Picture by Fin Fahey: All Saints DLR Station
“Our church is named after Saint Matilda,” says Eliza, smug. “She was a queen, and she used to sneak away to pray, and she weakened the political power of her country through her excessive charitable donations.”
“Well our church is named after Saint Peter, and he was an apostle, and he holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
“Papist,” Eliza says.
“My church,” says Sarah, “is named after Mary.”
“Mine’s named after Saint Lawrence, and he was roasted alive.”
“Mary’s better than roasting.”
Charles is tiny, smaller at nine years old than the others at seven. “We’ve got Saint Dunstan,” he says, proud, and they turn to him.
There are fashions in saints, just like everything else. For hundreds of years Dunstan was England’s favourite: a quick-witted musician with a seat beside the king, just enough rumours of witchcraft to make him dangerous, celibate only because God punished him with swelling tumours when he demurred. He pulled on the devil’s nose with a pair of tongs; stags and Canterbury were by his side. And yet by the beginning of the nineteenth century he was a minority taste for the old and the unfashionable, for outdated worshippers still using their 1790 Lives of the Saints.
“Dunstan,” Eliza says, while Sarah and Jerome fall in behind her. “He’s the worst.”
When they’re finished Charles washes himself in a puddle, hiding incipient bruises behind streaks of mud. He doesn’t cry until next Sunday, when he collapses into tears at the door of St Dunstan’s; his parents hurry him through as he tries to pull away.
The Sunday after that he doesn’t cry, but he sits on the long bench with his eyes cast down, never looking up at the walls around him. In the evening he scrawls designs for a new church. He asks for an up-to-date Lives of the Saints, and his parents, startled into guilt at his piety, cut back on candlelight until they can afford it.
Charles reads it page by page; he scores each saint on holiness, miracles, fame and death. Inspiration comes one night in a dream as the saints dance before him, kind, holy, virtuous, determined, shot, stoned, impaled.