In desperation he began to pray. He was rusty, he didn’t know anything about the god to whom he was conducting his prayer. He half-believed he was wasting time creating a slender thread of hope which would only disappoint him later, when all that threatened to fail had failed. But he prayed anyway, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer.
Years previously, in a dream, he had experienced panic in the face of some unknown deadly danger of a supernatural kind. In true horror film style he had tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer to protect himself, and realised he couldn’t remember it. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” was as far as his memory took him.
He was so intensely struggling to recall the prayer that the fear of forgetting overwhelmed him, and he awoke in a 4am sweat.
The dream-sent message of psychic vulnerability stayed with him for days, despite daylight jokes to the contrary. Eventually, still unable to shake off the feeling of dread, he gave himself a dishonest rational excuse and Googled “The Lord’s Prayer”.
It took him some time to find the version he knew. When he found the Anglican creed, far from comforting him, the ancient language, with its Thys and Thines and Kingdoms, its Art in Heaven and Forgiveness of Trespasses made him uneasy. What exactly was the name of God anyway, and how did one Hallow it?
He could have sworn the prayer was longer and more complex than it actually was. It didn’t ask for much, nor promise much. Was it even enough? He was struck by the bargaining. It seemed to want to strike a deal. You’re the boss, it said, we acknowledge you. Feed us, forgive our wrongdoing and we’ll forgive other people just the same. Don’t make our moral choices difficult, please. What kind of a plea was that?
He stumbled through it, deeply immersed in the problems of calling upon a vestigial faith he had long since intellectually interrogated and ineffectually dismissed. His extended education had reduced the doctrine to the slimmest existence, to the vanishing tip of a tail. Yet, despite peer pressure and political resentment at “religious mind control” he had woken up somehow knowing that the lack of a simple prayer was emblematic of a deeper malaise within himself, which was to do not with his lack of faith in a god, the God, but the growing feeling that giving it his best shot, whatever “it” was, would not ever be enough. What use was this ancient formula against real-world evil, traffic accidents, credit card debts, bullying managers, smoking-related lung decay, sclerosis of the liver, cancer? The prayer, even remembered, would not work. Nothing would ever work, no matter how accurate was your memory, or earnest your intent.
One day in late June, when the evening was hot and sticky, the ants flew. He was walking through a park, which had once been a cemetery – a favoured shortcut – on his way back from meeting a friend. The grass dipped and rolled where coffins six foot under had long since collapsed beneath the weight of city clay.
Walking slowly through the long shadows, he kept brushing the mating-crazed insects from his eyes, mouth, picked a couple out from his left ear. Impregnated females who’d already bitten off their wings scurried around for cover, searching for a nesting site, as the smaller males who hadn’t made it began to lose purpose and drop out of the sky. High above, a dozen swallows swooped and darted, crying eek-eek-eeek as they feasted.
Earlier, he’d put on his customary brave face and spent time with friends, heartened for a couple of hours by company, and in the cradle of comradeship and good humour, he’d made light of the pressing burden of his depression. But now in the darkening church grounds, the feeling which the dream had awakened stirred once again. His lips began to move as he trod the well-worn path past the old church, still in commission. The basement now housed a refugee centre and an alcohol program – he usually gave it a wide berth in case someone with an eastern accent asked him for money.
Sweating heavily in the heat, he suddenly saw that he was no different to these small creatures, driven blindly as they were to fly and justify their existence by procreation. His obsessions were not theirs, but wasn’t his own cultural striving with which his life had been filled just the same as the ants? Culture in general seemed to him to be nothing more than the instinctive actions of insects, artists just a super-glut of would-be’s and wanna-be’s becoming has-beens, burning up and wasting themselves in their efforts to be the one who got their precious seed to the queen, or in the case of his female friends, busy biting off their wings, and scuttling under a stone, never to fly again. The thought, the heat and the beer swilling in his stomach made him feel physically sick.
He came to a tall sycamore tree and paused, leaning on the trunk, looking up, squinting at the bunches of seeds which hung there already, ripening for the autumn. As a boy, he used to love these helicopters, and would wait for the weeks when they would begin to descend, magically spiralling down. Trees can fly, he thought, like the ants. And for the same reason – their continued existence.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and sat with his back to the tree, looking back towards the road, along the path he had walked. Midsummer in England, still light at gone 10pm, minutes before the street lights came on. The park would be shut soon.
He heard the sound of something slapping and echoing across the park, a car a block away with a sound-system loud enough to shatter windows, a dog barking. The slapping sound grew louder and he realised it was feet on the hot road, saw the figure of a runner. He was really pelting along. He ran straight into the park, darted right and ran through bushes. Looked like he was running away from something. Overhead, the distant, growing sound of a helicopter, chopping city air saturated and hot as fast-food fat.
He realised he’d lost sight of the runner, and felt that the time had come to leave. Pushing against the tree, he rose to his feet, turned towards the far exit, and stepped back onto the path. The helicopter was much louder now, and he could see through the canopy of trees that it had a searchlight which was sweeping the streets half a mile away. He could also hear sirens. Some kind of road accident, he presumed.
He took just three steps before he knew with that animal sensation that he was not alone. No sound, just the inescapable rising of neck hair. He froze, his blood pounding in his ears, his breath short, a pain in his chest.
Behind him, the day’s remaining light still illuminated the park; in front, just a hundred yards, the way passed the side of the church whose lights had yet to be lit. It was a pool of darkness into which he could not see. He walked slowly backwards, his eyes straining to describe what he sensed was there.
In desperation he began to pray. He was rusty, he didn’t know anything about the god to whom he was conducting his prayer. He half-believed he was wasting time creating a slender thread of hope which would only disappoint him later, when all that threatened to fail had failed. But he prayed anyway, the Lord’s Prayer, moving dry lips. An ant crawled up his face, as a river fell down it.
He heard a rustle of something in the stillness, despite the sound of the hovering helicopter. Inside the park the city noise was a distant ocean. He looked around, saw nothing. He thought his heart would leave his chest.
He heard a crack which he knew was his skull, and he fell forward. It was the shock of the blow which stopped him from crying out – then he lay face down, his nose in the dry litter. Thoughts darted away from his mind like underwater fish. There was a man. Then felt his body being turned. His wallet, then his jacket were quickly removed, and he could do nothing. He heard the man’s breathing, he smelt him, and his lips began to move, but nothing came out.
And so, he was efficiently stripped, until he lay there is just his underwear and socks, on the grass underneath the sycamore. The man grunted something unintelligible, and was gone.
He could hear sirens, more sirens, getting closer now. Now the light was finally fading as he lay under the sycamore with his mouth open. He could hear the dogs now. Of course, they were coming from Pentonville Prison, just three blocks away on the Caledonian Road. You could hear the prisoners calling from their cells if you caught the train from Canonbury.
Forgive us our trespasses, he could remember that. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation. What was the last line? He couldn’t remember. Female ants made hopeless nests underneath him. Deliver us. That was it. His head hurt now, a deep pain, like the collapse of his marriage, like the failures of all this best efforts. Deliver us. From. Pizza. No. Deliver us.
Delivery. Deliverance. At. Holloway Road Odeon.