Naturally, I ended up being found out. But at least I did my best to shake everything I could out of that highly charged moment. What delicious drama! My name tag and crucifix snatched off me and tossed to the floor! In a totally improvised performance, I played up to their worst fears, with one hand on my raised hip and the other over my crotch. I’m not sure that any of those poor souls actually heard it, but I hissed slightly, like a deadly snake that managed to get away from Saint Paddy. It must have looked as if I really were possessed. For that glorious exit alone, though, the whole sorry affair had been worth it.
As it happened, it turned out to be my defining moment.
But to understand what took place, you need to know the background of my connection with Father Michael (I don’t even know if he had a surname). This was a man of the cloth who was seen as a bit of a maverick around Cork. Well, in the church they wouldn’t have used a word like that; they would’ve said that he was a bit of a character, and some might have even stretched their words in private to say that he was peculiar. But they would have quickly added that he was harmless and enthusiastic, which wasn’t a bad thing for an organisation struggling to keep its darker numbers in check.
When he cornered me at the end of mass one November morning, just two weeks before I was due to escape on the train to Dublin to begin a music course, I admit that I was more than perplexed. He hadn’t spoken to me for at least 18 months, not since the “little chats” my parents had set up, at which I insisted that I really couldn’t be changed. After a lot of praying on his side, and tearful stubbornness on my side, I’d been forced to accept that being “like that” could only be tolerated if my impulses weren’t physically acted upon. He told me he was prepared to accept that values in society were changing, and people like me had a right to be respected, but there would never be any comfort found in "entertaining the whims of the flesh". Yes, quite.
For a 17-year-old living on a farm, 60 miles too far out of Cork, and with parents who never let their first-born go into the city on his own, it seemed the agreement wouldn’t be too hard to keep. My thoughts and fantasies were taken care of in increasingly novel ways in my bedroom, and as long as those wicked impulses weren’t acted on outside of those walls, my parents didn’t need to worry about the risk of me standing on the terraces above hell. I even continued to attend mass, while I bided my time in peace, free of any unbearable, weepy speeches from my parents.
It’s true that I really had thought that ma’s discovery of my happy inclination had sealed my fiery end (she'd apparently fainted when she found a grubby stash of English male pinups behind the false panel in my desk). However, when Father Michael had been discreetly employed, they seemed eager to believe that he would adequately take care of the matter. Just three sessions together turned out to be enough to reassure my folks. It’s funny to think of it now, but they never even asked about the outcome, like they thought it better not to implicate themselves further by knowing the details. It had become the business of the church, a matter between me and Father Michael, between me and God, and they had seen no need to be briefed on how the matter had been resolved.
That’s why it was so astounding when Father tapped me on the shoulder at the end of mass that day, in front of my parents, and asked if he could see me in private. The expression on my mother’s face will stay with me for the rest of my life: a look of utter hurt and disappointment, as though I’d let them all down and we would have to return to those ghastly nights when no one slept. My father walked away, pretending he hadn’t heard a thing. Even though Father Michael took my mother’s hand and told her there was nothing to worry about, and that he only wanted to see me for something related to the parish youth group, the pain on her face failed to dissolve. She stumbled slightly and swayed as she went outside to join my father.
Father Michael entrusted me with a secret project, which I was told to keep from my parents, despite their obvious distress. It didn’t exactly sound like a mission from the big boss above, but Father was convinced that my presence at the seminary in Kinnercree the following weekend, where 14 new recruits were to be assessed for their suitability for the priesthood, would be indispensible. I was to be the eyes and ears of God, he said, although it did cross my mind that surely the Almighty would be pretty good already when it came to seeing and hearing things.
We settled down to dinner with Father Michael in the grand old hall of the seminary, puffed up in the black frocks we’d found at the ends of our beds. The cold stares and crude haircuts of young priests from previous years stood out on the sombre wooden walls above us, provoking an uneasy question: what had become of them all? Someone beside me said many of the pictures, now stained and yellow, dated back to the 1920s. Out of all the portraits I took in, not one seemed to show even the remotest sign of joy. How many were now in jail for unspeakable acts? Shipped off to the New World because of their love for the bottle? Happily married with children?
‘This is a great journey you’ll be embarking on,’ said Father. He took his time to focus on every single pale face. ‘This is an alliance with God, and the rewards are many. But let me say right here and now that there is no shame in admitting that this road is not for everyone. Some of us may find that we’re actually not able to devote our lives in this way. Some of us may find that although God’s voice has called us, we need to be honest about whether we are ready to follow with our hearts open and our minds at peace.’
Some of the boys put their heads down, as though deep in prayer, others nodded and beamed with enthusiasm.
‘This weekend is the time for that reflection. This is the time we get to decide whether we want to be part of God’s family, to advance only in his shadow, forgetting our own selfish needs and ideas. This weekend we must decide whether we are willing to leave ourselves behind. Our lives will be devoted to one person, and one person only. The ways of the world, of the flesh, must be put aside. Are we ready for that?’
We ate our meal in silence (delicious New Zealand lamb with a thick mint sauce, and baked potatoes and peas). An elderly woman served us, daring not to meet any of the young, earnest eyes around the table. A gale outside seemed to be making its way through the panels in the walls, creating a faint whistling sound.
‘Where are you from?’ asked a young man beside me.
I didn’t immediately turn towards him, but I’d already clocked his tightly-cropped blonde hair and bright rosy cheeks.
‘Just outside of Cork,’ I said.
‘I’m from Galway myself. Stephen Dunne.’
Very slowly, I took a piece of gristle out of my mouth, and did my best to remain composed. I waited a moment before I turned to get a better look at him.
Wham! A thousand sirens!
I swear that my heart stopped for five seconds as the piercing beauty of his eyes went through me. They were bluish grey, framed with the longest lashes I’d ever seen. I almost couldn’t speak. ‘Hello, Stephen. I’m Tim. Timothy O’Malley.’
I soon became aware of Father’s glare. Had he seen my chest freeze, and my face ignite with something magical? I thought back to that crisp conversation he’d had with me, where my “special calling” for the weekend had been confirmed. Well, he hadn’t actually spelt anything out in plain language; it had all been a bit cryptic really, though I did get the general idea that he wanted me to assess whether any of the boys shared my inclination. The Bishop had suggested that more vetting was needed, to avoid the heartache and distress threatening to envelope the church and empty out the pews! And who better to do a bit of secret vetting than someone who knew exactly what to look out for? Perfect.
‘They reckon we’ll be getting a stint at the Vatican next month,’ said Stephen Dunne, whose broad frame I’d now begun to discreetly admire.
‘We might even get to help the Pontiff prepare the Wednesday and Sunday messages.’
I didn’t want to think about the fact that he might go to the Vatican and never look back, that he would get swept up in the emotion of it all and dive blindly in. He had to be stopped. What a terrible waste! What a tragedy! I didn’t even bother to engage with the others around the table, and continued to avoid Father’s searching eyes. I’d earlier checked out the other boys, before we chose our places, and I knew straight away that none of them were of real interest. One or two of them looked like they might be like me, but it was the Dunne lad with the blonde hair and the devastating eyes who now demanded my utmost attention.
A sofa by the fireplace in the main lounge turned out to be the perfect place to chat, with me even pretending at one point to be interested in the numbing details of his small parish. We talked for hours, and I don’t think I misread things when his hand brushed up against mine at one point, when we both jumped up to contain an explosion of embers. Hallelujah for the sparks! I remained flushed, and my heart seemed to be jumping from one side of my chest to the other.
Eventually, Father brought us hot drinks and asked us whether we’d had a chance to mingle with some of the others.
‘Mingle? But the two of us are getting on so well together,’ I said.
Father was standing behind Stephen and so felt safe enough to scowl at me. ‘Mingling is part of what we’re supposed to be doing.’
This forced Stephen to his feet, all apologetic and flustered. He left Father and I alone to shuffle our feet close to the flames.
‘For the sake of heaven, O’Malley. You’re not supposed to be taking a shine. You’re supposed to be assessing.’
‘Taking a shine?’
‘I may be old and fusty, but I’m not blind to it.’
‘I am assessing, Father, just as you asked!’
He rubbed his eyes, pushing the fingers hard into the sockets. ‘Assessing and helping me, O’Malley. To decide who needs urgent counsel.’ His frown looked painful.
‘And it’s a pleasure to be of service, Father.’
‘Good boy. Now mingle! So we know who we’re dealing with. We’ll get this sorted yet, please God.’
Stephen slapped me hard on the shoulder in one of the narrow corridors that led to the chapel. ‘That sounded mighty serious,’ he said. He smirked and guided me along with a hand on the small of my back.
‘That was Father telling me off. I’m supposed to be mixing and mingling. The eyes and ears of God.’
‘Eh? But we’re all the eyes and ears of God. That’s the beauty of it. We’re all one and the same.’
‘Wouldn’t that make life easier now!’
The sound of some of the boys singing behind the closed door of the chapel was surprisingly good. We entered as quietly as we could, to hear the last few verses of Wild is the Wind, which I thought was a strange song to be singing in a chapel. Were non-religious tunes like that allowed in Catholic churches? It brought back memories of Grandma Jessie, who used to turn up the volume whenever the track came on the radio.
The pew we chose to sit down on creaked as we settled in, causing a few of the others listening to turn around and frown. The smell of burning candles, mixed in with incense, helped me to relax.
I realised then, through moist eyes, that any one of them up there on that small altar might have been of interest: the way they rubbed shoulders and swayed from side to side; the way some of them flicked their fringes out of their eyes; the little looks they exchanged when they leaned back and struggled to reach the high notes.
The lyrics spoke to me in such a dramatic way that my insides became all churned up. I felt giddy when I realised how close Stephen was sitting up against me, and that he seemed to be gently pushing himself closer and closer. I stared straight ahead at the open mouths, trying my best to memorise the beautiful lines being delivered. Our hands, palms down on the bench, briefly touched. Our knees also knocked together slightly. I felt so uplifted that I truly believed nothing would ever again be able to drag me down.
The thrill didn’t last long, however.
As we headed back to the dining hall for the promise of an evening hot chocolate, accompanied by a reading from the Old Testament, it became clear that something wasn’t right. A couple of boys stepped in front of me in the corridor and ushered Stephen to go on by, closing the door behind him. The boys had stern looks on their faces.
‘What’s this then?’ I grinned and tried to appear relaxed.
‘Someone overheard something quite troubling,’ said one of the boys, a tubby type with a heavy northern accent.
‘Something about you not really here to become a priest,’ said the other boy, who was very clearly English.
‘That’s utterly ridiculous.’ I looked back along the corridor to see if there was anyone who might serve as a distraction, someone I could catch up with or call out to.
‘So if you’re not becoming a priest,’ said the tubby boy, ‘then who are you?’
I folded my arms and leaned back. ‘I’m the eyes and ears of the Almighty.’
They burst out laughing.
I shouted, ‘I’m telling you! I was chosen to be the eyes and ears of Kinnercree!’ I hadn’t meant to be quite so loud and theatrical.
They stopped laughing and came closer, their eyes sharp and inquiring. One of them took me by the arm.
I figured that frankness was all I had left. ‘Who told you then?’
‘Someone overheard Father Michael in his office, complaining about you on the phone, about how you’re not buckling down to your secret little mission here. Vetting is the word I think he used. Homosexual was another one.’
I accompanied my inquisitors to the dining hall, where the others stood around with their big mugs of hot chocolate. The glum looks on their faces left me with no doubt that word had spread quickly. A traitor amongst us! That’s when one of them flounced up and yanked off my name tag and crucifix, which Father had so delicately attached to my frock with a safety pin.
‘That's not how priests are supposed to act,’ I said.
The crucifix landed face down.
Another boy stepped forward. ‘We’ll pray for you. That’s all we can do. We’ll pray that Father will also be forgiven for this shameful episode.’
Without any hesitation I started moving my hips. I tried my best to imitate the vulgar transvestite my cousin and I had once seen in a crazy American movie in Dublin. It just came to me like that, this burst of a feeling that those boys badly needed to come face to face with the irreverence they seemed to be so afraid of. If I hissed as I moved, it was only because I fell so easily into the character I’d seen in that film. Not one boy raised his mug to his lips. They looked like wax figures, their eyes bulging, their mouths prised open. One did, however, discreetly take hold of his wooden rosary beads. He looked up at the ceiling as he pressed them hard against his chest.
That was such a long time ago now that it’s a wonder I can still remember all of the minute detail. I only got it three quarters right when I retold the story at our reconfirmation ceremony in New York last month. Of course, we had the sound of Nina Simone and Wild is the Wind behind us, and I thought of those skinny lads in the chapel, producing waves of velvet with their voices. That’s really confirmed now as mine and Stephen’s anthem, having seen us through such a horde of summers and winters.
‘33 years since you defrocked me,’ he whispered after the service.
‘No one forced you to come chasing after me, Mr Dunne.’ I made a silly face and tugged on his tie, before we were thrown together for another snapshot.
Squeezing my elbow firmly, just like he’d done all of those years before in Kinnercree, he said, ‘Whatever they say about the misdemeanours of Father Michael, it’s him we have to thank for this little union of ours.’
I nodded and turned the ring on my finger. ‘We never did find out if he really understood the irony of what happened. Do you remember his last words to us?’
‘No, but I can tell you it certainly wasn’t praise for those eyes and ears of yours!’
© Copyright, 2009. Seamus Kearney. "The Eyes and Ears of Kinnercree". Short story.