Typhoon Soudelor is bearing down on us here in Hualien. The skies are still sunny and it is stiflingly hot but I am expecting quite a battering. At least I probably won’t have to work on my birthday as it looks as though the Taiwanese government is about to declare tomorrow an emergency day off for all who are on the east coast. We haven’t had any proper rain here for about two months so the deluge will be welcomed in this house, even if it does mean that most of Saturday will probably be spent cleaning up broken trees and mending the roof of this old house.
Cover for “The Wife Finder: Design by 陳秋芬 (Chen Chiufen)
These are the first two chapters of my new novel, “The Wife Finder”. It will be available for free download tomorrow, August 7th in all time zones. If you can’t wait, it will actually be available about six hours after this post is published but it will definitely be available all day tomorrow in all time zones.
“The Benign Abductor of Souls” can also be downloaded for free at the same times, if you have recommended it to anyone or if you did not manage to take advantage of the previous free download.
Guernsey, Channel Islands 1989
My mind hasn’t been this clear in the nine years since I removed myself from the everyday world of love, lust and the sort of languid, vaguely satisfying background guilt that only accompanies truly selfish wantonness. I am discovering that sexual intercourse dispels irrelevant worries in a way that repeated meditation and isolated contemplation never did. Nine years ago, at the age of sixteen, I convinced myself that I had a calling to become a priest. When I say it was a calling, it was more of an impulse that persisted as a duty well beyond its sell-by date. Now, at the age of twenty-five, I have finally and completely extricated myself from the clutches of the world’s largest multi national Organisation – the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Two months ago, during a particularly effective contemplation of my life within the confines of an Irish seminary, I finally realised that I wasn’t sure about the idea of a God, a Devil, the Communion of Saints, or the idea that if the valuable art in the Organisation’s Vatican headquarters were sold, hunger in the world could be eradicated for the next fifty centuries. “The Organisation” is how I had begun to refer to the Catholic Church a few years ago.
My tutor, a rather cantankerous man from County Donegal, could live with doubts about ethereal concepts, such as divine beings: most of the Jesuit priests whom he had heard of were, after all, suspected atheists. However, he baulked at the idea of going to the Vatican with a new business plan so my speedy exit plan from the Organisation was summarily approved by his superiors, who voiced the hope that I would find good sense and the path back to God and his Church some day soon. I told them that I had no plans to become an art dealer, so the likelihood of further dealings with the Organisation was small.
I knew that I could never go back. I knew that I would miss the protection of the Church and the structured purpose of each day within the stark, sheltered world of the seminary in which I had chosen to hide myself, but the tantalising lure of the unknown and unsure world that lay beyond the doors of that seminary dispelled any last minute jitters. I skipped lightly across the threshold and into the big bad world of temptation and unsupervised prayer.
I escaped the clutches of the Organisation two months ago. I am presently succumbing to the more tender clutches of Nicky Peterson, a nineteen-year-old hotel receptionist. Nicky is having an epiphany that is similar to the one that I had two months ago. These days, I’m not sure about divine beings and until a few days ago, Nicky didn’t believe in twenty-five-year-old virgins. The vehemence of her conviction was similar to that of life long atheists who have crossed my path. My evangelical mission to change her belief resulted in a brief, lustful and enthusiastic courtship.
Nicky’s path to the acceptance of twenty-five-year-old virgins marked the end of my own lengthy journey towards agnosticism and an appreciation of the finer aspects of the vulgar and elementally satisfying rudiments of existence that only a dissolutely pagan philosophy can support.
I had begun to doubt my personal need for a God. The Christian God seemed to best serve those who wished for less culpability. God could be blamed for the bad times, removing the need for personal responsibility. The good times never needed an explanation. Nicky hadn’t met a virgin in almost three years and had begun to doubt their existence. Virgins were reminders of a lost, innocent time that could never be retrieved. They were pure and wholesome and untainted by experience. Finding an example of this endangered species had stimulated a natural urge to protect a vulnerable animal at the same time as it nourished a surgically scientific zeal to dissect and violate the very animal that she sought to protect, in the interests of furthering her knowledge of the sub-species.
The only problem with virgins is that their immediate attraction is, by definition, ephemeral. The virgin must quickly learn to supplement his meagre experience and learn new tricks, if he is to prosper as a non-virgin.
That goal is for next time, though. This particular virgin is feeling somewhat less than wholesome tonight. Nicky has a fiery lust in her eyes and there is feverish purpose in her lithe gyrations. She is feeling her immense power over another human being. That other human being, me, is trying desperately to delay the orgasm that will end the fun for both of us.
That simple goal is focusing my mind. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with any machismo. As a life-long Catholic, I am relishing this feeling of impending release so much that I am sure that the actual release will be bound to disappoint. Nicky is moving on top of me and writhing. Her movements are a challenge and a truly divine revelation. Her vagina is rippling along the length of my penis and I can feel every muscle in my body and every instinct in my brain urging me to let go and succumb to the tidal wave of ecstasy that has, so far, been dammed by my personal vow of chastity.
Curiously enough, the Catholic Church has many useful teachings in the field of the control of orgasms. They just aren’t listed under this heading in the libraries of seminaries. Like everything in the Church’s vast archive of knowledge, you have to get inside the head of the cataloguer. If you want to know about sustaining pleasure, go straight to the texts of Saint Augustine.
Augustine was born in North Africa, in the 4th century A.D. His mother was Saint Monica, the ideal Christian mother. She pointed him along the main road of goodness and prayer, but Augustine spotted a sign on that road that pointed to instant gratification. Augustine prayed for salvation without conviction. His licentiousness was legendary.
His ambition lay in a last minute salvation that would allow him the maximum pleasure before a contrite deathbed reconciliation with his Maker. He would have made it too, if it hadn’t been for the Organisation. Augustine rejoined the main road to enlightenment, eventually became the Bishop of Hippo and wrote a lot about deferred gratification. As a renowned expert on, and frequent celebrant of, the instant variety of gratification, his espousal of its deferral makes for interesting reading for the young man who is keen to sow his seed in a hurry.
As Nicky’s movements and screams lead me to the edge of frenzy, the texts of St. Augustine are an emollient that focus my attention elsewhere and create this perfect environment for contemplation. It is as if I have suddenly discovered a new way of being. There is the world of Nicky, there is the world of St. Augustine and there is the calm lacuna of contemplation that separates them. In this ether, there is time and clarity of mind to contemplate the great spiritual thoughts, while deferring the temporal pleasures of the flesh.
Now that I have discovered this other world, I can see why the Catholic Church doesn’t allow priests to marry and sample disciplined corporeal ecstasy and its associated revelatory precision of thought. This degree of clear thinking would be dangerous among the foot soldiers of the Lord. Their thoughts should be ordered and ordinary, requiring a minimum of contemplation, to ensure their maximum cooperation within the Organisation.
The last thing that the Organisation wants is change. Change comes from radical thought. My own present experience would seem to support a theory that the concentrated, intellectual elongation of foreplay serves to distil thought to its purest form. If the Organisation’s ranks were motivated by such clear mindedness, we’d have a Vatican that made money from sex shops, instead of an art museum. The tantric gurus would be out of business in a week. Catholic magazines would contain tips about the lascivious prolongation of desire and attached would be an index of the liturgical references that would allow the reader to increase their sexual prowess by reading holy texts, rather than relying on abstinence and the Rhythm Method. In fact, men could probably be convinced to abstain from sex regularly, if they knew the final, unimaginable pleasure of a long denied climax.
All of this clear thinking is pleasing Nicky as much as it is me. The difference is that she knows nothing of the process of her pleasure. It is my guilty secret that I think of saints and philosophy to defer my gratification, when other men conjure an image of dying kittens or the horrendously wart-ravaged and moustached face of a maiden aunt.
As Nicky’s alto screams reach a crescendo in this small hotel room, I release my semen into her with the hollow regret that there is more to be had from this experience. I feel guilty at my lack of control and at the waste of potentially greater feelings of ecstasy. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.
That concept has nothing to do with divine beings. It is an incontrovertible truth. If there is a possibility of guilt, we Catholics will seek it out like a sniffer dog. Guilt is the Catholic’s suitcase full of heroin in the great airline cargo shed of irrelevant pleasures.
“I’M SO SORRY NCKY.”
Nicky allows her bucking torso to relax into a stable triangle that is supported by her arms. Her face looks down beatifically. A bead of sweat hangs on the end of the perfect infinitesimally small change in gradient of her profile that marks the tip of her nose. It plops onto my cheek. Her eyes dart over my features, looking for a clue to the reason for my sorrow.
“Why are you sorry?”
This is no time to tell her about St. Augustine and the deferral of pleasure and St. Monica and her disappointment in an impious and hedonistic son. The training in the seminary took in a bit of show business too. Every day, a priest must deliver a homily. If the congregation is not to be bored rigid, that homily should be interesting, salient and hopefully a little witty. The course on public speaking emphasised the importance of timing and the need for appropriateness. This training is coming flooding back to my mind, as I stare into Nicky’s tender eyes.
No, now is not the time for St. Monica and St. Augustine. Now is the time for cunning and subterfuge. Now is the time to swiftly unfurl the magician’s cloak and divert the congregation’s attention to more entertaining matters. In this case, my congregation of one is sitting on my crotch.
“I’m sorry I came so soon.”
It is not a lie. It is just not the whole truth. It is well timed and completely appropriate. I consider my situation from Nicky’s point of view. I am a virgin. Of course, she has realised that I would be worried about my performance in bed. Nicky is an experienced woman. She smiles benignly. I allow her to take me to her bosom and bestow her beatific gaze on me once more, permitting her to assume the role of my guru.
“Don’t worry about it. You did pretty well for a first timer. You can’t learn everything on your first day at school.”
Her voice is husky, after her exertions and screaming. Her accent is a sultry mix of burred Norfolk consonants and long, luxuriously rounded Home Counties vowels. It is the sexiest sound that I have ever heard. It is a voice for reading the news or for welcoming the well-healed customers of a five star hotel. It is not a voice for rude pleasure. When it folds itself around the crudity of sexual excitement, it does so with unexpected skill, peeling back the covers of a voluptuously hedonistic psychology and tantalising with the promise of a latent debauchery.
All of my senses are alive to this new experience. Nicky’s body smells are light, but flavoursome. The musky aroma of her sweat mixes with the salt taste of her vagina that lingers in my mouth, giving me the experience of just having eaten particularly sweet, dried seaweed. Her hair reeks of our day. I can smell wood smoke from our beach bonfire and the burnt tang of the dry grass that whipped against our legs, flayed by a humid sea wind. Her long mane makes a hanging, black curtain around our opposing horizontal faces, as she collapses on me and I once more taste the residue of fried squid and a dessert of candy floss on her full lips. Never was a man so happy or so overcome by his surroundings. Her voice fills the hair-veiled void, between us.
“I wish my first time had been this nice. I really should have waited until I knew what I wanted. I’m glad I gave you this. It’s some sort of compensation for a quick knee-trembler in my parent’s front room while they were out doing the Saturday shopping.”
There it is again. The beautiful diction and voice phrase the crudeness with a fondness and ripe succulence that goes straight to my groin. I am making up for lost time. Nicky smiles lasciviously when the soft flesh of her thigh registers my hardening penis.
The second time is tender. There is none of the frustrated clawing and panting. There is smoothness and fluid movement. There is economy of physical effort and a laser like concentration of eye contact. This time, I cannot close my eyes, for my conclave with St. Augustine. Nicky’s face hovers inches from mine, as we wrestle and fondle. St. Augustine is struggling to provide me with guiding grace in my moment of need, but I am hypnotised by Nicky’s gaze. I immediately lose concentration and it is all over in the blink of an eye.
Her expression is a portrait of frustration and disappointment. The lesson is clear. Sexual abandon with a beautiful young woman is all well and good, but self control and the strength that can be derived from a kinship with a bishop who died 1500 years ago will be a more effective route to gratification.
“I’m sorry Nicky.”
This time, we are both sorry for the same thing, but guilt is not a generous emotion. Ever aware of my Catholic upbringing, I must find a little extra something for which I can feel shame and guilt. I mutter a silent apology to St. Augustine for refusing his strength.
Nicky is smiling at me, questioningly. I murmur St. Augustine’s prayer to her.
“Lord, save me, but not yet. Tomorrow, I will repent my sins.”
“Am I a sin, then? Is that how you see me?”
She seems hurt, and rightly so. I feel even guiltier and revel in this newfound source of mental flagellation.
“I’m just thinking about a guy in a fifteen hundred-year-old book.”
“Was he the guy you were thinking about first time?”
I avert my gaze, shamefully. I thought that I was doing a good job of hiding my momentary spiritual separation during our first foray. When I work up the courage to look into her eyes again, they are framed in a beautiful, frank smile
“Well, you just keep thinking about him if it makes you perform like you did the first time, sweetheart.”
“He’s a saint, Nicky.”
“Too right, he’s a saint. He just gave me the best time I’ve had for ages.”
For Catholics, happiness doesn’t come more complete than this. My ego is bolstered beyond belief by the news that my first attempt at sexual congress has been a raging success. I am riddled with painful guilt for having spoiled the second attempt, I have confessed the temporal sin of thinking about a saint while indulging in the aforementioned congress and been instantly forgiven, without the need for a penitential rite. This is a jackpot evening.
When I fled the seminary, money was the last thing on my mind. Priests and clerical students rarely consider money. If it is needed, the Organisation provides it. I had managed to absently disregard the real world’s obsession with paper coupons until I presented myself at the ticket window in Galway city bus station, because I had walked there. The ticket window was my first encounter with the post-clerical existence. It was not a promising start.
“Where are you going, then?”
The man behind the glass – the first representative of my new world – seemed as though he had seen too much of life. For a brief moment, I wanted to flee to the seminary’s protective courtyard, rather than face the travails that had obviously formed this poor man’s bleak expression. I stood my ground though, for it was an interesting question. Where was I going? Home was Belfast, two hundred miles away from here, but I was in no hurry to return home. With the big world before me and the sudden end of nine years of misguided allegiance to the world’s greatest multi national, home didn’t seem to offer the grandness of purpose that my current situation appeared to demand. I calmly considered my options.
“Come on will ya? It’s a feckin’ bus station, not a sweet shop. You’re supposed to decide what you want before you come.”
The difference between the world that I had left and the world that I had entered could not have been more obvious. A clerical student always has time to contemplate options and weigh them in the light of his studies, no matter where he is. In the real world, contemplation is a matter for specialised surroundings. Bus stations do not offer places of contemplation for travellers in a quandary. Soft drinks machines and condom dispensers are more important than philosophy books and Rosary beads. The man behind the glass finally lost whatever patience he had managed to preserve. His instructions were preceded by a low snarl and barked in a thick Galway brogue.
“Are you on drugs, boy? Get the feck out of here and don’t come back until you know where you’re going.”
Bus company employees swear more than seminarians. That’s one more difference between the world that I left and this one.
I moved to the side, as a grandmother tutted past me and bustled up to the window, from where the ticket seller still glared his displeasure. I wasn’t sure whether that displeasure was specifically directed at me or at all who gathered at his window.
“Right, love, where are you going?”
“Return to Dublin, please.”
The ticket seller forced a grin and directed it at the old grandmother. That answered my question. I was the sole cause and exclusive beneficiary of this belligerence. He casually retrieved the notes that she passed under the glass, performed an instantaneous, almost divine transformation and passed coins and a bus ticket back under the glass. Even someone who believes that a priest can transform water and wine into the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ would have been impressed with the dexterity of the transaction.
I fished in my pocket for money. It was an automatic action, learned years ago. Actually, I hadn’t had money in my pocket for more than six months, for I had had no need of it. This really was a quandary that was worthy of a moment’s contemplation. I had no money and no destination. Was there some divine preordination here? Was God trying to call me back to his bosom? How could I answer the call of someone in whom I didn’t believe? These were big questions and I had only reached the bus station. I was already reeling with the unimagined complexity of the philosophical challenges of this world.
The glaring ticket seller was becoming angrier. My presence seemed to be making him uncomfortable and increasingly agitated. When he threatened to call the police, I moved around the corner to contemplate my limited options and the nature of belief. At that moment, a soft hand fell on my shoulder and a familiar voice interrupted my reverie.
“Paul, you forgot your clothes and you’ll not get far without money. What were you thinking?”
When I turned, the perfectly round face of father Gerry Collins hovered before me, balanced atop a white clerical collar. There was no sign of a neck. The collar sat firmly atop the shoulders and seemed to hold the face in equilibrium. Gerry Collins was a mystery of human evolution. My fellow clerical students and I had often wondered at the specific set of environmental factors that had contrived to produce a human being with no neck.
It was widely hypothesised that the Collins family originated in a part of Ireland where social evolution and sartorial development had halted just before the invention of the necktie and that this phenomenon had subsequently halted their physical evolution until the need arose for a neck. With no sex, no drugs and only limited rock and roll, the long winter evenings in the seminary were fertile nurseries for innocent, youthful whimsy.
We called him “Reckless Neckless”, or “RN”, when he could hear us. RN was second in command in the seminary. He was an amiable character who could always be relied upon never to fail any of his students in any examination. RN’s right arm extended towards me from just east of his chin. He ushered me away from the uncomfortable heat of the ticket seller’s glare towards his car, which was illegally parked across three spaces. RN had never passed a driving test. His clerical collar had seen him safely through at least three-dozen traffic accidents in the seven years that I had known him. This unenviable driving record was the reason for the “Reckless” part of his nickname.
RN grinned broadly when he saw my horrified reaction to his parking.
“Paul, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I might be a bad driver, but I’ve never forgotten my clothes and I always make sure that I have enough money in my pocket to buy my dinner.”
I returned his grin sheepishly. He wrestled with the pair of keys that he had retrieved from some mysterious inner cavity of his cassock. I waited patiently while he put the wrong key into the lock for the boot, turned it experimentally, withdrew it, inserted the other key and turned that hopefully. He finally wrenched the boot lid upwards with the panache of a magician. I half expected a flock of white doves to fly out, but I reached inside and hefted only my small backpack.
As RN closed the boot, his features formed an expression of what he believed to be severity. The effect was curious. His generous, furrowed eyebrows thatched his smiling eyes. His mouth was fixed in its perpetually smiling crescent. His face looked like a Halloween mask. His voice registered amusement when he really wished for caution. RN never took life too seriously. To imply gravity, he would curl his lavish Kerry accent around ponderously verbose phrases.
“Paul, I’m glad that I had the chance to see you, again. I wish to counsel extreme circumspection in regard to the world and its denizens. Moreover, I advise you to take a more proactive role in the matter of your finances, vis-à-vis ensuring that you always have money in your pocket. Will you promise me that you will take proper precautions in this regard, young man? It is a very different world out here from the one that you’ve just forsaken. I fear that we haven’t prepared you very well for your profound leap into the abyssal chasm of confusion and chaos that God has created for humanity, so that the clergy may never be idle.”
I nodded and hugged him tightly. RN favoured the personal touch, which was at odds with the impersonal nature of the training of seminarians. When I left the seminary, the principal’s formal goodbye had come with a limp handshake. RN seemed satisfied and reached into another secret cavity in his cassock. From the black folds, he produced a thick manila envelope. Like a bad spy, he passed the envelope to me and entreated me to check its contents. When my eyes widened, he seemed inordinately pleased.
“I know that it looks like a lot of money, now, but you’d be surprised at the price of things these days. It’s from the Organisation. I hear you don’t like to call us a Church. Don’t spend it all in the one shop. You’ve five hundred pounds there. If you’re careful, that will help tide you over until you’re set up somewhere. I suppose you’ll go home for a while and catch your breath.”
This last was expressed as a faithful hope. I was still considering my options. I needed time. A long bus journey might give me the necessary time to meditate my actions. I considered my response carefully and decided on a noncommittal answer.
“I don’t know, Father. I’ll take a bus to Dublin anyway. It will give my mind time to catch up with my heart.”
It was just the sort of vague answer that RN loved. RN’s philosophy was that he couldn’t fail a man for vagueness. Vagueness could imply great stupidity or great wisdom. It could imply a simpleton’s witlessness or understanding beyond the horizons of the listener or examiner. RN used to wink and tell us that he could never take away marks for vagueness, but the man who wanted to show off his knowledge could often fall foul of RN’s unique marking system, because he exposed himself to correction and corrections meant a deduction of marks. Vagueness was the coat of humility that wise men wore to avert the envy of those less fortunate and more arrogant. The smile that he bestowed upon me was genuinely saintly. I had learned well at the feet of Reckless Neckless and he pinned his confidence upon me like a badge of honour.
We went together to the ticket window. RN wanted to buy my ticket personally. He said that it was his final benediction. The man who had seen too much of life growled silently at us, as we broached the tidal wave of derision that emanated from him.
I approached the window first.
“You again? I hope you know where you’re going, or I’m calling the Guards. I’m sure they’ll find enough Mary Joanna in that pack to put you away for a while.”
RN took control, remaining sublimely aloof to the man’s bad manners. He asked about buses to Dublin. His broad smile and the clerical collar, which he tugged self consciously, extracted a grudging respect from the grouch. As the miracle of the transformation of money into a ticket and change was performed once more, a dire warning emanated from behind the pane. It was cloaked in a sycophantic, knowing tone.
“You’d want to stay away from that one, Father. He’s that high on drugs, he doesn’t know where he is or where he’s going.”
RN’s sure reply was pleasingly benign and reassuringly scatter-brained.
“Thank you my good man, but it is the mission of all of us to give light and direction when we can. It would seem that you are eminently well placed to perform such a mission. You should embrace your chosen vocation fully and direct the directionless. It is God’s work you’re doing. Your tickets are the solace of wandering souls. Feel the weight of your responsibility and don’t be so eager to mistake an uncertain thinker for a fool, or a certain fool for a sage.”
The man who had seen too much of the world stared unbelievingly at our retreating backs. I suppose that when you have already seen too much, each extra absurdity has successively less impact, but RN’s gentle rebuke seemed to leave him genuinely shaken. When I risked a backward glance, his head was still shaking. RN was smiling victoriously.
The express service to Dublin had already left, so RN solicitously supervised my instalment into a rickety seat on the slightly less salubrious, non-express service, which would allow me more time with my thoughts. He satisfied himself that my bag was stowed properly in the rack above me and that the manila envelope was secreted in the inside breast pocket of my anorak. He wished the driver a safe trip, as he ponderously negotiated the steep steps down to the platform.
For ten full minutes he stood there, rigid with unaccustomed formality. Other passengers regarded him with open curiosity, but his concentrated gaze fell only on me and he seemed ostensibly unconcerned by their scrutiny. As the bus reversed away form the platform, his right arm pivoted just east of his chin and raised itself in a single waving salute. The smile momentarily focused all of its warmth on me and then was gone, as he made his way towards his car.
As the bus turned right, out of the station, I caught a glimpse of a traffic warden apologising profusely to RN. RN had the parking ticket in his hand, but the warden was trying to wrestle it from his grasp. RN would gracefully concede to the man’s kindness in a few minutes. There would be a blessing and smiles and the world would once again be subject to the silent terror of RN’s driving. Unseen by RN, I finally bid a silent farewell to the protection of the Organisation.
The bus stopped at every hole in the hedge between Galway and Dublin. Athenry, Loughrea, Ballinasloe, Athlone and Moate were grim, smoky exclamation marks on the broad, bland central bogland of Ireland, where the jolting progress of the old bus caused the horizon to expand and contract percussively behind hedges and high walls. The mackerel sky domed the flat countryside and draped the ends of the broad streets in the small lifeless towns, like the underside of a billowed grey quilt.
The scenery painted itself on the window like a movie. I examined what I knew of this world, from which I had formally withdrawn for over seven years. My information was limited to the experiences of those few of my friends who wrote regularly. My priorities made for easy deliberation. I needed to find purpose and a path, but first I needed to fund that path. In past years, several friends had worked in the Channel Islands, earning money by picking fruit or working on building sites. The building boom that had gripped the tiny islands meant that wages were comparable with London, but because the cost of living was much less, the Islands were an attractive proposition for anyone wishing to save money.
The Islands are nominally British and English speaking, although they lie just off the coast of France, in the English Channel. They seemed to offer peace and calm and the opportunity to save. My father was a carpenter and I had been his eager student since the age of six. I could probably bluff my way onto a site as a skilled tradesman and earn more than my friends, who had been labourers. By the time the bus reached the outer suburbs of Dublin, the fading light was bruising the sky purple and yellow and my mind was made up.
I made my way across the city in a tiny antiseptic carriage of the DART light railway. By the time I had reached the port of Dun Laoghaire, night had subsumed the detail of the marine horizon. The lights from the windows of a cross-channel ferry cast a pearl necklace of reflections across the oily waters of its berth.
At my second ticket window of the day, a pretty young woman sold me a ticket for the next sailing, which left in thirty minutes. On board, I ate a sandwich which, like the Galway ticket clerk, had seen too much of this world. I stood on deck for the entrance to Holyhead harbour. Wales stretched beyond the bright thin line of the shore lights and their shimmering reflection in the water. My stomach growled like a ticket clerk in Galway bus station.
Perhaps I was now living the life of the ticket clerk, in some kind of karmic exchange. Certain eastern beliefs include such phenomena. Our time in the seminary was spent studying other religions, as well as Catholicism. The Organisation’s official line on this practice was that we should know all of the influences to which our flock would be exposed. RN was probably closer to the truth when he told us that we had to know the enemy, all the while wearing his customary wry smile.
The Welsh port police treated me like a violent leper. I was herded into an interview room that smelt as though it doubled as a toilet. I was questioned thoroughly about my motives for travel beyond the island of Ireland. Due to the ongoing unpleasantness in the northern part of the island, this sort of treatment was normal for Irish people coming to Britain. Innocent until proven guilty, or framed, was the order of the day for the British legal system.
At the third ticket window of the day, in Holyhead train station, a rotund, friendly woman told me that ferries for the Channel Islands left from Portsmouth. I wouldn’t make the early morning ferry, but I could spend tomorrow in London and get an afternoon train to the coast in time to catch the overnight sailing. The cheery, glossy cheeked babushka behind the glass reminded me of RN, as she chuckled about sightseeing in the big smoke.
Wales and England twinkled anonymously beyond the dank carriage’s panes. My neighbour, the Holyhead farting champion, maintained a prodigious rate of gaseous expulsion. I slept for almost three minutes of the six-hour journey to London.
No city is at its best at 5am and London is no exception to that rule. Desperate prostitutes hovered like vultures, near the entrance to the station. Their ravaged, pale faces spoke of a hard life and low ambitions. I ate in the plastic coated seating area of a fast food chain. I was moved on by an Indian man, who also helpfully washed my face with the mop that he used to waken me. With the smell of bleach in my nostrils, I wandered out of the station and onto Euston Road. I prayed to the God in which I no longer believed and he sent a comfortable pew, in the back of an early morning service in one of the Organisation’s branches near Portland Place. It rained all day. I lingered in the branch office until the testy priest kicked me out. For most of the morning, I loitered in the National museum, where the non-denominational management seemed more wiling to tolerate my presence. I was learning that God was good for a while, but the hospitality of probable heathens certainly seemed to have the edge on Catholic compassion.
The ferry crossing to Guernsey took ten hours. I slept, between the kicks of clumsy passers by, on the floor of a passenger lounge. There was the usual, lengthy interview with the port police in St. Peter Port. I waited for two hours, while they checked that I wasn’t wanted by any police force in the known world. At 10am, I finally made it on to the quaint, narrow streets of the town. My freedom from clerical discipline was 36 hours old and it had not been an auspicious beginning. I had eaten exactly three times and regretted my decision on all three occasions, I had slept for less than four hours and I had enjoyed my newfound freedom exactly never. Life without a clerical collar was a rude shock.
Finding a place to stay was easy. There was a campsite at the tiny town of St. Sampson’s, three miles north of the slightly less tiny St. Peter Port. Finding a tent and cooking apparatus was less easy, but not impossible. At the third building site I visited, I found a job. I was to start in the morning. I spun a yarn about having my tools stolen on a train and a friendly foreman agreed to let me borrow some of his own tools, so that I could show my skills.
The campsite was a den of iniquity, which pleased me immensely after seven blameless years of high moral standards. Until midnight, a constant arrhythmic grunting pulsated in the air above the tents, as copulating couples energetically forgot about the thinness of tent material and the morning reckoning with sleepy neighbours. My immediate neighbours showed no shame the next day, when they squirmed from their large tent and began to prepare a breakfast of cigarettes and tea, while I tended a gas stove at the entrance to my smaller tent, six feet away.
My muesli and yoghurt, fried bacon, sausages and eggs elicited a rancid, stereo smoke signal of appreciation, as they surveyed my morning repast. They introduced themselves as Noah and Peta. Within two minutes, they had professed themselves unhappy with animal rights, the current Conservative government and the cost of using the washing machine in the toilet block of the campsite.
They were addressing the first two gripes by saving enough money to get away from the Conservative government and flee to a land where animals were treated better than humans. This faunal nirvana apparently went by the name of Costa Rica. There, animals such as big cats were allowed to feast on human flesh unhindered and turtles deposited hundreds of eggs on beaches, observed by the likes of Noah and Peta. The problem of the expensive washing facilities seemed to have been fully addressed by a Boycott of said facilities and all other such cleansing stations. Noah and Peta were “Crusties”, the popular vernacular term for people who were pure of spirit but impure of personal hygiene habits.
Breakfast in the world outside the seminary was certainly a lot more interesting than it was inside, where the view across the muesli usually consisted of slurping, munching, aged clerics and the conversation tended to veer towards the schedule of study and prayer for the day. I was only half way through my meal, when I had garnered new information about foreign lands, animal rights and the evils of the right wing government. I also deduced the pungent result of continued human residence in the one set of clothes.
If last night’s racket was anything to go by, I should know the sound of about 95% of the positions in the Kama Sutra by the time I breakfasted tomorrow. Noah and Peta provided my first window on the travellers’ world. I dodged their questions about my past, hinting at the credentials of a dropout. I didn’t specify the life out of which I had dropped. They were pleased with my rejection of an unspecified existence. I hoped that they wouldn’t realise that I’d been listening to them, while they were making love. The weighty layer of grime on his skin, which seemed to slow Noah today, certainly hadn’t seemed to be slowing him up in the sack last night. I experienced a brief admiration for his stamina.
The building site proved to be an easy station. If you’ve bluffed your way through a fifteen-page essay on theosophy, bluffing your way as a site carpenter is small beer. The key was to find the most hopeless carpenter on the site and ally myself with him.
It was an old seminary trick. If one of us was caught in the act of immoral or illegal pursuits, we would always be sure to implicate Gerry Collins in the scheme. Gerry was a priest by vocation and a criminal by conviction. That is not to say that he had ever been convicted by a civil court. His escapades were legendary and included running the most successful betting shop in Galway from the confines of the seminary. Next to Gerry’s machinations, our petty misdemeanours would take on an altogether more innocent hue.
The carpenter’s name was Roger. He was the foreman’s brother-in-law. Next to Roger, a man with no arms would seem like a gifted artisan in the craft of woodwork. My pace was slow, but my work was faultless. My father’s words – “First comes right, then comes fast” – rang in my ears all morning. The foreman called me to the site office at lunchtime. He professed himself happy with my work. In the afternoon, I was quickly befriended by a local carpenter called Dennis, who offered to take me under his wing and away from the destructive influence of the hapless Roger.
The foreman had agreed to let me work as a labourer for two weeks so that I could save the money for a decent tool kit. Thereafter, I could double my hourly remunerative rate and work as a carpenter. I still had four hundred of the five hundred pounds that RN had given me. I took twenty for food and rent at the campsite and decided to open a bank account and save the rest for a rainy day.
In reality, I worked as a carpenter from the first day. A hammer and saw were the main tools that I required. The weeks passed and my toolkit swelled. In a fortnight, my wages doubled, as promised. Most of my wages were lodged in the bank. I found a great friend in Dennis, a master carpenter and shipwright. Dennis was local and about twice my age. He liked my methodical ways and my enthusiasm for the difficult jobs that no one else wanted.
Dennis’ position as the best carpenter on the site was unassailable. He was steady and thorough. His day-long company was something that I looked forward to each morning. I was fascinated by his tales of life at sea on the ESSO oil tankers. At sea, the oil company’s name meant “Eat, Sleep, Shit and Overtime”.
Shore-bound now for twenty years, he had a slim, pretty, grey haired wife who insisted on feeding me each night before I returned to the camp site. Their son had died in a car accident, three years previously. I think that I provided a well for their surplus of love for the young man, whom I only ever knew as a picture on a polished mantelpiece that Dennis had fashioned from some driftwood.
I first honed my carpentry skills at my father’s knee, but those skills were immeasurably improved by working with Dennis. Each day, I related stories about Noah and Peta’s energetic night-time sexual acrobatics in exchange for Dennis’ patient tutelage. His company was a relief from the shockingly crass behaviour of the younger men on the site, for whom sex and money represented the entirety of ambition.
I realised that I was completely out of touch with my own generation. My father had left us for another woman prior to my final two years of grammar school. He took his income with him and my family’s financial resources didn’t run to the usual debauchery that is common among late teenage boys. The wage from my part-time job in a supermarket had gone straight into my mother’s pocket. I began to feel the weight of my oddity.
A sudden realisation that I had missed an entire phase of young male adulthood produced unexpected feelings of relief. Looking at my contemporaries and comparing them with Dennis, I found only a lack of common sense and a fascination with banal and ephemeral considerations such as fashionable clothes. My conversations with them were hollow. They had limited life experience and seemed to spend their energies denying the need for any. My limited experience of life was clearly visible and worn shamelessly. In those early days, I believe that it was this honest ignorance that made me so many older friends. I was experiencing a generation gap with my own generation, which was an amusing, if somewhat isolating turn of events.
The building site was a new hotel. Six weeks after I had arrived, the completed building was handed over to the new owners and the staff moved in. Dennis was retained to attend to the multitude of imperfections and unfinished jobs and I was retained as his trusty sidekick. The days passed blissfully with easy and detailed work, interesting conversation and the transference of knowledge and skills from a patient teacher to a willing student. It reminded me of the seminary and my hours with the older priests, who tried to pass on some of their considered wisdom to wilful youths. Dennis and I padded through the silent, carpeted cloisters of the new hotel, fettling and perfecting the place like tick birds on a rhinoceros.
There was time to reflect on how far I had come in just a month and a half. I had successfully swapped one routine for another less prayerful one. This was a crucial part of my rehabilitation. Routine was what I had known and routine would comfort me in the short term. I had cleared the first hurdle successfully. Now, I found myself looking to the future more often than I did to the past. Dennis’ friendship emboldened me to make other friendships and begin the reconstruction of my life.
Those of you who missed the opportunity to download my first novel, “The Benign Abductor of Souls”, can also download this for free on the same day in all time zones.
August 7th is my birthday and this is my birthday present to all of those whom I know.
The Wife Finder is available at:
The Benign Abductor of Souls is available at:
Further information is on my website – www.michaelmcgarrigle.com
The Wife Finder is a very different novel to The Benign Abductor of Souls. It is hopefully funny, sexy and offbeat. The main characters are a seminarian who decides not to become a priest at the last minute, his first three girlfriends and the husbands for whom they leave him, a psychiatrist with a secret and the ghosts of two long-dead Catholic Saints – St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Augustine of Hippo – who accompany him in the guise of spiritual guides, cartoon mice and as occasional voyeurs in the bedroom. If that cast doesn’t whet your appetite, I surrender.
The first two chapters of The Wife Finder will be available on http://www.michaelmcgarrigle.com tomorrow. The first chapters of both The Wife Finder and the Benign Abductor of Souls are already there. Just look under My Novels and pick the title in which you are interested, for more information.
I hope that you enjoy the book.
Happy Birthday to me.
Cover for “The Benign Abductor of Souls: Design by 陳秋芬 (Chen Chiufen)