A few years ago, I started writing a novel called The Cross. I wrote six chapters of it, including a bit of Chapter Seven.
A few people have read what I'd written so far. I got some very positive feedback.
Ultimately, however, I decided not invest any more effort in the novel, and it's almost certain I'll never return to it.
Life is so short and there are only so many things one can focus on in that limited time. At the moment (at least as far as my cultural or intellectual energies are concerned), I'm concentrating on improving my knowledge and grasp of the Irish language. Indeed, that is where the very ideas and impulses dramatised in this abortive novel have led me, at this point.
I believe there are some worthwhile things in this novel, which make it worth blogging even though it breaks off at chapter seven. I hope I'm not deluded!
“What on earth is that?”, asked Holly, pointing.
Dean’s eyes followed her finger. Embarrassment struck him.
“Oh that...that’s just a piece of rubbish I picked up…”
But already, Holly had stepped into the garden shed and pulled out the clumsy, handmade cross. She stood it upright on the garden path, gazing at it with complete absorption. The top of it stood a little higher than her head.
“Where did you get it?”
“Oh….at a craft fair….”
“What did you pay for it?”
“Ten quid, I think.”
They stood there awhile in silence, staring at the cross. It stood a little under six foot. It was made of chipboard, with a figure of Jesus daubed in black ink upon it. His arms and legs were too long, and the face was barely sketched in. It was not at all heavy.
“I can’t believe you’re throwing everything else out, and keeping this.”
Dean laughed. He laughed more around Holly than he laughed around anybody else.
“I can’t really bear to give it away. I’ve had it six or seven years now. I thought it was the weirdest-looking thing I’d ever seen, when I first laid eyes on it. I think I felt sorry for whoever made it. Who else was going to buy it?”
“You’re such a softie”, said Holly, smiling with amusement, as she swivelled it around to look at the other side.
Such a bewitching smile, he thought, watching her. Holly was a rather short young lady, with shoulder length dark-brown hair, and a girlish figure. She was pretty, but not exceptionally pretty. Right now, she was wearing a pair of jeans and a grey Chicago Bulls sweater. Nobody would give her a second look in a crowd, but Dean thought she was the closest thing to pure goodness he’d ever met.
“I don’t see any signature”, she said, in her musical Kerry accent.
“There isn’t any. I’ve looked for one, too. I have no idea who made it, or where it came from. It was a charity craft fair and all the stuff was donated.”
The sound of children playing drifted from another garden, far away. Dean realised that he felt more contented, more light-hearted, than he had for a long time. He’d always liked garden sheds. There was something very simple and calming about them. He liked this time of year, this time of day, and the sound of children playing. More than anything else, he liked being around Holly.
The cross itself added to his good mood. The very clumsiness of the thing had always appealed to him. In a world of mass production, its roughness and lack of finish made it stand out.
Holly seemed to like it, too. She was running her hands along its length, dreamily.
“Seems a shame to throw it in a garden shed”, she said.
“You’re right. Let’s bring it inside. After all, there’s plenty of space.”
Holly laughed again. Despite being a petite girl, she had a hearty laugh. He liked that. “You’re right about that. I never suspected you’d be bitten by the minimalist bug.”
“Neither did I”, said Dean, taking the cross from her and carrying it the short distance to the back door. Holly carried a stack of movie magazines, the only thing she’d wanted to keep from the garden shed. They stepped into the kitchen. Dean propped the cross against the wall, and strode mechanically to the kettle.
“Well, there’s one thing you couldn’t get rid of”, said Holly. “How many cups of tea do you think you drink a day?”
“They used to give out tokens with packets of tea-bags when I was a kid”, said Dean. “If you got some phenomenal amount, then you could win a car. I think maybe that stuck in my head and I’ve been trying to win the car ever since.”
“Even though you couldn’t drive it”.
“One thing at a time”, said Dean. “You know, thinking of those old ads makes me melt with nostalgia.”
“Everything makes you melt with nostalgia”, said Holly. “A twenty-five year old shouldn’t be so nostalgic. Save that for when you’re an old man.”
Dean looked over at Holly, who was sitting by the kitchen table, her hand still stroking the arm of the cross. Whenever he tried to speak to her about nostalgia, about his interest in the Ireland of previous decades, she was completely uninterested. She made fun of him, gently, whenever he launched into a rhapsody about some old show like Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, or about Irish street ballads.
But one of the things he loved most about her was that she looked as though she had walked straight out of the past-- the nineteen-thirties, or the nineteen-forties. Oh, she wore fashionable clothes, and listened to modern music that Dean couldn’t stand, and all of that kind of thing. But she also radiated an innocence that didn’t seem to exist, in the twenty-first century-- in women or in men. He had never heard her say anything crude, or anything cruel.
The very expression on her face always seemed strangely out-of-time-- the sort of expression that would be more suited to a smoky, black and white photograph from a hundred years ago. It was too gentle for the second decade of the twenty-first century.
“Well, I may never be an old man”, said Dean, handing Holly her tea and pulling up a chair at the table. “I had the nightmare again last night.”
He spoke lightly, but a look of anxiety passed over Holly’s face. “The fellow with the gun?”, she asked.
“Yeah”. Even in the brightness of the morning, he felt a distant echo of the dream’s terror. “And, once again, I can’t remember who it was. Every single time I dream it, I recognise the gunman. Or I think I recognise him. But when I wake up, it’s gone.”
Holly didn’t speak. She still looked anxious.
“Always the same thing. I’m in a living room, a living room with a large mirror over a fireplace. There’s some kind of chanting coming from a radio. I see the gunman shoot somebody else, right in front of me. Then the he turns to me, raises his gun, laughs, and shoots. And then I wake up.”
“That’s awful”, said Holly. “I think you should speak to somebody about these nightmares.”
“You mean, a psychiatrist?”
“Well, a counsellor of some kind.”
“A counsellor? Really? I’m sure she’d tell me that the gunman represented my inner demons, or maybe my internalized anger, or something like that.”
“And maybe she wouldn’t”, said Holly. “A counsellor was very helpful to you before.”
Dean said nothing, taking a long sip from his tea instead. Holly had spoken softly, because she knew how sensitive a subject this was. He told very few people about his teenage problems. He’d spent too many years of his life believing he was crazy-- being told he was crazy-- to want to dwell on them.
“Well, if I keep having them, I’ll think about”, he said. “Hey, do you want a biscuit?”
The subject was soon changed, and in a few minutes Holly was laughing again. When she laughed, Dean felt giddy. Did Holly have any idea that he felt more for her than friendship? Whenever he thought about this, he felt strangely ashamed. He was lucky to even have her as a friend; she was too good for him, he thought. It was silly to think she might think of him as anything more than a friend.
They finished the tea, and carried the boxes of books, DVDs and magazines to Holly’s car. There were five boxes.
“You really want me to take all this stuff?”, Holly asked, one hand on the cover of the boot. “Last chance now.”
“Even the comics from your childhood? I mean, my nephew will love them, but you’ve told me so often how much they meant to you…”
“Well, I’m not twelve years old anymore”, said Dean. “It’s time for me to let go of all that stuff.”
Once again, there was concern in Holly’s eyes. “What does that mean? Why is it time? What are you going to do?”
Dean smiled, hoping to reassure her. “It’s just time. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. All I know is that I’ve felt, over the last week or so, that I should get rid of all the stuff that’s cluttering me up.”
“The stuff that’s cluttering you up?”, Holly asked, looking towards the house. “You’ve left barely anything except the kettle and that cross!”
“Bit of an exaggeration.”
“Yeah, well….I hope you’re not going into some kind of….some kind of downward spiral. I know you’re depressed about the contract coming to an end, but there will be other jobs. You’re a good teacher. I have a feeling you’ll land a serious job soon.”
“I believe you”, said Dean, although he didn’t. He grabbed the lid of the boot, and pushed it down, emphatically. “Look, I’m not depressed. I’m not about to jump into the Liffey. That’s not my style at all. I’m actually feeling strangely excited these days.”
“Oh yeah?”, asked Holly, a whimsical smiling touching her lips. “You’re feeling excited?”
“Yeah”, said Dean, a little embarrassed. It was true. He was feeling strangely excited, at the oddest moments. “So don’t worry. Take my boyhood treasures without a qualm.”
“Alright, then”, said Holly. “I’d better fly. I’ll talk to you soon, Buddha.”
As the car pulled away, Dean waved and wondered why she’d called him Buddha. He was getting a little chubby, for sure. Not fat, but definitely carrying some extra weight. Then he decided it had probably been a reference to Zen Buddhism, a joke about his newly-found minimalism.
He walked back to the house, drinking in the softness of the autumn sky. Yes, this was his favourite season. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Had anyone ever written a better line of poetry than John Keats’s evocation of autumn? Soon the fireworks would start going off, in the long build-up to Halloween.
Back inside the house, he walked from room to room, noting approving how his footsteps now echoed in some of them.
There was very little left. No television. No radio. No computer. (After all, he had a smartphone if he really needed to use the internet.) The only books were a Bible, a dictionary, and various volumes that had been given to him as Christmas and birthday gifts by his parents and his grandmother. He’d kept his back issues of his favourite magazine, Erin’s Pride, and that was about it when it came to reading material.
The only picture left hanging was one that Holly had given him once, as a “thank you” for a favour. It was a sentimental painting of the Virgin Mary pointing to her heart. Her heart seemed to be floating outside the middle of her chest. It was girded by a belt of white roses, and flames sprang from it. Behind her, the sun was setting on a silver sea. Doubtless the painting was “kitsch”, but Dean liked it. He liked it because Holly had given it to him, but also for its own sake.
Rather awkwardly, he crossed himself and said the Hail Mary before it.
Dean didn’t pray very much. He was a religion teacher, but he didn’t pray very much. He was also an English teacher. He read all the time.. The contradiction bothered him, sometimes. An English teacher should read. A religion teacher should pray. But a few minutes a day was the extent of his prayer life.
What would Holly think of that, he wondered? It had been so typical of her to buy him a holy picture as a gift. He faith was as much a part of her as her accent, her eye colour, or the way she walked. “I’ve been praying for you a lot”, she would say, as naturally as any other person might say I was watching the news last night. Nobody would ever call her a Bible-basher or a holy roller. But-- other than his own grandmother, Fran-- Dean had never known anybody so deeply religious as Holly. It was part of what he loved about her.
But what about his faith? He stood there, still looking at the schmaltzy picture of the Blessed Virgin, and wondered how much faith there really was in his heart and soul.
He went to Mass every Sunday, and every holy day. He read religious books-- now and again. He prayed-- now and again. But sometimes he wondered if he really believed.
When he prayed, he felt as though he was talking to himself. When he received Communion, he told himself it was the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but did he really believe that in his heart? He wasn’t sure.
And yet, for all that...he knew which side he was on. He was on the side of religion. He was against the people who attacked religion-- the humanists, the atheists, the scoffing professors, the smart-alecky liberals, and all the rest of them. He was on the side of Catholic Ireland. He was on the side of his grandmother saying the rosary in her front room. He was on the side of old men lighting candles before some kitschy shrine. He was on the side of Christmas carols and holy wells and streets named after saints. He was on the side of innocence, simplicity, reverence, faith.
But the question remained...did he actually believe? Did he really believe in angels, demons, miracles, and all that? Did he believe something actually happened when a priest said: “I absolve you of your sins”, or “This is my body, this is my blood?”. Did he really believe that his parents still existed, after their deaths?
If anybody asked him, he would say “yes”. But when he asked himself...well, he couldn’t give a confident answer.
His mind turned to the questions that Holly had been asking by the car. Why had he been seized by this sudden desire to give all his stuff away? Why did he suddenly feel his possessions were weighing him down? He’d been a clutterbug all his life. Why on earth would he do a complete about-turn at the age of twenty-five?
He didn’t know. That was the honest answer. And really, was it all that strange? He’d always been the kind of guy who went through crazes and phases. He’d had his photography phase, his fishing phase, his soccer phase. In his late teens he’d even had something of a Left Bank, bohemian phase. He’d been a vegetarian for six or seven months, many years ago. This decluttering was just another….thing. They had to be got through, that was all.
And what about the excitement he’d told Holly about? (He’d never say these things to anyone but Holly.) Well, that was there, too. Even before the urge to get rid of stuff. He thought it had come to him for the first time at Connolly train station, standing at the train platform, waiting to say hello to a friend arriving from the country. Just looking at the screen of arrivals and departure, at all the people coming and going, made him feel extraordinarily excited, as though he was on the brink of some great adventure. And this feeling had surprised him many times since then...looking at the wind whirling autumn leaves along the street, or watching the rumble of traffic in the morning, or seeing a pretty face in the street. He felt like there was a wind blowing behind, about to sweep him away….
All of it nonsense. Some quirk in his body chemistry, no doubt. As meaningless as his nightmares of a gunman. But there was no reason he shouldn’t enjoy these fits of exhilaration, when they came. They might even motivate him.
He walked upstairs, went into the bathroom, turned on the taps, stepped into his bedroom, grabbed a few copies of Erin’s Pride from his bedside, and within a few moments he was luxuriating in the hot water, flicking through the pages of an issue from 1995.
Could anything beat reading in the bath? He didn’t think so. The front door and the back door were locked. He was expecting nobody, and nobody was expecting him. Nobody in the world was concerned with him right now.. No blank gazes from indifferent teenagers, slumped over their desks. No small talk from colleagues about traffic congestion, the news, or anything else. Not even the mild sense of anxiety, of being open to inspection and judgement, that he felt standing in the queue at the supermarket. He was invisible, invulnerable, deliciously safe.
He flicked through Erin’s Pride. The magazine had barely changed at all in a hundred years; short stories about chaste love affairs and harmless village eccentrics, nostalgic articles about agricultural fairs and trips to the cinema as a child, features about golden age Hollywood movies stars...this, too, made him feel deliciously safe. He didn’t like the Ireland of the present. He didn’t like gangland killings, foul-mouthed comedians, constant media attacks on priests and nuns, crass entrepreneurs treated like demi-gods…no, he didn’t like any of it….
After a few minutes, he tossed the magazine aside, laid back in the tub, closed his eyes, and began to day-dream. Images passed through his mind. An old grainy photograph of a fiddler in Erin’s Pride….the thought of the locked door….the simple beauty of a garden shed...Holly’s smile…
He had begun to doze off when he distinctly heard these words, in a low male voice: Take up your cross.
He started up in the bath, his heart pounding.
After a moment’s hesitation, he stood up, grabbed a nearby towel, wrapped it around his waist, and stepped towards the door, which was three-quarters closed. He swung it fully open, felt a wave of adrenalin wash over him, and saw…
Nothing. There was nobody in the hall.
For a moment, he wondered if someone might be downstairs, if someone might have broken in. But only for a moment. The voice had been low, almost in his ear. It had either been someone standing right beside him, or….
Or he was hearing voices. Again. Like he had when he was a teenager.
No, he thought. It was just my imagination. I was half-asleep. I was dreaming.
He stood there, his heartbeat slowly returning to normal, his rational mind gradually winning over his moment of panic. Yes, that was it. It was just a dream, the beginning of a dream. No need for panic. Absolutely no need for panic whatsoever.
He’d just finished tying the belt on his bath-robe when the doorbell rang.