Saturday, 5 September 2009
The Stone Madonna
My grandmother was extremely religious. In fact, if we misbehaved, which was often, she would tell us that she would report us to the Jesus' mum - the Madonna! This did not have quite the effect it ought to. Wondering as we did if God existed and therefore if Jesus had been born and had a mum, we were inclined to test the theory rather than obey it. If we stayed with her, we were commanded with all the force of one of Moses' commandments to go to church with her. It left a lasting love of gothic architecture in me and no interest in religion whatsoever. Indeed, my sister Bernadette Maria (Bernie M as I used to call her until it stuck!) became an architect and was a great success, building the famous Snodgrass Levene Building in the City.
Now the church we were dragged to, along with mum (dad refused as he was an atheist and grandma would threaten or promise to pray for him) was a rather lovely building of a slightly rosy stone built in the Victorian gothic style. Very lovely and utterly over the top. The stained glass saints would look down upon us and the gorgeous rich reds and purples of the rose window would fall upon Father Titmuss making him redder than he actually was. Occasionally Bernie M would try to convince me that it wasn't the light but that he was bleeding in sympathy with the crucified Christ made of wood. This rather gruesome statue hung behind him and high up as an example to everyone. Bernie M said that the real reason the statue was there was to remind the worshippers what might happen if they didn't regularly attend church. This always sent me into fits of giggles as I imagined Mr Hargreaves whose mother had regularly dragged him to church as a boy and who now refused to go anywhere near it, being crucified outside the church on the spare bit of grass between the rhododendron bushes and the old stone wall.
"The crucifixion will be held inside if the weather is wet," dad remarked wickedly when I told him what Bernie M had said.
We giggled and grandma gave him a stern look. Now just outside the church was a rather lovely statue of the Madonna with the baby Jesus in her arms. She wore a crown and long stony robes. Grandma told us that if she was ever removed the church would fall down and whoever had removed her would be damned for all eternity. We knew that Mr Hargreaves hated the church with a passion (on other points he loved his mother, but on this one he swore once when drunk that he would never forgive her for dragging him to church). So I casually told him what grandma had said. Bernie M giggled when I told her what I'd done and said that lots of little demons would come and pinch me for inciting him. I said that I would pinch those demons back and harder, so there.
Two days later, the Stone Madonna had vanished. The local paper had an article about it and we wondered if Mr Hargreaves would be damned for all eternity. But by the end of the week it was back and Mr Hargreaves was in hospital - celebrating the birth of his daughter's newborn little girl. Mr Hargreaves it seemed was decidedly un-damned, not even for five minutes. Furthermore, the church had not fallen down. I confronted grandma with this and she wagged her finger at me.
"Don't you be impertinent young man," she told me.
I hatched a plan and fetched Mr Hargreaves' wheelbarrow and a few blankets. One night, with Bernie M's help, we stole the Stone Madonna from the church and took her to the woods where it was said there had once been pagan worship. We knew nothing of pagan worship, though Bernie M said that people would dance about naked a lot and sacrifice small boys like me.
"Imagine if they did that in church," I told her and she laughed.
"Especially grandma," she said.
I pretended to throw up at the thought and we managed to wrestle the Stone Madonna from the wheelbarrow onto the ground amid a circle of trees. We put up a screen of woven branches and twigs and there we left her. The next day we went back home to the City where we lived and with all the dramas of our lives, we forgot about her. But by the end of the month, mum had got a call from grandma and was determined that we should all go down to see her. We dreaded the thought of being dragged back to church and it was only then that we remembered the Stone Madonna. Naturally we dared not say anything, but we swore to each other that we would go and visit her the first night we got back.
There had been quite a change in grandma we discovered. She opened the door with a wild and merry twinkle in her eye and gave us both a big warm hug that smelled of earth and herbs and we saw that she was wearing flowers in her hair. She had got rid of her dull 'old lady' clothes and wore long dresses of red and purple. Her grey hair was not pinned up but loose and wild. In fact she was not as restrained as she had been, but wild and loose and wonderful. She made us tea and gave us cake that she had baked.
"But mum, you don't bake. You hate baking!" our mum told her.
"I've been such a silly woman, repressing myself for no reason other than I though I was being 'moral'. Not baking is just silly. Children like cakes and warm bread is perfection," grandma replied.
It was then we noticed the large fluffy black cat sprawled elegantly along the back of her sofa. We said hallo to him and stroked him and he purred with a low deep pleasurable sound. Grandma was not frosty with dad either, she gave him cake and taking his face in her warm hands, she kissed him. It worked, he was stunned, but we loved the new grandma - even if we did not understand what had happened.
"We should ask Mr Hargreaves if he knows what's happened to Grandma," Bernie M said.
To get to his house we had to pass the church and as we did we noticed that it was covered in thick ivy and all the plants around the building were wild and abundant. Still we did not understand what was happening, but when we arrived at Mr Hargreaves' house we saw also that his house was choked with plants. We could hear the baby warbling delicately. Instead of going to Mr Hargreaves, we decided to look for the Stone Madonna. We found that to our surprise we had to wrestle our way through thick plants to get to the statue.
The statue seemed to have changed. The crown had become an ivy one and the child she had carried, now stood up in her arms one arm outspread as if welcoming us. Her smile seemed somehow wild and, though I did not know it at the time, lascivious. She was no longer the Holy Mother of God, but some wild pagan goddess. We did not know what to do. We were too afraid to get too close to this woman who seemed wild and unpredictable. It felt to both of us that she had a power we could not understand. A power of life in it's wild raw, passionate state. We were too young to understand this power, but it was sexual and primal, even fey.
We escaped from the wood and returned to grandma's and we said nothing. The town had changed somehow, it was wilder and more relaxed. All those old people in the town seemed younger and healthier, more full of life. We went home shortly afterwards and never went back. After five years, the church fell into ruins. Bernie M and I moved on with our lives, the past with it's churchgoing and religion only memories.