When I was a little girl, I used to walk to the church on the corner, and sit in the last pew, with the hats. I have no idea what prompted me to do such a thing. One day, I simply stepped out of our house at 62 Cadogan Square in Kensington, London, and went straight to St. Thomas Moore Church.
I don’t remember the day I started doing this, but I do remember that it became a routine of mine that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would hear the bells toll from my bedroom on the upper floor of our townhouse. In my mind the sound did not mark the time, but suggested a calling. “Come here,” it said. I would stop whatever it was I was doing, go down the endless steps of our stairway to the front entry-way and walk purposefully out the front door. I never told my parents “I’m going out” or “I’m going to the church down the street” or any other normal comment a child would make while leaving their house. My father was usually working in his office, and my mother was doing whatever she was doing – and so I simply exited. In those days, a child of seven could do such a thing. The neighborhoods were safe, even in a large city. There was no such thing as security alarms on the doors or windows, and I never remember the front door being locked.
The church was at the end of a typical London square. The central portion was a gated garden where we used to walk the dogs, or where I would play with my friends. It wasn’t unusual for me to go there by myself and wander around the paths that wove in-between flower-beds and lawn areas enjoying my make-believe world of fairies, elves and sprites. On warm days I would spend hours alternating between basking in the sunshine with my dolls or my favorite book, and cooling off in the shade of one of the large and ancient oak trees that dotted the area. Lying on my back I would look up into the branches above and get lost in how they zigged and zagged this way and that, interconnected, yet always separate from one another. I believed that the trees were “alive” in the sense that they knew who sat near them, climbed them, who carved hearts into their skin. There were several hearts with arrows that seemed burned into the bark with age and it seemed to me that giving a tree such scars was an unkind thing to do. Whenever I gazed up I always thought they gazed right back down at me, and that always made me smile in contentedness.
It only took me a matter of minutes to get to the steps of St. Thomas, and amble up to the large red doors. There was a smell that I loved that greeted me the moment I stepped over the threshold. A combination of old stone – dusty, chalky and white – and polished wood that had been rubbed with beeswax – honed to a shine that turned it into a dark reflecting hue.
The last pew of the church was where the gentlemen left their top hats. I’m not sure if they wore them to just any service – probably weddings and funerals. I presume that they were given a ticket of some sort so they could collect their hats upon leaving, and I always wondered why the men didn’t take their hats with them to their seats in front. After all, the women wore ornate and colorful hats which stayed on their heads during services. Nonetheless, the top hats were lined along the last pews on both sides of the aisle, and it was there I would slip in unseen. I would sit perched on the edge of my seat, back straight, eyes forward. I would imagine that the ushers noticed me, and I do remember one incident when an elderly and gravely gray man with a sonorous voice asked me “to whom I belonged.” I probably answered him with a typically proper British reply “I belong to Mr. & Mrs. Osborn sir. My name is Kimberley and I live at number 62.” In accordance with proper etiquette, I would have stood and curtsied. I do not remember anyone ever making inquiries after that. They must have become accustomed to the fixture in the back who came regularly whenever there was a wedding, a funeral, or any high service. She behaved herself, so they weren’t bothered.
What I do remember was the sense of belonging that enveloped me whenever I walked in to St. Thomas. I was safe there, wrapped in the smell of furniture polish, and caressed by the colors of stained glass that fractured the light above me. The hats smelled of silk and sometimes cedar or mothballs – and they were my companions. Although they were black, there were so many shades of black. Some darker than others, some more textured, some more frayed with wear. Some were stained, others it seemed were brand new – I could tell from the high gloss shine of the fabric, the stiff edges, and the fresh smell that exuded from the silk. Sometimes the hats were grey to match the morning coats being worn.
I did not understand one word that came from the mouth of the rector in the front. Nor did I know the hymns that were sung, although I became familiar with the tunes, and then I would hum along. To this day there are some traditional hymns that give me goose bumps whenever I hear them – catapulting me back to those times when the organ would strike the first note and the ceiling would reverberate with a magnificent sound. I stood when everyone stood, sat when they sat. When prayers were said, and the congregation kneeled, I knew to kneel, and said my own quiet prayers.
There was someone very great above, and it was to that greatness that I made myself known. Eyes closed, I engaged in a private conversation with this being. “Excuse me sir, it’s me down here, and I just want you to know that I’m thinking of you. I hope you are thinking of me too.” There would be many times during the course of my life that I would go back to those simple words, connecting to that Power.
The peculiar thing is that my father was an atheist and had no time or patience for God, any Church, or religion. My mother was an intentionally lapsed Catholic who believed that God had turned his back on her. To be raised in this kind of household and yet have a deep an abiding sense of the spiritual at such a young age remains a mystery to me. And to them, I am sure. How or why I was pulled in the direction of the street corner – seemingly without will – has always remained a question mark in my mind. However, it remains the foreshadowing of a life that has always been engaged with the spiritual and a couple of times, serious consideration of giving up the worldly life for a monastic one.
Despite the elegant address of Cadogan Square and the photo-shoots of the similarly beautiful interior for the glossy magazines of the day, the real scene inside Number 62 was dark, and ugly. Fights. Screaming. Police and red lights. Bolted doors and the stinging smell of whiskey from someone who grabbed me out of my bed. Red wrists as I was dragged down the stairs, threats made as I was shoved out a window screaming bloody murder in terror that I was going to be dropped three floors to the concrete below. I was saved by someone, and my memory goes blank about much of what happened after that. Except that one night my father walked out of the house and never came back.
I remember starkly that the day after he left I went down to St. Thomas Moore. There were no bells, no call to service, no beckoning to a congregation. The doors opened with some effort, but made little sound, perhaps a reluctant creaking. I sidled in to the last pew. There were no hats to accompany me on my perch. No usher to cast a careful eye on me. Nothing but emptiness and silence. I remember that more than anything. Yet both reverberated a sound that was deafening to me. My world had just crumbled, and although I did not know the full extent of what had happened, or why, I knew enough that my days of security, safety, and innocence were over. There was a profound fear snaking its way into the pores of my skin, and settling itself inside me, curling up on the cold stone of my new reality. I sat there for a very long time, looking around, having my ritual conversation with the Important Person above. It never occurred to me to go to the ornate front of the church with the glittering objects, ornate crosses, and perfumed flower arrangements. I knew my place, and I knew where safety lay – in the last pew.
I never saw St. Thomas again. My mother and I moved to an apartment in Sloane Square. It was a busy area filled with shops and restaurants. The streets were noisy with traffic and I was admonished about being very careful when crossing the roads. I was to carry a key to the front door at all times as we kept it locked. The door to the building also had locks, and buzzers that sounded rasp and unwelcoming. Instead of a garden square in the middle of the block, there was a park not far away where nannies pushed blue prams and gathered on benches to talk. Walking there wasn’t safe I was told. It would be years before I would live in an area that had a church on the corner.
But I have never seen top hats lined along the last pew again.
Kimberley L. Berlin, LCSW, CSAC, SAP is an Integrated Addiction Therapist in private practice in Leesburg, Virginia. She is the owner and operator of Compassionate Beginnings, LLC. Kimberley is currently working on the manuscript “Rising Recovery©.”