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Stigmata

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            He only has time to see the flash of the barrel.  Grey metal.  He shouts to James to take cover.  Next thing he knows he is on his back, winded.  No air.  Pressure on his chest, a heavy weight.

            He struggles for breath.  Nothing doing.  Feels cold.  Blots in front of his eyes, swimming.  Head feels light, swimming too.  I could be under water.  No.  No water round here.  Its bloody Cowley, for God’s sake.  Nothing but tarmac for miles.  Maybe I hit my head.

            Raises his hand, no idea why, and there it is.

            Blood.

            So much blood.

            Something clicks into place.  Oh.

            James.  I want James.

            Gathers the last of the breath he can muster and tries to cry out.

            James.  My James.

            What he thinks is a shout comes out as a whisper.

            Then James, bending over him.  James of the golden hair and high cheekbones, and that sweet, childlike nose.  James of the smart-arse remark and the tortured conscience.  James of the existential flu.  This is going to give him a bad dose, Robbie realises.  My poor lad.  My poor, precious lad.  So many things I should have said.  So many things I should have told you, my bonny lad.

            James’s face is distorted by distress.  Tears running down his cheeks.  Saying something, a whole stream of things, and he can see from the way the tendons in the lad’s neck are standing out that its important, that he is trying to get a message through.  Robbie can’t understand why he can’t hear him.  Wants to hear him so badly.  Everything sounds like it’s in the distance, far away down a long metal pipe, tinny and echoing.

            I’m slipping away too fast, he realises.

            Can’t let this go unsaid.

            Reaches up, touches the lad’s cheek, so soft, but his fingers are so cold and numb.  It’s all happening too fast.  Now he has left a smear of blood on James’ perfect cheek, but James reaches up and presses his hand over Robbie’s, holding it there.

            Then there is no strength left to hold it up and it slips.

            ‘No!’  He can see that’s what James said.

            ‘James,’ Robbie manages to wheeze out.  ‘My James.’

            Tears streaming down the lad’s face now, his eyes red; he is sobbing.  Robbie doesn’t want to go and leave him like that, so upset, but he can’t seem to stop.  He can feel himself slipping away, getting colder, eyes getting foggier.

            ‘James,’ he breathes.

            Everything getting muffled, blurry.

            Then the sensation of tugging at his waist, and cold air on his belly.  The breeze pulling at his stomach hairs.  Strange, he thinks, that I should be able to feel that now, when I can’t feel any pain, or even my feet.

            Warm hands on the flesh.  Manages to focus his eyes.  James, with his hands on Robbie’s belly, eyes screwed shut.  Lips moving.  Can’t tell what he’s saying.  Maybe he is praying.  Too late, lad.  Watches those lips move.  Wishes he had kissed them, just once.  Wishes he had known what it felt like.  Wishes he had seen them curve up into that lovely, rare smile more often.  Wants to tell him to smile more.  Wants to tell him to be happy.

            Why does my belly feel warm?

            Everything else is cold, but his stomach feels warm, and he can feel James’ hands now, palms on the hairy skin.  Feels a fizzy feeling in his gut.

            What are you doing, lad?

            Still, those fervent words, whatever they are.  So much concentration.  Can’t take his eyes off that beloved face.  Doesn’t want it to be the last time he sees it.  Doesn’t want it to fade.  If it must fade, wants those features to be the last thing he sees, imprinted on his soul forever.

            Suddenly the weight on his chest is gone.  Shockingly cold inrush of air, filling his lungs.  Ribs buck up, expanding.  Gulping it in, wonderful, wonderful air!  How did he ever take it for granted?  Never, never again!

            Feels the blood in his veins now, throbbing, rushing, celebrating.  Heat in his belly growing.  Something else, too, filling his chest, his heart, like water, surface lapping at his Adam’s apple, going to overflow, going to pour out of him.  Opens his mouth and lets go.

            A big sound.  A sob.  A wail.

            Keeps going, like a siren inside his heart, inside his head.  Heat flowing into him, filling him up, lifting him up, enfolding him.  Love, love, love.

            Feels his hands and feet again.  Blobs in front of his eyes fading.  Sunshine seems so bright.  Everything so sharp.  Colours so vivid.  Hasn’t seen this well in years, for sure.

            Struggles upon to his elbows, looks down.

            James hunched over him, mouth still moving.  Sound comes back in a rush, deafening – birdsong, traffic, shouting, James’ beautiful voice, like liquid smoke, all so loud, so clear, so dearly missed.

            James is speaking in Latin.

            Robbie looks down at his exposed belly.  Sees the ragged, bloody hole.  Sees the way his skin is flayed open, the organs beneath torn and pulsing.  Watches as they turn from livid red to healthy, shiny pink.  Watches the tissue lift and fill the hole.  Watches the ripped edges meet, close over and seal, with just the flash of soft golden light.  And there is just smooth skin and a knot of scar tissue, pale and shiny, where only seconds before there was the gaping entrance to death.

            Heat radiates out from between James’ hands, fills Robbie’s body; soft, comforting heat.  He sinks back onto the pavement and lies there, dizzy.

            Then the words have stopped, those strange, skirling words that have been wrapping themselves around his soul.  James’s face is hovering over him, examining him, afraid.

            ‘I’m still here, lad,’ Robbie smiles up at him.

            ‘Thank God, Oh, thank God,’ James sobs, and drags him upright and into a desperate embrace.

 

 

            They are sitting together on the examination couch in the medical room at the station.  They have both got those hideous cotton waffle NHS blankets around their shoulders.  James is shaking like a leaf.  They lean together because somehow; neither of them can bear not to be touching.  The thought of James having to leave the room without him makes steady, professional Robbie want to scream.

            James heaves a heavy sigh.  He is far more shaken about all this than Robbie, but he can’t blame the lad.  He remembers how it felt when he lost Val.  There is no doubt in his mind now that the experience for James is equivalent.  So he reaches out to where James’ hand lies on his thigh, and twines their fingers together.

            James glances up into his eyes, grateful.

            They haven’t talked yet.  Aren’t much ones for talking, either of them, and this thing seems too huge to be expressed in mere words, at least to Robbie.  How can you fit such big feelings into tiny little letters, mere noises, shifts of tongue and teeth?  No, Robbie isn’t ready for that yet.  And judging by the state of his bonny lad just now, James isn’t either.

            So they sit there, waiting.

            Waiting while the clock on the wall ticks away heavily.

            Waiting, until eventually the door opens and Laura comes in, looking very efficient in her surgical greens, and with that expression on her face that Robbie knows all too well.  It means she isn’t going to be fobbed off with excuses.

            ‘Chief Superintendent Innocent is not a happy bunny,’ she says, closing the door carefully behind her.  ‘And you know how she likes to spread her unhappiness about.’

            They nod in unison.  Oh, how they know it.

            ‘Apparently several of your uniformed colleagues reported you as seriously wounded earlier, Robbie, and she is more inclined to believe their version of the day than the one you gave her about you falling over, and having a severe nosebleed.  Which, given the amount of blood the pair of you have on your clothing, is something I would agree with her on.  So she thinks a senior forensic pathologist ought to root out just exactly what you have been up to.  In detail.’

            She lets the words fall heavily in the thick atmosphere of the room with its tang of disinfectant and medical grade soap.

            She’s certainly right about the blood, Robbie thinks, as he looks down at himself.  His shirt has dried a bit.  The bottom half, still hanging out of his trousers, is crisp and reddish brown with his own blood.  A glance at James reveals a similar story.  And the lad has a terracotta smear of it on his cheek.

            They are still holding hands, he realises.

            Laura has noticed too.  She glances at their interlaced fingers and raises an eyebrow.

            ‘Dr Hobson –‘ James launches.

            She holds up her hand.  ‘I don’t want a new story.  I want the truth.’

            ‘To be honest, I don’t think you’d believe us,’ Robbie admits.

            She sighs, and pulls up the wheeled stool to sit down in front of them.

            ‘Frankly, whatever you’ve got to say has to be more believable than a nosebleed.  I mean, a nosebleed?  Couldn’t you have been a bit more creative?’

            James shrugs and grimaces.  ‘I had to come up with something quickly, and it was all I could think of.’

            They all look at each other.

            ‘Look, you should be aware that anything you say inside this room is covered by patient confidentiality as far as I’m concerned.  But if you don’t tell me what really happened, then I can’t help you come up with a story that we can all live with, can I?’

            ‘You’re willing to help?’ Robbie breathes.

            ‘If you’ll let me, yes.  Because it’s obvious to me that something more than a twisted ankle and a nosebleed has happened here.’

            They sit in stillness for a few moments, and then Robbie turns to James.  His bagman is looking at their hands.  He is pale, dark shadows under his eyes.  He looks completely shattered.  When he raises his grey-green-sort-of-blue eyes, and looks into Robbie’s it is clear that he is leaving the decision to his guvnor.

            ‘Alright,’ Robbie says.  ‘But I don’t reckon you’ll believe us.  I’m not sure I believe it meself.’

           

           

            He remembers the moments before, running down the cul de sac with its ordinary, 1970s semis.  He remembers the roses in the gardens, the low brick walls at the front of each plot, the sprouts of weeds and tufts of twitch grass in between the pavement flagstones.  He even remembers the cars that were parked at the kerb, three Vauxhalls, one of those new minis in an odd pale slate blue colour, and a big Volvo, the 4x4 Chelsea tractor type.  He remembers catching a glimpse of himself in its shiny black paintwork as he ran past, his jacket flying behind him, his tie caught up over his shoulder by the wind.

            ‘Darren Gardner,’ he tells Laura.  ‘Suspect number one.  We had no idea he had a gun.  Not till he pulled it, any rate.’

            Her eyes have taken on a stillness that he remembers from their brief times together, when she listened to his words across a dining table, when her loveliness shone in the candlelight.

            ‘Next thing I knew, I was on me back.’

            The air in the room takes on a new weight.  Someone walks past in the corridor outside, blakeys clicking on the lino.

            ‘Go on,’ she says.

            ‘I was dying, and I knew it.’

            More stillness.  Somewhere, a phone rings.  He hears James’ breath, faster, upset by the memory.

            ‘Where did he hit you?’

            ‘In the stomach.  Right here.’  Absently, he presses his palm to his belly, right hand side, just in front of the crag of his hip bone, not so visible these days as it used to be, more’s the pity.  Feels a little flare of heat when he touches it, the ghost of James’ magic.

            (Was it magic?  Or just pure belief?)

            ‘He pulled open my clothes.  He laid his hands around the wound.  He was saying something, I couldn’t hear what.  And it healed.’

            ‘Healed?’  Her voice is restrained.  Quiet.

            ‘Healed, yes.  I was dying and then I wasn’t.  I watched it close.  The hole, I mean.  The skin grew over it.  There’s just a bit of a scar there now.’

            ‘May I see?’

            ‘If you like.’

            She helps him to lie back on the examination couch and gently lifts his shirt tails while he loosens his belt so that she can pull down the waistband of his trousers.  Pulling his trousers half down in front of Laura ought to be awkward, he thinks, but it isn’t.  She is all professional, not looking at his eyes.  Maybe a little pink tinge to her cheeks, but he might be imagining that.

He can see James standing behind Laura, slouched against the wall, arms folded tightly about his ribs.  He looks gaunt and wretched.  He hates being reminded – Robbie can see it in his expression – though whether it is of the memory of almost losing Robbie, or of his own miracle, Robbie can’t tell.  Laura’s hands are a distraction from James anyway.  They are cold.  He flinches.

            ‘Sorry,’ she says, and blows on her fingers to warm them.

            ‘Your bedside manner could do with some work, doctor,’ he quips weakly at her.

            ‘My patients don’t usually complain,’ she grins back.  Gallows humour.  So very Laura.  She feels about, pressing firmly.  ‘Can you roll onto your left side so I can see the exit wound?’

            He complies, finds himself facing the pale blue emulsion of the wall.  It has been given a stippled texture by the lambswool roller with which it was applied.  Funny how you notice the little things, he thinks, when you’ve just had a brush with death. He can feel her fingers poking about in the soft flesh of his back and kidneys.

            ‘Any pain?’

            ‘Not a thing.’

            ‘How about here?  Feel anything?’  She presses with her icy fingers.

            ‘Nothing.’  And there really isn’t.  Apart from her cold hands, digging about.

            ‘Okay, you can sit up.  I’m going to take your blood pressure and pulse.’

            The Velcro strap fastens around his arm.  She presses the stethoscope to the inside of his elbow and listens, pumping the little grey rubber bulb with her free hand, frowning in concentration.  The pointer of the round dial bounces about as she inflates the cuff, then lets it down slowly, twice.  Briskly she rips the cuff off, takes his pulse, notes the numbers down on a sheet of paper, then listens to his chest.

            ‘Well, Inspector, contrary to all expectations, you have the heart and lungs of a fifteen-year-old,’ she says.  ‘And your abdomen looks like it received that wound twenty years ago.’

            They look into each other’s eyes.

            ‘You aren’t lying to me, are you.’  The tone of her voice shows it is a statement, not a question.

            ‘You believe me?’

            She shrugs.  ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’

            ‘Somehow I don’t think you quoting Sherlock Holmes really inspires confidence at this point,’ he tells her.

            ‘Well done, sir,’ James can’t help quipping from the corner.  ‘Didn’t think you’d get that one.’

            ‘I’m not a complete philistine, as you well know, sergeant,’ Robbie feels compelled to point out, and for a moment, they are grinning at one another and something a little like normality seems restored.

            ‘Alright, Hathaway, since you are suddenly so lippy, it’s your turn now,’ Laura says, turning to him.  James blanches.

            ‘You don’t need to examine me, do you?’

            ‘Well, I think I ought to, don’t you?  Given that you apparently just performed a miracle, I think that in the interests of science, I am duty bound to give you at least a cursory glance over.’

            Robbie heaves himself up onto admittedly shaky legs and cedes his position on the examination couch to James, who perches on the edge nervously.

            ‘I won’t bite, you know,’ Laura admonishes.  ‘Not unless specifically requested to.  Now.  Give me your version of what happened.  And don’t leave anything out. Especially physical sensations.’

            He takes a huge lungful of air, and looks at where his hands rest awkwardly on his lap. 

            ‘We were running.  Gardner had got away from me.  Inspector Lewis was ahead.  He’d dodged around me when Gardner tripped me on the corner, otherwise it would have been me that –‘

            His voice trails off, and he looks at Robbie as if he is desperate to be anywhere else rather than having to explain this right here and now.

            ‘Go on, lad,’ Robbie coaxes.

            James clears his throat and forces himself on.

            ‘I was running and I saw Gardner stop at the entrance to the alley.  I saw him lift his hand.  I saw the gun.  I knew as soon as I saw it that he would hit-‘

            His head drops and he shakes.  Laura rests a hand on his shoulder. 

            ‘I didn’t know what to do.  He was dying in my arms.  I didn’t know what to do.’

            Gently, she says, ‘What did you do, James?  Can you remember?’

            ‘I pulled back his clothes.  The wound was huge.’  He swallows, awkwardly, struggling to go on.  ‘I don’t know why I did it.  I put my hands on his stomach, around the hole.  There was so much blood.  It was all over my hands, all over the pavement underneath him.  He was bleeding out.  When I looked at him, I could see he was trying to hold on.  He was trying to tell me something.  That was when the words came.’

            ‘What words?’

            ‘They were – I don’t know – it was as if they came from somewhere deep inside me.  Inside my gut.  But it wasn’t my voice saying them, I know that.  It didn’t feel like my voice.  It felt like something was saying them through me.’

            He looks up into her eyes, a little wild, as if he is begging her to believe him.

            ‘This feeling came, this huge heat.  Inside.  Warmth.  Love.  I don’t know.  And energy.  Channelling through me.  All this feeling, all this – I don’t know – power, I think.  I don’t know.  I just kept speaking.  I was desperate.  I was so desperate.  I didn’t want him to die.  I couldn’t let him die.  I can’t.  I can’t live without him.’

            For a long while, the only sound is James’ sobbing.  Robbie’s heart aches, but he can’t seem to move, even though he wants to go to his James, hold him, comfort him. 

Laura gently strokes the lad’s arm, trying to console.  Eventually, he seems to collect himself, lifts his head, begins to speak again.

            ‘Something started happening.  I can’t really describe how it felt.  Just such heat in my hands and arms.  And then he took a huge gulp of air, and his body jumped under my hands, like he’d had an electric shock.  And then the wound started healing up.  I just kept saying the words.  Or the words kept saying me.  And the hole closed, right before my eyes.’

            He looks up at Laura again.

            ‘I don’t know what else to say.  That’s what happened.’

            ‘May I see your hands?’

            He looks a bit sheepish, but holds them out.  They are shaking.  And palms down.  Still hiding, Robbie realises.  Laura turns them smartly palms up, and gasps with shock.

            The skin is blistered.  Burnt.  The whole of James’ hands where they were in contact with Lewis’ body, every inch of skin, looks like it has been applied to an intense heat source.

            ‘They don’t hurt,’ James says, looking at them too.  ‘They’ve been like that ever since.  The heat was so fierce.  But they don’t hurt at all.’

            Laura pulls out her mobile phone and takes a few shots.  Then she goes to tug back his cuffs in order to see better.

            James flinches.

            ‘James?’

            ‘Don’t.’

            Never known to leave a stone unturned, though, our Laura, Robbie thinks, especially when you tell her not to look.  She plucks back the cuff again, and that is when he catches sight of what she has already seen.

            Bandages.

            ‘What the-‘  Robbie gasps.

            ‘Please don’t,’ James begs.

            But she does.  Unbuttons the cuff and rolls the shirt sleeve back to reveal a thick crepe bandage with a brownish stain right over the lad’s pulse point.  She raises her eyes to meet James’, and they share a moment of unspoken communion.

            Robbie stares at the bandages in utter shock.  How could he have missed this?  His sergeant, his precious James, with – what?  Slashed wrists?  Has he been self-harming?  Cutting himself?  Worse, has he tried to kill himself?  A crackle of icy horror lances through Lewis’s body.  He could have lost James already.  James might have wanted to die.  James tried to die –

            But then Laura is unbuttoning the other cuff, and a second bandage is revealed, and –

            ‘Oh, God, James, what have you done?’  Lewis moans.

            ‘It’s not what you think it is!’ James cries, wretchedly.  ‘It’s not that!’

            ‘No,’ Laura says firmly, and her steely tone puts all conjecture to rest.  ‘You didn’t do this, did you?’

            ‘No,’ James tells her, and his face is as earnest and open as Robbie has ever seen it.

            ‘Is this what I think it is?’  She asks him.

            He watches her face, wary, and then slowly, very slowly, nods.

            ‘How many?’

            ‘Three.’

            ‘Which?’

            ‘Hands, feet and back.’

            Shut out by all they are not saying, Robbie demands, ‘What are you on about?  What the hell is this?’

            Laura ignores him for the moment.  ‘Have you shown them to anyone?’

            ‘Only my parish priest.’

            Robbie put his hands over his eyes.  ‘Oh, God.’

            ‘I need to look at them, you know that.  Regardless of the cause, there’s a risk of infection.’

            He stares up at her with pleading eyes, but eventually seems to accept that she will not be deflected.

            ‘You can’t touch them,’ he says in the end.  ‘They bleed much worse if someone else touches them.’

            ‘Okay.  Can I help you with taking off the bandages?’

            ‘Better if you don’t.’

            He begins to undo the wrapping on his left wrist, long, adept fingers rolling back the wrinkled cloth.  Underneath, the skin is pale, and ridged from concealment.  A sudden, strong, sickly stink is released as soon as the bandage is removed.  He holds his hand out to her, and that is when Robbie sees what he has been hiding.

            A bloody wound, a gaping hole right at the heart of his wrist bone.

            ‘Good God!’  He feels sick, sways a bit, looking at it.

            Then James turns his hand over, and the worst of it becomes clear.

            The hole goes right through.

            The clinging smell turns Robbie’s stomach.  Its jasmine, he realises, not decay.  The scent of jasmine.  He remembers it from Verona, from when he went there with Morse.  There was jasmine growing around the balcony of his hotel room.  It was so sweet, the scent so strong, especially at night, after the afternoon sun had been on it.  This is stronger, though, stronger than he has ever smelled before in his life, cloying at his throat as he breathes in.

            Laura takes up her phone and calmly takes more photographs.  Then, without thinking, she reaches out to touch the skin close to the wound.  James hisses in shock, and a gout of blood spurts up out of the hole.  Suddenly they are all cursing, and there is blood squirting everywhere.  Laura grabs a thick wad of cotton wool from the instrument trolley and slaps it over the wound to stem the flow.  James pushes her hand away and holds the dressing steady.

            ‘I told you not to touch it.  It always does that.’

            ‘How do you know?’

            ‘Father Michael helped me with my back because I couldn’t reach to dress it.  He offered to help with the others, and that’s how we learned that no one else can touch them.’

            ‘Your back,’ Robbie asks, feeling even sicker.

            ‘On my back too.  You remember.’

            He does.  Only last week, he had walked behind James while the lad was sitting working at his desk, and noticed a blood stain on his shoulder, seeping through the cotton of his shirt. 

            ‘You said it was eczema,’ he says in disbelief.

            James shrugged.  ‘I had to think of an excuse, and it was reasonable.  Eczema sometimes breaks out and bleeds.  At least, mine does.  I don’t get it on my back, though.  But it was a reasonable enough thing to say.’

            ‘Reasonable?’  Robbie gapes.  ‘You’ve got gaping holes in you, lad!  Who did this to you?’

            ‘Nobody did it to me,’ James tells him, his cheeks flushing.

            ‘Come off it, man!  I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and it’s not-‘

            ‘Robbie this is not domestic violence, self harm or even BDSM,’ Laura tells him sharply.  ‘Its stigmata.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘Stigmata.  The marks of Christ’s Passion,’ James tells him.

            ‘Jesus received five wounds,’ Laura explains.  ‘The nails in his hands and feet, the lash marks from being whipped on his back, lacerations on his forehead from the crown of thorns, and –‘

            ‘The spear in his side,’ Robbie says.  ‘Yeah, I know me Bible well enough, but what’s that got to do with James having bloody great holes in his wrists?’

            ‘Throughout history there are records of the faithful receiving the wounds of Christ as a mark of their struggles against sin,’ James explains.  ‘That was why I went to Father Michael, rather than a doctor.  I knew he’d understand.  I never expected this. I’m the last person to deserve stigmata.’

            Robbie stares at him in disbelief.  And then turns to Laura.  ‘You actually believe this?’

            ‘I can tell you that there is no way he could have inflicted those wounds on himself, if that’s what you’re asking,’ she says.  ‘The angle is wrong.’

            Robbie’s eyes are drawn back to James’ wrist.  Blood is beginning to seep from underneath the thick dressing.

            ‘Nail holes,’ he breathes.

            ‘Yes,’ James says.

            ‘And you’ve got these on your feet as well?’

            ‘Yes.  And the lash marks on my back.’

            He rubs his forehead.  ‘I don’t know what to think.’

            ‘I don’t think you are in a position to doubt,’ Laura points out.  ‘Given that if it hadn’t been for James’s faith, you wouldn’t be here now.’

            ‘It’s a lot to take in,’ he says, sinking down onto the end of the couch beside James.

            ‘I know.  Sorry.’  James looks at him wretchedly.

            ‘Do they hurt?’  Robbie asks him, and then feels a complete idiot.  ‘Of course they do.  How can nail holes through your wrist bones not hurt?’

            ‘Not really,’ James shrugs.  ‘They really hurt at first, when they first come.  But after a while, they calm down.  Now it’s a sort of dull ache.  Just enough to remind me that they are there.  The feet are the worst, really.’

            Robbie looks down, and of course now it is obvious, and how could he have not seen them before?  James is not wearing his usual, slim fitting lace up shoes.  These new ones are more like black leather trainers, made for comfort and width, a shock considering James’ feet, like the rest of him, are ridiculously long and thin.  Looking at them now, Robbie could kick himself for not noticing the way the ugly shoes seem to emphasise the thick bandaging around James’ ankles.

            He feels a wretched flare of heat in his belly, where his own wound was.

            ‘How long?’

            ‘The wrists were the first, about five months ago.  The feet, four.  Then nothing for a long time.  I thought I’d got away with it.  Then two weeks ago, the back.’

            Robbie shakes his head, miserably.  ‘And I never even noticed.’

            ‘To be honest, sir, I’m good at hiding things.’

            Yes, he realises, looking into the lad’s eyes now.  Never knew how much I meant to you till today, did I?  Never knew how you felt.  Wish I had.  Wish you’d told me. Wish I’d told you before now, too. 

            Without thought, he reaches out and rests his hand on the small of the lad’s back.  There is an instant fizz of heat in his belly, and he sees James jump at the precise same moment he feels it.

            ‘What was that?’ Laura asks them, eyes narrowing.

            ‘I don’t’ know.  Some kind of energy transfer, I think,’ James suggests.

            ‘Something left over from earlier, maybe,’ Robbie adds.

            They look at each other, and James’ eyes seem darker than Robbie has ever realised, a deep sea green.  He could fall in and drown.

            ‘I need to take samples,’ Laura says.  ‘In all good conscience, I can’t not record this, even if I never divulge the truth.  May I?’

            James sighs, and shrugs.  Now he has confessed his secret, he doesn’t seem to care anymore.

            With some thought, they manage to devise a way for Laura to record and take samples.  James peels back the dressing so she can snap both sides with her phone.  Then Robbie reaches in to touch the skin of James’ wrist, and Laura is there with a test tube to deftly capture the resulting squirt.  Once they have mopped up the excess, James applies new bandages. It’s all very organised, very rational, very scientific. 

            Even so, something is happening inside Robbie that he can’t explain.  Something shifting.  His gut feels hot.  Sweat has broken out on his forehead.  It is sliding down his back too.  His shirt feels damp.  Watching James re-dress his wrists with patient skill learnt from what has probably been hours of bitter practice, he feels a pain in his chest.  It hurts him to see the lad so wounded.  More than hurts.  He feels like his heart is tearing.

            Once the same procedure has been undertaken with James’ other wrist, Laura kneels down on the floor to ease off his right shoe.  The lad flinches.  He meant it when he said the feet were the most painful.

            Robbie watches with growing distress as she peels off the black cotton sock that is stretched almost to breaking point around the bandages.  Underneath is a melee of bloody wrapping.  Now its Laura’s turn to mutter in disbelief under her breath.

            This is not right.  No, this is not right at all.  How can James, his James, be suffering like this, afflicted like this?

            Something like anger flares inside his chest.  He suddenly becomes aware that his hands are shaking.  He has no idea why this should be.  Something about this is wrong.  Very wrong.

            Laura carefully peels away the bandages and lifts the dressing pad that covers the wound with a pair of tweezers – she’s learnt this time.

            James whimpers with pain.

            And there it is.  Not the simple wound in the instep that Robbie was expecting, but something far, far worse.

            The phantom nail has been driven side to side through the body of the heel, right through the thickest part of the bone.  Blood drips onto the floor from both sides.  James grimaces.

            And something inside Robbie Lewis breaks.

            The heat inside him flares and expands as if it is being pumped with bellows.  It balloons up through his torso and crackles through the heart of each of his vertebrae.  Inside his chest, he can feel his heart expanding too, full, so full.  Of pain, of love, of need, of empathy.  Of rage at God, that He should make poor, kind, gentle James suffer so.  But most of all with the will to make this better.  All he can hear is the hiss and fizz of the power inside him as he kneels, pushing Laura out his way. 

‘No,’ he growls.  ‘No more.  No more.’

Heat courses down his arms and into his hands as he presses each palm to either side of James’ heel.

            James cries out, and his body arches.

            Then Robbie has become merely a conduit for an immense surge of energy that floods through him and into James’ foot.  Far distant, he is aware of Laura’s cry, of James wailing, but his head is empty of everything except the need to make this right.  He feels blood pour through his fingers, but he doesn’t let go, because there is only this great power, this need to heal.

            James yelps, and suddenly Robbie’s hands are forced apart, and he is thrown onto his backside as the energy backs up.

            Where there was a bloody hole, there is now healthy, pale skin and a shiny knot of keloid scar tissue.

            Robbie’s hands are burning.

            He looks at them for a moment, seeing the blisters form.  Then he knows what he has to do.  He scrambles back onto his knees and drags James’ other shoe off, tugging away sock and bandages.  James is crying, sobbing, and Laura is holding him around the shoulders, staring down at Robbie as he drags away the gory dressings from James’ left foot.  Blood streams from it as he cups the heel between his palms, just as he did the other.  A massive jolt of energy rocks the two of them, and then the heat fills him again, that same single-mindedness, his consciousness hijacked by this one desire.  Above him on the couch, James’ body writhes in Laura’s arms.  She struggles to hold him still, for he is far bigger, far stronger.  She is tenacious, though.  Robbie can faintly hear her talking to James, trying to soothe him, but it is as if he hears her words from the far end of a long tunnel, just as he had heard James’s, earlier in the day.

            Then, as suddenly as it comes, the energy jumps, throwing him back again, and he lets go, and sees another long, pale foot, the skin unbroken, unmarred save for a tell-tale scar.

            He’s panting now, and the heat is roaring inside him like a blast furnace.  He staggers to his feet, a little drunk with it, and starts to undo the bandage on James’ wrist.  The lad looks up into his eyes.

            ‘Robbie,’ he breathes, and it is as if the word is spoken deep within Robbie’s soul.

            Furiously, he pulls off the bandage and claps his palms on either side of the wrist, pressing his fingers around to encircle the bone.

            James wails and squirms once more, but Laura holds on, her eyes wide.

            Robbie’s belly is burning now.  He can feel the healed wound in his gut, the flames forming the track the bullet must have taken.  This, then, he realises distantly.  This is where this power is coming from.  This power is not just belief.  It is love.  Absolute love.  He will not let James suffer.  He absolutely will not.

            He feels the wounds seal under his hands this time, feels the crackle as the power repels his palms from the place where their work is done.

            He grabs James’ other hand and sets to work.  The lad is almost delirious now, convulsing as if he is having fits.  Robbie won’t give up.  He knows the power will not let him go until this is finished.  He clasps the second bloody wrist between his palms and the heat roars through him, forcing a cry from his own lips.  He can see Laura out of the corner of his eye, trying to hold James down, her eyes wild with shock.  It is brutal, but fire is brutal.  It will cleanse all in its path.  James will be reborn from this.  No more pain.

            ‘No more pain,’ Robbie roars.

            This time he actually sees the energy, a bluish spark arcing between his hand and James’ flesh as he pulls it away just in time.  When he looks, the skin is clean, pure, undamaged.  Only the little silver mark reveals the truth.

            He looks at Laura.

            ‘His back.’

            ‘Help me get his shirt off,’ she says, her voice muffled by the roar of the flames in his ears.

            Flames, flames.

            James is a dead weight.

            Flames.

            The shirt won’t come undone.  Robbie grabs at it.  Buttons fly.

            Underneath, a white t-shirt, stained in places on the back.

            Flames.

            Robbie drags the cloth up, forces it over the lad’s golden head, rips off the adhesive dressings.

            Flames, flames.

            The gashes criss-cross the expanse of James’ muscular torso.  In places, they cut in as deep as his ribs.  Milky-white bone is shiny amidst the blood and torn flesh.

            Flames.

            Just this last one now.

            Robbie presses his fiery palms to the skin.  James, inert, jolts and jumps against Laura as she struggles to support him, dancing as if electrified.  Robbie realises James is speaking.  His eyes are rolled up into his head, but his lips are moving.  The flames roar up inside Robbie, but he can hear the words now.

            Latin.

            The gashes begin to close.

            The heat is consuming him.

            ‘James,’ he breathes, one last time.  Burning.  Burning.

            And then the fire gutters out and he drops like a stone.

 

 

            ‘Robbie?   Robbie?’

            The floor is cold and hard.  He opens his eyes.  Laura, above him, her face gaunt with fear.

            He holds up his hands and squints at them.

            ‘Burns,’ he croaks.  And then, ‘James?’

            ‘He’s okay,’ she tells him.

            ‘Okay?’

            ‘No blood, no wounds.  Just completely out of it.  He keeps muttering something, but I can’t tell what it is.’

            Robbie struggles up onto his elbow, and then the world starts to spin.  ‘Oh, God.’

            ‘Just rest,’ she tells him, helping him lie back down again.

 

 

            Waking up in a soft, warm glow.  He feels like he is lying in gentle sunshine, wrapped in comfort.  He can feel his own heartbeat, slow and steady.  His body thuds and fizzes and glugs and does its own thing around him, the miracle of existence, all the unconscious processes ticking away happily.  All is well.

            And then he opens his eyes.

            The medical room with its cold blue walls greets him.  And closer, the back of a golden head.

            He is lying on his side on the examination couch with his back against the wall.  James’ long, lean body is lying in front of his, spooned, ribs rising and falling in a steady rhythm.  James.  James lying in his arms.  James alive and well, and sleeping peacefully.

            He presses his nose to the nape of the lad’s neck, smells the scent of him, shampoo and cologne and ashes.  That precious scent.  To think, he almost lost it.  Almost never found it.  He closes his eyes and breathes deeply, savouring the moment.

            It is a long time since he has known bliss, he realises.  He knows it now.

            James stirs, sighs, leans back against him.

            ‘Robbie?’

            ‘It’s alright, I’ve got you, lad.’

            ‘Mmmm.’

 

            He’s sitting upright, slouched against the wall.  James’ golden head lies in his lap.  His fingers slide through the softness of the lad’s hair.

            He doesn’t know how he got here.  Upright.  Conscious.  Peaceful.  All he knows is James’ nearness, James’ safety.  There is nothing but the silken feel of those gilt strands against his skin, and the weight of that big, long, information-crammed head on his thigh, the cold of the plaster against his back, the stillness of the room, and the steady throb of his own heart.

            He will never take being alive for granted again.

            Presently – he has no idea of the passing of time – those heavy lids open, and blue-that-used-to-be-green eyes blink up at him, bleary.

            ‘Robbie?’

            ‘I’m here, pet.’

            ‘Mmm.’  James sighs, eyes fluttering closed once more.  A smile plays at the corners of his lips.  He seems to have found bliss too.

            More time passes.  Robbie just gazes at his sergeant’s face, drinking him in.  The long features, high cheekbones, wide mouth, pale brows and lashes, that scar on his chin, the tiny pit on his cheek that must be from childhood chicken pox, blueish bags under his eyes – cause for concern - he needs to make sure his bonny lad gets more sleep from now on.  

For once, James isn’t frowning.  His brow is smooth, his features peaceful.

            My James, Robbie thinks.  Another thing I won’t ever take for granted again.

            James sighs once more and opens his eyes.  He looks up at Robbie, his expression so fond it makes Robbie’s eyes sting.  How long has he wanted James to look at him like that?  Maybe he was looking at him that way all along, and he just couldn’t see it.

            ‘How are you feeling?’ he asks the lad softly, his fingers still toying with all that thick, glossy hair.

            ‘Sleepy,’ James murmurs.  And then he frowns.

            ‘What?’

            ‘No, I-‘  James is blinking.

            ‘Got something in your eye?’

            ‘No, it’s just – its blurry.  Hang on.’  His long fingers are suddenly at his eyes, and Robbie has seen a few nasty things in his time, and got pretty used to it, but if there’s one thing that always turns his stomach without fail, it is eyeballs.  He hates it when James fiddles with his contact lenses.  Sticks his fingers in, rummages about.  Those veined whites.  Gelatinous.  But then the lad’s hand comes away with something stuck to the end of his middle finger, and he looks up at Robbie’s face and examines him closely.

            ‘James?’

            ‘This is weird,’ James says.  ‘Hold this for me a minute, will you?’

            He drops the little cup of gel into Robbie’s palm, and then rummages about in his other eye.  Out comes the other one.  He stares up at Robbie.

            ‘What is it?’  Robbie’s getting quite worried now.  ‘Can’t you see?’

            ‘No, I can see.  That’s exactly the problem.’  He puts the other lens into Robbie’s hand and carefully sits up to look around the room.

            ‘I don’t get it,’ Robbie says, eyeing James with concern.  He is blinking at everything.

            ‘I mean, I can see.  I’ve never been able to see.’  James turns to face him, twisting his long body so that his t-shirt pulls around his sculpted torso.  Robbie has to concentrate on the lad’s face and firmly tell himself off for noticing how well that blood-stained, ruined top fits.

            And when he looks into James’ eyes, it is as if he sees them for the first time, grey-blue now, and piercing, and thrillingly intelligent.

            ‘I had to wear glasses right from being tiny,’ James goes on, his gaze seeming to take in every crease, every wrinkle on Robbie’s face.  ‘I was one of those toddlers you see with specs like magnifying glasses secured to their head with elastic.  It was the one thing I worried about when I applied to join the police, that they wouldn’t take me because my eyesight is so bad.’

            ‘Still don’t get it,’ Robbie says, shaking his head.

            James reaches up and gently touches his cheek.

            ‘I can see you.  Properly.  Perfectly.  I can see how beautiful you are.  Every detail.  And I don’t need lenses or specs to do it.’

            Finally, it dawns on him what James is trying to say.  ‘You mean, you reckon your eyes are fixed?  As well as the stigmata?’

            James nods.  He seems unable to drag his eyes away from Robbie’s raddled features. 

            ‘I feel like Saul, when the scales fell from his eyes.  I can see so well.  So much better.  It’s incredible.  You are so beautiful.  So beautiful.’

            His thumb strokes lightly over Robbie’s cheek and its intoxicating, this scrutiny, this fascination.  James thinks he is beautiful.  Ridiculous, really, but he would have to be made of stone not to love being looked at like this, with such adoration, not least because it’s so long since anyone saw anything attractive in him.

            ‘Oh, give over, lad,’ he blushes, but his heart isn’t in it.

            James leans forward.  ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers.  ‘I just can’t help it.’

            And their lips touch.

            It feels like an explosion.  The heat overtakes his brain immediately.  Aware he is in James’ arms, he melts, gives up all autonomy.  The kiss consumes him.  James’ lips consume him.  The fire burns in his belly, along the path the bullet took only a few hours earlier.  His heart lurches and spins.

            The world changes.

            They come up for air, panting heavily.

            ‘Wow,’ James breathes, and Robbie laughs.  Then finds himself overtaken once more by raw need.

            ‘More,’ he whispers.

            And James breathes as he closes in:  ‘Thought you’d never ask.’

 

 

            The door clicks suddenly, and they jump apart like guilty teenagers surprised in an act of wickedness.  Laura is standing there looking at them with a wry smile on her pretty face.

            ‘Finally,’ she laughs.

            James looks sheepish.

            ‘You knew?’  Robbie asks, feeling a bit bloody piqued, if the truth be told.

            ‘Robbie, there were sheep on the Brecon Beacons who had worked it out!’

            ‘I thought I hid it quite well,’ James says miserably.

            ‘You did,’ she tells him.  ‘But it would be like hiding the Great Wall of China.  Even someone as private as you would never get away with that.’

            ‘So how come I never worked it out?’ Robbie prickles.

            ‘Because you weren’t looking?’  She sits down with a sigh.  ‘I’ve just couriered your samples off to the lab for analysis.  How are you feeling?’

            They look at each other.

            ‘Interesting development,’ James says, and grins, looking a bit more like his usual, waggish self.

            ‘Unexpected side effects,’ Robbie adds.

            ‘Peripheral healing.’

            ‘Which means what, exactly?’

            ‘My eyesight is perfect,’ James says.  At which point Robbie realises he must have dropped the contact lenses in the heat of the moment, and gets off the couch to look on the floor for them.

            ‘Don’t worry,’ James tells him as he crouches down.  ‘Hopefully, I shan’t need them again.  And they were only disposables.  I’ve got plenty more at home.’

            ‘What d’you mean, hopefully?’

            ‘Well, we can’t be sure the effects will last, can we?’

            ‘I’m in a bit of trouble if they don’t, lad,’ Robbie points out, standing up again.

            James blanches in horror.  He clearly had not realised the consequences of a temporary healing – if Robbie’s wound were to open up again, he would bleed out before any paramedic could get to him, and he knows it.  Laura can obviously see James’ realisation too, because she sharply changes the subject.

            ‘Robbie, how’s you back?’

            ‘What? Oh, er, I-‘

            And then he stops.  Instinctively, his hand goes to the small of his back, as it always does, reaching to ease a pain that is not there.  By rights, with all the lying on the pavement and slumping against the wall he’s been doing today, he should be really feeling it, but there is nothing.  Nothing at all.  He looks at her, astonished.

            ‘Nothing?’

            ‘Not a thing,’ he says.

 

 

            They sit in the back of the taxi, shoulder to shoulder, watching the Oxford evening pass before their eyes.  Robbie can feel the warmth of James’ body through his jacket.  Warming his heart.  He doesn’t know how this has happened.  The world has changed.  When he woke up this morning, he had no idea.  He’s a different man now.  Maybe the blood tests will show that.

Laura had packed them off smartly after she had given them one last look over.

            ‘I can’t keep you here, and I can’t exactly send you off to the John Radcliffe for observation, can I?’

            ‘Why not?’ Robbie frowned.

            ‘Because I can’t expect them to keep you in overnight to watch for a gunshot wound to spontaneously open up in your abdomen without a shot being fired.’

            ‘No, I suppose not.’

            She at least gave them surgical green tops to travel home in.

            ‘Don’t want you frightening the public with all that blood, do we?’

           

 

            They are half way to Summertown when James leans forward to speak to the cabbie.

            ‘Can you drop us at St Stephen’s Church please?’

            ‘Which one’s that?’

            ‘The Catholic one.  On the corner of Tavistock Road.’

            ‘Ok.’  He turns the cab smartly down a side street.

            ‘I thought we were going home,’ Robbie asks James as he sits back.

            ‘Just bear with me,’ James tells him.  And squeezes his hand.  Reassuring.  Robbie realises with a shock just how much he has missed this, the touch of a familiar hand, an instinctive smile, the closeness of another human being.  It is innate to his nature, this physical expression.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons that losing Val hit him so hard.  It has been like living on the moon, without that constant touch, the easy intimacy of a close relationship.  And now here it is again, back in his life.  On reflection, though, he realises it never really left.  James has always been quite tactile with him, as he has been with James.  A casual pat on the shoulder, leaning over one another at the computer, shoulders brushing as they walk along.  None of this is new, is it?  How could he have been so blind?  Laura’s right.  Now he comes to think about it, you could have seen James’ love for him from space.  He just wasn’t looking.

            The cab pulls up outside the Catholic Church that is James’ haunt on Sunday mornings when he is not working a shift.  They pay and get out, and stand on the pavement in the summer dusk.  Lewis can hear kids playing in a garden nearby, a blackbird sitting on the arm of a streetlight overhead, singing delicate trills.  This part of town is expensive, upper middle class.  There are roses around the doors and flashy cars parked on the kerbs.  Many of the towering Victorian mansions have been converted into posh flats.  And here, huddling amongst all this splendour, is the Victorian Gothic church, looking almost embarrassed by its own presence, as if it is trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

            Robbie follows James up the path and around the side to the front door of the Manse.

            ‘What are we doing?’ he asks.

            ‘Trying to find out if this miracle is temporary or permanent,’ James tells him, and raps on the heavy oak door.

            After a pause, there is a scuffling inside, and the door opens, revealing a somewhat dishevelled priest.  The man is shorter than Robbie, with thick, curly hair shorn short at the back and sides, and left long on top.  It reminds him of all those floppy-haired students he and Morse used to bark at in the 80s.  This priest must have been wearing his hair like that since his student days.  Even so, he is not much older than James, and greets him with a sunny smile.

            ‘James, this is unexpected!  Do come in!’  They follow him into a dark hall with walls painted the colour of nicotine. 

            ‘Father Michael, I want to introduce you to Inspector Robert Lewis,’ James says, rather stiffly.  Robbie and the priest shake hands.

            ‘So glad to meet you, Inspector.  James has told me a lot about you.’

            Robbie wonders exactly what James has told him, given that this man must have taken his confession.  He has no time to indulge in conjecture because James cuts straight to the chase:

            ‘Father, I wonder if we could talk.  Something has happened.  Something, well –‘ he glances at Robbie as he says it.  ‘Something incredible, and I really need to know what you think about it.’

            The priest looks a little puzzled.  ‘Of course, of course!  I was going to write my sermon for Sunday tonight, but I’m perfectly happy to procrastinate on that a little longer.  Come in and sit down.’

            He shows them into a large, untidy room with a bay window at one end that lets in the evening sun.  There are no nets to block out the gawps of passers-by, and the curtains are heavy and old-fashioned, a kind of mustard coloured paisley, and look as if they are clinging to the rail with their last breath.  An ironing board stands against the back wall, its surface piled high with books.  There are two desks, side by side along the wall behind the sofa, equally cluttered with books and papers.  On the hearth beside the armchair is a pipe rack which reminds Robbie of his grandfather, with its row of well-loved, rather grubby pipes, and the accompanying matches and pipe cleaners.  The room has that fusty, faintly fruity smell of whole tobacco.  Robbie guesses, though, that its not young Father Michael that smokes.

            ‘Please excuse the mess, gentlemen,’ Father Michael fidgets.  ‘My curate, Father Arthur, and I share the house and there’s no money for a housekeeper so we have to muddle along as best we can.  Unfortunately neither of us are gifted in the tidiness department!’

            James and Robbie sit side by side on the sagging pink sofa.  Pope John Paul II looks down on them munificently from over the mantelpiece.  Father Michael, sitting in a wooden Windsor chair on the other side of the hearth, arranges the black cotton of his cassock over his knees and leans forward, adopting the listening pose known to clergy of every religion the world over.  He doesn’t invite them to speak.  He merely awaits their representation.  Clever man, Robbie thinks, sizing him up yet again.

            James explains.  Tells him about the gun.  About the wound.  About Robbie dying.  And then not dying.  About the examination.  The stigmata.  And then about the stigmata being healed. 

            They show him the palms of their hands, the painless blisters that are already subsiding.  

            The priest steeples the tips of his fingers together and presses them to his lips, deep in thought.

            ‘This requires tea,’ he says after some moments of silent contemplation.  His cassock flutters as he leaves, reminding Robbie of the crows that flap about in Christchurch Fields.  They hear him thumping around in the adjacent kitchen, the purr of the kettle, the clink of china, the whump of the fridge door closing.

            ‘Are you okay,’ James asks him, nervous.  What he means is, is it okay to talk about this to a priest? 

            Robbie reaches out to squeeze his hand.  The reassurance seems to work.  A smile blooms on James’ equine features, a smile like the sun coming out on a cloudy day.  Then Robbie just wants to kiss him, but he knows he can’t, not here anyway.

            Presently Father Michael backs in through the door, using his skinny posterior to keep it open long enough for him to pass, because his hands are busy with the big tray of tea things.  A stainless steel teapot, cups and saucers, milk jug, sugar bowl, side plates and a huge brick of a fruit cake on a flowery platter.

            ‘You must have some of this,’ the priest says brightly.  ‘One of our parishioners – Cherry, do you know her James, she sings in the choir?’ (James nods that he does know her.)  ‘She’s a nurse at the JR, but she likes to bake in her spare time, and she makes these absolute slabs of fruit cake, quite wonderful.  They have to be experienced.’

            He pours them tea and cuts them wedges of cake.  The cinnamon and currant scent that fills the room reminds Robbie that breakfast was a long, long time ago, and the chance of lunch was interrupted by his nearly dying.  The room is silent for a while save only for the sound of three ravenous men devouring fruit cake.

            Eventually Father Michael sits back in his chair, one pale, long-fingered hand resting on his stomach, and turns his penetrating gaze on the two policemen on his sofa.

            ‘James plays the organ for us sometimes,’ he says to Robbie.  ‘Did you know that?  He’s really very good.  We’d like to hear him more often, but-‘

            ‘Shift patterns,’ James shrugs.

            Robbie wants to cut to the chase.  ‘So what do you think, Father?’

            The priest muses for a moment longer, and Robbie is starting to feel a little tetchy at his reticence.  But then he leans forward.

            ‘James, may I see the scars?’

            James bares his wrists, and there are the little, silvery-pink notches on either side that were left after Robbie’s hands had parted from them.  Something about looking at them again makes Robbie’s gut burn.  James glances at him, and he wonders if he can feel it too, that now-familiar afterburn, the phantom of memory that links them in this strange circuit.

            ‘The others the same?’

            James nods.

            Father Michael turns to Robbie.  ‘And yours?’

            ‘I won’t show you, but yes, just a scar that looks like its been there ten years or more.’

            The priest sips the last of his tea.  ‘Well, I have absolutely no doubt that what has occurred today is a miracle.’

            ‘Yes, but what if it doesn’t last,’ James presses, and Robbie hears the note of urgency in his voice.

            ‘Miracles seldom turn out to be temporary, James,’ the priest points out.

            ‘Stigmata aren’t supposed to heal up either,’ the sergeant counters.

            The priest settles back in his chair. 

            ‘James, it has been clear to me for some time that the stigmata you have experienced are a manifestation of your struggle with your feelings for Robbie – May I call you that?’  (Robbie nods.)  ‘I presume I am permitted to speak of that now?’

            James reaches out to twine his fingers through Robbie’s again, not looking, but feeling for reassurance.  And Robbie feels a spike of affection at the simple act of intimacy that reach represents.  He doesn’t care that the priest is going to oppose their relationship (that’s a given, after all).  He’s just overjoyed to be here, sitting on this shabby sofa, knowing that his own feelings are returned.

            The priest goes on.  ‘Stigmata are normally the result of spiritual battle within the soul, the struggle against the desire to sin.  For you, I believe they have been the sign of the anguish about concealing your feelings – feelings you did not feel you should have. 

            ‘This matter of the inspector’s wounding.  Such a huge shock.  Presented with death, we realise that nothing matters but love, our love for one another, whether declared or not.  All the religious and societal rules you cleaved to, which were preventing you from expressing your feelings, suddenly became irrelevant in the face of death.  They simply no longer mattered.  At which point, the full strength of your love was released.  And what a powerful emotion it has proved to be.  Powerful enough to save a man’s life.’

            ‘But I couldn’t have done that,’ James says.  ‘No matter how strongly I felt, I couldn’t have defied the laws of biology or physics!’

            ‘Alone, no.  But with God, all things are possible.  God is love, James.  Today, He worked through you to save Robbie’s life.  The powerful love you feel is a manifestation of His purpose for you.  A manifestation of God’s love.’

            ‘You don’t believe that, though,’ Robbie has to point out.  ‘Because you don’t believe that two blokes can be together.’

            ‘The Church has its teaching,’ Father Michael replies.  ‘But surely we must all bow before God’s power when He chooses to express Himself through miracles.  The love James bares for you, its purity and strength, can be in no doubt.  I know what the Church says, and what Scripture says, but faced with this miracle, I can only wonder.’

            ‘But what about the stigmata,’ James worries.

            ‘Once your feelings were expressed, I suspect the door was then opened to allow you to release the need for your suffering.’

            ‘Are you saying he did that to himself?’  Robbie bridles.

            ‘Not consciously, no.  But we are talking about emotions, here.  These are not rational things.  Frequently they defy explanation.  I doubt you can explain what happened to you today, but you can be in no doubt of the power of the emotions you experienced, and I think you can only agree that it was your powerful desire to heal James, your love for him, that drove you to act as you did.’

            ‘I couldn’t stand to see him that way,’ Robbie says, feeling a little backed into a corner.  ‘I couldn’t bear to think of him bleeding and in pain.’

            ‘Exactly.’ The priest dabs his finger on his plate, mopping up the last few precious crumbs of his cake and transferring them to his mouth, unconscious of his actions.  ‘Nothing can stand in the face of love, gentlemen.  The Church’s teaching on homosexuality is clear, but nothing is set in stone when God decides to change it.  It is clear to me that you share a very special bond.  I cannot condone the physical expression of that bond, but neither can I deny its strength and power.  And in answer to your question, James, I do not think God would withdraw such healing once it has been given.’

 

            Now they are standing on the pavement outside the church.  The light is fading.  Somewhere nearby, a blackbird is emitting its chuck-chucking alarm cry.  Robbie wonders if it is the one that greeted them with such wonderful song earlier.

            James takes his hand out of his pocket and clasps Robbie’s.  When he smiles, his eyes are soft.

            ‘I didn’t know you played the organ,’ Robbie says.

            ‘I learnt the piano as well as guitar at school. Then, when I got the Cambridge, the chance to try the organ in the college chapel came up, and I couldn’t resist having a go.  Its bloody hard work, though.’

            Robbie laughs.  ‘Prefer the guitar, then?’

            ‘I think so.  But I like to help Father Michael out when I can.  He’s been very kind to me.’

            Robbie squeezes James’ fingers.  ‘That cake was good, but I could still eat a horse.’

            ‘Curry?’

            ‘Clever lad,’ Robbie grins.

            It’s a ten minute walk to the curry house in the centre of Summertown, through balmy, sleepy streets.  There was a point in the day when Robbie never thought he’d make another summer’s evening.  And now here he is, walking along companionably, rubbing shoulders with the person he loves most in the world (excepting his kids, of course.)  The jasmine and honeysuckle hang heavily on the fences and walls of the gardens, twined amongst the roses and laurel hedges.  Somewhere a lawnmower is mowing its last.  A tortoiseshell cat stalks along the kerb, tail held high, beginning his night patrol.

            This, Robbie thinks.  This is love.  And if there is a God, and I’m still not convinced, but if there is, then maybe this evening is Him.