Chapter 18 The Evangelist
I have survived another term. For days I have been looking forward to the journey home for the Easter holidays; it has come at last. I am shattered. Last night no-one got much sleep. My expectation, therefore, has been dulled, I am an automaton.
I change out of the school special train at the first stopping place, bid farewell to my peers and catch the next London train calling at Esher, the station which is a bus ride from my home, the village in which Robert and his family - and Topsy - live. I know at once that I have made a mistake, when we sail past the first local station without stopping. With increasing alarm I watch the other stations flash by and now we are approaching Esher at full speed on the centre line. I am resigned. I am standing in the corridor on the racecourse side, searching for her home. There it is; it is by in a split second, giving me no chance to focus on the back windows, we are going much too fast. Perhaps they are all still asleep - after all, it is still only breakfast time and I presume she has school holidays as well.
I am relieved when the train begins to slow down for Surbiton where I used to go to school. At first I think I can take the local train straight home to Hampton Court as I used to, regularly, then I realise my ticket is made out to Esher. I must return there then, just one stop. I am back to plan, just half an hour late, nothing is unduly disturbed; I have returned to my sleep-walking state.
As I walk down the wooden steps of the station exit, I feel vaguely uneasy. Perhaps it is just that I’m alone, the staircase is deserted. Everyone is on the other side of the station, going up to London, not returning at this hour of the morning. I clutch my overnight case in one hand, ticket in the other, and walk into the dark, footstep-echoing booking hall. I am trying to remember when the next bus will be for Molesey; the one that my mother had intimated in her last letter has long since departed. There is a tramp with a beard watching me from the corner of the hall. I haven’t any change, I shall try to avoid him. I’ll go up to the bus stop on the corner of Racecourse Road. If nothing is due, I’ll walk up past Robert’s house, under the skewed railway bridge and past number eighty eight. Perhaps there will be a bus stop right outside her house. Perhaps she will come out while I’m standing there and ask me what I’m doing. What can I say? I am hesitating outside the station on the main road where it goes under the railway, wondering if I dare go down Racecourse Road, when the tramp approaches me.
I break from my indecision and try to escape, but it is too late, it would be too obvious, too impolite now to slip away. And I have been brought up always to do the right thing.
“Son, can I have a word with you?”
The gruff voice stops me in mid-stride. I am surprised, his voice sounds educated, with an accent I cannot place.
“Where are you going?”
I explain to him that I am coming home from school, I have to catch a bus.
“Spare me a moment, young man. I have something far more precious for you. You can catch a bus any time.”
I am even more disconcerted now. I sense I ought to get away from him, he seems vaguely menacing, I don’t like him. But I can’t think of a valid reason and I can’t bring myself to be rude to him.
He comes right up to me now. He is too close, I don’t like it. He is thickset, dressed in a faded raincoat, and he has a bobble-cap covering his head. I notice for some peculiar reason that his black shoes have recently been cleaned. It is his face, however, that is most off-putting. He has a huge bushy beard, flecked with grey. And he has small piercing eyes that hold me as if he had encompassed me with a chain of steel.
I flinch under his gaze.
“My son, “ he says very deliberately, “have you been saved ?”
I am totally thrown. I really don’t know what he is talking about. I mumble something noncommittal.
“Have you given your life to Jesus? Has he washed away your sins?”
I breath a sigh of relief. It is alright. He is talking about religion. I am on safe ground here, I think.
“Oh, I see what you mean. I go to church and Sunday School already.”
“But have you given your life to Jesus?”
“I am a Christian. I have always gone to church.”
“That is not what I asked you, son. Lots of people go to church, but they are not all Christians.”
I am mystified by his line of reasoning, and become confused.
“Not until you’ve repented of your sins and turned to Him, will you be truly saved. Tell me about your sins, those dark recesses in your life that you keep secret.”
Does he want me to tell him about Topsy? Is it a sin to think about her? To have wanted to kiss her? I don’t want to tell him, I don’t want to tell anybody.
“I can’t think of any.”
“My son, my son, how can you say that? All mankind is tainted with sin, if you say you have no sin, you deceive yourself.”
I wrack my brain. I am not going to escape until I can think of something.
“I fight with my sister. I once threw her down the stairs.” This is a bit of an exaggeration, it was an accident, but I did push her. Perhaps this will satisfy him.
“Are you ashamed of that, my boy? Do you wish to tell her you are sorry, to start a new relationship with her?”
I want to say that it was ages ago, that she was teasing and provoking me, that it was an accident, that since I’ve been away at boarding school we get on much better anyway. But if I tell him this, I’ll have to find some other sin, perhaps he’ll probe and find out about Topsy and tell me it is all dirty, wrong. He is making me feel ashamed and blameworthy because I love her. There, I’ve said it.
In later life I’ll blame this impostor, this charlatan, for many things. Perhaps he was the catalyst for my doubting the faith he thought he’d come to save me with. I blame him more for making me forever associate my thoughts of Topsy with dirt and sin, even though he never said a word that made me express that thought. When in future I daydream about her, I long for her, sex always squirms into the image. He implanted it in my mind that that is unclean, sinful, and that was evil.
So, to stop him pushing further, I mumble in the affirmative.
“Then today you shall start afresh. You shall be washed in the blood of the lamb. For this one chance meeting - nay, not chance, it is Providence, my boy - I have been sent to minister to you, and you alone. I have come over all the way from Newfoundland, my boy, just to save your soul.”
He swings a filthy pack from his shoulder and burrows inside producing a black and much used bible. He turns to the flyleaf and stubs a coarse and chapped thumb towards an inscription which reads:
To Brother Joshua, go forth and preach the Word and save the souls of mankind, St John’s, Newfoundland, January 1949.
“My sojourn here is not in vain. I had begun to think the English had turned their back on the Risen Lord, there has been a hardness of heart, resistance to my message. But you, my boy, you are the reason for my journey to Europe. I have come all this way to save your soul.”
All I can think is ‘help’, let me get away from this man. But I am unable to hurt him, can I reject his words now when he is putting so much store on this meeting?
“All this time I am talking to you and I haven’t yet asked you your name.”
“It’s David, sir. David Maidment.”
“And how old are you David?”
“Thirteen sir, nearly fourteen.”
“Thirteen years lost to Satan, David, and now a whole lifetime ahead of you in the service of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Saviour.”
I mumble something unconvincing once more. Surely he can see my embarrassment, surely he realises that I don’t really understand what he is on about?
“We must give thanks to the Lord for your repentance and salvation, David. Here in this place, in the teeming street.”
I look hurriedly around me. There are one or two cars, a couple of pedestrians, my bus is just turning the corner. I want to make an excuse and run for it, but it is already too late, I have missed it.
“Let us join together in a little prayer, David. Let us link arms together and praise the Lord.”
I squirm away from physical contact with the man, but cannot make myself flee the spot. I am trapped in my own embarrassment.
“Kneel down with me, David, and let us commit your soul to Jesus.”
“Kneel?!” I reel in horror. “Not here on the pavement? I’ll make my trousers filthy.” It is surprising how trivial one can be at a time of high stress.
“David, cannot you do even that little thing for the Lord? After he has died for you, David, specially just for you? Yes, you, even as I have come all the way from the North American continent to save you?”
He has torpedoed me. I sink, I flounder. My brain capitulates. Oh god, he is going to make an exhibition of me right here on the pavement.
I shut my eyes tightly and pretend that I do not exist……. I blot out the passersby; perhaps no-one will come, or not realise what is happening. He is praying on and on, his voice is loud, droning. I don’t hear a word he is saying, I am rigid with fear that someone will see me. Perhaps Robert, or Jane or Topsy will come past and what then? But I daren’t open my eyes to look. In fact I shut them so tightly, I’m making myself dizzy. I feel I am fainting. I move slightly to my right so that I can support myself against a low wall and privet hedge. I can suddenly and vividly smell the cat urine as I brush against the twigs. I begin to feel sick. He is still praying. I bump into my case. There is a clatter as it falls over, for I have put it on an uneven part of the pavement. He ignores the interruption, he is exalting now over my salvation, the angels of heaven are singing round God’s throne, for ever and ever, ad infinitum, Amen.
Eventually he stops. I dare to open my eyes and to my relief, see that we are alone on the pavement. I think I feared to find a circle of gawping spectators - with hindsight I think anyone who saw this spectacle would have made themselves scarce at once.
Father Joshua as he calls himself - I don’t think he is a priest, he isn’t wearing a dog-collar - carries on as if I wasn’t there at all. He is still spouting at me, the words of the Authorised Version are spilling off his lips in a tumultuous cascade of sound. Someone is coming out of the station.
“Can I get up now?”
I don’t think he is aware that I have spoken. I am beginning to panic, the pedestrian is getting closer, he must be able to see me. I haul myself up in an undignified manner and feel my face burning. The man gives me an old-fashioned look as he steps off the pavement to avoid us; for a moment I think he is going to say something to me, then he seems to change his mind. I breathe a sigh of relief and pass my handkerchief over my brow.
The bearded man is still talking at me. He is waving a little pamphlet in front of my nose, he is giving it to me; it is the Gospel of St John. I try to tell him that I have a complete bible of my own, my grandparents gave it to me when I was ten, but he is not listening to me.
“Tell me the name of your pastor, David, I will communicate the joyous news of your salvation to him. Here, write it for me on this piece of paper.”
“There is no need, sir, really there isn’t, I see him each week at church, I’ll tell him.”
The man is disappointed, he tries to press me further, but I am now more emphatic.
“I will do it sir, really I will. There is no need for you to contact him.” There, he has already made me a liar, because there is no way I will.
He knows I am slipping away, that I will say nothing, but he is maintaining the pretence right to the end. He must let me go before I say anything that will deny my saved state.
“Let me bless you then, my boy, before you depart from this precious moment.”
I pick up my case and turn towards Racecourse Road, ready to make my getaway. I feel a greasy hand grip me firmly round my head; his span is enormous, he clamps me while he intones:
“May the Lord bless you, David, may the seed within you grow and bear fruit thirtyfold, or sixtyfold or a hundredfold. And may He protect you from Satan’s ravages.”
He lets me go and holds out his arm to me. I’d rather run, but I let him nearly crush my palm.
“Thank you, David, for making my pilgrimage here worthwhile.”
I think I thanked him too, probably I did, just as I apologise to inanimate things when I bump into them. I cannot bear to let people down. I have earned my release. I don’t look back, but scurry down the road as fast as I can decently escape without making it totally obvious, and turn the corner to the bus stop. I lean against the concrete post breathing deeply. The timetable says there is nothing for a quarter of an hour, but I can’t face walking up past Topsy’s house now. For some reason, all my urge to do that has vanished.
I just stand there shuddering and trembling with shock. My mind is not functioning at all. It has not even occurred to me to ask myself what a so-called evangelist from Newfoundland is doing outside a suburban railway station in Surrey at nine o’clock in the morning. There is a litter bin beside the bus stop. I throw the tract I have been given in the bin. Then I bury it under the other rubbish there in case he follows me and sees
it lying where I have discarded it already.
By the time I reach home, I’m beginning to push the experience to the back of my mind. Perhaps Mum thinks I’m a bit subdued; if so, she’ll put it down to tiredness, for I describe the last night revels in the dormitory as graphically as decency will allow, and thus manage to bring to my consciousness more pleasurable topics.
By the morrow I’m settling in at home as if school is but a dream. On Sunday I go to church as usual, before the sermon I join my aunt’s bible class, they are all girls except me as the other boys have all left considering it to damaging to their image. During the discussion we are invited to share any experiences, problems, things of interest to all. A couple of girls mention some relation who is ill, or forthcoming exams. My aunt turns to me.
“David, you’ve been away several weeks. Surely there must be something you’d like to share with us?”
And I say:
“No, really, I can’t think of anything special.”
And I was right, you know, at that moment I couldn’t think of anything at all. But this aunt was the one who pressed me about my choice for the Sunday School Queen and who initiated my humiliation at the dinner table.