Life In Old Spain - Part 4

LIFE IN OLD SPAIN - PART 4Playing Golf in Church.  It's Sunday morning. The men are grumbling. They don't want to go to church.

They've been working in the fields for six days. They want to laze around on Sunday. Sunday is their day off. They want to sit at a table outside the bar and chat idly with their mates while drinking a beer. The last thing they want to do is struggle with a clean shirt, clean their shoes, and look tidy, and sit for an hour and a half in the cold church listening to their pontifical old faggot of a priest giving them a lecture on how they ought to lead their lives. He doesn't have to get out in the fields to work. He just swans around in silly clothes on a good wage, and spends most of his life talking to the women. What's he doing with them in that damn church? And god only knows what he gets up to when the young girls are going there every day for lessons before their confirmation.

One Sunday in a little town in Cantabria where I was currently staying I sat at the cafe waiting for my friends. At a nearby table sat three old men. Their wives came down the street. They had ganged up, and stood on the pavement haranguing their husbands. "You've got to come to church. It's a sin to sit here swilling beer on the lord's day."

The men said nothing. One picked up his glass and took a small sip.

The next old bat started in. "Just think of the children. You should set them an example and honour the good Lord, and go to ask his forgiveness for all your sins. What about your soul? Don't you care? You'll go to hell. Mark my words, you'll roast in hell."

There was still no response from any of the men. They sat staring across the street. Another lifted a glass and took a small sip.

"We're wasting our time," muttered the third old harridan. "Just leave them to rot. Why should we care if they go to hell, so much the better for us? We wont have to put up with them swilling beer, and belching and farting in heaven. What would heaven be like with this lot littering up the streets?"

They walked on towards the church, still muttering and calling down seven shades of hell upon their husbands.

I had always thought Spain to be a greatly religious country until I looked more carefully at their history. Generally speaking the church was regarded as a curse to be borne. As soon as there was any hint of rebellion the people would rise up and attack the police force, and then go straight round to the priest to blow his head off, and sack the church.

The average peasant despised the priests, and had no time for religion at all. The priests spent all their time with the women.

However, after a couple of weeks I too began to attend the Sunday services, but not because I had any love for the religion or respect for the priesthood. I found my mates went happily, and they persuaded me to come too. The reason was very simple. The girls attended church, and we could chat to them, unchaperoned in the churchyard after the service. This made attending church every Sunday one of the high spots of the week. The only other time we could talk up close to the señoritas was on special saints days when half the town went on a picnic paseo down the valley, along the riverbed, where we set up fires and cooked lunch.

On this particular Sunday my friends came by, and we marched down to the square for the morning service. We were sitting near the back in our usual place, and smiling at the girls on the other side of the aisle, when suddenly there was a crash behind us, and a couple of men ran into the church. Everyone turned round. What on earth was going on? There were looks of alarm. Surely this wasn't the start of the long-awaited revolution. Had Opus Dei passed the word?

Opus Dei was a semi-mythical organisation that was supposedly planning a take-over from the Franco regime. Depending on your outlook you either assumed this underground organisation was preparing the way for a new revolution which would sweep away the regime and usher in a golden age; or that it was pure hokum, and consisted only of a group of academics who used to meet once a month to discuss politics, but nothing more.

The priest carried on intoning some liturgical nonsense at the front of the church, and the women were torn between paying attention to the service, and their alarm and curiosity at what was going on behind them. The men were relieved to find something happening at last to break the boredom.

The two men who had just come in were joined by two others, and they seemed to be hunting for something. Soon another man came in and issued instructions. They were all peering at something on the floor. Gradually the pews started emptying as more and more of the congregation joined in the fun at the back. The priest faltered, and then upped the volume, and carried on with his godly work-out. We naturally joined the group at the back.

The centre of attraction was a golf ball that had entered the church and ended up sitting serenely under a chair. The men had apparently been playing golf outside. The game was the latest craze in the town. Someone had nicked a set of golf clubs from a hotel in San Sebastian, and sold them to one of the dons in the town, and he had taken up the sport with some enthusiasm. The only trouble was, the nearest golf course was actually across the border in France, so he had to improvise a course. The church was now proving to be a splendid bunker presenting all sorts of interesting problems which were now the subject of a rather heated discussion.

The priest carried on intoning away at the front of the church addressing a diminishing audience, while the men were shouting at each other at the back. The argument centred around the problem of how to play the ball. As it had come to rest underneath a chair there was simply no possibility of being able to whack it with a golf club. One team was adamant the ball had to be played in situ. The other team insisted it could be placed in a playable position outside the chair. And so the argument raged.

Every so often someone made a suggestion the other side considered outrageous. This was followed by a stream of complaints, usually accompanied by calling the idiot who made the suggestion a conyo. In this context it would be more realistic to translate the word as "silly ass". Certainly none of the ladies in the audience found it particularly objectionable. In fact some of them were hiding their faces in their headscarves and giggling.

The priest pretended nothing untoward was happening, but after several minutes of arguing at the back of the church his congregation had shrunk to about five.

Eventually the guy whose shot it was started shouting and demanded everybody give him room to take his shot. "I don't care who says anything anymore," he bellowed. "It's my turn, and by god I'm going to have my go."

He stood alongside the chair, raised the golf club and took a mighty swipe at the chair and knocked it halfway to the door. The golf ball waddled across the flagstones and came to rest behind a curtain.

There was a great cheer. That was effectively the end of the service as the congregation was now all in on the act. Everyone had a view on whether the stroke was a foul shot. The other side were outraged because their advantage had now become a disadvantage as the ball was unplayable from its current position. Behind it was the church wall, in front of it was the curtain.

At this stage the argument took on a new dimension as the priest strode down the aisle and demanded the golf ball be removed from holy ground immediately. "This is not the campo” (the open countryside), “this is consecrated ground. You cannot play golf on consecrated ground. This ball," and the priest bent down and picked it up, "is the property of the Lord."

The argument now turned to matters of compromise, and a long discussion ensued about whether the church had the right to appropriate the ball.

In the end the ball was returned on the strict understanding that golf was henceforth banned from the bounds of the church, and if the ball subsequently landed on consecrated ground that should be the end of the game, with the team whose shot put the ball on consecrated ground being declared the losers.

The ball was ceremoniously placed on the top step of the church steps and a mighty swipe took it well out of holy regions, and all the small boys rushed off to find where it had landed, the erstwhile congregation following on at a comfortable pace. The service was over, and for the rest of the morning half the town followed the progress of the game of golf.

The only members of the community to feel aggrieved at the outcome were the old men sitting in the cafes. They had missed out on the only momentous happening of the whole month. To miss seeing the church turned into a place of entertainment was a devastating loss, and they looked seriously glum all week.

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