We all loved Hugh.
That is to say... I’m not sure we always loved Hugh...
When we first arrived in our soon-to-be-so-adored vicarage in Parson’s Green, in that færytale, Hans Christian Anderson snowy winter of December 1990, and I took the children to our new church on our first Sunday there as I said we ought, rather than back to the church we’d just left and really wanted to attend a couple of streets away, and we sat in the pew together but without Shaun because he hadn’t yet had his induction as vicar so was keeping a low profile, ours were the only children in the church.
Bink turned round to look at the grown-ups behind us and there was a very audible tutting and sharp, definitely disapproving intake of breath.
No wonder there were no children in the church… We soon learnt that the only member of the congregation with little ones was obliged to sit with them in a minuscule kitchen with a boiling urn barely feet away from her, and listen to the service over a sound system.
I don’t like this church, Bink whispered, far less audibly than the disapproval around us.
I think, as far as I recall (he will forgive me if I’m wrong) Hugh was one of the old guard, complaining that these new children disturbed his worship.
He was a crotchety old so-and-so when we first met him, son of a vicar himself and in his seventies.
Not for long...
Our children brought children and those children brought more, the children transformed the church and within a year it was full of children despite all the disapproval. Which eventually died a death, as disapproval does.
And Shaun’s preaching transformed Hugh.
It was not long after that, when he told Shaun that he had – now, at last , after seven decades of churchgoing – become a Christian.
And soon a very, very dear friend.
He spent one Christmas Day with us, and imbibed so much sherry that he fell off his chair. And threatened to sue the chair for breaking under him.
When, many, many years later, he was hospital-bound and unable to go to church, Shaun visited him with a couple of bottles of the same contraband... most of which was gone, between the two of them, by the time the vicar left.
And when, that February in 2015, we were invited back to our beloved church for Shaun to take Hugh’s funeral at last, Shaun happened to say to the churchwarden when the discussed matters beforehand, you know what Hugh would really appreciate at his funeral?
So sure enough, half way through the service, proceedings stopped while the sherry was handed round, a glass for every member of the congregation... and one for the coffin.
Rather wobbly it was too, when Alex and Ben and two other young men, friends of Hugh’s and ours, picked him up to carry him out again.
How we loved seeing our dear friends and dear church again! And with such a bitter-sweet, twisting of the heart, not to be one of them any more!
Our dear Parson’s Green. Our dear home. Our dear church and congregation.
I’m not often angry with Bink – less and less, as the years go by and her illness claims more and more of her – but I was angry with her that day.
We had left the church before Rose was two, so it wouldn’t have meant anything to her. Despite the golden morning sunshine streaming through the window as she sat in the font with no clothes on at all, the day of her baptism and last glorious day I remembered, before we hit harder times.
They all loved Bink.
How could Bink be the only one, of all of us, not there to say goodbye? How could she be too ill to get in a car with us, and see such old friends?
How could she be too ill for a death?
’Specially when one of our church told me that – for years and years and years, since Bink first got ill and went into hospital at the age of sixteen – curmudgeonly, stroppy old Hugh had prayed for her every single day of his life.
Until he had no more life or prayers to give.
Bink’s little prayer group gained a few more members that day.
And perhaps Hugh is still praying now. Between sips of Ambrosia and suing broken clouds…