ITALY WAS AWESOME! The beaches! The sunsets! The pasta! But I can’t honestly say that the archaeology was up to expectation. The Priscilla fresco, supposedly the highlight of the whole itinerary, was, I am afraid, a disappointment.
We were led to it by a grumbling old nun who seemed to be saying unflattering things under her breath about her life being made a misery by hordes of Protestant women in dungarees. The painting itself was so indistinct it could, quite frankly, have been almost anything: the Last Supper? the wedding at Cana? a graveside meal? Who could tell? When I said that one of the figures looked to me to be sporting a beard, Brigitta got very upset and treated me to a whole evening of Consciousness Raising. Which I suppose is what I deserved.
Then, of course, there was the problem with Joe.
Sister Immaculata of the Incarceration of Saint Rose of Lima is getting a bit above herself in my opinion. She is letting the Pope Joan thing go completely to her head. Every day, if there were media people outside our hotel, she would preen and pout at them for hours; and if there were not, she would simply sulk. At our evening Bible Studies (which were a bit unfocused, I thought) she laid down the law like a Regius Professor. What has become of the idea that we women have a new, inclusive, co-operative, consensual way of doing theology, I asked. But Liz and Jane sided with her every time, and I began to feel side-tracked. Pope Joan, indeed! Does she think she is infallible?
Then there was Tom.
He has, I suppose, reached a difficult age; but it did not help that he asked quite vociferously (and more than once) why he had to go on holiday with a ‘load of old women’. Certainly little or no effort was made to include him. The last straw was when Brigitta confiscated his Star Wars Sword of Power as
‘ideologically offensive’. The trouble, as I explained to them all, is that it is nothing to do with me. Tom just likes war games. All attempts to introduce him to My Little Pony were an abject failure. Since it cannot be nurture, I have to conclude that it must be nature – though that is a view I intend to keep to myself!
Yes, In the Footsteps of Priscilla was a turning point; but not in the way I had expected. I had hoped for spiritual renewal; fuel for the Millennial task ahead. Instead there was just irritation and frustration. Irritation with the people and with the narrowness of it all: those women – most of them Brigitta has known for years – all see themselves as victims. I could see it so clearly as the fortnight went on. I was feeling left out of their obsessive circle; and they were feeling left out of the whole of human history. The frustration, moreover, was mostly with myself: how did I get into all this? And more important, how do I get out of it?
It was only a few days after our return from Italy that Derek came to see me. Apparently his relationship with the born-again lady with the peaches and cream complexion has gone pear-shaped, and he was wanting comfort. ‘I knew you would understand,’ he said rather pathetically, ‘I had such great hopes for this relationship; but it turned out to be what your Bishop Holloway would describe as just a casual shag.’
At first I was outraged. How dare the little minx behave like that – aren’t these so-called Bible Christians supposed to be pure and chaste and things like that? It ought to be possible to prosecute them under the Trade Descriptions Act. – calling themselves Fundamentalists and having their end away! I mean, it’s one thing for a trendy bishop to go on about it, and quite another for bible-bashing twenty-something to go out and do it!
But wiser counsels prevailed, and to tell the truth I felt more than a little sorry for Derek. It was not his fault, and it had severely dented his new-found pride and independence. I began to recognize in him all the tender, boyish traits that I had once loved so much. To tell the truth – but don’t tell Brigitta – I was getting atavisitic urges to stand by my man.
We have decided – for Tom’s sake as much as anything – to get back together again. I am calling it our ‘period of reception’.
Joe, I have to say, has not taken things well. Considering the fact that I have hardly seen anything of her since the Pope Joan show hit the big time, I thought she was utterly unreasonable in claiming that I was ‘simultaneously abandoning her and my principles’. I am not, I told her, abandoning any principles by getting back with Derek: on the contrary, I may, at long last, be finding a few.
She reacted in a way which showed up all the deficiencies of her Open University Course in Behavioural Sciences. It was hard to believe that the slick purveyor of spiritual insight who charms the nation on Thought for the Day (alternately with Rabbi Lionel Blue) was behaving so petulantly.
I am afraid I may have come up with rather too many home truths in too short a time. Anyway, the job-share is over, that’s for certain. I am on my own professionally; and she can finish the run of ‘Pope Joan’ and then go back to being a trendy nun on a moped.
It is also fairly clear that relations with Brigitta have come to a crisis. I could sense it the very moment I expressed my doubts about the fresco. (Why in the world are these things so important, I ask myself ?). Our relationship had somehow changed, and I knew that it would be the same when we got back of England. And it is.
Concelebrating with her every Sunday is frankly a strain, knowing that she has doubts about me. I shall, I think, have to resign as NSM curate in the parish and concentrate on the Dome. Which is no bad thing as Y2K draws ever closer.
Who would have thought that a romp in the sun would have ended up like this? All so much heavier than those youthful days of sea, sand and Stavros! But I couldn’t be dishonest. I mean – that fresco, those tombstones! No rational person would accept them as evidence for anything! I know that Christians have a long history of believing the impossible, and that Jane Shaw wanders around Oxford telling innocent undergraduates that women priests were flavour of the month in the Early Church; but when you have looked at it, it just won’t stand up.
If I thought the credibility of my ministry depended on that load of fusty old relics I would go and sell toothpaste.
April Heavisides if the Archbishops’ chaplain to the Millennium Experience, a job which, until recently, she shared with Sr Immaculata, ISRL. She is a Canon of Southwark.