There’s a bit in The Exorcist that chills me so much it’s hard to even write about. I worry that, by doing so, my computer might become possessed – and run even fucking slower than it already does. But I’m nothing if not dedicated to my art, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Here’s what happens: a young priest stands on a subway platform (young, that is, in the loosest Hollywood sense of the word; he’s ‘young’ the same way Kenickie and Rizzo in Grease are ‘young’). The train races through. An Irish beggar, complete with white beard and brown paper bag, calls up to the priest from the floor:
‘Can ya help an old altar boy, Farder?’
The young priest shakes his head and turns away. He has no money to give, having most likely blown it all on wafers and rosary beads.
Fast forward (or Sky Plus x30) another thirty minutes, and the priest is now entering the bedroom of a demon-possessed girl, Regan. She has been tied to the bedposts. Whether or not seeing a child tied to bedposts reminds the young priest of his days back in Catholic boarding school, we can only only guess. What we do know is that the sight catches him off guard. The girl’s eyes are yellowed, her face is puffy and she now has the voice of a sixty-a-day bus driver. Throughout the scene, she wheezes like a slowly deflating airbed. In short, her application for Little Miss America 1973 has had to be withdrawn until further notice.
Despite keeping his cool, the priest doesn’t really know how to act. This kind of occurrence wasn’t covered in seminary training (they spent most of the time studying St. Paul’s letters and messing around with incense in the vestry). This is brand new territory. So, he does what all of us do in situations where we’re supposed to act but aren’t sure how: he walks up to the window and pretends to look pensive. Whilst there, Regan speaks in a new, yet familiar, voice:
‘Can ya help an old altar boy, Farder?’
The priest looks up…
And there we have it. The film’s coldest moment. A dark suggestion that our acts of neglect are noted. Had the devil been secretly watching the priest on the subway? Or was that Irish beggar the devil himself? Either option is disturbing. When he wasn’t busy messing around with incense in the vestry, the young priest’s seminary teachers would have taught him that in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews we’re encouraged to be kind to strangers. For we may, Paul says, ‘entertain angels unawares’. But the possessed girl now offers a sinister counterbalance: it’s not just angels that we’re entertaining unawares. The devil has also sent a few employees out and about, taking names. And he’s probably got them on minimum wage with a zero hours contract. The bastard.
The reason why I’m telling you about this is that the scene came to my mind yesterday. I was walking through town when, not for the first time, I had a leaflet thrust into my midriff. It’s a shameful thing to admit, but when I’m accosted by leaflet-thrusters, their charities all blend into one. I look at their literature and see nothing but a mish-mash of words which may, or may not, even be there: help, now, you, today, starving, critical, child, just £5 a month, action, we, hope. It spins me out. Then the leaflet-thruster starts talking. Their opening lines can be quite unpredictable. Yesterday’s went like this:
‘You look tall. How are you today? How long have you been growing your beard?’
I didn’t know which of the statements to deal with first. After spending far too long weighing up my options, I opted for chronological order:
‘Thanks. I’m ok. Pardon?’
‘Do you have a minute to talk about deaf children?’ she smiled, getting down to business.
‘I don’t,’ I said.
But I did. It was a Saturday morning. I had loads of minutes to talk about deaf children. My plans for the afternoon involved little more than drinking tea and looking at clouds.
‘Sorry,’ I added, pulling an apologetic face. ‘I’m busy.’
‘Fine,’ she said, somewhat tartly, and took her leaflet back to thrust at other, godlier, midriffs.
And I carried on my way, feeling as I always do after being confronted by leaflet-thrusters: cloaked in a heated self-loathing. The mood followed me home.
‘Can ya help an old altar boy, Farder?’
I subconsciously locked the front door behind me. I didn’t even realise I’d done it until later that day, after a solid few hours of tea-drinking and cloud-watching.
You know, I haven’t always been an arsehole. Ten years ago I would have talked about deaf children til the cows came home. In fact, I’d have probably talked about them until the cows had come home, put their dinner on, had a shower and started watching The One Show. I’d have also agreed to set up a financially-crippling standing order. So what’s changed? Why don’t I talk to leaflet-thrusters anymore? Shouldn’t I be acting more charitable as the years go by? Isn’t one supposed to improve with age, like a fine red or a Spanish guitar? Clearly not in my case. I’m more like a Newcastle Brown and a melted vuvuzela.
Why do exchanges with leaflet-thrusters irk me so? I spent the afternoon thinking about it and came up with a few answers. It was a desperate attempt to justify my actions. My biggest gripe, I decided, is their direct questioning:
‘Can you spare just five minutes of your day to relieve famine in Ethiopia?’
‘Do you want to help neglected children?’
‘Will you save the donkeys?’
Nobody wants to say no to questions like that, especially when asked aloud in public. It’s a trap. They’re effectively asking, in front of all and sundry, if you’re a terrible person. You may say ‘Sorry’ and claim to be ‘busy’, but, translated, your response actually sounds like this:
‘Yes, I am a terrible person. I don’t want to give £5 a month to deprived children or guide dogs or whatever because I hate them all. Equally.’
It’s no way to boost one’s self-esteem.
My gripes with leaflet-thrusters don’t stop there, though. I also have particular disdain for they way they lock onto you from fifty yards, like charitable Terminators. Once eye-contact is inadvertently made, they’ll sometimes even cross a road or crowded thoroughfare to hunt you down: ‘…Hello, hello, excuse me, hi, how are you, will you save the donkeys?’ No amount of shoe-gazing can deter them by this point. Once they’ve got you in their sights, you’re theirs. The only way to quell them is to, yet again, publicly declare your lack of interest in donkey salvation.
Lastly, I don’t like how flirty and arm-touchy they can be (charity people, not donkeys). I read an article recently which said that they are sometimes encouraged to do this. When I was younger I genuinely thought they did it because they fancied me:
‘So, you want my home phone number, eh?’
‘Sure do… and your sort code.’
It’s strange flirting with someone when you’re discussing urgent food parcels and how best to subdue the spread of Ebola. It took me a few years to realise what was going on; I flirted my way into so many standing orders that, at one time, I couldn’t have been far off sponsoring myself. I was waiting for the day a postcard came through the door with a black & white photo of me on it:
This is Ryan. He has 725 standing orders. Will you stand by and watch as the bailiffs take his television away?
(I wonder if charities have bailiffs, too. If you fail to keep up your monthly payments, do they send the boys round? Imagine that. Oxfam bailiffs. Thai fishing pants and ginger dreads. Rifling through your cupboards for bio-degradable bags and sneering at your herbal tea selection.)
Critiquing leaflet-thrusters sits so uneasily because, at the heart of the matter, they are performing a good deed. So what if they’re getting paid to do it? Surgeons get paid. And I wouldn’t slink around an operating theatre slagging them off. Yes, organised charity can be a slick affair, with manipulative marketing strategies and targets, just like any other business, but it clearly needs to be. I guess they might struggle to survive otherwise. But those relentless leaflet thrusts to the midriff can wound the soul…
I suppose this is the ultimate ‘First World Problem’: getting grouchy because charities keep asking me for money in public. What can I do? I put money into collection tubs and donate things to charity shops etc. But that appears to be my limit. My days of engaging with leaflet-thrusters and standing orders look to be over. Where did it all go wrong?
The outrageous lie I tell myself is that when I become wealthy, I’ll throw money in every direction. None shall suffer. All charities shall reap a bounty from my vast fortune (accrued from an as-yet unspecified source). I’ll walk around throwing gold coins hither and thither, this way and that. Happiness for all. That will make amends. Until then, it looks as though the old altar boys may have to wait. And the angels will have to entertain themselves. If my jokes about priests and Ebola are anything to go by, they’re best off without me.