Father Keegan glanced at his watch and saw that the hour was drawing to a close. He’d had only four visitors, heard no graver a sin than that from gravel-voiced Gerti, who’d again pinched a few euros from Sunday’s collection plate and was sent away burdened less by Hail Marys than a plea for greater self-control.
Still, he reflected, four wasn’t a bad tally. Long gone were the days when parishioners flocked to this musty booth like children to Santa’s grotto. He knew that many, even among the faithful, viewed the concept as a creaky anachronism, and in recent years, despite its rebranding as Reconciliation, the Sacrament Formerly Known as Confession had slipped from a weekly offering to monthly.
But just as he was about to wrap things up and head off to pay a visit to St Jude’s Hospice, he heard the approaching squeak of leather soles.
They stopped on the stone floor outside. He wondered if it might be a tourist come to observe an institution that some smug guidebook insisted was on its last legs. There was that bearded, beady-eyed Austrian who’d looked in recently and hurled a few insulting statistics before asking if it was true that the Church in Ireland was dying out?
‘Rumours of our demise,’ Father Keegan had responded, ‘are greatly exaggerated.’
Afterwards, he’d wondered whether the word greatly was really justified.
Suddenly the booth door opened. A man entered and sank to his knees on the other side of the honeycomb lattice and dangling crucifix.
The voice was calm, cultivated. A tang of aftershave wafted through the partition.
Father Keegan asked the man how long it had been since his last confession, wondering whether he’d be one of those regular, old-school penitents who approached the sacrament with the grim enthusiasm of a self-flagellant, or rather the sort who shuffled in as if on a trip to the dentist.
‘A long time, Father, in all honesty.’
‘Then you’re all the more welcome. Is it something particular that brought you?’
He tried to sound reassuring, not wanting anyone to experience the fear he used to have when jelly-jowled Father Delaney, his parish priest back in Donegal, would growl, Tell me your sins, child, with a peculiar mix of threat and relish. Father Keegan – or Stephen, as he was known back then, always hating the rhyme of his name – would rattle off rehearsed banalities about fighting with his siblings, using curse words, or laughing when his classmates mocked the disabled Clancy boy, and emerge from confession feeling no more cleansed than when he’d gone in.
On the other side of the lattice was silence. The man was no regular, that much seemed clear. Probably one of the flock gone astray, someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years, and now, following a tawdry fling or fallout over money, felt a sheepish obligation to return.
‘Do you have something you wish to confess?’ he tried again.
‘Yes, Father.’ The stranger cleared his throat. ‘I do.’
‘Then speak. Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to judge you.’
Another pause. Then, in the darkness:
‘I killed someone, Father.’
Father Keegan shifted on his seat. His first thought – sacrilege almost, but he couldn’t help it – was that the man was pulling his leg. There was that little gurrier a few weeks ago who claimed he’d molested a younger sibling. When Father Keegan tried to make him aware of the gravity of the act, the boy feigned indignation and said he expected more understanding, What with you being a priest and everything. Aren’t you all kiddy fiddlers? Father Keegan had bitten his lip as the prankster fled, guffaws rolling up the aisle as he and some other yob ran off before he could grab them. Such were the risks of the job nowadays. When he’d entered the ranks in 1999 the floodgates had already opened. He wasn’t naive about these things.
‘You killed someone?’ he asked warily after several long seconds had elapsed.
‘That’s right, Father.’
‘When did this happen?’
He braced himself. If this was a joke, now was the moment the punchline might come.
‘Nearly two years ago, Father.’
Something in the words, quiet and deadly earnest, chilled him.
‘Would you like to tell me about it?’ In case the man misunderstood, thought he was digging for gore, he clarified: ‘Was it an accident?’
‘No, Father. Or not exactly.’
‘It was a grown woman, Father.’
The statement fell like a challenge between them.
‘Someone you knew?’
‘Well… we were intimate, if you know what I mean.’ Pause. ‘She wasn’t well, Father. Wasn’t well at all. She used to hurt herself. And she’d want me to hurt her, too. When we were… you know. Only one time I went too far. In a way I was… was just doing what she wanted. But then she said stop and… I wasn’t able to.’ Pause. ‘You won’t tell on me, Father? This is just between us, right?’
A fear flashed through Father Keegan’s mind: Was this some undercover guard or journalist planting a sting? Would he go online tonight and find his name emblazoned in the papers? Dublin Priest Spites Law by Upholding Confessional Seal. He and his colleagues had spoken about it; it was a fear they all shared. Like he’d told Father Buckley recently: As a man, he had his doubts about the Church’s stance. As a priest, he felt bound by it.
‘What you say here,’ he began, choosing his words with great care, ‘is between you and God. What matters is that you speak sincerely.’ He stopped to let that sink in. ‘Is everything you’re telling me the truth?’
‘It is, Father. I swear.’
‘And do you feel remorse for what you did?’
‘I do. Of course. Or I wouldn’t be here. I have a wife. Kids. I can hardly look them in the eye, my own children, knowing what I did.’
‘Does anyone else know?’
‘Not a soul.’
Every word the man spoke sounded genuine. Father Keegan felt the lead burden of responsibility weigh upon him. Perhaps this really was a plea for help. If so, it couldn’t be ignored, no matter how heinous the circumstances.
‘Sometimes I’m afraid it could happen again,’ the man said.
‘But you’re not… you’re not planning on repeating it?’
‘No. I mean, I don’t want to. Only I… I met someone else. She reminds me so much of… They both hurt themselves. And want pain during… you know.’
Strange, how he wouldn’t even utter the word. As if sex, and not killing, were the true monstrosity.
‘It’s like a temptation,’ the man went on. ‘It’s why I had to come here.’
‘You’ve met this woman?’ Father Keegan asked.
‘No. Well, only on the internet. She’s in England. She wants to fly over and meet me.’
‘And does she know anything about…?’
‘Of course not. No one does. Only you.’
He had a sudden desire to snatch a glimpse of the man’s face. But as soon as his gaze drifted towards the lattice it caught the contours of the crucifix. He shut his eyes, sought the strength and wisdom to do the right thing.
‘It took courage for you to come here today,’ he said. ‘God knows that. But as long as you carry this secret inside you–’
‘I’m not turning myself in. No way.’ For the first time a defiant edge entered the man’s voice. ‘I have a family. A business. People who count on me.’
Father Keegan took a deep breath. The note of desperation in the voice cowed him. No training could prepare him for this. It was as if the man invested a gravity in the sacrament that he himself struggled to contend with. Year after year he heard the same sins here, a milky dribble of resentments, betrayals, infidelities, all blurring into one another, all absolved as a matter of rote. It was hard to believe that a sinner, one in the gravest sense of the word, could turn to him in a moment of profound need, and not be infected by the same scorn and scepticism that oozed from the media, that was embedded in the letter of the law, and which Father Keegan felt even within his own family – his brother Mark, a dermatologist confidently serving the temple of the body, would often rib him about selling solace for the soul. He knew that’s how most people saw him now: a quaint curiosity at best; at worst, a spiritual crook.
‘If I can feel forgiveness, Father, it might help me control the things inside me.’
What choice was there? If he turned the man away, he’d have it on his conscience. If his faith were too weak to meet these needs, what was he even doing here? Was he just a charlatan like his brother teased, exploiting the fading bleats of the nation’s faith?
He had to try, if he believed at all. Or he could as well rise, lay down his smock and walk away.
And so, slowly, he intoned the Act of Contrition, as he’d done countless times down the years. Only now he abandoned the mechanical mutter he’d employed with poor Gerti and others, and spoke with an intensity that was itself a sort of plea.
With an eerie calm the words echoed back through the lattice. He felt warm breath on his cheek, inhaled the sweet scent of aftershave again, asked himself whether this man had really struck the life from another’s body. What if he were mad, confessing some wicked delusion? Or was such speculation just a symptom of Father Keegan’s own weakness?
The church bell donged twelve.
‘And now?’ the man asked.
‘In the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord, go in peace. From this day onwards, live for God, for your family. Break contact with that woman. If you need to talk, come to me. I won’t judge you. I won’t betray you. But you must promise.’
‘I’ll try, Father.’ There was a long pause. ‘I promise I’ll try.’
Another silence, as if the man wanted to add something. But then he stood and left the booth. Father Keegan longed to step out and get a good look at him, just in case, but told himself this was a test, the worldly realm against that of faith, and there was only one way to pass it. And so he listened in darkness while the man paced towards the church exit. As the sound faded, he remembered that distant November morning at the end of the last century when, not longer after his mother’s death, he’d experienced the call of God on an Atlantic-lashed beach. The way the dazzling sun had split the clouds. He never thought there’d be so many shades of grey in that light. Nor that his covenant with Christ could have a taste of real blood in it.
At last he left the booth, blinking as he emerged, like someone just woken from sleep. Under the huge stone vaults of God’s house he glanced around, aware of a presence. He half-expected to see the man who’d spoken to him standing at the entrance, defiant, taunting. But no. The church was empty except for one old woman kneeling at a distant pew, her head with its thatch of ash-coloured hair buried in her hands. It was Gerti, his loyal thief. Her whispered prayers whistled up the aisle, at once contrite and furious, as if attempting to atone for all men’s sins.
NEIL BRISTOW is from Dublin, Ireland. As a dramatist he has worked with, among others, the Abbey Theatre. His fiction has been published in various journals, most recently the Honest Ulsterman. He has an MA in Creative Writing from UCD.