Such has been my level of busy-ness over the past few weeks that one family member asked if I’d retired from the blog that no-one reads. We’ve had builders in and I’m now in the process of painting all the rooms they made alterations to over the course of three weeks, amongst many other busy bee activities. But, a couple of days ago, my painting and decorating was interrupted by a Christmas lunch with members of a Christian ‘house group’, at a local pub up the road.
The pub in question is one I’d last visited years ago and subsequently vowed never to set foot across its threshold again. But I couldn’t say that to my Christian friends, being they’d chosen the venue and seemed to have no problem with the fact that the pub had recently received a zero hygiene rating and had been temporarily closed, so it could rectify the matter. This had been well publicised in the local press. I also happened to know that my friend’s husband had suffered a bout of food poisoning after eating there, but who was I to spoil the festivities?
This curious occurrence (me attending a Christian outing) had come about at choir rehearsal a few weeks ago. The two lovely (Christian) ladies I sit with (F) and (M) asked if I’d like to come along to one of their house group meetings – house groups are where the godly sit about in each other’s houses discussing aspects of their religion, whilst also sharing their problems and gulping down cups of tea. I’d declined, in as weedy and creepy a fashion as I could manage, being I’m absolutely no good at saying ‘No’ to anyone. I’d explained that I’m a confirmed atheist so thanks for asking but wouldn’t it be strange to have an atheist in their midst? The following week M asked if I’d at least not mind going to their Christmas lunch. I felt I couldn’t say no.
So, there I was, a couple of days ago, being picked up by M who, many months ago during a driving conversation, had remarked on her driving prowess: ‘I go on motorways and everything,’ she’d said, ‘doesn’t bother me at all.’ I was, therefore, feeling reasonably calm about the lift until she left the kerbside. Ten minutes later we arrived at the pub after a series of crunching gear changes, sudden swerves and a couple of stalls, which left me debating whether to pluck up the courage to ask if it was ok if I walked home. We entered the pub; I in trepidation, she in anticipatory excitement, for there were to be eleven ladies joining us, all her dear friends.
The pub was packed, even at mid-day, and we were guided to our table, which was decked out with Christmas crackers on a tatty, paper, silver tablecloth. F arrived late, due to singing at the unveiling of a new World War II plaque in the local church. She was much impressed by the fact that the unveiling had been performed by royalty, in the form of Princess Anne’s first husband. Being that the belligerent princess is about as far down my and the royal pecking order as you can get, employing her ex-husband appeared to be scraping the Windsor barrel, in terms of royal guest appearances, so my enthusiasm was curbed to say the least, coupled with the fact that I couldn’t even remember who her first husband had been.
There I sat at the table, hoping nobody would ask me lots of questions, or say anything to me at all, as the house group gradually arrived, oohing and aahhing at the decorated table and enveloping each other in a group Christian hug. Drinks were ordered and paid for via ‘the tin.’ This was a tin which came out at every house group meeting I was informed, into which members could put as much money as they wanted. At the end of every month this money was halved, half going to charity and the other half on outings. The tin was up-ended on our table and a pile of coins appeared. I reached for my purse but no, my drink was included in the takings. I ordered a J20, whilst M alarmingly ordered a pint of bitter shandy – I hadn’t seen that coming (‘sorry, but I must,’ she said) one other woman ordered wine and the rest 7 Ups. They immediately launched into their group chatter, whilst I sat bemused in atheistic silence.
The obvious head of their group (J) was an imposingly forthright woman whose career had been in the army, she later told me. She happened to sit directly opposite me, therefore I felt the full force of her personality; it was like being battered by a force nine gale on the edge of a very high cliff. As we sipped our drinks, she suddenly announced that she was going to say ‘Grace.’ I’d already noted that she was incapable of saying anything quietly, but instead conversed as though she was addressing us (and the entire pub) from a pulpit. Suddenly M grabbed my hand and lifted it high above the table, holding it there in a vice like grip, whilst the other ladies all joined hands. I made an attempt to extricate myself, then decided it was probably better to just go along with it, out of politeness. ‘This is how people end up in cults,’ I inwardly muttered, ‘too polite to say no, oh and please say Grace in sweetly hushed tones,’ I silently implored of J.
‘OH LORD!,’ J suddenly bellowed up to the ceiling. (I jumped an inch from my seat) ‘THANK YOU FOR PROVIDING THE FOOD WHICH IS ABOUT TO BE BROUGHT TO OUR TABLE AND FOR THESE DRINKS IN FRONT OF US. OUR HOPE AND SALVATION REST IN YOU OH LORD AND MAY WE CONTINUE TO DO THY BIDDING…………….and I can’t remember the rest, being I was a deer caught in the headlights of an Alice in Wonderland surrealist fantasy. On and on J continued, her eyes closed in spiritual rapture, as were those of the rest of the group. There was then a loud group Amen, in which I didn’t join, and then the starters arrived. I, in a godly fashion, had abstained from a starter, but the starters looked promising, to say that the pub had been in the local news for all the wrong reasons. Everybody got chatting again, the general theme being their adult (as in, in their thirties) children. J announced to the room that her first grandchild would be arriving towards the end of December. I smiled and said, ‘that’s nice.’ But it wasn’t nice. I’d said quite the wrong thing in my woeful ignorance. She explained that her son had had a one-night stand, at least that’s what she assumed, and the grandkid was the result. He’d decided to support the kid, but the couple weren’t together at all and well, it’s hardly ideal is it? I agreed that it was less than ideal. ‘I sometimes think the Lord is having a laugh at my expense,’ she said. The ‘one-night stand baby’ led to a group discussion, in which it was the group’s view that one-night stands had never happened in their day. No, promiscuity and illegitimacy were, in fact, entirely new phenomena directly linked to mobile phones. Satan, in the form of your average iPhone, was spawning ungodly sprogs all over the place. In a huge generalisation, today’s young people (which young people, I mused – the teenagers? the twenty-somethings? the thirty-somethings?) were all grouped as one, incapable of commitment and randomly shagging all over the place. ‘OH, LORD!’ I wanted to shout up to the ceiling (in the manner of J.) Fornication has been going on since we crawled out of the seas and into the caves when, technically, it wasn’t fornication at all, being there was no marriage, no rules and no God; and let’s not limit your view to the ‘young people’ shall we, they’re not the only demographic checking out Tinder. Suddenly J produced her mobile phone (in her case clearly not an agent of the Devil) and asked if I’d like to see her son? ‘He’s a drummer in a heavy metal band, currently on a world tour which ends at the O2.’ ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ thought I and, utterly gobsmacked, I watched a tiny film, taken at the back of a huge stage, of a young man, wildly playing the drums to an arena filled with metalheads.
Then J took centre stage again, regaling us with many entertaining stories, each one acted out (complete with various accents) and accompanied by many flailing hand and arm movements (I could see where her son got his drumming ability.) One of her swinging arms connected forcefully with her neighbour, a woman in a wheelchair who, it turned out, had been knocked down by a car, a year ago, whilst walking to church (God does indeed work in mysterious ways.) On the day that the driver had driven straight into her, she had uncharacteristically declined a lift to church, which would have saved her from colliding with the car. You’d think God would have intervened, in the form of a suitably ethereal, disembodied voice: ‘take the car, take the car,’ but no, she’d walked instead. It had been a dark and stormy night and she’d had her hood up. She’d crossed the road at a roundabout and, just as she reached the kerb, a car had ploughed into her, breaking three bones in her pelvis; her tibia and fibia; two bones in her arm, her shoulder bone, and the side of her head had collided with the windscreen (she showed me the scar.) She was also living proof (in her seventies) that random shagging, non-commitment and illegitimacy are not solely attributes of ‘today’s youth’ for (she informed me) she’d got pregnant at 16, shacked up with the lad, who then left her when they had their second kid at 18, and she’d been a lone parent ever since. But nobody seemed to notice that her story flew in the face of the non-scientifically proven Mobile Phone Theory.
Meanwhile J continued, and her next story was pre-fixed by the words ‘here’s one of my cancer stories I forgot to tell you about.’ I immediately regretted any minor uncharitable thoughts I’d had about J hitherto, for it turned out J had recently had cancer. A lady at the farthest end of the table had had four different cancers and her friend three. ‘Oh Lord’, (I silently pleaded in desperation) ‘make cancer go away,’ and then the main courses arrived.
I’d chosen the vegetarian option, in knowledge of the pub’s recent food hygiene failure, reasoning that veg would most likely not kill me, whereas bad meat very possibly could. My plate was filled with a gigantic portion of diced carrots, peas and sprouts (no potatoes) and a small tart, covered in breadcrumbs and a couple of seeds. Everybody else had ordered the turkey dinner, except M, who’d ordered salmon. I noticed that the new potatoes, nestling near M’s salmon, weren’t looking very new at all, their skins were a revolting green colour and covered in black spots. I happen to know that green potatoes contain high levels of a toxin known as solanine which can make you very ill. I know this because, as a child, I was fascinated by a bloke on the telly called Magnus Pyke and I’ve never forgotten the time he told the childish version of me that I should never eat a green potato. To this day I chuck out spuds which show even a faint tinge of green. But M tucked in. She did mention that her spuds weren’t exactly appealing but, unlike myself, is of the stay calm and carry on variety of older woman. I began to tuck in, safe in the knowledge that the group were making satisfied noises, whilst stuffing their faces with veg that looked just like mine. I began with a sprout (not my favourite form of vegetable at the best of times) and stuck my fork in. It was most curious. The outer layer of the sprout sort of collapsed, like a tyre that’s been punctured, and my fork hit something rubbery in texture upon which it was impossible to get a firm grip, so I scooped it up and placed it in my mouth. The only reason I even attempted to eat the thing was out of the aforementioned politeness. There was no sproutiness about the sprout whatsoever. I chewed my way through this alien object, forcing myself to swallow and then tried to inconspicuously jostle the rest to the side of the plate. I tried a couple of carrots – the same rubberised texture. I tried a forkful of peas, they were edible but then you can seldom go wrong with peas. The veg tart turned out to be a can of tomatoes encased in rock hard pastry – it was revolting, ‘Oh Lord,’ I silenty implored, ‘save me from food poisoning.’ The whole thing was an affront to the culinary arts and it was also stone cold. But, opposite me, J had wolfed her turkey dinner down in seconds, ‘THANK YOU, GOD,’ she murmured loudly, to the room. Clearly, for J, the fact that God’s good grace had provided us with meals produced by his opposition down in the bowels of Hell, was neither here nor there. Several critical comments began floating down the table towards us. It seemed that the green potatoes were a feature on quite a few people’s plates, as were the rubberised vegetables but nobody dare voice their concerns too loudly, given they’d just offered up thanks to the Lord for the crap currently sitting on their plates.
The desserts arrived next and these were, at least, palatable; mainly ‘cos they were obviously frozen and imported from somewhere else. J wolfed hers down and then suddenly, with absolutely no warning, pulled her blouse up to her bra line, exposing her stomach. Accustomed as I was by this time to madness, I still couldn’t help emitting a small internalised gasp. Was this another God thing? Would we be communally revealing our stomachs to the rest of the pub? If so, I was having none of it. ‘Oh Lord, (my conversion was nearing completion during this version of the mad hatter’s tea party) ‘save me from collective indecent exposure.’ Then an epipen appeared in her hand, as from nowhere, and she shot herself in the stomach. ‘Diabetes?’ I wondered but daren’t ask, even though it was obvious that J didn’t feel the need to conceal anything in a private and muted fashion. And then, with equal suddenness, the Beatles single ‘Help!’ issued forth from the pub’s speakers (how appropriate, thought I.) To my right M leapt into life. ‘It’s the Beatles! I loved the Beatles!’ she squealed, ‘Ooh, so did I!’ screamed J, leaping from her seat and breaking into a very strange 50s type jive in the middle of our particular bit of the pub floor. Whilst she jived our group of ladies began belting out the song. ‘Help! I need somebody,’ M sang to my right, swinging her arms from side to side. ‘You go girl!’ a bloke built like a brickhouse shouted at the jiving J from his table in the corner. J immediately ran over to his table, gyrating her granny hips in front of him, and his twenty-something son, whilst the bloke swung his pint of beer around. I could see where her heavy metal son got his performing ability.
The bill arrived and I got out my purse. ‘No,’ F said firmly, ‘this is on us.’ I argued in vain. The meal then ended with requests for prayers from all group members. ‘Could you all pray for my mother-in-law to stop being so annoying,’ (I had to really, really supress a laugh at this one) one lady asked. No wonder War and Hunger never end, if Mother-in-laws are at the top of God’s to-do list, thought I. Then we all went our separate ways, but not before every single group member approached me, grasped my hands in theirs, looked meaningfully into my eyes and breathed ‘wonderful to meet you at last!’ Like I’m someone special. ‘Be careful,’ a voice whispered in my ear, ‘they’ve all probably been on a cult recruitment course.’
Outside the choral friends and I stood huddled against the cold. ‘See,’ F said, ‘we’re a normal bunch aren’t we? Not what you expected I bet, all that joking around (there had been a lot of raucous humour, mostly centred around J and her boobs.) They certainly appeared to fully support each other; there was no criticism; no anger, but then I’d had only a brief glimpse into their house group lives. ‘J should write a book,’ M said, ‘I’ve often told her she should write all those stories down.’ ‘You should write a book,’ F replied, ‘we should all write books about our lives.’ ‘Or blogs,’ I responded silently, in my own head.
Back at home I messaged F and M to thank them for including me in the dinner and that it had all been very entertaining and enjoyable. And, in a weird way, I meant it. Remove God and these people were my kind of people; un-cool, utterly accepting of my stammer and anxieties, struggling (like all of us) to get by in a world filled with stress, sadness, disease and loneliness and (quite unlike me) intent on having as much fun and laughter as possible – they’d just chosen God as their coping mechanism that’s all. I can see the appeal of group hugs, I began thinking. I can see the appeal of guaranteed friendship, guaranteed loyalty and a guaranteed support network but……..‘Oh Lord, save me from ever turning to religion,’ I muttered, before pressing ‘Send.’