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Week 4: Pray

Do not despair, dear reader. The first definition of “priceless” in any reputable dictionary will tell you that it means “so precious its value cannot be determined”; “of immeasurable worth”; indeed, “worth a king’s ransom”.

At the same time, do not presume. The further definition of “priceless” in the self-same dictionary will remind you that it can also mean “absurd, ridiculous, and without any value whatsoever.”
Words are like that. They are incorrigible.

I think of my beautiful friends. I think of a woman who was once a neurologist. Actually, she was a solicitor (in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the term that is pejorative in America), but I am confabulating in the service of secrecy. In the middle of her life, in the dark of Dante’s forest, when she couldn’t see the wood for the trees, she gave up everything – husband and home, security and station – and stopped wearing make-up to become an artist, although she had neither the artistic talent nor the artisanal training. She was certain her sacrifice would energise a latent ability that required only a costly decision to prompt its potential ambition. But it was not to be. Her pearl of great price turned out to be a ball of clever putty.

Ditto the father of three, married and mortgaged in the dormitory suburbs, who leaves everything for his same-sex lover in a final, flailing attempt to embody his own irreducible authenticity as a human being who coincides with himself in an honest and honourable way; and then finds that his daughter has been sectioned for self-harming, while his spouse is being treated for traumatic alopecia.

And what of the secular priest in his late seventies whose faith means more to him, while his church means less to him, as he moves with a Parkinsonian shuffle toward what is now the non-religious adventure of his own finitude, although he is far too sensible and commonsensical, really, to be gulled by such a beguiling binary as that between beliefs and bureaucracies? In the time remaining, it is the alcohol molecule that will not keep him sober; but it will, God bless it, keep him sane.

To his own bewilderment, libido was never a problem, although in middle life, he loved to be kissed messily by his unembarrassed infant nieces in their retro pinafores from Laura Ashley; and, at the end of it all, in the semi-private ward of the university hospital, he was greatly touched by the Muslim nurse who cut his ingrown toenail so cheerfully as he told her that “Please God” was the Christian form of “In sh’Allah”.

Now he daydreams in a commode wheelchair, a man who surrendered everything in a broad-reaching love that was clearer and cleaner until it became, all of a stupefied sudden, confused and listing, in a quirky cat’s cradle of flukish cross-winds. Now nothing will whiten his front teeth again. In his kindly hippocampus, he plays slow-motion handball in the slow-motion handball court of the old seminary grounds that are high-density housing in this new and unfamiliar millennium, and feels, as he did in the 1950s, as free as a pavement chess-player in the police-state of the Soviet Union.

He has found what everyone finds in their hidden treasure and their buried lives: that the pearl of great price is a poultice which forms as the opalescent fruit of a wound in the damaged membranes of an oyster that had probably opened too wide in the first place.