16 February 2018

There were a couple of dozen people scattered around the pews and staring into space, all of them old, and I walked past them looking for a confession box with a light on. When I found one, I stepped inside, closing the door behind me, and waiting in the darkness for the grille to slide open. 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,' I said quietly when it did, a gust of body odour rushingtowards me with such force that I reared back and hit my head against the wall. 'It has been three weeks since my last confession.'

‘What age are you, son?’ asked the voice from the other side, which sounded quite elderly.

‘Fourteen,’ I said. ‘I’ll be fifteen next month.’

The Heart's Invisible Furies

Why in God's name would you call a priest in your school a penis? How could he possibly be a penis?

‘Fourteen-year-old boys need to go to confession more than once every three weeks,’ he said. ‘I know what you lads are like. Up to no good every minute of the day. Will you promise me that you’ll go more often in the future?’

‘I will, Father.’

‘Good lad. Now, what sins do you have to confess to the Lord?’ I swallowed hard. I had been going to confession fairly regularly since my first communion seven years earlier but not once had I ever told the truth. Like everyone else, I simply made up a collection of ordinary decent sins and rattled them off with little thought before accepting the obligatory penance of ten Hail Marys and an Our Father afterwards. Today, however, I had promised myself that I would be honest. I would confess everything and if God was on my side, if God really existed and forgave people who were truly contrite, then he would recognize my guilt and set Julian free without any further harm.

Father, over the last month I have stolen sweets from a local shop on six occasions.’

‘Holy God,’ said the priest, appalled. ‘Why did you do that?’

‘Because I like sweets,’ I said. ‘And I can’t afford them.’

‘Well, there’s some logic to that, I suppose. And tell me, how did you do it?’

‘There’s an old woman who works behind the counter,’ I said. ‘And all she does is sit and read the newspaper. It’s easy to take things without her noticing.’

‘That’s a terrible sin,’ said the priest. ‘You know that’s probably that good woman’s livelihood?’

‘I do, Father.’

‘Will you promise me never to do such a thing again?’

‘I will, Father.’

‘All right then. Good lad. Anything else?’

‘Yes, Father,’ I said. ‘There’s a priest in our school who I don’t like very much and in my head I call him The Prick.’

‘The what?’

‘The Prick.’

‘And what in God’s name does that mean?’

‘Do you not know, Father?’ I asked.

‘If I knew, would I be asking you?’ I swallowed hard. ‘It’s another word for a . . . you know, for a thing.’

‘A thing? What do you mean, a thing? What class of a thing?’

‘A thing, Father,’ I said.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

I leaned in and whispered through the grille. ‘A penis, Father.’

‘Holy God,’ he repeated. ‘Did I hear you right?’

‘If you thought I said a penis, then, yes, you did, Father.’

‘Well, that is what I thought you said. Why in God’s name would you call a priest in your school a penis? How could he possibly be a penis? A man can’t be a penis; he can only be a man. This makes no sense to me at all.’

‘I’m sorry, Father. That’s why I’m confessing it.’

‘Well, whatever it is, just stop doing it. Call him by his proper name and show a bit of respect to the man. I’m sure he treats all the lads in your school well.’

‘He doesn’t, Father. He’s vicious and he’s always beating us up. Last year he put a boy in the hospital for sneezing too loud in class.’

‘I don’t care. You’ll call him by his proper name or there’ll be no forgiveness for you, do you understand me?’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘Right then. I’m almost afraid to ask but is there anything else?’

‘There is, Father.’

‘Go on so. I’ll hold on to my chair.’

‘It’s a bit delicate, Father,’ I said.

‘That’s what the confessional is for, son,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, you’re not talking to me, you’re talking to God. He sees everything and he hears everything. You can have no secrets from him.’

‘Do I have to say it then, Father?’ I asked. ‘Will he not know anyway?’

‘He will. But he wants you to say it out loud. Just for clarification purposes.’

I took a deep breath. This had been a long time coming but here it was. ‘I think I’m a bit funny, Father,’ I told him. ‘The other boys in my class are always talking about girls but I never think about girls at all, I just think about boys, and I think about doing all sorts of dirty stuff to them like taking their clothes off and kissing them all over and playing with their things and there’s this one boy and he’s my best friend and he sleeps in the bed next to mine and I can’t stop thinking about him all the time and sometimes when he’s asleep I pull my pyjamas down and I have a right go at myself and I create an unholy mess in the bed and even after I do it and think that I might be able to go to sleep I start thinking about other lads and all the things I want to do to them and do you know what a blowjob is, Father, because I started writing stories about the lads I like and particularly about my friend Julian and I started using words like that and—’

There was an almighty crashing sound from opposite me and I looked up, startled. The shadow of the priest in the darkness had vanished and in its place a beam of light was streaming in from up above.

‘Is that you, God?’ I said, looking up towards its source. ‘It’s me, Cyril.’

From outside the confessional, I heard shouts and opened the door to peep outside. The priest had fallen out of his box and was lying on the floor, clutching his chest. He must have been at least eighty years old and the parishioners were leaning over him, crying out for help as his face began to turn blue. One of the floor tiles had broken in two next to his head.

I looked down at him, my mouth open in bewilderment, and he slowly raised a gnarly finger and pointed it at me. His lips parted and I saw how yellow his teeth were as he began to dribble down his chin.

‘Am I forgiven, Father?’ I asked, leaning over him, trying to ignore the stench of his breath. ‘Are my sins forgiven?’

His eyes rolled in his head, his entire body gave one great convulsion, he let out a roar and that was it, he was gone.

‘God bless us, Father’s dead,’ said an elderly man who had been kneeling on the floor, supporting the priest’s head.

‘Do you think he forgave me?’ I asked. ‘Before he croaked, I mean?’

‘He did, I’m sure of it,’ said the man, taking my hand now and letting the priest’s head fall rather hard against the marble floor, a tinny sound echoing around the church. ‘And he’d be happy to know that his last act on this earth was to spread God’s forgiveness.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, feeling cheered by this. I left the church as the ambulance men made their way inside. It was an unusually sunny day and, truth be told, I did feel absolved, even if I knew that the feelings that I had hidden inside myself wouldn’t be going away anytime soon.

The next morning, I awoke to the news that Julian had been found. A group of Special Branch officers had followed leads that led them to a farmhouse in Cavan and he was discovered locked in a bathroom while his three captors slept outside. One was killed in the ensuing fracas and the other two were under arrest. Missing a toe, a thumb and an ear, the rest of him was still intact and he had been taken to hospital to begin his recovery.

Had I been a person of more religious scruple, I might have believed that God had answered my prayers, but the fact was, before going to sleep that night I’d already committed a few more sins, so instead I put it down to good detective work on the part of An Garda Síochána. It seemed like the most convenient explanation to me.

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