Vending providence

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Vending providence

 

The first time that death had come was on All Saints Eve and Cruikshank had welcomed him with a rasping cough, a rasping cough was all the salutation he could muster. Outside, winter’s advance was marked by a biting wind that blustered past his front door carrying a Jetsam of fallen leaves. The leaves danced in the golden light of a street lamp along with a hawk moth whose misguided attempts to reach the moon were lost on all but the wind.

Children dressed in macabre costumes held pumpkins carved with good intention or plastic caldrons half full with the bounty already collected from well meaning neighbours. The laughter and chatter of children who passed his door was, to him, sweet reprieve from the howling, bone chilling cry of the wind. The children rapped occasionally upon his door; he would have opened it of course but feared his progressed state of decay would scare them into next week. His oft dishevelled appearance, raggedy clothes, a white shock of unkempt hair, skin sallow and wrinkled beyond his years was, he thought, made worse by the blood that he had just vomited over his crumpled shirt.

Slumped in an armchair that was, ever so slightly better dressed than himself he thought how fleeting his life had been. Always a person of ill health he gravitated towards a peaceful life of observation, to watch and often appreciate rather than actually be! He had, when pushed, admitted to himself that there are those who live by acting out their dreams and then there are those who dream of acting out their lives. He dreamed and felt happy to do so, and never felt short changed by those others who acted. Those who are drawn to acting need an audience, people to applaud them and fill them with encouragement, which was his role in life, a witness to the lives of others.

But of course he did live and he breathed and he loved many things, he loved craftsmanship however it was presented to him. A well written book, a meal prepared by benevolent hands, a picture painted or poem read with conviction, all had the power to lift his spirit, but above all things, he loved the sound of a violin. So much so that he believed it was only possible to reach perfection as a violinist if you played upon a violin crafted to be an extension of yourself. So that’s what he did, he made violins for violinist who wished to reach perfection in their craft.

Despite his contribution to craftsmanship Cruikshank’s life had passed him in a hurry, he was never really ready for it, and now, it was too late.

Between the blustering wind and the carefree cries of children Cruikshank, too tired to move, listened to the music in his head. Lost in the expression of a symphony written to forget he forgot his pain, physical or otherwise, his discomfort and the rasping, desperate breaths.  His fingers tapped rhythmically upon the armchair, the grandfather clock, who had overseen many a mortal’s demise, ticked respectfully, counting down the seconds. In the corner of the room, a dank, dark, stale room, a row of sepia photographs were gathered on a walnut dresser, each one the portrait of a ghost. They leered at him in collective silence; anticipating, judging, disappointing, discouraging, pleading and sad. Soon he would join them: a sepia memory, a celluloid souvenir of the past clamped in a frame and frozen behind glass for someone to occasionally dust and perchance to wonder who this fellow was.

The three bar electric fire burned for all its worth in the small front room but its noble efforts could not keep Death’s icy benediction from touching Cruikshank’s heart.

The wind’s howl took on a deeper voice as the moments that passed between the pendulums swing slowed down. The music in his head began to fade and the tapping of his fingers came to rest.

The portraits glanced at one another…

‘I’m ready’ said Cruikshank to Death.

The clocks pendulum rested in Death’s bony grip like a set of old man’s testacies.

The clock faced away, tried to enjoy the moment.

‘Yeah, said Death to Cruikshank, ‘…about that.’

Cruikshank raised a curious eyebrow; it was all he could manage now. All he wanted was to be liberated from the pain his body had presented to him year after year, one painful, aching moment heaped upon another.

‘I have a proposition for you,’ said Death as he pulled up a chair and sat down next to Cruikshank. The pendulum stayed frozen in mid-swing; the old clock remembered the protocol and remained motionless. Time had stopped. Death was dressed in a pin-striped suit he’d acquired from a recently departed tailor. Incongruously, and at odds with his finely tailored threads he also wore a yellow florescent vest.

Once a year on Halloween, the dead, normally the recently departed can, if they wish to do so, visit their families. Death had to keep them in order and make sure that they all returned on time to their designated coaches. It was a rather busy night. On top of which he had to fulfil his regular duties and somehow find time to play a solo performance of ‘la danse macabre’ at the local cemetery! This year, to illustrate the impartiality of Death, the overall egality of dying, he thought he might summon a banker, a post suicide jihadist and a fourteen year old Brazilian rent boy.

The vest was part one of the ‘newer’ directives handed down from ‘them’ and even though he didn’t care for the vest at all, he saw the sense in it. He had managed to keep his entire group together and had not lost a single soul. It wasn’t all down to the vest though – the clipboard and whistle helped too.

‘I need a new violin,’ said Death.

Cruikshank wheezed.

‘Mine is getting rather tired you see and I feel the need of an upgrade. You make the best violins and it wouldn’t do for you to die just yet, not until I have been furnished with a bono-fide Cruikshank. In return for a violin I will grant you an extension of… let’s say, a year; a year where you will have nothing but the best of health. I’ll have to pull some strings; I have a few favours to cash in especially in administration. Those pen-pushers and archivists owe me a blind eye or two. How’s that for a deal?’ said Death smiling.

Sepia photos looked aghast…

‘Play for me,’ wheezed Cruikshank.

‘Well I wasn’t expecting to have to audition, but very well; the last request of a dying man and all that.’

Death conjured up a rather battered violin from the air. After taking great pains to tune it, he played a rendition of a concerto composed by an impoverished Russian Jew written for the Tsar’s coronation. The Concerto had been deemed too miserable for a coronation, rather than make obvious the majesty and overall benevolence of the Tsar it instead reflected the hunger and desperation of his subjects.

Death, having known a thing or two about misery, played the piece with such passion that the hawk moth outside redoubled his effort to reach the moon; a glorious sensation of the futility and brevity of life with all its despondency and sorrow, piercing wretchedness, lethargy in the face of acceptance, a brief reflection on the pathos of it all and finally death. The hawk moth lay dead on the pavement, leaving his family to grieve the loss of a spirited fellow who pursued his dream until the end.

Cruikshank was suitably impressed with The Reaper’s fervour and so raised a weary hand to signify his agreement and desire to enter into the covenant with Death.

Death, not used to pleasantries vanished.

Clock lost no time in righting his pendulum.

The collection of sepia portraits reserved the right to reserve judgement as the fire burned with a vigour renewed.

Cruikshank slept a dreamless sleep and, as promised awoke to full health. More health than he had ever had in fact!

In the year that followed Cruikshank lived! He crammed more life into one year than he had experienced in the forty nine that had preceded it. Within three months he’d met, fallen in love with and married a young soprano called Dorothy Trent who’s, until now barren belly, soon carried the consequence of their devotion. Woven between the living he kept up his side of the bargain and, based on the accomplished demonstration given by Death, Cruikshank crafted a violin to suit the personification’s requirements.

In that year Cruikshank never once lingered upon his inevitable demise, nor did he look back over all the seemingly wasted years; years that stretched behind him, fallow, uncultivated, fruitless and overrun with inertia. No, he lived in every moment! When Cruikshank ate a pear, he ate a pear: he tasted its sweet succulent flavour and witnessed every bite. No moment was wasted, given over to ignorance or dropped due to mishandling. Nope. Every sense, every sensation, every experience had his full attention. Cruikshank’s year of living became legendary to all those souls that had pursued happiness before him. Many had sought refuge in the temples of spirituality or worshipped at the altars of monitory wealth, power or gluttony only to find nothing but the conspicuous and acrid stench of bullshit lay there within.

Cruikshank’s approach to his one year of life was different in that he not only had the foresight to live it but also to just… well… be himself. This revolutionary approach to living had serious reverberations in the afterlife where billions of sheep and several wolves smacked their heads in recognition of the bloody obvious,

‘Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?’ became a common phrase amongst the dead.

 

Time marched on. Death finally arrived with a flourish (albeit a little out of breath).

‘That was cutting it fine,’ said Cruikshank. Death shot him a withering look,

‘It’s murder out there tonight. Bloody murder! I’m busy enough without having to play ‘catch-up’ with you. Come on. Time to go.’

Moments before Deaths arrival Cruikshank had stood holding his wife’s hand as she squeezed their baby out into the capable hands of midwife Henrietta Clod. Both parents glanced briefly upon the face of their daughter before Death, in his florescent jacket swept them both up and carried them off to be demobbed; consoled, counselled and initiated into the every growing body of the dead.

 

Fate rarely gets it wrong and is therefore not used to surprises. She does little weaving herself these days because of the ever growing number of lives that need to be woven. Therefore she oversees an ever growing number of trained minions to do it for her. But as all personifications of immortality know, the buck stops with them, and so, therefore one must keep a vigilant eye upon the happenings of the universe.

Imagine fate’s surprise when she caught sight of a thread that had been woven into the fabric of time that had no place being there! She had not ordered its existence, nor had a minion sewn it there, it had appeared seemingly of its own free will! And yet as Fate, more than anyone can tell you, free will does not exist. Just think of the chaos it would cause if we all just did whatever we liked? A life cannot just track its own course; a life is woven before the person living it is born! Mahatma Ghandi may have thought that he had control over his destiny, but really, as with all people, his fate had been written before he was even aware of it. Ghandi, as with all people was but a pawn. Free will cannot be tolerated…but you try telling free will that!

And yet here was a thread, a life that should not exist, should not be weaving itself and therefore interacting and influencing other threads, the whole thing could be thrown into utter disarray, a complete nightmare, a code red.

The thread was called Henrietta Cruikshank; given the name of the midwife that delivered her. Henrietta should never have existed, and would not have existed if Death hadn’t meddled with her father’s fate.

Eighty years, a blink of an eye to an immortal, is still enough time to cause some damage on Earth. Eighty years had passed since Cruikshank had handed Death his new violin, since he and his young wife had both tragically died, since Henrietta muscled her way into the world without prior consent.

A gusty, prevailing wind blew a squall from the sea over the land in waves. No childish imps dressed like ghouls haunted the streets tonight, only the dead dared to venture out. Impressive elm trees formed the first line of defence around the perimeter of the graveyard, shoulders slightly slumped and heads bowed like a row of messiahs pinned to a cross. The elms dug in their heels, well rooted beneath the rotting corpses; they held sway to no one.

A low murmuring hubbub ebbed and flowed, whistled and moaned through the graveyard as the headstones for the poor, tombstones for the rich endlessly recited the epitaphs bestowed upon them. Here lies Beloved. She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Blessed sleep to which we all return. To un-pathed waters, undreamed shores. Life is not forever love is. Today she dances with angels. Tis not the whole of life to live, nor all of death to die. Now twilight lets her curtain down and pins it with a star.  I told you I was ill.

Rain lashed against the grey stone of the stoic church like arrows shot from Beelzebub’s bow, but the church was impenetrable to attack, had withstood years of abuse. Now was not the time to give in to defeat, to the molestations of nature and all her wickedness. Now was the time to stand tall, look menacing and convey a certain arrogance and authority. Now was the time to see out the storm and show some respect, now was the time to…

‘What the hell was Death up to?’

From the eastern most corner of the graveyard Death stepped out from the protection of the Yew, rosined up his bow with aplomb and then tucked his violin under his chin. The gravestone gracing the grave he stood upon was devoted to Sally Winkleman: human rights lawyer, charity fundraiser, school fete cake-baker and psychopathic child killer.

Over the crash and clamour of the storm’s seemingly inexhaustible attack the sound of music rose on the night air. The dead began to stir, the elms swayed to the rhythm of the ‘Dance Macabre’ and the house of God, pious and loyal turned his back to the noise.

Sally stood by her gravestone, ‘Sally Winkleman. The final judgement is upon you’ and regarded Death with contempt.

‘You again?’

Death ignored her and moved to the next gravestone to summon his next dancer, Ludwig Percival, considered to be a crippled orphan but was in fact only a cripple. Bastard child of Sir William Higgins, high court judge and member of the House of Lords, Ludwig died of malnutrition in a poor house on Christmas Eve, aged ten. Ludwig’s mother, a chambermaid, left him swaddled in a greyhound’s blanket on the steps of Smirk and Smirk solicitors. Neither parent looked back, neither parent cared.

Death thought that the child and the killer would make a good juxtaposition. His bow was poised, the wind took a breath, the elms stood frozen in anticipation, the church of God sighed just a little in resignation; Sally regarded her finger nails and…

‘Thanatos!’ came a cry from across the graveyard.

Death ignored the cry and attempted to continue. His concentration renewed he once again poised his bow in ready-ment.   After all, this was his only performance of the year. He began to play slowly at first, picking up the pace once the child had arrived from his eternal slumber. Together the crippled boy and the child-killer began to dance to the tune of Deaths violin…

 

‘Thanatos!’ came the call again; closer this time.

Death lay down his bow in resignation and addressed the figure now standing before him.

‘Well what is it? What is so important that you feel the need to interrupt an inspired performance?’

‘That good eh?’

‘Have you not read the reviews?’

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘Well, shame on you!’ said Death trying to muster a little self-respect in the presence of such an old myth.

Themis,- Greek God of order had come out of retirement to…well… restore order. And she had every intention of revelling in her renewed capacity.

‘I have been requested to address you on a rather sensitive matter that seems to be of your own making.’ Death looked blank. Themis continued, ‘If you will humour me with your attention I think I can bring you up to speed. Then perhaps you can furnish me with a solution to the problem and we can all return to business as usual?’

Death suppressed his desire to retaliate with superior rhetoric in favour of an expediant nod of agreement.

And so Themis, wasting no time, began addressing her audience as if she were a lawyer stating the case:

Frederick Smith Howard landed at Gatwick Airport in a state of high anxiety and had every intention of remaining so. He thrived on pressure and needed the stress to combat the ever growing need to stop for a moment and actually think about the meaning of his existence. To keep himself sharp and edgy he drank copious amounts of coffee. This day was going to be a bumper cup day if he had any intention of winning the case for culpability against war-monger Timothy Greystone, Editor in Chief of the tabloid newspaper, ‘The Messenger’. The billionaire media mogul had, thought Smith Howard, bought and paid for the latest in a long line of foreign ‘interventions’ in the Middle East.

Today was the beginning of a long public inquiry that would, he hoped, lead to the collapse of a corrupt government and Greystone’s empire. Smith Howard’s evidence was a huge media bombshell about to go off, and today was the day he had been asked to present his allegations to the inquiry.

On his way through arrivals he passes a vending machine, he stops to give himself a shot of coffee. But the machine decides to give him ‘Cream of Chicken Soup’ because the machine can see that her customer is stressed and, in her opinion, needs something a little more wholesome than Arabica beans. Smith Howard takes a sip of the cream of chicken soup and is instantly transported back to his mother’s kitchen in Cambridgeshire; the hearth, the Aga, the family Dog Joseph curled up by his feet while mother sewed and Father dozed.

All of a sudden standing in front of the vending machine, empty plastic cup in hand, nothing mattered more to Smith Howard than finding the meaning of his existence. All the baggage- the cumbersome, superfluous distractions- faded away, oozed into the ether and dissolved. He felt renewed, reborn and afloat on a vast sea of exploration and discovery. It was up to him which way his life went from here. It was for him to decide on his own fate, to not succumb to the old seducers that had so craftily manoeuvred him from his first day in the cradle. It was almost as if his life had been planned out before he was even born!

Thus, Frederick, thanks to the intervention of a certain vending machine, inadvertently started World War III by capitulating to the evocative power of cream of chicken soup. Rather than attending the hearing that had taken him months of preparation Smith Howard took the first flight out of London. Six months later he bought an Alpaca farm in Patagonia where he made his own shirts, on a loom by the light of the Argentinean moon. He completely removed himself from his former life and never drank coffee again.

 

Susan Felicity Fulcrum landed at Gatwick airport with her new tits firmly in place and made it through customs without anyone finding the six grams of cocaine secreted in her anus. Her day should have presented to her a middle aged, German businessman who would snort the cocaine (once removed from its hiding place) while his companion, Wolfgang, fucked her for thirty minutes in a jacuzzi. But, rather than following Fate’s plan, essential to the equilibrium of the universe one should add, Susan took a detour. On passing a vending machine in arrivals she thought she might like a healthy snack; the vending machine thought she needed feeding up and dispensed a king sized confectionary bar.

Susan ate it all and then, riddled with the guilt that comes with indulgence, threw it back up into a toilet bowl. It was while she knelt on the bathroom floor staring at the contents of her stomach in the pan that Susan ruminated on her pointless, meaningless life. Her shallow existence had been built on the assumption that her physical beauty and her willingness to sell her body and soul would bring her happiness. She didn’t feel happy at all.

More important for the thread of fate however, was the missed rendezvous with Wolfgang; this liaison with Susan should have led to Wolfgang’s divorce, a peccadillo too far for Mrs Wolfgang.   Mrs –was -Wolfgang should have gone on to invest her divorce settlement in stocks that would flourish, giving Wolfgang Junior the chance to pursue his dream of entering into the sphere of biotechnology.

Instead, when it finally dawned on him that Susan was a ‘no-show’ Wolfgang wasted no time in boarding an earlier plane to Saudi Arabia; a plane that was targeted by one of Timothy Greystone’s Missiles and promptly brought down somewhere over the red sea. Mrs Wolfgang was subsequently left penniless after spending everything she had on a corrupt lawyer whom she had employed to win a case for compensation against the airline. Wolfgang Junior ended up cooking meth in a Bulgarian slum before successfully blowing himself up and taking a dozen or more slum dwellers with him.

If, as planned, Wolfgang Junior’s father had had sex with an anorexic prostitute in a Jacuzzi in a swanky London hotel, Junior would have gone on to develop a biological breakthrough in cellular manipulation. This discovery would eventually lead to the first peace keeping mutant army, built from the orphans of refugees fleeing various Middle Eastern war zones.

Susan, rather than meeting her clients decided to go for a stroll in Hyde Park where she met Malcolm Bentweather, a liberal Quaker protesting against his country’s involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. Malcolm was wealthy, single and charismatic and so when he invited Susan to a prayer meeting she thought, ‘Why the hell not?’

It was during this rather sombre meeting in the back room of a snooker hall that Susan had her spiritual awakening. The Hallelujah Moment coincided coincidentally with the moment that the Clingfilm containing the contraband narcotic gave in and the cocaine in her arse seeped into her blood stream. Devine intervention must have played a hand in her survival, because Fate certainly had no part in Susan’s miraculous escape from what should have been a fatal overdose.

Susan Felicity Fulcrum went on to become a poster girl for Quakerism and was responsible for a resurgence of the faith. The ever-growing numbers of pacifist Quakers led to the defeat of democracy in The West as no one wanted to fight for it.

Then there is Mr Oluwamakinde a student of economics at Oxford University. He landed at Gatwick airport after two months spent at home listening to theories of how Satanism was prevalent in The West: the elite ruling classes were in bed with the Devil and made blood sacrifices to their lord by bombing and killing Muslims around the world. That his own blood had been poisoned with the HIV virus was testimony to how far reaching and sinister the rulers were: the fact that he’d had unprotected sex with a prostitute in Lagos was over looked by all the harbingers of doom.

His position was clear: he had to finish his degree, keep his head down, avoid anyone but the most pious of people and get out before the Devil took him for a concubine.

On leaving the terminal he passed the vending machine and felt a great thirst so paused to buy water but the vending machine refused to vend. The vending machine didn’t like the look of Mr Oluwamakinde and reserved the right not to trade with those of whom she disapproved; she spat his money out.

Mr Oluwamakinde took the vending machine’s refusal to accommodate his request for water as a sign from God. He left the airport and made his way to Cromwell Green near Parliament. Here he calmly doused himself with lighter fuel and offered tourists the opportunity to set him on fire. Mrs Fengfang Fung visiting from Beijing said in her statement to the Metropolitan Police that she had thought Mr Oluwamakinde was a street performer doing a trick, which is why she not only obliged him in his request to set him on fire but also took a selfie standing beside the burning body of Mr Oluwamakinde.

Fate had originally made other plans for Mr Oluwamakinde! He was not meant to end up a chard piece of meat on a patch of grass covered in dog shit and fag ends. No, he had a destiny to fulfil, as did everyone. The very fact that his role had not been fulfilled caused great distress to Fate.

Of course Fate is a great believer in herself, and seldom has cause for doubt. But the very fact that these individuals, and more, were seemingly going off plan made her wonder what was going on? Free Will is like a virus – once it starts to spread it becomes exponential and then nothing but chaos rules. So in an attempt to quash it, to stamp it out before it’s too late, we found the source of the problem… which happens to be a vending machine in the arrivals hall in Gatwick airport.

At that point we came unstuck.

Having come to the end of her(somewhat lengthy) explanation, Themis the God of order, paused and looked Death in the eye,

‘Whatever inhabits that vending machine, whatever intelligence resides there within is not quite of this world! And as it turns out it has something to do with you, doesn’t it Thanatos? ‘It goes by the name of Henrietta Cruikshank – ring any bells?’

 

Death thought for a moment and then whipped out his clipboard. He thumbed through an eternity of parchment.

‘Now let me see… Henrietta Cruikshank you say?’

Sally Winkleman, now lounging on a churchyard bench dedicated to a Deacon of good repute, had been listening to Themis with a curious ear. Detached as she often was from the questionable activities of ordinary people this eloquent account stimulated her otherwise apathetic interest.

‘Are you saying that there is no such thing as free will?’ demanded Sally.

‘No. That’s not what she’s saying,’ said Death not glancing up from his clipboard. ‘They believe it shouldn’t exist. That’s not quite the same thing is it?’

‘It’s a virus we have to eradicate whenever it gets into the system that’s all’ said Themis smugly.

‘So,’ reasoned Sally ‘I’m not to blame for my own behaviour then? I was born to be a killer, a peddler of misery, a cold hearted bitch bereft of compassion and love?’

‘Yep,’ uttered Death.

‘So we have no authority over our own lives, no autonomy, no way of changing our fortunes? So there is no good and bad, no Heaven and Hell, no sin, there’s just puppetry and puppets?’ Sally looked to Death for an answer.

‘Apparently,’ he sighed contining to scroll though his records.

‘Seems a bit arbitrary! I mean what is the point of that? Is life just a whimsy, a game played for the amusement of Fate and her cronies? It all seems a bit futile doesn’t it? I mean if I have no sovereignty over my own fate then great I’m not to blame for my actions and I’m just doing whatever it is that I’m programmed to do. But to be honest, I’d prefer to believe that my actions were born of my own desire. OK I was a despicable person in life- or at least that’s how I will be remembered- but to think that I was obliged to kill, was indeed programmed to do so, seems even more despicable! Why?’

‘Hard to believe isn’t it? But what about this little fellow here?’ said Death pointing at the crippled boy, ‘No way could he overcome the circumstances of his birth. His fate was signed, sealed and delivered the moment he was conceived wasn’t it young man?’

‘Yes Mr Death sir; they was with no mistake’

‘But then one must beg the question, What’s the fucking point?’

‘Indeed,’ said Death.

Themis was getting fidgety, ‘To get back to the matter at hand Thanatos…what of this Henrietta Cruikshank?’

Death raised his eyes from the clipboard, ‘I don’t seem to have her on my list. But, yes of course I remember now she was born to the violin-maker and his wife. Her parents both died the moment she was born. She lived her life in shadows, barely registered at all until she took her own life about two years ago. She threw herself off a bridge suspended over an estuary while the tide was out. She got stuck in the mud, head first; only her boots were visible, very undignified. The fire brigade had to winch her corpse out during low tide with a crane, there was an audible pop as her body finally came free. She wasn’t on my list, had no exit visa, so I didn’t know what to do with her. I ended up stashing her soul in a vending machine until I could figure out how to get her to the other side…then promptly forgot about her. Truth is she was never really meant to be. I can only assume that her existence has torn enough of a rent in the fabric of reality to allow freewill to crawl in.

‘But if free will takes a hold on reality then what of Fate’s fate?’

Death consulted his list again. ‘You better tell her to pack her things, I’m on my way’.

‘But that’s ridiculous, Fate can’t die! What will happen? We need order; we need to follow the plan and avoid deviation!’ Themis said frantically clutching her heart. She was feeling a little faint, a tad disorientated as is the wont of ordered folk when Uncertainty rears his ugly head.

‘Yes well I’m afraid things will just carry on as if Fate never happened. I’m sure the mortals will adapt in time.’

‘But what will govern their lives, if not Fate? Free will doesn’t really exist, no matter what the mortals want to believe – it’s just an illusion. It’s nothing more than memes and genes and self delusion.’

‘Self delusion would imply a ‘self’ to delude would it not?’ asked Sally with aplomb.

No one answered.

Fate had foreseen her potential demise of course.

To avoid Death, she found a way back in. Fate would be reborn…as the child of a violin-maker (who had struck a bargain with Death) and his soprano wife. After many years of struggling with the burden of mortality she would kill herself in a spectacular way. Then, not knowing what to do with her soul Death would hide her from herself in a vending machine in Gatwick airport. From the vending machine she would start once more to govern the lives of mortals, but by doing so would introduce free will… or at least the illusion of free will… to the lives of those she touched.

Death continued to look everywhere for Fate but never found her.

 

 

 

 

 

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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 Habit of delusion

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image

Brother Antoine had a mono-brow. The mono-brow demanded attention, refused to give any recognition to the other features on Antoine’s face, which were, had they been graced by any other face, crowd pleasers in their own right. To say that brother Antoine was unattractive would be an understatement, even so to conjure up such adjectives as revolting, hideous or ugly would be rather uncharitable; the features themselves were just doing their job after all. Many of Antoine’s fellow monks who could be described as rotund, jolly, flatulent, boisterous and pious each to a man would, if asked, describe Antoine as ‘beautiful’ because it was, indeed, his nature to be so.

Antoine’s duties, other than rigorous prayer and devotion, were to tend to the monastery’s livestock and beehives. Indeed his reputation as an apiarist was legendary throughout Christendom as was, albeit to a lesser degree, his handling of poultry; cocks in particular. He also tended to the lambs, goats and ‘those blessed cats’ that ran amok through the hallowed cloisters, vestibules, scriptoriums and, to the annoyance of Brother Peter the cook and cheese maker, the kitchen too.

Antoine despite his horrific, some would say ungodly features, was a gentle man; a pious, God-fearing giant with a special penchant for animals and their husbandry. To Antoine, animals were predictable creatures, uncomplicated in a way that people were not. Unlike people, animals are automated biological life-forms, ‘wind them up and watch them go’. They have no sense of identity, no consciousness to speak of and are, as a result, blameless and completely innocent.

People have free will, given by God. God crafts animals to have no will of their own. People squander their free will, extravagant and liberal with is proliferation they spread it about carelessly. When, rather than use it to live a meaningless life of constant stimulation and greed, they should in fact be using it for what God intended: loving Him.

God tested man by giving him free will (Adam fell at the first hurdle). God willed that man should be left in the hands of his own counsel, so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him … or so it goes. Antoine had floundered off the coast of God’s love. For many years he had refused to come ashore but occasionally drifting into the shallow waters, he would stop to consider the price of such devotion. Antoine felt that should he go to God willingly he might be somehow missing out on life.

Yet, in the end (or the beginning as Antoine would see it), he utilised his gift of free will to abandon his life of vice and iniquity, of violence, drama, drunkenness and sexual perversion in favour of God’s love.

Some would argue that God knows how our lives will pan out. In which case a life is plotted and its fate can be seen by any number of omniscient beings! If our lives are predetermined in such a way then predestination leaves no room for free will … but that’s neither here nor there.

Now that his old life was in the past Antoine felt satisfied with his choices: his life of devotion, brotherhood, abstinence and prayer. His role within the monastery of stockman and animal welfare administrator filled him with love and admiration for God’s divine genius.

Nothing could tempt Antoine away from the work he adored other than, that is, an opportunity to squander a few hours blessing the inhabitants of the village nearby in exchange for cash. The monks of his order lived, in part, by the old tradition of begging for alms, in fact it was this very tradition that persuaded Antoine to slope off one sunny afternoon and collect what he could for the pot.

And so it is here that we catch up with Antoine, entering the small village that sits by the seat of its pants on the edge of the land that rolls into the sea from the Pyrenean Mountains. Its stone walls and terracotta roofs lay languorous and sleepy, so relaxed were the houses that they gave the appearance of melting into the landscape, pouring slowly into the somnolent waters ever lapping at its heels. The inhabitants of these homes were, in the heat of the summer, as sluggish and unenergetic as could be without actually falling over. In through the shuttered windows, dozing was afoot as was idleness and sloth with the occasional burst of gluttony.

So it is with great haste that they reach for the purse to pay God’s witness a princely ransom for a prayer or two of forgiveness. God’s own protection racket: sins are, no matter the magnitude, forgivable for a price – hush money or, as some more cynical than I would see it, paying for sin from a door-to-door salesman. Antoine made good time and good money which pleased both the dammed and the reckoner.

Brother Antoine draped in hessian cloth moved silently over sunburst flagstones, cracked and worn by winter frost and summer sun. He, to those that stole a glance from within or passed him on the road, looked virtuous and morally intact which was both reassuring and humbling in equal measure. However, despite appearances, Brother Antoine struggled behind the hood, behind the eyes of petulant dark blue-bottle green, for, despite himself he still longed for some of the finer sins of his past. Oh, he had no hankering for illicit sexual liaisons with strangers in the backrooms of iniquitous bars or harsh, cutthroat liquor served in cheap shot glasses. Nor did he truly miss the fighting, the wannabe heroes out to prove that they were more than their nylon shirts and over-gelled hair implied. Pick on the big ugly guy sipping whisky by the pool table, make a name for yourself, earn respect from your peers and admiration from the leopard-skinned, shag-anything barmaid of your dreams. Yes the feeling of his fist smashing into another man’s face, the sound of broken bones, the blood and spit arching through the stale, smoky, badly lit air was a tantalising memory but firmly in the past, where it belonged. No the sin, if it was a sin at all, that he missed the most was the indulgence of tobacco. A cigarette gave a man time to reflect, to ponder his life, the meaning of it and his purpose, indeed his reason for being.

It was while smoking a cigarette, after flooring another cocksure bawdy contender outside under a shepherd’s cautionary sky, that God became impatient with him.

‘Look, I’m not one to interfere Antoine, as well you know but, well really, how long will it take for you to find me?’ said God, quite reasonably.

‘I’m on my way’ replied Antoine. And that he was.

Now, pockets full of crumpled bank notes donated to him by the shamefaced in good faith, he made his way towards the tobacconist situated on the main square. One packet of filter-less Gauloises would, in theory, bring him closer to God that much sooner.

It was at this moment that he could have decided to forget the Gauloises and return to the monastery in time for mid-afternoon prayer and a slice of freshly baked bread with his own bee’s honey. But fate had other plans. Fate chuckled indulgently to herself at the notion of free will. She knew that life was mapped out and executed with precision, down to the final detail, but granted the notion of sovereignty over ones destiny, otherwise where would be the fun?

Antoine seemingly by the grace of his own will pushed open the door and entered into the tobacconist, intent on the purchase of Gauloises. Fate watched on, she loved this bit, the bit where someone thinks that life will go this way when in fact it goes that way … takes them by surprise every time.

Inside the small tobacconist, which was also a boulangerie; newsagent and peddler of gossip, piffle and tripe, chaos had apparently arrived. The floor was scattered with debris including magazines, baguettes, cash and the old tobacconist himself Monsieur Philip Goudan. Antoine knelt by Goudan’s bony, nicotine yellow, tweed-festooned body and looked for signs of life.   Goudan’s eyes fluttered open and stared back at the unattractive monk with the thrice broken nose; bloated, tea-bagged eyes and formidable mono-brow.

‘Goodness me, you are a sight for sore eyes,’ said the tobacconist in earnest.

‘I’ll call for the doctor – what the hell happened, were you robbed?’ inquired the monk.

‘No need for a doctor, I’m fine. Yes I was robbed, no money mind you, just all the Gauloises and Woodbines, nothing left but menthol.’

‘That’s terrible!’ said the monk thinking of the pleasure he’d miss out on. ‘Who robbed you, how many and which way did they go?’ The shopkeeper looked a bit shifty, went to speak and then didn’t, couldn’t seem to get the words out.

‘What is it my son? Why are you so hesitant? Whatever you say I will not judge nor condemn you. You must tell me, do not protect these villains, justice will be done, God will see to that.’

Goudan opened his mouth to speak, looked sceptical and promptly shut it again. But then he seemed to resign himself to the ridicule he expected and said, with as much conviction and dignity as a man in his position could muster, ‘Are chimpanzees within God’s jurisdiction, does God’s justice apply to chimpanzees?’

Antoine blinked, ‘Chimpanzees?’

Antoine thought for a moment. God did not give animals free will. Their love for him is inconsequential, they do not seek it, nor are they meant to, he’s not interested in their love. If they are acting without free will then they cannot be blamed for their actions, animals are free from the burden of sin and therefore cannot be held accountable.

‘Are you saying that you were robbed by chimpanzees?’ asked Antoine cautiously.

‘I was robbed by a chimpanzee, he had a jackdaw on his shoulder but I’m not sure how culpable the bird is, he may have just been hoodwinked by the chimp. He came in, all brazen, chest out, teeth bared and just jumped up onto the counter, flung me to the floor, grabbed the cigarettes and left. It was all over in no time at all.’

‘Which way did this chimp go, did you see?’

‘He turned right out of the village. My guess is that he belongs to Monsieur Perin, the old veterinarian up on the hill. He has all sorts living up there.’

Monsieur Perin lay gasping for breath on the kitchen floor, blood gurgled in his throat. Blood, black, crawled like lava, pooled on the terracotta tiles oxidising, spent. The extent of his wounds was severe: the gash in his head would prove to be fatal; the opening in his abdomen would have been fatal had his head wound not got there first. Perin knew that his time was up, that the ferryman was mooring his vessel in anticipation of death’s arrival. Death, unsympathetic to creed or dogma keeps impeccable time, always punctual, never late, comes to collect us all in the end. Death stood above him, took the pocket watch from his dog toothed, velvet lined Armani waste coat, given to him by Cronus, and tapped the watch face with a bonny finger.

‘Sorry about this, dammed thing seems to have stopped, all rather annoying really. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a Rolex or a Tag Heuer – something Swiss anyhow. What do you think?’

‘Gurgle…’

‘Can I use your landline, long distance, I’ll reverse the charges?’

Perin gurgled again, fixed Death and with a defiant stare and thought inwardly, ‘So you come at last, I’m almost done, just got to try and wrap something up.’

Perin, despite his readiness to go was nevertheless happy with this rather unusual altercation, this extension of life, it gave him a moment to think. He felt no discomfort, no pain, just the obligatory cold; the iciness that Death bestows on those that he comes close to. Life for Perin was nothing precious to hold onto. Release was welcome; release from social ineptitude, crippling shyness, loneliness, an overall dismay and finally loathing at man’s evolution towards an apparent detachment from reality. He’d run his course and now felt, more than ever, expendable and unnecessary, superfluous to requirements. Despite this Perin needed some clarification, needed answers.

Why had Arnold attacked him, the chimpanzee that he, Perin, had liberated from a life of experimentation along with a whole raft of other unfortunate creatures? Together they had lived in relative harmony; Arnold was cared for, fed and, despite attempts to wean him off tobacco, kept in cigarettes. Then, this morning, the chimp turned on him, near beat him to death in a frenzied and uncharacteristic attack.

Now, as death spoke to Cronus in hushed but deliberate tones, Arnold ambled into the kitchen, the jackdaw, as ever, perched on his shoulder. Perin looked for any signs of remorse. Nothing but indifference was returned. The chimp pulled on a cigarette, wandered over to the fridge and grabbed a soda. Perin watched on as his simian companion turned and left him. He heard the TV go on in the next room, time for Arnold’s daily dose of ‘Sesame Street’,

Never refer to me as an item. I’m a bird,’ said big bird…

Perin was not a religious man, had no time for superstition or wild departures into fantasy. He believed that consciousness was a human construct, a notion developed by man’s evolution, it acted as a safeguard to insanity. Consciousness was a tool or weapon designed to help you get on in the world and interact with others. The realisation that consciousness is an illusion dreamt up by your subconscious would fell most people. Indeed what would be the point in living if we, as individuals, had no real identity? Are we in fact nothing but complex zombies who have convinced ourselves that we are somehow more than that?

As for free will? It didn’t exist and nor is life predetermined by a deity or some immortal personification such as fate. Your fate is however predetermined by your genes and your formative experience. We are all slaves to our genes and memes, impossible to escape, impossible to reprogram, try as you might. Some people are indeed born great, given the right conditions; others wallow in mediocrity believing that they have control, a choice in which direction their life can go. No one breaks the mould – the cast has set. The same applies to animals but without the delusions of grandeur; animals are not capable of imagination, of planning, scheming or predicting the future. Being able to look forward and plan for tomorrow and indeed remember the past deceives us into believing the illusion that we have free will, that we are uninhibited by exterior or interior boundaries and can exercise our will with abandon. Perin, or the assembled complex cell structure that was named Perin, had resigned himself to the illusion long ago and in doing so found solace in his resignation. He could not be blamed for anything: Perin, like everyone else, was no more than a clockwork pre-programmed biological machine with a shelf life. His cell-by date had all but expired; time to make way for another generation of evolutionary weaponry ready to fight for domination and survival.

Now, with his last lurching breaths struggling to fuel his thoughts Perin fancied he might have made an error in his philosophical departures. Perhaps Arnold had indeed acted of his own volition, taken matters into his own hands and exercised his, until now, unapparent will. If this was the case then what of Perin’s own will?

‘There’s just one you Nobody like you Take a look, it’s true Just one you The smile on your face is like no smile that I’ve seen You’re one special person if you know what I mean,’ said Big Bird.

Meanwhile Death brought his conversation with Cronus to an abrupt end. ‘If Time himself can’t forge a superior and reliable timepiece then I’m afraid I will take my business elsewhere. Good day to you sir!’

‘Look here dear chap,’ Death continued turning his attention back to Perin’s withered, bloody mass. ‘I need to record your time of death; it’s the rules I’m afraid. Bloody bureaucracy, no getting away from it, I swear I spend more time filling out forms and signing paperwork than I ever did before. It’s all gone private now you see, bloody corporation runs it, no real quality time with the client anymore; no sir it’s all about number crunching and targets. Takes the fun out of the job really, I used to love the fieldwork, still do, getting out and meeting people, offering an excellent, if not unique service. After all without clients there would be no death and then where would we be?’

Perin groaned inwardly, not sure now if he wanted to stay or go if Death was any indication of what waited for him in the afterlife.

Antoine stood by the old gnarled front door; blackened, weathered, cracked and worn. To his right, in the shade given by a vine, its black fruits plump and unkempt lay a sleeping beagle. Twitching, it drifted into dreams of confinement – of green-smocked bodies and green surgical masks under robotic, clinical, unsympathetic green eyes. Scentless rooms without texture, sanitised stainless steel tables covered in disinfected, scentless surgical tools that glinted with cruelty under sharp painful, unrelenting strip lights. Then came the needle pregnant with LSD dripping its hallucinogenic contents into his eyes. Carrying him into another world where sound was colour and colour was scent and everything became very fucked up. Distant howls of rage: toxic violet, hostile red and death black permeated the thick walls painting an image of suffering and cruelty.

The beagle began to run, through long polished corridors, past doors that kept the cruelty contained. Out onto tarmac roads under a warm and compassionate sun he ran until his paws felt grass. Now he stopped and breathed in the aroma of the natural world around him and his head revelled in the cacophony of scent.

Now, rising though the mire of his sleep, through the dark sludge of half-remembered memories he smelt honey and baked bread, a whiff of goat and a soupcon of feral feline with an overriding odour of religious certitude.

The beagle blinked with sentient eyes as the monk stepped over the threshold and into the gloom of the vet’s house-cum-menagerie.

Fate smiled to herself … as she often did. Conceit came with the job; in fact she was rather proud of her smugness.

The chimpanzee sat on a ragged sofa, its guts long-spilt. The jackdaw on the chimp’s shoulder squawked a warning; the beagle saw orange. Monk and chimp eyed one another with suspicion. Brother Antoine saw the cigarette packets scattered on the threadbare carpet before him, ‘Caught you,’ he said quietly, before calling out, ‘Hello, is there anyone at home?’

‘Who the hell is that?’ asked Death still tampering with his watch. Then, addressing Perin he said,

‘You know what? I think I’ll just give an approximation and let them sort it out; after all it’s hardly fair is it? There you are trying to make sense of the world in your last remaining moments, when, well really there is no sense in it.

I have spent millennia thinking about man’s spirit, his purpose, his ‘will’ if you like. I narrowed it down to a quantum level – thought that consciousness was a universal fluid force that runs though all things, all matter. A bit like me really, without sounding too big headed. Even a stone has some small amount of consciousness; if nothing else, it knows that it is a stone! You can’t pin it down to a region of the brain; look if you like but you won’t find it. Free will exists in the sense that multiple, but not infinite, options are made available to you by your environment, your genes and the width and breadth of your imagination. Truth be told not even the corporation knows what it is, the whys and wherefores. At the end of the day – no pun intended – it’s for each of us to decide upon.

It gives us something to think about doesn’t it? In the meantime be kind to strangers, avoid coveting other people’s wives and goats, care for children and don’t take things that are not yours to take. And for goodness sake enjoy life, live, love and avoid celery. That’s the bottom line.

Right let’s be having you! Time – whatever it is – to go.’

Perin let go … Let go of the struggle to understand, to know, to live … and succumb to death. He reached up.

Just at that moment a monk came into the kitchen; he seemed to be smoking a Woodbine. The monk rushed over to Perin’s almost dead body and started to pray over him.

‘Oh for goodness sake, did you order a monk?’ said Death. ‘I hate it when this happens. He’ll have to carry on without us I’m afraid. We are late enough as it is…’ He trailed off as a one hundred-pound male chimpanzee came crashing into the room throwing himself at the monk as he knelt, lost in prayer, on the bloodied floor.

‘Now, on the other hand, I do like it when this happens!’ said Death with a smile.

Perrin wondered if this strange circus going on all around him was some post-life entertainment or a hallucination triggered by a dying mind. If it was for real then it had to be one of the more interesting days he’d passed in recent memory.

Perin passed away at three thirty-two, post meridian time, according to the official report and what happened to him after that is no one’s business but his own.

At the very moment Perin slipped away Antoine was sent sprawling over his corpse, sliding across the kitchen floor leaving blood smears in his wake. The jackdaw fluttered over-head screaming boisterously, spoiling for a fight.

Instinct kicked in – all those bar brawls of yesteryear had left Antoine with an innate ability to fight on demand and he loved it. The chimp launched into another attack and was flying across the room, mid-air at a fair old clip. Antoine lifted his sandaled foot and caught the chimp square on the chest. The chimp went flying backwards, landed, turned and came in for more. Antoine was on his feet and met the approaching ape with a powerful punch to the jaw leaving Arnold on the back foot. Antoine wasted no time; he came towards his opponent, caught him twice consecutively with his right and followed up with a left hook that knocked the chimp into the middle of next week.

Antoine made the sign of the cross over the deceased vet and made for the door. Arnold, not to be underestimated, made a grab for the passing monk’s ankle and successfully pulled him to the floor. Antoine kicked out but couldn’t shake off the chimp’s iron grip. Arnold pulled the man closer to him through a pool of congealed blood. Straddling the monk, the chimp punched him for all he was worth – until his bronchitis became a dash cantankerous. Antoine bucked and kicked in an attempt to dislodge the asthmatic chimp. The jackdaw, no longer interested in the fight, plucked greedily at one of the dead vet’s opaque eyes.

Antoine looked around in desperation for a weapon.

Just then a sunbeam came in through the kitchen window, not wishing to intrude, only to illuminate. The sunbeam alighted upon Antoine’s rosary beads which lay nearby; detached and cold upon the floor. Leaving one hand to defend himself against the mad monkey, Antoine, in one fluid movement, made a grab for the beads, wrapped them around Arnold’s throat and tightened them until the chimp went limp. The chimp fell once more to the floor.

Antoine staggered to his feet and stumbled into the living room, grabbed a packet of cigarettes and made his way to the open door. Once outside he collapsed under an elm tree. The beagle came and curled up at his feet. Antoine stayed there for a while, smoking, unable to move and wondering what God was up to now. Eventually he found the strength to get to his feet and started the long walk home. After a while he sensed that he was being followed, he turned warily to see the chimp limping behind him, his jackdaw reinstated upon his shoulder. Antoine carried on walking, the chimp carried on following him. Antoine stopped once more and kept his back to the chimp, then felt a leathery hand slip into his. They walked together hand in hand for a while longer then when they reached the road sat down on the verge and shared a cigarette.

‘Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street before. Everything happens here. You’re gonna love it!’

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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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