Authors: Fiona Kidman
‘Ooo-wah,’ wailed Harriet, unable to contain herself any longer. With a great effort Jim pulled back. In the moonlight, she could see that he was still bulging against his trousers.
‘Ah, yes, you want it real bad, don’t you kid?’ said Jim hoarsely.
Harriet, not at all sure that she wanted ‘it’ any more, or whether in fact that might be all there was to ‘it’, could only mumble.
‘You know I wouldn’t hurt you, don’t you?’ he demanded.
Again Harriet could only mutter, feeling thoroughly bruised and mutilated. Jim apparently took this for a sign of assent.
‘I couldn’t touch you, you know that, don’t you? Christ, I’d like to, but nah, I couldn’t do it. You’re too good a kid. Too good a kid. Muck up your life, I would, that’s what I’d do to a smart kid like you. Old man’d shoot me.’
All this sounded suspiciously like a marriage proposal to Harriet, which was a great deal more than she had bargained for. Or was it? Were other mysterious elements involved? Had she done ‘it’? She was pretty sure the answer was no, but it seemed embarrassing to ask. Crestfallen, she got to her feet, straightening her clothes as she did so.
‘Come on,’ said Jim, quite solicitously, it seemed. ‘I better see you home.’ As they walked over the paddocks he said, ‘I coulda got mad with you, you know. Not really fair, what you done to me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said penitently, her heart momentarily leaping at the thought that she might have accomplished her aim after all.
‘You haven’t been playing round with any of them fellas down at the high school, have you?’
‘No,’ said Harriet indignantly. ‘Of course not.’
‘That’s all right then, that’s what I thought.’
‘Was your wife very pretty?’ asked Harriet suddenly, not knowing why.
He was silent for a minute. ‘Not that you’d notice, I guess. She went to that same damn high school, that’s all. We was doing it from the time …’ He glanced sideways at her. ‘Come to think of it, I guess since we was about your age. Put her up the duff first year out of school. Took our kid when we was both twenty and made off with this other fella.’
‘Oh Jim, that’s awful,’ cried Harriet, genuinely moved.
‘I dunno, kid,’ said Jim, more thoughtful than she’d ever known him. ‘I was awful mad at first, and I felt a right Charley, I can tell you, but you know, there’s some things I dunno, an’ I guess I won’t ever be able to figure ’em out all that proper, but I reckon I don’t blame her all that much. Some things we hadn’t kinda worked on when we was fuckin’ our way through high. See, that’s why I couldn’t a done it to you.’
‘Married you?’ He was bewildered. ‘You wouldn’t want to marry the likes of me.’
Harriet was humiliated. Why had she ever said that? she wondered. One moment he was talking about marriage and the next he wasn’t. The whole thing was impossibly mixed up.
They were nearly at her gate. Unexpectedly, Jim drew her close to the hedge. He put his hand on hers and pulled her to him, just gently kissing her face, the tip of her nose and her forehead, very carefully. No tongues, no bumps. He let go her hand and stroked the side of her face.
‘You’re a real sweet kid,’ he said. ‘I wish …’ He was silent. ‘Thanks, kid,’ he said finally, and then he was gone, loping through the shadows as catlike as could be.
When she was in bed, Harriet wept, shaking, silent tears. Much of what had happened she didn’t understand, so many questions were still unanswered, and so much emotion choked her up that it was almost more than she could bear. Why had he thanked her at the end? Had ‘it’ happened at last, and was there more to ‘it’ than that? Should she have thought about marriage before they started the whole performance? And that bit about Jim’s wife having a baby — well, of course, she knew that some girls started having babies before
they got married, and you had to do whatever ‘it’ was first, but did that mean that if she had done ‘it’ she might have started a baby too? She hadn’t thought about any of that before. There was so much to think about that it was terrifying.
One thing she did know, and that was that your periods stopped if you were going to have a baby. Everybody knew that. Even her mother had by now parted with this bit of information, and there’d been a big scare at school when one of the girls hadn’t got her period for two weeks, and it seemed that she’d been up to something. Everyone had been scared stiff, and at every interval a covey would retreat to the school lavatories to make an inspection. One day her period came, and the girl cried all the rest of the day, which Harriet didn’t understand either.
Anyway, Harriet’s period came two days later, and she took the arrival as a sign that whatever the facts of the matter had been the night Jim walked her home, she was loved by God, and should thank him most sincerely.
The last confirmation class before the actual service took place on Thursday. Father Dittmer hurried them through the responses, which now came automatically, and he said that they were all now fully prepared as people who had come to the years of discretion, and he thought they should do very well as members of the church.
Then everyone filed out except Harriet, who now saw quite clearly that an act of contrition was required of her.
Father Dittmer was busily packing up his little suitcase of books when he saw that she was still sitting there.
‘What is it, Harriet?’ he asked testily. ‘I have to be at the next church down the line at five o’clock.’
‘I wanted to talk to you,’ said Harriet.
‘Oh dear,’ said Father Dittmer. ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I suppose, young lady, that you are about to tell me that you are not going to be confirmed. I suppose you are now going to set about disclaiming God and all His mighty works. You will no doubt be on the verge of discrediting the holy apostolic chain to which we of the cloth subscribe, to prove to me that St Peter, St Paul and St Mark and St Luke and all the others did not tell the truth, that they were just scribes who wrote down folk tales on behalf of the illiterate peasants of the time, and that all the sciences and philosophies of our times have progressed beyond that of the first century AD, except for
theology, and what was all right two thousand years ago will not do for you. Am I right?’
‘I’d forgotten all that,’ said Harriet.
‘Ah!’ Father Dittmer pounced. ‘Then you admit that you have thought such things?’
‘Yes, I suppose I did at one stage,’ said Harriet.
‘And were you not about to discourse on such matters now?’
‘No. I came to confess.’
‘You said, Father, some should, none must, and all may.’
‘Of course, of course,’ he said, sitting down suddenly in the first pew. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his shiny dome. ‘And,’ he asked, ‘which category are you, my dear Harriet?’
She hesitated, about to choose the first edict, then said sweetly, ‘The optional, Father.’
He shot her a reproachful glance but merely said, ‘Then you had better kneel down, hadn’t you, my dear girl?’
‘Right here?’ asked Harriet.
‘Oh no. In the vestry, I think.’ He led the way over the motheaten carpet and opened the creaking vestry door for her.
‘Now,’ he said sitting heavily on the high-backed wood and leather chair. ‘Now, you shall confess, my dear girl.’
‘Where shall I kneel?’
‘Oh just here, just here in front of me,’ said Father Dittmer. ‘Near enough for me to place my hand upon your head … for comfort.’
Harriet knelt obediently.
‘What was it you wanted to tell me, Harriet?’
‘We-ell,’ started Harriet cautiously, ‘it’s about this — boy I know.’
‘Ah,’ breathed Father Dittmer. ‘A boy. I see. And what have you been doing with this boy?’
Harriet was silent.
‘I see. Did you go … all the way?’ Father Dittmer leant forward anxiously.
Harriet looked up, perplexed. She hadn’t bargained for this. In fact, the question seemed a downright insult, considering that she had come here to gain some enlightenment on physical as well as spiritual matters.
‘I don’t know, Father,’ she said truthfully.
‘Come, come, girl, you must know.’
‘But I don’t. I thought you might tell me.’
Father Dittmer gave a strangled gasp and half rose from his chair, then sank back again.
‘Then … where did he touch you?’ he asked hoarsely.
‘Pretty well everywhere,’ said Harriet.
‘There?’ asked her confessor, suddenly stabbing a finger in the general direction of her vagina.
‘Oh — sort of.’
He stretched out a trembling finger towards her chest. His finger had an overlong horny tobacco-stained nail, Harriet noticed as it rested lightly on her breast.
‘Oh yes, yes,’ she nodded, happy to be able to oblige him with something positive.
The nail hooked the corner of her blouse, pulling it aside.
Harriet felt mesmerised, unable to stop what was happening. She nodded, silent now.
‘He held — the bit on top,’ she muttered desperately.
The nail descended on her nipple. To her amazement, she felt it go rigid. That hadn’t happened with Jim. They both looked at this phenomenon in silence. Father Dittmer’s hand dropped away.
‘Did he — penetrate?’ he asked. His voice sounded as though it came from ten thousand miles away, so loud was the roaring in her ears. Both her nipples were standing up like beacons, and there was a beat like the sea under her panties.
She looked at him and through him, trying to answer. She didn’t recognise her own voice. ‘Penetrate? I suppose so. He … put his tongue inside my mouth.’
‘And what else did he put inside?’
‘Nothing at all?’
‘Not even his finger. Like … this?’ The wicked-looking fingernail was following down the line of her body.
‘No. No,’ she cried out, jumping to her feet, and cowering back. ‘Nothing at all.’
The hand dropped. She and Father Dittmer looked at each other as across a great distance.
‘I think we should kneel side by side in the church and pray,’ he said at last.
They went back into the church, and knelt some distance apart in the front pew.
‘We don’t have a strict order for confession in the Church of England,’ said Father Dittmer shakily.
‘Can you not forgive me, then?’ said Harriet.
‘I can pray for you,’ said Father Dittmer, avoiding the question. ‘And I think you should repeat the Fifty-first Psalm after me. I’m sure you’ll find it a great comfort.’ His normal voice was reasserting itself.
The late afternoon sun struck coloured light through the tiny stained-glass window as they knelt muttering one after the other, ‘Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, cleanse me from my sin … I acknowledge my faults … my sin is ever before me.’
Harriet sneaked a glance at him from between tightly clasped hands. ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight,’ he murmured, and she saw a tear winkle its way down the side of his face.
‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,’ repeated Harriet, and slipped quietly from her place. He didn’t seem to notice her, his head didn’t turn, as she hurried out into the sunlight.
Outside it seemed bright and clean and calm. An apple tree showered a profusion of petals over her, as she picked up her bike leaning against it. A keen lemony fragrance came from the cups of the magnolias in the trees by the church and the headstones stood upright as ever with their green-grey beards of lichen. Did it ever happen? she wondered. Then with a great burst of energy, she jumped on her bicycle and began pedalling furiously towards home.
The following week she was confirmed. Her tennis-
dress was finished, rucked and tucked with a multitude of pleats that swung fashionably wide around her calves. Her mother produced the brassière she had made. Harriet wept bitter tears in the night at the thought of having to wear it It was an almost straight bandage-like affair that would hold her in, her mother said. Harriet determined to find work soon, if for no better reason than to earn the money to buy a suitable garment in which to clothe her troublesome breasts.
The confirmation service was attended by hordes of adolescents from all the outlying churches of the scattered parish. The amount of preparation that had gone into the affair hardly seemed worth it. All
that catechism for this. One moment you were outside, next moment inside, and all for some rote chanting that everybody could do. Did it place her above God, she wondered, knowing the vicar had his weaknesses? She hoped not, it seemed a perilously high place to occupy, and one supposed that He must know every bit as much as she did, and more.
The bishop was a tired, gentle old man. He said something about ‘Home is Heaven, and Heaven is Home’ and begged them to remember it all the days of their lives, and she liked the man because he truly seemed to believe it. In a moment of sudden and frightening clarity, it occurred to her that she was not above God, not alongside, and still not inside like this kind man, but still an outsider.
Harriet glanced sideways at Father Dittmer, who had not directly acknowledged her presence, though he had shaken her parents warmly by the hand and said vaguely that of course he would be delighted to call at the farm someday for afternoon tea. She wondered if he knew that she was still locked outside — somehow, she guessed that he did.
As the words of the service flowed on, she thought of her tree and the voice of God. Years later, someone propounded theories to her about adolescent religio-sexual fantasising. Even at that moment, the tree was fading as a real symbol of anything more than a place to cool herself in the fast-approaching summer — the summer she already expected to be her last one at the farm.
For among the other things she found surprising at high school had been the realisation that she had friends. She had defended herself at primary school for so long that when she had tackled high school with her aggressive saunter, the following she accumulated in her wake had seemed unreal. Gradually some of these followers had demonstrated a loyalty for her which in the end she gratefully acknowledged to be friendship.