organist and monkey
The organ, off-kilter as a bagpipe chord, begins the first hymn. Major keys and minor key dance around the usual dirge. Funeral music. The congregation rises and voices fall to a scratchy whisper. One voice flickers and grows. Not the voice of God, but one that had known the usual hell. Heaven grows distant, doors quietly shutting one by one. The devil prowling outside. That I understood. That I always understood.
When I was wee we used to get dragged to mass, not kicking and screaming, because that would have brought a clout on the head, a smack to the bum or a ringing slap to the bare knees above the shorts, which was a sneaky shot and sorer when cold and raining. A shout of ‘you better behave yourself’. This would come with practiced ease from my big sister Jo, who knew everything and was really the devil. She lined those smaller than her like peas, in the right aisle, between the kneelers and the pew, faces shining and clean, pointing in the right direction towards the altar. Stephen, a holy terror, snorted and bucked and sloped off to God knows where. If I was God, I thought, I’d live in a sweet shop and not in St Stephen’s church with its high white ceilings and wooden pews filled with voices with nowhere else to go. Mum had to be locked in a glass box at the back of the chapel. Bryan was just a baby. He yearned, as I once did, to be in front. Beach-ball-sized screams coming from his gummy and grumpy mouth measured his unhappiness. He missed the shuffle of feet, damped down stink of booze breath and fags, and the perfume of incense, something to feed on while your mind drifted, and altar boy’s bells hovered over the horizon where God was. A buttery red light flickering on the altar to show that he was in.
Canon Mallon followed the shuffle of surplices and altar boys pulling in tandem, two-by-two, coming out the door of the sacristy. A fierce expression on the priest’s face, ears like a dusty trophy, checking, running the fingers round the inside of his robe. Ablaze, like a crusader in a purple robe, an embroidered silken cross his sword and shield. Eyes blinking out of puffy sockets like a ferrets. Old school. It was his job to tell you why God didn’t like you very much
Mary side altar was a distraction, blue as the star of the sea. Votive candles and the golden glow of penny flames. Jesus’ altar kitted out in traditional red, the colour of his bleeding heart. Mother and son didn’t look at each other, but out at us prisoners. Well, Jesus did with his soft brown eyes, but Mary doe-eyed looked sideways and up to heaven, with an expression on her face, a bit like Mum’s when Stephen had done something he shouldn’t like accidentally break a window, that said ‘not again’. But that might have had something to do with Mary always standing on snakes. She didn’t seem to be able to go anywhere without treading on at least one.
But at Christmas, because Jesus was so good, he was allowed a bit of company. A cardboard shed with crumpled black paper walls and, within spitting distance, a wandering star. In front of it, but behind the fence that separated the altar space from the nave, a wooden money box, in which you could put your pennies because that was what wise men did. They were kneeling with shepherds. Joseph and Mary were leaning over baby Jesus sleeping in his crib, checking his nappy, but he seemed quite contented. I envied Jesus’s ability to talk to the animals that were also there. Sometimes I’d cock my head and listen.
‘What you doing now?’ Jesus would ask the cow.
‘Nothing,’ the cow said. ‘I’m just goin to eat some of this hay then have a bit of a lie down. What you doing.’
‘Oh, I need to fix this thorny crown, then it’s my turn to get crucified again. Them I’m going to have a lie down and fly about seeing what bad people are doing.’
‘Moo,’ said the cow.
What frightened me was the stained-glass window beside Mary’s altar. Sixty feet of glass and I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a man or woman, but flowing out in its wake was a candlewick-type comet. The more I looked, the more I looked back at me. I could see peacock feathers and screams with no eyes. Reds and blues and greens, all obscene. A cold fish swimming in my belly as the devil came to get me. Cackling and crooning, cold, cold, cold, getting warmer. He’d look for a crawl space, a kissing gate, to enter inside your head. You could only make him unhappy by doing something like not kicking your sister Phyllis even though she deserved it. It was a lot harder to make God unhappy. And He didn’t seem to bother. I couldn’t look away from the stained-glass window, not even when Jo elbowed me. I could feel the devil walking around inside my head, sniffing and supping on sin and settling in. He was damned if he was going anywhere else for his dinner.