Blackie T., Carol, Byline Woman, her husband The Engineer, Lawrie and I were good friends during our art school years between 1964 and 1968, and afterward. We attended different courses while at art school, but spent time after school frequenting a Mom-and-Pop Chinese restaurant on Robson Street for cheap dinner. Here we would pile into the scarred Nougahide upholstered pews, place all our coin on the scarred table surface and tally up how much money we had among us all and what we could afford to order to feed all of us. Generally, we ended up sharing a large platter of Egg Foo Yung with a side dish of steamed rice, all of it liberally spiced with soy sauce. The free Chinese tea that came with our order was usually refilled at no extra cost, and we drank it down, grateful for its aroma, heat and taste.
One evening, Blackie T, after considering the offerings on the Wurlitzer juke box at the front of the restaurant, poked his face between the branches and leaves of the humungous jade plant separating the seating area and the booths and yelled back at us, “You guys won’t believe this! My father has disinherited me!” He stomped back to our booth in Rhythm with a song by Elvis, “I’m all shook up”.
Lawrie thoughtfully sipped at his jasmine tea. (Remember, this was in the days before Green Tea and other varieties of tea became the rage, sign of sophistication and indication of an educated discernment of tea varietals.) Or, at least, the tea kind of smelled pretty and of flowers, I thought. We were all squeezed in on both sides of the booth, and Blackie T. had dragged a scarred chrome and vinyl chair to the side on the aisle for himself. Our dripping wet coats hung from the bar with hooks on either end of the booth benches. We were all feeling rather peckish (the girls) and famished (the boys). To us the word “disinherited” was a familar sounding one. Most of us had heard it uttered by our parents at various times, usually with reference to our reprobate tendencies of attending studies at an art school, where we were going to sink into abject bohemianism and moral turpitude. We anticipated in silence Blackie T’s revelations about the form his disinheritance was to take.
“Okay,” he announced, throwing back a scalding cup of tea, “my father has broken ground on the church construction. He is spending the money he promised me on building the bloody church.”
We all gaped at him in disbelief. His father had money enough to build a church? Was he trying to force Blackie T. into a ministry of sorts? Most of us secretly held a strong conviction that Blackie T was a rather ill suited art school student. He made the most atrocious brush and black ink work of no seemingly redeeming aesthetic value. He had flunked out of medical school in England three years previously, loved electronics and collected arcane information of all sorts, and had never demonstrated to any of us the slightest interest in thoughts religious or spiritual.
Blackie T interrupted Elvis crooning “owwo woo woo yeyyeahey,” “Yep, my inheritance is to be turned into a church in Duncan. The foundations have already been dug.”
“Must be Anglican,” muttered Lawrie. “They are kind of thick on the ground in Canada. Those Islanders love anything British, being Anglophiles.”
“Oh, no. it’s not that traditional,” growled Blackie T. “Father’s a British Israelite. He is building the first British Israelite church in BC.”
“That must mean they conduct services with British Yiddish lingo. With a cockney accent,” proposed By-line Woman, in her inimitable sarcastic and witty vein.
We snorted and snirkled with great glee at her witticism. The creaky lady owner of the restaurant delivered our Egg-Foo Yung and steamed rice, and plunked dessert plates in front of us. We fell upon the food as if we hadn’t eaten for several days, subdividing it carefully into six equal portions, and proceeded to stuff our faces.
“Well, those British Israelites believe they are remnants of a lost Tribe of Israel,” said Blackie T as he tried to extricate a bean sprout stuck in his back molars. “I think father is the only one on Vancouver Island. Maybe he thinks if he builds a church he can attract believers.”
“Oh, this is so weird!” exclaimed Carol. “I have to see this church for myself. Do you think it will be up and ready for occupation by the end of next summer?”
“Well, father is pressing to have the main construction to lock-up stage by end of July. Let’s get together at my mother’s place in Ladysmith in August end and take a trip to see the church for ourselves,” Blackie T suggested.
We decided that a summer trip to the Island to see this new construction would provide us all needed distraction from our crummy summer jobs. So we planned a weekend camping trip for the first weekend of August. We’d camp out in pup tents at Blackie T’s mother’s, and do a tour and inspection of the Church. As we ate our humble repast, we proposed possibilities for how Israelites might have ended up in England, and decided this was so far fetched a proposition that Blackie T’s father could not possibly be in his right mind. At the end of the meal, after two refills of our teapot, we thought it wise to disperse to our individual destinations.
Summer came, with it end of the school year. Lawrie went to work with his brother as a faller. Carol’s summer job was as a stock-taker for a company that did stock assessments of large grocery stores. I worked as a cleaning woman at Vancouver General Hospital. By-line woman went to work as a clerk in an insurance agency, and her husband, The Engineer, carried out his shifts at a local saw-mill. Blackie T. returned home to the Island, where he worked as factotum on his Mother’s estate.
Blackie T.’s parents had divorced. His father had withdrawn into monastic existence on acreage near Shawinigan Lake. His Mother retained the family home and acreage in Ladyshith. Blackie T bounced between his two parents, trying to satisfy and convince them both as to his attentiveness and loyalty as a son. This was his full-time summer job; one which he carried out with great attentiveness.
Came August. Lawrie, Carol, I, By-line Woman and The Engineer convened at Carol’s apartment to load up our pup-tents and sleeping bags into The Engineer’s station wagon. We piled into the vehicle and drove to the C.P.R. ferry terminal where we caught the ferry to Nanaimo. On the ferry, we couldn’t afford to eat in the dining room, so ate our pre-packed sandwiches as we lounged outside on the upper deck. From Nanaimo, on the other side of Georgia Straight, it was a short drive to Ladysmith.
Blackie T and his mother greeted us. His mother was already into her cups by 4pm in the afternoon, and she led us, lurching drunkenly, into the back yard where we were to set up our pup-tents. We organized our places to sleep and entered the house. Of course, Mrs T was so inebriated that there was no supper ready, so all together we pitched in and cobbled together a supper out of stuff in the pantry and fridge. Wine flowed freely during supper. Mrs T. launched into an alcohol-fuelled recitation of how her ex-husband had ruined “her baby’s” life by having the temerity to build a church with money slated to keep “her baby” from ever having to sully his hands with mundane occupations. Blackie T poked back the food, looking mightily aggrieved.
After dinner, Blackie T suggested we wait till sundown, and then take the trip by car to Duncan to see the Church. He waved a key around to show us he had access and did not need to break down the doors to get in.
“But, Blackie,” I protested, “we won’t be able to see the inside when it’s night-time.”
“Don’t be so dumb, G,” he retorted. ” I had to sneak the key away from my father. No one can know we have been inside.”
He brought a flashlight, some candles and a gallon of wine and loaded up The Engineer’s station wagon. We all piled in and left Mrs T waving drunkenly at us from the edge of the driveway. Duncan is some twenty minutes drive from Ladysmith; the church was not a long drive off the Island Highway. The Engineer parked the wagon across the street from the church and killed the headlights. We sat in the dark, smoking and passing the gallon jug of wine around while listening to the cooling ticking of the car’s engine.
“We have to be very quiet while crossing the over the road. If the neighbours hear us they’ll call the bulls.” Blackie T led our motley group in the dark of night to the church door. He fiddled with the key in the lock, opened the door and shepherded us inside the dark church. Lawrie had the flashlight. He fired it up and scanned the beam around the interior.
“Turn that off.” ordered Blackie T. “We’ll light one candle and set it near the pulpit.” It’s odd how quickly our eyes acclimatized to the low light condition. It was possible to make out the arches and beams and other structural details. Oddly enough, while the floors were roughly concreted, the pulpit had been lovingly finished. We milled around turning and gaping around in the dark. By-line woman took a swig from the gallon jug of wine and passed it around to the rest of us.
“I need a smoke.” said Carol. “Who else wants a cig?” She placed the jug into my hands and pulled out her Craven-As.
I was about to pipe up and admit that I, too, needed a cigarette when Blackie T. hissed. “Don’t you two dare smoke in here! That’s blasphemy. Besides which, father will know I have been in here. He hates cigarette smoke.”
The Engineer wandered off in the dark toward the back of the church. The rest of us sat on the concrete and passed the wine jug around. All of a sudden we heard a scuffle, a muffled thud and a loud “Oh, shit!” And then groaning and a plaintive “Help me!” Lawrie jumped to his feet and lighting up the flashlight started to head in the direction of the distress call.
“Turn off that light!” ordered Blackie T.. “Here, take the candle with you!” We followed on Lawrie’s heels as he crept toward the dark depths of the church. “Take it slow and careful,” cautioned Blackie T. “It’s easy to get hurt in here.”
We came upon a hole in the concrete floor. It was about 5 feet deep, a quite wide rectangular pit with what looked to be dirt floor at its bottom. Lawrie shone the flashlight beam on the moaning and prostrate form of The Engineer, splayed on the pit floor. He was rubbing his chest and sides feeling for injuries.
Poor, concerned By-line Woman. She asked solicitously, “Are you all right dear?” She sat down at the edge of the pit and reached her hands toward him. Lawrie jumped into the pit and began to help The Engineer up. He was all right, only winded. Whew! Lawrie hooked his hands together to provide a foot hold for The Engineer to step into and elevate himself enough to be able to throw the other leg onto the pit’s edge. Then we pulled him out and husband and wife were once more reunited on ground level. By-Line Woman passed her husband the wine jug. “Have a sip, ” she said. “You can use it.” He took a protracted swallow, passed the jug, and began to swat the dirt from his clothes.
“What the hell is that hole there for?” he asked.
“I believe you happened upon the crypt, or rather, fell into it,” said Blackie T. “But you have risen again, and we really should give thanks.” He walked the candle back to the pulpit, set it on the floor nearby and grasped the pulpit’s edge with his large hands. “Come, all of you. We must now give a prayer of thanks for being reunited with our good friend; for his safe return from the depths.” He looked downright eerie, lit as he was from below. His handsome saturnine features took on a devilish cast, his widow’s peak almost seemed as if sprouting horns.
I did not like this turn of events. It felt wrong to make a mockery of a space which was intended for a spiritual purpose, never mind that it may have been a cultish belief that may be celebrated and shared in the place. I felt distinctly uneasy and said so. I asked Carol and By-line Woman to come outside and have a cigarette. We left, went out and sat in the tall grass outside the church. The men followed shortly afterward. Blackie T locked the door, gathered us all. We walked across the road to the car, climbed inside and got on the way.
“So, that’s your inheritance, eh?” said Lawrie. “Do you think it will ever be used for British Israelite services?”
“If father lives until after the building is complete, then he will probably will it to some organization of similar flakes,” explained Blackie T. “But if it is not quite complete, he’ll probably leave it to me to finish. I guess I can always live in it, although it might be a bit strange to live in a church.”
Blackie T’s father did not see his church completed before he died. A few years after completing art school I lost contact with Blackie T. Carol and Blackie T died within a couple of months of each other five years ago now. I never did ask Carol whether she knew if he had ever lived in the Church. They had remained in greater contact throughout the years. Occasionally By-line Woman, The Engineer and I talk about our youthful doings. Next time we’re together, I’ll be sure to ask them if they know what happened to Blackie T’s inheritance. And I do wonder if the British Israelite Church is still standing in Duncan, or if it has served some congregation or another as a spiritual home.