Sophie imagined having a corpse tied to her back. Now, she was not one of those women who are constantly engaging in fantasies of the corpse-on-your-back variety. She was simply remembering an illustration used by the theologian Charles Spurgeon. According to Spurgeon, the Christian is in a constant battle to overcome his former, sinful self, even after Jesus has transformed him. He must carry around a dead body whose weight can only be lessened by God’s grace.
Sophie looked at Bert. His grin was larger than ever, but it had lost its self-awareness. He was smiling for his mother’s sake. His eyes glowed with enthusiasm. There was no sign of the Spurgeon corpse clinging to this believer: he sang, he loved, he found joy in others. When Ernest waxed lyrical about his performance in church, Bert was modest: ‘I couldn’t have done it alone,’ he said, reminding Sophie of Dora the Explorer’s famous phrase, “We couldn’t have done it without you.” He asked his parents for their choice of wine. He praised his sisters for their beauty. This man, Sophie knew, was no longer the same.
Listening to his testimony had been a strange experience for her. At first she’d struggled to stomach the idea of spiritual regeneration. After all, how could anyone accept it without faith? But a single sentence had changed that: “And even though I’ll fall short along the way, I know that God will never desert me.” Sophie marvelled at this confident humility; she longed for someone who would always be there.
And perhaps that was why she now sensed two forces competing within her: a desire for Bert and a desire for God. She had never been tempted by Bert’s cunning, by his winning smile and self-belief. She had never needed to remind herself that she could do better; she simply knew it. But this man was not the cheeky chappy of ten days ago. He moved with ease, his spirit was generous, his hair was goat-like. Sophie had never fallen in love before, and she had not expected it to feel like this: a crisis of identity. Yes, it was love she felt. She knew this as she watched Bert speaking to Ernest, as she heard his chuckle, as she watched his hands unfolding a napkin. She wanted to give herself to this man, since he was prepared to give himself to others.
And yet, with that desire came greater anxiety. Her teeth cried for attention, hurting Sophie with their persistence. She tried to silence them, but surely Bert could only love a beautiful woman. Yes, his focus was on the heavenly rather than the earthly realm, but he still believed that the Song of Songs was Scripture. In woman’s splendour he could see the hand of God.
Whilst the cry of her teeth may have been louder than ever before, so too was the cry of love, and thus a kind of equilibrium was achieved. But this balance was born of division; Sophie was torn between a desire to be loving and lovable. The former provided joy, the latter pain, but she could not find one without the other.
The possibility of peace only emerged when she thought of God. Such an idea could not have been more alien to Sophie, but how could she witness Bert’s fusion of the carefree and the careful and not long to share in such divine serenity, especially after the torment of recent weeks? She longed, like Bert, to know a being whose capacity for love was infinitely greater than hers; to lose herself in a limitless presence and there find joy.
The figure of Jesus still caused problems. Sophie’s upbringing made her reject his divinity, and the idea of one man being the only way to Heaven frightened her. But here too Sophie noticed the beginnings of change. She felt closer to appreciating the beauty of his existence on a theoretical level. In the months to come, she would recognise this for the paradox it was, but the core of the sentiment was there. To love others with such a fervour that you assumed their pitiful nature, endured their slander and their temptations, experienced the highest form of anguish on the cross, all so that they might rise with you one day… Sophie could not comprehend that kind of love, and that was why it held a glimmer of appeal. But for now she clung onto a less concrete idea of God: an all-knowing, all-powerful figure who could remove her pain. She was not sure that she believed in this idea, but she wanted to, and so decided to believe.
As Sophie contemplated this god, she managed to see beyond herself. She would write to her brother; she grew excited about Rosa’s tour. It only took a minute for her teeth to redirect her course, but now she was driving between two lanes, right on the cusp between self and other, teeth and laughter. She was making progress. Buoyed by the prospect of hope, she tried once more to fit Bert into this divine picture. And yet, her love for him was too impure; her existence too prominent in her visions of this man. She sensed that romantic love could either impede or encourage her spiritual growth. If she could focus on another’s joy, then she would achieve a self-transcending love. As things stood, Sophie was too anxious to love in that way, but this realisation increased her resolve. She may not have been a Christian, but her teeth were her version of the Spurgeon corpse; she had to remove this death from her life.
Her eyes returned to Bert. He was listening to his father with such intensity. His hands did not drift phoneward, nor did he check how his other guests were getting on. For all intents and purposes, Henry Eynsham was the only other person in that room. Sophie could not stop loving Bert simply because her love was impure; that was a reflection of her own debasement, rather than any fault with him. In fact, the more she viewed her love as unworthy, the more she saw Bert as an ideal.
‘So what do you do for a living, Sophie?’
Sophie turned to Bert’s brother John. His right bicep bulged as he drank mineral water. She remembered that she was at a lunch party. ‘I work for a lifestyle app called BetterMe.’ She smoothed her hair, abandoned her reverie with effort.
‘No way! I love BetterMe.’ In his excitement, John looked five years younger. ‘I use it every day.’
‘Small circles, am I right? I’m glad you’re enjoying it.’
‘Honestly, the Clear Mind feature has been life-changing.’ Sophie was as surprised as she was thrilled. Even if the company had been a major disappointment to her, she was glad to meet a happy customer. ‘I used to worry so much, all these thoughts bouncing around in my head, but the meditation has been so good for me. I do half an hour as soon as I get up.’
‘Oh, I’m really pleased. It’s great to know we’ve brought a smile to someone’s face.’
‘Definitely!’ Sophie liked John. He seemed more innocent than Bert 1.0, which made his enormous upper body surprising. ‘So what do you do for BetterMe?’ he asked.
‘I’m in marketing.’
‘Gotcha. D’you enjoy that?’
‘To be honest, not so much. It’s too repetitive.’
Sophie decided not to say that she’d also lost faith in lifestyle apps, as she’d explained to Bert a few weeks earlier. Having argued that the app was a breeding ground for narcissists, she’d been met by Bert’s feeble parry: ‘I’m not sure how I feel about all this self-absorption spiel. Ernest’s always banging on about how narcissism’s the plague of our era. I don’t buy it.’ Speaking of buying, Bert had felt emasculated by Sophie’s decision to pay for the first round – inexplicable behaviour. To make matters worse, she now attempted a playful lunge: ‘That’s because you’re a narcissist.’ After an irritated touché, Bert managed to laugh into his London Pride. ‘You really don’t beat around the bush, Shaw.’
Back in the restaurant, Sophie studied Bert. How had he overcome his narcissism in the space of three weeks? Surely it took more than human willpower to achieve that level of change? He passed his mother a menu, and, even here, Sophie saw charity. But a voice told her to be wary of worshipping the young believer. After all, Mrs Eynsham would be the one paying for lunch.
Kanye West was tweeting again. Announcements about Jesus Is King were flooding Jake’s timeline. Although not religious himself, 38 Children’s frontman was a sucker for a redemption story, and it was great to see Yeezy back on song after his recent troubles with porn, politics and pills.
Whenever he thought of Kanye, Jake remembered the time Ernest had given him a notebook. ‘I thought this could keep you company on the road,’ he’d said, handing Jake a battered leather journal. ‘No doubt it’s a load of drivel, but maybe you’ll find a few diamonds in the rough.’ Besides the usual short stories and poems, there was one piece in there dedicated to Kanye.
Jake removed the book from his rucksack. He was trying to take his mind off Gylfi, who’d gone AWOL once again. It was two a.m., and the bus was motionless. Youri and Aaron were asleep. He hoped Ernest might provide some comfort:
Ernest Krandle’s Eight Principal Role Models/Inspirations
- His mother, Jackie Krandle née Granger
- His father, Tobias Krandle
- David Foster Wallace
- Kanye West
- Ingrid Bergman
- Virginia Woolf
- Miles Davis
- Jesus Christ
– – –
‘One of your eight principal role models slash inspirations is Kanye West?’
‘Yes. Although he prefers the name ‘Ye’ these days.’
‘Oh, shush. How can you like him as a man? I understand as an artist, though I can’t say I’ve listened to a whole album,’ and Ernest awarded himself one point to Susanna’s nil, ‘but as a person? He supports Trump.’
‘So? I’m sick of all this Trump-bashing.’
‘Oh, Ernest, stop trying to be contrarian. Trump is a disgusting man.’
‘I can’t be bothered to talk about Trump. Let’s focus on Kanye.’
‘Too afraid of me?’
‘In all honesty, yes.’ Ernest realised that the scores were level. ‘Have you watched his David Letterman interview?’
‘No, I hate David Letterman.’
‘He’s awful, I know, but Kanye is great in that interview. What I like most about him is he’s a strong individual: I’ve never seen someone with that much self-belief, and he’s not afraid to defend his opinions. But he also has serious mental health issues, which he’s super honest about with Letterman. And I really admire that. Trust me, you need to watch it.’
‘Only if you convince me Kanye deserves to be one of your top eight role models slash inspirations.’
‘Principal role models,’ corrected Rosa. She was allowed to mock Ernest. He smiled, before launching into one of his monologues:
‘I’ve always been fascinated by conflicted figures – men like Miles Davis, John Lennon. Lennon had half a million people singing Give Peace a Chance during Vietnam, but he was an angry man. He cheated on his first wife, abandoned their son, and, for all his love for Yoko, he couldn’t stop sleeping around. But I think that’s what makes him such a compelling character. He couldn’t practise what he preached because he was a deeply flawed man, and yet he was a genius who inspired others towards peace.
‘And I think Kanye has a similar thing going on. He believes in God, but he openly admits he’s been unfaithful to Kim. He’s always singing about the fact he wants to know God but he’s not sure if he can give up the women. I love that. It’s not that I find it relatable as such, but I understand that tension, that feeling of conflict. I understand having two diametrically opposed views that just can’t be reconciled.’ Rosa wondered what Ernest had in mind.
‘I also think Kanye has learnt a lot about life with all he’s done. At least, that’s the impression I get from the interview. He says there are two principal forces in the world – love and fear – and love is the antidote to fear. So he’s like Lennon: he sees the answer, but he’s too human to act on it.’
Jake closed the book. Even though he loved Gylfi, he also felt very afraid. The previous night, he’d unearthed a clue about the Scandi’s nocturnal movements: he always returned to the bus smelling of sex.
It made sense that lust, not drugs, would be Gylfi’s downfall. Jake had seen enough lives ruined by the latter to know that Gylfi would stay clear of that path. On the other hand, he’d never made any secret of his ‘respect’ for the groupie tradition.
Jake thought about Kanye’s struggles with women: was Gylfi following in the rapper’s footsteps (besides his Icelandic heritage, his failure to convert to Christianity, and his lack of outrageous talent)? Was he, like many artists on the road, simply a slave to testosterone? It was possible, but Jake felt unsettled by Gylfi’s silence. Why would a self-proclaimed alpha male existentialist hide his sexual exploits? It just didn’t add up. Jake switched off the light and tried to fall asleep.
The slam of the door woke him. Jake checked his phone: six a.m. He sat up to see Gylfi mounting the RV steps; his eyes drilled holes into the floor. Looking closer, Jake saw a scarlet bruise on his cheek.
‘Gylfi, mate, what happened? Where’ve you been?’
‘Not the time, Jake. Rough night.’
‘I can see that. But you can’t come back here all bashed up and not say anything.’
‘Actually, I can. I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘No, Gylf, I’m not taking no for an answer.’ Jake heard Youri stirring in his seat. ‘You’ve got to tell us where you’ve been every night. The vibe in the group just isn’t the same.’
‘Let me give you some advice, Jake: when you’re trying to act all tough and serious, try not to say ‘vibe’, for once in your life.’
‘Stop being such a smart-arse, Gylf, you’re not half as clever as you think. But I love you all the same, and I want to help.’
‘What makes you think I need help?’
‘Hmm, how about your swollen face?’ Aaron, who had joined Youri on the right side of consciousness, tried not to laugh.
‘Well played, sir.’
‘So are you going to tell me or not?’
Gylfi sighed. ‘I was seeing a woman, Jake. Calm the fuck down.’
‘A different woman every night?’
‘Sometimes the same, sometimes different. Is that okay with you, or have you gone all soppy like Rosa?’
‘And you had a fight with this girl?’
‘That would explain the black eye, wouldn’t it?’
‘I mean, it would, but that’s not-’. There was a knock at the door. Gylfi turned too quickly to be innocent. Jake looked at his friend: he no longer seemed so cocksure. The silence extended as they stared at each other. ‘Shall I get that, Gylf, or d’you want to?’
But Aaron was already lumbering towards them. ‘Screw that, I’m getting it.’ Before he could reach the door, though, Gylfi stepped across the aisle and placed a hand on his chest.
‘Leave it, Aaron, this one’s for me.’
‘No, Gylf, I’m sick of this shit. Get out the way.’
Gylfi clenched his lips, trying to work out his next move. But he knew the game was up. Dropping his hand, he stepped to one side and let Aaron past.
The bass player’s stride possessed a confidence he did not feel. He had won a few fights during his Manchester clubbing days, but the intensity of Gylfi’s stare suggested he might be on the losing side tonight. Puffing up his chest, he opened the door.
Before him stood a woman in her early twenties. She had long, frizzy hair, her eyes were hazel, and she was wearing jeans and a sleeveless top. But Aaron was unaware of these details; all he saw was her swollen, bloodied face. The bruises on her cheeks were turning from red to blue, like damsons ripening in the summer. Her forehead was streaked with scratches; a graze marred her chin. She tried to calm her lips, but they could only waver. Seeing the pain in those dark green eyes, Aaron’s fear gave way to fury. ‘What happened to you?’
‘It was…’ The woman looked behind Aaron’s shoulder, but no-one was there. ‘It was Gylfi.’
‘Gylfi did this?’
‘Who is it?’ Jake’s voice sounded hollow.
‘Don’t worry, lads, I’ll be back in a minute.’
Locking the door behind him, Aaron looked at the young woman and exhaled. He was not known for his compassion, but her skin was like a canvas, and Gylfi was her twisted Kandinsky. ‘It’s okay, I’m going to make this better.’ Aaron was surprised to find trust in the corners of her eyes. ‘Can you tell me what happened? Don’t worry if you need time.’ He remembered his mam’s comfort after he’d stolen sweets from the local store. ‘We can go for a walk, get away from here.’
The woman glanced at the bus, and resolve replaced the pain in her eyes. With this look, Aaron sensed that the days of 38 Children Called Stone were over. And then, placing her left hand on the hammer and her right hand on the nail, the stranger uttered six simple words: ‘So long as we come back.’
Bert watched Sophie from across the table. He remembered when they’d met, just before one of Ernest and Rosa’s dinner parties.
He was walking across Albert Bridge with a spring in his step, having finally earned the approval of his boss at Credit Suisse. The Thames was less brown than usual, the exhaust fumes less noxious, and the tourists were actually waiting at the pedestrian crossing: Could this day get any better? he asked himself, humming a jaunty tune. As if in answer to this question, the most gorgeous pair of legs suddenly appeared on the other side of the bridge. Bert’s beloved God was looking kindly upon him – and quite right too.
The colour of these legs suggested an expensive holiday to the Maldives or Cyprus, which was a sure way to Bert’s heart (although it wouldn’t take a doctor to work out which organ was really in business here). And there was such athleticism in those calves. Bert pictured this dirty-blonde beauty charging through a herd of hockey-stick-wielding Paulines: down went Salomé, ready to beg Monsieur Eynsham for a second chance. Pas aujourd’hui, mademoiselle. When he realised that this Anglo-Saxon goddess was on her way to Ernest and Rosa’s, Bert privately thanked his friends and, of course, the Big Man Upstairs, not to mention the woman in question. Last but not least, he gave himself a pat on the back for being in the right place at the right time and for being so bloody good-looking.
Sophie didn’t notice Bert until he stepped onto Ernest and Rosa’s two-by-two feet ‘patio’. She heard his right foot land and turned with the abruptness of a wing attack who’s taken far too long to notice her opposite woman. But instead of coming face to face with a snarling, mouthguard-wearing brunette, she saw a young man decked out in a dark blue blazer, pink chinos (yes, pink), and gorgeous dark brown loafers. He was smiling with the smugness of his namesake Bertram Wooster; thankfully, Sophie was no Madeline Bassett. ‘Good timing,’ he said, his voice deep and smooth. It was at this moment that Sophie saw right through Bert: he could handle his drink, he put the ‘con’ in ‘congenial’, and he was going to flirt with her as soon as possible – had already started, no doubt.
Over the weeks that followed, Bert couldn’t quite understand why Sophie continued to reject his advances. Every time they went to the pub, he was tormented by the fact that a girl who drank ale didn’t want to sleep with him.
And then, much to everyone’s surprise, God had intervened in his life, calling him away from lust and towards piety. It was only when he looked back that Bert appreciated the extent of his transformation. So long as he focused on the here and now, it seemed perfectly natural to him that he should be a devout Christian who started each day with a thirty-minute prayer session, who had renounced sex before marriage, and who was going to quit his job at Credit Suisse. How could it be otherwise? But then he would consider his forgotten desire for Sophie or his former weakness for Gucci loafers. This life was very new to him; he imagined how his friends and family must feel.
Bert looked at Sophie and knew that she would never be his bride. But perhaps he could bring her towards God and thus save her from herself. Why had he chosen her out of all his non-believing friends? He sensed that the choice was not really his. All he could say for certain was that neither of them wanted anything more than friendship, and he smiled at this thought.
If it hadn’t been for the buzz of Rosa’s phone, Sophie would have turned towards Bert at this moment. Their eyes would have met, and he would have learnt the truth: Sophie loved him. But, for better or worse, Rosa’s phone did go off, and she excused herself from the table. Ernest watched her leave, noticing the slight tension in her face. He tried to return to his conversation with Bert, but the image of Rosa drifting from the room was fixed in place.
‘Everything okay?’ Bert had spotted his friend’s unease.
‘Yeah, I hope so. Rosa looked anxious, that’s all.’
‘Probably miffed to have her lunch interrupted.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.’ As much as Rosa loved melanzane alla parmigiana, Ernest was far from sure.
‘How are the shows going?’
‘Really well, apparently. They’ve sold out most of them, and the crowds-’
Rosa pushed open the door and crept back inside. Her face was downcast; her phone threatened to fall from her hand. Forgetting Bert, Ernest clattered from his seat, crossed the room, and put an arm around his love. She refused to look up, and her legs were unsteady. ‘Honey, what’s the matter?’
‘We should go outside.’ Tears seeped into her words.
‘Sure, sure,’ as he gave her a squeeze. Ernest looked at Sophie. ‘We’ll be back in a moment.’ Sophie nodded. She sensed that this was more serious than a crooked incisor.
Ernest led the way to the exit. The sun was in a tantalising mood, having threatened to break through the clouds all day. Rosa’s arms were close to her chest, in a position of vulnerability that only Ernest and her mother knew. He gave her a real hug now, with enough pressure to make her feel protected, but not so much that her femininity became weakness. Before Ernest could ask what was wrong, Rosa managed to say, ‘Gylfi’s been accused of sexual assault.’
Ernest’s instinct was to let go of Rosa, to shut his eyes and grab his head in anguish. But instead he held onto her, if only because he felt the world spinning. ‘Who told you?’ His body seemed to be swaying from side to side. Bile approached the back of his throat.
‘Aaron. A woman came to the bus this morning… Cuts and bruises all over her face.’ Rosa was breathing too heavily. She was pregnant with fear. ‘She told him how she and Gylfi had got drunk together, gone back to her place, and then he… started forcing her. And she tried to push him off, and…’. Rosa collapsed into Ernest’s chest, bounced against his frame.
‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to explain,’ as he stroked her hair. He shut his eyes now. ‘I’ll fly with you tonight. We’ll find out what happened, work out our next move.’ Ernest’s shirt was soaking; he wondered if Rosa could hear him above her tears. He wanted to surrender but steeled himself instead. ‘I’m assuming she’s pressed charges?’
Rosa nodded. ‘Aaron took her to the police station. They’ve arrested Gylfi – tonight’s show is off. Maybe they’ll do tomorrow night without him, but it seems so meaningless now.’
‘No, don’t say that. You’ve got to fight back, otherwise Gylfi wins.’ Ernest kissed Rosa’s forehead. ‘This is terrible, my love, and I’m so, so sorry. But we’ll pull through.’
Rosa’s entire body heaved. ‘I’m just worried there are other women. All those nights he was out of the bus…’
‘I know, it’s really scary. But we’ll find out. The police will handle it.’
Rosa held her breath for one, two, three seconds, then let out a sigh that was both distraught and determined. ‘Thanks, my love.’ Her voice shook, but she was trying.
‘Don’t even mention it.’ Ernest felt the wind against his cheeks. Where next? ‘The flight’s at eight, right?’
‘Eight oh five. Lots of seats left.’
‘Well, let’s get through lunch and then head home.’
‘As long as I can sit next to you.’
Ernest smiled. ‘I’ll switch with Sophie.’
‘I’d like Bert’s advice too.’ Removing her head from its human pillow, Rosa chuckled and sniffled: ‘Once I’ve eaten the biggest bloody tiramisu you’ve ever seen.’
As they pictured lady fingers covered in mascarpone, Ernest and Rosa’s fragile laughter slowly dried their tears. The sun remained behind the clouds, and a robin hopped towards the restaurant door.