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Ben Manley

Short Stories

The Embarrass­ment of Rubuth­not

Could I have prevented what happened? Perhaps. But what happened to Rubuthnot was his own fault. I am convinced of that.

It was at the Friday meeting that Rubuthnot finally gathered up the courage of his convictions and spoke out. It had been clear to me for some time that he had been struggling with his faith. Certain questions asked at the Ten Minute Seminaries; a faraway look during the Preachings, as if staring at a distance into a volcanic cravasse; he once interrupted the Holy Master during suppertime — an unthinkable occurrence, particularly for a shy soul like Rubuthnot.

He was a quiet type — near silent in his dealings, reserved to the point of withdrawal. On reflection, this was the exact category of person likely to dissent. Rubuthnot kept his own counsel.

So, I had noticed a change in his atmosphere. Could I have prevented what happened? Perhaps. But how was I to know what he was planning, or what would befall him as a direct consequence of his actions. What happened to Rubuthnot was his own fault. I am convinced of that. Let me at least explain the event and you will understand:

It was the midpoint of the Gathering and the Holy Master had just returned his sermon on the Smiting of the Unconscionable Sumidians. Our heads were bowed in silent prayer when Rubuthnot stood and cleared his throat. Then, with a nervous stuttering, he began to speak:

“Brothers, there is something I would like to say. For some time, I have been wrestling with certain doubts. My heart has been at war. But that war is at an end, and I have come to a jeweled point of clarity. What I would like to say will not be welcome, it will not be kind; but it will be true.”

The Holy Master was silent as the tomb. The congregation listened on, captured in surprise. Rubuthnot's voice began to gain resonance and drive. Its presence swelled and magnified. For the next hour, Rubuthnot unravelled the detail of the Texts, quoting passages at length, mining contradiction after contradiction, deconstructing, dissecting, opening up the bare heart of our religion and repeatedly plunging in the scalpel. We all reeled to reconcile his relentless polemic. At the end, slightly breathless, but with the gleaming eye of the righteous, he concluded:

“And so, in the light of knowledge and in the face of reason, I know in my soul and heart and mind: There is no God!” And at that precise moment, in the calm eye of the storm, Rubuthnot's trousers fell down.

The ensuing silence was mighty and unswerving in its judgement; it began, lightly at first, to be punctuated by laughter, but swiftly, as it opened up, it grew to a whooping frenzy. Anger began to sizzle around the room.

The Holy Master rose imperiously and calmed the throng with a minute gesture of the hand. A furious, silent electricity coursed amongst us.

“The All-Seeing Entity has embarrassed you! You are no longer our brother!” He jabbed his finger at Rubuthnot emphatically. Rubuthnot was still struggling with the fastenings of his trousers, his fingers skittering and slipping on the buckles of his braces. He looked up, blinking and red with shame. “You have been found out!”

A fragile calm came across Rubuthnot, and he sat once again, quietly amongst the congregation. Those around him moved away. I looked at his face: it was solemn, his eyes were sunken to the ground and around them were the faintest halos of tears.

“Leave this place, never to return,” intoned the Holy Master, and it was as if the very soul of the All-Seeing Entity was pouring from his throat. “I banish thee forever!”

Rubuthnot rose and, clutching at the waist of his trousers, he shuffled from the hall. After this moment, I never saw him again.

I came late to the accident. I am told that he became involved in an argument with a group of High Order Celebrants on his way out of the compound. I do not know the details of their discussion, but there was a scuffle and Rubuthnot had fallen and struck his head on the corner of the pavement. By the time I arrived, Rubuthnot had already fled. All that was left was a small bloodstain on the curb and his abandoned belongings. The buckles of his suitcase were burst open, and there was nothing left inside, but for a single page torn from a copy of the Texts. There was an inscription, delicately handwritten with a care that had resulted in very few smudges:

To Alan,
May the All-Seeing Entity grant you:
Truth of soul
Grace of heart
Strength of mind
We are so very proud of you.
~ Mother

The remainder of the book was nowhere to be seen.

A week or so later, as I was readying myself for an evening Gathering, a strange thing happened. I was standing in front of the mirror straightening my necktie when one of my braces snapped away from my waist, whipping up into my face and leaving a light cut on my cheek. The clasp had completely sheared away.

I raised this in casual conversation with some of the other acolytes and found that a number of them had suffered the same experience. I enquired at the clothing depot when collecting my replacement and they confirmed a bad batch of braces; a product recall note had been displayed on the bulletin board in the quadrangle.

When I have cause to think of Rubuthnot, I wonder what might have happened that day if he had seen that note, if things might have turned out differently. And that is what occasionally troubles me.