Chapter 1: Scent of Scandal
"It's worrying," said Mrs. Knowsley.
Her friend looked at her sharply. Madge was usually a cheerful individual, naturally so, anxious to see the best in everyone and everything, ready to look forward hopefully to a happy outcome of every difficulty. They were standing just inside Madge's back door, in the little side street on the edge of Pudsey, between Leeds and Bradford. Usually they stood on the step outside, but today Madge had drawn her inside.
"Why?" Lizzie Cordell asked. "Why is it worrying?"
"Not knowing, I suppose. Wondering."
Her friend considered this. There must be more to it than that.
"Didn't they tell you anything?"
"Said he was going through a difficult time and needed to get away for a bit."
"That tells you something and nothing, doesn't it? Get away from what, or from where?"
"Well, from Shipley. He's been priest there for ten years or more."
"It's only eight miles away. Not far to move if he's going through a spiritual crisis."
Mrs. Knowsley looked at her friend.
"What are you thinking, Lizzie?"
"Maybe they need him close -- to hand, like. In case they need to question him."
"You mean he may have done something wrong?"
Her friend looked at her pityingly.
"Well, that is what's been worrying you, isn't it, Madge?"
Madge paused for a moment, afraid to bring things into the open. Then she nodded.
"I suppose so...Yes, it is...He's a nice man, Lizzie. A lovely man. And a real gentleman."
"Anyone can go off the rails, Madge, real gentlemen as easily as anyone else."
"I know that, but...it tears me apart, Lizzie."
"To see him like this. He never goes out, except once or twice he's been out after dark. And one time I knocked on the door to his room, got no reply and thought he must be out, and when I went in he didn't hear me, but he was sitting in his chair with his head in his hands. I could swear he was crying."
Her friend considered.
"What did you do?"
"Tiptoed out and went away."
Lizzie looked her straight in the eye.
"You do realize it's not your problem, Madge?"
"Of course I do. But I like him, Lizzie. We talk and he seems so warm, and wise, and...the thought of him sitting up there alone and suffering, not doing anything except mulling over what's happened, and not knowing what it is..."
"I can see that. What do you talk about? Can't you bring the conversation around to his troubles?"
"Oh, no. We just talk about trivialities. The weather, what he'd like for his dinner, that sort of thing."
Lizzie wondered how Madge's lodger had been warm and wise on those particular topics. She just said, "Couldn't you bring the conversation around to more important things gradually?"
"With time, I suppose. But I want to help him, Lizzie. Now."
"He's a priest, Madge. He must have resources in himself, or people to go to. The Church helps its own, you know."
"Too much so, sometimes. Oh, you don't think it could be boys, do you? Children?"
"I don't know, do I? I've never even seen him. But I do think you shouldn't get too involved. For your sake, but for his sake too. If there's been wrongdoing, there's bound to be rumors, and you don't want to be part of those rumors."
Mrs. Knowsley looked distressed and confused.
"No. I suppose not."
"Leave it to the Church. They'll sort it out. They'll give him whatever help he needs."
Mrs. Knowsley's voice took on an unusual edge of sharpness.
"They seem to be giving him precious little help at the moment."
The eyes of both women went up to the ceiling, as if expressing both human concern for the man upstairs and a hope for heavenly guidance.
Father Pardoe sat slumped in the easy chair in his dimly lit bed-sitting room. In his waking hours there he only did three or four things: Peered cautiously through the window at the world of activity he was used to engaging with; walked up and down the room, hoping that his footsteps could not be heard by Mrs. Knowsley in her sitting room, but unable to refrain from this limited exercise; lay in bed looking up at the ceiling; and sat slumped in the chair, as now, looking like a wreck of his once vigorous, upright self.
Sometimes he thought he would never come to terms with what had happened to him. Now and then he wondered that his own Church, the valued superiors whom he had counted as his allies or friends, could have so little understanding of what he had done, and why. At other times he tried to be more clear-eyed, to free himself of the weak instinct to blame others, and to tell himself that his troubles, this terrible burden of guilt and rejection, were something he had brought on himself, by his own actions, and by his disregard of possible interpretations of them. But when he told himself that, when he mentally tried to put himself in the dock on that charge, he could never believe it with more than half his mind.
Because the other half cried out that the Church -- his Church, his bishop -- was not really concerned with what he had done, but with appearance: They worried how it would seem, how it would be seen, what people would say. The whole business disgusted him. They had barely looked at the facts, or at the moral issues; had not wanted to discuss them. That much had been clear from the Bishop's telephone call, the memory of which still left him angry. They had been more interested in PR, in damage control, in keeping everything, if humanly possible, under wraps. It was the same instinct that had led the hierarchy in Ireland to shift priests who had abused altar boys on to other parishes where they abused more altar boys. How could his Church do this? How could they worry not about what he had done, but only about what people would think he had done?
That people would talk he had no doubt. Probably it was already seeping out, getting passed around in whispers throughout the parish. He was certain that would happen, not because money was involved, but because a woman was. A young woman. An attractive woman.
He had an image of Julie Norris in his mind's eye. The short, blonde hair, the appealing, bewildered eyes, the little boy held in the crook of her arm as she talked to him in her drab, poky kitchen. The image was very dear to him, one he cherished and did not try to put away. He had no illusions that his regard for Julie was without lust. There had been other women before her, women for whom he had felt a special affection, women with whom he might quite easily have fallen into sin. But he had not -- not with them, and not with Julie.
What he had done, with some of them, was try to show them, by special attentions, what they meant to him. That was surely innocent, or comparatively so? The thought struck him that what it really was, was pathetic. But he was sure that at the time it had seemed to him lovely -- a beautiful way to show his regard. He came to see that it could cause jealousy among the ladies of the parish, however, and once he realized this he had tried to cloak his special regard in decent wraps.
The wraps were gone now, at least as far as his superiors were concerned. Now, in the prison of this little bed-sitting room, the image of Julie came to him, but only briefly and wanly. What pushed it aside was the image of his shattered career -- which meant his shattered life. He was ashamed of this preoccupation, of the worldliness that it betokened, but somehow he could not resist it. His life as a parish priest was over, his reason for existence in pieces. His hopes of future advancement now appeared ludicrous, absurd. What future he had he did not know, but he faced the fact that it did not involve the respect, the flattering attentions, the warm regard that over the years he had come to take for granted. Still less could he nourish dreams of preferment -- of performing the rites he held so dear, and which had been so meaningful to him, in fine vestments, in impressive buildings, with his words on national issues given local if not countrywide coverage. Vain, silly, deluding hopes, but he had nourished them.
Total eclipse, his brain told him: No sun, no moon, all dark amid the blaze of noon.
Cosmo Horrocks sat in his place in the little restaurant compartment of the train from King's Cross station in London to Leeds and fumed. Fumed very pleasantly, however; enjoyed, relished the process. The announcement by the buffet-car steward promising an "exciting new menu" in the restaurant car had tempted him here, even though he would probably have his expenses claim for it returned by his editor. He had made his way here, to be greeted by a lumpish girl who pointed to a seat with reluctance and informed him that after his meal he would have to go back to standard accommodation. As if he were using the meal as a way of infiltrating first class! Even if he had been allowed to claim first class on expenses, he wouldn't have gone in it: you never heard anything worth a bean in first class. The antechamber to death, that's what first class on British railways was.
Then the same lumpish girl, handing him the menu and wine list, had announced that the fish was unavailable, and so was the chicken. "That rather lessens the excitement," he had said to her blank stare. What was left was the vegetarian option -- inconceivable to Cosmo, who hated anything that might be regarded as eccentricity -- and Cumberland sausage. Cumberland sausage, exciting! He could have done better in the most squalid sort of country pub.
There was an article in this.
As always, his ferrety nose twitched, alert for more material. And as so often happened with Cosmo, it came. After twenty minutes during which no food appeared, a plump woman at the next table asked when she was likely to get served, because she was getting off at Grantham. The lumpish girl marched off into the galley and shouted: "I don't believe it! Now she tells me she's getting off at Grantham!"
The plump woman flushed with annoyance. Cosmo fumed agreeably. Grantham. The birthplace of Margaret Thatcher. He had always called it ironically in his own mind the Holy City. How could he bring that in? He had rather admired Thatcher in her heyday, but she was now a national joke, good for a kick at anytime. Should be able to connect her up with the privatized railways, which were such a disaster, he thought. His mind worked at it.
But his mind was one that, unlike a train, could travel along several lines at once. The fact that an article on railway catering was in the process of construction did not mean that he had relaxed his habitual alertness, his Autolycus-like knack of snapping up unconsidered trifles -- things that to other people, even to other journalists, would have meant nothing. One such apparent trifle penetrated to him now from the table behind him.
"Gone to ground, so they say."
"Spirited away, more like. The Church takes care of its own."
At that moment, irritatingly, the food arrived. Cosmo Horrocks began tucking into his Cumberland sausage. It was a perfectly good and tasty coil of sausage -- not much use for his purpose, if he stuck to the truth. The article was for the moment put aside, and he concentrated all his attention on the next table, hoping they would take up the topic once the waitress had finished serving them. The Church was always good for a story, both in the nationals and in the locals. Cosmo's professional life had been punctuated by erring vicars. Sure enough, once the waitress had moved on, the conversation was resumed in hushed tones, but not hushed enough to frustrate Cosmo's journalistic sharpness of hearing.
"Of course the wife clams up, says she'd rather not speak about it. Faithful daughter of the Church and all that. Well, I'm a faithful son -- up to a point."
"Exactly. Up to a point."
"And I've always been willing to give them financial advice, off the record if necessary."
"I know you have. It's well known in the parish."
"I've lost count of the times they've come to me and said, 'Look, Mr. Leary, you're a businessman, and you know what's what. We've got this parcel of land and we want to do as well from it as we can' -- that sort of thing."
"You've been very generous. Time's money, when all's said."
"Well, frankly, I'd rather do that than be on my knees every Sunday, let alone racking my brains to remember lustful thoughts to pour into Father Pardoe's ear. Leave that to the womenfolk, that's what I say."
"Not that they have lustful thoughts."
"Course not. It's well known they don't. Any more than priests do."
Cosmo could just imagine the wink they gave each other. He was getting very interested. Priests, eh? Father Pardoe. Catholic Church, then, rather than Anglican. Better and better. He put aside his knife and fork and took out his trusty notebook. Drawing a line under the previous notes, he headed the new section PRIEST -- SCANDAL, and underneath entered the names "Mr. Leary" (not very useful, until a parish had been pinpointed) and "Father Pardoe" (decidedly useful). After a pause for mastication, the conversation at the next table (behind Cosmo's back, which made him greatly regret not choosing the seat opposite) continued.
"What do you think it is in this case? Money or a woman?"
There was a pause for thought.
"Frankly, I'm guessing here, but I'd say a bit of both. There's a name that's being mentioned -- by the women who talk about it at all."
"Doesn't mean anything to me. Parishioner?"
"Not so you'd notice. Single mother."
There was a brief, bitter laugh.
"Single mother! We had a better word for it in our younger days, didn't we, Con? And for the child."
"Little bastard. Aye, we did that. Anyway, there's been women before that he was said to favor unduly. But no one thought there was anything sexual in those relationships. When it comes to a twenty-year-old bimbo..."
"You're right. And it's likely there was more to the earlier businesses than any of the parish biddies was willing to admit."
"Of course you're right, Derek, as usual. But if there was, he was clever about it. It's not all the parish ladies think like my Mary -- try to put the best construction on anything connected with any member of the priesthood."
"Oh, I know that. There's plenty of scandalmongers, for all they 'Father this' and 'Father that' them the whole time till it fair makes you sick."
"Doesn't it ever. I tell you what, it's when the children grow up and fly the nest. There's a big hole in a woman's life waiting to be filled, and it's the Church and the priest that fill it."
"You said the problem might be a bit of both."
When he replied, the man called Con Leary, who had kept his voice very low, reduced it to a whisper, showing that in his eyes money warranted even greater discretion than sex. Cosmo strained his ears, something he was used to doing, and managed to get the gist.
"Question of a special fund, a legacy, intended for the poor of the parish. Money gone missing or been misused."
The man called Derek whistled.
"Really? That does surprise me. Seemed a very frugal bloke, Father Pardoe. They call you in?"
"No. I tell you, I know no more about this than anyone else. I do pick up the gossip, though."
"And do they think -- the gossips -- that the two things are connected?"
"Yes. Whether rightly or wrongly, you can judge as well as I can. But I would say parish gossip is as often wrong as it's right."
"True enough." Derek immediately assumed, though, that it was right. "Well, you've certainly surprised me. Not at all what I'd have suspected of Father Pardoe. How long has he been at St. Catherine's?"
"Oh, coming on ten years."
"That's a while. He was always regarded with a lot of respect, I'll give him that. More than most of these young priests who kick up the dust and start all sorts of things that nobody wants just to impress the Bishop. No, I had a lot of time for Father Pardoe. Before all this blew up."
Leary and Derek then went on to other things -- things that they could talk about in normal voices. Cosmo ordered a trifle, and then had coffee and a refill, wanting them to go first so that he could get a good look at them. Unfortunately, however, they went back to the first-class carriages, so they did not pass his table. When he realized this he stood up hurriedly, but all he saw were two gray-suited men, one with a bald patch at the crown of his head, with thin hair combed carefully around it, the other with a good reddish thatch, untinged with gray. If he saw them face-to-face again he probably wouldn't recognize them. He downed the last of his coffee refill, then turned to find his way back to Standard Class was barred by the lumpish waitress.
"You realize you haven't paid yet...sir?"
That hurdle negotiated, Cosmo Horrocks went back to his seat, with a small part of his brain still fuming at the catering service, but the larger part full of satisfaction at a trail well started. He now had not just the two original names -- Leary and Father Pardoe -- but in addition, Derek, Julie Norris, and Mary, all down in his invaluable notebook, as well as St. Catherine's. Father Pardoe was the vital one. Cosmo had Catholic contacts whom he could consult about this parish, so he wouldn't have to go through the Leeds diocesan authorities. Once the parish had been identified, the name Julie Norris would be crucial. He had started by thinking that this was going to be a "Vicar elopes with cleaning lady" story, but in fact it was even better: Vows of chastity besmirched; a randy bimbo who could be portrayed as a cruelly wronged ingenue if necessary; and a financial angle to boot. A story like this could make his year.
Cosmo Horrocks was never happy, did not have the innocence or optimism that such an uncomplicated emotion demanded. But as he sat back, eyes closed, for the rest of his journey to Leeds, he felt relish, anticipation, tinglings of excitement -- all the familiar emotions of a born muckraker.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Barnard