Chapter Three…When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in RED BOXES

Continued from previous post…
When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in Red Boxes by Gladys Hobson.
A pick and mix assortment of childhood memories 1939-53

Chapter Three

Of God and bananas

“For thou wilt be done,” I recited every morning at school.
How could we say that God would be done? Mrs Mop of BBC’s ITMA, said in every programme, “Can I do you now, sir?” and everyone would laugh. Whatever that cleaning lady did to Tommy Handley was a cause for mirth. Was God, too, in for some hilarious treatment? It all seemed highly irreverent to me. Just saying the words made me feel slightly wicked.
Throughout my schooling, every day began with some kind of religious assembly and, most days, with a religious education lesson. In those days, in my schools, God was not discussed or questioned. God was. Why doubt the fact of his eternal existence? We had our oldest textbook, the Bible, assuming his presence. No matter how bad the war reports reaching us via the radio or newspapers – they were just a few sheets in those days – we never doubted the outcome. After all, God was on our side. He knew when we were bad and he knew when we were good. He was an all-seeing, all knowing presence, the headmaster-on-high ready to punish but also the heavenly father who loved us. For years I could live with this dichotomy. After all, my own father was just the same. Dad may never have thrashed us but the threat was there. In those days, it was probably true for most children. I certainly knew of no other kind of child-father relationship within my circle of friends. And I said my prayers at night as a matter of routine. What might happen if I did not do so?
As far as I can remember, I had never been inside a church until the day my sister took me with her to Sunday school. It was a Four Square Elim Church. Though what it meant I had no idea. I know now that it was a Pentecostal Church, but at that young age it was merely a pleasant place to go on a Sunday.
A lot of children went to Sunday school in those days. With nothing else to do in particular, it was somewhere to go. We had picnic outings, occasional treasure hunts, and the annual Anniversary. We had stories read to us, followed by quizzes. We sang jolly songs and did all the actions that went with them. The Pastor taught us a song in Spanish, which I remember to this day. We thought it great to speak a foreign language. It was all good fun when I was very young. I enjoyed the stories and the singing. But eventually, as I grew older, I became tired of songs for the very young and, not being old enough for the Bible class, I drifted away. By that time I had found more exciting things to do.
As a young child, with no such things as televisions or electronic games to keep us at home (nor did we have a family car to take us on trips) the Sunday school outings really meant something to us. They were also a substitute for the holidays we never had. A furniture van would take us off into the country and we would picnic and have races on a farm. What did it matter if it rained? There was the barn. What did it matter if the field was full of cow-pats? It was fun decorating them with flowers, twigs, and stones, to make them look like the birthday cakes we never had.
In 1941, I was given my very first Bible. I still have it, complete with my first attempts at joined-up writing stating my name and address on the inside cover. The Bible was seldom used, but twenty years later it took on great significance in my life.
The Bible was offered to children who had made a promise to Jesus. It was this promise that has powerfully affected my life, although at the time it may not have appeared that way.
One Sunday afternoon at the Sunday school, instead of us going into our individual classes, all the children sat together in the pews where the adult congregation sat for services. It was a special day because the Pastor wanted to talk directly to all the children. He was a nice friendly man and was good at telling stories. That day, he told us a story that I have never forgotten – at least, not the essential thread of it.
The Pastor told us about a sick little boy called Billy. Billy had always been a happy child who loved his home and especially his parents. He also loved Jesus because the Bible told him that He was his special friend. The lad always knew that Jesus was close to him and sometimes he would talk with Him. The pastor said that talking to Jesus was called prayer. But to little Billy it was just talking and being with someone who loved him. In a very special way, Billy had given his heart to Jesus and he knew that Jesus would be his friend for ever.
Billy’s parents knew from the day that Billy was born that their child had not long to live. They were told to love and enjoy him and make the most of the time they had together. Billy was their only child and they believed that he was a gift from God. Although deeply sad that Billy would leave them, they knew that God would look after him and that one day they would all be together again.
Billy did not want to leave his mummy and daddy but he knew that he was dying. He was getting weaker and weaker every day.
Sitting in my pew, I followed the story in minute detail. I could see the sick child in a bed like mine, in a room like mine, in a home like mine.
“Boys and girls, was Billy frightened?”
A few whispered yes but some shouted, “No!”
“Quite right. Billy was not afraid of dying because he knew that Jesus would be near him wherever he went. He trusted his friend to be with him forever. Billy would never be alone.”
That meant something to me. It had not been so very long since I had been lonely in hospital with no real friend to talk to. I was listening intently.
The Pastor continued. “One night Jesus came into Billy’s bedroom. He lifted Billy into his arms and carried him to another room to live with him forever. A place where he would no longer suffer and where no one could harm him. A place where he would always be happy.”
That sounded like a pretty good deal to me.
“Now, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes. Put up your hand if you would like to give your heart to Jesus, and I will say a prayer for each one of you.”
I closed my eyes, put up my hand, and heard the prayer. I repeated what I was told to say and it was all over. I had given my heart to Jesus and He would always be my friend.
Excited, I ran home to tell my mother that I had given my heart to Jesus.
“That’s nice”, she said, and that was that.
But something else happened that had a powerful influence on the early growth of my spiritual life.
One day Grandfather Brock, my father’s father, came to visit us. It was the only time that I was to see any of my grandparents and the memory of doing so is clear in my mind.
I knew that Grandfather was a very special person and that it was something to do with him working in the church. What he did, I could not really fathom because ‘church’ was a big mystery to me. Actually, he ran the Seamen’s Mission in Scarborough. My father said that he was a parson, something like the pastor at the chapel. We were told to behave ourselves and keep out of the way as he’d come to talk to our dad.
I did not see Grandfather arrive but I knew that he was in the sitting room because I could hear voices. It all seemed very mysterious and since there was no one around to see me, I listened at the door.
Grandfather was talking about heaven. He told my father that he had been there and what a wonderful place it was. I heard him say that he had met friends who had died, and that death was nothing to be afraid of. I thought he must be very special. I asked mother if I could see him. She told me to knock at the door.
An elderly gentleman with a white beard stood up and gently shook my hand. He seemed kind and friendly and I was very impressed by his stature; he towered over me. I was rather awed to be in his presence. This was someone who knew all about God and heaven, and he was my grandfather! I did not see him again but he was now a part of my life. Later, I read a book containing a chapter about my grandfather, of how he had been in William Booth’s Christian Mission before it became the Salvation Army, and I was even more impressed. My grandfather laboured to save souls and heal their bodies in the name of Jesus. God was beginning to emotionally connect with my life. The hymns we sang at school took on a deeper meaning.
I may not have questioned the existence of God, but one day, early in the war, I decided to try out the efficacy of prayer. At the time I was sitting in the outside lavatory, a whitewashed nook of a place, with only the customary strung squares of newspaper and an old banana box for company. It was a private retreat, fine for dreaming while waiting for stubborn muscles to perform. The pictures of bananas on the top of the box made me long for one. It had been ages since they were available. The last time I saw one was when a girl brought one to school. Her soldier brother had brought it back from abroad. She had eaten the fruit herself and divided the skin between her friends. The rest of us had to make do with just the smell.
I decided to ask God for a banana.
“God, if you can do everything, turn this picture into a real banana.”
I slowly opened my eyes and, of course, there was no banana. I suddenly felt a wave of shame spread over me. What a wicked girl! We can’t tell God what to do. We don’t ask for things we do not need, and we do not put him to the test. I may not have received a banana but I had a deep inner conviction of his holy and powerful presence. I did not have to trust that God existed; I somehow knew he did. Of course, my feelings may have been reflecting my relationship to my father!
I once heard my father telling someone about his near death experience. Evidently, while working at Chilwell Ordnance Depot, he was trapped between two trucks. When he was released, having no signs of life, he was thought to be dead. They spread him out on the ground and waited for the ambulance. My father said that he was floating above them listening to what was being said about him. When medical help arrived, he was brought back to life.
Mother used to say that little pigs have big ears. I had the biggest of the lot. Picking up information in snippets can be a bad thing. When I was young, I imagined a world of ghosts existing with and around us. I became frightened of the dark. With the wartime blackout and lack of lighting in and outside the home, I dreaded dark nights. I would close my eyes going down the passage from the kitchen until I felt the electric light switch at the bottom of the stairs. And repeat the process to get to my bedroom. When I had to put a shilling in the meter because the light had gone out, I would have my eyes shut tight until light made it impossible to see my imaginary ghosts. During winter, I did a lot of feeling my way in the dark with my eyes closed.
In my own mind, my fear was justified because I had seen a ghost. At least, I thought I had. I awakened in the middle of the night and saw a woman’s face looking down at me. She was smiling as though she knew me. I didn’t see the rest of her body. I didn’t want to either. I pulled the bedclothes over my head and trembled until I fell asleep again.
“You were just dreaming,” my mother told me afterwards. I was not convinced.
When an old lady who lived with us died, I could not go near her room. I was expecting her ghost to pop up sometime, but it never did. But then I was keeping my eyes closed in the dark! It took another spiritual experience to rid me of the fear but that was some years later. By that time there was more concern about being mugged or otherwise attacked. I was not in the grip of such fears when I was young, even though I had a man try to sexually abuse me in the cinema when I was twelve. No, it was the world of the unknown that caused the fear when I was young. But then, we did have our imaginations stimulated by the cinema. As Snow White ran away from the wicked wiles of her stepmother, trees clawed at her hair and clothes. Later films told us of zombies that roamed and mummies that cursed, and disembodied hands that sought revenge. During the war we had air raids and bombs falling not far away. But I cannot remember being worried about such things. After all, God was on our side – at least, that is what everyone seemed to think.
When I was about ten, Christine, a girl in my class at school, died suddenly with a burst appendix. A friend, who had seen her body, told me that she looked lovely in death. She was dressed in white with a bunch of violets in her hand. I walked past her house with a kind of numinous awe, thinking of her in the front room, seeing her in my mind’s eye with those flowers in her hand.
But death was not something that I’d had to face personally. I had a vague idea of heaven because of my Sunday school teaching, but the actual loss, or the possibility of loss, had never hit me until I witnessed my dad having a heart attack.
He was sitting where he always sat, in his big wooden armchair at the kitchen table. Suddenly he gripped his chest and bellowed out in pain. We looked up shocked as he fell to the floor twisting and turning, yelling in agony. I was sent to the front room to sit with our elderly lodger. But I wanted to know what was happening. I could hear the yelling and I was very frightened, so much so that I was crying out in sympathy with my father. I thought he was dying. Someone had gone to the telephone box to ring for the doctor. By the time the doctor arrived, my father was recovering. But it made me realise that nothing was permanent. Even the strong were vulnerable.
I was badly hit when the old lady who lived with us died. Mother went to her room one morning and found her dead. I refused to see her and was almost afraid to pass by her window. During school assembly we were singing a hymn when I suddenly burst into tears. I was almost wailing. It had been a double whammy that morning. Not only had the lady, who had been a sort of grandmother to me, died, but also my name had been read out from the nurse’s list of dirty-headed girls. The domestic science teacher took me out into the playground. When I told her about the death at our house, she talked to me about life and death of flowers and plants and how they came up to bloom again. I guess she was telling me that something within us never dies but lives on. I felt comforted, not so much by what she said – as young as I was, I could see flaws in her argument – but because somebody cared enough to talk to me in a kindly, gentle manner. After being bereft and branded that morning, it was exactly what I needed.
Odd things began to happen that increased my sense of awe. There had been some talk of four-leaf clovers being lucky. But I was told there was no such thing. I poked around the clover in our garden knowing I would find one. At each place I looked, one was waiting to be picked. No doubt there is a natural explanation, but being a kid I saw something deeply mysterious about it.
My friend had borrowed my paintbrush. Such things are very valuable when you have very little. Needing it myself, I went to get it back, but no one was at home. In those days doors were not locked, except at night. So I went along to Belinda’s room but I had no idea where she had put it. I looked on some shelves fixed to a wall, but no brush. Then I somehow knew where the brush was. I felt quite strange as I slightly pulled the shelves away from the wall. The brush had fallen down the narrow space at the back. There could have been many places all over that very big house where it might have been, but that was the first place I looked. I felt really strange as though I had been given special knowledge. As I left the house I felt I was not alone; unseen eyes were watching me!
Such experiences, and there were many, primed me well for a much later happening. A group of American evangelists visited Nottingham. Being concerned for my father, who had lost the use of his legs, and hearing about the miracles of healing that were supposedly going on, I went along with a friend to see what it was all about.
The church was packed and we had to crowd in the room below. The service was relayed to us and we could hear every word of the preacher. It was highly emotional stuff. A drunken father pressing his little girl’s face to a red-hot stove, followed by the story of his redemption through the blood of Jesus. We heard about our sins and prospects for salvation. They didn’t sound good. So we repeated the words for forgiveness and claimed our salvation in the name of Jesus.
The next day being Sunday, we visited the church expecting to see pews filled and overflowing. We wanted to hear the testimonies of those who had been healed – or so it was claimed – at the evening meeting. The pews were not filled and there was no healed person there. But one lady was convinced she was getting back her sight; she had seen a vague red at the traffic lights. Everyone praised God. Years later, I was to truly witness God’s spirit at work, but it had nothing to do with manipulation and emotionalism.
My mother always said that God helps those who help themselves, and even we kids had done our bit for the war effort. God had answered our prayers by bringing us victory. We now had the National Health Service to bring us health and happiness, and everyone was expecting miracles of that too. But, like my banana, some miracles just cannot be realised!

When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in RED BOXES
by Gladys Hobson ISBN 0-9548885-2
Visit Magpies Nest Publishing for other books by Gladys Hobson (aka Angela Ashley and Richard L Gray) Read first two chapters of all her books.

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