‘Even if we want to play, who’ll listen?’
‘And we won’t be on any line-ups. It’d be suicide to promote us.’
‘Face it, Jake, the tour’s finished. I know it hurts, but we’ve got to be realistic about this.’
Jake heard thousands of fans singing along to “The Square of Tolerance”. He saw Youri’s smile as he pummelled his tom-toms on “Jupiter, Jupiter”. He remembered crowd surfing in Paris. Was all that over? Was the band set to be remembered for Gylfi’s crimes rather than its glorious fusion of late-Beatles psychedelia and early-Genesis prog rock? No, that would be too obvious. Jake had always liked the idea of comebacks, even if he’d been naïve about the pain that inspires them. ‘I guess you’re right,’ he said, ‘but the dream isn’t over.’
‘No way, lads.’ Aaron snapped a twig. ‘I’m itching to get back in the studio.’
‘It’s just like what The Pet Shops Boys said: when you’re recording an album, all you want to do is go on tour; and when you’re on tour, all you want to do is record an album.’
‘Ha, ha, what joy awaits us.’ Youri took his hands from his pockets. ‘This is exciting, though. We’ll work out how we feel about all this, then write a beautiful album – maybe with some less arcane lyrics…’
Jake smiled. ‘I like the sound of that.’ He had no family besides 38 Children Called Stone. ‘The question is, how do we feel about it?’
‘Oh, man.’ Youri ruffled his curly locks. ‘I don’t want to think about it, but I feel like I have to.’ Jake and Aaron nodded in agreement. ‘I guess I’m really disgusted. Yeah, it all just makes me feel physically sick.’ Youri pictured his wife and their two daughters, and he experienced an angry love. ‘I can’t imagine how those women are feeling. I hope we can help them somehow, but I doubt they’ll want to speak to us of all people.’ They heard a thud as an apple fell from its tree. ‘And I guess I feel guilty too. Like I could have stopped it.’
‘I was wondering if you guys felt like that,’ Jake said.
Aaron remembered Gylfi’s riff on “Cholera in the Time of Love”. How could someone love music so much and yet be so depraved? It didn’t take Aaron long to retract this question, as he ran through the lives of rock stars past and present. He wondered if those troubled souls had seemed as harmless as Gylfi. ‘Let’s not be too hard on ourselves, lads. There were never any signs Gylfi was a bastard. We loved the guy.’
‘I still love him, in a way,’ Youri admitted.
‘I think we all do. I mean, how couldn’t we? You can’t lose six years of love just like that.’ Aaron wondered if he should carry on. ‘Maybe I can’t say this, but I feel really sorry for Gylfi. I mean, how fucked up has he gotta be to… do what he did?’
‘I was thinking that last night. He must be so lost.’
‘But how did we never notice?’ Jake’s voice had often been compared to Eric Clapton’s; its current despair reminded Aaron of Tears in Heaven.
‘He was always a weird dude. The quirky, quiet type. A bit like George Harrison, maybe.’ Jake had to smile at Aaron’s determination to mention The Beatles whenever he could. It wasn’t as bad as the time he’d compared Ringo’s drumming to a good shepherd’s pie. ‘I just thought he was stuck in his head, coming up with barmy solos or thinking about John Paul Sartre, y’know?’ Youri had never heard a more English sentence in his life.
‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m just worried it says something about us.’
‘We’re good guys, Jake. We made a poor judgement, but I think we’re all pretty fuckin’ sorry about it.’ Aaron remembered her face: those bruises around her nose, the cuts along-. He pushed them away. ‘Rosa said she’d be here this afternoon. Think they’re getting their bearings in town first.’
‘All four of them?’
‘Remind me who these other two are? Bert and Sarah?’
‘Sophie. Honestly, I know nothing about them, except they both quit their jobs when they heard about this.’
‘I’m exaggerating, ha, ha. The Bert dude was already quitting, so he handed in his notice when Rosa told him. And apparently Sophie hated her job, so she decided to join them on the road, make a fresh start.’
‘I’m not sure how I feel about two strangers rocking up like this. I mean, what’s it got to do with them?’
‘Yeah, that was my gut instinct. But then I figured we could all do with some distracting, so maybe a few extra bodies won’t hurt. And Rosa says they’re keen to help out.’
Youri broke his silence: ‘I’m glad Ernest is coming.’
‘Ha, ha, me too. He’s a fuckin’ weird dude.’
Jake laughed and felt more at ease. ‘Honestly, some of the stuff in that notebook he gave me is bloody strange.’
‘What’s it actually about?’
‘It’s mostly just sketches – I guess he’d call them ‘vignettes’ – but it all kind of fits together as the story of his life.’ Jake leafed through the pages in his head. ‘A lot of it’s about his parents, actually.’ He laughed to himself and said, ‘Guess where they met?’
Jake put on as pompous a voice as he could manage. ‘At the East London Hemingway Appreciation Society.’
‘Ha, ha, fuck, why didn’t we call ourselves that?’
‘Come on, Aaron,’ Youri chuckled, ‘38 Children Called Stone is pretentious enough.’
It turned out that self-deprecation was just what the band members needed, as they relaxed into their revised brotherhood. And then, having rounded the bend of a beaten track, Aaron said, ‘By the way, lads, where the fuck are we?’, which drew more laughter to ease their pain.
They had been walking in the Bavarian Forest for two hours, sometimes in silence, sometimes discussing the latest developments of Gylfi’s case. In the day and a half since his first recognised victim had come forward, three more women had accused Gylfi of assault. He’d confessed his crimes without any need for coercion. It soon became apparent that there were other women, although, for obvious reasons, Gylfi was unable to contact them. The Munich police were set to make a statement in a few hours’ time, inviting further victims to report to their local authorities. The band hadn’t spoken to Gylfi since Aaron had left the police station the previous morning. They were currently claiming that Jake was too sick to perform, but they knew they would have to write an announcement by the end of the day. And at seven p.m., after considerable analysis from Rosa and Ernest whilst Bert and Sophie explored the local terrain, 38 Children Called Stone released the following press statement:
“We would like to announce the departure of Gylfi Bjorgsson from the group. Over the past twenty-four hours, three allegations of sexual assault have been made against Gylfi. The police are now beginning their investigations, and we will continue to monitor the situation as closely as possible. We have chosen not to comment on Gylfi’s behaviour until further details arise, but we would like to make clear that we wholeheartedly condemn all forms of abuse, and we will do our very best to educate ourselves and ensure that we can make fans feel safe in the future. As a result of the allegations, we are having to cancel the rest of our European tour. We would like to say sorry to all our fans who have been looking forward to the shows; you will, of course, receive a full refund. This is not the end of the band, although we will need time to reflect on the current situation. We ask you to stick by us in this difficult time, however hard that might seem. We will release a second statement when we know more. Until then, we remain,
38 Children Called Stone.”
As much as they tried to resist, Jake, Aaron and Youri couldn’t help following the online response. One fan posted on Reddit:
“Guys, I can’t believe the news about 38 Children. They’ve been my favourite band for a while now – I couldn’t get enough of their upbeat but chilled vibe (i.e. facade), their poetic lyrics, Jake’s voice. They even wrote me a happy birthday note after a gig… But I can’t listen to them anymore. Even if the allegations end up being false, I’ll always have that doubt at the back of my mind. But I feel like the statement is pretty damning anyway.
I just wanted to know how everyone else is feeling about this? Do you think you can listen to them still?
P.S. I just took the note off my wall. I’m honestly so devastated.”
‘Come on, Aaron, it’s early days.’ Youri believed that one of his callings in life was to drum for 38 Children Called Stone, and he wasn’t going to let Gylfi end that. ‘You know that band Summer Salt?’ Music buffs that they were, Jake and Aaron nodded. ‘Well, they took a break after the allegations against them, then they came back with that new album and donated all the profits to charities supporting vulnerable women.’
‘That’s a great idea.’ Jake chose not to say that some of his friends had stopped listening to Summer Salt because of the accusations. ‘We’ll definitely do that. Still, it’s going to be hard. We’ll be one of those taboo bands.’
‘Yeah, for sure – life won’t be easy. But we’ve always loved a challenge.’
‘Two Brits and an Israeli: of course we love a challenge.’ Jake was relieved he’d never let Aaron manage the group’s Twitter account.
‘There’s no way I’m giving up on this. You guys are the people I love most in the world.’
‘Alright, steady on, Jake.’ Aaron said this with a smile.
‘Sorry, I’ve been reading too much of Ernest’s ‘prose’. But, still, I can’t imagine how shit life would be without this band.’ Jake stared at the ground as they wandered further from home. ‘I hate what Gylfi did. It makes me so fucking sad. Sad for the women, sad for him, sad for us… Sad for anyone who’s gone through something like that. I know I probably sound fucking cheesy, but I want to sing out against this. Make things better.’ Gravel dotted the path. There was no-one else in sight. ‘We’re three of the most positive guys I know – even if Aaron pretends to be a miserable git sometimes.’ They hadn’t laughed this much since the beginning of the tour. Their first show was lost in a smoke-machine fog of alcohol and insomnia. ‘I know I’m pretty fucked up, but we’re happy dudes at the end of the day; we’ve got to bounce back from this.’ Aaron could tell that their next album was destined to appear on Spotify’s Summer BBQ playlist (assuming they weren’t pariahs of the music industry by then). To his surprise, he welcomed the idea of uplifting art. ‘Man, I wish we didn’t have to cancel the gigs. I wish we could go out there right now and play the best fucking show of our lives.’
‘Why don’t we sing for Rosa and the rest of them?’
At this rate, they were going to make it onto the dreaded Summer Indie. Aaron drew the line at Summer Vibes. Still, he admired Youri’s enthusiasm. ‘A mini-concert? Sounds like old times.’
Jake laughed as he said, ‘Here we go, boys. Take two.’
After a pause to reflect on this next stage in their lives, Aaron broke the silence. ‘How much d’you reckon we can charge them?’
‘To be fair,’ and Jake continued to chuckle whilst Youri rolled his eyes, ‘we’ll need every penny we can get.’
Ernest had been planning to wait a few days before having his heart-to-heart with Bert. They didn’t need any distractions whilst Gylfi’s case was still so raw, and, being a writer, he wanted to reflect far too deeply on his friend’s conversion before he picked his brain.
Ernest remembered an evening they’d spent at the pub the previous summer. After one pint too many, Bert began discussing his sex life a little too loudly – a ‘faux pas’ he often made. On this occasion, however, a woman at the next-door table looked across with a somewhat embarrassed, somewhat titillated smile. As the evening progressed, Ernest occasionally caught her eye, feeling embarrassed himself but also laughing inside about Bert’s unashamed monologue.
But it seemed this woman misinterpreted Ernest’s glances, especially his final look and smile before leaving, which he’d meant as a kind of tacit acknowledgement of their mutual embarrassment-stroke-amusement. Several minutes later, as they ambled towards Tesco for Bert’s Cheerios and whole milk, Messrs Eynsham and Krandle heard an intrepid ‘Excuse me!’. They turned to find their blonde neighbour jogging after them with a smile on her face. ‘Do you guys live around here?’
This was the first time Ernest had been so openly approached by a woman (he assumed his relationship status was obvious to outsiders). He felt a mixture of pride, disbelief, and embarrassment. ‘Um, I live fairly close, and Bert lives around the corner.’
‘How come?’ asked Bert, making no bones about it.
‘Well, I just thought you looked like two nice guys. I live by The Drayton Arms, d’you know it?’ This was addressed at Bert, the local lad.
‘No, can’t say I do,’ in a tone that expressed some confusion as to why this woman was telling him where she lived. ‘We just know The Kings Arms.’
‘Oh, you don’t know it? Ah, well, I just thought I’d come say hi cause you seemed like two good guys, but I’m probably making a fool of myself,’ still with her kind, somewhat childlike grin. She was at least five years older than them.
‘No, no, not at all,’ said Ernest. He both admired and pitied this woman, even though pity was the last thing she wanted. ‘You seem very nice too,’ which sounded less genuine than he’d have liked.
‘Yeah, good for you,’ said Bert, impressed by her Eynsham-esque confidence. Of course, he would have been more successful had he approached a stranger in this way, but that’s by the by.
‘Well, nice meeting you guys, and hopefully see you back at The Kings Arms sometime.’
‘Yes, for sure,’ said Ernest. He could never understand where these occasional for sures came from – he wasn’t a European skiing instructor. ‘Have a nice evening.’
‘Thanks, you too, guys.’
‘Bye,’ said Bert. The woman smiled before jogging away in the other direction. ‘And good for you,’ which Ernest agreed with but hoped didn’t sound too patronising.
‘Man, that was kind of odd.’ Ernest smiled at Bert.
‘Pretty strange indeed, my man. I admire her balls though.’
‘Yeah, I didn’t think anyone actually did that. Seems like more of a film thing.’
‘To be fair, we could be taken for Hollywood actors.’
‘Yeah, nothing says movie star like pasty British skin.’ Ernest noticed that Bert was staggering slightly. ‘Quite odd that she approached us together. And I swear she heard what you said about Alice.’
‘Shit, you’re right.’ Bert’s eyes lit up with a fever Ernest had never suffered from. ‘She must have been up for that.’
‘Control yourself, brother.’ They continued in silence for a moment. ‘I feel kind of bad, though. She’s probably a bit crushed. Not to big us up or anything…’
‘Ernest, we are catches.’ Bert’s voice went raw with conviction. ‘But, yeah, running out like that, getting all sweaty, then going back empty-handed… Bit of a blow to the ego.’
‘I was about to say I had a girlfriend, but I didn’t want to be that guy always banging on about his girlfriend-’
‘Too late for that, mate.’
‘Ha, ha, but you know what I mean. And obviously you’re seeing Alice. But she doesn’t know that. Maybe we should have told her – soften the blow, you know?’
‘Should we go back?’
‘Oof, I think that’s a bit much. Might embarrass her.’
‘Maybe… But it could be the gentlemanly thing to do. Sadly I don’t feel like a gentleman right now, so I really don’t know what’s the right move.’
‘Ha, ha, let’s just leave it. Something to laugh about tomorrow.’
‘Or we could call the pub.’
‘We could call the pub and ask them to speak to her.’
‘Bert, that’s a ridiculous idea. Who does that?’
‘Ernest, those three pints have really gone to my head. I think we should call.’ He was already searching for the number.
‘Oh my word, you’re insane. I can’t tell if this is a terrible idea or a great one.’ The next day, there was no doubt in Ernest’s sober mind.
‘Hi, is this The Kings Arms?’ Bert was on speakerphone.
‘Yes, it is,’ said a woman hailing from what sounded like Slovakia to Ernest’s relatively inexperienced ear, ‘how can I help?’
‘Hi, I was wondering if you could do me a favour. You see, my mate and I,’ with that strange, sarcastic-sounding emphasis on mate that he often did, ‘we were just at your pub, and there was a woman at the table next to ours.’ Bert gave an affected sigh. His voice grew gentle. ‘Can you help in a matter of the heart?’ Ernest had to laugh at his friend’s brazenness-stroke-twatishness.
‘Um, I’m a little confused.’
‘Well, this woman just came up to us outside your lovely pub, and, you know, she was asking if we lived round here; chatting us up, essentially. But my mate and I sort of froze, and we didn’t tell her we’re in relationships, and we feel kind of bad because she’s probably just had a bit of a knock to her ego. We were by the water fountain; she was on the table behind us. Would you mind checking if she’s still there? She has blonde hair, and she’s with two friends.’
‘Um, sure,’ with increasing bafflement, ‘just give me a second. Yep, she’s still there. In the white top, right?’
‘Yep, great, that’s the one. So my mate and I were wondering if you wouldn’t mind going up to her and explaining the situation?’ Ernest had not been wondering this. ‘We just wanted her to know that we were really flattered but unfortunately we’re taken men.’
‘Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it would create a scene and embarrass her, and I don’t feel comfortable doing that.’ The waitress sounded very Eastern European as she said this.
‘Okay, could I speak to her?’
‘Umm… Okay, sure. Just give me a second.’ They heard a patter of footsteps on pub wood, followed by a soft ‘Um, excuse me, sorry, two guys who were at that table would like to speak to you. One of them’s on the phone here.’
And then, as Ernest continued to laugh in embarrassed disbelief, the blonde woman said, ‘Hello?’
‘Oh, hi, it’s the two lads you spoke to outside The King Arms. We just wanted to say we feel bad for not properly engaging with you, it’s just we’re both in relationships. Well, my friend, Ernest, he’s been madly in love for about two and a half years, and I’m seeing someone at the minute, so it was just bad timing essentially. But clearly you’re a really top girl,’ and Ernest cursed Bert, who had been doing quite well up to that point, ‘and even though we weren’t the right blokes, the right one is definitely out there for you, so we just wanted to say it was really cool that you came out and spoke to us, not a lot of people would do that, so you should keep doing that and I’m sure you’ll find the perfect guy.’
‘Aw, thanks, that’s really sweet.’ She did sound grateful, but there was a sadness to her gratitude. ‘Thank you, I appreciate that.’
‘No problem, have a fun night.’
‘Thank you, thanks for calling. Have a good one.’
‘Take care!’ called Ernest, over Bert’s shoulder.
And that was that.
And now they were sitting around a campfire after 38 Children’s impromptu concert. Ernest remembered Bert’s cheekiness, his love of ale, his outrageous confidence. Had those traits simply disappeared? Perhaps faded would be the right word, but Ernest feared it was only a matter of time before the transformation was complete. And where did that leave them? If Bert no longer wanted to hear the details of Ernest’s love life, if he no longer wanted to cut loose on a Friday evening, and if he’d rather go to church on Sunday than play a game of village cricket, were they not destined to drift apart?
Ernest realised, with growing embarrassment, that he’d never read The Bible in any detail. And this was a man who prided himself on his hunger for books – a hunger inherited from his parents. Such negligence had allowed Ernest to drift through his Catholicism. He recognised that faith was the one area of his life that had avoided scrutiny, and the reason for this was clear: he had always been happy on his own terms. Why jeopardise this happiness by entering the quagmire of religion? Ernest liked to think he would embark on a serious study of Christianity one day, but, until then, he would skate the surface of Heaven.
Bert’s conversion had struck a nerve, though, and it only took a few beers for Ernest to begin his inquest, whilst the others tried to sleep. ‘I’ve been thinking quite a lot about your testimony.’ He tried to sound casual, but Bert gave a knowing grin.
‘I could tell something was on your mind.’
Ernest returned the smile. ‘I know you’d mentioned you were heading down that route, but it still seems really sudden.’
‘Yeah, I know. Sorry I didn’t say much; I wanted to wait till I’d found some kind of certainty.’
‘No, I totally get that.’ Ernest stared at the campfire, noticing how the wood tumbled as it burned. ‘Sorry to interrogate you, but do you ever feel scared? By all the changes, I mean.’
‘Yeah, of course.’ Bert had been looking forward to this conversation. He enjoyed ‘chewing the cud’ even more than Ernest did. ‘It’s weird: this journey I’m on feels like the most natural thing in the world, but it’s also pretty terrifying sometimes. I feel so loved in an existential sense, cause I have this god who’ll love me forever, but sometimes I feel really lonely on a… on a human level. It’s actually worse when I’m with friends, cause I realise things will never be the same.’
‘I wanted to ask you about that. How does this affect us? Cause I guess you don’t agree with parts of my lifestyle… Like having sex with Rosa, being pretty self-absorbed…’
‘I mean, there’ll always be parts of our friends’ lifestyles we don’t agree with. But that doesn’t affect my loyalty towards you.’ Bert sipped his water. ‘And I don’t think I’m better than you, just in case you were worried about that. We all fall short.’
‘Yeah, but you’re trying to improve. You’re trying to lead a more godly lifestyle.’
‘Sure, but I was like you a few weeks ago. Sorry, that came out wrong.’ Bert hated the idea of pushing Ernest away; he wanted to take him on this walk. ‘What I mean is, I wasn’t carrying my cross a month ago, so how can I expect everyone else to? I’d love it if you wanted to explore these questions together, but I know we’re still brothers whatever happens. We’ll always have each other’s backs, right?’
‘Of course, Bert. I’m always here for you.’ Ernest had forgotten that Bert was not suddenly invulnerable. He needed this friendship too.
‘I just hope you don’t think I’m some kind of alien. Like we have nothing in common.’
‘Of course not, brother, I’d never think that.’
‘Cause even though so much of my life has changed, and I may have some fairly radical views now, I’m still the same guy in lots of respects.’
‘I definitely see that. You’ll never stop being your confident, loyal self.’
‘Thanks, Ernest. I knew you’d get it.’
Ernest pictured Rosa asleep in the bus. He recalled the greatest moment in his life, when he’d told her he loved her. ‘It’s really strange to think that making love to Rosa could be immoral. Is immoral, from a Christian point of view. And I’m supposed to be a Christian…’
Bert sighed. He’d been hoping to avoid this subject, but he saw the trouble in Ernest’s eyes. ‘I struggled with that one too for a while. Cause the one time I made love, with Hannah,’ and Ernest nodded, remembering how she had broken Bert’s heart, ‘I definitely thought I was closer to God. But those were just my feelings. And feelings are a dangerous thing in the spiritual life.’ Ernest realised that feeling closer to God was at the heart of his religion. ‘When I think about all the other times I’ve had sex, I know in my conscience that it was wrong. I guess maybe that’s still a feeling, but it’s far more ingrained.’
‘Your moral compass.’
‘Exactly. God has written those laws on my heart.’
‘But do you have that sense of wrongdoing when you think about making love?’
‘No, not at the moment. But just because I can’t tell that something’s immoral doesn’t mean it’s good. That’s the whole point: we gradually learn what God wants, and often it’s not what we’d expect.’
‘So why do you think sex before marriage isn’t part of God’s plan? I get why he condemns sleeping around, but what about in a committed relationship?’
‘I mean, I’m no expert, especially not on the committed relationship front, but I think it’s because sex makes a man and a woman one flesh. Which is a really serious deal. Just think about that: in a sense, you’re no longer two people; you’re joined together. So surely that has to be preserved for the woman you marry? Otherwise you’ll leave a part of yourself with different women. I find that really scary: it’s like I’ve left all these little Horcruxes about the place, breaking up my identity…’
‘But what if you know you’re going to marry someone? Cause I’m totally convinced Rosa and I will get married.’
‘I think so too, but, as much as I hate to say it, you can never be sure. The thing is, if two people are convinced they’ll get married, why don’t they just do it? Assuming it’s financially possible, etc.’
‘Are you saying I should propose to Rosa?’
Bert chuckled. ‘That’s not for me to say. What I mean is, don’t you think that with a sexual relationship before marriage, even if you feel so in love and you’re certain you’ll get married, there’s still that part of you that knows you’re not married, so either one of you could end up having sex with someone else. So it’s an imperfect experience because you haven’t made the ultimate commitment. Whereas sex within marriage is perfect because you’ve made that vow – and that’s symbolised by the act of making love.’
‘That makes sense. But does that mean imperfect experiences are inherently immoral?’
‘Oh boy, big question there. I guess I wouldn’t say immoral so much as falling short of a godly lifestyle. Actually, maybe they’re the same thing. If God wants us to do everything in a Christlike manner, surely that means being perfect?’ Bert paused. An owl hooted from its perch. ‘I guess you have to distinguish between perfect intent and perfect… performance, shall we say. As in, I don’t think you could call me immoral if I played badly in a football game.’
‘You’d be the greatest sinner of us all if that were the case.’
‘Ha, ha, coming from you, Krandle. But you get what I mean. The immoral thing would be to play without integrity: not putting in a shift, shouting at the ref…’
‘Yeah, so it’s the difference between your character and your abilities.’
‘That’s a better way of putting it. So I wouldn’t say imperfect experiences are inherently immoral, but imperfect character is.’
‘It’s a tall order, isn’t it? When you see how messed up we are.’
Ernest thought of Gylfi. ‘God’s will be done.’
‘Exactly, brother. We have nothing to fear, so long as we keep the faith.’ Ernest had faith in God, and he believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but he did not feel ready to take up his cross. Rosa was not a Christian: how would their relationship survive if he decided to follow Bert’s example? Besides, was loving her with body, soul and mind not the most loving thing to do, no matter what Bert said? If God was love, why would He disapprove of an act that brought two people together? Why would He want to deprive Rosa of affection? But perhaps that was Ernest’s arrogance speaking: he liked to think that for an Old Etonian and recent Oxford graduate, he knew a thing or two about love.
Ernest returned his mind to the cross. If he really believed that Jesus endured such agony for the sake of mankind, how could he ignore the Christian calling? Surely he ought to convince Rosa to join him on the narrow road? But Ernest felt so young. He was not ready to make this existential decision, and the prospect of losing Rosa terrified him.
Bert seemed to understand the expression on his face: ‘It’s definitely not easy,’ he continued. ‘Even though I feel so strong in my faith, that also means there’s this constant pressure to fight the good fight; to share the gospel instead of idling away the hours. I guess I’m pretty hard on myself, and it’s pretty darn exhausting,’ which he said with a self-aware grin. ‘But I just have this vision of what will happen when it’s all over. I can see myself rising up to Heaven, and there’s this glorious light all around me. The clouds are straight out of a children’s story – all fluffy and white – and there are angels on either side of these huge, golden gates which eke open ever so slowly, and I float through them on this wave of joy. And I know this wave will never pass. I get through the gates, and Jesus is sitting there with a smile on his face, right by the heavenly throne. And even though I can’t see the Father, His presence is everywhere, and it is just so good – like when you first told Rosa you loved her, and this joy poured through you, but it’s infinitely stronger than that and it never fades. So it’s slowly dawning on me that I’ve made it after all these years, that this is my beautiful reward, and then I hear His voice from above: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.’’ Bert’s voice grew rich and deep. ‘Can you imagine how amazing that would feel? To spend your life trusting in Him, working for Him, and even though He’s given you so much joy on Earth, sometimes it’s really hard, sometimes you want to just live your life… But you keep the faith, you keep on fighting, and now it’s so, so worth it because the one who created all of this,’ and Bert swept his hands towards the sky, whose stars shone far brighter than in London, ‘the one responsible for every moment of joy – that welcome-home smile from your parents, your first kiss, your first novel, or just watching two strangers swimming in the sea as the sun rises – the one who made all that possible says to you, ‘Well done’. Just think about that. The greatest being imaginable is grateful for your efforts; He deems you worthy of praise. And now he wants you to spend all eternity basking in his presence. I imagine myself dropping into His arms, weary but content after the battle, but actually that’s the wrong way round. I won’t ever be weary in Heaven; it’s down here that he’s holding me in His arms. So who am I to complain about the fight when I’m being helped all the way by God Himself? When he’s promising me eternal joy? It’s so ridiculous, when you think about it. I know that Christianity is the truth. That might sound crazy, like how can anyone know these things for certain, but, trust me, I know. And that makes the fight seem so easy in the grand scheme of things. Nothing on Earth can outweigh God’s promise of Heaven; the promise of hearing those words: ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant’.’ Not for the first time, Bert chuckled at himself. ‘Crikey, that was a long one.’
Ernest watched sparks spitting from the fire. ‘I’m starting to get it now. I think in the church I was just so swept up by your joy, I didn’t think about what it meant. But then I started questioning everything.’
‘But now I think I get how you of all people could change like this. Cause I used to think the only people who had dramatic conversions were drug addicts or alcoholics or… depressives; really unhappy people, basically. So I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why someone as happy as you would embrace this way of life. I could understand why it would seem so appealing if you actually stopped and thought about it, but I didn’t think anyone could properly commit their life to God unless there were desperate; unless they really felt the need to. But I get it now. You did feel the need to, but not because you were unhappy. You simply realised how pitiful your idea of happiness was.’
‘Exactly, Ernest.’ Bert went into performance mode: ‘“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”’
‘Of course, my man.’
Ernest smiled. Even if he couldn’t comprehend the changes Bert was going through, at least he understood why his friend had made this commitment. Seeing an echo of God’s work in Bert’s smile, Ernest resolved to explore his faith. He was still afraid, but he sensed that there was nothing more cowardly than the avoidance of strong beliefs. And whilst God was the source of this fear, He was also its potential cure.
Bert’s vision of Heaven had shown Ernest that faith must be personal; this was not the realm of vicarious experiences. Pouring the last of his beer on the fire, he wondered if Rosa was awake.
 Tobias Krandle was famous for reading the entirety of Ernest Hemingway’s oeuvre in a mere three weeks. Whilst dubious sources claim that he ate, slept and reluctantly relieved himself in between books, Tobias was adamant that he went on a twenty-one-day hiatus from such base bodily functions.
His family grew a little worried, but they tried not to dwell; ‘Tobias has always been a voracious reader’, or so they’d tell friends visiting for dinner, friends confused by this young man who spent barely five seconds introducing himself, and the strange thing was, he was so charming and affable in those five seconds that it was as if he wanted to imbue his every act with the affecting efficiency of Hemingway’s prose. And then he’d return to his dark brown leather sofa, with his head on one armrest and his feet on the other, for it was a small sofa, suitable for two really, or three if you could accept a little discomfort, or if the three people were children or dwarves, and there he’d read whichever Hemingway paperback was currently being subjected to his indefatigable fingers.
As for Ernest’s mother, Jacqueline Granger discovered Hemingway in 1980, when she was a twenty-six-year-old waitress at one of Hemingway’s favourite Parisian bars, Le Select. Unfamiliar with the writer’s time in Paris, she soon noticed that the majority of customers came because of him. ‘Emingway’, they would mutter, ‘ça, c’était sa place préférée’, pointing to a table tucked away in the corner, as far from the front door as it was possible to be. A month or two into her job, Jackie grew sick of these ‘Emingway’ enthusiasts, decided that H was her favourite letter, and resolved never to read the American’s prose.
At her farewell drinks some months later, Jackie’s colleagues presented her with a brown paper parcel. Nausea filled the pit of her stomach when she realised it was a book. Untying the string, she let the paper settle in her hand. As much as she wanted to drop the present and run, Jackie was nursing a calf injury, which meant she had to face her fate. And there it was, printed in glossy gold, that dreaded name: Ernest Hemingway. The book was A Moveable Feast; the fact that it was in English added salt to the wound (which was ironic, since the food at Le Select was devoid of seasoning). Jackie did manage to find one source of consolation: the novel was by Ernest Hemingway rather than his French quasi-namesake, Ernest Emingway.
Two days later, she took her window seat for the flight home and searched her rucksack for reading material. She had two options: a Mike Tyson biography (Jackie had gone to Paris on a boxing scholarship; standing at five foot ten, she had biceps to make a Greek statue weep marble tears) and, of course, A Moveable Feast. All she could say was ‘Fuck it’ – out loud, in fact, although her neighbours were too intimated to even consider an admonishing look.
It was inevitable, really: she soon fell under Hemingway’s spell. It was his strength that Jackie found most appealing, for she was reading about the young Hemingway: the man who loved fishing, boxing and bullfights, and whose words were sharp enough to cut the mind that read them. Two months after returning to London, she joined the East London Hemingway Appreciation Society, where she met the scrawny but intelligent Tobias, an art curator who longed to be a poet.