Pausing, only in his mind, to squeeze Sister Mary Bartholomew to his chest and whisper, ‘Who luvs ya baby?’ Father Michael Devine made his way to the confessional. Equipped with his stole, breviary, vacuum flask, and digestive biscuits he was ready for business.
He hated doing confessions at the convent. As a silent, enclosed order the list of possible sins was distinctly limited. But, as this was one of the few opportunities the good ladies had to converse, it was inevitable that they should indulge in a little embellishment to preserve the interview. With precise feet, he eased his way up the aisle. In his own church, his movements were swift and breezy. Familiarity with the Supreme Being made him nonchalant in His presence, but the sisters had certain standards. They demanded every movement was coloured by a professional solemnity, so he was their black chameleon.
Like a jury, the bent, black queue knelt, ready to imprison him. Before facing them, he genuflected to a small altar, crossed himself – and turned. Then they were before him. Each wimpled brow leaned floorwards, eyes watching fingers, rosaries rotating. Still, Father Devine had no interest in the faces; he felt personal involvement should be avoided in sacramental matters.
Good Friday; he shouldn’t be here. He’d heard their confessions on Wednesday. With a full week’s sinning behind them the nuns’ offences weren’t worth the breath he used absolving them. Today would be an interminable monotony of invention, as the nuns searched their sterile lives for a bacterium of sin; and found themselves guilty only of being guiltless.
Father Devine despised Holy Week.
This wasn’t the reason he’d become a priest. In the seminary, he’d always been recognised as an outstanding student. He’d revelled in the intellectual crossfire of theology, using Saint John or Tom Paine with equal delight to splinter his friends upon the rack of ethical morality.
His mind filled the dark box with memories of his first parish. He’d been sent as an assistant to Father Thornley, and had felt satisfied there. Many evenings he’d sat in the presbytery and destroyed the old man’s simple philosophies; debasing his observations of life with Greek and Latin quotations. Those were good days. It had been real parish, a city parish. Now he sat, waiting for the first empty doll to come in and begin her mechanical dialogue. He’d wanted so much more; expected it. He’d gained a distinction in sociology.
Then the door opened. A shuffling of garments was followed by a soft voice. ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been forty-eight hours since my last confession…’
As the sister magnified peccadilloes, Father Devine’s mind wandered on a secular romance of axe murders, narcotics, bodies in bridge foundations, lace-clad girls with stilettoes tucked in their suspenders, and various bodily appendages distributed via the Royal Mail.
‘That’s all, Father.’ The nun apologised and lapsed into silence.
Father Devine paused. He always made them wait upon his judgement. The excitement did them good. ‘Go out and whip your naked body with a barbed thong, then rub salt and cinders into the wounds with a horsehair glove. And may God have mercy on your leprous soul,’ he thought. But his mouth said ‘Two Hail Marys sister, and say a prayer for me.’
Sister followed sister, each the same as the last. Sin upon sin was breathed onto the grill, but none penetrated to touch the priest. Steadfastly, he ignored all opportunities to talk. Often he was elsewhere, as his mind amused itself trying to invent the ultimate penance. Still the time dragged out hatefully. Two and a half hours of trivia eked by. The flask was empty and the digestive biscuits were reduced to a pile of crumbs in the lap of his cassock. He had hardly heard a sin he’d pardoned. Blankly he stared, forgetting where he was and thinking of last night. On Thursday evenings he dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, and went for a drink with the lads. The lads were the young priests who worked locally, most had been at his seminary. Each week they met in the same upstairs bar, around the same table, drinking beer and swapping stories. Last night they’d all been late after making their annual act of humility; washing feet. At least the bunions and grimy toenails had given Father Devine a platform. Weaving stories from talcum powder and foot odour, using grains of truth he’d built an illusion, like a conjuror. He’d felt good with all the eyes upon him. This was what he excelled at, what it had always been like, before he was re-assigned; before he’d begun to sit toward the ends of table and men like Colm had eased towards the centre.
Father Devine had always been a admired raconteur, but now he found himself more and more a listener while others took his role. Oh, Colm was interesting, amusing even, but he just told bare facts. He lacked Father Devine’s power of seizing upon tragedy and human weakness and distilling them into entertainment. Given half a story Colm was no match for him. But his work was just too much of a handicap. He was a lonely wanderer in a desert of veniality. Over the months he had felt his purpose in life being eroded. How could he enthral an audience with stories of a nun’s jealousy about another sister’s skill at embroidery?
Isolation fuelled his mind with nostalgia, and it travelled back to Saint Dominic’s; plenty of life there, and he’d watched all go by with a rare interest. What a mix of people crawled along those streets. Sandwiched between slum clearance and the dock gates, Saint Dominic’s had provided a show he’d never guessed existed. His world had been neat, with trees, and God, and Mass. Aged twelve he was deemed to have heard the Lord’s voice and entered the seminary, where, distanced from distractions, he was taught about theology, and Mass, and life. Then he had been in the thick of it, humanity and violence, intrigue and sin; while the privilege of his black shirt and white collar allowed him to walk all over this scurrying colony untouched, unless he chose to pet a child. He’d felt like a real priest then. So much to talk about. He was never ignored. Not like today.
Where were the men like Mahon now? How he’d had the lads crying with laughter at the tales of the tiny figure cycling between his wife and two mistresses, all in various stages of pregnancy. What a picture he’d painted of this bantam of a man on his bicycle, wispy red hair trailing behind him, and never sitting on the saddle, due to the tenderness of his equipment. He’d excelled himself with that yarn, especially when he’d embarked upon the old parish priest’s imaginary monologue with himself, torn between admonishing Mahon for his infidelity, and praising him for so strictly following papal pronouncements on contraception -and maintaining a Catholic population in an increasingly pagan world. Boredom had been a stranger to him then. Thursdays had been great.
As he speculated on the brevity of his stay at Saint Dominic’s, he was oblivious to the parallelogram of light clicking shut yet again. Another shadowy figure knelt behind the purple curtain, its head quartered by a crucifix. Father Devine uttered a heartfelt prayer. ‘Are there many waiting Sister?’
‘No Father, I’m the last. ‘Another monotone mumbled the magic formula, and the priest awaited more selections from the convent’ s small catalogue of offences.
‘In a premeditated way Father, I have abused a sacrament. One of my sins is lying in confession.’
Surprised into attention Father Devine leaned towards the grill.
‘For many months now I have said That’s all Father, but it has not been all. In fact it’s been almost nothing. The truth is that I have been regularly enjoying a passionate and deeply carnal affair with a muscular young man, who came last Spring to repaint the outside of the chapel. The first touch was accidental – at least on my part. I was strolling in the small flower garden. It was a lovely day and I wanted to feel alive before I faced my silent sisters at lunch. I remember thinking it would be grand if I could just sit down, hitch up my skirts and roll down my thick black stockings to feel the sun’s warm fingers on my legs, like I used to as a girl. No one was watching, so I sat on the grass anyway. I thought I was alone, until I saw his figure sprawled beneath a ladder. He’s fallen, I thought and felt inadequate. I was afraid of his injuries – and his shorts.
Slowly, I crept over and knelt before his almost naked body, and touched his cheek to see if he was conscious. He was sunbathing; and when his smiling eyes opened, and he joked about my soft hands.’ Her voice dissolved upon the memory.
Father Devine’s mouth moved, but his mind was unable to give it words. None of the stock phrases applied and reality smothered his imagination. Avidly he stared at the silhouette, waiting. His only desire was to know what happened next. Sensing the shock she had created, the nun spoke into the silence.
‘In the privacy of the tool store, at the far end of the vegetable plot, we experienced each other regularly and totally for a number of months. Do you know Father, for years I’d lain in my dark cell knowing no one else’s touch but my own; dreaming of a man’s hand’s, trying to imagine the sensation; and here he was hands and more. An answer to a prayer you might say.’
Once more her tale was interrupted and, after a pause, Father Devine heard a sound which he took to be muffled weeping. Calling up every fibre of his professionalism he felt compelled to be magnanimous.
‘It …. ,’ his voice cracked, so he started again. ‘It is a blessing that you have come here to ask God’s forgiveness.’ His words fell like bricks. Shuffling solid seminary platitudes, he was unable to arrange a wall of self-protection.
‘Think of the parable of the lost sheep, Sister. That will give you … reassurance. It is a credit to your faith that… that you have … laid aside this man, and … to your self control.’
‘Self-control, my arse, Father. Laid aside this man. He’ s gone, or I’d be laid under him, not here. Two weeks ago he came to me, as usual, and afterwards, quite conversationally, mentioned that he was moving into a flat with his girlfriend and this was to be his last visit.
In confusion I wept that I needed him, but as I gripped him sobbing, his next remark drove out every emotion except one. He said he’d arrange, for one of his friends to come instead of him, so that would be alright. Keep your frustration at bay,’ he said. ‘Keep you relaxed. ‘
Then he lay back on a pile of sacks and closed his eyes. I just stared at him until I heard his smug snores. Then I used a mallet to hammer the screwdriver into his ear. He didn’t bleed much, and it was never really his mind I was interested in. It was dark outside, and no one would come down from the convent at that time of night, so I set to work. For three hours I sweated to dig a hole deeper than the gardeners ever go. The soil is always being freshly turned over there, so by the time I’d spread out the earth his body had replaced you couldn’t notice a thing.
I think that’s all Father…Unless you need to hear about me entertaining a little resentment against Sister …’
‘No, no. That won’t be necessary, ‘the priest stammered. Then ,clinging to his office like a straw, he said, ‘Now make a good act of contrition for your sins.’ His lips mumbled unconscious words, as his mind tried to absorb what he had just heard. It was an uneven struggle and, unaware that he had finished speaking, he was suspended in silence.
‘Father, my penance,’ reminded the nun, in quiet voice.
‘For your penance say…say…say…Three Hail Marys, and say a prayer for me, Sister.’
Instead of slinking away with a respectful ‘Thank you Father,’ the nun spoke again.
‘Do you know Father I don’t think I’ll be saying that penance at all. I don’t give a damn about your absolution. I just wanted to see what punishment your finely trained mind felt to be compatible with my sins. The finest fruits of two thousand years of human experience and divine guidance: Three Hail Marys. Still Father maybe you shouldn’t punish me. After all I haven’t really killed him. I’ve worked a miracle. The miracle of the resurrection. Next Spring I’ll make him rise again, and we’ll all be able to receive him, body and blood, as his flesh rots to nourish the cabbages. Then he’ll live again in the sisters. Tell me, Father, does church law classify letting a man enter your body in the form of a cabbage as a technical loss of virginity?’
Again there was silence, but the nun made no offer to break Father Devine’s unease.
Eventually his timid voice staggered, ‘When will you be leaving the convent Sister?’
‘Leaving? Oh, I won’t be leaving, Father. No, I couldn’t leave my man behind. I must be faithful.’
‘Why shouldn’t I stay? I think I’m well suited to the work. Granted I won’t raise my heart to God, but my head will bow and my lips move at all the right times, and really isn’t that all that’s required?
Three Hail Marys, Father,’ she derided. ‘I’m not sure who has the least imagination – You for that penance, or God for thinking you’d make a priest.’
The door opened, and light briefly invaded the box, before darkness reclaimed the space.
Father Devine’s mind gasped like an athlete forced beyond the limits of his inadequate training. Hours evaporated as he tried to tear answers from his personal experiences, and Greek and Latin quotations. But he’d never used them compassionately for others and they were useless to him now. So he sat, adrift in the dark, untouched by time. It was the chapel bell that jolted him back into reality. And when, finally, he emerged, the nuns were gathered for their Good Friday liturgy; ready to mourn the death of their saviour. In the face of his revealed self, he retreated behind the shield of his priesthood. Then, he genuflected and prepared, once again, to ply his trade beneath the red light. As he walked towards the altar, his eyes searched the anonymous rows. Not an eye glimmered, nor a cheek reddened; and he knew that he would never know.
And worse, that he could never tell.