New Beginnings

Have you ever wished for a new start? That you could do it all over again, but differently? Better? Then be careful what you wish for…

At 50, Tom Fletcher had reached a sort of crossroads in his life. No, not a crossroads, a dead end. The feeling that had haunted him for most of his adult life emerged from the shadows to take up noisy residence in his head. It did not make for a particularly happy birthday. How could it when he he felt he had wasted those 50 years? He really didn’t like his life.

Superficially, he was successful; he was a businessman and company director; he had a presentable wife, two reasonably stable children and a large house in what was known locally as a highly desirable area.
He knew he had to do something. He couldn’t stay with Joyce; that the house was highly desirable while she no longer was, was an irony that was not lost on him. It wasn’t so much that they’d drifted apart but that, at some unspecified time in the past, they had each jumped into separate vehicles and had hurtled off in different directions.

He needed a solution, if one were possible, that did not entail solicitors, law courts and tearing apart everything he’d ever worked for. The kids were more or less independent and he’d been a hopeless parent anyway. While most of their upbringing had fallen to him, he always had the feeling he’d let them down and should never have been a father. Someone should have told him, back when Joyce started insisting it was time they started a family, ‘No, not you, mate. You’ll be lousy at it.’ But they hadn’t and instead he and Joyce had had two children in quick succession; babies she seemed to lose interest in once they stopped being babies. But he was becoming bitter, and he didn’t want to be. What he wanted was some way of putting things right; for himself, mainly – he acknowledged that – but also for the kids.

If anyone could return to an earlier time in life simply by willing it, it would be Tom. His thoughts were perpetually occupied with the idea that if he could find some way of returning to, say, the months leading up to his marriage, in the late nineteen-seventies, he’d be able to set things right and correct all his mistakes, second time around. He wouldn’t marry Joyce, that’s for sure, wouldn’t pin himself down to marriage at all, not until much later anyway. Everyone had said they’d been too young at the time. Of course this would mean Daniel and Penny wouldn’t exist, at least not in their current form, but Tom was pretty sure they’d be around with at least half the genetic complement they had now – their mother’s – with someone else providing the other half; the man she’d marry instead of him. It was an absolute certainty she’d find someone else, and that she would have children with him. She had been the driving force behind their marrying as well as their becoming parents; that wouldn’t change. Who knows, maybe she’d have more children with another man. Maybe the third or fourth child that Tom had denied existence when he’d had his vasectomy would see the light of day in the new reality he envisaged. And with a bit more luck maybe all of them would find themselves with a better father than he had been.

What would happen to the reality he intended leaving behind? The one where none of this had occurred – the unhappy marriage, the failings as a parent? Perhaps it would cease to be entirely, like a cauterised artery. Or maybe he’d just be found dead in his bed and the rest of it would go as normal, or…

But he couldn’t think too deeply about what was going to happen to the present here and now. He’d just have to leave that to fate, or God, or whatever it was that was in charge of such things; the same controlling force that was going to grant him, he felt sure, special dispensation to take another crack at it. With this conviction, his wishful thinking intensified. On this his birthday, he would will himself back to that easier time and start again.

At first it felt like mild vertigo, a dizzy spell that took him by surprise and caused him to lose his balance. He slumped in his office chair and closed his eyes. He gripped the arms of the chair but then realised that this might give the wrong impression to whatever cosmic force was now taking charge of him – that he wanted to cling on to the present – so he let go and allowed it to lift him out of his body.

Once he started to fall, he fell rapidly.

Back beyond the day in September that changed everything, back before his own promotion. Before hysteria over the royal death, before his first breakdown (how strange that feels in reverse); the kids leaving home, past the difficult move to the new house and, eventually, out of the digital age.

…Into the callous eighties, when he made his money, which, with an unexpected relief, he now feels falling away; his children becoming ever younger, ever more demanding, until finally they vanish.

He feels himself falling further, back into an even more primitive age. The nineteen-seventies, where he’s young again and slimmer, both physically and mentally, all of the accrued wisdom of his years, which he hardly ever noticed he had, stripped away somewhere in his backward flight. It is, he thinks, a small price to pay, especially now that he feels his body returned to its twenty-something state that pleases and re-invigorates him. His burning ambition has returned too, along with all of his worries about ‘making it’ and supporting his young wife and the family she wants… and of failure. But it doesn’t matter; he will deal with all of that much better this time. He won’t have a young wife or children waiting in the wings; he’ll know how to marshal his anxieties and use them productively. Enough of his old self will survive to guide him through that. He’ll reassure his younger self that all will be well.

He can, he suddenly realises, become a gambling man and with his future knowledge make his fortune betting on the outcomes of Cup Finals and Grand Nationals and even Christmas number ones. With a little application, he’ll be able to recall all of these and decides he’ll write them down as soon as he arrives at his destination, in case they fade from his mind over time. He feels a frisson of excitement at the success he is going to make of everything this time round.

He becomes aware, as he hurtles through the vortex, that he isn’t slowing down. He is going to have to jump, to disembark from his backward journey at some point soon. It’s the early days of his marriage, and a sense of the elation he’d felt then catches him by surprise. He’d forgotten it, smothered as it has been by all the later complications. He braces himself as he experiences, in reverse of course, his own wedding, sensing again his uncertainty and lack of conviction. But it doesn’t matter, the mistake is being undone.

Then courting, as his mother always called it – old fashioned even then – when he is free and life enjoyable, though, knowing what lies ahead, also uncomfortably ominous. He will jump any time now, even though he is aware he’s travelling faster than ever, deeper into his own past. He braces himself; he’s reached a point before he’s even met Joyce. This is further than he intended to go but it will do; his teenage years, unlike his childhood, were happy. He has no objection to experiencing them again. So he tells himself to jump. But jumping, he now realises, was only a metaphor. He can no more jump than he can stop to blow his nose; this is a metaphysical experience where legs and noses are an illusion, physical attributes that will only return when the ride ends and he surfaces again in his own younger body. So he wills himself to stop instead, like he used to will himself to wake up from bad dreams, but instead he just keeps falling.

He’s a boy now. Young Tommy. Alone, feeling the abandonment and anguish of his father’s leaving. Grief, as he now recognises it. The shiny kernel that should be at the heart of this younger self is dented and dull. His older self makes to touch it, to give the young boy comfort and consolation, but it remains out of reach. He cries, experiencing the pain all over again, until he collides with the moment he learnt of his dad’s death, the single event that wrenched the life from him and closed down everything that was warm and bright.

Then beyond. His daddy alive again, lifting him onto his shoulders, the thing at the centre of him bright and shiny once more. He wants to live here, in this one moment, perpetually, with time stopped, prevented from travelling forward again.

But he keeps on falling backwards, further back into the past of his own life. To where he’s happy, with mummy and daddy near, and nothing to worry about. He doesn’t even know what worrying is any more. The big dog next door sometimes frightens him but once his mummy comes out in her sunny apron and he can wrap his arms around her legs. He is happy again even if everything is silly because it’s all back to front.

The smell of milk. That is all there is to him now. He smells of it, he wants it. He is warm. Words have failed him; he has no words. They have gone. They have not arrived yet. Smells and feeling warm or cold or hungry or messy. That is all. A little world of his own little body.
Then he’s back where it’s dark and red, wet and warm. There’s noise; steady and loud. Nice noise. And he feels a sense of unravelling, of everything coming apart, unknitting. Until anything that might be considered consciousness – his consciousness – is obliterated.

He is a string of nucleotides, but he doesn’t know it. Doesn’t know anything. He is a strand of RNA in search of another strand of RNA; he is a chemical half.

And then he is nothing at all. The strands that once made him are absorbed back into the bodies from which they came.

Everything about him has gone.

And time lurches forward again. Another string of nucleotides, not his, finds its way in the dark to one that waits for it.

And another child is born, another grows up with his mummy and daddy. There is no accident this time because the new child is ill the day his dad should travel and he stays at home instead. Another child, still whole and happy, goes to his school in his place and, later, finds true love where he didn’t.

Another has a successful career and raises a child – just the one – instead of him. She doesn’t know, this other, that hers is an alternative life, one that might never have been and was never intended to be.

In some other reality, Tom lay slumped in his chair. His body was still warm, and his heart beat rapidly, but he was not there.

He had had his birthday wish, his second chance to begin all over again.

Christmas Story


This story featured on BBC Radio Cumbria a few years ago. It is, I like to think, a timeless tale. Very nearly... 

Mary sat shivering in the corner. It had been a terrible journey. She was cold and wet and could feel the baby moving inside her. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be born and of course she’d always known it was going to be a boy. Joe reappeared with a cup of steaming something and handed it to her.

‘Here, drink this,’ he said, ‘it’ll warm you up.’ He put his arm round her and pulled her close. She smiled weakly at him and took a sip; some sort of herbal concoction, bitter and sweet at the same time. Joe lifted the shawl back round her shoulders. She wished she was at home and that they hadn’t risked the journey, not at this time of year and in her condition. Now here they were on the outskirts of the town Joe’s family had originally come from and a long way from their village and the little house they’d set up together,

He took the cup from her as she felt the first of her pains and said he’d go and find the landlady to help her with the birth. She’d said she would when they arrived, apologising that because of the time of year and the big occasion that had brought everyone into town she couldn’t offer them one of her decent rooms; they were all taken, she explained, except the one they now found themselves in. It was cold and had no running water, but was still far better than being outside where the mist was now thicker and icier than it had been only minutes earlier.

‘Hello?’ Joe called out across the yard, ‘Can you give us a hand here?’ The landlady, who’d introduced herself as Beth King, scurried from the kitchen of the main house, wiping her hands on her apron. The mist parted like the red sea as she passed through it.

‘Is it time?’ she said. ‘I’ll fetch the towels and hot water.’ Joe had never known why these things were necessary whenever a baby was about to be born but, as they were always called for, he guessed they must be. Beth disappeared again into the swirling fog, emerging again moments later with what turned out to be a box of towels and cloths, followed by Mr King with an urn of scalding water.

‘Now don’t you men get in the way’ Mrs King commanded, taking charge. ‘Make yourselves useful by…’ she paused as she helped Mary make herself more comfortable, ‘by making yourselves scarce.’

‘C’mon son,’ Mr King said to Joe, ‘we’ll leave them to it. Come and warm yourself up in the kitchen.’ Joe had thought he wanted to be with Mary as she brought their son into the world, and was shocked, now it came to it, at how easily he allowed himself to be talked out of it.

‘You go,’ Mary said, teeth chattering. ‘We’ll manage.’ She had reached the point that she didn’t care whether he was there or not. She just wanted it over with.

Frank dragged two old chairs across the flagstones and up to the range. He passed Joe another of his herbal infusions. ‘Not a night for travelling,’ he said.

‘No, indeed,’ agreed Joe. It was madness really to have attempted it but they’d felt they’d had no choice. They’d felt compelled to make the trip back to the little town from where the Carpenter family hailed. Everything had been fine when they’d left that morning, with a couple of bags each and one for the baby, even though neither of them thought he’d make an appearance quite this early. He wasn’t due for another week or two so they were fairly confident they’d be back home before he arrived. It had been a sunny day, if a little chilly, when they’d set off and although Mary found the journey uncomfortable, they were sure they’d arrive before nightfall. But they hadn’t counted on the mist that had started to roll in in the late afternoon. Before they knew it, they couldn’t see any further than a few feet in front of them, the sides of the road completely obscured. Joe was frightened for his fiancée, her fingers digging deeply into the side of her seat, and for their unborn child. He didn’t know what to do; he couldn’t stop where they were, wherever that was, but it would be equally dangerous to carry on. So he was relieved when, through the mist, he could just make out the lights from the farm where even now he sat warming himself. Cautiously, he’d steered them down the track towards the building, somehow avoiding the dark, mist-shrouded ditches on either side and reached the farmhouse without incident or accident. Frank answered his desperate knocking and called his wife once he’d explained that, yes, they did usually have rooms, but that on this night, of all nights, they were all taken. ‘But you must come in,’ Beth had said. ‘We can surely sort something, Frank.’ And she had fussed about preparing the room in the outhouse, explaining how it wasn’t normally used in the winter. But for Joe and Mary it was a godsend, saving them from returning to the road, and a place for Mary finally to rest.

Now, in the drowsy warmth of the kitchen, Frank busied himself stoking the fire and clearing away dishes, while Joe, exhausted after an eventful day, dozed by the fire.

He woke suddenly. A cry from the squat little building outside – a baby’s cry. He rushed out into the yard, bumping into Beth in the still swirling mist. ‘You have a beautiful baby boy!’ she cried. ‘Mother and baby both well. Come and see.’ Joe pushed passed her and into the tiny space where Mary and his new son waited for him. He kissed her, feeling guilty he had felt so tired himself after the greater ordeal she had gone through, and picked up the little bundle, the baby wrapped in the towels Beth had insisted on earlier. ‘Take him into the house, keep him warm’ she said. ‘His mum and I will be there soon.’ If, as he crossed the yard again, Joe had looked up he would have seen the solitary light directly above him, moving slowly across the night sky, the only thing visible through thick, clammy fog. Intent instead on the new-born cradled in his arms, a sense of peace such as he’d never known before had overwhelmed him.

He re-entered the kitchen to be met by a veritable host of people: Frank had rounded up his other guests – Mr and Mrs Sheppard and the D’Angelos – to greet the new arrival. ‘Oh, he’s lovely,’ murmured Agnes Sheppard. ‘Such a beautiful bambino,’ cooed Gabrielle D’Angelo, as heavenly voices drifted through the air, the angels themselves marking the birth of this remarkable baby. On the Welsh dresser, next to the radio from where the strains of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ came, the kitchen clock showed it was well after after midnight. Christmas Day; Mary and Joe had a Christmas baby.

Mrs King brought Mary into the kitchen and Joe passed their son to her. Agnes produced a toy lamb from somewhere and perched it next to the baby in the crook of Mary’s arm. ‘It was for my granddaughter,’ she said, ‘But I can knit her another one.’

‘So,’ said Mrs King, ‘what are you going to call him?’

‘Well, there’s only one thing I can call him,’ Mary said. ‘He has to be J.. J… J,’ she stammered as nerves and exhaustion finally got the better of her. ‘We’re going to call him J-Justin,’ she said, ‘after my favourite singer. Aren’t we, Joseph dear?’

Goodbye, Jesus

The Jesus narrative is a made-up story, originally created by a member of one of the many branches of a first century cult centred on a supernatural being experienced in visions. We call this cult member ‘Mark’. His ‘gospel’ was not written to convert anyone – I doubt any of them were – it was written as a ‘what if?’ story for fellow cult members: ‘what if our celestial saviour had lived on Earth?’ It is made up of St Paul’s teaching, Old Testament mythology, and ideas taken from pagan dying-god myths (probably in that order). It amalgamates the cult’s rules with what cultists believed about the end of the age: that their celestial saviour would very soon be coming down to Earth to save them and annihilate their enemies.

Ten or fifteen years later, another writer took Mark’s fiction and rewrote much of it for his branch of the cult. This was a group who saw themselves as still firmly within Judaism, so ‘Matthew’ toned down Paul’s teaching, eliminating a good deal of it. He heightened Jewish teaching for his co-religionists, and created a Jesus who was a manifestation of prophecy, as he saw it, from the Jewish scriptures. This construct had no time for any magic salvation-formula; like the cult who created him, he taught obedience to Jewish Law and believed that serving others was the way to eternal life.

A few years on and a third sect found Mark and Matthew’s stories weren’t entirely to their liking. They didn’t quite get Jesus right. So they took them and altered them again. Their scribe, known now as Luke, created a third Jesus. It’s possible this sect didn’t realise the original story was fiction. There’s some evidence Luke thought Jesus had really existed, 50 years or so before he remodelled him.

Later still, the creators (plural) of a fourth gospel created a Christ totally unlike the other three. This branch of the cult had ceased to believe, perhaps because it hadn’t happened when earlier believers said it would, that the saviour would be coming through the clouds at any minute to set up God’s kingdom on Earth. That part of the original idea was dropped; this Jesus is made to preach an internalised salvation, and everlasting life in heaven is beginning to be hinted at.

And that’s it. The adventures of Jesus on Earth began as a ‘what if?’ story created for existing cult members. Other branches of the cult took it and reshaped its central character so that he suited their needs and beliefs. A real Jesus was not necessary for any of this to happen. Just as it was for Paul, whether one existed or not is immaterial,. Even if he did, we can know nothing about him. The Jesuses created by each sect is a product of what they imagined their saviour to be, just like the various Christs that are worshipped today.

So, I’m saying a final goodbye to Jesus – or rather to all the Jesuses, Christs and made-up Messiahs spawned by the visions, fantasies and fan-fiction of the first century. I don’t need them, and neither do you.

This blog will be taking a new direction in the new year. Next time, though, I hope you’ll read one of my Christmas stories, as featured on the BBC.

Stay safe. 

God’s Messenger

He was sent by his Father above to save us all. Little is known about his early years though they were traumatic from the start. He grew up in a sleepy backwater with his Earthly father, J, and mother M, only occasionally showing the promise of what was to come. As an adult, he moved into the wider world, where a band of staunch supporters gathered around him. One of these, a fiery, impetuous young man, he considered his closest friend. He also became closely associated with a remarkable woman whose first and last names began with the same letter.

He performed mighty works with his miraculous powers, while all the time exemplifying meekness and humility. He opposed the forces of evil wherever he could until one fateful day, dark forces overcame him. He was killed while saving the world. After three days he rose again, through the miraculous intervention of his father, and was seen by many people. He gained in repute from that day forth and much was written about him.

His original name meant ‘God’s messenger’, but while he was with us it was changed – to Jesus.

Er, no hang on – that’s not right. It was changed to Superman. And like Jesus everything about him is complete fiction.


What Second Coming?

Richard Carrier notes in On the Historicity of Jesus (p560) how Paul never speaks of a ‘second coming’, prompting me to look at all the predictions of Christ’s future arrival in the New Testament. Here’s a selection of verses, some of them supposedly the words of Jesus himself, where this coming is ‘prophesied’:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13.26).

You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62).

For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24.27).

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man… they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24. 37, 39)

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory. (Matthew 25.31).

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Luke 12.40).

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4.16).

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5.23).

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11.26).

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord… Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5.7-8).

Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2.13).

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him (Revelation 1.7).

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done (Revelation 22.12).

Isn’t this strange? None of them refer to Christ’s arrival as a ‘return’ or ‘second coming’. You’d be hard pushed to find any such ‘prophecy’ in the New Testament*. His appearance here on Earth is described as the coming of a celestial being. Even Jesus is made to talk about the manifestation of such a figure, taken by Christians to mean his own future self, as if he’s talking about someone else: the Son of Man, who hasn’t yet appeared but will do so in the near future. It’s as if the gospels’ fictional Jesus is being made to predict the arrival of the ‘real’, celestial Jesus.

More importantly, the Son of Man and Paul’s version of the same figure, the Christ, are spoken of as ‘coming’ or ‘descending’, not ‘returning’ or coming again. It’s as if Paul, the writers of the synoptic gospels, John of Patmos and other first-century Christians* didn’t believe that the Christ had already visited the Earth. They talk instead as if he’s about to arrive for the very first time. When he does, they believed, he would be coming as an avenging angel, rescuing those who believe in him – as a celestial being who carried out his salvific work in the heavenly realms (1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1.11-12 etc) – and slaughtering those who don’t. This is the apocalypse – the revealing or uncovering of the heavenly Christ for the very first time.

That Jesus will ‘return’ or make a second coming is an assumption made by later believers on the basis of verses like those above. In fact, they say no such thing. The earliest Christians wrote as if they didn’t believe their envisaged hero had ever been on Earth. For them, his one and only arrival was still to come.


* An exception appears to be Hebrews 9.28 which says, ‘so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him’. Hebrews, however, regards the Christ only as a supernatural high priest, operating in the heavenly realms. This second appearance then can only refer to this character, who is not conceived as having had any existence here on Earth.