Friday, April 2, 2010

An Easter story

Do you ever suffer from a compelling need to tell a story? A story which, although to you it's undoubted fact, you strongly suspect others might consider highly embroidered, or - which is worse - wishful thinking?

This happens to me every Easter. It’s a story that haunts me because I don’t understand it. Why should it have happened to me? Was I the totally unintended recipient of an extraordinary experience? Someone in the wrong place at the wrong time? It should have changed my life . . . but it didn’t. I should understand it . . . but I don’t. At the very least, it should have established certainties . . . but I continue to question.

All I know is that I’ve been left with a life-long mystery, a mystery that I feel compelled to share . . . a mystery which should surely belong to someone else?

I must have been fifteen at the time. I was still living in Kent and had a close friend, Jane, who lived near Bromley. I had been invited to spend Easter with Jane and her family and, as this included her brother Graham - a student at Cambridge and the object of my respectful admiration - I was only too keen to go.

The plan for Easter Sunday was that we should spend the day sailing on the Medway at Rochester, where Graham and his friend, Roger, had a boat. Both keen sailors, they greatly treasured their boat. Jane, too, was an experienced sailor. Of the four of us, I was the only total novice, and I was keenly anxious not to make a fool of myself. It was agreed that we’d travel to Rochester by motorbike. Jane would ride pillon behind Roger. I, who had never ridden on a motor-bike before, would ride behind Graham.

On the Saturday morning, Graham and Roger planned the route. They decided to travel cross-country to avoid the holiday traffic.
“We’ll go via Westerham,” Graham announced.
“Westerham . . . ?” Jane queried. She turned to me, “Look out for the war memorial . . . it’s amazing . . . absolutely beautiful. Where did it come from?” she asked her brother.
“Italy,” Graham muttered, preoccupied with the map.
Jane turned back to me, “That’s right, Italy . . . you mustn’t miss it. “
“I’ll try not to,” I said, but my thoughts were on other things.

On Easter Day, we went to the eight o’clock service at the local church and then forgot the Easter message completely. Sailing was the order of the day.

If I’d thought that travelling pillion on a motor-bike would be an intimate and convivial experience, I was quickly proved wrong. Such was the noise of the rushing air that it was impossible to talk, and this new art of balancing and holding on took all my concentration. We sped through the lanes physically linked, but mentally worlds apart.

Do you know the Kentish countryside? Many of the narrow lanes have steep banks on either side, banks that are rich with primroses and cowslips in springtime. As you drive down these lanes, with the trees meeting overhead, it is rather like going through a verdant tunnel. We were going down one such lane when I saw what Jane had been talking about . . . a very conspicuous war memorial. It was so conspicuous that it startled me. Taking the form of a large, wooden cross, it was stuck firmly into the bank on the right-hand side of the lane. Rough hewn and unadorned, the stark simplicity was compelling. It had no pediment and the long grass grew up around its base . Recalling Jane’s words, I decided that it was bleak, rather than beautiful. It was challenging . . . unforgetable . . . and there was no doubting its impact.
I shouted into the back of Graham’s neck that I’d seen the war memorial, but my words were carried away in the slipstream. Cautiously, I swung round on my pillion seat to look back at the wooden cross . . . I can see it still.

When we reached the boat everyone was preoccupied with sailing and I quickly forgot what I’d seen on the journey. Knowing nothing about nautical procedures, I thought it best to lie low until we was ready to set sail. There was a pole alongside the boat which no-one appeared to need. I carefully lowered myself down and sat on it. To my horror the pole proved more fragile than it looked, and promptly snapped beneath my weight. This was not a good start to the day. Hoping that no-one was looking, I hastily pushed the broken pieces out of sight.
“Has anyone seen the boom?” asked Graham.
When calm had been restored, and I’d apologised for the umpteenth time for breaking the all-important boom, a makeshift boom was created and we set sail. Thoroughly miserable and ashamed, I seated myself in the stern of the boat and kept quiet.
It wasn’t until we stopped for a picnic lunch that I remembered the war memorial, and told Jane what I'd seen.
“”Lovely, isn’t it,” she said.
“Magnificent . . . such a massive piece of wood!”
“That,” said Jane shortly, her temper still frayed over the episode of the boom, “is the finest Italian marble.”
I decided it was best not to argue, “ . . . it’s an amazing cross, anyway.”
Jane looked at me, thoroughly puzzled, “Not a cross, a marble angel. A beautiful marble angel.”
It was my turn to look puzzled, “Then what,” I asked, “was the old wooden cross?”
But no-one else had seen it.

Jane and I returned to school soon afterwards, but it was years before I abandoned my search for anyone who knew of that wooden cross. Whenever I encountered anyone who lived near Westerham, anyone who knew Westerham, I would make enquiries. Did they know of the wooden cross beside the lane that Easter Sunday? Was there a local farmer who put up a cross on his land? The people I asked were kind and tolerant, but no-one knew anything about a wooden cross.
I was left with an unexplained, unexplainable story. I was stuck with it.

At the time I felt worried and perplexed. Why me? I didn’t want to be burdened with a miracle. Far less a miracle that I hadn’t recognised as such. At times, when I was young, I would even feel angry. As someone who had failed to recognise a miracle, I resented being burdened with the responsibility that it implied.

It’s a story which has turned me into an Ancient Mariner. Even now, half a century later, I feel compelled to tell it because I don’t understand it. Was I meant to have been the first female Bishop, or, at the very least, a nun? Have I failed the vision I was given? I continue to question, and puzzle, and wonder, and eschew most religious certainties. But one of the few certainties that I do hold to is the reality of that old wooden cross. Had you seen it, I know you’d feel the same.

There it is . . . a story that I can't explain, but which continues to haunt me . . . thank you for sharing it.

Happy Easter!