How it began.
The evening Mass had finished.
Father Michael, the new priest, and very young for this responsibility, saw the few who had been in the congregation; all twenty of them, depart for their homes as he personally thanked them for their attendance.
He wouldn’t complain about the low numbers. His congregation had doubled, twice over, in the weeks he had been there, and it would continue to grow as the word spread.
He heard the wheezing sound, and then the 'thunk', of the closing doors reverberate through the soundbox of the empty church behind a late straggler, as he tidied away, in readiness for the morning service.
His lone footsteps echoed on the flagstones as he walked around, checking doors, lights, and ensuring that nothing, and no one, had been left behind. One older gentleman had a tendency to fall asleep, even on those hard pews.
There was no strong smell of those peculiar cigarettes that Father Patrick smoked, and that hung everywhere, so he must have gone from the church some time earlier.
He was either in his office, or his bed, sleeping it off. He was perpetually inebriated from the amount of brandy he consumed but gave little sign that it affected him in any way, other than that he tended to be personally careless in his habits… smoking and drinking.
He’d gone. Good.
There would be less likely to be an unpleasant confrontation with him criticizing the way Michael had handled Mass, that evening.
Father Patrick usually hung around until the end of Mass, and levelled his inevitable criticism at the younger priest… what he hadn’t liked about what he’d seen or heard; not caring who else heard, or saw him utter that demeaning put-down… but he’d gone, some time earlier.
His criticism had tended to bounce off Father Michael, annoying the older priest even more. He seemed to have an anger control issue, but there was more to it than that.
It was none of Father Michael’s business to ask, but more than once he’d seen Father Patrick at his desk, with his head in his hands, not hearing or seeing anything as though he had a migraine, or had even been weeping. Perhaps, in frustration with, him.
Some of the medication bottles that Michael had fleetingly glimpsed on the desk, before Patrick swept them into a drawer, suggested something more serious. However, it didn’t stop Patrick going through one of his bottles of apricot brandy each day.
This time, his ever-present annoyance, and aggravation, became notable by its pleasant absence.
That, was not like the older priest. He’d hovered at the sides and back of the church for the first few nights of Father Michael conducting the Mass, but not tonight.
It can’t have been that he approved. More likely, he had been unable to stand the aggravation.
Michael extinguished the candles, leaving them smoking for a while until he wet his fingers and gently squeezed the wicks, leaving his finger and thumb, blackened.
He made a final pass through the church, making sure that he hadn’t missed anything, and that no one was asleep in the back pews in the darker part of the church, and then decided to retire, himself. He wouldn’t get much rest before the morning mass, and confession.
The doors leading to the offices, were locked.
There was no light to be seen under the door to Father Patrick’s office so he must also have retired, but Michael wouldn’t try that door. That would be asking for trouble and he already had enough of that on his plate.
The older priest might be asleep in his chair inside, after emptying another of those brandy bottles.
Father Patrick had listened to the new priest conducting mass several times now, from the side, or the back of the church; always judging; not liking any of the changes that Michael had brought with him from the Seminary. He’d spoken with him each time after that. It wasn’t that Michael didn’t understand Latin; He did, but he preferred to give the service in English.
Mass should only ever be in Latin, but Patrick’s views on that were not being followed, and it had irked him. There was nothing he could do about it. If he tried to take over… in the middle of Mass, he would be asking for trouble. There had been a suggestion in Michael’s file that he didn’t take kindly to being opposed, either in class or on the playing fields.
He’d have to get rid of him some other way.
Michael had listened to the older priest’s unkind criticisms and comments, standing there impassively, showing no emotion, saying little to nothing, as though paying respectful attention. And had then continued, the very next morning, holding the Mass in English, completely ignoring the wishes of his superior.
They’d argued about that, as they had about many little things since Michael had arrived not long before, sent in by the diocese to annoy the old priest.
At least that was what Patrick believed.
The Church had tried many times over the last few years to get rid of him, but they couldn’t.
He knew too much about where the bodies were buried.
The deterioration in the relationship had been rapid from that first Mass. It had never been good to start with, not even on Michael’s first day at St Hilda’s, though he hadn’t let his thoughts be known, concerning what he saw.
At least he had been warned of what would greet him.
Father Mulcahey, the only one of the professors that appreciated Michael’s questioning attitude in the Seminary, had told him, diplomatically, about Father Patrick, about how demanding and picky he was.
None of the other teachers would have said anything.
Michael’s sudden presence; a few hours after the arrival of the even younger, Sister Mary, had seemed to be a surprise to Father Patrick, but it shouldn’t have been. He still had the letter on his desk telling him about them both arriving two weeks later on the same train and to be ready for them.
He had been ready for them, but he’d forgotten.
They had not been welcome.
The church school had lost sister Bryony, two months earlier, dying of cancer, so another teacher was gone from their already stressed teaching program. But she hadn’t been just another teacher, although no one knew about that other aspect of her life.
Bryony hadn’t been that old, barely fifty. Sister Mary was to be her replacement, as well as supervising the two, lay teachers.
Patrick had tolerated Sister Mary being there, but not that young upstart of a priest, Michael, that they’d decided to send with her to disrupt his life… if not worse.
Father Michael had ignored each of the rambling lectures and instructions, as he’d stood in the doorway of Patrick’s smoky office.
Those cigarettes would kill him, but Michael wasn’t going to breathe that polluted air if he could avoid it, so had stood in the open doorway.
He’d barely entered the office, despite Father Patrick telling him to close the door behind himself. He ignored that, just as he ignored everything else the older priest told him about what was expected of him.
Father Patrick had greeted Sister Mary the same way when she’d first arrived and had made similar dictates for her to follow.
Father Michael’s footsteps faltered as he thought of her.
She’d intended to help him that evening, but she’d been unsteady on her feet, coming down with a cold or something, so he’d told her to get an early night’s rest.
An uncomfortable feeling passed down Michael’s back.
Why had he not taken better note of the signs sooner? Taken note of the calculating animosity in Patrick’s eyes when he’d looked at either one or the other of them.
They’d both been the last thing Father Patrick wanted to see in his church.
The Church, his Church, had sent them into St Hilda’s even after he’d told them he needed no one. There were too few pupils to justify a new teacher being sent in.
Michael was not vulnerable to the older man, but Sister Mary was.
Michael picked up his pace; reflexively turning out the banks of weak lights to the church behind him as he passed them; hurrying along the corridor joining up with the Manse. He had a bad feeling about this.
If anything happened to Mary…!