Chapter 11 : Finding God
After the experience with the hawthorn hedge, prep now became a source of constant terror for me, never knowing who was going to wittingly or unwittingly get me into some kind of trouble. It was the winter term and life felt fairly desperate.
It was around this time that Duane and Darrell Udd – whose parents were American missionaries – clearly spied a lost soul. And, during a lunchtime break, one of them said to me (it might have been Darrell, it might have been Duane), ‘Do you want to come out on Friday night?’
I’d already noticed that the Udds were never there at Friday prep. ‘Where do the Udds go?’ I used to think.
So I said to Darrell (or maybe it was Duane), ‘Where do you go?’
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we go to our meetings at the Assembly of God. Do you want to come? I can get permission from Pinky Palgrave, if you’d like to come too.’
Pinky Palgrave was the Head Master of Jameson House, and he was known to be something of a sadist. He once beat a boy so hard that the blood came seeping through his trousers. He beat him six of the best at night and six of the best in the morning. When the boy came out of Palgrave’s office, he turned round and all of us saw he had stripes of blood across his backside sticking to his khaki trousers where Pinky had opened up the wounds he’d made on the boy the night before.
Pinky Palgrave must’ve had very bad acne as a child, because he had that pock-marked, Richard Burton skin. He was thin, like a skeleton, with slightly bulbous eyes. A strange-looking man. But a brilliant biologist and an academic, and he went on to write a wonderful book called Trees of Southern Africa.
So, Duane said to me, ‘Why don’t you come with us to the meeting this Friday? Don Norman’s going to be there.’
‘I don’t know who Don Norman is,’ I replied.
‘Oh, he’s an evangelist.’
I’d never heard of an ‘evangelist’. I had no idea what an ‘evangelist’ was. But it sounded rather mysterious. So I said yes, I’d like to go.
I got permission from Pinky Palgrave, and the best part of it was that I was out of prep. I was out of that ghastly place for a night! I’d only have to endure prep on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Saturday nights and Sunday nights there was no prep anyway. And Friday I would be off with the evangelists! That meant one night off from being chucked in the hedge, or receiving a beating, or enduring some other dreadful going-on. Not to mention that awful business of sitting in the prep room in absolute silence. Instead I got to go and see what the Udds were up to on a Friday night.
And my brother John decided to come too. He and Darrell were in the same year, and John liked Darrell Udd because he was a really cool guy. So off we all went on that Friday night to the evangelical church in Salisbury.
Inside, the evangelical church was like a modern-day theatre. No cross, no altar. Just a large stage and duck-egg-blue walls. As we sat there in the auditorium, out onto the stage strode Don Norman, the American evangelist. And he began to talk about a plane that was coming down – it was just about to plough into the earth – and if we weren’t on the right side, if we weren’t saved, we were going to die. And our souls were going to go to hell. We were going to burn in everlasting damnation.
‘But God…! Jesus…! If you could just stretch out your hand right now! Brothers and sisters, stretch out your hand! The plane is coming down. It’s coming down at 15,000 feet. We’re reaching. We’re stretching out our hands! You just have to say, “God, I want You, I need You! Because You are my life! And I don’t want to end my life now! I want to live with You in eternity, God! I don’t want to die in the eternal flame! I don’t want to die in the pain and the suffering! I want to reach out to You, God!”
‘And, brothers and sisters, I want you all to say, “God, take me on Your wings!”
‘I say to you, brothers and sisters here, lift up your hand! Just stretch out your hand to me. Be not one of those men, be not one of those women that dies — dies in the flames of Nothing and the flames of Emptiness! That dies in the flames of Oblivion! That dies in the Blackness and the Darkness! Lift up your hand. Let’s kneel, brothers and sisters, and say, “Lord, kneel with me!”’
And the hymn was, ‘Halleluia...!’
And the chorus was, ‘Ah, lift me up. Just take my hand.’
And Darrell and Duanewere strumming their guitars and singing their hearts out.
And Don Norman was calling to us: ‘Say: “Lift up your hand!” And say: “I am here!” And say: “I am here!” Yes, say: “I am here!”’
And a little hand shoots up.
And a little voice cries out, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’
(‘Miles, get your hand down ..!’ hisses John, smacking my raised arm.)
‘I’m here, I’m here!!’ I repeat.
And Don Norman is quaking: ‘Come to me, brothers and sisters! Come to me. Come to me!’
And I’m crying: ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!’
And John is hissing, ‘Miles, don’t! Stop now…!’
But I can’t help myself.
‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here…!’
And everyone else has fallen silent. It’s as if I’m the only boy – the only person – in the whole hall. It’s just me! There’s nobody else.
I walk up to this man who’s standing there on the stage in front of me, and I say, ‘I’m here. I’m here.’
He bends towards me with his microphone and asks, ‘What’s your name, son?’
‘Miles…!’ I tremble.
‘Miles, may God bless you! The Lord be upon your soul. God, take this young man! Take this young man and lead him! Lead him to eternity, Lord! Save him! Take him and save him!’
And oh, how I wanted to be saved. Saved from the M stream. Saved from the C team. Saved from Russell Smith and the merciless beatings and the hawthorn hedge and the silent prep.
And just at that moment two men in suits strode towards me and whisked me off into an anteroom. They sat me down and placed a Bible in front of me with all sorts of passages underlined: ‘Come unto Me all ye that are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.’…‘And Jesus Christ said to you…’ And ‘Cast not aspersions (or whatever it is) lest you…(and whatever He said)...’
‘Did you know that Jesus said this?’ they asked.
‘Did you know that “the meek shall inherit – ?’”
‘And did you know that Christ said – ?’
‘Yes, yes! I do, I do!!’ (They looked at me like I was possessed.) ‘Yes. I know all of these things. I know He said all these things. Yes, yes! I’m here, I’m here!!’
I thought I was God. I thought I’d arrived. Suddenly, somehow, I was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. There I was, 13 years old, missing my mother, having been thrown in a hedge, suffering pain. You see, I had suffered in the hedge. Compared with Christ – well, Christ had it easy. He’d just had the hawthorn crown. I’d had the whole bloody hawthorn hedge!
That was it. I was hooked on Jesus for weeks and weeks and weeks. And John would come up to me at school and say, ‘Miles, for God’s sake, pull yourself together!’
And I’d reply, ‘I am pulled together, John. It’s quite all right. Jesus just pulled me together.’
And all of a sudden, my rugby was appreciated and I was promoted to the Under 14 As. The Captain, Ted Alexander, who was also the Head Boy of our House, had suddenly realised my potential and selected me for the A team. He’d even told the rest of the Prefects to back off on the bullying. And from that moment on, whenever I got tackled by some huge scrum half – and BASH! BASH! – I’d cry, ‘Bless you, brother. Bless you. Bless you!’
And even when I was summoned to Russell Smith’s for a thrashing:
‘You were caught talking in class today, Anderson.’
‘I don’t care, Russell. If I was caught talking, I was caught talking, and I’ll take my punishment.’
‘Bend down, Anderson.’
‘Of course, Russell.’
BASH! BASH! And he’d look at me, and I’d say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for that, brother, thank you.’
‘You tosser!’ he’d yell. ‘Don’t you bloody call me your bloody “brother”!’
And I’d just look at him and smile.
As for my poor real brother, John! Oh, dear God. He was so embarrassed as I became this smiling person who just loved everybody. Who loved them all in a grand and magnanimous way.
And I had my little Bible with lots of bits marked in it, and every Friday night I used to go and visit these ‘evangelicals’. And we used to talk, and we’d have tea and cake. We were always eating – there were lovely little things to eat. (Which was a blessed relief as I was permanently starving at boarding school.) Sponge cakes and chocolate brownies and homemade biscuits. All sorts of things that the good Christians had made. And slabs of Dundee cake. And that pinky, yellowy Battenberg cake.
And I just thought they were great, the ‘evangelicals’. Yes, I loved them. And I loved it. I loved that little period of God and the Udds.