Chapter 33

in which Father Smith helps to accommodate the flood of soldiers in need of confession and gives his chocolate ration to Father Bonnyboat.

The new Bishop calculated that since the arrival of the Poles the most popular of the mortal sins had increased in the diocese by 243.75 per cent, and accordingly he had ordered that the Polish military chaplains should be given every opportunity for hearing confessions in all chapels and churches. Canon Smith was especially glad of this order, because he hadn't been sure that his new penitents understood his directives in French ever since the day when the newly absolved Polish major had said to him at the door of the church: 'Mai girl friend is going to have a baby. It is very naice. And after the war mai waife she will be very pleased when I take the baby back to Poland and say: "Look, Wanda, here is a present for you." ' Besides, the Polish priest was generally able to say the early Mass for him on Sundays, which was a great help with himself so old and young curates so hard to come by.

The Polish penitents were still stretching in rows outside Father Lidzowski's box as Canon Smith left his confessional on a Saturday afternoon in September, 1942. There were also a few files of French sailors ruled in lines of blue and white outside the French priest's confessional, for Général de Gaulle's military chaplain had come over from Dunoon because there was a Free French ship in. The canon gazed for a few minutes with pleasure at the spectacle of tough men kneeling and then went into the presbytery to take off his cassock, for he had promised to call on Canon Bonnyboat at the Aged and Infirm Priests' Home.

Outside the church, however, the tough men weren't kneeling as, with girls in isosceles skirts, they muscled into the queue outside Signor Sarno's cinema which was now advertising two ladies called Veronica Lake and Greer Garson. The admission to the stalls was now one-and-nine and to the balcony two-and-six and the premises were more British-owned than ever, because Signor Sarno was now a sergeant in the Home Guard and marched behind the pipes with a real Ecclefechan swing. But the signore wasn't standing on the steps as the canon passed; instead, when the priest called into the ice-cream shop to purchase his own and Canon Bonnyboat's chocolate ration, he found him behind the counter, dolloping out kolas to men in light blue suits and girls in pink blouses.

'You see, Reverendo Father, I cannot be in two places at once,' Signor Sarno explained as he handed the priest twelve bars of Cadbury's ration chocolate. 'Per Bacco, non sono facili le cose in questo tempo di guerra e di lotta.'

Sir Dugald Ippecacuanha didn't seem to be finding things easy either in this time of war and struggle when the canon ran into him a few minutes later jamming his whole face against a chemist's window and popping an incontinent eye at a cake of Palm Olive soap.

'Things are in one hell of a mess,' he told the canon. 'All this talk about what we're going to do after the war is ridiculous. Let's win the war first and then let's talk about what we're going to do. And if you ask me there's only one way to do that and that's to bomb the Jerries and Eyeties to hell: men, women, and children.'

The canon murmured back something evasive because he didn't know what to think about bombing any more than he was quite certain that Mr. Stalin was unconsciously defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; but he knew that he disliked intensely the cheap jeers and sneers made at the enemy by the same popular press which had acclaimed Munich in 1938, and shouted, 'AVOID CONTINENTAL ENTANGLEMENTS,' in 1936, and would certainly have preached collaboration with the same vehement illiteracy if Hitler had conquered Britain in 1940. Indeed, to supplement his argument, Sir Dugald showed him a copy of that day's issue of the Daily Bugle which shouted on a headline: 'WE'VE PAID 'EM BACK NOW,' and in another, 'THERE'S PLENTY OF CHOCS AND CIGS IN EAST COAST TOWNS.'

People had to queue up for the tramcars these days. Canon Smith lined up behind a mother and two children. He tickled the children and made them laugh, and the mother didn't seem to mind, even although she must have known that he was a priest. That, thought the canon, was one of the advantages of growing old: people accepted you for what you had always been, so that even priests found it easier to be holier in public when they were old.

The tram, when it came, was crowded, but the conductress allowed Canon Smith to stand at the back and ring the bell for her: one ring to stop, two rings to go, and three rings to go whizzing past the next stop when they couldn't take any more passengers. She'd always been a great admirer of the Catholics, so she said, and had a girl friend in Glasgow who always went to the Church of the Passionate Fathers, she thought they were called, and perhaps one day the canon would be kind enough to come down to the deepott and give her tram a ding of holy water just to bring her luck.

The canon enjoyed ringing the bell, because it was such a change from his ordinary duties, but the conductress explained that he mustn't ring the bell for the tram to start at the stop outside the railway station, because that was the pointsman's job and there'd be the heck of a row if he wasn't allowed to blow his whistle. Indeed, it was as well this was so because the canon would have forgotten to ring the bell anyway, as when they reached the station there was a wagon drawn up at a siding and filled with sheep making noises just like Professor Joad laughing in the Brains Trust, and indeed when the tram moved off again, they seemed be saying something about the Pursuit of the Absolute.

Nowadays the canon divided his friends and acquaintances into two classes: the horizontal and the vertical. The horizontal were those whom he had known for only a short time and the vertical were those whom he had known for a long time. Chief among the latter were Reverend Mother and Canon Bonnyboat, both of whom he called to see once a week, because they liked talking about the same things as he did, but he was sorrier for Canon Bonnyboat than he for Reverend Mother, because poor Canon Bonnyboat only limp about with a stick, whereas Reverend Mother still as spry as a sparrow.

He found Canon Bonnyboat sitting huddled in the parlour of the home with a lot of other old priests who were too lame and hobbledy to say Mass any more unless there were no steps in front of the altar. All the old priests sat looking at Canon Smith out of peery envious eyes because he was still active enough to gad about giving out the sacraments, whereas they had to stay shut up together and listen to each other's stories and read the serial in the Catholic Trumpet.

'And how's the new Bishop doing?' one of them asked.

'Excellently,' Canon Smith said. 'He's very popular. As a matter of fact he's consecrating my church next month. The building's finished now.'

'In my day they didn't make boys bishops,' another old priest said. 'And bishops didn't try to make themselves popular. On the contrary, the more unpopular they were, the more they were sure they were doing God's Will.'

'Bishops have gone down the drain like everything else,' another old priest said.

'I remember when I was a young curate in County Cork, I met a darling bishop and he was only thirty-five and he had eyes as blue as God's sky and a great strong arm that could lift a pony and trap right off the ground, bedad so he could,' the first old priest said.

'Brought the chocolate?' Canon Bonnyboat asked with a globby eye as soon as he and Canon Smith were alone in a corner together with the ludo board in front of them. Canon Smith knew that Canon Bonnyboat had been wanting to ask this question for the last ten minutes, but hadn't liked to in case he would have to share his chocolate with the other priests. For since he had grown old Canon Bonnyboat had also grown greedy and a bar of Fry's cream chocolate meant more to him now than the book he was supposed to be writing on the Ceremonies of the Uniate Churches.

'I'll tell you what: we'll play for it,' Canon Bonnyboat said, looking round to make sure that none of the other priests were listening. 'How many bars is it this month? Six? Right, if I win, I get your bars as well as my own, that is twelve, and if you win you get twelve.'

'I'm not very fond of chocolate really and you can have mine without playing for it,' Canon Smith said.

'Nonsense, we'll play for it,' Canon Bonnyboat said.

So play for it they did, and at first Canon Smith seemed to be winning, for he threw most of the sixes. Canon Bonnyboat's expression grew very mournful, indeed, and he only grunted when Canon Smith asked his advice about how to arrange the ceremonies when the Bishop came to consecrate the Church of the Holy Name; but in the end it was Canon Bonnyboat who threw all the sixes and he even sent Canon Smith's four men right back to the beginning, so that he won the twelve bars of chocolate after all. Canon Smith was glad that Canon Bonnyboat had won, because he at once became more like his old self again and told Canon Smith how he had once on Christmas Day in Spain heard a cardinal sing the High Mass of the Aurora to the Mozarabic rite.


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