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Ex-priest in south London


They think I’m a priest. Or an ex-priest. They think I’ve been thrown out of the church for some awful un-priestly thing and that I live now like a Nazi in Argentina, except that I am a priest in Brixton, on Coldharbour Lane. But I am not a priest. I have never been a priest. I have never been anyone. And I have never done anything of that sort. Never, not once. And besides, they take my money. They can’t be so appalled by the things they imagine I’ve done if they take my money, if they let me live here, let me stay. 

I have a room by the crossroads. Above the bookies.

Cold harbour. 

That day though, was hot. That particular day, which was yesterday or the day before. It’s night now – I don’t know the time – and the window is broken. That day was hot. I was in my room overlooking the crossroads and I had taken off my jacket and rolled up my shirt sleeves and I was at work on the panel. The dials and the switches. There was a holding curve in the eighth system. I adjusted the formal and the informal musters and it held. A click in the secondary pool gave me a bit of a start, but I stepped up the initial and the minor fold and it stopped soon enough. I put my finger in my mouth and hummed a little. 

Hot day.  

There’s never any noise from the bookies. Never a single cheer. But the street through the window is a constant roar. I can lie on my bed and pretend it’s the sea on the shore, the waves rolling in, breaking on the beach. But only for a minute, until another motorbike hawks and spits its way through the crossroads. I can think of no seabird to associate it with, and the spell is broken. 

I say the sea. I mean the sea on my world, not the sea here. 

Anyway, I was working on the panel. 

The loaded anchor and the weight of the incoming sent the hollow past the first regard item, and I adjusted the informal muster towards mule, which I thought would compensate through first regard item but instead the loop field thronged mottle and I had to switch the eighth system to loop. Given the eighth in loop, the informal and formal musters were cut stride and I spent several minutes staring at the holding curve, fearful, my arms aching, my mouth dry – human things which I despise – and I wished for the day when I would be murdered with a bullet to the back of the head, which is what I’d been promised, and thrown into a ditch, which I hadn’t been promised but which I felt would be apt. 

I live in Brixton in a room at the crossroads and they think I’m a priest but I’m not even human. And it was a hot day. Place your bets. 

They never really shout or raise their voices. You nonce, they say politely. You Paddy nonce. What you like Paddy? Boys or girls or you don’t give a monkey’s? They pick things up, put them down. A cup. A pen. My reading glasses. They pick them up, look at them, turn them over in their big hands, put them down. What you want with something like that Paddy? Glasses. You like to look close up at the kiddie pictures Father Paddy? Like to peer? Fucking nonce. 

I am from what human beings call a planet. What you call a planet. A different planet. Which is what you call very far away. In what you would call a solar system, not unlike your own, though with a smaller sun and only three planets, all of which are at war with each other, have been for hundreds of what you call years, though there is an interplanetary group of dissenters from everything – everything – who seek peace, and I am a member, a part, a fraction or fragment of this group which in human terms you might call a conspiracy, an idea, an aspiration, and I am here on this planet, your planet, and on that day I was in a room overlooking the crossroads, working on the panel which is connected to another panel in an exterior wall, which is extracting from the air of south London a particle unknown to human beings, which remains undiscovered by human beings, and with which it will be possible, given the right conditions, and if I can capture enough of it, to disable what you might call the weaponry used in the wars in which my species, what you would call my people, have been dying for countless generations, in a constant roaring like the waves on a shore. 

It is more complicated than that but human language is pathetic.

I will not be able to go back. To go home. It can’t be done. What you would call a suicide mission. But we die all the time, my people, over and over. 

Everything has been going well. Had been going well. Until that day. 

Well, that’s not quite accurate. Is it? 

That day was the disaster. But before the disaster there had been signs, warning signs, which I rationalised away or ignored completely. I dismissed them as symptoms of my weariness. Symptoms of my loneliness. Of the distance from others like me. Of my isolation. My subterfuge. Anyway, they made no sense.
I could not possibly have known. 

He had to go to the Maudsley every so often so that they could ask him how he was doing. It suited him fine. 

Sometimes it wasn’t that he was from a different planet or that he wasn’t human, it was that he didn’t exist at all. This was very complicated to try to explain. The trouble he had explaining it made it seem that he himself didn’t understand it, but this was not the case. He felt it very completely and was not distressed by it. He did not exist, he was not real, there was nothing in the room, no one and nothing in the room at all, just a potentiality of thought which circled lazily like a dust mote. But no, that was wrong as well, that was too big, too much - a dust mote. There was no dust mote. There was nothing. He was nothing. He stopped talking. He didn’t mean to be rude. But really. He wasn’t there. 

He knew after a few days of that to go and talk to them in the Maudsley because they worried about him, they were always getting worried about him, about him being unhappy or uncomfortable and he didn’t want them to worry so off he went. The first thing they would always ask was whether he was taking his medication. He didn’t like to let them down. 

One time they took him in for a few weeks to try various things. Gave him a little room, with a nice bed, a desk, a view of a carpark. It was so clean. They changed his medications. Made sure he took them. They encouraged him to talk with people, with psychiatrists and others. All very pleasant. All very nice.

They all thought that there was something wrong with him, and that he needed treatment for this. He didn’t disagree. But he thought that this was only one option. Amongst others. 

A) What they said, as he understood it, was that he didn’t really recognise himself. He was separated from his own self awareness. From his own sense of himself. It was like living inside a delusion-of-self, an inward-facing psychosis that covered him completely, head to toe, like a second skin, except that it was a mirror. Something like that. It was true that when he looked in an actual mirror it always gave him a fright, to see himself, to see his body. It was very different to the shape he occupied. He could not see himself looking out of it. 

The other options though were that 

B) he was from another planet or 

C) that he didn’t exist at all. This was, they said, actually the same as A) because it was a condition known as Cotard’s Delusion Of Negation, and was French. They said he had a mild and impersistent case. And it was just a part of the general bundle of problems that constituted A). He did not accept this. He felt that A) and C) were distinct and separate and that to link them together, or more accurately, to attempt to have C) contained by A) was a logical fallacy much like Russell’s paradox. None of the staff at the Maudsley seemed to have heard of Russell, and he couldn’t fully recall the details either, so perhaps it was just as well. 

He thought that all three options were equally plausible is what it amounted to. At the Maudsley they strongly favoured A). Though they were very polite about it. 

During most of the hours of most of the days, he did not remember any of this. 

Boyish, he thinks. But he’s not really. Small faced fellow, all wrinkles now, never handsome anyway, long hands. Trim little body, no fat, all his skin gone a bit yellow in the sun now, scratchy. Lines and sags and mottles. Softness in the holding curve. His bearing. His posture. He holds himself very steady, particular, as if he’s never alone. Impossible to say how old he is other than that he is older than that. He remembers all the wars.


I don’t know why exactly they think I’m a priest. Not exactly. Maybe they don’t know about the Nazis of Argentina. Of course this isn’t Argentina, it’s Brixton. Isn’t it? Important distinction. Look at it. Dusty through the shards, clear as day through the hole. It could be Argentina. Could it? Probably not. The people like compost, steaming, like landfill. The corner. There’s your man. The sky is the same. If I had gone to Argentina, to Mendoza is it, if I had gone there, maybe they would think I’m a Nazi and I would be wondering if they didn’t know about the priests of Brixton. Furtive nods in the street. Sometimes the early mass in Our Lady of the Rosary, a sprinkle of us at the back, yellowing, coughing, passing little notes. 

The window is broken. They did that, though I’m not sure now that it was deliberate. They’ll have to fix it after all. Afterwards. I thought it was part of the routine. Two of them at my shoulders, another outside the door. Never seem to stand in front of me. They like instead to hover behind, moving close and then away and then further away and then close again, sometimes with a wave of air as if they’ve had a swing at me and missed. Never lay a finger on me though. Never. There was a crash and I jumped, flinched. Then there was a laugh, and a sigh. Oh you fucking numpty. I thought he was talking to me, but on reflection now I do not think that. Well that’s a shame Father, ain’t it? They joked then about how I’d complained that it could get very hot, the room. I hadn’t complained. I’d mentioned it. But to them it was moaning, and it had never stopped, even though I had only mentioned it once. They brought it up every time they came. Nice and breezy now ain’t it? 

They said I needed to be gone by the following Thursday. They said they’d be keeping the deposit of course, because of the window. 

He could never remember the shape or thread of his dreams. Only vivid patches which flamed up during the day for an instant and disappeared. But he thought that perhaps his life was really there, in his dreams, and his waking was just a function, as necessary and as forgettable as breathing or pissing or eating, and that in his dreams he knew and understood himself, and this waking was something else, a necessary function but without any interest to his real self. His true self.

Lot of nonsense. 

The bed is flat and I am flat upon it and I can see a bit of the night sky when I sleep and I peer at that. I don’t need much sleep. But I sleep as much as I can. Then I work at the panel. Then I go out. I sit in the little park and watch the comings and goings. The children and the pigeons wheeling around in the air chattering and pecking and bursting into tears at anything at all. Sometimes you see the mothers close to doing the same. Sometimes the pigeons all descend on the one spot as if there is food there, a feast of it, but there isn’t, usually, it’s just that enough pigeons gather, a necessary number, to draw the others. That is how it works. Ah look at their little hands. 

I go to the one pub that will have me and I buy a glass of stout. There is more than one pub, there are several, that will have me, but he is bitter about the fact that there are two that will not have him, and he exaggerates. People know him. People know me. They say hello and so forth. Some of them are alright. I’m not scared of them. Who on earth is Paddy? Only the rent men call me that. At the pub they call me Priest, as if it is a name. Which it may well be. It’s not my name. Sometimes it’s The Priest. When they think I can’t hear. Oh there’s The Priest one of them will say to another. Look out it’s The Priest. But to my face if they have to call me something they say Priest. What do you think of that Priest? Hello Priest pass the peanuts. One man once called me Father as a joke he thought it was, he thought he was making a joke but that’s not a joke. No. I put a stop to that. 

He looked out the window. 

I put a fucking stop to that. 

He is not in the pub at the moment. He is looking through the broken window. 

There’s a mountain of people, moving like a mudslide. Mounds of them slopped up against the walls. All the little children out of school. All the women all the men. Terrible happy looking day and the stink of it. 

I don’t know how it started. Something, some joke, plucked out of the air. He’s a little like a priest. He is isn’t he? He is you’re right. That’s it. A priest.

And it stuck. I must have not liked it and I must have let that show. That’s how these things work. They catch the little flinch and there you are, named whether you like it or not, and I must not have liked it, though I don’t mind it now no I don’t

He is peering through the broken glass at the corner opposite. 

mind it now. Is that? That’s that fellow from the dogfight I’m certain. Odd fellow that fellow. Odd sort of air about him. As if he’s carrying a knife but would never use it. He just smiled and watched the dogs, like it was fun. All that screaming and people looking away, and he just watched the big one tear the small one to pieces. With a bit of a smile on his face. His hands in his pockets. Saw me looking at him, seemed to give me a wink. Odd sort of fellow. Some dark sort of past no doubt. Not one of our lot though, I think. 

What do you know of priests? None of you believe in anything. 

There’s that woman. I heard her once in the Fourway Pharmacy complaining about constipation. Not even a hint of embarrassment. Quite right too. Lovely laugh she has. 

He snaps his fingers once and then again. Sits back in his chair. 

He sat back in his chair and snapped his fingers. 

He looked out of his broken window. 

I put a fucking stop to that. 

The eighth system in loop. The third regard item. 


Keith Ridgway is a Dubliner. He is the author most recently of A Shock (2021) which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize. His other novels include Hawthorn & Child (2013) and Animals (2006). He lives in south London.

His skin. It covered his entire body, almost. Something very mild about him now. That wasn’t always the case. He’s older, inactive, retired, gone cold. He shuffles a little, can't drink as much as he used to, but he drinks as much as he can. Oh he used to drink like a film star. Never handsome, but he had the charisma. He knew that. His otherworldliness. His way with mothers. His conversation and the complexity of his thinking and his sudden anger and his disappearances. 

Was he missing maybe? 

He was important. People sensed it. As if he might have something behind him. A great international organisation, a conspiracy of wealth and influence, a church. They were scared of him, in a way. It had been some attempt at an insult. A tester. And it had stuck because he didn’t like it, and he must have let that show. Never let it show. He ran a finger through the sticky dust and the shards of glass on his windowsill, and looked over the street. The traffic sat in the sun and smelled of metal. He ran the finger down the wall, leaving a little trail of red. Hot day. 

Cars on top of each other. 

His room was boiling but he kept his jacket on. There was a pile of spiders in the corner. There wasn’t really. There was a pile of shoes. Discard shoes. I pick them up on my walks. They rarely fit. But I think of them as spiders, my god. The smell of them. There is a hill of spiders in my corner. I’ll say that at some stage, to someone. I will. A hill of writhing spiders. In my corner. What do you have in yours? 

He counted his money. Not bad. All those coins. No one valued coins anymore. He did. Piles of coins. The smell of them. Old metal, old pockets and purses. Close to the thigh. All the thighs of London. He sang a little. 

All the thighs of London, all the London thighs, 
Will never wipe the sadness from my lover’s London eyes. 

Not bad. 

He put his finger in his mouth and hummed the tune. 

They came through the door before he opened it, having somehow a key, or some other device like a key, presumably from the landlord, and they were wide and high men, one in a vest, one in a tee shirt, both of them in shorts like schoolboys but they were mountainous men, violent in their arms and their boots, almost matching boots, and there were two of them, two men, four boots, but there was a third man, smaller, who stayed outside with documents, and they loomed over him, the documents, the two men, the three men, never touching him, never giving him that. At his shoulders. Behind him. Sit down Father Paddy there’s a good nonce. Smelling pretty rank today Paddy. Got your beads Paddy? Might want to fiddle out a rosary or two Father. Mr Smith has had enough of you.

In the pub he dabbed a bloody finger on the rim of his glass and looked at the human beings. Such a glut of them, with their limbs curled and uncurled, fat and stinking in the heat. You’re still here Priest. A nod. A young man and a young woman kissed each other by the toilets, and seemed to move like ghosts through the glass to the street and go furtively elsewhere, and he’d seen that clear, as clear as he saw what they were up to. And what that old fart at the end of the bar was up to. Licking his salt and vinegar thumbs. 

I took my time with the last inch of the stout. That last half hour of the dregs. That last hour. All the human beings looked through me or around me. They looked like the last iterations of their types. All the doors open, all the windows, and the heat like someone standing too close, all the time. They sweated and they murmured and sometimes they shouted and they stank. The rim of my glass was sticky. A little colour in my lips. 

They wouldn’t be able for it, if they knew. Not a bit of it. If they could see what I have seen. Done what I have. Their humanity isn’t able for it. Their tiny little hands. 

On his way out he sniffs a woman’s neck. You have cancer, he tells her. I don’t know what kind, but it’s very advanced. 

When he gets home he works on the panel in the wall. 

On the flat of his back he would stare at the stars. In roughly the right direction. But he could rarely see any stars at all with all the light around here. I should go to the country and lie in a field. I could take a train. The last train, arriving just before midnight. I disembark, my overcoat brushing my calves, my ankles, my hat pulled forward over my eyes, my briefcase grasped in my right hand, my left hand in my overcoat pocket loosely gripping a Walther P38. I stop at the end of the platform. I wait for a moment before walking through the station and out into the single street of the darkened village, the moon on its cobbles and its whitewashed walls. The dark shape of an inn to my right with still a last shining yellow window, a woman on a bicycle to my left, moving slowly away from me, followed by a silent dog. I turn towards the bridge. I check the time on my wristwatch and keep to the shadows. I walk boldly, confidently looking into windows, and in some I see women dabbing their faces, men pulling off their shoes, children sleeping, and I watch them, my finger on the trigger of the gun in my pocket. A man sets a table for the morning. A woman reads a book. A child turns over. I pull on a pair of leather gloves. I reach for the latch left open. My fingers in the gap, a little colour in my lips, the little hands on the bedspread, a human step on the gravel, a presence behind me, a voice politely tells me, Mr Smith has had enough of you. They walk me to a ditch in the deepest forest and put a bullet in the back of my head. 

Ah what a lot of nonsense.