The two fishermen were winching some large plastic boxes onto the dock as I was walking back to my car. Father and son, I assumed. They didn’t seem to notice me.
I was almost at the car when the older man spoke. “Wicked morning, eh, Father.”
“I never forget a face,” he said. “Father MacAskill, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said.
He walked toward me then, holding out a large hand. He seemed a bit unsteady. The boy was back on board the boat and out of sight.
“Dan MacKay,” he said. “I think I heard you’re from up around the strait.”
“Yes. And you?”
“I’m a shore road MacKay.”
His hair, the colour of sand, was streaked with wisps of grey. A name stirred in the memory.
“Danny Ban,” I said. “They used to call you Danny Ban, I think.”
He blushed. “Years ago. I’d hate to think of what you heard. Danny Bad was more like it, probably.”
“But I don’t live here now. I’m up in Hawthorne. Been there for years. Built my own place after the young fella came along.”
“Hawthorne,” I said. “I noticed … the name on your boat.”
“You know the place?”
“I’ve heard of it. But I’ve never been there.”
“You should drop in sometime. Visit the house.”
“Maybe I will.”
The boy was walking toward their truck, ignoring us.
“The name is on the mailbox at the lane,” his father said. “MacKay. We’re the only ones up there.”
He turned then and walked toward the truck, where the boy was already waiting at the wheel. The engine roared impatiently to life. I wondered again about the unsteadiness in his pace. From being on the boat, I thought. Sea legs.
He’d hardly closed the truck door when they were off, rear wheels spinning in the gravel. The truck stopped briefly where the wharf road meets the pavement. You could tell by the angled heads that they were talking. Using their secret language, the dialect of intimacy. Single words and obscure phrases conveying volumes.
“I’m a shore road MacKay,” he’d said. A brief biography and, for those who know the place, a genealogy, all you need to know summed up in a single phrase. Once, I might have felt a little envious. But somewhere along the way identity has ceased to matter, where I’m from, inconsequential. I have become the cloth. That’s enough for anyone to know.
“Come by any time,” he’d said. “For a visit.”
And that’s how things begin. Needs dressed up as hospitality.
There was a rusty freighter in the canal that technically sustains our status as an island. The swing bridge at the end of the mile-long causeway was open, the road lined with cars and trucks impatient for their mainland destinations. I welcomed the delay. The bishop always has a reason when he calls; he always has a “special” job.
I’ve often tried to remember how it started, how I became his … what? What am I? I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. I’ll put it this way: for other priests, I’m not a welcome presence on the doorstep.
The first summons by the bishop had seemed innocuous enough. The particulars are almost lost now, obscured by far more troubling memories, but I remember what he said: “I’ve asked you to come here because you have a good head on your shoulders.”
He wanted me to handle a delicate matter. That was how he would describe them all. Matters that were delicate. Issues that required a good head and a steady hand. It was probably the late seventies. I’d only just returned from my two years in Honduras.
“After what you’ve been through down south,” he said, “you’ll probably consider this kind of Mickey Mouse. But things are getting out of hand here. Dear old John the Twenty-third, God rest his soul … he had no idea what he was getting us all into.”
I remember listening carefully, trying to anticipate where he was heading.
He sighed deeply. “There’s a young priest … You probably know him.”
I probably did, at one time.
I’d prefer not to name the place specifically. Just imagine one of many threadbare little communities clinging to the hundreds of bays and coves that once had integrity by virtue of their isolation. The priest in question and his young housekeeper had become a source of local gossip. I do remember that she had a pretty face with warm, frightened eyes and a full mouth that trembled when I asked her if Father was in. But mostly I remember the culprit’s attitude. It was his smugness, his unspoken sense of superiority. It was his obvious certainty that he’d transcended the lies and postures that had trapped the rest of us, we lesser priests, in our barren inhumanity. I’ve heard and seen it all many times since then.
I said: “Your housekeeper seems to be putting on weight.” I smiled, coldly, I hoped.
He laughed. “I already know why you’re here. Let’s not beat around the bush.”
“You go first,” I said, sipping at my tea.
He told me that “in all sincerity” the situation made him a better person. He actually believed it. I confess I felt like hitting him. I think I arranged a period of reflection in Toronto and he was gone in a few weeks. I persuaded her to lie low for a while. Life is full of temporary absences, I told her. It was that simple. But it was only the beginning, a sad rehearsal for the challenging assignments yet to come.
I was rattled by the time I reached the campus. It’s difficult to say for sure why. The reference to Hawthorne? The boy on the boat? Given what I now know, it could have been either, but it was, in part, almost certainly the summons from the bishop. The bishop only calls when there’s a problem.
“You know about the bishop?” Rita reminded me.
“And you have an appointment at three this afternoon. An incident on the weekend.”
“Incident? What kind of incident?”
“Campus police found a fellow on the roof of the chapel. They think that you should handle it.” She smiled, sympathetically, I thought.
I guess by then a part of me accepted that I’d become a specialist in discipline. Technically it’s part of the dean’s job, and I was officially a dean. In truth I had neither the academic nor the occupational background for such a post. Just the temperament and, by default, the practical experience. I was a clergyman posted to a small, nominally Catholic university because my bishop didn’t really know where else to put me. At the peak of my usefulness I was attached to the diocesan chancery, but I soon became too controversial even for that busy place. Toxic, I suppose, is not too strong a word. My colleagues know about my history, my experience rooting out perversions, disciplining other priests, and sometimes students, when the cases are particularly sensitive. The Exorcist they’ve called me. Behind my back, of course.
A student on the chapel roof?
“He had a handsaw.”
The bishop was expecting me at seven. I decided to walk. The town was quiet. On Monday nights the students usually stay in because they’re broke or hungover or both. Bored waiters stood outside the silent pub, the smoke from their cigarettes curling like fog around them in the still October air.
“Winter’s not far off,” I remark, walking by.
Once, the reply would have been swift and respectful. Yes, Father. Hand raised quickly to the cap. You can feel the snow in the air already. Good evening to yourself, Father. Now they stare. They’re just suspicious. Burly boys in baseball caps, arms folded. We are a fallen species. Strange men in black, stunted by the burden of our secrets. I smile. What if they knew the whole story?
I try to remember all the times I’ve made that walk through town to see my bishop. Past the looming cathedral, the bowling alley, the pub. Past what was, in my student days, a restaurant called the Brigadoon. We had rules back then. Lights out at eleven. Up and out in time for Mass at seven. No alcohol or women in the rooms. Virtue was the essence of the status quo. Virtue was the norm, they taught us.
Times have changed.
I fumble for the rosary in the pocket of my overcoat. The mindless recitation always helps subdue anxiety.
The first sorrowful mystery. The agony in the garden. The smooth, small beads are soothing on the fingertips.
The bishop’s palace is set back from Main Street, among dark chestnut trees. I don’t know why they call it the palace. It’s just a house, large to be sure, and elegant. The designation “palace” probably had more to do with the authority of the old man inside than the architecture.
He met me at the door. I anticipated the welcoming aromas of cooking, but the place seemed clean and empty, vaguely like the cathedral on St. Ninian Street.
“I forgot,” he said. “Herself had the day off. I’m hopeless in the kitchen. You didn’t eat, did you?”
“Well, I’m starved. You order up a pizza. It’ll be on me. You’d have a dram?”
“I would,” I said, “if you coaxed me.”
“Help yourself. I’m on the phone. There’s a takeout menu on my desk.”
He disappeared again and I headed for the sideboard in his study, where the whiskies were lined up in crystal decanters. I poured a drink. Picked up the phone, heard someone talking far away, quickly opened up another line and dialed the local takeout. Then sat down to wait. Our Saviour, hanging on the large crucifix above the desk, was staring down at me. He seemed to be saying: You again? What now? I wish I knew. I could hear the bishop’s voice faintly in another room. He was speaking loudly. But then I heard what seemed to be a laugh.
I’m sure he wasn’t that informal for everybody. I had special status because of my unusual history. My adult life, I suppose, could be measured in the spaces between my visits to that little office. How many years since I first sat there, a student, earnest in the throes of my vocation, oozing piety and purpose? I can see him now, sitting serenely beneath that crucifix.
“I think I want to be a priest,” I told him, heart pounding.
He listened quietly, but in the manner of one who already knew far more than I was telling him. He was smiling, but the eyes were not encouraging. “Why would you want to be a priest?”
I wasn’t ready for the question. I assumed the Church was like any wartime army, always looking for recruits.
“I might need time to think before I answer,” I said carefully.
“Good. Take all the time you need. The answer is important. It could one day save your soul.”
He never asked again, which is just as well, for even now I’m not sure what I’d say.
My eyes drifted back to the crucifix. The Saviour’s face exhibits a kind of weariness that I can easily relate to. When all is said and done, I thought, I don’t really have the stomach for this anymore. Disciplining wayward priests and drunken students.
The door opened suddenly. I want to say he “swept” into the room. You could imagine the swish of vestments, medieval dust rising around sandals. He was wearing running shoes, cords and a cardigan. His silver hair was disorderly. He went straight to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink. The bishop grew up in a place called Malignant Cove and clearly loves the reaction this disclosure always gets. You laugh as though you haven’t heard it a hundred times before.
“You were in Port Hood for the weekend.”
“Yes,” I said. “Mullins called out of the blue.”
He was pouring generously. “Coincidentally, I was just on the phone about a matter indirectly concerning Port Hood. And you.”
I was trying to imagine what it was.
“You remember Father Bell … the notorious Brendan Bell?”
“Yes,” I said warily, thinking to myself, So that’s what this is all about. Brendan Bell. What now?
“One of your former clients,” he said.
Bell was supposed to be the last of them—“the last station on our
” was how he phrased it. The bishop actually promised. This should be the last of it, he’d said. Maybe that’s why I recall that particular encounter with such clarity.
The first time I met him, Bell was sitting exactly where I was sitting at that moment. It was in the winter, 1990. He made quite an impression, an Anglo-Irish Newfoundlander, a little shorter than I am, but most people are. Dark brown hair pulled back tightly into a tiny knob-like ponytail, a brilliant smile that seemed genuine, and nothing whatsoever in his manner that might reveal the miserable circumstances that sent him to us. But I soon found out that he was in a spot of trouble. The bishop of St. John’s was asking for a tiny favour.
I suggested Mullins in Port Hood.
“You’ll like Port Hood,” I said. “But they won’t put up with any bullshit there.”
Bell smiled at me and nodded. “I hear you loud and clear.”