As many of you probably realise, I am a very philanthropic person, always ready to help any charity or good cause. Even in my everyday life, I spend my days helping to educate others in an almost voluntary capacity without expecting so much as a thank you.
So it would come as no surprise to you, dear reader, to find out that every year I offer my services for free to help with the parish council barbeque at the local vicarage. When I say free, I am provided with a large barbeque meal and several bottles of beer. This is also the case for Lady Barton St Mary and the rest of our entourage, including The Sexton, Pen, Steeley the tinkers’ friend and She-La!
To the amusement of Benfield and Parslow, our butler and groundskeeper respectively, we cook and serve food to the elderly parishioners, who in turn can be very charming or very rude. Pen is in overall control of supplying the food and delegating duties. Lady Barton St Mary is usually put at front of house, whilst I’m usually left with the responsibility of pushing a lorry load of sausages around a white hot furnace of a barbeque until they are suitably blackened.
So it was last Saturday evening we hosted the annual barbeque in the usual downpour of rain, forcing us to huddle together over the hot coals under a gazebo.
“Have you any sausages that aren’t black?” asked one ungrateful old lady.
“No, I’m afraid they’re all like that,” replied Lady BSM.
“Why are they all black?” demanded the frowning tweedy gentleman behind her.
“Oh there’s a loose nut on the sausage barbeque,” she explained.
They accepted a burger and moved on. The Sexton’s son, Sexton Minor, came to give me a hand to avoid cremating any more meat. The Sexton was busy cooking burgers and chicken wings right next to us. A very well spoken lady collected a plate from the trestle table that served as a counter to separate us from the hungry parishioners.
“Ooo! I’d love to have a sausage!” she trilled.
The Sexton and I immediately exchanged a look before dissolving into giggles, followed by the usual Carry On style double entendres we love so much (for example, “ I do like something hot inside me”, “My, that’s an enormous sausage”, etc). Lady BSM arched an eyebrow whilst Pen lowered her head and gave us a look. We composed ourselves.
“Is that a kebab?”
A lady with a light rain mac and a dark mood was looking at me. I glanced at the large pile of meat and veg skewered on wooden sticks that she was pointing at. My opportunity for a chance to serve front of house had finally arrived. Lady Barton St Mary was observing me with caution.
“Erm… yes,” I confirmed, “would you like one?”
“It has a mushroom on it.” She indicated the offending fungi that was speared at the end of the kebab stick.
Later, Lady Barton St Mary explained that, although she appreciated my attempts at improving customer satisfaction, it was definitely contrary to food hygiene regulations and definitely very impolite to suck a mushroom off the end of a lamb kebab and place the rest on a fussy old woman’s plate; in future, just stick to burning pork product and don’t speak to the clientele.
Finally, after a successful evening of serving elderly, hungry curmudgeons, it was time for the traditional auction of promises, hosted by the local vicar. This may sound like your usual parochially tedious affair, but it never was when Reverend O’Nogg was the auctioneer.
Let me explain. John O’Nogg was a very popular vicar; in fact, he was ordained as a Canon. Locally, people knew him as Revonog, but since his ordination and due to his reputation for being outspoken, he was occasionally referred to as ‘The Loose Canon.’
Revonog was never shy to give an opinion. He was particularly weary in the company of his worshippers.
“Problem is, they’re all Christians,” he complained to me one day, “ awful people, really. Always thinking of themselves. Very judgmental. Too pious for my taste”
On the subject of faith, he was the most open minded clergyman you would ever find. On one occasion, one of his parishioners admitted to having an internal conflict of faith.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, I’m not convinced about it all myself,” he confided to the poor, confused follower, “the bible’s only meant to be a guide, not an instruction manual. Most of it is probably made up anyway.”
Though to his credit, he was always very keen to debate theology when it mattered to him. He was delighted on discovering I was an atheist; it gave him an opportunity to debate and tease in equal measure. I found him one day at the local country merchants’ stores, scratching his head and trying to work out how to lift 3 heavy bags of chicken feed into his Land Rover.
“Would you like a hand with that, John?” I offered.
“You see, Robert, there is a God” he offered with a wink.
Back to the auction of promises, where Revonog stood in front of the damp diners.
“SILENCE!!” he bellowed.
It was immediately apparent he’d quaffed a bottle or two of red wine. The Sexton and I sat up straight in anticipation. This could be entertaining.
“Right, as usual, it’s peeing down with rain, you’ve all filled your faces, let’s see if there’s any chance you miserable lot might put your hands in your pockets and bid for these glorious items, including a bottle of Metaxas that somebody obviously bought in the duty free by mistake and two bags of horse manure, ha ha, so someone’s going home with a bag of sh-”
“JOHN!” There was a shout from the back of one of the marquees from Revonog’s wife Joan.
“For goodness’ sake, shut up!”
“Ha, yes well, best get on, but before I do, I was reminded the other day of my old master, Mr Starkey, at grammar school. Terribly good at limericks. I particularly remember one of them that went: ‘There was a young man called Starkey, who fell in love with…’”
Joan was wide eyed with fear, but John was merciless and continued with his naughty limerick. Or, rather, Mr Starkey’s. The audience stared at the grass and waited for him to finish his extremely inappropriate rhyme. Mr and Mrs Kapoor, who had been living in the village for less than a year, gawped at their host in disbelief. She-La!’s eyes were like saucers and her mouth represented a wavy line.
“Right then! First lot, free service for your car at the village garage. What am I bid?”
“Forty pounds,” I offered, trying to get the ball rolling.
“Sold!” proclaimed Revonog.
“Don’t you want to take any more bids, John?” I offered.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “ look at them all. Mainly Christians. Either very poor or very tight.”
His audience stared blankly back. Did he know he’d said that out loud?
“Right. Next lot, two cakes by Mrs Farthing. Apparently you could eat one and freeze the other. Though I rather think that Mrs Farthing doesn’t have a freezer, ha!”
Eyes turned to a rather large lady in the corner, who was scowling at The Loose Canon.
And so it continued, with Revonog taking bids in pennies, until it all got too much for Joan. Rising from her chair, she strode across to our controversial ecclesiast. Although a good six inches shorter than him, she managed to reach up and pinch his right ear between her index finger and thumb and march him off to the vicarage like a naughty schoolboy.
After a short pause, The Sexton stepped in and finished off the auction with his usual charm, raising a reasonable amount of money and charming the senior citizens.
As the event came to a close and the barbeque guests started to make their excuses and leave, I turned to Steeley, the tinkers’ friend.
“Well, Revonog was on form tonight!” I exclaimed.
Steeley gave me a thoughtful look.
“Oh, I don’t know. Last year he caused a bit of a fuss when he told everyone the Bishop was gay. Joan had to pretend to faint before he started telling jokes about homosexuals.”
Our group made our way back to the vicarage to bid farewell to Reverend O’Nogg.
“Ahh thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for your invaluable help this evening.”
“No problem, John, “ said The Sexton, “same time next year?”
The Revonog gave us a broad smile.
“God willing. That’s if he exists at all, eh Robert? Ha!”