Hellfire: Part Two
Cloudy; windy. Island at its most charmless, granny knocked out by stomach upset two weekends in a row isn't inclined to go out in it anyway. At least - when not prone - it means she writes... She can do more of the hostel stuff, if anyone's interested; trouble is, since she went to her other island, and didn't check in much, her audience - never large -seems to have evaporated. Silly her.
Age seems the message of the day... A 60 year old on Big Brother. Fancy that! Granny hardly watches Big Brother. Beloved ISN'T KEEN. But she sneaks a look now and then and thinks the East End ex-Greenham Common lady, also over 50, is splendid. A great relief alongside the screaming little girls. If they did at last put in twins why did they have to go for two not only stereotypical in twin terms - look-alikes, finishing each other's sentences etc - but in girl terms? Barbie dolls singly are bad enough; but double....She foresees those two having trouble in later life. What is charming at 9, less so at 19, will be horrendous at 49, 59, 69. Separate them somebody. FAST.
You see she hasn't been well, getting into such stuff. She compensates by reading Philip Roth on illness and old age; Everyman. A book every man should read too. At least every wo/man beyond a certain age. Not exactly comforting on such themes he relieves them none the less by the sheer quality and vitality - and LIFE -of his writing. "Old age isn't a battle. It's massacre...' Indeed.
Back to another kind of real life...
Paul, Alan and I did not have to find our own way, that evening. We were picked up at the door of the hostel by a nice friendly middle class man in a car and taken not to a church at all but to a nice friendly house a mile or two away, filled with more nice, friendly, middle class people, all of them young. 'A house church', they called it; something evangelical groups like theirs, I discovered, went in for. Not that you'd have known it was a church. It looked like any post-student pad. Chinese paper lampshades; spider plants; posters for films or exhibitions and those divider bookcases filled with a mixture of CD's, books - none of them looking like religious tracts - and ornaments; a flamenco-dressed Spanish doll, a pottery boxer dog. There were two guitars leaning against one of the bookcases, a trumpet lurked in a corner. On a table in the bay window at one end of the room food was laid out; salad and lasagne emerged from under foil hats, along with a sliced up baguette of garlic bread. The lasagne was followed by tea or coffee - no alcohol of course - and by chocolate profiteroles. 'I'd sell my soul for those,' one of the girls in jeans told me; I think that's what she said. 'Are you a Christian?' she asked. 'I was brought up an Anglican,' I answered - and I was too, heavily; church every week, Bible study at school most days. By the look on her face, this didn't count; wasn't what she meant by Christian.
'I came with Alan,' I said. The soul-seller looked across at where Alan stood by himself, his arms at this side. 'He's an interesting character, isn't he?' she said. A comment of such spectacularly erroneous banality I couldn't have found an answer, even if she'd expected one.
After the leisurely meal we all sat down on sofas, armchairs or beanbags. Then the Bibles came out.
I was beginning to identify more of the friendly young people now. There was a pale man in a suit who looked out of place amid the others' jeans and who didn't seem to know anyone. There was a tall, plain girl with wide thighs and wider glasses who I'd noticed talking animatedly to one person after another, and who had now taken up a beanbag opposite my chair. There was a man somewhat older than the others, wearing a tartan-checked shirt and sitting alongside a spectacularly pretty, long-haired girl in a long skirt. There was another pretty long-haired girl on the floor by me, holding a little plastic figure of Buzz Lightyear which she passed distractedly from hand to hand, at times taking his head off and putting it back on again; on my other side was the girl prepared to sell her soul for chocolate profiteroles. There were two nice-looking young men, one of whom had told me while we were eating that he had given up his job to work for the church. There were Alan and Paul sitting next to each other, looking from one face to another.
The older looking man - I say older but I was by at least twenty years the oldest person there, so this is relative - took over. He was the acting pastor, he said; he asked the rest of us to introduce ourselves. The spectacularly pretty woman next to him identified herself as his wife. The young woman with the wide thighs and wider glasses on the bean-bag opposite related the progress of a hostel she was setting up for the homeless on behalf of their church – ‘Our ministry’, she declaimed, ‘is to wrecked lives.’ 'Interesting' Alan, whom she'd count as one of the wrecked, most likely, said ‘I want to live in your hostel, when it’s open. I’m hoping I can.' 'We haven’t got planning permission yet,’ the spectacled girl told him. The girl holding Buzz Lightyear said she didn't know what she was doing here. The smiling man in the suit said someone at work had suggested he should come. I said that I'd been invited by Paul and Alan. Paul said he had been mentally ill and used to hear voices, and had come because he wanted to be filled with the Holy Ghost. Alan said he didn't hear voices, but he was hoping the Holy Spirit would come to him again; that the people here were so nice to him, maybe the Holy Spirit would.
The pastor took over again. 'I need to talk about my brother-in-law,' he said, 'I need everyone to start praying for him. No matter what we say or do -' he indicated his pretty wife, who nodded, her eyes as fixed on him as a president's wife's on a president- 'we cannot persuade him that he is going to burn in hell, unless he accepts the Lord Jesus.' His wife I swear had tears in her eyes, now. 'Please everyone, pray for him, he's my brother, I don't want him to go to hell.' she begged. The others murmured fervent 'yes, Lords..' and 'Amens...' The second long-haired girl continued throwing Buzz Lightyear back and forth. Alan and Paul too were staring fixedly at the pastor; at a guess they were only two in the room who had any idea what real hell was like. Perhaps I'm being unkind. Or perhaps not. One thing I'm sure, is that the hell in question here was not a matter of alarm for anyone else much in this room - except, possibly, for the Buzz Lightyear girl, who did not strike me as sure of anything, except, possibly, for the newcomer in the suit, the certainty of salvation filled every face. The pastor meanwhile was countering the gloom with a more cheerful story of someone much less obdurate whom he’d persuaded to turn to Jesus. ‘At least he’s on the road to heaven now, not hell,’ he smiled.
'Has everyone got their Bible?' Alan, Paul, the man in the suit and I shook our heads. Bibles were found for us. Chapters and verses were given out. 'Our theme this evening is evangelism; about our duty to spread the good news the Bible gives us, ignoring mockery, ignoring pain. ' the preacher said, allocating texts. 'If we can save one soul from hell, what does mockery matter? It is only Satan's way of deterring you from proclaiming the truth.'
For the study of our alloted text I was partnered with Alan and the man in the suit. Neither of them having anything to say about it, guess who was left to expound our - my - conclusions to the main group. Luckily we'd been given a text I could relate to, just about; bloody St Paul basing himself on that much more sympathetic prophet - and still better poet - Isaiah. 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace'.... I was meant, I supposed, to say something about the beneficial effects on your feet of preaching the word. Lying being neither among my talents, nor among my major vices, I babbled about peacemakers having their feet on the ground which made them beautiful; of course.
There was silence when I finished. The Pastor looked at me strangely. 'That's a very interesting way of looking at it,' he said. My final credentials as a saved soul evaporating, the pastor announced that it was time for prayer - 'if anyone feels like speaking in tongues?'... he begged - but noone did seem to feel like speaking in tongues; maybe, this evening, the presence of Satan - me - kept the tongues locked fast inside spiritual mouths. There was the odd outburst of ‘Jesus.. Lord’, some grateful thanks to 'our Saviour..Christ,' but that was all, and in the end the song sheets came out, oh how they did come out. The pastor and one of the nice-looking young men picked up guitars. We were directed first to this page of the xeroxed sheets then that. The words uniformly abysmal -Well, Lord, you know scared I am/ but with you by my side I can/face the world and tell them what I know..' - the tunes were good enough to dance to, the guitarists both talented, the singing loud, lusty and musical. The man in the suit mouthed rather than sang but at least he stopped smiling. Afflicted by serious wind, the result, probably, of two helpings of vegetarian lasagna, I had to clench my buttocks hard to avoid embarrassing explosions, while I too mouthed, with as little fervour as I dared. Buzz Lightyear's owner found herself at last, put Buzz Lightyear's head back on for good and sang resoundingly in a lovely voice. All hands were held high, all eyes except mine closed. Between verses ‘Thankyou, Jesus’ echoed round the room. It sent the would-be hostel manager into ecstasies, the nearest thing this evening to tongues, I suspect. 'My Lord, my Lord' she repeated ‘My Lord, my Lord’ – crying ‘Jesus my Lover’ she started writhing and groaning on her beanbag ‘Jesus my lover. Jesus my lover.’ I'd read my Dame Julian of Norwich - 'the fire and the rose are one' - I knew how close religious ecstasy can come to the erotic. Compared to Dame J, though, this was the Big Brother version.
We were driven home not long afterwards by the same nice friendly man. 'Did you find Jesus?' asked Alan and Paul. I made a very non-committal answer. If I wouldn't say exactly that I'd found Satan rather - in such circumstance I quite like the thought of Satan, though not the one promulgated by Alan's Satanist friends - I certainly hadn't found any Jesus that I recognised. But then, unlike Alan and Paul I wasn't the prey this nice, friendly - and genuinely, terrifyingly, sincere lot - was after.
I looked up the organisation's website today. I discovered they'd got their hostel, that they'd continued their good work on the streets, providing the 'wrecked' with blankets, food and 'mentoring'; good stuff; for sure. But they don't mention the discussions on hellfire. They're canny about the suspicions this sets up, I think. Outside the evangelical fold, 'mentoring' sounds so much more acceptable.
Did Paul think the atmosphere in the car needed lightening? He told another of his jokes on the way home.
‘How long could you keep a turkey in a freezer, Per-NEL- ope? A few hours?’ ‘ Indefinitely?’ I suggested cautiously, suspecting some catch. ‘A live turkey?’ he asked, with his little sly grin. 'A LIVE turkey?'