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Looking Sadly Out of Windows

by Sarah Courtauld

Like many children of the 1980s, when I was growing up, I was obsessed with The Thundercats, the depletion of the ozone layer, and John the Baptist. But John the Baptist was the main event. As biblical pin ups go, he had a lot going for him. He wore a loin cloth, he had a big bushy beard, and he had a superhero style staff. He ate honey and locusts (which, for some reason, I thought were small, round, French biscuits) and in all the pictures, he lived somewhere that was a lot sunnier than London. He was my favourite saint. Naturally, I named my toy badger John the Baptist, and he accompanied me everywhere.

I grew up in a vicarage, and quickly absorbed the main principles of the Church of England – cardigan wearing, tea drinking, and the regular consumption of slightly soft, stale crisps. Every Sunday, my sister and I were taken to church. The services seemed to last forever. As the minutes stretched on, I pondered various questions. I wondered if the service would ever end. I wondered whether the priests ever dressed up in their cassocks at home, just for fun.

One way I discovered to pass the time was to try and lodge tiny objects into the hair of the inevitable old ladies sitting in the pew in front. In those days perms had an architectural solidity that you don’t see so much anymore. A strong perm could bear several small objects: maybe a piece of blue tack, a Lego man, a plastic horse, or if you were particularly daring, a Lego man riding a plastic horse.

Operation Perm had its dangers. If an elderly member of the congregation did find a small plastic person or animal in their hair, suspicions would be raised. It wasn’t the kind of church that really welcomed children, and me and my sister would be pretty much the only suspects. It was a delicate operation. One with higher stakes when I realised quite how much Cordelia Jarvis disliked children.

At first I thought that she thought of children like parking restrictions, maths lessons, or a painful vaccination – a necessary evil. But it wasn’t until she told me that my pet rabbit would make “such a beautiful hat,” that I realised she just saw children as ‘an evil’.

The following Sunday, John the Baptist and I were sitting in church, in the pew directly behind her. I had a whole hour to stare at the back of her head, with its grand edifice of hair, white with a hint of mauve. It was wiry, impressive, and structurally sound. It certainly looked as if it might be able to hold the tiny plastic sheep that was hidden in my coat pocket.

When the sermon began, I reached my hand into my pocket, located the sheep, and began, casually, to stretch my arms, as if I was yawning. I raised the sheep towards its new pasture. The key would be to drop it in from above, see where it landed, and then subtly retrieve it, without being apprehended. As I was about to unclench my hand, and release the animal into the wild, Cordelia’s head tilted to one side.

I retracted. This was the sermon. Head tilting and solemn nodding were expected of the congregation at this time. I waited until she was still. Slowly, my hand advanced.

She coughed. Could she have sensed something?

Next to me, my sister was busy reading a pious work, a horror novel called something like The Babysitter. On its cover was a blood strewn corpse, with a silver dagger sticking out of her neck. On the other side of her was my mum, who seemed, luckily, oblivious.

As my hand began to reach forward again, I heard the words:

“Thanks be to God”.

The sermon was ending. In a moment we would all have to stand to sing a hymn. It was now or never.

I lifted up my arm, and released the tiny sheep into the thicket of the perm. And then something very peculiar happened.

It vanished.

And Cordelia Jarvis did… nothing.

It’s possible that she was vaguely aware of some strange sensation. Although it seems unlikely that she thought: “Oh, I wonder if one of those girls has put a small plastic sheep in my hair”.

For the rest of the service, I surveyed the thicket. But the sheep was nowhere to be found. There was only one answer. It had been absorbed. The enemy territory must have been deeper, thicker, more densely layered than I had imagined. I never saw that tiny sheep – Morris - again.

I wondered, as I watched her marching out of church that day, how it would pan out. Would it be later that day - while, say, watering the roses, or maybe skinning someone’s stolen and beloved cat to make a pair of mittens - that she would shake the back of her head, and release the tiny animal nestled there? Would she stoop down and pick it up, and be baffled by it? Or would it remain en-permed, for months, even years? Is it there now?

After the service, I remember scooping up John the Baptist, and leaving the scene of the crime as quickly as possible, wearing an expression on my face that I hoped read: “I am extremely well behaved, and I know nothing of farm animals, plastic or otherwise”.

Perhaps it was appropriate that this first loss – the loss of Morris, into a white wilderness of Cordelia Jarvis’ perm, turned me towards religion, and back to John the Baptist. Reading my children’s bible, I realised that he was more than simply a fashion icon and beard wearer. I read about his years in the wilderness, and realised that locusts weren’t actually small, round, French biscuits. As I turned eight, I decided it was time to take life seriously. Ever loyal to the increasingly scruffy, now three-legged badger by my side, I decided to become a saint, by following John the Baptist’s path of denial.

“Would you like a slice of cake?” my mum asked me, offering me a thick, gooey slice of chocolate cake.

“No, thank you,” I replied. “I’ve given up cake.”

“For I have forsworn the paltry pleasures of this world,” I wanted to add, although I didn’t say that out loud.

My mum was slightly surprised. I suppose she had a right to be. It was my birthday party, and she had spent all afternoon making three tiered, double chocolate castle shaped cake, complete with turrets and flags, that I had specifically requested.

I could have explained, but I knew she wouldn’t understand. So I sat watching the other guests, gobbling their cake, playing with streamers, and jumping around the room. Such children, I thought. How little they know.

Later that night, when I was playing – or rather - cheating at Monopoly, by “being the bank”, slyly sliding myself one or two extra pink notes, I did it in the knowledge that I had earlier refused the chocolate cake, and had set out on the path to sainthood.

While cheating at monopoly meant that I might not be quite at the front of the queue, I was definitely in the holding system.

And when, the next morning, I was humming in the car, specifically to annoy my sister, over and over and over again, for the entire journey to school, I looked sadly out of the window, realising that my sister would never understand how I, a saint, was giving her a chance to grow.

The path of denial went well for me. Every time I refused a second helping of ice cream, or, say, a third pancake, I would sadly out of the window, thinking of John the Baptist, and how alike we were. For him, the wilderness of Jordan. For me, the wilderness of SW1.

But then, a year later, something terrible happened.

It turns out that it’s much easier to nobly turn from the pleasures of the world if you don’t really, really, really, really like them. A lot. Having never had that much of a sweet tooth before, suddenly, at age nine, I had discovered cake. And sweets. And chocolate.

How could I think melancholy and noble thoughts about the meaninglessness of earthly pleasure, when I was stuffing my face with Easter eggs? How could I ponder my own place in the pantheon of saints when I was literally covered in cake mix?

It was clear that I needed guidance. Once again, I turned to John the Baptist for help. But by now, he was soggy and frayed, and smelt slightly of bleach, after my sister had baptised him in the toilet. It seemed as if he no longer had the answers, and that my quest for sainthood was doomed.

But not long afterwards, in the summer of 89, I discovered the most powerful way of all to gaze sadly out of windows, while meditating on the fleeting pleasures of life. I fell in love.

In all honesty, Jack Holmes and I already had a history. I had met him at a party in a paddling pool, back in ’84. It was one of so many of those parties around that time – you meet, you splash, somebody vomits – the afternoon descends into a blur of casual violence, nudity and trampolining.

But Jack was different. We had a connection. He asked me if I liked Pterodactyls. I did like Pterodactyls. We drifted apart after that. We tried to recreate the moment with Troodons, but I think we both knew that we were forcing it.

I was even engaged to Michael Richards a few months later, an eligible, dapper 10 year old who wore pastel polo shirts and leather loafers with tassels on. We had an on-off relationship, but it broke up when he took me the forest to show me a secret project that he and his brother had been working on. The project was a hole that he’d dug in the ground, pooed into, and covered with leaves, in the hope that a random stranger might fall into it.

Although he tried to convince me of the poetic beauty of the scheme, I didn’t really go for it.

Then, when I was nine, Jack Holmes came bowling back into my life. We went on holiday together, played on the beach, and he taught me the entire Simpsons theme tune from memory. At the end of the holiday, we finally had some time alone. I was convinced that he was going to kiss me, outside the public toilets, next to the Little Chef on the A12 near Chelmsford.

The moment was a beautiful one. Yes, it was raining. Yes, I had just been sick in the car, from eating too many sweets, and might have had a little bit of sick on my jumper. But still, I was pretty sure that this was the moment.

It wasn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it had all got too intense for him. Whatever the reason, hours later, I watched him walk out of my life, forever.

Until the next time that I saw him, about two weeks later. My hope blossomed when he gave me a new nickname which had distinct romantic undertones. “Vomity”. But I might have been reading too much into it. Our ways parted, this time for good.

So, when John the Baptist and I turned up at school that autumn, I had a new, even better reason to gaze sadly out of windows, meditating on the paltry pleasures of this fleeting world.

I watched my classmates, with their pencil cases and their hair ties.

“Do you want try on my new watch?”

“I brought back some gum – do you want to try it?”

“My mum gave me this game – Donkey Kong. It’s amazing. Do you want a go?”

“No, no, you play,” I replied, turning away, from their games. Instead, I permabulated around the playground in silence, accompanied only by my badger. “I am no longer a child,” I thought. “I have loved and lost. The pleasures of tutti frutti gum and Fimo are as children’s toys, and are not for me.”

And perhaps I did help myself to a little of Stephanie’s gum. I may even have had a go on Alice’s Donkey Kong, quickly rising to level 4 and collecting the extra banana. It is just possible that I may have persuaded my mum to buy me a new watch. But even though I did those things, it was with a heavy heart. For I had forsworn these “baubles”.

And I devoted myself to looking sadly out of the windows, thinking, aged nine, that all the most beautiful things are the things you have lost.