Father Roland wrestled his suitcase up the gangplank and into the reception area of the ship. As he went, he waved off two porters who hurried to help him. A few other passengers and crew members stared at him from the pier. It was his clerical collar that drew attention; he wished he’d worn something else. From experience he knew what they were thinking: this priest doesn’t look like a priest, he’s not alcoholic or bloodless, he’s as fit as I’d like to be. Father Roland was used to being noticed. Sometimes the people who noticed him went so far as to share their reactions with him. He’d been noticed so often and for so long that, on the rare occasions when he wasn’t, he found himself wondering why.
“Welcome aboard, sir,” an assistant purser said with a look of surprise. The “sir” was uncommon; the deference wasn’t. Father Roland winced at deference; he preferred to be treated like everyone else. “Passport and ticket, please, sir,” the assistant purser said. Father Roland handed over his ticket and a well-thumbed passport with its two pages of exotic stamps—Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana: souvenirs of back-country missions on which his bishop had dispatched him in a vain effort to straighten out priests of wavering faith and collapsing morals—men from his diocese whose behavior had become the subject of local gossip. His bishop had chosen him in the well-founded belief that he was hardy, single-minded, and liked a challenge. Also, three years as a novitiate in Newark’s toughest ward had left him with practical Spanish and the knack of hiding his fear.
“Le Havre-bound, sir?” the assistant purser asked. Father Roland nodded, took back his passport, and walked to a wall map of the ship. He located his cabin; it was one flight up, on
He made his way through a crowd of vacationers to the elevator just as a rolling motion tossed the ship. The Veerdam was not large, and the waters of Hoboken, lapping hard at pier and hull, had a palpable effect. “Ooo,” someone intoned. He turned; the speaker was an overfed woman in a mu-mu and colored beads. “We may be needing you, father,” she said to him.
“I hope not,” he answered. He preferred to save words of comfort for the dying.
The elevator arrived. With a volley of whoops people wedged themselves in. Father Roland let them pass until there was only a shard of empty space beside the control panel. He made for it. When he was almost inside, someone jarred his elbow. A slender, dark-haired woman in a bush jacket, a Leica strung around her neck, was vying with him for the space. She looked about thirty—ten years his junior. “Sorry,” he said, and exited. “You’re sweet,” she said, smiled briefly, and settled herself inside. In her wake she left a mist of scent: floral, expensive. He inhaled it; his senses stirred. Pleasure, he thought, needn’t be the devil’s handiwork. It all depends where you go with it.
He caught the next elevator and headed down a long corridor to his cabin. The people he passed took note of his collar and fell silent; you could see them tighten. Be good, show virtue, he’s come to judge us—he knew what they were thinking, but he had never grown used to it. I’m not in the judging business, he always wanted to shout. Someone else will take care of that.
His cabin was just above the water line, where the ship’s rolling was least obvious. It was small and almost spare enough to be a monk’s cell. On the bed reposed a cellophane packet of chocolates: a welcome-aboard gift, a flourish of corporate hospitality. He sniffed the chocolates and shoved them in the back of a dresser drawer, where they wouldn’t tempt him. Then he unpacked, washed, and lay down to rest until the bar opened. He was content enough. The rolling had stopped. It was quiet in the corridor. Through his window he could see gulls circling and diving above the pier. The well-wishers were going home, and the gangplank was being retracted. His first vacation in three years was beginning. Behind him—for two weeks, anyway—he’d left the bereaved, the despondent, the irremediably poor, blithe sinners and guilt-ridden innocents, prideful people, a few faithless, an occasional lunatic, and many ordinary souls: his parishioners. Most difficult of all his tasks was talking to them of consolation in the hereafter but not being able to promise them anything in the here and now.
Without horn, whistle, or other preamble the ship now began to move. Except for a faint hum from below, like cinema air conditioning, it moved without a sound. He looked out. The pier was slipping away; the last knot of well-wishers stood at the railings, waving and shouting soundless goodbyes. Shore, pier and dirty green water were receding into miniature and the gulls had stopped following the ship. He looked at his watch. It was three-fifteen. The bar had to be open. His need of a drink was pronounced; the thrill of anticipation had begun, almost imperceptibly, to change to a feeling of loneliness.
He got up, straightened his clothes, and headed for the elevators. Others, it seemed, had the same idea; traffic in the corridor was heavy, voices raucous, the mood festive. A tableau of brightly-colored polyester lay before him.
The bar was full of revelers. He elbowed his way in and ordered a gin and tonic. As he waited for his drink, he looked outside. The ocean was slate-colored, whitecaps were visible, and in the distance Lady Liberty was sliding by. Inwardly, he saluted. He was no patriot, but travel, reading, and talks with recent immigrants had almost persuaded him that his flawed and often disappointing country was the best of the lot.
The young woman in the bush jacket entered his line of sight. She was looking at him quizzically, as though waiting for him to recognize her.
“Hi,” he said. “What are you drinking?”
Her astonishment showed. “Are you offering to buy me a drink?”
“This is a bar, isn’t it?”
The corners of her eyes crinkled. “White wine,” she said.
He thought, it fits. It’s consonant with her up-to-the-minute outfit, her well-tended hair and figure, her self-possession. It’s a clue to her class.
He made his way back to the bar, people watching as he went. When he returned with her wine, he said, “I’m Roland Kell, by the way.”
“Charmian.” She didn’t offer her hand and he didn’t mind. He didn’t press flesh casually. “I had no idea this ship was going to Rome.”
“It isn’t and neither am I.”
She looked embarrassed. “I didn’t mean that as a jibe.”
“I didn’t take it that way.”
“It’s just that I thought priests who go to Europe head straight for Rome. It’s automatic, isn’t it?”
“Is it? I haven’t canvassed many holy orders lately. Me, I’m going on vacation.”
“In France?” she asked, apparently surprised.
“For a night. Then to Holland. It’s full of flowers this time of year. And Protestants.”
She laughed. He took note of her good teeth and expressive features. She gave the impression of intelligence. Her bush jacket, he saw, was well-worn. It seemed she’d been places, not just in and out the front door of Abercrombie’s. He was wary of her type, at the same time as he thought her interesting.
“What’s so special about Holland?” she asked him.
“Oh, Rembrandt, Van Gogh. Windmills and canals. A long history of religious tolerance. Tulips. Little things like that. And you? Where to?”
“Why not fly? It’s so much quicker.”
“It’s called mixing pleasure with business. I know you’ve heard of it.”
“I may have. You’re a photographer, I have the impression.”
“Impression? You saw my camera outside the elevator.”
“You could easily be a tourist.”
“I’m neither, actually. I’m a journalist.”
Really? he thought. Isn’t everyone? “Any publication in particular? Or is it TV?”
“It’s print, and I’m freelance.”
“Wow, that can’t be easy going. What’s in Prague?”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s the new hot spot. Ever since the Curtain collapsed, drop-outs have been going there by the thousands. You can live the café life for about a fifth the cost of Paris. Come to think of it, it’s supposed to be like Paris. I mean Paris in the twenties. Just as beautiful, I hear.”
“Why does Paris in the twenties need writing up again? I mean hasn’t it been done enough?”
“Because Paris Match says it does and they pay good money. You probably don’t know Paris Match. I’ve done work for them before.”
“You’d be surprised.”
She looked at him very directly. “You know, I get the feeling I would. A cosmopolitan padre, I’m thinking. Likes a drink and talks to ordinary folks. Did you actually go to college?”
“I was even on the soccer team.”
Again she laughed.
They drained their glasses. She shook her head to his offer of another.
“Of course,” she said, “café dropouts aren’t exactly my focus, but I couldn’t say no to a paycheck.”
He knew she wanted him to ask what her focus was. Women of her age and station, he reflected, wanted to be explored and found significant. “What’s your focus?”
Her smile disappeared. “War. And war refugees. That’s what I’m known for, if I’m known for anything. And I wonder why I’m telling you all this. Or why I’m talking to you at all. It must be the wine and nothing to eat since breakfast. It can’t be your comforting manner, because you don’t have one. I’m a non-believer, by the way, so it can’t be a rush of piety.”
“Most people are non-believers these days. Funny how that works.” He fell silent.
It took him a moment to debate whether she was real. To a certain sort of person war was a high, war zones and soldiers, bombed villages and civilian casualties a kind of chic—the chic that says, I know things you don’t and never will. Vietnam had been full of such people, he’d read, a lot of them women, Sarah Lawrence grads in boots and tailored fatigues: war groupies. He’d even met a few while helping out at a church relief operation in Zaire. Once he had thought that he, too, might be a seeker after the high—until he got a good long look at the maimed, the dying, the homeless. At wounded children.
“Because it’s hip?” he asked her, his drink fueling an impulse to be blunt, an intolerance of muddled motives. “Is that why you do it?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You think war is hip? Is that what attracts you?”
She looked at him hard. “I think it’s hateful, as a matter of fact. It’s the most awful thing there is. And one of the most important. And it so happens I’m very good at covering it. Ask anyone in the trade. And since this seems to be confession time, I’ll say something else. I’ll do just about anything to be good at something. With luck it’ll be something worthwhile. It’s called self-fulfillment. I suppose you’d have me married and living in Scarsdale and popping out babies every two years. Isn’t that your idea of right living? So what if I’m addicted to war? You’re a God junkie, aren’t you?”
She put her wine glass in a potted palm and left the bar.
Her cabin was slightly bigger than a Pullman compartment, but less cleverly laid out. There was no closet, no room to stand on two sides of the queen bed, and no window. When she walked in, the lights were out, and she tripped over an open suitcase. “Shit!” she said, and rubbed her ankle.
“That you, love?” a voice said from under the covers. The voice was Australian.
“Can’t you take two minutes to unpack? I almost broke my neck.” She snapped the overhead light on.
The occupant of the bed raised himself on one elbow. He was good looking, with a fading tan, coral scars on one leg, long, sunbleached hair, and a beard that would have done El Greco proud if only Spanish saints had been blonde. He looked thirty-four, his actual age, and dissipated. He needed a bath.
“Christ, you look awful,” she said to him. “Are you seasick?” The ship was rolling again; she’d had to hold to the railings on her way to the cabin.
He rubbed his eyes. “I don’t get seasick. Australians are a nautical people.”
“You do too much coke. That’s your problem.”
She had met the man—Trevor Greene—a year earlier, in East Timor, where she’d gone to do research for a piece entitled “Twenty Years Later: A War for Nothing.” He had gone there for the dope and the snorkeling. They’d been together off and on ever since, more on than off, although of late the trend seemed to be reversing.
“Are you going to lie in bed the whole way over?” she asked. “When’s the last time you bathed?”
“New York. Your place, I think.” From a half-empty Evian bottle on the floor he gulped water. “Where’ve you been, anyway? Drumming up assignments?”
“Don’t tell me you missed me.”
“With every fiber of my being.”
“I’ve been talking to a priest, if you want to know. An interesting character. I didn’t much like him. By the way, if I want to drum up assignments, that’s my business.”
He seemed to come alive. “Priest? You’re not getting religion on me, are you?”
“The day I get religion is the day you find a steady job. I can’t carry you forever, Trev, I’ve told you that. My work’s too unsteady. Why don’t you go back to teaching scuba?”
“Never mind scuba. I’ve got money coming in any day now from Uncle Sid. You’ve heard me speak of Sid. He owns the big hotel in Tasmania, and I’m the son he never had.” He sat up straight, and she saw again that his swimmer’s torso, once an object of her admiration, was going slack. It was too much lying around, too little enterprise. “Tell me about your priest,” he said.
“He’s educated and he’s insolent. Not bad looking, either, if you like them rugged. Drinks gin and tonic and reads books. He’s been around, I have the feeling. I don’t think for a minute he’s a believer. He’s one odd dude.”
“He sounds it,” Trevor said, “and I don’t much like your being near him.”
The Veerdam had two dinner sittings, the first at six, the second at eight-thirty. As evening approached, Father Roland asked an English headwaiter what the other differences were. “I’d take the second, sir, if I were you,” the man said with a wink. “Better class of people.”
Father Roland took the first and found his own table.
It was full except for a place marked with a card bearing his name. The other diners were three middle-aged couples in leisure wear of various hues. They were all Florida-tanned, sported expensive dentistry, and smiled a lot. He had the impression they knew each other. When he took his seat, they fell silent.
“Good evening,” he said to them.
They had noted his collar. “We were just discussing some of our dumber relatives,” one of the men said. “Mind if we continue?”
“Be my guest. I’ve got a few myself.”
They laughed uncertainly. The temperature warmed a degree.
“I’m Mickey,” the speaker said, reaching out a hand. Father Roland leaned across the table and took it.
“And I’m Arlette,” the woman next to him said. “His wife of thirty years for better or worse.”
“Thirty years. God help me,” Mickey said.
Father Roland told them his name, the rest told him their names, and all the couples said in unison, “Nice to meet you,” before returning to their conversation. It concerned someone called Harold.
“So,” Arlette said, “Harold buys into a real estate partnership that’s supposed to be developing condos in Florida. And guess who sold it to him. Guess who promised it was the greatest thing since corn flakes.” Everyone but her husband waited in suspense. “Dave Blocus! Can you believe that?”
“MY GOD!” they intoned.
“One of the biggest crooks ever,” Mickey said for Father Roland’s benefit. “One of the absolute worst.”
“And everybody knew it,” a woman named Kitty said.
“That’s the whole point,” Mickey said. “Everybody knew it. Including Harold. So tell them what happened,” he told his wife.
“What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. One day Harold goes down to Florida to see his holdings, but there are no holdings. Nothing. Zip. No land, no condos, no road, no sewer, no electric, no water pipes, nothing. It’s a swamp. It’s full of alligators.”
“OH MY GOD!” the others intoned.
Mickey addressed them. “Will someone do me a favor? Will someone please tell me how I’m supposed to feel sorry for a dummy like that? Everyone knew what Dave Blocus was. Harold knew what Dave Blocus was. He knew before he ever bought. You want to tell me how I’m supposed to feel sorry for that dumb cousin of mine?”
“You’re not,” everyone else said in chorus. “Forget him.”
“Matter of fact,” Mickey said, “how are you going to hate Blocus? He was only taking advantage of an opportunity.”
“You can’t hate him,” Kitty said. “He didn’t do anything we wouldn’t at least have thought of doing.”
“Amen to that,” Mickey said. “What do you think, reverend?”
They all looked at Father Roland, but not, he knew, for moral guidance. They were curious to know whether he lived on the same planet as they did.
“I suppose . . . ” he said, letting his sentence trail off. He’d been inclined to say that he probably wasn’t as worldly as they, but false modesty was a pose he found irritating in others and transparent in himself. He said, “I can’t help thinking people are better off when they keep their word. They feel better about themselves.”
The others looked embarrassed; conversation stalled. Soon, however, they found escape in talk of sports. The Yankees’ current season was a subject for derision. Father Roland, a desultory Red Sox fan, kept his allegiance to himself.
At three in the morning the weather turned; the ship had run into a squall. If you looked outside from one of the lower decks you saw undulations of black water at window level. The ship was rolling less often than before, but at a much steeper angle. The hull creaked; loose objects rolled about the cabins. In the corridors you heard muffled voices asking the stewards for Dramamine. A few people wanted to know whether there was cause for alarm, but the stewards said it was a sturdy ship and the captain knew his stuff.
Father Roland couldn’t sleep. He didn’t feel at all unwell, but he’d never developed the habit of sleeping on a moving foundation. So he dressed and went upstairs to a lounge overlooking the swimming pool, where he sat on a chaise. A few other passengers were in attendance, and a steward was circulating with a tray full of hot bouillon in paper cups. Father Roland asked for one. As he drank it, he watched water overflow the pool and run into gutters and over the ship’s sides. Sitting there, in a lighted room where he could drink bouillon and look out at the weather, he felt among a small fraternity of the robust.
Charmian Lewis walked in, saw him and headed his way. She, too, seemed unfazed by the storm; if anything, she was invigorated. Father Roland had been enjoying his solitude and his bouillon and was about to tuck into a history of Holland that had been recommended to him by a saleslady at the Gotham Bookstore. Now, it seemed, he would have to make glittering repartee.
“Looks like you couldn’t sleep, either,” he said, getting to his feet.
She remained standing. “There’s something exciting about this, don’t you think?” Front to back, the ship had just gone over what felt like a ski jump.
“Obviously you don’t scare easily. So you couldn’t have come for spiritual counsel.”
“Why should I? You wouldn’t give it. Anyway, it’s a storm, not the end of the world.” She studied him through narrowed eyes. “Feeling all right yourself?”
“Fine. Care for a cup of bouillon?”
“I could use a drink.”
He sat down again. “The bar’s closed, I’m afraid, or I’d be there myself. But I have a bottle of brandy in my cabin if you’d like me to fetch it.”
She sat beside him. “I’m relieved you’re not asking me to drink it there. Think what people would say.”
Her tone was severe, but her eyes held a merry light. She was playing with him. Although her tone amused him, he felt unsettled. Her flirtation was presumptuous. Yet he liked it—and he knew the sort of pleasure he was feeling was close enough to arousal. He accepted without misgivings her reassurance that he was still an attractive man. He didn’t think he was required to be a eunuch. Before entering the priesthood he’d led what passed for a normal life—and it had included his share of women. He’d never regretted any of it. Unlike some others he’d known at the seminary, he wasn’t distressed to be human; and if any bishop had ever suggested that he should do penance because a woman had got to him, he’d have laughed in the man’s face.
“I don’t think either of us would be comfortable in my cabin,” he said. “It’s small and pitching all over the place.”
She sent him a sardonic look. “This is fine, father. Bouillon is fine.”
He waved for the steward.
She lowered her eyes. “I have the feeling I owe you
“I was about to say the same thing. I was a little too blunt this afternoon. Much too quick to assume the worst.”
“It’s your job, isn’t it?”
“No. Especially when I’m not asked.”
“Apology accepted.” She chewed a thumbnail. “I was a jerk myself. I have no idea how to talk to a holy man.”
He smiled. “Neither do I. I once met a cardinal and was tongue-tied. The secret is simple, I think. Just talk as you would to anyone else.”
“Seriously? But you don’t really want to be anyone else, do you? What happens if I say something you don’t like?”
“Don’t worry. The oceans won’t part, no fiery pit will open, and you won’t be struck down by a bolt from above. And I’ll try not to show offense.”
“Won’t you feel gagged and bound?”
“Probably. My problem, not yours.”
The waiter brought her bouillon. She took a sip. “You can’t be typical of your profession,” she ventured.
“More than you imagine.” But she was right, he knew, although he didn’t like to admit it. To admit it would be to denigrate the priesthood and, by implication, to claim a special status for himself. He refused to think of himself as special. He believed in no Elect, whether of money, talent, beauty, birth, or faith. You were as elevated as the things you did or didn’t do, every minute of your life. And if that was heresy, as he thought it might be, he would pay the cost.
She stared into her cup. “There are things I’d really like to ask you,” she said. Again she didn’t meet his eyes, and he sensed that she was struggling to hold something back. He thought he knew what it was. “I don’t think I’d better say any more,” she added.
“Then don’t. If it isn’t right, don’t.”
Don’t inquire into the state of my faith, he meant—and for Christ’s sake don’t try to find out whether I can be had. I can’t. Not even by you. Whether I’d like to or not is another matter.
At breakfast the next morning his table was empty. It was empty again at lunch, but by dinner, with the wind down and the ocean settling, one of his dining companions made an unsteady appearance. She was someone’s wife; he couldn’t remember her name. She looked exhausted. He stood to greet her.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said in a tiny voice. “I thought I’d try to eat something. The others won’t be coming.”
“Sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“I’ve forgotten it, too. I think it’s Leslie, but I was a different person then.” She took her seat, and he re-took his.
“There’s a ship’s doctor somewhere,” he said to her. “Why don’t you go see him?”
“I hate doctors. They always tell me I’ve got twenty minutes to live. Wow, do you look well. There must be someone upstairs on your side.”
“Can I get you a ginger ale?”
She dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “I think I’ll try a little solid food.”
Menus arrived. Father Roland ordered a small steak, and in a tremulous voice, Leslie asked for a well-done hamburger. When their food arrived, she picked at hers, but he tucked into his with as much appetite as he thought seemly. She watched him eat.
“I’ve never met a priest before,” she said suddenly.
“I hope it hasn’t been difficult.”
“It kind of has. You make me feel inferior, do you know that? Like my sins are showing. Isn’t that silly?”
He waved a dismissive hand. “Ridiculous.”
She pushed food from one side of her plate to the other. “I hope you’re not offended. You know, I kind of envy you. Isn’t that the weirdest thing?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“It must be fantastic to feel so sure about everything. Like the rest of the world is wandering around not knowing what to think, pretending they’re sure about everything but they’re really not, pretending to believe but they really don’t, not in much, anyway, just getting ahead and getting their fifteen minutes of fame and stuff like that. But you have answers. And no doubts.”
Jesus, he thought, if you only knew.
“Am I right or am I right?”
He tried to measure his words. “What you’re right about is that I know how far I can go. And how much I can afford to think.”
“And that’s happiness?”
“It’s a little better than perfect freedom, from what I’ve seen.”
The next day was almost balmy, the water blue and still, the scent of land faintly present. He spent the morning reading, watching shuffleboard, and swimming. With the storm gone, the ship had come to life; the pool was crowded and noisy, full of children pretending to drown each another.
His table was full again at lunch. His companions were subdued and looked embarrassed.
“I hear you were kind to my wife,” a man called Jack said to him. “Thanks. I couldn’t even stand up.”
“He was very kind,” Leslie said. “A regular Samaritan. Is that what you call it?”
“I’ll be honest,” Mickey interjected. He was less ebullient than at their first meeting. “The idea of a priest on vacation tickles me.”
“Me, too,” Father Roland said, shrugging off the provocation. “I just can’t picture one in swimming trunks.”
“Who can?” Mickey said, slapping the table with mounting delight.
“See?” Leslie said. “The guy has a sense of humor.”
“Can you picture a priest in a Hawaiian shirt?” Jack asked.
“How about a straw hat and sunglasses?” Mickey said.
“How about a snorkel?” Father Roland asked.
There was general laughter.
“They’d better buy a lot of sun block if they’re going snorkeling,” Jack said to the ladies. “They’re paler than white rabbits.”
The waiter arrived, and everyone risked Bloody Marys.
“Seriously,” Jack said to Father Roland, “is there a rule that you guys can’t go on vacation?”
“If there is, I’m breaking it.”
“What about having a good time?” Kitty asked. “Any law against that?”
“I don’t think so. Look at all those Renaissance paintings of saints and angels. They look blissful.”
“That’s because they’re in heaven,” Mickey said. “Or on their way up.”
“Good point. I suppose I ought to try as hard as they do.”
“You?” Arlette asked.
“There’s always room for improvement. For example, I could station myself in the ship’s bar and offer Holy Communion. I could sit by the kiddie pool and run a catechism class.”
His facetiousness seemed lost on them. Or perhaps his references were obscure.
They toasted each other.
“So,” Arlette said, blotting tomato juice from her lip, “what do we feel like for lunch?”
“Something light,” the others said. “Eggs.”
“What about you, Father? It’s not Friday, so you can have anything you want.”
“Whatever you’re having,” Father Roland said. “You decide.”
“I hope you like eggs,” Arlette said. “You know, my theory is they came after chickens. They had to. God couldn’t have laid the first ones. He had better things to do than play hen. Am I right or am I right?”
“To be strictly accurate,” Father Roland said, “they were probably created in the same instant.”
“Really? Well, you would know.”
Jack asked, “It don’t bother you to socialize with us heathen?”
Father Roland gave the question a moment’s thought. “Your ignorance is my bliss,” he said, and made a courtly bow.
What he’d said was close to the truth. Against all odds he liked these people.
The women blew him kisses.
At the bow end of the ship, overlooking the swimming pool, there was another, smaller dining room with a buffet in the evening for passengers who preferred the simple life. The furnishings were plastic, but that only served to enhance the come-as-you-are atmosphere. Few passengers dined there, and if a couple arrived early, they could have a table to themselves.
On their last evening aboard Charmian suggested to Trevor that they dine there. “You’ve barely eaten a thing since we left Hoboken,” she said. “Don’t you think it’s time?”
“You’re loaded, is what you are. Come on, Trev. You won’t even have to get cleaned up.”
He got out of bed and they made their way to the small restaurant, where they took a table in the corner opposite the door, under a large acrylic of dolphins at play. From a Dutch waiter Trevor ordered a Foster’s lager, sulking when told they didn’t have it. “Fucking ignorant, is what that is,” he said to the waiter. “Best brew there is.”
Charmian kicked him under the table.
“Sir. Amstel is no good?”
He settled for a rum and cola.
“So,” she said without optimism, “how does it feel to be on our way to Europe?”
“Europe is a fucking overpriced museum. You want to feel you’re somewhere? Try India, try Nepal. Ever seen a Cambodian temple? Try that.”
“You know what I’d like to try?”
“Getting us sorted out.”
“I didn’t know we needed it. What’s the problem? With me, I mean. Because that’s really what you’re talking about, isn’t it. Me.”
“You know perfectly well what the problem is.”
“It’s my insouciant attitude toward life. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Insouciant. Don’t flatter yourself.”
“What do you want, Charmian? Marriage? A house in the suburbs? An SUV and a collie? That it?”
“You know me better.”
“Then what is it? Crikey, I stay out of your way when you’re working. I go all over creation with you. I do your laundry and cook and tidy up when you’re exhausted. I listen to your troubles. I offer my shoulder to cry on when some lunatic war or asshole editor gets to you. What more do you want?”
“It’s called getting involved, Trev. In something.”
“You mean other than you? I’ll keep an eye out, how’s that?”
Father Roland walked in and took a table on the other side of the restaurant. Charmian saw him, but he gave no sign of seeing her.
“That your priest?” Trevor asked over the rim of his glass. “He the one who hears your confession?”
“If you mean is he the guy I mentioned, yeah.”
“Looks a tough customer. I wonder if he is.” He was staring unpleasantly at the clergyman.
Charmian said uncertainly, “What are you thinking, Trev?”
“I’m thinking is he a bloody poofter like the rest? Has he a taste for choirboys?” His voice was loud; an elderly couple in matching straw hats looked at him with distaste. “I suppose there’s no way to tell without dropping my trousers.”
If he heard, Father Roland gave no sign.
Charmian said, “For Christ’s sake, what’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with you? That’s the question. Consorting with someone like that.” He stood and began to walk toward Father Roland, but she pulled him down. “I only wanted to ask whether he had a nice St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “Anything wrong with that? Hey, you’re hurting my arm. Why are you protecting him?”
“It’s you I’m protecting,” she lied. “I don’t think he’s quite the pushover you do.”
Later that evening, when Charmian looked for him, Father Roland wasn’t in the bar, the small casino, what passed for a library, or any of the lounges, and in the main dining room the evening’s film hadn’t yet begun. So she lied to the purser about being a relative of his and got his cabin number.
He answered on the first knock, wearing jeans and a Peace Now sweatshirt. It was as if he’d been expecting her.
“I hope this is okay,” she said. She was obviously worried.
“Fine. Come in.” Instinctively, he looked up and down the corridor, then stood aside to let her pass. When she searched for somewhere to sit, he offered her a plastic desk chair. “It’s all I have,” he said, trying not to glance at the bed.
She sat, and he stood opposite her, waiting for her to begin, although he knew more or less what she wanted. “It’s difficult,” she said, fidgeting. He went on waiting. “Did you notice me at dinner?” she asked. He nodded. “Did you hear any of what the guy I was with was saying?”
“I heard what he wanted me to hear.”
“God, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what else to say. He can be awful sometimes. I only came to apologize. I’m not like him, you know. I’m just sorry you had to put up with him.” She stood and made for the door.
“Are you apologizing for him or yourself?” he asked.
She stopped short and looked at him uncertainly. “Of course for him.” Her tone suggested that it was the most obvious thing in the world.
But it wasn’t obvious to him. Here she was, he reflected, traveling with another man but keeping him under wraps while she flirts with me. She’s heedless of us both. It wouldn’t be amiss of her to apologize to me.
Then it occurred to him that he was thinking like a jealous swain. Unfair to me, Roland Kell? An untouchable?
“I suppose you’re going to ask why I’m with a man like him.”
“I’m not, as a matter of fact. It’s no concern of mine. I’m not even interested.”
She smiled, and a chill entered the cabin. “Why did you become a priest, anyway?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because it interests me. Because I still think you’re not typical. Because I’d be surprised if anybody knows what makes you tick.”
“And you think that’s enough to justify a personal question?”
“Oh, come on. We’re not exactly strangers. I mean, we’ve been sharing a few confidences. I have, anyway.”
“With one minor exception. If you get my meaning.”
Almost inaudibly, she sighed. “Why do you think I never mentioned him?”
“Only you would know.”
But he knew, too, and he also knew he was transparent in denying knowledge. She was fed up with the man and she fancied him, Father Roland, the ex-collegian who’d become a priest for a host of reasons, some only dimly remembered, and who had stayed with the priesthood in obedience to a single, overriding ideal: in this age of obsessive self-interest he considered it a mark of worth, a source of self-respect. He had adhered, however imperfectly, to a standard of conduct, grotesque as it often seemed to others, and sometimes even to himself. Fidelity to an ideal—the sacrifice of desire—made him feel a solid object, with weight and heft and substance. Come what may, he would stand his ground with her—as a priest, a priest in the church of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and other priests who couldn’t govern their appetite for boys. It seemed a stretch to others, the priesthood did. It seemed folly. But becoming and remaining a priest were the most difficult things he’d ever done, and, with Spinoza, he believed that excellent things are always difficult. However perverse that made him seem.
She said, “Are you really saying you’re not attracted to me?”
“I don’t think that question is worthy of either of us.”
“You’re half a man. You must know that.”
“I made promises,” he heard himself say, his voice not quite resolute.
“Promises to what, a crypt? A pile of saints’ relics? A faith no one follows except in places like Bolivia?”
He felt his anger rise and opened the door. “Get out.”
She looked in his eyes; hers, when she was angry, were opaque. “Why can’t you just do what you want to and confess it all away? That’s how it’s done, isn’t it? Isn’t that the safety valve?” She waited for his answer. After a moment of waiting she shook her head. “No, I guess not. I guess I was all wrong about you.”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, recovering his resolve. “I’m not interested in being anyone’s novelty.”
For the second time since they’d met, she walked out on him.
In mid-morning France came into view, a distant, chalky rectangle under a nimbus of sea fog.
He’d been there twice before, as a younger man. His first visit, in the summer after his sophomore year in college, was a stop on his grand tour, but the tour wasn’t very grand. Youth hostels and cafeteria food, ride-thumbing in the rain and a month-long cold had been his lot. But he’d liked it enough to go back, believing that it compensated for the three summers he’d had to work behind the wheel of a produce truck in the crummy Adirondack villages where he’d grown up so that he could save the money to travel. On his second visit he was a seminarian on a church stipend, heading to Louvain for a summer of theology study.
What he saw as the ship docked was as he remembered. The French were livelier than most other people. You had the feeling they burned at higher temperatures and used more fuel. Their gulls swooped from greater heights. Their flags fluttered more gaily. They talked with their hands. When they walked, they never broke stride. Next to them, New Yorkers were torpid, Californians comatose.
He took his time disembarking. It was pleasant to be one of the last people off. While others trudged to the customs shed or fumbled with their passports, he stood at the ship’s rail, watching the French at work: porters scurrying, taxi drivers beckoning passengers, police and immigration officers lifting and then letting their arms fall as they argued and joked with each other. The French lived in a torrent of words. They put their whole bodies into conversation. Nothing distracted them from gesture.
As he hoisted his suitcase and made to disembark, he found himself wondering where Charmian was. He’d been standing at the rail since the ship made port but hadn’t seen her anywhere. Now he was the last passenger on deck.
A ship’s officer walked over. “Time to go, sir. Unless you’re a stowaway.” It was an attempt at humor, and Father Roland chuckled dutifully, picked up his bag, and walked down the gangplank. As he went, he struggled not to look back. It took all of his strength, because he had the odd feeling that Charmian was somewhere behind him, watching. If he was right, he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of thinking he regretted what they hadn’t done. If he was wrong, he didn’t want to know.
An immigration officer looked at him with an expression of welcome. “Bienvenue, mon père.”
“Bonjour,” Father Roland said heartily, and handed over his passport.
Frederic Smith is a Southern Californian who went to Princeton. He has written and had published numerous short stories, one of which was recently nominated for the 2015 Silver Pen Award. He has also written a novel, See How We Run, which received the lead reviews in the New Statesman and from Victoria Glendinning in the Irish Times.