Friday, March 28, 2008

Tales From the Slippery Slope: I

On the main street of Alicubi, Ontario, across from St Hugh's Anglican Church, is The Slippery Slope. When the warm weather comes and the large back doors are opened onto the deck and the river, it boasts the finest prospect of any pub I've ever known, but in late March the Slope is still a dark and cozy parlour with a roaring fire, and (may God keep it so) no canned music.
You don't know Alicubi? It's what the name would suggest, one of those Ontario towns along a fast-flowing river that grew up with a lumber mill and a grist mill, and with the mills declined. Now it is close enough to the city for commuters and far enough for tourists. The river runs parallel to Main Street and then bends to the left so that the street crosses it on an imposing stone bridge.
Respectable brick buildings line Main street; their ground floors are still occupied by businesses, which all are apparently thriving. Just by the bridge on the right hand side is the funeral parlour, Remains to be Seen, which is in a building by itself, with sufficient parking. Next to that, in the building known as the Arbuthnot Block, are Vanity of Vanities, where bathroom fixtures and other plumbing supplies are sold, No Accounting for Taste (a gift shop), and a bank. Then, in a building that has been a hotel of sorts since Alicubi was founded, is the Slippery Slope. Across a side street is the Harrington Block, where you'll find another bank, Well Latte da! (a coffee shop) and Chillingworth's Books (New and Used). After that is Melville Presbyterian Church. On the left hand side are the more official premises: the Post Office (1895), next to the bridge, then the Town Hall (1889), St Hugh's, and the Grand Theatre (of uncertain date). The Roman Catholic Church is next to the theatre, the United Church next to that. Over the bridge are some of the nicer homes. The general effect is a bit like taking a block or so of Queen Street West out of Parkdale, brushing it off and tidying it up and putting it down in a pretty river valley.
Now that you've seen something of Alicubi, we can go back to the Slope. I like to go out there on a Thursday evening; on Thursdays the special is always something interesting, such as the quail cooked slowly in wine and stock with root vegetables we were served last night. Keith, the landlord, has a great interest in food and drink (as you might expect), and there is usually a wine to please your palate without breaking your bank. Thursday is the evening that my friend Father Sidney Smith Hawker of St Hugh's likes to go for dinner (and if the evening has been a good one, I'll accept the hospitality of the Rectory). Tom Chillingworth is always there as well, as is John Strype, the undertaker, who finds he can trust things to his son Brad for one night. From time to time others drop in on Thursday night, but yesterday it was just we four.
It has been our habit for some years that when dinner is over and we settle back over a glass of this or that, to tell stories. Well, the state of the Church is not a topic you want to get into with Fr Hawker these days, and it's not often you want to talk shop with the undertaker; so we tell stories. Some years ago Tom Chillingworth (who is by training an historian) caught on to the fact that Fr Hawker gets many of his stories from joke books of the Tudor and Stuart eras and sources like that, but he knows how few original stories there, so he didn't make a big thing out of it. Last night we were treated to a very familiar story, which Fr Hawker has used more than once in a sermon, but the occasion justified it
Just before dinner, as the four of us were enjoying Tom's best bitter, Mark Simpson stopped by the table. Mark runs a hardware store just around the corner from the bank. Since he calls it Simpson's Hardware, you can tell he has never really caught the spirit of Alicubi. The locals, of course, call it Beeton's after the fourth owner back, which sort of makes up for it. Now to put it bluntly, Simpson is a gossip, not a particularly malicious one, but tedious nonetheless. And as Fr Hawker likes to point out, it's the habit of gossip we have to watch for.
After dinner, Tom grunted something about Simpson, and said "Can't you do something, Stephen? You know, like that Priest in the story you're always preaching."
"Well," said Fr Hawker, "seeing he's a Roman Catholic, I don't know that I should stick my oar in - and I suspect he gives Fr Newton enough grief as it is."
Keith who was having a quiet moment at the bar came over and said, "I don't think I know that story," and sat down. Without waiting another moment, the priest began to tell the story of Saint Philip Neri and the Chicken
St Philip Neri, (1515-1595), the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, was known not only for holiness but also for his humour and shrewd wit, which won him a place in the folklore of Rome. this is perhaps the best-known story told of this holy man.
In those days there was a woman in the neighbourhood whose besetting sin was gossip. She loved to pick up bits of information about her neighbours and pass them on, likely as not a bit embroidered. More than one reputation was tarnished because of her quick tongue. Now much as most people like to gossip little, a bit of gossip can go a long way and a touch of scandal gets tiresome quickly. The neighbours were too well aware that at the rate this woman talked, no one was safe, be they never so virtuous, but no one could do anything to make her stop.
It happened one morning that St Philip Neri, who was well aware of the problem, met this woman on the street, and after wishing her a good morning, asked her if she could do him a favour.
“Why, certainly!” said the woman
“I would like you to go to the market and buy a chicken for me. Here is the money.”
As she took the money he added, “To save time, pluck the chicken on the way back, so that it will be all ready to prepare.” She agreed, and toddled off the market. Perhaps she was storing up this slightly odd request to add to her repertoire! A little later she came back, and handed the priest a freshly-plucked chicken.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he said, and added, “Now go back and gather up all the feathers and bring them to me.”
“But Father,” she cried, by now they will have blown down all the streets and alleys and across the piazzas. I could never get them back!”
“Indeed,” he replied. “And that is how it is with the things you say about your neighbours. Once spoken your words are like the feathers you plucked; as the ind carried the feathers, people repeat your words, and they go down all the streets and alleys, and across the piazzas. Whether good or ill, you can never get them back.
No one has recorded whether this woman changed her ways, but all of us can remember this little story and be carefull of what we say about others.
Fr Hawker sat back and drained his pint to general applause. Then he added, "Perhaps for positive advice we can take the example of one of my namesakes, Hawker of Morwenstow. Baring-Gould reports that
A commonplace neighbouring parson, visiting him once, asked him what were his views and opinions.
Mr Hawker drew him to the window. “There,” said he, “is Hennacliff, there the Atlantic stretching to Labrador, there Morwenstow crag, here the church and graves; these are my views. As to my opinions, I keep them to myself."
We all agreed that this was a good policy, and fell into general conversation. If there's a good story next week, I'll tell you about the evening at The Sippery Slope.


Jer said...

This was quite a pleasure to read Bill. You should consider serializing this.


William Craig said...

Jer, thanks! That was one of the more uplifting things I've heard in a few days.
Actually I am planning to serialize it: I have a seemingly endless supply of Tudor joke books, old stories and anecdotes that I think should get some airing, and these silly names of businesses.
Since the conceit is that these friends get together on Thursday evenings, the next installment is due Friday. It still needs some work.