SHORT STORY – John Herbert

portrait-of-marquis-dafflitto-by-tamara-de-lempicka
Image: Tamara De Lempicka, Portrait of Marquis d’Afflitto, 1925

John Herbert is an English teacher from Brighton, UK, holds a PhD in modernist fiction from the University of Birmingham, and is an alumnus of New Writing South’s Creative Writing Programme. He was Highly Commended for the 2017 Brighton Prize for short fiction and will appear in their anthology this year. In 2018 his work has also appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine and DNA Magazine and is forthcoming in The Nottingham Review and Words for the Wild. He will perform his work this year at Rattle Tales and The Brighton Festival.


Flight

Michael stands at the window, watching the snow. He worries about the Russian cab company. A good cab is hard to find in New York but the Russians are cheap at least. They’d let him down before though and the flight home is not one he can miss, much as he wants to.

Snow in Manhattan is no surprise in December. But he has never been able to shake off the childish joy at its first arrival, so rare back in Cork where, by the sea, it never stayed long. When it came, snow then presaged school closures and sledging, days where his family’s drab bungalow was made anew, pristine with the whiteness and local farmers asked for help fetching their sheep back in from the high fields.

He’d felt it in the air earlier as he huddled in his coat. The wind cut through him and when he was past midtown he didn’t have the shelter of the Christmas crowds. He’d headed past Gramercy Park’s finery to his apartment by the river where the water at the banks has begun to freeze.

He fears the snow might hold him up. As he waits for the cab, he smiles at the memory of Bob, a fellow volunteer at the hospice where he worked when he first arrived years before. Bob mocked him for fretting about the weather that first winter in New York, told him of how, on the one trip he took to England, the country ground to a halt under two inches of slush.

“That’s England,” he told Bob. “It’s different there. A nation of worriers. We Irish are a hardier bunch altogether.” They’re equipped for the bigger weather here, though, the Americans. They revel in the extremes.

Michael paces his apartment. Does he have enough to read to see him through the flight? He searches his shelves, sees the old book on Merton that he’s not read since his seminary days, and above it, the picture of Tom and himself, the summer just past, when he last saw him, and healthy then. He examines Tom’s shy smile, detects in it the flinch he felt when he’d put his arm around his friend after Tom asked a stranger to take their picture.

He’d mocked Tom that day, their first full day together in twenty years, laughed at the paleness of Tom’s legs against his black shorts and t-shirt.

“If you’re a priest incognito,” he’d told him, “it’s not much of a disguise with you all in black still. You’ll bake to death in those clothes. Do you have any sunscreen on? The colour of that skin, you’ll end up looking like a fried rasher if you haven’t.”

Mockery had been his defence mechanism, mockery, an insulation against the years apart. He’s aged well and, as he paces the apartment, Michael heads back into the bathroom and checks his face closely, spots the lines by his eyes that he hopes others didn’t see, the sag of his jawline, once taut and hard. He looks after himself though and it shows, eats well, has a neat line of vitamins next to the untouched jar of sugar he keeps in the kitchen for when friends want sweetened tea. It is important in his line of work. The galleries demand a certain look and he enjoys possessing it still.

He takes in the bright hues of the Haring prints and the abstract canvasses on his walls, the emerald splashes of impasto. It had been his reaction to the proximity of death thirty years ago – the art vivacious in the face of it – which promoted the move to gallery work, driven by the colour as much as the cash. He’d always felt guilty at the hospice about his appearance, waving the flag of his health in the faces of the dying. He’d confessed it once to Frankie Bernstein, the sculptor who had admitted himself when he couldn’t manage the stairs in his Chelsea building any more.

“Spare me your Catholic guilt already,” Bernstein said, wheezing out a chuckle in between long pulls on his Winston, “Because I’m dying, the rest of the world should look ill? Grant me a little perspective, will you, sweetheart?”

Michael was proud he’s stuck at it, fighting gravity and gluttony over the years to stay trim and well.

Tom was appalled when he had told him about his regimen last summer as they’d sat on the beach, of his running in the morning, swimming at the Y, a personal trainer twice a week. “It’s all vanity,” Tom said.

“Health,” he replied, “is not vanity. It is a necessary encumbrance of the efficient man.” He mimicked Fr. Quinn, the old Roscommon priest who had overseen the physical education programme that had been a part of their shared regimen at the seminary years before and who had forced them into playing badminton of all things. Exercise had never been Tom’s preference.

“Are you sure you’re not a little hot?” Michael asked, that day at the beach as they lay on their towels together, Tom in his t-shirt still. He noticed the redness in Tom’s face and the sweat running through his thin hair. “You’d be better off without the shirt.”

“I’m grand, thank you,” Tom said and Michael detected a hint of sanctimony, as if he’d dodged temptation.

“Well, I’m going in to swim. Time to cool down.” Michael stripped off his own shirt, knew that the play of muscles on his back could still draw some attention, even in his fifties. He had looked back to see Tom watching him still as he walked to the water.

As he waits, watching the snow, Michael remembers the heat that day on the white sand. He’d plunged under the lazy roll of the waves, felt the pull of the undertow as it took him out and he floated beyond the break, rising with the pulse of the swell, watching his old friend who sat up on the beach, eyes still on him. Michael looked along the horizon where the two blues met and thought of Fire Island and his own place for the summer, ten miles up the coast, and a million miles from Tom’s imagining and that of the Ireland he’d left. He waved to Tom on the beach, caught the foaming crest of a wave and planed in, one arm outstretched. Michael stood, grinning in the shallows at the thrill of the ride, shook himself like a dog and beckoned to his friend.

“C’mon,” he shouted, “it’s gorgeous in here.” Tom waved him off but, after a pause, pulled the black shirt off and walked to the water, his arms stiff and thin by his sides, to the water. Michael remembered how Tom’s chest sagged with wasted muscle. He had glanced at the blue veins in his friend’s arms, clear against the milk white of his skin. “You’ll burn if you stay uncovered too long,” he said again, before laughing. “Hark at me. I sound like your ma.”

“You’d find that difficult, I should say. She barely says a word these days and wouldn’t know who I am.” Tom paced into the water as he talked and, when he passed Michael, dove in, his back a flash of white against the slate grey Atlantic before he vanished. Michael scanned the surface, searching for his head. Tom popped up finally, grinning, further away than Michael had imagined he might get on a single breath.

Michael shakes the memory from him, tears himself away from the window with the sound of the buzzer. “Car is here,” the driver says, tinny through the intercom, “You go JFK or Newark?”

Michael sits in the back of the boat-long Cadillac, thinking of the apartment and how long he might be absent, whether he has emptied the fridge of milk. He will have to ask Mrs Espinosa to clear it when she cleans.

As the cab crawls towards the Midtown tunnel, he watches the faces hustling past, the myriad of hues and dimensions. He spots a cute guy, all muscle and cheekbones who he recognises from the clubs and watches an old Indian woman walked across the road by a Mexican guy in UPS shorts despite the snow. He sees the bright neon signs of the restaurants in Little India, the advertisements in the windows for cheap phone calls to Delhi and Karachi. The rich smells of the spiced food work their way in through the car’s rattling heating system. The smell of the spices, a smell of heat, jars against the beating of the windscreen wipers that clear a view in the thickening snow, already clustering grey and dirty in the gutters.

He loves the food here, its colour and variety so unlike the bland parade of chops and spuds back home, the clotting of overcooked lamb, the rubbery gravy. It had been another unimagined joy of coming here since he fled the seminary. He remembers his final conversation with Monsignor Connors, the stooped president of the seminary, in Connors’ study, the rain lashing the windows that February evening.

“It is not a decision that you can come back from, Michael,” Connors told him, the old man’s eyes all kindness, not what he expected. He detected a hint of wetness in the lamplight and didn’t know if it was just old age or sadness. “Once you’re gone,” Connors said, “We can’t have you back.”

Michael kept his explanations vague, spoke to Connors about the need to leave immediately, to answer the call of the ‘love of the body’ as he remembered calling it. “I need to be myself, Father,” he told him, “and I know I can’t do it here.” The old priest nodded, silent and solemn.

He’d left the same night, dropped his letter in Tom’s pigeonhole, scared to face him lest tongues wagged, and fled in another taxi to another airport. Now, as he passes the Queens suburbs, still crawling along the choked freeway, he remembers how he’d stood, a dawn later, cautious on a busy morning street in the Bronx, trying to find the entrance to a distant cousin’s building. He had been shocked by the noise and size of everything, trucks the size of houses rumbling past him.

He still keeps a box of Tom’s letters, the first arriving a month after he had. That first one was a model of tidy restraint, sidestepping the central issue with Tom’s line about missing their walks and discussions, a veiled reference, he’d known, to the two day trip in the Wicklow hills where they’d shared a tent and, with glances over their shoulders, held hands for a giddy half hour as they walked on the second day. He’d barely slept that first night, aware of every move Tom had made in his sleeping bag, the grunt and turn of him and the sight of the back of his neck, pale as it ever was, beneath his dark hair.

It had been fifteen years before Michael saw Tom again, during a snatched half hour in a Dublin tea room on Michael’s way back to the airport after his sister’s wedding.

“I’m settled in Manhattan,” he told him, “a partner at the gallery now. It doesn’t pay so much but it pays the rent without a roommate.” He’d said nothing about the roommates or about Pablo, more than a roommate, who had come and gone a year before.

Tom’s hair had been threaded with grey that day but, as he talked of the parish, Michael still recognised the thin Cork boy beneath the pear shaped man he’d become.

Envelopes gave way to email but he’d been shocked, last May, when Tom wrote to say he was coming to stay for a couple of weeks in a retreat house on Long Island kept by the church and asked whether they might meet. Michael wrote back with tales of his shared beach house, no distance away, had kept it vague about his housemates, and the Fire Island parties at the weekends. Tom insisted that they meet at the public beach near the retreat house and that he did not need picking up.

The thought of that afternoon still haunts Michael as he checks in and watches a bodybuilder with a facial tattoo heft his bags on to a trolley from the airport carousel. He recognises the man, a performance artist and a fixture of the clubs, the top half of his bald head an inky black, the bottom half pale and shaven. He doubts that such a sight would be common in Dublin even now.

That day on the beach, Tom had asked, in veiled, curious terms about Michael’s life in New York. “Do you have a good circle of friends?” he’d asked. “An active social life in the city?”

“I should say so.” Michael doubted that he could tell him much of it or, indeed, how much his professional life had merged with the clubs. “It’s an odd thing though, in the summer at least, how much of the city takes itself out here for the sun and the sea breeze and the beach. It’s the same people,” he told Tom, “but a whole different place.”

“It has the benefit, at least, of being consistent here, this heat. That’s the trouble with home,” Tom said. “You can have some wonderful days but you’re never sure when it will turn cold on you. Not like this.” While he was talking, he was struggling all the while to reach his back as he contorted on his towel, applying a thick layer of sunscreen after his swim.

“Will you let me help you with that?” Michael asked, “You’ll pull something there if you don’t let off.” And, after mild protestations, Tom lay with his face turned away down the beach. Michael recalled the heat and pale give of his back, the feel of his doughy flesh and the flinch as he ran his palms down Tom’s sides where he barely discerned the shape of a rib. “He should do some work on himself if he’s to fit in here”, Michael thought to himself. An unlikely fantasy haunts Michael still as he sits waiting in the departure lounge. What might have happened had Tom left the seminary with him in the beginning or stayed at the end of his holiday last summer?

“What about you?” he had asked Tom. “Do you have any friends away from your work? Any time for a life of your own?”

“The parish takes up most of it,” Tom said, “It’s the nature of the life, you know? You can’t escape it once you’ve made the leap.” Michael remembered him looking down the beach, eyeing the waves, “They’re good people in the parish,” Tom continued, “and it was kind of the Bishop to put me so close to my ma, now she’s fading.”

“Do you not get lonely?” Michael asked him, as close as he could come to asking him directly.  

“Aren’t we all lonely in one way or another? I spend half my time counselling women who don’t get on with their husbands,” Tom told him. He’d grown quiet after that and it was only the incursion of the big woman walking her Dachshund along the beach that snapped him out of it. Tom leapt up, surprising Michael with the burst of energy and asked the woman if she would take their picture.   

 

Michael sees the rows of red lettering on the board signalling delays. He finds a coffee shop overlooking the gates, and watches the snow ploughs and deicers scurrying between between the runway and the waiting planes. The snow falls thick still and he imagines his journey at the other end, the drive from Shannon, through Kerry and over the mountains to Cork. He knows that the coffee is a bad idea, that he should try to sleep, but supposes that he will not. He imagines Tom in Cork, waiting, and hopes that he is resting, comfortable at least in the hospital.

When he finally gets on the plane, he sits back, watches the crowd of people, praying for an empty seat beside him and a little space to think. He eyes an enormous man as he wobbles past, crowding the aisle. He tries not to pray that he will not sit next to him but, when he passes, he is relieved.

The news of Tom’s illness came as a shock. He’d woken to the email on one of his first weekends back in the city after the summer when the days began to turn chillier, the summer receding into autumn. A tumour, Tom wrote, and aggressive. He was not sure how long he had but wrote that he would be lucky to see the new year and worried about how to tell his mother.

The emails they traded became more frank and spoke, as Tom put it, of a fondness that the years could not erode, of the chance to know more of each others’ lives and selves before it was too late.  

The news of Tom’s illness lingered all through that autumn and with it came more frequent mails, recalling their younger days; the trip to Rome with the seminary class and eating exorbitant pistachio gelato at the Piazza San Pietro.

Sitting back, watching the lights of the city recede as the plane climbs, Michael closes his eyes

For their dinner, that night on Long Island, Michael had insisted that he pick Tom up from the retreat house. Tom nodded his assent and waited on the porch. An older priest sat out there too in a rocking chair and waved his rosary at him in benediction when Michael pulled up in the car. Tom had divested himself of his priestly black and wore a crisp linen shirt that showed the colour he’d caught, his pale skin pink but not livid against the white.

The pair of them sat at an outdoor table in Cherry Grove. They’d eaten fresh caught fish and watched a couple arm in arm walk down the street, one bearded, the other shaven-headed and thick with muscle, followed by a pair of trotting beagles.

“It would be very easy,” Tom murmured, watching the couple walk past their table, “to get used to a life like this.”

Michael drank his wine, enjoying the last of the sun as it fell. “It has its compensations,” he’d said.  

The plane hums as it climbs away from the city, lulling him to sleep.

 

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