by Kevyn Pieters
This story departs from the canon. The electrocution never happened. Peter Clifford left the priesthood and he and Assumpta Fitzgerald left Ballykissangel for a new home in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. This story is set eight years after the end of series 3.
Fr Aiden, assistant priest in Ballykissangel, hastened to the door to answer the frantic knocking. A very pale looking Kathleen Hendley stood there.
“May I come in, Father?”
“Yes, of course. Is there anything wrong, Kathleen? You seem very shaken.”
“Father, I’d like you to hear my confession.”
“What, right now? Here?”
“Yes, Father, right now. Please.”
Kathleen started to kneel on the floor, but Aiden took her by the hand and guided her to the sofa. “Kathleen, please sit. I don’t think you have the strength to kneel.”
“But I …”
“Please, Kathleen, it will make it easier for me.”
Kathleen sat and Fr Aiden sat next to her, on her left, putting his pocket stole around his neck.
Aiden looked at her, and smiled. She calmed a little and her rapid breathing slowed. She took off her gloves, and put them in her handbag and put the bag on the floor by her feet. Still smiling, he said, “May the Lord bless you and give you the grace of an honest confession.”
He leaned forward, with his right elbow resting on his right thigh and his forehead on his fingertips. He prompted her, “When you’re ready … in your own time.”
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s two days since my last confession. I have committed a serious sin against charity. A tramp came into my shop. Well not into it exactly, he shambled into the doorway and tapped on the glass. He was very dirty. His clothes were torn and falling apart. His face was in a terrible state, his hair and beard were long and dirty and his skin had sores and bruises. And he smelled bad. I felt sick just being near him. He asked if I had any fruit or salad vegetables that were past their date and that I could give him. I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t Irish, more like English. I shouted at him to get out my shop. I called him vermin, a disgrace! As he turned away, he looked up at me and just shook his head. I’m sure that he whispered my name. There was such reproach and sadness in his eyes that my blood ran cold. It was as if the Lord were saying to me at the Judgement, ‘I was hungry and you did not feed me.’ I went to the back of the shop to find some of last week’s apples and tomatoes that I was saving for the pig farm, but by the time I reached the door with them, he had gone.”
“Could you not have given him something from the boxes on the steps by the door?”
“I didn’t think of that. Sorry.”
“You say he knew your name – that’s over the door, surely.
“No, he called me Kathleen.”
“Ah. So he knew you. Did you recognise him?”
“No! Why would I know a tramp?”
Fr Aiden sighed. “Is there anything else?”
“No. That’s all I can remember. I’m so shaken up. Sorry.” She remembered the correct form of words. “For these and all the other sins that I cannot now remember I am truly sorry.”
“Well Kathleen, to feed the hungry is one of the corporal works of mercy. That man is someone’s son, someone’s brother or cousin, perhaps someone’s father, and he is our neighbour. Like us he is a child of God and that was a lost opportunity to repay the love God showers on us. And throwing insults is killing, in a lesser way. Do you understand?”
“And so, next time?”
“I’ll find some old fruit.”
“Could you not offer some fresh fruit, and a pot of yoghurt and something to drink, too?”
“Father, I have a business to run!”
Aiden shook his head gently, “Kathleen, Kathleen. Just do your best. Imagine he is one of your friends, fallen on hard times.”
He gave her absolution.
- - - 888 - - -
In the late afternoon, Fr Aiden saw the tramp, sitting on the grass across the other side of the graveyard, his back against a tree with his legs drawn up and one arm around his knees. He was taking sips from a plastic bottle. Aiden watched for a while then walked over and sat on the grass by him.
“Peace be with you, brother. My name’s Aiden.”
The tramp looked up and nodded slightly.
“Have you been around the village long?”
“Today.” He did not speak clearly, as if his lips and tongue were unable to form the words properly.
“Do you have connections with the village?”
The tramp gestured towards the two Fitzgerald graves.
“Before my time,” observed Aiden.
“Before mine, too,” added the tramp. He took another sip from his bottle.
Aiden noticed that the contents looked like dirty water. “Is that from the river?”
“The river’s not as clean as it was; too much run-off from the farms and allsorts from the caravan site upstream. Can I get you some clean water from the house?”
The tramp looked surprised at the gesture and nodded.
“Is there anything else I could get you – a hot drink, some food?”
“Just the water. A bit of fruit would be nice. Best not to eat much - gut problems.” As Aiden made to leave to fill the bottle, the tramp asked, “Can I go into the church?”
When Aiden returned with the bottle, washed out and filled with clean water from the tap, he found the tramp kneeling awkwardly by the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. As he approached, Aiden could hear the man trying to pray.
“Remember O most loving virgin Mary, that anyone … that anyone …”
Aiden put his hand on the man’s shoulder and completed the prayer for him: “… that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left forsaken. Filled with this confidence I fly unto you, O virgin of virgins, my mother; to you do I come, before you I kneel, sinful and sorrowful. Despise not my poor words O mother of the Word of God, but in your mercy hear and grant my prayer. Amen.”
As they walked out of church, Aiden asked, “Do you have somewhere for the night? You could come inside, have a meal, have a bath, or I could leave the shed unlocked for you?”
“No thanks. I have somewhere ready – near the grotto outside the village.”
“You’re limping and you look a little knocked about. Are you alright? Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come inside and clean up and let me dress your cuts and bruises?”
“I’ll manage, thanks. Cilldargan. Some kitchen lads beat me up yesterday when I was looking for food at the back of their restaurant.”
“Well, I’ll leave some bits and pieces for you in the shed by the house, the one with the red door – use them if you want.”
The tramp nodded his thanks and then shambled off, down towards the river. Aiden watched as he turned along the river bank, downstream towards the bridge.
“Avoiding the village. Ach, Kathleen!” thought Aiden, shaking his head sadly.
- - - 888 - - -
Michael Ryan picked up the phone: “Dr Ryan.”
“Ah, Doctor. Sister Monaghan here. We’ve had a road accident case brought in, a gentleman of the road, hit by a vehicle on the Cilldargan Road. There are no broken bones but he’s in a state of collapse … and he’s delirious. We’re cleaning him up – he was in a disgusting state. Could you come into the hospital and take a look at him?
- - - 888 - - -
Michael Ryan walked through the door to the ward, pulling on his white coat. He stepped into the office.
“Good evening, Sister, I’ve come to take a look at your road accident case.”
Sister Monaghan reached across her desk for a manilla file and a cardboard tray and pushed them towards Dr Ryan.
Michael skimmed the notes. “Do we know who he is, Janet?”
“No, Michael. There were no papers on him, no wallet. But I think his name might be O’Leum. Look, the ribbon round his toiletry kit has that name on it.” The nurse pointed to the cardboard tray, in which rested a few coins, a penknife, a broken rosary and other odds and ends, and a worn and soiled black leather container with a broken zip around three sides, and tied up with a purple ribbon, which had the thick metal disk at one end marked with what the nurse had taken to be his name.”
“That’s not …” Michael picked up the object, unwound the ‘ribbon’, smoothed it and folded it double. He unscrewed the lid of the metal disk and sniffed at it. He replaced the lid and put the ribbon down on the desk respectfully. “This is a priest’s stole. And that is probably a breviary. Yes.” He opened the case and opened the prayer book. He turned the fly leaf, hoping for a name. The first few pages were water stained and the dedication was washed out, but he could make out the handwritten words ‘your mother’. A faded and water-stained photo of two young children fell out. “This man might have been a priest.”
They walked down to the room at the end of the corridor, used for ‘charity’ patients. As he entered the room, Michael hesitated as he recognised the figure lying in the bed, asleep but restless, face gaunt and very tanned, except where the hair and beard had been, lips and cheeks bruised and badly grazed – from the road accident he supposed. There was a film of perspiration on the forehead.
“Dear God!” he sighed to himself, as he put on the latex gloves.
Michael opened the jacket of the patient’s hospital pyjamas – the rib cage was bruised, with almost no flesh on them. Sr Monaghan helped Michael turn the patient so that he could listen to the lungs. Michael probed the patient’s back with the stethoscope: there was no mistaking the shallow rapid breathing, crackling on the in-breath and wheezing on the out, badly congested. They returned the patient to the supine position and Michael listened to the heart. The beat was rapid and uneven, about 90, with a distinct murmur and very squeaky.
“38”, said Sr Monaghan as she read the thermometer.
Michael pinched the patient’s nose so that the mouth would open. “Bad gums and teeth. Better have the dentist look in on him tomorrow.”
“What do you think, Michael?”
“Not good. Definitely pneumonia. Probably endocarditis as well.”
Michael Ryan picked up and opened the manilla folder and wrote a summary of his findings and added an instruction for some blood tests, a hydration drip, antibiotics and oxygen, and a request for an examination by a cardiologist. Closing the folder he crossed out “O’Leum?” and wrote “Rev Peter Clifford”.
- 888 -
Michael stepped into the office and took his mobile phone from his pocket.
“St Joseph’s, Fr Aiden speaking.”
“Good evening Father. It’s Michael Ryan. Could you come up to the hospital, please? I have patient here who needs the Sacrament of the Sick.”
“Is it urgent, Michael?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is. He may not last the night.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour. Anyone, I know?”
“I don’t know if you actually met him, but he’s your predecessor, Fr Peter Clifford.”
- 888 -
Next day, Michael Ryan sat with Peter Clifford after his round. If anything, Peter looked even worse in sleep than the night before: the bruises were larger and darker. But he seemed calmer, and his pulse was lower and more regular. The effect of the oxygen and the antibiotics, he thought. But the cardiologist’s report did not make pleasant reading – mitral regurgitation and tricuspid insufficiency, almost certainly the result of endocarditis, and that possibly the result of untreated gum disease.
Michael returned the clinical notes to the end of the bed, and looking up, saw Peter watching him.
“Michael. Where am I?”
“Cilldargan. You were hit by a truck?”
“Did a priest anoint me last night?”
“Yes. That was Fr Aiden. I called him.”
“Ah. That accounts for it. I wondered if it was a dream. Thanks.”
“How come you’re here, Peter?”
In between gasps for breath and rests with the oxygen mask, Peter told his sad tale: “Ran a bar in Coleraine with Assumpta for a couple of years - got my teaching certificate at Coleraine and then worked as a teacher – got no decision from Rome on my application - we tried to live as brother and sister – but failed – wracked with guilt – I got impossible to live with - she left me – took the children to Canada, I think – got a cousin there - I had a breakdown – lost my job – homeless – I wandered about – I know I’m ill – came to see the place one last time – relive a brief moment of happiness – beg forgiveness – I ruined their lives - hope for peace at last.”
Michael opened the bedside cupboard, removed the battered breviary and extracted the worn photograph. He offered it to Peter.
“Are these your children?”
Peter kissed the photo then held it to his chest. He turned his head towards the window, away from Michael. Michael could tell from the sniffling sounds that Peter was crying. After a while he walked around the other side of the bed to wipe Peter’s nose for him, but sleep had rescued him.
- 888 -
Brendan Kearney looked up as Michael Ryan entered Fitzgerald’s Bar.
“Brendan! Just the man!”
“Evening, Michael. What are you having?”
“Just an orange juice, please. I’m still on call. Tell me Brendan: do you have an address or phone number for Assumpta Fitzgerald?”
Brendan looked very wary. “Why, Michael?”
“Do you? It’s important.”
“I’m sworn to secrecy. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve got Fr Clifford in the hospital. That vagrant who was around the village a few days ago, that was him. Yesterday, he was hit by a truck. No broken bones, but he’s seriously ill, pneumonia and serious heart disease.”
“He’s asking for her? And he’s still a priest?”
“No, he’s not asking for her. But I wondered if she would like to know. He never got a decision on his application for release, so he is still a priest.”
“She’s in Canada, she has cousins in Toronto. She took the children there. She doesn’t tell me much, I don’t think she quite trusts me, but she likes to keep some kind of link with the old place.”
- - - 888 - - -
Michael Ryan turned into the entrance of St Columcille’s hospital and drove around to the staff car parking area at the rear. He noticed a hearse backed up to the mortuary door. After parking in his usual bay, he gathered up his bag and notes. Looking up, he saw a coffin being carried to the hearse, Fr MacAnally following, walking awkwardly with the aid of his two sticks.
When the coffin was in the hearse, one of the funeral director’s assistants leaned in to set the rear clamp and the four stood aside. Fr Mac held both his sticks in his left hand and raised his right hand in blessing. One of the assistants reached out to him as he wobbled unsteadily, fumbling with his sticks.
Fr Mac was standing, leaning heavily on his sticks, watching the hearse drive away as Michael walked over to him. As he came close, Michael could see the tears on his face.
Fr Mac nodded, saying, “I wonder if they have any idea at all of the harm they do?”
“The … the …” Fr Mac searched for a polite word. “- the nothis in the Vatican!”
Michael knew what the Latin meant, but was unsure who exactly was the target of Fr Mac’s angry insult.
Seeing the puzzled look on Michael’s face, Fr Mac explained: “The officials in the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, who denied him a decision on dispensation and wrecked his life, hers too and their children’s, more than likely. Only a saint like him would have even tried to put up with it. Because he was compliant and discreet, they … they pushed him into sin! It’s unforgiveable! I should have told him to tell the … authorities … to go to hell. I knew that he would have to wait ten years at least and I knew that would be beyond her, even if he could have coped. It’s what I’d have had to do if I’d had the nerve, even though these things were easier then.” The tirade ended in a fit of coughing.
“Aileen McGuire?” asked Dr Ryan, quietly.
Fr Mac nodded, still coughing. “You knew then, Michael?”
Fr Mac turned to walk over to his car, but turned again to face Michael: “It was surreal, you know. And she kissed me!”
Dr Ryan looked perplexed. “Er … what was surreal, and who …”
“It’s been on my mind these last few days. When Aileen’s daughter, Nainsi, came to the village seven … eight years ago to find her, before she got on the bus to leave, I gave her the photo of the picnic group that had included Aileen and myself as an affectionate memento. And she kissed me on the cheek. She can’t possibly have known what that meant to me. But standing there with us by the bus to see her off was Fr Clifford, holding Kieran Egan in his arms, as naturally and comfortably as you like, looking for all the world like an affectionate father – apart from the collar, that is – and looking like and doing as I should have had the guts to do all those years earlier. But it didn’t soften my attitude to him: made me more resentful if anything - may the Lord forgive me.”
“Will he have a priest’s funeral?”
“I’ll see that he does. He wants it to be in Ballykissangel, and he wants to be buried near Assumpta Fitzgerald’s family.”
“Fr Aiden thought he might.” Fr Mac looked surprised. “When Fr Aiden found him in the graveyard, that’s where he was sitting.”
“Ah well. It’s a sad business. Does Assumpta know what’s happened?”
“I don’t know, Frank. Brendan Kearney is in touch with her now and again. I’ve left it to him whether to tell her. Is the arthritis worse than usual today?”
Fr Mac nodded, then shuffled slowly off to his car.
Dr Ryan watched him go, glad that his own vocation had been to medicine and not to the priesthood.