Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The Padre

We call him The Padre. He’s a chaplain in the army, about to start his second tour to Basra. He’s upstairs now as I write, sleeping the slumber of the just and good. Soon he will come down, make himself a coffee and wander out into the garden to find a bench and drink in the view.

He always rings at the last minute. It’s always inconvenient. We always say yes. You see, the Padre is like our guardian angel – he always seems to pop up at key, sometimes difficult, moments in our lives. And sometimes we are there for him, I like to think.

We shared time in Italy together. He in Milan, us in Padua. He came over to visit one winter weekend and on Saturday night we found ourselves at the working men’s club across the road. It was one of those anachronistic places even then (the start of the ‘90s). The food was simple, the wine was cheap and the only women in the place were me and the girl behind the bar. We were local, we were English, we were accepted. Faces full of years and character sat at square wooden tables playing unknown games of cards. Others played pool. Others just stood talking. The drab walls were enlivened with football and rugby posters, scarves and trophies. Everyone sang at the end of a long evening to the accompaniment of an accordion. It kept us awake at night but it was like being transported back in time. It was a classic and we loved it.

We had befriended a certain Franco, of large belly and red bulbous nose. He liked a drink or two. He talked of the exploits of his youth, his time with the Legion d’Honneur. We were a little sceptical but listened encouragingly. The padre (at that time not yet a man of the cloth), fuelled by the false bonhomie of alcohol, invited Franco back to our flat. I was a little dismayed but went with the flow. So there we were at 2 o’clock in the morning, all a little worse for wear, with this stranger in our midst. The padre sat down at the table and listened. He’s a good listener. Then at a certain point it seems he didn’t like what he was hearing and decided to question Franco on the truth surrounding his purported membership of the Legion d’Honneur. This was not a good move. Then, as Franco was trying to justify his story, the Padre, clearly unable to hang on any longer, farted. This was an even worse move. Franco, highly offended at the apparent lack of respect, suddenly produced a revolver from his pocket. I was alarmed, the mood had changed, could see the headlines in the local paper – Ex Soldier in Bloody Shoot Out with Smelly English. I hastily tried to pour calm on troubled waters and somehow the situation was pulled back from the brink. I think I suggested that perhaps it was time to wind things up and, very respectfully, showed Franco the door. I retired to bed and the boys decided to go out into town, saying they’d be back for breakfast. Seven hours later, they still weren’t. They’d taken the car, there was snow and ice. No phonecall, so unlike N. I assumed the worst. I felt sick, I rang a friend in London not knowing what else to do. I imagined bringing the bodies back in coffins. I realised how important N was in my life, how it wouldn’t be the same without him. And then I heard it. The unmistakable note of our car’s engine. It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard. N rolls in, drunk as a skunk (and NO he shouldn’t have been driving, I hear you shout). I berate him, tell him I was worried sick, why on earth didn’t he phone. ‘I thought you’d be sleeping.’ Well, I wasn’t. He gets down on one wobbly knee and says, ‘Minnie, will you marry me?’ I burst into tears. This wasn’t how it was meant to be! ‘God,’ I sob, ‘I’ve waited all these years and now you propose when you’re DRUNK! I should have known…! And, no, I don’t want it to be like this. Wait till you’re sober. And anyway, where’s the Padre?’ He was out in the car, head back, lolling tongue, out for the count.

It seems they’d had an emotional morning too. N had been counselling the Padre as to whether he should go into the Church or not and, if so, in what form. The Padre was a sporty, fun, good time boy. Was the Church going to be too restrictive? To help find inspiration, he had wandered through the doors of the magnificent multi-domed church of Sant’Antonio, the great pilgrimage destination in Padua. It was crack of dawn, the place was empty save for the sounds of the litany emerging from the crypt. The padre snuck in at the back and listened. It turned out to be a life-changing moment for him.

And so here we are. The Padre has indeed just come down, made coffee and gone out into the garden. He is on his way to Skye, seat of the clan Macleod, of which he is one. We joined him there one New Year, in the days when you had to take the ferry. I will never forget the brooding shapes of those magnificent mountains, the heather, the moors, the wild cold lochs, the eerie notes of the bagpipes floating on the air as they piped in the new year from a windswept hill. I envied the Macleod’s their bond with nature, of having a place where they truly belonged.
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