I spotted him straightaway, as we walked to the back of the church this morning. Elderly, burley, hirsute and down-at-heel, the mad tramp was slumped on the rear pew where we normally like to sit. Clare seemed oblivious as she led the way into the penultimate pew, just in front of him. Poor idea - far too close. As we sat down I could hear him mumbling to himself behind me.
I recalled the last time he'd visited the church, months ago, when he'd sat in the pew in front of us (where we were sitting now in fact). He had slumped and twitched and talked to himself, and occasionally to others during the service, and then at the moment when the priest had asked the congregation to show the 'sign of peace' to each other he had taken his chance. Scuttling like a crab, he had moved into the aisle and with a bobbing gait and malicious smile had thrust his dirty, squalid hand at everyone he could reach. Horrified parishioners were obliged to shake hands with him and then rue the lack of wet-wipes. Luckily he didn't look behind him at that time, so we were spared.
As the service progressed, I was fixated on what I would do when he tried this trick again. Could I get away with facing him down with a stony glare and a muttered "I an NOT a Catholic," or would social pressure force me to take the malevolent hand? And what about Clare, could I protect her from this unhygienic moment? Not my problem, I decided.
The fateful moment arrived after the Lord's Prayer. I nerved myself - they say you never know how you'll behave under fire until the bullets are whizzing around you - and the moment passed. The mad tramp had not stirred and had not bothered anyone this time around.
I am profoundly atheist so church services that work with pleasant, slightly ageing, middle-class congregations and don't work at all with the unpleasant are not an issue for me at all. I wouldn't want to shake hands with an unkempt,unwashed and deranged tramp under any circumstances: I hardly feel I'm alone in this. But I suspect that Catholics feel that Jesus probably would have: it all adds fuel to that legendary Catholic guilt.