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Written on March 2, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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We had to put on quite ridiculous robes. A long red cassock that reached to the ground and took some practise to walk without tripping, a white surplice which hung about the shoulders like a mutant scarf, and a ruff. This wasn’t the stiff starched gleaming ruff you see around cherubic pink-scrubbed necks on CD covers at KWITHMUTH time, or the enormous flamboyant cavalier-style ruff you see in restoration-era film fiction. This was more like a lank old white hanky, too loose for our slender warbling throats. The entire get-up, supposed to inspire religious seriousness and devotion, made us look more like a mob of workhouse children who had been press-ganged into church slavery.

The vestry was a dark room at the end of the church opposite the altar, divided into two areas, the vicar’s dressing room and the choir’s, with a the rope for the single bell hanging down between them. It contained vestments, hanging thickly upon Victorian pegs, piles of hassocks to prevent knee-injuries when praying to the Lord, and stacks of green hymn books and bibles and books of common prayer. Whatever the season or the weather, it had a permanently musty smell, just this side of mouldy, and slowly from about 9am it would sort of fill with a desultory group of children, and a couple of staunch, greying Anglican baritones, one with only one arm, who would attempt to prevent total war breaking out before the service with a series of glares and hushed admonitions designed to instill reverence. Our puerile minds knew none of this; we were mostly there under sufferance, to do a job, and get the hell out. It was a philosophy of which Arnie would have been proud.

In the cold church, we needed the robes. Often as we sang the half-dozen or so hymns we could see our breath before us. There was a line of old women at the front, gamely attempting their worship in genteel fashion. I never knew where they came from – we only ever saw them in church. Perhaps they were already dead, and the vicar brought them back for the services to keep his stipendiary. They always wore thick coats and support stockings. I can’t remember ever seeing a young woman in that church, or a family. Just old people, singing the hymns, listening to the lesson, nodding through the sermon, taking Eucharist, and filing out past the vicar who beamed at them all kindly like vicars are trained to do in vicarschool.

Despite the tiny congregations, the church had a working pipe organ which was played more than competently by the choirmaster, Mr Gervaise. From behind the pulpit, he couldn’t see the choir as he played, he had his back to us. He would run choir practise on a Thursday evening and turn up for the main Sunday service, and occasionally for compline on Sunday evenings. Mr Gervaise had two names, his preferred one rather French and artistic, but his real name was Smith, drab and English. He didn’t know that we knew this about him. Despite our frequent rebellions, we were mostly loyal to him, and we understood and respected his efforts. Having his back to us however meant that in the services, there was no direct control over us, and he had to rely on his deputies in the baritone row behind the children to keep discipline. This frequently failed.

We worked out new lyrics to many of the hymns and we were artful to sing them once in a while, loud and clear enough to raise bristling eyebrows and cause minor commotion from the direction of the organ. Some of the hymns we sang were superb, both lyrically and musically, and right at the heart of our cultural heritage. This is from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend,
Can daunt his spirit:
He knows, he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

Fabulous words, these, dismal, giant, hobgoblin, foul fiend… This didn’t prevent us from chiming loudly at the end of each verse, “To Be A PENGUIN…” with a look of complete innocence blithely maintained across our line of shining morning faces.

Another trick we liked to pull was to speed up. This was my idea. I used to despair that there was at least A WHOLE SECOND between the organ and the choir at the front of the church and the wobbly old dears, especially those at the back. This made slow hymns in particular descend into a morbid dirge, so we would start to increase the pace. By the end of the song, there was a lot of coughing and harrumphing from the baritones, but we were fast and funky, we pushed on and sang unified in our desire not to lag. Sometimes we ended the hymn a good half a verse in front.

After the service, there were a few tasks, like collecting the hassocks and the hymn books, and extinguishing the large candles. I used to like this job; a minute after the flame had died, you could put your hand into the hot wax, and it would dry and form a cast. The trick was to go around all the candles collecting wax until you had a complete palm, then get home and peel it off, to reveal the network of lines and fingerprints. I would keep these as long as possible, marvelling at the detail.

Often when we got back, the parents were still in bed. Why, we couldn’t work out at all. Years later I realised, Sunday morning, with all 5 children gone from the small house, was the only time in the week when they could worship in their church. Of course they were still in bed.

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This thing has 3 Comments

  1. opforsoldier
    Posted 2 March, 2005 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I was an Altar Boy as a kid and we too used to pull some pranks on the congregation or who ever else we could get them by on.

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  2. natasha
    Posted 2 March, 2005 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    thats the funniest description of robes i’ve ever heard.

  3. transience
    Posted 4 March, 2005 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    your last paragraph reminds me of something i saw in my childhood. hmm. and no, i’m not really gonna say what it was here.

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