To be honest, I am not very fond of my own company. Likewise, my co-inhabitants of this new-found realm (details of which are still sketchy, at best) seemingly share that same distaste.
Given the choice, we’d all rather be elsewhere, but a status quo subsists for an indeterminable future...
... wherever that materialises. This predicament may impair my ability to relate this tale, which is due, in no small part, to my closest acquaintance, whom I thought had accompanied me on this sojourn.
“Now don’t you get blaming me, Seamus”
Ah, Nick. Speak of the devil.
“Well, quite. How remiss, Seamus, that it was the utter depth of your desperation that summoned me forth and consequently condemned you, thus.”
Forget? If only. But now you’re back, Nick, given my current indisposition, would you oblige?
“Of course, Seamus. I’ll indulge you. Again. Stop me only when I lose you.”
Understood, Nick; pray, continue…
“Firstly, dear reader, please allow me to introduce myself, although some of you must surely recognise me already.
“Names, they are legion: Old Nick, as yer man Seamus here prefers; Lucifer; Satan; Memnoch. And for those who daren’t even mention my moniker, I’m that fork-tailed, goat-hoofed, horned imp you utilise to personify your every misdemeanour and inadequacy.”
But are you real, Nick?
“You conjure me, see me, feel me, need me; allow me gratis accommodation in your conscience and say ‘thank yer’ for the privilege. My questionable existence can only be determined by ‘Free Will’, of which you’re in control, right?
“Devil Incarnate? Perhaps. In disguise? Never.”
Understood, Nick. To the tale, please?
“How would you hear me tell it, Seamus?”
In the third person, how else?
“Of course; let’s begin...
“...Seamus here, with me riding temporal shotgun, had resolved to enter the parish church of St. Michael’s, a life-long cornerstone of his (alas, I’m both privy to and part of those memories), but never had it held such foreboding.
“Apprehension towards crossing the threshold skittered around his cranium like a new skalextric on Christmas night. My prolific, if not unexpected, incarnation could only have been attributed to one of two reasons: Seamus had grave misgivings about persevering with his forthcoming obligation, or, acknowledging my presence could destroy any aspiration to forgiveness; maybe even the church itself. My money was on the former.”
Yes, Nick; easy conclusion to draw with the benefit of hindsight. But I very nearly adhered to my purpose, didn’t I?
“Sorry, reader; Seamus, your point, exactly?”
Only that the outcome was no certainty at that point. Beg pardon; continue.
“Seamus inhaled deeply, and with grandiose bravado strode through those ancient doors, which seemed to open before his hand could grasp its rusting iron rings...
...Oh, the power of suggestion…”
So, I wasn’t imagining it?
“Ah – my very point, Seamus; you were.
“That same hand, trembling ever-so slightly, dipped its forefinger into the font. When there was no hydrochloric reaction, Seamus was truly amazed. A thousand mucky skin motes, gathering at its concave base since time immemorial, lay below the rippling surface, nothing more.
“Seamus crept into the nave. Spectral altar boys swished across the chancel in preparation for mass.
“On either side, repentant sinners knelt, heads bowed, supplicated hands fingering rosemary beads, praying for absolution before the main event.
“Instinctively, Seamus genuflected beside a vacant pew; the gravitas of his imminent confession confined him to his knees. ‘Holier than thou’ scowls whip-lashed around as he found the creakiest stool ever to kneel on.
“With devout solemnity, Seamus began praying for strength. But even then, the deck was stacked.”
How do you mean, stacked? In God, we trust!
“Churches, Seamus! Every detail’s designed to impose submissiveness: Christ’s scalp, a profusion of blood; His hands and feet pinioned to the crucifix, reminders of mankind’s insurmountable debt; The Virgin cradling our Saviour, born to indignity; Stations of the Cross, that grim tapestry.
“Pulpit, altar, choir: all elevated, closer to Divinity than thou. “Yet still pilgrims come to worship, sacrifice their corporeal existence in the futile hope of being ‘raised again’.”
See your point, Nick. What was I thinking?
“If you’ll let me continue...?”
“...Seamus begrudgingly relived his crime. Heinous, in momentary weakness.
“He’d evoked his victim, Jennifer, numerous times since the ‘incident’. This time, she appeared with me, tempting Seamus from beyond the grave, as she had in life. He didn’t appreciate the way she was eyeing my trident; her grin solicited: ‘How would you like this shoved there, where you put…”
Whoa, Nick – are those details necessary?
“No – I needn’t paint that picture. But Seamus, facing your daemons then may have at least postponed this incumbent flux.”
You think I don’t know that? But it was the pressure; that church, so hushed, intimidating.
“With good reason; have you ever listened to that silence? Like tinnitus. Or watched sunset shimmer through the stained glass, transformed into spectrums of preternatural energy?
“Some unearthly presence gathers in that slippage, slightly beyond the boundary of peripheral vision. Or worse, hovers behind you. Instinctively, you daren’t turn around in case it’s a real person there. Someone who’d recognise me in your eyes’ fathomless depths, guilt glistening in the reflection of votive candle-light.”
But surely that acknowledgement would mean admission to their obloquy?
“Seamus, sinners come in three categories:-
“Firstly, those so scared of their own shadow, let alone mine, they confess at every opportunity; they’ll surely go straight to heaven, Amen.
“Then there are the psycho-sinners, beyond redemption, their souls branded for eternity, convinced that they and I are destined to meet, que sera, sera.
“And finally there are those in-between, living in limbo, eternally agonising over the tug-o-war for their souls between me & Him.
“For the Seamus MacFarlane’s of this world, that outcome’s too close a call. Sometimes hopeful, otherwise fearful, but always doubtful. Is that a fair résumé, Seamus?”
Very astute, Nick. Let me guess – my pigeonhole was category three?
“It was, Seamus, but your number had just been called…”
“...Inside the confessional it felt twenty degrees hotter. (Hands up: more suggestiveness; sorry.)
“Seamus’ first instinct was to leave the door ajar, but his voice could carry across the still, stifling air to ears undoubtedly listening nearby.
“Click; closed. That left Seamus, Father Phillip, the Big G and I in the sweltering pitch dark.
“This is where I lose category one’s. Their souls are unburdened, via the dutiful priest, en route to clouds of absolution where their detritus will be awaiting them once they’ve checked in with St. Pete for eternity. Amen.
“I almost thought I’d underestimated Seamus, that he was about to spew everything.”
Do you know, I was. But that’s when everything clouded – events escalated, spiralled out of control.
“When you wane, I wane, but here’s what I remember:- “Seamus got the ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned (and how?); it has been (how long?) since my last confession…’ out, flowing like a regular repentant. I was being expelled from his thoughts with every sin that spilled.
“The tiddlers first, to which Father Phillip added his rhetoric: ‘…these are sins of the flesh my son, and so may be forgiven…’
“Through the grille, as Seamus grew accustomed to the murk, he saw Father nodding. His mind conjured those steel-grey eyes, which never made contact directly with yours; hooked nose beaked over thin lips, which upturned slightly at one corner whilst laughing with the other clerics: ‘You’ll never guess what that eejot Seamus Macfarlane coughed up today…fwarr, fwarr, fwarrrr…?’
“Below that infuriating frame, the plaque emblazoned with The Act of Contrition emitted iridescent luminescence. This sparked the refrain ‘…must make it to The Act…, …make it to The Act’ rolling around Seamus’ brain like thunder.
“That smidgen of extra pressure was the cherry that toppled the sundae.
“Sweat squelched beneath his armpits, matted the hairs to his chest and trickled down his spine. Hackles rose along his neck as he envisaged both Father Phillip and I daring him to go all the way (‘… must make it to The Act …’).
“A Mexican Stand-off ensued, whilst one awaited the other: a mad Russian Tsar clutching a Molotov cocktail, baiting his American counterpart whose finger teased the big red button. Too slow, Seamus felt the fallout from the blast as Father Phillip ignited the big red button first: ‘…and so the Lord sent Satan to shame us…’”
Whoa! Sorry, Nick – he said what? No, no – he said my name. Knew it was me. Accused me.
“No, Seamus. Padre said ‘the Lord sent [me] to ‘shame us’, not ‘to Seamus’”
You mean – he didn’t know? But that’s when…
“That’s when Seamus’ windpipe contracted, heart started pumping like a humming bird’s, and his oxygen-starved brain devolved into hallucinogenic overdrive.
“He imagined the Father and I laughing together, deep inside this vortex. To complete the Holy Trinity, Jennifer glared upwards from the depths, towards which Seamus irreversibly spiralled.
“In a kaleidoscope of images, we pulsated in multiplying circles, until we were nine.
"In one last valiant deed (‘… must make it to The Act’) Seamus attempted to spit out his confession. Father rushed around to the other side of the confessional.
“’Father,’ Seamus croaked, ‘I...didn’t...know…’
“’Didn’t know what, child?’ Father asked, desperate to administer resolution. Or Last Rites, whichever the situation necessitated.
“’’Yes...child!’, Seamus stammered, “...but...told…me…was…eighteen…
“Seamus’ final coherent cognition saw past Father Phillip, to the crowd that hung beyond the priest’s shoulders, devouring his confession like some celestial jury. That realisation was the guillotine that dispatched him…
“…what else it severed, I know not, reader; without consciousness, I certainly cannot endure. I know only that I rejoined Seamus, as bade, to narrate this tale, which is thankfully imparted. The epilogue, well, that’s Jennifer’s call…adieu”
Nick – are you still there? Nick...
...Jennifer? Father? Anyone? Don’t leave me alone, Nick, I beg yer. I still don’t know where...where this is.
Am I alive, but comatose? Will I ever awaken? Or dead and in Hell? Either way, incarceration looms, only with very different jails. And jailers.
Or has ka destined me to eternity here, in Limbo, with solitude my penance?
Oh, God, I hope not; to be honest, I’m not very fond of my own company.