Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies. Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms), Next Door, Sex (in its many forms), Slugs. Friends were: God, Our dog, Auntie Madge, The Novels of Charlotte Brontë, Slug Pellets, and me, at first. I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World.
The old woman got hold of my hand. She looked at my palm and laughed a bit. “You’ll never marry,” she said, “not you, and you’ll never be still.” She told me to run home fast. I ran and ran, trying to understand what she meant. I hadn’t thought about getting married anyway. There were two women I knew who didn’t have husbands at all. They ran the paper shop and sometimes they gave me a banana bar with my comic. I liked them a lot… [Once] I heard [my mother] telling Mrs. White about [them]. She said they dealt in unnatural passions. I thought she meant they put chemicals in their sweets.
“Dear Jeanette,” [my mother wrote], “there’s nothing wrong, you’re just a bit deaf. Why didn’t you tell me? I’m going home to get your pyjamas.” What was she doing? Why was she leaving me here? I started to cry. My mother looked horrified and rooting around in her handbag she gave me an orange. I peeled it to comfort myself, and seeing me a little calmer, everyone glanced at one another and went away.
My mother came to see me quite a lot in the end, but it was the busy season at church. They were planning the Christmas campaign. When she couldn’t come herself she sent my father, usually with a letter and a couple of oranges. “The only fruit,” she always said. I filled my little bucket with peel and the nurses emptied it with an ill grace. I hid the peel under my pillow and the nurses scolded and sighed.
“Jeanette, we think you may be having problems at school. Do you want to tell us about them?”
“I’m all right.” I shuffled defensively.
“You do seem rather pre-occupied, shall we say, with God. Your sampler, for instance, had a very disturbing motif. And why did you choose to write about hoopoos and rock badgers in your animal book, and in one case, I believe, shrimps?”
“My mother taught me to read,” I told them.
“Your reading skills are quite unusual, but you haven’t answered my question.”
How could I?
My mother had taught me to read from the Book of Deuteronomy because it is full of animals (mostly unclean). Whenever we read “Thou shall not eat any beast that does not chew the cut or part of the hoof” she drew all the creatures mentioned. Horses, bunnies, and little ducks were vague fabulous things, but I knew all about pelicans, rock badgers, sloths and bats. This tendency towards the exotic has brought me many problems.
When the children of Israel left Egypt, they were guided by the pillar of cloud by day and he pillar of fire by night. For them this did not seem to be a problem. For me, it was an enormous problem, perplexing and impossible. I didn’t understand the ground rules. The daily world was a world of Strange Notions. I comforted myself as best I could by always rearranging their version of the facts. One day, I learned that Tetrahedron is a mathematical shape. But Tetrahedron is an emperor… The emperor Tetrahedron lived in a palace made from elastic bands. The emperor was beloved by all. Many brought gifts; [fine] material and stories of love and folly. One day, a woman brought the emperor a revolving circus operated by midgets. The midgets acted all of the tragedies and many of the comedies. They acted them all at once, and it was fortunate that Tetrahedron had so many faces, otherwise he might have died of fatigue. They acted them all at once, and the emperor, walking round his theatre, could see them all at once. Round and round he walked, and so learned a very valuable thing: that no emotion is the final one.
The conference was booked for a Saturday, and there was always a market on Saturdays, so my mother gave me an orange box and told me to shout at everyone what was happening. I had a bad time. It was raining and I wanted to do a good job. Eventually Mrs. Arkwright took pity on me. She let me put my orange box inside the shelter of her stall, so that I could give out [pamphlets] without getting too wet.
“[Your] mother’s mad,” she kept saying.
She might have been right, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was relieved when two o’ clock came and I could go inside with the rest.
“How many tracts did you give out?” demanded my mother, who was hovering by the door.
“All of them.”
She softened. “Good girl.”
The sermon was on perfection, and it was at that moment that I began to develop my first theological disagreement.
It was clear that I had stumbled on a terrible conspiracy. There are women in the world. There are men in the world. And there are beasts. What do you do if you marry a beast? Beasts are crafty. They disguise themselves like you and I. Like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” Why had no one told me? Did that mean no one else knew? Did that mean that all over the globe, in all innocence, women were marrying beasts?
I now know she had rewritten the ending [of] Jane Eyre. It was her favourite non-Bible book, and she read it to me over and over again, when I was very small. I couldn’t read it, but I knew where the pages turned. Later, literate and curious, I had decided to read it for myself. I found out, that dreadful day in a back corner of the library, that Jane doesn’t marry St. John at all, that she goes back to Mr. Rochester. It was like the day I discovered my adoption papers while searching for a pack of playing cards. I have never since played cards, and I have never since read Jane Eyre.
We read the Bible as usual, and then told each other how glad we were that the Lord had brought us together. She stroked my head for a long time, and then we hugged and it felt like drowning. Then I was frightened but couldn’t stop. There was something crawling in my belly. I had an octopus inside me. After that we did everything together, and I stayed with her as often as I could. My mother seemed relieved that I was seeing less of Graham, and for a while made no mention of the amount of time I spend with Melanie.
“Do you think this is Unnatural Passion?” I asked [Melanie] once.
“Doesn’t feel like it. According to Pastor Finch, that’s awful.” She must be right, I thought.
Melanie and I had volunteered to set up the Harvest Festival Banquet, and we worked hard in the church throughout the day. When everyone arrived we stood on the balcony, looking down on them. Our family. It was safe.
That is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained… Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently… People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious. Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognize its integrity. People have never had a problem disposing of the past when it gets too difficult, and if we can’t dispose of it we can alter it.
Constipation was a great problem after the Second World War. Not enough roughage in the diet, too much refined food. If you always eat out you can never be sure what’s going in, and received information is nobody’s exercise. Rotten and rotting. Here is some advice. If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches…
“Renounce her, renounce her,” the pastor kept saying, “it’s only the demon.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I just can’t.”
“We’ll come back the day after tomorrow,” he confided in my mother. “Meantime, don’t let her out of this room, and don’t feed her. She needs to lose her strength before it can be hers again.”
My mother locked me in [the parlor.] She did give me a blanket, but she took away the light bulb. Over the thirty-six hours that followed, I thought about the demon. I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie, but she was beautiful and good and had loved me. Can love really belong to the demon?
“They’re looking in the wrong place,” I thought. “If they want to get at my demon they’ll have to get at me. If I let them take away my demons, I’ll have to give up what I’ve found.”
“You can’t do that,” said a voice at my elbow. Leaning on the coffee table was the orange demon.
“What do you want?”
“Everyone has a demon,” the thing began, “but not everyone knows how to make use of it.
“Demons are evil, aren’t they?” I asked, worried.
“Not quite, they’re just difficult.”
“If I keep you, what will happen?”
“You’ll have a difficult time.”
“Is it worth it?”
“That’s up to you.”
The demon vanished.
“The Lord forgives and forgets,” the pastor told me. Perhaps the Lord does, but my mother didn’t. While I lay shivering in the parlor she took a toothcomb to my room and found all the letters [from Melanie,] all the cards, all the jottings of my own, and burnt them in the backyard. There are different sorts of treachery, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. She burnt a lot more than the letters that night in the backyard. I don’t think she knew. In her head she was still queen, but not my queen any more.
“Here you are,” said my mother, giving me a sharp dig in the side. “Some fruit. You’re rambling in your sleep again.” It was a bowl of oranges. I took out the largest and tried to peel it. The skin hung stubborn, and soon I lay panting, angry and defeated. What about grapes or bananas? I did finally pull away the outer shell and, cupping both hands round, tore open the fruit.
“Feeling any better?” sitting in the middle [of the orange] was the orange demon.
“I’m going to die.”
“Not you, in fact you’re recovering, apart from a few minor hallucinations, and remember you’ve made your choice now, there’s no going back.”
I was almost asleep when the pastor appeared with my mother hovering in the background. He stood a safe distance away like I was infected. The pastor explained to me as quietly as he could that I was the victim of a great evil. That I was afflicted and oppressed, that I had deceived the flock. My mother gave a little cry, then got angry again. They started arguing between themselves whether I was an unfortunate victim or a wicked person. I listened for a while; neither of them were very convincing, and besides, seven ripe oranges had just dropped on to the window sill.
“Have an orange,” I offered by way of conversation. They both stared at me like I was mad. I lay for a long time just watching the oranges. They were pretty, but not much help. I was going to need more than an icon to get me through this one.
I made my bed carefully the last morning at home, emptied the waste paper basket, and trailed the dog on a long walk. At that time I could not imagine what would become of me, and I didn’t care. It was not judgement day, but another morning.
“Daughter, you have disgraced me,” said the sorcerer, and I have no more use for you. You must leave. Winnet could not ask for forgiveness when she was innocent, but she did ask to stay.
“If you stay, you will stay in the village and care for the goats. I leave you to make up your own mind.” He was gone. Winnet was about to burst into tears when she felt a light pecking at her shoulder. It was Abednego, the raven she loved.
“[If you leave] you won’t lose your power, you’ll [just] use it differently. Sorcerers can’t take their gifts back, ever.”
“And what if I stay?”
“You will find yourself destroyed by grief. All you know will be around you and at the same time far from you. Better to find a new place now.
Winnet sat silent at the edge of the fireplace. The raven, struck dumb, could not warn her that her father had crept in, in the shape of a mouse, and was tying an invisible thread around one of her buttons.
There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back. Mind turns to the pull, it’s hard to pull away. I’m always thinking of going back. When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities.
If demons lie within they travel with you. Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.
I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever been anywhere. My mother was treating me like she always had; had she noticed my absence? Did she even remember why I’d left? I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had. There’s a chance that I’m not here at all, that all the parts of me, running along all the choices I did and didn’t make, for a moment brush against each other. That I am still an evangelist in the North, as well as the person who ran away.