WARNING: Charlotte goes to confession, more sex references. (Missed the first Charlotte story? Check out the Weekly Serial archive.)
London – 1838
The panel in the confessional slid open. ‘Have you considered Protestantism?’ Father Brennan said, peering through the grill.
‘They sent me back,’ I replied putting my back against the confessional wall; there was only one man I’d get on my knees for, and it wasn’t God. ‘You’re supposed to pretend you don’t know who I am.’
‘The confessional is a serious business, not so you can avail of a chat whenever you feel like it,’ but his tone was more exasperated than angry, I suspect Father Brennan was worried about my immortal soul whatever he said. ‘What have you done this time?’
‘Fornication for money. Is fornicating the correct term?’ I asked, picking at the split skin on one of my thumbs. ‘I have plenty more. There’s your basic: riding, docking, rogering. Amusing; the feather bed jig. Religious: carnal knowledge or, my personal favourite, riding Saint George -’
‘What’s riding saint…’ he began. ‘Forget I asked.’
‘It’s where the woman –‘
‘I don’t want to know. Forget it.’
‘You know me, Father, I can’t forget anything.’ I picked up the kneeler from where I should’ve been kneeling at the grill, it was flat save rounded indentations from years of sinners’ knees.
Father Brennan’s bench groaned as he shifted about. ‘You were saying about your sins…’
‘Oh, well, for the past few months this man has been paying for “carnal knowledge”,’ I continued. ‘Is the correct phrasing? Anyway, how many Hail Marys is that?’
‘Are you going to say them if I tell you?’ he asked, his Irish accent becoming more pronounced. ‘Will you repent at all?’
‘Unlikely.’ I shrugged, despite the fact I knew he couldn’t see it. ‘I’m damned whatever I do, I might as well enjoy it.’
‘So you enjoyed… being with this man?’
I grinned. ‘Father, the celibacy is getting to you.’
He made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a smothered laugh.
‘He’s very lonely, not got much of an opinion of himself, easy mark,’ I said, fiddling with the rosary on my wrist. ‘Does that make it more or less sinful? Now I think on it; what’s more sinful, sex for money or sex for gratification? Or is it all much of a muchness? He’s a good man and he pays very well. How’s that on a scale of sin?’
His silhouette shook its head. ‘He’s a good man but he pays to sin with you?’
‘At least he pays,’ I muttered, tugging on the end of my rosary.
‘If you don’t want absolution why do you come here, Charlotte?’
‘Who else am I going to talk to?’ I asked. ‘I don’t have any friends and you can’t tell anyone lest you vex God and we wouldn’t be wanting that now.’
Even his silences were disapproving.
‘You haven’t answered my question,’ I observed.
He sighed again and I could picture him squeezing the bridge of his nose. ‘Sex is for the confines of marriage for the procreation of children –‘
‘He can’t have children,’ I interrupted.
‘Sex without love is an act of murder,’ he continued as if I hadn’t spoken.
I got onto my knees so I could grip the edge of the window and peer through the grill at him. ‘No wonder you chose celibacy, you were obviously doing it wrong.’ I shook my head. ‘Does it not make it less sinful if you’re making the other person feel better in some way?’
‘That’s back to sex for gratification, Charlotte, don’t play stupid.’
‘That’s not what I meant. Something very bad, I don’t know what yet, must’ve happened to him and on the inside he’s like those little porcelain cups rich ladies drink from. And it’s not so much the sex, I think, he feels guilty about that. I mean… What do I mean?’
‘You mean he’s in love with you, I take it.’
‘That’s the one.’ I leant in until my head was touching the grill. ‘See? It’s not sex without love. Besides, I don’t think the sex is essential on his part, it’s simply that he has the same urges as any man and… Well… You know me, Father.’
‘You know how to strike a man’s weak spots,’ he muttered.
‘Aye, Father,’ I replied. ‘So, if I’m the sinful one is it less sinful for him?’
There was a pause and the bench creaked slightly as Father Brennan shifted closer. ‘Charlotte, are you asking these questions for your own conscience or his?’
‘I don’t have a conscience. I thought we’d established that a long time ago.’
‘Intellectual curiosity then,’ he corrected.
‘More like it.’ I sat back against the wall of the confessional facing the panel. ‘If God is so loving and forgiving, why would he make it so sinful for a man to have a little joy in his life?’
‘By paying a young woman for sinful acts?’
‘I can’t hardly charge him for hand holding, can I now, Father?’ I said. ‘I might be immoral but I’m not a complete shit-sack. It simply seems very unfair to me, Father.’
‘If this man really loved you and wished for your relationship to be acceptable then he’d marry you and make it acceptable in the eyes of God,’ Father Brennan persisted.
‘What if, said man, thought it was worse to marry a woman because he had so little opinion of himself he thought he was trapping her like a rabbit in a snare?’
Father Brennan considered this for a very long time. ‘You have me there. Why would a man think that if a woman chose to be with him? I assume you give that impression.’
‘It’s not an impression, I’m not a public ledger.’ Though I didn’t both to feign offence; partly because I didn’t expect a priest to see the distinction but mostly because I didn’t care. Anyone who could read a newspaper would be assured that all poor women were prostitutes so I was damned from the start. Not that I was poor anymore, I realised. It was a strange thought.
‘I’m getting a headache,’ he muttered.
‘So, you don’t have a helpful answer then?’ I asked.
‘Well… no. Were it not for the sinful circumstances I might advise love and support but that seems like condoning. Why can’t you be like the rest of my congregation and just show up and confess sins and ask absolution?’
‘Because I want a tally but as I’m going to hell anyway don’t see the point of absolution?’
‘Nobody automatically goes to hell, Charlotte.’
‘If only everyone thought that,’ I observed. ‘Who else would brighten your day if I didn’t?
I got to my feet and brushed off my trousers, took my cap out of my pocket and put it back on my head, careful to make sure none of my hair escaped.
Father Brennan sighed heavily and he put his square-jawed face closer to the grill. ‘Can I persuade you to consider absolution?’
‘Only if you pay me.’ I got to my feet. ‘I’ll see you in a day or two.’
I couldn’t leave my trips to the confessional too long, the sins built up too fast and I didn’t want to miss one off my tally.
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