Love Thy Neighbour
Father John dabbed a hand to his forehead which was rather damp with sweat.
He was now evermore regretting the cup of tea he had accepted from Mrs Banfield. The mathematics had been plain to see; a warm sunny day plus a seat by the window plus his black cassock plus the tea could only have one outcome.
But he was on the battlefield and sacrifices had to be made.
“Offer it up for the suffering souls,” his mammy would have told him. That had been her response to every suffering imaginable, great or small; intractable pain - offer it up. Left your money at home and can’t buy yourself a chocolate bar - offer it up.
And indeed, sitting sweltering in Mrs Banfields living room - Offer. It. Up.
I wonder if hell is anything like this, he mused lightly as another wave of her heavy perfume assaulted him, not the lower level obviously, but those for the minor sinners. Perhaps this could be purgatory even, let’s not be as nasty to say this is hell.
“Joyce,” he said gently, “do you not think it’s time to let it go?”
The row between Joyce Banfield and Vera Monroe had been longstanding and escalating as time went on, and no one in the parish was quite sure what had caused it in the first place. Father John suspected that neither woman could remember it themselves.
The old lady hrmphed as she shuffled closer to Father John, a plate of chocolate digestives extended before her.
“Thank you,” he said extending a warm smile and graciously received a biscuit whose chocolatey top was already going soft in the heat.
With trepid precariousness he balanced the biscuit on the edge of the small saucer, whilst a trickle of tea managed to escape the brim and run down the fine china cup. How he wished he had a table to rest it on.
Oh well, offer it up.
“Didn’t Christ say ‘Love thy neighbour?’”Father John put in.
He wanted to wrap this up as quick as possible and escape to a bit of fresh air.
“Our Good Lord didn’t have her as a neighbour!” came the quick, pithy retort.
Internally Fr John sighed heavily as he realised that this was trench warfare and he was in it for the long haul. Exteriorly he simply smiled warmly again and watched the elderly lady slump herself into a deep armchair across from him, the plate of biscuits rested upon the little side table.
His eyes fell from her and scanned along the walls. Photo frames of unconforming shapes, styles and designs speckled the wall, with unfamiliar faces filling each one.
It was not a large living room, indeed it was not a large house, but it was made all the more claustrophobic by the collection of clutter that lined every surface; porcelain dogs, cut glass candle stick holders and little faceless figurines were dotted sparsely amongst the overwhelming religious paraphernalia.
The Vatican museums wouldn’t hold a candle to Mrs Banfield, Father John thought.
There were crucifixes of every size, some made of metal, some of wood, and two were identical Belleek pottery that stood side by side. Some had the figure of Christ, some didn’t. There were several statues of St Pio, two of St Michael the Archangel, one of St Rita and many that Father John didn’t recognise. Rosary beads were laid at the feet of every saint, made of every hue and colour.
Mrs Banfield was definitely devout, at least exteriorly.
When Father John had first arrived in the parish she was the first to greet him, shuffling her way into the sacristy before mass, asking for a blessing.
Ever since that moment her shuffling feet had never been far from his door - another item to bless, another sin to confess, another suggestion for the parish. He felt he had earned the right to call her by her first name. “Joyce, this has really gotten out of hand. It needs to stop,” he said imploringly.
“And have you said the same to her?” the old lady replied curtly.
“Of course I have!” he defended and watched as another trickle of tea ran down to the saucer. He lifted the cup to his lips, scalding them in the process.
Mrs Banfields tea was always scalding hot, with only a splash of milk, and no matter how much you asked, it was always filled it right to the brim; she prided herself on that.
“She willing to bury the hatchet if you are,” he continued.
Mrs Banfield grumbled something under her breath as she lifted her own cup and to Father John is sounded a lot like “I’d sooner bury the hatchet in her.”
Her wicked streak both amazed and awed Father John. Her aged shell revealed nothing of the fiery ex-nurse that hid underneath.
He summed her up as she lowered her cup again and decided to try a different tack.
“What good is all this,” he said gesturing with his free hand to all the paraphernalia, “if you don’t let it transform your heart? Christ was clear; love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“I do pray for her!” Mrs Banfield replied indignantly but only received a raised eyebrow in reply.
“I do,” she repeated. “I pray everyday that God blesses her really really hard.”
She finished with a shake of the fist and said it with such gusto that Father John had to force down a laugh, which spilt out more tea.
“God forgive you Joyce,” he said in an attempted reproachful voice which betray his hidden laughter. “Let’s look at this practically, how can I help to make amends here?”
Without delay Mrs Banfield replied.
“You could have her excommunicated.”
A curt smile passed over his face.
“I don’t think I have the authority for that, and no, before you say so I am not asking the bishop! Any other, more realistic ideas?”
Mrs Banfield sank deeper into the chair and into thought for a moment. Her eyes fell to her lap. A few beads of sweat ran down Father John’s back. He was glad he was in black, it didn’t show the wet marks.
While she pondered a solution he reached for his biscuit only for it to crumble in half, sodden from the escaped tea. The dry half he swiftly popped into his mouth whilst the damp half remained on the saucer, the foremost edge staining the fine china cup brown with its melted top.
“I suppose an apology from her would be a start. But only a start,” she said coming out from her chair. “I’ll have to see how I feel after that.”
“That’s good,” he replied, “and would an apology from yourself be at all possible? It takes two to tango!”
He raised a hand to try and dispel her justification of her actions but it was all in vain as she listed each and every way she had been offended.
“Okay, okay,” he said to end the tirade, “one apology for the time being.”
Internally he sighed again, this time one of relief. He had gone over the top of the trenches, faced the machine guns and had managed to claim a few inches of no-mans-land. That was a victory for now.
Father John swiftly changed the topic to the upcoming parish dance for fear Mrs Banfield would change her mind and, thankfully, the rest of the visit passed pleasantly. The tea was drank and Father John offered to clean the cup and saucer; an offer to which Mrs Banfield would hear nothing of the sort!
He thanked her again and promised to have a word with Vera about the apology to which Mrs Banfield smiled dryly.
“We’ll leave it in Gods hands,” she said as the door closed on Father John.
“My dear Brothers and Sisters,” Father John said, his body hanging heavy from the pulpit, “We gather here this morning in memory of our dear Vera.”
His gaze lowered to the lonely coffin that lay before him and the sparsely filled church.
Poor Vera had been found in her sitting room not three days ago, slumped in her favourite arm chair, peaceful with her rosary beads still clasped in her hands.
The doctor has put it down to a sudden heart attack, given her age and her health condition and no one had questioned it.
Heart attack it was.
Father John had been one of the first on the scene; the rural communities often called the priest even before the doctor.
He had seen the old lady slumped in her chair, he had seen the rosary beads in her hands but he had also seen the cup of strong tea on the little table, filled to the brim.
Father John doubted if anyone else would have noticed that, or would have known that Vera Monroe only ever made half cups of tea that were as weak as dishwater.
He raised his eyes to the congregation again and there, three rows back, dress in all black sat Joyce Banfield with her white handkerchief in hand, as if ready to dab away any tears that might fall.