BY KEITH NEWTON
Copyright is held by the author.
ROGUES, RASCALS or, less charitably, little heathens, hooligans, ragamuffins and even thugs. These were some of the epithets routinely directed at the intrepid, if motley, band of misfits who called themselves the choristers of Stockbrough Parish Church, back in the mid-’50s.
Our reputation was rather flimsily based, I thought — stemming mainly from the occasional fist-fight before or after choir practice and the fact that we regularly chased away the local kids from the lovely rectangle of churchyard grass where we liked to hone our soccer skills.
We were a mixed bag, but not what today we would call ‘diverse’. There was an Indian-born scamp called Devi who would occasionally show up with a packet of jalebi — sweet, sticky and utterly delicious. He was a very popular lad on those occasions. Umberto (Bert) was the son of the Italian immigrant who had opened Rossi’s ice cream parlour after the war. And Ben was a tall Barbadian whose accent was the source of much amusement –and mimicking — which he tolerated with unfailing good humour and a toothy grin. I was “head boy” of these scallywags, chosen not so much for the sweetness of my voice, but for basic literacy, some slight acquaintance with music and some proficiency with my fists.
Twice a week I would herd the gang into the vestry and try to establish some sort of order. (It was so much easier on Sundays, when the hypocritical little devils would affect beatific smiles and a most decorous, almost angelic demeanour.) We endured the hard seats and dreaded then moment when Dr. Raddish (yes, I know, but that was his name) would strike a few chords then stand before us, baton raised. He was enthusiastic, singing along with us and spraying a generous amount of spittle over the newer kids in the front row. We worked hard and I like to think that those kids took some real pride in their accomplishments.
Ah, pride. It’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, you know. I was to witness a prime example one Sunday in June ’58. It was after morning service and we were disrobing in the vestry. The women, altos and contraltos, were doffing their bonnets; the tenors and basses sliding out of their cassocks and surplices. We did likewise and gratefully tore off those despised ruffs, as well. I carefully removed the gold medallion on its blue silk ribbon: the badge of my high office! The Vicar was at the church door, in the sunshine, pressing the flesh and offering a few vacuous words to the grateful congregants. Meanwhile the curate, young Sexby, dashed into the boss’s study where the phone had been ringing urgently for several minutes. He emerged in a state of great excitement. The Vicar entered and was accosted by a gaggle of adults, only to be distracted by the curate tugging urgently at his sleeve. They disappeared together into the sanctum sanctorum.
A hubbub ensued in the vestry. For some time the rumours had been flying. The Vic was, allegedly, in line for a promotion—one which would assign him to the nearby cathedral city of Yorham. “Quite a feather in his cap” they all agreed. So, was the phone call the confirmation of his appointment? Sexby and the Vic had certainly been in the study for a long time. The speculation ran high. Soon however, hunger trumped curiosity: Sunday ‘dinner’ beckoned and the crowd dispersed.
By 5:30 I was back in the vestry, trying to put some order into the hastily-discarded hymn books and psalters that lay in a scattered heap on the vestry table. Sexby, who also always came a little early for evensong, breezed in purposefully and spilled the beans. Yes, he confirmed, the old man’s appointment had come through; and he suspected there might be a little extra work for us this evening.
The heavy oak door to the sanctum sanctorum swung open and there was the Vic silhouetted against the light from his banker’s desk lamp. Tall, bulky, collar askew and the top three buttons of his cassock undone, he stood aside a little unsteadily and motioned us inside.
“Come in,” he enjoined us thickly. I have special tasks for you this evening. You, Sexby, will deliver the sermon. Just dust off one of your old stand-byes. Bit short notice, I admit, but I have full confidence in you. You, young Barker, will read both lessons. Make sure you mark these references ahead of time. It’s a bloody huge Bible and the pages weigh a ton. Don’t want you taking ten minutes to find the right places, do we?”
A quick glance around the jumbled room confirmed what Sexby and I had suspected. An empty bottle of the very decent red that he kept for personal consumption—not that nasty plonk he served at Communion—lay poking out of the wicker waste-basket. And a bottle of sherry looked severely compromised.
“Off you go, boys. Knock ‘em dead.” He chuckled enthusiastically at his own wit and sank gratefully into his formidable leather chair.
Sexby and I, of course, performed admirably. Mission accomplished, we reported back. He greeted us warmly. “Didn’t expect anything else! Fullest confidence in you boys. Now tell me about it.” I quickly informed him that everything had gone smoothly. He turned to Sexby. “You give ‘em one of your gory old bodice-rippers, eh?”
“No, sir, I just gave them a safe little piece on the Ten Commandments. Nothing startling. There was one curious occurrence, though. When I got to the bit about covetousness, Miss Keeler — you know the one, sir; young, pretty . . . the Vicar waved him on—well, she jumped up out of her seat, red-faced and dashed out. And immediately so did Dr. Darlington.”
The old boy grinned lasciviously at this but quickly assured us that of course the good doctor was only going to see if he could be of medical assistance. Then, waving us to comfortable chairs, he placed glasses before us. “Now you boys must join me in my small celebration. (More of a command than an invitation.) He slurped generous amounts into our glasses, and refilled his own.
“Now let’s drink to the health of The Very Reverend Cecil St. John Upshott Bagley-Smythe, Dean of Yorham Cathedral. He paused, silent, misty-eyed. Turned back to face us. “It does sound rather impressive, don’t you think?”