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Sunday, 22 April 2007

Visions of Hell

Blessed Sacrament Church Walton Vale. It hasn't changed much. It hasn't changed at all.

Front and sides of the Church, seen as you walked down the road into school. Inside is beautiful but as a child I disliked Confession and the hot, packed and interminably long Good Friday celebrations.

There were a Trinity of nuns in Blessed Sacrament - the blessed Sack as it was more commonly known: Sister Kevin, elderly and Irish, Sister Phillip, young and pretty, sometimes gentle and the Grim Shadow, who had held me in her dark embrace.

The church was adjacent to the school and for most of my growing up was controlled by Father Ormsby and Father Taylor. With two priests Saturday Confession posed an awkward choice. Father Ormsby had a leathery face fit for washing windows or scaring old ladies. He smelled of tobacco, barked like a dog and turned Confession into a dark and sinister trial. He’d fought in the war, had seen things no normal man should and had little patience for weepy old women and trembling boys.

Father Taylor was gentle and kind who said little but listened and listened and listened. His voice was a whisper; it made you feel good and his queue was twenty miles long, snaking from bench to bench, out of the church as far as Blackpool and beyond. Or so it seemed. If you went to Father Taylor, you brought sandwiches. Father Ormsby’s bench was invariably empty; an ‘in and out’ job, if you had the courage.

By this time I’d become obsessed with Hell, the devil and all his wily ways. My soul was a vase in a mine field; Confession weekly and the time in between a spiritual killing field.It didn’t help that I created handicaps for myself, hopping over cracks in the pavement, swearing to sell my soul should I land on one. A kind of Satanic Hopscotch. It wasn’t a healthy place to be, but the feeling that there is more to this life than meets the eye has never left me. The obsession has, but I still avoid cracks in the pavement.

On Sundays we’d sing ‘Faith of our Fathers’ swearing to risk dungeon, fire and sword and every kind of protestant torture in our defence of the one true faith. We sang it with gusto, our voices growing louder as the tortures became more terrible, bellowing out each final line: ‘We will be true to thee till death.’
Protestants were the enemy. King Henry VIII’s coffin had exploded during his funeral, his sinful stench filling the church. This was told with a strange ferocious glee by the otherwise kindly Sister Kevin, her normal twinkle becoming a bloodthirsty gleam.

After Sunday Mass we’d walk home, our parents leading the way. They walked proudly, arms linked, our mum in her favourite red coat, our dad in grey gabardine. His walk had a slight jaunty swagger to it; that of a sailor on dry land.
The highlight of Sunday, the only highlight for the most part, was Breakfast: Bacon, eggs and sometimes fried bread. From then on it went downhill. For some reason we had our ‘Sunday’ roast dinner on the Saturday with the leftovers warmed up on the Sunday. We ate, listening to ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ on the wireless, which added its own peculiar mournful air to the whole business. There are few things more dispiriting than chewing lumps from the gravy, whilst listening to lovelorn wives dedicating records to husbands stationed in Germany or Hong Kong. A British Sunday in the 1950’s. It’s hard to imagine now. Best not to.


For the morbidly curious a passage from James Joyce’s 'Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man', sums it up. (He’s talking about the timelessness of Hell)

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