I told Jill that I was a Christian, maybe . She stood at her door, surprised to see me and possibly pleased, but possibly not. I smiled. In what I hoped might be a winning manner.
‘Didn’t we break up last week?’ she asked.
I shrugged slowly as if to say that I shared her confusion. She was standing with one hand still holding the door. She was neither inviting me in nor turning me away.
‘What do you mean you’re a Christian?’ she asked.
‘I’ve been saved,’ I told her. ‘By a man named Bill. I met him on Grafton Street.’
‘You’ve been saved,’ she repeated.
I nodded. She wasn’t going to ask me in, but it was a warm day and I gestured to her to come and sit with me on the steps.
‘I’ll tell you all about,’ I said.
She was hesitant, but put the door on the latch and stepped outside.
I had not been on Grafton Street to hear about Christ, I told her. I had been on Grafton Street to meet Leo. Leo had a job that summer which involved sitting outside a record shop with a sign for that shop saying that it sold second-hand records and tapes and that it did so cheaply. To get to the shop you had to go through a narrow doorway and up a dark staircase and this is why they were willing to pay somebody to sit outside all day and hold a sign proclaiming their existence. It was a very boring job and Leo had pressured me to visit him to help alleviate the boredom. In return he would buy me a pint once his shift was over. This was the nineteen-eighties and Ireland was not then a rich country and this was as good a way of spending my day as any so I happily agreed. When I joined him that day he told me he was afraid his head might implode with boredom. He was afraid that he had used up every interesting thought he would ever have.
‘I’ve been reduced to counting the number of people that pass, and categorising them as young or old and male or female. And cool or uncool. I’ve been drawing bar graphs and pie-charts in my head,’ he told me.
I knew it wasn’t his point, but I was curious as to the results of his survey. The young outnumber the old, he told me, and women outnumbered men. The uncool, he added sadly, very heavily outnumbered the cool. I stood beside him as he sat on his barstool, holding his sign and we watched the passers-by for a period. His results were confirmed.
I stood with him and chatted and shared comments about passers -by and then said that I would leave him for a while and have a wander. And in wandering I came across a crowd listening to a street evangelist from America retelling the tale of the prodigal son.
In his version, the prodigal son had left his family in Ireland and gone to America and indulged himself in the wealth of drink and drugs and loose women that was available to him there. He had lived like this for many years and had slowly become so enmeshed in his life of debauchery that he rarely worked and lived in a rat-infested apartment. But then one day he became very ill and almost died and he slowly came to see what he had become and he remembered his family in Ireland and how good and simple life was there and how he had been happier there than he had ever been in America. He stopped drinking and taking drugs and sleeping with women and as soon as he was healthy, he went straight to the airport and spent his last few dollars on a flight home where he was welcomed with open arms, and everybody enjoyed a great dinner.
I was listening to this when I was greeted by a man who materialised at my elbow and said he was Bill and that he was from Philadelphia and that he’d like to talk to me about the story we’d just heard.
I told him that I was graduating in a few days and that all this talk of drink and drugs and loose women made me think I should maybe head to America.
He was shorter than I was, which made him short, and he was maybe pushing forty and his thick moustache drew attention to his thinning hair but he was somehow an attractive man and I felt inclined to talk to him. He laughed and said that that hadn’t really been their intention but that maybe I should and I’d probably have a real good time there but that maybe I could think about the Lord while I was having a good time. And they were having a prayer meeting and dinner that evening if I wanted to come along.
I said I had no interest in a prayer meeting but I talked with him for a while and he told me about Jesus and we sat on the ledge under a shop window and he drew me a picture. It showed heaven at the top of the page and hell at the bottom. Earth was in between. Long lines across the page separated the three, showing how you could not easily move from one to another. But there was a small area in the middle where he drew a Christ-like figure rising up from hell and passing through earth and into heaven.
If I only had faith, Bill told me, I too could get into heaven through this small gap that Christ had created.
I found myself very drawn to the picture. He had used a thick grey pencil to draw the line that separated earth from heaven, and I saw this line as the thick layer of cloud that seemed to perpetually hang over Dublin. I imagined the clouds parting and being drawn up to the heavenly sunshine above in the slipstream of this Christ-like figure.
‘It’s a very appealing idea,’ I told him, staring down at the drawing and avoiding his eyes. He had drawn heaven using a yellow marker, and hell with a black pen. It was very appealing.
I slowly gathered my thoughts and explained to him how my problem with the whole religion thing had never been with the ideas of heaven and hell. And I had always liked the idea of a Christ-like figure. My problem with religion had always been its obsession with drink and drugs and loose women. Where was the connection? I asked him why did this pretty picture of Christ pushing his way up through the clouds to heaven mean that I couldn’t have some fun? Why did it mean that I couldn’t have sex?
Bill smiled. He was a slow-moving man and softly spoken and with his thick moustache it was hard to see that he was smiling, but I heard it in his voice.
‘You can have sex,’ he told me, catching my eye and slowly nodding his head. ‘But you have to have good sex.’
I smiled with him, uncertainly. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I was inclined to like the idea. I liked the idea of having good sex, and I liked the idea of heaven.
‘We’re having a meeting tonight,’ he told me again. ‘You can come along and get something to eat and then we would pray together. And we could discuss this all some more, if you like.’
I said I couldn’t come and he said that that was all right.
‘And I thought I’d like to talk to you about it,’ I told Jill as we sat on the step outside her house.
She considered my story for a moment. ‘What about Leo?’ she asked then.
I was confused. What about him? Leo and I were rational beings. We shared an all- encompassing scepticism about matters spiritual and religious. I wasn’t going to share with him my vision of being drawn up to Heaven in the slipstream of a Christ-like figure. I had told Leo that something had come up and that I had to go.
The implication was of course that I did want to share this vision with her. That she was somebody with whom I could and would want to share. We were sitting side by side on the steps that lead up to her front door. It was a summer’s afternoon and the flowers in the garden below were blooming.
‘But we split up last week,’ she reminded me again.
I said that I thought we hadn’t so much split up as agreed to spend a little less time together. I thought we had just talked about creating a little more space for each other.
‘But that was all just code for splitting up,’ she said.
She was right, of course. It had been. I suggested we go for a drink. ‘Do you have any money?’ she asked.
I didn’t answer and she took my silence to mean that, of course, I had no money, and that I had hoped that she would pay for the drinks. She had a job in insurance and the rent-free use of a good house that her family owned. It had long been the assumption within our relationship that she bought the drinks but I gathered that she was now taking exception to this assumption.
‘If you lend me a tenner,’ I suggested meekly, ‘then I could buy the drinks and pay you back next week.’
She laughed at this new evidence of my fecklessness and I smiled, hoping I had made a breakthrough. She told me she had a bottle of wine in the fridge and that we could drink that and she left me sitting on the steps. I was pleased to see on her return that she had brought the bottle. She handed me a glass and poured for me and I held her glass steady against the uneven stone while she poured for herself. I raised my glass to hers and said that we should toast.
She paused and considered this. ‘Salvation?’ she suggested.
‘Salvation,’ I agreed and we touched glasses. An intimacy of sorts was created.
‘So do you really mean you’re a Christian now?’ she asked. I shrugged and said I didn’t really know.
‘I’m not sure I could handle the embarrassment of coming out as a Christian,’ I told her. How could I explain it to Leo? How would I explain it to anybody?
‘Are you going to go to Church and to prayer meetings and all that sort of stuff?’
I thought about it and concluded that I was not at all drawn to the idea. I had been drawn to the image of being drawn up to the sunshine in the slipstream of the Christ-like figure. I was quite sure it had been a religious experience. Of some sort. But I hadn’t yet seen any connection with that and the actual practice of religion.
She asked me did I mean Christ-like or actually Christ and I shrugged again. ‘I’m not sure what I mean,’ I told her.
‘You’re a strange man,’ she told me and we sat in companionable silence for a time and I admired her little front garden on which she spent much time and we watched cars pass by and enjoyed the still warm air and the cold white wine.
‘Can I spend the night?’ I asked. ‘We split up,’ she said again.
I said that I knew we had but that really we had only agreed to spend less time together and to create some space for each other. We hadn’t actually split up. Not really. And if I was wrong and we actually had split up, I went on, then perhaps that had been a mistake.
‘It might be a mistake for you to spend the night,’ she told me, but she was pouring another glass of wine as she said it.
‘We could try it and see,’ I suggested.
She told me again that I was a strange, strange man.
‘And what about sin?’ she asked. ‘If you’re a Christian now, what about living a good clean life and not having sex outside of marriage and all that. What about being good?’
‘I am good,’ I said, as if wounded. ‘Or I try to be good.’ And I told her that Bill had said I could have sex as long as it was good sex.
‘Well that sounds promising,’ she said with a little laugh.
I leaned back against the railing and turned towards her and took her hand. ‘I’m sorry if I was a bit of an idiot,’ I told her.
She looked down, possibly looking away from me, possibly from the sun. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said
We drank some more wine in silence and after a while she turned so that she could lean against me as I leaned against the railing.
‘So, can I stay the night,’ I asked again and she sipped from her wine and said that of course I could. As long as I promised that all the sex would be good sex.