This story is by Lilian and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Ellen and I were bursting with joy and enthusiasm when we won the competition as English teachers to the Elementary school in Patella, which is a small town on the East Coast of southern Italy.
We had an interview with the Principal in mid June, before school closed for the summer holidays.We had three months to find accommodation before the new term started, in September.
Two weeks before school reopened, we had a ‘rinfresco, held in the school common room, for staff to get-together, to meet our colleagues, and to visit the school building and explore the grounds.
Patella Elementary is a model school, located three hundred yards from the town centre. I like the cream coloured building and its spacious classrooms, but what delights me is the huge, high ceilinged fully equipped gym. I see myself spending much of my free time here.
An old church sits within the grounds, whichis a gift from an extinct noble family.Its stained glass windows, marble altar, font, and bell tower are unique.
The parson’s quarters are above the vestry.
Ellen and I share a small rented flat near school, which enables us to attend meetings, help children with homework, meet parents, and volunteer for other extra mural activities.
Before the rinfresco ended, Padre Marino joined us. He is the parson since the past ten years. He shook hands with each of us, and wished us a prosperous school year. Padre Marinois young, good-looking, aimiable and well loved and respected by his parishioners. He is always ready to help anyone in need.
His sermons are interesting, and reach the heart. I noticed the entire congregation absorbing his every word.
At the after-service tea, we met many ‘staunch’ parishioners and collected pamphlets with monthly events, held in the parish grounds.
Ellen, taken up with Padre Marino’s good looks, charming manners and beautiful eyes, remarked on them after each encounter with him.
“Leave him alone,” I warned, noticing her dreamy expression, “he’s dedicated to God and the church.”
“Oh, I know, I know,” she said. “It’s just a crush. It’ll pass.”
During the second term at school, Ellen made a habit of dipping into church in the afternoon, ‘to pray and light a candle’. At times, I offered to accompany her but she preferred to go alone. She usually returned within an hour, but today she was away three hours and I worried. I slipped on my sandals, got my bag, locked the door, and hurried down the lane to the side entry of the church.
It was quiet and dark, and that familiar odour of candles, floor wax and frankincense hung in the air. I looked around, bent my head before the altar, and then crossed the aisle to the vestry and called softly from the foot of the stairs.
“Padre Marino.” There was no sound. “Padre Marino, are you upstairs?” I heard some shuffling. He appeared at the head of the stairs, in his long, brown habit.
“Anything the matter, Susan?” he asked.
“Have you seen Ellen? She came here three hours back. It’s getting dark and I’m worried,” I replied.
He descended the stairs, put his hand on my shoulder, and led me to a pew to sit beside me.
“Yes, Ellen came to talk. She’ll join us within a few minutes,” he said.
He avoided my eyes and turned to look for burned out candles. “Excuse me,” he said, and strode silently to replace them, with his brown robe fluttering around his ankles, displaying his stockingless feet in leather sandals.
He returned and asked, “What can I do for you?”
I sniffed, blew my nose and looked at the floor. An ominous, impalpable, presence seemed to hover over us. I shivered.
I saw Ellen tiptoe out of the vestry toward us. I could not see her face clearly in the dim light, but I felt her embarrassment as if she was hiding something from me.
Padre Marino broke the silence. “Well ladies, I must prepare for vespers now, so, if you’ll excuse me… but you can stay for as long as you wish,” he said.
“Thank you, Padre, but we must get home. We’re preparing a frieze to hang in the school corridor,” I said.
“Well then,” he said, looking at Ellen. From a ray of evening sunshine falling across his face through the glass skylight in the dome, I made out the tender sentiment filling his eyes. He reached to touch her shoulder. “Look after yourselves, and God be with you,” he added.
We bowed our heads to the altar, walked down the aisle and felt his eyes on us until we exited the door.
“Ellen, did you really have a three-hour conversation with Marino?” I asked.
She sighed, stopped walking and stayed me with her hand on my arm. “I’ll tell you about it when we get home,” she said.
I nodded and we resumed our walk.
Over our simple meal of minestrone, feta cheese and salad, Ellen began, “I don’t know how it happened, but I’m in love with Marino. I suggested to him that I return to Turin, to take care of my ailing mom, and to keep from tempting him. He held my face and our eyes locked. “Do you really want to leave,” he asked. “No,” I said, “no, no, no!”and touched his cheek. Then he wrapped me in his arms, and we kissed. A beautiful, tender kiss. I gave him my heart. We lay on his cot, and… it happened. Neither of us had the will to break away. After we realised what we had done, he said, ‘I hope the lord will forgive my sin and human weakness.’ I said it was my fault and begged him to forgive me. He took all the blame saying that he should have resisted the cravings of the flesh.” Pause. “I better keep out of his way. I can’t compromise his relationship with his parishioners and his importance in this little town, which he loves,” she finished. Tears ran down her cheeks, and between sobs and sniffles she said, “I love him deeply but I must give him up. I must leave. It’ll break my heart. I can’t expect him to leave the priesthood for me. I know he loves me as much as I love him.”
I was lost for words and so I cleared the table in silence.
“What do you suggest, Sue?” she asked. “Help me out. But please keep our secret.”
“Of course,” I said, putting my arms around her while she cried.
Ellen called on Padre Marino twice that week, and I imagined that ‘it happened’, since she was away all afternoon, ‘to pray and light a candle’. After this, she kept at a distance from him and did not participate in activities on the list. Two months later, she told me she was pregnant. Her eyes shone but in their depths was worry. “I hope it doesn’t show until school closes,” she said, caressing her belly.
At the end of the school year, Ellen requested and obtained a transfer to Turin.
“I’ll miss you, Ellie. I hate for you to go, but I understand,” I said.
Tears ran down my cheeks as I watched the train slowly chug out of station. She waved goodbye until I could see her no more.
Later that week, Padre Marino knocked on my door. He asked about Ellen and if there was a chance of her returning to teach in Patella. There was sorrow in his eyes, but, as time passed, he regained his vitality and turned his attention to the town’s people.
We kept in touch and Ellen told me of her baby’s birth. She always inquired about Marino, but asked me not to tell him about the baby. Through the years, I implored her to let Marino know about his son, but her reply never changed, ‘maybe, someday I will’.
After ten years, Ellen decided to revisit Patella, and asked if I could host her and her son. I was delighted and said she was most welcome, and could stay for as long as she wished.
When school closed, I drove to the train station to fetch her.
She looked well, with a few pounds added to her weight. Beside her was a fair-haired, rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed boy of about ten. She introduced him. “Sue, this is my Lenny, Leonardo, and Lenny, this is Susan, my best friend.”
We shook hands and I thought he was the split image of Padre Marino.
“Well, let’s go home,” I said, and we bundled into the car. During the drive I asked, “how has life treated you, Ellie?”
“It’s been hard, at times. My sister is caring for my mom now. I have Lenny, and he’s my every thing,” she replied.
When we reached the flat, Ellen stood on the threshold and breathed deeply. “It’s great to be back. I missed you, the school kids and this little town,” she said, “and Marino, of course.”
Next morning Ellen asked me to accompany her to meet Padre Marino.
We walked down the lane after breakfast with Lenny skipping ahead, whistling a merry tune.
On entering the church, two elderly women kneeling in a front pew, raised their heads to look at us.
“Do you mind if I go alone to the vestry?” Ellen whispered. “I’ll leave Lenny with you, if it’s okay.”
“Sure,” I said. I sat in a pew with the boy, wondering what Ellen would say to Marino. Lenny tugged at my sleeve. I looked at him and asked, “What is it, love?”
“My mom has gone to tell my dad about me,” he whispered. “I told her I wanted to know my dad.”
I nodded and looked away. I felt glad and concerned at the same instant. How would Marino take the news?
Presently Ellen and Marino joined us. Marino bent to greet Lenny, and then folded the boy in his arms. I saw tears glistening on his cheek.
“Can we go to your flat?” Ellen asked, dabbing her eyes.
“Of course,” I replied.
We walked home with Lenny swinging on Ellen and Marino’s hands.
Over cups of tea, Ellen said, “Sue, I told Marino that Lenny is his son. I hid it all these years to shield him, but Lenny insisted on meeting his father. I couldn’t deny him any longer. It’s his right.”
Marino’s voice broke as he said, “I tried my best to forget you, Elle. I prayed the Lord for guidance. I didn’t know about Lenny. I wish you had told me. My heart is bursting with joy to have you back and to hold my son. I will dedicate my life to you both.” Pause. “Ellen, we don’t need to leave Patella and move to Turin.”
“We can’t stay here. The folks wouldn’t understand or forgive us. You know, for them a priest is beyond sin. They’ll find out and taunt Lenny by saying, hey; you’re the priest’s son,” Ellen said.
“I can’t leave, Ellen,” Marino pleaded. “I can’t abandon my parishioners.”
“Then I’ll go. You can see Lenny whenever you want,” she said with a determination that astonished me. “Sue, could you please take us to the train station tomorrow?” she asked me.
“Of course,” I replied, bewildered at her decision.
I wished Marino goodnight as he stepped outside.
Next day, Marino was at my door, dressed in jeans and sweater. I asked him in.
When he saw Ellen, he embraced her tenderly and said, “Ellen, I made up my mind last night. My life is with you and Lenny. Please allow me a few days to settle things. Can Ellen and Lenny stay with you till then?” he asked me.
“Of course,” I said. A sob caught in my throat to see the three embracing. I am awed at their reunion, thinking that destiny played a hand.My heart aches with joy. I thank God that they share the secret gift of love.