To say that Oscar was warmly welcomed as he stepped through the massive oak door into a chilly House of God for the first time in his life on Easter day would be an understatement. Delighted crones came bounding up, mewing and moaning at the rare and unexpected appearance in their midst of an innocent child. One of them thrust her face in his and excitedly interviewed him. ‘What’s your name then, my dear?’ she said, thrilled to meet someone under 70. Oscar diffidently but courageously answered that he was called Oscar. ‘What? What?’ she said, deaf as a post. ‘Do you know what the little chap’s name is?’ she asked my mother, who was standing nearby.
Oscar and my mother live in the same house. They had walked hand in hand up the lane to the church together in the Easter Sunday sunshine. But in spite of this, and try as she might, my mother could not remember her great-grandson’s name right at that moment. She looked intently at Oscar for about five seconds, then she said, ‘I’m sorry. It’s completely gone.’
Extricating ourselves from the welcoming committee, we chose a pew near the front. Eventually the organ ceased piping, and the vicar, magnificent in snow-white cassock and pale blue stole, mounted the pulpit stairs and welcomed us. ‘He is risen!’ she exclaimed. ‘He is risen indeed!’ we answered raggedly. Then she said how honoured and thrilled she and the congregation were to have children attending today. (Nods, indulgent smiles, little moans of pleasure.)
The children might be happy to know, she said, that chocolate eggs had been secreted around the church for an after-service Easter egg hunt. Considering that it was by no means guaranteed that children would be attending that morning, and the chocolate eggs had been purchased and hidden about the ugly old church by arthritic fingers in faith and love, I was moved to hear this. Quickly scanning the church furniture, Oscar and I spotted a clutch of foil-covered eggs secreted around the base of a huge church candle. Then we turned around in our pew, blatantly, to see whether he was the only child present, and therefore had the field to himself. But a lately arrived young couple three rows back — holidaymakers, we guessed — had brought with them not one but three small, rather farouche looking boys, aged, at a guess, about eight, six and three. Competition.
‘Children,’ continued the vicar in a self-consciously progressive vein, ‘you must please feel free to wander about the church, to make a noise, or go to the back of the church where you would find a toy box and colouring pencils.’ Well, those three boys took the vicar at her word. Full of themselves, they sauntered about the church during the service as if they were in the parade ring at Ascot. They called out and made animal noises, the little devils, during prayers. The fearful noise of the ransacking of the toy box, and the angry, tearful disputes about who saw what first, drowned out the voice of an elder reading the lesson.
The service ended with Holy Communion. ‘Now they are going to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His Blood,’ I said to Oscar. He looked interestedly towards the altar where members of the congregation were hobbling, staggering and limping forward, then kneeling down in difficult stages at the rail to receive the wine and the wafer. Some presented white tongues in readiness for the wafer, others held out supplicant palms. So far, Oscar had been fascinated by the spectacle and by the bobbing up and down especially, I think; but this outbreak of cannibalism took things to a whole new level. We watched the three young brothers go forward with Mummy and Daddy to partake of Jesus’ flesh and blood. Now they were treating the altar rail as a climbing frame, with never as much as an admonitory glance from either parent.
After the communion the vicar gave us a final blessing and made her way out, and the egg hunt was on. The brothers three systematically stripped out the eggs like a team of professionals in about two minutes flat and immediately began squabbling over the spoils. I watched middle lad’s tears mingle with the chocolate smeared around his mouth, while his jaw dislocated like a python’s to encompass the milk chocolate he had crammed into it. As we made our way out, not one but three of the elderly parishioners, perhaps a bit sad and shaken by such behaviour, intercepted Oscar and slipped him a handful of eggs. ‘When I was a child, I had to sit still and be quiet or else,’ said the last of these. Which was a kind of gratitude, I supposed, for Oscar not running riot as the others had, and a hope that he’d come again.
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