When we were thrown out of the church, we spent a long time visiting other parishes in the area before Father found one that was right for us. It was a very strange time.
I can’t remember Father being frogmarched out but that really is what happened. It was right at the end of Mass. I suppose I wasn’t paying much attention; Mass was long and I spent most of it with my face in Mother’s lap. Father would have been over by the organ, leading the choir.
I do remember that when we got home Uncle Bill had come out and was sitting at the dining room table. He’d taken the knives and forks out and was making them into little horses and giraffes.
Bill had been with us about a year. He never came to church with us because he had Mental Health. He lived in the cupboard under the stairs, and would sometimes come out if the coast was clear. He had a big moustache and a Scouse perm, like the Harry Enfield character that was always saying, ‘Calm down, calm down’. When he first moved in, we tried doing the voice at him but you couldn’t really joke with Uncle Bill. He was morose.
‘You know you shouldn’t be out here,’ Mother told him, and Father led him back to his room.
I hated him being in there. The stairs in our house were flat slats, with gaps in between and if you walked past you could see Bill sitting there in the dark, his eyes glinting. I used to jump three steps at a time to get to bed. Also, somewhere in there a fungus was growing that we’d put in for a science experiment, ages ago. The instructions had said ‘store in a cold, dry place’. Now we couldn’t get in there and I kept thinking of the fungus getting bigger and bigger in the dark, growing heads and roots and lumps.
Anyway, when Uncle Bill was back in his place, Mother put a chicken in the oven and Father sat down at the bureau with a map and the Yellow Pages. The next Sunday we were in the minibus and on the road with the dove at our door.
The first church we tried was a lot like the one we’d had to leave. It was dim and cold and had a very low roof and was divided up into different shapes. This must have been the fashion at the time: Modernist Christian. It had a rhombus-like entrance hall and a hexagonal bit and an oblong sticking out at the side. The spire went up at a right angle. The crucifix on the back wall of the altar was also done in shapes, like big splinters of polished mahogany. Where the body of Christ should have been a stream of bright red paint spilled from a nail at about head height.
The parishioners here seemed very unfriendly, but probably I was just used to everybody knowing who we were. In the old church I’d always felt that we were famous. I’d never liked this much – all it meant was a lot of mums vying to kiss your cheeks – but people at least seemed pleased to be there. The new parishioners came out of Mass and scattered like snakes. The few that stuck around had a skulk about them, like they’d been asked to stay behind. Anyway, Father said the priest’s sermon wasn’t his cup of tea, so that was that.
We tried lots of churches in the weeks that followed, some of them squat and angled and others with domes and pillars and stained-glass windows. It became normal for us to see a new priest at work every week; one dull, pale man after another with their robes and their glasses and their circles of teenage boys. Always annoyed about one thing or another. I couldn’t understand why anybody listened. I think I only ever heard one priest that could actually sing. The others came out with the same low, flat note, whatever the song. They must learn how to do it that way at priest college or whatever.
A few of the younger ones, you could tell, were trying. They’d come down from the altar and do jokes. One had a puppet penguin that he pulled from his robes to talk to the children in a squeaky voice.
A few of the younger ones, you could tell, were trying. They’d come down from the altar and do jokes. One had a puppet penguin that he pulled from his robes to talk to the children in a squeaky voice. Sooner or later though, you knew they’d retreat to the safety of the altar and go through the same old motions. The Miracle of Faith.
Each week, after the service, we’d wait outside with Mother while Father introduced himself to the priest. On the way home he’d share his thoughts and we’d either give the church a go for a few weeks or else move on to the next one.
Around this time, we went to a party thrown by some friends from the old parish. It was a sort-of house-warming party. They hadn’t actually moved but they’d had an extension – this was before people really had extensions – and they basically wanted to show the place off. They had a bathroom with a bidet which was probably the first of its kind in our town. We all assumed it was a second toilet and inevitably somebody had to try it out. I don’t remember who, but I think it fell to the older siblings to shower down the mess.
Most of the guests at the party were from the old parish. They were the people we used to see every week. Some we’d kept in touch with but there were others we probably wouldn’t have spoken to from Sunday to Sunday anyway. Even that young I was aware that there were factions in the parish. Everybody was cordial but there were families who’d keep themselves at arm’s length for one reason or another. I think people were grateful that day that the house had so many rooms.
Father, of course, was not one to be shamed into a corner. He and Mother settled in the kitchen where the drinks and finger food were, and which led through to the garden. You couldn’t really avoid passing through at some point. I spent most of the party in there with them, my arms wrapped about Father’s leg. I suppose I was about old enough to sense unease if not to quite understand it.
In the end, two of the local dads came in from the garden and told Father it was time to leave and one of them asked, hadn’t he done enough harm already? They were the priest’s cronies; the ones that had flanked Father from the altar to the door that day. They each wore very grim and not very Christian expressions, their brows crisscrossed and the muscles of their cheeks flexing. Through the window to the garden, I could see other guests peering in and looking away.
Father smiled at the pair of them, not moving. He finished his drink and placed it on the worktop. He glanced at his watch and crossed his arms in a single gesture.
‘It is getting late,’ he said finally, and Mother called the rest of us down from upstairs.
Our hosts saw us to the road, saying they were terribly sorry and it was lovely to see us and it was all a bit silly but also probably for the best. Mother and Father agreed that it was about time anyway and that the house looked lovely and we’d give a bidet some serious thought. We could see the old church across the road from where the minibus was parked, and the door to the priest’s small house.
“I’ll pray for you all,” Father smiled from the road when our hosts had gone back inside, and he drove us away.
‘I’ll pray for you all,’ Father smiled from the road when our hosts had gone back inside, and he drove us away.
When, later, the boys in our town began to take their lives I expect there were some that regretted what they’d done and not done, but we were long gone by then. We’d found a new parish in a new town not too far away.
Uncle Bill left our house soon after that. We came home one day and the door to the cupboard under the stairs was open. Father papered over the paintings Bill had made and Mother was able to use the space to store laundry again.
My brother recovered the fungus. It was now about the size of a doll and had grown two mushroom caps – one huge and broad at the top and another smaller one to the side, like a wonky limb. My brother held it proudly but I was horrified by the thing. It was blubbery, like very soft flesh, and I was sure that if you squeezed it the skin would rip and some awful mucus-covered organ would be twitching beneath. The gills under the cap were like rows of puffy lips, stretched thin. The fungus stood on the desk in our room for weeks before Mother took it in hand and boiled it in a broth for us all to eat, for Sunday lunch.