Retreat

…yo​u will not find my actual life in these pages so much as my thoughts on the graces Our Lord has given me. I have reached the stage now where I can afford to look back; in the crucible of trials from within and without, my soul has been refined, and I can raise my head like a flower after a storm and see how the words of the Psalm have been fulfilled in my case: “The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall want nothing…”

St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

My brother led me to prayer,
a child, afraid in the dark.

My sister taught me, downcast, to say,
Why so downcast, O my soul?

My parents taught me to ask and search
yet not be controlled by the heart’s wild waves.

My teachers fed my questions
and books sustained my mind.

Lewis taught me magic
and Love deep, deep in time.

Robert Frost was early rhythm;
Eliot and Herbert came later on.

Auden taught me the happy eye,
the sober perspective on the folded lie,

Kierkegaard the lily’s glory
and the grace that strikes in anxious thought.

Bunyan and Luther and Thérèse
knew the scruples that strike, and the way –

the Little Way at Jesus’ feet –
so once again I’m led to pray.

My wife has taught me the open heart;
now my home and hearth expand.

O Love that finds me everywhere:
Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

Resolution: No Clutter

Too fidgety the mind’s compass
(R.S. Thomas, “Adam Tempted”)

I pile books on books and
thought on thought. I pile
obligation onto guilt, and duty 
onto resignation. This
is panic in my breath and limbs
tingling with the pace of things.
There is no end, the wise teacher said,
to all flesh-weariness of thought.
I must find instead a small
pocket of my father’s grace;
I must breathe and breathe and breathe
in pinpoints where His kindness rests.
Not absent, Lord – You have never been
on holiday; You, O God, don’t sleep.
Yet in Your weekly scheme is space;
all Your bookshelves mouth Your peace.
Not absent, Lord. It is I who have been
too busy with my piles and piles
of nothing. You are everything.

No Ghosts This Year #9

No answer was forthcoming simply from passing the crime scene. Nor did his family know anything about it when they came home. It had to wait until the six o’clock news for anything official, though Pa had a friend visit his caravan out the back with word of what had happened. The story was that the police had arrived around midday after a tip-off that someone had died at number 12. No-one could remember who lived there now. The old family had moved a few years ago and there had been a stream of tenants since then. Pa’s sources had no information about the current tenant or who it was that had died. Had it been suspicious? Suspicious enough for the police to be there. Had anyone heard anything? Had anyone odd been seen around the house? Many questions were asked, many theories shared. Philip had ears only for the ones in his head.

As far as he could see, it all made sense, and it was all traced back to him. The lines were so clear that, when the police officer on the news was heard asking for all who knew anything to come forward, Philip’s face was sweaty with the urgency of the moment. Yet nothing came out, not even a confession to his parents, not even a mumbled question about what the police might be after. Although he rehearsed many such questions in his head, and at a speed that defied the movement of light, only silence seemed a clear enough response to what he had heard. While the rest of his family had nothing else to talk about but the death at Number 12, Philip had no desire to talk at all. After the news, and after dinner, he took himself to his room, where he sat on his bed and tied knots inside his mind.

*

Pa found him on his bed, the light still on, around 9 o’clock that night when he came to say goodnight. He didn’t, of course, see the knots, but he did see Philip staring blankly into the wall as though seeking to see through it. He paused in the doorway and asked, “Is everything okay, mate?”

Pa was the only one who called him that, “mate”. Philip looked over at him. He had a book in his hand. Philip looked at the title. An Advent and Christmas Treasury, it was called.

Philip didn’t reply. Pa stepped in closer to him, close enough to pass him the book, but he held it briefly suspended between them, letting Philip’s hand touch it but not quite giving it to him.

“I brought you this,” he said. “I knew I had it somewhere. I remembered it when you talked about ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ the other day.” He moved in now to sit beside Philip and, taking the book back, he opened it. “Look,” he said. “It’s got some other Rossetti poems in here that I thought you might like more. There’s one…” His hand hovered over the pages, as though trying to summon up the exact page from memory. “‘The end of all things is at hand’,” he said, then chuckled. “It’s a grim name. But it’s a beautiful poem. I think – ” He turned to a page near the centre of the book and, finding the poem, looked over the words to remind himself of them. “Yes, I think you’ll see her skill more if you read this one.”

Only then did he look up at Philip, whose eyes were directed towards the book but focused on nothing.

“Phil?” He paused. “Is there anything…?”

The question hung incomplete, slightly inflected, with Pa’s eyes asking the rest.

“Pa,” said Philip. “If…”

“Yes?” prompted Pa.

Philip paused, rearranging imagined words somewhere above his head.

“Is it…can someone be arrested for helping…for making a crime possible?”

Pa’s eyes turned more intently toward Philip’s.

“Do you mean…being an accessory?”

“Maybe…” said Philip. “I mean, if…”

Pa closed the book. Philip saw the picture on the front cover. He recognised the scene: Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. He stared at it while he spoke, though the image slowed his words, almost blocking them somewhere in between brain and mouth.

“If…what happened at Burden Street…if someone had done something…not meaning to…something that helped…”

“Phil,” said Pa, moving closer, “have you done something?”

Philip’s eyes settled on Scrooge’s face. He tried to see into them, but couldn’t. The Ghost of Christmas Present, large, jolly, full of yuletide cheer – what did his glowing cheeks seem to say to Philip that night?

No Ghosts This Year #8

That lunchtime, before Drama class, Philip had nearly lost a prop that he’d brought from home for the performance they were doing, and had spent so much time running around looking for it – opening up and emptying the contents of his bag and locker, checking his home room, everywhere he could think of – that when he had arrived in class, he had been more flustered than usual for an afternoon class. And, to top it all off, when he’d finally come to class with his prop in hand and sat down, the boy next to him, a new boy to the school called Simon, had said, “I thought I smelt something.” It had taken a few minutes to realise that this was Simon’s latest joke – he was using it on most people in the class that afternoon – but even then the joke had stuck on him like his sweaty shirt did. The whole lesson after that, he’d had that same feeling about him as though he were no longer inside him but watching. As he had lain on the floor pretending to be a paintbrush, talking about what a hard master Van Gogh was, with the coloured wool he had brought to school gathered around his head, he had felt as though that very well might have been true. Better to be a paintbrush than what he was.

And so, by the time Sarah had come to fetch him, Philip had nothing to say. There had been plenty of material for conversation throughout the morning: all the ridiculous and frustrating things his teachers had made him do, as though they mattered at all by this time of year. Yet the afternoon’s Drama class had overshadowed all of that, and done so in a way that words could not convey. The mute position he’d taken on the Drama room floor seemed somehow the most fitting way of expressing what had been and gone through the day. Sarah tried to make conversation a few times but, failing altogether, had settled into silence herself, though almost certainly a very different silence to the one that Philip inhabited.

Sarah would not, for instance, have been ruing Philip’s awkwardness with Laura that morning when passing the milk-bar had made him think of her offer to walk to school together. Nor would Sarah have felt that odd mixture of fear and shame that assaulted him when they approached Burden Street. Yet she would certainly have shared his surprise at seeing the police barricade outside Number 12, yellow-and-blue police tape marking out a temporary fence across the front lawn and white-and-blue cars in the street. And, in that moment of shared surprise, Sarah’s silence turned to now expressing Philip’s thoughts when she said, “What happened here?” But before she could speak Philip’s thoughts had turned to white noise in his ears.

No Ghosts This Year #7

“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.

Reluctantly he looked over. It was Laura. She was crossing to meet him. But what was she doing here? She didn’t normally walk this way to school.

“I slept over at Stacy’s,” she said, as if she knew that an explanation was needed. “Are you walking to school?”

For some reason, he paused before saying, “Yeah.”

“Want to walk together?”

He looked over to where Stacy, a girl from his class whom he didn’t think much of, stood with some of the other kids from their class. They looked like they were waiting for a few more to join them.

“Aren’t you going with Stacy?” he asked.

Laura shrugged. “They’re waiting for the others,” she said. “I don’t mind walking ahead.”

It should have been an easy enough question to answer. Sometimes, since they had moved closer to school instead of coming from the next town away, he had wondered if he would bump into Laura while walking. It had never happened, though he had sometimes seen her in passing, when she had others with her or when he was with his family, and it had only ever been awkward. But now – now she was offering to walk to school with him – and he couldn’t answer her. He looked over at Stacy and the others, imagining what they would be thinking. It was always best to imagine what others thought, in case they thought something that might hurt you.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You go with them.”

And he kept walking.

“Bye then,” called Laura.

And, in an action that would confuse even him and circle around in his head in the days and weeks to come, he simply lifted his hand up in a kind of absent wave, not looking back, not even letting her see the side of his face as he walked.

No Ghosts This Year #6

The day after, he always felt like a wounded soldier. And, while there was a certain manly glory in the feeling, it was hard for others to see or understand it; and what good, really, was there in having survived a battle that no-one else knew you had fought?

As a younger child, he had tried at times to get his parents or Sarah to understand. Sometimes they seemed to, yet only sometimes. It was easiest for them to understand when there was something tangible to explain the battle: a sickness, f0r instance; something that could be observed and diagnosed. Fear of sickness did not seem to amount to the same thing. Being convinced he had asbestosis because Pa had brought out a piece of asbestos at the dinner table one night and had shown it to them: that had not been legitimate. The night that the left half of his face felt paralysed, that night they had understood, for a time; until it had been revealed that there was nothing really wrong with him, only fear.

So, on days like today, he learnt to simply endure it. School would go on, the battle would go on. Perhaps, he reflected, he shouldn’t have read that book before bed. Perhaps he should have drunk his before-bed glass of milk. There were no explanations, only guilt. So he took it on his own shoulders, and went to school.

Sarah, although offering to drive him from school, had no intention of driving him there. “I’m on holidays,” she’d said, when he’d gone to her room to say goodnight. “I’m not getting up that early.” And so it was with some level of fear that he set off walking to school, passing Burden Street as he did, not sure if he was afraid of the stranger he had met or of the strangeness of his thoughts on going to bed. He could reflect now, in the relatively calm light of day, that there had been no reason to think that he had feared – what was it? What even had he feared? The content of the book? The face of the stranger? His own heart? Having no idea what, he could only try to shrug off the odd sensation that clung still about him.

It was another sunny day, likely to make him clammy and grumpy by the end. He hated the sensation of summer about his face and limbs. Only when he could be still and at rest in the sun did he not mind. When he had a fan and a book, or a beach to dip into, then the sun did not trouble him. But when his uniform clung about him and the sun beat down with the pulsating urgency of timetables and the scrutiny of familiar schoolyard faces: then sun was only torture.

So he did his best to walk in the shade, and shade there was if he crossed the road. The shade took him also away from the milk bar where some of his classmates met in the mornings to walk to school together. Crossing over, he averted his eyes from the milk bar and focused on the shade.

“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.