A fantasy romance of requited and constrained love.
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Father Jack spends half the time resisting his delectable housekeeper, Elizabeth, and the rest, inventing ways of raising money to repair St Wilfrid’s Catholic Church. Then one day Bishop McPhee gives him an ultimatum - find money to repair the church or leave.Does he succeed in his quest? Read TEMPTING FATHER JACK to find out.
Saint Wilfrid’s Church has withstood fire and pillaging for over a thousand years; rain is another matter. It seeps through the shingled broach spire and flint walls, dripping into buckets and paint tins dotted along the aisles and pews. It slips through cracks in the floorboards or forms puddles where they sag.
And the church stinks like a decomposing rat.
I have blisters on my hands from carrying the containers through the vestry to the overgrown graveyard out back. Headstones stand lopsided like crooked teeth, or worse, have fallen over completely. A pile of rusty gardening tools stands half-buried in a huge plant pot under the vestry window.
One day this place might be my final resting place. I imagine my epitaph will be chalked on a makeshift cross and go something like:
Here lies Jack…
Best keep it nice and simple, as any addition will be negative.
I’ll tidy up the whole graveyard, once the stingy bishop allows me to scrape together enough money to buy the tools. So far he has flatly refused, stating that there aren't enough parishioners filling the church’s coffers.
Shouldn’t he want the only Catholic Church in the area to be a success? Maybe he is in cahoots with that Church of England mob at St Luke's.
The enemy’s church stands at the opposite side of Saxon Square. I passed it the other day as the vicar, James Mulgrew, was showing two tourists around. Beaming, he bragged about St Luke’s pretty, stained glass windows, Gothic spires and immaculate granite facade. He told the tourists that people came from miles around to admire his church. Then his smile dropped, replaced by a look of disgust, as the pompous ass pointed a finger at Saint Wilfrid’s. “Whereas that monstrosity over there,” he said in a loud, derisory tone, “only attracts a few miserable pensioners,”
I felt like putting a brick through his stained glass window. Instead, I just seethed and walked past.
Two hours of hefting stank water later, I finally tip out the last putrid container. I toss it among all the others and lock the vestry door. Feet apart, I do a few head rolls to work out the chinks. Then I press my hands against the base of my spine, tilting backwards, groaning with the effort.
I’m not cut out for physical work. But looking after the church has made me stronger, leaner and more irritable.
I change into priest vestments and re-enter the church.
A chill hangs in the air, gnawing at my bones. Since I’ve got five minutes to spare, I do a few jumping Jacks to warm up. Then jog round the church, slow at first, before breaking into a sprint. On the second lap I stop outside the confession box to shadow-box.
I stop short when the main door creaks. A draft swirls around my cassock. A jasmine scent fills my nostrils. Flushed and panting, I straighten from my crouched position and slowly turn round.
Like every day for the past week she aims to tease and it works. This time she’s wearing red: shoes, miniskirt, tight tee shirt, scarf and a ribbon tied round the bun in her raven hair.
“Good morning,” she says in a husky voice.
Words scramble onto my tongue as she makes her way toward me, but I can’t utter them.
“Are you going to let me in?” she says when she reaches the confession box.
I glance over my shoulder and notice I’m blocking the entrance. I swallow. “Yes, of course.” I move aside and pull back the velvet drape. “Be my guest.”
She flashes a smile. “Thank you.”
I wait until she’s seated and close the drape. Then I hurry round to my side of the confession box. Through the gauze I can see the outline of her lips. Staring at them has become my daily vice, a guilty pleasure.
“Forgive me, Father,” she begins, “for I have sinned. It's been a day since my last confession.”
“Please, go ahead.”
“You were in my dreams last night.”
“Look, Mrs Brown.”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“Sorry. Elizabeth. It’s nearly a week since the car crash. You’re bound to get flashbacks from time to time.”
“I dreamt about a time before that. We were lying beside each other on a moonlit beach. Warm sea water laps our feet. I wore a blue bikini and you wore white boxer shorts with pink piglets.” She laughs. “They matched the sunburn on your legs.”
I had the same dream last night. I give an audible gasp, then cough to hide the fact.
“You okay?” she asks. “Hope you're not coming down with something.”
“N-,” I try to reply, my voice raspy. I swallow hard. “No.”
A long silence passes between us.
“You're just feeling lonely,” I say. “Have you ever thought of meeting somebody else?”
“Why should I? The man I want is right here. Don't you ever wish you could give in to your desires just once?”
Yes, many times. “You should be looking for somebody else. Not chasing me.”
“You used to be available. Oh, Jack. Don’t you remember anything?”
The poor woman is delusional. She crashed her car into a tree near here and I pulled her out from the wreck. Now she’s got this strange notion that I’m her husband.
I release a sigh. “I remember everything about my life. And unfortunately Elizabeth, I don’t remember you.”
“A simple check up at the doctor’s would show who’s telling the truth. Then maybe you could go back to your old self. You were different back then. More loving and kinder. And definitely not a priest.”
I try to find the words to reply, but can't.
“Are you still there?” she asks.
“Yes. I was just...listening.”
She blows her nose. “I'd better go. You know how grumpy you get if lunch isn’t ready.”
“You make me sound like a right ogre.”
“If the hat fits. But don’t worry. I still love you.” She presses her hand against the gauze.
I lift my hand to touch it, then immediately withdraw it.
Don't be so foolish.
I go through the confessional ritual.
“Amen,” Elizabeth says at the end. “Now, what would you like for lunch, Ogre?”
“Cheese and ham sandwiches.”
“Ah, well.” She sounds cheerier. “I need to nip out and get some milk. See you later.”
Part of me regrets taking her on as live-in housekeeper. But her flat above the newsagent’s she owned had flooded while she was in hospital. Or so she told me the day after the car crash when she appeared at my front door.
I listen to the sound of her footsteps fading. They stop when a muffled voice says, “All right, Darling.”
I’m about to see who it is when a pain shoots through my head. I’ve been getting migraines ever since the day Elizabeth arrived. Probably stress. I wait until the pain subsides and peek out.
The man is small and round, his ruddy cheeks puffed up, partially concealing his sunken, bloodshot eyes. He looks like a spiv in his trilby, camel-hair trench coat, blue-striped shirt and matching tie. His brown shoes are scuffed. And trapped between his stubby digits is a fat cigar trapped which thankfully isn’t lit.
“Don't be shy,” I say. “In you come, Mr...”
“Billy Barnes,” he says in a Scottish accent. “Billy, preferably.” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “She's a smasher, isn't she?”
I glance past him at Elizabeth who’s wiggling on her way out.
I shouldn't look. I face Billy. “Wouldn't you like to–”
“Oh, aye. I definitely would with her, given half the chance.”
“Confess? After all, we’re all sinners at the end of the day.”
“Oh, that. I don't think so. The last time I confessed I got six months for fraud.”
The smile drops from my face. “Then why have you come?”
“It's about a woman.”
I bite my lip. What do I know about them? “Going through a rough patch, eh?”
“You could say that. Now, about this woman. She sneaks into my room and teases me all night.”
She must be desperate. “What does she look like?”
“Blonde and pretty. With big knockers.”
“Oh, that'll be Mrs Robson, the postman’s wife. She's the er....the village seductress, for want of a better word. Just tell her you’re impotent. She’ll be out of there quicker than a politician in a brothel raid.”
“Oh, I don't think it's her. You see, this woman looks real enough. But when I try to grope – I mean, touch her, my hand goes right through her. It's ever so frustrating.”
“And where is this ghost?”
“The Henry James Inn. I've just inherited it.”
“Ah, I see. The last proprietor said it was haunted. I offered to help of course, but he declined. The next day he was found dead in one of the rooms. Apparently he had a frustrated expression on his face.”
Billy shrugs. “Well, I need your help.”
I’ve never done an exorcism before, and don’t want to pass up this chance. I tremble with nervous excitement just thinking about it. But this is the Bishop’s territory. Still. No harm in finding out more.
“Please go on,” I say.
“She appears when I'm sleeping. And teases me by pretending she's going to strip and do things to me. But in the end nothing happens.”
I raise an eyebrow. “She's a ghost. What else do you expect her to do? Seems like she just wants to be friendly.”
“Fine if she looked like Casper. But she's a smasher.”
“And you'd be willing to make a donation to the church?”
Billy wrinkles his face. “Cheque okay?”
“How about gift vouchers?”
“How about cash?”
“You drive a hard bargain,” Billy says. “Cash it is then. But not until you've got rid of her.”
“Oh, it won’t be me. I’ll phone the Bishop. He’ll come over to exorcise it.”
“Why? Is it unfit?”