When I was in Year Three I had my First Holy Communion. It was a big occasion for the whole of my class and the school, every year about thirty children started taking the Eucharist like all of the adults. They became one with the rest of the Church, the rest of the world and with the Lord. Nobody liked wine, but just the idea of drinking the blood of Jesus Christ excited us enough to forget the horrible taste that it left in our mouth long enough to appreciate the meaning. We were supposed to know enough about the Church and the whole grand meaning of the schemes so that we could fully understand what we were doing, but I doubt we did. Even now I think I don’t fully understand it properly. There are simple things that I miss and certain parts of faith that have escaped me, or I’ve simply turned my back on.
Sister Mary was a nun and Irish with grey hair and long, modest dresses and cardigans, glasses and tissues up her sleeves. Simply the fact that she was a nun made us terrified of her, even though she couldn’t place a finger on us. Part of me wishes she could have, just so that I’d have had a better excuse for hating her other than I just did. She took us through the ceremony. We walked in twos with candles towards the altar, we sang our hymns in squeaky out of tune voices. Then we took him in, blood and body, wafer and wine. She said it was Jesus’ orders that we do it, he said so when he was going to die, just before at the Last Supper. He told his disciples that they should do that to remember him, in his honour. She told us the same, and when to say Amen at the right moment. No longer did we take a blessing like children, we took Jesus in like people.
There were some kids who only came to our school because it was the closest, not because of the faith. They weren’t getting Jesus, letting him into them and celebrating. They would on the side of our rehearsals with maths questions and literacy exorcises as if they were being punished. When mass was held at school they’d just get a blessing, their arms folded over their chests, hands flat on their collarbones; there wasn’t the option of sitting and waiting for everyone to come back.
It was going to be a big thing for all of the families, nearly everybody had Irish in them and so people were flying in from Dublin and all the other counties so as they could sit in the modern church with long, plain, sombre windows and doors and bare walls, breathing in the humidity and watching as children were given lit candles and told to eat the blood and body of their saviour. The distant great-aunt of a child would be there for the first time, watching with pride for a girl she barely even knew. My grandparents were going to be there, all four of them, half of them Catholic, the other half something they never said. Godparents too, one barely holding onto faith and the other something they never said.
It was the travellers that took it the most seriously. Their mother’s barely dressed and their heavy fathers dressed for office work would stuff their children into dresses made up of fluff pink and lace, too heavy to walk in properly and enough to set the entire building on fire. I remember watching the boys in their full suits and golden waistcoats, heeled shoes, pawned signet rings, jealous to my bones of them. We came over in several cars, my family, stuffed into the Clio with the seats you had to move forward to get into the back and the Renault Espace with pine needles from last Christmas worn into the floor and biscuit crumbs on the cushions, seats in the back you had to open to boot to get out of. All of the English families were like this, but then we would watch the travellers roll up in their hired hummer limos, white and pink and silver, playing loud Top 40 songs and waving out of the sun roof and windows, holding in their hands flutes of children’s strawberry champagne and smiling, knowing that they were having a better time. The girls could barely get out of the doors there so much fabric. My friends were sleek and modest in plain creaseless white, far more beautiful, far more fitting; but they were still jealous of the travellers dressed in bubble-gum pink tissue paper.
I didn’t have a suit jacket, or a waistcoat, and I didn’t know how to gel my hair right. My mother had to buy special ‘smart’ trousers for me, my first black pair, not like the itchy grey ones I had for school from George or M&S. We went to our mall and searched for an appropriate pair, but none of them fitted. In the changing rooms of BHS my mother struggled to do up the button and shouted at me, cursing my belly that spilled out over the top and I cried hard behind the curtain and the other mothers, whose children sat outside impatient and waiting, hopefully shook their heads. I thought I looked great, but up against those travellers I was nothing. I had cried loudly in public for absolutely nothing and now I felt a fool.
My brother and sister were much older now, in university in London and Birmingham, above all this pageantry and superstition, left the idea of the Catholic Church and Sister Mary who was my teacher, Father’s Bosco and Rogers, Deacon Dom. They were made to come, and when it was little brother’s turn so was I. Standing outside the church my father took pictures of us all with fake smiles and when it’s all over we go back home and eat barbecue in the Spring time weather in our back garden. I play with cousins and my mother fills up wine glasses and some point I’m toasted, nobody really caring, me too.
I don’t really have much faith anymore. I have inklings of it lying about. At secondary school I took lessons in philosophy and ethics, world religions spoke to me; Islam and Hinduism. I own the Bhagavad-Gita and I’ve read it twice and I’m pretty sure reincarnation exists as an actual law, dharma too. I own a Bible and The Prince of Egypt is one of my favourite films. Moses and the Exodus, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel, these are among my most cherished stories. I own lots of things with the Buddha on them and I really like Japan. There is a postcard of Dante stuck on my wall and on my shelves you can find Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost. Here, at university, I joined a secular and humanist society, but I don’t really have the courage to go. I’ve been to almost all of the best cathedrals of Italy and I’ve seen the tomb of Pope John Paul II. My favourite singer is a devout Evangelist, my favourite poet a Jew turned Buddhist, my favourite authors Catholic and Atheist.
It’s all a mesh now and it seems that you can’t really escape it; but I’m too scared to embrace it. Ideas buzzing around my head, not really knowing what my First Holy Communion meant besides drinking blood and being jealous of clothing and hair, who has the better car. I don’t like thinking about, but I can’t help it, and while I wonder whether I’m alone in the whole grand enterprise, whether I like the institutions or if I’m just going to rot away, there’s a part at the back of me saying it’s nothing and trivial and there’s nothing to question so don’t debate it anymore. But I guess it’s just human to ponder it, get sucked in and lost in the void of the question. I doubt many people fully make their way out knowing their own answer. I’m not jealous of waistcoats and suits, limos and good hair anymore; I’m jealous of the people who make it out with an answer they believe in.