The day the confessional was removed from the church, Patrick went to watch. He hadn’t set foot inside a church for twenty years, maybe more. Time slid past so quickly.
When he walked in, the workmen were already there, with the parish priest, Father Jim as he liked to be called, chatting with them and giving the odd instruction. They hadn’t started on the box yet, but had moved back a few of the pews out of the way and so they wouldn’t get damaged. Patrick wondered if anyone was making church pews anymore, if there was a market for it at all now. He took a seat at the back of the church, in the shadows under the balcony. Father Jim saw him take his seat and nodded at him, continuing to talk with the men.
Finally, all the prep was done and the dismantling was about to begin. It started quietly enough as the door to the confessor’s section was taken off its hinges. But that alone was enough to bring a flood of memories rushing back to Patrick.
He could remember the smell of the box, the lingering scent of pine and the stronger smell of Pledge furniture polish. He remembered what it felt like to sit inside there with the door closed, in the semi-darkness, waiting for his turn to confess. He would hear the murmurings of the confessor on the far side of the box, then louder mumbling as the priest gave them their penance and blessed them. Then he would hear the priest would slide shut the grill to the far box and he readied himself for when his own grille would slide open, allowing a shaft of golden light into the box as if the grace of God itself was now present there.
As an eight-year-old boy, he never really had that many sins to confess. He used to ask his older brother for inspiration on what to tell the priest. “Tell him you cursed twice, didn’t say your prayers every night and you lied three times.” Patrick would rehearse his list over and over on the way to confessions. Sometimes he wondered if he should confess to making up things to confess to.
The last time Patrick went to confession, he was on his own. His mother had told him to go on the way home from school. He didn’t really want to but, as Christmas was in a few weeks, he thought it might help his case with Santa if his soul was officially cleansed of sin.
There weren’t many people there; just a few old women and himself. The women were all kneeling and clicking their rosary beads through their fingers as they muttered the prayers. Patrick didn’t have a rosary beads, but he thought he’d better kneel like the rest of them. He enlaced his fingers as if he was praying and drifted off into daydreams.
After a while, Canon Fogarty emerged from the confessional box and started walking towards the entrance of the church. “Don’t worry,” he said with a grin, “I’ll be back for you two.” Patrick looked around and saw there was only himself and one of the women left waiting. On his way back into the box, the canon put his hand on Patrick’s shoulder and whispered: ”How about you let Mrs Grogan go first? The cold in here isn’t good for her and she never has too many sins so she won’t keep you waiting too long.” Patrick looked up at the priest, grinned and nodded.
And indeed, less than 15 minutes later, Patrick was inside the confessional and hearing the grille to his side slide back.
“Dear Father, it is three weeks since my last confession.”
Patrick went through his prepared list of sins, rattling them off like an expert. He made sure to include the sins that would be expected of a boy but not have the same list he’d cited at his last confession. When he’d finished, he leaned back and waited for the canon to speak.
“Is that all?” the canon asked.
“Are you lying to me?”
Patrick looked up, wary at the canon’s tone. “No, Father, that’s all my sins.”
“You little brat. I’ll teach you to lie to a priest in the confession box.”
The canon burst out of his cubicle and swung open the door to Patrick’s section. He loomed over him for a few seconds, a black figure framed against the light. Then he pounced, hitting Patrick around the head. Patrick yelled in fright. He put up his hands to defend himself and tears flowed from his eyes. He didn’t understand what he had done to anger the canon like this. The canon whirled Patrick around and pushed him face downwards across the stool. When he felt his trousers being pulled off, Patrick began to struggle even harder but the canon’s weight held him down. He could feel the canon’s thick fingers clamped across his face, sealing his mouth shut and digging into his left cheek. He could hardly breathe. He also felt the canon’s paunch on his back, and the liquid from the canon’s pint at lunchtime slosh around inside as the canon’s body lurched up and down.
Then there was most excruciating pain Patrick had ever felt in his short life. He thought he was being split in two. He screamed in agony and begged the canon to stop but he seemed as if in another world. Patrick heard roaring in his ears and lights danced in front of his eyes, and then everything went black.
When he woke up, he was lying in his own bed. His whole body felt battered and bruised. He saw his mother sitting beside the bed, smiling down at him. “Canon Fogarty said you fainted in the church. Did you not eat your lunch today?” Patrick began to cry again. His mother jumped out of her chair and took him in her arms. “It’s ok, Patrick, you’re home now,” she crooned. “He did something to me, Mammy…”
Patrick dragged himself back to the present world when Father Jim sat down beside him. Together they watched as the confessional box was torn out of its niche in the wall. “The times they are a-changing,” declared Father Jim, drily.
Then Patrick heard the unmistakable sound of a champagne cork popping. He looked down to see Father Jim trying to muffle the sound of the champagne bubbling out of the bottle. “I thought you might like a drink to mark the occasion,’ he said to Patrick, giving him a wink. He indicated to a black canvas bag at his feet. “Will you get the mugs out of there? I’m afraid we have to slum it – I had no crystal flutes in the cupboard.”
Patrick pulled out two mugs and held them while Father Jim filled them both to the brim. The priest glanced furtively at the workmen a few times as he did so, but they were paying no heed. The two men sat back in the bench and sipped their champagne.
“I’m sorry that man never saw the inside of a prison cell for what he did to you,” Father Jim said quietly. “You were a little boy telling the truth and everybody knew back then you were telling the truth. They just didn’t want to hear it. Fogarty will burn in hell for his sins.”
Patrick stared into his mug of champagne, the lump in his throat feeling as if it was going to choke him.
“You’re welcome in this church any day,” Father Jim added. He put down his mug and strode up to the workmen, rubbing his hands. “That’s a grand job you’ve done there, lads,” he cried.
Patrick walked slowly from the cool darkness of the church into the sunlight with the smell of sawdust in his nostrils and laughter ringing in his ears. He took a deep breath, feeling whole again for the first time in years.