“Father is in Creignish,” said his father.
“I think I heard your name somewhere before,” the boy said. “Weren’t you at the university?”
“You knew Brendan Bell, I think.”
I could feel the rush of colour to my face. “Slightly,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure he mentioned you. He was here for a while. I think your name came up. MacAskill. You don’t hear it very often. He knew you somehow.”
His face was impossible to read. He turned then, toward his father. “I might be late.”
I remember asking, almost robotically: “So, how well did you know Brendan?”
The boy just shrugged and looked away. “Everybody knew Father Brendan.”
Then he was gone. I think that I forgot to say goodbye when he was leaving. I had a hard time concentrating because of that other, invisible presence in the room. Brendan Bell. I heard the roar of the truck as it raced away.
The visit withered after that. Outside, groping for a safe place to engage, I asked his father, “When do you expect to get this new boat in the water?”
“We’ll get her in before the fall. We’ll put a drive on soon. Want to do some tests, make sure she floats even and everything is working proper. Don’t want any surprises in the spring.”
“And what did you do with the boat I saw you in, when we met that morning on the shore? The
It was a formality, but it sparked a new enthusiasm. “She’s for sale,” he replied. “Down at the harbour. Great little boat for somebody.”
And I may have said something like, I always wanted a boat, since I was a kid hanging around the shore.
And he said: “Really?”
I tried to retreat from his obvious enthusiasm, but he was already remarking how so many old fishing boats are being cleaned up and converted for recreation, and if I was interested he’d be only too happy to make a special arrangement.
Embarrassed, I went into full withdrawal. “Good Lord, I wouldn’t know the first thing about a boat, one end from the other.”
“You’d be surprised how simple they are,” Danny Ban said. “Nothing like a good old wooden boat.”
Brendan was the last of them. That was the bishop’s promise, and he kept it. One last small assignment. An easy one, compared to so many of the others. A special favour to the bishop of St. John’s. Take this fellow off their hands for a little while, find some useful work for him to do, someplace where he’ll stay out of sight and out of trouble.
Port Hood was my idea.
The bishop cautioned: “The fewer people in the know, the less the risk of slip-ups. Just make it look like a favour to Father Mullins and his parish. Charismatic renewal has added to his workload—this will take the pressure off. In any event, Bell is low risk. Seems there was only the one lapse, some drunken groping. At least, that’s all they know about. Compared to some of the others over there, Bell is pretty small potatoes, otherwise he’d be in the clink where he belongs. Mostly it’s a drinking problem. That’s the problem with them all, I’m sure.”
“Father Mullins isn’t exactly a teetotaller. But he has a low tolerance for excess. In anything. Except for sanctity. And golf, of course.”
The bishop grinned his crooked, boyish smile. “Port Hood is a brilliant idea. Mullins makes the perfect nanny.”
We both laughed at the image.
And there wasn’t a ripple all the time that he was there. I visited. I monitored the situation scrupulously. I admit I had an anxious moment when I heard that Bell had started up a youth group. I hinted to Mullins: “Brendan had a drinking problem in Newfoundland. Let’s hope he’s being responsible around the young people.”
“I’m on the lookout,” Mullins promised. “But I don’t think there’s a thing to worry about. I’ve never seen him with more than a glass or two of wine at a meal. And the kids just love him. He has a marvellous way about him.”
And that was it, not a hint of misbehaviour.
Driving back to Creignish that evening, I re-examined young MacKay’s demeanour in my mind. Did I see insinuation in those hazel eyes?
Maybe I was more unnerved by the expression on his father’s face when I didn’t know the name of my grandmother. It had been a moment of unintended revelation on my part. Not to know your grandma? Around here, most around my age will rattle off four or five generations at the slightest hint of interest. The
it’s called. Part of the dying heritage and, to my mind, no huge loss.
There was a light on in the glebe house when I got home. I had connected a lamp to a timer after Bobby O. said they like to see a sign of life there, like the sanctuary light above the altar. But I did it mostly for myself. Something about darkened houses brings back unwelcome memories.
“You knew Brendan Bell,” the boy had said.
Too well, I’d felt like replying. And realized I didn’t have to. Those searching eyes could read my mind.
The bay is flat, endless pewter beneath the rising moon. Hypnotic. I’d acquired the bishop’s liking for Balvenie. I justified the cost by keeping my consumption low. Sitting in the living room, the amber puddle in the crystal glass, the mind revives the flavour of harsh dark rum in coffee cups.
Maybe it was the rum. Something that induced disclosure. Other than the bishop, Alfonso was the only one who knew why I was in Tegucigalpa. He listened like a child, puzzled, non-judgmental.
This old priest … was with a boy?
And you are sure of what you saw?
I laughed. The bishop had asked the same question. But he was challenging: How do you know what you saw? You admit the room was dark. What are you? A cat?
I had asked myself that same question, more than once. How could I be sure? I didn’t want it to be true. Father Roddie. Dr. Roddie. My mentor, my guru, the giant intellect who took me seriously. But there was no room for doubt. When I met the boy hurrying toward the door, the truth was written on his face.
So that’s why you are here. In exile from the truth.
I remember Alfonso’s bitter laugh.
And you? I asked.
He waved a hand dismissively and reached for the rum bottle.
Same thing, in a funny kind of way, he said. I was trying to do something for innocent people who are getting screwed.
I sip the Balvenie, fighting the sorrow that always rises when I think of him, which lately seems more frequently.
t was a Friday night, late August I recall, soon after my visit to Hawthorne, when somebody knocked on my door. It was young Danny MacKay, wearing a blazer. I could smell the shaving lotion.
I asked him to come in.
“Dad was saying you were thinking about the boat.”
I laughed. “That’s an overstatement.” I offered him a beer. He waved it off.
“I was in the area,” he said. “Thought I’d just drop in. The old man was mentioning the boat.”
He smiled. He had his mother’s eyes, dark and hooded, eyes that belonged to someone twice his age.
“You’ve got a nice spot here,” he said.
“It’s all right. A bit too much space for one. It was built at a time when you’d have housekeepers and a lot more visitors than now.”
“I like old houses. This is like what I want for myself someday.” He was looking around, studying detail. “The old fella. Dad. He was saying you seemed interested in the old boat … and since I was in the area …”
“Ah, well,” I said, feeling a sudden panic. “I think it would be a bit of a stretch. What do you think?”
“Whatever you think yourself. But if you decided … we could work something out.” He was already moving away, his nervousness palpable.
“I wouldn’t know the first thing about a boat,” I said.
“Piece of cake. I could show you.”
“I’ll let you know,” I said, and promptly shoved the notion from my mind.
Driving by Little Harbour one chill October evening, I noted that the
was still sitting there in the grim light that lingers after the sun has gone. There were already boats on the land, propped upright on empty oil barrels and blocks of timber, blind-eyed, broad-shouldered, hibernating creatures.
There was something irresistible about those silent boats on that evening in October. I still don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the memory of that Sunday afternoon in August, the quality of life I saw unfolding on a boat.
That night I telephoned.
I tell myself it was a whim. A few thousand dollars for a hobby. Danny told me that the engine alone was worth about ten thousand. He just wanted to get it off his hands and, at the same time, he was happy that somebody would get some pleasure from it. It would be fun, he said, for himself and the young fellow to help an amateur learn to drive a boat.
“You said it wasn’t difficult,” I said.
“Nah, it’s just a matter of getting used to a couple of things.”
“Nothing complicated. There’s no brakes and you’re steering from behind. It’s like a wheelbarrow.”
I told myself it would be like rediscovering the place. The bay was a new world, a potential sanctuary.
“It might be good for the young fellow to get to know you,” Danny said.
Don’t be so sure, I thought.
I said I’d be happy to pay whatever he asked for. A boat is worth whatever you think you need, he said. Four thousand was plenty. The business took ten minutes.
The next day was sunny and warm. I stood on the wharf studying my acquisition, fondling the ignition key in my jacket pocket. I’ve been around boats all my life, but now I noticed details I’d never seen before. Ropes tied specifically, the relationship to other boats around her. The sheer bulk. How does it start? How do you get it out of there? More important, how do you get it back inside so limited a space? How do you make the damn thing stop if there are no brakes?
Young Danny was beside me. “Would you like to take her out?”
“Not today,” I said quickly. “I have to get back to the house. I have somebody coming.”
It wasn’t a lie. The young woman on the phone had said she’d like an appointment and I asked if she could come that night. I recognized the name but couldn’t put a face to it.
“Any time you feel up to it,” Danny said. “But it’ll have to be soon. We’re getting into another storm season.”
“I can hardly wait,” I said. And suddenly I believed it.
At home, I made a toasted cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. Opened a can of spaghetti. The supper-hour news was on TV. The world had moved on to new horrors. Bosnia. Rwanda. Palestine, always Palestine. Never anything about the South these days. No more Nicaragua, Guatemala or El Salvador. Never anything about Honduras anymore. The Yanks lost interest, it seems, when the Cold War thawed. All the ugly little proxy wars down there no longer mattered and mysteriously ended. It was just as well. Too many painful memories. Alfonso and his tragic justice mission. And Jacinta. Where was she now? In the months after I’d returned, I was addicted to the news, anything that might have information on the liberation struggles that had cost my friends so much. And then … the news became unbearable too close to home. Boston. Newfoundland. Too many dirty secrets bubbling below the surface, threatening to ooze out into the glare of media exposure. Too many Brendan Bells.
I muted the TV and called Sextus. “You aren’t going to believe what I did today.”
But he was only mildly surprised. “This makes sense. You and a boat.”
I laughed. “I never had anything to do with a boat in my life.”
“Oh, I remember when we were kids, you were always around the wharf. Anyway, you need something like that. An escape. If it can’t be some old woman, maybe an old boat will do the trick. At least the boat won’t talk the ear offa you.”