from an imaginary Lucerne diary
The blue-green colour of the hills surrounding the city seemed to be reflected in the stones of the old town today. There was something about the position of the sun emerging from below a few white clouds that made the walls of the church on the square shimmer in small lozenge shapes of aquatic tones, as if I were looking up at the world from the bottom of a deep swimming pool.
I stood there for a minute, tilting my face up so I could feel the warm air passing over my skin. A momentary flash of light in the stained glass window of the church caused me to squint. Once my eyes had adjusted, I noticed the design of the window for the first time since I got to Lucerne and rented a hotel room. The window showed Christ standing with his hands down, palms turned outwards to reveal bloody holes. A man was kneeling before him, leaning slightly back with his hands raised in an attitude of surprise. I guessed that it was the story of Doubting Thomas, but the stained glass artist had added a weird touch: a stream of blood was coursing out of the wound in Christ’s left hand and pouring onto the upturned face of Thomas, like the warm light falling on my face in the square.
The colour of the pieces of glass depicting the blood was a deep crimson, the colour of wine. It reminded me of the colour of the sacramental wine at communion, in the local catholic church that I was sent to, quite against my will, as a child. I would kneel down at the altar along with the other communicants, take the clammy unleavened host onto my tongue, and wash it down with a swig from the chalice, which was placed briefly against my lips by the old priest. Actually, I don’t know what colour the wine really was. I know now that it wasn’t a real wine but a weaker variety, designed for its symbolic purpose rather than to send every Catholic home shit-faced. But there were always the tales of the alcoholic priests, the ones who turned up at certain houses in their parish and drank everything they could get their hands on, the ones who went through cases of even the watered down stuff they doled out in the middle of every Mass.
I thought of how afraid I was, as a child, of our priest. He seemed immensely old to me, with his thin grey hair plastered to the scalp by Brylcreem, and the small square glasses with the thick lenses that gave him the appearance of a Soviet chess master, all intellect and introversion. I never saw him except at Mass, even though the school I went to was right beside the church, and our playground was separated from the grounds of the church only by a low wooden fence, with a gate that was always unlocked, but which none of us in the playground ever opened or passed through, not even if our football ended up sailing over the fence and onto the holy grass. When that happened, we just waited until the priest’s housekeeper came out and threw it back over at us. We all knew that if we went in to retrieve it, if we broke the invisible barrier separating a bunch of boys from a priest, we would be sent immediately to the headmaster, where we would be given six excruciating smacks of a birch cane across our outstretched palms.
The only time I ever passed through the cordon was when I was invited. I must have been about ten years old. I was summoned to the headmaster’s office, but instead of being caned (and even though I hadn’t done anything, that by no means excluded the possibility that I would be caned anyway), the headmaster said something about Father Jones – I remember now, the priest’s name was Father Jones – giving away a lot of his LPs, and the headmaster was too busy to collect them at that moment, so would I go over to the vestry and bring them back to the office.
My relief at not being caned was immediately supplanted by my terror at going into Father Jones’ house on my own. The playground seemed immense as I crossed it. When I got to the gate, I hesitated before putting my hand on the handle and pressing down the lever to open the door. My hand was shaking a little, and my heart was beating very fast. I still expected to hear the booming voice of the headmaster behind me, shouting: “What are you doing?”, as he dragged me back to his office for another beating. I peeked around the edge of the gate. There were no monsters. There was just a stretch of trimmed grass, and then the vestry. Through the window I saw the housekeeper, washing dishes. When she looked up and saw me, she quickly dried her hands on a towel and motioned for me to come in.
I crossed the yard with my head bowed, and walked slowly through the kitchen door. The housekeeper was dressed in a long pinafore decorated with dark blue and red flowers. I didn’t see her face, as I was too afraid of her to look up.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said to me. “You look like you’ll die of fright. Come on, come this way. Nothing to be afraid of.”
We passed through a door at the other end of the kitchen, into a narrow dark hallway that led to a solid oak door, paneled and embossed with carvings of mythical animals. The housekeeper knocked twice, leaning in to hear the reply. There was a muffled noise from the other side of the door. She nodded, opened the door slightly, looked back at me, and said: “In you go. And don’t touch anything. I just cleaned everything this morning.”
The dread in my body sucked at every corpuscle in my blood as I pushed the door open a little further and sidled into the room. It was so dark in that room, even though it was a day of bright sunshine outside. I looked to the window, partly so that I wouldn’t have to look at Father Jones, and I saw that the heavy curtains were drawn. My eyes passed back quickly around the room, but all I could make out were the vague outlines of large, heavy, mahogany furniture. In the middle of it all was a high-backed chair with scrollwork along the edges, and in it the sunken form of Father Jones.
He smiled and said, in a voice so soft and small that I could barely hear it: “What’s your name?”
“Ph-ph-philip,” I stuttered.
“Ah,” replied Father Jones. “Mr Garthwaite (he was the headmaster) tells me that you’re a very bright boy.”
My sense of humiliation was replaced by bewilderment. Garthwaite had really said that? The headmaster was a man who never uttered a word of praise to his students in class, so this information left me speechless.
Father Jones must have taken pity on my discomfort, because he lifted an old, slightly trembling hand, and pointed to a box containing about ten LPs that was perched near a very old fashioned carrying-case-style mono record player.
“There they are. Are you sure you can carry all those?”
“Yes sir – Father.” I blushed so hotly that it felt as if someone had splashed me with water from a kettle.
As I lifted the box, and stumbled out of the room, and got past the housekeeper, and walked back across the garden, and opened the gate, and crossed the concrete playground again, I will always remember the title of the album that was at the front of the stack. “The Ruins of Athens”, by Beethoven. Mr Garthwaite, the headmaster, was visibly delighted when I placed the box on his desk. He rubbed his palms together – yes, really – and exclaimed: “Ah, yes yes yes.”
I hadn’t thought of this in more than thirty years, until I was standing in that square in Lucerne. Then my glazed-over eyes resumed their focus when I noticed a priest, or at least the Protestant equivalent---anyway a man dressed in dark religious clothing crossing the square, and stopping to bend down and wipe something off the top of his shiny leather shoe with a white handkerchief that he took out from the pocket of his soutane, before entering the church through the vast wooden doorway.
I hated going to Mass as a child. I hated the nuns with their fanatical eyes, always looking out for an infraction to punish you for. I hated the monthly lecture about donating to the poor in Africa, which amounted to a shakedown to squeeze a few pennies out of the pocket money of a bunch of dirt-poor miners’ children. I hated the father, the son, and the holy pigeon, the whole rotten sin-and-forgiveness racket of it.
But I remembered the shy old priest, Father Jones, and I started to cry.