‘Excuse me. I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation and I have to tell you, as a Catholic, I’m offended.’
The girl, a complete stranger, had walked up to our restaurant table to inform us she had been insulted while eavesdropping on us. I stared at her, not knowing whether to apologise or tell her to go away and mind her own business.
I had been sitting at my favourite table in my favourite restaurant with my two favourite people having a spirited supper discussion with them about whether or not I, as a Roman Catholic, bore any responsibility for what the Catholic Church…oh, you know. Need I go into it again? I would really rather not. Once was bad enough. To be honest, it was a total car crash of an evening.
The problem was not the rights and wrongs of organised religion, but the fact that my sugar level was at a catastrophic low. We had arrived at the restaurant late and had sat waiting half an hour to put in our order. My best gay lawyer friend Stephen had walked 20 minutes from the Tube in the rain. The builder boyfriend had had a long day on a roof. And, most dangerously of all, I was hungry.
‘Where is the waitress?’ I said, banging my menu on the table like a toddler. When she finally came, I should have ordered the quickest thing possible. Some pâté on toast, for example. That would have arrived quickly. But I fancied the chicken livers to start followed by the bream, and that took way too long. When our food finally arrived at 10 p.m. I was almost beyond help. Every attempt at conversation, even frivolous banter, was ending in disaster: ‘How can you not know who Liz Hurley is?’ I screamed at the builder. ‘How? HOW?’
If we couldn’t handle Liz Hurley we were never going to handle Ralph Miliband, Marxism, and then, as if we had just decided to light the touchpaper and burn ourselves to death, one of us, I think it was the builder, said: ‘I mean, look at what’s going on with the Catholic Church…’
Much of it is a terrible blur but I do remember flashes. I remember the builder screaming about the Vatican and Nazi gold, and claiming Hitler did not die in the bunker but lived out the rest of his days being served tea and crumpets by the Pope, or some such.
I remember I started quoting from the Monty Python Meaning of Life skit about every sperm being sacred, in defence, if you please, of the ideals of Catholicism.
I remember delivering a very wordy treatise lamenting the fact that Christians stood too meekly for abuse and should uphold their religious rights more.
I declared the whole of western civilisation a pointless sham if I did not retain my right to believe in transubstantiation. Blah blah, clash of cultures, Islamic fundamentalism, blah blah.
Stephen, with great lawyerly skill, mildly tried to negotiate a truce but it was impossible.
The builder boyfriend grew hysterical and loudly declared me a hypocrite for not doing anything to challenge the Vatican (which I was, apparently, funding) as if it were a simple matter of ringing up and saying, ‘Hello, is that Pope Francis’s office? I’m calling to ask if you wouldn’t mind changing the whole ban on condoms thing, otherwise I won’t be putting any more pound coins in the collection plate. Oh, you would. Super.’
Worst of all, I started quoting The Creed. ‘I sound mental,’ I thought, as I recited the statement of my beliefs as if it were an incantation to ward off secularists.
According to Stephen, the young couple two tables down had been looking over throughout all this. The girl, a pretty blonde twenty-something, had been turning around and giving us black looks.
After about an hour and a half of it, she was standing at our table, thunder-faced. ‘As a Catholic,’ she said to the builder, ‘I am offended by what you’ve been saying.’
And, as if by magic, I suddenly felt incredibly defensive of him. I said, ‘But he does have the right to free speech.’
‘Yes. And so do I,’ she said. ‘And I’m exercising it now.’ Touché. And she walked away.
I can’t work out exactly why that is so uniquely annoying. Perhaps it is the fact that you now have to censor your private dinner conversation in case it is overheard and religious offence taken.
Perhaps it is the fact that the girl had done exactly what I had been complaining Christians ought to do, which is to stand up and be counted.
Or perhaps it was just that the whole thing could have been avoided. If only I had ordered some pâté on toast.
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