by Debbie Hewson
He always was surprised by the quiet. Outside cars and lorries thundered past, and the busy pavement was filled with shoppers. In here, in his wonderful old church, where he felt the love and protection of God all around him, was quiet and peace. He wished, he prayed, and he tried his best, that his congregation was larger, that they were younger, and that they came to church to find more than protection. This was, however, a neighbourhood where safety was high on everyone’s wish list. The streets after dark were dangerous, and gang activity was high. Only this morning, he had visited a local primary school to talk to the children about the gangs, and how to avoid being talked into them. He felt he was fighting a losing battle. The gangs offered respect, money, power. Only once they were in, did the children realize the cost.
He knelt at the altar, searching his heart and asking for help. He felt helpless in the face of the power of the local gangs, and yet, compelled to try. He had officiated at too many funerals since he had arrived here, for children who had seen too little of life, and tried to console their parents when no words or prayers could support their grief.
He heard the front door open and close, the noise of the traffic seeping in and then sealed off, and stayed where he was. Finishing his time with God, with a prayer of thanks, he made the sign of the cross and stood, bowing his head for a moment.
“You’ve been talking bad about me?” The voice filled the space. He turned to find a young man, probably barely out of his teens, standing in the aisle, feet planted wide, chest thrust out. He was in a ready-to-fight mode.
“How could I? I have no idea who you are.” The priest tilted his head sideways. “I’m Peter Bradshaw. I am the priest here. Who are you?”
“No business of yours, old man.” He shrugged his shoulders in a studied attitude of dismissal. “You badmouth the gang, you badmouth me. I am the gang, the gang is me.”
“Ah. I see the problem. Yes, I have been talking to primary school children to warn them about the gangs. I have no way of knowing how successful I have been. It’s my job.” The priest sat down in the front pew and held his hand out to welcome the young man to take a seat with him.
“You need to stop talking to the kids, or I will stop you.” The anger in his eyes sparked across the space.
“The trouble is that I owe more respect to my boss than to you. My job is to protect the kids from the life you want for them. I want better for them.” He smiled at the young man. “Come and sit down. Let’s talk about it.”
“No talking. Just stop doing it.” The young man threw himself across the church.
“I’m flattered that you think I am making such a difference. Enough to warrant a visit from you. Thank you for that. I was just considering whether what I was doing stood any chance at all.” The priest smiled.
“You’re married. What you’re doing is putting her in danger.” A nasty lift of his lip accompanied the threat.
“If I phoned my wife now, and told her what you said, I can tell you what she would say.” He raised an eyebrow. “She would invite you for dinner. She would tell me you needed something to eat, and for people to love you.” He nodded to himself. “She would be right.”
“You understand what will happen, if you carry on?” The young man stood in battle-ready mode again.
“Give me a chance to change your mind?” The priest suggested. “You came here today looking for power. Let me introduce you to the biggest power, the highest power. The strength that comes from love, not fear. The reason I can tell you I will carry on, and you will not stop me by threats, to me, or to my wife, because I am protected by more than a knife or a gun. If you want real power, you came to the right place.” The priest crossed the gap between them. “I know you have a weapon on you, but you cannot hurt my soul. Only the body my soul lives in.” He was within a few feet of the young man. “Give it your best shot.” He held his hands out to his sides.
“What?” The young man’s bravado and swagger competed with shock. This was clearly a new experience. People cowered, or came at him armed. This man stood with no protection except his belief. If he could convince his gang members to that sort of conviction, he could run the city.
“Right, so, shall we have a coffee, or a tea, I think there is some fizzy drink here somewhere?” The priest walked away from the confrontation, and into a small room off the church, where there was a kettle. He made two cups of tea and put on in front of each of them. “I am guessing that you are high up in the gang. I understand you are recruiting young kids to run drugs and guns around for you. I’m going to ask you not to, and also, I would like you and I to be friends. You do me this favour, as a friend, and I will be your friend. When you next get arrested, I will stand up in court and speak on your behalf, because we are friends.” The face across the table from him softened a little, and he picked up the tea.
“My Mum used to drink tea like this.” A smile took years from his features, then disappeared. The scowl descended again.
“Do you see her often?” The priest pushed biscuits across the table and watched two disappear.
“Not much since she died, four years ago.” He cracked a well-practiced smile, which he believed would hide the pain.
“I am so sorry for your loss. That must have been difficult for you. May I ask how she died?” The priest leaned his hand across the table.
“Gunshot wounds. That’ll do it.” He smirked. “Pops was a little peeved at finding her with another guy. He took them both out, and then turned the gun on himself. I was asleep in the next room with my brother. My brother’s still with social services. I got out. I made my own way. All I’m offering those kids you are so worried about, is a way to make their own choices, to make their own money and work their way up, the same way I did.” He sipped the tea.
“What if I could find your brother? Put you back in touch with him?” The priest watched the cocky expression change.
“I would like to see him. He could come to live with me. I can afford it. I have two kids of my own. I pay for them.” His chest puffed out. Pride? A demand for respect?
“What happens next for you?” The priest’s voice was quiet. “The gang is for the young. How long do you have left of being useful? What happens when you hit your twenties? Will you see your thirties?”
“I’m strong. I’m protected.” Another biscuit disappeared.
“But others would like to stand in your shoes?” The priest tilted his head.
“I won’t die in my bed, an old man, but I’m strong for now. I’ll get out before I put myself in danger. My kids, my woman, we can go away, leave it all behind, once I get enough money together. If you find my brother, I could take him away too.” He stood, pacing. “Yes, good. Find him. Tell me where he is. I’ll come back next week. Have an address for me.”
“I’ll see if I can find out where he is. They might allow you to visit. I don’t know. What name would I ask for?”
“Mark Gillan. I’m Danny.” He nodded to the priest.
“Good to meet you, Danny.” The priest held out his hand and waited. The young man hesitated to put his hand out. Slowly, he lifted his into the priest’s, and shook hands.
They walked together to the front door, and the priest watched bravado and swagger carry the young man down the street. The traffic thundered past and maybe that was what distracted him. The teenager in a hoodie who loped across the road, dodging cars and vans, brought a blade and determination with him, and having delivered his message, ran away down the street, leaving Danny Gillan bleeding onto the concrete.
The priest ran as fast as he could, dialling for an ambulance as he ran.
“Danny. I’ve called for an ambulance. They’re on the way. Hold on.” He pressed his hands down onto the wound to stem the blood flow. Their eyes met.
“You were right, priest. Find Markie for me, give him the life you talked about. You and me are friends, right?” The pain and fear in his eyes stripped away the swagger.
“I’m your friend, stay with me Danny.” The priest held tight.
“He cut me up inside, I won’t make it.” He winced with pain. “I’ve seen enough of these. Just promise me, you’ll find Markie, before they do. Let him follow you, not me.” His hand reached out and gripped the priest around the wrist.
“I will. I promise. Listen Danny, the sirens, they’re nearly here.” The gip around his wrist slackened, and the young man, who had been so strong, was gone.
The priest sat back on his heels, and laid the dead boy’s hands across his chest. He covered them with his own, the smears of blood mingling between them. He prayed with all his heart and soul, begging for understanding for the child who had been pushed into being a man before he was ready, and who had made bad choices.
The paramedics took him, and Peter walked back into the church. He washed the blood from his hands and changed his clothes. He knelt at the altar and repeated his prayers, wiping the tears that fell for the waste of a life, and the lack of chances the boy had been given. He bowed his head and finished his prayers, then dialled the number he had for social services. He was a man of his word, and he would find Mark Gillan if it was at all possible.
The social worker checked the records and quickly found him. He was on the foster list. An appointment was made and the wheels were set in motion. He stood and made his way towards the door to the street. Turning to the altar, to make his last bow, he saw the sunlight stream in through the stained glass, throwing coloured light across the aisle. He smiled to himself.
A promise made and kept. A prayer answered.
Debbie Hewson lives near the sea, in Dorset, where she is trying to renovate a 300-year-old house which is fighting her every step of the way. She loves to write, walk on the beach, and dance badly.