This is a story that is best enjoyed with a meal, something hearty, or maybe just a snack. Losing your religion is like mourning a death, I feel good food helps.
My grandfather had been ill for some time. I lived so far away I was unable to visit, and to be honest, I didn’t want to. When my grandmother phoned to tell me the sands of time were almost up, I did what I had to do and got on a plane and visited for one last time.
He was a pastor of the only church for miles. I didn’t remember my parents, they died when I was young, my brother too. When I asked what happened to them, he’d say they were in Heaven now, and that was that.
My grandparents brought me up in a little stone outbuilding in the graveyard of their church. We were Christian, but not Catholic, Protestant or any of the popular denominations of the Church. In fact, our particular sect was not recognised by anyone outside the village. I knew no different when I was a child. I followed the rituals just like any other girl of my age. I left home when I was seventeen and moved to the city. It was only then when I found out how strange my upbringing had been.
I sat in the terminal wing of the hospital, at the end of the bed. Even after all these years, I didn’t feel comfortable being close to him. I looked around the room to see other people in beds, respirators doing their best to keep them alive. In the corner, I saw a young man, couldn’t have been older than early twenties, but I knew what it meant for him to be in this room. It was a strange feeling, I felt more sorrow for him than I did for my own blood. I wanted to know how he ended up here, though not knowing was probably better. To be terminally ill so young was just not right. What God would allow that?
I was nervously perched on the edge of the chair, my hands sweating. I had nothing to say to this man. My religion had taught me to express love, though this man did very little to afford me that during my time with him. It was as if I was an inconvenience. If it weren’t for the promise he made my mother, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was sent off to an orphanage, Christian or no.
“I have something to tell you,” he said, removing the transparent mask from around his face.
I ignored his plea. I was fine where I was, and that was too close. I was eyeballing his food as it sat cooling on the tray that wrapped around his bed. I hadn’t eaten since before the flight. The only thing I could think about was gobbling it all up in front of him. What could he do? That made me smile.
“You can have some if you like,” he said, replacing his mask.
Okay then, I thought. First I ate the toast that had gone soggy.
“Not so fast, you’re not a pig are you?” he said, grinning.
It was words like that, that heaped onto the pile of mental anguish that I had carried for this man for years. But I did slow, it was as if I was conditioned.
“Your brother,” he said, removing his mask to speak each time.
I picked up a half-grilled tomato, it was cold and gelatinous.
“What about him,” I said, between chews.
“He’s not dead.”
Time seemed to slow. The shattering of a lifetime belief being undone, sending its tendrils of cause and effect throughout my whole life. The bedrock of my childhood, my beliefs had cracked. An ire grew hotter than I’ve ever felt for this man. What else was a lie?
He grinned, enjoying the cognitive dissonance that swelled within my head. I didn’t say a word. He was enjoying this. The control he exerted on me for all those years was back. I wanted to throttle him, but I was frozen like a human statue. Anger and curiosity vied for supremacy in my head.
“Where is he?” I said, controlling my words, it was all I had left.
“You need to speak to…” he coughed, “Mr Jenkins.”
I knew exactly who that was. I was numb.
“I’ve not been a good man,” he continued.
That was the first honest thing that had come out of his mouth in years. I violently shoved more of his food into my mouth.
“Can I confess to you?” he asked.
I stopped, staring into the old man’s eyes. There was a humbleness there I hadn’t seen before. Tears welled up and his lips quivered. Shards of guilt plunged into my stomach. How did I feel so bad for him, after what he did to me?
“No,” I said to him, “but I will forgive you.”
He died an hour later. Just before he did, he offered his hand. I took it. His grip was weak, a polar opposite to what it was like in life. When he passed, it was as if an enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders. The man I feared for so many years, was, at the end, as fragile as a baby bird. I had done exactly what my religion would have wanted me to do, though my religion meant nothing to me anymore. It was me that gave my forgiveness, it was me that treated him like a human being at the end. I didn’t need some arcane doctrine to tell me how to be a decent human being. I had lost my religion.
The plane journey to my home town was bumpy, as if God Himself was angry at me for discarding him. It was only after I landed and set foot in the village that the immensity of the news that my brother was alive hit me. My hands began to shake, my heart began to thump, my vision blurred as I steadied myself on the old stone wall I used to jump over as a child. Shock is a surprising feeling, it can take hold at anytime and drop you without warning.
Composure came hard. When it did, I had found Mr Jenkins’ house. A wave of nostalgia hit me when I traversed his now overgrown garden. He had looked after me many times when my grandparents went on holiday. I never told him how my grandfather treated me, it didn’t feel right. I always felt at home here. He was so nice. He’d tell me stories of when he was a sailor, about his voyages into the open sea, when he came face to face with a giant squid and met Neptune. I laughed to myself when I knocked on the door. It had been years since he relayed these stories, in front of his fireplace as the long winter nights drew in. He didn’t read from a book. His renditions were spur of the moment tales that changed every time. I asked him once if he could take me to Neptune. He said he would. He was how I remember a father should be.
When he answered the door, his face dropped. A recognition flushed his face red.
“Julie?” he asked.
His hands trembled as he reached for my face.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding, smiling.
His soft hands brushed my cheeks. I expected sailor’s calluses. I laughed again.
He cocked his head.
“Nothing,” I said still grinning, “can I come in?”
“Sure,” he said, moving out of the way.
We sat in the living room, it felt so much smaller than I remembered. The fire still burnt, it was almost as if it had never gone out.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” I said, “I won’t be long.”
His shoulders sunk and I felt a pang of guilt.
“I will come back soon, I promise. I come here with grave news.”
He poured whiskey into a small tumbler.
“Arthur is dead,” I said, stone faced.
He nodded, picking up the glass and downing it.
“Hmph. I haven’t thought about him in years.”
“You don’t sound upset.”
“Neither do you.”
Unspoken words passed between us.
“I asked him if you could live with me,” he offered.
I was slightly taken aback.
“I knew what he was like. I offered to look after you as much as I could.”
He began to cry.
“I was a coward. It wasn’t just you he was awful to.”
He brought his hand to his brow, covering his pride.
I got up and knelt in front of him.
“It’s not your fault, George, he was an oppressive man.”
I hugged him. I felt his warm tears soak into my sweater.
“You know, I always loved it here. Your stories about your time at sea.”
He grinned, “I remember that.”
“You still haven’t introduced me to Neptune.”
“I think you are the only thing from my childhood I remember fondly.”
He nodded in recognition.
“I’m not here just to tell you about grandad. He said my brother, Simon, is still alive.”
The colour drained from his face. He fumbled for his whiskey. The good humoured reunion had well and truly ended.
I crept back to my seat.
“My God,” he said, necking the drink, “can I get you something to eat?”
“I’m okay, thanks.”
His anxiety began to grow and he tried to stifle it with more drink.
“What about Simon?”
He stood up and walked over to the mantlepiece, picking up a photo frame. He handed it to me.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
I gazed at the photo, it was of a little boy, smiling at the camera. I didn’t recognise him, but I understood.
“He was only five then. Just before…” he trailed off.
I wanted something in me to remember, but this may as well have been a picture of a stranger.
“Is this really Simon?”
George nodded, making a beeline for his drink.
“Oh Jesus,” he said, letting himself fall into his chair.
Simon, my brother, I had no recollection of him. He died when I was two. This must have been taken around that time.
“So where is he?” I asked.
George was now somber. His face a ghostly pallor.
“In the church,” he said, “I know you’ve come a long way, but I need some time to myself.”
“What do you mean in the church?”
I thought I misheard and thought graveyard.
He gestured with his hand.
I left the building and it was already dark.
“I love you, Julie, you know that right?” he asked from the threshold.
He held the back of my head, bringing it closer to himself, and kissed my forehead.
I waved goodbye and so did he.
It was cold as I walked the short journey over to the church. I pulled on the doors, they echoed inside but didn’t budge. I checked around the sides but there was no other way in. At a loss, I returned to Mr Jenkins’ house. I knocked and no one answered. I tried the handle, the door opened.
I walked in. The fire was no more than embers. George was in his chair. It was so dark. On the table next to his whiskey glass was a key, large and black. I picked it up.
“George, are you okay?”
He appeared to be asleep in the chair.
In the dim light I gently moved his head. In synchronicity, the fire roared. I saw the blood that glinted on his neck. A large wound gapped. His shirt was drenched in blood.
I panicked, fishing for my phone in my pocket. It dropped to the floor. I picked it up, looking up at George. His clothes were dyed red, a staccato drip added to a puddle of blood gathering under his chair.
I called the police.
When they arrived, I was shivering outside. They asked me some questions. It was as if I was having an out of body experience. I answered, but on autopilot. They asked why I was here. I told them about my Grandad. I didn’t tell them about Simon. They asked for my details and I promised to stay locally until they had finished their investigation.
I sat in my car that night, staring at the key I held. I slept awkwardly, and dreamt of the sea.
I woke early. A low hanging mist enveloped the car. I got out and raced to the church. I placed the key in the lock. The doors opened majestically, to reveal the morning light pour through the stained glass windows. It was as if God was present. I heard growling and the muffled sounds of petulance. I creeped towards the back of the church, my trainers doing a great job concealing my footsteps.
I stopped in front of a doorway, hearing the noises and commotion from below. I descended the stairs. I stopped when I saw a man in familiar garb thrust a tray topped with offal into a steel door. I waited. I heard the excited sounds of scoffing from within. “Mrs Jones confesses to infidelity, Eric Tannerman has coveted his neighbour, Mr Jenkins seeks absolution for a mortal sin,” the man said, waiting for the sounds of eating to finish before he left. To my relief, he turned and left.
Anxiously I crept towards the door. The animal sounds from within continued. I stopped in front of the steel door and so did the sounds. Moments later they were replaced with interested sniffs. I held my ground as the noises approached. Through the letterbox style opening, I saw a pair of expectant eyes stare back.
Within seconds, the sounds returned to angry growls. I panicked, stepping back to the wall behind me. The sniffing returned.
“Knock it off,” I heard a voice shout from above and the primeval noise stopped.
Cautiously, I approached the door. I could see the eyes blind back at me. The thing from within snapped.
“Shhhh,” I said, getting all the more closer.
It sniffed again.
I placed my hand into the hole and braced. I felt something from within inspect me. I scrunched my eyes, waiting for something that didn’t come.
“Simon?” I asked.
The animal within went silent.
“I’m Julie…” I offered, “I’m your sister. I’m here to rescue you.”
The animal screamed, racing around the inside of its enclosure.
“Quiet!” a voice demanded from above.
I reached for the metal bar that held the door shut, it squeaked as it moved.
“That’s it!” the voice said, and I heard angry footsteps thump on the staircase next to me.
This was it. I pulled on the bar until it fell to the floor, sending out a loud bang.
“Who are you?” the man demanded, exiting the staircase. He looked at the open door.
“You don’t know what you’ve done!” he said, startled.
A man on all fours crawled out. He looked at me. His face was disfigured. His left eye was sown shut. His jaw fell awkwardly to the side. His hands were held in fists, as his almost naked body revealed itself. He stared at me with apprehension, bearing a mouth filled with little teeth. His gaze was almost instantly drawn to the man in the robes I recognised from childhood. He raced towards the priest and bit.
The shriek was louder than I’d ever thought was possible, it reverberated around the catacombs. I raced up and out of the church, standing cold in the early morning air. What had I done?
I knew. And moments later, the large church doors creaked open to reveal the man on all fours. My brother, Simon.
I put my hand out, he was nervous at first, like a dog reuniting with an all but forgotten owner.
“I’m your sister,” I said, and he approached.
I rented a room at a local bedsit. I brought Simon in through the back door. I fed him and bought some clothes from a local charity shop. If you didn’t know, he almost looked normal, like the thirty year old adult he was. It was obvious he understood English, though he couldn’t speak. My heart bled for him. He was an animal. Someone who was just a means to an end, never treated like the human he was. When he sat at the table eating the food I prepared, you’d not know he was different. He refused to sleep in the bed, instead preferring the floor.
The police phoned me about the incident in the church. I feigned ignorance. The priest got what he deserved.
I wanted to hurt all the people that hurt my brother, to get vengeance. I thought about how opposite that was to the faith I had growing up, but that was a fraud. I now understood what happened in confessional when I heard the priest eating. I now know what he did.
When I returned to the room, with supplies for the next few days, I was surprised not to see Simon in the room. The following day, when I saw on the news about the deaths of multiple pillars of the local community, I wasn’t shocked, I somewhat expected it.
I didn’t see Simon after that day. I thought about telling my story for a very long time. Thank you for listening to my confession. I hope you enjoyed your food.