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Novel – St. James

This is the first chapter, at a very preliminary stage, of a new novel I am writing that will probably be called The Confessions of St. James the Lesser. I will not be posting it in its entirety as I go, mostly because it does not lend itself to being written in a linear way, but I will post random pieces of it that I think might be entertaining. I would really appreciate it if people could give me some feedback on this first chapter, either here on the blog or by email, because I would like to have a firm grasp on the style and tone of the thing before I get into it too deeply.

Chapter One

The office was oppressive.  The sun stood too high to light the deep-set windows of the church, but thickened the air with heat and with the smell of humid books, dust-covered and mould-spotted, lining the shelves like a wall of stones, but stronger, or so James had thought when he first put them there, running his fingers along their joints, unmortared but tightly set, before two decades of summer heat and humidity had left them all but rotting.  He did not touch them anymore, not needing the reminder of what he had yet to read, or worse, what he had once read and now forgotten.  The wood floor gave off an odour too, the planks swelling against each other tightly in the heat, smelling of some undefinable ancientness, a smell that came not from the wood itself but from the foundations of the building and from things even deeper, dust and must and rust, as he called it, dust and must and rust, gathered into the fibre of the oak over the years and exhaled into the room in the heat and humidity, making everything close, constricting.

William was sitting in the visitor’s chair across from James, his thighs pressed between its arms.  The office seemed too small for him, pressing into him like the chair pressed into his flesh, and he was saying something about the mortar, how it was wearing away, but James knew better than he did, knew how he could run his fingers along the joints between the stones, feel the mortar brittle and crumbling, damp from the building’s perspiration, breaking away in his hands to sprinkle the ground in grit and leave gaps between the stone blocks, like missing teeth. He knew that William had never really seen those gaps, never been tempted to slide his fingers into them, where the stones levitated one above the other, to see how far his reach would go, right through to the other side perhaps, into the guts of the building, knew that he had never hesitated, frightened that the vast weight of the steeples would at last annihilate the space between the stones and catch his hand in those toothless jaws.

James traced those crumbling seams each day, lightly, not wanting to disturb them too deeply or to risk his fingers between them too far, and though he never looked behind himself, not after the first few times, he knew that his touch left a trail of white dust, like a crop duster over a field.  So he knew the place was dying, turning again to dust and ashes.  Even if the people who occupied it each Sunday had been young and verile, which they were not, the church was dying, the people and the building both, creeping toward dust and ashes, one the metaphor of the other, and he thought how life sometimes provides metaphors ready made, and how the work of the poet must be, not to create metaphors, but simply to keep a close eye out for the ones waiting to be found, and how maybe everything was made of metaphors like this, only nobody kept a close enough eye to see them, not even the poets, though they might see more than the rest of us.

William was still talking, oblivious to Jame’s indifference.  It was the mortar he talked about, and the roof that was leaking through the patches, and the cast iron plumbing that needed replacing, and the knob and tube wiring that was no longer compliant with insurance, but mostly the mortar, how the situation was now becoming hazardous, and how the Association didn’t have the available funds for repointing.  “The mortar…” he said, and James saw white grit pluming around him, like spray from a crop duster, filling the room, “… costly to repair…” and James saw the room and everything in it grow wide at the joints, gaping like toothless mouths, “…which is why we need…” and James saw William prodding at the seams of things, severing their sinews, cutting them into pieces, like animals on the kill floor, and he thought, `He’ll eat us alive, so he can keep growing.  He’ll grow and grow and burst the chair into kindling, burst even the room, because he consumes everything, and this is why his wife is so small and sickly, why she can’t even speak for herself, and why she stays hidden away in the house her father built for them, because he leaves nothing over for her, because he consumes it all, so he increases and she diminishes, perpetually.  Some day she’ll disappear, and he’ll blot out the sun, and people will say, “How did this happen?” and only I will know that in the end he ate her too, not purposefully, but because she grew so small, and he grew so large, and he devoured her along with everything else, without even noticing.’

James’ shirt was already sweat-dampened where it pressed against his chair, but warmth now flushed his face as well, standing out in a thousand pin-pricks of moisture, coalescing into droplets, slowly at first, then all at once, running down his temples and the creases beside his nose to wet his collar and splash like slow rain or tears onto his chest.

He watched William’s hands as he talked, how he kept lifting them to make small, ambiguous gestures and then folding them again on his belly, where the jacket split wide over a crisp, white, dress shirt.  His belt had a large buckle, a crowned lamb standing before a cross, and his hands would rub it unconsciously whenever they dropped to his belly, especially when he was nervous, so that it seemed more like some magic talisman than a support for his snug-waisted, sharply tapering pants, riding high on his legs when he sat, but falling to his shoes in perfect pleats when he stood. `Tailored,’ James thought, `he’s asking me to cut our budget while wearing a hand-tailored suit.’  William seemed to follow James’ eyes and glanced down anxiously, looking for some flaw in his attire, a stain or a wrinkle.  He straightened the pins on his lapel — the Association of Canadian Churches logo, the University of Toronto coat of arms, the Conservative Party of Canada insignia — which summed him up, really, in James’ opinion. `He has his whole life pinned to his collar,’ he thought. `What a shit.  What a total shit.  A smug-faced shit in a suit perfectly tailored around his cascading belly and his fat thighs pressed into my office chair,’ though he felt ashamed even as he thought it, as he felt ashamed every time he stooped to profanity, not because it was so very wrong, but because it showed a lack of imagination, a lack of intelligence. `Not a shit, then,’ he amended, `but a man… as wide of girth…’ he paused to consider the most suitable word, ‘… as he is narrow of opinion.’  The balance of the thought pleased him in a way, but it did nothing to express what he really felt for the man.  `No,’ he decided at last, `perhaps shit was the best word after all.  The man was just a shit, and that was the end of it.’

“The hard reality,” William said, summing up a point that James had been steadfastly ignoring, “is that we have no choice but to sell the church and relocate the congregation to join St. Mark’s.”

The significance of what William was saying finally penetrated the ancient smell of the room and the ponderous heat of the afternoon, but James discovered that he could summon no real anger, only the merest flicker of the rage he had known as a child, when he had struck out at his friends and siblings over the smallest injustice, real or imagined, rage that had since been socialized into hibernation and worn away by resignation, a pitiful thing now, hardly worth the name. He remembered how he had once been, when he had been playing tennis with his brothers, or a version of the game anyway, rallying against the wall of the school, when an older boy and his friends had thought to find some amusement in stealing the ball, and James had scattered them with his fury, chased the largest one, the one with the ball, half-way to the corner store, even though he had thrown the ball away long before, and had thrown him to the ground, letting fists fall like mallets on a parade drum, like sledges on a big-top stake, until a passer-by intervened.

`If I had those kind of balls now,’ he thought, `or any balls at all, but he knew he didn’t, knew that he lacked whatever it was that let people act out their anger, or even find it. `Just throw him out of the office,’ he told himself.  `Drag him out by his shirt.  Punch him in his fat fucking face.’

“James!” William said, his eyes making round pits in the flesh of his face, “That’s hardly language becoming a minister of the church,” and James realized that he must have been mumbling his thoughts out loud, felt himself colour under his three-days beard.  He tried to make himself apologize, but he could find as little energy for apologies as he could for anger.

William looked sincerely unsettled, as if he had expected a quite different reaction, and James remembered seeing the same look in him once, a few years earlier, when he had been confronted about the Henley girl (Lena, or something) her father standing in the parlour, his voice a furious whisper, demanding to know how William could say such things to a twelve year old girl, and William, that same uncertain look on his face, claiming, with sincere perplexity, that there was nothing wrong with telling a girl that she was starting to look like a woman, and that he didn’t know why she would find it inappropriate.

“Please get out of my office,” James said.  The words came almost without volition, as if he had surrendered the speaking of them to a part of him that was not governed by his conscious mind, a distant and unfamilar self, recognizable only through its tone of resignation.

“Fine, fine.  I know this must be hard all at once,” William assured, moving forward in his seat, edging toward a standing position, one hand on the arm of the chair, the other holding his belt in place by the buckle.  “I’m  truly sorry, but these are hard times.” He dug in his leather folder and set some papers on the desk.  “Here are the documents that we need the congregation to sign.”  A few strands of his thin hair had fallen across his face.  He combed them back with his fingers, making fine lines of black on his scalp, like faded tattoos. “You’ve now been legally notified, so the congregation of St. James the Lesser has thirty days to resume ownership of the church building, or the Association will have the right to sell it for fair market value.”

“Resume ownership?”

“Yes.” William settled his belt around the widest point of his belly and buttoned his jacket around him. “The congregation sold the church building and property to the Association of Canadian Churches for a dollar when it joined in 1925.  St. James retained the rights to use the building in perpetuity, and the denomination undertook to maintain it.”

“And you’ve done a marvelous job there,”  James interrupted, but under his breath, another stray thought merely passing through him.

“Your opinion on that point aside, the sale agreement also contains a condition that the Association will not sell the property without first offering the congregation the opportunity to purchase it back for the same price of a dollar.”

Some part of James, a part vaguely aligned with the one that had been speaking for him, found this amusing.  He reached into his pocket and cupped a handful of change onto the desk.  There was no loonie, but there was a toonie and a bunch of small coins.  “Keep the change,” he said, quietly, unable to summon real defiance, “I’m sure the finance committee will reimburse me.’

“A romantic gesture, I’m sure,” William replied, twisting his mouth, “but one you’ll want to reconsider.  By purchasing the building back from the Association, St. James the Lesser resumes responsibility for maintenance and other building related expenses and waives all rights to Association capital funds.”

“Which have seldom come our way in any case,” James noted, letting the words come as they would.

“Even so, the Association’s Finance Committee…”

“Meaning you.”

“Meaning the committee that I chair and represent here today — has estimated the cost of the most urgent repairs, the repointing of the stone, the replacement of the roof, and the upgrading of the old plumbing and electrical, at more than a million and a half.  These expenses, not the purchase price, represent the true cost of resuming the building’s ownership, so you`d better have a lot more penny-candy change in your pockets somewhere.” He looked smug.  “I’m sorry, but those are the facts.” He paused, as if leaving room for a response, but there was none.  “Good bye, James,” he said then.  He picked up his folder, visibly settled himself, and walked to the door with his peculiar gait, full of exaggerated dignity, his shoulders thrown back, his belly thrust out before him. He swung his feet from the hip, slow and awkward, like a goose-step in slow motion, through the door, drawing it softly closed behind, the click sounding sharp in the quiet of the room.

James sat at his desk, listening to the creak of William’s step on the hallway floor and looking at the back of the office door, heavy and oaken, with its familiar constellations of dents and peeling varnish.  The heat had intensified now that the door was closed and the cross-breeze from the window was stifled.  It occurred to him that the side-garden would be cooler, nestled in the crook between the original church building and the jutting addition, built when the post-war explosion of both children and Christian conservatism had first required and then funded a new Christian Education wing, complete with gymnasium and kitchen.  It was mostly unused now that the Women’s Mission Circle rose teas, and the Vacation Bible School barbecues, and the Daytimers Club strawberry socials had declined and finally ceased, as the people who planned them and attended them and paid for them passed away or were moved to homes for the elderly.  There were still lemonades on the lawn after Sunday service during the summer, of course, when the remnants of the congregation that had built the new expansion now huddled in its shadow and drank iced-tea with store bought cookies — lemon creams and iced wafers — all brittle with sugar, and the talk of the politest kind — grandchildren and funeral flowers and the morning’s choir anthem — the people drifting like ghosts among the carefully tended day lilies, ferns, and hostas, the vines creeping up the sides of the church again, reclaiming the territory from which it had already more than once been torn.

`Yes,’ he thought, `the garden,’ but he made no motion to leave his desk.  He could feel the thinness of his shoulders rounding into his body, the physique of a man who did no hard labour, and he could picture himself, his thick hair, slightly curling, long uncut, never brushed, hair that seemed too young for a body so stooped and fragile.  He would be making a truly pathetic figure at the moment, he knew, and he was both amused and repulsed by the feeling of self-pity that the image produced in him, a bent little man, old before his time, sitting forlorn at his desk.

He ran his fingers over the desktop, rearranging the coins he had put there only minutes ago.  The desk had come with the office, a huge, oaken thing with gouges in the top of it and on the legs, where a century of pastors had driven their chairs.  The top was attached only by a few screws, but their heads were rusted, and they would have to be pried from the wood if he ever tried to take it apart and replace it with something new, as he was always intending to do. Not that he didn’t like the ancient thing, but it had always seemed too large for the office, dominating it uncomfortably, making him feel temporary next to its permanence.

He opened the door again, propping it with a stone that the Sunday School had once painted for him, brown all over, with a caption in yellow that read, “Build your house upon the rock.”  The children had been quite proud of it, and despite its ugliness, he had lacked the heart to do away with it, though those who had painted it were probably too old now to care, or even to remember how they had hauled it down from their classroom in a cloth bag, dragged it together along the hallway to his office, then allowed him to open it after a moment of suspense, their faces full of pleasure.  He couldn’t recall if any of them were still attending the church, and the thought filled him with a certain nostalgia, wondering whether there would even be a church for them to attend much longer.

The windows at the end of the hall darkened abruptly, obscured by clouds, and then flickered into brightness again, drawing his eyes.  They were said to have been quite beautiful before the fire, a late example of Daniel Gibbon’s work, one of the few churches that he had done in Guelph.  The windows at the entrance to the church, where he was now looking, had depicted Christ as a shepherd with the best quality colours and glass, in the tradition of Clayton and Bell, but they had all gone in 1943, when a fire gutted the church to its stone carapace.  The windows had been replaced, of course, but not with any sense of art, just flat panes of colour.  The tall sanctuary windows ascended from a dark yellow at their bottoms, lightening with each pane, to clear glass at their tops, which would have been ugly enough without the tacky window hardware and the cracks that now split many of the lower panes.  Here at the front of the church, the great circular window had just been replaced with alternating panes, yellow and clear, with yellow at its center as well, a stylized sun, perhaps, if it had to be something at all, its peak pointing resolutely upward.

`It’s a lie,’ he thought, ‘those peaked windows, always pointing upwards.  Even the cross lies, because it makes us look at it.  But neither of them shows us God.’  The thought came from the other part of him, and he couldn’t decide even if he believed it, but the peak of the window had always seemed somehow vain to him, and the cross above the door seemed suddenly vain as well.