Father James sat in his study contemplating sin and salvation, amongst other things. He was new to this town. It had a reputation that would shock anyone with a less than broad frame of mind so he was prepared for anything. Loneliness, however, in this new environment, was preoccupying him.
“You should get out more,” Father Luke had said to him over the phone. How he missed Luke.
“I should get out,” he had said with a wry laugh.
He contemplated the whiskey bottle on his desk. After hearing confessions on a Saturday, there was nothing like a bit of peace and quiet to calm him. Twenty years in the priesthood had taught him to expect it always to be the same. The lists and lists of trivia that were spoken through the grill exhausted him, and worse, bored him. Did no one understand faith anymore? It was not about rules. Where was their passion for life, the depth, the commitment to the search for meaning? Sometimes he almost despaired. “I told my husband a lie. I said the shoes cost thirty-pounds when they cost a hundred pounds.” And, “I shouted at my children for setting fire to the washing.” They were not like his previous parishioners. He had been shifted him from his former parish on orders from the Bishop, a parish where he had been known and loved by people for whom he, too, had cared. It had been a cruel and vicious act, the separation.
He reached out for the whiskey but before he could even touch the bottle, the telephone rang. Someone wanting to know the times of masses tomorrow, no doubt, or some other tedious request. He reached out for the telephone instead of the whiskey.
“Is that the presbytery?” asked a soft, Irish voice.
“It is. Who’s calling?”
“I’m looking for the new priest.”
“Father James speaking.” He leaned his elbow on the desk. This could take a long time.
“Father James, me mother’s in a bad way. I’m thinking she’s dying. The doctor said this morning she’ll not be long for this world. She’s asking for a priest.”
“I’ll come at once,” said Father James. This call was serious. This was real; it was worth giving up a Saturday evening. He responded eagerly. “Will you give me your address?”
“Sure. It’s in Green Street. Number fifty. A flat above a club. There’s a door at the side. Just ring the bell. Thanks, Father James.”
Father James collected his bag, always ready for such occasions. It contained his stole, oil of chrism, holy water, the blessed sacrament, a crucifix…
He wound a thick black scarf around his neck and set off into the murky night.
Green Street was not far from the church and the presbytery. There was no hardship in walking, even when it rained. Tonight, it was more than raining, it was lashing. He hoped he would find the way. It was one thing to explore during daylight, but rain and darkness created a different environment. The town was large. He needed to become familiar with it. He had taken to walking around the place to that end. Apart from darkness and rain, the other difficulty was to know which end of Green Street number fifty would be.
Of course, he started at the wrong end, the high numbers. As he progressed along the pavement, he realised the area was becoming seedy, if not downright sleazy. Public houses, takeaways, and empty commercial premises gave an air of abandonment. Surely there were no flats here, surely there was nothing of the everyday domestic in this area? There were certainly clubs, though. There were plenty of those, with big, burly bouncers standing threateningly at the doorways, looking dangerously bored. Number fifty six, fifty four, fifty two, ah! number fifty! Here it was. Number fifty. Garish pink fluorescent lights twinkled and flashed the name of the club, Pink Paradise. Music blared and throbbed. The bouncers wore colourful pink waistcoats, but were none-the-less threatening. And big!
Oh, God! His worst fears were being manifested. He began to notice the clientele entering and leaving the club. Smooth, muscular male bodies in revealing T-shirts, tight shorts – very tight and very short – lots of glitter, make up, flamboyant clothes and hair styles, exaggerated gestures, and not a woman in sight. He must not be seen in the vicinity of this place. He sought the door at the side, referred to by the caller. Yes, there it was, unobtrusively next to the brilliant club exterior. Such irony. If only the Bishop could see him now.
He was in a panic to be on the other side of that door. For good reasons, for the clients of this establishment would have no respect for his dog collar. He pulled the rain-drenched scarf around his neck a little tighter to cover it. He rang the door bell, feeling conspicuous as he stood there. Men were looking at him. Hardly surprising, he was good-looking, he knew that. His mother had always said what a waste it was, his being a priest. But at this moment it was a definite disadvantage.
A disembodied voice answered the bell. “Who is it?”
“It’s – it’s…” He looked about him furtively. “It’s Father James Daly,” he whispered.
“Oh, Jesus! Come on in!” said the voice with relief, but not as much relief as Father James was feeling. A buzzing noise indicated that the door was open. Father James pushed it, fairly scrambled inside and closed it quickly. He leaned his back against the door. He could feel the throbbing of the music being pumped out from the club, yet to him, his heart was louder and faster. The place was dark. His breathing was so heavy that it sounded sinister. He stayed there, his back against the door. The disembodied voice had not switched on a light.
“Up the stairs!” said the voice as a light went on. “Excuse the mess. This was the cheapest place we could find, me and Mam. It belongs to a friend.”
Father James began to mount the steep, narrow stairs. The owner of the voice had vanished out of sight, presumably to reassure the dying woman.
“In here, Father,” the voice said.
Father James went into the dimly lit room. A lamp in a yellow shade, on a bed-side table, focused light on a pale figure in a bed. The woman’s breathing was slow and laboured, in contrast to Father James’ breathing which was still rapid, he having added the burden of the stairs to his lungs. He reached out to the woman, lifting the limp hand that lay on the bed covers. Her eyes flew open as he touched her.
“Oh, Father,” she whispered.
“All is well, my dear,” he said. “All will be well.” Having no vested interest in a fierce, masculine identity, he had the ability to be tender in such situations. He saw this as an important element of his work.
“Thank you for coming,” said the owner of the voice. Father James looked up. The face was youngish, with dark curly hair, fashionably styled, one earring in his left ear-lobe, and faintly familiar, though that really was not possible. In the short time he’d been in the town, he had not met many people. Father James stared.
The face stared back. “Do I know you?” the young man said.
“No.” Father James’ reply was rapid. He put on his stole, murmuring the appropriate prayers. Did she want to make a confession? What could the poor woman ever have done? A bit of shoplifting, an untruth or two, even infidelity in her youth? What were these compared to wars, corruption, wholesale injustice in the world? A long sigh came from the woman. She closed her eyes before he had come to the end of the ritual. He knew she had died.
“I think she has gone,” he murmured to the young man. Finishing the prayers, he made the sign of the cross and looked at the young man. “I am so sorry. But see how peaceful she is. She is smiling. You must ring the doctor now. Pull the sheet over her face.”
The young man obeyed. “Can I get you a drink?” he said. The sentence was bald, without the deferential title.
“Sure,” said Father James taking off the stole and following the young man out of the room. “I do know you, I remember now.”
“You were at St Agnes’ parish, weren’t you? You and Fr Luke, you were great friends, weren’t you? For years, wasn’t it?”
“Fifteen years.” Father James found himself in another room, no more brilliantly lit than the bedroom. “I thought no one knew.”
“I heard that the Bishop knew. Was that why you and Father Luke were both shifted?”
“It was.” Father James took the glass of whiskey the young man held out to him. “I was ordered to leave and come here.”
“It’s not right, is it? What’s the harm in love? I thought we were supposed to be about love, we Christians. What happened to Father Luke?”
“He was ordered up north, to Newcastle.”
The young man thought for a moment. “You conducted my boyfriend’s funeral, didn’t you?” he said. “You were so kind. You made sure his parents couldn’t exclude me from everything. I was so grateful.”
Father James recalled the funeral. This occasion, he suspected, had been the occasion which had alerted the Bishop.
The young man sipped his drink thoughtfully for a few moments. “I know I shouldn’t say it, but I’m in a way, glad she’s gone, Mam. It was hard work keeping it from her, you know? She would have been so angry and upset. I feel guilty.”
“There’s no need for guilt, not on your part. God made you the way you are. Guilt is for those who cannot accept these things and make others suffer for being themselves. Rules, you see, more important to some people, than care, compassion, that sort of thing.”
“Maybe you should leave,” said the young man.
Maybe he should, Father James thought, and not for the first time. It would be so easy to walk out of this place and make his way to Newcastle…
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© 2016 Maggie Redding
Maggie’s novels, for women of all ages, are available from Amazon. She moved to Ramsgate in 1998 from Wales, via West Cork and Worcester.