As a rule, the Bishop was more in than out. Consequently, the size, the airiness, and the aggressive modernity of the room made quite an impression on him. Deacon Sue realized this from the way he quietly looked around and nodded.
Whether she would have alluded to the idiosyncrasies of the decor will never be known as, at that moment, the door was flung open, and in rushed a slightly portly, breathless young man and a similarly young but much slimmer and sleeker other man. The ecclesiastics rose from their seats.
"Tom!" the portly one announced, then proceeded to shake their hands off.
"Alfie!" the slimmer one said with a very white smile that he held for what Sue thought must have been an uncomfortably long time.
It was clear that Tom and Alfie were used to introducing themselves. It was clear that the Bishop and Sue weren't.
The young men looked at each other cheerily. It was going to be potluck and they knew it.
"And you must be … the Bishop," Tom said to Sue.
Sue blushed a little. But only a little. "No, no - I'm sorry, I should have said. This is Bishop Humpleman. I'm Sue."
"Sue!" said Alfie, who then wondered why he'd stated it quite so emphatically.
Tom's interest was quickly engaged. "So, you're …" he looked at Sue's attire, "you're-"
Sue realized she had to help him out. "I'm a Deacon." She seemed to chuckle. "People call me Deacon Sue."
"Deacon Sue …" Alfie murmured, just to check if he liked the sound of it.
"Please, please …" Tom motioned to the large desk. "And so sorry for making you wait. I hope Alex sorted you out with coffee. Or tea." The way he said it made it appear that he didn't have much time for tea. "If you'd like another before we begin …"
The Bishop and the Deacon politely declined.
And now the two 'teams' were facing each other across the table. And it really was a rather extraordinary table in the eyes of Bishop Humpleman. That surely couldn't be graffiti. Not on such an exquisite piece of oak.
Alfie had maneuvered his fingers into the classic steeple, with the index fingers resting on his lips. Sue upbraided herself for finding him somewhat dashing. "And so," he said. But that was all he said. Sue was no less taken by him, despite his brevity.
Tom suddenly jumped up. His white shirt displayed his paunch. It might even have accentuated it. "I understand that you …" It was a strikingly confident beginning. He narrowed his eyes and looked at the Bishop. "You … You?"
The Bishop had been a keen thespian in his younger days and, as such, had prided himself in never missing his cue. "We are here,'' he intoned, "at the behest of the Archbishop-"
Tom couldn't help interrupting. "The Archbishop?"
Whether coincidentally or not, Bishop Humpleman arched an eyebrow, before replying solemnly: "The Archbishop." He went on, from precisely where he'd left off. "… With the intent of discussing a rather … delicate and confidential matter."
Tom and Alfie exchanged one of their looks. Alfie was wondering if he could respond with a quip about them being in the wrong church, but he decided to avoid levity for the time being at least.
"Well, we did hear," Tom said, "that you were interested in some kind of, what shall we say, image redevelopment?"
"Quite. Quite. Well, looking into it, in any case. At the possibilities associated with it, you might say. In the most preliminary stage."
Tom, Alfie, and the Bishop nodded purposefully at each other. Sue looked demure.
"You certainly come recommended," the Bishop added. Then he smiled. "Honestly, I wasn't expecting anyone quite as young as yourselves."
"Oh, an hour later you'll be thinking we're too old!" Alfie replied. The Bishop chortled. Sue wasn't sure if he understood the joke. Come to think of it, she wasn't sure if she understood it.
"The agency was started by our fathers," Tom explained. "In fact, they're in there!" He pointed at another door. "You know, just doing what they do!" Alfie thought it was funny. "They put us onto … They thought we'd be right for this. For you."
"Bowman & Leake," Alfie added helpfully. "He's Bowman."
"… And image, image is our game!"
"Or one of our games."
"Strings to the bow, and all that."
Sue was pleasantly surprised by the jollity of the proceedings. In truth, she'd been rather trepidatious. Coming up to London and all. Mixing with creatives. It wasn't something that she'd ever found herself needing to do. But, as it turned out, it was rather convivial.
Tom was facing away from them now. Basically looking at the back wall. The Bishop couldn't help thinking that Tom, in his perpetual state of animation, reminded him of someone …
"Image is the key," Alfie carried on. "And the question is this: How can we help YOU with YOUR image?" The effect of this was undoubtedly masterful. It certainly made Bishop Humpleman thoughtful.
"Let me be forthright, if I may …"
There was silence. More silence. Then Alfie realized this was a request that needed answering.
"By all means …"
"We have an issue. A very pressing issue." The intrigue was enough to make Tom turn around. "Appeal. Or the lack thereof."
"Appeal …" (Alfie.)
"Appeal." (Bishop Humpleman.)
"I see," Alfie said. He didn't really.
"Deacon Sue …" The Bishop turned towards his colleague of the cloth.
"This is where I come in." She almost said "In case you were wondering", but then thought against it. "Church attendances are down. According to a survey that we commissioned," she took out a file from her tote bag and handed copies of a document to Tom and Alfie, "fewer than 20% of the British public believe in the existence of God."
Alfie scrunched up his face and nearly shrugged his shoulders. Tom barely looked at the papers.
"And this is especially true amongst the young."
"The demographics …" Alfie muttered, a trifle sadly.
"God …" Tom's eyes took on a sudden intensity. "Which God?"
"I beg your pardon?" Sue replied.
"Which God? I mean, your God? Or the other Gods?"
"Any God?" Alfie added.
Sue looked at the Bishop. The Bishop looked at Sue. As if by magic, they said, in unison: "Our God."
Alfie looked glum. "Sticky …"
Tom nodded. "Sticky. Yes, certainly sticky."
"We need your help," Sue said.
"We do," the Bishop agreed. "The Church of Albion has a problem. A very significant problem."
"The numbers." Alfie looked thoughtful as he investigated Sue's document. "The numbers aren't good."
The Bishop was perturbed. "Most assuredly."
Then suddenly, without warning: "What are you in it for?" Tom was now bent over the desk and looking the Bishop full in the face.
"I don't understand!"
"I mean, what made you get into the game? It had to be more than just a fondness for purple." Alfie couldn't contain a snigger. "What was it that motivated the young … er … Bishop in you?" For some reason, Tom just couldn't imagine that the august clergyman had ever been less than sixty.
"Why, … I …" If he'd been perturbed before, that was nothing compared to how he appeared now. "… I was driven by the love of God, of course."
"No, no! Why are you really in it? What did you want? What were you trying to get?" Tom was becoming unstoppable. The Bishop realized that it wasn't a specific person that Tom reminded him of, but he was too busy trying to field these startling questions to be able to identify what it was.
"I don't know quite how to answer that …"
"There. That's the problem." Tom relaxed.
"It is." A natural silence ensued in which both parties attempted to regather and begin again.
"Yes," Tom continued. "Because you know but you won't say."
"This is quite …" The Bishop was on the ropes. He looked to Alfie for help but found that none was going to be forthcoming.
"If you'll allow me to speak for the Bishop," Sue began, "I think you'll find he wanted to reach people."
The Bishop was relieved. "Yes, quite. I did want to reach people …"
Tom snorted. "We all want to reach people! But what are we reaching for? That's the question."
"Money?" Sue ventured, very mildly. The Bishop gave her as filthy a glare as he was ever likely to muster.
Tom slapped his thigh. "Money! Or something like money. As valuable as money. More valuable than money." He paused. "I put it to you …" (and Tom really did seem to be transforming into Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot at this stage) … "I put it to you that it's all about control." Sue could feel the blood draining from her face. This was all quite exhilarating and she had no idea where it was going. "What you want is control. Am I right?"
The Bishop could do nothing other than bluster. "Well, I … this is …"
"If you can admit that, it's a beginning." Tom looked down on him. On them all. "You want control. You want attention. That's why you went into the church."
The Bishop was hit by a flashback of his days on stage. The dreams he'd had. The other life that could have been his. His discomfort was palpable.
"It's why you went into the church." He looked at Sue, who almost, almost, mentioned her stint as lead singer of a Christian rock band at uni. The kudos it might briefly have afforded her in the room was canceled out by the greater likelihood of irreversible embarrassment.
Tom was flowing like the Zambezi. "It's why your church or any other church started. You wanted power. Power by creating fear. But now you've lost the fear and you're losing the power."
Alfie shook his head. "Fear. That doesn't play well these days …"
"Agreed. Popularity's better. Something attractive." Tom squinted slightly and looked at the Bishop again. "Let's break it down."
"It's all based on an old man in the sky, right?"
Sue had never seen the Bishop's face like this before, and never wanted to again. It was harrowed. Harrowed.
"Right?" asked Tom, rather loudly.
"Well, yes, if you want to put it like that …"
Once again Alfie was fundamentally unimpressed. "Old men are so last year."
"No offense," Alfie added. "I mean, we'll all be old some time."
"Oh, er, none taken, I'm sure …"
"Like those two in there." Tom pointed to where their fathers were. It was a welcome moment of humor.
"And that's just if we're lucky," Alfie said. He turned to Sue. "Some of us might not even make it. The Lord giveth and all that!"
It was time to regroup. Tom stood up straight. Or, at least, as straight as he could. "So we go back to image. And that means taking it back to the start. The very beginning." The Bishop seemed to be recovering his equanimity. "Bishop, is there any proof that God was a man?"
The Bishop blew out his cheeks. "Well …" He shook his head. Then he looked at Sue. "You've got me there. Of course, the Scriptures always refer to God as 'He'."
"But there's no proof?" Alfie said. "No pictures or anything?"
The Bishop couldn't suppress a guffaw. "Well no. Not as such. It's just we always … well, you know." He turned to Sue. "Didn't we?"
"Yes. We did."
"We just assumed."
"Fair enough," Tom replied. "Things change. Things change. No damage done there."
"And God was white." Alfie was looking at the Bishop directly. "Just to be clear about it. I mean, it's not my specialty at all."
"We don't know," the Bishop replied.
"Yes, we don't know," Sue corroborated.
"But he was white. Right?" Tom said gently.
"We really don't know. I mean there are some paintings of Him-"
Tom jumped on this. "And he's always white?"
"Er … well, as far as I know. But-"
Tom put his hand up. "Got it."
"And he's in one piece, right?" For some reason, Alfie directed this question at Sue.
"God. He's in one piece. Able-bodied."
"Oh! Well, I think so." She looked at the Bishop. "Your Reverence?"
"Er yes, I think so."
Tom sat down. Alfie wedged a pencil between his teeth. They smiled at each other.
Tom began: "I've got some good news for you, and some very good news. The Church of Albion can be saved. And we can help you do it."
"Saved!" Alfie echoed.
"That's most refreshing!" the Bishop replied.
"Isn't it?" Tom said with a smile.
They all sat there smiling at each other. Then the smiles began to turn flat like days-old Pepsi. The silence became real.
"But how?" the Bishop inquired, somewhat meekly. "How can we save it?"
Tom laughed. Alfie laughed. There followed some "Do you want to say it, or shall I?" In the end, Alfie went ahead.
"You came here with a brand."
"You did. God!"
The Bishop's eyes opened. "Well, I never thought of it like that!" Obviously, by her expression, Sue hadn't either.
"Ah, but you must."
"Yes," said Tom. "You must."
"You see, you've brought into our office what most people pay us - well, them -" (Alfie pointed to the other office door) "to create. You don't need that. You just need us to tart it u-"
"Jazz it up."
"Jazz it up. Right."
The Bishop beamed. "Well, the way you put it, it seems like a piece of cake."
"Oh, it is. It is. You'd be surprised how quickly people are willing to accept change. We see it all the time, don't we Alfred?"
"You see if God's not real in the first place-"
"Now steady on!"
"No, no, Bishop. Hear me out. Whether you believe or not - and for all I know, it could just be a job, and I wouldn't judge you for that - whether you really believe, God as a concept has to be something that all of us like. Or at least don't find despicable."
Sue couldn't help herself. "Like ice cream?" She was embarrassed as soon as she said it.
Alfie loved the analogy. "Like ice cream!" The Bishop seemed less delighted. "Deacon Sue's right."
"Replace God with ice cream?"
"Not exactly, Bishop. But you get the idea."
"I suppose …"
"Or something else unobjectionable," Alfie offered.
"Clearly God has to be more female than male," Tom said. "I mean, surely that's not even open for debate." The Bishop opened his mouth. Then closed it. "White's out. Even the suggestion of it. That's just not the way it's going."
Alfie: "It's not."
"And any reference to a human body. We just don't want that." Tom looked at the Churchpeople. "Listen, you're free to disagree, but I'm just telling you how it is. Out there." He pointed vaguely at the window.
The Bishop and Sue looked at each other. There was a new sense of hope in their eyes.
"Incorporate these changes," Alfie said, and Sue noticed a zeal in his expression that hadn't been there hitherto, "incorporate these changes and you'll be ahead of your competitors. I guarantee it."
"Competitors?" exclaimed Bishop Humpleman.
"Yes my lord," Alfie went on, completely oblivious to whether he'd addressed him correctly. "It's all about market share."
Tom chimed. "Market share."
"Market share will only ever be more of a factor, not less. Face it: there's a market and you don't want to share it."
"All you've got to do is to adjust the optics."
The Bishop's face was full of wonderment. "The optics …"
"Precisely. If you make your God more attractive, more inclusive. If you can provide an image of what your God looks like-"
"And doesn't look like." Tom smiled. "Sorry, Alf."
Alfie smiled back. "And if you take the fear out of your God. Then, well, then you're on to an absolute winner. I can see it lasting for years. Centuries, even."
"Couldn't agree more," Tom said. "The basic premise has mileage. People always want to be told what to do. Even when they think they don't!"
"Especially when they think they don't!" Alfie once again displayed the evidence of his magnificent dentition. "And, look, you're providing them with the full package! What's not to like?"
Tom pulled an imaginary zip across his mouth and shrugged his shoulders. Then he grinned. "No brainer!"
They all shook hands.
"Well thank you," the Bishop said. "It was a most remarkable experience - I think I'd go as far as to say astonishing."
Sue nodded. She was genuinely overwhelmed. "Indeed."
"It's what we do at Bowman & Leake," Tom said. Whether he was employing a touch of irony wasn't wholly clear.
Alfie took up the theme. "As the Old Men always say: 'Nobody ever leaves here by the same door they came in through.'"
The Bishop beheld the door in a state of some confusion. "But-"
"I know. It took me years to get it."
Tom raised his eyebrows. "I'm still not sure I did." With this intervention, the clergypeople were pacified.
It was then that Dickie Humpleman's beatific smile revealed that it was not for nothing that he was a bishop. "Well, we'll go away, relate all of this to the Archbishop, and be in touch in due course. Till then au revoir."
"Oh yes, au revoir." Or did Tom say 'reservoir'?
Tom looked at his Germanic timepiece, then looked at Alfie. "Ploughman's?"
It was while the Bishop was fingering a crochet pattern later the same night that an image came into his mind.
"Upon my soul!" he thought. "Of course. A baboon!"