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Memoir of an Ex-Catholic

Death of a Priest

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

So, with the surprising resignation of Pope Benedict, and the Throne of Saint Peter suddenly up for grabs, I find myself a possible contendor for the vacancy.  Theoretically, it’s possible.  Any male adult baptized as a Roman Catholic is eligible, although long-standing practice limits the candidates to cardinals, and there’s a whole slew of them in line before me, so I don’t reckon I stand much of a chance.  But it is still my right to run for the post.   

In order to gain the papacy I would need to get a majority of the cardinals to vote for me.  They can’t vote for themselves, but being mostly ecclesiastical conservatives, I doubt I’d be their choice if they knew of the sweeping changes I would initiate.  Just for a start, there would be a complete investigation of clerical child-abuse followed by appropriate punishment, birth-control would be condoned and taught, homosexuals and women treated as equals, banking-deals cleansed of corruption, with all wealth and profits of the Vatican to be spent on the needs of the poor.  As I mentioned before, my chances of becoming Pope are pretty slim indeed.  And why on earth would I want to?  The Roman Catholic Church has long been an anathema to me now, and the last time I crossed paths with a priest, in London in the early 80s, was a disturbing experience…     

“That’s a priest,” I think, noticing a stocky middle-aged man with graying crinkly black hair cruising through the crowd, as I lean against the bar in a crowded gay pub in Hampstead about a month after getting back from working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.

I don’t know why I think he’s a priest – I just do.  A purple birth-mark creeps down his otherwise pasty face from under his left ear, covering the lower cheek and disappearing under his black polo-neck and jacket. His grey shark-like eyes stare out through steel-rimmed glasses as he slowly moves through the shoal of chattering drinkers.

The pub was crowded, smoky and noisy.  I was alone, but not particularly looking for company, enjoying the music on the juke-box, the alternative being solitary with the radio in my nearby small bed-sit.

Nor was I looking for sex.  Apart from having become accustomed to a prolonged celibacy, there was nobody I fancied.  It was unlikely that I had any appeal either, with my stubbly scalp, skinny frame, and second-hand clothes.  A couple of years earlier I could have had my pick, but I looked different after my return from Calcutta.   Earlier that evening I’d noticed a group of queens appraising me from across the bar, and overheard the sotto-voce verdict of their leader – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind!”

After I leave the pub shortly before closing time, heading down the hill for home, I come across the guy I thought was a priest standing under a streetlamp outside the vegetarian restaurant on the corner.  He bids me a ‘good evening’ as I pass, and I return it.  Then I stop.  I want to know.  Was I right?  Is he a priest?

“It’s a nice evening,” he says softly, with a distinct Irish accent.

It is.  The newly opened leaves of the overspreading chestnut-tree glow turquoise in the lamplight, and the clouds above are pearl-edged by the moon.

“You look as though you could do with some help,” he broaches.  “Would I be right in thinking you’re unemployed?”

I tell him I have a part-time job cleaning houses, flats and offices.

“I bet you could do with a bit of extra cash,” he ventures.  “I’m in a position to help young men like yourself who are down on their luck.  I’m a Catholic priest.”

‘Bingo!’ thinks I.  Next, he’s going to proposition me, and I’m curious to know how.  I tell him I’ve recently returned from working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa.

The shark eyes behind his glasses gleam.  “Now that’s interesting.  Why don’t you come back to my place and you can tell me all about it.”

We walk down the hill without speaking, past the police station and the big redbrick Victorian church, closed for years, and come to a building near the hospital, with a sculpture of the Virgin Mary on the wall above the entrance.  We walk up the path to the door and the priest rings a bell.

“This is a hostel for Catholic girls – nurses and the like.  I’m the priest in residence,” he confides.

Inside there’s a lot of rattling of chains and turning of keys before the door opens a crack and a wimpled face peers suspiciously out.

“Ah, Sister Bernadette!” says the priest.  “This young man’s just come back from working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and I’ve invited him back to pump him on his experiences!”

The suddenly beaming sister ushers us into a sterile vestibule smelling of polish and Vim, and the priest and I take a lift up to the third floor.

He leads the way down a corridor and unlocks a door.  Inside is a dark little hall where he hangs up his jacket and I follow him into the living room, where he turns a dimmer-light half-way up and slips into a white silk kimono-style dressing gown which he takes from a hanger behind the door.

“What’s your poison?  Do you like Jamieson’s?” he asks as he pours generous portions into glasses from a bottle on a bookshelf.  We sit down at opposite sides of a polished wooden dining table.

“As I was saying,” he says after a sip of whiskey, “I’m willing to help young men like yourself when they’re in dire straits, but I like them to return the compliment.   I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”

Blunt and straight to the point, I think.  And not one question about Mother Teresa, God bless her!

“I’ll gladly part with a few quid,” he says.  “But I’d like you to whip me in return.”

I must admit I hadn’t been expecting that.  I don’t exactly choke on my drink, but I’m a bit shocked.

“Fair’s fair,” he says.  “You can’t just expect me to give you money for nothing.  It’d be no skin off your nose.”

Skin off your back, more likely, I nearly retort. But I’m certainly not going to oblige.  The thought of his pudgy white flesh squirming ecstatically under the lash appalls. And I’m morally outraged that an ordained Catholic priest pays poor guys to pander to his perversions!

I tell him the task doesn’t appeal, and I don’t need his money; but I’m curious to know why he wants to be whipped.

“I’m not a good man,” he explains.  “I believe I should be punished for my sins in the good old-fashioned way.  Prayers aren’t penance enough.  Ah, come on now!  You’d be doing me a good turn.”

He tells me that he doesn’t usually have trouble in getting young men to comply.  While on sabbatical in America he’d found the punters in leather bars particularly eager to fulfill his needs.

He’s almost pleading, and suddenly, as the alcohol warms my blood, I feel quite powerful.  By withholding the physical chastisement, I’m being even more sadistic than he wants me to be!

“No,” I say.  “Let’s watch television.”

With a sigh of resignation he turns it on.

We watch a film – “The Wicker Man” – in which Edward Woodward plays a devout Christian police officer who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, only to discover that the inhabitants are pagans who’ve been looking for a virgin for their sacrifice, and he becomes their victim for the Summer Solstice, burnt alive inside the body of a giant wicker figure, screaming at them to repent and believe in Jesus as he’s consumed by the flames while the natives dance around in their pagan ritual.  During the movie I help myself to several more shots of Jamieson’s, reveling in the film’s scenario.  During the final scenes I mentally recast mine host as the burning victim.

The film and whisky over, I say goodnight and leave, deigning even to shake the pudgy hand of the priest without too much repugnance.  I don’t expect we’ll be seeing each other again.  Yet in less than a week I’m back knocking at his door.  I’ve decided that I want to be a priest.  The idea has come to me while sniffing glue.

I’ve only recently taken up glue-sniffing.  On my return from India, I’d sometimes noticed London kids alone or in groups blowing in and out of plastic bags, and wondered what they were up to.  I learned that they were ‘sniffing glue’.  At the time the tabloid newspapers were full of horror stories about how harmful and destructive the habit was, tipping parents on the symptoms to look out for in case their offspring might have become hooked, so I decided to find out just what it was all about.

In the privacy of my bed-sit, I follow the instructions.  I squeeze some glue into a plastic bag, put my fist around the opening to stop fumes from escaping, put my mouth to the hole, breathe into it like a balloon, wait a bit, then suck in the vaporous air.  Repeat, and suddenly…

I’m the wisest man in Christendom, the secret of the universe is mine, and it’s breathtakingly simply complicated, but I know it, and the realization has totally enlightened my life, thank you God!…  And then in a second it’s gone and utterly forgotten.  Another flash of enlightenment comes with another ‘sniff’, but melts irretrievably away.  I try to find it again…

But that evening as I lay there on the floor, illuminated by the street lamp shining through the net-curtained window, one inspiration remained.  I’d been wondering what to do with my life after leaving the Missionaries of Charity.  How about becoming a Catholic priest?  The Church has wealth and the power to feed people, to create projects, to do good.  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  Excited, I got up, put on my coat, and went out into the night, intent on learning how to go about it from a horse’s mouth.

The same suspicious nun peers out after unlocking to my ring.

“I’ve come to talk to the priest,” I say.  She recognizes me from before and lets me in.  I take the lift up to the third floor and retrace the route to his flat.  I knock.  There’s no reply, so I knock again.

After another pause, the door opens a crack and the priest’s spectacled face peers out, shark eyes as suspicious as the sister’s.

“I’m busy,” he says.

“Sorry to disturb,” I say.  “I just wanted to find out about how to become a priest.  I think I might want to be one.”

“In that case, it’s important.  Come in.”  He opens the door wider, and I notice that he’s wearing his kimono again, clutching it to hide his body, but not quickly enough for me to notice his white singlet and Y-fronts.  As I step into the hall I can hear a couple of young male voices talking in the living room.

“I’ve got guests,” he says.  “You just wait in here and I’ll be with you in a minute.”

He pushes open another door and shows me into his bedroom.  The light is on.  The floral duvet is sprawled half off the bed onto the floor and the pillows are humped in the middle. A pink shiny plastic thing lies on the floor half under the bed.

The priest points to a chair in the corner next to a chest of drawers with a crucifix on it, and I sit down.  He goes out to the living room and I hear some laughter.  I stare at the carved figure of Jesus on the wooden cross.  The body is willowy, the nailed hands hang limply, the long hair neatly coiffed, crowned with a perky tiara of thorns.  The goateed chin inclines languorously towards the shoulder, heavy lashed eyelids droop, and lips pout.  I’ve never seen such a camp crucifix in my life.  It looks obscene.

The priest bustles back into the bedroom in a more businesslike manner with a thick book in his hand.  He seats himself on the edge of the bed opposite me, and leans forward.

“Now,” he says.  “You say you want to be a priest.  There are certain tenets of faith that have to be held.  What are your thoughts on the Virgin Birth?”

“I… don’t believe it…”

“Hmm.  Well, you’ll have to think about that.  And the Resurrection?  Do you believe that Our Lord rose from the dead?  What do you think of transubstantiation – the conversion of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ?”

“I don’t think that’s important.  I want to be a priest because they have the power to help people.”

“You have to say you believe certain things whether you believe them or not.  Those are the conditions for being ordained as a priest.  Take this book.”

He places the heavy volume in my hands – ‘The Catechism of Modern Man’, a manual for trainee priests.

“This tells you what you have to believe and profess.  Take a look at it tonight and come and take communion when I give Mass in our chapel here tomorrow morning.  We can talk afterwards.”

He stands up and shows me out.  I hear the young men laughing as we passed through the vestibule, the clink of glasses being filled.  A transaction appears to have been performed to mutual satisfaction.

Outside in the cold night air, the tome clutched in my hands, I make my way home in a bit of a daze.  When I sit down and open the book my blood begins to boil. All sorts of mumbo jumbo parades across the pages -  Immaculate Conceptions, ascensions, novenas, blessed holy trinities, extreme unctions, purgatories, limbos, Eucharists , rosaries and transfigurations.  If I want to be a priest I will have to say I believe in all this nonsense – become a liar and a hypocrite!  In a blind fury I rip the book apart at the seams (not an easy task!) and chuck it out of sight under my bed.  The idea of becoming a priest is completely out of the question.

I don’t go to take Communion at the priest’s Mass the following morning.  He’s a poison not to be sought.

But of course it wasn’t long before our paths crossed again…

I’m cleaning the mews flat of an elderly chain-smoking widow and her cat in Earl’s Court – a regular Thursday afternoon job.   After four hours of hoovering and polishing and scrubbing, I feel like a drink, and head to the nearest gay pub to whet my whistle.  After a couple of pints I decide to go to another with a tougher reputation, cruisier and leather oriented.  I’m not looking for sex, just a change of scene.

Almost the first person I see as I push open the door is the priest.  He stands out in his black polo neck and sports jacket amongst the leather and denim crowd leaning against the walls.

The juke box is playing and the air is smoke-filled, but there’s not much talking going on.  I head for the bar.  The priest hasn’t seen me and I don’t try to catch his eye.  Instead, as I quaff, my eye is taken by a solitary misfit standing at the bar by my side.  He wears a suit and tie, and is younger, shorter, and drunker than I.  He’s not particularly attractive; mousey hair and mousey features; but he becomes more interesting as the beer goes down.  A glance over my shoulder later tells me the priest has gone.

I launch into conversation with the Mouse, but can’t remember how I started it.  He’s not particularly interested; keeps his eyes lowered or glancing at other gregarious groups across the bar, mostly occupied in low chatter or not featuring us in their scanning.  I buy him a drink.  He buys me one.  I ask him back to my place for a coffee.  He says he likes to be caned.  No problem, says I.

It’s quite a warm evening, so there’s a crowd of drinkers chatting and smoking outside on the pavement as we leave the bar.  One of them is neither chatting nor smoking.  It’s the priest.   Our eyes meet for a second in silent recognition.

“This is the place,” says my partner, pointing to a shop nearby which sells all sorts of paraphernalia for the heightening of the gay sex experience.  I’m aware of the display of magazines, dildoes, leatherwear, handcuffs and videos as we enter the dim premises, reeking of amyl-nitrate.  The Mouse heads straight for the cheese – a rack of slim polished bamboo canes, just such as might be wielded by a headmaster in a boys’ public school.

“You choose,” he invites, and I bend and swish a few before selecting one, still feeling that this is just a joke.  I’m not taking it seriously at all.  He pays for the cane at the counter, and they bend it and tie the ends together before handing it over in a black plastic bag.  The Mouse offers to pay for a taxi and it takes us across town and drops us outside my place.  It’s about midnight.

We go in and up to my first floor room with its tall window that looks onto the avenue.  The room is a mess, jumbled with interesting junk I’ve rescued from skips, but the Mouse is too drunk to notice.  In fact his eyes are sort of glazed; he sits down on the bed and starts to take off his trousers.  I turn on the bedside lamp.

“Close the curtains,” he says, but I don’t.  Apart from my intention to be totally honest and have nothing to hide, the window is already covered by the net curtain, which makes it pretty difficult to see what’s going on from outside.  He lies face down on the bed, still wearing his shirt and tie and socks, offering his bare white buttocks for chastisement.

“Beat me,” he murmurs, words half-muffled by the pillow.

It’s no longer a joke.  This guy is here and waiting for the treatment I said I’d provide.  I take the cane out of the bag and untie it.  It unbends and becomes erect.  I aim it at the pale posterior and give it a tentative whack.  He moans.

“Harder!”

I whack again with more effort and his moans sound more satisfied.  As I strike, the sound of the strokes echo around the room and I’m aware that the woman who lives in the next room must be hearing each one.

Old English comedy films such as ‘Whacko!’ and ‘Bottoms Up!’ come to mind, and I realize that behavior like this is probably going on in quite a lot of bedrooms throughout the country.  It had never occurred to me before.  I notice that the previously pristine buttocks are now criss-crossed with red lines, some raised in welts.  It’s not a pretty sight.  I stop.  His head turns on the pillow.

“What’s wrong?  Why have you stopped?”

I tell him I’m tired, and make an alternative suggestion.

The head slides further over the side of the bed and he’s retching.  Obviously not a very savory suggestion.  Luckily, among the junk I’ve collected is a set of carved wooden bowls nestled in the folds of some green velvet drapes, and I grab one to catch the vomit – mostly liquid.  Then I get some tissues to wipe his mouth.  I feel more comfortable in the role of administrating angel.

But, anyway, I tell him, that’s it.  I’ve had enough of this scenario.  It’s late and I’m self-disgusted and tired.  I lie down on the mattress next to my abused victim and pull the covers over us.  Surprisingly, he cuddles up against me, and we fall asleep.

In the morning after I make him coffee, he catches a taxi to his work in the city.  Returning to the room from seeing him off, there’s the cane lying on the floor beside the bed.  I break it into three pieces (difficult) and chuck it under the bed along with the ‘Catechism for Modern Man.”

A couple of weeks later, I’m walking home down Haverstock Hill, when I recognize a voice behind me – “The ascetic nape of your neck – that’s your chief attraction…”

I stop and turn.  It’s the priest of course, his birthmark a deeper purple in the daylight.  He asks why I didn’t come to hear him say Mass that time – he was expecting me.  Something else came up, I reply.

And am I still interested in being a priest?

I’ve changed my mind.

And the book – ‘the Catechism for Modern Man’?  Could I return it?

I tell him I’ve destroyed it.

He sighs.  It was scarce.  He’ll have to get another copy.

He fishes into the breast pocket of his black jacket and hands me a card with his name, address and phone number on it.

“There may come a time when you might find you need financial help.  You know my terms.  Ring me whenever you feel like it.”

He nods good day and strolls off.  I stick the card in my pocket and head on home, my mind full of anger, from which I escaped briefly with glue.

That was the last time I ever saw the priest in the flesh.  But a few months later something happened which made me remember him with a shock.

It was an evening. I’d given up glue after developing a sticky cough and a rash on my shoulders.  I was tripping on LSD, not very heavily, just half a tab, but it was turning out to be a bad trip.  I’d gone to the National Theatre on the South Bank to see some drawings by a friend of a friend which were being exhibited in the foyer of one of the studios.  They were in the vestibule, displayed in illuminated glass boxes.  I wasn’t impressed.  They just looked like squiggly black lines on notepaper.

In the foyer of the main theatre just as I was leaving, I stopped in front of a large picture of a previous production, ‘The Romans in Britain’.  The play had been taken to court by TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse on an indecency charge because of a scene of a male-rape on stage, but she had lost the case.

The picture showed the scene in question, where a couple of naked Ancient Britons bathing in a river are discovered by some armed Roman soldiers and the story continues.  In the blown up black and white photograph the naked actor playing the ancient Briton had his back to the camera, showing his smooth muscular buttocks.  The Romans, swords out and facing us, are threatening.  Next to that picture was another of a previous National production of a Feydeau farce showing actors in ‘Ooh la lah!’ poses.

Two upper-middle-class couples, dolled up for a night at the theatre, were standing, drinks in hands in front of the pictures, ostensibly looking at the Feydeau , avoiding the naked violence and controversy of the Romans picture, but each individual secretly drawn to it.

As I stood beside them in my tripping thoughts I felt their inner turmoil, and calmed them by looking at the Feydeau too.  They twittered, sipped and casualled, but when I slowly switched my glance to the buttocks of the threatened Briton, they bristled, alarmed – forced to share my looking, the avoidance broached.

A look back at the safe Feydeau picture settled them like birds.  Realizing the power of looking, I deliberately flicked my gaze back to the naked buttocks.  One of the couples spilled a drink in panic and they moved away, afraid and silently accusing.  I’m not one of them.  Isolate.  Ignore.  Send to Coventry.

And so I’m walking across Waterloo Bridge afterwards in a very negative mood.  The world is full of hateful phonies.  There is dark in my heart and dark all around, but there are sherbet lights on the other side of the bridge at Charing Cross station and twinkling lights reflected on the darkly glinting surface of the Thames.

Suddenly on the walkway ahead I see a well-dressed couple running towards me in terror with heads bowed, the female’s high-heels clicking double time, the bow-tied gentleman’s protective arm around her shoulder.

They skitter past, eyes wide in alarm.  As I progress, I descry the burly figure of a ragged unkempt tramp who has commandeered a position at the center of the bridge, half lamplit, half in shadow, where he roars in a frenzy and terrorizes passers-by like a dangerous troll.

He’s done it again as I get nearer, and another suburban couple flee towards and past me in horror, their evening temporarily ruined, escaping the erratically-wheeling arms and roared incoherent obscenities of the tramp.

And now it’s my turn.  No-one else is coming or going, and I have to get across.  I can almost see an invisible club in his hand as he stands there midway, awaiting his next victim.  Perhaps it’s the effect of the acid, but I feel no fear as I approach, I’ve thrown caution to the wind, nothing matters anymore, who is he to tyrannize me?

As I approach, I’m able to meet the pale watchful eyes in the bearded ravaged face and see that he sees I am not afraid.  He makes a roaring leap at me as I approach, but I don’t react, and he immediately drops the pose and goes off duty.

“Have you got a cigarette?” he asks. I offer him one from my packet and take one myself.  We light them, and lean against the railing, staring down at the dark light-streaked water.  I feel relaxed, as though with an old friend.  He shuffles in the inside pocket of his decrepit coat, bringing out something to show me.

“Do you know who this is?” the tramp asks in a challenging voice, reeking of alcohol. I examine a photograph, the black and white glossy close-up of a long-haired bearded man in a close fitting skullcap, his serious wisdom-filled eyes gazing upwards with enlightenment.

“Baghwan Shree Rajnish?”  I venture, having read a book by him recently, and the picture looking remarkably similar to the one on the back.

“No,” he scoffs.  “It’s me.  Taken by Lord Snowden  (Princess Margaret’s ex-husband,) a few years ago now.  Nice man.  He gave me this copy.”

As he stashes the iconic picture back in his breast pocket, I realise that the tramp is, or has been, a sort of saint in his time.  His task now is to confront souls on the middle of this bridge over the river of life in a terrifying wake-up sort of way.

He leans on the balustrade next to me, his shoulder against mine.

“D’you wanna come back to my place?” he whispers.  “It’s not far from here.  I’ve got everything.  Whisky, brandy, vodka, beer – whatever you like…”

I’m tempted, but I know that if I do, my life will be changed forever in a direction that I don’t want it to go.  The tramp and I will become friends and maybe even lovers; I will probably learn many valuable things about life from him; but eventually just end up terrorizing theatre-goers on Charing Cross Bridge in the middle of the Thames.  I stare fixedly down at the patterns of light crisscrossing on the water.

“No thanks,” I reply.

He is angry at my rejection, and although he knows that he can no longer impress me with the old troll ogre act, knowing I’ve seen through it, he is still perceptive – definitely a kind of saint or demon.

“Well, then,” he hisses.  “Why don’t you do it now?  There’s the water waiting for you.  Throw yourself in.”

And I’m looking down at the water, feeling miserable and prone to suggestion and I know that he knows that, and I think if only it were that easy to end it all.  But I’m a strong swimmer and I’d fight against the current as soon as I hit the water, and even if I wasn’t, at the same time, I’m still curious to know what lies ahead for me in this world, be it pain or pleasure; pain most likely, and I reply quietly:

“No I won’t.”

So that’s over between us, but he’s still a bit pissed-off that I’m not coming for cocktails and haven’t jumped off the bridge.  I turn away from the river, ready to go on my way.

“Well?” he asks, arms crossed, belligerent.  “Have you nothing to give me?”

Suddenly I have a flash of inspiration.  I reach into the breast pocket of my jacket and hand him something.

“This is the card of a priest who lives in Hampstead,” I tell him.  “He says he’s always ready to help men down on their luck.”

The tramp rubs the card between his fingers as he peers at it, before pocketing it with his crumpled portrait.

“That’s something, anyway.”

We shake hands and part like brothers.  As I make my way to the other side of the river I hear his barbaric roar behind me as he confronts another crossing couple.

Having gained the other side, going down the steps of the bridge, in front of Charing Cross tube station, I see something which freezes my blood.

The advertising hoarding of the London Daily News stand screams – ‘TRAMP KILLS CATHOLIC PRIEST!!!’

I buy a paper and read the item on the way home on the tube.  But of course it’s the story of a completely different tramp and a completely different priest.  A homeless man had beaten a cleric to death in a village vicarage. A strange coincidence, nonetheless.  What else could it be?

Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website – http://yabanji.tripod.com/id25.html