The weeks after Father Tom returned from the concert in Dublin passed with relative normality. Parish life has a rhythm of its own. First communion days filled the church with girls resplendent in white dresses, and boys being strangled by new shoes and over-tightened ties, while rows of proud parents looked on. Father Tom was kept busy, calling to elderly parishioners, doing his rounds of the hospital, as well as marking the bookends of life with christenings and funerals.
The one constant in the life of a priest, is Sunday Mass. The church bell chimed on the button of eight and ten, every Sunday morning. Mass gave the whole community a chance to get together. Best clothes were given an airing, teenagers eyed each other over folded hands, contemplating sins they wished to commit. Father Tom loved Mass, it was the heartbeat of the church. He gazed down from the altar on his collected friends, each with their own particular ways. Some of them you could set your watch by, always the same time, always the same seat, and nearly always the same clothes.
Tony Ryan was one such parishioner, one of the most habitual of all Tom’s congregation. He arrived at nine-thirty, every week, perched stiffly on his high-nelly bike. He locked his bike to the rail, just outside by the main gate. Hands would be shaken, as he made his way up the centre aisle of the church, and greetings exchanged. Tony always sat on the outside of the front right hand pew. He was nothing, if not a creature of habit. Tony was a bachelor farmer, he took over his parents’ place many years ago. He had been raised on a diet of tradition and regulation, leaving him with a cast iron view on what was right, or wrong.
One particular Sunday, Father Tom had begun blessing his gathered flock, when the main door squeaked open. A hefty man strolled down the centre aisle, with the cocky assurance of a turkey that survived Christmas. Behind him, waddled an equally hefty wife, and two rotund children. Normally, people who arrived late for Mass have the good grace to slip quietly into a back bench, but not this family. Father Tom began saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son,” but had to pause there. The family, who had so brazenly marched to the front of the church, stopped beside the second row from the front, which had space for three. The whole family pushed in until they all were seated, and the rest of the row were wedged in like sardines in a can. Once the hubbub died down, Father Tom continued with his blessing, but he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. He had to remind himself that he was in the house of God, and should not judge. The priest in him was co-operating, but the man felt like giving this rude family a good telling off.
Soon, the comforting ritual of Mass soothed his ire, and Father Tom got into his stride. The sermon went down very well, even getting a muffled laugh or two. Father Tom believed the best way to reach a man’s heart, was through a smile on his lips. At the end of the service, Father Tom stood at the back of the church to chat and shake hands with the congregation as they left. A tradition found mostly in Protestant churches, but he felt it was a worthwhile crossover. When the late arriving family appeared at the door, Father Tom extended his hand to the man with a warm smile.
"Thank you for coming, I don’t believe we’ve met."
The man extended his hand and gripped Tom's firmly, "Michael O'Brien, Father...?"
"Father Tom. Did you enjoy the service?" Tom asked, his hand still being pumped vigorously.
"Twas fine Father. This is Mary, the missus, and the kids, Pat and Betty." Father Tom shook each of the ladies’ hands, giving the whole O'Brien family one of his famous, full-bearded smiles.
"You're all very welcome. I hope you will be coming to visit us often," said Father Tom.
"You’ll be seeing us every week, Father. We’ve just moved to the area. I work with the Revenue Department, transferred down from head office, in Dublin, don’t you know. They needed help down here, in the sticks," said Mr O'Brien, sticking his hands in his pockets, making his portly figure even more pronounced.
The hackles on Father Tom’s neck bristled once more. A tax man, and a pompous one, at that.
"Well, aren't we the lucky bunch," said Father Tom, with just a trace of sarcasm. Just then, another mass-goer interceded, needing a word with Father Tom about a remembrance mass. A couple of minutes later, Father Tom heard raised voices near the gate, and excused himself to find out what the commotion was about. A loose knot of people were gathering; sometimes a discussion over football could get a little heated, but never anything major. You needed a few pints in these lads to lubricate up the punching arms. Father Tom made his way over to the gate, and watched the unfurling argument over the heads of the crowd. It seemed Mr O'Brien was making impressions wherever he went. The fat family were standing around a brand new Land Rover, parked right outside the main gate. The problem appeared to be the fact they were blocking Tony Ryan from getting his bike.
"What did you think you were doing parking that yoke there? How am I supposed to get at my bike?" demanded Tony.
Mr O'Brien went quite red in the face, clearly not accustomed to being spoken to in such a forthright way.
"I think you’ll find I have every right to park my car in a designated car parking space." The air of superiority in the man’s tone, made even Father Tom wince. Perhaps, this was one mass where the lack of alcohol was not going to deter a bit of argie-bargie.
"Move that thing, this instant," fumed Tony, kicking at the car’s wheel for emphasis.
"You have plenty of room to get to your bike. In future, use a proper bike rack, not the church railing," snorted Mr O'Brien, ushering his family down the street towards the nearest restaurant. The locals watched the departing newcomers with open mouthed wonder. A few of the youngsters helped lift Tony's bike over the luxury four wheel drive. Before riding away, Tony gave an annoyed kick to the new alloy wheel of Mr O'Brien's jeep.
The following week, Tony Ryan arrived even earlier for Mass than normal, with two road cones secured to the carrier of his bike. Tony locked his bike to the rail as he always had, then marked off the parking bay with the road cones. The crowd attending this particular ten o’clock mass seemed much larger than normal, to Father Tom. He even noted that many of the people who attended the early mass, were also at this one. Tony sat ramrod straight at the front right of the church, his ears glowing red with temper. Just before the bell chimed, the O'Briens waddled up the middle of the church, sitting in the same pew they had occupied the week before. Throughout the mass, the warring men exchanged sideways scowls, and tension rippled through the crowd. Father Tom had no sooner said, "Go in peace" than the stampede began. The only ones not seeming to rush, were the O'Briens, and Tony Ryan.
Dozens of people clustered around the gate. As Tony approached, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, and Father Tom followed directly behind the farmer, eager to see what was making them all so giddy. Once again, Tony’s high-nelly was pinned to the rail by the huge car. The traffic cones he had placed around the bike before mass, were flung across the road, into the ditch. Tony Ryan turned and searched the crowd for Mr O'Brien, who was still standing inside the church door, a good safe distance away.
"You ignorant fat shite!" roared Tony Ryan.
"Don't you dare talk to me like that," countered Mr O'Brien.
"I'll talk to you any way I want," yelled Ryan. "Move that car, or you'll be sorry."
"I will not," said O'Brien, defiantly.
"YOU WILL," said Ryan.
"I WILL NOT," said O'Brien, again.
Tony's fists clenched and he moved forwards. Father Tom had seen enough, and stepped into Tony’s path. Father Tom wasn’t worried about the older man getting hurt, he was as hard as nails, but Father Tom couldn’t condone violence.
"Now Tony, remember, this is God's house."
"I'm sorry, Father, but he has it coming."
"He might, Tony," said Father Tom, eyeing the scurrying form of Mr O'Brien, as he escaped through the far gate, "but this is not the way."
Father Tom felt Tony’s rock hard shoulders slump in his grip, and the fight drain slowly from his body. Tony eventually turned back towards the gate, and tried to get his bike free. This time, the space was far too tight, and Tony was forced to leave the bike where it was, and walk home. Father Tom caught up with Tony a short distance down the road, and gave him a lift in his little car.
"Sorry about that, Father, I let you down, back there. I’ll tell you what, I’ll drop you down some fertilizer for the flower beds next week to make amends."
"That would be great, Tony. The roses are looking a bit sorry for themselves. Don't mind that big galoot, O'Brien. The likes of him come and go," Father Tom said to the little farmer, as he got out of the car.
"I expect you’re right, Father, thanks for the lift," said the aging farmer, as he sadly walked into his farmyard.
If mass the following week were a concert, it would have been a sell-out. The only seats left without a bum in them, were the front right hand corner, and four spaces in the second pew on the left. Late as always, the O'Briens took the left hand seats, just as mass began. A murmur ran through the crowd, expecting the fireworks to begin soon. Father Tom walked up to the podium and gave his opening blessing. He couldn’t help looking to the empty seat on the front right, again and again, during mass. It was the first time he could remember Tony being absent, in all the years he had served this parish. Father Tom was worried about Tony. It wasn’t right that he was being pushed out by this interloper. Father Tom decided to have a word with Mr O'Brien, at the end of the service.
Father Tom was distracted throughout the Mass, at one stage, he nearly knocked over the chalice. Mass was nearly over, when he heard the distant rumble of a heavy engine. The sound grew louder, until whatever was causing it, was loitering directly outside the church. The engine noise was soon joined by the insistent honking of a horn, and cheers from men who had snuck out for a sneaky cigarette, during the Eucharist. Without even waiting for "Go in peace", the crowd rushed for the doors. Mr O'Brien seemed to be struck by the predetermination that this would concern him, judging by the way he was shoving his way through the crowd. The first thing that hit Father Tom when he walked outside the church, was the smell. The air was thick with the stink of slurry. All around, people were doubled over laughing, clapping, and cheering. Mr O'Brien stood like a pillar of salt, in the middle of the gate, gazing at the spot where his new four wheel drive should be. What stood in its place, was a six foot high pile of cow-shit, with the car at its heart.
On the road, Tony Ryan leaned against the wheel of his tractor, behind which was an empty slurry spreader. Tony mounted his tractor, waving to the crowd, like a victorious gladiator. "There you go, Father. If that’s not enough muck for the flowers, I can always deliver more, any Sunday."
As he drove away, he was cheered by all the crowd, well, nearly all.