It was the time Donal found most peaceful in St Brendan’s. Those first few hours after midnight when the air was still, only disturbed at that moment by the distant wail of a siren, way across town, that subsided almost as quickly as it had begun. It restarted a few moments later, somewhat closer, then fell away again.
He wondered momentarily whether it was coming anywhere nearby, then looked up into those familiar eyes atop the altar cross. Eyes that had looked down on him thirty years earlier when he had first beheld them as an altar boy, eyes that he had never been able to dismiss from his mind throughout those years. They had lovingly welcomed him every time he had returned to stand before them, yet in this flickering light from the many candle flames licking around the feet of the figure, they now seemed empty and sad.
“These eyes will always watch over you my son,” Father Daly had assured him the day Donal first sang in the choir. They gave him the courage to continue all the way through his first solo piece, despite the inner nerves threatening to engulf his vocal chords in silence. They had guided him through undistinguished school years, and welcomed him the day he left home to live next door to them in the Presbytery.
Donal had ambitions to take the cloth, but never advanced them. Father Daly, recognising the boy’s limitations in that regard, had instead taken Donal under his wing and given him duties that had eventually evolved into a role as secretary and housekeeper. Even though it was not a pastoral role, Donal had embraced it, and took many onerous tasks away from Father Daly, leaving him more time to fulfil his calling. In return Father Daly provided for all of Donal’s needs.
Nothing much changed at St Brendan’s. For Donal it was an idyllic island at the centre of a bustling community; the mooring post for an evermore-bewildering world. Occasionally that world would invade their sanctuary, as it had a few weeks earlier when they awoke to find the carved figure on the altar had been defaced. The figure was immediately removed by the Diocese, the empty cross it left behind seeming to symbolise the desolation felt by the congregation, and particularly Donal. But now it had returned.
Yet this Sunday had still felt unusual. Morning Mass had the usual sporadic attendance, but the church had only been half-full at eleven. There was an even-smaller congregation in the evening, and no confessions had been taken that day. By the time Donal served supper in Father Daly’s study, it was clear that the priest was troubled.
Donal had questions for Father Daly. As a boy, he had always had questions for Father Daly: ‘why was the vengeful God of the Old Testament so forgiving in the New? After all, we killed his son hadn’t we?’ That one had never been fully-answered, other than with a sympathetic smile and a hug for his little favourite. ‘Why is the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible – surely if we were told what it was all about at the beginning, we could understand it all the better.’ “Ah,” replied Father Daly, “but you need all of the facts before you can be helped to piece them together.”
There had been many facts on the front page of the Sunday newspaper: they were the reason Donal had more questions. But having not asked for answers from his priest for many years, he found it difficult to know where to start. Father Daly looked at him as the supper tray was placed on the table: “Donal,” he asked, “how long is it since you have been to confession?” Donal shrugged. The priest sighed, then looked straight at his companion: “well, it cannot be as long as I. Donal, will you hear my confession?”
Donal was shocked; he tried to reply, but no words would come from his mouth. Father Daly smiled: “I know, you don’t think you are qualified.” Donal nodded sadly. Father Daly continued: “well, you are probably the most qualified of all Donal. Come with me.”
The Priest led Donal to the church, where they entered their appropriate sides of the confessional. Once inside, Father Daly slid back the divider and began talking; he must have talked for hours. As the facts were related, tears flowed down Donal’s cheeks; he could not believe what he was hearing. He had always assumed he was the only one – the special one. Now it was obvious that he wasn’t – there were so many more. At the end of his confession, Father Daly closed the divider and quietly left the cubicle.
Donal was paralysed momentarily by the emptiness. Emotions flooded through his mind: sadness, anger, loss, fear. Everything he relied on in his world was evaporating, so what would happen to him now? Could he stop it from happening? Then he felt a sudden recognition of empowerment rush through his body. He leapt through the curtain to see the dishevelled priest shuffling away towards the vestry. Donal noticed some tools and pieces of wood left alongside the altar by the carpenter working on the cross, preparing it for the return of its main feature; one piece was sufficiently heavy to halt the departure.
Donal had been surprised how slight of stature Father Daly had felt in his arms; he had always seemed such a large man by comparison. Lifting him into place had been easier than Donal had imagined; as had been driving home the heavy nails, from the carpenter’s toolbox, through flesh and bone.
Donal knelt before the altar and beheld it, complete once more, yet somehow more realistic. The red of the blood seemed to glisten in the strangely strobing light from beyond the windows. The door opened at the far end of the aisle and two figures in hi-vis jackets entered. A strange squawking momentarily echoed around the cloister, then stopped. The younger figure clamped his hand across his mouth, then ran back through the door.
The elder, who had been an altar boy with Donal all those years earlier, simply crossed himself.