The New Religion
It all began the day that Martin Jenkins decided to start a new religion. Martin lived at number 42, Richmond Crescent, Bath. He was 53, balding, and his chronic astigmatism meant that the lens in his glasses were really quite thick. He was deputy head of sales at a phone subsidiary in an out-of-town shopping precinct.
"I'll be a director any time now," he boasted to his wife before she ran off with the newsagent to grow strawberries in Kent.
He was an odd choice for a messiah.
He longed to work at the company's main branch in the High Street, for a desk with his name on it and for his team to call him 'Sir'. It was never going to happen. One drizzly Thursday in mid-May he heard that yet again a younger man with lustrous curls and contact lens had been promoted above him.
"That's it," he said.
Martin was not a religious man. He'd fallen out with the local vicar when she'd refused to guarantee his wife's eternal damnation. However, Martin had always had a kind of spiritual 'itch'. This, combined with his frustration and his ardent belief in the adage 'if you want something done well, do it yourself', made what happened next almost inevitable.
One evening he was surfing the net. As he ran a search for some new wellies an advertisement popped up: 'Cut Price Vestments'. He'd never seen an ad for vestments before and he laughed at first. Then he looked thoughtful. Then he started to scribble.
Some weeks later the householders in the Crescent received a flyer through their letterbox. It read:
Living in a religious vacuum?
Searching for moral inspiration?
Angry with the council spend on recycling?
Join Brother Martin this Friday at 8.00 o'clock.
Martin rather regretted putting in the bit about recycling, but the council did annoy him, it really did. It was as if he'd personally caused global warming by letting the bin men take his Daily Mail.
He'd wondered what to call himself. Saint Martin? Lama Martin? After all, as founder of a breakaway religion he could take the best bits from everyone else. Modestly, he'd opted for Brother. He could always change it later.
He decided to start small. He'd hone his ideas on his core congregation, the local householders. Not all the householders, of course. He'd taken care not to leaflet Lucien Marksbury at no 38. Lucien, who always parked his sports car in what Martin thought of as 'his' parking space. Lucien, whose son Max was so pale, so thin and so frequently clad in black that he must either be on heroin or plotting a Columbine-style school massacre. Lucien, who never bothered to say hello. He was definitely not invited.
That Friday Martin came home from work early. He put the miniature cheese puffs and spicy spring rolls that he'd bought from Waitrose into the oven and set out the glasses on the coffee table in the front room. Then he changed.
He'd ironed his new cassock the night before. He pulled it over his shirt and trousers. Wearing a long white dress gave him an unusual feeling. Lovingly, he lifted the red silk chasuble from its tissue-lined box. He slipped it over his head. It fell to the middle of his thighs, the short sleeves brushing his elbows. It was heavy, rich with gold embroidery. He straightened his backbone and pulled back his shoulders. He looked in the mirror. A stranger was standing there, a stranger with an air of authority and wisdom. But the stranger had no hat. Martin frowned. He should have bought the mitre offered on the website.
There was a ring at the doorbell, dot on 8.00 o'clock. Martin nearly tripped in his haste to get to the door. Realising the problem, he lifted his skirts delicately between his fingers. He opened the door with his other hand. It was Jessie Hicks, no 2, upstairs flat. Her hair was as wild and wispy as ever and her eyes darted to left and right as she said:
"I've brought my viola. I thought - y'know - a musical accompaniment. Do you mind? I can take it away, but I thought you might...appreciate.... a little light music between the - whatever. I've brought a selection -"
Martin held up his hand.
"Thank you, Jessie." He thought briefly about 'Sister' Jessie. "Music is soothing to the soul. Enter."
Jessie scurried in. Martin wondered about his priestly voice. Could he carry it off? The doorbell rang again. It was Mrs Frobisher from No 15. A woman of a certain age, she was an active member of Neighbourhood Watch, the Residents' Association, the local Conservation Association, the W.I. and, for all Martin knew, every other local and national association that would have her.
"Evening Martin," she said, "Thought I'd better come and make my presence felt. Always best to be in on the ground floor. This the first meeting of your new religion, is it? Are we through here?" She swept past him into the front room where Jessie was on the floor retrieving the music she'd scattered. The bell rang again.
Martin opened the door to Rajiv, who lived at no 28, and Jonathon and Emma, no 27.
"Surprised to see you," he said to Rajiv.
"Anything to get away from the wife," grinned Rajiv, his gold tooth glittering. "Like the dress."
"They're my vestments -" Martin explained, but Rajiv went straight through to where Jessie could be heard tuning up. Jonathon and Emma, a pleasant couple who had recently moved to the Crescent, smiled hesitantly.
"We thought -" said Jonathon.
"We'd like to meet some of the -" said Emma.
"Other people in the street," finished Jonathon.
"Welcome," said Martin, solemnly. "Please. Go on through."
He was about to follow them when there was another ring at the bell.
"I've touched a chord," thought Martin, "The residents are parched for a new way. I shall quench their thirst."
He opened the door. It was Lucien.
"Rajiv told me about your shindig. This I have to see. Like the getup, dude," he said and he was in.
Grumpily, Martin followed him into the front room where he found everyone chattering happily and Rajiv polishing off the last of the cheese puffs.
Martin held up his hand for silence.
"Perhaps we can close our eyes and bow our heads for an opening prayer," he intoned - and they did. Martin felt a rush. This must be what the Pope feels, he thought, on that balcony over St Peter's Square.
After the prayer, Martin briefly outlined the barebones of his religion. Obligatory services on a Friday, the obvious no murder, thieving, coveting etc, no immoral behaviour, by which Martin meant no adultery (the congregation looked sympathetic), no drugs (Jessie took a worried swig at her wine), no bare midriffs (Rajiv stared at the ceiling - Mrs. Rajiv's tummy rippled gloriously beneath her sari), no inconsiderate non-neighbourly behaviour (Lucien raised his eyebrows) and a refusal to recycle.
To Martin's surprise they all seemed keen, although Lucien said that he wanted to point out, again, that it was unrestricted on-street parking in the Crescent. Then, they started to add their own ideas.
"No music after 10.00 o'clock."
"No vomiting in the street when drunk."
"Compulsory weeding of front gardens."
"How about, instead of fish, mandatory curry on Friday?" This was Rajiv. His brother-in-law owned the nearest takeaway.
"No dog fouling, punishable by - what's it punishable by, Martin?" asked Mrs Frobisher.
"Hellfire," Martin improvised, out of his depth by the religious snowballing. Democracy had not been his plan.
"Marvellous. Dog fouling punishable by hellfire. Are we minuting this? Shall I do the honours?"
A couple of hours later they'd drawn up a constitution, a motley collection of regulations for the new religion. Martin was sad there hadn't been time for a proper service as he'd written a blistering sermon on the dangers of recycling. However, they agreed to reconvene next week and in the meantime to put together a uniform for their missionary work in the town centre on a Saturday night. Their aim was to restore clean, quiet and pleasant streets to residents, using some minimal violence if necessary. Emma had promised to fashion an emblem for them from the feathers of birds killed by her cat, Pickles. As they drifted away, it was felt that an interesting evening had been had by all.
As the weeks went by, the congregation swelled. Once, there were 15 people in Martin's front room. Martin was pleased, particularly as Lucien never came again. A pattern was established - a service, with sermon, led by Brother Martin, followed by a barbecue on the terrace, weather permitting. Jessie provided music, now accompanied by a banjo (no 9), and a piccolo (no 17).
The first pair to patrol the streets comprised Martin, in mufti but sporting a magpie-feather badge and Jessie, sustained by a couple of double vodkas. The patrol was not a triumph. They found that most revellers left the pubs and bars in an annoyingly orderly fashion. Some hours passed before they found a fracas in a back alley. Jessie's polite tap on the shoulder had no effect on the two lads involved, so Martin stepped between them. The policeman who arrived shortly afterwards on his bicycle had little sympathy for Martin's black eye, muttering about vigilantes making his job harder.
In the light of this, Martin suggested that his congregation withdrew, temporarily, from missionary work.
"Let us retrench, and focus on the community around us," he said at the end of his sermon, which that week tackled the topic of helping thy neighbour by watching him closely.
"Let's take the plank out of our own eye," agreed Mrs Frobisher. "I'll lead a patrol tomorrow, first thing. Report back next Friday."
Friday brought bad news. Most of the Crescent were co-operative, readily agreeing to weeding, fouling and parking suggestions. However, Martin was not surprised to hear that Lucien had been recalcitrant. He'd even sworn at the missionaries. Martin stiffened his back and straightened his new mitre.
"Will we accept this?" he asked.
"No!" the congregation shouted.
"Bring him to me," Martin said.
Rajiv started to laugh, but was met by silence. Mrs Frobisher stepped forward.
"I'll go," she said. She was joined by Jessie, Jonathon and Alfred from next door, who had initially come round to ask for sponsorship for a school bike ride, but had been seduced by the cheese puffs. Mrs Frobisher led her team into the Crescent. The rest of the congregation waited, gathered around the sausages on the barbecue. Only Rajiv melted away.
Ten minutes later, Lucien was dragged onto the terrace. His hair was dishevelled and his face was red. Martin was thrilled. The mighty Lucien, the sneering Lucien, the devil-may-care Lucien, brought to Martin's terrace by Martin's command to do Martin's bidding! Imagining a flaming sword he raised the nearest thing to hand –
"Don't you wave those bloody barbecue tongs at me, you weirdo!" shrieked Lucien, "And get your monkeys off me!"
"Do you, Lucien Marksbury, agree to abide by the rules of the Richmond Religious Order?" intoned Martin.
"No, of course I bloody don't. What are you going to do, make me?" jeered Lucien. Martin turned. He lifted a red-hot coal from the barbecue and held it in the tongs. His congregation gasped. He took a step towards Lucien.
"Are you sure?" he said.
Lucien took a step back but he was held too tightly to move far.
"An arm, Brother Martin?" enquired Mrs Frobisher and she started to unbutton Lucien's cuff. As Martin took another step towards Lucien there was a scuffle at the edge of the terrace. A camera flashed. Startled, Martin turned.
"I've called the police," said Max, pointing the camera at Martin. "They'll be here any minute. One more step towards my dad and it's assault with a deadly weapon." The camera flashed again. Martin blinked his way back to his senses.
"Let him go," he said to Mrs Frobisher. She'd already dropped Lucien's arm.
"Don't think you've heard the last of this," said Lucien as he turned and stumbled out of the house.
When the police arrived, there was no incident to quell. Lucien decided not to press charges. The Chronicle, however, published a quarter-page colour photograph of a Bath resident in the dress of a full bishop brandishing a burning hot coal. Love thy neighbour, it guffawed, before warning readers that barbecue coals can be hot. Martin's congregation dwindled after that. Most of the residents felt a little sheepish. Even Mrs Frobisher was seen to apologise to Lucien. Martin was philosophical. Perhaps some of his popularity was due to the entertainment options available in Bath on a Friday night. He joined the local amdram society and is due to play the vicar in their next production.
If he's asked, Martin always says that he's learnt his lesson. But sometimes he thinks back, and he smiles as he remembers that there was just a moment when Lucien Marksbury, popular, successful Lucien Marksbury, had looked at him and been really very scared.