by Mark Winson
a cup of unstirred tea that only presents the sugar to the tongue with the last mouthful
It was a strange day. There was a grating silence hanging in the air. There were few birds singing, few conversations of passers-by that I could gate crash and less than the usual stampede of traffic rumbling down the high street. Most notable was the stillness that settled over the school playground, a clamour I ordinarily enjoyed, the chatter and giggling of children are to me, so representative of the continuation of life. The sunshine, the glorious sunshine that had dominated so much of that summer, was also absent, as if God had flicked a simple switch. My face felt abandoned, condemned to defending itself from the sharp wind that brought about the change in the weather. Perhaps there had been something more, on that noteworthy day, that I should have been aware of.
Needs must, however. I had drained the house of milk, blitzed out the bread bin and was suffering an oral with-drawl after eating too many dry crackers. Dry, I say dry, but they had turned, were slightly damp, so I had to venture out. It would at least break the silence, not that my silence inconvenienced anyone, living alone on my meagre income was hardly going to open sunflowers. I had learned to cope however, made mistakes along the way, as we all do, but there was a subtle difference between wanting to and having to. The doctor had told me that!
So, I donned my overcoat. I feel the cold much more these days and wear it more than often. I’ve taken to sitting in it, to listen to “The Archers”, rather than putting the heating on. Then, I took up my not so macho shopping bag, which was the wife’s, bless her, and fully equipped I left. I tried to walk with a defiant step, something I’d learned that relieved my trepidation and hesitation. Shoppers with swinging bags and drag along children are normally the only waves that fail to part in front of me, but I was far more confused when there were none. An ever-doubting mind you see, a propensity for reflecting on the downside of my existence, and a tendency to ask myself taxing questions all the time. I did on that day. Was it that people were avoiding me? Maybe the case had I not washed for a week, but I’m always fastidious with my personal hygiene and always indulge in a drift of aftershave.
I did well to dodge the abrupt parking bollards and spewing litter bins, which were more than testing, but getting across the road was like negotiating my life away. Screaming cars, articulated lorries, silent but deadly push bikes are bad enough, but I also had to contend with the state of the road surface. What do they do all day long, in those bleeding council offices? Most likely they are engrossed in that Facebook thing, playing games and talking to fellow anoraks. They even twitter, according to my nephew, as if they’re all birding freaks or something. I ride over the ruts in smooth roads when out of town, but I’m at far more risk of falling down those cut into an urban street. It’s then I wobble like jelly, scrabbling to right myself just in time to avoid yet another skidding car with all the tread of a fried egg in a well-greased pan.
I walked past the arcade, listening to the pinging pinball machines and jingling of coins falling over the waterfalls, past the last remaining record shop, one that persists in playing music that you’re supposed to listen to in your garage! I stopped just outside Mothercare, somewhere I think all babies dislike judging by the bawling coming from inside and turned to stand at the curbs edge. Hesitating, assessing the odds in crossing the street, I suddenly felt a splash from God’s watering can. I cursed him under my breath. I have my doubts about religion and would like to know just how God can be held so reverently, what with all the bad in the world. There was twice the urgency if I wanted to stay dry. So, prompted by my chiding mind if nothing else, I quickly stepped out into the oceanic expanse of tarmac, leaving behind the security of its coastline, with no more focus than getting across the channel.
It was then that it happened. I’d been so preoccupied; I’d paid little heed to the rumbling overhead and failed to realise or recognise what was coming. I always listen to the news of a morning but have an unerring habit to switch the radio off before the weather report.
You don’t hear lightening, you have little warning that it’s coming, only a heavenly notification that it’s been and gone as the furniture overhead is dragged across the sky. Then wallop! This bolt from what must have been a power-station in the clouds hit me, pummelling me into what became scorched tarmac! It rifled up through my body, from the ground beneath my feet until the hair on the back of my neck stood like that of a cat’s angry back. I felt myself go rigid, statuesque and hard; any chill of the day being blown away in a millisecond. There was a distinct smell of dry burning and a crackling closing over the vacuum left in the air as all the oxygen was consumed. Probably being the only reason why I hadn’t burst into flames. I could feel the blood in my veins beginning to boil, taste a hit of what seemed to be barbecue sauce, infused into my tongue. I yelled, believe me you would! I don’t think I swore, least not as this generation seem to, but something leapt from my screaming mouth all the same. Then all was dark, all was silent.
I don’t remember much more at that point, I had no inkling of how long I been away with the fairies, it was just, well, black. They say your life is supposed to flash before your eyes, not that it did in my case, but neither did it occur to me that I’d been deprived of a promised liaison with St Peter, and had never stood before the gold wrought iron of heaven’s gates. I could have lost days, I could have lost weeks, things might well have accelerated to the point of me missing several episodes of the “Archers”.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I opened my eyes. The shock was more than palpable, as stood in front of me was Jesus Christ, nestling on a fluffy white cloud formation, in a long blue robe that rolled comfortably over his relaxed arms, folded to allow his hands to come together in prayer. A legion of angels had glided over him, with the faces of innocent babies and the wings of mighty eagles outstretched illustriously. Dainty birds with gloriously coloured coats, either heaven bound or in ghostly flight, swooped and played across the orange of the sky as they were welcomed by him. His smile was gentle, a forgiving smile to those that needed forgiving, and that could well have included me.
The vista in front of me was inspiring, inspiriting and yet in its own way, reassuring. It certainly wasn’t what I expected, believe you me. At first, I was shocked, so shocked in witnessing what I was seeing that I felt sure it had to be a miracle. Had God put aside my perfidiousness, my dishonesty, that time I pinched a new band saw from work, that time I jabbed Richard Smith in the eye, I could go on. If asked I would never have admitted that I was unworthy, but then he is supposed to forgive you, isn’t he?
“I don’t believe it,” I said, “after all these years, after all this time,” I said. “I’m so sorry!” Frankly, it was surprising that this last-ditch confession was accepted and that the trapdoor to oblivion remained shut.
I was just about to kneel in front of Jesus and ask him for further directions, when suddenly, a panicked voice broke the serenity of the moment.
“He’s awake Vicar! He’s alive Vicar! but I think he thinks he’s dead, that he’s gone to heaven, he’s in a daze. You have to do something!” I could hear this lady’s stampeding voice rattling round my head as I felt my stupor lighten and my feet finally touch down again. She sounded in some respects like the wife, always having her say, forcing her opinion, bless her, and then handing responsibility over to someone else. We survived as long as we did because I had the foresight to listen and then disregard much of what she said.
“Oh my, oh my Lord, how did he survive a strike like that? Just look at the state of him!” said a man more from somewhere behind my head, whose hands were holding it steady. “It knocked the power out to the church and half of the town’s shops!” I was lying on my back you see, but then I’d hardly be standing upright if what he was saying was true. In actual fact, I was lying exactly where a compassionate band of church goers had laid me, after rescuing my burnt corpse from the middle of the charred road. How lucky that they were meeting on such a day, how lucky was I? They stood hopeful, crossing themselves over and over repeatedly, beseeching God not to take me before time, until eventually, thankfully, I opened my eyes and managed to focus. I felt at first, as if I was in a hospital bed, with seven shades of junior Doctors angling over me, putting forward observations and coming to a bizarre diagnosis.
“We should never have brought him into the church, never have put him just here!” the Vicar said, chastising himself and looking up at the beautifully painted church ceiling. “He thinks he’s looking into heaven, thinks he’s meeting Jesus, you’re right, he thinks he must have passed away!” I don’t know whether it was the shock of the ceiling that I was looking at, or the crucifix hanging from the vicar’s neck!
It was then that I felt my mouth crack with an allowance for a broadening smile, or more likely a look of wonderment that had spread across my face, those looking down at me exhibiting much the same reaction. I was alive, I was more than alive, I was, well, repaired. I was no longer looking at Jesus and his cloud hopping minions, I’d focused on the vicar.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. He wasn’t listening of course, not many people do when looking at someone of my age, they think that just because my bodies failing, my mind is too. His intentions were commendable all the same, Godly, saintly or whatever a man of the cloth strives to be.
“Lie still my son,” he said, “you’ve had a great shock!” Well, state the bleeding obvious he did, which didn’t help. “The ambulance is on its way, don’t worry!” I looked directly into his eyes, the miraculous fresco above me didn’t matter anymore. I took hold of his arm, quickly, before he began preparing himself to give me the last rights.
“A shock it is Vicar,” I said, “but not the shock you thought I’d had. You see, before I tried to cross the road and before I felt the heat burning up through my body… truth is…” I remember rubbing my eyes with the back of my hands at this point, as tears began to spill into tributaries running over my cheekbones. I smiled again, ready to make my announcement to the whole world and in the sight of God. “Truth is… I was totally blind!”