September 5th, 08:04. I talk to God in the bathroom, for two reasons. It’s a good opportunity to sit down and compared to chatting to Him with others present, I feel less insane.
The bathroom at the West London vicarage where I’m lodging is covered in Victorian knick-knacks. The weekend I moved in, the rector and his family were away so the place was empty. Walking up five flights of grand staircases in the dark, I felt like a sort of mad Miss Haversham figure, except for the fact that I’m renting (she owned).
‘I definitely don’t fit here,’ I say. I’m from Plymouth, and I don’t actually have a degree.
I’m here because the Church of England is scaling up its crisis communications team following a six-month period of unprecedented scandals and cock-ups: God does Twitter now, but he badly needs a copywriter. This was the subsidised housing option. I’ve signed a years’ contract on both the job and the room. I think I’m the fulfilment of a diversity quota, for both.
He’s not usually known for his sassiness but God replies, leaning against the antique bathtub, ‘Totally wouldn’t worry, me neither. If I come back tomorrow, it won’t be to Belgravia.’
September 8th, 12:20. Someone else who doesn’t fit is F. He went to university with my best friend, and is now a very junior parliamentary reporter for a broadsheet. It’s the kind of job the girls in my class at school all felt we’d get, but now we are almost all working in retail or married to a marine. I am only here on a fluke.
‘It’s very junior and very temporary,’ he says. ‘In nine months’ time I have a one-way ticket back to Australia, like an eighteenth century convict.’
We’re in the Commons canteen, which has caused him to gain four pounds in the month he’s been here, though he is still considered medically underweight. He has a look on his face, always, of stoic bewilderment. I find this gorgeous, for reasons I am not wholly aware of.
As we pick up our cutlery he says that he hasn’t worked out where the trash is in here, and so every time he leaves, he has to take his cutlery with him. So far, he has reluctantly stolen over twenty forks.
I say thanks for lunch, that it’s good to find a friend.
‘Well, if you’d like to see me, I’m pretty much free for the next nine months.’
‘You could also ask to see me, you know.’
He’s baffled. ‘That would be very presumptuous.’
September 15th, 10:14. My new boss is quitting smoking, and has a vanilla-scented vape. He is very tense.
‘Naked beatings,’ he says. ‘Not the right look for a vicar. Even though they were all consensual, and of age. And even if it was the seventies.’ The vicar in question, now retired, used to lead a prominent college chapel in Cambridge where scores of young intellectuals – not unlike F – were under his care.
Our project manager says dryly, ‘You have to wonder why this sort of stuff keeps happening. Or keeps coming out. It’s pretty much a story a month at the moment.’
‘And that’s exactly the point of the release,’ says my boss. ‘That it will not keep happening.’
He slams down his laptop, stands up and wafts out of the room in a cloud of cupcakes. It’s alarming to me, the extreme terseness of the process of repentance.
September 17th, 13:36. ‘The fact is,’ says F in his Cambridge Union voice, ’that they’ve sat on the results of the internal enquiry for almost two years now. I suppose in the hope that, if they keep quiet about it, they’ll piss fewer people off.’
I’ve been playing with my soup since we sat down. ‘I suppose good PR isn’t necessarily very Christlike.’
‘It’s not even good PR. The next time a story breaks, the press will prod them about what else they’re sitting on. That will be worse for them, as it’s involuntary.’
He looks at me, slightly horrified. But also his hand is further out along the table, in a way he is pretending is unintentional.
There are many things I’d like to tell him, but do not.
October 1st, 18:32. Inside the vicarage bathroom, there’s a black and white school photo of our rector’s: Radley in the fifties. F has sent me a blog he wrote once about Sunday school in Australia, which ends by saying that he doesn’t feel comfortable in churches any more.
‘To be honest,’ I say to God, ‘He’s kind of not wrong.’
‘Yeah, I hear that,’ says God, who is sorting out some old shampoo bottles from inside the cabinet. ‘Oftentimes churches haven’t got a bloody clue who I am.’
When F is incredulous about drownings in the Mediterranean, or looking gently down at his plate in the canteen, he looks a bit like God. ‘I’m not exaggerating because I fancy him,’ I say, ‘but sometimes he definitely looks like you. Which he shouldn’t, surely? He thinks you’re “the biggest crock I’ve heard”, which I googled and it means bullshit.’
God tosses a pink bottle of pastel hair toner in the bin. ’Some people are outside the church and don’t know it yet. And some people are inside and don’t know it yet.’
I think about this while I tear off some loo roll. ‘I don’t think he’d want to be inside. That’s the thing.’
God raises an eyebrow, but that’s it.
October 3rd, 12:40. I go to his office for lunch. We’re in the alcove which hides the sink. As I’m washing up our mugs, F arrives quietly behind me and slides his hand over mine. It is the most awkward thing that has ever happened to me. I pretend that he is reaching for the mug and give it to him, placing the sponge in his other hand.
He continues the washing up, pretending that nothing has happened.
October 14th, 8:45. While our crisis communications plan is still in development, the disgraced vicar releases his own statement, rendering our plan void. I read it on the tube.
’Of course, I see now that these lighthearted forfeits – all meant in a spirit of good fun and mutual encouragement – might be misconstrued as sexual, and for that I have nothing but deeply felt regret. Having already resigned my pastoral responsibilities, I have also now withdrawn from all aspects of public ministry.’
I text F, who confirms that it is wild what passes for an apology. ‘Although,’ he says later, ‘it’s kind of what politicians have known for years. Sometimes a public apology is a great way of dodging private repentance.’
November 3rd, 22:05. Sometimes, now, we go for drinks after work and once I meet his colleagues. When he’s in the bathroom I ask one of his colleagues what he’s like to work with.
‘He constantly moans like a little bitch, but I find him strangely uplifting.’
When F returns I have a hard time keeping a straight face. ‘What?’ he says. ‘What?’
December 2nd, 14:56. I am Christmas shopping for a children’s book for a one-year-old niece, who I’m trying to befriend; I don’t know my cousin because my aunt and dad are estranged. F is from a nice, middle class family, and cannot fathom the drama.
‘Why would you befriend someone just because you have the same DNA?’
‘Well. If a long-lost brother of yours walked into the shop right now, wouldn’t you want to meet him?’
‘No. It’s just blood and guts,’ he says, festively. I must look hurt because he touches my arm and points to a book. ‘I like the look of the one about the elephant.’
January 25th, 18:02. The postcard he sends of the beach in Brisbane arrives today. He has been back in the UK two weeks.
February 4th, 10:44. One of the victims speaks to the paper where F works and says that, because of the spiritual abuse they suffered, they can no longer call themselves a Christian.
I am so upset at lunchtime that F does not know what to say, though he seems to express quiet solidarity through the medium of awkward glances.
When I say that Christ is more in the paper than he is in the comms office, his glances take a tone of reticent apology. It’s there, on the topic of my imaginary friend, that he understands we must part ways.
February 8th, 11:56. After a night out, F forgets the keys to his flat and his flatmate is not home to let him in. He sleeps outside on the doorstep.
‘Remember,’ I say, ‘that if you die, the Daily Mail headline will be AUSTRALIAN MAN FORGETS BRITAIN IS COLD.’
February 22nd, 10:05. My boss, ever more tense with the pressure of an upcoming Panorama investigation, takes up nicotine tablets alongside the vaping. These have a terrible effect on his digestion and he now goes to the bathroom every half an hour, sometimes at unexpected points during a meeting, though I suspect not to talk to God.
March 1st, 10:04. I think about F every night before I go to sleep: I don’t tell my friends this because it is both boring and pathetic, and I don’t tell God this because I suppose I’m meant to be thinking of Him.
Annoyingly, he seems to know anyway. As I’m brushing my teeth, he says quietly, ‘It’s not wrong to love someone, you know. But oftentimes we kid ourselves we love someone when really, we’re not behaving lovingly at all.’
March 10th, 01:20. I’m outside the door to his bedroom in Highbury. It’s hard to tell how much time is passing. At first, I am scared to move around at all, in case the floor creaks or my clothes rustle, and he can tell I’m there. As time passes – I think it’s been a good thirty minutes now – and my respiratory system no longer feels so much as though I’ve taken a cheaply cut pill, I rest my head lightly on the door.
I don’t go in.
In the morning, he finds me back in on the sofa and I watch him wander around the living room in his suit, eating two breakfasts. ‘I have to do this,’ he says soberly, ‘If I’m serious about gaining weight.’
‘Were you warm enough in the night?’
‘I’m never warm enough,’ I say.
‘Well. In four months I’ll be back on the beach.’
I privately wish that I too had the freedom to leave.
March 11th, 07:10. I talk to God in other people’s bathrooms, too, but it feels weirdly adulterous to talk to him in F’s.
I don’t have to say anything this time. ‘He’s not for you,’ says God. And then, because God is not so prissy as Sunday school once led me to believe, ‘It’s not sex he needs. It’s actual love.’
March 19th, 15:07. An enquiry alleges that a former bishop, jailed a few years ago for sexual abuse, used his many connections to prominent and influential people to evade detection.
I spend the morning coming up with a tweet so vague as to ensure that we have really said nothing at all.
During a bathroom break I warn God that I might quit, which he seems fine with.
March 28th, 00:46. We are lying facing one another, but not touching. He hasn’t spoken for several minutes. ‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘I like to go for a walk along the beach at night, and just sit down there,’ which I take to mean back home.
He takes my hand and then, frustrated, puts it down again, turning away from me onto his back. He makes an exasperated noise. ‘You remember I’m a barbarous pagan?’
I pull him back towards me and put my arms around him. He pauses, and then strokes my back with one finger. ‘You know,’ he says eventually, ‘there are plenty of people I’ve kissed whose backs I’ve not stroked, but you’re the only one to have it the other way around.’
‘Will you kiss me then?’
‘Only if you don’t freak out.’
I promise not to. I am immediately on fire.
Later, on top of him, I tell him that I’m not opposed to Australia. He lifts me off him.
He sleeps only periodically that night, but I don’t sleep at all. I stroke his arm gently enough not to wake him and know that in the morning I will lose him. But it’s not morning yet.
April 5th, 11:30. I don’t hear for a week, but then, in the middle of the work day, there it is, devoid of context. ‘I think I would always be being dishonest to make myself happy. If we were to give it a go. Which would make me a definite villain. And I feel like a bit of a villain already.’
April 10th, 12:30. He doesn’t text anything else after this. When he comes to parliament, he avoids coming at lunchtime. I have to block his number to stop myself watching my phone.
May 1st, 16:04. Every afternoon, I think about the orchids in his flat that he was watering. He wasn’t sure if they were plastic.
May 28th, 15:00. My pants are down in one of the Church House bathrooms. It’s possible to talk to God in these ones, but only quietly.
God does not seem sick of hearing about F, though I suppose he must be by now. ‘Boring question I know. But I can’t decide if I loved too much or too little.’
He weighs it up for a moment. ’Can’t it be both?’
June 16th, 19:23. At the end of this year, they will vacate the vicarage for repairs, which will be lengthy as it is a listed building. My time is more than halfway up.
I’m here to change a tampon, but also to let God know that once F gets on the plane, I will hand in my notice and go back, I suppose, to Plymouth. The two are officially unconnected.
June 22nd, 11:56. I see him accidentally on the tube, the week before his plane ticket home. We stand close together as the train is busy and I hold onto his arm to steady myself as it moves. His eyes are blank with nerves, but I can tell from the pulse through the coat sleeve that he appreciates this.
He steps off. I watch his head as he moves away through the crowd, balding like a baby bird.
Frances Salter is originally from Plymouth UK. She now lives in London where she is a music features writer for VultureHound magazine. She also performs music and creative writing at events around London which have been featured by BBC Radio Six. She briefly worked for a church in Oxford during a press scandal involving someone connected indirectly with the church. The scandal partly inspired God in the Bathroom.