K. J. Pedersen
THE NIGHT HAD gotten downright cold, I realized the next morning. I stirred, opened my eyes slowly, and found myself almost face to face with Shane. Yes, well ... I hadn’t returned home the night before.
Shane and I talked for a long time after his mother brought the cookies outside to us. It was unpleasantly chilly on the back porch by time we finished eating and so we went inside to continue our conversation. We had a lot of catching up to do. Cully was chatty too. By one in the morning, Martha insisted I either go home or spend the night. Shane and Cully both told me I had no choice in the matter. “Sleep over or die, Matti,” Cully had said with an evil little grin. I’d missed the last bus south anyway, by a long time, so I really didn’t have any options. And since there was only the foldaway, I wound up sleeping there with the brothers.
I sat up a little. Cully was between us, curled up in a little ball, pressed in tight against his brother’s chest. My flesh was covered in goose bumps. I moved carefully away from the lad, not wanting to wake him, then pushed the covers off, stood up from the foldaway bed, and walked to the living room window. It had rained during the night. The fresh scent of morning after rain was everywhere. I took in the delightful scent again before closing the window.
“Hey, man, good morning.”
I turned toward the voice. Shane was upright. He wiped the sleep from his eyes.
“G’morning,” I replied.
Shane and Cully slept in nothing more than their underpants, which, as Shane informed me before we went to bed, his mother thought was thoroughly immodest. He laughed at that and at me because I slipped under the covers still wearing my trousers. It’s true, I hated wearing anything other than underpants to bed too, but I wasn’t about to strip off and make myself comfortable. I was a guest in their home. Shane and Cully made fun of me because Wulfric, they said, wasn’t nearly so ‘prudish’ on occasions when he spent the night.
Shane stood up then. Because it was so cold, he pulled the covers around Cully, and tucked them tightly about his sides. Cully shifted a little, then instinctively bundled up even tighter.
“Drop your trousers, man,” Shane said.
“Aren’t you going to shower?”
“I guess so.”
He threw me his robe. I took off my trousers and put on the robe. He pushed me toward the bathroom.
“Whoa, hey, hey!” I protested as he followed me inside.
“We’ll save time and hot water if we shower together.”
“No way, Shane!”
He’d already thought ahead, and held up two pair of clean briefs. “Don’t be so fucking shy, Matti. We can shower in our underwear, okay?”
I nodded slowly, took off the robe, and stepped into the shower stall with Shane. The hot water felt great against the cold air. After washing my hair, and soaping myself good, I lingered in the hot stream. Shane pushed me as he tried to get under the water himself. He pushed me again, out of the way, against the tiles. They were freezing! I pushed back. It was funny really, the two us struggling to shower in that tiny stall. Gradually we decided cooperation was easier than competition; he washed my back, and I did the same for him. Fuck, I was so embarrassed, especially when I noticed Shane’s involuntary physical response to our closeness. My brother was gay ... and here I was showering with Shane.... Fuck! I was just embarrassed, that’s all!
“Make it behave,” I said.
“Don’t growl at me! I can’t help it,” he said with a shy grin, placed a hand over the front of his underpants, and covered his half-swollen manhood. Then he gave my midriff and crotch a furtive look.
I dried off quickly, wrapped a towel around my waist, pulled down my sopping wet briefs, and took the clean pair Shane had offered me. Shane did the same thing and changed underwear with a towel around his waist. He wiped deodorant under each arm, then handed the tube to me. He brushed his teeth while I gargled peppermint mouthwash.
“Fuck Godric,” he said suddenly. He was staring intently at the scratches on his face and the bruise on his chin in the steam-fogged mirror. “Fuck all those assholes! What do they know anyway? I am just as good as they are. I’m not white trash.”
It wasn’t really a statement I could reply to. I just dropped my towel and reached for Shane’s robe.
Shane laughed. “It’s the crack of dawn, huh?”
“Oh, haha, very funny.” Shane’s underpants were too small for me, low-rise, and I knew perfectly well that about a half-inch or so of my ass was exposed above the waistband, not to mention my lower belly and a stray tuft or two of pubic hair up front. I tugged the briefs up higher on my hips, felt them slide snug between my buttocks — they were too small, too tight! — and pulled on the robe. I turned up my middle finger at him. “Fuck off.”
He offered me this really wicked, amused grin.
There was a knock at the bathroom door. “Shane, hurry up.” It was his mother. “Oh, and by the way, thanks for using all the hot water.”
“It’ll heat up again,” he said, adjusted the towel around his waist, and opened the door. “A hot shower felt great, mum. It’s freezing in the apartment this morning.”
“Only because you left the living room window open last night.” Her eyes widened when she saw me follow Shane out of the bathroom.
Shane noticed the look on her face too. “Oh, come on, mother. We showered in our underwear. Big deal. It’s not like he’s my boyfriend or something, you know.” He swatted my rear.
Martha rolled her eyes. “I will never understand teenage boys.”
I was blushing so hard it felt like my face was on fire. I quickly stepped into the living room area. But I saw it all and could hear every word they said as I dressed.
“Shane, what’s happening with you?”
He tried to walk past her. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Listen, son, you can’t keep this up.” She touched his shoulder, then tried to turn him around to face her. Reluctantly, he allowed it. She touched his chin and tenderly rubbed the bruise. “You can’t take on the whole world.”
“Sometimes you have to defend your honor, mum.”
“Spare me the heroism and all the childish rhetoric.”
He pulled away from her. “You don’t understand.”
It was uncomfortable for me to see and hear their exchange. It seemed private, like the kind of thing Shane wouldn’t want me to witness.
“I understand this much: You will be expelled from the academy if you keep this up. I took out that loan last year so you would be able to finish your education. You may not be able to go on to the University. But you are lucky to have any education at all.”
“Mum, listen — ”
“I know it hurts to be on the bottom of pile. But this is your last year with those boys.”
“And what do I have to look forward to? I mean, honestly? At best I’ll be able to get a clerk’s job in an office somewhere. Or perhaps as a foreman’s assistant in industry.”
“Isn’t that better than not being a clerk in an office or a foreman’s assistant?”
“Father worked for himself,” I said. “That’s what I want, mum. To be free of all the hierarchies. I don’t want to work for anyone.”
“Your father never made more than the median income — ”
“True, the median household income. He did well for us. We always had food on the table, and a home, and you didn’t have to work because he made enough — ”
“I am trying my best to provide for this family, Shane, considering the circumstances.”
“And I would never suggest otherwise! I appreciate everything you have done, mum. Everything! But we are sinking, and you know it. I just told you I do not want to work for anyone else, but I’m not so stupid as to be impractical. I have to take a job. Somewhere.”
“Absolutely not. That is out of the question. You will finish school first. Your grades are already poor enough. Taking a job will make things all the worse.”
“Something has to be done.”
“Even if the unemployment rate wasn’t approaching fourteen percent, you would have trouble finding the kind of employment and income we need. An education will ensure that you have a much better chance to find decent, safe work. Besides that, we are not sinking. We are breaking even every month with the aid we receive from the church.”
So, excepting hand-outs from the local parish, they were sinking. That was what Shane had tried to tell me the night before.
“Charity has its purpose, I suppose,” he said.
“Be grateful at least for the fact you have two and three meals a day to look forward to. There are others, in Niew Lifrapol especially, who don’t have even that!”
“A livable wage would be better!”
To that, she nodded in agreement. Then she went on, “You know, Shane, it wouldn’t hurt if you went to church occasionally.”
“Mum, I know how you feel, but how can I make it clear to you that I am not religious?”
“Your true spiritual nature is still underdeveloped, Shane,” she said. “The time will come when you understand His purpose for you.”
“Really? When? Will it be after Authority and Fate have ground me under foot?”
“Come to church this Sunday, Shane. Bring Matti.”
“I’m not interested,” he said. “And I doubt he would be either.”
Martha’s eyes met mine. There was a hopeful spark there. “Anna and I used to talk about spiritual matters from time to time. Your mother is a good Christian woman. Surely her faith rubbed off on you and Johannes just like her sense of social and political justice did.”
“The Kirkagárds are not a religious family, mother. They’ve never been regular church-goers. Particularly not Mattæus.”
“I can speak for myself, Shane,” I said. “Martha, it’s true. I’m not religious; I’m not a believer; I’m a Christian only by the virtue of having been christened; I’m agnostic.”
A sad look fell over her face; I knew I’d hurt her by telling her the truth. But I couldn’t lie. Jesucristus may have been a fine man, a great thinker and social philosopher — like Plato, the Buddha, or Confucius — but I didn’t believe in gods, demons, angels, ghosts, elves or hobgoblins either.
“Then bring Johannes instead,” she said. “You’re friends with him as well.”
“Johannes might take up such an invitation,” Shane said, “but I’m not interested in going to church. Look, I don’t want to talk about this. You know how I feel, even if you don’t understand it.”
My mother and I argued about religion sometimes too and I could see it was the same with Shane and his mother. I tried to avoid the subject at all costs. I knew how much it hurt her because I would not go to church, would not pray — would not pray even at the supper table — and that I did not share her faith. My agnosticism, she knew, was, in fact, outright atheism.
Nevertheless, my mother was both a political and religious libertarian, and she openly defied the claims of authority coming from Roma, Byzantium, and Lund, be they political or moral. We agreed that the Church, the State, and Capital united constituted a threat to Freedom like no other. For whatever evils this republican, plutocratic regime wrought, at least it had brought an end to theocracy, and the subordination of human affairs to mysticism! (Never mind that there were Conservatives and Christian Nationalists who worked feverishly in an attempt to roll back such gains.)
During the final years of the 18th Century — 1794 - 1795 — when a revolutionary spirit swept across Europa from Terra Nova — the New World — the three main branches of the Christian Church came together and rallied to the defense of the old monarchial order. The Divine Right of Kings was at stake, and the Tsar of the Rus; the Hellenic and Anatolian lords and nobles; the kings of the Francia, Iberia, Scandia, Bavaria, Bohemia; the Bishops of Roma, Byzantium, Moskva, Lund, Hannover, they all came together to defend the ancient regime against this secularist republican threat. The Schism between the Northern, Western, and Eastern churches was officially closed at the Council of Lund in September, 1795; Corpus Christi — the Body of Our Lord — was reunified; Ecclesia Iesuchristi — the Church of Jesucristus — was renewed. Despite the best efforts of the Church to overcome these rational, humanistic ideals, the Great Republican Revolution was accomplished at last in 1816 when the Empire of the Rus succumbed to Republicans, Constitutionalists, and Liberals.
The church officially reconciled itself to the new republican order though, and Christian republics sprang up in Italia, Iberia, Græcia and Anatolia. But when bread became scarce again, and the revolutionary fervor was renewed in Francia during the 1820s, when the specter of Social Democracy was evoked, the Church and Republicans, Constitutionalists, and Liberals opposed it to the end, and together presided over its exorcism in 1957.
“If you won’t come to church, I’ll have to live with it as a matter of fact. I can’t force you to. But I am telling you to stop fighting, Shane. I don’t want to see you expelled.” His mother looked up at him with pleading eyes. “Shane, let some of this burden go. This cross is not yours alone to bear — ”
“Mum, please, stop it!”
She had a misty look in her eyes. Then, catching herself, blocking the tears, she tilted her head back slightly, and leaned forward. Shane lowered his face and let her kiss his forehead. She put her hands on the side of his face. “Shane.... Shane, I love you. You’re a good son.” There was more on her mind, but whatever it was, she didn’t say another word.
He gave her a hug. “I love you too, mum.” I could see he was uncomfortable, and he then wiggled out of her arms. “I’ve got to go to school.”
She nodded. “Is Cully freezing?”
I grinned and pointed to the boy. “Just look at him!”
He was still curled up in a tight little ball.
“Well,” she said to Shane, “considering that you and Mattæus were up half the night, I’m not surprised you’d forget to close the window. By the way, I’m glad the two of you are still friends.”
Martha stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. I heard the water turn on. “It’s still cold!” she shouted.
“It’ll warm up!” Shane shouted back.
A few seconds passed and then the shower turned on. Shane rolled his eyes. He went to the plastic chests where his clothes were folded along with Cully’s. I went to put on the trousers I had worn the night before, but Shane didn’t want me to get any demerits for not meeting the academy’s dress code, and offered me a pair of his stockings and knee-breeches. Then he threw me one of his long-sleeved linen shirts. His clothes were a bit tight — especially across the shoulders — but fit okay. We dressed quickly. Shane had only one vest as they were relatively expensive. For not having a vest, I’d probably be warned that I was in violation of the dress code, but not given a demerit. (Usually, a vest and dress coat were required, but because dress coats cost more than some boys could afford, it was a requirement often overlooked.) He grabbed his wallet, then took two coins, a Silver and a Copper — 0.35RS — from the tray on top of the refrigerator.
“My lunch allowance,” he said and jangled the coins about in his hand.
I reached for my wallet and handed him a banknote issued by First Liberian National Bank, a five. “The market exchange rate on FLNB banknotes is very favorable right now,” I said. “It’s worth 5.26RS at the moment.”
Because every State and most banks across the globe issued their own banknotes, a universal standard of exchange and a universally accepted, common currency was needed. The Republican Standard Banknote (RS) was the answer. After all, between the fluctuations of the market and the hundreds of currencies in circulation, many merchants were unwilling to take every banknote issued, much less post the prices of commodities and services hundreds of times. Fortunately though FLNB was the second largest bank in Liberia, and its banknotes were readily accepted across Liberia, from Niew Lifrapol to Corpus Christi, and from Liberian Polynesia to the coastal cities on the Gulf of Antilia.
“I can’t take that, Matti,” he said. “That’s more than a day’s wages.”
“It’s for lunch all next week, man,” I said.
Lunch at the Academy’s cafeteria was fairly expensive — between 0.35 and 0.65RS — but not nearly so much as at the restaurants Johannes, Lukas, and I occasionally went to during the midday break. You could blow 2 even 3RS on a meal! We seldom did though; it was wasteful.
He shoved my hand away. “No.”
“Come on, Shane, just take it.”
“You can buy a good pair of breeches for 7RS!”
“Go on,” I insisted and pressed the bill into his hand. “Take it.”
“Fuck charity,” he said contemptuously.
“It isn’t charity, man,” I said.
“Shane.” I looked into his eyes. “Please.”
He took the banknote finally, embarrassed, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his vest.
Cully stirred as we finished. “What time is it?” he asked.
“Late enough. We’ve got to go,” Shane replied.
He yawned and sat up in bed. The covers fell off his chest. “It’s cold,” he complained.
“Yeah, sorry. I forgot to close the window last night.”
He growled at us, pulled himself out of bed, and stumbled sleepily toward the bathroom door. “Mum, Máire, whoever’s in there, hurry up, I’ve got to take a leak!”
Shane let us out, turned, swiped his ID card down the pad on the front of the door to lock it, and we headed through the rain puddles to the corner to catch the bus. North-South #74 was right on time. We boarded, swiped our ID cards at the pad by the driver’s seat, the screen flashed green — the fares on the cards were paid up for the month — and then tried to find a place to sit.
“It’s like this every morning,” he said. “Crowded.”
Finally, after going all the way to the back, I gave up. There weren’t any empty seats. I reached my hand through one of the loops and stood as the bus continued toward the next stop. Shane stood across from me.
We got off again and waited at the stop for East-West #111.
“Sorry you had to see all that, Matti,” he said. “My mum’s always so emotional these days.”
I knew he was referring to the way she hugged him, the tears in her eyes, the sound of her voice, the urgency in demanding that he stop fighting. I understood. “It’s okay.”
He nodded and was silent for a long time. I really didn’t expect anything more from him when he said, “It kills me to see my mother cry, Matti; I’ve seen too fucking much of it this last year!” Then he was silent again.
We went through the same routine when #111 pulled up. This time though we found seats near the back. I sat down next to a pretty young woman, not too much older than I was (early- to mid-twenties), dressed in a dark business suit — the long, dark skirt, vanilla-colored blouse, and embroidered topcoat and matching vest. The cuffs on her business coat were kind of ratty-looking, like it was one of the few really nice outfits she owned, and she wore it often. She was a working-class office clerk, perhaps a bank teller. She pointedly scooted away from us the moment we sat down, and turned her face to front of the bus. Shane rolled his eyes, and said quietly, “What a snob.”
I hoped she’d heard.
Finally, the bus stopped in front of the school, and five of us got off together. I didn’t recognize the others even though they were my classmates. Shane didn’t seem to recognize them either.
Sceofeld Academy was a nice looking school, no doubt about it. It was situated on a large, sprawling campus, which included a primary school, the preparatory academy, and the senior academy. I’d come here to this complex for the last twelve years. I knew every inch of the grounds, every building, every nook and cranny.
There was a large building in the middle of the campus which served as a library, auditorium, and administration center. There were other buildings which moved out from around that center. There were groves of trees, a stream, a pond, playing fields, and a dormitory for those students who didn’t live in the Niew Lifrapol Bay area or whose parents wanted them out of the house for extended periods of time.
The administration building occupied the spot where Sceofeld Public High School stood some sixty years before. The high school was torn down in 2013, the year following the demise of universal public education in Liberia. Most of the block the Academy stood on today had been part of a middle-income neighborhood then. Today, for blocks in all directions, were remnants of the older neighborhood homes and apartment buildings, but mostly they had been replaced by the perfectly groomed lawns and gardens of small and medium estates. Further to the east, the estates of the truly wealthy spread out for a mile or more.
We walked away from the bus stop and through the parking lot. I didn’t see Johannes’s car. We shared the car, but Johannes used it more often because he was on the C-ball team, and they practiced every night after school. We drove to the academy together, but I usually caught a ride home with either Jakobus and Christof, his little brother, or occasionally with my girlfriend, Lindi Nordkvist, who would drive a mile out of her way to take me home.
“Hey, Matti,” Shane said suddenly, “thanks for everything.” He slugged my shoulder. “I’ve got to go. I promised I’d meet Wulfric before classes start.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
I watched him trot toward the Sciences Building, where his locker was located. All in all, this was good. We were still friends.
* * *
To be continued....