He’s back again. The scrawny one whose hands shake when he speaks, even when he tries to hold them tight in those white-knuckled fists of trepidation. He starts up the steps towards me, reaching out with one hand as he says,
“Father,” but he’s come at the wrong time today.
I turn to face him from where I stand on my grey concrete slab, under the grey concrete sky, in the back alley of this middle-of-nowhere concrete place.
“It’s the uniform, isn’t it?” I ask him. He stops, and I can see the confusion manifesting on his forehead. This isn’t what the priest is supposed to say. I can see him thinking it, looking at me with those wide, reverent eyes.
“That’s why you keep coming back, no? The uniform,” I say, “the collar, the cassock? It tells you I’m here to help you, to listen to you, any day, whatever the hour.” He keeps on staring, halted half-way on the steps below me. “You just won’t quit, will you? None of you.” I look away from his thin, pitiable face.
“You know, my father was in the clergy,” I tell him, “and his father before him”. He has lost his nerve, fumbled and dropped the certainty that brought him here. I take the chance while I can.
“Every Sunday the whole village would gather outside the church and we’d walk around and greet every one of them, and every time the older women and their husbands would ask me, ‘will you be joining the clergy then, like your father?’ Before I knew it ‘I don’t know’ became ‘maybe’, and then ‘yes’. It all flew by so quickly, I couldn’t tell you quite when one became the other.”
The thin man swallows. I hear him, the shallow breath of him, waiting for a pause long enough to intrude, waiting in taught anticipation to wipe clean his conscience – if, that is, he is one of those who still has one.
“I never really wanted to become a priest,” I say, “but then I suppose I never thought about becoming anything else.” I pause and pull a pack of cigarettes from my inner-pocket.
“I just wanted to make my father proud and all that, you know?”
He stares at me, at the pack of cigarettes. I open it.
“He was always so encouraging about a career connected to the church, letting me hear his sermons in advance, giving me my own little performances, always so happy when I asked. He would watch me as he said prayers at the dinner table; eventually, he asked me to lead them. It was only ever a matter of time after that, and I became good at it. They told me so; said I was ‘diligent’, ‘kind’, ‘just as I should be’.” I take out a cigarette and hold it between my fingers, tucking the rest of the pack back into my pocket.
“So many things, people confess to,” I say. “They come in asking me to bless them first, they always start with that. Then they tell me what you might imagine; that they’re doubting, they’re unhappy, they’ve made someone else unhappy, they don’t know what to do. They’re consumed by a need to cast light on all the little shadows and dark corners of their entirely unremarkable lives. Each time I sit, and listen, and give some variant of the same advice I gave the week before to yet another nervous, tired voice.
“Some who came to me were more troubled than others, had done something: stolen money, a coat, a car, were too rough on their children or spouses, giving in to acts of violence or temptation infrequently enough to see it as wrong. Often, they were impatient, filled with a need to foist off the guilt and buy their peace of mind as soon as possible – a quick fix to take away the fretting, gnawing feeling. They hurry ahead to the part that will allow them to believe they are a good person again. These ones sometimes come back.”
I pat my pocket briefly, locate my lighter. The man shifts on his step, only an inch, a small twitch.
“One man, a very unusual case, kept coming back,” I say. “To start with he only visited a few times a month, like a local stopping in at the shops on the way home. He would come for a chat, to tell a story, to collect his penance. He took a certain relish in the experience of it all, liked to dwell on the more sordid details: the particulars of his specific blend of adrenalin, of his gratification. When he saw that I was starting to find his stories uncomfortable – but that I would keep listening, keep sitting through them because I had to, because it was my job – he started to drop by more frequently. He brought something new every week, like a child bringing me grisly objects for show and tell, mistaken for trinkets. Sometimes he came twice a week, and each time it was something a little worse, each time he lost a little more touch with reason, with humanity.”
I flick the lighter open, run my finger down the wheel, fast.
“I think I was right to hit him,” I say.
The flame flares-up; small and bright, licking at the air.
“The church didn’t agree. They relocated me here, to this grand station, this concrete purgatory.”
I light the cigarette. Inhale, exhale smoke.
“All this time I listened to people’s stories: worry, fear, sin, horror. I never did anything close, lived the good, simple life. Maybe I thought that hitting him would help him. Maybe I thought it would help someone else. Maybe I didn’t think at all. But I did it, and I kept doing it until someone stopped me. Was I wrong to do it?”
I watch the cigarette-end glow, as if it is slowly burning up my question into nothing.
“Should I have just sat there and listen to it all? Gone to sleep with it ringing around in my head, not passing judgement, trying to find guidance and comfort for the asshole? How is that just? How is that right?”
I take a long drag, blowing a puff of smoke out into the air.
The man watches, quiet.
“Whatever you did,” I say to him, “you came at the wrong time.”
I flick the ashes to the ground.
“Confession was half an hour ago. It’s my fag-break now; so fuck-off.”