Losing My Religion
Originally published in Here Comes Everyone – Rituals issue, Feb 2019
Rhian noticed the sweat puddling in her bra, which felt vaguely sacrilegious; she couldn’t imagine that Jesus was a big fan of perspiration. But He must have sweated up there on his cross, a hot day, the nails biting into His wrists and ankles, the pain, the humiliation. Maybe God had arranged it so he stayed sweat-free, like a deodorant. She had never really understood why God hadn’t saved his only son, after going to all that trouble of having him born of a virgin’s womb. How painful must that have been for poor old Mary? It had been painful enough four years ago when she’d let Robert McGuire put in his dick in return for a cider and a pack of L&B; how much worse would it have been to have something coming out, rather than in, when you still had a hymen? And how come Mary still had a hymen anyway? After she’d married Joseph, surely he would’ve wanted his conjugal rights, even if God had been there before him?
It was thoughts like these that Mrs McDougall said were unGodly and profane and bordering on obscene. Whenever Rhian raised specific questions, Mrs McDougall would point her to some scripture or other that didn’t explain anything and left her with more questions than before.
She realised that a big gap had opened up between the wheelchair in front and herself, so she pushed Fergus forward. The wheels went over some gravel and Fergus jolted awake with a little moan. ‘Are you alright there Fergus,’ she asked. ‘Your candle’s gone out now. Here you are.’ She leaned over and re-lit it with her taper and moved his arthritic hands so he was holding it straight. Other church groups with old folks had given them electric candles. She was worried that Fergus would go up in flames and her with him.
The candle was making her hand hot. She pushed it up above the lip of the yellow carton, reading the prayer printed on it. It was in French but translated into English, as well as German, Portuguese and Spanish. There were loads of foreigners here, more than she’s d expected: Indians, Africans, Chinese, Americans. She hadn’t realised there were so many Catholics in the world. Mrs McDougall was always telling her that the Godly were under threat from Muslims, but also from atheists and the SNP, and soon the latter would make it a crime to worship. That was the reason for the fall in attendance at Hallowed House, apparently.
There had been a Muslim at her school. His parents had taken him to Morocco in the summer holidays to get treated by a country doctor for his (if the rumour were true) masturbatory habits. He didn’t seem to have changed any when he got back. She supposed if he’d been Catholic, his parents would have washed his willy in the holy water just as she’d seen an old lady running the water over her bandaged ankle. They’d tried Fergus’s knuckles under the holy tap, but his hands were still curled up like old tree roots.
‘Come on Rhian,’ Mrs McDougall called and she pushed again so that she was behind Tracey McCann and old Mr Fraser. His head dangled against the seat.
The procession stopped to let a flock of ghostly nuns float over St Bernadette’s bridge and then they were off again. Rhian looked at the back of Tracey’s neck. Her hair was pulled up into a tight bun but she was sweating too. The river to the left of them looked cool and green and inviting, like the Emerald City in that film that was on the telly every Christmas.
‘Isn’t it marvellous,’ said an American behind her. ‘They do this every night from Easter to All Soul’s Day.’ Rhian wondered what happened if it rained. She supposed people must bring umbrellas otherwise the candles’d be snuffed out in no time. Maybe God stopped it raining during the procession.
She listened to the multi-lingual prayers being read out over the speakers. Then she heard an organ, coming from inside the Basilica, she supposed, and a Priest began a rendition of Ave Maria (not the one she knew). At each “Ave”, the crowd lifted its candles as one. It was quieter than she thought it would be. One of the Chinese people was filming the march with a phone attached to a selfie stick and had arranged a statuette of Jesus so that it looked like Our Saviour was doing the processional as well. The boy was holding the Christ-figure rather too firmly around the bottom.
She wondered what her mum would think of all this. In a way, it reminded her of the Trades Union marches she would take Rhian on when it was one of her weekends. Here, instead of banners reading South Lanarkshire Collieries or NUT Perth, there was Dublin All Saints Church and Lisbon Igrejas. People were Amen-ing the prayers rather than shouting about Tony Blair being a liar. Her mum had left home when she was eleven, leaving her to live with her granny, telling her she’d understand when she was older. Well, now she was older and she still didn’t get it.
She jumped as Mrs McDougall rapped her on the back. ‘Your candle’s gone out Rhian,’ she said, ‘God knows a sinner when he sees one. Here, light it from mine,’ and she leaned over Rhian with a flutter of incense. She probably puts it in her bath instead of Radox, thought Rhian. Thinks it makes her more holy.
‘Rhian!’ She pushed Fergus quickly. She was always trying to keep up, trying to understand the scriptures and God’s teachings and why Saint Paul was right about the homosexuals. But then she had come to God’s love late in life. Like Mary, she’d also had a dream. And that dream had been of Mary telling Rhian to stop injecting, otherwise she’d get AIDS. Telling her to stop smoking otherwise God would take His revenge. She’d smoked some before she went to bed to help her sleep, but when she woke up in a headachey haze and got up to fetch her baggie from underneath the pile of dirty clothes, it wasn’t there.
Not even stopping to put on a dressing gown, she stormed into the living room where Eammon was still lying in the same position she’d left him in the night before, surrounded by pizza cartons and an overflowing ashtray. Maroon light was filtering through the one curtain that hung in the middle of the window frame.
‘You’ve taken my skag,’ she said.
‘You know I don’t touch that stuff.’ He rolled over and lit a cigarette, coughed once, then took a drag. His flies were undone.
‘You touch everything else, Mr Ketamin speed ball.’
Yeah, but I watched Grange Hill as a wee kiddie, I know what that stuff does to you, junkie girl,’ he laughed, then coughed again.
‘I’m not a fucking junkie, I only do it at weekends.’
He laughed again. ‘Heroin’s not a lifestyle drug,’ he said, ‘it’s a life. Well, an existence.’
‘Where’s my dope then? Did one of your mates come ’round in the middle of the night and take it?’
‘No, but come to think of it, you were sleepwalking.’
‘Yeah, you came in here in the middle of the night, told me you loved me and you were giving up the junk for good ‘cos the Virgin Mary told you to. Then you went to the loo and I heard a flush. Maybe you got rid of it.’
Rhian rushed to the toilet. Sure enough, there was an empty baggie still in the toilet bowl. She fished it out, but no traces of heroin remained. She could sort of remember the dream, a blue light, a warm presence. It must have been like Mary’s dream when the Angel told her she was up the duff by God, thought Rhian. It must have been the virgin Mary wanting to save me.
‘Then we fucked!’ Eammon cackled and coughed from the living room.
‘No, we didn’t! Did we?’
‘No, we didn’t but if it’s still on offer…’
‘Go fuck yourself,’ she told him.
‘I’d rather you did it for me!’
That day, wandering around town in a torpor, she walked into the Hallowed House and said she wanted to pray to Our Lady. The vicar or whatever (priest, she learned later) had taken her confession, blessed her, and offered her the sacrament, which she’d refused because she wasn’t hungry. But she hadn’t touched the stuff since then, mother Mary must have been watching over me, she said to people who looked confused and then bored. After a hellish week of vomming and the shits and begging Eammon to go get her some (his refusal was based on meanness rather than any moral code), she’d been clean for over three months, and now here she was, a helper on a free holiday, although it wasn’t exactly free since worshippers at HH were encouraged to donate 2% of their income to the church. In her case, that wasn’t much since she was working in the local supermarket for free. The dole office had threatened to cut her payments if she went on this trip, telling her that Welfare to Work employees weren’t eligible for annual leave, but Mrs McDougall had written “a strongly worded letter” about how this was important for her spiritual needs and then went in to see her advisor, whom (she told Rhian) she remembered as a wee boy picking his nose through the Sunday sermon and whispering during quiet prayer.
Dusk was starting to fall and, from their slight incline, the candles rolled out before her like a golden snake. The church up on the hill was looking lovely. Earlier, they’d walked around the town. Rhian had hoped to get some souvenirs, but there was nothing to buy but Virgin Mary themed things. Mirrors, candles, snowglobes, lavender bags, statuettes, rosary beads, candles, travel glasses and plastic or glass bottles to take home some of the holy water in case it didn’t work on the first immersion. She didn’t think her mum or Eammon would want a Virgin Mary in Bethlehem snowstorm. She couldn’t believe it snowed much in Israel anyway. As for the holy water, Ryan Air wouldn’t let her take more than a hundred millilitres back with her and the Hallowed House hadn’t sprung for hold luggage.
They had now reached the head of the march and were turning back. They passed the grotto where, earlier, they’d stopped to touch the cave’s wet walls, condensation dripping from the ivy-covered opening. When Rhian had turned around, she thought people were staring at her, and she patted down her hair to see if there was anything stuck to it, but they were looking as one at the Mary icon. Mrs McDougall had whispered a silent prayer, tears running down her face as she’d caressed the sacred stone. She had told Rhian that the icon often cried and it couldn’t be explained by science. Although she thought vanity was a sin, Mrs McDougall had posed for a photograph next to the thrusting pyramid of candles that seemed to want to reach up to Mary.
They were heading now to the Basilica. The sun was setting behind it, creating a golden glow, and the Virgin was lit up with God’s love, and some electric bulbs. The crown for a king giant bathed in the sunset and the electricity. Fergus stirred and moaned a little in his wheelchair and she upended his candle again. To the right of them, nurses or nuns pushed the almost lifeless, who looked like they’d been day-released from Lourdes General Hospital, an army of the infirm under white sheets, limbs lolling, heads flopping. They looked to Rhian like the beginning of a zombie outbreak. Why bring them, she thought, why trolley them down here when they’re going to die, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of their lives. She laughed. That was from a film her mum liked. If they were off to heaven anyway, then what was the point. She stopped wheeling. What was the point. If all but the most miserable sinners were going to eternal life at God’s hand anyway, then why was this important?
The sun was still beating down. She lifted the collar of her Hallowed House polo shirt to get some air, but the air was sweltering. She stopped and looked at the rows of people in front of her in their own private mirage, the oblivion of the mob: the illusion of it was familiar from her time smoking skag in the flat with Eammon. Everything seemed unreal, from Mrs McDougall to Tracy to Fergus to this apparition of the crowd.
‘Rhian,’ Mrs McDougall hissed again as a build up of people and candles and wheelchairs surrounded her. But she ignored her.
‘What’s the point,’ she said, turning to the American who was now to the side of her, ‘of all of this if we’re all going to heaven anyway?’
‘We must trust in God’s love, God’s mystery,’ he said, ‘look, your candle’s gone out, I’ll relight it for you.’ He held out his taper to her candle cone, but she pulled it away.