People. I could watch them, think about them, all day. It’s one of the great things about my job, sorry, vocation; my *priestly anointing*. Despite all the frustrations and disappointments, the folks who let you down when you trust them, bad things happening to good people, the times when you just wanna yell “Lord? You *listening*? You *there*? What the %*#* you playin’ at?” I love people. Every once in a while they repay you in spades. Take my parishioners: it’s a tough part of LA, my patch, people working their, excuse me, asses off to keep the landlord sweet, tryin’ to keep their kids away from the gangs. But when they learned of my condition, *thank you * Mrs. Rosario-can’t-keep-her-mouth–shut-for-two-minutes, what did they do but break into what savings they had and send me on this trip? Gimme a chance to see my sister and her family again before…well, before I can’t see them any more.
He was already on the plane when I boarded at LAX. Early middle age, worn hard and long around the edges. The kind of person you’d like to have known when they were last happy. I took the seat directly across the aisle from him and we caught each other’s eye. He nodded politely, acknowledging me without quite accepting me. Usually there’s two kinds of reactions I get when people see the uniform, the cassock and the backwards collar. Some back off, scared you’ll convert them or you’ll turn up your nose at the smell of liquor or a short skirt. Then you get the instant priest syndrome, and they’re telling you their life story (edited), trying to confess to you for anonymous absolution, when they’d do far better finding the person they hurt and fix it with them. Even if it’s themselves. ‘Course, when they turn to me it’s usually because it’s too late for that, the person’s gone, or they are past forgiving themselves: the guilt’s too terrible. Or too comfortable.
Hey, sorry, where was I? Oh, yeah, this guy, well he wasn’t in either category. An unbeliever, strictly speaking, though I could sense…power, the spiritual kind, not exactly ‘kosher’ if you know what I mean, but not… bad. That’s what comes of the Celtic inheritance. My family has always been…sensitive to the supernatural, to what lies beneath. It led me to the priesthood, and it’s saved my life more than once. You would not *believe* some of the things I’ve seen in LA, round street corners, in deserted back alleys. Not to mention after dark…
He greeted me: “Good evening, Father.” British, I mean *English*. But when he bought a copy of the London Times from off the trolley he handled the bills and the change comfortably, so I guessed he was more than a tourist, had spent at least a few years in…Sunnydale, it must have been. That’s where the flight had come from. Not enough years to pick up the local way of speaking, not like me after forty years over here, in the seminary and out in the world.
I could tell he didn’t want a conversation, so instead I indulged in my favourite pastime and just watched him at the edge of my vision, taking advantage while I could, use it or lose it as they say. Use it and then lose it, in my case. He read the paper from cover to cover, even the personal ads, with a disturbingly intense concentration. Some of it was just the way I guess he always read, shutting out his surroundings to wring every scrap of information or enlightenment from the printed page. But there was extra tension in the way every so often his knuckles whitened around the edge of the page, creasing it, before he shook the paper and himself and carried on, that had nothing to do with the news he was reading and everything to do with a recurring thought that he couldn’t shake off. A thought that troubled him to his bones.
It’s a ten hour flight across America and the Atlantic, and there’s only so much time filled by the paper, the airline meal (I had one of Mrs. Flanagan’s hearty pork pies to keep me going, bless her) and the in-flight movie. The English guy obviously had the same thought as me about “What Women Want”. We snorted in disgust at the same time and shared another little moment of contact until our gazes shifted away by mutual consent. We both dozed for a while: I woke before he did, and watched him toss and fidget. The seats didn’t leave him enough room; he was a tall guy, long legs, not like me. But that wasn’t the real source of his unrest. His brow was furrowed even in deep sleep; when he dreamed, they weren’t happy fantasies or crazy hopeful plans. Pain, helplessness, and loss were the currency of his nights lately, and he woke this time with a start and a cry, reaching out with one hand.
“Buffy!” A name, one of those cutesy nicknames belonging to Valley girls or toddlers. Whoever she was – lost lover, absent child, missed opportunity - she’d been the centre of this one’s world. A couple of other passengers were looking at him curiously and he cringed away from their glances, red in the face and angry with himself for the slip. I made sure when he got to looking over at me that I was checking my flight bag under my seat, and I gave him a good long while before risking another sweep.
He’d taken a hip flask out from somewhere and was taking a swig or several, keeping an eye out for any snooping flight stewards. Good single malt from the smell, like Father Murray keeps on the dresser in the presbytery for a nightcap after Compline. He let it burn a trail, then rooted round in the inside pocket of his suede jacket for… one of those rubber finger puppets the altar boys are always bringing in to chase each other with and waggle behind the Bishop’s back when he comes to preach.
He sat with it perched on his forefinger a few inches from his nose – he hadn’t put his glasses back on after the nap - and moved it half-heartedly, murmuring something to himself that I couldn’t quite catch: “Grr, Argh”, something like that. Sounded kinda childish for a feller who looked to be pretty smart, and it only made him smile for a second or so, then he closed his eyes and put the thing away, chewing on his lip and blinking a lot. I started to wonder again who he’d left behind in the States, and just how long he planned to be away. Maybe it was a bad break up and he’d had to leave this “Buffy” behind with her mom. Or she’d died, and everything had fallen apart after that: could account for the dream.
For a long time after that he just sat, looking around without real interest at the other passengers. I thought maybe one face in particular would be what it took to spark him into life again, and it wasn’t here; or anywhere, any more. Someone a couple of rows ahead realised we’d passed the halfway point and told her seat mates with excited laughter. Said she just couldn’t wait to make it to England – her first visit. My subject smiled at her enthusiasm, a flicker of sunshine before the clouds rolled back again with a vengeance and his face was suddenly so desolate I couldn’t stand to see it. I tossed up a prayer for him then. When I opened my eyes again I felt that prickle, when you know you’re in someone’s sights, yeah? Maybe he’d realised what I was doing and why, but he didn’t say a word, just shook his head gently and turned away. I felt guilty at that: I’d invaded his privacy in a way, however good my motives might have been.
I left him alone for most of the rest of the flight, not looking or listening out even though I was dying of curiosity. Say five Our Fathers for the sin of coveting the secrets of another man’s heart. Because I crave knowledge about people most of all, and I don’t know what there was about this man but I could sense he *mattered*, in a way I don’t, not really, for all I stand in church each Sunday and offer the Holy Sacrifice. I fall, I die, the Church goes on, remains the same. This one… I *so* wanted to know his real significance, it was a sin. Hail Mary, full of grace…
Somewhere between saying the evening office and the end of a long day and night I slept again in my seat. Waking, I dared a little peek across the aisle. He was writing in a notebook, small enough to hold cradled in one long hand as he wrote with the other. He stopped and sighed impatiently, and then in a flash he’d torn the page out where he’d written and scored through words again and again. I thought he was gonna throw it in the trash but he carried on staring at the loose sheet as if daring it to answer back. His mouth was a thin line as he folded the paper, turned it and folded again, turned and folded until it was a thick stiff block that he had to force to stay square, squeezing it with convulsive violence in his fist.
He paused with it halfway to his jacket, eyes far away once more, and then let his hand fall open and the folded page jump out silently. The hand continued its journey to his pocket and he took out one of those jeweller’s boxes, three or four inches square. The fact that inside was a tightly braided lock of blonde hair ought to have been corny; so should the way he caressed it with a fingertip before putting it and the box back. What can I say? The empty agony in his face, my God, that was authentic. I hoped to God, and without blasphemy then or just now, that he had friends to meet him at the end of this journey.
Which it almost was: the end. We crossed the Irish coast as we crossed into daylight again, a flash of grey-green sea below and then we were over England – another spasm of excitement from the lady up ahead – banking round to approach Heathrow through the clouds that promised an English autumn rain for later in the day.
I had a bit of a struggle getting my coat; speared between manners and haste by an Italian momma who insisted in fractured English that I (as a priest and presumably therefore equivalent to the sick and infirm) should go first before her out of the plane when in fact I wanted to wait to go back to the overhead locker to get my things. The Englishman had already left, but wedged in the folded up armrest of his seat was the bit of paper. Not thinking too hard, I picked it up and took it with me. Theft definitely not on the agenda: in fact I caught up with him in baggage reclaim.
“No…thank you,” he told me quietly when I offered him it back. “They’re just…notes…for a-a story,” he finished, not meeting my eyes, needing and despising the lie.
“Good luck with the rest of it, then.”
He looked at me sharply, angry at fate and maybe at me for suggesting that there was a ‘rest of it’.
“That …story’s finished now.”
He leaned across me abruptly and snatched up his case from the carousel.
“Excuse me, Father. Goodbye and good journey.” Then he was gone.
No-one came to meet him at Arrivals. The last sight I caught of him, between my sister’s tears and the babbling and hugging from my nieces and great nephews, he was pushing his trolley fast, taking as long strides as he could manage in the crowd, taking in the people, the noise, the questions for the future and steeling himself for them all.
We drove to my sister’s flat – next door to the church, she can’t keep away from the supernatural either. While she fixed us all a big cooked breakfast I slipped away to the Big House for a quiet moment to say thanks. I came up to the altar, the painted wood a little shabby like the furnishings, but both well worn, well loved. The Englishman’s paper was still, somehow, caught in my hand, had been the whole journey in to Kilburn. Everyone had competed for my bags, I’d not needed to carry or take up anything: my hands were idle but my arms and heart had been full. I remember thinking then that *he’d* be needing to keep his hands busy.
I was going to leave the page just as it was, on the altar, offering up whatever thoughts he’d had to a God in whom he probably didn’t believe, because in some ways it makes no difference to Him being, or acting. Then I thought, he deserved openness in this place if anywhere, so I unfolded the sheet and placed it face up, without reading it, and left.
After breakfast the cleaning woman brought it back, asking if I’d lost it by accident, she didn’t feel she could throw it away, and was I quite all right? She seemed so relieved when I assured her that it was nothing to do with me that I guessed she had read what he’d written. Then I read it too. It’s not as if I had any idea who or what the man was, and after, I was none the wiser for his words, the few stark lines that stood out among all the erasures.
They didn’t warn me, but even if they had, I would still have accepted this calling. There remains the distinct possibility that the rest of my life now – twenty, thirty, perhaps even forty years – may be nothing but anticlimax, nothing but falling from the heights; the possibility that I have nothing in me to break that fall. Memory will fail. The keepsakes will fade and wear. The reality, and the connection we, she and I, rarely acknowledged and only half explored: that endures. It must be enough.
Ya' know, I think he was wrong, standing forlorn in that baggage reclaim hall. I truly doubt that that ‘story’ is over. Don’t ask me how I know: I see things, still, that other people can’t. Even when it gets dark for me, some things I’ll always see clearly: that creased up paper, that Englishman’s face, and the fact that their story isn’t finished. I’m not blind, not yet.