'You're thinking paternosterquisesincoelis'
It was just a room. A mean little room at the back of a mean little house, under All Hallows. But it was a room full of God.
‘Bet you’d like to see how I make my remedies,’ Davy had said – almost a taunt – when I took myself with cloak and basket round the apothecaries and stopped at his tatty display. He grinned for the passers-by. ‘Bet you’ve never seen real unicorn’s horn, eh, missis?’
The street boys cackled and poked each other with their elbows. I swallowed, ignored them, and nodded, wondering whether he was really just a lunatic after all, and he loped off eastwards, looking behind to make sure I was following.
He went on muttering. I caught some words on the wind as I hurried along behind, but nothing that made any sense. Once he turned round with a mad laugh and waved a dirty bottle taken from his pocket at me. ‘Elixir of truth!’ he shrieked cheerfully. ‘Let’s drink it!’ Then he ducked into an alleyway, beckoning me forward with a bony finger, and pushed into his home.
It stank. There was bedding at the back, rolled up; and at the front of the room a frowsty old woman in a chair picked half-heartedly at some needlework. There was a table in the window with a dozen or so sloppy bottles, half-full of greyish, yellowish stuff, and basins with more of the same indeterminate liquids half-covered with cloths like children’s games. Davy’s games, I presumed. The old woman looked up and her eyes widened at the sight of me. But she hid her surprise reasonably well. She didn’t put down her mending. ‘Good morning, mistress,’ she said with composure.
Davy took his craziness off like a cloak when he came indoors. ‘We’ll go to the room, Mum,’ he said calmly. ‘Will you let the others in later?’
We walked through the courtyard where two cats were hissing at each other and into the half-submerged cellar room at the back, whose walls were loaded with firewood, tools, bottles, a couple of shelves of foodstuffs and a couple of shelves, right at the back, of square shapes covered in cloth. There were three long trestle benches in the middle of the room.
‘Sit down,’ Davy said. ‘Please. Can I get you something? Wine?’ and he laughed, but a sane laugh now, perhaps even a little wry. ‘Elixir of truth?’
‘I’ve come to ask for the truth,’ I said seriously, and was encouraged to see him sit down on another bench and nod back with equally serious simplicity. ‘I think you know why. I want to know about the women you sent to me. The man who died. The Bible men and why my father hates them. I’m guessing you can tell me.’
He nodded. Considering. There was a gleam in those strange old eyes that I didn’t remember seeing before.
‘I’ve got a question for you first,’ he said. ‘What do you say when you pray?’
I paused. Watching his lips but not understanding the sounds they made. What kind of question was that?
‘I mean it. Think,’ he said. ‘What words do you pray with?’
And the candle gloom of the church swept through me; the mighty, measured words of God. Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium, et invisibilium. Et in unum Dominum, Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de luminae, Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt … Pater noster, quis es in coelis; sanctificetur nomen tuum: ad veniat regnum tuum: fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo, et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem.
‘You’re thinking paternosterquisesincoelis, aren’t you?’ he said, watching my face. ‘You’re thinking nenosinducasintentationem.’
Then, without a word, he got up and went to the back of the room. I thought he was going to show me the books that seemed to be hidden under the cheesecloth wrappings on the shelf. But he ignored them. He pulled at the logs underneath, and from behind them came different cloth-wrapped packages. He brought one back to show me, unwrapping it as he went.
The book was octavo format, small enough to fit in a pocket or a bag. A loose piece of paper was inserted at the front. He pulled it out and put it under my nose. ‘This is the Paternoster too,’ he said roughly. ‘I don’t speak Latin. I don’t know many people who do. This is the word of God for anyone who doesn’t. This is the word of God, given to everyone who’s been shut out of heaven by the priests. Do you recognise it?’
It was printed in neat Gothic type. Just a page. I looked at the first simple English words, ‘Oure father which arte in heuene halowed be thy name’, and let it flutter back into my lap. I had a sinking feeling I’d gone too far in search of my own truth; there was a sickness in my stomach at the danger I was courting. But I could feel the exhilaration inside too – the thud of my heart, the lightness in my limbs. If I’d never understood the words of the Church until now, I’d have been transfigured by that sentence on the page.
‘Show me more,’ I said.
He gave me that bright sparrow look again, then opened the book for me: ‘I am the floure of the felde, and lyles of the valeyes. As the aple-tre amonge the tres of the wood so is my beloved amonge the sons: in his shadow was my desire to sitt … Beholde my beloved sayde to me: up and haste my love, my dove, my bewtifull and come, for now is wynter gone and rayne departed and past … Up haste my love, my dove, in the holes of the rocke and secret places of the walles …’
‘“Up and haste my love, my dove, my beautiful…”’ I echoed, aloud, surprised again to be moved by this unexpected loveliness of humdrum English words.
He nodded. Satisfied.
‘You like it,’ he said. ‘I thought you would. I’ve been watching you for a long time. I know what you are, however much Latin and Greek you speak, however much you seem like one of them: you’re an innocent at heart.
‘Stay here for a bit, though, and you’ll see the real innocents arrive: people who have never understood the Bible, because it’s in Latin. Simple people who have gone to church all their lives, but not understood a word of what the priests are saying, just stood there muttering “Amen” and “God save me” and thinking the Host is a magic token. People who’ve been told they face hellfire unless they do whatever the priests want. People who’ve had to pay, and pay, and pay again to save themselves from what the priests tell them will be eternal hellfire. An angel for a Mass here. A mark for a wedding there. People who have always lived in mortal fear of the priests, because only the priests understand the word of God, and the priests always want more money than they have. People who come to me now for the books that show them they can know the truth for themselves, and are transformed by it.
‘I’m not one of them – the innocents. My old dad was a Lollard. He believed in an English Bible for everyone who speaks English. So I never knew him. He died before I was born – at the stake. They did burnings, every now and then, even before your dad. But at least because of my dad I grew up knowing the Word of God. Some of it, at least. St James. He’d written it out, and they never managed to find the manuscript. My mum hid it. We learned it by heart.
‘The Church is a blessing for the higher orders of society; for everyone else it’s a dark mystery. A torment. Stay, and you’ll see what hearing the Word of God for the first time can do. How knowing the truth of the Bible shows people they can be free from the tyranny of the Church.’
His face was blazing with intensity.
‘But Davy,’ I stammered, startled by the logic and force of his argument. ‘My father’s fighting the Bible men because he says they bring evil into the world. Are you saying you believe the Church is evil? And my father too?’
He cackled unpleasantly at the mention of Father, then collected himself. ‘Look. What I believe is that no one in this struggle is truly evil. There are just two sides. On your dad’s side are the people who believe in tradition – who think all those centuries of Popes and princes of the Church and benefices and bribes are Christ’s body on Earth. People who believe that the Princes of Rome need panthers and leopards and elephants and palaces and armies and to make their bastards into cardinals, and that it’s all right for them to pay for it by gouging millions of fees for anathemas and fake relics from ordinary people. The people who turn a blind eye to the fact that enough wood to build a battleship is said to have come from the True Cross. And on the other side there are people – like me – who believe that being a Christian means they’re allowed to have a simple conversation with God without having to pay a priest for the privilege. People who believe that if all you have to do is truly believe and your sins will be forgiven, that all these exorcisms the priests go in for – and all these Church hallowings of wine, bread, wax, water, salt, oil, incense, vestments, mitres, cross, pilgrim’s staves, you name it – are no better than witchcraft. That a worldly Pope has no power to make a saint. That a Church full of lucky charms is no better than a synagogue of Satan. That’s my side. I can’t see why anyone would call that evil. If I can’t understand the words, there’s no more point in my saying ‘Paternoster’ than ‘bibble babble’, is there? And if I can’t understand what they’re saying in Church, and all I get is some priest jumping in my face telling me I’ll be damned unless I give him my money, aren’t I better off praying in a field? Or here?’
There was a tap at the door. ‘Cover up,’ Davy hissed, and I tweaked my hood over my bonnet. It was cold in the cellar. A tiny old man came in, with a cloak over him so shaggy and simple it looked more like a blanket. He gave me a fearful look. ‘Don’t worry,’ Davy told him. ‘She’s new, but I know her.’ The man nodded three or four times, and sat down with his arms wrapped round himself at the end of the farthest bench, but went on giving me wary glances.
They came in twos and threes after that, all poor folk, all huddled in thick worsteds and patched top gear. The last to arrive was the older of the two women who had been in my house. She looked startled to see me, but then she jutted her chin out defiantly and nodded. ‘Welcome, missis,’ she muttered, and the tiny old man calmed down and uncrossed his arms.
There was hardly any talk, just a mutter or two of greeting. When they were all assembled, Davy shut the door and read from the little book, in his cracked street-trader’s voice. ‘Come with a pure mind and, as the Scripture sayeth, with a single eye, unto the words of health and of eternal life,’ he said, ‘by which, if we repent and believe them, we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the blood of Christ. That blood crieth not for vengeance, as the blood of Abel. Instead it hath purchased life, love, favour, grace, blessing, and whatsoever is promised in the Scriptures to them that believe and obey God.’
I looked sideways at the woman who’d brought the dying boy to me. There were tears coming silent and unbidden down her grey cheeks. I knew her to be in grief, but something about her rapturous expression suggested these were tears of joy. ‘So shalt thou not despair,’ Davy went on, ‘but shall feel God as a kind and a merciful father; and his spirit shall dwell in thee, and shall be strong in thee, and the promise shall be given thee at the last.’
Now the little old man stepped forward, his fear of me forgotten, his face lit up with happiness. ‘When I began to smell the word of God,’ he began modestly, and the group turned towards him with a drawing-in of breath, ‘it so exhilarated my heart – which before was wounded with the guilt of my sins until I was almost in despair – that immediately I felt a marvellous comfort and quietness, so much so that my bruised bones leapt for joy.
‘The churchmen would say I’ve lost my faith. But I say this. Scripture has become more delicious to me than honey or the honeycomb, because in it I learn that all my torments, all my fasting, all my vigils, all the redemption of masses and pardons, being done without trust in Christ, who alone can save his people from their sins, these, I say, I learned to be nothing but a headlong rush away from the truth.’ There were more quiet sobs of relief, and more wet cheeks, as he stepped up to kiss the book in Davy’s hand.
Beyond a bit of banter in the street while I was buying something from a street trader, or a chat with one of the maids at home, I’d never have talked to people like these in the usual run of my life. Watching their faces light up with exaltation now, I realised I probably hadn’t even thought of them as knowing how to talk other than in the cheeky chat of traders. Except when I was treating their wounds and ailments, that was; when I remembered that if you pricked the poor they bled just like the next man. But I certainly hadn’t expected this depth of emotion, this passion for truth. I felt humbled by it.
They knew when to stop. When the only candle had burned down to its mark, they wrapped the books up and hid them behind the logs again and filed out, as quiet as they’d come, into the courtyard and off in their different directions. ‘Will you take me home, Davy?’ I asked, sitting on my bench, quiet with my impressions.
‘I haven’t told you answers to the questions you asked,’ he said, as we slipped out into the alley. ‘Showing you this was the best I could do.’
I nodded. ‘It was a good answer,’ I said, at peace with his new sane self now.
‘You go up to the top, and left and left again into Walbrook. Best I don’t go with you,’ he said. He shouldered his bag. ‘I’ve got business to do. Unicorn’s horn business.’ And he winked at me, then grinned crazily and danced off down the dirty little street, every inch the cheerful madman again.