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Authors: Michael Arditti

The Breath of Night

MICHAEL ARDITTI

The Breath of Night

For Rupert Christiansen

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman

But since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Revelation (New Jerusalem Bible)

The trouble with Christianity is not that it has failed, but that it hasn’t been tried.

G. K. Chesterton

 

I first heard of Julian Tremayne during my all-too-brief
engagement
to his great-niece. Having been named for him, she felt a special affinity with him, not least given the circumstances of his murder. Julian was an English missionary who went out to the Philippines in the early 1970s. After more than a decade as a parish priest, he was implicated in the assassination of a local military commander and thrown into jail. The
preposterousness
of the charge, which even his enemies held to be a blatant attempt to intimidate him, provoked international outrage. The government, bowing to concerted diplomatic pressure, sent Julian home. Three years later, after the fall of President Marcos and against the wishes of his family, he returned to the
Philippines
where, travelling in a remote mountainous region, he was captured by a band of Communist guerrillas who brutally killed him. Even in death he was not silenced, since there have been reports of mysterious occurrences at his grave.

I treat such reports with a healthy scepticism. My own opinion, for what it is worth (and I am only a paid chronicler of Julian’s story), is that the world would be a happier, more equitable and, indeed, more spiritual place without
religion
. I say ‘without religion’ but not ‘without God’. By that I mean the God who can be found in the paintings of Raphael, Caravaggio and Roualt, the music of Tallis and Bach, the poetry of Donne and Herbert, as well as in countless individual acts of charity, right down to my own youthful sponsored walks on behalf of Christian Aid. I come from a long line of middle-of-the-road Anglicans. My father and grandfather, no doubt along with generations of Sewards before them, take the view that God, if not exactly an Englishman, is of an English disposition, deploring excessive religious zeal as much as any other intemperate display of passion. The Tremaynes, on the other hand, are an old Roman Catholic family, whose ability
to survive the vicissitudes of post-Reformation, pre-
Emancipation
politics demonstrates the strength of their faith.

Julia and I met at Cambridge in the spring of 2003. She was reading modern languages and I history of art. Were I writing about her, I would fill paragraphs, chapters even, with tributes to her beauty, intelligence, generosity, glamour, wickedness and wit, along with the more intimate information that now seems obligatory in any account of a love affair. My concern, however, is with her uncle, and so I shall pass swiftly on to my first visit to their family seat, Whitlock in County Durham. The house was early Tudor with Dutch gables and russet brickwork. An east wing of Portland stone, added in the wake of the quarrying boom of the 1830s, gave it an asymmetrical charm. The current owner was Julia’s grandfather, Gregory Tremayne, who had served as a junior minister under Mrs Thatcher. Since his wife’s death the previous year, his daughter Isabel, Julia’s mother, had acted as her father’s hostess.

Julia issued me with such an extensive list of dos and don’ts regarding her grandfather that I was dreading my visit. In the event, Gregory (he was studiedly informal) could not have been more hospitable. I had scarcely taken off my coat when he offered to give me a guided tour. I was fascinated by the pictures, which were far superior to the usual country-house mishmash, but less enamoured of some of the other exhibits, notably in the trophy room. Bears, polar and grizzly, an elephant with yellowed tusks, a stag with arboreal antlers and many lesser specimens gazed glassily from the walls. Two skins, a lion and a tiger, were spread on the floor like crime-scene silhouettes. This gruesome menagerie had been gathered by Gregory’s great-uncle Lennox, in his quest to eat every animal named in the Bible except, of course, for the griffons and unicorns. Julia, anxious that I should not be misled by family legend, dismissed Lennox as a fraud, claiming that the dishes of crocodile, jackal and wolf described in his diaries attested simply to the range of his travels and his reluctance to offend the culinary tastes of his hosts.

My second visit to Whitlock was in the summer of our
graduation
, when Julia and I went up to announce our engagement, only to find the news overshadowed by that of her grandfather’s terminal cancer. His imminent demise cast doubt on the future of the estate. The slate quarries had been closed for years and the tenant farms no longer paid their way. Julia’s father, Hugh, was willing to underwrite his wife’s inheritance, but at the cost of sweeping changes, both administrative and aesthetic, which aroused as much opposition from the family as from the local residents. Within a year of his father-in-law’s death, he leased several hundred acres of unprofitable pasture to a wind farm. ‘Thirty turbines whirling away at an annual rent of £100,000 each. It’s an ill wind,’ he said, with a wry grin.

Meanwhile Julia and I moved to a flat in Battersea and took the first steps in our planned careers. Eighteen months later, both had been abandoned: mine by circumstance; hers by choice. Much to my chagrin, she was lured away from translation work by a friend who was setting up as a party organiser. Not even the ready supply of gourmet leftovers could reconcile me to the switch. My own dream lasted longer. Through a family friend, I was taken on by a Duke Street gallery dealing in Old Masters. After a year spent largely ‘below stairs’, cataloguing and
researching
, I sold a Cranach workshop painting of the Gadarene Swine to a Russian billionaire. Unfortunately, I had failed to do
sufficient
research into either the picture or the buyer. The former was not the simple gospel illustration it appeared, but a deeply unpleasant anti-Semitic satire, and the latter had recently
rediscovered
his Jewish roots. Fearing a scandal, my boss ‘reluctantly’ let me go. I did the round of London galleries but, whether their regrets were genuine or my reputation had preceded me, there were no jobs. Disillusioned, I reinvented myself as a critic, writing pieces for everything from scholarly journals and glossy magazines to sale catalogues and websites.

Then on 21 June 2007 everything changed. Not only the date but the time is for ever imprinted on my mind: 2.10 a.m., which,
curiously, I see not on the elegant watch face I checked when the telephone woke me but in the clinical display of a digital clock. Julia and I had been invited to Kent to celebrate her Aunt Agnes’s seventy-second birthday. I had to stay in town for an opening at the d’Offay gallery, so Julia drove down with her younger brother Greg. Of course I blame myself. Even if we had taken Greg’s car, I might have offered to drive since, according to the autopsy, he was three times over the legal alcohol limit, or, at the very least, have insisted on his reducing his speed, which the skid marks showed to have been about eighty miles an hour. Had all else failed, I could have persuaded them to put up the roof and perhaps have saved their lives.

Ten days later I sat beside Isabel and Hugh at the funeral in the elevated family pew which, despite its whiff of
feudalism
, had the virtue of screening us from public view. Scores of friends came up from London, as did my parents along with my brothers and their wives, yet, for all their expressions of sympathy, I felt that my grief was marginalised. There was an unspoken assumption that I was young and would fall in love again but there would be no such grace for the Olliphants, who had lost both their children. In crude terms, it was as though their pain were not doubled but squared. Conscious of that and that Greg had been unattached, I promised to keep in touch. While I resisted returning to Whitlock, I spent several strained evenings in Chelsea, where we each tried to pretend that our memories made up for our loss. When, a year or so later, I met Belinda, a cellist with the LSO, Isabel and Hugh professed to be thrilled, inviting us to dinner where they quizzed her as if she were a prospective daughter-in-law. Their manner was so brittly polite that I resolved to refuse any further
invitations
even after I had broken with Belinda. For two years I restricted myself to Christmas card contact until, out of the blue, I received a letter from Isabel asking me to Whitlock to discuss a matter of mutual interest. Intrigued, and not a little nostalgic, I set a date.

My conviction that the past was behind me wavered as I drove through the main gates, whose heraldic crest, an owl and two halberds, had been freshly repainted. Juddering over the cattle grid, I gazed across the sunlit meadows where a cluster of wind turbines gleamed as bleakly as artificial Christmas trees. Much to my relief, the house remained true to my memory, and I climbed the uneven steps, savouring its fusty charm. I waited in the oak-panelled hall while an elderly maid went to inform her mistress of my arrival. She returned to lead me to the small drawing room where Isabel sat, as constant as the house, with only a hint of silver in her auburn hair to mark the passing years. Tears welled in my eyes as she called me Pip, a nursery
diminutive
which had lain dormant until I mentioned it to Julia who immediately adopted it, followed by her parents and brother. From anyone else, it would have sounded precious, as though it should be coupled with ‘toodle’; from Isabel, it took me back me to a warmer, safer place.

She asked to hear all my news and I was embarrassed by how little I had to report. She listened appreciatively as I outlined my journalistic achievements, but the collection of reviews,
interviews
and articles, already modest in my mind, seemed even more so in the telling. Even my big break, a six minute spot on a radio arts programme, had led nowhere, after the producer, a Cambridge contemporary, had been seconded to Sport. The irony was that my greatest success had come from filing diary stories for another university contact, going to the very parties that I had once reproached Julia for organising. I had spent six months trying to write a novel but, despite the enthusiasm of a
hand-picked
set of readers, I was forced to admit that I had nothing unique, profound or even amusing to say. No ‘late developer’ tag could disguise the fact that I was a twenty-seven-year-old failure, barely eking out a living. It was then that she put forward her plan.

‘Have you ever met a saint?’ she asked, so abruptly that I took it for a trick question.

‘Not to my knowledge,’ I replied warily.

‘You’d have known if you’d met my uncle.’

I assumed that she was using ‘saint’ in the broad sense of a good and selfless person but, to my discomfort, I realised she was using it in the strict sense laid down by her Church. She gave me a brief overview of Julian’s life and work in the Philippines, along with details of his murder, which Julia had either found too painful to discuss or from which her parents had sought to protect her. Having returned to the Philippines and a new parish, he had gone on a spiritual retreat in an area which, unknown to him, was a stronghold of the NPA, a group of virulently anticlerical Marxists. They had ambushed and shot him, dumping his body in an open grave where it was not
discovered
for several months, by which time the bones had been picked clean, a fact which she confessed had first horrified her but which now seemed fitting: a literal surrender of the flesh, for which he had striven, symbolically, all his life. He had been identified provisionally by height (he was a foot taller than the average Filipino) and definitively by the family crest on his ring.

‘I’m surprised that it wasn’t stolen,’ I said. ‘Aren’t the people abjectly poor?’

‘They’re also extremely devout. The two foresters who unearthed the body reported that it was bathed in a mysterious light and, on their approach, a bird appeared out of nowhere and hovered above it. They called the police, who confirmed their story, adding that, when they removed the bones, they smelt a honey-like sweetness and heard an ethereal music, which one of them compared to a children’s choir and another to a harp.’

Isabel’s face glowed with such conviction that I longed to share it, but the rationalist in me immediately looked for
explanations
in sunbeams deflected from mountain peaks, the sound of the wind whistling through leaves, and the sickly-sweet smell of putrefaction clinging to the bones. I even wondered about the language and how much might have been lost – or added – in translation, but I kept such doubts to myself, hoping that a blank expression would convey an open mind. I listened while
Isabel explained how her grandmother had wanted to bring Julian’s remains back to Whitlock, but her father had convinced her to leave them in the country that he had made his home. So he had been buried in the cemetery of his former parish. Hugh had flown out to oversee arrangements and she herself had visited the grave some years later, when she accompanied him on a business trip to the Philippines. Over time, and despite being officially discouraged by the Church, a cult had grown up around Julian, whose intercession was said to have led to several miracles of healing. The sceptic in me, which had by now eclipsed the rationalist, suspected that it had been a wise move to leave the body in such a susceptible environment, but when I asked her why she thought that similar miracles did not take place at the graves of saintly men in England she replied that they occurred in countries where people prayed for them, which they no longer did in the West.

Just as her account was verging on the anecdotal, Isabel explained that three years ago a group of Julian’s former
parishioners
had petitioned their bishop to have Julian declared a saint. Rightly assuming that I knew little about the process of canonisation, she summarised the key criteria: either
martyrdom
for the faith or the performance of two or more miracles. In the light of the cures, I asked whether Julian had not already met that second condition, but she replied that personal
testimony
was not enough; the miracles had to be authenticated by a team of experts. In addition, the candidate was required to have led an exemplary life: technically, ‘a holy life of heroic virtue’, exhibiting the qualities of zeal for the Church, consecrated
virginity
, poverty and obedience. While I was debating which of the four I would find it hardest to achieve, she declared that, in response to the petition, the Bishop had launched an
investigation
into Julian’s virtues. His agents were gathering evidence which, together with copies of Julian’s writings (of which there were precious few), would be presented in a document known as a
positio
to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.

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