Whether we realise it or not, we all live on:
The Edge of the Otherworld

Sunday 10 April 2016

Upstairs at St Margaret's

What they were thinking when they built St Margaret's I'll never know. High and dingy it is, like our old school hall that used to double as a gym in the winter. It's probably about as old too and they knocked the school down years ago. Can't knock a church down, though, wouldn't be right. Wouldn't want them too, any road. Just wish they'd liven it up a bit, that's all; put up some paintings like the Catholics have, maybe. Dark wood and peeling green paint just gives me the urge to do press ups.

I always sit up in the gallery - always have. Used to be others up there with me, of course. Now I'm the only one. I still sit in the same pew, mind, two rows back from the rail and over to the side, so I can see the people downstairs but not so far forward that if I drop one of my sweets it'll hit someone on the head. Makes people laugh when I tell them that but old Mrs Arbuckle still hasn't forgiven me for those dolly mixtures and it's been thirty years I've been sitting in this seat. It feels like home now. I like to think I've worn some little hollows into, just the right shape for my own backside and nobody else's. Jack Renfrew says that's daft but I never said it were true - I just like to think it.

Any road, I had a strange experience a few weeks back. A young man came up to the gallery just as I were getting settled down. Watching out of the corner of my eye, I did feel a bit jealous. In my time, I wasn't bad looking, back when I needed a whole handful of Bryl cream rather than the quick spit I use these days. Yeah, a bit of grooming, a shirt and tie, I polished up to be a right shiny penny - only a penny, mind - but for a Saturday night at the Regalia that was enough to bring them flocking. This bloke, though, he looked like he'd been lifting weights down the gym and I don't know where he spent the winter but it weren't round our way. Must've been one of those sunny paradise places 'cos his face was what they call bronzed, his chest too, where you could see it through his robe. That were a bit strange now that I come to think of it, he weren't really dressed for St Margarets. Mr Jacobs - that's our treasurer - says we'll get the heating fixed just as soon as Miss Ramsbotham dies and we get our hands on the bequest she's always promising. I reckon, if she knows what's good for her, she'll hand over the money now and save catching her death one Sunday.

Anyway, I'm losing my thread. This stranger had a quick glance round and then folded himself into the pew in front of me. It can't have been too comfortable. Even with him sitting down, I would have had to stand up to look him in the eye and his knees were wedged against the seat in front. Mr Renfrew reckons that can't be true because the bloke would have had to have been about nine feet tall but it's what I saw and Jack Renfrew can believe what he likes.

The stranger didn't seem to notice me but I wasn't really bothered. Gave me a chance to give him a looking over. Reverend Olson started the service at that point and I settled down to my usual contemplation.

There wasn't a baptism that day. Looking down on the relatives is usually the best entertainment I get for the pound I put in the offering. Sticky men in sticky suits, running their fingers round their collars; their girlfriends nudging them to stop it. I wonder what they thinks going to happen to them? Perhaps they're worried that if they ever stop squirming they're going to stick to the pew. Just like me I suppose and end up moulding the wood to their own backsides. No chance of that, though. Just a quick polish and they're gone.

Anyway, as I said, no grandparents had been laying down the law that week and I was left to watch the regulars. As usual, the gaggle of young folk was down the front, really putting some effort into the singing. Now that's a sight to see. Mrs Hargreaves is always scandalised when they wave their arms in the air but it seems to make them happy so I don't mind. Jack Renfrew says they do it because they're happy but he'll say anything.

Doris Andrews and Betty Carlisle were rabbiting on whenever they got the opportunity. Betty lives over the other side of town since her husband sold the garage, so Sundays is her only chance to catch up on all the local gossip. That day they were whispering for all they were worth, even during the prayers. It wouldn't have been so bad, but Doris is a bit deaf and the reverend kept glaring at them to be quiet. I couldn't make out what they were saying but I knew what they were talking about all the same. That was the week that Fred Howell, the fishmonger, ran off with that pasty lass from the chemist. Doris and Betty were probably straight round to Norma's cousin after the service to get all the juicy details. Not my cup of tea really.

Harold Robinson was a couple of rows back, valiantly ignoring them as ever, and following the readings in his own little copy of the Bible. He's a quiet man, quite shy, I think. Friendly, mind, and a wizard with the bowls. The team would be struggling without him. Never misses a round, neither, even though he only has a half. The salt of the earth is Harold.

As I looked down, my attention kept being drawn back to the man in front of me. I couldn't help it, as a matter of fact, seeing as he was blocking my view. He gave up with the prayer book after about five minutes of frantic flicking to try to work out where he was supposed to be. After that he just mumbled along with the rest of us, throwing in the occasional 'amen' whenever he saw it coming. He knew the Lord's prayer, though. Not the version the rest of us knew, right enough, but then you can't have everything and his singing knocked me for a sixpence. He must have been in a choir somewhere. It were that good.

When the sermon started, I decided it was time to find out who the stranger was. I was sort of wondering whether he might want to join the church bowls team. We're short on numbers and he seemed capable enough. It wasn't like he would have had to come to church every week, either, just occasionally - to be polite.

Anyway, I tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a mint. The static shock nearly took my arm off, of course, but at least I didn't leap in the air like he did. Don't know what he'd been up to to crackle like that; don't want to know, to be honest. I'm sure it'd give Doris and Betty plenty to keep themselves occupied during a run through of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'.

When I'd got some circulation going again and we'd both calmed down, the stranger apologised. Said he hadn't realised I'd seen him - that he normally managed to slip into a church without anyone seeing him at all. Which is nonsense if you ask me and I told him so. He'd have drawn attention to himself anywhere, 'cept maybe California but I don't know much about there. I told him that too.

This panicked him a bit and he seemed to look himself over. He grinned nervously and said I was probably right. I asked him if he played bowls. I thought he'd lost his tongue at that point. His mouth flapped, the same way Reverend Olson's does when he loses his place. Couldn't see what the problem was myself. For something to say, I asked him if he played basketball, either, him being so tall and everything. He looked embarrassed, as if he wanted a hole to open up and swallow him. Course that would have just dropped him through onto to old Mrs Wilkie, right enough, but it would have given her something new to moan about. Besides her sciatica and her dodgy eye that is. Then again, a young man dropping into her lap might have brought a burst of the Hallelujah chorus. You never know with her, not since her husband died.

Well, things settled down after that, and we got to nattering about the weather, then about the match we'd had with the Methodists the previous Wednesday. We won that one on the last end, if I remember - a real nail-biter. The stranger were quite taken by the tale so I asked him again if he wanted to join the club. He made some joke about it not being fair on the other teams and I left it at that. No point forcing the man into anything. Jeremy he said his name was. Took him a long time thinking about, if you ask me, mind.

As the reverend was getting to the end of the sermon, we started talking about St Margaret's, the people and what goes on there. Right near the start, I'd recognised the sermon as one of the ones where he says 'salvation' and 'redemption' a lot, so I didn't mind missing it. Always meant to look them words up but, by the time I get home, I'm always more interested in my dinner and then rugby on the telly.

Jeremy, if that was his name, seemed quite interested by what I told him about the people and I pointed some of them out to him. Doctor and Mrs Fillshore in their Sunday best, the Smiths desperately trying to keep their brood under control with frowns and the odd clip behind the ear, Doris and Betty, yapping away, and Harold, still hanging on with gritted teeth to the reverend's every word, hoping to chew something from it.

When I'd finished, Jeremy just shook his head and asked me if I had any idea at all what I was doing there. I suddenly felt all sticky and ran my finger round my collar, squirming under Jeremy's gaze. It was my turn to flap my mouth. I managed to mutter something about being brought along by Mrs Cuthbertson in 1958 and never quite being able to leave but he wasn't having it. Told me to ask someone, to find someone who knew and to ask them.

I shook my head. Well, I mean, I couldn't do much else, could I? I couldn't very well go up to the reverend and ask him what he'd been wittering about for forty years. And as far as everyone else was concerned I should have known what I was doing - I am chairman of the bowls club, and that brings responsibility.

I muttered something else, I don't know what - some gibberish. If I'd said 'amen' at the end I might have got away with it. Didn't think of it, right then, though, and Jeremy didn't let me wriggle out of it. He told me again, like he was my mother telling me to take a bath. I hung my head, still squirming. I hate getting a telling off.

Then it was over. The reverend said the blessing and I was out them doors and down the street before most people had even closed their hymn books. The sweat was running off me by then and I was right glad to get home and change and start thinking about beef and potatoes.

Didn't work, though, did it? Couldn't concentrate for days. My game was right off when we played St Peter's; had to buy two rounds to say sorry. Then, the following Sunday, I was twitching all through the service, in case Jeremy came back, looking for me. Spilled my mints - the packet just ripped. Bought the wrong ones, of course: the hard, round ones. They bounced everywhere on the wooden floor, like a sea of miniature ping-pong balls. One went further than the others, bouncing towards the front in slow motion. Dink, dink, dink, down the steps. Then, horribly, it made it through the rail.

For a moment, I thought I was safe. One lovely, hopeful moment. Then there was a shriek. A shriek that chilled me to the marrow. A shriek I hadn't heard in thirty years. I didn't have the heart to look.

That settled it. I had to talk to someone. I thought maybe the young folk but my heart wasn't in it. It had to be Harold, really. I invited myself round to his house and... ended up talking about the weather.

Turns out he doesn't have many of the answers, either. He let me into a secret, though. He's been cheating for years. That little Bible he has is in English, says it has to be little so he can put it in his pocket where the reverend can't see it and catch him. Funny beggar is Harold but he let me have a look at it and leant me a copy of the second half, the bit that starts with Christmas. It's quite readable - not Eastenders, mind - but least I know what the words mean.

He has a small meeting in his house, every so often, him and a few others, to discuss what they've read and that. It's on a Tuesday, so it doesn't clash with bowls. Don't think I'll go just yet. Might go next month.

I saw Jeremy in the high street, last week. I was on the bus, stopped at the traffic lights, he was standing next to the shops. He waved at me and I smiled back.

Harold asked me if I believed in angels the other day. I had a think about it and decided that, on consideration and all things being equal, I did. He smiled and slapped me on the back. Course, I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd tried to sign one for the team.

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