Men of the Cloth (1)
May 15, 2012
First Published in In Stitches Magazine, December 1996
How the minister learned about sex
In today’s egalitarian society it may be hard to believe that once upon a time some members of a community were held in greater respect than the rest of the common herd. In rural Ulster the possession of a higher education was thought to confer exalted status. The pecking order among the upper echelons wasn’t always clear, but it was fair to say that the local teachers, physicians and men of the cloth were somewhere at the top of the heap.
In his own eyes at least, Doctor Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly, stood at the apex. Mind you, the challengers for top spot were a motley crew.
Mr. Featherstonehaugh, the teacher, besides having a name that could strangle a pig, was as tall and skinny as a yard of pump water and suffered from what was known charitably as a “terrible strong weakness.” (Which is to say that any pupil foolish enough to come within two feet of Mr. F. was at some danger of suffering skin burns from the whiskey fumes of the permanently pissed pedagogue’s pulmonary products.)
Father Fitzmurphy was a quiet man who’d taken his vows of humility so seriously that his presence was scarcely noticed. Compared to Father Fitz., Uriah Heep would have looked like a blatant self-promoter.
On the other side of the sectarian divide, the Presbyterian Church was represented by a senior and a junior minister. The senior minister, Rev. Manton Basket, was middle-aged and very tall across, an allusion to the fact that he was in no danger of being suspected of suffering from any form of anorexia. The junior, Mr. Angus McWheezle, was of Scottish descent. Actually he hadn’t so much descended as plummeted — the kind of man who would have given Charles Darwin some very difficult times wondering if he hadn’t got things quite right and perhaps the apes were in fact offspring of the clan McWheezle.
O’Reilly, while nominally of the Protestant persuasion, could not have been described as devout. Well, he could, but it would have been like attributing feelings of piety and love for all mankind to that well-known philanthropist, A. Hitler. Business, however, was business, and O’Reilly did attend morning services on Sundays if only to try to persuade his potential customers that he was a worthy physician.
You may well wonder why I’m telling you all this. Bear with me. O’Reilly’s relationships with both of the Presbyterian ministers are worth the relating.
“Good to see you, Doctors.” Rev. Manton Basket beamed at O’Reilly and me over his chins as he stood outside the church door greeting the departing members of his flock. He had a paternal arm draped over the shoulder of his eldest son, a spherical boy of about 12. The rest of the tribe, all five of them, were lined up in a row, tallest on the right, shortest on the left, like a set of those chubby Russian dolls.
O’Reilly nodded as he passed the Baskets. “Powerful sermon, your reverence,” he said, but he kept hurrying on. I was well aware that he found old Basket dry and, as you know, Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly’s preferences tended more to the wet — the wet that even now was waiting for him in the upstairs sitting room over the surgery.
“You should have heard his sermons when he came here first,” O’Reilly said to me. “I’ll tell you all about them when we get home.”
I had to lengthen my stride to keep up with O’Reilly, who moved from a walk to a canter to practically a full-blown gallop as he neared the source of his sustenance. He relaxed once he was ensconced in his favourite armchair, briar belching, fist clutching a glass of what he’d referred to as his communion wine.
“Where was I?”
I settled into the chair opposite and prepared for another of O’Reilly’s reminiscences.
“When?” I asked.
“Not ‘when,’ ‘where.’”
“Not ’what,’ not ‘when’ … where.”
“No,” I said, feeling the inexorable tug of yet another of those moments with O’Reilly when the circuitousness of the conversation began to feel like the Maelstrom. I knew how old Capt. Nemo must have felt as the Nautilus sank lower and lower. “I meant what did you mean when you asked, ‘Where?’”
“Silly question.” He exhaled in his best Puff the Magic Dragon fashion. “I should have asked, ’Who?’”
“When?” It just slipped out.
“Don’t you start.”
Fortunately he was in one of his expansive moods. He laughed and handed me his empty glass. “Who do you think Manton was?”
“Why?” The sight of the tip of O’Reilly’s nose beginning to pale pulled me up short. I refilled his glass and waited.
“Manton was a minor prophet.” He accepted the tumbler. “That’s who his reverence is named after.”
I admit I was pleased to be so informed. It was a name I’d never heard before.
“Came from a very strict family. That’s why you should have heard his sermons when he first came here.”
“Fire and brimstone?”
“And how.” O’Reilly chuckled. “You could have felt the spits of him five pews back.” O’Reilly sipped his drink. “He’s a decent man, Manton Basket. Unworldly, of course.”
I was about to ask what that meant when O’Reilly continued. “When he first came here he put an awful amount of effort into denouncing the sins of the flesh.”
“Including gluttony?” I inquired, thinking of Dumbo, Jumbo and the Rev. Manton Basket.
“No. Just the sexual kind.” O’Reilly made a sucking noise through his pipe. The gurgling was like the sound of the run-off through a partially clogged bath-drain. “Pity was, he hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.”
O’Reilly rose and stretched and ambled to the big bay window. “Aye. He’d been here about two years when he came to see me professionally. Seemed he and the wife couldn’t get pregnant.” O’Reilly turned away from the view of Belfast Lough. “Bit tricky asking a man of the cloth about his procreative efforts. Even worse, his sermon the week before had been about the sin of Onan.”
“Yeah. The bloke who spilled his seed on the ground and got clobbered by a thunderbolt for his pains.”
The “bit tricky” became clearer.
“Fingal, how did you persuade Rev. Basket to provide a sperm sample? Bottle in one hand, lightning conductor in the other?”
“Didn’t have to.” O’Reilly looked smug. “That’s the advantage of a bit of local knowledge. I just asked him to describe exactly what he and his wife did.”
“Every night for two years they’d knelt together by the bed and prayed for offspring.”
“That was all?”
“Aye. I had to put his stumbling feet on the paths of righteousness, so to speak.”
“Good Lord. How did he take that?”
O’Reilly chuckled. “Frostily. Very frostily at first.”
I had a quick mental picture of the six little Baskets.
“Ice must have thawed a bit when he got home.”
“And he was a big enough man to thank me. He is a decent man.” A cloud passed over O’Reilly’s sunny countenance. “Not like that weasel McWheezle.”
“The assistant minister?”
Before O’Reilly could reply, Mrs. Kincaid stuck her head round the door. “Dinner’s ready, Doctors.”
“Come on,” said O’Reilly, “Grub. I’ll tell you about McWheezle over dinner.”
To be continued.