A short story
by Paul Levy
As the train pulled out of the station, Father Peter found himself a compartment alone with a window seat. Like a child, with nose squashed against the window pane, he gazed out and soon the landmarks were less familiar; he knew he was on his way. He ventured out of town so rarely these days, and the corridor streets of his beloved home were like tunnels in a massive burrow – safe, protective, cosy.
The scenery was pleasing, the greens, browns, reds and yellows delightful, the harshness of the karst inspiring, the priest was as much lost in his thoughts as in God’s creation.
He was still pondering on the strange events of the day a week ago. Did the Lord really send signs through neck stings from wasps ? And was this a Holy Pest who inflicted bruises yet no sharp poison? Without a doubt, the sharp and sudden pain in his Adam’s apple had infected him with something for it had sent him into pastures new, soaring into the heights of oratory and fine delivery.
His weekly sermon. His discussion of the Parable of the lamb had in a moment been transformed from the mediocre to the sublime. He had felt it, he had seen it in the attending eyes of his parishioners – they were all listening! For once, their attentions were fixed not on their various dreams and preoccupations, with him, a comforting heavenly background noise, a drone of salvation, reassuring yet uninteresting, but instead a source of fascination and inspiration.
Father Peter tried to dismiss the vanity and focus on this wondrous miracle that an entire congregation had actually turned their attention to the Word Made Flesh, but he could not, no matter how hard he tried, dismiss the following sinful thought from his mind: I was good. I was so very good.
Then Sunday had come around again. There they had sat, all expectations, like a first night at the Ljubljana Opera in Cankarjeva Dom, He had mounted the parapet, all confident smiles and self-belief, all deep breaths and theatrical coughs. He’d taken a breath. He’d looked first to the roof, and then beamed at his flock.
And it had not come. Whatever had entered him, had now left him. He spoke for perhaps twenty minutes. He filled the vacuum of effect with clumsy smiles, then all too quickly settled into his old, easy style, a rampaging monotony, the voice tones lying like lead piping on the roof of beautiful biblical phrases, smothering them, killing them. He was, once again, a bore, his sheep straying from him, to stare out of windows, to whisper, to sigh, to pick their teeth or their nostrils, to peer impatiently at watches or mobile phones, and to look forward to sunshine and coffee on the Piran promenade, to afternoon sea-side strolls and family arguments.
And now it was Monday and Father Peter sat in solitude on the restaurant veranda, staring sadly out into the grey-green Adriatic, watching the boats.
Truly I am a poor fisher of men !
Andrej ambled over to take his order and it wasn’t long before he was hearing the confession of the poor Padre.
“You see – if I cannot interest them, I cannot inspire them !”
Andrej looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he smiled: “Forgive a young man such as myself making a suggestion, but I think there is only one thing for it.”
“Please. Go on.” Peter leaned forward, hopeful, too hopeful. “Well… excuse me. I’ll return immediately.” Andrej was off, heeding the indignant demands of an Italian couple to be attended to. Peter was ashamed at the lack of warmth in his heart at that moment in Creation towards those two fellow souls (Italians admittedly) as he impatiently awaited his coffee and, more importantly, his reply.
In a matter of minutes, Andrej had returned with a steaming cup of kava and a smile on his face.”One coffee, sugar on the table.”
“Thankyou.” said Father Peter and then “Well?”
“Ah yes. You say you wish you knew how to keep them interested.?”
Father Peter nodded wistfully. “I do. So that the younger ones – like yourself, perhaps, would spend more time in the church, at least a Sunday once in a while.”
Andrej blushed. “Well, Father. you need to improve your speaking. If I want to improve my French I go to school. If I want to improve my driving – I take lessons. You’ll have to find someone to teach you, Father Peter. You’ll have to go back to school.”
“But who could teach me such things ?” Peter frowned into his coffee.
Andrej shrugged. “I don’t know, Father. Certainly no one here in our lazy little town. I suppose you’d have to try Portoroz … or even Ljubljana. But there must be someone.”
And that was how Father Peter found himself peering out of the window of the afternoon train from Koper to Ljubljana, a cut-out of an advert in his hand for a two-day course in Public Speaking Skills presented by “international business guru” Alan Winner, “all the way from Great Britain.”
The money, no small amount at two hundred and fifty Euros had been taken from his savings and he had even pressed his sole presentable suit, which he only wore for festivals and other special occasions.
Peter was nervous. He didn’t mind the fact that the course would be held in English, which he spoke fluently; he was more concerned with the danger of the whole undertaking. Father Peter was going back to school. Even if only for a few days – the Padre of Piran would be a pupil again.
Hotel Slon lay in the centre of Ljubljana on Slovenska Cesta that was, until recently, called Titova and was still packed with as many cars as the Communist Daddy had held in his own private collection. Peter made his way past numerous elephant icons and statuettes to the first floor conference room, also adorned with betrunked ornaments courtesy of their namesake Hotel. An elephant had stayed here once, a gift from visiting royalty.
Canapés dispatched, cheap coffee avoided, Peter stepped into a room and met the guru. He wore a blue pin stripe suit and a sported a pair of teeth to rival the light of angels reflected in his little Pirano north window. The guru greeted them all, hands held out to them like Christ himself. Then it began. The screen lit up, the bullet points were ready to fire…
Seven hours later, the Father stepped forth, and was barely conscious of his surroundings on the train back to his beloved sea. He attracted bemused stares from fellow family travellers and one toddler cried at the strange man who was silently mouthing: “Bigger, digger, gidder; gidder, dibber, bigger” at nineteen to the dozen. At Vrhnika, he forgot himself completely, and let forth, sending two elderly women fleeing for the exit, two stops before they were meant to get out: “Red lolly yerrow lolly!” he suddenly bellowed like a bear. before he quickly crossed himself and apologised to the rest of the carriage. “A Bosnian, not right in the head from the bombing in Sarajevo” nodded a postal clerk wisely to his postal clerk friend.
Sunday came. It came too slowly for Peter’s liking but it came. This was a priest no longer just filled with the light of Heaven and the Love of the Lord. This was a clergyman brimming with technique, laden with best practice, restless to hold forth, a head full of Powerpointed smart bulletpoints, and ready to give, give, give to his flock.
They filed in – the great-grandmothers and the waiters, the market traders and the traffic policeman, the homeopath and the portrait painter, the school children and the fishermen. Sixty seven there were. Liturgy over, hymn sung, he glided forwards and upwards, and, under the approving light of the summer sunlight, Peter stepped into the pulpit, and put himself into practice.
They watch. They listen. His voice rises. Skills press at the inside of his eyes and his eyeballs bulge outwards willingly. Skills. newly learned, ready to unravel. He applies them all.
Father Peter, once a mild man of the middle tonal range, now incarnated the wisdom of the business guru into the hallowed and timeless pages of scripture. His eyes gently transitioned from blue to pink, from pink to red, and smoke began to pour out of his ears. The Parable of the Prodigal Son burst into flames, and his tongue turned into a torch, which scorched old Maria the herbalist, who screamed, leapt out of her pew, fled and didn’t stop running until she reached the cool air of Sweden. Peter roared like the seven trumpets of the Revelation after her.
Within the space of a minute, the rest of the congregation were up, out of the church and they ran – ran for their lives, ran for their souls, away from a Padre who seemed possessed with the very fires of Hell.
It was the best sermon he had ever given. Only the children stayed. Every one of them. Oh, and deaf, old Ivan Bratko, bald, bent over and delighted. “At last” he muttered to the children, “At last he said something interesting”.
No one spoke about it. They blamed it on the heat. Peter was shocked at the fear that was now in the eyes of so many of his community. He was even sure he saw a hint of pinpoint (or was it bullet point) crimson in the pupils of his own eyes as he stared at himself in his bathroom mirror. So, when, the following Sunday, Father Peter resumed his monotone oratory, they all thanked God for the blessings of a simple life.
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