The Spectator/ Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for the year 2000 was won by Mary Wakefield. The judges included Antony Beevor; Patrick Marhnam; Boris Johnson, then editor of the magazine; and Mark Amory, who was and still is the Spectator’s literary editor. Mary is now Deputy Editor of the Spectator.
Entertaining Dr Murdock
There’s a narrow road heading east out of Denton, Texas, across the hot dust and prickly yellow grass. It runs straight as a red-neck’s gun barrel, passing after three miles through a huddle of run-down trailers, one squat, modern-looking church and a scattering of tiny brick houses; then on into a point on the horizon.
By the side of the road, opposite the church, sits a woman in a wedding dress, her white satin shoes covered with reddish dirt. Her hair is permed into careful ringlets. Her make-up needs constant repair. She is crying. She has been there since early morning, staring at the closed doors of the church and a painted sign which with kitsch pomposity proclaims it to be the Wisdom Center. The folds of her newly-bought dress collect dust, exhaust fumes, insects.
At about 5 p.m. a burly man with a crew-cut in a tight suit emerges from the church’s double doors. He leans down, helps the woman firmly to her feet and pushes her, stumbling, away from the church. She is protesting. She will not move until she has seen someone she calls her ‘Mentor’. She has been called by God, she says, to be the Mentor’s bride. She’s sure he’ll have felt it too; sure he’s been warned in dreams, like her. He’ll know, just please tell him. Please. The man turns back, muttering into a walkie-talkie. The double doors close smoothly behind him.
As the sun’s glare softens into evening orange, a policeman appears from one of the brick buildings and glances wearily at the woman, still hunched in her wedding dress by the roadside. He bundles her into the back of a police car, heading for the homeless shelters in downtown Denton.
Later that night, cars pull into the church carpark. Mellow golden light glows through the church’s thin, fake-marble windows. Electric organ music drifts off into the hot night. Dressed in their religious best bright-red tailored suits, jackets, shoulder pads, fake pearls and tottering heels — a stream of middle-aged Texan women clip down a paved path and in through the Wisdom Center’s doors, now opened wide.
The women wriggle through the aisles of conference-style seats, twitching with excitement; Dynasty extras interspersed with the odd shuffling man, eager to find a place nearest the front of the room.
Upstairs on a small balcony, a rat-like man called Todd starts sliding switches on a huge control panel. As the electric organ music shrieks louder, 15-year-old Israel starts a shimmering beat on his snare drum. The lights brighten and 150 now settled women swivel their varnished hairdos through 90 degrees and focus on the stage as in strolls Dr Mike Murdock, the Man, the Mentor — star of Mentor’s Manna on Channel 22 — his shiny suit alive with glittery sparkles in the TV-friendly lights.
I lean forward from my seat in the back row and run a self-conscious hand through my hair. Mike Murdock is the man whom I have been sent to investigate by an American television company. He is one of the worst of an ever-growing group of mercenary televangelists, trained to squeeze every last dollar out of gullible Christians in the southern United States. I am to infiltrate the Wisdom Center and get information about his accounts, and hidden camera footage of his infamous lechery. If possible, I am to tempt him to try to seduce me.
‘Oh, hallelujah. Ah just luuuurve Thursday naaghts,’ begins the Mentor. ‘Oh hallelujah, hallelujah,’ the crowd sighs back.
‘They’re jes’ a little haven of peace and quiet in the middle of mah jet-settin’ laafe.’
Dr Murdock’s mouth stretches into a showbiz grin. Greased back, dyed black, too-long hair creeps like insect legs over his collar.
The women love it. ‘The poor man doesn’t look after himself,’ they whisper. ‘Bless him, he needs a haircut…’ No, they decide with secret smiles, what he needs is a Good Woman — someone to stack those prayer books, straighten the cushions and pile food on his plate, like momma used to make. Upstairs, on the balcony, Todd pumps up the volume.
‘Hallelujah,’ croons Dr Murdock. ‘Oh, hallelujah. It’s a very special day today. A special day.’ As a former Amway salesman, Mike knows the value of repetition. ‘I can feel the Holy Spurt rising in the room tonight and oh… I just had to share that with y’all. A very special day. An anointed day.’ He turns, pauses, raises one eyebrow, and grins.
‘While ah was in the Secret Place for my four-hour prayer session this morning, the Holy Spurt put into my heart a revelation.’ Dr M. lowers his voice to a conspiratorial rasp. ‘Oh yes, hallelujah, a revelation. It was about the $91 seed. “Mike,” the Holy Spurt said to me… [the Holy Spirit affects a Ghost-of-Christmas-Past quaver] Mi-i-ke, I want you to spread the word tonight that anyone, yes anyone, willing to sow a $91 seed into your ministry will receive that offering back a hundredfold.” The Holy Spurt sure is in a generous mood this evening, isn’t he?’
And then the pièce de resistance, a bit of con-man logic from the other side of Alice’s looking-glass: “And if there are any of you who still have doubts in your hearts, just look at me… I have a huge mansion, five beautiful cars, I take jets wherever I go. I couldn’t have done this on my own. God chose to bestow a financial blessing on me and I promise he will do the same to you if you’ll just have faith and sow the seed.’
Then it’s time to be serious. Balcony Todd dims the lights. Mike’s eyes squeeze shut. ‘Hallelujah, oh hallelujah, shabba kosorah babba baba korosobayeh rabbi- inobbaba…’
Speaking in tongues is not Mike’s forte. ‘He runs out of cryptic-sounding consonants all too soon, lapsing into an embarrassing babbabbabbabbabb sound. So, well-trained Todd pumps up the volume and the organ music grows to fill the room. On cue, 150 voices launch into Mike’s smash hit:
‘When you speak, Holy Spirit, I will obeeeey. Oh, I will do things your waaaaaay.’
With the help of the Holy Spirit, Mike has written more than 5,000 religious songs. Within three lines, everybody is in tears. And while they sing and cry, the Mentor’s burly assistants pass round gilded buckets and collect 150 $91 cheques.
When I started to work at the Wisdom Center, I was convinced that nothing could shake my cynicism about the televangelist racket in the United States. I was looking see and to exposing Murdock. I thought it seemed like a glamorous thing to do. Some 3,000 envelopes later, I began to think again.
After endless questions, check-ups and phone calls, the Wisdom Center administrative team had accepted that I was just a young Brit who’d been so impressed by seeing the Mentor on television, that I’d driven out to his ministry to volunteer. They put me to work in the warehouse, sending off thousands of thank-you letters and entreaties for money, each one as identical as every donation was different. There were long letters and postcards — scrawled, stained, perfumed, business-like. There were letters with a pattern of bluebells printed around the edge of every cream-coloured sheet, each one carrying the hopes and prayers of Mike’s lonely, pretzel-addicted television audience.
I drove for an hour every morning, slaloming past the road-rage wrecks of battered trucks, up the 135 from Dallas to Denton. Every morning I knelt with Mike’s other minions and whispered my Prayer for Success in the Quiet Place. I filled in my ‘Schedule for Success’ sheet in a cardboard cupboard called the ‘Administration Center’ and trotted off to a decaying garage, the ‘Shipping Center and Warehouse’, to stuff envelopes and dispatch tapes of Mike’s sermons to his fans around the world. For two months I didn’t even meet Mike Murdock, the man who was supposed to seduce me. I was desperate to speed up this process and prove to my television employers that I was a latter-day Mata Hari. I had to get this greaseball to pay me some attention.
Every week I practised my seductive stare on him from Todd’s balcony, but to no avail. After every Thursday service, the Mentor would slide out of a side-door without a backward glance, followed by his entourage of 7-ft clones, and jump onto a plane to bleed another congregation in another state.
Then came the day of the Christmas party, 1998. I put on my most see-through shirt and set off for the Radisson Hotel.
After the party, I was introduced to Mike for the first time. ‘Does she work for me?’ he hissed to a clone. A mumbled answer, then Mike turned to me: ‘Well, hello there, little young lady from England. Welcome and thank you. I know England very well. Blessed country. Where exactly are you from?’ Without waiting for an answer, he kneaded my hand and moved on.
A few days later, at three o’clock in the morning, I was woken by the phone ringing beside my bed in east Dallas. ‘Well, hello there,’ growled the Mentor, ‘is that the Very Special Young Lady from England?’
I don’t recall much about the conversation. It went on for about 40 minutes and involved a surreal mixture of suspicious inquiries about how I’d heard of him and intimate questions about my love life. When I woke up the next morning, I felt sure I’d blown my cover.
The television people, however, were jubilant. ‘We’ve hooked him,’ they yelled down the phone, and between high fives and back-slaps told me to get my ass up to New York to be taught how to use a hidden camera. ‘What exactly is it you think I’m going to catch on film?’ I wanted to know. ‘Oh well… you know, we’ve talked to some of his previous girlfriends… he likes you to watch … well… I’m sure you’ll know when the time comes. I promise he’s not dangerous… just a little sick.’ Fantastic. A little sick. I began to feel less like a leather-clad Diana Rigg and more like a sacrificial lamb. But a rather self-important sacrificial lamb. Standing in dusty, secret New York warehouses being wrapped around with cables and straps by men with important looking ponytails, I felt like a cross between James Bond and Joan of Arc. I caught myself practising brave little smiles in the studio mirror.
Three days later, Mike called at 1 a.m., just as I was tumbling into sleep, wanting us to get together. ‘It’s time we had a little talk,’ he whispered. ‘I feel God has given me some special words of wisdom for my special friend. Shall we meet up halfway?’ He suggested the International House of Pancakes, ten minutes from his mansion, and about an hour’s drive through torrential rain for me.
I remember letting out a little whimper as I pulled out into the blackness on to the waterlogged 135. But the idea of my mission spurred me on, and by the time I had finished a long internal debate about how many buttons of my shirt to leave undone for that innocently seductive look, I had pulled up outside the IHOP and I was Mata Hari again.
It was supermarket-bright inside. I pulled up a wet bra strap and looked around. To the left of the plastic shack, three large Dallas girls were recovering from a night at the Cowboy 2000 disco, fighting over a thick stack of pancakes. Against the wall on the right, sitting all alone with his head bowed over one of his own books, was Mike.
His electric-blue silk shirt showed a deep V of chest-hair and, in the second before he looked up, I wondered briefly if his journey had been taken up with the same dilemma as mine.
‘Well, hello there. Take a seat, mah Special Friend. We have so much to discuss, so much. Ah am longing to get to know you.’
I was disappointed. His eyes flicked about uneasily. Separated from his camera-man, Mike had the air of a great raconteur who’d been deserted mid-anecdote and forced to finish his story to the remaining spinster aunt. He took my hand.
‘Ah’m proud to be your mentor,’ he whispered, squeezing a little. ‘Tell me about what you want from life.’
An hour later my hand was still in his. The sweat was flowing as freely as the saccharine sincerity. We’d been through what I wanted out of life about 15 times. What did I want to achieve?
‘Um… to be an artist.’ No. Mike became impatient. What were my personal ambitions?
‘Um… to be a good artist?’ Nope. That still wasn’t right.
‘To paint for the glory of God?’ Gritted teeth.
It occurs to me now that there were only two correct answers to that question. Money or power. Nothing else computes with the Mentor.
But I was pleased with my progress. By the end of the night, the Mentor had himself personally inscribed six of his books with loving messages to his Special Friend. And by the time my hand was released I had promised to visit his house a few days later to sketch his tame ocelots and swim in his pool. He touched my cheek. I didn’t squirm, cringe or grit my teeth. I blushed, partly with pleasure but also with shame.
When the TV company called the next day they were full of ideas for the next stage of the operation. I was to leave shy, admiring messages on his answerphone, put a tentative hand over his, make sure the Mentor knew he was my hero. They sent down the hidden camera and promised to park a ponytail outside Mike’s mansion to help me out if things got out of hand.
That guilty feeling of passive responsibility, which women understand better than men, almost carried me through. I felt the weight of other people’s ambitions sitting astride me like a jockey brandishing a whip, excited by the sight of the finishing line. At least I owed them a good run, I thought. But I had lost my enthusiasm.
Mike was not the Antichrist or a criminal, just an opportunist making the most of human weakness. He was also unmarried and 50 years old, and, like thousands of other middle-aged men, single or otherwise, unlikely to pass up a buck or a 22-year-old girl. So what? I suddenly couldn’t work out why we were all getting so terribly excited about the poor man having a libido. If I succeeded in getting film of Mike asking me to put my hand down his trousers, I was the one who’d end up looking ridiculous.
So in the end I never took Mike up on the offer of a swim in his pool. I never met his ocelots or found out what special treatment his Special Friends usually receive. But I was to have one last, dramatic and unexpected encounter with him.
Feeling a little sheepish, like a greyhound sent out to catch a hare and returning with a half-eaten burger, I neglected my Special Friendship with Mike but continued to visit the Wisdom Center every Thursday night. When all the cars had gone I would do a desultory trash run, heaving plastic sacks of shredded accounts and leaking teabags into the back of my car for later analysis. But my crusading spirit had evaporated, and without it as a shield the whole set-up began to make me sad.
If the lipsticked southern ladies with painted talons were Mike’s immediate attendants, he had an equally devoted second order of trailer-park desperadoes to whom he paid virtually nothing. There was stone-deaf Chris who handed out the hymn books, Robert who fed the ocelots, and Theresa who worked with me in the ware- house. They weren’t buying into the power trip, just clutching at straws.
Sitting on old bar stools at the mailing table in the warehouse, Theresa would tell me about her six-month-old twins, Joshua and Joel. Joel had been born with a hole in his heart. As we stuck printed addresses on to brown-paper packages, Theresa would talk to me about how sure she was that Dr Murdock was going to heal the hole in Joel’s heart.
Joel’s doctors were telling her that if they operated now, they could save Joel’s life. But Theresa truly believed that God had put the hole in her baby’s heart so that Mike could prove his divine powers by healing him. She was determined not to authorise the operation.
Perhaps I should have seized her by the shoulders over the outsized pot of Gloy and said, ‘Can’t you see? Mike’s about as Christian as a dodgy second-hand car dealer.’ But even if I had succeeded in stripping away her years of conviction and misguided belief, what on earth was I going to offer her in exchange?
One Thursday night I was lounging around at the back of the congregation, dreaming of a world without electric organs. I’d got through two hours of singing and chanting ‘Today is the poorest I will be for the rest of my life’ by seeing how long I could hold my breath. Hour three was looking pretty bleak.
I had just taken another huge breath, having opted for asphyxiation over death by boredom, when Mike’s voice swam through to my oxygen-starved brain, ‘And now I have a special anointing to give to a very Special Young Lady from London, England. Mary Wakefield. Where are you, Mary?’
I felt like a game-show contestant. Come on down; the price is right. Everything froze. Even the light seemed to coagulate, setting 150 swivelled heads and jealous, eager faces in amber as I got to my feet and shuffled down the aisle towards the Mentor.
‘Special, special, special,’ murmured Mike into my hair as he took one of my hands into his hand and raised it into the air.
I couldn’t hear what he said at the time; embarrassment had filled my ears with boiling blood. But listening to the service tape now, it’s the same old rigmarole asking God to bestow a financial blessing on me, saying how special I was, while sweat slid slowly down my wrists from the place where our palms were crushed together. Towards the end of the ordeal he invited everybody to come and lay hands on me.
One by one the Wisdom Center women eased up from their seats and came towards me in slow motion. My face was burning. Staring at the pink nylon carpet smoothed over the altar steps, I listened to their murmuring beside me. ‘Oh help her, Lorrd, sayve her, Lorrd.’ Twenty pairs of hands on my shoulders, rings cool against my neck, lacquered hair against my forehead, in my mouth. Someone started sobbing, the accepted cue for a spasm of speaking in tongues, and so the muted prayers and hisses flowed into a babble of repeated vowels and desperate-sounding consonants all around me.
Some submerged unconscious mechanism creaked slowly into life and started unleashing emotions over which I had no control. I felt myself shaking, and then an irresistible desire to burst into tears. I could feel the congregation willing me to break down.
So I did. I cried. I couldn’t help it. And, as I bawled, Mike and the congregation unwound their tentacles and fell away, replete. The electric organ started up its pious end-of-service wail, and I staggered back down the aisle, my head empty of all thoughts except ‘car’ and ‘cigarette’.
Before I reached either of these, a woman I knew from the Wisdom Center accounts office stepped into my path. She took my hand and pressed into it something papery. ‘Can I just sow a seed into your anointed life?’ Then another woman and an old couple appeared behind her. ‘We’d like to be a part of your anointing.’ More paper. By the time I’d fought through the crowd and out of the double doors, I was clutching about $300 in cash.
The series of thoughts I had next still baffles me. I start up the car and pull out into the hot night. I think, very slowly, ‘So it’s true, then. There is a God and he’s into money.’
Thank God it didn’t last. As I swung past the place where Mike’s deluded admirer sat waiting in her dusty white dress, clinging on to her dreams for all she was worth, my brain suddenly switched back on. What could I have been thinking? Was it just too many hours of chanting? The shock of feeling singled out?
My left hand was still buried in crumpled notes. Without pausing, I grabbed a handful, wound down the window and stuffed them out into the rushing dark. And although I kicked myself later, scrabbling for petrol money under the seats, that handful was followed by the rest, poked through the narrow slit between window and door, snatched away by the slipstream, fluttering back down the road to the Wisdom Center.
To read other past winning entries of the Shiva Naipaul prize, click here.Tags: Religion, Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, Texas, Travel