In our early teens my friend Janet and I were Girl Guides. The Guide Hut (where I had once danced to The Tornadoes) was behind the Church and we went there every Friday night. At first we were very good Guides, repeating every week the promise ‘to do our duty to God and the Queen and to help other people at all times’, and working hard to win badges. One of the first ones was ‘Health’. This involved putting ticks on a card declaring that you had changed your vest regularly and slept with the window open.
Health was a lot easier than Firelighting. We were taken to Cannock Chase to practice this difficult art. When I finally got the fire lit I was mortified to discover that I should have brought something with me to cook on it. I looked at the other girls’ ‘Cheese Dreams’ and ‘French Toast’ with envy, till one of them let me have a piece. Then there was orienteering, and knots. Once you had passed knots, you could progress to making things with sticks and string – wash stands, shoe racks and so on. All of these skills came into their own on the annual camping trips, where an embroidered flag was awarded to the inhabitants of the tidiest tent. Janet and I and our companions once won this honour, thanks to our expertise in the stick furniture line, and despite the fact that the wash stands were purely for show – at camp a cursory splash of cold water on the face each morning was as far as we went with washing.
Setting out for camp. Janet and I are in the centre of the group, standing on the grass. I am clutching an anorak, and not wearing my beret.
Our enthusiasm for being good Guides soon waned, perhaps as a result of the malign influence of the Church Choir, who would be queuing up outside the Church waiting to go in for their practice when we were already ensconced in our Hut. Unlike the Guides the Choir was mixed, and this was its main attraction. We would look through the murky windows of the Guide Hut at what my mother called the ‘goings on’. I think this was when I learnt the verb ‘to snog’. After that steamy start to the evening the Guides’ jolly songs and games seemed a bit tame, so on the pretext of needing more orienteering practice we would repair to the chip shop, buy a bag of chips and hang around till it was time to go home.
But on Sunday mornings the Choir looked angelic, and Janet and I were regulars at Sung Eucharist. Our church was a modern and functional brick edifice which did not seem to be quite the right setting for the traditional, ‘high Church’ service. Despite our unpromising surroundings, Janet and I got used to singing the responses and hymns, and inhaling a good dose of incense which along with the pre-communion fasting made us feel pleasantly faint. Occasionally Janet’s mother accompanied us, but my parents never set foot in the place. My devotion was a mostly personal affair, which my parents regarded with suspicion. They did not object to my attendance at confirmation classes, so Janet and I went along. I remember nothing of these classes, apart from the slight sexual tension between the pre-pubescent girls in the class and the post-pubescent curate who taught us. I wondered what the first communion would be like, whether I would see angels, or feel heavenly bliss.
My mother had not quite caught on to the significance of wearing white for the confirmation service, so she got me a short cream Crimplene shift dress. This was around the same time that I was introduced to stockings and suspenders, so that the knobbly texture of the Crimplene and the complexities of the underwear merged in my mind in a general feeling of discomfort and anxiety (would my stocking tops show when I knelt down?).
The confirmation service was held in the big church, St Michael and all Angels, which was built after the war, but in traditional style. It all seemed very grand, compared to our little church. I tried hard to concentrate on confessing my sins, and praying for the world, but the Crimplene, and the suspenders kept reminding me I was an almost grown up woman now, with a body, as well as a soul.