As the tepid early-autumn evening faded into cold, the priest drove slowly up the pronounced slope of a leafy street of houses. One side of the road was scattered with parked cars, and he peered into the gaps between them, through the patchy foliage of front gardens as his own car – a modest, navy blue hatchback – crawled along. As another car drew up impatiently behind him, he spied the right house number past a large evergreen shrub, a pair of glinting brass digits screwed jauntily into one of the wooden supports of the porch.
He chose not to turn into the driveway. Instead, he continued a little way further along the road before, indicating politely, he pulled into the space between two cars, one tyre nudging the raised concrete of the kerb.
Giving himself a walk of thirty or forty metres or so, he had learned, was ideal. For reasons of time and breath control, it was best not to go much further away than this. But it didn't do to park right outside a family's house, even if there was space available, and he was convinced that the sight of him striding to the front door, ringing the bell and then, when business was concluded, stepping outside and walking out of sight, rather than having them watch him fold himself into the driver's seat, brought more comfort and decorum to the proceedings. Things had changed – the village clergyman could no longer be content with doing his rounds, and he had to get mobile – but there were still standards to uphold. Priests did not stoop, nor take a long step with their leading leg into the driver's side footwell. Priests did not reverse a motor vehicle with an audience present. Not if it could be helped.
The pathway to the front door was gravel. The priest enjoyed the sound and the sensation of it under his feet; his shoes were simple quarter brogues, dark brown and unlikely to attract attention, and their flat soles compressed the gravel chips underneath each foot with a high rippling noise. Passing the evergreen shrub which he had seen from the road, he saw that the rest of the front garden was in a state of lapsed repair, with the odd weed beginning to sprout between the foliage of the flowerbeds and through the undisturbed portions of the gravel, a smattering of dead heads hanging from plants and littering the ground.
The man who opened the door looked tired. He was about the same height as the priest but, noticing the pronounced rounding of his shoulders, the priest imagined that he would be taller, under a different set of circumstances.
In his line of work, the priest had become deeply acquainted with the types of aromas which emanated when a front door was opened. The more time passed, the more strongly he sensed that the homes of happy families smelled all alike, while each unhappy family home smelled unhappy in its own way. Here there was cleanliness, with a hint of something that might have been wood polish, but which failed to conceal fully the pronounced and acrid smell of something that had burnt. It was cheese, perhaps, high and sharp in the air after having dripped onto the floor of the oven.
'Why don't you come in?' the man said.
The man had made no attempt to shake the priest's hand, and had there been a moment, it would surely have passed by now. Instead the priest nodded politely.
'Righto,' he said. Then, 'Would you like me to take off my shoes?'
'That's all right,' the man said. The priest didn't know if he meant that it would be all right to take off his shoes, or that it would be all right not to take off his shoes, but as he stood there in the hallway for a fraction of a second longer, the man turned away and beckoned him with an incline of the head.
'You must be Mr Ellis,' the priest said, as he followed the man he hoped was Mr Ellis into a small living room. He made a mental note: in future, it would be best not to allow things to progress this far while the possibility remained that he could be in the wrong house.
The man stopped and turned abruptly back to him.
'Mark,' he said. 'Mark is fine. Anyway, shall we...'
He tailed off and gestured to the room around him. Two children – a girl who couldn't have been more than eight or nine, and a boy a few years older, thoroughly a teenager – sat on a bluish sofa and cast sidelong glances at the priest and the man who was, presumably, their father.
The priest had seen his share of living rooms. And yet he couldn't tell, exactly, what was curious about this one. It was comfortable, certainly, although the colour scheme struck him as a touch cool for a living room. There wasn't an awful lot in it – little in the way of suggestion that a lively family lived here, although this tended to be the habit of the aspirational classes. There was a large television, a couple of places to sit, but otherwise there were those self-conscious nods to minimalist trends which, again, began to make the place seem more typical. Perhaps the furniture was too close together.
'Hello,' the priest said.
'Hello,' the two children said back to him, neither of them making much effort to meet his gaze.
The priest noted the armchair which had been earmarked for him, so he took a couple of steps across the room and sat down. He took out his notepad and pencil, while Mr Ellis – Mark – remained standing rather awkwardly in the doorway. The priest looked up to him and smiled. 'Sorry,' the man said, 'did you want anything? A cup of tea, or...?'
'Lovely,' the priest said. 'Milk and two big sugars, thank you.' Mark began to turn away, and then the boy stood up instead.
'I'll get it,' he said, not to anybody in particular but to the room, and his father stepped aside to allow him to pass, toward the kitchen from which emanated the smell of burnt cheese. Mark now stepped more fully into the room and took up the seat which his son had just vacated. There was nowhere else to sit, other than the armchair which the priest now occupied. Perhaps the discomfort of the place was simply a matter of numbers.
'Daisy,' Mark now said to the girl sitting next to him, 'did you say hello?'
Daisy nodded and looked down at the floor. Mark looked up at the priest. The priest nodded too, and smiled. Silence began to refill the room, and then the babble of a boiling kettle started to filter in from the kitchen, somewhere at the back of the house.
'It's just—' Mark started to say, and then broke off sharply, the thought catching in his throat.
'Please,' said the priest, 'go ahead.'
'Well, it's just... we're not really looking for a religious service.'
The priest gave again the nod which he was accustomed to giving, a mere downward incline with a grace note of upward movement at either end. It didn't do, he had found, to jerk his head up and down wildly, such that an onlooker could begin counting the individual nods. A priestly nod, he decided, ought to convey assent or, above all, understanding. Not enthusiasm.
'The funeral director, he said...'
Mark seemed again to be looking for the right words to convey a thought which was, nevertheless, very concrete indeed.
'Well,' he went on, 'he said you wouldn't mind. Said that you did the other kind too.' Again the nod.
'Of course,' the priest said. 'Perhaps we can wait for...?'
He gestured toward the door, out toward where his ears told him the kitchen was. And his nose. It was another very practised gesture, not really a point at all, just the index and ring fingers a little more extended than the others, a raising of the elbow above the horizontal. This, after all, was everything that was needed to convey something so meagre as direction.
Silence fell again, and then the footsteps of the boy. In spite of the priest's deliberate tailing-off, the father hadn't told him his son’s name. The boy held a mug out to him, holding it by the handle so that the priest could only clasp the body of the mug, which was shockingly hot. He attempted to grasp it with his fingertips around the upper rim, hoping to keep his palm clear. It was a delicate operation.
'Thank you,' he said, manoeuvring the mug into a more comfortable position as best he could; there was, he saw, nowhere to put it. The room sorely needed a coffee table. Instead, the priest perched the cup of tea on an arm of the chair, gently holding the handle with as much pressure as was needed to keep it upright. The boy, for his part, turned back, saw that his seat had been taken, and instead took up a position on the floor by an available upright strip of wall, his knees drawn up partway to his chest. He hadn't made tea for anyone else.
'Now,' the priest said, speaking even more softly than was typical for him, 'I understand that you've suffered a loss.'
The father, Mr Ellis, looked at him strangely. Daisy, the little girl, the younger child, turned to look at her father.
'What does that mean?' she said.
'Er, yes,' Mr Ellis – Mark – said, not troubling himself to answer his daughter but clearly hoping she could, instead, follow his answer to the priest. 'My wife. The children's mother. Cancer. I thought someone would have told you... I mean... that is why you're here?'
'Of course,' the priest said. 'Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about her?'
The family exchanged a series of vacant looks, Mark in particular seeming earnestly to hope that one of his children would step up to the challenge. The priest took a sip of his tea, which was scalding, strong enough to be satisfactory but not sweet enough for his liking.
'She'd have been better at this kind of thing,' Mark said. 'Ironically, I suppose. She was always more of a talker. Good with the kids, you know.' The priest nodded slowly, sympathetically.
'And what sort of things do you think your mum was good at?' the priest asked, now directly addressing the young man. 'Thank you for the tea, by the way. Top notch.' He took another sip.
The boy shrugged.
'Birthday cakes, I spose. Stuff like that.'
'Chocolate!' the girl now piped up, suddenly animated. 'And with those coloured things on top, what are they called?'
Her brother didn't answer her. Nor did her father, and the girl seemed to withdraw once again back into herself. It was as though she realised that she had said something inappropriate, felt it from the way the atmosphere of the room clenched nervously around her, but couldn't understand why, or what was wrong with what she had said. For reasons too complex to explain to a young child, this was not a room in which chocolate ought to feature.
The priest felt for her, though he didn't much care for cake himself, preferring biscuits or scones. His mind wandered to recollections of laden trestle tables in the church hall, and he chided himself inwardly for succumbing to the distraction.
'And how about your problems, worries, concerns, that kind of thing?' The boy looked back at the priest, pulling a confused face.
'I mean,' the priest said, then stopped briefly to clear his throat with a single, barely audible cough into a loosely-clenched fist. 'I mean, was she good at listening? Did she give good advice?' The boy was quiet.
'She did, Michael. Didn't she? I think she did,' Mark said, just as his son began slowly shaking his head, not necessarily in outright denial but for want of anything to say on the subject.
The priest took another sip of his tea, which is to say that he raised the cup, made the assessment that he had begun already to deplete the contents more rapidly than he ought, and instead just pursed his lips and allowed the tea to moisten them very slowly. He lowered the mug again to the arm of the chair, then swallowed with an empty mouth. The evening's light was beginning to fade outside, and a few drops of fine rain were beginning to streak the window, which looked out over the unkempt garden, the evergreen shrub hiding much of the road from view, other than a few parked cars visible around it.
'Very good,' the priest said, although he wasn't quite sure what was good. 'Perhaps now we ought to get down to business. I don't want to intrude on your evening.'
'Yes,' Mark said. 'I mean, no, it's fine, but perhaps we should. I think we want a... secular funeral? Is that what you would call it?'
The priest didn't know what he would call it himself, but he nodded all the same.
'I needn't read from the Bible,' the priest said. 'Do you have any readings you would like me to include?'
There was a silence in which Daisy, the daughter, fidgeted on the sofa and seemed mostly to be looking out of the window.
'You don't read enough, kids, do you?' Mark said. His son scowled at him. There were little more than a handful of books to be seen in the small living room. 'I was thinking... "if there are any heavens", I think? E.E Cummings? Do you know that one?' The priest did not.
'I don't,' he said. 'A poem, is it?'
'Yes,' Mark said. '"If there are any heavens my mother will have one all to herself." Something like that. Black-red roses.' He shook his head. 'Can't really remember it now. Maybe you could look it up?'
'Of course,' the priest said. There was a carriage clock, rather old-fashioned, on the windowsill near to him – the room didn't have a mantelpiece to speak of – and he had just noticed its tick, resonant near to his head, surely now to bore into him for the rest of the meeting. He tried to nudge any feelings of impatience down within himself. This ought to be how he preferred to spend his evenings; his home, his own living room, with its smaller television but more comfortable seating, could wait.
'Do you think my mum's in heaven?' Daisy asked, as the silence began again to hang uncomfortably around them.
'Daisy,' her father said to her, sharply, 'you can't ask him that.'
He looked pained, wringing his face in an apologetic gesture as he turned, without another word, to the priest.
'No,' the priest said, 'of course. I mean, of course she can ask me that.'
He began to turn toward the little girl, who was looking up at him sadly now, very nearly making eye contact for the first time since he came into the room. She had otherwise been looking anywhere but here, out of the window or down at the floor or, occasionally, somewhere into the centre of her father's torso. Mark was looking at him too, in a way which might have suggested a warning but might, too, have represented some genuine interest, some desire for a truth which he wanted and needed just as much as his young daughter did. The priest knew he ought to address only the daughter, and yet he felt his words should take into account the other two as well, even the son who was remaining steadfastly quiet.
'Yes,' the priest said, slowly and gently, 'we believe that all good people go to heaven after they die.'
'How do you know if someone's a good person?' the girl asked him.
'Well...' the priest said, and again that little catch came in his throat, and again he had to pause and cough just once, as shallowly as he felt he reasonably could, but in the time it took him to clear his throat, he felt the family had time to mistake his pause for hesitation.
'There's no such thing as heaven,' the girl's brother now said, leaping into the space which the priest had allowed him to fill. 'It doesn't matter if you're a good person or a bad person. When you die, you're dead. That's what being dead means. It means you're dead.'
'Michael,' Mark said, his voice now tending perilously close to being raised, 'stop it. Now.'
The priest raised a hand, palm-out. It might be taken as a confrontational gesture, he knew, to make to a man in his own house, but the priest felt it was a calculated move to defuse some of the tension from the situation. The boy looked sullen, and seemed to compress himself more deeply still into the right angle formed of the wall and the floor.
'It's all right,' the priest said. 'Michael, I'm not here to convert anyone. We don't have to agree. I wouldn't want to make an enemy of someone who makes a cup of tea this good.'
The priest smiled down at Michael, who looked defiant from his cross-legged pose, then nodded in quiet assent.
'Of course,' the priest said, 'we don't have to decide everything now. We can all do a bit of reading and agree on a poem or two, perhaps?'
He looked around the room with warmth, waiting for assent which was only ever implied. Nevertheless, a tentative peace had formed, ushered in by the mild nod of the son, and the priest felt the time was right to draw proceedings to a close. He couldn't have been here for more than fifteen minutes.
'And I won't say a word about the chap upstairs,' the priest went on, 'unless you want me to.' Now Mr Ellis, too, gave a decisive nod.
'I'll have a look at your poem, Mark. I'm sure there won't be a dry eye in the house.'
The father had been looking at him with something which resembled relief, but at this, his brow furrowed. He inclined his head, questioningly, confused, as though this comment from the priest was one which required elucidation. A flash of something mutinous, meanwhile, came over the son, while the daughter, Daisy, seemed to have vanished into her own little world, not particularly lingering in her contemplation of the question regarding her mother's entry into heaven.
'Well,' the priest said, standing up, 'perhaps I can show myself out. You have my details.'
He made his way out of the room without a word from any of the family, and in the hall he paused as though to put on his shoes, before he remembered that he had never taken them off in the first place. Behind the front door, concealed from his view when he came in, was a picture of the intact family. The absent mother, who so resembled the son but not so much the daughter, seemed to regard him with warmth, something around her eyes radiant with forgiveness, which the priest silently accepted from her.
After he closed the front door gently behind him, the noise of the gravel under his feet almost concealed the sound of raised voices from back inside the house. As soon as he rounded the great evergreen shrub next to the driveway, the priest quickened his stride.
James Reay Williams is a former academic, having lectured in world literature at universities in the UK. He recently left academia behind and now lives, writes and plays too much chess in Helsinki. 'The Law of Kindness' is his first published short story.