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This is a shortlisted story for the 2011 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
There walked the priest: through the stone archway of a watchtower in Roquebrune-sur-Argens, underneath the blood-red cliffs scorched by an ancient sun. He was close enough to the Argens River to have felt its cooling wind had there been one that day. He was alone. The rain had started early that morning and bounced upon the cobbled pavement like it was landing on a frozen lake. The old streets that ran between buildings themselves even older became narrow as he walked. They guided him to the entrance of l’eglise de Roquebrune-sur-Argens.
The old man sighed. He looked up at the sky, a gunmetal grey, and then at the godless world around him. He thought it bleaker than he ever thought possible. The building he was trying to open was more similar to a ruin than a church and he imagined the rain could dissolve the very foundations of the stone.
The priest shook off his cape when he entered the church; the sleeves of his fading cassock stained with rain. On the table, there was a handwritten notice on thick brown paper. It read:
Eglise de Roquebrune-sur-Argens
Diocese de Fréjus-Toulon
“La maison de Dieu”
Horaire des Messes:
Le dimanche: 10h30 (avec orgue)
The note lying beside it asked him to nail the sign to the door. He put down the piece of paper. He did not go.
Instead, he made his way down the church to the altar: two unlit candles lay on its smooth, white marbled surface. The wax that had melted down the sides of the candles some time ago, hardening into a strange new sculpture. A row of women undressing. The man frowned at this thought. He knew that time had forgotten this place, that time moved forward but the church was forgotten. The wax had hardened and no one had ever thought to remove it. God had been forgotten somewhere along the line.
The man began to speak, closing his eyes as though he could see the words resting beneath them. He held his hands in front of him, imagining the roughness of the paper-thin bread and the weight of the wine-cup.
‘Panis triticeus… vinum de vite…’
As the priest turned to lock the Eucharist behind its golden gates, he heard the wooden doors of the church swing open quickly. For a spilt second he heard again the world outside.
‘Je suis très désolé,’ he called out. ‘La masse commence à dix heures et demi.’
He heard the light click of a woman’s heels inside the shadows of the far end of the church.
‘Hello? Bonjour?’ She spoke in a textbook French accent. ‘L’anglais, s’il vous plait,’ she said meekly. She was seemingly lost in the vastness of the pews.
Suddenly she appeared from the shadows in the North Aisle. He stared at the girl in surprise. Her hair was parted centrally and fell in black waves over her petite shoulders. Sunglasses were placed upon her head like a crown despite the rain beyond those walls and a large, professional camera dangled from her neck. She wore little red gloves, which she took off carefully and placed on the table next to the door to dry.
‘L’anglais?’ she asked again, unsure what the man’s silence could otherwise mean.
‘Yes,’ the priest said slowly. ‘I said you were early. Mass does not begin until ten thirty. You weren’t to know.’
‘Oh no!’ she said, letting out a small, child-like giggle. ‘I’m not here for mass. I’m not even a Christian. I was wondering if I could take some photographs of your beautiful church.’
She stood and rocked on her feet before the priest nodded slowly.
‘Will you give me a tour?’ she paused. ‘S’il vous plait? I will be finished so much quicker,’ she added, sensing his agitation.
‘Of course…’ He found himself nodding again. ‘Mais ce n’est pas la Notre Dame de Paris…’ he said under his breath.
They began to walk to the back of the church, taking the route he had walked down so many times before.
‘Oh, I cannot stand Paris!’ she said, like she had just finished translating the words one by one in her head and was exceedingly pleased with herself. ‘Too busy! Too many people. I despise people… photography is my passion, but not of people. I love churches…’
She spoke quickly and seemed to be talking to herself. He could not help it. He cleared his throat and asked her why.
‘Why?’ She let out that same strange giggle, which distracted him. ‘Because they are beautiful! Especially the old ones. They represent a community that has existed for hundreds of years, and that without the church as its leader would not exist. It is somewhat inspiring, don’t you think? The church is like a womb… it is the last remains of true family in this world.’
‘But… I thought you said you weren’t a Christian?’
‘I’m not. But just because I don’t believe in God does not mean I can’t believe in the power of the church. The power it has to create hope. Just look at this window…’
The girl diverted, walking through a set of pews to the stain-glass window on the wall above. She was mesmerized by it and her mouth hung slightly open. The priest took this opportunity to look at her. He thought she was beautiful. The light from the stain-glass window cut shards of red across her face and shoulders, so when she smiled she looked like the image of the devil himself. He was taken aback: in all of the Cité Millénaire he did not think such beauty existed. As she spoke about the history of the figure of Jesus on the cross he realised it was not him leading the tour, but her.
So the church appeared new: like the first time he entered it as a child. How infinite the walls had seemed! And how, now that he was older, he had begun to feel part of the stone itself. The ornate paintings on the wall and roof were suddenly the pieces of art he had once fallen in love with. The structure of the pews and the stone archways, which led to the chambers, were striking and each curve was like that of a woman’s figure. He followed as the girl’s camera led them through the church.
As the bells rang, the priest got up from the pew. When the girl left, he had knelt down and begun to pray. He prayed for God to forgive his sins. He prayed for the family and friends he had not seen in years. He prayed for the girl; that she might never believe in God.
He did not want her to change, but to stay exactly the way she was.
Walking to the doors, he passed the notice still on the table. He picked it up.
‘La maison de Dieu,’ he read aloud. The House of God.
Next to the notice, there lay two small, red gloves. The priest laughed. He grabbed the nail and hammer and opened the door.
Layla Hendow is a student reading English Literature at university. She enjoys writing poetry and short stories and hopes to be a writer in later life. She has recently had poems published in Aesthetica and Acumen, and was featured in two anthologies by Forward Press last year.