Monday, February 17, 2020

The Cross: Chapter Four

One brief comment before I begin this latest chapter: the character of Lee is based on a real person I encountered in my teens. I was in the pub with my parents around Christmas-time. I was quite disturbed to find an old man who took pop culture so seriously, as I thought old men were above that.

As they left the pub, Dean was already regretting his rush of blood to the head. He was less worried that Paddy might lead him into some den of iniquity, than that the poet might turn out to be a crashing bore. After all, he had all the signs; an eagerness to talk about himself, an obliviousness to irony, a lack of inhibition, and a dozen other little indications. Who walked up to strangers in pubs and invited them to buy self-published poetry? Dean had often wished for that kind of self-confidence. But he’d also noticed that the people who possessed it were very often lacking in discretion, tact, restraint, sensitivity, and many of the other traits he found highly desirable in an acquaintance, never mind a friend.

The longer he hung around Paddy, the more embarrassing it would be to break away. But he couldn’t do it right now, after agreeing to go with him.

“Where are we going?”, he asked.

“This poetry isn’t going to sell itself. Don’t worry, we’re not going to go thirsty either.”

That was an understatement. Over the next four hours, Paddy led him into seven different pubs, followed by two house parties. Dean had never been on a pub crawl before. He couldn’t tell whether Paddy even considered this a pub crawl, or whether it was simply an ordinary night for him. Certainly, they ran into friends of the poet in most of the pubs they entered.

It had often occurred to Dean that his whole reality was mediated to him through television and movies. He suspected it was the same for everybody else. As they trekked from pub to pub, Dean imagined himself inside a movie or TV show montage, and wondered what song would be playing over it. “Seven Drunken Nights” by the Dubliners? No; the subject was right, but the tune was too laid-back. “The Rocky Road to Dublin”, the perennially popular Irish folk ballad describing a country bumpkins misadventures on his way to the capital city? The lyrics didn’t really fit, but the rollicking rhythm would create the right atmosphere. Or perhaps he would take the rock ‘n’ roll route. “The Boys are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy was an obvious choice. Too obvious?

“How many hot chocolates can you drink, my man?”

Dean smiled. “There’s no limit.”

“You’ll blow up like a balloon.”

“I’m halfway there already”, said Dean. He didn’t like making jokes about his weight-- he wasn’t fat, he thought, but he was getting there. Still, he’d rather make the joke himself, than wait for someone else to do it.

“Have a proper drink man,” said Paddy, who was already half-drunk. “Have a pint. You’re not a teetotaller, are you?”

“No”, said Dean. “But I’m working tomorrow.”

“Big deal. Have a pint.”

“I’ll have a brandy.”

Paddy cheered. They were in a dark, pokey little pub called Costigan’s. They’d progressed from the suburbs to the city by now.

“This guy told me I was a hypocrite and that I lived by the rules like everybody else”, said Paddy, after he’d ordered the drinks. He was talking to an old man who was sitting at the bar with them, and who Paddy seemed to know quite well. His name was Lee.

“I never said that”, said Dean.

“Do you know what I did?”, asked Paddy. “I stood on the table and I told everyone in the pub they were sheep and they were frightened to live their lives the way they wanted. You should have seen the face on this guy. They threw us out straight away.”

“You’re an awful man”, said Lee. His voice was thin and wheezy, and his face was sunken and lined. His grey hair was limp and stringy, and on the whole he looked as though he might not make it through any given night. “Hey, did I tell you that I got a first edition of Paul McCartney’s first solo album, on Ebay?”

“Yeah, you did”, said Paddy. He turned to Dean and said: “Lee is a Beatles maniac. All he ever talks about is the Beatles.”

“Ah, come on, that’s an exaggeration”, said Lee, but he didn’t seem displeased at the remark. He beamed as though it conferred a kind of distinction. “Do you like the Beatles?”


Lee raised a fist in the air, almost jubilantly. “They were the best! The music now is a load of nonsense. I mean, listen to this”. He raised his hand in the air, to indicate the rock music that was playing around them. Dean didn’t recognize the song or the band, although to his ear it sounded quite Beatle-esque.

“The happiest day in Lee’s life was when Sgt. Pepper came out”, said Paddy. Now there was a hint of irony in his smile.

“I remember listening to that album”, said Lee, staring solemnly at Dean, “and thinking This is it, the world is never going to be the same. This is the revolution right here, on this record.”

Already, Dean had noticed a common link between all Paddy’s friends; they all seemed to be cheering on the revolution, although the nature of the revolution was rather vague.

“Well, I don’t think the world ever was the same”, said Dean. He didn’t want to get into an argument about the social and cultural legacy of the Beatles. His own assessment, briefly put, would be: great band, terrible legacy.

“But it wasn’t the revolution we were looking for”, said Lee. He looked so forlorn Dean couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. “And do you know who I blame?”

“Don’t tell me”, said Dean. “The Catholic Church?”

“No”, said Lee, “sure amn’t I a Catholic myself? I go to Mass every Sunday. No, I’ll tell you who I blame. Yoko bloody Ono!”

His fist was raised in the air again, and his lips were quivering. He looked absolutely livid.

Perhaps there should have been something comical in the sight, but Dean didn’t feel like laughing. It was worse than ridiculous that a man in his sixties or seventies should be brooding over the break-up of a rock band more than forty-five years ago. A man of that age, he thought, should be gently contemptuous of pop culture, reading old books by the fireside, drinking whiskey, and dispensing sage advice to the young people.

“Good man”, said Paddy, clapping Lee on the shoulder. “I’m going to move on and see can I shift some of these books down the street.”

And so they did. Whether it was to the imaginary music of Dubliners or Thin Lizzy, the montage went on. Dean wasn’t drinking hot chocolate any more. Everywhere they went, Paddy seemed to sell a half-a-dozen of his poetry books. Perhaps it was the self-assurance with which he approached people. They’d bought them before they knew what they were doing, it seemed. He signed each on with great care and attentiveness.

They spoke to a young man who owned an organic farm on the outskirts of Dublin, and who asked Dean if he had any idea what he was putting into his body every day. They spoke to a member of the Socialist Worker party who was animated about the sufferings of the Palestinian people. They spoke to a couple of radical feminists-- Dean couldn’t tell whether they were a couple in more senses than one. But they certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the ugly bra-burner-- they were both utterly gorgeous, making Dean feel doubly intoxicated every time they leaned towards him, to make themselves heard over the loud music.

“Feminism isn’t about hating men”, said Camille, the blonde. “You’re just as much a victim of the patriarchal system as we are. All the rubbish about stiff upper lip and being an alpha male and boys don’t cry. Is it any wonder men are killing themselves all the time?”

“Nobody ever told me that boys shouldn’t cry”, said Dean.

“Well”, said Camille, with a dizzying smile, “that’s only because of feminism.”

He didn’t have an answer for that. Not that he even wanted to get into a debate. In fact, he avoided it all night, just listening to the ramblings of various radicals, sometimes nodding vaguely as though in agreement. What did it matter? Would he even want to change their minds? Wasn’t the world more interesting for these amiable ideologues? And they were amiable. Dean’s worries about being pumped for money were wide of the mark. Everybody was pressing drink on him, including Paddy.

“One of my teachers had a hangover every single day of the week. And he was my best teacher by miles. Come on, have another.”

All of the radicals he met that night seemed to believe two things with absolute conviction. One was that society, at the moment, was morally and spiritually bankrupt. The other was that a better world, perhaps even a paradise, was just around the corner. The viewed the present with the utmost cynicism and the future with the most extravagant optimism, and they didn’t seem to see anything unreasonable about this.

“Tell me, Dean”, asked Paddy, pouring him a cup of coffee in a flat somewhere along the Liffey quays. There were about fifteen people sitting in the living room, some of them on the floor, and Dean wasn’t sure who the tenant was. “What do you think of my poetry? Honestly?”

Honestly, Dean thought it was mediocre at best. But he would never have said that. “I think it’s very….very fresh, very direct. I like that. What was that line about the incense?”

“You shower God’s love like incense on
The good, the bad, and everyone”, quoted Paddy, promptly. “This guy is a devout Roman Catholic”, he said, pointing towards Dean, and looking towards a red-headed woman who was drunker than either of them.

“Fair play to him”, she said. “I love Jesus. Do you know that Jesus speaks to me?”

There were six or seven people sitting at the table. Everybody else was sitting on the floor, looking through a stack of DVDs and giving their opinions on each. Nobody at the table expressed the slightest scepticism at the red-head’s claim.

“People laugh at all that moving statues stuff”, said another woman, a plump blonde girl with a strong rural accent. “But my mother swears blind she saw a statue of Our Blessed Mother crying. And I believe her.”

Even though Dean was drunk, and even though he was on an emotional high from all the attention he was getting-- much of it from attractive women-- he remained as introspective and self-aware as ever. He knew that, in circumstances like this, once his usual shyness and inhibition was overcome, he was tempted to the opposite extreme. It was like a dam breaking.. He saw this happening, but he decided to go along with it.

“Something weird happened to me today”, he said, looking around the table.

They all looked at him, expectantly, eager.

“I was in the bath”, said Dean. “Nobody else was in the house. I heard a voice.”

“What did it say?”, asked the red-headed woman.

“Take up your cross”. It felt delicious just to admit it.

“Whoah”, said a young chap with kind eyes and long dark hair, who was smoking something that wasn’t tobacco. “What do you think that means?”

“I don’t know”, said Dean. “But I have this cross that I bought in a craft fair a few years ago. About shoulder height. It kind of spoke to me. I’d just been talking about it with my friend. And I’ve been throwing out pretty much everything I own, but I didn’t want to throw that out.”

Another long silence. Along with the blessed relief of getting this off his chest, Dean was flattered by the intense interest on everybody’s face.

“That means something”, said the red-headed woman. “I don’t care what anyone says. That means something.”

“It’s trippy”, someone said, in an entirely approving voice.

“I don’t know”, said Dean. Neither the atmosphere nor the drink could silence his scepticism. “The thing is, I heard voices before. In my teens. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist about it. They put me on medication.” His voice was shaking now. “I used to hear a voice telling me that I was loved, that I was a child of God. My parents thought I was going crazy.”

“So what?”, asked Paddy, passionately. “Crazy...that’s just a word. So-called sanity is just...just another system of control. How do you know God isn’t speaking to you?”

“Yeah”, said several people, enthusiastically. Somebody even clapped.

There was a heavy knock on the front door, a knock that signaled displeasure. It was well past two a.m.

“Here we go”, said Paddy, with visible disgust. “The pillars of the community. The respectable citizens” He seemed to have forgotten Dean’s story already. Dean was still shaking.

A skinny girl with long brown hair, who must have been the tenant, left the room. There was a brief and low-voiced conversation outside. A few minutes later, she reappeared, and said “We’d better break it up, guys.”

There were a few groans, and a few giggles, but everybody immediately began to gather up their things. In groups of two and three, they began to leave. Everybody was hugging each other. Dean found himself being hugged by several beautiful women, which only added to his excited spirits.

Last of all, Dean and Paddy left. Paddy still seemed disgusted by the fact that someone had complained. He was very drunk. He muttered about it all the way downstairs, and as they were walking away from the apartment building, he suddenly stopped, turned around, and began to shout up at the windows.

“Fascists! Nazis! Bunch of soulless, lifeless zombies! Go stick your pension plans and your fitted kitchens where the sun don’t shine!”

Dean stood there, transfixed, not knowing what to do. Within a moment, faces appeared at every window; and within another moment, a large man was running towards them, at alarming speed.

Paddy took off. Dean was amazed at the speed with he he moved. Within a few seconds, he had disappeared around a corner.

The man looked after Paddy a moment or two, and then began to bound towards Dean. Dean realized that he would have no idea which of them had been hollering, and he looked hopping mad.

He turned in the opposite direction to Paddy, and began to run. Although it was the early morning, there was still a fair amount of people around. They watched him with unfeigned amusement as he tore along the riverside. The man behind him was still shouting, and showed no sign of giving up.

After two or three minutes of this, something whistled past Dean’s ear. He looked around. The man had finally come to a halt, and he was making a rude finger gesture to Dean, and shouting something indistinct. But it was plain to see he had given up the chase, and after a few moments he began to walk away.

Dean jogged around a corner, just to be safe, and then bent over, his hands on his knees, gulping in the night air. When was the last time he had run like that? Had he ever run like that before? He didn’t even care if there was anybody staring at him right now. had been a wild night. The kind of wild night he’d always felt bad for missing out on. Even now, he felt a certain glee about it.

After about five minutes, when his breathing had returned to something like normal, he hailed a passing taxi, and sat in silence as the car moved through the early morning streets. “Rhapsody in Blue” was playing on the radio. Dean reflected, not for the first time in his life, that music never sounded better than when it was being played in a taxi, long post midnight, as it cruised through deserted streets.

“Working tomorrow?”, asked the taxi-driver.

“Yeah”, said Dean. “Going to a conference, actually.”

“Hoh-hoh!”, replied the taxi-driver, in a voice of amused sympathy. “Good luck with that, buddy.”

He took Dean right to his front door. Dean wondered if he was staggering as he unlocked the door and made his way upstairs. He decided he wasn’t, and felt rather disappointed.

After brushing his teeth and climbing out of his clothes, he set three different alarms on his mobile, five minutes apart from each other. Three hours of sleep would have to do.

Within moments, he was asleep.

But it wasn’t a dreamless sleep.

It was a grey winter’s morning. Dean had always liked a grey winter’s morning, but this morning was...unnatural. It was darker than it should be, as though the sky was full of ash.

He was standing in a suburban street, somewhere in Dublin. He didn’t know where. There were people lining the pavements, looking at him. Other people were looking out from the windows of the houses around him.

Dean was holding the cross, the cross he had bought at the craft fair. It was bigger than it was in real life-- it stretched over his head now. But it felt no heavier.

Take your cross, said a familiar voice, and he knew without any shadow of a doubt that it was his guardian angel.

Dean looked to his left. Holly was standing there. She was dressed in an old-fashioned way, like a woman in some old photograph in Erin’s Pride.

“What should I do?”, he asked.

“Take your cross”, she said, smiling at him solemnly. She looked so beautiful.

He began to walk. As he did so, something strange happened. Light began to stream from the cross. Not just ordinary light, but a kind of golden light, like candle-light multiplied by a hundred. It hung in the air behind him as he walked.

And it wasn’t just light. A scented mist was wafting from the cross, too. It took a few moments for him to realize what it was. It was incense. You shower God’s love like incense, he remembered. The odour was absolutely heavenly, like the smell of pure goodness.

He realized that the people around him, lining the pavements, were making a lot noise. Some of them were cheering, applauding, reaching their arms out towards him beseechingly. Others were screaming, and their faces were twisted with hate.

Lee, the old man who loved the Beatles, was one of the latter group. He was shaking his fist, and shouting, “Yoko Ono!”.

Something whistled past Dean’s air. Then something else, and something else. But he kept walking.

The cross was getting heavier and heavier. Eventually, he had to stop.

Holly was standing in front of him. She was pointing to the left. Dean followed her finger, and saw a red-brick house that somehow filled him with dread. He looked back at Holly. She was smiling serenely, but tears were streaming down her cheeks.

“You need to go in”, she said.

“I don’t want to.”

“You need to.”

Reluctantly, he walked to the red-brick house, up the steps to the front door, and rang the bell. The crowds around him had disappeared, all of a sudden. It was horribly quiet, as though the world was frozen in suspense.

A man with a cruel, fleshy face and sad eyes opened the door. He looked nervous and eager at once. He led Dean into the hall, and further into a book-lined sitting room, full of expensive-looking decorations and handsome furniture. A radio was playing, and Dean heard a chanting that he couldn’t make out, but which seemed ancient beyond words.

The man lifted his arms. “Bless me”, he said, in a desperate voice. “Bless me”.

Dean lifted his arm to bless, but then he heard another ringing at the door. The owner of the house turned white at the sound, and Dean felt frozen with terror. He knew it was him. It was the gunman. And he remembered exactly who it was now. It was--

The screeching of a mechanical alarm filled his head, and Dean awoke his heart pounding. The room was bright with pale sunlight.

It was morning. It was time to get up. The end was not yet.


  1. It's not uncommon to spot an ageing pedestrian who still sports long hair,despite having little of grey or greying keratin at all, wearing a new-looking tshirt of a 60s or 70s band. I would have thought most were pro-Yoko,but it's good not to pigeonhole characters too much.
    A song,or collection of songs,one hears when young can indeed encapsule the mind and emotions of an era for that person,whether it's been a favourite throughout or a rediscovery,as it usually is in my case when I chance to hear it again after decades. Not sure that I base my politics on it though.

    1. I guess, until that encounter, I'd always assumed that old people were pre-pop culture and had, at best, a begign contempt for it, like my father. It was a shock when I met an old dude who took it all so seriously. The same shock I got when I heard library assistants in my local library talking about Oasis, the rock band. Not pleasant shocks, if there is such a thing as a pleasant shock.

  2. I'd forgotten how much humour there was in this! A shame you don't think you'll finish it, but I suppose you can't finish everything!

    1. Indeed! One has to be selective! It's intersesting that you found humour in it, I wouldn't have expected that. But I'm pleased to hear it!

    2. It's just dashes here and there - the lines of dialogue you give to Paddy and Lee, even though there's something tragic about Lee.