A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden: shortlisted for Writing.ie Short Story of the Year
The story was first published in the author’s short story collection, Full of Grace
Orla McAlinden: author of one novel, The Flight of the Wren, and two short story colelctions
Everyone knows that Catholic priests are raving, slavering drunkards – even the teetotal ones – so you carefully set your whiskey tumbler down behind a large photograph of Pope Francis on the mantelpiece before you answer the front door of the parochial house. You take a moment to adjust the angle of the cheap gilt frame to hide your well-watered Powers. His Holiness doesn’t seem to mind; his expression doesn’t change. His benign smile says Never mind, my child. If I had to serve in that shithole parish of yours, I’d have a snifter myself, the odd time. Not a big man for the condemnations, nor for letting fly the first stone, is Francis; more of a live-and-let-live fella, like yourself.
In earlier years, you wouldn’t have hidden the alcohol, back when Tómas O’Fiaich was Primate of All Ireland – a jovial big lad out celebrating at the opening of every envelope in the diocese – and no one thought twice of a priest hopping in his car to administer the last rites with a few drops taken. Those days are gone though, and you pause with your hand on the door handle to crunch a Polo mint. You’re not a big drinker and you’ve nothing to hide, but you’re sick to the back teeth of snide remarks and snarky glances.
‘Am I disturbing you, Father? I could come back later.’
A civil greeting anyway. That’s good. You haven’t a clue who the young lad is, and you don’t bother trying to guess. You’ve always been hopeless with names. Back in the day you’d have started an old rigmarole of asking after his parents and hoping desperately for some chink of light to fall on the mystery of your visitor’s name. There’s no need for those subterfuges these days. Lads of this young man’s vintage who darken the church door are as rare as hen’s teeth, so much so that you personally know every one of them and all belonging to them. Apart from funerals, this fella probably hasn’t been in a church since the Passing Out Parade – or the Sacrament of Confirmation, as the school teachers still call it. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad lad, of course. Pope Francis smiles encouragingly.
‘Come in, come in. Sure, it’s only eight o’clock. Let me turn off this noise.’
You cringe. Should elderly priests spend their Saturday evenings watching Strictly Come Dancing? Who knows? Who cares, these days? You’re sure your visitor has never heard the phrase ‘a vertical expression of a horizontal desire’; if his grandmother ever told him about Ireland’s priests preaching from the pulpit about the sins of jazz and close-dancing, he’d probably think she was making it up. As your hand hovers over the remote, Jess and Brian on Strictly strut like feral ponies, all white teeth and tossing locks. You’ve been watching other people dance all your life. You’re sure you could have given good account of yourself, if it wasn’t for the bloody Roman collar and the lack of a partner.
‘Will you take a cup of tea?’ you ask.
Your visitor has sprawled, uninvited, across an easy chair, legs falling apart from the crotch, taking up a huge amount of space. Your space. You wouldn’t want to share a bus seat with him. That’s another new thing for Irish people, this excessive taking up of space, this stating to the world, Here I am. Take me or leave me. Or more realistically, Take me or f*ck right off.
‘G’wan, g’wan, g’wan,’ he replies and you smile patiently, as if he is the first person to make that joke. Father Ted has a lot to answer for.
‘Mrs Doyle has the night off,’ you say, your smile not reaching your eyes. ‘Will I wet a pot of tea? To be honest, I haven’t had a housekeeper for over ten years. I know where the kettle lives.’
‘No, you’re grand, Father, I’ll not be here for long.’
Well thank God (if He exists) for small mercies.
‘What can I do for you?’ you ask, finally remembering that he is probably at the same disadvantage as yourself. You stick out your hand. ‘I’m Father Anthony O’Donovan. Should be long since retired, but still holding the fort here in the absence of a younger man. Do me a favour and tell me you’re here to discuss your vocation to the priesthood or diaconate. I could do with a hand.’
You laugh to show that you know you’re being ridiculous. After a moment, your visitor shrugs off his appalled look and tries to remember whatever manners he once knew.
‘You’re a real geg, Father. No such luck here. I’ll have to work for my living, not join the priesthood.’ He smiles to take the sting out of it, but you are long past caring about insults like these.
You glance at the clock sitting next to your hidden whiskey on the mantelpiece. The second half of Strictly is always where the competition comes down to the wire.
‘Can you tell me why you’re here, my child? Or do you need more time?’
Have you never heard of the Samaritans, you big lummox? They’ve a hape of specially trained listeners if all you want to do is not talk.
‘God, no. Sorry. I’m right, now.’
He pauses and you fear he’s going to lapse into silence again, but eventually a dark-red flush travels up from the open collar of his shirt and stains the whole of his stubbled face.
‘Erm, it’s confession, you see, Father. I’d like to go to confession.’
You can’t remember the last time a parishioner came to the parochial house looking for an out-of-hours confession. It used to be old dears, rushing up with their semi-imaginary sins. Four terrifying times during the Troubles it had been shaking, pale-faced, bloodstained men vomiting out their awful deeds, pouring their pain into your heart and soul. You had known, even as you spoke the words of absolution, that you were partaking in a charade, that despite their honest repentance they were doomed now, doomed to repeat their crimes when ordered, or to die for refusing to do so.
You take a careful look at your penitent’s face, in case you need to describe him to the cops later, and check his boots and clothes, but they are clean. He just looks … ordinary. He isn’t wearing a Victorian waistcoat or sporting a bun in his hair or the beard of an Old Testament patriarch. Nor has he shaved his head and covered every inch of visible skin with swirling, interlinked Celtic tattoos. He just looks normal. He looks like a lad who might be on the second-string football team at Clann na nGael GAA club.
‘You know, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available on Friday evenings, before the devotions –’ you begin.
‘Tonight, Father, it has to be tonight.’
‘And then I need you to write me a letter confirming that I done it.’
‘I need a letter confirming that I done my confession tonight, otherwise I won’t get my papers and the girlfriend will have my guts.’
‘What papers? What are you talking about? Your girlfriend …?’
He drags himself into an approximation of a respectful posture.
‘I’m sorry, Father, I’ll start at the start. The girlfriend and me is getting married. She’s hankering for a baby. Nothin’ll do her but up the aisle and straight into the maternity ward nine months later.’
‘Have you given this some serious thought? That’s a big step.’
‘Ach we’re together eight years. She’s had her days drinking Prosecco through a straw and dancing on the table. Now she wants the ring and the baby.’
‘And she wants them in that order? How unusual.’
You didn’t mean to say that out loud, but it’s water off a duck’s back to him.
‘Look, it’s simple. We’ve one day over us on the pre-marriage course and the final day’s tomorrow and I need to do the confession and get the proof that it’s done.’
‘Why here? Why now? Surely the Sacrament of Reconciliation was offered you today as part of the preliminary proceedings?’
You wish the Vatican would stop messing with the names of everything, chopping and changing for the sake of it, it seemed. The old grey cells in the old grey heads of your congregation can’t keep up with all these subtle changes in the creeds and responses. It’s like the Tower of Babel at Mass these days, with half of them on the Vatican II responses and half on the new ones. At least Sacrament of Reconciliation has a chance of catching on. Who the hell came up with the sacrament of penance version? No one in the 21st century thinks they deserve penance.
The man shifts uneasily in his chair. ‘There’s no way on God’s earth I’m doing my confession and then having Laura going straight in after me to the same priest. He’d be looking at her and thinking, what the fuck are you doing with that gobshite, wee girl?’
He doesn’t apologise for swearing in front of you, or even seem to be aware of how inappropriate it is.
‘Well, surely the priest in charge should have reassured you on that front,’ you say. ‘The secrets of the confessional are sacred unto the grave. He’d never have said anything to her. Nor would he have wanted to. The confessor is merely a channel between the repentant penitent and the eternal, boundless mercy of God, not a judge, jury or executioner.’
‘My child-‘ And suddenly curiosity gets the better of you, and you can’t keep up the pretence any longer. ‘Listen, son, you want me to hear your confession? Just give me two ticks.’
You bustle back a few minutes later, robed and ready, more than half expecting to find him gone, along with the silver candlesticks (which aren’t actually silver) and your wallet, which you stupidly left in the pocket of your jacket hanging on the back of a chair. But he is lolling in the armchair, waiting.
You sit down beside him and wait for him to start. He looks at you blankly.
‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …’ you say by way of a prompt, but he doesn’t know the next part. ‘How long is it since your last confession?’ you ask.
‘Oh right, yeah. It might be ten years … no, wait … it must be sixteen or seventeen years ago. First year in the college, I’d guess.’
‘When you were about eleven years old?’
‘I’d say so.’
‘And never since?’
‘Never felt the need, to be honest.’
‘Because you have a personal relationship with God and feel you don’t need the mediator of a priest?’
‘What? Shit, no. What? Look, I just don’t think I ever done anything you could call a sin.’
‘Well, that’s great.’ You pause to digest that piece of information. ‘If that’s the case why didn’t you go to confession this morning and tell that to the priest who took the course - Father Manus was it?’
‘Big, round, beardy fella? A bird’s nest poking out of each nostril?’
You snort, but change it into a cough. ‘That’s the one. Why didn’t you just tell him you’d nothing on your conscience? Or make something up?’
‘Lie to a priest? Lie in the confession box?’
You’re surprised at the tone of shock, as if you had offered to stab his mother or lend him a JCB to gouge the cash machine out of the wall of the Ulster Bank.
‘Well, I’m here now, my child. I don’t know how you found me, or what brings you out here to the side of this windy hill when there’s priests a lot closer to Omagh than I am, but let’s do it. Do you know the Act of Contrition?’
He shakes his head, so you guide him through the children’s version and he repeats it line for line. You can see signs of recognition in his eyes as bits come back to him, and he looks quite pleased with himself when he blurts out the final words without prompting. Then silence.
‘I didn’t love God when …’ you hint.
He squints at you as though you’ve sprouted satanic horns while he searches for the words; then realisation dawns.
‘I didn’t love God when …’ He stops. ‘I feel a bit thick doing this.’
You nod and smile. The dancers have finished; you’ll have to watch Strictly online tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, you might be able to help this young man and Laura start married life unencumbered, shrived and psychologically sound. It would feel good to matter, to know that you still can justify your existence.
‘Listen, Father, there’s no point beating around the bush.’ He rubs his hands across his eyes like a much older man and drops his gaze. ‘It’s a sex thing. I wouldn’t necessarily have been completely faithful over the years, like.’
‘Well, eight years is a long time, I suppose, and you would have been very young …’
‘Well yes, there’s that, I suppose.’
‘So you want to clear your conscience of the weight of having betrayed your fiancée. And the other girl, of course - I mean, it wasn’t fair on her either.’
‘Well, I want the absolution. And I want the letter.’
‘Yes, I can see how you wouldn’t want to start a marriage with this hanging over you.’
‘So, you’re sorry for your youthful indiscretions, and you resolve never to sin in this way again and remain faithful. That’s the right frame of mind for any young man embarking on matrimony.’
He should jump on that. You practically patted his shoulder and told him he’s a great fella. He should be looking you in the eye by now and declaring before God that he’s feeling a million dollars, and that it won’t be another seventeen years before he comes back to confession. But he isn’t.
You follow the line of his stare. His eyes are fixed on the toes of your shoes, cheap and not particularly comfortable, but shiny and black and recently polished.
‘When was the last time you saw this other girl?’ you ask, your heart sinking like the lead-weighted eel-fishing nets of Lough Neagh.
‘Last week? For f*ck’s sake!’ That gets his attention all right. He jumps and shifts in his seat. ‘I’m sorry. You gave me a shock … Last week? And do you love this girl?’
‘Of course I love her. Sure, we’re getting married in six weeks.’
‘The other one, you big amadán. Do you love this other girl?’
He laughs. Whatever you were expecting – self-recrimination, shame, even claims that he was led astray – you weren’t expecting laughter.
‘Of course not. Catch yourself on. Sure, she’s not even a real woman.’
And now you are truly out of your depth. You’ve heard some crazy stuff over the years, but what are you going to say to this man?
‘A doll, you mean? Is it one of those inflatable sex dolls?’
Please, please God, let it be a doll. Don’t let it be some kind of robot. Do such things exist yet? Oh Christ, don’t let it be … a child.
‘No, Father. Jesus, no!’ He looks at you in horror. ‘I’m not some kind of pervy freak. It’s you know …’ He nods and winks.
‘I certainly do not.’
‘It’s a business relationship.’
‘You work with her?’
‘For Christ’s sake, do I have to spell it out? They’re working girls. Prossies.’
You sink back in your seat. ‘They? They? You’re seeing prostitutes and you’re getting married in six weeks?’
You rest your forehead in the palm of your hand and stare at the worn carpet. Horrified by your pragmatism, you ask, ‘What if you catch something? What if you give a disease to your wife? Or the unborn child?’
‘Ah now, Father, do you think I came down the River Mourne in a bubble? There’s such a thing as condoms you know. And the girls look after themselves. I mean, they’re not street-walkers.’
You hold up your hand; you honestly don’t want to know any more. ‘Listen. I’m heading for seventy-five years old. I don’t want to talk about what you do to these poor misfortunate women.’
‘Ach, they’re grand, Father. The minders look after them okay.’ He glances down and you watch him twist his fingers together. ‘Well, there was one girl last month wouldn’t stop crying … but usually they’re grand.’
You look up at Francis for help. Christ, you need that whiskey now, and another stronger one to wash it down.
‘Are you telling me you had intercourse with a prostitute who was crying?’ When it’s obvious he’s not going to answer you continue. ‘Why didn’t you stop? Why didn’t you do something? You could have called the police.’
‘She told me not to stop. She said she was sorry, that she’d be okay the next time, to keep going and not give her a bad review.’
‘Well, I think that’s what she said. She was a wee foreign girl with a thick enough accent.’
You stagger to your feet and pull the stole off from round your neck. Its weight is bearing you to the ground. In your trouser pocket is a cheap, tinny rosary ring. You have got in the habit of carrying these rings around with you because the children and grandchildren of your parishioners are so divorced from the Church that you sometimes turn up at a wake to discover that the corpse has no rosary entwined between its fingers. You pull out the ring and slip it on your finger, just for the superstitious comfort it gives you, and lean heavily against the mantelpiece.
The world has gone mad, the whole boiling lot of them, and this lad’s the worst. Your searching fingers close around the hidden cut-glass tumbler and you drink the whole lot in two gulps. It is more than half water anyway.
‘I don’t know what you want or why you came here,’ you say, ‘but it’s time to go.’
‘You’re behind the times, Father. It’s just a job. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, like. It’s just a service industry like any other.’
‘They’ve nothing to be ashamed of – you’re probably right. But you?’ Your voice shakes and you turn to the sideboard to claim the Powers; no water this time as the bottle rattles a shaky staccato on the rim of the glass. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? You’ve a woman wants to marry you and you’re messing around with prostitutes. Isn’t one woman enough for you?’
He laughs and you clench the full lead Tyrone Crystal glass so hard you think it might shatter in your hand, but it has been tempered at thousands of degrees Celsius and it withstands the puny heat of your fury.
‘For Christ’s sake, it’s not the same thing at all,’ he says, pausing for a moment to clarify in his own mind exactly why it’s not the same thing at all. ‘I mean, you wouldn’t do that kind of stuff to a real woman.’
The heavy tumbler catches him on the cheekbone. Thank God there’s no bleeding. If you still had a housekeeper it would be hard to explain the whiskey splashes on the heavily patterned wallpaper. There’s even a splash on the face of the Sacred Heart, which catches the light of the red votive lamp below and glows eerily, as though Our Lord is crying blood.
He touches the side of his face, which is reddening now, and you find yourself wondering if anyone saw him arrive here. If they come tomorrow morning and find you lying in a pool of your own blood, with the Sacred Heart on one wall and his Blessed Mother on the other staring impassively down, would they be able to trace him and arrest him? Maybe that would be the best way to save Laura from this marriage. Or maybe you should ring young Father Manus and say, f*ck the seal of the confessional, wait till you hear this.
His fingers stop probing his face. It doesn’t look too bad to you; his eye isn’t swelling. He’ll probably just have a big, easily explained-away bruise. He could say he walked into a door. Isn’t that what the women of your parishes have been saying to you for the last forty years? You used to marvel at how clumsy women were.
He steps towards you and you cringe backwards, wish to hell the door was closer, or your mobile phone. He reaches out a hand and lifts his car keys from where you didn’t notice he had thrown them and turns to leave.
‘I take it I’m not getting my letter then,’ he says. ‘I’ll take your advice and go to confession tomorrow. Tell bushy-nose a pack of lies. Hypocrisy. I can’t stand hypocrisy. But look where the truth gets you.’
You watch as he leaves the room, not even slamming the door, and listen to him quietly driving off into the night. You turn to the mantelpiece, gripping it with white knuckles, and lay your head on the cooling slab of marble.
Pope Francis says to you, clear as day, ‘F*ck’s sake, Antonio, get yourself another glass and fill it. And have one for me.’
A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden was first published in her short story collection, Full of Grace (Red Stag) . She is also the author of The Accidental Wife and The Flight of the Wren.
The shortlisted stories for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year are:
Parrot by Nicole Flattery (The Stinging Fly, Issue 39, Volume 2, Winter 2018-19)
A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden (Full of Grace, published by Red Stag)
Mother May I by Amy Gaffney (HCE Review, Volume 3, Issue 1)
Sparing the Heather by Louise Kennedy (Banshee, Issue 8)
Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell (Still Worlds Turning, published by No Alibis Press)
The Lamb by Andrea Carter (Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, The Stinging Fly Press)
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin from Writing.ie said: “Writing.ie has been sponsoring the Short Story of the Year for several years now and the standard of stories is always, as you’d expect, incredibly high – shortlists have featured some of our most noted writers. Writing.ie is very much focused on creating opportunity for writers, providing resources to help them improve and information on outlets for publication, and we carry this through into the short story category of the An Post Irish Book Awards. We take submissions from online journals and magazines as well as traditionally published books/collections, so not only do we get a wonderful mixture of submissions, but the playing field is wide open for all short story writers to submit and perhaps be shortlisted beside established names. The competition is judged completely anonymously so we never know who has written what until the shortlist announcement!
The judges were Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin Unesco City of Literature; Bob Johnston from The Gutter Bookshop; and literary agent Simon Trewin. You can vote for your favourite short story on the An Post Irish Book Awards website anpostirishbookawards.ie