Chapter 6: Ready and Raring to Go
`Where's Ware?' I had asked, when the tiny membership of a church there had invited me to consider the vacant pastorate. I found out when I set off to spend a trial weekend at the church.
The train clattered out of Liverpool St Station and I settled back in my seat, apprehensive but excited about the possibility of becoming a minister of the Gospel. I tried to keep calm by concentrating on the scenery; industrial density was soon ousted by fields and hedgerows rushing by. We thundered between fragile wooden buildings that passed for railway stations, and left weather beaten name boards swinging wildly in our wake. At last, the train pulled into my station and I set foot in Ware for the first time.
The town is small and nestles in the lovely countryside of Hertfordshire. The church itself is appropriately situated on Church Street, which loops around the back of the main shopping centre. `It's a converted Fire Station,' the Church Secretary proudly informed me. As we toured the building, a spiritual flame of Olympian proportions was burning in my heart. If the members wanted me as their Pastor, I was ready and raring to go. Unknown to me, a few `firemen' attended the meetings, and in the months ahead they seemed determined to put out the blaze in my life.
Amid great expectations, my Induction Service took place one Saturday in the autumn. The church had not long been in existence; a number of members were spiritually weak and barely established in the faith. So growth and maturity were my first priority. But there was also the need to draw new members to the church. Our efforts to attract converts were largely confined to the Sunday evening service when the traditional evangelical appeal was made. `Raise your hand to indicate your desire to follow Christ,' I urged. A few hands were raised but they proved to be waving goodbye, rather than hello!
It was only after my do-it-yourself exploits that the converts really seemed to stick. The Trustees decided that the ageing floor covering in the church needed a spruce up. I volunteered to apply a sealant and shine treatment and set to work during the week. Directions on the tin promised a twenty-four hour, rock-hard finish. Sunday duly arrived, but the substance still seemed tacky. Nevertheless, the heating was activated, the flowers arranged, and the congregation welcomed. Halfway through the second hymn there was a terrible commotion; the warmth of the gas heaters had liquefied the special paint and most of the members were stuck fast! The church took on a mosque-like appearance as parishioners tried to lever their shoes off the floor.
I had fully expected my preaching to galvanise the congregation to new heights of spiritual and numerical growth. Alas, for one dear lady my sermons were like sleeping pills! She often attended the mid-week Bible study, sitting near the front right under my nose. Whenever I made a point, she would nod her head. Her agreeable nature greatly encouraged me until I noticed she had a list to starboard and her eyes were closed. `Noddy' was gently eased upright by a woman sitting on her right. She promptly keeled over in the opposite direction. A lady on her left, obligingly jacked her up again. There was an action replay every few minutes. But as soon as the final hymn was announced, `Sleeping Beauty' revived and enthusiastically joined in the singing.
Seeing my confidence had taken a knock, her two `minders' gave me an explanation: `It isn't your preaching Pastor, she's drugged up with pills. Walking medicine cabinet, she is. We deliberately flank her in the meetings; we know just how she'll fall.'
Both `minders' were caught by surprise at the next meeting. Instead of falling sideways, the dear lady crashed forward into some flimsy furniture! A chair collapsed, then the congregation followed suit. When everyone finally sobered up, there was some clearing away to be done.
Onerous and honorary, are the two words that sum up the work of church cleaners. The weekly rota embraced a faithful few, who always tackled dirt and dust vigorously; they swept me off my feet with their dedication.
One of our Mrs Mops was a small, beaming, roly-poly woman. Mrs Brett was determined to back the Pastor in every way possible. Like many members, she gave liberally toward the upkeep of our struggling church. Every little mattered to Mrs Brett. Take care of the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves,' she would say.
She always found time to check the offering bags, however hard-pressed the cleaners were. It was her habit to feel in the corners, in case a coin or note had been accidentally left inside. One bitterly cold morning she picked up a bag, as usual, but when she thrust her searching fingers into the aperture a frightened mouse ran out and dashed up her flailing arm. There was an almighty shriek — and Mrs Brett's interest in offering bags ceased forthwith. But I stopped laughing soon enough when a whole army of furry little friends settled in.
`Jack's gone into hospital — operation today.' A worried Doreen Searles was on the telephone, begging me to visit her husband in Hertford General. From the conversation I deduced that the operation was not all that serious - in spite of the natural anxiety in Doreen's voice.
`Right, I'll go over this afternoon. Don't worry, he'll be okay.' With further comforting words and a short prayer, the conversation ended.
Panic took hold of me as I replaced the receiver. This was to be my first official hospital visit as the new minister, and I felt totally inadequate. As my Vespa scooter sped along the country road toward Hertford, someone kept pressing the `abort' button in my brain. Maybe I should have given up and gone back home.
Brilliant summer sunshine bathed the hospital parking lot where I left the scooter. This was the hottest day of the year. `Phew, it's roasting in them wards today,' said the porter who acted as my guide.
Jack had only just returned from the theatre. Nurses darted around to make him comfortable, adjusting apparatus and checking plastic tubes that snaked under the sheets. My parishioner hardly knew me — the anaesthetic was still affecting him. I pulled up a chair and bent low over the bed to add privacy to our Bible reading and prayer time. The combination of summer heat and pungent ether soon took it's toll. Jack's expressionless face started to float on the pillow and the print of my Bible kept coming and going. Urgently I whispered in his ear, `Jack I'm not feeling too good — must slip out for some fresh air.'
The exit door seemed a long way off. The ward floor heaved like a ship's deck in a force nine gale; and all the time my internal lights were dimming. I actually reached the door: with a loud thud I crashed into it and the floor came up to meet me. `Catch him, quickly,' the Ward Sister's voice sounded miles away. Then my lights went out.
I came to lying on a ward bed. Sister was leaning over me. `We've loosened your clerical collar and your Bible's in the locker — lie quietly until you recover.' Eventually, one pink-faced pastor was ignominiously dispatched home by ambulance. After that initial nightmare, the visitation programme settled into a more predictable routine. But further surprises were still in store.
Dear old Martha lived all alone in a rambling semidetached house in the middle of my parish. She was a widow of great age and blind, but a bright Christian spirit still shone inside the old lamp. On pastoral visits her greeting was always the same — a throw-back to her husband's days as a train driver: `He's got his hand on the throttle,' she would say with a cheeky toothless grin, prodding a finger towards the ceiling.
A family of mice had taken advantage of her sightlessness and made their residence in her home. The mice religiously attended Devotions, slipping from their holes and sitting around the edge of the room. I had no intension of standing on a chair and screaming, but this was one house where I prayed with my eyes open. Only the very loudest sounds could break up this rodent rally. Therefore Psalm 23 was bellowed out, making the tea cups rattle. After a short thunderous prayer, one breathless and nervous young pastor would race down the garden path, convinced he had a case for St Francis of Assisi.
The day came when Martha's neighbours respectfully closed their curtains and lined the kerb. The black hearse carried her remains to the cemetery, but the train driver's widow had already departed for Glory on the Gospel Express.
One summer evening, the whole congregation stood on the pavement outside the church to watch Ruth and me set out for home in our latest vehicle. We climbed into an ancient, three-wheeled, Bond mini-car, purchased that very day. The coachwork was bronze, with a long bonnet housing a motorcycle engine and one front wheel. Beneath the canopy top there was room for just two people. Ruth squeezed into the car and I followed, shutting the door and gunning the engine. It was then that our Church Secretary, Mr Beckenham, noticed the unique feature on the car — there was only one door, on the driver's side. Someone struck up a Sunday School chorus:
One door and only one
Yet its sides are two,
I'm on the inside
Which side are you?
We pulled away in a cloud of blue smoke and could still clearly hear our full-throated members as we turned into the main street and headed for our little flat in Harlow. Bang! A mile out of town, the front tyre burst and the steering went haywire. I fought for control but finally ended up on the grass verge. We clambered out and ruefully surveyed the damage. Just then the last bus for Harlow roared past, and we were left to walk nine long, dark miles home.
The next day my sister Irene and her husband Albert kindly towed the car to Harlow; and we were back on the road in a few hours. However, the car continued to develop mechanical hiccups, until it eventually ground to a halt and gave up the ghost. We entered a particularly terrible and vicious winter that year; ponds and lakes froze over, and icicles hung like silver spears from the balcony of our fourth-floor flat. In the car park below stood `Calder's Folly', untaxed, unlicensed and unusable. Several inches of snow pressed down on. the canvas canopy, which eventually split under the heavy weight.
I was feeling down in the dumps because all my funds were tied up in that car. However, I energetically placed the matter before the Lord. Two weeks later there was an astonishing answer to prayer. The door bell rang. `Is that your Bond mini car downstairs?' My questioner was an eager little man who pawed the ground impatiently as he awaited my answer. When I replied the stranger pressed me to sell him the car. I frankly explained all the negatives — nothing would deter him. In the end, he bought the car for more money than I had originally paid and towed it away immediately. Since I had not discussed with anyone my desire to sell, I regard the transaction as miraculous.
Stale tobacco fumes and body odour engulfed me when I opened the door of the telephone box. On a cold Sunday morning in July I was eager to contact the Herts and Essex General Hospital. Impatiently I dialled out the number with an index finger. The mechanism, which seemed to be suffering from arthritis, returned very slowly between digits, but finally I got through.
`Maternity Ward, please ... Hello, Ken Calder here. Can you tell me if my wife's had the baby yet?'
`Congratulations, it's a boy!' An authoritative voice crackled back down the line. `If it's convenient, you can come in immediately to see your wife and new baby.'
In euphoric mood I travelled the nine miles to Bishops Stortford, but parental joy was quickly dashed on entering the hospital. A tight-lipped Ward Sister drew me into a private office. She then said bluntly, `The child has club feet.'
Those words hit me like a bucket of ice-cold water. Thoroughly dejected, two new parents met on the ward to commiserate with each other but there seemed little relief from our enormous shock.
In that dark hour, the actions of an unknown nurse lifted our drooping spirits. The staff living quarters are adjacent to the maternity ward and all kinds of sounds filter across from there. While playing her music centre, the nurse providentially threw open her window, just long enough for one line of a song to drift on the air. We heard only the words, `He's got the little tiny baby in His hands.. ..' The the window slammed shut.
That timely incident filled us with peace and comfort. We now felt that God was aware of the emergency and about to come to our aid.
Eight weeks later, the Service of Dedication was held for our baby, whom we named Graham. During the ceremony the shawl fell away from his legs to reveal tiny feet — twisted and almost grotesque in appearance. The knife of anguish turned yet again in our hearts, but the grace of God mightily sustained us; our morale was to be positively bolstered by the many prayers made on our behalf. I was unaware that the same congenital deformity would befall my second son too — but that birth was still in the future.