A Soal Perplexed
By Lizzie Love
This article was originally published in the December 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
My first remembered Christmas, as I told last year, was 1944 in the cellar of SOAL’s greengrocery in Lewisham. With the investigative genius of my age (two and a half) I had worked out why Santa was wearing Uncle Ray’s boots.
A year later I was back in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham, my parents married home. The war was over bar the shortages, and though my father, Eric INNES, was still in the RAF he had Christmas leave. The sitting room was newly distempered and Granny SOAL was coming up from London.
Granny wasn’t really a SOAL of course. She was Violet Annie JONES, but had married Leslie Edward SOAL the day before WW1 was declared. She bore her only child in the middle of that war from which Leslie returned to a crisis of faith that led him to the Baptist ministry. Vi was Leslie’s right-hand for 28 years … on into another war. Their daughter Violet Winifred married as WW2 broke out and she too gave birth in wartime. History repeated itself but with one tragic addition. Shortly before I was born in 1942 Leslie died after surgery for an ulcer.
The Baptist church in New Malden, Surrey, had been bombed in 1940. Worship continued in local halls, but after Leslie’s death the congregation attended elsewhere. Granny, however, remained in the manse alone, continuing the local community work throughout the war.
My Granny SOAL was fun. She could find at least one laugh a day and had bright brown eyes and a wide grin. Oddly, my mother forbade levity in Granny’s presence, because she and Granddad had been close chums with God who didn’t like that sort of thing … or so Mummy said: Granny told people it was one of “Win’s funny ideas” and hilarity only broke out when my mother was absent.
I looked forward to Granny’s visit as I was pondering another mystery. I knew that inside my body was a “me” made up of bits that “took after” other people, and a soul, a piece of God’s own soul that He gave to each of us. Obviously God’s soul was pretty big … but where was it? Probably in the sky, along with heaven … (Thinks!)
A sole … Ah! That was it! … a huge footprint, out beyond the stars. I peered through the nursery curtains at night but couldn’t make it out. I’d have to ask Granny. She was a special sort of Soal … she must know.
As my mother did her Christmas baking, I sat at the table playing with the pastry scraps. I broke off little “souls” and rolled them into balls, lined them up and then squeezed them back into one. The pastry was pretty grubby by the time Mummy gave me more scraps. I squashed the whole lot together and started breaking off bits again: but what was this? … The new “souls” were marbled grey and white. A new mystery. I could hardly wait to see Granny.
On Christmas morning there was a green velvet dress with smocking and red rosebuds, a book “Little Grey Rabbit” and a picture book of all the foot and arm positions for ballet. The packages from my father’s family, Mummy declared “unsuitable” and despite Granny’s protests I was not allowed to see them. Granny said I should have fun as well as learning. Daddy said he was going for a walk.
For lunch there were sprouts with little crosses cut in the stalks. I loved cutting them carefully into four now that I could use a knife and fork. I found a silver pig and a threepenny piece in my pudding. There was holly everywhere and Granny told me about Jesus in the stable. I asked if there had been a war on then and Daddy said “Sort-of”. Mummy told him not to use slang.
Then we listened to the King.
Before I knew it we were eating again … tiny sandwiches, fruit and jelly, little tarts and cakes. There were second helpings and nobody mentioned rationing. I sat up to the table on several cushions feeling very grown up. The tea-plates were square, cream with silver tracery and flowers in one corner. There were cake-forks with one wide prong, and a tiny knife in the butter dish. In the centre a three-tier cake-stand, palest green with a pink lustre, overflowed with home baking. It was more beautiful than any present. All around the walls glowed with fresh peach distemper and a design in terra cotta stencilled by my mother. Everyone was happy. It was time to ask my question.
“Granny” I said, visualising the great footprint in the sky and God chipping bits off the edges “God puts a bit of his soul into new babies doesn’t he?”
Granny beamed. “Yes dear”
“ … and when people die it goes back to him doesn’t it?”
“That’s right.” The grown-ups were looking pleased.
“ … so when God breaks off a piece for a new baby he must sometimes use bits he’s used before …”
Granny’s beringed and freckled hands froze over her plate. My father said “The transmigration of souls” and Mummy said “Eric!” very sharply. I filed the word away for later. People always liked you to say long words. Somebody suggested I might like to go and wash my hands.
Had I said something wrong? I mustn’t cry. It would spoil Christmas. I went upstairs very quietly and sat on my bed. Daddy came up. “Have I been naughty?”
“No” he said. He was laughing. “… but you mustn’t frighten Granny like that”
“Why is she frightened? Mustn’t I ask her about God any more?”
“You have very grown-up thoughts sometimes, Elizabeth, and it can make people uncomfortable. Let Granny tell you the stories, but you’d better ask me the questions.”
Downstairs, Granny was smiling again and later she tucked me in. I laid my face on her cool silky lap, which rustled and smelled of violets, and she read to me about Little Grey Rabbit and Squirrel and Hare keeping house somewhere in the country. When the King didn’t need Daddy in the RAF any more, he’d come home and tell me everything I wanted. I could wait.
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