I Am the Word for God and Boy | Aidan Cottrell-Boyce | Granta

I Am the Word for God and Boy

Aidan Cottrell-Boyce

The night before the wedding we’re in a cafe on the corner of Elgin Avenue for dinner. Caroline takes out a piece of folded-up paper and smooths it out on the tabletop. She isn’t going to make a speech at the wedding, but she has written one anyway. In a parallel universe, she tells me, this is what she would say.

‘I’m just going to read it for you instead,’ she says.

Outside the sky is black and clear, and you can see the actual universe in the sky, and the lighting in the cafe is warm like a bead of amber. We are sitting in a cafe, on planet Earth, on the night before our wedding day.

‘Thank you especially to Pol,’ Caroline says, ‘for allowing me to dote on him.’

She folds up the piece of paper and puts it in the pocket of her overcoat, which is hanging on the back of her chair. She puts her hands on the table and interlaces her fingers and smiles. I tell her that she should make the speech at the wedding. She shakes her head.

‘All those people,’ she says. The radio in the cafe is playing ‘Sailing’ by Rod Stewart.

‘Don’t forget to call the sandwiches guy,’ she says.

 

She leaves and goes back to her parents’ house in Queen’s Park where her wedding dress is hanging on the back of her childhood bedroom door. I tell her that I am going back to my mother’s house but instead I walk up to the Heath, to the men’s pond. I jump over the gate and I walk down the path, past the toilets and the locked door to the changing area, past the lifeguard’s hut. The water is as black as ink. I clamber down the banks and slip off my trousers and boxers and I climb down the ladder into the water. The skin of the water is covered in small insects.

 

On the banks is a bald man, watching me. I plunge my hands down into the water and then I plunge my head down into the water, trying not to think about breathing. It’s fucking cold. At the bottom of the pond there is a glimmer of light, which gets bigger and bigger as I swim towards it.

 

There is a church glowing with blue sunlight. Everyone is standing in the narthex. Light pours through the stained-glass windows, pink and blue. A boy wearing blue and a girl wearing pink, who I don’t recognise, are running down the side aisle and their small smart shoes are clack-clacking on the loose parts of the herringbone floor. It’s a Victorian church, neo-Gothic, but the decor is beige and pastel. There are twentieth-century Stations of the Cross hanging on the walls and twentieth-century stained-glass windows. My sister Caoimhe is there, and Father Edward. Caoimhe’s current boyfriend is there too. I can see Caroline’s parents huddled together in a corner, trying not to make eye contact with any of my relatives. There are a few other people I don’t know: Caroline’s colleagues from school. Caroline’s American cousin is there with her husband. Father Edward is still wearing his civilian clothes: a pair of canvas slacks and a sky-blue, short-sleeved shirt. The only person wearing a hat is Caroline’s American cousin. Caoimhe is wearing a tartan shirt and a pair of high-waisted jeans. Caoimhe sidles up to me and she nudges me.

‘Nice suit,’ she says.

‘Thanks,’ I say.

‘Where’s Mum?’ she says.

‘She went to the bathroom,’ I say.

‘Where’s Caroline?’ she says.

I shrug.

‘Morning sickness?’ she says.

I look at her.

‘She isn’t pregnant,’ I say.

And Caoimhe grins.

 

Now I’m standing at the front of the church, before the altar. The altar linen is rough to the touch from being laundered and ironed too many times. The surface of the altar mantle rustles inaudibly against the ridges of my fingertip. My mother used to launder and iron these cloths. Sometimes Caoimhe or our neighbour, Mrs Evans, would help her. They would stand at the ironing board in the living room on Quex Road, ironing. The next day I would see the same cloths that had been in our living room on the altar. A breeze from the half-open door at the side of the church moving them, slightly. The incongruity would make my head swim.

 

The congregation rises. I know that Caroline is here now. I don’t look back. Instead I pray silently. Please allow me the strength not to desire to convince her that she is shrewish, I pray. Please allow me the strength not to desire to convince her that she is shrewish.

 

Later on, years later, Caroline will say that I looked so nervous, that I didn’t even look her in the eye, and I will ask well what is the implication of that and she will just say:

‘No implication. You just didn’t look me in the eye.’

 

At the back of the church a baby is lowing. I can hear a low hum coming from inside the priest’s chest. The battery pack for his microphone, hidden inside his alb, humming. His eyes are locked on Caroline’s. She is trying to remember the words. I can feel everybody looking at us: her American cousin and her American cousin’s husband.

 

You remember,’ her American cousin kept saying, over and over, prodding her husband, when we had lunch with them last week. ‘You do remember.’

 

Allow him man,’ Caoimhe will say to me later, after she has been forced to sit next to him for hours at the wedding breakfast. She is scornful of the shy. ‘Simply allow.’

‘Since when do you talk like that?’ I will say.

Allow him,’ Caoimhe will say, again.

 

I should be taking all of this in. I should be listening to the words. I pinch the outside of my thigh through the pocket of my wedding trousers with my finger and my thumb.

‘I, Pol,’ says the priest.

‘I, Pol,’ I reply.

 

My mother thought that it was contrarian of my father to want to call me Polonius. She agreed only on the condition that they would abbreviate it to Pol. But from the day that I was born, my mother started calling me Polly. When she first met my mother, Caroline took to calling me Polly too: firstly to mimic my mother and later on out of habit. They were the only two people in the world who called me that.

 

I still don’t know why he wanted to name me Polonius. I think he maybe just thought that it would help him to feel sorry for me. He found it difficult to feel sorry for people.

 

He was teaching English at a gymnasium in Frankfurt and finishing his doctoral studies when I was born. He was a Shakespeare man, an Anglophile. When he first met my mother he assumed that she was English. They were already in love before she told him that she wasn’t. She was Irish and shy and spry and younger than he was by a good ten years. She was studying at the art school, the Städelschule. She was studying to be a painter.

 

I find it hard to separate my own memories of him from anecdotes about him. Like trying to separate the sight that you have out of one eye from the sight that you have out of the other. He was a pissed-off man, my mother would say, later. He had little round spectacles that he wore even when he was nude. He went swimming in the sea, nude, even when there were other people around, even when we were in Ireland.

Téann an fuacht tríom,’ my mother would say, shivering, wrapped up in my father’s duffel, sitting on the huge boulders that had been brought down to the shore from the quarries by men who were trying to stop the sea from eroding the beach. When he came out of the sea and walked up the beach towards us there was a blue hue to his bald scalp.

 

Sometimes when I see him now, standing at the foot of my bed, I see him like that: nude and bald and blue.

 

We moved to Bournemouth when I was five. He got a job teaching German at the Weymouth College of Education, which, the year he joined, became part of Bournemouth Poly. He hated it. He didn’t want to teach German. He wanted to teach English. He just wanted to live in England so badly.

 

Sometimes I can feel his voice. Like a physical feeling inside my brain. But I can’t hear it. An irreducible thing. Like an itch that exists an inch below the skin. Like the very last thing that you can hear in a hearing test.

 

The priest is telling the congregation what is going to happen next. He points to the paschal candle. He points to the tabernacle. He gestures with an open palm to the little red Formica table beneath the apse where the wedding registry book lies open: a green braided tassel, a fore-edge painting of the wedding at Cana.

 

I can see that Caroline has crib notes written on her palm in blue ink. I did try to convince her that she wouldn’t need to do that. It isn’t a test, I told her. I reassured her that the priest would tell us what to do. He would coach us through the ceremony. There was no need to try to memorise any of it.

 

We’d gone for the marriage preparation programme a few weeks before. We missed the deadline and so we had to do an emergency one. I was expecting it to be like a job interview: a cold room and a stern-looking priest. I was worried about how Caroline would respond. I was relieved when I saw that it was a nice, soft, middle-aged Polish lady who was teaching the course.

 

On the way out of the building, after the three-hour course, the Polish lady asked us what we would be having for the readings at the ceremony, and I realised then that we hadn’t discussed it. I was worried that the woman would take this as an indication that we were not taking the sacrament seriously enough, that her question was a final, secret stumbling block. Instead she just smiled and put her hand on my elbow and told us that a traditional choice would be the story of the wedding at Cana.

 

I didn’t say this to the Polish woman, but actually I wanted to include a reading from Bartholomew Playfere’s prophecies, from notebook nine, sometimes referred to as ‘The Nightingale Notebook’ because of the marginalia: the little scribbled drawings of a nightingale that you can find on verso 20 and recto 25. Later on – when the notebooks were rediscovered and rebound and donated to the British Library – the designers included a gold inlaid design, a drawing of a nightingale, on the front cover.

‘Please tell me that you’re joking,’ Caroline said, when I suggested it. She pulled a sassy expression. She always goes to sassy as a precursor to real irritation.

 

To my face she said that it was nerdy, but to her friends she boasted about my obsession with Bartholomew Playfere.

‘He reads this stuff for pleasure mind you,’ she would say. ‘For pleasure! Imagínate amigo.’

She liked the idea that I was a savant. A member of an invisible empire of the unschooled learned. It intrigued her that I had done nothing by the book, because her parents had done everything by the book. They were doctors.

‘Do you think that you love knowledge?’ she asked me once. ‘I don’t think that I ever knew anyone who really loves knowledge the way that you seem to.’

Sometimes, before we were married, she would come over to my mother’s house and I would find her in my bedroom leafing through the densely scribbled exercise books that were piled on my desk.

 

Anyway, we chose the wedding feast at Cana instead.

 

Only now, sitting next to Caroline in the front pew, listening to Father Edward read the story of the wedding feast at Cana, do I remember sitting next to my father on my bed in the house in Bournemouth – the bedspread with the faded, primary-coloured shapes of dinosaurs on it – while he read from the story of the wedding feast at Cana, and how when he got to the word ‘steward’ and I asked him what a steward was he couldn’t tell me. Days later he told me that it was an attempted translation of an untranslatable ancient Greek word. A word that must have meant something to the evangelist but that does not mean much of anything to anyone any more. A word that might mean something like ‘chief partygoer’. Architríklinos.

‘You know who the Architríklinos is in this family?’

‘Who?’

‘You.’

 

He meant that I made him laugh. He lulled me into a false sense of security when he roared with laughter at the things that I said or did. Other times he would get angry. Once upon a time my father’s sister sent us a jar of raw honey that she had gathered from the beehives that sat behind her farmhouse in Lobbach on the outskirts of Heidelberg. There was a label on the jar, written in Gothic script, which said Akazienhonig aus der Pfalz. The honey was pungent. One day somebody left the lid off the jar of honey and by the time we got home from school the pungent aroma had filled the house. I walked into the kitchen and I told my father that the honey smelled like farts. He dragged me out into the garden and made me sit on the back step. I was crying. He told me that my conduct was vulgar. My conduct was intolerably vulgar, he said. I didn’t even know what he meant. And – even afterwards, even years later – I never understood why he had to take me outside to tell me this. It was as though the jar of honey was an honoured guest, as though he couldn’t make a scene in its presence.

 

I suspect he was just a little worked up, my mother said to me at the time, I suspect he was just feeling a little homesick.

 

Sometimes I didn’t understand what he meant. I didn’t understand, either, why the Gospel stories seemed to go straight from Jesus being born to Him being thirty. I didn’t understand why Christmas was only a few months before Easter. I didn’t understand why the statues of Mary seemed to be the same age when she was in the stable with the infant Jesus as when she was kneeling at the cross or holding His adult body in her arms. And then when my father read to me from Treasure Island, events that seemed to be weeks apart would all take place in the course of one evening. Events that all took place on the same day seemed to take place over multiple evenings. My father refused to believe that I didn’t understand that time is different in books. He accused me of being anally retentive. He turned the lights out early. He closed the bedroom door even though I asked him not to. I lay in the dark listening to the wind battering at the windows.

 

It was windy in Bournemouth.

Téann an fuacht tríom,’ my mother said, on the long walk home from the school. I hated that school. The children were all cruel there.

 

‘They aren’t cruel,’ Caoimhe said to my mother who cradled my head in her arms. ‘They don’t like him because he tells them that they’re all stupid and that he’s cleverer than them. That’s going to be the same wherever he goes to school.’

 

Caoimhe wanted to do a reading at the wedding and we were pleased about that until she told us, a few weeks before the wedding, that she had chosen to read a bit from one of my father’s poems. In the end we agreed to a compromise. She would read his favourite passage from St Matthew’s Gospel.

 

‘And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; how they toil not, and neither do they spin: and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’

 

She looks funny, standing up there, reading from the lectern – so solemn – wearing those denim trousers and that tartan shirt. The priest looks abashed. I can hear the rustle of Caroline’s American cousin’s bashful American husband’s polyester trousers as he crosses and uncrosses his legs. I don’t want to turn round. I don’t want to catch my mother’s gaze. I reach my hand down and I squeeze Caroline’s hand and she looks at me. I meet her gaze and then turn and catch the gaze of the Eugène de Mazenod statue, staring down at us from the altar. I try to visualise my mother’s face, her fixed smile.

 

‘Why would it upset her?’ Caoimhe had said, when she first proposed reading my father’s poem.

‘Why would it upset her?’ I had said.

‘What did he do wrong anyway?’ she had said. ‘What did he do to her that was so terrible in the final analysis? You tell me.’

 

He quizzed her. She would cry when he did.

 

He was generous but he hated to be asked for anything. That was the main issue. That was also why he always told my mother that she was demanding. It seemed to him, after all, that she was. He had always given her everything and she had always asked for more.

 

And even when he left he gave her all of his money: the house, the money, his books, everything. He walked out with just the clothes on his back. That was so she could never complain. It was what he had been doing all along. It was his masterpiece.

 

The day that he left we got straight on the train from Bournemouth to Holyhead. I was eight. The train was orange. The air was scalding. The seats were orange and red and brown and I was wearing my orange corduroy dungarees. My mother bought us cups of scalding orange-coloured tea from the buffet car. Somehow it was all comforting to me. I felt as though we had all been blown into the air by an explosion, and that we might just keep floating up and up into the universe, untethered by gravity. It was the gravity that I hated. The family felt like gravity to me at that age. It was 1985.

 

My grandfather’s house in Connemara was white, in a green field. The house smelt like mud and milk and bacon. I ran around outside in the field with the half-mad dog and the girl cousins.

 

‘If you fail to matriculate your son before March then he will sacrifice his place for the new term,’ said the headmaster’s secretary over the phone from Bournemouth. My granny didn’t understand. She called my mother over to the phone but my mother was already in a state of convalescence.

 

My grandfather lifted me up and threw me, weightless, into the air above Connemara. He laughed when he asked how old I was and I told him that I was eight. He didn’t believe me.

Is bréagadóir é!’ he shouted, everyone laughing, hooting, throwing me into the air. ‘Is bréagadóir é!

 

Artwork © Tim Garwood, Polyester Temple, 2016

Aidan Cottrell-Boyce

Aidan Cottrell-Boyce was born in Liverpool in 1987. He completed his PhD at the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge in 2018. During his doctoral studies he ran as a Parliamentary candidate for the Green Party. He is the author of two academic books: Jewish Christians in Puritan England (2020) and Israelism in Modern Britain (2021). His short fiction has appeared in The White Review and Granta. He currently works as a postdoctoral Research Fellow at St Mary's University in London.

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