The panda stared across the room, its eyes meeting those of a rough, unshaven man, his body twisted grotesquely in its final death throes.
But the thief wasn't looking at the panda, nor at the message 'Smile, Jesus loves you' beneath him. He was looking at a softer faced, bearded man, dying calmly on an adjacent and more photogenic cross.
It was one of those places where a concrete and glass suburban God had grafted himself on to a temple of nineteenth century evangelical brickwork. Half a dozen chairs formed a semi circle around a makeshift lectern. The song used to be modern:
If fellowship here with our lord can
So inexpressibly sweet
Then oh how much more when his face we see
When round the white throne we meet,
And round the white throne we meet, oh...
A silver haired old man who had also once been modern, began reading from the Good News Bible. Faceless stick men stared up at him from the margins.
Have you been with me all this time Phillip, and still you do not understand? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, show us the Father? Do you not know that I am in the Father and the Father is in me...?
"That passage" he began, "Says something very remarkable, doesn't it?"
I looked out of the window. The high street was mainly empty. Paper-shops were closing up for the afternoon; people out walking their dogs, the earliest of the worshippers finding their way to the morning service. There was a stone cross with lists of names and misquotes from Binyon carved on it, faced by a couple of park benches. It was January now, so the wreaths of paper poppies were badly faded: and one from the local cemetery, spelling out 'MUM' in flowers was dead and brown.
"So I want to ask you the same question. Do you believe that Jesus is God?"
There was a long silence. The normal subjects for discussion at Young People's Bible Class were things like 'What do we use salt for? In what way does Jesus want us to be salt for the world? Can you think of any examples of how to put this into practice?'
All eyes inevitably turned to Paul, who happened to be the son of one of the lay preachers.
I looked at the war-memorial, and thought of the universe; of the Turin shroud; of the room with no walls, floor or ceiling.
"I don't know." replied Paul, honestly.
The old man talked, and rambled, and hedged his bets; he told us about the Son of Man and the fact that the words 'of like substance' and 'of one substance' differed by only one letter in Greek; before concluding, that, from Peter's point of view at least, what mattered was not if Jesus was God but that he was Lord, and that the only important sense in which he could be Lord was as Lord of our lives.
We mumbled our way through another song:
He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus
He walks with me, he talks with me along life's narrow way!
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives - within - my heart!
- and the meeting broke up. Three of the six shambled off home almost immediately. Me, Ruth, and Stephen hung around to go to the main service. Ruth was at the same school as me, one of those studious, blue clad girls for whom Young People's Bible Class was as natural as getting 80% in her mock 'O' levels. Stephen went to a different school, but I knew him from the Boys' Brigade, where we both went on a Thursday night in order to play football, drink coffee and have the habits of discipline, reverence, self respect and all that tends towards true Christian manliness promoted within us.
I often wondered what I was doing there at all, but as my parents pointed out, I got an awful lot out of the church in terms of Boys' Brigade and drama club and social evenings and if I stopped going I would probably regret it later. This was true, I supposed. I had been going to church since I was born - since before I was born, if the truth be known. Church was a centre, around which the cycle that included Bible class on Sunday mornings, young people's social on Sunday evenings, Boys Brigade on Thursday nights, Scripture exam in March, Church Anniversary in November and carol service in December revolved.
Yet other boys of my age seemed to manage very well without this building in the middle of their lives. Many of them congregated on the park benches by the war memorial in the evenings, drinking beer they were to young to buy and revving up motorcycles that they were too young to drive. I wondered when they did their homework, if they had to tell their parents that they would be late in at night. What would life in their universe be like?
"I wonder if I might have just a word?"
It was twenty minutes before the service proper started, and Mr Hadley must have just emerged from his vestry. Being Methodists, we didn't call him Reverend, let alone Vicar or Father. My parents were on first name terms with him. But even we three pillars of the Young People's Bible Class had to pull ourselves up slightly just in case he had overheard us giggling or saying 'oh God'.
"At this time of year, I normally organise a series of classes for young people who are of about the right age to become full members of the church. I thought that you three might like to come, this year. There is absolutely no commitment, of course, but..."
"But what exactly 'became flesh'? God, or what?"
Confirmation classes happened in one of the back rooms: part of the old chapel, not the modern extension. They weren't Confirmation Classes, of course, they were Preparation For Membership; in the same way that two of the four people at the font were called 'Sponsors'. But everyone said 'Confirmation' and 'Godparents' just the same. There were blue shiney tables and metal chairs that didn't quite stand up straight: pasted to the old brick walls with yellowing sellotape were bearded arabs drawn in blunt crayons on the back of duplicated newsheets asking you to remember in your prayers the situation in the South Atlantic and the Brownies' coffee morning. Next to them is framed, nineteenth century print of a man in a white nightie, smiling slightly, with a brown beard and blue eyes, painted so that they followed you as you walked around the room.
They looked over Mr Hadley's head, and tried to stare me out.
Mr Hadley's eyes looked down at his notes, then up at me.
He looked serious, helpful, patronising, thoughtful in that way that his profession always did when asked something that it wasn't possible to answer.
"A very good question." he said.
He was dressed like a bank manager with a dog collar. We were dressed casually; Tom was wearing a badge with the name of his favourite pop group on it. Nobody thought that 'The Damned' was an odd label to wear to confirmation classes.
"I should say that there has always been a God, since the beginning of time, and that he showed himself to the Jews in many ways, throughout the Old Testament. But that there are aspects of his character that could not be revealed in that way, and were revealed in the life, teaching, and example of Jesus. Those parts of God that could not be expressed in a man's life were, as it, were still in Heaven, and it is those, that we call God the Father, to which Jesus prayed in his earthly life. When we look at the life of Jesus, and also the revelation of God in the Old Testament, we see what the nature of God is: yet there was still an aspect of Him that could not be revealed either through Jesus nor through the Old Testament prophets; and that is the part of God that we call the Holy Spirit."
"Jesus is a part of God, then?".
"If it is possible to split God into three equal pieces, then yes, he is."
"Now, the basic unit of the methodist church is the circuit: this dates from the time of Wesley when a single minister would have a number of different congregations and travel..."
I knelt at the alter rail, which wasn't an alter rail because we didn't have an alter but a Communion Table, rather nattily designed to look like a carpenter's bench. We drank non-alcoholic wine in thimble sized cups. If anyone but me suspected that the 'wine' was in fact Ribena, they never said so, any more than they admitted that the Font was filled, not from bottles marked 'Holy Water' but from the tap in ladies loo. The tiny portions of bread were torn from sliced loaves bought at the Co-op. It was all very clinical, as if a doctor had prescribed 2 milligrams of the body and blood of Christ, to be taken once a month as long as symptoms persist.
Membership Services were always held in the evening. The huge building was empty of all but the most committed members. The concealed lights somehow made the great sub-urban aircraft hanger seem very dark.
The four of us who had decided to be accepted into full membership of the church knelt side by side. Paul, the lay preacher's son, who's parents said grace before meals, was on my left. Stephen from Boys Brigade was on my right. He had not come up through Sunday School like me, and I half suspected that the reason he was kneeling here was that Boy's Brigade rules said that all its officers should be church members. Ruth was next to Stephen, looking holy.
We believe in one God...
Some people, explained the pamphlet that Mr Hadley had given us, are discouraged from entering fully into the Life of the Church Family because they cannot with complete honesty recite every word in the Creed. But in saying the Creed you are not necessarily stating what you personally believe in; rather, you are connecting yourself with the faith that generations of the Christian church have affirmed.
...for our sake also he was crucified...
Some people, explained the book, talk as if the main purpose of Jesus' coming was to die on the cross. In fact, it is by his life, teaching , and resurrection that we are redeemed.
...the third day he rose again from the dead...
It was not even necessary, said a library book, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Christ's body rotted in the tomb like any one else's, but what did that matter? The point of the story was that his teachings transcended his earthly life and could not be kept in a cave. A different book explained that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead - sort of. If you looked at the Turin Shroud you could tell that the spear didn't actually pierce Christ's heart, so he wasn't actually dead. He woke up in the tomb and his disciples got the wrong end of the stick. This, the cover of the book assured us, was a sensational time bomb poised to explode in the face of conventional Christianity.
I wondered what Ruth and Stephen and Paul actually believed. The same as me? More? Less? I believed in God. I believed that Death was not the end. I believed that Jesus' teaching was the most important part of the Bible: all those parables about Turning the Other Cheek and Doing As You Would Be Done By. I certainly did not believe anything that the American fundamentalist girl at school said about Jesus's death somehow being to pay for everybody else's sin. If that had been the case, I felt sure that Mr Hadley would have mentioned it. I listened as he read out passages from the prayer book ('Order of Service') about us being truly sorry and repenting of all our sin, desperately wishing that I had something to repent of.
I believed that becoming a church member followed on, absolutely, from everything that I had done previously in the church, from carrying the Sunday School Queen's crown at the age of five to achieving Grade I (Honours) five years running in the Scripture Exam. I could still recite all the memory passages by heart:
"You shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy strength, with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself".
" 'Some say John the Baptist, others Elija, or one of the prophets'. 'And you' he asked 'Who do you say that I am?' Peter replied..."
I believed in the black monolith that appeared to the cave men. And in the energy field which surrounds us and permeates us and binds the galaxy together. I believed that it was not possible for the pyramids to have been built without sophisticated technological equipment.
It wasn't that I didn't believe in what I was reciting: it had never really occurred to me that belief or disbelief came into it. The creed was something that happened on Sunday mornings, like bringing a box of vegetables from the greengrocers at Harvest Festival.
This is my body, broken for you.
Stephen says "Amen" piously as Mr Hadley hands him a crumb of Mothers Pride. He is now qualified to be a B.B officer. Ruth's head has been bowed throughout: it is hard to believe that this ceremony will affect her piety one way or the other. I have more right to be here than either of them: I can recite the books of the Bible by heart, (...peter-peter-john-john-john-judeandrevelation), and once annoyed a Sunday School teacher by knowing who was the odd one out out of Simeon, Gideon, Joseph and Judah. For me not to be a church member would be - ridiculous.
My parents, who despite being devout church goers, are not Church Members themselves, sit at the back. They are proud of me, yet, I am somehow ashamed - not of them, nor of myself, more of the ceremony itself. Although we go to church together, the language of the church, the smiling piety, the casual acceptance of communion and prayer, the antithesis of awe, is not something that is ever mentioned at home, nor is it something that I can imagine my parents participating in. I feel that by joining this club of silver haired old men, I am joining a world that is not their world.
In a few moments they would be upon me, little silver crosses on their lapels, copies of the Good News Bible under their arms, shaking my hand, embracing me, saying things like "I'm glad you've taken this step" and "Welcome to the church family" as if the renouncing of evil (what evil?) and declaration of faith (in what?) made some sort of difference: as if I were part of this thing that I didn't understand or believe in and that, I suddenly realized with horrible certainty, they didn't either.
This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of -
"Some men have a method of bringing on the same sensation by themselves. Some of you probably know what I'm talking about. Otherwise I'll leave it to your imagination. Had I been giving this talk thirty years ago, I would probably have said that something dreadful would happen to you, like going blind or something. But boys' bodies grow up a good deal faster than their minds do; and your bodies are saying 'come on, you're ready' even though your minds know that you aren't, really."
The word 'EMOTIONS' was written in large letters on the blackboard behind him, next to the word 'epididymis'.
It was almost a relief; a relief that there was such a thing as sin; a relief that I had something to feel guilty about; a relief that there was a word for it.
Mr Coombs was our deputy headmaster: both terrifyingly strict and strangely likeable. He took another piece of paper from the pile in front of him.
Realising that there was no way that fifth form boys would ask him questions about Sex and Relationships to his his face, he had ordered us to write our queries on anonymous slips of paper.
"'Are there any other diseases apart from V.D?'"
He sighed with mock impatience.
"Yes, as a matter of fact there are lots of other diseases. Bubonic plague, rabies, measles..."
The room full of boys laughed, and he opened the next slip. At the other end of the corridor, the girls were watching a film about the development of the embryo in the womb.
"'What is aural sex?' Hmm. Well as you've spelt it there it means sex with someone's ear, which, while not impossible, seems fairly unlikely to me. The truth is that nearly any part of the body can become an erogenous zone, and..."
"You've never had it off with a girl, have you?"
His hair was not quite short enough to be a skinhead, but still short enough to be threatening. Mr Coombs had given me special permission to spend breaks in his room in order to avoid people like this, boys who taunted and went out of their way to pick fights. But there was no way that I could choose why stood behind me in the dinner queue.
"Neither have you" I replied automatically, as if he had accused me of never have played football for England, or never having been to America.
"Yes I have, you queer cunt. With Tracey Staines. You can ask her if you want."
Even after Mr Coombs's special lessons, I had only the vaguest idea what was conveyed by the concept of 'having it off'. I was disgusted, and frightened, and humbled, by the concept of the the skinhead doing it with Tracey Staines.
Mr Coombs taught physics which, on the whole, I found more interesting than sex. Each week I would sit in his classroom, wondering what new secrets he was going to reveal.
There is a smell of acid, like a fish and chip shop; of chlorine, of animals pickled for disection. A thick dinnery smell finds its way through the window. He has a machine on his desk in front of him. A yellow bulb in a big plastic globe is the Sun. On concentric rings about the centre, small plastic spheres represent each of the planets. Mr Coombs pushes a switch, and they rotate, cycling round and round the tiny sun which is fixed at the centre. Another flick and time goes into reverse; or speeds forward: the machine will calculate the position of the planets relative to each other for any point in time. Over the top he places a clear, plastic dome, with the night sky painted on it: the sun projects the plastic stars onto the polystyrene tiled ceiling: silhouettes of the rotating planets still visible, like an eclipse in reverse.
He picks up the universe, and puts it away in the prep room, the same room where he keeps his cane and his slipper.
It isn't just this mechanical universe that he guides us through. Once a month, I come back to school in the evening - in itself, an unbearably spooky experience. The darkened classrooms and the empty corridors feel thrillingly illicit; the knowledge that I could walk from one side of the playground to the other and not meet anyone is strangely exhilarating. I walk across the quad, up the stairs, into Mr Coombs's classroom.
There are half a dozen other boys there - Phillip, Mark, James, friends, acquaintances, the more studious, well behaved ones: who else would voluntarily come back to school after hours? Mr Coombs is standing at the front, in his customary position, as if about to reprimand someone for not doing their homework or give an unexpectedly frank answer to the question 'What is oral sex?'.
This is the Astronomy Club, or more properly, Mr Coombs being Mr Coombs, the Astronomical Society. We wear triangular badges with coloured stars on them, the colours having a supposedly heraldic significance. Membership is restricted to people who have passed an entrance test. I suspect that anyone prepared to take the trouble to fill in answers to questions like 'What is the sidereal period of Kopff' was deemed to have passed, irrespective of whether they got them right or wrong.
Every few weeks, a message would be read out in Assembly:
"We stand on planet Earth. All about us is the dark infinity of space. A meeting will take place tonight of the purveyers of the heavens, the explorers of cosmic phenomena, the Astronomical Society. Club members are asked to remember their mugs."
At the meeting, Mr Coombs would give a talk on the history of astronomy - I felt quite sorry for poor Galileo, put on house arrest by the pope for noticing that the earth went round the sun. Then we would clamber up a ladder into a small metal dome, and peer down a telescope, at the real universe. Mr Coombs regarded that observatory as all but sacred. One lunchtime he had slippered three boys just for climbing up the ladder to see what was there. I used to see pictures in science books of the rings of Saturn and the Red Spot of Jupiter - huge, multi-coloured images that seemed as unlikely and exhilarating as Star Wars. When seen through a 2 inch reflecter, they were small and dim: a tiny, moon like disc bisected by a silver line; a cream circle with a red smudge on it. Yet for the first time I believed in the universe: no longer as an idea in a text book, to be accepted on trust, but as a collection of real objects, as real as my pencil case, and not too far away...
"The universe" explained Mr Coombs, while we were drinking our mushroom cup-a-soup, heated up on a bunsen burner "is infinite. That is, it goes on for ever. Think of it as a large room with no walls, roof, or ceiling. We know that all the matter in it was at one time condensed together in one place, in a single, huge lump; we know that it was from the explosion of that single lump of matter that the present universe comes. That Big Bang is what we call the beginning of the universe; it is at that point, if you believe in such things, that the Act of Creation would come in."
You could have mistaken it for a wedding. A slightly embarrassed, teenaged girl, in a fancy dress robe stood on the steps of the church, while people photographed her. Smaller girls in their best party dresses, bigger boys with flowers in their button-holes stand around her. This year, Ruth is the only girl prepared to go through the ritual, but as she says, the little girls like the opportunity to dress up, so why should she be a spoilsport?
She walks down the aisle, mounts the stage, and sits on a wooden throne far to small for her. One of the old men, says solemnly "Pray silence for the Sunday School Queen" and a room full of parents and grandparents comes to its feet. Two toddlers, encouraged by the lady who teaches the youngest part of the Sunday School, walk uncertainly down the aisle, and bow to her. Embarrassed teenagers follow. I am the sole representative of the Young People's Bible class; with my back to the grannies, I grin at Ruth, who, to her credit, keeps a straight face. Two brownies giggle as they carry a brown penant and make a three fingered salute to the enthroned Ruth, who beams at them. Stephen, flanked by two other youths in absurdly shiny shoes and belt buckles perform an immaculate slow march before presenting an enormous Union Jack to her and saluting stiffly, as if they were guardsman at the Trooping of the Colour. This is the only time in the entire evening when Ruth's face shows signs of cracking into a laugh. But Mr Baker, the Captain of the Boys Brigade looks very proud of them. The procession over, the old man takes a toy crown off a cushion held by the tiniest boy in the Sunday School and places it on Ruth's head. He makes a funny speech; she makes a worthy one.
Coffee is drunk and biscuits are eaten.
Children perform party pieces. The younger ones stand at the front looking shy, while the pianist plays Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam very softly. The older ones perform a rhyming version of The Pied Piper of Hamlyn. The only contribution from the Young People's Bible Class is for me to read a passage of scripture, the bit where Jesus says that the greatest in His kingdom will be the one who becomes like a little child.
We end with a modern hymn:
Of the farthest star:
Of the coffee bar:
Of the length of the Berlin Wall:
Of the village street:
Where the people meet:
Christ is the Lord all...
"It was all lovely" say old ladies to one another.
I try to pull the hood up over my face as I leave.
Between home and church is the war memorial where the thugs gather.
The Church has called the police on many occasions: they climb up onto the roof, and on one occasion threw a brick through the plate glass window, leaving sharp splinters all over the floor between the panda and the crucifixion.
I am in a no man's land, and my lunch time skinhead has seen me. He is swigging beer, with his arm around Tracey Staines.
"Been to sunday school have you, you queer cunt."
I cannot hear what they are calling out at me. I do not know if they know what I have been doing. I do not want to be part of their world of beer and motorbikes, yet, at that moment, I am appalled and nauseated by the world of chocolate biscuits and flower arrangements that I have just left.
The notion that Jesus wants me to shine for him each day is a long way from my mind. We don't have coffee bars in our high street any more.