GILBERTINE & THE EXCHANGE (Volume One): Chapter 4, St. Cyprian’s, 19 June 1964

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When it came to making new friends, Mum had been a bit – if just a bit – luckier than I’d been; through her, my own prospects began to improve. But through her came new burdens, as well.

Mum was very CoE: You might say that the better part of her life revolved around the Church. By this, I don’t mean tea circles, quilting groups or such. These days, I believe in reincarnation; I’ve little doubt Mum was Joan of Arc in a previous life.

A “land girl” for over seven years, Mum, after being demobbed and completing university, had engaged in community outreach programs throughout Birmingham’s churches. It had nearly broken her heart to leave them and, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind, or in Dad’s, that, if it were possible, she’d build the same kind of outreach, or something like it, in our new home – particularly since her immigration status did not, for the moment, allow her to have paid employment,

So, though we’d scarcely finished unpacking, Dad and I had been annoyed, but not particularly surprised, when Mum frog marched us down to St. Cyprian’s Episcopal in “Old Town,” as we called the original heart of “New Danzig”, with its pre-1930s buildings (about half Victorian/Edwardian), around which the rest of “Liberty Heights”, “Valle Linda”, or whatever had been built.

It stood at the end of Mayfair Court, off to the south side of Camden Way, between Fourth and Fifth Streets, looking, for all the world, like some kind of faux Victorian Gothic monstrosity straight out of Fantasyland. Its cornerstone said it had been built and dedicated in 1928.

A variety of support buildings, including a nursery school and a thrift shop, took up both sides of Mayfair, all the way back to Camden. Many were vacant now but I could see Mum’s features brighten, coming alive with her plans for them all. From its size, and the fact there’d once been a Red Car station at Camden and Third, I surmised St. Cyprian’s had once been intended to serve the bulk of the faithful within at least a 20-mile radius, maybe more. Since the day that cornerstone had been laid, the church buildings had been tweaked, but never essentially modified. Even the bell tower still loomed over the back of the church, it had stood for over three decades, accessed from a private stairway that began in the back of the choir loft.

The choir loft itself was a forbidding fortress-like thing, on the left-hand side, accessed by a heavy, winding faux ebony staircase that jutted well into the pews. The front of it formed a balcony of sorts over a portion of the Stations of the Cross. It housed both the adult and boys’ choirs, as well as the church pipe organ, with its four manual console plus pedal board, connected to an array of pipes as massive as the loft was, on the right-hand side of the church. There was an upright piano for choir practice, the organ itself reserved for services, or at least final rehearsals prior to choral performances on the holiday services.

 

Stained glass was ubiquitous throughout the church, and its main source of daylight came from the clear glass of a dome that stood above the space between the altar and the congregation. Even there, a faux candelabra hung in the center. the only site of bright light during evening and night times, as opposed to the candles and the amber lighting that pervaded the rest of the church.

 

 

The altar itself was an equally massive blending of baroque and rococo filigree framing a pair of thrones, flanking an immense, detailed painting of the Crucifixion, seen clearly from any of the back pews, framed in even more massive and elaborate filigree.

Pillars framed the dome on either side, the stained glass windows behind the altar were forever glowing  like jewels’

It was majestically impressive — much to much so to be very welcoming.

On the bright side, warm and friendly clergy came along with the Gothic intimidation.

 

Rev. Farnsworth was the priest in charge, a strapping, avuncular Yorkshireman, who might well have played rugby in his youth. Now in late middle age, he’d become rather paunchy and jowly, his curly, sandy hair thinning a bit, but he’d the contented smile of one who’d found his place in the world and was at home in his skin. He’d an irresistibly outgoing, inviting way – irresistible, that is, to anyone but Dad.

The main rectory was on one of the upper floors, and could well have housed a mid-sized office with room to spare. Dad glowered in a rectory corner, almost lost as he played chess against himself and trying to ignore the conversation going on as Rev. Farnsworth served Mum and me afternoon tea. The good reverend had misgivings over the nature and extent of commitment church women might have to some of Mum’s ideas but said he was willing to let her send up “a few trial balloons,” to see what might happen. Mum “let it slip” that I’d had a formidable amount of ability and instruction in music theory and composition, and a “lovely” soprano voice, almost offering me up as a sacrifice to ensure her community projects were given a fair trial.

Rev. Farnsworth seemed delighted to hear it. Before I knew what was happening, I was standing before the rectory grand piano, singing my heart out for Rev. Vickers, who accompanied me. He was even more thrilled, Two minutes into my audition, he was over the moon, his eyes lit to an almost dangerous degree, and we adjourned  to a smaller rectory elsewhere in the church complex.

He’d the title “Associate Priest.” We’d have called him  a  “Curate,” in England. He was pushing 70, rather on the short side, with the pseudo-medium build of a once slim man who, bit by bit, was going to fat. He’d a well-placed “combover” attempting to compensate for his missing hair. But his bright eyes and kindly smile could’ve lit everything within the Church’s original twenty-mile radius – and probably had, more than once, in his distant past.

 

It was said that Rev. Vickers was a third grandfather to every kid at St. Cyprian’s. He served a number of functions, but his primary – and favorite – one was serving as the director of the adult, boys’ and children’s choirs.

He loved all music: chamber music, opera, symphonic, folk, blues, ragtime, swing, country-western, cool jazz, Broadway, music hall – he even loved rock & roll – but his favorite, quite predictably, still remained CoE choral music, particularly the arrangements of David Willcocks, which I knew well. More apposite, he knew his music – that soon became clear as we talked – and he knew I knew mine.

I knew what was coming. I didn’t want to appear churlish, or ruin a good first impression I knew Mum wanted to make, but I wanted no part of being lead soprano in a boys’ choir whose average age was about nine. I’d be one of its eldest members, if not the eldest, and I now realized there was a reason why my former school had placed an age ceiling of 11 years on the boys’ choir.

No matter how “glorious” a voice (his word) I had or that, at exactly five feet tall, seven and a half stone, I was a bit “diminutive” for my age, I’d still be a galoot amidst the tiny tots, the elephant among the cute little critters. He said that he’d something to show me, but Rev. Farnsworth interrupted. I asked for some time to think it over when he asked me.

Then came the incident – or accident – or whatever it was – which serendipitously relieved me from any immediate need to make any decision, and brought new friends into my life.

 

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