The Last Passing for Muster

I knew instinctively what the 7am phone call was about but wanted only to slip back into sleep. And somewhere an alarm clock would not stop ringing and it was driving me to despair. Perhaps something inside me knew that I should be awake and ringing too.

But I was not.

I wasn’t anything.

*   *   *

I had no desire to get up that morning but I rose and showered and put on the dress I didn’t realise that I would never wear again and twisted my hair into a half-crown and exchanged sullen looks with my brothers. Outwith my siblings and parents, and perhaps my grandparents, our family has shown little interest in us and I can hardly own to caring for them. Some had not seen us since we were toddlers and others never at all.

Mum smiled at the three of us lined up in the kitchen and told us we might just pass for muster. We tried to smile but I could only look away out of the window into the garden where the apple tree was no longer there.

Despite this, there was laughter between us as we drove the narrow lanes, bordering at times on hysterical. The jokes were sharp and fast but I did not miss the rabbit lying by the wayside. There was no call to mention it so I clutched my Bible tighter and distracted myself with talk of top hats and tailcoats and Fraser from Dad’s Army.

*   *   *

The chapel was made of brick. Of course it was. I suppose I expected a linoleum hall with bucket seats to encourage the discomfort but this was Norfolk. It was a proper chapel, one of the ones with burgundy carpets and high ceilings and pews.

It was still cold.

To my surprise I achieved civility with the minister. She was only being polite and checking that I knew where I was to read from. Of course I did. I’d puzzled over why it was this one in particular for a while now and paced my room practising how to say it, reminding myself that tear was tehr not teer. But I didn’t tell her that.

Against my Baptist convictions, we sat at the front. Because that is what is done. Just like we have the local minister rather than a good one. Because that is what is done.

We sang Psalm 23. Because that is also what is done. The George wheezed and groaned a semblance of a tune from the back, leaving us no spaces in which to breathe and the irony almost tickled me through the haze: the poor old organ was probably used to being around breathless people.

Dad stood up and spoke. There were some things that he told us that I had not known before but somewhere inside I was vaguely bitter because I did not believe what he was saying. Not the bits about love and family. But I tried to believe it. I tried really hard because I knew that he was trying too, and anyway, I desperately wanted his words to be true.

And then the time came that I had to read. I no longer wanted to. I had no desire to address these people. I didn’t know where to stand or how to stand and I didn’t want to read the passage that had been chosen because it seemed so bizarrely irrelevant to the service.

In silence I recited the verses I had read in Lamentations earlier. And I remembered why I had wanted to do the reading: I wanted to be a part of this. It was only poetry, abstract and hazy to all but three of us — that I know of — in that room. I wanted to read because I believed the words with all my heart.

Standing there, I felt exposed. And a little frightened. I smoothed out the cover of my Bible, dog-eared and wrapped in brown paper just like my heart.

It fell open at the page.

To everything there is a season,

A  time for every purpose under heaven. . .

I felt my voice crack but I swallowed the pieces and tried to speak loudly, clearly, making eye-contact with as many people as possible. Because that is what is done.

I stopped just before the appropriate section about the vanity of man. It might have been more suitable.

When it was finished, I was not sure whether to say amen and decided against it because it sounded cold and pious. My heart continued to leaf through the pages. It was not a reading but more of a prayer — not even that but a question maybe, a question which hung in the air between God and me as I walked back to the pew.

So which season is this?

I confess I did not listen well to the minister’s message though I tried because I knew I should. As she encouraged us to live life to the full and be better people, I wondered why. Why, if — like she said — we were all going to heaven? What difference did it make? It would just be vanity and grasping for the wind.

Then there was a closing prayer and the curtains came down and I could here through the minister’s last twittering words, an irritable voice grumbling at her to ‘bagger awf’.

As the last song played, my heart ached to feel my dad standing there beside me with his hands half closed, out of place in a suit and in that moment, he was the lost child. So I took his hand just as mum had taken mine and I felt his feet standing on the stones again.

*   *   *

Outside the morning was fresh and we shook a dozen strangers’ hands. It feels so much easier to breathe when you are out under the open sky. The garden was lovely, though it was in the last throes of autumn and dusted with people we did not know.

I nearly cracked the limp fingers of the minister and blushed at her patronizing thanks for the reading as I tried to tactfully dodge her polite question as to whether studying theology might lead me into the pulpit.

I dislike that question as strongly as I dislike limp handshakes.

I avoided both as best as I could that day and though I made the guy in charge laugh with a quip about teabags, I thought it might not be proper to ask if I could try his top-hat.

The car was subdued as we drove back to the house on New Road. We were not distressed. That had long since passed. Not distressed, no, but each in our own way broken inside, knowing deep down that the world was not made to be this way.

As I watched the fading hedgerows speeding by, and fields hard as hearts in the frost, I reflected on all that had transpired. I considered this man who I had loved, who had played such a part in history and who, despite the great accomplishments of his 85 years, never really lived.

I did not want to be like him, to push away my family until only a handful would brave the barren chapel and abandon my dust in the hands of strangers for them to scatter over a past I could not let go.

Bitter words, true, but as yet I did not understand that love met with silence is love all the same.

A row of bare trees shivered against the skyline. I knew that I did not fear death. I did not deny it either — how could I when I looked at the broken world around me? I was resolved to learn from the lives of those I love.

In that moment I made a choice. I do not fear death but in the days that pass between now and the dust, I shall not, like others, merely be.

I am resolved that I shall live.

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