Some memories are like templates. They arise from experiences so pungently significant that they have engraved a pattern of success or failure or survival into the very stuff of what we are. Sound silly? Maybe it is a bit over the top, but consider this. I have postponed writing the story I am about to tell you for several years. Why? Because I am frightened. I am frightened of discovering that the things I do and the person I am were shaped and signposted more than fifty years ago, by circumstances and pressures that have little or nothing to do with the Christian faith that is supposed to have directed and informed my life.
I was nine years old. It was a Saturday afternoon in Rusthall, the village where I grew up. I had been playing with my friends Roger and David in the bracken up on the common. Bracken was good. You could make excellent spears with it if you ripped off all but the fronds at the thin end of the plant, and then there was the delicious cosiness of creating bracken nests where you could squat silently and invisibly as people passed along the nearby path that ran from Langton Road down into the village..
After playing on the common we headed back, hot and scruffy, to Roger’s house for a drink. His dad owned the very successful electrical shop in the village, and Roger was an only child. I was a little envious. He seenmed to have so much stuff. I had two very competitive brothers and there was never any spare money in our house. RoStill, at least we were likely to enjoy the unusual luxury of a choice of drinks when we got to his house. Lemonade or orange squash. That would be good.
It wasn’t good. It was very disappointing. It turned out that Roger’s mum and dad were both out, and he had no key. What to do? Roger found a piece of wood and a manky old ball in his back garden. We decided to have a game of French cricket on the concrete driveway between the High Street pavement and the garage where Roger’s dad kept his car. His mum would be back soon, and then we’d get that drink.
Our game was interrupted after a few minutes by the arrival of a boy called Richard Adams who must have seen us playing as he passed by along the High Street. Richard was a loner. We didn’t like him much. He was bigger and rougher than us, and, although we could never have have found the words to express it at the time, there was a dimension of bitterness and resentment in him that made us uncomfortable. Someone, his truculent manner suggested, was going to have to pay for whatever had so disastrously happened or not happened in his life.
He had collected a handful of small stones which he began to shy at us with malicious, wordless intensity and alarming accuracy. The stones were sharp and they hurt. None of us were fighting types, Roger least of all. After receiving two or three of these stinging missiles he opened the unlocked garage door and ducked inside, calling in a strangled voice for us to join him. David hastily followed, but I didn’t. I closed the garage door from the outside and, turning round, stood with my back to it, an easy target for Richard, who had temporarily run out of ammunition and was busily rearming himself from the gulley running along the side of the driveway.
I avoided some of the stones, but quite a lot of them hit me in the face and body and legs. It was agony. I just stood there until my aggressor got bored and wandered away.muttering darkly to himself. Roger and David came out as soon as I called that it was safe, and we went on with our game of French Cricket until Roger’s mum came back.
So there it is. That’s what happened. Pretty trivial on the face of it I suppose. But why does it trouble me so much? I think it has something to do with my motivation for enduring all that pain when I could have hidden safely in the garage with the others. Leaving aside the fact that I had read far too much Victorian and Edwardian literature about heroic schoolboys, I probably felt I had discovered a new way to solve problems for other people. You simply remove them, you see. You tuck them safely away from the firing line and then face all the flack yourself until the problem eases or goes away. After all, what does it matter if it hurts for a while? Pain passes. The important thing is that you’ve solved the problem for the others, or at least made it disappear for a while.
Looking back I see this same pattern or template in the work I did with children in care, in the parenting of my own children and in the writing and speaking that I have done over the last twenty years. What if I publicly endure the painful shrapnel of confusion and doubt and fear? What does it matter as long as the others are safely hidden behind the garage doors? They can come out as soon as the danger passes. Then we can carry on playing French Cricket as though nothing ever happened. And it requires no courage on my part, just a decision that I will do it in my own, rather controlling way.
Did God draw the template or did I? And does it matter? Those are the questions, and, God being God, he will expect me to push through to find some answers. Watch this space.