Countdown to Pentecost


1. Countdown to Pentecost


By Richard Standing


The school bell rang. The end of another week. Thomas McGrindle brought his first form mathematics lesson to a close.

“Usual homework for the weekend, boys.” He held up a large bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. “Don’t forget the first boy to give me the correct answer gets this.”

The class packed their bags and filed out. All except Norman Bottiswood, who was still rummaging in his desk. McGrindle walked over to him.

“Have you chosen the hymns for Sunday morning,Bottiswood?”

The boy continued searching, and eventually stood up with a crumpled and chocolate-stained piece of paper in his hand. Had McGrindle been old enough, Bottiswood’s triumphant stance would have reminded him of Neville Chamberlain. Instead, he thanked Bottiswood, snatched the paper and bolted out of the classroom. In a serious breach of school rules, he ran down the corridor, hoping none of the boys were still around to see him. He glanced at his watch. Ten past three. He could just make it home in time. Fortunately his house was only across the road. He burst across the playground and vaulted the safety railings intended to stop children running out into the road – no mean feat given his fifty seven years – amidst a cacophony of horns, squealing breaks and expletives from disgruntled motorists. He vaulted his garden gate, pulled out his keys with the speed of a western gunslinger, opened the front door and raced into the living room. Now, where was the remote control? He searched high and low for it and was finally able to switch on the television just as Countdown’s famous theme tune ended and settled back into his armchair for the next forty five minutes.

Countdown over, McGrindle pulled out the piece of paper Bottiswood had given him. He tut-tutted at the crumpled page, the untidy scrawl, the chocolate stains on the paper from the homework prize Bottiswood had won the previous week, earning him the privilege of choosing the hymns for St Elbert’s next Sunday morning service, and the mis-spelling of the word “large”. He walked to the table and looked at the pad next to the telephone. He had asked Dr. Edwin Jameson, that Sunday’s visiting preacher, to choose the last hymn. Now, where had he written the number down? There it was. 379 – “Glorious things of thee are spoken”. Good, he knew how to play that one. He looked back at Bottiswood’s note.

“2 lage, 4 small.”



            Sunday morning saw McGrindle arrive at St.Elbert’s church half an hour before the service as usual, giving him time to put the hymns up on the board and play a few voluntaries before the service, which should at least blow out any spiders that had taken up residence in the pipes during the week.

            At eleven o’clock precisely, McGrindle saw his class pile into the front pew and look up at the hymn board. Bottiswood looked at the numbers, eager to win the chocolate for the second week running.








            McGrindle watched Bottiswood and his peers, their brains hard at work, as they scribbled in their notebooks during the sermon. As the last notes of “Glorious things” faded away in the ancient church, several of the boys rushed to where McGrindle sat, his hands still on the keys. They waved pages torn from their notebooks under his nose. McGrindle took them.

            “I will check your mathematics tonight, boys, and award the prize in tomorrow afternoon’s lesson.” When the boys had left, Dr. Jameson walked over. “Good to see these young boys taking such an interest in the sermon,” he commented.

            The next afternoon, the class sat in hushed expectation as McGrindle entered the room. He delivered the lesson he had planned, then with five minutes to go, turned to the subject he knew the boys were waiting for.

            “I was handed seven solutions at the end of yesterday’s service. Four were incorrect, however. The first correct answer I received was as follows.” He started writing on the board as he had seen Carol Vorderman and Rachel Riley do so many times.

            100 – 1 = 99

            99 x 4 = 396

            396 – 25 = 371

            10 – 2 = 8

            371 + 8 = 379

            “That answer was given to me by Peter Johnson.” He handed the large chocolate bar to the smiling boy as the bell rang to end the lesson.

            Two hours later, McGrindle stared at the nine letters on his television screen. What could the word be? SCOPE TENT. What was it? The doorbell rang. Who could it be? Didn’t they know he wasn’t to be disturbed until after four o’clock. Reluctantly he turned the television off. Now he’d never know the answer. He got up and opened the door. On the doorstep were the Bishop of Wellchester and a tall black man wearing a dog collar.

            “Bishop. To what do I owe this visit?”

            “May we come in?”

            “Certainly.” McGrindle showed the two men into the living room and made three cups of tea. When they were all seated, the Bishop explained the purpose of his visit.

            “I have good news for you,” he began. “St. Elbert’s long interregnum has come to an end. This is Daniel Ozembeki, your new vicar.”

            “N-n-n-new, v-v-vicar?”

            “He’s come from Kenya and his style of preaching may not be quite what you’re used to, but I’m sure you’ll make him welcome. His first service will be on Sunday morning.”

            McGrindle turned to Ozembeki.

            “What hymns do you want?” he asked.

            Ozembeki smiled. “The Bishop tells me you normally choose all the hymns except for the last one,” he stated. “I’m happy for that arrangement to continue. May we end the service with 952?” McGrindle grabbed a hymnbook from the bookshelf and looked up the hymn. “That should be fine,” he said. Inwardly he was breathing a sigh of relief. Even so he would have to be careful from now on. Already there was some disquiet amongst the congregation that the same fourteen hymns (1-10, 25, 50 and 100) were being sung too frequently. And there had been a few raised eyebrows when Stephen Grant had chosen “4 large, 2 small,” forcing him into playing “There is a green hill far away,” at one of the Christmas services. Fortunately the visiting preacher on that occasion had commended him from the pulpit for reminding him that Jesus was born to die, but he knew with a vicar watching his every move, he would have to be very careful in future. At least the boys were too eager to win chocolate to tell anyone.



            Edward Johnson had had a long, hard day managing the local Sainsbury’s and needed a cool drink before heading out to the Parochial Church Council meeting that evening. On opening the refrigerator, he was very surprised to find a large bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk on the top shelf.

            “Where’s this big bar of chocolate come from?” he asked. He was always telling Peter not to waste his money on confectionary.

            “I won it at school, Dad. In Mr McGrindle’s maths competition.”

Edward was surprised. Peter hadn’t mentioned the competition before.

“What did you have to do for it?” he asked.

“He sets a challenge with the numbers on the hymn board on Sunday mornings. The first person to make the number of the last hymn using some or all of the other numbers wins the chocolate. And I get to choose the numbers for next Sunday.”

The boy’s father was shocked. “We’ll have to see about that,” was all he said.



The PCC meeting had already gone on for some time – mostly organising welcoming events for the new vicar – when Isaiah Shepherd – the Verger asked “Any other business?”

Normally this was the signal for all the other members of the Council to rise and go home, leaving Shepherd to minute the closure of the meeting. The other members of the PCC – Josephine Court, the postman’s wife, Brian Hibble, PPC treasurer and local bank manager, and James Sprowt, the headmaster of St Elbert’s School for Boys – had already stood up when Shepherd noticed that Edward Johnson had his hand raised. The others groaned wearily and sat down again.

“It has come to my attention,” Johnson began gravely, “that Thomas McGrindle has been abusing his office as organist by using the hymn board as a mathematical puzzle for his class. The hymns are chosen not for their appropriateness in worship, but for the mathematical challenge of the numbers.” Johnson went on to explain everything Peter had told him. “I move that as Verger, Isaiah should inform the new vicar of this improprietry as soon as possible.”

“I second that,” agreed an aghast Mrs. Court.

“My personal view,” commented Sprowt, “ is that McGrindle is doing a great deal of good.Before he first played the organ at St.Elberts, there was nobody in the church under the age of forty. Now, every Sunday, the front three rows are fileld with boys. They may not be listening,but I’m sure they’re learning something.”

“I agree,” nodded Hibble. “Some of the parents have been coming along too. Byron Spottiswood’s father has pledged to give most generously to the fund to repair the church roof. But I’m sure if young Byron stops coming, so will his father.”

Shepherd stood up. “You two gentlemen have persuaded me. Motion rejected three votes to two. Edward, you are not to repeat this information to Reverend Ozembeki or anybody else, or my wife and I will shop at Tesco’s from now on.”



“Your meeting went on longer than usual tonight, dear,” yawned Beryl Sprowt as her husband returned home.

“Edward Johnson raised some other business.” He wasn’t going to say any more, but saw the look on his wife’s face. “He came out with some ridiculous story about McGrindle using the hymn board as homework for his pupils. Something to do with trying to make the number of the last hymn from the numbers of the other hymns.”

“You said yourself that the boys’ arithmetic had improved a lot recently,” commented Beryl, as her husband undressed and climbed into bed.

“Which is why nobody, least of all the new vicar,must hear about this,” were Sprowt’s last words as he turned out the light.



McGrindle was just pouring the milk on his cornflakes when he heard whistling in his garden. The doorbell rang and he answered it.

“Good morning, Mr.McGrindle,” said Andrew Court, holding out a large parcel for him. McGrindle signed for it and was just about to close the door when Court called out.

“By the way, Mr. McGrindle, Josephine told me about how you’ve been using the church hymn board to teach mathematics to your pupils. She’s disgusted, but I think it’s a grand idea.”

“You won’t tell the new vicar, will you?”

“No, of course not. It’s great to see so many boys in the church. Dr. Smedley agrees. So does Kenneth Burnwright, Emma Finchley, Colin Hampden,…. Don’t worry – your secret’s safe!”

 When the postman had gone, McGrindle sat down in his chair and groaned. But he’d promised the boys there would be chocolate, and chocolate there would be.



Beryl Sprowt called into the post office for some stamps and to post an air-mail letter to her brother in Australia. She had picked a bad time – it was pensions day, and as usual all the retired folk in the town had waited until half the counter staff were on their lunchbreak before turning up to collect their money, but as it was her lunchbreak too, she had little choice but to wait. She tapped the shoulder of the lady in front of her.

“Margaret, have you heard what Thomas McGrindle’s been using the hymn board for?”

The news was up the queue in no time.


Daniel Ozembeki was most definitely not what the people at St. Elbert’s were used to. His loud, Pentecostal style was anathema to a congregation more used to the gentle sing-song voice of most Anglican clergy. For his part, St. Elbert’s was not what Ozembeki was used to either. He had hoped for at least one person to shout “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord!” – this was Pentecost Sunday after all. Instead, it seemed most of the congregation were ignoring him completely. Mind you, the choice of hymns hadn’t exactly been inspirational. Number 3, “All people  with a cheerful voice”, he’d always regarded as somewhat of a dirge. Numbers 6, 25, 50 and 75 weren’t much better and he couldn’t think why McGrindle had chosen number one hundred, “There is a green hill” – completely inappropriate for Pentecost. At least his own choice of 952, “Send the fire,” should provide a rousing end to the service. Disappointed, he still built up to the climax of his sermon.”

“And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do everything God calls us to do.”

“HALLELUJAH!” cried out Dr. Smedley, the last person anyone in the church would have expected such an outburst from.

Ozembeki was overjoyed. At last, here was some response to what he had been saying.

“Have you got the Holy Spirit, brother?” called out Ozembeki excitedly.


“THEN TELL EVERYBODY!” Ozembeki could hardly contain himself.

“One hundred plus six is a hundred and six. Multiply by three….”

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