Book excerpt

The Laying On of Hands

Stories

Alan Bennett

Picador

The Laying On of Hands


Seated obscurely towards the back of the church and on a side aisle, Treacher was conscious nevertheless of being much looked at. Tall, thin and with a disagreeable expression, were this a film written forty years ago he would have been played by the actor Raymond Huntley who, not unvinegary in life, in art made a speciality of ill-tempered businessmen and officious civil servants. Treacher was neither but he, too, was nothing to look at. Yet several times he caught women (and it was women particularly) bending forward in their seats to get a better view of him across the aisle; a murmured remark passed between a couple in front, the woman then turning round, ostensibly to take in the architecture but actually to look at him, whereas others in the congregation dispensed with such polite circumspection and just stared.Unwelcome enough in any circumstances, this scrutiny was not at all what Treacher had had in mind when he had come into the church fully half an hour before the service was due to start, a precaution against having his hand shaken at the door by the vicar. Such redundant clerical conviviality was always distasteful to Treacher but on this occasion he had a particular reason for avoiding it. Luckily the vicar was not to be seen but, early as he was, Treacher had still had to run the gauntlet of a woman in the porch, a reporter presumably, who was making a record of those attending the memorial service. She held out her book for him to sign.‘Name and organisation?’But Treacher had pushed past as if she were a lowlier form of autograph hunter. ‘Not important,’ he said, though whether he meant he was not important or that it was not important his name be recorded was not plain.‘I’ll put you under “and many other friends”,’ she had called after him, though in fact he had never met the deceased and did not even know his name.Somewhere out of the way was what he wanted, where he could see and not be seen and well back on the side aisle he thought he had found it, instead of which the fuller the church became the more he seemed the focus of attention. It was very vexing.In fact no one was looking at Treacher at all, except when they pretended to look at him in order also to take in someone sitting in the row behind. A worldlier man than Treacher, if worldliness consists in watching television, would have known why. Seated behind him was a thick-set shaven-headed young man in dark glasses, black suit and black T-shirt who, minus the shades and occasionally (and far too rarely some viewers felt) minus the T-shirt, appeared nightly on the nation’s screens in a television soap. The previous week he had stunned his audience when, with no excuse whatsoever, he had raped his mother, and though it later transpired she had been begging for it for some time and was actually no relation at all, nevertheless some vestiges of the nation’s fascinated revulsion still clung to him. In life, though, as he was at pains to point out to any chat-show host who would listen, he was a pussy-cat and indeed, within minutes of the maternal rape, he could be found on another channel picking out the three items of antique furniture he would invest in were his budget limited to £500.None of this Treacher knew, only becoming aware of the young man when an usher spotted him and insisted on shepherding the modest hunk to a more prominent seat off the centre aisle next to a chef who, though famously disgruntled in the workplace, now smilingly shifts along to accommodate the big-thighed newcomer. After his departure Treacher was relieved, though not unpuzzled, to find himself invisible once more and so able to look unobserved at the incoming congregation.There was quite a throng, with people still crowding through the door and a small queue now stretching over the worn and greasy gravestones that paved this London churchyard. The flanks of the queue were harried by autograph hunters and the occasional photographer, outlying celebrities meekly signing as they shuffled on towards the door. One or two did refuse, on the justifiable grounds that this wasn’t a first night (and more of a closing than an opening), but the autograph hunters were impatient of such scruples, considering themselves wilfully thwarted. ‘Choosy cow,’ one muttered as he turned away from some glacial TV newsreader, brightening only when he spotted an ageing disc jockey he had thought long since dead.The huddled column pressed on up the steps.As memorial services go these days it had been billed as ‘a celebration’, the marrying of the valedictory with the festive convenient on several grounds. For a start it made grief less obligatory, which was useful as the person to be celebrated had been dead some time and tears would have been something of an acting job. To call it a celebration also allowed the congregation to dress up not down, so that though the millinery might be more muted, one could have been forgiven, thought Treacher, for thinking this was a wedding not a wake.Clive Dunlop, the dead man, was quite young—34 according to the dates given on the front of the Order of Service, though there were some in the congregation who had thought him even younger. Still, it was a shocking age to die, there was no disagreement about that and what little conviviality there might have been was muffled accordingly.Knowing the deceased, many of those filing into the church in surprisingly large numbers also knew each other, though in the circumstances prevailing at funerals and memorial services this is not always easy to tell as recognition tends to be kept to a minimum—the eye downcast, the smile on hold, any display of pleasure at the encounter or even shared grief postponed until the business of the service is done—however sad the professionally buoyant clergyman will generally assure the congregation that that business is not going to be.True, there were a number of extravagant one-word embraces, ‘Bless!’ for instance, and even ‘Why?’, a despairing invocation that seemed more appropriate for the actual interment which (though nobody seemed quite to know where) appeared to have taken place some six months previously. Extravagant expressions of sorrow seemed out of place here, if only because a memorial service, as the clergyman will generally insist, is a positive occasion, the negative side of the business (though they seldom come out baldly with this) over and done with at the disposal of the body. Because, however upbeat a priest manages to be (and indeed his creed requires him to be), it’s hard not to feel that cheerful though the memorial service can be, the actual interment does tend to be a bit of a downer.Still, discreet funerals and extravagant memorial services are not unusual these days, the finality of death mitigated by staggering it over two stages. ‘Of course there’ll be a memorial service,’ people say, excusing their non-attendance at the emotionally more demanding (and socially less enjoyable) obsequies. And it is generally the case nowadays that anybody who is anybody is accorded a memorial service—and sometimes an anybody who isn’t.Hard to say what Clive was, for instance, though taking note of the numerous celebrities who were still filing in, ‘well-connected’ would undoubtedly describe him.Dubbing such a service a celebration was, thought Treacher, a mistake as it could be thought to license a degree of whoopee. The Order of Service included a saxophone solo, which was ominous, and Treacher’s misgivings were confirmed when a young man sat down heavily in the pew in front, laid his Order of Service on the ledge then put his cigarettes and lighter beside it.She was in the next pew, but spotting the cigarettes the spirits of a recently ennobled novelist rose. ‘You can smoke,’ she whispered.Her companion shook her head. ‘I don’t think so.’‘I see no signs saying not. Is that one?’Fumbling for her spectacles she peered at a plaque affixed to a pillar.‘I think,’ said her friend, ‘that’s one of the Stations of the Cross.’‘Really? Well I’m sure I saw an ashtray as I was coming in.’‘That was holy water.’In the light of these accessories, more often to be met with in Roman Catholic establishments, it was hardly surprising if some of the congregation were in doubt as to the church’s denomination, which was actually Anglican, though a bit on the high side.‘I can smell incense,’ said a feared TV interviewer to his actress friend. ‘Are we in a Catholic church?’She had once stabbed a priest to death in a film involving John Mills so knew about churches. ‘Yes,’ she said firmly.At which point a plumpish man in a cassock crossed the chancel in order to collect a book from a pew, bowing to the altar en route.‘See that,’ said the interviewer. ‘The bowing? That’s part of the drill. Though it looks a bit pick’n’ mix to me. Mind you, that’s the trend these days. Ecumenicalism. I talked to the Pope about it once. Sweet man.’‘I missed the funeral,’ whispered one woman to her vaguely known neighbour. ‘I didn’t even know it had happened.’‘Same with me,’ the neighbour whispered back. ‘I think it was private. What did he die of?’The sight of a prominent actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company gliding humbly to an empty place in the front row curtailed further discussion, though it was the prototype of several similar conversations going on in various parts of the church. Other people were trying to recall why it was they had failed to attend a funeral which ought to have been high on their lists. Was it in the provinces they wondered, which would account for it, or one of the obscurer parts of South London … Sydenham, say, or Catford, venues that would be a real test of anybody’s friendship?It had actually been in Peru, a fact known to very few people in the congregation though in the subdued hum of conversation that preceded the start of the service this news and the unease it generated began to spread. Perhaps out of tact the question, ‘What did he die of?’ was not much asked and when it was sometimes prompted a quizzical look suggesting it was a question best left unput; that, or a sad smile implying Clive had succumbed not to any particular ailment but to the general tragedy that is life itself.Spoken or unspoken, the uncertain circumstances of the death, its remote location and the shocking prematureness of it contributed to an atmosphere of gloom and, indeed, apprehension in the church. There was conversation but it was desultory and subdued; many people’s thoughts seemed to be on themselves. Few of them attended a place of worship with any regularity, their only contact with churches occasions like this, which, as was ruefully remarked in several places in the congregation, ‘seemed to be happening all too often these days’.To Treacher, glancing at the details on the front of the Order of Service it was all fairly plain. He was a single man who had died young. Thirty-four. These days there was not much mystery about that.‘He told me 30, the scamp,’ said one of the many smart women who was craning round to see who was still coming in. ‘But then he would.’‘I thought he was younger,’ said someone else. ‘But he looked after himself.’‘Not well enough,’ said her husband, whose wife’s grief had surprised him. ‘I never understood where the money came from.’Anyone looking at the congregation and its celebrity assortment could be forgiven for thinking that Clive had been a social creature. This wasn’t altogether true and this numinous gathering studded with household names was less a manifestation of his friendships than an advertisement for his discretion.It was true that many of those present knew each other and virtually all of them knew Clive. But that the others knew Clive not all of them knew and only woke up to the fact when they had settled in their seats and started looking round. So while most memorial services take place in an atmosphere of suppressed recognition and reunion to this one was added an element of surprise, many of those present having come along on the assumption they would be among a select few.Finding this was far from the case the surprise was not untinged with irritation. Or as a go-for-the-throat Australian wordsmith put it to her companion, ‘Why, the two-faced pisshole.’Diffidence was much to the fore. A leading international architect, one of whose airports had recently sprung a leak, came down the centre aisle, waiting at the end of a pew until someone made room, his self-effacing behaviour and downcast eyes proclaiming him a person of some consequence humbled by the circumstances in which he currently found himself and which might have been allegorically represented on a ceiling, say (although not one of his), as Fame deferring to Mortality. ‘Do not recognise me,’ his look said. ‘I am here only to grieve.’Actually, compared with the soap-stars he hardly counted as famous at all. The world of celebrity in England, at any rate, is small. Whereas fame in America vaults over the barriers of class and profession, lawyers rubbing shoulders with musicians, politicians and stars of the stage and screen, in England, television apart, celebrity comes in compartments, Who’s Who not always the best guide to who’s who. Thus here Fame did not always recognise Reputation or Beauty Merit.A high official in the Treasury, for instance, had got himself seated next to a woman who kept consulting her powder compact, her renown as bubbling gameshow host as wasted on him as his skill in succinct summation was lost on her. Worlds collided but with no impact at all, so while what few lawyers there were knew the politicians and some of the civil servants, none of them knew the genial wag who pounced on reluctant volunteers and teased out their less than shamefaced confessions on late-night TV The smallscreen gardeners knew the big-screen heart-throbs but none of them recognised ‘someone high up in the Bank of England’ (‘and I don’t mean the window-cleaner,’ whispered a man who did).Much noticed, though, was a pop singer who had been known to wear a frock but was today dressed in a suit of stunning sobriety, relieved only by a diamond clasp that had once belonged to Catherine the Great and which was accompanied by an obligatory security guard insisted on by the insurance company. This bovine young man lounged in the pew picking his fingers, happy already to have pinpointed Suspect No. I, the Waynflete Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford who, timid though he was, clearly had villain written all over him.In front of the Professor was a member of the Government, who was startled to find himself opposite his Permanent Secretary, seated on the other side of the aisle.‘I didn’t know you knew Dunlop,’ the minister said the next day as they plodded through some meeting on carbon monoxide emissions.‘Oh, I knew him from way back,’ said the civil servant airily.‘Me too,’ said the minister. ‘Way back.’Actually the minister had only met Clive quite recently, just after he became a minister in fact, but this ‘way back’ in which both of them took refuge was a time so remote and unspecific that anything that might have happened then was implicitly excused by their youth and the temper of the times. ‘I knew him in the Sixties’ would have been the same, except that Clive was too young for that.‘At some point,’ murmured the minister, ‘I want you to take me on one side and explain to me the difference between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Fairly star-studded, wasn’t it?’It was, indeed, a remarkable assembly with philanthropy, scholarship and genuine distinction represented alongside much that was tawdry and merely fashionable, so that with only a little licence this stellar, but tarnished throng might, for all its shortcomings, be taken as a version of England.And ‘a very English occasion’ was how it was described by the reporter in the Telegraph the next day. Not that she was in a position to know as she hadn’t bothered to stay for the service. Currently taking down the names of the last few stragglers she compiled her list, procured a programme of the proceedings, then went off to the Design Museum to lunch with a colleague.‘After all,’ she said over oeufs en gêlée, ‘they’re all the same these occasions. Like sad cocktail parties without the drinks.’This one as it turned out wasn’t, so she got the sack. But it was a nice lunch.Also thinking how English these occasions tended to be was the young priest in charge, Father Geoffrey Jolliffe. Father Jolliffe was Anglican but with Romish inclinations that were not so much doctrinal as ceremonial and certainly sartorial. Amiable, gregarious and plump, he looked well in the cloak he generally went about in, a priest with a bit of a swish to him. His first curacy had been in a slum parish where, as he put it, ‘They like a bit of that,’ and since he did too, his ministry got off to a good start and that he chose to call the Eucharist ‘Mass’ and himself ‘Father’ troubled no one. His present parish, St Andrew Upchance on the borders of Shoreditch and the City, was also poor, but he had done a good deal to ‘turn it round’, an achievement that had not gone unnoticed in the diocese, where he was spoken of as a coming man.There were, it is true, some of his fellow clergy who found him altogether too much, but as he said himself, ‘There’s not enough of “too much” these days,’ and since he was a lively preacher and old-fashioned when it came to the prayer book, a large and loyal congregation seemed to bear this out.Used at his normal services to women predominating, today Father Jolliffe was not altogether surprised to find so many men turning up. Some of them had been close to Clive, obviously, but that apart, in his experience men needed less cajoling to attend funerals and memorial services than they did normal church (or even the theatre, say) and since men seldom do what they don’t want, it had made him wonder why. He decided that where the dead were involved there was always an element of condescension: the deceased had been put in his or her place, namely the grave, and however lavish the tributes with which this was accompanied there was no altering the fact that the situation of the living was altogether superior and to men, in particular, that seemed to appeal.

USUALLY CHEERFUL and expansive, today FatherJolliffe was preoccupied. He had known Clive himself, which accounted for his church being the somewhat out of the way venue for the memorial service. His death had come as an unpleasant surprise, as, like so many in the congregation, he had not known Clive was even ill. It was sad, too, of course, ‘a shared sadness’ as he planned to say, but for him, as for others in the congregation, it was somewhat worrying also (though he had no plans to say that).Still, if he was anxious he did not intend to let it affect his performance. ‘And,’ as he had recently insisted to a Diocesan Selection Board, ‘a service is a performance. Devout, sincere and given wholeheartedly for God, but a performance nevertheless.’The Board, on the whole, had been impressed.By coincidence the subject of memorial services had come up at the Board when Father Jolliffe, suppressing a fastidious shudder, had heard himself describe such occasions as ‘a challenge’. Urged to expand he had shared his vision of the church packed with unaccustomed worshippers come together, as they thought, simply to commemorate a loved one but also (though they might not know it) hungering for that hope and reassurance which it was the clergy’s job to satisfy. This, too, had gone down well with the Board though most of them, Father Jolliffe included, knew it was tosh.The truth was memorial services were a bugger. For all its shortcomings in the way of numbers a regular congregation was in church because it wanted to be or at least felt it ought to be. It’s true that looking down from the pulpit on his flock Sunday by Sunday Father Jolliffe sometimes felt that God was not much more than a pastime; that these were churchgoers as some people were pigeon-fanciers or collectors of stamps, gentle, mildly eccentric and hanging onto the end of something. Still, on a scale ranging from fervent piety to mere respectability these regular worshippers were at least like-minded: they had come together to worship God and even with their varying degrees of certainty that there was a God to worship the awkward question of belief seldom arose.With a memorial service, and a smart one at that, God was an embarrassment and Father Jolliffe was reminded of this when he had his first sight of the congregation. He had left his service book in his stall and nipping across to get it before putting on his robes he was taken aback at the packed and murmuring pews. Few of those attending, he suspected, had on taking their seats bowed their heads in prayer or knew that that was (once anyway) the form. Few would know the hymns, and still fewer the prayers. Yet he was shortly going to have to stand up and ask them to collaborate in the fiction that they all believed in God (or something anyway) and even that there was an after-life. So what he had said to the Board had been right. It was a challenge, the challenge being that most of them would think this an insult to their intelligence.How Father Jolliffe was going to cope with this dilemma was interesting Treacher. Indeed it was partly what had brought him to St Andrew’s on this particular morning. There were various ways round it, the best of which, in Treacher’s view, was not to get round it at all; ignore it in fact, a priest retaining more respect if he led the congregation in prayer with neither explanation nor apology, the assumption being that they were all believers and if not, since they were in the house of God, it behoved them to pretend to be so. Taking the uncompromising line, though, meant that it was hard then for the clergyman to get on those friendly, informal terms with the congregation that such an occasion seemed to require. Treacher did not see this as a drawback. A priest himself, although in mufti, getting on friendly terms with the congregation had never been high on his list.Father Jolliffe would not have agreed. ‘Whatever else it is,’ he had told the Board, ‘a congregation is first and foremost an audience. And I am the stand-up. I must win them over.’ It was another bold-seeming sentiment that had hit the spot, occasioning some laughter, it’s true, but also much sage nodding, though not, Father Jolliffe had noticed, from Canon Treacher, who was an archdeacon and not enthusiastic about congregations in the first place. Treacher (and his fiercely sharpened pencil) was the only one of the Board who had made him nervous (the Bishop was a sweetie), so it was a blessing that on this particular morning, thanks to Canon Treacher’s precautions, the priest remained unaware of his presence.The worst tack a priest could adopt at a service such as this, and a trap Treacher was pretty confident Father Jolliffe was going to fall into, was to acknowledge at the start that the congregation (or ‘friends’ as Treacher had even heard them called) might not subscribe to the beliefs implicit in the hymns and prayers but that they should on no account feel badly about this but instead substitute appropriate sentiments of their own. (‘I believe this stuff but you don’t have to.’) Since in Treacher’s experience there would be few in the church with appropriate sentiments still less beliefs to hand, this meant that if the congregation thought of anything at all during the prayers (which he doubted) it was just to try and summon up a picture of the departed sufficient to squeeze out the occasional tear.Treacher, it has to be said, had some reason for his pessimism. Casting an eye over the Order of Service Treacher noted that in addition to a saxophone solo a fashionable baritone from Covent Garden was down to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. With such delights in prospect Father Treacher feared that liturgical rigour would not be high on the list.What approach he was going to take to the service (‘what angle the priest should come at it’) Father Jolliffe had not yet decided, though since he was even now being robed in the vestry it might be thought there was not much time. But he had never been methodical, his sermon often no more than a few headings or injunctions to himself on the back of the parish notes: though on this occasion he had not even bothered with that, preferring, as he would have said, to ‘wing it’. This was less slipshod than it sounded, as he genuinely believed that in this ‘winging’ there was an element of the divine. He had never thought it out but felt that the wings were God-sent, an angel’s possibly, or another version of ‘Thy wings’ under the shadow of which he bade the faithful hide Sunday by Sunday.He slipped out of the vestry and made his way round the outside of the church to join the choir now assembled at the West door. When he had been appointed vicar at St Andrew’s processions generally began obscurely at the vestry winding their awkward way round past the pulpit and up the chancel steps. Father Jolliffe felt that this was untheatrical and missing a trick so one of his first innovations was to make the entrance of the choir and clergy bolder and more dramatic, routeing the procession down the centre of the church.The procession should have been headed and the choir preceded by a crucifer bearing the processional cross (another innovation), but since this was a weekday Leo, the crucifer, had not been able to get time off work. A beefy young man, Leo was a bus driver and Father Jolliffe had always taken quiet pride in that fact and would occasionally cite him at diocesan conferences as a modern update of the calling of the disciples (‘Matthew may have been a tax-collector. What’s so special about that? Our crucifer happens to be a bus driver’). Though Leo would much have preferred marching down the centre aisle to where he currently was, stuck behind the wheel of a No. 74 inching up Putney High Street, since privatisation religious obligation was no longer accepted as a reason for absence. ‘Or believe me, my son,’ said the supervisor, ‘come Ramadan and our Sikh and Hindu brethren who compose a substantial proportion of the workforce would be up at the mosque when we need them down at the depot. I’m not without religious feeling myself and my sister-in-law was nearly a nun but sorry, no can do.’Still, what the procession lacked in splendour at the front it made up in dignity at the back, as in addition to Father Jolliffe also attending the service were several other clergymen, one of them indeed a suffragan bishop. None of them was personally known to Father Jolliffe or seemingly to each other, but all were presumably known to Clive. Though got up in all their gear they were not attending in any official capacity (and in the Telegraph report of the occasion they would be described as ‘robed and in the sanctuary’), but they definitely brought a kick to the rear of the column which was now assembled and waiting to begin its journey towards the chancel.The organist was meanwhile playing an arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings which many in the congregation were enjoying, having been made familiar with the tune from its frequent airings on Classic FM. Seeing no conclusion in the offing Father Jolliffe pressed a button behind a pillar to alert the organist that they were ready to begin. The Barber now came to a sharp and unceremonious close but since random terminations were not unusual on Classic FM, nobody noticed.Now from somewhere at the back of the church Father Jolliffe’s voice rang out, ‘Would you stand?’ and the church shuffled to its feet. ‘We shall sing the first hymn on your Order of Service, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling”.’Once upon a time it would have been enough to announce the hymn and the congregation would have known to stand. Hymns you stand, prayers you kneel. Nowadays it was prayers you sit, hymns you wait and see what other people are going to do. ‘Love,’ Father Jolliffe reproached himself. ‘We must love one another.’Now the clergy began to follow the choir down the aisle, Father Jolliffe bringing up the rear, singing the hymn without consulting the words, long since off the book and thus free while singing heartily to cast professionally loving glances to right and left, on his pink and generous face an expression of settled benevolence.He had still not decided how to pitch his opening remarks, trusting even now that something would occur, in some ways the closest he got to faith in God this trust that when it came to the point words would be put into his mouth. As he passed through the worshippers raggedly singing the hymn, Father Jolliffe thought they looked less like a congregation than an audience, smart, worldly and doubtless expecting him to keep God very much on the back burner. He resented this a little, because, though he was a sophisticated priest and too self-forgiving, his faith was real enough, though so supple and riddled with irony that God was no more exempt from censure than the Archbishop of Canterbury (whom he privately referred to as Old Potato-Face). Still, he resented having to tailor his beliefs to his audience and not for the first time wished he was an out and out Catholic where this problem wouldn’t arise. One of the many grumbles Father Jolliffe had about the English Reformation was that it was then that feeling had got into the service, so you couldn’t get away with just saying the words but had to mean them at the same time.These thoughts had taken him and the procession to the chancel, where the choir filed into their pews and the spare clergy disposed themselves around, while still leaving the hymn with a couple of verses to run. This gave Father Jolliffe a chance to think about what he ought to say about Clive and what he ought not to say.


CLIVE HAD BEEN A MASSEUR; there was no secret about that. It was something he was very good at and his skill transcended mere physical manipulation. Many of his clients attested to a feeling of warmth that seemed to flow through his fingers and for which there was no orthodox physiological explanation. ‘He has healing hands’ was one way of putting it or (this from the more mystically inclined) ‘He has the Touch.’That Clive was black (though palely so) was thought by some to account for these healing attributes since it meant (despite his having been born and brought up in Bethnal Green) that he was closer to his origins than were his clients and in touch with an ancient wisdom long since lost to them. Never discouraging these mythic speculations Clive himself had no such illusions, though the pouch to which he stripped to carry out the massage was rudimentary enough to call up all sorts of primitive musings.The heat that his clients felt, though, was not fanciful and as a boy had embarrassed Clive and made him reluctant to touch or be touched. The realisation that what he had was not a burden but a gift was a turning point and that, with his calorific propensities, it could be marketed was another. And so the laying on of hands became for him a way of life.There was, of course, more. Though Clive was scrupulous never to omit the ceremony of massage, for some it was just the preliminary to a more protracted and intimate encounter and one which might, understandably, cost them a little more. Looking over the crowded church, Father Jolliffe wondered who were here just as grateful patients whose burden of pain Clive had smoothed away and who had come along to commemorate the easing of a different sort of burden, and of the latter how many were as nervous as he was himself about the legacy that the dead man might have left them.

NOW AS THE HYMN ENDED Father Jolliffe said, ‘Will you sit?’, gave them a moment to settle and then launched into his preamble. And straightaway came out with something he had no intention of saying.‘On such occasions as these,’ he said, ‘a priest will often preface his remarks with an apology, craving the forgiveness of the congregation since they have had the advantage of knowing the deceased whereas he didn’t. I make no such apology. I knew Clive and like most of you, I imagine, loved him and valued his friendship—else why are any of us here?’Treacher, who was not here for that at all, made a neat note on the back of his Order of Service.Father Jolliffe was amazed at himself. Few people in the congregation were aware he knew Clive and for various reasons, one of which was prudence, he hadn’t been planning to say that he did. Now he had blurted it out and must make the best of it, though this would be hard as there was so much he could not say.For the most part Geoffrey (and there are some circumstances in which it’s right he is called Geoffrey and not Father Jolliffe) … for the most part Geoffrey was celibate, though he attached no virtue to this, knowing it was not abstinence so much as lack of opportunity that kept him generally unconjugate; that and a certain timidity where sex was concerned which made him, despite his (mild) moral disapproval, bestow on an enterprising promiscuity such as Clive’s an almost heroic status. No matter that boldness came as naturally to Clive as diffidence did to Geoffrey or that Clive, of course, was much better looking and unburdened by Geoffrey’s thoughts of God (and not looking a fool); Geoffrey knew that in what nowadays is called a one-to-one situation he was what he thought of as shy, so that men who weren’t shy, such as Clive, seemed to him warriors, their valour, however profligate, more of a virtue than his own timorous drawing back.Geoffrey had had experience at first hand of how fly Clive could be. En route for lunch together along the Farringdon Road (not a thoroughfare Geoffrey had ever thought of in a carnal context) Clive had intercepted a male glance that Geoffrey had not even noticed and quick as a fish he had darted away leaving Geoffrey to eat alone and return home disconsolate, where Clive duly came by to give an account of his afternoon. True, Clive was not choosy or how else would he have got into bed with Geoffrey himself, episodes so decorous that for Clive they can scarcely have registered as sex at all, though still tactile enough for Geoffrey, on the news of Clive’s death, to be filled with unease.Being of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion Father Jolliffe practised auricular confession, when he would come clean about his predilections, an ordeal that was somewhat diminished by choosing as his confessor a clergyman whom he knew ‘had no problem with that’ and being of a similar persuasion himself would place it low down in the hierarchy of possible wickedness. With never much to confess on that particular score, now with Clive gone there was going to be even less.Somebody coughed. The congregation were waiting and though the pause while Father Jolliffe wrestled with what he should and should not say was understood to be one of deep personal remembrance or even a chance to regain control of his feelings, still, there wasn’t all day.Father Jolliffe plunged on and suddenly it all came right. ‘We shall be singing some hymns. We shall pray together and there will be readings and some of Clive’s favourite music.’ Father Jolliffe paused. ‘Prayer may seem to some of you an outmoded activity and hymns too, possibly, but that was not what Clive thought. Clive, as I know personally, was always keen to involve himself in the rites and rituals of the church and were he here he would be singing louder and praying harder than anybody.’Despite the unintentional disclosure of his friendship with Clive, Father Jolliffe was not displeased with how he (or possibly God) had turned it to good account. Using Clive as a way round any misgivings the congregation might have re the religious side of things was a happy thought. It took the curse off the service very nicely and in the shadows behind the pillar Treacher made another note and this time added a tick.Actually Geoffrey (we are back to Geoffrey again) knew that where Clive’s religious inclinations were concerned he was stretching it a bit. Pious he wasn’t and his interest in the rites and rituals of the church didn’t go much further than the not unfetching young men who were often helping to perform them, Clive reckoning, not always correctly, that what with the ceremony, the incense and the general dressing-up anyone of a religious disposition was, as he put it, ‘halfway there already’. He was particularly keen on vestments, though not in any way Father Jolliffe (sorry) could share with the congregation, having once found Clive in the rectory clad only in his underpants trying on cotta and cope.Father Jolliffe now led the congregation in prayer, asking them to kneel if they so chose or simply bow their heads so that they could together remember Clive. Heads went down, eyes were closed with only the security guard on the qui vive, scowling across the bowed benches where someone, he felt sure, might be only pretending to pray. At one point he even stood up and turned round lest some wrongdoer might be taking advantage of these unstructured devotions in order to creep up and snatch the clasp. Suspicious, as he put it, ‘of this whole prayer thing’ he slumped back moodily in his seat as Jolliffe launched into the Collect.The vicar didn’t improvise prayers, Treacher was relieved to note, drawing them from the ample stock of the old prayer book, and saying them briskly and formally as Treacher preferred them to be said. There were few things worse, in Treacher’s view, than a priest who gave too much weight to the words of prayers, pausing as if to invest them with heartfelt meaning and thereby impressing the congregation (and himself) with his sincerity. Treacher had even heard the Lord’s Prayer delivered in this fashion and found it intolerable and even queasy. But Father Jolliffe, perhaps because of his Catholic leanings, was dry and to the point. ‘Say the word, say the word only’ seemed to be his motto and Treacher added another tick.So far, Treacher was bound to admit, Jolliffe was not doing too badly. Even the news of the priest’s friendship with the dead man had scarcely counted against him, as the Archdeacon had all along assumed Jolliffe to be homosexual, though without seeing this as a cause for censure or even a necessary obstacle to promotion. Untrammelled by wife or family and with a housekeeper to look after the vicarage (when there were vicarages to look after), their energies channelled, the sex under wraps, once upon a time homosexuals had made excellent priests and still could so long as they were sensible. The homosexuals Treacher preferred were dry, acerbic and, of course, unavowed; A. E. Housman the type that he approved of, minus the poetry, of course, and (though this was less important) minus the atheism. Nowadays, though, discretion had been cast aside and it had all gone splashy, priests feeling in conscience bound to make their proclivities plain, with even Jolliffe’s declaration of friendship for the dead man a timorous attempt, Treacher felt, to lay his cards on the table. Which was a mistake, Treacher believing that a priest should no more declare a sexual preference than he should a political one. Even so, Treacher reflected, there was this to be said in Jolliffe’s favour that, whatever his shortcomings, he was not she. In Treacher’s church there was a place for she, running the jumble sale, or doing the altar flowers; a she could even take the plate round or read the lesson. But there was no place for she at the altar or in the pulpit. So, give Jolliffe his due: he was not she.


NOW THE CONGREGATION SAT and the scheduled part of the service began. The programme had been put together by Pam, a cheerful woman Clive had known since childhood and who was now a producer at the BBC, and Derek, his longtime landlord. Eclectic would be the kindest word to describe it. Treacher, who had no reason to be kind, thought it looked a bit of a ragbag.First up was a well-known actress and star of a current sitcom who ascends the stairs of the lectern where she reads immaculately a piece about death not really being the end but just like popping next door. It was a regular standard at memorial services and seeing it billed in the programme Treacher had sighed. He believed in death and when he said he believed in God, death was to a large extent what he meant. These days people didn’t, or tried not to, always feeling death was unfair, so when they saw it coming to them or their loved ones they made a great song and dance about it.And these days there was always blame; it was ‘down to’ someone or other—the school, the doctor, the police—and you must fight back, that was today’s philosophy; in the midst of life we are in death was nowadays a counsel for wimps. It didn’t used to be like this, he thought. Had it come from America, he wondered. Or Liverpool? Was television to blame? Or Mrs Thatcher? These days he seldom felt well himself but he wasn’t complaining. Or perhaps (and here he was trying to be charitable) what was really distasteful was death as leveller. These days people were so anxious to lay hold of anything that marked them out from the rest—the death of their children, for instance, their neglect by hospitals, being fumbled when young or tortured by nuns; even the murder of loved ones would do if it served to single them out. Whereas the good thing about death was that it singled everybody out. It was the one unchanging thing. Treacher smiled.Father Jolliffe’s thoughts were different, though just as wayward and far from Clive. The next reader had a ponytail and Geoffrey found himself wondering at what point in bed the hair was unloosed, shaken out, let down. And by whom? He thought of the curtain of hair falling across the pillow, the signal, perhaps (in addition to other signals), that the body was now on offer. So again he remembered Clive.Next up was a pianist, another personal acquaintance who comes to the piano in mittens which he then takes off before playing some Schubert, the performance of which, judging by his expression, seems to cause him exquisite pain but which turns to dark-faced anger as during the final section a police car drives past with its siren going.And so it goes on, under Father Jolliffe’s benevolent eye, poems, readings, a succession of ‘turns’ really, one of which, though, Treacher is pleased to note, is from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the passage about love, with Father Jolliffe opting for the King James version using charity. He took time at the start of the reading to explain to the congregation that charity was love and not anything to do with flag days or people in doorways. Or if it was to do with people in doorways that was only one of its meanings.Treacher would have scorned such condescension and let the congregation make of it what they could but he forbore to mark his card on the point. Still, he would have preferred it if the great rolling cadences of the Authorised Version hadn’t been followed by a saxophone rendition of the Dusty Springfield standard, ‘You don’t have to say you love me’, a number (and there was no other word for it) that occasioned a round of applause, from which Treacher unsurprisingly abstained.During the saxophone solo Geoffrey’s worries about Clive recurred. What had he died of? He wished he knew for certain. Or not. Geoffrey had been in bed with Clive seldom and so tamely that only someone as inexperienced as Geoffrey would have thought himself at risk at all. But it did happen, he knew that; he wasn’t even sure if there was some risk in kissing (though there hadn’t been much of that either).The truth was it was God that Geoffrey didn’t trust. Irony was always the deity’s strong point and to afflict a transgressor as timid as Geoffrey with such a disproportionate penalty might appeal to the Almighty’s sense of cosmic fun. It was unfair to God, he knew, but he’d always felt the deity had a mean side and on one of his reports at theological college his tutor had written, ‘Tends to confuse God with Joan Crawford.’Treacher looked at his watch. One or two of the participants had preceded their contributions with a few words about Clive—Clive as assiduous and imaginative hospital visitor, Clive as holiday companion, Clive as lover of Schubert and dogs. Still, though these had lengthened the proceedings a little, Treacher was relieved to note that they were now on the last item before the final hymn, a rendering by an ancient musical comedy actress of ‘darling Ivor’s’ immortal ‘Fly home, little heart’. ‘Fly home, Clive,’ she prefaced it, ‘our thoughts go with you.’As her quavering soprano drifted through the church, Treacher began to make plans to slip away as unobtrusively as he had arrived. Slightly to the Archdeacon’s regret he had to concede that Father Jolliffe had not done too badly. He had kept the service moving and each contribution brief: he had not sold God short and even allowing for the saxophone solo and the old lady currently in full, if tiny, voice it had never ceased to be a church service. Treacher had come along hoping to find Father Jolliffe a bit of a clown and overanxious to please. There had been no evidence of that and he deserved credit. Canon Treacher folded his Order of Service and put it in his pocket. He would nip out during the last hymn.

FATHER JOLLIFFE, too, was pleased the service was over in such good time, though he had some regrets. Varied though the contributions had been he didn’t feel they had done justice to Clive and his special charm. Nobody had quite captured his character; an opportunity had been missed. Besides, Father Jolliffe (and he can surely be forgiven) was still somewhat starstruck by his glamorous congregation and understandably wanted to hold onto them for just a little longer. They were such a change from his usual attendance who (while just as precious in the sight of God, of course) were drabber and less fun.So when the old lady finished and was greeted with such sympathetic applause she had to be coaxed from the microphone before she got into an encore, Father Jolliffe on a sudden impulse (with which he subsequently thought God had had something to do) didn’t sink to his knees for the final prayers but stood up, moved to the centre of the chancel steps and expressed the hope that anyone with cherished memories of Clive which they would like to share should now feel free to do so. Treacher frowned and fished the Order of Service out of his pocket to check that this was a departure from the published proceedings. Finding that it was and the proceedings had indeed been prolonged he put a large question-mark in the margin.Father Jolliffe stood on the chancel steps and in the expectant silence the ponderous workings of the clock, fixed on the back wall of the tower, now began to click and whirr preparatory to slowly striking 12. From experience Father Jolliffe knew that these crankings made speech impossible, so hearing those first admonitory clicks he had learned to pause and wait until the ancient mechanism had run its course.These necessary cessations often had an opportuneness to them, coming at a pause in a prayer, say, or, as today, at a moment of remembrance, just as year by year the coughing and wheezing ushered in the start of the grandest remembrance of all, the Two-Minute Silence. The unorchestrated pauses, though, were generally less weighty than that but were so repeatedly apposite as to have acquired an almost liturgical significance, the whirring of the cogs and the clanking of the wheels serving to charge the moment, as did the ringing of the bell at the elevation of the Host.In matters of faith Father Jolliffe might be thought a bit of a noodle but however felicitous the pause in question even he didn’t quite identify it as the voice of God. Still, if it was not God speaking, sometimes he felt the Almighty was at least clearing his throat, coughing meaningfully as a reminder of his presence. Father Jolliffe could see no harm in the practice of the presence of God being conflated with the sound of the passage of time, though there were also occasions when the clock’s timely intervention irritated him, feeling that there was no need sometimes for the deity to draw attention to himself so obviously. It had something of St Peter and the cock crowing thrice about it, not an incident Father Jolliffe was particularly fond of as it showed Jesus up as a bit of an ‘I told you so’, which on the quiet the priest felt he sometimes was anyway.Today, though, the intervention of the clock was useful in that it gave the congregation a moment or two to dwell on what they might want to say about Clive and perhaps as a consequence once 12 had struck people were not slow to respond.A man was straightaway on his feet testifying to Clive’s skill and good humour crewing in a transatlantic yacht race and another to his unsuspected abilities as a gourmet cook, testimonials greeted with incredulity in some sections of the congregation (‘Clive?’) but elsewhere without surprise. A woman said what a good gardener he was and how he had gone on to paint her kitchen, while someone from Woman’s Hour described him as ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ and evidenced the large congregation as a testimony to Clive’s genius for friendship, a genius incidentally that is generally posthumous and, like ‘touching life at many points’ (which Clive was also said to have done), is only found in obituaries. On the other hand, ‘not suffering fools gladly’, another staple of the obituary column, was not said, Clive having suffered fools as a matter of course as this was partly what he was paid for.A Japanese gentleman now stood up and addressed the congregation in Japanese, a series of emphatic and seemingly impassioned declarations of which no one, even those lucky enough to speak Japanese, understood a word, as the acoustics of the church (designed by Inigo Jones) made it sound like overhearing an argument. Still, whether out of admiration for his boldness in speaking at all or to compensate him for being Japanese and therefore unintelligible, the congregation gave him a round of applause.He bowed to every corner of the church then sat down, by which time there were already two more people on their feet wanting to have a word. Treacher began to think his estimate of Father Jolliffe to have been wrong. There was no firm hand here and as a woman behind him said, ‘It’s going on a bit,’ the Archdeacon made another adverse note.Happy to see it go on was a publisher, a portly and pretentious figure who had never met Clive but was there escorting one of his authors (as yet unennobled), a woman with several bestsellers under her belt but whose work had recently taken a feminist turn and who he feared might be looking for a publisher to match. Coming along to the service just as a chore he had been amazed at the level and variety of celebrity represented and, in the way of publishers, began to scent a book. As more and more of the congregation stood up and the reminiscences about Clive accumulated the publisher grew steadily more excited, occasionally clutching his companion’s arm or, like Treacher (but not), scribbling notes on the back of his Order of Service. He saw the book as quick and easy to produce, a tape-recording job largely, a collage of interviews each no more than two or three paragraphs long—a book for people who preferred newspapers and which read like gossip while masquerading as sociology. ‘A portrait of a generation’.Her affection for Clive notwithstanding the novelist found it hard to reciprocate the publisher’s enthusiasm, her own work never having generated a comparable degree of fervour. A woman would understand. As the publisher jotted down the names of possible writers she determined to take her next book where it would be better appreciated. She yawned.Others were yawning too. Now an elderly couple got up and left, followed a few minutes later by a younger man, tapping his watch, portraying helplessness and mouthing ‘Sorry’ to an unidentified friend in one of the pews behind.

FATHER JOLLIFFE WAS now wishing he’d never let the congregation off the leash. They were popping up all over the place, never fewer than two people on their feet waiting their turn. Some didn’t stand but put a hand up, one of the most persistent a drab youth in an anorak sitting towards the front on the aisle. How he had come to know Clive Father Jolliffe could not imagine.As a woman ended some protracted hymn to Clive’s ‘nurturing touch’ Father Jolliffe managed to get in before the next speaker. ‘I feel,’ he said tentatively, ‘that as time’s getting on we ought to think about drawing these delightful reminiscences to a close,’ a warning word that had the opposite effect to that intended as it galvanised all those who had not yet made up their minds to speak now to try and do so. In particular it made the drab youth start waving his hand as if he were still at school and trying to catch the teacher’s eye. He looked as if he was at school, too, in jeans and blue anorak, though he had made some effort to dress up for the occasion by putting on a shirt and tie, the shirt rather too big at the collar and the cuffs almost covering his hands. Father Jolliffe wished he would be more forthright and not wait to be called but just stand up and get on with it like other people were doing, currently a philosopher, well groomed and bronzed from a sabbatical at Berkeley.‘Though we knew his name was Clive,’ he was saying, ‘we’—his wife sitting beside him smiled—‘we called him Max, a name I came to feel suited him well. It’s not entirely a nice name, not plain certainly or wholesome. In fact Max, really, is the name of a charmer, implying a degree of sophistication, a veneer of social accomplishment. It’s urban, metropolitan, the name of someone who could take a vacant place at a poker game, say, and raise no eyebrows, which someone called … oh, Philip, say, couldn’t.’At this a woman in front turned round. ‘I called him Philip.’ Then turning to her neighbour. ‘He said that was what he felt like inside.’‘I called him Bunny,’ said a man on the aisle and this was the signal for other names to be tossed around—Toby, Alex and even Denis, all, however unlikely, attested to and personally guaranteed by various members of the congregation—so that still on his feet to bear witness to the unique appropriateness of Max the philosopher begins to feel a bit of a fool and says lamely, ‘Well, he was always Max to us but this was obviously a many-sided man … which is yet another cause for celebration.’ And sits down plumply to a reassuring pat from his wife.One of the names submitted in contention with Max was Betty, the claims for which had been quite belligerently advanced by a smallish young man in a black suit and shaven head who was sitting towards the front with several other young men similarly suited and shorn, one or two of them with sunglasses lodged on top of their hairless heads.Now, ignoring the woman whose turn it was and the feebly waving youth, the young man, who gave his name as Carl, addressed the congregation. ‘Knowing Clive well I think he would be touched if someone’—he meant himself—‘were to say something about him as a lover?’A couple who had just got up to go straightaway sat down again. There was a hush, then a woman in the front row said: ‘Excuse me. Before you do that I think we ought to see if this lady minds.’ She indicated her neighbour, a shabby old woman in a battered straw hat, her place also occupied by a couple of greasy shopping bags. ‘She might mind. She is Mr Dunlop’s aunt.’Father Jolliffe closed his eyes in despair. It was Miss Wishart and she was not Clive’s aunt at all. Well into her eighties and with nothing better to do Miss Wishart came to every funeral or memorial service that took place at the church, which was at least warm and where she could claim to be a distant relative of the deceased, a pretence not hard to maintain as she was genuinely hard of hearing and so could ignore the occasional probing question. Sometimes when she was lucky (and the relatives were stupid) she even got invited back for the funeral tea. All this Father Jolliffe knew and could have said, but it was already too late as Carl was even now sauntering round to the front pew where Miss Wishart was sitting in order to put the question to her directly.With set face and making no concessions to her age or sensibilities Carl stood over Miss Wishart. ‘Do you mind if we talk about your nephew’s sex life?’ Her neighbour repeated this in Miss Wishart’s ear and while she considered the question, which she heard as having to do with his ex-wife, Carl looked up at Father Jolliffe. ‘And you don’t object, padre?’It’s often hard these days for the clergy not to think of God as a little old-fashioned and Father Jolliffe was no exception. So if he was going to object it wasn’t on grounds of taste or decorum but simply in order to cut the service short. But what he really objected to was the condescension of ‘padre’ (and even its hint of a sneer) so this made him feel he couldn’t object on any grounds at all without the young man thinking he was a ninny.‘No, I’ve no objection,’ he said, ‘except’—and he looked boldly down at this small-headed creature—‘I think what we’re talking about is love. Clive’s love life.’ Then, thinking that didn’t sound right either, ‘His life of love.’That sounded even worse and the young man smirked.Treacher sighed. Jolliffe had been given an opportunity to put a stop to all this nonsense and he had muffed it. Had he been in charge he would have put the young man in his place, got the congregation on their knees and the service would have been over in five minutes. Now there was no telling what would happen.As an indication that the proceedings were descending into chaos Treacher noted that one or two men in the congregation now felt relaxed enough to take out mobile phones and carry on hushed conversations, presumably rearranging appointments for which the length of the service was now making them late. The young man in front pocketed his cigarettes and lighter and strolled up the aisle to slip out of the West door where he found that two or three other likeminded smokers had preceded him. They nattered moodily in nicotine’s enforced camaraderie before grinding their fags into the gravestones and rejoining the service at the point where the question about her nephew’s sex life had at last got through to Miss Wishart and her neighbour was able to announce the verdict to the congregation. ‘His aunt doesn’t mind.’There was a smattering of applause to signify approval of such exemplary open-mindedness in one so old, but since the question Miss Wishart thought she’d been asked was not to do with her nephew’s sex life but with his next life, her tolerance hadn’t really been put to the test.

‘I JUST THOUGHT,’ said Carl standing on the chancel steps, ‘that it would be kind of nice to say what Clive was like in bed?’ It was a question but not one that expected an answer. ‘I mean, not in detail, obviously, only that he was good? He took his time and without being, you know, mechanical he was really inventive? I want,’ he said, ‘to take you on a journey? A journey round Clive’s body?’Treacher sank lower in his seat and Geoffrey’s smile lost some of its benevolence as Carl did just that, dwelling on each part, genitals for the moment excepted, with the fervour if not quite the language of the metaphysical poets.Though it was a body Geoffrey was at least acquainted with, Carl’s version of it rang no bells and so he was reassured when he saw one or two in the congregation smiling wistfully and shaking their heads as if Carl had missed the point of Clive’s body. Still, Geoffrey hoped nobody was going to feel strongly enough about this discrepancy to offer up a rival version as, however fascinating this material was, he felt there was a limit to what the congregation would stand.‘Do we really want to know this?’ a senior official in the Foreign Office muttered to his wife (though in truth he knew some of it already and unbeknownst to him, so did she).Actually Geoffrey was surprised at Carl’s forbearance in omitting the penis, an intimate survey of which he was obviously capable of providing did he so choose. Perhaps, Geoffrey thought, he was saving it up but if so it was to no purpose as it was while Carl was en route from the scrotum to the anus that suddenly it all got too much and a man was bold enough to shout out: ‘Shame.’Carl rounded on him fiercely. ‘No, there was no shame. No shame then and no shame now. If you didn’t understand that about Clive, you shouldn’t be here.’After which, though there were no more interruptions, the congregation felt slightly bullied and so took on a mildly mutinous air.A woman sitting near to the front and quite close to Carl said almost conversationally: ‘And you made this journey quite often, did you?’‘What journey?’ Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist, a succession of whose plays have been staged at the Royal National Theatre and whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He made his first stage appearance with Beyond the Fringe and his latest play was The Lady in the Van with Maggie Smith. Episodes from his award-winning Talking Heads series have been shown on PBS. His first novel, The Clothes They Stood Up In, was published in 2000. He lives in London.