10 March 2016

You're acting all holy

When we came to the hotel in Kajang, when I took the job in Malaysia right after I finished my PhD, the Christmas tree was still up and I remember thinking, the way you do when you are in the heat and you are confronted with something like Christmas, that this was the known unknown I had been expecting. You know when you move abroad that there will be things you won’t expect, but you don’t know what those things are until they are there. You say in interviews that you know how to deal with them. You tell a story about landing in Japan and the vending machine at the crossroads of two rice paddies, in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t have expected something like that. You couldn’t have expected a Christmas tree in the hotel, not yet cleaned up from the holidays.

Our life revolves around St Peter’s church on the hill, the top of Harborne. It is surrounded by a cemetery and a school. The headstones are sinking into the ground, and yesterday, when it was raining heavily and the path was flooded, we crawled over the headstones with our children to avoid the water. We, the middle class parents who worked hard to get into the catchment area and who attend the church on Sunday to varying degrees of commitment. I recognise one of the fathers when we are sharing the sign of the peace. We are embarrassed in the way you are when confronted with a person that you have ignored consistently and systematically for the last 18 months. Peace be with you. And also with you. I think we’ve seen each other before. Have we? I think we have.

These fathers are the ones that are happy: they are only a few years older than me, but you can tell they are older because of the way they dress and how they’ve let themselves go in simple ways. I judge them viciously, and I sit in the pew, the worst sort of church-goer, the worst sort of Pharisee. I imagine them eating kebabs and chips on Fridays and then also running sometimes, some Saturday mornings. I judge them for eating meat in the first instance, and then for eating unhealthy meat on top of it. There is so much kale and butter in this country, you can get it at Waitrose, you fat slobs. I see their cubicles or offices and resent them for their happiness, like a miserable hobo who has been invited to the feast, but refuses to enter out of pride. They smile and hold their kids with a kind of peace that I never had when I held mine, like they are settled and content.

These are the lies I tell myself about them, all the narratives I come up with as I watch people go up for communion, and I hang back again because my most recent attempt at reversion won’t take. Yoko goes up with Mia, and Naomi and I and Mei stay in the pew, in our coats, because even though it is March and the sun is out, St Peter’s is remarkably damp and cold.

This community around the church and around the kids going to swimming and gymnastics: when I pull my head up from my phone I start to notice all the same faces. The community around the church is not built on faith, from what I can tell. No one is ever talking about Jesus. Instead, it’s like we are sheltering under the bones of a Leviathan that had washed up on the shore. Like the church is what’s left of a memory, a kind of skeletal social construct. The bones shield you against the climate, the constant rain and softness of the soil, which is swallowing the rest of the world around you.

The kids sing songs now, some of them that come out of my own past in the church in the States, the sort of Christianity where Americans would close their eyes and lift their hands up when they are singing, something you would never see at Saint Peter’s, regardless of how welcome it might be. I say in a lecture I’m giving, when I ramble off because I can and the students must listen to me because I have a doctorate and am paid to talk to them: I know all this because I am a good Sunday School boy. I can recite the Fruits of the Spirit, and shock my girls who are good British Sunday School girls now, too. ‘Daddy, how do you know that, are you a Christian too?’ like they keep forgetting the times I have answered that question with such an emphatic no. I am Peter at the fire while they kill Christ on the other side of town, ‘You were with Him, weren’t you?’ they ask me and I answer them with a curse: no, of course not, what are you talking about.

Yoko asks Mia if she remembers Malaysia. She responds in the way that Mia does, hamming it up and joking, but not answering the question. Mia is that girl, I realise: you won’t ever be able to get a straight answer from her. Yoko reminds her of the Aunties, and I am standing in the kitchen and feel the rush of memory of slacks and the Uniqlo shirts I would sweat through once I left for work. Mia playing in the garden in front of the house. The girls putting on their uniforms there and then here. ‘Mia, do you remember Auntie?’ and Mia smiles and laughs and doesn’t give an answer one way or another.