Hanoi searching for our backpacker’s hostel, charmingly named the Ming Dung, where we learnt to our cost that misdirecting disorientated tourists is a Vietnamese national hobby. Or even about my friend and I getting so spectacularly lost in the Mournes that when we heard a helicopter above we assumed it had come for us. (It hadn’t, and after seven hours wandering we found Hare’s Gap and grateful and exhausted, we trudged home.) No. This story is about me thinking that I had lost my eternal soul and would forever be pitched into the darkness, or fiery pits. Let’s face it, both sound equally fucking dire.
“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” I thought as a student of English Literature, you would know that.” Those were the less than sympathetic words of my dad’s friend Trevor, as I sat, rocking back in forth at his kitchen table, convinced that the end of the world was nigh. I was drenched with sweat and waiting for the booming voice from the heavens to blast forth, and tell me I was doomed for failing to live a sufficiently Godly life. Earlier that evening we had sat round that same table, drinking red wine while our conversation veered and looped around subjects as diverse as political activism, vegetarianism and the time Trevor’s partner Lou joined a cult and got married in a pagan ceremony, in a darkened tenth floor apartment with hay strewn about the floor and on the window sills. It was worldly and bohemian and refreshing for a student who usually sat watching repeats of Friends and music videos on VH1 in between lectures at Queen’s.
It was July, 1999. I had made the somewhat misguided decision, that as a twenty year old student, it would be a good idea to go on holiday, with my parents, to stay with an old family friend, a professor in the university of Concordia in Montreal. One could say that I was already a bit lost in somehow thinking that this was a good idea. The generational gap suggested that we may have different expectations of a trip, and with the benefit of hindsight I probably ought to have left them to it. But, I was heading on my year abroad to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion the following September, so I thought maybe some ‘quality’ time could be good.
In truth, I was a deeply anxious, some might say demented young woman. As a fourteen year old, I had been duly confirmed in our Church of Ireland, and thought I had a comprehensive enough understanding of God and what it meant to be a Christian. But then a friend took me up to the Elim Pentecostal where I was duly brainwashed. It was at once terrifying and exhilarating. While our Anglian rector urged quiet contemplation and pared his message down to ten minute sermons, evensong at the Elim went on for two hours. People arrived early to get good seats. The music, the hand-waving, the speaking in tongues and the crying, (dear God, people were always crying,) was powerfully emotive. And I was converted, saved, and with all the enthusiasm and passion of a teenage fundamentalist, I was keen to share the good news. People hated to see me coming. I remember calling ‘Jesus loves you!’ up at the bedroom window of an atheist friend, because if you weren’t into all these public displays of religiosity you couldn’t really be a Christian. Could you?
And then, after a period of eighteen months, something happened. I suddenly felt, quite acutely, that this wasn’t for me. This devotion demanded body and soul and they wanted us there, ALL THE TIME: fellowship on Friday, Youth Club on Saturday and Church on Sunday: preferably twice. Other Elimites began to doubt my commitment when I started to falter. And then, my friend asked if after my GCSE mock exams if I would like to go out to a disco. It was upstairs. In a pub. And less by hook and slightly more by crook I got there, and realised that the same transcendental joy I felt clapping until my hands were red raw in the Elim; could almost, almost, be found on the dance floor, cavorting about to James, and Cotton-eyed Joe and singing along to Dizzy by Vic Reeves.
I went back to the Elim once more after my foray into the world of the damned. It was the youth fellowship and some of the teens had got wind of my transgression. They turned nasty. “Is there no where else you can go?” they asked, “than to a pub? With alcohol?” They shook their heads and muttered ‘backslider’. An older girl stood up to speak and said, with some conviction, that if we weren’t doing right by God that he would just get rid of us. She clicked her fingers. “Just like that.” Several people glanced over at me.
I left. I made occasional trips back to St Columbanus in Bangor but not many. And when I moved to Belfast I made no effort to join up anywhere. As an Arts student one has a lot of unregulated time at their disposal. I had always been studious but I found it hard to focus and manage my time. I felt lost. But, there were parties and part-time jobs and boyfriends and my time abroad to which I looked forward immensely. But there was a constant, gut wrenching dread that in the long run, nothing really mattered. Ultimately, I was going to hell.
And then, just before the end of second year, before we left to go on holiday, Channel Four showed clips of a documentary based on Nostradamus’ predictions that the world was going to end, on July 4th 1999 to be precise. It showed footage of trees being bent backwards and ferocious waves and lightning. My friends laughed because I had to leave the room when it came on. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” they said. “Catch yourself on.” But one girl did admit that the Book of Revelation terrified her too. Oh shit, I thought. It’s not just me.
So back to Montreal and the evening of July the fourth. To my relief the world hadn’t ended and I had fallen into a slightly tipsy slumber. It was a warm evening. Montreal is almost suffocatingly hot in July and the heat still rose steamily from the pavements, even at midnight. I drifted off to sleep with the window open and the gentle cacophony of city life, laughter and car horns and jazz in the distance. I woke to a massive bang. A gust of wind ripped through the room, opening and slamming the door shut again. The white curtain billowed and when I shot out of bed and looked out the sash window I gasped. The scene below was just as the trailer for the show had depicted. Plastic chairs from cafes danced down the street. The trees were bent at a forty-five degree angle from the ground. The sky was streaked with yellow and pink. I lost bladder control.
Pulling on pyjamas I blundered into the living room, where my parents’ friends were sleeping on a pull out bed. “Put your pants on dear, “ Lou told Trevor, who thankfully acquiesced. “Lucky you didn’t come in a few minutes ago,” he said. As if I wasn’t in enough turmoil, I now had to erase that image of my dad’s fifty-six year old friend from my mind. Lou tried to put the light on but the power was off. I mumbled something incoherent about Armageddon and she quickly realised my distress. “It’s just a storm,” she said rubbing my back. I hadn’t heard any voices from above, or seen the four horsemen, but I wasn’t convinced. “It’s a warning, it must be,” I said. “Breath” said Lou. Trevor quoted the line from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, just to show how clever he was, but it really wasn’t that helpful. By now my parents were up and I began to feel embarrassed. Outside the wind died down and sirens shrieked in the distance.
On turning on the news in the morning we learnt it was a mini tornado. While storms weren’t unusual in summer, the force of this was without precedent. Three people had died, including a child when a tree had crashed down on to his tent in the garden.
My mum and dad were quite worried about my reaction. “Well you’re one to be going out to a tropical island to live on your own,” sniffed my Mum. Not only was Reunion subject to frequent cyclones but it also had an active volcano, so it was just ideal for a person with bad nerves. But I went anyway, and was frequently apoplectic with fear there too.
I have since made some degree of peace with myself. I sometimes go to church, and actually find the Catholic services most comforting. I would be lying if I said I still didn’t feel a flicker of terror from time to time. But I recall something a great aunt of mine said. She had lived through the Blitz and the Troubles. She also owned the Donaghadee post office and had to get up at dawn on freezing winter mornings. One day over their coffee break, she and her colleagues were ruminating over heaven and hell, as people in Northern Ireland are wont to do. “I don’t think there’s a hell at all,” said one of the girls. “Of course there is,” my aunt retorted, “we’re in it!” I think of my Aunt Emma often, and I think she had a point.