Sunday, 12 April 2020

No 102 - A Lockdown Story

"Solitude: Karoo after rain" (c) Dan Wylie. Acrylic/oil on canvas.


“Are you moving in?” He gestured at the suitcase.
            She didn’t seem to know what to say or do, other than look imploring. She was soaked through, her quasi-Victorian, or pseudo-Mayflower white shirt plastered over nipples visibly rigid with cold, her long hair slicked into rat-tails.
            He wasn’t quite sure what to say, either, so surprised he was to see her there, and he was thinking uncharitably about whether she might after all be an unwitting coronavirus carrier, when she said miserably, “I just didn’t know where else to go.”
            He looked around into the scything rain. “You’re alone? Where is that delightful husband of yours?”
            “I left him. I – ran away.”
            He stared, disbelieving. Her body gave a long involuntary shiver and he suddenly made up his mind. “Come in. Go through to the bathroom.” He fetched a towel. “Do you have dry clothes in there?”
            “I hope so.”
            “This feels like the first blast of winter, doesn’t it,” he filled in unnecessarily.
            “I wouldn’t know. It’s cold, right enough. For the tropics.”
            “I forgot, you’re Irish, you’re used to being cold and wet.” He grinned ostentatiously but she did not smile back.
            While she dried off and changed he made up the bed in the little spare room, and put on the kettle. Unhappily, he had to assume she would need to stay for a while, breaching his habitual semi-hermetic state, filling his meagre, guarded, prickly space. Knowing he should not be unhappy, doing this, the obvious right thing.
            She emerged barefoot, wearing a simple if old-fashioned pleated dress and clutching a beige cardigan about her narrow body. He almost quipped that at least, fashion-wise, she’d made it into the nineteen-fifties, but thought better of mocking her at this unsettling moment. She was looking all at once nervous, grateful and wary, as well she might.
            “I’m astounded you ran to me, not to one of your churchy chums,” he said. “I thought you must have condemned me as your Number One Satanic Enemy.”
           "Satan is the Number One Satanic Enemy.” She didn’t seem to intend it as a joke.
            “Well,” he said, feeling obliquely accused of something, “I was pretty rough on you the other day.”

That he had been.
This couple had knocked at his door a few days previously. He had looked at them through the bars of his security gate and felt his heart sink. They had that over-scrubbed look, the unctuous too-friendly smile, tragically sensible shoes just right for tramping from one house to another, and clothes that hovered somewhere between the Amish and the law firm of Blatherforth and Sharx.
            Not to mention the young man’s opening line, sliding from a left-slanting mouth in a face clean-shaven but marred by old acne scars and a blond excuse for a pencil moustache: “Morning sir, have you been saved?”
            “Have you opened your heart to the Lord?” the slender, dark-haired woman slipped in. They had accents, Irish probably.
            “Jesus H Christ,” he breathed. “Haven’t you idiots heard about the coronavirus lockdown? Go home and stay there, for fuck’s sake.”
            The man bridled a little at his language, the woman tucked her chin defensively into her neck. But they had evidently been trained to weather all manner of abuse: they beamed simultaneously – he had rather yellow, crowded teeth, she rather lovely white prominent incisors – and the man said smoothly: “The Lord protects the pure of heart.”
            “Well, that sure as hell won’t include me,” he retorted. “Step back, will you. Two metres.” Which they obediently did; they had to move out of the shade of the porch into hot sunlight. The woman tugged a floppy hat out of a woven shoulder bag and put it on; it had, he thought, hibiscus flowers printed on it, and it made her look oddly more vulnerable, pixie-like.
            The young man said, eyes aglint it seemed, as if he sensed an opening, “We’d like to talk to you about the spiritual bounties of the Good Lord, especially in these difficult times – “
            “Oh, come on! You sound like an undertaker. Maybe you are. Is coronavirus the beginning of the Apocalypse then? Are you actually looking forward to the mayhem and slaughter, before you’re swept up in the final rapture?”
            There was nothing like a botched plumbing repair, for which he could blame no one but himself, to put him into a seriously bad mood. Even more cantankerous than usual, then, he could feel himself rising to the bait of the young man’s smugness.
            The woman cut in, “If you really knew your Bible you’d know we would never take pleasure in others’ suffering.” And added slyly: “And we bring Easter cheer.”
He looked at her a little more closely, then: pretty in a slightly angular way, as if a woodcarver had accidentally planed just a little too much off the cheeks. Her almost black eyes were direct, prepared for the long haul, fervent. Their challenge was almost a relief: it was a very long time since he’d had a decent theological argument.
“Oh, so you take no secret pleasure in Christ’s writhing on the cross, then? The necessary prelude to the resurrection? Your theology wouldn’t exist without suffering to feed off. Another fairy-tale as improbable as the Four Horsemen, by the way. You Jehovah’s people have some seriously screwy ideas, from any perspective.”
“Oh, we’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the man said. “We’re the Church of the Golden Ascension.”
“Oh, great, another deluded cult, then.”
He could tell the young evangelist was feeling needled, from the excessive calm and diplomacy with which he intoned, “It is those who have not seen the light who are deluded, but they know not that it is so. Opening the heart to the voice of the Lord allows all those scales to fall away. It is a liberation from all that anger and cynicism.”
“Amen,” breathed the woman.
“An abdication of will and responsibility, you mean. So whose blindness and self-delusion is to prevail, yours or mine? Why choose one faith over another? Why would one church have all the truth? Rationality versus faith, yadda-yadda, the old circular argument, endlessly pursuing the unprovable.” He felt abruptly weary. “Listen, I have my own faith, and it isn’t yours. Go home and obey the fucking lockdown law, okay.”
“We are called by God to preach his Word, and not succumb to fear, however great. The Lord protects us.”
The woman murmured, “Amen” again, twisting her bag’s straps in her hands, then adding, “We were quarantined when we arrived in the country. We’re from Ireland. And we’ve been tested, we’re okay.” This earning a noticeably irritated glance from her companion.
“Yeah, but am I? Jesus, don’t you people read anything, or know no history? There have been dozens of pandemics, and no sign in any of them that God protected a single soul. In fact, the bloody God-botherers have repeatedly been half the problem. They insist on meeting, then end up infecting and killing more innocent people than anyone. You’d think you’d all have learnt something from the Black Death; back then even the Pope saw what was cutting and banned religious parades. And you’re trying to tell me that God’s paying any attention to who gets cut down and who doesn’t? Please.”
“God takes to himself those he loves, for his own purpose, ours not to question why.”
“Ah, there’s the same tired old cliché, the hidden Plan. So he’s killing off all those doctors and nurses in Italy and everywhere,  the kindest and bravest of anyone, because he loves them? Fuck that. What a cop-out. That is one nasty unpredictable bastard of a god. Not someone I’m going to worship, like some blind mole in a tunnel.”
He was, in a way, relishing cutting loose, while at the same time disliking himself for being so scathing, and rather wanting this winsome and ridiculous pair just to disappear now. The young man was looking into the distance and chewing his lip, having a hard time controlling his response. The woman plucked at his elbow, “Let’s just go, Paul.” For the first time he noticed their wedding rings. Paul shrugged her off brusquely.
“This – man, needs to hear the truth. The Truth! Satan, sir, has his claws in you. That Devil has poisoned your mind, and you don’t even know it. He is subtle as a serpent. You, sir – I grieve for your soul –“
In reply he burst out with an involuntary laugh. “Serpents now! Christ! Actually, I rather like snakes, they’re beautiful, innocent creatures. And I seriously don’t need you grieving over me before I’m dead, thanks very much.”
“Those who insult and blaspheme will burn in Hell forever…” Paul the evangelist looked infuriatingly satisfied, sure of himself.
“More fairy-tales,” he scoffed back. “If you credit that you’re even more of a dunce than you look.” Which was unfair, and he knew it, and regretted it instantly. The man’s face twisted, he was about to lose it; the woman said smoothly, “We’re going now. May we leave you some pamphlets?” Glossy colourful brochures had magically appeared in her hand.
“Cool, they’ll make good fire-lighters.” The pamphlets went hastily back in the bag, and her mouth turned pinched and small in the shadow of the hat. The man was incensed now, his wife had been spurned, he was pointing a shaking finger.
It was clearly time to bail. “Go home!” he told them, “Avoid viruses.” And he closed the inner door in their faces. But he still heard their voices, first hissed, then raised as they moved away, and then a little squeal from her. Maybe they were disagreeing about how they’d handled this recalcitrant old codger. He opened the door again, to see them walking up the sloping driveway. The man Paul gripped the woman by the upper arm, she was struggling to free herself, until he shoved her; she fell awkwardly, and yelped in pain, but Paul, the husband, lunged after her and slapped her heavily across the head, so that her hat flew and rolled away, and the evangelist grated, “You damned well do as you’re told, woman.”
“Oy!” he yelled, and they both turned to look at him; Paul seemed about to snarl something, but now it was his wife latching onto his elbow and tugging him away. But when the evangelist looked back again, with every appearance of wanting to tear him limb from limb, he couldn’t help himself: he made that two-finger gangsta sign at Paul, I'm watching you, and calling after him, “I see you for what you are, you hypocritical piece of shit.”

"I was unnecessarily - robust," he confessed as they sat at his dining-room table.
            “You were – actually enjoying yourself,” she accused. She was cupping her coffee mug as if it were someone’s living heart. He raised his palms in mute apology. “But you were also the only person who has ever called Paul out for what he is.”
            “You could surely have gone to some of your – what was it, Church of the Holy Abduction, those people?”
            “Ascension. Exactly not. We’d only just arrived, I don’t know them. They’re just a handful in this country, all in Joburg. Anyway, they would just send me back to him. It’s our place as women to submit, as the Bible instructs.”
            “And yet you left him. To walk all this way to me. That’s a huge risk.”
            She shrugged. “I have no phone to call anyone.  I can’t go home because of the travel ban.  I thought you would at least be honest. And it’s the last place he’ll look.”
            “The church is based in Ireland somewhere? You met Paul there? Sorry, I don’t know your name yet.”
            She almost smiled. “Maeve. O’Shea. From Sligo. And I suppose 'met' is the word, for an arranged marriage.”
            “Maeve? I thought they’d buried you on top of Knocknarea! I’m Doug Bracewell, by the way. And I won’t shake your hand, I might infect you with my evil.”
            The two of them looked at each other mutely, as if measuring the distance between them, or calculating whether a third guest, Mister Covid-19, might not be also invisibly present. And, it seemed, mutually deciding that there was nothing much they could do about it now.
            “You know the Sligo area, then,” she said conversationally. “Queen Maeve’s grave-mound on Knocknarea and all.”
            “I went there once on a bit of a Yeats pilgrimage,” he said. “Thoor Ballylee, etcetera.”
            She made a little nasal sound, of amusement, or disappointment. “I heard of that. We never went to such places, though. We are taught to abhor the outside world, it is full of evil and distractions from the Path.”
“Well, full of evil it is, no question. And viruses. Yet they send you off into it, as missionaries, to sort it all out? You two seem as naïve as newborns!”
“Perhaps. Perhaps also we can bring a freshness, make a change. But, yes, from the age of ten it was all prayer, devotion, the Lord’s work. It was very safe, very comforting. Betrothed at fourteen, married at sixteen to a man I hardly knew. Accepted him. Loved him. I did love him,” she insisted. “I do."
            “Except that he beats you up.”
            “Mm. And like all the women I’ve accepted it for years. It’s Eve’s inheritance, our due for being sinful. I sinned all the time, I’m afraid.” She giggled, almost naughtily, endearingly.
            “You murdered Irish peasants, you ate their gall bladders?” But that just made her frown bleakly, puzzled. He lurched on: “Most cultish churches have some kind of Chief Bullshitter?”
            Her brows pinched again. “We have a Founder. McRorty, dead now, but we have some of his writings. It’s mostly the Bible, though, the Lord’s Word is enough for us. No one really leads, we’re a small group, it’s sort of communal.”
            “A self-perpetuating crucible of prejudices, then. So when did the doubts set in?”
            “There are always doubts. Doubts are the Devil’s work; they are sent to test our faith. The Faith is stronger for them.”
            He leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “I’m not even going to start trying to unpack all the inner contradictions of that. And yet here you are, in the house of a total non-believer, evil incarnate. Drinking his evil coffee.”
            She did smile then, those forward-leaning incisors. “It tastes good. And you are kind, really. I think you are on the Path without realising it. If you opened your heart to God’s gladness you might stop being so angry at things.”
     "Things, what things? I only get angry at bothersome evangelists who think they have the One Answer and try to inflict their neuroses on everybody else, and punt a book about this obscure, usually vengeful deity – a book which was, by the way, cobbled together over centuries by multiple dunderheads with all sorts of agendas and squabbles and mistranslations. God’s word, my ass. I mean, the naivety, the selective delusions, combine that with this smug arrogance – it’s breath-taking really.”
            Maeve put her coffee mug down sharply. “You sound like an evangelist for the anti-evangelists. So you have all the answers, I suppose. Being just as arrogant, as you call it.”
            “Hah, not just a pretty face, you’ve a handy streak of sophistry as well. Cute. No, I do not have The Answers. Well, it depends on the question, doesn’t it. I’m just like the Christians, I know what I believe. How do I know it? I just do. I love that word ‘just’, don’t you? The ultimate escape hatch. I 'just know' what God’s plan is. End of useful conversation.” He thumped his own mug down, suspecting that he had somehow frustrated his own coherence.
            She said primly, “I think you are angry at everything because you don’t have anything to base your morality on. You are a lost soul, flailing about in the darkness.”
            He laughed. “You people practically invented the darkness. The terrors of Hell, Let there be Light. It’s all a myth. A mighty effective one, to be sure, but a myth for all that, no more true than the fairy-tales of the Bushmen, or the Pawnees, or Buddha’s mother being bonked by an elephant.” He leaned forward. “So what is God’s plan for you, can you tell me that, O wanderer in the rain?”
            She looked down. The rain in fact was still beating at the window behind her, and she seemed to listen to it for a moment. Eventually she said gloomily, “I do not. Maybe I haven’t known for a while. Perhaps I need to pray harder on it. And even then sometimes we must accept that we will never know, it is too deep for us to fathom. That’s what faith is.”
            “Fantastic, it makes sense because it doesn’t make sense. We don’t know what’s going on; therefore there must be a god. Please. But look, I mean ultimately we think alike, in a way. You don’t really know what the fuck God wants, or why he kills the doctor but spares Donald bonehead Trump. No one can tell you. And I don’t know what the universe is going to throw at me next, either. A global virus, wham! A weird Irish evangelist, poof, on my doorstep! Who could have predicted? I see no sense in interposing a capricious god between me and a capricious universe. Life is complicated and unpredictable, end of story. Deal with it. Day by day, moment by moment.”
            This appeared to give her pause; he took the opportunity to say, “Let me fix us a bite to eat, you can park your stuff in the study so long. Hang your wet things in the porch.” She did that, while he made some sandwiches. She took a curious turn around his living-room, bending to look at framed photos – “Is that your mother?” – touching the surface of a painting as if to confirm its reality. She came up short in front of a white alabaster statue squatting in a corner.
          "What is that?”
            “Oh, my Buddha?”
            “You worship that?" More a statement of sudden understanding than a question.
            He laughed. “My graven image? My personal carving of Baal? Nah, I bought that from the friend who made it just to keep him from starving that month. I mean, I’m sympathetic, but in any case one doesn’t 'worship' Buddha, not in Zen anyway. You know the saying, ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!’?”
            “That sounds horrible! All other religions are the spawn of Satan. So we are taught,” she added almost apologetically.
            “It’s a kind of joke, really. Zen people can be very jokey. The point is, the Buddha’s teaching is like a finger pointing toward the truth; once you see the truth, you can forget about the finger. It’s not about rigidly adhering to one icon, or even an unbending set of rules, like old Moses’ commandments. More about responding clearly and appropriately as circumstances dictate. You have water in your hand and you see a fire, you don’t drink, you put out the fire. A wet woman arrives needing help, you take her in. If I could see you were dying of Covid-19, I might have responded differently, or at least with a different strategy to help. If you were obviously about to try to kill me, I might kill you, no problem.”
            “It seems terrifyingly – ad hoc.”
“I prefer ‘dynamic and exciting’.”
“But – where’s the foundation? It’s so - hand-to-mouth, like.”
            “Exactly! You see the truth. You are enlightened! You can now discard me.”
            She gave a tiny smile. “Now who’s being the evangelist?”
            “Ha! You found me out. No, I think of it as more a way of being. A practice, not a religion. It might even be compatible with Christianity in some ways. Look, I know I’ve been taking a hard line, winding you up a bit. A lot! Sorry. I’m not insensible to all the good many Christians do. Jesus, and Paul - Saint Paul, that is – had some beautiful and valid teachings. I went through a whole churchy phase until I decided it made no sense of the world I saw in front of me, but I still enjoy reading some Christian writers: Kung, Thomas Merton, Pascal. Mostly mavericks, to be sure.”
            “I don’t know these people,” she said bashfully. “We never read anything except the Bible, really. Not – really.”
            “Oh, except the things you snuck a look at under the bedcovers, right?” She blushed. “Ha, you sinful little minx, you! It’s okay. A little contradictory knowledge is a bit like suffering, isn’t it. It could make your faith stronger.”
            “Sophistry!” she burst out, pointing at him, but she had her chin tucked down and she was actually suppressing laughter. Then suddenly neither of them could keep it in any longer, and they folded up in irrepressible giggles.
            “Well,” he finally gasped, “I think we’re going to get on just fine. At least until the Irish Embassy extracts you, if they can. Meanwhile – “he glanced through the window, where a bar of weak sun was shimmering – “it looks like the rain has stopped. I have a large property which we can walk around and eat our sandwiches without violating the lockdown. Would you like that, Maeve O’Shea?”
            Maeve O’Shea nodded. “I would, Doug Brushwell.”
            “Bracewell.“ He added, “I even have a nice hat you can borrow. With hibiscus flowers.”


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