Joy’s Prayer

Robeson with a White Lass

(Joy is cleaning a church. As she polishes her way along the pews, she sings hymns and prays aloud.)

…I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
‘Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land…

(She stops polishing)

Dear Lord. This is my church, as much as it is anybody’s. I’ve been coming here since the day I was baptised in the font 74 years ago and cleaning it since after I retired from service for good and all. And now I don’t know what to do for the best, Lord…

(Starts polishing again)

Old Mrs Pooley cleaned it before I did, and she was kind to me, when there were those in the village who weren’t. You know what villagers can be like, sometimes. Moo didn’t always see eye to eye with Mrs Pooley. Mind you, Moo never did see eye to eye with anything church, really, being as how she was chapel.

Once or twice I persuaded Moo to come to church with me, but she said that sung responses was Papist, and that the incense always made her feel faint, and have to put her head between her knees.

I used to play my Paul Robeson records on the gramophone Sunday afternoons, only the spirituals, Lord. But Moo didn’t think much of that.

‘It’s a sin to enjoy yourself on the Sabbath,’ she’d say.

Chapel people can be a bit like that, sometimes. It was the Chapel people as called me the worst names, when I was a little girl, I’m sorry to say. But that didn’t stop Moo going. And she liked me to go with her when I come home from her Ladyship’s for my holiday.

So I went to church on my own on Sunday mornings, and chapel with Moo in the evening, ‘til she died. Nine years ago that were, and I’ve not been to chapel since.

I used to think it odd that Moo was chapel, when Mummy and Daddy and me were all church, but later I found out Moo got chapel when she was in The Home. That was a cruel hard place, and it couldn’t make Moo cruel… but it did make her hard. Over Worcester way it was. Frank Parsons next door drove me over there last year, for a bit of a run out. It’s a ‘country house hotel’ now, Lord, if you can believe it. We had coffee, but lunch looked a bit dear, and I didn’t fancy it in that hard place, so we went into Pershore, and had a nice lunch at half the price in a cafe that didn’t have so many memories in the walls.

A hard religion suits some of thy servants, Lord, bettern it suits others, as you know.

When I left service, her Ladyship gave me a leather bound prayer book, which Moo didn’t think much of neither.
‘A prayer book! After 30 years. Some people. Mr Onslow left me his sideboard.’

And a great big ugly thing it is too, and a blessed nuisance to keep dusted, but there it sits in the corner of my sitting-room, with its pictures of Moo, and Mummy and Daddy, and all the family. And one of Paul Robeson, cause he’s always been my favourite…

I got a book out from the library when it come round one Wednesday. No… wait… tell a lie… that was back when it used to come on Thursdays. All about Paul Robeson. Well, that was a man, a brave man, and a good one, who stood up for himself and his people. I don’t suppose there’s so many left who remember him now, not now they listen to all this Boom Bang Bang. Not music, is it Lord?

I told Kate, old Mrs Pooley’s granddaughter that my mother was sent to a Home for wayward girls after I was born, sent to a Home and put into service because she had a child through no fault of her own, because she was interfered with by somebody up on the common. She was fourteen when I was born, and that’s too young, Lord. As you know.

Daddy never could find out who got Moo into trouble. ‘Trouble’; that was always Moo’s name for me when I was a little girl, though I didn’t find out why ‘til I was fifteen and leaving school to go into service myself, when Mummy and Daddy told me that Moo was my own natural mother who I’d thought was my lovely big sister and they told me that they would always be Mummy and Daddy, but that really they were my grandparents. That was why there were those in the village that called me names, and I’d never known.

Kate Pooley didn’t believe me. She didn’t believe that they were so harsh in those days. But they were, and that harsh religion stayed with Moo always, all that about how I was born into sin, and nothing about Christ the Redeemer, who died to save us. No, I never got on with chapel, and all that fire and brimstone and Last Things, though there are those as to who it brings comfort, I‘m sure.

When Moo was took poorly, I left her Ladyship’s and came home for good to look after her. About the time old Mrs Pooley couldn’t really manage the church anymore.
‘She never had any strength in her, Annie Pooley’ said Moo, which was a bit rich, seeing how poorly she was herself.
So the old Rector asked me if I’d like to take over. I was full of vim, and I was pleased to have something to do after retiring, and a bit of pin money didn’t go astray,. Sixteen year ago that was… no, beg pardon Lord… best part of seventeen, because I started just after Christmas.

(polishes vigorously)

And I love this Church, and I loved the old Rector too. It got so that I’d look after his vestments, and after his wife died, I’d cook for him too, three nights a week and Saturday lunch. And eat with him when I cooked. We watched the telly together sometimes, too. We kept one another company, you know Lord. That gave the village something to gossip about, I’m sorry to tell. The Rector didn’t notice of course. He never noticed bad things, not really. He was a saintly man, as you know. It would never have occurred to him that there was anything wrong in having a meal and watching ‘A Touch of Frost’ with an unmarried parishioner. And nor was there. Especially at our age.

Then the dear old Rector died last year and I lost my best friend in the village.

They buried him here at St Mary’s like Mummy and Daddy and Moo, and I still cleaned the church. And we were without a vicar for a few months, and we had a lady curate look after us, and we liked her, but she was only part time and so we looked forward and prayed for our new vicar,

but when he came he was an older man than I’d thought, not someone who could serve the village for years to come, but a man with only a few years left to go before they retired him…

…He’d been a Navy chaplain for years and years. Never been a parish priest before, not really, not unless you count aircraft carriers as a parish. I don’t think that’s right, Lord, though it’s Bishop Bob’s decision, I know, under thy guidance. Just because we’re a village, why should we get an old sailor? This isn’t a place where people retire, it’s a proper village this, with working farms, and a nice school, and jobs for the young people in the soup factory if they want it. Still lots of children here, there are. We loved our dear old Rector, you know that. But we need a young man. Or woman, even. I didn’t mind that lady curate…

…But, we got Sailor Jack…

…and I didn’t like him, forgive me Lord, though he be thy servant and thy vicar in this parish, but I don’t like him, and I never will. He don’t burn the incense, and he don’t do sung responses, and he won’t use the Prayer Book, but this silly modern service book that wants the beauty of the old words…

… mind you, the installation was lovely. I was really proud about the way I’d got the Church looking. All the best silver out from the bank to polish up… we’ve got a lovely communion cup, as you know. Hallmarked 1703. Only comes out on high days and holidays. And Mrs Griffiths who does the flowers had begged favours off all the gardeners, and I really don’t think I’ve seen a nicer display. And Bishop Bob came down, and he brought the Dean of Lichfield as his guest, who had a lovely cope, and gave the sermon. And instead of the churchwardens of his old parish presenting him to us, can you believe we had the Captain of HMS Shrewsbury! So much colour in church, just like it used to be, just how the old Rector used to describe churches in Italy. Wonderful! No wonder I prefer church to chapel!

But Sailor Jack almost spoilt the day. He didn’t say thank you to Mrs Griffiths, who’d got it looking so lovely. And not so much as a nod for me, of course. And he nearly dropped the Communion cup, that’s worth three of him, and he just made a joke about it. He’s got no respect. Lord.

But I felt my duty was to the old Rector, and to this ancient and holy place where my mother is buried so I keeped on cleaning.

Then, last Sunday…

(She stops dusting, and sits down)

Last Sunday it was so nice to see Kate Pooley back for the weekend and come to church with her young man for the first time with him. Now, I will admit that it gave me quite a start to see a… a coloured gentleman in church, and I wondered what Mrs Pooley would have made of it all, but he looked to be a fine well-made young man, handsome as you like, in a lovely suit, and I thought of Paul Robeson, and I felt myself blush.

She waved to me from across the church, because we’ll always have a chat when she’s back in the village, and I smiled over.

After the service they went to talk to the vicar, and I thought, ooh, there’s going to be a wedding. Dear little Kate, one of my favourite girls. And the Rector always give me a few pounds extra to clean up all that blessed confetti from the churchyard, though we ask ‘em not to throw it.

And I go through to the vestry after the service, and start thinking about tidying up, and the vicar comes in, and pulls off his vestments. His glasses nearly fall off his ugly great nose, and he looks up at me all red faced and smirking like a fat-faced schoolboy and says,

‘I never dreamed that I’d have to marry a nice village girl like that to a Son of Canaan.’

I said nothing, I’m afraid Lord, as you know.

Then he said, ‘I told them that they should think about it, that I wouldn’t put up the banns until they’d gone away and thought about it. It never works, does it?’

‘What’s that, Rector?’

‘When one of ours marries one of them.’

I still said nothing.

But it won’t do, and it won’t do, and it will not do.

I’ve prayed and prayed, and here we are. Here we are.

(She stands up, leaving her duster on the back of the pew.)

One of ours? One of them? Has our new vicar not read his scripture? What does he think you were sent here for, oh my dear Lord.

What… Does… He… Think?

And it will not do.

Because that’s what they call racialist, I know it is. I know it. That’s what they did to Paul Robeson.

One of us. One of us? I’ll give him one of us. Who does he think belongs here? Him, the fat-faced old fool, or Mrs. Pooley’s granddaughter Kate born in the cottage hospital and the man she wants to marry? Not put up the banns for little Kate Pooley?

So I will not clean this place while that man is here.

And all the while that man is here, I’ll not come to service, but I’ll go to the chapel, like my dear old Moo, though it’s not to my taste, and they don’t use the prayer book.

And I pray that you might forgive me for not speaking up sooner. And I pray that you might forgive him.


(She turns and leaves the church, humming ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’)

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