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28/12/2017 / hbrowne4

A Delicate Negotiation by Stephen Brady

North Dublin, 1992
Little Bobby Fitzpatrick had been eagerly awaiting the day of his First Confession. His religion teacher Mrs Daly had told him that this was to be the highlight of his spiritual life so far. The only problem was, he hadn’t any sins. He had never done anything that might legitimately be described as “sinful.” He worried over this penitential puzzler for a week and a half, and finally decided to ask his Mammy.
“Make something up,” she said, waving the tea towel.
“Can I do that?” he asked, goggle-eyed.
“Sure I go to confession every month, and I ran out of sins years ago. What do you think I tell them?”
“But I can’t lie to the priest!” Bobby wailed. “That’d be a sin, wouldn’t it? I’d go to hell, wouldn’t I?”
His mother flipped the tea towel onto her shoulder, turned to him and said something that Bobby never forgot. “I’m not telling you to lie. Just help them out. Give them something to listen to. Sure that’s all they want.”
Bobby chewed over this spiritual strategem as the days ticked by. He didn’t want to be condemned. But he thought he had a minor misdemeanour that might suffice.
On the Big Day, Bobby and nine other children were assembled in the parish church, all scrubbed in their best jumpers. They sat in a row before the parish priest, Father Boylan. He was a nornally tactiturn soul who, on this particular morning, was humming with ecclesiastical excitement.
“Now, children!” He clapped his skeletal hands. “I have a special surprise for all of you. Dermot, shut up! Now. We have a very special guest with us today.”
The kids looked all around them, expecting Gay Byrne or Jack Charlton to miraculously materialise.
“Stop gawking!” The P.P. commanded. “This special guest is very special indeed. Your First Confessions this morning are going to be heard, not by me, but by our Bishop himself!”
He paused expectantly. Unsure of what to do, the communicants produced a tentative round of applause.
Father Boylan now was positively glowing. His cadaverous countenance basked in the reflected glory of the validative V.I.P.
“Now, children. Bishop Maguire is awaiting you all in the confessional. Go on in now. Be on yeer best behaviour, and say the penitence he gives you.” The cadaverous countenance darkened. “Don’t embarrass me.”
The children went to the confessional, in the order preordained. Bobby was last. He had time to sit in the pew and think over what he was about to do.
Telling a fib to Father Boylan was one thing. The parish priest was, according to persistent playground rumour, already dead. But to lie to his Manager? That was a different thing entirely.
But he was here now, and God’s Eye was upon him. He had to go through with it.
When his turn finally came, Bobby was in terror. He exited the pew, shuffled gingerly toward the confessional, and slipped in.
It was dark, so dark in there. He tried to remember what he’d been told. He knelt at the little grilled window, blessed himself, and cleared his throat.
“Bless me, Fathe… uh, Bishop, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.”
A moment of silence ensued. That was when Bobby noticed the smell.
It was an oily, rancid odour, and it filled the penitential box like fog. It was eye-watering. A filthy, neglected smell. A kind of dodgy-chipper smell, of spoiled meat in batter. For a moment Bobby was sure he was going to vomit, and spoil his shot at Redemption.
“Bless you, my child.” A voice rumbled from the other side of the grille. It was grisly, full of blubber. Somehow it matched the odour perfectly. “And what is your name?”
“Bobby Fitzpatrick.”
“I see… Well, well. Tell me your sins, my child.”
Bobby took a deep breath (not easy in that putrid presence), and trotted out his script.
“In school I looked at Billy Ferguson’s sums and I copied them ‘cos I hadn’t studied for the Maths test.” Having said it, he felt obscurely better. Emboldened, he added, “The sums were wrong and I failed the test anyway. Billy Ferguson’s a spastic.”
There was a moment of grave, reflective silence.
Then the voice growled, “Oh, my child. That is a graaaaaave transgression.”
Bobby blinked. “It is?”
“Oh, indeed.”
“Uh… are you sure?”
“That is the worst piece of iniquity ever to sully these ears. And I used do confessions for the Army.”
“There’s nothing I can do for you, my child.” The voice growled in moral satisfaction. “You’re going to Hell.”
Bobby’s heart was beating fast. Terror for his mortal soul was all over him, like a clammy disease. “But I… but… but…”
“Oh dear oh dear oh dear,” the rancid entity rumbled. “This is a grave affront to Our Lord. No amount of Pater Nosters will salve your soul. ‘Tis straight to the pit you’re going, and the foul embrace of Lucifer.”
Bobby was starting to cry. “No, please… the sums were wrong!”
“Well…” the rumbling voice returned. “Perhaps you are not beyond all hope. Perhaps we could come to some kind of… arrangement.”
Bobby gasped. “Really?”
“Perhaps, I said. ‘Tis not a certainty.”
“What do I have to do?”
“First of all, if I show you this Mercy, you’re not to tell anyone.”
“I’m serious now. You are to discuss it with no-one.”
“I understand.”
“Our secret. Alright?”
“Alright, then… Listen to me carefully.”
“I’m listening.”
“Have you any crisps?”
Bobby was sure he’d misheard.
“… Crisps?”
“Smoky Bacon, for instance.”
“Um, no. Sorry.”
“What about a Mars bar?”
Bobby searched himself frantically. “No, I don’t.”
“A sausage roll, even? Something along them lines?”
Bobby dug desperately in his pockets. Finally, like a miracle, his fingers closed on something round and sticky.
“I’ve a gobstopper!”
“For fuck’s sake,” the ecclesiastical entity grunted. “Alright, then. Pass it through.”
There was a slot in the bottom of the little grilled window. Bobby took the gobstopper from his pocket, picked the fluff off it, and passed it through. It was pawed from his hand by a pair of hot, loathsome fingers.
“Nnnnnnmh,” the voice rumbled. “Mmmmmmrrrrrhhhhh. Go on, get out. I absolve you. Go and sin no more.”
Bobby could hardly believe his ordeal was at an end. He blessed himself and stood up, wincing at the stiffness in his legs.
A wet sucking sound was coming from behind the grille. As Bobby turned to leave, the sucking turned into a wheeze, then a gasp.
He stopped, and listenened.
The gasp was followed by a series of awful, glottal groans. Then an urgent pounding on the wood. Like some trapped animal, clawing to be free.
After a minute or so, the sounds grew faint.
Bobby slipped out, and went back to the altar. Father Boylan observed him with sacred suspicion.
“What are you so happy about, Fitzpatrick?”
“No penance, Father.”
“I’ve been forgiven!”
Father Boylan looked over at the confessional. The thumping from within, which the priest had not felt moved to investigate, was dying away.
“He absolved you?”
“Did you tell him your sins?”
“Yeah.” Bobby sketched a genuflection.
“And you received no act of penitence?”
“We made an arrangement!”
Bobby turned and headed for the door. He felt light, and liberated of soul.
“And I’d leave him alone there, Father. He’s sayin’ his prayers.”


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