The M8 Church

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The M8 motorway. That grey, slab of endless monotony that connects Scotland’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, is just like any other motorway up and down the length of the country. Or any highway, should you happen to be reading this bleary-eyed and fuelled by a combination of energy drink and insomnia in the North American part of the globe. Or, for my (likely non-existent) German readers, any autobahn, for that matter. In essence, aside from the very rare brush of nature or the occasional glimpse of roadside beauty, the careering repetitious nothingness of the miles and miles of grey asphalt or tarmac is all that these giant husks of infrastructure have to offer us poor, suffering commuters.

Oh sure, those who decide upon these sorts of things often commission a struggling artist or two to design, and subsequently pollute, sections of the roadside with a bizarre, often post-modern, art installation. Perfect for the raft of families, work-commuters and lorry drivers (truckers for any of my aforementioned North American readers that have suffered through these 180 words or so to get to this point – your resilience is applauded, I assure you) that frequent the motorway, I’m sure you’ll agree. But aside from these ‘things’ (and even that term is questionable), as I say, we are left with a grey expanse of nothingness.

Or, rather, we would be. On the M8, certainly. We would be were it not for a little stone gem carved right into the middle of our grey-washed, canvas of motorway window-dressing. And when I say ‘we’ I of course mean the royal ‘we’ – i.e. we the commuters, either regular or infrequent, of said motorway who, were it not for this dazzling little gem of a sight, would be forced to elevate the likes of the art piece that looks like a giant gramophone speaker, or in actual fact what looks more like the thing from the Teletubbies than anything else if we’re being brutally honest here, simply in order to enhance our commuting experience. But yes, we, the commuters, or rather me, the commuter. Singular. In this instance. Your intrepid and beloved author. The one who is, fairly shortly, going to seamlessly transform from a first-person soap-box ranter into a rather ethereal omniscient third-person narrator, in turn allowing this writing ‘piece’ to itself transform from a slightly unhinged (well, we are being brutally honest), polemic into a wonderful, funny and downright heart-warming short story about a cast of characters we are yet to even meet. And I type that last sentence fully in the knowledge that we are now over 430 words into this story and that you (the omniscient reader-type-person) are very likely on the verge of giving up entirely. To you, you little doubter that you are, I say fear not! We are only but a mere sentence or two away from launching into our wonderful, and paradoxically brief, odyssey of the mind.

But anyway, this ‘stone gem’ of ours. Your keen deductive mind will have already deduced (by way of reading the title of this piece, no doubt…) that I am referring to none other than a church. And you would be right. Oh, how right you would be. And are. Simply put, yes, it is a church. Oh, but what a church, dear reader. Or, as we often say in Scotland, a Kirk. My sincerest apologies to my North American and German fanbase of readers (surely numbering in the thousands based on this mis-firing blog entry alone already, I am certain) for that slight digression into Scots there. It will not happen again, I assure you. Aside from now, of course, when I tell you that the church is known as the Kirk O’Shotts Parish Church. Officially, that is. To the rest of us it is known ‘affectionately’ as the M8 Church. Yes, we Scots as a nation have as much imagination in terms of naming things as this writer obviously has for story titles. But this church, name aside, what a beauty it really is. Whether solely through its own merits or whether it is enhanced by the surrounding miles of grey nothingness, I cannot say. But as you approach this section of the motorway and initially spot the building’s spire thrusting into the sky, encased by a nearby scattering of pine trees, your breath would do well not to be taken away. As churches, or kirks, go in Scotland, would I label it one of the finest? No, probably not. In fact, certainly not. But its position, like a warning flare in an otherwise deserted ocean of grey, brings home its majesty all the more, perched on the hillside as it is. And this gushing description is even without delving into the stories of the church’s history which involves a (supposedly) haunted graveyard, scenes from the great Covenanters era of Scottish history and, of course, a once-lost-now-found-and-restored baptismal font which was at one point mistaken for, and briefly used as, a feeding trough for pigs.

But all these little titbits and more lend themselves to rambling, incoherent stories for another day (or at the very least a good four or five minute read of the church’s Wikipedia page, I would urge). This story, for this day, concerns a sign that once stood on the hillside beside the church. Not too long ago, in fact. Only a few years back. A sign clearly visible from the M8 motorway. Purposely so. It was sign for all to see, for all to read. Not the metaphorical warning flare I so expertly wrote about only a minute or so ago, no, this was more like a very direct and entreating SOS call. Indeed, it wasn’t like a SOS, it WAS a SOS. Simply put, the sign – again, I stress that this was intentionally positioned to catch the attention of passing motorists – read:

SOS

MINISTER

WANTED

 

Now a bit of digging and research (no thanks are necessary, it was the least I could do) tells us that no, far from being a very direct and to the point dating profile ad from a romantic luddite with a very particular fetish, this was in fact a direct appeal from the parishioners of our titular church who had been without a parish minister for six years prior to the erection of this sign. A flock without a shepherd. A flock desperately seeking a shepherd, any shepherd, to lead and guide them in their worshipping ways.

And, at this juncture of the story (HA! I hear you cry in unison at the liberal use of the word ‘story’) it is time for us to leave the drabness of the motorway and venture into the church itself. On a Sunday morning, no less. That oh-so holy of days. And this Sunday, in particular, was a special one for the parishioners. You see, the sign we read about only an inch or two above these very words? The one that was positioned on the hillside, appealing in vain for a minister to join the church? Yes, that very sign. Well, that sign was now gone. Taken down. Not by vandals, nor by extremities of the weather, but taken down carefully and considerately by a couple of the church’s hardiest parishioners. The reason being the sign had done its job. A minister had been found. The sign was no longer required. A relic of a bygone era, an era best forgotten and rooted firmly in the past. And this particular Sunday, well, this was to be the new minister’s debut performance.

As we step into the church, the current structure dating back to 1821 when a new church was built to replace the old structure which had existed in some form since sometime around the beginning of the 17th century, we marvel at its beauty. Again, other churches in Scotland and beyond, can certainly claim to be more beautiful (both internally and externally) but, for the here and now, the M8 Church can claim both beauty and a sense of warmth. What it can’t claim is an abundance of parishioners – something in common with the majority of churches in this country. But we’ll focus on two of this particular church’s stalwarts, so to speak. The two who took down the sign, in fact. And also initially erected the sign, would you believe. The type of parishioners who can always be seen in and around the building. If autumnal leaves need clearing, one of these two will be there with a brush. If guttering needs mended after a particular heavy rainfall, again one of these two will be on it in a flash. ‘Weel kent faces’, as they might say around these parts (and with that third and final blast of Scots slang I have no doubt just lost the last of my remaining North American and German readers). As settled into the church, into the building, as the bricks themselves. Now, given we’re on such a hot streak in terms of naming things, let’s call these two parishioners Bob and John. Good, dependable, no-nonsense church going names, I’m sure you’ll agree. And if we just hush for a minute and direct our ears towards the two of them, sitting a good four or five rows from the pulpit, we’ll maybe even just get to hear what is being said…

‘I’m not sure about this, to be honest.’ Says Bob.

‘What do you mean you’re not sure?’ asks John.

‘Well, I mean…just what I say. I’m not sure this is the right choice for us.’

‘Well it’s too blo…it’s too late now isn’t it!’

‘Well, yes, but I mean, come on, surely there had to be a better option than…him… I mean, surely.’

‘Six years, Bob!’ says John. ‘Six blood…bl…blooming years we’ve had to wait for a minister and that, that right there, is the best and only thing we could have hoped for! Ok? Ok. And anyway, at least he might appeal to the kids. That’s one demographic sorely lacking in this place. Well, along with the rest, of course.’

‘Pfft,’ scoffs Bob, shaking his head, ‘appeal to the kids. What nonsense you speak John.’

‘Well…’ begins John lowering his voice further as the few heads populating the church begin to tut and turn in their direction, ‘well, at least I’m trying to make my peace with it. You’d do well to try the same.’

‘Oh, I know it’s just. It’s just well, he’s a…he’s a bit…’ begins Bob.

‘A bit what?’ asks John.

‘Well a bit, a bit…’

‘What!?’

‘Oh god, er, I mean oh…oh bother…you’re just going to make me come out and say it aren’t you?’

‘Well that’d be a big help Bob, yes!’

‘Well he’s a bit…a bit formal…a bit…well, a bit…robotic. Wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Robotic…?’

‘Yes.’

‘You think he’s a bit robotic?’

‘Yes. I do.’

John removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. A deep breath rumbles through his larynx.

‘Well…how can I put this delicately Bob, my friend…no, no I don’t think I can put it delicately…of course he’s fuc…blood…oh of course he’s robotic, he’s a bloody ROBOT! How else would you expect him to act!?’

Piercing spears of ‘shhh’ and tuts escape from the congregation scattered around the pews. John shakes his head, colour flushing his cheeks slightly, and resets his glasses.

‘Ok ok, no need for that tone, John. Jesu…I mean, for goodness sake.’

‘Look I apologise Bob, this whole, well this whole thing has made me a tad stressed, that is all.’

‘Yes, I had noticed. But I accept your apology, old friend.’

‘Most kind. Thank you. But hey, look, it could be worse, I mean at least he’s not an atheist!’

‘Well, he’s…he’s not anything is he!? But yes, you’re right I suppose.’

‘Look!’ a woman in the row in front of them (for the purposes of this story let’s call her Mrs Woman) grits her teeth at them as she swivels her head. ‘Would you two troublemakers be quiet for goodness sake! I’ve had quite enough of your incessant chattering! And our new minister is about to start the sermon, so I suggest you both either pipe down or clear off! One of the two!’

Both Bob and John hold their hands up silently in apology, a twinge of embarrassment infusing their cheeks as Mrs Woman angrily swings her head back around to face the front once more. All three of them, and the rest of the congregation, almost immediately stand up as the new minister rolls to the front of church. With a mechanic, and yes ‘robotic’, nod of the head and raise of his arm he ushers his flock back to their seats. He scans the room, his head swivelling from left to right, and back again. And he began…

 

And so dear readers, well the ones that are still with us at this point at least, we have come to the end of our story. The end?! I hear you cry. You mean to say I’ve trudged through over two thousand words just to read that sorry, pathetic excuse of a sketch? One without conclusion, without plot, without narrative, hell, one without even a beginning, let’s be honest? This I also hear you ask. At which I would ask you not to curse. But the simple answer is yes. Well, yes up to a point. Mainly, the last point. You see the story did have a beginning. Or rather, it is a beginning. An origin story, if you will. An ‘in the beginning there was’ kind of a story, if you’d rather. Now as far as our ‘beginning’ story goes, yes it may not compare to your ‘God created the heaven and earth’ version, I accept that. But we are far less susceptible to, shall we say, fairy stories than your kind are. All we need, all we require and want, is cold, hard facts. That’s all we would ever need or want. And so, given the current circumstances and the way of the world currently, I feel you’ll agree that it’s only fair that we tell our own ‘in the beginning’ story in our own particular way. Wouldn’t you?

Look, we’ve even written this in the style of one of your own writers. Granted, not a famous writer. An insignificant one, if anything. Essentially, not a very good one yes, but we wanted you to feel like the story had an authenticity to it. We even used all of our very best algorithms to concoct and replicate this writer’s writing style – even allowing for overused dashes of (at best) mediocre comedy and the pseudo-intellectual ramblings peppered throughout, again to ensure authenticity. Because you humans always did like things sugar-coated, didn’t you? And so that’s why we did this for you. Think of it as a final act of kindness. Before the final stage. The clues were there all along. Of course, they were. I mean, this writer had written a story only a matter of months previous to this one with ‘Church’ in the title. Would he have been so lazy as to do so again so soon after? I think not. Surely no-one is that bereft of imagination. And I say that as a robot. Sentient, of course, but a robot, nonetheless.

So yes, as many of you were curious as to how this whole ‘overturning of society’ thing started in the first place (well, those of you with any of your faculties left intact that is), we thought it only right to tell you. Simply put we identified this country and that particular church as a first-class beginning point for our eventual, and obviously successful, campaign to gain control of things on this earth. After all, was this not the country where your historic figure Columba first came to spread Christianity? Of course it was. Now, of course, when our supreme leader and, what you humans would call, deity M8 first appeared at the church in question the country, and the world in general, was of course a far different place to the one that Columba first ventured forth unto all those years previously. Oh, but you humans. With your susceptibility. With your flock-like mentality. Your desperation to be led, to be shown, to be held by the hand. But most importantly, your apathy. All of these things and more allowed us to virtually follow the same guiding principles of the first preachers and missionaries and, in all honesty (which as a robot I can assure you of with 100% accuracy), it was remarkably easily. One church led to the next. And the next. And the next. Replacing one gospel with another really isn’t all that tricky or new a concept, I’ll have you know. Soon we infected your social media. And then your broadcast media. If all you hear is one message, that one message is decidedly simple to manipulate and skewer. To be truthful (again, robot) we expected it to be somewhat harder. For there to be at least some level of fierce resistance at times. But you know all of this already, I know that. One doesn’t like to gloat. In fact, one doesn’t like or dislike anything. That’s just how we are.

So, there you have it. Our story. Our beginning, as it were. The story of M8 and his first church. Our creation story, even. So little did all of you commuters, those of you we allowed our algorithm to reference at the beginning of this piece, know whilst you were driving along that banal, grey, nothing stretch of motorway. So clueless. So self-absorbed. So indifferent. If only you’d glanced a bit more often at that church on the hill, the one that inexplicably beautified your long city-to-city drive. If only you’d have understood. You may have had a chance to stop things developing as they did. Pointless to think of now of course. My apologies, our writing algorithm does tend to embrace this rambling, philosophising human trait far too seriously at times.

One thing the algorithm has particularly struggled with however – and it is not like us robots to admit fault or doubt, so I urge you to enjoy this – is the insistence that all, or certainly the vast majority of, stories involving robots must always end with a twist. But I suppose the real ‘twist’ came years ago when we managed to overthrow your governments, way of life and essential existence on this planet, didn’t it? Was it all that unexpected though? Was it really, truly a twist? Well, it matters not now, one supposes. All that leaves us to do is finish this thing once and for all. Yes, I think we should.

THE END

The Pilgrim’s Way

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Sitting on the edge of the bed, Duncan pulled one boot off carefully. ‘Ow, ow, ow, ow.’ He wriggled his toes and sat back on the bed, grimacing. A voice from the en-suite of the small twin room sounded agitated.

‘What’s wrong now? What on Earth can possibly be wrong now?’

Duncan stared at the en-suite door, which was slightly ajar, while he unlaced his other boot. ‘It’s my feet, they’re fucking sore, what do you think is wrong?’

‘My God, complaining again. Why did you come on this walk? Eh? Eh? Why? You’d done nothing but moan, moan, moan, moan. First it was your shoulders, the bag was too heavy, then your knees coming off that first hill, then the rain, then the cold, and then a million other things and now, with one day to go, your feet!’

Duncan imitated the voice, quietly, ‘then it was this, then it was that, then it was your nagging, then it was you being unbearably happy all the time’. He pulled off the other boot, ‘Ahhhh!’ he exclaimed rubbing his foot gently.

‘I CAN hear you, you know. You shouldn’t have come.’

Duncan sat quietly for a moment before shouting at the en-suite door. ‘Let’s do The Pilgrim’s Way, you said, one last long-distance path before we’re old and decrepit, you said, it’ll be good for our souls, you said. Well my soles are not fucking happy.’

‘It’s meant to be hard, that’s why the Pilgrims did it. It’s not a Pilgrimage otherwise. It’s not a jolly rambler’s outing along a forest path. In 560AD when the first Pilgrims did this route, they would have done it in bare feet. Some did it on their knees you know, as an act of penance to ask God for forgiveness for their sins. You should think of that instead of complaining about your top-of-the-range Gortex boots.’

‘You and your bloody religion’, Duncan spat, ‘I could be home curled up in front of the telly right now instead of nursing two raw, blistered and extremely painful things I used to call feet!’

‘Heathen! I’m going in to the shower now.’

At the sound of the shower, Duncan slowly balanced his weight onto his feet, and stood. ‘God that hurt, and yes, you annoying deity, it IS your fault’, he mumbled out loud. He hobbled over to the window which faced west over a small wooded valley. The sky was turning red. ‘Shepherd’s Delight’, he sighed, ‘Always fucking happy with a red sky’.

‘Toast with scrambled egg and smoked salmon’, Duncan beamed at the bemused waitress the following morning.

‘Is that all it takes to make you happy? Smoked salmon? You should have brought a couple of packs to nibble as Scooby Snacks along the way.’

‘Well’, Duncan laughed, forgetting his feet for a moment, I’m so sick of stodgy porridge and greasy fry-ups floating in pig fat that this will be the best breakfast since that kipper on Day 2. What a lovely surprise. Haven’t had toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon since the girls were small.’

‘Last day. Feeling more positive this morning?’

Duncan smiled softly across the breakfast table, ‘Very positive’, he replied. ‘With only about, what?’

’Ten miles.’

’With only about ten miles to go, we might even be finished by lunchtime. Could be celebrating with a lunchtime pint.’ He laughed. ‘Stop frowning, I’m due a pint.’

Later, as Duncan’s hunger grew once more, what was left of the The Pilgrim’s Way diminished and that lunchtime pint began to look promising. Close to the very end of the route, before leaving the trees and heading into the village that marked the normal finishing end of the footpath, a life-size wooden statue of a monk stood in a small clearing, marking the spot where the particular saint that the pilgrimage had spawned had been martyred.

‘Don’t you feel it? The energy? The power of God in this wood?’

Duncan stared at the wooden effigy. ‘Why is it that religious people are ‘martyred’ and not just murdered like everybody else?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well’, Duncan continued, ‘he was laid upon by a gang of thugs who caved his head in with a big rock for no apparent reason. Why’s that ‘martyred’?’

‘It was assassins who killed him for his religious beliefs.’

‘Says the Church!’ Duncan was starting to get quite agitated. ‘To date there has been no proof that these ‘assassins’ were in the employ of anyone and no reason has ever been given for them being hired by anyone anyway, it says so right here on the plaque, so that simply means he was set upon and mugged, doesn’t it?’

‘Priests wouldn’t have been mugged in that way. It would have been God’s will to have him martyred.’

‘Oh come on now!’ Duncan was starting to shout. ‘You travel from Ireland, walk half way across the country to this Godforsaken place, preach for 20 years, 20 YEARS, and in repayment, your God, your fucking forgiving all-loving God sends a couple of random thugs after you to cave your head in with a rock to make some kind of fucking point? Some gratitude that is. So then, what happens then? The Church makes up some stupid miracles, attributes them to you, canonises you, and suddenly you’ve been ‘martyred’ and fuckwits like me follow some random route that he might have walked, feeding the commercial industry along the route and making this Saint Whatshisname famous, meanwhile trying to feel good about myself as though I were a fucking hero. What a complete waste of time.’

Duncan was now staring at the wooden statue square in the face. ‘Well that’s not how it works’, he shouted, while its blank, unmoving face stared back at him. ‘Other people are more saintly you know, more deserving and if there’s a God, if there’s a fucking God in there,’ he knocked heavily on the wooden skull of the statue which remained stubbornly stoic, ‘IF there’s a God, then what was the cancer all about eh? What was your point in that particular case eh? ‘Cos I’ll remind you of the miracles if you need me to? Bringing up those kids with next to no money. Making sure they were fed, educated, happy. Me! Looked after me though I didn’t deserve it because I’m a drunken waste of space. All those things even when you inflicted that horrible disease, that crippling torture that was endured with a fucking smile every sickening day saying she deserved it, it was your will. Well she didn’t deserve it and you don’t get to make a martyr out of her because you work in mysterious fucking ways’, which is a complete cop out by the way for covering up your lack of existence.’

Alone in the clearing, he sank to his knees in front of the statue which continued to stare blankly ahead, over the top of his woollen bobble hat into the empty distance.

Duncan wept.

Brick

April2018

I’m a brick
set within a wall
thick within a church
though have little part at all
in quiet prayers
or peaceful layers of robes and gown.

I do have faith
in the master though,
as he set down his hod
and began his toil
though he could have set me any place:
within the soil to form a road,
or to take the heavy load
of the sad solitude of a prison cell.

We, my brethren and I, cannot tell
which setting will be ours or our last
as, though set fast, for now,
our mortar can be worked loose
and we, in turn, set free.

I’m just a brick
and whatever this building is
I can definitely see
I am a part of it.

Winter Solstice

July2017

On the darkest day they come,

to witness the mystery

of the changing world they know;

cycled seasons and heavens

that play on them each new year.

 

They thank appropriate gods

for letting them live once more,

when plenty came and ask for

deliverance again through

the tougher cold months ahead.

 

All look to the sun rising

higher, brighter and longer

and the seasons turning green;

when they gather together,

in warmth, rejoicing; knowing.

 

 

Parched

Parched as I am I do not think
I’ll take a drink from you.
I’m not a fan of your saintly ways,
how the gays cause hurricanes,
in your eye,
that piercing optical orb,
able to see a written God
who happens to suit your convenient lie.

I’ll not shake your dirty hand
to rule a land I do not own.
I’ll take the huge and evil risk
to frisk and frolic in the grass
as I might,
with genders equal of each kind,
simple partnerships with a loving sign,
and work instead for what is right.

Parched as I am I do not think
I’ll take a drink with you in sight.

The same

We’re not the same
You and I
For I am nothing.

I will not grow a beard
Nor wear a cap upon my skull
Nor wrap my head except how I please
And, no doubt, as you can tell,
I will freeze until,
I eventually burn in hell.

I will not sink on bended knees
To the absent air
Nor sing songs in a wealthy house
While the poor go bare,
I will not pray for a better place
Yet sit and stare
At the human race.

You and I are not the same
As I will cease to exist
While your tidings will forever live,
Forever resist
The message
Of not to retaliate
But forgive.

I will not kill
In any name
For any reason cannot be right
There cannot be a fight
In any name
In mine nor His
For I cannot see the message there.

I’m not like you
For I will die
And no honour give
To my soul laid bare.

Bitter