It was a hot Friday afternoon at the end of May in the middle of a period of abnormal drought, rather unusual for Holland with its humid sea climate. The Dutch love complaining about the weather, in particular about the incessant rain that is their usual fate, so as of habit the inhabitants of the village of H. sought for reasons to bring down the abundance of sunshine. It was the greenhouse effect, the rising price of veggies and fruit and the sorry sight of their withering gardens. But for the better part they enjoyed the long break from rainfall, went dressing as if on vacation in the south of France and spraying their gardens as if it was August. Plenty of reason to socialise and watch others work.
The sun was pouring down relentlessly on the bare brown backs of two paviours bent over their hammers. They were fitting an intrinsic mosaic at the end of one of the village’s many cul-de sacs while a third paviour worked the forklift truck, a cigarette dangling in the corner of his mouth. The men had just finished lunch and now it was Brutus Mackenzie’s turn to steer the forklift truck until the tea break, supplying his colleagues with cobbles and sand. Brutus bent his leg and stretched it. There was the cracking sound again and then the sharp pain. Angrily he finished the cigarette in a few pulls and raced the forklift truck back to the heap of sand at the beginning of the street. Fuckin’ knee.
Brutus was a bronze demi-god, at least in the eyes of the teenage sisters Millie and Cynthia, who lived in the cul-de-sac where the men were working. The girls couldn’t keep their eyes off him, whether peering through the glass curtains of their upstairs bedroom or giggling on the bench in front of their house. They thought he was even hotter than Justin Bieber. If only their new focus of attention would look their way which he never did, not even when they paraded right past him in the street and the other two guys – not even half as good-looking as Brutus – would look up and whistle at them. They thought they would almost faint the moment he took off his t-shirt, displaying a chest made of curved mahogany and a pair of cabled biceps that made their fingers itch to touch those bulging arms. The tribal tattoo around his right upper-arm stood out as a sure token of his undisputed masculinity. Millie and Cynthia swooned when confronted with the sight of his magnificent torso that would now only be clad from the waist down, nonchalantly showing the edge of his Calvin Klein boxer shorts above a pair of worn jeans. Glamour –although not interested in fans and of a rather sandy disposition – had temporarily come to occupy the dead-end street of this sleeping village. The girls weren’t the only females that had spotted this rare exposure of male beauty in their street, even 55-year old Agatha had taken up the habit to pull her poor blind Jack Russell ten times a day past the men, claiming the old dog had become incontinent but in reality just airing herself to watch Brutus flex his muscles. In the fortnight the repaving had started an air of great excitement had exploded among the women, heightened by the hot weather and the lack of interesting soaps on television. Whether deliberate or not, Brutus seemed oblivious of all the fluttering lashes and longing sighs around him. He worked hard, joked with his mates and only took his eyes off the job to gulp down some water from his bottle or wipe the sweat from his forehead with his rough glove. Brutus had other things on his mind, he was mad at his body that was starting to betray him by developing that one flaw, that one pain deadly to a paviour. Bad knees.
Father Adam Brosius stopped ironing his soutane and was suddenly aware again of the monotonous cling-clang of the paviours’ hammers in front of his modest bungalow. The rhythmical sound had been in his ears since dawn so with intervals he didn’t register the sound anymore although he had very sensitive ears. His mother had insisted he had perfect pitch, but Adam knew better and had put it down to mother’s pride, the way she always doted on him, her eldest, her pet, the one who had fulfilled her dream and chosen priesthood. What more could a Catholic matron of the old stamp desire? Even in the final decade of the 20st century Hannas offered their Samuels to God. Adam placed the iron safely back on its stand and took off his glasses. For some reason thinking of his mother brought back the dream he’d had just before waking up. The dream that had been on the edge of his consciousness all morning, escaping every time he knew there was something important, something he needed to recall, but now it was back, he was right in the middle of it once more, in all its shameful horror. He was upstairs in his bedroom, he needed to get dressed for church. He was opening the door of his closet to get his clothes. He’d been in a hurry but instead of seeing his normal self reflected in the mirror, the mirror had been covered with a full-length picture of the guy with the golden chest, a centrefold of the paviour was clumsily taped over the mirror. Adam had found himself staring at the picture and arousal had taken possession of him. He didn’t know how the picture had come there, he hadn’t put it there himself, somebody was trying to set him up but most of all he had been totally confused with what he was feeling. With all his might he tried to look away from the photo and to get rid of his erection, he knew that what he was feeling was wrong, very wrong. In his despair he stretched out his hand to tear the picture down, horrified that someone else would find it there, his cleaning lady, God, his mother. But the moment he touched the picture, the man had come alive and stepped out of his closet and embraced him like a brother. But Adam hadn’t felt like a brother, not at all, although he had pretended to be only that by giving the man a friendly pat on his back before he released himself from the embrace.
‘That was the dream!’ Adam tore himself free from the images that blotted out everything else in his mind. Staggering away from the ironing board, he fell into an armchair and started stroking his bristle ginger goatee, a movement he always made when in a state of confusion. He tried to pray, but the more he forced himself to formulate the right words of devotion, the more his heart seemed to distance itself from God and fall prey to the wickedness of his mind. A sharp pain of suffering shot through his chest. He opened his eyes again, he needed to get up, to get his glasses, to get a clear insight into the matter. Oh my Lord, had it all come down to this? His whole motivation to become a priest, was it a sham after all? He needed a cup of tea, that might calm him down. The bewildered priest, in his corduroy pants and old-fashioned linen shirt shuffled to his kitchen on his slippers. The kitchen was at the front of the house overlooking the street. While he filled the kettle at the sink, Adam couldn’t prevent himself from looking out of the window. Brutus was sitting in a relaxed position on his fork lift truck, rolling a cigarette, one booted foot nonchalantly on the dashboard. He was engaged in a conversation with the two men working the stones on their knees. They must have shared a joke because Adam could heard their bass laughter fill the air through the open window.
‘To be a man like that,’ he thought looking down at his own puffy white hands that held the kettle, ‘to have a body like that, a job like that. What would that feel like? To be a real man? ’ Adam thoughts wandered back to 1990, the year he had chosen to go from the “gymnasium” to the seminary and as of their own accord his thoughts went back to Anna. He hadn’t thought about her for the past 20 years. But now he saw her in his mind’s eye again as if it was yesterday. Her almost ethereal aura, the alabaster skin, a body with a waist as thin as a child’s, the jerky, small steps when she walked, her high pitched voice. Anna had been in his class, dark-haired Anna with the grave brown eyes in a face almost too narrow for the eyes, studious Anna who had had been so convenient to have close by as a class mate always and everywhere. Anna had been available and it had been very tempting to give in to her at the time. Adam was torn between two routes and Anna had been the signpost. He loved her as the sister he’d never had, growing up with 4 brothers. But now she was there to take away all his 17-year old inhibitions about the female body. He knew, on the other hand, how much his mother wanted him to become a priest, how she eyed him suspiciously every time Anna’s name came up. It had been a time of great inner conflict for Adam. How he had wished his dad was still alive to help him with his decision: study law and marry Anna or go to the seminary and become a priest. Adam loved God but he also knew that to choose Him would be an easy way out of unlived experiences, avoid the territory of his insecurities. So he’d gone on a date with Anna with his mind made up to kiss her when he walked her home. But it hadn’t worked. Kissing Anna had turned out to be an uneventful experience, nothing had happened. With his lips on hers, he’d known the answer to his future.
So here he was now, again doubting whether it was God he loved first and foremost. How was it possible that for so long he had avoided to look beyond the obvious? He focused his pale blue eyes behind the thick glasses once more on the scenery outside his window. Brutus had slid down from the forklift truck and was standing with his back towards Adam, picking up the cobbles and dropping them in a wheelbarrow. His mighty muscles slid effortlessly under his tanned skin and his God-given body shone in the sun, that man had everything he, Adam, lacked. With all his might he focused on the musical drum rhythm of the men’s hammers on the paving bricks and directed his gaze away from the radiant back. It ached again, but it was hardly a physical thing now.
‘How can I be God’s servant when I am jealous of what another man has? And when I lust after his body? Have I not taken the vow of chastity? For Heaven’s sake, I’m a young Roman Catholic priest, a rarity in these days when the Holy Church of Rome is falling apart, precisely because of the lustfulness of its priests. Not that I fall for children, not at all. But doesn’t this make me as bad as any of them, standing here gaping a semi-male nudity? I have to go to Church now, pray for forgiveness!’
Brutus shut the front-door behind him and took in the familiar smell of his house, a mixture of leather, Italian herbs and Michela’s Gucci perfume.
“Are you home, Mich?” he shouted as he took off his work boots on the doormat. Inwardly he cursed the pain in his right knee that his action provoked. There was no answer. Brutus went straight to the kitchen, but she wasn’t there, her pans untouched. She wasn’t in the living room either, clearly she was not back from work, which was unusual for she had Friday afternoons off and enjoyed preparing them home-made pasta which they’d eat in front of the telly. Brutus had a strange admonition. This had never happened in the four years they had been living together after Michela had given up Milan and her big city lifestyle to live with her working-class hero in a small provincial town in Holland. A lifestyle she had insisted she wanted, although Brutus had recently observed small chips springing off her glamorous façade. He checked his mobile, no text message either, so he dialled her number. The empty ringing echoed back at him. He was about to phone her work when the doorbell went. Another pang of anxiety filled his chest. Nothing could have happened to her? He opened the door. It was fair-haired Rachel, Michela’s best friend and colleague. There was a look in her blue eyes that Brutus dreaded.
“Is Mich….?”as the words formed in his mouth, Rachel shook her head.
“Oh no, she’s ok but she’s gone back to Milan. She asked me to come and tell you. She’s on the plane right now. I took her to Schiphol. I am sorry.”
“What?” Brutus’s mouth dropped open, “what the f…. but why?” He steadied himself against the doorframe, “Why for heaven’s sake? And why couldn’t she tell me so herself?” A cold ring formed around his heart. Bloody women. His hand hit the doorframe with a formidable bang and Rachel ducked away, clearly frightened by his anger. His eyes were narrow slits.
“I understand this is a rotten message,” Rachelle nodded, already moving away from the door. Her mission was accomplished. She had actually always liked Brutus and felt really sorry for him now, that look in his eye of the little boy who’s just lost his most precious marble. “Michela was just homesick but I know she still loves you, just couldn’t cope with missing her family and Italy any longer, she might be back?”
Rachel gave him another apologetic look before she made a hasty retreat to her car.
“No use trying to get in touch with her right now though. You know what she’s like, so impulsive. Give it some time. Take care, Brutus!”
After closing the front-door, Brutus walked back to the living room in a dazed state. A huge black and white portrait of Michela and him smiled at him from the wall across. He sank in the white leather sofa, staring at the picture, not really seeing it, but remembering every detail of the day the picture was taken. They had been in Zantvoort for a weekend in early August. The weather was sunny and bright. It was Brutus’s first time on the racing circuit. He’d chosen an orange Lamborghini and the speed had fired his blood. So many years he had longed to do this. Michela was waving at him every round he passed. She had stood there in a white dress, the wind playing with the thin fabric and with her long dark curls. Perfect Italian passionata on a summer’s day. He was sure he’d never before seen something so beautiful. Both the car and the girl filled his heart to the brim. It was the sublimation of happiness. Later that day they had swam in the North sea and tanned on sunbeds, he with a beer, she with a martini. Arm-in-arm they had strolled over to one of the beach restaurants that did fish specialities. The cod in lobster sauce was delicious and the sound of the waves in the background coupled with the lingering heat and white wine had made them drowsy, intoxicated. They had asked a passer-by to take the pic. That night they had stayed in a hotel overlooking the sea. After they had made love, they had watched the huge pale moon rise up from the sea. The magnitude of this sight had made Michela shiver, so Brutus had pulled her close to him again, his strong arms securely around her. All the time the words had been on his lips “would you…?” but he hadn’t spoken them. Had it been a sign? Was this the answer?
Adam parked his Renault Scenic in his allotted parking place next to the Mary Magdalene Church in G. He was still in the grip of his recent turmoil but looking forward to the comfort of his faith. He took the back door entering the church via the consistory. It was an hour before the Friday evening Mass, so the flower group had just left and the sexton had already lit the candles and opened the front door but had gone home now to have this evening meal. With a sigh of relief Adam took in the familiar scent of candlewax, incense and flowers. The silence of the holy place enveloped him like a warm, familiar cloak. Instantly he felt calmer, surer, comforted. Passing in front of the altar he kneeled down, suppressing a strong urge to go completely flat on his stomach as on the day he was ordained. With his head bent down, his fingers twined and his eyes firmly shut, he felt a surge of shame well up in him. It made space for God to enter him again. Hope grew in Adam’s heart that he would be able to brush aside his recent discovery and all the lustful images. He needed to be sure.
“Keep me strong in the faith, Father,” he prayed, “let me be Your loyal and obedient servant. Help me to stay on the path You have chosen for me and to be an example to those who have put their faith in You through me.” He stayed in this position for a long time until his knees started to hurt on the cold stone floor. Stiffly he got up and sat himself in one of the chairs on the altar. Afraid to move away from the reconciliation with his Master and thrown back in his restless state, Adam closed his eyes again and kept directing his attention upwards.
‘All human beings need this hope,’ he thought, ‘this calm, meditative state in which the self is part of the whole. Everyone!’
Brutus banged the front door shut behind him and took in the small breeze that announced the end of a very hot day. Being outside always made him feel better. It was impossible to stay in the flat any longer, it just reminded him of Michela with all his senses. The oval-shaped hazel eyes and the mass of brown hair that fell all the way down to her gorgeous butt. The long shapely legs, the small waist, the way she giggled, prayed, ate, made love and always got toothpaste on her chin. Her funny Dutch with rolling Italian r’s, the way she drove her Fiat, all impatient southern gusto, her devotion to her family and her big faith in God. Even stark-naked she would never part with the crucifix around her neck.
“I’m always dressed to the nines,” she’d laughed.
Gosh, he had fallen for her like water off the Niagara waterfalls. They had met when he and his mates had gone to Rimini on holidays. He had only been twenty at the time and not at all intending to settle for a steady relationship. But with Michela his life had made a 180% turn. All his savings he’d given to keep her in his life. Starting with at least a dozen trips to Milan. She had bewitched him from the first day he’d laid eyes on her, her gorgeous brown body clad in a yellow bikini on a huge Mickey Mouse bathing towel. She was trying to get rid of a wasp that was attacking her coke. What an invitation to rush up and offer help. It had been love on first sight, for both of them, totally, irrevocably and now she was gone. Just like that, just when got his act together, do it all in big style with her, start a family. Damn that woman, damn her! He backed his red Beetle out of the garage and decided to go to his favourite pub “the Freebooter” because he needed a drink. But after he’d parked his car on the market square, he changed his mind. He dreaded the idea of running into Tony and Harry, his single colleagues, who would certainly still be hanging out there after work. They would want to know why he was in the pub, as he always claimed his Friday nights at home were sacred. Without purpose or plan, Brutus started to walk the streets of his home town. He let his feet direct him any way they wanted and was surprised when he got to the huge sculpted wooden door of the Mary Magdalene Church. He’d only been there twice with Michela because she had tugged him along but after the two visits he’d told her religion was not for him. She’d had looked at him with such disappointment, for a moment it had seemed as if a cloud was blotting the fire in her radiant eyes. But the moment had passed and she had never asked him to join her again. So why was he standing here now? Unsure but curious he tried the door handle and to his surprise the heavy door gave way. He peered around in the entrance hall. Nobody there. Hesitantly, Brutus opened the second door and found himself inside the church. It was very silent, filtered light shone through the stained-glass windows, showing Christ is his full martyrdom. Brutus inhaled the atmosphere and felt the air of ages dense with hope and fear weigh down on him. He dragged himself to the final row of benches and sat down. He suppressed an odd longing to sink on his knees on the crimson plush foot-rest. Had he gone completely daft?
‘I couldn’t give her Italy in Holland, just couldn’t, ‘ Brutus thought, ‘and by hell I tried.’ He felt calmer and could think more coherently now. There was slightly less bitterness towards the girl he’d invested in so much and who had let him down so suddenly. Ok, so she hadn’t had the guts to discuss her longings with him, to face up to him. It told more about her character, than about his. But who knows namby-pamby Guido might be involved in all this. Hadn’t he tried to convince Michela to come back to Milan and do the photo-shoot in his studio? The more Brutus thought about it, the more it became likely that her cousin, Guido Vitello, was another reason Michela had gone home. She hadn’t liked her office job with the lawyers’ firm and now she turned 21 she must have thought ‘sink or swim’ to a career as a photo model. Well, queers always have such a smooth and shifty way of luring girls in the direction of fame and glamour. No straight guy can do that same job with the same effect.
‘Enough thinking about, Michela, at least for now.‘ Brutus got up and abruptly left the church. With a lot more vivacity in his stride, he went to his car and drove home. He was suddenly hungry after a long day at work and having skipped the evening meal. He cooked himself some potatoes, a steak and some peas. Then he took a shower and went straight to bed. He slept within seconds.
Adam realised he’d been dozing when he heard the church door open with its characteristic creaking sound. He quickly raised himself from his slumber and sat up. His professional self was ready to get up and greet the worshipper when he saw it was the paviour who had come in. Instinctively Adam ducked deeper behind the huge flower arrangement and sat in his chair as quietly as a mouse. He felt his heart pounding in his chest and sent his eyes upwards asking the Lord why he’d sent this man on his path again.
“You certainly subject me to a severe test, Lord!”
Peering in between the peonies he saw that the paviour had taken a seat in the last row. When his first anxiety had subsided, Adam found himself going over all his parishioners in his mind. He was sure he had never seen this man in his church before. Could he be a parishioner from one of the neighbouring villages? He certainly didn’t look the devote kind with his tattooed upper arm, his trained body and his long hair that was kept together by an elastic band. But then again hadn’t Adam been taught that faith can’t be known from a person’s exterior? Men in business suits can turn out to be the most stringent atheists and an old beggar in rags holier than the Pope. Even men in soutanes weren’t without suspicion these days, well had they ever been? He was well aware that while his thoughts roamed, his eyes remained vigilant, taking in the sitting shape of the man that had not been far from his thoughts all day. Adam decided he needed to act the professional and had to get up and greet the man. But just when he was mustering up his courage, he saw the tall posture of the paviour rise and with big strides the man left through the door he’d come in.
‘Thank you, Father,’ the priest muttered, ‘I think I would have made a complete fool of myself going up to this guy and talking to him.’ Adam also got up and made his way to the consistory again. It was time to prepare for mass. He banned all thoughts of male beauty from his mind while he put on his freshly pressed white soutane and reread the sermon he had written for the weekend. It dealt with the reading from St. John’s Gospel for the sixth week of Easter. “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
Adam felt the inspiration of this Bible text once again. How important it was that he, Adam, also observed the commandments and walked the Path of Light. He now knew that his treacherous thoughts were just thoughts, nothing more, that the sexual longing he had felt for the paviour’s body had only been a temporary lapse, he was steady again on his path. He loved the Father and he loved the Son with the correct love, the only love he was entitled to, the only love that he had chosen to spread. After he had finished reading, he sat back on the settee. He was calm, it seemed like everything was going to be alright. He checked his watch and saw he’d still had ten minutes to give his mother a quick call.
In an explosion of orange, red and purple shades, the evening sun sank behind the red-roofed houses of the village of H. All evening the village had hummed with activity as the shopkeepers and guilds were getting ready for the big annual fair on Saturday. There would be Solex races, clog dancing, old trades and crafts. And in the big tent on the village square there would be bands and dancing, with in the evening a huge barbeque for the entire village. Millie and Cynthia were still wide awake, full of anticipation for the one day a year their village came alive. Millie had slipped out of her own bed and crept in beside her sister in the narrow bed.
“I don’t know what is better, the fair tomorrow or Monday when our own cutie will be back,” Millie whispered in the dark. Cynthia agreed. It was all so exciting. But when they finally managed to fall asleep in each other’s arms, it was Justin Bieber who kept watch over them, gazing at the girls with his famous bedroom eyes.