I am nineteen, sitting before Father Philip by the vestry door in Pusey House chapel, the background smell of beeswax and motes of incense hanging in the chilled early morning air, slanting with shards of sunlight. It is half past seven on a Wednesday morning and in half an hour, at morning mass, the Bishop of Dorchester will administer the sacrament of confirmation, receiving me into the Church of England. First, Father Philip settles in a chair opposite me, drapes a purple stole around his neck and softens his face to look at me encouragingly.
“Forgive me father for I have sinned.” How odd it was to recite this formula, familiar from books and films, but strange and lumpen in my mouth. “This is my first confession, and erm, the first sin I can remember, I don’t know if — it might sound a bit ridiculous but honestly it’s the first thing I can definitely remember doing that I knew was wrong. I was two and it was the morning of my eldest sister’s wedding, I was a pageboy and…”
My sister Jan is the middle of seven siblings of whom I’m the youngest. She takes up the story in our family Messenger group as we discuss family memories, 33 years after the confirmation, 49 after the wedding: “You were upset at not having flowers to walk down the aisle with. You were only placated by the addition of a humming top to your splendid regalia! I remember thinking that if any of the rest of us had tried that particular tactic we’d have been given a good hiding. ‘Something to cry about.’”
I don’t recall flowers being an issue, but perhaps they were. Would I have felt the need to confess if the humming-top were a substitute bouquet? That would have been only fair. I thought I had simply refused to take part in the wedding unless dad got me the humming-top in an act of blackmail. I’d seen it, and coveted it, in Moorhouses’ shop window, and here was my chance, knowing how important my role was, dressed in white with gold braid, to threaten a derailing tantrum if I didn’t get my way. Jackie pleaded with dad, I thought, I think, I imagine, I posit: “Can you just get him it dad? I don’t want him spoiling my day.” Was there a ‘that brat’ in there? Nobody has said so, and it doesn’t sound like Jackie, so I don’t include it, even though I feel I probably deserved it. Did she instead say something like, “Oh, I should have thought to get him something instead of flowers, all the girls have something to hold.” Jan’s retelling (‘you’re upset’) floats sentiments like those into the scene, perhaps despite herself. Maybe I wasn’t as mercenary a child as I’ve come to think.
But the moral of Jan’s story is surely that I was the spoiled, mollycoddled one. It’s a sincerely affectionate tease, of course, but there’s a bond more than hinted at that I lie outside. She’s the median child of seven, but twelve years older than me and only five younger than Jackie. Just ten years separate my six siblings; I am seven years adrift, not one of ‘the rest of us’, but a child always a little apart (and always, still, a child). Loved enough to be soothed by dad going down Earby for a humming-top, while the bride patiently waited. Resented, though, for using a ‘tactic’ (so we agree it was deliberate, self-motivated) that should have got me the ‘good hiding’ that I never did get, neither then, nor later, so felt obliged to give myself: “I am sorry for these, and all the sins I cannot now remember.”
Confession, excruciating as it is, is its own punishment. That’s not how the theology is supposed to work, but it’s how the psychology does. I convicted my two-year old self of the sin of being me.
Memory is the story we tell to convince ourselves we are a person, and the story changes depending on whom we can allow ourselves to be, and where we can place ourselves in the stories of others. Then there are stories we cannot erase, that speak of the person we fear we are, so we alter them and invite others, if we can, to collude in reshaping ourselves. Am I the same person who made that confession? Or the one who would join the Catholic Church seven years later? Or the one who thought the Pope was the antichrist five years earlier? Or the precocious nine year old atheist? Or the fifty-four-year-old agnostic? Or am I the two year old, spinning his top on the wooden Methodist chapel floor, making it rattle, making it hum, while around him things go on that he only half-understands.
Memory spins. It is full of holes. The holes catch the insubstantial air of time; they make it hum, they make it sing.