James Roderick Burns
I waited for the priest in the shadow of the trees. The churchyard was empty and quiet, soft orange light from the street lamps marking the edges of graves, Seven Martyrs silent above the evening traffic. I had seen him several times before, walking to the station or shaking out his umbrella in a doorway, and thought he had a kind and understanding face. I hoped he would be able to help me.
I pressed back further into the shadows and checked my watch. Just gone half-past seven. I wasn’t sure if I had been seen, or even followed across the common from my flat. I had to be careful – the man could be out there, anywhere, waiting for me. But where was the priest? I had followed his movements for a few days and usually he returned to the church before dusk. There was a loud clashing of gears – a London bus, tall and grubby-red, rumbling onto the High Road – then I heard the latch on the gate. The priest walked briskly through and turned towards the church, passing my hiding place. I followed him up to the door.
‘Excuse me, Father. Could I have a moment of your time?’
He turned round, startled at my voice. I took a step backwards to show I meant no harm. He peered at my face, then down at my suit and shoes, the briefcase at my side, and nodded with a half-smile. He unlocked the door with a heavy key.
‘Please, come through.’
I followed him down a cold and badly-lit corridor to the rear of the church, through a set of double doors and up a flight of stairs to his personal quarters. He put down his belongings on a hall table and ushered me into the study, turning on a lamp.
‘My name’s – ’ I began. He smiled again, held up a hand.
‘I do not need to know. You are troubled; that is enough. Would you like some tea?’ Already I was feeling reassured – by his calm and patience, the safety of this small room, the precise modulation of his voice, which still carried a trace of the islands. I shook my head. ‘Something stronger?’ He got out a bottle from the sideboard and poured two quick fingers of whisky. ‘Now tell me, what can I do for you?’
‘I think I’m being pursued.’ I tensed in anticipation of his response, but nothing happened – not the trace of a smile or the movement of light in his deep-set eyes. He sat with his fingertips touching. After a few seconds’ awkward silence I realised he was taking me seriously, and waiting for the rest of the story. He nodded for me to continue, his face lined and solemn in the subdued light from the lamp. I picked up a little confidence, sat upright in the chair. ‘It happened a couple of weeks ago, in town. I was looking for – I needed to acquire something, you know, for a piece I was writing. I do a column on ethical matters in my spare time, and I understood a man like that might be of some use to me. I thought it would be quick and simple and it was - quick, at least, but ...’
The priest leaned forward. ‘Why don’t you tell me how it happened?’ I sat back again, moving out of the light. How exactly had it happened?
I had taught ethics at the university for almost thirty years, and rarely moved beyond the comfortable parameters of lecture hall and seminar room, committee chamber and college bar. I filtered my understanding of the world through newspapers and my colleagues, one or two of whom I called friends. In short, the university comprised almost the whole of my world, and Ihad little opportunity or inclination to change.
Then six months ago an acquaintance with whom I’d lost contact got in touch with me from out of the blue. He confessed – sheepishly – that since I had first known him he had married and had a child, and that his job editing trade publications was no longer sufficient to make ends meet. He confessed even more sheepishly that he had assumed the editorship of a gentlemen’s magazine, and was in need of a principled man to write a problem column every month. He had naturally thought of me. At first I was reluctant, but after a delightful meeting in town where we renewed our acquaintance with great vigour, and rather a lot of malt, I allowed myself to be persuaded. The honorarium, £500 for as many words, finally nudged me into acceptance.
Initially the problems were quite predictable - with all this talk about the environment, should I feel guilty about driving my car? What’s wrong with spending all the money I earn? Should I invest in companies that exploit cheap labour in the developing world, or that trade in arms? Usually there was a neat ethical answer to hand, clean and tidily wrapped in conventional moral arguments, and I typed away for several months, hardly giving it a thought. My friend was happy with the column, and always complimented me on my concision and respect for deadlines over a drink or two on the day we went to press. It seemed innocent enough.
Then one day a letter arrived at the college, the writing on the dun-coloured envelope small and slanted. Ordinarily I received the potential questions for my column in a package, typed up and alphabetised by a secretary at the magazine, but this one found its way to me on its own. I sat by my window in the college and read it as the sun went down. The writer wanted my advice on an aspect of his life which he was honest enough to question: greed. Not material gain, or a love of money, but simple old-fashioned gluttony – he loved to indulge himself in fatty meats and cheeses, sweets, cakes and ice cream, drink of any and all sorts, and he hated exercise or anything else which required him to fatigue his body. This was remarkable for its honesty, but overall seemed quite ordinary; though he argued for absolute dominion over his own body, I had no difficulty countering his points with standard arguments founded in social responsibility and the tenets of religion, and was half way through my reply when an image crowded into my mind. A half-eaten chicken leg torn from the carcass, its skin pricked and glistening, juices running from the creamy flesh around the bone.
Why should such an image trouble me? I looked out over the rooftops, the slates catching a deep red from the sun, and realised I had no idea what kind of mania had seized the man. To me this food was abstract, dry and theoretical, but it surged through his mind like fire through chaff. I felt like a fraud, a seller of snake-oil. I deleted the half-dozen lines I had written and locked up my room, taking the letter with me. The next morning I had a graduate seminar, but called my secretary to cancel it and caught a bus to Knightsbridge. At a cash machine I withdrew six twenty pound notes and walked through the gold-tinted doors of the Food Hall. I walked the aisles filling a basket with food and drink – wild smoked salmon, pâtés and cheeses, a bottle of cask-strength malt – then peeled off five crisp new notes to pay for them, lugged the bulging carrier bag back to my flat.
Inside I pulled down the blinds and laid out my purchases on the coffee table. They didn’t look like much, certainly not what I had paid for them, and I briefly wondered again about the power of such things over a man’s mind. But when I opened the salmon, laid a sliver on the edge of a cracker, the whole flat bloomed with a rich salty river smell. I felt a quick hunger dart through me, and pulled off the wrapping on the pâté and the cheeses, poured a generous measure of scotch. In an hour I had finished almost all of the food and made a dent in the whisky, and my brain was spinning with delight. My throat felt warm and honeyed, my stomach heavy with a golden weight; I had no desire to do anything but close my eyes, and fell back gratefully into my chair for a rest.
The following day I tried to revive my arguments for moderation, but found them nerveless and uninspiring. The taste of that buttery salmon returned, smooth and delicate as oil on my tongue, and I found myself looking more kindly on his indulgence. Food was a necessity, after all, and why shouldn’t we take pleasure in its consumption? Perhaps not to excess, but certainly enjoyment didn’t seem beyond the bounds of what was reasonable. As I walked through these steps in my mind the words began to flow, and in an hour I had completed four additional questions, more than enough for the next column. I stood up when I was finished, stretched – an excellent morning’s work – and left the college to get something to eat.
The next batch of questions seemed more slippery, somehow, less clear cut, more challenging. Was it acceptable to see too much of a friend’s wife, and still enjoy the company of her husband? Were there occasions where cursing could be forgiven, even praised, if it relieved intolerable pressure on a tormented soul? I didn’t know, and vowing not to duck the question, I decided to try and find out. With each new challenge I edged further away from the light and clarity of my former certitude and into a murkier world of compromise, of unseen give-and-take. The more I experienced men’s sins the less clearly I was able to see them. I found myself looking sympathetically at a problem, seeking to understand its perverse twists and turns – pardoning it – and it became clear that nothing was simple when you found yourself inside it. My solutions became weak, compromised, even indulgent; I stopped shy of recommending the behaviour, but certainly condoned it. What else could I say, once I understood?
And thus I found myself sitting beneath the ticking clock in this darkening room, talking to a silent priest. His voice, when it came, was sudden as a noose.
‘What about the man you believe is following you?’ He locked his fingers together, turned them inside out, and brief shadows flickered on the wall. The light paled like a summer storm.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him.’
‘What did he do for you?’
‘He lent me a large amount of money. Thousands of pounds, in a dirty envelope. I took it from him in an alley behind the station.’ Even saying the words brought back the terror, then the awful excitement of it. I had wanted to abandon myself to fate like the debt-haunted correspondent who had sought me out. I needed to feel his desperation in order to help him.
‘What did he look like?’
‘I don’t know. I never saw his face. He stayed back in the shadows, scraping something against the wall and smoking a cigarette. His voice was low and menacing. I thrilled to it. He said I should just take the money, that he would know where to find me when it was time to collect.’
‘And what do you want from me?’ The priest raised his craggy face into the light. I thought I saw a spark of pity in his eyes. Outside the wind caught up the branches of the trees into a sudden rhythm. A shutter flapped in the breeze, battering through the hall like footsteps. Under its brittle shade the lamp snatched at the light. I swallowed.
‘I want you to forgive me.’