I’m not much of a breakfast person. I got a take-away cup of coffee at the YMCA cafeteria and limped down to the front desk to settle my bill. The reception was awash with people. Some blokes had just returned from their regular morning marathon, and stood steaming happily in the foyer, congratulating each other on a super performance. In another corner a flock of serious mothers had gathered, chattering reproachfully amongst themselves, because the room where they usually let their toddlers play while they drank green tea and exchanged vegan recipes had been taken over by a summer holiday workshop for teenagers making bows and arrows. And the weekly Wednesday morning service, semi-informally called “a pause for thought” was just ending. The speaker, a fellow of 30-something in corduroys and button-down shirt, was cheerfully shaking hands at the door to the chapel.
Behind him a flipchart informed me that today’s topic had been “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil. (1 Peter 3:12)”
The old chap who worked the front desk was still gone trying to scrounge up an alternative room for the mothers, who had already rejected two offers. (One had been recently painted and still smelled of the fumes, the other was too far up the stairs. Two of the group were pregnant. I mean, men, sheesh, right?) I was getting restless and thought about scarpering.
Suddenly I became aware of someone’s eyes feeling me up. It was the smart fellow from the chapel. Like white gloved fingers his gaze ran over my body, exposing the sweat and grime on my skin, the dust on my t-shirt, the white patches of salt under my arms and on my back where the sweat had dried, and finally lingered a bit on the creases of my jeans. It made me feel dirty and naked. Defiantly I dug out my fags and shook one from the pack. When I put it between my lips there was a shocked gasp from the mothers, who in unison pushed their toddlers at me, human shields in a war of morals, and erupted in enraged titters.
Then the fellow was at my side, now shaking my hand, albeit with less cheerful geniality and with more earnest manliness instead. “I do not look down on you, my son,” his expression disclosed, “in spite of your sins. No, I accept you as you are, as one man accepts another. Because I am tolerant, and wise, and strong.” I had seen this expression before, on the faces of guidance counsellors, social workers, and police psychologists.
It isn’t the false, patronizing arrogance that gets me. Arrogance I can live with. It’s what the arrogance is hiding: They are not trying to convince me to trust them, even though if asked that would be what they would think they were trying to do. What they are really trying to convince me of, however, is that somewhere deep down, they are bad boys, too. They do not accept me – they ask me to accept them. What their arrogance is hiding is nothing but envy.
He gave me his name, which I immediately forgot again, and when he sensed that mine wasn’t forthcoming in return, he smoothly segued into an invitation.
“I saw you standing here, and you looked a bit lost. So I am wondering, would you perhaps like to join us for a second breakfast? There is always a little sit together at the cafeteria after the service.”
I disengaged my hand and wiped it on the seat of my jeans.
“I wasn’t at the service.”
He laughed, sounding chummy, understanding, condescending and still secretly pleading, all at once.
“Well, feel free to join anyway. Maybe you want to attend our next service. You are not from here, are you, lad? How long will you stay? You can also just come here for some quiet prayer, anytime. The chapel is open to everyone.”
“Sorry, I don’t pray that way.”
He sank his teeth in this like a young beagle in a stick offered for tug-of-war. I swear, you could almost see his waging tail.
“Maybe you want to give it a try. You should, just try. Talk to him. Can’t harm, can it? God does not give up on us. If we confide in him and ask for his forgiveness…”
My scornful snort cut him short. A look at my face and he made one step backwards. Was it the anger on my face that shocked him? The hatred shining in my eyes?
“Believe me, mate,” I snarled. “I don’t want God’s forgiveness. I certainly don’t want to talk to Him. I want to pay what I’m due.”
I handed him the 14 pounds.
“Just give it to the bloke when he’s back, will you?”
Glaring at the collective mothers I sparked up and left in a cloud of smoke.