Located in West London, St. Jude’s parish traditionally serves the poor Irish immigrants of the area, and the grouchy Father Duddleswell is an ideal leader for the group. Joining him is the young Father Neil, who serves as an even-keeled aide during the many times Duddleswell finds himself in hot water.
This compendium of adventures is sure to delight fans of the series as St. Jude’s adds another member to its clergy: Father Abe, an octogenarian with an agenda of his own. The St. Jude’s staff finds themselves embroiled in a rivalry among undertakers, a visit during Holy Week from the bishop with the longest rosary on record, a harebrained scheme to promote holy water as a fertility enhancer, and a night spent under a pool table during a pilgrimage.
Equal parts funny, sweet, and moving, Father Under Fire is a touching portrait of London in the early 1950s.
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Father Under Fire
By Neil Boyd
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Neil Boyd
All rights reserved.
A Legend Comes to Stay
At St Jude's the impossible was commonplace. This meant that if you were wise and prepared yourself for the worst you were never very far wrong.
Almost the sole reason for this state of affairs was Fr Duddleswell, my parish priest. 'As twisted as a corkscrew and as slippery as sea-weed' was how our housekeeper, Mrs Pring, expressed it. 'As wily as a wagon-load of monkeys' was the verdict of Billy Buzzle, the friendly Bookie who lived next door.
How Fr Duddleswell came to acquire this reputation in the first place I had no idea. But enlightenment began to dawn at breakfast on the Monday of Holy Week 1951.
'Jasus,' Fr Duddleswell exploded, 'Father Abraham Cody has invited himself to stay.'
I looked at the letter in his hand and, highly sensitive now to disaster, enquired tongue-in-cheek if this was good news or bad.
He mockingly dabbed me with a fat finger across the table and rushed to the kitchen to tell Mrs Pring that the first parish priest he was ever curate to would be with us from Wednesday.
'As if Holy Week is not fierce hard enough already without this,' he shouted out, a mixture of gladness and gloom.
Father Abe was a legend and I was looking forward to meeting him. Fr Duddleswell's tales of him would have whetted any appetite.
'When Father Abe preached one of his hot sermons on sex and marriage,' he reminded me on returning from the kitchen, 'no child was born in his parish for at least a year. And when the poor starved couples got at it again, did not even the married women hide their bulges from him as best they could?'
'Impressive,' I said, and I really thought it was, though I had heard the story a dozen times before.
'Impressive,' Fr Duddleswell whistled, 'he was that. All 225 pounds of him. He had a chestnut mare in those days, sturdy enough, true, but with him on her back the poor beast had a maximum speed of three miles per hour.'
'Like a London bus,' commented Mrs Pring, who had just come in.
'He took a broom with him everywhere, Father Neil, to scratch her underbelly with when she wouldn't shift.'
'Don't get any ideas,' Mrs Pring warned.
'Rumour was, though I never witnessed this meself, that once he had to carry the horse home himself.'
Mrs Pring and I looked at each other and, infected by his gaiety, laughed aloud.
'What a voice on him. When he turned round for the Dominus vobiscum at Mass he threw out his two arms like the antlers of a mighty stag and gave a great rutting roar.' Tears were streaming down his chubby cheeks unchecked at the memory of the joys of old. 'And his confessional whisper, ah I tell you, 'twould have split his box even were it made of stone.'
'This is Father Abe, lad.'
Fr Duddleswell made the introduction in his study. After all the legendary talk it was hard to believe that this diminutive, cassocked, harmless-looking figure in the armchair was the Abraham Cody. Expecting a giant of a man, I found something resembling an angora rabbit.
Father Abe had white silky hair brushed downwards to make a fringe. Beneath the fringe were white eyebrows, white moustaches and a white tufted beard. Gripped in his tiny white teeth was a big Havana cigar.
'I've heard a lot about you, Father,' I stammered.
From lips open and round, Father Abe exhaled a mouthful of smoke. As he did so, a vivacious smile spread across his lined, corduroy-like face.
'Shut the door, laddy,' he ordered. 'That draught would knock a nail in.'
I apologized and did as I was told. After which, from his armchair, the old priest sized me up. His voice had a habit of switching alarmingly from bass to treble and back again.
'Little Charlie here' – he speared the culprit with his cigar – 'tells me that you are closer to him than his vest and pants.'
'Father Abe, I did not say anything of the sort,' Fr Duddleswell objected.
Father Abe tapped the top of his cigar with his index finger and splurted ash in the direction of his former curate. 'Will you be silent, little Charlie, till I've said my fill.'
'I am truly sorry, Father Abe.'
'Don't be sorry, little Charlie, just fetch me a bottle of rum.'
'Father Abe,' Fr Duddleswell tutted unconvincingly, 'how d'you think we can get the price of a bottle of rum in this parish?'
'Your snug wee parish is rotten with the money. So lean over the gate there and whisper me where you keep the rum.'
Fr Duddleswell sadly shook his head. 'Father Neil will confirm that we have more debts than an Irish farmer.'
Having no choice I confirmed we were afloat with bills.
'Not that I am worrying on that score,' Fr Duddleswell said piously. 'Did not our Blessed Lord Himself say that the poor are happy in some deep sense?'
'Too deep for me,' Father Abe retorted.
"Tis true,' Fr Duddleswell came back, grinning, 'in spite of our Lord's words, I have never yet known a priest made miserable by a £5 Mass stipend.'
Father Abe ignored a remark intended to put him off the track. He stuck his cigar in the corner of his mouth and showed Fr Duddleswell the palms of his hands. 'Didn't I always teach you, little Charlie, these things are for giving.'
Fr Duddleswell momentarily lost his cool. 'For giving bread not stones, fish not snakes.'
'Ah,' Father Abe burst out, basso profondo, 'rank codology and you know it. Wasn't I daft mad to keep you with me those fifteen years, and teach you all I knew and feed you and clothe you and house you? Wasn't I? When you turned out a dirty little scab who pays me on the shins?' He swept his smoke aside with both hands like the curtains in the morning. 'Listen,' he piped disparagingly, 'I should have tested my friend before I needed him.'
Fr Duddleswell went on his knees by the armchair near which rested Father Abe's big brown suitcase and a small hessian sack, contents unknown.
'Father Abe, the doctor from the Priests' Home tells me that only a spider's web separates you from Heaven.'
'Don't sadden yourself at my death, little Charlie,' Father Abe said, touching Fr Duddleswell's arm tenderly, 'just fetch me the rum like a good lad.'
Father Abe took a liking to me from the first and I liked him. I agreed with Mrs Pring when she whispered to me, 'What a charmer. That one could get a spider to darn his socks for him.'
After lunch, while Fr Duddleswell was taking a siesta, Father Abe and I chatted in my room. He invited me to sit down with, 'Put your canal end down there, laddy.'
I was staggered to find that he was 'within a stone's throw of ninety', as he put it.
Ordained in 1888, he was already forty years a priest when I first saw the light of day. In fact, he was born before Gandhi and St Thérèse of Lisieux. When St Bernadette died in 1878 he was thirteen. When the poet Rupert Brooke died in 1915 he had reached his half-century.
'When I was fourteen years of age, laddy,' he said, 'we had a day off from school.' I shrugged to show I couldn't guess why. 'Because Newman was made a Cardinal, don't you know?'
'Of course,' I said, amazed.
'When he died in 1890, I said Mass for his soul. He wasn't such a bad feller in his own way, in spite of having once been a Protestant.'
'Which part of Ireland do you come from, Father?' I asked.
'New York,' he said. 'At any rate, I was born in the land across the herring pond. My parents took the boat there after the Famine. In those days the young Kerry men looked to the States as the old did to Heaven. Natural, I suppose, what with the Statue of Liberty in the next parish.'
Father Abe took a big puff and released the smoke slowly, meticulously, as if the shape of it had to be exactly right.
'My father, God rest him, adored America.'
'I suppose he died there, Father.'
'Not at all. He couldn't bear to finish his days outside Ireland. He came home like the salmon.'
I knew the jargon. 'So he was a Returned Yank, Father.'
He nodded. 'That's how I got my name, Abraham.'
'It's common over there, is it, Father?'
'Dear God, did little Charlie never tell you? I was born on 14 April 1865.'
'I was born on the day Abraham Lincoln got the bullet.'
'My first parish priest, Father Tim McCoy, never let me forget it. Every time I entered the room the Big Man started up on the Gettysburg Address.'
I must have laughed loud enough to waken Fr Duddleswell.
'Father Tim, he had the age all right. He was born in '23. Holy God, the tales he had to tell. About the Famine and Uncle Tom's Cabin when it first appeared and the, definition of Papal Infallibility at the Vatican Council and the Charge of the Light Brigade and, of course, Abe Lincoln, "a true-born king of men" he called him, being gunned down by that damned mad-man.'
My brain was beginning to reel from its proximity to ancient history when Fr Duddleswell poked his head round the door. Before he could speak, Father Abe said:
'If the Well of Hospitality is dry here, little Charlie, I want no word from you, not one.'
'But, Father Abe,' Fr Duddleswell began pathetically.
'Black luck to you, little Charlie, and goodbye.'
'Pick up your feet and put 'em outside that door.'
Fr Duddleswell grimaced, from physical pain, I thought, muttered something about the only thing in common between Father Abe and Jesus on His cross was the thirst, and withdrew.
'As I was saying, laddy, Father Tim McCoy was a priest and a half. Of course, he was already sixty-five years old when I met him here in London. I tell you, he could whip Mass over faster than I could hear a child's confession.'
It occurred to me that Father Tim was another legend that closer inspection might have shrunk somewhat.
'I remember the Big Man well,' Father Abe continued, gesturing eloquently with his cigar.
'A tall, flat Frankenstein forehead. A big red slice of nose, then a longer piece added like an extension. A square jaw that always looked as if it needed a shave even after he shaved, which wasn't often, I grant. And the eyes. He could put in a walnut like a monocle, bring down his lid and crack, that was the end of that.'
'Quite a character,' I said. My delight in the description stimulated him further.
'A great porter drinker. His huge bald head always stuck in a nose-bag of beer. "Father Tim," I'd say to him, "you'd not stop from drinking your black oats even for the Angelus." "Abe," says Father Tim, "I'd finish me drink even if St Michael blew the Last Trump." And I believe he would.'
'He sounds great fun, Father.'
'Mad as a golfer. I recall the time we had a guest preacher for the feast of Mary's Motherhood. This Passionist was extolling the Holy Mother's virtues. "So humble was she," says the preacher, "she didn't mind even washing her Son's socks." And didn't Father Tim jump up in the pulpit and drag him out of there and himself crying, "You blasted heretic, to think that our Blessed Saviour needed having His socks washed."'
'I never heard that heresy mentioned in the seminary,' I said.
'Ah, but he was a great patriot, was Father Tim. Why, he died of loyalty to Ireland.'
I asked how.
'Well, y'see, laddy, it was all my fault really. He was nearing his end when I, foolishly hoping to cheer him up, started singing The Wearing o' the Green. And didn't a lump rise in his throat so he choked to death.'
To get him to poke more embers in him into a flame I said, 'You've seen a lot in your lifetime, Father.'
'I have, laddy, and there's a lot still to see.'
I smiled and perhaps he interpreted it as disbelief.
'It's true,' he insisted. 'A tin-pot philosopher, Aristotle I think, said once that life seems long to the young and short to the old.'
'Holy God, not at all. I fully realize I'm on the north side of age and destined soon for the boneyard. Yet I don't feel in the least what you'd call old. The years are like sins, I suppose. It's slyly they mount up.' He smiled broadly at me. 'If I was told by an angel I had only five minutes left me I would fill it with life. I would swallow huge chunks of life. Those five minutes would seem endless' – his cigar was at arm's length – 'marvellous and endless. And believe you me, laddy, I wouldn't die quiet.' He shook his snowy head. 'Noisy as an Italian tenor, that's how I would snuff it.'
I murmured something silly about hoping he wouldn't die soon.
'Thank you, laddy,' he said warmly. 'For me, each day is a miracle. We old 'uns are the mountaineers, y'see. Each step we take is priceless and perilous and, after it, we stop and tell ourselves, Oh how grand it is to be alive. And we see this big view and feel breathless with the climb and the sheer joy of staving off death thus far. And, like Moses, you could say, we're glad we reached the mountain peak.'
'A nice thought, Father.'
'But why bother anyway?' he said, as if all of a sudden he did not care a fig for a long life. 'If I die tomorrow, laddy, the grass'll still grow, the sun shine and the nights bring the cool. I don't matter a damn. I'll feed the soil that fed me, and that's all about it.'
With that he stubbed out his cigar, jumped up with surprising agility and went to the door.
'Going for a rest, Father?'
'Not at all. Come with me, laddy.'
I followed him downstairs. To my surprise, he opened the front door and marched down the street. From his cassock pocket he drew a real old Gawd-blimey cap, tartan-patterned, and pressed it on the back of his head.
'Hurry, laddy,' he called over his shoulder, 'so we don't have to rush.'
When we reached the High Street, he hailed a cab, bundled me in and gave the destination: 'The Royal Hospital, Chelsea.'
I had always wanted to visit the famous retirement home for old soldiers designed by Wren but why we should be going there now was beyond me. On the way, Father Abe provided no illumination. Instead, he lit up and filled the cab with fog.
The cabby dropped us off outside the main entrance of the Royal Hospital. I was clearly expected to pay the dues. But having been led from my study so abruptly I was in no position to do so.
'Never you mind, laddy,' Father Abe said soothingly. He took out a silver fob watch and dangled it in front of the driver's eyes. 'Will this do?' he enquired.
The cabby looked at the meter with seven shillings on it and grunted, 'I suppose it'll have to.' He grabbed the watch and drove off in a huff.
'I'm sorry you lost your watch, Father,' I said.
Father Abe shook his head as he lit up a fresh cigar. 'No matter. It wasn't worth a halfpenny. The damn thing stopped twenty years ago.'
'Why then, did you carry it around all this time?'
'Didn't it come in handy in an emergency?' he said, puffing away furiously. 'Mind you, it means I have to alter my will. I left it to little Charlie.'
Father Abe seemed to know his way around the place. Instead of giving me a tour of the chapel and the dining room, he walked me to an outhouse overlooking the Thames.
There we were greeted by a bluff old soldier with a puce-coloured face and huge grey moustaches. Clad in his dark, everyday uniform, he was pottering around among tomato plants. He and Father Abe greeted each other like long-lost brothers.
'This is Corporal Kennedy, laddy,' I was told. 'A hero of the War.'
I knew it wasn't World War II he was referring to.
'When the Corporal here wears all his medals he can't walk.'
The old soldier beamed. 'Come for a drop of the cratur, Father?'
Father Abe nodded. 'I'm as dry as a bean, Ted.' He touched his cigar. 'I'm told the smell of this would put a skunk on his back. Hope it won't destroy your plants.'
Corporal Kennedy emitted a throaty chuckle. 'Give 'em a bit of a lift, I shouldn't wonder.'
For a quarter of an hour, while they sipped the contents of a secret still, I listened to them discussing the War. I heard names like Mafeking and Ladysmith and increased considerably my repertoire of what in the seminary we called 'unparliamentary language'. The honk of the occasional barge going under Chelsea Bridge punctuated the conversation.
Then: 'Thank you kindly, Ted. Must be on my way.'
The Corporal accompanied us down the drive and to Chelsea Bridge Road where we flagged down a taxi.
'Do you have a decent convent in the parish, laddy?' I said yes, understanding I was to give the address to the cabby.
As we drove off, Corporal Kennedy saluted us and Father Abe responded by waving his cigar.
'I shall tell the Mother Superior,' Father Abe said, turning to me, 'that I am a good friend of Father Duddleswell.'
'You'd do better,' I replied, 'if you told her you are his worst enemy.'
'Mother Superior,' Father Abe said, greeting the giant-sized Mother Stephen in the polished parlour, 'I am the worst enemy of the parish priest in these parts.'
'Be seated, Father Cody,' Mother Stephen ordered sweetly, smelling an ally. When we had obeyed: 'What can I do for you?'
Father Abe took out a crumpled piece of paper. 'The Superior at the Priests' Home where I'm living at present, she gave me this. A prescription for a dose of spirits to keep my rheumatics in check.'
'And Father Duddleswell refuses to comply with Mother's command,' Mother Stephen said shrilly.
'I am afraid that is the case, Mother.'
A minute or so later, Mother Stephen returned with a silver tray on which was a glass of rum.
Outside, where the taxi was waiting to take us home, Father Abe patted me on the back. 'Thanks for the tip, laddy. But for you, that visit would have been a waste of time. Like castrating a curate.'
Excerpted from Father Under Fire by Neil Boyd. Copyright © 1980 Neil Boyd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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.
Table of Contents
ContentsONE A Legend Comes to Stay,
TWO High Jinks at St Jude's,
THREE The Deadly Rivals,
FOUR Holy Water,
FIVE Blessings from Heaven,
SIX Beddings and Weddings,
SEVEN A Mixed-Up Marriage,
EIGHT Christine and Isaac,
NINE The Pilgrimage,
TEN A Night to Remember,
ELEVEN Little Sinners and Little Saints,
TWELVE Goodbye to St Jude's,
About the Author,