Story by Dave Lordan
In the Euganean Hills
I had a small house built, seemly and noble; here, I live out the last years of
my life peacefully, recalling and embracing with constant memory my absent or
‘We don’t really know. We haven’t had time yet to think it through properly.’ That’s what Grace said. JJ and herself had just come back into the room. Half an hour earlier they’d snaked off somewhere else in the Pope’s house for a ride.
What I’d asked was ‘what the hell are you two doing here seeing as you’ve both been dead for years’. Both of them, these newly reborn lovers, shrugged their shoulders and sat down. In different corners, in separate chairs, not looking at each other atall, in that glittering room heaped up with jewels and gold and all sorts of loot, like Aladdin’s cave. They were breathless and blushing after their sex. They must have really gone at it.
On the way here from The Coliseum they had been overﬂowing with a thousand kinds of motion, all of which ended up ﬂooding out through their ﬁngertips and tongues. They were practically frottaging in the back seat of the Colonel’s car. Never mind the pissed-off head on the Colonel, who was driving. And forget about three year old Alicia sitting on my lap.
I had tried to distract Alicia by pointing out the window at things that did or didn’t exist. I didn’t want her asking any ‘why’ questions. I didn’t understand the why or the how of the situation myself. So what? Sardines don’t need to understand the physics of wave motion to be able to swim. Understanding my situation has never helped to change it all that much.
But this was something else entirely.
“Swear it. We don’t really know. We’re as mystiﬁed as you are.”
Decades ago, Grace had been the one true physical beauty in the sights of our village. She was everybody's Eve. She was still gorgeous, but she had lost out by comparison. I know now that the world is teeming with beauty. There is no end to it; it comes at you from every angle, down every street, all over enormous cities crowded out with physical beauties. Males and Females. The species sees to that.
On top of that, the last time I had seen her she was seventeen years old. Now she was closer to thirty. And she was ﬁve years dead. That, at least, had put a stop to the aging.
People talk about LSD and MDMA and crystal meth, but getting older is the real bad trip. That’s when people’s faces really start to morph into something horrid.
This was the ﬁrst time Grace had ever spoken to me, though I had often put words to her in my youthful fantasies and day-dreams. Once I had even gone as far, through the medium of my eleven-year-old blood-brother, as daring to ask her to go with me.
My ﬁrst, and so far only, blood brother – I still like to pretend I get an itch from the scar on my upper arm – skipped across the park towards Grace who, as usual, was sitting on the low far wall surrounded by her tweenage court. My blood brother (being honest I can’t put a name to him, I’ve had a lot of cortical disruption since) was delighted to present himself there without risking anything for himself. I waited out of sight behind a bush, biting my nails, trying to block the shame and the worry out of my mind. I knew that I should have done something else to satisfy my screaming impulses, like played ‘helicopter’ with a kitten, swinging it around by the tail and letting it ﬂy over the hedge into a neighbour’s garden. That’s the kind of thing I did at the time, when I thought no-one was looking.
Grace was the closest thing we had to a movie-star. I was about as popular as pissing on electric wire. Most other kids kept their distance from me in the schoolyard and the play-park, as if I was always about to pull the pin out of a grenade. Everybody else took against me too—family, neighbours, teachers. I think it was because I did too much dreaming. They all tried everything they could to stop me from dreaming. Every day I got some punishment from somebody for too much dreaming.
The people I grew up among ﬂocked to all sorts of bullshit. They used up the free third of their lives going dazed and blubbery in front of every kind of small-screened and small minded bullshit. But they didn’t want to know where dreaming might take them. They tried to beat the life out of anybody whose dreams might take them in a different direction. They walked along, beating their big ignorant drums, behind the local grandmasters of bullshit, in a life-long bullshit parade that ended up in a hole in the ground for everyone who marched in it.
The Graveyard, St Enda’s, was on the crest of a small rise overlooking the village and its grassy, undulating hinterland. The crumbling dead up there could know clearly for the ﬁrst time the lay of the land all about them, and do nothing about it.
My one friend was so only because nobody wanted anything to do with him either. He had a slightly different accent to the locally prevailing one. Deep down, being honest with you, our greatest hate was for each other. As soon as I got a chance to abandon him, I did.
The Empress Grace sent him marching back to me with the acid-arrowed message ‘I wouldn’t go near that creep’. If I had a gun, I would have shot the messenger. That rejection punctured my young ego. I had to use emergency methods to re-inﬂate it. After that I started drinking, and only felt up girls who were as drunk as I was.
If it wasn’t for alcohol, my people would have been incapable of producing children. Aside from their clergy, who drink blood and goat semen, and are always secretly fucking and impregnating some poor wretch with no-one to turn to.
I’d forgotten all about Grace a long time ago, but seeing her sitting here before me brought the old shame and ire back up again. I was angry, nearly angry enough to challenge her about it, to demand ‘what the hell was so creepy about me when I was eleven and a half?’ If it had been my house I would have done it. I would have gone on the attack. Forced an apology out of her. But it was the Pope’s house. You don’t start a row based on sexual animosity in the Pope’s house.
Anyway my blood-brother, whoever the fuck he was, might have invented her contempt. He might have used Grace for an assault he was too cowardly to launch on his own behalf.
I kept my thoughts to myself. Neither Grace or JJ would have known what I was talking about. The only one who remembers the things that hurt you as a child is you.
What was a sinning prick like me doing in the Pope’s house?
I’d been with Alicia in a dosshouse near Termini station. It was very crowded, and unclean, like everywhere else. You had to take your stuff with you every time you went out, or you wouldn’t even have had your soiled blanket to look forward to.
We had only a corner of one room, using half an old clothes horse hung with a collage of old ﬁlm posters as a partition (Carlito’s Way, The Shining, The Doors, A Hole in my Heart, Pulp Fiction). We had barely enough space to lie down. And never a moment’s peace or relaxation.
The squealing of children was unceasing, Alicia included.
All the adults had problems involving making a racket too.
Junkies never stop talking shit to each other. All kinds of utterly trivial shit.
And they are very nostalgic. They’ll sit up all night, lisping and drooling like all fuck, talking about the rules for some stupid ball game they used to play when they were young.
Or their favourite movies; Midnight Cowboy, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Trainspotting... Or their moms. Junkies reserve a special place in their affections for their moms, especially if their moms are dead. Mom-worship is a fad among all the delinquents I know. Nauseating. Whenever they are not moaning, ﬁghting, or retching, the drunks belch out songs of their moms, or of lost love, or of stirring national sentiment.
You don’t know what it’s like to wake up with your head swimming in someone else’s puke, someone you are not even related to.
The guy behind the clothes horse, our neighbour, had only room to sit against the wall. He capped the whole place off. A chain smoker who sometimes had two, three, four cigarettes on the go at a time. He never said a word. He never took off his sunglasses. He just smoked. Smoked and smoked and smoked. He smoked like an ad for a new brand of super-healthy tobacco. He smoked like a ten-handed Fidel Castro. All the time he seemed to have only one packet of cigarettes. A never ending packet of cigarettes. And the beard.
Like a bird’s nest, with one of those irritatingly cutesy pig-mouse-poodle things in it. He never shaved the beard. And it never grew any longer. He looked like me too. A lot like me. And I look a lot like Jim Morrison.
It was all very stressful for me, and affecting Alicia’s development. I didn’t want her to turn out like a freak. For both of our sakes, I had to come up with an alternative. We had to have more space. More peace and quiet. Some privacy. The simple things, so hard to achieve.
There were only two real options for a man of my complete lack of means.
One was to head towards a cemetery and break into one of the tombs, evicting the current skeleton crew. A dirty business you’ll say, but actually quite an upmarket address, on account of the opulence and the particularity of each of the crypts, which dated from when trophy-tombs were all the rage among the haute bourgeois. Some tombs even have more than one cabin decked out for the passage through to the Darklands. Imagine! Our own rooms!
I wouldn’t have been a pioneer. Acquaintances had spent a few months living in a necrocommune in Terni. They had helped set up a communal canteen and a little hospital. Babies were born there, and stillborn, sliding from womb to tomb in one easy step, without blinking.
All of this was rent free and illegal. It was only a matter of time before developers ordered the Fligs in. The necrocommunists suffered a nasty early morning eviction when the Fligs, aided by the pest control department, CS-gassed them out of the tombs. The ﬁrst ever baton charge on a graveyard. An historic occasion.
All of those bleeding hippies in their rags and sandals, wailing their way out through the iron gates, coughing their teeth out and spluttering up bile and blood and last night’s lentils—it made great TV.
A few who’d gotten away that morning moved on to the cemetery I had in mind. But they were keeping it very quiet this time. Maybe me turning up would have made everybody paranoid. I had an alien shape-shifter’s air about me still. But the real problem was that the cemetery was too far away from everything Alicia and I needed for survival. I mean soup kitchens, supermarket bins, sympathetic idiots with spare change, etc. Too much walking back and forth. Too much wet weather in winter for a child. The damp of the crypt on top. Too much of Alicia’s damned coughing.
The sound of Alicia’s coughing put me into a such a rage at times I had to smash my ﬁsts off something close by not to throttle her. That would have left me lacking company forever and minus the one thing that might draw a show of mercy out of a landlord or a judge.
I decided against an apartment on Dead Street.
The other choice was to go and live in the sewers underneath Termini. The stench couldn’t have been any worse than where we were. We could have used pegs, snorkels. Just as I had set my mind on doing a recon, news ﬁltered through that the Fligs had set sail and discovered Shitopia, ﬂushing out about thousand residents, using the same tricks as in the cemetery.
Mostly these sewerkin were kids between the age of ten to ﬁfteen, and their slightly older pimps. They couldn’t speak the lingo, probably didn’t know what country they were in. The news-posters said they’d arrived in sixes and sevens as stowaways in lorries making long runs over from the east. I thought it was just as likely that they had traversed the planet going from sewer to sewer, pipe to pipe, maybe making use of a cave-system or a nuclear bunker here and there.
Or that they had just sprouted from the unrelenting shit in the interminable sewers beneath the surface of the world. They had grown up from a randomly ﬂoating fecal lump. A new kind of human fungus. Humushrooms. Shiticulture. Life is not short of surprises. It keeps on bubbling up out of the void, even as we keep trying to ﬂush it down again.
These kids were never stuck for work. Sucked like new born lambs I’ll bet, like blind puppies at a bitch’s teat, dying with the thirst, whimpering and all for the effect. The posters said that they were being taken into state care. That simply meant they were to be ofﬁcially pimped, incorporated into the behind-the-arras sections of the elite party and functions circuit. It was a way to live.
I stayed put, keeping an eye out for the main chance, believing less and less every day that things were ever going to change for me. I was going to be stuck between stale puke and virulent needles and that weird guy who never slept or stopped smoking until the end of my days. And I had a toddler that I had to fool into believing in fairy godmothers and a happy ending for us all.
I was sitting on the side of the road near the Coliseum waiting for the contests to end. I had spread out our blanket with a few old comics and paracetemols and umbrellas and onions. Here was a good pitch, between the Coliseum and one of the nearby compounds. The passers-by here would have loose change, kids to spoil, neighbours to display their compassion to.
Alicia was asleep on the footpath, wrapped in my other shirt. It was tranquil to watch her as she dozed and the rhythm of her rising and falling breath put me in reﬂective mode. At such interregnums of silence, when the babble-broth of mental distractions has subsided for a while, the hideous and mutant truth creeps forth into our minds, dragging its sacs of poison along behind it, underneath the hoods of our dreamily unguarded eyes.
I was just one doomed and clueless animal among all the others upon this spinning grindhouse of a planet. My little daughter here beside me, as cute and as smart and as cosmically miraculous as she was, had no bright future, not even a dream of one. More than likely she would look back upon peddling shite and onions by the side of the road as her Halcyon days.
And I had been getting excruciating kidney pains lately. Who would protect Alicia when I passed on? What would that protection, if it ever came, cost her? Women paid a lot for protection. But not as much as little girls.
The poor are better off being aborted.
At least, they should extinguish themselves early on, rather than dragging it out and becoming passers on of shit and misery themselves.
The fatherly thing would be to kill Alicia as she slept.
Dying is the best protection you can get. All hail the wonder analgesic death! All hail that terriﬁc prophylactic!
Kill Alicia, then do away with myself. At last. Cut her throat so cleanly that she wouldn’t even notice. Fairies would attend her last pathetic gurgle. She would die believing in a happy ending. That’s the cushiest thing that can happen to any of us anytime, anywhere.
As soon as you lose your faith in a happy ending you’re fucked. You’re nothing but a Cain forevermore, nothing but an outcast upon this blasted earth, exposed to the real weather. Caught out in the chaos of the universal storm, you feel only the constant lashing of the hails and hard rains against your ﬂaying and tormented ﬂesh. The ice-tornados of the northern abyss bear down upon you ceaselessly, full of perma-spikes and sharp-edged tundra-grit designed to puncture, freeze, shatter and whorl away to nothingness your non-existent soul. Today, or tomorrow, you will be washed away into the drains of unbelief like any rotting piece of ﬁlth.
I took the pen-knife out of my shirt pocket and clicked it. It was sharp enough to slit a toddler’s waxy throat with ease. To ﬁnish myself off I would have to go hacking at my calves and wrists. Dying with as much of a bloody fuss over it as when I was sawn out of my mother’s womb backwards for refusing to be born.
I bent down over my sleeping issue, about to turn a living thing to stone.
I paused to admire the watercolour of her cheeks. Her eyelashes naturally ﬂaxen gloss. The rosy springtime of her lips. Closer. Her warm breath entering my nostrils. Her breath in my breath. Her breath in my breath. Her breath in my breath. Closer.
Life coughs us out into the world with much fuss and involuntary spasms. Death breathes us in through the slit in its Torquemadan mask, never losing its composure, never balking, never missing, never skipping over.
I was about to inhale my daughter, to suck in her essence, to gulp down all her anguishes and dreams.
I was saving her from her life. I was her deadly saviour.
I began to ululate an unfamiliar prayer, a prayer like a stadium full of people crying out uncontrollably, a prayer like a continent of grief. It was so much more inconsolably sorrowful than the prayers I’d been forced to learn at school. And the words? Latin words weighed down most heavily with imperial iron and lead. I was sure I had never heard them. It was enough to make me pause again, the tip of sharpest blade aligned an inch or so above Alicia’s mainspring vein in her neck, wondering from where inside me these strange, foreign, antique sounding words had come to spring like the choirs of annihilation from my tongue. My tongue; that ancient crimson lizard nesting plump with bitter poisons in the damp dusk bony cavern of my mouth.
Yet I thought I knew what the words meant, roughly... to kill the innocent in the name of their innocence, to slaughter the lamb in homage to the lamb, to proceed with my sacriﬁce...
... I felt a tap on my shoulder. It had to be a Flig, or a snob from the compound wanting to give me a piece of his mind for breaking the licensing regulations.
I clicked the penknife shut, and swung around on my knees, wearing a guileless expression intended to mask my utter contempt and despair, as well as draw pity. My usual look.
There, enshadowing me from above, was the Pope. In all the regalia. Golden staff and all.
He had his eyes shut. He was murmuring what sounded like the prayer I’d just begun babbling to myself. He was moving his free hand in ritual gestures directed, I believed, at me.
Beside the Pope was the Colonel, grinning like the devil on the last night in Sodom. ‘You’re coming with me,’ he commanded. ‘Where to?’ I asked. ‘To the Pope’s house, you cunt. And don’t ask any more questions. Just count your blessings. You got your lodgings. That’s what you wanted isn’t it? And mind you don’t wake the child. If she starts at the handbrake I’ll... ’
‘What about the Pope?’ I asked him. ‘Will there be room for him with all his gear?’ ‘He’s got his own transport.’ The Colonel pointed towards the pope-mobile parked a little way down the road to our left. It glowed there like a gigantic gold-plated pumpkin. ‘Papa’s got plenty more besides you to sort out. Now that he’s taken to the streets again. The cardinals are giving stink about him going outside the compounds. He doesn’t care though. It’s not like they can sack him. Anyway, look at the head on him. He’s blooming out of his tree as you can see.’
The Colonel adjusted his sunglasses and paused for breath. He was chewing on a toothpick. We both stared a little while at the elaborately costumed man beside us.
Popes down through the ages have gotten away with wearing absurdities that on others would provoke a mob. Try walking around dressed as a Pope and you will see what I mean. Popery—it’s theatre on wheels.
His chanting was speeding up and he was grimacing in a seemingly painful ecstasy with all the prayerful exhortation. He appeared to be approaching a climax of some kind.
Just then I noticed the photographer, clicking away at us through a wide-angle lens from alongside the Popemobile.
The Colonel saw the photographer too. He spat out his toothpick and chuckled. ‘This Pope is no dodo. That’s his own private cameraman who later on will go and sell the photos on to the agencies. Papa makes a fortune out of that. And it all goes towards the upholstery budget. And hoovers. He is always buying the latest models in hoovers. The hoovering in St Peter’s is a nightmare. Tons of dust to take care of every day. Wait and see. You’re lucky to be the ﬁrst tosspot he’s come across. He’s going to use you to get into the headlines tomorrow. You’re that pathetic a sight, you and your helpless little mouse there. The two of you together is total camera-fodder. In return, Papa’s gonna give you the run of St Peter’s. For a while. You’ve got me to thank for that. The rest of his pick-ups are only going to get a room each from the Irish Franciscans. There’s only three of those baldy dudes left now, all old as murder. But they’ve got hundreds of empty rooms left over from the glory days... the other good news is you’ll hardly ever catch Papa at home. He’s always going walkabout. You’re moving into a palace, sonny, a practically unoccupied palace.’
‘Well fuck me pink,’ says I, under my breath, gathering up my shop.
I raised sleeping Alicia up so her head rested on my shoulder, just as she liked it, and, as directed, I maneuvered us into the front seat of the car.
Noticing as I did so, for the ﬁrst and truly shocking time, those two long-dead fellow villagers of mine, JJ and Grace. They were all over each other in the back seat. Of course I went rigid. I don’t know what with. Terror? Desire? I couldn’t tell you. I thought I might have swallowed my tongue.
I held Alicia very tightly, very close.
The Colonel drove off, thumb-strumming the steering wheel, tunelessly whistling, remarking nothing. JJ and Grace were too involved in each other to notice Alicia and I.
It was JJ I thought about ﬁrst. The Notorious JJ behind me, with all his bones in motion, as ﬁdgety with paranoia and compulsive lust as a shipwrecked priest half-way through a washed up crate of navy sailors' ‘concentration and awareness’ pills.
Despite JJ being dead ﬁve years or thereabouts. I’d been at the funeral. I’d laid my quick hand across his dead one, feeling the uncompromising stiffness and the pure cold that refused at the blue-black ﬁngertips all hope of warmth returning.
I helped carry the cofﬁn. We carried it in shifts of eight men each. JJ was whale-sized when he died.
At the funeral no-one mentioned exactly how the deceased had lived or passed away. That’s nearly always the way with gangsters and suicides.
JJ had been a major cocaine importer. He was in prison awaiting trial on a number of headline-grabbing charges when he died in his cell on isolation row. The coroner returned a verdict of natural causes. Let me ask you this much though—who pays the coroner’s wages?
We all knew something inside JJ was going to pop sooner or later. Most of my countrymen and women went the same way. They hated the undignified reality of their lives and so they ceaselessly self-poisoned. Staying oblivious was a national pastime, from the head of government, who drank himself sober over rare steak breakfasts in the parliamentary bar before starting work on the affairs of the nation, to the ranks of destitute and homeless who ﬁlled every town square, drinking each other’s puke and, for the price of a few cans, selling their own children to the roaming scouts of international gang rape rings.
Every now and then a drug dealer like JJ was ritually sacriﬁced on the front pages of the Sundays to make everyone feel high and mighty on the Sabbath morn over their dead-pig and whisky hangover cure.
JJ spent his weekdays in training for the drug olympics. Then, at the weekends he really went off the deep-end, diving all the way down dark dense Mariana Trenches of oblivion grotesque, himself being scarier than anything he found below there.
Viewed from that angle, his sudden death was no surprise.
Still, I always suspected it might have been ﬁxed by someone who didn’t need JJ anywhere near a witness box. The cocaine seas are full of sharks and scary monsters, powerful and well-connected investors, bristling with misanthropy and power. JJ had wiped noses with a lot of these Bigsnots during the decade of the Celtic Snorter. He had taken part in trade missions to the formerly oxygen-producing countries of the Global Snout, criss-crossing the axis of snifﬂe, brazenly ﬂouting all laws, as high and on ﬁre as the planet Mercury. He worked as a gopher for a CEO in the European Underworld Conglomerate, shuttling between Amsterdam, Ibiza, Milano, Marseilles, Madrid, and good old Dublin town, all with their self-reproducing legions of irrepressible, crazed, insatiable addicts.
JJ must have put a kilo on for every million of coke he traded.
Some people swell on coke. Others seem almost to dissolve. What’s the difference?
Suicide, murder, natural causes? Like Pope John One, no-one knew precisely why, how, who, or what had killed JJ.
No doubt the prison guards had spat on his corpse.
Now he was on early release from bleak eternity and getting the face eaten off him by a revenant belle-of-the-ville a hand-stretch to my rear.
When the Colonel rounded corners, it was never onto the street it should have been according to my memory. It was a different street, which I also recognised, but from another location.
Rome had changed co-ordinates. It was ﬂoating free of the ideas I had built up of it. It had a mind of its own. It disagreed with my view of it.
Without announcing it to me, the street signs and shop signs had scrambled into a new, unfathomable alphabet, and though I did not recognise any of the symbols used it seemed clear to me that they were very, very old.
Maybe, I said to myself, these are the words the dead use, the language of ghosts.
A wedge of empty space between two four story neo-fascist buildings, in place of the police headquarters. The dead were prankster anarchists then. Why not? I bet they had a play called ‘Accidental Dissolution of a Questura’. Who can rule over the invisible?
I had expected to see low-lying medieval streetscapes, their slowly pulverising wooden roofs and hatches nested in by geckos and pigeons, their clammy grime-caked clay-brick walls overwritten with blooms of mould and carbon, bullet holes and indentations. I expected these long-rooted buildings that told the tales of centuries of weathering, sackings, civil wars and occupations. Instead, I was presented with mute glass towers tapering brutally to needle points that seemed to be injecting a numb, transﬁxing poison into the distant platinum sky. Jugglers, clowns, mimes and unicyclists were at the corners where whores and mendicant cripples should have been.
I would not have been surprised had the street lamps bent down to touch their toes, or had the cars in front ﬂipped onto their shimmering bellies to writhe like pike out of water upon the scalding tar.
No matter what was going on, the Colonel seemed to know where he was going, and what difference did it make to me what street led on to other, or which town belonged in what country, or anything atall of a topographical nature? I wasn’t the court cartographer. My neck did not depend on things being found in the particular order I’d announced them. I didn’t care about reality’s plans for itself, as long as long as it included me in for another while. I took another look in the mirror reconﬁrming it was Grace and JJ. A most unlikely coupling, kissing as if they were making a career out of it.
With all the stopping and starting at the lights, Alicia was soon awake. I had to spend a lot of the rest of the trip trying to keep her quiet so as not to piss off the Colonel.
In between, I got to thinking about the death of our beauty.
She shot herself, Grace. In the mouth. Who knows why. Even for the rich everything has turned to sludge. They get screwed and shat on too. It just costs them more.
If you are well off and you run out of money you are introduced to the other side of the automatic gates and abandoned to your fate. A house-mouse cast out among the outsized rodent fauna of the street, and quickly made a meal of.
So Grace deciding to go down on a ﬁrearm probably indicated a rapidly decreasing bank balance, rather than any metaphysical despair.
Which is what she had been for me, and many others, once upon a time, meta-physical; beyond our mortal grasp, yet never out of our imaginations.
You just could not stop yourself from looking at her as she went past.
Her red hair glimmering like a riddle, her pre-Raphaelite face, her permanently pouting lips.
Grace was from a well-off family with a boat in their driveway and a concealing row of trees around their park-sized back garden. She only ever got off with rich boys. That was the way things were in our village. The rich lads had their pick of the girls from the terraces and the estates. But the rich girls never came near any boy whose family home wasn’t safely detached. It was as if you might catch misery off us if you gave us a kiss.
So when I saw Grace and the underclass horn-dog JJ in the back of the car, I was stunned.
Of course, JJ, like a lot of repulsive men, was not short of sex, being able to pay for it. But free sex was something he rarely enjoyed. The insistently amorous attentions of our village muse should have been a step beyond impossible for him.
Besides this, they were both deceased. Long ago. Their deaths were twice as old as Alicia’s life. They should have been going to death-school by now, learning death-maths and death-geography, taking lessons on the pianomorte. Nothing should have been left of either but memories and bone.
Confounding as this was, there was no point me objecting to it. Like just about everything else in existence, it was outside my sphere of inﬂuence.
We were stopped at a set of lights. The Pope’s house had just come into view. All spires and domes, bird-specks far above ﬂashing in the sunlight and wheeling in long slow mesmerising arcs the way they do at the bottom of a sea-cliff when they are calling the watcher on to take ﬂight and join them in eternity.
St Peter’s is one of the crowning monuments of our tenuous little planet’s cult of immortality, a mountain of gold and marble fashioned out of two aeons of mass-produced fantasy.
I saw a pair of Swiss Guards at the entrance. They looked like moa-birds, like ludicrously maladapted creatures competition should have long ago made extinct.
I couldn’t hold back any longer. I shifted Alicia around on my lap and stretched my free hand back to grip Grace’s bare ankle, softly, to see if she would have any interest in taking two on.
I’ll bet the Colonel was dying to see how my little sally worked out.
Grace kicked my hand off with her other foot. I slithered it back. JJ pretended not to notice.
I thought things might open out once we got to the Pope’s house and I put the child to bed. Wine might do the trick. It often did. The Pope would have wine. Catacombs full of ancient communion wines, blessed with their last and most sanctiﬁed of breaths by early martyrs even as they were half way down the throats of deliberately famished lions.
I said to the Colonel, ‘Will you come in for a drink when we get to the Pope’s house? I’d like to say thank you for helping us out like this. I’m sure our friends from the underground here would too.’ ‘No can do,’ he says. ‘Busy Busy Busy.’
‘Why,’ I said, ‘What are you up to next?’
‘I’ve got to get on the road. Had a little call a while ago from Central. They want me to go lancing in Northern Ireland.’
‘Lancing?’ I asked. ‘Yeh,’ he said ‘lancing. You ought to try it sometime.’
‘Oh I will,’ I said, not meaning to let on I hadn’t a clue. ‘I’ve been meaning to go lancing for a while now.’
‘Cool,’ he said. ‘I’ll swing by and pick you up next time I’m going lancing in Northern Ireland then. Soon as you get settled in to the Pope’s house. You’ll have to get a babysitter though. Can’t have a child on the loose while there’s lancing going on.’
The Colonel said ‘How the popes have escaped burglaries and assassinations with those fandangos guarding them is a mystery and miracle greater than any to be found in the Bible. If the security here ever goes out to tender, I’ll be in there... ’
He screeched to a halt at the front arch and the rest of us bundled out. The echoes of the car doors slamming shut behind us had not yet even begun to reverberate around the vast bowl of gilt and masonry when he screeched off again. He did a handbrake turn at high speed, raising plumes of blessed dust in the eyes of terriﬁed and offended nuns.
The two Swiss Guards that had been detailed to greet us at the front door were a right pair. One was so small he must have come free in an Easter egg. You could have played skittles with him. The other was as tall as a bell-tower. But he seemed to curve like a boomerang. Or a piece of musical notation. I can’t quite remember which exactly. I don’t think I was too sure at the time. It’s difﬁcult to describe something as hard to believe as a Swiss Guard. Words don’t carry the full impact. You should go and see them for yourself.
‘We welcome you on behalf of the Pope,’ said the tall one, pompous as an island chief. ‘You are to make yourself at home until further notice.’
The further notice unsettled me straight away. The Pope was ﬁckle. Like Zeus, he was much given to whims and humours. Before long he’d have changed his mind about us and we’d be wrestling with stray cats for restaurant scraps again. Meaning I had to get tactical.
‘How do you get to be a Swiss Guard?’ I asked the tall one.
‘It’s very hard to get in.’
‘How much do you have to pay in bribes?’
‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘You need to be born a soldier of Christ. You need psychic ability.’
‘You need to be able to see people’s auras. To read their souls. To know who is for Christ, and who is against him. To tell who among the minions of the holy father is not a person but a suitcase full of devils. To be able to spot from a mile away the face out of a crowd of half a million which is the mask that Satan is wearing particular day.’ ‘Well that must keep you busy,’ I said, trying my best to be contrite and admiring. I would have beamed at them but for my teeth being so offensive.
‘It’s all mullarkey,’ said JJ, breaking off from a passionate embrace to try and ruin things for me. He and Grace were on the ground by now. It was disgusting. The two Swiss Guards averted their eyes as one. Invisible channels of communication were in operation between them. When one’s right eye twitched, the other’s followed suit. They were lovers, I guessed.
‘There’s no mention of anybody else but you and your daughter in our brieﬁng. These two will have to stay outside.’ Grace and JJ stopped groaning. ‘You better stand up guys, and show some respect,’ I told them.
I had been expecting this. The Colonel liked to give everybody little problems to work on. I went and handed the child over to Grace. Alicia was so zapped by the two Christmas decorations we were talking to that she didn’t even notice the transition. Her tranquillity looked good for what I was about to say.
‘I’m sorry about the carry on of my two friends. They’ve suffered terribly and have lost all shame as a result. It happens a lot where we come from. The Pope must not have been properly briefed on my situation. Grace looks after my daughter while I look for work and scraps. JJ is her husband. We’re all essential to each other’s survival. A family. And we’re immigrants. The Pope is for immigrants and families, isn’t he?’
‘We have to follow the Pope’s orders to the letter. We can’t overrule the Pope.’
‘He must have forgot to tell you.’
‘The Pope relies on God, not memory. He does not forgot.’
‘He didn’t go into enough detail then.’
‘The Pope leaves no detail out.’
‘Then he was plain wrong.’
‘The Pope cannot be wrong.’
This was tiresome. I cut to the bone of the matter.
‘Well if they’re not coming in neither am I. We’ll all fuck off back where we came from and tell everyone we meet that the Pope and all his circus geese are cunts every one. Then he won’t get column inches tomorrow.’
I narrowed my eyes on this last point, trying to look the tall one in the eye, hoping he would understand. Eventually, they stood aside.
Alicia said ‘Who is that mans with the birdies on his head, Daddy? Do he be a prince?’
She hadn’t really taken in Shorty yet, who I would have to tell her was something to do with Santa Claus.
It’s a truism to say all three year olds are philosophers. They know things aren’t just there. They want to know how they got put there, and by whom, and why? A lot of the time you don’t have any answer. Sometimes you do have an answer, just not one you want your child to know about. But you can’t say ‘I don’t know’ to a toddler. It drives them crazy. They simply won’t accept it. They think that you’re hiding something from them. So, for peace’s sake, you give them make-believe.
We lose the desire to question the world as we grow. We’re happy to know enough to get by. We don’t care how things work as long as they leave us alone. Asking questions of the world eventually turns up answers. And the answers to the pressing questions about the world are not comforting ones. We’re right to do our best to avoid them. We retreat from wonder, unreadable behind our passive, silent, downturned faces. We hunker down into the trench of the self for the long haul. For survival’s sake, we mature.
Still, the questions come. They will not let us rest. They needle and prod us, trying to shift us along, prompting us to act, to somehow, anyhow, who cares how, rid ourselves of this crushing doubt. But we cannot be disentangled from our doubt. Doubt is our engine, our motive, our fuel, our force. It is what deﬁnes us. Cows have no doubts to trouble them as they chew the cud. Supernovas are most spectacular, but they question not. Human beings – human doubters – are the question marks of nature. We are the universe’s means of self-examination. We are the inquisitors of matter, constantly trying to torture a confession, out of the void that surrounds us, a void with a limitless supply of false confessions.
We are how things have become suspicious of themselves, of their reasons, their uses, their motives. We are the way things are pursuing those suspicions. We rubbish existence on existence’s behalf.
The more we dive into the ocean of doubt the deeper it becomes, and the more disturbing are the creatures that we ﬁnd there, ones we never imagined could have existed, hideous and savage almost beyond belief. But they’re all the same.
The consequence of asking questions is despair far more often than it is blessedness or enlightenment. There are far more sincere suicides than there are sincere preachers.
‘I think we might be part of the fulﬁllment of some prophecy,’ said JJ. The only prophecy that had mattered to him in his previous life was most people will want to get shit-faced next weekend. Grace blew a raspberry. ‘I think you’ve got a swelled head, JJ. This is just a glitch. We’ll be wormfestering again before the night is out and these two... ’
‘ ...will be trolling it under a bridge,’ I broke in. ‘Don’t worry about us. Are you two getting married? That’s what worries me. Papa might let us hang out a while longer if you do... but if he ﬁnds out you’re wasting seed... where did you do it anyway?’
‘Eternal recurrence then,’ said JJ, ignoring me, ‘the universe is a giant fairground wheel going round over and over. We must have jumped overboard and landed in the stall beneath... ’
‘Fuck you JJ, and your cosmic zen,’ said Grace. ‘We did it in the chapel, behind the altar, the sun winnowing across us through the stained glass windows. Such a scene. And the hush! Holy fuck! Until the statues of the apostles started creaking. Have you ever heard a holy statue trying to masturbate? It would humble you, if you were responsible for it... Does anybody want to hear another theory?’
‘Go on, then,’ I said, humouring her. It cost me nothing but time. And patience.
‘I think it’s all part of a game. We were never alive in the ﬁrst place. Everything’s a set up. Everything everywhere... computers... we’ve just been added in for the sake of novelty, to avoid the players being crushed by the ceaselessly regurgitated banalities of human endeavour... I mean look at the way we’ve been behaving, we’re obviously not in control of ourselves.’
‘Philosophy in the fucking bedroom or what?’ I said. ‘I’m going to take Alicia for a stroll... you guys didn’t see a nappy dispenser on your travels?’
I was happy enough for Grace and JJ to argue the meaning of it all. What I needed was to get the most out of situation for myself and Alicia. For certain, seeing Grace and Alicia get on had put ideas in my head. Regular sex, division of domestic labour, potentially massive increase in family income. All of that stuff, naturally. But I was sure it would be dangerous, maybe even fatal, to join ourselves to Grace. There is no room for any unscheduled resurrections in Catholic theology. As soon as Grace and JJ were rumbled, the might of the Roman patriarch and all of his demon-hunting legions would be directed towards their elimination.
Putting distance between us and our dead companions might get me and Alicia a different result. I still had dreams. So we went along for a chat with the Swiss Guards.
They were in the jacuzzi. I was right about those two being lovers. The little one was sat in the big one’s lap. Possibly they were doing it under the bubbles. I couldn’t really tell. Who cares? None of our business, anyway. The little one was holding open a copy of ‘What Hoover Magazine’ just above the water line. The humungous one was reading it over his shoulder. It was a cute scene. The little one did most of the talking this time:
‘Looks like you got out of the room just in time.’
‘It’s not a room really. It’s a trap. For revenants.’
‘Cool! What does it do to them, drown them... bake them... crush them?’
‘It digests them.’
‘That’s a mystery.’
‘Joyful or sorrowful?’
‘I didn’t know there were penal mysteries.’
‘There are all sorts of mysteries around here.’
‘What about all the jewels and the priceless art?’
‘It’s all fake. Decent fake. Movie set stuff. The Pope doesn’t keep any originals from the collection in St Peter’s. That would be fallible.’
‘How did you know they were revenants?’
‘Didn’t we tell you what you needed for this job?’
‘What’s the Colonel got to do with all this?’
‘Who the fuck is the Colonel?’
‘The guy who drove me here.’
‘You weren’t driven here.’
‘Of course not. No one can be delivered here by motor vehicle. It’s not allowed.’
‘You have to be assumpted.’
‘Yes, you were assumpted. This is a non-assumpted free household.’
‘Ok, I’m not going to argue with you... listen would you guys mind putting in a good word for me and Alicia with the Pope?’
The next morning at the press conference, a journalist from the Daily Shitehawk produced a grainy blow up of a long range photograph which apparently showed a couple resembling JJ and Grace at it on the marble tiles in front of the two Swiss Guards. I was on the left, partly in shadow, with Alicia, possibly, on my shoulder.
‘That’s trick photography,’ I said, playing my part along with the journalist. ‘These people are dead. Their families are still grieving. Good, Catholic families. Please, show some respect. Whoever is responsible should be prosecuted.’
For that, I got a round of applause from the rest of the press corps. The Swiss Guards encircling the press room were pleased with me, and all smiling.
Sometimes, I get a letter from Alicia. She always says she’s doing ﬁne. I try not to worry. I try not to be a deep thinker. Time passes quicker and easier that way. If Alicia says she’s ﬁne I take her word for it. I’m just glad she’s looked after. Fed and watered. Housed. Educated. It’s the ﬁnest possible existence.
But of course in these places letters are written with a holy sister looking over your shoulder. Maybe I should get someone to look at the handwriting, to see if they can read in the shape and texture of it how she’s really doing. But I wouldn’t be able to believe them either. It would be better not to believe them if it was bad news. What could I do about it if it was?
The point is to survive. Forget about dignity. Old dogs know that, as well as old soldiers.
Come to think of it, Alicia was too young to write when I handed her over to the nuns. So fuck knows who is writing the letters. As you can see, I’m not a believing type. I don’t even believe in myself. Why believe in something no-one else does? Not even your own child. Might as well believe the next random person I come across is divine. For all the good it would do me. Belief in anything is a way we have of clinging to life and life’s things. It stops us falling or jumping over the edge into an endless hollow with nothing in it to believe in, no shapes, no movement, no sounds, no ghosts, no popes, no pricks, no cunts, no nothing. Not even an echo.
But I don’t let that on to the Pope, who is as entitled to believe his own bullshit as anyone.
I doubt if the Holy Farter and I would have much to talk about these days. He’s having one of his ‘quiet periods’. Shut up in a special room in the top of the highest tower in St Peter’s, consulting the Trinity on contemporary problems.
So they say. I’m not so sure. I bet he’s multi-tasking up there somehow. I bet he’s getting a grip on other things too. Satan must present him with tremendous vistas of temptation, the snake.
I’m forever in Papa’s debt for allowing me to become part of the immutable body of Swiss Guards, to help protect him from the threat of things that do or don’t exist.
You can call us fancy dressed maniacs if it pleases you, but we’ll still be prancing around in St Peters, in no danger whatsoever, long after the armies of all the other empires have turned each other to smoke. The oldest bullshit is the best bullshit.
In the long run, humankind is just a pile of ash and bones dissolving in the solar wind. That’s all there is to it.
I’ll never get used to wearing iron and feathers though. And the heat. I cannot stand the fucking heat.
Dave Lordan is the first writer to win Ireland’s three national prizes for young poets. He is the current holder of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary Award and previous winner of both the Patrick Kavanagh and Strong Awards for poetry. He has won wide acclaim for his writing and is a renowned performer of his own work, with the Irish Times calling him ‘as brilliant on the page as he is in performance’. He has read his work by invitation at festivals and venues across Europe and North America. His collections are the The Boy in The Ring (2007) and Invitation to a Sacrifice (2010), both published by Salmon Poetry. His poems are regularly broadcast on Irish national radio and he reviews for the flagship arts show Arena, as well as many publications including Ireland’s leading literary magazine, The Stinging Fly, of which he was a guest editor for summer 2012. He teaches contemporary critical theory and poetic practice on the MA in poetry studies in Dublin City University and he teaches creative writing at primary, secondary, third, and adult education levels. His First Book of Frags: 16 short fictions is forthcoming from wurmpress. He blogs on writing and creativity at www.davelordanwriter.com He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photographer's credit: David Griffin lives and works in Cork, Ireland. He graduated with an MA in Medieval History from University College Cork in 2005. His photographs often focus on details of landscape and architecture, and feature widely on the Long Story, Short Literary Journal website.