Living In Sin
(Entry for Hour of Writes “Living in Sin” competition)
The sun shone down on the Cotswold village of Chadthorp Wassup, filtering through sycamore leaves, casting globules of light onto the flanks of sandstone cottages. Some of these light globules oozed amoeba-like around the tower of the parish church which was playing host to an Exhibition of Art.
James and Maddy drew up in their Bullnose Morris, and walked through the lychgate and along the path still strewn with mid-summer snow from a wedding the previous day, their little spaniel sniffing around the memorial stones.
Maddy was fond of conceptual art, something which had ignited several tepid domestic rows of a purely aesthetic nature in their unconsecrated middle-aged relationship. James enjoyed railing against the excesses of “art council funded rubbish” - partly because he knew it aggravated his other half.
“So there's this guy who has recorded a thousand voices of the general public onto a memory stick, sealed it in concrete and had it sent into orbit round the moon with an EU grant...And just what good does that do us? The world is heating up, the economy is broken, the rich 1% are going to leave us to fry while they go to live in a biosphere on Mars...and some precious resources are squandered on a half-witted art project...”
“...and you're about to die and there ain't nobody to bury you. Don't let it bother you, hun,” joked Maddy, quoting one of their favourite Fats Wallerisms.
James noted the well organised graveyard, the oblong stones stacked in irregular rows, an ancient catalogue of forgotten novels.
“No space here, anyway.”
Inside the church, they encountered the ubiquitous grey, loaf-haired woman on the door welcoming them in and with self-conscious humour and urging them to look at her water-colours. Inevitably, they depicted thatched cottages and pastoral scenes, vague washes of colour meandering around hesitant lines of ink. Elsewhere in the ecclesiastical galleries were to be found the usual landscapes, clumsy oil-paintings of dogs and cats, fragile sketches of savage Cornish coastlines and well-executed but unoriginal abstract sculptures.
The situation was redeemed by the wholesome aroma of coffee and a table loaded high with traditional scones and cakes. Less than ten minutes after entering, they had joined a chatting throng devouring Victoria Sponge and slurping some well percolated African Breakfast Blend from generous mugs. Maddy picked up a leaflet from the table urging them to Vote Brexit on June 23rd. She wondered why anyone in this wealth-soaked village would care abut the result of the European Union referendum.
“In or out?” She mused. Then her thought-train revisited a scene from a horror film she had seen some years ago. “Entrails in or entrails out?” said Anthony Hopkins as he was about to hang a detective from a hotel window with a telegraph wire. “I think out!” And the fear-paralysed man was dropped from the window with his large colon dangling incontinently beneath him to the horror of a crowd below, pain, terror and humiliations fused in the death-moment.
Then the phrase “in or out” took her towards the sexual realm, a place she visited with increasing desperation as her lover's ability and interest in it waned. In truth, he had always been flippant about sex. “It's so predictable...same old, same old...why can't we transfer our life-fluids by pressing our ears together? Or have babies come budding out of our knee-caps? Or hide pods of celebrity sperm in a forest and send naked women to search for them...”
They had lived in sin for twenty-two years, and yet she had never felt sinful, sinned against or sinning. Their sexual encounters had all the intensity of the pale watercolours hung before them. It was the lack of sin in her life that was sinful. Increasingly, she felt she was sinning against life.
“In or out, what does it matter to the likes of us?” he said.
“It does matter, it matters a great deal.”
“It doesn't. It won't make any difference to 99% of us. We're like a starved, ribbed old donkey stuck between two hay-stacks which are both on fire. I'd better take the dog out for a little walk. I'll leave you to enjoy the art.”
James didn't get far. He was already feeling tired, as he often did when church-going with his woman. There was something about the vaulting ceilings and kaleidoscopic windows that made him feel that life was making some unbearable demand on him that neither his mind or body could cope with. He went to lie down behind a deep-rooted ewe tree and let the dog wander around the graves. He slept. He dreamed.
He had paid a lot of money to take his father to a special dementia-friendly film-show. They were lying down on a deep,wine-red, funereal carpet, waiting for a silent Buster Keaton film to be shown before them. Young waitresses were coming round with plates of canapes. The young waitresses passed them by.
“Don't pass us by just because we're...”
“Old and past it? Don't worry, they will soon come back,” said an attractively gone-to-seed woman lying next to him.
“I do not think they will sing to us,” said his father, who had once been a professor of poetry before his mind crumbled to flesh, fur and faeces.
“Middle-class bitch,” he said to himself, articulating visceral dream-thoughts he would never dream of uttering in the waking realm. The film started. There were no hose pipes ejaculating over prancing Edwardians or gyrating planks wheeling into heads. Instead, the film depicted different varieties of fungi, clinging to logs and stumps in a fertile forest mulch.
“Very interesting,” said his father. “Look – bracket fungus. And another one.”
The woman next to him lit up a cigarette and rolled onto her back, exhaling her smoke in one long, sensual breath. She couldn't be all that bad if she was prepared to smoke in a cinema.
“That's where it all begins,” she said, indicating a gross mycological phallus rearing up from the forest floor. He began to warm to her. Safe in the dream realm he could become hard and sinful.
“Look – bracket fungus,” said his father. “And another one.”
He awoke to see his dog now standing next to him, expectant for a wider excursion. Waking thoughts flooded in with sunlight on the church wall.
“Strange, this idea of original sin...if God created all this natural world then he made it to be driven by sex. There's no other way to get evolution on the road. If he stuck with asexual micro-organisms, he'd have to settle for amoeba-consciousness and hydra-consciousness, which would be alright but not very poetic.
“So we must have Sex...the ewe tree and the apple tree and the beasts of the field, they are all living in this deathly realm of Sin. And then we have human consciousness, arising like a (fungus) from a tree stump, producing tepid imitations of life before falling back into the generalised mulch. Perhaps our great original sin is our inability to sin whole-heartedly.
“But it seems some brilliant Conceptual Artist has filled this field with thin, stone monoliths, each one a separate work by a forgotten individual but signed in elegant copper-plate inscriptions.
“I wonder why spaniels always look like they are smiling?”
As she does every morning, Alison stands on tiptoe to catch a last glimpse of her daughter, before turning away. And, as happens every morning, she is left with a wide circle of space around her, as the other parents remain at a distance. When she’s feeling courageous and indignant, Alison smiles at this and congratulates herself for not being caught up in the scrum of elbows the other parents have to endure. At other times, with the anxiety blooming and the feeling that Sarah’s lateness will add more fuel to the judgmental stares, she wants to cry.
Of course, she doesn’t. If there’s one thing worse than being seen as a bad mother, it’s being portrayed as the feminine dyke of the family. Jay, with her close-cropped hair and athletic build, is always typecast as the butch one. Alison is always seen as the mummy, and the femme. It’s inevitable that lesbians get separated like this, but Alison is aware enough to try and not perpetuate the stereotypes by conforming to them further.
As the children are all inside, Alison turns and makes her way to through the playground. She has around forty minutes left before she has to start a twelve-hour shift in A&E, sifting through real and imagined injuries, diseases and fractures. Jay will have to pick Sarah up, and Alison feels her stomach unclench a little knowing she won’t have to face the mothers later. She almost smiles at this, realising that a patient rushed in with a gunshot wound would be easier to face than the school drop-off.
As parents turn away from her, Alison loses her smile. I’m like Moses parting the ocean, she thinks to herself. Only without the miracles. When they first adopted Sarah, Alison had been friendly and smiled to all the other parents, and they had reciprocated. Gradually though, the smiles had dropped away. A few mornings when Alison had been working early and Jay had done the crop had made sure of that. In a village school like this, it only takes a scent of difference to send the mothers running in the opposite direction.
Walking through the school gate, Alison smiles thinking about her wife. Jay’s passion, humour and affection for Sarah brings each morning a different perspective on life, shaking Alison’s normally staid outlook with a generally nicer way of thinking. Completely undeterred by prejudice, Jay’s zest for life eclipses and sense of discomfort about being the only gay parents in the school, bringing Sarah an unswerving sense of self that they’re careful to encourage. While Sarah may be too young to notice that she gets fewer invitations to group parties than her peers, Alison is nervous of the future, when parental prejudice may influence Alison’s friends to drop her, to avoid pressure.
Thinking about Jay, Alison is suddenly shocked in to the moment as everything seems to happen at once. Ahead of her, a car swerves to avoid a toddler on a bike in the middle of the crossing. The car hits another vehicle approaching in the opposite direction, which spins and clips the bike. The toddler is tossed up from the impact like a rag doll, and everything becomes hyper-loud, with screams, the scent of hot rubber, shouting and running footsteps colliding together.
Without thinking, Alison slips in to professional mode and assesses the scene quickly. The two drivers are unharmed, so she runs to the side of the toddler now lying inert in the middle of the crossing, and drops her handbag to feel for a pulse. Carefully she moves gentle rapid hands to check for fractures, injuries or bleeds. She bends her head low and listens for the steady huff of breath from the little girl’s mouth, and her teeth clench when she can’t locate it.
She’s vaguely aware of other people crowding, shouting and crying, and as always when she’s working she phases the noise out to focus. She tilts the little girl’s neck and supports it with one hand, parting the tiny lips to give mouth to mouth. The reassuring normality of the routine, the counting in, breathing out, puts Alison in to a zone removed from everything around her. She is vaguely aware of the toddler’s mother by her side, before she starts chest compressions. Push, push, push, push, thirty times, pause, and then blow. In, count, out. In, count out. She can see the child’s chest rise and fall in her peripheral vision. And then, thank God, the chest begins to move unaided.
“Please, please help her, Alison?” the mother is crying, and Alison sits up, and looks at her. With a slight shock, she realises that it’s Mrs. Pearce, the Head of Sarah’s school. She pats her arm distractedly, and asks the group if anyone has called an ambulance.
“I think she’s going to be OK, Mrs. Pearce,” Alison says, and accepts the blanket one parent pushes in to her hand, settling the child in to the recovery position and covering her, then checking again to make sure she is still breathing unaided, with a strong pulse.
“It’s Sally. Sally Pearce,” the Head says, and then looks down, avoiding Alison’s gaze. Alison nods, and then a sickening thought occurs to her. God, what if they’re all panicking that I’ve passed on some hideous lesbian disease? They all imagine dykes are HIV positive, don’t they? She steps back and away from the child as if she’s been slapped, but can’t escape because Sally’s hand is grasping Alison’s wrist and pulling at her.
“Alison, thank you. Thank you. And…” Sally hesitates, her eyes flicking back and forth between her little girl’s inert form, and Alison’s face. “I’m desperately sorry.”
Alison feels frozen in surprise, and then nods again, patting the Head’s shoulder awkwardly. The shrill siren of the ambulance draws nearer, drowning out the sound of the other parents huddled around the child. Alison stands up, and Sally stands with her, tears streaking her usually pristine face. She pulls Alison in to a hug and they stand for a moment in the centre of the crossing, before Alison breaks away and steps back to the pavement to give the paramedics space.
When Sally and her daughter are safely strapped in to the ambulance and the paramedics pull away. Alison feels the effects of adrenalin making her limbs shake and her eyes blur with tears.
Picking up her bag, she dusts herself down and is starting to escape the group of parents, when the first few start to clap. She turns, confused, and finds herself at the centre of them, cheering, shaking her hand and clapping. She feels torn between feeling grateful for the acknowledgement, and resentful that it took saving a life to be accepted. And then she thinks of Sarah, and smiles her thanks.
On the way back home, her mind buzzing with a thousand different impressions and emotions, Alison allows herself to smile again. She smiles for the fact that things may be very different for her family, now. She smiles because sometimes, the prejudice afforded those who ‘live in sin’ or buck the moral trend can be erased by one good deed. Most of all, she smiles because the little girl will survive, and her own daughter will have a new place in this tight-knit, closed community which still has a lot to learn.
Do you ever wonder how you got here, or where the time goes? And I’m not talking about: Wow, I’m forty with three kids, what happened to my dreams? Literally where am I? And what time is it?
I was at work. Or maybe home? But wherever I was, it definitely isn’t where I am now. This is a cold, sterile room. It feels distinctly like a doctor’s office. The room is neutral, the colours are uninspiring, the carpeting and furniture are just adequate. Everything within the room is trying to avoid attention. Imagine a room full of introverts that have been told one of them has to speak.
The pseudo office is scattered with a handful of people. And the infirmary vibe continues, because these people look unwell. Mostly just old. A shivering grey old man sits across and to my left. An old woman sits quietly in slippers and a pink, fraying robe. The only difference in the room, apart from myself, is a young man. He sits hunching over himself with eyes on the floor. One of the oldies bursts forth with a guttural cough, which causes him to lift his head. That’s when I see it. A great purple bruise across his neck, and the whites of his eyes have filled to the brim with red. I want to scour his face for further details but somebody calls my name from the only exit out of the room. Without a better option or a clue, I walk towards the voice.
The light from the foyer is fading behind me.
“Samuel Jacobs, we are ready for you now”
I’m walking into black and now there is nothing behind me. The lights are gone. The old folk and the young man are no longer in sight and sound. The only way is towards the voice. I’m walking blind. Lights suddenly engulf me, and instead of blind in the dark, I’m blinded by light. My hand goes up in front of my eyes. Behind that and my squint the voice starts again
“Hello Samuel, how are you?”
“Where am I?”
“Let’s take a look at your file here”
I manage to take my hand down and reduce my squint. This room is different but more clinical. It’s more like an operating theatre, except it is devoid of finishing’s.
“Samuel Jacobs that’s you, right?”
“Born on the 17th January 1985?”
Between the light, and this man with his banal questions my compass is spinning like mad. He ends the conversation with an “Ok Good. I just want to make sure I have the right file here.”
This man is almost too bright to look at. I can only handle a few seconds of looking at him before it hurts too much. So I look at my feet instead. None of this seems to make sense. The most pointless question springs to the forefront of my mind and I blurt it out.
“Where are my shoes?”
“My shoes, where are they?”
“Oh you don’t need shoes.”
The man happily hums to himself as if that is a sufficient answer. Without looking at him I glimpse the little brown folder he is flipping through. He’s turning over pages and making little clicking noises with his tongue. It’s that sound people make when you are on the phone and they are just trying to fill the dead air. The 'I’m looking it up in the system, so I’m making this noise to make sure you know I’m looking and not just sitting idly.' This is ridiculous, enough is enough.
“Excuse me sir, can you please explain a few things to me”
“Like why I don’t need my shoes, and where am I?”
He puts down his folder and looks me up and down. I’m looking at him through squints so I can’t exactly see the whole movement but his eyes are definitely crawling all over me. He lets out a big sigh.
“You don’t need your shoes because you are dead. Well you aren’t really dead but I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s the easiest way to explain. Your mind is too infantile yet to understand”
“But I’m 31”
“You are infantile to the infinite.”
“Wait, how I am dead?”
“Look all those questions will be answered in due course. What’s important right now is getting you sorted into the right place.”
He doesn’t wait for my response and snaps open the file again. I can only part open and close my mouth as I try to fathom the gravity of the situation. This can’t be real, this has to be a dream. The bright man upgrades his clicks into reading aloud: “Didn’t murder anybody, that’s a tick” he mutters to himself.
There is no reason for me to stand here and believe this glowing light bulb. He can’t just fob me off then start making judgements on me. And on murder, it’s insulting. I turn on my heels but after a 180 spin, the glowing of the man is still in front of me. I’m turning and turning and every direction there is always his incessant incandescence. I’m determined to do something so I try to meet his eyes but instead I receive third degree burning into the back of my skull. My hands instinctively cover my face. Perhaps for pity, watching me rotate on the spot with hands clasped on my face, he starts talking again.
“I’m tallying up all your sins to see if you passed.”
“Passed the test that was your human existence. To see if you are worthy of ascending into eternal bliss…Heaven.”
“Now would you mind, I have to concentrate”
Now I'm taking stock of my whole life. I was always a pretty good person. I just lived my life, never hurt anyone. Sure I let a few people down along the way but I tried to make it right. With my friends and my family. My mom, my dad, I honoured them, I cherished them. I just went to work and came home and watched the telly most nights. How can there be sins in that. Of course, I wasn’t out there feeding the poor or volunteering but neither does 99% of the population. I’d go to church, or at least I tried to, on the big days. The Easters and Christmas.
Before I can finish my fretting, I hear the file softly close.
“Well, Samuel there is a lot of good in here. Not greatness, but goodness. You didn’t rape, murder, or maim any of your fellow man. You seem to have lived in such a way that you treat most people with a just kindness.”
A small smile creeps forward as the compliments flow over me. Not a murderer, and kind of nice. This is looking good for me.
Oh god, a ‘but’, there is always a ‘but’. My smile quickly morphs into a nervous pout.
“…there is the downside. You haven’t been to church in two years, you haven’t prayed, you are unmarried yet have had many women lay in your bed. You have cursed a great deal and taken Gods name in vain. Just five seconds ago you thought it. As with all humanity you have at times been selfish, vain, and greedy.”
Well this is it for me, the eternal hell fire awaits. 31 years in exchange for a lifetime of hell. Doesn’t really seem fair but what do I know?
Oh thank God. I mean goodness, thank goodness. A blessed ‘however’, surely this means we are back to the good stuff. The good with a ‘but’ to the bad and a ‘however’ back to the good.
“…this was very close to call. You have lived well at times, and sinful at times. You have held a strong faith, yet also neglected the faith over the journey. It remains unseen as to whether if the years wore on you would have improved your resume. Your humanity is so borderline it has come down to one single moment. One action that has tipped the scales for your eternity.”
This is unbearable. It’s lucky I’m already dead, because my heart just failed. After a long pause the glowing man speaks.
“Do you remember Friday, April 10th, 2010?”
“Not specifically, no.”
“You ate a chicken sandwich.”
“That was Good Friday. And as you know, all meat except fish is prohibited on this day. So, I’m sorry.”
All I can do is to stammer out half of ‘But’, before the floor underneath me opens up. The rush of the fall engulfs my body. Adrenaline spits through my veins. Confusions coarse in my head. The light above is disappearing from view. I’m tumbling down from who knows where and for who knows how long.
So this is me. Riding a chicken sandwich. Straight to hell.