Rhourigh settles beside the fire, the wind sloughing off the marshes eases damp into his young bones he cossets himself to think, in those few moments that here reminds him of ‘There’. He feels blessed to be here, number two to a genial old man from ‘the auld sod.’ He knows of other men who remain number three or four in the queue for older men shoes. To wait for another to die is he feels and is told in the few meetings he has with those a sadder way to live.
Rhourigh reaches for the Jamesons’ a wee nip wouldn’t come to harm on a night, damp such as this is he thinks to himself, in times to come he knows he will be saying these things out loud and frightening the housekeeper. He pours a good two inches, sniffs at it appreciatively, sets it to warm softly on the edge of the mantelshelf and turns to his book; “the long walk to freedom” by Nelson Mandela.
The door behind his tall leather chair sighs against carpet pile, he turns to face it as Mrs. Teedle enters eyes down on a tray she carries with cups and saucers. She glances up to see his Jamesons glass, displeasure echoes faintly across her as she begins quietly to offer Tea and biscuits. Rhourigh the man he is, knows better than to say no and incur further displeasure, he is the new man, cannot measure up to the old man and so must mind his manners either until his grave or until he measures up in some manner yet unforeseen. Grace he has and time can he feels be but a friend for those not looking for enemies.
Cups clatter, tea is poured and stirred, biscuits crumbed and eaten, this late afternoon is passing in ease, though the wind stirs the window glass to rattle. A telephone sounds elsewhere and Mrs. Teedle moves to answer its summons. She returns, eyes cast down again.
“It’s Mrs. Candowski sir, her son Mathew calling for Father, I told him he was away at the seminary, that you would be arriving there” at this last she glances slyly at the Jamesons sitting on the mantelshelf. Rhourigh knows she has its measure now implanted to the microlitre, she knows it has yet to be touched, but poured it is.
He readies himself, as she tells the life him of Mrs. Candowski, pillar of the community. Flower arranger, giver to charity and the poor, Baker of cakes and maker of gifts to sell on church open days. Mother and raiser of children who attend regularly. Wife to Lloyd Candowski a quiet man who some say drinks, at this she blushes for Rhourigh and for his warming once innocent glass. A fine woman never seen to utter a bad plaint against another and now, well, now she was fallen to the illness that gains us all as a precursor to the end, she faintly genuflects here to make her point.
Rhourigh makes sure he has all he needs and leaves into the wind. Mrs. Teedle has sketched his journey for him. As he enjoys its minutes of bluster and silence, Rhourigh runs through the service he has been called to do, the manners he is entrusted to perform, the solemnity enjoyed by his position of trust. It is appropriate that the Father be here, though he is number two in Mrs. Teedle, the family and world’s eyes, he is number one in the providing of this service. Though he may be refused entry, to do so would be to deny him as conduit.
A stout wooden door opens as his hand reaches for bell, a burly man with reddened eyes calls him in, offers coffee, tea, a chair for his dark woollen over coat. Introduces himself as Mathew, takes him through to a large room filled with people and photographs of the same people sitting within the room. He utters kind words, vaguely recollecting faces from services he has officiated. Their faces are drawn differently now, longer, paler and marked by tears of timely recognition of end to come. He hears of progressive illness, remissions, relapses and now of so little time to say goodbyes. He hears all of this and nods his acceptance of the faith in him to mark this ending in the manner of things to be done.
He is led up stairs of shining time varnished wood and carpet held in place by polished brass rods, past painted pictures of other family members, to a slightly open door. As he enters Rhourigh feels tradition straighten shoulders and mind. A chair by the bed awaits him; he sits and looks into the face of his charge, Mrs. Candowski.
Her eyes closed, she rests back on white linen cloth, as his inspection continues, her eyelids begin to flutter, they open, see him and begin to focus. Her son offers her water; she accepts a sip and then in a slight voice gently dismisses him, asking him to come back later. Her eyes portray none of the near death expected from descriptions below. She asks to be raised, doing this he revels in her lightness and trust.
Settled she beckons him close and whispering begins:
Father, I have sinned, it is many years since I have made my confession.
She looks for his listening, he nods to reassure,
I have made confessions before but have never made full confession or asked for forgiveness for all my sins, I need to know are you able to hear me?
He nods again; knowing to say anything here would be counterproductive. Presence here is gained by quiescence.
I need to know that my sins stay between you, God and myself. I need to tell of my sin, I’ve told the children to stay downstairs until you tell them to come.
I, I… I have had other children, now dead, they do not know of those, nor does Lloyd, they are not to know…
She slows, her eyes staring into his, looking for shock? Judgement? He does not know, but will not show other than regard, love and listening.
These years of being a good mother, wife, church person, it is all a sham… a facade I created to pay for an earlier life. I have given to charity to avoid any fingers pointed; I gave not from the heart, Father, but for doing the right thing. My crime… my sins have been of building a false… I have done these things for show. My name is not mine Father, I stole it.
She gazes at Rhourigh here, her eyes dampened by age and perhaps memory, settles further into the linen pillows, deepened her ill riddled body under sheets to gaze comfort or warmth, he knew not but wondered what would follow. His sense was to stay quiet, he could not suggest penance until all was revealed and he had already heard that she had confessed before but not given up all. Silence here may aid her to finish what she had intended to finish.
My life is penance. I was born before the war, grew up in the country, it was a hard life growing up during those depression years. Being country folk made some things a little easier; we could always find something to eat. We lost our farm, papa said the Jews had ruined us by running the world. Causing the depression. Things like that were always in the papers. We had to move, to a small town, papa was made to build roads for his unemployment money, the pittance it was. Mama sewed, washed clothes, I went to school and helped her in the evenings. I slept and woke with the smell of other people’s clothes drying.
Papa fell in with a rough crowd, they would take him out drinking, he couldn’t afford it, but they found ways to help him out. He earned extras looking after their meetings. Then one night he came home with a uniform, he was big and could sort out troublemakers, and they had plenty of those. They were going to fix the Jews he said, they’d made him lose the farm. We would be ok again, mama wouldn’t have to take in washing, and the other kids wouldn’t be laughing at me behind their hands then. The plans he had after those meetings…
School ended when they came to school and beat up Mr. Jacobsen, so that’s what a Jew was, a thin old man in spectacles who shouted at kids when they got sums wrong. He never shouted at a child again and one day he stopped being there, people said he and his family upped sticks and left one dark night. The Schmidt’s took over his house, it was empty, so why not…
We moved to a bigger town as poppa got on with his politics, we got a big house that had been left behind by ‘undesirables’ momma didn’t have to do washing anymore.
I met a nice man, Klaus. A boy really, he was in the Hitler youth. He was nice to me, took me dancing, respectful too. People in the street respected him, I joined too, it was fun, we camped, sang songs, it was great to have friends…be respected…to be part of something.
Rhourigh settled back in his chair, not quite knowing where this was to lead, not wanting to guess, not wanting to make judgements, for they were not his to make.
Papa moved on and up, joined the army proper, as his crowd of friends became more influential. Papa was useful to them he said, a man of the soil: folk. Mama began to smile again after her times of drudge. The undesirables left lots of stuff behind, as Jews began to wear their jewmarks their businesses went downhill, some of them left. As Hitler youth we used to help board up their shops and redistribute what was left behind. The world turned against us as a nation; they didn’t seem to understand that we were standing up to the Jews, taking back what was ours. The Jews owned the papers we knew that.
Papa said it was time for me to join the army, make a stand, Klaus left on a train one day and I left the next, heading in different directions. The army was tough, all exercise, obeying orders and marching, it was tough but I enjoyed the company of the others. Then the war started. Some of the blonde ones were taken out for ‘extra duties’ I didn’t like the sound of that, even if it meant having extra pay for being with our glorious soldiers, some of us were doing that for free anyway…
I was sent to work at a holding area for Jews. It was my job to make sure they washed, were de loused and separated from their luggage. They would hide anything anywhere. Diamonds jewellery inside toys but then as they got sneakier inside their bodies. We would have to cavity search them. They would struggle, fight, call us names but we would get there in the end.
She smiled unexpectedly and asked whether the good Father was shocked? Rhourigh was not, he had heard, read the stories of those years. Indeed had visited during seminary break with others of calling one such ‘holding area.’ He did not tell her this; his was not the confession. He lightly smiled back and urged her to continue.
They were savages, would fight each other for a scrap of bread, we made some of them responsible for others, gave them a scrap of uniform, they were worse than any of our own could be. We were ordered to start up a recreation Centre for soldiers using some of the Jews, we sorted out the least unattractive ones, gave them a dress, gave them extra food. They were ‘joy’ women used by our glorious soldiers. When they were pregnant, they either had abortions or went back with amongst the others.
Lots of the Jews died, through illnesses from living together, they couldn’t keep sanitary conditions. They lived like vermin. We treated them as they were. With the war, conditions got worse. Food rations got less and less.
Klaus came home; he’d been shot in his arm. He stayed in rooms he found for us, an heroic soldier who’d been wounded could get many favours. We loved each other, reminded each other of a less hardened time. I got pregnant immediately, and then he was recalled. No marriage papers nothing. I had an abortion and went back to work.
More Jews were arriving we herded them into the same space, they died in their hundreds, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid, we had to be careful handling them in case we got infected. The doctors began doing tests on them, our job was to supply so many of such and such a type, then get other Jews to clear bodies if they died. That when the cremations started, we couldn’t bury them anymore, there were too many and we were too scared of catching disease from them, so we began burning them. We didn’t do the burning of course; we got them to do it. There were so many…
My name is Lisle Muller. I have had three abortions, one from Klaus, one from an officer who let me know that unless he had me I would become one of the prisoners and one, one from an American soldier who in exchange for our afternoons together, found me papers so I could escape. I was already by then under false papers and working with the Americans to help find soldiers who had worked at the holding camps. Doing this I helped four good soldiers to escape detection.
He loved me he said, so I let him do what he wanted and he found me refugee status papers. I couldn’t stand him as he went on and on about how the Jews had been poorly treated, how boring he was, so… little. So, insignificant, uninformed. He had not lived through it enough to judge, they were soft the Americans, having never lost enough to understand…he made judgements based upon softness, a life of ice cream, chocolate and coca cola…
She closed her eyes, seemed to settle, perhaps this was enough, this might be the end thought Rhourigh. A sigh escaped lips as she lay there, then those eyes turned upon him again. Not cold, an iced blue, devoid of any emotion but that of need to hold his gaze to ensure his listening. She continued;
I have loved women, been loved by women. Men could be such pigs in those times. They were world masters, click their fingers and their wishes were made so. My maid became close, she came to clean, cook for us, change beds. One morning as she dressed me… one morning she stayed longer. Later, I had to send her back to the main camp, she had become overfamiliar, stole food, clothes. I could not be with her, use her again. Such were those times, I had to be so careful, the consequences…
Quiet again as she closes her eyes. Rhourigh wanting to ask questions, the how, the why of these confessions. The will to hold this all inside over decades stuns him in its enormity. He has met the monster of the dark night finally and she is frail against fine linen. Now there is no whip excepting that of instinct to deliver itself of burden before sinking into infinite sleep.
Rhourigh’s training is straining its bounds; he must not impede flow but aid. He no longer wishes to hear these strained words whispered in old lady hush but he must, his calling has chosen him for this moment, this time, he cannot do other but wait until completion to offer penance for absolution. Whether his senses will carry him he knows not and can only buffer self on the ropes of tradition, that in certainty has carried others through times as this. She stirs again, whether five minutes passed or thirty neither is certain.
Orders came, madder than the others, scientists and artisans to carry out their works. De-lousing it was called, the showers changed, we stripped them, searched, sent them in, and bodies came out. We were ordered to search again. We got other Jews to do it as we watched them, stinking bodies, wet, fouled. More jewels, gold found, teeth pulled. Carts for bodies, burning. The children. The children…
She strains to ease her locked gaze from his, Rhourigh will not, cannot let her go, though he feels his tears start to form, he will not let her tear eyes from his, his hands urge her on… beckon mutely to finish.
The children clinging onto mothers, wrapped around arms, hands locked together. To be prized apart, fingers broken in searches. Cement ripped nails from clawing at walls. This was ordered, this was madness. I knew Jews to be responsible for the depression, knew friends, family had lost everything, but this was murder, Jews like these had not done those things…
Her eyes softening, had he missed the appeal at fellowship? Rhourigh wills his eyes to glisten in comradeship.
Some days there were no consignments, eventually the consignments ended so we had to round up the elderly, the infirm and put them through the showers. They ran, hid, some volunteered. My maid volunteered stood straight, looked right at me, refused to work anymore and naked went into the block. I carried on; to not to, meant disobeying orders and that would be fatal.
Reports of the war were few, Klaus on a leave told me that things were bad, orders were becoming erratic, he did not want to know what I did at the camp. He pulled faces when I told him, mouthed the party line about Jews being vermin. I made him listen. He became scared for me. One night he went out to ‘see friends’ came back very drunk, reeking of beetroot vodka and ersatz beer. Shh’d me, fell asleep after promising his undying love and that he’d looked after me. The next morning I went to work, I got home as he was packing his kitbag, orders had come, and he was off to Russia. We both knew that meant death, we talked of after the war and knowing there would not be one, talked of marriage finally. Then he pressed money and some papers into my hand. The papers were for a young woman, my age, height. Klaus urged me to use them to establish another identity for when the war ended. Whoever won he reckoned would not want to acknowledge what was happening here, I too could become ash. Then he was gone.
The work became worse and worse, hell could not be more horrible, quotas for burning were made up, had to be kept to, that meant more killing. More bodies, stench. The war took a further turn for our worse, gathering together as much money as possible I deserted one night. I’d stolen a Jew dress and coat and caught the train to the town near the farm I’d grown up on. I knew people there and paid them to employ me as help. They sheltered me until the Americans arrived. We were scared of the Russians.
The Americans employed me as a secretary. I helped four others to escape when they passed through on their own false papers. The British, Russians and Americans wanted trials of soldiers, what was the point? We were following our orders, the criminals were our bosses, like the one who made me have sex, he was a pig, deserved to be hung. They made the orders… not us we had to carry them out.
Rhourigh holds still, he’d heard the defence before, now was not the time for debate. Mrs. Candowski would soon be meeting the one who would resolve the issue. She looks somehow thinner to him now as if the meat of her was dissolving with the telling of this.
I became a refugee, thanks to sex I had, not for love or for children, but to escape into this world. Away from mama, papa, that was the price to be paid. Those armies made it clear after Nuremberg that they would not stop until they found all soldiers who had worked at places like…
I gave up Klaus, he who had rescued me, loved me. My parents, my home…
Finally she begins to cry, shaking as if shivering, as tears begin their slow flow across lined cheeks to drop darker circles on the white. He reaches across to her hand, pats it gently as father to child and asks timidly if there is more. She shakes her head to no, but then continues;
I met Lloyd, a good man though I did not love him at first. I saw hope in him, a chance to forget the past. I have tried to be a good wife but could not tell him of this. He would be devastated; he holds such liberal views. I would never argue with him, nor the children on these things. I have been a good mother, a good church person, have given to forgive myself, to forgive the past.
She beckons: Come closer, closer, my final confession. I ask for forgiveness of my sins, ask God for absolution, but I can only ask in the name of another, I am not Bette Candowski, good Catholic, wife and mother, I am Lisle Muller, Protestant… Tell me father, can you help me?
Rhourigh holding her hand murmurs words of encouragement, asks if she is truly penitent and resolves to not commit these sins again. Her eyes burn in the hope that she will receive absolution, she smiles for herself the first time with lips thinned and frail.
The Father begins to outline penance as he sees breath begin deep and end low, he touches purple silk for reassurance and begins a form of words to mark end. He closes her eyes, entrusts care to God.
And makes prayer for her those she has offended.
Downstairs he tells family of her peaceful ending, tells them of her love and what each meant to her, these truths spring from his lips already formed for he understood her in confession that she had wanted to make restitution for sins by ensuring that these would not be touched by her own. Anymore than this would be decided by herself and God.
Outside it is dark, the wind has raised further, its dampness he imagines steals into his bones, he walks briskly as only younger men can in the face of such breezes. Mrs. Teedie stands beyond the door waiting for him and news of events, as she must. She takes outer coat in nervous anticipation, he tells her as he must, such is their bargain and she clucks at death and how it comes to us all, goodly folk and bad ones. He aims toward warmth and his leather chair, sniffs the air, smells the warmed Jameson, rising he takes it from the mantelshelf begins a sip, as Mrs. Teedle enters behind him again inquiring if he would be needing a drink. She, eyes narrowed, recognises all. Rhourigh: Jameson in hand taking a drink. The door closes behind her with a sigh, its volume not quite hiding hers.