by Robin Gordon
- Auksford, 2006 -
= = = = = = = = = = = =
The Christian Martyr
= = = = = = = = = = = =
It seemed to Brian that his soul was borne aloft. The swelling hymn carried it in exaltation to the oaken rafters of St Sweyne's Church, where he could look down on the twin banks of white-surpliced choristers and the supplementary cohorts of neatly behatted choirgirls, on the communion table with its fair white cloth and its plain, gilt cross, on the communion rail and the threadbare carpet leading between the choir stalls towards the nave, between the opposite rows of boy trebles and girl sopranos, and between the two clergy desks, where Canon Tollgate stood booming severely in the service of the Lord, while, opposite him, Mouse, his face uplifted in shining joy, oblivious for the moment of his fearsome superior, offered his worship to Christ with purity of heart and fervent, if not entirely tuneful, voice.
The last verse ended, and as the glorious chords of the great Amen resounded through the nave, Brian left his place among the altos and glided out into the centre of the chancel, along the threadbare carpet, between Canon Tollgate and his curate, and took up his position at the lectern. The Coronation Bible lay already open on the eagle's back, with the red and gold ribbon spread over the print, obscuring the left-hand column of the page he was to read.
Brian moved the bookmark and announced the lesson, glancing swiftly at the congregation. The church was almost full. He could see the Headmaster seated prominently in the front row, and something drew his eye to Miss Hardacre, staring sourly and disapprovingly straight ahead. In the brief instant before he began to read he became aware of other teachers and members of his school. Norah Blackburn was there, so too - strangely - was the whole Cowan gang, and for an instant he thought he saw Martin Nicholson near the first pillar, but that, he knew, was impossible. Martin was behind him, in the chancel, in the seat next to his own.
He began to read. "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among thieves ..."
But as he read Brian began to feel uneasy. Something was wrong.
"... and he passed by on the other side."
The congregation did not seem to have noticed it, whatever it was, or, if they had, they gave no sign. They were listening to the reading as they usually did, some relaxed, others bolt upright in their pews, among them the Headmaster, Miss Hardacre, Norah Blackburn, Johnny Cowan and Martin ... no not Martin Nicholson.
"... and on the morrow he departed ... and left two pence ..."
Brian knew that something was wrong. He knew it as certainly as he knew that he had a place in God's heaven. He shuffled uneasily and pressed his legs together behind the lectern to take comfort in the solidity of his knees and the warmth of his bare thighs…
… and Brian knew that he was standing at the lectern, before the eyes of the whole congregation, without his TROUSERS! He looked down as a draught stirred his surplice. As it moved aside he saw, not the black of his cassock, not the dull grey of his standard schoolwear, but the gleam of bare flesh.
A hot flush burned on his cheek and brow, and at the same time he felt a stirring in his groin. He pressed against the upright of the lectern, squirming against it in a desperate attempt to hide his nakedness and he gasped out the final words of the lesson - "Go ... and ... do ... thou ... likewise!"
The congregation span before him. The pillars swung aside. The rafters revolved before his eyes. He was falling, through a red mist, then a black, to find himself waking in his own bed, with the sweat of shame still upon him, and the evaporation of terror.
It had been a dream, a dream like others he had had; like the dream of realising as he turned the last corner on his way to school that he had left his trousers at home, but knowing he still had to carry on and enter the yard, of trying to hide from his uninterested schoolmates, and waking in hot, red-faced shame; or the dream of walking naked through the town and feeling no embarrassment because he was hand in hand with the naked Martin Nicholson whose indistinct body gleamed with a pale, silvery aura that seemed to call forth an almost religious respect from the passers-by. He had had that dream several times, it seemed. He was not quite sure when, but he had remembered having it before, when he awoke last time after something unusual had happened. He and Martin had walked naked through the town hall square, as they always did, when a boy, whom he knew but could not identify, had come up to them. He had asked Martin who it was, and Martin had said, "He dippeth with me into the dish." Thereupon the lad had kissed Martin, and Brian had wakened in the usual way, completely puzzled, but feeling sure that the unidentified youth must have been his classmate Stewart Higgs.
Once he had integrated his church dream into the natural order of things, seen it for what it was, a simple dream of embarrassing nakedness, Brian could compose himself to sleep once more. Then a sudden horrifying thought struck him. This dream was not like any other. In it he had polluted the lectern and desecrated the church. The abhorrent sin of sex, which he wished so ardently to ban from his life, had now defiled what was most precious to him. He tried to pray for forgiveness, but he could not feel God's presence, and all the time his conscience kept telling him: You cannot enter the Lord's presence with the stain of pollution still on your garments.
He lay torn between his desperate desire to atone and his fear of waking his parents if he rose to wash. Surely it was better, since he would atone for it and put it behind him, that they should never know of his sin, for it would cause them great distress. Already he was in a half sleep from which he was unwilling to arouse himself. The Lord would understand. The Lord would forgive. It was not as if he had deliberately imagined the scene in church, called it up as a titillating fantasy. It had forced itself into his sleeping mind - but it did prove that his unconscious was full of the most obnoxious filth.
How could so vile a creature as he toil in the vineyard to which his Master had sent him? How could he cleanse the hearts and minds of his fellow pupils at Halden Comprehensive School when his own heart and mind were infected with the same disgusting depravity? With the stain of guilt on his soul he would feel his own words turned against himself whenever he castigated their smutty speculations. The putrescent filth at the centre of his being damned his witness as hypocrisy, and there was no way he could expiate his guilt, except perhaps by public confession.
The humiliation would kill him. Not only that, it would end for ever his influence for good. The secret must be kept. The trap was inescapable, unless the Lord would forgive - but Brian knew that He would, or at least he hoped He might.
He drifted again into half-sleep, this time troubled, then another thought struck him. Suppose dreams were real. Suppose all those people he had seen really had been present. Suppose dreams were an alternative reality, only most people forgot their dreams as soon as they awoke, and suppose somebody remembered this one. Suppose Johnny Cowan remembered it and told Norah Blackburn. Suppose she remembered it too. Suppose all his classmates heard people talking about it, and they all remembered seeing him standing there reading the Holy Scriptures, naked except for his shirt and surplice.
He could hear them taunting him - Ian Bailey, Chopper Malone, Stewart Higgs, Johnny Cowan, Norah Blackburn - the whole school would be at it.
He had thrown himself from side to side, turned onto his stomach. It wasn't fair! He was burning with shame, his heart was racing, there was an uncontrollable throbbing in his groin. He didn't want to, but he couldn't help it. The pressure of his fingers brought forth a second offering of the essence of life to dry beside the first, and he fell, at last, into an exhausted sleep.
* * *
Brian's childhood had been cradled in petty bourgeois respectability, and his dawning awareness of the world had taken place under the auspices of evangelical Anglicanism, to which, by the age of puberty, he had committed his heart and soul. For him the severe moral outlook of Canon Tollgate - stern and even terrifying though the Rector seemed at times - was goodness; and anything which diverged from that code, or failed to match up to it in any particular, was evil.
He didn't understand at first the sniggered smut of his more advanced contemporaries. He realised it was concerned in some way with those parts of the body devoted to the elimination of waste-products, which his upbringing had conditioned him to call shameful, and he held himself aloof from their conversations. The onset of puberty brought a physical awareness of the sensitive arousability of his own, hitherto quiescent body, and, in spite of himself, a desire to know why this should be so, and why he should at times have an itching and longing in his loins that concentrated itself into his shameful member, infusing it with a rigidity that was both pleasurable and potentially embarrassing.
It happened at the oddest times. Once, while playing with a tiny toy boat in his bath, he had allowed the frail craft to fill with water, and, as it sank, he had imagined, with an electric tingling between his shoulder-blades, the sea closing over the heads of the crew and death engulfing them in its black embrace. Then, as the sailors sank to their doom, his little cock rose to meet them, stiff as a lighthouse and tingling with the delicious horror of their fate.
He found that gentle manipulation would increase the pleasure of his bed-time fantasies, the stories about his adventures with his friend Martin Nicholson, as they fled from the persecution of the Emperor Nero, pursued through the catacombs by gladiators intent on their destruction. After many breath-taking encounters they emerged at last outside the city and went scrambling into the hills to the road which led to freedom - only to be captured at the last minute in a cunning ambush and condemned to face the lions. There Brian had commended his soul to God and taken leave of the world with a fortitude which startled the degenerate Roman crowd into memory of its own noble past, while Martin, the faint glow of his saintly aura almost visible in the sudden gloom as the sun was masked by clouds, walked calmly towards the lions and so charmed them with his sanctity that they lay down quietly at his feet and would not make any move to hurt him.
The crowd fell into complete silence, then exploded into a frenzy of joy. The Praetorian Guard, with swords drawn, rushed into the arena, but the crowd poured down from the tiers, disarmed the soldiers, and carried off their heroes shoulder high. Many souls were won for Christ that day, and Brian drifted into sleep with the commendation of the Apostles in his ears.
There were many versions of the Lions and Christians fantasy, each one embroidered more fancifully than the last to extract every ounce of romantic pathos from the situation. Sometimes, as the lions sank into docile quiescence at Martin's feet and the crowd gasped and fell silent, the Emperor Nero, heaving his ponderous bulk from his couch, would scream for his prize gladiator, who, encouraged with a promise of freedom if he succeeded and death if he failed, entered the ring, armed with sword and shield, intent on taking the lives of the upstart youths who had spoiled the Emperor's sport.
The hiss of insucked breath around the arena drowned the gladiator's soft footfalls as he approached the praying youth, kneeling with his hands in blessing upon the head of a lion and a lioness, and Brian watched in horror as a sudden oblique shaft of sunlight glanced off the raised sword. The crowd was silent. Martin and the lions were oblivious of the sword. The sinews of the gladiator's broad back glistened and twitched as he prepared to strike. The empurpled lips of Imperial Caesar, wet with wine, and moistened again by his eager tongue, parted in expectation - and Brian screamed and hurled himself across the arena to seize the sword-arm even as it fell and deflect the blow from its target.
The gladiator flung him aside with a grunt, and raised his blade anew.
"No!" cried Brian. "He's a saint! You must let him live! Take my life instead!"
The gladiator snarled and looked at the Emperor for guidance. That merry monarch's eyes were glistening with pleasure. His hand signalled that Brian was to be allowed to speak.
"Friends, Romans, Children of God," began the eager evangelist. "You have seen a great marvel today. Martinus, who was to have been eaten by lions, has, by the power of God, made then his friends. These lions, if he chooses, will now defend him and me from all further onslaught. But that is not the way of Christ. We bring you a Gospel of Love, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to be our Saviour and to lay down His life for us, even as I now lay down my life to save you from the lions. If you want blood, you shall have mine. Let Martinus depart in peace, and kill me."
Here Brian sank to his knees and plucked open his tunic, baring his breast to the sword in much the same way that he had seen Laurence Olivier do in his role of Richard III, but with infinitely greater candour and honesty than Shakespeare's murderous king.
An electric hush hung over the arena. The only movement among all those thousands of spectators was the slow, silent sideways movement of the Emperor's tongue across his lips.
Then his hand rose slowly from his lap, hung motionless for a moment, the focus of all eyes, then, suddenly, turned thumb down. Anguished horror gusted from a myriad of throats. The sword rose. The spectators poured over the barriers, screaming their rage. Too late! Even as they reached the gladiator his sword fell and pierced the ivory breast of saintly Brian, who, gasping out his life on the reddened sand, cried, "Forgive him! Forgive him, for he knew not what he did!" - but the avenging crowd denied forever to the Emperor's champion that freedom he had sought to win, rent his ill-fated limbs asunder, and plunged his soul into the abysmal underworld that awaits the heathen.
Others, meanwhile, howling their rage like ravening wolves, pursued the fleeing Emperor, who plunged headlong into the safety of his well-guarded palace, where he brooded on the fires of his resentment, and planned the destruction of the stinking mob and the extermination of his Christian enemies. He would burn Rome and blame the Christians, thus achieving two great feats at one stroke: ridding himself of an inconvenient sect that refused to recognise his divinity, and clearing the ground for his projected Golden Palace.
Back in the arena the dying youth, his gaping wounds staunched by linen torn from the robes of noble matrons and the petticoats of simple serving wenches, was borne on a makeshift litter to the house of a Christian couple, where he lay palely loitering in the shadow of death, tended with infinite kindness by Christian women, while Martin sat at his bedside holding his hand, and a procession of pilgrims passed by, each one pausing to kiss the bloodstained tunic which lay at the foot of his bed.
With his last remaining strength he blessed them. He even healed a few cases of warts, blindness and leprosy, such was the power of God within him, and, though many assured him that he would live, he replied that he was dying and longed only to enter the felicity which Christ had promised to all who followed Him. The time would come soon. He waited only the signal, and when it came he was ready.
The Apostle Peter came to the house to bless him. The women were sent away, the pilgrims waited in silence in the street, and inside the cool, white room Peter and Brian and Martin prayed. Then Brian saw a vision and said to Peter, "Depart from this city while there is yet time, you and those that follow Christ, for the city is engulfed in wickedness and it will be consumed and utterly burnt in the fires of destruction."
Then, commending his soul to the Lord, he died, and as Peter and Martin opened the doors to the women who should prepare his body for the tomb, behold there came the sound of many alarums, and the scent in the air was as the scent of burnt offerings, and smoke rose above the city.
Then said Peter and Martin, "The time of destruction is at hand, even as it was foretold," and they took the women and all that followed Christ and fled from the city. But the body of St Brian they left in the house, and the great fire that consumed the capital of all the world was his funeral pyre.
* * *
The persecution of the blessed Christian martyrs, Brian and Martin, reached its most dramatic and cataclysmic proportions at the hands of the Emperor Nero, but empurpled, Imperial Caesar was not the only tyrant they faced in their journeyings through space and time. They stood with Moses before the wrath of Pharaoh. Nebuchadnezzar hurled them into the fiery furnace. Raging mobs stoned them outside Jerusalem. Queen Mary I of England stretched them upon the rack and gloatingly whispered of tortures so terrible that Brian's imagination could only depict them as grey nightmares, indistinct and horrid. Stalinist conquerors of twentieth-century Britain cast them into concentration camps or subjected them to hours of brainwashing. They scrambled among the Lakeland peaks, dodging snipers' bullets, falling from precipitous overhangs, limping, half carrying each other to safety, each with more than his fair share of broken limbs, racked by pain and exhaustion, to die of thirst in each other's arms after each refusing the last drops of water to save the other.
And always, to the sound of harps and fanfares, there opened before them a wondrous prospect, where the saints, crowned in glory, bade them welcome, and a voice cried, "These are my beloved sons in whom I am well pleased." Then, there in the centre, advancing to meet them, with light playing round His auburn hair and beard, and love shining in the depths of his sad eyes, there, holding out his nail-pierced hands in greeting, there at last, face to face, was Jesus.
Though the persecutions of Brian's fantasy culminated in martyrdom and glory, his everyday reality seemed to drag on into endless frustration. Everyone could recognise and admire the valour of the defenceless youth who faced lions, gladiators, conflagrations, tortures and death in the service of his faith, but who cared about the sufferings of a schoolboy seeking earnestly to stand against smut and sin? Not for him the high road to martyrdom! Rarely were schoolboys stoned to death, shot full of arrows or crucified upside-down to satisfy the cruel lusts of anti-Christian bullies in mid-twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps occasionally an over-pious youth might have been thumped, or a holier-than-thou boy preacher ducked in a lavatory bowl so that the cant could be flushed from his noddle, but none of this happened to Brian. He was never scragged, bumped, put through the mill or made to run the gauntlet. He was never hounded from place to place or sent to Coventry. Nothing particularly unpleasant ever happened to him. The others just ignored his teaching. He seemed to count for nothing among his classmates, to be an outsider, and never more than when they made him the centre of attention and seemed to vie for his favour by telling him jokes.
"Hey, listen, Fairyfeet, here's a good'un for you. There was this feller, see, crossing a narrow bridge. Dead narrow it was, right across this dead wide canyon, wid' a river down below, full o' these dead ferocious sharks."
"How could they be ferocious if they were dead?
"Shurrup will ya? Ah'm tellin' Brian a joke. Dead narrow this bridge was, just a couple o' ropes, that's all. Anyway, he was half way across when he met this dead sexy bird, wi' legs like Raquel Russell and tits like Yvette de Commynes. Know what Ah mean, eh? Cor! Hey, but the best thing was, she didn't have nowt on, not a stitch! Absolutely bare she was. Starkers from her arse to her elbow. Anyway, they met in the middle o' this dead narrow bridge, and she said, "If you were a gentleman you'd let me pass." Well, he couldn't turn round, and he was just stuck there, starin' at this naked woman ..."
"... an' he didn't know whether to try and get his leg over or toss himself off!"
"Hey, what about the two blokes piloting a plane full of women, and the engines went on fire and they only had two parachutes? And the pilot said, Let's take the parachutes and bale out, and the other bloke said, What about the women? And the pilot said, Fuck the women! and the other bloke said, Have we time?"
"No, Fairyfeet don't like that kind o' story, do you, Fairyfeet? You shouldn't tease him. It's not fair. Listen, don't you worry, Twinkletoes, I'll tell you a proper story. I'll tell you a fairy story."
"Naw, come on lads, fair's fair. He's listened to your jokes about naked women, and men doing things to them, an' 'e dun't like that. So Ah'm gonna tell 'im a proper fairy story."
"Come on then, duckie!"
"Not that kind o' fairy story, ya berks. It's a story about witches and princesses an' things. Olden times an' that."
"Go on then, get on wid it!"
"What you waiting for? Christmas?"
"Don't keep us hanging round all day!"
"Let's have the story!"
"You listening, Brian? Right. Once upon a time, long ago and far away, in a kingdom full of flowers, and birds ..."
"And bees! Way-hay!"
"... and bees, and gentle breezes, and warm sunshine, and all that sort of thing, there lived a king who had a golden crown, a long white beard and a beautiful daughter ..."
"With legs like Raquel Russel and tits like Yvette de Commynes!"
"Well maybe she had and maybe she hadn't. Nobody ever knew, 'cos in those days, apart from the fact that they wore voluminous dresses that covered them from head to foot ..."
"Well, you can't expect a royal princess to go round flashing her thighs. Just think about it! What would people say if there was a royal princess wearing dead short skirts and low cut blouses. You don't see Princess Margaret going round like that do you? Course not, and it was the same for the princess in the story."
"Go on, then. Let's hear it!"
"Well, the King kept her locked up in this palace, with these beautiful gardens full of flowers and birds and bees and breezes and sunshine and peaches and all sorts of other fruit, but there was one thing she didn't have that she wanted, and that was a handsome prince. She went around kissing frogs for a bit ..."
"... but none of 'em turned into a prince, so she was very sad and lonely and miserable."
"Yeah, well, you can jeer, but how would you like it if you were a beautiful princess locked up in a castle and you knew that outside there was a world full of handsome, sexy lads ... Whoops! Sorry, Brian. I mean, handsome, well-mannered, perfect gentlemen like Chopper and me ..."
"Wayhaay! And me!"
"Yeah. Well, it's no wonder she was pining, 'cos the only men she ever saw were the palace guards, and they were old and ugly - and anyway the King had told them that if they ever so much as laid a finger on her, or even leered at her concupicentrally ..."
"Concupiscently," said Brian.
"Yeah, concupiscently, well he'd have them dragged into the torture chamber and once he'd got them there he'd get this sword with a sharp blade - or, if he was in a really bad mood, one with a blunt blade - then he'd cut off their fingers, one by one. Then he'd cut off their toes. Then he'd cut off their hands, and their feet, and then their ears, and then, finally ... he'd ... cut ... off ... their ..."
"Their heads. What else?"
"All good clean family entertainment. I told you this was a fairy story. Now, where was I? Oh yes, there was this princess, gasping for a bit of ... um ... masculine company, and she started pining away so that eventually the King noticed it, and he said, "Daughter, what ails thee?" That's the way they used to talk in them days. He said, "Daughter, what ails thee?" and she said, "Oh Father, dear Father, I am so unhappy. There are deep yearnings in my bosom for I know not what." Well, the old King, who could just about remember being young himself about a million years ago, realised what it must be, so he sent for his sorcerers and asked them to brew up a potion to cure her. Hey, but they all said that once a woman gets into that sort of state there's only one thing that'll cure her, and that's an energetic gallop with a handsome lad ..."
"... out on the moor ..."
"... on a couple of thoroughbred horses."
"But the King wasn't having it ..."
"I thought it was his daughter that wasn't having it!"
"... so he kept on asking round, till eventually he heard of an ugly bad-tempered old witch ..."
"Raay! Miss Hardacre!"
"... that lived all by herself in the forest and wouldn't have owt to do with men ..."
"I told you it was Miss Hardacre!"
"Shurrup, man! You're spoiling the story. Fairyfeet wants to listen to it, don't you, Twinks?"
Brian, who had become quite interested, admitted it.
"Right then. If you all shut up, I'll get on with it."
"Why are we waiting?
Why-y are we wai-aiting?
Why are we wai-aiti-ing?
Why? Why? Why?"
"Right! So the King got hold of this old witch ..."
"Dirty old pervert!"
"I mean, he sent for her to the palace, and he told her about the princess and asked her if she could help, and she said she could, but she wouldn't tell him how because it was a secret only for women. He was dead mad, but in the end he had to agree. So the witch went in to the princess, and she gave her a magic stick. The princess carried it with her everywhere she went, and she stopped having these yearnings ..."
"... deep in her bosom!"
"She stopped having 'em anywhere, and she stopped kissing frogs, and she was as happy as a princess ought to be in a garden full of flowers and things."
Donald McIlwaine paused.
"Is that it?”
"Not quite. You see, one day she lost the magic stick, and she was as miserable as a dying duck in a thunderstorm. She went searching for it everywhere. She even asked one of the guards to help, and, of course, she had to tell him what the magic was. Well, he didn't believe her. When she had gone he started muttering to himself. These royal princesses must think we're all stupid. Does she really think I'm going to fall for a story like that? Little stick, little stick, in my hole indeed! But what the guardsman didn't know was that it was a magic stick, and it was lying in the bushes near his feet, and when it heard the words the magic started working, and, because the princess hadn't told him the spell to stop it, by the time they found him the next morning - he'd been buggered to death!"
A raucous burst of laughter greeted Dolly's triumphant conclusion. Brian's mouth tightened, and he prepared to pour forth his gall in winged words, but was given no opportunity.
"Hey!" yelled Stewart Higgs. "D'you wanna hear about the homosexual spider?"
Brian made a sound of disgust.
"Go on, tell us!" called the unwary Dolly McIlwaine
"He wouldn't leave other people's flies alone!" yelled Stew.
Dolly was too late to avoid Stew's grabbing hand. He gave a roar of rage, but Stew was away across the yard. Dolly was after him, with Big Ian and Chopper and the others after them, and Brian was left alone with his disgust.
Please remember that this story is copyright. See Copyright and Concessions for permitted uses.