The summer helpers arrived, and suddenly the house was full of mostly young, mostly female, mostly Eastern European, presences, using lots of smiles and sign language to convey to each other the things they’ve only just learnt themselves – what ‘pillowcase’ means and how many teabags for a six-pint pot and how to start the petrol mower. Most have come to improve their English, but some have other agendas – one has a dream of starting her own community, and wants to see how to run one; another wants to tape English voices so English learners at home can practise their listening skills.
And the groups – holidaying, studying, conferencing – come and go. Lone parent families come to holiday, learn circus skills, build bonfires, use bible stories as a starting point for talking about their own lives. Then the house fills up with people who’ve come together to sing, and the air fills with gorgeous harmonies – meetings end with a hymn, dinner starts with a sung grace. Determined, cheery, white haired folk with arthritic joints struggle up and down the house’s many stairs (being built on a steep hillside, there are steps everywhere). They go, and next we are dazzled with the colours of Asian clothes and crafts, and the versatile kitchen team turn their hands to producing Indian vegan lunches and suppers.
But I missed a lot of August. My father, who had been desperately ill with Alzheimer’s disease for many years, died. He had been in a nursing home for the past four years, and the staff (Filipinos, Indians, Poles, some of them thousands of miles from their own families) quietly cared for us all through that night, bringing cups of tea, and turning Dad and bringing fresh sheets as though he was like any other patient needing routine comfort and care, and not someone who was not expected to regain consciousness again.
Being at Scargill, in a Christian community, doesn’t make it any easier to make sense of something like this – his years of suffering, the blight on all our lives, the unending shame that, all through his illness, I was called and found wanting, the guilt at putting myself first, the worse guilt at thinking about my own misery at all in the face of what he had to endure. I have no idea how people who believe literally in a personal god who is both compassionate and omnipotent, come to terms with the facts of undeserved human suffering. But being in a community, full stop, certainly helps – there’s an awful lot of love around. And the symbols of religion, its metaphorical language, give me access to a source of comfort, which is to say, a source of strength, which I personally can’t access any other way. Christians know a god who knows what suffering is.
But August ended on a different note. Five of us took the Scargill stall to Greenbelt – the annual festival of Christian arts, held at Cheltenham racecourse. There were the acres of tents, the outdoor stages with towering banks of speakers, the ethnic clothes stalls and burger stands you get at any festival. But there were also long queues of folk with folding seats, waiting to hear a Cambridge theologian or a talk on New Testament clobber texts – those would be the ones used by the self-righteous and anti-gay to clobber the opposition. There were lots of under-twenties, lots of exuberance, no drunkenness, no trouble. An occasional grey head bounced up and down to a rock band, or teenager queued for a talk, but mostly the different age groups amicably followed their different interests. Religious symbols were almost entirely absent,, but there was a lot of emphasis on peace and justice, and a huge number of different opportunities to use your time and cash to advance them, from buying clothes made by an African women’s co-operative to supporting a project to help isolated old folk in Leeds. We also had the traditional festival mud – the actual weather being baking, the organisers had made festival goers feel at home by siting a sink drain just outside the most heavily used Portaloos, thereby creating a morass that soon got tramped into the toilets, made them unusable, and turned the nearby path into a river of mud. It was loads of fun, except that I’d forgotten how very cold sleeping in a tent, on the ground, can be, even when the preceding day was boiling hot – in fact, especially then. As soon as I got back I bought a thicker camping mattress for next year!