In Rev Barthelomew Vicker's most disgruntled opinion, the worst encumbrance by far, was the greetings and handshakes after the Sunday morning service. It was awful enough that he had to stand by the draughty entrance of the Baptist Rentford Temple in a ridiculous white frock, but he also had to smile and make meaningless small talk with the miserable faces that filed past.
'...Ah, God bless you, young man', he said in his soft, benevolent voice, patting Terry’s mass of black curly hair. 'One believes you'll be joining the praise worship band very soon.' The measly scallywag, he thought, he'll never be good enough to join a choir of constipated bullfrogs. That mischievous glint in his left eye, its certain he’ll wind up in jail. Rev. Vickers nodded courteously at the middle-aged couple who followed after the boy.
'God bless you, Tom and Jeannette, always delightful to see you.’ What a pair of leeches...just to look at them, you wouldn’t suspect what heinous schemes that festered in their evil hearts. Tom was the Church treasurer, and Jeanette helped to run the Sunday school, but they were less competent at their duties than a pair of knackered donkeys, fit only for the butcher's axe.
‘May the gracious Lord reward mightily you for the priceless work you have both been doing in the church...’
Next, it was Nathaniel Johnson and his anorexic wife, Amelia. Ugh! To look into her eyes was to look into the eyes of a malevolent witch.
‘God bless you, Mrs Johnson’
The couple had only been attending the church in the past eight months or so, but had been very helpful, and they'd become prominent members. Nathaniel was assisting with preparing the Church bulletin, and Amelia worked with Jeanette in the Sunday school. They'd even made their house available for the Wednesday prayer meetings. Nathaniel was a serious-faced, rapidly balding man who was not always easy to work out. The Vicar did not know for sure what he did for a living but imagined he might be a secondary school teacher.
‘An excellent sermon today, Rev. Vickers, it was particularly relevant indeed!’ said Nathaniel.
Hypocrite, the vicar thought.
The whole point of his long, sonorous rant that morning was to get at the undesirable elements in the congregation - the no-gooders, gossip mongers and perverted layabouts who comprised the bulk of his congregation. It irked him intensely that no matter what he said up there on the pulpit, no matter how much hell and damnation he threatened, he still met the same smiling grateful faces.
‘Thanks to God for his wonderful, healing, words of wisdom’ he intoned in a voice that embodied perfect humility, 'It’s such a pleasure to be the Father's messenger.'
Old Gracie Fothergill followed after the Johnsons because Amelia looked after her and took her back home from Church.
‘May the blessing and peace of God be with you’
She was in her late eighties, fragile as a tarantula. Wisps of pure white hair peeped from underneath the multicoloured knitted teapot warmer she was wearing on her head. Her watery eyes were hideously magnified by her thick lensed, black-rimmed, spectacles.
'I can't wait to see you again next Sunday' she croaked in a cracked but affectionate voice that made the vicar shrivel up inside.
‘By the grace of God’, he smiled and held her hand gently. It felt like the claw of an evil giant vulture. ‘Be seeing you again next Sunday, for sure’, though he hoped that she would have passed on before that day. He never wanted to see any more of her pathetic toothless smiles.
And so, on and on it went until they were all gone, which was over an hour. The vicar adjusted his collar gracefully, but inwardly cursed the imbecile who had invented such a ghastly contraption. The damn thing was gradually tightening around his neck and choking the life out of him.
He made his way between the central isle of the 400-seat chapel hall. The bright, airy interior was a classic cathedral space - high headroom, stained glass windows at the sides and front. Large paintings of favourite Bible scenes on the white walls, with inscriptions in Gothic calligraphy above the marble altar table: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, next to a painting of a lamb with a cascade of copious white fleece, and a halo around its glorious head.
‘Christ!’ thought the vicar, ‘Is this it? The rapture that you promised.’ His despair was profound. If he ever had to look into any more of those loathsome, pathetic, faces he was bound to strangle someone. It was a miracle that he’d managed to stretch it this far without snapping. Self control. That was one of the tenets of the gospel, and if anyone had that gift in spades, it had to be him. The art of boiling inside with rage and repulsion, but never betraying ones innermost thoughts - not even to the dearest and closest. But he often struggled to see the point of it all. Even in his holy vocation it all boiled down to the same insecurities and concerns, and an ever-present feeling of doom and despair, which tainted even what was should have been his happiest moments.
His office was upstairs at the back of the temple, at the end of a long, narrow passage. The small room had a square window overlooking the street and was bare except for a desk and an unpadded wooden chair. The only painting on the wall was one of Jesus on the cross with a crown of thorns on his head, despite the depth of his suffering his face remained placid and inscrutable, and the vicar wished he could endure his own sufferings with the same defiance.
He gathered his robe around him and descended slowly behind his desk. The only unopened envelope sat in isolation in the middle of the desk, separate from the rest of the paperwork as if it was in quarantine. He wasn’t going to open it because he knew what it contained. A letter in a similar envelope, a few days before, had caused him some trauma. It was from a builder’s solicitor, threatening to sue the church for non payment for works on the rear extension. There was simply not enough in funds to pay the builder. The Reverend had already put the matter to the board and they’d discussed several options ranging from seeking another emergency loan, to – God forbid - declaring the church bankrupt.
‘Why, aren't you finished yet? I've been waiting in the car park for the past 20 minutes. I thought you’ll be all done by now.’
The Vicar was startled by Rachael’s stern matronal voice. ‘Bast!’, he thought as his brief moment of peaceful deliberation was rudely shattered. He’d been sat there, staring at the painting, letting an endless stream of thoughts flow wantonly through the open gates of his mind.
'Sorry dear, just tying up a few loose ends, but it's okay now, we can go.'
He tucked the envelope under the pile of paperwork, picked up his leather bound Bible, locked the office door and followed his wife out of the church.
Rachael was no ordinary vicar’s wife. She took her role very seriously and rallied the women round the events of the church like a mother hen. She also did the sermon when the vicar was away ministering at other churches. Otherwise, during the services, she was normally in the backroom, organizing the tea and biscuits, or doing other essential behind-the-scenes duties. Her father was a vicar, and she’d learned all the tricks of the trade from her mother.
‘We’ll be stopping at the Metro to pick up some grocery’, she chimed as she got behind the wheels of their old, blue Renault 11. The vicar got into the front passenger seat and closed the door, taking care not to get his robe caught.
‘Did you remember to make the announcement about the summer retreat?’ she asked, but immediately continued, as it was her habit to answer her own questions, ‘Well of course, it’s still several months away...’
‘So how did the sermon go down this morning...? Of course, the church is always appreciative of your preaching, we're all so blessed to have you as our pastor, darling...’
‘Did I say I‘ll be going to Mom and Dad’s tomorrow evening...I’ll have your other robe mended first, of course...
Rachael talked constantly; she leapt from one subject to another like the monkeys in Mowgli's adventures. The vicar often wondered how she’d managed so far without bumping into another vehicle or running pedestrian over as she drove.
‘... I really wonder how long we have to wait before our prayers are answered ... I do long to be a mom... sometimes I feel like Hannah in the Bible. Don’t get me wrong, I know that God’s time is the best, as you always say...after all, Hannah finally gave birth to Samuel at the age 90. Although, I’m only 46, I wouldn’t like to wait that long, not even if it was still possible go get pregnant at that age...
Perhaps if, for once, she paused, she would notice that her husband never replied to her random wittering. But it didn’t seem to matter anyway since she never once glanced in his direction. It was as if she was talking to an audience in front of a stage.
‘...Yes, I know that God moves in mysterious ways.' she went on, 'but on this matter, I think it is about time he starts to move in the right direction... ‘
She didn't even let up as she crunched the gears and turned into the side street that led to the shop.
‘...Have you seen Tom and Jeannette’s new car? For a couple of retired schoolteachers, you’d wonder where they get the money! ... If we should ever buy a car like that, I'd like it to be dark blue, not red like theirs. I think theirs is far too showy.
‘...That ghastly woman, Amelia... I absolutely can't stand the way she talks down at people. I went to her prayer group last Thursday... frankly, I don't know who she thinks she is...'
Finally, much to the vicar’s relief they reached their house in Beacon Hill, on the other side of Renford, after twenty minutes of non-stop drivelling from Rachael, endured by him in complete silence and perfect stillness. But, not before one final spurt before she closed the tap.
‘...Don't you think we ought to take this car to the garage tomorrow? I don't like the way it's screeching when I turn the steering wheel to the left. ...It's on it's last legs that was for sure, I wonder when we'll be able to buy a new car...’
Around 6pm the following day, which was Monday, Nathaniel was on his speedy, way to the vicar’s house 10 minutes after he’s spoken on the phone to the vicar’s wife. Amelia had picked the phone, but Rachael asked to speak to Nathaniel – something Rachael often did, and which Amelia always construed to be snobbery.
Nathaniel was not particularly enamoured with the personality of the vicar’s wife. He felt she was often too pushy and overbearing. Truth be told, he was sorry for poor Rev. Vickers who had to put up with her for the rest of his life. Nathaniel couldn’t stand her company for 30 minutes. He would rather have himself strapped straitjacketed, bundled into an airtight coop, and be pecked at by a thousand giant chickens.
What the hell was she calling about, this time?
The call ran for more than 15 minutes. It started with ‘Hi Nat, just a quick word about the format of the new church bulletin...’, proceeded to the important matter of the church’s donation to the overseas poverty charities, which Nathaniel had been appointed to organise. That was followed by a brief lecture on the tending of the Sanseveria, which he was later to learn to be a potted house plant.
Ten minutes later, and £1.75 on the phone bill, she finally came to the reason why she called. Her voice turned suddenly urgent but not overly panicked, ‘Could you possibly pop in and see the vicar immediately, I don’t know who else to call about this issue. He will tell you, himself what its all about as soon as you get here.’ Something in her voice had prevented Nathaniel from giving an excuse and backing out.
As he pulled up on the roadside, in front of the vicar’s mid terrace townhouse on Marley Street, he wondered what the Reverend wanted to discuss with him so urgently. Perhaps he was about to be given more duties in the church. He wouldn’t object to that, considering his present circumstances. He would be happy to be fully involved right till the end.
Rachael met Nathaniel at the door. ‘Thanks for coming at such a short notice’ she said, her eyes devoid of their usual sparkle. She looked tired and drawn, and she was clutching a Bible in her right hand. ‘I’ve been reading the Palms to him all day to cheer him up, he’s been sitting like that all day, just staring into the space. He hasn’t eaten anything or had his tea, and he won’t say a word. I’ve prayed and sung to him all day, and now I’ve completely run out of ideas. I’m at the very end of my tether.’
‘Hi Reverend’, Nathaniel said, lowering himself gingerly onto the edge of the settee directly opposite the statuesque figure of the vicar. He leaned forward and looked into his vacant grey eyes, ‘How are you?’
Nathaniel knew what he was looking at, since his last job from which he’d recently resigned was as a clinical psychologist. He’d seen enough patients with that dead look in their eye and such behaviour of complete self withdrawal. But Nathaniel wasn't entirely sure what capacity he was expected to attend to the stricken vicar. As far as he knew, no one was aware about his profession. As an ‘elder’ of the church, he ought to tell the pastor that this was an attack of the devil. He was being tested in his faith, being persecuted by an evil spirit. As a man of God, he should draw upon the presence of the Holy Spirit and engage in an intensive session of fasting and praying. But the vicar himself knew all that. It would be like a frog attempting to teach a dog to wag his tail.
For the most part of his career, Nathaniel didn’t have any problem with the conflict between certain areas his profession and his Christian faith. He managed to keep them separate until only recently, when he decided to take his religion more seriously than everything else. But he was still aware that there were some unassailable theories of psychology that couldn’t possibly be brushed aside, and up till now, he’d managed not to avoid getting into a fix. Many of the people in the church showed signs and mannerisms of an assorted range of psychological disorders. He thought of James, the guy who normally played the keyboard, who had a habit of making weird but suggestive hand gestures. And there was Jeanette, with her constant fiddling about and her occasional outburst. Even young Terry had some telling habits that forebode a worrying state of his metal stability later in life. But in the church, it was all contained and under control of the Holy Sprit.
The vicar was always warning and admonishing in his sermons that the devil should always be resisted in all forms of its attack; resisted with fervent payers and reading of the Holy Bible. The vicar’s wife dedicated many of her sermons to the banishment of demons and evil spirits that sought to interfere with the happiness of God’s children. There was no room for poverty, or sin, or depression, or any of the attacks of the evil one. She’d often declared ‘God’s grace is sufficient!’, which seemed to be the case until now.
Rachael had disappeared into the kitchen for about 10 minutes. She reappeared with a small tray of tea and biscuits, stopping briefly and looking anxiously at Nathaniel.
‘Has he said anything?’
‘I’m sorry, he hasn’t, Mrs Vickers. I don’t know how to say this, but I think your husband is suffering from depression, and I would certainly recommend that he makes an appointment at the hospital as soon as possible.’
Rachael, very slowly placed the tray on the small stool beside the settee. She’d gone even paler than ever before. She froze Nathaniel with her cold eyes and he immediately realized that he’d said the wrong thing. He’d misfired and uttered a profound blasphemy.
What came out when she opened her mouth was an ear-splitting scream of pure contempt.
‘How dare you speak like that about the vicar! Who the hell do you think you are, a bloody psychologist?’ she took in a refreshing lung-full of air and appeared to calm down for a second. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life. Now, please leave this house at once!’
Nathaniel set off back home in a daze but gradually recovered. His sincerely mumbled apologies didn’t save him from being kicked out by the vicar’s wife. He reckoned she would come round; she would soon realize that she’d overreacted. The vicar, himself would not remain in his stupor for long. He would snap out of it and go back to his normal self, but the episode would recur and, if left unattended, might turn into a bigger problem of prolonged melancholy. By the time he reached home, he had shrugged off his mixed feelings about Rachael’s outburst. After all, he had his own problems to deal with.
The following Sunday the vicar was not in church. He'd been invited to preach at The Apostles’ Lodge, a sister church in North London.
Nathaniel and Amelia arrived few minutes late because they had to pick Gracie up on their way to church. The old woman was becoming increasingly frail, and it took longer for her to get prepared and be loaded into the back seat of their Rover saloon car. Amelia was determined that they would do everything they could to get the octogenarian to the church, as it was Grace’s desire.
As Amelia was not on Sunday school duty that Sunday, she assisted Nathaniel in leading Grace to the place they normally sat, four benches away from the front. But the seats were already taken, so they had to drag their way to the front bench which was always avoided by everyone.
When Nathaniel discovered who was conducting the sermon, he was a bit disappointed. He never enjoyed Rachael’s preaching. It was always in the same tone as her one-sided conversations; without substance and full of nonsense and contradictions. Otherwise, it was about the virtuous life of her father who was a Baptist Bishop; astounding tales of his routine encounter with the devil, and how he always emerged immaculate and unscathed.
Nathaniel had thought no further about the incident at the vicar's house during the week, he even managed to avoid telling Amelia what had transpired that evening. Although, neither the Vicar nor his wife had called him, he was relieved that the Reverend had recovered and resumed his normal duties.
He shifted uncomfortably on the hardbacked pew and felt uneasy when he realized that the vicar’s wife was gazing coldly at him from the pulpit. It was clear that all had not been forgiven. Her next words confirmed just that.
‘We have a Judas in our midst!’ she declared.
It only elicited a mild reaction from the congregation of about 80 people who probably considered it to be as viable as any other opening for a promising sermon. It was not until she repeated it, and they realised that the statement was directed at a prominent member of the church, that they all fell silent, and all eyes turned in Nathaniel’s direction.
‘We have in our midst a traitor who has been partaking of the holy bread before the altar and has been spreading awful rumours about the man of God. A serpent in the Garden of Eden...By their fruits ye shall know them... We do not name names, but there is nothing to say we can’t point at the evil ones.’
Nathaniel remained frozen on his seat, staring at the angry, trembling finger pointing at him, and feeling microwaved by the bore of 80 pairs of eyes. He heard Amelia’s sharp breath and then saw from the corner of his eye that she'd stood up. Amelia stomped out of the church with all the dignity she could muster in her slender frame. Even old Gracie, stood up with an agility that took Nathaniel by surprise, muttering incoherently as she, too, left. Nathaniel did not leave with his head bowed. He surveyed the sea of bemused faces in the congregation. Although he hadn’t always been a serious Christian, he’d never walked out of the church during the sermon, and, at least, he certainly didn’t want to cause a scene in the church. For now, it was best to leave as quietly as possible and rejoin Amelia and Grace. But it would be the last time he would go to Church.
The following Sunday’s service was conducted by the Vicar. He was taken aback by the size of the congregation. The whole place was packed to the joists. The front pews were filled with the most unlikely characters to find in the walls of a church while some people stood at the back and in the wings throughout the service. Rev Vickers was aware of what had gone on in the Church the last Sunday and had strong words with his wife. He’d also tried without success to contact Nathaniel and Amelia and offer his sincere apologies. They were not answering their phone, and when he went to their house, there wasn’t anyone around. He looked around, and neither of them was in church that day, not even old Gracie who had never missed a service since he’d assumed his vicarate of the parish.
But it wasn’t such a terrible thing to have so many people attending the service. The collection would be a boost for the Church’s diminishing funds. And, fortunately, he'd prepared an upbeat sermon packed with some decent jokes he got off the internet. The shame of it was that most of the people had been drawn there, that day, by the drama that had taken place in the church last week. Rumours had razed throughout Rentford and surrounding districts that there was live flaying of church members in something akin to a live broadcast of Gerry Springer’s TV show. They were all there in the hope of a repeat performance, but it was inevitable that the Vicar would disappoint.
The greeting of the flock, after after the service, was most excruciating for the vicar. He shook hands with every one of the new attendants, and extracted their unfailing promise that they would come again the next Sunday.
Although he was dead beat, he felt his spirit lighten considerably as his wife drove them back home in their beleaguered Blue Renault 11. Rachael hardly uttered a single word throughout the drive.
The Vicar’s euphoria was short-lived. He’d meant to take a short nap after his lunch and then prepare a note for the evening prayer meeting, but he found himself unable to work up the appetite to tackle the roast potato and beef that sat complacently in his plate. He was alarmed by the frequent episodes of sudden loss of willpower that he’d been experiencing in the past months. Sometimes when he picked up his Bible and read a Psalm, or a Chapter from his favourite book of Corinthians, it actually did cheer him up. But there were times when he didn’t even possess the willpower to pick up the Bible, in the first place.
Rachael was in and out of the living room, busy with her endless chores. She stopped and then went and sat with him at the round dining table.
‘Are you alright, Bart?’
‘Sure’, he said, ‘God’s grace is sufficient’
She held her husband's hand and looked into his eyes. She wanted to say something, but she stopped herself, leaving it for him to read the worry and concern on her face.
They had a lousy week, with the vicar staying in bed most of the days, drifting in and out of his melancholy, and Rachael running around to fill in for his missed engagements and attending to his needs. She read the Bible to him and played a CD of his favourite Praise Worship Songs by Graham Kendrick. She was sure that period of his trial would soon pass, and the good vicar would be restored to a greater glory. In the meantime, she was prepared to hold the forth, and do whatever had to be done.
‘Rachael’, he said on Saturday morning, during a brief spell from his suffering, ‘I know you have been working extremely hard taking care of me, and truly want to thank you. But, we have to tell the Church that I’m ill with this thing...’
‘God forbid it, Bart!’ she exclaimed sharply, ‘For a vicar to stand in front of the congregation, and say that he’s suffering from depression and he wants to pack it in? That’s the same as declaring that the devil has won the battle.’
‘I’m sorry, Rachael, I’ve thought long and prayed hard about it, and I’ve made up my mind. God willing, I will make an announcement to the Church tomorrow, and we'll arrange for a stand-in vicar...’
‘No, no, no...!’ Rachael would hear no more of it. She burst out of the bedroom in an uncontrolled fit of sobbing and snivelling.
Rev. Vickers could not attend the service on Sunday. Not because he was down with depression, but because he’d received an urgent message that one of his parishioners was in hospital. It wasn’t clear enough from the message exactly who it was, but the vicar had the distinct inkling that it was Old Grace Fotherghill. That made it all the more urgent, because he was aware that the old woman had no known relatives. He, her vicar, was all that she had, and if she was on her deathbed, then he’d have to be by her side as a matter of duty. He’d slept very badly because of the announcement he was planning to make. Moreover, Rachael was utterly disconsolate about the whole thing, and she didn’t stop weeping all night. It was painful just to see how her eyes had become so red, and her face puffy from crying.
He’d almost considered not going to the church after all, but he managed to eke out enough willpower to get out of bed and follow up on his resolve. But the news from the hospital, somehow, deflected his thoughts from himself, and he found it easy to get ready and go to the Hospital.
Rachael was, herself, clearly relived, and it was astonishing how the puffs had disappeared and she’d suddenly brightened up.
‘Don’t you worry about me, dear’ said the vicar, ‘I’ll take a cab to see Grace at the Hospital, please go ahead with the Church duties this morning. Don’t tell them anything just yet. If it is possible, I’ll join you during the service.’
‘Sure, I pray that Grace gets better’
The vicar approached the Hospital in a state of apprehension. It occurred to him that one of the things he’d never done was the last rite. Christenings and Weddings were a doodle, even funerals were okay. It was surprising how one could conduct them with such a complete detachment. But, to look a dying person in the eyes and say the words to comfort and guide her on her final journey; that was something he’d never done, and it filled him with an overwhelming dread. He closed his eyes briefly and muttered a prayer of self reassurance, and then he stepped in front of the main reception desk, and enquired the whereabouts of the patient he'd been summoned him to see.
It wasn’t Grace in the Hospital; it was Nathaniel Johnson, and he was in the cancer ward. As the vicar came in, Amelia stood up from where she sat, next to Nathaniel’s prostrate figure on the hydraulic bed. He looked as feeble as a kitten's shadow, and his face was pale, with a couple blue veins pulsing weakly on his left temple. He smiled weakly, and his eyes followed the vicar’s progress as he made his way to Nathaniel’s bedside and then gently covered his hand.
Amelia’s eyes were puffy, but her face was composed, somewhat defiant. All three of them acknowledged an unspoken consensus of the finality of the situation.
Nathaniel’s voice was only a whisper, but the glistering white walls of the small room conserved its resonance, and it emerged, not loud, but crisp.
‘It’s okay, Rev. Vickers, Amelia and I have known about this for more than nine months. That’s why I quit my practice and started attending church more. I was brought up in a Christian household, but I drifted and lost my faith. We started going back to Church so that at this final moment, a Godly person like you can be by my side to reaffirm the paradise that lies at the other side, amidst loved ones who have passed on before.
'This is the final paycheque of the Christian who has invested his meagre pittance of faith; the belief that neutralizes the fear of death and any regrets about what we are leaving behind.
His eyes roved languidly in the direction of his wife, and a vague smile frittered across his gaunt, sallow face. She leaned forward and held his other hand.
Even at that instant, despite the gravity of the occasion, the vicar reflected that it wasn’t as awful or morbid as he’d expected it to be. Nathaniel was not doused in remorse, and Amelia was not stricken with grief, and the whole place was not deluged with gloom. Rather, it was a calm and controlled state of affairs. ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ was the scoffing refrain that danced about in the vicar's head. And, stranger still, as he held the hand of the dying man, his own mind was totally free of its usual burden of bitterness and remorse. It was as if life was passing from the limp, withering hand into his own faltering being.
‘His grace is sufficient.’ the vicar reassured Nathaniel and his wife.
The effort of the communication seemed to be too much for Nathaniel. His face sagged, and a sharp rush of breath escaped from his parted lips. His eyes remained open, but the light had gone out of them.
Over the weeks that followed, the vicar found himself to be more occupied with the works of his calling. Since the experience by Nathaniel’s deathbed, the bouts of overwhelming gloom had practically disappeared. He did not declare it as a miracle, but all he knew was that as long as he was forced to think more about others, rather than dwelling constantly on himself, he felt all the better for it.