As a writer, I find it absorbing to investigate the grey areas of life; to look at the human condition and to subject it to stresses that impinge on ethical and moral dilemmas. Religious belief informs the behaviour of many people today and I think it is legitimate to explore how this can make life more complicated.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I am working on a novel in which the main male character is a Christian. There are many novelists who write overtly Christian stories, but I like to look at things another way – from the other side, as it were. There are people of faith all around us, in the world that is the novelist’s seed bed. They may be Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, even atheist. Perhaps it is time, in a decade of increasing scepticism and even lampooning of Christianity, to look seriously at secular fiction that traverses events and relationships through the prism of Christianity. I’m reminded of the rock singer Alice Cooper (above) who said: “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s real rebellion.”
This reminds me of a short story I wrote some time ago. Here it is if you’ve time to waste!
The tail end of his ear, tuned finely to the dark streets, caught the faintest clink. Instinct took him striding to the corner, bellowing as he went:
“Willy Mac! put that down right now!”
“God, Rev! Ye scared me!”
Three doors down, a small bent figure had frozen on a step, an empty milk bottle dangling from one hand. The shadowed gloom, unaffected by the dim street lighting, hid the grubbiness of the face, and the miserable inadequacy of the tattered jumper and battle-scarred jeans. But somehow, two live sparks glowed out of eyes turned towards the Rev Kenneth Jones as he bore down upon the boy.
“Willy Mac, I told you two nights ago to stop pinching milk bottles.“
“But Rev, it’s for me ma. She’s not well. She’s got these flowers and has nothin’ to put them in. It’s for her, honest.“
The minister winced. For the past year the hard Belfast speech had provoked depression in his Tyrone heart. He yearned for the vowels of the Strule and his faithful heart had asked forgiveness for it every night since he had been sent, protesting, to Belfast.
“Come on, Willy. That’s the tallest one yet! Who’d be sending your mother flowers? Your dad’s not likely to be from where he is. Not that he did before he was lifted either.“
Indignation spread over the freckles which, upturned, shone valiantly through the gloom and the grime.
“I bought them for her meself, Rev! By G…“
“Stop, Willy,“ The Rev Ken ordered hastily. His hand had gone to cover the boy’s mouth, but had stopped rather short as the faint light had picked out a shiny gleam from the nose. He redirected his hand to his pocket.
“Here. Put the bottle back. Take this and buy your mother a wee jug in the morning.“
The bottle was set carefully down, the coin accepted.
“Thanks, Rev, I’ll get her a lovely one. Jes …! Promise I will, right enough.“
The small figure turned and disappeared, shredded trainers silent as snow.
Depression settled more heavily on the youthful shoulders of Kenneth Jones as he trudged home through the streets he heartily disliked. Willy Mac was the grand old age of ten, but he could buy and sell his granny three times over before breakfast.
At the door of the empty manse he paused and looked up at the stars. It wasn’t the wasted pound that depressed him – although he could ill afford it. It was the wasted lives. The countless streetwise Willy Macs whom he met every day since coming here, spewed out onto the street as soon as they could walk. There they stayed, wits sharpened more speedily than any teacher would have dreamed.
And they scared the man – scared him because neither in training nor in upbringing could he find any point of contact, any rapport, anything which would enable him to walk amongst them and love them.
As he cleaned his teeth and climbed into his cold bed, it crossed his mind that he and Willy had one thing in common. For neither of them was there anyone to care whether they went to bed or not. He plumped his pillow with unnecessary force and was a long time drifting into sleep. All the wasted lives pattered through his brain in a relentless tide. He fought against seeing his own in their company.
He next saw Willy Mac a week later in Great Victoria Street. The lad was the king pin of a group of three. As they came towards him the young minister was amused to see the swagger in the stride, the jutting chin, the bold stare, the corporate consciousness of pack status in the group. Willy had the grace to palm the cigarette and put his hand behind his back.
“Watch you don’t burn your hand, Willy.“
The Rev Ken nodded briefly to Willy’s two companions. He had never seen them before and distrusted them at once. “Na.“
The Rev Ken walked on. He was surprised to see Willy at his elbow still. The other two were waiting for him.
“Me ma’s still not well.“
“Sorry to hear it, Willy. If she drank a bit less she might feel better.“
Knowing Willy was going the other way, the minister stopped and looked down at him. His last comment echoed flippant and callous across the boy’s face. Nearly two feet in height separated the tops of their heads. The roar of the traffic made it difficult to hear. Willy glanced back at his companions. They were whistling impatiently, hands in pockets. One was dribbling a Coke can.
“Don’t think it’s that this time.“
The Rev Ken was late for a meeting. And he still had a sermon to write for Sunday.
“Oh? What is it then?“
The boy looked up at him for a full half minute. The minister stared back. Discomfort began to creep up the back of his neck. Then Willy screwed up his nose and wrinkled his mouth.
“Doesn’t matter. See ya.“
He ran off to the others who were now loudly jeering at him for standing talking to minister in the street. The man looked after him.
“Did you buy a jug that time?“ he called. Above the din of the street he never knew if Willy answered.
That night in his study, Kenneth Jones put down his pen, aware of an inexplicable and growing restlessness. His meeting had gone well. He knew he had made a good impression on his superiors. He got up from the heavy oak desk and stretched luxuriously. It didn’t help.
He padded across the dark hall to the kitchen and put the kettle on. Yes, the afternoon had gone well and this evening his sermon was going well. He would mount the pulpit steps with confidence this Sunday.
As he waited for the kettle to boil, he dared to form the hope that he would soon be transferred from here, from these streets where he felt so foreign, so useless.
His fist had smashed into the cupboard door before he knew he’d moved. He didn’t feel the pain because it was nothing to what he felt inside. He couldn’t explain it to himself. He just knew that a wee street brat like Willy Mac was baring the soul of the Reverend Kenneth Jones, and was finding it abysmally lacking.
He went to bed that night unable even to pray. Out of the sleepless dark there seemed to come creeping over him an awareness of loneliness more poignant than ever before. Slithering from the shadows too came a realisation of affinity with Willy Mac, an unholy alliance of despair and waste.
He slept fitfully, and dreamed of standing before a Great White Throne and wanting to hide and finding no refuge and no peace and no answers.
Next morning he went to see Willy Mac. As he approached the green painted door – the sixth one on the left past the corner shop – he saw several people standing round it. The door was open.
They parted readily to let him through, muttering to him quietly. A woman was coming down the stairs. She met him in the narrow hallway and took his hand.
“See what you can do with him, Reverend Jones. He’s all cut up.”
He didn’t remember climbing the stairs. It was only later he recalled the dead flowers in the cheap jug on the bedside table. The body was already laid out on the bed. Death had not completely erased the lines of suffering, and the sheet only accentuated the emaciation beneath.
What drew his eyes was the small figure on a chair in the corner, curled in a tight defensive ball. The tattered jumper and battle-scarred jeans were visible. The runny nose, the stubbly hair, the defiant freckles, were hidden in two stiff unyielding arms.
The Rev Ken swiftly crossed the room and sank to his knees by the chair. The boy was not crying. He was simply frozen. The minister put a shaking hand on Willy’s protruding foot. “Willy? I’m sorry. I didn’t know … I didn’t realise…“
The boy did not move. The man’s ministerial training lay in shreds around him. He simply didn’t know how to handle this. His own desperate inadequacy settled on him like another shroud. He had a powerful desire to run, to say that this was nothing to do with him. It’s all been a big mistake. All of it.
He put his head down on the edge of the chair. Slowly, words spread across his brain. Words he’d heard somewhere before. Words wrapping themselves round his pain and humiliation:
“If you want to help humanity, you’ve got to learn to cry for it first.“
Slowly at first, and then in great shuddering sobs, he wept at the feet of Willy Mac. He cried for all of them, even the ones it was impossible to like. From the depths of his soul he wept over the city and its blighted children, the children who grew up on the streets and never knew what childhood was.
In one swift movement, Willy slipped down into his arms. The door was closed. In the privacy of his mother’s bedroom he allowed himself to become a small frightened boy. Here there was no-one to see or to jeer if he let his heart break in the arms of someone who, somehow, seemed to care.