“Vacancy” by Antain Mac Lochlainn

There was a vacancy in the Balcrusha Institute for Theology, and it had to be filled. That meant interviewing candidates to an unchanging formula that no one thought of as broken or in need of fixing. Applicants would be examined by a panel of five, chaired by Fr Phelan, S.J., the Institute’s Director for one quarter of a century. He was always joined by two clergymen, the Institute’s own Head of Extra-Mural Courses, Father Prior, and a visiting cleric from the Dublin Institute of Theological Inquiry. This was always the very elderly Fr Taggart, favoured by Fr Phelan precisely because he never contributed anything. No one ever asked Fr Taggart if he was nearing retirement; it seemed unfair to ask. Then there was the Woman, and a local businessman, who would unfailingly ask just one question of the interviewees: ‘How would you go about raising funds for the Institute?’

The philosophical probing was left up to Fr Phelan, very much the bad cop to Fr Prior’s simpering cop and Fr Taggart’s bewildered cop. He didn’t always succeed in concealing his dislike for the applicants, nor his disapproval at the appointment of lay teachers in the Institute. Across Ireland, control of schools and hospitals was slipping from the Church, and here, in what should be the citadel of clerical dominance, they were allowing non-priests to interpret the doctrines of Catholicism. He felt that the interviewees lacked humility, wanted something for nothing out of life. The most trivial accomplishments were magnified in their CVs with a kind of idiot pride. Mediocre degrees, a few weeks teaching experience here and there. Hospital radio broadcasting. Then there was one who boasted of being able to finish the Simplex crossword in the Irish Times ‘almost always’. As a result Fr Phelan had long since stopped reading the CVs before the interviews. ‘I shall allow them to wow me on the day,’ he wrote in his diary, and wondered how the italic irony of wow could be rendered in handwriting.

Today’s first two applicants had been badly wanting in the wow factor and the tedium was needlessly prolonged by Fr Prior’s incessant small-talk. ‘A Leitrim man, eh? I say, “Show me a Leitrim man and I’ll show you a teacher!” When the businessman asked his fund-raising question the first interviewee took offence at having to bring his mind to bear on such a worldly matter. Finally he
suggested that the Institute could produce a strong liquor ‘like some of the monastic orders in Europe.’ Fr Phelan was merciless. ‘Do you not see, my dear fellow, that ‘Balcrusha’ or ‘Baile na Croise’, well they lack the poetic quality of, say, ‘Benedictine’? But perhaps your drink could be marketed towards modern ladies of a feminist tendency and given the name Ballcrusher.’

By half past twelve all but one of the applicants had been processed. The reasons for denying them employment had to be put on record and although Fr Phelan argued for the single-word entry ‘feeble-mindedness’, he was faced down by legalistic arguments from the Woman. ‘Fr Phelan,’ she said, ‘you should familiarise yourself with Fair Employment legislation. Any disappointed applicant can demand to see our notes and argue that we discriminated against him because of, oh I don’t know…because he’s gay or from Leitrim or something. And how would it look if our sole comment after a full half hour’s talking was ‘feeble-mindedness?’’
‘I could easily add to that,’ said Fr Phelan half-heartedly. The room was hot and he was tired. He felt older than his sixty-four years. And so they agreed on formulas and euphemisms and considerate wordings. Lack of teaching experience. An imperfect grasp of current issues in Catholic theological discourse. And blah, blah bloody blah. Lunch would be a blessed relief, but he heard again the happy bleat of Fr Prior, asking, as always, ‘Who’s next for the chop?’ The businessman shuffled his notes. ‘Oh yes, I feel we may have kept the best wine to last.’ He paused, waiting to be congratulated on the Biblical reference. ‘Yes, indeed. One Raymond O’Donnell, from Donegal.’
‘Donegal, eh?’ interrupted Fr Prior. ‘I say “Show me a Donegal man and I’ll show you a teacher.”’
With that, Fr Phelan jumped up. Fr Prior cowered slightly.
‘I’m just going to fetch Mr O’Donnell from the waiting room,’ said Fr Phelan. ‘And could someone please open a window?’

Alone in the corridor Fr Phelan let out a long sigh. He was thinking of the lack of frankness in modern life. How so much time and effort could be saved by an honest appraisal of these interviewees, and most of the Institute’s own students. ‘You’re just thick. I’m sorry. I can do nothing about it. It’s God’s will that you be mallet-headed, apparently.’

Just before the interview room was a gigantic painting, the winner of an art competition called ‘Hearing God’s Word.’ The brief had been to express visually the joy and fulfilment of faith. This the artist thought to achieve, as far as Fr Phelan could see, by attaching a paint brush to the tail of an excited dog, setting him down on a canvas sheet and letting him at it. Yet he had praised it at the time. He said it was random and unknowable in the way God’s will is random and unknowable. He said that the judging panel had a very difficult decision to make, such was the quality of the other entries. Lies, lies, lies. There was a clause in the rules that allowed them not make the award if the entries were of a poor standard. Why didn’t they use that clause? Why don’t we ever use that clause?

Minutes passed as he stood before the picture, in an absorbing mental sneer. Suddenly, a voice from behind brought him back to the day: ‘If I was God, I’d sue.’ Fr Phelan swivelled around, in something of a panic. He didn’t immediately make the connection between the name of the painting and what had been said. Who was God going to sue? Him? But why? Realising that reference had been made to the painting he felt first relief and then annoyance at a stranger making such a familiar remark. Before him stood a man in his mid thirties. Although seeing him for the very first time Fr Phelan thought the suit and tie highly incongruous. ‘I’ll bet,’ he thought, ‘that he dresses casually, and younger than his years.’ And although seeing him for the very first time, Fr Phelan knew that he loathed him.
‘I don’t think,’ said Fr Phelan, ‘that anyone can know what God would or would not do. As I sometimes have to point out, that is the precisely the point of the painting being so…formless.’
What was he doing? Defending an art atrocity he heartily despised.
‘Anyway, I must be off,’ said Fr Phelan, hurrying with new purpose towards the waiting room.
‘Excuse me, Father,’ the stranger called after him. ‘I’m Raymond O’Donnell. I got a bit restless sitting about. Thought I’d have a look around…’
‘Go on,’ thought Fr Phelan, anticipating the end of the sentence. ‘Say it, you arrogant creep. Around your new place of work, is it?’ But the sentence just stopped there.
‘Ah! I see. Yes, please follow me.’
Back in the interview room, Fr Phelan made all the necessary introductions, leaving himself to last. As he imagined the younger man to be contemptuous of office and titles, he decided to adopt a more egalitarian manner than was usual for him. ‘And my name is Father Phelan, or Father Pious if you prefer.’
‘Sorry?’ the younger man blurted.
‘Fr Phelan.’
‘Fr Pious Phelan?’
‘Quite,’ said the Director, powerlessly aware of being mocked.

There was a short silence before Fr Prior exploded first in laughter and then in coughing, snorting sparkling Ballygowan from his nostrils. He had just got the joke, and because its comic effect had not been lessened by years of telling behind the Director’s back, because he had never heard the students sing ‘You’ve lost that Pious Phelan’, it was too hilarious to keep to himself. The coughing fit saved the day, turning the embarrassment of the exchange into concern for poor Fr Prior, shaken and red-faced.
When everyone was seated it became obvious to Fr Phelan that important things had been said in his absence. The panel were behind this O’Donnell fellow, their questions free of difficulty or challenge. Something came into his own mind, a recollection of having heard the name before. Whatever of that, his own attempts to land a punch on this bearded prig only made him appear a stronger candidate.
If only he had read the CV! He would have so much time to pick holes, to find fault, to prove that O’Donnell was quite unsuitable and could we please have another look at that young fellow who wanted to turn the Institute into a brewery?

‘Mr O’Donnell,’ said Fr Phelan, ‘I’m sure you are aware that some of the most, how shall I say, urgent theological writing is taking place on the continent, in France and in Germany. Now, it’s my experience that candidates for these teaching positions are quite unaware of wider Catholic discourse in Europe. Have you given this matter any thought in your own application?’
‘Certainly, Father Pious, but why stop at Europe? Is being Eurocentric much better than being Anglocentric? We Europeans are so woefully ignorant of the wisdom of Africa, of Latin America, of the East. I often say to my students “Despite what Hollywood tells you, Jesus was not an English-speaker.’”
Laughter. Nods of agreement. Damn!
‘But surely,’continued O’Donnell, ‘you are aware of my own translation work? My edition of Kellerman’s In Word and Deed, for example. It was published here by In Truth Publications, which the Institute founded.’
Damn, damn, damn! thought Fr Phelan. That’s where I heard the name.
‘Yes indeed, Mr O’Donnell. Unfortunately my administrative duties haven’t allowed me to get to grips with it as yet. Perhaps before the beginning of term.’
In truth, he never read any of the books published by In Truth. In his later life, he tended towards less towards the mysteries of the faith and more towards the Ruth Rendell mysteries. But O’Donnell wasn’t finished with him yet.
‘May I also say that so-called Third World scholars have much to tell us about the art of teaching. They communicate their ideas with such a beautiful simplicity. I often quote to my students Montaigne’s words of praise for a tutor of his. He said: “It is a noble and capable intellect that can slow itself to the pace of a child, in order to guide that child as he walks. Often, it’s easier to stride up the hill than to descend.’’’
‘Why that is beautiful, Mr O’Donnell,’ cried Fr Prior. ‘Could you repeat that please, so I can write it down?’
‘Better still, Father, I’ll e.mail it to you.’
‘Oh well,’ said Fr Prior. O’Donnell continued:
‘But the point is that theology has for too long been a middle class hobby. Our teaching lacks urgency and if I may say so, democracy. I ask my students to remember Saint Patrick, explaining the mystery of the Trinity by reference to a simple shamrock. If today’s theologians were set that task, they’d probably pick something totally esoteric. I don’t know what. Someone with multiple personality disorder or something.’
Fr Phelan felt that O’Donnell may have slipped up here, or had been too shrill. But the next voice was, of all people, that of Fr Taggart.
‘I don’t mean to interrupt. It’s just that if a latter-day Saint Patrick had to explain the mystery of the Trinity today, he might like to refer to the combination of record player, radio and audio cassette in the stereo music systems favoured by today’s young people.’

There was a silence, which Fr Taggart understood to be a pause for reflection. The interview resumed, and Fr Phelan could only look on. He found O’Donnell so patently despicable that he was shocked at how easily others were taken in. The beard, for a start. Fr Phelan felt strongly that no one associated with organised religion should go bearded. The beards worn by priests of the Orthodox churches, now that was a different matter. There was nothing the least bit sinister about their black vestments and long white beards, which only made them look like Santa Claus in mourning. But bearded Catholics made his skin crawl.

If he were given to Freudian psychoanalysis, or tracing his hatreds to first cause, he would have found his dislike to be rooted in two quite different things, one spiritual and the other sexual. Deep down, too deep to be apparent to himself, he regarded wearing a beard to be the exclusive right of Jesus Christ, rather like sandals. And wasn’t there something indecent, almost pubic, about those short curly hairs? He particularly loathed the way spittle would collect at the side of O’Donnell’s mouth as he spoke, flecking his beard with saliva. No, loathing was not too strong a word for his current dislike of the winning candidate, and a lot of it had to do with that beard.

The interview was about to end when Fr Phelan remembered that the businessman hadn’t asked his question. The last throw of the dice, the last chance to wipe the grin off the bearded face of Raymond O’Donnell.
‘Funding? Well… That’s something I haven’t, I must admit. Well now.’
Fr Phelan had to make a conscious effort not to smile at the interviewee’s distress.
‘It’s not something I had planned to talk about at length,’ said O’Donnell. ‘I thought it was adequately covered in the Business Plan I submitted with my application. I think e.publishing could offer the Institute a steady income and allow us to use information technology to reach a wider audience. I haven’t talked about it today because, with all due respect, it might be too detailed for those on the panel not familiar with html and so on. Would you like me to talk you through the Business Plan, Father Phelan?’
‘No, I would not.’

There was no longer a vacancy in the Balcrusha Institute for Theology. The Chair wasn’t called upon to cast his vote – the decision was unamimous. Fr Phelan remained in the interview room while the others made their way to the canteen. An observer would have seen him shuffling papers in sullen silence, then sit bolt upright, a curious expression on his face. He rushed out of the room and ran towards the painting, ‘Hearing God’s Word.’ No, he definitely wasn’t imagining it. You had to stand back a bit, it’s true, but it was definitely there. It was as plain as the nose on your face.

Biographical Note:
My name is Antain Mac Lochlainn. I was born in raised and County Derry but I’ve lived in Dublin for about 15 years. I’ve published a few things in Irish, including a number of short stories and a short, light novel for adult learners. I have also published a number of non-fiction books in Irish. I have only produced fiction very sporadically and I’m concentrating now on writing on a half-time basis.

[This story appeared in wordlegs, summer 2011 issue]

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