Matthew McKeever

Gospel 1

Matthew McKeever

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Olive, on the way back to Belfast to tend a dying uncle, read the free newspaper she'd had to take if she wanted cheap water.

        Premonitions of wars, the sick dying from preventable illnesses, racism, hatred and greed. She stopped reading the free newspaper. She thought of the melancholy clop of the invalid's slippers up the house's wooden steps as he goes to puke. And she pictured in her head the town she was returning to.

       Olive believed in a principle of proportion. That the most striking aspect of a thing/place/person told you 50% of what you needed to know about that thing/place/person, the second most striking aspect of a thing/place/person told you 25%, and so on.

—It comes in handy

She tells people drily

—When I must mark exams.

And so it does: reading the first page of an essay, she notes its most striking thing (sententious first sentence, lack of references, injunctions DON’T FORGET TO FIX THIS) and extrapolates.

        And meeting people is almost a game. She observes and tries to pin point what's strikingest, thinking that this thing is a sign, a general term whose meaning stretches back into the person’s past and forward into their future. That years of life are concentrated in a given fixity of eye contact, a given button-missing shirt, a given felid timidity.

        She discovered this at 17. She was on a bus down to Dublin, somewhere around Portadown. She looked up to see someone looking for a seat—a woman, maybe thirties, neat hair and well dressed and even skin tone—and somehow she realised, in that one second's glance, that the woman was mentally ill.

        This was confirmed as the journey continued, the woman sitting behind her to the left quietly talking to herself, and Olive became—young and uncertain about these things—very scared she would suddenly flip and attack her, and was tense the whole trip, literally tensed, and somewhere around Drogheda it dawned on her, with small-minded certainty, that in that one second she had seen literally years of that woman's life, years of struggling forward and back with her condition, and it seemed wrong that so much of a life could be predictable from and compressed into such a tiny little moment.

        The whole subsequent trip—to meet an internet penpal, and her first time in Dublin—she felt sick and tense and overwhelmed at this new and too meaningful world, discounting immediately the person she'd been talking to online for a year when he used offhand the word 'interwebs'.

        She would revise the conclusion about the woman later, a bit. In hopeful moments she realised it was possible that the illness was a recent thing, and that she was even now getting the bus to meet a specialist who would give her drugs that would get to work that very day. But the general cast of her mind tended not towards hopefulness.

        It's via proportionality, anyway, she's thinking of the town she grew up in and to which she is returning. The bulging supermarket on Main Street together with the ground razed behind it for the carpark is its most striking aspect. A supermarket shouldn't be on a main street: in the depth of its permanently lit aisles you're too far away from the sun glinting off the church or the rain hammering down the streets running parallel, which slope wildly towards the visible sea, streets lined with scrunched-in terraced houses, some boarded up, and vape shops doing fine business.


*


Len she met at a bar she went to as a kid. It was a very interesting day, in fact in fact.

        She'd been back for a couple of weeks. Her brother, who had been looking after the uncle, had returned to Belfast to see his family and work his job and other excuse-sounding things, and she became primary caretaker. The uncle was extremely grateful for every little thing she did and made so few demands she actually felt bad—this is how little he expects of me, philanthropically speaking?—and she counteracted that feeling by being as helpful as possible. She resolved to teach him to underestimate the generosity of her spirit, and did so primarily in cooking, making him excellent meals that were both tasty and covered all the food groups and tolerating his conversation gamely.

        When she wasn't being benevolent, though, hours dragged, and thus she found herself wasting more time on the internet than usual. And that's how she discovered X-tianity, and, indirectly, Len.

        X-tianity was a violent youth Christianity. It was a heterogeneous group based on the internet and centred on the idea that Christianity is about humans torturing literal God to death, that this can explain the dumpster fire that is the world, and that an adequate faith reflecting this could appeal to young people and unite them, making them happier and harnessing them in the fight against the evil stretching across the globe. It sought to promote a simple, vivid Christianity, of Christ crucified and love. And one of its main tools was the short film Gospel I.

        Olive watched it on her computer one afternoon after lunch, drinking coffee and dreading footsteps above which would mean the invalid had awakened. Set downtown in some big American city, early morning, sky purple and sanitation trucks driving, longshots down alleyways with homeless people around a fire in a can.

        Those same homeless soaked with a water cannon, and those same taken up by three hipster-doofus types, dressed as if coming from a club and with complex facial hair, who give them their coats and take them up to a narrow apartment. One of them, a young Latino with a chubby face, reveals a tank top underneath, with tanned biceps. 'Hey hayzuss get this', 'it's not hayzuss...it's Jesus', and the camera zooms in very close to his face, an odd and jarring artistic choice. Interspersed a man watching early news, suited and slick, watching himself on the news announcing an inner city rejuvenation scheme...

        And next it's midday, and Jesus is on a riverside walk way, a bridge above packed with traffic, and he's elevated on a plinth and talking to a crowd. Another close-up of Jesus's face.

—It's really very very simple. There is bad, but there is good. Good is love. So love, no matter what. That's it. That's literally it. No church, no smiley bullshit, nothing but love. I'm not going to tell you what to do—if it interferes with love, don't do it. That's it.  Only love. And if love doesn't come at...

And his face leaves the camera, and a zoomed out replay shows people above, a stone thrown and cracking in the back of his head, but stylised, obviously fake. Cinematographic images of the shocked crowd, including the man who was watching himself on the news, rushing, and the people rushing down, and the image stops, the camera stops moving on Jesus, no longer tracking the men or the crowd, and it's unsettling, the action being offscreen, but then the men come into view, and Jesus is getting up and a machete comes out and very very clearly and with no artifice they cut Jesus's hand off and it's sickeningly real, the blood's blackness and arc, and the shot is very very quickly ended. And next is Jesus in a tiny room, bandaged, beaten, as the men come in with more knives...

        And the next is the morning again, and the hipsters out walking except Jesus, and they go to the alleyway early and stand in front of the city's water cannon. And the water sprays at them grey, the picture stuttered with wet, and their shirts become shiny and carved as if steel or grey wood.

The whole thing captivated her but since the hand-slicing her heart had been hurrying, she felt like she really might be sick and got up and listened into her stomach to see if anything was going to rise, reaching her hands out and pressing her outstretched fingers against the coffee table, her fingers unusually white against the red of her polished nails. Not puking, but shaking the whole afternoon, seeing his face and the stump and hearing the injunction to love, and the Jesus-less gang's metallic drenched shirts.


*


A few hours later she met Len. Normally in the evenings she watched the soaps with her uncle until he retired at nine, and then she would relax, read or answer emails, scroll social media or watch downloaded TV.

        Not tonight, though. She was still shocked, and didn't think a glass of wine and a good book could dampen the tension, so she went down to the seafront where bars were clustered. A few hours later she was repeating herself to a barman.

—It's a con. It tries to get you to feel things. Anybody reacts to violence like that. It's a con. It's like Pavlovian. No fucking big feelings there. If it had been a radish instead of Christianity it was promulgating, no difference. I bet you.

She believed this, she really did. But. It may have just been the shock, but for the last couple of hours she had been feeling Jesus's suffering as she had never done before. It made her head swim that this formerly so-indistinct feature of life, one she had always passed over with indifference, was now so clear and brutal and true-seeming. She thought of the stump, of the injunction to love.

—Anybody...I could make you believe the Roma control the world's banks if I spliced in a snuff film. It's cheating.

—It makes a difference in people's lives, though. It's made a difference in mine.

A voice came quietly. Her eyes had been following the bartender as he, barely interested in what she said, made a drink. She was shocked to realise there was now someone right beside her, arms on the bar, having sidled up. 

        50% this guy, Len, was overly long—too long and straggley black hair, too long body, his features stretched across him too sparingly, like sauce on the dough of a shitty pizza. 25% was the tone and content of the second sentence—someone overly earnest, or at least pretending to be. She hadn't worked out the rest yet, but 75% was enough to dismiss him. Except she was tipsy and interested in the topic.

—It made a difference in yours?

She looks at his cheeks, bulgey with fine hairs visible against one of the covered lamps above the bar, a 10 pound note twisted forward in the fingers, kind, dull eyes. A leather jacket, like a biker.

        It had made a difference in her, but it was all trickery.

—But it's all trickery

A very small difference: that evening, when she heard her uncle stir, she had decided that, instead of making the meal she had intended (brown rice, chicken, spinach, broccoli, peas, tahini, in such quantities as to account for 65%, almost precisely—she calculated—of carbs, protein, fat, salt, and vegetables) she asked him what he wanted, it was really really no trouble, and then went and got the sausages and the potatoes, and felt sad that this dying person had been eating what she forced him to so long.

        He just shrugged.

—Well I don't know. It made a difference to me. Makes a difference, in fact.

—Like how?

—I see the world differently, I act differently.

—How?

—I see that the world is serious. Like, any second that stone could come for you. So take it serious, like, help people. The world is troubled and delicate and we need to do just what we can.

—But isn't there, like...you think God exists? One omnipotent omniscient being who is also three and who goes in bread?

—I don't know. Some people ask about that...I can show you? There's...

He trailed off, unsure if she was interested. She was.

—There's what?

—There's a bunch of resources. Shall I show you?

He sat down and got out his phone...

—But it makes no sense! You know, historically, at least as far as the Western philosophical tradition goes, the problem of evil

—No. That's too fancy. If you want to talk philosophy, whatever, I don't know. You're smarter than me, probably. This is just an acting thing. Think about the crucifixion and do better. You don't even have to really try. Just try.

He told her, once they'd got a table together, in vague terms of mental health and addiction issues, and how he had been rescued from them. It sounded serious: there was something deep and unshowy about how he spoke that made her think they were having a moment ('we're having a moment', she thought in her head).

        Depth was something Olive was interested in these days; she was hoping to get into the old depth business herself. She regretted her shallowness.

         In Edinburgh, she teaches Russian literature and is an adulterer. She specialises in Pushkin: when she first read Eugene Onegin, at a time of no small emotional torment around 19, its flippancy and irony attracted her, and she came to view herself as a superfluous woman: emotionally shallow, cultured, ironical, fond of food and drink and keen but ungiving with men.

        Years then followed peacefully. On account of Pushkin's relative unappreciation among Anglophone audiences, she staked out a place in scholarship that saw her through a Masters and a PhD to now, where she's working a temporary job with a greater than normal chance for it to become permanent shortly. And her life was untaxing and enjoyable and sophisticated, and part of its sophistication meant she wasn't overly troubled when she found herself in a sophisticated arrangement with an American professor who visited Edinburgh about six months a year, who had a wife and a kid back in the states whom he was in some complicated, sophisticated way alienated from, despite living in the same house as them and otherwise carrying out standard fatherly and husbandly duties.

        However, things had been dicey recently. Around the end of her PhD she had come to be thoroughly sick of Pushkin and, by extension, the superficial life she was leading. She thought or felt she wanted something different or something more from life.

        This was emphasised when she fecked her hamstring on a treadmill and became severely limited in her motion a few months ago. She asked her beau, Galvin, to get her supplies, she not living particularly near a shop. And he didn't. He put it off twice—like, did he not know its importance?—and she found herself, one hanging 8pm Monday night, getting an uber to a Tesco metro, vaguely mortified and resentful when she explained her situation to the driver.

        She had swallowed this down, but it affected her strangely. While before she had been completely happy with the superficial relationship, and had had no strong feelings for him, the combination of her change in mood and his evident indifference when push came to shove, perversely, made her care for him, and she suddenly started to feel jealous. It was as if her new feelings were a just-born duck which imprints on the first thing it sees, which tends to be its mother but can be a human or dog, or a wind-up mouse figurine.

        It's then both in the spirit of wanting more from life, but also—who knows—making hamstring-not-carer-about jealous that she agreed to go out with the deep Len, warning him that she had a sort of complicated romantical situation but otherwise skimping on the details.


*


A carrot cake had crumbled off the plate a bit and Leonard was sitting on a carpet that was coloured like a coffee cake with a mashed banana centre. Olive was sitting on a fat grey leather sofa, looking down at him, her little plate, elaborately decorated at edges, in her lap. A prodigiously three-dimensional television hung over a dusty video recorder in the corner.

—Basically I was addicted to porn and was completely convinced I was going to have a heart attack every day, for about two months. Panic attacks…

Olive tried to imagine him here, in this big 70s house (which belonged to the recently deceased mother of a middle-aged colleague of his, the latter of whom he was renting it from), addicted to porn and convinced he was going to have a heart attack and then quickly tried to cease imagining it.

—It was I had nothing to believe in. People just go through life with nothing, it's no good. My life lacked meaning.

—What...like, how did you do your job? If you thought you were going to die.

—I didn't have a job then...was scrounging off the dole

He smiled weakly

—...was looking though. It's hard.

—And then?

—Then I saw Gospel I. And that was it...well actually that wasn't that. I had been going ok for a while, then I saw it, I wasn't normally squeamish, but that did it...made me panic. And a couple of days later, what I'll do when I was having these attacks is I'd go to bed, if it was even remotely the evening, I'd just go to bed and lie there, even if I knew I'd be awake for hours. Somehow that worked, distraction didn't work. I was lying there, seeing it again and again the blood, the cruelty—and suddenly the panic stopped, like the source of the panic caused the panic to stop. And I woke up next day, the heaviness no longer there above my pancreas and below my shoulder blade, free. And couple of minor setbacks notwithstanding, since then I've been free.

Olive was incredibly impressed with how caringly she listened to his story. She had really changed, she thought. She didn't even think about mocking him, just felt a sort of mature sense of gladness that this person had overcome his problems.

—Wow. That's incredible. I'm glad you got over it...well done.

—It's embarrassing.

—No. It's brave, I guess. How long have you been...well, panic free and stuff?

—A month or so

—Oh wow. Jesus that's soon! Recent, I mean. I thought it would have been much longer?

—No, no.

—So it's still early?

—Well yeah but no doubt, it's gone. I'm a new person. Believe it or not...it's something.

It had been a very interesting week or so. She had taken to going to Len's house in the evenings, when the uncle slept. She would cut through the town centre park, dark and grass-smelling but with a sense of the road that lines it, the sounds of an occasional car and irregular light from the streetlights that trees don't cut out.

        She loved those walks, sloughing off the pent-in day in a house kept always too warm for the sicky, keeping her jacket unbuttoned so she was just a fraction too cold, and going and having tea and coffee and cake with deep Len, sloughing off her superficial self by just spending time in his presence. They would watch a film or talk, til 1 or 2 or 3, when she would return back, this time via the empty streets, sneaking into the house in time for breakfast.

        Her permanent excuse to leave, because she had to be back for the uncle’s breakfast, combined with Len's inherent passivity meant she was able to dictate the physical terms of the relationship—although in truth although she didn't think much of him physically, the respect she had for his apparent spirituality caused her to look on his plainness in a positive way and come to think even 'attractive' wouldn't be to mislabel him, if nothing in the vicinity of sexy. So, they would kiss and no more, she always vaguely gesturing to the fact of her uncle, as he somehow accepted a moribund family member as a reason.

        She liked the little dent in the day Len provided, that brush against someone she thought stood upright, and that presence, it almost felt like she was heading that direction too. She found herself increasingly reading the various blogs associated with X-tianity, and its very inclusive, loose Christianity which had no doctrinal messiness about causal sex or eating fish on Friday, was appealing in its simpleness.

        The problem was keeping her spirits up—too quickly, she'd found, she'd wake up to a world dull and empty, the brightness of the idea of Jesus dimmed, the thought of philanthropy sickening, Len's life's meaning—as she had originally thought—a Pavlovian trick. She tried to regain it, then, tried just before her uncle rose to psyche herself up, lock herself in the bathroom and really try to think about goodness and suffering and love and Jesus's hand-stump—but it didn't work. Such days remained dull, and the call of Edinburgh and seminars and wine and adultery was strong then.

        It was, then, a threshold time, as either her soul was hanging in the balance, or her mind was tottering on the edge of the social delusion which is God.


*


The uncle held on, perhaps partly due to Olive's meals, and she had to go back to Edinburgh for a bit and, hugely inconveniently, move apartment.

        This didn't go down so well with Len. 'Are you going to see people while you're there?'...of course, my friends are there, need to pop into the department, ' And what about, are you going to see the guy you mentioned, the guy you were kinda seeing?', 'do you think you'll see much of him?'. Although they had been getting on very well, this clinginess irritated her, and she didn't manage to sneak into the toilet to reup niceness, so she didn't bullshit and told him that yes, given she was going to live in his apartment for a couple of days, it was very likely that she would see him.

        He was very unhappy with this. In fact, she was also at least maybe unhappy with it. She would quite happily not seen Galvin, but he was the first to offer his place (presumably because he was horny and she would stay max two days) and she saw no reason not to accept, you're the embodiment of my erstwhile superficial life, which I'm thinking about rejigging being a ponderous excuse.

        She and Len said goodbye for now, his eyes miserable, after he'd made her a special seafood cocktail dinner in the hope that she'd reconsider any plans for pertaining to sight, and she returned to Edinburgh. She woke up a few mornings thence to eight whatsapp messages

—Hope you're having a good day. 4.15pm

—Any big plans for the evening? 6.00pm

—I'm knackered after work! 6.00pm

—Wish you were hear, got a good looking piece of lamb 6.00pm

—Saw this http:/bit.ly/ssadh...would you be interested? If you're back 7.55pm

—Just let me know. 7.55pm

—Thinking to sign up to a Passion 12.01pm

—Yeah, gonna 12.08pm

The date stamps cluttered around new hours indicative of one who restrains themselves from texting too often. He was texting so much, she guessed, because if she was texting in return, then she couldn't be doing anything else.

—You mean as in attend? Or perform??

—Sorry didn't reply, went out for drinks with my oldest friend

A lie: her oldest friend was very dead.

—Ah no problem!

—To perform, maybe being silly.

—I'd say. Dangerous.

—You don't think I should?

—It's craziness, all these people—you see about the Dublin guy? I can't believe the police don't do anything about it.

—Okay, if you don't think I should

A Passion, well a passion is a cross between a party, communion and—as its name suggests—a medieval passion play. They had shown up around the world in response to Gospel I, giving people a chance to participate in recreations of the Gospel story, to feel close to it. People who would never dream of going to church to gladhand were very happy to go to a place that served alcohol and get on stage—the events often lasted for hours, and it was easy to drift in and out, so you could now be an onlooker at the nativity, now someone hurling abuse while Jesus carried his cross.

        They weren't all packed with violence, although some certainly were (in the original, incidentally, the violence had, as it appeared, been real. The character playing Jesus did get his hand cut off—the film ended so quickly as he was sped into a waiting ambulance where it was reattached). With a judicious use of mats and bloodpacks and techniques from professional wrestling you could put on an impressively brutal and shocking show without any real injury.

        People got hurt, of course, and pretty much every legit church, and the government, and the doctors, condemned it in the strongest possible terms. But for those who went, it provided a sort of closeness to the gospel similar to that brought by Gospel I. And one had been set up in Belfast.


*


A day later, Olive had sweatily brought the last of her stuff into Galvin's house. Her phone had been buzzing all day, and she was getting pissed off with Len's neediness. Returning here and popping into the department earlier had reinstilled her essentially Oneginian spirit and she felt nothing but coldness towards this phone blower-upper, and nothing but distance from Christ crucified and resurrected.

—Thanks! All done now.

—Listen I got to go, making dinner and stuff to thank Galvin for helping me move

—:)

—Ok, have a nice night

She almost felt for him, but then didn't. The next day he announced, somewhat en passant, that he had signed up for a Passion unless..., and she merely texted back coldly, fair enough.


*


It's camera phone footage, but not bad for all that. A stage, with a set of stairs going up to a raised area. It occasionally jerked around the audience to show people looking up, faces bright and happy, plastic pint glasses in hand.

        A woman with an exaggeratedly strong Belfast accent began to tell the story of the Good Samaritan:

—So here was this wee lad from Coleraine, and he was making his way til the Limelight. And on the way he gets the shite kicked out of him out back of Castlecourt. And then this fucking, one of them chuggers comes along, walks on by

        And then one of them leafletters—no offence if you're one of them—one of them 'are you saved' leaflet people, comes along, walks straight the fuck by...and then...so lads, do this for me, I want you to delete as appropriate in this next bit?

A puzzled silence

—Ok, so two versions, version one this fucking prod, the dirty bastard

The crowd began to laugh with confused discomfort.

—VERSION TWO, version two haul on for fucks sake, version ii) this fucking catholic, the dirty bastard...two versions!!

—I'm joooo-kiiing. Anyway, whichever, or whatever, an English person, whoever you hate, they go up to him and tend to him. He’s the good Samaritan.

There wasn’t much of a reaction from the audience.

—Are yous slow? Cheer the good Samaritan, c’mon, he helped the guy up, even though everyone thought he was evil. That’s what we should be like—we should reach out to our enemies, love them like. End of.

She retreats from the stage as they get ready to act out the story. Len runs on, and up onto a raised area, followed by two robbers, dressed in red and white striped convict uniforms with bags with ‘Swag’ written on them (frequently, the Passions involved humour). They punch him and he falls, it looks kind of fake on the plinth, but they dig the boot in a bit and that looks realer, and you can see the crowd get into it, and then the robbers lift him up and, gingerly, push him off the raised bit onto the stage, he looking backwards at his fall, and he lands on a conveniently placed and surprisingly pliable table, which smashes. And it looks fine, and the crowd cheer, but then there's a sort of lull, a wave of panic, and from the wings a guy dressed half in orange and half in green divided vertically, for a joke that was destined not to land anyway, comes out and looks over him and then more people quickly come out and look over him. He'd landed funny and his neck was mildly hurt and the footage stops.


*


Olive watched the footage in the airport, waiting for a plane back to Belfast. She didn’t know—was she in any way responsible? It troubled her a bit, a bit, a bit, until at the boarding gate something clicked inside her and she decided no she takes no responsibility and no she’s not going to visit him in the hospital. She blocked his number and earnestly looked forward to her uncle’s death, Christ crucified having lost all power.


Matthew McKeever


Matthew McKeever is from Bangor, County Down. He got a PhD in formal semantics from St Andrews in 2016, and later in 2017 his first book, a novella (probably) called From Nothing, will be published by Zero books. In the last few years he has lived in Norway, Scotland, Texas, and Bangor. Gospel 1 is his first piece of published fiction.