“Put your big coat on. It’s cold out there.”
“I don’t want to go. Knight Rider is on telly tonight.”
“There’s sausage in batter and chips afterwards.”
Those autumn evenings, those smoky, coal fire evenings were always full of big coats and mellow snuggery.
Heavy-booted, we plodded along the orange mist streets, down darkened lanes and past lamp-lit windows.
“Why do we need to go to church on a Thursday night?”
“We need to thank Jesus for all the food we eat.”
“But you buy our food down Kwik Save.”
The church stood hard against the night, its large arched windows beaming out into the autumn gloom. We clambered the heavy steps and Dad clunked the wooden door open.
“Evening,” muttered Mr Mayhew’s moustache as we stepped inside and he handed us an Order of Service with his salmon crust hands.
“We’re collecting for Christian Aid tonight,” he announced.
“Righty, ho,” said Mum, taking out her purse and looking for a pound note. Dad mumbled something about being a Christian and being in need of aid and took us to our seats in the pews – Dad, me, Christie, and Mam, all in a line, ready to thank the Lord. We sat and I looked up at Jesus on his cross way up in the criss-cross beams. I thanked Him for dying and then coming back to save me.
Up near the altar, working quietly by the light of a single-strand bulb, John Evans sat in his wooden swell of organ stops and octaves.
Laid in boxes, in front of the altar, were bountiful foiled boxes of God’s precious gifts to us here on Earth.
“There’s a lot of bananas in that one.”
“That’ll be Jeff. He works on the banana boats.”
“Who’s going to eat them all?”
“They’ll probably give them to the poor people.”
“Like Mrs Marsh?”
And before we knew it, Father Steele strode shiny-shoed into the service and told us all to be thankful to the Lord our God for our bananas.
The service was long and biscuit dry. My tummy rumbled and my kid sister sniggered. And across the road, the soft light and salty smell of Tony’s chip shop spilt out into the night.
After an hour of praising God, the peace and the blessing of God Almighty was bestowed upon us so we got to our feet to go get our chips.
“Come on. I’m starving.”
The church door was open, blowing crunchy leaves into the entrance and scattering them across the block wooden flooring.
Mr Howcroft, duffle coat donned, steamed past us and headed out into the cold.
“You not staying Mel?” But Mel was already on his way out of the door.
“My sustenance is across the road,” he said, tipping his Trilby and smiling a bucktooth grin. He buttoned up the collar of his coat, tinkled down the stone steps and scurried across the black tar road to the Windsor. His lone stool at the bar was waiting.
“He used to own a sheep ranch in New Zealand. 100 acres of fields and sheep. But his wife ran off with another man and took everything he had. He was left with nothing.”
“Poor Mr Howcroft.”
Out into the night we tumbled.
“We’re going next door. Go grab us a table.”
Christie and I ran on ahead and into the church hall that smelt of 1951 and Calor Gas heaters. Three long lines of trestle tables ran the length of the hall, each festooned with Norma Hepplewhite’s lace tablecloths. Mam appeared behind us and nudged us in the back.
“Go and grab a seat. Not there though. That’s too close to Billy Evans. He’ll be asking us for a lift home.”
We found some seats next to Mr and Mrs Wilson and for a while, we sat there quietly while the grown-ups discussed what a lovely service it had been and how it wasn’t going to be the same when the new curate arrived.
Eventually, the hall door opened and in came Ray, the Christian family man with the secret ginger girlfriend down the road. In his hands, he carried a large, flat box, laden with newspaper-wrapped parcels.
“Fish and chips?” he bellowed. And everyone raised their hands except for Mrs Llewellyn who couldn’t because she had a frozen shoulder that the doctor was going to look at next week.
Ray began feeding the five thousand.
“Wait! Wait! Wait!” shrieked Mrs Bussell. “We’ve not had the blessing.”
“Where’s Father Steele?”
“Counting the collection.”
“I’ll do it.”
So we dipped our heads and I wondered whether Ray had my sausage and batter in his box while Mrs Bussell thanked the Lord for what we were about to eat.
We mumbled an Amen and looked to Ray.
“I ordered a large.”
“I’ve only got small.”
“I need two large.”
“John’s coming now with more.”
Dad was one of the first to get his food.
“I’m tucking in. I like mine hot. Jesus won’t mind. He’s all-forgiving.” And he unfolded his newspaper gift and he stuck his face in it.
“We’re waiting on a sausage and batter here, John.” And John said he’d be back now in a minute.
“I need a wee,” said Christie.
“Take her to the toilet.”
So I grabbed her small hand and walked her up the creaky steps to the lesser hall.
“It’s down there, back of the stage.”
“It’s dark and I’m scared. Can you come with me?”
So we crept our way down the dank corridor to the toilet at the end.
“I’d like some private time,” she said and she closed the door and I waited outside.
“It stinks in here,” she echoed.
“Just be quick.”
And I looked down, and there was a perfectly-made bed in a dark corner of the stage floor with three pink blankets and an empty mug.
“Don’t forget to pull the chain.” But Christie was too tiny to reach it.
On the way back, we passed Billy Evans. Flat-footed and still sat in his raincoat, he chewed on a sausage with his one remaining tooth.
“Your Mam and Dad got the car tonight?” he asked. We scuttled past.
And finally, a warm bundle arrived over my shoulder.
“Sausage in batter and chips?”
I unwrapped my gift and the warmth wafted up and soothed my cold face. I picked up my wooden fork and plunged it into the sausage. And we all tucked in, greasy-fingered and slithery-lipped.
God, our Maker, doth provide. For our wants to be supplied. And I bit into my supplied sausage and the crunch tingled my teeth.
“Who pays for all the chips?”
“I’ve never seen him in Tony’s.”
The jibber-jabber died as people began to eat. Mrs Bussell was pushing around a clinking trolley that was full of upside-down mugs of all shapes and sizes. She stopped behind Dad.
“Do you want a drink?”
“What are the options?”
“Yes or no.”
So Mrs Bussell poured Dad a thin mug of tea that he used to warm his hands. We had weak warm squash that came in plastic cups that went wibbly when we picked them up.
Down the table was Fat Ken, who hadn’t taken his coat off. He jabbed his sausage finger at Mrs Marsh’s food.
“Have you finished with those chips?”
“I haven’t even started. Keep your greedy gob off them.”
Ray appeared with another parcel.
“Sausage and batter, anyone? I’ve got a spare one here,” he shouted.
And Fat Ken put his Richmonds in the air.
I ate my food slowly to make it last forever.
“Eat it up or Billy Evans will be after it.” But Christie couldn’t eat all hers and Fat Ken took it before I could ask.
A little while later, Dad leaned back in his chair and stroked his belly.
“Full as an egg,” he said looking around the hall. Mrs Bussell busied herself with black bags, stuffing them with greasy newspaper wrappings and cold chips. And as supper was ending, Billy Evans got to his flat feet and went on the prowl.
“You got your car with you, David?”
“Not tonight, Bill.”
“You got your car with you, Hilary?”
“Not tonight, Bill.”
“You got your car with you, Ken?” But Ken’s mouth was full of sausage and chips. He shook his fat face and his bloodhound jowls swung like pendulums.
And when the tables were strewn with newspaper and cold mugs, it was time to go home.
“Put your big coats on,” said Mam but they were already on. At the door, Jeff was standing with a box.
“Anyone want a banana? We’ve got loads here.”
“No. We’re ok thanks. Ken might want one.”
“A nice cup of tea when we get home,” said Dad as we got outside. And we wrapped ourselves up tight against the night.
“Wind’s picked up a bit,” said Mum.
Across the road, Tony turned out the lamps in his chip shop and placed the closed sign in the window.
We wound our way back home, through the chill and the gathering gloom. And the wind came swooping in, rumbling the chimneys of the terraced houses and stripping the trees of their black leaves.
We crossed the final road to reach home.
“Watch the car!”
Mrs Bussell, nose to the misted windscreen, slowly passed by in her Mini Metro. Sitting alongside her, Billy Evans, clutching his seatbelt and belly. The car spluttered and chugged down the road to his nursing home where the girls would have a mug of cocoa waiting for him.
Dad put his key in the golden lock of our front door and the leaves swirled and tumbled around our feet like fairies.
“Tea and toast?” he smiled, and turned the key.
“Go and put your slippers on.”
We got into our snugglies while Dad drew the heavy velvet curtains in our living room and shut the world out for the night.
A short while later, he brought in piping hot tea and toast, lumped with warm butter and marmalade, all on a tray. As we ate, Christie coloured in a colouring book and I took a lingering look at the Lego in the Christmas catalogue.
After Moira Stewart had told us about all the bad and sad people in the world, we climbed the stairs to bed.
“I enjoyed my chips.”
“N’night. Sleep tight.”
I lay there and wondered what Michael Knight had been up to while I’d been eating my hot sausage. The wind rattled our house windows goodnight and raced off into the darkness.
Ere the winter storms began.
Back at the hall, the trestle tables were stowed and the chairs stacked. In the dark corner of the stage near the toilet, Mr Howcroft snuggled down under his three pink blankets on the floor. He pulled his Trilby down over his face, and hiccuped a toast to the Lord for his liquid meal. Then he rolled over on his side and began counting New Zealand sheep in his head.
All was safely gathered in.
By Patric Morgan