Monday, 11 February 2008

braver notes

Misty Sunday morning in the Usk valley.



In cities that have outgrown their promise
People are becoming pilgrims again,
If not to this place,
Then to the recreation of it in their own spirits.


The beginning of the month saw me hitting fifty. It seemed more of a watershed than forty, or even thirty (never trust anyone over...); this last decade has seen more, or possibly bigger, changes in my life than the preceding ones, and I'm only beginning to look forward and think "Where next?"

And then last week marked the fortieth year since my mother died. She was very alive and loving and creative, and then she died of leukaemia, at the age of thirty four. I still feel her loss. How much loss should you feel? I don't know. I tried some hypnotic regression a few years ago to try to sort things out; it was a very upsetting experience, and I decided that this sort of thing is best left well alone.

Back then, we lived in Llanfrechfa, in Monmouthshire. Mother was a sometime churchgoer, and a Christian in a quiet way. I was in the church choir, and still at that time a Christian (I was going to say still a believer; but that suggests I don't now believe in anything, and I do) . I decided to return to mark the occasion.



I drove over early, and walked down to the church. In a tall beech at the top of the churchyard, a gaggle of crows was being rowdy. Crocuses and snowdrops were abundant among the graves past which I had once hurried fearfully to evening choir practice. From Church Farm, now an animal sanctuary, came a hullabaloo of dogs and what sounded like parrots.

In the porch I met Ken Jacobs the church warden, just locking-up the church after the first service and in haste for his breakfast. He invited me to return for the 10:30 Family Eucharist. I wandered around the village; outside the sagging fence of the playground of the now-demolished school was the rotting stump of the parish notice board which my father had built. A garden warbler was singing in the bush above it.

I walked down Tram Lane, and wondered (having never wondered at the time) why it was called Tram Lane. It was a cold and clear morning; a few primroses were in flower on the banks. The lane was as rough and potholed as ever, and a stream flowed down the side of it. Nearing what had been the Pughs' ramshackle farm, I heard geese honking and then the barking of farm dogs. I decided that I didn't really want to meet the dogs or renew my acquaintance with the Pughs, or whoever it may be these days, and returned up the hill.

Three blackbirds squabbled through the bushes; a pair of cock robins faced-off'; one puffed his breast feathers way out to demonstrate his supremacy, and the other retreated in as nonchalant a way as it could muster.

I heard a green woodpecker, great tits, and a nuthatch. And a mistle thrush provided the high accompaniment to this village morning.

So braver notes the storm-cock sings
To start the rusted wheel of things
And brutes in field and brutes in pen
Leap that the world goes round again.


Church Cottage was festooned with multicoloured lightbulbs. Outside, a crop-headed and leisure-suited man, only sign of human life in the village, swept gravel back off the road onto the hard-standing where four cars were parked.

As I walked back to the church, the bell began tolling. The churchgoers, identifiable in their Sunday best, were arriving in their cars; I leant back into the hedge to let them by. I remembered the time that the collection plate had passed me by, long ago, and so I'd put the sixpence in this hedge, because I figured that God would find it there just as easily as in the church.

And so I went in. I was greeted warmly and given the paperwork for the service, invited to join the congregation for coffee afterwards, and advised to choose a pew well away from the draught from the door. I gazed around; unlike the rest of the village, the church was essentially unchanged, other than being inexplicably smaller than I remembered it... the brass eagle lectern, the Last Supper relief of the reredos, the big immersion font...

There was a fair turn-out. And the choir was there too. The service was led by Sister Anita, whose parish this is; it was a pleasant surprise to hear her warm canadian accent. We sang hymns, of which I had heard of one; "What A Friend We Have In Jesus". I thought wistfully of the tortuous grammar of Hymns A&M; and, in this place, perhaps my favourite, "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended" in a summer's Evensong, with the shadows deepening.... but that was then, and this wasn't my show, so I sang the unfamiliar words with a good will, accompanied by Ken Jacobs on the guitar, and an elderly lady in a Big Hat who trilled out a wobbly descant -some things don't change.... I offered prayers for my mother and for a friend who is really quite ill... at one point we all said hello to each other and shook hands, too, which was nice. I'd been surrounded by a cheerful family, and the hands for shaking were going everywhere; "We play Twister later," joked one of the women...

I always used to feel left out of the Communion; every year the choir turned out for the confirmation service, when the young confirmands, all dressed in white, trooped forward for the bishop to lay on hands; but quite how one set about getting confirmed was never quite made clear, and I never quite got round to asking. This morning, however, the order of service invited the unconfirmed to join in and receive, if not communion, at least a blessing. So I finally made it to the altar rail and was duly blessed. It was a good experience.

Over coffee, afterwards, I chatted with my cheerful neighbour, a lawyer from Ponthir. We enthused about St David's, where Sister Anita had lived before coming to the parish. A few people thought they knew me from somewhere. I doubted it. Some older people racked their brains and failed to remember my family, or more particularly me; we agreed that I'd probably changed quite a lot since 1968.... We shared a few names of people we commonly remembered. "It's a village full of people getting old," said the chap who officiated over the coffee; "Still, that's better than the alternative...."

I made my farewells and left them to it.

Something had been unlocked in me; some part of my past which had been in stasis since we left the village in 1969. Things change. People go about doing their best, being good, or not being good, but mostly, I think, trying to be good. Life goes on.

I picked a snowdrop from the churchyard and pressed it in the pages of my journal.