Friday, April 24, 2015

Fr Delaney and the lost sheep

It was a fine Saturday morning in May and Fr Delaney was strolling gently down the main street of Cooncastle. He had just finished morning Mass and he was looking forward to a late breakfast of tea and scones at one of the cafés on the square. A grandmotherly figure was watering the flowers in her window boxes of one of the terraced houses, the air fragrant with the smell of damp earth and African violets; he paused to greet her.

'Good morning Mrs Brooks Those flowers are looking well. The tidy towns committee will be well pleased with you.'
'Good morning, Father.' She beamed into the face of the tall, lean priest. 'Thank you. Ah, it doesn't hurt to make a bit of an effort. We all live in the one town and isn't it nice to have it looking nice?'

They chatted for a while about the importance of community spirit and the great job the tidy-towns committee did in keeping the area clean and litter free. The ring of a bicycle bell made them jump.

'Morning Father, Mrs Brook.' Jimmy Barnes stood there, the holding his old black high-nellie bike. 'Grand morning, isn't it.' He took a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket of his ragged brown overcoat and lit one.

'It is indeed, Jimmy,' said Fr Delaney. He adjusted his wire-framed glasses on his nose. Barnes stood there grinning at him in a way that made him feel slightly uncomfortable. They'd been in school together and Barnes had been the class bully. Nothing too serious; and Jimmy hadn't stayed long, dropping out when he was 12 to work on the family farm. Fr Delaney had carried on, going to college and then the seminary and was now the parish priest. The family farm had gone to an older brother who had sent Jimmy packing after one incident with the drink too many and Jimmy lived in a tumble-down cottage in the hills had once belonged to an elderly maiden aunt. But despite the facts of where life had taken them, Jimmy always had a bit of a sly grin on his face whenever he met his former classmate, as if he were thinking back to the days when they were boys and Jimmy was the one they all feared, thinking 'you may be someone now, Delaney, but I remember a time when you quaked when you saw me coming.'

'Good sermon on Sunday, Father,' said Barnes. 'I always enjoy it when you talk about the Good Shepherd.'
'Is that right, Jimmy?' said Fr Delaney.
'That's right. It always reminds me how little you know about sheep – but of course, you were at home reading your books when you were a lad, not out in the fields doing a bit of work like the rest of us.'
'James Barnes!' said Mrs Brooks, scandalised. Barnes laughed.
'I'll be seeing you, folks.' He pushed passed them. Fr Delaney got the smell of wood smoke from him, as well as his cigarettes; the large green haversack on his back reeked of something as well. He thought it might be sheep, but he wasn't sure. As Jimmy Barnes said, he really didn't know much about sheep. The wheels of Barnes' bicycle tracked through the water that had overflowed from Mrs Brooks' window boxes, leaving an intertwining trail as headed away. Mrs Brooks shook her head.
'That man is impossible. The cheek of him to speak to you like that!'
Fr Delaney smiled.
'It's all right Mrs Brooks. There's no harm in him.'
'No harm? And what about the drinking and the thieving? How many times has he been up before the courts?'
'Well, no real harm in him,' conceded Fr Delaney. 'He's never hurt anybody.'
Mrs Brooks snorted.
'It's only a matter of time. I wonder what took him to Mass at all!'
'It was his father's anniversary this weekend.'
Her face softened a a little.
'Oh, I'm sorry, Father. I didn't know.'
His mobile phone rang. 'You'll excuse me, Mrs Brooks.' 

He stepped away and put the device to his ear. 'Fr Delaney here.'
'Oh, Father. Forgive me for disturbing you.' It was Mrs Gordon, a young farmer's wife from a few miles outside the town.
'That's all right, Mrs Gordon. Is there a problem?'
'Oh Father, it's silly really. Maggie's pet lamb has gone missing and she's in bits over it.' Maggie was seven, the youngest of the Gordons' five children.
'I'm sorry to hear that; but why are you calling me? Surely it's Sergeant O'Grady you should be on to?'
'Ah, I wouldn't trouble him with it. Lambs go missing; they wander off; or maybe a dog or a fox took it. No need for the gardaí. But Maggie remembers you talking about the Good Shepherd last week and your saying something about priests being like shepherds and now she has it in her head that you can find her lamb, the same way Jesus found the lost sheep in the parable.'
Father Delaney sighed.
'Will I come out?'
'Would you Father?'
'I will. There's nothing I can do; but maybe I can talk to her, anyway.'
'Thank you Father.'
'I'll be there in a few minutes, Mrs Gordon.'
He hung up. There really was nothing he could do. But he hated to think of a small child so upset. Maybe his making a bit of a fuss of her would help. He walked back toward the church and his car, stopping at one of the shops along the way to buy a bar of chocolate. He was in being ushered into the Gordons' kitchen by one of the older children ten minutes later.

It was an old fashioned place; Bill Gordon had grown up there, as had his father before him. The original stone flags were still on the floor; and the range was a huge affair of doors and gratings that Bill Gordon had once told him had been installed when his grandfather was just a wee lad. The smell of wood-smoke from it was in the air, along with that of Mrs Gordon's bread and scones that were baking in it. Maggie sat on her mother's lap in an old armchair in the nook next to it, sobbing.
'It's good of you to come, Father,' said Mrs Gordon.
'It's all right,' he said shaking his head. Maggie jumped up.
'Fr Delaney, you're here!' she said. She turned to her mother. 'It'll be all right now, mummy; he's a real shepherd. He'll find Lamb-chop, you'll see!' Fr Delaney smiled at the lamb's name. It always amazed him how farm children could love their 'pet' lambs and calves so fiercely and then later sell them off to be someone's dinner without a care in the world. Probably just as well they could; they'd find farm life pretty tough otherwise. He put a serious look back on his face when Maggie turned back to him. 'You'll find her, Father, won't you?'
'Well,' said Father Delaney. 'I don't know that I can promise that. Would you like some chocolate?'
Maggie stared at him.
'What do you mean you can't promise? You said you were like the Good Shepherd – and he found the missing lamb!'
'Oh, Maggie,' said her mother. 'You can't blame Fr Delaney. You might not have closed the shed door properly and she might have wandered off.'
'I did so lock it,' said Maggie. But her lip trembled. Fr Delaney unwrapped the bar and put it in her hand. She took a bite.
'Why don't you show me where she was?' suggested Fr Delaney. 'Who knows – if it was a dog or a fox that took her, they might have left some tracks and then at least we'd know what happened.'
'Tracks?' said Maggie doubtfully.
'You know, footprints on the ground. You can tell a lot from footprints.'
'You two go on,' said her mother. 'I have to keep an eye on the baking.'

So Maggie took Fr Delaney by the hand and led him outside. Bill Gordon was a neat farmer and his farmyard was brushed clean. There was a smell of silage from the cattle shed at one side; and fresh straw from the barn at the other. As they walked, she said:
'So, you're not really a shepherd?'
'Not really.'
'But you said you were.'
'I said I was like a shepherd.'
'What does that mean?'
'Well, it means that a priest helps look after the people in his parish, helping to teach them what God wants them to know, about right and wrong. The same way a shepherd looks after his sheep.'
'But shepherds don't teach their sheep stuff. Sheep aren't very good at learning. They're a bit stupid really. All except Lamb-chop'
'I know. These things aren't often very exact.'
'So why use it then?'
'Well, in the Bible, kings would often talk about being the shepherds of their people; and the people who wrote the Bible would talk about God being a shepherd looking after his flock, who were his people; and, of course, Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, again meaning that he loved people and wanted to looked after them. So it's a tradition really.'
'I don't think people should call themselves shepherds if they're not.'

Fr Delaney said nothing. In between the cattle shed and the barn was the shed Maggie was leading him to. There was a pungent odour from it; and this time he was sure it was the smell of sheep. The door had a self-locking mechanism on it, and it was unlikely Maggie could have left it unlatched accidentally. He looked at the ground in front of the shed. It was earth, soft and muddy. He pushed his glasses back a little on his nose and studied the ground intently. With a frown, he took out his old pipe and began to tap at his teeth with the stem.

'Well?' said Maggie. 'Do you see any dog prints?'
'No,' said Fr Delaney. 'No animal tracks at all.'
'So you don't know what happened to Lamb-chop after all?'
'I didn't say that.'
'What do you mean?'
He looked up from the ground to the serious, innocent face.
'Go back in to your mother. Tell her I'll be back in about half-an-hour.'
'Do you know where Lamb-chop is?'
'I'm not sure. But I might.'

A few minutes later he was pulling up outside Jimmy Barnes's old cottage. The high-nellie bike was outside, propped against the wall by the door. Jimmy was sitting on an old bench next to it, smoking a cigarette.
'Father,' he said. 'Long time no see.'
'Hello Jimmy.' He looked at the bike. 'You know that's a grand bike.' Jimmy looked surprised.
'It is that. It was my dad's, but still grand for all that.'
'You wouldn't see many like it these days.'
'That you wouldn't. I'd say it's the only one for miles around.'
Fr Delaney nodded.
'That's what I would have said. Which means those tracks I just saw in the Gordon's farmyard were made by you.'
Jimmy jumped to his feet.
'Who do you think you are, coming here making accusations? I've taken nothing and I was nowhere near that place!'
'And who said anything about anything being taken? It's a sign of a guilty man to deny all before he's accused of anything.'
'You think you're so clever. Just like when we were back in school, you always thought you were the brainy one and I was nothing.' He raised his fist. Fr Delaney just stood there and looked at him. He realised, perhaps for the first time, that he was by far the taller man; and, even though they were the same age, Jimmy was much more worn and aged-looking than he. Slowly, Jimmy let his hand drop to his side.
'That was 40 years ago, Jimmy. Let it go. The only reason I'm here is because the lamb you took was Maggie Gordon's pet lamb and the child is at home crying for it. You might not be the most honest of men, but you're not cruel. You wouldn't do something like that on purpose. I'm only here for the lamb.'
For a long time they stood there in silence. Then Jimmy walked away behind the house. There was the sound of a shed door opening. He was back, moments later, a lamb in his arms.
'Tell her I'm sorry,' he said. 'I didn't know it was hers.'
'I'll tell her the person who took it is sorry,' said Fr Delaney. 'I won't mention your name.' He took the lamb, its wool soft in his hands, and put her into the car. 'But you'll understand that if I hear of any more lambs going missing, I'll have to tell Sergeant O'Grady where to look.' He got back into the car himself. 'Come and see me, Jimmy. You're a bit of a lost sheep yourself. It's time you got your life back together. Maybe I can help.'
Jimmy nodded and sat back down on the bench. He took the packet of cigarettes from his pocket, but it was empty. With a sigh, he threw it onto the ground by his feet.

A few minutes later, Fr Delaney was back at the Gordon's. He carried the lamb into the kitchen. Maggie was at the table eating fresh scones. She burst away from it in a shower of crumbs and grabbed the small creature into her arms.
'You found her, you found her,' she cried.
'However did you do it?' said her mother in wonder. Fr Delaney opened his mouth to answer, but Maggie spoke first.
'It's because its like I said. He is a shepherd. He's a good shepherd. He's God's shepherd and he looks after us, isn't that right Father.' She grabbed him by the leg and hugged him, one arm around the lamb, one around his trousers, smearing it with butter, jam, and crumbs.
'Maggie! Mind Fr Delaney's clothes!' said her mother.
'It's all right, Mrs Gordon,' he said, 'I don't suppose I could trouble you for some tea and one of those beautiful scones I see on the table? I'm afraid I missed breakfast.'

'Of course, Father,' she said, turning to bustle about and set another place. He was glad she turned. It meant she didn't see the tear he wiped away from his own eye as he looked down at the smiling, tear-streaked face of the child clutching his leg and the lamb.

as told to the children of the Wandesforde National School on the morning of Friday April 24th 2015. 
(C) Fr Levi 2015

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