A Priest in the Family

Colm Tóibín

She watched the sky darken, threatening rain. ‘There’s no light at all these days,’ she said. ‘It’s been the darkest winter. I hate the rain or the cold, but I don’t mind it at all when there’s no light.’

Father Greenwood sighed and glanced at the window. ‘Most people hate the winter,’ he said.

She could think of nothing more to say and hoped that he might go now. Instead, he reached down and pulled up one of his grey socks, then waited for a moment before he inspected the other and then pulled that up too. ‘Have you seen Frank lately?’ he asked.

‘Once or twice since Christmas,’ she said. ‘He has too much parish work to come and visit me very much, and maybe that’s the way it should be. It would be terrible if it was the other way around, if he saw his mother more than his parishioners. He prays for me, I know that, and I would pray for him too if I believed in prayer, but I’m not sure I do. But we’ve talked about that, you know all that.’

‘Your whole life’s a prayer, Molly,’ Father Greenwood said and laughed warmly.

She shook her head in disbelief. ‘Years ago all the old women spent their lives praying. Now, we get our hair done and play bridge and go to Dublin on the free travel, and we say what we like. But I’ve to be careful what to say in front of Frank, he’s very holy. He got that from his father. It’s nice having a son a priest who’s very holy. He’s one of the old school. But I can say what I like to you.’

‘There are many ways of being holy,’ Father Greenwood said.

‘In my time there was only one,’ she replied.


When he had gone she got the RTE Guide and opened it for the evening’s television listings and began to set the video to record Glenroe. She worked slowly and carefully, concentrating. In the morning, when the Irish Times had been read, she would put her feet up and watch this latest episode. Now, in the hour she had to spare before she went out to play bridge, she sat at the dining-room table and flicked through the newspaper, examining headlines and photographs, but reading nothing, and not even thinking, letting the time pass easily.

It was only when she went to fetch her coat in the small room off the kitchen that she noticed Father Greenwood’s car still in front of the house; as she peered out, she could see him sitting in the driver’s seat.

Her first thought was that he was blocking her car and she would have to ask him to move. Later, that first thought would stay with her as a strange and innocent way of keeping all other thoughts at a distance; it was something which almost made her smile when she remembered it.

He opened the car door as soon as she appeared with her coat held distractedly over her arm.

‘Is there something wrong? Is it one of the girls?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘No, it isn’t.’

He moved towards her, preparing to make his way back into the house. She wished in the second they caught eyes that she could escape now to an evening of cards and company, get by him quickly and walk to the bridge club at the hotel, if she had to. Anything, she thought, to stop him saying whatever it was he had come to say.

‘Oh, it’s not the boys! Oh, don’t say it’s the boys have had an accident and you’re afraid to tell me!’ she said.

He shook his head with certainty. ‘No, Molly, not at all, no accident.’

As he reached her he caught her hand as though she would need his support nonetheless. ‘I know you have to go and play bridge,’ he said.

She believed then that it could not be anything urgent or important. If she could still play bridge then clearly no one was dead or injured. ‘I have a few minutes,’ she said.

‘Maybe I can come back another time. We can talk more,’ he said.

‘Are you in any trouble?’ she asked.

He looked at her as though the question puzzled him. ‘No,’ he said.

She put her coat down on a chair in the hallway.

‘No,’ he said again, his voice quieter.

‘Then we’ll leave it for another time,’ she said calmly and smiled as best she could. She watched him hesitate, and she became even more determined that she would go immediately. She picked up her coat and made sure the keys were in the pocket. ‘If it can wait, then it can wait,’ she said.

He turned away from her, walking back to his car.

‘Right you be,’ he said. ‘Enjoy your night. I hope I didn’t alarm you.’

She was already moving away from him, her car keys in her hand, having closed the front door firmly behind her.


The next day, when she had finished her lunch, she took her umbrella and her raincoat and walked to the library on the Back Road. It would be quiet, she knew, and Miriam the new girl would have time for her, she hoped. There was already a molly@hotmail.com, Miriam had told her on her last visit to learn how to use the library computer, so for her first email address she would need to add something to the word ‘Molly’ to make it original, with a number maybe, hers alone.

‘Can I be Molly1924?’ she had asked.

‘Is that the year you were born, Mrs O’Neill?’ Miriam had stood over her smiling warmly, shaking her head.

‘It is.’

‘Well you don’t look your age at all.’

Her fingers had stiffened with age, but her typing was as accurate and fast as when she was 20.

‘If I could just type, I’d be fine,’ she said as Miriam moved an office chair close to the computer and sat beside her, ‘but that mouse will be the end of me. It doesn’t do what I want it to do at all. And my grandsons, the two oldest ones who know all about computers, they laughed when I called it a rat. They can make it do whatever they want. I hate having to click. It was much simpler in my day. Just typing. No clicking.’

‘Oh when you’re sending emails and getting them, you will see the value of it,’ Miriam said.

‘Yes, I told them I was going to send them an email as soon as I could. I’ll have to think of what to put into it.’

She turned her head when she heard voices and saw two women from the town returning books to the library. They were studying her with a fierce curiosity.

‘Look at you Molly. You’ve gone all modern,’ one of them said.

‘You have to keep up with what’s going on,’ she said.

‘You never liked missing anything, Molly. You’ll get all the news from that now.’

She turned and began to practise opening her hotmail account, as Miriam went to attend to the women, and she did not turn again as she heard them browsing among the stacks of books, speaking to one another in hushed voices.

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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