Sweet Influences

24 Nov 2014

Okechuwku Nzelu

 

 

On a fateful day in October 1994 Joanie Maloney (Joan, to her supervisors) was just looking forward to leaving Cambridge, and ready to start again in what she thought of as ‘the real world’. At age twenty, perhaps it was a little early in life to want to start again, but Joanie thought she had made a bit of a mess of her time at Cambridge.

And she was right: having succeeded academically at school without effort and almost without noticing, she had more or less decided to put in only a nominal amount of effort at university, instead directing her efforts towards a series of extravagant romantic mistakes with men her mother would hate.

To wit: second year, Michaelmas Term, Roderick Cleavington (alias ‘Hotrod’, ‘Cleavage’, ‘Smelly Roderick’), the man-boobed classicist who infamously didn’t own a toothbrush and who dumped her via his best friend after three weeks of pretending not to see her in the faculty library. Years later he was the head of an internet security firm.

And who could forget Cliff, the mathematician she slept with after an unusually starchy formal dinner at which she drank the better part of two bottles of wine? They both had trapped wind. Cliff gave her two STIs and cramp in her right thigh.

And then there was Maurice. Always in his right mind, always strict with himself, and yet so ready to admit when he was unsure of things. Being with him, talking to him about art and God and the world, was like stretching her legs on a long walk.

*

Joanie first saw Maurice in Cambridge, in the little café where she went sometimes to study. He was a plainclothes Christian then, handing out leaflets with non-threatening Biblical extracts to locals enjoying carrot and coriander soup.

The location of the café, on Huntingdon Road, the route northwards out of the city, meant it was rather more popular with locals than with the average Cambridge undergraduate, to whom a fifteen-minute walk took on marathon-like proportions in such a tiny town. Worse, the café was at the top of Castle Hill, the steepest climb in the flat city: from the top, on a clear day you could see most of Cambridge. Only dedicated cyclists (among whom Joanie was never to be found) actually cycled up the hill, and few who did, stopped, for fear of being unable to start again.

In a city where everyone knew everyone else, the café was a kind of no-man’s land, and Joanie was grateful for this. She escaped the confines of the city ordered plain, squat mugs of tea and handwrote her essays on Plato.

For Maurice and the three young men who accompanied him in baggy t-shirts and humble facial expressions, Bertie’s Café was also a favourite haunt. The management changed on an almost monthly basis and the customers rotated just as regularly: vegans, yuppies, academics, yuppies again… Maurice and his friends were practically the only constant, spreading the Word of God on the lunch hour.

The words themselves had been the subject of intense theological debate.

‘We can’t use that one, Michael,’ said Maurice, trying not to lose his temper one evening. He had capitulated after church the previous Sunday and agreed to host the meeting of the small, newly-formed but already turbulent evangelical group in his flat.

Unfortunately they did not readily agree on which parts of the scripture would be most appropriate, and what was supposed to be one meeting sprawled out into three. At first, Maurice rationalised that it might be a good way to make new friends, but soon had to confront the fact that he did not like the other three men very much.

At the third meeting (threatening to become a fourth), he distributed own-brand digestives and squash and kept the good biscuits hidden away.

‘Why not?’ said Michael. ‘I think it’s beautiful.’

‘Y-yes,’ said Maurice, ‘but – ’

Michael Eberhardt was an Economics graduate who had, it was rumoured, turned down a six-figure starting salary to care for his ailing mother. Whether this was true, nobody could say, but he cultivated a trying air of patient martyrdom which made more than one person at St Stephen’s think about stringing him up by his bollocks.

‘Listen,’ said Michael, generously.

For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services…

‘…What’s wrong with that?’ Michael huffed.

‘Well,’ said Maurice, reasonably, ‘it’s very beautiful… but that isn’t from the Bible, is it? It’s from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart.’ (Why did people always assume he didn’t read? Was it because he was an engineer, or because he was Nigerian? Or both?) ‘It’s a nice poem, Michael… but he’s talking about his cat.’

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ Michael huffed.

‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, but this is supposed to be an extension of the Bible study group. The point of this exercise,’ he said, not for the first time, ‘was to understand the Bible better by sharing it with the community.’

Maurice sighed. His own parents had been pious: prayers every morning before school; two church services on Sundays. There was nothing in the Bible Maurice hadn’t already seen, or heard, many times, but even for those less well-versed, choosing these quotations should have been an easy task. Everyone knew the kind of thing that was needed: ‘God is love’, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light’, ‘No-one shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven except blah blah blah’.

But when Maurice had first suggested this, Michael had spoken up and complained, in his plaintive, weedy little voice: these quotations had been ‘done to death’. The public was ‘hungry’ for something fresher – Maurice’s selections just weren’t ‘current’. Maurice had scoffed at this but, to his horror, the idea of a hungry public caught the imagination of the study group. Images of atheists walking aimlessly around the city, hungry for obscure passages from Deuteronomy and Habakkuk. Eyes sparkled, murmurs of assent spread through the room. Maurice was overruled.

But not today. Not today.

‘Besides, it’s just not very punchy, Michael. We want something that delivers God’s message with a bit more… oomph. I think that, really, we almost want slogans. Soundbites, if you like.’

He wondered if it was too obvious that he was steering them back to his original idea.

Michael huffed and sucked a digestive with a long-suffering expression on his face.

‘Well then,’ said Harrison Tucker, who deployed a strategy in meetings which mostly consisted of staying silent for the first twenty minutes before calmly, patiently saying something extremely stupid. ‘Why don’t we go with something a bit more Sturm und Drang? A little fire and brimstone never hurt anyone. What about…’ (he feigned hesitation) ‘What about… oh, I don’t know… Leviticus 18:22?’

Maurice quoted without hesitation: ‘“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination”?’

‘Yes.’

Maurice paused.

‘We’re going to cafés, Harrison. Cafés. And I’m not being funny, but at the end of the day, we’re in Cambridge. I think we should be realistic about the kinds of people we’re likely to come across.’

I think we ought to lay our beliefs on the line,’ said Harrison. ‘Call me old-fashioned, but –’

‘But they’re not even all of our beliefs. I mean, I suppose they’re mine – sort of – maybe. But –’

‘I agree with Maurice,’ said Alastair, mostly on account of having come to the meeting with the sole intention of lying with Harrison as he had never lain with anyone else. He found Harrison’s broodiness and the way he did up his top button irresistible, and the sight of Harrison’s mouth as he was gently sucking on a digestive could keep Alastair going for days. ‘Besides, shouldn’t we open with something a little bit less controversial?’

Maurice tried to let Alastair’s calm, logical voice soothe his nerves.

‘And I agree with Maurice about the likely audience thing, too,’ Alastair continued. ‘If someone’s sitting there enjoying a latte, you can’t just march up to them and tell them they’re going to burn in hell for being a woofter.’

‘Not everyone who likes frothy coffee is gay, Alastair,’ said Harrison, putting on a gruff voice that Alastair found hopelessly sensual, and glancing nervously at his latte. Alastair crossed his legs, hummed and folded his hands in his lap. Harrison was becoming conspicuous for bringing the newly-fashionable steaming café lattes into every meeting, and he had begun to wonder whether this habit was undermining his credibility as a biblical scholar. He huffed again.

‘What are you looking at?’ he barked at Alastair.

‘You’ve got foam on your lip,’ breathed Alastair, gesturing oh-so-delicately at Harrison’s mouth. Harrison blushed and quickly wiped it away.

‘Right,’ said Maurice, firmly. ‘So we aren’t going to use Leviticus 18:22. And we can’t use the cat poem, I’m afraid. No, Michael – don’t look at me like that, we can’t, I’m sorry. So. Let’s keep thinking.’

They went back to work, flicking through passages familiar and unfamiliar; Michael glancing resentfully at Harrison, Alastair glancing longingly at Harrison, Maurice pretending to read but too resentful and frustrated to see any of the words. He began to wonder if there was a point to any of this. This was 1994, after all – the Bible wasn’t new. Surely by now, most people were reasonably familiar with the basic message of the Bible? And if they weren’t coming to church, what could a few postcards and some unsolicited advice really do? What was left for them to try? He surreptitiously took out one of the nice biscuits and munched it thoughtfully.

Eventually Alastair spoke up, excited but cautious, like an archaeologist unearthing a delicate find that still might crumble before it saw the light.

‘I think… I think I’ve found something,’ he said.

‘What have you got, Alastair?’ said Maurice, barely daring to hope. He was almost coming round to the idea of Christopher Smart. Maybe there was something in the cat poem after all.

But then Alastair began to read aloud.

And he had been reading Job. Of course. How had Maurice forgotten Job, to whom God had spoken directly in his suffering?

Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds

that abundance of waters may cover thee?

*

Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts

or who hath given understanding to the heart?

What could be more apposite? Job was the one whom God, on a whim, had stripped bare of all his good fortune, his family, his possessions, all the contentment that supposedly makes belief easy. Job was the one whom God had stripped naked. And in return, God had bared himself to the man – as much as he was ever going to bare himself to anyone, anyway – answering Job’s questions with typical indirectness, not giving answers but more questions.

Maurice was thrilled. For comic relief, Michael had wanted to include the verse in which God told Job to ‘Gird up thy loins now like a man: / I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me,’ but the others decided against this, unsure if most people would appreciate the humour, and afraid that it might send the wrong message about what they were trying to achieve.

Maurice beamed at Alastair and shook his hand. He didn’t realise until a moment later that he had done this exactly the way his father, old Mr Nyemaka, had shaken his own hand years ago when he had gained admission to medical school.

‘Thank you, Alastair,’ he said, as though he had been saved. ‘Thank you.’

*

And so it was that, as Joanie was recuperating in Bertie’s one afternoon after a particularly gruelling supervision, four men walked in from Huntingdon Road. They all fanned out, with the exception of Alastair, who tried, unsuccessfully, to stay inconspicuously close to Harrison. Joanie had seen them before but had never been this close, and she watched them with a keen but wary fascination.

It was Harrison she saw first, nervously trying to pretend he was an ordinary patron of the café. He had a theory that it put people at ease to see them ordering coffees, cakes and biscuits as though they had no agenda and their evangelism was entirely spontaneous. None of the others subscribed to this theory because it made them feel like the agendas (which they certainly did have) were somehow sinister, and needed to be hidden. And anyway, nine times out of ten, when Harrison approached a stranger and began steering the conversation, inexorably, towards a certain passage in Leviticus, people tended to feel that they had been cruelly deceived by this feverish-looking man who only a moment ago had been contentedly sipping his frothy coffee and minding his own sodding business.

But it was his discontent that caught Joanie’s eye: although she didn’t know about Alastair’s passing comment about the relationship between homosexuality and frothy coffee, she could clearly see that Harrison was on edge. From her seat in the corner, Joanie watched him sip from the huge, unwieldy bowl of a cup. She watched him gingerly turn it around in its saucer as though it were a new territory whose perimeters he must examine. She watched him sniff suspiciously at the cinnamon shaker before guiltily tipping some over his drink. She watched him paw fastidiously at his upper lip, nervously wiping away a phantom foam moustache every few seconds.

It was like watching a pantomime: each expression was magnified to the point of parody. He looked around nervously as though he were being secretly filmed: maybe the whole thing was a honey trap, and a net might descend on him at any moment, hoisting him up, red-handed, to the ceiling, for all the quietly gender-normative coffee-drinkers to see…

As soon as he finished his latte (his face declared), he would hunt down the nancy responsible for this unmanly act of deliciousness, and give them a piece of his mind. He’d talk to them loudly about football, then down a pint of stout before going home to walk around his living room in football boots and a string vest.

As soon as he finished his latte.

Joanie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Men put so much time and energy into this kind of show, but then they tried so hard to make it all seem natural and easy. It was like the appearance of a swan above water, or Michael Flatley above the waist.

Some men were different, of course. Like the man at the table next to Harrison’s, who had quite happily asked for a shot of caramel on top of his coffee and could they give him a napkin and maybe did they have some sprinkles behind the counter? But it seemed as if most men spent their entire lives like the man with the big cup of coffee, fiercely guarding something infinitely delicate, hunched over a chrysalis. How could anyone live like that? Joanie wanted to stand up, she wanted to walk around!

She wanted to duck under the table and hide.

Three students came in with the lunchtime rush, the ends of their college scarves flying heroically behind them. She only knew the faces of the first two, but the third man she knew much more intimately. It was none other than Cliff Cummings: he of the trapped wind. He of the gonorrhoea – he of the chlamydia – he of the allergy to latex. And polyisoprene. And handjobs.

From her vantage point in the corner, Joanie scowled. The men and their scarves loitered smugly by the door, chuckling to themselves about something, she couldn’t hear what. They were probably laughing at Maths. Or telling each other riddles in Elvish.

Once again Joanie found herself wondering why she had ever got involved a man who could process neither carbohydrates nor social cues. Naturally she hadn’t spoken to him since she came back from the gynaecologist, preferring instead to commune with the burning sensation when she weed which, she felt, gave her the focus and determination required to avoid such a persistent man in such a small town.

But now he and his friends and their scarves were here, in her café, lingering smugly by the door. Why were they even here? Was nowhere safe? And now that they were, what was she to do? She couldn’t leave without bumping into him, but if she stayed she would be thrown mercilessly to the Christians. They would sense her harlotry and tell her that sex was dirty and sinful, and in her current state of mind she would be powerless to argue.

What to do?

She didn’t have time to make up her mind. Before she could move, a man was walking purposefully towards her.

She could have seen him anyway, anytime – she would have known he was one of them, a Christian. Even before she read the back of the postcard, she could tell what it was about, from the way he gave it to her. So forthright and determined. As though he were handing it to her in spite of some unspoken protest she might have made; as though she was bound to reject him, and as though he would have done the same.

‘Excuse me – can I give you this?’

She could hardly say ‘no’… She took it and read it. It was handwritten. On one side there was a faded picture of King’s College Chapel; on the other was a quote she had seen somewhere:

Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades,

or loose the bands of Orion?

‘Excuse me?’ said the man.

‘I said, I’ve seen this,’ said Joanie.

‘Yes, it’s from the Bible,’ he said.

‘Yes, I know. That’s where I’ve seen it,’ she said.

Bible bashers. She’d seen her fair share. They always assumed that because she didn’t believe in God, much less rave about him in the streets, she must be at least a little stupid. But one fortnight, last summer, she had read the Books of Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Job. Her mother had balked and called her perverse, but it was really nothing so energetic. It was more like scepticism mixed with curiosity. That summer, in those pages, she had wanted to see God – and she had seen him clearly enough, albeit through narrowed eyes. Who was this man to presume otherwise?

And yet, while she was thinking this – it all passed in a few seconds – his handsomeness crept up on her. Maurice, although very good-looking, had a certain severity in the natural set of his features, making him seem rather forbidding at first. Until he smiled, it was hard to be sure that he was capable of smiling at all. But when Joanie told him that she had read the quotation before, he smiled so warmly that something made her want to talk to him more; to test him.

The café was cramped at this time of day and people were awkwardly sharing tables with strangers, positioning their legs this way and that way to make clear where one group ended and another began. Out of the corner of her eye Joanie saw Cliff and his friends sit down, reluctantly, next to the man with the phantom moustache. Emboldened by the certainty that Cliff must have seen her too, she turned fully to Maurice and decided that she might as well give Cliff something to look at.

‘I’ve read this before,’ she said. Suddenly, she thought he might take the postcard back and move on, but in fact he seemed more interested in her than before.

‘Are you already a churchgoer?’ he said, oddly specifically. He’s done this before, Joanie thought. If he had asked her if she was a Christian, she could have smugly said no, daring him to ask the source of her mysterious Biblical knowledge. She could have brandished the randomness of her literary curiosity like a secret superpower; instead he had asked her whether she went to church, at which she had to frown, admit defeat and say,

‘Nnn…no,’ she said.

‘Lapsed?’

‘I wasn’t raised as a Christian or anything.’

Maurice cocked his head and smiled.

‘I’m just curious, I suppose,’ she said.

‘Yes… Yes, you are.’

Presumptuous. But with such a lovely smile, perhaps his presumption was correct.

And how much had Cliff seen? Almost involuntarily Joanie’s eyes flicked back to him. She saw him, still chuckling with his friends. But before, they had been ignoring the man at the table; now it was him they were laughing at. At first she couldn’t quite hear what was being said, but then she made out the word ‘woofter’ – and she knew something was wrong. Maurice followed her eyes to where Harrison sat, besieged by Mathematicians. He could see that trouble was brewing, but… well. Harrison had probably earned it.

‘“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination”?’ drawled an incredulous, stubbornly atheist and now very loud Cliff, the words themselves barely distinguishable above the public-school whine of vowel. ‘Why are you telling me that?’

‘It’s the word of God,’ said Harrison, flicking at his upper lip again, suddenly conscious of the fact that the cinnamon from his coffee might be sitting, accusatorily, beneath his nose. And that the cinnamon was brown.

‘Yes,’ said Cliff, ‘but didn’t God ever say anything else? Why are you people always talking about sex? And anal sex, too! Do you have to keep banging the bum-drum?’

‘I just think that –’

‘And why do you keep fussing with your upper lip? Have you got some kind of twitch?’ Cliff narrowed his eyes and said, in a deadpan voice, ‘Are you a pervert?’

‘No, I am not a pervert –’

‘Bloody Christians!’ drawled Cliff’s friend in a confident, plush tenor. He had noticed Maurice when they came in – had noticed Joanie talking to Maurice now – and was eyeballing the two of them as he spoke. ‘Why do you always have to make everything about sex? And bumsex! Perverts, the lot of you! Bloody put me off my hash browns.’

‘How come?’ asked the other friend. ‘Fancy a sausage instead now, do you?’

‘Shut up, Beefy,’ said the first friend to the second, inexplicably nicknamed ‘Beefy’.

‘Oh, come on, Artie, you know you like it up the arse of a Tuesday lunchtime. Cheer up: maybe Latte Boy can sort you out. Just give him a minute to wipe off his last poo-moustache.’

Harrison, mortified, was powerless as the three of them descended into guffaws, nudging each other and grinning and saying some very unkind things about ‘hot milk’.

Did he have cinnamon on his lip after all? He desperately wanted to wipe it again, but if they saw him it would be like an admission of guilt. And where was a serviette?

‘Shouldn’t you do something?’ said Joanie to Maurice. She wasn’t particularly enamoured of either Christians or maths students, but she thought at least most Christians had met women before deciding they were worthless.

‘I think he needs to learn,’ said Maurice.

‘Learn what?’

At exactly that moment, Joanie saw another of the Christians, a tall man with large arms and a determined expression, step into the fray. It was the man from the next table, the one who’d asked for sprinkles.

‘I think you ought to leave this man alone,’ said Alastair.

‘Who are you?’ said Cliff, hurling the challenge at him. ‘His boyfriend?’

Having made a dramatic entrance, Alastair paused to review the situation into which he had entered, and to consider his options:

  • He could pretend to be Harrison’s boyfriend. But that was probably a dead end, as Harrison would never corroborate the story.
  • He could admit that he would like to be Harrison’s boyfriend, but that, too, was problematic (he hadn’t decided whether this was exactly true).
  • He could ignore Cliff’s question and defend Harrison dispassionately, on moral grounds. This was probably the most pragmatic course of action, but defending Harrison Tucker on moral grounds was a task, he knew, of Herculean proportions.

Alastair folded his considerable arms across his chest. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We’re friends.’

‘I am not your friend,’ said Harrison, who was down but not quite out.

‘I don’t like bullies,’ said Alastair.

‘Oh,’ said Beefy, spying an easy target. ‘We know what you like.’

Beefy looked at Alastair.

Alastair looked at Beefy.

Now it was personal. Now it wasn’t just about Harrison: Harrison was strong-minded and contemplative in Bible study meetings but right now, he was just a stuck-up closet-case with a peachy arse. Now it was about standing his ground.

Joanie’s heart went out to him, the man who’d asked for sprinkles. He was completely himself, so honest and brave. She wanted to be brave – she wanted to shame Cliff, to stand up and denounce him as the wilful disseminator of lies and venereal diseases that she knew him to be. But then everybody would know…

Alastair planted his feet and placed his hand firmly on the back of Harrison’s chair.

‘You like him, don’t you?’ sneered Cliff, like a boy who’d found a newt in the school pond and brought into the playground to dangle in front of girls. It wasn’t his own disgust that interested him: he wanted to elicit Alastair’s, to shame him publicly.

It was like the showdown-scene in a Western: time stood still. A woman froze while feeding the soup of the day to her infant son and, perhaps sensing the onset of a monologue, she covered his ears. A newly-trained barista hovered close by, a ginseng-vanilla infusion quivering in her hands.

(Meanwhile, in the corner: Joanie and Maurice, trapped; innocent by disassociation; God and desire naked before them.)

‘He’s alright,’ said Alastair.

‘Just ‘alright’?’ asked Cliff, sarcastically gesturing towards Harrison with both hands like a used car salesman. ‘Is that all?’ Beefy snorted; but Alastair was still trying to decide; and Harrison was looking at Alastair – what? – desperately.

‘He’s alright,’ said Alastair, again.

It was with the discomfort of someone who has found more than he set out to find that Cliff stood up.

‘I’ve got a choir rehearsal in twenty minutes. I’m getting out of here before the whole bloody gay mafia descends.’ After a moment, Beefy followed with Art in tow, disappointed at the anti-climax. Cliff scowled at Joanie once before he left. The lady with the soup of the day allowed herself to exhale. Her baby son clapped enthusiastically, the ginseng-vanilla infusion came in to land, and Alastair handed Harrison a napkin.

‘Why did you have to do that? What the hell is wrong with you?’ said Harrison, shaking his head.

‘The same thing that’s wrong with you, I suppose,’ said Alastair, who had, by now, more or less made up his mind.

‘Would you like to have coffee?’ said Maurice.

‘Somewhere else?’ asked Joanie.

‘Yes.’

‘Yes.’

 

Okey Nzelu read English at Cambridge and was employed at Carcanet Press before working as a teacher. 
‘Sweet Influences’ is adapted from the opening of his unpublished first novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney.

 

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