.... ... .stories



Jack Taft and his family lived in a tall house across the alley from me. Jack was 15 and I was 17, but we were still every bit kids. I had an old gramophone amplifier, a couple of speakers and some switches, and one day we rigged a pair of wires over the alley so we could talk to one another without leaving our bedrooms.

'Hi Jack. Are ya there? Over.'

I'd clonk the switches, then a moment later: 'What ya doin' today, ya lazy sod? Over.'

And so on - until, despite a prominent 'No Cycling' sign, some old prick biked down the alley with a ladder on his shoulder which hit the wires and sent him sprawling. Then we were ordered to remove the wires.

Before that happened, our mums had started using the intercom - even when we weren't there they used it. They'd rarely met for a natter before then, but this was in the sixties when hardly anyone had a phone, so an intercom was a big novelty.

One of my preoccupations when I turned 17 was to get a car. Anything on 4 wheels with an engine would have done. I passed my driving test third time lucky - first time I scared a mad cyclist, second time I went through red lights and scared the examiner. Soon after passing I acquired a battered Ford Popular that went like the clip-claps.

One day over the intercom the mums decided we should go to Cambridge - 16 miles away - to see Billy Graham, the notorious evangelist. I'd take the four of us in the Ford, they decided. I remember this made me feel very important. Jack and me knew that Billy Graham was a nut, and we thought it all a great lark, a chance for a laugh - which indeed it turned out to be watching all those overweight old boilers wobbling down the aisle to be saved.

As the time approached, we were informed that Mrs Jolly, a widow who lived two doors down (and lived up to her name quite well), wished to accompany us. The mums were thin and Mrs Jolly was fat, and they fitted snugly into the back of the old Ford.

The show was packed. Billy Graham made his oration - during which Jack and me giggled and nudged and pointed and generally buggered about - and then people who had succumbed to the sermon were invited to make their way to the front of the auditorium to be saved.

The mums stayed firmly sat, as did us boys, but Mrs Jolly, her face in a transfixed stupor, rose and edged her fat bum along the aisle to the gangway and joined the throng of the newly converted - not once looking anywhere but straight ahead.

We waited an hour at the car for Mrs Jolly. And when she arrived her whole demeanour had changed. She'd been a real chatterbox before, and Jack and me had complained about taking her. Now she was almost taciturn. The mums were keen to interrogate her on the way home but Mrs Jolly said little. She just gazed ahead looking aloof and stupid - an expression she retained right till the end.

The ladder incident happened two days later. A man came from the council and said we were not to obstruct the alley with overhead wires. So we decided to dig a shallow trench instead. As we were doing this along comes Mrs Jolly.

'Watch out for the wires.' Shouted Jack.

Now it was Mrs Jolly who went sprawling.

'I've been saved.' she cried from her prone position, 'I've been saved.'

This time it was an ambulance job. Mrs Jolly had broken a bone in her wrist.

'You weren't saved from tripping on our wires.' said Jack while we waited for the ambulance.

'My soul, dear boy.' She replied, easing herself with our help onto a garden seat, 'That's far more important than the body.'

'What's your soul been saved from then?' he continued, fighting back an obvious urge to laugh.

'The Devil.' She retorted, 'When I die my soul will now go to the Lord Jesus. He has saved me. You should take note if you want to be saved too.'

She still had that transfixed look, and we hadn't seen her smile since going to Cambridge.

When he got home that evening we asked Jack's dad, who everyone called Len, what it meant when people said they'd been saved. He was an accountant and spent an hour every evening in the pub at the top end of the road. Unlike Jack's mother, he never went to church or showed the slightest inclination for doing so. But he always seemed cheerful and wise. Perhaps that's why we thought he'd give us a reliable answer.

'These people have never accepted the truth.' He began, looking up from his newspaper, 'Life has no meaning except what you give it yourself. You lads will soon realise that, just as you probably already know that when you die that's it, kaput, for ever... It's an irrational upshot of the survival instinct that makes people want to believe in an afterlife.' he went on, 'It's an infantile delusion. You know what Freud said: "Religion is a public neurosis; neurosis is a private religion." And I guess that sums it up.'

'What's neurosis?' said Jack.

'Depression, anxiety… and so on, when there's no obvious basis for it.'

'So being saved stops that?' said Jack.

'According to legend, Jesus was a rebel.' said Len, 'He challenged authority. He stuck to what he believed in, even when his life was on the line. It's the supreme example. Without that level of revolt the world would be ruled by tyrants; it saves humanity from itself. I wouldn't have done it, would you?'

'Not if my life was on the line.' I said.

'But if people did only what they felt was right, and not blindly what other people told them to do, then their conscience would be clear and they'd stop being anxious. Then they wouldn't need the support of religion or anything else. You could say: by following that example, they'd be saved.... saved from the sin of blind obedience, whether to a tyranny that threatens us all or merely to some idiotic fad, thereby we all retain our autonomy and freedom and the dignity deserving of every human being... that way they'd be at one with God.'

'But you don't believe in God.' said Jack.

''No, because, like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, it's too much of an absurd fairytale.' responded Len, smiling, 'But it depends what you mean by God. Maybe it's the part of your brain that tells you what's right or wrong; conscience, in other words. Or I could say it's nature, or the universe which by various laws of physics gave rise to life.'

Two weeks later we heard that Mrs Jolly was very ill from an infection. Len said it was something she caught in the hospital and that doctors were dangerous people. The mums went to see her and when they returned said she wanted me and Jack to visit her. She had an important message for us, they said.

When we got there she was in Intensive Care. She looked red and had a drip attached to her arm.

'Are you going to die?' asked Jack, startled by her appearance.

'I'm ready.' she mumbled, 'If it's the Lord's will. Then I'll go to heaven.'

'You'll recover all right,' I said, 'But what did you want to tell us?'

'You must trust in God.' She blurted alarmingly, her eyes penetrating me like a spear, 'If it weren't for you, I'd never have found Him. You're a messenger from God, an angel in disguise.'

'But if it weren't for us,' said Jack, 'you wouldn't be here in the first place.'

'Don't ever question the ways of the Lord.' she said, 'It was meant.'

On our way out Jack said, 'She's bonkers.'

'I know.' I said, 'And I feel responsible. But I guess she'll soon be home, and everything will be back to normal.'

Three days after that we heard she had died.

'A lot of good being saved by Billy Graham did her.' said Jack.

'If it hadn't been for our intercom wires she'd still be alive.' I answered.

And Jack said: 'Don't tell a soul.'

Then we burst out laughing, but only briefly because we really felt very sorry for poor Mrs Jolly.

As for the wires, we abandoned the intercom and got a walky-talky instead. Now people are saying we're interfering with their radio and TV reception, and old Cyril across the road has arranged for the Interference man to come and check it out…- always a bloody catch!

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see also: Big Delusions and The Great JuJu

Afterword (dialogue):

R: That was one weird story. You seem to be turning the whole basis of Christianity on its head.

P: Most people, especially so-called Christians, think that to be morally upright they should obey some arbitrary set of rules which were laid down thousands of years ago by a procession of highly articulate intellectual busybodies. The fact is, for millennia we've been duped. Some of the rules are common sense - or were then. Otherwise it's a kind of control mechanism. And the humbug surrounding most religions is the same: the life of some outstanding prophet is hijacked, distorted and used to deceive an unwitting public who are programmed from birth to feel unsure of themselves - without hierarchies and unfathomable rituals to govern their lives. The elite have employed these devious misrepresentations since before time immemorial. Another misunderstanding, in my view, that's exactly related to the kind of error I made when I began reading Hesse, is the self-deception that can result just from learning about the life of Jesus. And that's because what Jesus (and a few others) was telling us was NOT to emulate their lives, which is impossible, but to emulate living in according with their conscience - and deep inside we all share the same conscience.

R: Those are profound and controversial statements.

P: I'm not sure if there's evidence that he'd have sacrificed his life for what he believed, but St Francis is probably another example. Ghandi another; and Mandela yet another - he spent many years in the nick rather than yield to a corrupt authority. They understood what Hesse understood when he wrote 'Self-will':