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Ian, after the storm
A chapter from a novel I'm working on
Ian, after the storm (from The Falcon)
Following is a chapter from a novel I’m in the process of constructing, following the rough idea I outlined in my last post. I intend (but take this as no guarantee) to post more.
The wind came in last night, relentless, stirring everything up, rattling the bones of the dead. It was the movement, I thought then, knuckling my duvet, of strange and mighty dark things, strange and mighty forms. The dark took shape, got mobile. Sleep — I think it was sleep — was fitful. The dark that churned without started to churn within. Bins went over, leaves and branches throated dirges. A thousand upon thousand melancholy voices. And then, at about three, the plaintive lament of a fox. I’d first thought it was a baby; after some minutes, I thought it was a mother or jilted lover, but no. It was a fox, I decided, in the end. I lay listening to it all: the wind that dislodged the dark things, gave them anima, pneuma, the rattling of the superfluity of man-made things and, in the midst of it all, the terrible scream of fox, like a red paint-slash on a black canvas, a wounding of the air.
In the morning I stand on the back step, slippered and dressing-gowned, looking at the garden. The patio furniture is overturned, looking crazily for a blurry moment like a mountaineering accident. It is wet in that rusty way shoddy patio furniture gets. I look down. The plant pot I chuck my butts in has smashed, my little sins scattered like little cancerous prawns. I take a cigarette from my dressing gown pocket, lit it. The garden is much longer than it is wide, so it was hard to tell for certain, but it seems as though the birdtable was down, too. Leaves and matted grass, cracked slabs, old gravel, shredded plastic. Statues worn to anonymity. I look at it and smoke, and when a blackbird comes down and fusses at a tussock for a worm, I watch it. It snaps and shuffles, so light and determined. It seems to hold within it a peculiarity of dark, the same mobile dark of the night before. And then it is gone.
I should take better care of the garden, I know, and I would, but my duties as parish priest do take up an awful lot of my time and, besides, I only ever think to do anything with it when it’s wet and cold. Summers in the garden I sink into some sort of daze, smoking dumbly in the sickly grass, watching clouds playact meaning. I’m pale, Celtic, and don’t do well in the summer. I like crags and cliffs, raw and memorable wildness, the sense of things rushing like a stream or creak into the inevitability of the past. It’s what attracted me to Catholicism, I suppose. I say this as though I am a convert, which is true in one sense and absolutely not in another. I was baptised a baby, Christened Ian by some collective failure of imagination, Anglo-Irish Catholic. On the video you can see apple-bright Irish pride and that peculiar English smile that would be a scowl were not decorum so important to one’s character. That’s me: a product of both cultures, an incompatibility met within one human body, like a weird fusion dish. Of course, there are plenty of us, Irish immigration in the mid-century being what it was, but for me, at least, my Englishness and my Irishness have always been irreconcilable things, like two kings camped on opposing hills, neither willing to make the charge.
Part of this, perhaps, is the binding up of Catholicism with my conceptions of maternity and Protestantism with those of paternity. My father, Reg, who now sinks deeper every day into the psychic void of dementia, was tolerant of ‘God-people’ enough to marry my mother, a woman whose faith, if it were mapped, would resemble a seismograph. She lurched from fanaticism that was, at times, quite terrifying, and a despairing faithlessness so complete it seemed as though she were fading around the edges like a sun-bleached photograph. Dad would come to church sometimes, mostly on the big holy days, but most Sundays he’d garden, or fix things I didn’t even know needed fixing, or sunbathe in the summer, nude save for a handtowel, his skin going walnut-brown, his eyes placid. He loved the sun as much as I hated it. I was an inside boy, milky, bookish, looking like a slim volume of obscurity one would have to blow the dust from to read. I’d inherited my mother’s Celtic complexion — like me, her hair was red and thick and borderline untameable — but also something of the mythology that kept her going. My mother’s moods were as volatile as her faith; she was, when she got going, responsible for most of the noise in the household, but she would sink sometimes into reveries so acute that it seemed the whole house was in mourning. Looking back, perhaps she was rehearsing for the real thing, having received some dread premonition from the Almighty.
All this is to say that, like my mother, my relationship with my faith has been volatile. I was an atheist for a lot of my late adolescence and early twenties, but something tugged at me, insistently, and wouldn’t let me go. As a child, my mother had insisted that I would be a priest (I never knew what my father thought about this, though his absolute aloofness whenever it came up might speak to something), and by seven I was wearing miniature vestments and playacting masses. I did, I suppose, the opposite of what St Paul told me to do: I did not, as a man, put away childish things, but rather rediscover them. Celebrating Mass, I get flashes back to those pretend Masses. When that happens I am almost corporally transported back, the Host Hovis I cut into a circle with a glass, the chalice an egg-cup, the wine Ribena. At those times the vestments seem to swamp my child’s frame; I become sticklike and weightless as a bird.
The blackbird returns and picks at another patch of grass. I light another cigarette. Perhaps I will do something with the garden today, I think, suddenly feeling rather Romantic about nature; I will sink my hands in the mud and the loam and the dankness. At least, so I tell myself. There is a difference between the idea of nature and nature tangible. I know, though I am often ashamed to admit it, much more comfortable with ideas, and unwilling, when it comes to it, to get my hands dirty.
As if somehow related to this train of thought, the telephone rings. I stub the cigarette and go into the hall to answer it.
It’s my sister, Bernadette.
“I was hoping I’d get you. Thought you might be saying Mass.”
“No, no. The curate’s doing it.”
“Young guy. Priest. He’s here for a few months. They’ll probably give him his own parish after that. Not usually the done thing, but, you know — priest shortage, and all that.”
I know she is not interested. She’s like my Father. Never showed any interest in the faith. Bernadette is sensible, practical, to a fault, Protestant to every last fibre, with no time for the smoke and mysticism that so enraptured my mother and me. Perhaps it is out of some vindictiveness that I tell her about church matters.
“Yes,” she says. There is a sort-of sigh, a preparing. Then: “Obviously, this is about Dad.”
“Obviously?” I know why she says it, and she’s right. We don’t talk about anything other than Dad. Even before his mind started to go, our talk was always functional, transactional. We never argued; we weren’t close enough for that, even as children. But I did play out many arguments, confrontations, outbursts, in my head. I didn’t enact them because there was never enough proof of malice, but I knew how she felt about me, what she thought about me. I saw it in the setting of her eyes and mouth when I playacted Mass. I saw her slide her hand into my Father’s as they watched us get into the car on Sunday mornings for Mass, the driveway a whole world away. I knew it was she who defaced my First Communion books with clumsily drawn phalluses, though I never told anyone it had been defaced. All these moments of unspoken rage do not fade. They accumulate, biding their time, in the dark.
Still, the word irks me: I think it’s a case of how casually she uses it. The unwillingness to change. And that’s why I say, "Heaven forbid it’d be anything else.”
The line seems to crackle. “What do you mean?”
“Forget it.” There’s no point. “What’s going on with Dad?”
“You don’t know?”
“Don’t do this.”
“Well, I know you haven’t seen him—“
“I have, just …”
“When?” She’s her voice ice-edged. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“I don’t like what you’re getting at.”
“When was it?”
This is why we don’t speak much anymore, not even about Dad. Because her new custom is to make me feel guilty, and as Catholic and a priest I’m pretty accustomed to that already.
“You’re trying to make me feel guilty, and it’s not going to work, because I’m doing—“
“You’re doing all you can, you’re going to say,” she cuts in. What, lighting candles for him? Masses for the demented? That doesn’t count. What about shaving him, cutting his nails, cleaning his … Look. I just ‘phoned you to tell you that he’s …”
“He’s getting worse. A lot worse.”
“Violence, mainly. He attacked another resident last night. They had to sedate him. He was raving, paranoid. Somebody had taken his diary or something. Eyes everywhere, all cunts, he said. Or words to that effect.”
“Yes. So they called me, and they said that they don’t think they’ve got the capability to handle him. To look after him properly. They’re saying we should think about moving him. To somewhere more secure. Somewhere … safer.”
I don’t really know what to say, because there is nothing really to say. There’s nothing to do with dementia but watch it worsen. But I know Bernadette, so I ask her if there’s anything I can do.
I hear an exhale rattle down the line. “I don’t know, Ian. This has been … this has been going on a long time. Just … some support would be nice.”
Support. One of her favourite worlds. I never quite know what she means by it, and she never elucidates.
“Okay.” I’m trying to remain patient. Hostile as she is, I can hear the fraying in my sister’s voice . “Look. What specifically can I do? Tell me something practical. I’m not saying,” I say, as she starts to cut in, “that I need you to organise everything. I just want to know that I’m doing things that are actually helpful.”
The line is quiet. I hear a lorry rattle past, shaking the casements. “Bernie?”
“Just … Just go and see him, Ian. Soon. Then you might know what it is you need to do.”
The curate tends to leave the sacristy in an absolute state. I’ve spoken to him about it before, but there’s something about him that makes me mince my words, makes me fumble, makes me miscommunicate. He’s a bit of a contradiction, the curate: he has the body of a rugby player — a rugby player in his pomp, his torso tapering in a chunky V, the box neck, spade-hands — but the smooth innocuous face of a boy. Even in the evenings, his face remains baby-smooth. His eyes move restlessly, as though seeking stimulation; his body, by contrast, moves weightily, as though gravity exerts more force upon it due to its immense size. He towers above me; his chasuble and alb are comically large, and it is these I stare at now, strewn as they are over the sacristy drawer unit. His cincture and stole are likewise discarded: the cincture is knotted around a chair, the stole has been tossed so it has landed crazily over a monstrance. It won’t do. He’s awfully clumsy, too. I worry about him saying Mass. I concelebrated with him on his first Sunday here. He managed to jam the thurible so incense and coal spilled out during Mass onto the sanctuary floor, he almost caught his alb sleeve in the candle-flame and, worst of all, he sent the chalice up in such a lurch during the Consecration that some of the wine spilled out. Nights I hear him stomping, banging: everything he does is noisy. He makes things shake. And when he is in my presence I am unable to act normally; he has some sort of hold over me, of which he seems blissfully unaware.
I head through to the Presbytery, which is joined to the Sacristy by a covered outdoor walkway that runs through the lower end of the garden. The storm had blown the bird table over, so now I right it. It’s half-mangled, chipped and useless. No birds seem to visit it. When I really have a go at this garden — the grass down here is thick and above ankle height, growing in uneven tufts — I’ll take it to the tip. But for now I head back into the Presbytery, through the back door, past the scattered cigarette butts.
The curate is in the living room. He has the curtains drawn and he is watching television. He wears a big yellow t-shirt with a surfboard and palm trees on it and check boxer shorts. His legs and feet are otherwise bare; his feet are crossed and resting on the coffee table. His eyes dart up as I enter, then they go back to the TV. “Afternoon,” he says. His accent is Yorkshire or thereabouts, though if he’s told me where he’s from specifically I can’t remember.
I stand and look at him, at his massive legs, at the amount of room they take up, at his size thirteen feet, at the roiled hairs on his rippling calves. He’s always ready to move, even now, I realise. That’s one of the things about him that unnerves me.
He notices me looking. “You alright?” he asks, his child’s eyes big and moony.
I have to shake myself free. Around him, I feel almost sleepy. “No, it’s just … Look, when you … Okay, no, it’s …”
He laughs. “Ian. Come on. Out with it now.”
“It’s the sacristy. Did you not think anything of how you left it?”
His brow furrows. I cannot tell if this is confusion or aggression. He shifts, adjusting his crotch with a quick grope. “Left it? How’d you mean, left it?”
Our eyes lock.
“Nothing. Forget it.” I go outside, for a cigarette. The blackbird joins me.