Death in the Cathedral
A Novella in Five Stories by Malcolm Dixon

  Crown of Thorns
  Death in the Cathedral
  More’s Utopia
  Out There
  De Profundis
About the Author Winter 2022 Fiction Issue  

Death in the Cathedral

“Define, boys, if you will, the following... Or, can we…” Fr Lafayette pauses at the board. “Can we at least, gentlemen, in this opening sentence of Milton's great epic—O’Hagan, Donnelly—can we at the very least indicate, to begin with, now, the main verb?”

Our heads go down. Five years along and few of us can dare to meet Fr Lafayette's stern, blue-eyed gaze. Expectantly, he stares down into our souls, like God will.

“Farrell, boy, you?”

His voice has that rough Northern Irish boom, like an IRA bomb going off in your class. Soon, we all hope, Tom Christensen, the cleverest boy in the College, if not the world, will engage him in a discussion of some point only he, Lafayette and Milton could appreciate, and the rest of us can switch off for twenty minutes. Which is as it should be, I think, on a morning like this one.

Fr Lafayette is not a nice man, it says on the wall of the Sixth Form boys’ toilet, and below that, in thick black ink, it also says, Fr John walks on water. Irony of ironies. All is irony.

Lafayette looks at me now. “Stevie?”

“Is it 'sing,' Father? Line six, Father. Sing, Heavenly Muse...”

A pause (staring) while he checks the righteousness of my answer, and, for once, is satisfied. “Yes, Stevie, Sing. Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, Sing, Heavenly Muse...”

Slowly he walks along the front of the class, his long black cassock almost touching the floor. Fr John was a nice man, now drowned, we believe, on a field trip up a mountain. When the bell rings for the end of class this morning, it'll be time for his service in the Cathedral Chapel. All the elderly Brothers we don't usually see will be there, wheeled out from the Priests' House for the occasion, like at Fr Doyle's funeral back in our first year. Latin chanting and paso doble, in scarlet and gold. Fun for all.

Eccentric Fr John (or 'Mad' Fr John, as we called him) was our form-master then. Tall, ungainly, pigeon-toed, with his upper-class accent and manners, he seemed as though from another world—a world of bicycle clips and Radio 4, spelunking in Wales, cross-country rambles and, as ever, God. That morning he gave us the first of his annual Before-this-year-is-out-one-of-you-boys-will-be-dead sermons—blood and fire. Though each year we never paid him much attention, he was always right. Patrick Fitzpatrick, Christensen's older brother, and Jonah.

Fr Lafayette's face is set like a gravestone. “What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support...” His hands clench into fists as big as any docker's fists. His boots promise violence. Of all the Cathedral Brothers, Lafayette is by far the most fierce. Neither Lynch nor 'Pig' Dooley, the champion truffle hunter of all France, come close, even when in a temper. Lafayette's discipline knows no quarter, shows no mercy. An eye for an eye. “That, to the height of this great argument I may assert Eternal Providence...” He pauses once more by the window, a huge silhouette against the grey sky outside. Then, comes the voice, brassy and loud: “Can we not agree, then, gentlemen...”

I notice Christensen sit back in his chair, arms folded, waiting, ready. A pity about Christensen. Last year his brother died from leukaemia; Christensen himself was suspended from the College for two months for what he did to his mock RE exam script. Now, his long, thin fingers quiver nervously; an explosion of red welts mark and scar his face. He sends a cold, ironic look in my direction, then turns away. We haven't really been friends, I suppose, since the Third Form, when I beat him in English. These days he calls me usually either 'Suffering-Jesus' or, even worse, 'Matter-Less,' a play on my name.

“De facto, Mr. Cahill! De facto and not de jure!”

Fr Lafayette thunders his point, whatever it is, then falls silent. His eyes scan the classroom for dissent. At last, satisfied that we all agree, he moves on. Or begins to. Like a perfectly timed foul tackle at football, Christensen's voice drags him to a halt.

“Well, I'm not sure I do agree, Father, or not, about what you say, but I think, if anything, it's probably the most Protestant of poems, isn't it?”

Fr Lafayette's grave expression blackens further. He takes a step back. “Yes, Thomas?”

And so, they're off—even on a day like today there's no putting aside the inquisition, their eye for an eye.


It's funny how I can't remember the title of Fr John's Christmas play—The Boys of Shark Island, or something like that. I'll have to ask Christensen later. What I can remember, though, are the rehearsals on all those dark nights after school—how strange it felt backstage, for instance, or Fr John, up a ladder painting palm trees on the scenery, and Jonah in costume with his red fox-brush of hair showing up even redder under the stage-lights.

These memories have stuck in my head like the lines of some poem I've never actually understood until now. I think the three of us only got involved in the first place as we were the three shortest boys in the First Form—that is, Jonah, Christensen and myself—and because Jonah complained too loudly one day in Fr John's Tutor Group that he was bored, a bad move. Fr John showed little patience with any complaints of boredom, especially from boys in his own form. I can see him now as though he were suddenly close by, peering down at us, his thick-set eyebrows arched quizzically over those black-rimmed glasses.

“How can you possibly claim to be bored, Jones, at your age? Oh, there's nothing to do? Well, open your eyes, boy, there's everything still to do! Start a club! Read a book! Go abseiling with Fr Lynch! Remember, Jones, only boring people allow themselves the luxury of boredom. Join the College play!”

And so his litany ran on, until the three of us agreed reluctantly to stay behind after hours and help with the play—Jonah's fault, we felt. Little did we think that we would actually enjoy it, and none of us more so than Jonah!

The night of our big performance, I remember it now: just before Christmas, in front of all the boys' parents. I preferred to be backstage, but Jonah was in his element in the spotlight, performing, or as it was usually called in class, showing off. I remember how before the start, a surprising amount of general noise rose up from the darkened hall, like at midnight mass in the cathedral on Christmas eve; then, came the laughter as the play sprang to life around us (laughter connected to what we were doing on stage—strange sensation!). When it was all over, we had what felt like waves of wild applause from the audience, curtain calls, whistles from the older boys which were probably ironic, as ours would be now. Jonah was buzzing, even though his part had only been a small one, really. Fr John, his wonders to perform.

Now when I look back at it all I see Fr John was quite right about Jonah; I suppose in the end it was just boredom, nothing more, nothing less.


He didn't get involved in anything again—Jonah, I mean—at College; and neither have I much since the play, if I'm honest about it. All of us scholarship boys—Jonah, Christensen, myself even, and the rest—what's happened to us all?

It's like last year when we had all that trouble with Top of the Form, or whatever it is, the radio show. The man from the BBC had primed us all before the start about when to clap or cheer, and we'd all gone along with that. Up on stage were Burke (Head Boy), Flynn, Donnelly, I think, and someone else, Baker. 'Pig' Dooley was fussing around distractedly behind them like he does, looking as if he'd lost something he didn't want anyone else to find. Then, as the theme music faded out, the man from the BBC counted us all in for our first big live cheer and, as one, the entire Fifth Form—I think of it now as a response to the situation that we all just seemed to understand at the same time—stayed completely silent in our seats. Nothing. Dooley's face passed through several flustered hues of crimson as he floundered about, stage left and then stage right, in almost a fit of disbelief. Over the radio link we could hear our opponents at the other end of the country cheering for all the world as though they meant it, like schoolboys. And it went on like that, no clapping, no cheering, just the tinny noise of the opposition (a Protestant school, no less) coming over the loudspeakers like so much interference after every round. I remember looking around at the others and thinking this was something really great, a brilliant rebellion, and then at the same time worrying like mad about whether we'd gone too far this time, about all the probable consequences.

At an early point in all of this, Dooley had exited stage left, florid-faced, as good as if pursued by a bear. And shortly afterwards, about halfway through the quiz (which we lost), Lafayette came into the hall and glared down at us all from the stage, his fierce blue eyes blazing silent anger.

Then, long before the end, a side door swinging, he was gone.

A victory, then.

But today it makes me ashamed just to think of it.


I don't know what it is, this rift between us boys and them, all the priests up in their house. Maybe it's us; perhaps we just can't hear them anymore.

I think it's like that parable we did in RE class lately, the one about the stony ground. We're like that. What they tell us doesn't take root. I don't know.

Take Jonah, for instance. Right from the start, I don't think any of it ever really went in. I remember that role-play we did in class once for Fr John, about finding a purse with £20 inside. This was back in the Third Form, I'm almost sure. We had to argue the case between us, either for handing it in or for saying nothing and keeping it ourselves. Fr John—or so it seemed to me at the time—was watching us curiously throughout it all, peeling his apple with his pocket-knife, like he did at some point in class every day. Out of the corner of my eye I could see his short white socks dangling over the foot of the desk, distractingly. Jonah, for his part, began playing it up for the benefit of his new cronies, the tough boys from the Secondary Modern School. I'd started off with something like how we should really hand the purse in to the driver or at the depot (we'd found it on a bus, apparently), or failing that, at a police station, because that would be the right thing to do. But Jonah just didn't want to know. Why should we give it back? Didn't I realise that the driver or a copper—or anyone, even—would just pocket it themselves? What was the matter with me? Did I know nothing? His face had that sly, conniving look it often had when he thought he was getting one over on you. This was the start of the era when Jonah's parents took up their increasingly frequent visits to Fr Lafayette's office to discuss young Jonah’s worrying behaviour. “Well,” I said to him in counter-argument, “we could give it to a charity. Just because we can't give it back doesn't mean that we should keep it.” Or something like this. But it was no good. You might as well argue with the wind or next-door's cat. At every turn Jonah twisted, leapt, settled where he wanted, indifferent. He wasn't even listening, really.

Perhaps, for them, it's like that with all of us, all of the time. I don't know.

Whatever I said that day was just lost on the breeze.


Afterwards, I remember, I took quite a bit of stick from almost everyone in class for acting the Holy-Joe—especially from Jonah. He said I practically was one of St Joe's, the way I'd gone on. The ironic thing is, that, at the time, I'd actually agreed with him about what to do with the purse—in practice, that is. I agreed with Fr John in principle, if with Jonah in practice. I know what really would have happened if Jonah and me had actually found a purse together on the back of a bus.

I could still see what the right thing to do would be, though; Jonah couldn't, which is probably why we acted it out in class like that in the first place.

That's how I see it all now anyway, looking back at it like this.

I think it was from about then, or shortly afterwards, that Jonah began to give me a wide berth, and I did the same with him. He got himself mixed up in some stuff that didn't interest me—fighting after four o'clock with the Senate House School boys, for instance—and I deliberately didn't want to know. I suppose I hadn't forgiven him for what had happened next that afternoon in Fr John's RE class—something and nothing in the end. Or at least, ironically, it felt like something to me, if nothing to Jonah and everyone else.

A few half-cheers had gone up in the class for Jonah at one point—Heron, Flynn, and some others, the new boys. (“You give your half to a flaming charity, then, if you want to! I'll keep mine!”) Without any warning, Fr John had risen up from the desk and crossed the room, depositing the peeled rind complete into the waste-basket. He stopped beside us, coring that apple of his, still with a detached air. Even now, I've a particularly strong memory of this process: the halving and paring, then quartering. I suppose I had witnessed it on many occasions. But Jonah went on (and on!) regardless, playing-up, twisting my argument around to suit himself: “Isn't that right, Father? Why should she get to keep it? A single mother! It'd be her Wages of Sin, wouldn't it? Isn't that right, then, Father!”

Fr John paused, looked down at Jonah. He'd finished what he was doing, both with the apple and us. His expression was pointed, cutting, sharp, like the knife he was folding away coolly into his black jacket pocket. Then he said with a reproach in his voice that was worse to me than any threat of violence from Lafayette, something very like the following:

“You might be many things these days, Jones. A twister, a liar, or perhaps, worse. No? But I know—are you listening, boy?—I do know, Jones, that you aren't anywhere near as selfish or hard-hearted as you like to think yourself these days. One day, Jonah, if it's not too late, you may let yourself realise this”

“If you say so, Father. Do I get the £20 now?”

Another—much bigger this time—cheer in class. In the face of such outright defiance, Fr John stiffened, took a step or two back towards his desk. Without any hesitation from most of us, it quickly became one of those moments when the general din of the classroom suddenly rises to a deafening cacophony—out of control, louder and louder.


Who'd be a priest today, that's what I ask myself. Let alone a Cathedral Brother having to teach the likes of us lot! I once asked Fr John this question: why he became a priest. This was only recently, in the Lower Sixth common room after one of the more mature sort of RE seminars we tend to have today, or did. We were sitting over by the ping-pong table; everybody else in the group had filtered away. Fr John was packing up his tape-deck (for playing Radio 4's Thought for the Day, taped at some ungodly hour that morning) and assorted papers. The famous old battered 1941 briefcase was open. He stopped completely, was probably surprised by the question coming totally out of the blue like that. I waited for what seemed like an age while he contemplated his answer; his head bowed thoughtfully, seriously, like in prayer. I'd expected him to say something about vocation. God had called him one day and he knew he'd have to give up everything and answer the call, the sort of thing we'd hear at least once a year in assembly from one of the St Joe's Brothers on the lookout for recruits. Instead, to my surprise, he said quite straightforwardly that it occurred to him somebody had to do it. That's all. He carried on packing up his things then. I was puzzled at the time but I can see the sense of it now. Somebody does have to do it. When you think of it like that, it does make some sense, maybe.

I suppose I have to make up my mind next what to do about this retreat Fr John asked me to go on next month over at St Joe's—or rather, that he asked me to lead—with boys from all years of the College going over there with me. Talk about from out of the blue! I was more than a little gob-smacked when he asked me—and flattered! I asked him why he didn't pick Baker, the goody-goody Deputy-Head Boy everybody likes, even Lafayette. This would be more in his line. The world would be a very boring place if everyone was like Baker, he said, which I took as a backhanded compliment. I was still honest with him, though, and said I'd have to think about it. To be truthful, despite the good feeling I got from being picked out, I didn't really fancy it. Retreat. Sounds too much like going backwards for my liking. I didn't feel like getting involved.

To think this all just happened a week ago, and now everything's so different. Or I suppose I'm just seeing things differently now than how I used to see them.


Christensen and Lafayette: both still going for it, as if the bad feeling between them were something neither one could do without, the leather strop on which they sharpen their wits. You can understand why Christensen hates them all so much, perhaps. When his elder brother James came down with leukaemia, the Brothers here virtually turned it into a sideshow for Christ, which can't have been nice to witness every morning at assembly when it's your sick brother they're going on about. “We visited Christensen in hospital again last night, and his continuing cheerfulness, strength and good faith in the face of this terrible illness should be a lesson to all you boys fortunate enough to be in perfect health here today.” The usual sort of stuff. Except Tom Christensen tells us it was hardly like that at all; his brother was just sick, especially towards the end. That funeral turned out to be a no holds barred affair, as well. Full battle dress, choirboys from St Joe's, the entire College in attendance, just like we'll probably get this morning. The works.

I remember Christensen's brother as a quiet, scholarly boy, two years older than we were. Like Tom, he was fantastically intelligent; he'd already passed the Oxbridge entrance exam. Then fate, cruel as any nun, took him off. Ironic.

You have to wonder about it all. I suppose they made a big fuss about James Christensen because he was such a model student, an example for us all. On the other hand, someone like Jonah, who in a sense the College fails, even if it's mostly his own fault—I'm not denying that—someone like Jonah gets put in the ground without so much as a prayer for the dead in morning assembly. Just an oblique warning from Lafayette, about those boys straying from the paths of righteousness, was all that was said. Lafayette, the clanging cymbal as ever, sounding brass.

I guess I still find it hard to accept that it was Jonah who was driving the car that he and the other three boys were killed in, like some others in the College say he was. I suppose I don't want to accept it; I just don't see how anyone would know one way or the other.

What not many people here do know is that Fr John came to the funeral—Jonah's, I mean. The service was performed at St Jude's by the parish priest, Fr O'Reilly, not by anyone from the College. In fact, virtually no one from the College was there, apart from me and one or two others. I only went because I knew his Mum and Dad. I still see them now and then, at the shops or on the bus into town. You think of things like what if I hadn't stopped being Jonah's friend like I did, or had made more of an effort, but then you remember how he was in school those last two years, in trouble or sagging off with his new tough pals, his face like a clenched fist in yours when you did see him.

Fr John turned up at the graveside, a tall figure in black, pigeon-toed, head bowed. Perhaps he had slipped into the service at the back, and I hadn't seen him. A horrid, grey day it was, and when we all turned away from the grave, it began to drizzle windily in every direction. I walked back slowly, deliberately behind all the others so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone. Fr John walked up ahead with Jonah's Mum, who was crying and talking to him, and his Dad, who kept his eyes averted the whole time, staring off somewhere in the rain and wind. I could see Fr John saying “Yes” over and over in a serious way to Jonah's Mum, breaking his long stride to keep pace with her, his head down and towards her, a sympathetic ear while she mourned her dead son.

He's right; somebody does have to do it.


“Yes, very well, Thomas; if you will, I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this point, as usual, now shan't we? Now, then, gentlemen…” Christensen must have had Lafayette over a barrel yet again, and the old devil's about to be saved by the bell, as usual.

“For next time, gentlemen, I want you to prepare—Mr Heron, Mr Gill, this includes you, too—lines 156-270: So Satan spake; and him Beelzebub thus answered. You will know…”

I missed it all, for what it was worth. Any second now the bell will go, and we'll all troop off to the Cathedral Chapel for another funeral extravaganza, or rather, memorial service—this one having no body as such to inter. I fold my book away. You wonder if all this isn't a bit too soon. I mean, it's only been a week since he went missing, though on Snowdonia in that sort of weather. Still, you never know: he might turn up yet, coring his apple or producing 'Thoughts for the Day' from his battered old briefcase.

I say something to this effect to Christensen on our way out the door. He fixes me with his standard cold ironic look.

“Don't be stupid, Matter-Not,” he says to me. “The daft old bugger's well dead.”

new section

  ©Malcolm Dixon, 2022

Back to top