I never meant to fall in love with her. I knew I mustn’t. Throughout my priesthood I had followed the path – Christ’s path and my whole being subsumed in God’s glory. My best work was helping troubled souls. My life’s mission was to heal the sick as Christ had done. Being a priest allowed me that privilege and I embraced it completely when I took my vows in my mid-twenties.
Frances turned up at an Open AA meeting in my local parish of Beckley, Somerset. I always attended these monthly meetings as non-alcoholics or family and friends were allowed in and take part. I was welcomed for my humour and compassion and felt privileged to be there.
She hadn’t noticed me. I saw her and inexplicably fell hopelessly in love with her. What was it that I saw? She was beautiful to be sure, but it was something else – her face shone with humanity. She seemed totally unaware of herself and the effect she had on other people, men and women alike. I thought she was one of the world’s innocents. I wanted to get to know her better – to be close to her, to breathe into her.
During the tea break I approached her. “My name is John, Father John from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church. I admire your honesty and am sorry for the sadness you’ve had in your life. All will be well in time I am sure, but thank you for speaking so openly about the problems you are facing right now”. I tried not to sound patronising. I just wanted to be close so my words tumbled out. I think she recognised this and smiled – a radiant smile. “That’s OK” she said. I took this as an opportunity to spend more time with her. We were leaning against a radiator at the local village hall and I had her attention. She didn’t seem to mind as she quietly sipped her tea. “I love to hear all your stories – of how you descended into a hell, not necessarily of your own making, but I love to hear of your recovery and how you all cope now, in a harsh world without the escape of drink or drugs. I admire you all. I’ve brought Adrian here with me this evening – it’s his first meeting and he’s talking to his sponsor over there. I know you will all make him feel welcome.” Before she could respond her friend Betty came over to ask her a personal question. I backed off and walked into the kitchen with my tea cup. As the weeks went by I became more and more immersed in her. I studied her and she was totally unaware of me.
One day I plucked up the courage to speak to her after the meeting as she was walking towards her car. She was familiar with my presence and laughed at my quirky humour and charm or so I thought. She always talked freely to me, as she did with others, so it was easy to catch her up before she got into her car.
I told her that I had to travel to Rome and Florence on behalf of the Parish and would be away for a couple of months and could I please send her a postcard from time to time while I was on my travels? She stalled for just a moment and then said “Yes of course”. It was her innocence – her vulnerability as much as her beauty that seemed to paralyse my senses. I was obsessed with her – her free spirit – I wanted that – for myself, but also with her. My Sabbatical was necessary for me to get a grip on my emotions. The thought of her brought up such memories from my own past – my youth in particular and my decision, eventually to give myself to God. I became angry with God and railed against my self–inflicted shackles. In the silence of my room I argued with Him. “Why can’t I have both – love of another human being and You? Why? Why? Was my job in life so difficult that it had to take me away from loving a woman within the sanctity of marriage – and for us to support each other’s paths throughout this life on earth?” I had many sleepless nights. The decision to stay or leave weighed heavily on my mind for weeks and I became withdrawn. I welcomed the chance to go away and contemplate on the life that I’d known for the last 30 years.
Those two months in Italy were the worst of my life. Every week I mailed her a postcard, writing only about each town and village I visited. My stupid humour joked about putting “Wish you were here” on the card, but then I cried and prayed. I had never known such torment and for the first time in my life I really questioned my faith and my commitment to God. Even more I agonised about her feelings for me. I had no idea whether she would or could reciprocate my feelings as she had many admirers within the AA group she attended. How could I betray her innocence and my duty just because I wanted her – wanted her so badly that I couldn’t rationalise my reasons. I had no one to confide in. This was my guilty secret. My trip to Italy brought me a suntan but no easing of mind. I couldn’t wait to see her again – to see if there was even a hint of love or at least deep friendship between us.
I saw her again, sitting in the same seat holding the same tea cup with her name on it. She looked radiant and she seemed so excited to see me. I smiled and gave her a gentle hug and kiss on the cheek. My heart started racing. We all sat down and later she spoke. I couldn’t believe it – my shoulders visibly dropped. Excitedly she shared her news with us. “Yes and I’ve been accepted. They want me to start work in two months’ time so I shall be looking for a house by the sea down south. I am so looking forward to it.” I wept inwardly and put my hand up to ruffle my hair – to mask my face. I had to speak to her, had to tell her that I loved her with every bone in my body. Before thinking I blurted out “Frances you are like a beautiful butterfly. You’ve flown into my life. You’ve touched my soul and my heart. Now you’re flying away, to make other people happy. I shall see you in heaven”. I felt a fool – a romantic fool – an infatuated man in a cheap paperback. My face smiled but my heart broke. All my training had never prepared me for this amount of pain.
Frances smiled at me from across the room. I wonder if she really knew that I’d never be the same again. My words were drowned out by the hail of congratulations from the other members of the Group. I sobbed inwardly. Indeed, she was a free spirit, something I would never be. I now had to tread the long path to salvation as my friends in this room were doing. Only for me it wasn’t the alcohol it was the love of a beautiful woman – a love not meant to be.
A SHORT STORY BY MARY LEADBETTER