THE SACRED FLESH
It’s a Saturday morning home game, and the County High rugby team is arranged along its faded halfway line, wearing mismatched red shirts and white shorts, waiting for the kickoff whistle. They shake their legs out, jump on the spot, suck on their sloppy, boil-and-bite mouth guards. Tom Spencer stands behind the loose knot of County forwards, both hands stuffed down the front of his shorts, which have been washed with his shirt and turned a delicate shade of pink. He is County High’s fullback, their last line of defense, and he is staring past the navy-clad, undefeated team from St. George’s Grammar School, over the head of their gargantuan number eight, past the rusty goalposts, and over the hedge behind them into a pig field, thinking about his penis.
He hasn’t thought about anything else for a week, not since he and Hannah agreed that after almost a year together they should be ready to have sex, that it would be—how had she put it?—“The definitive remedial touch in what had been, for her, a totally salubrious relationship.” She had begun to cry, her Essex accent thicker than ever when she said that she was “so fuckin fankfull for his patience,” that they should “wait a bit—praps till Tom’s eighteenf birfday”—sniff—“whatcha fink?—to make it vat much more special.” That’s today. Tom can’t recall his part in the conversation or having ever felt ready. For anything. Ever.
The whistle blows. County kicks off. The white ball wobbles as it arcs toward the St. George pack and the County forwards give chase. St. George’s number eight plucks the ball out of the air and tucks it into the crook of his arm. Now Tom sees him. A bearded monstrosity, he is irrefutable evidence that boys do not make the long march toward manhood in lockstep, and he’s surging away from his own pack, fast as Jonah Lomu. The County forwards hesitate. Some step sideways, and the kid who might as well be Jonah Lomu scatters the rest like a flock of deranged flamingos.
Now only Tom, immobile with shock, stands between Lomu and the try line. Lomu charges straight for him. Tom determines to stand his ground. Lomu’s legs pump like a freight train’s pistons. Tom tries to decide whether he should dive left or right. Lomu drops his shoulder. Tom falls backwards with his arms flung wide in abject surrender to a textbook tackle.
“Ruck over, boys! Ruck over!”
Kids scramble and kick, and the ball emerges and is passed down the ragged red back line while Tom lies on his side trying not to vomit.
Play stops on the County 22, and Tom totters toward the sideline, clutching his stomach and waving for a substitute. The County pack watches him go. He thinks he knows what they’ll say later—“you big tart; pussy”—but he doesn’t care: seven of them let that kid go by. Tallest of the group is Barry Rowe, and he is cupping his hands around his mouth. This is what he shouts:
“Tom Spencer’s got a two-inch penis!”
Tom freezes. How big is his penis? With his balls hiding somewhere in his roiling abdomen, he doesn’t feel sure, thinks two inches might be generous, and hesitates. Two inches right now this instant? Or at another time? Soft or stiff? And why is Barry always such a ginger tosser? Now! He needs to speak now! How big should he say it is? If he exaggerates too much, will they know? He closes his eyes to silence the turmoil while the boys wait for the retort that Tom knows he’s already too late to give, and then their laughter shatters the morning. He turns and limp-runs toward the changing rooms. Their laughs resolve into a chant as he flees: Two incher. Two. in. cha. Twooo-in. cha. cha. cha. cha. cha.
Tom sits on the wooden bench that runs the length of the changing room’s concrete wall with his head in his hands, breathing. His stomach has settled, but his face aches. He extends a leg, rotates an arm. Apart from a livid welt across his right thigh, he seems to be uninjured. He slips his hand inside his shorts and leans back against the wall. Barry’s insult echoes in Tom’s skull: Two Incher! It’s the last in a long line of injuries Barry has delt Tom. Years ago at Sunday school, hepinched the metal jaws of a toy crocodile onto Tom’s tender ear lobe and laughed as Tom tried to shake it off. Then there was the spitting incident in fourth grade. Tom’s dad wiped the tears from his cheek with his thumb before school the next day, saying, “If he does that again, I want you to hit him in the face as hard as you can.” In sixth grade, the two boys fought on the playground. That was before Barry grew 10 inches in a single summer.
Tom hears voices outside. A red shirt stomps in, looks at Tom, says, “They stopped it early,” smirks at him, and walks by.
Tom jumps up, stuffs his shin pads into his bag, gets a boot on, starts tying the laces. The team’s voices are getting louder. Why hadn’t he gone straight home? The door bangs open and boys stream in. He bends to reach for his other boot as he feels the space behind him fill with bodies and then—
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TWO INCHER!”
—a sudden tug on his shorts, a shove. Tom pitches face first into the wooden bench and falls to the concrete floor, arse bare in the grime. Barry stands over him, red-faced, his leering gang at either side. With one hand, Tom struggles with his waistband as the other, scrabbling for purchase beneath the bench, closes around something hard and slender and caked in mud—a pen. Barry grabs him by the neck, pulls him to his feet, pins him to the wall. Tom turns his head away from Barry’s fist and closes his eyes. Instead of a punch, he feels a fumbling hand at his crotch, rough fingers.
“Look at this, lads,” says Barry, stretching Tom’s penis out and laughing.
The barrage of laughter, the hand on his throat: Tom can’t move. He usually avoids looking Barry in the eye, but he looks now and sees a pair blue and tender as lychees. The pen is a slender shank in his fingers, the plastic end of it curving into the flesh of his palm, the nib jutting forward. He feels another hand pull his penis as the boys crowd in, then another. Laughter clatters off the concrete walls. All the while, Barry’s hand clamped over his throat, his eyes within Tom’s reach. Tom can’t breathe, but he isn’t trying to. He feels he has no lungs, no beating heart. There are only Barry’s eyes, the pen in his hand, the void of indecision in his chest, and the intermittent jerking on his penis. His arms dangle uselessly at his side as they pull it and laugh and chant and twist it. Then Barry is gone. Tom comes to his senses in the lane near his house wearing one boot and no shirt with a cracked black pen in his fist, soaked and shivering.
Tom’s face fades as steam rolls up the bathroom mirror. He turns off the taps. The welt on his thigh stings in the hot water. He leans back and sloshes water into his armpits. His pale penis bobs on the surface of the water. He scoops it up and cradles it in his palm. His two incher. But when should he measure? Was it cheating if he rolled it between his palms? What if he stretched it out? Or pushed the measuring rule hard against the pubic bone? In the changing rooms, hadn’t he been a little stiff after all their tugging? Oh, God! He had. And still they had chanted, “Two incher,” as they yanked his cock.
And now he’s supposed to go to Hannah’s house and give her his virginity. In all the afternoons they’ve spent kissing in her bedroom, that menagerie of color—blouses bursting from drawers, the mosaic she is creating at the rate crystal grows, unfixed tiles scattered across her desk with a thousand spools of thread, a profusion of silk scarves strewn across the bed, dangling from the ceiling, floating through the air with wisps of incense and curling leaves from the oak tree outside the window where a wisteria sends exploratory fronds across the sill and up the wall during summer—he hasn’t seen so much as a nipple. A hundred times he has felt her through her clothes, rubbed up against her until the hot smear of shame comes to slick his underpants and leaves him paralyzed and clammy on the bed, all the while dreading the day that she feels ready for more, silently thanking the brute who forever ruined sex for her.
Not forever; she’s ready now. But after this morning, the thought of standing naked before another person again, ever again—he can’t do it.
His mobile is on the bath mat. He reaches for a towel, dries his hands, and feels a stab of regret as he opens a new text message and types.
Got injured this morning. Don’t think I can make it over.
His thumb hovers over the send button. He knows he should be looking forward to this. She isn’t beautiful in an obvious way. She keeps her matte black hair hacked short, has small breasts and a soft tummy, short legs and stubby fingers, but her nose is as crisp as the gnomon of a sundial, and when she smiles at him—and she often smiles at him—her eyes crease up like she’s staring into sunshine and he believes for a moment he’s the center of her universe. That’s backwards, though. She is the celestial body, he the hapless terrestrial caught in her orbit.
He clicks send.
Should he have done it? He shouldn’t have done it. Why had he done it? He imagines her little Nokia beeping—three short tones, two long, three short—her reaching for it, her face falling.
His phone beeps. Her reply:
It beeps again.
Can you walk
Tom types, Yes
Should he have said no? He should have said no. Why hadn’t he said no? Another beep.
Suggest you get started, then. you’ll be late
Tom drops the phone and slaps the surface of the water. The old boyfriend from Essex had been late a lot. He had been a number of things: her dealer—mostly skunk and ecstasy, a little coke—her first shag, the reason her parents moved to Suffolk and enrolled her in a school for girls.
He hops out of the bath, drops his towel on the landing halfway to his room, and rifles through his underwear drawer, looking for his Calvin Klein boxers, which he has wrapped around a bar of scented soap. The silk is cold against his cheek and pregnant with spices.
Hannah’s bedroom window has been flung open. He stops to brush his pollen-speckled shoulders. Yellow fingers, thick smell of honeycomb, foxgloves purple perfume at the gate. Both cars are gone as usual, and there is Hannah at the door, and she has seen him. She begins to raise her hand, hesitates, lets it fall and glances at her feet, which are moving quickly. When she looks up again, her eyes are bright with tears, and his heart flutters with all the spastic energy of a moth at the window pane. She walks into his arms saying, as though to herself, “Fought you wouldn’t come,” and then wipes her face with the back of her hand and grins up at him. “Come on, then.”
With his free hand, Tom pulls a tender holly leaf from one of the low hedgerows lining the garden path. She had been trimming them on the day she first waved him over, smiling, chatty. When he told her he was on his way to the barber, she pumped the handles of her sheers—snip, snip—saying, “You doubt my skills in topiary? What d’you ‘ave to lose vat won’t grow back?” He said, “yes,” and laughed, and she did it right there in the garden, and he began to realize that Hannah wouldn’t just be with him, she would happen to him. She was like his dad in that way. When Dad did a thing, he left his mark on it, though he did it as a representative of the Church, a priestly collar at his throat. He was bigger than any task, be it hanging Mr. Thompson’s front door or fixing young Barrett’s tractor engine or blessing Mrs. Mansworth as she lay dying in the hospital, bloated forehead glistening with the oil he had spread there, peace in her face. The thing became Dad somehow, and Dad expanded. When Tom did something, he left no mark.
Dad always says, “Give the world a little of yourself, and you’ll always feel small.”
Tom sinks his thumbnail into the holly leaf’s waxy cuticle, breaking the midrib, and drops it in the stairwell, choking back a sob.
On the top stair, she turns to face him, her eyes level with his.
“I know you’ll be gentle.”
There’s a tremor in her voice that suggests she’s not certain, and Tom nods, sways, presses his palm against the wall to keep from falling backwards down the stairs. Hannah doesn’t move.
“I will,” he says. “I am. Aren’t I?”
Her room smells sweet, like bruised mint. She has laid her quilt out on the rough-hewn floor and placed a plate of ham sandwiches cut into triangles in the middle. She sits cross legged and offers one to Tom, who disturbs a bowl of apples as he fumbles with a bottle of ginger beer.
“I stopped a try this morning.”
“That’s brilliant! Can’t believe you’re still playing with those wankers, but that’s brilliant.”
She has put mint jelly in with the ham.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” he says, trying to sort through the torrent of inchoate feelings flooding his brain, but there’s too much, and his thoughts grow murkier as the pressure in his head builds. Can’t say it all at once. Say what you can. Start.
“This morning they—I’m not sure that I can—can we keep our clothes on?”
Hannah doesn’t always have the words, but she has a vision for this moment. She knows how it begins. Not with copious amounts of skunk and some city dickhead in Spliffy jeans. Not in some barried-up Escort in the woods while drum and bass tunes rattle the windscreen and her teeth. It begins with a clear head and ham sandwiches, and she’s finished hers.
She scuttles toward him like a shelled hermit crab, and he swallows hard, bread crust scraping his throat as he feels her weight drop into his lap, her tongue curl up to his palate, the bone behind her lips, the wooden bedrail across his spine. His fingers freeze on her lumbar as she twists his trouser button and fumbles with his fly. Sudden panic—his back stiffens, raising his pelvis off the duvet. She tugs at his waistband, and his silk boxers slide off with his trousers, and just like that, it’s out. His two incher. Hannah doesn’t pause, doesn’t even glance at it. Somehow her skirt is off, now her blouse, and she’s pulling him downwards, her look as honest as a high dive into an empty pool. But the landing is soft. She hasn’t seen a thing, he thinks, and if he were to push into this warm spot right now, she never would. He kisses her lips, starts to thrust, but she leans away.
As she works her way down his shirt buttons toward their touching bellies, he contorts his spine and tugs his shirttail up, making the last button accessible without pulling away and keeping his penis, like a child beneath a blanket, hidden.
“Wait,” she says again. “Let me look at you.”
She pushes against his shoulder, and Tom wraps an arm around her waist to keep them together. She frowns.
“I wanna see you first.”
He looks into her face, opens his mouth, and finds no words. He shakes his head.
She rolls away from him, and Tom twists his body and grabs his trousers, covers himself, lurches toward the hallway.
“Tom, come back,” she says as he thrusts his legs into his trousers and tears fill his eyes.
“Tom Spencer, get back in here,” she shouts.
Tom runs down the stairs, out of the house, and, for the second time in the same day, through the countryside, half naked and alone.
Winter renders Suffolk black and white. From the black mud, blades of grass bristle, white with frost. Bald trees twist black fingers into slate gray clouds. Only the white swans remain on the village duck pond, their heads tucked beneath their wings against the snow. Indistinct, they seem ashamed.
Pale light filters through the stained glass of St. James church. From the pulpit, Tom’s dad lobs words like “compassion” and “mercy” into the half-empty nave. They land like stones on a frozen puddle, not a ripple to be seen. Behind the pulpit, the choir is arranged in pews that run the length of the chancel in two opposite ranks facing inward. Tom, a tenor, is seated with the basses as close to the altar and as far from the congregation as possible, his head pressed back against the stone wall. If he leans even slightly forward, Barry’s red head resolves in the grey periphery of his vision like a blood spot seeping through a sodden bandage. He has spent the last 30 minutes trying to picture Hannah’s naked body. The yellowing collar of his choir robe makes his flesh itch. He feels hot.
After all these weeks, it is the acne between her breasts he remembers most clearly; it had been a complete surprise. The sweat on her nipples had made them tacky so that his hand had moved haltingly over them. But it was her eyes that had shocked him most: As she took her clothes off, it was her eyes that had become naked and made her appear, for the first time to Tom, vulnerable. He has a painful erection beneath his robe. Mrs. Green, the choir director, is watching him from across the chancel.
He pulls his robe up the side of his leg surreptitiously, bunching the cloth against his hip, slips his hand into his pocket, and pulls his penis beneath his waistband, laying it flat against his stomach. Mrs. Green looks away, and he brings his phone out and holds it against his leg. No messages. How many times has he checked? Will she ever call? He considers walking by her house after church. She might see him pass, run after him, and meet him in the lane. He would be ready with his explanation: “It was Barry’s fault—he grabbed my dick after the game that morning and made me feel weird about everything.” Perhaps he could say it in a text. He flips his phone open.
That look in her face as she drew him down to the duvet, he has re-imagined it a thousand times. She’d been scared, too, but he saw more in her eyes: fear and trust in equal measure. It was the trust that made her vulnerable, that makes his excuses seem flimsy now.
Shuffling papers in the chancel, rustling robes. Tom flips his phone closed and stands. The organ swells, the voices: O bread of life, for all men broken.
Parishioners from the first pew shuffle into the center aisle and come forward, filing between the choir’s ranks to kneel at the communion rail. When Barry’s family starts to move, Tom raises his hymn sheet to cover his face.
Dad’s voice from the sanctuary: “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” He places little wafers into outstretched hands while Tom watches the shoes pass: blue pumps, black brogues, high heels click-clicking over the music, Reebok Classics.
Tom holds his breath and stands stock-still, waiting for Barry to hiss that name, but from the organ comes a blast so long that Tom wonders if old Sedgewick has slumped dead onto the keyboard, and the Reeboks step forward and are replaced with red Converse, black Kickers, brown boots.
Tom peers over his hymn sheet. Behind Barry, Rosie Rowe waits for a place at the communion rail. She is two years Barry’s junior and half his height, bright, friendly, kind. But this morning her eyes are red and fixed on the gray flagstones, and her face is pinched in a look of abject misery.
They shuffle forward and kneel side by side at the center of the rail.
Dad places a wafer into the hands of Mrs. Tompkins.
“The bread of heaven.”
Barry’s dad. Barry’s mum.
“The Body of Christ.”
Tom pretends to sing as he watches them. Barry pops the white disc into his mouth, sucks on the end of his fingers, and chews. Rosie, unmoving, presses hers between her clasped palms. Barry’s mum and dad receive the wine and leave the altar, and others take their place. Barry, rising to depart, looks into his sister’s face, hesitates, and then kneels back down beside her. There they stay, dividing the stream of bodies like a boulder in a river.
Tom lowers his hymn sheet, staring openly. A beam of blue light slanting in from the stained glass behind him strikes the end of Rosie’s nose, where it catches a swelling teardrop—a rest in the music, a sudden silence. In this moment, Tom is sure he hears the teardrop hit the flagstone, and he feels an urge to go to Rosie and put his arm around her shoulders, to tell her nothing she could have done should cause her so much misery and that everything will be fine, and to his complete surprise, he finds that he has moved and is kneeling down beside her. It is not until he feels her bony shoulder blade beneath his hand and, a moment later, the weight of Barry’s arm covering his own that Tom begins rethinking what he’s done.
Rosie looks up in surprise, and both boys jerk their arms away. She blushes, stands, and walks quickly away with her head down while Barry and Tom stare at each other. Tom’s brain registers the touch Barry had meant for Rosie, a gentle squeeze above Tom’s elbow, tender, comforting. And now images of Barry’s hand race through Tom’s mind: Barry high-fiving the forwards from the junior rugby team after leading them through a training drill; Barry’s hand resting on the abrupt curve of Kerry Tanner’s bum in the common room; Barry and his gang racking Tom’s cock in the changing rooms; Barry’s hand on Rosie’s back as he steps onto the school bus behind her. Somehow Barry is never alone.
Barry’s face has drained of color and his mouth hangs open.
“The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
Tom feels the smooth wafer pressed into his palm and looks up at his dad, who winks at him and moves down the rail, and when Tom looks back, Barry is gone.
“The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
Tom flips open his phone in full view of Mrs. Green and all the gathered saints.
I was so scared. I’m so sorry. Can we talk?
And when he presses send, he recognizes the feeling he has had since the moment he put his hand on Rosie’s shoulder: peace.
Tom’s dad walks to the pulpit. Silence before the benediction. Tom stands with the choir, facing forward for the recession.
At the back of the church, a Nokia phone beeps—three short tones, two long, three short.
“The Lord bless you and keep you.”
From the back pew, a small figure walks quickly to the doors—short black hair, bright red jeans—Hannah!
“The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
Tom starts to follow her, bumps into the back of the bass standing in front of him, and remembers where he is. His throat tight, his breathing shallow.
“The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
The organ. The voices. Tom doesn’t even pretend to sing. She came! Had she been coming all these weeks? To see him? The choir has begun its slow march down the center aisle—so slow! He walks on tiptoe, straining for a view of the doors and of Hannah, perhaps waiting outside or at the entry to the lane?
At the end of the aisle, they are supposed to turn right and gather in the sacristy to remove their robes, but Tom is already unbuttoning his. The last three pews are empty, and he slips past the tail end of the recessional, shrugs out of his robe, lets it fall to the ground, and bursts through the wooden doors into the sunshine.
She isn’t there. Tom pictures her climbing the stairs to her room, and sets off at a run, his heart beating faster than his footsteps, his head lighter than the air rushing into his lungs. The morning frost has turned to dew on the lawn, the smell of wet grass. He turns into the lane that connects their houses and lets his hands trail against the cold leaves of the hedgerow as he runs.