The old man’s voice was as thin as the paper blowing about in the doorway. The boy wondered what the time was. It was late – too late for the old man.
‘We’ll rest here for tonight,’ he told his grandfather as he adjusted the scarf around his neck. He listened. There were no voices, no angry shouts, no revving cars, no strangled words coming from a loudhailer. Only the sound of the evening, brooding.
If there were men after them, they’d given them the slip. Perhaps, they’d given up for the night. They’d start again in the morning. He knew that.
For tonight, at least, they’d be safe. Tomorrow they’d make an early start to put distance between them and the Authorities who’d been sent to bring them before the Unholy Council.
Why had his grandfather gone against the Council? Him of all people! The man who wore the Fisherman’s ring!
He’d been a voice in the wilderness. ‘Speak your truth quietly and clearly,’ his grandfather had said.
Such a brave old man. He’d gone against everything but the truth, thought the boy. But what had he achieved? Now they were huddled in a doorway waiting for the darkness to hide them.
Nowhere was safe anymore. The only safety lay in… The boy turned his head. ‘Death’ was a new word for him. It fascinated but terrified him. If the old man was right, Death would be a release, a new beginning. He’d had plenty of years to understand about Death. The boy saw only uncertainty.
He covered his grandfather with his coat and pushed his thoughts to the back of the doorway.’We’ll leave tomorrow,’ repeated the boy, ‘when the weather changes.’ The boy took the old man’s hand. He gently pressed his body against him to keep him warm. He wondered if he’d be alive in the morning.
By morning, the old man was dead.
The boy, Peter Alexander, was aware of his death a little after the first rays of light crept up from behind the old, abandoned timber mill.
He was angry with himself for not keeping awake. He thought of the Man from Galillee being angry with his followers for not staying awake in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Master was angry and probably a little bit hurt because he knew their time together was so short. The boy suspected that all the hiding and skulking around Jerusalem had taken its toll on their nerves. They’d needed the rest just like he did.
It was brave of them simply being there, he thought. They could’ve stayed hidden and safe in the upper room in the House of Levi. It said a lot about their loyalty, their implicit faith in the man who called himself The Son of God.
He must’ve been one helluva guy to inspire such devotion. The boy wondered if His followers had thought of themselves as bulletproof because they were with Him.
He’d told them that He had to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Why the Garden? Why didn’t they stay where they were? The Nazarine must’ve known what was going to happen, Hadn’t He already told Judas Iscariot to go and do what he had to do?
The boy was surprised by his reaction to discovering his grandfather dead. He hadn’t wanted to cry. Perhaps that would come later. He tried to force a tear as a sign of respect but it wouldn’t come.
The boy took back his coat (the old man wouldn’t need it). He sat cross-legged in the doorway trying to understand – not about the old man but why the man from Nazareth told Judas where He could be found when He knew the soldiers would be coming for Him; a night of horror for all of them. The boy hadn’t given it much thought before. Now it seemed of the utmost importance.
It was still too dark and scary to move on.
The old man wouldn’t scold him for staying put until it was light, any more than he’d chastise him for leaving him behind to be found by the authorities, worse, the Scavs. The Scavs believed in nothing and were proud of themselves for not being fooled.
The boy wished he could believe in nothing. It would be so much simpler. He’d still be in his warm home with his grandmother. All was well with the world when his grandmother was there. She’d been gone for six months. Now, all was not well with his world. His mother resented his grandmother’s love for him. She resented the fact that the boy had beliefs.
They’d gone through a lot together, he and the old man. Almost as much as the Christ with his followers. The boy had checked three times during the night to make sure the old man was still breathing. He’d tried to feel for a pulse but he couldn’t feel his own fingertips. He’d held his hand next to his mouth but had given up for the same reason. Finally, he’d had to clamber almost over him to put his cheek next to the old man’s mouth. Even his cheek was too cold. The boy had breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he’d finally felt the old man’s shallow breath on his lips. After that, he kept up a running commentary of what they’d do and how far they’d get in the morning. But that was for his own benefit; to keep himself from letting his heavy eyelids close.
The boy wondered how many of the disciples had been brave enough to sneak out so late at night. There’d been twelve of them; pilgrims to celebrate The Passover. The boy counted them off on his cold fingers.
‘There was Peter, of course, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Philip and Thomas. There was the other James, Simon – Judas …some friend he turned out to be, eh, Papa?’ Now the boy was struggling to remember. Had he said, James? Yes. ‘Bartholomew…’ Then there was the one he almost always forgot. ‘…Jude. That was it, Jude. He was the one who managed to live through the whole ordeal and went on to die of natural causes.’ The boy wondered if he’d die of natural causes like Jude. He wondered if he’d be like Peter and go on to do something big and important. Starting the Roman Catholic Church seemed like a pretty big thing to do. ‘The armies of darkness had got them all in the end, right, Papa? Not Jude,’ he said. ‘It was pretty bloody times back then. …bit like now, right?’
The boy was pleased with himself for remembering all the names. He was about to shake his Grandfather and tell him that he’d learned his lessons well. Then he remembered all over again that the old man was dead.
‘He sighed so deeply, he could’ve dropped a stone inside the hole it made in his heart’. It was a line from one of the old man’s novels. The old man was good with words, even if they did get him into trouble.
The boy kept talking. ‘What happens if your Spirit was ripped out of you before you even know it? Like being shot by a sniper from the upper room of a barricaded Council Estate. Do you suddenly go cold? Perhaps, you stay warm longer because it would take time to register that you’re dead.’
The boy had seen a couple of dead bodies along the way. He wondered how many more he’d see before he’d get back to HER house.
‘In the movies, there’s always someone bitchin’ about never having told someone they loved them when they were alive. I’ve told you lots of times …every night when I was just a kid. I told you only yesterday. OK. Not how much I loved you but I still told you, right?’ There was a long pause.
‘There’s something I never told you – never told anybody …that’s funny, any body – maybe not. I’ll tell you now – not because you’re dead or nothin’. It’s because it sounds dumb when I say it in my head. You’re the only person I could tell without feeling a twat.’ The boy laughed. ‘You always said that when you put things into words, your beliefs get stronger and your fears get weaker.
‘You remember when we first lived in ‘The Hermitage’ and we had no furniture in the big room? Well, I used to go in there when you were at work. The room was so big, so empty, a total void, you might say. Wall-to-wall emptiness. I used to dare myself to go in there. I found a book, a book of fairy stories. It was old and thick. I couldn’t read but I used to look at the pictures; the three billy goats Gruff on the bridge with the troll hiding underneath; the Prince down on one knee, fitting the glass slipper on Cinderella, you know?
‘There was this one illustration. After I’d found it, I couldn’t go back into the room. Every time I tried, the illustration made me run away. I don’t know how many times. I knew that book was there, sort of lying in wait for me, even when I was feeding crab apples to the farmer’s horses, Bob and Bess, over the garden gate, remember?
‘One day I knew I had to do something about it. Squaring up to the Devil, you’d call it. So I… look, I’ll show you.’
The boy pulled the rucksack from behind the old man’s body. The corpse slumped backwards against the paint-chipped door. The boy righted the body with the same detachment as he released the catches on his rucksack and plunged his hand inside to rummage around under his clothes.
He shuffled beside the old man, placed the book in his lap, then blew into his cold hands and rubbed them together. He found the illustration easily. He was about to hold it up like a choirboy for the priest to sing the words to the congregation when he noticed the angle of the old man’s head. With one hand on his Grandfather’s shoulder and the other across his chest, he squared his torso. He took his face in both hands and adjusted it just so. Then pecked him on the cheek. ‘There you go, Papa.’
He held up the book. ”Little Red Riding Hood’, see? Underneath all those red scribbles is the Big Bad Wolf – you can’t see his long nose or pointed ears or his sharp teeth because I… you know. It scared me too much. I thought if I scrubbed him out with a red Biro, he’d go away. But you know what? …and I ain’t told nobody this, he’s still there. But now he’s hidden. I can choose to believe he’s gone forever or I can choose to believe he’s still waiting.’
The boy was silent for a long time.
‘You’re probably wondering why I’m still carrying it around with me – especially now things are the way they are.’
Another long pause.
‘It’s my childhood. You can’t rub out memories that easily. The Council can talk about, ‘purge’ and ‘cleanse’ and ‘purify’ but the truth is that the Big Bad Wolf is still there – behind the red tape.’
The daylight was upon them. Peter Alexander knew it was time to move on. His Grandfather had moved on.
‘You often said that Death was the greatest adventure in life. You often laughed and said you’d welcome it. You told me you’d no intentions of coming back to confirm that there was more to come. Let the buggers find out for themselves, you used to say.
‘People get what they ask for, I guess. If they’re dumb enough not to know they’re living a half-life by having no Faith then they don’t deserve to be given proof, Papa. You always said that if you believe and keep your eyes open, Truth presents itself. Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous, you said.’
Peter Alexander believed his grandfather. Strange things were always happening when they were together. He wondered why the old man had chosen to give up the ghost in a deserted shop doorway. He probably had his reasons. He’d keep his eyes open. His grandfather would find a way to send him a sign. For the moment, there were more pressing matters to be dealt with.
He had to strip the old man of any form of identification. He couldn’t allow the authorities to discover who he was. He couldn’t let the Scavs, the scavengers, find something that would prompt them to follow him.
First, he went through the old man’s rucksack. He kept up a running commentary to calm his nerves. A normal conversation was the best Eulogy that he could come up with.
‘The Scavs are going to think it’s Christmas when they find your best shirt. Papa. I don’t think they’ll want to hang onto your dog-collar, so I’ll be taking that with me. We wouldn’t want the Religious authorities asking what a nice old man was doing with a ministry collar in a shop doorway instead of lying in a soft bed when he was – you know – dead. I’ll dispose of it someplace where no one’ll find it – if that’s OK with you?’
He pulled all the clothes out one by one and meticulously went through the pockets. The boy knew that somewhere in the knapsack he’d find the old man’s favourite book of prayers. If it wasn’t sandwiched between the pants and the pullovers, he’d check the lining – the Scavs would. If he took away the old man’s shoes and warm coat, they’d assume that the Scavs had got to him first and wouldn’t overextend themselves trying to identify him. He’d kick all the contents of the bag into the back of the doorway to make it look as if he’d been violated.
He found the soft, leather pocket-prayer book. He sniffed it and wished he hadn’t. ‘I should’ve known you’d keep it close,’ he said, his voice catching in his throat, ‘It smells of you.
‘What were you thinking, you old fool? Did you think you were bulletproof like the disciples? I’ll bet you’re even wearing a cross around your neck and have a rosary hidden in your socks.’
The boy was right about the crucifix but wrong about everything else. He held the small, plain gold cross with the lightweight chain in the palm of his hand for a few minutes. It was a risk wearing it or even trying to hide it in his own rucksack. He couldn’t throw it away. He’d bury it inside the pages of the prayer book when he found somewhere suitable. He’d let the old man’s ghost tell him where to hide it.
He gave himself permission to cry when it was safely in the ground. Not before. On no account was he to cry before there was at least a couple of miles between them. ‘D’you understand?’ he said out loud.
When he’d stripped the old man of everything, he collected his ID and Residency papers, the Property Ownership documents and his Last Will and Testament. The old man had insisted that the boy should understand what was written in them the first night he showed signs of being sick.
The boy sat back on his heels. He was packed and ready. He wanted to take one last look at his grandfather’s gentle face. It would have to last him a lifetime.
Jesus Christ! He’d forgotten about the ring!