The first person he told when they told him he’d been assigned the living of Wynborough Cathedral was his dog, Clara. The second was his wife.
‘Darling, I’m so proud of you,’ she said to him. He did his best to smile, but the look in her eyes made him blush scarlet, the contortion of her lips knotted his stomach. Hair like a melted woodland, a ready smile, ever so steady and reassuring. Why did you marry me, Isla? What did you see in me?
‘You’d be proud of me if I stumbled through my sermons and spilt wine on the mayor.’ In his mind, he asked her, your pride is obligatory, do you respect me?
He received a telephone call that evening from the Headmistress of the local Church of England school that he supported in his role as Reverend.
‘We shall miss you, of course, but we’re all over the moon for you!’
‘When do you have to leave?’
‘Wynborough – beautiful – what a blessing!’
‘… A blessing?’ he replied weakly. The verger beamed at him, squeezing his hand like it’d been touched by God. When his old friend had departed he sank against the cold stone of the pulpit and felt tears prick the backs of his eyes.
The Abbey, his Abbey, hung before him in the semi-darkness, its stone floors, names and graves, carved woods and fabrics gagging his mouth until he felt he couldn’t breath. Just visible at the head of the Abbey, painted and preening, the Baby Jesus scrutinised his movements. The cool air trembled and made him feel like the baby’s fat fists were cleaving his ears apart to peer into his brain.
Standing up as if stung, he hurried from the Abbey, only pausing to collect his coat, for the air outside was chilling.
At the vicarage, Isla was waiting for him. ‘Where have you been? I had half a mind to come looking for you.’
Clara bounded up to claim his attention, her tongue lolling, her paws dull against the carpeted floor. He stroked her head.
‘Is Olly in bed?’ As Isla stared at him he realised that Olly didn’t live at home anymore. ‘Sorry, I’m tired.’
Taking his coat from him, Isla walked away to hang it up. He had a moment to compose himself before she came back into the hall. The light was dim enough to hide his red eyes, but not enough to mask the worried creases lining her forehead.
‘Dean…’ She moved towards him, and to hide his anguish he shut his eyes as she pressed her lips against his forehead – he hadn’t realised his forehead was burning up until he felt the coolness of her body, her lips against his fiery skin. His head yawned dizzyingly, a sure sign of a migraine soon to come. ‘You have a visitor,’ she told him, ‘– in the kitchen – he came around nine. He says he’s an old friend. I’ve never seen him before.’ There was a cadence in her voice that he couldn’t place.
Bemused, Dean opened his eyes. It was now twenty to midnight. Reproachfully Clara was head-butting his knees, demanding attention, but Dean barely noticed. ‘A visitor…’
‘In the kitchen, yes.’ Isla smiled, her teeth like shards of milky ice. ‘I’m going to pack.’ She turned to leave, letting her hand trail on his arm as she turned away.
‘Isla…’ Something large was plugging his throat, making it hard to get the words out. ‘You’re packing… for the move to Wynborough?’
She laughed lightly. ‘Tell me what else I’d be packing for, Dean.’
He knew that they were both tired. He smiled and moved towards the kitchen. Isla took hold of Clara’s collar and heaved her away. Something in Isla’s tone had made his heart vault over into his stomach – or perhaps he’d left his heart in the pulpit, ready to be discovered by the morning’s congregation.
‘The reverend’s heart – in the pulpit – foolish of him to leave it behind, you’d think he’d need it where he’s going.’ Dean could hear them now more than ever.
‘What a step up – Wynborough, blimey.’
‘We’ll all be missing you, Reverend. More than you know.’
‘Henry.’ Henry’s dark hair straggled down his forehead like dripping paint, his dark eyes fixed on Dean, his lips set, shrivelled by the cold outside. Isla’s face seemed to slam into Dean’s cranium. Going to pack… That Henry was in the kitchen, was here at all, seemed like something from a distant reality. His two worlds colliding.
‘Henry,’ he said weakly, ‘You can’t be here…’
‘You aren’t seriously thinking of going to Wynborough, are you?’
‘How did you…’
‘Tell me the truth.’
In two weeks Dean would be standing in front of a larger congregation, speaking the only words that made him feel like he was part of something. He couldn’t throw that away, he shouldn’t have to… please, God… He thought of Isla upstairs. Packing.
‘My whole life is the Church, Henry. I matter there.’
‘You matter with me. I love you.’
Dean moaned wretchedly, his hands moving to tug at his collar. ‘My God…’
‘Your God shouldn’t make you choose.’ Henry crossed the kitchen like it was his own and held his warm palms against Dean’s cheeks, his fingers caressing his cheekbones, his breath sweet and warm on Dean’s lips. Henry’s dark eyes seemed to colour the contours of Dean’s heart. ‘You… you don’t have to choose. You’re free to love me, and to preach. Don’t leave, I love you, don’t leave. But this lie, this life – you carry on like this and…’
‘And…’ Did that sentence end in Wynborough, with Isla? Isla. Once more that night, the Baby Jesus seemed to be tunnelling into Dean’s mind, rendering the rest of the world oddly blank. Hands seemed to be snaking beneath his collar and pinching. He could feel the ultimatum, a silent figure beside them in the vicarage kitchen. And Henry… Henry, here, with him, breaching the divide he swore he’d never desecrate. Whatever he said, Henry was making him choose. Knowing, as he did, what Dean had to do.
He felt the ultimatum guiding him. ‘Isla!’ he yelled. ‘Isla!’ He turned back to the man standing opposite him and shrank away from his arms as if he were a stranger. ‘Get out of my home, get out, get out!’
Isla came running into the kitchen. ‘What, what is it?’ Her eyes travelled from Dean to Henry and back again.
Henry was staring as if he’d never seen Dean clearly before. Inside, Dean was howling, but he couldn’t seem to stop his fears tumbling from his lips. Surely this is sin, he thought miserably, to hurt the one you love the most.
Henry wouldn’t go, not for a long time. It took the splitting apart of Dean’s soul before Henry stormed out of the vicarage, spitting swear words that Dean volleyed back at him, while Isla watched, her face white. When Henry had left, Dean sunk into a kitchen chair. From somewhere above them, Clara was barking.
‘I shut her in our bedroom,’ said Isla softly.
Her voice seemed to draw Dean back to reality. ‘I’m sorry, Isla. I’m so sorry.’ If she hadn’t known… Henry had made it clear enough. Isla, I’m so sorry. For a moment, Isla said nothing. A sure sign of her hatred…
‘Don’t…’ Isla’s gaze was held by anything but him. ‘Don’t apologise.’ Her head in her hands, her fingers running through her hair. Her throat swallowing. ‘Do you want me to leave you?’ she asked with a voice thinner than water.
‘No!’ Before he’d even though it, the dissent had spilled from his lips. Isla, I need you. ‘I… I don’t know…’
‘I’m sorry,’ whispered Isla, looking up at him, ‘I just thought -’
‘To punish me?’
‘You’ve been reading the Bible too long, Dean – no! To punish you? – I love you, and – you preach and preach and I know that you got lost somewhere in your teachings.’ She gave a small sob. Upstairs, they could hear Clara whining. Dean was hurting somewhere deep inside.
‘The Bible…’ he began.
‘Fuck the Bible!’ Isla shrieked. ‘The only God I know doesn’t care who you love as long as you do love. What’s ink on paper compared to what people feel for one another?’
‘You’ll really be someone there!’
‘Isla…’ Tell her, Dean, come on. ‘I’m not going to Wynborough. I’m not taking up the living.’ All his dreams, his whole life, his mission…
‘You can still go…’
Isla… ‘They didn’t offer the living to a gay Reverend. Just to a Reverend who hid the fact he was gay.’
Isla let out a slow breath. ‘And you plan on resigning this living?’
Dean’s mouth seemed to have filled with jagged stones. ‘… God, forgive me…’ he whispered. Henry, forgive me.