Last night, another fraught, upstate church basement, sandwiched between two miserable men at the damp and draughty AA meeting, sitting opposite the un-insightful chef, listening to the uninspired leader tell his wretched, cliched story… I was having a revelation.
Remember St Alphege? Our local Protestant church? Whitstable? Remember that? I must have been 8 years old when I decided to flee our secular household and join the choir.
The choir mistress dressed me in a black, woolen floor length cassock, a white starched surplus and a dramatic ruff. I remember slipping on my costume, the voluminous sleeves, the swishing of the fabric around my legs. I though, this is what an evening dress must feel like. I feel fabulous.
It felt sooo fabulous I would break the church rules and wear my cassock and surplus home and hang out in my room, draped over my bed like a movie star.
I knew a great deal about movie stars. I’d watch afternoon TV when ever I could. Black and white American movies from the 30’s and 40’s played most afternoons on one or other of the three channels available at the time.
My mother thought I wanted to be a priest. Nope, I wanted to be a glamorous movie star draped over a chaise lounge.
One sunday the Choir mistress told me I couldn’t wear my cassock home anymore.
Pissed, I began volunteering at the bi weekly church jumble sales. This gave me access to a huge number of free dresses. I hauled them back to my room. I don’t ever remember being ashamed. My mother seemed amused. My favorite was a black taffeta gown encrusted with jet beads. I would hang out at home wearing that.
Thankfully, a prepubescent boy in a black taffeta ball gown didn’t seem to attract too much attention. Even when I decided to wear it in the garden. My neighbors asked where I got it. “I designed and made it,” I told them.
My mother borrowed an elegant navy blue crepe cocktail dress. Loaned to her by my aunt. She wore it to a party and the photograph of her from that dinner and dance makes her look so sophisticated.
One night, my parents were out, I crept past the baby sitter watching TV in the sitting room and into my mother’s bedroom. I pulled the dress out of her wardrobe and over my head. The silk satin lining, lingering scent in the luxurious fabric. I am a woman.
It felt wonderful… but it didn’t fit. It was too long. It bagged under my skinny arms. I looked in the mirror and the dress swamped me. It was so unflattering. I wanted it to look as marvelous as it had on my mother. I found a pair of scissors and began altering the dress. The more I cut into it the less it fit… until it was a tattered rag.
I lay in bed terrified I would be beaten.
She must have found it but she never said a word.
My grandmother bought a remnant of purple, silk velvet. It was beautiful. She lined a cigar box with it. With what was left I wrapped up a small doll I owned. I would rub the velvet on my cheek. When I took the doll to school… I was ridiculed, by everyone including my form master.
I woke up to a horrible reality.
Other boys did not have dolls, they were not wearing evening gowns at home and they did not have mad crushes on other boys. The ridicule turned to homophobia. Hmmm, I thought. So, you’re going to hate me for something I can’t change? I’ll give you good reason to hate me. You don’t want my fledgling sexuality shoved down your throat?
Well! Suck this… bitches.
And so, I left the church. I was sent to a boarding school in Shropshire. To escape chores on a Sunday morning I’d join my head master John Lampen at a Quaker meeting in Shrewsbury.
I sat in silence for an hour then hang with my friend Susan at her parents house. I didn’t listen to the Quakers whenever moved to speak in the meeting, but one Sunday somebody said something that caught my attention. She said what all Quakers believe:
‘There is that of God in every man.’
I heard something I knew to be irrefutably true. I understood instinctively there was indeed that of God in every man… we are all born with our own god, a relationship with a god of our understanding, as I was born with skin and teeth and hair… I was born with a soul.
God was an inherent functioning part of me.
Notionally I believed in an external ‘god’ from the brimstone vicar of St Alphege. But he was obviously very disapproving of the kind of boy I am. This Christian God channelled through the pompous vicar hoseing down his congregation every Sunday with his sanctimonious Christian flavored God. The God of sanctioned wars and disease who hated gays and abortion.
Their God was not my god.
I had a very special, unique god inside of me… he would not judge, he would understand. A gay god. Of course my god is gay! Everything about me is gay, from my nose to my liver… to my god.
The God in this gay man, in me… was going to be my friend. A friend who understood my doll and my jet encrusted ballgown.
We started chatting. I trusted him. He would instinctively know answers to the most baffling problems if I listened carefully to my new friend. When I stole something he would chide me. When I strayed from the path he would gently guide me home.
I would never again face anything on my own.
Like many teens I had a miserable adolescence and sought to change the way I felt. How ever I could. I listened less to the God inside of me.
A friendship cannot prosper if one or the other is ignored. So it was, as the years past, I made difficult decisions… without consulting him.
Without him I made bad choices, choices I was ashamed of. I turned my back on my helpful friend. I chose ambition and drugs and alcohol… none of which interested him.
I ignored his protestation.
The more I ignored him… the weaker he became… his voice grew inaudible.
I found myself, stunted, thirty something, staring into the bathroom mirror of our home in Kensington that balmy September… staring into my hollow eyes, my nose dripping, the house over run with lower companions. My heart was beating like mad. I called out to my old friend: God help me!
He was not there. Instead of his reassuring voice… I faced a black hole, an abyss where once I found comfort and solace.
My diseased soul.
As I stood at the mirror I heard, quite clearly, another voice. Another, less friendly voice. And that harsh voice made clear the choices I had: to live or die.
So, that windy night, I chose to live. The house emptied, I scrubbed the floors. I ate dinner and slept at a decent time. The following day I went to my first AA meeting and written on the wall was the word God. A God of my understanding… and I knew I had come home.
A few years later I had lunch with my mother. The evening dress I had butchered in her bedroom as a child weighed heavily on my conscience. I told her what had happened and apologized. She looked at me quizzically. “No,” she said. “I remember that dress very well. I returned it to my sister. It was perfectly okay.”
“It wasn’t cut to ribbons?”
“It must have been a dream.”
A dream I had carried around most of my adult life. The fear and the shame I had carried around for all those years. I loved the dress? I hated the dress? I don’t know.