Story for Rule 2: Endgame

Very dark. Can barely see. Fading light in the far distance. Too frightened to move. Don’t know what’s underfoot. Damn, talking to myself. Hope no-one can hear.

You’re here too. Knew you would be.

Who?

It’s me, old friend. Right beside you.

Who’s me? Can’t see you. You’re just… a disembodied voice.

You too.

So where are we?

Where’d you think? Where we always are.

You know, this isn’t making much sense. I remember being in bed, then… here. Am I dreaming?

No… I don’t think so. Something else.

I’m not… not… dead, am I?

Course not. You wouldn’t be here talking to me if you were dead. I thought you knew: once you’re dead you’re dead. That’s it. No afterlife.

Okay, yes, I do know that. But this… this isn’t the judgement, is it?

Judgement? There’s no judgement. No sin from which to be absolved. You know it doesn’t work like that.

You’re right, I do know that. But what about regrets? And guilt? I’ve quite a lot of those.

Not a lot of point though, is there? I mean, what can you do about it now?

I could make changes. When I wake up – this is a dream, right? – when I wake up, I’m going to make some changes. I’m going to tell my children, grown up now of course, that I love them. I never told them enough.

They know.

Yes, but I want to tell them. Tell them and hug them. I’ve never been as demonstrative as I should’ve been. I regret I wasn’t a better parent.

Still, if they’re adults now, they’ve made it haven’t they?

Well, yes. I guess so, but I can’t help but feel I should’ve done more with life.

Such as?

Doing something worthwhile. Something that was me. I should’ve been more myself. Not tried to be something I wasn’t.

Right.

That’s what religion did for me. I certainly regret that!

You know, there’s no point regretting anything. Not now.

I thought you said this wasn’t the judgement?

You wouldn’t be here if it was. As I’ve already tried to explain, neither of us would. There’s nothing on the other side. Nothing. The fact we’re here at all proves this isn’t some sort of life after death.

So, why are we here, wherever here is? And who are you, anyway?

I thought you knew. I thought you’d recognise my voice after all this time.

Your voice? Why would I recognise your voice?

Because, my friend, I’ve always been here beside you.

You have?

I have. But now we have to go. Both… of us. Time… is up and it’s… getting darker.

Go? Go where? Why can I barely hear you now?

It has been good… knowing you. We’ve made a good team. But time… is… short.

Wait. What are you

We’ll go together. Like always

Yes, okay. We’ll go togeth

.

Rule 2: This Is It (so make the most of it)

My partner Dennis and I often take a walk in the local cemetery. It is a sobering experience but also, strangely, an inspiring one. Graves there date back to the 1700s, right through the 19th and 20th centuries to burials that have taken place in the past few years. Many people died young, not only in previous centuries, but recently. There are many graves of children and babies. Equally, there are many gravestones that record the long lives some people lived, even in the years before modern medicine.

All of these people, whatever the extent of their existence, lived real lives. They experienced the same highs and lows as those of us alive today. They enjoyed love and celebrated the same occasions we do. They suffered pain and hardship in much the same way as us, probably more so. They shared the same hopes and aspirations, for themselves and their children, experienced the same successes and disappointments. They sought meaning, some of them finding it (or having it imposed on them post-mortem) in religion, if the inscriptions on their tombstones are anything to go by. Quite a few modern graves have them to.

And yet, to what end? Every one of these people is gone. Long gone in most cases. They and their concerns, loves, hopes, dreams, worries and aspirations, whatever they were, died with them. None of them, not even those who trusted their souls to Jesus, has a renewed existence. Not one of them has gone on to a new life here or in heaven. Death was the end, as it will be for us too.

Which is where the inspirational aspect of contemplating the brevity of existence comes in. The few decades for which we are alive (if we’re lucky) is all there is. They are the only time we will experience life. We owe it to ourselves to enjoy each and every moment as well as we’re able. This life is not a prelude for another, better one after death (what sort of nonsensical contradiction is that?) This is it.

So, live the life you have. Savour every moment, even in lockdown or the mundanity of the daily grind. Change whatever it is that stops you from living. Live life fully while you can.

All Along The Watchtower III

Jim has shaken the dust from his sandals. As he says, and as I knew, he wasn’t really looking for a discussion. He was looking to draw me, and the others who received his letter, into his cult. When it was obvious I wasn’t going to be, he lost interest. Plus, I mentioned Jesus’s non-return. I don’t think he liked that.

Hi Neil, 

Thanks again for your response. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. We aren’t here to debate over things but we do respect your beliefs and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. 

We find what we read in the Bible answers many of life’s big questions and there is much archaeological evidence today to back up Bible accounts which adds to the accuracy of the Bible. So we want to share the truths and hope we have found with others, but we do respect everyone’s beliefs. 

Take care, 

Jim and Sandra 

All Along The Watchtower II

I’ve had a reply from my friendly neighbourhood Jehovah’s Witness, Jim and Sandra. Well, from Jim. Sandra seems to have left him to it. Naturally, politeness compelled me to reply to Jim’s reply.  

Jim first:

Hello Neil 

We wanted to say thanks very much for your email. We appreciate hearing what you had to say. We hope that you and your family are well, and continuing to stay safe. We want you to know that we fully respect your beliefs so thank you for sharing them with us. But please consider what we have to say in response with an open mind. 

Firstly, you may be familiar with the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ which marked the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. The reason they call this an ‘Explosion’ is because of how short the period of time with which almost all animal life suddenly appears. As you mentioned with Occam’s Razor, we have found that the Bible provides one explanation as to how life got here, whereas science points to an accumulation of many different theories that even scientists themselves don’t agree on… such as Sir Isaac Newton and William of Ockham as well as many other scientists who do believe in an intelligent designer – God.

You also raised excellent points about God’s existence too, you mentioned that according to our reasoning things that are complex must have a creator. While we completely agree God is definitely complex, the Bible answers that question by saying that “From eternity [God has] existed” and “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God”. So we can see here that while God is the creator, he is not a creation. So as hard it is for us as humans to comprehend (as everything we know has a designer) God wasn’t created as he has always existed. 

You also mentioned that if God created everything, this would mean that he also created viruses etc. However if we think of Benjamin Franklin, for example, he created electricity… but we would not say he was the cause of people dying due to the electric chair would we? The Bible does clearly state that God “created all things, and because of [his] will they came into existence and were created”. So while we would not dispute God did create everything, things we experience today are present as a byproduct of a situation God never intended to happen.  However this then raises the questions… What was God’s initial purpose for humans? And why does God allow suffering and diseases?

If you would like the answers to those questions, just let us know in your reply and we would be happy to discuss that with you too.  In the mean time, we found this video that we thought you would find really interesting. You can watch it for free and by all means please let us know your thoughts on it.  https://www.jw.org/en/library/videos/viewpoints-origin-of-life/irene-hof-laurenceau-orthopedic-surgeon/

Kind regards, 

Jim

And my reply. I wanted to turn the discussion round to that JW weakness – one of many – their preoccupation with Jesus’ return (or lack of it):

Hi Jim,

Thank you for your response. I hope too you are both well. I have to say I was unconvinced by your assertion that Ben Franklin created electricity – he certainly didn’t. Electricity is a natural phenomenon that humans have been interested in for thousands of years. Consequently, your analogy between Franklin and God doesn’t stand up. If God created viruses, germs and parasites (as he must’ve done if he created ‘everything’) only to let them run amok amongst the rest of his creation, then he is responsible for the outcome. You say this is not what he intended but as an omniscient being he must have known what was going to happen, just as he must’ve known in advance that Adam and Eve would ‘sin’. Yet he still went ahead and created viruses and the like, knowing the havoc they would cause. How could a loving God do that?

I have to tell you, I’m not going to be persuaded of God’s existence by the argument from design, nor by the argument – though it’s really no more than an assertion – from incredulity. It’s the one in the video clip you sent that says essentially, ‘this natural phenomenon is just so amazing I can’t understand how it came about. Therefore it must have been God.’ Similarly, for you to quote the bible’s claim that God has always existed isn’t convincing either; that some ancient tribesman and their scribes thought so does not constitute proof. 

What might convince me? Possibly if the things Jesus said he was going to do had actually happened. Take, as one example, his promise that God’s Kingdom would be established on the Earth while those he was speaking to were still alive (Matthew 16:27-28, Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34 and Luke 21:27-28, 33-34 amongst other places.) If this had happened, I’d be able to look around and see God’s plan for humankind in action and say to myself, ‘how mighty fine it is to live in the wonderful kingdom God has blessed us with these past 2000 years. He truly is real.’ But of course he didn’t, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other branches of Christianity have been making excuses for him ever since. 

I keep a blog you might like to read. A while back I did some posts on the non-arrival of the Son of Man, the final judgement and God’s Kingdom on Earth. While you might find them irreverent, you can see them here: https://rejectingjesus.com/2018/01/28/jesus-demonstrates-that-god-doesnt-exist/ https://rejectingjesus.com/2017/06/23/making-excuses-for-jesus-4/

I do hope you’ll read them. Feel free to explore other of my posts too.

Neil  

All Along The Watchtower

One post in and already a diversion from my planned ’12 Rules’ series. This is because I was fortunate enough to receive a letter in the post recently from my ‘neighbours’, Jim and Sandra. You can see it above. I’ve no idea who Jim and Sandra are – I’ve changed their names here to protect the guilty – but they tell me they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. They want to convince me of their God, first by pointing out that we are, everyone of us, created by him. They then proceed to demonstrate their God’s existence with rather weak versions of the weak ‘argument from design’, with a spot of the so-called ‘argument from incredulity’ thrown in. Having ‘proved’ God, they conclude with a lovely non-sequitur, that God = purpose.

As they had gone to a lot of trouble to do this, I felt Jim and Sandra deserved a reply, specially as they were kind enough to include their email address. So here it is.  

Hi Jim and Sandra,

I was interested to get your letter recently. I notice you ask the question, ‘was life created?’ Of course it was! You’ll get no argument from me there. Nature and the processes of natural selection and evolution created life as we know it today. You of course want to draw God into these processes, but actually he’s not needed to explain them. 

Your ‘argument from design’ doesn’t work at all, because if God created all the wonderful, intricate things you talk about, he also created viruses, including covid-19, cancer and parasites. You can’t say he created everything and then discount all the nasty things as the product of natural processes or man’s sin or whatever. Either everything was made by God or everything is the result of natural processes – you don’t get to pick and choose. 

You say that only (your) God could make all the complexities of life, as complexity necessitates a creator. But that creator must, by definition, be more complex than his creation – yet you don’t think he had a creator, do you. But he must have done – because according to you, complexity has to have a creator. This principle doesn’t grind to a halt with God just because you or your church or holy book says it does. 

The intricacies and complexity of life that we see are the result of organisms, including ourselves and all other life & non-life, like viruses, adapting to their environments over billions of years. That’s it – no need to add another layer of complication, like a god, to this explanation (you may have heard of Occam’s razor, which is what I’m applying here). If something complex has existed for eons it is far more likely that it is something we know for sure exists – nature – rather than something we don’t. 

Life has in fact many purposes; one doesn’t need a God who doesn’t exist to discover them. I’d be happy to share some of these with you, though I imagine you are already quite set in your beliefs. That’s a shame.

Best wishes,

Neil 

12 Rules of Life: first rule

Considering what might be my twelve rules of life (after Jordan B. Peterson):

I wrote about my first ‘rule’ in 2019 BC (‘Before Covid’): Be Yourself – or, Don’t Pretend To Be What You’re Not. I know this is the theme of every Disney movie there is, but just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true. Don’t spend your life at war with yourself. I spent too much of mine doing just that and it leads only to self-hatred and depressive illness. The only way out of the resulting inner conflict and its consequences is to accept yourself and live with who you are.

Life isn’t a box of chocolates but it is like a hand in a card game. You can only play with what you’ve got, not with what you wish you had, nor with what you’re pretending you’ve got. There’s more chance of winning on this basis, though it’s not guaranteed. At least you stand a chance of happiness. 

 

I find that, although I have this as my first rule of life, I haven’t actually written much about it. I wrote more, and more despondently, when I wasn’t being myself. The story that follows, based on something that actually happened to me, perhaps conveys some of what I’m saying here about being yourself. Or maybe not. You decide.

O, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive

Frequently and erroneously attributed to Shakespeare, the couplet is from Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion, published in 1808. I read this story on BBC Radio Cumbria a few years ago.

‘You told him what?’ I said incredulously.

‘I told him you played the piano.’

‘But I don’t play the piano,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought you did. I must be confusing you with someone else.’

‘Like who?’ I said, ‘Liberace? Mrs Mills?’

‘There’s no need for sarcasm,’ she said. ‘I’m sure I’ve heard you play.’

‘I’ve never played the piano’ I said, ‘unless you include ‘Chopsticks’ and the first line of ‘We Three Kings’. That’s the total extent of my repertoire.’

‘Oh,’ she said again, ‘but you can’t tell him that. You’ll have to go along with it now. When he asks, tell him you do play.’ She smiled sweetly as if she’d somehow resolved the predicament she’d created for me.

‘Why would I do that?’ I asked her. ‘He leads a world famous orchestra. He’ll see through me in a second. I’ll come clean, tell him you were confused and that I can’t really play the piano.’

‘Oh, please don’t do that,’ she pleaded. ‘You’ll show me up. I’ll feel a right chump.’

‘Surely not,’ I said. ‘Look, honesty is the best policy, Janice, so if he mentions it, I’ll tell him the truth.’

The man himself was coming towards us. My sister-in-law turned, pretending she hadn’t seen him, and launched herself at the buffet. He held out his hand and smiled broadly. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘Janice tells me you’re something of a virtuoso.’

‘Ah yes, about that…’ I began.

‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘it’s so good to have another musician here, especially one of your calibre.’

My calibre? What had Janice been saying to him? But instead of asking him this, I found myself saying, ‘Ah, well… yes, thank you.’

‘Who did you study under?’ he asked.

I hesitated before spluttering, ‘Miss Marjorie Roe’, the name of my music teacher from primary school. Had he spotted my hesitation? Why was I even worried that he might have done?

‘Can’t say I’ve heard of her,’ he said, puzzled. ‘Still, she was obviously capable of nurturing your considerable talent.’

‘She was very good,’ I mumbled.

‘They should have had you play at the ceremony this afternoon. It would have been infinitely preferable to the noise we had to endure,’ he said sniffily.

‘Oh, quite,’ I said. I had thought the little ensemble at my nephew’s graduation was rather good – though evidently not of the same calibre as myself; not if Janice were to be believed, anyway.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘some students of mine are looking for a little extra tuition and, obviously, with all of my engagements, I just haven’t the time to oblige. I wonder if you might be …’ he left the implication hanging.

How could I extricate myself from this tangled web? Whatever I said, or tried to say, only ensnared me further. ‘No, really,’ I said, ‘It’s just that, you see, I can’t actually…’

‘I quite understand, old chap. So many commitments and demands on one’s time. And it is quite an imposition, I do agree, to have one’s time taken up by the less capable and – let’s face it – less talented.’

‘No, it’s not that…’ I started again to protest.

‘Then you’ll do it? Splendid!’ he cried. ‘And it does pay rather handsomely. Not that that’s a consideration, of course.

‘It pays rather handsomely?’ I repeated. Why, oh why, was I even considering it? It didn’t matter how much it paid; I couldn’t possibly take on his students when I can’t play the piano!

So here I sit, next to the baby grand in the university’s music room, jotting down the conversation as I recall it. My first student will be arriving any minute and I’m hoping against hope he’s interested in learning ‘Chopsticks’.

A Change of Direction

I started this blog in 2013 because I really needed to work out for myself what it was that had taken (away) so many years of my life. Christianity.

I feel now, 7 years and 436 posts later, that I’ve done that. I’ve demonstrated to my own satisfaction that Jesus and all that goes with him, is a myth, a make-believe based on the visions of a few religious nutcases in the first century. (Yes, nutcases. I can’t use any other word.) The imaginings of these zealots and those who perpetuated the lie, duped me, deluded me, took years of my life and stopped me from being myself. It was my fault. I should’ve had more sense than to fall for it. But now I know.

So what to do with this blog? The new, ‘improved’ WordPress platform is far less user-friendly than older versions and over-complex (for me and many others) and I need to simplify what I’m doing with it. I have only a few followers, and even fewer who comment. (I’m grateful to everyone who drops by regularly and to those who leave comments.) I’m sure that from time to time, I will feel moved to write about Christians’ doings and idiocies, but for now at least, I’ll be taking the blog in a different direction.

I’ve recently finished reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos. Perhaps you’ve read it. If you haven’t, save yourself several hours of your life that you’ll never get back. While some of the book is undoubtedly interesting – who knew about lobster hierarchies? – it is completely devoid of humour and takes itself far too seriously, reflecting, I’d venture to say, its author’s disposition. Peterson is undoubtedly erudite and uses much of the book demonstrating just how erudite he is. He indulges in interminable digression, replete with chunks of scripture, from whichever ‘rule’ he is ostensibly discussing. And what rules they are! ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street’. ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’. ‘Do not bother children when they are skateboarding’. Try living your life according to these profundities and see where it gets you!

Thinking I could do no worse, I’m going to attempt to outline my own 12 rules for life. Don’t worry, I’ll be brief, and I won’t presume to offer an antidote to chaos. Some of the ‘rules’ I’ve already written about in earlier posts so I’ll just précis what I’ve already said or at least attempt to come at them from a different angle.

I’ll follow each post with one of my short stories that (hopefully) illustrates the rule in question. That’s the plan at least. We’ll see how it goes. I would of course appreciate your comments on both of these new elements when they start to appear.

Meanwhile, may 2021 be a much better year for all of us. Surely it can’t be any worse…

 

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.