Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Wool Shop

I cannot now remember what my father was doing in a wool shop as it was not his natural habitat. I can only imagine my mother must have sent him there with a sample of wool to procure some further balls for whatever she was knitting that winter in 1976.

There my four year old sister and I stood in the middle of the shop taking the shelves laden with row upon row of pastel merchandise in and straining to peer over the wood and glass counter, dressed identically in mauve crocheted jumpers with matching belts and check trousers, courtesy of our grandmother, although there were two years between us and we were by no means identical. The shopowner beamed broadly at the two little girls in front of her, bingo wings resting on the counter.

'Are yous luk-in' forrward to Farther Christmas coming?' she asked.

We began to nod enthusiastically, before our father injected in his English accent.

'They don't believe in that nonsense!'

The provincial Ulsterwoman regarded us pityingly, then shifted uncomfortably, evidently out of her depth.

'They're atheists.' my father added for good measure.

The Ulsterwoman looked even more alarmed as she hastily took the sample from his hand and rummaged for some matching wool, wrapping a couple of balls in some brown paper a little more carelessly than was her habit and ringing them up, evidently anxious not to prolong the conversation, though he probably got an advert in for veganism as was his wont in any conversation involving an unconverted stranger before the door jangled our exit.

I didn't really pay much attention to the rest of their exchange as my six year old mind was busy mulling over what an atheist was and why my father had said we were one. Part of me felt a bit put out that he had replied on our behalves. He hadn't asked me what I was, or my sister, though my capacity for theological debate and consideration of the smorgasbord of my religious options was probably somewhat limited in those days.

Not that living in Northern Ireland didn't simplify matters substantially. There were Protestants and there were Catholics. The Protestants had shorter school assemblies but the Catholics were better-looking, with fewer spots and braces and rosy cheeks and glossy locks, so there were advantages to both camps.

It is the wool shop which stands out in my mind as the first moment I began to question things, become the pain-in-the-posterior child of the constant refrain; 'But why?'

The only kid I knew who eventually came to develop a bit of a faith as an act of rebellion. I remember watching wistfully as immaculately-dressed old ladies in tweed suits and wool berets pootled past our gate in apple green Morris Minors towards the village church bells that called them melodiously each Sunday, before sitting in the family Renault 12 in my coat until my bemused mother found me sometime later trying to figure out how to start it without a key with the request. 'Mummy. Can we go to church?'

Notwithstanding, it took me a long time to find better answers to the school bullies who slagged me off as an 'effing who-er' (whatever that was) one day and an 'effing virgin' (whatever that was) the next, and tested me with penetrating ecumenical questions such as 'Who made you?'

'Erm, my mum' I would mumble, as the first thing which came into my pea brain.

'Yurrr maaaa?' they cried incredulously before falling about in fits of snorting as a prelude to showing their god what they thought of my mother's efforts at creation via a good kicking.

Over the years it dawned on me that our father's idea of religion was to live forever through the vegan diet, so religion and spirituality were an irrelevance to him, and should naturally be to the fruit of his loins also. Whenever someone we knew died it was always the fault of their 'rotten diet' and my father would rant and rave about it for a while, pitying their ignorance, particularly when his otherwise-intelligent colleague and talented watercolourist friend Frank Shepherd foolishly succumbed to the effects of pipe smoking in his 50s.

Grandpa Ernest (also a pipe smoker) fared somewhat better until felled by a ruptured stomach at 87 and was duly subjected to a Humanist funeral whether he had wanted one or not, as flat as any delivered by a half-hearted CofE official who had never met him either.

As for me, I drifted through various phases of hanging out with young Christians who pretended to be my friends until they realised I was merely Chris-curious and probably never going to be uncritical enough of badly-written Christian rock music (or indeed any other element which bothered me) to join their ranks, to then flirt with Spiritualism, Quakerism and Catholicism in turn before settling on a kind of cherry-pick deal where I would be interested only in the best bits of religion, the Saints, the angels, the miracles. All that doom and gloom stuff from a God seemingly as egocentric and judgemental as his flawed human creations just wasn't for me.

Knit your own flock has always seemed more appealing...