“You don’t know me, Father, do you?” the man beside
him asked. ”You know, I can always tell a priest or a policeman, even out of
He had squeezed in beside Tom as the train pulled
out of Connolly Station. He wore a checked suit which was too big for him
and that looked about twenty years out of date. Tom didn’t recognize him.
The man beside him said, “Do you not keep up with
the papers at all?”
“Well, yes, to an extent.” Tom said.
“I’m out!” the man said.
Out of the closet, was that what he was trying to
Tom tried to make an expressive gesture that would
somehow encompass this.
“God forgive you, Father. I'm Martin Kelly! Out of prison!”
“Do you not fukken believe me? Sorry, Father – sorry
for the language!”
“It’s all right,” Tom said.
“Sorry, Father, that place has me destroyed.”
The little girl opposite was watching them intently,
the mother pretending not to notice anything.
“I haven’t been to confession for a long time,” the
man said. “Do you know what happened the last time I tried to go?”
“Perhaps this is a private matter,” Tom said.
“A notice on the church door,” the man said. “When I
got there the place was deserted. And the notice said, ‘No confessions this
Saturday because of the visit to Ireland of His Holiness Pope John Paul
“That was over twenty years ago,” Tom said.
“And do you think that’s right, Father? Supposing
I’d died during the night? I haven’t been for thirty years. Will you hear me
confession now, Father?”
“No… I, please…”
“There’s a lot of queers in prison, Father…”
The woman opposite them gave Tom a look, pulled at
the little girl, then looked around as though trying to find another seat.
“I’d be grateful if you would, Father,” the man
said. “I’ve had this splitting headache all day. And I couldn’t get a
prescription for my beta-blockers. I went into this chemist shop, Father,
and I couldn’t find the prescription counter.”
Tom spread his hands. Rain still flecked the window.
He always felt it curiously comforting to look through a rain-streaked
window and watch the raindrops beat against it. The little girl had left a
small doll with orange hair behind on the seat.
“Young ones in white coats, Father, selling
cosmetics. Plastered with makeup. It was more like a knocking-shop, Father.”
“I am a sinner,” Tom told himself. “I am a sinner
He had had to admit to himself that his thoughts
were still full of her; she had come between him and his God, there was no
getting away from it. Three days ago he’d gone to the bishop with his parish
priest and, while everything that was said gave the impression he was in
good standing, if not actually in line for promotion, the looks that passed
between Bishop and parish priest, the occasional hesitations, told a
different story. He knew now that it had been a put-up job, a simulation of
due process. On some discreet signal which he’d missed, his parish priest,
face flushed under his mop of white hair, had left the somber parlor and Tom
was left to listen to the Bishop speak at length. He was told, although with
almost exaggerated gentleness and compassion, that he was being suspended,
pending an investigation of his involvement with a woman in the parish. Her
husband, from whom she was separated, had lodged a complaint.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” Tom said.
There was an unhealthy-looking pulse ticking at
Kelly’s right temple.
“I’m frightened of death, Father.”
Tom stood up and reached for his case. He took out
his stole and unfolded it.
“Can we do this in the toilet, Father?” the man
Tom’s hand trembled as he smoothed the stole
“I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I thought this was supposed to be confidential,”
the man said.
“On a crowded train?” Tom asked.
“Put it away Father,” the man said. “I’m only
“No, it’s all right…”
“Do you think there’s any truth in the rumor?”
“That there isn’t any God?”
Tom took a deep breath.
“Look, I’m not trying to be disobliging,” he said,
“but this is very difficult…”
“Father, could I see you tomorrow – do you know
“Which Cloneen is that?”
“The one near Claremorris – you know damn well which
Cloneen it is! You could hear my confession if I was in the area.”
Again, Tom reminded himself that he too was a
sinner. The Bishop would be reluctant to transfer him immediately, of
course, as the Bishop always held that more scandal was created by
precipitate action than by sitting tight and acting as if nothing had
happened. He claimed that this was a policy which had held the church in
good stead for centuries. This suspension was already so cloaked in the
euphemisms of nervous breakdown and unspecified illnesses as to be harmless
from an Episcopal point of view. Tom should beg the forgiveness of the
woman, too, of course, for he had committed a deep offence against her, and
had hurt her by becoming involved with her, and all the guilt was his, he
couldn’t adduce any of it to her.
His formal confession, of course, had been a
torture. He had no idea how some other priests could carry grievous sins for
decades, whether they confessed them or not, how they managed to say Mass.
He hadn’t yet made up his mind whether he would conceal his suspension from
his mother. She hadn’t wanted him to become a priest in the first place.
Tom hadn’t been allowed to break with the woman face
to face, even to write, and though he ached to speak to her, it wasn’t just
from honorable motives, but because he adored her. He was afraid he adored
her before God. He had been aware that occasionally priests did take
advantage of women with marital difficulties, or women who’d been abandoned,
even pious women who became besotted by the idea of priesthood. But he had
never intended this.
“There’ll be a welcoming party, Father,” the man
said. “Some of them don’t think I’m really guilty. I had to perjure myself
at the trial, but, sure, everyone has to do that!”
“God will forgive you,” Tom said.
“Will you stand in for the photograph?”
“Please,” Tom said, “my mother will be meeting me.”
“Sure, she can stand in it too, the more the
merrier,” the man said.
Some people were getting up now, swaying in the
aisle as they took down their cases, the train decelerating, beginning its
long approach to the station.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” the man was saying to his
mother on the platform, holding her hand in his, his other hand raised, as
if taking an oath. “As God’s my judge.”
All along the train, people were staring from the
windows at the small group of people that stood outside the waiting room.
One of them held a battered placard, the words almost faded away: “MARTIN
KELLY IS INNOCENT!” And a photographer was trying to line people up. It
looked such a happy group, and Tom thought what a potent contribution
family loyalty, small town solidarity, and perjury could make to Irish life.
His widowed mother was in her seventies now and she
looked tired, but pleased to see him.
She noticed men, evaluated them, and took more
interest in football, snooker, and men’s golf on the television than he
would have expected for a woman of her age. He knew he didn’t really
understand people very well at all.
“Not an unattractive man,” his mother said as they
walked from the station. “Hard to believe there’s any harm in him.
“Do you think he did it?”
“Oh, yes, I remember that case – he set fire to the
house while his wife was asleep.”
“He expresses repentance, but seems to have no
remorse,” Tom said. “Sometimes I wonder is there enough forgiveness to go
“Is that a revelation?” his mother asked.
“You used to have these revelations, remember? You
thought it was God.”
“God is a long way away,” he said.
How would Joan take it, he wondered, if he told her
they couldn’t meet again – ever. Would she understand? What would he do if
she were reluctant to accept it?
“Tom, there’s something wrong.”
He shook his head despairingly.
A garda car crossed the street and pulled up
beside them. The garda officer got out hurriedly, nearly tripping on
the footpath. He said urgently, “Father, please come back to the station.”
“Mother, you go on home,” Tom said.
“No, we’ll take you both home afterwards,” the
garda said. “Here, get in the back of the car.”
The police car accelerated up the gravel lane to the
station, the radio squawking incoherently – a woman’s voice, sounding harsh
“A lot of bad feeling, Father,” the garda
said, “you’ll be too late, I’d guess, but we had to try.”
Tom felt a sick feeling swell in his chest and
“Too many guns in this country,” the garda
said, “Someone stepped out of the crowd and put a gun to the back of his
head. Just the one shot.”
There was another garda car at the station
already and a small, drooling man with a cut on his forehead, blood running
from his nose onto his raincoat, was being forced into it. A group of men
and a couple of women who had followed them out were shouting abuse; a woman
was trying to grapple with one of the guards. An ambulance siren
could be heard in the near distance as Tom and the two guards clattered
across the bare boards past the ticket office and out on the platform, where
they forced their way through the crowd.
The gardas were trying to clear the platform,
shouting with rough country accents. Kelly was lying on the ground, his
shoes and the platform spattered with darkening blood. Someone had covered
him with a coat and pulled it up over his face. Tom knelt the fellow to give
him his last rites. He asked a garda, “Could you uncover his face?”
Was there any hope Kelly was still alive?
“The whole front of his face is gone,” the guard
“In God’s name, man, what were you doing?” the
Bishop demanded. “Were you drinking again?”
“No, that’s all finished with.”
“Don’t you know the way the numbers have fallen off.
How many people did you have at confession the last... time… the last time
you heard confession?
“I’ve tried to explain,” Tom said.
“You refused the man. We’ve the testimony of the
woman on the train.”
“No, it wasn’t like that”
“Oh, wasn’t it? What an opportunity that would have
been! To show… the efficacy of the Sacrament. The sinner returned! That the
church is still relevant!”
“But I did try, my Lord.”
“And now we’ve a full-blown scandal on our hands.”
“No, I tried…”
“Oh yes, after he was dead and already gone to hell.
“We don’t know that. We don’t even know…”
“And what’s this in the Evening Press then?
‘Priest says God is Female!’”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Then why the devil did you keep repeating, ‘She
will forgive you!’”
“Did I?” Tom wondered.
The Bishop said, “You know damn well you did. ‘She
will forgive you.’ Who is this She? What sort of an absolution is
that? Well, I’m waiting! What did that mean by that, if you please?”
“I don’t know. Did I say that?”
“Dammit, it’s in the papers, man. What were you
trying to say?”
“His wife….” Tom said.
“His wife? Do you think she would forgive him? I’m
damn sure she wouldn’t. Only Almighty God could have forgiven him and, if He
did, it would be no thanks to you! You’ve been a priest for what? Twenty
years? And you don’t know the first thing about it. Agh, get out of my
sight. I’m going to have to take you off the rolls and put you in as
chaplain at Our Lady’s – Malty O’Halloran is back in St. John of God’s
again, so you’ll have to take his place in the convent. You’ll find all the
shes you want in there, and they’ll drive you bucking mad!”
© Oliver Murray
Loch Raven Review Spring 2006 Vol. II, No. 1
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