It happened like this. I was standing in church next to my Mum and we were singing – God’s triumph is Man’s redeemer. Or something like that. I’d sung one verse and was half way through verse two before I realised something was wrong. It was a kind of tingle in the air.
I looked to my left and right but everyone around me was just singing like normal, looking down at their hymnbooks, or up towards the ceiling. Then I realised. It was that I couldn’t hear.
First the deeper voices had gone, then the women’s sopranos, now even my Mum’s had disappeared. Soon everyone in the whole place just seemed to be mouthing like a shoal of hungry fish, while the only thing I could make out was my own voice, kind of light and thin like it has always been, and a little out of tune.
I honestly thought I was going deaf. I turned to Mum and was about to put my hand on her arm when suddenly there was this other sound in my head. And it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I’m not exaggerating. It was like a golden liquid pouring into my ear.
I turned around, of course, and she was standing there, her eyes all shiny, gazing straight at me, singing and smiling at the same time. I turned quickly back and tried to concentrate on the page in front, but it was no use. Though she wasn’t anything to look at, I knew straight away. It was as if I had been struck by lightning. On a Sunday too.
After the service I searched for her, but she was gone and I understood. These things are not allowed – miracles or divine intervention or being visited by the Hand of God. They tell us that they do happen, of course, but they don’t mean to us. They mean to other people in other countries – not people who worship in churches built next to main roads like ours.
I told Mum I couldn’t stay behind to help with the tea and coffee because I wasn’t feeling well. Instead I went out into the street. And there she was walking along as though nothing had happened. I followed her for a bit, trailing the tiny snatches of song that seemed to trickle after her as she progressed. You would never have believed she was anything out of the ordinary. Her shoes were such a normal kind of brown.
Eventually she turned into a busy road and I lost her, but not before she looked right at me and I saw how the sunlight caressed her hair. Then my afternoon took on a totally different hue. I went straight home and upstairs to my room to see if I could somehow catch my breath. But it was hard. All over my body, my skin seemed to be singing. I looked at myself in the mirror. Outside I seemed normal. Inside it felt as though time had stood still.
It’s hard sometimes, to work out what to believe in. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this recently, but none of it seems to make anything clearer, or more distinct. Instead it seems to get harder and more confused.
I believe in eating well and trying to keep an open mind. I believe in being optimistic – glass half-full rather than half-empty kind of thing. And in telling the truth as much as I can. I also believe in ironing and polishing shoes, and in doing my best. That is very important, whether it is cleaning the dishes, or mopping the floor.
There are other things I believe in, even though I ought not. That if you walk under a ladder bad things will happen, falls and trips and lost life-savings, things like that. I know in my heart of hearts it’s old-fashioned thinking, but I worry that if I don’t throw the salt or stop the mirror from breaking other people will get caught up in a bad experience that ought to be mine – hit on the head by a falling brick perhaps, or sacked from work. So I always avoid cracks in pavements, white cats, magpies and walking underneath anything.
Of course, I believe in God too.
Two days later (two days in which I’d hardly eaten a thing) she actually came to the door. Dad called to me from the bottom of the stairs. I came down expecting Monica and instead it was her. I hadn’t even thought to change or brush my hair.
We went out for a walk. All the time she talked I could hear music playing in my ears. As well as her eyes and her hair I realised her teeth were shiny too and her skin had a kind of a glow. I wondered if I touched it whether my fingers would go right through, but it was her who touched me first, gently, on the arm, to gather my attention. I can still feel the spot where her thumb pressed against my cardigan.
She asked me lots of questions. What did I like doing? Who were my friends? What was my favourite thing?
Do you believe in God? That was the first question I asked her. She looked at me funny before she laughed, little chimes dancing about her in the air. Then she kissed me.
Afterwards she answered, I don’t know.
I do believe in hell. Not the burny, burny kind, but the never-ending torment kind. I mean I can see it in life right now, everyday life I mean. Look at the faces of people going to work and back when it’s pouring down, when the train never comes and never comes. Things like that. And especially when they get older – the older the more miserable, with their trolley bags and folded up newspapers, trudging, trudging, trudging. I can’t bear it.
Then there are the women who end up married to the wrong men, and the men who end up married to the wrong women. I hear them sometimes in other people’s houses, through the walls and even in the street. Everyone says, whatever happens, that these people are stuck together forever.
And nobody can ever be perfect. Even my Mum with her Hail Mary’s and early morning visits to the Mass. Even she’s in trouble. I saw her with the man we call Uncle Steve. The way she patted at her hair when he came to visit.
So hell, I do believe in that.
Seven days. Then she left, of course. She had to return to wherever she came from, to pick up the rest of her life. That is what she told me. She’d only been here on holiday. Part of me was relieved.
But whatever I do I can’t shake her now. Every moment we spent together seems to be held in a different part of me. The soles of my feet remember the time we walked on wet grass. My spine carries the imprint of her hand. Once we took a bus to the countryside and climbed a hill. It was her suggestion. She told me jokes all the way up, and stories all the way down. Now, every time I breathe laughter and Once Upon A Time’s curl inside my chest. My heart, of course, that doesn’t know where to begin.
I’ve tried to think of what else could describe it, but I only ever come back to this – when they put that wafer on my tongue, my eyes half closed, everything we had been taught swimming in my brain. I know I felt it then – him, God, whatever – because it has stayed with me ever since and I’ve always found it easy to believe. It’s just that no one told me she would feel the same.
Though I have not said, they understand that something has gone wrong. My Dad frowns now when I am around. Mum pats my arm and says, Not to worry. Pray more. But it doesn’t make me feel any better. I even thought of telling the priest but when I started he just said, Uh, huh, as though it were a matter of opinion. Well, how do you go on after that?
I still go to church and sing, of course, even though I do it now for different reasons. I stand and I open my mouth and sound comes out. I look up at the ceiling and down at my hymnbook. But all the time, all I am feeling is her breath tickling the soft part of my neck, under my hair.
And there are certain things that I don’t believe in anymore. About men and about women and about love. Because when you are struck by lightning, well, you can’t ignore it. We all have our secrets, even from God. This one is mine.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2013