24 December 2006

Christmas Eve

The southerly wind I spoke of yesterday dropped temperatures to the point where my t-shirt and shorts were simply not adequate, so I was home and in bed by about 10 pm, meaning I was up and about by 6 am this morning, which for those of you who know me personally will sound nothing short of miraculous. Which meant, of course, that I didn't have much of anything to do with myself, since my first order of business was going to the gym, and the gym wasn't opening until 8 because of some religious deal called Christmas Eve.

So I pottered around until 8, mostly listening to the football reports on the BBC and horror stories about the drought on the ABC, before heading down to the gym at 8:10, where I found about 30 exercise-crazed Aussies standing about in the rain, waiting for someone to show up and open the place. Being Aussies, they were pretty genial about it; New Yorkers would have been pounding on the doors and stopping random passersby to vent their feelings on the subject. Finally one bloke's mobile rang, and after a brief conversation, he announced to the crowd that someone had overslept, but would be there in "five minutes." Which, converting for Aussie time, I reckoned at between ten and twenty minutes, which turned out to be just about right.

The rain, which had been bucketing down since about midnight, finally let up just in time for me to walk up to the cathedral for Sunday Mass, presided over by the cardinal against whom I'd been warned, and assisted by 37 (!) altar boys. Seriously, I just grabbed the number 37 out of my nonexistent hat to express the idea that there were an awful lot of them, but as they exited, I counted, and what do you know? Exactly 37! I must be psychotic, erm, you know, that other thing...

The cardinal himself did look like a right drongo (hope I've got that bit of Aussie slang right, but even if I don't, it sounds like something he'd be). He's an enormous man, almost looking like a giant, but walks very hunched over, a posture emphasised by the - I want to say mitre, but I'm pretty sure that's his special bishop's hat, and I'm even surer because there was a pub called the Bishop's Mitre down an alleyway from my old church in London, and it had a hat hanging over the entrance - so what I mean, I guess, is his crook. A body-length, curved walking staff of the sort you see shepherds using in Biblical epics, but it did look a bit like an implement of destruction in his hands.

I know it's probably horrible of me to say, but he did look a bit evil. Probably it was only projection on my part, but my mind kept running through the various films he could have been a villain from. A bit of Darth Vader, a bit Orc from Lord of the Rings, and definitely a whiff of the Dementor from Harry Potter. The latter created the strongest impression, especially since the singing altar/choir boys also had a bit of Hogwarts about them, and the guy standing next to me, a Malaysian or Sri Lankan who came crashing into the pew at the last minute, leaving wet footprints across the kneeler (he walked his way in on it, rather than waiting for anyone to get out of his way), said his prayers in an accent that was a dead ringer for Harry himself.

But any other cavils aside, the church, the music, the flowers and decorations were all superb, and Darth Dementor even managed a pretty decent sermon, what I could hear of it. Being one of those preposterously high-ceilinged pseudo-goth edifices, the echo action was in serious effect. Being that it was a pretty posh display all around, I was shocked, well, surprised, anyway, that people were dropping 20 and 50 cent coins in the collection plate, where I would have expected 5 or 10 dollar bills ($4 to $8 US, 2 to 4 quid UK). I myself put in nothing, for which I was a bit ashamed, but all I had was a $50 bill, and that was just a tiny bit more generous than I felt like being, so I resolved to make it up next time I went.

Then as I was leaving I was stopped by a bedraggled lady who started in with one of those stories which you just know is going to involve a relative she needs to visit in hospital or not having enough petrol to get back to Wagga Wagga. "I'm trying to raise $50," she said, and I instinctively (after you've spent enough time among the beggars of London or Berkeley, it becomes instinctive, anyway) said, "No, sorry."

Then, walking down the street, I suddenly thought I could have just handed her a $50 bill and if nothing else, shut her up instantly, and probably blown her mind. And it was only $40 US, or 20 quid (sorry, I can't figure out how to do pound signs on these Aussie keyboards). It wouldn't have killed me. Who knows, she might actually have needed it for something besides booze or drugs, and what the hell, it's Christmas Eve.

But I didn't, and when I looked around to see if she was still begging on the church steps, I couldn't see her anymore. I had one of those eerie visions, like what if she was Jesus himself in one of his little disguises, checking out the true faith of the people who profess to be Christians? On the other hand, as I've also often thought, is it really doing someone a favour to hand them the money they most likely will use to buy drugs or booze that are slowly (sometimes not so slowly) and surely killing them?

But there you go, an opportunity to do either considerable good or evil (and not know for sure which it was) presented and swiftly passing away, which gave me something to brood about all the way home. In the afternoon I slept, and then went out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping for myself, which I managed by about five minutes, as the shops were all closing an hour before I'd anticipated. I needed a beach towel and some sunscreen (this is being very optimistic of me, and even the chemist who sold me the sunscreen remarked, "Good luck on finding some sun"), but tomorrow marks the great Aussie pilgrimage to the beach with which they seem to celebrate Christmas hereabouts, and should the sun put in a long-awaited appearance, I don't want to be unprepared. Having just arrived from the pale-skinned Northern Hemisphere, I couldn't risk more than 20 minutes in full sun without doing some serious damage.

And by the time I was finished, I'd spent almost as much as the poor old beggar lady had been asking for outside the cathedral, and once again felt a bit ashamed of myself, and a bit bewildered as well. How are you supposed to know the right thing to do sometimes, and is it always better to err on the side of trust and generosity? Something I'll have to give some serious contemplation to in these last few hours before Christmas is well and truly here.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I couldn't help but laughing a little at this post. You seem to be riddled with guilt that only a true Catholic can have. Well, it's entirely possible that all people have similar thoughts at some time or another, but since I was raised Catholic, I identify with it as Catholic guilt. I've been away from the Catholic church for so long now, but I still sometimes find the guilt creeping back in and making me ask myself if I've made the right decision. Heh..oh well. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.