January’s Short Story of the Month is ‘Spoiled’ by Jaki McCarrick, an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction – including The Scattering, one of our best-selling short story collections. ‘Spoiled’ takes us to Paris, where we see a troubled woman adrift, and an enigmatic priest whose sermons she attends.
This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on our website.
He had quoted from one of the Narnia chronicles, something she could clearly remember reading once, from Prince Caspian, in which Lucy, faced with a difficult river journey, asks Aslan to promise she will be safe and Aslan cannot promise. The priest had said that this was the meaning of faith: to go forth without a promise of anything. Mary had been astonished by him and by what she was listening to in the small bright chapel in Paris. During the week she had thought of his sermon often. And of how she had been encouraged by it not to dwell on the thing she had done, that ‘sin’ for which she knew she was truly sorry. She had cried in the church, but was somehow able to choke back the tears so that Susan and Yves and the children would not see. Though Tristan, Susan’s oldest, had seen.
Mary had not wanted to go to the service at all. For what kind of Catholic was she? Beyond lapsed, that was certain. Nonetheless, she went again with Susan and family on the following Sunday. This time she did not like the homily: something about St. Paul and the Jews which she hated because it smacked of anti-Semitism and she felt uncomfortable listening to it and had wanted to walk out. Tristan also saw this reaction in her, her face reddening with rage at the words spoken by the pompous-sounding reader who’d come up to the altar, and her nephew had nudged her, playfully. But then when he began to speak, Father Cal astonished her again. It was not what he said, but how. A couple and their children had been making noise in the front row and though people were openly telling them to hush, they continued. Rather than raise his voice above the rattle of the children and their equally distracted parents, Father Cal did the opposite: his voice quietened, so that Mary began to hear birdsong from outside in the courtyard, and it became the job of those amassed in the chapel to hear Father Cal and not his to reach out to them.
But then, Father Calum O’Neil had been always astonishing. A brilliant student, he shocked his family in his late-teens by declaring his vocation to God. The journey from seminary to curate in a small town in Tyrone to this Paris posting had taken him a mere fifteen years. Fluent in several languages, he had almost completed a PhD at Aberystwyth University and had published several papers, two books. He pursued brilliance and it, seemingly, had pursued him. He would only be in the city for a few months, had broken off his PhD studies to cover for the elderly chaplain whose brethren were this group of mostly Irish ex-pats, some of whom lived in the suburbs but who travelled all the way in by car or train each Sunday to attend the English-language mass in Trinite d’Estienne d’Orvres in the 9th arrondissement.
On the third Sunday, Susan decided they should all stay for the after-service tea and cake. The tea was from home and the cake was a freshly baked tea-brack. (Each Sunday an army of mostly middle-aged women – African, Irish, French – who worked voluntarily for the Church, would swan into the courtyard at the commencement of the service and silently dress and set the table, so that when the worshippers emerged a glorious spread would be ready for them as if by magic.)
Tristan nudged Mary as the priest finally appeared, his white and golden robes now gone in favour of a pale-blue short-sleeved shirt and dog-collar. He walked purposefully towards the congregation of thirty or so people gathered about the long table beneath the metal and glass awning of the chapel. Mary was about to chastise her nephew for teasing her yet again when Father Cal sidled up to them and stuck out his hand. She met Father Cal’s hand with hers and flashed a look up at him. She quietened the nervous movement of her mouth by biting her teeth together, even though she knew this action made her look old.
‘Susan’s sister?’ Father Cal said.
‘Yes,’ Mary answered.
‘Bonjour, Père Cal,’ Tristan said.
‘Bonjour, Tristan,’ the priest said, and smiled. He ran his hand through the boy’s hair in a rough but playful manner. Tristan laughed and ran towards another boy who was kicking a white football by a large pink-flowered chestnut tree at the back of the courtyard.
‘I’m Mary,’ Mary said.
‘How long are you in Paris for?’ he asked. She shuffled uncomfortably as she was not sure for how long she would continue to be in the city – but knew her sister’s invitation to have a change, forget about what had happened at home, was certainly not an open one. At most, Mary thought, they will only be able to stick me another month.
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