Different and Better
Although there were nicer shops a suburb or two closer to the city, Merlyn made a point of shopping at the Pittown ones. It seemed to her disloyal not to use them. Besides, she found the people interesting. Not infrequently, someone walked past her and turned their head to give her a second look. They looked like they thought they knew her, but then decided that they didn’t. Sometimes, they looked at her quizzically as if they were thinking that she didn’t belong in Pittown.
Merlyn had grown up in a similar suburb to Pittown, although much water had flowed under the bridge since then. She knew what life felt like in a place like this. The thing that most struck Merlyn about the average Pittown resident was the dulled look of acceptance that sat in their eyes. It wasn’t the acceptance of a peaceful mind. It was the acceptance that shouldn’t be accepting; the acceptance when fire is needed. Fire to educate oneself, to create a better life, to move and not come back, to do something.
Before anyone can improve their life, thought Merlyn as she walked along the main shopping strip, they must get the idea that change is possible, that life can be different and better, and that it is worth the effort it takes to make it happen.
She picked up some rubbish which had blown in front of her and put it in the bin. Since moving to Pittown, Merlyn was forever picking up rubbish.
Enid was becoming less lucid. Edgar was becoming more exhausted.
“I think the time is soon, Edgar,” said Merlyn one cross-over as Edgar asked how his mother had been that day.
Edgar looked anxious.
“Time for your mother to go into a home,” clarified Merlyn. “She’s not getting much from being here in her own home. She sleeps a lot and doesn’t want to go outside into the garden. She doesn’t even want to look out the window. You can’t keep looking after her at night and working all day. Something is going to give.”
Merlyn wondered if Enid had deliberately decided to decline. A few weeks ago, she told Merlyn that Edgar was looking terribly tired and that she didn’t want to be a burden to him. Merlyn didn’t tell Edgar about his mother’s comment but, from that day, Enid wasn’t the same. She wasn’t interested in eating. She didn’t have the conscious moments she had been having previously. Her eyes seemed far away. Merlyn felt that she was beginning the process of crossing-over.
“I’m not sure how much she is with us anymore,” said Merlyn gently.
The next evening, Edgar told Merlyn that he had been speaking to nursing homes during the day and that one lovely (expensive) one had been arranged that was close to his bayside apartment.
“I’m afraid it is only a temporary job,” said Father Francis. “I’m leaving in a few months and, as yet, there is no replacement for me at Saint Xaviers.”
Merlyn watched him carefully. Father Francis was about fifty. He was immediately likeable and had the calm composure of someone who had been in the public eye for a long time. Father Francis’s Italian heritage would have been a match with the cultural background of most of his Pittown parishioners. The temporary housekeeping job in the Catholic presbytery suited Merlyn after Enid’s transition to the nursing home.
At the end of Merlyn’s second week at the presbytery, a woman she had seen visiting numerous times was crying quietly in the hallway.
“I’m sorry,” said Merlyn, “Father Francis is out at the moment.”
The woman looked inconsolable. Merlyn wasn’t sure that even Father Francis could help with that sort of distress.
“No, no,” said the woman, “it’s me who is sorry. I shouldn’t be crying, especially here.” She pointed around the presbytery to indicate sacred ground. Extending her hand with the warmth of a long-time mother and wife, she continued, “I’m Martha.”
The presbytery was very quiet. It had the feel of a building which was preparing for inevitable evacuation; functional, but lacking life and brightness.
“It’s sad to think that no one will be living in this dear, old building,” said Martha.
Merlyn nodded. As she didn’t have any attachment to the building or Father Francis, she didn’t feel sad at all. Martha, however, seemed to have a profound attachment to both. She sat in a nearby chair and began a story which both knew, once started, needed to be finished.
“Today is my last day here,” said Martha. “My daughter is picking me up tonight and I am moving north to her house, indefinitely. I never speak about Francis because… well, you know.”
Merlyn didn’t know. She wasn’t an insider to the intricacies and implications of Catholic Church politics.
“My husband died when I was thirty-five,” said Martha. “We had many marital problems but, as far as marriages go, it wasn’t too bad. We were friends. Still lovers. That counts for a lot.”
Martha had the sort of grounded, straight forward approach to life and people that would have endeared her to those needing it. Merlyn had the sense that Father Francis was one of those in need.
“I was left with three primary-aged children,” said Martha. “My husband and I already knew Francis as we were highly involved in all the local Catholic churches.” Martha looked at Merlyn with grey pools of eyes and said, “Francis is an extraordinary man.” Merlyn wasn’t so sure that Francis was as extraordinary as Martha thought but there was no doubt, in Martha’s mind, he was a truly unique person. “Francis was also thirty-five when my husband died. He had already been a priest for a long time.” For a moment, a hint of smile passed over Martha’s lips. “A long time,” she repeated.
Suddenly, Merlyn saw it. Martha would have been Father Francis’s first sexual relationship. Martha would have had all the experience, warmth, and life energy of a woman of the world. Father Francis would have had all the desire, devotion, and innocence of a man who needed a woman. Not any woman, but a kind, spiritual one who knew what she was doing and could also keep her mouth shut.
“For fifteen years,” said Martha, “I have been silent. So important,” she added looking at the pictures of past parish priests lining the wall. “And I will stay silent, even if it kills me.”
Merlyn thought that given the look on her face, it might well kill her.
“We loved each other,” said Martha, “really loved each other. Sometimes, I couldn’t quite keep up with him, what he needed,” she added with a touch of pride. “We visited the most gorgeous places together. His days off were the best fun – gardens, museums, galleries, mountains, the beach. In public, we were careful. It wasn’t particularly hard because Francis is such an engaging person. He is one of those rare priests that has many friends, male and female.” Martha straightened her skirt. “Once a week, on his night off, he stayed with me.”
Standing up and pacing to pacify the tears, Martha continued, “He stayed with me for ten years then things slowly changed five years ago. He still slept at my house on his day off, right up until recently, but he said that he was so worried about the establishment finding out about our relationship that he should sleep in another room. I told him that it was fine. It wasn’t really fine, but I would have done anything to keep him with me.”
Oh, dear, thought Merlyn. Therein lies the problem. She knew that the rest of the story was going to be a disaster for Martha.
“I kept going,” said Martha with doom ringing from every syllable. “Then, one final day, Francis told me that he was going to leave the priesthood. I told myself that maybe, finally, he was leaving and that we could be married. Then he told me that he was going to marry someone else.” Martha looked blank as if such news was impossible to process. “That was six months ago,” said Martha. “My daughter has put her foot down and told me that enough is enough and that she is coming to get me.”
Merlyn felt that words were powerless for such a profound hurt. She already knew Father Francis well enough to know that the last thing he would have wanted to do was to hurt someone, least of all his friend and lover of so long. He probably persevered with the relationship in the hope that he could get Martha to detach from him and let him go. He would have seen it as the kindest thing to do. It wasn’t kind. It gave Martha five years of wondering, every day, how she could get Francis back; how she could get him to love her again. She would have been sometimes telling herself that he did love her but always, in her heart, she would have known that it was over. That’s not kind. It’s torture.
Father Francis mustn’t want the church to know about his affair, thought Merlyn. Father Francis was leaving the priesthood with an excellent name. He was one of the golden ones; a stable, emotionally-available, genuinely devoted priest who had made the conscientious decision to leave the priesthood and begin a committed relationship with a woman. No one could complain about that. Except Martha, that is. And Martha’s children.
Dishonesty is a mistake, thought Merlyn, and Father Francis will have to carry that, but honesty wouldn’t have stopped Martha’s grief. Martha saw Francis as the best part of herself – irreplaceable and absolutely essential. That was her mistake, not his. We mustn’t give that to anyone – saint or sinner, priest or common bloke on the street. Some things are not meant for giving away.