Our Lady of Perpetual Help towers above the neighbouring buildings like a tall sister amongst her younger siblings. You have never been inside the church, although you have driven past it every day on your way to work. It is an old church, and you walk into the compound feeling a little apprehensive. As you pass the newly erected monument of Pope John Paul II near the entrance, you feel your heartbeat speed up. You clench your hands into fists to prevent them from trembling. Ignoring the holy water by the door, you briskly enter and eye the pews at the back, where some members of the congregation are already seated.
You squeeze in past a woman in the last pew. The woman heaves her buttocks across the wood to make space for you without a greeting. Her eyes are closed in prayer, or perhaps she is meditating on her sins. You whisper an apology as you settle in and look around.
The inside of the church is nothing like its exterior. You are surprised that there are air conditioners, and that the floor is tiled and the pews have kneelers made of foam. The altar has magnificent flower arrangements and large chandeliers hang from the ceiling. You remember your days as an altar boy, serving your local parish. You remember how proudly you walked – in a red cassock and white surplice – heading up the procession into Mass on Sundays. It feels like a long time ago now, like some distant memory of an inconclusive nightmare. You were destined to be a priest and then, suddenly, you stopped going to Mass.
Nobody could understand. Nobody was patient enough to ask the right questions. If only they had known the pressure and guilt you had endured all those years. Yet you feel justified for the actions you took then, as much as you feel at peace with what you are about to do now.
It ends today, you reassure yourself as you lean on the wooden rest.
The lady beside you is no longer meditating. She is reading a prayer book. You notice that her hair is freshly braided in narrow cornrows and there is a rosary dangling from her neck. You decide that you like her. She reminds you of Aunty Mabel who survived the car accident that killed your father when you were twelve: her long slender fingers; the way her eye sockets taper at the edges; her mild inviting perfume.
You shrug off the thought, pushing the memory of your aunt to the back of your mind, not wanting to be drawn back to the sinking sadness that made you a man overnight. The accident punctured your mother’s heart and all the happiness in it leaked out, drop by drop, until she was empty.
You quickly run through the confession in your head. You look at the confessional booth’s door – a few metres to the right of you – as it swings open and someone leaves. It’s your turn now. You sigh deeply before you enter and greet the priest.
‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned.’
This confessional booth is not a typical one: there is no screen separating the penitent from the priest. In fact, rather than being a booth, it is a small room with the priest sat on one end facing an empty chair for the confessor to sit on. As you approach, the priest yawns. You feel sorry for him. Sitting there, listening to tales of iniquities, must be a very boring assignment. You make a sign of the cross as you sit and you begin to recite your well-rehearsed opening lines.
‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…’ Your mind goes blank. The priest watches you for a few moments, arching his eyebrows.
The only thing that you can think about is Sonia. Her beautiful face comes dancing through your mind, teasing you, accompanied by the haunting clatter inside your head. You fall silent.
‘Go on,’ the priest says, patting his stole which is folded around his knees. You desperately want to press your temples to keep your head from exploding.
‘Father… I am a monster.’ Your unapologetic tone surprises you.
If your words startled the priest, his response does not suggest so.
‘All of us are humans: we have our weaknesses, and during those moments when we fail, it is normal for us to feel like monsters. Yet our God is a merciful Father and He has granted us the rare gift of salvation through His son, so that we do not see ourselves as monsters anymore but as children of God. So, go on, my son – unburden your heart to Him.’
He does not understand what you are saying. Your gaze shifts from his face to the tiled floor. There are several tiny black ants moving around, carrying sand particles in single file across the floor. You let a few seconds pass before you speak again.
‘A few days ago, I met this lady at the mall. We got talking, you know, and I bought her a drink. It was raining by the time we were finally set to go, so I drove her home. She invited me in and one thing led to the other and…’
‘You fornicated?’ The priest interjects, triumphant that the story is finally out. He stifles a yawn – reminding you that this is nothing new.
‘It is not just that, Father,’ you retort, mildly annoyed. ‘Yes, we did fornicate… but while I was… I mean, when we were at it, I had the image of another person in my head the whole time.’
‘It’s not unusual for men to think of other women when they are with someone else.’
‘That is the problem, Father. She is not another woman. She is a child.’
You watch as his bored, passive expression transforms into one of interest. You remember that night: how Sonia’s face had been all you could see while you made love to Amanda, the lady from the mall. Amanda’s moans transformed into a child’s laughter; you could feel tiny fingers running all over your back, digging in, pushing you further inside.
‘Who is this child?’ the priest asks, concern creeping across his eyes.
‘She is… she is my colleague’s daughter. She is seven years old. I give them a car ride every morning.’
‘And you feel sexually attracted to her?’
‘Yes, father. Not only her – I feel the same way about all girls of her age that I meet. Sonia is just the newest person I have seen continuously. Have you ever seen a seven-year-old girl, Father? Their innocence, their beauty, the sweet melody of their voice – it does something to me. Are they not just heavenly, Father?’
‘Yes, children are heavenly, my son. But not in that way.’
‘That’s why I said I’m a monster. How can I think of little girls in this way, if I am not one?’
The priest pauses, his brows furrowed as he stares at you. ‘How long have you been feeling this kind of urge?’
‘Since adolescence – my first wet dream.’
‘And when you feel these urges, what do you do?’ The priest is now at the edge of his seat, leaning close to you: close enough to smell your cologne.
‘I have never hurt any girl,’ you respond in sharp denial of what you feel is a veiled accusation. ‘I have never acted on it. I have always helped myself out when it gets too much for me to handle.’
‘You mean you masturbate?’
You nod in agreement, feeling too embarrassed to acknowledge it in words. As though to make a case for yourself, you add: ‘I fight it, Father. Believe me, I try. All these years I have battled it. But the demons are so strong they overpower me. They haunt me. I can’t win. But I try.’ Your voice is cracking and your breath is becoming rapid.
The priest leans closer, placing his left hand on your shoulder. ‘Calm down, my son. Who else is aware of this?’
‘I could not tell anybody, father. How could I? Who would understand me?’ You think of how you feel reading the news of a paedophile caught – how everyone responds with horror and disgust. You remember how you once attempted to push the argument, among your friends, that men who sleep with young girls should not face total condemnation until they have told their own stories. Yet everyone disagreed with you, saying it was insane to even conceive a justification for such barbarity.
‘You have come to the right place. It might seem impossible to you, but God always makes a way. The Scriptures tell us that though our guilt may be as dark as scarlet, He will make us as white as snow. Listen, son, we can get help for you, and we can work to defeat those demons.’ His words are spoken so calmly and without any judgement that your heart flutters with hope. But it is now too late for redemption.
‘It is too late for me now, Father. I have just come to make peace with God before I go.’
‘Don’t say that, my son. It is never too late for the Lord to save you.’
He does not understand what you mean when you say it is now too late for you. But you are not ready to reveal what you have done. He will find out soon enough, when the note you left on your table at home is read. You grunt an ‘Amen’ as he whispers some prayers, and you nod as he asks you to recite a dozen Hail Marys as penance and to return to the church tomorrow for counselling.
You look at your watch as you stand up and begin to walk away. At any moment now, the pills will kick in. You hope it will be quick, just as was promised on the suicide website. You hope the heavens will accept you, because your last breath will be inside a church.