By sean mcnulty
It was 1953.
Father Masterson stood at the back of Mr Littlewood’s drawing room in front of a long baronial mirror, carefully combing his hair. He liked to keep himself to himself and keep it well he did. There was madness reflecting in his eyes which only Father Stinson had seen so far, something irrational, maybe destructive.
It was eleven o’clock in the pm and they were glad of the hot fire they now had before them after that long drive across the country.
Mr Littlewood brought in a stack of newspapers and set them on the table along with a big rusty pot of tea. Father Geissel thanked him, grabbed the first paper, and went straight for the obits.
‘It’s a cold one out there tonight,’ said Mr Littlewood. ‘Listen.’
It resounded surely, the cold: like a wild man outside trying to get in, howling and shaking the walls of the building.
‘But he won’t be getting in here, you can be certain of that.’
Father Stinson took to surveying the Littlewood mantelpiece. He enjoyed a good mantelpiece with a nice spread of ornaments and heirlooms. On this one, he could see a family photo featuring Mr Littlewood, and his late wife Mrs Littlewood, and holding his mother’s hand, the young Fergal Littlewood, who they were all destined to meet at dawn. On the other end of the mantelpiece, Stinson’s eyes were drawn to the statue of a Madonna and Child. It was so painstakingly realised and visually splendid that Stinson rose to have a closer look. He then glanced at Mr Littlewood and nodded simply his appreciation of the ornament, to which Mr Littlewood nodded in return, but with wistful remembrance and a bubbling tear; the ornament clearly served a far greater purpose for him, providing further depths of emotional value.
‘Beautiful, yes, yes, beautiful,’ said Father Geissel, lifting his head out of the paper to join the moment. ‘I like a half-decent Madonna and Child myself, I do.’
‘Half-decent?’ Stinson turned, astonished. ‘This is beautiful.’
‘Yes, didn’t I just say that?’
There was a history of seafaring to experience beyond religious imagery if you were to take a stroll around the room: fishing trophies and medals, old maps, pictures of great hauls the family had taken in the past. But the priests wouldn’t see any of these things as they weren’t to take a stroll around the drawing room that night. They were too tired.
‘So where are you headed?’ Mr Littlewood asked.
‘North to Greenland,’ replied Father Stinson.
‘Ah, up North. You’ll be fine with my lad, Fathers. He’s used to those waters out there. And up there. I taught him myself, you know.’
‘We’re bringing God to the Godless Greenlanders, don’t you know,’ said Father Geissel. ‘They need their kayaks blessed.’
‘Well, someone has to do it,’ said Mr Littlewood. ‘Sure we were all heathens ourselves once, weren’t we? I’m glad my boy is being of some service to the Lord. His late mother, God rest her soul, would be as proud as I am this evening.’
There had been some argument over where they should set sail from, but they finally had to settle on Killybegs in Donegal as the only boat willing to carry them that far north was based there. The Dolores Costello: owned and captained by Fergal Littlewood. Their primary destination was Scoresbysund in eastern Greenland, but then they meant to travel further northwards to a mostly uninhabited region where a smaller settlement of Inuit people had been reportedly growing. Their mission: God, at first, of course. But they were in possession of other trades with which to edify the lord’s new delegates: Father Teddy Geissel was chosen to counter their traditional cosmology with the Christian position, but he taught music as well and carried with him a three-stringed balalaika, the only instrument he had, which he’d picked up during his travels in Russia; Father Ronan Masterson – well, he would teach mathematics, but not much was known about him other than that, and also that he was rather sullen and thorny; and Father Aidan Stinson, he would teach literacy. And sincerity. And the word of the Lord he would throw into the mix too.
Father Stinson rose to wish them all goodnight. Only Mr Littlewood was responsive. The other two seemed half-asleep already. He realised he was a lucky man. There were two spare bedrooms in the house and he had been offered the smaller of the two, which meant he had the room to himself. Poor Geissel would have to share with Masterson. What a frightening circumstance that was. As Stinson reached the staircase, the approaching journey they were all about to take sent more pangs his way, and he seized up in a sort of paralysis. Did he bring this? Yes. Did he bring that? Yes. No. Wait. Maybe. Yes. Yes. He did. He was able to vanquish these jitters by recalling the importance of what he was about to do, the voyage he was about to undertake. There was nothing casual about this specific moment he had arrived at in his life. It was a point in time perhaps more significant than any other. He had always been a messenger of God, but now he was about to truly become a messenger, in the fullest sense of the word; a labouring spokesman for our Lord on the ground, but now with a greater errand to run; no longer just a salesman in the office, he was out there, going from door to door, a delivery man, pressing the flesh. Would the recipients of his good news amiably receive? Or would they set their dogs on him? Who knows? Maybe. Big dogs they have up there in that part of the world. The huskies.
Father Stinson took off his shoes. And he folded his clothes in the careful respectful manner all young priests did, afterwards placing his collar on top of the folded robes, and looking down at the whole costume for a moment with pride.
The bed was as warm as any he had ever known, so he rolled himself up in the blankets as he was prone to do as a boy. He should enjoy this warmth now as much cold was about to invade his lifetime. God had led him to this warm bed. And to this point of no return. But he had accepted this post enthusiastically, he thought, said yes to all phases of the programme, so if no return was God’s plan, he would gladly accept that too.
Sleep came soon for Father Aidan Stinson that night and across the town of Killybegs, there were others sleeping soundly too. Many Captains were also warm in their beds, dreaming of welcoming oceans, while out in the docking bay, their vessels were still up, vibrating dutifully on the water, each with one eye open, managing the Atlantic winds, and holding position.
One of those boats was Dolores Costello. Her Captain was with her that night. He wasn’t tucked away in his warm bed, but he was sleeping – on the cabin floor, drunk.
His hand was bleeding after punching out a lightbulb earlier in anger. That bulb would have to be replaced first thing in the morning.