This is a story I entered for a short story competition, unfortunately I heard nothing back but I thought I could at least show the blogging world what I can do…
It was when I first doubted mankind’s integrity, and was sick of the ritual of church that I first met him. His ragged grey tufts of hair poked out his woollen green hat and led to a grim white beard. When he spoke the sour breath of decay and communal wine crept out of his mouth, it was a smell that remained throughout our friendship.
Our first encounter was when I was sat on a park bench around the back of the church. His first words to me were inaudible, and I did not feel Samaritan enough to ask him to repeat himself. He proceeded by urinating on the newly gardened church plants. I made him leave the grounds immediately, unable to contain my disgust and fury.
From then on I saw him moping around, always with one eye on the church and one hand in the bin. It was the third or fourth time seeing him eat some foreign object from the rubbish outside the church gates that I was spurred into action from a mixture of disgust and guilt from my treatment of a man who did not know any better. As I approached I whispered ‘Love thy Neighbour’ for my own ears, and inhaled deeply on my arrival.
“Father Graham.” I introduced myself. I stood waiting for a reply. “I’ve noticed you in my congregations…” I trailed off realising the weak approach that I had. He didn’t care who I was. How egotistical was it that I thought he would? I decided to seek his forgiveness through my rehearsed apology. “I’m sorry for attacking you last time we met, I hope we can get past this.”
His response was to delve deeper into my dustbin and pull out an empty packet of what appeared to be last night’s supper. He continued by licking the dried tomato sauce from the plastic. I could not watch anymore, keeping my guilt in mind as I headed inside. The next time I came out was the first time he had looked at me properly. I held a large loaf of bread and a few slices of ham. I sat down a couple of metres away from him with the bread on my lap. He stared at me, his mouth hanging open at the sight of fresh food as he slurred a sentence, speaking as if he had not uttered a word in years.
“Is ‘at for me faver?”
I nodded tearing the loaf in half and stretched out my hand in a peace offering. He slowly took it seeming unsure, but he calmed down a little as he glanced at my dog collar. He raised the bread towards his blackened teeth, the smell obviously increasing the level of hunger he suffered from. He stuffed a large amount into his mouth and swallowed almost as though he was afraid to taste the food. After the first half of the loaf had gone I gave him a portion more along with half the ham, saving a small amount for myself. I left him eating as I strolled back inside with a smile stretching my lips.
It was only when I started Eucharist late that Friday that I saw him again. He came up during communion and I gave him an especially large gulp of Christ’s blood even though I doubted his confirmation. He stumbled back to an empty pew where he promptly lay down.
When it was time to lock the great doors of the church I left him to sleep, giving him the shelter that the building provided, though I was careful to lock away the silverware, and more importantly; the communion wine.
Life went on in this fashion for the best part of a month as I fed and housed him. The only exchange was an occasional slurred sentence or a snore as I walked past his pew.
Then once when I was holding confession, I smelt his familiar earthy aroma enter the booth and it took me by complete surprise. Curiosity arose within me and I was about to begin when he interrupted.
“What sins ‘ave you done faver?”
I laughed; it was the only thing I could do. Surprise and embarrassment washed over me.
“I’ve committed no sins that the Lord hasn’t forgiven me for.” We sat in silence for a couple of seconds as I wondered if I had escaped with my complete avoidance of answering the question. “What about you?”
He inhaled sharply suddenly awake, his coarse accent grating the air.
“What about me? I’ve been part of a murder. But tha’s another story.”
His words hung dramatically in the air as an eerie quiet arose. I had the complete inability to read whether he was joking or not. I sat confused, sure that no one would reveal a secret like this in such a circumstance, or so light-heartedly. I wondered for a second if I had been housing a murderer.
“I’s in prison for a long time.”
He stopped talking, as his words drifted into the silence of the church. A hiccup echoed on the other side of the partition.
“He was my brother.”
I stayed where I was in disbelief. His voice sounded truthful, full of deep remorse where he uttered those last four words. I assumed he was lying and trying to manipulate me; especially with the ease he had admitting such a tragedy. My job however, was to give forgiveness if he truly sought it, so I ventured my question.
“The Lord can help anyone who knows their wrongdoings and truly repents.” I paused hoping for an acknowledgement. After a couple of seconds I carried on. “Do you seek forgiveness?”
His face became pressed up against the partition as I waited tensely for an answer, hoping it would be telling of how truthful he was being. The smell of his breath fell heavily into my nostrils and a snore dropped from his mouth. I sighed; he had been acting to neither of my assumptions and had simply been playing a drunken joke on me. I left him there and apologised to the people who had been waiting. Mrs Johnson, who had written in the parish newsletter about the degradation of the community, was the last to accept my apology. She made sure she held my gaze for more than was necessary before she turned. As her feet sounded on the floor her head tilted back so she could look down her nose at everyone and everything.
In the following weeks he came more frequently to confession, each time telling a different story, all of them varying in depth and description, all of them ending with the death of his brother. As his confessions continued, the more worried I became about the truth of the tales.
In late summer when he disappeared for two complete weeks. Each one of the fourteen days I had considered calling the police, and every time I got to the phone I didn’t know what I was going to say. I did not even know his name. I discovered him lying in the street. When I arrived at his side I saw his face was drenched in blue and purple from various bruises. His nose and upper lip were crimson with blood and his breath fell shallow and faint. I called an ambulance.
The journey ran in slow motion as I travelled beside him to the hospital, but it was the taxi back that was even longer and even more surreal. Grief pulsated within me as the horrible aftertaste of regret followed.
A crumpled letter worn down from years of use and care lay in my hands. The only material possession in a life of neglect, and it had been passed to me in his death.
My Darling Son,
It is not your fault. It pains me to even start to think you would blame yourself. What happened could never be in your control, or anyone else’s. What he asked of you should never be asked of anyone let alone a brother.
The most important thing is that you do not blame yourself; there is no point in losing your life because your brother lost his. I need you to come back home, or at least to know your safe, I can’t keep not knowing and I just cannot cope with the idea of losing both my sons.
Please come back home and let life carry on.
Your ever loving and understanding,