‘Promise me this, Paul,’ said my father. ‘When I die, don’t give me a Catholic funeral. I don’t want that priest up there’—he pointed to the steeple visible in the white English sky through the living-room window of his bungalow—‘muttering his mumbo-jumbo, hocus-pocus over my dead body.’
‘I don’t want him to set foot in the house, understand?’
‘I promise, Dad.’
It was prostate cancer—an aggressive form spreading into his bones and liver. The doctor had given him a year to live, tops.
I visited as often as I could. Coltishall, on the Norfolk broads, is a long way from the east coast of Australia. Summer was sticky and hot, and he was cheerily philosophical about his own demise. I took him to the hospital for blood plasma, for tests, and I sorted out his pill regime. He spoke about his great awakening out of the slumber of church tyranny. He was on a quest, he told me, for the truth. In this final year of his life he would get to the bottom of it. All of it.Our daily discussions were intense. I learned that he had finally torn away the facade of his life, the guilt and fear of his upbringing, and had come to an understanding of the falsity of all religion, especially this ‘whore of Babylon’, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. His youth had been stolen from him in the 1940s by sadistic and homosexual priests at his Catholic school; he had quietly suffered sexual repression and denial his entire adult life; but now, at seventy-five, he was finally enlightened. It had all started with The Da Vinci Code and its ancillary texts The Chalice and the Blade and Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Christ had been demystified. His eyes were open. He was a secular rationalist.
‘You have to do something, Paul,’ hissed my aunt at the obligatory family gathering in their back garden. ‘Stop him.’ She pointed to my father, standing by the tea table, surrounded by a crowd of bemused relatives. Children screamed around them, playing British bulldog.
I could hear even at this distance that he was ranting and raving against the Church. He did little else. ‘It’s all made up,’ he said, within earshot of the children. ‘I mean, John, do you seriously believe that that man up there’—he pointed up at the spire in the sky, where white doves cooed and flapped their wings—‘can mumble a few words over a piece of bread and a glass of wine and turn them into the body and blood of a man who died two thousand years ago? Do you?’
My uncle shook his head. ‘Perhaps now is not the time to talk about it, Bernard.’
‘Then when? After I’m dead?’
‘The children …’
‘In front of the children,’ hissed my aunt. ‘We all agree with him, but you don’t tell children that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, do you?’
Her job, my aunt told me, was to hold everything together. This family was built on tradition, she said. You went off to Australia—maybe you don’t understand that. Your father is pulling the family apart. I’ll be damned if I let that happen.
We were a good Catholic family. My well-off uncle and aunt were prominent philanthropists, served on prominent committees, and were well thought of in the higher echelons of East Anglian society. Hundreds of years ago this family had been persecuted for its faith. And everyone, generations of frail grannies and screaming infants, went to Mass every Sunday.
But what of the extracted promise and his quest for truth?
The priest of the parish, often present at family gatherings, was an example not of the ferocity or the intolerance of the Church, but of the pathetic weakness of its power today in secular British society. He was an Irishman. He smelled of wool and sour milk, wore sandals with socks, smiled much too often and had far too many teeth in his mouth. He was an unfortunate cliché, and it seemed unfair of my father to rant and rave against this harmless man, who proclaimed a soapy love for all mankind, pressing clean hands on children’s heads, and lisped, which kept all the children entertained through those long church services: On the night he was betwayed, Chwist bwoke the bwead …
My father, to be fair, was more tolerant of human frailty that I am; he was against the monster of the Church itself. He built his arsenal with reason, argument and a foundation of scientific rationalism, and pitied this delusional creature.
When the priest discovered that summer that my father was terminally ill, he beckoned me after church and asked if he could visit.
‘Er … not at this time, Father. He’s going through some difficult issues.’
‘Death is always a difficult issue. Coming to terms with your Maker’s reckoning is always a difficult issue.’
‘Yes.’ But of course my father now firmly believed—and proclaimed it loudly to the family—that there was no life after death. ‘You live on in your children, in the memories of others, in your family’s love, in your stories, Paul, if you ever write about me after I’m gone.’ The soul is an impossibility. And the idea that you go to lie in the arms of Jesus merely because a toothy, lisping man with soapy hands sprinkles your coffin with holy water is preposterous.
My mother, a good believer, with her unquestioning, childlike naivety, bustled around the house, banging things, sighing to herself all summer. Religion was not to be torn apart like this, she told me. And my aunt, who had come to discuss funeral arrangements, had to whisper to her in the kitchen in despair. ‘What can we do with this man?’
‘At my funeral,’ he said to my aunt and uncle, while my mother poured tea and clanked spoons, ‘I want no hymns, no prayers and no priest. If you want, you can read Galileo’s words E pur si muove! And Paul has already agreed to recite Dylan Thomas’s “Do not Go Gentle into that Dark Night”.’
‘But Bernard …’
‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day,’ my father said. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
‘Father Paddy will conduct the service, of course. We have to have a religious …’
My father shook his head. ‘Religion? Best business in town, biggest con in history.’
And that was the end of it.
I returned for a bleak and icy Christmas to find an emaciated and ailing father who couldn’t walk, and apologised for his frailty. ‘It’s got me, Paul. Don’t I look awful? It’s in the bones now.’
The regime of pills was giving him alternating constipation and diarrhoea, the targeted radiotherapy on his thigh and ribs were making him nauseous, but he was in good spirits. He still read ferociously. ‘A good book is all I need. A good clear mind is what I’m grateful for.’
Aunt and uncle whispered in my ear at Christmas lunch and the Boxing Day party. ‘Reason with him, Paul. Father Paddy wants to see him. At least get him to come to Mass.’
But to no avail. His convictions were strong. ‘Promise me, promise me, Paul.’
No chance then of a Catholic funeral. A dying man on a cross? All invented clap-trap. The Nicene Creed? He refused to say it. He’d been lying all his life, but now he had blown away the chaff, widened the cracks, pulled apart and exposed the Church for the sham it was. It had oppressed mankind for centuries. Not any more. Not this man.
At Easter I made yet another torturous journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Heathrow, to Norwich, to Coltishall, and found him dying. He was a yellow emaciated ghost of himself, and our home had been turned into a hospital ward. He was fed intravenous morphine through a drip in his arm, and he was turned and bed-panned and fed through a straw by bright, cheerful nurses who sat vigil at his side, day and night.
He could not see properly. Could not read. And to my consternation, by his bedside that evening was none other than Father Paddy, administering Holy Communion. After the night he was betwayed, Chwist bwoke bwead … and he gave it to his disciples, saying, dwink, this is my blood …
‘Join us, Paul,’ said my mother.
‘But Dad …’ I said after the priest had left.
‘A good man,’ said my father. ‘I don’t believe in all the stuff, but nor does he—he quietly forgets it.’
Father Paddy visited every day, a calm hand on my head, soapy fingers at our lips with the host, the body of Chwist.
I brought the good news that I was teaching The Da Vinci Code at university that semester. ‘I used all your notes, Dad, all your sources, for our popular novels course. It’s a hit.’
He waved this news away. ‘Destructive, all that stuff,’ he said. ‘Where’s the love of Christ in all that, Paul?’
‘We don’t worry about that clap-trap any more,’ he said. My mother smiled at his bedside, held his hand.
And Father Paddy, more and more omnipresent at our house, gave his toothy grin.
‘The funeral arrangements?’ I asked
‘Oh, your aunt and uncle have sorted that all out with Father Paddy here.’
When you’re dying, who knows what pressures you are under. Were the drugs befuddling him into submission, into a benevolent fuzziness with family and priest? I didn’t know.
‘But you still want the Dylan Thomas, right?’
My father frowned, stared into the distant past. ‘Dylan Thomas?’
The nurses came and went, Father Paddy came and went, and I stayed by his side, brushed his lips with a sponge on a stick to ease the terrible thirst when he couldn’t eat or drink any more. ‘That nurse kissed me on the lips,’ my father told me with his grey, unseeing eyes.
The priest was there to the end. He prayed over him; he watched him as he took his last breath. ‘See you in heaven, Bernard, at the right hand of Jesus.’ My mother held his cold hand, and I stared through blurry eyes.
The funeral was a magnificent affair. All the family were there, all sixty relatives, all good Catholics, and the children sat beautifully frocked and suited in the front rows, staring at the shiny coffin wreathed with flowers and a golden cross with a bronze Christ nailed to it. The hymns were rousing—favourites of the family—and the reading was from John, chapter eleven: And Jesus cwied in a loud voice—Awise! Awise! Lazawus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth …
The sermon—a narrative assuring us that Bernard was smiling down at us from heaven: ‘He was a good Catholic. He lived a good Catholic life. His unwavering faith and his good deeds ensure him a place at the right hand of God.’ Father Paddy muttered his mumbo jumbo, sprinkled holy water on the coffin while my mother wept and I stood iron jawed and stoically dry-eyed, my fists clenched, while the words lodged in my throat.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.