At a moving ceremony on Friday evening a prayer was said for my aunt Priscilla, who died 41 years ago. In 1938, she had become a Catholic in order to marry her first husband, and then, rather like Graham Greene, started to take her new faith seriously, but concealing this from her friends and English family. Only to her sister Vivien did she confess that she wanted the ritual of a Catholic burial. Her second husband, a militant atheist, denied her this: she was cremated hurriedly and her ashes scattered on a lawn at Chichester crematorium without any witnesses present.
It was our local vicar in Jericho who reminded me that a mass could still be said for Priscilla, even so long after her death. I mentioned this to my friend Frances Stonor Saunders, who immediately put me in touch with her cousin, the Dominican Father, Timothy Radcliffe – who by spooky coincidence had just finished reading Secrets of the Sea, a novel I’d set in Tasmania. Well, that clinched it. We met up, and he offered to say Priscilla’s name in the course of a community mass. This took place in Oxford in a service at Blackfriars, during which Radcliffe spoke of her life in a short homily, equating her apparent promiscuity to a search for an infinity of love which only, in the end, her denied faith could have provided. Of course, he said this much better, in a brisk, efficient mass at which there were, intriguingly, quite a lot of young people, as well as a gathering of Priscilla’s step-children and god-children. All I can say is that they too were suddenly humbled by the exquisite voices of the Dominicans singing the prayers. I am not a Catholic, but as I listened to Radcliffe’s prayer for her, I had the very real sense of an exhalation from somewhere beyond, rather like the sound of the sea after a large wave crashes onto our Tasmanian beach, the silence of something settling back, of being re-accepted. The terrific thing is that all her relatives admitted that they had felt this too.