The following story is gay themed. All the characters, events and settings are the product of my over-active imagination. I hope you like it. Mail me or if literary analysis interests you visit me at Eliot's Space. I have to acknowledge the support of Nifty and The Doghouse for their support. I encourage you to also join the Nifty Writers Forum and the Doghouse Forum where you can contribute to the conversation.
Graham slipped onto the hard pew, discarded the small candle beside him, and then surveyed the sparse congregation scattered below him. John claimed the sanctuary of St. Paul's United Church was never full for the midnight service. The rows of empty pews did not sit right with Graham's childhood memories. Where were the children? Graham surveyed the preponderance of bent grey heads. It was the late service after all. Graham shifted his heavy belt to a more comfortable position, wishing he had not worn his uniform. He might have come to that earlier family service, but it was hard enough for him to come to the late service. It was harder still to endure the service alone. Christmas was hardly a holiday for John, and Graham preferred the years when his own work served as a convenient excuse to beg off joining John in church. The clean white plaster vault and aged oak failed to touch his soul. St. Paul's was not so very different from the church of his youth; the church where his family would likely now be gathered together. Graham found his eyes tracking the few family groups arrayed below. He felt suddenly like Ebenezer Scrooge confronting his lost past. A spirited John had whisked him to these shadows of Christmas' past with a quiet plea and the eternal magic of his warm eyes. There was not much Graham could deny John. Graham saw echoes of his parents in the faces of fathers and mothers settling their restless broods. He saw himself in the youths slumped uncomfortably beside pesky siblings. God bless us everyone, Graham turned his eyes back to the glory of the organ pipes arrayed across the front of the sanctuary. He tried to lose himself in the heavy music. Ten years and he never could. Christmas simply reminded him of the unbridgeable gulf that lay between him and the close knit family he had stepped away from at eighteen. The excited families below also reminded him of the awkward Skype call home and the unexpected tears that flowed so freely afterword. Graham looked toward the pulpit for comfort, but it was still empty. Merry Christmas, bah humbug, a voice whispered in his ear.
Graham's eyes drifted back to a rangy youth self-consciously fidgeting three pews down along the left curve of the balcony. He had captured Graham's attention when he arrived. The tousle-haired teenager had paced the perimeter of the balcony twice scanning the sparse congregation. Despite the bitter cold, he was simply dressed in an oversized hoody and an equally shabby vest. The youth sat once, craned his neck over the railing and then moved on until something below finally caught his eye. He settled near Graham. He had sat ridged in his seat staring down at something below until a garrulous old voice broke the silence. The youth's head darted up and followed the noise. He seemed suddenly aware of the sprinkling of people around him. His eyes rested on Graham briefly and the dark orbs widened at Graham's blue uniform. It was an all too familiar reaction and Graham looked coolly back until the youth turned away. Graham sighed. The teenager's reaction depressed him further. The teen was Graham's present; another adolescent, lean and hungry, stalking the dark winter streets, always wary of a passing cruiser, always shy of the law. They shared another look and then the youth began peeling the ragged layers of his winter wear away. An ill-fitting black dress shirt and a badly knotted tie hung loosely from his slender frame. When the organ began to play a familiar carol the youth opened the order of service and began studying it earnestly. Graham watched the teen's right knee bounce nervously. His stomach fluttered sympathetically as the service began.
Graham turned his thoughts to John. John was his anchor, his center. John loved all this. You could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. Graham tried to let John draw him in, but as much as John had found shelter in this church, it offered Graham no consolation. Graham tried to keep up with the flow of the service that was at once so familiar and strange. The teen at hand seemed distracted. At each carol he would lurch to his feet, fumble to the right page, then stare, lips moving imperceptibly. At the conclusion of each carol he sank gratefully back onto the dark oak seat. Graham wondered what had brought the youth out so late by himself. Graham's attention shifted between the pastor at the pulpit and the teen. His young companion shifted forward to watch someone below. Graham caught hunger in his face. It softened the sharp adolescent angles and called forth the almost hopeful look of a small boy lost in a dream. Graham found himself warming to the youth. The older man had felt that smoldering passion.
The youth slid suddenly upright against the back of the pew. He sat primly with his hands clasped in his lap. Graham caught the movement of another youth moving up to the lectern rising from a riot of poinsettias. He was a finely-dressed youth who walked with the confidence of a well-loved son. When he reached the steps he took them two at a time before swinging around quickly to look at the sparse congregation with an infectious grin. Jesse, the name came to Graham suddenly. John had mentioned him in reference to the youth group he struggled with. John had counselled Jesse through some personal crisis. Jesse glanced down and when his face lifted again it was composed. The light tenor of his voice was strong and true. Graham was distracted by the youth's demeanour and the all too familiar passage made little impression on him. It was the animation in the teen's voice. The young speaker mixed an irrepressible enthusiasm with a gravitas that brought a slight smile to Graham's lips. It connected him suddenly to his own earnest participation in the church at that age. Graham's smile faltered at this unwelcome memory. He was weary of the regrets and forced them away again in much the way he did his best to bury each gritty moment on the street and the angry souls whose want was rubbed raw on festive nights like this. At that thought, Graham spared a glance toward the solitary figure of the self-conscious youth sharing the isolation of the balcony. His young body remained a coil of nervous energy on the hard bench, hands thrust tightly between his thighs.
The voice below drew Graham back to the youth at the lectern. Jesse's young face might have been buried in an unfamiliar text but instead his eyes cast around the congregation with a dramatic pause very reminiscent of John. The youth seemed intent on gathering everyone into the compass of his gaze. Finally, his face lifted to the balcony and with a sweep of his eyes invited Graham and the others into the mystery of the evening. Jesse paused on Graham registering his presence and forbidding uniform before moving on to Graham's left where they paused again. Their journey ended, dancing eyes dropped back to the pages on the lectern. The youth finished with a final burst of eloquence and a smile at his parents. He turned toward his minister and basked in the warmth of his smile. Graham saw that Jesse was the sort of boy people were drawn to. Graham recognized that in the way John spoke of him; as if Jesse possessed some unnamed quality that Graham would appreciate and empathize with as much as John did. Jesse abandoned the lectern after a final smile thrown toward the balcony where Graham and the youth sat in their isolation. Bright joy trailed him back to his place beside his family. The nearby youth sat quivering, eyes glued on Jesse.
The awkward youth was an interloper. The contrast between Jesse and his neighbour in the balcony deepened Graham's Christmas depression. Graham had been like that bright boy at the lectern once but then, he had also felt like that boy on the pew caught in a lonely turmoil. The painful desires of youth, wanting the unattainable; the fragile light of love bursting into life but so easily extinguished by life's rough winds. Graham wondered if he was projecting too much of himself on the stiff and awkward stranger craning to follow the progress of the youth below.
Jesse sat down on the very edge of Graham's vision. He was almost cut off by the heavy railing, but not quite, the curve of heavy oak pews on the sanctuary floor gave Graham a view of the youth's neatly trimmed hair. The youth nearby had a better, though equally discrete, view. Graham decided Jesse must have been the object of his neighbour's search when he came in at the beginning of the service. He had certainly picked the right spot to view the teenager.
Despite their location in the balcony, Jesse might have been conscious of his audience. From time to time he would turn his head toward the youth in the balcony. Jesse sat on the aisle fidgeting beside two younger siblings. His composure had been broken in some way. His attention strayed constantly. The younger brother drew him back to the orbit of his family with whispered comments that earned him a series of pokes from the father, who had to reach impatiently across a small girl. Jesse twisted once and looked up to the balcony and then turned his attention back to the progress of the service.
The contrast between the well dressed Jesse below and the scruffy boy nearby was stark. Graham tried to lose himself in the reassuring cadence of the John's voice. The words wash over him. Even the John's smiling eyes couldn't break his melancholy mood. He must have telegraphed this to John because the twinkle faded perceptibly. Five years and they knew each other well. Graham forced a smile out. It was a weak effort. John knew Graham's moods well enough. Graham always felt like an intruder in the sanctuary. His partner knew he was more comfortable out on the dark streets.
Another hymn, painful in its familiarity began and Graham mouthed the words conscious of the mirror the nearby youth seemed to offer as the boy self-consciously shuffled his feet and clutched the hymnal awkwardly against his chest. He made no effort to join the discord raised by the scattered congregation following the lead of the choir. Below, Jesse slipped away from the annoyance of his brother and headed to the narthex. As the familiar holiday hymn reached its conclusion Jesse materialized in the aisle beside Graham. His presence surprised the policeman, as did the smile the handsome boy tossed his way before dropping down the final steps. Graham watched Jesse's progress over to where the other teen stood, head bent over the hymnal. Theo, Jesse called softly and then their greetings were lost in the swell of the final verse. Theo shuffled over to give Jesse room beside him, the hymnal forgotten. Jesse touched him quickly on the shoulder and Theo's face flashed into a bright grin that erased the shy awkwardness. They stood connected until the music subsided and John moved to the pulpit, then both teenagers dropped quickly to the seat.
Graham dismissed them for a while as he turned his attention to the only person who could draw him back to a church. John's life was the church. It's not some sort of a statement Graham, I need this, do you understand? Will you do this for me? Not the most romantic proposal of marriage. They lay that day in each other's arms, their minds as twined as their limbs. John knew Graham had walked away from his church, or more exactly, Graham's church and family had walked away from him. Church and family were inseparable in Graham's world. He had given up on churches, but he persistently tried to return to his family. John knew Graham would walk through fire for John. They married discretely in the chapel and despite the continued discomfort, Graham found himself a public figure in the congregation. Being noticed didn't bother Graham. He had broken with his family because the only way he could live his life was open and honestly. John found a moment to smile some Christmas cheer his way and Graham smiled back. It was genuine this time and fed the flames of their love affair. Graham telegraphed his love and joy, and some of the bliss they would share later warmed Graham like John's strong embrace. John's eyes responded and then they flickered suddenly toward the two youths. Their connection was temporarily broken and the midnight service carried them both closer to the moment John would go to their silent home and Graham would start his long night.
Graham noticed the two teens were no longer attending to the service. Young mouths breathed thoughts against bent heads. Private words drew forth soft smiles. Jesse slipped Theo a small red package. Theo turned the carefully wrapped gift over in his hands for a time. Graham watched as the taller boy split the wrapping. It was a knit snow boarding toque. The boys exchanged shy smiles before Theo modelled it for his friend. Jesse made a small adjustment giving the toque a rakish angle and then Theo pulled the cap off and placed it on his hoody.
The service shifted once again but the youths were wrapped up in themselves. Graham lifted the order of worship. Instead of the words, his eyes returned to the pair. Theo fumbled in a pants pocket and drew his own small gift free. He thrust a small box at Jesse with a hurried motion. Jesse lingered over the task of unwrapping it. Both youth's heads were bent close together as Jesse opened it. A silver bracelet threaded through his fingers when he lifted his hand. It was so very plain but the teenager immediately set about putting it around his wrist. He fumbled with the clasp one-handed as Theo watched. Finally Theo reached out and helped him attach it. He pulled his hands back quickly when he was done and rubbed his palms on his pants. The youths exchanged looks and then settled back together, fluttering fingers tapping a common code lightly on slender thighs, centimetres from each other.
Graham turned his eyes from the young pair and up to the vault of the sanctuary. He liked the symmetry and the way the room drew his eyes naturally to the array of dull brass pipes. Christmas closeness and the intense joy of coming together, the youths reminded him of what had once been. Graham spared another thought for his family. At thirteen, perhaps a few years younger than Jesse, Graham had been invited to offer witness briefly at a service. His mother had been so proud. Hunter, his younger brother, sat attentively listening for a change. Graham had known the fulfilment of family and brotherhood in a wider community that day. The first hesitant doubts about who he was still lay outside that familiar circle of warmth. His mother had squeezed his hand silently in acknowledgement of her pride. It is easy enough to feel like a stranger reflecting back on the child you were. Day by day we step further away from that person until we are the other and not our young self. Graham had been striving for a numb detachment from that boy for years. He accepted that he had joined the incomprehensible multitude of lost souls. He was now one of the insane worldly ones his parents shook their heads over, ones who could not accept the blinding simplicity of the one word of God and chose to go his own perverse way. The lines of the organ pipes drew his eyes back to John orchestrating the service. John was still like Jesse and Graham's younger self in this moment sharing the Christmas mystery with his congregation. Graham shifted back to the two youths. Had Jesse simply said the word hello? Graham was not sure of the youth's name, but Theo looked less uncomfortable beside his friend. Graham felt good, Theo was not alone. Go back to church, his father had hastily concluded before he stepped out of the frame and left the conversation to Graham's younger brother Hunter. While this liberal church was not at all what his father had meant by that comment, it had turned out to be good advice. Graham's family still seemed lost to him; but like Theo, he was not alone. He could relate to the youths' joy in each other. He had another connection with Theo it seemed; they have both come to the service to be with someone they cared about.
The midnight service was approaching its conclusion. About the sanctuary slight rustling sounds signalled people's preparations for the traditional final carol. Graham glanced at his own little candle where he had discarded it on the pew beside his coat. Theo and Jesse were holding hands. It was a mute confirmation of their relationship. Graham thought them oblivious to the eyes around them until Theo scanned the surrounding balcony. His gaze met Graham's for the first time since he had settled where he could see Jesse. In an instant, he pulled his hand away from Jesse's. Theo's face flickered between embarrassment and caution like a shoplifter confronted with his transgression. Graham's professional detached stare unnerved the youth for only a moment. Determination settled on his face and without breaking the connection with Graham his hand groped until it had recovered Jesse's. Graham could read the familiar defiance of the street in the youth's eyes: up yours. His point made, Theo turned his eyes on Jesse who had been looking at his friend since the hand had been snatched away. Theo smile reassurance before returning his attention to Graham. The smile on his lips took on a sardonic cast. It was all he had to counter the weighty authority of Graham's police uniform. Graham met the youth's bravado with a smile of his own. He liked Theo all the better now.