I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
That’s a Psalm that is. Psalm 40. It’s not a neat polite prayer murmured in a chapel….. it’s a heartfelt cry from David. David the messy, the brave, the sinful, the lustful, the murderer, liar, hero. Him. Messy bloke.
This blog is written by another messy person. About a mess.
This is the first time I’ve written publicly about this. It’s been sitting in a file on my computer for a few months and I put it down in a document just for me, no one else. Why did I keep it locked away? Because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want anyone to know, and a part of me that thinks there may be repercussions that I can’t defend myself from, and a part of me that doesn’t want to remember my first husband. My second husband cancelled him out, obliterated him, and it feels like a sort of disloyalty to give any thought now to that first stupid marriage, to Rob.
So, why am I spilling the beans now? Because, a couple of months ago a woman told me that she wasn’t the sort of person who can come to church, because the life she’s had has been too messy. And it’s been kinda niggling away at me ever since, as I wondered how I could explain to her;
We are all messy. That’s why we need more than ourselves. That’s why we need rescuing. That’s why. How can I explain to her that for every person sitting neatly in a church there’s a bloody great mess behind them? The only way I can do it is by being open and honest, and personal. And that demands time and quiet and a sort of sociable intimacy we didn’t have right then. And I’ve regretted my silence ever since – why couldn’t I communicate that all of us are messy, lost, broken?
It’s interesting that I’ve spoken of my lousy childhood, but never about my first marriage, not openly anyway. Why is that? I think that it’s because I felt subconsciously that while no one would blame me for my childhood, for my father colluding with abusers, they would be less understanding when it came to a marriage I entered into at 19, an adult, supposedly responsible.
Well, listen. Mea culpa. I have had a messy life. Exciting and wonderful, yes, but also messy. And a lot of that, a LOT of that was my choice. . And if God can find me and rescue me, he can rescue anyone.
How messy, exactly? Pin back your lugholes, my friends….
It was 1967, boom years, exciting times, the Beatles, Carnaby Street, the contraceptive pill, mini skirts and recreational drugs.. it was all happening and I was 19, living in London in the middle of it all. Rob was tall, blond, charming, and as an ex-paratrooper he was a part of the world I knew, had grown up in. In the way that only young people do, Rob and I fell into marriage, a cut price wedding at Kingston Registry Office, on a fine Summer day.
It was about 6 months later, when we were living in Kent, that I discovered who my husband was. He was about to start as a fireman and this was wonderful because it meant that we would have a fire brigade house and could leave the old boat we were living on. Our partnership wasn’t great but what young bride hasn’t felt that? He was 29 and brimming with confidence, I was 19 and had never known a real family life, so maybe I had it all wrong.
And certainly my ex Para hero was everything I expected a man to be. I knew men like him, I had grown up with soldiers, as an Army brat, and the stories he told had the ring of familiarity, and made me feel at home with him. His red beret was on the locker on his side of the bed, a Regimental Crest on the wall, a button from his Number1 Dress Uniform on his keyring… small momentoes. Sometimes I would find myself smiling at the way he seemed to be mirroring John Wayne, making just a bit too much of his military past, his training exploits, his old comrades, but it was just a foible and I could live with it, and even love him for those funny little ways. He was one of the last troops to leave Aden in 1967 so he’d seen real military service and that gave him a right to a bit of boasting, didn’t it? If I felt uncomfortable sometimes it was only because – surrounded by the military – I had never known soldiers who harped on quite so much with their old soldier’s tales, and I wondered why he lived so much in the past when we were just setting out into our future.
We were on a rare visit to his parents, and as his Mum busied making tea with me, and Rob was with Pop, I said something like “You must be so glad to have Rob back in civvy street. “ I remember so clearly how she casually said “What, dear?” and I added something like “Now that he’s out of the Paras.” She stopped what she was doing and looked at me as if I was talking the language of the mountain folk, “Rob? In the Paras? No, no. He was never in the …. No… you’re mixing him up with Charlie.” And that’s how I discovered that the history my husband had claimed as his own belonged to his brother, a real paratrooper. The stories he told were handed down from Charlie or read in books, or seen in films. Even the red beret had been a gift from his big brother.
It was shattering, bewildering, but I felt sad for him, more than anything else. I was always wary of him, a sort of understated fear, recognising that there was a steeliness to him that I wasn’t equipped to deal with. Now I sensed fragility and vulnerability too, and I was at a loss. So I let his Mum chat on and I didn’t ask any questions, didn’t explore the confusion. And then, afterwards, I didn’t say anything to Rob either! Never let him know that I knew. I continued to listen to his stories, to laugh at the right moments, to imagine the scenes as he recounted them even knowing they were a fiction.
I tried to understand why anyone would do this, but I couldn’t. He was so good at it! Even knowing that it was all lies, I could never detect a flaw in the stories he told, even though I no longer knew who he was, or where he had been, or what he had done. Why didn’t I say anything? Because I was afraid to. I’m not proud of this – I was out of my depth. Maybe I knew instinctively that bringing it into the open would provoke the tiger.
When we met the other fire brigade couples I listened as Rob told his Army stories, and again I laughed with him, and cheered him on, smiling at his lies. That first year of marriage was a tense time, learning that he was fiercely sentimental but personally cold, sexually attractive but asexual, a man who liked glamour photographs more than he liked women, or sex. Like my father he was ready with a casual slap, nothing to leave a mark but short and sharp and always shocking. Pregnant women sickened him, naked women embarrassed him. He was a complicated character to cope with. He liked me in a mini skirt and high heels more than he liked to be in bed with me. The relationship was strained, I was forever tentative, unsure of myself, and he was forever confident and centre stage.
And then, on an ordinary evening, in a rare moment of honesty, the fragile structure of our marriage began to crumble: Charlie was having a birthday party and we were due to drive up to the party the next day. It would be only the second time I’d met Charlie and the first time I’d spent any time at all with his wider family. Rob was subdued, even sulky. I sensed trouble brewing and wanted to head it off, wary not just of his temper but somehow knowing that this tension was even more unbearable for him than it was for me. Wanting to help. Charlie was always a touchy subject for Rob and I knew it was because he had stolen his brother’s history, and felt uncomfortable when Charlie emerged in conversation as a separate and real person. I knew too that Rob must be nervous that I would say something to unmask him in front of everyone. So, in my most reassuring and supportive voice, a good-wife sort of voice, I made a mistake that was to prove the undoing of our fragile marriage, I said “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Rob.” He was immediately wary. I was aware of the air between us, glacial, sharp as razors. If the ground could have swallowed me, it would have been welcome.
I tried to soften whatever it was I was going to come out with next, but I already knew that this was a mistake. I think I tried to laugh it away, to let the words trail off, but he was waiting and so I ploughed on , something like “Every teenager must have a hero figure and Charlie was everything….” Rob turned on me, silent controlled anger, and I finished lamely “you wanted to be. As a young boy, I mean. Not now. Of course not now. “
I think that’s how it went. I don’t think I said any more than that. I never accused him of a lie, never had to. The truth was real between us, like a solid wall. He got up and walked out of the house. I stood there, wondering what the hell would happen next, sick with fear that he wouldn’t return, or that he’d kick me out. I had nowhere else to go.
He came back in the middle of the night, got into bed in silence. In the morning his para’s beret was no longer at his side of the bed. I never saw it again. We never spoke about that evening, he stopped telling me his soldier’s tales, but he carried on with them when we were out with friends. Occasionally he would glance at me, a harsh defiant glare, daring me to correct him, or to look away. I would smile and maintain eye contact, bright and sunny, until he looked away.
Something deep and dangerous had been uncovered that night, something that challenged him in the very marrow of his bones, and our relationship shifted. Became dangerous. A partnership built on a carefully constructed lie is already just about as bad as it can be, but now we were teetering on a cliff edge. Now the slightest disagreement or moment of conflict meant a blow to my stomach, a twisting of my hair, or hands at my throat. In the next couple of years I fell down the stairs, damaging both shoulders, stupidly put my hand on the radiant cooker top, twisted my wrist somehow on that same cooker top, burning the back of my hand and broke my nose tripping over the cat. My GP was a woman and she saw the truth behind these ‘accidents’. When I gave her yet another hospital report, she held the flimsy paper for a long moment, picking her words carefully. And then she said, slowly, carefully, “When you come into the surgery, I never know what it will be this time. I don’t know what it will be next time, and neither do you, but most importantly, neither does your husband. I can’t protect you, and he can’t stop himself. Will you be on the mortuary slab the next time I see you? I don’t know. Maybe.” And she told me to get away from him, as far away as I could.
When I got home I packed a small suitcase, scrounged up all the cash I could, and stowed it under the stairs. Rob came home from his shift and asked what the doctor had said, I told him that the injury would heal itself. That evening there was a call-out to a fire somewhere in the Medway Towns and I watched him as he ran out of the house, down the garden, leaping over the fence to the fire station beyond. He came back in the wee small hours, smelling of smoke, exhausted, and clambered into bed beside me.
The next morning he wasn’t on duty early because of the night shout, and so he stayed in bed as I did all the usual stuff, fed the dogs, walked them, had coffee, and then, as I left the house I took the suitcase from the under-stairs cupboard and called up the stairs “That’s it, then, Rob. I’m off to work.” And he called back “If they make any funny remarks about your face…” and I shouted up “They won’t. See you tonight. Have a good rest.”
I took the usual bus to Maidstone but instead of going into work I caught the train to London. By that evening I was a chambermaid at a hotel in Windmill Hill. Three years later I conducted my own postal divorce.
That’s a messy life. From the moment of my birth to the moment I accepted Jesus as my Saviour, my life was as messy as hell, as messy as all get-out. It started with a mother’s death, with child abuse, with lovelessness, and then, when I was old enough to walk away from the mess…. I just got into even more mess, even deeper.
And now, peace. Joy. Certainty.
So, if you are reading this and you think that you are too messed up, too chaotic to be accepted, too wrong for God, too confused to find a new way, too ashamed of your mess and history, too far gone to start again…. think again.
You are the reason why God became man. God became man, and died, because he loves you, mess and all. Your mess and his love are the greatest story ever told.
Don’t look at Christianity and think it’s just for others, don’t look at Christians, at church goers maybe, and think that they have never lived as you have lived. Whatever our history, we are all flawed and broken, we have all had our battles, and the longer we’ve lived the more we have learned about the love of God.
If he can rescue me…..
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.