Young Neil Boyd has just finished divinity school and has been newly ordained as a priest. His first post? St. Jude’s parish, a corner of London with a raucous congregation full of Irish immigrants. The flock is an odd pairing with the gentle Father Boyd, but he just might be both mad enough and tender enough to get through to them.
Later adapted into a beloved British sitcom, Bless Me, Father is a humorous and sweet-natured look at Catholicism in the 1950s. Joining Boyd is the cantankerous, scheming, and brilliant Father Duddleswell, a man who is willing to do anything to make sure the Lord’s will be done, and Mrs. Pring, the sharp-tongued housekeeper who both coddles and cajoles her priestly family of two. If the church needs money, Duddleswell will place a bet to get it. If a Catholic wants to marry a Protestant . . . well, maybe he won’t go that far.
Father Neil’s adventures with his parishioners are sure to delight readers of all creeds.
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Bless Me, Father
By Neil Boyd
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Neil Boyd
All rights reserved.
My First Confession
Freedom at last! Six years of seminary studies and spartan discipline were behind me. On my plate at breakfast after ordination at the Cathedral in the early 'fifties was an envelope. In it was a card with details of my first appointment and a Latin document granting me 'faculties' to hear confessions in the diocese.
My curacy was to be in the parish of St Jude in Fairwater, part of the Borough of Kenworthy in West London. I was told it was not fashionable like Chelsea nor unfashionable like Poplar in the dockland district of the East End. A mixed area but mostly working class.
After a two-week vacation with my parents in Brighton, I alighted, one bright Saturday morning in early summer, from the red double-decker bus in the High Street. In each hand I carried a suitcase crammed with essential belongings. My bicycle and a hundred or so books which I imagined would be of help to me in saving souls were to follow by courtesy of British Railways.
I soon left the busy High Street near the Town Hall for the quieter Chindell Road where stood the grey-brick, fifty-year-old parish church of St Jude.
Before knocking on the adjoining presbytery, I entered the church to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. There, the first thing to catch my eye, was a confessional at the rear bearing my name: FR NEIL BOYD.
I knelt down before I fell down. Worse, this, than seeing my picture in the newspaper without prior warning. I prayed fervently in the half light of the church that I would make a good curate and particularly a kind and compassionate confessor. For eighteen years, since I was six, I had been a penitent myself. I had had my share of scruples and known the embarrassment of having to accuse myself of secret sins. In the seminary, I had confessed like the other students, at the knees of the Spiritual Director every Saturday night. At least the ordinary Catholic was spared that nobbly ordeal.
When I had recovered my composure, I looked about me at the statues, the baroque High Altar and the second confessional over which was printed in yellowed lettering FR CHARLES DUDDLESWELL. Then I genuflected and left the church.
The presbytery door was flung open before I could ring the bell by a large, lumpy, white-haired lady in a green dress and flowery apron on which she wiped both her hands before trying to snatch my suitcases.
'Mrs Pring,' she informed me, 'housekeeper.'
'Neil Boyd,' I said, not yet used to calling myself 'Father', and resisted her efforts to help.
She insisted on grabbing the cases while calling over her right shoulder, 'Father Neil's arrived.'
From a room on the right came the scratchy sound of
None shall part us from each other
One in life and death are we,
All in all to one another,
I to thee and thou to me.
And the plump parish priest appeared in a dishevelled cassock. The top button was in the second hole and the mistake was repeated twenty times down the line. It looked as if all his ribs were dislocated.
'Hello, Father Neil. A hundred thousand welcomes. You have just saved me life, d'you know that?' I smiled modestly at having done prestigious service so soon. 'I have been dying for someone with a ha'porth of wit and intelligence to talk to.'
Fr Duddleswell pumped my hand and peered cheerfully with his big blue eyes—their roundness accentuated by round steel-rimmed spectacles—into mine.
Already Mrs Pring was struggling up the stairs with my suitcases.
'Come into me study, Father Neil,' said Fr Duddleswell. When he had ushered me in and stopped the gramophone he called aloud, 'Mrs Pring, a nice hot cup of tay for Father Neil, if you please.'
This pronunciation of tea was, I soon discovered, one of his ways of touching his forelock to his Irish ancestry.
'That woman,' he said, indicating Mrs Pring's broad back, 'came to me twenty years past. The best instance I know of the worst coming to the worst.' He offered me a chair. 'Bishop O'Reilly informs me he has but recently made a priest of you.'
'Three weeks ago, Father.'
'Well, now, since you are a holy innocent, a seminary seedling, so to speak, the Bishop has asked me, the white-whiskered one, to teach you the tricks of the trade.'
He lifted his glasses on to his forehead and pushed up his sleeves a little as if he was about to do a bit of conjuring.
'First trick, Father Neil, always keep something up your sleeve.'
'What sort of things, Father.'
'That,' he said, pursing his lips, 'I cannot tell you.'
He shook his head. 'If I did that, would I not have to change what's up me sleeve?'
I said I supposed so.
'Second, Father Neil.' He extended both hands in front of him, back to back, as if at any moment he was going to scoop water aside and swim out of the room. 'What's this, now?' he challenged.
'Siamese twins, Father?'
He made as if to spit but checked himself bravely. "Tis your right hand not knowing what your left hand is doing. Keep 'em total strangers to each other and you will come to no harm.' I nodded, acknowledging the undoubted wisdom of the man. 'Third,' he went on, 'listen like a woman to parish gossip—'tis your duty to know what is not going on around you—but hold your tongue.' As I nodded again, he put his tongue out, broad and pink as a pig. 'Bite it, if need be, till your teeth bleed.' He gave me a painful demonstration of what he meant. 'Finally, when speaking to the good people, make sure you do not tell them anything. Pull down the shutters of your mind.'
With the middle finger of each hand, he closed his eyelids, gave two angry snores and opened his eyes with a start. 'You are still there, Father Neil?' he enquired. 'I must have dozed off. Where was I?'
'You were saying a priest has to be discreet.'
'Indeed. Cards to the chest, tight lips, stony-eyed—in a word, like our Blessed Lord Himself. Now, what else must a holy priest be like?' He warmed to the subject. 'Kind at all times, of course, patient, full of considerateness and love for everyone ... '
Mrs Pring checked his flow by putting her head round the door. 'Sugar and milk, Father Neil?'
'Herself,' groaned Fr Duddleswell, 'would bloody-well interrupt Jesus in the middle of a miracle.'
'Both, please,' I said, and Mrs Pring, smiling the smile of the just, closed the door behind her.
'Now, Father Neil, Catholic priests do not marry. And why not?'
Mrs Pring's head reappeared to provide the answer. 'Because there's not enough crazy women around.' Then she put her head back on and left us to chat about parish matters. Before the tea arrived we were off on an inspection of the house.
'On the ground floor here, next to me study, is the dining room. There is the big committee room—we call it the parlour—and down that corridor is the kitchen.'
Mrs Pring, who had just descended the stairs, said, 'My kitchen.'
Fr Duddleswell pouted amusedly. 'Women,' he sighed, 'almost as difficult to comprehend as nuns. That one beats eggs just by talking to 'em.'
He lifted the skirt of his cassock—without noticing that the buttons were awry—and proceeded to climb the stairs.
'My bedroom,' he said, nodding to his left.
He led me into the middle room which was to be my study, bare of ornament but for a few potted plants, then to my bedroom, overlooking the street, in which Mrs Pring had deposited the suitcases. The bedroom was small and dark with a wash basin, brown utility wardrobe and chest of drawers. At the head of the iron bedstead was a faded copy of Velasquez's Crucifixion.
'Run the hot water for a minute or two,' he said. 'It comes eventually if you pray hard enough to St Anthony. I only hope that bed is going to be long enough for you. Why was I not forewarned, then, you were two yards tall? It does look a big bit on the little side.'
I muttered something about being used to sleeping knees up in beds considerably smaller than myself.
'Good,' he said, 'that will save me executing your legs off as I did with me last curate.'
He showed me the bathroom and ended by pointing up the next flight of stairs. 'Up there, a few feet below God's own blue heaven, is Mrs Pring's domain.' He waved his index finger warningly. 'Trespassers will be, I can assure you of that, now. Herself does not own much, which is why she is so fiendishly possessive.'
By this time, the maligned Mrs Pring had brought a cup of tea, black as syrup, into my study. I noticed her sturdy forearms, rough elbows and her smooth red cheeks.
'Now, Mrs Pring, leave the lad alone,' said Fr Duddleswell. 'Do not smother him with your maternal ministrations.'
Mrs Pring began, 'I was only going to say ...' but he stopped her with a lordly gesture.
'Indeed, Mrs Pring, but we do not have an hour to spare, you follow?'
When Fr Duddleswell had shooed Mrs Pring out I was left to settle in. Having drunk my tea, I tried the bed for size, tidied away my clothes and tested the efficacy of prayers to St Anthony.
I had a premonition I was going to like it at St Jude's.
A few minutes later and my few books were on the shelf and my framed papal indulgence was hanging on the wall. There was a gentle knock on the door. Mrs Pring had come to water the fuchsias.
'Don't be put off by him,' she said comfortingly. 'He's really a very nice man until you get to know him. If you have any difficulties with that one, just give Churchill a ring. Winnie's been longing for a good dog-fight since he finished Jerry off five years ago.'
'Oh, yes,' I stammered.
'Him and me are what you might call a hellish combination. I do the weeping and he does the gnashing of teeth.'
Her comforting was not having the effect she was intending. 'What time do you serve meals, Mrs Pring?'
'He's terribly suspicious, you know. His dad was in antiques. If you ask me, he thinks everything's a fake but himself.'
'Lunch is at one, I suppose.'
'It's as if,' said Mrs Pring, 'he's seeing things in a mirror. He don't notice because everything is back to front.'
A sharp rap on the door startled her. She grabbed her watering can saying, 'The Day of Judgement, flee the wrath to come.'
Father Neil, I was ... 'Fr Duddleswell's smile vanished like a T.V. picture when the set is switched off. One moment it was as wide as his face, the next it had contracted to a dot before popping out altogether. 'Woman,' he growled, 'I do not want you walking up me curate's sleeve. Did I not tell you to go West to your kitchen for a while? I will be obeyed here.' He stamped his foot. 'I will not have you wearing the cassock in this house.'
'I should think not,' the housekeeper said without flinching. 'That skirt went out of fashion in Queen Victoria's time.'
'Ah, Father Neil,' said Fr Duddleswell, the gleam in his eye showing he conceded a temporary defeat, 'she is more at me throat than is me collar itself.'
'What time is lunch, Father?' I asked.
Mrs Pring drove home her advantage with, 'Never trust the son of a cow.'
'One o'clock, Mrs Pring?' I put in with a trifle more urgency.
'Father Neil,' said Fr Duddleswell, 'are you one of those curates who is always thinking of his belly?'
'I'm not hungry, Father,' I hastened to say.
'Then why in the name of Beelzebub d'you keep asking when lunch is?'
Mrs Pring touched my shoulder. 'Poor Father Neil.'
'I will not have the pair of you ganging up against me,' Fr Duddleswell said. 'Go, Mrs Pring, before I take me tongue to you.'
Mrs Pring carried on with her condolences. 'I'll put lunch forward if you're peckish, Father Neil.'
I attempted to bring peace by insisting that I didn't mind if she served lunch at three.
Fr Duddleswell was not pleased by my magnanimity. 'He is not above one hour at St Jude's and already he is changing the times of meals.' Then he dropped his shoulders and relaxed. 'I repent me of me loutish behaviour,' he grinned.
'I'm sorry, too,' added Mrs Pring. 'I don't know what came over him.'
In spite of the colourful exchanges, I sensed at once that the parish priest and his housekeeper were only indulging in banter which, while heated, was neither harsh nor bruising.
"Tis the problem of living year by year in one another's shoulders,' explained Fr Duddleswell. 'I only came to tell you I am intending to give you a whistle-stop tour of the parish before lunch.'
I thanked him for that.
'Do you not wish to know what time lunch is?' he asked.
'Not particularly, Father.'
He gave me an incredulous smile. 'What a strange lad y'are surely. You keep on asking questions and have not the slightest decent interest in the answers.'
First stop, the maternity-wing of the hospital. From behind a glass-partition we gazed admiringly on half a dozen newly-born.
"Tis an extraordinary thing, Father Neil, yet there is but one father of all these.'
'A sex maniac in the parish?' Humour is not my forté but I was doing my best.
'I was speaking in a spiritual sense, if you're still with me.'
'You mean God, then.'
'No, Father Neil. I mean me. This is why we priests do not marry, so we can be 'father' to the whole tribe.' I followed the dab of his finger. 'Look at that little boy ... or girl. 'Tis hard to puzzle which when he or she is back to front and upside down.' Too true, I thought. 'By the way, how would you tell the difference between a boy and a girl?'
I hummed for a few seconds without coming to any articulate conclusion.
'How old are you, Father Neil?' he laughed. He beckoned my ear downwards. 'Boys have blue eyes and girls have pink eyes. Did your mother never tell you that?' I removed my ear from the vicinity of his lips. 'And if they are asleep, what then?'
'I don't know,' I said stubbornly.
'A priest must use his initiative, like. While nobody is looking, you prise their little eyes open.' When he laughed this time I joined in. 'Ever hear the story, Father Neil, of two families holidaying together? First morning on the beach, the little Catholic boy of four summers is playing on the sands with the little Protestant girl, both of them skin-wrapped as they came into the world. Know what the Catholic boy says to his mummy?'
He was taken aback. 'You do?'
Somewhat shyly I said, 'Mummy, I didn't know there was that much difference between Catholics and Protestants.'
Fr Duddleswell's eyes came over glazed. 'What difference are you speaking of, Father Neil?'
'Um. The difference, Father.'
'The difference, um, everyone knows about.'
'Excepting me, it seems.' A leggy nurse chanced to walk by. 'I will just ask this lovely young nurse if she knows what difference 'tis you are referring to.'
'Please, don't,' I begged.
He shrugged in acquiescence. 'A further thing is perplexing me. How would seeing a little girl in the state of nature make the little lad so sure she was a Protestant?'
'It wouldn't, Father.' Lamely, I added, 'And that's the joke.'
'The joke, you say. Would you be so kind as to explain the joke to me?'
'I can't, Father.'
He heaved a deep sigh. 'So, then, Father Neil, you have learned your first important lesson at St Jude's.'
'That if you steal me best punch-lines, you must expect to suffer.' Without a change of pace, he pointed to a six or seven pounder, 'Anyway, what would you baptize him with?'
'It's a her,' I said beaming defiantly.
'And you pretended not to know the difference,' he said. 'Well, what would you baptize her with?'
'I knew you would not use pea soup but what would you pour the water from, a fire-bucket?'
'A cup, Father?' I asked, improvising.
'Even that might drown the girleen or give her the pneumonia. A cupful is, to one that size, the same as a swimming pool to a Jehovah's Witness.'
'A thimble, Father.'
'A thimble,' he echoed. 'Now, where would you get one of those in a maternity unit?'
I used my initiative. 'I could borrow one from Mrs Pring.'
Well in the driving seat by now, Fr Duddleswell said to himself, 'The lad is wanting to use Mrs Pring's thimble for a font.'
'I can't think of anything smaller, Father.'
Fr Duddleswell picked up a syringe from a surgical trolley. 'You would use one of these. But make sure first it has water in it and not, say, hydrochloric acid.'
'Baptism isn't legal with hydrochloric acid,' I said, in case he didn't know.
'Not legal,' he said, 'but lethal, like. So you test it out on your skin, like this.' He squirted some of the syringe's contents on to the back of his hand. 'If it brings up a blister, do not use it on the baby's head.' He paused to rub his hand where the liquid lay and blew on it anxiously. 'Oh my God,' he cried. The leggy nurse had returned. 'Nurse, nurse, what the divil is in this syringe?'
Fr Duddleswell licked his hand before lifting his head in relief. 'Thank God for that, 'tis only tapoline. Next, an important question, Father Neil. If a child is born premature, what would you do?'
'Call a nurse quick, Father.'
'Brilliant,' he almost sang. 'What if after the baby is born premature a nurse calls you to the incubator?'
'I'd baptize it—him or her, according to the difference—in case the baby died.' Fr Duddleswell nodded encouragingly. 'With a syringe.' Another friendly nod. 'Not hydrochloric acid.' He slowly shook his head.
'What else would you not do?'
As if to give the lie to my words I said wildly, 'I wouldn't panic, Father.'
'You would not ... light ... any ... candles.'
Excerpted from Bless Me, Father by Neil Boyd. Copyright © 1977 Neil Boyd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI My First Confession,
II An Unusual Pregnancy,
III The Bell,
IV The Parish Bazaar,
V The New Assistant,
VI Breaking the Seal,
VII The Betrothal,
IX In the Swim,
X Father and Mother,
XI The Doomsday Chair,
About the Author,