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It was Christmas Eve in rehab and I was making paper chains with some of the women. We started a production line – a few of us cutting up the rough grainy paper, others looping and gluing. I liked the sound of slicing paper. When the chains were done we hung them on the Christmas tree, gave the scissors back, then sat around and thought about our lives. There was a black and white film on in the other room, but I never went there because the flocked wallpaper made me nervous. The TV was screwed to the wall.
The priest came at about six o clock. We’d had a lot of visitors over the past week, a school choir and an MP and some women with aromatherapy oil. This priest was American and his name was Jackson. He surprised me by being so normal and nice – even handsome, with green eyes and wide white teeth. He said he was a Jesuit, and in his Chicago accent the Js and Ss dripped like jam.
We were in a suburb of Plymouth, in a house with a garden and pretty white shutters on the windows. It had been donated by the church. Sometimes you could smell the sea but I had never been to the beach. The view from the main room depressed me. The houses opposite were low and square and constricting, and the people who lived in them were all very old. Sometimes ambulances came for them in the night, bathing our shutters in blue light.
Earlier that day we’d done Secret Santa with the staff. The presents were things like face wipes and the kind of gloves children wear, bright pink and green with bulbous fingertips. No one wanted what they got.
Jackson told us he was visiting some local Jesuit brothers for the holidays, and said we could talk to him if we wanted. He was so hopeful and earnest that I felt sorry for him. He had kind eyes.
Some of the women went to their rooms.
Jesus Christ, a priest, said Natasha. Is this a joke?
Natasha had only been there a few days and was thin and shaky. In the mornings she cried and said she couldn’t believe this was the best she would feel all day.
Jackson had brought candles and we were allowed to light them while he was there. They were cheap ones, vanilla and cinnamon flavour so the room smelt like a sweet shop. Jackson sat down on one of the floor cushions which were still arranged in a circle from counselling that morning. He was wearing jeans and Nike trainers but when he moved I could see plastic rosary beads under his shirt. He told us a few things about his life. He lived in Paris in a special university with other priests, who he called brothers. I imagined it might be a little like our setup, except the priests were probably allowed paracetamol and lighters.
It would be nice to say I felt something for the women I lived with in rehab. The truth is I viewed them like you might view passengers on the same bus. They were people I felt a temporary kinship with purely because they were currently following the same orders. Their bodies and voices were relevant today but they would not be tomorrow.
Jackson told us his mother had never forgiven him for joining the church. He showed us a picture of his nieces, and said he missed the wide spaces of America, the fact that you could drive for six hours without seeing anybody. As he was saying that part I saw him jolt slightly and he quickly changed the subject. Jackson was sensitive, he got that he shouldn’t be talking about space to us, trapped here in our drizzling cul-de-sac, accompanied daily to the chemist.
Now, since it’s Christmas, said Jackson, I’m going to talk to you about gifts. But not the kind you’re thinking of!
He gave a weird little speech, about how everyone has a unique bundle of skills and sensitivities that they should use to make the world a better place. This is your gift to the world, Jackson said. It’s my duty, as a Jesuit, to bring that capacity out of you. So think about it: what’s your gift?
We all stared at him.
Most importantly, Jackson went on, looking at us all meaningfully, I try and understand that when people behave badly, that behaviour is covering up their gift. That’s why the Jesuits teach patience and kindness. We try to look beneath people’s destructive actions and find what they still have to give.
It’s about a lack of judgment? Esther asked.
Yes! Jackson said, delighted. That’s exactly what it is.
A lot of the others didn’t like Esther. She was posh and condescending, with luscious hair and parents who sent her parcels which she had to open in front of the staff. She was addicted to codeine, which she even now called “medicine”. She used to get it by stealing her father’s prescription pads. Addiction is a great equalizer but there are limits – most of the women grew up around crack. Esther had never paid a penny for her medicine.
I was different too, the type who could never accept that the party was over. I could barely remember the past few years. Stopping was like slamming a car’s brakes on at 90 mph – the accumulated impact of all that shame and waste had almost decapitated me. Now I was just broken-hearted. Being sober was life with the shine taken off and nothing felt good.
At the end of Jackson’s talk one of the women, Lisa, asked if we could say a prayer. We all held hands and thanked god that we had a roof over our heads and that we had food.
Lisa closed her eyes and recited the prayer really loudly, and people started to laugh. She got so angry that her nose started bleeding. She wouldn’t get a tissue, stood half-hunched over like a charging bull, bright red drops splashing on to the cushions.
I wasn’t really mean like some of the others were but I was angry with Jackson – for coming in and speaking about gifts, for believing in God. I was angry that he’d get wine tomorrow.
Can you sit in the garden with me while I smoke? I asked him, and he was happy as a Labrador as he pulled on his woolly hat. It was cold outside, painful in our throats and ears, the grass glittery with frost and that Christmas Eve hush.
Under the porch lights I saw the acne scars on Jackson’s forehead. I ran my nails up my tights to make ladders. Through the window I could see the staff blowing the candles out.
We talked about a lot of things. Jackson was thirty, like me. He told me about living with the priests – it sounded Gothic, better than Plymouth. I couldn’t work Jackson out at all. He could flip in a minute from talking about movies and music to saying things like “Good Work” and “channelling His love”. I could hear the capitals.
He asked me about my addiction. I told him how it felt for me: like a gold chain trickling into my palm, smooth locks clicking into place.
It’s like being given something beautiful, I said, and then having to give it back – but out of choice. When you’re ready, when you can. Who in their right mind would do it?
Jackson was a good listener. I get it, he said. It’s no fun being in love with something you can’t have.
For a second I felt like I did at parties, lovely and awful at the same time, smoking under a cold sky.
So, I asked, leaning forward. Have you ever had sex?
No, Jackson said. He was smiling, a little shy but ready for it. I knew all that wasn’t for me, way back in high school. I wanted a more introspective kind of life.
I really believe that Jackson did not judge us, but I judged him. For handing over his agency, for choosing brothers over wives, for resisting me.
What a waste, I said, watching his chest, wanting to hurt him. You seem like a nice person – why are you wasting your life with dirty old men? What are you – closeted? Tiny dick?
He didn’t flinch.
Do you like coming here and looking at vulnerable women? You think you’re the cool face of the church, right? You think you’re doing good, that you’re charming enough to make up for a cabal of paedophiles?
All I want to do, said Jackson, is help people. I don’t want to be destructive. This is the best way I know how.
Your gift, right?
Do you masturbate, Jackson?
Jackson blushed then, and his acne scars stood out like white pools.
He stood up to go and patted me clumsily on the shoulder. When he was close he smelt like men do in movies, soap and brown paper.
Just before Jackson opened the door to the house he stopped and turned around.
Sometimes, he said, the loneliness is unbearable.
It was the best possible Christmas present. I thought about it all night while Lisa snored on the other side of our room divider. I tried to massage my heart into stillness, pushing the heels of my hands between my ribs. Just before dawn I got up and went to the window, stood watching for reindeer to fly across the moon.
Years later, I still sometimes think about Jackson when I can’t sleep. I like to picture him out there, lying still beside his unbearable loneliness. Both of us awake in the dark, promising ourselves that tomorrow we won’t hurt people.
Back when I met Jackson I never could have imagined how things would go. I just kept thinking one day I would stop, as simple as that. My faith in a future version of myself has been unbreakable.
What I never understood was that you can’t weigh hours against the whole of life. You can’t ask whether drugs or sobriety is better because they’re qualities that don’t mix, like oil and water or a bad algebra problem. Being on drugs feels better than being sober, but that’s not the answer to solving your life. The trouble is we can only live the future as a series of moments.
My capacity to lie is probably the most extraordinary thing about me. For years I have lied to literally everyone I know and felt very little about it. But here is something true: I am sorry that I was cruel to Jackson. If I ever see him again I will tell him that. I will say I get it, there are many ways to waste a life. I will say hey, Jackson, in another life I think me and you could have had something! and we’ll laugh like siblings and share a couple of stories – about sleeping in a single bed when you’re forty, about watching life through a window.
Is this the best we’ll feel all day? I ask Esther in the morning. Spoiled Esther, my dearest friend, my roommate from time to time. There’s a circuit and Esther and I can’t get off it, but at least we sometimes have each other. I hope Jackson gets to choose his roommates too.
She says: it can’t be. Fuck that.
I look at Esther in her bed. There is a row of sticky cigarette burns stamped up her neck, so neatly plotted they look almost like jewellery. From the kitchen we can hear the radio playing Christmas songs, the soft banging of cupboard doors as the staff prepare breakfast.
What happens, Jackson, when we simply have no more to give?