Last week I attended church for the first time since February. My dad is the vicar in a sleepy little Somerset town, and runs a church very different to the big city gathering of students and young professionals in York. My dad’s congregation consists of mostly elderly individuals, as well as families, and the odd person on their own. For some, church is the only thing they have to look forward to, particularly those on their own and the elderly. Church, for some people, is the meaning to their existence. I know for me my faith is just about the most important thing in my life, although I separate my faith from church.
When I walked through the heavy wooden door, sighing with the years its clung to the stone by its hinges, I was struck by the setup. For each household, there were a cluster of chairs, huddled together, fearing anything encroaching on its little bubble. Many pairs of chairs dotted themselves around the room, like little islands abandoned in a calm ocean. Old couples sat down, their children long flown from their nests. The odd single chair was placed self-consciously against a wall, an old man with a walking stick and mask covering his mouth, hobbling his way towards the only interaction he’ll have that day. When Dad does the communion, he passes gently by in his robe, and places the wafer in the man’s frail hands. No doubt the only physical contact that man will have with another human that week, pandemic or no pandemic.
The church is eerily quiet, my dad’s voice bouncing off its many walls and finding its way into secret crevices. The service passes by quicker than usual, and I wonder why it feels so different. It can’t all be down to the peculiar seating can it?
‘No,’ Mum informed me, as we meandered slowly home. ‘It’s because there were no hymns.’
‘Oh yeah!’ I exclaimed, laughing because it’s such an integral part of a church service, and yet I couldn’t place the lost component. ‘Why was there no singing?’
Mum removed her mask. ‘Because singing could pass on the virus.’
I fell quiet, thinking of the timid service, with its choir silenced and its congregation -witnesses, instead of participants. I thought of the evening I’d spent in town the night before. A queue the length of six cars, to get into the local Wetherspoons. I wasn’t that desperate for a lime and soda water, so I’d made my way home. But not without picturing the night that would be had by those girls in their Nike’s and crop tops. The boys in their trap bags and gold chains.
There would be merriment, and smiling, laughing and chit-chat. There would be no masks to stifle facial expressions and conversation. There would be sharing of drinks, and napkins passed around the toilets as women screeched for more toilet roll (why is there never enough?). There would be football chants, and a ‘lads lads lads’ chorus, and singing along to your favourite song in the smoking area. There would be flirtation that turns into an innocent brush of skin against skin. Then there would come the inevitable kiss, and the dragging him home for some small intimacy, fluids swapped, sweat left to linger on his skin. A morning cigarette passed awkwardly to him, your lipstick leaves a stain on the butt, transferred to his lips. You wonder when he might leave so you can be alone again.
And the next morning, an old woman carefully washes her hands over and over again, to be sure that no errant germs might make themselves from her hand to the door handle of that great archaic piece of wood, hanging from its hinges. She places a mask over her mouth and nose, despite the triggered memories of a mask she’d worn as a child, to keep out the gas while bombs exploded above her. She pushes the fear aside and makes her way to church. She greets everyone from a distance and finds her solitary chair. She tries to smile at her friends, but finds she can’t make it reach her eyes.