I WAS out of town last week for complicated reasons. And for even more complicated reasons I had to stay over an extra night.
I had not anticipated the extra night when I packed my bag, which I came to regret. I won’t go into detail, but you know what the weather has been like. Frankly, it was a bit like Tenko for men.
Anyway, after a continental breakfast – European, it turned out – it was time for me to depart. I had some time to kill before my train, so I went for a wander through the centre of the town which I will not be naming. This is partly in order to introduce an element of mystique into my narrative, and partly so I am not sued for libel. I shall call it Boomtown.
The sun was bouncing off the various coffee shops and Tesco Expresses as I wandered through Boomtown. It was humid, like a steam room. Some confused people were dressed as if they were in a steam room, and the air shimmered in the heat, rendering many of the tattoos of these people hard to decipher.
Exhausted by the effort, I stopped at one of the coffee shops and ordered a tea, hoping to sit in an air-conditioned environment. I was handed the ingredients to make my own tea, as is the custom in these places. I still have no idea why this happens.
If you went into a cafe, ordered beans on toast, and were presented with a tin of Heinz, a can opener, a camping stove, a loaf of Warburton’s, and a toaster, you would be bewildered. But, as a tea-drinker, I am expected to assemble my own beverage. I am basically paying for the right to be the barista’s sub-contractor.
I also ordered a cinnamon apple fritter doughnut. I expected – correctly – it would be horrible, but I could not resist the pile-up of words, and I took the DIY tea and Frankencake for a tour around the shop until it became clear there were no free tables.
So I stumbled outside and cleared a table, and sat in the full glare of the sun with my very hot drink and disappointing pastry. This had all worked out very poorly.
Then I looked up. There was a church nearby and I had what I suppose you could call an epiphany. I realised it was what I had needed for so long. I was saved.
“Yes!” I thought. “Churches are always freezing!” I swallowed my tea and raced to the church. I stepped inside, the smell of incense mixed with polish dragging me back to my altar boy days, and I began to walk up the aisle, my footsteps echoing off the cold stone pillars and the ceiling as high as heaven. For the first time in days, I was cool.
That’s when he stepped in front of me, a man in his late sixties.
“Welcome to Boomtown Parish Church,” he said. “Lovely day, isn’t it? Is there anything you’d like to know?”
“I’ll say,” I thought, “I wonder if he knows why I had to make my own tea.” I had no other questions. I’d been in a church before, I knew which end was which.
“Anything at all?” he pressed me.
“Erm, when was the church built?” I asked. That seemed safe.
“A-ha! When do YOU think it was built?” he asked.
I didn’t have a clue. I haven’t got an MA in ecclesiastical architecture. All I could do was proffer a meaningless guess. “Erm, 1782?”
“Wrong!” he yelled. “Try again.”
“Wrong! Try again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, suddenly aware of the time. “I don’t have the faintest idea.”
“It was 1890,” he said, triumphant. “Really?” said a woman who had joined us.
“Yes!” He leant in towards me. “I must say, you both speak English very well.”
“I am English!” I said. “Ah,” he said, pointing at the woman’s face. “But your wife is foreign.”
“I’m English too!” said the woman.
“She’s not my wife,” I said.
He gave me a disapproving look. “Partner, then,” he said. “Look at the window. How old do you think that is?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Have a guess . . .” he said. The woman who was not my wife sidled away. I didn’t blame her. There was no way I was going to be allowed to leave that church without knowing how old everything was. I was going to miss my train.
I waited till somebody else entered the church, then said I wanted to see the altar.
As he pounced on the fresh meat, I stepped away, and walked to the altar, watching until he was turned, the sweat dripping down my neck.
I am not saying that I was bent double using the pews as cover as I crept out of the church behind his back. That would make me look ridiculous.