She caught him in the church. He’d sensed her presence, her movement, heard the distant echo of her heels on the worn flagstones and the rhythm of her movement as she approached. He’d felt the lift in his heart and the catch in his breath. It would be fine, he thought. She was one of his flock after all.
“Father,” she said.
He hesitated before turning to her.
“Can I have a moment?”
He looked at her deliberately then nodded, indicating they could sit, choosing a spot where they’d be visible from the main door.
“I need some help.”
She paused, then added, “It’s Tony and me.”
He wasn’t surprised. Melissa Baxter had been married a few years now but with children yet. Edward himself had married them.
Her expression was unusually solemn, angelic almost. Heavenly. But that was just the light perhaps, an effect of the late afternoon sun, shining golden through the coloured glass. God’s sculptor, he thought. He followed the movement of her mouth as she spoke, hearing none of it, only the glorious resonance of her voice and its echo high above. She looked at him expectantly, awaiting his response as he studied her, as he thought he saw a yearning in her that drew on him.
“Yes, I see. Well, you must have faith that the Lord will watch over you Mrs Baxter, if you stand by your husband. It’s important to-”
She was shaking her head. “You don’t understand. It’s bigger than that.”
“Uh huh, have you thought further on the subject of children?”
“No! I mean, that won’t help. Not now.”
Nervously he fiddled with the gold ring on his finger while she slid along the pew towards him, as if to help him understand.
“I need to ask you something.” She leaned close to him as she spoke. He stood up with a gasp, his throat tightening as he re-arranged his robes. He took a moment, then sat again, having edged some space between them.
“Please. It’s important,” she said.
A sudden noise behind them interrupted her and the Deacon entered. Edward turned quickly to see who it was then stood up again to face the man, growing pale and wide-eyed, like an accused in the dock as the older man approached. All the while Melissa Baxter was telling him how she must speak with him privately. He reached for his carefully ironed handkerchief, wiped the sweat from his palms.
“Can I have a word?” the Deacon asked, looking sideways at the woman. The man, grey and solemn, nodded at her, but she missed it. Her eyes were on the Priest.
“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” He was peering at Edward with his slitty eyes, turned them slowly on the woman. Edward saw the struggle in her. Her mouth stiffened and began to open in response. He hurried, “No, no, of course not. I’ll see you now Philip, we’ll use my office.”
He excused himself and disappeared into the hidden recesses with the man. When he returned 10 minutes later she was gone. Edward had never liked that Deacon. He was too full of his own importance. He talked too much.
Locking the door of the church he turned towards home. The walk often calmed his spirit, reviving his dreary soul. He thought about his life. At 35 there was still so much time ahead, so much space to fill. Where would he be now if it weren’t for his faith?
He crossed the street, relishing the walk, feeling rattled. She always had that effect on him. He thought of his family – his father. If he were able to read Edward’s thoughts! No, he dashed the idea from his mind, began to walk at a pace.
It was his father who’d steered him away from temptation, and Edward was grateful to him, of course. ‘Evil lust’ he’d said one Sunday, describing the behaviour of the local girls. Edward was just 11, and wondered at the meaning of the word lust. He’d sensed the barely concealed anger beneath his father’s calm exterior, had seen his eyes bulging and the veins in his neck darkening. Heard the terrible snarl in his voice.
Edward hastened across the street, heading for the park which lay between the church and home. Home, he thought, a misnomer since there’d be no light on, no smell of dinner on the stove, no warmth to bring the place into life. How foolish to hope there would be, how often he fell into foolish daydreaming.
He could feel the sweat beading on his skin as he recalled his father’s voice again. “These bitches poison the purity of men with their filth,” he’d said. The man’s face had boiled with a fury that threatened to tear Edward to pieces. “They are weak. We must be strong,” he insisted. “Do you understand?” Then Edward spotted the cane on the desk. He heard himself panting now, recalling the man pacing in circles around him.
“I saw you with them, Edward.” He stopped and looked hard at his son. “You touched one of them.” He went to the desk and picked up the cane. “The Louise girl, I saw you.”
Edward cried out, imploring his father to forgive him, reassuring him that it would never, ever happen again.
His father shook his head. “Nothing can be done. We must remove this stain on your soul.”
His pleas grew loud. He fell on his knees and begged him not to do it.
“This is the only way.” You’ll be a priest one day Edward. You’ll guide this family into the light.” He hesitated then added, “you must be cleansed.” Edward gasped now as he remembered the agony of the cane on his body.
Stopping at the corner opposite his house, he mopped his forehead. The place was lifeless, reminding him of the emptiness he felt after the beating. He thought of his mother. The hours she spent, just staring at the wall. Hours. Grim-faced, she’d bathed the wounds, but ignored his screams.
He continued on, past his gate, not sure where he was going. It didn’t matter. There was a furious energy burning in his legs.
His father had made a special visit to him that night, at bedtime, explaining in a gentle voice the necessity of it, for Edward’s own sake.
“Your pain is mine,” he’d said. “You’ll remember my words when you’re a Priest. You will be a Priest.”
Edward said he understood. It was worth it after all, his father having come to him like that, spending precious time with him, explaining everything. The days were always too short for a teacher who needed to work every hour of them, and so often into the night. And the kids in that remote, pitiful little town appreciated none of it, deserved none of it.
“Thank you,” he told his father as they said goodnight. “I shan’t disappoint you.” He thought about Melissa Baxter and vowed to keep her at bay. Thank God for his faith.
That evening he sat in his winged armchair with the half glass of red he allowed himself on the worst days, listening for the oven timer, feeling very weary and letting his mind drift. He felt the darkness expanding. He could see it, behind his closed eyes, something evil spreading in him, something that he feared he could not escape. Then he heard something. He listened and the sound came again, louder this time. Someone was at the door.
It was her. She smiled broadly at him. He stood paralysed in front of her, like prey caught in the headlights as she stepped forward and reminded him why she was here. They’d agreed she could call, remember? He remembered nothing and looked about worrying that someone might see her. Hurriedly he mumbled an invitation to her to enter.
She dropped herself with a flourish onto his leather couch, causing a stir in the stale air, spreading herself and looking up at him through long eyelashes.
He averted his gaze to his watch and prompted her. “I’m somewhat short of time Mrs Baxter, what did you want to discuss?” He could smell her perfume. Her green eyes had wandered to the wineglass on the table, offered her something to drink, tea maybe.
“Ooh yes please. I could do with some of that Blood of Christ that you’re having.” She laughed.
Pouring her a measured half glass from the half-empty bottle, and glancing quickly at the oven timer as he left the kitchen, he noted that dinner would soon be ready – an excuse to keep it brief.
He watched her throat as the wine flowed down inside it – sensual satisfaction visible in the movement of the muscle and sinews as she swallowed. Her skin was like velvet, covered with a fine golden down. Edward looked away, rested his eyes in the gloom. He sighed and began the stock sermon about the need for a wife to support her husband.
“It’s too late. We’ve decided to split.”
A brilliant flaxen waterfall of hair lay over her shoulders. She flicked it away to reveal the silky terrain of her blouse as she chattered on about how marriage isn’t necessarily a life-long or permanent arrangement, claiming that couples should be able to simply ‘walk away’ when things get tough.
“Mrs Baxter,” he interrupted, “if you’ve already made the decision to divorce, what do you need me for?”
She shifted in her seat, crossing her smooth tanned legs. They were long and lightly covered by a skirt of mauve, one he hadn’t seen before. She breathed deeply.
“I want you to bless my divorce.”
Edward wondered for a moment if he’d misheard. He was stunned, and then stunned all over again as he realised he hadn’t. He laughed a short, derisive, nervous laugh, in the hope she’d laugh too, but she didn’t
“You cannot believe for one minute that I could-”
“Why not? Call me crazy but I’ve been thinking about it, and I need this.” She hesitated then added with the curve of a smile creeping into her face, “surely you’re all about providing a service these days Father?” Her tone was mocking. She grinned at his open-mouthed gaze.
He sighed and shook his head. “Can I ask you something Mrs Baxter?”
“Call me Melissa.”
“It’s rather personal but I need to know.”
He wiped his forehead. “Did you consummate the marriage?”
She laughed, he felt the blood rush to his cheeks. “Of course!”
“Well then, I’m sorry, you’re no doubt aware that if the marriage has been consummated then a civil divorce is not recognised by The Church.” Her smile faded. “You and your husband are forever bound by this marriage.”
She said nothing for a moment. Then, tipping the contents of her wineglass into her mouth, she swallowed in one gulp.
“You may want to re-consider the civil divorce under the circumstances.”
There was a frigid silence while she pondered his remark, then a sudden sharp thud as she slammed her glass to the table and stood up.
“The whole idea of marriage, it just doesn’t work does it?” She glared down at him. “How can you marry someone and really know what it means to commit to a lifetime with another person come hell or high water when you’ve hardly lived yet?” She seemed to be exorcising her anger by waving her arms about. “How can you know what you’re letting yourself in for, I ask you?”
“Stop calling me that!”
She was pacing. His breath was shortening and his hands felt sodden. “Marriage is a holy state that provides a stable environment for the upbringing of children,” he said.
“Bullshit! It’s love that matters. A man and woman who love, and by that I mean having respect for one-another, that’s what a child needs.”
“Yes, of course, and-“
“It’s love that holds us together, all of us, the whole world. She was flushed and rattling off at a pace. She turned to face him. “Nothing else matters.”
“I couldn’t agree more and it is God’s love that achieves that. And it’s God’s love that will repair your marriage Mrs Baxter, if you can have faith, if you can listen. If you can talk to your husband, tell him how you’re feeling-”
She folded her arms. He continued.
“As I was saying before, marriage provides a secure and loving environment for the upbringing of children. Without that-”
“So, I’ve the absolute right to his sperm?”
“You heard me,” her hands flew to her hips as she repeating the question. “Does his sperm belong solely to me?”
“Well, yes. Of course it does.”
“Right, so what if he’s given it to someone else?”
He hesitated, trying to grasp what she was telling him. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Are you suggesting-?”
She sat heavily opposite him with her legs unfolded and slightly apart. Her feet, in strappy shoes revealing pink toenails. Vanity, Edward thought, he despised it. The ankles were slender, as were the calves that rose out of them, disappearing up inside the skirt, dragging his focus with it. He felt woozy and pulled at his collar. She explained that the ‘donation’ as she called it had been made to his brother’s wife.
“Excuse me?” Edward asked, “I don’t quite follow, via a clinic do you mean?”
Her short laugh was laden with sarcasm. “Are you wondering if he ‘delivered it direct’ so to speak, along with an orgasm loud enough to disturb the neighbours?” His cheeks, already flushed, turned crimson.
“No,” she admitted, “but doesn’t that make it worse?”
He tried to ask why but her ranting was making it impossible. Meanwhile his head was a muddle of questions, like was it legal? And what in heaven’s name did the brother think about the arrangement?
“How could he do that to me? How can I possibly have his children now?”
“Well, yes, I do quite see how devastating this must be for you. However, love, as you said yourself Mrs Baxter can overcome everything, if you were to-”
“Love? He knows nothing about love! This was planned. It wasn’t just some drunken mistake! That woman’s walking around with my husband’s child inside her!”
She was pointing to the window as if she knew the exact location of her sister-in-law at any given moment. “Talk about stroking his ego!”
“Well, technically the child would be illegitimate in the eyes of The Church. I imagine they’re Catholic?”
She stared across at him, her eyes sagging in despair, then leaned forward with a sigh, covering her face with delicate hands.
“What would you like me to do?” he ventured.
She lifted her head.
“I told you, I want you to annul it. I couldn’t give a fig that it’s not allowed in your stupid-” She straightened herself then looked down, remaining silent for a long moment. Finally she turned her liquid eyes on him. “The legal divorce is one thing but I can’t shake the filth of his touch, not without your cleansing.” Then she said, “You married us Edward, only you can do this.” Her voice was quieter now and fragile. “I need some sort of prayer, or ceremony, something from you.”
He scanned the room for a box of tissues, passing them quickly then withdrawing to a safe distance. He sat opposite her.
She wiped her eyes. “Funny how The Church creeps into your flesh, hey?”
Edward shook himself. “Mrs Baxter I can’t do this. You simply don’t understand!”
In a second she leapt up in despair and was on her knees in supplication before him, her cool hands clasped around his own and her sweet breath on his face.
“Please? No-one will ever, ever know, I promise.”
Her proximity and a lack of air had turned his brain to mush and for a moment he couldn’t verbalise a single sane reason why he shouldn’t perform her ridiculous ceremony. Yet the whole idea was outrageous, blasphemous. And then there was that nosy Deacon to consider. He’d be thrown out of The Church if it were discovered. His whole life would end.
Leaning forward in an effort to make her understand, he opened his mouth to speak and without warning her lips were on his. And they were so warm, and soft and delicious that he was paralysed by the naked pleasure of her touch. She invaded every part of him through her mouth, annihilating his defences as she flowed into him. His own existence expanded out as her arms snaked around his neck. He felt himself releasing, allowing his whole being to merge with hers, warming him. The beast in him rose up, roaring in his ears. He hungered for her now, to have her. His arms were about her exploring the flesh.
Suddenly the utterings of his father surfaced like toxic magma on his brain. ‘Lust,’ he heard, ‘evil lust! Adulterer!’ He pushed her away, disgusted and panting. What in the Lord’s name was he doing? He jumped up in the hope of finding a smidgen of sanity, half expecting her to cry ‘rape!’ or something. But no, this woman seemed as cool as a refrigerated cucumber.
She was back in her seat adjusting herself, her lips plump and red. This was unreal! This married woman, part of his congregation, had come to him for advice about her marriage and he had somehow managed, like a fool, to get himself entangled with her – lustfully! It pained him to even think the word. He must ask her to leave, and he would, if only he could rid himself of this sudden fear that if he spoke now his voice would reveal not Edward the priest but Edward the boy.
“I used to believe that God was a distinct being,” she was saying, “but I’m not sure. I’m losing my faith. I’m not sure I believe it anymore.”
Where the hell is this going now? he wondered.
“Do you Edward?”
Whether it was the question, or the seductive tone of her voice he didn’t know, but he felt a fresh weakening in his legs and a lightening in his arms. He blinked, afraid to speak.
“What are you asking me?”
“I think you know exactly what I’m asking you. God’s our own creation isn’t he? We made him for ourselves. We can make him do exactly what we want for our own salvation.”
“No, that’s not the way it is-”
She stood up. “He’s not up there floating about, he’s right here.” She pointed to her breasts. “He’s part of us, he is us. Just, he’s the better part, the best bit.”
She was looking right at him, her eyes dark and unblinking.
“I love that idea” she said, “that all I have to do is search in the right place.” He was astonished to see her undoing the buttons of her blouse as she spoke, “and I’ll find him. I’ll find myself.”
Her blouse was open now as she approached him, revealing plump soft mounds of flesh cupped in white lace. He backed away and was forced to sit as he hit the couch.
“I think it’s what people need. To know that there’s real goodness in them, and strength, that they can trust themselves.” She was almost within reach now, staring down into his face. “Will you do it?”
“All I want is a little prayer or something, to cleanse me. You’ll know what to do, in the church.”
Edward was transfixed by the voluptuous temptation before him. He felt a rush of blood that warmed his whole body. He wanted her, and all he had to do was nod.
And so he did, and she rushed at him in blind joy and hugged him. He fell backward and the next moment she was sitting over him, legs astride, one hand behind her back. Pinned down against the squeaking leather his new-found courage evaporated fast and he felt the desperate need to pray. In slow-motion she brought her hand round. He crossed himself and closed his eyes, waiting for hell to open its gates.
There was only silence. He opened one eye. She was waving a bible.
“What…? What are you doing?”
“I need you to swear that you’ll keep yourself for me and me alone.”
She reached down to his hand and held it in hers, warm and dry in her long cool fingers. “You have beautiful hands Edward,” she said as she placed his on the holy book.
Edward was vanquished. Flowers bloomed everywhere, heavenly perfume and butterflies of joy! He was chasing her in a meadow, calling her name, her hair suddenly the length of her body-
There was something cold and wet in his lap and a noise was violating his ears. He sat up with a jolt and looked about the dimly lit room. She was gone. The meadow full of flowers had packed itself into the bookcase, the sunshine disappeared inside the table lamp and the glass of wine emptied into his lap. He could smell burning lasagne and the phone was ringing. Lifting the soaked fabric of his trousers away from his groin he struggled to answer it.
“Hello,” came the voice of a woman. “This is Melissa Baxter. I was wondering if I could pop by and discuss that matter with you. I could be there in 15 minutes. Is that ok?”