I used to keep God in a box. Well, actually it was a tin, a Golden Virginia tobacco tin that my grandfather gave me. I kept the tin on the bookshelf in my bedroom next to Five Get Lost at Sea. Every night before I went to sleep, I’d take down the tin, open it and talk to God.
Then, one day, I caught chickenpox. I soon discovered how boring it was staying in and it made me wonder if God got bored in my tobacco tin so I put him in the pocket of my jacket with my Polos instead. That way he came everywhere I went and, as I kept my jacket in my wardrobe, I could still talk to him at night. He stopped smelling of tobacco and started smelling of mints.
But one day I was getting ready to go out and I couldn’t find my jacket. I said, ‘Mum, have you seen my denim jacket?’
She said, ‘That old thing? You’re getting too big for that. I thought I’d get you a new one for your birthday.’
‘But where is it?’ I said.
‘Oh, some people were collecting for starving children in Ethiopia so I gave it to them,’ she said.
‘What good’s my jacket to starving children? And how could you do that without asking me?’
‘Haven’t you got any homework to do?’ my mother said.
I found out which shop it had gone to and I went to get it back but they must have packed it up and sent it already because it wasn’t there. I was upset at first but then I thought God would probably be more use to a starving child than to me ‘cos I had plenty to eat and he was good at making food go round. And after a while I got used to it, not talking to God, I mean. I missed our chats at first but then I met Kevin and I forgot about God.
Then not that long ago I got friendly with a girl called Sue. One day we were having hot chocolate in Verdi’s when she suddenly looked at me, all intently. I thought I must have cream on my nose and I went to wipe it but she said, ‘I’ve got to ask you – have you met Jesus?’
I was about to say that I used to know his dad when she said, ‘only I’d love you to come to our church and I could introduce you to Jesus.’
I thought I might as well go so I did and Sue introduced me to lots of people but none of them was called Jesus. I thought perhaps he was using a different name so as not to stand out, so I sniffed a few just in case. But no-one smelled familiar.
I was a bit disappointed because I’d been looking forward to meeting Jesus, but I kept on going because they were nice people and I didn’t want to hurt Sue’s feelings. Then one day, the man at the front was talking about God being omnipresent. He said that means he’s everywhere, ‘in the sky, in the trees, in the clouds, in the wind,’ he said. ‘Mmm,’ I thought, and the next day I went for a walk around the cliffs. And, do you know, he was right. God was there. I could see him in the brightness of the sunlight; could hear him in the crashing of the waves; taste him in the salt of the spray; smell him in the coconut gorse; feel him in the wind on my face. He’d put poetry in my soul. It was bad poetry, but it was a start.
I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to tell Sue. I phoned her when I got home. ‘Sue, I’ve met God round the cliffs.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ she said.
‘And he smells of coconut.’
‘Oh,’ she said.
I kept going to church but I used to sit there feeling smug. All these people who’ve got it wrong I’d think. I wanted to tell them God wasn’t in church but round the cliffs, I could show them the exact spot, but I thought that was being a bit cheeky as I was a relative newcomer so I just sat there and hugged my secret to myself. It was a bit like having God in my tin again, just for me.
Then one day, a few weeks ago, I was in a meeting, and listening to someone speaking. Actually I was half listening because I was looking around at the same time. At the other side of the room I could see a man with a beard. He was making coffee for someone who’d just arrived late. Standing next to him was a man with a shaved head and lots of tattoos; I’d seen him deal gently with a drunk. Sitting at one side was a woman. You can see from her face that her life hasn’t been easy but her eyes were shining. Near her was another woman. Her eyes were closed but her skin that only months ago had been furrowed was smooth. Across from them were two lads who, despite having their own troubles, help others in charity shops. And then there was the man whose wife is seriously ill. And the girl whose intelligence and thoughtfulness can stay hidden unless it’s looked for. And the woman who doesn’t often speak but when she does, you want to listen. And the man and his dog who share everything. And the woman who’s come into the warm to sleep. Then I caught the eye of the speaker and he’s grinning as he talks over the snoring.
And suddenly I realised. I’d been looking so hard I couldn’t see.
God was in church, just as real-ly as he is out on the cliffs. And maybe he does smell of coconut or tobacco or mints - or alcohol.