Conflicts of destiny
Copyright © 2016 Libby Fox “Conflicts of Destiny.”
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, by any means, stored in a retrieval system, electronic, photocopying or any other form without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters events and certain locations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, accounts, events and places is completely coincidental.
I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this charming book. It brought back those nostalgic days, when as a little girl growing up I spent many a day with nuns and priests. Shame on me though!
FOR I have sinned. I have written Erotica prior to this!
“Black for last”
TO MY special and beloved BROTHER FOR HIS CONTRIBUTION
Conflicts of destiny
The Catholic Parish of St. Mary’s was by no means an affluent community in spite of its proximity to cosy homes easily mistaken for upper middle class mansions. Invariable, tenants on the seventy eight to Hunt’s Cross would ogle with covetous eyes the manicured lawns and glittering cars which colourfully decked the main avenues of this South Liverpool neighbourhood. But a brief foray into one of the buzzing public houses on the now famous Quarry Street would have instantly dispelled any such mistaken notion. The heart and soul of St. Mary’s was definitely working class.
To old Father Woodward, Parish priest, the caring families of St. Mary’s were living evidence of the genuine love and warmth radiating his parochial neighbourhood. It hadn’t always been the case. During the previous fifteen years, a significant number of bread winners had moved a notch or two up the social ladder. They had earned it. So the good life had reached the village of Woolton too, Father Peter Woodward admitted, striding up and down his study, pink with pleasure and lungs bursting with pride. He enjoyed inflicting on young Father Jimmy, narratives from his self-righteous anecdotes. Stories of how he had soldiered on heroically in those difficult post-Vatican Council days. Like a solitary general when so many faint-hearted priests had fallen by the wayside. He relished military images.
“Let me tell you, young man. Our earthly mission is Christ-like”, he paused, “like fishermen we have to pull in these sullied sinners to their Master”. Emphatic words that jangled in young Father Jimmy’s heart. A perfect introduction for his Sunday homily, he thought, biting his upper lip. They were words that clung to the walls of his mind like loud wallpaper. But they needed a change of colour to appeal to his faithful. Father Jimmy cared little for showbiz veneer. His simple style was in dramatic contrast with the often awkward and insensitive finger-pointing of his elder mentor. Simple words went straight to the heart.
Father Jimmy was a handsome man and many an honest woman would have painfully confessed a raw attraction for the youthful beauty rampant in the figure of Father Jimmy. He was easily six feet tall, of fresh dark complexion and a bone-structure of an Adonis. He had a flowing mane of shining chestnut and matching eyes. His perfectly chiselled teeth smiled amiably, yet his unflinching gaze exuded a feeling of defiant hardness softened somewhat by the elegant chin and looping lips.
His belated arrival at St. Mary’s in 1981 had magically transformed the parish from a run-down community of sorts to a warm, dynamic and closely-knit family. It would be no exaggeration to say it had become a model parish. And, it seemed, Father Jimmy had done it all so naturally. But Father Woodward had taken all the credit himself as Parish priests often do. As far as he was concerned Father Jimmy’s timely arrival coincided with the glorious golden age of Saint Mary’s. The young cleric had only God to thank for his plum appointment. He was fortunate to be able to partake of the fruits of a long and difficult decade. It was highlighted by a faith and determination the like of which, as he imperiously put it, very few parishes in Liverpool had ever witnessed. Father Jimmy was delighted to be part of such wholesome fellowship inhabiting the parish of Saint Mary’s.
Despite a visibly raucous co-existence Father Jimmy was very dear to the elder cleric. In his own secret way he admired the remarkable qualities of his younger partner; especially his guileless, quasi-naive freedom of character, so alien to his own. But he had never sung a word of praise in his honour. It was foreign to his nature. If Father Jimmy’s own fame grew, then his own would fade. To openly praise him, would be tantamount to suicide. What really annoyed Father Woodward and endlessly dampened his spirit was the fact he didn’t really know Father Jimmy, the man under the cloth, in spite of his good-natured and engaging ways. The old man had always suspected he was not of pure British stock. His coppery skin had a Mediterranean ring to it, perhaps Italian or Spanish. But his accent held no single trace of a foreign lineage. It was as typically English as any in the North West, often laced with an unsubtle local inflection. But inevitably, his past remained an airtight mystery.
Father Jimmy was tight-lipped about his personal genesis, partly because he didn’t believe he had one. He feared beneath the hermetic lid possibly lurked a monster. So he always steered the conversation away from himself. He shunned moments of personal grandeur most mortals in his privileged position would relish. His humility seemed to punctuate his integrity at all times. He was an exceptional man wholly devoted to the temporal and spiritual needs of the parish.
He could not hear of an unfortunate breakdown in domestic harmony or a misfortune, without stopping in the evening after Mass to offer a word of comfort. And his concern was medicinal. Immaculately groomed, hair unfailingly in place and shining even in wind-swept wintry evenings, his immense physical presence and charisma evoked the figure of the Good Shepherd himself. When Father Jimmy walked through the black gate it was seven past seven. Rooted to the spot he considered the powdery grey stone that set the presbytery apart from its neighbouring red-brick cottages. He wondered whether the grey house would be his home for the rest of his days. Not that he really minded it. It was fine. But he often dreamed of serving at the cathedral.
“Aren’t you coming in then, Father?” A voice chuckled from the doorway. Father Woodward had been standing there for a few seconds.
“Oh, I was just looking at the flowerbed, just thinking.”
“Ah, young man, isn’t it a joy to have parishioners like ours? Rain or shine our garden is always bright and colourful. Not all parishes are so blessed, you know…. But, you’re late again. Come and have your dinner before it gets cold.”
As he flew up the steps, Father Woodward gave him a welcoming slap on the shoulder before he closed the door. Father Jimmy rankled at the condescending tone of his elder. He normally ignored it as long as it stayed within the four walls of the presbytery. But when it pursued him outside, he resented it. It angered him and embarrassed him. Thankfully, his cool head had always prevailed. It would have saddened him even more to dent the old man’s frail ego.
He sat down and sipped spoonfuls of cold soup. Father Woodward sat across the table and impatiently ruminated. An uneasy silence lingered between them. “You know, Jimmy … sometimes I wonder why you’ve never invited your family or at least visited them,” wherever they are, he wanted to add. “I know you don’t like me bringing this subject up but,” he hesitated, “I just can’t understand you. I’d like to help if there is a problem.”
“Peter, please. Not that again. There’s no problem. If you really want to help …”
“But Jimmy, you can’t go on like this for ever, living in a vacuum. For heaven’s sake, whatever the reason, you can’t go on ignoring your family, pretending they never existed. Be reasonable now. Surely, you must miss them?”
“Pretending? Is that what you think?” Father Jimmy dropped his spoon and instantly lost his appetite. Not that he had been particularly hungry. It had been a long day and he was tired.
“Well, you know what I meant.”
“No, I don’t. What did you mean then? Tell me. You’ve been trying to stick your nose in my personal affairs for months now. You won’t give up, will you?”
“No, because I care about you, that’s why. We live under the same roof. And I am your superior. Remember?”
“Fine, but can’t you respect a man’s privacy? Haven’t I told you often enough I don’t like talking about it? I don’t want to talk about it. Why do you keep haranguing me, would you get any joy if I told you I was a …” a wretched orphan,” he thought as a sea of distress flooded his eyes. A tear hung precariously between his humid eyelashes. Father Woodward felt rebuked. He often spoke with pink nostalgia of his heroic father in the hope the young man might open up. But sadly, young Father Jimmy had no father or mother that he knew of. No family at all except a long-lost brother. The one and only unfading landmark in his patchy memory was the orphanage in the Dingle. It was his home as a young lad till the day they dispatched him to the Seminary in the Eternal city. The rest was a distant vacuum. It was an uninterrupted desert of nothingness.
Father Woodward had often questioned the young cleric’s self-imposed silence. But he had never suspected his inquisitorial concern might cause anguish. How could he even guess that beyond his silent fortress, beyond the young man’s calm swarthy elegance lay a sea of inner tension, a tormented soul desperately wrestling with itself and its difficult God? Understandably, some small minds maybe rashly construed Father Jimmy was protecting a humble family background – or a family misfortune, perhaps. Or even a closely-guarded scandal. But it was nothing more than gossip. If Helen Cooke hadn’t persisted in spreading the cheap rumours, it would have never crossed anyone’s mind to question his mysterious genesis. There were much more important things in their life. But if there had to be one person in the entire Parish of St.Mary’s, who could be visited by such uncharitable thoughts, Helen Cooke was undeniably the one.
Ironically, one of his fervent admirers, she invariably sat in the second row at Sunday Mass. She contemplated him with ravenous eyes as he solemnly descended from the pulpit and approached the centre aisle to receive the offerings. Her perfectly arched brows often snapped. Her popping eyes tugged vehemently at him as she tremulously silenced the devil in her. She ruefully harboured her burning desire for the man. How she longed to be the one taking up the offerings, the one to feel the fragrant closeness of his guileless gaze and the warm powerful grip of his handshake. If only she could probe deep into his soul and lay hers bare, prostrate in all its decadent veneer. She was unashamedly crazy about him.
Had anyone delicately intimated Helen’s impious thoughts to him he would have brushed it off with his customary nonchalance and smiled. This isn’t a Jane Austin’s novel, he would have pointed out. But he might have started to understand the real reasons behind her ubiquitous presence as Chairperson of the Ladies Circle and her misplaced interest in his dancing prowess. He would have soon distanced himself from the dangerous woman. Perhaps might he even have intimated to Father Woodward that the ladies would welcome a new chairperson, one with a more creative mind?
“Look Jimmy, it breaks my heart to sit helplessly watching you and not being able to do anything because you won’t let me. Goodness me. We’ve all had our moments of disagreement with our families. I for one could fill up a telephone directory.” He paused and collected his thoughts. “But there comes a time …” As he spoke he tapped the air with his pointed finger.
Father Peter invariably spoke in pronouncements. Not necessarily liked, he was generally respected for his sound authoritative judgement. His frequent pastoral visits to families in distress had brought comfort and hope to many a home. He had even sown the seeds of reconciliation. A beautiful head of luminous ivory hair belied his sixty five years, a quarter of which had been devoted to St. Mary’s. He had been appointed in the summer of sixty six. But the sanguine face that it framed, could no longer conceal his growing dependence on the lethal bottle which he was now consuming on innumerable evenings at the Coach and Horses. More often than not he would be too inebriated to walk unaided back to the presbytery. His declining health had become a source of worry for Father Jimmy. But Father Peter would not listen. Rumours had reached the young priest that the Diocesan overlords were seriously considering sending a replacement as soon as one was available. Father Jimmy was feeling sorry for him.
“Jimmy, my son, believe you me, no human problem is greater than divine grace. Don’t you ever forget that? But unless you share your problem with the Lord,” or me he almost added …. .
“Damn right you are.”
“And with the brethren you share your life with.”
When Father Peter was in one of those moods Father Jimmy could hardly get a word in edgeways. He listened while his pensive eyes swept the breakneck collection of Vatican doyens looking down from the sullen walls. It was a daunting sight that must have revamped many of Father Peter’s distinguished predecessors with the true evangelic spirit.
“Peter, please, get off my back,” he said in a contentious voice tamed by self-control. It was time he told the old man to back off and stop patronising him. He wasn’t a teenage seminarian any more. After all, it was common knowledge in the village. Were it not for Father Jimmy’s arrival, the Parish would not have survived, let alone flourished. Why couldn’t Father Peter grow up for once and summon the courage and the humility to show a little gratitude?
But Father Peter, in his old age, had turned into a terribly jealous and proud man. The young man’s success was gnawing at him and was partly responsible for his recent espousal to alcohol. Yet lately his defiance seemed to have softened and for the first time he could see what a handsome man Father Jimmy was. What a painful sacrifice he must have made to consecrate himself completely to God in the priesthood and forego the joy of raising a family. How many pretty girls must have had their hopes dashed by his departure from the secular world.
“Peter, if you really want to help, quit drinking. You’re killing me with worry and you’re killing yourself.” He was in a combative mood but he instantly regretted his lack of tact. He didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings. But what the hell, he’d done the damage now. Maybe it would again shake his senses. Make him realise the harm he was inflicting on himself and his fading reputation.
There was an awkward pause as their feverish eyes met and held their fire. Father Peter cleared his throat, sniffed and raised his weary eyes as if about to pronounce an anguished word. He only sighed, shook his head, tottered to the front door and suddenly disappeared like a wave. The young cleric didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh. He knew he had no right interfering in his life. Why make his remaining days on this planet more miserable than they already were? What business of his was it anyway if the man smoked upwards of a hundred a week and had grown inseparably attached to alcohol? That was his problem. Anyway, he had earned the right to a few moments of self-indulgence. It was such a punishing and lonely life being a priest, having renounced family life, a wife and children.
At such hairline junctures of his difficult career, Father Jimmy would sadly smile at himself. Remembering the supreme decision he had made when he had engraved in his soul, in gold lettering his covenant with God. He hadn’t foreseen then the wasteland of lonely evenings and the endless visits to settle family feuds. But in spite of everything he had never regretted his decision. It had been his decision and no one else’s. At philosophical moments like these, he always felt grateful to God for little mercies, for the silver lining engraved around the darkest clouds. Also for the gift of the gospels and the joys and strength that visited him whenever he read them. He was especially grateful for Theresa Conway, the Mary Magdalene of his life. Her lissom figure so often hung over his cumbersome conscience like a fragrant flower.
An unrelenting storm tormented Father Jimmy as Theresa’s battered beauty wafted across his mind. He had been kind to her and had done his best to be a source of consolation and strength when she was in desperate straits. Not only had her marriage been a virtual trauma but she had increasingly become the target of her spouse, John’s violent tantrums.
John Conway had grown extremely disgruntled with his job, his friends and life in general, so inexorably Theresa had to bear the brunt. But she could only take so much. John had become unbearable. He refused to talk to her about his problems. In fact, these days he shared very little with her. He locked her out completely. She simply shared their bed. No more, no less, and had little choice in the matter. The reason for his frequent bouts of depression was a mystery to her. Soaked in a foul stench of sweat, alcohol and tobacco, he often dragged her ruthlessly into bed. Then throws a string of monosyllabic obscenities at her and raped her with inexplicable violence. Feeling numb and useless, she invariably choked on her muffled sobs.
Her indolent frame, vulnerable and fragile, had for the umpteenth time been gruesomely ravaged earlier the same evening. The instant John left the house, she called Father Jimmy. He dropped everything and anxiously flew out of the presbytery to be the first at her side to share her sorrow, humiliation and devastation.
“Oh, Father, he was awful ….. It was horrific,” she cried as a sea of tears smudged her make-up. Her lips were blistered and sore. Her eyes had lost their customary green and ocean blue and were sullen, dark and beaten. Her hair was scraped simply to the back. Yet even in tatters and broken down, she wasn’t less beautiful. “You can’t even imagine the beast Father; he tore the clothes off me, pounced on me …”
“Please, Theresa, don’t. I’m really sorry. How can he be so …”
Her battered eyes, spilling hatred met his, full of compassion, bashful, innocent. “Let me make you some tea,” She sobbingly offered.
“He terrifies me. He’s insane,” She confesses returning with the cups of tea. Sitting on the couch beside him drinking her tea, he couldn’t believe the awful fate befallen such a beautiful goddess. She deserved better; much better. There he was at her side, hopelessly trying to summon the right words to console her. If John walked into the room that very moment, his spotless reputation would most certainly be compromised. Under the influence of alcohol, John Conway was a hard man with a very short fuse. Father Jimmy knew the risk he was taking. But did he really have a choice? Did he really care? His Saviour would probably have done the same. Theresa gently lowered the cup on the table and turned to him.
“What am I going to do, Father? I can’t take any more of this,” she cried as he drew closer to her and hugged her warmly. He felt her humid cheeks gently brush against his own and he shuddered at the intensity of his own emotion. There was a strange sensation inside him. She held him tight.
“What if our Peter were to find out?”
“Theresa, he’s much too young to understand.”
“You really think so?”
“But you must persuade him to get professional advice. He can’t go on like this. You must fight him until he realises the damage he’s doing. Talk it out with him when he is sober. Be strong, Theresa.
“Oh, Father,” she shook her head. “You just don’t know how devilish he becomes, like someone possessed. You just wouldn’t recognize him,” She sighed “It’s appalling. What can I do? If I say no, he beats me and drags me like a rag doll. Jimmy, when he’s got alcohol inside him, he’s a monster.”
Father Jimmy was moved. Never in his life had he been so close to a woman, a woman in distress, making him feel so vulnerable.
“I know how you must feel, Theresa … truly, I do. But you have little choice. You must be strong.”
With tears streaming down her battered face, Theresa plucked the courage to look him into his caring eyes. He responded by wiping her tears with his handkerchief. The cocktail of pain, pity and love inside him was threatening to pour over. This was a novel experience for him, with no precious training for it. Closing his eyes he tried to contain, as best he could, the unfamiliar surges running havoc in his veins. Theresa had repeatedly considered separation but for her young son Peter’s sake she just couldn’t pursue it. She had not dared mention it to Fr. Jimmy.
“Why didn’t I meet someone like you?” She genuinely queried, “Why is it the best and… the kindest men around aren’t ever available? You’re so good to me, so strong and sure of yourself.”
She blew her nose. If only she knew how painfully ironic her statement was. He had rarely felt so hopelessly useless. It was only then that the stark truth was revealed. He was there because he needed her company too. He needed her as much as she needed him. She dispelled his deep loneliness and filled the hollowness inside him. Even in that pitiful condition she brought him joy. Their need was mutual but so was their joy when they were together.
A sense of guilt suddenly overtook Father Jimmy. He felt a dark blemish had stained the ‘X-Ray’ of his soul. At the seminary, it had been made clear to him that priests should never seek worldly pleasures or emotional gratification. Christ alone could ever fill the void which the inadequacies of life bequeathed. To get involved in any other fulfilment was, to grievously side-track the real purpose of their vocation and ominously jeopardize the purity of their soul.
“I don’t know about that, Theresa. I’m a man too,” He blushed.
She smiled dejectedly as she sipped some more tea.
“Have you thought of living apart for a while? Perhaps, if John took some time to think things out for himself. It might just bring him back to his senses.” He hesitated. “You know, he’s not such a bad person. Obviously, he’s got a drinking problem and he needs all the help he can get, from you too.”
Theresa heard herself groan.
“How can you say that to me?”
But she knew he was right. Father Jimmy was a very conscientious person. Smudgy-eyed, she glared at him with affection. With the palm of his hand he stroked her satin hair. His blood instantaneously surged inside him making him aware of the deadliest of sins, consoling a lonely heart.
“You’re a very beautiful woman, Theresa. You deserve so much better.”
Moved by his tenderness, she instantly cried again, and hesitantly placed her finger on his warm lips. He instinctively pulled his head back but didn’t have the courage to stop her.
“Please, don’t Theresa.”
Then she kissed him gently.
“Oh, Jimmy, what would I do without you?”
The honesty of the moment was unbearable. He closed his eyes oblivious of the emotional torture engulfing him.
“How could I ever repay you? Whenever I needed you, you were always there for me. You’ve always cheered my soul and been a pillar of strength for me.” How could anyone not love you, she wanted to add.
Lying in bed that evening, Father Jimmy experienced the same emptiness. He longed for the enthralling emotions sparkling inside him when touching Theresa’s battered face. The same guilty feelings invaded his soul. He was like the apostle Peter after the cock had crowed. Like the mythical Job of old, disgraced and devastated by a reckless siege of trials. Father Peter had warned him. Every priest had to stand alone with his demons just like Jesus had done. One had to endlessly wrestle with one’s heavy conscience. It was his only way to salvation.
Father Jimmy knew it was a difficult vocation. He had to relive Christ’s passion, not in words alone but by his example. But there were times when he had the inkling of being unable to live up to his calling. He felt so inadequate, so emotionally engrossed in his daily existence. The austerity of loneliness had taken its toll on Father Peter too. In his old age he had been stripped of those remarkable human qualities from his younger days. Even his sense of humour had turned bitter.
For no reason he could think of, Theresa Conway’s pale slenderness and emerald eyes, in contrast with his bronze masculinity disrupted the flow of his thoughts. He desperately tried to clear his head. But every time, his cerebral sharpness would dissipate into a state of confusion and light-headedness. He wondered if Father Peter would still receive his eternal reward at the end of his earthly pilgrimage. Of course he would. But human pain and loneliness were a heavy price to pay.
He got out of bed, sank heavily into an easy chair and closed his eyes. Unable to sleep he decides to wait up for Father Peter, in case he needed some help up the stairs to his room when he returned. Leaning forward he picked up his breviary. Flicking through the pages his eyes fell on the night’s prayers and softly started to recite a Psalm. ‘Listen to my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Hear me and listen to me when I call. I am nothing but flesh and bones.’
However hard he tried to concentrate his thoughts on the suppliant words, he couldn’t dispel the angelic shadow of Theresa Conway. That solitary soul brought him more solace and comfort than the cold words neatly engraved on the gilt-edged pages of his sacred breviary. Each time he thought of his sin, his unexpected intimacy with Theresa, he humbly begged for forgiveness. Hoping to lift his spirits, carried on hopelessly to the next line, once more the sweet memory returned. Eventually, he relaxed into a deep sleep in his easy chair. The warm celestial smile Theresa’s finger had touched earlier on that evening could not be erased.
The following morning as the two clerics sat down for breakfast Mrs. Williams brought them coffee, a few slices of toasted brown bread and boiled eggs. Claire Williams bordered on being small and had enriched her life with a hobby very few would dare to choose, namely eavesdropping. This she frequently practised without being noticed. Father Jimmy was glad he had always made his own bed himself. If old Mrs. Williams had discovered he hadn’t slept in his bed, she would have pestered him with awkward questions. He couldn’t stand her excessive inquisitiveness every time a piece of furniture shifted a few inches. He had an unpleasant recollection of the occasion where she found a strand of long blond hair on the fawn sofa cover. Her urgent inquiry persisted, for days on end, to unravel the mystery of the anonymous blonde. Another time she had found Mrs. Conway’s handbag in Father Peter’s room, following John’s and Theresa’s kind assistance, in helping Father Jimmy carry the old man to bed. He was wondering, however, whether Father Peter had noticed him, the night before, sleeping in his rocking chair after he returned from the pub.
Father Peter gently lowered an enormous teaspoonful of brown sugar granules. He poured it into his fuming coffee. He hadn’t said a word. The anguished exchanges of the previous evening were still vividly etched in their minds. Thankfully neither wanted to poison the rest of the morning. The point had been made and taken. In Claire’s presence it had become increasingly difficult to indulge in any sort of conversation without her roguish interruptions and poignant reminders of the exceptional virtues of their predecessor, Father Bryant. He had been an edifying lifestyle. A remarkable man whose impeccable reputation was unassailable, she had assured them. Claire Williams had an ungrateful knack of imposing guilt.
Apparently, that morning due to a heavy head, Father Peter got up on the wrong side of the bed.
“Did you boil this egg the full three and a half minutes?” He dramatically inquired as if he had just made a papal pronouncement. “You know that’s how I like my egg! The yolk is cold and the rest tastes like sp…”
“Give it here, Father. I’ll boil you another one,” Claire roared with annoyance, half exposing the rage in her eyes.
“I’m only asking because it doesn’t taste the same,” he complained. But now was sorry he had asked at all. Claire was so stubbornly impervious to his brash brand of humour. It was like squeezing lemon juice from a golf ball. “Don’t worry. Leave it now,” Claire shook her head and gave a cynical smile expecting his sudden retreat. “It’s probably the hen”, he added in a quiet voice rubbing the tip of his bulbous nose. He threw a fleeting glance at Father Jimmy through the corner of his eye.
Father Jimmy thought he had better suggest a less confrontational topic for conversation before a wall of silence killed all their exchanges. Lately, life within the walls of the presbytery had become slightly tense and cheerless. When the three of them were in the house you could cut the air with a knife. It was that dense.
“Last night I fell asleep in my chair reciting the office,” he gently said. A tentative smile coloured his fresh cheeks.
“And you woke up in it by the looks of it,” Claire replied her eyes overflowing with satisfaction. The two clerics exchanged a conniving smile. Neither uttered another word. They both stood up and adjourned to the sitting room to browse through the morning papers before embarking on the day’s engagements.
“You know,” Father Peter said raising his bloodshot eyes then continued after some hesitation. “I’m meeting the bishop’s secretary this morning.”
“Are you?” Trying to sound unimpressed Father Jimmy added: “Anything important on the agenda?”
He realised it was a tactless question. Knowing too well of his mentor’s imminent retirement, recently discussed in musty boardrooms at the bishop’s Green Lane residence. He instantly clenched his teeth in a desperate attempt to try and call back his words. Fortunately, the old priest did not show any undue distress by the obtrusive question.
“Oh routine just routine,” Father Peter lied.
The young man nodded and focused once again on the small print. The truth of the matter was. Father Peter had been up in arms against the bishop’s council wanting to draft his replacement from another diocese. Somebody totally unsuited to the pastoral needs of Woolton. His belief in the best person to run Saint Mary’s was none other than Father Jimmy. Granted he was young, but a very competent and enterprising cleric. He had already proven himself more than equal to the trials and challenges of the parish. He was gifted and had touched the heart of every parishioner, young and old, in a special way. No one could deny the transformation of the village community. Even the blind could see it. A bloody miracle, Father Peter had secretly admitted to himself.
Later in the afternoon, he confronted the bishop’s private secretary. There wasn’t another priest on this planet he disliked more. “You’re making a huge mistake, Father Connolly”, he raged trying not to sound more defiant than necessary. He had always taken the line with his superiors. In that the best way to maintain continuity in a flourishing Parish was to train a future Parish priest within the same precinct. It made sense after all.
But Father Peter unexpectedly found himself refereeing, a battle royal between Father Connolly and young Father Jimmy in absentia. Unknown to him, Father Jimmy had paid an unscheduled visit to Green Lane to appeal on behalf of his elder companion. He had heard rumours about the old man being sent to a home for retired clergy. He wanted to express his genuine concern. He didn’t think it was a good idea at all and would probably aggravate his drinking problem. What kind of reward was that for a priest who had consecrated the best years of his life to the Church? Where was the gratitude? He shuddered to think the devastating effect it would have on Father Peter. But this unfortunate visit had infuriated Father Connolly, also maybe compromising his future in the Diocese.
“Why don’t you let him die peacefully in his own parish, surrounded by the people he knows and loves? It’s the least you can do for him after all he’s done for Saint Mary’s,” Father Jimmy supplicated.
But the steely Father Connolly contemptuously broke into laughter. He hinted to him in no uncertain terms, not to meddle in things which didn’t concern him. Anyway, he knew absolutely nothing about the real Fr. Peter Woodward.
“If you were to see the confidential file we have on your Father Woodward, you wouldn’t be here today,” the miserable ecclesiastic went on pointing out, his arched brows half way up his minuscule forehead as he spoke. “You just have no idea how many sins we’ve covered up for him”.
“Jimmy, you must learn to see through false humility. You‘ve so much to learn, haven’t you? Don’t believe the lies the old fox tells you.”
“But Father Peter doesn’t know I’m here.”
“It makes no difference. You’ve no right to come here and tell us what to do.” He kept striding up and down, his intense crimson face as crimson as the plush carpet under his restless feet. He spurned the arrogant naivety of the young cleric. “Have you no respect for the sound judgement of your elders?”
“Don’t you trust your bishop?”
Father Jimmy couldn’t believe the calculated contempt in Father Connolly’s voice. If he hadn’t been a priest he might have been seriously tempted to lose his cool. But the rage within refused to allow him to turn his other cheek.
“You know very well, Father, His Grace has all my trust,” Father Connolly casually rebutted.
“What worries me is not His Grace. It’s the men who advise him. I do recall having read somewhere about Christ’s own disciples not all being good men and true?” He had taken his leave with a polite wave. So it took Father Peter by surprise to hear the personal secretary to the bishop, callously reduce his admired young colleague to an insolent and pretentious adolescent. It was unheard of to try and soil a man’s reputation without any apparent reason. What had Father Jimmy done to deserve such an unjust and heavy-handed judgement?
“Father Peter, you know he is much too young and inexperienced to be trusted with such a grave responsibility. Anyway, he’s still got a lot to learn. He needs to contain his bull-headed arrogance. It won’t get him anywhere. He’s much too pretentious, much too cocky and seriously lacking in respect for his superiors,” Father Connolly carried on saying shaking his head and wiping his glasses with his silk handkerchief. “His formation under your trusted guidance has obviously gone frightfully wrong somewhere.” Rivers of contempt cascaded from his red eyes.
Father Peter was completely overwhelmed and thought Father Connolly had gone out of his mind. He felt a burning urge to remind him of some of his own sins which the passing years had not blurred from his recollection. But it wasn’t the time to open old wounds, maybe better left for later. How odd, he thought. A visit intended solely to accelerate Father Jimmy’s well-deserved promotion has inexplicably for no reason he could think of, turned sour. But what could Father Jimmy have possibly done to incur such virulent scorn? No doubt, somehow he must have stung Father Connolly. When he gets annoyed, heaven itself could tremble. He is a vindictive person and no one knows that better than Father Peter. There were times when he himself had sometimes wished for a posting in the African missions, far from the unsavoury back-room politics inevitably pervading the vaults of the Church hierarchy. By the looks of it Father Jimmy might get just that without even asking for it.
That evening he was dying to find out the truth.
“Jimmy, you haven’t had an argument with Father Connolly lately, have you?” Father Peter tried to sound informal. He picked up the ladle and fished out a generous helping of onion soup Mrs. Williams had prepared before she left.
“Argument,” he grimaced. The young man swallowed the air, allowing himself a few moments to think of a reasonable response and a tone of voice vaguely non-committal. “No.” That swine had obviously betrayed him. How could he? How much had he told Father Peter? “Why do you ask, Peter? Is that what he told you?” He felt his heart racing.
“But … eh, you have talked to him recently, haven’t you?”
“Well, yes. I paid him a brief visit the other day. I was down in Allerton buying some shoes and I thought I’d stop for a cup of tea,” he carried on with the untruth.
“Jimmy, there are a million better places for a good cup of tea other than the bishop’s residence. We do have tea rooms in the village, you know.”
“But we haven’t got any shoe stores. Anyway, what did he tell you? What makes you think we’ve had an argument?”
“Jimmy, I wasn’t born yesterday. Something has happened between you two and if you want to hear more, I’ll tell you. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if they shipped you out to Kenya or Guatemala tomorrow. I know Father Connolly. I know the sly fox. Left to his own devices, he can be ruthless.”
Having let the cat out of the bag, Father Peter wanted to bite off his own tongue. Perhaps he shouldn’t have done it. He didn’t want to sadden the young man. But Father Jimmy wasn’t in the least perturbed. Crouched over his soup, he tilted his bowl and sipped the French delicacy with astonishing relish. Father Peter was evidently unaware of the true purpose of his mission to Father Connolly’s office or he was just being calculating. That would have been more likely. He was convinced the old man was fully aware of everything. Perhaps he just couldn’t admit the fact that another priest could take up his cause on his behalf. Like Everton playing in red. He had always said he had fought his own wars when he needed to. And he was still capable. To admit otherwise was tantamount to acknowledging a weakness.
“Aren’t you even worried you might be deprived of what’s rightfully yours? And be banished to some remote village in a primitive land?”
“It’s their way of castigating you for your bull-headed arrogance and lack of respect. There you have it in Connolly’s own words.”
Father Jimmy broke into a hearty laugh. Keeping his cool he stood up, raised his wine glass and toasted their future. “God does work in mysterious ways I suppose. Isn’t that what you always told me? It would be rather unbecoming, to have the cake and eat it. God has to come in somewhere. Maybe, Father Connolly has been hand-picked as God’s instrument to show us God’s mysterious will.”
“Jimmy, really,” Father Peter did not know whether to take his younger colleague seriously or not. Shaking his head looking bemused he said, “I have never really been able to understand you. And I don’t think I ever will.”
“Well, Peter, wasn’t it the great Bill Shankly who once said, “If any manager ever claimed they understood football, they would be lying?”
“What’s Shankly got to do with this? So, what was the argument about? Or don’t you want to tell me?” Their eyes met, and instantly a surreal cosiness touched them both like never before. “Well, at least, I know you weren’t trying to negotiate a take-over behind my back.”
“Peter, how could you, really?” Father Jimmy, unless he came up with some sort of plausible excuse, the old man would pester him all night in search of the truth. “If you want to know, I was summoned by the bishop because rumours had reached them that …” Father Peter’s eyes flared with curiosity. Then he added dramatically. “That I was having an affair with Helen Cooke. Now you know.”
“Jimmy, sometimes you’re simply impossible. An affair? And you expect me to believe you,” He roared with laughter until his ruddy cheeks inflated like oversized tomatoes. “Let me tell you something, son.” He didn’t really intend to sound patronising. It was his way of protecting his friend’s vulnerable ego at a candid juncture. “In my long eventful years as a priest I have still to meet a pastor as devoted as you.”
This was without doubt a momentous occasion. The first time Father Peter had voiced his admiration for his younger partner. He was tickled pink, and terribly embarrassed. He had been humbled by the young man but couldn’t summon enough courage to say it. One day, he hoped he would don the elusive ermine of a Monsignor or bishop. But alas, it was not to be. Maybe Father Jimmy was right, with Connolly around his ambitious dream was doomed from the very moment it was conceived.
No one could conceal any longer his inglorious career or his mediocrity. He had more than earned such undistinguished legacy. His thoughts reluctantly flashed back to Rome, his years as a young seminarian. Inwardly, he sighed, on recollecting his painful memories of an odious sin. The unwitting indiscretion he had committed with an impetuously decadent seminarian from New England. He had found him irresistibly attractive. And as if that personal weakness hadn’t wrecked his insignificant life badly enough, fate itself had to compound his misery. Who else other than Father Connolly himself, at the time a close companion of his? Like a formidable weapon he had held it against him ever since. Even God had forgiven him. That much he knew, but sadly not Father Connolly. Jimmy was stunned contemplating the ill-deserved honour his old friend Peter had just paid him. He knew the gargantuan effort Father Peter must have made.
“You flatter me, Peter.” The joy in his voice was genuine and fresh. “You haven’t been drinking, have you?”
Father Peter could not resist an infectious smile. There was a distant sparkle in his eyes. At that moment the phone rings.
“I’ll get it.” Father Jimmy glanced reassuringly at his colleague and hastened to the phone.
When he returned there was a hint of melancholy in his eyes. Father Peter immediately could see something was wrong, and suspected he had been summoned once again to the bishop’s lacquer office. A strong desire had been consuming him to know what on earth he had now done to have incurred the wrath of the diocesan superiors. He wanted to swear left right and centre but he kept his poise and self-control.
“It was Theresa Conway,” uttered Father Peter in a sombre voice.
“They’ve rushed young Peter to the hospital. Apparently, he’s been throwing up all day, complaining of agonising headaches. I think I’ll go over to see him.”
Father Peter questioned. “Is it serious, Jimmy?”
“I don’t know, Peter. I hope not for Theresa’s sake, I don’t think she’s strong enough after all she’s been through.”
Father Jimmy was only four years old in April 1951. And if the truth is told, which it should, incredible as it may at first seem, he was born a Moslem, Jamal Burani by name, in the Islamic State of Lubanya in North Africa. That winter the torrid heat of the desert had torn through the town of Sughaza like a red-hot razor if one could indeed call it winter. It had melted away before it had even announced itself. But in such sub-Mediterranean regions, this was a normal phenomenon. April of 1951 was no exception. The defiant cacti seemed unusually parched. Jamal Burani tirelessly tugged at the wrought-iron gate until it creaked open. The white cotton shirt cramped his damp shoulders and hung out of his black shorts. Physically Jamal belied his four tender years, and his hazel – eyed gaze had something regal about it.
“Jamal, don’t let the dogs out,” His mother kept a watchful eye on him behind the fly curtain. Her voice was fresh and vibrant but full of tenderness. “And don’t go outside the gate.” A shower of brightness burst on his face when he raised his head directing it towards the balcony.
Leila Burani was becoming very fearful of the growing dangers threatening the tranquillity and safety of upper middle classes in North African society. The wind of political unrest had recently swept across the African continent. Understandably Leila was getting worried about the safety and future of her youngest son Jamal. From the balcony, her troubled eyes stared thoughtfully into his dark gaze. She watched him struggling to close the heavy gate. At his age his elder brother Sami could never quite do it. Not by himself anyway. But then Sami had always been a little feeble and his health had always been a source of worry for her. Not so Jamal. He had been a paragon of vitality since he was in her womb, kicking till the day it was time for him to see the world.
In other less stable African States, heads had rolled and would continue to roll. There were no guarantees anymore in these heady days. The military was a ruthless and unreliable breed. They refused to acknowledge clever, successful businessmen like Subhi, her husband. In the international arena, he had built corporate dynasties of immense stature, wielding more benevolent power than they did. They declined to accept other businessmen who also had created immense wealth, making the world go round, enabling their Juntas to amass weapons of terror and securing their power-crazed objectives. Leila did not believe in guns in the house and how they could render her family safer.
There was a feeling of fear and instability hanging in the air as she sat on the sun-bathed balcony. A sandy gust of wind brushed her beautiful jet-black hair. She had just washed it and was waiting for it to dry. Very soon she would throw her white cotton veil over her head and half conceal her statuesque beauty. Leila’s late English mother had been pregnant with her into her sixth month when she had left England to join her Lubanyan spouse in Sughaza, where she eventually gave birth to her.
Although conceived in England, Leila was bred and born a devotee of Islam and the Islamic State. But a paler olive complexion was a constant reminder of Western European roots. A feature she hoped would absolve her in her adult life from some of the myriad restraints which for centuries had governed the lives of the daughters of Islam. Jamal was sitting outside the gate hurling tiny pebbles at a dead cat. It had been run over during the torrid stormy night. She looked disgusted and instantly asked Malek, one of the servants, to bury it. Jamal wasn’t in the least bothered by the unfortunate interruption. He swiftly disappeared into the house and ran out almost immediately after dangling his small drum down his chest. The occasion warranted a short ritual to mark the feline’s swift passage into paradise. Jamal felt encouraged when a young neighbour joined the cortege. It was Karim Kalati who lived up the road. They often played together in the garden. Karim was a good boy so Leila was relieved. His elder brother Mohammed who was in the army had occasionally come for dinner at the Burani’s.
That evening Subhi and Leila were guests at a reception given by Ambassador Mikic of Yugoslavia. Leila stood at his side, resplendent more than ever in her natural beauty. Naturally, most of the foreign Ambassadors, Attaches and First Secretaries were in attendance with their lady escorts, all impeccably clad in expensive silk and sparkling jewellery. Ministers of the regime of King Salah were there too with their veiled women. But Leila herself was the voluptuous queen of the evening, regaling the palatial villa that housed the Embassy, rivalled only by her absent sister-in-law. Her jet-black hair shone through the veil of intricately laced patterns framing her rouged cheeks. But the panache, with which she donned her fashionable wardrobe, was exquisitely graceful. All the men couldn’t help glancing at her through the corner of their eyes.
Good evening, Mrs. Burani.”
“Hello, Ambassador Clarke.” Her smile was warm.
“Subhi,” They shook hands. Subhi and the American Ambassador had hit it off from their first encounter on the golf course and had become good friends.
“Any news from Washington?” enquired Subhi.
“No, not yet.”
Ambassador Doug Clarke was anxiously awaiting confirmation from the White House granting him a fresh two-year term as Ambassador to Lubanya.
“So, how are the children?”
“Oh, they’re fine! Life is always eventful with young Jamal around.”
“Ah Mrs. Burani, it must be a great joy …..” There was laughter across the hall.
“Will you excuse me for a moment?” Subhi strode across to a group of boisterous gentlemen engulfed in a thick cloud of smoke.
“That boy of yours is a jewel,” Ambassador Clarke went on. “He’ll make a charming ambassador one day wouldn’t you say?”
They were joined by Rear-Admiral Rogers from the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. He had just flown over to Sughaza for some business at the British Embassy. His floating city, the Ark Royal, unlikely flagship of the Fleet, was still berthed outside the Grand Harbour of the historic island of Malta. The prestigious navy-blue and red ribbon above the medal scintillated proudly on his chest as he bent forward to shake hands. The brass of his spotless blazer shone. He was elegantly handsome especially with his newly gotten suntanned face and neck gifted by the unyielding Maltese sunshine.
"This is my second visit to Sughaza, you know, Mrs. Burani. Doug, of course, is a long- standing diplomat.” They exchanged greetings of partners in a league as Doug duly agreed. "I spend eleven months a year on my floating castle either in Portsmouth, Malta, the Middle East and in more distant waters too. It's my home really."
Leila looked impressed with his unassuming attitude. He reciprocated with a timid smile which Doug couldn’t help notice. As Leila and Dan Rogers eased into a mutually warm exchange, Doug discreetly drifted away like a bee in search of a new bed of pollen. The following Sunday Dan was the dinner guest at the Buranis. Sami and Jamal were excited when Rear Admiral Dan Rogers, as promised, turned up in his impressive uniform. It reminded them of the visits to their uncle’s palace. Jamal took an instant liking to him and despite his tender age he noticed his mother did too.
After flashes of polite conversation at the table Subhi and Dan inevitably dominated, they all moved in the sitting room close by, listening to Dan’s amusing anecdotes. It was a feeble expiring sun peeping through the wooden-framed window. This created dappled flurries of gilded dust motes drifting across the room. Malek sat in a secluded corner patiently awaiting Jamal’s bed-time orders. Jamal was saddled on Dan’s lap with his deep hazel eyes riveted on Dan’s lips.
“I had been commissioned to H.M.S. Vernon in Portsmouth before that. You know although I was born in the south of England, my mother was Irish. She was born in Cork, and my father was from Newcastle. But they moved down south when my father was stationed in Plymouth. I’m afraid he was in the Royal Navy too.”
“Are you married?” Jamal’s precocious verve was a delight to Dan. But Leila blushed in consternation. Her eyes fumbled intently till they met Subhi’s, intimating her desire for the children to be ordered upstairs. It was time for bed anyway. Realising the approaching doom, Jamal sat up clasping his crossed knees. “But you didn’t finish the story about the Convoy,” he squealed.
“Admiral Rogers is getting tired now,” Leila snapped.
“Oh, there’ll be another time young man,” Dan lifted Jamal and deposited him on the florid Persian carpet.
Before the toddler could concoct one of his devious excuses to prolong his evening, Subhi bellowed in a voice suited to tame the most irascible creature.
“Jamal,” His look engulfed the stunned child whose eyes suddenly welled up staring pleadingly at Dan.
“I’ll tell you what, if your mother and father agree,” he said in a fresh and promising tone, “I’ll take you for a drive to the coast tomorrow. How does that sound for an offer?”
The next morning at nine o’clock sharp Dan arrived in a blue Morris. He had borrowed it from someone at the Embassy. Leila joined the children for the day while Subhi was going away for a few days on a business trip to Egypt.
It was a gorgeous day. The vast beach of Sabru was idyllic. They swam in the crystal clear water, they laughed and joked and generally enjoyed themselves on the golden sand. Leila thought Dan was an instant hit with the children. In the harsh sun rays their faces and backs burned like red-hot charcoal. A languid cool breeze constantly tickled their shining torsos and it felt like a therapeutic massage at least Dan thought so. Leila enjoyed every second. She couldn’t recall the last time she had so much fun and relaxation in one day.
For long moments arid sandy landscapes stretched unbroken into the distant horizon. In the evening on the way back, they drove through a cluster of burgeoning towns. For dinner they stopped at Couscous City, the southern Mediterranean answer to Bistro de Paris.
A warm feeling was radiating on Dan’s and Leila’s faces. Even young Jamal had noticed how well they got on. How much they had grown to like each other in such a short time. It was nothing short of magical. Dan was a truly exceptional man, very kind and generous person.
“Thank you, Dan. The children loved it.” She said rather shyly.
“Hey, thank you for coming. I thoroughly enjoyed your company,” she had heard him say. “Honestly a real pleasure. We’ll have to do this again, sometime.”
“Oh, that’ll be fantastic,” Jamal howled.
For the next couple of months he made regular visits to Sughaza from his Ark Royal base. Periodically it moved on from Malta to other Mediterranean ports such as Naples and southern Cyprus. He would invariably take Leila and the children for a day out to the beach. Then Subhi would join them for dinner in the evening at a local restaurant. Dan and Leila would dance while Subhi would calmly enjoy a cigar and his occasional draft of whiskey and soda.
It was December 1955 and the Ark Royal visited Malta again. This time Dan invited the Buranis to his floating city. Subhi thought it was a very kind gesture but he himself was much too busy to spare the time. It would be a great experience for Jamal and Sami who had never been on an aircraft carrier before. They were going to find the Ark Royal a little bit larger than their yacht ‘Eloise’.
They were picked up at the Malta Marsa Wharf by one of the Ark Royal boats which ferried them to the formidable Mothership. The water in the harbour was dead still and a little murky. But as soon as they slipped out of the breakwater, towing behind them foamy white furrows, the vast span of deep blue stretching ahead of them percolated into choppy humps and dips. The soft cool breeze caressing their ruddy cheeks peppered them with sprays of salty wetness each time the boat soared atop a surging wave. Sami and Jamal were thrilled to bits. It reminded them of the good times they had had in their father’s yacht whenever he took them to their summer villa in Monte Carlo. But it had been so long now that they couldn’t even remember when they had last been. Dan waited for them on the bridge.
“Hello, young master,” He exclaimed picking up Jamal and hugging him. He then shook hands with Sami and kissed Leila on the cheek. “How are you?”
“Very well, thank you. Actually we’ve been quite busy. You know, with the children there’s hardly a moment of boredom.”
He showed them the view from the bridge and took them around the Officers’ quarters. Then while the children investigated the upper deck, Leila and Dan sat in the Officers’ lounge drinking coffee.
“I …” I missed you, he almost confessed. “I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of booking a table for tonight,” he delicately went on. “It’s a quaint, little restaurant in Valletta. You’ll love it Leila.”
“And the children?” she asked instinctively.
“Oh, don’t worry; they’ll be in good hands.”
The restaurant was intimate and demurely lit. The room was hung with white stone arches flanked by delicately sized, artistic brass lamps. In one dimly lit corner, a silent brass knight shed its medieval shadows across the white marble slabs. Leila’s heart missed a beat, every time he fluttered his blond lashes and gazed with his hazel-green eyes. At first they didn’t say much even though she felt at ease. Socialising was second nature to him and you didn’t feel you had to speak all the time. In fact she found it quite soothing. It gave her space and time to think and admire him; she found him very handsome. It got her thinking the number of ladies he must have admired during the innumerable dinners he had been to. His cool accommodating personality made her wonder if there was real passion behind his brooding gaze. Were his emotions as mysterious as his looks? Had his years in the Navy smeared out of existence the passion she was sure he once possessed? She was curious to know whether there was any intimacy left in the man. His thick blond hair had streaks of grey. Yet the poised gilded sounds crossing his seductive lips bore the stamp of frankness and a “joie de vivre” of a younger man.
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Father Jimmy is an attractive, young Catholic priest fresh from the Seminary relishing his first posting in a leafy Parish in the 80’s Liverpool which he shares with his cantankerous elderly senior, Father Peter. His immediate success and popularity and his innocent attachment to the beautiful and troubled Theresa Conway draws a few raised eyebrows from the diocesan elders and he is soon conveniently shipped to Rome for further training. However, unbeknown to Father Jimmy traumatic events in his early childhood seemed to have completely wiped out his motley past. Defying all credibility, the truth is that Father Jimmy’s life began in 1951, in the heart of the African Continent as political turmoil swept through even the safest monarchies like the peaceful land of Lubanya ruled by the benevolent King Idris. A string of events and a cruel, desperate fate conspired to tear him away for ever from his mother Leila, his family and his royal relatives. Only through the kind services of Admiral Dan Rogers, at the helm of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet is he finally safely adopted by the good nuns at a Catholic orphanage in Liverpool with his elder brother under new identities to conceal their Moslem lineage. It is from there that Jimmy graduates to the Seminary and is finally ordained a Catholic priest. And just when he thinks his troubles are over, a ruthless fate and his God conspire to torment him.