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OUR LADY OF BRIXTON HILL - Flora Houghton Griffiths



Illustration by Rachel Turner // www.instagram.com/doublewhoop


The first time he saw her — that is, just after the first time he saw her, when he was coming out of Superdrug with a bag full of steri-strips and dressings — all Leo could think about was what form the pronoun should take. Afterwards, when she had gone, absorbed into the crowd outside Western Union Money Transfer where he stood so long that people asked, ‘You queuing or what, mate?’, he kept coming back to she and her and whether they should be written with a capital letter. Or not. So that when he told people he had seen Our Blessed Lady, Holy Mother of God, Queen of Heaven on his way back from the shops, his words would convey the enormousness of what just happened.

‘I saw Her,’ he would say. ‘It’s true, She was there’. So they would know. Just as he had known immediately that it was Her from across the other side of the road. Taller than any woman he had ever seen, dark robes rippling — though the day was quite still — in some curious celestial breeze.

In the early part of the first lockdown it was still unusual to see someone in a mask, but even before she took hers down, he had known that face, Her exquisite face. If he had tried to describe it he would have said, well it was a bit like Iman, a bit like Jola Kowalczyk’s mum and also kind of like the bust of Nefertiti in the British Museum. He had lingered in front of the high, broad planes of that face on the Year 8 trip, during a different time, when school had been compulsory and the days and weeks delineated by routines and rituals since discarded.

I know you, I’ve always known you, he thought as he crossed the road and She nodded and smiled and the heat that had been squatting in his chest like a clenched fist unfurled and dissipated deliciously to his extremities. He wondered, as he beheld Her, if people felt like this when they took heroin and he thought fleetingly of the words intoned by the congregation as they sank to their knees on a Sunday, before they closed the churches. Grant us peace. And then there was nothing in his head but a blissful light and radiance and he stood in the gutter communing with the Virgin Mary, Star of the Sea, with an umbilical closeness, until the brakes of a Deliveroo rider screeched behind him and he had to jump out of the way. When Leo turned back She was no longer. Disappeared, dissolved, leaving no trace, only a deep calm and an impression of iridescence, like a rainbow on an oily puddle at the side of the road.

About half-way home he stopped grappling with pronouns and began to hurry, remembering with a rush of bile to the throat the emergency that had sent him out. He found he could run without recourse to his inhaler these days, along what until recently, had been one of the most polluted roads in Britain, if not Europe, as they reminded you on BBC London every time the Mums for Lungs blocked the carriageway with their buggies and banners. The pall of fumes, so thick you could chew on it, had lifted. Occasionally the odd bus trundled down the hill, a lone key worker silhouetted on the top deck. An Amazon driver or two, a police patrol car — and that was it. Everything else had disappeared; the din of the traffic, the shouts of the market traders along Electric Avenue, the rumble of the planes that came over once a minute, heading for the holding stacks at Heathrow. All gone. Even the sirens had died away. There hadn’t been a stabbing for weeks.

‘Lockdown’s not all bad, is it?’ said Mrs Sutton from across the corridor, when they passed at the safely mandated distance of two metres on the stairwell, and other incomprehensible things, like, ‘Must be nice having all this time at home with the kiddies’. He didn’t dare look at Mum. Silence was the only possible response to such statements.

Mum was on the phone when Leo got in. She was on the phone every day: to the headmaster, to Social Services, the GP’s surgery, the CAMHS people, trying to get the statement for Bliss that would mean they could all go back to school because she was officially a Vulnerable Child and they were the siblings of a Vulnerable Child. The school won’t take them back unless they are known to Social Services and Mum had always managed to keep them out of their clutches. We have the highest proportion of Vulnerable Children and Key Worker children in Lambeth, recites the headmaster from his script, when she can get him to take her calls.

‘But she’s carving into her arm!’ he heard Mum cry. ‘Oh what’s the use!’ she said and hung up. There was another letter from CAMHS crumpled in her hand; he could make out the large black initials at the top of the page.

‘Did you get them?’ she asked.

He handed her the bag.

‘Mum, I saw…’ he started, then tailed off.

‘Saw what?’ She rummaged in the bag, removing the items with which she would dress her daughter’s desecrated flesh.

Her he thought, visualising the capital H. Then he saw a slew of other capital letters, stark and formal, professing help but overwhelmed and underfunded and impossible to access. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services was what they stood for and he knew Mum wanted to talk to them about him too, and so he swallowed the wonderful word and pressed a hand to the centre of his sternum, where the heat and pain and tension was getting up its infernal hammering once again.

Leo lay on his bed in the room he used to share with Bliss before it was deemed indecent for a boy and girl of their age to share and Bliss had to go in with the twins. Mum had moved Bliss in with her, to keep an eye on her, for all the good that had done. Outside the sky was blue, the most extraordinary blue he had ever seen. Branches of fluffy white cherry blossom bobbed in and out of his eyeline. This serene silence, this uncanny tranquillity that had descended on the world almost had a sound, a presence of its own. All the noise that was generated came from within their own flimsy walls. Mum and Bliss on one side, raised voices, remonstrances, tears and threats. The TV on the other, blasting out Joe Wicks, CBeebies, Pokémon Yoga on YouTube on repeat while Gracie-Mae and Billie-Rose sat slack-jawed, clutching their grimy comforters. And when the TV was silenced to standby in the early hours, the murmuring of appliances through the night, the clock on Lambeth Town Hall marking sleepless, meaningless time.  

By the afternoon, the beauty of the day beyond had drawn Leo out again, though another excursion was not, he knew, really, strictly allowed. Across the park, the bold paused to comment on the strange beauty of the weather. Leo kept his head down; a woman had been shouted at for handing her child a snack on their daily walk, a pregnant woman challenged for sitting on a cordoned-off bench.

They moved in an inner and outer ring, the runners on the tarmacked path, the walkers — the elderly, the mothers shunting buggies and towing scooters on a dirt path trampled into the grass. Round they went on their daily exercise, trudging with weary purpose, like prison inmates, forced labourers testing the soles of running shoes, while the joggers — mostly men whose sprint bursts had assumed an absurd importance — shouted and swore at any dog or child who broke free and impeded their progress.

He longed to lie in the wavy grass of the wildflower meadow and think about what had just happened, but there were police patrols to stop that sort of thing and to break up people who appeared to be running or practising yoga together or even conversing. Behind the police the TV crews circulated, hoping to get these altercations on film for the evening news bulletins.

At the crossroads on Brixton Hill where the Gothic red brick arches of the Sacred Heart reared up above the railings, Leo looked both ways. Up the hill he could see Father Ayo, the new curate, keeping a lonely vigil outside the Marie Stopes clinic. Fr. Ayo looked askance from his Rosary to acknowledge Leo, his lips never wavering from the habitual chant. He gestured for to Leo to join him, but Leo shook his head and hastened across the road.

Oh! A thought struck him as he reached the pavement. Perhaps She wants me to do something about that place. And he remembered the words that came out of Nathan’s twisted mouth, the night the twins’ dad left for good. That Mum should’ve got an abortion. Those were the words he had snarled while the twins slept coiled like kittens in the Moses basket at his feet. Since then, Leo has wondered sporadically about his own father’s thoughts on the subject of his and Bliss’s conception. If Mum should have got rid of them, too. But since his father fucked off back to Birmingham to have a party, there hasn’t been the opportunity to ask.

So is that what She wanted, he wondered now? Is that what She had been going to ask him before the Deliveroo driver came along and made Her disappear? From the little he had gleaned about the subject of Marian apparitions, he understood that Our Lady usually wanted you to build Her a shrine or something. 

Father Padraig was locking the vestry. Beyond him Leo could see the statues and crucifixes veiled in purple, but the church itself was as empty as the tabernacle on Good Friday.

‘Ah Leo,’ he said. ‘Forty-two years I’ve been ordained a priest and I’ve never known an Easter like it. Pray God we never see another.’

‘No,’ said Leo. ‘I mean, yes.’ He hadn’t even realised that Easter week was upon them, so shapeless had the days become.

‘Now Leo, is there something I can do for you?’ said Fr. Padraig.

‘Well…’ Suddenly Leo felt foolish, almost bottled it, denied Her, told Fr. Padraig instead that he had come because Bliss was self-harming again.

But I saw Her, he thinks. She was there.

‘Well, Father, I was thinking. About Our Lady.’

‘Yes Leo?’

‘It’s like, you know how she comes back sometimes? Comes back among us.’

‘Why yes, Leo, sure she does. At Lourdes, Knock and, oh, where’s that place, it’s on the tip of my tongue —’

‘Father could She come back here, like right here?’

‘Why Leo!’ Fr. Padraig chuckled. ‘Why ever not?’

‘Right here, in Brixton?’

‘But of course. There’s no second-guessing Our Lady!’ And if they hadn’t had to keep two metres apart, Leo sensed that Father Padraig would have ruffled his hair.

Leo nodded, secure once again in what he knew he had seen.

‘Now, was there anything else?’

Leo shook his head.

‘Father Ayo is going to set up some sort of a get-together for the altar boys on this Zoom thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand it myself, but you young people… I’ll see you then.’

Leo nodded, knowing he would never get Mum’s ancient, cracked iPad away from Bliss. Father Padraig waved goodbye and made the sign of the cross as he went to join Father Ayo outside the clinic.

Leo walked a long and convoluted way home looking for Her, throwing glances over his shoulder to check that he wasn’t being followed for breaking the rules. He looked for Her all the way home, scrutinising the faces at the bus stop, the tramps in Windrush Square, the delivery riders queuing outside the Satay Bar. But of that lovely limpid face and long flowing figure he could find no trace.

Later that night the clapping started up again. Leo rolled onto his side and drew his knees up to his chest, shrinking from the cacophony. He heard Mum swear as one of the twins jolted awake with a high, thin keening. Dutifully Mum had led them out onto the balcony for the first couple of weeks to clap for the carers but the twins, kept up beyond their bedtime, would start to cry at the unaccustomed noise. And the thing quickly began to feel sinister when the most enthusiastic proponent, banging a saucepan on the other side of the horseshoe, was Ginette, eyeing them beadily and daring them to fall away before the others. Ginette, whom he had once heard declaiming, as she observed Mum struggling to collapse the double buggy, why some women always went for men who were obviously going to abandon their kids. It was in their culture.

 

They went to the family-friendly protest in the park on a cloudy, sultry Saturday, Bliss in a cut-off t-shirt baring her serried silver scars with something like a veteran’s pride. Organisers had put out hand sanitiser stations and signs calling for social distancing, but Mum managed to hug her friend Saffron, who spilled takeaway coffee down Mum’s back as she tried to disentangle herself. Mum clung to her like the twins when she had tried to drop them back at nursery after all those months at home.

‘Fuck’s sake Saff, she’s saying she wants top surgery now. She wants to transition.’

‘No she doesn’t,’ said Saff. ‘She’s just a very unhappy girl trying to take control in a situation where there isn’t any to be had.’

Someone told her to shush as the first of the speakers got up to address the crowd but as he opened his mouth, a rumbling roar came out and it took them a moment to realise the police helicopter was overheard. There were screams and shouts of outrage. This is a family protest! And the weird energy began to crackle. Some people took the knee. Swiftly, silently, Mum and Saff began to shepherd the kids out of the park by the lido exit, along Dulwich Road where the houses were so big, you could’ve fitted their entire flat in the front room. Leo went on a playdate there once at his friend Hector’s house, number 46, and remembered being struck by all the stairs. A flight up to the front door, another down to the basement kitchen, up again to the terrace, down once more to a lawn the width of the house which backed onto the park. ‘But where’s your garden?’ Hector had asked on the reciprocal visit. He hadn’t come again. Hector went to the Prep now, which had given the Sacred Heart primary school some of its cast-off iPads. They were passing Hector’s house now; Leo thought he saw a face pull back from an upstairs window.

People stopped and took pictures of the hedge where one resident had assuaged their privilege by sculpting a topiary ‘BLM’ out of the privet. Bliss wanted to Instagram it but had no reception. The police will have jammed the signal, someone said and Leo stepped around the conflab towards the woman whose height and beauty took his breath away.

There She stood, beside the zebra crossing, though the traffic wasn’t stopping. She — She! — surveyed the scene as She puffed on a purple vape. For a moment he hesitated, because of the vaping — surely Mary, Virgin and Mother, Reconciler of All Peoples and Nations wouldn’t smoke? — but then She turned to him in a seraphic cloud of gold and shrugged, raised her eyes to heaven.

‘I tried to stop Leo,’ she said, ‘but I’m not gonna lie. It’s hard. These are troubled times.’

Yes’m, he nodded, or something like it — for how ON EARTH do you address Our Lady, Mother of Sorrows, Queen of Peace? But then, emboldened, he managed to speak up, said ‘It’s good to see you again’ or some such pleasantry, quite outstanding in its banality.

When She smiled, turned that 100-watt beatific smile on him, he felt the deep peace of being at one with everything, flooded with light, love, forgiveness and understanding.

I’d do anything for you, he thought and her brow, her smooth, unrumpled brow creased a little and she flicked an imaginary piece of lint off her robes.

‘You know Leo, I’m supposed to ask you to build me a chapel.’ Her almond eyes moved away from him, her gaze fell sorrowfully into the middle distance.

‘Anything,’ he said, ‘anything.’

‘But this time…’

‘Anything!’ He was shouting now, ‘anything!’ and then Leo was barged from behind and fell forward where Our Lady’s skirts would have been only now there was nothing, just a purple vape hitting the pavement and Leo turned and launched himself with a roar at the blasted, damned disruptor.

 

Christmas was cancelled, Nathan had moved in with his mother, who was shielding, so he couldn’t have come to see the twins anyway. You passed women sobbing in the street when they closed the schools again. Leo was so busy looking for Mother of Sorrows, Queen of Martyrs among the weeping women that he forgot to chain his bike, the only decent thing his dad gave him before he went away and when he came out of Superdrug it had gone.

‘Where are you?’ he cried. ‘Where are You?’

He was taken home by a police officer and Mum got them into school three days a week but Bliss by now had become a School Refuser and Leo found that he preferred not to go, too. He walked a lot, saw a sweet, smiling girl looking out from tattered posters on lampposts. He could not remember who told him but he heard later that she had died, though not from the virus. At night he fingered the cracked purple vape, the holy relic and listened for Her voice in the susurration of the television.

When it finally happened again, while there was a lot of talk about the ‘roadmap’ out, he wondered how he ever could have doubted Her. There she was, clothed by the sun and crowned with stars, ten, twenty, a hundred times more alive than the worker bees scuttling about beneath Her. She stood bestriding the crossroads at Acre Lane like a Colossus, one hand on the small of her back, the other cradling her swollen belly. And She was in pain, he realised, he felt it as his own, felt it at a cellular level and he ran to Her, roaring, shaking off restraining hands as the traffic began to move again and there was a bang and sound and fire and fury and the boy shouting as he fell, ‘But I have to save the Child. I have to save the Child.’


 

Flora Houghton Griffiths is a British journalist, columnist and editor. Based in London for many years, she bolted with her family after the lockdowns to a remote rural part of East Anglia. She is currently working on a memoir exploring that decision, entitled Why Did You Come?

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