’Tis all a chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays.
Edward Fitzgerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
This story has two origins. Four years ago I wrote a very short piece called Lost, as an experiment in unfolding a plot of a certain complexity within the limit of a thousand words. A few readers suggested that it deserved to be expanded. This is the result, with the original story embedded, virtually unchanged, in a much more complex framework. And the main inspiration for that framework comes from my good friend Alan who rightly points out that my tales, while frequently touching on matters of religion, have never got to grips with it; and he challenges me to try.
Hitherto I have not dared, for it is a risky theme, virtually never explored in stories of this kind. But here is the best I can do. It is low-key, because I cannot preach what I do not believe; and it is very personal, because in this respect my own upbringing and journey closely resemble Justin’s.
But it is not the only theme. Intertwined with it are two others of at least equal importance. One, the need for love, is standard fare. The other, the need for roots, is often overlooked. Without both, and without a sense of purpose imparted by faith of whatever kind, we can hardly be complete.
The characters are wholly fictitious, except in so far as they reflect myself, but all the cathedrals and churches are very real. The main action takes place in 1981-82.
I am indebted not only to Alan but also to Chris, Hilary, Paul, Pryderi, and above all to Ben, who have chewed over the content with me and, from their very varied standpoints, pointed my nose in useful directions. If few of them are satisfied by the final result, it does not diminish my debt. And as always Jonathan has been behind me.
14 February 2006
There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things: there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?
George Borrow, Lavengro
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of this night.
The words rolled unctuously around the church. Aslant from the west window, narrow sunbeams sliced through the evening shadow to the altar, tinting its white frontal with a stained-glass kaleidoscope of colour. One ray, catching the polished brass of the cross, reflected back to the congregation. But Justin’s were the only eyes to heed it, for his were the only eyes not closed in prayer.
Lighten our darkness. He rarely listened, these days. But for once the words caught his attention, and they rang true. His darkness needed lightening, he did not mind who by. And the night was indeed a perilous time, with seductive thoughts on the prowl. He recognised them as escapist. But did they offer escape from sordid reality, to be welcomed? Or sordid escape from reality, to be repelled? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other.
Yes, that prayer spoke to him. Words of that kind were one of the reasons why he still came to church. He could not evade the church-related chores which were his lot — his payment, it seemed, for a roof over his head. But there were some parental edicts he had rebelled against. He had kicked against the pricks — what phrase could be more apt? — and left the scouts because, though he did not say so out loud, he mistrusted the motives of the scoutmasters. He had pulled out of the choir when his voice broke, on the false pretext that he could no longer sing in tune. He had withdrawn from the youth group simply because he found it artificial and irrelevant. He had braved all the resulting ructions. And he had contemplated sticking his toes in and refusing to come to church at all. The ructions would be worse still, though he could hardly be dragged there by force. But it was something more personal and more powerful than force which kept him coming.
He was familiar, from a lifetime’s experience, with every detail of the Anglican liturgy. He knew the psalms and collects and prayers so well that he hardly needed to listen. He loved the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the bible as literary masterpieces, and admitted that they had some very sensible things to say. Not perhaps about God —the God who at home was rammed down his throat at every opportunity — because he very much doubted if there was a God at all. And he very much doubted if most of the bible was more than myth, or the prayer book more than mere spin-off from the bible. But provided he took them as myth and wish-list and not — he smiled at the feeble word-play — as gospel truth, they held plenty of relevance for him; and in their familiarity lay huge comfort. Passages from both, like this metaphor of lightening darkness, were for ever floating insistent in his mind.
But as usual, as he listened, he cringed at the nauseous piety of his stepfather’s voice. The Book of Common Prayer did not have to be slaughtered; witness the chaplain at school, who read it with sensitivity. Some clergymen, he admitted, might be cursed with a naturally unctuous voice. But the vicar’s unctuous voice, he knew only too well, was asham. Outside his profession, his stepfather was not unctuous. To his favourites he was straight-talking, manly or paternal as occasion demanded. To his bêtes noires he was a cynical and peremptory bastard. Bastard? Beware that word. It was Justin himself who was the bastard. Literally.
Next came a hymn, which Justin as usual sang with bland indifference to the words. Then the sermon, of the same unctuousness, during which Justin as usual switched off. He would be quizzed about it over supper, he would as usual fail the test, and his standing would as usual drop yet another notch. So what? So fucking what?
Instead of listening to the sermon, then, he sat back and let his eyes rove over the roof and columns and window traceries, delicate and airy and elegant. He loved this building as much as he loathed his stepfather’s services. The parish church of St Michael and All Angels in Blackheath was as fine an example of the early Gothic revival as you could wish, and every last detail of its architecture, scrutinised throughout three services every Sunday for as far back as he could remember, was etched on his brain, just as familiarity had etched the words of the prayer book.
His roving eyes sometimes set his mind wondering. Had St Michael’s — had every church, come to that, every cathedral — really been built on a false premise? Or was there a God after all, a Christian God? No, that didn’t follow. It couldn’t follow. Architectural glory was not evidence. The gods of Egypt and of Greece were long since dead as dodos, but just as much hard labour, just as much artistic inspiration, had gone into the Karnak temples and the Parthenon as into Salisbury cathedral. Yet … yet … had as much faith gone into them?
A titter ran round the church at some joke from the pulpit, but Justin barely heard it. His eyes had come to rest on the base of the tower — most unusually at the east end — above which, unseen from inside, soared the extraordinary spire, nearly two hundred feet high and almost indecently slender. It was popularly known as the Needle of Kent, for it had been in Kent when it was built in 1830, even if Blackheath had long since been swallowed into the obese belly of London. But an alternative name for the spire, he suddenly remembered, was the Devil’s Pick. By association with the vicar — he was in that mood today — he happily emended it to the Devil’s Prick. Interesting thought. Very interesting thought. He became aware of a glare from the pulpit. Oops. He had grinned at the wrong time. Never mind.
He mulled over the implications of the name. The spire pointed to heaven, and pricks pointed to heaven. OK so far. But did the devil’s point to heaven? It seemed the wrong direction. But then there was more than one heaven, wasn’t there? There was God’s long-term heaven which, if it existed, he doubted he would see, and there was the devil’s short-term heaven to which he was no stranger … But the vicar was pronouncing the invocation and the sermon was over.
Another hymn, and the unctuous blessing. If he moved smartly, he could now steal a heavenly hour of freedom before the bickering hell of family supper. Ignoring Mum’s scowl from the right, he forced his way out of the pew to the left, past William and Lizzie who were supposedly stationed there to block his exit. He neatly sidestepped a bevy of old ladies and was out of the church before his stepfather could make it round to the porch to shake everybody’s hand. If he left it three seconds too late, Justin’s hand would be shaken too. A fate to be avoided. And with the hand-shake, instead of some unctuous word of greeting, another chore would be curtly dished out. Today — huh, so much for Sunday observance — he had already clipped the churchyard hedge and mowed the churchyard grass, a five-hour job interspersed between services. Wasn’t that enough?
Pulling off his statutory tie, he cantered away along the avenue of great trees springing into April leaf, between the Georgian and Regency houses beloved of upmarket estate agents, down into the village — a notional village, these days — and up the other side to the Heath. Blackheath was a mile-long expanse of uninterrupted level turf, overlooked peaceably on one side by houses, bordered raucously on the other by the A2, the main Dover Road, with its vomit of traffic masochistically spewed out from London’s maw and sadistically grinding its way back in. But in the middle of the Heath a solitary person could be solitary enough. And, the land being high, there was generally breeze enough to blow away the cobwebs spun by religious spiders in Justin’s head. By cooler night, under the moon and the few stars that pierced the urban glow, it was more effective still. Night here was good. But this evening the sun was still in the throes of going to blood-red bed.
The Heath, five miles out from the hub of London, had served over the centuries as a convenient rallying point for armies. And for rebels. Here in 1450 the Kentish Rebellion under Jack Cade had come to a head. So had the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, exactly six hundred years ago, when John Ball had roused the rabble with a premature call for democracy. Justin approved, for he had a fine sense of history as well as a fellow-feeling for rebels.
But even out on the Heath he could not escape the odour of sanctity, literal or metaphorical. He passed All Saints, isolated amid the grass, and wrinkled his nose at the incense wafting out from the open door, for this church was as high as it could be without actually owing allegiance to Rome. And there to the right was the mound from which, tradition said, George Whitefield had barnstormed his early brand of Calvinistic Methodism, as far in one sectarian direction as Anglo-Catholicism was in the other.
Warm from his haste, he shed his jacket and lay down on it. Damn all extremist preachers. Damn those in the middle, too. Damn, especially, his stepfather. Damn, even, his … No, he couldn’t damn his Mum. Blood is thicker than water. His stepfather was not his father, but Mum was his mother. She nagged him, she irritated him — just as, he knew, he irritated her — and in the regular spats which disturbed the vicarage peace she consistently took her younger children’s side. And her husband’s too, for she subscribed to that same brand of piety. Yet he recognised, deep inside her, some sort of love. An exasperated love, a shamefaced love, a rationed love, but love of a sort. She was the only home-grown light, glimmer though it was, that lightened his darkness.
At school, although there too the darkness lay often upon him, there were more lights and more companionable ones, with Robert outshining them all. School was less intolerable than home. Much less. But at home there were only two and a quarter reasons for not doing away with himself. One was the memory of the lights at school. The second was the occasional sunbeam of freedom when he was released from the embracing shadows of the vicarage to do his own thing on his bike, or when he could snatch an hour for his reading or his music; solitary freedoms, true, but better by far than solitary slavery.
And the quarter reason was Mum.
Quite often, in his periodic spells of desperation, he had contemplated pinching out those two and a quarter lights and descending into total and eternal darkness. But while the lights might individually be weak, their lure was strong. They were sweet. Too sweet to snuff out.
His life, especially at home, might be ill-lit. But why was his soul so dark? Other boys of his age, with equally unpromising backgrounds, could shrug off their troubles and lark and laugh and play the fool, at home as well as at school. Why could not he too? Why, with the sole exception of Robert, did he evade the friendships which were surely there for the asking if only he made the effort? Why did he retreat into his melancholy and feed it with introspective brooding, enriched only by his music, his reading, his love of church architecture, and his desires?
Desires? Enriching? Huh. His lower ones were hardly enriching. They were superficial. When in his solitude he gave way to them, his reward was indeed escape from his darkness. But only temporary escape, for self-disgust invariably set in … until the next time.
His higher desires were another matter. They involved someone else, not just himself, not just a good friend like Robert. They involved closeness, spiritual and physical, with someone who identified with him, with whom he identified. They would indeed enrich. They promised a permanent escape into light. But there lay the snag — they only promised, for they were untested and unfulfilled.
So why didn’t he actively look for this higher fulfilment, rather than passively hope for it to come his way? It was not a lack of social confidence. He could hold his own with anyone at school, and his dark humour was a hit with the ladies at church. But that was an external confidence, a suit of plate armour protecting what was inside.
And what was inside? Nothing, for all he knew. There was no peace there, no strength, no hope. What certainty had he to cling to? Only the daily round, the common task. What solidly good certainty had he to build on? None. He had no father and only a bit of a mother. Where had he come from? Where was he going? What was the Justin inside the armour? He had no identity, and that made him feel not only futile but somehow guilty too.
Should that higher fulfilment — the possibility of that higher fulfilment — ever loom up over the horizon, how could he offer himself to anyone if he did not know what he was offering? All he had to offer seemed to be … it was hard to put the sense of futility into words … a single undistinguished grain of sand in an indefinite desert? Paltry flotsam adrift on the ocean? A plant trying to grow without roots? Yes, that seemed a fair metaphor for not having a father.
He had chewed it over often enough with Robert, and Robert’s reply was consistent and robust. He knew the score at the vicarage. He had never been there because Justin was reluctant to invite him, but he knew all about it at second hand, and that defined his reply. Justin’s problem, he said, was simply that he lived in a loveless atmosphere. What mattered was love, from whatever source. The physical absence of a parent, good or bad, was an irrelevance.
“Look at Geoff,” he had said on one occasion. “His parents are divorced, and he only sees his father once in a blue moon. But there’s nothing wrong with Geoff.”
“Agreed. Geoff’s great. But that’s the point. As well as having a loving mother, he knows who his father is. So he knows who he is, and how he got here. I don’t.”
“Look,” Robert had said patiently. “If you’re offering friendship, your father doesn’t come into the picture. You’re not offering your father. You’re offering yourself and nothing but yourself. A fully-fledged individual in your own right. And in your case a damn good one, if you’d only recognise it. I’m your friend, I hope, and I take you as you are.”
“Yes, you are. Thank goodness you are. And you do. But you don’t really understand. OK, my parentage shouldn’t affect how you see me, and it doesn’t. But it does affect how I see myself. It isn’t so much the absence of a father that bugs me. It’s ignorance about him. Total ignorance.” Justin had sighed. “It’s all very well for you. You’ve got good roots and you know what they are. Even Geoff knows about his, whether good or bad. But I haven’t got any. What use is a plant without roots?”
“Of course you’ve got roots. Everyone’s got roots. In your case you just can’t see them.”
“All right. But what if they’re rotten? Good plants can’t grow from rotten roots.”
“Not in the vegetable kingdom, maybe,” Robert had admitted. “But we’re talking metaphors. Lousy parents can produce good children, and good parents lousy ones. As you very well know.”
Yes, he knew. But Robert, kind, considerate, huge comfort though he was, for once was wrong. Or not wholly right. He still did not fully understand the vacuum inside. Only a soul-mate — someone on exactly the same wavelength — would fully understand. When, that is, he materialised. If he materialised. If there was anything inside to be understood. Not even Robert’s reasoning could prevent Justin from agonising about his empty self.
Who was he? What kept him ticking? Where did he come from? How did he get here? By way of Mum, of course. That was the physical answer, the easy one. And at least, from her, he had a smidgen of an identity, even if an ambivalent one. But it takes two to make a baby, and what bugged him was the lack of a father. Well, obviously he had had a father, and apparently he still had one. More accurately, as he had told Robert, what bugged him was the lack of knowledge of his father.
He had never seen him. He did not even know his name. Plead as he might, he was refused all information. He would learn the truth, he was told, in the fullness of time. But that was not good enough. He would rather know, here and now, that his father was a multiple murderer serving life in Wormwood Scrubs than know nothing at all. Yet at least he could guess, from this conspiracy of silence, that his father would be as out of place in the vicarage as he was himself. That alone created some sort of bond between them.
And there was one solid fact about his father that he did know. His stepfather would never, by himself, pay Justin’s fees at boarding school. Even if he could afford them, which he surely couldn’t, he would certainly not favour Justin over his own kids, who were at state schools. The one thing Justin did know about his father was that he paid for his education at Hambledon. That didn’t necessarily mean that he cared — he might have been forced to pay by a court. But the education was good, as Justin readily acknowledged, and it took him away from the vicarage for two thirds of the year. And that was something to be hugely grateful for. Yes, grateful to his father.
Give thanks to the Lord, it was incessantly hammered into him, that he had a comfortable home and a caring family, as if he were a stray mongrel charitably taken in off the street. A caring family? Hollow laughter. They hardly cared, and apart from Mum they were not his family. The implication was that they were doing the Lord’s work. But he had little cause to give thanks, either to them or to the Lord. And nobody ever told him to give thanks to his father. But he did. His thanks were his own, private and unsolicited.
He constantly wondered about him. One day he would learn about him. One day he might even meet him. Reason told him that that was an ambiguous prospect; but instinct — or was it residual optimism? — told him that it was a hopeful one. Maybe it counted as another quarter of a light to help lighten his darkness. But should his father ever materialise as a good father, he would count as a whole new light, and more. So would the longed-for soul-mate. So too would a purpose in life.
The breeze was now chilling his body through his cotton shirt but doing little to disturb the cobwebs in his head. Oh hell. Tomorrow, he decided, he would take the law into his own hands. He would get the family out of his hair, and himself out of theirs, a day early. He would cycle to Rochester and look at the cathedral again. And on Tuesday — God, what a relief! — he was off to school for the start of the summer term. He put on his jacket and made his way back to the vicarage, where he trod inadvertently on a disgusting plastic object that was lying camouflaged on the tiles of the ill-lit hall.
“Mummy!” came the instant whine. “Justin’s squashed My Little Pony!”
“Let me see, Lizzie dear. Yes, almost flat. What a shame. Poor Pony. Justin, did you do this deliberately?”
“Of course not. It was on the floor and I didn’t see it.”
“Why can you never look where you’re putting your feet? You’ll have to buy her a new one.”
Justin muttered something.
“Mummy!” That was William, spanning the two syllables with two octaves because his voice was breaking. “Did you hear Justin? He said a naughty word.”
Family supper was no better. An unfair grumble that his hands were engrained with oily dirt from the mower ― doubly unfair because they had already grumbled at it today and because they would not supply solvent to get it off. The expected complaint at his leaving the church with indecent haste. The expected test on the sermon, which he failed. The expected protest at his plan for tomorrow which entailed evading his chores — only the fact that he was heading for a cathedral converted it from an outright ban into a petulant protest — coupled with a superfluous lecture about avoiding the dangerous A2 and keeping to smaller roads. As always, Justin sulked. As always, it made matters worse.
By lunchtime next day, however, he was far from sulking. He sat in Rochester cathedral, gazing down the length of the nave towards the great tower arch and abstractedly biting his lip. Inthe plain and heavy Norman arcades on either side he saw a solid certainty, unquestionable and unquestioning. Old Bishop Gundulf who built them nine hundred years ago had surely known — not merely thought, but known — that God existed.
As once or twice in the past, Justin’s customary agnosticism was dented. He felt on the verge of discovering something big and good, bigger and better than himself. The hint of a voice promising to tell him what he was and what to do about it. An inkling that life was worth living. A whiff of joy in prospect. A touch, for once, of peace and strength. A presence such as Wordsworth had sensed.
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought
And rolls through all things.
Uplifted, thinking hard, dutifully keeping to smaller roads, he headed for home. As he coasted back down Shooters Hill, not far from journey’s end, an overtaking car cut in front of him without warning and sent him flying. It did not stop. Shaken but hardly hurt, he picked himself up and mopped the graze on his hand. With a bitter heart he inspected his buckled front wheel. Until he could save the money for a new one, no more excursions. A new black cloud had swept in to block this sunbeam of freedom. The Easter holiday, already dire, had ended in disaster. On top of that, once home, he was met not with sympathy but with a tirade for dangerous cycling and for being late for supper.
As early as possible he took himself to his room. The normal placidity of his dark millpond had been whipped into a white surf of anger. That was not unusual, and he had an established technique for calming troubled waters, a safety valve for relieving internal pressures. But today, when he had felt within touching distance of the divine, it seemed inappropriate.
The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God; wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness.
He tried. He tried valiantly, but nothing helped.
He tried to recapture that whiff of joy. Beethoven’s Ninth was normally guaranteed to uplift him. He did not know much German, but the opening lines of the Ode to Joy always haunted him with their elusive promise. Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium. Joy, bright divine spark, daughter of Elysium. But tonight neither words nor music uplifted him, nor did they dilute his rage. Instead they mocked him. Joy was inaccessibly far beyond his grasp. Beethoven had failed him.
Next he tried to vent his wrath with Verdi’s Requiem, which usually he loved. But tonight it was mass of contradictions. In the Introit and Lux aeterna God was indeed there, infinitely merciful. In the Sanctus he was there, the creator of beauty. In the Dies irae he was there, but now the terrifying judge. And at the end, with Libera me echoing endlessly into the void, he was simply not there at all. God had nothing, after all, to say. God too had failed him.
Angrily Justin reverted to normal practice and beat himself off. Even that did not ease the pain.
Two days later the Slut was lying in a meadow a mile from Hambledon, well out of public sight behind a budding hawthorn hedge, absorbing the sun, picking lunch out of his teeth with a grass stalk, content enough. God, for all he knew or cared, was having a siesta in his heaven, and all was right with the world.
“Roll me over,” he sang invitingly to a curious rabbit, “in the clover, roll me over, lay me down and do it again.” The rabbit considered it briefly, but loped away.
Urchin-faced, younger-looking than his years but in experience a veteran, the Slut was the school tart. Once upon a time, according to the lore handed down from his predecessors who in turn had trained each new generation, trade had been overwhelmingly brisk. No longer. But he was a pragmatist. He knew full well that, even in these days of slack demand, it was not a matter of if he was caught, but of when. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may … and he meant to gather a few this afternoon. There was the sound of somebody climbing the gate.
“Thought you were never coming. Here, sit down. You say you haven’t done this before? Right then, what I suggest is an introduction to the basics.”
He leaned over and unzipped his customer’s flies. The customer, with the air of taking a desperate plunge, did the same to him.
If heaven denies thee aid, seek it from hell.