“The church was later shut down in dubious circumstances.”
The name given to you in an instant, such is the plight of the shivering child. From a quiver to a full and inescapable shake, the child’s body endures its own inability to know.
The group of children, huddled together in the church to keep warm, clapped their teeth at one another to retain a sense of humour as they gathered in the cold. They totalled nine in number, ranging from five to fourteen years. The Conference Room, a medium-sized congregation hall in which they had been trapped for the entire afternoon, had all its plastic chairs shoved and piled into one corner, as if to suggest a quick and final clean up had taken place.
The chairs once sat the entire community in a room – part of a 1992 construction that joined the church to the Presbytery – but now had little use since the closure of the building in its entirety, some months earlier. These were objects of disappointment for several reasons, not least that they were dull blue, uninviting moulds with a hole in the back. I remember rubbing my bare arms up against them as I sat in the church on Sundays during the warm summer months. That mottled texture to the plastic creates enough good friction to satisfy an itch from an insect bite, or a scab dried out and tingling on the surface of immature skin.
Procrastinating on the textures of the past – be they bodily, or in the form of an object in memory – invites sentimentality. Of course you have to look back to call things forward. In the act of remembering the children, all other related details naturally follow. I like to see all those memories as a whole thing. The man I didn’t know, sitting in front of me at church, and the way his walking stick fell over from its leaning position against the side of his chair. As he threw his hand out in an attempt to stop it falling, he knocked it further away and onto the ground. It remained there for the entire service, the only thing distracting from the perfect, visual order of the rows of chairs that lined the hall.
Much like I did, he felt a silent frustration, glancing sideways repeatedly to look at his stick. Frozen to his seat, in the presence of God, he couldn’t bring himself to make any noise or cause any unnecessary distraction for the rest of the congregation. The entire community played out unchanging manners such as this one. Sometimes people are simply afraid to move. ‘The past informs the future’, they would say. ‘Follow suit and you’ll find comfort and good cheer’. ‘Don’t deviate from politeness, God is looking on’. Don’t move, the man must have thought, his mind addled with the pointless peculiarities of these forms of social custom. His back won’t give out while seated, he could be sure of that. At the end of the service he’ll swivel round, pick up his walking aid and be out the door before anyone notices.
The church was later shut down in dubious circumstances. Something to do with an electrical wiring fault rendered it unsafe. An excuse perhaps, for cutting back on the cost of running a community building in times of growing atheism and a decline in churchgoing numbers. What does this say about pastoral care? Humans, like sheep, stitched up by the diocese.
The blue chairs were the colour of cold and they had been laid to uselessness at the back of the hall; their boring uniformity, row after row, no longer required by the congregation.
A vast expanse of damp and unwelcoming floor offered the children the only available place to sit; their weak fingers unable to lift the chairs from their stacks, unsafely six feet high. They were packed in tight: the girls all together and the boys, mostly younger, instinctively forming a timid circle around them.
A broom leant upright against the wall next to a window. Its bristles held onto hair and fluff, which flapped about, threatening to break free, helped by a draft that swept along the floor and around the room. The children watched the movement of the dirt as it darted about the place like a tiny grey hurricane, acting out a series of shapes on the floor: a figure-of-eight and then a dance in the shape of an imperfect circle. Clumps of it lay static like small billows of smoke at the room’s edges. ‘It looks like the fire’ one child said. Another muttered, abstractly, ‘like a hairs. Like grandmother.’
Children’s absurd comments may eventually morph into aphorisms in adulthood. Aphorism: the language used by those seeking to enforce superiority in conversation. Innocent and accidental absurdity is far less annoying than aphorism. Children might be more interesting than adults who, in their own words, should be seen and not heard. We can allow children the space to try things out linguistically, to make mistakes in the form of misplaced words and abstractions. For adults it’s simply too late. Most are bound to the routine and asphyxiation of maturity.
Derek, the youngest of the boys, cried non-stop tears. He had eaten all the cheese at lunchtime and now it was sitting cold and coagulated in his stomach. He grimaced nervously and casually looked around at the others, wondering whether an opportunity might arise to relieve himself of trapped wind. There were no parents here, only increasingly distressed and grumbling children.
Some cheese stinks badly but somehow still peaks our interest. This much might be clear from its long history, and the way culinary obnoxiousness accompanies its constant, artisanal reinvention. Smelly cheese presents a challenge to one’s own expectations of personal sophistication. Can you tolerate the smell and eat it? Can you pretend you enjoy it? What does your ability to appreciate it say about you as a person? If you can appreciate fragrant cheese, you’re a master of the senses, capable of also enjoying good wine and even art. Good for you if that all applies, but it probably also means you’re a fucking snob.
The church of St. Catherine of Siena has an old relationship to cheese, one that dates back as far as the time when Catherine herself was alive. She had written a theological text in which cheese was used as a fourteenth century literary metaphor for one’s preparation to meet God. Divine Providence she called it. Derek knew nothing of this clearly, but he would some time later, when reading the pin-board in the church hallway which held up some printouts advertising cheese tasting and a workshop about its long history within the local area. The boy’s appreciation of cheese would start uncomfortably on this day, but later, certain sophistication would take hold of his appreciation of the stuff.
Catherine of Siena was born healthy and warm, despite the outbreak of Black Death in her 14th century Italian hometown. Unlike Derek and the other children, she was able to find a way out, through Christianity. A vision is exactly what the cold children needed in the locked church hall, but it was only Catherine who received one at the age of six and thusly found God, so her biographer reported, whether we should believe it or not.
Childhood belief is an important motivational tool and parenting strategy. So are images and the way their plural meanings are tied up in the structures of knowledge development. Without adult guidance children entertain, and believe in, the strangest of things: childhood knowledge might evolve through a series of abstract conversations, fictional narratives or fairy tales. More concretely, oral ability, reading comprehension and critical reasoning are the adult’s aims in teaching their children. Fair enough, the textbooks might have it right, the development of language skills in childhood are foundational, but what about creative expression? – intuitive learning alongside structured tuition – soaking up the basics but taking nothing for granted.
We all should be wary of creating generic, indistinguishable children. We should neither want to give birth to a Catherine of Siena, nor a child who speaks only in rhyme or meaningful abstractions. The paradox being the latter of the two is a good description of the former. The point is language is both a system to be learned and equally a space for experimentation. Experiments go wrong. Sometimes people don’t learn all they need to. All too often concentration is given to the acquisition of knowledge for the quantitative sake of it. I suppose it’s obvious to say we all have faith, but increasingly few of us have religion.
Certain objects take journeys through childhood memory and become parodies of themselves, like things generated by a computer, or those moments socially where you forget who you are and have to act up to find yourself again. Children should be taught to believe in things, but what and why? Most likely such experiences are forgotten later and never make it to the fixity of adulthood. A few memories remain, however, and this might be transformative or identity building.
Identity is a constant confusion as it relates to age. How many people would these children become in their lifetimes and what would these individuals come to believe? Catherine of Siena developed an identity so large and rhetorical, that she must have lived quite consistently, maintaining her role as a theological philosopher, after escaping The Plague and completing her mystical marriage to Jesus.
The cold children might get married one day, but not during this particular visit to the church. They were left huddled, wrapped in each other and their inability to know how to move from the stasis of the situation they found themselves in, surrounded by a general state of disappointment, to somewhere new.
At the end of The Conference Room a microphone presented itself on a stage. The room warmed to the appearance of this object and the children were compelled to approach it individually to speak, absurdities slowly turning into aphorisms.
This short story was commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery and was written to accompany the exhibition Half-life of a Miracle by Pat Flynn. It is available in a fully illustrated book, published by MAG and distributed by Cornerhouse.