Frances made good on her promise, popping by on Tuesday evening. The weather had turned sour, and her long coat was soaked through when she sat on Marie's bench. Tristan had just finished celebrating Vespers with a few faithful when he spotted her. A short dash into his office to retrieve a packet, and he was by her side.
— "Good evening, Father Tristan."
— "Good evening, Frances. How was your birthday celebration ?"
A smile split her face, and Tristan surmised it must have been a merry moment indeed. Good. If he did not want to imagine how the set of young lovers had spent the week end, he was glad nonetheless that it had brought Frances happiness.
— "Ah, good. I went home, we had a massive cake with my family. I ate too much, drank too much, and tried to shed it all playing tennis with my brothers. They beat me… again!"
Her fond recollection didn't abate the surprise, and for once, Tristan's mouth ran out before his brain could tame it.
— "I though your boyfriend was coming over ?"
The young woman froze an instant, disappointment fleetingly passing before she schooled her features.
— "Matthew couldn't make it, he'll be here next week end."
Tristan managed to repress an annoyed sigh, but Frances was already deflecting; she didn't want to talk about it.
— "Anyway. How was your day ?"
The same question again. A subtle way to pry, giving him the opportunity to elaborate or forget about last Thursday. He chose the latter, for he had many things to discuss with her, not all of them pleasant, before he left church.
— "It was a lazy day. How about yours ?"
— "A standard day in school. Lazy, really ? Is that even possible ? Don't you wake up at dawn for Laudes ?"
Father Tristan was impressed; she had done her research. And even though he was an early riser – the seminary threw them out of bed at 5.30 am – he wasn't naturally compelled to rise so early.
— "I do. But time is not always filled in between Laudes and Vespers"
— "I'm glad you found some time to rest in between obligations"
Father Tristan nodded imperceptibly; the more they talked, the less demonstrative they became. The tiniest of movements sufficed, now, to convey their meaning.
— "You know what busy mean, by all means"
— "I do", she responded. "But anyway…"
Frances grabbed her handbag from the ground, fishing out an A5 sized frame out of the dimensional container.
— "I brought you this. And no, it is not edible"
The little jab caused him to chuckle, and he received the frame eagerly. Even in the dim light of this rainy evening, the beauty of the picture captured his eyes.
— "It doesn’t look as good than when you stand in the snow, but it sure doesn’t feel that cold"
An eyeful to the snowy peak, with its ice dusted over the cliff, nearly caused him to shiver; he understood the sentiment. At the bottom, a paintbrush had calligraphied the words 'The power of God' with a sure hand, its lines elegant and pretty masterful. The overall result left him slightly speechless, and it took him a few seconds to understand what it meant. Had she taken the picture herself ? Painted it ?
— "Is that your handwriting ?"
She nodded shyly.
— "Thank you, it is beautiful. So you went skiing after all ?"
Frances addressed him a genuine smile, one full of mischief, as if she was hiding something she would never admit under torture. He mentally noted to ask her before she sidetracked him, causing him to forget altogether. Her brain just fired too many items to take interest in; his mind just couldn't let all of them go.
— "Yes. And while I stood on the top of the world - it really felt like it - I was wondering what you would think of the view. It was so beautiful that I wondered if God and geology had worked together to make it so breathtaking. So here it is. If you like it, you can always put it on your desk when the days get too stifling."
It was such a little attention, but one that touched his heart deeply. A simple gesture that showed she'd been taking his teachings to heart. Tristan was not a mountain man; he'd lived most of his life away from them, and had not enough money for skiing. Those views, he'd only seen them in movies. He could only imagine how it felt to stand on the top of the world with the icy wind blowing in your face.
— "Thank you, Frances. I actually have something for you as well, but you'll have to wait until home. There's quite the crowd here today. I don't want them to see me bestowing birthday presents, they would never let me live it down"
And he dropped in her lap a tiny packet that contained a book he'd loved as a young seminarist. One that conveyed, for him, the true nature of God's love. A book he didn't need anymore, and thus, he had written on the cover and hoped she would appreciate the gesture rather than find him overbearing. He was, after all, a man of God. Would it inspire her, or send her fleeing ?
Frances' cheeks reddened slightly, and her eyes shone in the candlelight.
— "Thank you, Father Tristan"
She was at loss for more words, and he endeavoured to drag her into conversation to wash away the emotion.
— "May I ask when is your birthdate ?"
— "Eight of march."
— "Woman's day. How very fitting."
She smiled, a question shining in the warmth of her chocolate irises.
— "How about yours ?"
For a moment, Tristan hesitated. He'd never given away his birth date to any parishionners. But Frances was a friend, and he was just returning the favour.
— "22nd of November"
The young woman's face brightened, and the hesitation disappeared at once. What had brought such a fit of happiness ?
— "Oh. Scorpio then. It is little wonder we get along so well"
Astrology. Old wives' tales and idolatry ? That used to be his take on such things, but if Frances, a rational woman, had something to say about, then he would listen. Her mind was just not impressionable enough for it to be completely daft.
— "Really ?, he prompted.
— "Yes, Pisces and Scorpio are both signs of water, with intuition. We go with the flow."
Going with the flow; exactly how he had landed in the seminary. Surely this was just a coincidence, right ? And their entente, something that went beyond anything he had shared with … anyone ? Just a set of circumstances.
— "I don't have much knowledge when it comes to astrology"
— "You don't believe in it, right ?"
Too bad she knew how to read him now; he couldn't possibly lie. Frances wouldn't forgive him anyway. Hence a very diminutive reply.
— "Well … Tell me more"
She eyed him sceptically, and he got ready to drop the subject altogether. What was it, with this woman, that endeared her to him even when she prattled about the most silly thing in the world ?
— "Well. Pisces are known to be in their own little world, and it makes people mad because they can't understand them. Scorpios are known to be difficult signs, because they are pretty sensitive, rely on intuition and can be ambitious."
Ambitious certainly didn't apply to him…except that he always applied himself, in any of his endeavours, to get the best job done. He found himself curious to hear more. Fortunately, Frances wasn't done.
— "Cunning, even, if needed. But they always use their intuition. This is how they mend the gap with those ever-dreaming Pisces. My great grandmother was a Scorpio, and I got along with her so well. Anyway…"
Suddenly, Frances buried her face into her hands.
— "Cease my ramblings, please"
Father Tristan chuckled slightly. She was so adorable when her mind started wandering. A Pisces indeed.
— "Never. You throw so many lines that I am bound to catch those that interest me"
— "Right. I'm the fish, not the fisherman. In theory"
A fish with golden scales and bluish hues. Yes, he could picture her quite easily. A siren, maybe, with her long hair trailing down her back, catching the setting sun to become liquid fire. Annoyance bloomed at once, and he berated himself for those thoughts.
Suddenly, his mood turned sour. Didn't she know she was playing with that friend's feelings - Luke ? What about Matthew ? Did she intend to discard him only to jump at the nearest man – a boy, really – available ? He had thought her different. Obviously, he was sorely mistaken.
The rage that settled in his stomach was unfortunately not as unfamiliar as he wished. The stormed lurked, awaiting for an opportunity to lash out. His control was slipping, never tamed.
— "Frances. You and Luke are… friends?"
Her eyebrows knitted in confusion. Playing coy, or oblivious ?
— "Yes. Why do you ask ?"
Summoning patience and tolerance, Tristan let his elbows rest upon his thighs. His gaze, though, resisted the idea of being reigned; he knew anger shone within, and redirected it to the tile that faced the bench. He couldn't possibly glare at the Virgin Mary so blatantly.
— "I think he's quite taken with you."
There was the test. Frances scoffed, discarding his observation at once.
— "Luke ? You're joking, he was in love with Morgana the last I heard. I've read so many of his poems dedicated to her that my eyes bled"
That bit of news threw him out for a loop, anger fading to confusion. Had he read the signs wrong ? No, for despite his daily occupation, Father Tristan was no stranger to youngsters love. The classes he taught; the tutoring he did at high school brought him enough experience. The fact that Frances truly believed Luke to be taken with another, though, made no doubt. Perhaps he could open her eyes, gently, rather than rage about her blindness.
— "How long ago?"
She seemed genuinely confused now.
— "Last year ? She rejected him gently. She's so sweet, Morgana. I understand why half the promotion is in love with her"
Perhaps there was hope for friends of the female kind for Frances, after all, if she considered a comrade with such awe. From what he had gathered, her cousin Élise was out of the picture. But it didn't quite nail the problem of her tall companion.
— "How much time do you spend together ?"
— "With Luke ? We used to spend a lot, but not so much now we've specialized. I pushed him to continue writing, he's got such talent !"
As she spoke, Frances' features started to morph. Her faraway look told him she was revisiting her interactions with her tall friend with the light of his revelation… Suddenly, her tongue darted out as if she'd swallowed something sour.
— "Do you think ? Really?"
Father Tristan only nodded, and her hands flew to her mouth in genuine shock.
— "Damn, so when he invited me to his home last year for the week end, it was… ? "
It was Tristan's turn to be shocked. Surely, a young woman going to a young man's home meant something ? Why could she not see how she led the guy on ? Was she so foolish that she couldn't consider it ?
— "You spent a night in his home?"
The rebuke caused her to huddle on the bench, and at once, Frances started a distressed rant.
— "His parent's home, yes. In the guest room. I thought it would do some good to get out of here for a moment. It was pretty horrible, I felt so out of place. I didn't like his family at all, ugh !"
— "What in God's name went through your mind !", was his harsh response.
His voice travelled through the church, and he took a deep breath to gather his wits. He had just sworn, in the name of God ! His eyes remained rooted to the floor, afraid to catch her gaze. A good decision, for tears were now shining in her eyes. Her voice, pitiful, caused regret to flood him.
— "He was in love with Morgana, and I have Matthew, and he knows it… it just didn't occur to me."
Summoning a great deal of courage, Father Tristan eventually straightened. His gaze returned to her and, upon finding her so distressed, regretted his lack of compassion at once.
— "Not every woman is a faithful as you are, Frances."
The show of trust failed at soothing her, for she spat derisively.
— "Right. Sure"
Surprised by the amount of anger contained within those simple words, he tried to be as open as possible. It wouldn't do to fight in the church.
— "Listen. From what I gathered, I think Luke is waiting for your relationship with Matthew to crumble and take the place."
She refused to meet his gaze, her eyes travelling to Marie; the statue watched over her silently. He watched her jaw clench in frustration before sadness replaced it.
— "This is stupid, stupid reasoning. If I wanted him, I wouldn't be with Matthew."
— "Women tend to say something and do another"
Frances blinked, hurt by what she interpreted as a judgment. And despite the fact that her best friend was doing just that – sleeping with a guy while thinking of another – she retaliated.
— “I’m not that temptress they speak of in the bible. Never will be. I don’t dress like a piece of meat, don’t flirt, I try to give clear signals, people just don’t want to understand it.”
The rise of her voice caused Tristan to backpedal at once; he had been mightily insensitive in his comment. His hand lifted in the universal gesture of peace.
— “Don’t be upset, that’s not what I meant.”
Frances froze, eyeing him suspiciously before she sagged on the bench. Did she realize how precious it was to meet someone that didn’t always assume you meant to disparage ? Someone who could think things over before reacting rashly or lashing out ? He had found plenty in church, but his memories of young women back then were tremendously different.
— “What did you mean?”
— “That men tend to be stupid”, he deadpanned. "For a guy, a woman that doesn't push away is a woman that consents."
Could she possibly ignore how basic men were, sometimes, when it came to interactions ? Especially at that age ?
— "Well I don't. I don't flirt. I say yes, or no. I have someone, I'm not available, period"
It was true that her straightforwardness had always amazed him; perhaps it came from growing up surrounded by brothers ? Frances communicated sincerely, if not without subtlety. Yet, she stated things plainly. Could her tall friend be so blinded that he was oblivious of that fact ?
— "I don't think Luke realises that. And he might not even be conscious that he ignores it"
That was the only explanation. Both parties, oblivious to the webs woven between them, searching for a mismatched connection ?
— "Could you be wrong ?"
Frances' question steered his doubts. Could he, really, be mistaken ? If Frances came to Luke, and told him she wanted him, would he refuse ? Given the looks he'd caught the previous week, he doubted it.
— "Perhaps … but I don't think I am. Do you not feel it ?"
The young woman uttered a frustrated sigh.
— "Feel what ? We're friends, we spend a lot of time in the same classes. We joke, we share, we talk, we have lunch together… I don't understand what I'm supposed to feel"
Oh, she was pissed. And Tristan was amazed that she still remained by his side on the bench.
— "Ambiguity. The desire for more than friendship"
He watched her a she nibbled on her lower lip. Something was playing in her mind, something she had trouble accepting. He gave her time to ponder upon it, his ears straining for parishionners in need. No one seemed to search for his presence; good. This was just as important. When his eyes returned to her, she seemed… shameful.
— "I've wondered, a few times. My best friend told me half the guys of high school wanted to go out with me. Of course, she was exaggerating but it felt so… preposterous. So pretentious to even consider it. Especially since the one I wanted didn't want me back"
Floored, Tristan understood, now. And it unsettled him to realise that Frances didn’t acknowledge her friend's desire for the sake of humility. That she was taught, by non-Christian parents nonetheless, one of the more important teaching of the Catholic church; to remain humble. And humble she was… leading her to ignore that she could be wanted, and desired altogether. It simply didn't brush her mind at all. Hence, didn't exist.
How close did this come to the feeling or worthlessness ?
— "How can you be so cut off from your own emotions?", he whispered.
And despite the storm he's barely kept at bay earlier, his bouts of anger and harsh words, it was this simple statement that broke her.
— "You are the last person I expected judgment from, Father Tristan"
And the tears that leaked upon her cheeks were as many cutting knives in his belly. How true her accusation, for he had judged, without mercy. Discovering her flaws…it made his heart ache. And yet… she was still the sweetest, most gentle woman he'd ever met. Could he possibly hold her accountable to ignore a game – seduction – she took no part in ? For ignoring the rules of flirting, when it didn't even occur to her mind ?
How despicable was it, for her, to be nice and welcoming in search of acceptance ? He knew enough of her, now, to know she only sought genuine affection amongst her peers. Growing up amongst men had twisted her sense of seduction; she didn't even consider it.
Unfortunately, men were not only brothers. They also wanted to be boyfriends, and husbands. Except for him… he was only meant to be a father. To guide, firm and gentle. And his actions, this every evening, didn't paint him in the best light. A slight sniffle caused him to extract a handkerchief from his frock.
He extended the item as a gesture of pace.
— "Forgive me, Frances. I only wanted to help"
She nodded pitifully, overwhelmed.
— "What should I do ?"
As she placed her trust in his hands, Father Tristan found that he didn't want to steer her wrongly.
— "It is hardly my place to advise you"
The young woman dabbed her eyes with his kerchief, and turned to him with a harsh stare.
— "It didn't seem to bother you when you pushed me into the pond"
Touché. He'd forced her to dive in, none too gently, sending her world upside down. The least he could do was to support her now. It was in his name, Tristan, rather than in the name of a priest that he made his apologies.
— "You are right. I have been unfair. Put some distance, if you can, so that your actions are not misinterpreted."
Her face brightened, as if this very simple advice was a miracle solution. More than the idea, it was his genuine attempt to help that she greeted with joy.
— "I can do that, I guess"
But the mood was quickly spoilt as she sighed:
— "With everything I have to handle, it is terrible to think that I need to be wary of my friends."
Father Tristan bit his tongue; it was her own behaviour she needed to be wary of. She was too lovely, too lively to count on suitors to keep themselves at bay without a strong rebuke.
— "Well, at least, I can be myself with you", she sighed.
Father Tristan nodded, slightly numb. Yes, she definitely wasn't in danger with him. But somewhere, deep within, beyond layers of devotion and faith, the man awakened.