They rang the bell and the smiling face of Carol and Steve greeted Sam and Dorsett as the door was opened. Carol stood aside as she led them in.
‘Hello, you two. Come on in.’
Kisses that were not kisses but cheek to cheek contact were exchanged to confirm affection. Steve and Dorsett shook hands and made brief eye contact, relieved to let the women’s familiarity take over. They walked into the living room and sat at the dining table which had already been laid out.
It was a house well organised, styled through a partnership of ideas. Obscure paintings decorated the walls and sculptures postured on the floor, some created by friends; obviously a place free of children or pets.
The wine was opened and the small talk began, mostly encouraged by Sam and Carol. Aware that the two men had hardly spoken, Sam tried to instigate conversation with a mutual interest.
‘Have you seen Steve’s books, Dorsett?’
Even though he knew they weren’t in the room, Dorsett looked about him.
‘No I haven’t.’ he said, waiting.
Steve took the prompt and walked to the door.
‘Come on. I’ll show you.’
Dorsett was led through a hallway to another room where three of its four walls had high cabinets stacked with books. The lamp was already on in preparation.
‘I see you’ve got them in alphabetical order.’ said Dorsett, looking closer.
‘By the author’s names.’ replied Steve. ‘How do you arrange yours?’
‘I don’t. They’re placed wherever there’s room. Once a corner’s full, I put any additions under my table. I know where they are if I want to get them.’
‘Whatever works for you, I suppose. By the way, if there’s any here that takes your fancy, help yourself. You can bring them back whenever you want. That whole section there relates to poetry.’
‘Thanks, but I don’t write poetry anymore.’
Steve turned to look at him but Dorsett pretended not to notice and kept his eyes close to the book spines.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ said Steve. It was a reply that kept the awkwardness of their last meeting alive and Dorsett fed it along.
‘Don’t be.’ he said. ‘The poem was terrible. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ve scrapped the whole thing and wiped it from memory. I’m considering writing poems about flowers. Much safer.’
Steve moved away from the books and closed the open door of the room quietly. They both stood facing each other and Steve opened his hands to him.
‘I’m sorry. I know I left you hanging last time, but I had little choice. And I did warn you not to mention it. You put me on the spot when you told Sam and Carol that I’d helped you with your poem.’
Dorsett claimed ignorance.
‘What are you talking about? You couldn’t have helped me. You’re dyslexic. Or have you forgotten?’
‘I don’t blame you for mistrusting me.’ said Steve. ‘But there’s one more poem you have to write. It’s about-’
‘No.’ interrupted Dorsett. ‘I’ve told you. I don’t write poetry anymore. In fact I probably never did. It was a waste of time.’
‘I couldn’t let them know I’d helped you,’ he said, ‘that’s why Carol and Sam had to have something that convinced them I couldn’t have been responsible. This whole story wouldn’t have worked.’
‘I know. I remember that bit. Because I had to stand in front of them like a fucking idiot and claim you helped write lines that were impossible for you to write. But don’t worry, you’re in the clear because it turns out I’m a born liar, a lunatic who gets help from imaginary people.’
He continued to look at the books but wasn’t focusing. Then something niggled at him and he turned.
‘You said Sam believed you’re dyslexic, too. It seems you were all in on this secret apart from me. That’s the bit that I hate. The fact that someone I love goes by your influence rather than living her life with mine.’
‘When I leave this story, Dorsett, I want to leave you two happy. But it’s beginning to twist in a way I couldn’t predict.’
‘Some fucking God. You can’t even direct something you claim your creativity is responsible for.’
‘You don’t understand. There’s a lot of free rein involved and nothing ever goes totally as planned. Stories don’t always stay on the original lines they started from. I remember you once asked me if I knew who wrote my story and I confessed ignorance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does. I’m his character, you are mine and Garbutt is yours. It full-stops at Garbutt because he’s a drunkard and not an author. As for my end, who knows how far the creativity goes back?’
Dorsett moved away from him and sat down on the only chair in the room at a table by the window.
‘And this new poem?’
‘It deals with preordainment.’ said Steve. Dorsett nodded slowly.
‘Of course it does. The professor and our discussion, my conversation with Garbutt. It all fits in now. The direction has been changed, hasn’t it?’
‘We all jumped ahead of ourselves.’ said Steve. ‘How or why something started, or where it’s going, has to be secondary to the question of whether it was planned or not. Discover the pre-ordainer, if there is one, and you have a better chance of answering the next questions of origins and directions.’
Dorsett protest with a raised hand. ’Let me translate what you’re saying here. You are asking us to look for God?’
‘God’s a word we made up. From a language you could say is limited.’
‘Limited or not,’ said Dorsett, ‘You and I understand the question. And looking for God is what it sounds like.’
‘This is the last one.’ said Steve. ‘Then I’ll leave you alone.’
‘Am I supposed to be grateful?’
‘Look. We agreed that the so-called nonsense question couldn’t be resolved, or at best it was answered ambiguously.’
‘No, we’re not supposed to know. That’s different from saying we don’t know. I’m certain that the question is unanswerable.’
’So you’re saying the question is nonsense?’
‘Yet you told Garbutt that if a question can be asked comprehensibly then it should have an answer that is equally comprehensible.’
‘I think that is a comprehensible answer. We’re not meant to know.’
‘In other words, we don’t know.’ said Steve.
‘I prefer to say we don’t know because we’re not meant to.’
‘But you’re only giving a reason for saying we don’t know. Therefore don’t know is the answer.’
Dorsett shook his head.
‘In this case, the reason is everything.’
’I think not meant to know implies something- or someone- prevents us from knowing.’ said Steve.
‘I’m glad you said that.’
‘But do you agree?’
‘I’m an agnostic apparently, so I suppose I do.’
‘Why are agnostics so afraid to commit?’
‘And why are atheists so sure of themselves? Neither of us knows the origin or direction of the cosmos, yet you call me a coward.’
‘I didn’t call you anything.’ protested Steve. Dorsett jabbed a finger in his face.
‘Why should I commit if I’m not sure? Why should I have to make a decision when I have no evidence?’
‘You had faith in Garbutt when he said he’d worked it out. Yet he had no evidence.’
‘I had to rely on his drunken insights. I still think that his guesses can be as credible as any scientist. Knowledge or imagination, take your pick. It’s a free target.’
Steve approached close to where Dorsett was sitting and stood over him.
‘I’ve already written the first two lines of the poem. It isn’t about origins or ends anymore. It’s about preordainment, because if the conditions for life on this planet were designed, then it follows that everything that happens could be designed also. Even though we believe we make our own choices.’
‘So you’re saying that whatever I choose to do is something that was always meant to happen?’
’Yes. Our memory is proof of it. Time’s moving forward and everything behind it is fixed as history, or life that’s been and is dead. Instances and moments are only small measurements of its progress, as gone to us as any prehistoric age. It just hasn’t had time to collect dust or turn the dead into fossils. It’s only memory or history books that record them. No one really lives, they move forward eating up the time until they run out of it. And it happens so fast. In a time scale relating to the life of the universe, we’re nothing but the blink of an eye in a century.’
Dorsett turned away from Steve and looked out of the window. He remembered one night when he lost his keys and was locked out of his flat and had to sleep in the garden shed overnight. It was the middle of January and he felt like he was enclosed in a freezer. That was no blink. It was the longest night of his life.
‘And you say you’ve already started it? Show me.’
Steve handed him a small piece of paper with two lines written across it.
‘A different rhyme scheme.’ noted Dorsett.
‘I thought it might be easier.’ said Steve. ‘I know you struggled a bit with your ABAB style before. I suggest we go for AABB.’
‘And how many stanzas are we looking at?’
‘That’s up to you.’
‘In that case, I think I’ll write a poem without stanza breaks.’ said Dorsett.
‘why?’ asked Steve, ‘To spite me?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorsett. ‘but also because I haven’t done it that way before. Neither will I know how long it will be. But every two lines will rhyme.’ He waved the piece of paper at him. ‘Don’t blame me, you set the pattern.’
Dorsett slipped the piece of paper into his pocket.
‘Tell me something: if I take this into the girls and tell them that you wrote it for me, what would you say?’
‘I would deny it, of course.’
‘What would be the excuse this time? Did you lose your sight as a child? Did your hands become paralyzed after birth?’
Steve ignored him and walked to the door.
‘Just play along with the story, Dorsett. It’s easier.’
They returned to the dining room and re-joined Sam and Carol. Dorsett appeared to forget his conflict with Steve and fell easily into the cordiality of the evening, drinking wine without restraint. When the meal was finished, they rested back on the chairs and Dorsett decided to play a game, curious to see how far credibility could stretch in Steve’s fabricated existence.
‘Carol, Steve, and I had been talking earlier about whether God exists or not. I said I didn’t know. I told you about that, didn’t I Sam, in that church? I said to him that if there is a God there’s no reason to believe it might not be a man but a woman. But Steve said that if there was a God then it wouldn’t be a woman.’
Carol gave a look towards Steve that was almost accusing.
‘You said that?’
Steve took the gamble to play along with the lie, afraid that a total denial might have tempted Dorsett to go further.
‘Not exactly. I never said that it would be impossible for God to be a woman. I said that for God to be a man or woman would be ridiculous.’
‘You seem to be implying that there is a God.’ said Sam.
‘No. I was suggesting that if there was a God, then why shouldn’t it be a woman? I didn’t say there was an actual God.’
Then Carol remembered what Dorsett had said earlier and turned to Sam.
‘Is that right, Sam? You went into a church?’
‘Yes. Dor wanted to go in. He said he liked the peace and quiet. We left after five minutes.’
She gave Dorsett a glance to let him know of her displeasure at the mention of it. She was waiting for someone to change the subject but Dorsett still had Steve in his sights.
‘I think you even said, Steve, correct me if I’m wrong, that God doesn’t necessarily have to have a humanlike form. That he doesn’t have to be something tangible. It seems ridiculous to think that God is male or female. If that was the case, then it would follow that God would have to have a digestive system and all the parts that go with it, namely, a rectum. Which means that God would have to use the toilet in order to exist as a functioning human being.’
They all looked at Dorsett, half expecting a joke to follow. But he maintained eye contact with Steve who felt compelled to reply.
‘I think you’re confused, Dorsett. I said that God doesn’t exist and that was one of the reasons why he couldn’t exist. I don’t recall saying God could be a woman, that’s ridiculous.’
‘Oh? And why do you think that it’s ridiculous that God could be a woman?’
Steve wanted to drag back the talk on a lighter footing but noticed Carol’s demanding expression.
‘I don’t mean it’s impossible that God could be a woman, I’m saying that it’s impossible that there could ever be a human-like God in the first place, which would make either a man or a woman ridiculous.’
‘Well I’ll tell you this.’ she said, ‘If God was a woman she would have done a better job.’
‘I thought that,’ broke in Dorsett, ‘until I think back on certain Prime Ministers.’
Sam jumped in quickly.
‘Dor: No politics.’
‘You think religion’s an easier topic to discuss?’
‘I don’t think we’re talking about religion, Dorsett.’ said Carol politely. ‘It’s more to do with out-dated attitudes.’
She ended her words with a frown to Steve.
‘I’m not so sure.’ said Dorsett, ‘Considering we all claim to be atheists, we’re getting quite emotional about the gender of Gods.’
‘No, Dorsett,’ said Steve, ’I was saying that if there was a God in human form, then that would be ridiculous.’
‘You said it would be ridiculous if God turned out to be a woman.’ Carol reminded him.
‘No, I didn’t mean that. Please pay attention to what I’m saying, Carol. I said that it’s ridiculous that there could ever be a human God, therefore it’s ridiculous that it could be a man or woman.’
But it was too late. Carol had already decided that an unfavourable remark had been spoken and shook her head towards Sam who gestured likewise in agreement.
‘It sounds to me as if you’re all pretty uncertain.’ said Dorsett. ‘Maybe I’m not the only agnostic in the room after all.’
‘No.’ said Sam forcefully. ‘I’m an atheist and you know that, Dor.’
‘So am I.’ stressed Carol. They all turned to Steve who was already nodding.
‘Yes, of course, I agree. Me too.’
‘So let me ask you something.’ said Dorsett. ’Why is it that the earth is exactly the right distance from the sun for liquid water to exist? Why is it that we have the exact amount and composition of chemicals for life to start? Why, when there is an eclipse, is the moon perfectly in line because of its size and distance from the sun and Earth? Why do we have an atmosphere? Why an ozone layer? Why a magnetic force field to prevent radiation? Why did a giant rock hit the earth that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and cleared the way for us to evolve? If even one of those events didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be here. At every stage of the earth’s development, the numbers have rolled in our favour. Can any of you give me one explanation?’
The three of them looked at each other but didn’t answer. Not because they didn’t want to or were reluctant to give opinions, but because they’d shared an unmentioned agreement that suggested Dorsett had found a belief in something. He felt angry at their lack of response.
‘I know what you’re thinking but you’re not getting off that easy. I haven’t said that God or Gods are responsible. I’m simply asking you to explain to me how even half of those conditions for life happened if there wasn’t a plan behind it to make it all work. The arrival of the human race is like someone on a long walk returning home with a candle in a downpour and getting back with it still burning. It shouldn’t happen.’
He felt as if the three of them were getting further away from him in their silence. Carol gave an offer of comfort.
‘Dorsett. There were probably lots of hits and misses before the suitable conditions clicked into place. Don’t forget you’re looking back at billions of years. It didn’t happen overnight.’
‘But even allowing for all that time, Carol, the odds against any of it happening are still astounding. Billions of years passed on other planets too, yet there’s no evidence of life. Why only us? And it’s not just about the room of time or catastrophic events, it’s about perfect distances, temperatures, sizes, weights, depths, movements.’
‘So what are you suggesting?’ asked Steve.
‘I’m not suggesting anything. I’m only asking a question and yet none of you can give me a credible answer.’
Sam gave him a cautionary look.
‘Dor, you need to be careful. Just because we don’t know the answer doesn’t mean that whatever you’re proposing has to be the only explanation.’
‘I haven’t proposed anything. All I’m saying is that my agnosticism is justified. I don’t know what caused all these conditions to be put in place. I don’t know is my answer. But it isn’t what yours is: everything is coincidental and that’s just the way it is. That’s just a denial of the facts.’
‘Those facts don’t necessarily have to be a plan, Dor.’ Said Sam. ‘You have certain conditions for life but that doesn’t prove that they were designed.’
’Maybe not. But the facts are that they happened and we exist, you can’t deny that.’
‘It seems to me as if the only thing you have faith in is doubt.’ said Steve. ‘You’re a sceptic.’
‘That’s not the insult it sounds like.’ replied Dorsett quickly. ‘I’m more certain of anything that we’re born to be ignorant. But don’t let the constraints of language give the wrong message. Not ignorant, but unknowledgeable. Deliberately unaware or simple-minded, even. It’s not our fault. Look at how fast we’ve developed. Within the space of one man’s lifetime, we’ve left the surface of the earth to fly and reach the moon. It’s ridiculous. Primitive life forms took millions of years to develop. Millions more that led to us. And we’ve been around with our language and books and ideas and computers for what, no more than ten thousand years. We need to slow down but we can’t because we are instinctively progressive. Anyone who dares to suggest that we should return to a more sustainable existence is ridiculed as outdated or backward-looking. We have ambitions to travel our way out into the heavens but I can’t believe we’ll ever populate distant places. I remember someone telling me once that we’re too small, too slow and live too briefly in a place too big. He was right. The earth will be our cradle and grave.’
Carol and Steve were looking at the wine in their glasses or the floor, Dorsett couldn’t be sure. He did, however, notice that whenever a long moment of silence followed anything he said it made his words sound rabid, captured in the air, and still resounding. It needed a quick reactionary comment to make them disappear and though one voice did come, it was too late to be effective.
‘That’s human nature, Dor.’ said Sam. ‘We behave like that because that’s what we are.’
With her too, it was the wine glass or the floor, he couldn’t be sure.
‘I know,’ he said, ‘because we have no choice. But why are we that way? I’m looking for the reason.’
Sam grimaced briefly in a loss of temper.
‘Why the hell does everything have to have a reason, Dorsett? You started by searching for an answer to that stupid nonsense question about where the universe was going and you thought a fictional character would help you find it. Now you’re looking for a design in evolution. Evolution is a scientific theory, not a religious one. Evolution is the design. It’s nature at work, nothing else. Why can’t you accept that?’
‘And where does scientific theory come from, Sam? It’s a human method. And so where did we come from? We should be stepping outside our self-analysis but we can’t. It’s impossible because we can only see things from our own perspective. The answer, if there is one, has to be outside that.’
‘Well then if it’s outside, then what’s the point of trying to find out? We’ll never know!’
Dorsett pointed a finger directly towards her face.
’Exactly. And the reason for that is that we’re not supposed to know. And we have to acknowledge that we’re not supposed to know.’
There followed a brief but heavy pause that caused Carol to rise brusquely and put a stray dish from the table into the kitchen. It was an attempt to break the loop in the conversation and it urged Dorsett to try and close the subject. The evening had turned confrontational.
‘Look. I’m not asking how it all happened, we already know that. I’m only asking why.’
Sam had had enough.
’It doesn’t bloody matter why. Before you know it you’ll be on your deathbed complaining that life was so short and wishing you’d done more with it. Well here’s your chance. Stop asking pointless questions and fucking live it!’
She said an abrupt farewell to her friends, picked up her coat, and left the flat.