We hope you’re enjoying the work of the finalists in the 2014 Cowley Literary Award. Another of April’s finalists in the fiction category is Eileen Herbert-Goodall, whose twist on the age-old tradition of last rites pulls no punches. Are you ready?
It is raining. Outside the wind howls and the cabin creaks in protest.
Father John Gallagher sits with his feet up on the settee, a glass of brandy in hand. The fire crackles. The day has been long: two full-length services, a christening, and a trip to the aged care home. Letting the spirit warm his insides, the priest closes his eyes and sinks further into the chair.
Feeling safe and content inside his home of forty years, there is much to be grateful for. He even temporarily forgets the troubles he’s had with the archbishop, who recently described his sympathetic views towards gay marriage as heresy. But the way Father John sees it, love is love, and there’s not enough in the world as it is.
A fusillade of banging on the front door shatters his peace of mind and he jolts upright, spilling his drink. He glances at his watch, sees it is after ten. More knocking punches at the quiet.
‘Coming,’ the priest calls. Placing his glass on the coffee table, he stands and hobbles to the door. He opens it and sees three men near the front step, standing in the rain.
‘Father John?’ one of the men asks.
‘I’m Matthew.’ The man gestures sideways, adding, ‘These are my work associates, Jerry and Mark.’
The priest’s gaze skips across the men. ‘How can I help, lads?’
‘There’s been an accident,’ Matthew says. ‘Off the highway, out in the sticks.’
‘There has?’ the priest answers. ‘It’s serious, then?’
Matthew nods. ‘We’re sorry about the imposition, Father, but we need you to come with us.’
‘Of course. Let me get my things.’ Father John hurries back into the cabin, slips on his boots, grabs his coat, takes the Rosary Beads resting on the sideboard and heads out the door.
The men move towards a vehicle parked in the driveway and get in. Sitting behind the wheel, Matthew starts the engine and plants his foot, sending them careering into the night.
They hit dirt. The priest shifts his weight against the back seat, clasps his hands together. He senses something amiss, can feel it in his bones, but trusts the good Lord will keep watch. ‘What sort of accident are we talking about here?’ he asks.
‘One car, one man,’ Matthew says. ‘He lost control.’
The priest sees the men in front exchange a glance.
The vehicle races down the highway, its wipers screeching against wet glass.
‘Has anyone called the police?’ Father John says.
‘No,’ Matthew answers.
The priest leans forward. ‘Why not?’
‘The guy wants to stay under the radar.’
‘So he’s in trouble?’
Matthew nods. ‘That he is, Father.’Looking out the window, the priest sees nothing but darkness.
Minutes later, Matthew pulls over, brings the vehicle to a standstill and kills the engine. Doors slam as the men pile out.
‘Over here, Father,’ Matthew says, striding ahead.
The priest follows, stepping through the shadows. By the side of the road is another vehicle; its headlights cast an eerie yellow glow into the gloom.
As Father John approaches the scene, his stomach turns. He sees a man down on his knees, hands on his head; a figure stands before him, pointing a pistol at his forehead.
The priest turns to Matthew. ‘What’s this about?’
‘He crossed us, Father. Tried to screw us over in a deal he was supposed to be sorting.’
Father John holds Matthew’s gaze, his expression fearless. ‘Perhaps it would be best if you sort your own deals in future.’
‘I guess it’s a lesson learnt,’ Matthew answers.
‘I’m sure it is,’ the priest says. ‘Now, stop terrorising the poor fellow and let him get to his feet.’
Matthew shakes his head. ‘I’m afraid that’s not possible.’
The priest waits, knowing there’s more to come.
‘It would send others the wrong message. And we can’t have that.’
Father John looks at the man on his knees, sees his shoulders shuddering, and understands he is crying. ‘What do you plan on doing with him?’
‘We’re sending him to a better place, Father.’
The priest stares. ‘You’re going to shoot him?’
‘I’m not,’ Matthew tilts his head towards the man holding the pistol, ‘but he is.’
‘Sweet Mary.’ The priest steps forward, raising his hands in supplication. ‘You can’t just kill a man in cold blood. Have you no scruples at all?’
Matthew shrugs. ‘I’ve granted his request for last rites, so I think I’m being quite reasonable under the circumstances.’
‘You’re a man of faith, then?’ the priest asks.
‘I am,’ Matthew says. ‘I also believe in “an eye for an eye”.’
‘That doesn’t make any of this right,’ the priest answers.
‘I’m not the one asking for your blessing.’ Matthew squints against the rain. ‘But we’ll confess to being sinners – in advance, so to speak – and trust you’ll abide by the sacramental seal. If not,’ he pauses, then adds, ‘We’ll be sure to visit.’
Father John turns, taking in the men around him.
He counts six in total, including the man about to be executed. What choice does he have?
‘Can your friend at least lower his weapon while I speak?’
Matthew nods and the gunman obliges.
The priest walks in front of the doomed stranger.
The man’s sodden hair is plastered to his scalp; he looks up, blinking. When he speaks, his voice sounds hoarse. ‘I’m sorry, Father.’
The priest glances at Matthew. ‘Won’t you have mercy?’
‘You have thirty seconds to make up your mind, Father. Or else he goes as is.’
The priest turns back.
‘Please,’ the man says, ‘I seek forgiveness.’
‘And you’ll have it,’ the priest answers. ‘What’s your name, son?’
‘Well now, Callum,’ Father John says, removing the Rosary Beads from his pocket, ‘I want you to close your eyes.’
The stranger does as he’s told, but not before releasing one final, despairing sob.
Resting a hand on the man’s head, the priest begins to pray.