‘Mine’s the cod with a pea fritter … yours is the haddock,’ Neil pushed the newspaper wrapped fish across the stage.
‘How do you know which is which?’ said Steve.
‘They taste fucking different.’
‘But they don’t look different,’ complained Steve.
‘Mine was wrapped in The Daily Sketch and yours was wrapped in The Daily Mirror. I know because I got the sports page.’
Steve took a bite, ‘Shit … how much vinegar did you put on?’
‘I like vinegar.’
Greg was unwrapping his plaice and chips, ‘I’m not sure we should be doing this. Last week they were complaining that someone had been eating fish and chips in the church hall. After all, they hold the Sunday School on the stage.’
‘It’ll give the little buggers an appetite for Sunday lunch,’ thought Neil.
‘Hey,’ said Alfie, ‘Don’t put that greasy chip paper on the tom-tom. It’ll fuck up the head!’
‘Sorry,’ Neil picked up the chip paper, rolled it into a ball and chucked it at the waste bin, ‘Fuck. Missed.’
They rehearsed in the church hall three Saturdays out of four, the fourth being given over to the jumble sale. It meant they could play at flat out volume, and the payback was playing free for half an hour at the youth club in the evening, though since they’d managed to get paid Saturday engagements at other youth clubs, they had missed the last couple. It was routine to start at twelve, get fish and chips at one, and rehearse through till about four.’
‘We should have got a bottle of Guinness,’ said Neil, ‘Goes down a treat with fish and chips.’
‘Um, it’s a Methodist youth club,’ said Paul, ‘I don’t think they’d like that.’
They heard the rattle of the bar on the door as it opened … they all looked up.
‘Who’s that?’ said Greg, ‘There shouldn’t be …’
The minister was already through the door, a fixed grin on his face. He stopped and sniffed the air, frowned, then looked at the five lads sitting on the edge of the stage.
‘Ah, there you are, boys. I was hoping to find you here.’
‘Good afternoon, Reverend Pugh,’ said Greg, ‘Er, We’re sorry about the chips, but …’
‘Afternoon, vicar,’ said Neil cheerfully.
Reverend Pugh stared at him, ‘I am not a vicar, in fact. I’m a minister. Vicar is a Church of England position, though the Pope calls himself the Vicar of Christ, a position which … I don’t think I know you.’
Neil extended his hand, thought for a moment, wiped it on his trousers, and extended his less greasy paw again … ‘Neil. I’m the singer.’
‘I don’t think I’ve seen you.’
‘I come to the youth club with the group,’ Neil explained.
‘I mean I don’t think I’ve seen you in the church …’ he frowned, ‘The youth club rules are quite clear. Attendance at church once a month is mandatory.’
‘Wish they’d told me,’ said Neil, ‘But don’t worry, sir. I’ll be along tomorrow night.’
Steve stifled a chuckle. Like him, Neil knew how valuable the practice space was. Definitely worth an hour of boredom once every four weeks. It was rare to see Neil surprised by anything.
Pugh glowered, ‘Very well. I shall look forward to seeing you.’
‘Definitely. I’ll come along with Steve then,’ added Neil, patting Steve on the shoulder.
Steve sighed. What a bastard! He’d done his mandatory visit the week before.
The minister lifted up his battered leather briefcase, ‘I said I wanted to see you, boys,’ he beamed at them, ‘I’ve had a wonderful idea for the Youth Service.’
Alfie started to lift a chip from his packet. Greg shook his head warningly at him.
‘Yes,’ continued the Reverend Pugh, ‘We’re going to have a pop group in the church. What do you think of that!’
‘Very good,’ said Greg sincerely, ‘I’ll look forward to seeing them. Which group are you going to get?’
The minister beamed wider and spread his arms apart, ‘Who do you think, boys? You, of course!’
Steve choked. Neil patted his back, ‘Fishbone?’
‘No … just … nothing …’
‘What are we going to do?’ said Greg, wide-eyed. Steve had wondered that too.
The minister patted his case, ‘I just borrowed this from my colleague at West Park Methodist … look …’
He pulled out a brightly-coloured book of sheet music, and held it up, ‘The Pop Gospel for Modern Services. Eh, what do you think?’
Neil, being nearest, took it, and flipped it open, ‘Um, it’s piano music.’
‘Well, you can read it, can’t you?’
‘I can, I used to be in a choir …’ Neil hummed the poppy top line of the first song, then went back and sang:
‘Merry merry day,
holding hands to pray,
listen to the words I say,
Jesus is coming our way …’
The rest of the group watched glumly. There’s dire, and there’s truly dire. This was worse.
‘Trouble is,’ Neil said, ‘There aren’t any guitar chords.’
‘Is that a problem?’ said the minister.
‘Not usually, vicar, not for anyone musical, but it will be for this lot.’
‘Oh, dear, I was rather hoping you could learn a couple …’
‘What about something with a belting tune?’ said Neil, and jumped down onto the floor:
‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus!
Ye children of the cross!
Lift high his royal banner,
It shall not suffer loss!
From victory unto victory
His armies he shall lead …’
The minister coughed, ‘Thank you, yes, er …’
‘Neil. That was a most powerful rendition,’ he snickered a little, ‘One to raise the rafters off the church roof, in fact,’ he coughed again, nervously, ‘But you see I want to emphasize Christian fellowship, and er, our love for one another, and rather, er, eschew, the militaristic nature of some of those … no doubt very fine and stirring … nineteenth century hymns …’
‘I can do you For Those in Peril On The Sea,’ said Neil, ‘That’s a great tune …’
‘Or in fact … eschew hymns altogether … I wanted to appeal to a younger element in the congregation, with popular music …’
Steve avoided eye contact. The younger element in the congregation were the youth club members dragooned into monthly attendance.
Neil shook his head knowingly, ‘Then I’d miss out this lot, vicar. It’s crap.’
The Reverend Pugh winced. Steve wondered whether crap or vicar had caused it.
‘I’d go for something with a bit of rhythm,’ said Neil, ‘A touch of gospel, maybe. That’s my advice.’
The rest of the group had been silent, but Paul piped up, ‘I’ve got a new Peter, Paul & Mary LP in my bag …’
Steve looked at him incredulously, ‘Peter, Paul & Mary … you’ve got Peter, Paul & Mary?’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ said Paul, ‘I mean, we do Where Have All The Flowers Gone …’
‘There you are, vicar!’ said Neil triumphantly, ‘I never thought of that. We can do Where Have All The Flowers Gone.’
‘Yes … yes …,’ said Pugh quietly, ‘But I don’t think there is … any religious element one can draw out from …’
‘Graveyards,’ said Steve, ‘It’s got graveyards. That’s religious. And obviously, it’s anti-war, so that’s got to be a good thing.’
‘And we already know it,’ said Alfie, ever practical.
‘I’d rather have something more overtly religious … well, more overtly Christian …’
‘That’s what I was trying to say,’ said Paul, ‘Peter, Paul & Mary.’
‘I really don’t believe you went out and bought a Peter, Paul & Mary LP,’ said Steve, ‘How much did it cost you? Christ, I thought you buying every Shadows and Cliff Richard record was bad enough.’
Reverend Pugh said, ‘Stephen!’ quite sharply.
‘The name of the Lord? In vain?’
‘Oh, yes, sorry. It was just him buying Peter, Paul & Mary … and …’
‘Steve, shut up and listen,’ said Neil, ‘So what’s on this LP?’
Paul smiled nervously, aware that his opinion on musical matters was generally steamrollered, ‘Well, there are two. Go Tell It On The Mountain …’
‘Jesus!’ said Steve, ‘Sorry, Reverend.’
‘And Very Last Day. They’re both gospel sort of things. We could learn them both. Look, I’ll put it on …’
The youth club record player was used for learning new material. They took off the Chuck Berry LP, and put the album on the turntable. They sat and listened through the two songs.
‘Very Last Day,’ said the minister, ‘It’s a little apocalyptic for my taste. The judgment falls on all mankind when the trumpet sounds the call. I’m somewhat of the party that considers The Book of Revelations to lean from the apocalyptic towards the apochryphal. Martin Luther once said ‘Christ is neither taught nor known in it.’ You see, until the Council of Carthage, in 397 AD, or possibly in 419 AD …’
‘Good tune,’ ruminated Neil, ‘It’s so gospelly we could even keep it in our main set. Make a change, and there’s an R&B – gospel connection. Yeah! And the tambourine will fit well. I can see myself playing tambourine.’
‘You always do,’ pointed out Greg.
‘And you’ve got all equal and the same,’ said Steve, ‘and … didn’t they call each other brother?’
‘I suppose it is catchy,’ agreed the minister, ‘I rather thought three songs spread through the service …’
‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone,’ said Neil, ‘We’ll trade you that for the two gospel things. Deal, vicar?’
It was agreed, the minister beckoned Steve,
‘Stephen, a word before I go.’
Steve smiled, ‘Yes?’
‘In private,’ the minister walked towards the door. Steve shrugged and followed. He stopped outside the door.
‘I wanted a word with you about services,’
‘I have been every four weeks … well, apart from Christmas, I was busy then.’
‘You were confirmed eighteen months ago.’
‘And you have not taken Holy Communion since.’
Steve thought. Yes, lots of them. He’d only taken the communion classes because he fancied Judith, a girl a year older than him, and the classes at The Manse on Thursday nights ended in walking home with her. He’d quite enjoyed the classes, arguing the toss with the Reverend Pugh, but as they were kneeling for the first communion with Judith’s shapely stockinged leg close next to his, the only transcendental feeling Steve had had was due to an enormous erection. Then on the way back, he’d plucked up the courage to ask her out, and she fell about laughing, ‘Why would I go out with a kid your age?’ He realized he associated the rejection with the ceremony. Perhaps this was not something to explain to the minister.
‘No, not really.’
‘You should not of course take it automatically, as so many unfortunately do.’
‘That’s just what I thought,’ said Steve, ‘I was waiting for a sign or something, and … well, it never came.’
‘We’ll talk about this,’ said the minister, in a kindly tone, Steve thought, ‘But at a later date. By the way, that red-haired chap’s a jolly good singer.’
‘I know,’ said Steve.
‘Brimming with confidence too. Quite full of himself.’
‘He certainly is that.’
‘Is he at your school?’
‘No, he works. He’s a plumber … well, apprentice plumber.’
‘Bit of a rough diamond, I’m sure. I do hope you can persuade him to stop calling me vicar.’
‘I will try,’ said Steve.
They assembled in the church at five-thirty on the Sunday of the Youth Service. Steve, Greg, Paul and Alfie wore their charcoal-grey school suits, though Steve had vehemently drawn the line against school ties and was wearing a thin tie with broad horizontal stripes and a dark blue shirt. He was rather proud of his chisel-toed Beatle boots. The other three had white shirts and anonymous ties.
‘I rather thought we should dress alike,’ grumbled Greg, ‘I don’t know why you’re trying to stand out. You look like an Italian gangster,’
‘Piss off,’ said Steve, ‘I just don’t want to look a total idiot,’ not with all the girls in the youth club in the congregation, he added mentally.
Neil had a button-down Ben Sherman pale orange shirt, narrow black leather tie, black trousers and no jacket. The effect, given his shock of ginger hair, was striking. ‘The singer should stand out. You should wear jackets, but not me,’ he insisted.
‘Doesn’t that make us look like your backing group?’ complained Paul.
Neil grinned broadly, ‘Exactly.’
Greg was nervous, ‘I do hope you’ll all be careful … there was quite a fuss about the fish and chips. I don’t think Howard’s too keen on us playing anyway.’
Howard was the youth club leader, and the one who’d reluctantly unlocked the church for them that evening. Steve had long held the view that Howard disapproved of them rehearsing in the church hall, playing in the youth club and generally existing.
‘Howard’s a prick’ said Neil.
Greg was horrified, ‘We’re in a church!’ he said, ‘Please don’t say anything blasphemous.’
‘That was obscene, not blasphemous,’ said Steve.
‘Grow up, Steve!’ Greg tutted, ‘I have the feeling that if we screw this up in any way at all, then as far as Saturdays in the church hall go, we’ll have had our very last day.’
They’d spent the day before working on the songs. Steve was rather pleased with the simple but springy bass lines to each of them. Backing vocals had proved an issue with Neil testing everyone’s abilities and rejecting all efforts.
Setting up the amps was more of a problem. The only nearby power sockets were at the end of the choir pews, and they were old brown bakelite two pin points.
Steve was dubious, ‘They look like five amp lighting points to me, you know, for lights so the choir can read their music.’
But Neil took charge of anything electrical, and he produced a screwdriver and took off the plugs from the amplifiers. ‘I’ll shove the bare wires in the holes with matchsticks,’ he said, ‘Paul, give us a couple of matches.’
‘Shouldn’t they be earthed?’ Steve remembered his dad’s little lecture on the subject.
‘How?’ said Neil, ‘You show me, mate. We’ve only got ten minutes. We do this at work all the time.’
‘I thought you were a plumber, not an electrician.’
‘We’ve got electric drills, Steve.’
Where Have All The Flowers Gone started them off well. Greg had borrowed an acoustic guitar with a pick-up, which helped, and Alfie had agreed not to play at all in that one, but sit solemnly at his drum kit. Neil had realized that with gentle strummed guitar and bass he could free himself from the mic, and walk into the aisle to emote. The strange thing was the lack of any applause at the end, it was felt inappropriate in church, so they finished, and the Reverend Pugh said immediately, ‘Let Us Pray.’
‘Go Tell it On The Mountain’ was amplified with gently tapped tambourine, electric guitars and drums, but this time, Neil was clearly disconcerted by the total lack of response at the end. He shook his head and joined Steve in the front pew.
‘Go Tell It On The Mountain …’ intoned the Reverend Pugh, beginning his sermon, ‘A call to go forth and testify to …’
Neil hissed to Steve, ‘We’re going to have to rock it up. Turn up the volume, belt it out for the last one.’
‘We’ve got to give it a bit of impact … get them up and singing and clapping, like a revival show.’
‘I’m not sure …’ Steve was aware that the Reverend Pugh must be able to hear them whispering, even though he was now in full flight.
‘So the Lord said go forth and multiply …’ he stopped, and went red, ‘I mean, go forth and testify …’
‘We’re putting him off his stroke,’ he whispered to Neil.
‘He won’t be going forth and multiplying then,’ Neil whispered back.
Steve felt a sharp tap on his shoulder from a bony finger, ‘Shhh.’
Finally the minister beckoned them, ‘And now we have the last “number“ from our resident pop group … and they’re going to sing about that day which awaits us all, man, woman and child, saint and sinner …’
Neil strode to the middle, ‘Thank you, vicar,’ he said.
Pugh looked to the heavens.
Neil looked round, ‘Could you turn it up a bit, lads?’
The song started, Neil beating the tambourine as hard as he could and they began to work up a head of steam. Steve could see the kids in the audience nodding their heads.
Neil dropped the tambourine, ‘Clap your hands!’ he shouted, and most of the kids did.
Steve put his bass volume up to full. Alfie was hammering it out too. Greg was even getting excited and had stuck to the acoustic guitar and was playing hard enough to break the strings.
Neil grabbed the microphone off the stand,
‘Everybody gonna pray!’ he bellowed and brought the mic to his lips, there was a crackle and flash, and Steve realized his bass amp had gone off, there was a weird electrical smell, Neil was standing there, hair standing straight up on end, the mic had dropped to the floor …
‘JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!!!’ he screamed.
Total silence. A little waft of blue smoke curled from the power socket.
‘Sorry … vicar.’