Friday, 26 October 2012

Journey IX – Hotel Gomorrah

I sit at the vast picture window that fills the west wall of the room in a heavy towelling gown in a recliner. I watch the breeze flow through the flowering trees a couple of storeys below and a flock of blue birds twitter and whirl together among the highest branches. It’s very peaceful here. I sip my coffee and try to think. In the next room Shamim is moving about – I can hear her humming to herself, probably getting dressed after her shower. I swivel round in the chair and then get up and look at the pictures on the walls. They seem to be reproductions but at least someone here has a modicum of taste. I look about the room a bit more, or the suite I should say. It reminds me of those hotels you see in American cop shows – rather too much chrome and vinyl for my liking but it’s comfortable nevertheless, with a king-size bed and thick carpets and a wide, flat-screen TV, should we want it. I flick through and find an apparently infinite selection of old movies, shopping channels and some quite heavy pornography, which I swiftly change in case she comes in. On the table there is a bowl of perfect peaches and mangoes, and a plastic bucket with melted ice and the empty champagne bottle we finished off last night. Breakfast comes with room service. I order eggs Benedict with smoked salmon rather than ham in a vain attempt to avoid corrupting Shamim any further. I call through to find out what she wants and she appears in a white linen gown, rubbing her head with a towel and looks at the menu. She orders waffles and syrup with bacon, and some orange juice. After the girl has taken our order and gone I make a light hearted comment about the bacon but she just smiles and shrugs and goes back to the bathroom.

The events of the day before are still a bit of a blur. There were high, narrow slit windows in the armoured van so we could see the streets as we careered along, horns blaring and pedestrians scattering. The main streets in fact looked increasingly like a lot of city shopping streets I’d seen in the UK, with bland-looking chain stores and banks and cafes still closed and barred because it was so early. There were CCTV cameras on almost every post. Any direct sunlight was excluded by the many storeys of what I assumed must be offices above. Everything was wet and beginning to steam. Workers in orange overalls with brooms and barrows watched us pass and young men and women in smart outfits trotted along the pavements, bag or brief case in one hand, styrofoam cup in the other. Unlikely looking trees in a worrying shade of green stood at odd angles in holes in the pavement, and despite the efforts of the men in orange, litter was everywhere.

Then we entered what you might call the business district and the light got even dimmer because of the height of the buildings around us. The frontages were all marble and steel and glass and the suits were that bit sharper. Our transport slowed down and they shut the horn off, out of respect for the money I suppose. I looked back in at the others. We were all pressed to the windows, shocked and impressed at what we were seeing here. Muriel alone was sitting hunched on the floor with a terrified look on her face. Our eyes met and she gave me a hopeless stare. I suppose we were all too aware of the horrific damage done to those we’d seen in the shanties and of what could happen to us when we got to wherever we were going. I caught Shamim's eye but there was no warmth there. There were no feelings to spare. I went and peered out the window again, just as we turned sharp left and entered what seemed like an underground car park. At any rate there wasn’t enough light to see anything through the tinted and crazed glass except the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. We all turned and squatted down and looked at each other. Shamim came over and nestled against me. We looked across at her parents who were in much the same pose.
‘Take care of her won’t you’ said her father. ‘I have to look after this one.’ He kissed the top of his wife’s head.
Nicky looked bereft at us for a moment but then huddled down with Muriel, and took her tiny form in her arms. Mike and Agnes got as comfortable as they could.
Then the doors were opened and the two police bundled us out – not roughly, but not politely either. They directed us with the barrels of their guns toward a door, which opened to reveal a badly lit concrete stairwell. We all went up in our pairs as if chained together. I heard Muriel quietly weeping and Nicky trying to comfort her. We knew the worst was coming. Revolting fluids leaked out from under doors as we passed. There were screams and pleadings coming from somewhere not far away, and the smell of blood and urine. Another policemen surprised in an open doorway held a chain with some dark stuff matted among the links. We carried on up, I don’t know how many floors. I did notice however, that as we rose the air became less oppressive and the concrete less stained. Then the guardrails turned from wrought iron to steel and there were frosted glass windows letting in some daylight. Finally we came to a door that opened into a plushly carpeted, softly lit hallway with numbered doors. It was exactly like a hotel and we all, I think, relaxed a little, although still on edge, obviously.
Without a word a door was opened onto a bright, pleasantly furnished room and Mike and Agnes were gently but firmly made to enter and the door closed behind them. Then it was Mr and Mrs Sadeghi’s turn and I could see Shamim wanted to go with them but the policeman wouldn’t let her. Mr Sadeghi nodded and said it would be alright and then looked at me as if to say “It had better be.” I nodded back as resolutely as I could. The policeman gave Shamim and her parents time to hug but then shut them in their room. Shamim and I got the next room together and we didn’t have time to see what they did with Nicky and Muriel. Shamim just sank to the floor against the door and burst into tears. I sat with her but there was no place for me in her feelings. I had little to offer her myself.

So that was how came to share a bed for the first time. Nothing happened of course, how could it? She was a good Muslim girl and besides, we were terrified. We slept until early evening I guess it must have been. That was when I got up and pulled back the curtains, expecting to see a vision of hell from above but instead found a forest. I wandered about and found the bathroom and had a shower. Then I noticed the ice bucket on the table with a bottle of champagne in it and a card propped up against it, which said “With Compliments” and gave the number to ring for room service. There was a menu there too and I sat down and looked at it. It was all totally unbelievable.
A few hours later, when Shamim began to stir I rang and asked for some coffee for us and it arrived almost immediately – the waiter accompanied by a cop with a gun who waited outside. The little man smiled obsequiously. I’d never been in a hotel with room service before, and I wasn’t good at dealing with servants. I smiled at him as warmly as I could and wondered if he expected a tip, but we had nothing to give him anyway so that was out.
I woke Shamim with a kiss and showed her the coffee. She still looked terribly worried, as one would expect but accepted my solicitations graciously and gave me a kiss in return.

We spent the evening sitting around drinking the champagne. I offered to get her something else but she said no this will do fine, and drank from the bottle. I noticed the alcohol did actually work in the normal way here and we both felt quite tipsy quite quickly. We perused the menu and I phoned down for some prawns in garlic and some bread and salad. Again it arrived very quickly and was very good. I wanted to get some more champagne but it didn’t seem like a good plan under the circumstances. It was all I could do to not throw myself at her when I was sober and this wasn’t the time nor the place. (Actually, I thought, this is exactly the place. It’s what this place was designed for.) Then she said she needed to get clean and I told her where the bathroom was and she went through and squealed with delight at the size of the bath. (It really doesn’t take much to cheer women up does it.) While she was in there doing that I got in some orange juice to dilute the bubbly and some dark chocolate which I knew she’d like. Then I blindfolded myself and very carefully carried her drink and the chocolates through.
‘I thought this might cheer you up’ I said, kneeling by the tub. She laughed and wrenched the blindfold off and there she was, covered in bubbles and with her hair tied back, like some decadent fifties movie star, sipping her drink and nibbling a square of chocolate. I sat down beside the bath, looking at her and trailing my hand in the water. Then I felt her move her leg a little, so that my fingers found her toes and she raised her eyebrows at me. I ran my fingers along to her ankles and massaged her feet. She put her head back and sighed.

So when I talk about corrupting her it was the alcohol I was referring to, and possibly the bacon. We lay together on the bed that night, both of us severely aroused to be sure but unprepared to do anything about it. She rapped on the wall adjoining her parent’s room for a while but got no response. We called for room service to ask about them, but got nothing more than ‘They are being well looked after’, implying that they were in much the same situation as we were. Shamim asked when we’d see them and the policeman pulled the waiter out and said ‘All in good time miss.’
Shamim went back to the bed and lay down. I went to the cupboard and found a nightgown for her but she wanted to stay in her dressing gown, and she pulled it tight around her. I kissed her on the head but said no more and went to sit in the recliner and look out at the night, and that’s how we woke up next morning.

We had to wait another two days after that for anything more to happen, We were by turns bored and decadent, horny and frustrated and terrified for what might be happening to the others (and to us next by implication.) The horniness was almost perfectly balanced by the anxiety. I said I understood, what with her culture and so on and she laughed at me and asked if I really believed Muslim girls were always innocent and chaste. I didn’t know what to say. I suppose I had been assuming that and felt suddenly very silly. ‘But there’s still your parents...’
‘Yes’ she said sadly, as if wishing I hadn’t reminded her although I know she hadn’t forgotten.
‘Although’ I add, trying to restore the mood, ‘if we were travelling with my parents I think I’d have felt even more uncomfortable.’
She smiles and asks ‘What are they like?’ and I give her a brief account but don’t really want to talk about them. Then I begin to talk about my sisters and where I grew up and before I know it all the crap about my time faffing about and not knowing what to do comes spilling out.
When I’m done she looks at me appraisingly, nodding and smiling gently. I wait for the verdict. She comes over, puts her hand behind my head and kisses me. ‘You are a good man’ she says. ‘You try. I admire that. You don’t let them beat you.’ and once again I am reminded of Sophie and how she used to re-interpret me to myself and I can’t believe what lovely women there are in the world. I used to think maybe Sophie was a bit soft in the head where I was concerned, but here it is again – respect and understanding. I decide to tell her about Sophie there and then, sitting together on the bed, holding hands, and she listens and nods and understands and then she tells me about Mica, her boyfriend in Muswell Hill and how much she misses him. And although we hold each other and kiss, still we don’t make love. We know we can’t do that.

On the third morning there is a knock on the door. We’re both in bed in our dressing gowns watching something terrible on the TV. I go to the door and get given an envelope. The bearer stands there and waits as I open it. Shamim looks over my shoulder at it. ‘What is it?’ she says.
‘Seems to be an invitation’ I say. ‘A Mr Rit Large, whoever he is, requests the pleasure of our company... And there’s a room number. Where is this?’ I ask the porter.
‘You will be escorted to the penthouse’ he says. ‘Shall I inform Mr Large of your intention to attend?’
‘Do we have a choice?’ asks Shamim
‘Of course madam. There is always a choice.’
‘Will my parents be there?’
‘If you mean Mr and Mrs Sadeghi? Absolutely they will be there. All your friends will be there – unless they refuse of course.’ We nod and say we’ll be there.
‘Excellent’ he says and backs out, bowing slightly. I shut the door on him. Shamim looks at me with raised eyebrows, and a hopeful expression on her face.
‘I have nothing to wear’ she says.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Vincent VII – On being a student

‘I have a question’ I say to Vincent as I sit down next time.
‘Very well’ he says, putting his papers down for the moment. ‘Go ahead.’
‘If there are people, old souls out there, in life, remembering their previous lives – how come they don’t tell everybody about it, about all this?’
‘It’s a good question’ he says. I wait for more but he doesn’t look about to elaborate. I watch him expectantly. ‘I don’t know’, he says finally as if irritated by my impertinence. ‘It’s a mystery.’
‘But people must have said something about it, when they get back.’
‘I never met one. Anyway – to continue your story.’
I think he’s not telling me everything he knows, but it doesn’t seem worth pushing it right now. I try to think where we’d got up to.

‘So you didn’t really enjoy being a student’ he says.
I think about this. ‘I think it was a really important thing for me to do’ I say finally.
‘That’s not quite what I asked.’
‘It was a roller-coaster to be honest. It was pretty insane. But it was good, all in all. I wouldn’t have missed it.’
‘How “insane”?’
‘Oh well, Art students, you know? We’re not the easiest company in the world. Looking back on it, we were all so egotistical, so pretentious, so incredibly full of crap. We had these “deep” conversations about things we knew fu... absolutely nothing about – existentialism and Buddhism and what have you, and we read all these difficult books and listened to some pretty extreme music...’ I drift off a bit, thinking about this guy I knew called Will who read us Rimbaud and played us his Throbbing Gristle LPs. He was really weedy with long lank hair and NHS specks and he seemed very keen to get to know me for some reason. It seems funny now. I was more into Scott Walker and Julian Cope by then and I’d have been reading Milan Kundera and Angela Carter. Happy days.
‘You were, I presume, somewhat older than most of the others?’
‘A bit, but most of the people I hung out with were also mature students. Mind you, that meant twenty-five to thirty five, so not all that mature to be honest. We did our share of misbehaving.’
‘Such as?’
‘Oh, you know.’
‘Not really. Tell me.’
I feel oddly embarrassed about this, in front of Vincent, looking at me so earnestly, more like a priest than a counsellor. I can’t imagine him misbehaving or understanding why anyone would want to. On the other hand, he keeps surprising me and I think I’m getting quite fond of him as time goes on, despite his off-putting manner.
‘Oh, you know, there were dinner parties, demos, lectures, extra-marital affairs, staying out all night, getting wrecked, throwing up, sexual experimentation, the usual’ I admit, glibly.
‘You did all that?’ he says, smiling.
‘I didn’t do drugs much – they make me paranoid. And I never tried group sex – I don’t do willies.’
He sits back and thinks for a while. I recall his concerns about blasphemy. Oh well, he did ask. He’s only himself to blame.
‘Except your own presumably’ he says. I think it’s his way of calling me a wanker but it’s hard to tell. I give him a silly grin. He chooses to ignore it.
‘You had affairs? Or “dalliances” should we say?’ he says, returning to business.
‘Yes I did. You don’t want details I assume.’ I hope he doesn’t. I’d like to talk about sex actually, but not to Vincent.
‘Not really’ he says.

There’s very little to boast about in all honesty, but I had my moments – like the time I took all my clothes off at a party because this woman I fancied wanted to draw me. I’m not sure why but I never had much compunction about being naked in public and I’d been doing some life modelling at the tech to make a little extra cash. And actually I really liked it. It felt powerfully erotic. I guess I knew I had a reasonable physique, so that helped, but in truth I think I was just an exhibitionist.
As it was she made me at least put a towel over myself before she’d come near me and then we spent the rest of the night there on that sofa, kissing and touching each other up. I remember she was a little older than me, and quite big, but curvy and soft, unlike Pamela who was just big. I had my hands under her dress and worked my fingers round her bra and knickers. Then after a few minutes frustrated with that she disappeared to the bathroom and came back stuffing her underwear in her handbag and, giving me a very dirty grin, we settled back in for the night, pressed together there in the gloom, rubbing and caressing with the party in full swing around us.
We thought we were very daring, and of course we were ‘artists’ and unshockability was part of our image, but it really hadn’t been that sort of party. The power of it was extraordinary, the vulnerability and lewdness, and everyone around us, aware of what we were doing, probably pretending not to watch but secretly having a good old gawp.
I didn’t see her much after that unfortunately. She smiled sheepishly at me when we ran into each other in the corridor, but I think she felt it was all a bit too much in retrospect. I suppose she was right, her being on the staff and all, but I’d have been more than happy with something more conventional from her. She was a very sexy woman. Actually I think everybody avoided me for a while after that little display.
Otherwise I think there were three or four women in all over those five years. Who am I kidding? I know exactly how many there were – there were six, which actually isn’t many by the standards of art students generally, and two of those were not really women I would have chosen if I’d been in full command of my faculties – it was like Pamela all over again. (I didn’t like to disappoint them – how lame is that?) The others though... looking back on it I just want to bang my head on something.
Victoria springs to mind (a different Victoria, not mad, Scottish Victoria). Her friends called her Tori but she preferred to be called Vikki. I haven’t thought about her for ages. I really liked Vikki, and I don’t know why I didn’t stay with her. She was so completely different – older than me by a couple of years and tall and slender in a soft, warm kind of way, and not beautiful in a classic sense but intensely sexy. If you’d met Vikki you’d have thought she was a bit too posh and silly and she used to wear these ridiculous outfits – all cerise and sequins, but she was actually a bright and sensitive woman, training to be a masseuse at the tech. In bed she was just so – what would you call it? Rude? Shameless perhaps? Pornographic certainly. She loved to be watched. This was early on in my student life, long before that night of debauchery at the party and I think it was the first time (at twenty-seven) that I’d ever really had proper sex, as it’s supposed to be. Vikki was extraordinary to watch – swivelling and grinding and dripping onto me. She had an antique leather Moroccan riding crop hanging from the bedstead (which left little heart-shaped smacks all over her bottom) and a Polaroid camera in the night stand.
In retrospect I wasn’t ready for it. It sounds stupid but at the time it seemed too raw, too messy, and a bit scary and I’m ashamed to say I was embarrassed by that accent. The other problem was that I was sleeping with her whilst still seeing one of the more ‘motherly’ types at uni so I gave myself a hard time about that and went for the safe option out of guilt. What a prat! Within weeks I was writhing with regret. I still can’t believe I let her go.

I look over at Vincent. He’s doodling again.
‘I don’t know...’ I say, exasperated with myself. He looks up. ‘I was just obsessed with getting myself a woman but I still didn’t really believe that anybody half decent could possibly be genuinely interested in me. Honestly, sometimes I think back and some woman I spoke to comes to mind, and I’ll recall something about something she said and it suddenly occurs to me – She might actually have been interested in me! And I didn’t even realise at the time, or maybe I suspected it but couldn’t really believe it and didn’t want to make a twat of myself. Stupid huh?
‘I can’t believe I’m telling you all this’ I say, ‘like these are my greatest regrets – not screwing up my marriage or my career but missing the opportunity to have more sex. Pathetic isn’t it.’
‘I think it was Betjemen...’ he says slowly, seriously, laying down his papers on his knees. ‘When they asked him what he would like to change if he could have his life again, he said “I’d have more sex.”’
‘Seriously. So you are in excellent company. Did your work suffer from this “obsession”?’
‘Hardly. I was in the studio every opportunity I got, at the college and at home. I never stopped. Working off my frustrations I suppose. I rather fancied myself as the latest in a long line of English visionary painters – Blake, Gill, Spencer. I worked incredibly hard – all night quite often, and then couldn’t sleep with all the ideas buzzing around in my head. I don’t know how I kept it up.’
‘And they liked your work, the tutors.’
‘Well, that was the other thing.’
‘Go on.’
‘They said it was too “parochial” Hah! –  too “English”. How stupid is that? I mean, I am English. I mean I’m sorry but it’s my culture. It’s where I come from. I love other countries, and I have a lot of complaints about England, but it’s where I grew up. It’s my home. I can’t think of any other place in the world where that would be considered a bad thing. I mean look at what the Mexicans and Russians are doing – it’s all about their landscape, history, traditions... Anyway I just kept on doing what I believed in, what I’d been doing as long as I could remember.’
‘But you did change later on.’
‘Yes. Well, to be honest I’d started on the 3D pieces in the studio at the college already, just to do something different, free up my thinking a bit, so it wasn’t the end of the world. I mean, they said my painting was “technically excellent” and that I certainly had my own voice (which I took as a great compliment) but I know they thought it was all a bit conventional. Anyway I didn’t want to go for abstraction, so I went the other way – “found art”, installations and so on. It kept them quiet, and I was quite good at it, and...’ and I shrug and sit back. ‘... the rest, as they say, is history.’
‘But you feel you let yourself down?’
I think about this. I’m not sure really. Actually I think they let me down, for going for novelty and kitsch instead of what I think of as real art but mostly I’m angry with myself for giving in to them. There’s a thin line between originality and novelty. A lot of people these days don’t seem to be able to tell the difference.
‘At the time I thought “Ooh, big impressive career in the media. Look at what I’m doing” but it wasn’t really me. It wasn’t anything like what I wanted to do. Maybe I was just trying to prove something.’ I look at the floor and fiddle with a scrap of paper.
‘I sold out’ I confess. ‘Anyway, it all went tits up in the end.’
He looks at me, perplexed, but I think he gets the picture.

He sits and leafs through his notes for a while, considering something. The sea feels quite rough today. I can see the tops of waves occasionally through the windows above his head. I wonder where we are. I wonder if there’s a map. He puts his papers down and looks perplexed at me.
‘How did you feel after you gave up the post grad project Gabriel?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Relieved? Vindicated? Like I was well out of it.’
‘Not disappointed?’
‘Well, yes, of course.’
‘You didn’t see this as a major set back at all.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘To your future as an artist.’
‘Um... I suppose so.’
‘How did you see your future at that stage?’
I sit blank minded. I can’t think. I haven’t a clue. ‘I suppose I thought I’d manage, you know, sell some pictures, have a private exhibition. There were loads of galleries in Brighton at the time, and there was London.’
‘And you would have been content with that.’
‘Well, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for exactly but it’s not the end of the world. It’s like what I was doing before really, what I’d imagined I might do before...’
‘Before what? Before your degree, or before you began the post grad project?’
‘Before everything. It was like going backwards. I don’t know. Like I said, a lot of what I did later on did seem like a sell-out, like it wasn’t really me, but then...’
‘Well, it was good that it wasn’t really me. I wanted to do something different, to be something different, reinvent myself or something. I was really stupid enough to think I could do that.’
He sits silently, waiting. He knows I have more to say.
‘It was ok for a while. I could enjoy the freedom, but then... I didn’t know what to do. The project had given me a new route, maybe not exactly what I wanted but it was a stepping-stone. I knew there was something not right about it but I thought maybe something real would emerge eventually.’
‘But then it was all gone.’
‘So how did you feel after you gave up the post grad project Gabriel, really?’
‘Like shit. Like I was shit. Like I’d never be anything else, ever again. It was all gone, everything. My parents were right about me.’
‘And how did Mar help?’
‘How did Mar try to help you?’
I can’t think of anything to tell him. I just remember her bustling around, “having to do everything”, while I just sat, and watched her. I shake my head.
‘She didn’t help, but I still can’t convince myself that I deserved any help. I just think, maybe, if I’d tried harder, no, if I’d just shut the hell up and done as I was told...’ But I know even as I’m saying it that I couldn’t have. ‘I just couldn’t bring myself to just kow-tow like that. I just couldn’t. Is that intolerable? Is that just too bad a way to be? Could I expect anyone to love me when I’m like that?’
‘I think you know the answer to that already Gabriel.’
‘We need to continue this later. I’ll see you next time.’
I stay sat down for a moment as he gets up. He stands and looks at me, waiting. I can feel the tears in my eyes and I look away.
I say. ‘You know, I knew Mar couldn’t be in love with me, almost from the start. It just didn’t seem very likely.’
And I get up and leave.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Voyage IX – God, and Other Hypotheses

I had an interesting conversation with Olly the other morning. I found him sitting up on the forward deck, looking at a book. It was still early and the sun was still small and the sky was a clear creamy pink with coral streaks in what I suppose we must call the west, if where the sun comes in from is the east. It’s strange how quickly I’ve got used to this colour in the morning sky. It doesn’t seem as wrong as you might think. It even seems right in a way the sky in life didn’t. The evening sky tends toward green – a clear glaucous green that becomes deeper and deeper, through turquoise to something I can only describe as green slate. Sometimes though, on very clear nights, the colours are violet and indigo, or lapis lazuli. Mornings are sometimes golden – like milk and honey. Azure skies only really occur at mid morning and by mid day the sky may completely lose all its colour and become a pure milky white. On a really clear day, at noon, if you lie very still you can hear the sun move.

I glance at Olly looking at the sky. Some different birds have joined us this morning – large, dirty grey ones but with vivid flashes of aquamarine under the wings. They wheel about silently as we sit.
‘It’s beautiful here’ he says without looking in my direction and makes me jump a little. I wasn’t aware he’d seen me. I walk forward and he moves the chair he’s had his feet on, inviting me to sit with him.
‘Yes, it is’ I say. ‘You look like you’ve been here all night.’
‘I have’ he says and offers me his flask. I show him I already have a mug and offer to go down and get him a fresh one. He says ‘Maybe later.’
It’s still very chilly at night but it’s getting quite warm in the sun these days. I have on my quilted coat and I’ve brought a blanket with me. I pull up another stool so we can both put our feet up and then I arrange my blanket over my pyjama legs and get comfortable. Something sleek and black breaks the surface and disappears off to port. It’s very quiet. I have no idea what powers our craft but it doesn’t make a sound. Up above us the windows of the bridge reflect the sky.
‘How’ve you been?’ I say casually. I want to ask what has happened between he and Lou since the row. It’s been a week. I miss them but I don’t feel comfortable asking. He grins knowingly at me nevertheless.
‘I’m fine lad’ he says and resumes looking. ‘I’ve spoken to Lou...’
‘Oh yes?’ I say, as if nothing had been further from my thoughts.
‘It’s alright. We’re alright. We’re actually very alike, Lou and I. Sometimes we just rub each other up the wrong way. You heard the conversation didn’t you. You were there...’ I nod. ‘What did you think?’ he says.
I’m not sure what he’s getting at. ‘About what, exactly?’
‘Oh, you know, science, faith, God and so forth.’
‘I don’t know’ I say, by way of playing for time.
‘Well, for example...’ he says briskly, but stops, and shakes his head. ‘No. I don’t know either. Not now. Did you have a faith, in life, or do you still...?’
‘That’s what I don’t know’ I say. ‘I went to meetings at the Buddhist centre for a while, and a couple of times at the Quaker meeting house...’
‘Ah’ he says, nodding ‘Did you meet Ted Little? This was in Brighton I take it?’
‘Yes, Ted was the chap who led the meetings wasn’t he – read out the notices and so on.’
‘Excellent chap Ted. What did you make of them? The Quakers?’
‘It was ok... well, not much really. A bit like the transcendental meditation – I couldn’t really concentrate. I was bit bored to be honest. I’m always thinking something will happen...’
‘Something like that, but I’m impatient I suppose. I always want to get back to my painting.’
‘Perhaps that is your religion – your access to the transcendent I mean. You don’t strike me as the contemplative type exactly.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, I can sit and look at the sea for days at a time when I’m supposed to be doing something else...’ and I tell him about my garret in Hove, and the view from up there.
He smiles and tells me about his place on the river in Southampton. ‘Always something going on down there...’ he says. I get the impression it’s not always something good.
We sit quietly for a while, contemplating. I really want to ask him what’s happened to his faith now. ‘What do you make of all this here, now?’ I say as casually as possible.
I hear him take a deep breath. ‘I suppose I trust God knows what he’s doing and has chosen not to let us in on everything’ he says, but he doesn’t sound sure.
I nod, trying to look understanding. ‘Mr Sadeghi said something similar.’
‘“We trust in God.” he said. I didn’t ask – he just said that.’
‘You must introduce me’ says Olly. ‘We can compare notes. I had a lot of Muslims on my patch. I envied them.’
‘Really? How come?’
‘Their simple devotion. We Christians were too full of interpretations, contradictions, different versions. They don’t really have that. They have the word of Mohammed, direct from God and they recite it – no fuss, no argument. That seems to be about it. Have you spoken to the girl – er...’
‘...Shamim about it? I see you’re friendly.’
‘I haven’t. I’d like to. I don’t want to offend her.’
‘I’m sure she won’t be offended. You should ask.’
‘To be honest Olly, no offence, but it all seems a bit, well, academic now. Sorry.’
‘No, don’t be sorry, and no offence taken by the way. I know what you mean. I mean, I’m used to basing my faith on miracles, on the highly improbable, not to say implausible, but this...’ he shakes his head. ‘I don’t know what to think. To tell you the truth I’m extremely angry at God for not warning us about this, but then I think...’
‘God moves in mysterious ways?’
‘Er, yes’ he says and looks at me unhappily. ‘But it’s really not much of an explanation is it’ he says. ‘You can’t just keep on saying “God moves in mysterious ways” every time you come up against something that doesn’t make sense. Surely we should be able to say which states of affairs are consistent with “God’s way” and which are not. Surely not just any old state of affairs can be equally consistent with God’s plans. Keith says maybe the bible doesn’t tell us everything, but in this case the bible is positively misleading. And if it can be this “misleading” how can we be said to truly understand anything at all about God from reading the bible? I confess to being flummoxed Gabriel. Any particular significance to your name Gabriel by the way?’
‘I think mum just liked it. She was a big Archers fan.’
‘Ah... Well anyway.’
We sit and think for a bit longer. I still want to talk about what was said the other day with Lou. ‘But what about intuition and so on?’ I say. ‘I mean, you were saying your faith came more from some deep intuition about the universe than from the bible.’
‘But Lou put paid to that didn’t he. How do I know where these “deep intuitions” came from? And why furthermore assume they tell me anything about the ultimate nature of the universe. He’s right. It’s presumptuous to say the least, possibly downright arrogant. I never thought of myself as an arrogant man but there you are.’
‘But his scientific “hypotheses” must be equally groundless surely?’ I feel the old debating Me, from college surfacing. I mustn’t let it get out of hand.
‘Ask him. I think you’ll find he has an answer to that’ says Olly, resignedly.
‘But he can’t account for all this, surely.’
‘And he doesn’t try. He doesn’t need to. But in any case, I didn’t disagree with him on any of that. Keith is more the creationist if you remember. Actually I believe in science as much as Lou does, more probably, since he doesn’t see it as a belief system. Lou said I have a morbid compulsion to believe.’
‘And that’s a bad thing?’
‘I don’t know. I always thought it was better to believe in something rather than nothing. Obviously I’d prefer it were Christ but...’
‘But now you’re not so sure.’
‘I’m not.’
‘Well I think you should stick to what you believe – do what seems right to you.’
‘And what do you believe Gabriel?’
It takes me a while to answer. I was never religious but he’s a vicar and I feel self-conscious. ‘I suppose... I do believe there’s a consciousness in the universe, and I believe it cares what happens to us. I don’t believe it is involved in everything that goes on, like everyday events. I suppose a lot of it, he or she or whatever set in motion and then it observes, maybe intervenes sometimes. I believe it communicates with us if we let it and maybe makes things happen so that there’s some justice in the world, you know, like karma. I used to believe in reincarnation, but not like this.’
‘What about people who have different beliefs to you?’
‘Well I always thought there were many routes to God or whatever you call it, ‘Truth’ maybe. None of us understand fully. They’re all truths in a way.’
‘But what about terrible beliefs?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean fascists and fundamentalists. They really believe in what they do. Some people seriously believe God wants them to kill queers. I had a case of ritual child abuse to deal with once. A family were convinced their child was possessed by evil spirits and forced him to drink petrol.’
I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, obviously they’re wrong but I don’t see the relevance. ‘Did the child survive?’ I ask.
‘If you can call it that.’ I don’t pry further.
‘What I’m asking, Gabriel, is do you think they were merely working to a different version of the truth, or another aspect of the truth if you like, or were they just plain wrong?’
‘They were wrong, obviously.’
‘And I agree, but they believed that what they did was right, they really did. They believed and that was what their belief told them to do. I know, we lose sight of this in southern England, middle class, prosperous, basically decent law-abiding people. You can be tolerant of other peoples’ beliefs when the differences don’t matter much. You all want love and peace and justice and all the rest of it, but not everyone is like that.’
‘Well maybe there is something evil out there too, misleading people.’
He smiles and claps me on the back. ‘Now you’re just making it up as you go along.’
We stand and look for a while. The wind is picking up.
‘Actually, I think I was mostly a pagan’ I say very casually again, trying to pretend I’ve not said anything controversial. Olly just smiles and pulls his collars up. It’s starting to cloud over. Rain is on its way.
‘Good for you. Buddhist, Quaker, pagan. I wish I could have been so agnostic’ he says. ‘You were a seeker after the truth.’
‘Well I didn’t look very hard to be honest. I just didn’t think the rationalists could have all the answers.’
Heavy drops begin to land on us. Olly pulls his hood up and stuffs his hands deeper in his pockets. I can see I’m going to get very wet if I stay here. I fidget a bit. ‘You go’ he says through his collars. ‘I’ll be alright. Honestly. I’ll see you later.’ He slaps my back and I get up to go. I think of what happened to Vincent’s ‘client’ and worry about him but he’s clearly not to be pressured. I collect my things and head down for breakfast.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.