While going to college, I worked part time as a hospital porter, which is a fancy job title for the guy who moves things about the place. The job only lasted a few months, but it was an experience of a lifetime. Of all the memorable people I bumped into while working in the hospital, Father Tom was, by far, the most memorable.
Father Tom was a lovely man, not always what you would call ‘with it’, but lovely, none the less. Once, he spent an hour searching the ward for his reading glasses, which he so happened to be wearing, at the time. Father Tom was a regular visitor to the hospital, and most of the time you would hear him coming, long before you saw him. He talked constantly, to anyone and everyone he would meet along the way. Occasionally, he could even be heard muttering quietly, to the odd inanimate object. Another stand-out feature of Father Tom is his size. The man is as big as a bear, with a robust belly to match. He also sported a fine chest-length beard, and was blessed with shoulders like 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. Father Tom is the clumsiest man I have ever met. It’s lucky he wasn't a lumber jack, or he would be minus an arm or a leg, perhaps both. When he wasn’t knocking things over, he was dropping them. He often left a trail of destruction behind him that a tornado would be proud of. Another 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 I first met him.
While on night duty in the hospital, I was summoned to Ward G by a matron. When I got there, the matron was busily stocking up the medicine trolley for the morning rounds. She was a lovely woman, a few years older than I was, but I still had a bit of a crush on her, which I think she knew. Being well after midnight, a lot of the lights were off in rooms, lending the place a feeling of slumber.
“Squid, we’re a bit short staffed. Do you think you can do a job for me?” she asked, giving me a devastating smile.
“Sure thing, what will it be?” I said, as I followed her to the far end of the ward. She stopped beside a closed door with a little window in it, one of the private rooms for patients.
“This is Mr Ryan,” she said, pointing inside. An elderly man was lying peacefully on the bed. “The poor man took a turn about an hour ago, and I am afraid he is no longer with us,” she said. “We have someone that needs this room waiting in Accident and Emergency, so we have to get Mr Ryan moved up to Ward C until the family arrives in the morning. We were waiting on Father Tom to give the Last Rites to Mr Ryan, but he’s not shown up. Can you wheel Mr Ryan down to Ward C? I’d do it myself, but like I was saying, we’re a nurse down tonight,” said the lovely young matron. Mr Ryan was the first real dead person I had come across, since starting in the job, and it was creeping me out.
“Sure,” I said, not wanting to look like a sissy in front of her, but when she left, panic began to set in. I knew nothing about moving dead bodies. Boxes they had shown me, corpses weren’t mentioned. I opened the door and entered the room. Mr Ryan had been laid out with his hands clasped loosely over his chest, above the sheet. His head was resting lightly on the pillow, and for all the world, he looked like he’d just nodded off to sleep, except for the fact he wasn’t breathing, of course. I wondered, should I pull the sheet over his head before moving him, but thought better of it. It might upset any other patients still be up at this hour, should they see me pushing a shrouded body through the hospital. I guessed that I should leave him like he was, and hope no one noticed.
I’d just disengaged the brakes on the bed, 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 toward the bed. He placed his bag and coat on a chair behind him before turning his attention back to us, flicking his gaze from Mr Ryan to myself, and back again.
“Squid. Sorry, Harold, Father.” Sometimes only your given name will do.
“Harold, lovely name,” Father Tom said, and then his attention shifted to the man in the bed. “Poor Mr Ryan, you’re not feeling so well, I hear?” he said, placing a soothing hand on Mr Ryan’s 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 totally up to date with the rituals of the Catholic Church, or even what happens when you die. I just took it for granted Father Tom knew what he was doing, and went with the flow. Father Tom kissed a narrow purple scarf he held in his hands, before hanging it around his neck.
Father Tom opened his bible and launched into the “Last Rites” with a speed that made most of the words liquefy into each other. He had a way of saying 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, before Father Tom began patting his pockets. He was clearly looking for something, but didn’t even break the rhythm of his chant, when he turned to search through his bag.
With a wallop of Father Tom’s substantial bum, Mr Ryan’s bed shot toward me. I’d forgotten to re-engage the brakes after Father Tom had appeared. I stopped 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. Father Tom patted the man’s hand gently, saying, “It is all right, Mr Ryan, no need to be upsetting yourself, we are all here for you.” Then, Father Tom picked up where he left off with his incantations.
Father Tom anointed Mr Ryan, on the hands and the forehead, with holy oil. Once this was done, Father Tom 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 can 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,” Father Tom said to me, putting his bag on the floor, and pulling the chair closer to the bed. I returned a few minutes later with the tea, to find Father Tom talking away, with the late Mr Ryan. I left the tea on the bedside table, and waited 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.
“Did you not tell him he’d died?” asked the nurse.
“I thought he knew,” I said.
“You’re kidding,” she said, looking in the window at the priest. The one-sided conversation lasted a good ten minutes, before Father Tom put his coat back on and said his goodbyes.
We stood back as Father Tom 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.