Sunday got off to a strange start, as I hadn’t changed the time on my phone and the rotter hadn’t changed itself. My team turned up for the rendezvous an hour late. We’re stopping in two different hotels about a quarter of a mile apart, next to Lille Europe and Lille Flandres railway stations respectively. The ladies, Team A (wife, daughter and a niece) are sharing the room at Novotel Lille Europe, myself and number three son, Team B, at Novotel Lille Flandres. There is a Team C, my oldest son, who prefers to kip in his university accommodation, ‘La Salon Anglais’ rumoured to be a specially chosen under-the-staircase shoebox full of wires and junction boxes, specially reserved for the English. Look out for a door on a basement corridor with a series of notes pinned to it demanding bureaucracy and outstanding monies.
We wander the narrow, cobbled streets and from a small shop buy some light bites for breakfast. I am looking out for a church. We stroll past St Maurice the Closed (for renovation) and find that it’s open. Inside, there is a religious service being prepared but it looks as though it’s for the boy scouts, some of whom appear to be girls in boy’s uniforms. Very French.
We wander on, zigzag through the back streets and happen upon Lille Cathedral. We are fashionably early for Sunday mass. It is freezy cold. There are electric bar heaters hanging from the ceiling at the end of each row of pews. As the gentleman in a party of six, I sit furthest away from them and freeze.
Asked to pin an architectural style, I would call out ‘long and thin’. The guide books prefer ‘gothic revival’. Work began in 1854, and if you think that the modern end is rebuilt war damage caused by several years of stout defence against the Germans, you’d be as disappointed as a squaddie east of Dunkirk waiting for French reinforcements.
It’s modern because it wasn’t finished until 1999. Yes, it took the French 150 years to build Lille cathedral (one hundred and twenty yards long). Visitors to my own debatable lands, with their mellow river valleys (before the mountains) will note that our Roman Wall, no doubt built with local stout-hearted English labour, (one hundred and twenty-eight thousand yards long) was built in fourteen years. Just saying.
The cathedral’s stone work is plain, a revival of the ‘early’, and certainly not the ‘Victorian’, gothic. Imagine the Houses of Parliament with all of their embellishment removed and just the basic shape remaining. Perhaps as if a burnt-out wreck? One lives in hope.
But I must say, in deference to Johnny Frenchie, the music was absolutely beautiful. In the French style, a cantor led and conducted from the lectern, accompanied by an organ. Your author is a bit of a ‘belt them out at the top his voice’ kind of chap. If our never-ending trip to Lille returns to Cold War Budapest and is made into a film (and it should be), you will see (and unfortunately hear) him, thumping out the hymns (in mangled Finno-Ugric) at the Inner-City Church in Pest, opposite the central public market, accompanied by the very organ that Liszt composed on. I know lots of tunes but I only know one note.
The modern end of Lille Cathedral is in the Minecraft style, consisting of concrete blocks with a central marble window, topped by circular glass. It is by the Irish architect Rice and is constructed in his own style, panels held together without a surrounding frame but by wire mesh attached to ball bearings embedded into the marble. Recall his internal glasswork on the Lloyds building in London.
From the outside it looks very grey, in keeping with the surrounding stonework, especially on an overcast November Sunday morning, but from the inside, it looks likes … what does it look like? The marble is supposed to cast a blue-yellow colour down the aisle as if is a heavenly almighty is in attendance. I must be honest dear reader; I just don’t remember. Perhaps my mind was distracted? Girls dressed as boys, beautiful singing, stout defence against the occupiers, even an organ. The decades melt away. The world changes shape. The Almighty reminds me to a different life.
We’re in a taxi heading for San Augustin church in Intramuros, Manila, for the Pope’s vigil. I am dressed as an English travelling gentleman but with free-sample locally made cotton trousers which are, embarrassingly, straining about my dressing side. We will trick ourselves into the Papal vigil, as has a Muslim terrorist who has stolen a march on us, disguised as a catholic priest.
When I say we, I mean myself and my business associate, Gisele, who has pinned her hair up, used dirt off the floor to give herself a shadow around the chin and is therefore, with her disguise, a woman in her underwear, disguised as a boy, dressed as a priest. Her ‘day’ clothes are in a little pile between us on the rear seat of the taxi. This demands a German word, might I suggest ‘Madchenjugepriestervortauschen’? A bit of a mouthful, I decide to try to remember call her ‘Father Gerald’ instead.
Now, is there a long philosophical debate to be had about thoughts, intentions and actions? Are thoughts neutral with a very large firewall between thinking something and acting upon it? No doubt there are a variety of contrary views. My fellow hills and lakes man David Starkey (despite his media reputation), not the rudest man in Kendal let alone the rudest man in Britain, decided that the collective name for historians was a ‘menace’. Might I suggest the collective noun for philosophers might be a ‘contradiction’?
They say Gandhi slept soundly and un-tempted on a bed of nails next to the undressed prettiest girl on the ashram. A better man than me. I must sit on my hands, looking at the floor, trying to think of something to stifle nature while Gisele snuggles into me, you’ll re-call as a girl, dressed as a boy, dressed as a Catholic priest. One envies St Bernard whose cave was next to a thorn bush, available for rolling about in naked whenever the flesh called. Gisele drops her voice and whispers to me,
‘The Moro can’t have a bomb as we disrupted the bomb factory.’
I reminded ‘Fr Gerald’ that the Moro wouldn’t have a knife or gun either as we’d all be searched going into San Augustine church.
‘What for a weapon, kick and punch the Pope?’ Fr Gerald wondered.
Cursed by a bright idea, her voice rose in excitement,
‘Albs and tassels, tying the hands and feet together,’ she ventured.
‘Or binding round the neck and throttling, Father Gerald?’, I countered while noticing the taxi driver looking at us in rearview mirror.
‘I’ve always dreamed of doing that to a Moro,’ Gisele observed.
The taxi driver coughed.
At San Augustine, Gisele paid the blushing taxi driver, pointed at the clothes on the back seat and reminded him to,
‘Take my blouse, shorts and little ankle socks to the Orchid Hotel, twelfth floor.’
She lowered her voice, pressed her chin to where her Adam’s apple might be and had another try.
‘A friend’s clothes, of course.’
While we’re on a run with collective nouns, may I suggest that there was a college of clergy about San Augustine? I’ve also heard tell of a ‘lechery of priests’ which, prior to this taxi ride, I had always assumed meant something less literal in Church Latin.
The outside of San Augustine is unassuming, almost as if a small-town Iberian parish church, which would have been the reference when it was completed by the Spanish in 1607. It is rather squarely proportioned, which wasn’t uncommon in the archipelago in those times, as it would be expected to act as shelter during typhoons. A small enclosed square lies before it, as might be sketched by a late 15th-century provincial Spanish architect, ideal for, on holy days and High Saturdays, the fat men of the village to squash a donkey to death. One might think.
And there we were, standing on either side of a low wire metal barrier, myself, despite the demeanour of an English gentleman, refused entry. Gisele, in clerical clothes, had been allowed past and was itching to enter the church. Our tale brought us here previously, when praying at seven places in seven hours, but we were rushed and the description was brief. Inside, San Augustine Church is of a baroque style, imagine a half-sized St Paul’s Cathedral – all columns and arches. The arched ceiling is painted as relief giving an exaggerated sense of depth to represented religious symbols such as angels, animals, floral motifs and rosettes decorate. A French word beckons, ‘trompe l’oeil’, fools of the eye.
How do I know all of this? The guide told me on our previous visit. Which gives me an idea. I whisper across the barrier to Gisele.
‘You know your obsession with network-network, contacts-contacts, business cards and swapping cell-phone numbers with everything that draws breath?’
Gisele made her ‘err-err’ noise.
‘Call that guide girl and tell her to get me in.’
Ten minutes later I was standing around the corner waiting for my cell-phone date. She arrived beaming and covered in security passes, thrilled to bits that she was about to get to see the Pope. No, she couldn’t get me through the barriers and guards, but I should follow her all the same. Because of the constant brown-outs, everybody carried a tiny pocket torch. The two of us set off, she leading the way, our little torch beams dancing across the cobbles, scattering the cockroaches and attracting the moths. We stopped halfway down a little lane. There was a grate to lift and beneath it some steps which led us downwards, into the subterranean dark.
‘The battle of Manila, mister,’ my guide girl explained, ‘the occupiers dug a warren of tunnels.’
If you’re ever been on a guided tour of some great ancient monument and the party of Japanese tourists behind you have suddenly appeared ahead of you, got to the café before you and avoided the gift shop altogether, now you know how they did it. I stooped my way along a tunnel, up a spiral staircase and into the church. If I kept on going upwards, the guide girl assured me, I could hide in the choir loft. I thanked her and continued up the steps.
Thank God for mono-culturalism, apart from myself, the Pope and our terrorist, everyone present was from South East Asia or China. From above, our Moro disguised as a priest should have been sticking out like a sore thumb.
I recced the nave. I’d been hoping that everyone would be wearing different vestments, with our terrorist dressed in the Archdiocese of Kandahar (twinned with Peshawar) away kit. But they were all clad the same, all in white. This made Gisele impossible to spot too.
I made a local cell-phone call, from the choir loft to the nave.
‘Where are you?’ I asked Gisele.
A little arm shot up, right beside the altar. She’d pushed her way to the front of the church (surprised?) to be as close to the Pope as possible. In fairness to her, it was also the most likely place for an assassin to be.
‘Where is he?’ Gisele asked.
‘All I can see is the backs of heads,’ I replied.
I can hear you, dear reader, say, ‘It’s rude to use your phone in church.’ It would have been even ruder to abandon the Pope to a gruesome fate. Cell-phones were still in their Genesis and the protocols weren’t quite set in stone. Likewise, if Gisele tucked the phone into her cassock’s hood and lent her head to one side to hold it there, it made the phone difficult to see. If, from a distance, she looked like a boy dressed as girl with a deformed neck, then all the more reason for a neutral to assume that a provincial family, in a conservative island nation, might have pointed him/her away from the family farm and towards a nearby monastery.
You’ll recall that I don’t know what a Catholic priest wears under his cassock or how they manage to tie their cords and tassels with only one pair of hands? I do know how they spot a fellow Catholic at an unfamiliar church. As soon as the Catholic walks into a church they will look from left to right for the holy water. Likewise, to the uninitiated, there are all types of confusing bobbings up and down during a service. As the Papal vigil began, a bell tolled and all the clergy in the church stood up – except one.
‘There he is,’ I whispered to Gisele, ‘Beside the isle, right-hand side, my right-hand side, he’s bobbing up and down at all the wrong times, right beside the aisle.’
This was also another obvious place from which to attack the Pope. Gisele pushed her way out of her pew, turned and walked back slowly, looking at faces. The music began, a lovely mellow sound. Here’s something you weren’t expecting, as the Pope’s entourage began to process, the Litany of the Saints was being played on a bamboo organ.
‘Mary and Joseph, pray for us.’
Gisele tried to make eye contact and nod at some of the fathers, to give the impression she was supposed to be walking up the aisle in the wrong direction. She arrived at our suspect.
‘Michael and all angels, pray for us.’
She stood at the end of his row. She put one hand on the back of the terrorist’s pew and another hand on the pew in front of him, blocking his way. She pushed into his pew and stood beside him.
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes and you might not want to meet a notorious bomber. I was almost sure it was Ramzi Yousef, who’d previously tried to blow up the World Trade Centre with a car bomb and therefore had a two-million-dollar reward about him. Rather slightly built, like myself, he was not a fighting man. He had only one eye and one of his hands was withered, presumably from a bomb-making accident.
‘Isaac, Sarah, Abraham, pray for us.’
Not sure what he was going to do to the Pope, give him a three-fingered slap? And trust he was aiming at the right person with the help of his one eye? Gisele and Yousef were talking to each other. Gisele repeated the conversation to me over the cell-phone. He had informed her that Allah was the greatest of all Gods and proceeded, somewhat predictably, to threaten death to America.
‘Pass the phone to him, Gisele, I want to have a word with him.’
‘Peter, Paul and Andrew, pray for us.’
I introduced myself with, ‘I’d love to promise you a free and fair trial, Mr Yousef, but instead the Americans are going torture you and turn your brain to mush.’
Both of the litany’s continued.
‘Mary Magdalene, Veronica, pray for us.’
‘A curse upon the Jews.’
‘Then they’ll hand you over to those Jews, who will use you for sport.’
‘The Jews destroy my people, a curse upon the Jews.’
Then he offered me a bribe.
Pin sharp readers may have noted our confrontation lacks a wrestling match at the head of a falls, a motorbike chase across the roof of a public market or a triangulation of crossfire from a sandy knoll opposite the Corazon Aquino Book Depositary in Caloocan City. There is a reason for that.
‘Stephen, Philip and Cornelius, pray for us.’
In these politically correct times of inclusion and one-sided compromise, it’s just a matter of time before there’s a Saint Judas, and when so, his name should be inserted into the litany here. You may recall me telling you that the drunkenness of youth always passes as if a fever? And that it passed for me on a kerbside on a bad day in the tropics? Close enough. If I’d said, ‘Hiding in the choir loft, on the phone to a Moro who was next to a girl, dressed as a boy, dressed as a priest, while the Pope walked past to the accompaniment of a bamboo organ,’ then you wouldn’t have believed me.
I took a deep breath and whispered my answer to him.
Meanwhile, the litany had reached,
‘All you holy men and women, pray for us.’
To be continued …….
© Always Worth Saying 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file