I’m not sure I should be telling you about this.
It started innocently enough, but now it’s spinning out of control.
You see, it’s like this. Our local parish is pretty much run by old people. The women tend to be named Pat and the men are all Grahams and Bills (except when they’re actually Brian, but I digress). Some – like my hero, Pat Baker – are warm, giving folk, full of wit and wisdom. Others can be rather narrow-minded and fiercely opinionated: what our late PP referred to as the ‘Parish Antiques’. Many have a good measure of both these aspects, and all are hard-working souls with deep parish loyalty.
The person I want to tell you about today is a formidable lady by the name of Barbara Feeney (well, OK, not really. I had to change her name. But we can all pretend.) Barbara Feeney is a sacristan (she gets the church ready before Mass) and a special minister (she helps to distribute Communion), and her facial expression of choice is a disapproving frown. Barbara would best be known to the parish school children as the lady who stands near the door of the church aggressively shushing them as they file out after a school Mass. Unlike her duties as a sacristan or special minister, this policing of juvenile noise-making is a self-appointed role.
Barbara is also very strict with the young altar servers, pulling them into line for spilling wax when they walk with candles and fidgeting in their seats during Mass. There is a person in the parish who is in charge of training the altar servers. It isn’t Mrs Feeney.
In the sacristy (it’s like a ‘green room’, but for priests) after one particular Mass at which Matilda was serving, Barbara descended upon the small knot of altar servers with another Stern Parish Lady (SPL) to back her up and launched into a tirade about their terrible behaviour (The altar servers’ behaviour, I mean, not the angry ladies’).
I must have missed it, but apparently towards the end of Mass, some of the altar servers had been fiddling with their tassels and giggling. Mrs Feeney berated them for ten minutes and SPL nodded grimly at intervals for good measure.
Had I been nine years old and in the sacristy at that time, I would have fallen to pieces, become a quivering mess. Matilda, however, is nothing like her mother and I think this is where the trouble started. To be fair, Matilda listened demurely enough to this post-liturgy tirade and did not answer back in any way. But the seed had been planted.
It started small. When Annie and Harry were chatting animatedly after lights-out, I overheard Matilda calling out a warning: “You better be quiet or Barbara Feeney will come and shush you!
Before long, Matilda and Christopher Robin had developed an advertising jingle: “Barbara Feeney’s Helpline says ‘Shush! Shush!'” (to the tune of Motor Finance Wizard). In retrospect, I should not have giggled at this. Nor, I suppose, should I have fallen about helplessly with laughter when Matilda used Microsoft Power Point to devise a full-scale advertising campaign for said helpline (Noisy neighbours ruining your life? Barbara Feeney can help! Call now and get your first shush free!).
You see, it’s hard to explain to your daughter that it’s not at all respectful to refer to dignified SPLs as Barbara Feeney’s ‘sidekicks’, when you’re focussing so hard on stopping tea from pouring out of your nose. (Do you know where Barbara Feeney got her qualifications as Chief Parish Shusher? It was at Monassshhh University. She got a double degree in Stern Lectures/Finger Wagging).
It’s getting worse. All of Matilda’s friends know about her hero, Mrs Feeney. At a party recently, several children were jumping on the trampoline at once lustily singing the helpline jingle. This wasn’t even at our house. And Matilda’s friends live all over the place. Slowly but surely, the Legend of Barbara Feeney is spreading all over Victoria.
I’m scared. It’s only a matter of time before Barbara Feeney herself finds out. More than once, in the middle of Mass, little Annie has called out “Oh no! Look, Mum: it Baa Baa Fee Nee!”. I try to make her be quiet. I try talk to my children about ‘respecting your elders’, but Barbara Feeney is their favourite topic of conversation and I don’t know how to stop them talking.
If only there were a helpline I could call…