SHORT STORIES: Father McKenzie

‘Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walked from the grave
No one was saved.’

Eleanor Rigby (Lennon-McCartney, 1966)

“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”

But of course they didn’t. Because they hadn’t been there in the first place. Bread had become body and the host had been raised aloft in front of row after row of empty pews in the vast basilica. The only faces to watch the sacred transformation were the stern visages of the plaster saints. Jude, Joseph, Dominic, pray for us.

The Mass celebrated alone. Was it right? Was there a rule against it? ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ But what about just one? The doors had been opened, the table set, the invitations given out, but no one came to the feast. As with most Tuesday mornings. Father McKenzie removed his cassock in the vestry and sighed. What did it mean?

His mind went back to his youth, spent on the streets of Cork. His mind’s eye recalled the consecration of Church of the Ascension in Gurranabraher way back when he was but a child. The enormous building, whose roof seemed to stretch to the sky, was filled to bursting, crowds of mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, all in their Sunday best, knelt down in awe before a majestic procession of two dozen priests and bishops, the air thick with incense and filled with hymns. Seeing such power and glory, all for the love of God, he had realised in an instant where his future lay. With such divine favour behind him, he could transform the world!

He was shaken from his reverie by the ringing of the phone, he crossed the vestry to answer it. It was Steve from Everest Windows who wondered if he knew about their new deal. He didn’t and nor did he want to. With a muttered blessing he put the receiver down, adjusted the bucket that was supposed to be catching the drips, took his coat from the stand and pulled the door behind him.

The day was grey and the streets were damp as he paced along them. His walks now were not like they had been when he first moved here as a freshly-ordained priest. Then he could not move ten feet without a parishioner greeting him, raising their hat or asking his advice on some spiritual matter. Now though, he was rarely accosted. The few frail and elderly members of his congregation recognised him but no one else. He was invisible. How had they all been diverted? He couldn’t blame the Anglicans whose churches were as empty as his, or even the Methodists whose chapel was closed. How had their faith been perverted?

The streets too had changed. Father McKenzie strode past boarded shops that had once been booming, past telephone boxes crammed with business card invitations to sin, lurid colours suggesting lurid encounters. “Remember to always let her into your heart,” his father confessor had taught him at the seminary. These days though, when they thought of the ideal female, it was never Our Lady.

Chewing gum stuck to his feet and he saw a needle of death lying in a corner. The newspapers on the stand outside the one shop that had withstood the tide urged him to fear. What exactly he should fear he couldn’t say – trade unions, Russia, Muslims, Brussels bureaucrats, it changed every week – but never God. Never did they preach to fear God.

Down by the docks the cranes were silent. Once thousands of menhad worked here, a hive of activity, scurrying to and fro in the pursuit of industry. Now rails rusted and paint peeled. A solitary fisherman populated the quay. “When times are tough, people turn to God,” his father confessor had taught him.

Why then were his pews empty? This place had suffered more than anywhere. Why had they turned to gambling, not the Gospel?

He walked on. A drizzle started but it made no difference. Father McKenzie pulled his coat around him. The winds were fiercer now that the sea was in view.

He reached the front, the sorry promenade. Arcades of fruit machines unused and shuttered. A padlocked funfair. Bright Spot, Adventureland, Arcadia: promises of joy that could never be honoured. When he’d first arrived this place had been prosperous; families from across the river on a trip out to the sea; children building sandcastles on the beach, couples holding hands, joy in the air. And now? Now there was a pensioners’ discount at the Seaside Café.

He entered and took a seat by the window. He could have sat almost anywhere. There were only two other customers, two more refugees from the numbing reality. The waitress came over and smiled. “Morning Ellie,” he said. She was blue-eyed, curly-haired and pretty. She would have made a good flower girl for the Corpus Christi procession but she wasn’t even Catholic. He’d asked her once. She’d never even been inside a church. “The usual Father?” she asked. He nodded. No more needed to be said.

The rain came down in torrents now, creating rivulets on the window pane. The Deluge come to sweep all the sin and misery away and create a new world. He bit on his slice of margarine-blessed value white sliced. No, this rain would not sweep anything away; it would only increase the damp.

He sprinkled salt from the chipped cellar onto his fish and chips and then looked at the meal before him. Bread and fishes; some things never changed. He smiled and then tucked in, giving his tea time to stew.

A woman passed on a mobility scooter and then a BT van. That was all.

Father McKenzie rose, paid the bill and silently blessed the staff as he always did. Then he walked out into the rain.

Ellie stared out at the solitary figure standing on the seawall looking out towards the horizon. “Poor old soul; he must be wet through with no hat and only a thin coat,” she thought before turning back to her magazine as the tea urn chuckled behind her.

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