He had quoted from one of the
Narnia chronicles, something she could clearly remember reading once, from
Prince Caspian, in which Lucy, faced with a difficult river journey, asks Aslan
to promise she will be safe and Aslan cannot promise. The priest had said that
this was the meaning of faith: to go forth without a promise of anything. Mary
had been astonished by him and by what she was listening to in the small bright
chapel in Paris. During the week she had thought of his sermon often. And of how
she had been encouraged by it not to dwell on the thing she had done, that
‘sin’ for which she knew she was truly sorry. She had cried in the church, but
was somehow able to choke back the tears so that Susan and Yves and the
children would not see. Though Tristan, Susan’s oldest, had seen.
Mary had not wanted to go to the service at all. For what kind of Catholic was she? Beyond lapsed, that was certain. Nonetheless, she went again with Susan and family on the following Sunday. This time she did not like the homily: something about St. Paul and the Jews which she hated because it smacked of anti-Semitism and she felt uncomfortable listening to it and had wanted to walk out. Tristan also saw this reaction in her, her face reddening with rage at the words spoken by the pompous-sounding reader who’d come up to the altar, and her nephew had nudged her, playfully. But then when he began to speak, Father Cal astonished her again. It was not what he said, but how. A couple and their children had been making noise in the front row and though people were openly telling them to hush, they continued. Rather than raise his voice above the rattle of the children and their equally distracted parents, Father Cal did the opposite: his voice quietened, so that Mary began to hear birdsong from outside in the courtyard, and it became the job of those amassed in the chapel to hear Father Cal and not his to reach out to them.
But then, Father Calum O’Neil had been always astonishing. A brilliant student, he shocked his family in his late-teens by declaring his vocation to God. The journey from seminary to curate in a small town in Tyrone to this Paris posting had taken him a mere fifteen years. Fluent in several languages, he had almost completed a PhD at Aberystwyth University and had published several papers, two books. He pursued brilliance and it, seemingly, had pursued him. He would only be in the city for a few months, had broken off his PhD studies to cover for the elderly chaplain whose brethren was this group of mostly Irish ex-pats, some of whom lived in the suburbs but who travelled all the way in by car or train each Sunday to attend the English-language mass in Trinite d’Estienne d’Orvres in the 9th arrondissement.
On the third Sunday, Susan decided they should all stay for the after-service tea and cake. The tea was from home and the cake was a freshly baked tea-brack. (Each Sunday an army of mostly middle-aged women - African, Irish, French - who worked voluntarily for the Church, would swan into the courtyard at the commencement of the service and silently dress and set the table, so that when the worshippers emerged a glorious spread would be ready for them as if by magic.)
Tristan nudged Mary as the priest finally appeared, his white and golden robes now gone in favour of a pale-blue short-sleeved shirt and dog-collar. He walked purposefully towards the congregation of thirty or so people gathered about the long table beneath the metal and glass awning of the chapel. Mary was about to chastise her nephew for teasing her yet again when Father Cal sidled up to them and stuck out his hand. She met Father Cal’s hand with hers and flashed a look up at him. She quietened the nervous movement of her mouth by biting her teeth together, even though she knew this action made her look old.
‘Susan’s sister?’ Father Cal said.
‘Yes,’ Mary answered.
‘Bonjour, Père Cal,’ Tristan said.
‘Bonjour Tristan,’ the priest said, and smiled. He ran his hand through the boy’s hair in a rough but playful manner. Tristan laughed and ran towards another boy who was kicking a white football by a large pink-flowered chestnut tree at the back of the courtyard.
‘I’m Mary,’ Mary said.
‘How long are you in Paris for?’ he asked. She shuffled uncomfortably as she was not sure for how long she would continue to be in the city - but knew her sister’s invitation to have a change, forget about what had happened at home, was certainly not an open one. At most, Mary thought, they will only be able to stick me another month.
‘A month or so,’ Mary said. She noticed again how trim and compact the priest’s body looked. He had the build of a wiry sportsman – a footballer or hurler, perhaps – with no fat on him, and he was not weak. She had studied him carefully this past two Sundays as he bounded about the chapel before mass, nimbly laying out the prayer books and song sheets. He would chat to the choirmaster or to women with babies; he was efficient and quick, as if he had come, maybe, from small-farm people, or shop owners.
‘Are you on holidays, Mary?’
‘No, I…well, yes, that’s it. A holiday,’ she replied. Suddenly, a crowd of young students gathered about the priest. They knew him. There was amongst them a mixture of Irish and French accents and they seemed to be asking if they could sing something. Father Cal spoke at turns in French and English to the youths, who, with increasing enthusiasm, insisted he join them in a song. And so he was swept away from her as quickly as he had come. Mary returned to her sister and Yves who were now drinking the Irish tea and chatting to another couple, the Bradleys, the husband of which was an ex-priest who, Mary was surprised to learn the previous week, had been living in Paris for thirty years without having once returned to Ireland.
As the group with Father Cal began to sing in a clear and precise acappella – some song she recognised but could not name – and Susan and Yves continued their conversation with the Bradleys about all the things they hated about life in France, the Conservatism, the rise of the Right – before going full-circle then and praising the healthcare and labour laws of the country, Mary saw a long, lean-limbed youth on roller skates turn gently into the courtyard from the street. She watched as he eyed the crowd while surreptitiously gliding along the flat, curving path opposite. Mary presumed the youth would continue along the concreted rim of the buildings and exit via the far side of the enclosure, by the chestnut trees, where there was a small wooden door that opened onto the street.
She cast her eye over at Father Cal, now sitting at the head of the table with the students and singers from the choir. The bottom of the tablecloth flapped lightly in the warm breeze. He represented something for them, she felt. Like some sporting or political hero of old, perhaps like the ones their parents or grandparents had spoken of. He was the Church reinvented: all short-sleeved modernity and lightness. Though she wasn’t sure if she trusted such casualness on a priest, as if it was a pose, designed or suggested by the Church itself - especially as it came from a man she had just observed be so canny and focused inside in the mass.
Mary turned and found herself alone with Terence Bradley. His wife had gone to the table for more cake and when Mary looked across to locate Mrs Bradley so as to be saved from a conversation with her huge and awkward husband, she saw that the woman was caught up in another conversation with Susan. Mary struggled for something to say and remembered then the business Bradley had mentioned last time they had spoken, about never having gone home. She asked him about it and was shocked at the man’s candour. Bradley said that the people in his hometown in Offaly had referred to him as a ‘spoiled priest’ and that last time he was home he was so disturbed by this he never returned. He said it was an ecclesiastical term that had entered the language of the townsfolk, and that he felt branded by it, like an animal. Mary had heard the term before, many years ago. She thought it awful. But she would have liked to have said to Terence Bradley, in a way she wished she could say to herself, that if he were to go home now no one in his town would likely give a damn he’d once been in - or left - the priesthood. For wasn’t the place bursting to the seams these days with spoiled priests, with spoiled everythings? She would have liked to have said this, as a part of her believed it to be true. But only a part. For it occurred to Mary that despite the seismic changes that had happened at home in recent years (the decline in church attendance, the sexual openness), at some deeper level the place was almost impervious to change, and there were still many at home who believed that once a spoiled priest always a spoiled priest. Though she said nothing of this to Terence Bradley.
Joined by Susan and Yves, Mary turned from the chat between these ex-pats, who seemed to her much too interested in small town Ireland than was healthy for people who led such privileged lives in Paris. All the same, she noticed how lighter she felt after talking to Terence Bradley. She didn’t know how he’d done this to her. It was as if the man’s openness had liberated her somewhat from her own particular burden. Or perhaps it was Paris itself that had begun to soothe her, this ‘city of light’ in which, in recent weeks, she’d felt like a strange sort of castaway. She’d spent the whole of the previous week exploring by herself the gardens and lawns of the Jardin du Luxembourg, visiting the hothouses and menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes, found other smaller, more anonymous gardens in the city in which to sit and think and get her thoughts straight about what she had done at home, the wholesale stupidity of it.
‘Shall we go?’ Susan said. Mary nodded. Yves walked with the two younger children towards the car, parked outside on the road. Susan called to Tristan to come, and then made a dash for the toilets across from the chapel. As Mary waited for her sister outside the sleek grey-rendered cubicles, she heard a cry and raised voices. She looked around and saw that the boy who had strolled in on roller skates was now punching Tristan. He had the white ball clasped to his chest and Tristan was demanding it back. The smaller boy who owned the ball was crying at a distance from the two fighting.
‘Batard! Batard!’ Tristan shouted to the roller-skate boy. He screamed and screamed, as loud as a church bell. The acappella sputtered and stopped. Father Cal rushed across the gravelled courtyard towards Tristan, who was now lying, bleeding, on the ground. Mary ran quickly behind him, uncurled her nephew from his crouched position, checked him up and down for cuts and grazes as the priest rushed to the roller-skate boy who, she saw now, was more a man, about twenty years old - and rubbery looking, his skin moist and plump as a lizard. She called for Susan to come immediately out of the toilets and to Yves who was now outside on the street – hoping he might hear her. Then Father Cal astonished her again. He grabbed the roller-skate boy and thumped him, hard; lifted him in a scoop by the neck of his jumper and flung him out of the chapel courtyard, telling him to ‘fuck off home’, continuing furiously in what sounded like a Middle-Eastern language, or Arabic. Susan emerged from the grey cubicles and ran to her son. The young students were calling after the roller-skate boy and looking askance at the priest, as if they had never before seen him so ruffled and wild. With Tristan safe in his mother’s care, Mary walked slowly towards Father Cal who by now had wandered to the far wall of the yard. The noon sun tumbled onto the gravel as she walked; she felt her eyes fill with heat. Mary watched the priest fumble in his pocket, pull out a pack of cigarettes. She recognised the brand as ‘Major’ - strong, made at home: the broad green-striped box, the wine-coloured lettering. He wrenched a cigarette from the pack, lit up and sucked hard on it, pinching the tip towards his palm, between thumb and index finger. She wanted to ask if she should call the police, or how else she might be of help. Then she noticed, for the first time, the umber circles around the man’s eyes, the large beetle-like pupils.
‘You’re shook up, Father. Is there anything I can do for you?’ He nodded, slowly, eyeing her all the way as she made her approach along the wand of sunlight between them.
‘There is, Mary,’ he said. And she recognised then the look of despair in Father Cal’s eyes. ‘Would you have something to drink with me, maybe?’ he said. ‘Tonight?’ And Mary knew then that the person before her wasn’t really astonishing at all. He was just like her, floundering and lost and open to all the possibilities that this most intimate and forgiving of cities had to offer.