Jennifer Marshall stormed up the steps at the back of St. John’s Church and shoved the door open with a mighty crash. Her high heeled shoes clattered noisily on the shiny tiled floor as she marched down the corridor towards the main hall.
She was furious. It was Friday afternoon and she had to walk all the way across town to find her mother, just so she could get into the house when she got home from school. And all because her parents were too old fashioned and boring to give her a front door key of her own.
Well, actually, it was because she once brought some friends home from school. OK, so they were all boys, but it was totally innocent. She was fourteen years old, after all. And it wasn’t her fault if her mother came home too early and completely misunderstood the situation. They were just sitting on the sofa, watching a video, when Liam leant over to get some crisps. Jennifer tried to move out of the way, and she knocked Paul’s can of drink out of his hand. Paul grabbed at the drink, Jennifer fell on top of him, and Liam lost his balance and fell on top of the both of them.
All the mother saw was her precious daughter entwined with two young thugs in a tangle of arms and legs. Nothing would convince her otherwise. Jennifer could never be trusted again, so she was grounded and, from then on, her mother would be standing guard by the front door, to make sure that she came home from school on time, and alone, every day of the week. Except Friday. Friday was her mother’s afternoon for doing the flowers in the church. However, Jennifer’s father finished work early on Fridays, so he was usually at home to meet her instead.
For some reason, though, her father wasn’t there today. Jennifer waited for ages until eventually she decided enough was enough. She was hungry and she was tired, and she was going to miss Neighbours, so she decided to go down to the church and have words with her mother. Things had to be said, and now she was mad enough to say them!
She pushed open the door to the hall and charged in. But there was no one there.
Her angry groan echoed back at her. Where was everyone? She stamped her foot and turned to go, and, when she caught sight of herself in the long mirror behind the door, she gave a satisfied smile. At least her parents couldn’t stop her wearing make-up, even if they did have a problem with her haircut. But all the boys loved it, and they loved her deep red lipstick that contrasted nicely with her naturally long dark eyelashes. The rest of the girls thought she was just a tart, of course, but she was hard and they would never say anything to her face anyway. So it didn’t matter, did it?
Suddenly Jennifer realised where her mother might be - with the Mother Superior. She was probably summoned there to explain, yet again, why her daughter was coming to school in a skirt that was no longer than an average belt. Jennifer chuckled out loud. So what? She had the legs for it. She gave a wiggle in the mirror and brushed her hair with her hand.
“Yes!” she said with a satisfied pout, and she strutted back out into the corridor, just as the elderly priest came shuffling past. He looked her up and down, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Jennifer?” He gave a gentle smile. “What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Father Stone,” she answered sourly. “I’m looking for my mother. She’s supposed to be here today. It’s her flower day, but there’s nobody in the hall.”
He looked over her shoulder to see for himself, then he nodded slowly.
“Well?” Jennifer glared at him.
“My mother! Have you seen her? Is she here?”
“Well, I don’t ... I think ... “
Jennifer hated this. All she wanted was the stupid door key. She wanted to go home, have a bath, something to eat, and flop down in front of the television. She didn’t want to hear the ramblings of a silly old man.
“Oh, never mind,” she spat, and she pushed past him to the door.
“Jennifer,” he called gently. “Where are you going?”
“What’s it got to with you?” she snapped. “Are you my mother?”
But as soon as she’d said it, she was sorry. She buried her face in her hands and sighed deeply. It had all become a bit of a habit now, being downright rude to people. She did it for the shock effect. It gave her a tremendous buzz to see the stupid look on people’s faces as their brains tumbled into neutral, and they struggled to find an answer. They never could, though. They would just stand there and splutter, with their mouths wide open. Their eyes would glaze over as she laughed back at them and walked away. It was great!
But she never meant to be rude to Father Stone. She was always very fond of the gentle old priest. She’d known him all her life. He’d baptised her, he conducted her First Communion, and he was there for her Confirmation. She liked his kind face, and the soft eyes that always looked at the world with a wise understanding. And he had such a wonderful way of making her feel special, of making her feel like a person in her own right and not just another face in the sea of children that passed his way every day of the week. Even when the flack was coming at her from all directions, when everyone else tutted and said how she used to be such a pretty little girl and how could she have turned into such a nasty, horrible monster, Father Stone would smile at her with the same soft smile. He seemed to understand the turmoil that was raging in her head.
Jennifer was well aware of what people were saying about Father Stone lately. He didn’t look very well, he was getting very old and very tired, and he seemed to be in a daze most of the time. They kept finding him in the garden, talking to the flowers, and they wouldn’t let him say Mass anymore, either. Not since he sat on the top step of the alter with the bottle of Communion wine and called ‘cheers’ to the congregation.
Jennifer Marshall looked up at him now and shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Father,” she said meekly.
“Are those cigarettes I can see in your hand?” the old priest asked, pulling a face.
Jennifer looked at the packet and went to say something.
“Well, now, you can’t smoke in here,” Father Stone smiled his knowing smile as he shuffled towards her. “So we’d better go outside, around the corner. I’ll have one with you.”
They sat on the low wall by the beautifully manicured lawn that sloped gently down to the small row of ancient headstones. The wall was rough and cold, and Jennifer wished that for once she was wearing a longer skirt.
Father Stone took a cigarette from the packet and put it in his mouth, then he handed one to Jennifer. She took a long, slow drag as he held the match to it, then he lit his own and flicked the match into the wild roses that bordered the lawn.
“I’d kill for a can of lager,” Jennifer said, blowing out a long thin stream of smoke.
Father Stone gave a chuckle and shook his head slowly.
“What?” Jennifer looked at him and she smiled too.
“You young people,” he said. “You’re all the same, so you are. You all think that you invented this ‘wild child’ thing.”
“‘Wild child’ thing?” she laughed. “And what would you know about this ‘wild child’ thing, Father?”
“Well,” he squinted as he turned his face to the late summer sun. “As they say these days, I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt.”
Jennifer laughed out loud this time. “You? But you ... you’re a priest!”
“And what does that mean?” he asked. “ Do you think that I was born with this dog collar around my neck? Do you think that I was weaned on Holy Water?”
Jennifer frowned. The old eyes had taken on a strange intensity that she’d never seen before.
“No,” she said quickly. “It’s just that, well, you’re just too nice. I can’t imagine you ever being a ‘wild child’.”
He gave a long sigh. “Oh, yes,” he said, after a while. “Sure, doesn’t everyone on God’s earth go through times like that, when we reach the puberty stage? The hormones are rampant and they go straight to the brain. They cause all sorts of confusion, the black moods, and all sorts of pain, real and imagined.” He wiped a bit of ash from his sleeve. “Everyone goes through it,” he continued. “But, for some strange reason, we wipe it from our memory. We forget it completely, then we can’t understand what our own children are going through. So no one ever prepares you for it. No one warns you, when you’re at that delicate age, that one day you could suddenly fall off the rails and cause all kinds of distress to those around you.”
Jennifer nodded and took another drag of her cigarette. “I know exactly what you mean,” she said.
“Do you?” Father Stone asked. “The thing is, at your age, it’s hard to believe that every single thing you do or say has some effect on everyone around you. You don’t realise that, if you drop a stone into someone’s pond, it causes a ripple that goes on and on and on. It can take an awful long time for the ripples to die down, and the pond will never the same again.”
Jennifer shrugged. “So what?” she said through a haze of smoke. “I couldn’t care less about other peoples’ ripples!”
“No,” Father Stone answered. “Sure, no one ever cares when they’re that age. I certainly didn’t myself.”
“What do you mean?” She was curious now. “So who’s pond did you throw stones into?”
“Well,” he sighed and flicked the ash off of his cigarette. “The thing is, all I ever wanted to do, when I was a lad, was carry on with the farming, like all my family did. We had a good spread out by Camp, overlooking the bay. We were totally self sufficient, cattle, sheep, our own hay, wheat, barley. We grew our own vegetables and fruit, we made our own bread, butter, even the jam. I really believed that this is what life was all about.”
He took a deep breath. “Then one day, I suppose I was not much older than yourself at the time, I came into town with some of the lads. We went to the pictures. I can’t even remember what the film was called, but for some strange reason it had a very peculiar effect on me. I must have been at a very vulnerable stage in my life, an impressionable phase or something, because it turned my whole world upside down.”
Father Stone flicked another bit of ash off his trousers. “Anyway, the film was about some American youngsters, you know the type, with the hair all combed back and all wearing the leather jackets and the jeans. They were all driving great big cars that always had a beautiful girl in the front seat. I’d never seen anyone like that before in my life, the way they spoke, the way they strutted around. They seemed to live in a different world from the one I was living in, and I was absolutely mesmerised by it all. Suddenly everything in my life seemed so dull, so empty and unexciting.”
He looked at Jennifer and she gave a hesitant smile.
“Suddenly I wanted to throw stones into everyone’s pond,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I just didn’t give a damn anymore. My life had changed, at least my perception of my life had changed. I was a different person now, and I wanted everyone to know that.”
Jennifer watched him with a deepening interest.
“Well, I couldn’t afford the leather jacket, of course, or the jeans, either,” he continued. “But I greased up my hair, and I strutted around with my collar pulled up, saying things like ‘cool, man.’”
Jennifer gave a loud laugh. “Cool, man?”
“Oh, yes, and worse than that. I started smoking. In class!” he nodded gravely. “Our school building was tiny. There was only the one room, and the teacher, Mr. Casey, was a real tyrant. He wouldn’t tolerate any kind of indiscipline. We had to sit up straight, with our hands on the desk in front of us, and we could only speak when we were told to. I always used to admire that man, always used to respect him. Suddenly I hated him. And now I was having no more of it. I can’t remember what I said exactly, that day, but it had something to do with shoving his homework where the sun didn’t shine, and I strode as cool as you like up to the front of the class, lit a fag, and walked out of the door.”
“Wicked,” Jennifer said. “What happened to you?”
“Sadly,” Father Stone said, with a slow shake of the head. “I mistook the looks I was getting from my neighbours as some kind of admiration. Hero worship, even. But, of course, it was nothing of the sort. They just thought I was a right eejit. It was only because of the respect they had for my family that they tolerated me at all.”
Jennifer laughed again and took another drag of the cigarette.
“Of course,” Father Stone continued. “Like all clowns, I surrounded myself with sorry people who laughed out loud at my jokes and giggled at my antics, until I really believed that I was something special.”
A chilly breeze suddenly blew around the corner and ruffled the leaves on the rose bushes. Jennifer shivered.
“But then, one day, it all went terribly wrong,” Father Stone said, blowing out a thin stream of smoke. “We went to the dance at Galvin’s place. That was the local dance hall. Well, it was more of a tin shed, really, but it was the highlight of our week. Everyone and anyone from miles around was there, young and old alike.” He reflected for a moment. “There was this one young couple in particular, Helen Crowley and Michael Lane, that used to go to all these things. They were a great pair, wonderful dancers too, and great fun. They seemed to have been together forever, and everyone loved them. They were so beautiful together, always at the centre of things, and always so full of life. Then I came along.”
He took another slow drag of the cigarette.
“That particular night a sort of devilment took hold of me, and I made a point of dancing with Helen at every opportunity. That’s how it was done in those days, you butted in by giving the man a tap on the shoulder and saying ‘excuse me’. Courtesy demanded that the man stepped aside and let you dance with the lady. And I was in full swing, I can tell you. I flattered her, charmed her, and I swept her off of her feet. Sure, all she had ever known was the old way of things, the dependable Kerry way of life. Everything around her was always so routine, so safe, so reliable. Now, in me, she was seeing something completely different, something wild. Maybe even something dangerous.”
He flicked his cigarette end onto the gravel and watched it erupt in a shower of sparks.
“Anyway,” he rubbed his eyes with his fingers. “Didn’t I persuade her to come outside, just for a bit of fresh air? And that’s when Michael found us. In the hay!”
Jennifer stood up. “What? You dirty ... I don’t believe it! Were you ... ?”
Father Stone nodded. “Well, to be really honest with myself,” he continued, “that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. It was the effect, you see. What was the point of seizing the ultimate prize if no one knew about it? I didn’t want Helen. I just wanted the glory. I wanted the credit. I wanted the reaction.”
“Well, well!” Jennifer sat down again.
“Anyway, the next day Michael was gone. His mother came over to our house, crying as if her heart was breaking. Michael had left a note saying that he was going off to England, and he was never coming back. The look in her eyes when she saw me was pure hatred. He was the only child, you see, and they were depending on him to carry on with the farm. They never thought it would be otherwise. She was so distressed, almost grieving, in fact.”
Jennifer shifted uncomfortably. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear all this. “Give us another fag, Father,” she said, after a while.
Father Stone took the packet from the wall beside him and handed it to her, then he gave her the matches. She lit one and put them back on the wall.
“So, what happened then?” She decided she was interested after all.
He frowned, as if the memory had suddenly become too sensitive. “Well,” he took a deep breath. “A couple of months later Helen suddenly turned up at the front door, desperate to see me. Well, you should have seen the cut of her. Her hair was a mess, her face was dirty, and her clothes looked like she’d been sleeping in them for a week. I’m telling you, there was no way I could be seen with her looking like that, was there? I had an image. What would people think? So I told her to go away and have a good wash, and come back when she’d made an appointment.” Suddenly the old eyes filled up, and Father Stone gave a deep, heavy sigh. “They found her body the next morning at the bottom of Foley’s meadow. She’d had a miscarriage. The woman who found her said it looked like she had just curled up into a ball and gone to sleep.”
Jennifer’s eyes were wide and anxious. “God, that’s terrible. What did you do?”
Father Stone touched his collar. “I decided, there and then, that I would do my best to stop any more young people from throwing rocks into other people’s ponds. And how better to do it than by becoming a priest?”
Jennifer gave a disbelieving grin. “Just like that?”
Father Stone watched her for a moment. “Oh, yes,” he said softly. “Just like that.”
Jennifer shook her head. “I’m sorry, Father, but I don’t believe that people can change just like that!”
Suddenly Father Stone shot out his hand, and for a fleeting moment a butterfly touched on it, the majestic colours of its wings casting a gentle hue on the pale fingers of the elderly priest. Then, in the blink of an eye, it fluttered away up into the bright blue sky.
“Then can you believe that, just a very short time ago, that beautiful butterfly was nothing more than a little slug, crawling all over your cabbage, eating everything in sight?” he asked softly. “But it was. Earthbound, slow, ugly. And a nuisance.”
They watched it fly way up past the roof top.
“Then suddenly,” Father Stone snapped his fingers again. “The magic of metamorphosis, and immediately it is free, as light as a feather. It shrugs off it’s earthbound skin and it floats away, beautiful and serene. So pure, so delicate.”
He stood up and brushed the last bits of ash from the front of his tunic.
“We all have a choice, Jennifer,” he said gently. “We all know the difference, when the moment comes, between what is right and what is wrong. We can all change our ways, if we really want to. Always remember that!”
Jennifer watched the butterfly as it fluttered erratically back down towards them and hovered in front of the magnificent coloured window of the church. She took a last drag of the cigarette and flicked it away. It landed in front of one of the headstones.
“Oops, sorry,” she said, jumping off the wall and walking gingerly across the grass. She bent carefully and picked up the stub, and when she turned around Father Stone was gone.
She clattered up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked. She gave a giggle. The poor old sod had locked her out. Still, her mother would probably be home by now.
Jennifer felt strangely at peace with herself as she sauntered home, glowing inwardly but not quiet knowing why. But as she came out through the archway of the old marketplace she slammed into an elderly lady, sending her staggering backwards into the road.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jennifer cried, running to the old lady and taking her by the arm. “Are you all right, there?”
She went to brush the lady’s coat but the lady pushed her away angrily. “Don’t you dare touch me, you hooligan. ‘Tis bad enough you knocking me over like that without grabbing at me as well. The very cheek of you, and you dressed up like a dog’s dinner, showing everything you’ve got for all the world to see. You should be ashamed of yourself! Go home to your mother. A good slap is what you want, and if I was ten years younger that’s what I’d be giving you right now, I can tell you, you little tart, with your face painted up like that. Get out of it!”
Jennifer was stunned. She looked around to see who was watching, and she groaned when she saw Liam and Paul standing across the street, grinning all over their faces at the expectation of a fight. Jennifer knew that she was all red in the face, and her old self welled up inside her as she pushed away the arm.
“You stupid old cow!” she spat. “Why didn’t you look where you were going in the first place? It’s all your own fault. And what are you doing out on your own, anyway?”
Suddenly a breeze wafted through the arch behind them, and as it brushed past Jennifer it seemed to whisper her name. Jennifer was startled. She spun around. There was no one there. All that moved was a pale white butterfly, dancing haphazardly around a clump of dandelions that grew around the bottom of the wall. Jennifer closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. Then she turned back to the old lady.
“Look, I’m very, very sorry,” she said. “You are right. It was all my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Don’t you ... ” The lady snapped again. “Will you just bugger off out of here now and leave me alone.”
With that she scurried off up the street, muttering loudly to herself. Jennifer closed her eyes again and let out a long sigh.
“Father Stone,” she said under her breath. “You and your bloody butterflies. Well, I’m not sure that I believe you, but I’ll give it a try anyway. I’m not promising you anything, mind. But I give you my word. I will try.”
She sauntered across the road to Liam and Paul, who were looking at her very strangely now.
“What’s the matter with you two?” she asked.
They shook their heads in unison. “Nothing,” Liam said. “But your mammy is looking for you.”
“Well, I’m looking for her!”
“She says she can’t believe you didn’t go to the funeral.”
Jennifer hesitated, then a strange shivver ran right through her. “What funeral?”
“For that auld priest. You know, the drunk fella. Father Brick.”
“Not Brick, you eejit,” Paul laughed, giving him a push. “His name was Stone. Father Stone.”
“Stoned, more like,” Liam sniggered, and they sauntered off down the street.