"MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.”
“You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting."
The writing on the wall. "Weighed and found wanting…You..." The words echoed round and round in his head.
Why had he gone to that service? Why break the habit of a lifetime? Why invite torment? But perhaps he'd thought it might bring comfort, or maybe some insight. Of course it was because of yesterday. He had heard the bells ringing as he'd sat in his office gazing out of his window at the fading light and the black silhouettes sharpening against the pale winter sunset. Before he had really known what he was doing he was down the stairs, striding across the green with the cold air making his eyes smart and his nose tingle. The beautiful windows were lit up from inside, the whole structure of the cathedral from without. The ancient building looked weightless like a giant paper lantern floating above the river a few hundred feet below. As he entered melodious choral singing warned him the service had already started. He slipped into a pew at the back and sat down.
After fumbling with the book of common prayer for a while and not being able to make head nor tail of it he quietly put it down and began to look around. Obviously he'd been in here, or rather through here, many times before, mainly as a shortcut to the cheap parking on the other side of the bridge. But he now was looking at it differently. Did this place really hold any answers? The beauty and sheer size was quite overwhelming, particularly as he looked up to the soaring buttresses overhead. It did realign human preoccupations with a sense of a greater reality, put frivolity in its place, kept the serfs humble he thought cynically to himself.
The lighting and the music and the atmosphere were certainly conducive to a kind of peace. But it felt rather surface deep. The singing began again. It was soothing. He saw or felt nothing though that resonated with his experience yesterday afternoon; that overwhelming peace and cohesion. In fact, on the contrary, the service seemed rather fragmented and incoherent. Beautiful bits of chanting and singing, responses from the congregation that he realised with slight embarrassment he was meant to be participating in, seemingly unconnected bits of scripture reading.
And then it happened. He was suddenly hearing those famous words from Belshazzar's feast in some ancient tongue. Of course he was familiar with the cantata, but he'd never really paid any attention to the words or their meaning. Did he even believe words had a fixed meaning? Fluidity was the zeitgeist. But now it was like he was hearing them for the first time, as clearly and as concretely as nails being struck one by one into his consciousness, or a coffin. They were being spoken directly to him and everyone in that service knew he was the condemned man in their midst.
"You! You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting."
It was utterly devastating. In every balance, by every standard, he was found wanting, lacking, deficient, defective, flawed, faulty, inadequate, insufficient...His command of language, his knowledge of the thesaurus hardly helped him now. The words flowed relentlessly on in a long black list, marching from the white page like an overwhelming tide or invading army.
The image of a large and terrifying pointing finger filled his mind, like in Michelangelo's famous painting, but in his nightmare version reaching to accuse and condemn; not to create but to obliterate. "You!" But he found he had nothing to say in his defence. In fact he couldn't speak at all.
Oblivious to those around him he'd stumbled up the aisle and out of the door into the bitter night air of the cloisters. The moonlight shed silver shadows through the Romanesque arches on to the stone floor as he staggered along, retching. He made it outside, to the entrance of the tunnel and was violently sick by the wall.
"I must talk to Lucy." That was the one idea in his mind, like the only firm handle in a spinning, disintegrating world. Why couldn't he get her out of his head?
She hovered inexplicably in his consciousness like a beacon of hope, all bright white and gold, like the angels he'd seen in medieval paintings; those fearful visions with their intense, jewel like colours and luminosity...while everything else, all the normal familiar things and people seemed to have faded and retreated, become as flimsy and insubstantial as wraiths, or as smoke twisting from chimneys on winter days. It was as if the whole familiar old world kept rolling in sepia, while he was suddenly aware of a much greater, horrifyingly vivid reality running not only alongside but above and below too, and Lucy seemed to be the only other fully flesh and blood character in the play, full of vibrant colour and life…. bloody hell, he really must be going mad! Lucy. St Lucy!
He'd hardly given her a serious second thought before, other than when the fun of tormenting her had filled the odd half hour of boredom. Or had he? If he was honest with himself, hadn’t she been haunting the fringes of his mind like a harbinger of doom ever since he’d met her, like the half perceived shadow of some monstrous force; the incessant beating of whose dark wings against the edges of his consciousness was a horror to be kept at bay, to be resisted at all costs? And before her, hadn't there always been something or someone else, however small, snagging at the threads of his perception, like a piece of grit in a shoe?
He had always shut his mind to that madness before, and kept the busy bright lights and dazzle of his world determinedly in focus. Now the defences were utterly broken down, everything had turned on its head and his soul was unfurling, helplessly unravelling to himself revealing layer upon layer like an oriental puzzle box. What mystery lay hidden at the centre? Or did he already know? Some long forgotten seed of knowledge that really all men carry but can't recall with their brittle, hardened minds? And Lucy suddenly seemed the key to the lock of the forgotten innermost box. She was the only bright point in a world that had suddenly and brutally gone dark. Must he really let himself go, slip over the edge of his safely constructed reality and fall into that void towards her light? What had before felt like a shadow cast over his identity now seemed the first pin prick of light in that flimsy shroud. Instead of repelling her he now felt compelled to seek her out.
He passed a hand over his clammy forehead. Perhaps he was thinking in this crazy way just because he knew she was into spiritual stuff, he tried to rationalise to himself... but was it even spiritual? It felt so physical too, like for the first time he was properly awake. But to confide in Lucy? After how he'd treated her too... It was awkward to say the least, after all that pitiless teasing and mocking, his cruelty. He'd been vile to her, he could see that now with such clarity that he shuddered inwardly. In fact he'd been vile altogether to everyone. Why hadn't he seen it before?
No wonder Julia had left him. An image of his tanned, half naked wife wrapped in the arms of another man, a younger man, her raven hair falling in damp ringlets around her elegant face, flashed into his mind. Memory of the old life was still savagely vivid, even though the present had strangely retreated. He'd never forget her beautiful dark eyes full of malice, laughing at him over the shoulder of her lover. He pressed his fingernails into the palms of his hands until they bled.
But himself? He had lived with all the profligacy of an ancient tyrant, squandering and tossing aside all gifts of beauty and of love. He had neglected and betrayed his nearest and dearest... And been betrayed in his turn. As he walked, the thoughts and memories of his past conduct became an avalanche of shame, each one a knife, shredding pitilessly through his carefully constructed ego; so long in the making, so quickly torn to pieces. By the time he reached the faculty building he was struggling to keep upright. He felt as if he'd been repeatedly punched in the stomach.
He hauled himself up the stairs and hesitated outside Lucy's office. He knocked tentatively. There was no reply but the door, which wasn't properly shut swung open, revealing an empty room. He walked in and crumpled into a chair. He must wait for her. He could do nothing else. He must speak with her.
When she entered her office the first thing she saw was him slumped in the chair. She started with surprise. He had his head in his hands. He looked up as she came in. He looked terrible, like she'd never seen him before; great dark circles under his eyes and a haunted look in his eyes.
“What on earth is the matter?” she exclaimed, sitting down next to him and putting her hand on his arm awkwardly. This was so different from the man she knew, was a little afraid of and, if she was honest, disliked intensely.
“She’s left me Lucy,” he said, his voice totally flat and expressionless. “My wife, she’s finally done it. Found herself a nice new man.”
As he spoke his voice sharpened and he tried, and failed, to laugh sardonically.
"Well, in fact I found them, in my own bloody bed…Not that I'm exactly clear in that department myself, but not in our own bloody bed!"
He was shocked by the rawness of his own fury. He realised he was almost shouting, clenching his fists.
He could feel the angry tears pricking his eyes. The pain was overwhelming. How could it have gone from zero to a hundred like this in 30 seconds, ripping through the ceiling of his consciousness like a rocket?
And why was he telling her, of all people, these things? Did he want some justification for his own behaviour - he knew immediately that if so it wouldn't stand up, particularly to her. But why was he hedging the main issue? The reason he'd come! It was easier to talk even about this than the other thing.
“Oh, I’m so sorry…” she faltered, somewhat confused and very uncomfortable. What was he doing here? She gingerly removed her hand from his arm and stood up awkwardly looking at him.
“I’m not,” he said, “I hate her and she hates me. It’s exactly what I deserve. It’s what she deserves too - we both deserve all the bloody mess that’s coming to us.
Normally so erudite, even his ability to articulate seemed to be failing him.
He lent back in the chair and looked at the ceiling. “I know you don’t have any sympathy for me,” he smiled weakly, “And that’s why I’m here, and not somewhere else I suppose! I don’t want sympathy and I don’t deserve it.”
“So what can I do to help you?” she said sitting down opposite looking at him in her old quiet but uncompromising way, the way he used to hate, before he had tried to break her spirit. He used to think it was arrogance. He could see now it was simply honesty. And what greater respect can we afford another human being than to look them honestly in the eye and not flinch or recoil.
He looked away.
“I don’t know,” his voice faltered again, fighting back tears. “I just need to know if there is any way, oh I don’t know, but any way back?”
Why were these things coming out of his mouth?
She shifted uneasily in her chair. Was this genuine or a trap? “We can never go back" she said slowly. We have no choice but to go forwards, but I guess that can be forwards upwards, rather than downwards, if you know what I mean. You can’t erase the past but you can help untangle it. To state the obvious, you can say sorry!”
"I know I need to say sorry to you!" he mumbled. "I've been vile, I'm disgusted with myself when I think of the things I've said, done…" His voice cracked, "I have no right to be here, to even speak, I know!"
"It's ok!" She lent across and put her hand on his arm again. This felt so strange, like some alternative reality. He tried to light a cigarette but his hands were shaking too much. After a moment's futile fumbling he dropped cigarette packet and lighter on the table hopelessly and stared down at them.
"It's not ok. But what can I do? Lucy, what can I do?" His fingers gripped her hand on his arm until the knuckles turned white.
“I want to feel clean again...” he spoke quietly, avoiding her eyes. “And, Oh Lucy, God knows, I've got a lot to answer for but I know you believe... believe in hope and the possibility of forgiveness, cleansing...."
He paused and took a deep breath, and then with a rush:
"Something strange happened to me yesterday. I haven’t told anyone. It seems crazy but it feels like it was the turning point in my life, a kind of epiphany. I've tried to explain it away in every way I can think of, but I can't. I saw something that spoke into the very depths of my soul. And since then, after that moment of almost complete peace, I feel like I'm being hunted…"
He passed his hand over his eyes. He voice dropped almost to a whisper, it seemed to be working ahead of his conscious mind:
"It sounds so mad, I know. I can get no rest, day or night. I feel like I'm being pursued to within an inch of my being...Oh Lucy, I’m so afraid, so lost! Lucy, Lucy, be my light…”
Before he knew what he was doing he had taken her hand in both of his and pressing it momentarily to his lips he dashed from the room.
Lucy sank down on her chair stunned and horribly stirred. She felt the tears starting to run down her cheeks. What was going on? What did he want from her?
Her head told her to keep well clear. But despite everything her heart moved towards him in compassion and somehow deep within her being her soul stirred with recognition; a still small voice urging her on.
She didn’t know how long she sat there, gazing blankly out of the window. It was dark by the time she stirred herself and she felt stiff and cold and drained.
She got up, put on her coat and turning off the light locked the door. She trudged down the corridor and the stairs and headed through the narrow gap towards the river path. It had begun to drizzle and was very cold. Her heart missed a beat. There he was again, sitting on a bench looking at the water flowing slowly past, completely oblivious to her presence and the rain falling on his bare head. His thick wet hair curled a little around his temples, ears and at the nape of his neck. It needed cutting and with an inexplicable rush of tenderness she noticed it was beginning to grey. She was in a horrible dilemma. Should she try to slip past without him noticing or should she speak to him.
He was lit by a lamp post who's beam shimmered through the gently falling rain like silver. This made the shadows outside of its circle denser. She quietly walked to the far side of the path and managed to slip by unnoticed in the dark.
Immediately her heart smote her but the decisive moment had been missed. Somehow she knew she had crossed some invisible line. She had ignored the whispered urging voice. How strange and yet momentous are the small turning points in the dark alleyways of our lives; the tiniest threads that we either follow, hand over hand into the unknown or snap in our fear as we hurtle towards the dull comfort of the familiar.
Arriving home to her cheerless bedsit she flopped down on the bed and laid her aching head on the pillow. The next thing she knew the pale dawn light was peeping through the undrawn curtains.
It was still very early. She was cold and stiff. She rolled over and looked at the clock and pulling the covers over herself, closed her eyes again. She was running down a long dark corridor towards a bright light at the far end. It seemed to get further away the more she strained towards it. As she ran she became aware of someone running behind her, calling her name. It was him, he was calling her to wait for him, to help him, or was he laughing, trying to pull her back into the darkness? She half turned and saw him reaching out towards her but she just kept on running as fast as she could. She could see the door now, or was it a window, from which the light was emitting. She was through and she slammed it shut behind her. His cries, or was it laughter, gradually receded, as if he was being pulled back into the darkness.
The horrible vividness of that dream faded as the days passed but it's atmosphere stayed with her for the rest of her life returning in many forms, haunting the edges of her mind, whispering incessantly the perennial question, accusation; "What might have unfolded had you not walked by on the other side?"