A word to the wise: the Lord will always surprise us. Nothing is predictable, especially prophecy, which predicts nothing other than the fact that the future is always and everywhere a thing of the past. Therefore, caveat pastor; let the shepherd beware, or at least be wary. For the thing is, many of the lost sheep – perhaps most of the lost sheep – never leave the flock at all. They hide well within it, and are ill within it, even as they bleat in unison the fabled agrarian consolations of the faith that has been forced upon them by their parents and their peers in the tarmacadam streets of the pitiless city. More to the point, they covet the prestige of the absent other who is on walkabout in the mystery, away from the rumours of the abattoir and the awful insufficiency of age-old similes, however scriptural, and has a cachet, a mystique of meaning, altogether absent from their groupthink and conformity.
I was conceived in a north-facing room, in a bed with a head-board and a candlewick bed-spread, under a mass-produced Murillo of the Sacred Heart, a hippy in a toga with beautiful brunette hair and a spade beard, who bore an extraordinary likeness to the late Osama Bin Laden. Seven of us started out in that fashion among the tasseled shades of the period side-lights, beneath the allure of his somber scrutiny, and yet my father detested long hair, and disavowed the son whose tresses trailed transvestite mischief over the button-down collar of the regulation bleach-white, Bri-nylon shirt.
Yet the same man made me well again, I think. There is a time for this and a time for that, as the atheistic litany of Ecclesiastes exhorts us: a time for electro-convulsive shock treatment, even, which dries the alcove of the mouth like the tannin of tart cranberry, so that the ulcerous lips part with the sting of paper-cuts; there is a time for psychotherapy too, the blood sport of blame and posthumous accusation, the impure tantrum of belatedness, fifty-minute fugues; there will always be, thank God, the Great Amen of the creaking of the castors of the midnight medicine trolley with their tiny plastic chalices. But when a father blesses his son and calls him Beloved, the son listens. It is better than a lover’s tongue in the wax of his ear. It is better than the warm fluid that syringes his blocked hearing, to restore, in a curved acoustic as precise as the Fahrenheit point of frost, the deep apse of his own alert attentiveness.
But the commodification of grief is a cultural curse. When I went back to work on the fourth or fifth occasion, I was well enough to be invited by programme researchers onto radio shows and television panel-discussions. All around me, impatient contemporaries who had been treated for cancer of one kind or another, were writing books about their exploits. They were paper-backing their pain as a kind of convertible currency, a spiritual credit. Hilarity, it seemed, was no guide to the good Creation. Only the exhilaration of endurance could demonstrate our excellence, as if the rest of the animal kingdom, fish, flesh, and fowl, had not already instructed us in that dignity in their own Trappist methodology.
So, when I now remember children who shared my classrooms in the middle years of the twentieth century, I don’t invariably conjure the few polio kids in calipers or the little pugilist with the orthopedic boot on his Oedipal club-foot, or the altar-server with Down Syndrome, as rare as any white rhino in the post-religious European welfare reserve, or the sturdy dwarf who entered the convent in the early pontificate of Paul VI, the blue-blooded Pope they went on to call Papa Amletico. I don’t even summon the shade of the child with the strange thalidomide arm, whom I deeply resented and therefore desired surreptitiously, because her minor infirmity (what, after all, was a non-writing hand in a culture of corporal punishment?) struck me as a most modest outlay for the protective immunity it conferred on her conduct and character?
I think instead of the boys who routinely came twenty to twenty-eighth place in a class of thirty, those dismissed by their mentors and their tormentors as dull average; of the ignored able-bodied siblings of the invalided brother or sister in large families who were famished for affection throughout their formative years; of the legions of those distempered sorts in my own sodality whose psychiatric illness or personality disorder is still sufficiently sub-clinical and under-subscribed to warrant expert intervention. I think of the dramas that will never be staged in a play-house because they are simply not theatrical enough.