Excerpt: 'Be Near Me' Andrew O'Hagan's novel Be Near Me tells the story of Father David, a middle-aged Catholic priest who begins spending time with two outlaw teenagers. Critic Maureen Corrigan calls O'Hagan "a lovely, precise writer with unexpected ways of describing the miraculous as well as the mundane."

Excerpt: 'Be Near Me'

Book Cover: 'Be Near Me'

Be Near Me

By Andrew O'Hagan

Hardcover, 320 pages

List Price: $24.00

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One is never prepared for the manner in which home changes over time. That tea room was twenty-nine years ago. Scotland was my mother's world, and my years in Blackpool were spent in pastoral oblivion, a kind of homelessness which has followed me everywhere. Lancashire was the place where I grew up, my father's world, but serving there as a parish priest provided me with nothing much greater than the small comforts afforded in my line by the habits of duty.

I wanted to add something new to my mother's life. She had always been so original, so full of words, so ready with money, the distances between us being no bar to her encouragement of me, her enjoyment of our hard-hearted jokes. But she was growing old. I thought we might do more laughing together and visit the places she liked. The year before last, I came back and took charge of a small Ayrshire parish, to see her, to be close to her, though I can hardly say that the move was made in heaven.

Troubles like mine begin, as they end, in a thousand places, but my year in that Scottish parish would serve to unlock everything. There is no other way of putting the matter. Dalgarnock seems now like the central place in a story I had known all along, as if each year and each quiet hour of my professional life had only been preparation for the darkness of that town, where hope is like a harebell ringing at night.

It all began to happen on Good Friday. The rectory was pleasant and well-groomed, and my housekeeper, Mrs Poole, brought two large bowls of lettuce soup to the sitting-room table. I had just come back from the second service of the day, feeling tired, with a heaviness in my legs that made me wonder if I wasn't ageing rather badly. It is not always easy to know the difference between religious passion and exalted grief. I felt Mrs Poole was watching me and ready to say a number of things, but the light of the chapel still glowered in my head, willing me to regret the need for human contact and the niceties of lunch. Mrs Poole was in her most efficient mode and soon had me smiling.

After several months in Dalgarnock I noticed she was more at home in the rectory than one would have expected. She loved it there, loved what she called 'the feel of the house', and her admiration was particularly drawn to the presence of numerous clocks and books and second-rate pictures, the stuff of my own past.

'You've a bit of education up yer sleeve, Father. That's the thing. When people have been places you can just tell. What a house for pictures. You are somebody just like me: you like yer wee things round about you. Now, half the people you meet go on like their home is a prison. But when you walk in here, you see right away it's a place for thinking.'

'I don't know about that, Mrs Poole.'

'Oh, away ye go. A man like you knows how to think.'

She made a fetish of the house plants, speaking to them, paying tribute as she bent with the watering can to the good company they provided. She was a great enthusiast for the environment, by which she meant the outside world, but

the inside world was the domain of her greatest exactitude. Hours would come and go as she moved about the place,

the dust a sign of some freedom she had barely known, the cluttered rooms full of corkscrews, prayer books, exhibition catalogues and seed packets seeming to her to indicate a peaceable universe very unlike the one she maintained in her house by the railway bridge.

'Mrs Poole,' I said, 'don't get me started on big topics. I'm looking for laughter today.'

'You've picked a fine day for it,' she said. 'There's a dirty great sponge of vinegar being presented to the Lord's face as we speak.'

'That's fine,' I said. 'But I need a glass of wine.'

'Bloody hell,' said Mrs Poole. 'When I was a girl, Good Friday was a day for closing the curtains and hanging yer head. Now you're all calling for the wine bottle. You'll be casting lots for the bloody cloak next.'

I spun my keys and looked up at the ceiling. A frosting of cobwebs sat lightly over the old chandelier.

'Did I ever tell you, Mrs Poole?' I plucked at my bottom lip and pointed up.

'What's that?' she said.

'This very chandelier was hung in my first set of rooms at Balliol. Can you imagine? A present from one of the Anderton aunts.'

'Heaven save us.'

'It's true. My aunt thought it was criminal for a young man to have to study under an oil lamp. I used to stare up at it during the night instead of writing essays on the English Civil War. It was even dirtier then. Can you imagine that, now? This very chandelier?'

'A right ticket you must have been, Father,' she said, 'with your chandeliers and all the rest of it. Very nice. As you lay there inspecting your fancy light, my sister and I, we were five years younger than you and working nightshifts.'

'Hard work. How dreadful. Was she cured of it?'

'Oh, aye,' said Mrs Poole. 'We were all cured of that soon enough.'

'I'll take your word for it,' I said, 'given the amount of muck on that chandelier up there.'

'Don't start me,' she said. 'There's work enough to be done. Too much work to be bothering wi' yer daft lights.'

'Get you,' I said. 'It's Mutiny on the Bounty.'

'Slave driver.'

'Yes, indeed,' I said. 'You wouldn't want it any other way.'

Mrs Poole was forty-two, but her attitudes made her seem older. Only when she smiled did one notice she was quite young. She had no college education, nor did she come from a background that supported her enthusiasms, but she had schooled herself with the kind of personal passion that verges on panic, and her mind absorbed and retained. This process had started years before I met her—with night classes in French, with cookbooks—but she always said that side of her had become important in her time with me.

'You just sit there quiet half the time,' she said. 'But I know you're boiling with arguments, Father.'

'Is that right?'

'Oh, piping! And don't be shy. There's a thousand things to discuss and hardly anybody to talk to.'

'Very good, Mrs Poole.'

My mother made the point that my housekeeper was like a heroine in Jane Austen: she would have distinguished herself in any class, yet her circumstances acted upon her like a series of privations she was determined to overcome. The fact made her unsteady sometimes but pretty much always likeable. She had little time for The Tongues, as she called them, the people of the town, and saw our friendship as an overdue reward and a lucky extension of her long dedication to self-improvement.

'I have finally found my job,' she said. 'And a person who knows how to put a sentence together.'

'Good stuff,' I said. 'Just don't forget I've a gangplank through there for people who yell about their rights.'

'Fascist,' she said.


'Roman soldier!'

'That's right,' I said. 'That's my job.'

She smiled and hooked a dish towel over her shoulder. 'That's enough of your cheek, Father. Come and have your lunch.' She swept a theatrical hand over the dining table in the manner of a far-travelled merchant presenting his latest silks. 'Quickly now. It's soup. Potage de Père Tranquille.'

'Du Père,' I said.

'Right. The best abstinence money can buy.'

'Goodness, Mrs Poole. Lettuce soup. There are monks and starving people who would thank you for this. Can we go wild and add a few bits of bread to the feast?'

'Suit yourself. Be my guest. If you want to remember Christ's agony by gorging on crusts, I can't stop you.'

'Just a few delicious dods of the old pain de campagne.'

'That's fine,' she said. 'I bought the organic stuff.'

Mrs Poole worked only two and a half days a week. She liked to smile at unpredictable things and gave the impression she showed sides of herself in the rectory that she couldn't show at home. Her husband Jack was a part-time gardener for the council. 'He just cuts the grass,' she said, as if to separate his efforts from the sorts of things we might do ourselves.

Mr and Mrs Poole appeared to live together in a state of settled resentment. She said they seldom went out and that he had given up on trying to make her happy. He wasn't the man she had married, apparently, and a thousand things had happened, she said, that made it clear he couldn't deal with responsibility. Even after the events of that year, I don't think I ever came to understand what Mr Poole really thought of his wife and the world she craved. But she may have been wrong to assume that his drinking was the biggest part of him, that he was, in some barely conscious way, a standard-bearer for the town's worst prejudices. Some might have called him a broken person, yet there was more to him, and more to her, than either of them would find time to recognise.

It was Mrs Poole's habit to see him as a failure. I think perhaps his biggest failure, in her eyes, was to seem to deny something very essential in her as they got older, something that might have made them more elevated and more sophisticated than the people around them, the people—'his people', she would say—of whom Mrs Poole had come to feel perhaps too easily scornful, and whom he, Jack, had an equally natural ability to understand and to rub along with quite nicely.

'Yes,' she said once. 'Being one of them.'

'Don't be too hard on Dalgarnock,' I said. 'The people from here are no different from people elsewhere, except they probably have more to deal with and smaller means to do it.'

'You'll find out if I'm too hard on them,' she said, and I knew from the way she said it that she'd heard things against me or against priests in general or people from England.

Mrs Poole thought that Jack saw her new habits and interests as being pretentious and wanted to deny her an opportunity for personal growth. 'He doesn't know me,' she said. 'You know me better than him.'

'I don't know about that, Mrs Poole. I only know a few old prayers and a dozen facts about Marcel Proust.'

'That's you then,' she said. 'But it's not nothing. It's a damn sight more than most people round here. Most of those people wouldn't give you daylight in a dark corner.'

'Is that one of your native expressions?'

'That's right. They wouldn't give you the shine off their sweat.'

'Nice,' I said. 'Proust would be proud of you.'

'Shush,' she said. 'You know what I mean. You can't expect a priest to know much about life, but at least you've read a couple of books.'

'Whatever you say,' I said.

I could only assume Mrs Poole came to work to live

another sort of life. As with all her jealously guarded, self-defining hours—the night classes, the environment, the afternoons down at the Red Cross shop—her time at the rectory was spent, at least in part, in solid opposition to her husband's view of her as a person gaining airs and ignoring the hands of her biological clock.

One day we visited the garden centre. It must have been a month into my time there in the parish. I had been telling Mrs Poole a thing or two about the older kinds of rose. We looked up some books, and it was decided that rose bushes were exactly the thing for the rectory garden, planted with care round the walls, each of us falling by degrees into a strictly imagined world of old fragrances. That day, Jack was in the children's playground next to the garden centre when we came out bearing our new plants. He didn't see us coming along, though I suspect Mrs Poole saw him, for she flinched and the small leaves on the bushes shuddered as we walked across the gravel.

'Amazing,' I said.


'That's actually a twelfth-century rose you're holding.'

'The weight of it,' she said.

Jack was sitting on the roundabout with a passive look on his face and a bottle of booze in a paper bag. We put the things in the car and then Mrs Poole went back to use the loo, while I sat behind the wheel and watched her mysterious husband removing table-tennis bats from a large blue bag and throwing them into the trees.

Before we'd started the soup, the postman came to the door and hammered on it with his usual disregard. 'Nothing gets your attention like a knock at the door,' said Mrs Poole, and she went out. I spent a moment playing a phrase on the piano, placing my foot on a dull brass pedal. Then I stopped and cocked an ear before putting Chopin into the CD player; I could hear very clearly what the postman was saying to Mrs Poole.

'How's yer English priest getting on then?'

'He's not English,' she said. 'He was born in Edinburgh.'

'Don't kid yerself,' said the postman. 'Yer man's as English as two weeks in Essex. Get a load ae that rug lying there!'

'What are you talking about?'

'That thing under yer feet,' he said. 'They didnae have that in Father McGee's day. That's a pure English rug, that.'

'Just go about your business and stop coming round here talking nonsense,' said Mrs Poole. 'This is a Persian rug.'

'That's Iran or Iraq,' he said. 'You want to get rid ae that.' As he laughed he sent a menacing splutter into the hall. 'There's blood in they carpets. Our troops are over in that place and they're not buildin' sandcastles. There's young men dying out there. You have to watch out for the Iraqis.'

I'm sure there's an essay in which Liszt writes of Chopin's apartment on the chaussée d'Antin, the room with a portrait of Chopin above the piano, and the belief of the younger musician that the painting must have been a constant auditor of the sound that once flamed and lived in that room, bright and brief as a candle.

'The postman?' I said.

Mrs Poole put a letter into its envelope and folded the whole thing in three. She creased it as people do who never file their letters, holding the stiff paper in her hand like a small baton. 'Aye,' she said. 'Just another of yer local idiots.'

'Isn't Good Friday a bank holiday? Don't they get the day off?'

'Not in Scotland,' she said. 'That's an English thing.'

She seemed more than slightly annoyed with the postman, as if his careless and brash way of talking had added some terrible degree of insult to the letter he had given her, the letter she now stuffed into the front pocket of her apron.

'Are you all right?'

She smoothed one lip against the other. 'In this country,' she said, 'they prefer to have an extra holiday on the second of January. They ignore Good Friday but they don't ignore the second of January.'


'Of course,' she said. 'The second is the day after New Year's Day, and they'd much sooner have an extra day with alcohol than an extra day with God.'

'You're very severe, Mrs Poole.'

'No wonder,' she said. 'The idea of a person like that being responsible for bringing the post.'

'He's just doing his job.'

'Don't be soft,' she said. 'He's an idiot. And you'd do well to recognise an idiot when you see one.'

Mrs Poole picked some lint from her skirt, and a moment of unease registered with her before she appeared to decide in favour of cheerfulness. 'This is more of your film music you're playing,' she said.

'It's the best thing in the world.'

'Oh God,' she said. 'We've got something good to talk about at last.'

'Yes,' I said. The swerve past the unmentioned letter was still there between us. 'I'm afraid I like the Nocturnes more than anything else. More than Bach.'

'Away ye go.'

We moved to the table and she straightened the cloth.

'I'm no expert,' she said, 'but I'm sure that's wrong.' She looked cheerfully combative. 'You might have to rectify it or else find a new cleaner.'

'A new cleaner who likes nocturnes?'

'That's right,' she said, enjoying her joke. 'You're such a dangerous snob, Father David.'

'No danger to you. You're the most gigantic snob I've ever met. I count it as part of my good fortune to have come across you.'

'I intend to become worse,' she said.

'Be my guest.'

'Only two and a half days a week, mind.'

I asked her again if she was all right, and she nodded into the tablecloth before lifting her spoon. She hoped it was fine to receive mail at the rectory.

'By all means,' I said.

She brushed her cheeks with the back of the spoon as if to cool them and then said we should get on and have our soup. 'The stock is just right,' I said. 'The stock is perfection.'

She had no little regard for the small things, for the dominant note in a perfume—almonds, say, or vanilla—and she appeared almost girlish in her enthusiasm for finding the right shoes and dressing to her mood.

'You've got to make an effort,' she said.

'You'll see us all to our graves, Mrs Poole,' I said. 'You have more energy about you than any of us.'

'I've got that,' she said. 'But you've got the other things.'

I asked for a little of last evening's Alsace. 'Very sweet,' I said. 'It will cut through the taste of your soup.'

'That's not very abstinent of you,' she said.

'Even at this sad time, Good Friday,' I said, 'we must have gaiety. We must have gaiety at all costs.'

At first she said she wouldn't drink any, but then suddenly she changed her mind, bringing over a glass which she pinged with a fingernail. I filled it and she drank the glass in one go, lifting her napkin and dabbing the edge of her nose as if the napkin were a sort of accomplice.

'Is that all right?' I asked.

'Parfait,' she said.

'You have a nice tone to your pronunciation.'

'Thank you,' she said. And after a moment: 'Has France always been your favourite? I mean, of all the places?'

'Well, it's created some personable Englishmen.'

'What do you mean?'

'A little contact with France does an Englishman no end of good,' I said. 'But too much of it can make the French intolerable.'

'Is that a joke?' she said.

'Depends if you're English or French.'

'And what if you're Scottish?'

'Bad luck,' I said.

'God, you're a pain,' she said. 'One minute you're Scottish yourself and the next minute you're more English than Churchill. I'm sure I don't know what to be saying about you.'

'Well,' I said, 'here's some advice. Only say sweet things about me and you'll never go far wrong.'

'A pain!' she said. 'Maybe you're just a turncoat, and the war has turned you against France.'

'Perhaps,' I said.

Mrs Poole looked at me and bit her lip and said nothing, as if the matter was best forgotten and not looked into; then everything seemed to resolve itself as she asked again about the sweetness of certain wines. 'I would like to go some day to France,' she said, 'and see these vineyards.'

'Alsace is in the northeast.'

'Like Aberdeen,' she said.


A print of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne was hung so as

to absorb the light from the window that faced the church.

I saw myself buying the print long ago at the Galleria Borghese, a small purchase on a spring day after a walk under the pines of the villa gardens. Waiting for Mrs Poole to speak again, I looked at Daphne's anxious face and noticed her fingertips flowering into branches and leaves. The light was very subdued.

'I wish you'd turn that music off,' Mrs Poole said. 'It gets on my nerves. I hate all that watery music. I borrowed some of it from the library. God. It makes such a fuss of itself.'

'You just like to argue with me, Mrs Poole.'

'I do,' she said.

She smiled and then laughed as she poured herself another inch of Alsace, her eyes flaring, willing me to argue my case.

'Poor washerwoman that you are,' I said. 'The famous Scottish education system barely left a mark on you.'

'Father, don't make me swear. Jesus is up on the cross covered in wounds and you're nearly making me swear.'

'You will never go to heaven.'

'It's mechanical.'

'You'll never be happy.'

'I'll never be sad, more like! Gluttons for sadness, you Chopin fans. Bedwetters.'

'Goodness, Mrs Poole,' I said. 'Strong words. I should say you were brought up in a bath of coal.'

'Born and bred. But I still know Chopin is dodgy stuff.'

'If it wasn't for Chopin his people would still be kicking up their heels in circles and baring their black teeth to the vodka jug.'

'And you a good whatsit—socialist,' she said, lifting the plates and doing a little victory sashay into the kitchen.

'Not in a long time,' I said.

There was a decent pause. I looked at the swirling carpet and felt ashamed of its cheap, nasty appearance, the purple and beige nylon a field of static electricity. 'Three months and we've still got that terrible floor,' I said.

I looked at the Bernini again and my eye travelled to a framed photograph beneath it on the mantel. It was me at school in my black tie and blazer, a bare hawthorn tree standing behind on the hill above Ampleforth, its branches seemingly shaped by the wind. Next to that was a picture of an elephant rising on its back legs surrounded by workers from a Yorkshire factory. I looked up as Mrs Poole came back. I could see she was happy with the progress of our talk.

'Sorry,' she said, looking down at two new bowls, the redness high in her cheeks. 'Here's the pudding. It's a bit so-so, I'm afraid.'

'Never mind,' I said. 'Good things are temporary.'

The light at the window reminded me that I must soon be off to the school. I wanted to tell her I wasn't half as serious as she thought. I wanted to say that neither of us needed especially to believe what we said. But something in her and something in me made actors of us both when we were together, and I couldn't admit how much I looked forward to being with the young people at the school, just so as to lose myself and to fall in with whatever they were doing. I tried to joke with her but she would always bring me back. She believed my teases were just pauses between big pronouncements, and she wanted them more than anything, the pronouncements, as if I owed them to her.

'So what are you saying?' she said.

'Nothing,' I said. 'That I like music with a sigh in it, that's all. The Nocturnes are hymn-like.'

Mrs Poole lifted a pencil from a pot on the bookshelf. It was idly done, how she examined the pencil, stroked its length and then pressed the point into the fold of flesh between her left thumb and forefinger, before licking another finger and erasing the mark.

'Oh, who cares?' I said. 'It's all just a way of going on.'

'Lovely!' she said. 'I've got you going now, haven't I?'

'Yes, you've got me, Mrs Poole. But I won't argue with you today. I'm in too good a mood and I've got tasks.'

She smiled. 'That's right,' she said. 'Tasks. But I'm glad we have time for our wee conversations.' She wiped a spot from the table. 'I won't say I very often agree with you.'

My father always said one wasn't a man and knew nothing of life until one could read the local newspaper from cover to cover and find every item interesting. Everything from the church news to the prices of used cars, from the legal notices to the births, marriages and deaths. I was very small, but I clearly remember him reading the Lancaster and Morecambe Citizen with a bone-handled magnifying glass, enlarging the specimens of print—even in the house he showed his love of science, his capturing eye—to discover the inner pattern and the secret of life.

Yet I can't quite see his face. It appears to me in dreams sometimes, like my own face but tougher, his high forehead signifying an easy and proud domination of family routines as well as some unspoken understanding of the world's troubles. My father was a surgeon and he took a surgeon's interest in what might be called the near certainty of outcomes. He was an educated man of his generation: more interested in habits than in character, more given to thought than declaration. Such men are apt to remain a mystery to their sons, but I know my father believed in preparation, he believed in the professional approach, and, when it came to the consideration of life's priorities, he liked to quote Samuel Johnson on the notion that there was nothing too small for such a small thing as man. That was his unbending rule.

He hated chaos and impropriety. People who failed to make their beds in the morning were reprobates to him, and those who failed to pay their taxes were worse than murderers. One had a duty to polish one's shoes and give up one's seat. It was crucial to know when to shut up and when to tell the truth about oneself. His standards were not especially high, just especially precise and rigid, giving one the impression that a netherworld existed beyond shoe-polishing and bed-making, a region he had come to know about in his life's travels, a terrible hell for people who did not know how to live and who had no gratitude. He doubted the arts and anything remotely 'airy-fairy,' content to live, as he did, in a world of concrete objects and brown English likelihoods. I'm sure he would have come to find my mother and me quite intolerable. He wanted simple proof of everything, the weather, for instance, or the existence of God, and my going into the priesthood would have seemed to him, like my mother's novels, a grand and unnecessary bid for an idealism too proud to accommodate the facts.

Yet he wasn't morose. He was excited by his life. He enjoyed getting up in the morning and kept a woodpecker clock by the bed, a Swiss contraption that shocked him out of sleep at 5 a.m. He had leather carpet slippers ready on the floor, which he wore for the journey to the bathroom, a gleaming place where everything waited in good order, foreign soaps, tooth powder, his shaving things and a bottle of cologne. Every small element of life fascinated him and he wanted to get it right. The kitchen was a laboratory and so was the garden. It was always clear to me, even as a boy, that my father was the type to believe that human beings, even if not capable of it, should be ready to have an influence on everything around them and be conscious all the time of how to live and what to do.

Once a swallow's nest fell from the eaves of the house. My father gathered us together in the front room. He made us sit quietly by the window, watching the unfolding drama, seeing if the chicks inside the nest would be rescued or abandoned or stolen. In the end it was all too much for him. He brought the nest inside and taught me how to feed the chicks with a dropper. Two of them died, but one survived, and he put everything into the life of that bird. He took a pencil and pointed to the bulging purple skin that seemed to cover the bird's eyes and he showed me the place where its heart was beating.

'We have interfered,' he said. 'But that is what people are meant for—interfering. That is what we must do.'

'Why?' I said.

'Because we are human beings. Speed the plough. Search the galaxies. Find a cure for smallpox. That is us.'

'Will the bird live?'

'It may do,' he said. 'It may fly to South Africa with our help, if we can fix its bastard wing.'

I smiled, but that's what it's called: the bastard wing.

'It may die,' he said.

'Oh,' I said. 'Is that possible, after all the time we've spent? And you're here. Not many birds have their own surgeon.'

'It's possible,' he said. 'But, David, haven't we learned a great deal about what it takes to keep a thing living?'

Mrs Poole gathered a heap of newspapers in her arms and carried them outside to the recycling bin by the front door.

'All these trees,' I heard her say. 'Some day people will open their eyes to what they're doing to the world.'

Sitting at the table, I thought of an old man who had come to ten o'clock Mass that morning with his usual bags. He was a town councillor years ago, apparently, but now he just came to Mass every other day with bottles of sweet cider secreted in plastic bags along with a number of newspapers and library books. He always wore a raincoat that was faintly charcoaled with age and he sat in one of the side chapels, under the crucifix, reading the Morning Star. Once I saw him at a table towards the back of the Lite Bite, a café down the road. The bag containing the cider was jammed under the formica table and a dish of lasagne sat going cold at the centre of his papers and his scribbles.

I spoke to him that morning. His name was Mr Savage. He often seemed ready to be spoken to, though few people went near him, leaving him alone with his scribbling and

his tea. He was one of only two people, the other being Mrs Poole, who told me to watch out for myself in that town. I just smiled at his comments. He seemed like an aged version of some people I had known in my youth, and I liked him for that. He told me he took holidays twice a year with a company called Progressive Tours, always to places like Cuba or Vladivostok or Dresden.

He came up to me after Mass.

'Why no altar-servers?' he said.

'We seem to have lost them all,' I said. 'My predecessor, Father McGee, hadn't taken on any new altar boys for a while. We had an elderly gentleman who was serving morning Mass but he's not in good health.'

'I've seen him, yes.'

'Young people are busy, I suppose.'

'You know what they're like now,' said Mr Savage. 'They'll want a few quid before they'll agree to do anything.'

He smiled and I saw he had the most perfect teeth. I wanted to ask him if he'd had them done in Poland, where all the dentists are said to be cheap and where Progressive Tours might still go.

'It's the dictatorship of the proletariat,' he said.

I asked him if he was a Marxist.

'Naturally,' he said.

'And yet you come to Mass?'

'It's the auld alliance. Uncle Joe and Jesus Christ.'

'Oh,' I said. 'I've not heard that view expressed for years. It was something we used to play with in my youth.'

'Aye, well,' said Mr Savage. 'There's them that plays and them that stays. You're missing half your theology, Father.'

I caught sight of myself in the mirror as I stood up from the table, the old dog collar feeling rough and my suit too warm for the day. Something in my discussion with Mrs Poole had stirred me, as if I might find a way to dispel boredom and burn my routines. Was I hoping for something the minute I stood up? I reached down the side of the piano and opened a rosewood box that lived there, finding hymn books and loose sheet music, materials from my old parish, much of it dusty. I leafed through the music, took a few sheets out and placed them in a folder before turning again to Mrs Poole.

'Have you got everything?' she said.

I checked my pockets, feeling an assortment of pens and mints and small notepads. My breast pocket had a secret fold containing a duplicate of my mother's credit card. I tapped the pocket and knew it was there. Mrs Poole stood by the sofa rubbing her hands together against the non-existent cold, and I tried to look casual.

She laid a round basket filled with bottles of Baby Bio

on the sofa. 'These are for the rubbish,' she said. 'You keep sneaking bottles in and the plants don't need fertiliser.'

'I'm sure it's very evil, Mrs Poole.'

'Too right,' she said. 'Evil. Those chemical companies are trying to turn everywhere into Kansas. I saw a thing on the telly.'

'Maybe you should be putting all the TVs on the rubbish tip.'

'You can laugh,' she said.

'I have no opinion.'

'That's right. You have no opinion. TV's all right in moderation. Maybe if you watched the odd bit of TV you'd know more about the world.'

'I'm sure you're right.'

'You'll say anything to keep me quiet,' she said. She rattled the small bottles in the basket and pursed her lips. 'It wouldn't do you any harm at all. But I have to grant you, books are more friendly.'

I waited a second or two.

'It's good that you come here,' I said.

I saw something, a momentary stiffness, perhaps, that seemed at the time like a grade of panic, and I thought to cancel it by placing a friendly hand on her shoulder.

'None of that now,' she said. 'No banalities, please. It's not the house for that sort of thing.'

'Right you are,' I said.

She grinned and I saw the good nature return to her face, though her hand was trembling as it reached out for a tin of polish.

'Film music,' she said.

'Oh, shush,' I said. 'Go about your business, woman.'

'Au revoir,' she said.

Mrs Poole put the polish under her arm and said nothing more as she walked across the carpet. The day was very fine. She chewed a fingernail as she reached the back of the sitting-room, and she paused there, looking out through the large window at the rose garden and a blackbird drinking from the sundial.

Excerpted from Be Near Me.© Andrew O'Hagan, 2006. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777. First published in Great Britain by Faber & Faber Limited