Between the ages of 4 and 14, I was a member of a Christian youth organisation called the Girls’ Brigade. I first became aware of them during a family service in church one Sunday when in swept a phalanx of girls, all dressed in black uniforms with braid, carrying a banner.
For me, that was it; the white gloves, the black tunics, the pillar box hats and the badges - nay, the medals - and the apparent dizzying glamour of marching in front of everybody, oh wow! Best of all, one of my friends from school was part of the procession, which I pointed out to my mother when she tried to argue that I was still too little to join in, a carrying argument if ever there was one I felt.
And so it was that I commenced my journey into quasi-martial glory, for indeed it had been the allure of the uniform and playing soldiers that had won my heart. I was an odd child.
I loved it, loved it, loved it in the beginning and for a fair few years afterward. I loved the way that my spine tingled when we sang vespers. I loved standing to attention and then at ease. I loved being taught how to make fluffy pom-poms that I could take home and torment my brothers with and performing plays based on bible stories. I loved the time with my friends. I loved observing the older girls (the Girls’ Brigade ran from 4-18) and lived in expectant hope of being older and being allowed to learn how to do ther projects. Naturally, I loved my uniform, although it started out as being nothing more than a red jumper, a pinafore and a squashed pancake hat, although I also had an armband onto which which sewn my badges and medals as time wore on.
What I didn’t love, was the marching. Oh dear.
I could maintain a steady and creditable left-right-left-right-left if we were going in a straight line, say from gathering ground to meeting hall or down the aisle of the church on family service days. I did not disgrace myself too much there. It was the Other Kind where I came a cropper.
In the interests of full disclosure, it must be noted that I have always been rather malco-ordinated. I come from a long line of ungainly people - stumblers, tripper-overers and sitting-on-the-siders when it comes to dances. We just can’t do it - put our feet in the right places, follow a rhythm with our bodies, vault horses. I like to believe that we have other qualities, but fleetness of foot is not one of them. Many of the family anecdotes involve someone going arse over tea-kettle and, since that is our lot in life, these stories are so numerous that only the cream of them bear repeating.
As a teenager, I used to get thrown out of Scottish Country dancing lessons at school on a regular basis as the teacher simply could not believe that anyone could be that bad and not be acting up. As an 8 year old, I dutifully joined the school gym club and managed not to complete the most basic award for gymnastic attainment until I was 11. One of the exercises involved jumping 360 degrees which was as far from Nadia Comăneci as one could get.
In Girls’ Brigade, we were expected to participate in Display Marches. These looked very impressive when done correctly and were a staple of our annual Display Nights as well as something we did competitively and when we met with other companies. They were an act of worship in themselves. A long snake of girls would march through the hall in single file, gradually filling the space with rhythmic movement. There would be curlicues. There would be spirals. There would be criss-crossings and zig-zaggings of streams all played out to a rousing 4/4 beat. The room would be filled with patterns until, gradually, the patterns disentangled themselves and we all filed out. These took weeks of hours-long practice to perfect. Predictably enough, I never came remotely close to perfecting my part. Ever. Not once.
Onward Christian soldiers...
“Marjory, can’t you just follow what the other girls are doing?”
...marching as to war...
“Okay, Marjory. You have to wait. Go now! NO! Oh. Shall we stop and start again?”
...with the cross of Jesus...
“Oh dear! She’s approaching the intersection part now. Do we really need it? Oh. Third person she has crashed into...”
...going on before.
Awful. Embarrassing. Sometimes I was scolded. Often I was watched like a hawk and coached from the sidelines. Eventually, I was very delicately and kindly given something else to do when it came time for most of these marches.
It was a relief, really, no longer being the focus of negative attention. It was terrible not being part of something, for most little girls want to be part of something, although this was a minute part of the whole. It was possibly, arguably, good for me to be dreadful at something, as I had not run into that particular bugbear as a young child. Of course they let me try again from time to time, as perseverance is also a virtue.
I think, however, that it was better that I prayed without moving my feet in this instance. God had other plans for me.