Part 1: A Life In Pieces (click here) Part 2 Another Life In Pieces, part 3 A Life in Anguished Pieces, Part 4 A Life in Mobile Words, Part 5 A Life in Coffee Part 6 A Life in Loneliness, Part 7 A Life In Rags, Part 8, A Life in Confusion, Part 9, A Life In Families Part 10, A Life in Memories, Part 11 A Life in Contemplation, Part 12 A life in church, Part 13 A Life in Lasagne, Part 14 A Life in Chaos, Part 15 A Life in Gossip, Part 16, A Life In Custody and Part 17, A Life in Doubt.
A LIFE IN CRISIS
St Bollard’s was hushed in the way churches are hushed when there is so tiny a congregation that everyone is sitting discreetly from everyone else that there’s no way they can hold a whispered conversation without resorting to the audible range of whispering, and nobody really wants to do that: it’s akin to washing dirty linen in public when that linen is secrets and the public is any old enemy.
The Reverend Josiah Pike stood near the altar, waiting.
He eyes the congregation, and sighed. Is it really worth it, he wondered. Getting up at the crack of dawn to preach to so small a flock? I remember when, once upon a time, there were a couple of dozen or more worshippers here, all eager to hear my interpretation of the texts, but the old ones have died – I buried them – and there are precious few new ones…
His heart gave a little lurch when he saw who had just eased their way in through the door and taken seats right at the back. He knew them, all right! It was that woman who tagged along with the murdering old man the police had so wisely put into custody. I’ll bet she’s as bad as him, he thought, spitefully. I’ll bet she’s got a few skeletons in a few cupboards. And who’s that she’s with? Ah, the man’s sister of all people! I smell incest there, if ever I smelt anything! I smell jiggery pokery and trouble…
Without a signal from him, the organist, a dreadful old woman n her eighties who still thought she had enough female charm to entrap the reverend Pike between her grubby sheets when she thought at all, struck up the opening chords somewhat discordantly. Her gnarled arthritic fingers often collided with two keys instead of the one, but she didn’t mind, probably because she barely noticed. What came out of the pipes went generally in the direction of the intended melody, and that satisfied her.
The Reverend Josiah Pike conducted his service. His eyes barely left the two women who, it seemed, might have been anywhere but where they were. Their lips never moved to the hymns, and the responses as printed in the prayer book might as well not have been there. And their four eyes never left him. When he moved the few feet into the pulpit for his sermon they shifted slightly so that he must still have been in the centre of their vision, and he was aware of the fact. And he realised that four eyes in unison can seem considerably more threatening than two pairs operating idnependantly.
He only had a handful of sermons, written in a child’s exercise book years ago. It was his way through life, to take the short cuts, to never do today what could safely be left until tomorrow, and anyway he had long stopped believing in the substance of his faith. He rationalised it as being his job to inform the congregation that somewhere there might be a god, and that God (with a capital G) had might have magically impregnated a human woman in order to have a son, and that all the miracles attributed to that son might have happened, were, indeed, just about possible if you took one or two little things into consideration, like the hypnotic effect of magic mushrooms… But because his own belief had been slowly dismantled years ago it didn’t mean he couldn’t preach the nonsense to others, did it? And receive a stipend? And buy bottles of lovely red grape?
His congregation deserved the best and, well, he still had ego enough left to him to believe that he was the best – after acknowledging the odd little weakness or two. He didn’t steal from the offertory very often, but normally declared it all, rarely if ever swore – and certainly wasn’t a paedophile because the girl he’d once ogled but never touched must have been at least sixteen.
“Truth!” he declaimed, and scanned his paltry congregation with a slow sweep of his eyes. This was his favourite move, the one that gave him a feeling of power over the masses. And that feeling was important. It re-enforced his raison d’être. He had their full attention, if you ignored the old man sleeping half way to the back and the older woman nudging him, trying to keep him awake.
And the two women right at the back.
They were still staring at him as if he held all the secrets of the Universe in his being.
“Truth!” he repeated. Then he took a deep breath, glanced down at the tattered page of his exercise book, and began.
“The Bible tells us many a great truth,” he said, allowing a slight rasp to enter his voice, as though the very idea of truth in faith somehow made him want to weep. “It tells us of the Creation. How the only possible explanation for the beginning of our world lies in divine creation. We look around us and see what the Lord made, the wonders of nature, the sparkling effervescence of the night sky and the majesty of mountains…”
He sighed. He was fed up with this sermon and all the easily contradicted nonsense that it contained, but now that he’d started he’d best continue. And he was quite sure that some of this flock had heard it too many times before to want to hear it again. But what could he do? The same was true of all of his little collection of brilliantly conceived and oft-repeated sermons. He let his eyes swing around again, and was about to continue when he was interrupted by a little voice… not from the back where he thought any interruption might come from, but half way down, from one of a couple of measly-faced women who always sat where they sat now, one behind the other so that nobody thought they were together.
“What about the truth of that prostitute you keep in the Vicarage, Mr Pike?”
Prostitute? What prostitute? There was Agatha, but if she was a prostitute she’d never do much in the way of trade, not with a face and an attitude like hers. She’d never been a beauty, he was sure of that, and wasn’t it a pre-requisite for prostitutes to be beautiful?
“Let me continue,” he boomed, flustered. There was nobody else, surely? In the Vicarage? Just himself and Agatha. That’s all there was, surely? If any other woman had secreted herself in, surely he’d know…
“The one who tells all manner of lies about good and decent Christian folk,” the voice continued. “The one who doesn’t understand Truth…”
Saphie on the back row glanced at Izzy, who was sitting quietly next to her.
“I was going to ask that when he’s finished,” she whispered.
Izzy nodded. “I know you were,” she breathed.
“You mean my housekeeper?” asked the Reverend Josiah Pike. “She’s a lady of unimpugnable reputation,” he added, “one who has been troubled by great adversity in her life. That’s the only lady at the Vicarage, and she has rooms of her own…” That last bit was intended to remove any suggestion that something questionable, something sexually questionable, might be going on behind closed doors.
“The same lady. She’s a prostitute, but her fee is board and lodgings rather than hard cash. And you’re the one paying her!” said the woman, quietly but clearly, and she and her companion stood up, made their way along the row of pews they were sitting on, and diminished the congregation by about ten percent as they left the building with dignity and a display of pride. The elderly gentleman woke up and he with his companion followed, she being of a ferociously moral mind and he thinking the sermon and the service must both have ended while he closed his eyes momentarily. The church was, by degrees, emptying. An unexpected and quite unwanted crisis had hit the service in St Bollard’s Church.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” whispered Izzy, gleefully.
“Look!” exclaimed Saphie.
And they both stared as the dreadful Agatha dressed in a knee-length cotton nightdress and soft tweed slippers entered the chancel through a door behind the pulpit, carrying a tray on which there were two glasses and an uncorked bottle of red wine.
“You must the thirsty, darling,” she cooed, and at that the remainder of the congregation (with the exception of Saphie and Izzy) stood up and walked out in an air of huge disbelief tinged, no doubt, with the suggestion of expectation, and followed, only a little belatedly, by the ancient organist.
“Crikey,” whispered Izzy, “This might be fun!”
©Peter Rogerson 30.03.14