There was a crying man in front of the church. That itself shouldn't surprise John. He had seen lots of people break out in tears. During weddings, funerals and even during some baptisms. However there was something different about the look in the strangers eyes, something haunted.
He was undeniably handsome, even Irving had to admit this. With short, dark blonde hair, that was half concealed by a black woolen beenie, a well thrimmed beard and a friendly face. He was probably a few years younger than John and looked like he was fresh out of university.
"I'm sorry, can I help you with something?" He asked gently, raising his arms to show his good intentions. The other man startled, his blue eyes found Irving's and he relaxed slightly, rubbing the tears from his eyes with his sleeve. " 's me brothers an- anniversary. Damned cancer." He sniffled. "Been a year since he passed." The stranger sniffled again and Irving hastily pulled out a handkerchief. It was the fine one his mother had given him as a christmas present many years ago, the one with his initials on it.
The stranger took it with a small smile. "Thanks." After he dabbed the tears from his eyes he eyed the wooden door suspiciously. "I was wondering if I could light a candle for him. I- it's just- 'm not the most religious person so..."
"Everyone is welcome in the lord's house. Please." Irving grabbed the door handle and yanked it open before he motioned for the stranger to enter. "Take as long as you need. If you need anything else, I'm downstairs, first door on the right."
After making sure that the man knew where he'd find a candle and matchsticks, Irving went into the church's cellar to get everything ready for his watercoloring lessons. The smell of old air and books was stronger down here and he scrunched his nose slightly.
He unlocked the door to the class room and pulled out the unfinished children's drawings from last week. The children had made a pretty decent progress. The pictures had started to take shape. Irving could see a lamb, two different paintings of jesus, a smiling sun and various buildings that might have been churches.
A look at the clock showed that he still had twenty minutes before his students would arrive. He went into the small kitchen further down the hall and pulled out some juice boxes and waffles from the refrigerator. Knowing the kids, they'd work better if food and entertainment was provided. Once he got back into the classroom he pulled out the old CD player and put on some music. The silence was filled with some cheerful children's voices. Perfect, now all he had to do was wait.
Footsteps echoed from the hall. John frowned, pulling out his watch. Had he forgotten about the time again?
Then the stranger lurked through the door. "I- I just wanted t' say that I'm finished upstairs." His eyes were red and puffy which had left the rest of his handsome face rather swollen.
Irving tried not to, he wanted to ignore the man's intense stare, to lower his gaze and to silence the voice inside him that screamed at him to go help the poor man out. A moment passed in complete silence. Then Irving took pity on him.
"Would you like something to drink? You look exhausted and I really don't want you to get sick because of low blood sugar." He had no other option than to hand the stranger a juice box. The bright blue package with the smiling dinosaur looked almost comical in his hands.
"Thank you." Their hands briefly touched and Irving retreated his in the speed of light, almost spilling the juice everywhere. The barest hint of a touch was enough to send his heart running. Alarm bells were going off inside his brain. "Sorry." He apologized and they fell into silence once more. Suddenly the children's music had a somewhat creepy undertone to it. The stranger took his time with the juice box. Once he was finished he put the empty box in the garbage. "So you're a… teacher? Priest?"
Irving smiled, his shoulders lost some tension. "No, I'm just a volunteer. I do watercoloring classes for kids every Monday and Thursday down here." And then suddenly it hit him that he hadn't told this stranger his name. "I- I'm John by the way. John Irving-" He held out his hand for the stranger who went very still. He must done something because tears gathered in the strangers eyes and he started breathing heavily.
" 'M sorry it's jus… my brothers name was John as well." He rubbed the tears from his eyes quickly and shook Irving's hand. "I'm Tom. Well, Thomas. Thomas Hartnell, but please call me Tom, no one calls me Thomas 'cept for me mum."
Hartnell had a firm handshake. And a radiant smile. Something that deep down, Irving wanted to see more often. "I'm glad your feeling better. Please, do visit us again whenever you feel like it. Our doors are always open." Tom stayed silent for a second. "I'm not sure if the church approves of my… lifestyle…"
John didn't understand until he spotted the rainbow coloured bracelet around Tom's wrist. Oh. Suddenly everything clicked into place. Oh! "Like I said, our doors are always open. For everyone. I'd never- I mean our parish is open to everyone so if you'd like you could visit us again, bring your- your boyfriend or partner with you, if you have one, I'm sorry, I'm rambling." Hartnell stayed silent but he nodded after a long pause before turning to leave. "I'll remember that. Thank you for everything, John."
He struggled visibly to get the name out. They exchanged a polite smile and awkwardly waved after each other. John watched the younger man walk up the stairs and disappear onto the streets. He exhaled loudly and leaned heavily against the door, his heart was still hammering in his chest. "You stupid fool." He mumbled before it hit him. Tom had taken his handkerchief with him!
He slapped the palm of his hand against his forehead and groaned, loud enough to echo through the hallway.
The rest of the class went without further incidents. As soon as he finished cleaning the art supplies away and locked the doors behind him he got to his bus stop and took the bus home.
The apartment was filled with the atrocious noise that his roommate George called 'music'. He was in the middle of making dinner, which looked simultaneously raw and severely burned at the same time.
"Evening George!" He called out loudly. Hodgson jumped into the air but relaxed as soon as he noticed his roommate. They had met during their first year of university. With Irving studying theology and Hodgson studying naval history.
Despite how different they were they quickly became close friends and started sharing an apartment. "You look uh-" George thought about his choice of words. "Well you look like you've had a rough day, what happened, did one of the kids messed up their painting?" He teased lightly. John sighed and slumped down in one of the kitchen chairs. "No. The kids were wonderful. I- I've met this man-"
George's ears perked up instantly. "Oh my god! Fucking finally Johnny boy!" He clapped his hands and danced around the kitchen towards the fridge where he pulled out a bottle of champagne. "We should celebrate-"
"Celebrate?" Irving frowned deeply. "Celebrate what? I don't understand-"
"You've met a guy! Aaand… you like him, right?"
Slowly Irving was catching up on his roommates trail of thought. "George! I am not- It's not like that! I am not gay and he is certainly not my boyfriend! I mean, he's he is gay, or at least I think so, it doesn't matter... He came to the church to light a candle for his dead brother and accidentally took my embroidered handkerchief with him!" Irving was furious, his hands shook slightly, knuckles turning white as he pressed them into the back of the chair. George lowered the bottle of champagne in his hand, his face was beet red.
"Fuck, I'm so sorry John, I- I was just joking-"
"Leave it." He got up so quickly the chair tipped over and would have fallen if he hadn't caught it. "I'm not hungry, don't bother waiting for me." He grabbed his keys and his jacket before slipping out of the door and back onto the street.
It was cold outside, and smelled of rain. John pulled the jacket closer around his frame and marched down the street without really taking in his surroundings. It started to rain after what felt like hours but could only have been ten minutes. Soon he was drenched to the bone and blindly walked into the next cafe. His throat felt dry and his stomach rumbled therefore he decided to have a seat and get his head clear.
His phone was beeping like crazy, one look at the newest messages made his stomach drop.
Hodgy: For the last time, I'm sorry John please come back
E. Little: George told me what happened are you okay?
Hodgy: Where are you? It's pouring outside, please tell me you're not walking in this downfall!!!
He shut his phone down and focused on the food in front of him. A peppermint tea with two teaspoons of sugar and a carrot cake. Maybe food would help against the nauseous feeling in his stomach, he thought as he wolfed down the cake. It did not.
Ten minutes later and he found himself in the toilet, puking up everything he just ate and shivering like a leave. He felt bad for making a mess, for being so stupid and going out when he clearly was in distress. He should have just stayed at the apartment. Maybe read a book or two, drink some hot milk and watercolor in his room. It wasn't even that deep!
George had misunderstood something and yet here he was causing a huge scene. His roommate had thought he was gay so what? Irving considered himself to be very open. Just because he was a religious man didn't meant he would be close minded. He had no problem with other people's lifestyles. But, he was straight. He was into woman, always had been, just because he never had a girlfriend didn't meant that he wasn't interested in woman right?
But maybe that was exactly the point? He was raised to eventually fall in love with a woman, start a family and continue the Irving bloodline, yet he already let his father down when he decided to study theology instead of starting a 'real job' like his father had wanted him to do. No matter what he tried, he always felt like the black sheep in his family. He was afraid to even call them, his father would only start lecturing him again or trying to get him to come home. If he'd told them he was into men that would be the metaphorical last straw.
He had never fancied a girl in his life, always claimed it on being too busy with his studies, or not having found the right one, or having a special type when it came to woman. His friends had teased him about it many times, maybe that was why he moved in with George. He was the only one who listened to him, who texted him every two hours when they were apart just to make sure he was fine, who took John to the stupid pub quiz at Blanky's even though they would always loose against the older couple with the newfoundland dog, the tall brunette and the shorter irish one.
Starting his phone with shaking hands Irving dialed George's number. He picked up almost instantly. "John?! Listen I'm sorry for what happened, I shouldn't have-"
"It's alright George, I'm not mad… could you please come pick me up? I- I'm kind of in a bad way right now and I don't know how to get home by myself..."
Five minutes later Hodgson's battered, lime green VW Lupo pulled up in front of the cafe and John practically jumped into the passengers seat.
"Thank you for picking me up." John said. The car was surprisingly warm, the windshield wipers were working on the fastest setting and the radio was silent for once. "Your my best friend, John, I would do anything for you." George said honestly, making John tear up. "I'm a real mess right now, aren't I?" He fished for some tissues in the glove compartment. George patted his shoulder gently. "It's alright, John."
Soon they pulled up in front of the apartment. Even though his stomach was rumbling again and he had just thrown up most of his lunch and breakfast Irving decided to head straight to bed. His head was spinning and he felt dizzy.
He sat on the edge of his bed for a long time, tracing the patterns of his bedsheets. Cream colored with small angels printed on them. There was a bible lying on his nightstand and a cross hung up over his bed. It was a stark contrast to the rest of his room.
The first time George had walked into the room he stopped by the door, blue eyes widened in shock. "Quick question John, are you in some sort of weird cult? Because this room has no personality whatsoever." They had went to Ikea on the following day and brought new furniture that neither of them could really afford and spend the day rearranging John's room together.
It was a fond memory for John. The first time someone had went furniture shopping with him.
He pulled the covers back and slipped between them, a shiver ran through his body when his skin hit the cold matress. Irving expected to be awake for some more hours, tossing and turning and unable to fall asleep. He expected to be haunted by a pair of friendly blue eyes and a set of firm, yet soft hands that barely touched his, yet the moment he closed his eyes he was fast asleep.
Three days later he had calmed down slightly. George was texting him even more often than usual, asking him how he felt and if he should come pick him up. Irving had politely declined, he felt fine, pretty good to be more precisely. He was still confused about himself, what he wanted, what he should do, but he decided that painting with the kids would help and so he was back in the eerie church cellar, balancing two full water cups on top of a sketchbook as he set everything up. He was so caught up in his thoughts he didn't heard the sound of the door until suddenly a figure appeared in front of him. It was Tom Hartnell.
"Oh my lord!" Irving shrieked and almost dropped the glasses. Hartnell's hands shot forward and caught them right as they toppled over the edge of the sketchbook, dripping water everywhere. "Easy! Oh shit, I'm so sorry, I didn't meant to startle you." He placed them back in Irving's hands and fumbled in his jacket.
"Here, I totally forgot to give this back to you." In his hands lay Irving's handkerchief, neatly folded and freshly washed. "I was hoping to see you again because I wasn't sure who else I could give this to so I washed it before coming back, I remembered you said you were teaching every Monday and Thursday."
After John had put away the cups he picked up the handkerchief. "Thank you, it means a lot. My mother gave it to me many years ago." Their hands touched again when John picked the small piece of cloth up. This time he didn't pull away but gave Hartnell a radiant smile.
"Well then," Hartnell bit the inside of his cheek nervously. "I guess I should be going-"
Now or never, he thought. "I- I was wondering if you'd like to get a drink sometime. Maybe Saturday? O- only if you want of course."
Hartnell's eyes widened. "Like in a… romantic way?"
"Uhm, I mean only if you'd like, but we can go as just friends if- if your uncomfortable or-"
"No, no that's… that's great. I'll be there." He winked and waved after John as he walked up the stairs.
"Wait! I don't have your number!" Hartnell just pointed at the handkerchief in his hands and disappeared. John frowned, what was he trying to say? Slowly he unfolded the cloth, a piece of paper fell out and glided towards the ground. He picked it up and read it.
I know this might come off as weird but I think you're very cute and I know there's a huge chance you'll throw this into the bin the second you finished it but I decided to try it anyway.
Last Monday I was a sobbing mess when I walked into your church - I know it's not your church but you get what I'm saying- anyways you showed me so much kindness and you seemed nervous, you reminded me of myself so I'm not sure if I misinterpreted this, if I did then I totally understand it if you never want to talk to me again please just forget this ever happened, but if I'm right, would you like to have dinner with me?
P.S my number is on the back of this letter xoxo
Irving smiled and slowly lowered the letter. His stomach felt weird, but in a very, very good way and he decided that this was fine. Two days later George finally got to pop open the bottle of champagne.