Let the record show that the happiest moment of my prison life was in church.
Was it a revelation of God in the chapel? A visitation of cherubim and seraphim by the font? Or a great company of angelic horns blowing from each of the four corners? Well almost. Certainly, it was an unexpected vision. Let me set the scene.
The church is almost full- behold a Christmas miracle? No. Aaron, our resident American but fully paid up Anglican vicar and prison Chaplin has organized a special evening.
“It’s a heavy metal band guys”
The Salvation Army Brass Band. Puns like that show his mettle but some of the congregation will be complaining over the next weeks and months that no rock band actually appeared.
The band has brought in their own supporters troupe. All with high ideals and matching years. It is this o.a.p. section that fills half the church.
The other half is filled with cons, overcome by the sudden outpouring of love for the baby Jesus? No, the pews are packed with the promise of pies: mince pies. For the way to a man’s soul is through his stomach. Aaron has biblical backup
“Isaiah chapter 40 verse 11: Feed thy flock like a shepherd”
Strangely, Isaiah is silent on any reference to preserved fruit but this congregation will have no liturgical quibble when free food is on offer. For verily, there is no better joy than to eat, drink and be merry and in the absence of the last two mince pies is a star attraction. Having said that only 20 lads out of the 387 captive audience have managed the 5 minute walk for the Christmas Carol service. This is four times the usual Sunday service turnout perhaps because that has only a wafer and sip of wine on offer. (I’m not including the bits on offer about the salvation. I’m trying to stick to just the tangible and the rational which is not easy in prison and downright difficult in the church.) This Sunday turnout rate is roughly what the national attendance for a church in the UK 2%. So prisoners are not more or less religious than the public they just got caught.
The brass band, 4 in number, play “Hark the herald angels sing” a rousing burst and we sing. This sounds great but our ebullient man of the cloth pauses the play.
“Sing louder boys these are home made mince pies”
One mutters next to me,
“Does he think we are performing monkeys who sing and dance for a mince pie?”
Clearly, yes. For the convict choir belts out the next verse. Almost drowning out the additions of the chap behind who is substituting “mince pie” for every other word in the lyrics. He sings in tune: well worth his crust. Which cannot be said for the man next to him who has an entirely pie-centric version. A mantra of “mince pies, mince pies” in a low drone.
5 seats are now empty behind me. No harking for these guys, maybe they have left as they had a taxi that would not wait or the religious quotes too much to hear. Either way, they have minced out. 15 cons left.
One of the external charity workers, who supports the Chaplin, is moving on to better things. Aaron is giving praise,
“I’m not trying to embarrass anyone but Giles has done 8 years at Tabley Heath, he’s been granted the Rolex on his leg, his tag is being fitted and he is out.”
A shout comes from the back,
“He’ll get a recall”
I’m going out on a limb here but I suspect the heckle was not from one of the gray-haired guests. A debate, now at some volume, is taking place as to whether Giles really is a real prisoner. “What crimes has he done?” queries are being raised. Giles cannot take offense at any Rolf Harris comparisons as he is choked by the poem being read at the front by Aaron “Giles: my best friend”. After this dog collar doggerel, we are invited to pray on Giles. We gather in a circle of believers, bored and bemused. I join, lay on hands and feel the warmth of his skin. I should hastily add, through his shirt, for this is not a Catholic gathering.
I study his sincere, frowned face. I cannot help but consider that his lot in life and at this moment would be improved with just a little tickle attack. I resist this urge as maybe 20 hands are now on him. An arm orgy. I reflect whether he has ever had sex like this but conclude that despite his name he is probably not the public school type.
Our praise is pressed upon him. I’m happy to share this goodwill on this good man. My face is so close, closer than I would want if his eyes were open. He is murmuring, babbling beatitudes. I contrast the contents of our minds: one surrendering to his God, one sullied skull trying to get rid of Giles’s fantasy of having this many hands on him from naked nuns.
One or both of us need help.
We stroll back to our seats as tears roll down Giles’s cheeks.
Musings follow from a Major in the band and another reading. These are greeted by a mixture of applause and the sound of the Chapel door slamming as the religious tolerance threshold is passed by half a dozen more and they have to leave.
“Once in Royal David’s City” starts twice as there is another pie pep talk. Repetition is Aaron’s strong point. A definition of Christianity could be: to repeat the message and then repeat it again. We over run roll call time. Pie panic is now descending.
“We have sat through this shit and we have not even had a pie”
I worry that tables may be overturned. Which in itself would turn the tables on the old story. One last testimony then a rush for the door where coffee and the much-promised provisions await.
An outsider has been posted on portion control,
“Just one pie each lads”
He is distracted by requests for napkins or cups or anything to make him look left as another handful of pies on the right goes. 5 in on hand is the pie-anma-max I spot. The old do-gooders dodder out to the stainless steel trays now with just icing dust. There are many crumbs on prison issue gray jumpers. I cannot rule out the possibility that the aluminum foils trays around the pies were also eaten in that melee which in itself is a miracle as the pies were supposed to be home made.
But the happiest snap was not the jolt of having real coffee or the consumption of 4 mince pies but a simple image which is the essence of Christmas.
During a video piece a religious spoof of Bohemian Rhapsody, muppet types sing Bethlehem Rhapsody I’m sure it is on the youtube channel GodTV or on Cross-channel,
“Is this the real birth? is it nativity? Caught in a census
in the town of his ancestry
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and seeeeeeeee
he’s just a poor boy foretold by prophecy….
because the wise men come and the wise men go
This is how gods love shooooows it’s a wondrous story to me,
Plink plonk of piano and in front of the screen, the Anglican vicar is head banging to:
“Got to get out, got to get right out of here”
I’m finally in agreement with God’s message.