The Link-Boy’s Tale

I walked back to meet the procession, having inspected the shopping centre. Unfortunately, with Cardinal V-‘s pernicketiness about his dress, it was now late in the afternoon and people were leaving. Also the entrance was lower than I had remembered. Neither bothered me unduly.

The procession was a fine sight coming slowly along the road into central Stratford. It had increased in size. Local Catholics, energised by parish magazines or some more contemporary means of communication, were tagging along and there seemed to be far more nuns.

I took a closer look at these. The newcomers turned out not to be nuns, however, but modestly dressed Moslem women, also in black. I noticed one staring at me.

I’d recognise those eyes anywhere.

The Jibjab Woman!

Hello, Al.

Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah, I said.

Et cum spiritu tuo, said the Jibjab Woman.

Why are you here?

She narrowed her eyes.

The cause, she said.

I caught the almost inaudible sound of her grin against the cloth covering her mouth.

I am always pleased to see the Jibjab Woman and I feel safer when she is around. So, foolishly, I did not ask her whose cause.

By this time we had arrived at the entrance to the shopping centre. Cardinal V- was flinging blessings around as if they were free, but there was indecision. The cross could not go in upright; the doorway was simply too low. The bell-toller ceased tolling and awaited developments.

I assumed that they would pass the cross in with Our Lord on his back, but apparently that would be wrong. Many creatures in nature – notably sharks – lose consciousness when laid on their backs and it was felt that the same logic (if ‘logic’ is the right word) might apply to Him. The cross was lowered so that He was face down and manhandled through the doorway.

Halfway through this manoeuvre there was a nasty crack. Christ’s bottom half came adrift. He continued to hang by His hands, metal-alloy feet dragging noisily on the floor, but the nails in His wrists were now subject to greater stress than had ever been intended. Mongo, now rather hot and dishevelled, got the cross upright again.

At this point a further problem revealed itself. The ceiling would accommodate the cross held upright in some places but not others, where, because of ducting for example, it was much lower. Mongo indicated that it would be easier to compromise on a semi-upright position that he could maintain. He held the cross at about forty-five degrees. It must have been an immense strain on his shoulders and arms. From the top Our Lord hung forwards, at the same angle. The procession struggled back into life.

My mobile rang. I have, I should explain, a network of young people, crossing-sweepers, link-boys and the like, whom I pay small sums of money to keep their eyes and ears open for me. I had told them all of my urgent desire to see the Angel of Paddington Station again.

So my mobile rang. It was a text from one of them:

What price the Angel of Stratford International? Sighted! Come at once!

I had to make a quick decision. The procession with gorgeous robes seemed to be stable. It could manage without me. But I called a local member of my network and told him to keep an eye on things. He is my source for what happened then. I hurried off to Stratford International.

Hassan is a link-boy, aged about twelve. I have no idea why link-boys have a dubious reputation, unless it is because of that salacious painting by Joshua Reynolds. Whatever may be the case with other link-boys Hassan is an entirely wholesome lad and if he attracts attention it is because of his natural and unaffected good looks. He joined the crowd soon after I left. Almost at once, he told me later, two things happened, followed by a third, and the third brought the proceedings to an abrupt close.

As Hassan scanned the procession his eye lit on Cardinal V-. The latter chose to take this as contact directed at him personally. He deserted his place at the head of the procession and pushed through the crowd (‘like rat up drainpipe’) towards Hassan. He was, Hassan told me, gabbling in an unknown tongue. Whether this was Latin, Italian or the simple incoherent vocalisations of lust we will never know.

As I say, the shopping day was drawing to a close and the shops were shutting. When that happens the area is given over to skate-boarding. The youth had already started to gather, waiting for shoppers, processors and all to depart so that they could describe their arabesques on the marble-effect floor in peace, subject only to the appraisal of their peers. As they waited they spun their boards in and out of their hands, using minimal gestures with their feet.

How Mongo managed to intercept one we shall, again, never know. He was very hot, exhausted and stupid, and he could not see his feet on account of his robing. There is no reason to suspect some malign intervention on the part of the Jibjab Woman. I will leave it at that.

Suddenly, Hassan was to tell me later, he hurtled forward on the skateboard, the cross now held straight in front of him like a lance.

‘That metal man, he was hanging, first two hands then one, feet making a terrible sound on the floor. Then a woman, she was big, big like the man holding the wooden thing, she was Caribbean I think, she seize the metal man and pull him off.

‘She shouts, “My Lord! My Lord!”

‘The man with the red hat, he’s just arrived where I’m standing and he’s put his arm on me. He hears this and turns round. He shouts, “No! My Lord!”

‘Then he turns back as he is more interested in me.

‘The wooden thing is going like clappers. I don’t know how that lady got the metal man out from under it. Anyway it sticks in a shop and can’t be got out.’

And what, I said, did Mongo say?

‘He said, “Aaargh!”’

And after the first two things came the third: the arrival of two policemen.

‘Unfortunately for the man with the red hat he has his hand on my trousers when the policemen feel his shoulder.

‘”We have warrant for your arrest,” they say. “Blah, blah, blah sexual offence…blah, blah, blah minors…blah, blah, blah thieving… blah, blah, blah European arrest warrant…”

I thought that European arrest warrants didn’t apply with the Vatican, I said.

Hassan beamed.

‘The man with the red hat say that too! Police say, “Let’s discuss that down at the Station, shall we, sonny?”’

And that was the end of the procession with gorgeous robes.

The Angel? What a waste of time. Some old whore with red knickers. Late middle-aged, I’d say. What is it about the red knickers that blinds people to everything else?

French too.


A Procession with Gorgeous Robes

When it comes to processions with gorgeous robes the Roman Catholics are frighteningly efficient. Congregations in the Church of England sometimes venture out in order to bear witness in shopping centres, usually assisted by Christmas carols and acoustic guitars, but they are tentative and embarrassed excursions by and large and one feels that those involved will be only too happy to be back indoors in church pulling the gates shut behind them. No such tentativeness was in evidence however once the decision had been made to hold a procession with gorgeous robes in Stratford.

I was deluged with emails from Popes Я Us. I occasionally wondered what it had to do with me, but my curiosity always got in the way of any request to be removed from the circulation list.

Before I knew it they were on my doorstep. (This is not literally true: they were staying not with me but at a seminary close by; the aspiring priests were away on their holidays.) Why, I asked Popes Я Us, had it been necessary to ship them all in? Weren’t the local Catholics up to a procession with gorgeous robes? They muttered something about necessary experience, executive positions ‘and, of course, invaluable assistance from the laity at ground level’. As things were to turn out, the contributions at ground level were indeed to be crucial to the day’s experience.

The procession was to be led by a Cardinal named V-. With hindsight, I believe that the haste with which the event was planned had something to do with Cardinal V-. Even at the time Popes Я Us remarked on his enthusiasm to come to England on such little notice.

Pederastic beast and thief, they added – sotto voce, as they would probably have put it in Italian.

Cardinal V- rather monopolised the gorgeous robes, though they certainly were gorgeous, all red silk and lace. All he needs is to give a little scream, I thought as he preened himself in front of a handy mirror, and who’d need Francis Bacon?

The other main character was huge, a taciturn man who was to carry the cross. This must have been ten feet in height and was to form the centrepiece of the procession and had been shipped separately. I must have heard his name but I forgot it and I thought of him as Mongo.

The cross was the main prop but not the only one. There was a bell, lugubrious in sound when tested in the seminary garden, cymbals, whips and some banners expressing views on the desirability of induced abortion. It was altogether, I thought, a solid response to the suggestion that Sharia Law should prevail to the exclusion of the Common Law in the London Borough of Newham, though not necessarily a conclusive one.

You’ll be there, said Popes Я Us.

Do my best.

Will you play your saxophone?

Certainly not.

Please, said Popes Я Us. We all have to stand up and be counted.

No, I said. First, I am an Anglican, and Anglicans do not play saxophones in processions in shopping centres. Secondly it would contravene the bye-laws of the London Borough of Newham, which, remember, this is all about.

Bye-Sharia-laws, said Popes Я Us, and there was an unmissably sarcastic edge to their voice.

Possibly because of this slight unpleasantness, we did not speak again until it was all over.

We were due to set out after lunch on the day chosen but the preparations were interminable. Mungo dressed himself in a friar’s outfit, thick serge from cowled head to foot and gathered together with a rope belt. It was a very hot day, one of those where they announced later on the television that it was the hottest of the summer so far. Several nuns appeared from nowhere, chattering excitedly with each other and telling their beads during the intervals.

The main cause of the delay however was Cardinal V-. He couldn’t decide about his gorgeous robes, trying on surplice after surplice and throwing the discarded ones into the corner with, usually, a moue of displeasure. There they lay, a pile of lovely lace, foaming, as art historians sometimes say.

Then it was his shoes. He kept tripping into the room wearing two crimson pumps from different but practically identical pairs.

Left or right, he would demand of me.

In the end I told him that if we didn’t set out soon all the shoppers would have gone home. He finalised his choice of pumps with bad grace and I put the others away before he could change his mind. By this stage he was in a state, of course the heat didn’t help, and it was necessary to have a restorative tisane, with I suspect a little something added, before we could set out.

The seminary gates opened with a creak, Cardinal V- installed himself at the front and put his best pump forward, Mungo hoisted the huge cross and someone struck the bell – a doleful sound for a Saturday afternoon in the Romford Road. The nuns settled in behind everyone else, as was only proper.

I’ll go ahead and check that everything‘s all right at the shopping centre, I said. I may not have been exactly standing up to be counted, but at last the procession with gorgeous robes was on its way.


It was Coca-Cola that altered me to the problem. With the unseasonably warm weather the one thing that one wants is a chilled bottle of Coke – and they can quote me on that. But in Stratford it was the one thing that could not be found for (as those with an eye for a happy turn of phrase might put it) love or money. I was surprised because I know of old the formidable logistical abilities of the Coca-Cola Company: never a demand for the brown and bubbly liquid willingly unsupplied. I made enquiries of the local shopkeepers.

The problem, as it turned out, was an advertising campaign. The slogan is ‘Share a Coke’, and there is a great deal that goes with it in terms of having your name printed on a bottle of the drink where the word ‘Coca-Cola’ is normally to be found. Possibly, in the spirit of reciprocity ‘Coca-Cola’ appears on your driving licence. Togetherness, it is fair to say, is the theme.

Now, the phrase ‘Share a Coke’ is generally to be found in the advertising as three distinct words and in the URL for the associated website, where gaps are of course not permitted, they are still distinct, being separated by hyphens. But it was not always so. The campaign was initially, or so it appears, tested in marginal areas, like Ireland and the East End, with a view to its being fine-tuned on the proles before being released on the ABs later. And in the earlier version, the slogan, certainly as regards the URL, was apparently all one word: ‘shareacoke’. And it was here that the misunderstanding arose.

One of the last areas where you achieve fluency when using a language to which you were not born, as the better half will tell you, is the spelling. This is particularly the case, as the better half will, if encouraged, emphasise, where one’s original language has a different alphabet. Many of the people who live in Stratford (some thirty per cent according to one account, though I didn’t know how they think they know; they haven’t asked me) are of Pakistani origin. It is not surprising that with all their fluency in English they read ‘Sharea’ as ‘Sharia’. It is a mistake that any of us might make.

Probably they were predisposed to reading it that way, thinking that some recompense was due after the frankly un-Islamic concentration in previous Coca-Cola campaigns on Christmas.

Anyway, hence the bulk buying of one’s favourite summer drink. The damage was done. No doubt a substantial minority of the people of Stratford (though probably fewer of the Irish) thought that it was a special release: Sharia Coke, like Classic or Sugar- or Carcinogen-free or whatever the others are. It might be a mistake but if it works it’s good advertising.

(Or, as it seems to be compulsory to say these days, I’m not sure why: ‘It may be a mistake but, hey, if it works it’s good advertising.’)

After a silence of some months, when they were no doubt busy, Popes Я Us have been calling again, and I shared these thoughts with them. As things turned out, it might have been better not to.

First of course I asked about the new pontiff.

Well, said Popes Я Us, it’s not like it used to be. The last one you never saw except safely though a cloud of incense or at a formal audience for which you were prepared. This new one you never know where he’s going to pop up. You can be tucking into your linguine con polpo in the Vatican Library canteen and there he is suddenly in the midst of you, wanting to talk about the Poor.

That’s good though, isn’t it?

Of course it is, said Popes Я Us, but at luncheon?

And his accent, said Popes Я Us in a whisper.

But, I said, from what I read, he is going to cleanse the Augean Stables that is the Vatican hierarchy.

Ng Stables? said Popes Я Us.

A-U-G-E-A-N. Hercules. Look it up. You’ll find them in the Vatican Library.

There was a moment’s silence and a tapping sound down the phone.

Or Google, said Popes Я Us. Ah yes, of course. I know these stables. Of course. In Italian we pronounce it otherwise. The pederastic monsters and the thieves among the Cardinalate! Oh yes!

Watch this space, said Popes Я Us.

And since he would not accommodate my prurient interest any further I changed the subject and told him about Islamic soft drinks and the thirty-something per cent of people in Stratford of Pakistani origin.

Many of them have an understandable attachment to Sharia law, I said. Periodically they suggest that it should be adopted as standard in the London Borough of Newham. I hope that they don’t succeed, having spent a working lifetime establishing some familiarity with the English sort.

Oh no, said Popes Я Us. The thirty-something percentage is for people originally from the sub-continent altogether. Indians, Hindus, Sikhs. Many of them would share your reluctance to replace the Common Law with Sharia: quite strongly in fact.

How do you know?

I looked it up in the Vatican Library when you said that you were moving.

We care about you, said Popes Я Us, in a whisper.

They called back an hour or so later.

The Church must stand up and be counted in Stratford, they said. The very clear message from our brothers in Islam must not go by default.

Mm, I said.

A procession: that’s what’s needed. With gorgeous robes.

It’s very hot, I said, currently, for gorgeous robes.

Pft, said Popes Я Us. If Our Holy Mother the Church knows about anything, after two millennia, it’s processions with gorgeous robes. We thought Westfield.

I remembered The Coca-Cola Company and its dry run.

Try the old Stratford Shopping Centre, I said. It’s cosier: much more suitable.

And as it turned out that was my biggest mistake so far.