Monday, 29 October 2012


Two o'clock in the morning. Dressed in black from head to toe, he moves through the foliage like a leopard, unseen and unheard. His prey: the wealthy residents of Belgium Hill and Luxembourg Crescent, bankers and lawyers, doctors and politicians, the odd pop star or retired footballer. His conscience is clear; Standard Union and Allied Mercia will pick up the bill. These people have insurance coming out of their ears. Within weeks, everything will be replaced, in all probability with more up-to-date versions of what was stolen.
He slides open a small side window recessed into a side wall, and clambers inside the property known as 'The Beeches'.  The layout of the house is familiar as is the thick carpet underfoot; he moves around the property quickly and efficiently, picking up items of value and placing them carefully and noiselessly into his black leather briefcase. From one drawer, he removes a bracelet that looks to be of considerable worth, but noticing that it has an inscription, he returns it to whence it came; he is not interested in items of sentimental value, items that can easily be traced. Sometimes, it’s just too easy, particularly when the occupants are away; a long weekend in Paris in this case, if he remembers correctly, or is it Barcelona?
No more than four or five minutes later, he’s outside in the cool night air again, his luggage bulging with duty–free; a good night’s work even by his standards. A fine athlete in his youth, he vaults the surrounding wall with ease, and is back on the deserted pavement of a wide leafy boulevard.  In the distance, the barking of a dog cuts through the silence. He never pays a visit to a home with canine protection; too risky.
As he brushes down his clothes and hastily shoves his gloves into the pockets of his jacket, a narrow beam of pale yellow illuminates his surprised face.
‘Police’, says the young voice holding the torch. ’Please step out of the shadows. No sudden movement.’
He does as instructed, quickly evaluating his options. Fight or flight? Fight or flight? The silhouette facing the burglar appears to belong to a man both taller and broader than himself; neither option looks particularly promising.
‘Is that you … Father O'Rourke? The policeman knows the thief and now the thief knows the policeman, and has been offered a morsel of hope.
‘Tommy? Tommy Harrison?’
‘Yes, Father.’  The priest gives an audible sigh of relief; he knows he’s going to be able to talk his way out of trouble on this occasion.  This is too close for comfort, though; he curses his overconfidence.
‘I heard you’d graduated Hendon.  Your mother was telling me after Mass a few months back.’
'I didn’t expect to see you at this hour, Father,' apologises the young constable. ‘You see there’s been a string of burglaries on the area.’  A ‘spate’ surely, thinks the priest to himself; the young copper hasn’t learnt all the jargon yet.
'One of my parishioners had a stroke. His wife called me; distraught, the poor dear.' A white lie, but the only excuse he can think of on the spur of the moment.
‘I really am sorry to hear that, Father. I’m sorry if I startled you.’
‘Nonsense - you were just doing your job, Tommy! If it wasn’t for this,’ the priest goes on, pointing at his dog collar, ‘I could easily be your burglar, all dressed in black like Johnny Cash.’
‘Johnny who?’
A light rain is beginning to fall, and the priest is keen to get home with the night’s takings. He has phone calls to make, goods to move, but he supposes that can wait until tomorrow.
‘Johnny Cash – the Man in Black. ‘Ring of Fire’?’
The youngster shrugs his shoulders
‘‘Walk the Line’?’
Still no flicker of recognition crosses the constable’s fresh face. The priest gives up and changes the subject, anxious to keep the momentum of the conversation going, so the officer of the law doesn’t enquire further about the stroke victim or his stricken spouse.
‘How’s your mother’s arthritis, Tommy?’ The constable looks down to his shiny boots.
‘Actually, Father, I haven’t seen Mum for a few weeks - what with the late shifts and the overtime and …’
‘Tommy, you must make time for your family. Your mother made great sacrifices for your education, and now that she’s getting old and living on her own, she needs you more than ever,’ says the priest. He stops short of shaking his head in disappointment. Tommy continues to gaze at the ground for a few seconds.
‘Are you seeing someone, Tommy?’ asks the priest, guessing the real reason why Tommy and his mother haven’t seen each other for a while.
‘Yes, Father. Mum doesn’t really approve,’ Tommy sighed. ‘She thinks I should be concentrating on my career.’
‘Is it serious, Tommy?’
‘We’re engaged, Father.’ The priest can sense the policeman’s face reddening. ‘Her name’s Angela.’
‘How old are you now, Tommy?’
‘Twenty-two April just gone.’
‘And the girl … Angela?’
‘How old was your mother when she got married?’
‘Nineteen, I think, Father.’
‘I’ll have a word with your mother, Tommy.’
‘Would you do that, Father?’
‘On one condition.’
‘What’s that, Father? I’d do anything to improve the situation.’
‘Stop shining that torch in my face.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’m not used to this.’
‘No problem, Tommy. I’m not used to being arrested either.’
They both laugh.
‘I’ll walk you back to the parish house, Father,’ says Tommy. ‘It’s not safe to be out this late, especially with that briefcase.’
Ah yes, the briefcase. The priest clasps the handle tightly.
‘It’s no trouble, Father. I’m on my way back to the station anyway. My route takes me right past the church.’
Father O’Rourke sees it is hopeless to refuse. As they walk the silent streets, Father O’Rourke regales Tommy with tales of his time as a young missionary in Uganda, of the time he met Idi Amin, but Tommy hasn’t heard of him either.
Soon it is time to part, and the clergyman has his keys in the wooden door of the presbytery.
‘Good night, Father.’
‘See you on Sunday, Tommy?
Pc Harrison looks down at his shiny boots, and from somewhere in his throat finds a guilty cough.
‘Sure,’ he replies. ‘I’ll be there.’
‘And bring Angela.’
The young man nods.
‘Do you think he’ll pull through, Father?’
‘The man who had the stroke.’
‘It’s in God’s hands now, Tommy,’ replies the priest.
‘Good night, Father, and thanks for, you know …’
‘No problem, Tommy. Good night. Be careful out there.’
Inside the door, Father O’Rourke hears Tommy’s footsteps recede into the distance.  At last, he relinquishes his iron grip on the briefcase, and relaxes the muscles in his shoulders.
His lodgings are simple and austere. He flops down on the fold-up bed and flicks on the transistor radio.  As always, it’s tuned to BBC World Service; news from around the globe.
He hopes the orphans in Kampala will be pleased with the proceeds of his latest collection on their behalf, and his friends, the Collinses, Mike and Mary, not too upset about their material loss.  He knows that it will not be long before he is once again a dinner guest at ‘The Beeches’, and at many of the other mansions in Belgium Hill and Luxembourg Crescent, particularly those with children approaching secondary school age needing a priest’s reference to gain a place at the excellent All Saints Catholic College.  Of course, he never guarantees anything; it is the governing body’s admissions committee that makes the final decision according to the criteria set out in the application pack.
The priest drifts off into a disturbed sleep as two disjointed voices drone on about the reasons for a sixty point fall in the Nikkei Dow. In his dreams he is a young priest in East Africa once again, hungry, poor, and often sick, but fulfilled; doing God’s work here on Earth. He is ministering to the downtrodden, the refugees, the victims of civil war, those existing on the margins between life and death. He is confronting corrupt politicians, local war lords and on one memorable occasion, facing down a hyena with only a tree branch for protection. Then everything changes. Word comes from the top, some say from the Pope himself, that priests are getting carried away with this liberation theology fad, getting too involved in politics instead of tending to the spiritual needs of poor Catholics. For Father Peter O’Rourke, young and idealistic, fighting the causes of poverty is God’s work – what could be more important? There are several heated conversations with his superiors until he is offered the stark choice of being ejected from the priesthood or taking a parish back home.  In the end, he is transferred back to Europe ‘on health grounds’ but for him, the struggle for justice goes on.

Six o’clock in the morning. The priest wakes up to the news that ‘Singer, Johnny Cash, one of country music’s most enduring stars, has died after a short illness. He was 71.’ Father O’Rourke kneels against his bed and prays. He prays for the poor in spirit, that the Kingdom of Heaven will, indeed, be theirs. He prays for Pc Tommy Harrison and his mother, Margaret and his fiancée, Angela. He prays for the soul of Johnny Cash and the family, friends and fans he’s left behind.
His obligations fulfilled, it’s time to fence the hot goods, he thinks to himself.
He picks up the phone and taps in the number that’s become rather familiar of late.  As it rings at the other end, he sings quietly: “Love is a burning thing …” The phone is answered.
‘St Stephen’s Parish Church,’ the voice of a woman replies, her Irish accent as thick as a slice of soda bread.
‘Is the Monsignor around, Mrs Fitzgerald?’ shouted Father O’Rourke. The elderly housekeeper is hard of hearing, and has been kept on well beyond retirement age largely out of sympathy; she’d been widowed without children at barely forty and never remarried.
I’ll just fetch him for you, Father O’Rourke.
‘… and it makes a fiery ring …’
‘Monsignor Grady speaking.’
‘Hello, it’s Peter. Some generous parishioners of mine have made a substantial donation to our charity project.’
‘Great, I’ll be around later to pick it up. I’m just rushing off to do eight o’clock mass at the Convent. Shame about Johnny …’
‘Yes, terrible shame. Bye.’
On impulse, Peter O’Rourke goes across to an old cassette player he had once utilised to prepare sermons when he has first ordained, and rummages through a drawer of old tapes underneath; mixed in with ‘The Dubliners’, ‘Thin Lizzy’ and ‘Luciano Pavarotti’, he finds what he is looking for: ‘Johnny Cash Live in San Quentin’. He pops the cassette tape into the ancient contraption and presses ‘Play’. After nine or ten seconds of buzzing, the bare room is filled with the opening bars of ‘Big River’, and the whooping of the inmates of California’s most notorious prison. Prison: there but for the grace of God go I, he thinks, considering the events of the early hours.

Thirty minutes later, Father Peter O’Rourke closes the door of his humble dwelling and strides out purposefully, both a priest and a man; some would call him a saint, others a sinner. He cuts a dark figure against the grey city, a dark figure against the grey sky, the Man in Black.

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