When he was eight, Mark Dowd, born and raised in a working class Catholic family in Manchester, gained a new best friend. It was the boy from the Persil ad on TV, who had short blond hair and whiter than white rugby kit. It was the beginning of his ‘life of contradiction’, and is the opening episode in his newly-published memoir, Queer and Catholic. In this extract from the book, Mark, 14 years old and attracted to fellow classmate Duncan, accidentally solves the difficult problem of coming out to your parents by doing it in his sleep.
OUT OF THE BLUE – the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ erupted like a volcano.
It was about 9am in the middle of the summer holidays. I shared a very small room with my younger brother, but Antony was already up and about and I was dozing in bed. I felt a hand prodding me. It was my mother. ‘Wake up. Come downstairs.’
I rubbed my eyes and turned over. ‘No school,’ I said. ‘Having a lie in.’
She didn’t buy this. ‘Get downstairs,’ she said in an uncommonly unfriendly tone. ‘There’s something we have to talk about.’
Whatever was the matter? I knew it was serious since as a family, we had a tendency to brush most things under the carpet. Confrontation was not our favourite pastime, but clearly something had risen to such a level of concern and alarm that it had to be tackled head on. My school report? No way. Had I missed mass? Negative. What then could it be?
I meandered downstairs in my stripy beige and maroon cotton pyjamas and made sure the waist cord was tight and secure before I went into our front room. I didn’t want to be an inadvertent flasher with my own mother. ‘Sit down,’ she said, pointing at the sofa and reaching for an Embassy Regal.
‘What’s this all about?’ I asked outright.
She took a deep breath and pursed her lips. ‘Your Dad and I just want to say … just want to say that…’ She was struggling for the right formula. And did it help that Dad was not there but doing a split shift on the number 14 bus en route to Patricroft? She continued. ‘… just want to say that if there’s anything troubling you, you can tell us about it.’ What did this mean? Brother Dermott? Who had spoken out of turn? No, surely not. Something else maybe?
‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘Is that it? Can I go back to bed now?’ A shake of the head and a long puff on that ever so important cigarette.
‘There is something troubling you – and you know it.’ I had no idea. What was she going on about?
‘Who’s Duncan?… You’ve been talking about him in your sleep.’
Is this the most original example of coming out in modern history? I flushed like a Guernsey Tom at the idea that my secret was out. Then a terrible picture came into my mind that made me go even more crimson. That image was of my mother, bolt upright in bed in her curlers, covering the ears of her husband and trying to insulate him from the stream of lewd invective piercing the paper thin walls of our shabbily constructed council house. In a more spacious dwelling I might just have got away with it, but not at 20 Wyndham Avenue M27 6PY.
My parents’ room was a decent enough size, about fourteen by ten feet, but the other two rooms were effectively small singles. What’s worse, each of the three bedroom doors opened out on to the landing area which was a mere strip of turquoise carpet measuring nine by three feet. Cheek by jowl wasn’t half of it. It wasn’t quite battery farming, but it was not far from it.
Good God. What had I been saying? It was the love that most certainly had dared speak its name – at three in the morning. It’s a miracle that the holy water downstairs in the porch hadn’t evaporated and the statue of the Sacred Heart wasn’t in a thousand pieces.
MY NOCTURNAL MUTTERINGS about Duncan had been totally involuntary. Unlike other acts. My poor mother. No sooner had she adapted to one eruption than she found herself walking headlong into another. It was barely a week after the GP visit and I was at home on my own. It was late afternoon and a spot of test match cricket on the box was keeping me engaged as Derek Underwood scythed through the Pakistani batting to reduce them to a hundred and thirty for nine on a rain affected wicket.
Out of nowhere (was it those tight cricket whites?) I suddenly felt incredibly aroused – the kind of excitement that will not go away unless it is dealt with. Then an image of Duncan crept slyly into my head and I was done for. It was around a quarter past five. Dad was on the buses. Mum would normally get home around a quarter to six and my brothers were both out. A small window of opportunity to kill off temptation. And how best to swat it? By succumbing to it, of course. It was a Thursday, so as long as I confessed on Saturday I’d be OK for communion at Sunday mass and no one would be the wiser.
Self-abuse was frequently talked of in school as ‘mortal sin’ – an offence so grave that it could cut you off from the love of God. This was why confession was essential before receiving communion. Young Catholic boys and girls had to be ‘in a state of grace’. As a regime it tended to work OK, unless you gave into temptation in that small timeframe between Saturday lunchtime when the priests took confessions and Sunday morning mass. If that happened, you absented yourself from receiving the host of bread, running the risk of drawing attention to yourself.
Once or twice I had told my mother I was not going up to the altar rails on account of swallowing a piece of meat that had been caught between my teeth as this technically broke the one hour fast we were obliged to observe before reception of Christ’s body and blood. The advantage of this little canard was a classy double whammy. Not only did it provide a handy excuse, it also made one look particularly devout.
But masturbation as ‘grave sin?’ This seemed total nonsense to me – I mean what kind of Creator would it be that we worshipped who could be so easily piqued by something so common among young boys? On the other hand, there was a tiny chance I could be wrong and therefore the sacrament of confession was my ‘Pascalian wager’. Pascal, an eighteenth century French philosopher was not at all sure about God’s existence, but he had reckoned that the stakes for ignoring God’s statutes and then finding out after you died that you had got it all wrong were so high, that the best option was to assume a divinely constructed world and adjust accordingly. It was a classic ‘lesser of two evils’. You lost out much less that way than doubting God, getting it wrong and buying a one way ticket to damnation.
I was so sexually excited that I knew this wouldn’t take long. I got up from the sofa to lock the back door (everyone always used the back door) and got down to the practicalities. The bell went for the final lap. It was like a bit of David Coleman commentary, ‘and there goes Juantorena down the back straight, opening his legs and showing his class.’ Then a sizeable complication interrupted my effortless progress to the gold medal. Oh no! What’s this? My mother coming up the garden path with her shopping bags. My first instinct was to fixate on the back door. Only a Catholic could write the following logically flawed proposition:
I locked the back door.
I am wanking.
Therefore, if my mother turns the handle on the door and it is locked, she will know I have been abusing myself.
I quickly pulled up my flared wranglers, zipped up and wobbled to the back door. The key was quietly turned in the lock, hopefully out of her earshot as my mother eased towards the door. Then, calamity. I had been so near to that finishing line that the final movements across the floor of the lounge had… well, set it all in motion. As I opened the back door to help her with her bags, we both crossed our respective thresholds.
‘Are you all right love?’ she asked as all around me went blurred. I could barely focus on her tartan-covered shopping bag. ‘Have you got one of your heads coming on?’ she inquired. ‘You don’t look your normal self.’ I pirouetted round with her bags so she could not see my face and took an eternity to place them on the kitchen table. ‘We’re having Bird’s Eye cod in butter sauce for tea… you like that don’t you?’
I’d just about got away with it. But that back door key and lock were never the same again.
Mark Dowd is a former Dominican friar who is now a writer and broadcaster. His documentary, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, was broadcast on BBC2 during the UK papal visit of 2010. Queer and Catholic: A life of contradiction is published by DLT.