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Impudicité: A Christmas Tale

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* * *


Upon the flawless stone she lay, and through the
splendid loft she gazed. What cared she for falling stars? Oh God,
that all the stars would fall and leave the thick black velvet cloth.
Oh God above, of love and light, loan me the blanket of the night,
till on the cold and grumpy ground, I'll warmly wrap it round me.

- At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill

* * *

All stood still in the house. Even the floorboards ceased creaking under the heavily ponderous tread of his father. After hours of howling outside, the winter winds had been reclaimed by the north, and Ballygihen House now stood steady in the ground, unmoved by neither gust nor gale.

Anthony could not sleep. Every shadow he saw in the darkness would transform into a million scurrying spiders the second he cast his eyes on it - whispering in the quiet cold, winding their sinewy webs around him, chilling him to the bone with the terror of it all.

He was no longer an easily spooked child, but the darkness still oppressed him. He wanted for water, but could not find the strength to untuck himself from the blankets and sheets, and make the long way to the kitchen for a glass. The bell in his room has not worked since last summer, and it would not do to wake the servants up with his pleading - for one, it would not please his father.

He remained in bed, eyes almost adjusted to the ever-present darkness, unwilling even to light the candle that would surely lighten his load.

The first night at Aunt Eva's for Christmas had always been hard, somehow. If he were honest with himself, it was harder this year than it had ever been. His mother's eyes had been grey and nervous upon seeing him, but it had been his father - with his jet-black hair, slick moustache, and leaden eyes - that had thrown Anthony so.

"No son of mine."

And,

"Never have I imagined such an impudicité* in my own family, my own flesh and blood."

Anthony had been surprised by the annual trip down Dublin way being undertaken at all under the circumstances, but knew that his father would rather die by the bloody hand of God, than raise question as to their family's appearance.

Anthony certainly did not expect treats this Christmas Eve.

Not even his mother's hand had lifted in greeting upon seeing her only son, and the sole embrace he had received had been the formal shake of his trembling hand by the steady hold of Aunt Eva, ever the gallant mistress of her abode. Even Nanny Tremble had not dared to smile at him in his disgrace, and merely demonstrated her fondness through the glass of milk at his bedside table, and these heated and pressed sheets, with the woolly blankets atop them.

Anthony shifted under the weight of the linens, turned this way and that, and would not sleep.

His father had been summoned by the Headmaster on December 22nd. Anthony had, of course, not been told, and had not known of his coming. Not until he watched his father's mid-day shadow stretch across the Grand Hall floor. Winter sun warmed more than the detached greeting his father had given him before entering the Headmaster's office, the door slamming on his cool anger.

Robert had not been present, and Anthony had no idea what had become of the other boy. If he concentrated long enough, he thought that he could almost sense his smell, feel the tips of his fingers. It made him feel empty to think about, and so he watched the shadows shift and slide until he saw nothing at all.

* * *

The next morning dawned dark and gray, as was Ireland's wont, and he delayed its coming by stretching the sheets across his face, letting his feet to go cold before he would allow himself to wake up.

It did not work for long, and soon enough, a rather skittish maid entered his room with a towel and a basin full of hot water for his morning ritual, and a note from his aunt, inviting him to join the family for breakfast in half an hour. In happier times, no such notes had been required.

Anthony attempted a smile at the girl, and after her quick exit, got to work.

He was nearly dressed and ready when he remembered that his shoes had been taken away for shining, and had not yet returned. He checked about him just to make sure, and found that the only thing to do was to go down to the kitchen himself and retrieve them from the servants. The thing he most desperately wished to avoid was running into any member of his family in stockinged feet, so he took his chance on the back stairs.

He had run up and down them many times as a child, with playmates or on his own, but now their creaking and groaning did not elicit anything but fear. He made it down as quickly and silently as he could, and had almost rounded the corner to the back of the kitchen, when he came in sudden - and painful - contact with another person. They bumped foreheads and noses, Anthony's hand flying to his face to assess the damage before he could attempt to discern who he had bumped into.

The gardener's lad. He, too, was checking his head for injuries. Finding none, he flushed something crimson, and avoided eye contact with Anthony altogether. He was, however, holding Anthony's newly-polished Oxfords in his hands.

"I'm sorry, sir," he mumbled in his Dublin brogue, extending his charge towards Anthony in the same breath.

Anthony, having recovered from the shock and sudden pain of the encounter, received it with the merest glance at the boy who used to be his mate. Finding himself without the proper words of thanks, he said, instead, that Russ - for that was the gardener's lad's name - need not call him "sir."

"I'm sorry, sir... I mean - I was told - I've polished your shoes, Master Anthony." Russ ended his soliloquy in a delicate cough, and did not look up from the scratched wooden floor.

Anthony, despite his own discomfort at being so early at his morning greetings, found himself smiling at the boy across from him. He thought him unexpectedly charming. After examining Russ closely for another minute, Anthony nodded his thanks, sent him a fleeting grin, and flew up the back stairs to finish getting ready for breakfast.

* * *

"Anthony, I am excessively happy to see you join us," exclaimed Aunt Eva from her place at the head of the table. He wondered if her excessive happiness was a direct reaction to his father's utter lack of interest in Anthony's entrance. Should the Devil himself darken her doorstep, she should as soon kill him with kindness than agree in disposition with Anthony's father. He found himself smiling at her without fear.

"Thank you, Aunt Eva. Happy Christmas." His voice sounded a shade too loud for the somber company at the table, and he stopped a wince.

"Bien, my dear, happy Christmas Eve to you," his aunt replied.

A servant pulled out the only empty chair at the table and Anthony found himself sitting directly across from his mother, with his cousin Mary to his left. He wondered if she had already been apprised of the situation, or if appearances were still of the utmost importance even within family bounds.

He could feel his mother's gaze upon him as he laid out the crisp white napkin on his lap, and he dared not look up. After a while of forced fumblings with the table linens, he peeked out of the corner of his eye at his father. The jet black moustache moved with each bite taken, eyes not looking at anything but the holiday breakfast on the sparkling white plate, with the family crest firmly at the center.

Anthony looked down at his own plate, soon filled with all manner of delicious treats, and concentrated on trying to eat.

His aunt, as usual, breached the sullen silence first.

"Mary and Andrew," she boomed, addressing his cousins. "You got in so late last night, I hardly had time to even take a look at you. I trust that you are well, and happy?"

"Yes, ma'am," Mary answered, her voice so quiet, you would have thought she was a maid summoned to her mistress's pleasure.

"I do hope to have both you and your intended as guests next Christmas, as well. The plans are still being worked out, I trust?"

This time, Anthony raised his head enough to see his cousin blush, and smile a rather pleased smile. "Yes, ma'am. We are making arrangements for the summer."

"Good. Very good." Aunt Eva nodded her head and, on the ascent, flashed Anthony a look he could not, as of yet, understand. "And you, Andrew. Your studies are going well?"

Andrew, two years Anthony's senior, was the most animated of their lot. He took after his mother, not a MacMurrough by blood, but a blonde and robust Englishwoman who had snatched up Anthony's father's cousin almost away from his mother's breast - or so Aunt Eva liked to say when she believed Anthony to be listening.

"Yes, ma'am, my studies are going very well. Oxford is everything I had hoped for, I confess. It's astonishing how -"

"Yes, well." Aunt Eva's voice sounded not so much loud, as uncrossable to Anthony's ears. He was shocked to see her drop her usual good manners and interrupt his cousin, and looked up from his plate. "The English certainly present their education in the best light, do they not, Anthony?"

Anthony felt it then, the creeping sensation of all the pieces of a puzzle falling into place. He felt his neck and cheeks and hands flush with humiliation, and he could not - would not - look up and see his mother's eyes; his father's face. Before he could say a single word - a period of time in which all stood still, including, he felt, his heart - Aunt Eva went on:

"Personally, I am exceedingly pleased to see my brother make the smart choice, and have Anthony continue his education here in Ireland, where he will be taken better care of, and educated to become who he had been born to become. Is that not right, my dear?"

At this he did look up. Astonishment, punishment, inevitability - they all flooded his mind, one by one, at a speed he could barely conceive of. When he finally looked his Aunt in the eye, Anthony found her smiling at him. He found nothing but kindness. He lowered his gaze and dropped his fork and nodded.

* * *

Mary and Andrew were in the library - the two tow-headed siblings were inseparable, and as different from himself as he could imagine. Anthony often wondered if they found any interest in him at all, being, it seemed, from such an altogether separate world, and then he wondered what their lives were like, away from here; away from the crest that shone and glittered from nearly every surface of the house, in every nook and cranny; in the glint of his aunt's eye, and at the droop of his father's head.

He imagined sunny places, blond hair shining in the light, laughter; he saw vivid gardens and tender parasols; he watched girls giggling in gaggles, while the boys chased each other like they would butterflies. Anthony imagined having a brother all his own, a sister even. And then the images faded, and he imagined nothing at all, nothing at all but this - Sandycove; Dublin; school. He thought he could hear the dim shutting of a door, a light closed off and done with.

In his room, through the wall, he could hear them arguing, twin voices sounding off. And a third, quietly pleading. Anthony listened for words, but found none were discernible, and then there was nothing for him to do but find amusement until the holiday dinner was to be served.

Anthony had not thought about it until he found himself in the garden, strolling through rows upon rows of what would eventually probably grow into potatoes and cabbages. His feet felt the frozen earth even through his shoes, and he shoved his hands in his pockets to keep himself from going inside. It was colder than he had anticipated, and he had been so lost in thought, he had not even worn a coat before heading off. His collar pulled up as high as was possible, he walked and walked, despite the chill, until he was out of the watchful windows' reach.

Down, below the wall, the Sandycove beach was awash in the Christmas storm. Heavy waves flooded the walls of the bay, one by one they came - each one frothing, and deep, and punishing. The winds beat upon the earth, and Anthony lifted his head higher in the breeze, to smell the winter gale.

"You shouldn't be out here, Master Anthony."

The voice was quiet, yet he heard it clearly. Turning, Anthony discovered Russ at his back. Had he imagined, or had he actually felt warm breath on his neck? He stepped back and steadied himself on the ground. "And why is that?"

"You'll catch your death of cold, of course," Russ shrugged, and only then did Anthony notice his own coat proffered to him by a begloved hand. It was déjà vu, perhaps, but he was grateful all the same. He felt an odd pleasure in being addressed so gruffly by this boy who was not his equal in any capacity but age.

He shrugged the coat on with wordless thanks, and just as wordlessly returned to his vigil. Having expected Russ to retreat once his duty was done, Anthony was shocked to discover Russ getting quite cozy, sharing the same spot by the wall.

"Was there anything else?" he asked, as curtly as he could manage, for he was not out here for company.

"No, sir. Just enjoying the view," Russ answered evenly.

Anthony felt the fight leaving him as quickly as it had come. "Don't call me 'sir', Russ. It does get tiresome. I am not your master."

"You could be, I s'pose," was the enigmatic answer he received.

"We used to play together, remember? You did not call me 'sir' then," Anthony reminded him.

Russ shrugged and continued to watch the waves dueling down by the sea-wall. His own coat looked threadbare, but serviceable. He had on a scarf, too, in which he now hid any extremities that would fit - red nose, purple ears, pale lips. Anthony studied him for the boy he had been, found him quite changed. He supposed he, too, had grown.

"Did you hear?" he asked before he could wonder at the question on his lips. "I am to study in Dublin. I suppose my aunt will wish me to visit her on the week-ends."

Russ coughed once into his scarf, and Anthony imagined the condensation settling around the wool, freezing the next second. "I didn't know, sir."

"Well, that makes both of us, I suppose." Gracious me, did he sound petulant. He thought he had deserved to feel it. After all, this recent activity had quite suspended the control he was beginning to feel over his life. He felt himself for nothing but a boy being sent to his room. It riled him, and he kicked at the ground at his feet - ineffectually he kicked once, twice, before remembering he was no longer a boy, and he was no longer alone.

"You don't want to live in Dublin, sir?"

Astute observation. "No. I do not. I find it - well." Wretched. Small. Wet. "Not quite home, I suppose." Though what use he had of home at all, he could not find. But Russ seemed to take this at face value, nodding into his scarf, looking Anthony in the eye for the first time, as they stood side by side and looked out at the same vicious waves.

"It could be, though. Home, I mean," Russ finally uttered. "You've already got a - well, you already know a few people, so."

Anthony thought, what use is knowing a few people, before he caught the full meaning, and found himself nearly smiling at it. Ridiculous thought that he should be pals with the gardener's lad after the age of seven, but Russ did intrigue him. Anything different intrigued him, after all, and Russ was nothing if not unlike Anthony in all respects.

He turned away and to the sea, and they smiled, each at his own thoughts, standing together.

* * *

"I want to speak with you," were his father's words to him - the first of the day, at the afternoon's closing - and he was led into his aunt's library, following a straight-backed stranger who wore his father's face. He no longer recognized - nor did he wish to anymore, to tell the truth - the force behind it.

They stood, wordless and cross, facing each other, until his aunt entered the room, tall in her black frock, colorless save for a green thing at her throat. She was solemn, yet had a kind look about her, and at this, too, Anthony wondered if he was at the heart of her disposition, or his father. Perhaps, it suddenly dawned on him, it was neither of them at all. Perhaps it was all due to the one, the only one who ever made his aunt Eva stop and stand still with rapture. His grandfather, whose shadow covered every surface of this house, and every inch of Anthony's skin.

His father coughed, breaking the silence, and then spoke.

"Your mother and I decided that it would be best for you to continue your education in Dublin. The school is my own - I studied there as a boy. I -" At this his voice did break a bit. "I believe that the education and discipline you will receive there will be equal to, if not better -"

"It will, indeed, be better," interrupted his aunt without much inflection to her voice.

"- than your school in Sussex."

Anthony did not believe that for a moment, and he believed his father misbelieved it himself. However, they were, the three of them, together in this farce, and he wondered where his mother was, and stood silent and still, watching past them both and out at the garden, where Russ was tending to something around the shed. Anthony was glad of the vantage that allowed him to witness this through the narrow window.

His father continued. "Your conduct at the school this past semester was absolutely unacceptable, and what you need now is quite a bit of discipline. I will write ahead to the Headmaster of your new school, and warn him of the sort of conduct I expect out of you."

Anthony watched Russ digging the frozen earth and wondered what he could possibly be doing. Christmas Eve was not a day to be planting anything - even Anthony, who was decidedly not the gardener's lad, knew that.

"He will, no doubt, be very much inclined to agree with me and take on the role of your discipliner himself."

Russ now produced something from his pocket - a piece of paper? - and, Anthony could have sworn, looked up into the library window before burying it in the hole he had dug for himself. Patting down the earth with red fingers, he rose and stomped once, twice, on the spot, and made it invisible. Anthony watched him amble slowly away, never looking up again.

His father coughed and brought Anthony out of himself. "So. Do you understand this?"

Anthony said, "Yes, sir," and, nodding slowly once, watched his father walk out of the library silently and with barely a glance in his direction. Anthony looked now to his aunt, who stood quietly across from him, and waited to see if she, too, would leave him be.

"Foolish child," she sighed instead, and turned to face the window. "You were a beautiful child, you know. So much trouble, too." She inclined her head, and Anthony could not help but walk up a step or two, to stand at her back. The velvet of her frock stopped the light of the gray day from spreading. "Soon, you will be a handsome man," she said quietly.

Anthony said nothing.

"Ireland is where you should be. No more of this English damnation. No more of these games, Anthony."

Now she turned, and he could see his aunt for the woman that she was - the Irish colleen grown beyond those childish dresses and dreams. He watched her newly animated features, unable to look away. 

"You are a MacMurrough. Unlike your father, I believe you know the full meaning of this. I trust that this understanding will prevent you from misstepping like this again, my dear."

Anthony realized he had not said a single word to her beyond his greeting at breakfast, and it filled him with sadness, this separation of them all. He knew himself for what he was. He knew he would never be able to change it. When the English had damned him, they had damned him forever. But his aunt's face prevented him from speaking his thoughts out loud. He found he wanted to please her.

"I believe that it will, Aunt Eva," he said, and for the first time he heard his voice for a man's. He wondered if, the first time they lied, all boys became men. He shook his head at the silly thought. It was only a lie, after all.

"Bien. Good." She stood up straighter, wrapped her shawl more tightly about her, and prepared her exit. The green thing at her throat transformed into a delicate brooch under his scrutiny. "I shall see you downstairs at supper."

Anthony nodded, and smiled her leave.

* * *

What he found in the ground that Russ had left for him, was this:

After you come back from Mass I will be in the kitchen. I know that it will be late but if you are not sleepy you could please visit me there. I believe you are like me, wanting a friend just. We can be good friends.   Russell.

* * *

Russ waited for him under the stairs that night, and that night, they spent burning a single candle in an alcove so small, it fit two boys comfortably only if they held each other. Slowly they kissed, deeply, and touched so quietly, you would never have known it, had you walked fast by them. But touch they did, and it thrilled Anthony so - the blistered fingers of the gardener's lad, his heated palms, his cracked and kiss-bitten lips that never once uttered a 'sir' again.

Anthony thought of what he had heard said at Mass against all manner of sins, and he thought of what he had heard from his former Headmaster's lips against the unbecoming conduct of young boys, and he watched Russ's eyes burning by candlelight, and he thought of Ireland, where he would now live, and he wondered if she, too, took in sinners like himself, as Jesus was said to have taken in the poor and the wretched, and he kissed Russ, and did not care about the darkness around them.

~ fin ~

*impudicité: indecency (French)