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General


It was surprisingly easy. Too easy, which made me nervous. I had been collecting money for our Outreach programme. Yes, I still, without thinking, say “our”. Sometimes I think it is harder to change the automatic default of language than a mindset. Perhaps because it doesn’t matter as much. I don’t know.

     I was trusted. Trusted as much as any of us ever were. That was the paradox, of course. We weren’t trusted, and yet we had to be, to a certain extent. And I had been born at Mizpah House. My mother had not – nobody much over the age of 18 was what Dr John called “Second Generation” or “A Cradle Communicant”. 

     While I was growing up – and the thing is, it was by no means entirely an unhappy childhood – my mother and I were very close. They rarely separated mothers and daughters, though sons were generally sent away to seminaries once they were twelve or thirteen. Dr John insisted that men and women were equal at MIzpah, but each had their own role. To use a word that, it goes without saying, I didn’t know then, it sounds rather like one of those excuses for Apartheid. Women were allowed to drive, and it could be handy, but they were rarely actually taught – there were enough incomers who already could. Though a few of the intensely devout ones chose to cover their hair and wear long skirts, as long as dress was modest, that was generally seen as enough.

     I didn’t think of my mother as anything but loyal to the community, and she was kind but firm about my own small acts of rebellion. She seemed to emanate serenity like one of the vanilla-scented candles that were often lit in the lobby. So I felt something that was more akin to puzzlement than panic when she came to me, took my arm, whispered, “Don’t talk yet, Faith,” and propelled me to the bench under the apple tree in our – in the – little orchard. I had never seen a look like that on her face. Come to think of it, I had never seen a look like that on anyone’s face, let alone a woman’s. 

     “Listen to me,” she said, “You have never known me to tell a lie,” despite her urgency she paused, and I realise that with hindsight she was probably thinking that though that might be factually true, she had both implied and lived them. But she realised that soul-searching at that point would be self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was frowned on. “And I am not lying now. You know you are of age now.” It was true. We were considered “of age” at 17, though the only practical “advantage” was that we were technically allowed to choose our own bedtime. Otherwise it seemed to bring more responsibility without bringing any more rights. “Yesterday Dr John told me that Dr Harold has expressed an interest in taking you for his wife.”

     If I had been brought up in a different place and a different way, I might have guffawed with laughter and said, “You must be joking!”. But I had not, and I did not. Girls did tend to marry young at Mizpah. But Dr John made a point of obeying what he called “The laws of the society we are living in, though with Grace, we will change it,” and though I’ve now found out things that chill me about other Houses, so far as I know, marrying at 17, with parental consent, of course, though not unheard of, was rare. You must understand the way I was brought up. It was not the thought of marriage itself (though I DID think I was too young) or even an arranged marriage (that was normal enough at Mizpah, though if a young woman and young man were fond of each other, and both considered righteous, and the match suitable, it was generally not discouraged) – it was the thought of being married to Dr Harold. Dr John often said he was his Right Hand Man. It proves something, that even at Mizpah, where disrespect for our “spiritual mentors” was sometimes, it seemed, viewed as a greater sin than blasphemy, there were whispers that it was more like his “Right Boot Man” he licked it so vigorously. I nearly said so loyally, but I’m by no means sure that was true. You have to understand this. Dr John was our absolute Lord and Master in every aspect of our daily lives. But he did have a genuinely imposing presence, and though I don’t want to use the word charisma, in the first place because I now see it as something dangerous rather than a virtue, and in the second place, I know what it actually means, I’d be hard-pushed to find another. And though I sometimes, despite myself (yes, I suppose a certain stubborn streak was there, or not far below the surface) felt fearful in his presence, I never felt that squirming and queasiness that I did in Dr Harold’s. Dr Harold’s hands always seemed to be damp, and though he had never done anything untoward (and untoward was interpreted pretty strictly) at least to me, those hands had a way of being in places where they had no cause to be. He had a trick of slurping between words, and of raking one of those damp hands through his lank hair. A couple of quiet words from Dr John could put the fear of God in you, but a couple of sibilant sentences from Dr Harold did not have that effect. 

     “As Dr John pointed out, to be the helpmeet of a respected figure in the community would be a great honour,” my Mother said. They were fond of the word “helpmeet”. Her tone was neutral, and yet it was not. I realised, even then, she was letting me know that the fact Dr John thought it was (which, in itself, was dubious) did not mean she agreed. 

     I found that my only way of coping with this was to raise a practical point. “I’m not 18 yet. You would have to give consent.”

     She sighed. “I wouldn’t hesitate to withhold it if you wished it,” (only with hindsight did I realise that meant a great deal, as it would certainly have cost her her respected position in the community, at least) “But you know betrothals here last at least four months. He could spin things out.”

     “But then I would have to give consent, at least that’s what they say. And you surely don’t think I would! He makes my flesh creep.”

     She did something that surprised me. Displays of parental affection were not actually forbidden at Mizpah (Dr John knew how to pick his battles) but they weren’t encouraged either, at least not when children started to grow up. She took me in her arms. I felt stiff in them, yet didn’t want her to let me go. “Oh, my precious Faith. For all you were born and raised here, and I was not, I think you still have more bravery and independence of spirit than I have. And that’s why I can find my own courage to let you go, though it breaks my heart. You will be collecting for Outreach in town on Tuesday. Pick your moment and you will be able to slip away – it’s busy there, as it’s market day, and you’re trusted to take collections by yourself. Leave it until fairly late so you have enough money to at least find a roof over your head that evening,”

     “You mean steal it!” I exclaimed.

     “I mean steal it, yes. Of course it’s a sin. But there’s a saying I doubt you will have heard here that the end justifies the means. And if it doesn’t go back into the coffers, well, you may well be saving some poor woman what happened to me.”

     We weren’t supposed to say words like “fate” as they were heathen, but they couldn’t censor every word of what we read, and I thought that fate was definitely with me. Or was God? And I wasn’t sure if I wanted either to be. If I didn’t collect enough money to abscond with it, then I would not leave my mother and my home. We were told that life was simple if you only did as you were told and walked in the Lord, but it was not. I both wanted and didn’t want two entirely different things. Anyway, people gave generously, putting not only coins but a fair number of notes in my cardboard collection case with a picture of a little baby and a grateful mother and the logo “For the Children all Over the World” with a logo that I later found out was suspiciously close to the UN one, with a map of the world and an olive branch. 

     My mother had given me instructions, or advice, I don’t rightly know what to call it. “Don’t stay in the hotel on the market square. They’ll recognise you as one of the collectors and be suspicious, or at any rate curious. Get the bus into the next town – you know it, we’ve occasionally done outreach there. There’s a guest house called the Gables. Stay there for the night – I’m pretty sure they take cash. Luckily you look older than you are. The next morning …..” she drew a deep breath. “You could go to the police. They will have to be brought into this at some point and probably not before time. But go to the Social Services.”

     “What are they?” I asked. I knew each of the individual words, of course, but was not sure what she meant using them together like that. 

     “People who will help you. They are in the offices by the pizza parlour.” I had never eaten pizza, and the only parlour I knew was Dr John’s plush little sanctum, but I knew where she meant.

     “Oh,” she was plainly trying to think of everything. Get a cheap bag if you can afford it – off the market, or in a charity shop, and take it on the bus with you, and take it into the guest house with you. It will look less – conspicuous.”

     What kind of bag, I wondered. I decided on one of those shopping bags that everyone seemed to be carrying. If I went through with it, of course. I would have to make my mind up soon. Already the stallholders were starting to pack there things away and it looked as if it might be going to rain, and it wouldn’t be long before Sister Helen was back to collect the car that she had parked on one of the little Meters around the market square and “do the rounds” picking up the collectors. Though she’d never said it in so many words, Sister Helen thought I was too clever for my own good, and there seemed to be some residual bad blood between her and my mother, though it goes without saying they always addressed each other as “My dear sister” and put on a united front against any younger community member, me included, who was remiss in her chores. 

     I realised I could hardly get my bus fare out of the collection box! Just the mere getting of things into sequence seemed more complicated than anything I’d ever done in my life. I went into the public toilets (at Mizpah we called them the “Necessary Rooms”) on the market square, something I avoided if I could, generally. At Mizpah they might be quite basic and have rough toilet paper and unscented soap, but at least they were always scrupulously clean. Women and girls at the house always wore clothes with pockets – to keep needles and thread and scissors and the like in them – and I carefully emptied the contents of the box into the deep pockets of my sweater. I scrunched it up small and then thought, I can’t put it in the waste bin! I would have to put it in that other one, the one for the items that we used after we had started our courses but didn’t talk about, unless we had to see Sister Rose, the nurse.

     I remembered Mum mentioning a charity shop. I knew what they were. More or less. I went into one to help people with cancer, that I knew was a horrid illness but Dr John told us could be the Lord’s Will, and bought a bag very much like the ones I’d seen people carrying. I realised it had a zip pocket inside it, which was very handy, and zipped my money safely away, apart from an amount that I thought might be about right for the bus fare. I wasn’t that far out, and the driver didn’t seem to notice anything odd about me. 

     I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have people around me, or at least within sight and earshot. Though I was in a smaller dormitory now, in some ways it seemed less private than the big one! But I still felt uneasy and uncomfortable surrounded by the people on the bus , though it was far from full. They looked more or less like me, and I understood most, not all, of what they were saying, but they seemed to belong to another species, to be louder, and to touch each other so often, and to laugh and shout and say things that I didn’t entirely know the meaning of but knew would lead to severe punishment at Mizpah as they represented impure thoughts. Yet these folk didn’t seem like demons and monsters. Maybe they weren’t godly, but they weren’t satanic either. 

     As Mum said, I had been in the next town before, and in many ways it wasn’t much different to the town I had just left, but somehow everything seemed to be at the wrong angle, and in colours that weren’t quite real.

     I asked a kind-looking middle aged lady for directions to The Gables, and she didn’t seem to blink an eyelid, just sent me down a street lined with trees. “It’s only about five minutes walk, love,” she said. I saw the street was called Palmer Avenue. I supposed “Avenue” must be another word for “Road” or “Street”. I didn’t know if it took five minutes or not, because I didn’t have a watch, but it seemed both a very long time and hardly any time at all before I was standing outside a house that was just a little big bigger than the others, and that had a sign in the front garden! In blue letters on a wooden background, in some kind of fancy writing with swirls, it said, The Gables. Proprietor Mrs Susannah Roebuck. Long or short stays welcome, family-friendly, all rooms en suite with TV and refreshments. There was a sequence of numbers that I knew was a phone number, and something I recognised as an email address, though only a very privileged few at Mizpah were allowed them. I didn’t know what “en suite” meant nor quite how to pronounce it. I did know what a TV was, but couldn’t get my head round the idea of having one in my own bedroom!

     I drew a deep breath and rang the doorbell. We had a brass door knocker at Mizpah, but I had rung doorbells on our door to door collections, which had now more or less stopped. I heard it echo round the hall I could half-see through the frosted amber glass on the front door. There was a strange indent in it that looked like a giant eye. I heard footsteps! The door opened, and I saw a lady who was probably a bit older than my mother, though I wasn’t good at judging such things. I noticed her legs first and saw she was wearing trousers. Women weren’t forbidden from wearing trousers at Mizpah, but it was only really approved of if we were working in the garden. These weren’t gardening trousers. They were dark blue and in a velvety material, and had a little line of glittery stars going down them! My eyes moved upwards and I saw, more clearly than that initial glance, a paler blue top, showing what Dr John would have called “Too Much Arm” and that – oh, my Goodness, she was wearing make-up! Of course I’d seen women wearing it before, but it was still a bit of a shock. Still, she looked friendly. “Do you – have a room for the night, please?” I asked.

     “I think we can do that for you! The only thing is, my card-reader isn’t working, I know it’s a pain, you’ll have to pay cash.” For a second or two I was bemused. How else would I have paid? But I only said, “That’s fine …..”

     She asked me to fill in a guest book and could see me looking befuddled and – frankly, panicky. “Love, it’s only a formality,” she said, “We don’t ask for photographic ID or anything. Just your home address …..”

     I realised she was more or less telling me it would be fine, especially as I was paying cash upfront, to just make something up if I felt better that way. But it was as if my mind had frozen.

     “How old are you?” she asked – but not in a nasty, accusing way, and I told her the truth.

     “Have you run away?”

     It all came out in a rush, and she let me talk uninterrupted. When she spoke again her own voice was trembling and I seemed to be more composed than she was. “Can – can I ask you, what your mother’s name is?”

     “It’s Naomi.” Her face fell, as if something precious had been offered to her and then snatched away. Suddenly, a shaft of memory came to me, “But that’s her name in the community. I’m a cradle communicant, she isn’t.”

     “I don’t – suppose you know her other name ….”

     I had some inkling of having heard it, perhaps whispered to me when she thought I was sleeping, but it would not rise to the surface. Then she looked into my eyes, and I looked into her eyes, and we both saw a slight cast in our right eyes – the same one my mother had. Talk of calling them “the Devil’s glint” was frowned on at the community, but Dr Malcolm had seemed, sickeningly, to find it attractive.

     “Put your money away! I don’t charge for – for family!” And I fell sobbing into my Aunt’s arms.

   

December 19, 2019 08:25

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2 comments

Tori Routsong
17:23 Dec 31, 2019

Wow! I really liked reading this one, it's very haunting in that this really does happen to young women today! If I had a note of advice, it would be to distinguish between your past tense and your pluperfect tense a little more. What I mean by that is that since the whole story is written in past tense, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between when the mother was talking and when she was escaping because they couldnt have been at the same time but since they were intertwined and both written in past tense, they appeared to be, w...

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Deborah Mercer
10:20 Jan 01, 2020

Many thanks, Tori! You're right to pick me up on my tenses - I'm bilingual English/German, thanks to family background, which of course is a good thing, but sometimes it half-seems as if I don't have a first language and that makes me awkward with tenses at times. But again, thanks and Happy New Year!

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