HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Winner 2014

Robert’s story is subtle and complex. It gives us an immediate and powerful insight into the psychology of a young boy coping with difficult circumstances in his life, yet at the same time provides a counterbalance from the other characters from whom those circumstances arose, and a back story that is ambiguous but compelling.

Robert Maslen comes from Yorkshire.

He writes fiction and poetry and has had a couple of pieces published in journals.
In his professional life he researches metaphor, in particular the revelatory power of analysing the metaphors people use in everyday speech.
Before going back to school he taught English in London and Mexico City.
HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Fruit of the Vine

Kevin is fatter than me. I'm not fat at all. It's bulging over his collar like a little white bun as he leans against the door. I can't open the door on my own.
My legs are cold. And tired. I can hardly lift them. My shoes just scrape along. You need sleep or you don't grow. I'm not growing like I should.
My legs are thin when I look down at them. We have to wear shorts. Kids from other schools don't have to and they laugh at us. It's because of the suffering of God. Your legs get cold and leaves scratch them when it's windy like today. Leaves are like locusts, like a swarm of pennies.
I like it inside. It's quiet and warm. The walls are cream and the windows have colours in like grass and blood. When someone kicks a kneeler or says something out loud, a prayer, maybe, it echoes all around. The noise doesn't want to go. It's a ghost, like someone whispering in your ear. I've got goosebumps. I want to go to sleep.
'Shit. Bennett.'
Kevin's in front and he's there, the curate, watching the sacristy door, already dressed in his robes. His trousers stick out at the bottom, like bark when it's dead and black round a mushroom. He's wound up tight, grabbing his elbows. Kevin can go first.
'For God's sake, try and get here on time.' Bennett's face in the gloom, his thin little line of a mouth, tight little eyes. He wants to be angry. 'You're not let out of school to loiter round. You're here to do a job. Is that understood?'
'Yes, Father.' Kevin looks really serious. Bennett thinks he means it.
There's this moment when the cassock is over my head I just want to stay inside, just float away on the smell of cotton and incense. It strokes my head like my grandma used to when she wasn't dead. Bennett's still staring. His forehead's like mud, yellow pissy mud with tyre tracks in.
'Two minutes past.' He's tugging on the bell rope and we've gone serious, walking out one after the other. The air rumbles with everyone getting to their feet. Once, before he went, my dad took me bowling. Sounds like that.
Kevin doesn't ever stand still on the altar. He moves from side to side and bumps me. He's doing it now. My hands are on my stomach. It's empty and I feel sick. On the wall opposite, an angel's standing over the devil with a sword of frozen milk. The devil's shitting himself. That's how it should be. Right and wrong and the devil shitting his pants. I've got a pain in my stomach.
They're all old. Mrs Helmsley with her hunched back and kind, tired face. Mr Majoubian, with his dark, shiny head. He had a shop from history, an ironmonger's. I've got a book with a picture: "Saxon forge." I think of it like that.
Bennett's staring them out. He really, really cares about words. 'Brethren, let us call to mind our sins.' His Adam's apple looks like an ugly, bald doll hanging off the veins on his forehead. People say what they're meant to, between slow chuffing coughs.
There's a noise at the back. People quite often come late to morning mass. They've got school runs, else they're old and slow. No need to look. It's normal. Bang. So it's a stranger. Anyone else would know you have to hold the door while it shuts. It's Mum.
I don't understand how she got up. She'd usually be out sparko till Doctors comes on after a night like that. But look at her, all balanced like a model, drifting down the aisle. She looks nice. She's got her orange cardigan on and long brown boots. It was three o'clock when I put the blanket over her in the living room. She always says, 'Good boy, good boy,' without opening her eyes. What's she doing here?
She's going in front of Mrs Helmsley. I'd do that, too. You'd feel safe. You know, just looking at Mrs Helmsley, that she'll be nice to you. Ah, but there. You can tell now, least I can. She's sort of sunk down. How did she even get here?
'I thought your dad was the Catholic one.' Kevin's breath tickled my ear. He's right, though. That's what I don't get. He's leaning on me. 'You probably can't remember.' That's true too and I mind that it's true but I have to let him dig a bit and not say anything back. That way, most of the time, he leaves it be.
I can't look down there again. It's just like, you know something's going to happen. I'll stare at whatever I'm doing and try not to think about her. Like holding up the order of mass so Bennett can read it without peering. My arms will tremble but I won't give in.
Doing the censer – click, click – I like that. The weight swings off my finger, smoke puffs out. Close your eyes, drift through it. I probably look really holy, but my thoughts are bad. They're thoughts you shouldn't have in church. There was this bloke on her in the kitchen once and she looked at me like she was dead and they didn't stop.
I can't keep still. I'm rocking and fidgeting and I know I am. I want to be like that angel with the sword and be strong and win and make it right. If I could just sleep a bit it'd be better.
The consecration. It's hard to say, but you remember it because that's when you have to concentrate. Bennett's got the host up, but no, no, don't! Kevin's doing the thing with the bell, really going for it. Sounds like a fire alarm, the fire alarm they'd have in heaven, all tinkly and angely.
Something's happening, something out of whack that shouldn't, not here. I don't want to look, but how do I not? Okay, okay, go on. It might not be...oh, God! It's her. The worst thing always happens if you think it won't, even for a second. You've always got to think the worst will happen, then it might not. But it will sometimes. It is now.
She's kneeling like the others, but slumped back on her seat. I can see her shaking, even from up here. She's breathing funny. Her lips are quivering. It's a horrible sound, and it echoes up so the church seems full of it.
Mrs Helmsley is half stood up and reaching out to her shoulder. And I can't breathe either, now. I'm making a little noise because my neck is so tight. People are looking at her, but Bennett's just going on. Right, right, better. She's touching Mrs Helmsley's hand, bowing down now, hiding her face with her fingers likes it's sunny.
'That's the DTs, that.' Kevin sounds like a teacher, a shitty one. 'She's had that before. My mum's seen her, outside the offie. You want to get her looked at.' They all know. All of them. It doesn't help. Nothing helps.
Kevin's on the bell again now. Father Bennett has the chalice over his head. He looks angry, shocked, but he always does about now. Wine turns to blood. That's a mystery. It makes you frown.
Communion is usually the best bit because you get to come to the front and look at people. Not today. I'm supposed to catch the host with this plate if it falls. It never has fallen but I've always got to think it will, or it will. She's shuffling this way with all the pensioners.
A plane going past the window like that always makes it seem the church is blinking. There are places to go and some people go there. I want to do that. I want to go to Disneyland Paris.
It's her turn. She's beautiful. She's got big wet baggy eyes, blue eyes like the jewels in the front of the altar, the diamond ones in the gold cross. Her hands are still shaking.
I've got a look on, ready for when she sees me. It's sort of saying – it's all right, don't be sorry, or embarrassed, or whatever. I'm trying to make it safe, just normal. But she won't look. She's just staring at Bennett, won't look anywhere else, not for a second. I thought she came because I was here, but she didn't. I don't think she knows it's me. I don't think she knows I'm a server. Look at her. It's like her eyes are vibrating, like you can hear them way high, like a dog whistle or one of those stars that's a radio. She's got a look on like she's decided, but I don't know what she's decided. I can see the veins spreading out all round her nose like the end of a river when it's lots of little rivers, but red. She's so white where you can't see blood. Why is she looking at him like that?
And Bennett. Why are his eyes like that? He's leading her on. He doesn't know her, though. What's it to him? He's got that look like Jesus in pictures, the one where the children come to him, when he suffers them. It's the face that's meant to go with love.
'The body of Christ.' A little nod, so tiny you can hardly see it. The host is on her tongue. There's no wine at morning mass, except for priests. Watching her go she looks bent and small.
There are words in me. Hot words that have to come out. There's blood in my stomach and smoke coming off. I think I'll boil if I don't talk.
'You bastard.'
This woman is looking at me, rich-looking, tweed hat and pink scarf, like a horse about to sneeze. And Kevin, he's purple, the same look he had when we found porn mags in that chimney in the woods. Bennett hasn't flinched.
There're things happening, following one after the other. Suddenly Bennett's saying, 'The Mass is ended...' Let me look. I have to, like a dare. She's gone.
'Thanks be to God.'
He's waiting behind the door, in the gloom. You just know, you feel it, when a thing's coming. You have to stand and wait. He doesn't wait. He's bent over. His nose is right in mine. His face is wax. His breath stinks of something, like onions, rotten stuff. His lips are back from his teeth. His teeth are brown, like the room.
'You grubby little swine. If you had any idea, any idea how she suffers. But you just don't care, do you? It's no wonder. It's absolutely no wonder. You can get that robe off, tidy up, and then get out. And you will never, never serve on my altar again.'
He's gone, but only to Kevin. 'And you, if you ever pull that trick with the bell again, you're straight off my servers' list. Is that understood? I know your father. He'll back me up.'
Kevin looks like he's about to cry, but I know it's a laugh he's keeping in. Kevin doesn't feel things like I do. Someone's taught him something and he doesn't need to be scared.
Slam. Behind his door you can hear Bennett muttering.
'Knobcheese.' Kevin's looking at me now. 'Oh, you're not gunna beef? Don't be soft!' I want to answer but I can't.
He's got my arm – 'Come on' – and he's leading me to the sacristy kitchen. It's even darker here, oak panels from floor to ceiling. We're by the sink, where the little barrel is.
Kevin's got one of the cruets in his fat, pink fingers. The wine is spashing into it. It looks black inside the cup. A few drops are on Kevin's cuff, spreading, spoiling the cloth like sins that never wash out.
His eyes are closed. He's swallowing, making a sound like a frog. Now he's looking, 'Aaaaaah,' all breathy, filling the cup again, holding it out to me. His lip looks bloody, darker than the stain on his cuff.
But no. Not that. Not me. Piss off.
The twat's doing a chicken noise and flapping his arms.
Again. Have it.
No. I won't. No way.
'You probably couldn't take it anyway.' Like my dad, that. He liked to show you what you were, in his eyes. What you weren't.
'It's a man's drink.'
His face is hanging right in front of mine. Like he knows me. Like he's got me measured up. But he knows fuck all. A pissy little cup of wine.
'That's nothing.'
He was going to down it, I'm sure he was. He was right on the verge. But he's seen something. He's peering right in my face, getting this little smile on him. He's got the cup right against my lips. It's warm to touch and soft. How can metal be soft? I'm breathing fumes. There are goosebumps on my legs. There are words again inside. They're not hot, or soft, or tired.
They're not anything.