It would be fair to say that if when I last attended Sunday mass it was a time before our family home had a dialup internet connection then I am a lapsed Catholic – that is to say, someone who was raised in the Catholic faith but has since grown to prefer enjoying life.
Back in those pre-millennial days, when Sunday morning was spent praying to a Holy Spirit to guide me rather than praying for a whole load of spirits to leave me alone, my siblings and I would challenge ourselves to prove our dedication to the church by sacrificing our enjoyment of chocolate for the forty days of Lent. If the twenty-four days of Advent leading to Christmas were a chocolate calendar-filled heaven, then the forty days of Lent before Easter was almost twice as long and any nine-year-old’s vision of hell. For nearly six weeks my favourite Drifter chocolate bar would be absent from my school packed lunch box, though it was often difficult to understand why many of the other children were still eating chocolate. On occasion, some of my closest friends – the kids who, coincidentally enough, weren’t to be seen at mass on a Sunday – would offer me a piece of chocolate, insisting that Jesus wouldn’t know if I was to eat just a small bit of chocolate. Proudly I resisted, feeling sure that if it was true what the priest and teacher said about God’s ability to see everything he would probably be able to see me sneaking a bite of a chocolate bar in the playground of St. Columbas Primary School.
As Ash Wednesday, the day which – literally – marks the beginning of Lent, was approaching, my thoughts returned to those Lenten periods past. I wondered if as a 35-year-old man I would have the same ability to see a sacrifice through all the way to Easter Sunday the way I did as a church-going boy. Chocolate no longer features very much in my life and wouldn’t be such a challenging forfeit, so if I was to participate in Lent I would need to find a more suitable vice to go without. I ran through the alternatives in my mind: I don’t eat lavish or exquisite meals, the only alcohol I would be willing to do without would be the last drink of the night, and I gave up on romance a long time ago.
In the end, I decided that the idea wasn’t for me. I reached this conclusion after spending some time considering giving up soup, having eaten a bowl of the stuff for lunch just about every day during winter. After a bit of thought I dismissed the idea, however, conceding that it would be more of a lentil sacrifice than a Lenten sacrifice.
The night before Ash Wednesday – commonly known as ‘Pancake Tuesday’, although I was out of eggs and so it was simply Tuesday – had me babysitting my niece, albeit I couldn’t be sure that the term babysitting still applies when she is weeks away from her third birthday and we were spending much of our time together pretending to be cats. When we weren’t faking felines we were watching The Lion King, and despite the fact that it would have been decades since I had last seen the Disney animation, I knew that the scene was approaching where young Simba’s father, Mufasa, is killed, and I was dreading it.
What if this really upsets her, I was thinking to myself. Would she notice if I pressed fast forward? My niece is typically smarter than I am so I couldn’t take the risk. I’ll just tell her that Mufasa is lost, I was pondering as the death scene was entering its final throes. It seemed like a pretty good idea until the young Simba found the lifeless body of his stricken father and I had to begin thinking of a way I could convince the toddler that older lions are extremely lazy creatures who spend months at a time just lying around the jungle. It was something she would be able to Google or ask Alexa later in her life when I would be exposed as a terrible uncle, but for now, it would do.
As all of this was happening, my niece was crawling around the floor of my living room telling me all about her upcoming birthday party and how she wants to grow up to be a lion, and I realised that I was the only one of us who was being troubled by the death of Mufasa.
On the first Friday of Lent, I found myself mingling with a group of scientists who were out enjoying some farewell drinks for a departing colleague. As I was standing amongst them, I was finding myself considering what the collective noun for a group of scientists would be, though I never thought to ask any of them through fear of it sounding like a stupid question. After some time I was in conversation with a girl whose hair was the colour of a light Bunsen burner flame. She was more energetic than I imagined a scientist could be, and she was fun to talk to. Almost inevitably the discussion turned to the subject of dolphins, where I was surprised to learn of the view that dolphins are nasty, vicious, sexually aggressive bullies. That isn’t what I remember from the nature documentaries I have watched, or from Flipper, and I was immediately compelled to ask around the room in the expectation that this dissenting opinion would be ridiculed and that the intelligence of the aquatic mammal would be fêted. To my dismay, not only was the opinion not scoffed at, but it was supported by the other scientists, and I appeared to be in a minority.
Despite the dolphin dispute, I was somehow able to convince the girl with the Bunsen burner hair that it would be a good idea to come back to my place for a post-pub drink. As we were walking along the street towards my flat she would keep reciting the phrase “I have a boyfriend”, in the manner of a religious chant. I assured her that my intentions were noble and drunken, having long since gotten used to having girls in my flat who aren’t interested in romance.
We arrived in my flat, where the climate was only marginally less cold than it was outside, and as I was fixing a couple of drinks the scientist asked me if she could use the bathroom. Being that I strive to be a good host, entirely un-dolphin-like, I told her that she was welcome to go to the toilet. I poured some vodka and whisky into separate glasses whilst trying to think of a suitable soundtrack for the moment. By the time the scientist returned from the restroom, she announced that she was going to have to leave because she had a better offer. That’s not what she said, but it’s how she said it. I wondered if the toilet seat had been distractingly unstable, because it was the first time a girl has left my flat before she has had her drink or so much as commented on the Jackson Pollock print above the couch.
It seemed the right thing to do when I offered to walk the scientist to the superior party she was leaving my flat for, though when we were walking back along the street we had only minutes previously travelled, she admitted that she didn’t know where exactly she was going, and her phone calls were going unanswered. Eventually she gave up, like a Lenten sacrifice, and decided that she was going to walk home instead. When she told me that she lived at the other end of town, a sense of laziness and defeat was filling me. I usually have a need to walk a person to their destination, but I implored the girl with the Bunsen burner hair to take a taxi. She sighed into the cold wind, telling me that she didn’t have money for a taxi. I reached into my wallet for a brown note, in what was surely the first instance of me paying a girl to not have a drink with me.
By that point dad had spent a night in hospital and the fragility of bones and everything was on my mind, not too dissimilar to the man in Aulay’s who had earlier been telling me the story of his nicotine addicted sister who was having a voice box put in to her throat, and her primary concern was to ask the doctor if she would still be able to have cigarettes. At the end of it all, we’re just blowing smoke in our own ways. It’s the circle of life: one person is having a voice box inserted, while another is shouting into the night, wanting to know the truth about dolphins.