Week 5: Stillness exercise
So it’s late on a Friday afternoon in the open-plan office where I work, and I need to compose the phrasing of some sort of stillness exercise by six o’clock (my father would wait for the church-bells from the same Sacred Heart steeple before mixing his first gin and tonic of the evening as his salivary glands twitched in perfect tempo) in order to keep on schedule, more or less. I’m already behind, but then I’m always behind.
There’s a complicating factor. I have said something mean-minded but quite clever about a third party who turns out to be the current significant other of a very new and a very nice colleague on the other side of a low partition, and my interlocutor isn’t sure if she heard me. Neither am I, and I feel awful. Already, she hasn’t said a word for twenty minutes. Only the truculent chuckling of the keys on her keyboard punctuates a silence that any old sheepdog would prick up his ears and growl at.
Outside the diggers have moved in. Our gorgeous grounds have just been sold by hard-hearted tender, and no-one has told the squirrels in the canopy or the vixen out the back whose last litter of cubs had spina bifida and were euthanazed by an upset former Blue Helmet who could order a Chinese takeaway in Lebanese Arabic. In a force-four breeze from the bay that carries the stench of sour salt as far as the air-conditioned interior of the building in which I am typing this stillness exercise, the brain-damaged car-crash victim from the Rehab programme is picking up individual helicopter sycamore seeds from the overflow car-park tarmac with an elongated tongs, and black-bagging them meticulously, one by one, as if he were a bomb-disposal expert manipulating a roadside device in the Taliban badlands of ground zero.
I know who to pray for and I know who to pray to. I know why I should do so (don’t ask me; we would be here forever), and I know where and when; but I don’t know how. All the standing and kneeling and sitting that I so enjoy at Sunday services are communal actions, the choreography of strangers enduring the hazard of their nearness, and have no private application. What I would like to do is to lie down in the foetal position, as I do at home, but this is my workplace with its own pantomimic procedures, and I already have a file as thick as the Book of Kells with the facilitator in Human Resources, and cannot afford a further reputational decrement in the time remaining.
When I first came to their attention, in the ember months of the second millennium, they were known as Personnel, a term which connects with the Latin for mask and the French for nobody at all. At the time – in illo tempore, you might even say, as we did in the pre-conciliar period – I was sharing a room in a psychiatric hospital with a geriatric diocesan priest whose medical condition was obscure, even by asylum standards. Insofar as I thought of him at all, I imagined he was an epileptic. Perhaps, like so many of his collared confreres in that institution, he was a homosexual. Homosexuality was still, after all, a ranking disorder in the annual American diagnostic manuals at the time, until it was eventually promoted out of the realm of pathology and replaced by another demon-category, inevitably itself sexual, to redraw and ring-fence the ferocious perimeters of flexible human nature. Yet, whatever the etiology of his affliction, he never abandoned clerical costume. At night, he would lie stretched out on his bed in his canonicals and stare at the ceiling through his tortoise-shell glasses, his hands clasped around an imaginary sword-hilt at his groin, his heels perfectly aligned, the toecaps of his boots bolt upright, like a ram-rod marble effigy on a stone catafalque.
There, in the long Islamic moonlight of an attic room in the half-way wards, he would fall asleep with a small thoracic chortle; but, on nights when the moon was as Christian as a consecrated host, he would curl up like a question-mark, sooner or later, and become again a man-child, almost a baby boy, like a neo-natal Pope in the white-wash lace of a lunar christening shawl.
That was how I learned to pray. Lying down, indeed, has stood me well over the quarantine of a quarter-century, and, to this day, which is the end of a night and the promise of another to come, please God, the scent of a stale pillow-case quietens me like the smell of a donkey in the nostrils of a neurotic thoroughbred horse.