Twice a day, walking to and from work, the lecturer passes a building whose entrance has one door open and one shut. Twice a day he turns his head to avoid it.
Then he thinks: if only I could slip into that quiet place of muted light, where statues are surrounded by the bobbing flames of small candles — just for a moment — that would be enough.
But no. He cannot be seen entering a church. Not he, renowned biologist and famous author of a treatise against religious superstition. Someone would tell; he would be as mocked as the psychics and reiki healers whom he regularly denounces as frauds. Then again, things have been tough recently; his wife’s interest in spirituality, not to mention the daily hate flung in his direction by ignorant fools and clergymen. (Often, in his experience, they are one and the same.) There is something darkly tempting about that half-opened church door — lose yourself in me, it seems to whisper.
So one evening, he steps in. The air is so still that every particle of dust appears to hang in it. The dark-coloured tiles are marble but their pattern is like parquet. He sits on a wooden pew and looks up at a stained glass representation of the life of Jesus. Its colours blur and separate as the afternoon sun streams through the panes. He meditates on mitosis and meiosis; on Drosophila, the fruit-fly whose genes they had used to create embryos without hearts; on the slow heat-death of an expanding, wearying, darkening universe —
— when he is disturbed by the sound of a door opening, one of the confession boxes on the other side of the room. He does not turn around to look. The door closes again. He is pushing his luck, staying here so long. Time to leave.
But on rising and turning around, he comes face to face with a smiling black man in green robes and a priest’s collar. Please don’t let him recognise me, the lecturer silently implores.
“Can I help you, sir?” A West African accent.
Still in shock, the lecturer forgets his manners. “Do you know who I am?” he blurts out.
“No, I do not. Should I?”
“No — ah — are you sure? You definitely don’t know who I am?”
The priest shakes his head, smiling. “As God is my witness, I have never seen you before in my life.”
“Ah.” The lecturer is shaking with relief. “Thank you. You’ve been a great help.” He realises that his words make no sense, and this time the priest does not smile. “I should go now. I really need to…” and before the nonplussed priest can say anything more, he scuttles down the aisle, still muttering goodbyes over his shoulder.
Outside, he blinks in the sun. What an idiot he has been! He sees the forsythia bushes by the railings, the passing clouds in the sky, the first drops of rain touch his face — this transient earth in all its beauty and multiplicity, born and dying — and relaxes once more. He will never do that again, ever.
Nor will he ever dwell on that request — let him not recognise me — or think about Who might have granted it, and why.
Susan Lanigan writes in Dublin, Ireland.