In the Time of My Confession
(aka WWIYW

by Jim Gillan


It’s coming up on twenty years ago, and a lot has happened since then. From a distance it’s possible to see the bigger picture but at the price of detail. However, knowing more and understanding less is only a part of it. The spontaneity of the moment, the mood is gone, making informed appraisal impossible. Journalists, historians, trained observers and skilled analysts could perhaps do it better, but would not necessarily get any closer to the elusive truth. Anyway, Dylan had played two shows, one in Madrid on 27th June 1984 and the other, a couple of days later in Barcelona. In between he was interviewed by Mick Brown, with amongst other things, Dylan acknowledging a continued interest in the Book of Revelation. Coincidence or statement of intent? I don’t know. Nor do I know how he managed to be in Madrid and in the Church on the same day, but she says it was DEFINITELY 26th June.

Extremadura is in South Western Spain, the name giving an unmistakable clue to the challenges of living there. A land for the truly hardy, the relentless ascetics. Guadalupe Monastery lies to the east of the region and is home to the Black Virgin. Perhaps it was there he was headed for, or was heading from, when he spotted the bleached walls of a Church in a place so small, so abandoned that maps don’t carry the name of it. Around the Church a few empty shells of simple houses, roofs stripped and stones carried away was all that remained of a community that, through having to eke out an existence on the very edge, spent its days close to Creation.

Maybe he wanted a break from travelling, maybe he was drawn by simple curiosity, maybe he sensed something within. Despite the condition of the other buildings, the outside of the Church was still intact. But when he pushed back the already partly opened door he could see that most of the pews had gone, as had all of the hangings. The stone floor was covered in sand blown in through every opening. He would, I suspect, have noticed the footprints, knowing which were new and which were not. The few window spaces had no glass in them and to keep the interior cool, were set high in walls that were up to eight feet thick at the base. A simple altar was set in a shallow recess, at the back of which was a painting of the Madonna, cradling the Infant. The brushwork was simple, the execution accomplished rather than talented. Some fading of the pigment had occurred, softening the lines and so giving it a more ethereal appearance, entirely in keeping with the subject. It measured some five feet high by just over three wide – a slightly odd ratio but one done to allow for the various saintly figures which were painted down one side.

In the back of the Church, deep in the shadow cast by the open door, was a man dressed simply, but unmistakably, as a traveller. Sitting unnoticed throughout (or so he says) he watched as Bob paused in the doorway, taking in all that was before him. He thinks that Bob saw the image of the Madonna bef ore he noticed the woman kneeling to one side, at the farthest end of the first pew. She had chosen that spot as the one which gave the most pleasing angle on the painting, though this required her to be turned awkwardly, one knee pressed hard against the ancient wood. Her head was bent slightly forward, her face partly shielded by a veil improvised from a scarf of some sort. Her name was Mary Catherine.

She was then twenty-seven and had been travelling for five months with Saul, who was still huddled in the shadows at the back of the Church. Born in rural Sligo, but brought up in London and Convent educated, she had stopped attending Mass when she was nineteen and had left home for University. A virgin until two nights ago, it had been Saul’s idea to visit Guadalupe, but it was (she says) some sort of inexplicable instinct that drew her off the route and to this other Virgin. She had only been there for ten or fifteen minutes (though, according to Saul, it was actually nearly two hours) when Bob appeared in the doorway.

“I knew something was there, even before I realised that it was a man. I was lost in the picture of the Madonna and Infant, drawn to her unnaturally large eyes, so soft and knowing. There was a glimmer of pain in them, as though the future was clear to her. Her halo was less golden than that of the Child and her robes less carefully detailed. Her fingers were like mine were then – very long, but with the nails kept short. Her hair was nearly the same colour and about as long as mine. She too had it arranged to fall over her left shoulder. The painter would have done that to show as much of her face as possible. I did it in a conscious imitation, even as I veiled myself. Old habits die hard, as we used to say of the ancient Nuns, who sometimes came to class to be shown to us as women who were true Brides, women with a spiritual calling to yearn for, rather than a worldly one to satisfy.

Maybe it was that small change in the light as he stepped to the door which alerted me, though I like to think that everything that happened on that night under the stars had made me preternaturally aware. I didn’t move my head to look around, knowing that Saul was somewhere behind me. I heard footsteps as he walked slowly, but with enormous purpose, up the aisle, his boot heels sounding softer on the stone than I would have though possible.

I felt him watching me and, as he drew level, I bent my head and turned it further away. I sensed a knowing smile and mildly irritated by it I hunched over still more. To shut him out I focussed on everything that might distract. My knees hurt like hell, the left one painful from being pushed against the pew. The sweat that had run down my back and into my knickers itched like mad. I felt my breasts still tender from Saul’s fierce loving and was so very conscious of a faint bite mark on the side of my neck. I squeezed my thighs together and watched the soft hairs on my forearm, straining to see them in the gloom. I peered round the edge of my veil.

The man had his back to me, studying the Madonna with absolute concentration. He leaned towards it, as though squinting his eyes. Nodding to himself he straightened, rocking slightly back on his heels. He still had his hat on, the wide brim framing his curls like the halo around the Child. I thought then of how my father would pull his cap off before entering a Church and how my brothers would get a slap if they delayed baring their heads. Somehow I didn’t think that he meant anything disrespectful by leaving his hat on. From the Lord knows where, he had picked a fresh flower and arranged it in the hat band. At that moment, still with his back to me, I knew he could see me as clearly as if it was me who was hanging before him and I turned to look f or Saul. But the back was too dark, too deep in shadow. Even though I knew Saul must be somewhere close, for a moment it was like there was just me, the Madonna and him.

He half turned to look at the detail on the lower left side of the painting. Silhouetted against the pale walls, his profile was unmistakable. I stopped breathing, then almost giggled as I remembered something about an imitators contest with a category of ‘most Dylanesque nose’ in it. He turned to face me and I SWEAR his eyes flashed blue. As my mind screamed I looked back at him and pulled the veil from off my head. I felt him take me in. I felt him look beneath my clothes, my skin, my reason. I felt an immense longing and would have stretched on the altar for him had he but crooked his finger. Then he was gone, as though he sensed that the moment had arrived and passed at the very same instant.

I made Saul play ‘Visions of Johanna’ over and over again as we drove north, neither of us speaking, both of us lost in reflection. Later, when I lay against him, his hand resting on me, our sweat drying, he said in a voice full of wonder ‘he never saw me, but he knew I was there’. And later still, ‘maybe he will write a song about it.’ I hear it all the time, but can’t make out the w ords, nor can I work the guitar parts out, even though that is what I teach. And Saul? He hears it too, but says it’s a different tune, or maybe just a different arrangement. But either way, it doesn’t matter. It belongs to us and is always with us and sharing doesn’t dilute it.”