Everyone knows that all Catholic priests are raving, slavering drunkards — even the teetotal ones — so you carefully set your tumbler of whiskey down behind a large photograph on the mantelpiece before you answer the front door of the Parochial House. You take an extra moment to adjust the angle of the cheap gilt frame to hide the small drop of well-watered Powers completely. Pope Francis doesn’t seem to mind, his expression behind the glass doesn’t change. His Holiness’s benign smile says to you, never mind my child, if I had to serve in that shithole parish of yours, I’d have a snifter myself, the odd time. Not a big man for the condemnation, nor for letting fly the first stone, is Francis, more of a live-and-let-live fella, like yourself.
In earlier years you wouldn’t have hidden the alcohol, not when Tómas O’Fiach was Cardinal of all Ireland— a jovial big lad, out celebrating at the opening of every envelope in the Diocese — and no-one thought twice of a priest hopping in his car to administer the last rites with a few drops taken. Those days are gone though, and you pause with your hand on the doorhandle to crunch a Polo mint. You’re not a big drinker and you’ve nothing to hide, but you’re sick to the back teeth of snide remarks and snarky glances, so why attract another one?
“Am I disturbing you, Father? I could come back later?”
A civil greeting anyway, that’s good. You haven’t a clue who the young lad is, and you don’t bother trying to guess. You’ve always been hopeless with names, and back in the day, you’d have started an old rigmarole of asking after his parents and hoping desperately for some chink of light to fall on the mystery of your visitor’s name. There’s no need for those subterfuges these days, lads of this man’s vintage who darken the church door are as rare as hen’s teeth, so much so that you personally know every one of them, and all belonging to them. Apart from funerals, this fella probably hasn’t been in a church since the Passing Out Parade, or the Sacrament of Confirmation, as the primary school teachers still call it. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad lad, of course. Pope Francis smiles encouragingly.
“Come in, come in. Sure it’s only eight o clock. Let me turn off this noise.” Cringe. Should elderly priests really spend Saturday evenings watching Strictly Come Dancing? Who knows? Who cares these days? You’re sure your visitor has never even heard the phrase a vertical expression of a horizontal desire, and if his grandmother ever told him about Ireland’s priests preaching from the pulpit about the sins of Jazz, and close-dancing, he’d probably think she was making it up. As your hand hovers over the remote, Jess and Brian on Strictly strut like feral ponies, all white teeth and tossing locks, not like the starched and constipated look of ballroom dancers on the shows back in the 70s. You’ve been watching other people dance all your life, you’re sure you could have given good account of yourself, if it wasn’t for the bloody Roman collar and the lack of a partner.
“Will you take a cup of tea?” Your visitor has sprawled uninvited across an easy chair, legs falling apart from the crotch, taking up a huge amount of space. Your space. You wouldn’t want to share a bus seat with him. That’s another new thing for Irish people, this excessive taking up of space, this stating to the world, here I am; take me or leave me. Or more realistically, take me or fuck right off.
“G’wan, g’wan, g’wan,” he answers and you smile patiently, as if he is the first person in the twenty years since the first epsiode of Father Ted to make that joke. Father Ted has a lot to answer for, but at least the script-writers had the common sense to make the housekeeper an ugly old hag, with no designs on the terrified morality of the timid buck-eegit clerics she served. Humour always funniest when it’s close to the truth.
“Mrs Doyle has the night off,” you laugh through gritted teeth. “Will I wet a pot of tea? To be honest, I haven’t had a housekeeper for over ten years. I know where the kettle lives.”
“No, you’re grand Father, I’ll not be here for long.”
Well thank God, if he exists, for small mercies.
“What can I do for you?” You finally remember that he is probably at the same disadvantage as yourself. You stick out your hand and he shakes it clumsily, still seated. “I’m Father Anthony O’Donovan, should be long since retired, but still holding the fort here, in the absence of a younger man. Do me a favour, and tell me you’re here to discuss your vocation to the priesthood or deaconate. I could do with a hand.” You laugh to show that you know you’re being ridiculous and after a moment your visitor shrugs off his appalled look and tries to remember whatever manners he once knew.
“You’re gas, Father. No such luck here. I’ll have to work for my living, not join the priesthood.” He smiles to take the sting out of it, but you’re past caring. Are you literally going to have to ask this fool for his name and his business? The adverts must be well over by now and the second half of Strictly is always where the competition comes down to the wire.
“Can you tell me why you’re here, my child? Or do you need more time?” Have you never heard of the Samaritans, you big lummox? They’ve a hape of specially trained listeners if all you want to do is sit in silence and waste a body’s time!
“God, no. Sorry. I’m right, now.” He pauses and you fear he’s going to lapse into silence again, but eventually a dark-red flush travels up from the open collar of his shirt, and stains the whole of his stubbled face. “Em, it’s confession, you see, Father. I’d like to go to Confession.”
“Confession?” You genuinely cannot remember the last time a parishioner came to the Parochial House looking for an out-of-hours confession. It used to be old dears, rushing up with their semi-imaginary sins, and four terrifying times, during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, it had been shaking, palefaced, bloodstained men, vomiting out their awful deeds, pouring their pain into your heart and soul, and you had known even as you spoke the words of absolution over them that you were partaking in a charade, that despite their honest repentance, they were doomed now, doomed to repeat their crimes when ordered, or to die for refusing to do so.
You take a careful look at your penitent’s face, in case you need to describe him to the cops later, and you check his boots and clothes, but they are clean and show no signs of dirty work. He just looks — ordinary. Normal hair, normal clothes, normal. He hasn’t fallen for this pathetic new fad of donning a Victorian waistcoat partnered with a bun in his hair and the beard of an Old Testament patriarch. Nor has he shaved his head and covered his arms and throat with swirling, interlinked, vaguely Celtic tattoos. He looks like a lad who might be on the second-string football team at Clan na nGael GAA club.
“You know, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available on Friday evenings, before the devotions —” you begin, but he cuts you off abruptly.
“Tonight, Father, it has to be tonight.” You sigh. “And then I need you to write me a letter confirming that I done it.”
“I need a letter tomorrow, confirming that I done my confession tonight, otherwise I won’t get my papers and the girlfriend will have my guts.”
“What papers? I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Your girlfriend hates your guts?”
He sighs and drags himself into an approximation of a respectful posture.
“I’m sorry Father, I’ll start at the start. The girlfriend and me is getting married. She’s hankering for a baby, nothin’ll do her but up the aisle and straight into the maternity ward nine months later.”
“Have you thought seriously about it? That’s a big step?”
“Ach we’re together eight years, she’s had her days drinking prosecco through a straw and dancing on the table. Now she wants the ring and the baby.”
“And she wants them in that order? How unusual.” You didn’t mean to say that out loud, but it seems to wash over him and off again without making any impact at all. You don’t deserve a punch in the face for that remark, not really, but it wouldn’t be the first time an old, lone priest was done over in his Parochial house and not missed until first Mass in the morning.
“Look, it’s simple. We’ve one day over us on the pre-marriage course and the final day’s tomorrow and I need to do the confession and get the proof that it’s done.”
“Why here? Why now? Surely the Sacrament of Reconciliation was offered you today, as part of the preliminary proceedings?” You wish they’d stop messing around with the names of everything, chopping and changing. The old grey cells of the old grey heads in your congregation can’t keep up with the tiny subtle alterations in the creeds and responses at mass any more, it’s like the Tower of Babel with half of them on the Vatican II responses, and half on the new ones, and the children and sulky teenagers never open their mouths at all. At least sacrament of reconciliation has a chance of catching on, unlike sacrament of penance, everyone hated that version.
“Look Father, there’s no way on God’s earth I’m doing my confession and then having Laura going straight in after me to the same priest and him looking at her, and thinking, what the fuck are you doing with your life, wee girl?”
“Well, surely the priest in charge should have reassured you on that front. The secrets of the confessional are sacred unto the grave. He would never have said anything. Nor would he have wanted to. The confessor is merely a channel between the repentant penitent and the eternal, boundless mercy of God, not a judge, jury or executioner.”
“Yeah, right.” He hasn’t apologised for swearing in front of you, or else he doesn’t even know how inappropriate it was.
“My child —” and then suddenly curiosity gets the better of you, and you just can’t keep up the pretence any longer. “Listen, son, you want me to hear your confession. Give me two ticks.”
You bustle back in about four minutes later, robed and ready, more than half expecting to find him gone, along with the silver candlesticks (which aren’t actually silver) and your wallet, which you have stupidly left in your jacket pocket on the back of a chair. But he is lolling in the armchair, waiting.
You sit down beside him and wonder what the hell is coming next. He looks at you blankly, so you prompt him, and hope it all comes flooding back. But it doesn’t.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” you start, but he doesn’t know the next part.
“How long is it since your last confession?”
“Oh right, yeah. It must be ten years.”
“Ten years? You’re younger than you look!”
“You’re right, Father. It must be sixteen or seventeen years. First year in the College, I’d guess.”
“When you were about eleven years old?”
“I’d say so.”
“And never since?”
“Never felt the need to be honest.”
“Because you have a personal relationship with God and feel you don’t need the mediator of a priest?”
“What? Shit. No. I mean, sorry. What? Look, I just don’t think I ever done anything you could call a sin.”
“Well, that’s great.” You pause and try to digest that piece of information. “So why didn’t you go to confession this morning with the priest at the course inside in town. Was it Father Manus?”
“Big, round, beardy fella? A bird’s nest poking out of each nostril?”
You snort, but try to change it into a cough. “That’s the one. Why didn’t you just tell him you’d nothing on your conscience? Or make something up?”
“Lie to a priest? Lie in the confession box?” You’re surprised at the tone of shock, as if you had offered to stab his mother, or suggested helping him to gouge the banklink machine out of the wall of Ulster Bank with a JCB. What the hell does this fella want? Is it just the bit of paper as he says, or could it possibly be the absolution and soul-cleansing he’s after?
“Well look, I’m here now, my child. I don’t know how you found me, or what brings you out here to the side of this windy hill, when there’s priests a lot closer to Omagh than I am, but I’m here, so let’s do it. Do you know the Act of Contrition?”
He shakes his head so you guide him through the children’s version, and he repeats it line for line. You can see the recollection coming back to him in places, and he looks quite pleased with himself when he blurts out the final words without prompting. Then silence.
“I didn’t love God when…” you hint.
He looks at you through half-closed eyes as though you’ve suddenly sprouted satanic horns, until realisation sinks in.
“I didn’t love God when…” He stops. “I feel a bit thick doing this.” You nod and smile. The dancers have finished anyway, you’ll have to watch it online tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, you might actually be able to help this young man, and Laura, start off in their new lives, unencumbered, shrived and psychologically sound. It would feel good to think you mattered, that you still can justify your existence.
“Look Father, there’s no point beating around the bush.” He rubs his hands across his eyes and brow like a much older man and drops his gaze. “It’s a sex-thing. I wouldn’t necessarily have been completely faithful over the years, like.”
“Well, eight years is a long time, I suppose and you would have been very young…”
“Well, yes, there’s that, I suppose.”
“So you want to clear your conscience of the weight of thinking about how you betrayed your fiancée. And the other girl, of course. I mean, it wasn’t fair on her either.”
“Well. I want the absolution. And I want the letter.”
“Yes. I can see how you wouldn’t want to start a marriage with this hanging over you.”
“So, you’re sorry for your youthful indiscretions, and you resolve never to sin in this way again, and remain faithful, and that’s the right frame of mind for any young man embarking on matrimony.”
He should jump on that. You practically patted his shoulder and told him he was a great fella. He should be looking you in the eye by now and declaring before God that he’s feeling a million dollars, and it won’t be another seventeen years before he comes back the next time. But he isn’t. You follow the line of his stare, and his eyes are fixed on the toes of your shoes, cheap and not particularly comfortable, but shiny and black and recently polished.
“When was the last time you saw this girl?” you ask, and the heart within you is sinking like the lead weights on the eel-fishing nets of Lough Neagh.
“Last week? For fuck’s sake!” That raises his eyes alright, he jumps and shifts in the seat. “I’m sorry, I mean, you gave me a shock, that’s all. Last week. And do you love this girl?”
“Of course I love her. Sure we’re getting married in six weeks.”
“The other one, you big amadan. For God’s sake, give me patience. Do you love this other girl?”
He laughs. Whatever you were expecting, self-recrimination, shame, even accusations that he was being led astray, you weren’t expecting laughter.
“Of course not. Will you catch yourself on? Sure she’s not even a real woman.”
And now you are truly out of your depth, you’ve heard some crazy stuff over the years, but what are you going to say to this man? This pervert?
“A doll, you mean? Is it one of those inflatable sex dolls?” Please, please God, let it be a doll. You’ve seen adverts for them in the back of various magazines decades ago, but now apparently all that sort of stuff happens online. Don’t let it be some kind of robot? Do such things exist yet? Oh Christ, don’t let it be…an animal?
“No Father. Jesus. No. I’m not some kind of pervy freak. It’s not a doll. It’s, you know…”
“I certainly do not.”
“It’s a business relationship.”
“You work with her?”
“For Christ’s sake. Do I have to spell it out? They’re working girls. Prossies.”
You sink back in your seat. What the hell is he doing here?
“They? They? You’re seeing prostitutes and you’re getting married in six weeks?” Your forehead sinks into the palm of your right hand and you can barely bring yourself to ask, horrified by your own pragmatism. “Apart from anything else, what if you catch something? What if you give a disease to your wife? Or the unborn child?”
“Ah now, Father, do you think I came down the Bann River in a bubble? There’s such a thing as condoms, you know. And the girls look after themselves. I mean they’re not street-walkers.”
You hold up your hand. You honestly don’t want to know any more. “Listen. I’m heading for seventy-five years old. I don’t want to talk about what you do to these poor misfortunate women.”
“Ach, they’re grand, Father. The minders look after them ok.” He glances down and you can see he has started twisting his fingers together. “Well, there was one girl last month wouldn’t stop crying, but usually they’re grand.”
You look over to Francis for help. Christ you need that whiskey now, and another stronger one to wash it down.
“Are you telling me you had intercourse with a prostitute who was crying? Is that what you’re saying?” When it’s obvious there’s no answer coming you continue. “Why didn’t you stop? Why didn’t you do something? You could have called the police.”
“She told me not to stop. She said she was sorry, she’d be ok the next time, and to keep going and not to give her a bad review.”
“Well, I think that’s what she said. She was a wee foreign girl, with a thick enough accent.”
You stagger to your feet and pull the stole off from round your neck, its weight feels like it will bear you to the ground. In your left trouser pocket is a cheap, tinny rosary-ring. You have got in the habit of carrying these rings around with you, because the children and grandchildren of your parishioners are now so divorced from the church that you often turn up at a wake to discover that the corpse has no rosary entwined between its fingers, and that the whole extended family can’t rustle up one set of beads between them. You pull out the ring and slip it on your finger, just for the superstitious comfort it might give you.
He is looking at you as if he doesn’t realise that you are not the one who has gone crazy. The world has gone mad, the whole boiling lot of them, and he’s the worst. At last your questing, searching fingers close around the cut glass tumbler and you pour the whole lot down in two gulps. It is more than half water, anyway.
“I don’t know what you want, or why you came here. It’s time to go.”
“You’re behind the times, Father. It’s just a job. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, like. It’s just a service industry, like any other.”
“They’ve nothing to be ashamed of, you’re probably right. But you.” Your voice shakes and you turn to the sideboard to claim the bottle of Powers, no water this time, as it rattles a shaky staccato on the rim of the glass. “What the hell is wrong with you? You’ve a woman wants to marry you, and you’re messing around with prostitutes. Isn’t one woman enough for you?”
He laughs and you clench the glass so hard you think it might shatter in your hand, but it is full-lead Tyrone crystal, from the factory in Dungannon, tempered at thousands of degrees Celsius and it withstands the puny heat of your fury.
“For Christ’s sake, it’s not the same thing at all.” He pauses for a moment to clarify, in his own mind, exactly why it is not the same thing at all. “I mean, you wouldn’t do that kind of stuff to a real woman.”
The heavy tumbler catches him right on the cheekbone. Thank God there is no bleeding, although if you still had a housekeeper it would be hard to explain the whiskey splashes all over the heavily patterned wallpaper. There is even a splash on the face of the Sacred Heart, which catches the light of the red votive lamp below and glows eerily, as though Jesus is crying blood.
He barely touches the side of his face, reddening now, and you wonder if anyone saw him arrive here. If they come tomorrow morning and find you lying in a pool of your own blood, with the Sacred Heart, and his Blessed Mother on the other wall, staring impassively down, will they trace him, and arrest him? Maybe that would be the best way to save Laura from this marriage. Or maybe you should ring young Manus McDermott and say, fuck the seal of the confessional, wait til you hear this.
His fingers stop their probing. It doesn’t look too bad to you, his eye isn’t even swelling, he’ll probably just have a big, easily explained-away bruise. Can’t he say he walked into a door? Isn’t that what the women of the parish used to say to you, forty years ago, and you thought they were stupid, clumsy oafs of women altogether.
He steps towards you and you cringe backward and wish to hell the door was closer, or the mobile phone. He reaches out a hand, and lifts his carkeys from where you have not noticed them, thrown on an occasional table, and turns to leave.
“I take it I’m not getting my letter, then?” he asks, “I’ll take your advice and go to confession tomorrow and tell bushy-nose a pack of lies, then. Hypocrisy. I can’t stand hypocrisy. But look where the truth gets you.”
You watch as the living embodiment of hypocrisy leaves the room, not even slamming the door, and quietly drives off into the night.
You turn to the mantelpiece, gripping it with white knuckles and lay your head on the cooling slab of marble. Pope Francis says to you, clear as day, “Fuck sake, Antonio, get yourself another glass and fill it. And have one for me.”