People bought and sold: Queer Season opening night at the King’s Head Theatre

From July to September, The King’s Head pub theatre will be running a 6 week queer season to promote LGBTQ+ voices in the London fringe theatre scene. Sophia Moss attends opening night and takes in two very different takes on the queer experience and abuses of power.

For Reasons That Remain Unclear

“So you know a lot about bottoming out, do you?” Patrick (Simon Haines), a middle-aged Hollywood screenwriter, croons at Conrad (Cory Peterson), an older priest. Conrad looks alarmed by the innuendo, but he seems to be playing along. “You penetrate with your words, Patrick,” he says.

Patrick and Conrad meet randomly on the streets of ‘90s Rome when the priest asks the younger man for directions. The pair end up going to lunch, stop off at a bar and we first see them in Patrick’s lavish hotel room, admiring the view and listening to the sound of church bells.

The first half hour of For Reasons That Remain Unclear is dripping with sexual energy. It’s unclear whether Patrick is doing it for a joke or out of genuine sexual interest, but Conrad, despite his religious beliefs, is clearly tempted. This would have made an amusing, irreverent and potentially touching story, but there is something far more sinister going on. As the conversation gets darker and the audience starts to realise something isn’t right, we begin to wonder whether both characters will make it out alive.

This is the European premiere of Mart Crowley’s play, but it was first performed in the USA in 1993. Crowley began his career in 1957 before creating the successful off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band, which opened in 1968 and was adapted into a film in 1970.

The Boys in the Band is credited for unapologetically exploring the lives of gay men on stage at a time where homosexuality was still not socially accepted. It presented gay men as versatile, relatable characters without judgment or ridicule. Mart Crowley, now 82, is openly gay himself.

For Reasons That Remain Unclear also centres on homosexual characters, but their sexuality is not the focus of the play. This story explores the different reactions people have to childhood abuse, the nature of forgiveness and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church. At a time when accusations of abuse within the Catholic Church were starting to gain media attention, this play gave a human face to the abuse statistics, exploring how abuse can affect different people and how they may respond to their abuser.

Despite the serious subject matter, this play is full of humour and innuendo. Some of the tenser sections begin too abruptly, making them feel out of place, but For Reasons That Remain Unclear generally keeps a good balance between comedy and tragedy. There are sprinkles of comedy even when the scenes get unbearably tense and the conversation turns dark.

Photo: Francisco Colinet

The King’s Head theatre has a small staging area which is normally used for minimalistic sets. The set design for this play is not particularly elaborate, but it is entirely believable as an up-market hotel room in Rome.

A fire door, decorated with a simple pink curtain, is transformed into a balcony overlooking the domes of Saint Peter’s. Old-fashioned, upbeat music sets the scene before the play begins. The bed, the table – complete with flowers, an ashtray, a pen and paper – and the open travel bags are simple but detailed. The audience surround the set and, as it is a small area, the actors are often only inches away from us. We can see every detail of their faces, making it feel like we are spying on an important moment in their lives.

Haines and Peterson work well together and organically portray an impressive array of emotions. Some of the subject matter is very hard to tackle, but both actors give convincing performances.

Stories which delve into the murkiness of childhood abuse are at risk of seeming cliched, sensationalist, insensitive or presumptuous. For Reasons that Remain Unclear is uncomfortably detailed in places and some of the lines seem unnatural, as if they were put in to push an idea forward or clarify something for the audience. Yet on the whole, it deals with such a sensitive topic remarkably well.

The ending is frustrating because it doesn’t follow the format we want to see. We want justice to be served, we want to believe that monsters are punished. The audience doesn’t want to see abusers walk free, but that is the uncomfortable reality in many real-world situations.

It is especially upsetting to see that there is no real remorse; it is the victim, not the perpetrator, who understands the extent of the crime.  For Reasons That Remain Unclear doesn’t give the audience the ending they want, but it does make them think.

James Dean Is Dead! (Long Live James Dean)

“Dude or dame, who cares? Hollywood’s all full of sex hungry people. So, all ya need is hunger. I’m always hungry,” says a newly dead James Dean, standing next to a pile of tarmac and a mangled number plate. The set reflects the car crash that ended his life when he was just 24.

James Dean Is Dead! (Long Live James Dean) is a one man show which explores the young actor’s rise to fame, the murky realities of the theatre and film industry in 1950s USA and Dean’s much-speculated sexual appetite.

The plot doesn’t feel too far-fetched, but die-hard fans of Dean may be able to spot inconsistencies. The script is fast-paced, jumping from one scene to another while keeping a basic chronological order, which works well with Kit Edwards’s chatty, upbeat, but ultimately damaged portrayal of the Hollywood icon.

It’s refreshing to see Dean openly describe himself as bisexual. “I had girlfriends and boyfriends. Lots of ‘em,” he says. “I’m no freak though. There are millions like me. Twilight people! Guys and gals.” Dean’s character describes his sexual relationships with men far more than his relations with women, but the homosexual relationships are mostly dominated by abusive power dynamics.

Much of this play describes the power play in both New York and Hollywood, where powerful men would expect sexual favours in return for a shot at fame. One particularly striking passage describes the process as a meat market. “There’s people bought and sold in this city like it’s a butcher’s shop, an abattoir! It’s the meat rack. That’s Hollywood, New York: anywhere there’s always the meat rack. How tasty is your joint?”

Edwards jumps between confident, angry, vulnerable and pensive, ultimately portraying Dean as someone who was damaged by his experiences in the film industry and goes through a string of meaningless one-night stands – unable to sleep, trying to hide how much he was hurt by his failed relationship with Pier Angeli.

It feels like Dean is trying to convince himself, as well as the audience, that he is the bad boy of Hollywood that everyone thinks he is. Early on, Dean says: “Doesn’t bother me so much. I’m horny all the time. Must be hell for the nice boys …. It’s the losers who say it’s hell. The ones who don’t play the game. Walk out of the bedroom, you walk out of Hollywood.”

Later on, he details how the “powerful guys” would size him up, call him “boy”, and expect sexual favours. “’Hey, Boy! Before I cast you kid, I like to get to know my actors better! Know what I mean?’ I sure as shit know what that means. So, you smile and nod. Next thing you’re in his bedroom.”

These descriptions remind one of the Me Too movement, so it’s telling that the original script was written six years before the allegations against people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey were well known. It opens up a world that many of us may not be aware of – the world of the “homosexual mafia” as the script describes them, who can make or break dreams if young men are compliant enough.

During the play, Dean reflects on his legacy and worries that he, like the poet Lord Byron, will be remembered for who he slept with rather than what he did. It’s an interesting idea which may well be true, but it feels like the speculation of the author rather than the character.

The mentions of The Little Prince, Dean’s favourite book as a child, are obviously trying to re-enforce the idea of Dean as a young, vulnerable, dreamy child in a scary world, but that also feels a little overplayed. The play seems to end with no real conclusion, which reflects Dean’s sudden death but feels a little disappointing.

For Reasons that Remain Unclear will play at King’s Head Theatre until 25 August.

James Dean is Dead! (Long Live James Dean) will transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will play at C aquila, C Venues from August 19 to August 17. Tickets here.




Holy Ghost

 

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The first time I receive Communion, I am seven years old. I have been coached. You hold out your hands—right over left—or you stick out your tongue and let the priest place the Host there when he gives the blessing. I hold out my hands because it seems the more polite thing to do.

I put the wafer in my mouth and let it rest on my tongue as I make my way back to my seat. By the time I sit back down in the pew the Host is soggy, half-dissolved. I flip the kneeler down and bow my head. The little trapdoor inside my heart rings with excitement, but also with worry. I am one of God’s own now, completely.

I feel entirely different.

I don’t feel different at all.

The Host is supposed to stay on your tongue until the priest is finished distributing to everyone in the congregation. You’re not supposed to chew it. I don’t, but my wafer disappears long before the rest of the church is fed. The shape of it stays on my tongue like some kind of unleavened memory.

*

Emily has blue eyes, and hair that changes with the weather. Hair that used to be blonde, or almost-blonde, or something-that-is-light-enough-to-pass-for-blonde. At some point halfway through her twenties, she’ll get a haircut and the stylist will point out her true colour on a box and it will say brown and she’ll be astonished.

She is honey-blonde and then dark, pink and then tufted with green. The year that she turns thirty-one, she’ll go for blue.

When we meet, during my first year of university, her hair is long and parted down the middle. She looks about fifteen. She is in love with a boy in our writing class, a boy with brown hair and glasses who will go on to be an engineer.

We’ll walk around each other for the first two years, and then one day I’ll sit beside her as we both wait for class and she’ll start talking.

“My dad died,” she’ll say. She is not with the engineer anymore and her hair is much shorter. “Two years ago. It’s been a rough climb back up.”

The trapdoor will shuddersqueak open. Come in, I’ll want to say. Come in, and tell me stories.

*

When I am thirteen, my dad and mum and aunt and I all drive down to the city cathedral for my confirmation.

“City parking,” my dad says. “They fucking screw you, no matter what.”

Inside the cathedral, the air is hushed and soft and everything is draped in red and purple—the pews, the windows, the altar. The Bishop wears a tall red hat and carries a staff and when I step in front of him there’s a rush of holiness so strong I want to cry. He has deep dark eyes and a strong nose. He was Italian, but he isn’t really anymore because now he is of God.

He smiles. He makes the sign of the cross on my forehead.

I am one of God’s own now, completely.

I feel differently.

I don’t feel differently at all.

We stay for the service and then find our car and drive home. My father talks about the man who oversees our church operations now. He’s trying for a seat in the upcoming elections.

“Won’t vote for him,” my dad says. “He’s a pompous ass.”

My aunt laughs. “What a thing to say, today of all days.”

I laugh too, a little. But mostly I’m trying not to be ashamed that while I was standing in front of the bishop and praying I was also thinking about Jeremy, who’s in my class and who I would like to be my boyfriend even though that’s never ever going to happen. I asked God for him. The trapdoor in my heart hides lots of things.

*

“Why isn’t a woman on the list of people to be Pope?”

Emily asks me this one day in university, when we’re on the city bus to class. John Paul II has died and the Papal Conclave is in full swing.

“Well,” I say, “they take the candidates from bishops. Bishops are all former priests. And women can’t be priests, so. That’s why.”

“You’re serious?”

“Well, yeah.”

She looks at me, shakes her head. “I don’t understand how you can do it, then.”

“Do what?”

“Be a part of something that excludes you on such a fundamental level.”

“Oh,” I say. I’ve never thought about it that way. “Well, it’s not like I ever wanted to be a priest anyway.”

*

Years later I’ll see the bishop walking down the street in my hometown. He’s retired now. I didn’t realize that bishops could retire. That these men could put away their robes and spend their wintry years drinking Scotch and watching bad television, that they could long for a Christmas that might contain something else other than Mass.

Some time after this he’ll come in to the Catholic hospital where I work and people will part for him just like the Red Sea I don’t believe in anymore. He’s come for routine bloodwork, because holy men need doctors too. He smiles at me, but doesn’t remember my name. I’m not surprised.

My hospital does not do rape kits. This bothers me but not enough to make me quit. There are principles, and then there are bills to pay.

*

Emily does not believe in God. She doesn’t really believe in people, either, though I think she would like to, though I think at times she longs, like me, for magic. I stop asking God for things whenever she’s around. I believe. I don’t believe. I am no longer entirely one of God’s own.

One summer when I am housesitting she comes to stay with me, and we pretend that we are roommates. We live in a yellow house in Victoria that sits half a block from the beach. We stay up late watching movies and make breakfast in the house’s open-plan kitchen, walk the dog, read each other’s stories. Sometimes her boyfriend, Paul, comes to visit. Sometimes they fight, and he stays away.

“We should be roommates for real,” she says, and so we look at houses.

I like bright apartments that have wooden floors, and houses that are located in the nicer parts of town. Emily shakes her head.

“They’re too expensive,” she says. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”

Around her I feel sheltered, somehow lacking. The world is a rough place but I’ve missed most of the blows. As though the countless Hosts I’ve swallowed have dissolved into some kind of force-field—God on one side, the rest of the world on the other. Imaginary ghosts that whisper in your ear.

You are one of God’s own now, they say. You are protected. No matter what.

*

When I am twenty-nine, the priest who served in the diocese during my childhood goes to jail for sexual assault. The incidents—there were two—happened years ago, when he was a priest in a neighbouring city.

“I can’t help it,” my mother says. “I’m trying to understand and I just can’t.”

My sister, who had imagined him at her wedding, cries. I do not cry at all. Instead I think about this priest, much older now than in my memories, pleading guilty to a thirty-year-old mistake. The trapdoors that lie down deep inside our secret hearts. The hurts we do not mean. The strengths that even God cannot teach us.

*

When Emily comes to visit me in my new apartment she brings movies and cigarettes and I make dinner. She is not dating Paul anymore. She’s been to the movies with a boy named AJ, though, so maybe he is Boyfriend Next. We don’t know. Not yet.

“I think there’s a power out there,” she says. “I talked about it with Paul. Something out there in the universe. I wouldn’t call it God, though. I don’t know what it is.”

“Well,” I say. “That’s something, isn’t it.”

“Sure,” she says. “It’s still not fair about female priests, though. I’ll never understand that.”

I want to say that I don’t understand it either, that I am sad but also tired, that I have nowhere else to go. Instead I pull her face toward my own and kiss her lips, so soft.

She murmurs, surprised. A little squeak. She doesn’t pull away. Her hands around my waist are soft and sure, gathering the folds of my sweater the way that I imagine God must have gathered people from the desert all those years ago. None of the men that I kiss in future years will feel like this.

It’s okay, the hands say. Don’t be afraid. I know what I am doing.

 

 

 

 




Thy Perfect Light

Photo by bunnicula (copied from Flickr)
Photo by bunnicula (copied from Flickr)

‘The body of Christ.’

You shuffle forward.

‘The body of Christ.’

Eyes glued to the floor.

‘The body of Christ.’

The priest is a waxwork cloaked in white. He is still but for the slow, mechanical movement of his arm. Into each child’s hands he places a thin, beige disc and then draws a loose cross in the air.

‘The body of Christ.’

You’re next. You cross your arms against your chest to make a shape like the letter X.

‘Peace be with you.’

Quick as you dare, you return to your place in the crowd, cross your legs and sit down, cold against the ground.

***

I sat on the steps outside, plush concrete, the looming silhouette of the parish church behind me. It was summer. As the night grew dark it brought with it a calm chill. In the distance the weekend drinkers, mostly young, howled and screeched and their laughter crashed against the sleepy stone buildings and walls. I suppressed a shiver, and next to me on the steps she came and sat. I was drinking, so was she. I don’t remember if we smoked a cigarette or not.

‘Can I ask you a question?’ she asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Do you believe in God?’

***

She lost her brother to cancer when she was eleven years old. He was eighteen. When she told me this, I looked into the face of the woman who would eventually be my lover and I saw her eyes stare through mine and drift back in time. There was nothing I could do or say that would change the injustice. It breathes within her. I held her.

When I told her I had survived my cancer, I experienced for the first time what might be called survivor’s guilt. Walking home that night—drunk, teary, and alone—I thrashed at the trees and kicked pointlessly at the gravel and stones. Cancer is a game of odds; some get lucky, some don’t. I refused to accept that God had intervened to save me, but not her brother. I hated myself for living a life that he could not.

She and her little sister grew up to be evangelical Christians. Her sister, now in her mid-twenties, still is. It’s not for me to claim a connection between their grief and the fervour of their faith, but a belief in a greater power with a higher purpose offers comfort when nothing in the material world possibly can. But I’m probably being reductive. I try to rationalise things; it’s my coping mechanism of choice. During my treatment I found comfort not in scripture, but in numbers and charts; I pored through the research from my medical trial as the chemotherapy snaked through the tube into my chest. I sized up my odds: could I beat the Devil inside me in a game of chance? For me, chemo was a roll of the dice. I got lucky.

***

I went to a Catholic primary school, just because it was the good school in our neighbourhood. My grandparents were religious but my parents weren’t. I wasn’t baptised.

We held Mass in the old gymnasium, and during the Holy Communion I was told to fold my arms across my chest into the shape of an X so the priest knew not to give me the body of Christ. This marked me out as different. Separate, isolated. Communion is the cornerstone of Catholicism, but I could not be part of it. I wondered what it would be like to receive the Lord as the others did—to come to know God. The connection denied to me seemed mysterious, strange, so I would daydream; my mind became buried in childish fantasies and far away places.

In that enormous gym through which the draught whistled all year round, we sat on the floor and we sang. We learnt the words by rote; we sang by habit. Family were invited to join us; my grandmother sat and watched proudly. Teachers and adult helpers—a motley delegation of bouncy youths with red cheeks and grey-haired relics in frumpy woolen jumpers—led the chorus in song.

All I have I give you, Every dream and wish are yours, Mother of Christ, mother of mine, present them to my Lord.

O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright, Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect light.

At eight years old my friend and I, with skittish innocence, would change the words to the hymns we sang to instead deify idols of our own: musicians and football players. He was an Irish boy from a Catholic family with a cheeky smile. We were too young to understand what those songs meant to the adults around us. Sometimes I saw them dabbing a knuckle of an index finger against the corner of an eye, blotting away a deferential tear. They did this with such quiet decorum, whilst on the ground beneath them we swallowed our giggles.

On the last day of primary school, aged eleven, I sat in our final Mass and partook in the ritual for one last time. I moved through the motions habitually; each step, each breath, internalised through years of practice. Once it was over I no was longer forced to give praise or to sing, but old habits are hard to shift. I’ve since, at times, found myself kneeling by my bed praying to a God I’m not sure I believe in. I’ve prayed when my parents have been ill. I’ve prayed, to my shame, for exam results to go my way. I’ve even casually prayed in the dying moments of a football game. I prayed the night before my cancer diagnosis, and then I prayed again the night after. It was during the darkness of those long months in hospital—robbed of my vitality, dignity and hope—that I gave up praying.

At school they told us that God allowed suffering to test our faith.

‘In moments of pain or sadness,’ they said, ‘you will see his light, you will feel his love, and be closer to him.’ Years later these words would echo in my empty hospital room like a cruel joke.

The folk musician Jeffrey Lewis once sang, ‘God’s just a story someone made up on the go, before they had books and TV shows, I don’t believe in him and I ain’t afraid to say so, God’s just a story someone made up on the go, but it’s hard not to be superstitious despite all you know.’ Perhaps the time will come when I’ll catch myself praying again.

***

A year or so on from the night we sat on the steps in the shadow of the church, she came to me with a suggestion. She wanted to visit an evangelical Sunday service hosted in a theatre in London’s West End. In all the time that we’d been together, she hadn’t once spoken positively about religion. I asked her why she wanted to go.

‘I just need to see it,’ she said.

My stomach tightened. The instinct to protect her sat uncomfortably beside my curiosity to see this world first-hand; to bear witness to the culture she had grown up in, and from which now she felt only icy detachment; to stare into the face of God, and to see if he stared back.

Her struggle with faith and subsequent departure from it was not without pain or acrimony. On the way to the church, my hand on her arm, I felt her tensing up. It was the first time she’d visited a place like this since losing her faith. I’d never been anywhere like it before, not even as a child—the frigid piety of Catholicism stood in stark contrast to what we were about to see.

At the theatre’s entrance we were greeted by wide, earnest smiles and merchandise stalls. Churchgoers milled around by the Royal Shakespeare Company brochures and We Will Rock You posters. A popcorn machine stood dormant.

The audience was in darkness; the stage set up like a concert. Behind the band stood huge screens, grandiose images of nature and space. Beneath it all, a rousing, anthemic soundtrack of bass and strings. Almost everyone stood, but we remained sat, separate from those around us, together in our private isolation. I thought back to each cold and lonely childhood Mass and I reached for her hand. She squeezed back.

Audience members submitted their prayers by text or by email. When the preacher began to pray for them, for the sick and the dying, I at first bristled and then hardened. Anger and disgust rose inside me. He told the congregation of recent triumphs over illness: proof that their prayers had worked. They gave praise to Jesus.

As the service reached its climax, people who before seemed quite placid became frenzied. One man stood alone, four rows in front of us, and convulsed violently as the music reached a crescendo. Some people punched the air. Others wept.

We left around the time the preacher began the collections routine.

St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that, ‘the evils which bear us down here drive us to go to God.’

I wondered how many people in that church were driven there by injustice, pain, or loss. I wondered how many were welcomed by the Lord, had come to know him, had felt his love. I wondered how many had been guided to him, to his perfect light, and in it had found comfort and peace. And I wondered for how many faith was just a matter of habit.

***

Back on those concrete steps, I had tried my best to give her an answer.

‘I think it depends what you mean by God,’ I said. ‘If you mean a being or force that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving then no, I don’t believe in him. How could I? There is too much suffering, too much pain.’

***

In the hospital in which you lived for four months as an in-patient there was a multi-faith chapel. You must have walked past it fifty times or more, but never once went in. You saw plenty of other people going in and out, expressions ranging from stoic to anguished to lost.

Every visitor to that chapel had one thing in common: hope. People don’t go to church to pray if they’ve given up hope. Sometimes you envied them.

In the endless blackness of those nights on the ward you felt so utterly alone. When the pain tore through you with relentless fire, or when your blood pressure dropped and suddenly there were lights and noise and oxygen masks, you called out for help from someone, from anyone, but found no answer. A long, painful silence. And as the morphine fed on your dreams, there came no light: only darkness and a terrifying dread.

If there is a God, he wasn’t there for you.

***

My uncle died unexpectedly, inexplicably, a few days before his birthday. His death was a shock. I sat with my grandmother that night as she shook and she sobbed.

She had already bought him his birthday card.

In the torture of that moment all her years of faith fell from her. She looked me in the eye and asked, ‘How could there be a God? Why would he let this happen?’

I had no answer.




Getting Stuck in the Snow: an interview with Dan Rhodes

Dan Coxon talks to Dan Rhodes – author of Anthropology, Timoleon Vieta Come Home and This Is Life – about his latest novel, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, and the difficult decision to self-publish.

What was the immediate inspiration for When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow? What did you want to achieve with this book?

I miss Spitting Image. If it was still going they would definitely have a Richard Dawkins puppet, and every week I would be sending in lines for it – but with no Spitting Image I’ve had to take matters into my own hands. I’ve had ideas about writing about him for a long time, and when it was in the news that he’d gone apeshit on Amazon about some instructions for a DVD writer, I knew the time had come. There’s a lot of comedy to be found in people who are perpetually exasperated at the world around them – he’s a bit of a Basil Fawlty in that regard. Coupled with this was a trend for assaults on authorial freedom from people with access to petrifying lawyers. Scarlett Johansson, for instance, appears to have driven a French novel out of print because a character in it resembles her, which apparently damages her brand – as if her maximising her fees from Soda Stream and Moet adverts is in some way more important than authors being able to write fiction – that’s fiction, Scarlett – freely. I had the idea of assembling a protest anthology containing stories featuring clearly fictional versions of public figures, but in the end I decided it would be clearer and less bother just to write this book instead.

Dan Rhodes
Dan Rhodes

I’m sure you know that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Spitting Image. If they were to revive the show next week, who would you like to see them lampooning (apart from Richard Dawkins, obviously)?

There’s never going to be a shortage of horrifying public figures to make fun of. I’m sure they would get a lot of mileage out of Vince Cable for a start. Michael Gove would be an open goal.

For a comic novel, there are some pretty deep, philosophical discussions about the existence of God and the coexistence of science and religion in When The Professor… Why in particular did this interest you?

I’m not embedded in the argument. If I was, and I was trying to get a point across, I think the book would have suffered for it. If I ever tune into those debates they sound to me like the screeching of squabbling toddlers, and I don’t find myself with much option but to make fun of both sides.

You mention a number of celebrity authors during the course of the novel, from Martin Amis to A.C. Grayling. Have you met any of these in person? What has been your experience of these kinds of celebrity authors while on the book festival circuit?

I’ve not met Martin or A.C.. I tend to be at the tail end of these literary events. I always seem to end up among the aspiring novelists as they vomit into municipal shrubberies.

Why the decision to publish this one yourself?

I wanted to get it out fast, and publishers don’t do fast. Also, they are – to put it politely – cautious, and it’s unlikely they would have waved it through without demanding changes. I’m hoping, with this publication, to prove that it isn’t a legal minefield, and to partner up with a conventional publishing house for the paperback. Wish me luck with that.

How challenging have you found that?

Hmmm… You’d better ask me in a few weeks. So far it’s been pretty smooth. I’ve printed 400 first editions, which I’m signing and numbering, and they are trickling out nicely to independent bookshops.

You’ve said that this year marks your twentieth year working in the book trade. What lessons have you learned during that time that you’d like to pass along to our readers?

That nobody knows what makes a book catch on. I know I’m doing everything wrong, but I take comfort in the knowledge that there’s no right way of doing things.

Prof cover shrunk_2What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?

I just bought a stack of John Wyndham novels, which I’m looking forward to, I’m watching Dad’s Army and Blossom, and listening to Samson & Delilah by VV Brown. Part of my determination to get this book out – less than two months between finishing it and publishing it – is my continuing dismay at the delay of the MKS album. We should have been listening to that for months, but instead we’re growing old.

And what can we expect to see from you next? Do you have any unfulfilled projects you’d like to tackle?

Every time I finish a book I feel as if I’ll never be able to do anything every again. But so far something’s always reared up. Who knows?

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow is available now from select bookshops, or from Dan Rhodes’s website. It is also available as a Kindle ebook. Dan Rhodes has written eight other books and won a bunch of prizes, including the E.M. Forster Award. He lives in Derbyshire.




Dystopia: A New Religion for Fatherless Sons

Detail from 'City Heaped With Envy From Dantes Inferno' by Gustave Dore
Detail from ‘City Heaped With Envy From Dantes Inferno’ by Gustave Dore

My father not in heaven.

This is the first line of my new prayer. It begins and ends there, right where my father wakes up during the funeral service, falls out of his casket, coughs and stares at me.

It begins there because it didn’t end there like it should have.

My father is still alive. He died three years ago from stage four Lymphoma. It was awful—he really fought it though from heaven and back.

When he fell out of his coffin, I cried like life was crazy, hid under my chair and prayed—Please don’t let this be a dream.

It took one night for me to change that prayer—Please don’t let this be real.

I couldn’t decide what I wanted more, my father alive or my father back from the dead. They seemed like two very different things, because one is not the other. Because one entails a media circus, questions about life, people at your door, praying to you, asking for guidance—if maybe you couldn’t heal their foot or the cancer in their eye. One is a whole lot of Hell and the other is just something sad kids pray about.

The media was everywhere, along with people in droves. They swarmed my tiny house. A spotlight shined through my window in case my father might wake up and end world hunger by kissing my forehead goodnight.

The TV news slept out front. The sick and dying slept out back.

My father ate cereal and communed with God in the bathroom. I opened the door to see if it were real. The entire room was filled with water and fish. I stared into the ocean, into my bathroom, trying to eavesdrop and realized God wanted nothing to do with me—so I slammed the door. He wasn’t ready to talk to me yet.

And now he’s afraid to.

Outside, on my front lawn, they asked, Is it true? Are you the son of God?

No. You want my father. He’s not his son though.

What?

He’s not God’s son. He just met the guy, that’s all.

What about your mother?

She’s dead.

Is she coming back, too?

I don’t know and neither do you. No one does.

What about your father or God?

I’d ask them, but they’re swimming in the sea right now.

Holy shit, they’d say, and push pass me so they might talk with my all-knowing dad.

The truth was that my father didn’t know everything. He just knew the one thing  no one else did. He was the only guy, outside of the Bible, to ever come back from the dead.

Just my father.

And later me.

It’s the one question we all have in common—what is there after life? Everyone wants to know. Just like they did then. The people camped on my yard asked the same thing, wanted the same thing, needed the same—hallelujah. They wanted my dad to tell them they were right or that their pastors told the truth—that if they were good, they really would go to a place called heaven.

Excuse me kid, if your father doesn’t mind, do you think he could just explain what’s good, what’s bad, and more importantly, whether it matters at all?

Oh, and be sure to ask him, what’s after death? Get details.

Sure thing, sir, consider it done. I’ll make sure to ask my pops what happens if you follow every rule in every book about everything God.

Those people, those vagrant souls followed every move my father made. They wanted him to be their saviour—their peace and purpose in life.

But I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not now, that my father was the guy they really needed. He wasn’t the same. Death changed Dad—because, maybe, death was death, even if you woke back up.

***

When I asked my father about the afterlife, he smiled and told me that God wanted us to be his family and that we were in for some trouble.

That same night someone threw a torch on our roof, and someone else did too,  then another person threw something through my window. There was so much smoke that I thought for sure I wouldn’t have to ask about the afterlife ever again.

But when the smoke cleared and we were secured in a nice hotel with armed guards, I did—What’s waiting for me in death, Dad?

Nothing, he said.

What? I asked.

There’s nothing waiting for you. We’ll die alright, but our little family isn’t going to heaven. Not like the others. Not to stay.

I swallowed hard and stared at my father, realizing that I had been damned out of  blissed eternity.

I can’t go to heaven? I asked.

We’re God’s family for a reason, he said. You can see it, but never have it. It’s not for us, son, we have a job to do. A calling.

Dad?

He wants us to suffer like you can’t imagine, son. To show others how.

To show them? I asked, but in my mind, my dark, little mind, I already knew I wanted them to suffer, to burn right alongside me in a hellish pain of not knowing heaven.

We’re going to, too, said my father. We’re going to show the world what it means to suffer and still love someone so great.

He took me by the shoulders, looked at me with the biggest smile, and it burned me when he said, We’re going to tell them what we see, son, about the reward that’s waiting for them.

Maybe it was those particular words. Maybe not. But my father’s blind explanation of what laid ahead of me, the staggering weight of those words, crushed my soul and cast me down—it sent me to my knees.

But I wasn’t praying.

Kneeling there on the hotel floor, fists full of cheap carpet, a sense of hate washed over me, over my skin, now hot, now burning, now red with my annoyance.

And instead of comforting me, my dear old dad threw open the blinds, and told the crowd of people outside what he had told me—we were going to show them the way.

But I think I had a different idea of where to.

He lifted me to my feet, brought me to the window. I thought, he wants me to wave. He pulled out a 9mm, shot me point blank.

He did it to show the others how it worked, how we were to suffer, not them.

He did it to put a bullet through my skull to explain to the world how I would come back.

He did it to tell them how beautiful it was.

He did it for me to wake up and rejoice, to praise the other side and say, It’s as real as the grass underneath your feet, people. All you have to do is work for it.

But I didn’t say a thing.

I didn’t hear the bullets come through window, the ones from the government-issued rifles. I didn’t hear the screaming or the helicopters in the air. Not a thing. Not even my father’s bones splintering as he was taken down by sharp-shooters stationed across the street.

I was dead. Then I wasn’t.

I heard the gasps when we stood up, brushed the glass off ourselves. I heard my father say, This is what it means to be loved. I heard the people applaud. I watched their smiling faces, the happiness found in my healed head, in my father’s words—and I knew I wanted to take that away from them—so I decided to leave.

I decided to tell a different story from my father, to tell them what they always wanted to hear. Whether they knew it or not.

There’s nothing after this. You’re nothing. I’m nothing. My father is a liar.

Your father too.

Like the priest and shaman who told you never to swear.

***

It’s been three years since I’ve seen my father, since we’ve parted ways and I became the fatherless son of an entire people. I told them I was the truth-bearer, that the man who I once called my father was misguided, only wanted to give them something to believe in, and in doing so, caged them, causing misery and pain.

And I said, I’ll set you free.

Three years and I’m not sure what he looks like anymore. Three years and on TV they show him with a beard.

But I know that’s not him.

They’ve got him locked away. They’ve even taken one of his kidneys out to see what happens when it’s transplanted into someone who can really die.

They’ll probably try his heart next.

And who can blame them. No one believes him like they believe me.

He’s probably underneath the White House. Hell, I’m not sure I could even see him if I wanted to, but then again, they might let me because a whole lot of people  believe in me now.

So many I could tear the world apart.

Because I told them. There’s nothing there.

The sea in my bathroom? That’s something my sad misguided father had me tell reporters. He wanted to get what he could from all of you—for you. He wasn’t thinking.       My father’s awful like the ones who told you that you could be saved, the ones who said you would live in harmony, you would see your dog again, the ones who praised you, shamed you, told you not to have sex with him or her or them. Those men, the ones who said you were going to Hell because you were awful—it was them all along—they were the awful ones—not like me. I’m nothing like my father.

I tell them this and they believe. It’s what they always wanted to hear. That they’ve been scammed. I tell them what my father told me—there’s nothing waiting for you.

And it frees them.

To do whatever they want.

They believe. Because, like my father, I’m the only one who knows, the only one who’s waking back up.

And when I do, I tell everyone the same thing—nothing. It was nothing and it’ll be nothing for you.

The naked mashing bodies in front of me, the spilled blood, all of it rejoices and howls when I announce there’s no rules to live by, no God to abide by—there is only today.

Gunshots and screams. A celebration of my words.

Tears and flames. Loved ones thrown away.

Hoist me up on shoulders and I’ll tell just how black it’s going to be when you die. How scary the nothingness is that awaits you.

Let me be your guide.

And when the non-believers shoot me with their high-powered rifles from far away buildings, screaming, Damn him. He’s the devil. Don’t listen to that boy, I smile for a few moments in Hell, surrounded by my new believers who never seem surprised to see me, standing above them on my fiery mountain.




Novel: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

amityandsorrowI wasn’t at all sure what to expect of a book about a cult. I’ve seen a couple of films about cults and somehow there’s always a point of view tinged with pity, which renders the characters a bit stupid and ends up making me feel uncomfortable. Not so in Amity and Sorrow. Maybe it’s because, in a way, it’s not a book about a cult so much as a book about the after effects of life within one. When I think about Peggy Riley’s writing, the words that keep coming back to me are muscular and sinewy. The style of writing draws the reader in and places them right up close to the characters and the location. It’s almost more visual than a film, the deep red earth, fire, rain, visibly parched heat. Amity and Sorrow is a physical story.

Amaranth is the mother of two teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow. Down on her luck in her late teens, Amaranth marries Zachariah,  who was brought up in a polygamist cult. He promises her that he left the old way of life behind, yet over the years, he brings more “wives” home and finally Amaranth is one of 50. We first meet mother and daughters at the end of a four day non-stop car journey. Initially, it appears that the trouble that drove Amaranth away from the cult came from outside, in the form of the police and a fire, but the spectre of her husband, who may have followed them, is also there and it is because of him that Amaranth has driven so far without rest, that she falls asleep at the wheel of the car and crashes into a tree.

Bradley, a poor Oklahoma farmer, takes the three women in and slowly he and Amaranth develop a relationship of sorts. New possibilities open up for Amanranth and for Amity, the younger daughter, who develops an awkward child-adolescent relationship with Dust, a boy Bradley has more or less adopted. Only Sorrow remains determined not to look to the future. The only thing she wants is to go home, to her father, to her God.

Amity and Sorrow is the story a battle of wills between a mother and her two daughters as their allegiances change. It is the story of a mother who knows she has failed not only herself, but her children, and is struggling to do something about it. The backdrop is the fight to farm in an environment where nature does not want to be tamed, where it is dry and stubborn. Just like Sorrow.

Peggy Riley
Peggy Riley

Is it Sorrow’s inherent nature to be so uncommonly difficult or is the way she behaves more the result of what she has been through? She was brought up to be the cult’s oracle, she believes she has special powers and that she, therefore, is special. She has always treated Amity as if her younger sister is less than her. Will Amaranth be able to do anything to save Sorrow? Will she be able to stop her destroying Amity before she destroys herself? There is more to the situation than initially meets the eye.

What I like so much about the way Peggy Riley tells this story is the subtlety.

All the characters are flawed, but no-one represents good or evil, no-one represents a point of view. And the history of faith is all about point of view. Sorrow is a character who would try your patience to the limit if you met her off the page. Amaranth looks the other way at crucial moments, just as she must have done within the cult at times. Amity tries too hard to please and suffers for it.

I would be curious to see how European and American readers interpret this book. Cults are a more widespread phenomenon in the USA and so readers may respond to that element of the story differently. For me, rather than a book about “god, sex and farming”, which is how Peggy Riley describes it, I think Amity and Sorrow is about the body, nature and hope. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the book any less than if I’d found it to be about god, sex and farming. I suspect that it may actually mean the same thing, the meaning is just worded differently on the two opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Amity & Sorrow is out now from Tinder Press.



The Master and Margarita at the Barbican Theatre

Complicite performing Master and Margarita at the Barbican Theatre. Photo © Hugo Glendinning
Complicite performing Master and Margarita at the Barbican Theatre. © Hugo Glendinning.

As novels go, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita does not scream out to be adapted for theatre. Set partly in Stalinist Moscow and partly in Biblical Judea, it opens with the Devil (in the guise of “Professor” Woland; think “Roland” with a lisp) interrupting a discussion on atheism between a poet, Ivan, and the Chairman of MASSOLIT (the soviet party-line Arts whipping boys), named Berlioz. The Devil’s havoc is immediate. Berlioz is run over by a tram, Ivan is incarcerated in an asylum, and soon the Devil and his colourful retinue have taken up residence in Berlioz’s apartment and are preparing to put on a night of black magic at a Moscow theatre.

There is enough substance here for perhaps four separate plays, yet we have only really scratched the surface because what the book actually turns to focus on next is the man Ivan meets at the asylum. He is another writer, this time known simply as the Master, whose novel depicting the trial of Jesus was deemed too real and too sentimental for the atheist MASSOLIT. The Master however, has his muse: a striking woman, though married, called Margarita, who, having lost her love to the state, enters into a Faustian pact with the Devil. Woland agrees to reunite her with the Master so long as she helps him out by greeting all of the guests at the Satanic ball he is holding in Berlioz’s apartment. In the midst of Margarita’s games with the Devil, and the Master’s and Ivan’s attempts to make sense of their incarceration, we are regularly catapulted back nearly 2,000 years to the scene which got both of these writers into trouble: namely the trial of Yeshua (Jesus).

Confused yet? You should be. You have every right to be. To read, The Master and Margarita is a stunning yet at times bewildering novel. The very fact that it has ever been adapted for the stage is worthy of applause. That this adaptation at the Barbican Theatre covers not only every aforementioned scene but a whole host of other ones that have been skated over — in just three hours — is worthy of an ovation. That it may well be a triumph makes me go weak at the knees.

Richard Katz, Paul Rhys and Susan Lynch. Photo © Hugo Glendinning
Richard Katz, Paul Rhys & Susan Lynch. © Hugo Glendinning.

If any theatre company were to pull off this Master and Margarita coup it would be Complicite under the direction of Simon McBurney. Founded in 1983, Complicite have spent the last thirty years building a reputation for innovative and ground-breaking theatre and Simon McBurney describes Complicite rehearsals as involving “constant fooling around”, with an “immense amount of chaos”.  Their creative process is a constructive one, continually working on the project even up until the final night — in a manner not dissimilar to Mikhail Bulgakov himself, who continued to redraft his novel up until his death in 1940.  The most immediately striking aspect of their production is that, in a tale where the Devil treats the Muscovites to his black magic trickery, this is a performance of immense theatrical virtuosity.

Despite opening simply with a single line of chairs on an empty stage, Complicite soon demonstrate their ability: apartments, hospital wards, trams and Pilate’s court are all created with little more than four lines of white light and a chair. A single upright booth plays kiosk, tramcar, box office and the threshold of hell. When Ivan looks out of a window he simply lifts up the stick held by another character from out of the shadows. At one point all sixteen chairs are held aloft by the cast to provide the olive grove of Gethsemane, before being rocked loudly against the floor to introduce a running horse. Nothing is static. Scenes are convoluted into one another with the actors from the previous action holding together the newly located set.

But this is the straightforward stuff. More complex is Complicite’s use of video, which is regular and inventive and worthwhile. Clever camera work allows heads to be severed, Margarita to fly, and Yehuda (Judas) to hang. During Pilate’s deliberation the tension in his jaw is cast across the back curtain and at one point Berlioz’s head is projected onto a mannequin so the Devil can strike it in two with a meat cleaver. Street maps of Moscow are projected onto the stage and exited with a Google Earth-esque zoom. Judea is suggested through pillars, Russian crowds and street mobs look on from the back wall, bees swarm and buzz. Video trickery allows the Master and Margarita to fly across the back wall on a horse made from animated chairs. On the night of Woland’s black magic performance we, the audience, found ourselves emblazoned across the back curtain, with the actors standing looking out amongst us, goading us to look ourselves up and down in a sort of narcissistic reversal that felt like it went on far too long.

Sinead Matthews and Paul Rhys in The Master and Margarita by Complicite/Simon McBurney. Photo © Tristram Kenton
Sinead Matthews and Paul Rhys. © Tristram Kenton.

The actors themselves move in bizarre and convoluted ways: the Master limps; Woland struts; Azazello dances; Koroviev slithers; Behemoth, brought to life as a giant puppeted tom-cat lurches aggressively across the stage — he spits profanities with such histrionics as to suggest that the huddled puppeteers who direct him are themselves unsure as to who is in control. In contrast, Yeshua is emaciated and looks close to death even before he is crucified with three carefully placed bamboo canes. Pilate’s proud stance is checked by a wince that suggests a dull and nagging ache. Rather than deal out a series of creaking Russian accents, characters assume a variety of voices: members of MASSOLIT speak as if they are at a Rotary Club meeting in Halifax; Yeshua’s delivery has a Mexican lilt reminiscent of El Nombre (a Zorro-type character who teaches children how to add up); Woland picks up a childish sneer and never lets go of it; Behemoth assumes the persona of a hyper-aggressive wide boy; and for some unknown reason, Azazello is American.

To see all this written down it all begins to seem farcical. In many respects it is. Large sections of what happens on stage are ridiculous. The production is overblown. It is theatrical. Surely farce is intended. As an audience we are constantly being asked to question what, if indeed anything, is real about this performance. When the Master fusses outside Berlioz’s MASSOLIT office the receptionist’s patience blows and she tells him to walk on through because “there is nothing there”. Later when the Master and Margarita are back in the Master’s apartment, following Margarita’s pact with the devil, he argues with her for believing that the place they have been returned to even exists. “None of this is real,” he rages, at the moment when the actors who hold the set together in the shadows fall over, taking the chairs and thus the room with them. This is the Devil’s work, the Master is saying, it is theatre, it is light and camera and action. It is not real.

In the play’s opening scene Berlioz explains to the poet Ivan that the problem with his new poem — another revisiting of Pilate and the trial of Jesus — is that he has made the character of Jesus too believable. To the atheist MASSOLIT chairman, who believes in the Soviet ideals of man and his achievements alone, this is ridiculous. To quote Bulgakov’s original, Berlioz “wanted to prove to the poet that the main point was not whether Jesus had been good or bad, but that he had never existed as an individual, and that all stories about him were mere inventions.” For large portions of the Master and Margarita inventiveness is all. There is a great desire to show just what can be done on stage in front of an audience. But the same Devil that brings black magic trickery to the stage and projects videos of the audience onto the back curtain also brings the moment when the Master and Margarita meet in a crowded tram car, and the instance in which the sturdy Pilate is taken into the arms of the fragile Jesus. Finally, towards the plays end, after Behemoth has lurched off stage and the chairs have receded, when we are left with Ivan alone in the middle of the empty stage, with no video to complicate the image and no microphone to amplify his voice, he asks simply: “What comes next?” For some, the theatrical mastery of Complicite will be enough; for others, it may be too much. For me, it was the moments of sincere humanity that managed to stand out — those moments when the theatre stepped back and the tale spoke.

The Master and Margarita at the Barbican Theatre closed on 19 January. You can find more information on the theatre company Complicite  here.



The Uncanny Valley

(c) Todd Jordan

I have always been a good person. No saint, mind you, but I have led a good Christian life. As a biologist my career suffered for my scruples. I refused to become involved with the petty bickering and political manoeuvres which are so vital for success in academic life. I was happy to stay silent and do my part, small though it might be, in exploring the mysteries of God’s universe. These days, people don’t understand how one can be both a scientist and a Christian. These people know little of either discipline for the two are not so different. Both have strict rules, rules which cannot be broken but prove rewarding for those who have patience and faith. It seems so unfair then that both God and science should abandon me now, so late in a life spent in service of both.


It was my birthday and my son decided to make it special, not realising that birthdays are only special to the young, but odious to the aging and irrelevant to the aged. His wife made a sofa cushion with icing and candles on it. We sat around, watching the children watch television, saying stupid things like “Joseph is the spitting image of his grandfather.” This is just not true—he has the same eternally bored face as his mother.

The priest arrived then and said, “You never told me it was your birthday. Twenty-one again is it?”

We all laughed at that and put on some stupid party hats. When the doorbell rang my son volunteered to see who it was, saying, “Who on earth could that be?”

A delivery man wheeled in a large wooden crate and they all shouted, “Surprise!”

“That’s a cheap looking coffin,” I said.

After signing off on the delivery, my son used a hammer and screwdriver to pry open the crate and took out what looked like a large metal mannequin.

“You bought me a doll?”

“It’s a robot, Dad, to keep you company.”

The children started to rip packing foam out of the box and fling it around the kitchen like confetti.

“Haven’t you got any homes to be getting back to?” I said. They left me with the robot.


“Aren’t you lonely, Dad?” my son likes to ask me.

“No,” I tell him.

“Well, I’ll come and visit on the weekend.”

He says this like he is doing me a favour. To his mind I have nothing better to do than make small talk over tea with his bored wife, coo over his two children or reassure him that yes, I’m perfectly happy living on my own, and no, I wouldn’t be happier with people my own age.

I often say in a joking way, “Don’t you have any homes to be going to at all?”

Then they will leave and I’ll walk up the hill to evening mass. Sometimes I meet the priest outside, if it’s unavoidable, and he’ll say, “I might drop in for a spot of tea tomorrow, Mr Murphy, if it’s no bother?”


The robot was a good head shorter than me, a clever decision on the designer’s part.

The metal plating had a nice polished chrome finish so that when I looked down at its bald cranium, I could see the whole kitchen reflected back at me. The eyes were equally reflective, like the eyes of a fish, and the mouth was thin and expressionless. There was a large red button positioned on its upper left breast, a power button, and when I pressed it the eyes began to whir to life, blue and bright. The spine straightened up and it stood to attention like a butler.

“What’s your name, Robot?” I asked.

“I do not have a name.”

“I do not have a name, Sir.”

“I do not have a name, Sir,” it repeated.

Despite myself, I was impressed. It really seemed alive but of course, it was just very clever science.


At first, I admit, I found its presence unnerving. I would be sitting in the kitchen, happily absorbed in a newspaper, when my eyes would dart over to the stranger in the corner. My brain would tell me that there was an intruder, that this wasn’t right, that there shouldn’t be anyone there. I tried turning its power off but this made things worse. Now, instead of a stranger my eye found a corpse, with its head bowed forward and its heavy arms hanging down. I telephoned customer service to see if I could return it.

“Well, first off,” the young customer service agent informed me, “seeing as how each unit is customised to its owner’s specifications, Famitech Industries cannot accept returns, unless there was a problem in the manufacturing process.”

She then proceeded down through her script, telling me that I should give the unit a name, that I should get to know the unit, that the unit can be a carer or even a friend if you let it. I told her I didn’t need a carer or a friend. She said that everybody needs friends, even old people. Next she enquired whether I had a dishwasher. She suggested that I think of the robot just like any other household appliance.

“Give the unit some jobs around the house,” she said. “You will be amazed at the things it can do.”


I now had a very expensive, walking, talking dishwasher. The girl was right in her way; I did find it easier living with it, now that it wasn’t just standing in the corner staring at me. I could read my paper in peace and I actually found it quite comforting, listening to the water gushing and the plates clattering. It gave the illusion that there was someone else in the house with me, but someone I didn’t have to interact with, except to say, “Robot, wash the dishes,” which it seemed happy to do. After tea I would just push the power button on its chest and it would slump forward, dead to the world. Then I would walk up the hill to evening mass.


One such evening, as I was reading the Irish Times, I found that I could not lift my cup of tea. My arm was numb and when I tried to stand up, I fell off my chair, conking my head off the tiles of the floor and sending bits of cup flying across the room. I managed to squirm onto my back using my left arm and I looked up at the ceiling. I tried to say something, I’m not sure what. “Help” probably or maybe I just cursed. I became aware of the busy sound of the dishes in the sink and my eye caught the wooden carving of the virgin and child, which had been hanging on the wall over the kitchen table for years. I remember thinking to myself that this was a very peaceful way to go, and I hoped it would be a very long time before anyone came to find me. That my body would just stay here forever, with the virgin mother watching over it and the robot washing the dishes.


I woke up in hospital surrounded by a strange array of expressions: the concerned face of my son, the empty stare of my daughter-in-law, and the bright eyes of my dishwasher. They told me that I had had a stroke, that the robot had called emergency services and that I was lucky to survive. I was so happy—I feel stupid about this now—I wanted them all to come over so I could thank them or at least squeeze their hands, even the robot. Looking back it seems pathetic. The simple rushing emotions of a weak body which manages to keep sucking air for a little longer.

My speech was slightly impaired but conversation being an art I rarely practised, this did not bother me very much. The biggest hindrance to my life after the stroke was mobility. I am not the kind of man who was ever meant to be in a wheelchair. I have always enjoyed being active, going for walks in the park, walking to the shops for my paper or walking up to mass. I was now confined to the house. The paper and groceries were delivered by my son and the priest would drop in now and again, but this was no substitute. I don’t go to mass to see the priest. I don’t go to mass to gossip with the other parishioners. Mass is not about ego and posturing and superficialities. It is about stripping all that dross away and feeling those common currents, which flow from God to man, and from man to fellow man. I spent long days curling rosary beads around my fingers, staring at the carving on my kitchen wall and being drawn into its etchings. The virgin seemed sweet and loving, unafraid, uncorrupted, rejoicing in her human child. Yet the face of the baby was imbued with the divine, full of knowledge and mystery, and it seemed to him as natural as instinct. How could this Jesus of the manger become the lonely body withered on the cross?

I could not resolve these two Gods as one. If they exist at all, they exist as one, but I could not and cannot comprehend this.


Gradually, my strength returned and I was glad to return to orthodoxy and the evening service. I was still in a wheelchair so I could not make the journey up the hill on my own. My son kindly volunteered for this duty but neither of us found the experience enjoyable. He fidgeted in his suit during the service, he mumbled through his prayers and he didn’t know when to sit or when to kneel. I found it very distracting. We suffered through this arrangement for a few weeks, until such time as he was seen to fulfil his filial obligations and I wouldn’t seem too ungrateful. After that, I insisted that the robot could accompany me to mass. He had already saved my life, I said, let’s find out what he can do for my soul.

The other parishioners were amazed by this new addition to the congregation. They all came over for a peek and said things like, “Sure, isn’t technology a marvellous thing?” and “Who could have imagined a robot in our parish?” The priest walked up to me and said he was glad I was looking well and wasn’t it the grace of God. I asked him to please excuse my unusual friend, that he was a protestant and wouldn’t be taking part in Holy Communion. With all of the pleasantries out of the way, the service started and the parishioners soon forgot about the heretic in the aisles, who didn’t kneel or bow or pray, but just watched over me, making soft mechanical sounds with his eyes.


The idea of a dishwasher going to mass every evening is a little too much for a rational mind to bear, and so I began to expand the duties assigned to the robot. He was a fast learner. I would show him what he needed to do, and he would just focus in with those blue eyes whirring furiously, copying it all onto some hidden hard drive. He hoovered the floors, he scrubbed the windows, he ironed my clothes and he helped me to prepare dinner. Once or twice, I even asked him to read to me as I ate. He could handle the Irish Times quite well, but when I gave him Shakespeare to read the flat tone of his voice just made it seem ridiculous and I had to ask him to stop.


Finally, after months of physiotherapy appointments, I was back on my own two feet, albeit with the aid of a walking stick. I made my slow rounds of the house, checking that every plug was out and every light turned off. The robot was ironing my shirt.

“You can stop now, Robot,” I told him. I put on my shirt and was about to put him to sleep—I had my finger on the button—but then I decided against it. “I’m going to mass,” I said.

He watched me as I turned off the lights. The room became blue in the darkness.


It was my first time walking to mass on my own in almost a year so I returned to the house exhausted. As I hobbled up the driveway I could see the dull blue of the kitchen through the curtains. I opened the door and walked down the hall to the kitchen door. He wasn’t at the ironing board where I’d left him, or at the sink, but I could hear his joints and his eyes moving.

I found him kneeling at the kitchen table, staring up at the image of the infant Jesus and the mother Mary. His eyes were like torches beneath them, bathing them in blue light: the virgin looked cold, the child looked terrified. When he stood up he seemed to stare at them even more closely, his eyes buzzing, recording, copying. I didn’t say anything but he heard my walking stick on the tiles and turned to look at me, waiting patiently.

I grabbed the iron from the board and began to strike down on his upturned face. At first my blows did nothing, but then a small dent appeared, then another and another, until they began to form a crater beneath the point of the iron. He did not scream, ask me to stop or make a sound of any kind. It was all very rhythmical and calm.

I am a blacksmith beating a kink out of metal, I thought.

The head was bent at an unnatural angle from the body. There was a final crack, a spark and it went spinning across the floor.

I should make a cup of tea and go to bed, I thought.

Instead, I watched his eyes fade beneath the sink, the last quiet gasp for the light coming in, the small faint glow of the light gazing out.