An old Jewish man is hit by a car. As he lies in the road, dazed and bleeding, a woman rushes over, takes off her jacket, folds it, and puts it under his head.
“Are you comfortable?” she asks.
“Meh. I make a living.”
I was eight when my father told me this joke. I wasn’t sure I understood it. Jews worried more about making a living than being run over. Was that it? One thing I was sure of was that the road was in Golders Green, in northwest London, where I grew up and was bar mitzvahed.
Golders Green made me. Jews made me, with their jokes and their food and their pride and their warmth and their anxiety and their love of scholarship. I cannot be unmade, even though I haven’t been inside a synagogue since my bar mitzvah.
How far can you go from Golders Green and still be Jewish?
In my twenties, I lived in a house in Stoke Newington, next to an Orthodox Jewish couple. I rarely saw the husband. The wife was melodramatic and rotund and loudly unhappy with her lot. She used to stand at her gate and engage passersby in one-sided conversation. “I vont a man for dancing!” she’d shout.
One Friday night, as I walked past, she asked me to follow her into her house. She didn’t want me to dance; she wanted me turn the light on. In her religion, she explained, she couldn’t turn the light on during Sabbath. Did I say her religion was my religion? No. I turned the light on. Where would it end?
In my thirties, I moved to Orford, an ancient Suffolk village with a twelfth-century castle and a medieval church. I went there to live with the painter Helen Napper and, listeners, I married her. My wife wasn’t Jewish. But I was. In fact, if you’ll pardon the expression, I was the only Jew in the village.
Then something happened. A couple who lived in Saxmundham invited us to a party. A Vicars and Tarts party.
I told my wife I couldn’t go. She asked why not, as if the answer weren’t obvious. I told her it wasn’t appropriate for a man like me to dress up as a vicar.
“Oh,” she said, “but it’s appropriate for me to dress up as a tart.” I went quiet. I knew this was an unfair argument. But I couldn’t work out why.
“It’s a fancy-dress party,” she said. “You pretend to be someone else.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Where can I get a dog collar?”
We set off at eight o’clock on an autumn night. It must have been 1992, because my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who was born the following January.
The road between Orford and Snape was unlit, with a heath on one side and a field on the other. We negotiated a bend. Suddenly, my wife was forced to brake. There was a small deer—a muntjac—dead in the road. It had evidently been struck by a car, because ahead of us, a car had swerved off the road and careered into a tree.
We got out and ran to the car and knocked on the driver’s window. The driver didn’t move, so I opened the door. She was a woman of forty or so, bespectacled, badly shaken. Her passenger was unconscious.
“She’s not dead,” said the woman. “Her heart’s beating. I checked.”
My wife told me to stay, while she drove to the nearest house and rang for an ambulance—this was so long ago, no one had a mobile, and so recently I recall every detail of the next few minutes, before my wife returned.
I suggested the woman get out the car. The air would do her good. She obeyed, wordlessly. She tried to light a cigarette. But her hand was shaking too badly. I took the lighter from her and lit her cigarette myself. Then she looked at me properly, for the first time. And was angry.
“You think this proves there’s a God, do you? ’Cos Cheryl and I are alive. I’d say it proves there’s no God. Cos a deer’s dead. For no reason.”
Everyone says the same thing to me: Why didn’t you tell her it was fancy dress? But everyone wasn’t there. They don’t know how intimidating she was. They don’t know how much she wanted me to be a vicar.
I’d never been a vicar before. I had no training. I said, “We should be thankful for the things we should be thankful for. And sad about the things that make us sad.”
“That’s meaningless crap!” she shouted but, as a vicar, I was obliged to forgive her. Then she opened the door of the car, and said to the unconscious Cheryl, “An ambulance is coming, darling. It’s going to be okay. I love you very much.” Then to me she said, “Do I shock you? God hates gays and lesbians, doesn’t he?”
I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know God’s position, according to the Church of England. I tried to be gentle.
“I think perhaps He simply doesn’t understand them.”
She liked this. She must have done. She shook my hand and told me her name was Maggie. What was mine? “Chris,” I said, without thinking—for you don’t think, do you, when someone asks your name, though later I thought, Chris, yes, of course I went for Chris, it’s short for Christian. I told her I worked at Orford Church. She nodded. We fell silent.
I looked at the muntjac lying in the road.
“Can I tell you a story?” I said. “An old Jewish man is hit by a car. He’s lying in the road, dazed and bleeding, when a woman rushes over, takes off her jacket and puts it under his head.
‘Are you comfortable?’ she asks.
‘Meh. I make a living.’”
“That’s anti-Semitic,” said Maggie. She was angry again. I felt like crying. I was Chris, the anti-Semitic Jewish vicar. I’d gone too far from Golders Green.
Then my wife drew up in our car. And we waited with Maggie and Cheryl till the ambulance arrived. We never got to the party.
A few months later, we left our baby daughter with her grandmother and went to Orford Church to see a production of Britten’s Noyes Fludde. Pinned on the noticeboard in the porch of the church was a letter addressed to “The Reverend Chris.” It must have been there some time. I opened it.
“Dear Chris,” it read, “Cheryl and I would like to thank you and your wife for all the kindness you showed us the other night. Please ring us on 450264 as we’d like to give you a bottle of wine. Yours, Maggie.”
I never rang Maggie. The Reverend Chris, Vicar of Orford, lived for half an hour on a Suffolk road, a hundred miles from Golders Green. Then he died and went to heaven, where I hope he’s comfortable.
Jon Canter is the author of three novels, Seeds of Greatness, A Short Gentleman and Worth. He also writes comedy and drama for BBC Radio 4 and commentary pieces for The Guardian.