Jesus in the clouds
Trivial incidents become fixed in the memory & the minds eye for years afterwards because of certain distinct details – they could be sensations triggered by a sight, or a smell, and if these occur at an early age, they can be particularly vivid & long-lasting.
Back in the day, one Sunday afternoon, I was dispatched by my father to get an evening meal of burgers and fries from the local Wimpy – both my parents worked & my father, (although my memory of this detail is hazy to say the least) had only just moved from a night shift to daytime hours, whilst my mother continued to work a night shift at Heathrow Airport – a big employer of many of the local Asian community.
We were a family of 7 – myself, 3 sisters and a cat, and I knew a family-sized Wimpy would be a large haul.
As I stepped out into the street lined by Victorian terraces, my head was full of worrying thoughts about weeping crucifixes and images of Jesus seen in the sky – an evangelist paper had been thrust through the letter box – doorstep bible-thumpers were a common occurrence in those days (the mid 60’s), before they moved their activities to less sensitive areas, considering the mixed ethnic and cultural make-up of Southall then, as now, but it was more than likely that they had been there long before the arrival of Asians, given the number of Kingdom Halls, Methodist Congregations & Pentacostal ministries, which mostly catered to the local Afro-Caribbean population.
A thunderstorm had just passed and left in its wake enormous cumulous clouds in a dazzling blue sky, of a kind more fitted to a de Mille religious epic – the bright afternoon sun had turned the glistening streets into a river of gold all the way from our street and into the Broadway, and all the way up to the cinema (which I would pass on my way) and to the Wimpy just next to it, and beyond that up the great swathe of South Rd to the train station perched on the very top of the railway bridge.
The air would have smelt of ozone and fresh wet earth, but my thoughts would settle on inexplicable anomalies of nature, and my stomach was gripped in a knot of anxiety – would I see Jesus in the huge cumulous clouds, and what would I do about it ? – the universe, life and its mysteries loomed large and my imagination had already been filled by the astronomy & science fiction books which I pored over in the local library.
Before Sunday trading, the streets were largely devoid of people and traffic, fewer people owned cars, but the sun after the rainstorm had bought out wanderers – the walk through the listless Broadway went without incident – I passed the usual landmarks like “The Arcade”, now blocked by a padlocked chained gate, and dreamily imagined what might be found in the toyshop in its deepest recesses, a regular destination on a Saturday, where cheap joke-shop toys might be bought, like “Whoopie” cushions or powders which, when added to a victims coffee, would result in a headache – they hardly ever worked…
Any anxieties I had about being sent on an errand were compounded by the thought that dangerous and hostile gangs of “Teddy Boys”, and perhaps even the notorious & near-mythical “Gasworks Gang” might be encountered, alongside my already troubling thoughts, but as I got closer to the cinema on South Road, these gradually diminished, as the thought of food somehow gained precedence over the knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.
Two things became clear as I walked past the stately entrance of the Odeon – movies were a safe refuge, no matter how strange the ideas depicted in the “B” Grade horror and SciFi movies were, luridly illustrated in film posters, lobby cards and black & white stills on the walls either side of the entrance.
My memories of the Wimpy itself are blurred except for sitting waiting for the cook to prepare the order – the design of Wimpy “bars” in those days was such that you could sit around the grill in a semi-circle and watch the cook fry the onions and burgers, whilst perched on a high barstool, sipping a lime-flavoured milkshake – it seemed very American and futuristic, and above all, comforting – maybe it’s to do with the profusion of red leatherette and chromed stainless steel and the smell of frying burgers, onions and chips, eventually delivered, with sachets of ketchup, salt & pepper, in voluminous white paper bags.
Anyway, as I made my way home to the waiting mouths, I had made up my mind not to look at the evangelist paper, and quietly cursed its intrusion on my day, relishing instead the thought of an evening meal of Wimpy burgers, chips and sachets of salt, pepper & Heinz ketchup, to the sight of my mother quietly attending to the evening prayers before the shrine on the mantelpiece above the fireplace – although, damn, I forgot about the Songs of Praise on TV…
My mother, a devout Hindu & confirmed vegetarian, would no doubt have an opinion on my anxiety, citing a Karmic transgression through consuming a beef-burger – and as a Hindu Brahmin family in particular – perhaps she is right and genetic guilt was the cause of it, and Jesus in the clouds was standing in judgment, along with all the Hindu deities, wagging an index finger of disapproval, in my direction…
(C) Ravi Swami – March 2016