The bench was hard, rigid against my back and thighs. It did nothing for easing the spasm that had been plaguing me for the last two months. But then again, little had actually eased the spasm in my back. Not even Janet`s strongest drugs had helped this time around. I sat, knees and back aching in the cold air, listening to the man in front as he went about his routine. It had been an impulse borne early in the morning air. An impulse to visit a place I`d not been to in at least ten years.
I was at Mass. Yes, you heard me, I Jack O`Neill, Mr Cynical himself - was in a church. Kneeling with the congregation, praying with them, taking holy communion with them. And I have to admit to feeling a brief spurt of guilty shame for eating the host, without having confessed my sins before hand. I may be a cynical Colonel today, but I`d been brought up by a devout Catholic family.
I whispered the final blessing with the others in my pew, bowing my head and sitting back down, hands clasped between my knees as the others slowly filed out. It wasn`t a large congregation, but then they weren`t these days. The glory days of the Church were long gone, back in the sixties when I was just a teenager. But I still felt that the sentiment lived on, beyond these four walls. Love thy neighbour et cetera, et cetera.
The Mass hadn`t given me what I was looking for, but the silence afterward did. There`s something about a church. An old church. Something that rings a chord deep within your soul. And it wasn`t just churches. I`d found, during my travels, that quite a few places had this. Presence. This feeling. It was undefinable, but it was there. Even the most cynical person (and yes, I counted myself among that group) could feel it. I`d once visited a circle of stones in Britain and I had felt the same Presence *there*, as I did right now.
I finally opened my eyes and blinked rapidly, clearing the blue of sudden light away from my vision. The Priest, Father David McDilian, was quietly cleaning up after the mass, folding away the cloth and putting the host and wine back in the Tabernacle. It`s red light shone above the dark oak cabinet. Was it His Presence I felt? I don`t know. All I do know is that for the first time in several weeks, I felt at peace.
Finally, almost half an hour after the service had ended, Father McDilian headed over towards me, his priestly robes discarded and in their place, the simple black slacks and shirt with dog-collar that made up his uniform. He sat next to me, not crowding me, just a silent presence. This was a very patient man. Finally, he cleared his throat gently.
`Do you want to talk about it, Jack?` His voice was soft in the empty church, yet still it echoed slightly.
`Father?` I played dumb. He scowled at me, bushy eyebrows beetling. I flushed slightly, like a schoolboy caught looking up a girls skirt. Not that I`d ever done that. Well, I had never been caught doing that anyway.
`I I`m married again, Father.` I confessed to him. He looked a little startled himself, eyes widening slightly and those beetle brows rising high on his forehead. `Last year. You knew Sara and I got divorced, right?`
`Yes. Sara told me several years ago.` McDilian replied gently.
`My.. wife. She.` I swallowed past the cold lump in my throat. `She wants children.` I stopped, unable to go on. McDilian kept silent for a while, letting me think, then finally spoke.
`Surely that was something you spoke of before you married, Jack? Children are an amazing gift to any couple in love.` Even as he spoke, he sat still. This man was the most calm, serene man I had ever met. Even when he`d first been ordained, when I was in my early twenties, he`d been still. I thought back to the man that I`d gone to high-school with, and the image of that much younger man superimposed itself on to my vision of the priest in front of me.
`Jack?` David prompted me.
`Sorry, Father.` I replied. It was a habit. Though I`d known the man for a great majority of my life, he was still `Father McDilian` to me. Always would be. It was just one of those `Catholic` things. `Wool gathering. We never really discussed children. To be honest, we both thought that she couldn`t have any. She had an accident a few years ago and as a by-product we believed that it made her barren.`
`And now?` David prompted again.
`She`s not. We found out a few weeks ago, after some routine tests. My wife was ecstatic.`
`I take it you`re not?` David leant forward, mirroring my pose, hands clasped between his knees, looking down towards his shoes.
`It`s not that I`m. I don`t know.` I shrugged, defeated.
`Does this have anything to do with Charlie?` He asked gently, softly. Even so, it hurt to hear him speak of my long dead son. `Jack?`
`No.` I forced the word out from between dry lips. David cleared his throat and said nothing more. I endured about five minutes of this deafening silence before I broke.
`I can`t be a father again, Father.` I admitted, heart wrenching in my chest.
`What do you mean?`
`Loosing When Charlie died, it almost killed me. I his death is on my hands, and I can`t do it again. I can`t be responsible for another child. It`s too much of a risk. *I`m too much of a risk*.` The deep, cold place down in the bottom of my chest was oozing out an enveloping cold that was slowly sucking out any emotion I had left. And I hated that it was happening. But I`d rather live with the cold of that dark place, than risk another child`s death being placed at my feet.
`Jack.` David chided me. I shook my head. `Jack, listen to me. Charlie`s death was not your fault.`
`My gun. My house. My son. My fault.` Those eight words, that mantra that had echoed around my head more times than I could count, voiced themselves in a harsh grating voice.
`Your gun. Your house. Your son. His foolishness.` David countered. I turned on him, a snarl of rage. How dare he call my son foolish! He`d put his hands up in defence before I`d even turned on him. `Jack, listen to me! Just for a minute. I couldn`t tell you this before, when I last saw you.` The funeral. Something I barely remembered through the clouds of grief and whiskey. `It was your gun. And yes, you kept it in your house, but did you ever - in your entire life - keep it loaded? Did you ever leave it in a place that was easily accessible?`
`No.` I frowned. Of course I hadn`t. It was drilled into us from basic, all weapons had to be stored securely for the protection of everyone.
`So, you stored the ammunition separately?` At my reluctant nod, David continued. `So, wouldn`t it be safe to assume that Charlie - in his quest to be just like his father - went and found that gun, went and found the ammunition, and loaded it as he`d seen you do many times before, when you cleaned and checked your weapon? Loaded it, as he`d seen it done on the television?`
`See! There. Right there. He`d seen me load my weapon. I showed him how to, just by cleaning my own gun. And my neglect in letting him watch the kind of television that showed guns is just as bad! It`s my fault.`
`For Christ`s sake, Jack!` I heard David swore, and it halted me in my stride. I don`t think I`d ever heard David swear, even in high school. `The boy worshipped you. He`d seen you do countless things. Mow the lawn, replace the tire on Sara`s Mustang, trim the hedges, he`d even seen you clean up the house. It`s what a father does. Create a role model for your child to follow. Your own role model just happened to include Military training. But it was his decision, his actions that led to his accident. And that`s precisely what it was, Jack. An accident. A foolish, costly accident. Where no one, not Charlie, not Sara and especially not *you* were at fault.` I grunted, still not believing him. He took a breath, then looked at me for a long time.
`So, this new wife of yours.` He said, changing the subject. Or so I thought. `Does she know about this fear of yours?`
`It`s not a fear.` I defended automatically.
`Of course it isn`t.` David placated. Then continued. `So, obviously she doesn`t, or you would be talking to her about this, rather than sitting in my church, making me swear in the presence of God. So why can`t you talk to her about this?`
`Cause she would say the same things you just did.` I admitted.
`In fact, I`d guess she already has, hasn`t she?` David prompted, and I gave a shameful nod in return. `So, this new wife Jack, you could at least tell me her name has told you that Charlie`s accident wasn`t your fault. Sara has told you it wasn`t your fault, on too many occasions to count. And I`ve told you. Your spiritual father.` I snorted at this and got his grin in return. Pomposity was not David`s way. `So are you going to listen to us - those who should know you, who do know you - better than you know yourself in some instances, or are you going to listen to that little devil inside you, that`s making you cling to all that angst like you`re clinging to the last piece of apple pie?`
`Angst?` I repeated.
`Hey, I know a few popular words, you know. It`s not all reading the Bible and praying in this job, you know.` David pushed my shoulder gently. I remained quiet, thinking over what he had said. Then I thought over what Sara had said. And lastly my wife. Who was at home, in bed. Probably waking up by now, worrying about her absent husband.
Children. The thought of looking after another child, of committing that much emotion to one soul, to one being in the whole world, was daunting. But hadn`t I done so already, in admitting to my feelings for my wife? By marrying her? Didn`t I already have that commitment? That wealth of feeling?
Without my say so, a picture of what she would look like pregnant, belly bulging with our child, displayed itself on my inner television screen, the image perfect in it`s imperfections. I could see the swollen ankles, the water retention. The anger snapping out of those wondrous blue eyes of hers. The small stretch marks on her stomach. And my heart burst.
The cold place deep inside retreated under the onslaught of warmth, retreated so far that I left it behind completely. In it`s place was a calm, serene centre. A quiet that was pervading through my very being. I looked at David, who was staring at the alter, eyes distant as he prayed, and it was then that I understood. What I was feeling now, what I felt for my wife, was what he felt for his vocation, his meaning in life. His calmness was a by-product of that certainty. I coughed, clearing my throat and gaining his attention. He turned to me, one eyebrow raised slightly.
`I have to go home now, Father.` I said, rising and walking past him to the end of the pew and genuflecting towards the tabernacle.
`Good. Will I see you next week?` He asked, following me out into the sunshine. Always pushing for me to come back, always pushing for me to become a `practising` Christian.
`You never know.` I replied, grinning, then stepped down a few stairs, before turning back to him. `By the way Father - her name is Samantha.` I said and then headed back home, to my wife.
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