I stopped en route to the governor's office, to leave bread soaked in milk on the ledge under the eaves. The fledgling housemartins were feeding before I got back onto the ground. Soon, they would fly south, all the way to the mudflats on the far side of Cape Town. The idiots had wanted to stage a concert in the yard right under them. I had only succeeded in scuppering it by calling live into the Mooney Goes Wild radio programme.
In response the red tops went rabid about paedophiles having mobile phones. Questions were asked in the Dáil and the Minister announced an immediate inquiry. There were heavy-handed cell searches which yielded a rich harvest of contraband. I did a week in solitary and lost 10 days' remission. They were waiting for me in the yard and I got a hiding. The screws who were pissed off with the bad press just looked the other way.
I didn't mind. Nature had engineered these tiny creatures to fly half-way round the world to hatch their young. The notion that the cacophony of deafeningly loud rock music would make their peppercorn-sized hearts beat so fast that they would just stop was barbaric.
Their parents had been born right here in this yard, and successfully negotiated the round trip year in, year out. It was a survival of the fittest and I worried that my titbits might take the edge off them. But it had been the wettest summer and that meant fewer insects and less food.
I had asked the screw Martin Pearson to feed them, after I was gone. "Sure, birdman," he had replied. Arbour Hill was no Alcatraz, and it was corny, but the sobriquet had stuck all the same.
The governor was all smiles.
"Justice phoned. You're out at noon."
So, I was being released a whole 20 hours early before my two-year sentence expired. My solicitor had predicted I would serve every day of it. The Minister, he said, wasn't going to risk a roasting on my account.
"We want to avoid the media scrum," he added half apologetically. I was touched that he felt awkward about it. Anything that acknowledged you were a human being had that effect.
"Keep my head down. I will be sticking to the road less travelled."
"A bit of paperwork, Martin."
I was on the Sex Offenders Register. The document warned that I had to give a contact telephone number to my local garda station and notify them of my address or any plans to travel abroad. Non-compliance was a criminal offence. I signed and he placed it on my file.
"Well, Martin. I wish you well. You were never any trouble – apart from the kerfuffle you caused about the gig, that is", he said with a chuckle.
Here it wasn't what you did that counted, but how you behaved.
"Sure whatever lies ahead can't be any harder than this?"
He had a point. Even in a community where deviancy was the norm, I was the whipping boy. The sentencing judge had set the tone. He said that while the old adage, no thieves without receivers, had echoes in my crime, the connection between the purveyors of child pornography and its dissemination through the web to well-heeled and educated end users like myself was far more sinister.
He would have been far better actually trying to understand what I was about but he was only interested in sound-bites.
I had tried pointing out when I got in here that I had never actually had any sexual contact with any child, that I had confined myself – Debbie my therapist had forbidden me to say "only" – to pictures. Inmates and screws alike made it clear that they thought the distinction was purely technical. Even a lifer like Blinky Creighton, who ritually sodomised his victims till they bled, pointedly acted like he was tuppence ha'penny looking down on tuppence.
At the gate, I noticed a screw fiddling with his mobile. Instinctively, I dropped my head and put my free hand up to my face. The media had gloried in exposing an ex-cleric who was prominent in the divorce and abortion referenda debates as a hypocrite. I was puzzled. Why was it assumed that because I was a deviant I was not entitled to have views? I was snapped every step of the way, right up to the obligatory cathartic shot in handcuffs as I was leaving the Four Courts to start my sentence. A picture editor would pay plenty for an exclusive pic of me walking out the gates carrying my kit bag. Poignancy sells.
My objection to shots that portray me as a bogeyman isn't only because it robs me of any humanity. It oversimplifies. My predilection is compulsive. Inert I find my actions disgusting. Active I crave, same as any addict. Most of the old lags on the sex offenders course were only angling for early release. But I had thrown myself into it with gusto. I took Debbie at her word when she had explained I could never be cured. I was to avoid triggers, internet chat rooms, fellow travellers, and have support structures like a job, friends and counselling. Sound advice if you weren't a pariah.
Later that day I boarded the Plymouth-Santander ferry, conscious of the fact that my failure to alert the gardaí that I had left the jurisdiction meant I was a fugitive. The purser was from Waterford, working on the boat for the summer. She was studying in Plymouth University to be a criminologist. Once she heard my accent, she immediately upgraded me to my own cabin. I didn't think she would be so welcoming if she knew where I had come from, but I consoled myself with the thought my case would prick her professional interest. She directed an Indian porter to carry my bags.
"I buried my own son four months ago. A heart attack."
He set down my bag and reached into his wallet and produced a photo. He was a handsome if somewhat slight young man, early twenties, and the picture of health.
"I took that three days before he died. Born with a hole in his heart. He had a pacemaker fitted when he was 11. I didn't like smoking around the house. I had one of those air purifying machines installed that looked like a microwave attached to the wall. I blew the smoke straight into it. But then I gave up. It didn't seem right."
He spoke staccato in a way that demanded attention. I said nothing.
"I would go back on them in the morning if I got sick."
"It is a hard thing for a parent to bury a child."
"It's only half time," he announced matter-of-factly. "My wife has cancer."
"When it rains it pours."
He nodded vigorously. "We are unhappily married. We were going to separate but this has knocked us back."
It was a strange thing to say, even for a thinker as lateral as himself, but I understood. The devil you know had kept me in holy orders long after I had lost the faith.
I tipped him a fiver.
"Thanks" he said, just a little too profusely. Was it a testament to the power of money, or the human spirit, that he could have his mood so easily lifted, if even briefly, by an extra few quid? My discomfort also stemmed from the fact that I felt better that I had met someone who had a worse deal than mine.
The boat was packed with families going on holidays. Queuing in the self-service restaurant was just like prison, though. Once inmates collected their food, they returned to their cells and ate alone behind closed doors. I come from a large family. In boarding school, the seminary and, later, the presbytery, I had always been accustomed to the banter that went with communal dining. It was one of the aspects of prison for which I was least prepared.
Tonight, though, I felt overwhelmed and ate alone in my cabin.
Afterwards, I went out on deck for some air. There was thick cloud cover. Beyond the reach of the ship's lights, the sky and sea were inky black. It was soothing to look at the ship's wash.
A bird emerged out of the darkness and flew by the side of the ship. Midships, he paused, flightless, wings flapping furiously, a sort of aerial version of running to stand still. As the stern of the ship drew level, he flew away again into the dark. He reappeared again, and again the flight pattern repeated. Sometimes level with the upper deck, others so close to the water he looked more like a flying fish. A couple of times he disappeared and, just when I was sure that he was gone, he came racing back into the light again.
His movements were so symmetric they must surely have a meaning, I thought. What was he doing hundreds of miles from land surrounded only by blackness? The thought of being out here alone terrified me. Soon the housemartins would migrate across this very stretch of water. They had great heart. It was hard to believe that so much energy could be crammed into such a tiny frame, that it could keep flapping its wings, for days if necessary, without food or rest.
It was raining in Santander, what you would call a soft day back home. I walked to the railway station and boarded the first train. The coaches were elegant in an old-fashioned way but the ride was a bit like driving on a flat tyre. The lush, verdant vegetation of the mountainous hills gave way to fields full of sunflowers and wheat bleached lighter by the sun than our own. Cream- and ochre-coloured pueblos dotted the landscape, the vista blighted by high rises with their postage stamp-sized balconies shaded by faded racing-green canopies.
I translated a headline in El Pais belonging to the passenger opposite: COMMISSION CONSIDERS CHEMICAL CASTRATION LAW FOR PAEDOS. The judge had described the sample of the several thousand pictures on my laptop that he had viewed as "sweet innocent children coerced by evil forces into a startling array of depraved sexual acts for the gratification of sick minds." I had lovingly chronicled, catalogued and cross-referenced them into folders and sub-folders under headings of sex (overwhelmingly girls), age (mostly pre-pubescent) ethnicity, etc. Maybe I could present myself to Commission as a guinea pig.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. But the hum of conversation, the beat and rhythm of the words with their carefully accentuated stress as regular as any iambic pentameter verse, distracted me.
The train stopped in Valladolid. I checked into a hotel next door to the station. Spartan and clean, it had a good rate. I had no money worries, for now, but had nothing against value.
Va-La-Dol-Id: It had an onomatopoeic quality, a sound that conveyed it was a dark place of a thousand sorrows. I followed a few stragglers into a church. All around, there were altars with tall columns, embossed with ornate gilded designs. It was more Aztec than Christian. As with Latin, the service sounded noble, but to me it was still an empty formula.
I thought the Plaza Mayor vastly superior to its counterpart in Madrid. Isobel and Ferdinand, Spain's most powerful rulers, met clandestinely in this city. They fell in love and married here. Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, settled briefly until his entire household was jailed when someone got stabbed. I stood dead centre stupefied by its grandeur, intimidated by its emptiness, and felt more alone than I ever had in prison.
I sat outside to eat. The pulpo (octopus), navages (razor fish) and sepia (cuttlefish) were too sophisticated for my palate. I ate white fish served tepid, without greens, cooked in oil that would make my stools mushy.
Back at the hotel, I tried to nap but a steady stream of Vespas buzzing up and down the street like angry hornets made sleep impossible. It was hard to believe it was only yesterday that I was released. This was different to the way jail time crawled but time had definitely slowed up.
I stood at the window. I spied in the living-room of an apartment across the courtyard a girl sitting on the floor painting her hands and toenails. Her splayed hands were small and stubby, child-like. Her friend sat on a chair a few feet away.
They sipped red wine, talked animatedly and smoked cigarettes. There was a pop video on the TV and the images flickered rapidly. Toenail Painter began moving her arms and upper torso. It was like watching a paraplegic dance.
She got up and walked behind her friend. She brushed out her hair, the shiny black that Mediterranean women have. Her orange dress perfectly complemented her olive skin. Toenail Painter draped her arms around Orange Dress's neck, resting them on her cleavage, and whispered something into her ear, and then rocked her gently. They laughed giddily.
The action was intimate and sensuous.
I had valued my own privacy long before the police broke down my front door, took away my hard drive, and bared my soul to the world. But this did not feel intrusive. It felt forbidden, sure, and the excitement was intensified by the fact that they did not know I was there.
At any moment, one of them might look up; she would pull the curtain, disgusted, and shake her fist, or even shout that I was a pervertido. And then perhaps call Guardia Civil? The media back home would have another field day.
I hastily stepped back into the shadows.
I was too long in the tooth to believe in fresh starts. The alienation which had caused me to exit the priesthood, sever the network which went with it, and had culminated in endless hours in internet chat rooms, could only increase here; even with a good smattering of Spanish, I would never get the social and cultural nuances which at home were second nature. Life among ex-pats would be unbearable. For just a moment, I thought of going back to Dublin. But what was the point? Anyone who counted knew.
Michael O'Higgins, who won the 2007 Hennessy First Fiction award with his story 'The Great Escape', is a criminal lawyer. Prior to becoming a barrister in 1988, he worked as a journalist for Hot Press and Magill magazines. He became a Senior Counsel in 2000. He lives in Ashford, Co Wicklow.