Lancashire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Kaye McGann
Features Writer
6:39 AM 10th April 2021

The Organist

Jennifer had always loved organ music, for as long as she could remember. Now she was nine, she liked nothing better than to sit in church with Auntie Edith on Sunday mornings, and listen to the organ. If she could, she’d have gone to the evening service as well, but Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t let her go alone, and Auntie Edith said she couldn’t manage the long walk twice in one day. Until recently, Daddy had walked with her to afternoon Sunday School, but she had got a scooter for her birthday, and now she was allowed to go by herself, as long as she promised to scoot back quickly, and not stop on the way.

The organ didn’t play for Sunday School hymns, but the organist was there, as he was also the Sunday School Superintendent. All the Sunday School teachers were female, but he was in overall charge. Jennifer had been brought up always to be polite, so when she saw him, she said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Johnson,” and he said, “Hello, little Jennifer.” “I’m NOT little any more! I’m nine now,” Jennifer always said, giggling. Sometimes Mr. Johnson would tickle her, to make her laugh even more.

Mr. Johnson’s wife was the leading soprano in the choir, but Jennifer didn’t like her singing voice. She thought it was more of a screech. Mr. Johnson’s daughter Cynthia was also in the choir. She was a subdued sort of young woman, who rarely spoke. Her younger brother, Fred, was the opposite, a real ‘lad’, always in the thick of it with the other older boys. They ignored the younger girls, but showed off to the older ones, who seemed to spend their time in gales of laughter about nothing. Jennifer thought they were silly.

One Sunday, when Mr. Johnson had tickled her, Jennifer said, “I do like listening to the organ. It’s my favourite thing.”

“Would you like me to play for you?”

“Oh, yes, please!”

“Come up to the organ loft after Sunday School ends, and I’ll give you a tune. I shouldn’t really, so don’t tell anyone. It will be our little secret.”

Jennifer was thrilled. Mr. Johnson was going to play the organ, just for her! She could hardly wait for the last prayer to finish, and then she rushed from the Schoolroom, up the stairs, and towards the organ loft. As she approached, she could see Mr. Johnson already seated at the organ, and when he saw her, he began to play. The sound reverberated, and Jennifer’s whole body was filled with it. She had never experienced anything like it. She sat in one of the choir stalls, enraptured, while the music circled in her and around her. When it stopped, she wanted to cry.

“Did you like that?” Mr. Johnson asked.

“Oh, yes! Yes! It was wonderful! Thank you! Thank you! I didn’t want it to stop.”

“Well, how about I play for you again next Sunday? It will be our little secret. You can keep a secret, can’t you?”

“Yes, I can. Oh, that would be lovely! I can hardly wait.”

It crossed Jenifer’s mind as she scootered home that she’d promised Mummy and Daddy she’d come straight back after Sunday School. Really, though, she reasoned, she WAS coming straight back. She hadn’t gone anywhere but into church, and that didn’t count.

Jennifer thought about the music off and on throughout the week. How kind Mr. Johnson was. And Mummy and Daddy hadn’t noticed she was a bit later getting home than usual. They spent Sunday afternoons in bed. They said it gave them a chance to read the newspapers properly.

It became a regular thing, that after Sunday School Jennifer went across to the church and listened to Mr. Johnson play. After two months, when he finished playing, he asked Jennifer if she’d like some chocolate. She hesitated. She wasn’t normally allowed chocolate, in case it spoiled her teeth, but she did have some occasionally, and it was her favourite thing to eat.

“Yes, please,” she said.

“Let’s sit in the choir’s room and be comfortable whilst we eat some,” Mr. Johnson said.

This, too, became a regular habit. First the organ, then chocolate.

One afternoon, a storm blew up, and thunder crashed, scaring Jennifer.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Johnson said, “It’s just a summer storm. It will be over soon. But come and sit on my lap. You’ll feel safer.”

Jennifer climbed onto his lap and snuggled against him. She felt safe and loved. She knew Mr. Johnson was fond of her. Now he stroked her hair, and kissed her face, and told her he loved her, she was his little sweetheart. She was overcome with happiness.

So a third thing was added to Sunday’s pattern: first the organ, then the chocolate, then the cuddle.

“Why don’t you wriggle about a bit?” Mr. Johnson suggested. “Go on. I bet it will feel nice.”

Jennifer, sitting on his lap, started to wriggle. There was something sticking into her through her clothes, rubbing against her as she moved. She felt some strange sensations. It was so good. She wriggled some more.

This, too, became part of the Sunday ritual.

Then one week Mr. Johnson wasn’t there. He didn’t play the organ when Jennifer and Auntie Edith went to the morning service, and he wasn’t at Sunday school, either. Mr. Brierley had played the organ, and Jennifer had heard the grown-ups speaking in whispers, saying he’d do, until they got someone more permanent. Was Mr. Johnson ill, Jennifer wondered. She loved him so much, and her Sunday afternoons with him were the best thing ever.

After her Sunday School class finished, she asked Miss Jenkins, her teacher, where Mr. Johnson was.

“He’s had to go away for a while,” she was told.

He wasn’t there the next week, nor the next. Mrs. Johnson was, though, looking pale and ill. She appeared to be thinner, too. Cynthia was nowhere to be seen, and even Fred was quiet and subdued. Something must have happened, but no-one would talk about it – at least, not when there were children around.

It was three weeks later when Jennifer came home from school one day to find Miss Jenkins and Mummy sitting in the best room, both looking very serious. Mummy told her to sit down. Miss Jenkins had just told her something very worrying, and they wanted Jennifer to answer some questions. Jennifer could tell she was in trouble about something, because Mummy looked so stern, and Miss Jenkins seemed sad. She hoped it wasn’t about her being silly and giggling in the Bible story. She couldn’t think what else it could be, to make Mummy look at her like that.

“Now, Jennifer,” Mummy said, ”Miss Jenkins has just told me something very serious, and I want you to answer truthfully. There are things I need to know.”

Jennifer’s heart thumped. What could this be about? Was it that Mummy had realised she was late coming home on Sundays? She hoped not.

Mummy was talking. “I need you to tell me if Mr. Johnson has ever, well, touched you.”

Jennifer was sure she must be blushing. She suddenly felt as if she was in some sort of danger. Careful, careful, she told herself.

“What do you mean, Mummy? Do you mean him patting my hair as I go past?”

Mummy and Miss Jenkins looked at each other.

“No, Jennifer. I mean, well, I don’t know how to put this.”

Jennifer waited. She would not say anything. All her instincts were warning her she was in danger, and Mr. Johnson would be in trouble if she mentioned the chocolate and the cuddles.

Miss Jenkins said, “You told me that once Mr. Johnson played the organ for you. Is that all that happened?”

“Yes, I listened to him play one day, and then I came home on my scooter. It wasn’t really for me, though. He was just practising, and I listened.”

Jennifer had never told lies before, but knew she had to now, to keep safe.

“All right, Jennifer,” Mummy said. “You would tell me if anything else happened, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, Mummy, but it didn’t.”

Jennifer was fourteen when Mr. Johnson appeared back at church, very much changed. He dragged one leg as he walked, and his hands were in constant movement, waving around. His speech was slurred, and there was a big scar on his head, where no hair grew.

Jennifer had recently moved up into the Senior class, for girls who were fourteen to seventeen. She was one of the youngest. The older girls were sniggering about Mr. Johnson.

“I’m surprised he’s got the nerve to come back,” Jackie said.

“He can’t get up to his old tricks any more, though,” Margaret replied.

“What do you mean? What’s wrong with him?” Jennifer asked.

“He’s been in prison,” Jackie answered. “ I thought everybody knew.”

“Why has he been in prison?”

“For interfering with little girls, stupid. You must have missed out on that one,” Margaret said. “They only let him out because he agreed to have an operation called a lobotomy, so he can’t get up to anything again.”

Jennifer was shocked. She was old enough to realise what the other girls meant. She had never thought of herself as ‘interfered with’. She had loved her time in the organ loft with Mr. Johnson. She supposed, looking back, it was a bit odd for someone so much older to have told her he loved her.

“How did people know about it?”

“He tried it with Wendy, and she told her dad, and he reported it to the police. That’s why Wendy stopped coming to Sunday School. Anyway, all our parents were asked to find out if he’d done anything to us. Most of the girls said nothing, but Audrey Smith and Lucille Howarth told on him.”

A feeling of shame engulfed Jennifer. She hadn’t been special, after all. It had all been a big lie, grubby. She looked across to where Mr. Johnson was shuffling along, and felt revolted.

It didn’t bear thinking about. Her mind shut down on it. Her body clamped down. She would not get deceived like that, ever again.

When Jennifer was forty-nine, she got a letter, a ‘blast from the past’, from the church she’d attended as a girl. It was so long ago she had a job to remember who the signatory was - ‘(Mrs.) Jacqueline Sampson’; but underneath was scrawled ‘Jackie Clayton, as was. We were in the same Sunday School class for a while. I’m now church secretary. I got your address from your mother, who is still in the same house, thank goodness, or I’d never have found you.’

Of course! Jackie Clayton. Fancy her still going to that church. Jennifer hadn’t been in a church since her Auntie Edith had died, when Jennifer was seventeen. The letter was an invitation to the hundred and fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the church’s founding, to which all past and present members and friends were invited. Jennifer pondered about going. She had very few memories of her time there, except sitting with her beloved Auntie. It was a two-hundred mile journey as well, but it was high time she visited her mother again, so this would kill two birds with one stone. The letter from Jackie jolted her memory a bit. She remembered some fun times in Senior class, but before that was a complete blank. Jennifer didn’t go to see her mother as often as she should; she knew that; but her career took up all her time. It must be lonely for Mummy since Daddy died, with no other family near, and her friends dying off. So, yes, she’d go, and stay with her mother, and catch up with Jackie.

The journey up to Yorkshire was uneventful, and her mother was delighted to see her. They had a cosy evening together, chatting about nothing. The next day, Saturday, was the day of the re-union. Jennifer had quite a surprise when she pulled up outside St. George’s – the huge Victorian church wasn’t there. Where it had stood was a waste land. However, behind it was still the large church hall, with its big schoolroom, where she’d attended regularly. Lots of cars were parked along both sides of the street, so that must be where the reunion would take place.

She felt self-conscious, walking in on her own. The hall was crowded, and she didn’t recognise anyone, until a large jolly woman pushed towards her. “Jennifer!” the woman exclaimed, “It IS you, isn’t it?”

“Er, yes.” Jennifer had no idea who this was.

“You remember me, don’t you? Jackie Clayton–as-was?”

“Of course! Jackie! How are you?” Jennifer said, thinking she would never have recognised Jackie, who now looked nothing like the girl she had known.”

“Come and meet some of the old crowd. Lots of us have come, even though I’m the only one who still attends here.”

“Hang on. What happened to the main church building?”

“Oh, it was too expensive for us to repair, after it was found to be riddled with dry rot, and so it was demolished. We’ve only a small congregation now, so we have services in the hall. We don’t even have our own Vicar, we have to share with St. James’s. The land where the church was has been bought by a developer who wants to build houses on it, but they need to get the graveyard cleared first. Never mind that. Come and see everyone.”

Jackie took a firm hold of Jennifer’s arm, and steered her across the room, through the chattering crowd, to where a group of middle-aged people stood laughing and talking. Jennifer had no idea who anyone was – the matronly women, the balding paunchy men. Surely she didn’t look as decrepit? She’d always kept fit and active, and watched her figure. Her clothes were expensive and smart, and her hair was cut by one of the top stylists in town. After all, she only had herself to think of. She was re-assured when everyone seemed to recognise her.

“I’m sorry I can’t remember all your names. It’s been nearly forty years, after all,” she said apologetically.

Jackie started to introduce people, and Jennifer began to see the people they once were, coming through the damage of time. She felt glad she’d come.

Then Jackie said, “You remember Fred, don’t you? Fred Johnson?” and Jackie looked at Fred’s open smiling face. What she saw, though, was a dreadful resemblance. She saw his father’s image. She had always like Fred when she was a girl, but now she felt she wanted to attack him, and smash the happy grin from his face. It was as if a chasm was opening in her mind, unearthing horrible shameful memories. At a rational level she knew that none of this had to do with Fred. What was overwhelming was anger at what had been done to her – a sheltered innocent and ignorant child - and its effects down the years; the guilt she felt about any sexual feelings of enjoyment, the dislike of being touched. She hadn’t made the connection until this minute, when memories of Mr. Johnson, and of her response to him, threatened to drown her. She was suffused with shame and rage.

“Jennifer, are you all right?” Jackie said worriedly. Jennifer became aware everyone was looking at her with concern. She realised she was shaking.

“No. Sorry, Jackie, sorry, everyone. I’ve got to go.”

“But you’ve only just got here.”

“Sorry. Sorry.” Jennifer broke away from Jackie’s restraining hand, and pushed her way to the door. She almost ran to her car. She needed to get away, but realised she was shaking too much to drive. Instead she put her arms on the steering wheel, and her head on her arms, and wept, for the child she had once been, the repressed woman she was now, and the wasted years in between.