Authors: A. L Kennedy
In the spring of last year.
Before they left.
Some morning, probably morning â early hours most suitable for clearing out.
Blossoms through the window and closed shops.
Making a good order better for everyone.
Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.
Didn't even take their nail clippers, or the Thermos flask.
How strange it must have been to be so unimpeded. Like falling.
Carmen tidies round him, then quietly empties the tea leaves out of the pot and â as it happens â probably on to the condom.
She rights the chairs and he sits, a little light-headed. She washes the crockery which was here when he arrived and dries it with the tea towel which was rolled neatly with some others in a drawer â scenes of village life, British sea birds, common knots, blue-and-white checks, red-and-white checks, plain blue.
Once she's done, Carmen walks to stand close at his side, eases her scrubbed and tidy fingers inside his jacket, finds his pocket and takes out his comb, his own personal comb.
He exhales, with the intention that she will feel it.
And then he lets her.
He lets her comb his hair â run the little teeth back from his forehead, over his temples, smooth him from his hairline to his nape, and he drops his face forward and nods, indicating that she should continue and sometimes they do this for twenty minutes, for half an hour, or until he forgets, until he fades, until he's clarified.
It definitely helps.
HOW IT CAME
to be that he ended up here was among the many mysteries. He'd been following â or not quite, because how could he? â this guy, probably a guy, on a scooter. Dandy cream-and-red Vespa and somebody riding it wearing a cream cut-off raincoat and cream helmet â there'd been a theme going on, cream theme â and it had drawn his eye and he'd ambled along in the wake of the stylish scooterist, kept walking on inside this persisting slipstream of mild coolness, the impression of someone else's sorted life gently peppering his face, uncaring. And once he'd been tempted away from his customary track, it was then apparently much more than possible for him to find that he'd gone and sat himself down in a church.
They got you through the door with Christmas.
The whole of the city centre was already mental because this was the morning of the Santa Dash â runners in cheap felt Santa get-ups jogging about the Sunday streets and ruining the magic for any children they happened to pass. He'd seen this girl, all of her nothing but a sudden shine and full of big breaths and about to call out, or laugh, or just make some personal noise of completed joy, because there, as far as she could tell, was Santa Claus â truly and in person Santa Claus â pelting up towards her on Nike trainers. Good news all round. Only then behind that Santa came fifteen other bastard Santas â a sense of feral pursuit in their demeanour, you might almost say â and you could entirely hear the kid's heart breaking â
â and watch the sink in her chest beneath the quilted anorak â mauve and with a fur trim and almost new, she clearly had attentive parents â as she works out, one ugly piece at a time, that the reindeer and chimney stuff were utterly some revolting scam and that people lie and fine ideas are better left unrealised. Premature adults were being created throughout two postcodes and this would continue at least until lunchtime.
So he'd gone inside to get away from
His arrival at this location was less about the scooter, then, and more about fleeing epidemic grief.
That and the door had been open and a jolly sign right by it announcing the high probability of Christmas carols as if they were mince pies and not so much religious as just sweet and, peering past the threshold, he'd seen candles ranged out in the season's proper colours and atmosphere music was being provided: posh and twiddly ladders of festive notes making heavenward scampers and proving the organist was both classy and keen to demonstrate the fact. And in most directions also was a sense of healthy families, handshakes, gathering, a comfortable knowledge shared.
The combination of elements had caused him to stride in, as if belonging, and to
nod at one, two, three strangers who
nodded back, probably more as a reflex than as a comradely response, because they afterwards seemed bewildered and looked away.
He'd sat himself near an edge, the leftward extremity of the forthcoming events. This wasn't because he felt out of it or unclean: rather, he'd spotted a radiator that he could lean beside. The church being one of the cold traditional stone and arching roof-beam type â picturesque and making its point with flair â he knew he'd get chilly if he fitted himself in the wide-open midst.
Before he settled, he'd neither dipped his finger in the magic water, nor dipped his respect to the watching mind hung up above the magic altar. He'd not even slotted a glance along the central aisle to where, no doubt, the flame of forever was burning and where, no doubt, the blood of forever was moulded, recorded, elevated, shown flowing to indicate the likelihood of sympathy between the small and the omnipotent â
tump, tump: we've each been disappointed in the heart.
It seemed no one had disapproved of his laxity. It seemed no one had noticed.
Hi, I'm Sandy. Hi, I'm Douglas. Hi, I'm Martin, Richard, Nigel.
He tried on the names he might use while he was here, could offer to fellow congregants in the drift and scuffle at proceedings' close. Or else he might murmur as he filed out â
â past the master of the ceremonies â
No, Douglas would be best. Douglas felt comfortable.
For some reason, Douglas would rather his actual name didn't have to be heard at present and in these surroundings.
I'm Lawrence. I'm Steve and I'm visiting from out of town. I work in IT. Actually, I'm a naval architect.
Or he could leave without an explanation.
Doug, Doug Fordyce. I have been disappointed in my heart.
He would be Douglas, or sometimes Doug. Doug, who was here on the way to somewhere, at the limit of everything, and maybe unable to tell wrong from right without assistance. That was the assumption in this place, that his morality was not inherent for him. Poor Douglas. He needed help.
Although it could be, in his finer moments, that Douglas did okay. Blessing him might be an imposition and he might, in actuality, already walk along narrow paths of peace and cleanliness and have been born for nothing else. You never knew with Douglas.
The bell sounding to bid them stand, Doug was up and swaying from heel to toe with perhaps anticipation and perhaps unease. A welcome, quite sincere, was issued and then a civilian gave the initial reading, which spoke of God commanding Abraham to murder Isaac.
âKill your son for me.'
âAll right, then.'
Which was a bit of a weird choice, given the season and the presence of youngsters, although there was, Doug supposed, the happy ending after the period of mountain-climbing and suspense.
âOn you come, then Isaac. We're there. Sorry again and all that. God's orders.'
âThanks for letting me get my breath back.'
âWell, that won't be permanent.'
âLeast I could do, son â give you a bit of a pause. If there was any other option . . .'
âNo, it's fine. I'll be fine. Not to fret.'
And then God sweeping in with,
ABRAHAM, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND
OF COURSE DON
T DO IT
WHY WOULD I ASK YOU TO DO IT
âYou did ask me to do it.'
âI've a knife at my son's throat, we're both exhausted and you're not serious. What's he going to think of me hereafter?'
âIt's fine, Dad, I said.'
âI cut him a bit. Look. Shaky hands and that.'
âI didn't feel it.'
âHe'll not be taking voluntary country strolls with me now, God, will he? He'll be watching the cutlery at mealtimes is what he'll be doing. Asking me to kill my son . . .'
YOU'LL DO IT TO ME LATER
LL LET YOU
âSometimes, honest to God, God, I've got no idea what you're on about. I'm not sure that you do, either.'
LEAVE ME BE
âI'm fine, Dad. I'm fine, God.'
T BE RIDICULOUS
OF COURSE YOU
RE NOT FINE AND DON
T CONTRADICT ME
I KNOW EXACTLY HOW YOU ARE
AND YOU DID FEEL IT
When Doug thought about it, he was pretty quickly sure â as usual â that no one should think about it, no one should consider anything to do with God. Drowning everyone and then inventing rainbows to make up for any inconvenience and
THIS SHALL BE A SIGN THAT I WON'T DROWN THE WHOLE SAD PACK OF YOU AGAIN WHEN I FEEL LIKE
and then Job being given it hard from every possible direction to basically settle a bet; the Bible did tend to show that God could not be relied upon for much, would turn your wife into a pillar of condiment, would tempt you, plague you, write on your wall, send you dreams that would leave reality tasteless for you, grey-bland.
Doug let his attention romp about a while to save deeper confusions and the outbreak of resentment.
Set in a niche on the opposite side of the church to his own was a statue of God's mother, who bore God's son â and who was therefore God's wife as well, God help her and he did â with only the minimum of warning.
Blue cloak and the star-scattered halo, one foot pressing definitively on a willing, or shocked, or semi-conscious snake.
What he came for, the singing. That was his sole aim.
Say what you like about Doug, he was a reckless singer. Out of practice and not able for the higher notes â because how long is it really since he's sung anything â but he rattles his voice and efforts in amongst the comingbacktohim words and does his utmost with head up and slightly the manner of the child he could have been, had he ever existed. Decades ago, Douglas could have been prone to white aches of passion for an unhuman love and the hope of bigwingedwarmwinged angels with serious eyes and the glow of a wise and approachable baby, laid out amongst animals and presents, like one more of both at once when animals and presents were the greatest things.
He remembered feeling that kids always understood kids. And Doug perhaps shared the common opinion that you could rely on the golden baby to see your side of it. By spring, the tender nipper would have grown up scary, harmed, and that would be totally down to you. He would be an elaborate reproach. It was only at Christmas that he was okay.
The subsequent reading stepped back within more prudent limits â Mary getting her tidings and even another baby on the way to another mother, a mother without hope, and
NOTHING WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD
, which might be as much a threat as any type of promise. There should be a line between impossible and possible, there shouldn't be crossing and seeping, elsewise the world becomes a trick and not a place, not a home. This was Doug's opinion.
A lullaby passed and then an anthem, familiar.
The Mary statue over the way remained unimpressed, God-baby in the crook of her arm, but her eyes not towards it â no, both of them were fixing on the middle distance and matters incomprehensible to most.
Wise men arrived and were foolish and spoke, as ever, incautiously and innocents were ended and shepherds had their naked sky torn across by heralds, a night full of terror and din and this need to travel. In Doug's, or someone's, head the passages tumbled together until they were refined into one lunchtime at primary school â somebody's authentic recollection â when a boy spoke up loud and talked about the manger. Gentle word, manger. He took it to be a kind of cradle.
The boy remained a boy for only the usual period. Then he was, as recommended, put away with the other childish things.
And Mary set her foot over the snake, because she could and because it was Sin and she was not. And in the Original Garden, deep at the start of ourselves, Eve was led astray by the serpent and, that so long time afterwards, Mary wasn't. And plainly the snake is, more properly, the bad maleness of man, the writhing soft-hard wickedness he carries ahead of him into his life, the heat he goes astray with. Mary stamps on it.
and she stamps it flat.
She reminds the more thoughtful, the put-away boys, that the beast was only cursed to go on its belly after it gave man and woman the knowledge of how they were shaped to fit each other sweetly and, furthermore, shaped for wide, mad catalogues of other pleasure. This meant that, before the curse, there were legs maybe, legs and arms and elbows maybe, the presence of some other, unrecorded man in Eden maybe, one who knew what he was all about and who spread the word and then was reduced to his essence in animal form: side-winding lust with a tongue in flickers and hard eyes.
Doug flinched somewhere at the sharp idea of it. He was quite sensitive, Doug.