Authors: Paul Burke,Prefers to remain anonymous
This is a story about a Roman Catholic priest who runs his North London parish whilst harbouring an almighty secret: he doesn’t believe in God. This doesn’t stop him from being hugely successful, if a little unconventional in his work. He raises money by driving a London taxi and everything is going well until Sarah hops into his cab and into his life.
he church was packed. Of course it was. This was Kilburn, 1970, home to the largest Irish community in Britain, and the Catholic church in Quex Road was at its epicentre. It was a huge church, bigger than many cathedrals—high Gothic arches, acres of stained glass. Such was the concentration of Catholics in Kilburn that Quex Road needed eight full-time priests to cope. Every Sunday more than ten thousand people attended mass there, requiring services on the hour in the church and on the half-hour in the church hall to accommodate them. A total of fourteen Sunday masses in all, standing room only in each.
This was the eleven o’clock mass—particularly popular as it finished rather conveniently at ten to twelve, which left just enough time for a fag and a cough in the car park before the pubs opened at noon.
Inside, the smell of incense was floating down from the altar, along the aisles and into the furthest recesses at the back. Right down into the corners it wafted, so that the slackers who stood there rather guiltily, the ones who had shuffled in just before the Gospel and would shuffle out just after Communion, were aware that they were attending Sunday mass. Aware that mortal sin had been avoided and their weekly obligation fulfilled.
Most of the congregation were just going through the motions—mindlessly mumbling the words of prayers they’d mumbled a million times before. Prayers they knew so well that they didn’t know them at all. There was, however, one parishioner, seated six rows from the front, who was considering the broader picture, asking himself the bigger question: why are we here? Not ‘Why are we here?’ in the deep, philosophical sense: why were we put on Earth? What is our ultimate purpose? What is the meaning of life? No, nothing like that. When eleven-year-old Francis Dempsey asked himself, ‘Why are we here?’ he meant why are we here in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Quex Road, Kilburn, spouting what sounded to him like rubbish?
Francis, you see, was breaking the habit of a lifetime. He was paying attention. His father Eamonn, having seen the boy gazing vacantly into space yet again during the Gospel, had nudged him sharply and told him to listen to what the priest was saying. Francis had always used his weekly trip to mass as an opportunity to catch up on his daydreaming—would England win the World Cup again in Mexico this year? His collection of Esso World Cup coins was almost complete. Only Brian Labone and Ian Storey-Moore to go. Which member of Pan’s People was he most in love with? Cherry, Dee Dee or Babs? This morning, though, he was listening to the liturgy, the absurdity of which he found rather disturbing.
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth of all things visible and invisible…”
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive thee under my roof but only say the word and my soul will be healed…”
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…”
Lamb of God? What on earth were these people talking about? What is the Lamb of God anyway? And since when could a lamb take away the sins of the world?
A few of the flock, particularly those nearest the front, looked worried—very worried. There was a lot of bead-jiggling and breast-beating going on.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa
. Old Mrs Dunne looked terrified. What dreadful sins had she committed as a girl in Ireland? What could have made her so desperate for forgiveness? She was praying now, eyes closed, beads clutched, with the speed and delivery of an auctioneer: “…hallowedbethynamethy-kingdomcomethywillbedoneonearthasitisinheaven…”
As Francis joined the queue to receive Holy Communion, the opening bars from a familiar hymn struck up with a mighty resonance from the organ loft at the back: ‘Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven’ which, according to the hymnbook, had been written by somebody called H.F. Lyte. ‘Praise Him, Praise Him’ was the chorus and general gist of it. It was the general gist of most hymns, and Francis found the sentiments expressed by H.F. and his ilk rather disquieting.
If God is up there now, His beady eye trained on Kilburn, what must He think of the grovelling musical tributes ringing out of Quex Road? Doesn’t He find them horribly embarrassing? Having ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to you was bad enough so how excruciating was this? Surely He’s not enjoying this cringing sycophancy. If He is then He’s very conceited. If He’s conceited, He’s not perfect. If He’s not perfect, He’s not God.
Francis felt the familiar hot pang of Catholic guilt for entertaining such thoughts. How could he even consider such evil, blasphemous ideas about Our Lord? But wait a minute—he wasn’t thinking anything bad about God. On the contrary. He was assuming that God was a nice man, a modest man, a man who had no desire to be fawned upon in this way. Having pulled off this neat feat of self-exculpation, Francis reboarded this train of thought, which was now calling at all stations to Eternal Damnation.
What about all the other things he and his fellow parishioners were asked to do in the name of the Lord?
It all began with baptism. At Quex Road, they were very proud of the fact that they had the highest rate of baptisms, the busiest conveyor belt of freshly minted Catholics, in the country. More than six hundred babies a year, apparently, most of them no more than a couple of weeks old. Baptisms were arranged in great haste to secure the infant’s place in Heaven. Any child tragically returned to The Manufacturer before making it to the font would, regrettably, not be eligible for a place at His side, condemned instead to float for ever between Heaven and Hell in the land of Limbo—where innocent babies go if death tightens its icy grip before the Catholic Church does.
And Francis Dempsey, along with every other Roman Catholic, was seriously expected to believe this.
His mind then turned to Holy Communion. Now, that was a good one. How could that tiny round wafer actually be a part of Christ’s body? If you stuck enough of them together would you be able to make a long-haired bearded man in his thirties? And even if those little wafers really were tiny pieces of a man’s body, why on earth would you want to eat them? And how could that old bottle of Mosaic Cyprus Sherry possibly be Christ’s blood? And again, even if it were, why would you want to drink it?
How about confession? What, in the name of God, was that all about? Kneeling inside a wardrobe and telling a strange man your innermost secrets. Francis tried to remember the justification for this most peculiar of sacraments. Oh, yes, inside our bodies, we have a heart and soul. Funny that the latter had never once figured in human-biology lessons. And, as far as Francis was aware, no doctor had ever been called out to treat a suspected soul-attack. Yet, apparently, there it was, pure white but picking up little black marks every time its owner committed a sin. So confession was a bit like a trip to the launderette with a packet of metaphysical Persil. Those emerging from the wardrobe with their sins absolved, their souls cleansed, were supposed to feel as though they were wearing clean white shirts inside their bodies as well as outside.
Francis looked up at Jesus, depicted high above the altar, nailed to a cross. Who said he looked like that anyway? A bit like George Harrison on the cover of
. Not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. He’d caught that little snippet on a religious-affairs programme. Not one of the Gospels contains any reference to what Jesus actually looked like. All we know for certain was that he was Jewish. Well, Gus Harvey, who used to live next door, was Jewish, so that was how Francis always imagined the Son of God. It was Gus Harvey healing lepers, Gus Harvey turning water into wine. So two days after Gus died, Francis half expected him to rise from the dead.
This remarkable trick, allegedly performed by Jesus, was celebrated every Easter and Easter was just two weeks away. So today, the priest was clad in rather fetching purple vestments: purple for Lent and Advent, white for weddings and christenings, black for funerals and the standard green for any other time.
Francis felt a sense of dread as he anticipated Friday week—Good Friday, a misnomer if ever there was one, it being the most miserable day in the Catholic calendar, the day Our Lord was supposedly crucified. Any display of happiness or cheer on Good Friday was strictly forbidden. The Dempsey household, like hundreds of others in Kilburn, was subject to a blanket ban on all forms of pleasure. Watching TV, playing records in the front room or football in the park—forget it. Good Friday was a day devoted to solemnity—or, rather, mock-solemnity. Wasn’t it all a bit of a charade, rather like an old Hollywood movie that was shown every year? Yes, there is a weepy bit where the hero gets nailed to a cross but we all know he’s not dead really and gets up to live happily ever after.
Easter Saturday was a bit odd too. If people are going to pretend to be miserable on the Friday because Christ is dead then surely they should still be grief-stricken on the Saturday. He’s still dead, isn’t he? And yet every year on Easter Saturday smiles return to Catholic faces as they pile into Woolworth’s on Kilburn High Road to buy each other Easter eggs.
All very strange. And yet here he was at mass, surrounded by grown-up, intelligent people all buying into this nonsense—Jim O’Hagan, Mr and Mrs Quinn, the Mackens, the Hennesseys, the McKennas. Surely these thoughts had occurred to them too. Did any of them truly believe the stuff they espoused every Sunday?
Francis only really believed in the things he had seen, which was why he no longer believed in monsters, ghosts or Father Christmas. There was, of course, one ghost in whom he was still supposed to believe: the Holy Ghost, recently rebranded as the Holy Spirit, as if making him sound less like a ghoul and more like a bottle of whiskey would give him more credibility. Francis believed John Shanahan was the toughest boy in the class because he had seen him beat up Richard Fisher in the playground. He believed that the E-type Jaguar was the most beautiful car in the world because he had seen one parked on Brondesbury Road and had gazed at it for ten minutes. But God? These people believed in Him not because they had seen Him but, paradoxically, because they hadn’t.
Most baffling of all was that missing mass on a Sunday was considered a mortal sin on a par with murder or armed robbery. Why? Almost on cue, Joe Brennan handed him the most likely explanation.
Joe was a friend of his father’s—a good man, parish hero, a Knight of St Columba. Big and burly, Joe was dressed in his Sunday best: blue suit, brown shoes, tiny crucifix half buried in the cloth of his lapel. As he leaned towards Francis, he emitted the faint whiff of last night’s Jameson’s and this morning’s Old Spice. He was passing Francis the collection plate. Ah, so that was it. Receiving no money from the State, the Catholic Church was wholly dependent on the contents of that plate. Without these enforced attendances every Sunday, the health and wealth of the Church might be terminally affected. So why not just admit it? Why threaten everyone with the roaring fires of Hell if they didn’t turn up? It was clear that Francis Dempsey and his fellow parishioners were not, as the old cliche goes, singing from the same hymn sheet.
It got worse. After mass, Francis noticed the titles of some of the Catholic Truth Society’s pamphlets on sale in the repository. One was called
Wrestling With Christ
. What was that all about? Did it feature pictures of Jesus grappling with Mick McManus or Jackie Pallo? Did Jesus form a tag team with the Holy Spirit? That would be some tag team—one invincible, the other invisible. Well, Jesus might have had the rest of the congregation in a half-nelson but Francis was refusing to submit.
He wandered behind his mother, father and two sisters into-O’Brien’s newsagents for the traditional after-mass treat. While picking up the
News of the World
and forty Majors, his father would bestow a shilling upon each child to spend on confectionery. They would always eke it out—Francis in particular. He’d fill the little paper bag with Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, little chewy Frother bars, spreading that shilling over at least a dozen items. This Sunday he was in a different state of mind. Hang the expense: he was living dangerously now. He was going to blow the whole lot on something really decadent like a Tiffin, an Aztec or an Amazin’ Raisin bar. He was breaking old habits, and by the time they’d all walked back to their terraced house in Esmond Road, he’d decided to break the biggest habit of all. He’d made an important decision. A decision for life. Francis Dempsey did not believe in God.
Odd, then, that years later he would return to Quex Road and, witnessed by hundreds of people, would appear to proclaim the opposite.
here are generally two routes to choose between when emigrating from Ireland to London. It’s either Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead or Rosslare to Fishguard. The Holyhead train comes into Euston, the Fishguard train into Paddington. Those arriving at Euston tended to settle a couple of miles north in Camden or Holloway. Those arriving in Paddington would often head a few miles west to Shepherd’s Bush or Hammersmith. Kilburn, however, lying between the two termini and equally convenient for either, attracted far more Irish settlers than any other area in Britain.
Eamonn Dempsey was one of thousands who arrived at Euston in the mid-fifties to help rebuild a nation still recovering from the Second World War. He headed up to Camden, the weight of his battered old suitcase blistering his fingers. Up and down he trudged, street after street, before eventually he found a house that wasn’t displaying the almost standard ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ sign in its window. It was a huge, once grand Victorian villa in Gloucester Crescent, now in the depths of decay and carved up into a dozen damp and dismal ‘bedsits’. Each contained an old, cripplingly uncomfortable bed and one dangerous-looking gas ring. Basic sanitation was shared with several other homesick, lonely immigrants in a freezing cold privy at the end of a corridor. With only this to return to, was it any wonder that Eamonn preferred the warmth and conviviality of North London’s many pubs?