Priory Street is full of churches. On Priory Street there’s a rock-and-roll church. I’m not joking. Every Saturday night the rock-and-roll congregation gathers at the rock-and-roll church and plays righteous guitar-prayers to its rock-and-roll god.
There’s everything here. On the corner, Baptists. A little way back from the street, Anglicans. In an upstairs room over Smiling Jim’s Exhaust Shop there are evangelicals of some sort. This is York, built on Quaker chocolate. Elder Seth and Elder James are Mormons who accost me every so often. I admire the cut of their suits. A little way around the corner is a reading-room for Christian Scientists. In fact, Priory Street is so full of Jesus Christ it makes you want to puke.
And on Priory Street there’s a little coffee shop where a girl works whose name I don’t know. She doesn’t wear a name-tag: Hi I’m SUE, or whatever. I stop in for a cuplet of espresso every day at around nine-twenty. For some reason, this is also coffee time for the Christians. It’s always packed. It’s always a model of religious amiability: believers of every kidney seated elbow to elbow. Even Seth and James call by and drink glasses of milk.
It’s a little like a trucker’s cafe, only the murmur isn’t of flatbeds and tachographs but of heaven and hell. It’s guys on break-time. The coffee-girl doesn’t get her arse grabbed much, though.
‘Morning friend. Heard the good news?’
Yes, every now and then some neophyte word-spreader chances his hand with me. I should be flattered.
‘Yep,’ I say. Easiest way. The guy can’t really be bothered anyway, just keeping his hand in, and usually he just shrugs and smiles and orders a de-caf. Rejoins his bible buddies.
If they get persistent you take a harder line: ‘Actually I’m an atheist,’ and hope they aren’t the argumentative type. ‘Actually I’m a communist’: that they don’t like.
This isn’t one of those corporate-monster coffee shops—hence, I guess, no name-tags. It isn’t especially shiny or particularly airy or Ikea-styled. It’s the sort of gloomy, cornery place where you’re supposed to foment subversion. In an alternate universe, Trotsky or Bakunin might have found happiness here, of a sort.
‘Actually I’m a cannibal.’ I’ve never tried that one. I wonder if I could carry it off.
This girl, though. The one whose name I don’t know. I wouldn’t even say she was pretty. She has her hair cut very short at the back.
Here’s something you won’t believe: the graffiti in the coffeeshop toilets. 2 Nephi 2:25, Ezekiel 18:27, 1 Corinthians 14:40. Furtive theological footnotes in careful handwriting. Someday I’ll look them all up, collate them in a book. Meditations on God Occasioned While Shitting, Pissing and Puking.
You know, Darwin used to puke all the time. I’ll bet he was puking in a toilet when the mutability of species came to mind. The porcelain gods oversee—undersee—a breadth of thought beyond even that of the confessional cupboard. I don’t write on the walls myself. It might help if I did.
‘Morning,’ she says. ‘Espresso?’
‘Espresso, thanks,’ is what I say. She brings it, I pay, I sit at the counter and I drink the damn espresso.
One Tuesday I was drinking the bitter little espresso and a man sat down on the stool next to me.
‘Hi there,’ he said.
They often start out like that: they start talking about football, or music, or coffee, and then they segue into the eternal mysteries. Seamless. On days like this Tuesday it can irritate me.
‘Never been in here before.’
‘It’s a nice little place.’
The man was local, northern, a hint of the northeast in his two-step here. I didn’t look at him. I looked into my cup and the little black pupil of coffee looked back at me.
‘Cappuccino,’ he said to the girl. Then to me: ‘You religious at all?’
‘Shame. You tell lies?’
‘You lying now?’
‘Why do you lie?’
‘I don’t lie.’
‘Lie, you go to hell. Tell the truth, you go to heaven.’
‘So I hear.’
‘Don’t be a sinner, be a winner.’
Clearly the man was a live wire. The regulars were looking over. I don’t think he was with any of them. I think he was working freelance.
It was raining out on Priory Street, a directionless fog of drizzle that didn’t seem to know up from down. The big front windows were blurred with wet.
‘Why do you lie?’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t feel like discussing this.’
‘Feeling guilty about summat?’
The girl brought the man his cappuccino. He didn’t thank her. He just paid and then spooned the foam off the cappuccino.
‘I’ve found Jesus. Have you?’
‘Don’t be a sinner.’
My life is a conversation with a demented religioso. I can’t see the end of it, it doesn’t have any point, and at least fifty per cent of it is stupid. I looked at him. He had good teeth and bad breath, a good shirt and a cheap tie.
‘Actually I’m a cannibal.’
‘Be a winner.’
I think the worst thing is that sometimes they don’t even listen.
The other people in the coffee shop were disapproving. Seth and James were over by the door and they were limbering up to intervene. James shot his cuffs. Seth straightened his lapels. The straight-as-arrows, the Methodists and Anglicans who had dog-collars and drank white coffee, looked at us and muttered to each other. They keep themselves to themselves mostly; like serial killers.
‘Can you please just leave me alone?’
‘Do you want to go to hell?’
‘You know what it’s like?’
‘I hear it’s a delight. Look…’
If it came to a fight, what would happen? Jihad in the coffee shop! I think the Catholics would know how to handle themselves. Some of them sneak hip flask whiskey into their coffee. The Mormons, too, look a bit tasty, look like sturdy farm-boys. One generation and an Atlantic between them and the redneck Midwest. Where would the Anglicans be? Under the table, probably. And of course the rock-and-rollers. Hoo-ha. Hoo yeah. Guitar-cases as bludgeons and e-strings as garrotte-wires. I’ll bet.
Then: ‘Is this man bothering you?’ she said. She said it with a smile, half-joking, non-threatening, keeping the peace. I laughed.
‘I’m just talking,’ said the man.
‘I don’t think the young man wants to talk,’ she said.
I didn’t feel terrifically butch at that moment.
‘I think he should.’
‘But I don’t,’ I said.
‘See?’ said the girl. ‘Look, there’s an empty seat…’
But the man stood up and went out the door. The Mormons, good boys, gave the coffee-girl a little round of applause. There was some laughter. She smiled at me and I said: ‘Thanks.’
I looked down at the shrunken espresso-eye and the man’s unfinished cappuccino. Two eyes, one big and pale and the other contracted as if in bright light. A screwy squint looking up from the countertop.
Shame, really. A fight like that would have been something to see. Rosaries swinging like bicycle chains.
Outside the rain had defined itself into thin, glassy streaks across the window-glass. Wind shook the coffee shop door and the bell on top of it. Elder James and Elder Seth came over, one on each side of me, like snappy gangsters making a keep-it-quiet kidnapping. They set their tall glasses of milk down on the counter.
‘Morning, John,’ said James.
‘Morning. Enjoy the show?’
‘What? Oh, the guy just now? Sure. Poor guy. We figure he’s a little loopy.’
James, if I remember, is from Montana and Seth, the quiet one, is from Coalville, Utah. I suppose they’re all right, in a Mormon sort of way.
‘I guess you owe Julia here some thanks,’ Seth grinned.
Julia. Even a quiet Mormon knows and I don’t. I come in every day.
‘Yep,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ said Julia, smiling. Smiling at Elder Seth.
We’re in their files. The Mormon files. It’s something we have in common, I suppose, me and Julia, Julia and I, I and Julia. We’re in that big old Mormon book.
‘What’s Utah like?’ I once asked Seth. The first time we met, in fact.
‘Everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,’ he said. He meant it, I suppose, in a friendly way. It scared the shit out of me.
‘You know Julia, don’t you?’ said James, planting one hand on my shoulder and gesturing at the coffee-girl with the short hair. ‘You don’t? Sure you do. Julia, this is John Emmelin. John, Julia Thorn.’
‘Hi,’ I said.
‘So that’s your name,’ Julia said.
Seth patted my back. If he hadn’t been a Mormon, I would have thought he meant: You are in there, sunshine. But being a Mormon, I don’t imagine he meant that. Where do Mormons stand on women? I don’t know if women count as a stimulant.
So: brought together by two Midwesterners in good suits. On Priory Street with the rain making cat’s-claw scratches on the glass.
‘Is it just me, John, or would you kinda like to get to know Julia better?’ said James, startlingly, into my ear, squeezing my shoulder. Julia was tinkering with the coffee machine.
‘Dunno,’ I said.
‘You’re not getting shy, are you, John?’
‘No,’ I said. I watched Julia walk through the ‘Staff Only’ door. I drained my espresso dregs. I didn’t like the way they were looking at me.
‘If you fall, remember Jesus will catch you,’ James said. He wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t being ironic. Normally James and Seth knew me well enough to keep their Mormoniana to themselves. But they’re merciless when they’ve got you on the ropes.
‘Can I have that in writing?’
‘It’s already in writing,’ said James, pulling a leather-backed book from his pocket like a chess player revealing check. I walked right into that one.
He just put the book on the counter. Nobody said anything about it. In some places having Another Testament Of Jesus Christ on the countertop, between a half-cup of cold cappuccino and a sugar bowl, would be thought of as odd. But here in this coffee shop on Priory Street you get all sorts. You get everybody. I’ve never seen an Amish in here but I wouldn’t be surprised to find one in a corner, grinding his Java beans with a mortar and pestle.
‘Good luck, John,’ said James. Seth patted my back again. The two of them left, and the bell on the door tinkled. Americans have a beautiful way of saying ‘John’. They say it with reverence.
Julia poked her head around the door-frame.
‘Someone just come in?’ she said to me. There was only me sitting at the counter.
‘Nope. Seth and James just left.’
She nodded and came out anyway. She took away the cappuccino cup and wiped the counter.
‘Those guys friends of yours?’ she said.
‘Yeah, sort of. Nice blokes.’
‘You aren’t a Mormon?’
‘I aren’t a Mormon.’
‘We get all sorts.’
‘Course you do. You’re in here every day, aren’t you?’
‘Pretty much. Yep.’
‘Looking for Jesus,’ I said.
‘Give me your number and I’ll call you if he comes in,’ said Julia.
When she said it she had her back to me. She was doing something with a filter. But when she turned around and looked at me she was expecting me to say something.
‘It’d save you a lot of time,’ she said.
‘Got a pen?’ I said.
‘Here.’ She passed me her mobile phone. ‘Tap it in there. Easier.’
I tapped in JOHN E. (made me sound like a president, or a preacher, or a country singer) and my number. Handed her back the phone. She glanced at it and blipped the phone off.
She said: ‘I’ll call you, John E.’
Sounded like a line from a country song. She went back to fumbling about with the machine. I knew people were watching me. These people were people people, and they cared. Some of them smelt fornication on the breeze, and didn’t like it at all. I turned around on my stool and leaned my elbows on the counter. No one was looking. It had ceased to rain on Priory Street.
Every day I came in here, and I didn’t know her name.
Jesus will catch you.
Jesus. No one will catch you. I suppose you’ve just got to have faith that someone will. Or you can spend your time catching other people. The slipping, the plummeting, the heavy.
‘So long, Julia,’ I said, and got off my stool.
‘See you,’ she said.
As I walked out of the door, and the bell tinkled, a man with a cup of espresso winked at me. Beard, ponytail, knackered guitar case. A rock-and-roller.
My house is on Priory Street. I have a room two floors up in number twenty-one. It’s a Victorian building, I think, whitewashed and skinny and tall in the middle of a short terrace. There’s a rank of black railings outside the front window.
I forgot my key. I knocked but there was no one in. I sat down on the top step of the five that run up to the front door. The street felt fresh after the rain. This was August. It felt cold; it felt like autumn.
From my step I could see the coffee shop. I couldn’t see inside. I saw Father Markwardt, the Catholic priest, leave with a pastry in a paper bag. I saw a Baptist named Frank or Fred cross the street and go in. I watched two women come out of the rock-and-roll church and follow Frank or Fred into the coffee shop.
‘Hi there, John. Locked out or something?’
Seth and James had crept up on my blind side. They do that.
‘Oh, well. Mind if we wait with you, John?’
‘No. Sit down.’ I shuffled along on the step. James sat down and Elder Seth stood and leaned on the railings.
‘Don’t spoil the suit, James.’
‘I’m not worried about the suit, John. I’m worried about you.’ He smiled at me. ‘You talk to Julia?’
‘For having faith in me.’
I knew one of them was going to say something about what they really had faith in. I didn’t want to hear that. I stood up quickly and brushed the seat of my trousers.
‘Step’s wet,’ I said.
‘It’s okay, John,’ said James.
‘Not if I get piles.’
‘So you and Julia got on well?’
‘She’s got my number.’
‘She’ll call you.’ He said it as though Jesus would make sure she’d call. Probably she wouldn’t want to call, but Jesus would fix it. Have a word in her ear.
A phone box along the street, outside the Baptists’ church, began ringing.
‘That’ll be her now,’ said Seth.
‘Ha,’ said James.
The sun was beginning to show. The sky which had been grey-sheeted was beginning to mottle with light. I looked up at the sky. The bell in the Baptists’ began to chime ten.
‘Ten o’clock,’ said James.
The bell in the Anglicans’ began to chime. Then the Catholic bell. There was sunshine on the wet tarmac. A drainpipe on Dewsbury Terrace sputtered water into a puddle.
‘Ten o’clock,’ said Seth. Job well done, was what it sounded like they were saying.
At ten-o-eight on that day a bomb went off in the coffee shop. It went off under a table by the window. The table was smashed into the ceiling. The window glass disintegrated and the front window of a house across the street collapsed in like a stoved windscreen.
I felt the shock wave on my step.
A bunch of Anglicans were sitting around the table. Two vicars and a church warden. The church warden was carried across the coffee shop by the blast and was beaten into the far wall. In total eight people were killed. You may have seen it on the news. Naturally Julia never called.
All the tables were upended and everyone was blown back against the wall. Everywhere was blood and smashed cups and spilled coffee. Elder Seth and Elder James and myself pulled out a few bodies from the slow-burning fire.
‘You really think she’ll call?’ I asked James at ten-o-one.
‘Sure, John,’ James said. Seth patted my back.
Nobody was miraculously saved by a thick bible in a breast-pocket. In fact, you won’t believe this, but no one was miraculously saved at all.
Perhaps hungry Father Markwardt was saved by his miraculous pastry.
‘We should probably be moving on, John,’ said James at ten-o-eight.
‘Souls to save,’ I said.
On a Saturday in the town centre of York, where, if the wind is right, you can smell Quaker chocolate, the evangelists from over Smiling Jim’s Exhaust Shop do their thing. They’re surrounded by teenagers with Slipknot sweat-tops and dyed black hair. Probably they achieve something. Dunno what.
We pulled out three Anglicans, a Methodist, a Catholic and two miscellaneous, by which I mean unidentifiable. I suppose I shouldn’t even have noticed but I did.
I didn’t think there was any meaning to anything before the Priory Street bomb. I still don’t, so there it is. The rock-and-roll church still meets on a Saturday night and prays to its rock-and-roll god. James and Seth thought there was plenty of meaning to things. They still do.
Obviously now the coffee shop is derelict, bombed-out, black. The Blitz brought black redstarts to the burned-out brick nooks and chimney stacks of bombed-out London town; Priory Street flickers, sometimes, with its own black redstarts. I’m not sure where you start looking if you want to see them but I’m sure they’re there.