"Jesus was an only son. The only son of God, who came into this world to teach us. Today we glorify his birth. G'day. Happy Christmas. It is good to see so many smiling faces this morning. If this old building could talk, it would tell us how happy it is to be full of people once again. It would tell us it is appropriate for so many of you to come visit the Church Cathedral of Christ the King, on the day we celebrate the coming of Christ."
CJ, sitting between Brett and Owen, looked up at the five stained glass windows behind the altar and smiled. His imagination saw the colorful rectangles with the rounded tops as a hand extending towards the vaulted ceiling. Or maybe the intention of the builders was to depict fingers reaching towards heaven. Whatever the significance, they were magnificent works of art.
"But since it is not able speak to us, on its behalf I welcome you. And I welcome the opportunity to speak with so many of you who I see but once or twice a year. The brevity of my remarks on this glorious day is intended to capture a year's worth of sermons in as concise a way as possible. So you do not fall asleep, and so you might consider returning to the house of the Lord on a more frequent basis."
CJ, along with most of those in attendance, chuckled at the bishop's comment about falling asleep. The combined sound of the multitude echoed through the vast interior of the Gothic style Christ Church Cathedral. The priest's cheerful mood emanated through his words and warm tone.
"Many of us are here out of habit, or out of obligation to our families. Or to enjoy our lovely chorus and see the wonderful decorations. Most of you are local residents, but some are visitors from other parts of Australia. I am also aware we have amongst us a few of our cousins from America. To all of you, I extend a warm greeting."
CJ, surprised at the acknowledgement of Americans being in the crowd, glanced at Owen with a questioning look. He was rewarded with a small wink and a lingering pat to the knee. The feeling of warmth the touch brought, collided with the slight nudge he felt from Brett on the other side. He looked at his father to see him smile smugly, as he swept his finger indicating the two of them and César.
"I am certain amongst you there are followers of other faiths. I would even bet there are some here who have no faith. Who do not believe in God. I could not care less. My welcome extends to you too. There is room in the house of the Lord for everyone. For even if you do not believe in Him, He believes in you. That is plenty enough for me."
CJ, now paying close attention, marveled at the reception being offered from the pulpit. Sitting in a pew somewhere in the mid-section of the nave, he heard murmured amens, and other sounds of agreement from those around him. He'd reluctantly agreed to attend the service this morning. He'd expressed doubts about going to church, something he'd not done since leaving Miami. His dads hadn't forced him. Instead, they'd described it as an opportunity to experience something different from what he was accustomed to. They'd been right.
"Within these walls, there is no man, there is no woman. There is no Koori, there is no European. There is no gay, there is no straight. There is no one here who is not a child of the Lord. We are all one people. His people. Created by God. United by love."
CJ, marveling at the ease with which sexual orientation was broached, wondered what the position of the Anglican Church of Australia was on gay issues. He was generally aware of the schism growing between the Episcopal Church in the United States―and its counterpart in Canada―with some of the more conservative congregations in parts of Africa and Asia.
"It is this love the Lord cares about. He sent his son to us out of love. To bring us a new covenant. To clean out the debris religion had accumulated over time. To give us what many have come to call the golden rule."
CJ smiled at the mention of what he'd adopted as his guiding principle, feeling somewhat justified in his choice. As his faith in God and the Catholic Church had evaporated, he'd embraced the concept of treating others as he wanted them to treat him. He'd become a firm believer in karma.
"I say God does not care if you believe in him because He believes in you. And as He believes in you, He would want you to believe in yourself. To acknowledge you can be His representative in this world regardless of who or what you are."
CJ, fully engaged in the dialogue being carried on in his mind, nodded. His lack of acceptance of an all-powerful, all-knowing being was in no way in conflict with what he was hearing. He had, over the past couple of years begun to realize religion was a way of explaining that which people couldn't understand, but this was different.
"In the Gospel of Luke, we are told: for to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. God has given each one of us much. He correspondingly expects much from each one of us. But it is not prayers, or church attendance, which are required. It is not even belief in his existence He seeks. No. What He envisages for each of us is that we act responsibly and with love towards our fellow humans. That we, in some way, live each day in the spirit of Christmas..."
• • •
"You know your way to the winery. Kate, Owen and I will go on ahead on our own." Joe spoke to JP as the group strolled through the streets of Newcastle; returning to the Crowne Plaza after the Christmas Day service. "You and Tom will be more comfortable in the large SUV."
"Sure, Dad. It would―"
"Excuse me," interrupted CJ. "Would you mind if I rode with you guys instead? I'll change clothes real quick, so you don't have to wait long."
"That would be brilliant!" exclaimed Owen, his smiling eyes shining. "We don't mind waiting, do we? We can have a coffee at the hotel, my shout."
• • •
"I hope you're ready, mate." Owen slightly adjusted the fabric bunched at the teen's neck. Told the temperature might drop again after the sun set, CJ had worn a hoodie over a faded red Wrigley Field t-shirt, after shedding the dressier outfit he'd worn to church. "Nice shirt, mate."
"Ummm, thanks. What should I be ready for?"
"The Liston mob," replied Joe from behind the wheel. They were on the road out of Newcastle, the rental car following close behind with César driving this time.
"Hush! It's not a mob!" Kate turned in her seat to look at the two young men sitting in the back. "We have a good sized family, CJ. Owen's dad runs the winery, but there are five of us siblings. All married, all with children of our own. With John Paul in town, the only one missing will be Spencer. Which is a shame. We haven't all been together for Christmas, since I don't know when."
• • •
"OWEN!" The high-pitched squeal was heard as soon as the car came to a stop to the side of a futuristic metal and glass structure. Honey colored tresses flew in the wind, as a barefoot girl with long tanned legs ran towards the vehicle. Clad in cut-off denims and a man's shirt tied around her waist―equally tan midriff exposed―she yanked the door of the Toyota open and threw her arms around Owen's neck. "You have to come open your presents. I can't believe you weren't here this morning."
"How about you let me breathe first, sis? Then I'll come in, change, and we can open presents while we eat yabbies. I'm guessing they're about ready by now, right?"
"Of course they are. All the kids helped Jack this morning. We got tons of them." The girl noticed CJ sitting next to her brother and, taking a step away from the vehicle, turned her attention towards him. "Hi, you must be CJ. I'm Elizabeth. Owen's sister."
"Yep, that's me," replied the amused teen. "Nice to meet you, Elizabeth. What the hell are yabbies'?"
"G'day, Elizabeth. I'm so glad you're happy to see us also," said Kate in a sarcastic tone. "Run along, Owen. Go change while I get our guests a glass of wine and introduce them around."
"Okay. I'll be right back. Try the Verdelho, CJ. It's my favorite. I'll give you a tour of the building when I get back."
Elizabeth kissed Joe, Kate, and JP hello, shook hands with Tom, Brett, and César when her cousin introduced them to her, and then scampered after her brother towards the modern structure they'd parked next to.
"Come along, boys" said Joe, walking through the cars, onto a wide green lawn in the back of the building. "I need a drink if I'm to face the pandemonium of a Liston family celebration."
"Dad married Mum `cause he figured he could drink for free the rest of his life," joked JP, taking hold of Tom's hand. The cop once again appeared to be somewhat apprehensive. "I don't blame him. We make some good shit."
"Your father was always a smart man," quipped Kate. "Now, about those yabbies you asked about, CJ. We have a dam on the property, the pond behind it is filled with the critters. They're a freshwater crustacean, a type of cray fish. Jack, my father, takes the grandkids out early every Christmas morning to catch them. We cook them in a big copper pot―salvaged from an ancient washing machine―by boiling them in salt water. The Verdelho Varietal Owen likes so well will go nicely with them."
The visitors from America were soon surrounded by the extended Liston family. CJ was hugged, had his hand shaken, and his hair ruffled, more times than he cared to remember. He heard G'day and mate so often, the words began to infiltrate his vocabulary much to the amusement of his dads. The boy nursed his glass of wine, taking small sips which barely wet his lips, while being mobbed by the younger members of the crowd, who treated him as one of their own.
"You don't like it?" asked Owen, using the bottle in his hand to indicate CJ's still full glass.
"I love it! I'm trying to make it last." CJ shifted his gaze between the Aussie and his fathers. "I'm allowed just one glass with meals."
"Tell you what, buddy," said César after exchanging a look with Brett. The marine gave him a barely perceptible nod. "We'll lift the limit today. But if you get drunk, you're not allowed to complain about a hangover tomorrow."
The winery's bistro, which had benches on the semicircular veranda overlooking the manicured lawn behind the building, was closed to the public. This was where Christmas lunch was served. CJ discovered most Australian families had forgone the hot meal traditional in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year. In its place, dishes appropriate to the warmer weather predominated.
Platters piled high with ham, chicken, crayfish, oysters, and what CJ thought were clams, burdened the tables with their weight. Owen explained the clam-like things were pipis―an Australian salt water mollusk. After sampling them, CJ decided they were just a type of clam after all. For every dish, there must have been two salad and vegetable platters. And wine flowed by the case, which was appropriate considering just beyond the grassy area were some of the Liston grape vines.
"You blokes enjoying yourselves?" The portly, white haired man had walked behind JP and placed both hands on Owen's shoulders. He looked at his guests before settling his gaze on CJ. "You still look sober, young man. What's wrong with you? At your age my grandsons had already drunk a bottle of wine each by this time. And squirreled another one away for later."
"Oh, that's just brilliant, Jack," said Owen over the chuckles of those within hearing. "Here I've been trying to impress these guys, and you go and ruin my well-constructed image. What kind of grandfather are you? Do you forget these are the people I'm going to be spending the next three years around?"
"Bah! They may as well get to know the real you now," said Jack waving his hand in dismissal. "I understand Owen promised you all a tour of the property. Interested in walking through the building before we sit back to eat dessert? He can take you through the vineyards later."
"Oh, yeah, I'd like that a lot," said CJ, standing.
"Definitely," added César. "Brett and I toured an old winery in France once, but I've never seen anything this modern."
"Modern it is. The structure isn't very old. The original one stood where the lawn now is. It was demolished when we built this one, but the cellar was kept, and expanded. So when you walk on the grass, there are hundreds of barrels of wine underneath your feet. This central portion is the only one regularly open to the public. It houses the bistro, shop, and tasting room. The west wing is the private residence, the eastern portion is where the actual wine making takes place."
"If Jack walks us through the winery side, I'll take you to see the house afterwards," said Owen.
"We constantly look for ways to improve our operation. That includes modernization of the facilities," continued Jack. "After Owen's first year at uni, he suggested some changes we just finished implementing."
"Did you study viniculture?" asked Brett, looking at the young man walking between him and CJ.
"Ohhh, viniculture. Big word, Papa," joked CJ.
"Asshole..." replied Brett.
"No, Captain. I just finished a Bachelor of Environmental Systems at University of Sydney. The changes Jack mentioned weren't a big deal. The canopy covering the bistro's outdoor sitting area, and most of the roof over the entire building, are now solar panels. They provide a portion of the electricity needed to power the operations."
"Not so small," interjected Jack. "The cost will be recovered in a few short years. The savings will add thousands of dollars in profit to our bottom line for a long time. And the positive publicity we've earned for being environmentally friendly is priceless."
• • •
"I hope you don't mind, but I told Elizabeth you're gay." Owen sounded hesitant. The sun was setting and he and CJ were once again walking amongst the vines. "She kept going on about how good looking and how nice you are. It sorta slipped out I thought I had a better chance with you than she did."
CJ chuckled and reached for Owen's hand. "Nah, I don't mind at all. I'm surprised she didn't already know." He intertwined his fingers with the older guy's before adding, "And you do, by the way."
The warm day had been cooled by a short afternoon thunderstorm. CJ had donned his hoodie once again, even though he felt warm inside. He wasn't sure if it was from all the wine he'd drunk, or from the company. Owen picked a not-yet-ready-to-harvest grape from a vine, and offered it to CJ, who plucked it from the extended fingers with his mouth. The crimson setting sun, the pink and lavender sky, and the sepia and jade vines, combined to create a riot of colors which made both men smile when they stopped to look at their surroundings.
Those smiles broadened as Owen's azure eyes locked onto CJ's aquamarines. They simultaneously tightened the grip of their fingers; warmth radiated up CJ's arm. He placed his other hand on Owen's chest, feeling a rapid heartbeat under it. They both tilted their heads to the side and slowly came closer. Owen stroked the younger guy's cheek, his gaze never faltering; he dipped his lips towards CJ's, until they met in a soft kiss.
• • •
"Are you sure you don't want to come surf with us?" asked Brett, patting the space next to him on the bed.
"Hell no!" replied César. "I plan on sleeping in, and then joining JP and Tom for a late breakfast. There are several varietals we failed to sample today. I aim to try out all the Liston wines by the end of tomorrow."
"You're going to be sloshed by lunch time."
"I doubt it. The amount of food these people consume helps soak up the alcohol. But if I do, so be it. Anyway, you're just going surfing because of Owen."
"What do you mean? You know I love surfing."
"Of course you do. But you're so damn worried CJ will end up in bed with that stud, you want to be around them all the time. You need to relax, Jarhead. If they're going to do anything, they'll find a way. You can't keep our son sequestered in his room. Or be around him twenty-four hours a day."
"So I should just let an older guy take advantage of our boy?"
"Like I took advantage of you? Isn't the age difference between us larger than theirs? Our boy, is no longer jail-bait. Hell, he ain't even a virgin! And as far as I can tell, Owen's one of the good guys."
"Good morning, Owen." Brett waved the young man over to the table he and CJ were sitting at in the hotel lobby. "Join us for a cup of coffee."
"Morning, Captain, CJ. Thanks, I can always use another coffee. Guys, this is my mate, Clarke. He followed me here in his ute. We have boards and wet suits in it for both of you."
"Hey, Clarke. Sit down, please. I'm Brett and this is CJ."
"G'day, guys. One more coffee sounds brilliant," replied the dark-haired newcomer. "We borrowed some stuff from friends, I think they'll fit you fine."
"Hi, guys," greeted CJ, bumping fists with both Aussies. His gaze lingered on Owen before lowering his eyes to stare at the white china cup in front of him.
"I'm looking forward to this, guys. Thanks for taking us out." Brett raised his hand slightly to get the attention of their waitress. "I hope I don't make a fool of myself, haven't been out in a couple of years."
"Right. Owen mentioned you grew up in California. I'd love to hit the waves there some day. What about you, CJ? Have you surfed much?"
"Ummm, never. Papa promised to teach me while we're down here."
"Don't worry, mate. Your dad can just enjoy himself," said Owen quickly. "I'll be happy to help ya get up."
• • •
"That was insane!" CJ and Brett were laughing as they carried the borrowed surfboards back to Clarke's truck. "Can we come back after lunch and do it again?"
"Mate, you did bloody well for your first time. And you're good, Captain. I'm impressed an old guy―"
"Fuck you, Clarke! Old my ass." Brett was quick to interrupt. "What are you? Twenty or so? I'm only ten years older. But I'll admit I'm out of practice."
"Nine," replied Clarke with an impish grin. "I'm twenty-one."
"Damn! I spend my life surrounded by ancients," said CJ, peeling off the upper portion of his wetsuit, allowing it to dangle around his waist. He accepted the towel Owen offered him, using it to dry his face and hair. "So, can we come back?"
"It might be a better idea if you wait a day or two before you do it again, dude." Brett stood partially hidden behind the open door of the vehicle, stripped off the borrowed garment entirely, and stepped into his shorts after quickly drying himself.
"Nice ass, Papa. And why would it be better to wait?"
"Asshole! Stop staring at my ass. You've been using muscles this morning in a way you normally don't. You're going to be sore later."
"Your dad's right, mate. Better to take a break for a day or two." Owen looked at CJ in a caring way. "I don't want you injured while on holiday."
"I've had enough for the day," said Brett, finality in his tone. "Let's go back to the hotel. You guys are welcome to shower and I'll treat everyone to lunch."
"That's nice of you, Captain. Thank you," Owen replied. "Clarke and I were planning on spending a couple of hours playing on the dunes at Stockton this afternoon. Not much use showering now. We'll be covered in sand and dirt soon enough."
"What do you mean playing on the dunes?" asked CJ.
Clarke pointed at his Toyota Land Cruiser as he replied. "My ute's got four-wheel drive. We're allowed to drive on the sand dunes at Stockton. Since Owen's been away at uni, we've not done it in a while."
"Would you guys like to join us?" Owen's face lit up as he shifted his gaze between Brett and CJ. "We were just going to stop at Maccas for a quick bite, and then head up to the beach." His eyes locked on CJ's, his eyebrows lifted as if in supplication, and he nodded his head expectantly.
"That sounds like fun," replied CJ. "What's Maccas?"
"Mate, that's McDonald's to you!" Clarke patted the teen on the shoulder before adding. "We gotta get you used to speaking Oztrayan."
Brett, who'd been watching the exchange between the younger guys with a small smile, closed his eyes momentarily, and slowly nodded. "I'll pass. But if you want to, you can go."
"Yes!" shouted CJ, pumping his arm in the air.
"But skip Maccas, CJ. Buy the guys a decent lunch. Use your card. I'll catch a cab to JP's parents place after I shower. Owen, you and Clarke join us for dinner tonight, okay?"
"Too easy!" replied the blond Aussie. "But you don't need to take a taxi. We can wait until you change clothes and drop you off. Or you could take my motorbike if you like. It's in the carpark across from your hotel."
• • •
Around four, after a couple of hours running the ute through the dunes, Clarke dropped CJ and Owen off at the Crowne Plaza.
"Mate, I had a blast with you and your dad today. He's one cool dude," said the dark haired guy as he made sure the boards they had left at the hotel were once again securely strapped in the bed of his truck. "Thanks for lunch, and thank him for the dinner invitation. But I need to head home now, my girl's going to kill me for being gone most of the day."
"Hey, man, you can invite her to join us for dinner if you want," replied CJ, putting his fist out to bump.
"Nah, see dinner's just an excuse. I'm planning on burying the bishop tonight, and don't want a meal in polite company to interfere."
As the three guys laughed, Owen gave his friend a shove. "You're such a wanker. Get out of here, I'll call you tomorrow to see what you're doing."
"He's cool, I like him," said CJ as they watch the car pull away from the lot. "Come on, let's go up. I need a shower."
"Yeah, me too. It's okay for me to use your bathroom?"
"Okay, you can go first. I'll call over to Joe and Kate's while you clean up. Since your dad took my bike, somebody will have to pick us up before dinner."
As the elevator door closed behind them, CJ faced Owen and placed a hand on his chest. "Actually, I was thinking maybe you'd like to shower with me? We can give each other a hand getting clean."
• • •
"I don't see the attraction," said Brett as he threw himself on the bed. He rolled over, kicked his shoes off, and scooted back until he was reclining against headboard. "What's the big deal with cricket?"
"Was that what we were watching on TV?" asked César as he started undressing. "I wasn't really paying attention, too busy sampling all that wine. Maybe instead of a plane we should buy a winery."
"I'd rather spend some bucks and import a few cases of the Liston stuff."
"Speaking of Liston, what the hell happened to you this morning?"
"What do you mean? You know I was surfing with the kids."
"Not that, I know what you were doing. What happened that you cut the apron strings? You left CJ and Owen alone. And by the way those two were looking at each other at dinner..."
"You noticed that, eh? Kinda cute. I think they may have messed around some. I caught one little whisper about a fun shower."
"Cute? Did you just say our kid and the big Aussie were acting cute?"
"Yeah, well... After you ripped into me last night I decided I had to cool it. I started paying attention to Owen—without castration being the first thought. Turns out the kid's okay. He was respectful of both CJ and me this morning. He's kind, and was patient when CJ was first trying to get up."
"CJ was having trouble getting it up?" César cocked his head and chuckled when he caught sight of Brett rolling his eyes.
"You perv! When he was trying to get up on the board. At his age he must have trouble keeping it down, not getting it up!"
"Yeah, you're probably right."
"Anyway, I decided if our son was going to get laid while in Australia, Owen was as good a prospect as anyone."
2016 CJ Abelló
Edited by: Mann Ramblings
This is a work of fiction set in the real world. Certain living individuals make appearances in the story; all other characters and the events in which they all participate are the creation of the author. Any resemblance of the fictional characters to actual individuals is purely coincidental.
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