One afternoon, Father Tom was tidying things up around the church, when he noticed a tall stately looking lady, moving things around on the parish notice board. She wore an expensive tweed jacket and her hat sported a number of pheasant feathers. Father Tom had seen her at mass a few times but didn’t know the woman by name. No time like the present, he thought, and went over to say hello.
“Can I help with anything?” asked Father Tom, approaching the lady.
“I’m quite capable, thank you,” she said, in a clipped accent, which bore all the hallmarks of a private education. Father Tom noticed she was moving notices out toward the edge of the board to make room for a poster she had pinched between her fingers.
“That looks interesting,” said Father Tom, pointing at the poster, “what’s it about?”
“I’m inviting people to participate in a burgeoning club, one which I have been instrumental in installing in our community, called Toastmasters,” said the woman, with a half-smile, pinning her notice in the exact center of the board and partially covering several other notes.
“Oh? What’s Toastmasters when it’s at home?” asked Tom, feeling slightly bewildered. The woman turned to face him and gave him a stern look.
“Really, Father. I thought a man of the cloth would be more eloquent in this phrasing than that. It’s a speaking club which gives people the skills and knowledge to present themselves impeccably and fluently during moments of public address. Having heard several of your sermons, you could benefit greatly from the club,” she said, rolling her words deeply before letting them fall from her mouth.
Father Tom was a bit taken aback. He often wondered if anyone actually listened to his sermons, but he never imagined they were bad. “You didn’t like my sermons?” he asked.
“It’s not a matter of liking them, Father. It’s the manner in which you presented them. All I’m saying, is our club could go a long way towards polishing up your performance, and in the process, bring greater enlightenment to your flock,” she said, waving her hands about theatrically.
“So you didn’t think they were bad?”
“Not in the slightest, but none of us are perfect, are we Father?”
“I guess not Mrs?”
“Philpot-Cassidy-Brown,” said the woman, holding out her bony hand for Father Tom to shake.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Tom,” he said, giving her his warmest smile.
“Charmed,” she said, smiling back at him, her cheeks going the slightest hew of pink.
“You really should come along, Father. Its jolly good fun if nothing else,” she said, when Father Tom released her tiny hand from his massive paw.
Tom rubbed his shaggy beard as he mulled over the idea, “Do you think it would help?”
“It certainly can’t do any harm. Oh, do say yes, Father. It would be wonderful to have one of the pillars of the community, such as you are, involved in the club,” Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown said, clasping her hands to her bosom, as if the lord himself had just appeared before her. Father Tom had to hand it to the woman, she put everything into her conversations.
“Ah, go on so,” said Father Tom, with a smile.
“Marvellous!” she said, clapping her hands rapidly like an overexcited sea lion. Father Tom couldn’t help but be won over by the woman’s enthusiasm.
“I have to dash, Father, but I will see you on Thursday evening in the Grand Hotel. Seven thirty sharp please, tardiness is a pet peeve of mine.”
With a wave, she was gone. Father Tom wondered what he had just let himself be steamrollered into as he looked at the serous looking poster on the board which proclaimed, “Anyone can speak eloquently in public, even you.”
In the weeks that followed, Father Tom attended several of the meetings and actually found them very good indeed. Topics such as: repetition of words to hammer home a point, the flow and timing of a speech, vocabulary practice, articulation, diction, projection as well as the actual speaking practice itself. Tom felt he was making great progress and Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown had begun giving him individual lessons, outside of the meetings themselves.
Soon the whole parish were aware of the change in Father Tom’s weekly sermon, mostly because they were getting longer and longer. Jane was doing some shopping when she came across Christine Maher and Patricia Williams, chatting by the vegetable sections.
“What the blazes has gotten into Father Tom lately?” asked Christine, as Jane approached.
“How do you mean?” said Jane, rummaging through the displayed heads of cabbage looking for the freshest one.
“With his sermons,” explained Patricia, “the one last week was so long, my legs fell asleep from sitting.”
“He has been going on a bit lately right enough,” agreed Jane, finally selecting a cabbage.
“That’s a fair understatement. So why the change all of a sudden?” asked Christine.
“He has started going to some sort of speaking club, Mrs Philpot is running it.”
“Who?” said Patricia, wrinkling up her nose in bemusement.
“You know the wan, she’s a tall skinny yoke, walks like she has a pole up arse, which is why she looks down her nose at the world all the time,” said Christine.
“The wan with the feathers in her hat?” said Patricia, slapping Christine’s shoulder in amazement.
“That’s her, Mrs Philpot – something or other,” said Christine, with a sour look on her face, like the name itself had a left a bad taste in her mouth.
Now that the culprit had been identified, both woman turned their attention back to Jane who was counting out potatoes into a paper sack. “Can you not have a word with him?” they asked in unison.
“Ladies, who do you think I am? I’m his housekeeper, not his mother. Father Tom is his own man, you know that.” Jane liked Christine and Patricia, they had been friends all their lives, and still behaved like bold school girls from time to time, despite both being married with kids of their own. It happened she agreed with them, Father Tom was going way over the top with his sermons lately but it wasn’t something she wanted to get involved in.
“Jesus, go on will yea, Jane. He listens to you, just have a word,” said Patricia, giving her puppy dog eyes.
“I’ll not promise, but if the subject comes up, I’ll do what I can,” said Jane, trying to keep her smile on the inside.
“You’re the best,” said Christine, laughing. “We all know you have that big galloot wrapped around your little finger.”
“I have no such thing,” stammered Jane, going a little red.
“Would you look at her Patricia, she’s blushing,” giggled Christine.
“Stop it would yea,” laughed Patricia, pretending to scold Christine, all the time making Jane go even more puce. “Don’t mind her, Jane,” said Patricia. “She is only jealous of the fine lump of a man you managed to get for yourself, look at the skinny wee runt she ended up marrying.”
“Father Tom is not my man, I’m his housekeeper and that is it,” said Jane, sternly.
“If you say so,” said Christine turning to Patricia, “and what are you saying about my Johnny?”
“Nothing but the truth,” giggled Patricia. Jane was glad the conversation had veered away from her.
“He may be small, but he’s enthusiastic,” said Christine, rising to the defence of her man.
Christine roared with laughter, “He sure is! Why else are you driving a people carrier these days?”
Now both women were doubled over laughing. Jane picked up her bag of potatoes and added them to her shopping basket. “You two are terrible,” Jane said, walking away up the aisle, but as soon as she was out of sight, she had to let out a snigger herself.
As it happened the subject of Father Toms sermons never did come up, and Jane couldn't bring herself to say anything to him. Every week, the length of the mass grew longer, and Father Tom’s winding rhetoric, got winder. It all came to a head one Sunday, when Christine and Patricia joined forces and cornered Father Tom as he was talking to Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown after mass.
“Good Morning to you ladies,” said Father Tom as they approached. Father Tom noticed the cold glances the women were giving Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown.
“Morning Father, that was some sermon you gave today,” said Patricia.
“I’m delighted you liked it,” said Father Tom, sharing a secret smile with the po-faced Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown, who clearly didn’t care for Christine or Patricia much.
“Well, I would not say liked, exactly,” said Patricia, trying to be as tactful as possible, while still addressing the elephant in the room.
“Oh dear, I hope I didn’t upset you at all,” said Father Tom, going bright read from his beard to is scalp.
“Nothing like that, Father. It was just a bit long, don’t you think?” said Patricia, feeling terrible for embarrassing such a nice man.
“I guess I did go on a bit,” said Father Tom, looking down at his shoes like a little boy, caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Just under her breath, Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown mumbled, “Nonsense.” Christine heard what the old bat said, but bit her tongue, Patricia had Father Tom on the ropes.
“I don’t know if you are aware, Father, but you have a habit of saying the same things, several different ways, over again. If you said it just the once, it would sure speed things up. It’s just all a bit too much these days, Father. We all miss the way your sermons used to be,” said Christine.
“Humm, I see what you're getting at,” said Father Tom, not knowing where to put himself.
Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown had heard enough. “And what may I ask, makes you an authority on public speaking?”
Patricia looked at the woman, her smile slipping just enough to reveal a sliver of the hatred she had for the woman. “I’m the one listening to him, which makes me authority enough.”
“Enough of an authority- cretin” corrected Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown with a sneer, causing Patricia’s jaw to drop.
“Mrs Philpot-Cassidy Brown!” said Father Tom, shocked.
“Don’t you call my friend names,” said Christine, who swooped into the argument like a huge white seagull, pouncing on a dropped chip.
“It was a statement of fact, not a calling of names. I will have you know, that Father Tom has come on leaps and bounds with his oratory skills, since he begun taking my tuition.”
“Father Tom was just fine before you started sticking you oar in, you miserable cow!” snarled Christine.
“Mrs Maher, really!” cried Father Tom, but he was out of his depth, faced with two hot tempered women and one who didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Thankfully Patricia interceded and began ushering Christine away before lumps of hair started to fly.
“Leave it, Christine,” said Patricia. “We intended no offence to you, Father Tom, but this woman is going to turn the whole parish against you if she keeps filling your head with the rubbish she goes on with. We just want our Father Tom back.” Tom’s brow furrowed but he said nothing, he had an inkling that Patricia had a point. Even he had to admit his recent sermons hadn’t sounded like him at all.
“Philistines,” mumbled Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown.
Patricia stopped in her tracks and looked at the tall woman square in the eye and said, “Someone famous once said you shouldn’t use a cannon to kill a fly.”
“That’s Confucius,” said Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown, hotly.
“You might be confused now, but you won’t be for long,” said Patricia, taking Christine by the elbow and storming away.
News of the argument didn’t take long to spread across the parish. Father Tom didn’t know what to do with himself. On one side he had to admit Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown had made him much more comfortable speaking in public and had some wonderful tips, on the other hand, it all seemed less him.
When Sunday mass rolled around he had no idea what to do. He came out of the sacristy and made his way up to the altar. He looked down at the gathered congregation and saw in the front pew, Christine and Patricia giving evil eyes to Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown who had foolishly sat on the same bench. Thankfully the women were separated by a sheepish looking Mr Maher and his brood of children.
Father Tom blessed everyone, and began the mass. The gospel this week happened to be about the breaking down of marriage, a very serious subject. Father Tom had been working on the sermon for this gospel for weeks, and he didn't have time to rewrite it all since the falling out. As he was about to begin, he silently raised his eyes to the apex of the roof and beseeched God for his guidance as he launched into the sermon. It wasn't long before Father Tom became aware his words were repeating, stressing each point again and again, as Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown had taught him to do. Some of the words he had written down were so long, he tripped up while trying to pronounce them. Father Tom had to admit, the voice he heard echoing from the vaulted speaker system, wasn’t his.
At that particular moment he happened to glance up toward a beaming Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown, but a fluttering movement at the far end of the bench caught his attention. Father Tom was amazed to see Patricia and Christine both waving little white hankies tied to the end of pencils, while giggles ran the length of the church. When Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown saw what was happening, she sprang to her feet with a face like thunder.
Father Tom leaned into the microphone and said, “I think I've rambled on enough, let us stand.”
Mrs Philpot-Cassidy-Brown stalked down the center of the church and out the door without waiting for another word.
After mass, Christine and Patricia were waiting nervously for Father Tom.
“We are so sorry if we upset you Father, that woman was going to ruin everything. You know we love you just the way you are,” said Christine.
“I should be mad, but how can I. You’re two right little trouble makers by the way,” said Father Tom with a grin.
Patricia waved her little white flag for him and said, “We’ll be bringing these wee things every week, just in case you bring out the big guns during the sermon. In the face of cannon fire, us women, would have to surrender.”
“Bloody Confucius,” said Father Tom, scratching his head and smiling.