A Minstrel in Spain

Chapter Two


The routine at the rectory, as far as the rector was concerned, seemed to consist of him ambling around the rectory grounds all week, mumbling his forthcoming sermon, and taking off now and then in his old Morris Cowley to visit another village in his parish. We boys were recruited into the church choir at once and would have to go across to the church early Sunday mornings and post the hymn and psalm numbers up on the boards, so that the blessed congregation could find them in time to sing.

One Sunday, as I was on my way into the church with the all-important piece of paper in my hand, a pigeon scored a direct hit on it. Wiping it off on the grass didn’t help to reveal the original hymn numbers, so I put up what I thought might be a reasonable substitute. This had the satisfying result of throwing the organist completely off his stroke and mightily confusing everyone else when the real numbers were announced from the pulpit. Needless to say, the result was mild chaos.

Most of the congregation used to mumble the hymns through clenched teeth, and you couldn’t hear them anyway, but some of the more devout church-ladies, and the aforementioned fanatics, liked to roar out everything at the tops of their voices, as if they were at a street funeral in New Orleans. The choir didn’t help much because we were more interested in trying to see up the skirts of the local choir girls, who sat directly opposite us.

At the inquest that followed I produced the evil-smelling green and brown smeared piece of paper and swore that the pigeon had struck after I’d posted the hymns. He wasn’t having that, and I got a right royal rollicking from his missus, who acted in cases like this as his hit man.

There was always something strangely unreal about those Sundays in church. After the usual desperately boring preliminaries the rector would mount the pulpit to deliver his sermon, and the entire congregation would drop gratefully off to sleep.

I tried once to steel myself to listen to one of those sermons right through. It was no good. The gentle droning of the rector’s voice was hypnotic. After a few minutes I, too, dropped off.

At the end of the sermon the rector used to slam his bible shut and say, in a very loud voice, ‘And now to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, Amen,’ which awakened everyone with a start. A tremendous sigh would sweep through the church, accompanied by much shuffling of prayer books, rustling of clothing, blowing of noses, sniffing, coughing, and scratching. The last hymn would be sung with unaccustomed gusto, as we would all be going home for dinner afterwards.

Then there was a general stirring, the collection would be taken, and it was all over for another week. Souls had been washed, faces had been shown, and presence in church duly noted. God had been served. As everyone left you could hear them all agreeing what a wonderful sermon it had been this week, and so on.

Our school was taken to a nearby market town one Sunday to listen to a sermon given by a very young energetic priest. He spoke with vigour about Don Bradman, the Australian cricketer, and our own Len Hutton, comparing the two somehow to David and Goliath. It was great stuff, and showed me, for the first time in my life, that religion and going to church didn’t have to be dull all the time.

When the rector asked me afterwards what the service had been like I repeated the sermon in detail, practically word for word, adding somewhat unkindly that everyone had thoroughly enjoyed it. He listened to all this in disbelief. I heard him muttering later to his old lady that the priest must be a hooligan.

The rector’s wife used to come up with all sorts of wonderful ideas for our services, one of which was to get all the evacuees to come up front on Mothering Sunday to sing Home Sweet Home.

We were all dreadfully homesick, and this was the last straw. As soon as the organ struck up the first chord we stood there bubbling away and snuffling into our sleeves. No one managed to sing. What a shambles. We even brought the whole congregation to tears. That was the first, and only time, that I’ve ever been responsible for making an audience cry.

The Rectory was probably as old as the church, and the only toilet was way off in the middle of the orchard in a small clearing, far enough from the house to protect it from unpleasant odours.

Unpleasant they certainly were. The toilet consisted of a small windowless wooden hut. There was a sort of bench inside with a wide round hole, upon which one sat. Under the seat was a black, mysterious, reeking, bottomless pit. No one could tell what might be lurking in those depths, ready to snap at an innocent white defenceless bum. It was the original horror trip. Floundering one’s way down to that toilet in your pyjamas by the light of a guttering candle at the dead of night in mid-winter was no joke, I can tell you.

As it was so dark in there it was more or less standard practice to leave the door open a bit, and keep one’s ears pricked for the sounds of anyone approaching.

The weekend following the hymn number fiasco we were on our way down to the river through the orchard when we spotted the rector shambling down the path towards the toilet. It was obvious that he was going in there. This was our chance to pay him back. We gave him a couple of minutes to get settled and then crept over, slammed the toilet door, and jammed it firmly shut with a piece of wood.

As we rushed back behind some trees to watch the fun something small and furry streaked through the clearing.

The enraged shouts and loud thumping now erupting from the toilet were suddenly drowned out by the frenzied barking of bloodhounds hot on the chase and a thundering of hooves as the local hunt drew up in the clearing, and milled about excitedly. The atmosphere was tense in anticipation of the kill.

At that moment the door of the toilet gave way to the rector’s frantic hammering and he sprawled out full length in front of them with his drawers still down around his ankles.

There was a pregnant silence, in which even the dogs took part. Then a fruity voice said, ‘May God! It’s the bladdy vicah!’

We were then treated to the edifying spectacle of the rector, clutching his knickers up around his jewels, roundly accusing the Master of the Hunt of trying to kidnap him.

Normally, the rector’s wife more or less protected him from the outside world. She was an absolute tartar. They both came from some pokey little village up in Lancashire, but she really thought she was the cat’s whiskers, and used to put on a frightful lah-de-dah accent. She had a strident voice, like a Klaxon hooter, and she used it a lot. I never heard her doing anything other than issue commands. We were treated like slaves. This wasn’t actually the idea behind the evacuation scheme, but she did her best to get her money’s worth out of us.

There was an enormously heavy pump handle in the kitchen, about six feet in length. If you pumped up and down on this for three or four hours it was possible to fill up the water tank on the roof from the well below, thus, theoretically, allowing everyone in the house to enjoy a hot bath. There were no electricity, gas or water supplies to the house, so this was the only possible way to fill the tank. The water was heated by the kitchen range, which burned day and night.

Counting away, I reckoned that the tank held about fifty gallons, i.e., 2000 pumps, but we boys were only allowed to have three inches of hot water in the bath for all three of us. That is to say, we all had to use that same three inches, rationed out at one inch each, once a week on Saturdays. We tossed up to see who went in first. But the tank was empty every couple of days, so it was obvious that the vicar and his wife were wallowing in it.

Ronaald!’ she would snap, if she caught me doing nothing, ‘Ronaald! Come and do your share of the pamping.’

It really was a shame, because it was a most beautiful place to live. The rectory grounds must have stretched for acres. There was a gate at each point of the compass, long coach driveways, with the East Gate leading directly to the church.

The rector had an old Morris Cowley, and it says much for the storage capabilities of the human brain that I can now, after fifty years of not even thinking about it, instantly recall the number of that car, which was OG 969, but still cannot remember the number of my own car, which is standing at this very moment in the drive outside my house.

In the grounds were extensive stables: no horses, but a great place for kids to play around. It was upstairs over the stables that three or four of us got Pete Williams’s thirteen year old sister Doreen to show us her tits for a penny each.

Chapter Three >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved