The priest leans forward, asking, "am I your mate, then?"
Cockily I reply, "whatever! Sure, you can call me Bran; shit, anyone who has the direct line to him upstairs can call me whatever the bollocks they like." I pause, remembering whom I'm with and add, "sorry, Father, excuse my language, my mother says I have a potty mouth."
For a while Ergrid regards me, his dark eyes unmoving, "where are you heading, Bran?"
"End of the line, Father, end of the line. You?" I say.
Clickity-clack-clickity-clack, creak groan, the outside temporarily lit by blinding, electric flashes from damp on the line. Ergrid reaches in his pocket and brings out a small leather pouch, deftly rolls a cigarette and proffering it, asks, "smoke?"
I smile, taking the neatly rolled offering and say, "yeah, why not, I'll smoke with you Father ... like a communion..." I regrets the words as soon as they come out of my mouth.
Ergrid stops rolling his cigarette and looking up, says, "not really – some might say that's blasphemy, you know?" He takes out a lighter and as he reaches across to light me, I notice a tattoo on his wrist, a neat script that says, 'The Devil makes work for idle hands.'
I comment, "nice ink Father, though I can't believe those hands are ever idle."
Ergrid gives a strange chuckle, replying, "oh Bran, you can be sure of that, they never are." He pauses a moment, "I wasn't always a priest, you know." He takes a long drag, slowly exhaling, the smoke rolling around his face. Clickity-clack,-clickity-clack. "Though there's really no reason why a priest can't have tattoos, is there?"
I really need to pee; I feel like I have a red-hot cannon ball sitting in my lap. I drag deeply and squirm about a bit and by way of conversation say, "so, Father, do you believe in God?"
Ergrid raises his eyes, a puzzled expression, he says, "sure now, what sort of fecking question is that to ask a priest, of course I do; what would be the use otherwise?"
I counter, "don't you ever have any doubts about it all?"
"About what, in particular?" he queries, brushing some ash from his jacket sleeve.
I feel a little silly, like I've started something I shouldn't have, but I think, 'fuck-it' after I get off this train I'll never see him again so what does it really matter? I push on, "well, life, death the afterlife, you know, all that crud." I like adding the word 'crud' I want to see if I can irritate him a little.
Ergrid is impassive, long practiced at parrying religious arguments and replies, "crud, eh?" then carries on, a philosophical tone to his voice, "hm, well you seem, maybe to coming at this in too generalised a position. I mean, you can't really argue something unspecific, not so it makes any sense, anyhow. You see, rather than say, ask about life and death, which after all is somewhat subjective, you could ask: what is my life in the context of the here and now? Two men, a late train and a journey. You're a young man who's been out for a few drinks; you have a job, a home and good life, you're confident. So, given that you have what you have, where do you think all that comes from?"
Head down, I push, "Well if there's a God why is there so much suffering..."
Interrupting me, Ergrid, fends my words away, saying, "you're going to have to do better than that, for feck's sake. Why is it that when people want to challenge God they come up with that old bollocks? Suffering is part of life, just like storms, famine, drought, and disease, and by contrast love, sunshine, laughter, cool fresh water: you cannot have one without the other. The world has been made to exist in a balance of states. Think about it a minute. If everything were perfect all the time, no one would strive to make anything new happen; we'd all be like great big needy babies suckling from the teat of happiness. That's not life, that's just crap. God wants something that makes us sit up and experience; feel life is dangerous, a challenge, that you must get up and make things happen. Then that's where people like me come in, because that's not easy. In fact, it's challenging, which is why so many people lose their way, have no faith. People just like you, Bran."
I reply, "I've got faith, faith in me!"
Ergrid leans back, his voice softening, "well then, that's kind of the same thing, isn't it? If you had no faith in yourself, you'd be a useless fecker and no good to anyone; it's your self-belief and confidence that makes you who you are, and that is God."
I don't want to leave it there, and add, "man, you're just saying stuff that makes it fit, twisting things. Truth is, I don't believe in God; I don't go to church; I don't give a shit about any of that."
Ergrid remains calm, a twinkle in his dark eyes. "But despite all that you're a good man. A little feckless maybe, but you are a good man. Would I be right when I say that? I mean you're not out killing people, causing mayhem and the like, now. You get up and do good in your own way, and that's all it takes to be a child of God. He'd like for you to show a little more gratitude, to strive to be better, do more, but he's a realist."
I see an opening and say, "how do you know it's a he?"
He replies, "I don't and it doesn't matter, it's just a human context, is all."
I scoff a little, "you make it all sound so easy, an answer for everything."
He says, "You know, when you boil it down to basic principles, it is easy, isn't it?" He leans forward a little, his elbows on his knees, hands clasped together, adding, "see if you think about it in the strict context of your life and who you are, why if you had to meet him now, you'd be ready, wouldn't you?"
Confusion floods my mind, I ask, "what do you mean, meet him?"
He gets up and comes to sit opposite me, lowers his voice, almost conspiratorially saying, "well, say your life ended right here and now: you'd be ready, wouldn't you?"
I feel a cold chill run down my spine. the train lurches, a bright flash of electricity from outside. He leans back, laughing.
For the first time in my life I think about my death in a meaningful context. I shake my head and say, "I don't know about all that, never given it a thought, you know death, the afterlife."
He replies, "so, you think there is an afterlife, do you?"
"I guess, not sure. But, why the hell not!"
He folds his arms, his face serious, "so, you say you don't believe in God but there is an afterlife, isn't that a paradox?"
I say, "why should an afterlife have anything to do with God? I mean, it could be anything." For a moment I try to think of a tangent argument but nothing comes to me and feebly I add, "maybe we're not even real."
I can see the disappointment in his eyes, "now you're going away with the fairies, so you are, and I thought you were more intelligent than that, Brandon."
The stops at stations had come and gone and the distraction of Ergrid's words had diverted my attention from my need to pee, but the urgency was still there and I knew that soon I'd have to go. He rolls another cigarette for us, takes out a small hip flask, offering it. I decline as the thought of liquid makes me want to let go right there and then, but eventually need overcame embarrassment and I say.
"I really need to pee, Father. I had to rush to get my train and didn't have time to go. I'm sorry but I'm going to have to lower the window and, well you know..."
He smiles, saying, "ah, don't you worry now, far be it from me to object to the force of nature. I'll move over to the end here and turn away for a minute, you carry on now."
Blessedly relieved, as I get up I cast my gaze heavenward to give a small word of thanks and then freeze. In the luggage rack above my head is a carrier bag and peering from a small hole in the bottom a glassy dead eye, the pupil blown wide open as in a terrified plea and I mutter, "oh God..."
In the blink of an eye, Ergrid is upon me, the glinting flash of a cutthroat razor passing across my neck, and I hear him shout... "are you ready Brandon?"
Away back in the station the vagrant sits, head back, leaning against the cold tiled wall of the tunnel, his eyes closed and in his hand a Rosary his fingers deftly worrying the beads and visible on his wrist a neat tattoo – 'The Devil makes work for idle hands'.