Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Three Crowns

Recently one of my favourite bloggers wrote about the scars on her body. That made me think about the psychological scars which I carry and which have contributed to making me into the writer that I have become. For example there is my obsession with my golden crown which I thought I’d write about today. But I think I’d better begin with a health warning: take care, this is very weird stuff indeed.

When I was a child I went to a Roman Catholic primary school run by nuns. Now I’m talking real nuns here, not the watered-down semi-civilian examples that you get today (not that there are many of those, either). No, I mean scary looking women in black habits that reached down to the ground, with industrial strength rosary beads swinging at their sides. Only their faces showed beneath their wimples and they never, ever wore a smile.

Now before anyone starts complaining, I know that there were plenty of nice, kindly nuns. I had a great aunt Agnes who was a nun and she was very sweet indeed (though maddeningly deaf). But the sisters who ran my primary school were like something Roald Dahl would have come up with if he’d just had a bad trip. They weren’t really terribly keen on children in general (odd that they should take up teaching) but they particularly hated boys and they were ready and willing to wield the bamboo cane against any behaviour that struck them as especially boy-like.

I could put up with all of that. I kept my head down and tried to stay out of trouble. But what really got to me was all the talk of torture and death. There I was, seven years old, being fed stories about the mayterdom of the saints and how they had refused to give up their faith, despite being hanged, drawn and quartered or burnt at the stake. And the sisters did not spare me the details.

I was convinced that this was exactly what would be required of me and I was far from certain that I would be able to endure it. I wasn’t very good at pain. What if I cracked under torture and renounced my faith? Then I would go to hell. And what was waiting for me there? An eternity of torture.

I remember one of the nuns, who was called Sister Mary Mercy, telling the class the following story. I’m not sure exactly when and where it was set. Somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe perhaps, and presumably at the time of the Reformation. But to me, it was as real as something that had happened in my neighbourhood just the week before.

Three Catholics had been caught and taken prisoner by their wicked Protestant oppressors who threatened to kill them if they did not give up their faith. Naturally, they refused to do so. So their captors tied them up and dragged them into the centre of a frozen lake so that they would freeze to death while they themselves stood on the shores of the lake, warming their hands at a bonfire and jeering.

But the jeering suddenly stopped for the little band of torturers had just noticed that three golden crowns had appeared in the sky and were descending towards the heads of the martyrs on the ice.

The martyrs themselves were quite unaware of this. Either they were too weak to raise their heads or the crowns were invisible to them. And as the reality of death drew ever nearer, the resolve of one of them weakened. He decided that he didn’t want to die and he called out that he would renounce his faith. Immediately one of the golden crowns paused in its descent, hovering between heaven and earth for an instant, before slowly disappearing back into the clouds.

That story haunted me because I knew that I was like that weak Catholic. I would do the same thing because I lacked the courage to face pain and death. Of course, as I got older, I realised that the women telling me these stories were completely bonkers. But the damage had been done. The story had sunk into my sub-conscious. So that even now, nearly half a century later, whenever I look out of the window of my bedroom as the sun is setting, I do not see the chimney pots and tv aerials of South London. No, I see golden crowns, rising and falling like some cosmic barometer, measuring the moral climate of the city.

No comments: