The Mother wanted to sit down; she wanted to lie down. She wanted to curl up in a warm bed with a cup of tea and a copy of Viz and stay there until she began to resemble something human. But no, she had to take 30 children, whom she’d never met and whose names were a complete mystery to her, to church. Accompanied by the whole bloody school – more than 600 kids – almost every member of staff and not one but two priests.
Once there, she had to spend 25 minutes keeping her children in a straight line before being allowed to enter the building. She had to do this with a hangover, in sub-zero temperatures, and with a smile on her face. Even inside the church, the temperature would turn out to be only slightly less freezing.
As she stood waiting, stamping her feet, one of the children asked, “Miss, why are your nails black?” With a smile, the Mother responded, “I went out last night for Hallowe’en; I was trick or treating with my daughter.”
The child looked at the Mother in horror. “We think Halloween is the Devil’s birthday.”
“Ah,” said the Mother. Was this the royal “we”? Did that mean herself and her family, or was the “we” the entire school? The Mother wasn’t sure. “Perhaps just don’t mention Hallowe’en,” thought the Mother. It would be like visiting her grandad’s where you couldn’t mention the blacks or the gays, religion, the Welsh, Arabs, vegans or her dad’s second wife.
Any ideas about having a little sleep in the church quickly dissipated once the Mass began. The seats were uncomfortable, and the building seemed to lack any form of heating. But that wasn’t the only thing that stood in the way of the Mother’s rest. There was also a lot of standing up and sitting down. It turned out that All Saints’ Day was a kind of modern-day, religious hokey-cokey.
As well as having to stand up every five minutes, there was also the singing, praying, and religious sign language to keep up with. Christ, was she the only person in the church who did not know what to do? She regretted not knowing the Lord’s Prayer, she regretted not paying attention in RE, but most of all, she regretted consuming so much Zombie Juice the night before.
The Mass began with Here I Am, Lord and the Mother happily joined in – it was actually one of the few hymns she knew. Almost joyfully, she sang along, thinking, “This is OK, perhaps this is going to be an easy day’s work after all.” But then things rapidly got harder. Some of the hymns were simple to pick up and had a rhythm, a beat or something that helped and kept you singing. With other songs, there was nothing, no clues, no hints. It was like John Redwood and the Welsh national anthem all over again, but this time it wasn’t the public watching, it was worse, two priests and the headmaster!
When the priest said, “This is the word of the Lord,” the Mother replied solemnly, “This is the word of the Lord.” But apparently, that was completely wrong, all the children responded with “Thanks be to God!” At the end of the next prayer, the Mother tried, “Thanks be to God,” but everyone else said “Hallelujah”. How the hell was she meant to know that was coming?
Some of the songs and hymns required you to repeat the last line; other times, you were required to say an entirely different line. Then there were the ones in which you were required to say nothing at all!
She did her best to join in with the songs while also trying to anticipate what might come next. The singing was difficult enough for the Mother, but then the priest upped the ante by adding actions.
Thankfully the Mother knew how to do the “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” one. (Thank God for The Exorcist, good old Jason Miller, he’d taught her well). But there were many more actions, actions she’d never seen. Some went up and down in front of your torso, some near the face, and sometimes songs required a kind of Mexican wave. She didn’t always know when to do them, or how to do them. Was it left to right or right to left? It was a dyslexic’s nightmare. “Christ,” thought the Mother, “this is the reason I gave up yoga. Well, it was one of the reasons.”
The whole thing was like some kind of test to find out whether she was a true believer; she felt like she was going to be caught out at any moment. Everyone else knew what to do and was joining in. Her grandad was a Catholic, of sorts; hadn’t any of it been passed down to her? Surely she must have inherited some knowledge of the religion. But as much as she tried, she could recall nothing relevant from him other than a few Hail Marys and a lot of blasphemy.
Despite the cold, at least three children that the Mother could see were asleep, but still, the service carried on. A Year 4 girl read out The Apocalypse Chapter 7. Next, there was some more singing, and then another reading and then a few minutes of silence and darkness, and something changed, something had happened to the Mother.
She could only think that she must have fallen asleep or died for a few seconds. The next thing she knew, someone was tapping her on the shoulder. She jumped upright with a start but was careful not to turn around and cause a scene. She could hear the soft breathing of someone just behind her, she sensed a man had moved close to her.
“Come on, why don’t we nip out for a quick fag and a hot chocolate?” he said. Well, something like that anyway. It might have been more like. “The service has nearly finished, just two more songs now, miss,” but hey, the words sounded just as sweet.
As they sang the final song, Shalom, everyone had to hold hands. This bit was all quite nice, although the lady who held her hand had freezing cold fingers and held on for just a bit too long. Also, the woman was a bit too smiley. God, even the priest wasn’t that happy, and he bloody loved Jesus.
Finally, the schoolchildren took communion, and then everyone slowly began to leave the building. It was only then, on turning around, that she realised the church was full to the brim. Old and young, black and white, the poor and the… well, less poor. The church was a melting pot of souls, it was quite touching really. Old men in shabby coats and tattered shoes shook the hands of smartly dressed young children. Teachers chatted with the local parishioners. And the Congolese priest said goodbye to people in Polish, Portuguese and even Gaelic.
It had turned out to be quite a pleasant morning after all, not at all what she had expected. Although the Lord did not quite have the power to cure hangovers, he did have the power to bring people together. Even to an outsider, it felt quite nice. She decided there and then that she would give the school a chance, and stick it out for a few days before she cast judgement. Who knew, she might just fit right in there. And if she didn’t, at least it would get the council off her back for a while.