Crabs Do It Sideways
(This bonus story is set a week before Heppel Ever After)
I get a call while I'm in the chapel, the secretary for the diocese cutting straight to the chase.
"Can you interview for a curacy spot on Friday? Another parish has agreed to meet you."
That should be a relief after the last few rejections. "And they know I'm engaged to—"
"A man? Yes."
At least that's one less hurdle, the only reason I can think of for so many knockbacks. My heart cautiously lifts as I agree before returning to an activity I hadn't expected to find joy in when I first came to Glynn Harber. Tidying children's books hadn't factored into my work before Charles exploded into my life like a dropped pot of glitter, adding sparkle to every corner. Reading the message that pings into my phone a few minutes later dims that brightness.
You're booked in for Friday at noon. They definitely want a one-to-one with your fiancé.
This confirmation should spell good news for me—it's a chance to jump a final ordination hurdle, not a reason to look at what Charles has added to this chapel and worry for him.
I wish these interviews didn't involve separate discussions.
Charles gets so flustered, but I could help them see he'd be an asset to any parish.
There's so much proof inside this building—in so many strings of paper angels that dance above me each time I light an altar candle, and in the pictures of Joseph that Charles asked his children to crayon. They decorate walls that had been bare until he filled them with so many technicolour dreamcoats. So what if the Joseph he printed was Mary's husband instead of one son out of Jacob's dozen? Anyone looking down from heaven would smile at his error, not frown at his lack of Bible knowledge.
Is that what the last interviewers tested during their one-to-one discussion with him?
And is that why he was so quiet after we left?
I pick up a book Charles must have left behind, a hungry caterpillar on its cover, and a lump of something other than food fills my stomach.
Did they make him feel stupid?
Dyslexia's given him enough of that feeling for a lifetime.
Maybe anger shows on my face when Teo finds me.
He hesitates in the chapel doorway, so I summon a smile of welcome for this boy who arrived at Glynn Harber with a face like the one I must just have mirrored. Only Teo isn't an angry boy now. He's a young man who's learned to straighten his hunched shoulders. He was hungry like the caterpillar on the book he finds me holding, only not for slices of cake and watermelon but for the second chance this school offers.
I let go of the anger I now realise has quietly simmered since that last rejection. Giving Teo all my focus feels better. So does sending up a silent thank you because would I have witnessed a transformation like his if I hadn't washed up here? He's on the cusp of growing wings like the caterpillar does in this book's final pages, a pair I hope he'll soar with. One more year here should do it.
I'll miss seeing him fly if this interview is successful.
I stamp on that thought before it takes hold. Some other padre will get the pleasure once I move on. I tell myself to be grateful for that as I listen to what Teo has come to tell me.
His message isn't one I expected.
"Mr Heppel says can you come quickly? There's someone in trouble in the car park."
* * *
Charles waits at the fence of his outdoor classroom.
For once, he looks troubled instead of sunny, his brow creasing in a reminder of our last parish visit until he sees me. His face changes then, bright again as if I'm the answer to all his problems. In truth, he's my solution.
"There you are!" He opens the classroom gate, his hand brushing mine on the latch, a small, casual contact that's as good as a key in a lock for me. He opens a place in my chest I didn't know still had space.
No. Not where I still have space. Where my love for him keeps expanding.
"Thanks for coming," he says as if I'd ever need to think twice. He squeezes my hand and it takes a moment to register what he says when he smiles, dazzling me more than all the glitter on those angels above my altar. "I can't leave the children until Nathan gets back."
"Back? Where is he?"
"With Luke, taking a turn at interviewing student teachers. He's due back any minute, but I think I've spotted another one having a bit of a crisis in the car park. I don't want to leave him out there all alone, having a little panic."
"A candidate is panicking?" I scan the cars, not seeing anything untoward. "Are you sure they're not just early for their interview?"
Charles laughs, the sound ringing, only that isn't his usual clear chime. This one pitches lower. "Oh, I'm pretty sure I know an interview panic when I see one." He points. "There. The car next to the weeping willow."
And this is what those other parishes missed out on because, yes, I might know my Bible from cover to cover, but Charles is fluent in emotion, spotting worry that's obvious now he points out a head resting on a steering wheel as if exhausted.
"Ah. Right. I'll go and check on him, Charles—"
He stops me. "Actually, could you watch my maggots? I… I think I know him." His next smile comes with a wince. "I don't mean Biblically." He's gone before I can tell him that his past hasn't ever mattered to me, aside from wishing we'd met earlier. The truth is that every moment we were apart brought our paths to this intersection, and for that, I'll always be grateful.
And whoever it is that winds down their car window for him looks grateful too, if a touch embarrassed as they leave their car with him. He carries an instrument case the children crowd around when Charles brings him in to meet them. And he was right about spotting panic. This young man's hand is clammy when he shakes mine.
Charles offers reassurance and then keeps him too busy for his panic to spiral. "Don't worry about going up to the office to wait with all the other candidates. Teo? Could you let the headmaster know that…?"
"Kieran," the candidate says, his accent a soft lilt. "Kieran Byrn."
Charles beams as if delighted—as if he truly knows him—and there's no way to ignore its impact. This young man blinks how I imagine I must have the first time Charles showed me his kindness in action. He follows as Charles does more of the same now, clapping his hands and talking a mile a minute.
"Teo, please let Mr Lawson know that Mr Byrn is here. He'll find us when he's ready. Now, come and meet the children. They'll take your mind off waiting." He goes inside, still talking, and he can't be aware that his voice carries. "Interviews are the absolute worst, aren't they? Always give me the jitters. Make me feel worse than useless. I'd be happy if I never have another."
Did he just say that to make Kieran feel better, or has he really been suffering through them for me?
I pay more attention as Charles shows off a classroom where he shines so much brighter than during any of our parish question-and-answer sessions so far. He's confident and completely at home, patting a cushion next to him in invitation and saying. "Children, we have a guest today, but only for a few minutes, so let's share our names and pick a letter for how we're feeling."
He leads by example. "My name is Charles Heppel. He points to the letter H. "And I'm huh for happy that the school break starts on Friday." He glances my way, and for a second, I forget everything but how much I love him when he says, "Because that means I'll get to go home early with our lovely padre to plan our wedding."
I have a sudden, awful insight then about how Charles might be able to smile while feeling wretched. It turns out it's easy when you don't want to upset someone special. My own smile is an example even though I know there's an interview summons on my phone that might delay our wedding planning. Again. Because this won't be the first time.
Is this what he's been doing? Smiling while holding back his worries?
I can't wonder for long because Kieran straightens like a meerkat at hearing that Charles is my fiancé. He also flushes at getting caught staring, but his grip on his instrument case loosens and he says, "Hello, children. I'm Kieran Byrn." He points to an alphabet card. "And this letter starts the word for how I feel right now. Who knows what it is?"
Little Maisie Dymond's hand shoots up. "That's a nuh for…" Kieran's clammy handshake was a clue for what his choice of alphabet letter could stand for, but she frowns, considering before covering her mouth and giggling. "Are you feeling naughty?"
Kieran shakes his head but he smiles and as if scales fall from my eyes, I see what Charles must have noticed the moment he drove into Glynn Harber. This isn't a student teacher racked with nerves. Of course, Charles recognised him.
He was on that TV singing contest for months.
What was it called?
The name escapes me, but Kieran provides the answer as he tells his story.
"Today I feel nuh for nervous like I did the first time I sang in the BritPop! singing contest. Have any of you watched it?"
Maisie's hand shoots up again and she hums the theme tune. "My daddies watch that show, but they call it TrueBrit!"
Kieran doesn't blink at another same-sex relationship reference. He chuckles instead. "Yes, lots of people who watched the season I was part of called it TrueBrit. It was one of the contest's hashtags. I was so nuh for nervous the first time I had to stand on that stage and sing in front of the TV cameras, my hands shook like this." He holds one up, showing the children a tremor I'm certain he's exaggerating. "Now I'm nervous again. So nervous I might need help opening my instrument case. Huh for help?" he says pointing to another alphabet card. "Does anyone here have a name beginning with that letter?"
I see little Hadi go still. Glynn Harber's quietest pupil has enough English now that he could answer. He holds back though, so Maisie speaks up for him. "Hadi does! He's very huh for helpful!"
"Maybe you could be helpful too." Kieran demonstrates how to open his case, not hurrying Maisie when she fumbles, smiling again at both of their ohs and ahs as if they've discovered treasure, not the flute he pieces together. He lifts it to his lips and fills the classroom with the same BritPop! theme tune Maisie had hummed, the noise covering the sound of the classroom door opening, our headmaster pausing there with Nathan to listen.
Kieran plays the same tune again only faster, jaunty, and the children clap along with him, then he plays it much slower, like a lament, and the children sway. He plays it once more at its usual tempo and asks which version the children liked best. It's an impromptu vote involving Charles, who draws a chart. Each child adds to a tally, Kieran weaving numeracy with negotiation in a way that's smart and skilful.
He plays the tune they voted as the winner one last time before lowering his flute and admitting, "I think music is magic. It can make people so happy." He plays the theme to SpongeBob SquarePants, and the children giggle. "And it can help on days they feel sad or lonely."
I don't know his next tune, but Maisie croons, "Do you want to build a snowman?" and Kieran sets his flute down to sing with her. Hairs rise at the back of my neck, his voice giving every one of those angels above my altar a run for their money before he returns to speaking.
"Most of all, music is something I lost once." He casts a quick look at Charles. "After the contest," he says quietly, his head hanging for a moment. "Looking back, it was too much pressure for three fifteen-year-olds who didn't know each other. Who didn't have honest adults to guide them. And who had to lie week after week to stay in the running. Lie to the viewers, I mean. And to each other." His voice drops. "To myself, the most."
"So you stopped…?"
"Singing?" Kieran nods. "Playing instruments? That too, for a while. Must make my wanting to be a music teacher seem strange, right? But it's also what got me through it. Music therapy," he says, unaware that Luke nods in the doorway behind him as he continues. "That's what I studied at uni. It helped me, so now I want to weave it through my lessons."
He blinks as if remembering his audience and returns to the theme of naming his feelings. "That's why I'm nuh for nervous. Because I've heard this school would be a good place to do that, although I can't be a typical candidate. I missed a lot of school to stay in the BritPop! contest. Then I couldn't face going back afterwards. Took me a lot longer to get to uni. I still find walking into big lectures a lot, thinking that everyone recognises me and thinks I'm a f—" He swallows, reaching for another card, and I get a ringside view of Charles sagging as Kieran confesses, "I don't want to fuh for fail again."
"Oh, me either," Charles sighs, and if I've ever heard him sound more heartfelt, I'll eat my clerical collar. I can't help tugging at it as he adds, "I huh for hate that feeling. I'm sure you'll be fine here though. Our headmaster is lovely." Charles oozes kindness—much more of it than he can have been shown at the interviews he's sat through for me.
I was meant to be under the spotlight, not him.
Has he felt to blame each time I was rejected?
I tuck that question away to mull over later because Charles isn't finished. He says, "Hadi? Could you grab my sheet of stickers?" He peels one from its backing, pressing it to the lapel of Kieran's suit jacket before passing one each to the children. "There, Mr Byrn. I'm making you an honorary member of our crab club." He grabs a toy version from the shelving, winding it up and setting it down to scuttle across the classroom. The children crawl away, following its sideways progress, and that's good because what Charles says next is quiet but raw with feeling.
"None of us followed a straight line to get to Glynn Harber. Not a single one of us, child or adult. Don't feel bad about life knocking you sideways because..." He pauses as the children return, cheering the mechanical crab's progress, its sideways journey bringing it full circle. "Just keep trying," Charles finishes. "You'll end up where you need to be as long as you keep going."
Luke speaks then. "Thank you, Charles." He joins us and extends a hand, but not only to shake with Kieran. He encourages him upright, not letting go as he says, "I'm Luke Lawson. Come and take a look at our music room with me. See if it feels as good a fit for you as you sound for Glynn Harber."
They leave together, the crab scuttling past again, the children copying its lesson that some destinations don't have a direct route. Charles beams before sighing again, sounding wistful. "Good to see that some interviews have happy endings."
I nod. Then I nod harder, coming to my own sideways decision.
I'll watch more closely on Friday.
If this interview doesn't go better, I'll have to rethink my own direction.
(until Heppel Ever After)
When I wrote TrueBrit, I deliberately didn't give any of the boy band members names, wanting readers to see them as homogenous -- as engineered for the contest rather than as individuals. I highlighted the negatives of the situation and how the pressure might lead competitors to act. That means readers only saw one, poorly behaved side to the boy band, perhaps not considering that their naive potential was also exploited like Ed and Pasha's #TrueBrit fake-dating relationship was for TV ratings.
Seven years later, Glynn Harber seems like a good place to see one of those young men get to fulfil a different kind of potential, along with Isaac from the last bonus story.
Now there's only one more student educator left to find before I slot these second generation stories into my writing schedule!
Thanks for reading and for making me feel excited to tell their stories.
Con Riley © 2022
This exclusive newsletter bonus short story may not be reproduced, or entered into databases such as Goodreads.