I gave my heart to you, my love One February night Invoking all that’s up above I prayed you’d hold it tight. And after we had made romance (for that’s what I still call it) You rose and gave a loving glance Then made off with my wallet. The next day you were seen at lunch With someone I don’t know But looking back, I have a hunch It was with your new beau. I hope the roasted Cornish hen And champagne went down well Before they came right up again And cleared the whole hotel. According to my Visa bill You both then saw a play A great night out is greater still When you don’t have to pay. Despite the slight cost overrun At least I’m not alone For in your haste to kiss and run You left behind your phone. And so, my love, for us it ends As does your victory lap For you’ve just texted all your friends To say you’ve got the clap.
Father Marc assumed his usual seat in the front pew of St Jude Church and unfastened his collar. Each evening after mass the old Jesuit liked to collect his thoughts for several minutes before extinguishing the candles and clearing the altar. His church had a cheery interior by day but sunset draped a grey cowl over the building which he didn’t like, entombing everyone and everything inside. Now peering into the shadowy recesses around him, he decided he’d turn on more lights for evening mass, even in summer.
In a grotto to the left of the altar stood a life-sized statue of The Virgin Mary, illuminated by several rows of red offertory candles. Earlier in the day an elderly parishioner had brought in a dozen crimson roses from her garden and asked if she might lay them at the statue’s feet. In the flickering candlelight the carefully arranged blossoms created a dramatic effect against the white linen which he now believed merited closer inspection. Genuflecting before the altar, he followed the raised marble railing which led to the grotto.
Father Marc gingerly lowered himself onto the wooden prayer kneeler before The Virgin. He could remain thus only briefly before his knees locked and he leaned forward to transfer some of his body weight onto the wooden book rest. The solitary figure studied the statue’s expression and thought she looked more melancholy than he remembered, while The Virgin’s gaze never wavered from the front entrance to the church. Reaching over the rows of offertory candles, Father Marc selected one of the roses to enjoy its scent but discovered it had none. Disappointed, he replaced it and began counting the number of offertory candles lit that day by the hopeful.
Nineteen… no, twenty. Will there be $20 in the donations box, I wonder? I doubt those three little monkeys threw in anything.
A deep, sinister chuckle rose from within the shadows behind him at this last remark. Father Marc tensed and the hair stood up on his arms; he was not alone. For a moment he thought he’d unknowingly locked in a straggler but dismissed the idea just as quickly. Every instinct told him this was not a believer. The laugh was not human.
“Let me blow those out for you, Father,” came the low, menacing snarl. “You know me… I prefer to work in the dark.”
This time the guttural growl came from much closer yet he’d heard no footsteps. His blood froze and his knees were now on fire as he tried to stand without success. Bracing his arms against the book rest, he looked to The Virgin for guidance but her gaze was fixed upon what was now approaching.
Help me, Blessed Virgin. What has come into my church?
“She can’t hear you, you fool!” the voice snapped angrily. “But I’m listening to your every thought.” It then softened in tone but couldn’t conceal an underlying rage. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve journeyed a long way to find you.”
In one final effort Father Marc managed to get to his feet and turned around but saw no one. The church appeared empty but he knew this was not the case because every nerve in his body screamed he was in mortal danger. Whatever was hiding was playing a game. Waiting. Watching.
“I need to make a confession,” the voice whined mockingly. “I’m about to revert to my old ways and you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Won’t you come in and join me? I really don’t want to have to come out there and get you,” it hissed.
At that moment the light above the confessional door lit up, giving the cleric a start. It was in there waiting for him. Father Marc took a tentative step towards the confessional then stopped. As a Jesuit he’d been trained not to fear evil and although every instinct was telling him to flee this was not an option. Whatever had entered his church had no right being there and he grew angry, not only at this act of defilement but its sheer audacity. As his anger grew, so did his resolve. All the years of training now took over and he advanced slowly forward.
Blessed Mother, stay with your poor servant.
“It’s only you I want for now, Father,” the voice threatened. “I’ll deal with her later.”
Father Marc was no longer listening to the demon behind the door. Whispering the Act of Contrition, he was imagining what God looked like. He hoped his creator would be forgiving and reward him for what he was about to face in his name. The priest also wondered where God was at this very moment. Was he watching events here on Earth? Was this a test? Was the plan to intercede at the last moment and then reward him for his faith? His mind now racing, he hadn’t noticed that the sun had now set, plunging the church into total darkness except for the candlelit grotto and the ominous light above the confessional door.
His knees no longer hurt and he’d regained control over his breathing. The only sound was the loose change in his pocket which rattled with every step. He tried to visualise the demon that lay in wait for him and how best to fight it, fully aware the odds did not favour an old man. Martyrdom seemed inevitable and the priest accepted his fate as many others had before him, while his mind continued to release thousands of memories, one of which was a prayer his grandfather had taught him:
Aronhiate, onne aonstaniouas taitenr
“You don’t know which gods to call upon, do you?” the fiend tormented him. “How pleased do you think they’ll be to learn you’ve been playing them off against each other all these years? If you’re afraid now, wait until they get hold of you…”
When Father Marc arrived at the confessional the light above the door went out. Maintaining his composure, he pulled a plastic lighter from his shirt pocket and flicked it. He listened for any type of sound coming from inside the confessional but the church was shrouded in silence as if every living thing was hiding and holding its breath. His left temple ached and his stomach was turning.
God have mercy on my soul.
He reached for the door handle but his right hand stopped short and hovered above it, shaking, while the small flame from his lighter continually rose and fell, threatening to abandon him at any moment. Scarcely breathing, he silently closed his grip on the door handle and was about to turn it when he had a revelation.
It’s behind me.
Before he could turn around Father Marc was set upon. The old cleric was seized from behind and hurled across the church, landing in a broken heap beside the grotto. Disoriented and bleeding badly, he was again raised off the ground and slammed face down into the prayer kneeler before The Virgin. He clung onto the book rest with the last of his strength, realising this was where his enemy wanted him. Daring to open his eyes, he tried to focus but all he could make out was a pool of blood at the feet of The Virgin where the roses had once been.
“We need to talk, old man,” rasped the voice, its breathing now heavy and laboured. “It’s coming and I know you feel it too which explains that prayer.”
Father Marc couldn’t speak but he knew his thoughts were no longer his own. He also knew these were to be his last moments on Earth, a prospect which now filled him with joy because he was ready to meet his god.
You thought it was me, that’s why you came here.
“Yes, I now know you were only a diversion, a fatal mistake on your part.”
We all have roles to play and I’ve played mine.
“I’m getting closer each time, Father.”
Time is against you. It’s started and you can’t stop it. No one can.
“I can make one night last a thousand years,” the demon reminded the Jesuit, “or have you forgotten that?”
Raging it had wasted time pursuing the wrong quarry, the fiend had nonetheless gleaned vital information in its race to find answers, but it didn’t like being mocked and Father Marc would pay dearly for his defiance. All promises of mercy were now forgotten as the demon snapped the priest’s head back, breaking his neck, before bearing down for the final, frenzied attack upon Mary’s poor servant.
Every evening after dinner my dogs, Gizmo and Spark, take me for a walk. On our way to the park the pair regularly drops in on our elderly neighbours who, in most cases, once had dogs of their own. One in particular, Old Ed, is especially fond of Gizmo who himself is knocking on 17 years. The two have a bond and Ed discusses everything with his loyal friend, from his time in the National Service to the state of the NHS.
During one visit in particular we had time to spare and happily sat down to watch Crime Watch UK, one of Ed’s favourite TV programmes. Ed is 89 years old but not without his faculties and he considers it his civic duty to keep watch over the neighbourhood.
“It’s the old dears we need to look out for,” he said. “They’re soft targets.”
“And who’s looking out for you?” I asked.
That evening’s episode included a re-enactment of a homicide which had taken place in the shires. Like all re-enactments, the viewers were first introduced to the characters and setting to make its treatment of the crime less clinical and more personal. The victim in question was an elderly farmer. His last day on earth portrayed him as a hard-working, decent sort who was fair in his dealings with others. The narrator set the scene:
John Brown began his day like any other, checking his crops in the fields. For him, as for every other farmer in the county, rabbits proved a perennial pest because he grew their favourite food: carrots. Every morning, shotgun slung over his shoulder, he’d shoot as many as twenty before breakfast.
“Vermin,” Ed told Gizmo, who hung on his every word although deaf as a post.
After a long day’s work, John Brown drove his tractor into an outbuilding and locked it shut. He then checked on his cows and hens a final time before heading into the farmhouse.
“Cows and chickens make okay intruder alarms but he should have had a few geese as well. They’re the best,” Ed informed me.
“They’re skittish.Geese’ll wake the dead.”
“They haven’t mentioned his family so I’m guessing he might be a widower,” I ventured.
“They didn’t say. But where are the sons?”
“Maybe they didn’t choose that life.”
“It’s the best life for a person,” Ed was staring ahead at nothing in particular. “Fresh air, proper food, hard work…”
The narrator went on to describe what police believe happened next. Apparently, at some point during the night one or more intruders broke into the farmhouse. From what they could gather, the intruder(s) found John Brown’s shotgun by the door. Whether it was because he heard them or not, John Brown came downstairs and was confronted by the intruder(s) who killed him with his own shotgun.
Nothing of value was takenas far as police can tell. John Brown had no known enemies and it’s suspected it might have been a burglary which went horribly wrong.
“Poor bugger,” Ed stroked Gizmo behind the ears. “And by his own gun.”
“Maybe he screwed someone over,” I weighed the evidence. “Maybe he owed them money. Farmers are always juggling massive debts.”
“It wouldn’t be that.”
“Maybe developers wanted the land and he wouldn’t sell.”
“Nope, that’s not it.”
“Okay, last one,” I racked my brain. “Maybe he does have a son but they’re estranged and the son came to claim what he believed to be his birthright.”
“Not even close,” Ed looked out the window. “Think about it.”
I was flummoxed, but moreover, I was intrigued by his self-assuredness in the matter. I had apparently missed a vital clue which was the clincher. Now watching him savour the moment without any smugness whatsoever I was proud of Ed. He’d seen more in his lifetime than I ever would: The Great Depression, WW2, the draft, rationing, The Cold War and a man on the moon, yet I knew he now felt utterly discarded by those who had come after him. What he’d already forgotten I’d never know; I had gained knowledge whereas Ed’s generation had acquired wisdom.
“Give up?” he asked, thumbing tobacco into his pipe.
“I’m all out of ideas,” I conceded, happy to be sharing in his big moment.