Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ten Reasons I Believe in God

1) Because I am alive. I've never been able to get over the surprise of this. It seems completely unlooked-for and gratuitous. It fits with the idea of a God who didn't have to create anything, but did so out of pure love.

2) Because the world is so dramatic. Nothing had to exist at all. But, given that something does exist, why wasn't it a static, lifeless, unchanging mass of some kind? Or, on the other hand, why wasn't it a chaotic flux with no pattern, no form, no breathing space? As it is, we have a playground for the human intellect, a theatre for the human soul. (I am partly indebted to Carl Sagan for this point. He was merely pointing out how the universe we inhabit allows the emergence of science. He might have been horrified if he realised he was planting a seed of theistic belief in an innocent teenager's mind.)

3) Because things are fundamentally good. We hear a lot about the "problem of evil", but not about the "problem of good". Most of us can expect to live out this day, and the one after that, and the one after that. We can expect that the person sitting next to us on the bus would sooner help us than hurt us. Most of the things we do every single day bring us joy, from the first scoop of breakfast cereal to the caress of a soft pillow on a tired head. Even the things we don't want to do, like working or exercising or waiting in a queue, often end up bringing us an unexpected satisfaction. Whose fault is it that we become blasé about such abounding joy?

4) Because of my thoughts. I am unable to conceive how my memories of a Christmas morning twenty-five years ago are basically made of the same stuff as a pebble, a screwdriver or a tub of lard. I am not sophisticated enough to understand eliminative materialism, just as I would gape at someone who told me that, from the viewpoint of advanced mathematics, two and two actually equalled a pear tree. And the fact that my thoughts seem somehow outside the realm of the physical makes me unable to believe that only the physical realm exists. It also makes me think that there must be an intelligence behind the universe, on the grounds that the greater cannot come from the lesser.

5) Because I have an idea of good and bad. Though I am often successful-- spectacularly successful-- at rigging those notions of good and bad to line up with what I want to do, now and again I find they become stubborn and won't cooperate. Besides, why should I even want to rig them? Why not just ignore them? And I find that other people not only have these notions, but have them to a degree far in advance of myself. It seems as though my notions of right and wrong have a source outside the physical world, too.

6) Because of Jesus Christ. Talk about a magnetic personality! Even the enemies of Christianity seem unable to find anything to say against him. Bertrand Russell accused him of petulance for withering the fig tree that would yield no fruit. It wasn't one of Bertie's better moments; this is plainly a kind of concrete parable for the benefit of his disciples.

I don't know of any character, real or invented, who combines an air of absolute authority with utter humility, as does Christ. He is not some stoic, otherworldly, blissed-out sage, as one might expect of a visitor from the heavens. And yet, how banal that would be! But no; Christ weeps, becomes irritated, has a flair for the dramatic, and dreads his final suffering. And yet every word he spoke seems to glow with irresistible truth.

7) Because of the saints. The saints have the paradoxical quality of being fanatical and yet not fanatics. They were men and women addicted to doing good in the way a teenager is addicted to video games. But, though they seemed to have a kind of craving to feed the poor and comfort the afflicted, none of them seemed to find that these practical acts of charity clashed with spending long hours in prayer and devotion. It even seems as though the two things are-- contrary to appearances and the "social gospel" critics of the Church-- actually one thing!

When you have a group of witnesses who stick to their guns through every persecution, who are even willing to give up their lives for the truth of their claims, and whose stories "check out" with one another to an extraordinary degree, you begin to think there is something to what they are saying.

8) Because of the Catholic Church. Whatever else you may say about the Catholic Church (and everything else has been said, at one time or another), it is undoubtedly the greatest show on Earth. It has run and run and run-- through the rise and fall of empires, the birth of nations, the passing of whole civilizations. I don't know how to account for its survival through persecution, schism, wicked Popes, ideological opposition and the utter changing of the world. What keeps the show on the road? I believe it is the Holy Spirit.

9) Because of the banality of secularism. I cannot believe that the goal of mankind is that we should all have more leisure time to visit museums and art galleries whose masterpieces no longer mean anything to us. "Well, maybe the universe is banal!". But if it is, where did we get this overpowering thirst for the sublime and the transcendental?

10) Because of G.K. Chesterton. I think every open-minded agnostic and atheist should read Chesterton's Orthodoxy. They could read it in a day, and it might change their whole view of the universe. It changed mine.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mystery Tour Chapter Eight

Laurence had been mugged before, when he was thirteen or fourteen. His reaction now was somewhat the same as it had been then; a strange sensation that he wasn't in any real danger.

But it wasn't exactly the same. Last time, his emotions had felt frozen, like a gum that has been given a local anaesthetic. This time, however, he felt entirely and utterly calm. He somehow knew that nothing bad was going to happen to him.

What happened next surprised him as much as it did the mugger.

He dipped his head, away from the point of the weapon-- which he felt was sure was a screwdriver-- lashed out with his heel against the bottom of the man's shin, and spun around.

The man was falling over, and there was a comically surprised look on his face. Laurence was surprised to see how young he was-- little more than a boy. He was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a baseball jacket, and he was remarkably well-groomed.

Before he had hit the ground, Laurence had already stepped forward and kicked him savagely in the head.

The impact was so powerful that Laurence's foot rebounded, and the young man's head flew back with such force that Laurence felt surprised it didn't come clean off. His instep had landed right on the man's face, and blood exploded from his nose.

Laurence laughed out loud, and stepped forward to take another kick. But the man parried his shoe with two palms, and then he was scrambling to his feet.

As soon as he could stand up, he turned and ran. Laurence heard him sobbing.

Laurence stood in the silence of the town centre, feeling--

Exhilarated. There was no doubt about it. His heart was pumping and he felt adrenaline sloshing all around his system. He felt like he was flying. He felt like there was no reason to be afraid ever again.

"PUNK!!" he shouted out after the mugger, who had disappeared from view. His words echoed in the empty alley-way.

Then, belatedly, he felt a twinge of horror-- subdued horror, but horror nonetheless.  He had actually enjoyed kicking that man in the face. It was one of the greatest thrills he'd had in his life.

And-- how had he done it? Laurence had only been in two fights in his life, and he had been trounced in both of them. He was the furthest thing in the world from a street fighter or an action hero. But it had felt so easy. He never would have believed it was so easy to take on a thug.

There's something funny going on here, Laurence, he thought. You certainly didn't knock that guy down on your own steam. You know that, don't you?

Was it really so wrong to feel good, though? He had spent his entire life being frightened of something or other. He had almost ended his life through fear, ridiculous as it seemed. The thought of not having to be scared any more was intoxicating.

A delicious breeze passed through the alley-way, and Laurence found himself trying to remember why he was there at all.

The Paracetamol. Karla. Right.

He ambled through the alley-way, almost hoping that some other punk would come to confront him. He thought of the surprised face of the thug with relish. Really, was there anything to be sorry about? These people were low-lives.

The chemist's was called Kerrigan's. It was a tiny place, and-- aside from a Chinese restaurant several doors away-- the only place that was open in the whole street.

When he walked in, the guy at the counter didn't look up. He was a young guy, perhaps in his late teens. He was thin to the point of scrawiness, with short sandy hair. He was wearing a Credence Clearwater Revival tee-shirt. And he was writing something out on a loose leaf of paper.

"Hi", said Laurence.

The kid raised his hand, palm outwards. "Hang on", he said. "Just give me a few seconds."

The scribbled a few words, and then ran the pen along the end of the page in a sweeping stroke.

"Got it!", he said, looking up, his face almost radiant. His eyes were a misty blue. "I'm sorry about that. How can I help you, sir?"

"Paracetamol", said Laurence, rather taken aback. The rush of the fight had suddenly evaporated, and he felt like the same old Laurence-- or almost the same old Laurence.

"Sure thing", said the kid, still grinning, and reaching behind him. "What kind?"

Laurence hadn't thought about this. He rarely took medication of any kind. "Give me a box of every kind that you have", he said. "That should cover it."

"Ah", said the kid, his face falling a little. "No can do, I'm afraid. I can't sell you more than 24 tablets. I'm sorry."

Laurence made a face. "A friend told me to get some for her headache", he said. "I don't know what sort she needs, though. Does it make a difference?"

"Yeah, it does", said the kid. "Can't you phone her and find out?"

"No", said Laurence. "Our phones are...I mean, my phone is out of battery."

"Screw it", said the kid, taking box after box from the shelves. "I can see that you're on the level."

More than I can myself, Laurence thought. But he didn't say anything.

The kid was still smiling. The hour of night, and the loneliness of the shop, and the gesture of trust from the kid, made Laurence feel that some gesture of friendliness was called for.

"What were you writing?" he asked.

"A poem", said the kid, grinning up at him. There was no trace of bashfulness, no feigning of reluctance to talk about it. "I've been working on it all night and I just got the last words out when you walked in."

"Do you often write poetry at work?"

"At work", said the kid, ringing up the boxes and placing them in front of Laurence. "At home. On the bus. Sometimes in class, even. I've been writing poems almost non-stop since I was fourteen."

"Wow", said Laurence, as the kid produced a paper bag and started to pile the Paracetamol into it. "What do you write about?"

"Beauty" said the kid, solemnly. He looked straight into Laurence's eyes as he spoke. "The beauty that's everywhere."

"You see beauty everywhere?"

"Don't you?"

Laurence didn't answer for a few moments. "Sometimes", he said weakly. "Sometimes I have real trouble seeing it, though." He felt strangely confessional.

"That's why I write my poems", said the kid. "To remind everybody of the beauty that's there. To get them to see the beauty that's there. To open their eyes." He spoke with disarming seriousness, without any hint of irony or conceit.

"That's good", said Laurence. "I mean, really-- that's good. More people should do that."

"It comes to fifteen twenty", said the kid.

Laurence reached into his trousers pocket and produced the Monstrous Mystery Card. He handed it to the kid.

The kid just looked at it. There was a confused and embarrassed expression. "Uh..." he said.

"What's wrong?", asked Laurence, wondering if his luck was about to turn.

Then the kid seemed to snap out of his indecision, smiled, and took the card. He still looked confused.

"That's the damnedest thing", said the kid. "For a second there, I thought your credit card was--"

"What?", asked Laurence.

"I don't know", said the kid, laughing at his own bafflement. "Something weird. Something really weird."

He ran the card through his credit card machine. "PIN?"

Without thinking, Laurence leaned forward and keyed a four digit PIN into the machine, then pressed Enter. He felt no doubt that it would be approved.

"Do you often see things like that?" he asked.

The kid looked surprised only for a moment. Then he nodded and said, "Sometimes. I mean, sometimes people walk into this shop and for a second I see...."


The kid laughed again. It was a light, curious laugh. "I think I see their souls", he said. "I can't describe it."

"Is that good or bad?"

"Sometimes it's good", said the kid, shrugging. "Other times it's bad. Sometimes it's really bad."

"Have you seen...have you seen a guy with a skull for a face? I mean, a skull mask?"

The kid did look surprised now. "No", he said. "Why do you ask?"

"I'm looking for him, that's why", said Laurence. "But if you do see careful. And don't do anything he suggests"

The kid nodded, looked troubled for a moment, then smiled again. Strange as the conversation was, he seemed to accept it entirely on its own terms. "Hey", he said. "This is for you." He picked up the poem and handed it to Laurence.

But Laurence made no move to take it. "Aren't you going to keep a copy for yourself?", he asked. "I mean, you were writing it all night..."

"No, man", said the kid. "I give all my poems away. Once I've written them, they're not mine any more."

Now Laurence reached out and delicately took it from the boy's fingers, but with unfeigned reluctance. "I don't know", he said. "Why give to me?"

"Because I like you" ,said the boy, matter-of-factly. "Because you're a good guy."

Laurence laughed, surprised at his own sudden embarrassment. He thought of the way his foot had crashed into the mugger's face-- and how much he enjoyed it. "You think so?", he asked. "I'm not so sure you're right."

"You're a good guy", the kid repeated. "I know you are."

Suddenly, Laurence found himself avoiding the kid's gentle blue eyes. There was a purity in them that made him feel self-conscious. Or maybe even guilty. "Thanks", he said, folding the page carefully. "I'll take care of this."

"I know", said the kid. "Take care of yourself, too."

"Yeah, you too", said Laurence, making for the door. "Take care of yourself."

Walking back to the hotel, he found himself thinking of the kid's blue eyes. 

They reminded him of his college friend Debbie. She had been his confidant in his college years.

He remembered one particular night, sitting in Debbie's kitchen after one of the very few parties he had attended, pouring out all his frustrations and anxieties and resentments over cup after cup of milky coffee.

And he remembered his disdain and sense of betrayal when Debbie-- a church-goer-- had suggested he go to sacramental confession. "You're beating yourself up over all this stuff", she said. "You need to give it to God."

Laurence had smirked cynically. "I'm sorry," he'd said. "I respect your beliefs, but the idea that you just walk into a little box and a man in a collar says some magic words and suddenly everything is better....or that anything is different...that's just absurd to me. How can you actually believe it?"

"Because I've experienced it", said Debbie, softly. She reached out and took his arm. "Please, just go for me. Just to humour me. But keep an open mind."

Laurence shook his head, though his smirk had disappeared. "No", he said. "It would be a phony thing to do. I don't believe in any of it. I don't believe in the concept of sin."

"I think you do, though", said Debbie.

They had drifted apart after that. Laurence had experienced a deep sense of bitterness that he had been so badly misunderstood. Debbie had sat there listening to all his innermost thoughts, and all the time she had been filtering out everything that didn't fit in with her simplistic worldview. It was humiliating.

To distract himself from the memory-- which always made him angry-- he drew the poem from his pocket, unfolded it, and read it. The handwriting was small and neat, with not a single word crossed out.

Between Two Worlds

What is the figure who walks behind you
Closer than your shadow?
Who is the man in the mask?
Who is the hooded man?

It is not you.
It is not you.
It is not you.

You cannot flee from him.
You cannot hide.
He is waiting at the end of every street
And watching you from every window-pane.

He will follow you to the end of the world.
If you find another world, he will follow you there, as well.
There are no worlds where he cannot follow you.

You need to look into his face, his eyes--
They are your face, your eyes, and yet he is not you.

"Trippy", said Laurence, crumpling the piece of paper into a ball. Somehow he had expected better than such adolescent twaddle. He was genuinely disappointed.

But a moment later, he remembered his promise to treat the poem with care, and he was smoothing it out again as he walked into the hotel.

Everything is a Cliché

Those avidly following my 'Mystery Tour' serialized novel may remember that the story kicks off with my protagonist contemplating suicide and about to go through with it.

I thought this was a good dramatic way to begin a story, but apparently it's a 'trope'-- according to the website TV Tropes, to which I have become addicted in the last few weeks.

Then again, the website repeatedly reminds the reader that 'tropes are not bad', so I'll try not to beat myself up about it.

Thank You

I've just been browsing my infamous 'Purple Notebook' posts and thinking what a kick I got (and get!) out of the fact that people read them and commented on them. I felt a little bit like John Lennon might have felt if Revolution No. 9, instead of becoming "the most skipped track in the Beatles catalogue", became a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic. They were the most personal and eccentric posts I've ever put up, and it meant a lot to me that people took them in good part.

In fact, I have so much to be thankful for from my blog readers. The prayers...the comments...the kind and encouraging and consoling words...and more...thank you very much!

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Poem I May Never Write

Some readers of this blog might think that I have never had a moment's thought that I didn't turn into a poem, or a story, or a blog post. But in fact there are some ideas that I have never been able to successfully translate into words. This evening I found myself thinking specifically of a poem that I have wanted to write for many years-- one that I have tried to write on several occasions-- but which I've never succeeded in writing.

(It isn't the only such example. In fact, there is a poem that I've wanted to write for decades. It's a poem about the depths concealed behind every human eye, the idea that the human eye is more beautiful than any gemstone.)

More recently-- for five years or so-- I've grappled with a subject for a poem that I've never been able to bring off. I've actually produced several poems which tried to be this poem, but which weren't.

It's about the fountain in the Omni shopping centre in Dublin's Santry, pictured above. But, of course, it's about much more. Or it would be, if I ever wrote it.

The fountain in the Omni has long been, to me, a symbol of something I can't express very easily. I could say "Life", which would be accurate-- but which wouldn't explain anything. I could say, "The infinite energy of life", which would be accurate-- but which wouldn't explain much more. I could say, "The beauty of the ordinary", which would be accurate, but which still wouldn't capture it.

But, if I can't capture it in poetry, how could I capture it in prose?

Nonetheless, you know what I'm getting at. I'm sure it is something that all of us have felt. It is expressed in the poetry of Walt Whitman. It is a constant theme in the writing G.K. Chesterton. It is marvellously conveyed in my favourite movie, Groundhog Day.

It is what we feel when we look at some old mural, or painting, or story-- from the friezes in Pompei, to the vignettes in The Canterbury Tales-- and we find ourselves recognizing, across the centuries, the same carnival of playing children, huckstering traders, pranking students, drinking men, and mooning teenagers-- that continues around us, in the streets and living rooms and pubs and schools of the world, every minute of the day.

It is the sensation we feel when we look at "the Blue Marble", the famous first picture of the Earth taken from space.

It is well expressed in the line from the TV series, John Adams, when the former President of America, in retirement, says: "I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there."

I always hear it particularly in the sound of children playing in the street, drifting through an open window. But I hear it just as much in the memories of old men and old women-- and, indeed, in the memories of not-so-old men and not-so-old women.

I hear it in proverbs and jokes and popular nicknames and every sort of folklore.

I encounter in the beautiful poem of Patrick Pearse, 'The Wayfarer', that my aunt Kitty had mounted and framed in her kitchen (with a picture of a ladybird), and which I've quoted on this blog before:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.

I meet it in Hallmark shops, and crowded city centres, and empty cinemas before the movie begins.

I sense it when I hear a renewal of some old, old debate-- whether it's about the existence of God or the best James Bond.

I find it especially in Christmas trees and Halloween bonfires.

I find it in hype and commercialism and cliché and old wives tales and motivational posters.

It hits me whenever I realise that every environment-- an office, or a hospital ward, or a dormitory, or a football club-- has a life and a memory and a soul all of its own. It hits me when I realise that a newborn baby already has a personality.

And I see a unique symbol of it in the fountain in the Omni Centre, Santry. When I tell people about my love for this fountain, I sometimes regret it, because they tell me about bigger and better and more spectacular fountains. But I don't want bigger and better and more spectacular. The fountain in the Omni is, for me, the perfect expression of what I'm invoking here.

 It's just the right size, and just the right height, and in just the right surroundings and atmosphere. The water pumps at just the right pressure. People pay it just the right amount of attention. it's the centrepiece of the shopping centre, but the likelihood is low that any given person is looking at it at any given time-- although people sit at its edges, and the dining areas of three cafés look onto it.

Sometimes it's switched off-- and yet, for me, it's a symbol of the eternal, or the eternal-in-the-everyday-- what Louis MacNeice described as "foaming, never finished, never the same twice."

It's a symbol of The People-- The People who are so sentimental, reactionary, novelty-hunting, acquisitive, generous, impulsive, fickle, stubborn, tribal, universal, and anything else you please. But it's only a symbol of The People in the way that Chesterton specified: "In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody."

Even thinking of this poem often brings me to tears. It brings me to tears especially when I think of all the wars and disasters and tragedies and plagues that have failed to dry up this fountain-- that haven't even impeded it for a moment. Whenever I read about the Blitz or the Holocaust or the Black Death or communism, one thing is poignantly clear-- that life went on, even in the valley of death, even in the shadow of apocalypse, with hardly-slackened vitality-- and that all of these horrors were instantly absorbed in myth, memory, humour and storytelling.

The refrain of this poem haunts me, but I can't think of the right verb. The fountain thunders on? The fountain surges on?  The fountain rushes on?

Perhaps I shall never write this poem.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mystery Tour Chapter Seven

"What on earth is the Blood Royal Saga?" asked Laurence.

All three of them were sitting on a King Bed, their shoes off and their legs crossed. They had taken a taxi from the pub to the centre of town-- it was a town called Dunsaggart. Laurence's Monstrous Mystery Tour card worked just as well as Helen's as a credit card. In the town centre, they had found a two-star hotel called the Minstrel Inn. They had booked a room each, all together on the third floor.

"I don't know" said Helen. "But I saw people reading it".

"Loads of people", said Laurence. "Two people in the pub, and the taxi driver was listen to it on audiobook. I saw the CD case."

"And when we passed a bookshop, I saw a huge display for it in the window", said Helen. "The tenth book had just come out. Omens of Nightfall, or something like that."

"What does it matter?", asked Karla, irritably.

"Anything could matter", said Helen.

"They are written by some guy called Fergus Fortune", said Laurence. "He sounds like he could be Irish."

"Is it too much to hope that Harry Potter was never published here?", asked Karla, taking another chip from the plate they had in the middle of the bed. She dipped it in garlic sauce and began to chew it vigorously. There was nothing dainty about her manner of eating; Laurence thoroughly approved.

"What's wrong with Harry Potter?" he asked. "I like Harry Potter."

Karla grimaced. "Why doesn't that surprise me?" she asked, when she'd swallowed. "You're a dreamer. But hey, if they haven't been published here, you can try to copy them and make a fortune."

"How do we know we don't have a fortune already?", asked Laurence. "We don't know what limit is on these cards, do we?"

There was a brief, thoughtful silence.

"Or", said Karla, "they could stop working at any moment. That's another possibility."

"You're not much into positive thinking, are you?", asked Laurence. He gave a little smile to take the edge of the comment.

"Karla is right", said Helen. She wiped her lips with a napkin. "We have no reason to assume these cards will keep working indefinitely. We have no reason to assume anything. But it seems to me reasonable that we would not assume the worst, or there will be no end to it. Let's just rely on the cards for now, and if they let us down...well, then we can cross that bridge when we come to it."

"I never liked that expression" said Karla. "Shouldn't it be, we'll cross that river when we come to it? Why does it assume there's a bridge?"

Considering she had been complaining about irrelevance a moment before, this contribution seemed a little ill-timed. But Karla didn't seem at all conscious of the irony.

"OK", said Helen. "We'll look for a bridge when we come to that river. If we come to that river. But first we have to work out-- what is it we are trying to do?"

"I would have thought that was obvious" said Karla, frowning. "Work out what the hell is going on!"

"That's reasonable enough", said Helen.

"And Ferryman is the one who knows", she said. "We have to find Ferryman. I mean, that tour bus isn't too difficult to track, is it?"

"Well, perhaps not", said Helen, slowly and ruminatively. She looked tired. Laurence wondered how she could feel tired, in the circumstances. "But if he could bring, wherever here is...I don't see why he couldn't go back to the world we came from."

"But isn't that assuming the worst?", asked Karla.

Helen gave a little nod. "You're right", she said. "We have to start somewhere and we may as well start there. It seems like a logical place."

Laurence took a chicken ball from the plate of fast food and popped it in his mouth. It was warm and greasy. Just the way he liked it.

"You look beat", Karla said to Helen. "We should let you get some sleep".

Helen nodded and said, "Thank you. Yes, I'm pretty exhausted. I need to find a doctor in the morning." She had told Karla about her illness. "That's our first port of call, if nobody has any objections."

Laurence, his mouth still full of chicken ball, shook his head. "Of course not", said Karla. "Now you get to sleep. Laurence, grab that food, I'm not finished with it."

Laurence took the plate from the bed as he rose, though he felt a little bit nettled by the way she had given the order. He slid his feet into his shoes, Karla putting her own runners on more deliberately.

"Be careful, both of you", said Helen, as they stepped towards the door. "And wake me up if anything happens."

"Will do" said Karla. "Sleep tight."

She clicked the door behind them, and they were alone in the corridor.

"I need a coffee" said Karla. "I saw coffee machines in the foyer. How about you?"

"Sure", said Laurence, as casually as he could.

"I'm not a bit tired", she said. It was a little past midnight.

"Me neither."

"OK, then, let's go."

They made their way to the stairs and walked down in silence. The hotel, Laurence thought, was pleasant enough; the walls of the corridor were painted a sky blue, and there were occasional landscape and animal paintings on the walls. Laurence had always preferred budget hotels to fancy ones, anyway. The thick carpet muffled their footsteps.

"How old are you?" asked Karla.

"Twenty-eighth on the fifth of August", said Laurence. "How about you?"

"I can't believe you'd ask a lady her age", said Karla.

They had reached the foyer. A large copy of a Mattisse painting there, and a bookshelf sat in the corner. A girl was sitting by herself at one of its tables, reading a hefty novel. Laurence wasn't surprised when he saw it was Omens of Nightfall.

"Hot chocolate", said Karla, examining the drinks machine. "Nice."

"I'll have one of those too", said Laurence. "Large."

"My, my, you do live it up", said Karla.

Laurence looked at the girl. She was a real cutie, he thought. She looked a bit like Kirsten Dunst, but with darker hair and large glasses. She was wearing a Snoopy t-shirt and pink pyjama bottoms. Her feet were bare.

He looked at the book. Some kind of barbarian warrior was screaming on the cover. It was an impressively accomplished painting.

The girl looked up at him, and gave him a bewitching smile. He was surprised at its warmth.

"Omens of Nightfall" said Laurence, not knowing what else to say, and pointing at the book.

"OMG!" said the girl. "It's so awesome! Tonight is going to be an all-nighter! Are you a fan?"

"I've never read a single one of them", said Laurence.

"OMG!" the girl said again. "A Blood Royal virgin! You have to read them! Seriously, I didn't read them for ages because I'm not really into the sword and sorcery thing and I think I was put off by all the hype and I heard they were kind of gory but then I just read the first and, my God, it kept me up for nights!"

"I might give it a go", said Laurence. "What's the first one called again?"

"The Edge of Everything" replied the girl-- except she half-sang it, rather than saying it.

"Here's your large hot chocolate, sir?", said Karla, joining them and handing Laurence a styrofoam cup. "Hey", she asked the girl, "what do you think about Harry Potter?"

"Harry Potter is cool", said the girl. "But nothing like The Blood Royal."

"My brother is a massive Harry Potter fan", said Karla, slapping Laurence on her shoulder.

"Oh yeah?" the girl asked, with an approving smile. Her eyes widened.

"Maybe not massive", said Laurence, taken aback at the eagerness of the question. "I mean, I don't know the rules of Quidditch or anything."

It was a fair enough joke, Laurence thought, but hardly worthy of the belly laugh that it drew from the girl. "You're too funny", she said. "What's your favourite Harry Potter book?"

"Um....the one where Dumbledore died", said Laurence.

"Half-Blood Prince", said the girl. "You know, that might be my favourite too."

There was a silence, the girl smiling at Laurence expectantly. Karla had wandered back to the drinks machine and was flicking through some magazines.

"Well", said Laurence, "I'm sorry to interrupt your reading. I'll let you get back to it."

"Read The Edge of Everything!" said the girl, pointing at him. "Promise me!"

He raised his hand, palm open. "I promise, I promise", he said. "Enjoy!".


Laurence walked back towards where Karla was sitting, and sat beside her.

"The Pope is the same", she said. "The President of America is the same. The British Prime Minister is different. Liverpool are the champions in British soccer."


"European champions, too."

"Huh. Hey, why did you say I was your brother?"

Karla looked up, surprised. "Because she was all over you, that's why."

"She was?"

"Oh, come on", said Karla, returning to the magazine. "What's the matter with you?"

Laurence looked back at the girl. She was absorbed in her book once more. He wondered if Karla could possibly be right. She seemed way out of his league. He knew he was no Cary Grant.

"I'm not sure I want to be your brother", said Laurence.

"Yeah, deal with it", muttered Karla, turning the page. "You  should be so lucky. Hey, Metallica called it a day!".

Laurence sipped his hot chocolate, wondering at this response, and whether Karla meant anything by it. The hot chocolate was creamy and sweet, milky rather than watery. It filled him with warmth.

He looked at the girl again, and couldn't help doubting Karla's judgement. Girls like that didn't go for guys like him. But her smile had been awfully friendly.

"Dammit", said Karla. "Dammit, dammit, dammit!" She had raised her hand to her forehead.

"What is it?", asked Laurence, wondering what catastrophe she was reading about.

"Migraine", she said. "I get them. Do you have any Paracetomol?"

"No", said Laurence. "Let me check with reception."

"Thanks", said Karla. "You're a honey."

Laurence stole another glance at the cute girl as he passed her, but she didn't look up. Her mouth was a little agape, and her head was bent over the book.

The guy on the reception desk looked as though he might be Pakistani or Indian. He was reading a book, too. Laurence fully expected it to be Omens of Nightfall, but it was a driving test theory book.

"Excuse me."

The receptionist looked up. "Alright mate?". He had an English accent-- Birmingham, Laurence thought.

"Do you have any Paracetomol? My friend has a migraine."

"Sorry mate", said the receptionist, shaking his head. "But there's a 24 Hour Pharmacy just a little bit away. Out the exit, turn left, walk to the bank, turn left down the alley-way, you'll see it to your right."


Outside, the air was pleasantly crisp but not cold. It was mild for an Irish November, and Laurence didn't miss the coat that he'd left in his own room. He took his hot chocolate with him, sipping it as he went.

The town was dead. Cars still moved along the roads, but there were no people to be seen. He couldn't see any shops open, though most of them still had their lights on. Laurence had always found something strangely eerie about lit-up shops with nobody in them. 

Laurence surveyed the street around him, remembering again how much he disliked Irish towns. They always seemed to him grey, and narrow, and crumbling, and stagnant, and full of the memories of poverty and deprivation. No amount of neon and superficial glitz drowned that out. Not that there was much of that here, anyway.

He looked about him for things that were different. Nothing stood out. It looked exactly like the world that the tour bus had left.

Walking with only his hot chocolate for his companion, the strangeness of the situation struck him afresh. Mere hours ago he had been about to end his life. To end everything. He'd wondered, when he was a child, how anybody could deliberately give up life, since even the worst life was better than nothing.

Somehow, though, he hadn't really been thinking of it in such existential terms. He hadn't made a decision against life in favour of death. He was just sick and tired of his life. He felt he'd peaked at twenty-seven; he felt he'd overachieved at twenty-seven, to be honest. What other job was there for him, except teaching? And what other hope of love was there for him, when he'd given up everything in his soul once and been utterly rejected? Wasn't it better just to fold, than to keep playing a losing hand?

The thing is, Laurence wasn't so sure of the value of his own soul. He was achingly average at everything-- average, or below average. He'd often tried to think of something that he did exceptionally well, but he'd always come up blank. Karla had called him a dreamer. He was a dreamer. But what was the point of being a dreamer, when nobody else found your dreams interesting, or exciting, or worthwhile? He was no artist, or entrepreneur, or visionary. All his dreams ever did were rattle around his skull, adding to his loneliness.

Now,, something was happening. Something different. Something special. And now he had...not friends, perhaps, but companions. And surely they would become more than companions? Surely an experience like this guaranteed a deeper bond than any he had known before?

He passed the bank-- a glowing electronic advertisement boasted about its new eight a.m. opening-- and turned into the alley beyond it.

There were no shops here. Just a short stretch of grey walls, and wheelie bins piled up against one side of them.

And graffiti. Mostly just names and slogans, but one image had been daubed in red paint just above the wheelie bins. The sight of it made Laurence go cold.

It was a figure in a cloak. The face was hidden in shadow, but two curved eyes looked out from the shadow. The drawing was very stylized, but very effective. One arm was reaching out to the onlooker, one finger pointing towards him.

Laurence stood staring in the alley-way, staring at the hooded figure, marvelling that a crude painting on the side of a wall could have such a horrible sense of reality.

Then a hand clamped over his mouth, dragging him backwards, and something sharp jabbed against his neck. The smell of aftershave filled his nostrils.

"Wallet", said an East European accent. "Now."

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Mystery Tour Chapter Six

The story so far: Laurence is a young man whose life has taken a few wrong turns. He decides to jump off a bridge, but just as he's about to do so, a mysterious tour bus pulls up beside him and a man in a skull-faced costume, who calls himself Mr. Ferryman, offers him a free ride on a new horror-themed mystery tour. He accepts-- of course he accepts!-- and he joins two others, Karla (a young lady) and Helen (a middle-aged academic). He is rather attracted to Karla-- of course he is! The bus hits a storm, and for a moment Laurence thinks he sees a mysterious cloaked figure moving towards the bus, against a green flash. The first stop of the bus is a creepy graveyard, but as they are being guided around it, the company hear the hysterical screams of a woman from some distance away. Despite Mr. Ferryman's warnings that he won't wait for them, they go to help-- of course they do! They come to a pub and learn that the screaming was only a local woman having nightmares-- but, reader, you're not taken in by that 'only' for a moment, are you?

Also, our heroes have noticed a few odd things about this place they've found themselves in. An ad for The Fellowship of the Ring movie advertises Patrick Stewart rather than Ian McKellen as Gandalf. Also, Osama Bin Laden is still alive. What's going on, reader? You'll have to read to find out...

Oh, and Mr. Ferryman drove away and left them behind, just as he threatened. Or course he did!

"We have to be careful", said Helen, her voice low.

The trio were sitting in a corner of the pub, as far from the other occupants as they could get. And it wasn't difficult; if it was ever busy in Casey's pub, it certainly wasn't tonight.

"I think it might be too late to be careful", said Karla. Her face was pale. "That bus just left. Pun very much intended."

"Well, yes", said Helen. She spoke as calmly as she might speak if she was giving a lecture, although she looked every bit as frightened as Karla-- and as frightened as Laurence felt. "That bus has left. But let's not make any more mistakes."

"It doesn't seem to me like we have any cards to play one way or the other", said Karla.

"There are always cards to play" said Helen. "First off, let's just admit it-- this isn't the world we left, is it?"

There was a long silence, filled with 'Two Princes' by the Spin Doctors, which was playing on the sound system of the pub. At the bar, somebody laughed.

"What does that even mean?" asked Karla.

"Well, Karla, what do you call it when a world-famous terrorist mastermind apparently comes back to life and nobody thinks there's anything strange about this?"

Karla was silent. She looked angry.

"It's not the world we left", said Laurence. It was a wrench to say it, even though he was aware of a certain exhilaration buried deep under his panic.

"There's only one world", said Karla, and for a moment she seemed childishly petulant. "What other world could this be?" 

"Oh come on", said Helen, in a patient tone. "We've all heard about alternate dimensions, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, time travel...."

"Next you'll be telling me we're subjects of some....some government mind control experiment", said Karla. The way she said it made Laurence suspect that this was the very thing she feared the most. 

"Anything is possible", said Helen, shrugging. "But this is the point I'm making; I don't think it's a very good idea for us to go around asking people what happened to the world we knew, or what year it is, or who the President of America is at the present moment." 

"Or who the latest James Bond is. Or the latest Dr. Who." Karla's tone was sarcastic.

"Precisely", said Helen. "Though I won't pretend I could have answered either of those questions this morning." 

"It's Ferryman", said Laurence. He felt a strong reluctance to dwell on the subject of what world they were occupying. "We have to find Ferryman. He's the key."

"That might be difficult", said Karla, rather heatedly. "Did you see how quickly he pulled away? Don't tell me he wasn't breaking the speed limit-- whatever the speed limit is in this alternative universe of yours."

"You're not being very constructive, Karla", said Helen, with a little frown.

Karla stood up. She looked more frightened than ever, and now she looked angry to boot.

"You know what?" she asked. "I don't know anything about either of you. It seems to me that you're both taking this a little too calmly. I recognize a put-up job when I see one."

"Sit down" said Helen-- and now her tone was that of a school-teacher rather than a university lecturer.

"No thanks", said Karla, her eyes flashing. "Ever since I stepped on that bus, I've had the very strong feeling that I'm part of some kind of sick game. And, sorry to say, but there seems something a little off about both of you. I'm not playing any more. Deal with that!"

She rose from their corner table, and strode towards the door, without looking back. A few moments later she had disappeared into the night. One woman, watching her from the bar, looked accusingly at Laurence.

"Should we follow her?", asked Laurence.

"I don't think that would serve any purpose" said Helen. "She'd just storm away."

"I don't know why she got mad at us", said Laurence. He was surprised how distressed he felt at this turn of events, considering the weirdness of the situation as it already stood.

"It's the kind of person she is", said Helen. "If she was taken hostage in a bank robbery, she'd take that in her stride. But anything she can't make sense of, anything that challenges her worldview-- well, she can't deal with that."

Helen spoke with such conviction that Laurence asked: "Did you know her...before?"

Helen shook her head. "I just know the type."

Laurence found himself wondering if Helen knew his type, as well. If she did, she knew him better than himself, because Laurence had spent almost thirty years feeling like a stranger in his own soul.

A barmaid approached them. She looked very tired, but she smiled gamely. "Can I get you guys anything?"

After a brief silence, Helen said: "A pint of Guinness for me, and Laurence...?"

"A Coke", said Laurence. Suddenly, the thought of a Coke was very, very appealing.

He half-expected the barmaid to ask what a Coke was; but she simply nodded and said: "Anything else?"

"Do you do food?" asked Helen.

"Only sandwiches this time of night", said the barmaid. "Cheese and ham."

"A sandwich each", said Helen. "Ham for me."

"Me too", said Laurence, who felt less enthusiastic about food.

The girl nodded again, and withdrew. She was very pale.

"I don't have any money" said Laurence. "I lost my wallet."

"No, you didn't" said Helen, her voice soft but firm. She looked straight into his eyes. "You gave it to a beggar, just as we were about to turn onto the bridge."

Laurence flushed. "You saw that?" he asked. For a moment, embarrassment drowned out his fear.

She nodded again, and now he noticed a new look in her face-- sympathy.

"I think", she said, reaching out and taking his hand, "that we are going to have to be honest with each other, in this situation. A man who gives away his wallet-- it seems like the act of a man who has reached the end of his tether."

Laurence looked at the bar. The woman who had given him an accusing look was now putting on her coat.

"Sure", said Laurence.

Helen squeezed his hand, and-- to his horror-- tears came into his eyes. He lowered his gaze, unwilling to let anyone else see his emotion. It had been a long time-- it seemed forever-- since anybody had offered him any sympathy.

Please don't let me lose it, he prayed-- to the God he'd never really believed in.

"I understand", said Helen, her voice firmer now, as though realising the effect that her sympathetic tones had had upon him. She withdrew her hand. "Laurence, I'm an extremely private person, but I'm going to tell you something personal because I think it might be relevant."

Laurence looked up, curious, and a little startled.

"I have very few years left to live", she said, dispassionately. "And the years that I have-- they are likely to be increasingly unpleasant."

"I'm sorry" said Laurence, feeling foolish even as he spoke the words.

"Not as sorry as I am", said Helen, with a smile that was grim but not bitter. "This very morning I had made my mind up to ask my sister....if she would help me avoid the unpleasantness, when it became too unpleasant."

"You mean...?"

"I mean euthanasia", said Helen, briskly. "Assisted suicide. Whatever term you want to use."

Another long silence intervened. 'Two Princes' had changed to a song that sounded like Michael Jackson but that Laurence didn't recognise. Perhaps it was a song that Michael Jackson had never released in the world they had come from. It was pretty catchy. He found himself wondering, irrelevantly, whether the King of Pop was still alive and breathing here.

"So you think", he asked, "you think this isn't just a coincidence, that we were both....?".

"We have to consider every hypothesis", said Helen.

"So that would mean Karla...?"

Helen nodded. "A nice girl", she said. "But didn't she strike you as being a little...high-strung?"

Laurence, who only ever fell for high-strung girls, nodded. "I guess so", he said.

"She struck me as somebody who has recovering from a recent....episode of some kind", said Helen.

Laurence thought about Karla wandering the streets of this strange new world. Where on earth had she gone? What would happen to her?

She's a tough cookie, he told himself. But he wasn't convinced.

"But what difference does any of this make?" asked Laurence.

"Maybe no difference at all", said Helen, with that air of detachment of which only intellectuals-- and doctors giving bad news-- seem capable. "But it might make all the difference in the world. Maybe we are here for a reason, and maybe knowing that reason can help us get back to where we came from. If we even want to get back, that is."

Laurence was only surprised at the last remark for a brief moment. After all, he had been about to top himself, Helen was dying, and Karla seemed to have some trouble of her own.

"Are you saying...this is some kind of second chance?" asked Laurence, feeling suddenly hopeful at the idea.

Helen nodded. "It could be. It could be. If so many things are different in this world, how do I know that I'm still dying here? How do we know that whatever...whatever might be the matter with any of us might still be the case?"

Laurence wasn't sure how to reply to that, so he was grateful when the barmaid reappeared, carrying her tray of drinks and sandwiches. He was pleased to see that the sandwiches were far from skimpy.

"Here you go", she said, laying the glasses and plate out on the table. "That comes to fifteen twenty."

Helen reached into her jacket pocket, and after a moment's fumbling produced a twenty euro note. She extended it towards the barmaid.

But the barmaid, not reaching out for it, looked at it strangely. "Uh..." she said.

"I'm sorry", said Helen, giving a little laugh and crunching the twenty euro note in her fist. "I've just been on holiday..."

The barmaid laughed a little awkwardly. "Where to?", she asked. "I didn't think they took euro anywhere anymore", she said.

"Monaco, believe it or not", said Helen. Laurence was impressed at her quick thinking. "Card?"

"Sure", said the barmaid, taking the Visa from Helen's fingers. As she did so, she glanced at Laurence, and she seemed to give a start. For a moment, she stared at him intensely.

But almost immediately, she turned her gaze away, and she was running the card through the portable card reader she had on her belt. She seemed very shaken.

Laurence glanced at Helen, wondering if she had noticed the barmaid's reaction. Her eyes told him that she had.

"Uh..." said the barmaid. "Uh, I'm sorry but this, but the payment is being rejected."

"Oh dear", said Helen. "Try this one."

As the waitress took the second card from Helen's hand, she looked at Laurence again. It was only for a moment, but once again Laurence saw her eyes widen in what seemed like alarm.

"No", said the barmaid. "This one too. I'm sorry."

"My fault", said Helen. Now she had her wallet out on the table, and she was drawing out card after card. She took out a blood donor card, a business card, and a university ID card before she hit on another credit card. "Try this."

This time the barmaid kept her eyes averted from Laurence. "No", she said. "Rejected."

"I don't have anything else on me, I'm afraid", said Helen. "Is there an ATM around here?"

"How about that one?" asked the barmaid, pointing. "We certainly take Excelsior."

Helen looked down at the table. The barmaid was pointing at the laminated card that Ferryman had given each one of them. Helen had left her own lying on the table beside her. It was a rather goofy-looking card with the words Monstrous Mystery Tour written in cartoonish letters.

"Of course", said Helen, picking it up. "I forgot all about it."

The barmaid ran the ridiculous-looking card through her machine, and gave a smile of relief. "That's fine", she said. "I'm sorry about all that."

"Not at all", said Helen, signing the slip that the barmaid offered her. "I'm sorry, I don't know what could have happened with the others. I was sure they were still good."

"Don't worry about it", said the barmaid. "I've, uh, I've been there myself."

Once again-- as though she couldn't help herself-- she looked at Laurence. Once again alarm filled her face.

"What's wrong?", asked Laurence.

"I'm sorry" said the barmaid, forcing her expression into an almost-neutral smile. "It's just....I think maybe I recognize you. Are you from around here?"

"From near about here", chimed in Helen, before Laurence could respond.

"It's really weird", said the girl, suddenly dropping her professional tone, "but I think I've been...I've been dreaming about you."

Laurence was embarrassed. Only one girl had ever told him she'd dreamed about him. And she'd turned out to be crazy.

The girl flushed suddenly, as though the connotations of her confession had just struck her. "Well, when I say a dream, I really mean...a nightmare."

Laurence shuddered. Somehow, he had the strange sensation that he knew what the girl was going to say-- even though he didn't.

"What kind of nightmare?" asked Helen.

The girl didn't turn to look at her. Her eyes seemed glued on Laurence now. She replied in a low, strangely child-like voice.

"It's the middle of nowhere", she said. "A place I've never been before....a place that nobody's ever been before. That's what it feels like. It feels like a completely empty place, like a wasteland, except that....I can't see anything around me. Everything is surrounded by a mist. A green mist."

Laurence began to tremble. The vision he'd seen from the tour bus window came to his mind.

"I know I'm asleep in the dream", the barmaid continued. "And I'm frightened I'm never going to wake up again."

The unidentified Michael Jackson song had now changed to 'God Only Knows' by the Beach Boys. It had always seemed a spooky song to Laurence. Not it seemed spookier and more haunting than ever before.

"And then...then I see three figures coming out of the mist. They are all wearing cloaks and hoods, and they are walking towards me. I want to run away, but I can't."

Now the girl seemed to be shivering, too. She seemed to have completely forgotten her surroundings-- almost as though she was hypnotized.

"And then one of the figures steps towards me. At first I think his face is a skull, but I realize it's a skull mask when he takes it off."

Now Laurence did know what was coming next.

"It's you", said the barmaid. "Not somebody who looks like you. You. Except...except the look on your face is completely and utterly evil. And you say...."

The girl fell silent, and the sound of the Beach Boys seemed to be coming from a whole world away.

"Yes?", asked Helen. "What does he say?"

"You say, I am the end of your world."


The call came from the bar. The barmaid seemed to wake up from her trance, and looked around in surprise. Then she looked embarrassed.

"I'm sorry", she said, backing away. "It's probably's just a stupid dream." She laughed unconvincingly. "But it's been keeping me awake for nights."

She hurried away, but not without one last look over her shoulder at Laurence. And once again, it was a look of fear.

Laurence reached for his Coke and took a deep gulp of it. He didn't want to look at Helen, or discuss what had just been said. At least, not for a few moments.

As the girl had described the dream, it was as though he could see it himself.

The Coke tasted better than any Coke he had ever tasted in his life.

"Karla", whispered Helen.

Laurence looked up, towards the bar. Karla had reappeared, and she was walking towards them. She looked angrier than ever-- but chastened, too.

"OK", she said, when she had reached them. "I'm sorry. I freaked out there. My bad. I shouldn't have said what I said. I think we should stick together. I most definitely think we should stick together."

It had been raining, and her hair was plastered down across her forehead. She looked prettier than ever, Laurence thought.

He was still shivering.