The Sinking of the Whale
“Maxie, Maxie, Maxie, wake up. Wake up! Wake up! I’ve got stories to tell you.”
It’s 4.30 on a summer’s morning in a bedroom of the Manse on the Hebridean island of Iona. The year is 1960. There is an old man and a young child in the room.
The old aged pensioner is sixty-five, his son, this writer, eight. My mother sleeps next door, writhing in the early part of her pregnancy.
“Wake up, Maxie, wake up,” The old man would whisper in my tiny ear. He had a soft and sexy voice. I can hear it yet. They make an odd couple, these two. The old man looks half mad. He is wearing a torn dressing gown, blue and white striped. The hair an explosion of white. The oyster eyes juggly, the collapsed mouth stale with dried froth, snot on the moustache. The eyes like lasers.
Meet my dear dad, The Very Rev Lord Dr Captain Professor George MacLeod of Fuinary. Military Cross, Croix de Guerre, Doctor of Divinity and, at this moment, quite possibly certifiably insane.
George is tall and was once elegant, though perhaps not so much now as he hasn’t got his teeth in.
Beside him the slugabed child is just a tight little bundle of red curls, milky skin and ‘go-away-I’m- sleeping, Daddy’.
The old man hasn’t slept for thirty-six hours and for six of those hours has probably been too drunk to legally drive a car, a state he prefers when he is writing about his belief in a living God.
He is now so tired he hardly knows his own name. Luckily many others do. Indeed he is quite famous, or perhaps notorious, for he has many enemies.
All night long he has been pacing around the downstairs room with a paraffin pump lamp hissing out a warm yellow bubble of light.
He lights another Capstan (Full-Strength) cigarette, draws deeply on its giddying smoke and drums his fingers hard and fast on the table. He’s writing a three-minute prayer for the early morning Service he will soon conduct in the half-ruined Iona Cathedral lying a few hundred yards from here, his home in the Cathedral Manse. His congregation at that service will be his team for the most exciting project to have taken place in the Church of Scotland for a century.
Sitting at the front of the draughty church in their blue denim overalls will be half a dozen Gaelic masons who will soon be out working, on the rebuilding of the Cathedral walls. With them will be perhaps six clumsy volunteers, mostly young ministers drawn to George’s crazy dream of rebuilding the Cathedral as a symbol of hope for the world. It’s a project that has been born of the horrors he had witnessed in the First World War.
Alongside them in the pews will be fifty visitors who have paid to come to week-long conferences in the half completed Cathedral.
His clan of followers may have little money but they are rich in dreams, their day being often jump-started by the sheer electricity of their leader’s morning prayers.
And so in preparation George will hustle and fuss, sometimes all night, to make those prayers pin perfect. Fine-tuning the music within the words, fiddling with the micro pauses, adding just a hint of vibrato… until the prayer moves along like a little red boat that scarcely troubles the water with its passing.
George doesn’t really know why he believes in God; he accepts it’s irrational but still believes. Why? Three reasons.
Firstly, he sees it as being a better option for the kind of world he wants to live in. He wants people to be Christian in their dealings with him and so is prepared to enter a contract to be Christian in his dealings with them. The thought of the world spinning senselessly through space while all mankind simply scramble over each other trying to get the biggest slice of the pie is so instinctively awful to him that he dismisses its reality as being improbable.
Secondly he is culturally a Christian. His family has always been Christian and they have lived lives he has admired, so he wants to believe.
It’s the third element, the mystical part of his faith that keeps him worrying away at his prayers in the long watches of the night.
He feels that there is a radio frequency obtainable in everything that is somehow right, somehow perfect. You only have to work at the fine-tuning handle until the reception is so crystal clear that the voice of God can be heard. Sometimes he will get near to that perfection in a sentence, in a sermon, in an action.
And he clings to this madness as a possible rebuttal to the awfulness of a Godless world.
Then there is Nature. Again and again he will see something so sublime that he sees it as being in that frequency of perfection. He recognises the irrationality of assuming that just because his human mind judges a soaring bird to be perfect does not necessarily mean that the bird has been created by God, or indeed that God exists. But living on Iona with its strange energy pulsating out of the rocks and seeing what may possibly be flashes of the divine in the beauty of Nature, well it’s enough to give him permission to take the leap of faith to which those first two elements of his faith push him.
During four years of the First World War he had been a Captain in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, leading hordes of Gaelic-speaking youngsters to their deaths and had grown to love them for their mysterious naturality.
On one day alone he had led four hundred forwards over the top and returned with eighty. They had given him a medal.
“A Military Cross!” He had once told me. “My God maybe if I had killed a thousand Germans perhaps they would have given me a Victoria one!”
Ho ho ho; he had laughed at the joke. It was a safer option than starting to cry; perhaps if he had ever started he wouldn’t have been able to stop.
His experience in that first world war had been so horrific that even then lying in that bed, forty-two years after the event he would still hear the cries of the youngsters he had had to lead out of muddy trenches into cold rain sown with stinging bullets that in his own words would ” Unzip their tummies and leave them wide-eyed running forward with strings of warm sausages overflowing their soft young hands…or crack open their knee caps so that they would scream for their Mothers for all of the few minutes until they bled to death.”
He was twenty-two years old, when he witnessed such scenes. Not once but hundreds of times. In one period of three weeks in that war more than six thousand highlanders were killed, and he was in the thick of such fighting for month after month after month.
On one such day his men had seen him jinking and jumping across a dangerous patch of ground until he had joined them in a muddy trench laughing with delight; ” Well at least it’s not raining!” he had joked to their astonishment.
Later some of them were to submit him to a mock court-martial under the charge of being ” Aggressively optimistic.” It was in December 1917, the place, Arras.
He often dismisses the Gaels as being feckless dreamers, and yet their culture haunts him … There had been something about how they lived, something about how they were prepared to die for each other that had been superior to the English culture he had learnt at Winchester and Oxford .
George has an almost manic focus on whatever job is to hand, and is never more obsessive than when he is writing prayers. During the night this focus is often targeted on getting into the mental groove in which he can get on to the right frequency. He knows the recipe to get to that groove all too well.
First make loads of black, heavily sugared coffee, add a little whisky, some Capstans (full strength), plus some doubt and guilt; and then throw in a profound sense that there really ought to be a God.
After getting into this state, his spinning mind is usually able to drill a peephole through the thick door of his objectivity into a misty world that might not only exist, but also be eternal. He scarcely dares to believe in this other invisible world, but is even more frightened of not believing in it. So he kneels and believes and is then able to believe and kneel.
Once he has seen what any scientist would regard as invisible, he will mix a few well-tried ecclesiastical flavourings into his prayers. Using colourful images of the sea, sky, sex and soul he will conjure up a cocktail not only to shake sleepy minds awake, but also stir up their energy for harsh days on high scaffolds, working as they do with heavy granite blocks in the driving rain.
He’s a good man, George. A good man now exhausted. He had been dog-tired when he had started the practising of the prayers and that was now seven hours earlier.
Upstairs, his young wife of 32 lies waiting in her warm bed. Her body yearns to spoon to his warmth, but he grips instead to his older and safer lovers; God and duty.
The Abbey restoration project is constantly with him. He has dedicated his life, his money and almost his entire fevered mind to restoring it. Now he must keep the volunteers motivated to get the thing finished. He must, he must, must…
The completed building, he tells himself, will be half of Nature and half of Man, a bridge between the material and the spiritual; on Iona too, an island where only a veil as thin as gossamer divides the spiritual from the material. The holiest place in Scotland will send out a radio beam in perfect frequency with the divine.
Nature incarnate on a wind-ripped island … Yes that’s on frequency.
A megaphone for God’s still small voice. That isn’t… He practises such phrases out loud, watching the sound as it flies through the air like a wild bird, tasting it as a chef might taste a sauce. Then, if he likes the sound and the flight he will snatch at the beautiful butterfly he has created, pinning it to the ink-splattered paper before him.
It had all been easy enough fifteen years earlier. After the Second World War, former soldiers had flocked to his newly hatched Iona Cathedral restoration project. Such fun then. Such japes. It was just like the war, though with fewer young bellies being unzipped by the machine guns.
The men had lived like campers in garden sheds beneath the ruined walls of the Cathedral, dozens of them, swimming naked in the freezing sea at dawn to charge up their enthusiasm. But then, aged 53, he had fallen in love with a 27 year-old youth camp leader and now there were two slugabed children in the Manse beside the Cathedral.
How many years of work did he have left? Time seems to be speeding up, Christmas comes once a month, and the Abbey lies uncompleted. Oh my God! The child stirs in his bed.
“Oh Daddy leave me alone! I don’t want to come swimming with you before breakfast. I’ll go tomorrow I promise. Go to bed. Mummy will wake you up in time for the Service. Don’t be afraid, she won’t let you sleep in. Go to sleep Daddy; go to sleep.’
The old man falls onto the bed beside the child, his body dropping on to the cheap mattress like a felled ox, the mind trying to will the eyes not to close. The child can feel his collapsed father’s desperation and puts out a tiny hand and prods at the slobber of his Dad’s mouth with baby fingers. He can smell his Dad. It’s a blood warm stew of juicy body stench. The snot, the saliva, the sweet sweat in his greasy arm pits.
But there is salt there too. Salt dust from yesterday’s dreadful douche in the dawn sea, crusted in crevices of skin and held fast on hair. God’s seasoning of the seasoned in the great cauldron of cold reality that is the freezing sea. The child buries his nose in a towelled shoulder and lies floating on an ocean of sleepy odour and utter adoration. The monster that is his father explodes from the blue depths of sleep, aghast at what had nearly happened.
“Maxie Maxie Maxie, get up now, get up. Get up now!” Then George plays his joker,
“It’s still dark. If you get up now you may see the dream moment…”
The child smiles and stretches. The ‘dream moment’ riff’s a-coming. How nice; how very nice.
The phrase has hauled him from sleep. Soon he will rise, but first he must hear his Father’s mysterious tale about the dream moment and the sinking grey whale and taste a spoonful of the sweetness of Nature that awaits him on his barefoot walk in the ice-cold dew.
He hasn’t a clue what his Father’s tale means, he only knows that its poetry is like summer honey to his hungry soul. The one-boy congregation responds to his priest according to their shared secret prayer-book.
“What do you mean by ‘dream moment’ Daddy?” And then the minister will say,
“Well, my darling one; here we lie on Iona, God’s own perfect place and you well know that when we watch the sun go down we sometimes see tiny green flashes.” The boy sighs, floating,
“And so it is at dawn, except it is only those who hear the voice of God like tiny thunder on distant mountains who will know of it . . . the children don’t know it, they are of it, in it, by it, for God is in their innocent faith. At the dream moment God places all the dreams into all the heads of those little children lying safe in their little linen envelopes, and they smile as they wake and sigh as the wind sings the quiet song of Iona.’
‘Sings the quiet song of Iona.’
What a medicine man the old fool was. What a magician.
And then the little boy will say,
“And how will I know when the dream moment comes Daddy?”
And his priest will reply,
“Why, the lamb, Maxie. That lamb will become as still as a rock in that moment. And the seal turning in the wave will pause; the gannet, broad as a man is tall, will not have to move his wings as he slides down the back of the wind, for the very rhythm of life he will be feeling.”
“And the whale Daddy. Tell me about the falling whale…”
What does it mean to be mad? What does it mean to be sane?
The Very Reverend Lord Captain Doctor Sir Prof George MacLeod of Fuinary M.C., Croix de Guerre, was either totally mad or utterly sane when he would come to the answer of that final request.
For the medicine man would be taking his leap of faith, floating on his own sea of either self delusion or incisive exposition, dancing with the white lambs, sliding down the banister of the wind to a place where the existence of God was perhaps proven by the perfection of Nature and his whole cultural being would make sense, and all those young kilted children would not have died in vain.
His reply to my call for the falling of the whale would be a raising of his own weary body. Sometimes he would sit up, eyes shut, the hands grasping the sheets for comfort. My own hand might perhaps be on his towelled leg, trying to be with him in his moment of almost physical passion, the final words squeezed out of the orgasmic cleric in a rainbow of glory.
Utterly exhausted, on fire with nicotine, coffee and whisky, his mind would be flailing around looking for something to grip onto and all that he could find that made any kind of sense would be the nonsense of God and he would reach out to the heavens, aggressively optimistic that God existed, and that there was a difference between right and wrong and that all the kilted children hadn’t died without reason.
“And the great whale, Maxie, oh my Lord, that great grey whale, falling through the white to the blue to the green to the black will turn on its side and it’s empty eye, that eye that has seen the free falling of time, for it is all eyes, that empty eye will gaze upwards and at that moment, at that dream moment, it will both see and be of God.”
Sometimes I would have to hug him as he rid himself of his doubt. Hold him tight in the agony of his brave choice of uncomprehending faith. Sometimes I would laugh, sometimes gasp.
Always I would love him. Always.
And after that? Well after that the old man and the small boy would go swimming before breakfast.