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The back door closed, with its customary creak-slam – she always left that way, save for formal occasions – and the house became vacant, in the way a place can only be with just one person; like the proverbial tree falling, emptiness requires a witness. He stood at the kitchen window, looking out over a bewildered field bound by a misleading, thinly-layered copse that gave the lie to the housing sprawl beyond. An overcast sky hinted at rain later; he felt a headache coming on. The door to the pantry was ajar. He pushed it to, then left the kitchen with its amalgam of anachronisms – a wall-mounted can-opener overlooked an electric handheld model; a prototypic food mixer stood ignored alongside a sleek blender – and entered the front room, shutting himself in.
Glass-encased books to the left, mis-matched ageing chairs and a 60s-era television set to the right. An obtrusive, overbearing dresser ahead. Relics of previous occupants, there was little here that belonged to him. A modest library, a suitcase of clothes; the accoutrements of a life lived lean. The bookcase with its contents had belonged to his predecessor. He had observed many a priest’s library and it was always the same; rows of old, dusty, required reading; Summa Theologiæ; Confessions; Il Commedia (in the original Italian, of course). What wisdom, comfort or strength could their words bring to a child learning his catechism, a young couple starting out in life together or an old man on his deathbed? They were just words. Clever words, strung together in a clever way to convince person x of position y. He had no need of them. They were not relevant (or was it that he could not make them relevant?) to his parishioners.
After a series of texts for Latin Masses, careworn musical scores and a collection of substandard editions of Butler’s Lives, there followed a series of paperback crime and thriller mass-market fictions. These too, were standard. At the very bottom, squeezed into the gaps, was his own library; a chapbook Bible, childhood editions of David Copperfield and A Tale Of Two Cities (with his name inscribed, so too his address as it was age ten) and a Greene Omnibus. He crouched down to retrieve one of these when the telephones rang out, harsh and shrill; there were several in the house, interconnected. He answered the one in the room, by the window, the view an oblique perspective of the same seen earlier.
No, she’s not. She’s just-
Well, I can- If you like-
I see, alright. Goodb-
Redundant, even at home. He attempted to address his reflection in the mirror above the dresser, self-sermonising being a habit. Behind him, the room yawned; a flaw in the glass distorted the image, giving the impression of being within a dream, or a drunken stupor and for a moment he felt that way, unbalanced and uncertain. Whatever words he had hoped to speak to himself failed to materialise. He was tired. Earlier, he had heard confession, four solid hours of limpid, self-serving ablations, most barely venial. It seemed his parishioners were mainly concerned with their predilection for bearing false witness, possessing impure thoughts, coveting worldly goods or holding minor grievances; that is, they were guilty of those things they felt they were expected to be guilty of. He longed for abortion, apostasy, even a little simony. Often he felt like a magistrate who, having spent years studying Law, only ever heard tales of parking tickets and speeding fines. It wasn’t just the repetition – it wasn’t really the repetition at all; a lifetime of rote-learning had stultified any longing for novelty – but the increasing irrelevancy of, not it, but he.
Before he locked the doors, he topped up the font with tap water from a plastic bottle, blessing it as it decanted and overheard the flower ladies as they gabbed outside. He had taken both their confessions earlier and knew their personal guilt amounted to nothing more than a lack of faith in ones’ neighbours and a tendency to not give money to beggars; as sinners went, they were pitiful penitents. Whilst pouring the transforming water into the stone bowl, he caught glimpses of their fractured conversation:
Reeks of alcohol…
He bristled. He had been unwell of late and was taking a cough remedy that had a chemical odour; a drinker he was not. The allegations – and the slur in particular – didn’t just hurt, they made him feel ill, another symptom of a growing feeling that he was neither needed nor wanted, save for to conduct basic ministrations, tasks that could be performed by anyone with a collar, really. The word vocation, with its theological implication – so central to his own calling – was in decline, its meaning displaced by a more general, occupational understanding. The sensation of redundancy grew but the clergy was the one profession (but surely, still: vocation?) where one could never be made redundant. There would always be the need for a minister in the abstract, yet increasingly his own presence as a singular being, with character and detail and flaw, was becoming irrelevant.
That evening he found himself at the bar of the local pub, not wanting to be alone in the house, with its oppressively empty air. He wore a jacket zipped up to just past the chest, wanting to be anonymous, but unable to deny his collar. A squat man, red-faced and muzzly, addressed him.
A drink father? Kind of you, but no-
The man turned back to his pint. Cut-off short, the offer was rescinded as soon as it had been declined. He was – just – old enough to remember when standing the parish priest a drink was done out of reverence rather than a receding sense of duty but this man, who was all men, saw little import in his office. They addressed him as father but it was a nondescript title in the lower case. He saw the squat man at the Christmas Masses and funerals – no other times – and imagined, without guilt, administering the Rites over his stale body.
The barmaid came over, jangling empties without care. He didn’t drink much, or even often, but this evening he felt the need, not for alcohol to pass his lips, but to be near ‘his’ people; one of them, if not amongst them. He had only wanted a soda water, but the words of the woman earlier still stung. To spite her, he ordered scotch, a drink with a foul, harsh taste he hated. As it was placed before him he dropped in an ice-cube from the plastic box on the bar and added a touch of water from the jug nearby. The squat man called over:
Never put water in your whiskey father!
…and the barmaid rejoined:
He could probably turn water into whiskey!
He smiled weakly. The miracle of the Mass, that wonderful and singular conversion, reduced to a joke. He swallowed a large mouthful to disguise the grimace he wore. His throat burned and he took another swig, a futile attempt to delay the taste. The heavy tumbler was almost empty and he took one more gulp to finish it, swirling the ice-cube around his mouth until it melted, then ordered another.
The second went down easier than the first; it was almost pleasant. One could get used to anything, given enough time to acclimate. The place filled up, but he was not disturbed by anyone, even after he removed his jacket – collar clearly on display – and he ended up perched on a stool in the far corner, pushed away from the thirsty parishioners. Left alone, he grew morose and maudlin, remembering his years in the seminary; how it was meant to be, and then how it wasn’t.
The evening wore on and he grew tired and irritable, time becoming more fractured with each fresh drink. A failed attempt to engage the barmaid in small talk, a blurry conversation with someone else. Presently, with the canny insight of the drunk, he was keenly aware that everyone around him was smiling at him and laughing and he made a deliberate, ungainly exit.
He walked home alone and in the shadows. There would be a Mass to say in the morning, for the people of the parish – ungrateful wretches – and then a marriage class in which he would prepare couples for a life he knew nothing about. After that, a visit to the housebound, an appointment with the school governors; on it went. Meetings and presentations, just like any other job – and just like any other job it could be done by any other person.
Back in the kitchen he doused his face under the tap, swallowing breathlessly and soaking his shirt before stumbling to the pantry, swinging open the door and fumbling around for the Bell’s given to him by the family of a late parishioner, whose bedside he’d attended. The cap, he noticed as he unscrewed it, was unsealed, the bottle not quite full. He poured a generous measure and held it up, wanting to throw the glass, contents and all, hard upon the floor. That would be the appropriate action in a film or a book. But his life was neither a film nor a book and after the necessarily violent moment had passed he would be left without a drink and with a mess to clean up; a loss, in other words. He did it anyway. The smash of glass was dull, not at all how he imagined it and the liquid sprayed across the floor.
The back door opened, with its customary creak-slam and she walked in – she always entered that way, save for formal occasions – and the house was occupied once more. With her was the same woman whose confession he’d heard earlier, the one with the hardened heart and tightened purse strings, the one who slurred him with whiskey. Suspicions confirmed, she stood in the porch as the housekeeper reached for the mop to clean up the spill, reacting in no way, other than as if for all the world this was something that happened every day and was simply one more thing that needed dealing with. He left the kitchen with its amalgam of anachronisms and entered the front room, shutting himself in.