• Gail Pittaway

When I was sixteen, God told me not to go to the Sixth Form dance. I assumed it was God.

What would Satan be doing, advising against dancing? And, as a Protestant, I only knew about those two opposites, not the legions of spirits that might have tormented me.

Yes, it was God. In a voice. In a visitation. Me. Palmerston North, 1971.

—Don’t go to the school dance—it said (The Voice).

I’m sure it even used that familiar, conversational contraction, ‘Don’t’. No King James archaisms, no formality; no vague, oracular, non-specific fortune-cookie statement. This was the voice of the folk-mass God, a post-sixties people’s Jehovah; the Daddy of Jesus Christ Superstar.

And the sound of the voice!

You must understand me, this was a decade at least before Walkman – and yet the sound was at once inside and outside of my head.

Perhaps a little to the left in stereophonic balance.

Male. English-speaking. Thirty-fortyish. Probably Caucasian.

God spoke to me only once.

I leapt, spluttered, ‘Yes, Lord!’, and scrambled immediately into bed.

I had been on my knees, praying for guidance. I had been begging for a sign, for direction, for a way to prove my devotion. When it came, it was so direct, so specific that I jumped up, all a-jitter with proud humility. Then lay snivelling in sycophantic self-consciousness.

After the adrenalin rush had subsided and my body had relaxed into a more normal level of hypertension, insomnia set in. I lay all night in my little blue bedroom, in my little green bed. All night I asked myself the same question:

What would I tell the girls at school?

Clearly, I couldn’t tell them what had really happened; hearing voices was not a popular pastime among my peers. I decided not to tell my parents about The Voice, either.

‘Telling people’ had not won Joan of Arc a long and happy life. A casual, ‘Oh, the dance … I’ve decided not to go’, would be sufficient for them. They would be grateful. I was already too worldly for their standards. My conscience stand against the Vietnam war had already upset them. When I marched down Broadway, with tears in my eyes and a banner in my hand, they had been terribly upset.

‘Render unto Caesar, dear’, my mother had kept repeating to me. This was supposed to make plain her abhorrence of my resistance to the status quo. But she never stopped me.

My father was more concerned about the fact that I’d chosen to wear his buttoning grandfather singlet, which I’d tie-dyed myself, upon such a public occasion. No, my parents would be relieved for a little less worldliness on my part.

It was the girls at school who presented a problem.

They would all be going, of course. At least all the girls who mattered. They were already talking incessantly of dress patterns, partners, hairstyles, make-up, steady boyfriends, blind dates, sex, periods, petting, nail polish. How I would be able to bring mere religion into the conversation was dauntingly improbable.

I worked out arguments in defence of The Voice’s imperative: dancing was based on sex; I should keep myself pure; pop music was Satanic and drug-induced; I might be swayed by the Evil One into puffing vile cigarettes or drinking shandies. But, of course, I would never dream of articulating such ideas to my friends; they would think I was mad. So, I chose the Carmelite way; silence. I would say ‘No’ and no more.

I spent hours fantasising on the bicycle to and from school. At night, after having fervently thanked God for telling me how to serve, I would rehearse the declaration: chest pumped full, jaw taut, gaze serene, lips testifying all the passion of my purity:

No. I shall not dance!

A day passed.

I lingered at the edge of conversations, my features a collage from noble and heroic women: Mona Lisa, Mary Slessor, Gladys Aylward, Maria von Trapp—

Are you growing out your fringe?

Is patent leather still in?

What if you get your period?

What sort of car has he got?

No! Don’t go outside wit anyone from a BOARDING SCHOOL!

Tangerine? Or frosty pink?

Hew maach?

‘Witches’ britches’ … ‘Mascara’ … ‘diet’ …  ‘Acne’ … ‘Bras’ …

—a catalogue of armoury; itemised, extemporised.

But no one asked me whether I was going.

My heroic phrase lost its rigour and became a wilted street sign flapping high over the heads of my girlfriends. But no one read it.

I was becoming mad with the burden of self-denial, frustrated with the lack of attention, obsessed with the need to express only one thing. But all my friends would talk about were themselves. How shallow they all were, I realised; how unspiritual, how lightweight.

I had much more important things to think about. Things NOT OF this world. Like how to tell them I wouldn’t be joining them at the school dance. How I wouldn’t be wearing the dress my mother and I had planned and bought the burgundy georgette for, and the pattern with the puffed sleeves gathered at the elbow and a little gathering at the cleavage on a central vertical seam. And how I wouldn’t go out with my friends for the pre- and post-ball parties, nor invite Barry Edwards, who played tenor horn in the Salvation Army band and went to my youth club, to be my partner, so we could have sat in a quiet corner and discussed evangelism. Not that I was interested in Barry any way other than spiritually, of course, but I couldn’t help noticing how his soft freckled fingers pumped the tenor horn so gently, and how his shoulders looked so square in their black uniform, when I passed by the Sallies in the square on Friday nights.

The thought of his unembarrassed performance, every Friday night was enough to restore my fervour. What faith! That was witnessing!

No. I shall not dance.

On the second day, it came to pass that Debs, one of my least favourite form mates, called to me over a cold meat and pickle sandwich in the form room:

Hey, Mole, what colour’s your dress?

I was able, with tempered devoutness, to ignore the Polaroid flash of a burgundy gown and recall instead the flashing letters of my great line, or one of its variations I had rehearsed in case of a wrong cue—

I haven’t got one. I shan’t be going.

I think that ‘shan’t’ really impressed them. It was so correct. It brooked no challenge.

There was an exchange of glances around the room as tangible as party streamers. And silence. It was my great moment. It lasted all of one second. That moment, Barbie, the class rat bag, burst into the room, wailing, ‘That bloody old cow Moffat confiscated my smokes and a packet of double-happies in Maths. Gor—I was only getting my pencil case out of my bag and she saw them on the table and the packet of matches in my hand and she thought I was gonna light the double-happies! I’ve got an after-school detention and suspension-probation an’ if Mum’n Ded hear about it I’ll be grounded for a week … And ya know what that means …’

The voice rattled and rolled out its diphthongs as she rose to a shrill cadence:

No bloody dance!

‘Aw Barbs!’ All shrieked as one. All that is, save One. As they flitted around her, intoning rites and absolutions, I slowly packed up my orange lunch box, screwed the lid very securely on my plastic Quench bottle, then trailed forlornly down the corridor to French.   

The week before the dance passed in a blast of activity that was rare for our sixth form. The school ball was to be decorated on a theme of pop-art. Psychedelic posters, black and white streamers and gigantic, overgrown forests of poppies and sunflowers were cut, painted, pasted and fastened, in a frenzy.

I walked past the hall on my way to and from classes. I helped fasten the larger poppies around stems in study period. I overheard the planning, the excitement, and the whispers. Once I thought I heard the end of a conversation about me:

Don’t worry about it. It’s her business!

But it could just as easily have been about someone’s mother—or cat.

Barbie and I were estranged from the others in this time. She, frozen into inactivity in an agony of good behaviour, a purgatory of periodic detention, while I wandered alone in the corridors of my own confinement. For a few days, at interval, we’d blink hard at each other across the grooved and inked desks of the form room, linked by our non-conformity imposed from without and within. She would earn her conformity. What would I earn?

The day of the dance arrived. I awoke early and my brain sang:

This is the day.

It was a new song we’d been taught at youth club:

This is the day that the Lord hath made
We will be glad and rejoice in it.

Barry had sung it with particular gusto.

I didn’t feel glad. Perhaps when I was at home instead of at the dance I might receive a revelation, some special instructions to reward my faithfulness?

I biked to school. I lurched from lesson to lesson. I spoke to people. I read. I translated French exercises. I was numb. I was nowhere.

I biked home. I practised the piano and set the table.

We ate mashed potatoes, crumbed sausage casserole and steamed cauliflower. I declined the roly-poly pudding. I was anxious for revelation and passed directly from table to bath to bedroom to speed on inspiration.

I knelt and prayed:

What would you say to me, oh Lord?

No voice.

I prayed a little more and looked around. There was no one. Nothing was different. My clothes were still lying in a splat where they’d fallen off the chair; my desk was unnaturally tidy as we’d not been given homework for the night. I thought about the dance. The pattern for the burgundy georgette rested above the Concise Oxford on my desk, plumped up from having been opened, looked at me. Ripe with recrimination.

I didn’t feel sad. Just numb.

I climbed into bed and turned open the Bible. I had been wading through the Pentateuch and was moving into Joshua. I fell asleep reading:

And afterward Joshua smote them, and slew them, and hanged them on five trees:

and they were hanging upon the trees until the evening.

I woke up near dawn, with the Bible still across my chest. Still silent. Even birds were voiceless. I turned and went back to sleep.

I wore that burgundy dress the next year to the Seventh Form Dance. I even danced with Barry.

You see, there was a new song at youth club that went:

Dance then, wherever you may be
‘I am the Lord of the Dance’ said He.

But I’ve never told anyone about The Voice.

Until now.