A fine set of responses to our challenge this month. Chris Luke wins the R200 gift voucher from Boekehuis bookshop for the particularity and poignancy of his scene – although later, his writing would be even more effective with a touch less explanatory exposition. We’d like to commend Alethea and Jazelle for their contributions.

Cast your mind back over your childhood. Can you remember an event or situation from before you were ten that is vivid in its detail? Write a scene that brings this to life. Use specific and particular detail, to give your scene a realistic texture and evoke the time and place in which it occurred. It must contain observations that strike you now, as an adult, as being significant and true.

Bats by Chris Luke

My father had a small wooden step installed in the pulpit: A platform of sorts, not something that got him into the pulpit but rather, that lifted him out of it. He’d stand on it at strategic points in his sermon, when it was drawing to a close and when his voice was at it’s most austere; a clever device that made him look suddenly taller. And as I think back to the churches he inhabited, I now realize how much he understood the nature of theatre: how he viewed the pulpit, the placement of the pianist and the view of the cross, more like a set on a stage.

‘Get in the car, we’re going down to see the new church’, an experience I had every three years. Three years: the period of time allotted to a ministerial post by the presbytery, after which you could re-consider your station and move: and without fail he did. I remember the church in Underburg (which was a one-horse town in the South of the Drakensberg Mountains), it was a conventional old church, having been built in the previous century: a stand-alone building, complete with steeple and impressive wooden doors. He always unlocked the entrance to his new churches with a quiet intensity that seemed to suspend the air around him. I understood his process, only because I had witnessed it; I wouldn’t speak, just watch. He pushed open the doors; as if in his mind he were opening an ancient tomb of some long forgotten hero and on this occasion that’s what it smelled like. He found the light switch and stood there surveying the scene that lay before him. Once again it was a standard configuration for a Presbyterian church of that age: wooden pews, the backs of which held hymnals, bibles and communion-glass wracks and there was old metal tubing running under the seats, a heating system. Up front and on the left was a monstrous pulpit, the sidewalls of which surrounded the minister in what looked like an octagonal configuration: it was built for the singular purpose of elevating the speaker; there was no humility in it, a large cockpit for a small church. The piano was on the far right, a ceremonial table for communion center stage and in the background a large wooden cross hanging on the back wall. My father stood there, his hand still on the light switch, motionless, except for his eyes. I instinctively knew that the pulpit pleased him but the cross – he lingered there the longest. I wasn’t sure what he was looking at and then something fell from the roof, we both looked up simultaneously. Where the steeple met the roof, there was a rectangular hole, a connecting shoot that went up to what, years ago, could only have been a small bell tower.

My father walked forward to get a better look; he stopped at the third last row and looked down the length of it.

‘Bats! This church has Bats!’ he said flabbergasted.

‘Oh my god’ I thought, consciously recognizing my guilt at having blasphemed in church, even if it was only in my own mind. My next thought was that I wasn’t going to get out of this any time soon; I would be subjected to a long afternoon of orders and complaints: ‘How could anyone allow this to happen!’ ‘What utter negligence!’ ‘Help me move this!’ Get that! Fetch this! And I would hear his vision for the removal of those ‘unearthly creatures’, creatures that had invaded the house of God. And I could see that every time he mulled it over in his mind, he saw himself as the hero of his own story, bringing light into this darkness.

I sniggered under my breath, and then coughed to hide my amusement. Small black angels in the steeple, shitting down on parishioner’s heads, we should reserve this row for the unconverted, I almost said it aloud. We were soon to learn that Row M, ironically the thirteenth row, was the bats row and was consistently unoccupied by churchgoers. Two weeks later he blocked up that steeple and poisoned those little black angels, those perfections of nature. I had tried to suggest that we catch them and relocate them but that was too complicated. Years later I read how an entire Buddhist temple had been eaten by red ants and how not a finger had been laid against those resolute creatures; instead those orange monks evacuated their home; later they would evacuate their country to avoid violent conflict and to maintain their principles of unity.

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