Saturday 16 December 2023

Big J’s Xmas Visit by Michael Barrington, Irish coffee

It was just after the 7:30 AM Mass, the Bishop had just gone into the sacristy and on the life-sized crucifix hanging on the back wall of the sanctuary, there was movement. Jesus managed to pull his legs free, the rusty nail clanking and bouncing as it hit then settled on the marble floor. He freed his left hand and finally the right.  Very gingerly, he slid down onto the altar, his bare feet leaving bloody imprints on the crisp, freshly starched, and ironed white cloth covering the table. As he made his way to the men’s room, he passed three parish gossips praying the rosary together, whose jaws dropped with shock at the indecency of a man wearing nothing but a loincloth in the cathedral and the Bishop being present.

Jesus washed up as best he could in the men’s room, carefully removed his crown of thorns, and stuffed it in the trash can, pressing it down as far as he could. ‘Wouldn't want anybody else to get their hands caught on that,’ he murmured to himself.

As he exited the front door, he shivered with cold; it was a freezing December morning. Waiting in line for the bus, he sensed that the heavily bundled up people, were staring silently at him. ‘So much for the happy season,’ he thought, ‘but on the other hand, I probably don't look too great.’

‘So, ‘ad a rough night then?’ It was the ticket collector, a heavy-set man who was smiling and standing next to him. Jesus had noticed that the man greeted every passenger the same way, welcoming each one as if into his own home. He laughed, he joked, clearly enjoying his work. ‘No need to answer, lad, it shows. Should stay off the bloody sauce for a while if I were in your shoes. Am glad you're not sitting down, would really bugger up the seat with that dirty cloth you're wearing.’ Jesus nodded in agreement. ‘Not from round 'ere, I reckon. So, where you're going?’

‘I need to get to the LBGTQ Shelter, but am not sure where it is exactly.’

‘Don’t worry about it lad; you're on the right bus. I'll let you know which stop it is.’

‘Thank you. You’re very helpful.’

‘Think nowt of it,’ he chipped back, then looking Jesus up and down, said, ‘and I suppose you’re going to tell me you’ve got no bus fare,’ and let out a chuckle.

‘Yes, I'm afraid so. But I’ll remember your number and pay you later.’

‘It's only a few pence. I too 'ave been there and done it, and too many times. But I’m dry now. This one’s on me.’

The shelter was a brightly painted, large warehouse looking out of place next to several other partially derelict and destroyed buildings. Men and women, many carrying brown paper bags, some with old backpacks, a few with small shopping carts stuffed with their belongings, stood patiently in line. Jesus didn't know what to do. At that very moment, a young woman in her mid-twenties, suddenly caught sight of him, ran out and threw her arms around him. ‘You must be Big J,’ she said with delight, ‘I’m Jocelyn. We got an anonymous phone call this morning that you would be arriving. This is just wonderful, come and meet the gang.” Then as she held his hand, he allowed himself to be led into an Aladdin’s cave of warmth, bright lights, the smell of breakfast and lots of laughter.

‘This is my wife Amy,’ Jocelyn said, introducing a pretty dark-haired woman of the same age. ‘She runs the place, or rather she helps us keep it all together. ‘

‘You need to be seen by our volunteer doctor’ she said softly. ‘Paul’s very good. Then how about a shower? After that we’ll have breakfast together.’

‘Sounds wonderful,’ he replied.

‘Then follow me, I’ll take you to him.’

As they made their way through a maze of passageways with the sound of Christmas music playing over a PA system, Jesus couldn’t help but pick up on the happy atmosphere.

‘Hey, Paul, this is Big J. He’s just arrived and has some bloody wounds. I hope you can take care of him; if not, then we'll follow our usual plan B and take him to Victoria Hospital urgent care. But you know how I feel about that place. They really don't like our people.’

‘Hi, Big J, welcome to my pad.’ They were standing in a small but well-equipped room set up as a nursing station. ‘And don’t worry about what Amy says, I'm sure there's nothing I can't manage.’ Then looking him over from head to toes, said caringly, ‘why don't we first head over to the showers, it looks like you’ve not had one for a while?’

Wrapped in warm towels and with flip flops on his feet, Paul led Big J back to the first aid station. ‘Your wounds don’t look good,’ Paul began, ‘especially the one on your side, but I think I can stitch it up. I’ll also have to put some sutures on both wrists and your feet. I’m actually amazed you can walk. Whoever it was, they really did a number on you. You must have been a really bad boy,’ he said jokingly. ‘There’s a huge bruise on one shoulder. But your back man, it’s a mess. I’ll do the best I can. The skin is so broken, it will take some time to heal. A couple of shots should handle any infection and I’ve enough pain killers that should help for a while. The good news is that your head wounds are not deep, and after you’re done with James, our hairdresser, I’ll take another look.’

            An hour later, Paul announced, ‘Big J, that’s about as much as I can do. Your body could only take this much punishment because you're in such good physical shape. I’m now going to get some clothes and better footwear,’ and soon  returned with some underwear, a pair of jeans, a T shirt and a large woollen jumper. ‘You'll look great in that,’ he joked, ‘might even win the ugly Xmas sweater competition. I've brought some socks and found these trainers, which are probably a size or two too large but should work for you.’

‘You’re very kind,’ Jesus replied, ‘One day I’ll pay you back.’

‘Oh, don’t think about it,’ he said, ‘you're not anyone special; we treat everybody who comes here the same way. But before I take you to James, would you like a cup of tea first or will you wait for breakfast?’

‘No, thank you,’ Big J responded, ‘I’ll wait. I love family meals.’

‘Soooooooooooooooooo what have I here?’ James asked, extending a heavily tattooed hand with ring-covered fingers. They were now in a room set up like a professional hairdresser’s salon. ‘I heard you were in the building. So, Paul,’ he suggested, ‘why don't you leave Big J with me and when I'm done, I'll take him over to the dining room.’

‘Excellent idea.’

Big J looked at James, trying to remember whom he resembled, then realized it was his cousin, except that he was a fisherman. This James had the hands and long, slender fingers of an artist. ‘I really like what you’re wearing,’ said Jesus ‘and your hair looks wonderful, very unique.’

‘That's kind of you,’ he answered, preening himself. He was wearing a pale blue top, with a bright square design, each quadrant a different color, with long, wide flowing sleeves. His blue skintight, multi-colored yoga pants were eye-catching. But his most striking feature was his hair. Both sides of his head were shaved to the scalp and dyed a dark green. The rest was bright yellow three-inch-high thatch standing up straight Mohican style. Big J paid no attention to the ring through his nose and the scorpion tattoo on his neck; he only noticed his eyes. They seemed to sparkle with acceptance and kindness.

‘Then let’s get started,’ he said caringly looking at the wounds, ‘I’ll be extra careful. Let me give your hair a shampoo with conditioner, then we can discuss what you would like me to do with it. How’s that?’

‘Yes, that sounds like a plan.’

‘You know, Big J, there are many women who would die to have hair like yours. It’s so thick. So, what’s your fancy?’

‘I really don’t know. I’ve had long hair for years. It was very fashionable back in the day. What do you think? What would you suggest?’

‘Certainly not long,’ James exclaimed, ‘that is so yesterday. But did you ever see that painting by Salvador Dali of Christ of St John of the Cross? He gave you short but tousled hair. Shall we go for that look?'

‘Yes, I really liked it,’ Jesus answered with a little laugh, ‘and now my head is in your hands. But what about the beard?’

‘Am soooooooooooooooo happy you asked,’ James said. ‘It's really got to go. Or on second thoughts, what about just a short jaw-lined look.’

‘And you don’t think a goatee would suit me?’

There was a long pause as James walked around him, looking at his face from several angles, carefully touching the beard.

‘No, I really don’t think so. Let’s go with a really modern look. It will just seem like you haven’t shaved for several days. It would be tre̒s chic.’

‘I submit to your superior knowledge,’ Big J responded with a chuckle.

Thirty minutes later they were seated in the dining room with about one hundred men and women. Jesus looked along the lines of people being fed; nobody asked about their age, beliefs, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, political allegiance or marital status. They were simply poor, hungry and homeless.

Sliding onto an open seat next to him, Paul carefully examined Big J’s head and hair. ‘Here’s some medication. Just dab it on each wound twice a day,’ and slipped him a tube of antiseptic cream.

‘I'll never forget your kindness,’ he answered softly, and lightly touched his shoulder with his bandaged hand.

‘Wow, that’s quite a transformation,’ Jocelyn commented. ‘You’re beginning to look almost human again. I hope you’re beginning to feel a little better. How long will you be staying with us?’

‘Just today and tonight,’ Jesus answered. ‘I’d like to earn my keep by working here today, then tomorrow I need to be in Oldham.’

‘Oh, that’s too short, Big J. Are you sure you can’t stay longer? That’s a rhetorical question,’ she quickly added, ‘so don’t answer it. I’m just being selfish. You know how Amy and I feel about you. And we can help you with getting to Oldham,” she added in a tearful voice.

‘I wish I could stay,’ he replied gently, ‘but I can’t. I got a call from Kate. She calls me every day and said she was struggling with her Xmas decorations and trimming her tree. Getting old can be a real burden. I said I would help her. It's all such an important part of getting ready for my birthday. Most people take it quite seriously, and it’s a really big deal for them. I just wish the churches would get on board with the Xmas spirit, but that’s something I can’t do much about. The pastors need to listen to the people, to take their cue from them, to be leaders of joy. But I live in hope. Anyway, I need somehow to get to Oldham so I can help her and Bernard.’

‘That will not be a problem,’ answered a woman wearing a colorful traditional dress.  ‘I’m Ezyan from Afghanistan,’ she said smilingly, ‘you’ll be working with Yemane and me this morning, pointing to a young black man. He’s from Senegal and speaks awful English,’ she teased. ‘We’ll be putting together free food bags for the people who are lined up outside. Times are very hard, and there is so much poverty. And if you’re an illegal like so many of us and have lost everything, a place like this is a real haven of hope. Meanwhile, I’ll find out exactly how to get to Oldham. I’m sure there will be a good bus service.’  

‘Hey, Big J, over here.’ A group of men and women were walking alongside tables stacked with canned, packaged goods and fresh produce, dropping one of each item into a large carry bag. It was then deposited on a table near the entrance where staff, all wearing Santa hats, were handing them out. A tall olive-skinned man wearing a reindeer-type hat, was waving him over. ‘We heard you were coming today. Come and work with us. We have the first shift. Ezyan and Yemane are in charge, but they’ll let you work with me. We have no real hierarchy here. Our common goal is to simply get the job done. My name is Yasra and I’m from Palestine, Bethlehem actually, ask me anything you want to know about the place. I know you were born there but I learned your parents had to run for it soon afterwards. I know the feeling. I escaped last year after losing my wife and child in an Israeli attack. We were minding our own business, just trying to hide and get out of the way. I’ve not been back to the mosque since, I'm too angry with Allah, but the team here is really helping me with my grief and anger. I just love this place and these people. And oh, by the way, is that the best they could do in the sweater department,’ he added with a laugh.

‘So happy to meet you Yasra. And yes I'll be happy to work alongside you. Am so sorry for your loss. And hey, I got all these clothes for free. Not too long ago I was almost naked. What’s not to like? But I have a question for you. I noticed that there are banners everywhere with the letters LGBTQ. The same banner is over the front door. What do the letters mean?’

‘That’s an easy one. It’s what drives us, what makes us tick, what makes us who we are. It’s our slogan our philosophy; Love, Brotherhood, Giving, Tenderness and Question.’

‘I think I get the first three, but what about the last two?’

‘Everybody who comes through those doors has been wounded in some way. Everybody. We're the walking wounded. In a brutal world, we need to reach out with tenderness to each other. Treat each other tenderly. The word says it all. And Question? Jocelyn and Amy ask us every day and occasionally multiple times during the day, to question ourselves, our motives. It’s as if they were brought up knowing the Quran, but I know they’re Catholics. Why we are here? Why do we do what we do? I guess it's a way of purifying our intentions.’

‘Tell me more’, Big J requested, ‘there must be more to it.’

‘Well, there is. I’m a Muslim. The Quran teaches that purity is the sincerity of intention behind any action or behavior. Islam regards the motives behind what people say or do as essential and that these motives should always be to pursue the pleasure, approval, and satisfaction of God. Whether the individual himself or the people discover these motives or not, a person must acknowledge that God sees and knows what is in a person’s heart at all times. Here I see the Quran in action, and I am part of it. And didn’t you preach a similar message?’ He held up his hand. ‘No need to answer, Big J;  I've seen what Christians can do to each other. It’s just that here at LGBTQ, the message is vibrant, is real.’

‘Good news Big J. I found a phone number for Kate and Bernard’s address you gave me, so I called them. Ezyan was walking towards him offering the information. ‘You do know I’ll never forget our meeting,’ she said with tears in her eyes. ‘Today is very special for me. I'm a Yasidi, a survivor, a woman who was raped multiple times. My whole family was exterminated just because of its beliefs. But I know where I stand with you and that gives me peace and comfort, even though we've never met before. I can feel it.’

 Standing, looking at each other, Big J reached out and gently drew her to silently himself, their arms wrapped around each other. As they separated, she explained, ‘I’ll put you on the bus that will take you all the way to Oldham city center. They’ll meet you there and drive you home. Kate and Bernard will spoil you rotten. They’re so excited. I also told them a little about your schedule that you would be visiting several other families but that you had to be back in the cathedral by the evening of the 24th. They understood and said they’d drive you there themselves. You’ve made our Xmas preparations here so very special, Big J, and I’m sure once you've helped them dress their tree, put up their lights, hung the holly wreath on their door, and wrapped some presents, it will also be their best Xmas ever. And oh, Kate says she bakes a mean mince pie and has a special birthday cake for you.’


About the author

Michael Barrington, is an international writer specializing in historical novels: Let the Peacock Sing, The Ethiopian Affair, Becoming Anya, The Baron of Bengal Street, No Room for Heroes. His 40 short stories and articles have been published in the USA & UK. He also blogs on his website:  


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