THE GENTLE FRIEND

15 Sep

Bernard turned away from the looking-glass in Hell with tears in his dead eyes. The image of his teenage self being hugged by his mother faded.
“That’s the only time I ever remembered,” he whispered.
“Of being shown affection? Of being loved?” asked Satan with a frown on his ruddy face.
Bernard nodded. “She was quick to hurt me,” he said thoughtfully. “She wanted to save me from sin and if the only way to do that was through punishment, then punish me she would. Even when I was big enough to defend myself from her quite easily I didn’t dare. I knew it was for my own good because she told me so, and she knew how to hurt a lad.”
“She’s here too,” said the Devil. “She’d been here since she died, in a corner over there…” he pointed into the shadows at the far end of the cathedral-like hall with its sulphurous fumes and the constant background sound of souls in torment. At least that’s what Bernard thought the noise was, though he hadn’t as yet seen any souls, tormented or otherwise.
“Her sin was wicked because it was creating your sin,” the horned monstrosity went on to explain to him. “Bit by bit and year by year she reduced you to the mean spirited creature that you are, and for that she earned her Eternity with my angels caressing her with whips of fire and rubbing acidic salve into the cuts left by their lashes. For every time she hurt you, for every time she punished you, she’s receiving an endless series of beatings and thrashings herself. She quite likes it, I’m told. It seems that she liked inflicting pain on you more because she liked receiving it in a strange sort of way herself than because she was really worried about your immortal soul! I don’t think she’d have coped much with Heaven, which was what she said she really wanted. Humans are odd things: they think they want one thing when they really want another! Would you like to see her?”
Bernard thought for a moment, and then shook his head vigorously. No. He’d had enough of her when she’d been alive even though she’d claimed to have saved him from evil. But what good had it all done? Here he was in Hell anyway despite her efforts, and apparently she wasn’t so far off either.
“Then attend to your story,” said the Devil.
Bernard found himself looking back to the mirror, which was clearing once again.
“You’re about to see the finest person you met in life,” sighed the Devil. “Even I liked him, and that’s saying something. Look: you’ve moved on and you’re now a student at the Church University, having finally left home and gone to study for a life in one or other of the rather silly churches that abound on the world. I suppose it was what you wanted?”
“Mother chose it…” mumbled Bernard, and stared in horror at the image that was forming in the huge satanic glass.
“Look well,” urged his horned guide, swishing his tail in encouragement.
“It’s going to be Philip,” whispered Bernard, “I can remember the day … I can remember Philip…”
He saw himself standing in his own small study by a fireplace where the smallest imaginable flames flickered, hardly warming the room at all. And that room was freezing. He could see that the windows across from the fireplace quite clearly had ice on the inside, crisp and white and crazed. That was a cold room even in summer, he recalled, but in the depth of winter it was painfully freezing. It was rumoured that in the past weak students had died in it, their bodies too weak to withstand the chill hour after hour and day after day.
Another student entered, shut the door in order to minimise the draught and smiled at Bernard. He had a fresh complexion and the winning smile of youth on a face free from blemishes.
“You’re right, it’s Philip and right now he’s in the other side, plaiting daisy chains and singing little songs of praise,” whispered the Devil. “He died too young, I’m afraid, but he was too good for this place. But watch on!”
“Hi, Philip,” the Bernard in the mirror said to the other, smiling.
“I was hoping to find you sweetheart,” smiled Philip, “it’s cold enough to freeze the warmest heart in here! Put another log on the fire!”
“It is cold,” agreed Bernard, “but there’s only a small amount of fuel left and we might need that later.”
“That’s the good thing about you,” smiled Philip, “always planning for tomorrow in the hope that tomorrow will actually come!”
“It will because it always does,” murmured Bernard.
“Well, we need warming up or we’ll freeze to death! How about a game of wrestling?” suggested Philip, “you know rough and tumble to warm ourselves up? There’s nothing like exercise to ward off the cold of winter, and there’s no doubt that a good old tussle is really good exercise …”
“I don’t understand…” replied a very confused Bernard, always frightened of any kind of proximity to others.
“It’s not against anything in the good book,” assured Philip, “I have checked, you know, though if we accidentally got too close … accidentally, mind you … it might get interesting and we might lose control…”
“Lose control? Lose control?” almost shouted Bernard at the word control. “There’s too much sin in the world, too much intimacy, too much … touching!” It might have sounded like a well-worn mantra to Bernard even back then, but it had been hammered into him over many years of parental indoctrination and he didn’t recognise it for what it was. Yet he could remember the feeling he got at the suggestion from Philip, and part of it, a shard of it, was one of joyful anticipation, and that needed to be repelled as if it was poison.
“No!” he almost shouted, “I need to….”
“You need to what, darling?” asked Philip.
“I need to live a life free from sin!” It was as if his own mother was speaking her words through him.
“But darling…” stammered Philip, “I don’t mean… you can’t think … Oh, darling…”
Bernard hadn’t noticed it at the time, but he did now, from his vantage point in front of the looking -glass in Hell. Philip was crying, real tears oozing from the corners of his eyes as they welled up, and then trickling down his too-smooth cheeks.
“He’s weeping,” he whispered. “Why?”
“He loved you,” replied Satan. “See.”
Bernard watched as Philip slowly, sadly, backed out of the cold room and out of the door, his face a mask of horror at what he clearly saw as a rejection.
“I’m no sinner…” he mumbled as he closed the door behind him, “I’m not!”
Then Bernard was alone in the freezing room again. Puzzled, he left the meagre fire and took the few steps to the window. Then, with a wavering fore-finger, he scratched in the ice that had formed on the inside of the glass I hate sin in angular almost childish letters before sitting on a tatty armchair in a dark corner of the dark room, the picture of abject misery, and weeping himself.
© Peter Rogerson 15.09.16

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