by Richard Rose
The request for a visit from a priest had taken Lucy by surprise. She knew that as a child her mother, encouraged by her parents who were devout Catholics, had been a regular church goer, but in her entire thirty-two years she could never recall her attending services other than the occasional wedding or funeral.
Knowing that she had at most a few weeks to live, Clara Smith had requested that she return home from the hospice where she had been cared for over the past three weeks, even though she recognised that this would place a burden upon her daughter. But she reasoned, this would be for only a short time, and to spend one’s last days surrounded by the familiar features and comforts of home seemed to be a reasonable demand. Lucy was indeed apprehensive, though not so much about the responsibility of nursing her mother through her final days, after all the hospice nurses had agreed a comprehensive package of support to be in place throughout this period. Lucy had moved into her mother’s house knowing that this temporary arrangement was destined to be for only a sort time and did so not out of a sense of duty, but more as a final act of love. No, it was not the duty of caring for her mother that worried her, but rather the thought of witnessing that final, dreadful instant when she would draw her last breath. Lucy found it painful to envisage such a moment and all the emotion that she knew would inevitably take over when it came.
Lucy and her mother had always been close. As a single mother, Clara had struggled in the early days to ensure an adequate income, whilst devoting herself to the upbringing of her daughter. Despite the absence of a father, Lucy never felt deprived in any way and indeed her recollections of childhood were almost exclusively happy. From an early age Lucy had learned not to enquire too closely after her father, accepting the word of her mother that he had been at heart a good man, but that circumstances meant that he could never play a part in their lives. Whenever the topic was raised Clara Smith was evasive and sometimes pensive and as she grew older Lucy simply accepted that this was a subject best left alone.
Without hesitation and knowing that time was precious, having received the unanticipated request from her mother, Lucy had made the phone call seeking a visit from a priest. But not just any priest. Lucy had been surprised when her mother had issued specific instructions that she should call for Father Thomas Cleary from St Joseph’s church. His was a name unfamiliar to Lucy. Why specifically this priest was demanded, she could not imagine. St Joseph’s was situated some distance away, across the other side of the city and she knew of at least two other catholic churches, which were in much closer proximity to her mother’s home. But Clara had been insistent that only Father Cleary would do, and Lucy knew that it was important to do all that she could to satisfy her mother’s needs and make her final days as comfortable as possible.
During her telephone conversation with Father Cleary, Lucy was reassured by his kindly and concerned response to her request. As she explained her mother’s condition and the urgency of the situation she was relieved to hear his calm and affirmative response, assuring her of his attention and promising that he would respond as quickly as possible. Having confirmed the address and repeated this and Lucy’s telephone number back to her, the priest promised to be with her at around six o’clock that evening. Lucy could be assured that such situations as that which she had described, were wholly familiar to him and that he would come prepared to offer whatever service was needed.
Having made the arrangements in accordance with her mother’s wishes, Lucy felt an immediate sense of relief. The request for a priest had been unexpected and being unfamiliar with the formalities and rituals of the church she has been apprehensive about contacting the stranger. But now that the task was complete she felt that at least she had done her duty according to her dying mother’s wishes. Entering the bedroom, she was pleased to see her mother smile as she reported the outcome of her telephone conversation and confirmed the impending evening’s visit. For the first time in many days during which Clara Smith had lain almost motionless in her bed, Lucy’s mother appeared animated. “Father Thomas Cleary,” the name was barely audible but uttered purposefully in Lucy’s direction. “No other priest; Father Cleary.” Lucy sat beside her mother on the bed and took her wizened hand, squeezing gently and reassuring her. “Yes, Father Thomas Cleary from St Joseph’s. He has promised that he will come in person. Six o’clock this evening. He was clear that he would come. He will be here.”
Clara appeared reassured and relaxed a little, smiling affectionately at her daughter before seemingly exhausted by the exertions of the past few minutes she drifted into a deep sleep, allowing Lucy to leave her alone to rest in preparation for the forthcoming visit.
The day passed with its familiar routine until at ten minutes to six the doorbell rang and Lucy, with a glance at her wristwatch rose to welcome the visiting priest. On opening the door, she was greeted by a man who fitted almost perfectly the image that she had in her mind immediately after their earlier conversation. Thomas Clearly was tall, with slightly unkempt grey hair, a long face and dark eyes. Dressed much as Lucy imagined all priests on duty must be, in a charcoal grey suit, dark overcoat and grey shirt which gave precedent to the clerical collar that signified his status, Father Clearly smiled reassuringly.
“You must be Lucy,” he began. “The directions you gave me were excellent, indeed I am a little early, I hope this doesn’t inconvenience you in any way.”
“No, not at all, please do come in, I’m very pleased to meet you. Come on through to the living room, I’ll just check on mother and let her know you are here.”
Following Lucy along the hallway, Father Cleary entered the living room and proceeded to remove his overcoat, handing it to Lucy who draped it casually over the back of a chair.
“Would you like tea or coffee before you see my mother?” Lucy suggested. “It may take me a minute or two to make sure that she is comfortable and ready to receive you.”
Seeing Lucy for the first time in clear light since entering the room from the dark hallway, the priest began to respond.
“I think perhaps after I have seen your mother. We might then want to have a friendly chat about things, don’t you…”
The priest halted mid-sentence, hesitating as if he might have changed his mind about the offer of refreshments. He looked intently at Lucy as though he was seeing her for the first time.
Lucy was aware of a quizzical expression that had passed across the priest’s face, his brow furrowed and his eyes scrutinising her as if something that he saw in his host was demanding that he search for the answer to a particularly challenging question. Somewhat hesitantly, she was about to enquire after his well-being, when Father Cleary appeared to recognise Lucy’s discomfort and tried to move the conversation forward, though in a somewhat unexpected direction.
“Lucy, I can’t be sure, but haven’t we met somewhere before? I don’t recall you ever attending St Joseph’s, though I have been there for almost forty years and obviously I can’t remember everyone who enters the church. But perhaps you attended service or a baptism or confirmation or something at some point in the past?” In asking his question the priest appeared genuinely perplexed, as if some lapse of memory was causing concern.
Lucy shook her head, “I’m sorry father, but no. I’m afraid I have never been a churchgoer, not even as a child. I have passed St Joseph’s on many occasions but have never been inside. I do hope that this is not a problem, my concerns here are for my mother who was, when younger a much more devout catholic than she has been in recent years. I suppose you could describe her as what I believe is usually termed a lapsed catholic”
“No, no, of course not,” stuttered the priest. “Not a problem at all. I am here for your mother at a time of need, it is my calling to serve all at such times, whether they are members of my congregation or even total strangers, my questions were in no way intended to sound critical. Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s just that, well your face, your hair, even the way in which you speak, it sounds so familiar.”
“Well Father,” Lucy responded, “I have to say that I don’t meet a great number of priests as a rule, and I feel sure that had we met before I would have remembered.” She smiled in what she hoped would be a reassuring manner, trusting that this would put an end to the matter. But the priest appeared unconvinced and tried once more to solve whatever the strange conundrum might be that had taken possession of his mind.
“Perhaps you are right, though I seldom forget a face and yours is so familiar that I feel sure our paths have crossed at some point in the past,” Cleary persisted. “Maybe it will come back to me later, or perhaps you yourself will suddenly recollect some event from your past.” He nodded confidently, though whether this gesture was intended for Lucy or himself was not clear.
Lucy was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable with the priest’s strange interrogation and the manner in which he appeared to explore the finest features of her face and decided that she should move things along as quickly as possible. Turning in the direction of the bedroom where she knew her mother would be waiting for news of Father Cleary’s arrival, she requested that her visitor should make himself comfortable and that she would fetch him in a few minutes. But on reaching the door she was abruptly halted as the priest uttered an insistent command ordering her to stop. Lucy, shocked by this sudden outburst turned to face the priest whose behaviour over the past few minutes had begun to make her a little anxious.
“Please wait, wait,” Cleary pleaded, with a voice that seemed to betray a level of panic. “Smith, he continued. Smith; you did say Smith, didn’t you? Lucy Smith that was it wasn’t it?”
Lucy looked hard at the priest who resumed his intrusive exploration of her face, scrutinising her every feature. Lucy emitted a loud sigh which must instantly have betrayed her exasperation. “Yes, that’s right. As I told you over the phone. Lucy Smith, that’s my name.”
“Lucy Smith, yes Lucy Smith.” The priest was become less coherent as he muttered her name apparently still searching his memory for where they might have met and anticipating that by applying a name his powers of recall might be nudged into action. “Lucy Smith, Lucy Smith,” he repeated her name over and over whilst shaking his head as if seeking to dislodge a memory that had become stuck in his brain. The man who had seemed so calm when they spoke on the phone that morning appeared now to be in a state of some distress, and all thought Lucy, over the trivial matter of her name and whether they had previously met.
“Wait, Smith, Smith, is that your married name?” Father Cleary’ nodded in Lucy’s direction as if he had suddenly solved a mystery. The continued questioning was starting to irritate Lucy, who under other circumstances might have ushered the priest from the house, but for the sake of her mother she felt it best to be compliant and play along with whatever course this strange man’s interrogation might follow.
“No,” she replied firmly, “I have never, well that is not yet, I have never married.”
Lucy, who would have liked to state more boldly that her marital status was no business of the priest’s, but felt that a more diplomatic course might be required, had hoped that this might put an end to this bizarre conversation, and indeed Father Cleary did seem a little more confident after her reply and fell quiet for a moment as if reflecting on her response.
“So, Lucy, please forgive me asking all these questions. I can see that you are a little uncomfortable, but please believe me I ask only in order to have some background before seeing your mother. So that means that your father’s name was Smith and that your mother took his name when married. Is that right?”
Lucy was becoming increasingly vexed and uncomfortable with the priest’s interrogation and was having some difficulty in maintaining her decorum. Was this man questioning her legitimacy? Who was he to ask her all these questions? Was he about to pass judgement upon her, or worse still, on her mother? Looking him straight in the eye she decided that she would take an assertive line. She would not allow herself to be challenged by any sanctimonious priest who wished to lecture her or her mother about family values.
“My mother is and always has been Miss Smith,” Lucy acclaimed boldly and placing an emphasis upon Miss. “She never married, and I never knew my father. I know that your church does not approve of such circumstances, but I assure you that she has always been a kind and loving mother and I brought you here today only at her request. If it had been just my decision, I would never have invited anyone to perform any kind of rites, or to mutter any form of mumbo-jumbo or whatever it is that you do during her final hours. So, can we now move on, cease the questioning and do whatever it is that you feel needs to be done for my mother.”
The moment she had concluded her speech Lucy began to feel a little guilty. Might she have gone too far? Had she been unreasonable with this man who had, after all travelled across the city at her mother’s bidding? This specific priest was there at her mother’s request and, she reasoned, once he had performed his duties she would never have to deal with him again. For now, she would do her best to remain calm and polite. “I’m sorry,” she said adopting a more placatory tone, “this is a very stressful time for all of us. My comments were not personal, but I would rather you simply did whatever is necessary without any more questions being asked. My mother asked specifically to see you at this terrible time and I am grateful that you have crossed the city to be with her, so please can we now proceed?”
Father Cleary slumped into the nearest armchair. “Never married,” the words appeared directed more to himself than to Lucy.
“Does that matter?” demanded Lucy, determined to protect her mother’s dignity from what she perceived to be an archaic form of moralising by the priest.
“No, no of course not. Forgive me if I gave that impression.” Father Cleary raised his hands towards Lucy, whether seeking forgiveness or offering an apology she wasn’t sure.
“I am not in any way being critical, please forgive me if I gave that impression, but perhaps. Maybe. I don’t know”. With his face turned towards the floor it appeared that the priest might be seeking for the exact words necessary to assist him to escape an uncomfortable situation.
“Actually, I am feeling a little unwell. It might be better; yes, it would certainly be better if I could arrange for one of my colleagues, another priest to come. Yes, that would be for the best. I’m sorry, but I think perhaps I should go now and make the arrangements.”
Recognising a degree of panic in the priest’s voice, Lucy approached him and took him firmly by the shoulders, forcing him to look up at her. Firmly, but she hoped also with a degree of sympathy for a man who might be unwell, Lucy asserted herself.
“You sit still, I will get you a glass of water. Perhaps in a few minutes you will feel better. My mother asked for you specifically by name. Call Father Thomas Cleary, that was her specific request. No other priest would do. She doesn’t want anyone else. This might well be her final wish and I am going to make sure she gets what she wants.” Lucy’s staccato sentences made clear to the priest that she was taking command and that he would not be leaving the house until his responsibilities had been fulfilled.
“Water, yes water please,” muttered the priest, then with greater clarity. “Of course, you are right. Give me a few minutes and I will be fine.”
Lucy hurried to the kitchen and on her return found Father Cleary kneeing on the floor, his hands clasped together and his lips moving but offering no sound. Unfamiliar with such demonstrative behaviours but wishing to show respect, she waited quietly holding the glass until finally the priest rose from the floor, calmly took the proffered vessel and emptied its contents in a single swallow.
About to enquire after his health Lucy was halted as the priest raised his hands indicating that previous events were to be forgotten and that further discussion was unnecessary. In a voice as calm as that she had experienced in their initial telephone conversation earlier in the day, Father Clearly smiled gently at Lucy and requested that she should lead him to meet her mother.
“Forgive me Lucy, I hope you will not think me discourteous. I’m ready now and I fear I have kept your mother waiting long enough. Now then, Clara you said, your mother’s name is Clara I believe?” He looked towards her for confirmation. Lucy said nothing but nodded believing that it was better not to engage further in conversation and began to lead the priest in the direction of her mother’s room.
Opening the door Lucy enquired, “shall I come in and introduce you?”
“No,” came the firm response. “This is a duty I have performed a thousand times. We are now entering my domain and what passes here will be between your mother and God. Please leave us, I will take matters from here.” And with this assurance the priest entered the room closing the door softly between himself and Lucy.
Relieved that the purpose of the priest’s visit appeared to be at last reaching its conclusion, Lucy returned to the sitting room to wait. Sitting in the armchair recently vacated by the priest, she tried to imagine the scene that might be passing in her mother’s room. Unfamiliar with church rituals she could only hope that the visit of this peculiar man would bring her mother some relief. As she waited, she recounted in her mind the strange events of the evening, reflecting on the unpredictability of the priest’s behaviour and his ever-changing moods. Whilst pondering all that had happened she tried to recall when she might have notified Father Cleary of her mother’s name. Clara, he had sought affirmation that her name was Clara. Yet she could not remember having informed him of this at any point during their various exchanges. But then, so much had passed between them, she must at some point surely have used her mother’s name in conversation.
Lucy, had no idea of how long the rituals taking place in her mother’s room should last. An hour passed, and she was surprised that Father Cleary had not reappeared and speculated that this might be a good sign. A further half hour went by and feeling uncomfortable about her lack of understanding of the situation she became a little anxious and hovered around the bedroom door wondering if all was well and if perhaps she should enter. Listening at the door she could hear nothing but felt that she should not intrude upon what could be an important and private time for her mother. Time passed and Lucy, having watched the hands of the clock move slowly for a further half hour, decided to knock tentatively upon the door. Gaining no immediate answer, she hesitated then knocked again, this time more forcefully, yet still she elicited no response. Finally, after repeated knocking which had prompted no reaction from within, she pushed the door open, just enough to witness the scene inside the bedroom.
The sight with which Lucy was confronted far from clarifying the situation, pushed her deeper into confusion. Across the room, kneeling on the floor beside the bed and holding her mother’s hand was Father Cleary, his shoulders rising and falling as he emitted a muffled, fearful sobbing. Lucy remained rooted to the spot in the doorway for several minutes unsure about how she should proceed. Cleary appeared not have heard her enter the room, or if he had, then he had chosen to ignore her. Lucy observed the scene before her and recognised that what she was witnessing was a profound moment for the man who knelt and wept beside her mother’s bed.
The silence of the room was disturbed only by the sobbing of the priest, which in turn was broken only as he occasionally repeated almost in a whisper, words that sounded like some form of apology to her mother. Beside him on the floor were strewn a small glass phial, a wooden box and a leather-bound book. Lucy hesitated for no more than a couple of minutes before advancing towards the bedside. Slowly, but no longer fearfully crossing the room, Lucy knew before ever she reached the bedside that her mother was dead. One glance at her face which appeared restful and calm was enough to confirm the situation. Turning her attention to Thomas Cleary and seeing the sorrow in his eyes, Lucy for the first time felt a genuine sympathy for this distressed man. Kneeling beside him she placed a comforting hand gently on his shoulder. Now at the last she felt that she was beginning to understand what had passed between the priest and her mother. Now she believed that a much more complex story had that evening been unfolding before her. One that until today her mother, even with her final breath had never been able to tell.
About the Author:
Richard Rose is a British writer. His fiction, poetry and essays have been published in a wide range of literary magazines including Muse India, Spadina Review, Cannon’s Mouth, Taj Mahal Review and Adelaide Magazine. More information about his work can be found at www.richard-rose.net/