Father John Says
by Evan Carlton
I would have caught the ten o'clock ferry from Cirkewwa to Mgarr if I hadn't asked Mrs. Borg how her son was doing in London. She immediately stopped what she was doing and I sighed as I realised my mistake. Twenty minutes later, I knew all about Patrick's terrible time at university, how that girl had broken his heart and how his landlord, a very black man from Ghana, had cheated him out of the deposit on his room in the house in Cricklewood.
I drove as fast as my Transit van would allow, but the ferry was just pulling away from the dock as I arrived at the harbour. I cursed and reached for my phone to tell Maxine I would be home an hour later.
"The eleven o'clock is cancelled," said a piping voice from somewhere outside the van.
A brown mop of hair appeared in the window next to me. Two chestnut eyes observed me with interest.
"How do you know?"
"Mr. Camilleri just told me. He sells the tickets." The boy waved vaguely towards the small office where tourists could buy tickets and maps of Gozo. Outside there were two small metal tables and four plastic white chairs. I felt the sun starting to warm up the air in the car. I hit the speed dial button on my phone.
"Don't tell me you missed the ferry, Joe."
"I missed the ferry, Maxine. And the eleven o'clock is cancelled. Should I just come home?"
"No, you promised Anthony you'd fix it today. He can't go without his boat for another week. Just go and I'll see you later."
"I should have just ignored Mrs. Borg. She wouldn't let me leave the shop."
"You're too good, Joe. That's your problem, you know?"
I sighed and said goodbye. The chestnut eyes were still watching me. I leaned over and took my wallet out of the glove compartment and opened the door to get out of the van. The boy jumped back.
I wiped the sweat from my brow with a white handkerchief. Only ten o'clock and already so hot. It was going to be a long day.
I walked towards the ticket office, the boy trailing behind me. He was wearing an ancient striped T-shirt and a pair of brown shorts that looked two sizes too small for him. His cheap plastic flip-flops had been repaired with tape. I ignored him until we were inside the office. A man, Mr. Camilleri I assumed, was reading the Times, his half-moon glasses sitting low on his nose. He looked up.
"The eleven o'clock is cancelled. Didn't Mark tell you?" I looked down at the boy, who nodded vigorously.
"Yes, he told me. I just wanted to get a cold drink and a ticket for the mid-day."
The boy looked at me with a hopeful smile and I sighed again. "Two Cokes, then." The boy beamed at me and ran to the fridge, pulling out two bottles. Mr. Camilleri placed two cheap glasses on the counter, along with my ticket for the mid-day ferry and a newspaper.
I went outside and sat at the table. The boy immediately came and joined me. I looked at him. "Why are you following me?" I asked, my frustration at missing the ferry making it come out more harshly than I had intended. The boy looked at me sadly and picked up his Coke and went back inside. I unfolded my copy of the Times and tried to concentrate on the front page. After a few minutes, I stared into the chestnut eyes watching me through the office window. "Come and sit down. You're driving me crazy, staring at me like that." He grinned and came outside and sat down. I returned to my newspaper.
"Why are you going to Gozo?" he asked. I sighed yet again and folded up my newspaper.
"To fix my uncle's boat. The engine is leaking oil and he can't go out to fish."
Mark stared at me. "Do you go fishing as well?"
"No, I just fix the engines when they break. I don't fish."
"That's good," he said. I took a sip of Coke.
"What about you? What do you do for a living?" I asked him. He grinned and then burst out laughing, a rippling sound that made me smile back at him.
"I'm only twelve. I don't have to work."
We sat in silence, contemplating each other. I reached for my newspaper.
"I live up there," he said quickly, pointing over my shoulder to the hill behind me. I turned and saw a winding road leading up to a decrepit looking building.
"That's a very big house for just you, Mark," I said. He laughed again.
"There are lots of us. It's an orphanage."
"Oh," I said, taken aback.
"Father John says it's not the outside of the house that's important, but the inside. That's where God lives."
"In your orphanage?"
"Father John says."
"Do you see him there?" I asked, teasing him. He knew I was making fun of him, but he smiled anyway.
"No. But his works are all around us," he said, his arm sweeping grandly across the horizon.
"Did Father John say that as well?" Mark nodded solemnly. "He says a lot, this Father John of yours."
"He's very clever. He knows lots of things."
"Have you lived at the orphanage all your life?" I asked as he finished his Coke in one long swig.
"Since I was six. My mother died when I was being born, and my father drowned six years ago. He was a fisherman."
"Why? Did you know him?"
"It's just something you say." He shrugged his shoulders and stared at me.
"Do you have children?" he asked.
"No. Not anymore." I said, immediately regretting it. He was about to say something, but changed his mind and we sat for another minute or so in silence.
"I have to pee," I said, getting up. "Do you want another Coke?"
"No. One is enough. Father Johns says we should do everything in modernation."
"Moderation," I said. He shrugged.
I walked towards the door of the toilet. He followed me. I turned around.
"I have to pee as well," he said.
I walked inside and stood at a urinal. He stood at the one next to me. Suddenly he pushed his shorts all the way down to the ground and started to pee.
"Why do boys do that?" I asked.
"What, pee?" he said, looking down intently.
"No, pull their pants down all the way. Can't you just pull them down enough so that you can pee?"
"I don't know. Sister Agnes says we can't be trusted to pee without getting it all over ourselves. I suppose that's why."
I zipped myself up and he bent over to pull up his shorts. We both washed our hands at the sink.
We went back to the table, but he was restless. He pulled the label off his bottle and swung his legs backwards and forwards. In the end I snapped at him.
"Can't you sit still? It's like you've got fleas." He looked at me, offended.
"I don't have fleas. Father John checks us every day for lice and things."
'I bet he does,' I thought to myself.
"I'm just bored. Can we drive somewhere?"
"Where to?" I asked, folding up my newspaper again.
"There's a bay just down there. We can swim."
"I don't want to swim." He thought about it for a while.
"Then I can swim and you can read your newspaper."
We drove ten minutes to a rocky bay. A small path led down to the water. I sat of a flat rock and unfolded my newspaper. He pulled off his shirt and shorts and stood staring at me.
"You have to watch me in case I drown."
"Can't you swim?" I asked, worried that this was a mistake. He laughed.
"Of course I can swim. Everyone in Malta can swim. But sometimes people drown even though they can swim."
I watched as he dived into the clear water. He surfaced with a huge grin on his face.
"The water's really nice. Warm. Come in and swim." I smiled and shook my head.
"It's fine. You have fun and I'll just watch."
He swam well, staying underwater for half a minute at a time, then surfacing to show me shells and interesting rocks he found on the seabed. His skin was a deep brown but his bottom was pale white as he twisted and turned under the water. He hadn't started puberty yet, but I could tell it wouldn't be long.
Finally he was satisfied and he climbed out of the water and sat next to me on my flat rock. He lay back in the sun and sighed contentedly.
"Father John says we shouldn't dry in the sun as the salt will make our skin crack and we'll look old, even though we're still young. I don't care, though. I like it."
"I won't tell anyone," I said conspiratorially.
He giggled and closed his eyes. I did a few clues in the crossword, but the steadily rising temperature was making my brain slow.
"What else does Father John say?" I asked.
"When Mary Mifsud broke her leg playing on the roof, everyone told him it was because she was a mean girl. She punches other children, you see. Father John said that she broke her leg because she was on the roof, not because she was mean. He said the roof can take care of its own business. It doesn't need God's help." I was warming to Father John.
"Another time, a worker was fixing the water system, and a pipe broke. The worker shouted 'Jesus Christ!' and Father John said that if Jesus had made the pipe break, wine would be coming out instead of water." I laughed at that. He lay there in comfortable silence, the sun drying his skin.
"Why did you day you didn't have children anymore?" he said suddenly.
"Because she died" I said.
"How? Did she drown?" he sat up on his elbows and looked at me intently.
"No. Her name was Celeste. The heavenly one, it means. She had leukaemia. Do you know what that is?" He nodded.
"It's when the blood attacks the body. I saw it on television."
"That's almost right. One day she fell down at school and they had to test her blood. They found it, but it was too late. She died six months later. That was three years ago."
"So she would be almost as old as me now?" he asked, staring off into the distance.
"Yes, I suppose so," I answered.
"Dad drowned even though he was saved," Mark said. I looked at him, confused.
"The boat capsized and they all fell in the water. He climbed into the dinghy but then he saw that one of his friends was still missing. The fishing boat was upside down. So he dived back in and saved his friend, but his foot got caught in a line and he drowned."
I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just said I was sorry.
"Why didn't he stay in the boat? He knew I was waiting at home for him," Mark said in a sad voice.
"I'm sure he didn't know he was going to die. Otherwise he would have stayed in the boat," I said. "I think he was just being a good man." Mark opened one eye and looked at me. "He knew he wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he did nothing and his friend died. So he dived back in."
Mark nodded, satisfied at my analysis.
"Do you think he was thinking of me or God when he drowned?"
"You, of course. Nobody thinks of God at that moment."
"Because we don't know what God looks like. He's an idea. Your dad probably thought of you and hoped you'd be alright."
We sat in silence for a while.
"So do you like the orphanage?" I asked, for want of something better to say.
"I like Father John. And I like some of the other children, but not all. Some of them are mean to me."
"Because I'm quite old. Most children get adopted before they're ten. Now I won't get adopted anymore. People don't want you when you're twelve. But it's okay. I'm going to stay and take over the orphanage when Father John dies."
"Is he very old?" I asked. Mark nodded.
"He's almost fifty, so I suppose he'll die soon." I couldn't stop myself laughing out loud. I saw Mark was offended.
"I'm sorry; it's just that fifty isn't very old. I think he'll still be alive when you're fifty."
"Hmmm. Well I hope so. He's very nice, and nice people should live longer."
He pulled on his brown shorts and moved to sit between my legs, his back to my chest.
"What are you doing?" I asked in alarm.
"Father John lets me sit like this when I watch TV in the evening. Don't you like it?"
"No it's fine," I said, relaxing.
I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the memory of Celeste sitting with me like this, her shoulder blades digging in to my stomach, her hair getting in my mouth as she chattered incessantly about her day at school and what all her friends had said to her. I felt my throat narrow when I remembered the scent of her hair, the touch of her soft skin. Tears pricked at my eyes and I blinked to clear them. I pushed Mark aside and stood up.
"We need to get back to the ferry. If I miss it, Maxine will kill me."
Much later, when the ferry docked back at Cirkewwa, the sun was already setting. I scanned the car park for a stripy T-shirt and too-small brown shorts, but I couldn't see him. It was dark when I got home. Maxine smiled as she opened a beer for me.
"That was a long day." she said, rubbing my shoulders. I put my head on her arm.
"Would you like to go to Cirkewwa tomorrow?" I asked suddenly.
"Why on earth?"
"There's someone I'd like you to meet."
This story is a late entry and is part of the 2016 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: May I Help You?". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 18 October to 8 November 2016 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, but, because it is a late entry, may not be rated against other stories on the competition home page.
The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]