Category Archives: Fiction

Acting Apart

Short story by

PAUL BROWNSEY

 

            It had all been nonsense.  “Forever shall I be faithful to the duty of a married woman,” she had cried, in the peculiar language of poetic drama, not the language of life.  Her eyes had shone, her bosom had been elevated as though to welcome the sword of martyrdom.  “My husband’s glory was of the battlefield; mine shall be the glory of a virtuous wife.”

There had been much more of the same. 

Thus, she had dismissed Yevgeny Onegin.

It had been nonsense because in Prince Gremin, Tatyana had married a man old enough to be her grandfather. Forever would be a brief interlude; then she would be free to marry again.  She must have known this even while she quivered in her ecstasy of renunciation and the polonaise snapped its grand heartless rhythms in the adjoining ballroom.

Striding –  did he sometimes break into a run?    along Nevsky Prospekt at a pace that caused stares, Onegin asked himself where it had come from, this sickness that caused women – and men, too –  to step aside from the simple facts of their lives and force themselves into scenes that might have come from novels or Italian operas.  Before the drama of Tatyana’s grand renunciation of him there had been, years before, when he was a visitor at her father’s house, the drama of her grand declaration of eternal love for him, made in a letter carefully composed to exhibit spontaneous unrestraint.  The same sickness had infected poor Lensky, whose response to Onegin’s harmless and entirely aimless flirting with his sweetheart, little Olga, had been to fling himself into the role of outraged lover from whom honour demanded the drama of a duel.  And he had died in consequence, for he had obliged Onegin to shoot at him, and a sensible man does not treat the conventions of society with contempt, foolish though the conventions may be to the eye of reason.

The same eye of reason disclosed to Onegin that he, too, had been prey to the self-dramatising sickness.  His response to Tatyana’s grand renunciation had been to embrace the Young Werther role, writhing in despair at his beloved’s marriage to another.  (Youngish Werther, anyway!)  Mightn’t he actually have blown his brains out if his friend Hermann hadn’t snatched the pistol from him?  And there, in Kazansky Cathedral, mocking him with its colonnade shaped like a woman’s embracing arms, he’d stood in vain through hours of mumbo-jumbo in hope of a divine presence because he’d heard she attended there.  He’d even flung himself to the floor in a full prostration –  he, an unbeliever!  Yet for all the intensity with which he’d felt his despair, it had still been this mad play-acting.  He had hidden from himself the same knowledge that Tatyana had hidden from herself in order that it shouldn’t impede her performance of the faithful wife forever renouncing her true love: the fact that her married state was bound to be brief.

That knowledge had been released into consciousness only now, unlocked by solemn newspaper columns reporting the death of Prince Gremin.  As he swerved around the squad of prostitutes sweeping the cobbles as punishment for plying their trade the night before, he did not neglect to ask himself whether this descent on the general’s house wasn’t a further exercise in drama, the scene in which, just when the heroine’s abandonment is at its most intense, the rejected lover she really loves, sweeps in to sweep her off.

That was not the way to look at it.  On the contrary, it would pre-empt drama.  It would be a simple acknowledgement by two rational creatures of facts they both knew full well and would thus eliminate at a stroke the play of hints and manoeuvres, contrived meetings that looked accidental, letters left on tables as in that English novel about old lovers that the French had translated.  Such directness might shock the conventions, but a sensible man knew when not to take the conventions seriously. 

Conventions created drama.

But already she was gone.  A servant in dirty ill-assorted clothes attempted the hauteur he might have seen his former master display in sending a pedlar packing to inform Onegin that immediately after the funeral of “his Great and Very Noble Prince Highness” and without waiting for any of the memorial services, “her Great and Very Noble Princess Highness” had departed for an estate in the Ukraine. 

“The name of the estate is…?”  Would a journey of a thousand versts and an unheralded invasion of Tatyana’s distant seclusion cross the border from directness into drama?

The servant’s face opened in what seemed an attempt at a smile of warmth and recognition.  “God be with you, Pavel Davidovitch,” he said.  In a rush a newcomer had ascended the steps behind Onegin and was entering the house like one who had the freedom of it.

“The God of my fathers and yours, Fedya,” the man called gaily in reply, then halted to compose himself as though only now realising that he had overtaken a gentleman.  He bowed to Onegin and disappeared indoors.  Certain features of the man’s image lingered while Onegin retraced his steps to his lodging and his thoughts discovered the reason why Tatyana had fled to the Ukraine.  She pretended a grief-stricken retreat from society, fearing that if she remained in St Petersburg the force of her love for Onegin, which she had not omitted to confess to him in the course of her grand renunciation so as to make it perfect, would, now that she was free to marry him, drive her to some impetuous action which would mire her in scandal.   A woman could not flout convention as a man could.  The man had a swarthy face, a hooked nose. 

The man who had the freedom of Tatyana’s house, whom the servant had greeted while leaving Onegin unanswered, was a Jew.

Yes, he looked like a gentleman, and to the eye of reason, rather than to the eyes of good upstanding Russians, most of whom were blockheads, was it obvious that a Jew could not be a gentleman?  But Our Father the Tsar had decreed that the Jews should remain in their Pale in the territories to the south and west, forbidden to contaminate the pure heartland of Holy Mother Russia, where the knowledge still lay close to the soul that the incursion of the admirable and odious Napoleon must have been due to sins committed by the Russian people.  And could the Tsar’s decree be other than a good and wise decree?    for according to the principle of autocracy so happily ruling in Russia, the only measure of what was good and wise was what the Tsar decreed.  Still, though the Tsar ruled by the grace of God, he did not quite possess God’s omnipotence.  Like lice in barracks, Jews could be found in St Petersburg and Moscow if you looked for them, and many impecunious persons, such as Onegin’s friend Hermann, looked for them.

That thought reared up like one of the bronze horses erected a few years later on the Anichkov Bridge.

If a Jew could come and go as he pleased in the house of Prince Gremin, then Gremin, like poor Hermann, must have been in hock to the moneylenders.  And in that case –  and the fact that the door had been opened by a scarecrow of a servant made it the more likely    then love (Onegin’s own love for Tatyana, her love for him) had a powerful second.  If anything remained of Tatyana’s old self-dramatising devotion to her prince, perhaps even causing her to toy with the idea of remaining a widow to his memory forever (even a virgin forever?    there had been no child of the marriage), prudence would soon knock it on the head.  Her husband’s money gone to the Jews and thus not available to keep her in the style to which, from an unpretentious country home, she had become accustomed – well, this was not calculated to inhibit her love for a gentleman of large and unburdened estates. 

And the same prudence made him patient.  The envisioned pursuit of Tatyana to the Ukraine would indeed be drama, not befitting people whose lives were governed by reason.  She would be back.  He could wait for the meeting.  And there should be no further attempt to confront her in her home, where, he felt obscurely, influences lurked that might work against the progress of reason on earth that the German philosopher promised. 

It was at the Prussian ambassador’s, many months later, that he learned that she was back in St Petersburg; at the house of a senior official in the army ministry who had recently been ennobled, that she declined many invitations on account of headaches; from a doctor with whom he played kaisa billiards, that he had recommended air for the headaches; from a beggar, that, in her carriage, she had passed the very spot where, an hour before, Onegin had been stationed in case an airing took her that way.  Each piece of news brought a fear that her need of money, far from aiding his cause, might damage it, for it would be just like her to say that she wouldn’t marry him because she couldn’t be sure that love alone, in dramatic purity, was her motive.  At a ball, as a polonaise played, which could be a good omen or a bad, their eyes locked from afar; he could not find her later but his reason forbade him to yield to the belief that the crowd was deliberately keeping them apart. 

Could one say that destiny was slowly engineering a meeting between them, their wills playing no part in the process?  But of course, one did not believe in destiny; to believe in it was to accept that one’s life was a play written by another. 

If destiny did bring about their meeting, it deputed the details to old Countess X.  She was said to possess the secret of winning at gambling and Onegin’s friend Hermann had some crackpot scheme to clear his debts by beguiling the old lady into revealing her secret, a scheme he pursued by wooing some girl who was her ward.  Accompanying Hermann to the Countess’s apartment, Onegin learned that Tatyana was expected at a forthcoming music party at which guests were to be ravished by the piano-playing of the celebrated Irishman, John Field, revisiting the city of his first triumphs.  Onegin professed so intense a love of nocturnes so insistently that if Countess X did not extend an invitation to him, it must count as a snub of the first order; and she managed both snub and invitation together, saying, “You make it abundantly clear, sir, that my party would be incomplete if you did not have the kindness to attend.”

On the night of the nocturnes ladies and gentlemen nodded to them as though their rhythm were that of a trepak, and were so appreciative that for the most part their conversation did not drown the music.  Tatyana arrived when people were already seating themselves for the music and greeted Onegin with a distant but calm bow, then rather drew attention to herself by listening to the music in a distant but calm silence.  At the interval, when some crowded around the Irishman, who was old and ill and plainly drunk, with praise, and others, with even more enthusiasm, exited in the direction of the refreshments, Tatyana did neither, risking comment as she hastened to the library.  Here Onegin discovered her at another, smaller piano, picking out notes, for all the world as though she had not stationed herself there for their long-fated encounter.

He fired his bullet immediately, like a rational person.  “You love me and I love you.”

She absorbed the shot without ceasing to trace the notes of Field’s Nocturne in C Major.

“Tatyana, those are the only facts.  The rest is play-acting.  Your grand renunciation was all nonsense, and you know it.  Will you lie about your heart or about the fidelity of mine to you?” 

“That is the melody, is it not?  Yes, I acknowledge the fidelity of your passion for me and I shall not lie about my heart.”  The words seemed not attended to, so intent was she on repeating some notes.

“Tatyana!  Oh, my dearest, my angel!”  But it was awkward to embrace her as she sat at the keyboard, and so insecure was his balance as he stooped to do so that, though he registered the heat of her flesh through silk, her vigorous push overbalanced him to the floor.

 “I will not lie about my heart.  It is pledged to another.  I shall marry Pavel Davidovitch Edlin.”

“And who the devil is that?”  But that was how outraged fathers in novels addressed daughters who had professed a liking for someone unsuitable.  For that matter, her It is pledged to another was literature-speak, too.  Could people not help this, performing like automatons whose voices and phrases and tones and poses came from the books they’d read, the conversations they’d heard, the scenes they’d witnessed?  It was as though people weren’t real, uniquely expressing their own unique feelings and thoughts, but were mere channels for something else that could not be resisted.

He struggled to his feet and struggled to find a different way of putting his question until recognition flooded in and the latter was unnecessary.

            “The Jew!”

            “A good man!”  Her eyes blazed into his, then elevated themselves to the icon shelf that conventional respectability exacted even from a notorious free-thinker like Countess X.

 “How can you, a Russian woman, marry a Jew?”  And when he had said that, and in the silence that threatened to continue forever, he knew he had spoken words that were written by another and that the drama in which they figured was not his own, yet he also knew he could not have helped himself. 

He said, “I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

 “I forgive you.  One has to say that, it is what we are taught, what well-bred people say.”  Something in her broke open and fury cried, “But I do not forgive you!”  Then the fury in her went out, and it was as though positions were reversed and she were begging his forgiveness. “He came to see my husband on behalf of a mother, a widow, whose son had been taken by the army for twenty-five years, as they do with the Jews, the young men.  He pleaded with my husband to spare her son.  I knew that saving this boy would be good.”  Her pleading manner vanished.  “I discovered I wanted this more intensely than I had ever wanted anything.”  Pause.  “I made sure that certain papers disappeared.  The boy returned to his mother.  I seemed to have discerned a purpose for my life.  Since then I have interested myself in the fate of our Jews.”

 “And if you were troubled by the new disease you would marry a man with the cholera.”  But he said it gently, almost tenderly, remembering his efforts to ease the lot of his serfs in the face of his neighbours’ hostility, and wondering whether this piece of devotion on his part to the good of others could furnish an argument about how well he and Tatyana were suited.

“I am engaged with others in establishing a Committee for the Friendship of Christians and Jews.  We shall endeavour to bring to the knowledge of the Tsar how loyal our Jews wish to be and how merciless and brutal are those who act in his name.  Through my love for my husband all my powers shall be at the service of good.  My happiness shall lie in the happiness of a suffering people from whom the lash and the shackles are withdrawn!”

“No-one,” he shouted, frantic at the ineffable stupidity of her project, “will pay the slightest attention to your committee of Russians and Jews.” 

“Not Russians and Jews.  Christians and Jews.”  Her bosom lifted in the old way and her eyes shone in the old way.

But he had a bullet left to pierce this performance, get to her soul. 

 “Would I be right to infer that before your husband died you nourished a guilty passion for his successor?  I will not say that you deceived him as the world understands that phrase, but it appears you went behind his back to effect what your new husband wanted.”

“Your reproach is not that I nourished a guilty passion while my husband was alive, but that I did not nourish a guilty passion for you.”

“But you loved me, you did.  You told me so on the night -”

 “- on the night of my grand renunciation, as you call it.  But that, you have perceived, was all nonsense, play-acting.  All nonsense, and that must damn whatever confession of love for you it may have included.”

She had risen from the piano, and the manner in which she swept from the room showed how well she had learnt the deportment befitting the exalted role in society brought to her by Prince Gremin.  “Tanya, don’t get all princessy,” he cried after her, but the music was beginning again and she did not return.

The tune was a Russian song, In the Garden.  In the garden at her father’s house he told Tatyana to forget the love she had professed in her letter.  Why was Field playing a Russian song?     Wasn’t he here to play his own compositions?  That was a conundrum to challenge a philosopher.  “The tune is mere coincidence, for there is no destiny to mock us.”  After Field, composer of a piano fantasia on In the Garden, was gone, they found Onegin in the library, saying that aloud to no-one, again and again. SLQ

 

 PaulBrownsey-photo

Paul Brownsey has published around 80 short stories in Europe and North America.  His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, USA.

 

A Time for Every Matter

A short story by

John P. Asling

 

This is Grace’s moment.

Just step into the aisle. Make your way up to the front of the church. To the microphone standing erect beside that man framed in the colour photograph. That man perched on a pedestal. That man smiling down on the incense-shrouded congregation. That man dwarfed by the looming wooden cross.

It is the first moment of silence in the hour filled with precious words sung by the royally garbed women’s choir, spilled with tears of grief, solemnly pronounced by the ageing pastor before the grey suits, black dresses, bowed heads.

Like ‘hero’, ‘courage’.

Clutching a scribbled note in her blood-red painted nails, Grace turns toward the aisle. She’s a bloke away from stepping from her usual seat in the back pew and she hesitates, hoping he will discreetly let her past. In that moment, Bible words read by the dead man’s brother echo in her soul.

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ 

For everything? Every matter? There is no season for what he did to me. No season and no reason.

*

Everett and Grace were paired for the night at the homeless shelter in the basement of their church not far from the city centre. This was the first time they had worked so closely together, though she knew him from church. He talked to her a little about his children.

‘Thanks for taking care of the girls. They love you looking after them. You’re so good with them,’ he said one Sunday.

She didn’t offer much in reply, partly because she was shy, but she was also somehow wary. If you asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.

‘It’s okay, they’re very well-behaved, those girls.’

Everett and Grace worked side-by-side, blowing up mattresses, putting on the thin fitted sheets, threadbare blankets, bleached pillow slips. How uncomfortable those narrow beds looked to Grace crowded into that basement meeting room, but at least it was warm inside. Outside it was a bone-chilling January. Everett and Grace made tea and set it on the communal table and kept the supply of broken biscuits donated by the factory replenished. The men and women booked for the night – twenty-five – were hungry and thirsty when they first arrived from around the borough. Some of the ‘guests’- the shelter leader insisted on calling them that – perused the box of used clothes Everett and Grace had set out, trying on woolly hats and jumpers. 

Grace was always surprised they never looked like the homeless people she saw on the street near the station. They didn’t look to be much worse off than her. And that scared her. Was this her next stop now that she had been let go at the nail salon, her rent overdue? Everett explained that the borough had ‘screened’ the people using their church shelter because it was run by volunteers. ‘We do this out of our best Christian instincts, but of course we aren’t trained.’

Everett and Grace warmed the lasagnes baked by the church ladies group, prepared the garlic bread the men’s group made, set the tables, prepared the tea and filled the water jugs. Then they took a break.

‘The demographics are changing,’ he said, adding milk to his mug of tea. And to hers. She just watched. He was up on the refugee situation because he is an elder and spoke often to the minister. Grace listened, blowing softly on her steaming tea.

These ‘guests’ were mostly Eastern Europeans and North Africans working in restaurants or doing day labour. One was a tall man with a thin moustache who grew up not far from where Grace’s father was born. Grace heard him talking to one of the locals who got tired of sleeping in his car and came to the shelter for the first time.

‘I can’t go back to my country. I’m a dead man if I go back there. No way, I’m going back there. But God, it’s cold here now. I sure could use that hot sun on my back,’ the African said.

The other man laughed a moment then caught himself. ‘You’ll be alright here. It’ll come good.’

Grace was wiping tables nearby, took it in, especially the part about her father’s country in Africa, but kept her thoughts to herself.

Two volunteers were missing from the overnight roster and Grace said she would stay on, not having to get up for work in the morning. She’d get breakfast, cut down on expenses, every little bit counts. She was thinking that way more and more since losing her job.

Everett said he was available too.

‘Keep the team together,’ he laughed easily but his eyes were stern. She had noticed that over the years since Everett joined the church from the other side of the city. She knew him from his greetings at the church door, his speeches at meetings and the time he preached on ‘charity’ when the pastor was on leave. Some Sunday mornings she worked in the nursery where his two youngsters were an island of serenity in an ocean of manic children.

Grace wondered why Everett wouldn’t want to get home to his wife and two small girls with bows in their hair. Grace had looked after them in the church nursery again last week. They played together with Barbie dolls and didn’t need any fuss from the carers. She guessed he just wanted to help out. He had that kind of reputation at the church.

It was a long night at the shelter. The aroma of the vegetarian lasagne eventually gave way to the stench of men’s feet, body odours. The three women in their curtained-off corner hid under their blankets. Just before lights-out an older man with shaking hands began cussing out the youngster next to him for shifting his mattress too close. Everett went to calm them down. The leader had to step between the two labourers wearing coloured ball caps trying to use the same plug for their phones. Grace finished cleaning the kitchen. Things quieted down by midnight.

Grace looked through her emails on her smart phone, then closed her eyes, just resting. Everett read a book in the dimly lit hallway, stayed awake all night. The leader read her Bible.   

In the morning Everett offered to drive Grace home. She usually walked but agreed when the shock of frigid air hit her as they left the shelter at six o’clock. Frost enveloped Everett’s sleek red car but it started immediately. He reached very carefully across her to help with the tangled seat belt.

‘There, that’s better, Grace. The children get them messed up,’ he laughed. Those eyes. Grace nodded, thinking of the pretty bows and the Barbie dolls.

‘Those girls are lovely,’ she offered, too tired for much talk.

‘The joy of my life,’ he responded. ‘They love it when you take care of them.’

They drove in silence towards Grace’s cramped flat but Everett suddenly steered the humming red sports car down an alley, stopped abruptly, and locked the doors. Grace’s heart nearly stopped. Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t speak. This time Everett’s reach was sudden, brutal. She smelled his foul breath, felt her clothes ripped from her body. She gritted her teeth, managing to spit out, one word, ‘No.’ He was deaf to her. The touch of him, the sound of him, the rocking of the car. Grace thought she would die, wished she had died.

Back in her flat, Grace let the hot water of the shower mix with her wailing tears. She stayed under for a long time, thinking. I am no longer a woman, just a piece of dead meat. Because of that man. Everett. He has eaten me up, tossed me aside like a carcass. She tried to pray but somehow God had died when that man, that Everett forced himself on her.

‘Where is the pastor’s loving God now?’ Grace collapsed onto her bed, falling into a morbid sleep. 

Grace stayed in her bed for days, ignoring her buzzing phone, not eating, not answering the door, not caring about anything, anybody. Like she was dying. That man, that Everett, he did this.

Then she got up, pulled her curtains. Fuck him. I ain’t letting him kill me.

*

‘It’s not your fault just because you got in that posh car with that Everett,’ Grace’s friend Frankie fumed a week later. ‘You gotta say something. You gotta go to the police. You gotta tell.’

Grace knew Frankie never trusted Everett, his young wife, perfect kids. She’d say, ‘What’s the matter with women his own age? There’s something about that man, Grace. You see it too.’

Grace never responded to Frankie on this.

*

Frankie sent Grace a text early one Saturday morning a few weeks later saying Everett had been stabbed to death. Grace felt like her heart stopped beating. Again.

She went online and read about it herself, sitting up in her frigid flat as the groan of morning traffic started growing on the street below. ‘Jesus,’ she whispered. ‘That man, that Everett. Dead.’

 

‘A 45-year-old man was stabbed to death early this morning as he attempted to stop a gang fight outside an after-hours club. Everett Winston, a broker, was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 4 a.m. A Met spokesman said the investigation was ongoing. However, one woman, who refused to give her name, hailed Mr. Winston as a “hero”. ‘He told them all just stop fighting. He put his body on the line, took a blade.’ The Met said while they were still gathering information, it appeared the slain man’s “courage” prevented major bloodshed. Mr. Winston leaves a wife and twin three-year-old daughters.’

Frankie phoned Grace a few minutes later. ‘Hero? What’s that Everett doing down there at that hour? I’m sorry ‘bout those two little kids but what’s that man doing there with all those bling girls and those gangsters?’

‘Looks like he was some kind of hero, Frankie.’

‘You know better than that, Grace. It’s like that Hollywood guy. They never who they say they are.’

‘Maybe none of us are, Frankie.’

‘Don’t talk shit to me.’

‘I just don’t know.’

*

The bloke looks over at Grace like he knows what’s on her mind. Was he Everett’s friend?  There’s nobody at the ‘open mic’ and the pastor is asking if anyone else has anything to add about ‘Brother Everett, who laid down his life for others’. There’s been plenty of folks talking about all the good things Everett had done at the church, leading that building committee last year, donating money for Syria. Grace makes herself skinny so she won’t be touching the bloke beside her as she moves closer to the aisle. He doesn’t move but Grace gets by. The pastor is talking about what the newspapers have been saying about Everett but Grace still hears those Bible words spoken by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to be born and a time to die.’

Shit, when’s my time to be born, my time to live?

*

Grace never told Frankie about the envelope. Frankie would have shrieked like the time her father hit her for smoking weed. She’s loud about protecting her rights. That just scares Grace.

She had stopped helping at the shelter after Everett attacked her. She told the shelter leader she needed to spend more time looking for work after losing her job. Grace had done Frankie’s nails and then Frankie flashed her silver sparkled fingers at the mall and told their friends Grace needed business. Grace set up shop in her squat kitchen and a few of the girls came over the next week and got their nails painted. She charged them a few quid, helped her get groceries. But she knew she had to find another job.

Then the envelope arrived.

‘Sorry for what happened the other night. I possibly misread the situation. Hope this ends the matter.’

‘This’ was £100 in twenties. Grace looked at it spread out like a fan as it fell from the envelope. Misread? Fuck. The matter? The rape.

She took the envelope to church next Sunday, sat in her back row, eyeing Everett and the pretty wife in their pew. When elders came for the Offering she put the envelope with the £100 in the basket. The note was there too.

Grace met Frankie after church for coffee at the cheap café beside the station. Frankie grabbed her best friend’s cold hand across the table at the back where they always sat.

‘You gone to the police yet? Grace, you can’t keep this all to yourself.’

Grace took a sip of her coffee, dabbed her unpainted lips with the napkin.

‘No police, Frankie. I got other plans. Maybe I forgive him.’

‘Well, maybe I’m gonna’ talk to his pretty wife, then.’

‘No, you ain’t.’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘No, Frankie, this is my battle.’

That was before Everett became a hero.

*

Grace thinks the pastor is going to close down that open mic before she gets to the front of the church. Grace moves toward that stiff microphone, thinks about those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to mourn and a time to dance.’

I’m not mourning and I am not dancing. I am moving up there.

*

After coffee in the café, Grace ignored Frankie’s phone calls for a few days. She didn’t tell her about the envelope and she didn’t tell her about going to the ‘Memorial for a Hero’ at the church. Frankie’s folks would be there so she would know about it but Frankie mostly does the opposite of them, like staying out late and avoiding church. Grace used to be like that. Since her father died from drinking and her mother moved to America with that Warner, she’s got no one to protest against. Except now there’s Everett. Fuck him. What’s he done to me?

Grace dressed for church like it was Sunday, sat down at her kitchen table and took her notepad, ripped out a few sheets and started scratching out all the words that had been bouncing around inside her head. Her whole body shook like she was on some carnival ride while she wrote. Then she headed out the door to church.

*

Grace’s short legs are moving quickly towards the front of the church and she is almost there. The pastor doesn’t want her up here. His drag dog face is telling her that. The choir of sweet-scented ladies are glaring down at her. The big cross is judging her. She hears those words again, ‘hero’, ’courage’ and but can’t fit them alongside Everett’s – ‘Keep the team together’. She can see the fan of twenties on her kitchen table. Grace hears those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to keep silence and a time to speak.’

Grace’s time of silence is over.

‘The Good Book says…’ SLQ

 

**********

John P. Asling is a writer and editor living in Blackheath, London, and has published poetry and fiction in Canada and the United Kingdom.

**************

A Time for Every Matter

A short story by

John P. Asling

 

This is Grace’s moment.

Just step into the aisle. Make your way up to the front of the church. To the microphone standing erect beside that man framed in the colour photograph. That man perched on a pedestal. That man smiling down on the incense-shrouded congregation. That man dwarfed by the looming wooden cross.

It is the first moment of silence in the hour filled with precious words sung by the royally garbed women’s choir, spilled with tears of grief, solemnly pronounced by the ageing pastor before the grey suits, black dresses, bowed heads.

Like ‘hero’, ‘courage’.

Clutching a scribbled note in her blood-red painted nails, Grace turns toward the aisle. She’s a bloke away from stepping from her usual seat in the back pew and she hesitates, hoping he will discreetly let her past. In that moment, Bible words read by the dead man’s brother echo in her soul.

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ 

For everything? Every matter? There is no season for what he did to me. No season and no reason.

*

Everett and Grace were paired for the night at the homeless shelter in the basement of their church not far from the city centre. This was the first time they had worked so closely together, though she knew him from church. He talked to her a little about his children.

‘Thanks for taking care of the girls. They love you looking after them. You’re so good with them,’ he said one Sunday.

She didn’t offer much in reply, partly because she was shy, but she was also somehow wary. If you asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.

‘It’s okay, they’re very well-behaved, those girls.’

Everett and Grace worked side-by-side, blowing up mattresses, putting on the thin fitted sheets, threadbare blankets, bleached pillow slips. How uncomfortable those narrow beds looked to Grace crowded into that basement meeting room, but at least it was warm inside. Outside it was a bone-chilling January. Everett and Grace made tea and set it on the communal table and kept the supply of broken biscuits donated by the factory replenished. The men and women booked for the night – twenty-five – were hungry and thirsty when they first arrived from around the borough. Some of the ‘guests’- the shelter leader insisted on calling them that – perused the box of used clothes Everett and Grace had set out, trying on woolly hats and jumpers. 

Grace was always surprised they never looked like the homeless people she saw on the street near the station. They didn’t look to be much worse off than her. And that scared her. Was this her next stop now that she had been let go at the nail salon, her rent overdue? Everett explained that the borough had ‘screened’ the people using their church shelter because it was run by volunteers. ‘We do this out of our best Christian instincts, but of course we aren’t trained.’

Everett and Grace warmed the lasagnes baked by the church ladies group, prepared the garlic bread the men’s group made, set the tables, prepared the tea and filled the water jugs. Then they took a break.

‘The demographics are changing,’ he said, adding milk to his mug of tea. And to hers. She just watched. He was up on the refugee situation because he is an elder and spoke often to the minister. Grace listened, blowing softly on her steaming tea.

These ‘guests’ were mostly Eastern Europeans and North Africans working in restaurants or doing day labour. One was a tall man with a thin moustache who grew up not far from where Grace’s father was born. Grace heard him talking to one of the locals who got tired of sleeping in his car and came to the shelter for the first time.

‘I can’t go back to my country. I’m a dead man if I go back there. No way, I’m going back there. But God, it’s cold here now. I sure could use that hot sun on my back,’ the African said.

The other man laughed a moment then caught himself. ‘You’ll be alright here. It’ll come good.’

Grace was wiping tables nearby, took it in, especially the part about her father’s country in Africa, but kept her thoughts to herself.

Two volunteers were missing from the overnight roster and Grace said she would stay on, not having to get up for work in the morning. She’d get breakfast, cut down on expenses, every little bit counts. She was thinking that way more and more since losing her job.

Everett said he was available too.

‘Keep the team together,’ he laughed easily but his eyes were stern. She had noticed that over the years since Everett joined the church from the other side of the city. She knew him from his greetings at the church door, his speeches at meetings and the time he preached on ‘charity’ when the pastor was on leave. Some Sunday mornings she worked in the nursery where his two youngsters were an island of serenity in an ocean of manic children.

Grace wondered why Everett wouldn’t want to get home to his wife and two small girls with bows in their hair. Grace had looked after them in the church nursery again last week. They played together with Barbie dolls and didn’t need any fuss from the carers. She guessed he just wanted to help out. He had that kind of reputation at the church.

It was a long night at the shelter. The aroma of the vegetarian lasagne eventually gave way to the stench of men’s feet, body odours. The three women in their curtained-off corner hid under their blankets. Just before lights-out an older man with shaking hands began cussing out the youngster next to him for shifting his mattress too close. Everett went to calm them down. The leader had to step between the two labourers wearing coloured ball caps trying to use the same plug for their phones. Grace finished cleaning the kitchen. Things quieted down by midnight.

Grace looked through her emails on her smart phone, then closed her eyes, just resting. Everett read a book in the dimly lit hallway, stayed awake all night. The leader read her Bible.   

In the morning Everett offered to drive Grace home. She usually walked but agreed when the shock of frigid air hit her as they left the shelter at six o’clock. Frost enveloped Everett’s sleek red car but it started immediately. He reached very carefully across her to help with the tangled seat belt.

‘There, that’s better, Grace. The children get them messed up,’ he laughed. Those eyes. Grace nodded, thinking of the pretty bows and the Barbie dolls.

‘Those girls are lovely,’ she offered, too tired for much talk.

‘The joy of my life,’ he responded. ‘They love it when you take care of them.’

They drove in silence towards Grace’s cramped flat but Everett suddenly steered the humming red sports car down an alley, stopped abruptly, and locked the doors. Grace’s heart nearly stopped. Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t speak. This time Everett’s reach was sudden, brutal. She smelled his foul breath, felt her clothes ripped from her body. She gritted her teeth, managing to spit out, one word, ‘No.’ He was deaf to her. The touch of him, the sound of him, the rocking of the car. Grace thought she would die, wished she had died.

Back in her flat, Grace let the hot water of the shower mix with her wailing tears. She stayed under for a long time, thinking. I am no longer a woman, just a piece of dead meat. Because of that man. Everett. He has eaten me up, tossed me aside like a carcass. She tried to pray but somehow God had died when that man, that Everett forced himself on her.

‘Where is the pastor’s loving God now?’ Grace collapsed onto her bed, falling into a morbid sleep. 

Grace stayed in her bed for days, ignoring her buzzing phone, not eating, not answering the door, not caring about anything, anybody. Like she was dying. That man, that Everett, he did this.

Then she got up, pulled her curtains. Fuck him. I ain’t letting him kill me.

*

‘It’s not your fault just because you got in that posh car with that Everett,’ Grace’s friend Frankie fumed a week later. ‘You gotta say something. You gotta go to the police. You gotta tell.’

Grace knew Frankie never trusted Everett, his young wife, perfect kids. She’d say, ‘What’s the matter with women his own age? There’s something about that man, Grace. You see it too.’

Grace never responded to Frankie on this.

*

Frankie sent Grace a text early one Saturday morning a few weeks later saying Everett had been stabbed to death. Grace felt like her heart stopped beating. Again.

She went online and read about it herself, sitting up in her frigid flat as the groan of morning traffic started growing on the street below. ‘Jesus,’ she whispered. ‘That man, that Everett. Dead.’

 

‘A 45-year-old man was stabbed to death early this morning as he attempted to stop a gang fight outside an after-hours club. Everett Winston, a broker, was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 4 a.m. A Met spokesman said the investigation was ongoing. However, one woman, who refused to give her name, hailed Mr. Winston as a “hero”. ‘He told them all just stop fighting. He put his body on the line, took a blade.’ The Met said while they were still gathering information, it appeared the slain man’s “courage” prevented major bloodshed. Mr. Winston leaves a wife and twin three-year-old daughters.’

Frankie phoned Grace a few minutes later. ‘Hero? What’s that Everett doing down there at that hour? I’m sorry ‘bout those two little kids but what’s that man doing there with all those bling girls and those gangsters?’

‘Looks like he was some kind of hero, Frankie.’

‘You know better than that, Grace. It’s like that Hollywood guy. They never who they say they are.’

‘Maybe none of us are, Frankie.’

‘Don’t talk shit to me.’

‘I just don’t know.’

*

The bloke looks over at Grace like he knows what’s on her mind. Was he Everett’s friend?  There’s nobody at the ‘open mic’ and the pastor is asking if anyone else has anything to add about ‘Brother Everett, who laid down his life for others’. There’s been plenty of folks talking about all the good things Everett had done at the church, leading that building committee last year, donating money for Syria. Grace makes herself skinny so she won’t be touching the bloke beside her as she moves closer to the aisle. He doesn’t move but Grace gets by. The pastor is talking about what the newspapers have been saying about Everett but Grace still hears those Bible words spoken by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to be born and a time to die.’

Shit, when’s my time to be born, my time to live?

*

Grace never told Frankie about the envelope. Frankie would have shrieked like the time her father hit her for smoking weed. She’s loud about protecting her rights. That just scares Grace.

She had stopped helping at the shelter after Everett attacked her. She told the shelter leader she needed to spend more time looking for work after losing her job. Grace had done Frankie’s nails and then Frankie flashed her silver sparkled fingers at the mall and told their friends Grace needed business. Grace set up shop in her squat kitchen and a few of the girls came over the next week and got their nails painted. She charged them a few quid, helped her get groceries. But she knew she had to find another job.

Then the envelope arrived.

‘Sorry for what happened the other night. I possibly misread the situation. Hope this ends the matter.’

‘This’ was £100 in twenties. Grace looked at it spread out like a fan as it fell from the envelope. Misread? Fuck. The matter? The rape.

She took the envelope to church next Sunday, sat in her back row, eyeing Everett and the pretty wife in their pew. When elders came for the Offering she put the envelope with the £100 in the basket. The note was there too.

Grace met Frankie after church for coffee at the cheap café beside the station. Frankie grabbed her best friend’s cold hand across the table at the back where they always sat.

‘You gone to the police yet? Grace, you can’t keep this all to yourself.’

Grace took a sip of her coffee, dabbed her unpainted lips with the napkin.

‘No police, Frankie. I got other plans. Maybe I forgive him.’

‘Well, maybe I’m gonna’ talk to his pretty wife, then.’

‘No, you ain’t.’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘No, Frankie, this is my battle.’

That was before Everett became a hero.

*

Grace thinks the pastor is going to close down that open mic before she gets to the front of the church. Grace moves toward that stiff microphone, thinks about those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to mourn and a time to dance.’

I’m not mourning and I am not dancing. I am moving up there.

*

After coffee in the café, Grace ignored Frankie’s phone calls for a few days. She didn’t tell her about the envelope and she didn’t tell her about going to the ‘Memorial for a Hero’ at the church. Frankie’s folks would be there so she would know about it but Frankie mostly does the opposite of them, like staying out late and avoiding church. Grace used to be like that. Since her father died from drinking and her mother moved to America with that Warner, she’s got no one to protest against. Except now there’s Everett. Fuck him. What’s he done to me?

Grace dressed for church like it was Sunday, sat down at her kitchen table and took her notepad, ripped out a few sheets and started scratching out all the words that had been bouncing around inside her head. Her whole body shook like she was on some carnival ride while she wrote. Then she headed out the door to church.

*

Grace’s short legs are moving quickly towards the front of the church and she is almost there. The pastor doesn’t want her up here. His drag dog face is telling her that. The choir of sweet-scented ladies are glaring down at her. The big cross is judging her. She hears those words again, ‘hero’, ’courage’ and but can’t fit them alongside Everett’s – ‘Keep the team together’. She can see the fan of twenties on her kitchen table. Grace hears those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to keep silence and a time to speak.’

Grace’s time of silence is over.

‘The Good Book says…’ SLQ

 

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John P. Asling is a writer and editor living in Blackheath, London, and has published poetry and fiction in Canada and the United Kingdom.

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