A Canterbury Tale

Acolyte's Tale
Chapter One

In the summertime, the late morning sun shines through the stained glass windows on the south side of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and casts a warm and vibrant glow over the congregation—a glow which, as the sun moves across the sky, slides from pew to pew. This particular Sunday, I was seated in my perch at the side of the altar watching the glow slowly progress across the heads of the parishioners and marveling at the beauty of nature as Donny Madison, the senior acolyte, assisted Father Enfield with the Eucharist. Kevin Flynn, who shared with me the duties of junior acolyte, and who was not nearly as devout as the saintly Donny, seemed to be dozing off on the opposite side of the altar from me. I tried to maintain a "sacred" or "holy" demeanor, but the soft, smooth droning of Father Enfield reciting the ritual of Holy Communion was starting to have the same effect on me as it apparently already had on Kevin, whose head fell down to his chest at that moment.

In fear that I might do the same, I jerked my eyes open wide and looked out once again at the congregation. For the most part, they were the usual suspects, the same older, conservative crowd I had come to know since I first came to Canterbury six months before. However, the glow had highlighted the face of someone new, someone whom I didn't recognize. Suddenly, my interest perked up.

He seemed to be of high school or college age, six to ten years older than me, as I had just recently celebrated my twelfth birthday. He had short red hair and a nice face. After a couple of minutes, I realized I had been staring. With a frown, I jerked my eyes away.

I had begun to do that a lot lately, looking at boys, teenage guys, even men sometimes, and thinking they were cute, good-looking, or handsome. It was strange and it rather bothered me in a way. I somehow knew I wasn't supposed to feel that way, but it certainly wasn't something I felt I could discuss with my grandparents or with Father Enfield. So, I kept it to myself.

As the parishioners lined up to receive the "body and blood of Christ," I stood beside Father Enfield holding the cloth upon which he wiped the chalice after each had sipped. With a guilty feeling, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the red-headed guy slowly approached the altar. He genuflected and crossed himself, and just as he sipped the wine, his eyes met mine. He paused, and I felt a strange thrill. He crossed himself and quickly left the rail.

My mind was in a strange state of confusion for the rest of the service. I had never felt that way before and I had no idea why I felt such warmth, such nervous excitement, as when those eyes met mine. And, as the recessional began and Donny, as Crucifer, and Kevin and I, as the tapers, led Father Enfield down the nave, my eyes searched for the mysterious redhead. However, he was gone and when we reached the end of the nave and walked up to the sacristy to remove our vestments, I paid almost no attention to Kevin as he joked and teased with Donny, who was, himself, trying not to laugh at our fellow acolyte's antics. I felt very uncomfortable and wanted desperately to talk about this with someone. But, as I walked to the restroom before joining my grandparents for the socializing in the rectory, I knew there was no one I could speak with about what I was feeling. No one would understand; and, if they did, I sensed they would probably be disgusted with me.

As I left the restroom and proceeded down the hall toward the rectory, I took a deep breath. There had been so many new and disturbing events in my life over the last year. This just seemed to be another, and the last thing I wanted to do at that moment was socialize with my grandparents and their friends in the congregation. All I wanted to do was sit out on the porch swing at my grandparents' house and read in peace and quiet and not have to deal with anyone or anything. I just wanted to be left alone.

"He's been such an introvert since we lost his parents."

Oh, God. Not again!

As I approached my grandparents, I saw they were speaking with the new rector, the man who would soon replace Father Enfield when he retired in a few weeks. My grandfather had been the one speaking, but my grandmother joined right in.

"Yes, Jonathat’s had to face quite a change, losing his parents, moving from a big city to a small town, leaving all his friends behind."

I sighed. This was the price I had to pay for the few precious moments of peace I usually experienced during the service. I loved the ritual, the music, the theater of the Episcopal Church. But, that was all. I was no longer a believer, and for a twelve-year-old boy raised in the church and taught that faith was the foundation of life, it was a painful loss, almost as great as losing one's parents.

The church members had all been terribly excited when Father Macintosh was assigned to St. Andrews. I wasn't quite certain why they were excited. He was just another priest to me, spouting platitudes about faith and love and patience and acceptance. Crap.

"Yes, I'm certain it’s been difficult for him," Father Mac, as he liked to be called, was saying. "Our Anthony has had a terrible time adjusting to America. It must be even worse when the loss of parents also has to be endured."

I was approaching the group from behind my grandparents. Father Mac noticed my approach and smiled broadly.

"Ah! This must be Jonathan!"

My grandparents turned and smiled proudly as my grandmother adjusted my tie and straightened my blazer.

"Yes," she said. "Jonathan, this is Father Macintosh. He's from England!"

I stepped forward and extended my hand.

"How do you do, sir?"

"What a young gentleman! I'm doing quite well, thank you. And, you?"

"Fine, thank you."

There was an awkward silence for a moment until my grandfather spoke.

"Father Macintosh studied at Oxford!"

I wasn't quite certain how to respond to this revelation, so I simply smiled.

"Actually, I'm an American. Born and raised in Chicago. My family were Scots and emigrated in the 1870's. But, I wanted to get a taste of the Mother Country, though England isn't really the Mother Country."

"How interesting," my grandmother responded as I stood silently, still not certain what my role in this conversation was supposed to be.

"In fact, I met my wife at university. I was at Christ Church and she was at Somerville."

I had no idea what he was talking about and, I'm sure, neither did my grandparents. I thought he went to Oxford.

"Fiona, dear," Father Mac called out.  He had turned toward a beautiful dark-haired woman in her early thirties. "Come meet Henry and Dorothy Hughes. They're delightful people and they have a perfectly charming grandson, Jonathan."

The woman turned from the group she had been speaking with and approached with an air that I wasn't completely certain wasn't just a bit arrogant and condescending.

"I'm so pleased to meet you both," she said with a tone indicating the truth was far different. My grandparents didn't seem to notice and gushed all over her.

After several minutes of inane and meaningless chatter—why do adults, I wondered, waste so much time in social situations discussing things they have no interest in—attention, much to my chagrin, turned back to me. "We're hoping to get Jonathan into a good college, if he'll just apply himself. He's very smart, but he just doesn't seem to put a lot of effort into his studies."

My face burned with shame and embarrassment. Didn't they EVER consider how embarrassing it would be to me when they made comments such as that?

"Oh, I'm certain Jonathan just needs some time to adjust to his new life; that's all," said Father Mac with a smile. I decided that I was starting to like him. "As I was saying earlier," he continued, "Anthony's had a difficult time adjusting to his new life here in America."

"I don't think," commented his wife frostily, "that Anthony is having trouble adjusting to America. I think America is having trouble adjusting to Anthony."

"Quite. Well, no doubt there is some merit in what you say, dear," Father Mac replied with discomfort in his voice. There was an awkward silence as neither I nor my grandparents knew quite how to respond to this. Fortunately, Father Mac, who seemed to have experience in such situations, rescued us all, and, in the process, threw me overboard.

"Perhaps Jonathan could be of assistance in this. Since you are both twelve, perhaps you could show Anthony around town. You know, maybe show him where to get a good malt, where the baseball diamond is, the skating rink, a good swimming hole? That would be wonderful, wouldn't it, my dear?"

The last question was directed at his wife and, though the first question was directed at me, my grandparents chose to answer.

"That would be perfect, wouldn't it, Jon?" my grandmother gushed enthusiastically.

"Yes," added my grandfather. "That would be great! Jon needs a good friend to get him out of his funk and back into the swing of things."

"Well," declared Father Mac, "that settles it!"

I, of course, had still not expressed a single word on the subject, but it appeared that no input from me was necessary. Father Mac turned around and looked over the crowd.

"Ah, there he is," he declared looking over toward the corner. "Anthony, my boy! Come here!"

Standing alone in the corner and gazing out the window was a boy a bit smaller than me with dark hair parted in the middle and hanging down over his ears, hair a little longer than my grandparents approved of, but then, he was the new rector's son, so I knew they would make allowances. He had a rather lonely look on his face as he shyly approached.

"Anthony, I would like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Hughes."

As if he were struggling, Anthony held out his hand and greeted first my grandfather, then my grandmother.

"And, this fine young man is their grandson, Jonathan, who has graciously consented to show you around the town and help you become acclimated to your new surroundings!"

In an almost imperceptible voice, Anthony responded with a faint, "Hello."

"Hi," I responded, uncomfortably aware that the adults were all looking at us with great expectations. God, what was it with adults??? Why were they so weird??? Why did they have to interfere, try to fix everything??? Why couldn't they just leave everything alone???

"Jonathan, why don't you take Anthony and show him around the church?" my grandmother suggested. 'Why don't YOU take Anthony and SHOVE HIM UP YOUR BUTT!!!' I wanted to reply. Instead, being a good boy, (ugh), I replied, "I'd be happy to."

Anthony rolled his eyes at the adults and, suddenly, I decided he might be OK after all. We walked away and when we were in the safety of the hallway leading back to the church, he paused and said, in the most adorable English accent, "Look, you don't have to shepherd me around. So let's just make the adults happy and pretend we had a good time and are fast friends."

I stood looking at Anthony. His dark hair had a strange but curiously exciting way of curling around under his ears. And, he had the strangest blue eyes, so dark and deep. I suddenly realized that the same thing was happening to me at that moment that had happened earlier in the service when I saw the redheaded teenager. I was feeling hot and funny and . . . and my thing was starting to swell up.

Nervously, I turned my head and, without responding, walked on down the hall toward the sacristy. Anthony followed.

We stood looking into the sanctuary and down the nave. St. Andrew's was not a large parish or a wealthy one, but it was beautiful, a fake Gothic style church with great stained glass windows, strong wooden arches, and beautiful, carved statues. I walked toward the Lady Chapel in the north transept, genuflected as I passed the altar, and sat in the first pew. Anthony wordlessly followed.

We sat quietly for a few minutes. I loved to come to the church when it was empty and I could sit alone and think. Even though I was no longer a believer, I still enjoyed the peace and serenity, the beauty of the church. I could still smell the candles after Kevin and I had snuffed them out.

"So, why did you come to America?" I asked, feeling someone had to break the silence.

Anthony was looking at one of the windows, a beautiful work portraying the Last Supper, and he had his head turned away from me. He quickly, as if startled, turned back to me, his hair falling across his face as he did so. I felt another strange surge of . . . what, emotion? As he did, I again noticed his eyes, so blue, such a deep, dark blue. His skin was very pale, his lips thin. He almost looked, well, pretty.

"Dad wanted to. Mum didn't but they agreed to spend a few years here and then go back and forth. Mum hates America."

I raised an eyebrow. "Well, if she hates America so much, why did she marry an American?"

Anthony looked downward. "She says it was a mistake now. She calls it a youthful indecision.” He paused and gave me a want smile. “Well, that's not the right word, but you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I guess." I was uncomfortable.

"They were at some kind of socialist meeting and some big politician who knew my mum introduced them. They named me after him."

"So, how does your dad feel about your mom thinking it was a mistake?"

"Oh, he loves her. He adores her. It hurts him, but he tries to ignore it."

We were silent again for a moment, and then I decided I had to make more conversation.

"My grandfather says there are a lot of socialists in Canterbury. He says the town's lousy with them. He says it’s because of the college."

"Yeah. That's why we came here. Dad was assigned to a church in Tennessee for a while, but when he heard about the opening here, he almost begged the bishop to transfer him."

"How did you like Tennessee?"

"I HATED it. It was awful."

He said this was quite a bit of vehemence. It was the most emotion he had shown since we met.

"What was so bad about it?"

"Everybody hated me. They mocked me because of my accent and the way I dressed and the fact I was so much smarter than they were."

I knew what he meant. "Yeah, kids here made fun of me when I first came. They made fun of my accent, too."

"I'm not familiar with American accents. Where are you from?" Anthony asked, his voice starting to lose some of the nervous quality it had earlier.


Anthony paused. "Is that in Texas?"

"Uh huh."

"Why did you move here?"

I really didn't want to go into this at that moment, but there was no polite way to avoid it. I took a deep breath and looked up at the crucifix above the small altar in the Lady Chapel.

"My family was in a car wreck. We were driving home from Six Flags and this semi hit us. My parents and my little brother were killed." Neither of us spoke and then, after a moment, softly, I added, "I should have been."

"Why do you say that?" Anthony whispered.

I sniffed. "Why did I live and not them? They deserved to live more than I did. My little brother deserved to live more than me. Why did they have to die? Why not me?"

At that, I broke down in tears. I hated myself. I hated it when I cried. I hated feeling these emotions. Normally, I just kept to myself and kept everything under control. THIS was why I didn't have any friends. I avoided making any because they would either make me cry or they would see me crying. I couldn't take it.

I was about to stand up and run to the restroom where Anthony wouldn't see me bawling like a baby when I suddenly felt him put his arm around my shoulder. I couldn't help it. I lost it completely and fell against him, crying my heart out.

I suppose it must have been about five minutes before I regained my composure. I continued to lie against Anthony's shoulder and he kept his left arm wrapped around me, squeezing me reassuringly. It felt so wonderful to have that arm around me. It had been so long since I had allowed anyone to hug me—not my grandparents, not anyone. This was wonderful.

But, then, I realized where we were, who I was with, and what I was doing. I sniffed and sat up.

"I'm sorry," I croaked with shame and embarrassment as I tried to straighten my tie.

"Why are you sorry?" Anthony asked.

I frowned. "I shouldn't have done that. I was being a baby, and anyway, you don't want to know any of that stuff."

After a moment, Anthony responded. "If we're going to be friends, you should be able to tell me stuff like that, important stuff, and crying isn’t being a baby when you’re feeling emotional."

At just that moment, I turned to look at him and saw the glow of the sun through the stained glass window suddenly move to our pew. Anthony's head seemed to glow, as if a golden nimbus from some renaissance painting had suddenly appeared above his head. I had never seen anything as beautiful as the sight of Anthony Macintosh's soft, white face, his deep blue eyes, his longish dark hair, and the glow of the stained glass about his face. At that moment, I knew that Anthony and I would indeed be friends. And for that, I was inexpressibly grateful.