A Serious Man

It was the 23rd hour of the 364th day of the 51st year of his life, and Edward Purcell was sitting in his late father’s study wondering where it had all gone wrong.

He could not come to terms with the gravity of his error. For decades, he had been so completely sure of himself. Yet now, with each tick of the clock, it was becoming increasingly obvious that he had been mistaken. His entire adult life, it now appeared, was predicated on a heinous misjudgement. It didn’t make sense. Or, if it did, there was absolutely no comfort in its making sense.

He looked up at the books on the shelf. The visionary writers he had delighted in for so long, Blake and Swedenborg, were now exposed as nothing but the ravings of optimistic madmen. Much more on point, it seemed, were the gloomy tales penned by Russian realists that rested on the shelves beneath. He scanned the names from left to right: Turgenev, Goncharov, Chekhov.

On the wall, just across from the bookshelf, hung his late father’s shotgun and, next to that, a portrait of his late mother.

He let out a long breath and focussed his thoughts inwards. He was nothing but a joke. The living, breathing punchline to a hysterical yarn that everyone got to laugh at but him. It was a terrible state for a grown man to find himself in. His entire existence, he felt, had been solely for the amusement of other people.

What do you call such a man? A man who lives exclusively to satisfy his peers? A slave? No, he was not quite a slave. Great monuments have been built upon the sacrifice of the slave. The Pyramids and the Great Wall were lasting testaments to the labour of slaves. There was a degree of honour in a slave’s suffering and Edward Purcell could claim no such dignity. His sacrifice, he told himself, had been less for the glory of mankind and more for the piddling amusement of a few lukewarm acquaintances.

To this degree, he felt more like a clown than a slave.

(For a moment, he pondered the depressing concept of the Clown-Slave. It was more than a few rungs down the romantic ladder from Rousseau’s Noble-Savage and nowhere near the lofty echelon inhabited by Plato’s Philosopher-King. It was barely in the same division as Dr Downs’ Idiot-Savant.)

“Oh, they are all going to love this,” he thought. “They’ll absolutely bloody love it.” “Here comes the great prophet!” they’ll say. “Hey, Nostradamus, want to ask the angels for tonight’s lottery numbers? Going to tell us who wins the steeplechase tomorrow? I could do with a few quid at the bookies.” The fun they’d have at his expense – the whole village. They’d be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of his years of divine braggadocio finally being exposed as nonsense.

He let out a groan at the notion.

Now, it would be very easy at this juncture to accuse Edward Purcell of being melodramatic in his self-pity. But put yourself in his shoes for a moment. How would you like it if everything you had ever believed was suddenly revealed to you as nonsense? How would you feel if your most staunch convictions were exposed as baloney? What if you had staked your otherwise excellent reputation on the certainty of being right, only to find beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were mistaken and, worse still, that you were probably deluded into the bargain?

Because that was the long and the short of it for Edward Purcell as he sat in his late father’s study on this cold, October night. And no matter how much he tried to rationalise the situation, the same stark, tormenting thought kept coming back to him:

“My entire adult existence has been an error.” 

It would have been easier for him to rationalise if it were happening to someone else. He’d have found the whole episode quite amusing if it were happening to a mad hillbilly on an American daytime television show. But it wasn’t. It was happening to him, and it was happening now. And existentially that’s what was hurting so much. We all know what it means to observe and be amused by absurdity. But have you any idea how much it hurts to actually be absurd? It’s a tough medicine to swallow for anyone who has ever had the temerity to take himself seriously.

He looked around the room again, hoping for a way out of his intolerable malaise. But there was no avoiding it: in less than an hour, Edward Purcell would be 51 years old.

***

We can pinpoint the exact date that the seeds of his current malcontent were sown. It was the 18th October and the day of his 18th birthday. It was then that Edward was to witness what he would for years afterwards call ‘his miracle’. In actual fact, it was more of a visitation than a miracle. But Edward thought a ‘visitation’ sounded like something you get from the postman. What he had witnessed that fateful day was nothing short of miraculous. It was a divine vision. An act of God.

This so-called miracle had occurred in less serious days at university, after he had returned home from his first legal night of drinking alcohol. His new friends had plied him with multiple pints of best bitter to celebrate his big night and he had cheerfully washed them down with many of smaller glasses of blended whisky. It was a raucous evening and when the young Edward returned to his dorm and settled into his bed he was sure that it was over.

However, only a few hours later, he was startled awake by the feeling that someone else was in his room with him. As he came to (feeling more than a little worse for wear) he saw that his instincts had been correct. Only, it was not ‘someone’ that was in his room with him, it was ‘something’.

As far as he could ascertain, he was in the presence of a ghost. Gripped by fear and startled into sobriety, his first reaction was to plead with this spirit to leave him in peace.

“Don’t hurt me!” he whimpered, pulling his sheets up to his nose.

The ghost manifest itself as a tall, translucent, haloed figure. It had a soft, motherly face and wore an iridescent robe of blue and green. Its luminous skin reflected the light of a misty moon that flickered through the open window of the dormitory. The phantom hovered magnificently in the air and seemed to Edward’s senses to be every bit as real as the bed in which he was lying. The young man vowed never to have so much alcohol to drink again just as long as this horror would leave him unharmed and let him return to his sleep.

“Do not be afraid,” spoke the visitor. “You look as if you have seen a ghost! But tell me, friend, have you ever seen a ghost with wings before?” At which, the apparition turned around to give Edward a better view of the rack of silver feathers that were appended to its radiant scapulae.

“No I haven’t,” responded the young man with a snivel. “But then I’ve never seen a ghost at all before.”

“And nor have you seen one yet, Edward. For my name is Gabriel and I am no ghost! I am the Overseer of the Kerubim, the angels of light and glory; I am Archangel of the ninth sefirot Yesod and I am the representative of the Almighty Living God!”

“I’m Edward Purcell,” the young man replied, “I’m a sociology student.”

“Oh, I know who you are, Edward, and I know that today is your 18th birthday. In fact, I have been given word to visit you on this precise day to bring word of your impending death.”

“I knew it!” bawled Edward, “You’ve come here to kill me!” And he immediately burst into tears.

There a followed was a long interchange in which this angel, Gabriel, reassured the young man that all deaths are technically ‘impending’ from an eternal point of view and he apologised for his choice of language (he sometimes forgot mortal men had such a naïve understanding of temporality). The archangel then explained that what he had meant to say was that he had come specifically to inform Edward when he was going to die – which, as it happened, was not right now but when he was 50 years old.

Seeing the horror that had filled the young man’s eyes upon hearing this news, the archangel tried once again to allay his fears. He explained that this knowledge was a divine and precious gift. Edward should count himself honoured to receive it. Gabriel proclaimed that human beings’ ignorance of the time of their own death was one of their greatest afflictions. Everyone knew that they would die one day but since people live in constant denial that it is going to happen any time soon, they never actually accept it will happen to them at all. He lamented that millions of souls were lost every year because of this oversight. After all, those who don’t give much thought to their own death aren’t likely to give very much thought to an afterlife either, and so most people just roll along from one day to the next accumulating all manner of sins without paying any mind to where it was all leading them. Far better, the archangel explained, for a person to know when their number was up. Knowledge, as the saying went, was power and Edward was being given a very great power indeed.

At first, the young man remained unconvinced. He said he had hoped to live rather longer than just 50 years. In fact, he thought it was a terribly young age to go and he complained that the archangel had no business breaking such bad news to him on his big day.

Gabriel listened to these concerns with forbearance before declaring that old age was nothing but a series of indignities designed to enforce humility upon the proud. It was not something to hold in very high regard. And, besides, life on earth was positively hellish in comparison to the rich fruits that awaited a person once his time was through. Gabriel assured Edward that if there was any bad news being delivered it was simply that he had to endure life up to the age of 50.

The young man was in a privileged position. This notice period, if you care to call it that, would allow Edward to manage his expectations of life. He could live with abandon, free from fear in his youth, and when the time of his demise would finally arrive, he need not leave anything unresolved, unsaid or undone. It was truly the most holy of blessings.

The two spoke long into the night. Gabriel explained that he brought this news because Edward was lucky enough to have been deemed one of the elect, and that he was one of only a handful of people upon whom such knowledge is bestowed per earthly millennium.

Accepting this news more willingly, Edward’s mind started to fill with mischief. He asked if being one of the elect meant he could do whatever he wanted while on earth and still reap the rewards of heaven?

The angel told him he was correct; he would ascend to the heavenly spheres unconditionally. But he also made it clear that anyone who was given the concrete assurance of an afterlife was usually compelled to behave decently. Their knowledge made them less susceptible to the cynicism and selfishness that blight those who are expected to behave according to blind faith alone. Edward would come to find that the deadline of 50 years would focus his mind, and he would soon see that an earthly existence is really of very little time at all. This gift, the angel said, would inspire the young man to live a devout life and all temptations of sin and error would very quickly lose their appeal.

It was at this point in the discussion that Edward suddenly realised he’d left one vital question unasked, “But how is it going to happen?” he blurted out in panic. “How exactly will I die?”

The angel said no more. It closed its eyes, its heavenly body glowed white and it vanished in an instant – leaving Edward alone in his bed, reeling with amazement at what had he just witnessed (and starting to feel queasy from the alcohol he had imbued only hours before). It wasn’t very long before he was fast asleep again.

The next morning, Edward was quite unsure of what to make of the events just described. Had they been a vivid dream? Had they been the product of too many best bitters and blended whiskies? After much to-ing and fro-ing, Edward decided that the events had been no dream. They had been as real as the sun that sets in the evening.

And so it was that Edward Purcell would embark on the rest of his life knowing with certainty two things he hadn’t known the night before. First, he had been assured of his ascension to heaven. And, second, he would die when he was 50 years old.

***

A lot of time had passed between that evening and this. To say the visitation had been the defining moment of Edward Purcell’s life would be an understatement. Over the years, the serious man now sitting in his late father’s study had gradually eschewed his earthly ambitions in favour of a more contemplative and devout life, just as the archangel had foretold he would. The divine insight had influenced Edward’s decision not to marry. It had quashed his appetite for wealth. It had defined his entire adult existence. In fact, the ethereal encounter was so central to his sense-of-self that, for one score year and thirteen, it was all he would talk about when in the company of others. Rare was the conversation in which Edward Purcell did not mention the year of his own death.

It would have been wiser for him to keep his own counsel. Whenever he told people he had been visited by an archangel who had revealed to him his future, it aroused either deep suspicion or cutting ridicule.

When Edward started his career as a humanities teacher at the local school, for instance, the headmaster invited the eager-eyed professional into his office to talk about pension options. The young charge replied matter-of-factly that it was kind of his new boss to take such an interest in his future, but he had no need to pay into a pension as he had been granted the grace of God and was destined to die when he was 50.

“I see,” the headmaster had said, leaning backwards in his chair and casting the kind of quizzical, penetrating look that would become all too familiar to Edward Purcell during the course of his life.

By the time he had reached his forties, Edward’s continual references to his ‘miracle’ had led to his peers marking him out as an eccentric. He was the queer, unmarried fellow who claimed to know things beyond the ken of mortal men. He was the subject of whispers, sniggers and stares from the people he met. Children would point at him and teenagers would call him names.

Even on the rare days Edward didn’t talk of his experiences directly, they were always there, hanging in the air, framing the man’s existence in a comic way that only a fully public mental breakdown would ever undo.

Yet, in spite of this, Edward’s peers never came to view him as a total madman. That was because, as we’ve already mentioned, in all other aspects of his life he was a sensible and serious man. At work, he was diligent and professional (yes, he was derided by his pupils and regarded with suspicion by his colleagues, but name a teacher who isn’t?). In his free time, he was a community-minded member of his local church and was widely known for his selflessness and acts of charity (when his father died, leaving him an enormous sum of money, Edward donated it to a religious charity, retaining only the family home so that he might have someone where to live). So while the villagers were happy to accuse Edward of being a religious lunatic, they could never accuse him of a lack of conviction in his lunacy.

However, Edward’s fondness for professing his divinity would occasionally lead to confrontations. In most cases, he could hardly be blamed for the tumult. He was simply living an honest life according to his own experience. Much of the mean-spiritedness and hostility came from people who were easily angered by Edward’s belief in things from which they were excluded and who resented the personal superiority that was inherent in his propositions.

His most notorious row was with the local vicar: a prim, puritanical man by the name of Martin Peters.

Edward had been a regular member of Martin Peters’ congregation for years. On most Sundays, he would approach the vicar and try to enter into a theological discussion with him. Edward hoped he would find – in a clergyman of all people – someone who would take his miracle seriously and help him extrapolate its significance. However, in Martin Peters, he found no such man at all. Martin Peters anathematised Edward’s claims and flatly refused take the ridiculous events in the slightest bit seriously. Martin Peters thought that Edward Purcell suffered from arrogance. He found his claims far-fetched, syncretic and blasphemous. And as for his preposterous assertion that he had been directly granted grace as a pre-approved member of the elect? Well, really! What could have been bolder, prouder and more offensive to the ears of God?

Edward found the vicar’s attitude hurtful. Here was a man of faith – a responsible member of the clergy – being as dismissive and closed minded as the most irreligious of rogues. This vicar purported to believe in the archangel Gabriel, grace and divine prophecies. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to believe they might be revealed to a lowly member of his own flock? An infernal contradiction! How was it that a man could find the most improbable things so probable and at the same find so improbable the idea they could ever actually take place? Martin Peters, Edward came to believe, was a hypocrite who spent most his time trying to persuade people that God moved in mysterious ways, and the remainder trying to persuade Edward that He moved in no such ways at all!

He eventually came to the conclusion that it was a matter of sour grapes and decided to tell Martin Peters to his face. And so it came to pass that, one Sunday, Edward accused his local vicar of the sin of jealousy and of wishing he had been granted the angel’s wisdom instead. He said Martin Peters was trying to belittle these very real experiences because he couldn’t cope with the idea of a member of his congregation being more holy than he was. There was a grain of truth in this accusation, and that’s what made Martin Peters so furious. He blasphemed terribly at Edward and threatened to physically assault him if he ever entered his church again.

Martin Peters was subsequently so embarrassed by his threats and loss of temper that, a week later, he resigned his post in shame. He moved to another parish where he hoped to find fewer troublemakers.

Then there was Edward’s next-door neighbour, Edwina Wishart.

Edwina Wishart was close to Edward for a number of years but, after a while, she too would become exasperated by all the talk of miracles and visions. When she first moved to the village, she had found Edward a deeply fascinating character – as eccentrics often are in the early days. The two neighbours would enjoy lively discussions over a glass of red wine, usually in Edward’s late father’s conservatory. Edwina Wishart enjoyed dabbling in epistemological matters from time to time. Initially, she had found Edward’s world-view riveting and made it her personal mission to persuade her neighbour that his views were logically unsustainable.

“But this is not proof, Ed! What you experienced was a delusion. A hallucination!”

“It is proof to me, Ed. I observed it with my own eyes. The fact that there was nobody in the room to share the experience, or that it hasn’t happened again since is neither here nor there. You can tell me it didn’t happen and I will tell you it did. It’s your word against mine, and if I am the jury you’re trying to convince, then I will take mine, if it’s all the same to you. Do you really expect me to cede the sovereignty of my own experience to the minds of others, when they themselves are no less existentially dubitable?”

“But it’s all so convenient though, isn’t it Ed? That it was just you who was there? Is it not more likely that you had too much to drink that night? Or you were suffering from stress? Or you have, I don’t know, some deep-rooted messiah complex that means you need to make yourself sound more interesting than you actually are?”

“More likely according to what? And I’ll thank you not to make this personal, Ed.”

And so it would go on into the evening. The discussions were a regular feature in their lives for years before Edwina Wishart finally tired of her neighbour’s unwillingness to yield to reason. If he would not come to see the light of a rational, Godless universe, then let him be damned to the darkness of delusion and loneliness. Over time, she came to give her neighbour the time of day and little more, and Edward lost a good and trusted friend.

As the years wore on, he became more and more of an outcast.

When he visited his local public house – as he liked to do from time to time – a silence would descend as he entered the room. He would politely order a pint of best bitter and the landlady would cordially serve him. But it would never take long for a chuckle or two to bubble up from a corner of the room. Often, the more brazen locals at the bar would pick on him. This would consist mostly of sarcastic jibes intended to raise a cheap laugh at his expense. The assembled wags might ask him to predict the future of a looming event, or to absolve them from the sin of ‘being half-cut on a work night’ – crossing themselves in the Catholic fashion ­– that kind of thing. It was, to Edward’s mind, pretty low-grade, irritating repartee, but it was nothing he couldn’t cope with.

However, if it was later in the evening, or if the drinkers were feeling particularly boisterous, these interrogations could be rather more aggressive in nature.

“Are you full of shit, mate?” they might demand. “You think you’re special, do you? Come on, admit you made the whole thing up. Admit you’re a fucking liar who thinks he’s better than all of us in here …”

When this sort of thing happened, Edward would simply return his glass to the bar (regardless of whether it was empty or not) and embark on the long walk up the hill to his late father’s home – trying his best to keep a stoic expression on his face and the hurt from his heart.

***

It wasn’t easy for him to endure this ridicule and rudeness. Edward Purcell was a serious man and, although he had a predilection towards the pride and self-aggrandisement that is born out of seriousness, he was also a good man. He always tried to live his life as honestly as he could in light of the events he had experienced. He had never asked for an archangel to tell him the year of his death. He knew how outlandish his experiences must have sounded to other people. He knew his claims contravened every empirical law in the universe. He knew the events were impossible from a scientific point of view. So he knew why people were so sceptical about what he had seen. But, for all of the events’ impossibility, he also knew that they had happened and, naturally, he wanted them to be given consideration. It annoyed him that something so incredible and otherworldly should be so carelessly written off.

What’s more, Edward resented being viewed as a fool – especially by people whose way of life he regarded to be more foolish than his own. To his mind, his accusers were in no position to mock him. These were people who carried on as if their lives were going to last forever! They held nothing sacred! They had little understanding of themselves! They saw nothing that was important or eternal in life! And when they wanted to distract themselves from the meaningless of their lives, they would seek succour in a vacuous prayer, or else drown their existential woes in alcohol at the public house! It was all so unfair. How was it that these people were able to confer foolishness upon him? Surely he was the one coming from a position of authenticity here?

But facts are facts. And whether Edward liked it or not, the facts existed with the consensus – regardless of what had or had not occurred.

Edward Purcell knew that the only way he would ever be taken seriously was if the events of the 18th October all those years ago could somehow be proven to be factual. If he could demonstrate that an archangel had visited him in the middle of the night then he would be justified in every way. But, frustratingly, in the absence of any kind of evidence , that was out of the question.

Unless . . .

***

Edward Purcell would only be taken seriously if the event that lay at the heart of his prophecy – that is, his death ­­– was to occur as he predicted. If Edward was to pass away, at 50 years old, as he had so boldly and vocally claimed he would, then it might just be enough to make people think he’d been telling the truth about what he had witnessed at university. Of course, it wouldn’t be proof enough to rewrite the laws of physics – the cries of ‘coincidence’ would be deafening. But it would certainly be enough for some of his peers to pause for thought. The people in his community, the people who knew him, the people who mocked and teased him so mercilessly, they might all stop for a moment to think about how they had treated this enigmatic – perhaps even holy – man who had walked amongst them.

Throughout his adult life, that had been Edward’s great consolation.

Until today, the absolute certainty of his untimely (or perhaps all too timely) death had given Edward the fortitude to keep his head held high in the face of the public derision. He had been able to roll with the punches as he knew his claims would turn out to be justified. When the day came that he ascended to heaven as per his vision, everything would finally make sense to the people he left behind. Then they would come to think of him in an entirely different light. Or, at least, so he liked to imagine.

In quieter moments, at home on his own, Edward would allow himself to pursue this line of thinking. He would let the ideas grow fat and juicy in his mind. He would sit in his late father’s study with a glass of blended whisky and let the prospect of his death wash over him. How he loved to picture the disbelieving faces of the villagers when they heard the news of his passing. They’d be shaken to the core! The ramifications were colossal! If he had been telling the truth, then here was a first-hand account of the veracity of the Abrahamic religions! These swine would soon come to regret their sinful and mocking ways and come to repent their foolish lifestyles! At thoughts such as these, Edward would clasp his hands together with glee. How glorious it would be!

Edward took such delight in these thoughts that he would take them to extremes. When serious men are not taken as seriously as they would like, they are sometimes disposed to creating private mythologies in which their own importance becomes amplified. Sometimes this can manifest itself in vanity projects – think of the talentless trustee of a local charity, or the chinless chairperson of a needless committee. Other times, it can manifest itself in the amour propre of a successful career – think of the now wealthy businessman who was taunted and teased as a child.

In Edward’s case, the bitterness manifest itself in what you might call a kind of auto-deification.

In his private hours, with his glass of blended whisky, Edward would allow himself to think that, in time, people might not just take him seriously but would come to venerate him as a prophet. His imagination conjured up images of repentant villagers congregating to talk fondly of the misunderstood man who, like Nostradamus, had correctly predicted his own death and conversed directly with the angels of heaven. How humbled they would all be to have lived in such close proximity to him! Perhaps they would erect a statue of him on the village green? Or, when word of his death spread around the country, perhaps a small cult of followers would make regular pilgrimages to pay homage to this humble mystic who had seen behind the curtain and brought news from the other side? Perhaps they would exchange small gifts with one another on the 18th October?

Edward would become drunk on these ideas. This imagined time-after-death, this Edward-less future out of the reach of ridicule, was so delightful to his mind that his imagination would take him there more often than was sensible. Sometimes it seemed that Edward was more present in the world in which he was not present than the world in which he was.

It is fair to say that no healthy man has ever relished the prospect of his own death more than Edward Purcell.

***

Of course, right now, as Edward sat in his late father’s study, such thoughts couldn’t have been further from his mind. As the clock continued to tick its way unremittingly towards the unhappiest birthday anyone had ever known, he felt bereft. Everything he had held to be sacred and true was about to be exposed as nonsense.

How had it come to this? Ever since this time last year, when he had joyfully turned 50, he had been carrying himself with a palpable air of expectation. He had known that, any day now, he was going to be whisked away to a land of milk and honey and he would soon pass into legend. He felt smug and self-assured, as if a long-overdue promotion was coming his way. He had made sure he was prepared for the big event. His affairs were all in order. He had accomplished everything that had wanted in his life. He had even resigned his job at the school under the guise of taking early retirement. He had been feeling wonderful. Even the sarcastic greetings of “Still here then?” from moronic neighbours when he went for his morning walk hadn’t been able to remove the spring from his step. Yes, for the last 12 months, Edward Purcell was certain his ascension to Elysium was imminent.

It was destiny.

However, in the last few days, Edward had started to worry that destiny was leaving things rather late. And, as strong as his faith was, a creeping sense of doubt and terror had started to grow in his mind. More than once, he had woken up in the middle of the night, not to a vision of angels, but to what felt like the precipitous edge of an abyss of utter meaninglessness.

“What if … ”

No.

“But what if I imagined the whole …”

No. It was a thought too horrible to entertain.

Yet now here he was.

There were just a few minutes to go until he turned 51 and acceptance of his error was unavoidable. At first, he tried to make sense of the situation through his belief system. After all, one’s faith is not something easily surrendered. It can only ever be wrenched from a stubborn heart. So his first thoughts were that perhaps Gabriel, or even God Himself, had seen into his arrogant soul and taken offence at his thoughts of, for example, having a statue erected in his honour, or inspiring his own personal sect of worshippers. Maybe he’d gone too far and the archangel had chosen to abandon him? Perhaps Martin Peters was right? Perhaps his pride was an affront to all that was holy?

He thought of auto-deification being the root of all sin: the undoing of the garden of Eden and the damnable crime of proud Lucifer.

But then, hadn’t Gabriel himself said that, for Edward, no sin was punishable and that he would ascend to heaven unconditionally? Had he not been told that he was one of the elect and not to worry about such matters?

Until this moment, he had always thought so. But as Edward looked around his late father’s study at this late hour, he realised that there was only one possible explanation and it was time for him to face up to it. There had been no angel Gabriel. There had been no ‘miracle’. He was an idiot! The truth was that he had imbued too many best bitters and blended whiskies on his birthday and he had imagined the whole thing in a childish, alcohol-induced fervour.

What a collapse of faith he then started to experience!

What if there was no heaven either? Imagine! If the central tenet of his entire belief system was wrong, then everything that resulted from it was most likely wrong as well. His hands felt cold and skeletal. His mouth dried. His heart began to beat furiously. The atheists were right: life was not a rehearsal. There was only the here and now. It suddenly occurred to Edward that he had let the best years of his life slip away from him. He had no pension. He had no friends. He had no wife. He had no children. He had gambled it all on the promise of heaven. Now he had only his old age to look forward to with no glorious reward at the end of it.

He felt the weight of the enormous injustice. None of this was his fault. His chest continued to tighten. He lamented the waste of an adult life – no, not just an adult life, his adult life. He cursed himself repeatedly for his stupidity.

His frantic mind turned once more to the avalanche of ridicule that would soon come his way. How could he ever show his face in the village again? If only he’d been more circumspect. More dignified. He had upset and annoyed everybody and they would make him pay for it. They had never liked him. They would laugh more loudly than they had ever done. They would tease him mercilessly and he could have no complaints. It was bad enough before, when at least he’d had the reassurance that he’d one day prove them all wrong. But now, nothing.

It was such a lonely, terrifying realisation. At least other religious people had the consolation of never being proven wrong in their lifetime. They could talk smugly of heaven and never face earthly contradiction from their peers. Pascal’s wager was win-win. Edward’s was madness.

There was nowhere for him to hide. He remembered the public house. The school. He thought of his beautiful neighbour, Edwina Wishart, and of the parishioners of the local church. Then his mind turned to Martin Peters. Oh God, that snake would no doubt be one of the first to pay Edward a visit as soon as he heard the news. Ostensibly, of course, his visit would be to forgive Edward and console him for not being quite as dead as he’d hoped he’d be. But in actual fact, it would be to laugh in his face and scorn him for being so proud.

But now, as Edward considered the bigger picture, even that didn’t seem to matter. All joy had left the world.

He looked up once again at the clock on the wall. It was just two minutes to midnight and there was no denying it any more. He had been wrong about everything. He was a wretched fool who had been too willing to believe in his own importance just as they all said he was. Hadn’t they warned him? Hadn’t they tried to save him from his own stupidity? Hadn’t they, with the best will, tried to reach out to him before his stubbornness had become unbearable?

“My entire adult existence has been an error”

It became unbearable. There was one minute to go. He got to his feet and muttered something inaudible before fumbling in his trouser pocket to locate the cartridge he had procured from the unquestioning farmer earlier in the day.

He stumbled across his late father’s study like a drunk. He rested his arms against the bookshelf and let them take the weight of his body. He looked up: Blake and Swedenborg. He cursed them both. He looked down: Chekhov. He cursed himself.

He was a joke. He was a clown. He was a fool. He was …

He looked over at the shotgun. He steadied himself before removing it from the wall. Edward held it under his right arm while his trembling left hand inserted the cartridge into the chamber. He straightened his back and shoulders. He looked his late mother’s portrait in the eyes. He put the barrel in his mouth and, as if his fate compelled him, quickly squeezed the trigger.

A tremendous bang rattled the windows of the old room as Edward’s confused brain was blown out of its skull.

His body fell emptily to the floor and began to bleed out over its late father’s carpet.

The clock struck midnight, by which time Edward Purcell was dead.

It was a shame, really.

He was only 50 years old.

Letter From Someone Recently Deceased

My friend,

If what you believe about life and death is true, then one of us no longer exists.

That seems a painfully obvious and needlessly convoluted proposition in light of recent events, I know. On the face of things, it appears hardly worth positing at all. Obviously, it’s me who has died, so obviously it’s me who no longer exists. Why do I need to bring your existence into it? All that has changed is a person who existed at the time of writing has ceased-to-be by the time of reading. That is the way things work in reality and so that is the way things are.

That’s easy for you, the living, to say though, isn’t it? After all, you get to delegate the ramifications of non-existence to me without having to deal with them yourself. You can say I don’t exist, but you don’t have to contemplate what that actually means. Because, as far as you are concerned, I still exist as much as I ever did. This does not mean I am still alive, of course. Rest assured, I am quite dead. But for all my being dead, I still exist to you. Right now, I exist to you as a recently deceased person (a nebulous, funny thing) and over time I shall exist to you simply as a dead person (a well populated category, you must admit).

It is because I still exist to you in this way that you can talk about my non-existence so easily, so matter-of-factly, without ever having to wrestle with the actual concept itself.

Yes, for you, very little has changed. You possess me as much as you ever did. You may call to mind my concept or my name at your leisure. You may recall my actions, my words and my form. You can still differentiate that which is me from that which is not me – a pre-requisite for being a thing, I’m sure you agree. So, yes, I am still the case. I am still extant as far as you are concerned. My old friend, all that has changed for you vis-à-vis my existence is that my existence has now lost the capacity to surprise you, and that you’ll now have to factor ‘deceased’ into the complex idea I constitute in your mind. It’s a shock to the system, that’s all. Everything will be back to normal after you’ve run that new idea through your head a few hundred times.

For me, on the other hand, this whole ‘not existing’ thing is rather more problematic.

You see, my existence meant quite a lot more to me than it did to you. To you, I was only ever a bit-part player in a production in which you took centre-stage. I hope you don’t feel accused of being self-centred. My friend, if I am accusing you of being self-centred then I am accusing everyone of it. But you must admit your existence is the only existence you will ever truly know. Descartes only ever proved the existence of Descartes, after all. And as much as you may have tried to consider yourself an equal among men and women, you have never truly convinced yourself of it. And if you say you have, then I don’t believe you – even if you believe it yourself. Because, for as long as you have lived, all men and women have been subject to your perceptions. Mankind has existed, if not by your express design, then certainly for your satisfaction. We are all solipsists when there is nobody around to impress. Tell me truthfully it isn’t so.

So what could be easier for you than to have me live on in your memory alone? How dominant that makes you. How effortlessly you position yourself as the master of my existence. You take everything I ever was and reduce it to a shadow of yourself – while I am afforded an annexe at the back of your being with the rest of your excess experience. “Here, friend, here is your eternity! You may rustle around as an afterthought in my own being.” Well, how very magnanimous! But, of course, none of this is your fault. How could things ever be otherwise? It is not a matter of hierarchy or power. It is simply that one’s own existence is one’s world. And it’s natural that the concept of my non-existence sits easily with you. That’s because in existential matters you are unfeeling and without empathy. You accept the concept of non-existence-upon-death, because you are not and cannot be subject to it, neither directly nor indirectly.

But where does that leave me?

Well, I can confide that my existence most certainly did mean the world to me. And now that I no longer have that existence – which is the case if what you believe about life and death is true – I am at a loss. Can it really be so? I wonder if it’s really me that no longer exists, or whether it’s the world itself? And our point of views on that matter could hardly be more different. It all depends on which side of the divide one is standing: yours or mine.

You and I have always had very different points of view, it is true. But that wasn’t a problem when we had a world in common. Our unique, unverifiable and individual experiences were mitigated by an aggregate reality we could both agree on. Granted, you would see the world you saw and, granted, I would see the world I saw and, yes, occasionally we would each retire to seek the warmth of our own private being. But far more reassuring and homely was the actual world outside of ourselves – the world of shared objects and concepts. The sum of these shared and consensual experiences was our reality. And, for so much of life, we would forget ourselves, and bathe in this reality as if it was the locus of existence itself. Why did we do it? Well, the answer is quite simple: we did it because we were afraid to be alone. The idea that, when push comes to shove, we are without ally or comfort in this universe was too horrific for us to accept. Despite knowing that we came into the world alone, and that we will leave alone, we chose instead to hold on to what we shared – a consensus reality. We would admit no existence outside it, neither before nor after, because to admit isolation was too chilling for our delicate sense-of-selves to bear. We clung to each other like frightened children.

But now that death has parted us, the illusion is no more. We are so evidently divided that we cannot delude ourselves any longer. Or, if a delusion remains, it is because you can so easily reconcile our division with the world you still see all around you. The fabric of the reality you share with others remains unchanged and so, without much thought, you can sentence me to a cold, absent eternity.

However, the view is very different from my perspective. So different, it’s almost impossible for you to comprehend. But you must try – even if it must be hypothetical – or else reading this will prove a hopeless waste of your time.

You will remember that I was once prima facie a sentient and existing creature much like you are today. You only have my word for that, but it’s true – I was once just like you are now. And I can tell you with affection that however little my existence has meant to you, yours has meant just as little to me. Consider that! Everything you are now – every feeling and passion, every memory – could all be reduced to a thimbleful of fuck-all when compared to the vast oceans of my own existential experience. When you were with me, perhaps you would have meant more to me, as your being was more closely linked with my own. But nevertheless, how insignificant you were! You of all people!

This loveless egotism so apparent in me now may easily have escaped your notice while I lived. But I suspect that’s because you’ve been too fixated with your own existence to ever really worry about mine (if there’s nothing else to be said for dying, it is a spectacularly good way of getting someone’s attention). But now that I have your ear and now that I have lost my capacity to surprise you, please consider that I was once as vital as you are now. I was once perplexed, amused, curious. I felt. I saw. I tasted. And now … well, now I am apparently nothing at all. Isn’t that the strangest thing?

Can you put yourself in my shoes at all? No, of course you can’t and it’s unreasonable for me to even ask you to try – because there are no shoes to put yourself in! You haven’t the first empirical inkling of what it must be like not to exist. Because everything you have ever known and know has been based on existing. Do you see? How could you ever conceive of the absolute negation of your own existence? How could you even start?

If what you believe about life and death is true then for me, right now, there is no concept of anything. Nothing can be considered or understood. Nothing has ever happened. I was the only person who could ever philosophically verify my existence and now there is no referent at all. So the fact of the matter is that – right now, and from my point of view – I never existed in the first place. No Alpha. No Omega. There is no idea of space or time to accommodate me. From my perspective, these words you look at now were never written. No words have ever existed. This is not happening. The world we shared and which you live in still has never existed. Existence itself has never existed. This is how things are from my point of view today, if what you believe about life and death is true.

And don’t think you get off the hook so easily. Because, for me, now, you have never existed either. If you think we ever loved, laughed, quarrelled or conversed, then I currently disagree. If you tell me that you exist, then I currently refute it. If you tell me that there was ever such a thing as our friendship or our world, then my immediate circumstances insist it wasn’t so. The evidence of your senses is mistaken. If I was ever something, you are now nothing. That is the corollary of my current predicament.

So I return to the question: has the world ceased to exist or have I? And I answer again: it depends on which side of the divide one is standing – yours or mine.

This is not a point I can make easily. What words are there to describe what is not? What I need are anti-words. A language of the negative. I say ‘my point of view’ knowing full well that, from your point of view, I have no point of view. I say “I” knowing that there is no “I”. Language is a tool of affirmation and I am using it to describe the ultimate negation. I need to rely on an artistic and intuitive understanding of my words, because there is no way for me to express my position. Under the aspect of nothing, any idea of something is absurd. There is no spark of potential for it to play with. Language has no foothold here.

But let me just say this. If you acknowledge that I once existed as you exist now, and you maintain that I no longer exist as a result of my dying, then to an extent you simultaneously renounce your own existence – as I was a verifiable locus of existence in this universe. But from your perspective – I imagine – this cannot be the case to any extent since your being contradicts it. If you are reading and thinking about these words then it is obviously impossible for you to renounce your own existence. So it makes more sense to conclude that I no longer exist as a result of my dying and so, by unfortunate extension, that I never really existed as you exist now. That certainly squares the circle. But what are the consequences?

They are that you must concede that you live in a solipsistic universe. That you are alone. That your existence is the sun around which the known world revolves. But it’s not a terrible price to pay. You, my unsuspecting old chum, have just become a God. You might find that that more reassuring than the alternative. But of course it is! You are the survivor. The winner. The champ! But let us turn the tables for a moment so that this dead man may have his say. There is a tension here that cannot be resolved if what you believe about life and death is true. Now – it is clear that the words you are reading in this moment did not write themselves. There was a time gone by when I was sat at a wooden desk writing these words for you. And like a long-expired star that still shines in your night sky, I was once alive. And though physically burnt out now I may be, my light still shines in these words. We are connected, you and I, through time. These words, like light, are bringing us together. All of that is uncontroversial and easy to understand.

Next, I ask you to take a leap in time. I want you to imagine me writing these words. From your point of view, now that I am dead, this is obviously taking place in the past, when I was alive. Do you remember those times? That past? But for me, the writer, as these words appear on the page out of nothing, that past is now the present. Here, I am not dead. I am living. That this is true is clear because I am thinking and I am writing – these words that appear so solid, settled and secure on the page are now appearing in front of me as I type. I am writing with the expectation that I will die one day. It is the only way I know to express the idea I want to express. Have you adapted your tense suitably? Let me help you. As I write this sentence, it is 00:27am on the 6th April 2008. I have a sore knee from judo and my mouth tastes sour from the milk of too many cups of tea. I am currently the most alive man in St Andrews. Everyone else has an exam tomorrow.

Right now, you are a figment of my imagination. I don’t know which one of my friends you are, I don’t even know if we have met yet. You assume centrality to the text as you are the one consuming it. But the truth is you are nothing to me but an imaginary and impersonal interlocutor who is helping me give an artistic thought some form. That’s nothing personal – how could it be different in an unpersonalised text? It’s just how things are from my point of view way back here in the past. And here it is me who is a God, and it is you who is nothing. How do you like that?

But let us leave the past (my present) and return to your present (my future) in case I cause needless offence. You are the living. You have the high ground. So let us conclude from your point of view.

Now then, from your point of view, how do we reconcile the following paradox: If what you believe about life and death is true, then one of us no longer exists? If what you believe about life and death is true then, from your perspective, I ceased to exist as a sentient being when I died. That means, from my perspective as it is today, I never existed as a sentient being in the first place, which means, also from my perspective, that you have never existed either – as there is nothing to speak of which can verify you.

Rejecting that, you might instead argue that I was never a bona fide locus of existence in the first place, extend that to all other minds, and then hunker down in the cosy simplicity of solipsism. That works for you, I imagine. The difficulty is that I can’t have that because, as I write these words, I can assure you I exist as much as anything ever has done.

Stalemate, then.

If we are to achieve any kind of reconciliation, there is only one course of action available: we must insist that the predicate gives way. That is, ‘if what you believe about life and death is true.’

My old, anonymous friend, if ever we were both alive, it is what you believe about life and death that must yield.

It is impossible to be dead.

‘Theodoulos’: A Lost Platonic Dialogue (Excerpt)

CALLICLES: Socrates, you are just in time! I was afraid you would be too late to meet with the noble Theodoulos. Come in, you are most welcome.

SOCRATES: Your fear was in vain, Callicles, I would not have missed such an encounter for the world. I hope I am not too late also in thanking you for your hospitality. I am looking forward to meeting your guests. Tell me, is it true what they say about Theodoulos? Is he really the most tolerant man in Athens?

CALLICLES: Ah, now Socrates, I know you too well to answer your tricky questions! Come, let me introduce you to him personally, and you can ask him yourself.

[gestures]

Theodoulos, a moment please. I have someone I want you to meet.

THEODOULOS: You must be the one they call Socrates. I have heard much about you. I am honoured to meet you at last.

SOCRATES: But the honour is mine, Theodoulos. For if what I hear is true you are the most tolerant man in Athens.

THEODOULOS: That is what they say, Socrates. I have yet to encounter a man more tolerant than I. For this reason I conclude that what they say about me is just and true.

SOCRATES: And the ‘tolerance’ to which you claim proprietorship: this is the same virtue that leads a person to see others as their equal and not to judge another person’s behaviour?

THEODOULOS: Indeed it is. I would never judge an adult who behaves within the law, Socrates, whether they be Greek or Persian, dark-skinned or light. I do not look down on anyone. I am above all prejudices and I believe all men should think and act as I do.

SOCRATES: And does your tolerance extend to women as well as men?

THEDOULOS: Of course, Socrates. If I use the word ‘men’ as a generic term it is merely a habit of language and I beg your pardon. A patriarchal Republic cannot truly be called a Republic at all. Gender is simply an accident of birth. I am proud to say I regard all women as equal to men.

SOCRATES: Very well. I am impressed. And I am to take it that your tolerance extends to the more intimate behaviours too?

THEODOULOS: If you are talking about sexual preferences, Socrates, it does indeed. Please do not feel the need to be coy in my company.

SOCRATES: Forgive my lack of frankness. So let me ask: how do you feel about a man lying with another man at night?

THEODOULOS: I embrace the idea, Socrates! And how could I not in this great city of ours? I believe that what two grown men, or women, choose to do in the privacy of their own homes is not for anyone else to judge. What’s more, I believe that this love can be a beautiful and wondrous thing. If it is what consenting adults choose to do, then I tolerate it. And I urge everyone to think as I do.

SOCRATES: And how do you feel about those men who would choose to lie with children? Do you tolerate them too?

THEODOULOS: I am tempted to make a highly esoteric joke about ‘The Phaedo’ here, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Resist the temptation, Theodoulos, and answer the question.

THEODOULOS: Well, I certainly do not admit to tolerating such behaviour. In fact I will say that it appals me. The act of pederasty transgresses a moral code and cannot be excused. You see, Socrates, a child is not yet old enough to consent to sexual activity. Therefore it is not a matter for tolerance. It is a crime and a crime must be punished. Socrates, you must not mistake tolerance with turning a blind eye to what is necessary for the upkeep of a functioning Republic. You cannot tolerate an act that coerces another individual and compromises their freedom. This is not the spirit of toleration at all. And you know this to be true.

SOCRATES: You make your points well, Theodoulos. I accept that adult/child relationships are not to be tolerated on the principle of adult consent. And it is your argument that has convinced me.

THEODOULOS: I am very pleased to hear it, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And what about a brother and a sister who engage in sexual activity? Do you encourage and tolerate that too?

THEODOULOS: Certainly not, Socrates! It disgusts me!

SOCRATES: But what if the brother and sister are both consenting adults?

THEODOULOS: That is different, Socrates. Adult consent is one thing, the act of incest is quite another. I feel you are being unreasonable here. I am the most tolerant man in Athens, and I do not consider it inconsistent to be disgusted by the act of incest.

SOCRATES: If anything, Theodoulos, I am being too reasonable. If you are to say that a sexual behavior should be granted tolerance on the principle of adult consent, then why is this principle different when it is applied to two adults from the same family? I hope you are not going to invoke some religious morality to approve your disdain?

THEODOULOS: This is mischief, Socrates! You know very well that there are other moral complications that would need to be considered.

SOCRATES: And what might they be?

THEODOULOS: Procreation, Socrates. It is an observable phenomenon that the children who are born out of such vile relationships are often found to be either physically abnormal or mentally defective.

SOCRATES: Disabled, you mean.

THEODOULOS: Yes, Socrates, disabled.

SOCRATES: And what is wrong with being disabled? Are you suggesting that a child with a disability is not a human being to be tolerated?

THEODOULOS: I … I believe all disabled people are equal! I pride myself on this belief!

SOCRATES: So you admit that you change your mind? You do not think the potential birth of a disabled child alone should be used as ground to preclude the sexual union of immediate family members?

THEODOULOS: I suppose not. Socrates.

SOCRATES: Yet you still refuse to tolerate the act of incest?

THEODOULOS: That I do.

SOCRATES: And you maintain the legitimacy of same sex relationships is based on the principle of adult consent?

THEODOULOS: You are quite right in saying so.

SOCRATES: And you maintain that it is precisely this same principle that makes pederasty immoral?

THEODOULOS: Most assuredly.

SOCRATES: Then by your own admission, you have one of four options available to you if you want to be upstanding in your convictions.

THEODOULOS: I am listening.

SOCRATES: The first option is that you renounce your tolerance of same sex relationships, admitting that it is without moral foundation.

THEODOULOS: I will do no such thing, Socrates. I am far too tolerant.

SOCRATES: That is fair. Then your second option is to tolerate the sexual union of adults with children, and renounce ‘consenting adults’ as a principle of legitimacy in such matters.

THEODUOLOS: I cannot do that, Socrates. I cannot renounce that principle.

SOCRATES: Then your third option is to start tolerating the sexual union of immediate family members who are over the age of consent.

THEODOULOS: I will not do that, Socrates. It disgusts me.

SOCRATES: Then, logically, only the fourth option is available to you.

THEODOULOS: I beg to hear it.

SOCRATES: You renounce your claim to tolerance and accept that your position is based on prejudice and not principle – favourable prejudice, I grant you – but prejudice nevertheless. What’s more, your boastful claims of tolerance are the claims of a charlatan who is doing nothing more than riding a wave of popular taste in attempt to be loved by more people.

THEODOULOS: Your words wound my ears. But if that is how it must be, Socrates, then I accept what you say.

SOCRATES: Excellent, now let’s go over there and have a little chat with Alcibiades the Merchant. I think I heard him say something about “the one percent”…

The Wedding Present

When Brian Cox invited me to his wedding all those years ago, I was unsure what I should get him and his lovely fiancé, Gia, for a present.

After much thought, I decided that something personal would be most fitting for a friendship as deep as ours. And remembering how Brian and his bride-to-be had always complemented me on the paintings that hung in my flat, I wondered if this might be the answer. The paintings were my own creations, and the couple had always expressed a fondness for them that I was sure extended beyond mere manners or flattery.

So, I decided to take a week off work and devote myself to painting something special so I could present it to the newly married couple on their big day.

Well, what an undertaking it turned out to be. The muse struck me with a power I had never before experienced. I barely slept for six days and six nights as I wrestled with each and every detail of the painting. I found in myself a pursuit of perfection that was heretofore unfamiliar. My beard grew long and my studio became increasingly untidy as I tried to bring my vision to life. My emails and phone calls went unanswered. My mind was so focussed on getting this latest piece just right for my two beloved friends that I couldn’t allow myself any distractions. I cannot even remember if I took any food or water.

But I managed to complete the work, and I could not have been more proud of the result. The finished piece was deeply (and deliberately) contradictory. The colour palette was dark and foreboding yet the painting itself expressed ideas of light. To the untrained eye, this was nothing but a painting of the night sky. But to those who looked deeper, there were esoteric meanings that I had been able to convey only through painstaking draughtsmanship and execution.

It was, unquestionably, a triumph. And when it was beyond the improvement of one more stroke, I put my brush and palette to one side and collapsed into my bed to sleep the whole Sunday through.

***

Months later, the big day arrived.

Brian and Gia were married and my gift was unveiled. The young Professor, in particular, seemed captivated with my handiwork. He talked to me for the rest of the evening about it. “Does this bit here, mean what I think it means?” “The relationship of the colours here, is that supposed to represent x and y?” “Is the spatial relationship between the two stars in the west and the knoll on the terrain deliberate?”

On and on he went.

I explained some of the more esoteric concepts and spatial symbolisms of the work and he became even more impressed.

At the end of the evening, he thanked me with such sincerity that it made me feel a little uncomfortable. He said something about it being the “most beautiful and gorgeous thing the world has ever seen.” This struck me as a disingenuous thing for a man to say on his wedding day. But I was pleased my efforts had not gone unappreciated.

Over time, however, this was to change.

In 2006, Gia called me, telling me how Prof. Cox was becoming more and more infatuated with the artwork. She told me her husband kept saying how “beautiful” and “majestic” it was. She said that he had taken to writing at length about it and what it represented to him.

She asked me to come and talk to him. She wanted me to play down the significance of my work as it was making her feel neglected and alone. “It’s an obsession,” she said to me. “A bloody obsession.”

At first, I wasn’t so sure. After all, the Professor was right to be captivated by the artwork – it really was that good. But listening to Gia’s sobs and listening to her say how much she missed her man made me relent. I decided to play down my genius for the sake of the union of two old friends.

I took the train from Euston up to Manchester (this was in the pre-Pendolino days and quite an undertaking) and paid my old pals a visit. Gia answered the door in a dressing gown. She looked dishevelled and depressed. She gave me a forced but familiar smile and, with a weary gesture, beckoned me to follow her to her husband’s study.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Brian Cox was sat on a beanbag looking up in wonder at the painting. My painting. The walls of the study had been hastily decorated ­– in what I could only assume was lipstick – with hundreds of equations and formulae. When Brian eventually saw me out of the corner of his eye, he turned and beamed.

“Robbie, my old mate,” he said with a familiar and effete Mancunian whine. “Come in and take a seat, buddy.” He patted the beanbag next to him and I shuffled somewhat uncomfortably towards him to take my place.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. His beady eyes shone with life and enthusiasm. “Isn’t it the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?” His gaze was fixed on the painting that hung above us. Gia was right. He was mesmerised.

I responded with as much humility as I could muster, “Well, Brian, to be honest, mate, it’s quite hard for me to comment. I mean, I painted it.”

But if ever there was false modesty, this was it. The painting was fucking fantastic. He knew it and I knew it.

Brian carried on talking as if I hadn’t said a word. “This bit here, up in the top-right-hand corner, you might think that these are simply stars, but there’s more to it than that. They represent ancient Zoroastrian mysteries.”

The lad knew his painting, that was for sure. I was impressed. “You spotted that? I didn’t think anyone …”

“And down here, in this thicket of grass,” he continued eagerly,“you can see, in this moonlight, a visual allusion to the limitation of language . . . then here, top left, an wonderful astrological satire of Minoan culture  . . . and then over here to the left . . .”

This went on, without pause, for about half an hour. Until he turned to me, sweaty from his enthusiasm. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”

After listening to him reveal to me the secrets of my own artwork for this length of time, his patronising tone had started to grate.

“Brian, will you please calm down? And will you stop telling me what I already know? I’m glad you like my painting, truly, and I’m glad you have deduced its many meanings, but for the love of Christ, will you get a grip? You are neglecting your wife and, to be honest, you are starting to become a bit of a bore about the whole thing. Yes, the painting is beautiful, and I’m delighted that you like it. But it was just a gift, something for you and Gia to enjoy. Stop taking it so seriously!”

There was silence.

You didn’t paint this,” came the eventual response, maniacal and accusing.

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“What the . . .?”

You didn’t paint this picture. Nobody did.”

Well, if that wasn’t the final insult.

“Why, you ungrateful toad, that took one hundred and forty four hours’ solid work and you have the audacity to…”

Again I was interrupted. He spoke calmly and with a sneer.

“You can’t prove you painted this. There is no need for you to have painted it. There is so much meaning in it that it justifies its own existence. Nobody could have been creative enough to make something as beautiful and as lovely as this.”

He waggled a long index finger at me and peered at me through half-closed eyes. I walked out and made my apologies to Gia.

I was affronted.

***

I didn’t hear a thing from either of my two old friends for years. Life moved on and I myself became married. But in October of last year, I received another call from Gia. She told me she and Brian were going to get to get a divorce. There were no tears. She had come to terms with everything.

I was deeply saddened by the news. When we used to ‘knock about’ (as they called it) in Manchester together all those years ago, they were such a lovely couple. Brian with his boyish good-looks and Britpop hair, and Gia with her handsome Mediterranean lineaments. We always knew they would get married and never thought for a moment that they might split.

I couldn’t help but feel I was responsible. It was, after all, my damned painting that had caused their problems.

“Gia, this is all my fault. Please let me talk to him again, I can assure him that he’s reading things into that painting that aren’t there. There must be something I can do?”

“Oh it’s too late for that,” she replied. “Brian stopped believing in your existence a long time ago.”

“Brian stopped what?”

“He’s stopped believing in your existence. Whenever I mention your name, or the fact that it’s your painting, he says I’m being ridiculous. At first he denied you had it in you to create something so ‘beautiful’ and ‘amazing’, but over time gradually he stopped believing that you even existed at all. He thinks I’ve made you up in some bizarre attempt at making his beloved painting less profound.”

I’d never heard anything like it in my life. “Well how the hell does he think that painting got there in the first place?”

“Robbie, you’re not going to believe this, but he thinks it’s always been there. And before it, there was nothing at all. He can’t seem to separate the world that isn’t the painting from the world that is the painting.”

“But this is bloody ridiculous. Of course I exist, I’m talking to you right now. Put him on the phone, immediately.”

“He won’t talk to you, Rob, sorry. He doesn’t think you will answer because he doesn’t believe you exist. He won’t even try because he thinks it would make him look an idiot and would show him to be unsure in his convictions. And since he refuses to leave his study, or be anywhere that wretched painting is not, I doubt you’ll ever be able to see him in person again either.”

Well fuck me.

In the end, I gave up.  I apologised to Gia for all the problems I’d caused, and she understood. And we hung up, probably never to speak to each other again.

The thing that made me most angry off most was not that my two friends were getting divorced, or even that I’d lost a very dear friend to some aesthetic lunacy.

What incurred my wrath was that the painting was by far the greatest thing I had ever created. I wanted a little credit for that; a little glory. If I had known the person to whom it was given would start telling me that it wasn’t my work, let alone start denying my very existence, I wouldn’t have bothered.

I put so much work into that painting. It was the thing he loved most in the world. And he didn’t even have the grace to be thankful.

Some people.

The Man in the Deportivo La Coruña Jersey

“Daddy, look!”

Urged the wide-eyed little boy to the man in the Deportivo La Coruña jersey as we sat in the coffee shop at the airport.

The wide-eyed little boy could have been no older than four. The man in the Deportivo La Coruña jersey maybe 30.

The wide-eyed little boy had finished a drawing. Standard, abstract, toddler stuff. It looked to the nosy blogger sat at the adjoining table like it was maybe a house set against a blue sky. A mess of colours and squiggles. Now it was complete.

The man in the Deportivo La Coruña jersey grunted and carried on reading his newspaper.

Darling, look what he’s done.”

Nagged the pretty wife to reinforce the appeal of the wide-eyed little boy to the man in the Deportivo La Coruña jersey.

“Not now. I’m reading the paper.”

And that was that. The man in the Deportivo La Coruña jersey had spoken.

He was a grown up. It was quite clear that he had no time for anything so childish. He was reading the paper and didn’t want to be distracted by something as immature and meaningless as a wide-eyed little boy’s drawing.

“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” thought the nosy blogger sat at the adjoining table. “It is correct and appropriate that when a man reaches a certain age he no longer engages in childish pursuits and focuses his efforts on more adult and serious matters.”

Deportivo La Coruña:
National Titles
La Liga
Winners: 1999-00
Copa del Rey
Winners: 1995, 2002
Supercopa de España
Winners: 1995, 2000, 2002
Segunda División
Winners: 1939-40, 1952-53, 1961-62, 1963–64, 1965–66, 1967–68
Tercera División
Winners: 1974-75
International titles
UEFA Intertoto Cup:
Winners: 2008