Wednesday, 29th September 2004.

Hag weekend, part 3

Saccharine overload, people.

We arrived at the Skeets' at about 7:00, for what was supposed to be a subdued, early evening gathering, but which quickly became six hours of merriment. Douglas and Mike were crouched round the TV, Gamecube controllers hooked up to the small black box that has brought joy into the homes of - well, hundreds. Jon sat on the couch, the king of his own calm kingdom, running around a Timesplitters arena. Tom was perched on his lap, his infant's hands fingering a wireless control pad with considerable ease. It was one of those like-father-like-son moments.

Jon switched off the TV and we hung around for an hour until the girls arrived, with Mr Knight in tow. Emily's family are, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, intense and crazy and occasionally disorganised - five or six people shouting at once, all trying to be heard. And yet they can be great fun to hang around, and I can't help liking them because amidst all the stress and short fuses and ruined itineraries, they make me laugh and laugh and laugh. Our host flipped off the They Might Be Giants album he was playing and put on the Crash Test Dummies - more suitable for communal gatherings than you might think - and as the rich harmonies of the title track to 'God Shuffled His Feet' filled the room, I looked around at everyone and smiled. Being part of the Knight clan - albeit on a legal technicality - is a daunting prospect, for various reasons...but I think I'm going to enjoy it.

Out comes the alcohol. I am reminded one of my first trips to Casa del Skeet, back in August 2000. They were in more modest quarters back then, and as we sat down in the kitchen they offered me a Baileys and asked me what I'd like with it. Not having consumed Baileys before, I asked if I could have it with Coke, which earned the same expression from Jon that he makes every time I try to make my own decisions during a session of Axis and Allies. While it actually tasted fine, the physical appearance was disgusting, with the smooth creamy substance settling on the top of the black liquid, before distilling and breaking up and looking not unlike - but hey, let's not go there. Since then, I've been promoting it as the perfect drink for blind people.

Holly discussed her career prospects, and then Jon wandered in and the three of us had a bit of a moment; I told them that I was aware our friendship had changed and moved on but that I would never forget the kindness they'd shown me over the years. Jon quite rightly pointed out that we don't see much of each other these days, and while he's quite right in his declaration that "the reasons couldn't be better", I'd like to hope that we can pick things up a bit after the wedding, when Em and I will - theoretically - be a little less busy. Theoretically.

The others persuaded me to abandon the car there overnight and have a few drinks, because "it's your hen and stag weekend, James, and the two of you need to drink". We went through the Czech wine I bought them back from Prague two years ago, and then moved onto the slightly cheaper stuff. As I handed Emily a glass of plonk, she sipped and then declared - with some provocation from me, IIRC - that it was "a Sandy wine".
"Why's that, then?" I asked.
"Because it's a rough South African."
"And it's cheap. And not very nice." I kissed her. "That's very sweet of you."

The pizza took an hour and a half to arrive, and so we snacked on Holly's home-made garlic bread and a few bowls of brownies, and talked about musicals and theology and Jon's conviction that Ewan McGregor's rendition of "Your Song" beats Elton John's (an opinion that I still drastically disagree with). In the end the alcohol began to kick in. I fought sleep for a while before giving up and curling on the floor by the couch, someone having placed a teddy bear in my arms for company. I awoke to the sound of Emily and Jon singing "House of the Rising Sun", and then when I woke again it was "Streets of London". Earlier, I thought I'd glimpsed Jon sitting on the floor, laptop resting on his knees, writing the last third of Sunday morning's sermon. I just about recall something to do with The Sound Of Music. Apart from that, there are gaps.

I remember bits of it. Days go by, and while details recede and fade, key incidents that I'd forgotten suddenly resurface, like a Polaroid that shimmers into focus. This happens a lot after parties where I've been drinking - my memory will become hazy and it's not until later that clarity returns in a somewhat half-hearted gesture. I'll be washing dishes while Emily sweeps the kitchen floor, and I'll stop in the middle of scrubbing a pan, and ask her "Did we really have a large group singalong of Do Re Mi?". And she'll look up and smile, and say "Yes, dear. You were leading it."

The next morning we rose and then drove down to Tadley for what turned out to be a wonderful service: one of the best I've attended in quite a while. Jon was in superb form (I know that he acknowledges the spirit in the same way that I try to, but let us not diminish too far his own role in proceedings) and the welcome we received was on a par with that of Ewan's church in Bristol. Em and I got a mention in the prayers of intercession, and I felt proud to be there helping to represent Tilehurst. As we stood drinking coffee in the back room, pensioners selling plants and children shuffling across a polished wooden floor, one of the stewards was telling me that the life we saw around us was "a result of old people praying. A few years ago," he went on, "we were a dying church. All pensioners. And we prayed and we thought about it and over time we managed to get this wing built. And now it's brought people in, people with families, and it's given new life and depth to this place". You could see what he was talking about.

But the highlight occurred, perhaps, as we arrived, while the introit was being sung. I should mention that despite a small congregation of only thirty people - including Jon himself, as well as Holly and the six of us - the singing was marvellous, at its best moments swelling with lustre to give the impression of at least twice that number. I knew what was on the hymn roster for the morning, having quizzed Jon about it the day before, but when we'd scampered up the path amidst hurried farewells to Douglas, we walked in to find them singing "In Christ Alone", which, as well as being a personal favourite, is also the planned closing hymn for our wedding service in a week and a half. I glanced over at Emily, and she beamed. It's like they knew we were coming.

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