One of my regular walking companions is a Catholic deacon who does not give up trying to save me from my amateur humanism. Sometimes his theological advice is rough and ready: once when I asked, ‘If I do enough good works on earth, will St Peter let me in?’, he replied: ‘Doesn’t matter how many good works you do, without faith you are buggered.’ I understand that this take or leave it support has been ameliorated of late by RC church authorities, so I live in hope. On our last walk, two days before this Christmas he was telling me about a course on lectio divina he is promoting in his parish, and is dead against calling it a course so as not to put people off, but of course it is a course, with breakout groups, a guru to lead, the lot. Taking me at my word when I expressed slight interest, afterwards he sent me a book by Brendan Clifford, a Dominican Preacher, subtitled Lection divina and the human experience, at first sight one of those self-help polemics based on ‘interesting things that have happened to me’, but not so in this case. On Christmas Day, I read Clifford talking about a lady who took comfort in Ecclesiastes 3,1–4: ‘To every thing there is a season … a time to weep, and a time to laugh’. It actually did give me a form of consolation. illuminating some of my current bothersome anxieties as passing worries. Wanting to read it in the proper (is there any other?) King James Version, I went to my Bible on the sideboard where it rests alongside the Upanishads, the Koran, The Teaching of Buddha, and The Little Red Book. Having verified the words as suitably early seventeenth century, as I put the Bible back in its box a page flew open on which is inscribed ‘To Mum, Christmas 1964, much love Chris’. I was 20.
Saturday morning in my armchair, still in pyjamas, about eight, I’m deep into the Guardian rejoicing with Jeremy at the Oldham by-election. Beside me, a half-drunk cup of Earl Grey adds comfort to the tranquillity, the mantel clock’s ticking heartbeat, and though the high wind is bending trees at the end of the garden, there’s only a slight whooshing through the double glazing. I turn a page, folding it to how I like it. Perfect is the world. Then … I hear the cat flap, and … and … I do not hear Wilfred’s usual strident announcements that he has entered his domain. It’s quiet, too quiet, I look up, asking: ‘Wilfred?’ hoping against hope that … a second later the gates of hell are opened and before the bounding brown Wilfred flies a big black bird into the living room, as black as when the Morrighan became a raven, shedding feathers, frantically careening into the ceiling and walls away from Wilfred’s tooth and claw. I go into nervous overdrive, heart rate zooming, hating Wilfred for his ‘cruelty’, petrified that the thing will destroy the living-room and sure enough it heads for the patio windows and my fragile, beautiful orchids, three levels of them on glass racks. (A Celtic goddess, the Morrighan decided who lived or died in battle.) The size of it! Black as night it cowers in a corner trembling, face-to-face with the murderous Wilfred. With human cruelty I throw the cat from the room and he skulks in his own corner of the hallway, as if he is now the prey. I’m shaking, and without thinking much, run for a pail, dash back, drop it over the Morrighan, dash outside for some cardboard, dash for the keys to the patio windows locked closed for the winter, slide the cardboard under the pail, take the whole arrangement to where the trees are thrashing in the wind and let the poor thing flurry off into the generous undergrowth that the neighbour and I leave for hedgehogs and the like. Now, pulse abating, I lock Wilfred in to give the bird more time; I am hoping it can fly to safety. Back to the living-room and its mess of feathers, knocked-over orchid pots, thrust-aside furniture. I’m so upset that I make a second cuppa, return to the armchair, to the gentle tick-tock, to the soft sound of the wind, to my newspaper, to that evilly interrupted solitude, amidst the debris of nature’s battlefield.