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.’
‘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.