It is not the criminal things which are hardest to confess, but those things of which we are ashamed
mrs margaret daley pulled her white Mini into the tarmacadamed area ('For Church Purposes Only') just above St Michael and All Angels at the northern end of the Woodstock Road in Oxford – a white, pebble-dashed edifice, with a steeply angled roof surmounted, at the apex of the gable, by a small stone cross. Although she was not a regular worshipper – once a month or so, with the occasional Easter or Whitsun or Christmas service -Margaret's face was not unfamiliar there, and on the morning of Sunday, 26 July, she exchanged a few semi-smiling greetings; a few only, however, for the congregation was thin for the first Holy Mass at 8 a.m.
The car was George's really, but so often he used the Blenheim Estate van for getting around that it was almost always possible for her to have the prior call; and especially so on Sunday mornings. There had been very few cars on the road as she had driven down the dual-carriageway to the Pear Tree roundabout – her mind deeply and agonizingly preoccupied.
It had begun two years earlier, when George had bought the video; a bit surprising in any case, because he was no great TV addict, preferring a pint in the Sun most evenings to a diet of soaps. But he had bought a video machine; and soon he'd bought a few videotapes to go with it – the highlights of great sporting occasions, mostly: England's 1966 victory in the World Cup; Botham's miracles against the Australians; that sort of thing. The machine had been a rather complex affair, and from the outset there had been a taboo on anyone else manipulating it without his lordship's permission and supervision. It was his toy. Such possessiveness had irked young Philip a little, but the situation had been satisfactorily resolved when the lad had been presented wit:h a small portable TV of his own on his fifteenth birthday. But – in spite of his growing collection of tapes, her husband seldom actually watched them. Or so she'd thought. Gradually, however, she'd begun to realize that he did watch them – when she was away from the house; and particularly so on the regular occasions she was out, twice a week: aerobics on Tuesdays; WI on Thursdays. It had been one Tuesday night when she had been feeling unwell and flushed that she had left the class early and returned home to find her husband jumping up from his seat on the floor beside the TV screen, hurriedly flicking the 'Stop' switch on the video, turning over to the ITV channel, and taking out the tape. The next day, when he was at work, she had managed, for the first time, to get the wretched thing working – and had witnessed a few minutes of wholly explicit and (to her) monstrously disgusting pornography. She had said nothing though; had still said nothing.
But other things were fitting into place. About once every three weeks a brown, plain A4 envelope would be found among George's limited mail, containing, as she'd guessed, some sort of magazine about thirty or forty pages. Often the post would arrive before George left for work; but she had taken the next opportunity of a later delivery partially to steam open the flap on such a communication, and to discover more than sufficient to confirm her suspicions. But again she'd said nothing; had still said nothing; and would still say nothing. For although it was half of her trouble, it is the half of her trouble that she could the better bear.…
Perhaps things were slightly easier as she followed the Order of Mass that early Sunday morning, glancing the whiles around her at the familiar stations of the cross as she sat in a pew at the rear of the church. She knew next to no Latin herself – only what she had learned as a young girl from the RC services in the Douay Martyrs' Secondary School in Solihull. But especially had she then loved the sound of some of the long words they'd all sung: words like 'immolatum' from the Ave Verum Corpus – a serious-minded word, she'd always thought, sort of grand and sad and musical with all those 'm's in it. Although she'd never really known what it meant, she felt disappointed that they'd got rid of most of the Latin and gone for a thin kind of Englishness in the services; felt this disappointment again now as the Celebrant dismissed them:
"The Mass is ended. Go in peace.'
'Thanks be to God,' she'd replied, and waited in her place – until only one other solitary soul lingered there, still kneeling, head bowed, in one of the side pews.
After a few mild exhortations in the porchway to his departing flock, Father Richards re-entered the church; and as he did so Margaret Daley rose and spoke to him, requesting a confessional hearing at one of the appropriate times: Saturdays, 11-12 a.m.; 5.30-6.15 p.m. Perhaps it was the earnestness of her manner, perhaps the moist film of her incipient tears, perhaps her voice -unhappy, hesitant, and trembling… But whichever, it mattered not. Father Richards took her gently by the arm and spoke quietly into her ear.
'If it will help, my child, come now! Let Christ, through His cross and through His resurrection, set you free from all your sins!'
It was not in the normal confessional box at all; but in a small study in the Manse behind the church that Father Richards heard as much as Margaret Daley felt willing to tell him. But even then she lied – lied when she said she had gone into her son's bedroom:o collect his dirty washing, lied about her deepest and most secret fears.
Twice, surreptitiously, Father Richards had looked down at his wrist-watch as he listened. But he refrained from interrupting her until she had told him enough, until he thought he understood enough. The burden of her sin was heavy; yet even heavier (he sensed it) was her guilt at prying into the affairs of others; her anguished conviction that it was precisely because of her prying, because of her snooping, that there had been such terrible secrets -,to discover. Had she not done so… the secrets themselves might not have existed. This was her punishment. Oh God! What could she do?
For a while Father Richards offered no words of consolation; it was important, he knew, for the waters to be drained from the poisoned cistern. But soon – soon he would speak to her. And so it was that he sat and waited and listened until she was dry-eyed again; until her guilt and humiliation and self-pity were for the moment spent. She may have told him a lot or a little, she wasn't sure; but she had told him enough, and now it was time for him to speak.
'You must talk to your son, my child, and you must feel able to forgive him; and you must pray to God for guidance and strength. And this I promise – that I too will pray to God for you.' Momentarily there was a twinkle in the old priest's eyes. 'You know, with the two of us praying for the same thing, He might just listen a little bit harder.'
'Thank you, Father,' she whispered.
The priest placed his hand gently on hers, and closed his eyes as he recited the absolution: 'May God Almighty have mercy on you, forgive your sins, and lead you in the paths of righteousness.'
An 'Amen' was called for, but Margaret Daley had been unable to enunciate a single word, and now walked out of the Manse, and fiddled in her handbag for the car keys. The Mini was the only car remaining on the parking area, but another person was standing there, probably waiting for a lift, it seemed; the person who had been kneeling in the church after everyone else had gone; a person who now turned round and looked into Margaret's face -then looked past her face, unrecognizing, and turned away. The look had lasted but a second, yet in that second Margaret Daley's scalp had thrilled with sudden fear.