Tuesday 15 November 2022

Incongruities by Niall Crowley, Aperol Spritz

He’s surprised to find himself whistling as he drives up the hill. Sentinel trees stand tall each side, reaching over to create a sun-spotted tunnel. Enough to momentarily cheer, but hardly to get him whistling. He can’t manage a recognisable tune at the best of times. There must be some more substantial change of disposition at play. A crack in that unrelenting stress of taking on a first job in the midst of a pandemic. The road narrows with deep channels cut on each side, forcing him to slow down and concentrate.

There’s only one space left for parking. The barn looms over the concrete yard, with its rutted block wall, bales in shiny black plastic peering over, curved sheets of rusted red arched above. Too many cars he thinks dolefully, not a time for crowds. He sits with the door open, face up to take in the warmth of the sun, before strapping on his mask. Rusted machinery stacked to one side, horses grazing in the field to the other, and a wilderness of Fuchsia glowing up ahead.

Around the corner, a spread of tables laid with shining cutlery, pungent coffees and teas, and an array of sweet and savoury. The intense buzz of heads bent close, laughing banter rippling through small groups, and individuals silently intent on Sunday newspapers. The ‘Kitchen’ is like a piece of the city, cut and pasted onto the back of a withered farmyard. He stands rubbing his hands awkwardly, not sure where to locate himself.

She’s swamped, brain addled with demands from all sides. Unrelenting conveyer belt one moment, dirty dishes going in, laden trays coming out. Clerk of works the next, orders taken and lodged, bills totted and resolved. Sunday morning is the tough shift, not that she has any choice. Her father dozes in the mornings, an opportunity for her to get out and earn some money. That sleep holding her father, however, is a product of restless nights, an insomnia she is forced to share. It leaves her on constant edge.

The sun caresses her in its warmth, but the mask traps the heat in a damp sweat around her mouth. It aggravates, but the patrons need to feel safe. At least she’s let serve the outdoor tables. She couldn’t take risks with bringing the virus home, with her father so vulnerable. The possibility still leaves her on tenterhooks, resenting any proximity with those she has to deal with.

She reaches a point of irritation on these busy mornings. No downtime to keep you going, little of the banter that, carefully distanced, provides the buzz. Coming away from the hatch, she recognises him, gawky and anxious, almost adolescent. He’s a looker, though, and of an age with her, but one couldn’t be thinking like that. Still, it eases the irritation. Knowing he’s nervous with the virus, she waves him over to a more secluded corner spot.

‘Well Reverend, what’ll it be today?’ She hovers, notebook in hand.

‘Morning, I think I’ll have the…’

‘Don’t tell me. The eggs benny, americano, drop of milk, no sugar, and a side of toast?’

‘Well, yes, that sounds perfect. Thanks. How is your day going?’

‘Run off my feet, Reverend, and poorly paid, so no change there either.’

‘You enjoy it though, don’t you?’

‘It has its moments, and how’s the day job going for you, Reverend?’

‘Ah, it’s busy, always busy…’

‘We should do a swap someday, experience each other’s busy, and see what that tells us.’

There’s a twinkle in her eyes, telling him there’s a smile behind her mask. He smiles in response behind his, as she threads her way back through the tables. Reviewing their exchange, he winces. A script is what he needs for these occasions. That’s how he goes about his work, the relevant texts reviewed at length and a detailed commentary assembled in advance of each service. Maybe with time he wouldn’t need the prepping, but, being on a form of probation, there’s no room for miscues.

The church is a monument of crafted stonework on the outside, a peeling dampness of decaying plaster on the inside. The congregation is of an age, last in line of families well represented under the scattered headstones that surround. Social distancing is no challenge with such dwindled numbers. Masked faces, pale and withered, stare passively as he holds forth from the pulpit in youthful exuberance. He had yet to see most of the members without their masks. While respectful of them, he struggles to understand how his mission had to start here.

‘Heard you put on a great show this morning, Reverend’. She sets down eggs, coffee, and toast.

‘Well, it’s not really theatre. It’s more…’

‘Whatever it was, they were still talking about it over their coffee and cakes.’

‘Really? I don’t dare imagine what was said.’

‘No matter, you made them think, Reverend. That’s not half bad, and much needed around here.’

She watches him as he unmasks, pokes tentatively at the eggs, and takes up his toast with appetite sparked. There was a stab of envy in her comment, along with the admiration. That was her dream, to make people think. It propelled her into teacher training. The Parish Priest had already promised her a placement year in the national school. Three years in, the study going well, her father’s lungs gave out. Her world shrivelled up to tend his needs. She was the only one left, her mother having passed early with a stroke and her sibling gone far.

She shakes herself, not a time for being maudlin, better to take pleasure in a favoured regular. The Reverend has a charm, even if that collar puts heavy years on him. Ensconced up in that old rectory, he comes from another world, afforded more authority than is good for a man that young, and exuding stylish remnants of some former standing. She savours the brief warmth of human contact he offers, more a distant memory for her now. Her father has little energy to engage. Work, most times, involves no more than brief impersonal transactions. She is stuck, life on pause.

He eats too quickly, a combination of the good food and his bad habits. Coffee requires no such dispatch. The place is busy, hard to know a pandemic rages all around. His gaze drifts to watch her, but surreptitiously, as she flits around the tables. The place is no more than a metal canopy stretching out from two converted farm sheds. The rectory has grandeur with tall rooms, comfort in heavy furnishings, and style in neatly tended gardens. The ‘Kitchen’, though, surpasses his living quarters with ease. Company, bustle, and babbling laughter mark it out. It engages him more each time, life-giving, life-saving. Then, of course, she works here.

His upbringing had been a trail of rectories, ever more palatial and lifeless, as his father rose through the ranks. A path was laid out for him with some paternal prodding, but he’d wanted to invest it with something of himself. He had not joined to minister to landed pensioners, the Bishop had persuaded him. ‘Go get the hang of your trade’ he’d been told, to his consternation. His vision was more to change and improve the world. The Bishop had bade him be patient, and he had obeyed too quickly, a habit of his. He signals for the bill, slipping on his mask. Time to go or the members will have him down as work-shy.

‘That’s decent, Reverend, but you can’t be making up for the low pay like this.’ She still gathers up the money he has put down.

‘You need to be making plans at your age, you know. There’s more for you out there.’

‘You’re going all paternal on me now, no need to be doing that.’

‘Talents are gifts to be used, not for wasting.’

‘Needs must, Reverend, needs must.’

The furrowed brow over her mask is belligerent. Too predictable. All it takes is a pair of testicles to offer judgement and guidance, even with the most meagre of knowledge to back it up. Add a collar, of any denomination, and the inclination magnifies. Pained eyes stare back over his mask. He pushes out from his chair, mortified at the silent altercation, stumbling backwards from the table. Conflict from behind masks is difficult, conflict where they are only beginning to find a way to communicate is impossible.

‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be intruding like that, very rude.’

‘It wasn’t rude, it’s just …’

He’s gone. She watches him disappear around the corner of the barn. People are staring. He wouldn’t be coming back. She has no idea what she’d say to him if he did, or even if there was anything to be said. There are orders to take, tables to clear, a job to be kept. He’d be out the gate by now. She runs, ripping off her mask to call after him. Rounding the corner, she almost bumps straight into him striding back towards the café.

They step back to consider each other. Surprised and quizzical, unsure of what had happened, is happening. An uncomfortable silence grips them, in search of words to suit ill-defined circumstances, words that could match the moment. Confident realisation dawns in shared smiles, not relying on anything as clumsy as speech. A gentler silence plays over them.

‘You have a lovely smile, I never got to see that behind your mask’. He blurts it out, involuntary but heartfelt.

‘Reverend, I didn’t mean to…to…’ She flounders as his comment hits home, flushing crimson.

‘It’s Paul, my name is Paul.’ He’s laughing shyly, slightly intoxicated.

‘Paul. That’s a good name for a ... I’m June.’

Smiling again, both of them. She turns reluctantly to go back to work, glancing back at him, shaking her head.

‘Jesus, I’ll be run out of the place with all this.’

He pauses, watching after her. Maybe another coffee and a slice of that millionaire's shortbread wouldn’t go amiss.

About the author

Niall Crowley works on equality and human rights, based in Ireland. His fiction has been published by CafeLit, The Galway Review, Spillwords, and Pure Slush. He was shortlisted for the From the Well short story competition in 2021 and 2022, and the Colm Toibín International short story award in 2022. 

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