Chapter 1: An unexpected visit
The man, in spite of his stature, moved with the grace and the economy of movement of a cat. Even though this spring day was relatively warm, he wore a black jacket and slacks and a black shirt with a starched roman collar. He was a good 183 cm tall, possibly a little more, with broad square shoulders and hands the size of ping-pong paddles. Altogether, he looked like a defensive linesman; a tank, like they say back home.
He had left his car on the outskirts of the village and was coming down the main road on foot. While walking, his arms were still and slightly outstretched, his eyes shot from left to right and back to the left, as if on the look-out for a trap or an ambush. Coming up even with the small Presbyterian church, he stopped and did a full 360, looking all about. With an unconscious, almost automatic gesture, he brought his hand to his right eye and his fingers traced the long, ugly scar just above his eyebrow. He hesitated an instant more and then walked up to the white clapboarded structure. Climbing the steps, he tried the door but was totally unsurprised to find it locked.
Standing in front of the door, he heard the sound of a shovel striking a rock coming from behind the church and made his way down the wheelchair ramp, sidestepped the handrail and walked down the length of the church towards the back. At the corner of the building, he froze – there, in front of him, was a sort of community garden with beds encircled by heavily creosoted two-by-eights. The sound he had heard had been made by a couple in their late sixties who were working one of the beds without a single stitch of clothing between them. He was slowly backing up out of sight when the man looked up.
“Yes? May I help you,” he asked.
“Excuse me,” said the man in the roman collar. “I did not want to disturb you.”
“No, no ... come closer. You are not disturbing us in the least.”
“But ... you’re ... your...”
“Our outfits? We are labouring in the garden of the Lord in the outfits he granted us.” He started to laugh. “Besides which, these outfits are way easier to clean than anything else we might wear.” The old man handed his shovel to his wife, wiped his hands on his buttocks and came closer, his hand stretched out to greet his visitor.
“Good afternoon. My name is James Athelstone, I’m the pastor here and this is my wife, Sarah.”
“Er ... hello,” said the man while shaking the pastor’s hand. “My name is Richard Poirier, I’m the new parish priest at St. Ignatius.”
“Really? Excellent. I’m really pleased to meet you. If you would give me five minutes to clean up a bit, we could settle much more comfortably in the presbytery.”
While Sarah picked up the empty flowerpots and placed in the garden cart to haul them all to the shed, Reverend Athelstone gathered up pick and shovel and carried these off to the shed as well. He was in the process of rinsing himself off in the outdoor shower when a young lady barged in from around the church and stopped in front of him.
“Reverend...” she started to say but he interrupted her.
“Tut, tut, Missy, where are your manners? Aelwen, I would like you to meet Father Richard Poirier. Father, this is Miss Aelwen Owen. I guess that, technically, she would be one of your parishioners.”
While Reverend Athelstone was making the presentations, Father Poirier looked over the nineteen year old young lady. She was tall and thin with flaming red hair and freckles all over her face, her throat and her arms. She was wearing a pair of skin-tight stretch jeans and a tee-shirt three sizes too large with, on the front, the logo of a circle with a red diagonal covering a drawing of a naked bottom and the words ‘Happiness is no tan lines’. What surprised him most of all however, is that the girl was neither surprised nor shocked to see that the Reverend was totally naked.
“Excuse me, Father. I meant no disrespect.”
Father Poirier waved the apology aside. “Good afternoon ... Aelwen? A rather unusual name, isn’t it?”
“I should think so,” laughed the girl. “You’ll never guess how much I was teased about it when I was young. It’s supposed to mean ‘fair browed’. My parents always said that they wanted to give me a traditional Welsh name but, personally, I’m convinced they were tripping on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ when I was born,” she explained with a smile.
While the two were talking, Reverend Athelstone finished his shower and dried himself off. “Now, Missy, what was it that was so urgent?”
Aelwen looked lost for an instant. “Er ... Oh, yeah! I met Kenzie a while ago. She was checking out if her apple trees were flowering well this spring. She asked me to tell you that Skinflint had finished putting up his stable and he’d like you to come around and give it your blessing when you have a moment.”
“Very well, thank you. If you see her before I do, please tell her that, in all likelihood, I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon. Say, it should be close to five o’clock, no? Shouldn’t you be on duty this evening?”
“Yes, that’s true. That’s where I was going. I only stopped here because I knew that Sarah had bought some tomato plants at the garden centre. I’ll leave you to it, Reverend, Father. If you stop by the inn, I’ll buy you supper,” said she and started to laugh.
Reverend Athelstone laughed as well and said “Come, off with you, you little minx, get to work,” while Father Poirier looked at them both, completely at a loss.
“I don’t understand.”
“The inn is a bit unusual. It’s built in the style of an English public house of the late eighteenth century. The pub sells mostly what it has brewed itself. The meals are excellent and the kitchen uses locally grown produce and while the choice is somewhat limited, it charges next to nothing. What is special about the inn, however, is that the owner has some rather definite ideas about proper attire; in order to be served, you must be naked.”
The dialogue in this story is in a combination of French and English, much like the way it is spoken in that region of the country. For the ease of English readers, it has been wholly rendered into English.
Chapter 2: The testament
“Er ... say again, please? I’m sure I did not understand you correctly.”
“Oh, yes, you did,” answered the Reverend with a large smile. “Come, I’ll tell you all about it. You will stay for tea ... or would you rather have something else?”
In the meantime, they arrived at the presbytery door and the men stepped aside to let Sarah enter first.
“James, I’ll put the water on the boil and I’ll go upstairs to slip something on. I believe that Father Poirier will feel more comfortable if I do,” said she with a smile in the corner of her eye.
“Oh, no, don’t go to any trouble for my sake. If you’re comfortable the way you are, stay – you are, after all, within your own home.”
Sarah shot him a quick, but piercing, glance and smiled. “No, this time, I’ll get dressed. The next time ... you never know.”
“As for me,” said the Reverend, “if you’ll allow me, I’ll stay the way I am.” He picked up a bath towel, spread it out on his easy chair and sat down. “It had become a habit in Brazil and, in spite of the twenty-five years we spent here, when all the upset arrived two years ago, old habits quickly resurfaced and I find that I can no longer go back.”
“Oh, that is quite the story but let us wait for Sarah to come back down. It’s a story better told over a cup of tea.”
“Exactly,” said Sarah from the doorway. “I was just going to ask what you would like, Father.” She had put on a simple but attractive dress. “We have tea, we have coffee ... as for cold drinks, we have water, obviously, we have orange juice and we have lemonade. Should you care for a beer, I can hop over across the street and pick up a couple of bottles from the inn.”
“No, thank you, tea will be just perfect.” A few seconds later, she came back with a tea service and a small plate of biscuits on a tray. “Do you care for sugar, milk or lemon?”
“Just straight up will be fine, thank you.”
After Sarah had distributed the teacups, everyone settled down on the couches around the coffee table,
“So, tell me, what are you doing here out in the sticks,” asked Reverend Athelstone. “You said that you were the new parish priest at St. Ignatius. The last news I have from that parish is that Father Langostina died last autumn. As a matter of fact, I officiated at his burial at the request of several of the villagers. It was an honor for me to do so but I was surprised that there had been no follow-up from the diocese.”
“Well, to be honest,” said Father Poirier a bit shamefacedly, “we only found out about it recently.”
“Yes. From what I’ve been told, Father Langostina was a bit of an independent sort. He took care of everything himself and, every year, he would send in his balance sheet to the diocese but other than that, he kept strictly to himself.” Father Poirier laughed. “One could say that, just like the pressure-cookers with the same name, that Father Langostina kept a tight lid on things.”
“Anyway, to continue, that the diocese never heard from him was not at all surprising, especially as no one called to request a replacement. However, when his balance sheet failed to arrive and no one answered the phone, the diocese sent someone to investigate. That is when they found out he had died. Since I had been newly ordained, the cardinal sent for me and assigned the parish to me. I was visiting the area to familiarise myself with it and I thought I’d drop by to meet with the opposition, so to speak.” Father Poirier smiled to wipe away any ill-will.
“I see,” said Reverend Athelstone pensively.
“You were going to speak to me about some upset,” said Father Poirier to remind him to tell his tale.
“Oh, yes...” started Reverend Athelstone, “that’s right. Well, this community, this village, was slowly dying. As you no doubt know, very few farmers make money hand over fist. Quite a few are wealthy in that they have lots of land, lots of equipment but most are crushed by debt. One must invest greatly in the land, in sowing and harvesting equipment, seed, fertiliser, feed and other consumables and the money to pay back those purchases comes in months, sometimes years, later. After one has paid off one’s debts, bought the food to feed the family and whatever else, most farmers barely have anything left at all. It’s the same for the apple growers; they must buy fertilisers, fungicides and vermicides and when the fruit is just about ripe, then the battle to protect it from the birds, the racoons and the deer begins. On top of all that, apple trees are picky; apple blossoms must be fertilised by bees. If, for some reason, the bees have an off season, forget about having any apples to harvest.”
“The government continuously imposes newer and tougher regulations in order to protect the environment, regulations that require the farmer to invest in new techniques that are ever costlier and it is the distributors that rake in the profits. They pay as little as they can to the growers and sell the harvest for as high as the market can bear to the shopkeepers and consumers. For the entire length of this road, you will see orchard after orchard, abandoned because there is no one to take over.
“Sherwin’s Falls was founded some two hundred and fifty years ago at the time of the American Revolution by a brewer named Sherwin. He built himself a brewery and an inn, here, just across the street and the village grew up around it. This whole area was originally colonised by British expatriates who did not agree with the new American regime; English, Welsh, Scots and Irish, they all came north rather than fight the redcoats. After a while, the odd French Canadian moved in to liven up the mix as well as an occasional immigrant coming in directly from Europe.”
“The inn changed hands several times in the course of the centuries to end up, in 1946, being owned by a World War II fighter pilot named O’Shaughnessy. At the time there was nothing left of the old brewery and the inn had been turned into a second-rate country hotel whose principal clients were travelling salesmen.”
“When O’Shaughnessy was killed in a bar-fight in the sixties, the hotel was boarded up and it has stayed that way until about two years, no, make that three years ago, now. You may remember about six, seven years ago, the Euro-Millions lottery had been won by default by one O’Shaughnessy ... No one had laid claim to the first prize, so after one year, the prize money had been divided equally between both second prize winners. It had made all the papers at the time. Well, it so happens that that O’Shaughnessy was the grandson of our O’Shaughnessy. With all the publicity of that Euro-Millions prize giveaway, the late O’Shaughnessy’s lawyers were finally able to execute the will and the grandson was able to inherit from the grandfather.”
“It had been the old man’s wish that the brewery be rebuilt and brought up to speed. With the money that Sean, the grandson, had made on the Euro-Millions, he had no difficulty with doing just that. However, he added a fillip all his own. You see, when the late O’Shaughnessy’s lawyers finally caught up with Sean, he was living in a voluntary state of simple living on the Île du Levant, that island off the coast from Marseille that is half naturist village and half military base, with his wife.”
“After having collected his winnings, Sean had gone on a trip around the world but, afain, in a state of simple living that few would wish upon themselves nowadays and then chose to settle down over there on that island in that same state of simple living. During his travels around the world and later on, on the Île du Levant, he had become convinced that clothing, any clothing at all, detracted from Man’s inherent humanity. Therefore, when the lawyers found him and he decided to accept the inheritance, follow through on his grandfather’s wishes, rebuild the brewery and inn and build the campground next to them, he insisted that everyone; clients, personnel and visitors, had to be totally clothes-free when on the premises.”
“You mentioned that earlier but I find it hard to believe,” exclaimed Father Poirier. “He would never break even if he insisted on that!”
“Oh, it has never been a requirement that the brewery and the inn break even,” smiled the Reverend, “only that they be built, which they were. In any case, he did arrange it so as to break even – his campground, a naturist resort, actually, is one of the most renowned and with one the best infrastructures in the world today. People come from all over to stay. His pub and inn may not have many more clients than the people of the village, the clients from the campground and the occasional drop-in but the brewery is well established and he supplies all the best hotels and restaurants in Montreal and elsewhere with his specialty beers and ales. About a third of the village works directly for him and the other two-thirds grow the consumables he uses in his inn or in his brewery. By himself, he covers the greater part of the municipality’s budget for road maintenance and the like.”
Chapter 3: Living amongst the children of the Garden of Eden
“Before settling down here, Sean dropped by to meet with Sarah and me and he laid out his entire project to us on the condition that we not say a word about it to anyone. Like the majority of Irishmen, he is Catholic. He came to see us, however, because Father Langostina would not have wanted any part of his project, and he wanted our advice. We talked at great length about it, not only of the practical aspects; the economic benefits, for instance but also of the religious aspects; what the bible says about social or rather public nudity. Sean is a very religious man but a very practical man as well and his choice for naturism is based on a very practical foundation. With our experience among the natives of Brazil, we could do naught but agree with him.”
“Excuse me, James, Father ... it’s getting late. You will stay for supper, won’t you, and, unless you absolutely have to be somewhere tonight, we have a spare bedroom where you could spend the night. Supper is ready; all I have to do is serve it. It is a simple meal – we are not vegetarian, not as such, but our meals have a tendency to lean in that direction.”
“Thank you, I will gladly take you up on your offer and, while we’re at it, I think we are well beyond the point of calling me ‘Father’. Please call me ‘Richard’.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, Richard,” replied the Reverend, just as quickly. “Please call me ‘James’.”
“To get back to your tale, how is it that you find yourself amongst such a group of free-thinkers,” asked Richard, hoping to learn more about his parishioners.
“That started way back,” explained James as an introduction, “Sarah and I belonged to the same community. We were both barely twenty when we married. We were young, naïve and overflowing with missionary zeal. We signed up to bring the Light of God to the natives of Brazil.”
“We had gone so far up the Amazon that we were, at most, a few miles from the border of Peru. Our mission was amongst the ... well, the name no longer matters, really – between war with the neighbouring tribes and the progress of civilisation, no one from the tribe is still around today. I’m quite sure that even the Brazilian government is unaware that the tribe ever existed.”
Sarah took up the tale. “Our introduction to the tribe was difficult – we were convinced that civilisation was the way to go and the natives did not trust us, not one bit. You see, they were totally naked while we wore the uniform of the civilised white man; kaki shirt, kaki Bermudas, socks to the knee and brogues with laces. We learned later that the natives believed that since we hid our bodies, we were somehow dishonest. It was only when they caught me washing myself by the river, that they started to speak to us. The chief came to where I was and signed at me to come with him. When I turned to pick up my clothes, he became furious. Finally, I decided to follow him the way I was and he led me to another part of the river. I learned later that where I had chosen to bathe myself, there were several highly poisonous spiders.”