It was Alice’s day off, a day away from the cancer wards.
She was cooking a ginger cake.
The sun was out for once and it was a beautiful late autumnal morning. She thanked the day for that. There was nothing worse than a horrible rainy day on your day off. She looked forward to seeing that ginger cake, hot and sweet smelling.
Cooking was good for her. Therapeutic. She was creating something instead of watching people suffering in their own bodily juices, in their blood, piss and shit. Their constant pain soothed by doses of morphine, the constant worry and complaints of their relatives. The head matron’s cold stare. Sometimes, she felt like a traitor to her profession as she thought about just pulling the plug, giving them that extra amount of morphine, just enough to set them free, for them to shuffle out of that stinking mortal coil. She knew she was there to keep them alive; her job was to prolong the agony.
An angel of pain.
She felt like getting drunk.
She preferred milk and flour.
She dreamt of becoming an anthropologist and living on the Steppes of Siberia in a hut. She had met a Russian shaman once in London, years ago when she had first moved there in her early twenties. He was a little strange but nice. He lived in a box under a bridge in Camden. He gave her a book of Russian folk tales. It fed her imagination. Because of this encounter she went on a two months holiday to Moscow and Siberia.
She had fallen in love.
She had fallen in love with the sparse countryside and the stoic people. She loved the passionate sounds of the language and the superstitions. She learnt from a woman that you should never have a painting in your house that had been painted by someone you didn’t know as the energy and feelings that gripped that person while painting were contained within the painting itself and they could manifest themselves into your life. She fell in love the old wives tales and their herbal remedies for all ailments. She fell in love with another country’s past and read endlessly about its history.
It had a culture that England had lost since the Enlightenment.
While stirring the cake mix, she heard Joy coughing in the room next door. She wished Joy would stop smoking as she didn’t want her to end up in ward like hers. Like Mrs. McGuiness, coughing pieces of her lungs up in between incoherent babblings about her kids, her kids that never visited her. She worried about Joy, had done since she met her.
Then there was Sam.
He had stumbled into their lives and had made Joy so happy.
Who would have thought that Joy had known him before?
He seemed like a nice chap but there was something secretive about him.
No, it wasn’t just him, it was them. Something bound them together, something hidden. This annoyed Alice a lot as she thought she knew pretty much everything about Joy, all her secrets. And it turns out she didn’t. Alice remembered telling Joy about her abortion when she was sixteen. She never told anyone else, besides her mum. It had hurt to tell her. The fact that Joy had a secret hurt her again. She felt a rush of anger at this and found herself whisking the mix harder, slamming it against the bowl. She glanced over to her cutting board, drying next to the sink. She noticed the biro drawn skull and crossbones on the corner of the board. It had a speech bubble that said “HELLO”. Sam had drawn it at the party, three weeks before. The child. She had spent most of her adult life feeling protective towards Joy that to find that someone else was as close, if not closer to her, took a spark away from her.
It had been her mission and now she felt that Sam was taking it away from her.
She stopped chopping and measuring and put the kettle on. A cup of tea always calms the nerves. She didn’t know why her nerves needed calming, but Sam always made her nervous. She found herself talking endlessly about nothing at all when he was around. But he was polite, should that be enough? No, politeness was an excuse for patronisation. She hated men that patronised her. She ate them up for breakfast. But he wasn’t directly looking down on her. It was because of Joy. They were like brother and sister. That masculinity was something she could never possess.
Joy wandered into kitchen, coughing, wrapped in her green dressing gown with pink fluffy slippers.
“Ooooo… is the kettle on?” cooed Joy with her morning enthusiasm.
“Yeah, d’ya want a cup o’ tea?”
“I’d love one, ta.”
“Y’see what Sam did at th’ party?” asked Alice with a slight malicious look in her eyes.
She gestured towards the desecrated chopping board. She didn’t know why she was telling Joy now. It had been there for three weeks, why hadn’t she mentioned it earlier? Maybe Joy had seen it before and was just patronising her. Female patronisation she could deal with. The skull smiled back at her.
“Ooo… the cheeky bast’d” chuckled Joy. “I always wanted a skull n’ crossbones tattooed on me.”
“But, not on me chopping board, eh?”
“Ah, it won’t kill ya.”
“But, it’s my chopping board,” she spoke with a stern look on her face, her Russian look as Sam had dubbed it, “…the mischievous child”
“Yeah, ‘e always was” smirked Joy then changing the subject she asked “Whatcha makin’?”
“A ginger cake, it’s me grandma’s recipe.”
Looking out of the window, Alice suddenly noticed a congregation of flying ants all over the window pane. She then saw more of them in the bin, on the floor, there was even one in the cake mix. They were everywhere, crawling over tea cups and cutlery. Ants had taken over the kitchen.
“Fuck!” she screamed, and Joy nearly dropped the kettle.
“Kill ’em!” shouted Joy.
“But, I’m a vegetarian!” answered Alice, picking the ant out of the mix and feeling a bit silly at her outburst.
“So, am I!” answered Joy, “And I’m a pacifist!”
The house phone rang. Alice answered it and a fake smile appeared over her face, she passed it to Joy. It was Sam.
Joy took the cordless phone into the living room while Alice continued to make the tea, staring all the time at the ants. She felt embarrassed, she had just been thinking about euthanasia and now she couldn’t kill some simple ants. They had a right to live too, but they were everywhere. Maybe they should phone a pest exterminator. She put the cake mix into a cake tray and into the oven. She hoped there were no more ants in there. Joy giggled next door and she put the phone down just as Alice entered the front room. She was beaming.
“It’s okay, Sam says he’ll come ’round and kill ’em for us. ’E’s in Camden an’ll be ’ere in a minute.”
“We don’t need Sam, I’ll do it after me tea” scowled Alice tenaciously.
The idea that a man could do what she couldn’t always ruffled Alice’s feathers. She would kill little ugly things before giving up that ideal.
“Suit yerself” shrugged Joy, sensing a mild hostility against Sam.
She hoped she wouldn’t have to take sides and switched on the telly. There was yet another rerun of Dad’s Army on. They sat and sipped their tea at the fumbling antics of the old men and their gentle take on a war in which millions were killed in a hail of bullets, shells, doodlebugs, gas chambers and Hiroshima.
About half an hour later the doorbell rang and Sam stumbled into the house.
After the niceties were over, Sam took a look around the kitchen and set to his murderous work. Within ten minutes he had killed the lot of the six legged pests, taken the bins out and cleaned the windows and floor.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take the karmic repercussions, eh” Sam said sarcastically.
“Thanks” said both ladies and Alice felt secretly relieved that she hadn’t had to commit six legged genocide. She began to feel uncomfortable, stuck between the two of them and so she went back into the kitchen to check on her cake. She didn’t need to, she just felt like she was interrupting things. Not any sex things, Joy may have been a predator but not with this one. This was something closer. They were like siblings.
When the oven proved itself to be working like it always did, she popped her head around the corner of the door, and she heard Sam telling Joy of a party he had been invited to. It was a birthday celebration for one of Sam’s friends that he had introduced the two ladies to a couple of weeks earlier. Joy said that she would come and Alice smiled and nodded in agreement, then made her excuses and left to do some shopping. As she left she felt twinge of envy at the two people sat in her living room. One she barely knew, the other one she thought she knew better than most.
The two friends had another cup of tea and they sat in silence for a minute or two and Joy made a joint. Mental cotton wool. Sam didn’t usually smoke weed, he found it didn’t help his mental state and left him in fear. He could never sleep after smoking as his head just wouldn’t stop whirling with thoughts and images. But he felt safe there. There were no Black Dogs or ghosts from the past there. With Joy there was a little piece of home.
Joy started talking about Alice.
“She was up this mornin’ cleaning at nine o’clock.”
“She certainly makes up for lost time, eh? It must be tough, doin’ a job like ‘ers. Workin’ full out.”
“Yeah, she does care y’know. Makes me feel lazy though, that’s why I’m glad you came ’round. Days off ‘re for doin’ nothin’. Except drinkin’, of course.”
“That’s a point.”
“We’ve got some wine and vodka.”
“Wine’ll be fine.”
Joy went out to find a bottle and Sam looked around the room at the chaos of CD’s, empty bottles and books.
“I bet she spends more time ’ere than the other one” he thought.
Joy returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
That afternoon they drank and smoked and watched a DVD.
It was Altered States.
Sam watched the terrifying visions brought on by sensory deprivation and LSD. He understood the doctor’s need to find meaning. His urge to discover life’s secrets. Sam felt electricity run up and down his spine, something inside him was watching too and was panting.
As they watched the final scene where the doctor becomes empty essence of life, Joy turned to look at Sam. She asked him a question.
“Sam, why do things ’ave t’kill other things?”
Sam didn’t answer; he just stared at the man and woman holding each other on the screen.
Alice wandered around the shops, looking for food to buy. In her spare time, she had decided to write a book on vegetarian Russian and Eastern European cooking. Seeing the sudden increase in interest in the influx of immigrants from that part of the world, she felt the time was right for an understanding of their culture, and what better way but through food. A way to people’s hearts was though their stomachs. She was sure that it was going to be the next food fashion in London. A good way to make an extra quid.
She was going to make borscht that evening, a soup that traditionally was made with beef, along with the cabbage and potatoes. Being a vegetarian, she decided to swap the meat with lentil balls. A substitute. As she wandered around the food market, looking for that special bargain in that special feminine way, she began to lose herself in her thoughts amongst the West Indian cabbage sellers and Turkish cheap underpants stalls. Her mind went out to the steppes of Siberia. She saw herself sat in front of her hut as she bought a half kilo of potatoes, she saw the beauty of Lake Baikal as she exchanged money for apples and felt the cold artic wind whip her face and she smiled.
As she wandered back to the house, she passed a group of dodgy looking youths arguing amongst themselves, preening themselves up for a confrontation about some drugs unpaid for or other such nonsense, their baseball caps primed for action. Alice didn’t notice them as she had begun to get lost in a tale of the Slavic forest hag, Baba Yaga that she had read that morning while enjoying her well deserved lie in.
The spirit was flying around the city in her pestle and mortar sweeping up her tracks behind her. She was heading for her house on chicken legs that was parked somewhere around Camden Lock, a fine place to find some tourist’s child to eat. A decade ago there was no way that Alice would have gotten caught up with such grotesque images and imaginary thoughts.
She had come from an intellectual family background, her siblings all born atheists, which being another kind of indoctrination had bred rebellion. Alice had initially felt herself drawn to the myths and legends of her blood which was Scottish. That feeling of being misplaced, she felt Scottish yet had only lived there for a short time as a child, her accent had vanished a long time ago. It had led her to a Romantic search and grasping for an identity she could never truly have. And since meeting the shaman, it had led her to an understanding of another culture from far away. A culture that still believed in something, but that was itself grasping to lose it in the melee of politics and Western influence.
A corrupt culture where Stalinism and Glasnost had given way to survival of the fittest.
She wished to preserve some of it at least, to claim its antiquarianism for herself.
That was before she had started work at the hospital in the cancer wards. Before she had met and become close to Mrs. McGuiness, before they had shared jokes and truths. Before she had seen her suffer and die.
She used to have an idealistic view of the world, but that had shrivelled up into a tumour. A nasty little tumour that she tried to keep alive, but felt like she was betraying everyday. She didn’t know if she had the strength to carry on working there, seeing the things she saw everyday.
Smelling the dying.
She wanted that her old self back, one that would see the best in people, not one that saw them become wretched and nasty with their pain.
Mrs. McGuiness had remained in her memory because of the dignity with which she had dealt with her end.
Alice remembered seeing Mrs. McGuinness’ son come to visit the old lady while she was still strong enough to stand up. He had bought her a hat. It was a superficially beautiful gesture but it had only served to irritate Alice. When would she get to walk in the streets with it? To Alice it was nothing more than a cruel joke of life until one day she had walked in to see the old dear stood up wearing it.
“’Ow do I look, love?”
Alice then saw her as a human and a victim of circumstance.
“You look almost regal, Mrs. M.”
“Oooo… Do call me Marge.”
It was the last time Alice had seen her stand up. Whenever she thought of pulling the plug, she thought of that image. An old lady who was on the verge of death was stronger than any of those idiots who assailed her with abuse and come-ons.
Alice thought about her ginger cake rising in its tin.
It was a good enough thought for that day.
The Man was sat on a scruffy old armchair. The armchair looked as if it had seen better days a long time before it was left in the front room of the halfway house. This would be the chair’s resting place until left on the street to rot or collected by the council and burned. The chair was essentially homeless. It was biding its time like the people who came through the door. Like the Man sat upon it.
The Man scratched his nose and turned the page of his King James Bible. It was early and the place was quiet for once with only the warden, “the caretaker” as the men who stayed there called him, milling around in the kitchen. The cold winter’s sun had only just come up over Whitechapel and nobody else staying there had woken up yet. The Man was reading Genesis 19. “Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven; …” the Man marvelled at how merciful God had been.
Ahhhhhhh, if it had been he who was God…
The Man then dismissed the idea feeling the twinge of blasphemy in his thoughts.
The Lord’s most loyal servant?
No, God understood him. He understood his ways and his mistakes. God was with him all those nights in prison. All those seconds over one weakling woman who was now suffering eternal damnation for her sins and stupidity. She was dead and all was well in that direction. It was all the other directions he was worried about. North. South. East. West. The Devil was present in all directions, even in his own blood, his own family. Even in this hostel.
He knew he would never go back to prison again. Jesus himself had told him as much. He had appeared before him one night in a dream all His righteous and wonderful glory. He had told the Man that his work was not yet finished. Christ had carried a sword, a sword of fire and brimstone and had given it to him.
He reread the sentence one more time, his blood stirring at the violence implied against the sinners. In his mind’s eye he saw the Sodomites on fire, the dirty degenerate filthy animals, falling and whirling into an Earth that was swallowing them up like a gigantic dark whale with a cloud of plankton. He began to smile. God was indeed merciful.
There was one of them staying in the hostel. It was staying in the room right next to his own. It was a fey and sickly looking queer. Its name was Georgie and it was originally from Glasgow. The Man had never talked to it, even though this Georgie had tried to strike up conversation more than once. He refused even to speak to this creature. That it was not dead at birth was one of the proofs that the powers of evil were all around us day by day. When the creature had tried to talk to him, he had just stared at it, stared and stared through the questions and the foul smell of its breath, stained, no doubt, with semen. He had heard it talking to another of the guests at the hostel one evening. It had been in prison for possession of heroin. Two evils all wrapped in one disgusting putrid shell. The Man had so much work to do, so little time to complete it all.
In a couple of hours he had to go down to the unemployment office for an interview. This irritated him as he had to miss his ritual morning service with his small congregation in the front room of Garratt’s house. The only place where he could now practice his life’s calling, that of sowing the seeds of righteousness amongst the killers, sinners, abortionists and the fuckers. They were the ones who would suffer over and above the pleasure that they reaped now. They would suffer a million times more than their ecstasy. This was God’s love. An exquisite suffering. Like his wife now did.
The man heard stirrings upstairs. It sounded like people were beginning to surface. He felt a wave of nausea at the thought of seeing them all that morning, coughing and lighting up their cigarettes, destroying everything that was holy in them. He closed his Bible and leapt up the stairs depositing the book into his room and grabbing his coat, tying up his boots and locking up his room, he leapt out of the hostel for those trying to get back into society, into the morning world.
He would pass through Oxford Circus before he went down to the Whitechapel Unemployment Office. He had two hours before his interview and he wanted to see what souls the centre of evil brought for him today.
Taking the bus, the Man found a free seat on the top deck and stared out of the window. Nobody sat next him for the whole journey, even though the bus was becoming packed. This was a common occurrence, it was not that he looked particularly crazy or dirty, but there was something about him, something sharp. It gave people the horrors, especially children. Whenever a mother and a child sat next to him, the child would always begin crying when it realised who it was sat next to. This made the man feel content. He remembered his brother doing something like that in church once in front of a preacher, and the Man had seen it as sign of the suffering of the sin to come.
He arrived at Oxford Circus, forty five minutes after getting on the bus and as was usual stood on the pavement of Regent’s Street, not caring about the other pedestrians; hands outstretched listening, breathing, smelling, feeling.
“I am here, Satan. I can see you!” he spat, taking no notice of the stares and amused glances, all those nods and winks.
The crowds were already starting to descend upon the shops like vultures on a zebra’s corpse. The Man began to laugh as he walked towards the crossroads of Oxford Circus. Stood in the centre, on the crossing, he saw Matthew, one of his congregation, already stood there talking to the masses through a loud hailer. Matthew was a good lad, a spunky young tearaway who had seen the light after taking too much Ecstasy, they had met one day in that very spot one Sunday morning and after a cup of tea and a chat Matthew had joined him in his mission to save the world from its imminent destruction. The Man had noticed the change in Matthew since that day. When he first met the lad he was so full of beans and enthusiasm that the Man was almost whisked away on a tide of religious feeling and love for this lost sheep come back into the fold of the true way of life.
But to listen to him now…
The boy’s voice was nothing more than a mere drone. It worried the Man, but he reasoned that their mission was far from easy. And some casualties were inevitable. It never once crossed the Man’s mind that he had caused this change. That he had stolen a spark of the man in front of him. A spark. Looking at Matthew, the man saw a loyal soldier. A soldier suffering from the fatigue of a spiritual war.
He was hunched over with his eyes closed, a scrawny beard on his face, his non brand prescription glasses lying on the end of his nose, his brown parka jacket done up to his throat; he looked like a maniacal trainspotter and as the man got up close to him he saw that the boy in front of him was crying.
The young man opened his red tear stung eyes.
The boy stopped his monotonous gibbering and clasped the Man’s hand. The Man enjoyed being called “Father” again. He lapped it up. For that was what he was, a Father. They were his children. He looked after them. All ten of them. They were the Acolytes of the True Christ, with him taking on the mantle of leader. He knew where to look for the souls that needed guidance. Some had kept in contact with him since his prison term and were old friends. Others like Matthew were new blood. Fresh blood was always preferable as their zeal tended to purer. But there was something about Matthew that was worrying The Man.
“How are you, young man?”
“Tired. Why don’t they listen, Father? What’s wrong with them that they can’t see” he said lifting up his glasses and wiping his eyes without any shame of the gawping people around him.
“It’s getting too much for me, Father” he whispered as the Man cradled the twenty-something in his arms. Then suddenly the Man stood away from Matthew and struck him hard across his head, knocking Matthew’s glasses onto the floor to be crunched under the boot of a teenager walking with a swagger that had yet to be earned. Around him people froze. Then when they saw the unusual drama unfold in front of them; the man on knees weeping, the other stood over him gnashing his teeth, they scuttled off, minding their own business, always. The law of London.
Don’t get involved.
“YOU WEAKLING!” the Man hissed at the cowering creature below him.
The Man looked down upon himself and lightly brushed himself down, even though there was nothing to brush. It was a gesture of change, of moving on.
“Do you not think these people need you? Do you not think these people need to hear your words, to feel your passion to save them?” The Man spoke with a measured tone.
“I’m sorry, Father. It was a moment of weakness. Forgive me.”
“Don’t ask me, boy. Talk to Jesus, only he can save you now.”
Matthew stood up, holding his head down. The Man gently lifted his chin up and smiled at him. All would be well now. It happens to some of them sometimes, he reasoned.
“Thank you, Father.”
“I trust we’ll see you in the morning for communion, tomorrow? There’s some serious work that we need to discuss together, okay?”
“Of course, Father.”
“Good, I hope so.”
The Man scratched his chin, his eyes burrowing into Matthew.
“You must come, Matthew, she’ll be there.”
Matthew stared at the floor, his face contorted with some inward pain.
“Yes, Father. Of course I’ll be there.”
The Man nodded once in agreement.
“I have to go now, Matthew, to render unto Caesar what is his. I may stop back here later, ok?”
“Of course, Father.”
Turning around without saying his farewells the Man disappeared into the crowd, behind him he heard Matthew weakly saying, “Goodbye, Father.”
He was such a good boy.
The Man looked at his watch, just enough time to get to the interview, if he took the bus. He never took the Tube, he hated its intimacy, its lack of privacy. The fact that one was the same as all the others, an equal amongst the swine. He couldn’t bear that. To feel equal with all the sinners.
To have to empathise in some way, why should he?
He was chosen, he was better.
He was on a mission.
The man arrived for his interview right on time.
He was told to wait.
Looking around him he felt the holy light of God and his angels all around him, protecting him against the worldly and earthy powers of the Evil One. He knew that the Devil knew him and recognised him by the multitude of angels above his head. He was noticed but he felt no fear, he knew that he was noticed by all the Muslims that gazed upon him with their false teachings. Ready to blow him and his country all to hell with their violent ways, he knew that he was noticed by all the homosexuals and their deviant and unnatural ways, he knew that he was noticed by all the single parents, those idiotic females with their squawking bastard kids, and the Catholics and their Papal devotions, and the atheists with their scientific reasoning that brought life to nothing more than atoms.
So many enemies.
He had so many enemies.
They were everywhere he looked, around all corners, through all keyholes. It blew his mind apart sometimes at how precious he was to the world. He felt such a feeling of being special, of being unique, of being chosen, at times that he wondered what it felt like to be them, with their lusts and dirtiness. He was truly blessed.
He remembered his father and how life had taken away most of what it had given to him in gifts. His job, his health, his humour. But he still had his religion, not like those who have an easy life, a modern day life. Then, when one bad thing happens to them and they lose all their faith in life, in God. He kept that one strength, no matter what could have been taken away from him, he would have prayed through the pain, through the prescription drug-haze. He never lost. He was the winner. Until and after his death. He was now in Paradise, eating that good fruit, hearing the choirs of the Heavenly Host, in God’s Grace.
The Man remembered his father’s funeral. There was just him, his mum and the Baptist minister. The Man’s brother wasn’t there. He was never there. He never even sent a condolence card or phoned their mother. But he was back now. The Man had spotted him one day in Oxford Street. He was back and he would pay for his crimes.
The Man’s name was called and he entered a room. It was a sad soulless room with a cream coloured ceiling and glass walls separating it from the other sad and soulless rooms. The Man thought that it wasn’t even a real room, just windows at four corners. It had posters and white stripes on its walls to separate here from there. Behind a desk was a small little man with glasses. He was young but was already going bald. He was writing as the man entered and motioned for him to sit down without looking up. It was an obvious tactic to show some kind of superiority over the man. His nametag read “Paul Grigson”, and the man thought that it was ironic that this specimen had been given the name of such a great Man.
Saint Paul the Apostle.
A Man as powerful as himself.
A Man who knew and hated women.
The Man sat down on a blue plastic chair and smiled.
Paul finished writing and looked up. He had a plastic file in front of him, and it occurred to the Man that Paul’s soul was probably plastic too. As were his genitals.
“How are you finding it being back in society?” asked Paul with that false-serious sense of concern that civil servants seem to have when dealing with people who have been through something in their lives that they would never be able to understand.
“Fine, I’ve ’ad a lot of support.”
“So, do you think that you are ready to start a restart course or some kind of educational training? Maybe I.T.?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of the construction industry. Being a builder in my former life.”
“Builder?” asked the little man suspiciously, “But I believe…” Paul was not given time to finish his sentence.
“What d’you believe, Paul?” There was something about the interruption and the condescending way that the Man spoke his name that made Paul wary.
“I believe…” Paul continued “that you were a member of the clergy before your time in the prison.”
“As I said a builder.”
Paul sighed at this deliberate struggle to undermine his authority.
“Okay. A builder, what have you helped build?”
“A Kingdom not of this earth, my son.”
Paul exhaled strongly and wished that he could stick the plastic pen that he grasped tightly into this Man’s eye and then piss on his corpse.
If only life was that fair.
If only God was that merciful.