It’s a steep climb. Hundreds turn through the tawdry souvenir shops, then snake their way towards the dome. They enter. They fall silent. There is something in the walls, pasts and futures seeping high in the curves, Christ arching upright in the incense.
A couple, both at the edge of old. The man rests his arm briefly, where the holy water gleams, the woman small and slightly worried at his side. The man strides, frowning at marble and tombs and gilt, his footsteps hard echoes. Her steps flutter as she tries to follow. His speed devours her peace.
‘Right, that’s that done,’ the man says, halting near the exit, waiting. Quickly to his side, in that rhythm that is not hers, she smiles an apology, looks suddenly older.
‘Harold…’ Speaking to the grey-suited back. ‘Harold, I haven’t finished yet.’
He answers without turning. ‘Sheila, we’ve seen it all. You dawdle without looking.’
People turn to look at the man with the too-loud voice. He swings around, hands flapping, missing his pockets, picking at fluff, flattening thinning hair. Sheila sits at the end of a pew, folds to the firmness of wood. Here she may, perhaps, escape the too-fast stride. He stands alone, sadly silly, untidy amongst the straight-back pews.
‘I’ll wait outside for you,’ he says, quieter.
Sheila turns. Pauses, and then, as he turns to go, ‘I’d like you to stay.’ Harold stops, looks at her, as she falters, ‘I…I want to…to light a candle.’
‘A candle?’ He is lost now. ‘I’ve no change.’
‘For James,’ she says. ‘For Jim.’
Behind them the candles, row on row, dancing points beneath the dome.
‘Sheila?’ He moves. ‘Don’t.’
But Sheila stands and steps toward the tiers. Different sizes, different prices, the unfamiliar denominations. She hears the jangle of her coins drop in the box, out of time with the choir. Harold grips the pew.
Sheila heard James banging and clanking even before she opened the window. Planks strewn amidst the long grass next door. He was crouched, choosing a hammer. Suddenly he jumped up, turned his head towards the upstairs open window. She looked away, yet stayed at the window, focusing on blurred hills, the distant sky. From a small corner she saw him smile, and her arm raised in the smallest flutter of a wave. She sank down onto the freshly made bed, left the window open.
Harold swung his heavy car into the drive, pulled the handbrake hard, engine sinking into silence. The quiet dusk held him for a moment in the solitude of the car. And then the sound of hammering. He grabbed his briefcase, opened the door, stared hard into next door’s garden.
James, his curly head bowed, absorbed in his task in the sinking light, looked up, waved his hammer in greeting, sliding himself smoothly upright. His skin was brown against the unvarnished wood. Harold raised his briefcase, grinned uneasily. He scuttled to the back door; saw Sheila in the kitchen, within reach. He was loud, uncertainly jovial.
‘Sheila. I’m home.’
Harold remembers now how James’ arms had glistened and how his jeans had shed wood-shavings as he’d stood to a grass-stained smile.
‘Harold, I think it’s time we spoke about him. About Jim.’
Harold stares in front of himself, eyes fixed on a wall-plaque, his hands fiddling into his lap as he sits heavily on the long and empty pew. Sheila holds a candle between her palms.
‘It seems so recent,’ she says. ‘I still see myself arriving late at the funeral. We never did fit in.’
Harold’s shoe creaks as he rotates his foot.
James Wilson was an artist. Or so he told people. He did paintings and some wooden sculptures. His friends were arty people, not at all like Harold and Sheila. On cold dreary days, driving to see a client, Harold sometimes thought of James and his laughing friends. As Harold’s frozen fingers clutched the elegant pen with which he calculated the fiscal value of strangers, he thought of James and his friends drinking cheap wine and listening to Hawkwind into the night. Harold had seen straight away that Sheila was entranced.
James loved to talk, loved to lay his coloured life before them, over the wall. One day, one long ago summer, Sheila had been busy weeding their front borders. The day was humid and her top lip was damp, a trickle moving in the small of her back as she knelt. She heard the door open next door, saw James emerge lazily.
‘Too bloody warm for work.’ He waved, as if that explained everything as he swung down the pavement, lilac too-short shorts and a satin shirt billowing, soaked at the armpits. He seemed to melt.
She jabbed at the weeds, fierce as Boadicea.
She remembers how later that same afternoon she had pulled at the hose-reel tidy that Harold had installed, remembers how it jammed, and jammed again. The effort wearied her as she yanked the muddied lengths round to the front lawn. And then she heard the roar of a motorbike, and saw Jim, astride the gleaming metal, his sandaled foot against her kerb, beckoning. She was aware of her earth-filled nails, her soiled palms.
Sheila remembers how her arms had begun to ache as she held him, how she’d wanted to change her grip, how she’d known he’d feel her hands. She knew Harold would have been as outraged by the fact they had no crash helmets as by what she and Jim had done to each other, later.
Harold doesn’t understand why she is bringing all this up. He dreads her confession. He sees that she seeks solace in her thoughts. For him there is only the reliving of the moment he hasn’t stopped reliving. He remembers how he crept out of the house that bright clear icy dawn, leaving Sheila dozing gently into floral nylon. He remembers how he was looking forward to helping James with some work at the country cottage of a friend. The owner of the cottage was away, and had asked James to paint some murals as well as fixing floorboards, putting up shelving, that sort of thing. James had no real interest in anything except the artwork. He’d asked Harold to help.
The fact that James had chosen him produced an odd sort of excitement.
Harold had planed and sanded and worked, worked, worked. He remembers that James hadn’t even looked. He remembers how they had stopped for lunch, and James had laughed at Harold’s tartan flask and the tiny plastic salt-and-pepper-pots buried in tupperware. He remembers James’ warmth and life and his tangerine-juiced chin.
Harold does not know why he lied to Sheila, why he had told her he was helping an ex-client.
James decided that they’d go to the pub before heading home. James with the brandy swirling in the thick glass in his slim fingers. They had laughed as the ashtray filled. They had laughed as they set off, separately, into the darkness, that long ago winter’s night.
Harold remembers it for the thousandth, millionth time. How he’d driven carefully round the sharp bend. Spiky empty branches overhanging the lane, the faint glistening of the road, the steering wheel’s lightness in his hands.
The bike was on its side against the low stone wall. Harold remembers the screech of the brakes on his car, his own gasps, his breath before his face. The small crumpled bundle twenty yards from the contorted bike. James’ eyes, half-open, as Harold cupped his hand under that wet bloody head, alone on a country lane. He remembers how he felt it all congeal.
He’d got home very late that night. He didn’t tell Sheila where he’d been. He had been so sure she’d find out that he had been there, there at the scene. He knew that she loved James, but until that night he had thought she only thought. But when she knew that James was gone, he heard it in her cry. He’d never asked her. He didn’t go to the funeral.
Harold and Sheila stand in the cathedral, alone in the middle of moving crowds.
‘Sheila,’ he says, ‘I was with him that day, the day he—’
She looks at him. He doesn’t expect her silence. He wants her to give him the next line. The coolness shifts between them.
He doesn’t know why he has told her, now, here, after all these years. He’d never known anything much when he was with James. He knew James was attracted by the challenge, the glee of the charmed, the striving to scatter the briefcase, rip the carefully-ironed decorating clothes. There was no malice, just a life led by whim, curiosity, laughter. Harold remembers the sound of the step-ladder as it clattered to the floor as they kissed. He remembers the smell of linseed, the feel of chest hair, the roughness of their gentle love.
The choir has stopped. Sheila hates him for his knowing. There is only the clip-clop of tourists, the hiss and sputter of flame. He hates her for saying Jim, not James. They hold hands, Harold and Sheila. Thoughts that they cannot catch, these are all they have.
They will have to do. A candle, on its side, unlit.
© 2019 Sarah Tait
Sarah is a poet who currently co-hosts Writers Unleashed, a monthly writer’s open-mic evening in Thanet celebrating local talent.