Brian Coughlan: Malingerer

A week later they return. The gate hinge squeaks and footsteps on the cold stone steps bring them down to my bedsit. The blinds part, just slightly. I see them and they me. Knuckles rap the window. I mouth “Go Away!” and return my stare to the television: a documentary about barn owls – how they soundlessly hunt through the moonlight. During the ads I deign to glance sideways. Out of the corner of my eye. Perched. Watchful. Smiling. Literally hopping mad, I spring up to my good leg; drag the blinds until they overlap and thus obliterate all that is outside of this dank little hovel of mine.

When the Barn Owls swooped for a third time, I was so impressed by their persistence that I listened, from my doorstep: with every ounce of good-natured indifference I could muster. Naturally they wanted me to attend a prayer evening, which they described at great length. There was a shoulder waiting: all I had to do was start crying. Surely, I thought, my complete and utter disregard for what they are saying registers with these two straight-laced men from nowhere in particular? But, no, it did not – for they returned a week later. We repeated the exercise all over again – with the same outcome.

I suppose you could say that I have only myself to blame, in so far as I listened to them. No doubt you would continue to admonish me with:  don’t give these people a glimmer of hope – that’s what they feed on; politeness, decency, niceness. I would then shut you up, by gently reminding you that I had already tried, and failed with that approach. The only alternative was to criticise, to verbally abuse: repeatedly calling into question their faith and beliefs, but whatever the brand of brainwash these two were using had rendered them perfectly impervious to self-doubt of any kind. Not so much as a facial twitch or lip quiver registered, just a shared blank expression with non-judgemental nod of cowlick.

Subsequent weeks passed slowly and without incident. I retreated deeper inside my lair until at my lowest I was reduced to eating sultanas on an almost continuous basis as my sole means of nourishment. Where did the sultanas come from? I don’t know. The circle was of course vicious: lacking the energy to go up the steps and outside to get food I sunk further into the folds of the couch and wallowed in an oddly satisfying pool of self-pity. Nobody in the line of friend or family member, made any attempt whatsoever, to contact or coerce me into anything. I spent a lot of time imagining and re-imagining my funeral. The indifference of the handful of fictional mourners who had bothered to turn up really beggared belief.

When the Barn Owls called again after a three week hiatus I will freely admit that my bearings were in a state of some disarray. ‘We were off on retreat’ said the shorter of the two, the one with the faint suggestion of a moustache above his enormous slug-like lips. I barely had the energy to slam the door in their faces. But before I did, those concerned expressions promised to return and true to their word, they came back that same evening with a bag full of all kinds of food. It didn’t take much convincing for me to accept their offering. What was exasperating was that no matter how hard I tried to force them to accept payment (my skeletal arms pestering and pawing) they refused. Their sword of charity slid to the hilt; I gorged my way towards a severe stomach ache.

Next morning they landed at my door and we happily exchanged pleasantries across the doorstep. They mentioned something about a prayer meeting on Sunday evenings. Of course there was no obligation – a point they took great strains to stress. No obligation. Nevertheless they managed to slip it discretely into our conversation on any number of occasions. To the stark revelation that I no longer believed – in anything at all – they merely sympathised. Everyone goes through a similar kind of thing they said, and a shorter version of the story I heard on the first visit was once again retold. For the nth time. Until Sunday then. In a flurry of feathers they ascended the steps and were gone.

When Sunday inevitably arrived I was ferried to the prayer meeting by taxi. It was my first time outside in many months. The rain had abated just long enough to allow a dying sliver of sun to filter through my window and illuminate the side of the taxi driver’s face with an elliptical shape that opened and closed like an evil eye. I felt very ill at ease as we crawled through the streets; not knowing where we were going or what to expect when we got there. Everything looked different than I remembered, especially the way people walked; as if being dragged forward by the diabolical puppetry of some enigmatic overlord towards their ultimate demise. Yes, I am aware of how that sounds.

The taxi stopped at a community college of modest proportions constructed in the usual fashion to withstand the comings and goings of the thousands of loutish students enslaved within its heavy double-doors from nine until four-thirty. ‘Matthew’ helped me from the car and handed me my crutches before the taxi engine revved and took off into the night, trying to get as far away from its three disgorged passengers as possible. I was hurriedly ushered inside where it was cold, bitterly cold; the fetid odour of sweaty teenagers hung in the air and I could still hear the echoes of their horse-play; bullying; name-calling; and mocking laughter. Or was I just remembering my own school-days?

Suddenly the doors to the gymnasium were folded back like an accordion and I was shepherded inside to wait among intersecting floor markings of basketball courts, football pitches and badminton courts, all in different colours and all of them scuffed and faded by inappropriate footwear, while a very old man unloaded chairs from enormous stacks and positioned them in rows. In this gymnasium I felt myself become even more distant and gloomy than I had been in the car, if that were possible. It was ridiculous my being here. Nonsensical. And now that they had me where they wanted; that is, limping aimlessly in ever-widening circles, I realized that the expectation was that I would chat to the people arriving, or chat with them, whichever it is. Instead, I continued as before to totter – but now around the periphery of the room – to try and avoid everyone else as best I could.

A pleasant-enough man; ‘Joe’, heavy, waxen-faced, red bristly beard and meagre collection of hair on his dome; introduced himself. In the heat of an apology and flustered introduction his surname got lost in the great word-search of an indecipherable accent. After initial requests to repeat what he said, my ear grew accustomed to interpreting his words. Ignoring the foulness of his breath I was treated to a round-trip of all the reasons it made sense to re-introduce hanging. When he had decided to shut his trap, pun intended, we stood in silence. He left me alone to bring his peculiar brand of reasoning to some other hapless soul in the by now noisy gymnasium.

As the congregation filed into the arteries between the rows of plastic chairs, removing their coats and talking noisily with their neighbours, I began to have doubts about my whereabouts. Was I really there? In body yes, undeniably, but my mind was somewhere else altogether; the reason for it was that I felt so itchy, so uncomfortably itchy around these people. They were no better or worse than other people; ones I had met and shook hands with before, except I didn’t want to be among them; I didn’t want to be one of them. I was there, but I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be on my own. A feeling of monumental disdain spread throughout my body in a disagreeable fashion until I was positively straining at the leash, ‘misanthropically drooling’, I suppose you might call it.

Finally, unable to control myself, I began to criticise their shortcomings on a case by case basis. I couldn’t help it! Every individual possessed something physically repulsive to my eyes; a large red nose of burst blood vessels; two piggish legs barely restrained by tights; skinny legs combined with an overarching paunch; meek-headed middle-aged bachelors; emasculated married men on leashes held by quick-tempered women; sinister-eyed old people with nothing better to do with their time than pray for a quick death; a collection of Holy Joes in other words, with me in the middle of them and not a good-looking woman within an ass’s roar of the place.

The seething congregation was disturbed by an elderly woman who introduced herself as ‘Mary’. She was gaunt, bow-legged and looked like she had been dragged backwards through a ditch. Without the crutches and the broken leg I don’t know what we would have said to each other; having once fractured her heel she knew exactly what I was going through. While we talked, the people around us accumulated into a noisy mob; and a strangely palpable expectancy joined the room. My cock-and-bull story in relation to the leg-break failed to convince her. She then guessed correctly that I would probably like to go to the toilet, before things started. In advance of an offer to bring me and open my fly for me I grasped for my crutches and levering desperately I escaped her clutches.

To get to the toilet through the crowd of people with their backs turned to me I had to tap with my crutch on their calves and ankles. Unhesitatingly they twirled around and apologised for blocking my way. The end of each crutch though covered in a durable rubber stopper was not a nice thing to have come down on your toe as one mild mannered gentleman discovered when he did not move out of my way fast enough. It wasn’t done on purpose, but I might have been more careful; or at least that was what his agonised wince full of silent rage spelt out for me as I hopped, planted the crutch either side of me, and swung like a pendulum past him.

By the time I had made it to the closest cubicle and locked it behind me I was sweating hard. Fanning myself by tugging on the midriff of my shirt I remembered something I had with me that might help matters. Carefully removing a small mound from the folded envelope I snorted two lines of the off-white powder, blinked, made a face, and licked the remainder from my wet finger. Soon my thoughts were perfectly aligned and that awful feeling of awkwardness, while not completely eradicated, had its edges smoothed. At least, I reasoned, I have given myself a fighting chance of enduring the rest of the evening.

I returned to the gymnasium to find the congregation in their seats. My jacket marked out the place for me – middle of the front row- about two feet from the microphone. No sooner had I lowered myself onto the seat than it began with ‘Matthew’ striding confidently to the top of the room, casually pouring himself a glass of water from a little plastic bottle; swallowing; covering his mouth with his hand and then saying softly into the microphone: ‘The response to the Psalm is: Lord hear us.’

The dullness of the rote reply: ‘Lord hear us’ and then with delicious inevitability: ‘Lord graciously hear us,’ that I automatically mumbled along with, stamped the proceedings with a solemn resonance. Between these responses he read a series of prayers but I did not follow them. All I wanted was to listen and mumble with an unfamiliar but agreeable feeling of limp-willed surrender. This feeling was interrupted when a man walked up through the aisles and took the microphone from Matthew. Overcome by nerves, his voice quavered; reading from a folded piece of paper that took an eternity to unfold, he told how Jesus had come into his life only three months prior to this meeting, in a profound way. He was boring; I drifted off into an altogether pleasant slumber.

Such was the immersion in my own thoughts that I was taken by surprise when the clapping of hands around me started in earnest. All of a sudden people were up on their feet crying out to Jesus and thanking him in flamboyant praise-filled voices in every format of gibberish you could hope to imagine; heads tilted backwards, arms out-stretched, invoking the spirit of something. It only occurred to me that they were speaking in tongues when that open-mouthed, stunned feeling finally wore off and I was still there sitting-down amongst grown adults wailing nonsense at the top of their lungs.

The man beside me was shaking so much that his coin-filled pockets jangled along in a merry fashion to match the crazed juxtaposition of words and word-like jingles spilling out of his mouth. It sounded like the type of thing that escapes your mouth on the downward slope of a rollercoaster, travelling at incredible speed, when, scared out of your mind, you start screaming any old guff. I could not comprehend what it was that made these people so exhilarated. It was beyond me; pulled up to my feet by arms reaching under my armpits, hoisting me up onto one shaky leg, where  bewildered by all that was going on around me, a sudden firm prod in the back had me joining with them.

Look, it was pathetic at first: “Jesus you are great – Jesus you are really great!” and so forth, but then I warmed to the task. The trick was to let go completely and without thinking about it – say anything at all; disconnect the mind entirely from the mouth. I found that closing my eyes and raising my hands in adoration also helped matters enormously. ‘Is that my voice, above everyone else’s?’ pondered the remaining specs of self-conscious thought in that by now too-warm gymnasium. I thought vaguely of my parents and of the many friends and acquaintances I had systematically estranged over the years, and as I continued to shout my head off a delicious breeze wafted through the room, from an emergency exit door, jammed open by a folded-up piece of cardboard. The breeze is the last thing I remember before I blacked out. Blank film strip.

Then a sudden return; prompting a series of questions and answers: Why am I in a gymnasium? Oh, Yes. Why am I turned so as to face the congregation? Because I’m the Messiah. Why are my knuckles bleeding? I don’t know. The microphone, lies stretched-out on the ground, squealing in pained feedback. As for the barn owls; a small trickle of blood from the nose of one; the other with his shirt torn open, buttons missing. While the congregation tramples over itself to get out of the gymnasium I begin again to deliver my sermon amid the whine of feedback; how wicked they are; how un-sanitary they are; how pitiful and un-worthy of my love they are. The barn owls corner me like an escaped and highly dangerous animal. I thrust my crutches in their direction. “Back, Back, I say” and they know to back off. Not that I really need these crutches, to walk I mean – but they serve as an indispensable prop for an ongoing undiagnosed condition.

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Brian Coughlan (2)

Brian Coughlan has a Masters Degree in Screenwriting from NUIG. He has published work with The BohemythThe Galway Review and LitroNY. In 2014 he was shortlisted for the Industry Insider TV Pilot Contest as a co-creator of the drama series Panacea.

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