There were four of us hurt from his death. Freddy and Julia, obviously, seeing life flow of out of Arnie’s body just as it was flowing into theirs, added a tinge to their happiness, didn’t it? I’m not being fair. Freddy was that guy, and you know don’t how he did it, but he felt all the right emotions at the right time, and when the old priest said that Arnie was dead, finally said it, Freddy fell to his knees and started crying. Julia bent down beside him naturally, as if they were magnets, and if she didn’t know Arnie at all, she knew it was horrible when someone died and all the more if it was in part because of you. She didn’t fall all the way onto her knees: she was wearing a sundress and no stockings, and she didn’t let her knees fall into the mucky leaves that the rain had left over on the cloisters, but rather crouched beside Freddy in a way that was graceful, her arm around his crying shoulders.
There was Father Marc, the young priest, because he hadn’t quite gotten that the Lord brings what He will, and he kept brushing his fingers against Arnie’s throat as if he was trying to stop himself breathing life back into him. And officially, even though I’d told him and he knew it was true that Arnie was the type who could list all the boys’ birthdays but could never wrangle an invitation, Father Marc could have put a stop to it all by insisting that Freddy took Arnie along with us, even if he would have to squish in the backseat alongside me and Julia’s suitcases. And there was me, of course, though maybe it’s not of course to you, but we were always together, Arnie and I, much to my chagrin except I knew, looking at him splayed out on the ground but standing back behind Father Marc and Freddy and Julia, that I would miss him.
I’d like to say that I never saw Freddy and Julia again after that fateful Sunday, but they were the ones who kept on having parties on days when even after saying you couldn’t go, you felt empty at home and ended up going and feeling better for sitting in the corner with some brandy and seeing their perfect Christmas tree, or Easter egg, or whatever. It was at one of these parties, in honour of their baby Hope’s First Communion, though I skipped the church portion, that I heard the gossip about Father Marc. I kept hearing my own name even while ignoring everything else, and when I gave up and started eavesdropping on the conversations of the Old Boys around me, I found out that it wasn’t me they were talking about but Marc-with-a-C, holy Marc to my Moly Mark, which some of the boys still called me and it was too late to do anything about it now. Evidently he’d left the church and was now a Buddhist living in London. In Soho, they whispered, which meant something more. I was worried about myself in those days, because it had been seven years since Arnie died and I hadn’t seen a girl I liked and I thought of Arnie every night, sometimes dreamt of him, so maybe I should go see Father Marc, I thought, and see if he had any good advice like he used to have for us.
I found Julia in her kitchen, chatting with the other wives of the Old Boys while sipping from a drink with an umbrella, and though she gave me the same welcoming smile that she usually gave me when I found her to say hello or to let her know I was heading out, her left hand tightened around the stem of her glass when I asked her if she thought it was true, Marc in London.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “I wouldn’t know him if I saw him.” Which we both knew wasn’t true, but I suppose she didn’t want the other wives to know that she had once visited the school, not only to pose by the car while Freddy got his bags and drove her off to get married, but had even come up to the cloisters. She didn’t pose at all, anyways, the way the other girls tended to, because it was raining madly.
“Brian says he saw him catching a bus in Piccadilly Circus,” a tall brunette said. She was wearing a dress covered with blue flowers, and her eyes were blue, but I didn’t feel anything looking at her. She held out her hand and finally Julia mouthed, ‘shake it’, so I did. It felt pretty much the same as my own hand, which surprised me because it looked much softer. “Allison. I don’t think we’ve met, though of course that’s my own fault for always hiding away here in the back at your parties, Julia.”
“Mark,” I said. “Not Father Marc. I guess it’s a popular name, what with the Gospel and all that.”
“Sure,” she said. A few other women introduced themselves then, and it was surprising to see that they were all more beautiful than Julia. Freddy had married first and we all knew he’d get the first girl, but if there was still a contest going he certainly hadn’t won. I had still lost, of course. At school Arnie always came in worse than me, which was a comfort. I listened to the women talk around me until the clock striking three made me remember where I was, and then I really did bid my farewell to a smiling Julia.
Usually when I go to their parties, I take the train in to Paddington, and then walk up along the canal until I reach their block. I’d paid attention the first time I’d come and, as they’d suggested, taken a cab. It was only about a half an hour, and it was pretty. I hadn’t paid much attention to the London that existed outside of these streets, though I was aware that what I saw outside of the train window as the train slowed down into the station was not as pleasant as Little Venice. I wasn’t entirely sure of where Soho was, so I stopped a cab and got in, wondering how many days I’d have to walk to work to make it up. It was only about three miles from my parents’ cottage, which I’d come in to at age fourteen after the plane crash, to the mailroom of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, but I suppose my mother had taken her umbrella with her when they’d flown to the Lusiad conference, so all I had when it rained was a hat. The old priest had sold the car to pay for the funeral costs since I didn’t drive.
The driver rolled down the window I’d been glued to, so I looked at him. “Where in Soho do you want?” he said. He was a dark man, from one of the Commonwealth countries, I guessed, and he looked impatient.
“Here,” I said. He pointed to the meter, and I handed him a twenty and left the cab to stand on the sidewalk in front of a shop selling leather. I didn’t see Father Marc walking around, or getting into a bus, or anywhere, so I went into the shop. The proprietor had massive arm muscles, which hadn’t been very much in fashion at school, and then St. Anne’s was a girls’ college, so I admired them for a moment, and then asked, “I’m looking for a man named Father Marc. Do you know where I could find him?”
He raised his left eyebrow only, which Olly had always been doing at school to indicate his superior coolness over someone or other, usually a teacher whose back was turned. Then he gave me a toothy grin and held his hand out. It was sweatier than Allison’s hand, and altogether not very nice, which was surprising, given my reasons for wanting to talk to Father Marc in Soho. “You new to London, my friend?”
I thought of how I had no money on me any longer, and since my address wasn’t written anywhere if he decided to steal the keys to the cottage it wouldn’t much matter. I supposed Freddy would loan me the fare back to Oxford if he stole my return ticket. “Yes. He’s a fairly distinctive looking man, Father Marc. Dark curly hair, green eyes. Though I think he may not go by ‘Father’ anymore.”
“I need a few more clues,” he said.
“I think he might be Buddhist,” I ventured.
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know any Buddhist Marcs. But if you don’t find him, come back here and let’s grab a drink, okay?”
He tipped his hat to me, which I found a little anachronistic, but I suppose it was a good delay, because when I left the shop there was a parade going by, men in orange robes, chanting. When I approached a small blonde man at the back of the group, he pulled me close and offered me a tambourine.
I’m awful at keeping time, so I gave it back. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m looking for a man named Father Marc. He’s black Irish. Do you know him?”
“Oh, Father Marc, yeah,” the blonde man said. He sounded American, which I didn’t have a problem with, but it made the whole exchange feel as though we were in a Hollywood movie and something quite dramatic was going to happen, or perhaps blow up. “He comes to the restaurant all the time. He’ll probably be by around dinnertime. Do you know where the restaurant is?”
Obviously I didn’t, but I didn’t like the feeling that in a second or two, both of us were going to have to pull out guns and whoever was the sheriff was going to have to win for the good of the town, so I thanked him and went back into the shop. I got a raised eyebrow again, but also the same grin, so I decided to interpret it as friendly. You’ll think this business with the shop is boring, I know, but Sam, right? He ends up becoming my flatmate and getting me the job at the paper, so I remember those bits particularly well. It’s gratifying to fully remember becoming friends with a person, since when I think about Arnie I know full well that I never considered him a friend until he was dead. “Do you know where the Buddhist restaurant is?”
He had a few minutes to think this over as he rung up a customer dressed like a pirate in a nautically striped shirt and too-short trousers, and then said, “You mean the Hare Krishna restaurant. They’re Hindus.” He didn’t leave me too much time to stew in my own embarrassment, just enough to think, ‘Oh! The cab driver! He was Hindu!’ and run through a mental list of students at St. Anne’s who looked Hindu, and added, “Give me a minute to close up the register, I’ll show you.”
I looked through the leather whips and shorts and collars while he closed up and tried to gauge whether I felt aroused, but it was depressing, trying to figure out whether I would ever have what Freddy and Julia and Brian and Allison do or if I should just give up and maybe move to Soho, since I didn’t think the priesthood was for me, all that leadership. The old priest had iron will. Father Marc tried to reason with us, which obviously didn’t work out well for him. Him understanding us never was enough to get us to respect him, same as with Arnie. The register made a clink, and Sam and his arm muscles came out from behind the counter. “I’m Sam,” he told me, which you know, but anyway, I did, too, then.
We didn’t shake hands again, but I said, “I’m Mark. Nice shop, by the way.”
He smiled and blushed, and led me outside. He didn’t put up a sign saying when he’d be back, which I questioned him about, but he said he owned the shop and didn’t need to answer to anyone. “Anyway, business is slow in the afternoon,” he said.
I paid attention to the route, even though I wasn’t sure I’d ever need it again. The Hindu restaurant didn’t look particularly Hindu, except there was a picture of a blue child and a cow in the window, but not very big, and all of the people behind the counter were white, as well. But I stopped paying attention to the restaurant when I saw Father Marc at a corner table in the back. He was alone and when he brought a forkful of rice to his mouth, he saw me and froze. My throat dried up, and when I opened it to thank Sam, I couldn’t say anything.
Sam gestured towards Father Marc and gave me a sad smile. “I think you found him. It was really nice to meet you, Mark. You know where to find me.”
When I turned back to Father Marc he was still in that position, unless he’d had a bite, picked up another forkful, and paused in the middle of that. I took a deep breath and walked into the restaurant and didn’t stop or look up until I was sitting across from him. When I did look up, he looked older than I’d remembered, but not haggard, just a little more lined, and he was wearing a green t-shirt instead of his priest’s attire. He closed his mouth, put down and his fork, and said, “Mark. I’m glad you found me. I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I should have searched you out, it’s been seven years, but-”
For the first time in my life I interrupted someone. I interrupted him the way Freddy would interrupt Arnie if he’d gone on too long about how fascinating the science lesson had been. “Father Marc. It’s perfect timing. We’ve both had time to think.”
And there it was, we’d found each other, but after that it was hard to know where to start. We probably wouldn’t have said anything at all, until we heard it. It had started to rain.
The day of Arnie’s death we were in our last year at school, though Father Marc didn’t know it was his last year, of course, but it was the last year for us boys. There were still three weeks left, so most of us hadn’t given any thought to packing away our things, but Freddy had ordered fancy luggage through a catalog and it had arrived today and we were sitting his room, watching him rub non-existent dirt off of the blood-orange leather. “Well, boys,” he said. “You’ve stared. You’ve coveted. And this weekend, you’ll get to see her at last.”
Plenty of boys had photographs of girls by their bedside, and in fact I did, too, though mine was one of a young Natalia Correia I’d found in my father’s papers. It seemed, though I’d never doubted, that Freddy’s photo was a real girl. It was rare, but it had happened once before in our memory, in our first year, that a girl would be brought to school. The girl’s school, connected to convent thirty-seven miles away in Easton-on-a-Hill, got out for the summer three weeks before ours. Occasionally a boy would go pick up his fiancee and drive her back to her parents’ for what would be the last few weeks before their marriage. There was no real reason to stop back at the school except to show her off, but the way Freddy told it, he needed to come back here to change into a suit so that he was appropriately dressed when he reached her father’s house.
I didn’t ask why they were married so young because in my mind, in that room, Freddy was simply getting a head start on the adulthood that the rest of us were looking forward to so badly. Well, the others were. I had the cottage, minus the car and a few other things that had been sold so that I could finish out my adolescence here instead of at a boys’ home, but I didn’t have much else. Arnie had plans, detailed, long-term plans he would tell me when we were waiting to be picked for rugby teams or the only ones awake late at night in our eight-man dorm. He was going to Oxford to become an architect and he was going to marry the most beautiful girl in his class, even if she wasn’t Catholic. I told him I didn’t believe it, but I did, somehow. The large ears and nose that we’d mocked mercilessly in our first year, well somehow looked fine in his eighteen-year-old face and I thought he probably would be able to pass for normal out there.
Gradually the boys drifted out of Freddy’s dorm, even the ones who lived there, too, to whatever else they were doing: cricket, revising for the upcoming exams, smoking behind the gymnasium, everything we did on Sunday afternoons. Arnie and I stayed in Freddy’s room, listening to his excitement, staring at the portrait of Julia with an adulation that I haven’t ever since given to the real Julia. “Say,” Freddy said, carefully putting his winter gear into one of the suitcases, “I’ll need to bring someone with me to St. Agnes’s to pick up Julia. Not allowed in without a chaperone and all that.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, tempering my voice so that I sounded cool and not giddy as I suddenly felt. The moment passed and when Freddy nodded, I tossed him the suitcase key so that he could lock up his winter coats and slide them under the bed.
“Could I come, too?” Arnie asked. “I’ve never seen St. Agnes’s.” He didn’t have any siblings, that was another strange thing we used to mock Arnie for, no sisters to set the rest of us up with. I didn’t have any siblings, either, and I hadn’t seen St. Agnes’s for the same reason, but my parents had been intimidating by virtue of being professors, rather than businessmen and their wives, and anyway I’d kept it quiet. Now I kept quiet as well, watching Freddy give a deep sigh as he tried to decide whether to give in to his innate friendliness or stand his ground. For it was one thing to have me with him, that was nice, but he would look like a loser with no friends if any of the girls caught sight of Arnie. They’d heard of his reputation and steered clear of him at dances.
“It’ll be too tight of a squeeze, I’m afraid, Arnie,” Freddy said. “Julia’s got all her bags, you know.” It was a nice way to get out of the situation and I admired him for it.
It was our final year, as I’d said, and Arnie should have known he wouldn’t win, but he kept on. “We’re not big, Mark and I. We’ll easily fit in the back with the bags.” And I sat next to him on the bed across from Freddy’s, it was Peter’s bed, actually, and I felt my heart tighten. Who was Arnie to pull me into his argument? I was going, anyways, unless he ruined it and then Freddy would go get someone better to take along. And his argument didn’t work at all without me: he was relatively normal sized, and it was me who was skinny and narrow like a city townhouse.
“I think she’d feel a bit overwhelmed, you know, with all three of us,” Freddy said.
“She wouldn’t, Freddy, we’ll be extremely quiet. Perfect gentlemen. I hear they have buttresses.” I was pretty sure that St. Agnes’s, being in the middle of the countryside and only holding seventy-five girls, did not, as rumoured, have buttresses, and I was sick of having my afternoon ruined. I admired Freddy for his niceness but I didn’t have the eloquence to put it the same way, so I just rolled my eyes. We sat in silence for five minutes as Freddy put the rest of the suitcases, one inside the other, inside his armoire, and then I followed Freddy to the old priest’s car he was borrowing for the occasion. I’d thought Arnie would stick around the dorm and mope, maybe play chess against himself just as he usually spent Sunday afternoons playing against me, but when we buckled in, we saw him bringing Father Marc across the carpark. I got to sit in the front on the way there, which was another first for me, since I’d always been in the back when I rode around with my parents, and instead of getting out of the car Freddy rolled both of our windows down as they approached.
“What’s this about you excluding Arnie?” Father Marc asked. It was the sort of line you didn’t expect to hear after junior school, and the embarrassment I felt for Arnie made me feel like the blood was draining out of my face and pooling down around my ankles.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Freddy said easily. “Sometimes a boy just wants a drive with his friend, have an intimate catch-up, confess all those pre-wedding jitters.” I felt warm and cosseted then, in the front seat, strapped in by the belt, and though I didn’t lift my head I looked to see what would happen. It was very neat; Father Marc’s eyes were round like a rabbit in the lights, and though one could see the wheels in his head turning he couldn’t seem to figure out what to say. I couldn’t look at Arnie somehow, and we drove away then.
“It started to rain very soon after you left, if you remember,” Father Marc said. It had been the kind of rain that sneaks up on a person. We hadn’t much noticed it while we were driving, and then when we got out of the car at St. Agnes’s we were drenched immediately. Luckily Freddy had two golf umbrellas in the boot. We hadn’t had any intimate chatter on the drive up, of course, and I walked very much a step behind Freddy as we entered the girls’ school parlour and let the nuns give us tea.
Julia was very sweet then, glowing and soft as she came down with her hair curled at the ends and with all of her red leather luggage. She smiled shyly at Freddy, and more openly at me, and though I was disappointed we didn’t see any other girls I liked seeing Julia’s little looks: of dismay as she saw the rain, of gratitude as she squeezed with Freddy under his umbrella, of relief as St. Agnes’s was behind us. Freddy drove very slowly in the rain, since, I suppose, he hadn’t had much practice driving except during the holidays. We didn’t have the radio on, so Julia told us instead about her exams and the end of the year feast and how strange it was to be done with school and finally a woman.
Freddy got a call on his mobile then, and it startled me, because without parents or indeed many close friends I didn’t have one of my own and wasn’t used to the sound of a ringer in the middle of a road in Lincolnshire. “It was you,” I said.
Father Marc shook his head. “It was Father Luke. I was too panicked to make the call. He told Freddy to get home as soon as possible so they could use the car to take Arnie to the hospital.” Neither Julia nor I asked Freddy what the call had been about, and we held on tight as Freddy drove, tight-lipped, as quickly as he could without endangering Julia or, I suppose, the baby. We didn’t stop in the carpark, but drove straight up to the cloister. When we saw Arnie on the ground, Freddy left me to hold the umbrella over Julia, heading straight to the old priest with the car keys. That was when he told us it was too late.
I had stood there, alone under the umbrella after Julia ran to Freddy’s side. I’d left the umbrella next to Freddy’s luggage later that afternoon, while he was taking Julia home. From Freddy’s window, you could see the front of the school, and the tree whose branch had knocked Arnie to the ground as he stood in the rain screaming out his frustrations.
“I should have made him come inside,” Father Marc said to me, now. It was the same thing he’d said that afternoon when he’d explained to the police and Arnie’s parents what had happened. But Arnie’s father had shook his head and put his hand on Father Marc’s shoulder, saying, “People were too much for him sometimes.” I wondered if I should, or even could, say something similarly comforting now.
“Where do you live now?” I asked him finally.
He shook his head. “Here and there,” he said.
“Come and stay with me for awhile,” I said. It was all I could do.
We stopped at Sam’s to borrow money for Father Marc’s train fare. For two weeks, living with Father Marc was horrifying. He was coming down from drugs, from uncertainty, from years with too much sex and not enough tea. All he did was sit on the sofa and shake. After that we settled into a routine, with Father Marc taking over the care of the housework as I spent my evenings wondering what to do with myself.
“You wrote,” you said, placing your hands on mine now that they had unfurled themselves as the immediacy of Arnie’s death passed.
“I wrote,” I agreed. “My parents had boxes and boxes of drafts of things they’d turned into articles about Portuguese literature, and I couldn’t bear to read them, but I remembered that they were, after all, pretty happy. I couldn’t think of research – it was too much to do with school. I’d left school so long ago, and if I couldn’t even pick up Portuguese with all of the books lying around the cottage, I didn’t think I’d have much luck at college or university. I just wrote what you’d probably see as the most boring journal of all time. We never did anything, Father Marc and I, so it was just blissful passages about his amazing vegetarian meals, or mournful passages about the birds that hadn’t made it back into our garden this year.
Almost a year went by in this way. The cottage, which had seemed an empty shell before, began to look cozy and smell like baking. Though we never discussed it, it seemed to me that I wasn’t gay, just, as Father Marc seemed to be, alone in my own shell. I wasn’t unhappy, and this seemed to agitate Father Marc more than anything. ‘Don’t you want to see anything?’ he’d ask me. ‘Do anything?’ And of course my parents hadn’t left me enough money to go on indefinitely. But it felt to me like I’d found a hard-earned peace, and I feared that it was too fragile to survive thinking of what I’d do when it was over.
It was the autumn when we finally spoke. I’d spent the morning writing about the soft spirals the leaves made as they fell from the trees outside the kitchen door, and Father Marc had made leek and potato soup and sourdough bread. I sat with my entire face directly above the soup, wafting in the smell before dunking my bread. When I looked up, my face covered in perspiration, Father Marc was looking at where my eyes should have been, and now were. “Marc,” he said. He was holding a slice of bread in his hand as if to start his meal – he ate his bread heavily buttered and the buttering was always the first step – and it was shaking a bit, as though he’d suddenly become old. “I have to ask you a question which seems presumptuous. Please don’t take it so.”
I blinked, which he took as a sign to continue. Perhaps it was. “I would like to go to London on Saturday. If I go... will I still have a place here to come back to?”
I didn’t feel surprised, or betrayed precisely, just a bit shattered. Had Father Marc, all this time, felt caged in the cottage? Was I, even with no visible competitors, still not worthy of being first in someone’s attentions? Had I done the unthinkably inhospitable and made it seem that his housekeeping was demanded as a sort of payment, all the while telling myself it was his own way of keeping occupied?
He answered the last question first. I’d put my bread down and looked at the soup untrustingly. He’d shaken his head. “Eat, eat.” So I did. The soup was, as always, exceptional: just thick enough to fill your stomach, just salty enough to whet your tongue for the next sip. It filled me with a warmth that seemed as though it could not be false. It wasn’t my business why Father Marc wanted to go to London.
“Please do return,” I said. “This is your home.”
As autumn became winter, Father Marc went to London once a month. I never asked him what he did there, nor do I ever see him now if he still travels down. He would always return with some ingredient hard to get in our little village shops: seafood, usually, or some foreign cheese.
The day after Boxing Day, he brought Sam.
Rashi Rohatgi moved to Boston immediately after college and tried to survive entirely on exotic fruits from the corner shop and $5 pizzas. She now lives a moderately more successful life in London, teaching writing, editing, and teaching cultural studies.