Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Ghost Estate

Ghost Estate

“You try talking to her, Father.  I bleedin’ give up.”

The fat, red-faced man struggled past an overturned shopping trolley.  He clamped down on a clipboard with his elbow, so he could hold on for support. 

He looked up again with a vinegary smirk.  “So she’s called you in?  Huh.  You’re not allowed to give up on her.  Thank God I’m a builder and not a priest.  ‘S’all I can say.”  

Dressed in a shiny suit and tie, with yellow hard hat and tabard, his wellies squelched unrhythmically down the lane towards the main road.

Thomas smirked.  Thank God I’m not a builder, he thought, looking at the state of the place.  Owenbraddagh, it said on the billboard.  Affordable luxury housing, turn-key properties.

Owenbraddagh.  Salmon River, it meant.  Not a river in sight here though, nor any salmon.  Just rivulets of dirty water running along a mucky track, and shells of uniform houses.  Metal fences and keep out signs lay flat in the mud.  Shreds of blue tarpaulin were strewn everywhere.  Some sort of food wrapper with Ł’s and impossible consonant clusters printed on it.  A hard hat tossed aside, by the look of it months ago.  A metre high concrete pipe lay as an obstacle just up ahead.

Thomas watched the builder scramble into a four by four parked by the edge of the road.  As he drove off and the beam faded on its way into town, the dusk sky looked suddenly inky.  In the direction of the new development, among the dark eyes of boarded up windows, one was lit up, dimly, no curtain drawn over it.  That must be her.

A parishioner he’d never met before had called that morning, in a state.  Her signal kept cutting out, but she persevered in giving directions to her new house in Owenbraddagh, one of many new estates just out of town along the main Enniskillen Road. 

Terrified, she was.  Voice shaking. 

Thought her house had an evil presence.  Would he come and bless it.  Exorcise it, she didn’t know if they still did that sort of thing these days.  Anything, she said.  She was desperate.

Nothing Thomas had ever dealt with fresh from his studies in Maynooth.  He’d report it further up the chain.  See if he could help the woman in the meantime to make sense of whatever was disturbing her.

He came to an aluminium door, with two wires hanging from the top left corner, one black and one blue.  He could already make out the woman’s shadow at the bottom of a staircase.  He knocked.

“Father Devitt?”

“Hello, Margaret.  I’m here to see if we can help you.”  He wiped thick lumps of mud onto a bristly doormat.  He stepped indoors, past a flat-pack box with the bits of a cot inside and three rolls of powder blue wallpaper with storks on it.

o             O             o

“Can you feel anything, Father?”

“Erm, no.  No, I’m not saying there isn’t any reason for what you’re experiencing –“ he added quickly.  He sighed and started again.  “Here, why don’t we have a seat and you tell me.”

And Margaret did.  A litany of complaints first about the contractor, the site manager, keys not handed over, staying at her mother’s in between her old lease and the new house with husband and two kids in the one room.  Walls not plastered, electrics left bare, water coming in, still not connected to the gas.  Still no bin collection.  Council didn’t recognize the street, didn’t want to know.

“Sounds stressful, Margaret.”

Her lips pursed.  “I’m not imagining things because I’m stressed.”  Her voice was flat, utterly convincing in its lack of passion.

“No.  That’s not what I’m suggesting.”

“But you’re thinking it, aren’t you, Father?”  Margaret’s eyes looked steely, like she hadn’t slept in a while.

“Margaret.  I don’t know what’s going on or why.  This evening, I’m just here to listen, ask a few questions.  You tell me what you think’s important.”

“I want you to do something.  I can’t stay here.  Not like this.”

“Not like what?”

“Not with this ... presence.  There’s something here.  Something haunting.”

She’d said it.  Haunting.  Now Thomas had something to go on.  Something to report to the bishop.  He mentally flicked through the prayer book, what would help here ...

“Father, will you have a cup of tea?”  And she was gone to the kitchen before he could answer, her face hidden from him by her hair. 

“Or a coffee.  Do priests drink coffee?” she asked through the wall.

“We do.  I do, anyways.  A coffee would be lovely.  Wee drop of milk, no sugar, please.”  He smirked.

And he heard the gurgle and hiss of an espresso machine.

o             O             o

Over coffee in the chilly living room, Margaret pointed to a mirror above the fireplace.  “That mirror there.  Just cracked one night.  No reason.  Just cracked, look, right down the middle.  There was a picture on that other wall, just an old thing we got cheap after we got married.  Fell off the wall one night, skidded across the floor to where we were sat.”

Thomas nodded in acknowledgement but without commitment.

“Things keep switching themselves off.  I know the electrics are bad, but the TV, the radio, clocks, they just stop.  No reason.  And things switch on.  Themselves.  I came into the kitchen the other day and everything was on full-whack, hob, grill, oven, the lot.”  She paused, fumbled with her hands.

“And Father, I hang clothes in the wardrobe, I put them in drawers.  And I come back later and they’re folded on the side again, and the wardrobe’s empty.  Or I’m in here and I hear this drip – drip – drip, and I go in and the tap comes on.  Or I come in and everything's on, the kettle's boiling dry, the Krupp machine, everything's on full whack, the hob, the grill, the oven.”

She was tense now that she was saying it all out loud.  Her shoulders were hunched forward; her eyes flitted right and left as she spoke.

All very movie-like, thought Thomas.  Everyday things in a half-finished house not quite connected to civilization.  Easy to get jittery about such goings-on.  Such a silent house.  No noise of traffic this far off the road, every other house in the street empty or half-built.  Easy to let the old imagination run ...

A baby cried from upstairs.  Just a short little cry and then a couple of coughs as if stirring in its sleep.

“Is that your youngest, then Margaret?”

“The twins are six.  We didn’t have another, too expensive, you know, with childcare, that’s the killer.  Mick’s out with them, at his mam’s.  Not the type to talk to priests.”  She smiled weakly, slightly embarrassed at saying so.

“I see.  Well, I know we’re not everybody’s cup of tea these days.  And the one upstairs?”

“There’s nobody upstairs, Father.”

Thomas’s stomach felt like he’d driven too quickly over a hill. 

“But - There’s ...?”  It was out before he could conceal his shock, his white face, the icy rush of blood to his internal organs that urged him to run.

Margaret looked at him, for the first time that evening, right in the eye.  An outsider had heard.  She was terrified, but she wasn’t alone.  Nor mad.

“I see.  But the boxes in the hallway.  The cot, the wallpaper ...”

“Thought we couldn’t afford it, but accidents happen.”

“You’re ...?”

“No.  No, I’m not.  Stress, the doctor said probably caused it.”

Thomas set down his cup and took his prayer book in both hands.  His knuckles formed a white rosary.

o             O             o

Margaret knew the area before it was called Owenbraddagh.  There had never been a river here, nor salmon.  It had been bogland.  No past traumas that she knew of.  No old famine cottages, no murderous landlords or other scandals.  Just acres and acres of rain-logged peat.  Tufts of rushes, clumps of gorse.  She found bones of foxes and badgers and hares there as a child, when she helped cut turf in the lead-up to Easter when she was off sweets for Lent.  But they were just animal bones, she said, nothing sinister about that in the wilds of County Cavan.  She knew the old land, she’d heard the slice of the turf cutter, seen the cuckoo spittle on the stacks of peats.  Her hands knew the benign itch of the heather when you’ve run through it and it gets into your socks.

“It was soft land, Father.  Nothing that would lead to this.”

“Maybe, Margaret, maybe it’s not the land.  Is there anything, you know, you’ve been involved in?”

Margaret sighed.  She’d been to a fortune-teller a few times.  But she was pretty sure it was just an old woman making a pound or two.  No mystic powers, certainly no connection to another world.  Just an intuitive woman in a room with lots of heavy curtains.  Told her just enough but claimed she couldn’t see more, but come back another day when things might be clearer. 

“It was just for a laugh, Father.  I didn’t need to pay fifty euro to nobody, for her to tell me my future.  Sure it was all over the news, in the papers, everywhere you looked, there was our new prosperity.  Big bypasses, all these great jobs to come from America.  We built our grand houses and got ourselves mortgaged to the hilt.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

She looked at the wall and took out a hankie from under the cuff of her sleeve.  Thomas noticed a big tear falling slowly down the wall from a crack in the plaster.  Margaret wiped it away with one slow vertical stroke.

And Thomas realized.

There had been no past trauma here on this soft bogland in rural Cavan.  No angry spirit prevented from entering paradise, no unresolved injustice lingering on from yesteryear.  No, this was a different kind of haunting.

The haunting of a future that was supposed to be; violently broken off, vanished like a dream moments after waking bolt upright in a cold sweat.

The baby woke.  It screamed, screamed like it was suddenly hungry.  Margaret rose to her feet.

“Excuse me a minute, Father.”  And she walked to the hallway door, past the boxed up bits of cot, and climbed the stairs.

An unborn baby crying upstairs in an unfinished house, where there’d never been any river with salmon in it.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

God Who Wastes Nothing

God Who Wastes Nothing
(Based on Isaiah 61:3)

that's how I'd describe it,
the mosaic made of recycled debris.
Jagged edges refract the light across
the texture of corrosion,
rich colours redeemed from junkmail.

A less green God would have thrown away
(not fashioned loveliness out of!)
accidents  -  broken glass,
and ignoble bottle tops.

I didn't recognize you,
down on the landfill.
God looks different in the dark.
But there you were all the time
picking over rubbish to give meaning to in art.

Ah, so it was you who winced when you picked up
each shard and held it to your heart

and loved each fragment into the whole.

Let me stand back, take it in.

that's how I'd describe it.
Beautiful even.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Prisoner 24601

Having never seen the show on stage, but heard bits of the story as sermon illustrations over the years, I was very excited to see Les Mis last Friday night.  Epic! (Spoiler alert!)

It spans Jean Valjean's life from his days as Prisoner 24601 to his death, all the while pursued by Javert.  It's like a (less preachy, more human) Pilgrim's Progress with its themes of grace over law, redemption, and the human condition.  Watching it felt at times overwhelming: a man sentenced to hard labour for stealing bread while bourgeois Parisians munch on macaroons and ride in plush carriages, young people in love whilst caught up in violent revolution, the terrifying domino effect of a single mother losing her job and the ensuing consequences as she tries desperately to survive, ...

One of the best moments in the movie is in the first 20 minutes or so.  The Bishop of Digne is a minor character with a major impact on the story.  He offers Valjean food and shelter.  Desperate, this man out on parole sneaks off in the night with what silver of the church's he can carry.  When the cops find him trying to sell it, they drag him in front of the bishop, who smiles and says, 'Ah, Jean, you forgot these candlesticks, take them with you too!', and when the coppers are gone he tells him to use the candlesticks to make an honest life for himself.  Wow.  Now that's what I call grace!

This show of mercy precipitates Valjean's transformation - he uses the candlesticks to start a business and a new life ... except there's Javert, who cannot but pursue the man who to him will always be Prisoner 24601.  Javert.  The voice who reminds Valjean what he was and convince him that's what he still is.

Set in 1800's France, the social conditions in the film are not that far removed from the world we live in.  The more Dickensian issues in the show are things that happen all the time.  Since the French Revolution, and certainly since Victor Hugo wrote his novel, we haven't got rid of poverty, violence, crime, or any of the other social ills depicted (even TB is making a resurgence!).

Surely the church today has a responsibility to show the same transforming grace that the Bishop does to Valjean.  What a world we'd live in if we were that generous, that quick to forgive, and that willing to forgo our legal rights.

But sadly, we sometimes act too much like Javert, prioritizing law and order above grace and restoration.  Unwilling to let things go.  Determined that every act receive its due punishment (although, at least Javert is consistent and willing to be punished for his own errors).  He meets a sad demise, unable to live with the forgiveness and grace that he perceives as compromised standards.

The score is fantastic (can't get 'Bring Him Home' out of my head).  The singing is very impressive, if you ask me, filmed as it was live.  It's not recording standard, no, but there's something very vulnerable and genuine about the performances. 

But best of all, I find myself days later wanting to go back and think more about the stories within the story, and ask questions and talk about it with other people who've seen it.  Now I know why Les Miserables is such great fodder for sermon illustrations!

Sunday, 20 January 2013


We had a fantastic experience at Derry's newest restaurant last weekend.  Cedar is a Lebanese restaurant on Carlisle Road which opened a couple of months ago.  We had only heard excellent reviews, and were very  excited to try it out for ourselves.

Staff welcomed us and took our coats, and got us settled at a table with mismatching glasses and crockery.  It's a small wee place, cosy and intimate, where you feel like you're on holiday ... maybe in Lebanon, maybe in London's Greek Street.

Our party of five chose the chef's recommendation.  I can't remember the Arabic word for it (hafli?), but am pretty sure it translates along the lines 'massive banquet with a bit of everything'.  We got to choose a selection of cold and hot mezzes, to be followed by a mix of meats and rice and Lebanese desserts.

The mezzes were delicious: my own favourite, stuffed vine leaves, were fresh and zingy; our Moroccan friend thought the falafel was the best he'd tasted outside North Africa and the Middle East.  A surprise hit was the baked okra in a rich tomatoey, oniony sauce.  Something for everyone, including vegetarians and coeliacs.

Our main course (part of the set banquet) didn't sound exciting - there were far more exotic sounding things tempting me on the main menu - but this is where chef Simon's skill shone.  Each of us had three skewers, chicken, lamb and beef, with various dips.  Now a chef who can make chicken taste this good, and turn rice into something this delicate and aromatic (almonds?), is worth supporting with your trade!

Those who had coffee concurred it was good, and the deserts went down very well.  As well as the expected baclawa, there was a delicious avocado mousse.  Sarah offered me hers as the other desserts were pastry-based, but she changed her mind when she heard the rest of us make noises of appreciation - mmmmm.

Cedar gets full marks from me for its food.  But the experience was as much about hospitality.  Bernadette and Claudia made us feel like honoured guests with their attentive service and great chat and humour.  Chef Simon joined his family toward the end of the night (sorry we really were those guests that never leave) to make sure we'd had a good time, and tell us how they came to open their restaurant in Derry.

Now, if you live in or visit the city of Culture, please go to Cedar.  The pattern in Derry, too often, is that exciting new places open up and do well for a while and then shut again.  But we need restaurants like Cedar to give us real variety and choice.  No tobacco onions, no garlic potatoes ... so totally different to most other restaurants in town.  Vive la différence!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Renewing Vows

No, Sarah and I haven't renewed our marriage vows, but we recently renewed our baptismal vows!
I'm getting confirmed in March.  It might be a surprise to some people in our parish that I am in fact not confirmed yet.  So, last week I called the rector at Billy Parish Church to ask for a copy of my old baptism certificate. 
It was strange, if I'm honest.  Mainly because I don't remember being baptized as an infant!  And also because I had tended not to think about those formative but distant years as part of my Christian autobiography until more recently.

But on the Billy Parish website, some photos brought memories flooding back from thirty years ago, things I'd never have remembered without seeing pictures.
My dad is a painter and decorator, and as a little boy I spent many a summer's evening with him in the church building, staring at the stained glass, the dark wood and the furnishings, as well as out exploring the graveyard, all while he painted little gold daubs on the walls and varnished pews.
And you know, I think those childhood experiences were more significant than I ever realized.  I didn't understand much doctrine, and a lot of choices were made for me.  But these days I'm finding that theological propositions and individual choice aren't in fact the bedrocks of my faith that they used to be.
Now, isn't it funny how the liturgical year coincides with life events, including small ones, and where the two intersect there can be really meaningful experiences.  Just after the baptism cert arrived in the post last week, kindly sent with a calendar of Billy Parish, it happened to be the first Sunday after Epiphany when we remember Jesus' baptism.
At Christ Church, Rev. Katie had the font at the front, and she invited us all to renew our baptismal vows, promising faith in Christ and renouncing evil.  We went forward and held out our empty hands, just like at Holy Communion, and received a drop of water from the font.  Katie said the words:
           'Know that you are God's beloved,
            and He calls you to make a difference in the world.'
There's one thing I noticed that I want to bear in mind for whatever way I serve the church in the future.  Katie said the same words to each of maybe fifty people.  And she looked at each person and smiled, and said the words with complete sincerity, like at that moment each individual person had her full attention.  Every little sheep mattered as part of the flock.
This service caught me by surprise.  It made the arrival of my baptism certificate very meaningful.  I saw how, before I was able to make my own mind up, before I was in a position to write theology essays on the economy of grace, and sacraments and what they mean, before I could even speak or eat solid food or be without nappy - God created that little seed of faith in me and set me on the journey I'm still on today.