Thursday, 12 September 2013

Fr Tom





While I was attending college, I got a part time job as a hospital porter, which is a fancy title for the guy who moves things around the place. While the job only lasted a few months, the experience has stayed with me a lifetime. Of all the memorable people I bumped into while working there, Father Tom was by far the most memorable.

Father Tom is a lovely man, not always what you would describe as ‘with it’, but lovely, none the less. Once, he spent an hour searching the ward for his glasses, which he happened to be wearing at the time. He was a regular visitor to the hospital, speaking with the sick, praying with those that wanted it and always brightening the day with his smile. Most of the time you’d hear him coming long before you ever saw him. He talked constantly, chatting to anyone and everyone he’d meet along his way. Occasionally, he would even be heard muttering to the odd inanimate object. 

Another stand-out feature of Father Tom is his size. He is as big as a bear, with a robust belly to match. He sported a chest-length beard, and was blessed with the shoulders of an ox. I always thought he looked like a lumberjack in fancy dress. Given his size, Father Tom’s next most notable trait was downright dangerous. He’s the clumsiest man I’ve ever met. When he wasn’t knocking things over, he was dropping them. He left a trail of destruction behind him that a hurricane would be proud of. It’s lucky he didn’t work as a lumberjack or he’d be minus an arm, or a leg, perhaps both.


The last thing you should know about Father Tom is that he is universally loved. What I want to share with you is the story of how we first met.

Once, while on night duty, I was summoned to a ward. When I got there, the matron was busily stocking a medicine trolley for the morning rounds. She was a lovely woman, a few years older than me but that didn’t stop me from having a bit of a crush on her, something I think she knew. It was well after midnight and a lot of the lights were off so that the patients could rest.

“Thanks so much for coming, do you think you can do a job for me?” she asked, giving me one of her devastating smiles.

“Sure thing, what will it be?” I asked, as I followed her to the far end of the ward. 

She stopped beside one of the private rooms for patients. She pointed inside through the little window and said, “This is Mr Ryan.”An elderly man lay peacefully on the bed. “I’m afraid he is no longer with us. The thing is, someone needs this room, so we have move Mr Ryan up to ward C. I was waiting on Father Tom to come but he’s not shown up. Do you think you can manage the move?” said the lovely young matron. 

Mr Ryan was the first real dead person I’d come across, since starting the job, and it was creeping me out.

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to look like a sissy in front of my heart’s desire, but when she left, panic set in. I knew nothing about moving dead bodies, boxes they’d shown me, corpses weren’t even mentioned. I opened the door and entered the little room. Mr Ryan had been laid out with his hands clasped loosely on his chest, his head was resting lightly on the pillow, and for all the world, he looked like he’d just nodded off to sleep. It was only when you noticed that he wasn’t breathing that the truth of the situation became clear.

I wondered, should I pull the sheet over the man’s head before moving him, but I thought better of it, I might upset any other patients still up at this hour. Pushing a shrouded body through the hospital was never a good advertisement for its services. I guessed the best thing would be to leave him like he was, and hope no one noticed. I’d just disengaged the brakes when the door was filled, from jamb to jamb, with a dripping wet Father Tom.

“God bless all here. Wicked night out there, lads. Mr Ryan isn’t it?” Father Tom asked, shaking the rain from his coat.

“That’s right, Father,” I said.

“Good, good, and what is your name, young man?” he said to me, moving to the far side of the bed. He placed his bag and coat on a chair behind him before turning back to me, flicking his gaze from the man lying under the sheet and back to me again.

“Squid. Sorry, Harold, Father.” Sometimes only your given name will do.

“Harold, lovely name,” he said, and then his attention shifted to the man in the bed. “Mr Ryan, you’re not feeling so well, I hear?” he said, placing a soothing hand on his forehead.

“You could say that Father,” I answered for the dead man.

“How about we get things moving along, Mr Ryan?” Father Tom said, talking directly to the corpse. I’m not up to date with the rituals of the Catholic Church, or what happens when you die, I just took it for granted Father Tom knew what he was doing, and went with the flow. He kissed a narrow purple scarf and hung it around his neck. He opened his bible and launched into the ‘Last Rites’ with a speed that made most of the words liquefy into each other. He’d say the first word of each sentence loud and clear, before dropping down into a long winded mumble. It was quite hypnotic. Several signs of the cross were whipped across the peaceful Mr Ryan mid-mumble and it wasn’t long before Father Tom began patting his pockets while still pronouncing the world of God. He was clearly looking for something and he didn’t even break the rhythm of his chant when he turned to search through his bag. He didn’t even notice the wallop his substantial bum gave the bed and the whole thing shot toward me. I’d forgotten to re-engage the brakes after he’d appeared. I caught the bed with both hands but Mr Ryan kept moving, his arm flopped to one side, as did his head. Father Tom was still searching in his bag, so I just pushed the bed back to where it had been.

A moment later, Father Tom turned around with a small glass vial clasped between his fingers. He stopped reciting the prayer when he saw the new direction of Mr Ryan’s head and hands. He patted the man’s hand gently, saying, “It is all right, there’s no need to be upsetting yourself, we are all here for you.” Then he picked up where he’d left off with his incantations. Father Tom anointed Mr Ryan, on the hands and the forehead, with holy oil. Once this was done, he turned to put the small vial back in his bag. This time I held on to the bed, in case the priest hit it with his bottom again. While I was at it, I fixed Mr Ryan’s hands and straightened his head. Soon the sacrament came to an end, and Father Tom took off his scarf, which seemed to return him to his off-duty mode.

“Young Harold, do you think you could rustle up a cup of tea for me? I’ll sit with Mr Ryan for a while. I don’t think he’ll be up to a cup, sadly,” he said to me, putting his bag on the floor, and pulling the chair closer to the bed. I returned a few minutes later to find Father Tom talking with the late Mr Ryan. I left the tea on the bedside table and went to wait outside the room. I was watching through the little window when the matron passed by.

“Is Mr Ryan down in ward C now, Squid?” she asked.

“Nope, he’s still in there, chatting with Father Tom,” I said, pointing through the window.

 “You’re kidding,” she said, looking through the glass at the scene inside. The one-sided conversation lasted a good ten minutes, before Father Tom put his coat on and said his goodbyes.

We stood back as he opened the door, and joined us in the hall. “Good night, so,” he said to us, buttoning up his coat. “Just as well you called when you did, he's not looking good, at all.”


With that, Father Tom headed on his way. Five seconds later, a crash of crockery echoed through the hall, as he hit the tea cart with a door.
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