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Open Features: The Proposition

Absent-minded Father Francis comes knocking on the door with a canticle and a request.

Linda McLean tells of a fascinating Edinburgh Festival challenge.

“My goodness! It’s you!“ said the Priest when I answered the door.

It was annoying to find Father Francis surprised that I was present and correct in my own home.

Maybe it was my fault. I was fractious. I had been in the middle of knitting a complicated pattern which involved storks and water lilies. Giving up smoking had not been easy. To stave of the nicotine cravings, my hands had to remain busy. Although I had defeated the dread weed, the irritability of withdrawal remained.

“Who were you expecting?” I asked, my grammar reflecting my state of mind.

“I’d forgotten which door I’d knocked,” he said.

Father Francis looked like a grown-up version of a very surprised Harry Potter. He had the dark hair, spectacles which were very studious, and eyes which, for most of the time, seemed as large as saucers. He was constantly amazed by everything he encountered in life. It was an endearing trait which could be very trying. His conversation was always peppered with “Gosh!” or “My Goodness!”

We both stood, frozen to the spot, while he wondered what he was doing at my door, and I wondered whether to invite him in.

“I must have knocked on your door for a reason,” he eventually offered.

“Well, why don’t you come in and think about it, and I’ll make a cup of tea,’’ I suggested.

“Would you?” he asked, as if such an invitation had never been made before. He followed me, like a bewildered puppy, into the kitchen.

“What have you been doing today?” I prompted.

This question provoked a fit of hysterical laughter, during which he was speechless. When he recovered his composure, he mustered his reply.

“Oh, I nearly killed a nun today” he recounted, laughing again at the memory. “We were both heading for the same funeral, so she asked for a lift. As I rounded a corner the passenger door flew open and she nearly tumbled out.”

(This was before compulsory seat belts.)

Reliving the episode increased his giggling. “She was ever so cross with me, and said she wouldn’t be a passenger in my car again. But I think it was her responsibility to ensure her door was properly closed” he concluded, absolving himself from all blame.

“Had she not done that?” I asked.

“Well, she said she had. I must admit the catch is a little faulty. I suppose I should get it seen to.”

I had never known anyone willingly get into a car with him on a second occasion. Once was certainly enough for me, and I am no coward.

I remembered the time when I was a back seat passenger in a disabled driver’s car near Silverstone. The traffic was heavy, and he was stuck behind a lorry. “Okay, we’re clear,” he said to his wife in the front seat. “Just keep her straight.” So saying, he disappeared completely, and the car appeared driverless. He eventually emerged, and explained that he had to reach down and press the accelerator with his hand if he wanted kick down. This meant he couldn’t see where he was going. It had been slightly disconcerting.

But Father Francis, hurtling around in his beat-up red Fiat, knew no fear. This car looked exactly as some Italian or French cars – a bash on every panel, and the bumpers well worn. Anyone getting into a car with him needed a sanity check. What he didn’t know about the Highway Code, and that was most of it, he merely invented to suit the prevailing circumstances. He could get into the most incredible difficulties doing the simplest of things, and his “adventures on the road” kept you amused for hours.

“Then I filled up the car,” he continued, undaunted, “but it only went about a hundred yards before there was a terrific bang and this plume of smoke came out. I walked back to the garage to tell them their petrol was faulty, but they said I had put in diesel. I didn’t think that would matter, but the two don’t mix. Imagine that!”

I tried to sound suitably sympathetic, while at the same time trying to establish if he really didn’t know.

“Of course I didn’t know, or I wouldn’t have done it. They said the engine might be damaged,” he replied. “But I know now.” He sounded very pleased with himself. “I’m always learning. Oh…’’ his eyes suddenly alert “that’s what I came to see you about.”

The vicissitudes of the conversation had left me somewhat numbed.

“I’ve written a canticle,” he said slowly. I was not really sure what a canticle was, but it sounded important. His musical abilities knew no bounds.

“That’s good.” I replied, wondering what was to come.
There was a pause, during which he was obviously contemplating how to phrase his request. He decided upon “You know how you are secretary to the Council of Churches?”

I knew. I thought back to the last ghastly meeting, where every member of the Council had been replaced, bar me. In my youth and innocence, I had thought that these things basically ran themselves once they were set up. To find myself surrounded by priests and ministers, all pursuing different agendas, completely threw me. I took firm charge of the meeting and explained our diary for the year.

“You’re very bossy,” said the Baptist.

“I’m not bossy at all. It’s frustration. I’m simply trying to explain the priorities. A huge amount of work has been done on booking our yearly retreat, for example. Now nobody wants it or understands the value of it.”

I had needed a large gin and tonic after that meeting.
Father Francis continued “I know it is not your job as secretary, but, well, I think I can get this piece put on at the Edinburgh Festival. Would you be a fundraiser for me?”

“How much would you need?” I asked, unsure of how, after an account of a nutty nun, the conversation had arrived at this point.

“Probably about two thousand pounds” he replied.

I gaped. “Why on earth would you need that much money for a canticle?”

“Oh, it’s all been choreographed, and I am having ballet dancers come in to supplement the children.’’

“Wait!” I commanded. “I do not understand you. What exactly is this?”

He managed to explain in an ever so slightly convoluted way, that it was an all singing, all dancing version of a hymn. It was beautifully crafted. His brother was a professional dancer, his sister a singer. Both were going to support him by performing.

He knew we were in a deprived area, but the project would engage youngsters in religion and art. It would be educational.

Could he count on me?

This was certainly challenging.

“How long do I have?” I asked

“Six months” he replied.

I accepted.

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