Before delivering his sermon, the vicar said we must offer one another the sign of peace. He struck the first blow by stepping forward and thrusting a stiff karate hand at the nearest inert parishioner and demanding that peace be with her. I hoped to get away with shaking hands with just the pair of female deaf mutes in my row or, if the spirit moved, with the very elderly woman in front of me, subject to her having the agility and the ambition to turn around. But the giving of the sign of peace in this church, I now learned, meant getting up off one’s arsebones and trotting about, offering it to as many people as possible before the music stopped. So once I’d done the deaf mutes, I moved out into the aisle and plunged into the orgy of cheek-pecking and handshaking that was going on there, and I said ‘Peace be with you’ and grasped at hands and planted kisses more or less indiscriminately.
At one point I found myself a wallflower, but saw an elderly man in a suit in a similar predicament. I steadied myself to lunge in his direction with an extended hand, or even a kiss, for the spirit was well and truly upon me now — but he turned his back. So I nipped around to take him on his blind side, but he spotted me in his peripheral vision and turned his back again.
Then I remembered. Several years ago, I was in another relationship that failed and the woman wrote to the editor of the parish magazine, to the local Lib Dem candidate, and to the Devon and Cornwall police, denouncing me as a paedophile, an alcoholic, a drug addict and a porn addict with thousands of images of children on my laptop. Also, she rang up people in the village randomly to spread the news of my recidivism as widely as possible. And she had an uncanny knack of picking pillars of the church and chapel. This chap’s wife was one of those she’d rung. And presumably he had judged the accusations as not without foundation, or perhaps not even the half of it, and couldn’t bring himself to offer me a sign of peace. And I didn’t blame him.
Then the music stopped and the vicar mounted the pulpit stairs. He kicked off with a joke. He never ‘gets’ jokes unless they are obvious, he said. A friend had told him a joke the other day and he hadn’t ‘got’ it. He thought he would try it on us. There were about 40 of us slumped in our pews breathing hard still from all that sign of peace business. This elderly vicar had a greater life force running through him than the rest of us put together. I wondered how he maintained his great cheerfulness in the face of such blank torpor. His joke was as follows.
A man dies and turns up at the pearly gates carrying a bag of gold bars. If all else fails, he intends bribing his way into Heaven. As St Peter is taking down his particulars, a passing angel peeps into his bag. The man proudly opens the bag wider to reveal the extent of the contents. ‘Oh,’ sniffs the angel disdainfully, ‘paving slabs.’
One person laughed. A woman. The woman with the best and loudest voice in the hymn-singing. The vicar explained the joke to the rest of us. The streets of Heaven are said to be paved with gold, he said. For those of us who not only didn’t get the joke, but were also horrified by the angel’s crass materialism, he further explained that it probably wasn’t literally true that the streets of Heaven were paved with gold.
His sermon was about how, as Christians, we are responsible for radiating Christ’s love throughout our local community. He made an analogy between the healing balm of Christ’s love and moisturising face cream, observing how ridiculously perfect were the faces of the models on the television adverts. ‘But we Christians,’ he said, magisterially surveying his listeners (and those straining, or unable, to hear), ‘we are all dry cracks. Dry cracks crying out for God’s seed to enter in and nourish and enrich us.’
At the end the vicar invited us forward for Holy Communion. I went and knelt at the rail but hadn’t the nerve to accept the wafer and asked the vicar for a blessing instead. He was delighted. Without hesitation, he thanked God for my kindness in looking after my mother and asked that God would help me with my ‘writing’. Quite unaccountably, the directness and simplicity of his prayer swept the rug of humorous scepticism from under my feet. And as I returned, unmanned, to my pew, the faces of the congregation and the church interior were increasingly blurred.
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