(This short story was adapted into a song by the music / spoken word collective Croydon Tourist Office).
A sultry midsummer evening and the clammy village is an unwarranted hug, all honeysuckle smells and foliage, sticky pine needles and fervent deciduous shade. Cottages crowd in on to the single-carriage road as if wanting to know all the gossip. The steep valley sides seem to funnel the heat, ever-present mounds of arable greenery, the low sun throwing long shadows from the flanks of the grazing sheep. How on earth did I end up here?
I’d been to the pub, but the pub was a disappointment. I’d had a warm lager but the bare-brick furnishings and low hanging ceilings had made me feel even hotter. And I’d hit my head on a copper-bottomed pan that had been hanging from a rafter. There was laughter. I’d never felt dafter.
But I didn’t want to go back to my rented cottage just yet. I had a desk of half-completed work waiting for me, and it was too, too hot.
‘Come in for a bit of a pray, have we?’, the vicar asked.
I’d been lingering in the porch of the village church. Stone brick, solid, a stunted tower a modest graveyard of slanting headstones. I caught a glimpse of pews.
‘Not a believer?’
‘To be honest, no’.
He had a long beard and a strange expression on his face, as if the top part of his face was profoundly disappointed that the bottom half of his face had grown a beard.
‘Come in’, he said. ‘It’s cooler in here. Take a pew’.
He laughed. His moustache was stained brown by nicotine. I entered the church and felt a certain coolness envelope me. A flagstone floor led to a simple altar, while the low evening sun threw stained glass colour across the aisle.
‘How are you a vicar if you don’t believe?’, I asked.
‘Nobody checks on these things’, he replied.
‘And don’t the audience suspect anything?’
‘Congregation, my son. That’s what we call them in the biz. They may have their suspicions, but they’ve not said anything’.
He was tall and thin and he moved like a crow. There was a pile of hymn books on a side table. The air was infused with the smells of mothballs and summer fruits, furniture polish, and the merest hint of whisky. The vicar picked up a feather duster and fluffed it over the window sill.
‘It’s not like the congregation is very large’, he continued. ‘Six at the most. I do funerals, mostly. There weren’t any weddings at all last year. And I haven’t christened anyone in such a long time. The font is now where the wifi transmitter is kept. I use it to go on Wikipedia. It’s a font of all knowledge’.
He laughed again. A series of slow, halting huffs.
‘Sorry. Just some vicar humour’.
‘Did you ever believe? I mean . . Did you have a faith, and then stop?’
He sits on a pew and dangles the feather duster between his legs, kind of sways it back and forth.
‘I had a total failure of faith when I was a teenager. I was on a bouncy castle at the time. The sun shone through the trees, and I wanted to bounce higher and higher, and touch the air. I wanted to stroke the face of god!’, he said, almost triumphantly. But then he lowered his voice. ‘I thought . . If I were a god, I’d not want some snotty nosed teenager touching my face and spreading his germs. Of course, god would have made the germs, too. He would have loved those germs. And the air, it was all atmosphere. Pure science! We can bounce as much as we like, but the sky will always be out of reach’.
‘So it was nothing to do with human suffering and unjust luck?’
‘No. Bouncy castles’.
‘Then why did you want to become a vicar?’
He waved a nicotine stained forefinger in my face.
‘The uniform’, he replied. ‘Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and I tell you, it’s more practical than it looks. That, and the chance to spend time in beautiful buildings such as this’.
He squinted at me.
‘You’ve got a bruise. Have you been to the pub?’
‘I’ve been meaning to tell them about that copper bottomed pan for years’.
The shadows begin to lengthen and all of a sudden a shard of sunlight illuminated the tip of the bronze cross on the altar as if afire with a sudden majesty, ethereal and life-affirming,
‘Best get home’, he said, ‘my soaps will be on’.
I turned to the altar and watched flecks of dust curl in the air, moving on unseen currents. I turned back to the vicar, but all trace of him had gone.
‘What on earth?!’
It was as if a spectre had made himself apparent only by his leaving, as if common sense had mutated, spun on a golden moment into the sublime, a supernatural hand reached out and plucked a miracle from the ether, and my heart began to race.
‘Sorry’, he said, as his head popped up from between the pews. ‘I was picking up a sweet wrapper’.