Rudyard's feet were pounding, his breath heaving, echoing as he tore down the alley and exploded into the square. He ran for the church across him, overshot somewhat and rounded the corner of the door rather sharply. He came to a skidding halt at the back of the pews, looked frantically about himself then made it for the confessional booth in a mad dash. Once he reached it he jumped inside, pulled the curtain and tucked his feet up and under himself on the bench. Draping his hands over his mouth he sat, trying to catch his breath, making as little noise as he possibly could.
His skittish pulse couldn't even slow before someone flung the curtain open on the other side of the box, sending his heart racing once more.
'Morning, Nigel.' Said a voice, its altogether too chipper tone grating on Rudyard's already fraying nerves. 'Enjoying yourself?'
Eric. Bloody. Chapman.
'I hope you don't mind me popping in.' Eric's jovial voice didn't leave much room for argument, not really. 'Church seemed deserted enough this morning, so I just thought why not come by for a quick confession before you get a rush on? Where is everybody, by the way?’
"Busy hunting me down." Rudyard thought darkly, sinking deeper in his seat. Losing himself to his miserable musings he failed to reply for a truly excruciating expanse of time so Chapman decided to press on.
'A-anyway, I came here today because... This is going to sound, um... I'm afraid I'm not terribly altogether... Basically, I've given a lot of thought to what you've asked me last time. And I've come to the conclusion that if I was hard-pressed... Like I really had to think... Well, then I'd probably have to confess that I did, indeed, have my eyes on someone. There is some in this village. But it's someone hopelessly unsuitable. It's all a really bad idea, actually, and it will lead to trouble of the worst sort. But no matter what, every minute in this certain someone's presence makes me feel alive.' Chapman admitted in a meaningful voice. Based on all his hemming and hawing, this seemed like an important revelation for him.
Rudyard, however, just groaned at it, though only on the inside. The prospect of listening to Eric go on about his romantic conquests and profess to his superior skills as a seducer stirred something deep within him.
Nausea, most probably.
So, he half emerged from his bench, reaching, ready to part the curtain and confront Chapman. Desperate to expose his embarrassing mistake and to humiliate him for his trusting naivete.
And that was when he heard Tanya's voice from the vague direction of the door.
‘Pass me the stick, Bill. He's got to be in there somewhere. I'm going to tear out his tonsils.’
Instantly, he collapsed back, trying to make himself as small as he can physically be. He made a little "mhmm" sound of encouragement to avoid being outed by a suspicious Chapman. Right on cue, Eric went on. Maintaining the subterfuge, yes. But making it damned hard to hear the vengeful, villainous villagers.
‘It doesn't really make any sense. Every encounter we've had so far played out like a minor disaster. I mean, the very first thing I did was trying to ask him out for a light ale, for God's sake.’ Eric sighed gloomily then interrupted himself with a soft, gasping, indrawn breath. ‘Oh, shucks, does this count as blasphemy?’
Rudyard had no intention to answer but Chapman's words pulled an involuntary groan from him anyway. The thing is that this reminiscence sounded vaguely familiar. Familiar enough to distract him even from his current plight. It eclipsed the unmistakable sounds of the locals even as they upended the church in hot pursuit of him.
‘Sorry about that, Nigel. But you see it feels rather embarrassing, in retrospect, inviting a man of such principle and firm conviction for a drink of all things.’ Continued Chapman while Rudyard listened on, mesmerised. 'But he looked so good in a suit and with his skin pale and drawn. And I was new, I was settling in - how was I to know?’
A terrible pressure was growing, stinging behind Rudyard's eyes. He didn't like where this was going, not one bit. The suspense had him pinned to his seat even after he caught Bill saying.
'Come away, Tanya. He must have run for the Woods instead.'
And even though he could recognise the fading steps of the crafty couple, he lingered on. He couldn't leave now. Not without finding out what exactly was Chapman trying to confess to.
‘I thought the whole thing was a complete write off after that, obviously.’ Continued Eric in a forlorn sort of manner. ‘I did my best to ignore it after that. The way he sweeps through my life like the gale he is. The powerful sort of magnetism between us. I tried to move on. But as I got to know him better, I realized what a charming and unique man he is. And lately, I’ve got a growing impression that he doesn’t detest me the way he used to. It’s more of low-grade resentment of the garden type these days, which gave me a small hope that our relationship could change for the better.’
There was a funny catch to Chapman's voice, a small hitch to his breath as he said that and Rudyard wanted desperately to use the natural break to shout "No it couldn't! " Sure, he was a bit less hostile, a bit more civil towards his nemesis, particularly since Nana Crusoe's funeral.
But it wasn't to encourage him!
Instead, he broke into a full-body shudder, shaking his head. No. There was no evidence Chapman was talking about him, was there? That would have been absurd. Surely Chapman meant another man of great severity and abstinence whom he'd encouraged to buy him a light ale upon first meeting.
He just about managed to placate himself as such, soothe his fit of nerves when Chapman spoke up again.
‘And with all that in the balance, there came a point’ Clearing his throat Eric managed to say, though his voice still came strangled. ‘where I had to admit that actually, in point of fact, I had developed some intensely conflicted feelings towards Rudyard.'
'That is to say that I like him. Quite a bit.'
Oh, Hell no.
'Love him, in fact.'
'There. I said it.' Eric heaved laboriously then he added with a chuckle. 'Oh, it's nice having it out in the open. I've never loved anyone so much without telling them. And now it's like a stone has been lifted from my chest, you know?'
Rudyard didn't. As a matter of a fact, he was certain that he was just experiencing a proper, full-blown aneurysm. He sensed, rather than heard a strange, popping noise in his ears, the feel of it echoing, spreading down his jaw. Like he was in a diving bell, descending too fast, the presence of the abyss oppressing him.
This sheer, naked panic propelled him to his feet. He bounced up with such vigour that he bumped his head on the low ceiling of the booth. An involuntary whimper escaped him.
‘Are you alright in there, Nigel? Crikey, I'm not intruding, am I?’ Chapman's voice piped up, worried and Rudyard made a guttural sound of ascent.
Yes, he was! Of course, he was intruding. He did little else but intrude since he came to the island!
‘Oh God, oh God, oh God! Believe me, I'm sorry!' Chapman was quick to volunteer. ‘I admit I got a bit carried away. It’s just that I often observe you and Desmond being so happy together. And then I remember that you'd known him for quite a while before you developed some tender feelings for him. So, I just wondered, you know, whether you can give me some advice on how to change Rudyard's impression of me?’
Rudyard was surprised to find that he actually tried to respond to that, blurting out an uninelligible string of consonants before he could stop himself. To him, it all sounded like gibberish, but Chapman must have thought it at least somewhat reassuring because he chuckled with mirth and evident relief.
‘No, Nigel you are absolutely right. I can't spend all my time moping around! Hogging your attention, asking for dating tips when you are so busy giving moral guidance to your congregation! It's kind of pathetic, actually. No, I should just tell him how I feel, right away. It'd make things much easier, wouldn't it? Brilliant. Oh, that felt good. Thanks, Nigel, I'll be off now. Have a nice day and don't forget to enjoy yourself!
And like he was predisposed to reject even the slightest of despair, Eric jumped up, energised, and left the booth actually whistling. Rudyard waited until his merry noises were out of earshot then stumbled out himself, looking like he just decided to give day drinking a bash. Supporting his weight with one hand, leaning heavily on the woodwork of the booth as if someone was busy pulling the rolling mat of the solid ground from beneath him, he reached into the pocket of his topcoat. He fished out a small, grey mouse of unusual attentiveness, brandishing a tiny pencil and a minuscule notebook only to lift her to eye level and begin to talk to her.
That was me, by the way. Rudyard’s only real friend in this world and his number one confidant. You probably know me better from my books. I am, after all, the first mouse to pen a Sunday Times bestseller – not once or twice but three consecutive times! But just in case we haven’t been acquainted, my name is…
‘Madeleine' Whispered Rudyard. ‘did you hear what I did?’