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Do I look sane to you? June 11, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Life, Mental Health, Music, Short Story.
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No, don’t turn away: look me in the eye and tell me. Do I look sane to you?

C’mon, it’s not that hard a question… ah, I get it: you need another drink. Don’t worry, this one’s on me — waiter, over here please! What will it be? Really? Sure, no worries: iced water for my friend here, please; another Guinness for me. Thanks.

So c’mon: whaddaya reckon? Ah, I see: you’re scared. Scared in case you give the wrong answer and I react badly. Well there’s no need to be, that ain’t gonna happen. It’s a long time since I killed anyone, 2,000 years give or take, another life, might as well have been another world too, y’know, and anyway it was perfectly legal. Horrible way for someone to die, though.

Look, it’s OK: even if I did pull a gun, it wouldn’t be you on the wrong end of it, it’d be me. At least it would silence the voices. There are at least three of us in here so yeah, it’s kinda crowded, but apart from when we argue we get on OK, and that’s the only time the gun ever comes out.

Huh? Yes, yes, I have got a gun. Well no, not me: she has; but she’s not in control right now, I am, so we’re safe. No, I haven’t got it with me right now, we left it at home: if ever she does use it, it won’t be somewhere public like this, we never bring it out. She’s laughing now: says she wouldn’t use the gun, she’d use a knife. Nothing wrong with this body, she says, that she couldn’t put right with a sharp knife. Yeah, I wince when she says that too, you’ve got the idea.

Her name? Seriously? You want to know her name? Sorry, mate, but if I tell you that, odds are you’ll start talking to her instead of me, then she’ll be in control. That’s where it starts, y’know: get control of the voice and you’ve got control of the whole body. Scary. Best if you let me stay in control, I’m the sensible one.

Yeah, you’re right, never get lonely. Chance’d be a fine thing. It’s the music that did it, tipped the balance I mean. I was perfectly happy bashing away at things, as y’do, getting on with the job, just the usual background noises of the factory and other workers down the assembly line. Then they decided we needed music to cheer us on so they started piping it over the PA: a repetitive mix of noisy, thumping rock and mind-numbing pop with the odd bit of hip-hop/rap stuff thrown in, same tracks over and over and over, day in, day out.

How many days? Four’s the regular shift — four on, three off, round and round, week after week. Long shifts, yeah: ten hours plus. Works well for the business, though, means they can keep it going 24/7. Kinda dull but a good crew, friendly, mostly part-timers; easy-going management too, long as we hit our targets. Ha! That’s a laugh: hit our targets! That’s what made us think of the gun: shoot out the PA system, restore the silence. “Go on,” she said, “do it.”

“No way,” I said. “Yeah, we’ll get the silence back, but they’ll throw us out. Then what’ll we do? Not many jobs around here; and pull a stunt like that and no one will take us on.”

“So what?” she said. “We’ve been saving for years, can live off that.”

“Live where?” I said. That shut her up, for a few minutes anyway. Coz if we did that, we’d be out of a home as well as a job. So we didn’t. But hell, yeah: would’ve loved to’ve done it, would’ve showed the management a thing or too. Thing is, it’s not the music itself: we love music, we’ve got our songs that we sing. But we sing them in here, and this stuff, it was pushing them out, taking over. Earworms, y’know? Intrusive at work, invasive after. Relentless, stealing our minds. Yeah, minds. Don’t look at me like that, I’ve seen that look too often: “Got a right one here, haven’t we?” That’s what you’re thinking, innit?

*Sigh* … well, I guess you’re right. Question now is, what do we do? The gun’s a no-no, I know that: don’t want to get locked away. We’re thinking maybe give them a recording studio. No, the songs: if we can build a space for them in here, shut them away in their own soundproof space, then they can get on with it without disturbing us. That’s the dead guy’s idea. Yeah, he’s in here too, the guy I killed. Says he used a similar sort of technique when we killed him, was the only way he could manage the pain. He’s OK with that now, says shit happens, death comes to us all, life and death. Lord, let me die while I’m alive, not when I’m already dead. That’s the thing, innit? To die while you’re alive. Like I said, three of us, plus the visiting band now. Nah, nah, it’s OK — don’t need another, but you go ahead.

Sleep? Nah, not getting much at the moment, not with all this stuff going around and around. It’s like a cross between musical chairs and the Magic Roundabout in here, round and round, up and down, wheeeeeee! You have to love it, I guess. Makes it hard to focus, though. Yeah, went to see the GP; no appointments available when I called. Then I got this email from the gaffer, said they’d turn the music off or turn down the volume, that was a relief. Was dreading going back in next week.

Counselling? Well there’s an organisation we can refer to, but they said they couldn’t help with this one, suggested I try ACAS. Emailed Mind too, but got no reply. I think they like people to phone, but I hate phones, you’d think they’d understand that. So we’re gonna go with the dead guy’s idea, build them their own little space. I’m picturing it now, complete with a stage, but behind soundproof glass. Yeah, reckon that’s gonna work.

Really? You think so too? And you think I’m perfectly sane? After all this? Straight up, no kidding? OK, thanks for that. It’s been good. See you again sometime. Dead guy thinks you’re OK by the way. So does she. Hell, yeah, so do I, so apart from the band, that’s more or less all of us. Cool, man. Enjoy the rest of your evening.

Howling at the Moon and a Failed Messiah April 22, 2011

Posted by Phil Groom in Lent & Easter, Short Story.
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I AM WOLF. I howl at the moon:

Look-look-look! Look-at-the-moon — the mooooon! The moooooooooon!

Your sheep hear my voice: they know me, and they tremble. As they should: they are easy prey by moonlight, their white coats highlighted against the darker fields, picked out by the moon — the moooooooon! They are as stupid as they are woolly, crowding together, heads inward, no lookouts, the strong pushing towards the centre, the weak exposed. Easy prey — I dash in, seize a haunch, a quick toss of my head, she flies high, I catch her by the throat: she is no longer sheep, but meat. I drag her away for peace and quiet, away from the incessant bleating and the smell of fear. Once I am gone, they quieten down.

It was easier then ever that night, brighter than ever, and the shepherds had gone, leaving only a hireling and a dog: both fled at my approach as the moon lit my path.

She is a harsh mistress, the moon. She knows no compassion in her endless rounds; and when she is full, we are lost, dazzled, beguiled, unable to hunt. Who can hunt by moonlight? We live by scent, not by sight: by moonlight our prey see us coming and they scatter to their holes, to their dens, to the air. Give us darkness, a new moon and silence — we pass you by, a whisper on the wind: you don’t know where we’ve come from or where we’re going and we ignore you. Have you any idea how disgusting human flesh tastes? Or how you smell, with your soaps and perfumes and the moon only knows what else you cover yourselves in?

When she is full, we are frustrated, we raise our heads and we cry:

Look-look-look! Look-at-the-moon — the mooooon! The moooooooooon!

Are your human minds truly as dull as your senses? You slam your doors, you lock them and double lock them, shuttering the windows to keep us out. Only your shepherds have the sense the moon gave them: they know we cannot hunt and so they gather their flocks in folds and lay themselves across the entries. True, they do not stink as the rest of you, they smell only of their charges, but still we will not cross their bodies. We know they are armed and that they will kill.

So we howl, louder and more insistently. And we remember: we remember the world as it was before you humans took it from us, when sheep were wild and the hunt was free — when a ram would charge us, enraged as we threatened his flock. But now, even the rams are tamed, pathetic creatures fathering runts on pathetic bundles of fear. You humans — you have all but destroyed our world, your world, and the closest most of you will ever come to us is a fox. Oh, what an insult, to be likened to those vermin! But that’s what you have done to our world.

Silverwind draws alongside and whispers to me: on with the story, he says, on with the story. I am too easily distracted nowadays as I await my homecoming.

You humans fear death, don’t you? Even your failed messiah sweated blood as he cried out to his father, surrounded by the sheep he had gathered around him. Human sheep, there for the slaughter as human wolves gathered around them. You are a strange breed, you humans: you fear us but you harbour far worse within your own community. I guess it’s a part of your aloneness: that none of you truly knows another or is truly known, isolated within your own minds, with your faulty, selective memories.

We wolves are never alone, even when separated from the pack; and we do not forget. We are one: one heart, one mind, one pack, one purpose, a unity stretching back through time to the first wolves who gave us birth. We inherit our ancestors’ memories as our memories are in turn inherited by our descendants, and we cannot die. True, our bodies grow old and frail, our bodies can be captured and butchered by you or your hounds as the whim takes you; and like you, we fight to survive: we do not surrender our bodies easily. But nor do we fight death when we know that our time has come: death holds no fear for us, for life is rooted in death, in rhythm and tide, in the balance of seasons.

Your failed messiah understood this, despite his fear: he knew where he came from, where he was going. He knew the power of memory, knew that his father would not forget him, and he put rituals in place to help his followers to remember. He came from a people of memory, he remembered his forebears, their fears and hopes and follies; and he lived in those memories, reawakening those fears and hopes but countering the fear with love, building on the hope with golden possibilities, with stories of enemies becoming friends. “Follow me,” he said, and they did, in droves.

This was his undoing: his popularity with the poor, with the outcasts, the weak and the lame. He welcomed them all: enemy collaborators, prostitutes and pimps. He turned no one away but bade them all to follow his way, his way of questioning and challenging the accepted way, of revisiting ancient memories and asking what they meant, where they pointed, what they could lead to.

We knew him. He loved our hills, our empty places, away from human company. He too howled at the moon, cried out to his father, wept with frustration, desperation, anger and grief. We mocked him at first: a god in human clothing. Ah, he laughed at that one and took his revenge: beware, he told his followers, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. That made us laugh more than ever and when he returned we danced, running rings around him as he dipped and dived and tried to keep up.

Failed Messiah, we called him, and he accepted the name — the name, the shame and the blame. He knew that he could not succeed: too many opposed him, too many had invested too much in the system that had brought them their wealth and status. But he refused to back down, to walk away: memory and hope drove him forward.

So you killed him. “He dances with wolves,” they said, and one of his own sheep, a wolf in sheep’s clothing but without a wolf’s honour, brought the dogs and the sheep ran away — all but one, but your failed messiah had seen the end from the beginning and told him to leave too.

We howled that night, howled as we had never howled before, howled until the cock crowed and the blood flowed and the human folly played itself out and he breathed his last, a failed messiah. One of the sheep found his courage and rescued the body. We gathered there that night, licked and pawed at the blood-soaked ground as his ghost moved amongst us. Silverwind, we named him, ghost of a failed messiah, who led us back into the desert and taught us to find ourselves.

We watched and we waited and his memory played true: his father remembered him and we knew, long before his followers found out. “Walk with me,” he said, “and remember the ancient paths.”

To those who remember, the ancient paths are still there, will always be there. I have walked them, I walk them still: but will you? Will you dance as he danced and risk your all to be free? Or, like so many of your kind, will you simply panic like sheep, the strong trampling over the weak as you force your way to the centre of your meaningless flock, forgetting that one day you will be the weak one pushed to the outside?

Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, he said, but be warier still of sheep who think only as sheep and of their own fortunes. There can be no life without the shedding of blood and much of it will be your own: the life that he offers is a blood-filled life; but it is a rich life if you will only learn to give it away.

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Following Jesus? July 21, 2010

Posted by Phil Groom in Random Musings, Short Story, Theological Reflection, Watching and Waiting.
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JESUS was walking through the shopping centre in Galilee when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew at work stocking the shelves with books, for they were booksellers. Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you readers of people.” At once they left their bookshelves and followed him.

Going a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in another bookshop unpacking their boxes. At once he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the shop with the hired staff and followed him.

Another bookseller named Philip was watching all this. “What about me, Jesus?” he asked. “Should I leave my bookshelves to follow you too?”

Jesus looked at Philip and smiled. “What do you see, Philip?” he asked.

“I see your name written on each book, I see the light in your eyes each time someone picks one up and turns the pages,” Philip replied.

“The light shines in the darkness,” said Jesus, “and the darkness has never put it out.”

In the beginning… February 18, 2010

Posted by Phil Groom in Short Story, Theological Reflection.
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PeanutIn the beginning was the peanut, and the peanut was alone.

“I need a warm planet to grow on,” said the peanut. “Let there be a planet!” And there was a planet. The peanut looked and the planet was good.

As the peanut looked at the planet, it realised that peanut and planet were spelt with almost the same letters. The only difference was a U instead of an L. So the peanut took an L from the planet and a U from itself and created a lettuce. And the peanut looked at the lettuce and was pleased: it was very good.

LettuceAt first the lettuce was happy and it grew in the peanut’s garden. But one day, as the peanut was walking around the garden, the lettuce became angry and attacked the peanut and beat it into a mess of peanut butter.

But the lettuce didn’t know that this was what the peanut had in mind all along because without a lettuce to mash it up, there would never have been any peanut butter. And without any peanut butter the bread would have been naked and it would have been ashamed, except maybe for a bit of jam that the peanut made for it when it realised it was naked.

And so it came to pass that the peanut and the lettuce were reconciled but could still never quite bring themselves to share the same sandwich, especially not with the jam. Which is why the Church of England is in such a mess and women are not allowed to be Bishops.

Epiphany? Ask the Camel January 3, 2010

Posted by Phil Groom in Advent and Christmas, Short Story.
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I wrote this story a few years ago, and it’s appeared in a couple of church magazines since. I think there’s still a bit a mileage left in it so I offer it afresh to you, my friends here in the blogosphere. It occurred to me that the word epiphany sounds rather like the noise I guess a camel makes when it spits. Maybe that’s where the word comes from? Or maybe you know better?

Camel in the snowWe were Tired. And when I spell a word with a capital letter, I mean it: this was a T bigger than Nero’s Nose. Okay, okay, so Nero wasn’t around then – but you’ve got to realise that we camels don’t necessarily look at things the way you humans do. Future? Past? It’s all the same to us – we remember both ways, and a lot of your lives have been saved because of that, because we know where the next oasis is as well as where the last one was. In the desert, it’s a question of survival – and we survive.

But as I said, we were Tired. Almost as tired as God was when He invented the Sabbath. And now we were running scared, tripping over ourselves, nearly breaking our legs on the rough ground in the dark. I don’t know what scared my master most, the angel that warned us, or the warning he brought. But that mad king – Herod “the Great”, he styled himself – was after our blood. Because of the Child.

We’d been on the road for two years. It would have been a much shorter journey if our masters had let us find the way, but they were Magi – Magicians, or Astrologers as you’d call them. So-called ‘Wise Men’ without the wisdom to know that camels don’t make mistakes. My master had cursed me for most of the journey because I’d kept pulling in different directions. Phtui! In the end I just spat in disgust and let him have his way. He’d regret it later. And now, as we ran, he did. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for you humans – until I think of the Child. But you still haven’t understood, have you?

So after travelling more than twice the distance we needed to, we’d arrived. At the wrong place: Jerusalem. I spat angrily and snapped at the stable hand who came out to meet us. And after meeting with His Royal Bloodthirstiness, our masters had been redirected to Bethlehem – we were on the right road at last.

Camel in the snowThe star reappeared, right on cue, above the house. His mother brought Him out to see us and, ignoring my master completely, He looked me in the eye and winked. Only two years old, but He Knew. I knelt in front of Him and for the first time in my life, I swallowed my spit. And for the first time my master didn’t shout a warning about me – he was too busy kneeling himself.

It was going to take a long, long time and an awful lot of pain, but Things were going to Change. And I’m not talking about me stopping spitting.

Mum, I’ve got a problem… December 15, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Advent and Christmas, Short Story, Theological Reflection.
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“Mum, I’ve got a problem…”
“Oh no, what’s Joe done this time?”
“It’s not Joe, that’s the problem.”
“What’s not Joe? Whatever are you twittering on about this time? Just give me a hand with these sheets, will you?”
“But Mum —”
“I’m listening, dear. Hold on tight to your end whilst I give it a shake.”
“Mum —”
“Whatever’s the matter, dear? Why are you crying?”
“Mum, I’m pregnant.”
“I always thought Joe was a bit keen, dear, but —”
“Mum, it’s not Joe’s baby.”
“Do you remember that film with Hugh Grant in it, dear?”
“Mum, Hugh Grant hasn’t been born yet. They haven’t invented films yet.”
“Mother of God, child, will you just listen to your mother??”
“Mum, that’s blasphemy!”
“This is a more immediate problem, my girl, so just you let your old mother think about it…”
“OK, but what about the film?”
“Oh yes, the one about the weddings and the funeral: do you remember the opening line?”
“Well that’s us, girl. Does Joe know yet?”
“I’m scared, Mum. I don’t want to lose him.”
“You won’t lose him, girl: he’s totally besotted with you. So — who’s the father?”
“It’s hard to explain…”
“No, dear, these things are very simple. It’s biology: 1 + 1 = 3.”
“I’ve got an idea, Mum.”
“That’s my girl: come on, out with it.”
“If 1 + 1 = 3, that might explain something about God that’s been puzzling me…”
“I thought you were worried about Joe?”
“Joe can wait: I think we’re about to solve one of the most puzzling mysteries about the nature of God that’s haunted humanity since the dawn of time.”
“Time’s the problem, girl. Thank God you came to me now and didn’t wait until it started to show. Now finish folding that sheet and let me think some more.”
“Mum, what you said a minute ago, ‘Mother of God’…”
“A figure of speech, girl. What about it?”
“Well it’s not a figure of speech anymore.”
“You’re talking riddles, girl. I asked you who the father is.”
“Well there was, like, this angel —”
” — and he said, well, OK, I forget his exact words, but it was, like, don’t be afraid —”
“Standard opening line. These angels have got no imagination.”
“You believe me?”
“Haven’t lied to me before, girl, have you?”
“Err, there was that fib about —”
“Water under the bridge, girl. I think you’d better go stay with your Aunty Liz for a bit.”
“But Mum, she’s pregnant.”
“She’s a bit brighter than you, girl. At least she got married first. Now go pack your things and I’ll sort your father out.”

Jesus Laughed September 5, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Short Story, Theological Reflection.

Hungry. Tired. Blistered feet. I’d had enough. So I sidled up to Jesus in a lull and said, “Come on, boss. You need a break. Send ’em home.”

He nearly exploded. He looked at me sideways, one of those withering looks he usually reserved for the Pharisees and I thought, This is it. I’m finished. So long and thanks for all the —

“Fish,” he said, and winked. I heaved a sigh of relief. Then he said it again: “Fish. Give me a fish.”

I looked around, desperate. The rest of the guys were laughing, trying to hide it behind their hands, glad it wasn’t them. Then suddenly Jesus was laughing too, but he wasn’t hiding it: this was loud, buoyant, full of life. He spun around on his feet and raised his hands as his laughter echoed from the hills.

“Are you hungry?” he shouted. “Come to me! Are you thirsty? Come to me! Anyone who is tired, come to me! Come to me and I will give you rest! I will give you food!”

Everyone was looking now as he spun around again to look at me. “Fish?” he asked quietly, but everyone had gone so still that the breeze carried the word across the hilltop for all to hear.

That’s when the lad stepped up. I hadn’t noticed him, he was only eight or nine, a little lad. “Where are your parents, son?” I started to ask. But he shook his head and pushed a package into my hands. I took it. There wasn’t much else I could do with everyone’s eyes on me. I opened it: a couple of fish and a handful of small loaves. Jesus smiled as I turned back to him, but now it was the lad he was looking at. He winked again and the lad disappeared back into the crowd, a huge grin lighting up his face.

“Well?” said Jesus. I handed the package over as if it was on fire and suddenly everything went crazy: Jesus held the package up over his head, shouted a massive “Thank you!” to heaven and started tearing into it. He gave some to Peter. Then to Andrew. Then me. He laughed again. “Pass it on,” he said, still laughing, “Pass it on.”

So we did. And he kept going. And we kept going. And he kept laughing.

You can read an earlier version of the story in John’s Gospel

When Time Stood Still: Simon’s Story April 10, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Lent & Easter, Short Story.
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It was a day I’ll never forget.

I was coming in from the country for the festival with my two lads, Rufus and Alexandra. As we approached the city I could see that there was some sort of commotion around the gates, but there always is around Jerusalem – nothing new about that.

As we got closer I saw what it was – the Romans had got someone again, another rebel I guessed, and they were dragging him out to be crucified. Only the Romans could have dreamt up such a vile way to kill someone. I told the boys to hang back and moved in a bit closer – then I saw who it was!

They’d got Jesus – Jesus, the miracle worker, the teacher who’d been through our village just last week, who’d healed the boys’ mother from a fever. That’s why she wasn’t with us – she was fine, but I’d told her to stay home anyway. She didn’t like it but eventually she agreed, and I’m well relieved about that now.

I couldn’t believe it: Jesus! I could hardly recognise him – they’d shoved a twisted crown made of thorns on his head and there was blood running down his face, and where there wasn’t blood his face was bruised. Somehow – and I know this sounds crazy – but I remember being relieved that they hadn’t broken his nose. But they were going to do worse than that.

I looked back to see that the boys were okay then shoved my way to the front. This couldn’t be happening. Jesus! What had he done? He was struggling under the weight of the cross – the Romans made their victims carry their own crosses – then he lost his footing and collapsed. It was some sort of miracle, I guess, that the weight of the cross didn’t kill him then. The soldiers started to kick him.

I shouted – and then suddenly I was too close: one of the soldiers grabbed me and laughed viciously. “OK, you carry it then!” he shouted. I looked at Jesus – and suddenly the whole world froze. Time stood still. I hated the Romans: we all hated them. They were filth, evil, no better than swine. But Jesus, he looked at me – and everything was upsidedown. He felt sorry for me. He pitied the Romans. But more than that, he loved us. All of us.

He loved us. I don’t think I can say that loud enough so I’m going to shout: he loved us!

I was scared for the boys, of course I was – then I saw Jesus look across to them and I knew they were going to be okay. It made no sense – here was a man about to be killed telling me everything was going to be okay.

Then the soldier shoved me forward and everything started moving again. I put my shoulder under the cross and helped Jesus to his feet. He didn’t smile. No one would under those under those circumstances. But for just a moment, in the midst of all that cruelty and darkness, a light seemed to shine. And no darkness was ever going to put it out.

Previously published at stmatthews-yiewsley.org.uk/whentimestoodstill.htm

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