Mint on the breath
A corrupt priest, an abused child, a knife. The dreadful consequences of clerical child abuse unfold in a specially written short story by Mark Say
To my mind it wasn’t a Catholic place. I’ve always associated Catholicism with gentle hills bathed in sun, spoils from the land feeding the spider’s nest in Rome, or rocky, rain lashed coastlines, nurturing the brutality that thrived among pious Celts. But this place was bland and bleak, flat land easing into the sea, swept by cold winds from the north and giving up nothing in the way of natural shelter. Beyond the village were fields, a shallow stream on a long arc and a B road running twelve miles to a dull market town. There was no harbour and only a couple of small boats on the beach. A couple of hundred yards out at sea was a spit where thousands of birds flapped and picked at whatever managed to grow on the shingle. It was a place where the Protestants had dominated for hundreds of years, probably thriving on the austerity of the landscape. I guessed this was why the church had sent him there, tucked him away in a spot where nobody felt touched by the big trauma. It was just something on the news that had nothing to do with them.
It was chance that had brought me here. Sitting down in a greasy spoon cafe I met someone I had known as a kid, parents in the same congregation, a member of the same boys’ club, who was eager to share memories of his happy childhood. A few months before he had been dragged to this place by a girlfriend who insisted it was soothing to the spirit. All he could feel was cold and wet, but on a walk between bed and breakfast and the pub he had come across an old man in anorak, a face that was familiar even without the dog collar. He had spoken the priest’s name, caught the moment of recognition, and been surprised as he dipped his head and quickly walked on. “Definitely him,” he insisted. “But I suppose he would never have recognised me, not from when I was thirteen. I probably scared the old bugger.” I didn’t tell the guy what it meant to me, but my mind went shooting into a thousand directions. Suddenly the secret that had poisoned my childhood was a real man living in a windswept outpost on the east coast.
“Do you remember much of him?” the other guy asked.
“Barely.” It was a massive lie, but I wasn’t ready to even hint at the truth.
The fear and anger began to race through my thoughts. It took an effort to keep up the conversation, fake smiles and find words with a semblance of meaning. The other guy carried on happily for a while, then began to give me a funny look, and broke off the conversation, like he had suddenly become embarrassed by my company. We shook hands but didn’t bother with any phone numbers or email addresses; he must have decided I was a little weird, and I knew he couldn’t say anything else that would hold my attention. It’s a long shot that we’ll ever meet again.
The meeting paralysed me. My mind filled with the memory of the dirty old bastard’s hands in my trousers, whispering about the special little, seriously secret, test of my soul. I was too confused and fearful of the crucifix to say anything for years, until months after my Dad had died and I blurted to my Mum. It was the wrong time for a woman too wrapped up in her own grief and seeking solace in the church. She shouted at me, then said I was obviously messed up by own grief, and that any more talk would mean I was in need of a good priest or a better psychiatrist. We were never close again, and I’ve seen her half a dozen times in the past five years. I went from being a bright twelve year-old to an academic wash-out, a string of nothing jobs and an awkward streak that stifled any social life. Girlfriends have never lasted more than a couple of dates, and the only sex I’ve had has been with lushes and whores. It’s all given me plenty of reason to want something back, even if it’s just the sight of the old bastard crying in pain.
The plan didn’t take much working out, just a few evenings with a bottle and a decision that I’d take the consequences. I booked a week off work, knowing that on my recent record I wouldn’t be missed, and found a bed and breakfast in the village on the internet. Then I bought the knife from a chef’s store. It had a rubber handle, serrated on the lower curve to give the fingers a better grip, and came in a leather sheaf that would clip on the pocket of an apron or a belt. But more importantly it had a heavy duty stainless steel blade, long enough to slip under a rib cage and pierce a heart. Not the most sophisticated weapon, but enough to do some awful damage. In any case, the priest had to be in his sixties, and from my memory he had been overweight and slow on his feet twenty-five years earlier. Once I found him it would be easy.
When I checked into the B&B it was clear the woman wasn’t used to anyone staying for a full week. She asked for a couple of nights’ money up front, and seemed pleased when I handed over cash rather than offered a credit card.
“Visiting someone?” she asked.
“No, just a break.”
“You won’t find much to do around here.”
“That’s what I want.”
I didn’t ask any questions, reckoning that gossip that would travel pretty quickly in a place that size, and it might get to the priest that someone was looking. I spent the first three days on aimless walks around the village, miles into the country or along the beach, returning to lay on my bed listening to the iPod, eating a meal and drinking four or five pints in the pub each evening. By the fourth morning I was feeling anxious, that maybe a week wasn’t long enough to run into him, or that he had bolted after the earlier sighting. I began to think about asking questions, begin with the landlady, work out a feasible story as to why I would want to find an old priest who had retreated to the village.
My mind couldn’t sort it out. We shared some small talk as she served me the cooked breakfast, but I couldn’t find a way into being nosey about one of the locals when I was still worried about giving myself away. So I flopped in my room for a while, sucked on a couple of mints, then bought a wrapped sandwich and bottle of water in the convenience store. I set off on another aimless walk, planning to cross the village four or five times and keep an eye open for any gathering of people. I took a lane that ran alongside the beach and walked three quarters of a mile, beyond the edge of the village to fields, then a cottage with a well tended garden and a silver grey Toyota in the drive. I had passed it each day without seeing anybody, but this time I noticed a man pulling weeds from a flower bed. He looked like a casual labourer - large, broad shouldered, a layer of bristle on his head and chin, dressed in a paint stained sweatshirt with damp rings to the sides of chest. As I came closer he looked up and nodded a greeting. I said good morning, reckoned he was paid by whoever owned the place and wondered if he knew much English. Then the front door opened and another man appeared with a mug of tea. I stopped dead.
He was almost beside the gardener before he realised I was staring at him. He had lost weight, his hair had grown thinner and his face had taken on the lines of twenty-five years, but he was clearly the same man. For a moment he looked surprised, trying to understand why a stranger was staring at him, then it turned to fright. His body went rigid, his free hand curling into a fist and the other pressing the mug of tea to his chest. I was just about aware that the gardener had looked around, trying to fathom what had changed the atmosphere. A name formed on my lips without sound. Father Boyce. Immediately he bent his knees, placed the mug on the floor and walked quickly back into the cottage. The gardener stood, followed half way, then turned and looked back towards me. He was an obstacle, but only for now. I could return. I looked away, didn’t acknowledge to the gardener that he had seen something odd, and resumed the walk. Thirty yards on I realised that my bowels had suddenly grown loose and I was in danger of messing my pants. I saw a point a little further on where the road broke on the right to drop down to a car park by the beach, clenched my buttocks and kept going. As I reached the entrance I looked around, saw the gardener had disappeared and the car park was empty, and slipped down into a bank of long grass. The spot provided a patch of shelter, cover for me to drop my trousers and leave a mess on the ground. I wiped myself with a handful of grass and kicked shingle over the mess, feeling grateful there had been no witness to the panic. Then I stumbled onto the beach, feeling torn between a need to let the sighting sink in or get myself clear of the cottage before the priest reappeared. The second thought kept me trudging along the beach, hoping that the priest may be spooked but uncertain. He couldn’t possibly have recognised me, an untidy middle aged man who looked nothing like the twelve year old he had abused, and maybe he had already decided there was nothing but an oddball curiosity in my stare. At least that’s what I hoped. I stuffed a mint in my mouth and carried on along the beach for twenty minutes, letting the wind blow the fragments of shock from my mind, and crossed back to the road when I was sure I couldn’t be seen from the cottage. The walk took three hours in a long loop through country lanes to approach the village from the inland direction.
My stomach was too tight to handle food. I managed to drink some coffee, sucked a mint and returned to the B&B and flopped out on the bed for the afternoon. I didn’t exactly think about what to do; it was too messed up with screaming emotions, all the fear and shame and anger I had felt over the years. It was instinct that told me I shouldn’t rush back, but leave it until the next day to approach the cottage, find a way in, confront the old bastard and do my worst. I dug into my rucksack and found the knife, then spent a long time holding it, stroking the blade, squeezing my fingers around the handle as I moved it back and forth in a gentle stabbing motion. Eight inches of fresh steel. It soothed me, helped me feel that I was beginning to take control.
By evening my mind and stomach had settled enough for me to feel hungry. The best thing for now was to have a proper feed and get mildly drunk, nudge me into a few hours’ sleep before the day that would bring the reckoning. The landlady knocked and said she was going out for the evening, and asked me to lock the front door when I went out to eat. I showered, put on fresh clothes, and dropped the knife back into my rucksack. Being clean had cleared my head and sharpened my intent. I was beginning to feel a twisted sense of glee.
By the time I stepped outside it was dark and the wind had grown stronger, making it easy to miss the man who sat in the car parked opposite the house. I closed the door and slipped the key into the mortise lock, barely aware of a car door closing and footsteps on the pavement. The key wasn’t out of the lock before a large hand slapped over my mouth and another clamped over mine and turned back the key. In a moment the attacker had taken the other key and turned the spring lock, opened the door and pushed me back into the house. Then I was face down on the floor in the hallway, tufts of carpet on my lips and nose. I grasped the shred of a thought, that the attacker had been trained to do this, then felt him heave me up by the chin, twist my arm behind the back and haul me running up the stairs. He paused, kicked open the door to an empty bedroom, then mine, seeing the open suitcase in the corner. The first words came to my ear.
I nodded. He pushed me inside, forward onto the bed and whispered.
“There’s nothing on the other side of that wall, and three walls between us and the house on the other side. You yell and I do what I have to do. You keep quiet and I don’t hurt you.”
He had an accent, a vague sound of eastern Europe, and a thumb pressing into my spine to make the point. I moaned a yes, and felt the grip on my arm relax and the weight of the man’s body move backwards. For a moment I was still, breathing deeply as I tried to recover my mind, then felt a hand pull gently at my arm, encouraging me to turn on the bed. I rolled over, looked up and saw the gardener staring down at me. He allowed me a moment then spoke quietly.
“Did you really think I was just a gardener?”
He had cleaned up since earlier in the day, showered off the sweat and changed into a black crew neck sweater, but I wouldn’t have taken him for anything else. I nodded.
“Did you really think they would leave him unprotected?”
“Who? Who do you mean?”
“Please don’t lie to me. I saw how you looked at him, and he knows why you’re here. Surely you don’t think that we pretend to ourselves that there aren’t people who want to hurt him?”
His English was good, and I realised that his voice wasn’t threatening, at least for the moment. He edged back a little on the bed and told me to sit up. His expression told me that he knew a lot, and I realised he was right – they would never have left the priest unprotected. He took the keys to the front door from his pocket and placed them on the bed, then rested his hands on his lap. His eyes remained on me.
“I know your landlady won’t be back for hours,” he said. “We’ve got time to talk.”
“Where are you from?”
“Poland. It’s a country full of Catholics.”
“Are you a priest, or just a ....” I halted, almost scared of offending him.
“A bodyguard? I’m both. I’ve been ordained, and received training in various other skills. It makes me useful to the church.”
That training must have been a heavy duty course with some paramilitaries. He had made an easy job of marching me up the stairs, and his eyes were as hard as his body. I knew the church was rotten, but I didn’t realise it was so well organised in protecting its creatures.
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked. “Do you know what he’s done?”
“Of course I know.”
“And they give him protection.”
“It’s not just for him. I make sure he stays clear of temptation.”
“You mean he’s still ...”
“He’s been a very sick man. We can’t be sure that he’s free of the sickness.”
It was the way that psychiatrists spoke, easy camouflage for the church. Normal people would use other words. The gardener didn’t respond, but placed a hand on my shoulder and stood up, indicating that I wasn’t to move. Then he looked around the room, opened my suitcase and sifted through the clothes. I felt the extra indignity but knew I couldn’t stop him. At the bottom he paused and lifted the porn mags, but slipped them back under the clothes and when he turned there was nothing in his face. Then he looked through the drawers in the room, found all of them empty as I hadn’t bothered to unpack, then went for the rucksack in the corner. I rolled off the bed in an effort to stop him, but he hauled me back and took the bag to the far corner of the room. It had been a stupid gesture, letting him know there was something inside I didn’t want to him see. When he found the knife he took it out of its sheaf and held it up.
“Why’s this in the bag?”
“I’ve been taking lunch with me on the walks.”
“This is a big knife. Too big for a picnic.”
I replied with a sullen, indignant stare.
“Big enough to hurt a man,” he said. “Enough to do serious damage, even kill.”
He placed the knife back in its sheaf and hooked it over the belt of his jeans. I wasn’t going to get it back. He sat in the small armchair in the corner of the room and stayed silent for a while. I sat up straight but shrank backwards, pulling myself up to lean on the bedstead with my knees pulled to my chest. It must have made me look pathetic, but I was still too scared to care. The gardener seemed to examine me, as if he was working out whether to threaten or soothe. When he spoke there was a hint of benign authority in his voice; just the way they taught priests to speak.
“So now we have to talk a little.”
“You’re going to threaten me.”
He dipped his eyes and smiled. I felt angry but unable to do anything about it.
“Not a threat,” he said. “An explanation.”
“You’re going to make an excuse for him. Or tell me it was my fault.”
“No. I don’t know exactly what he did to you, but I have a good idea. You must know that he’s hidden away here because there were others.”
“You don’t need to know the details, but it’s enough to say that one is too many.”
That caught me by surprise. It was the beginning of an admission of Father Boyce’s guilt. The gardener gave me a look that said he wanted to be on my side.
“I mean that,” he said. “You shouldn’t think that we don’t take this seriously.”
“What are you saying? I bet he was allowed to get away with it for years.”
“That was history. These days the church is more sensitive to the problem.”
“So what happens? You keep him hidden away until you think he won’t do it again? Hope that he gets too old to get excited by the thought of a fresh little boy in his hands?”
“It’s not that simple. He’s undergoing a different kind of punishment. It’s a terrible thing for a priest to be exiled by his own church.”
“This is exile?”
“There’s nothing for him here. No acknowledgement of his calling.”
Calling. The gardener was making a big deal of something that meant to nothing to me. It gave my anger a fresh stir.
“So has anyone thought of handing him over to the law, making him face charges?”
“That’s a long and complicated process. It means people would have to expose their old wounds, go through their ordeals again. Most of the boys, I should say men now, wouldn’t want to do that. And even those who may talk to the police and stand up in court would find things difficult. You need a lot for a jury to find a man guilty, many details, all from years in the past. It’s difficult to be make it all believable when you’re talking about something from ten, twenty years ago.”
“So no-one bothers?”
“Sometimes the police talk to the bishops, maybe not for this man, but there have been others. Everyone agrees it would do nothing to go through the courts.”
“Bollocks to that!”
I didn’t want to believe it, but shuddered at the thought that he was telling the truth. The police always thought twice about leaning on any kind of church. I tried again.
“Has he been thrown out of the priesthood? Has anyone told him he’s not wanted any more?”
“That’s not the way we do it.”
“What do you mean?
“It would mean acknowledging things that are best left unspoken, at least to those from outside. You must remember that the church is built on the word of God, the understanding that we are his representatives on earth. If we throw out this man others will know and it will feed the bad feelings against us. And if we throw out all those who have strayed into abnormal behaviour, then there will be many bad feelings against us. We know there is talk, accusations, and we know some of it may be true, but we have to protect the church, and to do that we have to protect its people.”
“That’s what has preserved us for hundreds of years.”
“And you know it’s not just him! You know there are others who have been just as bad. There must be dozens of them, probably hundreds!”
“I wouldn’t know that, but I know that not all the accusations are true. There are people who hold grudges, and these days it’s very easy to blacken the name of the church by talking of these things. It is a symptom of these times; an obsession.”
“You need only look at the newspapers, watch TV, listen to the radio. Everybody talks too much about this thing, makes it seem as if it happens everywhere, all the time. Some men are bad, that’s true, and poison others with their depravity, but it is a very small part of life, a very small part of what goes on in the church. Tiny. It shouldn’t be exaggerated, spread about as if it’s something that goes on every day.”
It was what I expected, the attitude that had smothered for twenty-five years, but staring it in the face made it a bigger humiliation. A moment of blind anger threw me off the bed and into the face of the Polish gardener. For a second he was surprised, tipping sideways on the chair to throw his right palm flat against the wall. Then he recovered his balance, twisted at the hip and swung his left arm, bringing me down to the floor with a crash. I felt the pain in my back and his weight above me, pressing into my shoulders as his breath invaded my nose. It smelt of peppermint. I began to cry.
For half a minute, maybe longer, the gardener held me down and stared. Then he eased the weight on my shoulders, straightened up and I saw the trace of a concerned frown. My tears had convinced him that I wasn’t a threat. He put a hand around one shoulder and took my arm with the other, pulled me upwards, quietly promising that he wouldn’t hurt me, and turned me to sit back in chair. As he patted me gently on the shoulder I managed to restrain but not completely stifle the crying. The gardener sat on the edge of the bed and watched, waiting until I was capable of talking. When he spoke there was more sympathy in his voice.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It wasn’t that, not what you did.” I blurted through the sobbing. “It was your breath. I could smell the mint.”
For a moment he looked surprised, then as if he understood.
“Did he have mint on his breath?”
“Because I eat so many myself. A dozen times a day there’s a mint in my mouth.”
His expression went back to surprised. Pushing his face so close to mine he must have noticed, but it was no explanation for the tears.
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t know what that bastard did to me.”
I waited for a mild rebuke, the habitual warning from the church that I should keep the story to myself, but he stayed quiet. My eyes closed and a fresh stream of tears rolled down my cheeks. I wanted to recover control but the past few minutes had been too much. When I looked at him again his expression had softened further, and taken on a show of curiosity. Instinct told me that he wasn’t going to ask, it was against his training to show any empathy with the victim, but I guessed that he wasn’t going to stop me.
“It wasn’t just touching,” I said. “It began with the hand down my pants, stroking and squeezing, mouthing a lot of evil bollocks about special treatment for a special boy. Then it was guiding my hand down his pants, telling me it was a privilege but it had to be kept secret, very secret.”
Another tear rolled down my cheek, but my voice held steady.
“Even when I told him that I didn’t like it he said I had to carry on, that it was wrong to disobey a priest and that God would be angry with me. My mother had already brainwashed me to believe all that pious shit, and I was nine years old and I didn’t know how to refuse or resist him. I just wanted to run away but I was too scared, I thought it was true that God would be angry and something horrible would happen. So I did what he told me, until he made a mess all over my hand and sleeve of my jumper, and I went home with it wringing wet from the tap and took it off quick before my mum asked how it got like that. And that’s what happened the second time as well, and he reminded me that it was a big secret and God would be angry if I told anyone, and I just felt lucky that that time he didn’t get any of his come on my sleeve. But it was the third time that really fucked me up. That’s when the old bastard really ripped me apart.”
Another loud sob rolled over my words and forced a pause as both eyes drowned. It took me a minute or so to recover the ability to speak. The gardener just sat on the bed watching me. When my crying subsided a little he spoke softly.
“The third time. What happened?”
“He told me to pray.”
“Pray with him?”
“No, he told to me kneel before the crucifix and that he had a special prayer for me, the type reserved for boys who were very special in the eyes of God, and that I mustn’t tell anyone about it because that was what the devil would want. And when I knelt he stood in front of me and undid his belt.”
I choked on the last word. My eyes squeezed shut but another tear pushed out onto my cheek. I heard a body move in front of me and felt the gardener’s hand touch mine. I opened my eyes to find him staring, impassive but sympathetic.
“I can guess what happened,” he said. “You don’t have to say it.”
His expression was enough to tell me that he believed everything I had said. I thought of the details, knew that he could guess them well enough, and took a long breath through the sobs. My face grew wetter and the gardener gave my arms a gentle squeeze. Then I thought again of the details of what Father Boyce had done, couldn’t prevent the last one falling from my lips.
“I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth. He let me swill from a glass of water and spit it out into a sink, but it wouldn’t go away. Even after I drank a can of Coke, and went home and brushed my teeth, and ate what I could of dinner, and brushed my teeth again, and took some of my mother’s mints and sucked on three at a time, I still couldn’t get my mouth clean. It’s never felt clean. I just coat it with drink and suck mints so there’s another taste to mask it, but it still sticks in the corners and slides over my tongue and reminds of the evil bastard. Every fucking day for twenty-five years. That’s my fucking life.”
I collapsed into myself, dropping my face onto my knees and sliding into a long, wordless wail. My fingers slipped over my head and I cried in waves, a quiet howling spilling out into the corners of the room. It must have gone on for a couple of minutes when the gardener placed his hands on my shoulders and raised me to sit upright. He looked at me for a few seconds, as if calculating what he should do next, then urged me to stand up.
“You should wash your face.”
He guided me towards the bathroom and stood beside me as I ran the cold tap and smothered my face in water three or four times, then handed me the towel and watched as I patted my face dry. My eyes still felt red but it seemed that the tears were done for now.
“You shouldn’t drink tonight,” he said. “Not alcohol.”
I nodded, without really thinking whether or not I agreed. Then he patted my shoulder and turned me towards the door, back towards the bed and encouraged me to sit down. He stood in front of me, an adult trying to comfort a distressed child. I saw that my knife was still in its sheaf on his belt. He noticed.
“I can’t give this back to you.”
“I can’t allow you to get near to him.”
“So you mustn’t try to approach him again. And tomorrow morning you should leave here.”
I nodded. At that moment I felt no anger or frustration, just an exhausted relief that I had told someone, and received some sympathy. The gardener spoke again.
“I think maybe you should stay here this evening.”
I could still feel the heat in my eyes and guessed that I looked pathetic. I nodded again.
“I can bring you some food.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t envisage feeling hungry for hours.
“Then you should sleep. It will come easily. I’ve seen this before, when someone is very upset. It exhausts them.”
I guessed he was right. He nodded down at the floor.
I bent over and began to untie the laces. At first I fumbled them and the gardener knelt as if to help, but I held up my hand to stop him then managed to pull them off in a couple of quick movements. I kicked the shoes into a corner, removed my jacket and pullover and threw them onto the same patch of floor. For a second I thought the gardener would encourage me to take off my T-shirt and jeans, but he went to the bathroom, filled a glass with water, placed it on the bedside cabinet then backed towards the door. For a second he looked at me, I took the hint and laid back. The bed was welcoming, the thought of darkness even more so. The gardener spoke softly.
“You sleep, eat breakfast then go.”
It was a gentle order, not a threat but one that I knew had to obey. The gardener turned off the light and closed the door. I heard him going down the stairs and leaving the house, probably ensuring that the landlady would have no idea he had been there. I thought of him slipping into the front garden, careful not to be seen, moving quickly into the street and making his way back to the house where the old priest hid. Everything else was a blank. I closed my eyes and slid into darkness.
I slept through the night and woke to a knock on the door. The landlady waited for me to slide off the bed and step across the room, opening the door wide enough for her to notice I had slept in my clothes. She told me it was quarter to nine, the end of serving time for breakfast, but that if I wanted to eat she would give me fifteen minutes. I said that would be fine, embarrassed that she must think I had fallen asleep too drunk to undress, but hungry from a lot of hours without food. As I showered I thought about the conversation with the gardener, knew there was no chance I could get close to Father Boyce, and felt raw from the humiliation. But I had finally shared the nasty detail of what the old bastard had done to me and that gave me a mild relief. I could imagine that days later I would feel the anger all over again, but for now I was wiped out.
The landlady was friendly enough as she served breakfast and didn’t ask any awkward questions about the night before. I suspected she would be upset to think a big man with a foreign accent had forced his way into her home, and reckoned there was no reason that she should know. For a while I managed to think of nothing but the corn flakes and a generous sized fry up, but as I ate the last of the toast I acknowledged to myself that I would have to leave that morning. The gardener may have been sympathetic but he was still one of them, and they wouldn’t want me anywhere near the old priest. I was in a corner with no view of the window, so had no idea of any unusual movement outside. I was on my third cup of tea when there was a knock on the street door, the landlady answered, and an ageing female voice made a fuss over some muffled news. After a few minutes I stood up and went to the window, and saw the landlady and another old woman walking towards the end of the street, joining another pair in staring up the road that ran alongside the beach. I was curious enough to follow and joined the little group on the corner. We could see to the point hundreds of yards away where the road took a slight turn close to the house where the priest and gardener lived. A couple of police cars were parked in sight, and one of the old ladies said that an ambulance had driven by.
“I think it’s that place where the old man lives with his immigrant friend,” said one.
“What are their names?”
“Don’t know,” said another. “They tend to keep themselves to themselves.”
Something had happened. I was still in slippers and a thin shirt, and reckoned that in three minutes I could be in proper shoes and a jacket to keep out the wind. I hurried back to the house, stepped into the hallway and found the gardener waiting for me.
I froze, felt a moment of fear, then relief as he held up both hands.
“One minute,” he said. He moved a hand to his waist, unclipped the sheaf that held my knife and offered it to me. “Take this back. It wasn’t used, but if they find it at the house they may be able to trace it to you, and that would give you trouble you don’t deserve.”
I took the knife and slipped it into my trouser pocket. My heart was racing. Then I realised he had said something odd.
“What do you mean, it wasn’t used?”
“I don’t need a weapon. It was easy to snap his neck.”
I couldn’t speak. All I could feel was a massive emptying, the emotions that defined me sucked into nothing. The gardener stood impassive. We stared at each other for what may have been seconds or minutes, then a question scrambled out of my head.
“Why? You were meant to protect him.”
“Because of last night. I’ve protected him for nearly two years, and I’ve protected another before him. I didn’t like it but it had to be done, because they were the church and the church had to be protected. But last night was the first time I had stared into a face and seen the pain. It couldn’t be defended.”
“But you killed him. Why?”
“To stop you from killing him, or another like you, and suffering all the consequences. It’s better that it comes from inside the church. I’m in the church. Now I can take the consequences.”
“Take the consequences?”
“I made the phone call to the police so they could find him. I had to talk to you, but now I’ll go to them. I’ll tell the truth, as much as necessary to satisfy them, but I don’t have to tell them about you.”
“You’re handing yourself in?”
“It’s better than some of the things I’ve done.”
He gave me a brief smile, that type that comes with a moment of relief after a bout of pain, then patted me on the arm and slid past into the street. I followed him outside and saw the landlady and her neighbours were looking towards the police cars, and didn’t notice him until he had walked past. Every one of them stopped talking and took a couple of steps away. I stood at the door unnoticed, watching as he turned out of sight and towards the police. A couple more people hurried past, and I noticed that four or five others were on their way from the centre of the village. Then two more police cars passed. I turned into the house, ran upstairs and placed the knife in my suitcase. Then I put on my regular shoes, went back outside and stood a few feet away from the landlady’s group. Within a minute I was pulled into the conversation, and played the part of the ignorant outsider while they shared wild speculations about what could have happened.
We stood there for half an hour. It seemed that nearly everybody in the village came to join the crowd. A handful walked down the road to get a closer look but were shooed away by the police. Finally the ambulance came back, the crowd parting slowly and watching it for any clue as it turned the corner and drove towards the main road. A couple of minutes later one of the police cars came along. Two uniformed officers sat in the front, behind them a man in a suit and the gardener. This time the crowd was more reluctant to part, several people wanting to get a close look, and it took a couple of impatient honks on the horn for the police to clear a way. As it passed the gardener stared ahead. Within a minute I overheard three different reasons why he may have killed the older man, none of them anywhere near the truth.
I went back to my room, and thought about the leaving the village immediately, but reckoned that may just raise a suspicion I could do without. I had booked a week’s holiday and would stay the next three days. Instead I decided on a walk along the beach, in the opposite direction to where the priest and gardener had lived. I put on my jacket and scarf, stepped outside and turned away from the crowd, knowing there was a route around the far side of the village square. Instinctively I stuck my hand into my pocket and found the packet of mints. I unwrapped one, placed it my lips, then decided that I didn’t want it. A few yards further on I dropped the pack into a dustbin.