When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with him, He will sit on his throne. He will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep on His right hand and the goats on His left. Then the king will say to those on His right hand, “You have my Father’s blessing; come, enter and possess the kingdom that has been ready for you since the world was made…” Then He will say to those on his left hand, “The curse is upon you; go from my sight to the eternal fire that is ready for the devil and his angels…..
– Matthew 25:31–46
Larry Evans was the man who lost everything.
He had lost the restaurant first, to an ‘unexplained’ fire on a cold November night. He’d woken up to Theresa crying, police at the door with hidden accusations. This, he said, couldn’t be happening.
He lost his patience next, this time with an unsympathetic insurance company on a clammy Wednesday afternoon. Nothing they could do, they’d said, and his home was lost soon after, crushed beneath the compensation costs and a host of unpaid bills.
And then he’d lost Theresa. She’d been diagnosed on April 1st, she was gone by mid-May, lost to a rare and aggressive cancer of the spine, the bitter punctuation to a ridiculously overwrought sentence.
Larry had already lost his two children, Alex and Laura, to a lifetime of stubborn, burning apathy. Any flame they’d once carried had long since expired. His love for Theresa had been the last, lonesome fire of a dying land. Now even that was gone.
It was somewhere during this bitter tumble down The Tree of Life when Larry lost all hope.
So he drank.
And he drank.
And he drank.
Larry was never a particularly religious man. He had been christened, of course, just as his three sisters had been before him, his parents before that. He was even known to attend church on the odd occasion, an Easter Sunday or a Christmas Eve, some vain attempt to teach his spoilt children the true meaning of Easter or the reason for the expensive presents which would lay beneath a dead and ornamented tree.
But what was that true meaning? Larry never quite figured that out for himself. The tall tales of virgin birth and divine resurrection were but an empty husk, a radio transmission in search of a message.
Larry found religion an insurmountable mountain. Its history and its dogma were like jutting rocks choking passage to its summit. While never a target of hatred for him, like it had been for Dawkins or Hitchens or one of that New Atheist crowd his liberal, freethinking clientele so adored, it was treated as a conceit best avoided altogether, a Gordian knot, an abstraction, an existential get-out clause that would screw with his brain like a Kafka novel on mushrooms or a nightmarish Magritte painting, sending his mind into a graveyard spiral into the unfathomable.
And yet he would still linger, do his research, attempt to see that which went unseen. He could see that religion may well have been the pièce de résistance of early man, it answered the questions that needed to be answered,
Where did we come from and, now that we are here, how shall we live?
He could see that religion had given hope to a people whose lives Thomas Hobbes had described as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
And Larry, like we all shall, could relate to that. But still the sacred would elude him.
The first signs of religious behavioural patterns, those such as burial rites, emerged sometime during the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 300,000 years ago. Cave paintings of half-animal, half-human figures began appearing on cave walls some 32,000 years ago, along with the likes of the Venus of Willendor statuette, la poire, which has been found in Austria in 1908 and was believed to date back to somewhere in the region of 28,000 B.C.E. The Neanderthal may also have practiced an early form of totemism or animal worship even before this, in addition to their ceremonial burial of the dead.
Religion, it turned out, had been around for a very long time, and it had been religion that acted as the seed, the bud from which The Cofa’s Tree would burgeon into magnificent, wondrous life.
At the dawn of it all had been The May Queen; she who would welcome the coming of Spring, the Þrimilci-mōnaþ, a time of great fertility for the soil and the livestock and the people of this land, and it was within the sanctuary of The Cofa’s Trees shade that The May Queen would bid welcome to the vernal equinox.
And it was within The Cofa’s Trees domain that Saint Osburga built her Nunnery. The Saxon settlers cleared the land, raising sheep and cattle, which lead to Coventry’s successful wool industry and to great wealth, only to see it all crushed beneath the sword of Cnut the Great.
The St. Mary Priory was built on the Nunnerys remains at the request of Earl Leofric and our Lady Godgifu, and there it stood until the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII during the English Reformation, which would lead to the destruction of many of Coventrys religious houses.
And then came fire; the Coventry Martyrs burnt at the city walls, guilty of heresy against the Roman Catholic faith, and, centuries later, the word Koventrieren entered the English tongue,
to Coventrate, to annihilate or reduce to rubble,
St. Michael burning amongst a fury of firestorms which had swept across the city one cold November night; one last waltz to a moonlight sonata.
Larry lived in a small bedsit on the cusp of Friars Road. It sat within spitting distance of the Coventry Registrars Office, the remnants of a medieval royal palace.
He had a broken bed and a cramped kitchenette along with a television which would not work. The communal bathroom was a mere two floors away. It was a place where he would do very little but sleep, eat, shower and shit before opening time at The Flying Standard.
It would be late afternoon when Larry would stagger into the gloom of The Holy Trinity, perch himself at the end of the stalls and begin what had become his daily meditation on The Coventry Doom which had been painted during the 15th Century following an earthquake in the city, The End surely nigh.
The Doom stands above the tower arch as a demonstration of the eternal consequences of both charitable and uncharitable acts, with Christ sat upon His throne with His twelve disciples at His side; to His right, amidst hordes of the dead as they rise from their graves, kneels Mary while at His left John the Baptist pleads for the souls of the damned stranded below him, among their number two kings, a cardinal and a monk. Even the city’s ale wives seem doomed for eternity, doomed to eternal damnation for overcharging their customers and watering down their ale.
A wise God indeed.
High above it all, this gruesome charade, was the entrance to Heaven. Larry often wondered of His temperament, mull over a God who would punish His children in such a cruel, haphazard way. What God would raise those at rest to separate who He believed to be saints from who He believed sinners? Were we all not human, as prone to acts of cruelty as to acts of kindness?
What God would allow spine cancer? Crippling debt? What God would burn all that Larry had loved? What God would allow such tragedy to be inflicted upon His creation?
All manner of war and disease and disaster and starvation remained trapped in a perpetual loop, marched across the media like some parade of the damned, with each dead child awash on a beach or lost amongst the rubble of a ruined hospital driving another wedge between Larry and whatever it was he found himself searching for.
But even after all he had been through, Larry Evans, the man who lost everything, would still sit and ponder. He would ask, to whomever may be out there listening, on which side of the throne would he stand when the time finally came?
Did he even care?
There would often be another man, crooked and half blind, stooped two pews ahead of him in the mid-afternoon murk. He wore a smile on lips and carried a knowledge in his eyes, the man who had the punchline to the great cosmic joke.
It was a Wednesday afternoon when the old man first spoke to Larry, reading aloud from a battered paperback crumpled between his brittle fingers. “Civilisation will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” He chuckled. “That Zola sure had a way with words.”
The old man stopped and sat in silence a while, flicking back and forth, leaving Larry on edge; an axe above the condemned neck, the tightening of the noose.
“You want to know, friend?” the old man said, finally, pointing up at that terrible fresco. “You want to know secret behind it all?” He sang like a man who sang this song often.
“There are no secrets,” said Larry. “It’s all a fucking sham.” His last whiskey met his last Guinness and his stomach let out a silent scream.
“I was a reverend once,” said the old man, ignoring Larry completely. “A parish in Wyken. Beautiful old church. Just beautiful. Older than sin, but we all love sin.” He chuckled again before letting out a sigh. A hip flask appeared from his jacket pocket and he took a good, long pull, his milky eyes never leaving that of The Lord above them, sat upon His throne. “Why are you here, friend, alone and drunk on a Wednesday afternoon?”
“Warmth,” said Larry. He coughed up a fit and felt the sickness creeping in, realising he hadn’t taken a real shit in days and when he had it smelt like rotting bodies and hospital chemicals. His skin felt all wet and clammy, his eyes raw and wretched. He glanced upon Christ, up there on His Throne, and he hoped to fuck He was happy.
“You know the story of Job?” said the old man. “You know what our blessed Lord put that poor bastard through? Well, let me tell you, we will all relate, sooner rather than later.” He let out a cackle, shaking his frail frame. The laughter iced, Larry could see that the man was still shaking, more than a little dead-eyed, could see that he had the look of a man who had been running away from something for his entire life. “The Blitz,” said the old man, an answer to the unasked question. “Eight years old, I was, when I watched Coventry burn. I would cry, you know. I would cry and cry and cry, every single night. And pray. Can you believe that? Pray! Prayer is as dead as the Dodo.” He laughed, an exhausted, broken thing.
Larry made an attempt to stand but without the feeling of his legs, the world began to lurch and the pews began spinning and spinning and spinning.
The old man smiled again but with a hint of sadness this time, reminiscent of a time when he would have moved the world to help people, a time when perhaps he had mattered, a time when he wasn’t just an old drunk flickering like a ghost through a miserable afternoon. “You are a man who lost everything. I know that look, God help me. But I do. It’s a glint or some such, something missing from the eyes. A chip on the soul perhaps.” A defeated chuckle echoed through the pews. “What did you lose, Larry Evans?”
Larry said everything and nothing, all at once.
“I am truly sorry, friend,” said the man and he changed tack. “I married when I left the clergy but it didn’t last. She couldn’t stand the screams, you know? They followed me, the screams. They always, always followed me…”
And still the room spun.
“Long ago I was told that God was dead. And I believed that, I did, for a good long time… and thus passes the glory of the world.” The old man smiled to himself, a truth now seemingly apparent. “It was a lie, of course. I’n sure of that now. It took me a long time to figure that out but I got there. The Godhead exists, little Larry. Maybe he was here before it all, the world in eight short days. Or maybe we created him, in the raging Petri dish we call the human conscious. What does it matter? He, she, it exists. That much I know.”
Larry interjected. “How? How the fuck could you possibly know?” The words slurred together and tumbled out into the ether.
The old man was solemn. “The one who told me of the death of the Almighty, all it knew was deceit. It was a warped, grotesque thing, and it changed me, that night, it changed the both of us.” He sighed. “You cannot have The Darkness without The Light. The Yin without the Yang. The Hodge without the Podge. We murdered His son, you understand? We murdered His Son. Deicide, little Larry, is the deepest of sins. So? So He left us to rot, little Larry. He left us to rot.”
And the old man laughed again. He laughed and he laughed and he laughed.
And Larry Evans left the church eventually and was swallowed by the daylight.
He sat there, stooped on the church steps, where he lit himself a cigarette and hummed a little song. And he waited for the ground to shake, for some sign that he wasn’t alone.
LISTENING: Darker Half, by Lee Noble.