| An unusual request|
The year was 1936. The place: a small mining community situated somewhere in the North of England. Father Wilkinson had just taken his seat in the shaded darkness of the confessional box. He was pleased to be in the dark and the cool of his church, protected from a fierce sun not often encountered in early June. The morning’s work of tending his flock had been particular arduous. Confessions were twice a week on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.
It was nearly two years ago that Father Wilkinson had first come to this Catholic mining community. His parishioners consisted mainly of strong silent men surrounded by their wives and hordes of children. He loved the moments on Sundays when he saw the miners’ dark skinned faces looking up at him lecturing from the pulpit. Their wives were always by their sides, decked out in their Sunday best which for the most part consisted of colorful fabrics, no doubt trying to compensate for all the long hours the men spent down in the somber and poorly lit pits. The children were made to sit with their families. Father Wilkinson always noticed the children making signs and he saw the continual movement of little pieces of paper being skillfully passed along the aisles, one of many customs handed down through the generations. This was a quiet community that bordered on a larger town where the miners and their families went for amusement. The general opinion of Father Wilkinson was good, verging on excellent; he was viewed as a kind, hard working priest; committed to helping this community with its spiritual needs. The gossip on the street was that he was a man of God, compassionate and understanding. His Sunday sermons were greatly appreciated; they drew quite a crowd and even some of the town folks could be seen amongst the congregation.
Father Wilkinson was surprised by the first confession of the afternoon to hear a strong, authoritative voice that he had never heard before.
“Father, I need to talk to you.” A man had entered the confessional box.
“My son, you are in a confessional box.” Father Wilkinson replied. “I am here to help you with your conscience and pray with you that the Lord will forgive your sins.”
“My intention is not to make a confession but request that you listen to my difficulty.” The Voice paused to allow the priest to clearly understand its statement. Father Wilkinson was a little confused. The Voice definitely belonged to a person used to getting his own way. Whomever it belonged to was trying to disguise it; maybe the person was trying to disguise their age. A poor attempt! He would recognize the Voice anywhere, at first he heard a slightly strained sound on the i, followed by a blurred e; these impediments of speech must be the result of a slight malformation in the mouth. Father Wilkinson waited a few seconds before replying; he needed to fully understand what the man was trying to say.
He replied with a business-like tone. “ My son, if you want to talk to me, you should make an appointment and come to the vicarage.”
There was a pause. Father Wilkinson leaned forward.
The Voice this time had lost some of its harshness, the words flowed with an underlying urgency. Father Wilkinson listened carefully making sure he was not mistaken on the impediment of speech.
”No Father, I need to talk to you in a confessional box, my crimes are such they need to be kept secret. I am seeking your advice on what I should do.”
“My son, you are in the house of God, you are sitting in a confessional box, my duty is to help you confess your sins before His Lord and ask for his forgiveness. This is my advice.”
Father Wilkinson thought this statement would end the conversation; the afternoon had just begun, no doubt he had other confessions to hear.
The Voice came back, this time unrepentantly aggressive.
“Then, if I understand you correctly, you are not prepared to listen to me under the secrecy of the confessional box and advise me on what I should do?”
This statement made Father Wilkinson sit up in surprise. He wasn’t sure how to answer. He thought he should keep to the straight and narrow doctrine of a God’s disciple. “My Son, God is capable of forgiving all our sins whatever the nature, but they must be confessed with shame and sorrow. Together we will ask forgiveness.”
The Voice lowered its tone, Father Wilkinson could hardly hear. “I have difficulty in believing in God.”
“Whoever you are I think you should leave; this conversation is getting us nowhere,” replied Father Wilkinson showing a certain amount of vexation in his voice.
“Father, listen very carefully, I have chosen you as people tell me you are an understanding and compassionate man. I have a deeply disturbing problem that pushes me to enjoy witnessing acts of folly. I need to talk about it.” The voice paused and then continued in a conciliatory tone.
“Think about my request. I will be back within two weeks.”
Before Father Wilkinson had time to say anything the Voice had gone.
It suddenly seemed a little warmer in the church, or was he imagining things. What was all this nonsense about being the chosen one, the story about enjoying witnessing acts of folly; the man must be mad. Like closing the Bible at the end of a service he swept the whole episode out of his mind by convincing himself the Voice would never come back. Father Wilkinson that afternoon listened to two more confessions: one from Mrs. Granger, who at eighty was having erotic dreams, and another from a young women faced with the dilemma of wanting to have sex before marriage.
Father Wilkinson was about to head for his chambers and prepare the evening service when he saw the elegant Lady Waterford accompanied by one of her gardeners bringing in a bunch of flowers. Here was a woman he admired, always kind, with encouraging words for everybody. He was also flattered by her generosity to his Church. True her husband owned the local coalmine, a fact that, no doubt, took some of the blossom of the many gifts. He had never met her husband. The miners told him he was strict, but very fair, and generally well liked. It was reported that the couple had two difficult sons; one had already had a problem with police, something about nearly beating another man to death over a girl. The other was said to be a little weak in the head and needed carefully watching as he had the tendency to do reckless things. Father Wilkinson always regretted he never saw the family in his church, but their property was attached to another parish. He stepped forward to shake Lady Waterford’s gloved hand.
“So generous Lady Waterford, you give the church a lovely country air, the scents of the flowers quite goes to my head.”
She replied in clear articulated tones that were in sharp contrast to the voice he had heard early in the afternoon.
“It is my pleasure, God’s house deserves to be clothed in his many gifts. It is my way of saying thank you.” She turned to go, but stopped in her tracks turning to face Father Wilkinson. “Oh! I nearly forgot, my husband has decided to give the miners a picnic up at Hall at the end of the month; the last time we had one was many years ago. We would, of course, be honored by your presence. The exact date is the last Saturday in June. Father don’t forget to put it in your diary.” With that she turned on her heels and left the church.
That evening, the choir seemed in excellent form, and their singing even roused the bats from their slumber. Evening song would not have been the same without the bats.
It must have been two days later that Father Wilkinson, noticed a headline in the local paper.
Young girl savagely attacked
Instantly his conversation with the Voice flashed back into his brain. Oh, he thought, it must be a coincidence; in fact he had almost forgotten all about this incident, except that he found himself being more attentive to the way people spoke. In that instance he suddenly realized the Voice might return. By the end of the day the gossip mill had informed him this was not the first time an attack of this nature had taken place. It appeared only last month a shopkeeper’s daughter of seventeen had been tortured and later strangled. There was also talk of another young girl of nineteen who lived some five miles away. Apparently two days before her wedding she had been raped, beaten to death, and there was evidence of several cigarette burns on her body. The police were totally at a loss to find a motive, or for that matter devoid of any clues as to why this was happening.
Added to this there had been some fighting down at the mine between the locals and the men who in the last three months had been imported from Poland to work in the mines. These men had come without their women folk and seemed at a loss in their new environment. The wagging tongues of the community were starting to lay the blame for the murders on these men.
Evening song that night seemed a morbid affair.
Father Wilkinson waited. The following Tuesday the Voice did not come. Wednesday, at confession he heard a voice he had never heard before, subconsciously he listened carefully for the pronunciation of the i and the e. But it wasn’t the Voice. He dutifully heard the confessions of a man being unfaithful to his wife. Deep down in his subconscious mind Father Wilkinson suspected the Voice would return. He even started trying to imitate the i sound. In the meantime this whole episode of the Voice was disturbing his thoughts, his concentration, and finally his appetite. At the week–end another vicious murder on a young woman was reported ten miles away. Again there seemed no apparent connection with the previous hideous crimes, except that all were young females and all lived within the nearby vicinity. The newspapers were asking why one man wound go on a killing rampage without any apparent motive; as the papers also pointed out serial killers generally have a particular style of killing their prey. It was their sign to the world that they had done it again. It was deeply disturbing; young women were warned not to have any contact with strangers. Extra police had been called in from a nearby county and there was talk of Scotland Yard getting involved.
The following week, Tuesday afternoon confessions seemed to come round fast. The Voice never came. Then as if by an act of God on Wednesday afternoon at the first confession a man entered the confessional box. The Voice: unmistakable; Father Wilkinson froze.
“I told you I would be back, have you thought about our conversation?” Father Wilkinson clearly heard the slightly deformed pronunciation of the i and e.
Father Wilkinson clasped his hands and moved slightly forward on his seat.
“Yes, I have given our last conversation considerable thought, and I believe it is my duty to hear only confessions in this place, but I urge you to come and see me outside the confessional period.
“Father I am desperate to talk with you but it must be the absolute secrecy of the confessional box, if this is not possible I will leave.” Came the reply.
Father Wilkinson raised his eyes to heaven for inspiration, this was indeed an unusual request but something made him feel he could not refuse the Voice. In the back of his mind was all the suffering of the young women he had heard or read about. Given their previous conversation he felt sure this request was in some way related to these events. Reluctantly he agreed not to disclose the conversation, but he expected, and insisted the Voice would repent and confess his sins.
For a few seconds there was complete silence and then Father Wilkinson again heard the slightly strained sound of the i and blurred e.
“Father, I am tormented by this uncontrollable desire to see pain inflicted on young women. This makes me persuade, and handsomely pay, undesirable characters to perform these wicked deeds. The atrocities are such that the victim always dies. No doubt you have read the papers recently. How can you help me?”
Father Wilkinson’s first reaction was that he should never have accepted this conversation under the secrecy of a confession.
“My son it is obvious you need psychiatric attention, no doubt the police should also get involved, this is a very serious matter.”
The word police got a violent physical reaction out of the Voice. Father Wilkinson heard him punch the side of the confessional box. Was it from fear or frustration?
The Voice forcefully said, “Remember Father, you are sworn to secrecy.”
Father Wilkinson hesitated before replying. “I feel you tricked me in to this conversation.”
“I came to you for compassion, understanding and guidance, not obvious answers that anybody could tell me,” was the immediate reply and with that the Voice left.
Father Wilkinson immediate reaction was to rush out of the confessional box and try and accost the man. But it was an old church and the exit to the sinners’ confessional side was directly on the street. The priest’s only access to this exit was to go round the other way to the confessor’s side, which took several precious seconds. The old timers had thought these little delicacies out with great foresight. He sat slumped in despair. Never had he been faced with a dilemma of this nature. He felt he had been deceived and failed in his duty of assisting somebody in need of help. What should he do? He had no idea whom he was talking to. As he reflected on the situation Father Wilkinson discarded the idea of going to the police; he had given his word. The Bible clearly taught us two wrongs don’t make a right. He would have to go and talk with his Archbishop; the burden was too great for one man.
That night for some unexplained reason evening song was canceled. As one miner noted it was the first time in the last five years this had happened.
Early the next morning Father Wilkinson called the Archbishop only to be told he would be away until the end of June. Depressed, he took the first available appointment in July. This left ten days to support the responsibility of this terrible secret. Ten days was a short time, but burdened with problem he knew it would seem like a year. He considered turning to another priest for help, but the Archbishop, with whom he had an excellent rapport, was clearly the person. He decided to wait.
Every day he carefully scanned the papers for reports on local murder cases. All seemed to be quiet, there were no reports of any new incidents. The police seemed to have made no progress what so ever on the previous murders. Father Wilkinson’s mornings, a part of the day he always enjoyed, slowly turned into a nightmare, he felt sick, betrayed and furious with himself for having engaged in these conversations. This one incident was suddenly changing his faith in people. The miners’ families began to notice he was often absent in his community duties. The gossip mill said he was ill, and maybe he had cancer. Whenever he could he tended to fan the gossip fires as he had lost all desire to play the good shepherd tending to his adoring flock. He thought it sad that one incident, in one day, with no doubt the most evil man he had ever met, could have such an effect on his life. Where was his faith in God, where was his strength to combat the spirits of evil? Had it disappeared into some black hole inhabited by the devil?
The first five days passed in considerable anguish, Father Wilkinson even telephoned the Archbishop’s office to reconfirm his appointment. It must have been on Thursday that one of his parishioners let slip a remark that made him stop in his tracks. “Father we are all looking forward to seeing you at the Hall on Saturday for the miner’s picnic.” He had forgotten all about it. He certainly didn’t want to go. In fact he didn’t remember seeing Lady Waterford since she brought the flowers to the church. The flowers came regularly, but Lady Waterford’s presence, in the last few weeks, had not graced the Church. No doubt she had many responsibilities. Yes, he had to go, she was after all his greatest benefactor.
Saturday arrived, heralded by a glorious summer day. As he made his way up to the Hall he could already hear the band playing and the merry laughter of the young dancing a gig. In the short time he had been in the parish he had never had the occasion to visit with the Sir and Lady Waterford. As he surveyed the magnificent setting he was very much aware of the value of owning a coalmine. A glorious testimony to the blackened faces that looked up to him on a Sunday.
He thought he would discreetly wander around the grounds admiring the scene, but no such luck, there was Lady Waterford, looking cool, elegant and radiant making a beeline towards him. As she neared him her sophisticated voice purred in his direction.
“Father, I am so pleased you could come, we have been expecting you for hours. Now the first thing you must do is to meet my husband.”
She took his arm and gently steered him towards a group of people. As they approached he noticed a large powerful man with his back to them. Without any hesitation Lady Waterford tapped the man on the back.
“Darling, I must break up the party for a second and introduce you to my special guest Father Wilkinson.”
The man turned extending his hand. He was tall, powerfully built, with an air of authority that warned every body that he was in the habit of getting his own way. He had an engaging open face, a high forehead with dark curly hair. His eyes glanced furtively at the priest; they seemed to be sending a message of warning, but maybe Father Wilkinson was imagining it. Then he opened his mouth and said:
“Welcome Father, my wife has told me a lot about you and your good works, I would like to thank you.”
Father Wilkinson stepped back, he felt a cold shiver run all the way down his back; there was no mistake this was the Voice. First he heard the blurred e, followed by the slightly strained i. He was just about to say something, when a handsome, well-built young man rushed up saying, “Dad, have you got a minute to spare? They are having a miners three-legged race and they want you to be the judge.” Father Wilkinson could hardly believe his ears; the voice of this young man had the same impediment of speech as Sir Waterford. To add to his confusion Lady Waterford was trying to introduce the young man as her oldest son.