Saint Wilfrid’s Church has withstood fire and pillaging for over a thousand years; rain is another matter. It seeps through the shingled broach spire and flint walls, dripping into buckets and paint tins dotted along the aisles and pews. It slips through cracks in the floorboards or forms puddles where they sag.
And the church stinks like a decomposing rat.
I have blisters on my hands from carrying the containers through the vestry to the overgrown graveyard out back. Headstones stand lopsided like crooked teeth, or worse, have fallen over completely. A pile of rusty gardening tools stands half-buried in a huge plant pot under the vestry window.
One day this place might be my final resting place. I imagine my epitaph will be chalked on a makeshift cross and go something like:
Here lies Jack…
Best keep it nice and simple, as any addition will be negative.
I’ll tidy up the whole graveyard, once the stingy bishop allows me to scrape together enough money to buy the tools. So far he has flatly refused, stating that there aren’t enough parishioners filling the church’s coffers.
Shouldn’t he want the only Catholic Church in the area to be a success? Maybe he is in cahoots with that Church of England mob at St Luke’s.
The enemy’s church stands at the opposite side of Saxon Square. I passed it the other day as the vicar, James Mulgrew, was showing two tourists around. Beaming, he bragged about St Luke’s pretty, stained glass windows, Gothic spires and immaculate granite facade. He told the tourists that people came from miles around to admire his church. Then his smile dropped, replaced by a look of disgust, as the pompous ass pointed a finger at Saint Wilfrid’s. “Whereas that monstrosity over there,” he said in a loud, derisory tone, “only attracts a few miserable pensioners,”
I felt like putting a brick through his stained glass window. Instead, I just seethed and walked past.
Two hours of hefting stank water later, I finally tip out the last putrid container. I toss it among all the others and lock the vestry door. Feet apart, I do a few head rolls to work out the chinks. Then I press my hands against the base of my spine, tilting backwards, groaning with the effort.
I’m not cut out for physical work. But looking after the church has made me stronger, leaner and more irritable.
I change into priest vestments and re-enter the church.
A chill hangs in the air, gnawing at my bones. Since I’ve got five minutes to spare, I do a few jumping Jacks to warm up. Then jog round the church, slow at first, before breaking into a sprint. On the second lap I stop outside the confession box to shadow-box.
I stop short when the main door creaks. A draft swirls around my cassock. A jasmine scent fills my nostrils. Flushed and panting, I straighten from my crouched position and slowly turn round.
Like every day for the past week she aims to tease and it works. This time she’s wearing red: shoes, miniskirt, tight tee-shirt, scarf and a ribbon tied round the bun in her raven hair.
“Good morning,” she says in a husky voice.
Words scramble onto my tongue as she makes her way toward me, but I can’t utter them.
“Are you going to let me in?” she says when she reaches the confession box.
I glance over my shoulder and notice I’m blocking the entrance. I swallow. “Yes, of course.” I move aside and pull back the velvet drape. “Be my guest.”
She flashes a smile. “Thank you.”
I wait until she’s seated and close the drape. Then I hurry round to my side of the confession box. Through the gauze I can see the outline of her lips. Staring at them has become my daily vice, a guilty pleasure.
“Forgive me, Father,” she begins, “for I have sinned. It’s been a day since my last confession.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“You were in my dreams last night.”
“Look, Mrs Brown.”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“Sorry. Elizabeth. It’s nearly a week since the car crash. You’re bound to get flashbacks from time to time.”
“I dreamt about a time before that. We were lying beside each other on a moonlit beach. Warm sea water laps our feet. I wore a blue bikini and you wore white boxer shorts with pink piglets.” She laughs. “They matched the sunburn on your legs.”
I had the same dream last night. I give an audible gasp, then cough to hide the fact.
“You okay?” she asks. “Hope you’re not coming down with something.”
“N-,” I try to reply, my voice raspy. I swallow hard. “No.”
A long silence passes between us.
“You’re just feeling lonely,” I say. “Have you ever thought of meeting somebody else?”
“Why should I? The man I want is right here. Don’t you ever wish you could give in to your desires just once?”
Yes, many times. “You should be looking for somebody else. Not chasing me.”
“You used to be available. Oh, Jack. Don’t you remember anything?”
The poor woman is delusional. She crashed her car into a tree near here and I pulled her out from the wreck. Now she’s got this strange notion that I’m her husband.
I release a sigh. “I remember everything about my life. And unfortunately Elizabeth, I don’t remember you.”