“Undies, socks, her new tiny bra, her aertex singlet, the frock”: a short story by Auckland writer Stephanie Johnson
On the morning of her Confirmation she wakes at her grandmother’s house to rain falling steady and loud as the hiss of the radiogram left on too long. Downstairs Gran is already in the kitchen, cooking bacon and eggs to keep their strength up.
“Lord knows we’ll need it,” says Gran, who as a child was made to kiss the bishop’s ring, which Grandad finds endlessly amusing in a way that’s difficult to understand. He is a Presbyterian, and they don’t have bishops. Janine is Anglican and they do have bishops but nobody kisses his ring, as far as she knows. Gran is nothing, except when she was little she went to Catholic school in Suva because there was no other kind nearby and that was where she kissed the ring, who knows how many times. Now all she believes in are her fays and fetches, which come around to talk to her now and again from the other side and send messages to all the family. And she says she prays long and often for everybody but not in any church and maybe, Janine worries, not even to the proper God.
But a message from the fays would be welcome right now, soothing, a message to say everything will be all right and not to worry. Under the candlewick dressing gown Janine’s tummy is popping, fizzy as Fanta. Her arms and legs flare with mozzie bites.
“Hope the sun’s shining down over in Fiji,” says Grandad from the table, giving his paper a crack and looking out at the rain. Sometimes he seems grumpy that they’re even there, that she and Garth have to stay while their Mum and Dad have their first ever holiday overseas, in the islands.
Garth has built a hydrodam out of his porridge and is letting the milk cascade down down down, like the time they saw Aratiatia, all new and vast and concrete. Janine knows he’s thinking about that, she can tell by the way he’s shaped the dam into the twin square sluices. Brown sugar streaks the pool below – he extends his long pink tongue to lap it up and Gran tells him off – you’re not a dog! Under the table Janine gives him a kick which wouldn’t have hurt because it’s just slippers but he looks as if he’s going to cry anyway, since he’s getting it from her and Gran, both of them at once. Sookie. Half asleep, his hair standing on end. Some of the girls have their brothers and sisters coming to the confirmation but Garth has to go to school because Gran says confirmation is a load of hocus pocus.
Garth better not cry. He’s nearly eleven. If he cries she’ll want to too. Howl and sob. It’s all going wrong.
“Hurry up and eat your porridge,” says Gran, “Then there’s your egg and bacon. Then hurry up and get ready.”
The dress is on a hanger hooked over the door, freshly ironed, belt dangling from one loop. Gran washed it out yesterday after she found it in the back of her wardrobe.
“You’re right, son,” Grandad says gently to Garth, who gives him a watery smile and gets on with his food.
“It’s not right, actually,” Janine says with all the authority she can muster. She’ll have one more try. “It’s all wrong.”
“What’s that kid?” He has his big hand behind his deaf red leathery ear, the one with the little nick in it from when he went for his short-back-and-sides yesterday, now forming a wriggly, interesting scab.
“I have to wear Gran’s old dress.”
But Grandad has tuned out, lifted his paper, eyes wobbling side to side with reading while he eats his bacon, ears waggling with each chew. Gran is ignoring her too, standing at the kitchen window smoking and watching the birds come down to the feeder.
“There they are the darlings!” A white plume curls high above her head in the ceiling. “Perfect angels, even the little sparrow that God sees fall.” She says it like she doesn’t mean it.
You shouldn’t quote from the Bible unless you believe it. That’s what Janine thinks. The problem is that you can make the Bible mean anything, anything at all, which makes it hard to believe in. She could tell, at some of the after school confirmation classes, that the chaplain got flummoxed if you asked too many questions. She asked the most, because they had come into her mind with such force she couldn’t help it, hand up and speaking in the same moment.
“The facts of life are,” she had informed the first class, “that to make a baby you need a sperm and an egg. Mary had the egg. So where did the sperm come from? Did God make some specially?”
“No,” said the chaplain. “That’s enough, Janine.”
“Who made the sperm then? Who was his real father? How did the egg get fertilized?”
“When we have faith we don’t ask questions like that. See me later.”
After the class they had had a talk in the vestry. He went on about the difference between dogma and doctrine, ritual and private communion, and at the end of it all the Virgin Birth was still mysterious as ever.
“Gran?” Janine says, carrying her plate over to the sink. “Did you know that Jesus’ real father was either Joseph or a Roman soldier?”
“What’s that, kid?” Grandad’s ears are even redder. Maybe they don’t have that theory at Saint Andrew’s.
“That’s what our chaplain told me. We call Jesus the Son of God because he was like God in his nature, like he’d inherited it off God. It doesn’t matter who it was who gave the sperm – it might have been Joseph or a Roman soldier. It was just the sperm.”
Out on the bird-feeder, which is easier to look at than Grandad’s face, red as his ears, a mynah bird and a starling are evenly matched squabbling over the last crust. The surrounding sparrows know they’re beaten and fly away into the sky, scudding now with bright bits of blue.
“Teeth,” says Gran, taking the plate from her, the last of her ciggie smoke seeping from her wrinkly mouth. Grandad goes into the other room to listen to the radio. Garth is stirring his porridge round and round and round so it looks like a bubbling mud pool on the same holiday when they saw the hydrodam, and now Mum and Dad are having a holiday on their own, overseas, without them.
She takes the dress with her upstairs to one of the aunties’ old bedrooms, the room that is always hers when she stays with Gran. It looks out over the dripping Kiwifruit vine on its high bamboo trellis. Gran still calls it Chinese gooseberry because she isn’t modern. Below the trellis is the old iron bath sunk in the earth for a mosquito plagued pond, where yesterday they’d rescued a poor hedgehog that had been swimming for hours as far as Rangitoto and back, or so Gran said as she hooked him out with a rake and fed him a snail.
If only God would look down at her now and hook her up with a gentle rake, set her down in Paradise with some sherbet and a Coke. And then let her come back to life again this afternoon. It would be okay – they don’t bury bodies for three days because that’s how long it takes for the soul to leave so it wouldn’t be too horrible – she would be able to get up and walk away from her coffin. She would be on the television answering questions about what it was like in heaven, where she would have been allowed because she’s baptised and nearly confirmed.
Undies, socks, her new tiny bra, her aertex singlet, the frock. She feels the silk lining slither soothingly over the mozzie bites on her shoulders, feels it swing around her narrow hips. Gran is what they call hourglass whatever an hourglass is, and Janine isn’t one she can tell. The beige linen bags where Gran would fill it, top and bottom. There is a row of tiny silver buttons over each pocket and a narrow plastic belt to draw in the wide waist. She cinches it in as far as it can go and it bunches up like a potato sack and it’s all wrong, especially when she puts on her clumpy brown school shoes because she forgot to pack her other ones.
At least there’s the cherished transistor to keep her company, birthday present from Mum. While she sits on the edge of her bed brushing her hair Cat Stephens does his new hit ‘Morning has Broken’ and she sings along, knowing every word. After that Diana Ross sings about how she’d like to be touched in the morning and how she has no tomorrow. All those words come in to her head too, sung into the end of her hairbrush. For a few blissful minutes she’s a star on Happen In.
She needs to take this Confirmation business more seriously than she has been. She should be praying. If only she hadn’t shouted at Gran, who hadn’t wanted to come and went on and on about living through two world wars and how terrible they were, and if there was a God with any bloody sense he would not have let so many of the young men she knew go to their deaths. And Gran, who was normally so generous and kind, because she had grown up in the islands – never mind about flying there on a DC10 just for an overseas holiday – refused point blank to buy her a pretty white frock the same as the other girls were getting.
“It’s just a dress. It’s not as if you have to buy me a blimmin veil like if I was Catholic!” Janine had shouted, knowing this fact from the next-door neighbours who Dad said were Micks and never to believe anything they said. They had their First Communion when they were still only little girls; they had veils and gloves and silver crosses and flowers, and were too young to know what they were doing. She’s a modern, mature teenager in a beige sack.
“You may as well wear a flaming veil and why don’t you?” Gran had said. “Go the whole hog and be a nun!”
Anglican nuns wear brown robes with a rope for a belt. Janine looks in the mirror and sees suddenly that that’s what Gran has done. Given her a kind of Anglican nun frock but uglier. It falls to halfway down her skinny mozzie-bitten shins and it’s not white, not brown, not nothing. Colour of sandy mud. Like a creek coming out onto the mudflats.
Out the window she can see Garth already waiting by the Holden with his scuffed leather satchel on his back. He has one roman sandal on and is trying to fix the buckle on the other one, his tongue out with concentration. Gran is calling her from the front porch. One last dispiriting look in the mirror and she sets off downstairs.
The other girls are already lining up outside the chapel by the time they get there. Late, because Garth had forgotten his lunch and they’d had to go back for it before they dropped him off. In the spring sunshine the girls are a blaze of white, a burning hedge or is it bush, already starting to move into the chapel behind the choir and everyone singing ‘Lead Us Heavenly Father Lead Us.’ Janine tags on the end of the line which means she isn’t in the order they’d practiced. Once they’re in the aisle a gap opens up at the side and she increases her pace, pushing past the showy snowy frocks and patent leather shoes and lacy socks and ignoring parents’ dirty looks until she is only three girls back from where she should be. At the pew she tries to push ahead again but gets rudely shoved aside by that new girl Barbara from Pomgolia who looks her up and down and snickers at the beige sack.
At the rail stands the school chaplain in his best robes, outshone by the bishop beside him in purple and red, his embroidered gold cross not much smaller than the one on the altar. While the organ plays the last of the processional hymn Janine cranes her head around for Gran and finds her, in an aisle seat near the back, Astrakhan hat jammed down hard on her head, scowling worse than the Giles comic granny.
The belt is pinching, hard black plastic crazed with fine cracks that snag your fingers. She lets it out a notch, and wonders again what it will be like to be filled with the spirit. She has no doubt it will happen, that she will be filled with ecstatic white light and feel utter peace and contentment and love. She will never feel alone again. That’s what God’s love is. Love that’s always with you. Always. You are never alone.
The bishop has very knotty hands, she notices, one resting on the arm of his wooden throne, the other clasping his staff. And he does wear a ring on one lumpy finger, black and silver, maybe just like Gran’s bishop did, and it’s a relief she won’t have to kiss it and get Barbara’s germs or anyone else’s. He will only put his hands on their heads and give them the sacrament.
At long last the chaplain finishes his welcomes and explanations about joining God’s family and so on and so on, and they begin finally on the thing they’re all here for. It’s hard not to be impatient when your surname begins with ‘R’ and you’ve ended up sitting among the ‘W’s. While they wait she says a prayer for Gran, and one for Mum and Dad in Fiji, another for Garth not to be so sooky and also for cousin Kirsty who goes to a state school and has no religion. Kirsty has a free spirit and a boyfriend and if Gran tried to make her wear an ugly brown frock she would tell her where to get off. Last Saturday afternoon four of them had gone in Kirsty’s boyfriend’s car – he’s 15 and got his licence – to the Winter Gardens in the Domain and they were the only ones in there. Janine got pashed by the boyfriend’s mate while Kirsty was pashing the boyfriend and it was so hot and sweaty and fumbly and not the kind of thing to be thinking about when you are still only 13 and waiting to be called to God by name.
“Janine,” says the bishop, “God has called you by name and made you his own.”
It was the girl who was supposed to be after Janine, if they had been in their proper order. Katie Munroe. She stops short and sends a panicked look to the chaplain, who whispers in the bishop’s ear.
“Confirm O Lord your servant Katie with your Holy Spirit.” He makes the sign of the cross on her forehead.
The girls in Janine’s pew are rising now, going to take their place by the lectern and filing across one by one to kneel before the bishop. She follows along, pulling the dress down from where it had hitched up under the belt. A mozzie bite on her thigh goes psychodelic extra-ballistic damn bloody itchy.
Her turn. A step forward just as the choir mistress leans over to say something quietly to the chaplain.
“Tracey,” says the bishop, distracted, “God has called you by name and made you his own.”
Janine shakes her head, wants to say – I’m not Tracey – but the hand with the flashing ring is making an impatient, summoning little gesture so she goes forward and kneels.
Among the gathered mothers and sisters and aunts there’s a flutter, a muffled inhalation of astonishment, which she knows is because of her bizarre attire, and she is aware of how it makes her an outsider, that somehow it’s the reason for the bishop going wrong. She feels the butterfly weight of his hands on her head. She had thought they would be heavier.
“Confirm O Lord thy servant Tracey with your Holy Spirit.” While he makes the sign of the cross she closes her eyes.
She goes back to her seat, lots of girls sending her sympathetic glances for the wrong name, and possibly even the dress, and spies Gran sitting bolt upright, her face completely impassive as if she hadn’t heard the mistake.
The sub sacristan puts the bishop right for the next girl, showing him the place on the list. Janine sits quietly waiting, waiting for the spirit to come but it doesn’t, even though God would have known it was her, what her real name is. She feels hollow and empty, and dizzy from holding her breath. Her legs itch and she scratches three bites hard enough to make them bleed. When she dabs at them with the hem of Gran’s frock little red marks soak into the linen and she feels a small, wicked satisfaction.
The newly confirmed have lunch in the hall and the rest of the day off but Janine and Gran don’t hang around for the lunch. Janine is too embarrassed and tired of being stared at for the blood on her legs and the frumpy dress.
Gran drives to the shops in Newmarket and they go to Queen Anne Tearooms for sandwiches and cakes. Gran tries to crack hearty, telling her stories and jokes, puffing away on her Cameos but Janine feels enveloped in gloom. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, it’s almost peaceful. It feels grown-up. Grown-ups have all kinds of disappointments, which is why they go for holidays in the islands. Gran is trying to make the best of it.
After a while she goes quiet. There’s one melting moment left on the plate. Janine cuts it in half and gives her the part with the most icing. She can tell Gran is wishing she’d bought the white dress and that she hadn’t gone on about the wars and young men.
“I’m a silly old woman,” says Gran.
“No you’re not,” Janine says. Since Jesus didn’t show up at her confirmation he is not going to play a big part in her life, she can tell, but he said some good things. Like about forgiveness.
“It’s all right, Gran. I don’t care about it.”
“Your mother wanted me to give you this.” From the depths of her handbag comes a tiny box with Stewart Dawson on the top in silver letters. Inside is a pretty silver cross and engraved on the back it says, “Janine.”
She puts it around her neck and tucks it out of sight under the neckline of the linen dress. Then, even though she’s 13, newly confirmed and has been pashed by a boy, Janine holds Gran’s hand all the way back to the car.
Next week’s short story is “The Hurt You Know” by Eileen Merriman
* ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *