Laps of Honour
Pipe of Peace
The Grace of God
Can't Help it
THE GRACE OF GOD IS IN COURTESY
CK was my father’s friend. A bachelor with a baby Ford car, he took us to the seaside once when our mother was ill. It must have been early May because my sister Hanora insisted on a wayside stop to pick lilies, which turned out to be pismires (they were dead before we reached the beach). While we frolicked in the sea, he sat in his hat and overcoat on a rock, looking mildly at the sky. CK was so thin that he could pass through the eye of needle.
As I shivered myself warm again in a large towel, he was reassuring my sister. ‘Pismires are lilies that are not meant to be picked. No harm done. You saved a cow from bellyache.’ And added, as to himself, ‘Learning by your mistakes is the opposite of being punished’. I pocketed the idea like a seashell, taking it out from time to time to put to my ear.
CK regarded the world with a humorous respect. A Franciscan was sunning himself beside some women of a certain age.
‘That monk has three wives’, my younger brother said.
‘No, Michael, the three wives have Father Fergus, and by the girdle.’
‘Funny place to hear confessions’, Michael responded.
‘No, Father Fergus is a psychologist.’
‘What is that?’
‘Someone who makes people feel good about themselves.’
‘I met CK today’ was a refrain that went through my childhood. He came into our lives by serendipity rather than design. I can’t remember him visiting, or entertaining. When I was out on a walk with my father, the baby Ford appeared from nowhere and CK stuck his head out. That’s how they met, by chance. I sat on the bonnet while they talked, sucking a bar of barley sugar from the glove compartment. As I grew bigger I stood with the men.
I can’t recall any of the conversations. It was not because of the ‘lazy mind’ I was said to have at school. In their company I found it stirred itself. They spoke in generalisations, not stories or jokes like most people. It was like a game of tennis, with questions as the ball and me as the net. They played across me, but measured what they said to my height.
As I grew older and understood the rules better, I learned to appreciate their approach. They both played a baseline game, only coming to the net to shake hands at the end and pat my head. Since they did not keep a score, this happened when their rallies began to lose their edge, or came to a natural conclusion as the ball lost its spin and it was time to move on.
It was my introduction to the world of ideas. Hitherto I had lived in the cathedral of dogma which teachers, priests and family life reinforced with parables. This brave new one was in the open air, where walls were not to confine but to climb over. It was a world where questions came before answers. The opposite of the rhetorical ones adults usually asked. The ear was always inclined, expecting a response.
Their approach differed. CK, the law lecturer, offered a statement based on the evidence and asked you to draw your own conclusions. My father, the Socratic philosopher, questioned you gently until, with prompting, you found yourself contributing to a larger view which accorded with his. Both had minds so clear that ideas stood out like the imprint of a negative, and neither subscribed to the popular view that there was a simple explanation for everything. I benefited less than I ought to, as I was so pleased to be included I took in the spectacle of the ceremony more than its underlying meaning, the ball flying over my head.
Maybe I sensed the pleasure they found in each other’s company, and responded in kind. Together CK and my father shared a quizzical lightness. The eternal questions floating between them, not so much as to be grasped like straws than to be aired like my mother’s linen sheets. My father was a different man from the patient presence I knew from table talk when other professors visited, when his logic with ideas was sure as eggs, but slow boiled. Now he was quick on his feet, almost frivolous.
‘On a clear day you can see for yourself’, he said to CK when the clouds were down.
‘Are you sure it’s not for ever?’ And they both laughed.
As a college student I found my own dogmas, which made me question my elders. I judged them rhetorically. CK’s self-effacingness I considered to be due to an avoidance of confrontation. After all, he did not swim and never married. My father, I decided, took everything too personally, sweating blood at the state of the world. His letters to the papers changed nothing, except my standing with my peers. Moreover, he was careful not to get his mane of white hair wet when swimming. My verdict was that CK was weak and my father vain. Judgments that I forgot about when I saw them together. Though they carried a left-handed compliment. I endowed CK and my father with my own salient attributes, as accorded by my sister.
I was particularly proud of my father when he talked to the men who worked the dredger on the river. Plato was not far from his mind, and the benign Greek Tyrant who disguised himself to sit by the well in order to listen to the servant women’s banter (‘Goodly conversation is more likely to be heard where water is being drawn than in the dry confines of a symposium’). He spoke simply, drawing the men out with questions on matters that were important to them. Like fishing rights and property developers.
For the men, it was a privilege to be heard by The Professor and the colloquy expanded on to emigration, which affected their families. They were more intelligent, he said, than some of his university colleagues. When writing a monograph on nuclear power, he consulted them on its waste disposal (that may have been my mother’s joke). These conversations gave him hope for mankind.
‘CK’s house is an oasis’, my mother said after calling on him when he fell sick. I did not consider to ask where the desert was. It would not have occurred to me that the green fields of my childhood were a mirage, or the analogy of one for the elders around me. I felt no need to escape from the present.
CK’s cottage faced the river where it opened out into the estuary. The ocean beyond expressed itself in tides that tantalised my life. Only at a spring tide could you bathe there without sharing it with the city sewerage. That happened once or twice a year. It was like dipping your foot in eternity. The mud under you giving way as you swam for life, avoiding the currents that would sweep you out.
The garden was allowed to grow wild, but CK’s weeds were restraining. Dwarf mallow clung to a mossy lawn which did not need mowing. It was as though at night he let sheep in to graze. Frugality kept his house in order. During his final illness we visited him and the biscuit tin was never empty. His good humour was unfailing. It was as though we were dying, not him. My mother said, ‘If everybody was like CK it would be a better world’.
After his death the College Bursar told my father CK's salary hadn’t changed in thirty years. Nobody had noticed and he had not thought to ask. His advice to the poor of the city on legal matters was common knowledge in the slums. When my mother was helping to clear out his house, she came across a file of the hundreds of cases he saw through the courts. Though he never appeared personally, young barristers finding their feet were well briefed (and paid out of CK’s pocket). Even if the outcome was not in their favour, I like to think they didn’t feel punished.
On the seaside trip CK gave us little oranges from Seville, the blood of the martyrs as they are called. Sweet as sweets, but they did not leave the dry aftertaste of bulls’ eyes. I remember you could see yourself in the shine of his black box car when you polished it on bob-a-job day. Above all, I recall his courteous manners. It was as though he wore invisible gloves. No fingerprints on the dashboard, and when he shook hands his touch graced yours. You felt anointed.
Not that there was any piousity in him. He regarded himself with a grain of salt. The evening after he died, my father read us a poem by Hilaire Belloc with the refrain ‘The Grace of God is in Courtesy’, and I, for one, believed it, though at the time I wasn’t so sure about God.