A Dark Nativity

A Dark Nativity

by George Pitcher

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783524341
Publisher: Random House UK
Publication date: 03/01/2018
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

George Pitcher is a journalist, former award-winning industrial editor of the Observer and columnist and leader-writer for the Daily Telegraph. He is also an Anglican priest, ordained at St Paul’s cathedral in 2005, and serves in the dioceses of London and Chichester. He is currently rector of a rural parish in East Sussex. A Dark Nativity is his first novel.

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CHAPTER 1

So come with me through the places that make me who I am. From the executioner's block to the dhobi-room, where I try to scrub out the bloody stain on my priestly alb. But it keeps coming back. I offer it all up and sometimes, for a heady, transcendent moment, I am healed, and yet the gash returns, like an ill-sewn seam bursting open, like Lancelot's ever-wounded side, bleeding for Guinevere, that can't be healed this side of his king's forgiveness. And, God knows, I'm the wrong side of forgiveness.

At school, Sarah came into her own. And her own received her not. We were at our comp in a vapid little suburb to the south of London. We thought she'd had something like polio, I reckon, or some sort of congenital muscular-wasting disease. Later, she told me it was Perthes' disease, a hip-joint thing she'd had surgery for, but was getting better all the time, though she'd get arthritis later in life.

We never asked about it when we were young. We were never told not to talk about her condition, but it was implicit in the form teacher's introductory injunctions when she joined the class in the middle of the academic year.

"Sarah uses aids to walk and sometimes will spend time in a wheelchair when she needs surgery," she said, as Sarah sat in the front row, displacing someone to the square window alcove. "So she needs our support. Let's all make her very welcome."

I wondered at the time whether that entreaty was a play on words. She had crutches, this girl, but she needed our support too. We were to make her welcome despite that. I wondered even then whether we should have made her welcome because of that. The boys, amounting to around a third of our class, generally did, but they were nicer than us.

Sarah used to form a bulwark in the corridor as girls leaned against the walls, learning to fold our legs and doing the jabby push that accompanied shrieks of faux outrage at the mildest social observation. We had our roles in this girl-gang: the happy frump, the lippy, the hippy, the thoughtful and the dykey, the tarty, the outré and the nerd.

I was the quiet one. Not really shy, not, I think, insecure, but remote and I was comfortable with that. I was looking in on their play. I was the audience to their performance. So I watched the drama unfold.

The young girls at the primary through the fence played a hybrid form of hopscotch and their improvised sing-song carried through windows flung open to expunge the stench of school-dinner vegetables. It was the soundtrack to that time.

I met my boyfriend at the sweetie shop, he bought me ice cream, he bought me cake, he brought me home with a bellyache ...

Sarah would lean on her crutches, white forearms braced in the horseshoe rings. Her upper body pitched forward like an awkward mannequin. One winter half-term in the sixth form there was a skitrip - I was the only one other than Sarah who didn't go, and we were knocking around together a bit by then - and I saw photos of the grown-ups leaning like that on their sticks at the top of the slopes and I wondered why, if they wanted to look athletic, they should also want to look like Sarah.

It was difficult to spot when the mood changed in the girls' corridor. The microclimate of a gang of girls shifts with imperceptible signals. It's like the distant curl of a cloud that a mariner might spot, or a fresh breeze to the face, the first indications that a storm is on the way. These are gentle and apparently harmless signs, not seeking to draw attention to themselves, sinister only to those who know what they portend. The dark twist on the horizon was a conversational shift.

I couldn't have attributed the initiative to any one girl in the pack.

Maybe Tarty said "spaz". Maybe Outré said something about it "really getting on my tits". Perhaps it was Sulky: "All she wants is pity."

But then someone said: "If you bent two of her forward, you'd have a pantomime horse."

And the troupe came together in a spontaneous caterwaul that was like energy expanding, noxious fumes filling the corridor as if there had been a gas explosion in the science lab and a wall of ignited fuel was rolling towards the fire doors. They howled and rocked as they struck pantomime poses against a torrent of released vocabulary - cripple and hunchback and legless.

Mummy, Mummy, I feel sick, call the doctor, quick, quick, quick.

I watched the smile on Sarah's face die, like a head relaxing into sleep, as she absorbed that her friends were now laughing delightedly at her and not with her. The illusion of friendship had evaporated in the heat of the tribe's ridicule and nothing could be the same for Sarah at that school again. I watched from my safe distance.

Doctor, doctor, will I die? Count to five and stay alive ...

It never occurred to me, as an act of conscious kindness, to reach out in her defence, to stand by her and to try to reclaim the innocent time before our gang had given themselves permission to mock her. The relief of honesty was, in any case, too great for them - they were venting what they really thought and the serpent could never be returned to its basket.

I suppose I felt that it was better for her to know the truth. People are nasty; they hate you. That's the default position. What we do is cover that up with a sentimental carapace of generosity, whether that comes in the shape of religious example or shared humanity. It's selfish really - I am kind to you in these circumstances because it makes me feel better.

Sarah had moved to one side to sit in her wheelchair; I guess to make a quicker and more dignified exit. I think it was that no one offered her a hand as she awkwardly negotiated the transition from sticks to wheels that prompted me to do something. Or it may have been that it was all playing out at excruciating length. Whatever it was, I stepped into the crowd that day and stood beside Sarah's wheelchair. The braying laughter subsided briefly to accommodate me in the tableau.

"Shut the fuck up," I said. "You stupid little bitches. She's worth ten of any of you."

I had nothing else. I had to get us out of there. I moved behind Sarah and pulled on the handles of the wheelchair. She jerked violently like a crash-test dummy.

"You have to let the brake off," she said and did so.

The jeering followed us down the corridor. I've learned a bit about pushing wheelchairs since, like turning around to go backwards through swing doors, but I knew none of that then. I used Sarah as a battering ram to get outside.

We went down the old driveway beyond the playgrounds and away from the little girls' songs, me leaning back and slipping on old grit. If I'd let go she'd have ended her run in the stream at the bottom. I sat beside her, behind the groundsman's sheds, and pulled two cigarettes from what was left of a packet of ten. She held hers ineptly. I think it was her first.

I looked at Sarah not with pity but with contempt.

"You stupid bloody fool, Sar. How could you have thought those girls were your friends?" I said at last. "The truth is that they're grateful they're not you. Get real."

"I don't think they're my friends," she said. I had expected her to be crying. But she was smiling faintly at me through the smoke.

If I'd been older I'd have liked to say, "They despise you for reminding them of what they are - able-bodied but still useless. They can't take you into their lives as anything other than a burden. That's the truth, Sarah, and it's just sad and pathetic for you to delude yourself that they think any better of you for making them feel superior. You're a cripple and they want to laugh and point." As it was, I just said, "They hate you."

"I know," she said. "But thanks anyway."

I pushed her back up the hill. On the steep bit, I started to miss my footing on the grit again and to slide backwards. With my head down between the handles of the wheelchair, I began to laugh helplessly. We were immobilised.

"What are you doing?" she said from the front.

"Nothing," I managed to say. "I'm stuck."

She pulled the brake on and I helped her out and on to her sticks, and I pushed the empty chair up slowly beside her, watching each of her careful steps.

In truth, I ignored her for a while after that, just as the other girls ignored me, leaving her behind as an amusing but failed emotional experiment. But I remember she often looked tearful and pained at the end of lessons and of the day. It seemed to be her rightful lot, and I tried to shrug it off inside.

We were both outsiders; I see that now. I started to fetch the wheelchair when it was elsewhere. Push her between classes. Help her with her lunch tray.

I imagined she wouldn't live long - I don't know why, as her disability wasn't that great. But even the teachers let that assumption prevail. And far from fading from my mind, she kept recurring, like a persistent musical phrase.

CHAPTER 2

My descent into faith started with a note shoved under my door in a student hall at university. I kept it for a few years. I don't really know why. Maybe I knew it was an important letter. Maybe I was keeping papers for my biographer.

I can pretty much remember it in its entirety.

Hi dear Nat ... Don't leave us. Please don't leave us. We love you and this is REALLY important, because it's about the most important thing for all of us ... YOUR ETERNAL LIFE IN LORD JESUS. You may think you're just turning your back on us, but really you're turning your back on HIM.So it's HIM begging you to come back, not US. So we're just praying that you will come back to us - and be saved, like us, by His Grace. Pleeease Nat!

In His Love Forever, Noel

It was written on a piece of A4 file paper and had a crucifix drawn quickly as a kind of logo in the top right-hand corner, the hanging figure on it a couple of expertly turned curls.

Jesus Christ. Is that the best you've got, I thought, sitting on the edge of my tiny bed in a shared flatlet on The Vale, an Elysian undergraduate estate. I should have screwed it up and binned it straight away, but there was something so exquisitely naff in those hundred or so words that I wanted to keep looking at them. I didn't know enough about it then, but I do now. The condescending conflation of authentic discipleship with their little tribe. The offer of salvation like it was their gift. The pleading and the capital letters. The word "just".

This was about a month, maybe less, into my first term. I'd gone to Birmingham and Sarah had gone to Oxford. I went to the Freshers' Festival at the student union, a Victorian U-shape throughout which were stalls and hawkers selling clubs and societies. I wasn't lonely, because I don't do that, but I did feel oddly detached, like I was watching everyone else have fun, as if they were putting on a show for me. Less further education than further alienation, really.

I didn't want to go scuba-diving or demonstrate against Thatcher's cuts, though I did hang around the craft stands, especially the woodwork and carpentry. There were some rubbishly turned finials and I knew I could do better. I took a leaflet.

"Lineker shoots - Jesus saves" said the sign as I walked into the next hall. I didn't want to talk, but I'd been spotted reading it.

"Hi, fancy taking a shot at Jesus?" The boy held out a plastic football and pointed at a large chipboard hippy with a headband, with his hands out in large gloves. "If you get it past him and into the fishing net - admittedly a mixed metaphor - you get free fish and chips at our next Friday fish night." He leaned in conspiratorially. "Otherwise it's 30p."

"I'm rubbish at football," I said.

"Yeah, but you're good at something. We just want to know what it is." And he threw the ball from hand to hand.

"Who's 'we'?" I asked.

"The Christian Union - we put the uni in union."

He seemed nice enough. "What does a Christian Union do? Make sure vicars get overtime if they pray too much?"

"Indeed," he said, and smiled. "What's the leaflet?"

"It's from the carpentry club," I said.

"Jesus was a carpenter!" And he held his arms out like the ludicrous icon of his saviour behind him.

"I know," I said slowly, from under my eyebrows. I can deploy a devilish eyebrow, not least because I have a scar through one of them.

"I'm Noel," he said.

"The first, I presume," I said. He just grinned and nodded and looked down at his football boots. "I'm sorry, I bet you get that all the time," I added quickly.

"First today," he said. "What do you want to do?"

"What, right now or with the rest of my life?"

"I have the answer to both," said Noel. "But let's start with now."

"I ... want to find someone who does voluntary work overseas."

"Where?"

I shrugged. "Ethiopia?"

"WorldMission," said Noel, throwing the ball to his fellow Striker in Christ. "I'll give you the phone number. Run by our brothers and sisters."

"OK," I said and lingered.

He handed me a flyer. "Come to Fishermen & Chips anyway." And I did. It was in some old gymnasium and we were counted, then sang a couple of songs to guitar and piano during which the food magically arrived, wrapped in greaseproof paper in a big cardboard box. I didn't much care for the singing, and the rocking from side to side wasn't for me. I suppose I knew then it wouldn't last. But the fish and chips were good. And it felt a bit like a family and I suppose I wanted that. So I went back on Sunday for more songs and swaying. No one I knew would see me.

It lasted as long as any of those early university things do. I was hanging out on a cheap beer night with a crowd from my course, drinking lager in plastic pints, and wondering where to go on to. I knew Noel and his group were having a party at a little house some of them shared in Selly Oak. There would be food. So we set off with a couple of bottles of wine, about six of us.

It didn't go well. Noel's sidekick answered the door. I could go in, but the others weren't welcome. Odd, because they weren't even particularly rowdy.

"Why only me?" I asked, genuinely inquisitive.

"You're one of us."

"No I'm not. Is Noel there?"

"He's out the back. You can come in and see him. Just not the others."

"But these are my friends."

We bought a Chinese takeaway, went back to The Vale, and sat in one of the common areas, drinking wine out of mugs and eating chip butties when the pork and rice ran out.

"I don't know how you can stand all that patriarchy stuff, Natty," said one of the girls when we'd exhausted the "not very Christian" line.

But that was just it, I realised. I had wanted a father figure. I'd had a father, but he didn't figure.

The note arrived under my door when I didn't show the following Sunday. And Noel caught me up in the University Square one damp morning.

"Nat, please don't be lost."

"I'm not," I said. "I know where I'm going."

"You don't understand - if you commit to Jesus, you're truly free, not like this wandering journey you're on. And bring your friends to him."

"Noel, it's been real. But no thanks."

He stopped walking. "Nat, why are you doing this to us?" "I'm shaking you off my feet."

I was pleased with that and didn't turn around. But he tried again. He was doing Mech Eng, which wasn't far from the History block. He told me that I only knew the Lord a little and needed to know him more. I told him this time that I'd report him to my course leader for harassment. And that was it.

But I reread his note. A kind of rage gathered in my chest. And here's the thing: I started taking a bus to a Victorian church in Moseley. I started to argue with Father Trevor there, a middle-aged priest with a bad haircut, about what we were meant to render to Caesar, if anything, about who the poor were, and we made up a story about what happened next to the woman taken in adultery. They ran a night shelter and I started to help out with a soup kitchen, the first time I'd fed hungry people. But the turbulent little ball of rage that Noel had put at the base of my ribcage never went away. I have it still.

At the end of that first term, I switched to joint-honours in History and Theology. At the end of the year I dropped the History. I called Sarah in Oxford and visited her a couple of times in her beautiful college and then in a town house she shared, with not too many stairs. It was easier for me to visit her, but she was improving and came to Birmingham once, where she seemed an anomaly, just not part of my life there.

I also called WorldMission on the number Noel had given me and spoke to a nice woman called Sally.

"You're a Christian organisation, aren't you?" I said, not disguising the accusation in my tone.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "A Dark Nativity"
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Copyright © 2017 George Pitcher.
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