The Goole Gospels: Chapter one

Goole was going to be good. He could feel it. Goole, in East Yorkshire. The name rolled around the tongue like a gobstopper. As he cruised along steadily in the middle lane of the M62, the Reverend Andy Powell could feel the hot spring sunshine prickling his skin through the side window. The flat landscape slipped by: luscious green fields, proud trees reaching for the sky like angels, the mighty Drax power station replenishing the heavens with billowing clouds of steam, power lines overhead sparkling with hope.

Suddenly, the car in front lurched into his lane. Jabbing his brakes, he felt the sharp stab of the seatbelt in his chest. ‘Idiot!’ he yelled, punching the horn and flashing his headlamps. His heart pounding, he glared at the car in front, still pootling along, oblivious. Then he noticed a sticker in the car’s rear window: ‘Smile, Jesus loves you.’

Andy eased into the slow lane and let the born again Ford disappear ahead, out of sight.

God grant me the serenity…

Repeating the prayer out loud, Andy waited for the anger to subside. He didn’t want anything to spoil this day, his first as the new vicar of Goole. He reminded himself that every sin can be forgiven – and that everyone gets road rage every now and then. Even the Lord had got angry. Andy imagined rush hour in first-century Galilee, donkeys pulling carts laden with urns and goats, and there was the Lord, trying to overtake in his Renault Clio, leaning out of the window: ‘Excuse me, would you mind moving over? I have a leper to heal and I’m already half an hour late.’

Andy smiled. He tried reminding himself of Good Things: he was still relatively young, he had no ties and an exciting new job. The future was ripe with possibility! His creaky Vauxhall Astra contained his entire stock of worldly goods: CDs and books in boxes, clothes crammed into a couple of battered suitcases, a few paintings and an old Bang and Olufsen hi-fi. He had given away the rest of his possessions in a burst of decluttering. Fishing around in the sidedoor tray, he pulled out a CD and slotted it into the car stereo: it was Deep Purple, and possibly the greatest riff in the history of rock: Smoke on the Water. He started drumming on the steering wheel, singing along. ‘We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline; To make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time…’

Junction 36. Rawcliffe Road, then a right turn into Boothferry Road. He took in the old red brick houses, the imposing school. This wasn’t how he remembered it, though he had little to go on; his only previous visit had been extremely brief. Arriving by train, he had been met at the station, then whisked away for a quick interview at the church. That done, he was plonked back on the train and was gone – all within a couple of hours. He had been so focused on the interview – and anxious about meeting Bishop Cecil – that he had given scant attention to the location. He had remembered Goole as being somewhat quaint, but now he could detect as sombreness about the place, the roads were narrower than he remembered and the houses not as salubrious. But nowhere’s perfect.

Sermon idea: imagine taking a seat in a cinema knowing nothing about the film you are about to see. It could be a rom com. It could be a thriller. Then the credits start to roll, and there is your name in big letters. You are the lead actor. This is a film about your life, the adventure is about to unfold.

Flicking on his left indicator, he turned into Clifton Gardens. It looked promising: tall sturdy Victorian buildings with leafy front gardens. He slowed down to look for Number 14, the vicarage. It didn’t look great. A squat 1960s construction, standing out like a broken tooth.

Parking up, he paused to absorb the gravity of the moment. ‘Lord, let this be good!’ He climbed out of his car and planted himself on the pavement. Drawing in a deep breath, he surveyed his new home. The front law and flower beds needed urgent attention; the hedges looked like they’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. Suddenly, a high-pitched buzzing sound startled him. He spun round in a panic to see a fierce-looking middle-aged woman in a motorised wheelchair careering towards him at high speed.

‘Out of the way, you fucker!’ she roared.

Andy leapt out of the way and shouted: ‘Oh, for Pete’s sake! Look where you’re going!’ He watched the woman speed off, still swearing and choking the air with expletives. Andy slapped his thigh. First road rage, now pavement rage – was no surface exempt from his anger? He could feel his heart thumping.

‘I see you’ve met Michael Schumacher, then?’

Andy jumped again, but this time there was no need for alarm: a smiling man, maybe in his mid-thirties. He had a goatee to match Andy’s, but not so neatly trimmed.

‘You must be the new vicar?’ He indicated Andy’s dog collar.

‘Yes, that’s right.’ Andy shook his head. ‘Er, about that… I don’t usually shout at people with disabilities. It’s not really part of the job. But did you see her?’

‘No worries.’ The man laughed. ‘That was Jacqueline McCormack. Probably the rudest person I’ve ever met. I’m Martin Tyler, by the way. I live across the road.’

They shook hands.

‘I’m Andy. Andy Powell. The new vicar, as you spotted.’

‘Good name! I suppose people comment on that all the time?’

‘Yes. Something like that.’

They stood in silence.

‘Anyway...’ Andy stuck his hands in his pockets.

‘Right,’ said Martin, ‘I’m off to the shops. But, listen, if you fancy a pint later, give a knock at number 25. Saturday night – has to be done! I usually head off about seven.’ His expression changed. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to presume. It’s just that the other chap liked the occasional tipple. Your predecessor, I mean.’

‘No, that’s fine. I’m not much of a drinker, really. Let me see how things go.’

‘Ok. No worries.’ Martin gave a little salute and headed off.

Andy watched him go, then looked around to check the coast was clear. He walked up to his new front door, fishing in his pocket for the key they had sent him. He took a deep breath – ‘Here we go!’ – then he stepped inside. It smelled musty. He moved from room to room: floral curtains, stripy wallpaper, deep pile pinkish carpets and bowls of potpourri. It was, at least, roomy. He already had ideas for new decor: cream walls, wooden floors and steel-framed furniture. He wanted his new home to be basic, but modern; functional, but warm; somewhere he could escape from the demands of other people’s lives.

Andy spent the afternoon testing switches, turning on taps, locating meters. He made a list of things to do. He felt the energy of spring: new life, green shoots, fresh opportunities. Working quickly and efficiently, he unloaded his car, dusted drawers and surfaces, unpacked his things. He’d even brought essential groceries: Free Trade teabags and a pint of skimmed milk. He made himself a hot mug of milky tea and sat at the kitchen table jotting down notes for his debut sermon the following morning: nothing too complicated to start with.

But then the sun started to set, and the day lost its sparkle.

‘The priesthood? Are you sure?’ His father had sounded bemused rather than cross. ‘Only the other day you were telling me how the church is out of touch.’

‘That’s the point. I want to change things. I want to be part of the solution.’

‘But what about your job? The building society is a job for life. People will always need houses.’

‘I know. But I want to do this, Dad. It feels right, somehow. I want to try something different. Be more involved. The building society just wants me to be a salesman. It feels like all I’m doing is helping people to get into debt – I feel sorry for them. I want people to know there’s more to life than getting a new house, BMW, holiday, whatever.’

‘Well, you sound very sure. But the building society is a good job. Security, that’s what you want. And a bit of fun; don’t take things so seriously.’

That was three years ago. Then there were two years at theological college – an inspiring philosophical battleground. He emerged refined by fire and ready for action, only to walk unsuspectingly into a minefield: a year-long curacy in Stockport, with a total control freak for a vicar. At college, his mind was kept busy with provocative theological debate, continually having to formulate arguments and counter-arguments. But in Stockport, with nothing to do, his mind started to wander, questioning things that aren’t supposed to be questioned. And now he found himself in Goole. Maybe he should have paid more attention to his Dad. But there’s got to be more to life than playing it safe, isn’t there?

The only sound in the kitchen was the relentless tick tick of the cheap plastic clock above the back door. Distraction was the best antidote in times like this, but what could he do? He didn’t know anyone and he didn’t know his way around. He could go out and explore, but he’d still be alone with his thoughts. He thought of the bible verse: ‘I will send the true Spirit to comfort you. He will come from my Father…’ That’s as maybe, but why is the comfort never there when you really need it? Andy got up and started pacing the kitchen. Then he remembered his neighbour, the friendly one. Suddenly a pint sounded very welcome. He needed to get out there and start meeting people. That was his job, after all. Plus, this friendly guy might know some women: a wife isn’t going to simply turn up on your doorstep no matter how hard you pray.

And so it continued...