Brother Antoine had a mono-brow. The mono-brow demanded attention, refused to give any recognition to the other features on Antoine’s face, which were, had they been graced by any other face, crowd pleasers in their own right. To say that brother Antoine was unattractive would be an understatement, even so to conjure up such adjectives as revolting, hideous or ugly would be rather uncharitable; the features themselves were just doing their job after all. Many of Antoine’s fellow monks who could be described as rotund, jolly, flatulent, boisterous and pious each to a man would, if asked, describe Antoine as ‘beautiful’ because it was, indeed, his nature to be so.
Antoine’s duties, other than rigorous prayer and devotion, were to tend to the monastery’s livestock and beehives. Indeed his reputation as an apiarist was legendary throughout Christendom as was, albeit to a lesser degree, his handling of poultry; cocks in particular. He also tended to the lambs, goats and ‘those blessed cats’ that ran amok through the hallowed cloisters, vestibules, scriptoriums and, to the annoyance of Brother Peter the cook and cheese maker, the kitchen too.
Antoine despite his horrific, some would say ungodly features, was a gentle man; a pious, God-fearing giant with a special penchant for animals and their husbandry. To Antoine, animals were predictable creatures, uncomplicated in a way that people were not. Unlike people, animals are automated biological life-forms, ‘wind them up and watch them go’. They have no sense of identity, no consciousness to speak of and are, as a result, blameless and completely innocent.
People have free will, given by God. God crafts animals to have no will of their own. People squander their free will, extravagant and liberal with is proliferation they spread it about carelessly. When, rather than use it to live a meaningless life of constant stimulation and greed, they should in fact be using it for what God intended: loving Him.
God tested man by giving him free will (Adam fell at the first hurdle). God willed that man should be left in the hands of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him … or so it goes. Antoine had floundered off the coast of God’s love. For many years he had refused to come ashore but occasionally drifting into the shallow waters, he would stop to consider the price of such devotion. Antoine felt that should he go to God willingly he might be somehow missing out on life.
Yet, in the end (or the beginning as Antoine would see it), he utilised his gift of free will to abandon his life of vice and iniquity, of violence, drama, drunkenness and sexual perversion in favour of God’s love.
Some would argue that God knows how our lives will pan out. In which case a life is plotted and its fate can be seen by any number of omniscient beings! If our lives are predetermined in such a way then predestination leaves no room for free will … but that’s neither here nor there.
Now that his old life was in the past Antoine felt satisfied with his choices: his life of devotion, brotherhood, abstinence and prayer. His role within the monastery of stockman and animal welfare administrator filled him with love and admiration for God’s divine genius.
Nothing could tempt Antoine away from the work he adored other than, that is, an opportunity to squander a few hours blessing the inhabitants of the village nearby in exchange for cash. The monks of his order lived, in part, by the old tradition of begging for alms, in fact it was this very tradition that persuaded Antoine to slope off one sunny afternoon and collect what he could for the pot.
And so it is here that we catch up with Antoine, entering the small village that sits by the seat of its pants on the edge of the land that rolls into the sea from the Pyrenean Mountains. Its stone walls and terracotta roofs lay languorous and sleepy, so relaxed were the houses that they gave the appearance of melting into the landscape, pouring slowly into the somnolent waters ever lapping at its heels. The inhabitants of these homes were, in the heat of the summer, as sluggish and unenergetic as could be without actually falling over. In through the shuttered windows, dozing was afoot as was idleness and sloth with the occasional burst of gluttony.
So it is with great haste that they reach for the purse to pay God’s witness a princely ransom for a prayer or two of forgiveness. God’s own protection racket: sins are, no matter the magnitude, forgivable for a price – hush money or, as some more cynical than I would see it, paying for sin from a door-to-door salesman. Antoine made good time and good money which pleased both the dammed and the reckoner.
Brother Antoine draped in hessian cloth moved silently over sunburst flagstones, cracked and worn by winter frost and summer sun. He, to those that stole a glance from within or passed him on the road, looked virtuous and morally intact which was both reassuring and humbling in equal measure. However, despite appearances, Brother Antoine struggled behind the hood, behind the eyes of petulant dark blue-bottle green, for, despite himself he still longed for some of the finer sins of his past. Oh, he had no hankering for illicit sexual liaisons with strangers in the backrooms of iniquitous bars or harsh, cutthroat liquor served in cheap shot glasses. Nor did he truly miss the fighting, the wannabe heroes out to prove that they were more than their nylon shirts and over-gelled hair implied. Pick on the big ugly guy sipping whisky by the pool table, make a name for yourself, earn respect from your peers and admiration from the leopard-skinned, shag-anything barmaid of your dreams. Yes the feeling of his fist smashing into another man’s face, the sound of broken bones, the blood and spit arching through the stale, smoky, badly lit air was a tantalising memory but firmly in the past, where it belonged. No the sin, if it was a sin at all, that he missed the most was the indulgence of tobacco. A cigarette gave a man time to reflect, to ponder his life, the meaning of it and his purpose, indeed his reason for being.
It was while smoking a cigarette, after flooring another cocksure bawdy contender outside under a shepherd’s cautionary sky, that God became impatient with him.
‘Look, I’m not one to interfere Antoine, as well you know but, well really, how long will it take for you to find me?’ said God, quite reasonably.
‘I’m on my way’ replied Antoine. And that he was.
Now, pockets full of crumpled bank notes donated to him by the shamefaced in good faith, he made his way towards the tobacconist situated on the main square. One packet of filter-less Gauloises would, in theory, bring him closer to God that much sooner.
It was at this moment that he could have decided to forget the Gauloises and return to the monastery in time for mid-afternoon prayer and a slice of freshly baked bread with his own bee’s honey. But fate had other plans. Fate chuckled indulgently to herself at the notion of free will. She knew that life was mapped out and executed with precision, down to the final detail, but granted the notion of sovereignty over ones destiny, otherwise where would be the fun?
Antoine seemingly by the grace of his own will pushed open the door and entered into the tobacconist, intent on the purchase of Gauloises. Fate watched on, she loved this bit, the bit where someone thinks that life will go this way when in fact it goes that way … takes them by surprise every time.
Inside the small tobacconist, which was also a boulangerie; newsagent and peddler of gossip, piffle and tripe, chaos had apparently arrived. The floor was scattered with debris including magazines, baguettes, cash and the old tobacconist himself Monsieur Philip Goudan. Antoine knelt by Goudan’s bony, nicotine yellow, tweed-festooned body and looked for signs of life. Goudan’s eyes fluttered open and stared back at the unattractive monk with the thrice broken nose; bloated, tea-bagged eyes and formidable mono-brow.
‘Goodness me, you are a sight for sore eyes,’ said the tobacconist in earnest.
‘I’ll call for the doctor – what the hell happened, were you robbed?’ inquired the monk.
‘No need for a doctor, I’m fine. Yes I was robbed, no money mind you, just all the Gauloises and Woodbines, nothing left but menthol.’
‘That’s terrible!’ said the monk thinking of the pleasure he’d miss out on. ‘Who robbed you, how many and which way did they go?’ The shopkeeper looked a bit shifty, went to speak and then didn’t, couldn’t seem to get the words out.
‘What is it my son? Why are you so hesitant? Whatever you say I will not judge nor condemn you. You must tell me, do not protect these villains, justice will be done, God will see to that.’
Goudan opened his mouth to speak, looked sceptical and promptly shut it again. But then he seemed to resign himself to the ridicule he expected and said, with as much conviction and dignity as a man in his position could muster, ‘Are chimpanzees within God’s jurisdiction, does God’s justice apply to chimpanzees?’
Antoine blinked, ‘Chimpanzees?’
Antoine thought for a moment. God did not give animals free will. Their love for him is inconsequential, they do not seek it, nor are they meant to, he’s not interested in their love. If they are acting without free will then they cannot be blamed for their actions, animals are free from the burden of sin and therefore cannot be held accountable.
‘Are you saying that you were robbed by chimpanzees?’ asked Antoine cautiously.
‘I was robbed by a chimpanzee, he had a jackdaw on his shoulder but I’m not sure how culpable the bird is, he may have just been hoodwinked by the chimp. He came in, all brazen, chest out, teeth bared and just jumped up onto the counter, flung me to the floor, grabbed the cigarettes and left. It was all over in no time at all.’
‘Which way did this chimp go, did you see?’
‘He turned right out of the village. My guess is that he belongs to Monsieur Perin, the old veterinarian up on the hill. He has all sorts living up there.’
Monsieur Perin lay gasping for breath on the kitchen floor, blood gurgled in his throat. Blood, black, crawled like lava, pooled on the terracotta tiles oxidising, spent. The extent of his wounds was severe: the gash in his head would prove to be fatal; the opening in his abdomen would have been fatal had his head wound not got there first. Perin knew that his time was up, that the ferryman was mooring his vessel in anticipation of death’s arrival. Death, unsympathetic to creed or dogma keeps impeccable time, always punctual, never late, comes to collect us all in the end. Death stood above him, took the pocket watch from his dog toothed, velvet lined Armani waste coat, given to him by Cronus, and tapped the watch face with a bonny finger.
‘Sorry about this, dammed thing seems to have stopped, all rather annoying really. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a Rolex or a Tag Heuer – something Swiss anyhow. What do you think?’
‘Can I use your landline, long distance, I’ll reverse the charges?’
Perin gurgled again, fixed Death and with a defiant stare and thought inwardly, ‘So you come at last, I’m almost done, just got to try and wrap something up.’
Perin, despite his readiness to go was nevertheless happy with this rather unusual altercation, this extension of life, it gave him a moment to think. He felt no discomfort, no pain, just the obligatory cold; the iciness that Death bestows on those that he comes close to. Life for Perin was nothing precious to hold onto. Release was welcome; release from social ineptitude, crippling shyness, loneliness, an overall dismay and finally loathing at man’s evolution towards an apparent detachment from reality. He’d run his course and now felt, more than ever, expendable and unnecessary, superfluous to requirements. Despite this Perin needed some clarification, needed answers.
Why had Arnold attacked him, the chimpanzee that he, Perin, had liberated from a life of experimentation along with a whole raft of other unfortunate creatures? Together they had lived in relative harmony; Arnold was cared for, fed and, despite attempts to wean him off tobacco, kept in cigarettes. Then, this morning, the chimp turned on him, near beat him to death in a frenzied and uncharacteristic attack.
Now, as death spoke to Cronus in hushed but deliberate tones, Arnold ambled into the kitchen, the jackdaw, as ever, perched on his shoulder. Perin looked for any signs of remorse. Nothing but indifference was returned. The chimp pulled on a cigarette, wandered over to the fridge and grabbed a soda. Perin watched on as his simian companion turned and left him. He heard the TV go on in the next room, time for Arnold’s daily dose of ‘Sesame Street’,
‘Never refer to me as an item. I’m a bird,’ said big bird…
Perin was not a religious man, had no time for superstition or wild departures into fantasy. He believed that consciousness was a human construct, a notion developed by man’s evolution, it acted as a safeguard to insanity. Consciousness was a tool or weapon designed to help you get on in the world and interact with others. The realisation that consciousness is an illusion dreamt up by your subconscious would fell most people. Indeed what would be the point in living if we, as individuals, had no real identity? Are we in fact nothing but complex zombies who have convinced ourselves that we are somehow more than that?
As for free will? It didn’t exist and nor is life predetermined by a deity or some immortal personification such as fate. Your fate is however predetermined by your genes and your formative experience. We are all slaves to our genes and memes, impossible to escape, impossible to reprogram, try as you might. Some people are indeed born great, given the right conditions; others wallow in mediocrity believing that they have control, a choice in which direction their life can go. No one breaks the mould – the cast has set. The same applies to animals but without the delusions of grandeur; animals are not capable of imagination, of planning, scheming or predicting the future. Being able to look forward and plan for tomorrow and indeed remember the past deceives us into believing the illusion that we have free will, that we are uninhibited by exterior or interior boundaries and can exercise our will with abandon. Perin, or the assembled complex cell structure that was named Perin, had resigned himself to the illusion long ago and in doing so found solace in his resignation. He could not be blamed for anything: Perin, like everyone else, was no more than a clockwork pre-programmed biological machine with a shelf life. His cell-by date had all but expired; time to make way for another generation of evolutionary weaponry ready to fight for domination and survival.
Now, with his last lurching breaths struggling to fuel his thoughts Perin fancied he might have made an error in his philosophical departures. Perhaps Arnold had indeed acted of his own volition, taken matters into his own hands and exercised his, until now, unapparent will. If this was the case then what of Perin’s own will?
‘There’s just one you Nobody like you Take a look, it’s true Just one you The smile on your face is like no smile that I’ve seen You’re one special person if you know what I mean,’ said Big Bird.
Meanwhile Death brought his conversation with Cronus to an abrupt end. ‘If Time himself can’t forge a superior and reliable timepiece then I’m afraid I will take my business elsewhere. Good day to you sir!’
‘Look here dear chap,’ Death continued turning his attention back to Perin’s withered, bloody mass. ‘I need to record your time of death; it’s the rules I’m afraid. Bloody bureaucracy, no getting away from it, I swear I spend more time filling out forms and signing paperwork than I ever did before. It’s all gone private now you see, bloody corporation runs it, no real quality time with the client anymore; no sir it’s all about number crunching and targets. Takes the fun out of the job really, I used to love the fieldwork, still do, getting out and meeting people, offering an excellent, if not unique service. After all without clients there would be no death and then where would we be?’
Perin groaned inwardly, not sure now if he wanted to stay or go if Death was any indication of what waited for him in the afterlife.
Antoine stood by the old gnarled front door; blackened, weathered, cracked and worn. To his right, in the shade given by a vine, its black fruits plump and unkempt lay a sleeping beagle. Twitching, it drifted into dreams of confinement – of green-smocked bodies and green surgical masks under robotic, clinical, unsympathetic green eyes. Scentless rooms without texture, sanitised stainless steel tables covered in disinfected, scentless surgical tools that glinted with cruelty under sharp painful, unrelenting strip lights. Then came the needle pregnant with LSD dripping its hallucinogenic contents into his eyes. Carrying him into another world where sound was colour and colour was scent and everything became very fucked up. Distant howls of rage: toxic violet, hostile red and death black permeated the thick walls painting an image of suffering and cruelty.
The beagle began to run, through long polished corridors, past doors that kept the cruelty contained. Out onto tarmac roads under a warm and compassionate sun he ran until his paws felt grass. Now he stopped and breathed in the aroma of the natural world around him and his head revelled in the cacophony of scent.
Now, rising though the mire of his sleep, through the dark sludge of half-remembered memories he smelt honey and baked bread, a whiff of goat and a soupcon of feral feline with an overriding odour of religious certitude.
The beagle blinked with sentient eyes as the monk stepped over the threshold and into the gloom of the vet’s house-cum-menagerie.
Fate smiled to herself … as she often did. Conceit came with the job; in fact she was rather proud of her smugness.
The chimpanzee sat on a ragged sofa, its guts long-spilt. The jackdaw on the chimp’s shoulder squawked a warning; the beagle saw orange. Monk and chimp eyed one another with suspicion. Brother Antoine saw the cigarette packets scattered on the threadbare carpet before him, ‘Caught you,’ he said quietly, before calling out, ‘Hello, is there anyone at home?’
‘Who the hell is that?’ asked Death still tampering with his watch. Then, addressing Perin he said,
‘You know what? I think I’ll just give an approximation and let them sort it out; after all it’s hardly fair is it? There you are trying to make sense of the world in your last remaining moments, when, well really there is no sense in it.
I have spent millennia thinking about man’s spirit, his purpose, his ‘will’ if you like. I narrowed it down to a quantum level – thought that consciousness was a universal fluid force that runs though all things, all matter. A bit like me really, without sounding too big headed. Even a stone has some small amount of consciousness; if nothing else, it knows that it is a stone! You can’t pin it down to a region of the brain; look if you like but you won’t find it. Free will exists in the sense that multiple, but not infinite, options are made available to you by your environment, your genes and the width and breadth of your imagination. Truth be told not even the corporation knows what it is, the whys and wherefores. At the end of the day – no pun intended – it’s for each of us to decide upon.
It gives us something to think about doesn’t it? In the meantime be kind to strangers, avoid coveting other people’s wives and goats, care for children and don’t take things that are not yours to take. And for goodness sake enjoy life, live, love and avoid celery. That’s the bottom line.
Right let’s be having you! Time – whatever it is – to go.’
Perin let go … Let go of the struggle to understand, to know, to live … and succumb to death. He reached up.
Just at that moment a monk came into the kitchen; he seemed to be smoking a Woodbine. The monk rushed over to Perin’s almost dead body and started to pray over him.
‘Oh for goodness sake, did you order a monk?’ said Death. ‘I hate it when this happens. He’ll have to carry on without us I’m afraid. We are late enough as it is…’ He trailed off as a one hundred-pound male chimpanzee came crashing into the room throwing himself at the monk as he knelt, lost in prayer, on the bloodied floor.
‘Now, on the other hand, I do like it when this happens!’ said Death with a smile.
Perrin wondered if this strange circus going on all around him was some post-life entertainment or a hallucination triggered by a dying mind. If it was for real then it had to be one of the more interesting days he’d passed in recent memory.
Perin passed away at three thirty-two, post meridian time, according to the official report and what happened to him after that is no one’s business but his own.
At the very moment Perin slipped away Antoine was sent sprawling over his corpse, sliding across the kitchen floor leaving blood smears in his wake. The jackdaw fluttered over-head screaming boisterously, spoiling for a fight.
Instinct kicked in – all those bar brawls of yesteryear had left Antoine with an innate ability to fight on demand and he loved it. The chimp launched into another attack and was flying across the room, mid-air at a fair old clip. Antoine lifted his sandaled foot and caught the chimp square on the chest. The chimp went flying backwards, landed, turned and came in for more. Antoine was on his feet and met the approaching ape with a powerful punch to the jaw leaving Arnold on the back foot. Antoine wasted no time; he came towards his opponent, caught him twice consecutively with his right and followed up with a left hook that knocked the chimp into the middle of next week.
Antoine made the sign of the cross over the deceased vet and made for the door. Arnold, not to be underestimated, made a grab for the passing monk’s ankle and successfully pulled him to the floor. Antoine kicked out but couldn’t shake off the chimp’s iron grip. Arnold pulled the man closer to him through a pool of congealed blood. Straddling the monk, the chimp punched him for all he was worth – until his bronchitis became a dash cantankerous. Antoine bucked and kicked in an attempt to dislodge the asthmatic chimp. The jackdaw, no longer interested in the fight, plucked greedily at one of the dead vet’s opaque eyes.
Antoine looked around in desperation for a weapon.
Just then a sunbeam came in through the kitchen window, not wishing to intrude, only to illuminate. The sunbeam alighted upon Antoine’s rosary beads which lay nearby; detached and cold upon the floor. Leaving one hand to defend himself against the mad monkey, Antoine, in one fluid movement, made a grab for the beads, wrapped them around Arnold’s throat and tightened them until the chimp went limp. The chimp fell once more to the floor.
Antoine staggered to his feet and stumbled into the living room, grabbed a packet of cigarettes and made his way to the open door. Once outside he collapsed under an elm tree. The beagle came and curled up at his feet. Antoine stayed there for a while, smoking, unable to move and wondering what God was up to now. Eventually he found the strength to get to his feet and started the long walk home. After a while he sensed that he was being followed, he turned warily to see the chimp limping behind him, his jackdaw reinstated upon his shoulder. Antoine carried on walking, the chimp carried on following him. Antoine stopped once more and kept his back to the chimp, then felt a leathery hand slip into his. They walked together hand in hand for a while longer then when they reached the road sat down on the verge and shared a cigarette.
‘Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street before. Everything happens here. You’re gonna love it!’