As always, I’m running late, thanks to my son, and can’t get a seat in the church. I push my way around behind a couple of mums standing just inside the main doorway, so I’m not blocking their view. This conveniently gives me a small bookcase to lean against when my legs start aching, as they invariably do when I’m forced to stand still for more than fifteen minutes. I look around and nod to the few parents I know, then, social niceties out of the way, look down at the row of books on the top shelf of the bookcase. Anticipating a stack of hymn books and bibles I am pleasantly surprised to see a selection of kids’ classics, presumably for a playgroup; a few Roald Dahl’s and Enid Blyton’s, and a copy of Hugh Lofting’s ‘Dr Doolittle’. Old friends, both from night-time reading sessions with my son and from my own childhood.
I look up as a gaggle of parents make their way through the double doors; smokers who’ve been milling around outside, grabbing the chance for a last-minute fag. That means the kids must be coming round the corner.
A couple of the smokers squeeze in directly in front of me: a young woman with long, dark hair and her partner, who’s about 6′ 2” and wearing a ‘hoodie’. I can’t see a thing. “Excuse me, mate, can you put your hood down,” I ask, “I can’t see anything?”
He mutters an apology and pulls his hood back, revealing a head full of wild, blonde, matted curls that block my view even further. Thankfully, he also shuffles a few inches to the left, and I can see over his shoulder to say hello to William as he and the rest of his classmates file through.
Soon there are fourteen classes of children seated on the floor of the church, arranged in rows according to age and height. A sea of bobbing heads and sibilant whispers. As the organist plays the opening chord of the first hymn a child starts to cry, and after a few minutes spent trying to calm him an annoyed looking mother squeezes past and out, the red-faced, tear-stained toddler riding comfortably on one rounded hip. I don’t blame him: the organist is dreadful.
Taking advantage of the small extra space this hasty departure has created, hoodie-man moves further back, until he’s standing alongside rather than in front of me. As he does so his partner moves back too, her back making contact with him as he drapes his arms over her shoulders, leans forward and kisses her on the top of the head. Hoodies and public displays of affection: I feel myself bristle.
The reception children stand and turn to face the bulk of the congregation. A pretty teacher I haven’t seen before counts them in, and they sing and sign a song about a Big Red Combine Harvester. As they finish they get a huge round of applause and sit back down grinning and whispering among themselves. They’re so excited the headmistress has to shush them before the vicar can speak.
The vicar starts his sermon, a rambling discourse on the nature of worship and the many ways in which all living things can and do offer thanks to the Lord. During one particularly prosaic passage, in which he explains how various crops may ‘give praise by coming forth in abundance’, I become aware that the young woman is struggling to stifle laughter, and without turning my head I can see that around her shoulders the man’s arms are shaking too. I bristle further.
As the vicar expands on his theme I notice the woman laughing even harder, and I turn to give the pair a sharp look. When I do, I see the real reason for the woman’s hilarity, and it has nothing to do with the sermon. Her partner, six-foot plus and dressed like a ram-raider, is crying his eyes out, and struggling manfully to avoid any action that might draw attention to the fact. His daughter is one of the reception kids, and the Big Red Combine Harvester has completely overwhelmed him.