THE END OF THE NIGHT – A SHORT STORY BY GERARD MCKEEVER
It was last orders when the prophet returned. The streets were silent, a Thursday mist creeping off the Solway and up the Nith valley. ‘Warm night for the time of year,’ we kept saying, unseasonal hornets lurking beneath the orange fuzz of the streetlights, a smell of honeysuckle ever-present. Clarion calls for calm resonated from the back of the room, where dartboards were mounted inside tractor tyres. I was sitting beneath the jukebox, where the music was too loud to be understood, and had a perfect view of the way in. You were at the bar, wearing that straw hat you brought back from Palestine.
‘Why do you want to go there, sure?’ I had asked at your kitchen window, not grasping the appeal.
‘It’s the Holy Land, Jean,’ you said, staring at the snooker-cloth green of the Dalveen Pass. This seemed like stating the obvious.
That night – the barroom bell was still resonating through the air. I could see you scouring the spirits on the back shelf. The pub was always dead at the weekend, but we liked buying our own drinks. And then in the corner of my vision, the door swung in.
‘Mary!’ I shouted to you, nodding my head and trying to wink with the one eye that was open.
A stranger filled the doorway.
‘Will you join us, kind sir, in a shot of this black stuff?’ you asked him. You always used a silly voice when you were being serious.
He glanced at the label and opened his hands benevolently. ‘Mm, yes.’
‘I’m Mary,’ you told him, slapping his arm.
‘Jesus,’ he said.
‘Your name’s Jesus?’
His eyes glowed.
‘Good one!’ you laughed. I joined in, sitting up to get a proper look. He was wearing a pair of walking boots, old but immaculately waxed. Then what looked like combat fatigues, rolled-up, but might have been big shorts. A collarless linen shirt, no visible logo except a pin badge that read ‘Birthday Boy’. And a piece of string or a shoelace holding back a head of frizzy soil-brown hair. It was an affected look, but we’d been drinking for four hours.
‘Get off your arse and up here, Jean,’ you declared. I tottered over to receive the tiny glass. ‘Are you a tourist, then?’ you asked, giggling between words.
‘I work with sheep,’ he said.
‘Oh, one of them seasonal shearing boys,’ you concluded, oblivious to the agricultural calendar. ‘Australian or something.’
Jesus just shrugged and raised his glass, happy enough to let you believe.
We slurped the black, feeling it mostly in the lungs, and placed the glasses back on the bar. They formed a triangle, of course.
‘Is it your birthday, then, Jeez?’ you continued.
‘I …’ for the first time he faltered, stagey grin cracking into something more meaningful. ‘I am risen.’
This was hilarious. I leaned against the bar for balance and began rubbing the taps like they were parts of a sexualised altar. A low ceiling added to the tunnel effect of the room: long, thin, all sound rushing and resonant. It was like a cave on an Atlantic island. ‘I’m off to …’ I said, pausing to burp from the side of my mouth, ‘… turn wine into water.’
By the time I got back you were sharing a packet of scampi fries with Jesus, making jokes about the sanctity of pork scratchings that he was taking with good heart.
‘Pints?’ I asked, leaning on the table.
‘Black stuff,’ you said.
‘And that other thing.’
And so it went on, a glint in the barman’s eye suggesting that last orders had only been a means of clearing out the undesirables. It was us, our Lord Jesus, and the darts team left. There was stained glass in the window looking onto the street. ‘Peace be with you,’ Jesus said intermittently, raising his pint. He had the whole shtick down. Around us the room was alive with snatches of dialogue like, ‘This thing’s been bothering me again,’ and ‘Is that your jacket?’
Or, ‘Same again.’
‘And how long has it been?’
‘We’ve got a lot to talk about,’ someone insisted. Insects gathered in the far corners of the room, moths perhaps, wondering how to make it to the light. The carpet was sticking to my soles as I followed the rhythm of an Elvis classic. And in the three levels above, families were turning restlessly, wondering if their heating was on.
‘Remember how you … parted the Red Sea?’ you said, racking your brain for biblical innuendos.
Jesus just smiled. But three or four beers deep, he loosened up and started to show us a few things, starting with a set of double-jointed elbows. ‘Further … Further … No! Stop!’ you squirmed. ‘That’s too much.’ He was good company, but we weren’t to be satisfied with fart jokes and card tricks, even though we sensed that they were two sides of a mystic coin.
‘Truth is …’ I started to say but tailed off, the words left festering. I managed to buy some cigarettes from the bar with a few hand gestures. A young voice whistled by from a wrestling match in the back. ‘Get off me, for the love of God!’ I held my mouth out for an incoming lighter and inhaled the tobacco fullness, smoking inside being an after-hours perk. I didn’t smoke, really, but this was a special occasion.
‘Staying locally?’ you asked eventually, one arm over his shoulder. The darkness in the pub had by then faded from incandescent to slot-machine and even a rural lock-in has to end sometime. Jesus mumbled something about fish and you mimed the act of reeling in a salmon.
‘I hope you have an angling license …’ I tried, but my patter had been terrible for hours.
You changed the subject with, ‘So, I hid a bottle of wine at the war memorial.’
There was a bang from the smoking area, where the chest freezers were kept. Jesus stood up and announced, ‘Tomorrow will be anxious for itself.’
We fell outside, boots chasing arms, wheel-like, up the pavement past the 1920s Italian café and onto the main road. The moon was refracting off windows along Drumlanrig Street, coming down onto the road in a long silver commandment.
‘Onward,’ I cried.
You and Jesus sprinted ahead, racing or just getting some space. By the time I buckled down onto the granite bench around the memorial, the wine was open.
‘How did you get the, hic, cork out?’ I asked.
Jesus wiggled his eyebrows and I noticed an awestruck look in your eyes.
‘C’mon you,’ you slurred to him. ‘Show’s more.’
Jesus looked at you.
‘You know what I mean.’
He stood up and took a swig of Malbec. Then, chuckling to himself, he waved his hand in a careless flourish.
‘Very nice,’ I observed, lighting a cigarette. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen. And then I felt my phone rumble in my pocket. It was a text from a number ending triple-seven that read simply: ‘Morning is broken.’
‘How did he do it?!’ you yelped, jumping up and fingering his pockets to find a mobile. It was either very well hidden or something more interesting was happening.
‘So are you, ah, actually the son of God or just, y’know?’ I asked, two trickles of wine passing down my chin like melting horns. ‘Or even … like a metaphor? Confess.’
Jesus laughed his little-girl laugh and tossed me a two-pence coin. It landed head-up in the palm of my hand. I turned it over: another head. This seemed like an answer of sorts.
‘Keeping that, are you?’ you asked, watching me slip it into my pocket. ‘You’ve made a profit then.’
I just stared. ‘Tell us one of them stories, Jesus.’
He stood up and started pacing around the war memorial, working himself like a dynamo or a mill-horse. His hands found each other, body contracting into a kind of order. ‘The kingdom of heaven …’ he said.
‘I know this one,’ you chuckled, with eyes that left me unconvinced.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure – treasure hidden in a field,’ said Jesus. He stopped and looked at the war memorial, before shaking his head. ‘Treasure which a man found and hid. And he sold everything he had to buy that field.’
‘Ok,’ I agreed. ‘So heaven is totally important. But why is he keeping it all … private?’
‘I mean I see it’s important. Is that all it means?’ I burped. ‘Is he hoarding salvation? How precise is this stuff? Are there r-red herrings in there?’ I was rambling, but I didn’t care.
You interrupted with, ‘There’s truth and lies everywhere, dummy. They’re – like – two sides of a coin.’
‘Easy now …’
The stone was cold on our bottoms, the night newly black. ‘Listen, Jesus,’ you announced, ‘Why don’t you just sit down and let’s focus on teaching that Vino Tinto a lesson.’
Jesus consented, moonlight making him less of a festival-burnout and more of a shadow.
‘Can I have some?’ I asked, but neither of you were listening any more. I stood up and lit another cigarette, the first puff of smoke catching in my eyes and nose. I waited for a minute, and then another, but the moment for me had gone.
‘You see, the best thing about Thursdays,’ I could hear you telling him as I wandered off up the street, ‘is that there’s still three days till Monday, ignoring Friday, if you see what I mean. And after all, weeknights are the best fun. Everything is better when you’re not really allowed to, isn’t it? Shift up a bit closer here and keep me warm …’
My feet took me away, homing instinct online. The smell of honeysuckle radiated from front gardens, early warning signs of a hangover beginning to emerge, me already wondering if it was just a dream. And if it wasn’t, where did the reality of it end, or was that even the point, in a tale that had to grow taller with telling.