You could be forgiven for thinking that Autumn hadn’t quite reached the churchyard, although the holly tree was in fruit. While the surrounding streets rustled with dry leaves, the pathways of St John’s had been meticulously cleared. It was warm, for October, and the sun cast long shadows from the gravestones onto the vibrant grass. Father Peter, who swept the yard himself each morning, took a moment to appreciate the way the stones had all weathered to a pleasing cream-dappled grey, matching the colours of the church itself.
Originally dating from the 1850s, St John’s was a handsome building and enjoyed an elevated position on the Bath Road. The door was always open, as is right for a house of the Lord. It was a pleasant neighbourhood so they didn’t get a lot of trouble. Father Peter had had to call the police a couple of times, but that was years ago.
The inside was always cool. It was simply built: stone pillars, exposed wooden rafters. Father Peter often observed that the stained-glass windows were not ostentatious as in other churches; in fact it was possible to barely notice them, the building itself with its curves and lines being its own main feature. But the windows above the altar, in particular, were nonetheless impressive when you looked closely: shards of dazzling red, blue and gold, depicting the Passion.
Memorial stones on the walls commemorated former priests and told of their contribution to the church and the community. Father Peter sincerely hoped he would die here. It was the happiest place he had ever known.
The boy seemed tense and hunched when he first came in. The priest didn’t pay him much heed, beyond a nod. He had seen enough people come through the doors in various degrees of discomfort, and somehow the place always had the same calming effect. The church had started to host mindfulness classes on Monday and Thursday mornings. It was a fancy new term for meditation. It seemed odd to Father Peter that people needed help to live in the moment and just be, but if that were the case, then St John’s was the place to do it. Its postcard looks and cool interior could de-stress the most world-weary traveller of life’s path.
The most noticeable thing about the young man was the amount of movement in him. He emitted a restless energy. He hovered around the back of the church at first, picking things up and putting them down: hymnals, candles, the information leaflets prepared for infrequent school group visits. When he sat in one of the pews, he continued to move, his knees bouncing up and down, his head darting about as though reacting to sudden sounds, although of course the church was silent.
Father Peter hesitated for a few moments before moving slowly down the aisle. He would find something with which to busy himself at the back of the church, so as not to make the lad feel uncomfortable, but would offer a nod or a word or two of friendship on his way.
As he neared the boy – a man, really, early twenties at a guess – he observed the second most noticeable thing about him: he had a beautiful face. The priest opened his mouth to speak but was beaten to it.
‘You wrote that book, innit.’ Despite the young man’s strange turn of phrase, it wasn’t a question. Peter quelled the small throb of pride in his chest and nodded.
‘Have you read it?’ It had been a while since his book had led anyone to his door, but as he examined the face in front of him he wondered if this were the case today.
Of course, a lot of books had been written on the subject, but his had seemed to strike a nerve. He’d even been on Sunday morning TV. Reviewers praised his ‘unflinching honesty’.
He’d had hate mail, too; he read it calmly, then prayed for the people who’d sent it.
‘Don’t need to,’ the boy jutted out his chin in a child-like gesture of defiance, ‘I know what’s in it.’ Father Peter smiled.
‘What’s your name?’
‘You’re very welcome to St John’s, Matthew. Just give me a shout if you need anything. That is, not an actual shout,’ he gestured around the echoing nave; the boy rolled his eyes, but Peter thought he saw a small smile at the edges of his lips, ‘But, well, you know.’ He moved away and started to tidy up the corner where mums and toddlers met on Wednesday mornings. He felt awkward among the miniature tables and chairs, the board books and soft toys. He positioned himself so that he could still see Matthew’s profile, the line of his nose, his eyelashes.
It had been more of a problem when the priest was younger. He’d read a line from John Cheever: ‘Every comely man…was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ Oh, they were still there, those beautiful men, of course they were. Everywhere. If anything, he found them increasingly alluring. But now, as he felt himself make the descent out of middle age and towards something more still, more contained, the main benefit was that he knew the chances of them being interested in him diminished and dimmed like a guttering candle. He looked forward, in fact, to the day when he would be a bent old man with a sunken face, and the flame would be so small as to be barely noticeable and give off no heat at all.
‘It’s me mam.’ The voice was low, little more than a mumble, but the acoustics afforded by marble floors and high rafters carried it nonetheless to Peter’s ear. He made his way back to the pew and stood at the end of it, hands clasped behind his back.
‘It’s me mam. The cancer’s come back, innit.’ He said this in a way that implied the priest knew his mother, which of course he didn’t, knew all the sad history of her illness that was buried in those simple sentences. ‘And she’s into all this God stuff.’
‘So I thought I should try to understand, you know, what all the fuss is about.’ Peter nodded and sat down, close enough to demonstrate his support, far enough away to…to not…he shook his head as though trying to dispel an irritating wasp. Far enough away not to be able to smell him, or touch his hand.
‘I’m sorry for your…troubles,’ Peter said, correcting himself before the word ‘loss’ left his lips. His parish was mainly elderly couples these days so it was a phrase he used often as their numbers diminished.
But the boy hadn’t missed the brief beat.
‘She’s not dead yet,’ he said fiercely.
‘Of course not. I’m sorry.’ He could almost see this boy’s mother, her fading frame, her patchy hair. He sat in silence, looking down.
‘Why her? She’s a good woman.’ Anger was coming off Matthew, like heat. Father Peter had learned that the best way to respond to anger was with kindness. It didn’t always work; it had even landed him the occasional black eye. But what was the alternative?
‘I’m sure she is.’
‘So what’s the answer? Why is me mam ill in a hospital bed while so many scumbags walk the streets?’
‘I don’t have the answer, I’m afraid. The question of suffering in the world is one of the most challenging ones for Christians.’
‘She doesn’t find it challenging. She just says one day there will be no more suffering, and that’s what keeps her going. That’s the weird thing, she seems all right. Meanwhile the rest of us are falling to bits, like.’
‘She sounds like a remarkable woman.’
‘So what do we do now, Father? Pray?’
‘If you like.’
‘I dunno. I don’t really do church.’ I didn’t either, Peter thought, at your age.
‘I could pray,’ he said, ‘For you. And for your mother. If you like.’
Matthew shrugged. ‘’Kay.’ Peter bowed his head and closed his eyes, lacing his fingers together. He was conscious of the boy beside him shifting in his seat, his feet tapping on the hassock. Lord, bring this young man courage. Relieve his mother’s suffering. Bring her into…
‘I’m gay, see,’ Matthew said. The priest’s eyes flickered open but he remained in his prayer position.
‘Okay,’ he said.
‘So are you.’ At that Peter sat back and unclasped his hands, letting them fall loosely in his lap. He looked at them, then back at Matthew.
‘I haven’t identified as gay for a very long time. Maybe not ever.’
‘What’s “identified as” mean?’
‘I don’t care for labels, that’s all.’
‘But you’re a Christian. That’s a label.’
‘Well, in a way. Alright. I’m a Christian who…experiences same-sex attraction.’
‘Gay.’ The young man was laughing. Peter smiled too. He had missed these sorts of conversations, since the church youth group had grown up and drifted away. He tried to recall his own younger self. He would have been a year or two older than Matthew when he wandered into a church one Sunday morning and his life was changed by a force he’d spent the intervening years trying to understand. He couldn’t form a picture of that young man, however he tried. The past self that came most easily to mind was a small boy, aged seven or eight. That was a child he hadn’t sat with for a while. He stopped smiling.
‘You okay?’ Matthew asked.
‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘In your book…’
‘You said you hadn’t read it.’ Matthew ignored this.
‘In your book, you said people shouldn’t be defined by their sexuality.’
‘But the thing is, you have been. Only, you’ve defined yourself by what you haven’t done about it.’ He looked at the other man closely, ‘How old are you?’
‘Forty.’ A self-conscious beat, ‘Five. Forty-five, now.’
‘A forty-five-year-old virgin, eh?’
‘I prefer the term celibate.’
‘I bet you do.’ Matthew laughed. ‘Hey. Who are these guys?’ With that, he was out of his seat and striding towards the side of the church, outstretched arm pointing towards a medieval relief that had been gifted to St John’s by the last bishop, and now hung on the wall above a row of candles. Peter followed him in a clumsy jog.
‘That’s David and Jonathan,’ he said. Matthew peered at the figures.
‘Well, they look queer.’
Peter smiled. ‘I don’t think so. They loved each other, yes. As friends.’ His face clouded a little as he thought of his own loving friendships: some were still going strong. He had regular invites to dinner at the home of a young couple he’d married; they’d even asked him to be godfather to their daughter. He’d spent many happy evenings reading to her, then enjoying wine and a large dish of lasagna or something similar, always placed in the centre of the table, the exhortations of ‘Dig in!’ and ‘Help yourself!’ making him feel part of the family.
But there were other friendships that had faded away, sometimes under the dull glow of accusation: he was ‘too intense’, he was ‘high maintenance’, or ‘clingy’. More often they just dissolved, his missteps never articulated, and he was left to wonder.
Matthew was peering at David and Jonathan. ‘They look really bloody friendly to me,’ he murmured.
‘Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? We see everything in terms of sex, we give…that too much importance.’ Peter rubbed his temples, regretting the exasperation in his voice. This boy had come for help and he needed to keep that in sight. He sat down again and before long Matthew was beside him.
‘But don’t you wonder, Father…I mean, how can you not wonder…’ His voice trailed off and he looked up into the church roof. Peter was prepared for what would come next. He’d had it all, over the years: crass young men goading him, asking didn’t he want to just try it, just once; flirting with him, using vulgar language, enjoying watching him squirm. He’d also had kindly middle-aged women suggest he might want companionship, even marriage; to his shame he’d found these offers easier to rebuff. Matthew turned to him.
‘I mean don’t you wish…you could have a family?’
‘Don’t you?’ He surprised himself; he was rarely so confrontational. But Matthew was apparently untroubled.
‘Oh, but I will. Not yet, I’m way too young, but one day.’ The priest hesitated, then nodded. This was how it was, he supposed, now. There seemed to be choices; they seemed to be easy.
‘My family is right here,’ he gestured around the room, but of course the other pews were empty. ‘I’m married to the church.’
‘Well, it’s a pretty church,’ Matthew quipped. He turned and looked Peter in the eye, ‘Is your mam still alive?’
‘Do you get on?’ You would have to watch closely to notice the pause the priest left before giving the response he’d spent years cultivating,
‘A mother’s love for her child is something truly holy.’
‘That’s not really an answer.’
‘I’m not sure the question was about me.’
‘I love my mam like you wouldn’t believe.’
‘You must be a great source of comfort to her.’
‘I’m not sure. See…she’s dying.’
‘Yes. I really am very sorry.’
‘She wants me to…Father, lying is a sin, right?’
‘But when someone’s dying, you want to do anything you can to…make them feel better, right?’ Peter thought of the hands he’d held over the years, some of them little more than bone covered with papery skin, the soft words he’d spoken, the prayers he’d shared with the sick and dying, and later, with the families bowed by grief.
‘It’s a fine thing to support those who are suffering,’ he said. ‘If we can help them in their time of need, that’s to be commended.’
‘She wants me not to be gay.’
‘She wants to die knowing I’ll have a nice girlfriend, a wife, my own children. She thinks I’ll go to hell if I don’t, so, y’know, it’s a big deal to her.’ He paused, ‘Do you think I’ll go to hell?’ Peter looked into the boy’s unlined face, his questioning eyes. He’d answered this question many times. It didn’t get any easier.
‘St Paul is clear that active homosexuals won’t enter God’s kingdom,’ he said, as gently as he could. Matthew took a deep breath and let it out in a low whistle.
‘Got you,’ he said, looking down, then mumbled, ‘Well, I don’t really believe all of that. She does, though.’ The two men sat in silence for a while. There wasn’t anything else to say.
‘I’ll leave you for a while,’ Peter said eventually. Getting up from the pew seemed to take a lot of effort, as though an invisible weight were holding him there.
He walked up and down the aisles, accompanied by ghosts. The eight-year-old boy who felt different. The teenager who went out with girls but never replicated the excitement of the earlier fumble with a boy. The young man who had swagger and a kind of joy, who had a partner, for a time, but no peace. The man who wrote a book to exorcise demons and ended up summoning more and more temptation, more tests of faith, to his door. The man who lives alone and always will, who listens to jazz every evening and reads, washes his one plate and one set of cutlery, puts it away and goes to bed.
Having made a complete circuit of the church, pausing to bow at the altar, he found himself once again standing next to Matthew. The boy looked up at him and grinned.
‘You know, I was just thinking,’ he said, ‘It’s funny, in a different life, you an’ me might’ve met in a club or something.’
‘In a very different life,’ Peter nodded. ‘I was never really one for clubbing.’
Matthew smiled. ‘Yeah, I see that.’
‘Hey! I haven’t always been a middle-aged priest, you know.’
‘I see that too.’ He pulled a phone out of his pocket and looked at the clock in the way that people do when they already know well what the time is. ‘I gotta go. Thanks for the chat, Father.’ He stood up. As the priest had predicted, there was a greater stillness to him now, more fluidity to his movements. There was calm around his shoulders.
‘Call me Peter, please.’
‘”Father” make you feel old?’
‘Something like that. Matthew?’
‘I will pray for you. And your mother.’
‘I hope you both find peace.’
‘Yeah. Okay.’ He walked towards the doors.
‘Will you come again?’
‘I doubt it. Bye, Father. Peter.’ He turned and all that could be seen was his back, his long back, his strong legs striding away. His hair curled over his collar a little. He wouldn’t look over his shoulder, the priest knew that. He opened the door and late afternoon sunlight streamed into the church, followed by a jumble of dusty leaves that danced momentarily in the draught then came to rest.
Be yourself, a voice from inside the priest called out, the words like desperate outstretched arms, Be yourself.
But there was no sound, beyond that of the door closing and footsteps moving away down the path.