144. The Enclosed Garden

TODAY THE JURY WILL return its verdict, the judge will bring down his sentence and, despite the considerable resources devoted to my case, I will no doubt be found guilty. The evidence is, after all, as incontrovertible as it is damning. Tonight I will be sleeping in a new bed, in a new cell, in a new prison. It is tempting to think it will be my last bed, my last home, for I am now an old man, but we have a habit of living long lives. Our bodies tend to outlast the will to live. I recall Patrick McKenzie, who doddered on well into his nineties, grumbling he had had enough for the last two decades of his life, or the centenarian Ian Monroe, who supposedly stopped eating and drinking, surviving only on communion bread and altar wine once a day: he lived another three years, until we realised he’d been pilfering the communion bread and taking extra gulps of the wine, thus demonstrating that what that awful, sweet elixir lacks in subtlety it makes up for in nutritional value. In another age Rome would have considered such an indomitable will to live grounds for beatification, no doubt. Of course, McKenzie and Monroe were men of another generation, made of sterner stuff. All my life I wondered where such men found their solace. Were they like me – like us? Finally I decided they were not. Masochism was more their thing, with a side helping of sadism. Of course, such isms did not exist in those days. Oh, there must have been some among them – pederasts, they were called back then. I remember Father George from primary school and the way he used to take my willy in his stubby little fingers on the pretext of a weekly medical examination. But they were not so common. On the whole, that generation was hollowed out from the beginning, by war and famine and deprivation. No such luck for mine. We were born after the war, into a vastly different world. We were undone by optimism, which gradually became entitlement. We had hardly entered the seminary when the pill was invented, when abortion was legalised, thus depriving Rome of two-thirds of its raison d'ĂȘtre. For a while it seemed Rome would go along with the new status quo. For a while in our youth we were encouraged to believe that our God could be anyone’s God, that heaven and hell were right here on Earth, that the old pretexts for murder were now suddenly immaterial. Then Rome changed its mind. Someone must have realised the price we would all have to pay. There were interests to protect, bricks and mortar to preserve. Rome poured cold water over all that fervour soon enough, but even so by then something had changed. Our passions were in flames and not all the water of the river Tiber could extinguish them. If we were not to be allowed to believe in a new kind of church, we could hardly be expected to believe in the church of that previous generation of stoics. Ours wasn't a stoic generation. We had become the protectors of something that was in survival mode. All that was required of us was our faith. We were told from faith alone all else would follow. Our minds were required only for the purpose of making incommensurate things seem whole. It seemed wiser to turn them off. The catch, of course, is that it is a difficult thing to turn off a mind. It is perhaps the most difficult thing of all, especially for a young man, a man in the prime of his life, a man encouraged to believe and yet whose entire existence is devoted to an institution he cannot truly believe in, not if he were to be truly honest with himself. In that sense, we too were hollow men, like the stoics of old. Only instead of revelling in the emptiness, like a penitent in a cathedral, we filled it. What with? With all the projected images of the new world being built outside, a world not intended for us, a world we were expected to renounce. We were that most dangerous thing: men whose dreams have been thwarted and who no longer believe in anything. Moreover, our minds were not disciplined by the usual barriers to satisfaction – wives, children to rear, food to provide, mortgages to pay – and so were free to roam at will, into the furthest recesses of the possible, finding the finest, subtlest pleasures precisely where it was most forbidden. And as a free mind is the most prone to boredom, it was only a matter of time before our bodies followed, by which time they followed naturally – not without the usual flutters of heartstrings, of course, but such palpitation at the threshold only increase the satisfactions to be found within. Some resisted longer than others, of course, but when it was clear that they were depriving themselves of low-hanging fruit while others gambolled in an enclosed garden, resistance proved futile. Some of us became terribly indiscreet, threatening to give the whole game away. When one of us got himself into a spot of difficulty, however, the institution we were ordained to protect came to our succour. That was the quid pro quo. The bricks and mortar needed protecting, and there were fewer and fewer soldiers willing to do it. So as long as we took the necessary precautions, exercised a modicum of discretion, and showed sufficient remorse when things went wrong, we could count on Rome. And such sweet fruits have I tasted! The Adams, the Andrews and Anthonys – not to mention the rest of the alphabet, all such sweet, suburban boys, romantics at heart, really, at least until they were in the throes – and then they enjoyed themselves all the more, I made sure of that. It was necessary, of course – later, I could turn their own pleasure against them, I could accuse them of things that would keep their mouths shut - but for how long? I never thought that far ahead. My strategy was good for ten, twenty, thirty years, but today I will be judged for crimes committed more than forty years ago. Still, now that I no longer have an appetite for life, a spell in prison seems a small price to pay. Prison, after all, isn't all that different to the church. These days they put you in a special prison, away from vengeful spirits – I imagine a dotage spent revelling in the aftertaste, sharing fruit-picking stories with likeminded souls. The funny thing, though, is how a mind will never be satisfied. When I look back, it isn’t the boys who acquiesced I think of, the pliant ones, the ones I could bend to my will. It’s the fruit I couldn't eat, the boys who, for one reason or another, I could not have. The ones who resisted. The ones who refused me. The ones I never got to ask. The ones who saw me coming, or whose parents saw me coming. It is those boys who taunt me. It is those boys who haunt my dreams.