The Spectrum of incredulity. Part two. Maya.

Maya

‘What happened?’ Maya asked, groggily through a misty veil of uncertainty.
Everything was behind her. She’d been pulled along by distant tides, bobbing on the waves, helpless, too tired to fight the inevitable pull. She saw her memories disappear, like jewels, glittering on the vanishing horizon. Faded memories turned to dust with nothing to nurture but a sense of loss. She wanted to hold tight to the loss, painful as it was, it was the only souvenir she had. The loss was significant, a marker in the sand, a means to help find her way back. The loss had a name and it was ‘Peter’ and if nothing else had ever been real or meaningful in her life she knew that this loss was real, was meaningful. She would find her way back, somehow, but for now she had to adapt to a new ebb and flow. A new reality awaited her, another story was about to unfold and she arrived like a newborn child into the world with nothing; no past, no hopes or dreams only her loss.

‘Well…’ began the woman answering Maya’s question while fussing over the blinds in the room,
‘You had another one of your turns girl. You was sitting in this old chair by the window, looking out into the garden… I say ‘looking’ – your eyes is open but I’m not sure you is seeing anything, least not what’s outta that window. The marching band from my church just down the road make a real noise when they get going and, when the spirit of Jesus is on them, they could bring down the walls of Jericho! But you girl…? You wouldn’t have noticed if they had come marching right in through that door.’

Maya looked toward the open door, even though the binding straps had been loosened her movement remained restrained. She could see a white corridor: someone shuffled past in slippers and a gown followed by two burly men in orderly uniforms.
‘Hospital,’ Maya thought to herself.

‘That’s how ‘not here’ you get sometimes,’ said the women trying to find something else in need of a fuss. She couldn’t find anything; the room was sparsely furnished and regular cleaned. So, rather than have idle hands, she went through the contents of her handbag as if she were looking for something.

She continued, ‘But we are used to you going off to wherever you go, in your head like that; it’s calm and its quiet and it doesn’t bother any of us.’

Maya looked at the chair by the window and tried to picture herself sitting in it. The old chair looked cosy, looked like the sort of chair one could get used to. The kind of chair one could comfortably sit in and ponder for hours. A chair like that was a kind of portal. You sat in it, you opened your mind and off you went. Beyond this room, beyond the hospital building into the town and beyond: beyond this world and it’s myriad stars, its myriad notions, of accepted truths, its lies, its narrow knowledge, and onto new places, new vistas, new visions and new possibilities.

The woman continued as she dug deeper into her handbag, mining for humbugs, ‘…Only sometimes you get what I call ‘possessed’ you know? Like the Devil himself is in you!’

The woman gave Maya a sideways glance.

‘Possessed,’ said Maya, more as an affirmation than a question. She was open to all potentialities. She lay quietly considering this possibility, ‘Maybe I am possessed as this woman suggests? Maybe we all are? After all, how much control do any of us really have over our actions? I’d like to believe that I am master of my own destiny but how much of that is true? How conditioned am I to believe I have free will? If we factor in inherited behaviour, whether it is genetic or environmental, inherited attitudes and beliefs, even memes, then what’s really left of ‘me’? If I’m really not in charge of myself then it’s arguably true that I am indeed possessed, if only by what’s gone before!

The woman, from the depths of her handbag, said hastily but quietly, ‘We ain’t allowed to call it ‘possession’ in here. The doctors won’t stand for it; they is people of science and blinded by their faith in it. They have other explanations for your ‘condition’ and I’m sure they’ll soon be telling you all about it girl.’ The woman leaned in close to Maya and lowered her voice, conspiratorially, ‘Now you listen to me girl. Last night I sat by your bed all night and prayed for your soul! But the doctor…? All the doctor did was stick another needle in you and disappeared again! You hear what I’m trying to say?’

Maya felt a pang of resentment, and wasn’t sure if it was because someone had prayed for her or because someone had stuck a needle in her.

‘Are you my nurse?’ Maya asked.

‘Heaven’s child, no. I’m your carer, I volunteer to come and sit with you: to pray for you and to …’ her sentence trailed off. ‘It’s all thanks to Pastor Joseph Henry at my church just down the road. He said God wants us to not only pray for the sick but help them too; he’s revolutionary like that! Praying is good: praying is the only way to redemption but I have to agree with Pastor Joseph Henry. We gotta act too! He’s a smart man and more pious then Moses. God Almighty speaks through him! I have to say to myself, “Who am I but a lowly sinner to disagree with a man like that?”’

Maya now thought that it was the praying for her that she resented more than the needle.

‘Anyhow… as I was saying before… You had one of your turns.’
‘Turns?’ Maya was puzzled, ‘What do you mean… one of my turns? I don’t remember anything!’
‘Well girl…’ the woman replied, ‘First you start to shake, like from a shiver, like someone has just walked over your grave but then it gets worse until you’re having a full-blown electrocution type shake! Your eyes roll up into your head so we can only see the whites and then, this is where it gets really scary, you start talking in a strange, diabolical language! It’s a lot of babbling, a nonsense jibber jabbering but it all means something – something to you anyway. I can see in your face that it means something but it’s like we’re only hearing one side of a conversation. It gives me the heebie-jeebies! I ain’t no coward girl but I don’t want to listen: I just want to cover my ears in case I get possessed too, but I can’t because by then, the room is full of people yelling instructions and I’m sent here to help: Pastor Joseph Henry asked it of me.’

‘I don’t remember anything, I don’t even know who I am or why I’m here.’ Maya lamented more to herself than to her carer.

‘It will come back to you,’ said a new voice.

Maya looked toward the open door and saw a small man in a white coat. The man smiled and walked to her bedside.

‘What’s your name?’ the man asked the carer.

‘Adaolisa, but everyone calls me Lisa. It’s easier thank you Doctor Watchfield,’ said Adaolisa.

‘Daughter of God?’ asked the doctor.

‘Well we are all God’s children doctor, ain’t that the truth? But after what happened to my older sister, my parents thought it best to brand me, case there was any confusion farther down the line.’

‘Well Lisa thank you for your time but you have been here all night and, as a doctor, I prescribe a rest.’

‘Yes doctor I was just waiting for someone to arrive; didn’t want to leave Maya on her own.’

‘Maya?’ said Maya.

‘That’s your name,’ replied Dr. Watchfield.

‘Maya,’ she repeated.

‘Goodbye Lisa,’

‘Goodbye doctor,’ said Lisa and promptly left the room.

‘Now,’ said the doctor, ‘the first thing is to remove these straps, no need to have you tied to the bed now. Makes us look like heartless overseers. The storm has passed – for now at least.’

‘What’s wrong with me doctor? Where am I? I don’t remember anything.’

‘Ah, well not remembering is normal: things usually come back. You just have to give it a few days. Take it easy, drink plenty of fluids, try to get some food in you,’ the doctor smiled.

Maya tried to smile but gave up half way through; it wasn’t sincere. If a smile starts off that way there seemed little point in seeing it through to the end. She concluded that this was just the sort of person she was.

‘That carer, Lisa. She means well, wants to help out, but if you are uncomfortable with her for any reason then let me know. I’ll have her reassigned.’

‘Yes,’ said Maya and added, ‘What did she mean about her older sister?’

‘Oh I think she was possibly referring to witchcraft,’ said the doctor.

‘Witchcraft?’

‘Yes, some people believe in witches: believe that the devil turns people, and increasingly children, into witches. Sadly, the children are persecuted, often beaten, burnt and tortured by their own parents. Some are abandoned and some are killed.’

‘You mean that the parents believe that their children are possessed by evil spirits they call witches?’

‘Yes, something like that. Often it’s a preacher or pastor who condemns the children … and nobody argues with them! After all, they are believed to have great power, a mystical knowledge passed down to them from God. The flock shows enormous reverence toward their spiritual leaders. Then the same preacher will magnanimously offer to rid the child of the witch… for fee of course.’

‘Do you believe in witchcraft, doctor?’

The doctor laughed softly, ‘No I don’t but more people these days are starting to. People need to point the finger at something for all the wrong in their lives. Governments are too remote, too far beyond the hinterlands of comprehension. Good and evil are concepts anyone can grasp; they help simplify things in a world in which everything is becoming increasingly complicated.
Look, most people are sensible – well, about half of them are. Witches and witchcraft are not officially recognised and it’s illegal to publicly accuse anyone of being a witch. It’s also illegal to extract money from anyone in order to relieve a person of possession and it’s illegal to perform any ritual meant to rid a person of an evil spirit, whether that be a witch, a wizard or anything else. All major churches have denounced the notion, although, secretly I fear, some are only toeing the line. Unfortunately, making it illegal or denouncing it is not enough: several people, children included, are found dumped on waste sites every day. They have been stigmatised, beaten, blamed and cast out by their own families.’

‘Lisa thinks I’m possessed!’ Maya said.

‘Does she now? Do you believe her?’

‘No. I might have forgotten who I am and where I am, but I feel as if I’m the sort of person who doesn’t believe in much at all. I’m not sure I believe that I am actually here! Is this just a dream? Are my words my own or do they flow from the nib of an author’s pen?
Am I an existentialist? No, probably not. Am I a nihilist then? No, probably not. Maybe I’m an absurdist, then? Everything does seem rather absurd doesn’t it doctor? I mean when you look at it from my perspective?

I have just entered this world for the first time. I have no prior knowledge of a life before, here or anywhere else. But I do have this nagging feeling that there is a ‘somewhere else’, somewhere. I just can’t remember where I put it! I wake up here, so I’m led to believe by your behaviour that this ‘here’, is the ‘here’ I belong to. It’s where I’m meant to be found, meant to be. Only of course I might not actually be here here but here someplace else… or nowhere at all. I might not be Maya! But… I know that I AM Maya. Somehow that’s the only thing that makes sense and when something makes sense, I tend to put my faith in that sense…’
The doctor looked at Maya. ‘Considering you were unconscious less than an hour ago, your observations on your own position are unusually cogent. But then again your are a remarkable patient Maya.’

Maya continued, barely stopping to breath as the thoughts, that came rushing in, jostled to get out.

‘Now where should I put my faith? Should I invest it in you? I mean, you might not even exist, right? You, rather than tell me who I am, tell me that it will all come back to me. Which could suggest that YOU don’t know who I am. This whole experience could be the dream within the dream scenario right? Or do I put my faith in God, or, just to be safe, the Gods? What of destiny? Am I the sort of person to rule out destiny? I think that depends on how one defines destiny. If by destiny we mean that God or some other supreme being is dictating our lives, then probably not but if we mean pre-determined by the laws of nature, causal determinism, then possibly! Oh but then I’d be the sort of person who believes I am just an automaton, a wind up toy with no will of my own. I’d be a would-be self-deceiver; there is no self! No I’m not that person, am I doctor?
Faith in me, myself and I, then? I’m the sort of person that is open to any possibility, an explorer, a traveller and a survivor. To have got this far I must have good instincts; I should trust my instincts. For example, I believe I am Maya. I believe I must find my way back to my ‘here’ of choice.
I think, if it’s me that’s thinking at all, then I’m an optimist.’

Maya stopped and looked at the doctor openly, not expecting a response.

‘Well I’m glad you have it all figured out Maya,’ said Doctor Watchfield patiently. ‘It’s true that no one knows where you came from, where your ‘here’ is exactly. But here is where you have been for the past two years. You were found back then, wandering the streets and suffering acute amnesia. Since that time we have come to recognise that you follow a pattern of recovery and then relapse, which has kept you here. During your remission periods, you begin to build a picture of who you are or might be. You do this in the same way that you have just demonstrated, through deduction and reasoning. Then you begin to remember things, events, people, places. But we believe that your memories are, at the very least, confused with delusions. Some may be true whilst others just … well delusions. Then when you are stronger, you pretend to play along with us, make out you are well on the way to recovery. But it’s a ruse; a deception intended to hoodwink us into a false sense of security, Maya. Once you have us fooled you try to escape. But your escape attempt is not a physical one – you don’t try to leave the hospital. Instead, you go into a state akin to a fit or, as Lisa puts it, a state of ‘possession’. It looks to us as though you are trying to get to another realm, some other dimension that you believe exists.’

Maya frowned. Was she the sort of person to believe in other dimensions?

‘No need to worry now. You need rest. Plenty of time to work on your recovery. Don’t worry, we will fix you Maya,’ said the doctor as he left the room.

‘I’m the sort of person that needs to be fixed,’ whispered Maya to herself.

‘No, I am not that person!’ said her instinct.

 

Lisa walked out of the hospital grounds and made her way toward the church. Sometimes in life you just had to make things happen. She knew that her opinion would be met with disdain, even mockery but she was certain that hers was the only way. She was sorely tempted to say nothing at all, to carry on as if nothing had happened but she couldn’t, not with all this righteousness just bursting to get out. Did Jesus give up at the first hurdle? No he did not. Jesus, hungry, isolated and in the company of Lucifer himself did not yield to temptation and nor would Lisa. She stopped outside the church and looked up at the crucifix. ‘God give me strength,’ she muttered and went in through the doors.

 

Peter woke with a start. He heard a crash at the front door and something dropped to the floor from the letterbox. He was back! What the hell had happened? He remembered being on the spaceship, talking to Maya, her declaration of love and then…he, she, everything sort of vanished.
He’d woken up from a dream, nothing more. A vivid, somewhat incredible dream with a beautiful woman, some aliens and a ragged old chair that was supposed to be some sort of portal. It was quite a dream though, especially the bits with Maya in it. Well at least now he was sure, it was only a dream, probably brought on by stress and junk food. Peter stood up and stared at the chair. The other pieces of furniture in the room looked at him, pensively.

Over by the front door Peter picked the flyer up from the doormat. It read, ‘Bring your unwanted furniture to the Good Samaritan church on Lacklustre Lane, Saturday 3rd. Your unwanted items can make a real difference to the poor and the needy.’

‘Right!’ said Peter striding back into the living room, ‘You lot are going to church.’

The coffee table cowered by the lamp and the bookcase groaned inwardly; he didn’t like change. The armchair knew everything, always had, it’d lived it all before. ‘Still,’ it thought, ‘be good to get out.’

 

Joseph Henry was a busy man, he had a healthy congregation and it was growing: God was back on the agenda and, as a minister, he himself was in high demand. For years people had spurned religion, demonstrated an active contempt for the word of God, but now, now belief was in the ascendance. . God tapped into the spiritual vacuum created by an ever-growing disenchantment with consumerism and its empty promises. In short, God is something people can believe in. God gives hope. God gives forgiveness. God gives holidays.

Joseph Henry’s faith was stronger now then ever before, it radiated from him and it was not only infectious but propagated optimism amongst the flock. Even so, when
Lisa walked into his office his own optimism waned just a notch. She was a well-meaning, active member of his church but, at times, her fire and brimstone could be exasperating, ‘Too God for God,’ he thought.

‘Lisa! What a pleasant surprise. How is it going at the hospital? Everything ok?’

Lisa took a deep breath, weighing up her options, she was convinced of her assessment of Maya right up to this moment but now, standing in front of the great man, she felt her resolve wane, quite a lot. But that was to be expected, she must not fall at the first hurdle, doubt was the Devil at work. There was nothing for it, she must say what she had to say and let the dice fall wherever they fell.

‘The patient is a witch,’ blurted Lisa.

‘Unpleasant?’ asked Joseph Henry.

‘No, I mean that she is possessed by Satan. She’s a REAL witch’

Joseph Henry groaned inwardly.
‘Now Lisa, you know that we left all that behind; it’s just superstition. And it’s dangerous! It will not do to talk of such things. We have an ever-growing, multi race congregation today and talk of witches will do nothing but cause suspicion and contempt. My goodness people would up and go someplace else, like the Baptists down the road. The Baptists are always looking for a way to recruit my members. If this kind of mumbo-jumbo got out, well, my followers would go there of their own accord.’

‘But reverend, I seen it with my own eyes! She’s got the Devil in her and if we don’t intervene then there will be hell to pay. God only knows what spells that witch is weaving. She could spell the end of me, she could spell the end of us all, but not before raining pain and despair down upon us!’

‘So what exactly do you expect me to do about it, Lisa?’

‘You got to exorcise her Pastor Joseph! Saint Peter himself said: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” That witch is going to devour me first: I can tell it, pastor!’

‘Yes, the Devil is a powerful force it’s true and you are correct: we must be forever watchful, but a witch? Come on, that’s just superstitious hocus-pocus gathering way too much credence. Lisa, many people, children even, have been condemned by unscrupulous, immoral men to boost their power and for monetary gain. People are beaten, burned, starved half to death, even abandoned by their families or killed because some fool says they are witches! I can’t be a part it Lisa. I have my reputation to consider,’ said Joseph Henry.

‘Just come and see her with your own eyes, is all I’m asking,’ pleaded Lisa. ‘Just come… and bring some of that holy water, just in case?’

Joseph Henry sighed, he had a busy day a head of him: people were already turning up with their unwanted items for the poor. He had to oversee the operation, get his volunteers organised, meet some of the more distinguished donors and talk to the reporter from the local paper.

‘Ok, ok,’ Joseph Henry relented, ‘if only to set your mind at rest. As it happens I have had some experience with this sort of thing. But, even though the Devil does, I admit, get through, it’s very rare, very rare indeed. It’s more likely that the poor women is deranged.’

‘Oh thank you Pastor!’ Lisa gushed.

‘What’s her name?’ he asked.

‘Her name is Maya,’ replied Lisa.

‘Maya?’ queried a voice from the door.

Both Joseph Henry and Lisa were caught off guard and turned nervously to face the voice.

‘Oh I’m sorry sir; I didn’t see you standing there. How can I help you this fine day?’ said Joseph Henry, hoping that the man had not been standing there long, or, if he had, that he was not the reporter from the Evening Echo.

Peter took a couple of steps closer to the Evangelist, ‘Yes, sorry to intrude. I have some old furniture for you. I needed to know where you wanted me to put it so I came looking. Then, as I found you, I heard this lady say the name Maya! It’s an unusual name. I, um, knew a women called Maya once but I … I lost her.’

‘You mean she’s dead?’ blurted Lisa.

‘No, no I don’t think so. Do you mind me asking, who is your Maya?’

Joseph Henry and Lisa looked at each other, eyes wide. Lisa’s eyes said, ‘What do I say?’

And Joseph Henry’s eyes said, ‘Don’t say she’s a witch.’ There was a long hesitation before Joseph Henry turned to Lisa,

‘Why don’t you explain? You know more about …Maya,’ he suggested.

Peter came closer, his heart racing at a thousand beats a minute. Despite his internal anxiety he stayed calm, interested but casual on the outside.

‘Well she’s a patient at the Princess Fiona hospital. I sit with her sometimes, mainly during the night,’ reported Lisa in her best, clipped, official voice.

‘Do you know anything else about her?’

‘No, nobody does, least of all her. The doctor said she was found wandering the streets with severe err forgetfulness.’

‘Well what does she look like? Is she, would you say, young, like me, about forty years old, slim build and of Indian extraction?’ asked Peter.

‘Yes I’d say so,’ said Lisa.

‘My goodness! Well, I wonder if it could be her? What are the chances? Can I visit her? I mean would that be allowed?’ said Peter.

Peter was beginning to feel more and more detached, as if he was looking down on this scene from a gallery up in the gods. There was his body, down on the stage, footlights blazing, acting in a play, lines rehearsed, delivery impeccable, so totally convincing that the other players were without suspicion. And yet his mind, his fluttering birdlike conscience hovered high above it all, barely aware now of his body’s actions, of the words that slipped from his mouth like polished pearls. Up here in the gods, Peter faced clambering mania in one corner and hope in the other. He had to quell them both, at least for now. He had to find out if Maya was alive. Then, even if he did find her, he had to figure out if she, or anything else, was real.

Reality had become, to him, a slippery fish; every time he tried to lay his hands on it, the fish slithered away, back into the murky, elusive waters of irresolution. He worked on the premise that everything that had happened to him before his divorce was real, whereas pretty much everything since was of a dubious nature, to say the least.
This morning he’d woken up in the armchair satisfied that all the recent, inexplicable occurrences in his life were (he didn’t want to use the word ‘crazy’) stress-related. They had been just dreams – fantastic, beautiful, breathless dreams. ‘Acceptance’ was textbook step one to recovery.
But now? Now he found himself actively chasing after those dreams!

‘I’m sure if you speak to the doctors they’d be interested in letting you see her. I mean nobody knows anything about her: you could maybe shed some light. And God knows we need some light right now.’

‘Hallelujah!’ said Joseph Henry.

‘Indeed,’ said Peter.

‘Oh…’ said Joseph Henry, ‘You can leave the furniture in the community hall and God bless you.’

‘Yes I will. Thank you both,’ replied Peter and left.

‘That was an unexpected development,’ said Joseph Henry, gaily.

‘Indeed,’ Lisa replied, not entirely without sarcasm.

Later that evening, Lisa returned to the church. She wanted to do her bit, help to sort out all the donated items ready for dispatch. The following day the items were going to be dished out to the needy, desperate and destitute. But before that happened Lisa wanted to see if there was anything she particularly needed. Not that she was depriving the less fortunate. No, she would never do that, but there was just so much stuff that it was like Aladdin’s cave, nobody would go without …not even herself because, ‘The Good Lord has provided for us all, ain’t that the truth?’

 

Peter walked up the steps to the hospital entrance, hands shoved deep in his pockets against the biting cold, head bowed against the wind. Someone ran down the steps to meet him.

‘Peter?’

‘Yes,’

‘I’m Doctor Watchfield; we spoke on the ‘phone…’

‘Yes, thanks for seeing me so soon…’

‘Not a problem; this is quite a breakthrough for us … Lets get inside where it’s warm.’

As Peter walked through the door and into the lobby of The Princess Fiona Psychiatric Hospital, he had an uneasy feeling. He was, after all, walking straight into the cuckoo’s nest – exposing himself to scrutiny, and his scrutineers were trained to spot signs of mental irregularity. He was, he thought, undoubtedly experiencing some sort of reality impairment; one foot in and one foot out, but which foot was in and which foot was out? He had no way of telling. That very uncertainty, should it leech out during his conversation with Doctor Watchfield, could have him put straight into a padded cell.
He concluded that the best course of action was to play along with whatever reality he found himself in. This reality all seemed very normal to Peter: nothing otherworldly or too alien about it.
Peter was ushered into a small office on the ground floor where he was offered tea and a chair.

 

Lisa was alone now, all the other helpers having trickled home to their families leaving her to finish up. She cruised amongst the donated items laid out in the community hall, running her hands over polished table tops and the moulded carvings on backs of chairs. Piles of linen, cotton sheets, and polyester pillowslips, woollen blankets, gingham cloths. Rows of steam irons lined up like soldiers, microwaves, toasters, kettles and teapots – a field of wild teapots of every type, colour, shape and size.
Lisa took her time wading through the massive teapot gathering: she was looking for the Holy Grail of tea pots, the tea pot from which Christ could be served, should he come to tea. And there it was: simple, yet elegant. Bone white and standing in the classic pose, with one hand on its hip and the other pointing skyward like a pudgy fencer getting ready to fight. Bone white except for a dainty row of buttercups around the base and the lid. Yes, this was indeed the Holy Grail.

Lisa made her way into the familiar church hall kitchen and made herself tea in the new teapot. While it was brewing she spent some time looking for a throne on which to sit and drink her tea. Like Goldilocks, she tried out more than a few of the donated chairs; some looked comfortable but were not – deceivers, using any means to trap their prey. Lisa soon became wary of any good-looking chairs and sought out a chair that was nothing at all to look at but which comfortably accommodated her ample proportions, a rare occurrence in Lisa’s life.

The tea stayed in the Grail, stewed and cold and forgotten. Lisa, weightless, free of any of her normal bodily aches and pains, free of any of her normal fears and resentments, free of sin, free of virtue, floated. Like a baby in the womb Lisa felt that overwhelming sense of contentment, safety and freedom that comes only to the blameless, to the ‘yet to be born.’
She closed her eyes and gave herself over to the chair.

 

‘Yes indeed this could be quite a breakthrough,’ reiterated Doctor Watchfield. ‘Maya has been with us for two years and so far, we are no closer to knowing anything about her. We have her on the missing persons list. Her face and story, what there is of it, gets circulated around the media, social and otherwise but well…’ he threw his hands in the air, ’Nothing. Until now that is.’

‘Well…’ started Peter cautiously, ‘we’re not sure that we are talking about the same woman yet, doctor. Maybe we should pay her visit? Would she mind?’

‘Yes, yes you are correct of course, but I’m afraid a visit may not be possible yet; we don’t want to alarm her. She’s prone to … um, episodes.’

‘Episodes?’

‘Yes, indeed. But I do have a recent picture here with me. On my phone; isn’t technology something else? Yes here it is. Is that ‘your’ Maya?’

Peter looked at the picture. What he saw was without a doubt the Maya of his dreams, but she had none of the spark and lustre of the woman on the spaceship. This version was, it seemed from the picture, dead inside.

‘My God, what happened to her?’

‘We don’t know. I have to say that this picture has caught her in a pensive mood. She is usually very bright, very challenging, and very deep. But, you know, she can be funny too. She has a lighter side. Maybe you can tell me where you met her, how you know her …um … something about her life before she wound up here?’

‘Well I don’t know her that well, doctor but I can tell you that she is a doctor too.’
Doctor Watchfield leapt up, banged the table with his hand and exclaimed ‘I knew it! Not a medical doctor I’ll wager. A scientist or philosopher… is it?’

‘Well yes, and both, I believe.’

‘Well, that’ll be easy then. She must have been published! We just need her full name and poof.’ Doctor Watchfield made an upward motion with his hands, a mini nuclear explosion, ‘Everything will become clear!’

Peter was treading a thin line between giving the impression that he knew Maya better than he actually did and not knowing her that well at all.

‘Perhaps I can explain what happened with me and…um…Maya? Put things in perspective and all that.’

‘Yes, please do: mustn’t jump the gun.’

‘Indeed,’ said Peter, not for the first time that day.

Peter tidied up his actual experience with Maya. He cut out the armchair and its magical portal properties. Cut out the alien space ship and the aliens themselves, replacing them with a top-secret research station and lab technicians respectively. After that the story he told was a plausible, if unusual, one of research into consciousness and belief mechanisms, probably (although he couldn’t say for sure), for military use. He’d been picked to participate in the project after replying to a cryptic ad in the local paper. He never knew Maya’s full name but over several sessions, the content of which was and still is top secret, they formed what he’d like to believe was a romantic bond. Then, one day, it was over. He was shipped out at night and brought back to his home.
He’d thought about her over the years, tried to track her down, but due to the nature of her work she, like the research, was classified …untraceable. Which, he speculated, was why the hospital was still in the dark now.

‘So you see doctor, I’m not much use to you. Other than, perhaps, acting as a catalyst? Maybe seeing me will jog something in her subconscious?’

‘My goodness! Well all of this seems to make sense somehow. She has an acute knowledge of psychiatry… of philosophy too, and can at times run rings around us. My goodness, what a shame: what a loss to the world. What do you think happened to her? Do you think she acted as a guinea pig; you know, some experiment that went wrong?’

Peter shock his head, ‘I don’t know, but anything is possible doctor.’

 

Joseph Henry peered down upon the sleeping form of Maya. He’d taken Lisa’s shift, the night-watch, and nobody seemed to mind: a dog collar got you a long way in this world. He picked up a pillow from the chair by the window.

‘With the power vested in me by almighty God I denounce you a witch and I command you to leave this body immediately,’ he said gravely and with as much authority as he could muster.

‘You’re a minister?’ said Maya groggily. She’d been hovering around in that ethereal, woolly place between wakefulness and sleep where dreams collide and intertwine with consciousness. Half awake, half asleep: part lost in a tumbling, graceful city, made more compelling, more beautiful by the wisdom of its decay, and partly in her hospital bed. She slipped seamlessly from one to the other, alternately running through a maze of crumbled columns, past grand openings into impoverished courtyards overgrown with vines, their fruits lying in abundance upon the crazed floor… and then …listening to the deep, quiet, but righteous voice, mumbling mystical incantations by her side.

‘Yes,’ answered the sonorous voice. The voice’s affirmation brought her swimming back from a dusty, elm-lined promenade where, just seconds before, a black, cancerous, form like Lucifer had slithered on it’s belly, from behind a tree, beckoning with a bony, arthritic finger.

Maya opened her eyes, sad to leave the tumbling city behind but intrigued enough by a minister mumbling spells over her supine body.

‘Am I the sort of person who requires a clergyman?’ asked Maya sitting up and looking at Joseph Henry with her usual speculative eye. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think that I am the sort of person who puts a lot of stock in superstition. So why are you here? Am I dying? What’s all this nonsense about witches anyway?’

Joseph Henry bristled at the assumption that he and his brethren peddled superstition but he tried to hide his bristling; didn’t want to be seen to bristle. He said nothing. He considered himself a master of chaste emotion: keeping all the bubbling and seething on the back burner, out of plain view.
‘Ah…! exclaimed Maya suddenly, ‘I get it! You were sent by Lisa.’

Joseph Henry believed in giving nothing away so that people saw a good, patient, God-fearing Minister and none of the pride or irritation or anger that blazed like sporadic fires within him. Maya saw a dark, brooding shadow cross his brow, like a petulant storm cloud on an otherwise sunny day. She smiled.

‘My name is Joseph Henry. And yes, you are right, Lisa did send me. She wanted me to watch over you.’

‘Like the Good Shepherd?’ asked Maya.

‘Well like a good Christian helping out in his community, let’s put it like that?’

‘I don’t believe I’m the sort of person who disapproves of ‘good deeds’: on the contrary, I think we should all be charitable. The world, I suspect, would then be a better place. But the Christian thing? No, I think I disapprove of organised religion. You shouldn’t think in terms of being a good Christian – you should always be a good person. Religion, like witchcraft is superstition – more elaborate, more organised – but still superstition.
Please feel free to be defensive. I think I’m the kind of person who likes an argument.’

Joseph Henry put the cushion back and pulled the chair closer to the bed. He sat down, leaned back and gathered a sermon, ‘You’re right in one respect: religion is organised whereas superstition rarely is. Superstition offers nothing but fear, fear that if you do this thing then that bad thing will happen. Religion, on the other hand, offers a sense of community, belonging and purpose.’

‘You mean religion is organised superstition?’

Joseph Henry dampened the fires within him. He suddenly recalled receiving his first bible: it was a gift from his father, faux leather binding and tissue thin pages tinged with red. He’d opened it randomly and smelt the new print leap up off the page like the breath of God. Young Joseph Henry, already captivated by the magnitude of the Bible could now read it for himself. On that random page he read, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ He knew, absolutely then and there, that he would believe forever, he would uphold his end of the bargain and in return he’d spend eternity in the presence of God.

‘Religion centres around a belief in God,’ Joseph Henry retorted to Maya. ‘Superstition has no centre: it attaches unnecessary credos to the supernatural. Old wives tales do not have a heart; they do not rain judgment down upon us! Believers in old wives tales do not have a shared consciousness and a belief in the betterment of mankind. There is no nucleus, no ‘modus operandi’, no morality, just caution designed to inhibit, not broaden; not at all like the Church. When people are hungry, when they are sick, when the devil turns them out of their homes and onto the streets in mid-winter do they find solace in God or do they turn to a rabbit’s foot for comfort? There is only one choice surely? Only God can light the way!’

Maya blinked, ‘Religion is the opium of the people. Dulls the pain and numbs the senses. Gives hope where otherwise there is nothing but despair. But I would rather see a world where spiritual anaesthetics were not needed. A world in which all people can breathe without a mask, walk without a cane, think without fear! Raise their heads above the parapet, climb out of this fortress, this mental prison and pursue knowledge without consternation or fear of retribution. There is no need for constraints if we employ the best of our humanity. No one should be in a position where they need to pray for anything, we can solve our own problems.’

‘You underestimate the power of prayer,’ said Joseph Henry leaning back in his chair feigning confidence but sensing he was being deliberately wrong-footed. He was used to preaching to the converted, they came to him in droves, all wanting nothing but soothing confirmation of their chosen belief.

‘Ah yes, prayer – about prayer?’ Maya asked. ‘Rather than call upon knowledge and medicine to cure the sick you ask an imagined superior being for intervention. How is that reasonable?’

‘Well now you are getting into the murky waters of metaphysics and faith. You don’t know for sure that there is no such being. It’s a question no one can answer outside of faith alone. So the odds are, quite literally fifty, fifty. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe not, so why not pray?’

‘Do you believe in evil spirits? You just tried to exorcise me, so I think the answer must be yes.’
‘The devil walks amongst us everyday and he is sly and full of cunning. A master of disguise, if you will. My job is not only to preach the goodness of God but also to warn of the perils that lie in the undergrowth. The Devil presents himself as temptation, as fear, as pride, jealousy and as lust. But also he can be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding in the weak, in the sick and in our children. We have to be wary, ever vigilant and never slip into complacency.’

‘So I’m the sheep and the Devil lies within me?’

‘I believe so.’

‘And that’s not superstition? Your religion is built on fear, on reprisals and guilt. You preach damnation. You pounce on mankind’s frailties; turn them into sin. Your religion, has devised an omnipotent, unknowable God and we, mere mortals, can never truly comprehend Him because he is beyond our comprehension. In ancient religions, their gods were knowable. They worked hard to know them, to reach the gods in the heavens. Those gods were fallible but more perfect than us and man aspired to be like them.

Your God ‘works in mysterious ways’ yet, plenty of mortals have testified to knowing what he wants of us and it’s those very testimonies that make up the backbone of your religion. It’s flawed by design! ‘God wants this’ and ‘God wants that’. No one knows what God wants, if anything at all!
If I were God I would not leave the moral health of mankind in the hands of sanctimonious men. If I were God I’d encourage discovery and exploration of our world and the worlds beyond what we are accustomed to. I would say, ‘Keep an open mind, never assume anything and don’t succumb to fear of the unknown or superstitious gibberish’. If I were God I’d say, ‘Come and find me, but pack for all weathers’.
I would not attempt to thwart discovery, hinder progress or blind mankind to finding knowledge by gouging out his eyes! What sort of God is that? A jealous God? A God that abhors our very nature? The very nature that he himself ordained?
No Pastor, I don’t think I’m the sort of person that needs a priest or organised religion to offer me false succour.
If YOU want to muddle one dangerous, unfounded belief with another that’s your business Joseph Henry but don’t dare to rain your judgment down on me!’

Maya stiffened as Joseph Henry stood up and paced to the window staring blankly out into the rainy sky. Inside he was incandescent with virtuous rage. What the hell was he doing? What had possessed him to come here tonight in the first place? Hubris? Did he believe that, confronted with this woman, this woman that Lisa had already denounced, he would receive some celestial wisdom: that God would show him the way?
Yes! He had believed that God would point to the Devil in the room. As God’s conduit, he alone could channel the divine. Nevertheless, as soon as he had glanced down upon the sleeping form of Maya he had been shocked by the malevolent, sinister, energy seeping from her very core.
Lisa had been right: Maya was possessed! She was the Devil’s concubine – a witch doing the Devil’s bidding.

‘I can see right through you!’ Joseph Henry turned and glared at Maya. ‘I can see your lurking, twisted, darkened form peering out at me Satan! Get thee behind me!’

The door to Maya’s room opened and Peter stood aside as Joseph Henry strode out in a furious temper. He had time to recognise Peter but said nothing. His words had turned to dust in his mouth.

‘Maya?’

‘Peter?’

 

Adaolisa woke to a hard slap to her face. Shocked and unaccustomed to physical violence she screamed out. Then came another slap, followed by a third. Lisa tried to stand but her legs were not her own. She carefully wiped the hair from her eyes, noticing that this hair was not her hair. She peered upward, a long way up into the desperate, frightened eyes of her father.

‘Witch!’ he screamed exchanging hand for foot, a slap in the face for a kick in the stomach. Lisa bought her knees up to her chest, they were not her knees; it was not her chest.

‘No,’ whispered Lisa through gritted teeth that felt to small, past swollen lips still too thin to be her own.

A woman’s scream, her mother’s raised and rattled voice rose through layers of panic to place her own condemnations at Lisa’s feet.

‘Witch!’ she screamed and with a violence Lisa had never witnessed in her mother before her mother brought a heavy club down upon her leg. Snap went the bone.

Blackness. Oblivion. But, not for long.

Now sprawled out in the yard, the morning sun rising out of the sea, the air thick with acrid smoke belched from cooking fires, she sensed the apprehension of the village. She saw her hands that were not her hands, and knew that somehow that she had become a child. Not the child of her youth, but another child. Another child who had lived in her parents’ home. Her older sister, the one condemned a witch by the community. The one nobody ever spoke of.

How could this be? It had to be a dream, a lucid dream or, and now she felt real fear, was it a spell placed upon her by Maya? Yes, that was a real possibility and if this were true then her only hope was that Joseph Henry would break the spell. Then another thought, as cold as ice crept into her mind and closed the door. What if the life she remembered, her life, her memories, had never really happened at all? What if a trickster had placed all of that in her head, maybe the Devil himself? What if she’d been taken over by evil forces? What if she WAS a witch after all? She began to pray.

Living as they did in a small fishing village, cut off from the rest of the world her parents were part of a tight community that policed itself. Villagers fished with nets and small boats and sold their catch for a pittance. Times were hard and ever since their first child had turned three, things just went from bad to worse for Lisa’s parents. First the fish dried up, then her father had to sell his boat to put food on the table and then came the fever. Everyone in the village caught it: everyone except this three-year old child. That’s when all eyes fell on her. That’s when the people of her village realised that they had a witch in their midst.

A priest was summoned: a man known for his courageous, ceaseless battle with the Devil. The priest, a small, well-fed man with round cheeks and good shoes was sympathetic and reassured them that he could cure the girl; rid them of the witch that had come to dwell in her body and, in doing so, save the villagers from more misery. Sadly though, redemption came at a price. The villagers, poverty stricken through illness and ill fortune, tried to barter but the priest could not help – surely they understood this? He must charge a fee to support his ministry; there were so many who needed his help. The country was big and riddled with witches: without his aid evil would prevail. His price was too high.

It was decided in a meeting of elders that the girl must be taken to the city and abandoned there. Some protested, said she should be hacked to death or drowned or tied to a stake and burnt, but it was argued, sagely, that even her ashes could muster up some tribulation and they had all the tribulation they could handle. The witch child would be driven to the city and dumped on wasteland, but not before crippling her, they didn’t want her to return.

 

‘Maya?’ Peter reached for Maya’s hand. She looked up at him,

‘Yes Peter?’

‘What do you remember?’

‘I remember you, Peter… and … and I think we may be in love. Are we in love Peter?’ Peter smiled, relieved,
Oh yes, we are deeply in love: you love me and I love you …absolutely.’
Maya beamed.

‘Maya?’

‘Yes Peter?’

‘We need to get out of here.’

‘Where should we go?’

‘Not sure, but I have to get my chair back!’

‘Is it important?’

‘Very,’ said Peter.

A silent ship, out in the universe, far beyond human knowledge and far beyond the reach of human gods waited for its course to be decided. The craft was home to all that remained of an ancient species, their original planet long gone. A new planet was currently under construction but, in the meantime, its people were exploring the universe.

The inhabitants of the silent ship acted as one, with one voice, one consciousness and one ambition: exploration of the universe and the unravelling of mystery.
Maya, one of their guides, had disappeared during a routine mind probe on another of her species. This, everyone agreed, constituted a mystery and warranted a full investigation. The problem of locating her was less ‘Where on earth was she?’ and more, ‘Which earth was she on?’

The course was finally set for Earth Parallel Octillion 42, a neighbouring earth to her original Parallel Septillion 1, which is where they had first recruited her.

To be continued…

 

 

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The spectrum of incredulity – part one – The abduction of truth.

The abduction of truth.

The armchair, Peter thought, reflected his present condition, tired, threadbare, unfashionable, unwanted and difficult to match with anything else. Not that he had much else to match it with other than a coffee table that seemed ashamed of its own existence. The coffee table loitered by the chair in a desperate attempt to fit in… it didn’t work. He also had, in the same poorly lit room, an empty aquarium (his wife had flushed the last inhabitants down the toilet: easier, she explained, to move the tank); a rug he hated; a poor excuse for a bookcase; a geriatric lamp that had developed a symbiotic relationship with the armchair. It would be, he thought, teetering on the edge of cruelty to separate them now as they were all so obviously advanced in their infirmity.

‘So this is what divorce looks like,’ Peter muttered to his roommates. Excusing himself he glanced momentarily at the crumpled spread sheet in his hand. When separation was the only option left on the table (not the coffee table, another table, pure oak, the one his wife still has), Peter made a list of their belongings and, by using a points based system, divided these belongings equitably. It now seemed quite apparent that this exercise was a complete waste of time as, slowly but surely, Annette got everything. She had it all, other than the few items that had, until now, spent the best part of their lives rotting away in the basement.

Peter and Annette had already independently accumulated some stuff of their own before they met. Then, over the course of twenty years, they got a lot of other stuff, nice stuff, together. Peter didn’t recognise any of the shambolic furniture in this room as his or Annette’s from before. It certainly wasn’t anything they had bought together. He surmised therefore, that this junk had been left in their house by the previous owners!

‘So to summarise,’ Peter said loudly addressing his new companions.

‘I have been well and truly shafted!’

The bookcase, never good with noise, lost a shelf and the lamp blew her bulb.

And then, in a more apologetic tone, ‘Nothing personal.’

Peter made his way up the narrow creaking stairs to his bedroom, with its promises of flannel pyjamas and maybe a little Geoffrey Archer to wrap up the fun.

The following day brought with it a bleak sense of foreboding. Gloom within and gloom without: his body heavy, due to the heavy heart he now carried with him. His heavy heart somehow felt heavier when it rained.

With resignation Peter crawled out of bed and drew the curtains back on another day. The curtains were apparently ‘Geranium Pale Floral’ and the antithesis to the shambolic collection gathered elsewhere in this two-up, two-down hovel he now called home. These curtains were shamelessly garish and he hated them, he’d always hated them and now, as some sort of final kick in the teeth Annette had, with a great show of charity, handed them to him as a house warming gift. He’d had half a mind not to hang the damn things up but, in the end he couldn’t be bothered with the consequences.

Peter had a chat with himself, ‘You can’t go on like this; you need to rebuild your life.’

‘Huh… life? What’s the point?’ he replied.

‘Come on, festering in self pity won’t get us anywhere Peter. We need to do something, anything, as long as it’s positive.’

And so it was that Peter came back several hours later with a nice throw for the chair, a new shelf for the bookcase, a light bulb, a handful of self-help books and a microwave lasagna for one.

After supper Peter lowered himself into the ragged armchair. The new throw smiled the false smile of an actor resigned to the role. The chair was surprisingly comfortable, sort of enveloped him in a warm embrace. It wasn’t long before ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’ slipped from his hands as Peter fell asleep.

All he could see to begin with was a bright white light. He sensed that he was in an operating theatre and had woken prematurely. Then the light split, dividing into several smaller lights. Now he felt like he was standing in a vast space and the lights were further away. One of the, until now stationary lights, began to move towards him, growing bigger as it approached until it was the size of a small family car: it hovered just above eye level. Its brightness intensified, so that Peter had to shield his eyes.

A clunking noise, footsteps, a tug on his shirtsleeve and someone pressed a pair of sunglasses into his hand. He put them on and looked into the almond shaped eyes of…what? The creature before him stood at about five feet tall, humanoid, biped, the right amount of heads and limbs and yet there was something alien about it. Peter couldn’t tell whether the creature was male or female, it was hairless, lithe, naked and without genitals. The creature’s head was large for its body, big forehead, two tiny holes for nostrils and a slice for a mouth.

When the creature spoke it did so without using its mouth; it used telepathy. Peter heard a voice in his head, it wasn’t deep but softly spoken, androgynous, neither male nor female.

‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow.’

Feeling a little prickly Peter said, ‘Well where I come from introductions are generally made first.’

‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow,’ repeated the creature’

Peter concluded that this ‘chap’ was merely the messenger and that the message was, ‘Come, please, no harm here. Follow’. He wasn’t going to get anymore out of it. The messenger raised its thin, long-fingered hand and beckoned for Peter to follow.

Peter followed the creature into what he could now see was a spherical, floating vehicle made of light. Once inside, the creature appeared to navigate the craft with its mind, weaving seamlessly amidst other vehicles.

The sphere had a transparent quality that was both off putting and fascinating at the same time. With the sunglasses on Peter could see out of the vehicle in all directions, with the sunglasses off he was just whizzing through space in a family-sized ball of bright light. He opted to keep them on.

Other than the countless similar spheres whizzing past, Peter could see much larger objects, stationary buildings in fact, and it was toward one of these buildings that the messenger now steered his craft. Peter concentrated on the building and as they grew ever closer he could make out a landing bay, then other creatures, just like his chauffeur, came into view. The craft landed, or rather came to a hover, and Peter was encouraged to walk down the steps onto the landing bay floor. Several of the figures approached him, but one in particular stood out from the rest, a woman, a real woman, and not from Venus. The woman extended a delicate hand and smiled at him with yearning lips. His heart lost a beat; his mouth went dry…

‘We were expecting you,’ said the woman.

‘You were?’ he managed meekly.

Peter felt himself recede, as if standing on the shoreline watching the tide go out.

The new light bulb atop the old lamp confirmed he was indeed awake. Pity, he thought the dream had seemed so real. Peter pulled himself up out of the chair and shuffled into the little kitchen where he poured himself a glass of water then looked accusingly at the empty plate of lasagna for one: he’d have salad tomorrow.

The following day was a workday. Peter went into the office and drank tea, looked at spreadsheets and dodged human interaction if at all possible. Peter sat on a bench in the park at lunchtime and fed the pigeons. Peter went back to his new home on the number 22 bus. The routine was the same: watching him as one would watch a rat in a lab, one would merely conclude that his behaviour was predictable, in keeping with previous assessments, ‘Nothing new to report’. But, despite this rat’s obvious physical presence, he wasn’t really there. Just as he had done for every day in the months following the separation, Peter went through the motions. But today was different: rather than be pre-occupied with his miserable life, his divorce, his loneliness he was thinking about the dream he’d had the night before, or more specifically the women in the dream he had the night before.

When he reached home, Peter’s routine continued its predictable pattern: shower, check for messages (none), microwave a meal for one (salad was never his thing), slump in the armchair and pretend to read how men and women are from different planets. Maybe, he thought, someone could write a book called, ‘Peter is from an isolated system and everyone else is from an open system’. He soon fell asleep…

Someone handed him his sunglasses and Peter put them on. He was no longer standing on the landing bay but sitting in a room, a white room with no windows. Two naked, androgynous creatures flanked the women.

‘Do you feel alarmed?’ she said, moving her lips, which was reassuring and pleasant.

‘Not at all,’ replied Peter.

‘Do you think this is a dream?’

‘Not sure… logically, it must be but it feels real.’

‘Logic and reason are often at odds with one another don’t you think?’

‘Yes, quite.’

‘We are currently sitting in a very large craft, it’s exact coordinates are classified. The craft is home to all that remains of an ancient species whose home planet became uninhabitable eons ago. A new planet is currently under construction but in the meantime its people are exploring the universe.’

‘Ok,’ said Peter. Simultaneously thinking that, if this was a dream, a product of his own imagination, then it was an imagination he was previously unacquainted with.

‘These people have evolved beyond human capabilities, but maintain certain constructs such as social order, language, obedience to the law and so forth. The technology that these people have is immense, they don’t need to work or strive for survival. They operate as a team and they strive only for knowledge. Isn’t it beautiful?’ asked the object of Peter’s desire.

‘Yes, very attractive indeed. But, if you don’t mind me asking, what do they want with me?’

‘Well Peter, they would like to carry out some tests, totally non-intrusive – forget turkey basters or latex gloves; none of that nonsense! They just want to observe you, and… erm… take a look inside your head. Your mind to be exact.’

‘My mind?’ Said Peter eying the two alien flanks with renewed interest.

‘Yes, you see humans are a long way behind in terms of evolution. These beings want to know how humans function, how we perceive the world and how belief maps our existence? Why we believe what we believe?’

‘You said we…’

‘Yes, I’m human. I have been helping these beings with their research, maybe you will too. I mean permanently one day?’

Peter thought that being the only two humans on a spacecraft, situated somewhere in the vastness of the universe, upped his chances of getting laid considerably. However attractive this thought may be, Peter was also aware that he might be going slightly mad. He pictured himself slumped in a chair, dribbling and shouting incoherent obscenities to no one in particular as the nurse rushed over to him with a loaded syringe. Other patients, more alert than he, shouted,
‘Its the spaceman, its the spaceman!’

‘I need to think about all of this. Can I go home?’

‘Yes, you take off the glasses and you’ll wake up in the portal.’

‘Portal?’

‘Yes the chair. It’s a kind of gateway. We had to use something unremarkable, something that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but is ultimately inviting.’

‘Oh,’ said Peter.

The women leaned over, her face close to his, her cleavage ever so slightly visible in his periphery vision, ‘You just have to go with the flow, it’ll be worth it Peter, you will never look back.’

‘Well, ok. Thanks for everything; I’ll be in touch,’ he removed his glasses.

He awoke in his chair.

Peter leapt up, startled and paraded the sunglasses around the room.

‘Bloody hell, I mean… well… bloody hell.’

He looked from the chair to the glasses in his hand and back again. How could this be true?

‘Well you all saw that didn’t you? You all saw me wake up with these sunglasses in my hand?’ Peter shouted to his inanimate roommates. The coffee table looked at its feet; the old lamp was hesitant to commit to anything, never sure if what it saw was real or not. The bookcase tried desperately to hold onto its new shelf and the chair whispered, ‘Yes’.

‘Ah hah!’ said Peter and left the living room. He stood in the kitchen staring at the fridge. He placed the sunglasses down on the small Formica table and poured a glass of water.

‘I’m going mad,’ he muttered, ‘Mad.’

The fridge, which was new to the job, decided to refrain from comment and maintained, what it hoped was, a frigid exterior.

The next morning Peter called in sick. He had never in his entire working life taken a sick day without actually being sick. His mind seemed, and indeed was, divided. Two Peters now: not one holistic, homogenous gloop as before, but two distinct versions of himself. One version, the skeptic, questioned his own sanity; the other wanted to desperately believe in what he’d seen, what he’d experienced. One part of him wanted to believe, based on empirical evidence but the other, more skeptical self, remained steadfast in his rationalism.
Peter avoided going into the living room for quite some time. He’d hurry past the open door on his way to the kitchen then hurry back again; loitering was out of the question. He made cups of tea and put them down, un-sipped in various places until he ran out of cups. He couldn’t sit still, he had to think, and like many a thinking man he had to pace out a problem. Walking from one room to the next and back again, all the while consciously avoiding the lure of the living room and the chair that beckoned from within.

Rationally none of what he’d experienced had actually happened. There was no evidence in the world to support the notion that aliens were among us. He conceded that statistically other intelligent life forms must exist somewhere in the universe, after all it was mind-bogglingly vast! But that is not to say that these life forms were more advanced than humankind or that they were anything like us.

Rationally wasn’t it more plausible to assume that he had been under an enormous amount of pressure recently? That his mental health was just a little bit strained? That the stress of separation and divorce combined with negative introspection had culminated in delusional dreams?

On the other hand why was it that these delusional episodes only ever happened whilst in that chair? He never had such dreams when asleep in his bed, or when occasionally he nodded off on the park bench at lunchtime. What’s more both Peters had to agree that the experience seemed pretty real. Normally in his dreams, which were always low budget affairs, there was a sense of detachment, a sense of… well… dreaming. The armchair experience was like an I-Max blockbuster in comparison! Total immersion. It was also difficult for either Peter to accept that he was even capable of such flights of fancy – he just didn’t have an imagination.

Eventually, after talking and walking himself in circles everyone agreed he should sit in the chair and see what happened. Now at least, if anything did happen, Peter had his inner rationalist on board. Together they could figure this whole thing out, get to the bottom of it and return to normal. Because if Peter liked anything, it was normality.

With the sunglasses clasped in one hand Peter lowered himself into the armchair. The tension caused by his predicament quickly drained. The chair was so comfortable, so soothing that his body and mind relaxed and before long Peter felt his eyes grow heavy and he did nothing to stop it.

He opened his eyes to bright light. He heard a door open and close, then soft footsteps approached.

‘Put your glasses on Peter,’ said a familiar voice, husky, seductive, feminine. Peter hastened to obey. And there she was, as before, flanked by her naked, intellectually advanced employers.

‘How are you Peter? We are so pleased that you decided to return.’

‘I’m ok, I guess.’

‘Having a little trouble with reality?’

‘I’m struggling to know what’s real anymore, if that’s what you mean. I don’t know what to believe.’

‘Excellent’ said the woman.

‘Excellent?’

‘Yes, you see the state you are in now, this indecision, this opposition between rationality and empiricism is exactly the human condition my colleagues wish to explore. What we would like to do, if you permit, is to analyse your mind during our conversation.’

‘How?’

‘You remember how the life form you first encountered here spoke to you using telepathy? Well with your permission my colleagues here would like to take it one stage further and telepathically analyse your thought patterns. They can un-intrusively collect data and relay it all back to a semi-organic quantum computer.’

‘I’m not sure I want anyone to know everything I’m thinking: some things are private,’ said Peter desperately trying to suppress an image of his interviewer writhing naked beneath him.

‘It’s not so much the thoughts themselves Peter… more the connections that are made and where they originate from. Sex, for example is a very complicated phenomenon. Your attitude, your likes and dislikes, your preferences, your guilty pleasures, your turn-ons and turn-offs are all products of your experience. How you were brought up, early sexual experiences, whether they were good or bad: it’s a minefield. How you feel about it has a lot to do with what you think you already know, what you believe. Millions of connections are being made, ultimately informing you on how you should respond to new developments.’

‘Are you going to ask me questions about sex?’ said Peter, a little hot under the collar.

‘No, at least not today. That was just an example. We are more interested in how you are dealing with this experience. You want to rationalise it, want to explain it in a way that makes sense to you and ultimately to others.’

‘Oh… ok. I guess as I’m here, and it’s probably only a lucid dream anyway…’

‘Is that a ‘yes’, Peter?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then we can start.’

‘My name is Maya. I was named after a Hindu Goddess. Maya keeps the illusion of the material world alive, preventing, or at least inhibiting us from seeing deeper spiritual truths. I was given the name to remind me that I must always look for those truths. It’s a kind of antitheses. We must, I believe, keep an open mind, gather information as we go, and challenge what we think we know… always challenge, keep asking questions. So Peter, you are, I’m guessing, in two minds as to what to believe right now. Can you tell us what you believe and why?’

Peter shifted in his chair, he felt like he’d been singled out in class to explain his thoughts on Beowulf. His thoughts on that topic were, simply put, that it was utter nonsense. Bloodthirsty Danes going around decapitating hags in swamps and butchering demons! What was there to say? None of it was forged in sense and he hated poetry at the best of times. Even so he was expected to give a constructive critique. Then, as now, the option of muttering ‘I don’t know miss,’ was not going to do him any favours.

‘Well there is a big part of me that thinks all of this…’ he waved his hands in an all encompassing manner, ‘… is not real. I mean it can’t be, can it?’

‘You are asking me?’

‘No, not really. Look I don’t have much of an imagination, I’m limited in that respect: it’s one of the reasons my wife became frustrated with me. For a while it was that very lack of imagination that led me to believe that this whole thing must be true, however bizarre that may (rationally) be. Of course there is a small part of me that wants it to be true – how incredible, how utterly fascinating! The fact that I couldn’t imagine my way out of a paper bag and yet here I am, in this richly layered reality. If it’s not of my doing and therefore it must, whatever I tell myself, be true.’

‘And now?’

‘Now I think that, as brilliant as this is…’ said Peter sounding a little deflated, ‘there is nothing that I don’t recognise.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, you are human and everyone else here is of human form. I’m sitting on something that I recognise as a chair. Ok, I’m on a space station, although I haven’t seen it – only parts of the interior – the concept is still familiar to me. When we explain the world to ourselves or to others we use similes right? When more creative similes are employed they become fables, tales or fantasies but the point is we can only draw from what we already know. A fantasy is just an extension of reality, an extrapolation of the truth as we perceive it. Everything here is within the scope of human experience. Surely a truly alien encounter would be, or could be impossible to comprehend. A truly alien encounter may, for example, be only possible to experience though the employment of senses we humans do not posses.’

’So despite the clarity of your experience here, you believe it to be nothing more than an illusion? And your explanation for this illusion is that you are obviously having some kind of what?Breakdown?’

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘How do you know for sure that your whole life has not been part of the same illusion? That everything is an illusion? That in reality – whatever that might be – you are only a thought, one of billions of thoughts whizzing about in space? Or the only thought? One lonely thought generated by the universe. You are everything, you are nothing. You are clinging to a tiny raft bobbing about on a sea of doubt, saying, ‘Only this raft is real.’ Then one day you spot an island that bears such bountiful fruits and has space to roam and opportunity to learn and, ultimately be truly happy. Yet you pass it by; clinging to what you think you ‘know’ you watch it disappear over the horizon and you say to yourself, ‘That was a lucky escape.’

Reality is what you think you know and historically that can be very flawed. Rather than assume you know, why not assume you don’t?’

‘Anything is possible?

‘Anything is possible, yes.’

‘So, it is possible that I’m going completely mad and if I leave this madness untreated I’ll end my days jabbering nonsense, whilst having my food spoon fed and my arse wiped by a overbearing Nigerian nurse? But it is also possible that I’m not going mad at all, that all of this is as real as the tuna and egg sandwich I had for lunch; the fact that I could actually be that sandwich is neither here nor there. No brainer then?’

‘No, not when you think that whatever the objective reality might be, your subjective reality will be whatever you want it to be. Right now, for example, you may be slouched in an armchair having celery soup wiped from your chin by aforementioned Nigerian nurse. The nurse talks to you about her life but you don’t respond, you just gaze with glassy eyes into space. The doctors can detect brain activity but conclude that due to your acute misery in life you have entered a catatonic state. You may eventually return from Catatonia, have no memory of what happened during that period ‘the dream within a dream’ and build a new life from the relics of the old one… or not.
If I snap my fingers you can wake up and return to your previous reality, whatever it is, or you could stay here with me. Which one would you choose?’

‘Well I would like to chose this reality… I think. But I still want to know whether or not its actually happening.’

‘You want to have a belief to cling to?’

‘Yes, for my own sanity! Don’t you?’

Maya stood and leaned over the desk between them and said quietly, ‘I believe that anything is possible, I believe in you and I believe that one day you will believe in me too. And I believe in our love. I believe that we belong together.’

Peter stared in disbelief. Was this all part of his delusion or was it really happening? Because either way, his delusion or not, it was… unexpected. He could just about swallow everything else: the aliens, the ship, the portal but this? This was beyond his grasp.

Perhaps, conversely, it was all part of the alien experiment; the mind probe was presumably still operational. It was a test, a way of setting his belief mechanisms into over drive. How should he react to this? If this was self-delusion then presumably he could leap across the desk and gather her in his arms, kiss her, make love with her? It was his dream after all. On the other hand, instinct told him to just stay put. As crazy as it all seemed, Peter wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t actually happening and if so, he didn’t want to totally blow his chances of a possible romantic liaison with Maya in the future.

While Peter weighed up his options (a position of default for him, never really sure what to do in life or even how to go about it), he began to feel rather light-headed, even euphoric. He noticed fleetingly, but without concern, that the alien mind probers were becoming increasingly transparent until only a trace of their form remained. The room, with its white walls and bright light, disappeared slowly, like a dream on waking.

The weightlessness extended from head to body and gradually, without a care, Peter lost his sense of self. His past, the life he had lived, faded from view. Rather than mourning its loss, he felt as though he was emerging from the darkness and into the light. He’d leapt from the raft! Meanwhile all traces of his life vanished too, so that they had never existed. Annette, the coffee table, fish tank, lamp and bookcase had all disappeared. The armchair however merely stepped sideways, it benefited from having multiverse status.

Peter no longer had a physical presence in space, he was all things and nothing. He felt more like a concept, an idea, a thought. Floating freely without the constraints of body, of ego, of belief, he felt only hope.

 

‘Maya, Maya!’

And then, ‘Maya you done creeping me out for one night?’

 

Maya opened her eyes. The room was dim, the curtains drawn, the old shambolic armchair lurked in the shadows. The Nigerian nurse lent over the bed, studying her closely.

‘Peter?’ Said Maya in a whisper.

‘Peter who darling? There is no Peter, unless you talking about the Saint? He don’t want nothing to do with you dear, no nothing. Now listen up, if you promise not to pull any stunts I’m going to loosen the straps on the bed, just a little, just enough to let you feel more comfortable. Now, you going to be a good patient Maya?’

Maya nodded her agreement.

‘You got the devil in you young lady, but I’m going to get you fixed, don’t you worry about that, not a jot.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Earl Gray

Earl Gray

Father Mathew studied the group of mourners from the corner of one curious eye, the other eye concentrated on the lighting of candles with Godly intent. Eight people huddled in a ‘mutter’ around the coffin, around the deceased. He would join them soon; he was keen to hear what each one had to say about the man in the chipboard, elm veneered box.
Less than an hour ago Mathew had sat alone – but for a corpse and his ubiquitous God – on a pew wondering if anyone at all would turn up to this funeral. The small church and its adjoining graveyard sat way up on the moor, rarely attended at the best of times, but now, with a storm blowing in off the sea it was almost inaccessible too. Then as the church clock rang twelve pm the scarred, weather-beaten door, honed from a single oak five hundred years earlier, crashed open with vitality beyond its age. Wind, in her fury, dared to straddle the Lord’s threshold dumping her bounty of dead golden leaves in the nave like some pagan offering to the gods.
Autumn leaves fluttering like macabre butterflies in the turbulent wind announced the arrival of a man, a gloomy man with turned down face and turned up collar. He stood for a while in the doorway; unlike the wind he was hesitant to cross the threshold. Mathew came to greet the stranger, thinking he was probably a friend of the deceased. The man with the downturned face then, as if being booted from behind, staggered into the church and up the aisle. He teetered a while on his heels, hands in pockets, a look of confusion upon his face. The stranger looked at the dead man laid out in his Sunday best, he looked at him for a long while and then turned, with a slight stagger, and faced the rows of empty pews. Meanwhile Mathew closed the doors on the storm.
‘Am I too late?’ said the drunk.
’Not at all… And you are?’ asked Mathew.
‘Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt, but people tend to call me Perry quite a lot these days, I blame the internet, no one can be bothered with the old lineal model of experience,’ said Peregrine soberly.
‘Sorry I don’t follow.’
Perry took a small metal flask from his Saville Row pocket, unscrewed the lid and peered inside; it was empty.
‘Well, before the Internet, one would experience life as it came at you; you would travel through existence in a straight line, learning this and that along the way. One never dipped in, got bored and fluttered off in search of something better, something less taxing. The Internet has given birth to a generation of flutter-byes, alighting for a moment upon something that, if it does not offer an immediate kick, gets de-alighted tout de suite. By the time people have got half way through my name they are too bored to continue and so Perry will have to suffice. I t demonstrates a complete lack of application in the young. There are greater riches to be found buried beneath the surface.’
‘Were you acquainted with the deceased?’ asked Mathew politely guiding the inebriated Peregrine to a nearby pew.
‘Yes, I was but it would be more accurate to say that he was a friend to me. Theodore was not, it must be said, a flutter by. Theodore called me Peregrine. ‘Theodore the Studious’; ‘Theodore the Thinker of Things’. Once alighted he never let go, he immersed himself, always looking for answers, always asking questions. Questions of course are two-a-penny Father, as well you know, but an accurately placed question can keep you chewing for days. You know when someone asks you a really simple question about yourself and you realise you have not got the foggiest idea what to think? Theodore was full of them.’
‘How did you know Theodore?’ Mathew probed.
Rather than answer the question Peregrine asked Mathew, ‘What happened to Theodore?’
Mathew sighed, ’I know very little of the deceased, I’m afraid. You see I only met him the day he died. I came into the church to retrieve my metal detector, I’m a keen detectorist you know, and although it would be sacrilegious to hunt in the graveyard, the surrounding area can throw up the odd gem. Anyhow it was early, about eight thirty in the morning when I opened the doors, they are never locked, and there he was, sitting at the back, just there with his head in his hands.’ Mathew turned and pointed to a pew at the back of the small church.
Peregrine turned to look but said nothing so Mathew continued.
‘He wanted to talk, but not about himself as such. It was all a bit abstract; it was personal but not in a way we are so familiar with these days. He never mentioned family or friends and he never told me about his history, his work, his loves and losses, where he came from or what he’d seen.
It became quite obvious that he’d prefer to speak of universal themes like the existence of God and the process of judgment, rather than his own life experience. He wanted to know how we will be judged and on what? What are the criteria exactly? Is it all down to making the right decisions? Should we have an impressive portfolio of unselfish, morally un-reprehensible deeds under our belts? How high are the stakes? Are there special dispensations for the young, mad, passionate or just plain stupid? Will all non-believers, despite their good deeds, be weeping and gnashing their teeth beyond the walls of the kingdom? And, above all, he wanted to know if we even really possess freedom of will to do right? Or is free will just an illusion and are we, as people, condemned from birth to be on a predetermined trajectory?
Mathew laughed, ‘All a bit heavy for that time of day.’
Peregrine smiled and asked, ‘Did he say anything else?’
‘Well we talked at length about free will but as I pointed out to him several times I happen to believe in the existence of God and I also believe that God gave us all free will so that we could choose to love him. I added that I could not speak objectively when talking about God; I cannot be impartial about God. I can speak subjectively because I can speak about my faith. I asked him to be more specific, generalizing would only get us so far.
He said that he was trying to decide whether he’d lived a good life, whether he’d made the right decisions based on compassion or purely self-preservation. Do any of us really have a choice? He wanted to believe that we are all morally accountable, that we are all responsible for our actions, but feared that, in the end, predetermination prevails.
I told him that if everything was predetermined then God would have made us all truly equal and incapable of doing wrong. But he didn’t, because he wanted us to find our own way.
Theodore then shot me a piercing look and said, ’Then evil is a by-product of man’s free will? Is that what you are saying?’
I, rather hastily, replied that, yes, that is what I’m saying. To which of course he said, ‘Like Father, like Son’.
I have to say I was getting a little bogged down with his train of thought but could see that he was truly struggling with something and the more he tried to unravel it the more convoluted it became. I’m afraid throughout my career I have only had to deal with those that have experienced a slight, not so much crisis, but more a hesitation of faith. This was different, I didn’t know him and because of that I didn’t know for sure if he’d ever had a faith to hesitate over. We were entering into the realm of philosophy for which I have the upmost respect but I’m afraid I can only reiterate what it is that I intrinsically believe. It was at this point, having learned nothing of the man himself but recognizing a fellow human being that needed help and guidance, I decided to make us a cup of tea.’
Peregrine looked at Father Mathew to see if he was joking.
‘What I mean is that I’d resigned myself to the long haul and considered tea to be in effect a sort of ceremonial offering, a way of saying you’re not alone. Also, tea would have the practical benefit of warming, the spiritual benefit of bonding, and give me time to think whilst making it. Tea, in short, seemed like a good idea.
Mathew became thoughtful for a moment, deciding what to say next.
‘What happened next, I mean once you’d made the tea that is?’
‘Well while I was making our tea I thought to myself, I need to dig a little deeper, I need to find out what has caused this man to come here in the first place? I need to find something out about the man, to help him I needed something tangible, a place to start. But when I came back with the tea he was slumped, doubled over in the pew.’
Both men instinctively turned to look at the now empty pew.
‘At first I thought he was praying, not such an odd position to adopt in a church after all. But he had suffered a heart attack. Oddly, it came from nowhere; he had no reason to be concerned for his health, he was, apparently, a healthy man.’
‘He must have known his time was coming Father, why else would he have been here?’ chipped in Peregrine.
‘Yes I think that must have been it; he just knew, instinctively. I’d be grateful to know more about him from you if that’s possible; after all I have been charged with his interment and have very little to say,’ said Mathew.
Peregrine nodded as if giving himself permission to speak.
‘You see that man there,’ he said pointing towards the coffin, ‘He comes from my past and yet he is with me every single day. He represents that moment in my life, that instant, that changed everything. That moment I must live with forever. He helped me decades ago but what happened to him after that I do not know. I could only imagine, knowing him as I did, that he would have done great things.
It all started with a drink as so many events in my life have, most of which I can no longer remember with any clarity but this one… this one sticks all too well. Funny isn’t it that one drinks to forget but ironically the only thing you remember is the one thing you try to forget?
I’m a sort of sleeping earl you know. My father was the twelfth Earl of St Teath and I’m the thirteenth. My grandfather inherited a pile of money, a title and the family Estate complete with its own chapel, woodland and farm cottages, quite a spread. Grandfather gambled, that was his poison; he gambled and lost. My father inherited the debts. Father sold the lot, keeping only a small cottage adjacent to the family graveyard, paid off the debtors, put me through school and financed a life for himself in India running a tea plantation with the profits. The country pile became a luxury hotel and spa. I had little to do with my father and my mother took off with a saffron-robed Californian hippy called Burt; I think they still live in a commune outside of Jaipur where they work the loom and grow their own weed.
I had no one close to me and so I had to carve out my own life, make my own emotional bonds with other young people. The one thing I did have was money; money came in regularly from a trust fund father had set up to support me. I wanted for nothing.
Theodore and I were at Oxford together: I was studying literature and Theodore, philosophy. One Friday lunchtime we bumped into one another in a pub, had a few drinks and discovered we were both at a loss for something to do over the weekend. So I put it to him that we could use my father’s cottage on the old estate, do a bit of fishing and generally mess about in the countryside for a couple of days. Theodore was keen so we polished off our drinks, went back to our digs, hastily packed overnight bags, jumped into my Vauxhall Victor and hit the road.
It was early December, cold but sunny and the heating in the car wasn’t working. Somewhere near Swindon we passed a hitchhiker, a young man with a rucksack. He looked to be about our age and as it was cold and with Christmas on the way, we felt charitable so pulled over. Theodore jumped out and helped him with his rucksack. Once we were all settled I ventured to ask where he was heading. The hitchhiker, whose name was Clifford, said he was just going wherever the day took him. Clifford was, according to him, on an odyssey of fortune, just putting his life in the hands of Fate; he thought that life would be more interesting that way. This, I could see straight away, was the kind of topic that Theodore would love to get his teeth into. Do we ever really make any decisions for ourselves or do we all follow a pre-determined trajectory from birth? Is free will an illusion or do we really make choices of our own volition?
Theodore suggested that as fate had conspired to bring us together we shouldn’t disappoint her and therefore Clifford should spend the weekend with us at the cottage. Clifford agreed as did I: in for a penny and all that.
Clifford seemed to be a likeable fellow, thoughtful and good company to boot and although I am not a deeply philosophical animal I do like to capitalize on opportunity, see where the wind takes me. We chatted en route to the cottage about ourselves, joked and jibed about sex and women – all normal young men’s behaviour really.
Along the way we passed a young women standing dejected beside her car, the bonnet was open and steam was pouring out into the cold December air. Clifford advised we leave her for some other knight to save. We had, after all, done our good deed for the day by picking him up. This didn’t sit too well with me, the poor thing needed help and I’m sure if it were down to Theodore and me we’d have stopped. Fate it seemed had other ideas. We made one stop later, though, at a convenience store to buy provisions somewhere near Barnstaple – mainly whisky, wine and sausages. We passed a fairground on the outskirts of town and toyed with the notion of coming back but never did. We arrived just before sunset at the cottage.
The cottage was a fair distance from the old manor house, had its own single-track road which was in a poor state of repair but still useable. The tree-lined track ran past the cottage and led to the old family graveyard about 500 yards further on. The lights of the old manor, by then a hotel, were visible in the distance and as the evening progressed we could hear music wafting over from the Christmas party going on.
Anyhow, we three got settled into the cottage and before long the wine began to flow. After a while the conversation turned to philosophical matters, as I thought they might. I removed myself slightly from my guests and went into the little kitchen to prepare the sausages. I can wax lyrical about Chaucer or Dante as well as the next man, I had quite an encyclopaedic memory back then and so to reel off facts or learned text was easy. Philosophy, however, required a different kind of mind, a mind I felt I did not posses. Philosophy requires one to climb out of the world you think you know and look back down upon it and ask yourself, ‘Is any of this true and if so what does it mean?’ It can make some of us feel a little unhinged, some of us like to cling to what we think we know and leave it at that.
From the kitchen, I could still hear Theodore and Clifford talking and was happy to just add the odd wry remark. The conversation had turned back to Clifford’s notion of giving into fate. He was adamant that free will is nothing more than ‘a castle in the air’, that everything we do is predetermined by our history, in fact could be causally traced back to the beginning of the Universe – a knock-on effect of the big bang. Here Clifford quoted Skinner, ‘It is only because we are not aware of the environmental causes of our own behaviour or other people’s that we are tricked into believing in our ability to choose.’
‘With this in mind,’ he continued, ‘an individual committing a crime is led there by circumstance, he may not, probably is not, aware of the accumulation of events leading to this moment. Whether or not he feels like he ever had a choice is irrelevant, he does not, never did. It was woven into the tapestry of his life before he was even born. The criminal is, like the rest of us, compelled to play his role in life.’
I left my bangers to sizzle alone for a moment and chipped in, ‘So Basically the criminal justice system is overrun with people who, according to you, can not be blamed for their behaviour. It wasn’t their fault after all? I mean if some one punches me in the face and steals my wallet, they can legitimately say, ‘It’s not my fault, my behaviour was determined by prior events that were out of my control Your Honour?’
We just have to except that some people are made that way? That my ability to tell right from wrong is inherited or is the result of positive reinforcement somewhere along the line? I’m conditioned to be a positive influence on society and others are conditioned otherwise?’
‘Yes, I could not have put it better myself.’ said Clifford with a smile.
Theodore then said, ‘I’m still of the opinion that I’m the arbitrator of my own decisions, that actually the universe is not so easily measured or so simply defined. Much as we want it all to be quantifiable, tagged and labelled, I don’t think it’s that easy. There has to be a little room for chaos, for random, unpredictable acts. Look at this notion of quantum physics. Totally unpredictable, nothing is what it seems. Perhaps if we consider that it was, at any given moment, possible for someone to have physically pursued the other option, say not punch Peregrine in the face and steal his wallet, then in some other reality that option was fulfilled. There is some logic to your argument of course, I can’t deny that, but sometimes one needs to operate outside of the logical world and open up to an empirical view, actually experience the world. I really feel, intrinsically, that I make decisions.
‘I’m going to actually eat sausages and I shall do so of my own free will,’ I piped up, a little drunkenly, a little in need of sustenance. Clifford stood up and said,
‘You know that events, seemingly random events, have brought us together today. If you trace backwards, from now, at which point in your lives do you think you were at a crossroads? A place where if you took the other decision your life would have played out differently? Or has everything led to this point in time? Were you meant to pick me up today? Were we destined to meet? Isn’t it all so very predictable? You can start anywhere in time, from any isolated event or, and I use this word cautiously, decision, and trace it all the way back to here. Look at you both, you are well educated, you come from ‘good stock’, from the moment you were conceived it was inevitably you would go to Oxford just as your fathers did. Private school has hammered a sense of decency into you and, as neither of you has a family life as such, not in the normal way, you bond with others like you. You have been moulded into good morale subjects, potential leaders, and strong, thoughtful individuals. It is, when you think about it, highly predictable that you would both end up spending time together. You understand that you are privileged; you have both had a religious, ‘Do unto others’ education hammered into you too. Oh you want to test the boundaries, push it a bit, that’s predictable too, but the essence of who you are is formed. You can never really change that now. Tell me Theodore how did it make you feel to leave that young girl by the side of the road today?’
Theodore answered, ‘Not to good, I have to say: I think normally I’d have stopped to help.’
‘What was different?’ inquired Clifford.
’Oh I don’t know…’ said Theodore. ‘You were quite persuasive I suppose, but on reflection I feel a little guilty.’
Clifford said. ’What if I told you that you can let go of the guilt? You can exist without it. What if I persuade you that you are just the type of person that has been conditioned to be a team player? Not unlikely is it? Considering your private education: play rugger did you? If it looks like the team, your peers, are going this way, then you are likely to follow, aren’t you? There’s nothing you can do about it, there is no wriggle room; the decision was made long ago. There can be no guilt if we, all of us, are not morally accountable: the universe decides, we are but pawns.’
Theodore took a long swig of wine before saying, ‘Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing, if used to reflect on one’s behaviour. Reflection can bring reform. There are certain moral criteria we wish to live by: if, on reflection, I think I could have behaved differently, then given another of similar opportunity, I will. It’s what makes us human after all.’
Clifford pounced on this idea, ‘What makes us human? Now that’s another question all together. Some would say, reflection and projection, the ability to reflect on the past and to project or to dream about tomorrow. Others would have it that empathy is the key to humanity; without empathy you are not humane. And yet Theodore, I have no empathy. I mean I look human, right? And yet I have no empathy. I do not feel your pain.’
These last words were said in a voice unlike the one we’d heard before: compassionless, cold, and from a very dark place. In a few strides Clifford moved towards the rucksack he’d left on the floor between himself and Theodore and, to our astonishment, pulled out a gun!
‘Was it meant to be that I kill you tonight? Take your money and your car and leave your bodies to rot?’ he said in the same disturbing low voice, pointing the gun at Theodore.
I had a second to look at Theodore; his face was that of a frightened, confused child, totally lost and yet still trying to figure out what the hell it was all about.
Under the sink in the kitchen I kept a pistol, loaded, just for this kind of unpredictable occasion. I smoked a lot of pot in my teens and became increasingly paranoid as a result. As a safeguard to a good night’s sleep I decided to keep a loaded gun in the kitchen. Thankfully it was still there; thankfully the paranoia had paid off. In the time it took me to retrieve the gun I had only enough time to hear Theodore register his disbelief and to hear Clifford cock his weapon with ill-intent, CLICK…
‘My fate is to kill you, your fate is to die…’ he said coolly.
‘Not on my watch,’ I said from the kitchen door.
Clifford spun round quickly: he was going to shoot me… I shot first. I’m a good shot… well, I was then, haven’t picked up a gun since. Shot him clean between the eyes. Clifford sort of crumpled up very slowly, his mouth still gaping open in disbelief; he hadn’t seen that one coming.’

‘Holy Mary…” whispered Mathew rapidly making the sign of the cross on his chest.
The lights flickered momentarily; the storm circled overhead looking for a way to uproot the old church. ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods but me!’ said the storm in her fury.

Peregrine continued, ‘I was having trouble computing what had just happened: I’d just killed a man! In that single moment our lives had changed forever. What was a single moment? In terms of time it was hardly measurable, the blink of an eye … and yet, nothing is ever the same. So many moments had passed before it, so many wasted moments and yet this one now overshadowed even the best of those moments. This one would define me.
‘We need to dispose of the body and the guns and clean up. We need to work fast and do it without detection,’ Theodore said opening the cottage door.
‘I don’t think anyone heard the gunshot from the hotel, the music’s still playing; if anything its getting louder. Nobody knows we are here so lets keep it that way, ok?
Peregrine we don’t have time to waste, we need to move,’ said Theodore firmly.
‘I feel sick, my life is over; I may as well have shot myself.’
‘No! Not at all … you did the right thing. You saved my life. I’m forever in your debt. Clifford, if that was his name, was a dangerous man: he’s more than likely killed before and would have gone on to kill again. You have terminated a cancer and in doing so saved the lives of others. People who will live their whole life never knowing what you did for them. You are a giver of life Peregrine. If everything is predetermined then, as Clifford argued, no one is to blame; Clifford can hardly blame you! If we have free will then your actions are commendable beyond reproach. What sort of person would stand and watch a murder without intervention had he the means to do so?
Now … we know what happened here tonight, we are the only witnesses and if you’d rather go to the police and explain it to them I will back you up, but what’s the point? What justice can be served now? If we make it public, innocent or not, our lives, our futures will be overshadowed by this moment. I say ‘bury it and forget it’.’
He was right of course. What would have been the point of prolonging the ordeal? So we set to work on removing all evidence of our time there. Theodore took charge of the situation; he seemed to be so calm, so confident, and so easy in his mind. I don’t really know how he felt inside of course or how he dealt with it afterwards. We found it easier afterwards to not see one another; it just brought it all back. I’d like to think that he went on to live a good life, a positive life, that he did some good in the world and that this whole business never played on his mind at all.
‘So what did you do with the body?’ asked Mathew intrigued despite himself.
‘Clifford had fallen neatly onto one of my father’s Persian carpets so we dragged his corpse to the graveyard still on the blood stained rug, like a sort of sledge I suppose. Clifford lay on the rug with a bullet hole in his forehead and surprise still registered on the remnants of his face. On top of him we put his rucksack and the guns. Theo took the front and pulled the rug and its contents towards the family graveyard. All I had to do was walk behind and watch to make sure nothing fell off. Five hundred yards of having to stare, with the aid of a full moon, at Clifford’s head bounce about on the rutted track.
Once we were inside the graveyard we were less exposed. The music from the hotel was in full swing. While the partygoers were dancing the Hokey-Cokey we were digging a fresh grave in the far western corner next to Great Uncle Mortimer the molester! No one ever talked about Mortimer and no one wanted to be buried next to him or wanted him buried next to anyone else, least his wandering hands were still tempted to pester.
We dug a grave by moonlight, taking turns to dig while the other kept watch but we were undisturbed and as far as I know unnoticed. Without a word, once the grave was sufficiently deep, we, as one, dragged the dead man into his resting place along with his belongings. The music had stopped and we could just make out the sounds of departure, car doors slamming, shouts and hoorahs, laughter on the horizon. It all seemed so detached, unreal. The carefree, drunken revelry of festive party goes was so incongruous to the reality we were now experiencing. It was one of those moments one stops to ask ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me, what did I do to deserve this?’ And then I saw my accomplice, without ceremony, shovel a heap of earth upon the startled waxen face of Clifford. Clifford the fatalist, Clifford the hitchhiker, Clifford the dead man. We filled in the grave next to uncle Mortimer as best we could, I doubt the graveyard had many visitors least of all in winter.’
Peregrine fell silent.

The thick stone walls of the church absorbed his pain from within whilst weathering the storm from without.
‘My goodness, that’s quite a story! Are you looking for absolution Peregrine?’ said Mathew.
‘But the story is not over yet Father. It gets worse. You see the following day we, Theo and I, were back in that convenience store in Barnstaple and splashed all over the local newspaper is the story of a young women that had gone missing the previous afternoon. You remember I told you that I had a good memory? Well the photo on the cover was the same girl we had passed with her car bonnet up. The one we didn’t stop to help. As the weeks rolled by her body was finally found dumped in some woodland near to where the fairground had been pitched. The story and subsequent manhunt filled the national news for several weeks.
Now you see Father, the thing I have been asking myself, torturing myself with over the past thirty years is, what if we had stopped to help, what then? What if we never picked up Clifford? What then? Why did life unfold this way?’
Mathew shrugged. ‘Well I don’t know the answer to that question Peregrine, I’m afraid. I put my faith in God’s wisdom.’
‘Faith? You are talking about faith? I can’t say I have any. Not anymore. You see I can’t help thinking that Clifford was right: we do not choose; we are dealt. But the dealer is not God or any of his incarnations; it is the Universe. We are all connected in a way, one giant, formidable, universal conscience, ever growing, ever expanding but without design or objective. From the second the Universe came into existence the causal nature of life began. One thing leads to another Father and we, as Shakespeare said, ‘are but players’. I’m blameless, we are all blameless: there is no forgiveness necessary because free will is a hoax, a confidence trick. We, in effect, hoodwink ourselves into believing that we have the capacity to decide our fate. Wrong.
Kathleen Harrington did not have a choice. That was her name, the girl on the side of the road. Kathleen’s fate was a cruel one and her killer, Terrence Hanzi was a cruel man.
Terrence Hanzi was a ‘showman’ he was born into a fairground family, he and his sister worked the stalls from a young age. They learnt the family trade, everything from fixing the rides when they were broken to making candyfloss. Most importantly they learnt the value of a smile, of making people feel good, it is an important part of the job. For them the fairground was their life and they loved it. For other kids it was a magical place full of treats and thrills and Terrence and his sister were groomed in playing their part in that dream. As adults their formative training lent them a certain charm, a charm that outsiders found irresistible. In most cases this charming demeanor is, I’m sure, heart felt. After all, a positive, sociability offers positive rewards. You know, it feels good to be kind, doesn’t it Father?
The point is this Father, when Terrence Hanzi stopped to help Kathleen Harrington she would have fallen for his easy manner and graceful charm. He would have offered practical help in getting her car fixed, he would have given her no real reason for concern. She had, I’m sure, no inclination that Terrence’s sincerity and kindness were a cleverly crafted mask, an illusion, an affectation, behind which lurked a psychopath. Unlike his sister, who is by all accounts a caring, warm and loving human being Terrence is, or was, nothing but a showman. He, I learnt later, offered to tow her car back to the fairground site where he had the parts she needed. At about the time I pulled the trigger on Clifford, Terrence brutally raped and then strangled Kathleen Harrington in woodland near the fairground site.
Kathleen’s parents said that their daughter was a supporter of women’s rights around the world and had plans to move to Calcutta. In Calcutta she wanted to set up health and social centres for women. Educating them about sexual health and family planning. She was opposed to Mother Teresa’s dogmatic approach to women’s rights. Kathleen wanted young women to have access to birth control and, if necessary, abortions. Kathleen wanted to empower women not enslave them to a life of servitude. She wanted women to have the choice, to have the same options as men, not be condemned to poverty and ill health because a young woman is raped by her uncle and made to have the child. Kathleen was the kind of person that would have made a real difference to people’s lives, a positive force in the world. And had I stopped to help her this may well have been the case.’
Mathew interjected now, warming to the theme. ‘You can’t think like that; you made your choice, you responded to reason, however fleeting, and you can’t play the ‘what if’ game now, it’s too late, it’s done, you must come to terms with it. You were hardly responsible for her murder! How many other people drove past that day? Are they all responsible too?’
‘What I’m driving at here Father, what I think Theodore was driving at too is, ‘Are we culpable, are we able to really choose or does it just feel that way? There is no end game Father only acceleration into chaos, into disorder. Entropy increases, and will continue to increase until there is nothing but carnage and we can’t do a thing about it.’
Mathew frowned, ‘Oh you make it all sound so bleak. But, you did what you had to do and you were both so young, unprepared for such things. What are the chances of finding two sociopaths on the same road, on the same day anyhow?’
Peregrine sighed and checked his watch. ‘I’ll be on my way now, just wanted to pay my respects, I won’t take up any more of your valuable time Father’
‘Are you not staying for the service Peregrine?’
‘No I think not’.
And with that Peregrine was on his feet. He stopped briefly to gaze upon the man in the box then strode up the aisle, a little less inebriated now, opened the doors and disappeared into the storm. The storm, losing against the stubbiness of the church, decided to go with him. Quiet fell with an audible bang.
Later Theodore’s widow Annette arrived with her two daughters. Mathew gave them a little space while he busied himself with rituals that had become nothing more than habits. Mathew wanted to find out more about Peregrine’s story but was hesitant, thinking that it wasn’t something he could just drop into a conversation.
Before any of the other mourners arrived Mathew spoke to Annette about her husband, trying to glean some insight into the man. At some point during these hushed exchanges he opted, in the end, to drop Peregrine’s name into the conversation.
‘If you don’t mind me asking, who was Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt?’
Annette looked startled.
‘Peregrine Elijah Vanderbilt doesn’t exist Father!’ she exclaimed. ‘Peregrine Vanderbilt is a figment of the imagination of one of my husband’s patients, Terrence Hanzi. Terrence Hanzi is serving life imprisonment in a high security hospital. He abducted, raped and then murdered a young woman called Kathleen Harrington in 1974. He was also under suspicion for killing several hitchhikers around the same time.
When he’s interviewed he admits everything, shows no remorse and is in fact, proud of his actions.
But if it is not Terrence but his alter ego, Peregrine, ‘in residence’ that day, then he concocts another story. The other stories differ slightly but always have as a central theme, Peregrine killing someone else in self-defense. It’s as if Terrence Hanzi lived two lives in the same moment. In one he is himself, a charming, but calculating, ruthless psychopathic killer with zero remorse: a monster who, acting on impulse raped and murdered an innocent girl. In the other he is Peregrine, reflective, flawed and fragile, a man, like any other, that when put into an extraordinary situation, acts instinctively, then tortures himself over nuances of choice. A classic split personality. Only one of the stories is true, unfortunately.’
Father Mathew apologized for the question, said that he thought he’d overheard the name mentioned in connection with her husband.
The old church made a note of this lie.
Four weeks later Father Mathew stood in the graveyard on the grounds of the long deceased Earl of St Teath. In the far western corner, next to the resting place of Great Uncle Mortimer he passed his metal detector over the ground adjacent to the grave. Beep…beep…beep.

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Raindrop

A desert flowers after long-awaited rain.

A retired Peruvian miner stands in the desert regarding the floral phenomenon with his wife. Looking over the endless sea of colourful blooms he sheds the only tear he will ever shed in his adult life. The teardrop evaporates on contact with the old man’s steal capped boot.

Widow-black sky, grieving, miserable, drunk on sorrow hung in wait above the parched and brittle land. During the night watch, a flotilla of heavily pregnant, slightly incontinent rain clouds had blown in on a westerly breeze. A single raindrop seeped out and began its odyssey towards the earth far below.

‘What sort of raindrop am I?’ he thought.

Before his descent, raindrop had been part of a collective consciousness known as ‘cloud’ with no autonomy of his own – lots of smaller droplets that, for whatever reason, felt attracted to one another.

‘Ah the birds and the bees,’ muttered the wind as she gently wafted our raindrop eastward.

He fancied he was probably of the brave and fearless variety and as the sun broke the night with a strange sepia glow he thought he might also be ambitious. After all he had been the first drop to fall; yes he was undoubtedly the heaviest that went without question, but ambition played its part too, surely. Perhaps his character owed a debt to one or more of his component parts, the smaller droplets that had made their way up from the evaporating waters far away to help make cloud to begin with?

Yes, thought the drop of rain. Yes, he came from good stock, pure H2O with no artificial additives or flavourings. Not like some other drops he could mention with their performance-enhancing chemicals or corrosive acidic value; too many hydrogen ions for his liking. No, he was pure unadulterated, top of the range, life-giving water.

Below him in the early morning light a vallenar toad crawled out from its once brimming pond and inspected the sky. One drop would be good; a downpour would be better. It had been a while since rain had been seen in this arid landscape. In fact, the toad hadn’t seen rain in his lifetime but had been left instructions by his grandmother on what to expect and what to do when it did finally arrive.

He looked at the muddy hole in the desert floor where he’d grown up and wondered if he could ever bring a lady home to this hovel. Would a potential mate ever be impressed with tales of what it had once been? A virtual palace teaming with toads, his father, a most exemplary amphibian, had the pick of the knab. Oh yes his family had been well regarded and considered to be extremely hospitable. They were the backbone of the choral ensemble, lending gravitas to the baritone and indeed tenor sections. The choir that once sang here made sweet and seductive music filling the desert with sound, but now he sang alone.

Oh if only it could rain enough to fill his muddy hole with water life would soon follow. The desert fox himself might wander over and sample the miracle, and then perhaps others would follow making his pond the most popular watering hole in the land. Then of course he would have the problem of which lady toad to settle for.

He ventured a little further out into the dawn and peered up into the sky, but the sky had gone, replaced by a black mass tinged red by the rising sun. What was this anomaly: could it possibly be the rain cloud Grandmother had foreseen?

His grandmother had made a lot of predictions; rarely did any of them come true. She also reckoned that she could, through magic, cure warts! What a wart was or, indeed what it should be cured of, was a mystery to Toad. Grandmother imagined she could communicate with the dead too and did this whenever scorn was required,

‘Uncle Flaxin disapproves of your indulgence very much! The word ‘shame’ is teetering on the very tip of his long tongue.’

She could see the future by studying the movement of tadpoles and heal the sick with a combination of bizarre incantations and a peculiar trancelike dance consisting of hopping ridiculously on one leg. And yet, he had to admit that this dark presence looming above him matched her description of a rain cloud. Grandmother may not have been as mad as a box of armadillos after all.

Despite raindrop’s close affinity to his kin he wondered to himself as he fell,

‘If I do not own a sense of self, am I not an individual?’

Furthermore, wasn’t it possible that he could, despite his current trajectory make his own choices? He had to accept that there were powerful forces at work here – wind and gravity, for example, relieved him of certain decisions. Even so within these fixed parameters was he not a free spirit?

Of course it did occur to him that he didn’t exist at all and was nothing more than a figment of some deranged author’s imagination. But where would that lead him? He had to think in subjective terms otherwise what was the point?

When all was said and done, he didn’t see himself as a nihilist or a philosophical pessimist nor did he think, based on his short existence and what he had learned of himself, that he was an absurdist either. No, he believed that he had a destiny and once that destiny was fulfilled he would be reincarnated, but not before returning to cloud and belonging once more to the collective consciousness.

Yes all of existence was inexplicably linked; strange forces were at work here. It’s true that despite his intrinsic sense of connectedness, of being special in his own right and of belonging to a bigger picture, he had to admit that many questions would remain unanswered. That didn’t however make existence absurd or pointless or rob him of his feelings, his sensations and his thoughts. Was it not he, raindrop, and he alone that felt the wind move him in this way? It was his interpretation of warmth bestowed by the rising sun that mattered, how he experienced it and how life, however short, exhilarated his senses.

Raindrop, after being in existence for three seconds took a second to feel the moment, to live in the now, to merge with his environment, to feel at one with nature. He cleared his mind of all contemplation, reflection and projection and felt the beat of life radiating all around.

Below the raindrop, below the toad, deep in the ground a dormant seed dared to dream. Within the seed coat, tough and hard lay the embryonic plant, warm, safe and protected. The embryo stirred, fancied she felt moisture in the air above her. Oh could it be true? Should she allow herself hope? To think that her slumber may end, that her love would come and, with one kiss, soften her otherwise impenetrable shell. Perhaps one drop of rain, if he was big enough, pure enough and strong enough to penetrate the hard surface above, could find his way to her. Should one such drop of rain exist? Dare she hope that, as she laid here dormant and wanting, he was fighting against unimaginable resistance to find her? Battling with rivals, struggling against hindrance from wind and the inevitable evaporation of sun and friction?

‘Whoopeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ yelled the raindrop as he fell closer and closer to the ground. Above him his fellow drops poured from cloud, billions of drops all coming from the same mother, born into the same world, screaming towards their fate. Each drop connected and yet isolated by its own experience, its own understanding of the world, its own bubble. A bubble filled with questions, angst and insecurity; with meaning and fractured moments that together built an overall impression of consciousness and a life spent.

Now, as the end of the journey approached for our raindrop, Toad saw with his own eyes the coming downpour. His tiny toad heart leapt in his chest, this was a game-changer, this rain came with promise, this rain came with life! Toad hopped from the dried up hole he was born in to the desert floor and back, not knowing where to put himself, not having lived through such times as these before. Toad allowed himself to fancy he would actually meet a mate, have tadpoles of his own and grow fat well into his dotage.

Beneath the toad, lying dormant for so long the seed quivered with anticipation. She would be born again, rising from the ashes, her roots would dig deep and her flower would open to the sun and be beautiful to behold.

Raindrop reflected on his own existence and thought that this episode of consciousness was only a fraction of his journey. In truth the existence of consciousness was merely a vehicle that enabled one to make the transitional journey from collective realisation – belonging to the cloud – and feeding the planet with much needed nourishment. He would eventually be recycled, vaporised, condensed and turned back into a raindrop, not the same raindrop, another raindrop and so the story continues.

As for self? During the journey, despite the limitations nature will impose, you have the freedom to consider life, the universe and anything else. You have the freedom to love and be loved, to hope, to dream and to live in the moment whenever you wish. Life is a circle, know that, accept it and embrace it. You do your bit, make your contribution whether you like it or not and go from this blink-of-an-eye existence into the next phase of the journey. Crashing and thrashing as you go, no doubt, but go you will.

Millions of raindrops fell head-first onto the parched and brittle ground, each one shattering into hundreds of smaller water particles, making their way through cracks and canyons towards millions of dormant seeds lying in wait beneath the surface.

In a one hundred mile radius several vallenar lady toads instantly gave up on spinsterhood and set out to ‘knab’ themselves a man.

A desert flowers after long-awaited rain.

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The Alchemist

 

The alchemist makes magic happen. She doesn’t follow a recipe any more than she adheres to scientific certainty; rather she channels her intuition and surrenders to impulse. She feels her way through, trusting her instincts and her union with the ancient god of nature, Gaia. This fusion with nature lends the alchemist an intrinsic knowledge of Gaia’s healing potential and her sense of balance. Gaia likes balance; she likes stability, but sometimes she needs to introduce a little chaos.

Chaos clears the air, lets everyone in the room know that they should never overstep the mark which they do from time to time, it’s inevitable, but when they do Chaos is employed. Chaos will, if needed, pull himself away from his sub atomic domain and reap havoc on an atomic level, on a cosmic level.

Gaia, as wild and unpredictable as she sometimes appears to be, has the planet at heart. Gaia will protect the earth from extremes. It may seem volatile to us at times but we must remember that we are guests, non paying tenants with no say in our future; we could be evicted at any time. Any volatility on her part is employed to redress a balance, to safeguard not so much our wellbeing but rather that of the planet’s.  In the meantime, she provides all that life requires to strive succeed. Gaia has solutions to man’s struggles, to his or her pain, confusion, emptiness and desire. These solutions can be found in the air we breathe; all scent is carried in on the wind. A South African Carrion Orchids putrid stench finds its way into the same air as the scent left on a lover’s pillow. The Alchemist has learnt to extract these solutions; she blends them together to make a silent soup of healing.

The alchemist borrows, she never takes, she borrows the scent of pipe tobacco on a tweed collar or that of a desert after a storm. She takes a pinch, adds it to her remedy, all the while relying on her instinct, her gut.

Logic destroys intuition.

When she releases her fragrance back into the world it will contribute to harmony rather than discord. Her fragrances, each as light as a feather, will settle one atop the other, slowly making the world a better place…at least for a while.

She takes the bed sheets from the basket, bundles them into a ball and buries her face deep within the creases and folds made by the twisting, writhing bodies of last nights lovers. She breaths in the scent of lust, pain and anguish, identifies misery, misfortune and desperation. The Alchemist sets the sheets down and turns to her chest of borrowed scents, she chooses an easterly breeze thick with aromatics swept in over summer corn fields. She adds the acrid scent of caramelised sugar and the aroma of rain on supple skin, she inhales, takes a pot marked ‘sea after a storm‘ and adds just a droplet to her remedy. Once she is satisfied with her composition she washes the sheets and hangs them on the line to dry. The air is still. Heat rises from the ground, cut grass and scorched earth mix with the remedy the Alchemist has released into the atmosphere. The sheet dries and she remakes the bed.

Her guests arrive from a long day’s hiking, tired and agitated. Their affair is losing its magic; life has set up camp on their doorstep and is relentless in its persecution. Life is not negative, life is everything: it’s the passion and the love but also the secrets and the lies; it’s the condemnation; the husband and the wife; the mortgage and the school play you were meant to attend. Life cannot be filtered, you can’t choose to ignore it all, it won’t let you. You can however take control; you can lead it rather than be led. You can find perspective if you look. Or, you can sleep in a bed prepared by an Alchemist, its linen sheets aired to mend, to calm your fears, to encourage you to value what you have and to let go of regret.

They eat the soporific food she prepares for them. The food they eat has been considered, measured and delivered with intention. Oysters that taste of childhood rock pools, roasted pork that smells like seasoned apple crates and tastes of lazy Sunday afternoons. Pudding is a mother’s warm embrace, freshly baked biscuits, cinnamon, rosewater, toil and devotion. They drink the Alchemist’s dandelion wine, summer hedgerows, somnolent car journeys, cherry preserve and cut grass.

Drowsiness descends like mist, slowly engulfing the lovers. They excuse themselves, say it must have been the fresh air and make their way up to bed. Between the laundered sheets their naked bodies reach out to one another, they make love, deliberately and tenderly, all the while breathing in a scent that has been designed purposefully for them. Sleepiness slows down the senses, giving time no meaning, picks them up and drops them in a landscape of reds and purples, of longing, of emotional fusion. Reason is suspended, the bodies converse, convey their love, their minds become one, no more uncertainty, no more anger, jealousy or fear; nothing now but communion.

In the morning the lovers wake and smile at one another, they speak of dreams shared, of a love deeper than the deepest ocean. The lovers caress, touch one another with trembling fingers and gaze upon one another with a new sense of disbelief. The world can wait a moment longer. Life is here in bed with them, life feels good, life is the reason they are here together now. Outside the bedroom the world stood still, Gaia paused and breathed in the air, she approved of the subtle shift in mans chances of survival.

The Alchemist sat quietly planning her next voyage into aromatic healing. A child had arrived in the night; quiet, almost invisible behind his overbearing parents. She would launder his sheets and lend him a sense of worth, she would give him a voice. She would borrow the scent of inkwells, medicine balls and carrion after a kill and blend these with the subtle delicate fragrance of a single defiant tear.

Lovers learnt to love, the unseen became seen and the world continued to turn. Gaia kept an eye on balance and the alchemist borrowed solutions, made remedies and healed wounded hearts with her intuitive mélange of fragrances.

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Dawn

Dawn

How long before dawn?

We have an hour or so!

How long exactly?

Sixty eight minutes.

Sixty eight minutes. What will happen then? Will you fade as the dawn creeps in through the window and the first rays of light claim you, take you from me? Will you disappear in a cloud of smoke, like a magician’s assistant in a well practiced illusion? Perhaps you melt like a dream on waking, impossible to grasp, impossible to remember? Will the warmth of your body linger on my sheets, on my skin or will it leave me cold? Will your scent lose colour quickly or will it wilt slowly like an orchard starved of water?

Do you want to know?

No, let’s not dwell on the inevitable any longer. Let me gaze upon your young face, soak it up; it’s been so long since I saw it last.

What do you see?

I see life and promise spread out before you. Only dreams lay in either direction; you are too young to know real pain or disappointment. I see what a photograph can never capture; your eyes are full of expression, so lively, inquisitive, flirtatious and of a blue so rare that God keeps the recipe under lock and key. I see your mouth, lustful, womanly and enticing. A kiss, promiscuous and warm tempts me from your lips, promises me oblivion; I’ll take the kiss and float suspended, bodiless, ageless, mindless. I see thoughts pass before your eyes that never make it to your lips, a longing ill-equipped to make fruition? Or perhaps it’s a dreadful secret, something so sinister should it come to the surface it would overwhelm you, suffocate you completely. It could be doubt clocked in black, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched that rushes past; he only needs a second after all, the weasel that he is. Then again I might be reading it wrong; is it regret I see gnawing at your soul?

You know it is.

I see love for me, so much love for me. Where does this love come from? Who in the world is denied love because there must be some sort of cosmic balance? Who sits bereft of love so that I can receive so much?

There are many. They are not denied love; they reject love. They can’t bear the pain. They witnessed love once from afar and thought, ‘This is not for me.’ I saw a vacancy, a gap in the market, all this unused love floating about with nowhere to go. I decided to soak it up and use it on you. Any left-over love I sell back into the national grid. You wouldn’t believe how much surplus love there is in the world; so many people seem to function perfectly well without it. I can’t bear to see love going to waste.

How you tease me! An old man as well; you should be ashamed. What do you see now – an old man, past his prime, jaded and foolish and flawed?

I see the man I fell in love with. He is gentle, caring, funny and bright; the man who won my heart without a fight. I’m so sorry it couldn’t last.

What happened?

You know!

Tell me.

I wanted one more fling, one more weekend by the lake; a farewell to foolishness, to loneliness and uncertainty.

They said that the lake was dredged and no bodies were ever found. I held onto the idea that you might still be out there somewhere.

I went swimming at night with a bellyful of gin and sank to the bottom of the lake. I felt so desperate, so foolish, I could only think of you. I just felt this overwhelming sense of loss; I’d lost you. There came a point when I knew that, despite myself, I was not going to make it back to the surface. I wanted to of course, but couldn’t find my way back. As my lungs took on water panic found her way out, left me in peace. I knew I had to give into death so I just let go and drifted for a while. I lived the life we would have had; I saw it all before I died. It was wonderful.

And when you died?

I had so much love. There was no more pain. I drifted.

My whole life has been in your memory. I have climbed mountains and swum oceans and battled demons in your name.

I know. Thank you. Hold me now.

How long before dawn?

Not long.

Exactly?

Eight minutes.

I’ll hold you and kiss you some more.

I feel warm

Will I see you again?

I don’t know? I’m to take you with me.

Where?

Out into the dawn

I’m glad its you.

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Ham and Wry

‘Is that him?’ Emily asked her mother with a degree of trepidation as they watched an old man trundle up the path in the direction of the house.

‘Yes, I believe it is,’ said Emily’s mother.

The old man wore a thick brown coat, a flat cap and heavy boots, the type a lumberjack might wear. Murderers, Emily thought, should ware sneaky shoes, not load clunky ones. Murderers should, if they took their profession seriously, not feel the need to announce their arrival; rather they should creep in and creep out unnoticed. His shoulders were hunched against the cold and his head bent downwards, ground-wards, never once looking up as he moved deliberately but slowly towards Emily’s father who stood waiting for him on the porch.

It was a cold start to the day, too cold for the job at hand but the forecast was set to improve and so all had agreed that by the time the preparations had been put in place the weather would be mild enough to kill Winnie.

Emily watched as the killer offered his hand. It was shaken in a brisk, formal, manly fashion, not the usual warm, lingering handshake that she had seen her father deliver/share with friends and colleagues. Not the handshake her father dished out to strangers either for that matter, this was a shake all of its own; a sombre, sober shake as opposed to a joyful, sincere one.

Handshaking was absolutely a man thing, a male thing; she seldom saw her mother shake hands and if she did it was deftly deficient in shake, more of a fleeting hand touch than a shake. Shaking hands was a man thing that had spilled over to the other side. Women didn’t really get it, Emily didn’t get it either but there it was, this odd ritual played out and passed down from generation to generation.

‘Come away from the window darling,’ her mother said as she poured hot water into a flask for coffee.

Emily didn’t like the man. She had decided the moment he unravelled his large frame from his car that he was a nasty devil, heartless and probably evil. He had a strange name, something ‘vic’ and came from a place called Slovakia which was where vampires probably lived and people had suffered from something her mother called ‘Communism’. People from Slovakia were mainly peasants and worked on farms and had tractors instead of cars and were all part of a bigger group of people known as Slavs.

Emily stared on through the window, watching her father and the Slav talk to one another while stamping the cold out of their feet. As they spoke little puffs of frosty breath dissipated into the blue sky above their heads as new ones were born with each word muttered from muted mouths. Her mother appeared briefly on the scene through the window, handing out hot coffee to the men and offering her delicate hand to the Slav for the briefest of touches.

Using her pyjama sleeve Emily discreetly wiped the condensation made by the boiling kettle from the window just in time to see the Slav’s gloved hand slide quickly back into his coat pocket. He was saving mothers touch; putting it deep inside his pocket along with other treasures collected from the world of mortals. These treasures and trinkets were later used to cast villainous spells upon the innocent and law-abiding people of Devon…Emily assumed.

While the Slav sipped from the cup he’d been given he turned deliberately and glared at the small girl peering with intent through the window.

His eyes were hollow black wells of despair leading those that looked, for any length of time, into the very belly of hell. His Slavic nose dominated his face: bony, bent and long, its misshapen form was cast in a forge by the goblin king’s personal blacksmith Goibniu. His face spoke of torture; each line, each wrinkled furrow on his brow represented the slaughter of innocents. His lips were the thin, tight, malevolent gatekeepers whose sole purpose was to permit malicious, conniving and cunning language the passage it desired.

Pure evil had turned up that day in a rusty old Ford Escort with one defeated wing mirror, a rattle under the bonnet and an old dog barking angrily on the rear seat. The dog only had three legs and despite the onset of premature rigor mortis he held onto the slightly ridiculous belief that he was supreme ruler of all he surveyed, albeit with only one eye. The old dog seemed to assume that all would cower in his presence or face his noble wrath; a tall order for a Jack Russell named ‘Pickles’.

As the Slavic interloper used his voodoo stare on her, Emily froze. Her heart skipped a beat but she never moved, nor attempted to hide her distaste,

‘Yes Slav. I’m looking at you. I’m confirming my suspicions and if you don’t like it you can bog off!’ she said with her piercing green eyes.

‘My Winnie will die today by your hand; the very same hand that touched my mother’s will deliver the fatal blow. You will stand over Winnie’s twitching body and watch the blood drain from her veins just like your vampire ancestors watched the blood flow from their victims. What possible pleasure can one derive from killing an innocent creature? Why would anyone take a career in pig-killing? And yet here you stand chatting and drinking coffee with my parents like you’re at one of mother’s soirées!

To kill and kill again as you do requires such detachment as to render you devoid of emotion. Like a zombie you move through the world of mortals looking like one of us, behaving like one of us but really you are nothing but a monster, a gutless brute!’

And with that sentiment delivered in a single stare Emily turned from the window and curled up on the sofa with her Winnie the pig scrap book which was full of photos of, and poems about, Winnie the pig.

She had said her farewells to the pig the night before and then through endless tears pleaded for the pig’s life to be spared but her Father was not to be moved. He had bought the pig for rearing, for food; it was Winnie’s fate the moment she was born to be made into sausages and sausages she would be. Her Father wanted at first to kill her himself – something about respect and ceremony but it soon became clear that, as the moment draw nearer, he lacked the credentials and so the pig killer was called in.

When Emily heard her mother re-enter the room she glanced up with an accusing look designed to inflict maximum guilt, the kind of guilt a mother could not bear, but the blame she had apportioned to her mother soon turned to horror. The Slavic brute with the heart of stone stood right there, he’d managed to wheedle his way into their home somehow. Emily knew enough about Slavic pig killers to know that he would have to be invited in; a vampire pig killer cannot of his own free will, step uninvited over the threshold!

‘What’s he doing in here?’ she asked rudely.

‘I’m sorry Mr Mlynarovič, my daughter is not normally so rude. She is rather upset this morning; she became very attached to the pig,’ explained her mother whilst shooting Emily a look of outrage.

‘Her name is Winnie!’ said Emily defiantly.

‘It’s ok, I understand, it’s normal behaviour. I can answer any questions you have Emily; if you want answers I’m your man,’ said the Zombie-pig-killing-vampire from Slovakia.

‘How can you do it – why do you do it? Killing I mean.’

‘Many people eat meat; they seldom ask themselves where this meat came from. They don’t think about the life that has been taken for their pleasure. There is not so much as a grain of respect for the creature that once passed what is, quite often, a miserable existence. Here on your parents’ small farm it’s different. You need food to survive but you give plenty of care to your produce until it is harvested. Your pig lived a good life here; she is one of the lucky ones.

Some say that if you are going to eat meat then you should be prepared to kill it. I disagree with this sentiment; I believe you should find someone like me to do it for you. You would not perform a dental procedure on a friend or open heart surgery on your father would you?

My father taught me to respect the animal, to care for it. If you are prepared to kill you must do so properly and respectfully and with compassion and skill. He said that you must live a full life because your life is fuelled on the flesh of other animals and if you waste your life you kill for nothing; what was the point of fuelling a life half-lived?

I can do this job because I understand and I respect the animal. I can do it humanely, without pain or suffering but mainly because I have lived a full life. I have loved deeply and been loved in return. I have felt every jolt of both pain and pleasure; I have lived it all – every last drop. If your pig’s destiny is to die then you must turn the energy and goodness she supplies into positive things. Use her fuel wisely; don’t waste it on futile and mindless things.’

Emily wasn’t convinced by this barrage of hogwash, this bunkum dressed up like genuine fact. Grownups always did this – made terrible things sound plausible, acceptable or forgivable. They must just wake up one day believing their own nonsense and then feel obliged to pass on this twisted logic to children, the poor deluded fools. What was worse than the self delusion, so well demonstrated now by the slippery Slav, was that all other grownups seemed to sign up to one another’s fallacies and falsehoods! Mother nodded away like the Slav’s stupid dog, seemingly agreeing with his every word. Did she not know who this creature was, had she lost all sense, was she, as Emily often suspected, mad?

‘I’m not going to eat Winnie; no one can make me!’ blurted Emily. Father appeared at the kitchen door and said quietly,

‘She’s ready.’

Emily burst into tears and ran to her room slamming the door behind her. She dropped to her knees, scrunched up her eyes and squeezed out a tentative prayer.

‘God, I know I don’t believe in you but I will consider changing my mind if you spare Winnie today.’

God had heard this line before, or one like it. God had heard it all before, there was little amusement available to him these days. What happened to original thought? Where were all the lateral thinking satirist gone – they couldn’t all be French surly?

‘That Slav is a brute, Beelzebub personified. Your nemesis is right here in Devon running amok; you really should teach him a lesson and strike him down. Haven’t you got a spare thunderbolt you can use…please?’

God considered it for a moment but bacon was a guilty pleasure he’d rather not give up. What sort of message would he give if he went about frying pig killers in any case? No. Best ignore her plea, he decided in his wisdom; along with all the other pleas that were flooding in from the starving, dying, weak and miserable children all over the world.

Beelzebub grunted as the Slav whispered in his ear, ‘Got you this time.’

Meanwhile, Pickles, Supreme Ruler of Devon, ambled into Emily’s room.

‘Well, well, well, what do we have here then?’ muttered Emily.

Pickles wagged his stumpy tail.

‘Cerberus the hell hound out for a jolly with his master no less.’

God cancelled his appointments for the immediate future.

Out came the low calibre pistol.

Beelzebub felt the usual sinking sensation in his stomach; duped again. No matter how hard he tried to integrate, to live a meaningful life, virtuous and void of sin, some Slavic son of a vampire turned up with a glistening eye and a heart full of retribution.

Out came the letter-opener given to Emily by Uncle Dominic, the Deacon of Winchester.

‘What did you say God? An eye for an eye isn’t it?’

‘I don’t recall saying anything at all,’ thought God.

Satan’s blood flowed into a metal sterilized bucket, his hopes for redemption dashed again.

Emily’s hands were warm and sticky with the blood of Pickles.

Beelzebub gave an involuntary twitch or two, closed his eyes and made his way back to purgatory and the bureau of reincarnation situated on the second floor.

Pickles died slowly and painfully as the life blood of kings soaked the rug on Emily’s bedroom floor. Pickles fixed his one regal eye upon his killer and as his ancestors gathered on the threshold of death he cursed her.

Emily licked the blood from her fingers.

God said unto himself, ‘Well I didn’t see that coming.’

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The case of Fagan Mitchell

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Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

Tom Sawyer

The case of Fagan Mitchell

 

 

The heat of the last few days had caused lethargy to descend upon the town and everyone from sinner to saint found it difficult to complete their day without a nap, or a moment or two standing in front of the fridge with the door open. It was only May and the end of the school year seemed a long way off.

Barnabas could find nothing fair about a hot day in May, not when you are confined to the classroom, tortured by the occasional glance through the window onto the playing field. The distant hum of the caretaker’s mower spoke of lazy afternoons lying by the river hooking the occasional minnow. It spoke of making a den in the old oak tree that ruled the copse near to Jim Barlow’s farm and offered the best views of approaching armies. The mower was out of season, it was jumbled up and confused, it didn’t actually mean to say such things. There was, to Barnabas, no justice in the world. Justice didn’t exist outside of the confines of his mind. No amount of physics or philosophy or Greek would ever pin point the justice particle.

He believed, through a process of observation and poor judgement that justice was subjective, not everyone agreed on what was just and what was not. Punishment for example, a reasonable and proportionate response to a misdemeanour or crime was fair enough but not always productive. Sometimes a sympathetic ear is all that’s needed.

His teacher Mr Bison ruled with a heavy hand, he believed in zero tolerance and maximum discipline; sympathy was not a word in Bison’s lexicon. If the discipline failed to have the required effect on the first instalment then deliver it again until it did! In the case of Fagan Mitchell this happened to be every day, sometimes twice.

There were several tiers of punishment available to the disobedient child ranging from a slap on the back of the head, all the way up to a severe spanking. Fagan generally migrated straight to spanking, no point in wasting energy on anything less effective.

Bison’s weapon of choice was a rather tatty innocuous slipper, something that the dog might have adopted as his own. Even so the slipper, as chewed up as it might have been, was not to be trifled with. It may have appeared to be old and tired but the truth was it had immense power and a lasting sting.

The slipper was named after the legendary Lady Betty. Lady Betty, as the story went, received a stranger at her door one night. Betty, who’s only remaining son had sailed to America for a better life, lived a sparse existence, in a cabin on the outskirts of Roscommon, Ireland. The stranger sought a bed for the night and while the man slept Lady Betty plunged a dagger into his heart and then robbed his corpse. While she went through his papers she realised, to her horror, that she had in fact just murdered her only son.

It gets better.

She was sentenced to death but on the day of her hanging the executioner was Ill. Sore throat apparently! It was to be a group hanging that morning, a real crowd pleaser; people had travelled for days to see this spectacle. Seeing not only a disappointed mob but also an opportunity, Lady Betty, in exchange for her own neck offered to execute the others condemned to die that day; bless. And so she did. Not only that but, as she had done such an enthusiastic job, she continued to execute inmates at the prison for many years to follow. Lady Betty loved to hang people; she also, as a side line, took up flogging people professionally. Now, you may ask, where is the justice in that? There simply isn’t any, Betty enjoyed her new career and she was later pardoned by the court for killing her son.

Fagan either had a hide of steel or some bizarre love affair with Lady Betty because, without fail the skinny, be-speckled son of the local drunk bent over the teacher’s desk and received his fate every morning. Barnabas and the other children had become rather too familiar with the tucks and folds of Fagan’s backside. If Fagan’s arse ever committed a crime Barnabas was sure that he would be able to pick it out of a line up.

Barnabas had developed the notion that Bison had lost the battle with Fagan and that if the teacher wanted to claw back some dignity let alone authority he must come up with a new strategy. Physical punishment clearly did not work on a boy like Fagan and in fact if anyone was demonstrating signs of defeat it was Bison not Fagan. Fagan it seemed could carry on with his defiance indefinitely whereas for Bison it was a stubborn pursuit of everything he believed in. If Bison capitulated it would mean that his principles were worthless, he would have to rethink everything; the notion that he might be wrong in his approach to life was, Barnabas mused, too much to bear.

Justice may not have existed outside of his head but inside it ruled. Justice, or the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong was, he thought, his super power.

Some people saw injustice as something personal; it only applied to them, but failed to see the reality that others suffered too. Barnabas noticed that for some it was fine to be a victim of injustice and at the same time inflict prejudice on others! Despite not being able to pin justice down, dismantle it and poke it with a stick Barnabas had, nevertheless, a strong sense of integrity.

At school he defended weaker, smaller children from bullies, sometimes he emerged as the victor and other times he’d be left hanging from a coat hook. Not too long ago two twins arrived at the school from Zimbabwe, they were sisters, both small, both shy and both lost in a strange land. Black people were few and far between in those days and so their arrival made quite an impression on the other kids. During mid morning break Barnabas intervened when he discovered the twins cornered in the courtyard by a group of spiteful children. The children taunted the girls about their dress, their hair and their shoes but to his surprise the twins lashed out at him! It seemed that bad attention was better than no attention and that there was no justice in justice.

On another occasion he found a group of older boys by the long jump, they had buried a crow up to its neck in the sand and were taking turns in trying to kick its head off. Barnabas tried to save the crow by applying the kind of logic that was supposed to make the thugs feel shame, but ended up being buried to his waste in sand; next to the crow. The would be decapitators took turns kicking him in the ribs and back until he passed out.

There were, he had to admit, more defeats than victories but every intervention made him stronger, gave him a sense of self that the bible denied him.

It is highly possible that Barnabas’s strict Methodist upbringing contributed to his notions of righteousness. By the age of ten his bookshelf boasted the sum total of seven books, six were various additions of the King James Bible, and the other was the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Barnabas, who was studious, introvert, despite moments of impulsive intervention, and a boy who had been brow beaten into restraint loved Tom Sawyer. If a young boy needed a manual on how to be a boy then Tom Sawyer was it. If an adult, someone as pious as his father or as bitter as Mr Bison needed a reminder of what it was like to be a boy then Tom Sawyer was it. Tom had the nerve to dream, to play and lead a life of adventure, whether that happened to be real or not.

His father, a Methodist minister, frowned upon Mark Twain’s presence on the shelf, thought he had the power to corrupt the other inhabitants. Barnabas’s mother had, for once, put her foot down and made sure his father’s disapproval was not voiced; his frown she could do nothing about.

Being Methodist came with assurances, all of which were attainable through rigorous prayer and bible study. Some things were certain in life; we are all, for example, born with original sin, its smeared all over us from birth. Sin is inherent, a condition of man and there is nothing to be done about it. The condition was handed down from Adam but, and this is important to remember, we can all be saved, even people like Barnabas’s older brother Abraham who had been seduced by Beelzebub and weed, were still in with a chance. Even Bison, as it turns out.

We can also know when we are saved –this would indicate some sort of sign- perhaps some inexplicable revelation or meeting with Christ, and we can, through prayer and methodical biblical study be saved completely, one hundred percent. Christian perfection was the end game, it’s what you dedicated your life too, dodging sin and temptation as you went and the best way to avoid sin and temptation was to bury yourself in one of your six bibles.

Barnabas struggled with the cruelty of the Old Testament and it wasn’t so much the great sweeping genocides such as the wholesale slaughter of Egyptian babies or the plagues, but the small horrors. David and Bathsheba’s adultery ended in God having all of David’s wives raped before his eyes by none other than his own son and then, if this was not enough, the offspring of this dalliance slowly tortured. David’s reaction to this cruelty was no better, a bit of penitence in the house of the lord, a quick bath and then a night out on the town! What was the point? What lessons had been learnt in punishing everyone but David himself who, truth be told, was a bit of a self righteous knob!

The New Testament was sold as something different, wrapped in compassion, joy and love. God was now forgiving and fatherly, his years of violence, murder, racism and rape were behind him, he’d grown up, become gentle and kind and yet, if one should read between the lines it is obviously a hoax. God’s son Jesus was no saint either, although that’s how he was portrayed in Sunday school. ‘Jesus loves us unconditionally’ they said. Well not really, Barnabas, unlike many of the other kids had read the bible umpteen times and tenfold.

Jesus was OK as long as you loved him above your own mother. In fact he blatantly encouraged those that followed him around like he was the bloody Messiah, to forget their families and devote themselves completely to him. Jesus was a chip off the old block, but rather than carry out the punishment, he encouraged his followers to punish themselves. If you look at a woman with a lustful eye, gorge the offending eye out, or better still cut off your genitals, best to be on the safe side after all.

In short, over time, Barnabas began to distance himself from God, they had little in common.

God it seemed had other ideas.

Now, as Barnabas sat in class, his body numb with fear and indecision, neither flight nor fight seemed a possible option, the hair on his neck prickling as his mind went strangely cold; the teacher caught his eye.

Mr Bison looked desperate; Barnabas could tell that Bison’s options were compromised by the gun now hovering inches from his face. His teacher’s plea for help, however fleeting, directed itself towards Barnabas because Bison believed that Barnabas had some sort of communion with God. That in some way the minister’s son had a spiritual union with God and could, if he so wished, perform a miracle.

A week earlier Bison had lost his temper again and picked Fagan Mitchell up by the throat and pinned him against the blackboard. Fagan’s feet dangled in mid air, his body limp like a rag doll. Bison’s face turned red as Fagan’s turned purple. When Barnabas could see that Fagan was about to pass out he got to his feet, walked over to his teacher and gently put his hand on Bison’s arm. Years later Bison would tell people that as soon as Barnabas placed his hand upon his arm, ‘it was like the kid was a messenger of Christ’ and he felt the power of the lord rush through his veins. Seems that Bison had his revelation; he knew the moment of his salvation.

Fagan, it had to be said, was a strange boy; he detested authority, would have no truck with rules and always wanted the last word. Fagan pretty much did what Fagan wanted to do; no one seemed to be able to reel him in. Every morning Bison would call the register and when he got to Fagan a small pre-emptive twitch occurred in the corner of his eye. ‘Fagan Mitchell?’ barked the teacher.

‘Not present’ answered Fagan Mitchell.

Every morning Fagan was dragged to the front of the class, his trousers lowered and his arse spanked with Lady Betty until Bison could spank no more. Fagan grinning inanely would return to his seat, Bison would collapse in his chair, red in the face, out of breath and rather dishevelled.

‘Why?’ pleaded Barnabas one Saturday afternoon while looking for treasure in the woods.

‘Cos I won’t give into him, sides it would probably kill him if I just started to behave like he wants me to’ said Fagan while studying a tree stump with great intent.

‘But don’t it hurt like mad’ pleaded Barnabas who had never received so much as a rap on the knuckles.

‘Ah you get used to it, besides it’s just over a silly joke, so why lose your temper and half kill a boy every day of the week over a silly joke. No I’ll carry on getting whacked if it bothers him so much to hear a joke’.

‘Doesn’t it make you sad Fagan, to be whacked that way every day?’ I think it would make me too depressed.’

Fagan gave up on the tree stump deciding that it was unlikely to hold a hoard of stolen treasure and began to favour the shadow of an elm tree cast at noon.

‘Too right it makes me depressed, but not for the reasons you are thinking of, I’m used to it, besides my Dad is pretty generous with his fists when he’s had too much whisky. No it saddens me to think that old Bison takes so much offence at something so small you could hardly see it. Compared to all the wrong things people do to one another, a little cheek is microscopic, that’s the word I’m looking for, microscopic.

Fagan had become Barnabas’s Huckleberry Finn, the boy that parents forbade their children to play with, the outcast and son of the local drunk. Fagan had been tainted by his father’s reputation and judged to have an unsalvageable soul. Fagan’s incommunicado dealt the boy a poor hand but also gave him an autonomy most boys his age never had.

Barnabas’s father had made it quite clear that his son was not allowed to play with Fagan because he had the terrible misfortune to be born into such an intolerable family. Hope in Salvation for this urchin was a long shot and if the minister was a betting man, which of course he was not, he’d put money on the lad going to hell. ‘An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and if you look at the tree it’s nothing more than a lopsided, drunken crab tree’.

This remark led Barnabas to question his father’s logic, which was never a good idea but in this instance his sense of justice took command of the situation before he had time to think.

‘What of salvation and doing good unto others, that’s what you teach isn’t it?’

The Minister did not approve of his son’s tone but felt obliged to make himself totally understood. ‘Salvation is available to all of us, even Mr Mitchell but it is, is it not, a matter of choice, one can chose to be saved as easy as one can chose not to be saved. I’ve been in this business long enough to tell the difference between the dammed and the salvageable my boy. Yes you are right we should look out for those less fortunate than us, we are lucky, we are already on the road to forgiveness and ultimate salvation. But with some folk like Fagan and his kin it’s best we tackle them as a community, as a body not as a personal project. They have the power to corrupt even the staunchest believer Barnabas and I can’t risk having another son dragged down into the quagmire because it’s a long and lonesome climb out of the abyss.’

The two boys played together nonetheless, but had to arrange secretly when and where they would meet up. This just made it all the more exciting, like one of Tom Sawyer’s adventures. Fagan, and not by design, had earned himself a kind of hero status amongst the other boys, he was not only defiant in the face of Bison’s tyranny but an independent spirit. He stood for rebellious, eccentric, nonconformists everywhere; that said, Barnabas reckoned that Fagan was probably unaware he stood for anything, Fagan was just Fagan.

In Church on Sundays Fagan sat at the front with his father, a man that stayed sober long enough to see out the sermon. Barnabas’s father would be reading from his pulpit, ‘Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.’

Fagan, to the Minister’s constant annoyance would inevitably interrupt, shouting out questions in front of a full congregation. ‘If it was like finding heaven why did he not share it with everyone else? He doesn’t deserve to find the treasure, all he thinks about is himself, he’s just selfish.’

‘Yes thank you Fagan’ the minister would reply through gritted teeth, ‘as I have said on countless occasions keep your questions for bible class.’

Now it seemed that Fagan would never bother anyone again. Earlier that day Mr Bison solemnly explained to the class that Fagan had died in a tragic accident; an accident of biblical proportions.

Due to Fagan’s discontent with authority and, it would seem, Mr Bison in particular, he’d decided to skip class and go fishing instead. Something he was apt to do often. Only when Fagan arrived at the river, the river had run dry. Rather than turn back home, or god forbid go to school, the young boy with the spirit of adventure climbed down into the thirsty river bed. While he looked for treasure, turning over stones and sticks, two miles upstream an accidental dam burst. Water from a downpour earlier that morning had first trickled then flowed from dry ground into streams and gullies. The water met and congregated at a point in the river that was blocked by a fallen tree, the congregation grew and its strength intensified until the tree could hold it back no more. As the water burst through the dam Fagan wrote his name with a stick in the dust. A few moments later Fagan, along with his name were erased. His body washed up on a river bank several miles downriver and was stumbled upon by an old lady out walking her poodle.

The minister made a big song and dance about God’s mysterious ways and how this sad story should be a lesson to all children with plans of disobedience. Barnabas thought it was just a very tragic accident and his father’s barely suppressed glee at an apparent act of God, unjustified and cruel.

Mr Mitchell had burst through the door half way through trigonometry, which at first seemed to be a welcomed distraction by all, until the gun came out. He went straight for Bison, waving his gun in the teacher’s face and shouting drunkenly about revenge and punishment and justice for his boy. Old Bison looked furious, ‘How dare you come barging in here, making threats and talking utter nonsense, this is a classroom not one of your seedy, low life bars?’ said Bison, trying to keep control. Barnabas had a fleeting image of Mr Bison spanking Mr Mitchell with Lady Betty. The bereaved father bent over the desk, his pale, bony arse winking at them as the sun shone through the window and Betty raining down blow after blow. He shook his head to dislodge the image.

Mr Mitchell seemed to sober up a bit then, he stood up straight, proud, before leaning into Bison, really up close and said, ‘I’d shut the fuck up now if I were you Sir’ and with that he spat in the teacher’s face. Bison could hardly contain his rage, no one spoke to him like that ever, it was his role in life to be the bully, the aggressor, the communicator of violence, the deliverer of shame! Who was this drunken upstart, this whisky soaked guttersnipe with bad breath and black teeth? Who the hell did he think he was, coming in here and trying to overthrow his command? Even so, whatever went through Bison’s head now stayed there, he seemed to shrivel up, shrink before them, so that he became no more than a man, not a God –or a demon – not some overwhelming, unmoving force of nature, just a normal, fragile being. He was still mad but predominantly he was scared. He needed to be rational in the face of such volatility and absurdity, he needed to remain calm, lucid and realistic; he needed a miracle.

Barnabas’s father made a point of telling children that if they ever found themselves in a peculiar position they should ask themselves ‘What would Jesus do?’ After which, apparently, all would be made clear.

Barnabas thought about it but concluded that Jesus would probably see this moment as an opportunity to promote himself as Messiah. He would maybe enter into one of his parables, boring the gunman into either shooting himself, Jesus or the teacher. Jesus could perform miracles least we forget so maybe he’d lead everyone down to the river and resurrect Fagan, snatching the poor little beggar from the claws of Hell’s flesh eating demons. Now that, Barnabas thought, he would like to see.

Now Barnabas wondered what the right thing to do was, it was all very well looking to others for guidance, but when push comes to shove don’t most of us do what we think is right. Or do we just tell ourselves that something is black when it is clearly white just to avoid difficult decisions?

Jesus did what he thought was right, it may appear to be a little eccentric to say the least but he only followed his heart and, to be fair it cost him his life. Barnabas, although it would be years before he ever voiced it, thought that Jesus was totally insane. On the other hand billions of people around the world for two thousand years have lain down before him. Others of course have committed immeasurable atrocities in his name. No one has ever committed any atrocities in the name of Tom Sawyer as far as he was aware.

At the end of the day he only had to ask himself one question and it was this, ‘What would Barnabas do?’ That’s all that really mattered, he had to live with himself and he had to live with his own decisions. To be true to oneself meant judging yourself more than anyone else. ‘What would I do?’ Not ‘what should I do’ because ‘should’ implies responding to expectation, religious or social pressure; it’s not as easy as one thinks. He must be his own keeper, his own judge and his own executioner.

So what would Barnabas do?

He looked around at the other kids in the class, they looked as stunned as he felt, and he wondered if any of them had similar thoughts going on in their minds. Would perhaps some other kid attempt to save the day before he, Barnabas, decided to respond to Bison’s pitiful plea?

He glanced at Fagan’s empty chair, poor Fagan, what would Fagan have done, the stubborn, independent kid with an enquiring mind and apparent immunity to pain or shame. Fagan would probably be totally unaware of the apparent danger and start a dialogue on hand guns and pistols.

Barnabas concentrated his mind because that’s what Barnabas did. If you are born with the gift of judgement it’s a heavy mantle to carry, it comes with great responsibility. Deciding what is Just and what is fair takes thought, observation and deliberation. Barnabas needed to weigh things up; to make a decision based purely on reason.

Perhaps, for example, he needed to consider if it wasn’t unfair for Mr Mitchell to kill Mr Bison. Maybe it was fair, maybe the old goat with the keen temper deserved to die. God only knows he’d caused poor old Fagan enough grief in his time not to mention the rest of them. Why not give a grieving father the chance to reap revenge on the man who, for all intense and purposes drove his son out of the classroom and into a flash flood. One dead teacher didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. And what of Mr Mitchell, he would go to prison happy in the knowledge that he had done the right thing for his boy in the end.

The truth is that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t rained that morning, if the ground had not been so dry as to cause a flash flood. Fagan wasn’t messed up; Fagan was probably the most rounded person Barnabas ever knew. So there was no point blaming anyone for Fagan’s behaviour other than Fagan himself. Fagan never demonstrated anything other than self assurance and an ease within his own skin. Fagan did what Fagan wanted to do and was happy with the choices that he made; he was not an unhappy boy.

Barnabas glanced outside, how did he end up in here and not out there?

Barnabas, with a heavy heart stood up.

He walked quietly over to Fagan’s Father and placed his hand upon his arm.

Mr Mitchell looked at Barnabas with confusion, like he hadn’t realised where he was.

‘I’m Barnabas the minister’s son, do you remember me?’

Mr Mitchell nodded his head.

Yes of course Barnabas, you are always very polite and kind towards me and Fagan’.

‘Mr Mitchell, let me show you where Fagan sat’ said Barnabas pointing towards the empty chair.

Mr Mitchell nodded; he seemed to be in some sort of trance now, like he was in a dream that had just taken an unexpected turn. He had no control over the dream and put his fate into the hands of Barnabas.

‘If you just hand me that gun first, we wouldn’t want an accident would we’ Said Barnabas as calmly and as matter of fact as he could. He must have conveyed some sort of authority because Mr Mitchell surrendered his gun. With the gun now in his hand, Barnabas felt a rush of power he’d never experienced before. He was in charge of the situation and could, for as long as he held the gun, dictate the outcome. He wondered if justice was decided ultimately by the man with the gun, with the atomic bomb up his sleeve or, as the law decrees by a body with no invested interest in the outcome. Maybe, despite everything, it is all down to providence or karma, some kismet energy that ripples in an unseen dimension, arbitrating, judging us and our actions and dealing out retribution in this life or the next?

Barnabas didn’t really have time for philosophy he just followed his heart and his instinct, he would not, in the end, decide the fate of any man, but nor could he just stand by and watch one man harm or harass another.

Mr Bison quietly told the other children to, ‘run along now’ and as he wiped the spit from his face they respectfully left the classroom as quickly as they could. Meanwhile Barnabas led Fagan’s father to his son’s desk and asked him to sit down. Now that all the other children had left the room Mr Bison told Barnabas to leave him and Mr Mitchell alone together and to hand over the gun. ‘I have it from here’ he told Barnabas with something that might have been a smile.

Barnabas obeyed, because that’s what Barnabas did. Once he had closed the classroom door he let out a long sigh of relief. He’d done the right thing, Mr Mitchell would probably never have used the gun anyway, he was just in shock. Now that there was no danger he must leave the matter to Mr Bison…Barnabas had taken three steps when the gun went off.

The day began to cool.

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The King is dead, long live the king.

 

On the edge of the earth, as west as you can go without falling off, there, next to the stream of Okeanos is a mythical isle known as Elysium. A place for Gods and heroes to retire and enjoy the fruits of their labour. Here the inhabitants gather on the banks of the Okeanos and look out across the sea, they await their new King.

Control was something Steven was finding more and more difficult to hold on to, so when his vintage E type Jag aquaplaned at 70 mph and crashed into the central barrier of the M32, it was, he thought, to be expected.

Once the car had finished somersaulting, perhaps taking a bow or two, accepting the plaudits of admiring fans and settled into a position not conducive with escape, Steven exhaled.

He was upside down squashed against the roof, the seat belt cut into his ribs and his legs pinned into the foot well, he could hardly move. Through the driver’s window he saw headlights pass by, not slowing, not caring, not wanting to be delayed.

Sound came back, he hadn’t realised that it was absent until he heard it. ‘The Doors’ were telling him that, ‘this is the end’ he thought about that, not so much the irony but what if they were right? Right or wrong he had no control over it, he’d come to the conclusion recently that there was little point in taking control anyway; life just didn’t like it when he took control.Life wanted to fuck with him and there was little he could do to prevent it, no matter what he did, how assertive he tried to be, how sneaky he was, how he kept life in the dark for weeks not allowing her access to his plans and motives she still scuppered him. Life had other plans, life had an agenda that did not correspond with Steven’s own plans, he was, he believed, totally screwed.

On the other hand despite the situation he figured that life was having too much fun with him right now, he amused her, she liked the game they played, it kept her on her toes.

He had been an actor all his life, whether or not he got paid for it, sometimes he accepted a fee, other times a twisted gratification. The pleasure of a job well done, of ‘getting away with it’ and he’d ‘got away with it’ for most of his life. Then, one day, he woke up not knowing who he was or what he wanted. He took a long look at himself in the mirror, the mirror he’d shared with his wife and children for years. He decided that he needed a new mirror, one that didn’t just stare back at him with that dumb, ‘I can’t help you’ face. So he bought a new mirror and nobody liked it, everyone just wanted the old mirror back, they liked the dumb, noncommittal look of the old one, the new one had attitude; no one liked the attitude.

So Steven was left with a mirror that no one liked the look of and with nowhere to put it; that’s where it all started.

Once he saw himself, the real him, there was no turning back, no change of heart. It wasn’t pretty, not all of it at least, he needed to make some adjustments, needed to be the new image, needed to be himself. Being you, as it turned out, was not easy, it wasn’t popular either!

He started by trying to be honest with his wife, he wanted her to know how he felt, who he was and how he wanted to be…it didn’t work.

Steven fumbled for his phone but it was no longer in his pocket, the phone had flown. Who would he call anyway, no one spoke to him anymore, he’d flown the nest, he’d rocked the boat, been made an outcast because he simply had the nerve to look for something real.

For his ‘friends’ or ‘their friends’ it was all about taking sides, and they were quick to do so. How dare you seek happiness, how dare you embark on such a journey and leave us behind? We are in this together, no one leaves the quagmire, and no one is supposed to change! Look at you, being yourself, pursuing happiness…fuck you…we are all unhappy but we don’t just wake up one day and buy a new mirror! No we stay with the old one, the one everyone can agree on, the one everyone knows. Yes some of us have toyed with the idea from time to time! But, and this is important, none of us have been stupid enough to actually follow our hearts! To find happiness elsewhere! I’m sorry (not really) but I’m going to have to play the ‘holier than thou’ card. Call me a hypocrite if you like, but it’s the only way I can live with myself. I’m jealous but I won’t admit it, you actually did it and I never will.

His children hated him, ‘how dare you see yourself, how dare you be happy, your job is to make us happy, fuck you, fuck your happiness, it’s not about you! You are Dad and only Dad, you have no right to pursue happiness; we are happiness, we are all you need! All these years you have devoted to us, worked like a dog, loved us, counselled us, and protected us means nothing. Just stay the same, be unhappy for our sake.’

He was really unhappy

Finding yourself isn’t as easy as it sounds, some of us do, and some of us are too scared of what we might find, of what the mirror might tell us. What if finding yourself means crawling out of the thick, comfortable soup you have immersed yourself in? I don’t want to be myself, I want to stay here where it’s comfy; I’ll ignore the elephant in the room and so will my wife, together we make a team, both of us pretending, both of us ignoring…only I can’t ignore it anymore, the elephant is eating my soul… our soul!!

Why didn’t anyone stop to help him? Why were they just driving on by? Why, over the last few months had no one stopped to help him?

Tweet

Just seen Stevens Jag overturned on the M32…probably dead, such a shame; it was a lovely Jag.

Ex friend

Tweet

The actor Steven Duke has been involved in a serious accident, pronounced dead at the scene.

BBC News

Tweet

OMG I knew him quite well before his indiscretion, he was a good man, made me laugh, life and soul of the party, what happened?

Ex friend

Tweet

What happened? He decided to live his life, wanted to be himself, wanted to know how it felt to be him!

Ex friend

 

Tweet

What a wanker!

Ex friend

Tweet

He should have just tried to make others happy, pleased people, gave them what they wanted, pretended to be happy. His ego got the better of him, worshipped his own image above God. Now the lord has decided, made the right call, rid us of scum.

Ex friend

Tweet

I was his friend for thirty years; we were even best men to each other. We played in a band together, watched our children grow and become young adults. But then he betrayed us, played a blinder mind you, none of us saw it coming! Had no choice in the matter, had to tell all in the end; fucking low life worm.

Ex friend

‘The Doors’ gave up on him; now the only sound he heard was his own breathing and the occasional car drive on by.

Well this was as good a time as any…

Steven decided to have a word with God.

Hello God, you there?

Hello Steven

I’ve been meaning to call you for a while now but, well you know how it is? I’m busy, you’re busy too, I don’t like to bother you normally, but recently life has got it in for me, I guess you know that.

Yes I know everything and nothing.

My problems are nothing in the grand scheme of things, what with Ebola, Aids, the Arab spring, those Jihadist bastards and UKIP; not to mention all these bloody paedophiles on the loose! You must have your work cut out, bet you wonder why you ever bothered in the first place really.

Yeah I don’t have much to do with all that now.

Really!

Yes, what’s the bloody point, no one listens do they, and I just got tired of the whole thing. I mean I tried to tell people what to do and how to do it but then they went and misunderstood, decided I meant this and that; I got tired of what other people thought about me. To be honest it hurt me, I got quite upset and ended up having a bit of a breakdown.

God I’m sorry to hear that.

No don’t be, it was the best thing that ever happened to me really. I thought, fuck it, I’m going to do what I want to do, be a little selfish, go find myself.

Oh and did you?

Yes I did, it wasn’t easy, and this lot up here were all against me of course, bunch of pious busybodies. Rumours started to spread, people made stuff up about me, said things that were simply not true. Others, spineless morons, believed the naysayers and gossipmonger’s, I’d had enough so…

I posted this message to them on Facebook

Whose fucking business is it anyway? What right does anyone have to dictate how someone else lives their life? Why are you all making this about you? You have your own lives to lead, get on with them and stop judging others. One day you might find yourself in need of a friend and I can only hope and pray they are nothing like you, you bunch of backstabbing hypocrites.

Seriously I think I’m gonna throw up!

What do you know? Really ask yourself what you know to be true? You’d be hard pushed to give me one single truth about yourselves let alone anyone else. Oh I’m sure you gain some kind of inner reward from allowing yourself to believe that you are morally superior, by turning your back, by refusing to look, what a bunch of cunts you are. So the king is dead, you held him on a pedestal, err you put him there actually. Now he’s gone, now that the king is but a man, fallible and real, how does that make you feel? Disappointed? Come on get real, did he give you what you wanted, did he dance the dance, was his friendship real? Was his love for you genuine, was it sincere? Has he told you otherwise? Thought not.

All that time, you took from me, you pilfered, and you stood in the glare of my brilliance hoping to take a little bit of it away with you, hoping some of my charm would rub off on you. You relied on my humour to lighten the mood, my wisdom to enthral and my generosity to inebriate you. Well now it’s time to give, to wish me God speed and you haven’t got the balls.

Shame on you

The king is not dead.

And when he returns anew, fixed and fit and healthy he will probably forgive you all, because, after all, he’s better than you. The King is a force of nature, a kind man, a bright man, an honest man. Just ask him, just ask him what it’s like to be real…and while you are at it you can tell him how you have been manipulated and poisoned against him, it wasn’t your fault, you don’t have a mind of your own or the ability to seek truth. Truth hurts doesn’t it, truth changes everything and you don’t want change do you? You just want people to stay as they are…in the box marked, ‘just like me’. That’s pride for you; pride won’t allow you to admit to making a mistake, a bad call, an error of judgement. If you do that your world may flip on its head.

God

So what happened?

I just got down with my bad self, like it or lump it really. I took up fly fishing, bought a new chariot and studied evolution, all very interesting stuff actually. So I moved out of the palace, built a cabin in the woods and now grow my own produce, Cain would be proud of me. I do the odd pantomime and attend christenings and stuff but other than that I keep out of it all. What about you?

I thought I was being punished. I’m terrified of making the wrong call, so I end up doing nothing, I spend my life analysing my options, I don’t want to go back and yet I don’t know how to move on.

Who do you think is punishing you? Do you think I would punish you, or are you punishing yourself?

Are you punishing me?

Nope

Then it must be me then

What’s the point of that?

I don’t know!

Why won’t the past stop judging me?

You are not responsible for the thoughts and actions of others, you can’t control that, believe me I should know. Stop beating yourself up about it, learn from mistakes and move on, the past cannot be changed and the future is unknown so live for the moment.

People search for peace, people search for love and understanding, people, those that dare to put their heads above the parapet fuck up, they make mistakes, sometimes they can be crippled with indecision and doubt; crippled means that they can’t move, they can barely breathe. Even so, when you have seen the truth, when you are tired of the lies, of the pretending, of the denial you will inch forward, you will climb no matter how many times you fall back into the soup.

Thanks for the chat God. I’m feeling a little tired now but I really feel that we made progress don’t you?

Progress, bloody progress, why are we all obsessed with progress, I want peace and quiet, to stop time in a happy place and just enjoy it. My vegetables and orchards, my fishing rod and hot rod and my collection of heavy metal LPs, that will do me for now.

Speak to you soon God

You can call me Elvis

Ok Elvis and thanks

Steven found a cigarette packet and his trusty Zippo near his face, he pulled out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, pulled on a finger, another finger and then a…

Light blinded him, made his eyes weep.

After the mirror fiasco Steven realised that coming out was not easy, that being true to oneself was not something many people understood or had even considered. So he agreed, with himself, to lead a double life. He could be himself privately, alone, away from prying eyes, from disappointed faces and pointing fingers. He could do it and at least be partially happy. He was a very good actor after all.

Then one day, out walking his dog, who was not judgemental in the least, he met her!

He met someone else who, to be herself, left the house, left the overbearing neediness for her to fit into the box that had been made for her. She didn’t like the box, it didn’t feel right so she bought a new one but nobody liked the new one, it just wasn’t the same. Her high-handed, morally superior, intellectually challenged husband took it personally.

Why do you want to be someone you are not, you don’t need to better yourself, not on my account. I like things just the way they are. You can’t go off and do something for you, you must stay here with me and the kids, feed us, clothe us, do as we say, as I command.

She told him that she no longer loved him.

He told her that she did.

Two lonely people agree to meet again.

After a while both Steven and his new friend feel that they can at least cope as long as they have each other. They can go home to their respective families, play the part, be whoever it is that they are supposed to be, needed to be, in the knowledge that at least one other person out there knows them for who they are.

This all took a great deal of deception.

Deception was his middle name.

It’s what he did best.

But, now he was honest with himself, he understood that all his life he’d been trying on different masks to see if one would fit, and now he’d found himself, he no longer needed to. Steven was tired of the acting; he no longer wanted to be someone else.

Sooner or later the shit was going to hit the fan.

Sooner or later he would start to feel like he’d lost control.

Sooner or later friendships would be tested and left wanting.

Steven, still holding his trusty Zippo, felt shards of glass graze his face then he heard a voice, it came from behind the light.

‘I wouldn’t light that cigarette if I were you mate, petrol, it has a habit of igniting. We are going to get you out of here. Is there someone we can call?’

Tweet

The man was a human being, why can’t people just stop judging, he who cast the first stone and all that.

God

Tweet

But he led a double life, made a mockery of mediocrity and fooled us all.

Ex friend

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Steven is not who we thought he was, we don’t want anything to do with him.

Ex friend

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To think you pride yourself in your apparent scepticism and yet base your conclusions on one side of the story, that and tittle-tattle; the ever-present peddlers of scandal.

GOD

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The trust is gone; there can be no excuse, no reason behind this insanity, other than…err…insanity itself. Bloody nutter, to think he used to baby sit my children.

Ex Friend

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I’m getting too involved, what’s the fucking point? No one ever sees sense. Just get on with being you, when, and only when you have mastered that should you feel remotely qualified to pass judgement on others. Amen

God

When the whole affair came out, came flooding into lives and living rooms, around dinner tables, bar tables and beds it just felt like a bad dream. All this time Steven had convinced himself that, in some twisted way, he was actually protecting those most vulnerable, his wife and children, from a shit storm and by saying nothing, by being himself, albeit partially, he could pretend for their sake that everything was normal; that he was happy. Why put his family through torture, through something they could never understand? He never hated them; he loved them for who they were.

The shit storm came.

He wasn’t being himself.

He must be having some kind of breakdown.

A midlife crisis.

His brain must have dislodged itself and been replaced by his dick!

He was a heartbreaker, a scoundrel and a liar.

He was left adrift.

Confused

Alone

He began to doubt himself, lose control, found it impossible to make the simplest decision. He lost entire days to deliberation; deliberation had never been so busy. The new him, only recently born, new to the world, found life to be cruel and unhelpful. But the new him was determined to survive, determined never to return, to give up. He knew that some bridges needed to be burned and others rebuilt. He knew that somewhere he would find his place in a new world, that there would be love and music and wine.

His new friend scurried away and hid, couldn’t cope, hunkered back down into the old box, became unemotional and detached. The old box was killing her but she felt that she had no choice. She must make others happy and forget about the new box with its mountains and rivers, its canyons and fjords. In the new box she could run and jump and sing, she could swim naked in the rivers and lay basking in the sunshine. In the old box it was glum, damp and cramped and lonely with nowhere to go, no room to stretch and dance and grow. Slowly she withered; slowly she died buried in a box long before her death.

Beep…beep…beep

Steven opened his eyes…

‘Steven’

‘yes’

‘You had a lucky escape, a few minor cuts and bruises; life is not finished with you yet’

Steven laughed

Beep…beep…beep

‘Get some rest; is there someone we can call?’

‘No’

Beep…beep…beep

‘Your phone is busy; someone out there is worried about you.’

Steven checked his phone

Message

I hope that this has been a lesson to you and that you give up being you and come back. We can put all this nonsense behind us now. I have given you a second chance, a chance to return to order, to be whatever it was you were before. Why are you fighting it, what is it with people like you, why don’t you just give up and die?

Life

Look life, we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, I’ll give you that, but really what’s the point of living if you can’t be yourself? I’ll admit I’m no expert on the matter, but isn’t that what you are all about…living?

DEATH

 

I’m about making living as hard as it can be; I’m about injustice, survival of the fittest and the slaying of the weak. I’m like a sadistic Sergeant Major. Life is hard, life is cheap and if you want to tame me, master me, then you have to come after me, take me down and tether me, I don’t give up easy, I make it real hard for you.

Life

Tweet

Heard about the accident, you coming home now?

Wife

 

Tweet

Can I bring my new mirror?

Steven Duke

 

Tweet

NO!

Wife

 

And so it was that from the wreckage of his past life, Steven Duke walked away from the billowing smoke, the fire and debris. His long hair damp from the rain, his trench coat billowing in the breeze of an autumnal night he strode head high and proud into a new dawn. He never looked back, he carved a new life for himself, and in time those that cared for him the most followed. Where he is now, no one knows but the fields of Elysium await the new king. The King is not dead.

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Leonardo da Vinci

leonardo_da_vinci-3_jpeg_620x250_crop_upscale_q85Leonardo da Vinci

Anything is possible

My Son, who seems to know more about Leonardo da Vinci at ten years old than I do now, asked me to write about him. When I asked him what he knew about the great artist, my son answered, ‘you mean great inventor don’t you? He invented the first robot in 1495, he invented the first aeroplane, parachute, tank and time machine, don’t you know Daddy?’

Well I’m not so sure about the time machine but I wasn’t convinced about the robot either until I checked it out.

 

 

Florance Italy… 1504… about tea time.

 

Leonardo Da Vinci the fifty two year old polymath and genius was strolling through the Piazza Santa Trinity with friend Giovanni di Gavina; as they neared the Spini Bank a group of notables spotted Leonardo and called him over. The notables were discussing a passage from Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and were in desperate need of illumination and who better to shed light on a textual conundrum than the famous Leonardo?

Leonardo, dressed in a fine rose colour cloak that stopped at his knees, a tad daring, a little eccentric perhaps, would have been easy to spot in a crowd. By all accounts Leonardo was a big, strong, handsome figure capable of many inhuman feats; not least of all able to bend a horse shoe with his right hand! Leonardo obliged, he was, after all, a gregarious chap, instantly likeable and comfortable with his fame and reputation.

As Leonardo joined the group, perhaps stroking his well groomed beard in contemplation, his younger, less attractive contemporary Michelangelo entered the square. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was easily spotted in a crowd, a menacing, unapproachable creep to Leonardo’s gallant swagger. Whereas Leonardo took pride in his appearance Michelangelo couldn’t give a toss, he wore his working garments, his face covered in the dust exorcized, nah teased from his newest commission David. Sharp tongued, devout and void of humour, the younger genius believed he had no equal, believed that he was the greatest artist alive, his talents bestowed upon him by God.  

On spotting Michelangelo, Leonardo called out, ‘perhaps Michelangelo could enlighten us after all he is well known to be a student of Dante’ and thus beckoned the young marble whittler over.

The chances are that Leonardo wanted nothing more than to give credit where credit was due and, if a response deserved credence, then whom better to deliver it than a scholar of Dante such as young Michelangelo? Michelangelo didn’t see it this way; in fact he took umbrage, thought that Leonardo was mocking him and responded to Leonardo’s request with a verbal whipping. ‘You made a design for a horse to be cast in bronze, and, unable to cast it, have in your shame abandoned it’ and with that Michelangelo was gone in a puff of dust leaving Leonardo red faced and tongue-tied. Perhaps the notables, not willing to enter the fray, not wanting to involve themselves with the business of titans expected a crude or clever retort from Leonardo. No such retort came as far as we know; the notables were notably disappointed.

The horse in question or ‘Gran cavallo’ was commissioned by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Seventy tons of bronze were set aside for the casting but, as time passed (Leonardo was never in a rush) war became imminent and the bronze was melted down and turned into cannons. The statue was never completed. To be fair Leonardo had made the clay model and spent many an hour solving the problem of casting such a big statue. As with many of Leonardo’s unfinished works, and there were many, he enjoyed the conception and problem solving more than the realization. Once he’d figured it out, seen the completed work in his mind’s eye, there seemed little point in realising it. This metaphysical philosophy sums up the way in which Leonardo not only saw the world but lived his life.

A small interruption…

Leonardo came up with seven principles for a creative life. First we have curiosity, if you lack curiosity then you’re buggered, no point reading the other six, but then you wouldn’t would you?

Next is demonstration, to test what knowledge you have gained through experience, challenge the knowledge, rough it up a bit, pick it up by the ankles and give it a good shake. Basically think for yourself and don’t rely on conventional thought. Sensation comes in at number three; continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, to enliven experiences. (Also to challenge what you’re seeing) The forth principle is Sfumato: literally, ‘going up in smoke’ a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty, to see cherished ideas and preconceived notions going ‘up in smoke’. Now this I fear is the hardest of rules for most people to accept or indeed embrace, people tend to get rather attached to their notions, their notions doth define them.

Then we have art/Science: Development of a balance between science and art, logic and imagination or ‘whole-brain thinking’. A full wit rather than a half wit is best. Number Six is the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise; yeah I’m not doing too well on this one I’m a left-handed, lazy, ill-mannered hunchback.

And finally Connessione: Recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena, or ‘systems thinking’. This principle defines Leonardo more than any other, one cannot even consider a creative life without recognising that the universe, the world on which we dwell and all things within are connected; are in fact one massive organism. Any change to one small environment will have a knock on effect (all very quantum really) with the rest. Before introducing something new to an environment one must think about how it will effect, not just its immediate environment, but the universe as a whole.

This is the essence of metaphysical science. Not that Leonardo came up with the basic idea that we should all challenge what we perceive to be real, that my friends was Mr Aristotle who in turn borrowed from Mr. Thales of Miletus who was one of the first philosophers to reject mythological and divine explanations. ‘Hang on a sundial moment’ he was heard to mutter, ‘what if we just stop for a moment and think about this, scrap what we are told is ‘real’ or ‘fact’ and start from the beginning, what is there and what’s it like?’

…End of interruption        

Michelangelo on the other hand was a man driven to finish whatever he started, he was a man possessed, he would not fail, nor would he give satisfaction to his doubters. Many obstacles presented themselves over the course of his career and yet, where many people would have thrown in the chisel, Michelangelo persevered. Nothing was insurmountable, and with a combination of natural talent, god given genius and sheer determination he created the sublime. His problem with Leonardo, I suspect, was that he regarded Leonardo as a fellow artist and therefore competitor; in fact Florence would soon stage a commission to find out which of the two men was indeed the better artist (but that’s a story for another time).

Michelangelo perhaps failed to see that Leonardo never saw himself as just an artist. In fact on his resume to the Duke of Milan, painting appeared at the bottom of the list; a mere afterthought! Or perhaps it irked Michelangelo that, despite paining being one of Leonardo’s many interests, he was still rather good at it. How much better Leonardo could have been had he had the same single-minded drive and dedication to art as Michelangelo, we will never know?

Michelangelo was a wealthy man, a millionaire several times over but he never stopped to smell the roses, to enjoy his wealth; he ate little and worked like a man short on time. Leonardo on the other hand enjoyed a moderate wealth, nothing like Michelangelo’s but seemed to have a much richer life. He experienced fame and notoriety, owned very little and yet enjoyed the hospitality of kings. Leonardo got into whatever grove floated his boat, from botany to weaponry, after all, why box yourself in, why be a slave to expectations?

One of the most obvious differences to me between the two great men is that everything Michelangelo did, his studies into the human form, feats of engineering and design, were a means to an end, a way of insuring the success of his art; whereas Leonardo became easily distracted by the world around him and the mysteries it offered.

For example…

The principle subject of the Renaissance was the male body therefore to paint or sculpt it well, one needed to undertake research into human anatomy. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo would have carried out anatomical studies, dissecting animal and human corpses to gain a better knowledge of muscle formation.

Michelangelo was, he admitted himself, in awe of the male body, describing it as ‘the most beautiful thing in all of nature’. To realise the Sistine Chapel he would have spent hours in the crypt of the Vatican poking about with corpses, all of which informed him ( not literally, that would be spooky) of the lines needed to complete his masterpiece. Although it has to be mentioned that although Michelangelo’s portrayal of the male body is executed with panache his pictures of females on the Sistine chapel look like stonemasons with a couple of tits chucked on!   Leonardo was not a big fan of Michelangelo’s work, noting that his over masculinised characters looked ‘like stockings full of walnuts!’    

When Leonardo delved into anatomical research he not only wanted to study the shape and form of bone, muscle, organ and vessels but to gain a new perspective into the workings, of not only the human body, but human life itself. He wanted to understand conception, growth, the senses, memory, fantasy and the soul. Through his skills as an artist and architect he was able to deliver drawings of unparalleled clarity.

In the winter of 1508-9 Leonardo conducted an autopsy of an old man, recording in his notebooks: ‘This old man a few hours before his death, told me that he was over a hundred years old, and that he felt nothing wrong with his body other than weakness.’ Leonardo then goes on to provide the first clear description of coronary vascular occlusion and arteriosclerosis in the history of medicine! He also came close to discovering the circulation of blood, a century before William Harvey.

Now to achieve greatness in just one discipline be it art, architecture, medicine or tiddlywinks can take one person a lifetime to achieve and even then there are no guarantees. Michelangelo achieved greatness in art and in architecture within his own lifetime. He did dabble with engineering if need be and liked to write poetry but found tiddlywinks to be tediously frustrating. But Michelangelo will always be remembered as the divine artist, the creator of David and the Sistine chapel and with good reason.

Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy is something altogether different. Some people think of him as a painter, the man who gave the world the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘the Last Supper’ others, like my ten year old son see him as a great inventor making the world’s first robot, designing vessels for flight and defensive initiatives such as a tank or a diving suit.

Speak to evolutionary scientist and they will point to Leonardo as the first person to question the authority of the church and it’s teachings on creation. Genesis was bollocks, knowledge could only be based on experience. After studying fossil shells brought to him by mountain dwellers, he forged the opinion that these artefacts did not arrive on a mountain top due to some biblical flood as the church would have it. No they were not brought by water and then dumped there but left behind, the relics of a sea that once existed; which meant that the earth was much older than some would like to admit.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Leonardo had virtually no formal education, and he developed an abiding contempt for received learning. Why settle for an explanation given by either the church or ‘the ancients’, why assume that what you are told is right. Repeating something you have read or heard doesn’t make you educated, it makes you stupid and lazy. Leonardo realised that fossils tell the real story of the earth and by study and study alone will you unravel the truth.

But

For

 Me

One of the most interesting periods of Leonardo’s life was his work for the warlord Cesare Borgia.

In the summer of 1502, the youthful Cesare Borgia was on his third rampage through the Romagna region of northern Italy, brutally seizing city after city in the name of his father, Pope Alexander VI, before consigning their leaders to particularly grisly deaths. Legend has it that the Florentine government – getting a little twitchy- dispatched diplomat and poet Niccolò Machiavelli to spy on Borgia’s military operation, to penetrate the inner circle and find out what the warlord was up to. To achieve this Machiavelli offered Borgia the services of the legendary Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo had a keen interest in military engineering and had already designed some serious hardware for the Duke of Milan.

What amazes me is the odd coupling; Leonardo the vegetarian, pacifist and intellect hangs out with psychopathic, sister shagging, murderer with a penchant for toothless whores. A man once made cardinal at the age of 22, went to Naples to arrange a marriage for his beloved sister and on completion of his official duties tasted the delicacies of down town Naples. After one of many couplings he turned on the lamp to find a bald and toothless whore starring up at him, he promptly threw up all over her…I guess that cost extra! He left Naples with an unwanted guest, ‘the French disease’ or syphilis. This from a man whose good looks inspired his father to commission a painting of Christ and insist that his son should be the model! The image of Christ that we all know now, the westernised, long haired, blue eyed, pious, butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth guy was in fact Cesare Borgia!! Luckily Leonardo had nothing to do with that painting.

Borgia’s father Pope Alexander pretty much bought the papacy in a bid to further his own interests rather than the fortunes of the church. He wanted to expand the papal states of Rome, to concur some of the wealthier northern states and so set his illegitimate son up as local warlord. Pope Alex’s other son was murdered, some say by Cesare’s hand, although why he would do this, no one knows.

Anyhow Leonardo travelled with Borgia and Machiavelli inspecting fortifications and defences, designing bridges, weapons of mass destruction and intricate maps, maps that were not just amazingly accurate but in the wrong hands very dangerous; maps that would throw down the gauntlet to cartographers everywhere. Eventually Leonardo became sickened by Cesare’s brutal behaviour and it is said profoundly disturbed at his own contribution to the violence. Once a source of pride and ambition his military designs and engineering skills now became, to him, a grotesque mistake. Leonardo, although continuing to develop ideas vowed to never publish them saying, ‘I will not publish, nor divulge such things because of the evil nature of men’

 

One positive thing came out of his time with Cesare and that is the Mona Lisa, the misty landscape rising in the background of that painting is the upper Arno Valley an area the artist traversed while on his missions for the barbaric warrior. It is considered to be the greatest portrait in the western world. Despite not applying himself fully to the role of tortured artist Leonardo still managed to give the world ‘the Mona Lisa’ a painting that, like everything else he started in his life, he never finished. Leonardo carried La Gioconda with him for years, adding, modifying and tweaking it. The painting never made it back to its subject Lisa Gherardini but instead was bequeathed to Leonardo’s companion Salai and later bought by King Francis 1.

Details of Leonardo’s personal life are, to say the least, a little sketchy. We know that he was the illegitimate son of a legal notary and a peasant girl. For the first five years of his life he lived with his mother then, for whatever reason, moved to his father’s house. At fourteen he was sent by his father to the Verrocchio studio to study art.

Towards the end of his apprenticeship, on the cusp of becoming a master in his own right, Leonardo was anonymously accused of sodomy. Twas the custom in Florence at the time to jot down your misgivings/accusations or suspicions about someone and drop them into a recipient very much like a post box! Luckily for the young Leonard the charges were dropped. Leonardo never married but kept a string of young, handsome male apprentices at his side which, during his own time and ours, has caused tongues to wag about his apparent homosexuality.

Sigmund Freud wrote a whole book on Leonardo’s sexual orientation based only on Freud’s interpretation of the artist’s work. What I see, and I’m no psychoanalyst, is a great love and admiration for women, in a time when most artists concentrated on the male form Leonardo painted women. He painted women with character, with inner strength, beauty and, dare I say it, an engaging flirtatious look in their eye? Gay or not, who cares? Many of his critics and contemporaries were obviously homosexual but few, if any, had so much fluency and understanding with female qualities.

Moving on…

Some commentators may feel justified in saying that Leonardo is perhaps the most successful failure in history. Few of his designs came to fruition; most of his artistic commissions were never started let alone finished. The ‘Last Supper’ he did complete, but because of his dislike of using traditional fresco he implemented a revolutionary technique which dried and cracked the paint. Only an estimated 30 percent of the painting that is now on show is the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The rest has been revived by ‘give it a go Charlie’s’ and others, which kind of put paid to theories of hidden meanings in the painting!!

Sixty years after Leonardo completed the painting it was said to be unrecognisable and all but ruined. Many misfortunes have befallen the painting, it’s had a door cut into it then bricked back up again, had stones thrown at it by anti clerical French revolutionaries who also scratched the eyes of the Apostles’, been hit by allied bombs and buggered about with for 500 years! Da Vinci code my arse.

Leonardo spent the last few years of his life in the employment of King Francis 1, a man who greatly admired and loved Leonardo. Before his death he bemoaned his inability to finish anything, regretting not giving more to God and mankind. He turned to the Catholic Church, read doctrine and requested a priest to make his confessions and receive Holy Sacrament. It is said that the king himself held Leonardo on his death bed as the great man took his last breath, although probably not true, I’m going to let it go, I think it’s a fitting end to a man that, despite what he felt, gave the world so much.

Despite his own misgivings Leonardo da Vinci was not only the Godfather of the Renaissance movement but the man who gave the world the dictum ‘saper vedere’ or ‘knowing how to see’. He was someone who believed that knowledge gave you vision, someone who refused to except the status quo, rather, through experimentation, exploration, reason and understanding do we arrive at the truth. More importantly perhaps, he thought that ‘knowing how to see’ made anything possible. Hence watching birds in flight gave him the idea that one day man too could fly, all you needed was ingenuity, creativity and an understanding of physics, metaphysical or otherwise. Anything is possible.

Maybe he was a little too ambitious, maybe he set out to achieve too much or maybe he saw a thread, a connection between everything in the universe? This thread, should it exist, was greatly unravelled by Leonardo and in doing so he gave future generations of thinkers, artists and scientist a healthy head start!

Other than the big stuff, the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, thousands of ideas sketched out on hundreds of pieces of paper that make up the codex, we should not overlook the small stuff. Leonardo da vinci created the first lens polishing machine, giving astronomy a much needed boost. He designed a machine to measure the tensile strength of wire which also went into production and, perhaps most importantly it was Leonardo da Vinci that gave the world something as simple as a pair of scissors!

And a time machine…

Sixty beggars followed his coffin, which was Leonardo’s wish, and he was put to rest in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d’Amboise, in France.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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