Maria Josephina knelt in the darkened cubicle. She could hear the murmuring from the other side, and strained to hear what was being said; perhaps some interesting tale of debauchery or crime. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it out. She adjusted the veil that both covered her head, enough for the church, anyway, and disguised her appearance, waiting patiently for the priest to finish with his current sinner. She heard the rising tone of the latin ‘ego te absolvo,’ and prepared herself. The shutter on the other side slid closed with a snap, and, after a two second pause, the shutter on her side slammed hurriedly open: the priest seemed impatient this afternoon.
Through the screen she could see the side of Father Canning’s face, large, round, corpulent. He looked straight ahead, not at her. ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned,’ Maria Josephina intoned. ‘It is one week since my last confession.’
The face on the other side of the screen turned towards her, and a smile decorated the pudgy face. ‘Is that you, Mary?’
It had been many years since Maria Josephina gave up the use of her full name, the name by which her mother still addressed her. The name might have given her a hint of the exotic, but that was exactly what she wanted to avoid, despite her appearance. The Hanna family of Aleppo had always been devout, but Maria Josephina preferred her origins to be obscured. ‘Yes, Father,’ she said quietly.
The priest moved his face closer to the screen, and stared straight at her. ‘Ah, Mary. Have you been a good girl, now?’
Maria Josephina stifled a giggle: they always started like this. ‘Yes, Father. I have prayed every day and my prayers have been answered.’
Father Canning always liked this bit: ‘And the... other thing?’
Maria Josephina sighed deeply. ‘Yes. Well. That’s always been a
problem, hasn’t it?’
‘But you tried, didn’t you?’ he prompted.
‘Yes, I tried.’ She couldn’t help grinning at this, but hoped it wouldn’t show in the darkness of the cubicle. It was a game. They both knew this. They both knew the rules.
‘And is there anything else you’ll be wanting to tell me about, Mary?’ This was part of the game, too.
‘Only the other thing.’
‘I see. And how many times would that be?’
Maria Josephina counted silently. Was it three on Sunday? Then seven… no, six on Monday because the seventh couldn’t get it up. Did that count? Perhaps. She’d better count it. Four on Tuesday, it was always a bad day; then on Wednesday six, and Thursday eleven… it had been a pay Thursday, and Maria Josephina had thought they were never going to stop coming. Friday and Saturday were, as usual, just a blur, but she thought she had done a couple of dozen over the weekend. She went back over it to check. ‘Fifty four, Father,’ she says.
‘That’s a terrible lot of sin, is it not, Mary? And always the same. Are you sure you tried, now?’
‘What else could I do, Father? Mamma is still in the hospital and Papa spends all his time at the pub, with his leg the way it is… What else could I do?’ Maria Josephina feigned a sob of helplessness.
‘There, there, child, don’t fret yourself. Of course there was nothing else you could do.’
‘Not after I was ruined, no,’ she agreed in what she hoped was a tearful voice. It was true, after that bastard left her at seventeen, and everybody knowing that she was spoiled, soiled, with no chance of a marriage. What else was she to do?
‘Now, will you be trying again this week?’
‘Oh yes, Father, of course I will. Cross my heart. I swear on the Virgin.’
‘Now don’t upset yourself, child, of course you’ll try.’
‘I will Father. I promise.’
‘I believe you, Mary. Don’t take on so. Now, you’re to make an act of contrition, and I want you to say the whole rosary. And if you try again but fail, you’re to say another rosary, and ask the Blessed Virgin for her personal intercession.’
‘Yes, Father. I’ll do that.’
‘And as a special penance I want you to come around to the
presbytery straight after confession, and we’ll have a little chat.’
He always demanded that. Mary didn’t mind, as long as he didn’t take too long. ‘Yes Father,’ she said meekly.
And so the whole charade drew to a close, with muttered latin and waving hands in the air in mystical signs. The shutter closed, gently this time, and Mary went out into the church. She knelt at a pew and said her rosary while she waited until the last penitent, a young man she was sure she recognised but who kept his head down as he darted into the confessional, was finished. He couldn’t have been very wicked during the week, for he was out of the confessional in just a few minutes, and left the church hurriedly. Or maybe Father Canning had hurried him through the ritual, impatient for what was to come.
‘Will you be taking a little something?’
Maria Josephina nodded, and he busied himself for a few minutes at the sideboard. Father Canning’s study was a large, dark room, decorated with big, dark furniture and a huge holy painting on the wall, itself very dark and, by the look of it, quite dirty. It featured a semi-naked body with a crown of thorns and spear-slashes in His side being partly surrounded by beautiful young women of nordic appearance; women with sad expressions on their faces, and beakers of wine with which, perhaps, they sought to refresh the tortured man.
‘Well,’ Father Canning said as he approached Maria Josephina and held out a small glass containing a golden liquor. For himself he held a large glass half full of whiskey, and a jug which Maria Josephina knew held water. ‘This is nice, after several hours of prayer.’
He sat, as he always did, on the large leather settee beside her, and put the small jug and his whiskey on a low table before them. He carefully poured a little of the water into his glass, then lifted it to his lips and sipped loudly. He smacked his lips. ‘It’s from home,’ he told her, and Maria Josephina smiled as she always did. She sipped her drink and discovered it to be tawny port, not necessarily as usual: sometimes it was sherry, or maybe madeira, depending on what was on special at the supermarket.
Father Canning took a second, larger sip from his glass, and, thus fortified, placed the glass on the table. ‘Tell me,’ he said quietly, ‘Tell me about the fifty four.’
‘What’s to tell?’ she teased. ‘They’re all the same.’
‘Oh, now, I can’t be believing that. Were they young, old or in-between?’
Maria Josephina had answered the same questions before, many times. ‘All sorts,’ she said.
‘And how old would the youngest have been?’
‘You know I never take the youngest ones. Eighteen is my limit, as you know.’
Father Canning was beginning to sweat, though the study was not warm. His eyes were partly closed, and he didn’t look her in the eye. ‘And what would they have been doing, these eighteen year olds?’
Maria Josephina relaxed. It had become a ritual, the same questions, the same answers. ‘They talk, at first. They are usually nervous, once they are alone with me.’
‘And what do they talk about?’
‘Often about their girlfriends. At first, at least.’
‘What about their girlfriends?’ His eyes were closed now, and he was breathing heavily.
‘Oh, mostly about what their girlfriends won’t let them do.’
‘And what would that be, Mary?’ His eyes were screwed shut in anticipation.
‘Why, to touch them, of course.’
‘And do you let them touch you?’
‘I pray first, of course. But yes, I let them touch me.’
He sighed deeply, then gulped some air. ‘Where, Mary? Where do they touch you first?’
‘On my breasts, Father.’
He leaned towards her. ‘Like this?’
‘Yes, Father, at first like that.’
She felt him unbuttoning her chemise, and she took a sip of her port while he fumbled. He slid his hand onto her skin, gently massaging the swell of her breast.
‘At first? What then?’ His voice was unsteady, and his hand shook a little.
‘Then they usually take my top off.’ She undid the remaining buttons of her chemise and leaned forward to allow him to remove it. His hand, pudgy but very soft, slipped under the cup of her bra and his fingers found her nipple. He was always very gentle, and it
was such a small price to pay.
‘Do they take the bra off?’ It was a front-opening bra, as he knew she always wore, and he slipped the hooks from the eyes and peeled the material away. Her breasts were large and shapely, uniformly tanned and really rather beautiful. He kneaded them gently, and her nipples swelled to erection. She actually quite liked this part.
‘Then, if they are manly and handsome, I allow them to kiss me and my breasts.’
‘Do you like that, Mary?’
‘I do. But I always pray to be excused of it. Even though I find it so exciting. You see, I do try hard not to sin.’
‘Oh, Mary, I know you do.’ He leaned closer and kissed her as though he were young and manly and handsome, and she sighed and welcomed him. He was a bit slobbery, but no matter: so were most of her clients. He bent his head lower and kissed her nipples one after the other, suckling, almost, for a few minutes at each. Maria Josephina arched her back as though in sexual ecstasy, and his breathing, and his slobbering, became more evident.
Without allowing him to see, she carefully raised her arm so that she could see her watch. He’d better get a move on: she had a regular client on Sunday afternoon, and she’d have to get there within half an hour. She lowered her hand and moved it to his groin, feeling for him amongst his robes.
Despite his age and his corpulence he was really quite large, and she found him without difficulty. She moved her hand backwards and forwards, and felt him becoming harder, his kisses at her breasts more urgent, his caressing hands a little rougher, and she rubbed harder until after a few minutes he shuddered and stiffened and leaned away from her, his hand holding hers tightly in place, until at last he subsided and his breath slowed.
A deep smile engulfed his face, and his eyes relaxed. ‘Ah,’ he said at last.
Maria Josephina refastened her bra and reached for her chemise without disturbing him, allowing him to glory in those minutes of release. She finished her port, and replaced the glass on the table. She reached forward and took his whiskey, and finished that, too, with a gulp. She patted her hair into place, and took a small compact from her bag, repairing her lipstick and mascara. When she was satisfied she stood quietly, not wanting to wake him. She took one last look and turned away.
‘Thank you, my child,’ he said in a dream-like manner. ‘Go forth and sin no more.’
‘No, thank you, Father’ she corrected him, and moved quietly to the door. She opened it and went through, then turned and looked back. He seemed asleep.
‘Ego te absolvo,’ she said in a whisper, and smiled.