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Living with the Truth
Had it been Death that had called that day everything would have been all right. After all, he had been waiting patiently on death for some time and, by his calculations, The Grim Reaper was well and truly overdue. All his affairs had long been in order, down to the milk money put aside in the saucer souvenir on the kitchen window sill, a piece of memorabilia from the past, once perhaps a vessel for an honourable purpose, but now simply where he kept the milk money. Not that he had a particular reason to die; he simply lacked a decent excuse to keep living.
Everything in its place and a place for everything. Or was it the other way around? He supposed it amounted to the same thing in the long run, but he couldn't be troubled thinking about it. For a man ostensibly given to an orderly life, his head was a fairly cluttered place with its unsolved problems and issues frequently swept under carpets of convenient forgetfulness.
A shining example of male utilitarianism, everything in his home had its prescribed place and its assigned duties: the cooker was there to cook, the seats to be sat upon, the doors to hide behind; paintings were there to satisfy some sort of aesthetic need, not to blend in with the bedspread. Hence his decision on taking over the flat to replace the tastelessly framed print of 'Poppies' above the mantelpiece with something more suitable of his own; it was clichéd in any case and clashed with the decor. Besides it was a woman's picture and his life had been devoid of any hint of femininity for many a long weekend. For the record it should be stressed that Jonathan Payne was not in the least bit misogynistic. He liked women. Indeed they were a constant source of delight to him as long as the staples didn't get in the way.
Not that things had not always been so. Lives rarely are. People in particular seem to glean such pleasure from never being so as often as humanly possible; in no other instance is Nature so consistently contrary. But, drawing from the various episodes that comprised his life, he had learned the hard way (as if there were any other) what its essence was for him. Oh, he was no King Solomon and, if truth be told, he was quite vain. Everything though, he'd concluded, was a nuisance, not a vanity. Marriage was a nuisance as were children, chores and getting up in the morning; not vanity nor a striving after the wind. He'd always regarded himself as one of the lucky ones never getting caught. But it was more chance than circumstance. In the past he had been keen enough but it never happened and now, looking back on other people's mishaps, he was quite content to have remained single if not entirely celibate.
Really! For a while, as he grew up, he struggled to understand both women and algebra sure that there was a place and a purpose for all of them in the world. Though perhaps maybe not with him. For all that, sometimes he thought it would be nice (homey even) to walk into the kitchen to the sound of bacon crackling and with a comfortable wife bent over the sink begging to have her rump slapped affectionately. Sometimes. But not very often.
Actually, Jonathan's experiences with the fairer sex were limited, short-lived, fairly libidinous affairs forming a sort of sexual archipelago throughout his life. The list was surprisingly long considering all the aspects of his character that were continually conspiring against him in this regard: a Thelma who worked in the creamed biscuit factory who was into older men and something he couldn't pronounce too well but had definite Latin roots―she put him off custard creams for life; an Allison, a waitress, overweight and eager to please but hard work with it; June, once a regular, who did it to spite her husband (thankfully he never found out who the third party was ("person or persons unknown")); Rose, a brief holiday romance (well, she thought it was romantic), who wrote to him care of the shop for months after, before taking the hint; Gillian, with the four cats, one called Widget he remembered, who simply wanted to footer around; Maycaroline―"all one word"―with her social worker's eyes-they met through a computer dating agency (his one and only foray down that path); and, last, but by no means least, boozy Eileen―or, more specifically her breasts, Pinky and Perky (he never knew which was which)―she dozed off while he was doing it―but he did it anyway. There was the girl in the alley too, but that one didn't count. And there should've been Janet only there wasn't. Goodness knows where any of his ex-loves were now. Well maybe Goodness wouldn't know but somebody would. He never gave them much thought out of bed in the real world.
Only once had marriage crossed his mind and even then it was half-conceived as a means to get him out of his mother's house. At first he excused himself with false reasoning but pretty soon was willing to admit―to himself at least―that he was simply too selfish. Why he bothered with women at all was the real poser. Actually it wasn't that much of a puzzle: it was for the hanky-panky. When he finally did get round to sex, what struck him more than anything was its raw physicality. For years he'd read about this incredible shared experience but, in practical terms, it turned out to be awfully anticlimactic, if not downright awful. The act of orgasming is generally referred to as 'coming' (except in the Orient where they 'go' for some strange reason) but Jonathan was not one for travelling at the best of times and, when he finally did arrive at his destination, he often wondered if it was worth the effort as he lay there, exhausted and panting and sweaty. He didn't like 'sweaty'. And then there were the mating rituals to be gone through, the meal and/or drinkies, the small talk, the flirting, the ruddy smiling. It was like stalking something. Something that wanted to be caught so why go to all the trouble and expense? He disliked games of all sorts with perhaps the sole exception of word games―to stretch the mind and improve one's vocabulary (though he lacked the confidence to use half the big words he knew for all that). And you got to play them on your own.
Oh the chore of it! So much easier to travel alone.
And this is where we find Jonathan Payne. He had been lying in bed reliving an experience he'd never quite lived to the full in the first place, but one which had been re-enacted so often from memory that he no longer worried about the fine detail. He 'remembered' his hands on her and the sensation of her breathing close to him; he 'felt' her moist flesh give way to him―these were very real. He arched his back as he'd had to do then but as he had not done for fifteen years. Remembering made things matter so he remembered more than really happened―because it mattered to him. Some things weren't so clear, like where they were but they were somewhere―everything's somewhere. And he moved inevitably toward the edge of himself-and quietly slipped over. Now he was lying feeling the shadow of oncoming dread descend over him like a shroud, and he drowsily wondered where the sensation had come from and how to rid himself of it. Perhaps it would vanish as mysteriously as it had appeared. Then perhaps not. So the day began like it often began. And beginnings are usually small but not to be despised.
He owned a bookshop, a second-hand book shop, the kind full of odours of other people, laden with atmosphere. He liked that. He liked―loved―books: books were good―you could learn things from books. It was not a very big bookshop but he was uncomfortable with big shops, superstores, hypermarkets, full of space and no atmosphere with machines in the roofs to take it away. And Muzak. Always Muzak, the sort of stuff that could be found masquerading as wallpaper in lifts. Besides he couldn't afford bigger. He bought over the shop when his mother passed away, with his share of the estate―which turned out to be a lot more than he'd imagined. Quite a tidy sum, thank you very much. But not enough to take over Selfridges. How his father never got his covetous hands on it he never knew, but it was a fact for which he remained eternally grateful.
The job afforded him a lot of time for thinking. To be honest his whole life had. Contemplation, rumination, pondering, deliberating―he'd had a crack at the lot. He wasn't too sure if he was any good at any of them but he was well practised. They say that 'practice makes perfect': what they forget to tell you is that it takes a thousand years of practice which is a fat lot of good to anyone when you've only got three score and ten to play with. How does one measure one's cognitive abilities anyway? By the number of thoughts thought per second or by the enjoyment factor or what? In both of these regards he failed miserably but, like a weekend painter, he pottered away here and there, never quite getting round to that magnum opus wherein he might put a bit of meaning into his life. No, he was quite happy doodling in the margins. The look of it all appealed to him but it's like pointillism when you get close up-it's nothing but a load of coloured dots.
He had not needed to get up in the night, which was rare nowadays. It would be something to think that, at his age, he was at least in control of when he lay down and when he got up, but not so. His bladder exercised its power of veto frequently and often just for the hell of it. Jonathan didn't believe in destiny but he did in inevitability and it was becoming increasingly inevitable that his night's sleep would be broken at least once by the need to answer the call of nature no matter how timidly.
Awkwardly he got up and set about the morning ablutions with his habitual disinterest though he did take longer than usual trying to clip a white hair out of his moustache without ruining it. A round tired face presented itself to him in the shaving mirror―with the same flat nose that had plagued him for the past fifty years. It was clean―he'd just washed it after a fashion―but he didn't feel clean; cleanliness has as much to do with what's on the inside as it has to do with the outside. God, he looked done in. He couldn't think of a time when he wasn't tired, he was always tired, terminally tired; he'd been born tired. That aside, actually he bore not a passing resemblance to the late Arthur Lowe (a fact which did not entirely displease him) but, thankfully, re-runs of Dad's Army were becoming less frequent. He looked as if life had given him a good doing. It was not a happy face either by any manner or means. He smiled falsely to check his teeth before letting his features return to their familiar sedentary position. He was not one of life's smilers, indeed it was an almost redundant mode of expression to him. It says a lot about a man when he's best described by what he's not.
Then, a coffee. He did like his coffee. Especially the caffeine. Coffee without caffeine was like a pencil without any lead―he could see no point to it. He was particularly fond of Java, when he could lay his hands on it, which he always drank out of a continental cup with no handle (they all used them over there, so he'd heard). He'd found it down at Peckham's who was all for tossing it out thinking it an odd sugar bowl, but what did he know? How you drank your drink was as important as the drink itself, someone once said, in a film or something, as if it mattered. And it was a belief he held to dearly. In fact, being devoid of a faith, his beliefs (trite and trivial as they might seem) were all he had.
Faith had always been a difficult concept for Jonathan to grasp. He'd been told he'd have to have it to believe in a Trinity so he found himself lost from the start. He'd heard the one about the shamrock a dozen times from the lips of Father Leary but it never quite took root in him. It took a head stuffed with old Daily Mails or something to believe in that kind of nonsense and he really had hoped the explanation would give him something to build on in the first place. But that never happened. If it had, then he might have become a monk―he had the disposition if not the habit. He had a bible too, of course. What's the point in working in a bookshop and not being able to pick up a bible or two? It filled the space on the shelf between Also Sprach Zarathustra and Das Kapital―out of a comforting sense of perversion. And he'd read all three―well, bits―so he could say that he had. But it was an empty gesture. Who ever came and perused his little library to marvel at its diversity? Not Mary. Now that was bitchy and not altogether true. She had visited a few times over the years, birthdays or Christmases usually (never both) but she and her husband now―a born-again materialist if ever there was one―were forever in the middle of something. And he was always going down for the third time in his filofax. So they never had time to sightsee. There was little love lost between them anyway.
No letters again. Not even a bill. He never got a paper so that was about it. He stared at the old mat with its faded WELCOME emblazoned across it as if, if he did look long enough, something might appear there. A bit like a cat contemplating its empty bowl. He'd even have settled for some junk mail. He kept the rug inside the flat―outside felt too much like an invitation. This though was not the time for an exercise in mind over matter and he was not one for faith. Now was time to sup coffee. So he shuffled into the kitchen and set about breaking his fast. He didn't read papers; he didn't care about people he didn't know nor likely ever would. A radio played faintly somewhere―molto piano―Offenbach possibly though it might as well have been Schoenberg. The day was its usual Tuesday self. He squinted out of the window. Not a drying day; thin cirrus clouds―'mare's tails'―hung high up above, pale and streaky. There would be a change in the weather. He remembered that from his Observer's Book of Clouds.
It was a Tuesday-and nothing ever happened on a Tuesday.
It was then that he noticed him.
Jonathan squinted through the net curtain. A man in a suit. Standing in a place he ought not to. No way should a man be standing there. Not at this time. Come to think of it, not at any time. That was not a place where men stood. Jonathan's mind searched itself for further possible permutations but he seemed to have covered the essentials. And what was he up to there? No good, no doubt. Surely not just standing. There were far more interesting places he could stand if he had a particular inkling to stand about for no good reason. He looked like a policeman; Jonathan had a thing about policemen; they were one of only two things in this life that could cause genuine paranoia in the man. Didn't this man realise the upset he could cause people? He must tell him. Mind you, that's a bit drastic. And what must he tell him? Why not to stand there. But why not? Good question.
Jonathan stood himself in an absolute frenzy of immobility, trapped in his own thoughts, like Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet. The man stood and Jonathan stood. Then the coffee percolator had the effrontery to butt in and when he glanced again the man was gone. Suddenly freed from this logic loop he checked again going right over to the window to peer out as far as possible but the man seemed to have vanished.
And then the doorbell rang.
Jonathan's legs gave way. He slumped onto the nearest stool and ran his fingers through his hair―what was left of it. He was sweating. It must be the man. That man. The man he'd never seen before. Why was he here? What did he want? His mind was a reeling blackness. He felt short of breath, and his heart was palpitating. Or was it the damn coffee percolator?
Nothing happened. He must have gone. Should he check? Yes, that would be wise. So he peeked, in his own home, in his own castle, slowly round the door of the kitchen and into the hall. No shadow behind the crazy glass. Nothing. Merely the sound of his own heart competing with the percolator in the kitchen and coming off not bad at that. The main thing was that there seemed to be nothing to get in a state about. No sir.
Shame on you, doddery old fool getting.
So coffee was drunk and his suit donned and an appropriate tie selected―after appropriate deliberation. Breakfast was prepared and eaten, and his heart settled into its normal Tuesday rhythm―which was none too different from any other day actually―till he chanced to glance out of the kitchen window again. The man had returned, framed in translucent nylon, to exactly the same spot and everything was as before. Except that he was in possession of a bottle of milk. Specifically, Jonathan's bottle of milk; it had a gold top. He always got gold top delivered. What did he think he was doing with his milk? Oh this was too much. And what was he doing looking up here?
To be sure, the man with the milk was looking up at Jonathan's kitchen window. Not staring. Not peering. Not even squinting. Just looking. People are allowed to look. There's no rule against that. No rules about looking at all were there? Not as far as he could remember. A cat can look at a queen. But there ought to be rules about misappropriating a man's gold top―not that Jonathan had actually paid for it-but the money was in the saucer on the window sill. And that wasn't the point anyway. What was the point?
The point was he was moving. The man with Jonathan's pinta was moving. He was climbing the stairs at the back. He was walking down the side of the flat. He could hear the sound of his shoes creak like a worn out argument and he remembered an old rhyme:
One step, two step, three step, four -
The boogeyman is at your door.
And he could hear his bell being rung once more.
Now Jonathan, get a grip. Men come to the door all the time. No they don't. But they could. Yes they could. And now one has. Maybe you've forgotten to take your library books back. So what do you do? You open the door.
The bell binged but where was the bong? There should be a bong. There was always a bong. It stands to reason: bing bong, bing bong. He must be still holding the bell. Uh oh! Suddenly Jonathan discovered himself in the hall. He would rather have discovered penicillin or a beautiful, mysterious women in his bed when he woke up. Sheer funk had a firm grip on him. He hadn't, of course, meant to be in the hall. He hadn't thought it that far through. But here he was surrounded by hall. And there was that man-or, to be fair, his silhouette against the crazy glass with the sun behind him. But no bong.
When did this hall get to be so flamin' long? he thought as he edged his way towards the door. Fumbling with the chain like a woman's bra strap, all of a sudden he felt very exposed. But then his flies were undone. And it's not the done thing to meet strange men first thing in the morning with your flies undone. Whether or not they have your milk hostage is beside the point. So he hastily buttoned himself up and with a weary heave opened the door to Destiny. Only it wasn't.
Wait a minute, didn't he know this man? This man standing-well, leaning actually-bold as brass, leaning against his doorbell, cradling Jonathan's gold top in his free arm. He knew him. He was sure of it. But where from?
"Mr Payne?" began the man, to which answer came there none. "Mr Payne? Mr Jonathan Payne?" He sounded like a policeman too. This did not bode well. He nodded numbly. "Excellent!" Bong! "Do you mind if I come in a minute?"
And he was in, before you could say, "Now hang on a darned cotton pickin' minute," which would not have been Jonathan's first choice of something to say at that juncture. He was in, gold top and all, like a character from a Monty Python sketch, but not like the angel of death. He was in the kitchen and if you concentrated, the sound of him pouring himself a cup of coffee could almost be made out.
"Got any Java in?" came a disembodied voice from the bowels of Jonathan's flat. Jonathan had somehow found the wherewithal to actually close the door. "Er, all I have is Java, I'm afraid." Why was he apologising for goodness sake?
"Ah, yes. Sorry. Should've known that. Just joshing actually. You know they make it from these great big yellow beans?"
Yellow beans? Was it his imagination or did he sound like Eric Idle now?
"I'm sorry but, er, how can I help you, Mister...?" Why was he still standing in the hall?
"Truth. Mister Truth. Or you can call me 'The' if you like. Or even plain ol' Truth. Or is that a magazine? It's much the same to me." And with that, Truth popped his head round the door jamb, clicked his heels, doffed an imaginary cap and grinned mischievously before disappearing back into the kitchen. It was a strange way to start any conversation and indeed it was to be a strange conversation. Dazed and confused, Jonathan wandered into the kitchen, not really having taken in the full import of what he had been told.
"Now," started Jonathan putting on his best I-mean-business voice, "Look here..." Such a pompous thing to say.
"Yes, Jonathan, yes," came the all-knowing response, "What do I want? What do any of us want? To be happy? To put together a little nest egg for a rainy day? To get our end away, eh?"
"This is absurd."
"Ah but (and I quote) 'better to be absurd than not to exist at all'-R.D. Laing: The Politics of Experience―you got up to page 33 before jacking it in. But what do I really, really want? Well nothing―in as much as anything can actually be nothing―truth has no purpose in itself. Well, as much purpose as a mountain―it's just there. And I'm here. All for you." With that he took a mouthful of coffee, "Ooo, hot." For me? For me? What's he mean, for me? I never asked him here. This is preposterous. I don't want him here. How can he be the truth? The truth's not real, well, not this real!
"Now, now, now! Don't go and get all inhospitable on me. Remember what Holmes said in The Beryl Coronet: 'It is an old maxim of mine' (that's Holmes talking here) 'that whenever you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth' and there you have it: the evidence is here before you and you may question me to your little heart's content to determine the validity of my credentials. And if you care to start by checking that quotation you can find it on page 73 of your Complete Sherlock Holmes―second shelf to the right beside the fire. As always. Whatever you wish, sahib." At which he bowed in true Indian fashion.
"I wish you'd go."
"Yes, well, if wishes were horses they'd all stampede and trample you underfoot. Wishes don't come true old chap. You know that as well as the next man."
Jonathan did indeed. For most of what passed for his adolescence he had worn the mantle of the idle dreamer and it was a role to which he found himself uncommonly well suited. He'd hated Billy Liar when he first read it but didn't like to pass comment; it's not good to be found to be too knowledgeable on certain subjects. And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty made him grue. He'd never cared much for Danny Kaye in any case. Too Jewish. Or was it Polish? It didn't matter. Now here he was. Here, indeed, with a perfect stranger purporting to be the personification of truth. Truth in a business suit―what a ridiculous concept. For all that, there was something uncomfortably real about all of this. And why did he look so familiar? He'd have to ask.
Meanwhile Truth was busy amusing himself arbitrarily picking up things from around the kitchen, whatever caught his attention. This drove Jonathan mad. He didn't like people in his house, touching his stuff, moving things from here to there where they didn't belong, for no good reason, wrecking the private harmony of the room. The house was an extension of himself: he felt interfered with. What a gruesome metaphor.
At that particular moment Truth was engrossed in the back of the corn flakes box.
"Y'know," he began absentmindedly, and then continued with more conviction, "Well, of course you know! You used to have a set of model cars exactly like these. Mind you, the quality was better in them days. Your dad gave you an awful leathering for losing the Bentley down a drain, didn't he?" And he flicked the packet round for a second to show Jonathan the offer he'd missed. "You do realise that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Coffee and corn flakes? You really should take better care of yourself, you know."
He knew, about breakfast, but how did this fellow know about the cars? He must've been at school with him. That was it.
"I know you now: you're Billy Wiggett aren't you?"
"Billy Wiggett? What kind of name's that to conjure with? No, 'fraid not. Bill's out in North Africa at the moment, believe it or not, slaving over some godforsaken engineering project and he hasn't had a decent drink in two years now. And, anyway, he went bald. I should be insulted. And he's twice my age."
All right. He wasn't Billy. It was only a guess and a pretty stupid one at that now he thought about it. Maybe it was his son. He'd be about that age by now. Assuming he'd ever had a family. Nevertheless he must have known you from somewhere along the line. You know that. Test him. Didn't he say to ask him questions? Yes. Then again, maybe not.
"Look, I'm afraid you've caught me at a very bad time―I'm actually on my way out to work―so if you could possibly excuse me. You know how it is. Perhaps another time." Good: he was on the offensive.
"Have a good 'Number Three' this morning did we?" Truth threw a perfect googly, catching him off-balance and leaving him standing there with his mouth flapping, "That is what you call them isn't it? You got the idea from a joke about farts. Look, you don't need to come all coy with me, I know all about your little proclivities, your five-finger shuffles and your right hand jives. What was it ol' Diogenese used to say to me? That's it: 'I only wish to high heaven I could satisfy my hunger when my stomach barks for food simply by rubbing it.' Hey, I like a man with the bottle to get the obligatory sex scene over early in the day. Everything by the numbers, eh, Johnny boy? And you never liked being called that either did you?"
He body swerved amazement but was bowled over by shock and horror.
"Eh, did you?"
No, no, no. No. Things like this only happened in books or in films This was reality. (Was he losing his mind)? What did he want? What did he want? Why didn't he ask him?
"What do you want?" he pleaded. Or was it yelled. Or perhaps there isn't a convenient word to acoustically define how, precisely, the words came out. His bottom lip was trembling. His mouth was dry. "What do you want?" Again. "What do you want?"
"Whoa boy. Whoa. You look as if you've been ridden hard and put away wet. Calm down. Don't get yourself in such a tizzy. I don't want anything. Well, apart from your attention―and I think you're all ears now. I've got everything. Everything anyone would want to know about you, that is. And some. Mind you wouldn't that be pitiably few? No. I've taken on corporeality―as is my wont now and again―to present you with a chance that so few people get (I mean there is only one Truth and one can't be everywhere at once even if one does happen to be lumbered with knowing what's happening everywhere at once) and you did seem such a deserving case. So make the most of me." With that he tipped the remains of his cup into the sink, swilled it under the hot tap (only the immersion heater was off and the water was cold), turned it upside down squarely on the draining board and marched into the hall. "It's not as if you've only got three wishes or anything. Mmm, nice―so... hallway." Was he rooting around in the cupboard? "You do realise you've never used the little round whadjit for your Hoover since the day you got it?"
"I never knew what it was for."
"Neither did the designers but it looked good in the box. Spare bedroom's in here isn't it?"
Jonathan didn't see fit to answer. What was there to answer? If he was Truth-and the evidence to date was impressive-then he would know full well it was.
What was he going to do? He'd have to leave for work soon.
Stranger than Fiction
Jonathan Payne woke with a crick in the back of his neck. He was lying, as was his wont, in the foetal position in what felt like his bed and what would look like his bedroom when he finally got around to opening his eyes. He might've listened to the early morning birds twittering outside, only there didn't appear to be any. Not being much of a bird lover―at least not the feathered variety―this didn't trouble him overly much. As he started to come to he found himself becoming aware of music, no instruments, no lyrics, simply voices in the distance. Where might they be coming from? No, it didn't matter.
Nothing much mattered really. Not now. Two days earlier, perhaps, but that was before, before the personification of Truth had waltzed through his front door and his life decided to take a nose-dive down the lavvy-pan, before he'd learned that there was life on other planets, that fish have a spiritual side, that he'd managed to get his one true love's name wrong, that there was a God, that his postman was a latent gay, that the little old lady who worked in the Indian carry-out had four nipples and that his sister was just about the world's worst undiscovered actress. It had been an eventful couple of days. But on the whole he was handling things well, somewhat well. Well, as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Well, he wasn't actually handling anything. There was no hands-on contact as such. That was not his way. Things were on hold―he'd get round to them in time. There was always time. Far more than he imagined.
Beds are places of great security, safety zones where monsters, real and imagined, are disallowed entry. They are places of respite from the game. And today, Jonathan didn't feel like playing. Not with anything.
Jonathan was not a morning kind of fellow it has to be said. Afternoons had nothing spectacular going for them it's true, but mornings really sucked. And this particular morning was destined to be the acid pip at the bottom of the packet. A blind man a hundred paces off and facing in the opposite direction could've told him that. Jonathan wasn't thinking much about any of that. When he found himself wrapped up in his warm bed, he reverted to an infant who just lived for the moment. There was no tomorrow. The concept was totally alien. He only knew the now and just now Jonathan felt sore. He ached. His neck hurt. Based on his own peculiar brand of existentialism―I'm in pain therefore I am―he determined that he still existed, a fact to which he attached no enthusiasm, just a reluctant acknowledgement. He unwound by a procedure which he was fairly sure would not have been recommended in the user's instructions for his model; his bones creaked unsympathetically and something in his neck gave an audible crack but at least it felt a little better after it had. He felt hungry. But before that, a detour to the bathroom. He somehow manoeuvred himself into a sitting position and struggled into his old dressing gown. He looked like a cuddly Buddha. A dishevelled, unwashed, unshaved, unkempt and moustachioed one at that. As per usual it took longer than it should have for his brain to communicate it desires to his bladder and for longer than he cared to think about it he stood there limply watching his reflection in the still, calm waters of the toilet bowl.
Why was making water such a chore these days? He remembered the urinogenital prowess of his tender years competing with other boys to see who could pee the highest up a wall. Or over it in the case of Simon Spinks. He remembered the steam of the boys' latrine in winter and that rich acidic odour that somehow failed to offend their unrefined nostrils even if it did, on occasion, catch in their throats. He remembered someone peeing into a milk bottle in the street for a dare and then leaving it sitting there in the middle of the pavement. Life's like peeing―once you've started you've got to keep going till you're done. He remembered his sister interrupting him in mid flow behind the garden shed and his mother making him wash out his trousers himself. Oh the shame of it! Mary had wanted to know why she didn't have "an aiming tube" too―such an appropriate euphemism, he'd always thought―but their mother had circumvented the issue with her usual consummate skill and the matter never raised its ugly head again. If only his sister had realised how poor the original design had been and that men did not refer to their genitalia as if they had minds of their own for no good reason. Why was it when he pointed the blasted thing in one direction the stream, if he was lucky enough to have only one to contend with, went some other―invariably on the carpet? It was for this reason he avoided giving in to the call of nature-unless it was virtually screaming in his ear―if he was outdoors. And he would always seek out a cubicle, if at all possible, even if he only needed a Number One. He couldn't think when the last time was he had used public facilities let alone relieved himself out in the open. (Now what was so criminal about that? It was the most natural thing in the world.) It had been a while back for sure, a good long while. For a moment or two he tried to think but it wasn't happening. Thankfully something else was. And about time too.
He thought too much. Anyone else would never think to think about things like this. But he wasn't anyone else, a fact he regretted at some point most days. Other people just did things and accepted the consequences in a bland Newtonian sort of way. If they were good consequences then all the better. He had to peel away at things, paring away the superficial answers to get to the kernel of meaning at the centre only to toss it away like any other pip. Something made him dig. Something else made him reject what he found. Somewhere in all of this mulling over life he found he had finished peeing and so tucked himself away and turned to face the washbasin. He was on autopilot. The shaving mirror reflected as best it could through a thin layer of dust, dander and stray hairs. He saw the face but he didn't recognise what he saw. Oh, it was him well enough but, for all the time he had lived with these features he'd still not become comfortable with them. At best you might say he'd become resigned to his looks but he always thought he should look different. For an instant his reflection flickered and he would've sworn blind he caught a glimpse of John Wayne. Nah, couldn't have been. He washed, shaved and watched the soapy ablution spiral away down the plughole, an event that always gave him a suspicion of pleasure.
His bladder empty, his face clean and substantially free of stubble, he found his way into the kitchen. His ear was itchy and he tried scratching it but, having been blessed with fingers the shape of pork sausages, he was having little joy. The wrong end of a teaspoon provided the needed relief. His mother had told him never to put anything smaller than his elbow into his ear but she wasn't there so what did he care? Then why did he even think of it? The percolator had been filled and was bubbling away cheerfully but he was alone. The kitchen was so spic-and-span you'd think it was an exhibit in some futuristic museum: the average home of your average home owner at the end of your average, common-or-garden twentieth century. No one was in the living room or in the spare bedroom. A weird sense of artificiality was hanging over him but he hadn't quite worked out that was what he was feeling. Truth, it has to be said, was a larger than life individual and it would be impossible to miss him. For all that he didn't imagine the Truth he'd managed to get to know to be the kind of being much taken with lurking in linen cupboards preparing to pounce out on unsuspecting booksellers so he assumed the being had left him to his own devices and gone off to turn some other poor wretch's life on its head. So why did he feel a sense of loss? It wasn't as if he'd just given up a baby or anything. He poured himself a coffee and a man-sized bowl of corn flakes. After second thoughts though he tipped the half back in the packet. He felt brighter than usual, though still not that bright.
The dry flakes lay in their bowl awaiting their lacteal baptism; a quiet quasi-religious ritual. Lacking a more formal conviction, his spiritual needs were often filled by moments like this, if not entirely satisfied.
His sixth spoonful was slipping down his throat and, while he was trying to ensure that his seventh contained the correct number of flakes in direct proportion to the milk on his spoon, it was then that he spotted the note. On the side of the fridge, fixed at an awkward angle by a "Home Sweet Home" magnet he didn't recall owning, was a note, neatly folded, with his name in beautiful italics slap bang in the middle of it. Suddenly he found himself in a ghetto of indecision.
He ate his seventh spoonful, managing to chew it the compulsory umpteen times, and then an eighth and, as the law of diminishing returns was being strictly applied here, the ninth was an achievement, but the mere thought of a tenth―even though ten is a round number and symbolic of completeness―was too much. He heaved himself to his feet and fetched the note. Something told him to sit down before he read it.
"My Dear Jonathan," the note began―even his writing was infuriatingly perky. It was from Truth. Who else? He could almost hear the fake Jewish accent: it sounded like Fagin. "I trust you are well and hope you are seated. If not then you should be." This did not bode well. Nothing to do with Truth did as far as Jonathan's experiences went, limited though they were. "This may come as a great surprise to you," the note continued, "but when you went to bed last night you died. Not indigestion, I'm afraid. Well, actually, indigestion too. Yes, I know it's a bit of an anticlimax but so's sex during the four minute warning." Jonathan put the note down. The 'death' bit didn't register at first; he didn't feel especially dead, but what the heck, if this was the worst it got then he could cope. After another coffee, anyway. What choice did he have? So he left the note, refilled his cup, supped the half nearly scalding the back of his throat, then read the rest. He felt remarkably numb. Perhaps he was in shock?
No, shock must feel worse than this. It must. Mustn't it?
"My apologies for not being there to welcome you to the afterlife but I will catch you later. I know you, you old Stoic, it takes more than a terminal identity crisis to faze you. Anyway, you'll have to make this transition on your own. It makes puberty a dawdle I can tell you. See you when your wings are dry. Truth."
The coffee warmed him like a smug memory. So, he was dead. Life was not that hot anyway. But what now? Oh, well, he thought, every day's an adventure waiting to happen, but it wasn't a very convincing thought. And he had never been one for adventures. God, I sound like Bilbo Baggins! With that he scratched his groin in a thoroughly undignified and unhobbitlike fashion. Itchy groins and cricks in necks? Now this wasn't really what he expected Heaven to be like. If it was Heaven. Now that was a thought: it could just as well be Hell. Or Limbo. Wherever it was his hosts had taken pains to make it homely: a raindrop on a hot stone at least. With that he got dressed. He didn't feel too comfortable wherever he was without his trousers on. Or clean underpants come to think of it. It seemed the right and proper thing to do in any case.
So what did he think about death? Nothing very much. It was one of those things that had always been there. Like China or pi or the ultimate chat up line. It was something to do with other people. Other people died. He'd been to their funerals. When he was eight he'd learned that the white bits that came off him in the bath were actually flakes of dead him. Being a peculiarly morbid child―he'd wanted to visit a crematorium for his next birthday rather than the zoo―at that age the idea that he might be dying from the inside out fascinated him. "In the midst of life we are in death" and all that. There seemed a certain poetry to the whole concept which he couldn't quite frame in his imagination. But, like some sort of dark sunset, the beauty of it appealed to him.
Of course, to his mother, being a religious woman, death's place in the grand scheme of things was also a subject of a macabre fascination. In particular the idea that being dead was not really being dead, it was a passing on to some other state of existence, a better one...with harps; she liked harps. Jonathan asked her if there was a heaven for dandruff but was told not to ask such stupid questions.
At a very early age he had also taken note of the fact that the awareness of death, of the unknown, was something that had a marked effect on certain people. In the main though he witnessed lives devoted to self-indulgence and wringing the most out of the moment, because "tomorrow they were all going to die" he supposed. Well now he jolly well had. And so far death made about as much sense as his entire life had. It was simply a thing to be got through because it couldn't be got round.
He selected a favourite dark grey number, a secure suit, sombre, smart in its day but past its best. Still, it fitted him well, if he didn't fasten the jacket, and he felt comfortable in it. He was not prone to fastening jackets in any case so the restriction was lost on him. Nothing great, nothing monumental had ever happened in it, so it was overdue.
The kitchen clock said it was half-eight. He should be setting off for work. Now that was a thing. He was dead―he didn't have to work any more―so he washed up the breakfast dishes, dried them, put them by, folded the dish-towel over the radiator like his mother used to, all of which exhausted seven minutes from start to finish. There was no point waiting on Truth turning up. Who was to say when he might fit Jonathan into his busy itinerary. No, he would go and see if his book shop was still there wherever it was he was.
As he opened the front door the music he had heard earlier caught his attention again. He had assumed it was Mrs Hadley's radio and hadn't given it a second thought, but on stepping out onto the landing he realised it wasn't. It was cold out, but not a fresh Autumnal cold. It felt like a coal cellar. No, even that wasn't it. He didn't have the words for it, but it wasn't right. At the side of the door, in its little crate, was his milk. Now that was a surprise. He wondered who the milkman was. Benny Hill crossed his mind but he wasn't amused by the thought. Anyway he left the bottle―it wouldn't turn in this temperature―and headed off down the steps into the yard. He surprised himself by the details he found himself noticing, the worn steps, the chipped paint on the rail, the loose bricks on the top of the wall. And here he had never considered himself one for the minutiae of life. That word again.
He took the same route he always had being a creature of crippling habit, down the same streets, past the same tedious rows of houses and shops. A dim sun hung in the sky, just a bit out of focus, a smudge of light. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second which, for some reason, he knew was 300,000 kilometres per second; he wondered why. He also wondered why, if light travelled so goddamned fast it didn't blow the back of your head out when it hit your retina unless the 96 million mile trek from the sun had worn it out. Maybe that was it. What business was it of his in any case? Dead or not he was still glad it didn't. Where did he get half these thoughts from? There was no one about, no wildlife, not even the sound of traffic in the distance―just that eerie music which he was starting to tire of a little. He had never been a great lover of boy sopranos and it seemed like this choir was made up of them. The lower registers were very poorly supported anyway. Ah, well, one man's meat...
He didn't feel right though. He didn't feel as if he belonged. True, he hadn't felt that when he was alive but this was a different kind of not belonging, a kind of feeling that suggested he would never belong here. Jonathan was like someone Kafka might have dreamed up on a cold night in Prague while coughing up his guts in his sick-bed: a character perpetually at odds, if not completely estranged, from the humdrum elements of his own existence. Predictably Jonathan wasn't fond of Kafka's work. There wasn't enough plot for his tastes and never enough characters. Or maybe the whole ambience of his work just came too close to home for comfort.
He may not have given Kafka the time of day but that didn't mean he didn't have a love of books. It was one of the few things you could say that he did love with any degree of certainty but you certainly couldn't say he loved all books. Books were like women, some had wonderful covers with nothing inside, others had their dust jackets hanging off in shreds yet held such riches; there were thick tomes, slim volumes, hardbacks, paperbacks, first editions. He gave way to the unique pleasure of holding each one in his hands but only special ones were actually read; the rest were for looking at. And there was nothing like a well stacked bookcase. Apart from a well stacked woman.
The shop was where he'd left it. His key still fitted and the bell still worked. As did the gas fire and the kettle. The fusty smell was strangely reassuring too, comforting. So, without actually thinking about it, he flipped round the sign to show that his establishment was open for business, put on the kettle, hung up his jacket and, being a fully paid up member of the why-stand-when-you-can-sit? school of thought, took his seat in the back shop. There was no furniture more charming than books. This was a safe haven. One of his parcels lay beside the door. He'd not noticed it when he'd opened up and it had been pushed up against a pile of horror books. Oh panic, panic! He hurried over to get it. He couldn't stand the idea that any of his magazines might've been creased. He hated creases, in books especially. Which is why he'd begun stocking bookmarks. It was the only item he'd ever consented to sell that wasn't second-hand-the kind with pithy sayings usually by Anon. This was his little effort at changing the reading habits of those Philistines who turned down the corners of pages―especially the dirty bits. Fortunately the packet seemed undamaged. He chose not to open it and slipped it into the desk drawer. It didn't seem appropriate―looking at dirty pictures―not until he found out just where he was exactly. And that reticence bothered him. When he was alive it was safe not to believe in God and stuff. Now, he'd probably have to face Him and answer for his sins―all fifty-seven varieties. He bet that was where Truth was right then―handing in his project report and looking for a gold star for it. He was wrong. Oh boy was he wrong. Truth, as bright as a button, was in the process of tripping down Pinter Street at that very moment whistling along to the heavenly music but a semi-tone off key. What did he care?
Jonathan had about four minutes more peace left to enjoy if only he knew it.
In those four minutes Jonathan did very little. He filled the whole lot with thought, but not a very high quality thought, certainly not the sort of thought that looks good on paper so there's not much point going into details here. Basically he was bored. He had never aspired to anything nor had he amounted to anything. He had hoped that his life would stay simple and uninvolved until he passed away and, apart from two days right at the finish, that is what had happened. His plans had ended there. He didn't think he'd been short-sighted in this regard and it irritated him no end to find out there was more to come. He hated books like that, that started life as a novel which sprouted a sequel which turned into a trilogy and ended up as a saga. For all that, the idea of death as a sequel to life made sense to him. It was this thought that was distilling quietly in his head when the door to the shop opened and in came Truth. No, that's not right: Truth didn't exactly come in, he made an entrance. Jonathan sighed. This was definitely a Kodak moment if ever there was one.
"Now how did ah, ah say, ah say boy, just how did ah know that ah'd find you here?" The Foghorn Leghorn was one of his favourites and he was particularly good at it. He had the kind of face that would get a jam butty at any door.
"Do I really have to answer that?"
"Sarky." He leaned against the nearest shelf, stuffed his hand in his trouser pocket, as cocky as a jaybird and unsheathed a smile. "So?"
"So I'm dead."
"Yes. Sorry about that." He began drawing with his foot on the floor. "I didn't actually know for certain that you were going to croak it that night. I mean I knew you had a dickey ticker and that. I went to your funeral."
"Yes. Very...funereal. I suppose you want to know about it?"
His funeral had been a sad little affair actually. Not sad, as in unhappy―all funerals are unhappy events (unless you die in Saint Louis) ―but sad as in pathetic. His sister was there too with her husband, doing his usual impression of an actor with a walk-on part in a daytime soap opera who'd forgotten his one and only line; an uncle who looked at if he was about to croak himself any minute; 'The General', sans dog avec wife; several assorted customers―mostly female, mostly demential―and a priest who couldn't quite get Jonathan's name right but no one seemed to notice, mind or care. No Jan. Besides this, the entire service ended up being carried out at the clappers because the office had managed to double-book Jonathan's going with the joining of Henry Fellows Peasbody, bachelor, to Amelia Jane Kent, widow of the parish and potential axe-murderer. Truth did his best to dress it up but being the personification of truth meant he could only work with the facts.
When did his life become so devoid of people? He'd never actually avoided making friends but then neither had he gone out of his way to either cultivate friendships or develop the acquaintances he had. He felt a bit of a hypocrite being annoyed at the turnout. Funerals though were one of life's unavoidable barometers. You couldn't help but draw conclusions about the deceased from the assembled loved ones and it was patently obvious in Jonathan's case that this was either a duty to be carried out, a job of work or something to do till the bingo opened its doors.
"This isn't tomorrow is it?" Why did Jonathan suddenly feel like Chicken Licken?
"Not in the sense you mean."
"So how long have I been dead?"
"Well it's kind of hard to put in simple terms."
"Now why doesn't that come as a surprise? I thought you were the truth. Shouldn't you be able to give it me down to the microsecond" He got up heavily and rinsed out his cup. "You want a coffee?"
"Well that's mighty decent of you."
"Right. Sit down. You know where the biscuits are. I suppose we've got time. I don't seem to be exactly inundated with customers here."
"There's a good reason for that too." He stuck his head in the tin. "There're no chocolate wafers left. Do you want a ginger cream?"
"Anything. Yes. Fine. So what've you been up to?"
"Oh this and that." It wasn't like Truth to pussyfoot around the issue. There had to be a lot more to all of this. But he reckoned he could use another good dose of caffeine to help him get through the explanation. That is, assuming caffeine still did the trick when you're dead. Maybe it would do the doings as long as he believed it would.
The scene was set: Truth and Jonathan sat facing each other at the table in his back shop each nursing a mug of coffee and a ginger cream. Only Truth had three because he maintained he'd missed breakfast. Once these had been consumed and, since it seemed like Truth had run out of delaying tactics, Jonathan opened this round of the conversation with a considered, exasperated and perfectly delivered, "Well?"
"Yes thanks. And you?" The being could be infuriating. It simply wasn't like him to be so economical with the truth.
"You of all people know full well that isn't what I meant. You are a people aren't you, I mean, being the personification of truth and all that?"
"Well..." He looked around as if he'd never seen a back shop in his life until his eyes met Jonathan's squarely and not another word needed to be said on the late bookseller's part.
"It's like this," he began and then stalled. "Tell you what, why don't you just ask your questions and I'll do my level best to answer them?"
"All right. I'm dead?"
"Cor-rect." There was an overly long pause where it was blatantly obvious more was coming, "...ish."
"Deadish? I didn't think there was a sliding scale to death. Aren't 'life' and 'death' mutually exclusive terms? You either are dead or you're not. Yes?"
Jonathan took his head in his hands, closed his eyes and massaged his skull. "So, why is nothing every normal when it comes to me?"
"I guess you're just lucky." He smiled one of those smiles that come in handy at times when you don't have a good answer and you're appealing to the better nature of your hearer to let it pass. Jonathan didn't possess a better nature, nevertheless he still let it slide.
"So, assuming that I'm not dead any more, and have been resurrected (for reasons which I hope you will make me fully aware within the confines of this conversation) how long have I been dead?"
"In round figures?"
"In hexadecimal if you have to." He saw the twinkle in Truth's eyes and quickly retracted the statement. "Just tell me."
"Seven billion years. That's seven British billion. Roughly. Nearly seven and a quarter. Seven point two four three on Hitler the Second to be precise."
"Ah yes, well, the months aren't quite the same as when you were shuffled off this mortal coil."
"But naming one after Hitler?"
"Not that unreasonable all things said. After the Fourth World War..."
"Wait a minute, what happened to the Third?"
"Ah, yes, the "Nuclear Misunderstanding", it happened more or less on time―lasted two minutes and twenty-eight seconds―managed to wipe out the better part of the northern hemisphere, but after the Fourth, there was practically nothing left apart from a few of those red telephone box things you Britons have such affection for (by jingo they were made to last), and people wanted a new beginning, so they started a fresh calendar, with brand spanking new months and days and the like. Very shiny. And of course there was so little left when it came to the history of the old world that they thought Hitler was this great leader you see. An easy mistake to make. Well, you would've thought so if you'd been there. They did the same with Nixon, Mao and Thatcher. It's not that much different to naming the days and months after Roman gods and emperors is it?"
"Maggie has a month named after her?"
"Well a day actually―Thatchday, comes just after Wogansday―don't ask. They picked what they thought were great leaders and thinkers from all over the globe and she was one from the British Republic." The look in Jonathan's eyes was a picture. "And, they got rid of all the old celebrations like Christmas and Easter and made up their own."
"Don't tell me." But he was dying to―it saved him having to talk about Jonathan for a while.
"Well, they read this thing about the birth of the blues, whatever that was, so they had Bluesday..."
"Where they all dressed up in blue..."
"Don't be stupid. That was the special day for all the blue people."
Jonathan's mouth flopped.
"You see, there was a heck of a lot of radiation and pollution and stuff after all the wars and one of the side-effects was blue kids; not a garish blue, a kind of powdery denim blue. Are you sure you want to go over all of this just now?"
"I'm sure. What else have I got to do?"
"Good question. Can I come back to you on that one?" This really was a new side to Truth.
"OK. So where am I? Unless Rigby has been floating around in a time bubble all these years. Is this heaven?"
"Not in so many words. How do you know about time bubbles?"
"I don't. Then I'm in Hell? I mean you have to agree, this is pretty hellish."
"No, no, not Hell."
"Limbo? Purgatory? Tartarus? Gehenna?" He couldn't actually think of any more mythical dead places but he'd made his point.
"Well, in point of fact it doesn't work that way here. You're actually on Earth, in Rigby, and, as far as you're concerned, it is the day after you died."
Jonathan rubbed his forehead. He was getting a headache. Now that he didn't expect when he was dead. That was a double-bummer, with bells on. Only, he wasn't dead, was he? Just 'deadish' whatever that was.
"So, what's happened to the seven billion years?"
"Erm, they've happened too. And I've got more bad news."
Still rubbing his forehead, Jonathan couldn't contain a wry smile. "What?"
"While you were hanging out at Zedsville the entire macroverse came to an end."
"Has it?" He hadn't worked out the Zedsville bit but he could come back to that. "What happened to the good old universe?" He had to ask.
"Well you know the way that you've got a solar system which is part of a galaxy and that galaxy is part of a cluster of galaxies..."
"I get the idea: my universe is only one of many universes and you call that a macroverse? Do I get extra points for that?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Wasn't that a bit remiss of you all? I mean it's not like blowing up your chemistry set or anything."
"It's nothing to get schmaltzy about. We said we were sorry."
Jonathan hung his head and shook it slowly: "Life, the universe and everything―kaput. Kapow!" He gestured appropriately, "and they're sorry."
"You don't have to be so God-awfully dramatic. You wanna refill? I'll get you a refill." He didn't wait for an answer but took Jonathan's cup off him and started making a fresh pot.
Armed with a second cup and another ginger cream they began Round Two.
Truth was staring into the corner of the room: "Do you see that damp patch up there?"
"Where?" And what had this to do with anything?
"Up there." Truth pointed up at the roof, "Don't you think it looks a side shot of Alfred Hitchcock?" It did actually.
"Are you going to stop being so blinking evasive and answer my questions?"
"OK. OK. Shoot."
"So, if I've died―we've established that," began Jonathan, "and life as I knew it no longer exists anywhere, what are you and I still doing here?"
"Well we're going to do it all again."
"You what?" He was in mid-swallow―it hurt.
"Life, the universe and everything."
"Everything?" he whispered; his epiglottis was still struggling with an awkwardly shaped chunk of ginger cream.
"Cubs' honour. Dib, dib, dib and all that. Well, not everything the same of course. I mean the next time round The Beatles wouldn't split up so quickly and The Titanic would set sail in the Summer. And the Americans wouldn't get their hands on Till Death Us Do Part. We'd get them bits right."
"You and your buddies?"
"Straight up, Macduff."
"And what's God got to say about all of this?"
"Well, I think Happiness is out on his ear this time for good―I mean the cherry cola thing turned out to be a mega-flop; we're talking flop to the power flop. You remember me telling you about that?" He remembered. "He'll probably end up with the invertebrates to look after. That's our equivalent of latrine duty. Word on the grape vine is that Felicity's going to get the job next time round-nice lass. My performance was a bit dodgy at times-I have to say I thought my number was up too-but He reckons all I need's a bit more practice."
"So what on earth does He call the last seven billion years?"
"A walk in the park. I mean His clock ticks every eight months four days five hours twenty seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds. They have a fanfare usually beforehand, or a party and a parade sometimes afterwards."
"So where do I fit into all of this? Surely I'm an infinitesimally small cog?"
"Nice illustration: you are full of good questions today." He looked around him, leaned forward and whispered: "Well, here's the scam... Do you know anything about parallel universes?"
"I know E=mc2 and the answer to the ultimate question is forty-two but don't ask me what it all means."
"That I take to be a, no?"
"You take it right. I've read a few science fiction stories where they talk about parallel universes. Is it like that?"
"Spot on...sort of...well...not really. The way it works is that, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,' only he devised them in such a way that, from a single starting point, all possible permutations could take place. The idea was, sort of survival of the fittest, that we of The Dunameon, could guide humanity towards the perfect society by concentrating on the more hopeful universes and letting the others peter out at their own pace. So, on one earth, Eve ate from the 'tree of knowledge of good and bad' and in another Adam used the serpent as target practice and they were still walking round in the scud in your day. You'd like that world. Actually, the you on that world isn't very interested in women, but I can see you don't really want to know about that. Ultimately, all the worlds come to an end. One of the first to go was the one where Noah and his family died of scurvy in the ark and the animals all ate each other two by two before the last of them died of indigestion. That wasn't much of a fun world. It just bobbed around in space until their sun went nova. The one where we thought we'd start off a gay world was even worse: we created Adam and Steve, and they couldn't have kids and they both died when they got to about nine-hundred and thirty. I suppose it was a bit much to ask, but, I mean, it could've been the only world in the macroverse to discover cloning before the wheel. Your earth gets about six out of ten for effort, but very nice deportment."
"Are you doing this deliberately?"
"Doing what?" He knew what.
"Going round in circles."
"Look here you young whippersnapper, I'll be twenty-eight billion nineteen million three hundred and four thousand two hundred and seven on my next birthday―on the fourth of Marx (as in Groucho) if you want to send a card―so I'm entitled to go around in circles if I damn well want to."
He didn't look a day older than when he'd walked out of Jonathan's bedroom, which felt like yesterday. Jonathan apologised for his lack of patience. He wouldn't have been any less comfortable with his position had he been bent over his old headmaster's desk with a copy of The Hotspur down his shorts. He hated not having his feet on the ground-both physically and metaphorically.
Basically, the position was, that life, the universe and everything was a bit of an ongoing experiment and this wasn't the first time it had conked out on itself. It was actually their fifth go and they'd been told they'd better get it right this time. Jonathan discovered that he was only one of innumerable versions of Jonathan Paynes to have lived and died, most of them in various versions of Rigby.
"In fact," Truth explained, "of virtually all the people who have ever lived, your life is almost the same on every parallel world. You're not always a bookseller―sometimes you're a newsagent. Sometimes you marry Jan and sometimes you become a gambler like your old man. On one, you won five-hundred thousand only to get run over by a police car you were trying to avoid the next week."
"So things could've been different?"
"They have been―but not very."
"So why am I back? Why not some other me?"
"Hell, you all are."
"I don't know what you mean." He thought he did, but he wanted to hear it out loud.
"So, I have to spell it out for you?" Truth's edge might've been blunted with age but he wasn't that slow. "Right, I'll tell you: there's going to be a gabcon later―a convention―of Jonathan Paynes, to try and thrash out what modifications could be considered the next time around, and, once we get that over, you'll all get a second crack at the whip."
"Reincarnation, you mean?"
"Not in so many words, you're not going back as a cockroach or a page three girl or anything sensible like that. You're going back as a Jonathan Payne, only hopefully, a bit more successfully next time. So, do try and pay attention or I'm out on my lug'ole and you wouldn't like to be responsible for that, would you? Pal? Not that you'll likely remember any of this; you didn't the last four times." With that he swallowed the dregs of his cup. "Right, me harties, let's be jolly well off."
"Where?" Did he really want to know?
"To see your mum of course."
Had he said things couldn't get worse? If he had, he'd like to withdraw that statement in sackcloth and ashes.
Milligan and Murphy
Milligan and Murphy were brothers. They introduced themselves to the world as such and such was the blatant straightfacedness that accompanied this assertion that few felt remotely inclined to press the matter further. As it happens there was sufficient physical similarity between the two men to win over even the most sceptical of individuals. That said most people had enough things to worry about without losing any sleep over the likes of these two. Needless to say they weren't actually brothers. No. For the record they were half-brothers; each had been dragged screaming from the innards of the same mother though a different father had been guilty for them winding up there. Both took after their mother in appearance if in no other way: all three of them were short, stout, snub-nosed and sleepy-eyed, more like lost puppies than evil dwarves it must be said. Murphy's father, a west coast farmer, a descendent of one of those sent there by Cromwell as an alternative to Hell, had inconsiderately passed away under mysterious circumstances subsequent to Murphy's late arrival into this world but not close enough to the actual delivery for people to suppose the two events might in any way be connected. His mother, a woman of specific needs, kept her wits about her and disposed of their paltry thirteen acres for what she could get (which were mainly promises). With this, her son and more than a few wise words of wisdom ringing in her ears she set out in a horse and cart in search of a tolerable replacement. This she ran into in the guise of a certain Mr Milligan, a retailer of some small standing from an isolated village who, at the opportune moment, happened to be looking the wrong way whilst attempting to cross some street or other; the precise details are unimportant. Suffice to say Milligan provided her not only with a roof over her head, food, clothing, even pennies in her pocket but also with a second son barely a year after she had delivered her first; it was small price to pay. I bore witness to each confinement and have followed the boys' lacklustre progress with something of a paternal interest over the years. Murphy's given name was John. As circumstance would have it this was to be his half-brother's also. Milligan's paternal grandfather, whilst making the most of his deathbed, had compelled his son to swear an oath. The rotten old man had made the boy give his word that he would not break with family tradition in this particular regard and so, albeit years later, after some pointless-but-necessary debate with his new wife, Milligan's father had taken the required legal steps to have his firstborn son registered with the appropriate authorities: John Milligan. From that day forth the two boys went by their surnames. Surprisingly they were close though not inseparable.
The village in which the two lads slouched towards manhood was and is a tight-knit community, one though that nursed a quiet affection for strangeness if not exactly a fondness of strangers themselves; to this day the women of the village still refer to the boys' mother by the slightly contemptuous title of 'Missus'. Indeed though, it has to be said that many of its members, past and present, have been wont on occasion to carry on not a little strangely. For most it was no act and for a few it became a way of life. Mrs Milligan née Murphy née McCarthy, although an exceptional woman in many ways found herself unable to resist the pull of this quaint local idiosyncrasy―over the years she had become rather peculiar herself―and her children naturally followed her lead. The village was called Lissoy but was known to locals as 'The Cave' for reasons long lost to them; there was barely a hole in the ground let alone a cave of any consequence for twenty miles in any direction you chose to traipse.
When it was first established, at the tail-end of the seventeenth century, the central village was nothing more than a double-row of two-storey houses that lay either on side of a brown dirt road that led either to the peat bog or back to Drumclaven which is where most of the founders hailed from originally. Over the years need had been found for a primary school, a chapel, a creamery, two pubs, three dry-goods shops (one of which doubled as the post office), a forge and of course a graveyard. In time too other cottages gathered around this nucleus as the population grew which, up until the famine bit, it did slowly but steadily.
It was a grey town , literally and figuratively, painted with a very tight pallet indeed. There was barely enough sun to cast a shadow but that didn't stop the place being full of shadows and the villagers shadows amongst them―quite a poetic image but there was very little really about the place that would inspire a poet to do anything other than put aside his pen and paper and take up the bottle.
Of course, if you care to scrutinise any recent maps of the area, recent being within the past hundred years or so, you will find no such-named village on the entire island, no, instead at the precise coordinates there will be a place called Ballyerbe and there is a story behind that just as there are stories behind most things. An English cartographer going by the name of Theodore Click from Somerset, had been charged by his employer with the production of a map of the surrounding area for a wealthy German client with an interest in engineering, a task Click set about with no discernable passion; he was not fond of travel for starters, also he had just begun courting a young lady and the timing of his voyage could not have been worse as her affections were in the balance and he was not her only suitor. Nevertheless, he went about his business as professionally as he was able. The locals were supportive enough―they gleaned such entertainment as they could from him as fair exchange―but the weather was against him all the way. He had a deadline to meet too which is where we run into him, on the last day he could reasonably afford to spend in the field, he found himself at a crossroads facing Lissoy; it will feature later in our tale. That said, he was totally unaware what the settlement in the distance was called there being no signpost back then. He had just spent the night in Drumclaven and was quite the worse for wear. The locals had introduced the cider drinker to something called poteen and it was not a match made in heaven. Today he might have been teetering at the gates of hell, all he wanted was for the fieldwork to be behind him so he could return to his desk in Bridgwater and be about his drawings. As it happens O'Connor the farmer was perched on a stone dyke as he approached puffing away on a claypipe as if he'd been waiting on him his whole life.
"Lord ha' mercy," he muttered to himself as Click loomed closer.
This O'Connor was not the O'Connor you will hear about later of course but that ones grandfather, a dour man with no fondness for the English and scant affection for anyone else of any nationality.
"Excuse me," said Click, "Sir."
O'Connor said nothing. He didn't understand what the man meant but he knew what he saw and he looked like a dead man.
"I wonder," Click continued, "if you could be good enough to furnish me with the name of that hamlet over there?"
Hamlet? Wasn't he a prince of Denmark? Who uses words like 'Hamlet'? O'Connor may have been a farmer, he may have been practically illiterate but he wasn't stupid.
"Boayl Erbee," he finally muttered smokily after sufficient deliberation.
"I'm sorry, did you say, 'Bally Erbe'?"
At that, O'Connor, a small man with bow legs―a result of childhood rickets―clambered off the wall. He sniffed sharply as if he'd smelled something off then whistled for his dog. The creature appeared at his side out of thin air and the two of them started off towards his farm:
"Boayl Erbee!" As he passed him he looked the cartographer straight in the eye, "Go home―Sor." (He was going to say, "Go home, English," but decided against it). "There's nowhere else to go." (That's what 'Boayl Erbee' means, nowhere). "Better start back now. It'll be lashing down soon enough. Don't want to be on the road after dark, the pooka might be having you."
With that he left the man standing there struggling with the top of his pen. As if on command it began to drizzle.
"How do you spell that?" he called after him.
O'Connor didn't answer. He didn't know. He'd never needed to know.
Our story, such as it is, begins with our heroes, such as they are, sound asleep in bed. That is to say, they were asleep in their own beds. I've mentioned that they were close and I'm not about to take that back but it is equally true to say that it had been many years since they had enjoyed the one bed, nevertheless they continued to retire each night to the same room, the bedroom they had shared since infancy. As was his habit Murphy woke first but lay on in silence. He said nothing. As it was he was thinking nothing, so his mind and body were in perfect harmony. It was a familiar state, comfortable. It was a condition most devotees of Zen Buddhism would be willing part with their eye-teeth to reach. Murphy was not one to romanticize things however; as far as he was concerned he was just lying there doing nothing. A few minutes later Milligan also came to and proceeded to do the same, or not do if that is your preferred way of looking at not doing. They remained this way for some time. In reality, if one cares to be pedantic, Milligan had actually been the first of the pair to stir. Having inherited his father's weak bladder he had found it necessary to answer the call of Nature at around two that morning and then again at a quarter part three. It is a moot point. They were not a competitive pair although they often squabbled over trivia and minutia.
Beds are important, significant, they were where days began and ended, where lives began and mostly ended; one couldn't help but be moved surrounded by such meaning. Murphy farted, loudly and freely.
A bell tolled, the Angelus, and in perfect synchronicity, like a nervous spasm, they each crossed themselves and then returned to motionlessness. It was six o'clock.
Finally Murphy bridled his thoughts:
"I think," he said, and then thought for a moment so as to make the statement all the truer, "I think we ought to be getting up now." He was addressing his brother though there was no clear evidence that the man was even awake. As it was he was. He always was by this time. Milligan had gotten used to this. He expected this. He relied on this. He trusted this. This was how morning began.
"Yes," replied Milligan, "I think that's a good idea." It was his typical response. He was nothing if not an agreeable sort when he wasn't being argumentative.
With balletic precision though lacking any grace the two threw back their covers and set about the necessary morning routines. It was cold but then it was always cold. They expected no more nor could they conceive more. It was what they were accustomed to. As far as they were concerned when an Australian aborigine cast off his blanket each morning he was greeted by the selfsame cold. They never viewed it as cold per se. It was just the way it was, the way it always had been, the way it always would be.
"I wonder if Mary will be in the pub tonight," wondered Murphy out loud as he towelled his face dry. He would have been rhetorical but it wasn't his way; mountains were there to be climbed and questions were there to be answered.
"Just Mary or The Two Marys?"
"Mary. Just Mary."
"You'd be meaning Mary Maguire then?"
His brother signed, folded the towel in half and folded it again over the back of his chair; it was its place. It flopped off onto the floor but he didn't see fit to retrieve it. One place is as good as another.
"Milligan, are we acquainted with any other Mary? I mean, apart from The Two Marys and what would they be doing in a pub anyway?"
"I can't say that I am," came the reply in time, "but that is not to say that you may not have become familiar with another Mary in my absence; I'm not your keeper. It's a common enough name. I'm sure there are lots of Marys you could get to know given the time."
"Would I not have told you had I done such a thing? Would I not have told you if I was thinking about such a thing?"
"Now, now, Murphy. I wasn't suggesting anything untoward. It might have simply slipped your mind. You can't tell me everything. If you did there'd be no time left to do anything else and then what would we talk about?"
Murphy paddled through the depths of his mind. He was sure when he'd started speaking that he'd meant Mary Maguire but now the shadow of doubt had been cast.
"No," he finally returned, "No, that is precisely who I meant from the very beginning."
"What was the question?"
Murphy repeated the question. Milligan considered it.
"I must confess," Milligan replied, "that I haven't the faintest idea where she'll be or when she'll be. She is a woman. They have their little habits it's true but in-betweens they come and go as they please, especially the unshackled ones."
By that he meant those who had not yet found a man to bind themselves to and the aforementioned Mary Maguire was foremost amongst those in Lissoy who could claim membership to this select clan, actually she could have been both president and treasurer. It was not that she was opposed to marriage―in principal it seemed like a fair enough arrangement―it was just she could see no point in marriage for marriage's sake: one drank when one was thirsty and slept when tired and got married when...when...when one could finish off that sentence without having to think about it too long. Getting married was not the be-all-and-end-it-all that it has become in some corners of the globe. Most of the men were not worth marrying for themselves and few owned enough to make putting up with their many flaws and failings worth the bother. Mary was the only daughter of the landlord of Paddy Quinn's Bar, Patrick Maguire. Had she been born in a more medieval century she may well have been referred to as a buxom serving wench; let it suffice to say that there was definitely more than one serving to her. It will come as no surprise to discover that no one had the foggiest notion how the place had acquired the name Paddy Quinn's Bar particularly when there was no one with the name Quinn living in the village nor at peace in the local cemetery. The truth of it was that Edward Maguire, Mary's paternal grandfather, an inveterate and generally unsuccessful gambler, had won the sign in a card game in Drumclaven. Having no other earthly use for it, and being reluctant to casually toss such a decent piece of timber upon the fire, he had concluded that the best course of action would be to install a pub underneath the damn thing and so he did. An old photograph was found, framed and had gathered dust behind the bar for over fifty years now. If anyone inquired, though no one had shown any real interest in a long time, his or her gaze was directed to the faded image, the side of a nose was tapped lightly and no further word of explanation was ever offered.
As the years were wending their way towards...well she didn't rightly know what they were heading towards...Mary's long held convictions were, along with a few other things, starting to wear a little thin, hence her recent displays of interest towards the two brothers. Not one or the other was what you might call a catch but she was all the bait she was ever going to be. There was also the small matter of the shop to consider and their mother wasn't going to last forever though she was giving it her best shot. In truth neither of the brothers had been particularly looking for a wife up until now but Mary was a distraction there was no denying that.
Milligan and Murphy were both forty though they could have passed for fifty at a pinch. This is not to imply that they had led hard lives. In point of fact the opposite was truer. They simply did not weather well. Perhaps it was the boredom that had surrounded them from infancy. There was precious little to do in Lissoy apart from work (where you couldn't wangle your way out of it), drink (when you could persuade some soft touch to buy you it), grow old and die (as if you might somehow convince Death you somehow weren't worth the bother).
Despite the circumstance of their births, for several days each year they were both equally able to claim to be the same age. It was almost Murphy's birthday―he was about to turn forty-one―and he would again be the older brother but, for these few days each Spring, they felt like twins. Naturally this was not something they discussed. It was not something they expressed even. It was something each felt but never could translate into words. Words were not a means of communication either of them was overly comfortable with. They used them, frequently more than was actually necessary to say as little as they ever had to say, but the words never seemed to do the job for which they were intended.
His ablutions complete Milligan went over to the bedroom window and after fighting with the latch for longer than should have been necessary considering the number of times he had encountered the mechanism he shoved it open and hung half out of the window.
"Jaysus! It's sharp out, Murphy."
"Is it now?"
"It is...as sharp as...a button."
"A button indeed?"
Murphy poked his head out too and drew his own conclusions. It was still dark but the first suggestion that light was a possibility was clawing its way up the back of Binn Moan to the east. There was no one in the street below, neither the saved nor the damned, no person that is. A scraggly cat was surveying its kingdom from the relative comfort of the Widow Duff's front step. The creature stared up at the brothers―it afforded them one eye -they looked back and that was that; nothing passed between them.
"Shall we break fast then?" Murphy asked, their heads still jutting out of the window.
"That's a good idea. Mind your head, Murphy." With that Milligan heaved the window closed and, after some more wrestling with the latch, secured the thing. "What do you think Ma will have made for us?"
"What day is it?"
"I think it's Tuesday."
"Then she'll make us the same as she makes us every day."
"Right then. No harm in wondering. The world is a place of great wonder."
"That it is."
"Murphy, talking about wonder, why were you wondering about Mary Maguire just then? She's always in the pub. She's the bloody barmaid is she not?"
"That she is. That she is. You're quite right there. Milligan ..."―he paused ruminatively―"... do you not think that Mary Maguire has the most magnificent breasts?"
"I think it's a bit early in the morning to be considering weighty matters such as those."
"They're massive, they truly are."
"It makes me thirsty just thinking about them. Murphy, can we go and get fed now? I'm so hungry I could eat a cow."
Murphy didn't move other than to sit down on his bed. Milligan sighed but thought it best to do the same. For a few moments then they remained frozen in perfect symmetry.
Finally Murphy looked up at his brother:
"Do you not think it's about time we settled down, Milligan?"
"I didn't think our life was so unsettled."
"Perhaps it's not so much unsettled as...Milligan, in a few days time I'll be forty-one years of age."
"I've not forgotten. I never forget. Have I ever forgotten?"
"I know. I know. That's not what I'm talking about. Our Lord himself never reached forty-one years of age."
"That he didn't." Milligan crossed himself, then thought it probably wasn't all that necessary and wondered if he did it backwards he could uncross himself. Before he could take that train of thought anywhere his brother continued:
"What I mean is I'm sure if he had there would have been certain things he would have been considering."
"Such as, Murphy? I'm not following you. I was never so good with the holy books and that."
"Well, if them Romans hadn't gone and crucified him he might have decided to pack in all the wandering round Palestine healing lepers and raising the dead and that and found himself a cottage overlooking the Dead Sea, with maybe a wee plot of ground out the back to grow carrots and cabbages in."
"Do they have them sorts of vegetables in the Holy Land? I though they'd have posh Jewish vegetables."
"I can't be sure. That's not the point. You're not listening. He would have had this place and he would have been sat there one night on his own, maybe he'd just finished talking to his Da in heaven above, and it suddenly dawns on him that he's almost forty-one and never had a shag."
"Did he not have a fling with Mary What's-Her-Face?"
"Aye, that's the one."
"I don't think so."
"So, what're you saying, Murphy? Are you thinking about taking up the cloth? You know, if you became a priest I could confess all my sins to you and you could forgive me. That'd be grand."
"Milligan, you never do anything worth confessing."
"I know. Sometimes I just make things up to imagine the look on Father Leary's face."
"What I'm thinking, Milligan is it's time we got wed."
"Mary Maguire. Have you not been paying attention?"
Suddenly the penny dropped. "In the name of the wee man! And what does Mary Maguire have to say about this proposition?"
"Well, to be honest, I've not proposed anything as yet."
"She is, of course, aware that she is the butt of your affections?"
"Well, I can't say that I have, in so many words, or any words at all, got around to making my intentions plain."
"That could be a problem."
"Oh, yes, Murphy."
Neither Murphy, nor his brother, was still a virgin it must be understood. Indeed, as with so many things in their lives, their virginities were casually tossed aside within minutes of each other. Lissoy may well be a microcephalic community; nevertheless, within the ranks of its small-minded townsfolk, one could normally come across one or more able and willing―even if for a nominal fee―to satisfy the needs, wants or just plain fancies of some other, no matter how questionable those needs, wants or fancies may have been. When it came to relieving young men of their virginities―well, boys really, masquerading as men (no one was in a rush to grow up in Lissoy)―there was no one more accomplished than Mab Claffey, commonly known as "that Jezebel in the bog" and not a bit troubled by the epithet either; she was not a Christian and her morals were her own. Mab owned a one-roomed thatched cottage that somehow managed not to be gobbled up by the peat bog that encircled it. She had been a tinker woman once―that the whole town was aware of (her name gave that away)―but no one could say with any degree of certainty how she came to be alone, landlocked on the outskirts of Lissoy, nor had anyone the effrontery to ask and so they made up stories which is what common folk do perhaps as a reaction to a religion that 'explains' so many things by calling them 'mysteries' or more likely simply to pass the time. Mab was not in the least mysterious―she opened herself to all comers and could be somewhat garrulous when the mood struck her―she simply never spoke of the past; it had "come and gone"―her words and all she ever said on the subject. Mab was a whore, plain and simple. Her unit of currency was the bottle of Guinness, one at least of which always had to be consumed before the agree-upon activity was engaged in―"No change given, sonny," she was fond of saying―though frankly she performed the better for her dose of "Vitamin G"; it passed for foreplay. Hardly a male in the town had clambered over that final hurdle to manhood without the aid of her ministrations. A few became regulars. Milligan and Murphy couldn't afford to become regulars―they were too fond of the stout themselves to part with it easily―but for all that they had taken advantage of Mab's willingness and her orifices on a number of occasions and in a variety of manners throughout their lives. Of course Mab was no longer the woman she once was but then they were never the men they might have been. It all worked out for the best. This is why Murphy's comparing himself to some middle-aged Christ was even more ludicrous that you might have first imagined, there was no way he was thinking about marriage as a means merely to satisfy his carnal urges. No, there was more at issue here and Milligan realised this. He just didn't know exactly what.
Murphy stood up and so Milligan did the same. It was the thing to do.
"I don't think we need to be troubled about it this minute," said Murphy, "I was simply letting you know what's been on my mind. No. No, there's no rush. I might even look elsewhere before I make my feelings known. You should always keep your options open."
"And your flies shut. Are you not so sure she'll have you?"
"Ach, there are no certainties in this life. We live and we die."
"That we do, Murphy. That we do. Life is like two slices of bread. It's what we fill them with that makes a sandwich"
"So true. Talking about food, should we not be getting ourselves downstairs for breakfast? I could murder a cup o' tea."
"And Ma'll murder us if we take much longer."
As her two sons began descending the stairs Ma Milligan was finishing ladling out their breakfast. The Demerara sugar and buttermilk were already on the table as was the teapot stewing under its caddie. Two bowls of piping hot porridge sat in the middle of the kitchen table. It was an unusual amalgam of grimness and cosiness. Nothing in the room actually was grey but everything was somehow tinged with it just as their lives were laced with it.
Murphy settled his behind in his usual seat, as did Milligan in his. They sat at right angles to each other. No one sat at the head of the table since Milligan's father had died of consumption ten years earlier. The other seat was available for their mother but she never used it. The two men peered into the depths of their bowls and waited. Their mother done at last, arranged herself in her rocker by the fire, wrapped a rug around her legs and her hands around a large and most unladylike mug of tea; they rarely ate as a family. For a moment they looked like three characters abandoned on a stage with nothing to say and little to do; it wasn't such a far cry from the truth.
It was a stern voice but not an angry one. She had discovered a long time before than anger was one step too far and never went there other than in her sleep when indeed she slept.
"Murphy, say Grace."
"Ma, I said it yesterday."
"Ma, I'm not feeling all that thankful today."
"Jaysus, Mary and Joseph! I've brought a couple of heathens into this world. Heads down! O Lord, make us grateful for the food we have before us, the night of rest behind us and the day of life we have ahead of us. We thank you for our health, each other and the roof you see fit to keep over our head. Amen. And if you could see your way to pointing these two good-for-nothing layabouts in the direction of a job this day we would all be more than grateful. Amen to that too."
With that she took a slurp of her tea as a final full stop. The two brothers mumbled their Amens and set about shovelling down their stirabout grateful that silence had once again descended over the breakfast table. Conversation was something of a lost―no, more like an abandoned―art in their house. They talked―they communicated, what had to be got across was got across―but they didn't converse, there was no interchange of thoughts and ideas. Communication was a rudimentary science when practiced here; there was no art in it. Words contained only their essential meanings and when they were emptied someone filled them up again with exactly the same stuff.
"Say what you mean and mean what you say," their mother had repeated ad nauseum throughout their childhood and so, if they were unsure what they were talking about which was much of the time, they tended to opt not to talk at least around her. It was the course of least resistance, something they were practiced at. If they couldn't call a spade, a spade they tended not to mention it at all.
Up until the death of her second husband there hadn't been much wrong with Mrs Milligan, her ways only seemed odd because they were at odds with how things were done in Lissoy; her insistence that coddling was bad for children, her outright disdain for breast milk and the hiding of her children from sight whilst they were still infants were de rigueur in her home village, not so Lissoy. Her husband's death affected her badly however, not that she loved him―she had never considered love at a solid basis for marriage even the first time round―though, for what he was, he had been a decent enough husband when sober. The general consensus in Lissoy was that to lose one husband was a tragedy but to lose two was nothing less than downright negligence. The possibility of her wedding a third time never even raised its head for idle speculation. She began wearing sack-like frocks and lost all interest in her hair letting it hang loose like straw and she stopped making eye-contact with anyone, especially herself. Some business fell away but she didn't miss it. She didn't even notice it to be honest. The shop still made a little money and, on a poor week, they could always eat the stock.
Up to this point in the tale you may have concluded that there's not much of a story here and you'd be right. There isn't much of anything here and that's how most days were in Lissoy, routine, uneventful and painfully boring in general. One day was the same as the next. Some days it rained others it didn't. If it rained then you did what you had to do and got wet while doing it or you didn't bother doing it at all and most of the time it didn't much matter either way.
Over the years the two brothers had between them taken on a variety of jobs. Few, however, had seen fit to last any significant length of time and none had been the kind of job one would wish to last any length of time. Lissoy, being the sort of community it was, and always had been, tended to take care of its own: they imported little (primarily alcohol) and exported less (mainly beer bottles on which there was to be had a small refund). Anything else that entered the town stayed till it was used up and that included its residents; no one's clothes or roofs lacked a patch. So it was then that, over the years, all essential services had been identified, the positions filled and suitable replacements earmarked and apprenticed. Because the brothers came as a pair―though this was never stated explicitly on any applications no prospective employer was ignorant as to the boys' upbringing, education, social standing in the community and religious affiliations―they tended to get only seasonal work, labouring mostly. Work came to them. In general it came via their mother. Today was to be no exception.
"O'Connor is on the lookout for bodies for his farm," said their mother into her mug of tea.
"But, Ma, it's Tuesday," appealed Milligan, Tuesday being the day they normally collected their Unemployment Assistance.
"And the post office will there on Wednesday."
The boys said nothing more, neither neither acknowledging her comment nor arguing against it. There was no point. They would finish their breakfasts, find their boots and their coats, don the slightly old-fashioned bowlers they had inherited from their respective fathers and trudge the three miles to O'Connor's farm where there would be work waiting for them or not.
Since there is nothing much going on in the kitchen perhaps this is as good a time as any to say a bit about life in Lissoy. No one actually cared to learn much about the early history of the town. It turns out that the founders had kept records but somewhere along the line cows and rats had eaten them and that's where the known history begins with a brief entry noting the ingestion of the town's earlier records. No explanation is given to why it was both cows and rats. It only states plainly and simply that cows and rats ate the previous history. No attempt was made to summarise what was contained therein which leads us to believe it was nothing worth remembering or no one had read enough of the thing to take a stab at the job.
Probably the strangest thing about the place was that in a country where so many homes had been abandoned―and not simply the odd farmhouse dotted about but entire villages had upped and left―not one building in Lissoy had ever gone to wrack and ruin although all had seen better days. Someone always took over the property, a child now grown and looking for a place of his or her own or an outsider who happened to wind up lost there. If Lissoy was anything it was the place where the missing and the misplaced ended up.
Other than that it was like any other village: everyone knew everyone else and everything about everybody and none of it amounted to anything worth knowing.
One other thing, a local eccentricity, no one, man, woman nor child wore any more than two colours at a time apart from O'Shea, the pig farmer, who'd been a soldier and got to wear three not that your could readily tell. It had always been that way as long as anyone could remember though no one could say why and no one knew how to deal with anyone who failed to adhere to this dress code other than by shunning them which was pretty much the whole community's initial reaction to things they didn't care for, understand or want. It was wondrous indeed that they took in strangers as they did but their logic was simple enough: strangers were new blood and everyone knew that "the life...is in the blood" even if they couldn't quote chapter and verse.
Outside, on the way to wherever, plodding side by side like an old married couple that have long since forgotten why they stay with the other, Milligan addressed his older brother:
"What you need, not to beat around the bush, is nothing more than a good hard shag; it's been a while," he said, knowing exactly how long it had been for it had been the same length of time for himself.
"Perhaps you're right. It would be an occasion. I think, Milligan, for once in this life though I am looking for more than merely an exchange of bodily fluids."
"Murphy! Do you have to be so graphic? My porridge is not so far gone that it couldn't come back and that would be a waste of good oats."
Murphy apologised. Milligan accepted the apology.
The place was coming to life or what passed for life in Lissoy. O'Donnell, one of the other store-keepers, passed the time of day with them then Dr Hallaron who asked after their mother's varicose veins; Miss Walsh, the schoolteacher; Thomas Tarpay, the blacksmith and finally old Scrope who looked them up and down with gravedigger's eyes before affording them a single curt nod to be shared between them. The main topic of conversation―at least with those who showed some willingness to converse―was the same on each occasion, the weather, its vagaries and idiosyncrasies. It was a national preoccupation to be sure. It didn't matter whether the weather was fine or not, there was always weather of some kind to consider and forever more on the way.
After the brothers had discussed the weather with all those who felt they had a vested interest in the subject they headed on their way. The two of them continued for a half-mile in silence before Murphy decided upon a topic of their own:
"I just think we should think about getting married before it gets too late. We need to grow up."
"We've done all the growing we have to do. The pot is too small. That is the problem. What we need is to leave."
"We can't leave. Everyone always talks about leaving. That's all it is―talk. Leave and go where exactly?"
"Just go. Being married is where people wind up. It's an end not a means. They're driven to it by boredom and nagging parents. At least our ma leaves us in peace as far as that goes. We should go, just keep going on this road. The road never ends."
"It ends at the coast, that's where it ends. We could waste a few days walking to the coast but then we'd have to come back and it's a long way to go to have to come back to face the same old questions that were there when we left. Only, the answers may well have upped and pissed off while we were off gallivanting. No, tis better that we stay here. This is where all roads begin and end as far as we're concerned. Why would we want to leave anyway? We have our home here, our beds, and our mother. Do you think she would agree to send us an allowance, to forward it to the next Post Office down the line? 'Here you go boys: beer and fag money. Hope you're having a nice time. Don't forget to drop your old ma a postcard once in a while.' And maybe she'd send a little extra on our birthdays so we could splash out on a hoor."
Murphy agreed the possibility of that happening was extremely unlikely, "as likely as seeing the Holy Father himself coming down the road ahead of us on a pogo-stick singing Hava Nagila," to quote him word for word. Life in Lissoy had that going for it at the very least. Their mother may not have had a good word to say for either of them for many a long year but she still did her duty and took care of them even going as far as to toss a few coins at them from time to time, as the mood took her, so that they could amuse themselves in whatever way took their fancy and get out of her hair but she never lavished affection on either of them even when they were infants. She was not being cruel. She simply didn't know how. It was how she had been brought up and how she had seen her peers dealing with their own offspring. No one in Lissoy even knew she had any children till they reached four and were ready for school; in that regard they had been perfect children, not seen and not heard as long as their basic needs were catered to. As adults too, in this regard they displayed little imagination and concentrated on what made their bodies feel good assuming―not that they ever gave the matter serious thought―that, if their bodies were happy then their minds would be too. Occupied is a poor substitute for satisfied but they made do. This was why Murphy had come around to considering marriage as a last ditch: he had an itch and no clue how to scratch it.
It was the village priest, Father Leary of all people―a terminally single man―who had put the idea in his mind though not intentionally of course: he had spent forty years forgiving the sins of the folks of Lissoy and there wasn't much he'd recommend on the earthly plane because nothing seemed to bring anyone any joy apart from the widow Duff's staunch belief that her goat was the reincarnation of her dead husband. That re-incarnation was not scripturally sound didn't appear to trouble her in the slightest. She would meet the old priest eye-to-eye, pull on the whiskers on her chin and mutter, "Ah but you see Father...He moves in mysterious ways...mysterious...yes, He does that...His wonders to perform," and there's no real comeback to that one. Leary had been milking it himself for years, more often than not attributing the expression to "the Psalmist, David" or "King Solomon, the wisest man that ever lived, excepting our Lord, of course" not realising that the quote derived from a depressed Protestant's hymn. It was fitting to have his own words used against him.
Leary had mounted the pulpit the preceding Sunday and had proceeded to deliver one of his typical sermons. Pray that you never have to sit through one in person particularly if its theme is lasciviousness. Of course, the two brothers were each about as religious as a pair of horn toads. They toddled after their mother to the chapel because it was what they always had done. It didn't hurt and―on the odd rare occasion―it had proven to be distracting. The day old Molly O'Neill had a bout of hiccups that lasted the entire duration of the service and which refused in particular to keep time with any of the hymns springs readily to mind but there were others. Anyway, Leary was up in his pulpit "giving it laldy" as their mother would have put it and Murphy whose mind had begun wandering before he even got through the door of the place had now allowed his eyes the same freedom hoping he might spy find someone snoring or picking their nose, something―anything―that might prove slightly more entertaining that the poor priest's latest efforts. Mary Maguire's thoughts were similarly engaged. It was only a matter of time before both sets of eyes met and she was not a woman to let such a god given opportunity pass her by without making at least a token effort. As these things happen, Leary was―at that very moment―muttering on about the sacrament of marriage and, in particular, the proposition that leaving fathers and mothers to be with your partner was not a bad idea. That the thought had not struck Murphy before struck him now. You might call it an epiphany. Right there and then out of the blue Murphy saw the light but he couldn't see anything bar the light. It was the most spiritual thing that had ever happened to him but probably only because it happened in a church.
Suddenly Milligan stopped in his tracks having spied something in the mud.
"What's that?" he said.
"That there?" He pointed.
"A penny. It's a penny."
"Find a penny, pick it up," began Milligan.
"And the day, you'll have good luck," finished off his brother as he bent to retrieve it.
"It's only a ha'penny."
Murphy peered closer:
"No it's not. It's a penny and heads up too."
"I saw it first."
"But I recognised first."
"That you did," he conceded, "Still, there's not a lot of luck going around, Murphy. We should be careful."
"In what way?"
"Well, is it the finding of the penny that brings the luck or the picking it up?"
"Ah, I see." Murphy retracted his hand and stood up. He considered the matter for a moment or two, then a moment longer and then suggested that it might require both the discovery and the recovery of the coin for the luck to be devolved upon the fortunate individual.
Milligan furrowed his brow and went to speak but then realised he had not had sufficient time to properly formulate his response. Milligan, for all he had been brought up in a grey world, was not fond of grey issues. Things were either right or wrong, good or bad, the thing to do and be damned or to leave well alone.
Finally he opted on, "We can't let this opportunity slip out of our hands."
That was true if only in monetary terms. Murphy concurred. With that they knelt on the ground with their fingers poised on either side of the coin.
"On the count of three then?" suggested Murphy.
"Yes." There was a long pause. "Are you counting then?"
"If you like. One. Two. Three."
They both lunged forward and gripped either side of the coin with thumb and forefinger. It at once slipped from their grip.
"Damn!" cursed Milligan.
"No, no, I don't think so," said Murphy and with that he picked the penny up, wiped it on his trouser leg and pocketed it, "We both touched it at the same time. I think the magic will have worked if it was ever going to. Let's press on."
Perhaps this is as good a place as any, as our heroes wend their way towards the future, to describe in some small details the countryside through which they trudged. If I were to provide you with a simple-to-understand expression to describe where Lissoy was then 'in the middle of nowhere' would be fairly accurate: somewhere dwindled into anywhere and the next thing you knew you were nowhere. The 'nowhere' consisted of bogs and moors with only a single road leading to the place and that road bounded by hedgerows along its full length as if to keep the inevitable at bay. The laws of scenery were not flouted but they were only paid lip service to. The landscape was one of emigration and emptiness, a thing trampled into the past. It did everything in its power to resist interpretation. It was as if anything that might have caught the eye had been eroded by time and this was all that it had left, that would vanish too one day but that day was not yet. The mountain, Binn Moan, rose like a cry in the wilderness but even it did its level best to blend itself in with the sky and go unnoticed.
Up ahead, as they edged further away from home, they each caught sight of something in the distance crouched by the way.
"What do you think?" asked Milligan nudging his brother to get his attention.
"Oh I gave up that a long time ago," replied his brother with just a hint of sarcasm in his tone.
"Nevertheless, you must have an opinion on the subject."
"None that I am aware of. Time will tell; that is what I think."
"All will be revealed, you mean?"
"In the straits of time, yes, Milligan."
A few hundred yards further down the road there was no need to speculate, it was clear what the hunched thing was, at least on close inspection. It was a man sitting on the ground with his head on his knees so that you couldn't see his face. He didn't flinch as they approached. It looked as if he was asleep, unconscious even. The two brothers positioned themselves in front of him. Murphy folded his arms. Milligan followed suit. He was wearing a great coat and a shabby bowler, each the colour of the road. A few tufts of dirty-white hair were just visible from under the rim of the hat.
"Do you think he's sleeping?" Murphy asked. He wasn't really asking his brother―it was in danger of being a rhetorical question―but the question had been posed anyway and Milligan responded since the stranger seemed ill inclined to do so.
"I have no idea. Perhaps he's dead."
"What a place to die, brother, in the middle of nowhere and on the road to nowhere. That's no place to snuff it."
He removed his bowler respectfully.
"No it's not, no," agreed Milligan and with that he went to kick the figure."
"Faith, man! What are you about?" Murphy thrust his arm across his brother's chest, "This is no joke."
"I'm going to see if he's really dead."
"Milligan, there's no need to kick a man when he's down. Just give him a good shake if your curiosity won't let you leave him in peace."
"I'd rather not get that close. Can I not just give him the boot?"
"Nothing too hard then...not to start off with."
Milligan took a minute to select the best target finally deciding upon the sole of the man's boots thinking that this would allow him to stay at a reasonable distance from him in case his victim decided to lunge at him.
Milligan let fly with his good right foot and the man fell backwards, curled up into the foetal position, one arms round his knees and the other clasped to his bowler hat
"Don't beat me," he cried, "Don't beat me."
"So," Murphy looked at his brother, "it looks as if he was only dozing."
"Yes, yes, I do have to agree. Let's go."
"We'd better see if he's hurt first. You might have injured him when you gave him that boot."
"It was only a gentle tap...on the sole of his foot. What harm could that have done? Look at him? Do you see him clinging to his foot in agony?"
"No. But we do appear to have been responsible for causing him some emotional distress. We should see that he's all right. It's the Christian thing to do."
Milligan had no answer for this and so he squatted down beside the huddled figure and asked, "Mister? Mister, are you all right?"
There was no answer. Murphy tried with a similar lack of response.
"We should make good our escape, Murphy."
"Maybe you're right. Perhaps he has dozed off again. This position looks a little more conducive to sleep."
They turned their backs on the man and found, much to their annoyance, that they had reached a road junction. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Why were they all of a sudden limping on two different opinions? They knew exactly which direction O'Connor's farm was. This was not the first time they had been directed there.
As they mulled over their options, a voice was heard from behind them:
"Excuse me. Excuse me. Neither of you would happen to have a carrot on his person?" They turned as one and looked at the man who was now sitting on the ground dusting off his bowler, "Or a turnip. A turnip would be good too."
The two brothers took a look at each other and, then without a word, systematically went through their pockets. No vegetables of any kind were discovered on either of their persons, little consumable in any case and nothing of any real nourishment.
"I have a penknife," said Milligan holding it up.
His brother frowned at him. "Do you have to act the maggot?"
"Ach well," the man said and tried to struggle to his feet. It was obviously not going to be an easy task so the brothers each took and arm and heaved him upright or as near to upright as the man seemed capable of standing. He was old, very old, easily seventy though he could have passed for eighty or more with ease. He was short, not unlike the brothers themselves, with rheumy eyes and a bulbous red nose. It was obvious as the nose on that face that he'd been a tramp a long time. Even his face was the colour of the road.
"Sorry about the carrots, old timer," said Murphy.
"'Tis no great matter."
"Are you on your own?" asked Murphy, "Is there no one with you? You're a way away from anywhere."
"No. No, I used to have a companion, a fellow I once travelled with. He used to furnish me carrots or turnips, when there weren't any carrots or radishes even, if there weren't any turnips. We looked a bit like you two; only he was taller and thinner than me. I forget his name. How do you like that! He stank of garlic but he always seemed to have something to eat about his person...and he never refused me. He gave me carrots and turnips and I gave him..." He paused. Realising there was no obvious answer to this he then pondered for a while, and then continued, "...moral support. I provided the moral support. Strange the things you find to remember and end up forgetting."
Milligan wanted to know what happened to him.
"The same as happens to everyone you ever know...eventually. You know, sooner or later we all wind up alone. I used to be like you, like the two of you, there was I and this other like me and we used to hobble from here to there and back again or if not back again then onto somewhere else much the same. It wasn't a great life you understand but we had each other―I had he and he had me―and that made it bearable though even when it wasn't bearable you didn't have to not bear it alone you understand."
"Milligan let the man tell his story."
"Then?" The stranger continued, "Then one day we found ourselves waiting for someone and we waited and we waited...but he never came. He never came. We waited for such a long time. Others came, like you, passers-by, and we passed the time. Then one day I was alone."
"Did your friend bugger off?" Murphy asked.
"Yes. Not of his choosing you understand. Not that any of us has much choice in this life. In this regard he had no option and I buried him, with these very hands, under a tree he had grown fond of. I buried him and left."
"It's a sad story, man. Isn't it, Milligan?"
"Sad indeed. What are you doing now? Are you headed for Lissoy? There's not much to be found in Lissoy. We've just come from there."
"Is that what the place is called? Never heard of it. A signpost wouldn't be out of place here you know. I mean, I may end up there or I may simply pass through. I don't have what you might call a destination. There's no place I'm destined to be. I'm looking for a man you see."
"There is a signpost," Milligan informed him and pointed to it.
"So there is. Well, what do you know?"
Milligan asked who is was searching for:
"After all, we're well acquainted with most folks around these parts, aren't we Murphy? What's his name then?"
The man frowned. He tried to remember.
"Oh God, I can't think of his name. He must have had one I imagine, one or two. I'm not good with names. I know he kept sheep and goats. And boys. No, he didn't keep boys. He had boys working for him, brothers I think. But then we're all brothers I suppose."
"Who is he?" Milligan was never slow about asking questions.
"Who's who? Oh, him. The man my friend and I were waiting on."
"And what'll you do when you find him? Kill him?"
"Milligan let the man tell his story!"
"When I find him? Oh, I don't expect to find him. Finding him has never been the issue. Looking has, looking rather than waiting. It's more...proactive, looking for what you know you'll never find rather than waiting for what will never arrive. Don't you think?"
The man smiled. It was a silly smile, a little on the scary side. He was thinking about killing the man. He'd never thought about it before. The two didn't know what to say.
The old man looked around about him. Noticing the signpost as if for the first time he limped over to it, squinted and read the names, mumbling them to himself. After he had finished he looked in the direction the brothers had come from. Clouds had gathered over the village and it felt like it might be about to rain.
"Looks like the gob of a cave," said the man, "And a damp cavern to boot. I can smell fish . No, I'm not ready to go back there, not yet. I'll go this way." With that he aimed himself south towards O'Connor's Farm. "Does he have sheep and goats?"
"Pigs mostly," answered Murphy.
"And chickens," added Milligan.
The old man smiled again, this time to himself but he didn't change his mind.
"And where, lads, does your future lie?"
The two of them looked at each other, then at the road back to town and then at the road away from it. They'd seen the road before of course in just the same way that Eve had seen the tree in the garden and the fruit on that tree. Then Murphy pointed north, towards Drumclaven and Milligan said, "That way."
No formal goodbyes were said. Nothing verbal that is. The man nodded to the pair and the pair nodded back and they all shuffled off towards their respective fates. After a few paces, Milligan, who was not quick of wit, realised there was something he desperately needed to ask the old man―they were miles from the coast, how could he possibly smell fish?―but when he turned round to call to him he was nowhere to be seen.
Murphy turned. He looked.
"What am I looking at?"
"The old man."
"I don't see him. Can we get on now?"
"Don't you see?"
"I see nothing, Milligan. There is nothing to see."
"That's the point."
"I don't get it."
"The old man. Where is he? Where did he go? He should be there, just up the road."
Murphy shrugged. "It's likely he fell into a ditch."
"Maybe. But do you not think he would have called for our help?"
"We would have heard him."
"Not if he was unconscious."
"So, should we go and look for him?"
"I thought of something to ask him."
"What?" Milligan fought to remember. "You forgot, didn't you?"
"It'll come back to me."
"Yes, but when? No, we should be on our way. The old bugger was unconscious when we met him and if he's unconscious now then we've done no harm if we've done no good. He could have just as well have been dead then."
"We could have buried him, Murphy. It would have been the Christian thing to do."
Murphy didn't like his own argument being turned on him:
"With what? Do you have a shovel secreted about your person? I know I don't. The best we could have done would have been to cart him over to the nearest ditch and chuck him in it. Besides, when did we become such god-fearing folk? It's not as if we could have administered the last rights or anything."
"I'm off. Are you coming?"
"Aye, I suppose so," said Milligan and turned to go, "I wonder who he was, Murphy. "
"God alone knows, Milligan, God alone knows."
That He did.
People presuppose that they will sit up and take notice of life changing moments when they arrive.
Why, for crying out loud?
These moments are total strangers up till then. We might have heard talk of them, the day you become a man, for instance, or the day you'll meet Death face to face but most don't recognise the moment till it's upon them and some not even then.
Effect follows cause―true―but not necessarily right away, there's usually an incubation period. No one who might have bumped into Mary Mallon in New York would have thought anything of her. Even when some time afterwards their temperatures soared to 103 or 104 and the headaches and stomach pains began, even if a rash of flat rose-coloured spots appeared on them, even as they were taking their final breath not one of them would have given Mary Mallon a second thought. And why should they have? It wasn't as if she was going around her business wearing a sandwich board that said 'Typhoid Mary―steer clear' and even if she had who would have paid any notice?
It's exactly the same with these pivotal moments. We might get to know them over time if at all in the same way as we come to know ourselves or not. But there's a saying, and it's a true one: you never miss what you've never had.
No one plays the lottery to win; they play so that they can live in the hope of winning. Life's exactly that kind of lottery.
The More Things Change
I never used to believe in God. Until I met him. Then I didn't know what to think, let alone believe. I took it for granted he'd be taller, a loomer with a real sense of presence. Instead I found this silver-haired old fart from Planet Janet feeding swans in the dark from an inexhaustible bag of brown bread and babbling on about dogs and the mating habits of minor African deities. Was I disappointed? Tell me about it. - Jim Valentine
James Henry Valentine had never been one for finding things in this life, the odd copper or, if he was really lucky, a piece of silver glimmering on the pavement or, more often than not, on the step of a bus where he was too self-conscious to bend down and claim it. He'd never found out why the chicken crossed the road, how to turn base metals into gold or what Victoria's secret was. Once, in the middle of a zebra crossing, he'd stumbled on a passport photograph of a young woman and as he bent to pick it up had been nearly ploughed into the ground by a harassed nanny with a pram before her and a fractious three-year-old anarchist in tow. He still kept the picture tucked away in his wallet even though he had no idea who the woman was and didn't find her that attractive (her washed-out hair added years to her-he'd wondered at the time if she might have had a thyroid condition). He'd spotted dry rot in his flat, grey hairs up his nose and had recently realised he could no longer stride up stairs two at a time the way he had once been able to, but he had never happened upon anything of any real value in this life, least of all the secret to true happiness. This was less to do with his simply not being observant-you could blame that on his head always being either "in the clouds or up his arse" (his father's favourite jibe)-rather it was something else, something congenital, an intellectual myopia that kicked in whenever something outside himself caught his eye allowing him to make out little more than a blur or a smudge, as if he were peering through a Vaseline-smeared lens. It took some time before it dawned on him that other people had a far clearer view of life than he did with ambitions and goals and purpose. The outside world aside, Jim had never found himself either-an odd expression he'd always thought since there's nowhere for the self to go-although it wasn't for lack of trying. Finding looking without frustrating, his adolescence had settled into a holding pattern going from introspection to angst before running out of fuel somewhere east of the doldrums. He had been more than willing to slip slides of his fledgling personality under the microscope but could see no way to step outside himself to figure out where he might fit into this bigger picture people kept harping on about. The trouble was Jim was never exactly sure what he was meant to be on the lookout for or beating himself up over but everyone else was doing it so why shouldn't he? He was achingly normal after all. All of this was run-of-the-mill stuff. Chant that often enough and it'll become true as if by magic. Perhaps, he'd thought, he could get somewhere by going through the motions: self-actualisation by osmosis. This quest made its way in fits and starts towards adulthood; he was now running out of places to root about in and was in no rush to eliminate the remaining hidey-holes he had left to investigate. He was, if truth be told, fed up playing: game's a bogie! It would not be the first time he'd bailed before the final whistle if he thought he was going to lose or if he'd already lost interest. Winning was not a big thing with him; he rarely did anyway, certainly not when it came to sports. Despite this he was the kid who always had a football but whenever he threw a hissy fit and stomped off the pitch his ball went with him. What would Dale Carnegie have said? Hundreds of people go walkabout or sit in sweat lodges or gaze at their navels, all looking for themselves, but scant few give any real thought to what they would say if they finally ran into that self. Who's to say this other them would be any the wiser than they are? The best they could hope for would be to compare notes and get plastered.
"What if I discover I'm a bad person?" he'd asked one of his mates.
"Learn to do bad things."
"Take a correspondence course. How the fuck should I know?"
Finding yourself is not the same as discovering Africa or lucking upon some priceless antique at a car boot sale. Imagine you have this gizmo, an obsolete assemblage of cogs and pulleys and all kinds of mechanical bits and bobs, but it won't go. It's eesome, pleasing to the eye, sat there on the mantelpiece but it clearly needs a key to make it do whatever it was designed to do and you haven't got one. Every day you inspect it, try to figure out what possible use it could be to man or beast and every day you draw a blank. You solicit the opinions of intimate acquaintances-it becomes quite the conversation piece for a while until everyone (yourself included) tires of it-then one day, not a holiday or a holy day, a Tuesday most likely, by chance you knock over the ugliest vase you ever did see which smashes so perfectly one might have thought it had been made solely for that purpose and, as you're picking up the pieces, in their midst you find a funny-looking key and you say to yourself, "No!" Well, you decide to have a go. What is there to lose? You locate the contraption, which by this time has been relegated to a shoebox at the back of a wardrobe, dust it off, insert the key in the hole, take care not to overwind the thing and, well, what do you know? it does that. Who would have thought it could do that?
Maybe he had already found himself-the thought had crossed his mind-and not been all that impressed. That couldn't be me! No way, Pedro! No doubt it happens more often than people care to admit. And the longer the unwashed masses are prepared to wait it out the greater the likelihood they will be disappointed. It happened to the Jews. A woodworker's apprentice was not what the prophets promised so they renounced him and went right on waiting for their saviour, waiting for the sake of waiting, waiting as the basis of a whole religion. Christians, on the other hand, are expecting his Second Coming any day now. Muslims are waiting on the Mahdi, Buddhists on a bodhisattva named Maitreya, Hindus on Kalki astride his Schimmel with a blazing sword. While waiting to find himself Jim noticed the landscape in which he was loitering had altered: the classroom had become the lecture hall which had become a Jobcentre which then became another classroom. These weren't changes-let's set the record straight-they were relocations, decantations, nothing more. He didn't feel any different. Expectations shift. One day it was enough for him not to throw away sweetie wrappers and finish his homework; the next thing he was being asked to pay taxes and endeavour to educate children who didn't especially wish to be educated. Other than that it was business as usual. If he didn't acknowledge there had been any changes there hadn't.
"Change is inevitable," he'd heard someone say; someone on TV. "You've just got to get out in front of it." What does that even mean? Do they expect you to outrun it or something?
A sphere passing through a three-dimensional space appears in the distance as a speck which expands to form a circle of a certain size which, if the light is right, we realise is in fact a solid mass which then gradually shrinks until it becomes a dot again and eventually melts away. In that space the sphere appears to be a circle that changes. We can think of it as the same circle but it grows and wanes. It is a circle that shrinks until it becomes nothing and is never seen again. Not true. The sphere does not change. It only appears to change. By the same token, a chess piece moves but does not change. Its relationships alter, it becomes more or less of a threat, but, even if it leaves the board altogether or masquerades for an hour as a queen, a pawn is always a pawn at the culmination of the game.
Similarly a man moving through life may be perceived as an embryo, a foetus, an infant, a child, an adolescent, an adult in name only, legally an adult, actually an adult, middle-aged, senile and, ultimately, a corpse. Appearances can be deceptive. People pop up through life in all sorts of guises and getups but that's just packaging. Jim was the same person he had always been, in some respects within twelve hours of conception but certainly from the age of seven. It was the world that had changed about him. That sounds so Norma Desmond.
All a matter of perspective. Or had he been kidding himself?
His curriculum vitae reveals most if you read between the lines. It confirms he possesses a degree in English Literature but keeps its ordinariness to itself. It confirms that shortly after leaving university Jim secured a post as an English teacher where, after many years of continuous employment at the same comprehensive, in the same position and mostly in the same classroom, he is still nothing more or less than that: a teacher. It maintains his hobbies include reading and writing but it does not even hint at what else he might get up to in his spare time. It says that references are available on request but it does not reveal from whom or the fact he has not spoken to either of his referees in eighteen years and that they would likely pass him in the street and not recognise him, nor he them. (Part of the problem for his poor showing can be laid at the feet of his mother who, unbeknownst to her son and husband (both of whom would have derided her but for different reasons), had prayed to God, "Oh, Lord, please let him pass, please let him just scrape through." Perhaps she should have asked for more because God, who was in a benevolent mood that day, granted her wish and gave her exactly what she begged for and no more.) In isolation the fact her son became a teacher says precious little though it does set the scene. Once upon a time this would have been a profession that had a modicum of respect attached to it and a not discountable ooh-ah factor. "Oh, I hear your boy's a teacher! You must be so proud." It now was, however, the arse end of the millennium and both the education system and, it is sad to say, the aforementioned schoolteacher were each well passed their sell-by dates. Indeed, if the teaching profession had its prime before he was born Jim had to wonder when exactly his prime had been. Certainly his chosen career path had exhibited no discernible peaks or troughs; merely an inexorable decline. Yes, he had become a teacher but he was no Mr Chips. He wasn't even a Mr Hedges. Oh, no. Nor, to tell you the truth, had he aspired to be. He was simply Mr Valentine, one of three English teachers at one of the city's less distinguished secondary moderns. Even the pupils' nicknames for him had been unimaginative: from 1981, "Bloody Valentine", after the infamous Canadian slasher film; from 1992 until the present, "Shirley", which he wasn't sure if he disliked more or less; prior to 1981 nothing stuck-not "Val", or "Al" or "Tina"-and he rather wished that had stayed the case. What might have steered its way into a career under the helm of a skipper who actually gave a damn had drifted unceremoniously into what he did to make ends meet and then ran aground. Which was a crying shame but not something he let get him down. His father-a bin man since the docks closed-had harboured hopes for more (what father wouldn't?), that the fruit of his loins might strive to become a surgeon perhaps or a barrister, but he settled for Jim being "a complete wuss of a teacher" because he was not the dreamer his son was and could see this was the best the boy could be expected to obtain. James Henry Valentine Snr was never one to mince his words or his oaths. "He can't sing or dance and if he did he'd make a song and dance of it so what else's the boy going to do-write bloody poetry for a living?"
Whether life in general or anything in particular was or wasn't getting him down was often hard to tell with Jim. He was as deadpan as they came. More so. But this wasn't a characteristic inherited from either of his parents: his mother couldn't disguise her feelings if she tried and it would have been unwise to interpret his father's look of cold indifference as anything more or less than what it was. You knew when he was angry well enough and when he was happy, too, though it took a lot to make him happy and Jim lacked the knack. Most of the time the man was simply in neutral.
Like father like son, it is said, the apple not falling far from the tree and all that rot. If you stood man and boy shoulder to shoulder what might you see? There was an undeniable family resemblance-no one would suggest they weren't from the same stock (both were of a similar build with sallow, bordering on sickly pigmentation)-although neither would stick out in a crowd unless it was a royalty of Nubian princesses and, even there, people would likely be more taken with the women and so the men still probably would not get noticed as long as they avoided the front row. Physical attributes aside there were aspects of both men that you could fall on and say, "Aha! There!" if you were so inclined. Both struggled with the concept of joy and what little things did give them guilty pleasure-the adjective is really superfluous as all pleasure was synonymous with guilt-they each felt the need to internalise; it was not for sharing. And so the two of them would install themselves in front of their respective television sets, watching with the selfsame look of intense concentration on their faces and never so much as crack a smile, shed a tear or pass comment on the proceedings, belching and breaking wind excepted. Pleasure was an aside and rather surprised each of them when it did catch them unawares. It was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would slip from their grasp and there would be no turning back; how would that look? Jim could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he'd heard his father laugh; the actual occasions were so inconsequential he had forgotten them although an episode of Boss Cat rang a bell or it might have been a Tom and Jerry cartoon; his dad had a penchant for the early work of Messrs Hanna and Barbera. Jim's personal track record was nothing to write home about either. Why relaxing and opening up was such a source of embarrassment neither of them could have begun to explain if they'd even taken the time to think about it. But there was more. When Jim saw his father he saw his future. The man was worn and morose-"twisted" was one of his mother's expressions for him and it was an accurate one. "God made a tree so it can bend with the breeze. If it chooses to fight the winds of change the end result won't be pretty. That's what I always say," was how his mother put it and it was a fair comment in its own lay-poetic way.
Whereas the father could generally be goaded to some sort of response the son proved a much harder nut to crack. His poker face was no mere affectation either. The man seemed incapable of a knee-jerk reaction. Many pupils had tried-dropping books, slamming desks, one girl even shrieked when someone lobbed an exsiccated mouse at her-but this was a rock where even the most determined of them met their match. It was too hard to gauge how far they might have pushed him. Not infrequently they got the mix wrong and shoved him over the edge. That's the thing about borders, limits and edges; they never get the respect they deserve until it's too late. On these occasions the whole class would feel what, for Jim, stood in for his wrath on bad days. This generally necessitated copying out the full text of 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' or something equally tiresome; even before the strap was banned he found he didn't have the stomach for corporal punishment or the wrist action. His old man had been quick enough with his hands ("Spare the rod and spoil the child") and his mother, too, on occasion though she was more of a nag. Jim Valentine was not a teacher schoolgirls developed crushes on although one anonymous seventeen-year-old male vacillating over his own sexuality did compose several sorry sonnets in the style of Spenser over the course of a couple of terms and left them lying on his desk spattered in Brut, "the essence of man".
Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty.