“Are you sure I can’t help you out with an Uber?” Father Joe sounds insistent as he walks with us from the grandeur of the big house through the courtyard to the busy Fulham high street. We both decline politely for the third time – George is keen to find the others at the pub. “Well, it was a delight to have you both!” He pulls us into a great flamboyant embrace. Chris walks back towards us, wine glass in hand, and joins the group hug. We stand for a few moments before breaking away. The two vicars stand waving us off before disappearing back to their remaining guests and their washing up.
It was half past five, and the crowds were teeming. I had spent at least seven minutes walking seven yards, and my head, beaten down by the sunshine, was throbbing. The bells made it worse. St Mary’s Church was saluting the start of the boat race with enormous excitement. I looked up to see several people on the roof. My head turned to look across the river at the corresponding church tower. Sure enough, the matching bells were answering. Sure enough, there was a group of people poking their heads over the edge. Lucky for some. Down on the water, the boats were setting off. I couldn’t see. I wasn’t too unhappy about it – the scrum was too much to deal with after a day of standing in the heat. (The bottle of warm prosecco probably hadn’t helped either.) I was jealous of those churches on the river, however, and briefly lamented the fact that the only view All Saint’s Putney had to offer was the Common. Perfectly pretty but no good for boat viewing. I looked at my phone to see a message from George,
“On the roof, shall I wave?”
How annoying. I took an exasperated swig from my free bottle of Smart Water, and prepared to battle through the swarms to the other side of the bridge. The cool quiet church was welcome respite after the haze, and the following two hours of music even more so. The sun fell over Putney as Bach’s St John Passion continued, but the celebrations didn’t end. When I eventually came out again, full of pride for George and moved by the music, the pumping bass bouncing across the water from the party boat on the other side was a comical contrast.
“How do you feel about dinner with the vicars?”
George greeted me, explaining that he’d been invited and couldn’t say no. My trepidation was mixed with a burning desire to see what it would be like – the vicarage was, by all accounts, spectacular. I did agree. The promise of curry was too much to turn down. Joe seemed delighted, and led us through the church yard and round to the house. We took the long route (so as to lure the large Jellicle cat home), through the deep blue evening that smelled of summer and wild garlic. The house was picture perfect as we approached through the garden. Brightly lit, with laughter emitting through the kitchen windows, thrown open wide. Just as we crossed the threshold of the French windows, George and I looked at each other, both wondering what to expect. Looking back, we couldn’t have predicted any of it.
The sitting room we walked into was full of fresh-faced, quiet teenagers, all dressed in black, and a middle-aged couple. Some or all of them – I think – were Scottish. Joe began an introduction but whisked us through to the kitchen before any further explanations. The kitchen was alive with activity. Vicar Chris was wearing an apron and grappling with a bhaji. Sam shoved a chilled Polish beer into my hand and went off to commune with the cat. Meanwhile organ Chris, in an attempt to be helpful, had started to transfer samosas and poppadums from the oven on a wooden board. The vicar yelped. What had appeared to be a serving dish was apparently a door. “You’re serving my hor d’oeuvres on a cupboard!” He shrieked, before preceding to replace the board onto its hinges above the sink.
“Have some of this Branston’s”
George passed me the bowl of artisan lime pickle, which didn’t even nearly resemble the ghastly household brand. We talked of the music and of the raffle that I had spectacularly lost at that morning at church. Nobody would accept my excitement at the Cambridge ladies’ success, claiming that, as the Oxford boat had caught a crab at the beginning of the race, it wasn’t a fair win. George is the true expert when it comes to rowing, so I swallowed my competitiveness and didn’t dare suggest that the crab might have been their own fault. I was probably wrong anyway. We turned back to our food. The vicars claimed to have slaved away all week cooking various curries for our enjoyment, although we were interested to see that Waitrose had kindly printed labels for their dishes. There was also an Aloo, which we simply had to try, and a tandoori chicken which we ripped apart happily.
The wine flowed and the conversation see-sawed from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again with ease. One of the potentially Scottish teenagers regaled us with stories from her Catholic halls run by nuns, and Vicar Chris came dangerously close to repeating his fabled performance of Life is a Cabaret – a showstopper at the All Saint’s Putney spring concert which we were sad to have missed … and very suddenly everyone was leaving. Ubers came and went, and it was just us. It was like leaving Narnia, walking out of the ornate front door of the beautiful old house, adorned with paintings of Charles II’s many mistresses and the occasional photo of the cat. Immediately the peaceful summertime garden was a distant memory, a million miles from the loud street filled with Chinese nail parlours and taxis. I considered looking back towards the house as I walked away, but feared that it would disappear if I did. So instead we headed to the normality of the circle line and sleep.