The last thing one could say about Allister was that '' there goes a man with a sunny disposition.'' It might be kind to say so but it would be profoundly untrue.
The first time I met him was in a bar I frequented down near the docks town. It was a place I visited in those witching hours where the suffering solitary drinker seeks only isolation and quarantined seclusion. He was at the counter reading yesterdays paper. He had an old Gladstone bag at his feet which was tethered together with bailing twine . He was drinking Glenfiddish whiskey.
The bar was otherwise almost empty and we were two wandering souls drifting in that aimless pattern of the ever wary early afternoon drinker. We would have been content to sit apart had it not been for the dog which came along sniffing the bag,
Allister took a start and made a grab for his bag. He looked around the bar clutching the bag to his chest like a drowning man to a life buoy.
When he heard the owners dog call back his pet , Allister glared at the man with a withering contempt , and as he placed the bag again on the floor between his feet.
he looked at me saying with unnecessary volubility -
- If they insist i n bringing their animals into the bar ,- He paused and turned to me as if I were his support act before continuing
- the least they could do is to keep them on a leash.''-
He had a Scottish accent and his rebuke carried the Puritanism of
his race's chosen creed . The look of a Mr Wesley or a Mr Calvin
, I thought Idly
I looked at the owner who in my detached view ought to be the one on the leash , as he returned Allister 's glare with a threatening and commensurate contemptuous grimace. The facial duel lasted a few more deliberate second than was necessary on either's behalf . They would not become bosom brothers these two , I thought .
Afternoon drinkers are loners . They treasure their privacy. Quick to anger but equally quick to retire behind the ramparts of their own solitude ; they retreat inside their shells like snails , and so the incident passed .
But the little interlude opened for us a passage of communications which is deep and dark and cavernous with drinkers like us . We distain any commitment or intimacy as a vampire distains sunlight ; We are both creatures of the dark.
-we fell into idle conversation about animals in general , as he put aside the paper. And within minutes we were discussing graves . How we had arrived so speedily at this particular topic I don't properly recall. But while there is never any orthodox sequence to how such conversations develop this one did surprised me .
I tried to steer the conversation idly this way and then that ,which usually worked with a drinker for they have little really to say if they are determined about their imbibing. Any idle chatter will suffice until when the alcohol settles the fringes of the frayed nerves and the conversation can become a little more coherent, before it deteriorates into passionately expressed nonsense some hours later.
So we had discussed among other things a ship which had docked recently in the port. It was a magnificent yacht . Registered in the Caymen Islands . She was a schooner of about 80 feet in length , and her three masts stood as high as the nearby steeple of St Joseph's chapel .
But soon we were back on graves
Allister it transpired had been enquiring about the costs of plots in a few graveyards around. One was reasonable , but too far away from town, another was nice, good view and in a pleasant neighbourhood but was outrageously overpriced.
- Monstrous ! - he expostulated. - Monstrous indeed .I I thought was a peculiar apt remark in the circumstances . But why I wondered did he wish to be interred , if I understood him correctly ,- to be interred in Galway.
- Oh , Scotland .. Scotland .. I'm never going back there Never !!. Did you ever live in Glascow ?
- No -I confessed
-or Edinborough ?
- Well the Isles are nice .. Mull of Kintyre .. Up along there to Skye .. That's nice, Aye nice ! ..or nice-ish ..but No . I have no one in Scotland now.No one I want to remember me ..Fare well Bonnt Scotland !!- he toasted himself , with a little revulsion I thought .
- No family ? - I enquired
The man looked at me sideways . I understood immediately I had crossed that threshold that a drinker considers out of bounds . People differ , but by his hesitancy coupled with that slightly hectoring look I knew that erred
- Family.. Family !!
His jaws tightened . I had hit a discordant note.
- Let me put it like this- he said.
- None that I ever want to lay eyes on ever again.- Which in all honesty be the case anyway as he would be dead , but be that as it may .You can see why I was disinclined to describe Allister as having that sunny disposition. His disposition seemed to me singularly focused . Morbid.- would not be to overstate it .
I should describe Allister a little more at this point .He was a small wizen little man. He was partly bald but combed his straw coloured hair from extreme right to extreme left ; the long strands covering the white blotches in between and these clung to his thin scalp with athick hair oil. He was dressed in a shabby rain coat but his tartan coloured waist coat struck you. He had a pocket watch . Or at least a chain slung daintily from his button hole. And this distracted you from the overall dissolute appearance he projected.
In fact looking at him from my perspective he looked quite dapper - if you overlooked the shabby overcoat . He had small eyes which were magnified behind thick glasses such that when he took them off he looked on as if one in total bewilderment . Like a person coming out of a cinema into the broad daylight , still trying to figure the last twist to the plot and finding himself in the midst of a blaring traffic jam.
So for some time Allister had drifted in and out of our company. He always carried his Gladstone with a kind of unnatural covetousness, a sort of rabid protection. We all wondered what he carried in it. ? Money . Clothes .. ?? How did he get by from day to day . Did he have a bank account ? These were the mysteries concerning Allister, though as time went on , no one really was that surprised what he carried in the bag or how he managed his affairs. He was accepted as an eccentric - a begruging and a niggardly one at that .
It was shortly after this that he disclosed to me rather confidentially why he always carried his Gladstone bag so close to his person
- it's the Land lady ,- she spies on me - The old sow ! he said his eyes narrowed and his face grim.
- I know it.. She goes through my things so I foxed her .. I take them with me now.
He started to chuckle , shaking his head
- Stupid old cow..!-
- Why on earth would she want to do that -- I asked
Again his face grew grim and fixed and his eyebrows rose above the rims of his glasses in a display of surmise
- How would I know.. She's a bloody busy body. The old hag !
I asked him why on earth he didn't move out .
-. No No , he had her where he wanted her now . She couldn't throw him out because of a rental agreement , and she despised him now as much as he did her. Allister was going to stay on despite her. He hated her in return for her bizarre failings and by god but she would she pay for spying on him.
His personal discomfiture with this arrangement didn't seem to matter. The fact that he was exacting revenge seemed to trump all else,
- Allister , does this make sense - I asked him in an exasperation I had reserved till now.
Och Yes !!..Oh ho Aye !?? He said pointing to his bag
So there it was . He carried all his earthly belongings in his Gladstone bag.
I was a little uncomfortable following this revelation , but when we met again he was to return to the matter of graves
- I have made enquires -he told me
- I went to the anatomy room in the university , and they are considering my offer- he said , regarding me keenly .
- Which offer ?
- Well , you're a medical man ... I mean if I dedicate my body to science they'll bury me !
He drank his Glenfiddish with obvious satisfaction and betrayed a hint of a smile , but only a hint and only fleetingly .
- Well, That's true said and looked at this odd man squarely. This seemed a little unsettling if not unbalanced me
- Aye .. Aye ! They have to. See , I don't have to worry about any grave if they accept me!- he seemed gleeful at this little triumph
-I see- I said as evenly as I might.
- Well if they bury me. ?- My problem solved . . Then his narrow eyes narrowed to the tightest squint as he asked-
.Surely you've dissected corpses ..?
- Yes - I had , But I had never spoken to one beforehand , so to speak . It seemed unseemly somehow. But Allister continued unperturbed..
- And they have to see to it to it that they are buried properly. With every respect ... All the regalia .. that's what they tell me ..
- Allister , I don't like this conversation . Could we skip it do you think ?
He smiled and looked quite smug that he had discomfited me so.
After that I began to think of him as more cadaverous than before. His appearance seemed more macabre somehow and I couldn't avoid the haunting thought of him lying on the cold marble dissection table and whenever the image assailed me he was wearing his glasses . In one hideous dream I had at the time Allister appeared lying on the marble slab, when just as the students drew back the tarpaulin cover , Allister smiled and raised a glass of Glenfiddish and toasted their health
It seemed more and more gruesome to me somehow to be sitting beside a man who had bequeathed his remains to the anatomy room .Perhaps it shouldn't , but it did
So he seemed to just walk around the town waiting to die . He had no other purpose in life other than exacting his petty revenge on his snooping landlady . He seemed to have some money but where he kept it I never quite fathomed . He distrusted
banks among almost every profession and service, with the possible exception of the mortuary room staff . He particularly disliked laundries. He'd once lost a fiver in his trouser pocket when he unwittingly sent it to the dry cleaners. I think he tried to sue them but abandoned the folly. Maybe this was why he had reconciled himself to placing them in a special place for his particular nemesis .- the loathed landlady .
How he managed to get a trousers dry cleaned puzzled me as he always wore the same trousers . He could scarcely carry a wardrobe about in his precious bag.And I couldn't somehow see him like the guy in the Levi's commercial who disrobes in front of some very merry old ladies . No . , you couldn't picture Allister like that somehow. He had neither the physique nor the presence . In fact he lacked these characteristics in a substantial way so to speak.
I hadn't seen him for some time and frequently wondered in a macabre way if he'd had his wish and was now in a formalin tank somewhere.
But Allister was in good health . His sparse frame , like a little clock took little to run it and he didn't seem to have any medical problems . He would have been in his mid sixties at this time .
The next time I met him he had become more sombre than solemn. There is a difference . He had made arrangements for his burial; but now his funeral was preoccupying him. He'd gone to the Protestant church but had an altercation with the pastor over some irregularity between the church of Scotland and COI. The meeting had not been businesslike . Alister told the man he was unfit to be a preacher and had stormed. Out of the rectory .Not the way to arrange ones obsequies I suggested
- No ! said Allister- and he began to chuckle to himself before adding
-Anyway it was all about money with that man,..He was a miserly old git.. that's all that concerned that old bird.. The money ..-
It would have been I thought but he continued.
-So , I gave him a piece of my mind I did and left him thinking for himself. Then I went along to one of your boys . Oh ! They were entirely different .. Different disposition entirely .Ohh Aye !! I went to a few of them. The Benedictines the Domiicans .. And eventually to the Jesuits.
- Ahha !! my boys - I said
- The Jesuits .. They taught me
Ahh!! Now were they indeed . Interesting . They were the most professional . They are run their order like an army . I like that . Did you know their leader is the vicar general.
- Something like that . St Ignatius was a a soldier alright and as for my school , well you could have said they ran it like an army. Boot camp ,but we survived ,- I said bringing a little levity to the conversation , but in vain.
- They were founded to reform the Roman churches defence during the counter reformation .To put down the heretics. All the schisms that were forming ..and they ended the simony . That was badly needed in the Roman Church. It had become so corrupt with patronages from the wealthy Roman families that the pope was selling indulgences for hard cash. Hard cash !! That was what they called '' Simony '' And telling the wealthy they'd get into heaven that way,
- You seem to have studied it quite a bit - I said
- Oh I had to man . !! Had to . The Jesuits wont bury you unless you convert to Catholicism.!
- And have you ?
- I've not finished the process but I'm well on my way- he rubbed his hands .Again gleefully as if he was somehow thwarting all obstacles he saw in the way of his mission.
Life was going well for him. He had made his burial arrangements and now his funeral . All that remained to make his life complete was for him to die. I said as much
- Ahhh !! Ha !! Well you may laugh .. See who comes out smiling the other end - he chuckled .
Some months had passed before I met him again
He had somehow lost his persecuted look . You missed the otherworld black presence he had carried with him like a priest his stole . There seemed to be something less hunted about him . And I hadn't noticed what exactly made this transformation until I noticed that he hadn't with him his Gladstone bag .He seemed somehow undressed and homeless without it . I cant convey it properly , but he seemed as if like a boat , he'd been set adrift from his mooring.
But he looked less sparse . His eyes seemed les scrutinous and suspicious behind the glassed and his demeanour seemed less furtive.
I remarked that we'd missed him
Och Aye - ! yes . I've been to the Holy City
- You've been to Rome ?
- Is there any other - he smiled broadly . This wasn't Allister .
I was taken aback at the fact that this man who made a virtue out of his frugality would have been be so extravagant
- Och yes . I had to go to Rome .- he settled in and began to relate how his teaching with the Jesuits had made him think about idolatry ,and how the priest had told him about the manner in which Catholics used to worship statues, and some still did. They had misread the message
The statuary only represented the image of Christ or the saint. That was the difference. He'd learned of the classical expression on catholic art after the dark ages ; The post Reformation period seemed to have driven his curiosity . He'd decided to go to Rome.
- It was an opportunity of a life time - I had to go. I went to the various cathedrals . I was a bit disappointed in St Peters. It's not that big really. But it was the statues got my attention.
He took out a photo and held it to his chest like a man with a full house in poker.
- My favourite - he had a grin which had lost all its sardonic twist. It was more impish and didn't seem to fit his countenance .He handed me the photograph.
I recognised it as Bernini's statue of St Therese . There was a lot of controversy about the expression depicted in the open mouth. Some suggested a woman in the raptures of an orgasm . Others held that her description of spears of fire being penetrating her entrails in an act while brutal and savage had left her with a yearning for more . This did it for most people , who held with the orgasm theory . Others , more devout held it was the expression of a mortal who had witnessed the presence of God , and in this regard you had to hand it to the people who having a foot in both camps held that the orgasm was human sensing the divine .
But Allister had a different attitude
- I was fascinated by that statue, no matter where I went the Coliseum ; the Forum. Vatican Libraries and museums and even the Sistine chapel ..I always kept coming back to her …- he took the picture back and began gazing again at it in wonder
- Isn't it beautiful !!- he looked adoringly at the picture , a new radiance about him now.
This was not Allister .! The man on the mortuary slab with the glass of Glenfiddish ?
He looked at me and I could see that he had indeed changed and changed vastly .There was a strange wideness to his eyes as if he'd just seen a mirage .Then suddenly his eyes narrowed as before in the shrewdness of his race . He dropped his voice
-Do you think you can be moved by a statue ? - he said in almost a whisper.
- I do . That is the artists intention surely
-Ahhch No!! I mean more moved than that….like moved- he gave me a what I thought was a conspiratorial wink. What on earth did he mean.?
- Like how ?- I asked my curiosity aroused .
- Well .. He began slowly and that look between bewilderment and bemusement again rippled over his features in both a disturbing and perplexing manner..
- Is it his intention to project his image in a sensual way.- his looked turned to one of coy slyness.
I looked at the picture again. I'd seen the statue myself . I could see the old priapic cardinals mulling over endlessly in the Vatican. Nothing like a horney old clergyman to bring out the learned theologians to the Holy See. More horney old guys I reflected . But I would concede that Jesuits while Jesuitical afforded much more licence to artistic expression than they are accredited with . Was this work was one of the adulating genius or one of the classical pornographer or indeed is there a difference between pornography and art at certain levels ?
It had been debated many times Should it should be for public consumption or not ? There was something exotically sensual in that languid neck and open mouth. It seemed to surrender to the viewer with a strange abandonment all her sensual allure ; A sort of erotic invitationof body and soul to the viewer.
Allister continued in a distracted manner . At times his tone of voice had changed so much as to suggest if he were reciting some strange ritualistic chant.
He continued ;
- I thought about her a lot . Then I started reading about her . I read everything I could about her . I returned to the statue every day. I couldn't get it out of my head Iits utter beauty , its simplicity.. Completely void of any impurity..
Allister seemed to drift off into his own reverie , and it began to dawn on me with a quite suddenly with a revulsion . Could it be that he was in love with the statue.? This man who was just some months ago was fixated by his own funeral and burial was now in love with a piece of stone ? But his reverie was short lived and now he interrupted mine .
He went on.
- I searched everywhere for her manifestation.. She was alive in all women .. But I wanted to devote myself to the one woman who represented her most..
I had recovered to some degree.
- Your Mother I suppose.- I suggested , quite frivolously I admit
He looked at me angrily at first then shook his head as if dissipating all folly of wrath .
He smiled a little pitifully at me
- No No !! You'll not get me going like that .. No No..- his sad and rueful smile faded o and he gazed at me with a pained contemplative look .
-So - I said after some time -- Did You find her. ?
Yes .. Yes I did .. And not where I expected .. Never would have expected it …
He began slowly. He did not appear to be seized of an issue of perhaps supreme importance ; but some propitious moment nonetheless.
It appears he'd had a particularly acrimonious dispute with his land lady that morning. It had something to do with her snooping about in his room again. He accused her of one thing and another ; she retaliated that he was a mean bigoted Scotsman . It deteriorated into a screaming match. He was sure the neighbours could hear and he checked himself. He left the room and as he was going out her heard her collapse . He went back into the room to find her in a full-fledged paroxysm.
She was gripped in a tremendous spasm ; uncontrolled; her mouth agape and spittle drooling from her mouth. Then suddenly her daughter who was a daily visitor came in ,. she applied some ministrations and ordered him call a doctor .
The doctor arrived very quickly and then an ambulance followed. As she was being carried out in a stretcher he saw that she was unconscious .-
Allister continued on as if in a dream like trance ;
- Her head was sort of lolling to one side , and her mouth open .Not drooling now , but still and white ; like a statue . And it struck me immediately . This was her ..
There was an ecstatic beauty in that face , and immediately I saw and forgave everything… she was St Therese ..so like the Berlini statue that I was helpless.. I was reminded of St Paul and his experience on the Road to Damascus … Ohh God..! it was a powerful feeling . I stayed up all that night paying . I beseeched the Lord to spare her .And in the morning I visited her in the hospital the following day. I brought her flowers . . I had lost all other preoccupations . I even left my bag behind .
When I saw her languid figure on the bed she looked so composed . She 'd been tranquilised I suppose. It was epilepsy. A bad attack . She was on medication as a child but had not needed medication for years.
I knew I was responsible for the attack. But I also knew that it was more than an attack. It was her conversion.. Like mine . A violent exposition ..I knew by that look ; her open mouthed expression .. I knew she was the one I'd been looking for . Of all people .
And that was how it came about that Allisters redemption was consummated . He later married the woman he'd spent so much energy hating and spent his time now in her complete devotion.
Allister had been a man of considerable wealth. He had inherited a boat yard in Glasgow .
He had recently had his own yacht built and had it sailed over to Galway.
The l only time I laid eyes on his land lady I had formed a picture of this gummy old harridan and the impression was as fixed in my mind as the picture of Allister -on-the-slab had been .She turned out to be a demure soft spoken lady. A jolly type . They sat apart from us now in rapturous enthral to one another.
Allister kept her away from our company as if we could contaminate her in some way . He did invite me down to see his yacht when she arrived . She was a clipper built in the traditional style .She had all the navigational electronics ; GPS ; and various motorised devices for hauling sails .We went for an afternoon trip around the bay. She was a dream to handle , and I was surprised at Allister's dexterity and his boatmanship. I never associated him with the outside world - not even the living world .
He seemed to have acquired an agility which I would have never attributed to him.
The last time we met , in a snatched moment of conversation I had with him as he was ordering drinks he told me they were just waiting for the doctors all-clear .
Lilly - that was his new wife's name - I feel I have to say 'new wife ' in order to suppress image I still have of this witch scouring through his possessions -as soon as Lilly was well enough , God bless her little heart , Allister told me , they were going to sail from Galway right up to the Isle of Skye .
The doctors had told him she needed constant care but if he was prepared to devote himself to ensuring that she took her medications as prescribed there was no reason why she wouldn't be able for the trip.
And what joy it gave him , he told me .What new meaning it had given his life to be entrusted with the care of this saint.
What a privilege is was to devote his life to his own saint. He could of nothing more sublime .