Fludd

( 3 )

Overview

One dark and stormy night in 1956, a stranger named Fludd mysteriously turns up in the dismal village of Fetherhoughton. He is the curate sent by the bishop to assist Father Angwin-or is he? In the most unlikely of places, a superstitious town that understands little of romance or sentimentality, where bad blood between neighbors is ancient and impenetrable, miracles begin to bloom. No matter how copiously Father Angwin drinks while he confesses his broken faith, the level of the bottle does not drop. Although ...

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Fludd: A Novel

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Overview

One dark and stormy night in 1956, a stranger named Fludd mysteriously turns up in the dismal village of Fetherhoughton. He is the curate sent by the bishop to assist Father Angwin-or is he? In the most unlikely of places, a superstitious town that understands little of romance or sentimentality, where bad blood between neighbors is ancient and impenetrable, miracles begin to bloom. No matter how copiously Father Angwin drinks while he confesses his broken faith, the level of the bottle does not drop. Although Fludd does not appear to be eating, the food on his plate disappears. Fludd becomes lover, gravedigger, and savior, transforming his dull office into a golden regency of decision, unashamed sensation, and unprecedented action. Knitting together the miraculous and the mundane, the dreadful and the ludicrous, Fludd is a tale of alchemy and transformation told with astonishing art, insight, humor, and wit.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Hilary Mantel's wildly inventive novel about a reincarnated alchemist and an imaginary village in England in the fifties is "in every sense a magical book" —Listener, England

"Fludd...establishes [Mantel] in the front rank of novelists writing in English today."—The Guardian (London))

Patricia T. O'Connor
Admirers of Mantel's seven other novels will recognize the familiar terrain: a vague crisis takes shape and things start going awry. . . . Mantel manages to make us laugh even as our hair stands on end . . . The writing is mordant, pitiless, razor-sharp.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A mysterious curate arrives one dark and stormy night to succor the populace—in this dryly comic tale by British novelist Mantel (The Giant, O'Brien, 1998, etc.). First published in England in 1989, Fludd takes place in Fetherhoughton, a sorry post-industrial town on the moors where petty animosities and pervasive ill-humor hold sway. Father Angwin, the priest, is a decent man, though by 1956 he's long since given up believing in God and goes through the motions of his office only in hopes that his congregation may still benefit. His bishop's request that all the statues of saints be removed from Angwin's church results in a crisis, which the priest ineffectively resolves by burying the figures. He then settles deeper into his despair, but a knock on his door, which opens to reveal the sodden and peculiar figure of Fludd, also reveals a way to his redemption. Fludd has a strange effect on everyone he meets: Angwin, who immediately confesses the whole of his disbelief, feels a load lifted, which enables him to act decisively; the priest's spinster housekeeper, Agnes Dempsey, finds a warmth spreading through her that makes her hopeful once again; and when Fludd reads the palm of the town convent's youngest member, Irish Sister Philomena, she awakens to new possibilities in life—possibilities that she'd never dared dream of. But along with his quiet miracles, Fludd brings a hefty measure of unease, since no one can remember exactly what he looks like when he's not around, and he seems to eat and drink without actually chewing or swallowing. At the close, he performs the one act that will set them all free, and then, like the true conjurer he is, has afinaltrick up his sleeve just for Sister Philomena. Witty, offbeat, insightful regarding the trials of Catholicism without bogging down in dogma: a lightly weighted but charming vision of alchemy's noblest endeavors.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805062731
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1 OWL BOOK
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 621,113
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Hilary Mantel is the bestselling author of many novels including Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Bring Up the Bodies, Book Two of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, was also awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award. She is also the author of A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, An Experiment in Love, The Giant, O'Brien, Fludd, Beyond Black, Every Day Is Mother's Day, and Vacant Possession. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Mantel was the winner of the Hawthornden Prize, and her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England with her husband.

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Read an Excerpt

 

ONE

On Wednesday the bishop came in person. He was a modern prelate, brisk and plump in his rimless glasses, and he liked nothing better than to tear around the diocese in his big black car.

He had taken the precaution—advisable in the circumstances—of announcing himself two hours before his arrival. The telephone bell, ringing in the hall of the parish priest’s house, had in itself a muted ecclesiastical tone. Miss Dempsey heard it as she was coming from the kitchen. She stood looking at the telephone for a moment, and then approached it gingerly, walking on the balls of her feet. She lifted the receiver as if it were hot. Her head on one side, holding the earpiece well away from her cheek, she listened to the message given by the bishop’s secretary. “Yes My Lord,” she murmured, though in retrospect she knew that the secretary did not merit this. “The bishop and his sycophants,” Father Angwin always said; Miss Dempsey supposed they were a kind of deacon. Holding the receiver in her fingertips, she replaced it with great care. She stood in the dim passageway, for a moment, thinking, and bowed her head momentarily, as if she had heard the Holy Name of Jesus. Then she went to the foot of the stairs and bellowed up them: “Father Angwin, Father Angwin, get yourself up and dressed, the bishop will be upon us before eleven o’clock.”

Miss Dempsey went back into the kitchen, and switched on the electric light. It was not a morning when the light made a great deal of difference; the summer, a thick grey blanket, had pinned itself to the windows. Miss Dempsey heard the incessant drip, drip, drip from the branches and leaves outside, and a more urgent metallic drip, pit-pat, pit-pat; it was the guttering. Her figure moved, the electric light behind it, over the dull green wall; immense hands floated towards the kettle; as in a thick sea, her limbs swam for the range. Upstairs, the priest beat his shoe along the floor and pretended to be coming.

Ten minutes later he had got himself up; she heard the creak of the floorboards above, the gurgle of water from the washbasin, his feet on the stairs. He sighed as he came down the hallway, his solitary morning sigh. Suddenly he was behind her, hovering: “Agnes, have you something for my stomach?”

“I daresay,” she said. He knew where the salts were kept; but she must get it for him, as if she were his mother. “Were there many at seven o’clock Mass?”

“It’s funny you should ask,” Father said, just as if she did not ask it every morning. “There were a few old Children of Mary, along with the usual derelicts. It wouldn’t be some special feast of theirs, would it? Walpurgisnacht?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Father. I’m a Children of Mary myself, as you perfectly well know, and I’ve not heard of anything.” She looked aggrieved. “Were they wearing their cloaks and all?”

“No, they were in mufti, just their usual horseblankets.”

Miss Dempsey brought the teapot to the table. “You ought not to make mock of the Sodalities, Father.”

“I wonder if something has got out about the bishop coming? Some intelligence of a subterranean variety? Am I to have bacon, Agnes?”

“Not with your stomach in its present state.”

Miss Dempsey poured from the pot, a thick brown gurgling stream, adding to the noise: the dripping trees, the wind in the chimneys.

“And another thing,” he said. “McEvoy was there.” Father Angwin hunched himself over the table. He warmed his hands around his cup. When he said the name of McEvoy, a shadow crossed his face, and hovered about his jaw, so that Miss Dempsey, who was given to imagination, thought for a moment she had seen what he would look like when he was eighty years old.

“Oh yes,” she said, “and did he want something?”

“No.”

“I wonder why you mention him then?”

“Dear Agnes, give me some peace. Go and let me compose myself for His Corpulence. What does he want, do you think? What’s he after this time?”

Agnes went out, a duster in her hand, her face full of complaints. Whatever he had meant about subterranean intelligence, surely he was not accusing her? Nobody but the bishop himself, forming the intention in his deep heart, had known he meant to visit—except perhaps the sycophants might have known. Therefore she, Miss Dempsey, could not know, therefore she could not hint, divulge, reveal, to the Children of Mary or anyone else in the parish. Had she known, she might have mentioned it. Might—if she had thought that anyone needed to know. She herself was the judge of what anyone needed to know. For Miss Dempsey occupied a special mediatory position, between church, convent, and everyone else. To acquire information was her positive duty, and then what she did with it was a matter for her judgement and experience. Miss Dempsey would have eavesdropped on the confessional, if she could; she had often wondered how she might manage it.

Left at the breakfast table, Father Angwin stared into his teacup and shifted it about. Miss Dempsey had not mastered the use of a strainer. Nothing in particular could be seen in the leaves, but for a moment Father Angwin thought that someone had come into the room behind him. He lifted his face, as he did in conversation, but there was no one there. “Come in, whoever you are,” he said. “Have some stewed tea.” Father Angwin was a foxy man, with his deadleaf-colour eyes and hair; head tilted, he sniffed the wind, and shied away from what he detected. Somewhere else in the house, a door slammed.

Consider Agnes Dempsey: duster in hand, whisking it over the dustless bureau. In recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box. Her neck too fell in floury, scalloped folds, to where her clothing cut off the view. Her eyes were round, child-like, bright blue, their air of surprise compounded by her invisible eyebrows and her hair, a faded gold streaked with grey, which sprang up from her hairline as if crackling with static. She had pleated skirts, and short bottle-shaped legs, and pastel twin-sets to cover the gentle twin hummocks of her bosom. Her mouth was small and pale and indiscernible, made to ingest the food she liked: Eccles cakes, vanilla slices, miniature chocolate Swiss rolls that came wrapped in red-and-silver foil. It was her habit to peel off the foil carefully, fold it as thin as a pencil, twist it into a ring, and pop it on her wedding finger. Then she would hold out both hands—fingers bloodless and slightly bent by incipient arthritis—and appraise them, a frown of concentration appearing as a single vertical line at the inner corner of her left eyebrow. Then she would rest her hand on her knee for a little; then remove the ring, intact, and throw it on to the fire. This was Miss Dempsey’s private habit, which no one had ever seen. Above her upper lip, on the right-hand side, she had a small flat wart, colourless as her mouth itself. It was hard for her not to touch it. She was afraid of cancer.

By the time the bishop came bustling in, Father Angwin had got over his hangover. He sat in the parlour, with his neat ingratiating smile. “Father Angwin, Father Angwin,” the bishop said, crossing the room, and taking him in a grip; hand squeezing upper arm, hand pumping hand, quite beside himself with joviality, and yet those episcopal bifocals glinting and swimming with suspicion, and the episcopal head turning, turning from side to side, like a mechanical toy that you shoot for at a fair.

“Tea,” Father Angwin said.

“No time for tea,” said the bishop. He took up a stance on the hearthrug. “I’ve come to talk to you on the subject of uniting all right-thinking people in the family of God,” he said. “Now then, now then, Father Angwin. I’m expecting trouble from you.”

“Are you going to sit, or what?” Father Angwin asked him diffidently.

The bishop clasped his pink hands before him. He looked severely at the priest, and swayed a little on the spot. “The next decade, Father Angwin, is the decade of unity. The decade of gathering-in. The decade of Christ’s human family. The decade of the Christian community in communion with itself.” Agnes Dempsey came in with a tray. “Oh, since you’ve brought it,” the bishop said.

When Miss Dempsey had left the room—her knees had become stiff, owing to the wet weather, and she was obliged to take her time—Father Angwin said, “Do you mean the decade of burying the hatchet, by any small chance?”

“The decade of reconciliation,” the bishop said, “the decade of amity, the decade of coexistence, and the decade of the many-in-one.”

“You’re talking like a person right outside my experience,” Father Angwin said.

“The ecumenical spirit,” the bishop said. “Don’t you feel it in the breeze? Don’t you feel it wafted to you on the prayers of a million Christian souls?”

“I feel it breathing on my neck.”

“Am I ahead of my time, or what?” the bishop asked. “Or is it you, Father Angwin, closing your ears and deaf to the wind of change? And you might pour the tea, for I can’t abide tea stewed.”

When Father Angwin had poured the tea, the bishop picked up his cup, and jiggled it in his hand, and took a scalding gulp. Standing before the fireplace, he turned his toes out more widely, and placed his superfluous arm behind his back, and breathed in a noticeable way.

“Exasperated,” Father Angwin said, speaking in a low voice, but not to himself. “Exasperated with me. Tell me, is that tea hot enough? Good enough? Whisky in it?” He raised his voice. “I hardly understand you at all.”

“Well,” said the bishop, “have you heard of the vernacular Mass? Have you thought of it? I think of it. I think of it constantly. There are men in Rome who think of it.”

Father shook his head. “I couldn’t be part of that.”

“No choice, my dear man, no choice; in five years, mark my words, or a little more than five …”

Father Angwin looked up. “Do you mean,” he said, “that they could understand what we were saying?”

“Exactly the point.”

“Pernicious,” Father muttered audibly. “Arrant nonsense.” Then, louder, “I can well understand if you think that Latin’s too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?”

“I take account of that,” the bishop said. “The people of Fetherhoughton are not on a high level. I would not claim that they were.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“Everything conspires to improve them, Father. I will not refer to council housing, as I know it is a sore point in this district …”

“Requiescant in pace,” Father murmured.

“ … but have they not free spectacles? Free teeth? In the times we live in, Father Angwin, everything that can be done to improve their material welfare shall be done, and it is for you to think of improving them in the spiritual line. Now, I have some hints and tips for you, which you will kindly accept from me.”

“I don’t see why I should,” Father Angwin said, quite loudly enough to be heard, “when you are such an old fool. I don’t see why I can’t be a Pope in my own domain.” He looked up. “Consider me at your disposal.”

The bishop stared; it was a pebbly stare. He pursed his lips and said nothing till he had drunk a second cup. Then, “I want to look at the church.”

At this early point, the topography of the village of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration. So may the manners, customs, and dress of its inhabitants.

The village lay in moorland, which ringed it on three sides. The surrounding hills, from the village streets, looked like the hunched and bristling back of a sleeping dog. Let sleeping dogs lie, was the attitude of the people; for they hated nature. They turned their faces in the fourth direction, to the road and the railway that led them to the black heart of the industrial north: to Manchester, to Wigan, to Liverpool. They were not townspeople; they had none of their curiosity. They were not country people; they could tell a cow from a sheep, but it was not their business. Cotton was their business, and had been for nearly a century. There were three mills, but there were no clogs and shawls; there was nothing picturesque.

In summer the moorland looked black. Tiny distant figures swarmed over the hummocks and hills; they were Water Board men, Forestry Commission. In the folds of the hills there were pewtercoloured reservoirs, hidden from sight. The first event of autumn was the snowfall that blocked the pass that led through the moors to Yorkshire; this was generally accounted a good thing. All winter the snow lay on the hills. By April it had flaked off into scaly patches. Only in the warmest May would it seem to vanish entirely.

The people of Fetherhoughton kept their eyes averted from the moors with a singular effort of will. They did not talk about them. Someone—it was the mark of the outsider—might find a wild dignity and grandeur in the landscape. The Fetherhoughtonians did not look at the landscape at all. They were not Emily Brontë, nor were they paid to be, and the very suggestion that the Brontë-like matter was to hand was enough to make them close their minds and occupy their eyes with their shoelaces. The moors were the vast cemetery of their imaginations. Later, there were notorious murders in the vicinity, and real bodies were buried there.

The main street of Fetherhoughton was known to the inhabitants as Upstreet: “I am going Upstreet,” they would say, “to the Co-op drapers.” It was not unprosperous. Behind window displays of tinned salmon, grocers stood ready at their bacon slicers. Besides the Co-op draper, the Co-op general store, the Co-op butcher, the Co-op shoe shop, and the Co-op baker, there was Madame Hilda, Modes; and there was a hairdresser, who took the young women into private cubicles, segregated them with plastic curtains, and gave them Permanent Waves. There was no bookshop, nor anything of that sort. But there was a public library, and a war memorial.

Off Upstreet ran other winding streets with gradients of one in four, lined by terraced houses built in the local stone; they had been put up by the mill-owners towards the end of the last century, and rented out to the hands. Their front doors opened straight onto the pavement. There were two rooms downstairs, of which the sitting room was referred to as the House; so that in the unlikely event of anyone from Fetherhoughton explaining their conduct in any way, they might say, “I cleaned miyoopstairs this morning, this afternoon I am bound fert clean the House.”

The speech of the Fetherhoughtonians is not easy to reproduce. The endeavour is false and futile. One misses the solemnity, the archaic formality of the Fetherhoughtonian dialect. It was a mode of speech, Father Angwin believed, that had come adrift from the language around it. Some current had caught them unawares, and washed the Fetherhoughtonians far from the navigable reaches of plain English; and there they drifted and bobbed on waters of their own, up the creek without a paddle.

But this is a digression, and in those houses there was no scope to digress. In the House there would be a coal fire, no heating in any other room, though there might be a single-bar electric fire kept, to be used in some ill-defined emergency. In the kitchen, a deep sink and a cold-water tap, and a very steep staircase, rising to the first floor. Two bedrooms, a garret: outside, a cobbled yard shared between some ten houses. A row of coalsheds, and a row of lavatories: to each house its own coalshed, but lavatories one between two. These were the usual domestic arrangements in Fetherhoughton and the surrounding districts.

Consider the women of Fetherhoughton, as a stranger might see them; a stranger might have the opportunity, because while the men were shut away in the mills the women liked to stand on their doorsteps. This standing was what they did. Recreational pursuits were for men: football, billiards, keeping hens. Treats were doled out to men, as a reward for good behaviour: cigarettes, beer at the Arundel Arms. Religion, and the public library, were for children. Women only talked. They analysed motive, discussed the serious business, carried life forward. Between the schoolroom and their present state came the weaving sheds; deafened by the noise of the machines, they spoke too loudly now, their voices scattering through the gritty streets like the cries of displaced gulls.

Treeless streets, where the wind blows.

Consider their outdoor (not doorstep) dress. They wore plastic raincoats of a thick, viscous green, impermeable, like alien skins. Should it chance not to rain, the women rolled these raincoats up and left them about the house, where they appeared like reptiles from the Amazon, momentarily coiled in slumber.

For shoes, the women wore bedroom slippers in the form of bootees, with a big zip up the middle. When they went outdoors they put on a stouter version of the same shoe in a tough dark brown suede. Their legs rose like tubes, only an inch or so exposed beneath the hems of their big winter coats.

The younger women had different bedroom slippers, which relatives gave each other every Christmas. They were dish-shaped, each with a thick ruff of pink or blue nylon fur. At first the soles of these slippers were as hard and shiny as glass; it took a week of wear before they bent and gave under the foot, and during that week their wearer would often look down on them with pride, with a guilty sense of luxury, as the nylon fur tickled her ankles. But gradually the fur lost its bounce and spring, and crumbs fell into it; by February its fibres were matted together with chip fat.

From the doorsteps the women stared at passers-by, and laughed. They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them. They lived in hope of seeing a passer-by with a hunchback, knock knees, or a hare lip. They did not think that it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing, and unforgiving about any aberration, deviation, eccentricity, or piece of originality. There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that it also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy.

Off Upstreet was Church Street, another steep hill; it was unpopulated, lined with ancient hedgerows, smoke and dust forming a perpetual ash-like deposit on the leaves. Church Street petered out at its summit into a wide track, muddy and stony, which in Fetherhoughton was known as the carriage-drive. Perhaps sometime in the last century a carriage had driven up it, conveying some pious person; the drive went nowhere except to the village school, to the convent, and to the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas. From the carriage-drive, footpaths led to the hamlet of Netherhoughton, and the moors.

Atop one of the smaller village streets sat a Methodist chapel, square and red, and about it was its cemetery, where chapel-going people came to early graves. There were a few Protestants sprinkled through the terraced rows; each yard might have some. The Protestants’ houses did not have, pinned to the door of the cupboard in the sitting room, a coloured picture of the Pontiff with a calendar beneath; but otherwise, their houses were not readily distinguishable.

And yet the Protestants were quite different, in the eyes of their neighbours. They were guilty of culpable ignorance. They refused to take on board the precepts of the True Faith. They knew that St. Thomas Aquinas was there, but they refused to go in it. They refused to turn over their children to Mother Perpetua for a good Catholic education, and preferred to send them on a bus to a school in another village.

Mother Perpetua would tell the children, with her famous, dangerously sweet smile: “We have no objection to Protestants worshipping God in their own way. But we Catholics prefer to worship Him in his.”

The Protestants were damned, of course, by reason of this culpable ignorance. They would roast in Hell. A span of seventy years, to ride bicycles in the steep streets, to get married, to eat bread and dripping; then bronchitis, pneumonia, a broken hip; then the minister calls, and the florist does a wreath; then devils will tear their flesh with pincers.

It is a most neighbourly thought.

The Church of St. Thomas Aquinas was a massive building; its walls were plastered by deposits of soot and grease, so that their original grey was black. It stood on a kind of pimple of higher ground, and this fact occasioned little flights of stone steps and cobbled ramps, slippery and mossy underfoot; clustering at the base of the tower, they looked like household terriers running at the feet of some dangerous, dirty tramp.

The Church was in fact less than a hundred years old; it had been built when the Irish came to Fetherhoughton to work in the three cotton mills. But someone had briefed its architect to make it look as if it had always stood there. In those poor, troubled days it was an understandable wish, and the architect had a sense of history; it was a Shakespearian sense of history, with a grand contempt of the pitfalls of anachronism. Last Wednesday and the Battle of Bosworth are all one; the past is the past, and Mrs. O’Toole, buried last Wednesday, is neck and neck with King Richard in the hurtle to eternity. This was—it must have been—the architect’s view. From the Romans to the Hanoverians, it was all the same to him; they wore, no doubt, leather jerkins and iron crowns; they burned witches; their buildings were stone and quaint and cold, their windows were not as our windows; they slapped their thighs and said prithee. Only such a vision could have commanded into being the music-hall medievalism of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The architect had begun in a vaguely Gothic way and ended with something Saxon and brutal. There was a tower at the west end, without spire or pinnacles, but furnished with battlements. The porch had stone benches, and a plain holy-water stoup, and malodorous matting that was beaten thin by scuffling feet—matting that was always sodden, and might have been composed of some thirsty vegetable matter. The doorway had a round arch of a Norman persuasion, but no recessed arches, no little shafts, no ornament, not so much as a lozenge, a zigzag, a chevron; stern had been the mood the day that doorway was designed, and the door itself was strapped and hinged in a manner that put one in mind of siege warfare and starvation and a populace reduced to eating its rats.

Inside the church, in the pit-like gloom, there was a deep font, without ornament, with a single plain shaft, and big enough to cope with a multiple birth, or dip a sheep. There was a west gallery for the organ, with a patch of deeper blackness beneath it; the gallery itself, though you would not know until you had swum into that blackness, was reached by a low little doorway with junior siege-hinges, and a treacherous spiral staircase, with risers a foot deep. There were two side chapels, two aisles, and it was in the arcades that the architect’s derangement was most evident, for the arches were round or pointed, seemingly as a consequence of some spur-of-the-moment decision, and as one blundered through the nave, the confusion of style gave the church a misleadingly heroic air, as if it had been built, like one of the great European cathedrals, in successive campaigns a hundred years apart. The shafts of the columns were squat and massive cylinders, made of a greyish, finely pitted stone, and their uncarved capitals resembled packing cases.

The lancet windows were grouped two by two, and surmounted by grudging tracery, here a circle, here a quatrefoil, here a dagger trefoil. In each of the lights stood a glass saint, bearing his name on an unfurling scroll, each scroll inscribed in an unreadable Germanic black-letter; the faces of these glass saints were identical, their expressions were all alike. The glass itself was of a mill-town sort; there was a light-refusing, industrial quality about its thick texture, and its colours were blatant and vile: a traffic-light green, a sugar-bag blue, and the dull but acidic red of cheap strawberry jam. There were stone flags underfoot, and the long benches were varnished with a treacly red stain; the doors to the single confessional were low and latched, like the doors to a coalshed.

Father Angwin and the bishop came out through the draughty vaulted passage from the sacristy, and emerged by the Lady chapel in the north aisle. They looked about; not that it profited them. In all, St. Thomas Aquinas was as dark as Notre-Dame and resembled it in one other alarming particular—that at any given moment, standing in one part, you lost all sense of what might be happening in another. You could not see the roof, although you had—in St. Thomas Aquinas—an uneasy, crawling feeling about it, that it might not be so far above your head at all, and that it might lower itself a little from time to time, just that little inch or so that betrayed its ambition to unite, one winter’s day, with the stone flags, and freeze into a solid block of unwrought masonry, with the worshippers between. The church’s inner spaces were aggregations of darkness, with channels of thicker darkness between. There were plaster saints—which the bishop now surveyed as best he might—and before most of them, in severe iron racks that looked like the bars of a beast-house, devotional candles burned; yet it was a lightless burning, like marsh-gas, a flickering in an unfelt, breathless wind. There were draughts, it was true, which followed each worshipper like a bad reputation, which dabbed at their ankles and climbed into their clothes, as cats do with people who do not like them. But when the church was empty the draughts lay quiet, only whistling from time to time about the floor; and the candle flames rose up towards the roof, straight and thin as dressmaker’s pins.

“These statues,” said the bishop. “Have you a pocket torch?” Father Angwin did not reply. “Then give me a tour,” the bishop demanded. “Start here. I cannot identify this fellow. Is he a Negro?”

“Not really. He’s been painted. A lot of them have. That’s St. Dunstan. Don’t you see his tongs?”

“What has he got tongs for?” the bishop asked rudely. He stared at the saint in a hostile way, his paunch thrust out.

“He was working at his forge when the devil came to tempt him, and the saint seized his nose with red-hot pincers.”

“I wonder what sort of temptations you might get while working at a forge.” The bishop peered into the darkness. “There are a lot of them, Father. You have more statues than any church in the diocese.” He passed on down the aisle. “How did you get them? Where did they come from?”

“They were here before my time. They’ve always been here.”

“You know that is impossible. They were someone’s decision. Who is this woman with the pliers? This place is like an ironmonger’s shop.”

“That’s Apollonia. The Romans pulled her teeth out. She’s the patron saint of dentists.” Father Angwin looked up into the martyr’s downturned, expressionless face. He stooped and took a candle from the wooden box at the statue’s foot, and lit it from the solitary flame that burned below Dunstan. He carried it back with care, and fitted it into one of Apollonia’s empty candle-holders. “Nobody bothers with her. They don’t go in for dentistry here. Their teeth fall out quite early in life, and they find it a relief.”

“Pass on,” said the bishop.

“Here are my four Church Fathers. You will see St. Gregory in his Papal tiara.”

“I cannot see anything.”

“You must take my word for it. And St. Augustine, holding a heart, you see, pierced with an arrow. And the other Fathers here, St. Jerome with his little lion.”

“It really is a very small beast.” The bishop leant forward, put himself nose to nose with it. “Not realistic at all.”

Father Angwin put his hand on the lion’s arched mane, and traced the length of its stone back with his forefinger. “I like him the best of all the Fathers. I think of him in the desert with his wild eyes and his bare hermit’s knees.”

“Who’s left?” said the bishop. “Ambrose. Ambrose with his hive.”

“St. Beehive, the children call him. Similarly it was mentioned in the parish some two generations back that Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo, and since then I am afraid that there has been a great deal of confusion among the juveniles, passed on carefully, you see, by their parents.”

The bishop made a little growl, deep in his throat. Father Angwin had the feeling that he had somehow played into the bishop’s hands; that the bishop would think that it mattered, if they were confused.

“Can it matter?” he said quickly. “Look at St. Agatha here, poor Christian soul, carrying her breasts on a dish. Why is she the patron saint of bellfounders? Because a little mistake was made, with the shape; you can understand it. Why do we bless bread in a dish on 5 February? Because as well as looking like bells they look like bread rolls. It is a harmless mistake. It is more decent than the truth. It is less cruel.”

They had passed by now almost to the back of the church, and in the north aisle, opposite them, there were more saints; St. Bartholomew clutched the knife with which he had been flayed, St. Cecilia her portable organ. A Virgin, with the foolish expression imparted by a sickly smile and a chipped nose, held her blue arms out stiffly under her drapery; and St. Theresa, the Little Flower, glowered from beneath her wreath of roses.

The bishop crossed the church, and looked up into the Carmelite’s face, and tapped her foot. “I make exceptions, Father,” he said. “Our boys in the trenches of Flanders addressed their prayers through the Little Flower, and some of those who did so were I daresay not Catholic at all. There are saints for our time, Father, and this one here is a shining example to all Catholic womanhood. Perhaps this one may stay. I will give it consideration.”

“Stay?” the priest said. “Where are they going?”

“Out,” said the bishop succinctly. “And where, I care not. Somehow, Father Angwin, I shall drag you and your church and your parishioners into the 1950s, where we all quite firmly belong. I cannot have this posturing, Father, I cannot have this idolatry.”

“But they are not idols. They are just statues. They are just representations.”

“And if I were to walk out onto the street, Father, and I were to lay hold of one of your parishioners, do you think he would be able to distinguish, to my satisfaction, between that honour and reverence that we give the saints and that worship that belongs to God?”

“Windbag,” said Father Angwin. “Dechristianizer. Saladin.” He pitched his voice up. “It isn’t what you think. But the people here are very deficient in the power of prayer. They are simple people. I am a simple man myself.”

“I am aware of that,” the bishop said.

“The saints have their attributes. They have their areas of interest. A congregation latches on to them.”

“They must latch off,” said the bishop brutally. “I won’t have it. These are to go.”

As he passed Michael the Archangel, Father Angwin looked up and saw the scales in which that saint weighs human souls, and he dropped his eyes to Michael’s foot: a bare, muscled, claw-like foot, that had sometimes seemed to him like the foot of an ape. He passed under the gallery, into the thicker, velvet blackness where St. Thomas himself, the Angelic Doctor, stood central and square on his plinth, his stone gaze on the high altar, and the star that he held in his fine hands shedding lightless rays into the greater dark.

Copyright © 1989 by Hilary Mantel

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First Chapter

Fludd

A Novel
By Hilary Mantel

Holt Paperbacks

Copyright © 2000 Hilary Mantel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805062731

  ONEOn Wednesday the bishop came in person. He was a modern prelate, brisk and plump in his rimless glasses, and he liked nothing better than to tear around the diocese in his big black car.He had taken the precaution—advisable in the circumstances—of announcing himself two hours before his arrival. The telephone bell, ringing in the hall of the parish priest’s house, had in itself a muted ecclesiastical tone. Miss Dempsey heard it as she was coming from the kitchen. She stood looking at the telephone for a moment, and then approached it gingerly, walking on the balls of her feet. She lifted the receiver as if it were hot. Her head on one side, holding the earpiece well away from her cheek, she listened to the message given by the bishop’s secretary. “Yes My Lord,” she murmured, though in retrospect she knew that the secretary did not merit this. “The bishop and his sycophants,” Father Angwin always said; Miss Dempsey supposed they were a kind of deacon. Holding the receiver in her fingertips, she replaced it with great care. She stood in the dim passageway, for a moment, thinking, and bowed her head momentarily, as if she had heard the Holy Name of Jesus. Then she went to the foot of the stairs and bellowed up them: “Father Angwin, Father Angwin, get yourself up and dressed, the bishop will be upon us before eleven o’clock.”


Miss Dempsey went back into the kitchen, and switched on the electric light. It was not a morning when the light made a great deal of difference; the summer, a thick grey blanket, had pinned itself to the windows. Miss Dempsey heard the incessant drip, drip, drip from the branches and leaves outside, and a more urgent metallic drip, pit-pat, pit-pat; it was the guttering. Her figure moved, the electric light behind it, over the dull green wall; immense hands floated towards the kettle; as in a thick sea, her limbs swam for the range. Upstairs, the priest beat his shoe along the floor and pretended to be coming.Ten minutes later he had got himself up; she heard the creak of the floorboards above, the gurgle of water from the washbasin, his feet on the stairs. He sighed as he came down the hallway, his solitary morning sigh. Suddenly he was behind her, hovering: “Agnes, have you something for my stomach?”“I daresay,” she said. He knew where the salts were kept; but she must get it for him, as if she were his mother. “Were there many at seven o’clock Mass?”“It’s funny you should ask,” Father said, just as if she did not ask it every morning. “There were a few old Children of Mary, along with the usual derelicts. It wouldn’t be some special feast of theirs, would it? Walpurgisnacht?”“I don’t know what you mean, Father. I’m a Children of Mary myself, as you perfectly well know, and I’ve not heard of anything.” She looked aggrieved. “Were they wearing their cloaks and all?”“No, they were in mufti, just their usual horseblankets.”Miss Dempsey brought the teapot to the table. “You ought not to make mock of the Sodalities, Father.”“I wonder if something has got out about the bishop coming? Some intelligence of a subterranean variety? Am I to have bacon, Agnes?”“Not with your stomach in its present state.”Miss Dempsey poured from the pot, a thick brown gurgling stream, adding to the noise: the dripping trees, the wind in the chimneys.“And another thing,” he said. “McEvoy was there.” Father Angwin hunched himself over the table. He warmed his hands around his cup. When he said the name of McEvoy, a shadow crossed his face, and hovered about his jaw, so that Miss Dempsey, who was given to imagination, thought for a moment she had seen what he would look like when he was eighty years old.“Oh yes,” she said, “and did he want something?”“No.”“I wonder why you mention him then?”“Dear Agnes, give me some peace. Go and let me compose myself for His Corpulence. What does he want, do you think? What’s he after this time?”Agnes went out, a duster in her hand, her face full of complaints. Whatever he had meant about subterranean intelligence, surely he was not accusing her? Nobody but the bishop himself, forming the intention in his deep heart, had known he meant to visit—except perhaps the sycophants might have known. Therefore she, Miss Dempsey, could not know, therefore she could not hint, divulge, reveal, to the Children of Mary or anyone else in the parish. Had she known, she might have mentioned it. Might—if she had thought that anyone needed to know. She herself was the judge of what anyone needed to know. For Miss Dempsey occupied a special mediatory position, between church, convent, and everyone else. To acquire information was her positive duty, and then what she did with it was a matter for her judgement and experience. Miss Dempsey would have eavesdropped on the confessional, if she could; she had often wondered how she might manage it.Left at the breakfast table, Father Angwin stared into his teacup and shifted it about. Miss Dempsey had not mastered the use of a strainer. Nothing in particular could be seen in the leaves, but for a moment Father Angwin thought that someone had come into the room behind him. He lifted his face, as he did in conversation, but there was no one there. “Come in, whoever you are,” he said. “Have some stewed tea.” Father Angwin was a foxy man, with his deadleaf-colour eyes and hair; head tilted, he sniffed the wind, and shied away from what he detected. Somewhere else in the house, a door slammed.


Consider Agnes Dempsey: duster in hand, whisking it over the dustless bureau. In recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box. Her neck too fell in floury, scalloped folds, to where her clothing cut off the view. Her eyes were round, child-like, bright blue, their air of surprise compounded by her invisible eyebrows and her hair, a faded gold streaked with grey, which sprang up from her hairline as if crackling with static. She had pleated skirts, and short bottle-shaped legs, and pastel twin-sets to cover the gentle twin hummocks of her bosom. Her mouth was small and pale and indiscernible, made to ingest the food she liked: Eccles cakes, vanilla slices, miniature chocolate Swiss rolls that came wrapped in red-and-silver foil. It was her habit to peel off the foil carefully, fold it as thin as a pencil, twist it into a ring, and pop it on her wedding finger. Then she would hold out both hands—fingers bloodless and slightly bent by incipient arthritis—and appraise them, a frown of concentration appearing as a single vertical line at the inner corner of her left eyebrow. Then she would rest her hand on her knee for a little; then remove the ring, intact, and throw it on to the fire. This was Miss Dempsey’s private habit, which no one had ever seen. Above her upper lip, on the right-hand side, she had a small flat wart, colourless as her mouth itself. It was hard for her not to touch it. She was afraid of cancer.


By the time the bishop came bustling in, Father Angwin had got over his hangover. He sat in the parlour, with his neat ingratiating smile. “Father Angwin, Father Angwin,” the bishop said, crossing the room, and taking him in a grip; hand squeezing upper arm, hand pumping hand, quite beside himself with joviality, and yet those episcopal bifocals glinting and swimming with suspicion, and the episcopal head turning, turning from side to side, like a mechanical toy that you shoot for at a fair.“Tea,” Father Angwin said.“No time for tea,” said the bishop. He took up a stance on the hearthrug. “I’ve come to talk to you on the subject of uniting all right-thinking people in the family of God,” he said. “Now then, now then, Father Angwin. I’m expecting trouble from you.”“Are you going to sit, or what?” Father Angwin asked him diffidently.The bishop clasped his pink hands before him. He looked severely at the priest, and swayed a little on the spot. “The next decade, Father Angwin, is the decade of unity. The decade of gathering-in. The decade of Christ’s human family. The decade of the Christian community in communion with itself.” Agnes Dempsey came in with a tray. “Oh, since you’ve brought it,” the bishop said.When Miss Dempsey had left the room—her knees had become stiff, owing to the wet weather, and she was obliged to take her time—Father Angwin said, “Do you mean the decade of burying the hatchet, by any small chance?”“The decade of reconciliation,” the bishop said, “the decade of amity, the decade of coexistence, and the decade of the many-in-one.”“You’re talking like a person right outside my experience,” Father Angwin said.“The ecumenical spirit,” the bishop said. “Don’t you feel it in the breeze? Don’t you feel it wafted to you on the prayers of a million Christian souls?”“I feel it breathing on my neck.”“Am I ahead of my time, or what?” the bishop asked. “Or is it you, Father Angwin, closing your ears and deaf to the wind of change? And you might pour the tea, for I can’t abide tea stewed.”When Father Angwin had poured the tea, the bishop picked up his cup, and jiggled it in his hand, and took a scalding gulp. Standing before the fireplace, he turned his toes out more widely, and placed his superfluous arm behind his back, and breathed in a noticeable way.“Exasperated,” Father Angwin said, speaking in a low voice, but not to himself. “Exasperated with me. Tell me, is that tea hot enough? Good enough? Whisky in it?” He raised his voice. “I hardly understand you at all.”“Well,” said the bishop, “have you heard of the vernacular Mass? Have you thought of it? I think of it. I think of it constantly. There are men in Rome who think of it.”Father shook his head. “I couldn’t be part of that.”“No choice, my dear man, no choice; in five years, mark my words, or a little more than five …”Father Angwin looked up. “Do you mean,” he said, “that they could understand what we were saying?”“Exactly the point.”“Pernicious,” Father muttered audibly. “Arrant nonsense.” Then, louder, “I can well understand if you think that Latin’s too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?”“I take account of that,” the bishop said. “The people of Fetherhoughton are not on a high level. I would not claim that they were.”“Then what am I to do?”“Everything conspires to improve them, Father. I will not refer to council housing, as I know it is a sore point in this district …”“Requiescant in pace,” Father murmured.“ … but have they not free spectacles? Free teeth? In the times we live in, Father Angwin, everything that can be done to improve their material welfare shall be done, and it is for you to think of improving them in the spiritual line. Now, I have some hints and tips for you, which you will kindly accept from me.”“I don’t see why I should,” Father Angwin said, quite loudly enough to be heard, “when you are such an old fool. I don’t see why I can’t be a Pope in my own domain.” He looked up. “Consider me at your disposal.”The bishop stared; it was a pebbly stare. He pursed his lips and said nothing till he had drunk a second cup. Then, “I want to look at the church.”


At this early point, the topography of the village of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration. So may the manners, customs, and dress of its inhabitants.The village lay in moorland, which ringed it on three sides. The surrounding hills, from the village streets, looked like the hunched and bristling back of a sleeping dog. Let sleeping dogs lie, was the attitude of the people; for they hated nature. They turned their faces in the fourth direction, to the road and the railway that led them to the black heart of the industrial north: to Manchester, to Wigan, to Liverpool. They were not townspeople; they had none of their curiosity. They were not country people; they could tell a cow from a sheep, but it was not their business. Cotton was their business, and had been for nearly a century. There were three mills, but there were no clogs and shawls; there was nothing picturesque.In summer the moorland looked black. Tiny distant figures swarmed over the hummocks and hills; they were Water Board men, Forestry Commission. In the folds of the hills there were pewtercoloured reservoirs, hidden from sight. The first event of autumn was the snowfall that blocked the pass that led through the moors to Yorkshire; this was generally accounted a good thing. All winter the snow lay on the hills. By April it had flaked off into scaly patches. Only in the warmest May would it seem to vanish entirely.The people of Fetherhoughton kept their eyes averted from the moors with a singular effort of will. They did not talk about them. Someone—it was the mark of the outsider—might find a wild dignity and grandeur in the landscape. The Fetherhoughtonians did not look at the landscape at all. They were not Emily Brontë, nor were they paid to be, and the very suggestion that the Brontë-like matter was to hand was enough to make them close their minds and occupy their eyes with their shoelaces. The moors were the vast cemetery of their imaginations. Later, there were notorious murders in the vicinity, and real bodies were buried there.The main street of Fetherhoughton was known to the inhabitants as Upstreet: “I am going Upstreet,” they would say, “to the Co-op drapers.” It was not unprosperous. Behind window displays of tinned salmon, grocers stood ready at their bacon slicers. Besides the Co-op draper, the Co-op general store, the Co-op butcher, the Co-op shoe shop, and the Co-op baker, there was Madame Hilda, Modes; and there was a hairdresser, who took the young women into private cubicles, segregated them with plastic curtains, and gave them Permanent Waves. There was no bookshop, nor anything of that sort. But there was a public library, and a war memorial.Off Upstreet ran other winding streets with gradients of one in four, lined by terraced houses built in the local stone; they had been put up by the mill-owners towards the end of the last century, and rented out to the hands. Their front doors opened straight onto the pavement. There were two rooms downstairs, of which the sitting room was referred to as the House; so that in the unlikely event of anyone from Fetherhoughton explaining their conduct in any way, they might say, “I cleaned miyoopstairs this morning, this afternoon I am bound fert clean the House.”The speech of the Fetherhoughtonians is not easy to reproduce. The endeavour is false and futile. One misses the solemnity, the archaic formality of the Fetherhoughtonian dialect. It was a mode of speech, Father Angwin believed, that had come adrift from the language around it. Some current had caught them unawares, and washed the Fetherhoughtonians far from the navigable reaches of plain English; and there they drifted and bobbed on waters of their own, up the creek without a paddle.But this is a digression, and in those houses there was no scope to digress. In the House there would be a coal fire, no heating in any other room, though there might be a single-bar electric fire kept, to be used in some ill-defined emergency. In the kitchen, a deep sink and a cold-water tap, and a very steep staircase, rising to the first floor. Two bedrooms, a garret: outside, a cobbled yard shared between some ten houses. A row of coalsheds, and a row of lavatories: to each house its own coalshed, but lavatories one between two. These were the usual domestic arrangements in Fetherhoughton and the surrounding districts.Consider the women of Fetherhoughton, as a stranger might see them; a stranger might have the opportunity, because while the men were shut away in the mills the women liked to stand on their doorsteps. This standing was what they did. Recreational pursuits were for men: football, billiards, keeping hens. Treats were doled out to men, as a reward for good behaviour: cigarettes, beer at the Arundel Arms. Religion, and the public library, were for children. Women only talked. They analysed motive, discussed the serious business, carried life forward. Between the schoolroom and their present state came the weaving sheds; deafened by the noise of the machines, they spoke too loudly now, their voices scattering through the gritty streets like the cries of displaced gulls.Treeless streets, where the wind blows.Consider their outdoor (not doorstep) dress. They wore plastic raincoats of a thick, viscous green, impermeable, like alien skins. Should it chance not to rain, the women rolled these raincoats up and left them about the house, where they appeared like reptiles from the Amazon, momentarily coiled in slumber.For shoes, the women wore bedroom slippers in the form of bootees, with a big zip up the middle. When they went outdoors they put on a stouter version of the same shoe in a tough dark brown suede. Their legs rose like tubes, only an inch or so exposed beneath the hems of their big winter coats.The younger women had different bedroom slippers, which relatives gave each other every Christmas. They were dish-shaped, each with a thick ruff of pink or blue nylon fur. At first the soles of these slippers were as hard and shiny as glass; it took a week of wear before they bent and gave under the foot, and during that week their wearer would often look down on them with pride, with a guilty sense of luxury, as the nylon fur tickled her ankles. But gradually the fur lost its bounce and spring, and crumbs fell into it; by February its fibres were matted together with chip fat.From the doorsteps the women stared at passers-by, and laughed. They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them. They lived in hope of seeing a passer-by with a hunchback, knock knees, or a hare lip. They did not think that it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing, and unforgiving about any aberration, deviation, eccentricity, or piece of originality. There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that it also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy.Off Upstreet was Church Street, another steep hill; it was unpopulated, lined with ancient hedgerows, smoke and dust forming a perpetual ash-like deposit on the leaves. Church Street petered out at its summit into a wide track, muddy and stony, which in Fetherhoughton was known as the carriage-drive. Perhaps sometime in the last century a carriage had driven up it, conveying some pious person; the drive went nowhere except to the village school, to the convent, and to the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas. From the carriage-drive, footpaths led to the hamlet of Netherhoughton, and the moors.Atop one of the smaller village streets sat a Methodist chapel, square and red, and about it was its cemetery, where chapel-going people came to early graves. There were a few Protestants sprinkled through the terraced rows; each yard might have some. The Protestants’ houses did not have, pinned to the door of the cupboard in the sitting room, a coloured picture of the Pontiff with a calendar beneath; but otherwise, their houses were not readily distinguishable.And yet the Protestants were quite different, in the eyes of their neighbours. They were guilty of culpable ignorance. They refused to take on board the precepts of the True Faith. They knew that St. Thomas Aquinas was there, but they refused to go in it. They refused to turn over their children to Mother Perpetua for a good Catholic education, and preferred to send them on a bus to a school in another village.Mother Perpetua would tell the children, with her famous, dangerously sweet smile: “We have no objection to Protestants worshipping God in their own way. But we Catholics prefer to worship Him in his.”The Protestants were damned, of course, by reason of this culpable ignorance. They would roast in Hell. A span of seventy years, to ride bicycles in the steep streets, to get married, to eat bread and dripping; then bronchitis, pneumonia, a broken hip; then the minister calls, and the florist does a wreath; then devils will tear their flesh with pincers.It is a most neighbourly thought.


The Church of St. Thomas Aquinas was a massive building; its walls were plastered by deposits of soot and grease, so that their original grey was black. It stood on a kind of pimple of higher ground, and this fact occasioned little flights of stone steps and cobbled ramps, slippery and mossy underfoot; clustering at the base of the tower, they looked like household terriers running at the feet of some dangerous, dirty tramp.The Church was in fact less than a hundred years old; it had been built when the Irish came to Fetherhoughton to work in the three cotton mills. But someone had briefed its architect to make it look as if it had always stood there. In those poor, troubled days it was an understandable wish, and the architect had a sense of history; it was a Shakespearian sense of history, with a grand contempt of the pitfalls of anachronism. Last Wednesday and the Battle of Bosworth are all one; the past is the past, and Mrs. O’Toole, buried last Wednesday, is neck and neck with King Richard in the hurtle to eternity. This was—it must have been—the architect’s view. From the Romans to the Hanoverians, it was all the same to him; they wore, no doubt, leather jerkins and iron crowns; they burned witches; their buildings were stone and quaint and cold, their windows were not as our windows; they slapped their thighs and said prithee. Only such a vision could have commanded into being the music-hall medievalism of St. Thomas Aquinas.The architect had begun in a vaguely Gothic way and ended with something Saxon and brutal. There was a tower at the west end, without spire or pinnacles, but furnished with battlements. The porch had stone benches, and a plain holy-water stoup, and malodorous matting that was beaten thin by scuffling feet—matting that was always sodden, and might have been composed of some thirsty vegetable matter. The doorway had a round arch of a Norman persuasion, but no recessed arches, no little shafts, no ornament, not so much as a lozenge, a zigzag, a chevron; stern had been the mood the day that doorway was designed, and the door itself was strapped and hinged in a manner that put one in mind of siege warfare and starvation and a populace reduced to eating its rats.Inside the church, in the pit-like gloom, there was a deep font, without ornament, with a single plain shaft, and big enough to cope with a multiple birth, or dip a sheep. There was a west gallery for the organ, with a patch of deeper blackness beneath it; the gallery itself, though you would not know until you had swum into that blackness, was reached by a low little doorway with junior siege-hinges, and a treacherous spiral staircase, with risers a foot deep. There were two side chapels, two aisles, and it was in the arcades that the architect’s derangement was most evident, for the arches were round or pointed, seemingly as a consequence of some spur-of-the-moment decision, and as one blundered through the nave, the confusion of style gave the church a misleadingly heroic air, as if it had been built, like one of the great European cathedrals, in successive campaigns a hundred years apart. The shafts of the columns were squat and massive cylinders, made of a greyish, finely pitted stone, and their uncarved capitals resembled packing cases.The lancet windows were grouped two by two, and surmounted by grudging tracery, here a circle, here a quatrefoil, here a dagger trefoil. In each of the lights stood a glass saint, bearing his name on an unfurling scroll, each scroll inscribed in an unreadable Germanic black-letter; the faces of these glass saints were identical, their expressions were all alike. The glass itself was of a mill-town sort; there was a light-refusing, industrial quality about its thick texture, and its colours were blatant and vile: a traffic-light green, a sugar-bag blue, and the dull but acidic red of cheap strawberry jam. There were stone flags underfoot, and the long benches were varnished with a treacly red stain; the doors to the single confessional were low and latched, like the doors to a coalshed.


Father Angwin and the bishop came out through the draughty vaulted passage from the sacristy, and emerged by the Lady chapel in the north aisle. They looked about; not that it profited them. In all, St. Thomas Aquinas was as dark as Notre-Dame and resembled it in one other alarming particular—that at any given moment, standing in one part, you lost all sense of what might be happening in another. You could not see the roof, although you had—in St. Thomas Aquinas—an uneasy, crawling feeling about it, that it might not be so far above your head at all, and that it might lower itself a little from time to time, just that little inch or so that betrayed its ambition to unite, one winter’s day, with the stone flags, and freeze into a solid block of unwrought masonry, with the worshippers between. The church’s inner spaces were aggregations of darkness, with channels of thicker darkness between. There were plaster saints—which the bishop now surveyed as best he might—and before most of them, in severe iron racks that looked like the bars of a beast-house, devotional candles burned; yet it was a lightless burning, like marsh-gas, a flickering in an unfelt, breathless wind. There were draughts, it was true, which followed each worshipper like a bad reputation, which dabbed at their ankles and climbed into their clothes, as cats do with people who do not like them. But when the church was empty the draughts lay quiet, only whistling from time to time about the floor; and the candle flames rose up towards the roof, straight and thin as dressmaker’s pins.“These statues,” said the bishop. “Have you a pocket torch?” Father Angwin did not reply. “Then give me a tour,” the bishop demanded. “Start here. I cannot identify this fellow. Is he a Negro?”“Not really. He’s been painted. A lot of them have. That’s St. Dunstan. Don’t you see his tongs?”“What has he got tongs for?” the bishop asked rudely. He stared at the saint in a hostile way, his paunch thrust out.“He was working at his forge when the devil came to tempt him, and the saint seized his nose with red-hot pincers.”“I wonder what sort of temptations you might get while working at a forge.” The bishop peered into the darkness. “There are a lot of them, Father. You have more statues than any church in the diocese.” He passed on down the aisle. “How did you get them? Where did they come from?”“They were here before my time. They’ve always been here.”“You know that is impossible. They were someone’s decision. Who is this woman with the pliers? This place is like an ironmonger’s shop.”“That’s Apollonia. The Romans pulled her teeth out. She’s the patron saint of dentists.” Father Angwin looked up into the martyr’s downturned, expressionless face. He stooped and took a candle from the wooden box at the statue’s foot, and lit it from the solitary flame that burned below Dunstan. He carried it back with care, and fitted it into one of Apollonia’s empty candle-holders. “Nobody bothers with her. They don’t go in for dentistry here. Their teeth fall out quite early in life, and they find it a relief.”“Pass on,” said the bishop.“Here are my four Church Fathers. You will see St. Gregory in his Papal tiara.”“I cannot see anything.”“You must take my word for it. And St. Augustine, holding a heart, you see, pierced with an arrow. And the other Fathers here, St. Jerome with his little lion.”“It really is a very small beast.” The bishop leant forward, put himself nose to nose with it. “Not realistic at all.”Father Angwin put his hand on the lion’s arched mane, and traced the length of its stone back with his forefinger. “I like him the best of all the Fathers. I think of him in the desert with his wild eyes and his bare hermit’s knees.”“Who’s left?” said the bishop. “Ambrose. Ambrose with his hive.”“St. Beehive, the children call him. Similarly it was mentioned in the parish some two generations back that Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo, and since then I am afraid that there has been a great deal of confusion among the juveniles, passed on carefully, you see, by their parents.”The bishop made a little growl, deep in his throat. Father Angwin had the feeling that he had somehow played into the bishop’s hands; that the bishop would think that it mattered, if they were confused.“Can it matter?” he said quickly. “Look at St. Agatha here, poor Christian soul, carrying her breasts on a dish. Why is she the patron saint of bellfounders? Because a little mistake was made, with the shape; you can understand it. Why do we bless bread in a dish on 5 February? Because as well as looking like bells they look like bread rolls. It is a harmless mistake. It is more decent than the truth. It is less cruel.”They had passed by now almost to the back of the church, and in the north aisle, opposite them, there were more saints; St. Bartholomew clutched the knife with which he had been flayed, St. Cecilia her portable organ. A Virgin, with the foolish expression imparted by a sickly smile and a chipped nose, held her blue arms out stiffly under her drapery; and St. Theresa, the Little Flower, glowered from beneath her wreath of roses.The bishop crossed the church, and looked up into the Carmelite’s face, and tapped her foot. “I make exceptions, Father,” he said. “Our boys in the trenches of Flanders addressed their prayers through the Little Flower, and some of those who did so were I daresay not Catholic at all. There are saints for our time, Father, and this one here is a shining example to all Catholic womanhood. Perhaps this one may stay. I will give it consideration.”“Stay?” the priest said. “Where are they going?”“Out,” said the bishop succinctly. “And where, I care not. Somehow, Father Angwin, I shall drag you and your church and your parishioners into the 1950s, where we all quite firmly belong. I cannot have this posturing, Father, I cannot have this idolatry.”“But they are not idols. They are just statues. They are just representations.”“And if I were to walk out onto the street, Father, and I were to lay hold of one of your parishioners, do you think he would be able to distinguish, to my satisfaction, between that honour and reverence that we give the saints and that worship that belongs to God?”“Windbag,” said Father Angwin. “Dechristianizer. Saladin.” He pitched his voice up. “It isn’t what you think. But the people here are very deficient in the power of prayer. They are simple people. I am a simple man myself.”“I am aware of that,” the bishop said.“The saints have their attributes. They have their areas of interest. A congregation latches on to them.”“They must latch off,” said the bishop brutally. “I won’t have it. These are to go.”As he passed Michael the Archangel, Father Angwin looked up and saw the scales in which that saint weighs human souls, and he dropped his eyes to Michael’s foot: a bare, muscled, claw-like foot, that had sometimes seemed to him like the foot of an ape. He passed under the gallery, into the thicker, velvet blackness where St. Thomas himself, the Angelic Doctor, stood central and square on his plinth, his stone gaze on the high altar, and the star that he held in his fine hands shedding lightless rays into the greater dark.Copyright © 1989 by Hilary Mantel

Continues...

Excerpted from Fludd by Hilary Mantel Copyright © 2000 by Hilary Mantel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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