Wait watchers: farewell to Cardinal Shallotsby Michael McGirr
My neighbour, Cardinal Shallots, has been losing weight lately. When he first came to the small town of Inner Springs, population 531, he was a little on the portly side.
That was two and a half years ago. I can still remember the morning I saw a plump figure awkwardly trying to cobble together a place to live under the trees on the vacant block next door. The block on the end of town had long been a camping site for travellers down on their luck. It had a makeshift fire place which had been in use at least since the Depression of the 30’s. But this new visitor seemed to be trying to make something more permanent. He was also dressed differently from the average vagrant; his bright red outfit looked like a small fire under the muted colours of the trees.
One day, I stopped watching and started helping. The man introduced himself as Cardinal Shallots, pronouncing his name Shallows. I went with him to the local tip and we returned with an old water tank which, leaning on its side, became his home. This was the beginning of the Cistern Chapel. People started coming along to talk to Shallots. He never said much but his silences were always worth hearing.
Little by little, it dawned on the town that Pius XII Shallots was no ordinary visitor. We had had famous people in Inner Springs before.
A friend of Princess Mary once stayed in the Inner Springs Motel, an establishment whose name disguises the fact that it only uses foam rubber mattresses. The beds are so uncomfortable that motorists sometimes go and sleep in their cars. Stevie Wonder was once sighted in the Golden Circle Chinese restaurant, so named because its traditional cuisine includes pineapple in every dish. The man turned out to be someone else. Wonder was not sighted.
But Cardinal Shallots was a genuine celebrity. The son of poor but honest onion farmers, he was the last of 12 sons. Each was named Pius after a different Pope Pius. They were Catholics. There was one girl, Marxina, who was born during Mrs Shallots’ brief flirtation with communism. After 12 sons, she decided that she had far too much meaning in her life and went in search of authentic meaninglessness. As Shallots tells the story, she found the Communists even more boring than the Catholics and returned to the fold. Mass was only an hour. The Commos could go on all day. Mr Shallots later blamed this period of aberration for the disappointing fact that only two of his sons went on to become Cardinals. They were Cardinal Pius IX Shallots, responsible for the famous Syllabus of Terrors, and our friend, Pius XII Shallots.
As a Cardinal, Pius XII Shallots rose through the Vatican bureaucracy to become head of philately at the Vatican Post Office. In this role, he had enormous power. He got to choose who appeared on Vatican stamps. It seemed only a matter of time before he became pope and could put his own stamp on things. But Vatican politics are hard to figure. A powerful cartel of cardinals thought that Shallots was soft on the key issue of gluten in communion hosts.
The next thing we knew, Shallots had arrived in Inner Springs. He made ends meet by working as a crossing attendant outside the local school. He worked as a trolley boy for the supermarkets in Dry Reach, our regional centre, 50km away. He helped at the pre-school, the only man in town who would come and change nappies. The rest were all conservatives. They didn’t believe in change.
For two and a half years, life has ebbed and flowed through our community. The mayor, Howard Winston, introduced his new sexual relations legislation to allow greater flexibility. The old institution of marriage has been replaced by individual sexplace agreements.
Winston has fulminated against the local school, complaining that history has been taught with too much emphasis on the past. He has called on the federal government to start more wars in order to guarantee a continued supply of people to march on Anzac Day.
The parish priest, Fr Thong, has continued his quest for fame. Thong has initiated inter-religious dialogue with Scientology in the hope of securing a place for himself in a Hollywood blockbuster. Thong was married, divorced, annulled and re-admitted to the priesthood all in the course of a single Lent. His ex-wife, Ruby, is still part of our community. She is the founder of the support group Former Wives of Former Priests, a group whose purpose is to lobby the church to maintain the discipline of clerical celibacy in order to spare women the ordeal of being married to ex-priests.
Inner Springs is full of strange and colourful personalities, most of whom know exactly what life is all about but have no idea of why.
Cardinal Shallots slipped in as quietly as a shadow. He spoke by listening. He was a man of such stillness that, just by visiting him at the Cistern Chapel, people sometimes felt things move in their life, heavy burdens shift into more comfortable positions.
But now Shallots has been losing weight. It looks like he is going to disappear.
‘Yes, I’ve joined wait watchers,’ he explains. His voice is growing fainter. Perhaps that will disappear as well.
‘Wait watchers love advent, the time that leads up to Christmas,’ he whispers. ‘We have two objects. We wait. And we watch. And as we do so, we find that our anxieties and fears and worries start to disappear. You know, anxiety takes up so much space inside people that, once it starts to drain away, they look different.’
Cardinal Shallots certainly looks different. He looks like he is hardly there at all.
‘Don’t worry about me. Just find a place to make Jesus welcome at Christmas.’
Yesterday, when I went across to the Cistern Chapel, Shallots had completely vanished. His red zuchetta sat on top of a rockmelon. His soutane waved from a branch of a tree. I sat in his chair, wondering what might have happened, and felt sad. I don’t mind saying that I shed a few tears.
Then, at night fall, I noticed a campervan in the driveway of my house, across the fence. There was a star hovering over my roof. Or perhaps it was the roof of the campervan. I wasn’t sure. I decided that I had better go and take a look. My heart needed the exercise.