Low life

How I found salvation in a church in Torquay

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

Last Tuesday a Mistral wind blowing across the Bay of Angels jerked the plane all over the shop as it circled to land. The French lady in the next seat but one to mine vomited raucously and copiously on the carpet and a speedy boarder sprinted for the toilet. A second before the wheels should have touched down on the runway at Nice, the pilot had second thoughts and accelerated the plane back up into the air. Afterwards he came on the loudspeaker to explain. Most surprising of all was the distinct tremolo in his voice. Five days later, flying in the other direction, our touchdown at Bristol in the gathering Storm Ciara was accomplished at the first attempt, but jarring buffets of wind on the approach made we adults secretly brace ourselves and the infants wail.

From Bristol I made a dash by train for Torquay before the storm hit in earnest, to sit it out through Sunday in a seafront hotel room. I checked in at 11.30 on Saturday night. A birthday party was going full blast in the hotel bar. At the reception desk I was greeted by the manager holding a big square birthday cake flaming with candles. In half an hour it was my birthday. ‘You shouldn’t have,’ I said.

I looked like a drowned rat. ‘Business or pleasure?’ said the manager when he’d returned from the bar amid cheering on his way in and singing on his way out. ‘Hospital on Monday morning,’ I said. ‘Oncologist. Crucial scan results. It could go either way.’ He gave me some excellent advice. ‘Well, they are still serving drinks at the bar,’ he said, ‘and will be for at least another hour.’ I settled up in advance. The two-night stay cost £50, continental breakfast included.

The room was enormous. It had an en-suite bathroom and a big bay window overlooking the boiling sea. No heating or hot water, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything. I got into one of the three double beds fully dressed and watched World War II in Colour until the throbbing from the birthday disco going on underneath finally ceased. Before turning out the light I glanced at my online newspaper. It showed a photograph of Earth taken from the Voyager probe from a distance of 3.7 billion miles. The Earth was smaller than a single pixel.

Sunday, my 63rd birthday, was spent in a chilly, dreamlike, speechless limbo, a storm raging without and within private disquiet at the Voyager photograph. At nine o’clock I went downstairs and chewed the unwholesome continental breakfast in a draughty plastic conservatory with an crapulent young couple. A bath towel was laid on the tiled floor to catch the drips. Then I went back up to the room and watched another episode of World War II in Colour: kamikaze pilots drinking a loyal toast to the Emperor before climbing into their planes; an atom bomb exploding in Technicolor over Hiroshima.

At ten o’clock, through the door, I overheard a guest complaining to the management about the lack of heat and hot water. A perfunctory knock, the door opened, and a woman put her head into the room. Did I have hot water or heat? I was lying on one of the beds wearing a hat, coat, scarf and woollen gloves. No, I said. But at this price I really wasn’t expecting any. The head retreated.

I decided I would go outside and look for a shop or a café that was open, heated and tolerated bums. The wind off the sea shoved me up the hill violently. Standing on the top of the hill was a monumental, ornate late Victorian church. The noticeboard said Holy Communion was at 11. It was now a quarter to. That’ll do, I thought.

From the outside the rain-blackened edifice might have been abandoned. I tried several solid doors before finding one that opened. Inside was a revelation of space, warmth — human and visual — and colour. Chancel and sanctuary walls were entirely covered in stencils and freehand paintings in art-nouveau style and the floor was elaborately tiled. I’d never seen anything like it.

An elderly man welcomed me in most genially and handed me a hymnal and Holy Communion sheet.

I joined a congregation of about a dozen dotted about the half an acre of carved pews under the lavishly painted keeled wagon roof. The priest gave a sermon about the leper who asked Jesus, if he was willing, to make him clean. Before jogging forward to the altar rail for the cup and wafer I knelt and apologised for everything, including the bright young journalist I’d wronged last week. Then I was blown back down the hill to my cheap, enormous hotel room, where I found that the radiator was now slightly warm to the touch.

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