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BLACKCURRANT FOR THE SACRAMENT

 

Being the son of the chapel caretaker had its moments, but they were few. More often than not all that Jimmy could find in it were the disadvantages. For instance, most boys of his acquaintance were obliged to attend Sunday School, but in the main once every Sunday was thought sufficient. Not for Jimmy. Sunday School in the morning, and again in the afternoon, and chapel in the evening for good measure.

It wouldn‘t have been so bad if he could have done something exciting. Like blowing the organ, for example. But that was now out of the question. The first occasion on which he had been entrusted with that task had proved to be the last . . .

The minister concluded his sermon and announced the hymn. The congregation shuffled their feet and prepared to rise, as was the custom, at the first notes of the organ, and all that happened was a sort of strangled moo, as from a dying cow. Jimmy was so busy basking in the glory of his new appointment that he‘d forgotten to stoke up the organ with wind at the end of the sermon.

It was bad enough, he thought, that Sunday was a desert waste stretching from bedtime on Saturday to bedtime on Sunday. There was Saturday, too, when he was required to help his father clean the chapel. Every Saturday afternoon meant dusting the pews and then polishing the brass strip round the large door-mat in the dark porch. He would begin at the front row of pews with a fine show of enthusiasm, carefully pushing the duster into every corner, and not forgetting the foot-rests. But as he moved from row to row, in an air redolent with the odour of ancient varnish and musty hymn-books, the brightness would fade, and the last row of pews would get a perfunctory lick and a promise.

Then came the job he hated most. The old door-mat in the porch, heavy with the dust and grit of years would be dragged out into the chapel-yard. There his father would beat it against the wall, sending clouds of grey dust floating away over the rusted railings and the peeling notice-board. Jimmy wouldn‘t have minded that job. There would be some satisfaction in thumping the mat against the wall and sending the dust flying. But his father said it was too heavy for him, and that was that.

So he would turn to the wearisome task of polishing the brass strip. The trouble was that grit from the door-mat was dragged across the brass by the feet of worshippers, leaving long scratches in the metal. A perfunctory removal of the Brasso with the polishing rag merely left tell-tale white streaks across the brass, and an enormous amount of elbow-grease was needed to remove these blemishes if the result was to meet with his father‘s approval. And, until it did, Jimmy knew from bitter experience that it was no use telling his father that the job was complete.

And, again until it was properly done, no Saturday penny. His father, though the kindliest of men, had a proper sense of his duties. In his view, only the conscientious labourer was worthy of his hire,

So, once Jimmy was sure that his work could pass inspection, he would stand there, occasionally hopping from one foot to the other. while his father examined the result. A grunt of qualified satisfaction would then fill Jimmy with the joy of rushing down to the sweet-shop, to stand there for an hour or more, savouring an entire and unalloyed happiness. Yes, there were some advantages to being the son of the chapel caretaker.

Then, once every month, came the regular errand to collect the wine for the chapel, for it was one of the caretaker‘s duties to arrange the supply for the Sacrament service, the nonconformist counterpart to the Eucharist. The ritual of the service was as yet a closed book to Jimmy, and he was apt to wonder at times what the chapel wanted with wine. He knew, because he had seen his father doing it, that eventually it was poured out into small glasses each little larger than a thimble and set out on a tray. But what the ultimate purpose of these arrangements might be quite escaped him, since he also knew from not infrequent preachings that he was required to believe that wine was a mocker and strong drink was raging. Every worshipper of the nonconformist persuasion in Hallamside had learned at his mother‘s breast that their faith could never have been founded on the word of a Man given to strong drink.

So the need for this monthly errand was something of a mystery. But, clearly, the stuff had to look like wine and, he assumed, so far as was possible within this constraint, it had to taste like wine. So it must always be the same non-alcoholic brew from the same well-tried source.

Years later, when he was to make the acquaintance of the Communion service in a church of quite another denomination, he was astonished to find that the congregation all drank from the same silver flagon. What‘s more, he then discovered, this wine had a different taste altogether. And only then did he learn to his astonishment that this later church was all but pagan in its practices.

It was on one of these ritual errands that Jimmy was accosted by one of his school friends.

‘Wheer tha gooin‘, Jimmy ?‘

‘A‘m off ter t‘erbalists fer t‘wine fer t‘Sacrament on Sunday neet !‘

‘Can A goo wi‘ thee ?‘

‘Ah, if tha likes !‘

Alfie was curious as to the purpose of Jimmy‘s errand. Wine ? Wine was not a commodity that figured at all largely in the lives of Grimesmoor folk, and both boys were aware of the fact.

‘Eigh, Jimmy,‘ he said, ‘why does tha ‘ave ter goo all that way ter t‘erbalists fer wine ?‘

‘Nay, A don‘t know, A‘m sure,‘ said Jimmy. ‘But mi Dad says as A‘ve allus got to goo theer !‘

‘Well, that‘s daft, A reckon,‘ Alfie replied. ‘There‘s any amount o‘ beer-offs between ‘ere and t‘erbalist‘s. A know they sell wine theer, ‘cos mi Dad got some las‘ Christmas !‘

‘Aye, ‘appen so,‘ said Jimmy, ‘but A‘d better goo wheer mi Dad says. It‘s not fer ‘im, tha sees. It‘s fer t‘chapil !‘

Alfie failed to see the difference. Moreover, if Jimmy was right, he argued, and the chapel folk had the wine in little glasses, they‘d not see any difference either.

‘Aye, A know,‘ said Jimmy. ‘But tha knows mi Dad !‘

This silenced Alfie for a moment, but he soon returned to the point with a telling thrust.

‘A‘ll tell thi summat else. If tha goos ter t‘beer-off in Pashby Street, she‘ll ‘appen gie thi a ‘andful o‘ spice ! She gies every kid a ‘andful when they goo in fer summat fer their mothers !‘

This was almost a clincher. Sweets were a luxury, and sweets in mid-week almost unheard of. The thought of sweets for nothing was unbearably seductive.

Alfie could see that Jimmy was wavering and delivered the coup de grâce.

‘An‘ if tha goos in fer summat as cosses as much as wine, she‘ll ‘appen gie thi a extra big ‘andful !‘

It was not to be borne any longer. Jimmy‘s last scruple vanished. They made their way quickly to the off-licence-cum-grocer‘s-cum-general-store, and waited in a torment of impatience while a tremulous old woman in a shawl, ruminant with gossip, made a few meagre and leisurely purchases.

‘No, love,‘ said the woman behind the counter, as the old chatterbox edged out of the swing-doors, ‘A don‘t keep blackcurrant wine. But A‘ve gorra nice port-type, like !‘

‘Aye, that‘ll do !‘ said Jimmy, all discretion abandoned in the lust for sweets.

And, true to Alfie‘s promise, she not only gave Jimmy a handful of sweets of lurid colour and equally exotic taste, but Alfie too. This further gladdened the heart of Jimmy, who had been calculating the price that Alfie would want for his information.

It was Alfie who remembered to ask Jimmy just in time about the label on the bottle, thus saving Jimmy certain embarrassment when he got home from his errand. The herbalist‘s brew, Jimmy recalled, being made by his own hands, bore no label of any kind. But, by dint of much spit and scratching they eventually managed to remove the tell-tale label. Jimmy‘s conscience troubled him as he handed over the bottle at home, but for no more than a moment, since it was accepted without question.

But by the next weekend, when the wine was to be put to use, Jimmy was troubled by doubts, plagued by uncertainties, and mortally afraid of what might happen should his father find out. For, with every moment, he became more confident that his crime would out, and there would be the inevitable retribution. He rushed home from chapel on the Sunday evening and actually volunteered to go straight to bed, a submission which caused his mother to raise an eyebrow and his heart to miss a beat.

Monday morning came, and nothing was said. Monday evening, and still his father‘s brow was clear. The wine must have been all right after all.

The next time he was required to fetch the Sacrament wine, he went straight to the off-licence in Pashby Street, and this time the qualms of conscience scarcely troubled him. He took it a little unkindly, considering that he had carefully omitted to invite Alfie, that the old lady gave him only the same amount of sweets as before. But some spice, he told himself, is better than no spice at all.

On the following Monday morning, now all but free of the prickings of conscience, he was up and dressed before his father left for work.

But something was wrong. Something in his father‘s eyes told him. Nothing was said, however, until, as his father was leaving the house, he said over his shoulder,

‘When I get ‘ome ternight, mi lad, A want a word wi‘ you !‘

Jimmy felt a sudden, sickening stab of alarm, but tried not to show it.

‘What about, Dad ?‘

Jim turned round and looked his small son firmly in the eye.

‘Yer know that as well as A do, A reckon ! An‘ if yer don‘t, then yer‘d better search your conscience between now an‘ tea-time. A ‘aven‘t time ter stop now ! Just search yer conscience, that‘s all !‘

But of that there was no need. Somehow, as Mester Shepherd at Sunday School never tired of telling his young charges, his sins had found him out. He spent the long day in an agony of remorse and self-recrimination, so that when his father at last came home he could bear the burden no longer.

‘Dad,‘ he blurted out, ‘A‘m sorry about t‘wine ! A know A shouldn‘t ‘ave done it, but it‘s such a long way, an‘ t‘woman at — ‘

His father broke in.

‘Wine ? ‘Oo‘s talkin‘ about wine ?‘

‘T‘Sacrament wine, Dad !‘

‘Oh, aye ? Goo on !‘

‘Well, A know A shouldn‘t ‘ave gorrit from t‘other shop. But A didn‘t think it‘d matter !‘

‘Then yer thowt wrong, didn‘t yer ?‘ his father said, sharply. ‘In future just you gerrit wheer A‘ve telled yer ter gerrit !‘

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘No, what A want a word wi‘ you about is t‘state o‘ them pews at t‘back o‘ t’chapil ! They‘re downright disgraceful ! Yer‘ve been dustin‘ them pews as yer thowt would show an‘ letting t‘rest go hang. Yer ought to be ashamed o‘ yerself, that yer should !‘

He stopped, and lifted Jimmy‘s bowed head with one work-scarred finger beneath his chin.

‘Now, jus‘ you listen to me, will yer ? Next Sat‘day A want to see all them pews — all of ‘em, mind ! — properly dusted. An‘ yer don‘t get yer Sat‘day penny till they are, d‘y‘ear ?‘

In any other circumstance Jimmy might have bridled at the thought that the Saturday chores and the weekly inspection were to be thus extended and tightened. But, with a boy‘s sense of rough justice he saw that this extra burden might go some way to expiate his sin in the matter of the Sacrament wine.

 

On the Saturday afternoon he worked longer and more industriously than he had ever done, so that when at last he called his father to inspect the work the afternoon was far spent.

His father grunted, but Jimmy knew at once that it was not a grunt of near-dissatisfaction.

‘Na that‘s moor like it !‘ his father said, when the inspection was complete. ‘A couldn‘t ‘ave done it better mesen ! Na you listen to me, mi lad ! Don‘t you ever again think as a job as isn‘t seen doesn‘t matter. There‘s plenty o‘ that sooart o‘ workman about. Jus‘ you see as you‘re one o‘ t‘other sooart !‘

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘Right ! ‘Ere‘s yer penny ! Off yer go !‘

Then, on mature consideration, he delayed Jimmy with a hand on his shoulder.

‘Look, son,‘ he said, ‘A‘ll tell yer what we‘ll do. Next Sunday night yer can stop back at t’chapil fer t‘Sacrament service. Yer‘ll not be able to tek part — not for a few years yet. But it‘ll do yer no ‘arm to see what ‘appens !‘

So Jimmy attended his first Sacrament service, and found it a novel and strangely moving experience. He took in every detail of the ritual with his usual utter absorption, and became so immersed in the experience that at first he quite forgot that the wine which the chapelgoers were receiving in quiet humility and reverence was the same wine that he himself had fetched. These ordinary folk in their neat, severe Sunday best were sipping the wine — the wine, he now reminded himself, that he had brought to them — and seemed to take from it a satisfaction which he sensed but which was quite beyond his understanding.

As they left the ugly brick chapel, his father was stopped by Albert Kirk.

‘Jack-ah ! A minute-ah o‘ yer time-ah, if yer please !‘

Jimmy was dimly aware that his father was not well pleased to be so greeted.

‘A‘ve been meanin‘ to ‘ave a word-ah with yer about-ah ‘t‘wine,‘ the Superintendent went on, heedless of Jack‘s smouldering impatience. ‘It‘s very — well, variable. Very variable ! A ‘ad-ah thought it were gettin‘ a bit-ah better this last time or two. But ternight — ah — well, A didn‘t think as it were quite so good-ah !‘

Jimmy felt his father‘s hand tighten around his own.

‘Mester Kirk,‘ he said, ‘t‘wine came from t‘same place as it allus does. Made bi t‘same man, an‘ all. Our Jimmy ‘ere — ‘ and he slipped an arm around his son‘s shoulders, ‘ — ‘e allus fetches it, an‘ it‘s allus t‘same order !‘

Albert Kirk was clearly disinclined to submit quite so easily.

‘That-ah may well be, Jack-ah. But-ah A‘m seriously considerin‘ recommendin‘ ter t‘stewards as we mek a change-ah. It-ah so ‘appens as A ‘ave a friend-ah ‘oo‘d be ‘appy ter supply us ! At t‘right price, too !‘

Jack faced the Superintendent, still holding Jimmy by the hand, and drew himself up to his full height.

‘Mester Kirk, t‘wine we‘re gettin‘ now is t‘right price. It‘s made from t‘best ingredients by a member o‘ this congregation. A doubt as t‘stewards‘ll want ter change that !‘

And he strode away, dragging Jimmy with him, before Albert Kirk could reply.

As he trotted beside his father, Jimmy said,

‘Dad, that‘s not right ! A didn‘t get t‘wine from t‘same place !‘

They went on in silence for a few moments, and then Jim stopped and turned Jimmy to face him.

‘A know what yer thinkin‘, son, yer know ! A told a lie, didn‘t A ?‘

He grinned sheepishly, and went on,

‘A know, A know ! A‘ve told yer as yer must never tell a lie, ‘aven‘t A ? Yer must allus tell t‘truth, eh ? An‘ so yer must, even if it gets yer into trouble ! An‘ A‘ll give yer a damn good ‘idin‘ if yer don‘t, d‘y‘ear ?‘

Then he suddenly looked sober and grave.

‘But A reckon as yer‘ll allus be forgiven if yer tell a lie to get somebody else out o‘ trouble, d‘yer see ?

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘A know A shouldn‘t ‘ave said that to Mester Kirk. but — well, yer can see what we‘re all up against, can‘t yer ? An‘ if you ever ‘ave t‘job of ordering t‘Sacrament wine, you see as y‘allus get it from t‘same place. You see, A ‘appen to know as it cosses Mester Scholey moor money to mek it than ‘e charges us. On‘y ‘e doesn‘t want it known, and you‘ve got to keep it ter yerself, d‘y‘ear ?

‘Yes, Dad !‘

‘A‘ve seen ‘im mekkin‘ it, son. ‘E does it wi‘ such — such care. There can‘t be a better job done than one as is done that way, na can there ? An‘ A reckon as A s‘ll be forgiven for a thunderin‘ good lie in that cause !‘

But Jimmy needed no one to remind him for whom the lie had really been told. Conscious now of the enormity of his offence and desolate at the knowledge that he had escaped its deserved consequences, he could think of nothing to say. And Jim Garrett, looking down into his son‘s face, a face for the moment older than the sum of his years, was astonished to see that his eyes were filled with tears.