“I’m not Jesus. I’m just a fella.”
The trouble with hitting your middle years, apart from the incessant failings of the body’s risible infrastructure, is the creeping awareness of one’s own mortality. No-one tells you precisely when that middle point is either. It would be terrific if, at the exact median of your time on Earth, they gave you a ticker-tape parade with a brass band and silver watch and street bunting or something. With a desperately shy homecoming queen landing you a big kiss and an iced cake with ‘NOT LONG NOW’ piped onto the top. But they don’t, largely because they’re terrified of being sued for getting it wrong. These are litigious times.
And yet, as we march relentlessly towards the final curtain, the signs are all around us: That unexpected Alzheimers mailshot, being offered a seat on public transport (despite not being saturated in wee), feeling at ease in a Wetherspoons, caring about socks and the longevity of footwear, enjoying a butterscotch. All these incremental details are nature’s way of letting us know we’re on the slide, and that we had better start making the most of what we have left. It isn’t pretty, but what is when you don’t know where you are on the scale? Should we start making arrangements? Making that list of inappropriate tunes to be played out on the day of our memorial? Or should we just leave it to chance? It’s a lottery, make no mistake.
I’m working in a church right now, filled with saints and sacraments, effigies of the martyred Christ and his attendants, and endless reminders of the transience of existence. Just to give myself a breather, I take my sandwiches to Brompton Cemetery, alone and surrounded by the gravestones of those who, like me, used to take a lunch break somewhere before the reaper claimed them. The difference being that I’m the only one around who can clock it for now, until it’s my turn to be posthumously observed by some beardy berk with an artisan bloomer stuffed to the gunnels with halloumi and alfalfa sprouts. Even the stone carvers who meticulously chiselled out their client names & places of departure into marble or alabaster are no longer with us. You can’t fight it: It’s the inevitable cycle of life and death, and we’re all on board.
So what’s the point here? Perhaps, like Sally Bowles’s ex-flatmate Elsie in the movie Cabaret, it is to live every day as if it were your last (there is very little in that film that will not inform your every move at a cataclysmic level). Do something brave: Go see Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? Who knows, it might be life changing. Eat something weird. Fly off to somewhere you’ve never heard of and stay there a few days. Walk to work. Chat to strangers. Do yourselves a favour just for once. Because the halfway mark may be long since gone. And you don’t get a second chance.
Anyone who has ever worked in or visited the churches of Great Britain (probably not a lot of you, granted, but bear with me) will invariably have encountered at some point the sheer horror that lurks above the aisles: The organist. This semi-mythical beast is a honed ecclesiastical sub-species, at once brimming with enthusiasm, verging on the myopic and, like some of our most successful suicide bombers, holding within his/her (but usually his) palms, the potential to spread misery on a scale hitherto uncharted.
Curiously, the church organist’s first rule of thumb appears to be a complete fail at all things organ: Hand/foot coordination tends to suffer brutally, despite the foot keys being the size of railway sleepers and those above separated in hard-contrast black and white. Then there is the issue of the stops. Your average organ has about thirty, all with exotic monikers such as Vox Humana, Flagelot and Clarabella. The end-user must negotiate these, in real time, in order to hit that authentic ‘squirrel in a microwave’ note of celestial purity so often endured by parishioners throughout the land. And then there is the temptation to revise previous errors on the fly, throwing more senior members of the congregation into blind panic as their sung version of ‘Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past’ morphs into Hard House techno. Never before has one man wielded such power over the helpless, bar Caligula.
Cruel, I know. But over the past twelve months I’ve been to three memorial services and worked in several places of worship (No, I’m not a barman. Stop it). And I have suffered, I have so. Usually from the bill. Seeing your grandma/father/whoever sent off to the next life as Sparky attempts to get Grade 1 at your expense is a bit of a slap in the face, make no mistake. But we bury the distain long before we bury our cherished ones and life goes on. Meaning that these satanic Trojan horses live to shite another day. Can you imagine this happening in any other national industry? Let’s say Kwikfit, for arguments sake:
Hi! We’re Kwikfit, the UK’s number one tyre fitting service. Today we’ve got a couple of interns we’re going to let loose on your wheels. Admittedly, they’re not much cop but they need the experience. Just don’t go over 40mph on the by-roads and you’ll be fine. And if you do suffer an M4 blow-out, just remember: We got where we are today by helping the fitters of tomorrow. Because…Oh just because. And we’re a registered charity. Thanks for your custom.
As I said before, I very much doubt this resonates with many of you. But next time you happen to pop your nose into a church and the dulcet pipes are ringing in the only way they know how, spare a thought for those who fix the bloody things for a living. And pack a PPK before you come.