St Tony’s Prayer (written, summer 2012 for Costa short story competition)
Zita sat alone in the small church across from her house. Her mind and body weary, her heart broken. Two years before, her husband had informed her out the blue that he no longer loved her and that, like it or not, he was leaving. There had been no fight and no warning signs. There had been absolutely nothing to indicate that his feelings of love had changed in any way prior to that night. She had been astounded. The one person who had been by her side was her cousin. Judy.
Judy and Zita had been joined at the hip since the age of five. That was when Zita’s parents had died, and she was forced to move in with her aunt, uncle and cousin. The cousins immediately became more like sisters, and over the years their unbreakable bond had flourished. Devastatingly, it had now been more than two weeks since Judy had last been seen. Zita had made every effort to find her missing cousin. Posters were taped to lamp-posts around the city, asking if anyone knew of her whereabouts.
Now Zita sat quietly in this sanctuary. A place she never thought she would find herself, doing something she never thought she’d find herself doing. There she was, in spite of her atheistic inclination, in the Church of St Anthony, patron saint of lost things, praying that she would find Judy; praying that she would find herself again. She felt so lost and alone right at that moment. In her lap were her divorce papers that had arrived that morning. How could life possibly get any worse? A tear caressed her cheek, as she looked up at the statue of Mary, who looked back with utter heart-felt sympathy.
She hadn’t heard the door open, but the candles on the altar flickered a little with the draft, and she began to be aware of someone sitting behind her. There was a very low, quiet, gentle breathing that had not been there before. The wood creaked ever so slightly, as the person leaned forward, and quietly spoke to her.
“Did you ever hear the story of the herdsmen who lost a calf while he was tending his herd in a forest?” he whispered in a voice as soft and quiet as a gentle whisper.
Zita wasn’t even startled. She felt the kindness in his voice, and shook her head.
“No. I don’t think so,” she said through tears, blowing her nose as quietly as possible.
“After a long search, he made a vow that, if he could only discover the thief who had stolen the calf, he would offer a lamb to the gods of the forest. He climbed a small hill and saw below, a Lion eating the Calf. Terrified, he lifted his eyes and his hands to heaven, and said: ‘Just now I vowed to offer a lamb to the gods of the forest if I could only find out who had robbed me; but now that I have discovered the thief, I would willingly add a bull to the calf I have lost, and give them both to the guardians of the forest, if I may only secure my own escape from this terrible Lion in safety.’ ” The stranger stopped.
“What happened?” asked Zita.
“That’s the end of the story. It’s not about the conclusion; it’s about the moral lesson. Sometimes we’re anxious to find something, but then we are anxious to escape from it once we’ve found it.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Zita rung her hands in her lap.
“I’m Tony,” the stranger offered his hand.
“Zita,” she replied, half-turning to shake it. She barely looked at him, not wanting the stranger to look too long at her tear-stained face. He had a firm, reassuring grip.
“Well, Zita…you look like you could do with a cup of tea. Please…let me be your knight in shining armour. For the next hour or so, at least. Let me buy you a cup of tea,” Tony said, kindly. “It would be my pleasure.”
“I’m not sure I’d be very good company, but thanks,” Zita refused, turning back to stare at the candlelit altar, with its image of Christ suspended on a cross. Now He was looking at her with sympathy. All this sympathy. It was heart-warming, but it just made her want to cry all the more. Is this why people come to Church? Because they need comfort and sympathy? What am I doing here? Who am I praying to?
“OK. I’m going to go down to The Tea Leaf Café. I’ll be there for the next couple of hours. Join me, if you feel better. I hope you will. Sometimes it helps just to chat about something; or about nothing, if you’d prefer. Whatever you need.” He put a hand on her shoulder, as he stood up. “But if you want to know where your cousin is, you’ll join me.” His words hung in the air.
Zita froze. Terror gripped her. She found herself quite unable to move. “Who are you?” her voice shook. It was impossible to turn her head round. Every muscle and joint had completely locked her into this position. She felt herself start to breath faster.
“Just think of me as an angel.” Tony’s hand fell from her shoulder. “Your guardian angel.”
The young woman sat terrified for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, she no longer felt his presence and turned. He was gone. As silently as he had appeared. Zita bit her lip. Judy…. He knows where she is. She leaned forward, hand covering her mouth, biting into her thumb to quell her confused gasps.
She stood, legs shaking, and made for the door. He could be a serial killer. She ought to phone the police. She lifted her phone from her bag, but hesitated. If he was a serial killer, would he have left her alive in here? Would he offer to buy her tea in public? Well, yes, quite possibly he would! She replaced the phone in her bag and opened the heavy wooden church door, stepping out onto the top step of the church.
It was raining heavily now, and Zita had no umbrella. On the ten minute walk from the church to the café, she managed to sniff away the tears, which mingled with the rain drops. Nothing was going to stop the adrenaline that was pumping its way through her entire body. She shook from head to toe, arguing with herself about whether or not the police should meet her there too. She stopped at the corner. There it was. Just across the road. A bright green sign happily pronounced its name. She took a deep breath, and crossed over. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. Her head was spinning, heart racing, she was almost gasping for breath as she opened the door. Only one man sat at a central table. He looked up and waved her over, indicating the seat opposite him. Hesitantly, she walked over and sat down.
“Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my cousin?!” Zita said in a low warning growl. She was not a woman to be trifled with. She might be somewhat scared, but she also felt somewhat dangerous, even if her legs were shaking underneath the table.
“It would be easier if you just accepted that I’m your guardian angel.” The man smiled sweetly at her. Black hair fell down across his handsome face, as he squirmed awkwardly in his chair.
“I said, who the hell are you, and what have you done with my cousin?” It was quieter, but no less threatening. “I ought to call the police,” Zita spat the words, holding up her mobile phone.
“Yes, you ought to. Why don’t you?” Tony took a sip of his tea. He sat back in his chair, reminding himself to relax. She was just an ordinary person, not a goddess, for goodness sake! He felt his shoulders slowly begin to release and drop down into a far more comfortable, less tense, position.
“Because..because you might run away… Because you might not be as sinister a psychopath as I think you are!” She clutched her bag tight towards her chest.
Tony shook his head, “I’m not a psychopath, but you’re better to be safe than sorry. Call the police. Go on. In the meantime, I’ve ordered you your favourite. Lady Grey. You really ought to have some and warm up a bit,” he smiled, reassuringly.
“How do you know…?” Zita stammered, glancing down at the delicate china tea pot on the table. She watched as Tony poured her some into the china cup in front of her.
He lifted the milk and added a drop. “And…no sugar. I’m not a psychopath. Really, I’m not. I’m just a lonely guy with a million and one self-esteem issues, who is completely and utterly…” he paused and took a deep breath, “in love with you.” He clanked the teapot down on the table and breathed out the breath that he’d been holding for so long. “Oh my God. There. I said it. Oh…oh…I actually do feel much better. My therapist was right. I should have told you long before now.” Tony shook his head, laughing.
Zita stared, in disbelief. What a nutjob! “Umm…. I…” She couldn’t think of a suitable response, so opted to say absolutely nothing.
“It’s okay. I’m not intending, nor have I ever intended, to do you any harm. I didn’t even want you to know how I felt. I was too….embarrassed. Yes, I suppose that’s what it was. I was embarrassed.” When there was no response, he fell silent, gazing down at his tea.
Eventually, after a fairly long time, Zita spoke at last, “I…don’t even know you. You don’t know me. How can you be…in love with me? Look. All I want to know is…where is my cousin?”
“This isn’t easy for me, Zita. It feels better admitting to you my feelings, but I feel sick about telling you the rest. I just want to protect you, so I’m giving you the option of knowing the truth. It won’t make you happy, though,” he shook his head, adamantly. “It really won’t. What I know…well, it’ll be like the lion and the calf. You won’t be able to…un-know it….” He trailed off, sipping the tea and rattling the cup down nervously onto its saucer. “I battle with it every day. Should I tell you, or should I not? It would be right to tell you, but it will break your heart…and it’s already broken. I know that, and it will be me who broke it. Me who loves you.” Tony shook his head. “It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Zita leaned across the table, “And how do you know all this?” She asked, not even sure what “all this” actually was. It was all just a riddle at the moment.
Tony blushed, scarlet, with shame, “I watch you.” He said, finally.
Zita’s eyelashes flickered, “Excuse me?” Weirdo alert!!!!!
He licked his dry lips, beginning to perspire across his forehead, “I watch you.” He glanced up at her, biting his lip, terrified of her pending reaction. “I’m…ehmm…I’m your stalker.”
“I don’t have a stalker. What are you talking about?!” Zita was beginning to get annoyed now. This was a waste of time. Sick weirdo!!!!
Tony blushed more profusely than before, “Well, some would call it stalking. I just…I saw you one day and…my heart stopped beating. I thought you were – I still think you are – the most wonderful, most beautiful, most gracious person I’d ever laid eyes on. Oh God!” he clasped his hands to his mouth. “I’m sorry.” He mumbled through parted fingers. “I’ve said too much. I really didn’t mean to go on. I’m just babbling like an idiot now!”
“If you have touched a hair on her head, I swear I’ll kill you…” Zita said to the obviously horrified man, who just stared back. “That’s it. I’m calling the police. Enough is enough.” She began dialling the direct number of the detective investigating her cousin’s disappearance. All patience with Tony had vanished. He was a lunatic. She suspected she wouldn’t get a straight answer from him any time soon. Perhaps the police would have more luck.
“No! No. I haven’t done anything. I really promise you. Call the police if you want. You probably will want to so you’re not going there alone. But…I do know what’s happened.” There was another silence whilst Zita waited, gritting her teeth. He continued, “I had been watching you for some time, when I noticed some strange things happening. I’ve taken some photos.” He offered her an envelope.
“Oh my God! You pervert!” Is this real, or have I been zapped into a parallel universe? “I do not want to see your photographs!”
“Not those kind of photos. God. No! Just photos of you. I got to know things like when you left, and came home. I got to know when everyone left and arrived at your house… I got to know the places you worked, the restaurants and cafes you met your friends at…. I would sometimes be sitting at the next table, just…just finding out about you. I wanted to know everything about you. I still do.” He waited for the penny to drop.
Zita’s eyes grew huge, “Just how long have you been stalking me…Tony?”
“A while,” he replied, simply. He had the distinct impression this wasn’t going in his favour – best to say as little as possible from now on.
There was silence, as they both stared at one another.
Tony continued, unable to help himself. He looked down into his empty cup, “You think you are so ordinary, but to me…to me you are like some famous movie star. Right now, I want to ask for your autograph! I can’t believe you’re actually sitting here. It’s like a dream. Again, no pressure.” He waved his hands, seriously. “I don’t say that because I’m expecting anything. I’m not. I never was. I was just quite happy to look at you…in awe.”
“But, you’re not just looking at me now, are you Tony? You know something…and I think it’s time you told me.” Zita’s hand gripped her phone. She shook it at him. “Tell me!” She looked fierce.
“We’re closing in fifteen minutes!” the waitress called over. Zita jumped. She hadn’t even realised anyone else what there.
“Yes, fine. Thank you,” Tony said politely. Once again, he leaned forward, “I can take you to where she is, if you are sure you can handle it. It’s entirely your choice. I would rather save you from the pain. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes.” He looked at her sympathetically. The tea cup was empty now; silence fell for a few minutes.
“Take me,” she said, finally.
Tony stood, took some money from his pocket, and laid it gently on the table. “Let’s go, then.”
Zita stood, and they walked towards the door together. She didn’t feel fear any more, just a desire to know the truth. “I’m not getting into a car with you, or going anywhere remote,” she warned.
“No. Of course not. It won’t be necessary.” Tony opened the door for her. Then dashed in front, putting up his enormous golf brolly so they could both shelter underneath. Reluctantly, Zita conceded. It would certainly be more pleasant under there than out in the rain, which was now even heavier than it had been before.
The two of them walked, in relative silence for about 30 minutes. She had never been in this part of the city before. It was obviously a place of wealth, with its huge Victorian mansions. It made her feel ever so slightly uneasy that they had left the security and buzz of the traffic and shops. It was almost tea time before they turned into Hudson Road. A few houses along, Tony stopped. He didn’t say anything, just indicated, head low.
Zita walked slowly up the front path. What on earth awaited her behind that magnificent, ornate, mahogany door, with stained glass panelling, was anyone’s guess. Somewhere in the darkest recess of her mind, niggling thoughts were beginning to escape from her Pandora’s Box. Her mouth was dry, feet like lead, clunking up the dark grey slabs. She turned quickly to look at Tony, who was as she had left him, “If you move from there…I’ve dialled 999, and I will connect if you so much as move an inch past that gate.”
Tony shook his head, “I won’t. I promise.”
Annoyed with herself for her lack of courage, and in one final act of bravado, Zita marched right up to the front door and rang the bell. Footsteps. A hall light. A shadow at the door. She turned to make sure Tony was beyond the gate. He was. The door opened, and she turned slowly. It took a minute or two to register. He looked a bit different now. His hair was different. A little shorter, and spikier. He’d lost weight. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. The difference was not displeasing. “Nigel?”
Her ex-husband stood gaping, a growing horror filled his ever-widening eyes. “Zita… How did you…know I lived here?” he managed to gasp eventually.
“I…I…Judy has gone missing… Someone said maybe…I’d find out something about that here.” She finished, not really knowing how else to explain her surprise appearance on his doorstep.
A familiar voice called from upstairs, “Nigel. I’m really going to have to go and get some new clothes tomorrow. None of mine fit any more. At this rate, I’ll be the size of a house in another couple of months!” The woman laughed, skipping happily down the stairs. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know we had company…” Her eyes also filled with horror when she saw who stood in the doorway. She clamped her hand very firmly over her mouth.
Zita’s eyes grew just as large with disbelief, “Judy?” The realisation dawned on her. Of course! How did I not see this? She stood there for what seemed like hours, trying in her spaghetti-like brain to untangled all the information she was being faced with; all the different emotions her mind and body were experiencing. She tried to speak several times, but just ended up staring at them both. Judy and Nigel. Her cousin and her ex-husband. No one knew what to say. Zita looked back at Tony. He remained, true to his word, where she had left him. His eyes never lifted from the ground.
“OK. I’m understanding why you went missing now…” the two guilty people stood shame-faced before her. She could have yelled, screamed, hit, punched, pulled hair, kicked them, but she felt inclined to do none of those things. She looked at them both and her heart melted. “Judy,” she turned to her cousin, “I’ve been distraught for a fortnight. I thought you were dead. But you’re not. Here you are, alive and well.”
“Zita, I’m so sorry. We just didn’t know how to….” She trailed off, as Zita held up a hand to prevent her from speaking.
“When I came here, I didn’t know what I would find. I…” she laughed in disbelief, “I have in my bag our divorce papers that came through this morning.” She shook her head, “This morning, I was devastated. My cousin, like a sister to me, was possibly dead. The man I swore to love and honour…was a closed chapter. This morning I felt like my life was over.”
“Zita, please…” Nigel’s eyes were beginning to well up with tears.
“I can’t tell you how…happy I am. Yes. Happy…happy and relieved!” She beamed at them both. “You thought you were protecting me? How utterly stupid! It was more like Hell not knowing.”
Judy breathed a sigh of relief, “Oh Zita! I’m so sorry. Do you forgive us?” She leaned forward and threw her arms around her cousin.
“There’s nothing to forgive. You two have found love. Nigel and I were over. I don’t even need to know at what point you found each other. I’m just happy for you both, and for your baby that you’re obviously going to have soon.” Zita began to back away, smiling. “It won’t be very easy, I don’t suppose, but I hope we can all get along and visit sometimes….”. She smiled at them both, surprising herself how calm she felt about the utterly ridiculous scenario.
“Oh yes! Yes! We’d like that. Wouldn’t we, Nigel?” Judy grasped his arm. The happy couple nodded at one another, and then at Zita.
“Well, I’ll leave you to get on.” Zita reached the bottom step and turned, “I’d love to go shopping with you, whenever you like.”
“Tomorrow?” Judy beamed, rubbing her tummy in that protective way pregnant women do.
“Tomorrow would be good.” Zita smiled. “OK, well, I’ll meet you around 1pm. We could get some lunch first if you like.”
Judy nodded enthusiastically, watching as her cousin waved goodbye.
When Zita reached the gate, Tony smiled at her: “You never cease to amaze me!”
“It was worse not knowing. Knowing was a relief. There’s nothing between me and Nigel. Hasn’t been for a long time. Why shouldn’t they be happy? This will work out fine.” Zita unexpectedly linked her arm in his, as they walked towards town. A warm summer breeze and the smell of early evening flowers enveloped them. The rain had stopped. The air was fresh. “You know, you’re a nice guy Tony. It’s a bit weird that you…follow me around, but…well…how would you like to have dinner with me?” she finished, smiling up at him.
Tony’s jaw fell open, “Are you sure? Like on a date?” He said, in obvious disbelief.
Zita nodded, “Yes, like on a date.” She laughed. “But, if we decide that we don’t really like one another…well, you must promise me that you’ll make every effort to find yourself someone else.”
“It’s a deal!” he gasped.
“We should start by getting to know one another a bit better. You have quite a bit of the advantage there…so how about you tell me more about you. I don’t even know your surname!” she held on tighter to his forearm. “What is it?”
“It’s Clark.” Tony stared straight ahead.
Zita laughed. “I went to school with a boy called Tony Clark. Saint Tony we called him, cos he was always finding things that had been lost.”
“Yes.” Tony stated simply.
Zita stopped. She turned round slowly, her eyes growing wider and wider with recognition.