ONLY a short distance separated the church from the parochial house, barely half a mile along the sweeping boreen that skirted the top of the village, but Fr. Kennedy had lingered too long in the sacristy, fussing over details hardly worth the bother, and by the time the church was locked up and properly secured, night had already fallen.
Now a gale flecked with sleet was blowing from the east, and the road ahead looked altogether uninviting.
A tall, drooping figure, lost in the waste ground of late middle-age, his pallid demeanour belied the half bottle of whiskey that had just about accounted for the last two hours. Well, some habits were difficult as hell to break, especially on evenings when Christmas was everywhere.
The bottom of the bottle had come as a bitter surprise. A medicinal nip to keep out the cold led to another after he had locked away the sacraments and settled down to count and then recount the morning’s collection. Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday knocked the world off-kilter, but it was not without its upside. The two morning masses, at nine and again at eleven, had cumulated a weighty haul of small denomination coins. The recount was for the benefit of Bishop Tope, a man who ran his diocese with wartime vigour and who demanded meticulous care where church finances were concerned.
But the stillness of a gloomy Sunday afternoon made the sacristy such a bleak place to be, and the lamp at Father Kennedy’s elbow gave off a cloying stench of paraffin that settled like infection in the sinuses. Boredom did the real damage, and with the bottle within such easy reach, anyone would have done the same. The yellow lamplight lent everything a sullen, feverish hue, and that, combined with the tedium of the task, had made it easy as dreaming to lose his bearings. The coins built teetering stacks and the level of the whiskey fell, and things had simply gotten away from him.
Outside, he steadied himself against the doorway, and drew a deep swallow of the perished air. The dark world swayed around him and the evening’s only sounds were of his own ragged breathing and the raking hush of the wind coming through the graveyard sycamores. It was late, going on for seven o’clock, and he needed to get home. Weariness had dug a hole in his mind, and his dinner would be growing crusts in the oven. He drew another deep breath, pulled up the collar of his heavy overcoat and wheeled his bicycle out into the front yard, the wind sweeping in sheets from the east, urging him to turn back.
The money was what mattered. Twenty-nine pounds, twelve shillings and seven pence: a decent tally, considering the impoverished conditions of so many households. Thank God for the farmers, and for those with consciences that could be picked with a well-dropped word. He set the small white canvas sack into the bicycle’s front basket and climbed up onto the saddle.
There was a precarious moment before he found his balance when the front wheel hit a rock or a pothole and he almost went over, but somehow he made it up onto the boreen and things were better then. Ash trees lined the narrow road and helped shield him from the worst of the gales, though the road’s surface was slick and in places swamped from the battering rains of recent days and nights.
Anxiety, fuelled by the spirit and the darkness, dug holes in his mind. He listened as he pedalled to his lurching heart adding beat to the squealing wind, and began to pray, in little murmured whispers, that he might make it home soon and in one piece. But then, up ahead, the road turned and offered, through the cage of trees, a glimpse of the top of the village, the first few homes with lantern light softening their net-shielded windows, and suddenly his dread seemed so foolish that a gasp of laughter actually shook him in the saddle.
He was still smiling when the front wheel met the ridge of a creeping tree root. He fell hard, landing awkwardly against a low trunk of ash, his back and ribs taking the worst of the collision.
The air left his lungs in a shrill grunt, and everything went a deeper shade of black and stayed that way. He lay there, his shocked mind weaving along on the edge of consciousness, seeing nothing but hearing the wind’s wail in the branches high above and the back wheel of his bicycle spinning slowly toward a stop. Stagnant water seeped into his trousers and his hands and face felt smeared with mud or worse. Then something heaved deep in his chest and he leaned over onto his side and vomited the contents of his stomach out onto the road. Lights flared hard in the darkness and then were lost, and within seconds he passed out, no longer caring about anything at all.
Night took hold, a sleety rain fell and passed. Finally, getting on for ten o’clock, two men came staggering up along the boreen from the village. Paddy Quinn and Dan Buckley had sipped the day away too, though on their meagre budgets porter, rather than whiskey, had to be their poison. But after a week hard spent, slaving for a pittance in the woollen mills, Paddy in the warping department, Dan caged up in the boiler house, this evening had been a gleam of gold to brighten the darkest days of winter, with the few pints and a few songs badly-crooned beside a fire blazing sweetness out of new-cut turf, with laughter and fiddled tunes and stories of long ago, the visiting ghosts of Christmases past but not forgotten.
They walked slowly, still glowing, their hands in their pockets restless with the memory of tanners and half-crowns. Home was the side-by-side terraced shell that clung to the sharpest bend of the Passage road, some two miles away yet. But there was no hurry. Even with the cold and the stony scuds of occasional sleet, these were easy minutes. The porter had them smiling, the songs lingered as half-lines in their minds, and Christmas meant two clear days away from the mill before work would again rise up like a mountainside before them.
It was Dan who first noticed the bicycle.
He stopped, grabbed at his neighbour’s elbow. Paddy stopped too, and glanced around.
“It’s a bike,” said Paddy, in a whisper more for his own benefit than for Dan’s. “Who’d leave a bike out here on a night like this?”
They approached slowly. The consumed porter lapped at their minds. The boreen was very dark, shielded by the hunched trees, and a shawl of cloud kept the small quarter moon concealed.
Everything about the night felt suddenly wrong. Dan could hear the tinny whine of Paddy’s breathing.
“There must have been an accident,” he said, picking shards of logic from the situation that presented itself. “But I don’t...” Then, off to the side, the priest moaned softly from his slumber.
“Is that Father Kennedy?”
They moved closer until the stench of vomit rose to meet them. “Christ,” said Paddy. “He’s in a right state.”
“Do you think he’s dead?”
Paddy glared at his friend, swallowed hard and then slowly shook his head. “He moaned, didn’t he? You heard him. He can’t be dead. But he does look hurt.”
“What’ll we do? I mean, we can’t leave him here, can we?”
“I don’t know. They say you shouldn’t move a body. Something could be broken. We might do more harm than good.”
Paddy made a shrugging gesture, moved away a few paces and leaned his weight against the nearest ash. He was a tall man but bone-thin and with the natural stoop of one too used to heavy work, and porter had a rare way of turning him feeble. The support of the tree trunk came as a welcome relief. He let his gaze settle out of easy habit into its usual downward cast. This problem required serious consideration. Because of the darkness, and the heavy consumption of the drink, it took several seconds before he could properly register what his pale green eyes were seeing.
Money lay strewn all across the road. In an instant he was on his knees, heedless now of mud and rain, not caring even about the fallen priest. His fingers raked the ground, trying to hoard the mess of coins together. “Dan,” he said, his voice hushed with nothing less than awe, as his friend joined him in the dirt. “We’ve struck gold.”
In a few minutes they had collected everything that their eyes could see and their fingers could feel. The mud was in their hair and in their mouths, it smothered their ears from the world’s sounds, but none of that mattered now. And finally, when there was nothing more to gather, they helped one another to their feet. Dan was the first to smile. After a strained breath, Paddy replied in kind. He cast a glance at the still unconscious shape of Father Kennedy. “When we get to the Finger Post,” he said, “we’ll pool the money and split it evenly.”
Dan’s smile widened. Then his gaze settled on the priest too, and a twist of uncertainty quivered across his mouth. “What about him, though?”
For a few seconds, Paddy said nothing. Then he cleared his throat. “What about him?”
“Well, we can’t just leave him here. He’s hurt.”
Paddy took Dan by the arm and led him a few steps away. He could feel the coins in his pockets weighing him down as he walked, and that was a sensation he didn’t want to lose.
“If we help him, we can kiss the money goodbye. Think about it. There must be twenty pounds here.
“More, even. And in small coins like this, it has to be the haul from the collection plate.”
“Yeah, but...” “Listen to me, Dan. This is the chance of a lifetime for us. I could badly do with this money, and I know well enough that you could, too. It’s Christmas. When was the last time Annie had money for something nice? Or my Breda? Think about the kids. Think what this will mean.”
“And don’t be worrying about the church, either. You think they’re hard up for a few bob? So himself there will have to bite the bullet with the bishop. So what? He had an accident, he fell off his bike. It happens. That smell of vomit? That’s whiskey, as if you didn’t know. Father Kennedy passed a very holy Sunday for himself, I’d say.”
Dan tried to think. His fingers touched the coins in his pockets. Paddy was right. They could both do with the money. It wasn’t easy feeding and clothing a wife and five children on a boiler-man’s wages. And Christmas seemed to double that pain. He looked imploringly at his friend, wanting to be convinced. “Could he be hurt, though?” he whispered, nodding once more towards the heap of priest. “I mean, seriously hurt.”
“He’s drunk, that’s all.” Paddy dismissed the question with one muddy hand. “When he wakes, the only pain he’ll have is the one hammering away in his head. And he’ll have a hangover to beat the band when he discovers his money is gone.”
It had begun to rain again, a cold mist that, beneath the canopy of branches, existed largely as sound, like the static of a badly tuned wireless. The wind had eased, which seemed to harden the “All right,” said Dan, at last. “We’ll leave him.”
They hurried away then, up along the boreen, still shoulder to shoulder, each ready to support the other, though the effects of the porter no longer bothered them. After at a couple of hundred yards the trees thinned out, and the mist was soft and dense, and very cold. Within minutes, they were at the Finger Post. Wiping mud from their eyes, they huddled beneath the nearest gaslight and set about counting and dividing the money.
“If they ever find out about this, they’ll string us up,” said Dan, his voice a giddy mix of terror and exhilaration, as he piled his share, a little over fourteen pounds in small muddy coins, into the pockets of his coat and trousers.
“Well then, nobody had better find out,” said Paddy. “We can tell the wives, but there can be no splashing out. Fourteen pounds won’t make us kings, but it will help keep the hungry days at bay.”
Christmas dawn broke heavy and still across the village. Father Kennedy woke to thin light filtering through the trees, drew a deep, unsteady breath and winced at the kick of pain that exploded through his head. The top of his skull felt as if he’d taken the blow of a club, and the bruised or broken ribs down his right side made screams of the least movement.
The boreen twisted away eastwards, its rutted surface latticed with shards of waning light.
Birds were singing, close warbling melodies punctuated by the occasional shrill staccato, and somewhere in the distance the rusted, crushed-glass musings of a lost or leftover corncrake.
He lay in the mud and vomit, soaked through, frozen against further waves of agony and the rising pull of nausea. It was clear that something terrible had happened but little beyond the edges of the pain and a hard-baked thirst made any sense yet. And then, gradually, flashes of the night returned. He recalled leaving the church, and struggling with the bicycle in the wind, and he remembered the darkness and the sense of dread. But the details remained vague, like shadows on a grey afternoon.
With effort, he dragged himself into a sitting position.
The muscles of his back snared tight and he wondered, just for a moment, if he might have done some serious damage, if he might have broken his spine, or maybe slipped a disk. But within a minute, the worst had passed, and he knew then that his injuries could not be that serious. He was hurt, yes, but he’d live.
His bicycle lay on its side some six or seven feet away, its front wheel buckled severely enough for the tire to have come away in part from the mangled rim. Yes. He’d been cycling, and hit something. He scanned the surface of the road and saw, a few yards back, a great elbow of ash root poking up through the mud. The darkness was a valid excuse. Even if he’d never tasted whiskey, he wouldn’t have stood a chance. He’d gone over the handlebars and come to rest here, against this tree. Hard against this tree. But the result, bad as it seemed, was still a long way shy of the worst-case scenario.
Then he remembered the money from the Sunday collection.
He struggled to his feet, and the pain flared and took his breath away, and his throat flushed with the copper taste of terror. Yet it was still not the most horrendous thing about the early hour.
He lifted the bicycle slowly, hoping for the impossible, but the basket was empty.
The canvas sack lay a few paces further on, ripped open along its seam and deflated to a sodden mess. He stooped and picked it up, and a penny dropped out of the folds to land in the mud at his feet.
Panic bloomed through him, causing the light of the world to wane. He slumped against the nearest tree and tried to breathe. His mind flailed for logic. The bag had burst, scattering the coins into the mud. That was all. Everything would be fine, the money had to be here somewhere. He’d take his time, carry out a thorough search. After all, patience was a virtue. Who knew that better than a priest?
He dropped to his knees and began to forage in the mud. His skull felt cleaved open now, the ache of his hangover a percussion fuelled by a hundred banging drums, and his back and ribs hit new heights of suffering with every minute twist and stretch. On and on he searched, raking through the dirt but uncovering only stones, until finally, after half an hour or so of fruitless endeavour, he could take no more. He slumped over onto his side and just lay there, gazing up at the splinters of sky whitening through the skeletal cage of ash branches and waiting, half in hope, half in dread, for some end to all of this.
The mud shifted to mould his shape, a quagmire of sludge that coated first his skin and clothes and then his tongue and nostrils so that even the morning’s cool sweetness was lost to the bitter mineral tang of elemental things.
An eternity later, the church bell began to ring out. Father Kennedy closed his eyes and followed the beats to a count of eight, each toll echoing one into the next.
He could picture the village stirring awake, the small terraced homes ripe with the smells of ham being boiled, the Christmas candles already burning in the window. Happy families, the women busy in the kitchen or setting the fire, the children joyous with the day, thrilling to their gifts of a cap-gun, doll, or book, the Beano or Dandy, Rupert the Bear or Curly Wee, the men, bone-weary from a year in the mill and a night spent on porter, luxuriating in a rare slow-moving morning.
He lay there in the middle of the boreen, heartsick and feeble, all alone, wishing for death but not finding it. Then, finally, because there was nothing else to do, he struggled to his feet, picked up the canvas sack and the one brown penny that lay gleaming in the mud, and set himself to the short walk home, he a mess from head to foot, home to face the music and to get cleaned up for first mass.
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