The Last Service by Steve Haywood
I don’t tend to self-publish stories, preferring to get stories published in literary/genre magazines and websites. However I posted one at Christmas last year, and thought I’d post another one today as it is Easter. This is the story of a church that is closing down, causing one elderly churchgoer to reflect on his life as he goes to the last service… It’s obviously Christian in theme and setting, but it isn’t a religious or preachy story so hopefully can be enjoyed by all.
The Last Service by Steve Haywood
Carefully George buttoned up his favourite blue shirt, willing his shaking hands to still themselves long enough to allow him to finish the task. When you are young you never think about how easily you complete such simple tasks, he thought ruefully, never appreciate the gift of youth and vigour. The simple action of still, unquaking fingers. It was many years since he’d had that, but he could still remember it well. In his mind, he’d always thought himself ten or twenty years younger than he was, but today the weight of the years pressed down on him, and he felt all eighty seven of them.
With some effort, he put on his trusty navy jacket, checked his pockets: wallet, clean handkerchief, money for the collection. All in order. He left the house, locking the front door behind him and set off. His feet knew the way, better than his mind did these days, the product of countless years of unchanging routine. Not any more though, today would be the last day, after which his feet would tread this path no more.
As he walked along the pavement he took his time, as he always did, to admire the flowers in the neat front gardens of his neighbours along the street. He waved to Arnold across the road, washing his car just like he did every Sunday morning. He might be going to church in worship and reverence of God, but if he did so with half the dedication that Arnold lavished on his Jaguar, his place in heaven would be assured. There was something almost spiritual about Arnold’s love for that car.
As he rounded the corner, he saw a pair of young boys, not more than six or seven, playing football in their front yard. The sight of children playing happily and without a care in the world always cheered him, but this morning it suddenly reminded him of his days in the church youth club, so very many years ago. They used to play football and other games in the church hall, and play out in the fields and the local park in the summer. Be it football or climbing trees and making dens in the thicket of trees that boarded the King Edward playing fields, there was always something.
He reached the road and checking there was enough of a gap for him to shuffle across. He crossed over and continued on, soon reaching the entrance to the Woodsham Methodist Church. He stopped for a moment, gazing up at the worn stones of the squat church building. It wasn’t a beautiful building by objective standards, no match for the grand vaulted Norman cathedrals, or even the pretty Georgian chapels that were still plentiful in the smaller villages around the country. This place meant far more to him though than any of those grander buildings. If beauty really was in the eye of the beholder, then this place was more beautiful than the Parthenon, the Sydney Opera House and even the Hanging Gardens of Babylon all rolled into one.
“Good morning George,” a petite elderly lady with snow white curly hair said to him.
“Morning Freda,” George said, putting his hand out for the traditional handshake, but Freda had other ideas, embracing him in a warm hug.
“It’s a sad day isn’t it?” she said.
“You’re not wrong there,” George said. “I’ve got a lot of memories of this place. Most of the good memories I’ve got have something to do with this church. One or two of the not so good ones too mind.”
“Yes, I’m sure Mary would have felt the same, God rest her soul.”
He steeled his resolve, holding back a tear at that. “For the first time in six years, I’m grateful that she has gone. She’d have been utterly devastated, I’m glad she doesn’t have to go through that.”
“It’s only a building George,” Freda said.
He grunted, though not in agreement. “I don’t know about that. There’s more to this place than that.”
Freda looked like she wanted to carry on the conversation, but she was on door duty and there were more people to welcome, so just said, “We’ll talk later.”
He walked inside, for the last time. The last time. The thought got stuck, a solid lump of memory caught in his throat. Only a building? It was always more than that. It was here that he’d first met his wife. Mary was a year younger than him, aged thirteen when she’d first walked through the doors of the church hall. The Friday Nighters they called themselves, the older members of the church Youth Club, owing to their Friday evening meetings. He remembered the Christmas party, where he’d first danced with her and their first kiss, behind the stage while rehearsing the Easter play. He still remembered her shining dark hair, her easy smile, and that effortless, warm laugh.
“You not stopping George?” Bob, one of the stewards said with a smile. He almost blushed, as he realised he was standing by the pew, staring into the distance.
“Sorry, lost in thought.”
“I know what you mean. So many memories eh?”
If the steward had many memories, they were nothing compared to his. He had thirty years on Bob in age, fifty more if you counted the years he’d been at the church. He was too polite to say so of course.
He stared ahead, trying to clear his mind of the tumbling thoughts, but it was having none of it. By force of will, he held back the torrent of emotion that was threatening to break free and wash all over him. He’d read somewhere that his era was known as the silent generation, and he was determined to exhibit that stoicism and stiff upper lip today. To distract himself he looked around at the congregation. There must be a hundred people, easily three times the regular Sunday congregation and more like the numbers he remembered. Apart from the regulars, there were many faces he recognised. Some were former members of the church who had moved away a long time ago but had come back to say goodbye to the old place. A couple were old friends who he’d be glad to talk to after the service and catch up on old times, many others he’d exchange greetings with but that was all. Then there was those he called the ‘monthlies’, semi-regular members who only came once every few weeks. He wasn’t so keen on that, but still, without them the church would probably have been forced to close long ago.
The hubbub of voices suddenly died down, and he saw that their minister, Reverend James, was ready to start the service.
“Welcome everyone, it’s good to see so many of you here this morning. Today is a sad day for all of us, as we say goodbye to this church building, which has been such a big part of so many lives. I have only been your minister here for three years, but I already have so many good memories of this place. Did you know that people have been coming to worship God here for almost two hundred years? While none of us have been here quite that long, I’m sure some of our members with a long history, feel it’s almost the same!” He chuckled softly before continuing. “We will be hearing from some of them later, but before that let us sing our first hymn. It is number four hundred and seventy six”
“One more step along the world I go, One more step along the world I go; From the old things to the new Keep me traveling along with you…”
After the service, as well as the obligatory tea, coffee and biscuits there was a “bring and share” lunch. The tables groaned with an odd assortment of food including sandwiches, a plate of cheeses but no biscuits and a whole table of homemade cakes. He wasn’t hungry though, instead finding himself drawn to the table with photographs from down the years, one or two he’d even donated himself. There were photos of a series of Christmas nativities, though not the one in 1943 when he’d played Joseph, thank the Lord. They didn’t do a nativity any more, not enough children and those there were didn’t want to do anything as old fashioned as that. Sign of the times.
“Lots of photographs here aren’t there?” It was a young man new to the church, piece of quiche in hand, crumbs falling to the floor like a snow shower.
“That there is,” George said. “Lot of memories in this place.” He pointed to an old black and white photograph in the middle. “See that? That was the youth club burning an effigy of Hitler on bonfire night. Seemed more appropriate somehow than burning Guy Fawkes who hadn’t done nothing to any of us. See there, that’s me in the middle.”
“Really, that’s so cool.” After that, he looked a bit abashed. “I mean, obviously that must have been a really difficult time, I didn’t mean to say…”
George cut him off. “Don’t worry about it, some good fun it was at the time, us doing our bit you could say. I wrote to my father on the front line, told him about that. Him and the folks there approved. Long time ago now. Really, really long time ago.”
“You must have seen a lot of change over the years?”
George laughed, a rough, throaty laugh. “You’re not wrong lad. I remember before the war, when I was still in short trousers. That was a different world. The war changed all that. A lot of change, over and over. This place was a constant, throughout all of that. Youth club, family picnics, Sunday afternoon walks.”
“It means a lot to you here, doesn’t it?”
He nodded, eyes misting up. “It has, it’s been a really big part of my life. Then after my wife died, the church really supported me. People who I’d known for a long time, but not really known if you know what I mean? They became friends. It’s funny, you wouldn’t think you’d make good friends at my age would you? Of course some of them have gone to be with Him upstairs now too.”
The young man was obviously a bit stumped for words for a few moments. George was about to drift off on the pretext of getting one of those sandwiches he didn’t really want, when the man suddenly looked up with a grin. “I don’t know anyone here and you seem really nice. I’m Jim by the way. Maybe we could be new friends too?”
He accepted the proffered hand, gratefully, allowing him to hide emotion behind the handshake’s formality. “I’m not a good long term prospect, but okay if you want.” Secretly, he couldn’t help but be touched.
“Alrighty then. Are you going to the new church launch event tomorrow?”
“Err, no, well I’m not sure yet. Two day in a row, you know, I don’t have the energy I used to.”
“Sure, that’s understandable. Anyway, if you change your mind I might see you there.”
“You going then?”
“Yes I think so. I’m still new, I don’t have the roots in the church you do. If I don’t go from the start, I might keep putting it off and then I’ll just drift away, you know what I mean?”
George nodded. “I do, yes, I do know what you mean.”
* * *
It was evening, and George sat in his usual armchair in front of the fire, glass of Glenmorangie whiskey resting on his knee. He’d tried watching TV but as usual there was nothing on. All the good stuff was on something called “on-line”, or so he’d heard. His nephew, on one of his rare visits, had offered to get him set up on this “on-line” but he’d scoffed at it. I can’t be doing with these new fangled things, next you’ll be trying to get me on that Facebook. What happens when it breaks down, I won’t know what to do with it. The truth was he’d lived too long, this wasn’t his world anymore. It belonged to the younger generations now. He’d been thinking this for a while, but the church had been his anchor. Now with that gone, he was ready to go too.
Carefully, he got up and slowly made his way to the kitchen. He washed up his supper plate and whiskey glass, hung the tea towel on its hook and made sure everything else was tidy. He gave a last look around, eyes lingering on the photo frame on the mantelpiece. I’ll be with you soon now Mary. He turned away finally and took to the stairs, knees creaking audibly as he went. He did his evening’s ablutions, ever a creature of habit. What difference does it make if I clean my teeth? It’s not like I’ll be taking the plaque with me… He got dressed into his pyjamas, got into bed and pulled the covers up against the chill night air. As an afterthought, he turned his bedside alarm off, he didn’t want to disturb the neighbours in the morning.
He closed his eyes and said a final prayer. Thank you Lord, for this life you have given me. You have given me many years and many good things and I am grateful. From the old things to the new… I’m now ready to come to you.
* * *
George looked around. Where was he? Ahead of him was a pair of large white gates, almost pearlescent. The pearly gates? Was he here already? He felt mostly relief, with just a tinge of disquiet. Sat on the ground humming to himself was a white haired, bearded old man.
“Are you… Him?”
The man laughed warmly. “Do you want me to be?”
“I, well, I don’t know. Yes, I guess. I’ve had a good innings as the cricketers would say and now, yes I think so.”
“No unfinished business?”
“I can’t think what. All my affairs are in order, I left my house tidy, my will on the bureau in the study. I even washed the dishes. Yes all is in order.”
“What about your church?”
“My church. My church is gone. A fitting time to call it a day, don’t you think?”
The old man sprang up, “Come on, you know better than that!”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“After a lifetime in my church, I don’t need to tell you the Church isn’t a building. It’s the people that make it what it is, and you are a part of that.”
“I’m old, past it. I can’t go on forever.”
“No of course not, nobody can, but perhaps a while longer yet.”
“And do what?”
“Help with what?” This wasn’t going how he’d thought it would.
“You’ll think of something.” With that, he sat back down and carried on his humming. “Mmmm mmm mmm mm…”
George wasn’t very musical, but suddenly realised what the tune was. “Dah da dah da… From the old, I travel to the new. Keep me travelling along with you.” Now he was humming it to himself as he drifted off into oblivion.
* * *
George woke up suddenly. The autumn sun was shining through the cracks in the curtains. What time was it? He looked at the alarm clock – 9.45. Why hadn’t his alarm woken him? Then he remembered the night before, how he’d turned his alarm off. He hadn’t expected to wake up at all, alarm or no alarm. He’d been convinced this was the night he’d finally join Mary in heaven. It seemed so appropriate and he’d read that when someone as old as him was ready to go, they’d just slip away in their sleep. He thought he was ready. But no, there was more to be done, for now.
The trouble with not expecting to be here anymore meant he didn’t have a clue what to do. He felt like someone who’d overstayed their welcome at a party. You’ll think of something, he had said.
Then he remembered. It was the welcome event for the new, improved Woodsham Methodist Church. He hadn’t wanted this, it wasn’t his church. It’s the people that make it what it is. He thought of Freda, Pat, even Bob. Then he remembered Jim, his new-found friend. He could get up one more time, he thought. Humming to himself, he got dressed, ready finally for his feet to find a new path.