Friday, 26 March 2010

Brethren 'neath the western sky

It’s not often that I visit St Thomas the Doubter, otherwise known as Mellor Church, nowadays. But here I am, in my best suit, for Harold’s funeral. Mrs M beams me down into a gap marginally less wide than me, in a pew that she has protected from all assailants.

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!

Dear Harold: my fellow alto in the choir, back in the days when Doubting Thomas and I were more commonly on speaking terms. On and off for 10 years, I should think. I was never quite sure which one of us was off key, and Harold was too polite to say. Anyway, M2 – the most erudite of our offspring – says we looked like the old gentlemen from The Muppet Show.

I can’t remember when Harold first roped me in to load waste paper into the skip for recycling. Paper-loading is a vocation to which many are called in Mellor, and all are chosen. Harold commanded the operation from inside the hearse house where the waste paper had been left by parishioners. Now and then, he would pop out to say he had found another mouse nest, behind the cistern.

It was a good 10 years before I got around to asking Harold why he had organised a paper collection. Apparently it was to save up for the new church organ.

The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended

There’s talk of a spot of freelancing in Sierra Leone after Easter. It’s nearly two years since I was last in Freetown: one Friday I decided on some R&R at the Banana Island Guest House in the village of Dublin. With Mrs M’s blessing, of course.

“Getting to Banana Island is easy,” I was told. “You go to Waterloo, then Kent. Then take the boat to Dublin.” Working with other consultants, one is rarely short of advice.

Suleiman is waiting in his old Chevrolet 4X4 soft-roader, and gives me a big brown-toothed smile. He knows the way to Banana Island: nice and slow.

40 miles and two hours later, we park on the shore of Kent village. The yellow boat of the Banana Island Guest House soon potters across the strait towards us.

The brochure advises that the yellow boat is exclusively for the use of guests, of whom I am the only one. A dozen people pile in, and half of my bottom is given exclusive use of half of one of the two benches.

When we are mid-stream, the engine cuts out, and we sit rocking in a gentle Atlantic swell. Opposite me is a middle-aged man. He is a Dubliner (of the Sierra Leonean type) and introduces himself as O’Reilly. He explains that the reason for the crush is that tomorrow is the funeral of Ma Yele, Dublin’s matriarch and senior fishwife.

A dug-out canoe berths alongside. The top half of its paddler is thick with veined muscle. The dug-out is just wide enough for his tiny hips and legs, and four barracuda.

Mr O’Reilly’s shirt is somewhat grubby, but he tells me that he is a pipe organ builder, and works in partnership with Martin Denny of Jardine Church Organs, of Manchester and Blackpool. On his last journey to Manchester, he stayed in Chorlton while he dismantled an organ, for re-installation in Freetown. The church was so cold that he laid a plank of wood on the concrete to stand on, against rising frost-bite.

Colonials don’t seem to understand that God is a minority sport in the mother country. He wanted to know all about my church.

I remembered that we had a very nice organ in Mellor, so he wanted to know all about it. There was nothing for it but to phone Harold. “You’re joking,” he said, when I explained my circumstances, but then pulled out his stops to explain that the Mellor organ was one of the first of a new generation of modern Baroque organs and was built by Noel and John Mander, father and son, not Jardine Church Organs.

My $5 phone card top-up ran out at this point.

The fish are sold for about £2.50, and we beach in Cotton Tree bay.

Steps constructed for Portuguese slavers lead up to the village. I sit and watch the yellow boat shuttling to and fro between Dublin and Kent, each trip more rowdy than the last.

Passengers trail fingers and flip flops in the water. Empty rum and whisky sachets float in the wavelets. The blessed sound of drunken Methodists singing hymns fills the evening air.

Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.

Harold Gwyther 
grandfather, teacher, engineer, scout and chorister 
April 1936 - February 2010

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