QuaranTime to Read
Saturday passed in a blur of children’s activities – buying plimsolls, helping with homework, tidying up. It had rained during the night, and Christopher was delighted to find the trenches had become temporary home to several frogs. Abigail refused to set foot outside the back door.
Sunday morning dawned cold and bright, and Peter decided he would escort Jane to church. She was surprised but pleased. Usually she took Christopher and a fairly reluctant Abigail on her own, and she was always pleased when he joined them.
The church they attended was the local Baptist chapel and Jane had chosen it for the people, not the décor. It was not dissimilar to a draughty cowshed, complete with damp smell and dust particles dancing in the sunlight that streamed through the square windows. It had a high ceiling and was cold, whatever the weather outside. Taking a cardigan to church was more important than carrying a Bible.
They sat at the back, sliding into the light oak pew, shuffling slightly to alleviate the hardness. There were cushions, embroidered in a bygone age and never washed, which were gathered possessively by the older members when they arrived and firmly sat upon. Several people turned and smiled in greeting, and Abigail left them to sit with her friend Samantha. Mrs. Whorl, in matching turquoise coat and hat, ceased her subdued playing on the organ and the minister stepped forwards to the pulpit. He announced the first song, and everyone stood.
Pastor Rob was tall and dark, with a large smile and even larger teeth. Tired eyes twinkled above a large nose as he stretched out his hands and welcomed the congregation. Jane guessed him to be aged about thirty-five, with a younger wife and two extremely naughty boys. One was crawling under the pew as they all sang, while his brother surreptitiously tore pieces from the page of a hymn book, turning it into a holy serviette. His mother stood beside him, eyes closed in concentration, trying to lose herself in the song. Jane wondered if she was succeeding.
Jane watched Mrs. Whorl as she played. Her head nodded up and down, keeping strict time as she forced the ancient tune out of the organ. Jane felt the original composer had probably not envisioned such a strident rendition. Beside her, Christopher stood on the pew leaning against his father’s arm. Peter held the hymn book so they could both see and was laboriously moving a finger beneath each word. Christopher watched the finger.
The hymn abruptly ended and they all sat. Pastor Rob led the people in prayers and a Bible reading. Then there was a modern praise song, which Mrs. Whorl played, exuding disapproval, as quickly as possible. Pastor Rob smiled at his rebellious musician and suggested a repeat.
As they sat, Peter leaned towards Jane, pointing at the lady sitting in front of them. “Do you think she got her knitting patterns in a muddle?” he whispered.
Jane looked. The elderly lady had pinned a neat circle of crochet work to the top of her head. It strongly resembled a table mat and Jane shook with silent giggles while gesturing to Peter to listen to the sermon.
The pastor was describing God’s love for the world. He held a twenty-pound note above his head and asked who would like it. Jane could tell from the back of Abigail’s head that she was suddenly attentive. Several people were smiling, anticipating what would be said, others were using the children’s talk as an excuse to check their phones. A young girl, nudged into a response by her mother, agreed that she would like the money.
Pastor Rob crumpled the note into a ball, threw it on the floor, and stepped on it. He lifted it high, showing it to be wrinkled and dirty, asking, “Does anyone want it now that it’s been spoilt?”
The child was still keen to receive it and when questioned, responded, “Because it’s still worth something.”
The pastor allowed a moment of silence, before agreeing, “Yes, it’s still worth something…” He then went on to explain that people too can be spoilt and broken by experiences but they are still of value to God.
“God doesn’t just like you a bit,” he reminded the congregation. “He loves you enough to die for you.”
Jane looked at her family. Abigail was passing a note to her friend, Christopher was running a toy car up and down his leg, Peter seemed lost in thought. Were they even listening? Did they understand?
“I want to be worth something,” she thought, “I want to be worth more than just the person who wipes up marmalade and finds lost socks.” She felt strangely emotional, and began to search through her bag, looking for a distraction. People would think she was odd if she cried at a talk aimed at kids. The children were leaving now, shuffling towards the door ready for their own groups. Jane watched them, saw the resignation in their body language, knew that very few actually looked forward to being there.
Rob opened his Bible, and launched into his sermon. The words washed over Jane. She liked being in church, but not for too long. Church was something she ‘did’, but it was best afterwards, when the duty had been ticked off for the day and she could get on with all the other things she wanted to do. Attendance was a habit—a good habit, she reminded herself—but she often found herself distracted during the sermons, waiting for them to end.
The final two hymns were announced, the children sidled back into church and people began to shuffle as they retrieved their hymn books and searched for the correct pages. Something caught Jane’s eye and she looked at the front pew. Rob’s wife was holding onto one boy who was trying to escape, while the other was pulling plaintively at her cardigan. He was hopping from leg to leg and obviously needed to use the toilet.
The congregation stood to sing and the pastor, noticing the problem from the pulpit, went to rescue his wife. He deftly lifted his desperate son over the pew and carried him through the front door to the toilets. He walked very tall, he liked being the one who solved problems, was a capable multi-tasker. His wife relaxed momentarily with relief; and then froze in horror.
Pastor Rob had forgotten to turn off his radio microphone. The sounds of the washroom door, opening and closing, were clearly audible over the speaker system. So were Rob’s words.
“The Lord is my light,” sang the congregation.
“Is it a poo or a wee?” came from the speakers.
“Then why should I fear?” sang the people, one or two looking around with puzzled expressions.
“Sit there until you’ve finished,” echoed from the speakers.
“By day and by night,” sang a rather hesitant congregation while straining to hear the next announcement.
“Bend over and I’ll give you a wipe, then you can pull the flush and wash your hands.”
“His presence is near,” sang three deaf old ladies.
The rest of the church shook with barely restrained laughter while Mrs. Whorl played valiantly to the end of the hymn.
Jane’s sides ached with laughter and she dare not look at Peter.
“Mummy, what’s funny?” asked Christopher, but she could only shake her head mutely. The unsuspecting minister then returned to the pulpit for the closing prayer and the service ended.
People seemed reluctant to leave the church. Jane often felt she gained as much from the post service chat as she did from the service. People sat or stood in small groups, some talking earnestly in hushed voices, others laughing. Pastor Rob stood by the door, shaking hands as people made their exit. Someone had explained to him about the microphone and Jane heard him bellow with laughter. Rob loved people, and accepted them as they were, faults included; and he tended to assume he was loved in return. Jane guessed it would be his wife Esther who carried the wounds of criticism on his behalf. At present she was removing a child from a large arrangement of lilies and explaining that he could not take one home.
“Shall we go?” suggested Peter. He was always uncomfortable at informal church gatherings, anxious that someone might speak to him. He found the whole open friendly chatter difficult—he had little in common with these people, so why would he want to spend time talking to them? There were better things to spend time on, and you never knew if someone particularly odd might corner you, forcing you into an embarrassing conversation you couldn’t escape from. He definitely preferred the anonymity of an Anglican service, where it was possible to arrive and leave without ever having to speak to another individual.
Jane beckoned to Abigail and followed Peter to the door. Pastor Rob was engrossed in conversation with an elderly man and they slipped out unseen.
“Well,” remarked Peter, “That was certainly entertaining!”
He lifted Christopher onto his shoulders as they walked to the car.
“I wanted that twenty pounds,” said Abigail. “Do you think Pastor Rob gave it to that girl? And what’s for dinner?”
“Roast lamb,” said Jane, “assuming the automatic oven came on. And peas. And potato.”
“Yukky peas!” wailed Christopher, “I hate peas!”
“Me too,” said Abigail.
“Can’t say I’m too keen,” added Peter as he stooped to unlock the car, swinging Christopher back down to the ground.
“Then perhaps one of you would like to cook dinner next week,” muttered Jane as she climbed into the car. Any peaceful feelings generated by the service had evaporated and she felt cross and resentful. Ahead of her loomed another culinary Everest with a dry and tasteless meal at the pinnacle. She felt suddenly tired and leaned back into the seat.
Peter reached across and squeezed her leg.
“You all right, my little twenty-quid girl?” he asked, then started the car and drove home.
Jane felt somewhat happier when the daily ordeal of providing a meal was over. The lamb had closely resembled leather and the potatoes had disintegrated when cooking, leaving only hard cores that proved resistant to mashing. Only the peas had emerged pleasantly edible and no one liked them anyway. As the supermarket-manufactured fruit pie and ice cream were all that anyone ate, Jane wondered why she continued with the ritual sacrifice of raw ingredients.
The afternoon was fine and bright and Peter decided that they should all go for a walk. Christopher was delighted and quickly collected his boots and the dog lead. The dog staggered towards him, swaying in time to his wagging tail. In a few short years he had changed from an energetic Tigger to an arthritic hippo, but his enthusiasm never wavered. He surveyed Christopher with adoring eyes as the child struggled to attach the clip to the collar. Jane reached to help him and called Abigail.
“Abi, are you ready?”
“Do I have to come?” queried the girl, who had hoped to watch television all afternoon. “I’ve got loads of homework and I’ll never get everything done if I have to walk.”
“Well…” began Jane.
“Yes!” interjected Peter. “It’s a lovely day and we’re all going for a walk. Hurry up and put some wellies on.”
They set off, and were soon squelching across an abandoned field adjacent to a building site. Max paused for long sniffing detours, whilst Christopher wound his way through every available puddle. Abigail lagged behind, reluctantly enjoying the fresh air and wistfully watching her younger brother.
“You’ll fall over,” she said, as Christopher slid through a particularly deep puddle.
“I’ve lost a boot! I’ve lost a boot!” called Christopher gleefully. He balanced precariously on one leg, waving a besocked foot.
Peter hoisted him free while Jane removed the other boot. She watched her son stretch his arms around his father’s neck, secure in his vantage point on Peter’s shoulders. He rested his cheek on top of Peter’s head, then giggled as a sock came free and floated down to the mud. Jane retrieved it and carried it with the two dirty boots. She watched the tangible love between father and son as they crossed the field. Their fair hair was so similar she could not discern where one head began and the other ended. Both exuded happiness, as did Abigail who was now describing to her the plans for a school outing. Jane nodded and smiled, not really listening. Inside, she was restless, wanting something more than this. It was lovely, very cosy, everyone contented.
But inside, something uncertain had woken, something that removed her from the scene and set her apart. It wasn’t enough anymore…
To be continued on Tuesday