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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – TALK OF PARENTS.

13 Oct

A new chapter that adds to our understanding of the two main characters of “The Sinner”

Tea was over and Bernard took his elderly visitor back into the front room to sit in more comfort. He was enjoying her company even though she was a woman and he’d long distrusted women.

“I guess we’ve got quite a lot to catch up on,” he said.

“All of our lives, almost,” agreed Susan.

“I wish we could have got to know each other back in our teens, but things were awkward. For me more than you, I suppose,” sighed Bernard.

“The thing that stopped me knocking your door and asking if you could come out to play or maybe even just stand and talk was you mother…” began Susan.

“The thing?” asked Bernard, “why thing?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be offensive and I know she’s got to be long dead, but we kids on the street were scared stiff of her. Stories went around, wild stories, that she was a witch with a broomstick and that she cast spells on anyone who got in her way. I was in my teens when we moved in next door to you but even I, at that age, believed it!”

“And that rumour kept you away?”

“I know there are no such thing as old fashioned, magical, Satanic witches, but I still find myself wondering when I think of her,” said Susan thoughtfully. “For a start, what happened to your father? He was there one day and then he was gone. Yet he seemed hale and hearty and there were no notices about a funeral.”

“He was hale and hearty,” nodded Bernard, “but the time came when he’d had enough of her and her crazy ways. You’re right ” It does seem that she was like a witch looking back, but at the time she was a little bit more normal than that.”

“Really? Was normal that abnormal?” shivered Susan.

“Cast your mind back! There were still some people who believed every word that’s printed in the Bible. I know my mother did, and it was probably that blind belief that twisted her until she seemed crazy,” explained Bernard. “I’ve only got to put it into perspective recently, and I’ve decided that to be fair to her she was no worse than lots of other people who believed the cruel nonsense in scriptures. We had a religious education teacher who really punished a boy, with a cane, for saying Adam and Eve couldn’t be a true story, and such punishment was allowed back then.”

“How terrible! But I hadn’t looked at it like that,” murmured Susan.

“Anyway, my father got fed up with her and packed his belongings and left the day after I left school,” said Bernard. “He said he’s had enough of having to balance the worst excesses of a mad woman and enough was, for him, very much enough. Now that I was no longer a child ” I was coming up to sixteen, I’d done my “O” levels and was ready to go out into the world, and he felt he no longer had to be around to protect me, I suppose. He went to back live with my grandparents … and they’d had nothing to do with us since a row they had with mum … mother when I was still quite little. I can still hear the noise mother made, shouting and screaming at them until they left, though I was too little to know what it was about, and I still don’t.”

“And your dad stayed around until you were just about a man yourself?” asked Susan.

“He felt it was his duty. He was a man of great honour, you know, and he did his best to balance my mother’s weirdness with secret common sense of his own. And it had to be secret, from her, or she would have used it against him. Can you imagine that? Using ordinary common sense as a weapon? But she did that, all the time. I think she must have been a little bit mad.”

“We all thought she was a lot mad,” nodded Susan. “Anyway, wild horses would never have let me knock your door.”

“When dad left and I went to college to study religion of all things she was left on her own,” sighed Bernard. “I gather that nobody wanted to have anything to do with her, not even the church until she joined a group intent on saving wildlife in Africa. Mum … mother wasn’t so keen on elephants or stopping men with guns from killing them but she did like the idea of little African children being taught all about her God and his nasty ways. And they were nasty, you know, the way she believed in them, the utter conviction she had that her own gender was the root of all evil.”

“It’s hard to see a woman having ideas like that,” said Susan. “After all, couldn’t she see that all the worse things in life are caused by men!”

“Just a minute….”

“No, Bernard. Just think about it. Wars have been fought for ever and unless you believe in an ancient race of Amazons then they’ve all been at the behest of men … and the men who declare them aren’t the young men who die fighting them, either!”

“OK. I’ll accept that.”

“Let me tell you a bit about my father, Bernard. Everyone thought he was a really good man, kind, generous to a fault and spreading happiness wherever he went. But they didn’t see him sneaking into my bedroom at night…”

“He what?”

“At night, when I was asleep, he sneaked into my bedroom … he touched me, Bernard. He wasn’t the good egg people thought he was! Oh, he wasn’t as bad as some men can be and he never actually hurt me. He never tried to … penetrate … me. But I didn’t like it.”

“I never knew…”

“Nobody did. You’re the first person I’ve ever told. I didn’t even tell my husband and he wouldn’t have guessed because I was still a virgin when I married him. As I said, daddy wasn’t terribly bad, but what he did at night was wrong.”

“He would go to Hell then, as mum … mother would say,” muttered Bernard.

“Heaven or Hell … they’re fictions, aren’t they? Stories told by witch doctors and priests in order to control their flock, if you don’t mind mixed metaphors!”

“I’ll tell you something some time…”

“You mean you might want to talk to me again? You might want us to become friends?”

“I’ve never had a girlfriend,” sighed Bernard.

“And you think of me like that? As a girlfriend? At our ages!””

“I don’t know.” Bernard looked confused and it troubled the woman.

“You didn’t tell me the rest of the story of your father,” said Susan, changing the subject because of the way Bernard looked.

“Oh, he died. Everyone dies, don’t they? But he died a few years after he left mum… mother. He started going about with another woman, though he never divorced my mother. I don’t think he dared! She would have put up such a battle even though she didn’t want him around once he’d gone. The other woman, a beautiful coloured lady, was older than him, but I think he loved her in a way that he could never have loved my mother.”

“I’m sorry, Bernard.”

“Hey! If he’d lived he’d be about a hundred by now! As I said, everyone dies. We have our little season, Susan, and then it’s all over. And I’ve wasted mine. All of it, every day and every minute. You know what I ended up doing when the church didn’t want me? I failed my exams, you know, probably because I got what the college taught me mixed up with my mother’s confused ideas.”

“No. You never said.”

“The town library. I worked in there, in the back room where they stick labels into new books and check through old ones to see if they need replacing. I had a room all of my own ” it was my own domain. The rest of the staff barely knew I was there, but they were all women and I didn’t want them to notice me.”

“That’s sad, Bernard. I’m so sorry because I’ve always thought … even during the decades when I might have forgotten you … I’ve always thought there was something really nice about you. And I never forgot the good-looking lonely boy who lived next door.”

“I didn’t know that I was lonely.” he murmured, blushing. “Or good-looking!”

“And your mother… what happened to her?” asked Susan.

“Oh, her. The one and only time she went to Africa she contracted malaria and died. You see, she didn’t believe in medicines. She thought her God would look after her and protect her. And I suppose he did. I suppose he took the first opportunity and pulled her towards him, for she and God were very, very similar, I suppose.”

“You think so?” asked Susan.

“Maybe. You see, they both try to project good but they’re both, in equal measures, the devil! They’re both totally and unforgivably evil, for that’s the flipsides of their metaphoric coins!”

© Peter Rogerson 13.10.16

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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – THE SCHOOL OUTING

12 Oct

Another chapter to be squeezed in. Do you see what I’m doing?

“It seems I remember things from back in the old days better than you do,” smiled Susan. For some reason he couldn’t properly explain to himself Bernard had invited her to stay for tea, “just a bite and a cup of something hot like beans on toast,” he had suggested, and “It’s cold outside and it’ll warm you up…” he added, uncharacteristically enticingly.

And she had agreed. “But I mustn’t be too late,” she said, reflectively, knowing that it didn’t really matter if she was.

He wasn’t at all sure what too late might be, but let it rest. He’d find out soon enough and for some reason he actually wanted this woman to stay a little longer. After all, however hard he tried to penetrate back through his own life he couldn’t remember talking much to any woman. There had been nurses in hospital, of course, but he was an old man and they were merely doing their jobs. And there was the fear of sin, of course…

And he felt as if he had a whole lot of his own life to understand. Had his time in the Afterlife been no more than a dream? He didn’t know, but if it had been then the whole substance of it must have been lurking inside his head ready to leap out.

And the bus, the one that linked Heaven and Hell, where had that come from? His mother had never suggested that there was a bus tootling around Eternity, bouncing over celestial pot-holes and crashing violently inside tunnels. She’d never mentioned any form of transport, just angels and singing in Heaven and endless torture in Hell, both very static and hardly mobile at all.

So where had that bus come from? Did it have roots in his life, or was the whole episode and his experiences in the Afterlife and Eternity more than a sleeping vision but a reality that a return to the land of the living had rescued him from? So was it real and had he honestly and truthfully been allocated an Eternity in Hell, and why? Was he evil? Was it that bad, living the sort of isolated life that he had? Or was it punishment for the kind of life he’d always wanted, deep down, but never dared to taste?

“Do you remember the school outing?” asked Susan, pouring tea from an antique tea-pot.

“School outing?” What school outing? He couldn’t remember a school outing that Susan would also remember because, although they had gone to the same school at the same time, there had been a rigid division between boys and girls back then. It had been a division that his mother had warmed to when she discovered it. Her Bernard, she assumed with a warm feeling in her heart, wouldn’t get corrupted by any girls at school, then.

“You’ll be happy there,” she had said, “with no young whores to distract you. You’ll be safe in that school, and I’ll thank the Lord for that!”

“I went on some school outings…” he replied thoughtfully, straining his memory and failing to find any connection with Susan. “To boring places…”

“When we were, what, fifteen?” she hinted.

What had he done when he was fifteen? It was around that time that his mother had diagnosed a brand new physical sin and prescribed aspirin tablets on the off-chance of something unwanted happening in his pants. She’d never said what it might be but he’d known all right because he’d long experienced the embarrassment of unwanted erections and once, a year or two earlier, she had forced half a dozen tablets down his throat in order to rid him of a lump in his trousers.

It had been a battery torch in his pocket and not what she thought, but he had got the message.

He’d read at night in bed by the light of that torch. It was one of the things he did that was more likely to ward off unnecessary excitement “down below” because he got so involved in the exploits of his fictitious heroes that he forgot that anything else could fascinate him, like unwanted things happening to his own body. So that’s why he had a torch, though he couldn’t remember why he kept it in his pocket.

“I can’t remember,” he confessed after a good half minute of screwing his face up and concentrating. But it had all been so long ago. He was seventy now and back then he’d been an innocent fifteen.

“I can,” she sighed. “It was one of the few times the boys and girls did something together. That and the Christmas play.”

“I was never in one of those,” he muttered, remembering with sadness how he’d always wanted to explode onto the school stage equipped with Shakespearian speeches only to be obliged to do something less interesting, like prompt the main performers by following their lines in a tatty copy of the script from the shadows of the wings.

“We went to that castle,” she said, thoughtfully smiling.

“What? In a Christmas play?” he asked.

She giggled. It was such a sweet sound, the way she laughed.

“No,” she said, “the school outing. Don’t you remember? I think it was to Nottingham castle. There was a statue of Robin Hood there, and we posed by it while one of the teachers took photos! I think I’ve still got a copy somewhere. The boys’ school had arranged it and the bus was only half full because not that many boys could go, I think there was something more important like an exam, and some of us girls were allowed to fill the places. They still kept us divided on the bus, the girls at the front and the boys at the back. Looking back it was so silly, though we just accepted it as normal.”

Like a shadow show in his mind he could remember something like that happening. It hadn’t seemed so important at the time but he did remember making a firm decision not to explain the circumstances to his mother because she would immediately see everything from the wrong perspective and instantly assume he’d been led to a cauldron of sin by a teenage whore with more interest in the contents of his trousers than was either proper or decent. And that would lead to him being punished yet again for the sins of others.

“I think… maybe…” he muttered, frowning.

“I can picture it so clearly!” she exclaimed. “And I was on that outing, with some other girls! We were excited because for once there wasn’t any strict separation and anyway one of our teachers … I forget her name … had a thing about one of the male teachers and sat next to him. We all suspected she was breaking the rules, but back then it was best to keep quiet and get on with things.”

“It was…”

He knew what she meant. There was still the possibility of heavy duty punishment for insolence and it was best to keep such observations as the private lives of teachers to yourself.

“I was sitting right in front of you,” she said, quietly. “Don’t you remember?”

He didn’t. Why should he? He could barely remember that particular school outing let alone who was sitting near him on the bus.

“I remember that I wanted you to notice me and talk to me,” she whispered reflectively. “You were the boy who lived next door to me, and I was almost obsessed by you because, I suppose, you were a huge mystery. And none of the other girls seemed to know anything about you, either. Now, I don’t want you to think that we talked about boys like … like romantically or anything like that, because we didn’t. But occasionally … you know…?”

He didn’t, though he guessed what she was talking about, but he didn’t actually know the sort of things teenage girls talked about because, back then, he’d never actually spoken to one, not properly, not like boys can. Instead, his only friends had been other boys, and those friendships had been transient things because nobody had liked him. No, correct that, nobody had wanted to befriend a boy who had a mother like his!

“I peeped at you,” she smiled, “over the back of my seat and you looked so serious. I wondered what you’d look like if you smiled. I don’t think I ever saw you smiling.”

“I probably didn’t notice you,” he murmured. “Sitting behind you and all that, I wouldn’t, would I?”

“Not even when the bus almost crashed?” she asked.

“It almost crashed?” He couldn’t remember anything about a school bus almost crashing! Could he?

“I can still remember it as clear as day! The girls all squealed and screamed and the bus lurched as one of its wheels struck a gigantic pot-hole! Don’t you remember? I’ve never liked riding in buses ever since!”

“No. I can’t remember … maybe I was talking to someone or something, maybe I didn’t notice…”

He knew he hadn’t been talking because not so many people had wanted to talk to him back then. Or ever, come to think of it. But he couldn’t remember anything to do with girls squealing because a bus hit a pot-hole.

Not on a school trip, anyway.

But maybe in Hell…?

© Peter Rogerson 12.10.16

CHAPTER SEVEN – THE BLACK HOLE OF SIN

11 Oct

The whole work is called “The Sinner” and this is Chapter Seven and replaces previous chapter sevens by pushing them along a bit. I hope my friends who are reading it on this site can keep up. I’ll post a complete list

There was a meaningful flash in the deceased Bernard’s memory. It had happened sometimes when he was alive, an image from the long-ago past returning an age after it rightfully ought to have been forgotten, and filling him with fear. And in death it had come, and he shivered.

It wasn’t remotely cold in Hell. In fact it might have been described as blisteringly hot, enough to turn living flesh into ash if the flesh he had was still mortal flesh, but nevertheless he shivered as the image took form in his mind.

He was in the dark.

It was terrifyingly dark, and the space was confined so that he could barely move without banging himself on an unseen interior, and all because he’d been a naughty boy. He hadn’t been at all sure at the time that it was naughty, in fact he had thought that it wasn’t, but it seemed he had been terribly wrong.

He’d come in from playing in the garden, the tiny front garden which butted onto the street where he lived. The house next door had two frail old people living in it but he did sometimes talk to them if he wasn’t allowed out onto the street ” and this was a Sunday, so he wasn’t allowed past the gate because God wouldn’t like it, and if he did of venture beyond the boundary of home he’d be forced to spend a very, very long eternity in Hell when he died.

“It’s nasty in Hell, Bernie,” his mother had said, and because she had called him Bernie he thought she was being affectionate. She called him Bernie sometimes, though in all truth she was never truly affectionate to anyone, not even his father who she hated with an almost unnatural venom. “There are fires everywhere,” she went on, “great shooting white-hot flames with the foulest gases in them, gases that smell more like rotten eggs than rotten eggs do! And there’s that evil devil there with his whips, flaying the burnt flesh off the backs of sinners until they’ve got no flesh left … and he still keeps on flaying them. And then there are the flaming spiders, the smoking rodents, the tortured souls howling and howling for a long eternity. You wouldn’t like that, Bernie, would you, so tell me what you’ve been doing out there on the front bit of grass?”

“I was talking, mummy,” he’d replied quietly, “Mrs Ashe from next door…”

“That old biddy? That ancient piece of human scum?” asked his mother, and he knew by how quietly she was speaking that before long she was likely to explode. He might only have been a child, a young one at that, but he had worked her moods out. It had, he supposed, been a matter of self-preservation to guess what might be coming, and prepare for it.

“She’s kind, mummy,” he had said. “She gave me a sweetie.”

“What!” That was the explosion. That was the beginnings of his trouble. “She did what, Bernard?”

“She gave me a sweetie, mummy,” he repeated, wondering what he should have said.

“She gave you a sweetie? She came up to her bit of fence and leaned over it, leaned over it mark you so that you could get a glimpse of that bosom of hers, and gave you a sweetie?” screeched his mother. “She did that? Oh, may the Lord forgive us, but he would not like that. He would not like that at all! On a Sunday! On His own day! During the hours he’s set aside for us to worship him! And she’s given you a sweetie with her bosom hanging out! Where is that sweetie now, Bernard, what did you do with it?”

What would any child do with a sweet that he’s been given, asked the deceased Bernard of himself, and what bosom, I never saw her bosom, I’d remember if I had…

“I ate it, mummy. It was a soft sweet, and I ate it.”

“What!” The explosion was in the megaton range! It was huge, it made his mother shake and turned her face almost purple. “You ate a stranger’s sweet on a Sunday, and her half-naked and tempting you? On the Lord’s day? On the one day we’re specially told in the Good Book not to eat sweets?”

“I didn’t know, mummy…” And he hadn’t, not then and not now that he was in Hell. Surely there was nothing in the Bible about small boys eating single sweets on Sundays? And how could overdressed old ladies be tempting a boy with a bosom that was no doubt tucked inside several layers of material?

“Well you do now, and you’d better start praying here and now for forgiveness! And you’d better hope that he hears your prayers! So many people ask him for love or healing because they’ve got hatred or disease in their lives, and he hears them, but is he going to hear a scruffy little boy’s begging above all that other praying? Is that likely? You need to go somewhere special so that your prayers come easily, you nasty little sweet-eating urchin! And when he gets home from the pub I’ll get your father to give you such a lathering with his belt, that I will, so that the bruises stay for a month of Sundays and you know all about eating sweeties on the Lord’s special day!”

“Not there, mummy, not there … I didn’t know … you never said….”

There was the cupboard under the stairs. It was a horrible black space full of dust, spiders and the odd mouse where his parents kept useless things they didn’t know what to do with. He’d felt a mouse scurrying past him on previous occasions when punishment had led to incarceration in that black hole, and he was terrified of it. He’d prefer a lathering from that leather belt that was often promised but never delivered. His father was weak, but never cruel.

“I promise I’ll never eat a sweetie on a Sunday ever again now that I know,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean to do wrong. I didn’t mean to make God so angry. I didn’t think…”

“No, Bernie, you didn’t think. And Mrs Ashe next door is an evil woman. You know that, don’t you?”

He shook his head. He didn’t seem to know anything any more.

“The creature is a woman, Bernie, an evil and rotten woman ready to lead you astray, keen to drive you into the arms of the Devil in his hell! Don’t you forget that! Like all women ‘cept your sainted mother she’s filled to her rotten core with evil, and she’s trapped you. Yes she has! She’s driven you from the path of righteousness and you must suffer for it. You must suffer hours in the cupboard! You must weep and beg forgiveness of our lovely, noble Lord! Then maybe he’ll hear you above the din of others needing honest help, and forgive you!”

And she grabbed him by the back of his short trousers until the stretched and strained material threatened to cut into his genitals, and she pushed him into the cupboard under the stairs.

Then she shut the door and he heard her locking it.

Inside was pitch blackness. Inside was dirty and dusty and filled with unnamed and unguessed horrors. And yes there was a scurrying, a furtive little movement and he struggled to move away from it, but couldn’t. The space was too small, and he was a growing boy.

The dead Bernard in Hell might have wept if the dead can find tears where they are. But he didn’t. Instead he stood there next to the dire Satan and heard him cackle quietly as a whisper inside his own head said our father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name because I’ve been so very very evil eating a sweet on Sunday, and please, please, please forgive me….

© Peter Rogerson 11.10.16

CHAPTER NINE – THE BIG QUESTION

10 Oct

Another additional chapter by Peter Rogerson
” Bernard’s first day at school, and it doesn’t start well… “

“There will be nasty, nasty girls at school, dirty little girls in skirts and frocks and with sweaty panties they might want to show you, might want to make you look at…” his mother said suddenly as she dragged him along by one hand on his first day at school. She often said things like that and he often found himself not listening because he knew it already.

Bernard, the dead and naked Bernard, stared in horror as this new scene unfurled on the looking glass. It wasn’t exactly that any memory of that distant day returned to him because it didn’t, but the very likelihood that it might have occurred, knowing what he knew of that woman and the way she had been, gave it a stark reality that he was beginning to hate.

“Why are girls like that?” he asked of that domineering woman, and she pulled up sharply to a standstill, released the arm she was holding and swiped him across the head with an iron hand.

“You dared ask me that?” she shouted, and several other people paused on their way towards the school with their own children, and stared at her. Those eyes, boring into her, didn’t trouble her but they did bother Bernard because even then, aged five, he knew that there was something unusual about the way his mother behaved.

“That hurt, mummy!” he wept.

“You dared question me when I tell you about the evil of women and the sin they have poured over humanity since Eve in the precious garden and the way she ruined everything for everyone, even us all these years later?” she squalled, and that suddenly brought into his mind the biggest question that ever was. It was huge. It filled his five-year old head with its enormity and he knew the answer to it would solve every problem known to man. He knew that he had to ask it.

“But mummy … aren’t you a lady like Eve was?” he asked, timorously.

She was. Of course she was. He could see that much.

But his mother couldn’t. She had spent so long denying her own place in the order of things that she saw herself as without gender of any sort. She had long chosen to forget her place in the conception and birth of her dreadful son, had no memory whatsoever of the passions that had erupted within her when the boy’s father had dared to do IT to her on a night filled with unusual passions, and she had let him. Yes she had. But she preferred to forget the sin, for sin is what it had been, and had blotted it out of her mind.

To herself she was a human being apart from the rest. Although equipped with those physical attributes shared by all women she had completely forgotten she had them. She was neutral, asexual, a saint to whom gender was meaningless, even offensive. So the question, that huge question posed by a child on his to his first day at school, was calamitous.

It cut her to the quick. It stirred odds and ends in the dustbin of her mind. It would trash all of her preconceptions should the answer be yes. It caused for swift action, and that swift action was a second fisted clout to little Bernard’s head.

Even the Bernard watching in horror from his place in Hell felt the sudden numbness as the child Bernard crumpled like a scrap of screwed-up paper and fell limply to the ground.

Two or three women rushed up to him and helped him back to his feet. He looked pale and groggy, and they looked angry. He shook his head in order to clear it, and started crying.

That was a signal for decency to rear its precious head, and decency did in the shape of a ferocious women in her forties who marched right up to Bernard’s mother and pushed her with a more than adequate hand on her shoulder.

“We saw that!” she barked in a voice bordering on the masculine, “we witnessed a terrible abuse of a poor child! Yes we did, all of us…” and her eyes swept round the increasingly sizeable crowd as if challenging them to disagree with her. A great number of female heads nodded and there was audible muttering as the eyes of other mothers focussed on the bully as if intent on leaping upon her and tearing her limb from limb for what she’d done to her own child. Most parents can’t abide cruelty, and these women most certainly couldn’t.

“Or course, most of us know something about you,” continued the ferocious woman, “most of us have seen you about before and know you as being a sandwich short of a picnic! We’ve seen you with that boy and the poor man of yours, his father, and we know you’ve got madness in your head and we also know it’s a crying shame you have the care of a child. He should be taken away! He should be put in care where you can’t punch him in the head! Women like you should be put away and, yes, the kids taken from you, all of the poor little mites! Women like you should be neutered!”

Bernard from his place in front of the looking glass could almost see what was going on in his mother’s mind as she stood up to the other woman.

“I’m just guiding my lad into a life free from sin, if you don’t mind!” she shouted, and she was shouting whilst her opponent was merely being fierce. “It’s what we parents do, and if we do it right and proper they’ll be thankful for it when their time comes to go to the Afterlife and find themselves in the arms of Our Lord!”

“You’re a mad creature!” snapped the other, “as far as I can tell there’s no such thing as any afterlife, no such place as any heaven and no such place as any hell! They’re places in fairy stories so that mad women like you have got something to believe in when your nights get short and black! And if there was a copper anywhere near I’d be demanding that he arrested you, here and now, for cruelty, and arraign you before the beak. That’s what I would be doing, and no mistake!”

“I’m not standing here bandying words with the likes of you!” raged Bernard’s mother, “we’ve got things to do and a school to go to! Come on, lad, to school with you, and take no notice of any old fat women on the street who think they know everything but end up knowing nothing!”

Then she grabbed Bernard firmly by the hand and marched off with him in tow.

“The blasted know-all woman!” she moaned as she dragged him along, “thinks she knows how hard it is to bring up a kid in this world of sin! I’ll teach her if I see her again, that I will! I’ll make sure she knows all about it! It might have been her in the precious garden, her who picked the apple from the forbidden tree and her who tempted her man with it! That’s who it might have been! I can see it clear as clear, thanks be to the Lord!”

When they arrived at school there was a chaos of young children darting everywhere in the playground, boys and girls with their shrill voices, running to and fro and having the best of times.

“Look at them!” grated his mother, “thinking that life is something to laugh at when it ain’t! We know that much, don’t we, Barnard? We know all about sin, the two of us! Look at that snotty nosed girl over there, the one with dirty, filthy knickers, I’ll bet, and a mouth big enough to swallow the moon! You’ll have nothing to do with the likes of her, and if you do have and I find out I’ll learn you! That I will, Bernard-child! But not in the street like just now, where know-alls can see what’s going on, but back at home in the dark, dark cupboard where you go to purge your sins after I’ve caught you playing with your winkle!”

“Not there, mummy…” whispered the Bernard in Hell, but she couldn’t hear him. She was a lifetime away, and her nose was running.

© Peter Rogerson 10.10.16

THE LITTLE STORY

10 Oct

An additional Chapter by Peter Rogerson, slide it in before The Eulogy
” For the first time in his life Bernard gets to talk to a woman who isn’t his mother… “

“Let me tell you a little story,” said Bernard quietly.

It was much later in the day and Susan was still there. He’d put the kettle on twice and they’d just sat there, talking about what might have been the good old days had they been a great deal better. But at least they were the old days, a shared period with people and things in them that both of them recognised. And any kind of recollection can be mutually comforting when you’re seventy and lonely. They both thought that.

“I’d best be going soon,” said Susan, and she blushed slightly, “I only came round to see that you were all right. After all, I saw you in hospital and noticed your name on the patient notes by your bed while you were asleep. Quite a lot came flooding back to me … the time my family lived on Elm Street, and that was from when I was just about a teenager until I left home for medical school. It’s funny how much a name can bring back, and suddenly how important it can seem to be.”

“Were those years important?” asked Bernard.

She smiled at him. “You can have no idea!” she said quietly. “I remember sitting in my bedroom looking out at the street … I had the small room upstairs, at the front of the house … I would probably have been in my school uniform or my nightie depending on the time of day, and I was looking for the boy next door.”

“You mean me?”

“I mean you.” She sighed. “I had a crush on you, Bernard, and you never knew! And that time when we were going to the fish and chip shop I finally thought the time was right. I finally thought we’d get to know each other. I finally thought my teenage dreams were about to come true… but you know what happened.”

“I ran away,” he replied, miserably. “I thought you were nice but my mother thought the opposite. She didn’t half get into my head back then, telling me that you were the root of all sin! That you, being a girl, could only possibly do one thing to a lad like me and that’s drag him down until he was fit only for an Afterlife in Hell amongst the devils and the tortured souls… She was strong on tortured souls, was my mother, and my dad wasn’t much better!”

“And you believed her?”

“I suppose I did. It had been drip, drip, drip into my head ever since I learned to listen. But that story I mentioned, the little story I want to tell you…”

“Will it take long?”

“No, not if I make it short.”

“All right. You tell me your story and then I really will have to go.”

“Before I went into hospital I had a heart attack,” he began, “and everyone thought I was dead, but the woman who visits next door too often for decency was a nurse, and she knew enough to bring me round and save me.”

“I know. Amelia. I like her, and she is decent. I saw her once or twice when she visited you in hospital. I was only in the next ward, you know. Woman’s troubles!”

“Well, during the few minutes when my heart had packed up and before she brought it back to life I went to Hell. I suppose it was in my head rather than in a real Afterlife, but it seemed so real. And in Hell I met the devil, exactly as I’d always imagined him to be with horns and a forked tail and breathing out fumes of sulphur in the worst case of pyorrhoea I’ve ever sniffed at!”

“But it was a dream…?”

“That’s what it must have been, the last efforts of a dying brain to add one and one together and hopefully come to something more reasonable than two…”

“You make it sound really quite a nightmare!”

“In a way it was. There was a bus, too, in Hell, a bus that went through a tunnel that wasn’t there at the beginning, and took me to Heaven on a day trip. I can’t begin to explain just how different Heaven was to Hell. There were little groups of people everywhere, all naked and all smiling or singing, laughing and joking, being happy and plaiting an endless supply of little flowers like daisies into circlets for each other’s necks.”

“Sounds … interesting,” murmured Susan dubiously.

He looked at her, and smiled. “It was horrible!” he said, “everyone doing little things that when added together didn’t come to very much! Can you imagine what an eternal Afterlife would be like if it consisted just of doing insignificant nice things, singing the same nice songs on an endless loop of niceness, plaiting the same nice flowers into nice little daisy chains ” and all naked, whether you wanted to be or not, but naked in the nicest possible way!”

“Were you naked, Bernard?” asked Susan, and he could tell from the expression on her face that she was teasing him gently.

He blushed, and nodded. “Everyone was,” he said, shortly, “but I wasn’t the pot-bellied Bernard that’s sitting here besides you but the mush slimmer and much younger Bernard that I suppose I might have been.”

“You’re not pot-bellied. Are you?” asked Susan lightly.

He blushed again. “I’m not the man I was,” he replied obliquely. “But then, I guess nobody is.”

She got the point. “And neither am I,” she said. “Is that all of your story?”

He shook his head. “Almost all,” he said, “but the truth is I was glad to get back to Hell after my day trip to Heaven. There’s got to be a lot more to Eternity than perfect happiness untouched by anything that’s less than perfect. I suppose the truth is too much perfection is, itself, imperfect.”

“You need to add a dash of black to brilliant white to make an enticing shade of grey,” smiled Susan, “now you’ve given me food for thought and yet I really must be off. Can we…”

“Can we?” he asked when it was clear she had stalled.

“Can I come again?” she asked.

“Would you want to?”

“Well, I’ve got nobody. I was married, but he passed away in his sixties, which was dreadful and much too young but a long time ago. I had no children. Never wanted any, and neither did he. So here I am, in the twilight of my years, and there’s nobody to call me a dirty stop-out if I’m late in and nobody to ask where I’ve been and who I’ve been with.”

Then Bernard stood up and looked at her. Looked properly like a man, even an elderly man, might look at a woman, and sighed. A wild suggestion was racing round in his head, something so unBernardish that he hated himself, at first, for thinking it and then he remembered his image of Heaven and found it even more enticing before actually loving himself. Like spring after winter might be enticing, or a sudden rainy squall after a hot summer’s day or anything that contrasted with the status quo to turn the pleasantly normal into something truly special.

“You say you’ve nobody, and it’s getting late?” he half-mumbled, half said loud and clear. “You’re all alone?”

“I did and I am,” she nodded.

“Then why don’t you stay tonight … I’ve only got a double bed, but you’re welcome to half of it…”

“A double bed, you say? Not two twins?”

“What would a man on his own do with two beds?” he demanded, but he saw the twinkle in her eye and knew exactly what she meant.

“I’d be happy to share half of your bed, Bernard,” she whispered. “On one condition…”

“What?”

“That it you want to take advantage of a poor helpless widow you do it quietly… I hate the idea of neighbours being distressed by too much unnecessary noise!”

© Peter Rogerson 10.10.16

THE TUTU TEDDY

8 Oct
So everyone thought I’d finished with this? Well, I haven’t! I’m enjoying mulling over a life and death I’ve created and want to give it more breadth and depth with a few extra little scenes that might do just that…

There was a dizzying flicker from the looking-glass, and a new scene wobbled into being.

“Is that me?” asked Bernard nervously as a small child in a push-chair gazed ahead of himself as his mother, a scowl on her face, that same scowl he remembered her always having, almost pushed him off the kerb in her hurry as a car zoomed past, its blue exhaust fumes choking the child who was on a level with them.

“Of course it is,” replied the Devil, grinning dreadfully as the toddler-Bernard burst into tears. “It’s what you were brought up with ” anger and carelessness. But look. See what’s going to happen … is that a toy shop I see in front of you? The small place on a street corner with rows of terraced houses everywhere? Is that what your precious mother was trying to avoid and nearly killed you?”

“I never had many toys,” sighed Bernard, “at least I don’t think that I did. But I guess they were hard times … it was the late forties, the second world war hadn’t been over for long and there were all sorts of shortages.”

“Oh, they were hard times all right, and if you play your cards right I’ll take you to where you can kick a particularly hateful football in the face as punishment for all the privations you suffered in your childhood…”

“A football?” asked Bernard, “what football…?”

“You’ll find out soon enough.” The smile on the Devil’s face was particularly eerie as he said this.

What will I find out soon enough? wondered Bernard silently. “So why am I looking at me going down that road in a push-chair?” he asked, aloud.

“Can’t you remember?” sniggered the Devil. “I’d have thought it was a very memorable day, this one, though in truth a great number of the days you lived through back them must have been equally memorable. Now look: what’s happening?”

Bernard watched himself as the push-chair was edged towards the toy shop. He remembered that in those days there weren’t so many large toy shops and the smaller ones tended to have equally small displays – and sold expensive things. Like the teddy bear.

In the small window that fronted the shop sat a teddy bear on a small cardboard box. He could see it clearly and it shocked him that he did have a kind of remnant-memory of that day even now, past the end of his life. But to his eyes, in front of the mirror, there was very little to remark about that teddy bear. It was small, true, it was oddly dressed like a ballet dancer in a tutu and even wearing what looked like ballet shoes, and not at all loveable. But that was through his dead eyes gazing at the huge looking-glass and not through the eyes of the two year-old Bernard. That Bernard fell instantly in love with the fluffy, cuddly toy.

For the young Bernard saw a spectacularly beautiful thing. He saw the golden fur, new and ready to be hugged, and the pretty clothes, a white tutu that flared out beautifully like his mother’s skirts never did. And underneath that tutu was a pair of frilly knickers, just tatty bits of cloth in reality, but beautiful. He pointed and shouted out loud on that quiet street, pointing,

“Mummy, mummy, mummy, toy!” His vocabulary, thought the late lamented Bernard, was obviously limited by his young age. How old was he? Two? Maybe three? He couldn’t be sure.

His mother paused in her pram-pushing and stared in the window and saw the golden teddy bear.

“No, Bernard, no, no, no!” she shrieked. “Look at it! Look at the way it’s dressed in evil dancer’s clothes, all designed to seduce a child like you, and turn you from the straight and narrow, and into sin!!”

“I wouldn’t have understood her when she said that,” murmured Bernard to the Devil. “I wouldn’t have known what seduce means! I doubt I even knew what dancers or dancing were, and as for sin…!”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” growled Satan.

“It’s the most evil toy I have ever seen!” raged his mother, and the words sailed over the tiny Bernard’s head and got lost in the maelstrom of noise that was his angry childhood. Then she slapped him across the head, firmly, cruelly, and his senses reeled.

“That’s for staring at the sinful thing!” she raged, “that’s for wanting to own a creation of the dark lord who has spent all of time since beguiling Eve in the Garden by waging war against the forces of good and righteousness! And that’s for even thinking in your tiny mind that you might join forces with all the foulness that is the demonic ruler of hell-fire and damnation, and own that evil bear!”

“What did you make of that?” smirked Satan.

“Back then? I didn’t know … I didn’t understand what she was going on about, the words meant nothing except that she was angry, but then she spent most of her life being angry. I don’t know how she went about conceiving me because she was too angry to love anyone. I can’t perceive how my father got entrapped by her because he wasn’t a bad old stick… though he could have done more to help me when I was only a little child….”

“Look,” whispered the Devil, “here he comes…”

And it was his father, striding along towards the woman and her push-chair.

“Hello there!” he called, “I was looking for you! What’s got into you now?” That last few words was addressed to Bernard’s mother who was still raging against the tutu-clad teddy bear.

“What do you want?” snapped his mother, not lovingly, not in a friendly way, just words moulded from anger. Then, “look at this foulness, and your son, this creature I have to push along, wants to play with it! A toy in a sex-crazed skirt with knickers to eat into the desires of an innocent child! And Bernard, who should be bathed in the light of childish innocence, wants it!”

“It’s only a teddy,” said his father mildly, “I must say I don’t like the outfit that it’s been put in, but what’s wrong with ballet-dancing bears?”

“You men!” snapped mother, “you’ve only got one thing on your minds, and that one thing is evil! It’s sex here and sex there and never a thought for holiness! Don’t forget why we all know about sin, because of the forbidden fruit in the garden…”

“And don’t you forget that you’re a woman,” said father, a little more firmly. “Don’t forget that, according to you, it was a distant female ancestor of yours that caused all the trouble in the world!”

“That’s typical of you!” raged the almost incandescent woman, “and you know just how hard I try to erase anything evil from my life, how I have spent all these painful terrible years trying to make up for that first dreadful evil when Eve was beguiled by the serpent!”

“I know how you’re obsessed,” growled Bernard’s father, quietly, “and yet you weren’t always, were you? I remember that night nine months before Bernard was born when you were very different! Very different indeed!”

“The night you raped me!” shrieked mother, “the night you had your evil way with me and forced me into sin with that … with that… thing of yours!”

Such was the anger and the shouting that a small crowd started gathering in ones and twos. Bernard realised that his mother was no stranger on this street, and her behaviour was becoming the source of considerable amusement as the small crowd tittered and nudged each other.

“And you lot are no better!” she snapped at them, and leaving Bernard in the push chair with his father, she raged off while the little crowd giggled and dispersed.

© Peter Rogerson 08.10.16

THE EULOGY

7 Oct

Susan Summers stood by the lectern in the church, trying to avoid eye-contact with the coffin that was so close to her she could have touched it by merely reaching out. It represented the best and the worst experiences of her tangled life, and she was here to lay both extremes to rest.

“I knew Bernard when I was young,” she said quietly to the congregation of half a dozen or so mourners. “We weren’t friends because for some reason I could never fathom his mother didn’t like me and he was scared of her. But that was not unusual back then. The young had very little say when it came to their own lives.”

She looked around. She only knew two of the tiny group, Bernard’s neighbour and the woman who spent a great deal of her time with him, in sin Bernard had said before Susan had moved in with him, and then sin miraculously had nothing to do with it and it became love.

It was that neighbour’s lady friend who had saved Bernard when he’d had that first heart attack, but there had been no way anyone was going to save him after the second one, and Susan should know because she’d been a medical doctor before she retired.

The others scattered in the nave were habitual mourners, all women and all consequently well known to the vicar, who for once was grateful that they had swollen his congregation of friends and acquaintances of the deceased. Further back, unobtrusive, were the undertaking officials, sombre in black and with impassive faces.

Susan drew in a deep breath, and continued.

“I have only one clear memory of those days and that was when I was sent to our local fish and chip shop, for lunch I think, it’s what often happened on a Saturday, and Bernard was going too. It wasn’t unusual for many families to have meals from the local chip shop and for the kids to fetch them in what seems a long lifetime ago. I was a teenager, proud of my looks and daring to wear skirts my parents thought were much too short, and he was the most handsome boy in the Universe.

“We got almost talking. I say almost, but not quite. He was bashful and troubled and I was perky, and It was me who started the conversation because I really liked him even though we hadn’t met properly, and nobody had introduced us to each other. People needed to get introduced to each other back then! But you know how it is ” a man and a woman or a boy and a girl … sometimes there’s a kind of attraction, like magnetism, which makes such formalities as introductions unnecessary, and I felt that way then. He was a nice lad with startling good looks, and I was a teenage girl…!”

“Let me tell you a bit about my life since then, because that fish and chips day was all we had together, and as you can tell it was the briefest moment of togetherness! He ran off when I spoke to him. I must have frightened him or something, though I hadn’t meant to. I found out when I got home that it was because his mother was a bit over-zealous, protecting a teenage lad from the temptations of the flesh, and his father wasn’t much better! I don’t know what they thought I’d do toy him! But it was their way and they’re both long gone and it’s not fair of me to cast a cloud on the characters or motives of two people I barely knew.

“When I left school I went to medical school and entered the nursing profession, and before too long enrolled in University in order to train as a doctor. It’s because of that training and the skills I picked up then and over a lifetime working in various hospitals that I knew that, when he collapsed, Bernard was beyond any help, though I did try. Oh, how I tried, needing to get a dead heart working, to spend one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more for-ever with him! But to no avail. My Bernard was dead. It struck me as one of the cruellest twists of fate.

“I like to think that he believed that the last few months of his life were the best of it. He told me that was the case often enough, when we lay in bed in the mornings and shared our memories, or went out together, maybe shopping, during the days. And then at night, when darkness had fallen and we were in bed together again and he would tell me of what he remembered from his first “death”, the few minutes between his heart stopping and the wonderful Amelia next door having the right skills and doing all the right things to bring him back. And it had worked, but it wasn’t the rescue of Bernard but the things he dreamed of when he was in that limbo between life and death that he concentrated on. You see, he really believed, weeks afterwards, that he met his Maker, and that he had really and truly visited Heaven and Hell.

“And he told me there was a giant mirror in which he saw his living self when he was dead. And in that mirror he actually saw me as a young girl, my eyes tempting him to goodness-knows what as he ran back home from our meeting on the way to the chip shop.

“You see, it was only after those dreams or nightmares or whatever they were that I met him again, and even though we were both seventy and ready for the knacker’s yard, as they say, that we fell in love, both of us, wildly, madly, passionately. Maybe it was that love that brought on his second heart attack ” who can tell? But he did tell me that I was his one and only lover in a celibate and friendless life and that he was going to make up for all that wasted time when he’d kept himself to himself. He said that he’d wasted his life and that would condemn him to an eternity is Hell with the devil and his servants when he died, rather than any sin of the flesh.

“It’s not up to me, in this place, to say whether I agreed with him or believed in his strange faith, but I must say that be believed that he would return to the wonderland that may have been dreams or may have really been part of the fabric of existence that none of us know anything about.

“As you know, we had less than a year together, but in those few months he packed in as much love, as much affection, as much real honesty as most people pack into a life-time. And I am proud to say that I knew Bernard. I am proud to say that I loved him. And I am proud to say that I was there at his ending, for without really knowing it he enriched my life for a little while.”

Then she sat down and stared at her own feet. A feeling, something she couldn’t recognise, was bubbling up inside her.

Who would have thought it? Who could possibly have predicted it? Two human beings had met after separate lives stripped of love and affection and had done their damnedest to make up for a hell of a lot of lost time.

She looked up and into the front of the church and its altar, and the vicar replaced her at the lectern, but although he spoke in a voice amplified beyond the need of so small a gathering she didn’t hear a single word that he said.

For it seemed to her that the moisture from her own eyes as she became aware of the depth of her grief had spread across her vision like a kind of mirror blotting out everything, and there, in the mirror, lost from life, she could almost make out the figure of Bernard staring back at her, and weeping with her, and beckoning.

Was it the heartache of grief that gripped her flesh and twisted it until she choked? Or was it something else?

She didn’t have time to wonder as she slumped in her ancient craggy pew, and Dr. Susan Summers knew no after a fragmentary moment wondering who the cowled figure approaching her might be, and why he was carrying a shiny scythe.…

THE END

© Peter Rogerson 07.10.16