Extract from For Our Sins

January 8th 1983 – Saturday

He can still feel the heat of the priest’s breath on his face, smell the stink of whisky, hear the harshly-whispered words echo in his head.

‘Stay there and don’t make a sound. You know what will happen if you do.’

It’s dark here in the closet, warm as he is surrounded by the cassocks so recently removed by the other altar boys. He still wears his. Knows it will be worse for him if he takes it off before he’s told to. It will be worse for him whatever he does. The interruption feels like a small blessing. But soon enough the distraction will be done, the special ministrations begin.

God’s love, visited through him. That’s what Father O’Connell says, and isn’t he God’s voice? What he says, what he does, can’t be wrong. A priest cannot sin. Can he?

Footsteps on the stone floor, and he shrinks back into the closet, wraps the cassocks around himself, breath stopped, eyes squeezed tight. He does not want Father O’Connell to come back, even as he knows it is a sin to refuse God’s grace. 

A noise of the closet door being yanked open. He can only hold still as a growing warmth spreads from his crotch and down his leg. Fear smells like piss. An eternity passes as he waits for the hand to reach in and grab him. And then the closet door slams. He trembles with relief as he hears new noises. The clink and thud of silver against silver.  Another crash, the familiar sound of the vestry door as it slams shut. And then a silence falls so total he wonders if he has gone deaf. Only his heart, and the soft bubbling of snot from his nose reassure him he has not. 

How long does he wait there, unable to move? An hour? Five minutes? He cannot say. And then another sound, low like the sad keening of an injured beast. It rises and falls until he can’t know whether it is real or his imagination. He reaches for the door, black in front of him. Father O’Connell had latched it closed, but now it swings open to his touch. Slowly, wincing at the dampness in his trousers, he steps out of the closet.

Across the small vestry, the door to the outside hangs ajar. The censer, chalice and candlesticks are gone from where they had been left for him to polish for Sunday mass. Chairs lie on the floor, hymnals scattered and ripped. The priest is nowhere to be seen.

He should flee, he knows. Run all the way home. But he knows, too, the hell that awaits those who disobey God’s will. And who knows God’s will better than a priest? Slowly, reluctantly, he walks a squelching path to the other door and the nave beyond.


His voice trembles and squeaks, he knows it will annoy the priest. But there is no answer from the gloom. No light from the dirty, stained-glass windows. Only fat candles on the altar to cast any illumination.


He takes the two stone steps down, passes the pews and into the aisle. A nod of the head, the instinctive sign of the cross as he turns to face the altar. And that’s when he sees.

Father O’Connell lies on his front, arms wide as if he’s praying. But he is still, so still. No sound of murmured prayer. A step towards the altar, uncertain. Then another, and a third. He cannot see the priest’s face, his lank black hair splayed out around his head like a fan. Longer than it should be, it spreads past his shoulders, down the steps to the chancel. 

Not hair. 


He crouches by the still form, unsure what to do. There is so much blood. Is the priest dead? Before the thought has faded, a hand reaches out and grabs his wrist. That same hand that has touched him too many times before, administered God’s special grace. He tries to pull away, but the grip is too strong, the weight of it heavy as the priest pulls himself slowly around. Bloodshot eyes, crazy and wide with something that looks like fear. Flecks of bloody spittle cover his lips, spot the rough stubble on his chin as the priest croaks in a voice laced with panic and despair and utter, utter terror.

‘Help. Me.’