Collared Dove asks: What is this? What is this? What is this? Wood Pigeon teaches: You'll find no answer. You'll find no answer. You'll find no answer. None.
For the past 3 years I have been in email correspondence with a man from war-torn Yemen. He first got in touch with me after he came across an article I wrote supporting refugees. Since then I’ve gradually got to know and trust him. A few days ago, he told me that he likes to go ‘dog watering’ – he’s been taking water to stray dogs in order to keep them alive.
It’s a dangerous thing to do. There are gangsters in the streets, as well as landmines, stray bullets and bomb-dropping aircraft. Because the local water mains have been broken by bombing, all the water this family use has to be carried from a well. He worries about his young wife and son when he is out and they worry about him. Despite all this he has kept doing it. Many of the locals, who don’t treat the dogs at all well, sometimes deliberately hurting them, ridicule him for caring. But still he does it because it is important to him to keep his humanity intact.
I was so moved when I found out about this. His family have very little to eat, much of the time he’s hungry and he’s really worried that his tiny son isn’t getting enough food and vitamins. Many children have died of malnutrition because of the war. Although he’s a qualified English teacher (and believes incidentally in the education of girls) there’s no paid work because the exiled Yemeni government has stopped paying its employees. Yet despite all these worries he still cares about the dogs. As you probably know Yemen is a very poor, hot, dry, country. Fortunately, there is a reliable way to send a little money direct to him using Western Union. If you are moved by this story and might like to help, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A short story.
Davie, lies inert on the raised hospice bed and takes what he knows will be his last breath. His tattered lungs scarcely inflate at all, his emaciated body feels almost two dimensional now. He remains conscious, aware of many close friends and family crammed up close around the bed, aware they think him unconscious and that they are waiting anxiously for his next breath. But he knows he has no energy left for this, that it will soon be over … and he feels profound relief. His lungs have earnt this rest. His faithful heart too can stop soon … and this incessant thinking. Tired to his core, he lets go, surrendering into the oblivion he once feared, but now looks forward to, as an eternal, featureless, peace.
He is drifting now. He can hear their silent sobbing, the occasional muffled sniff as they listen in strained hope. He can feel the squeeze of his dear wife’s hand in his but can no longer respond.
Outside the room the corridors and waiting areas are packed with white, tear stained faces, respectful whispering. The hospice say they’ve never had such a reaction, the phone has been ringing non-stop. So many, it seems, would like one final chance, one last audience, one last sight of him, to say goodbye, and thank you. Reporters wait outside the building. Others prepare adulant obituaries for the news.
But Davie doesn’t care about any of that any more. He observes the releasing rest that starts to saturate his body, irreversibly. Yes, he’s glad to let go, at last, exhausted, spent, peaceful …
He wakes, incorporeal, in a scene of stunning brightness. A man, in long soft robes, is sitting on a comfortable throne and looking towards him. Beside the man on a small shimmering table is a large book and a huge key. Everything is translucent, both here and not here. Behind the man are some shining gates and through and beyond them he can see a scene, a scene … an exquisite scene so elating and sublimely beautiful he cannot take it in. The shining gates frame it, they are silver, grey-white … they are made of pearl, he realises.
He is flooded with astonishment and remains in a state of paralysed suspension that seems beyond both time and space – perhaps it’s for minutes, perhaps eons, he has no way of telling. He tries to understand, yet it seems beyond comprehension. All his life he’s been a confirmed atheist, convinced that all talk of an afterlife, and of heaven, was just fairy-tale nonsense – manufactured to give people false reassurance of immortality and ultimate purpose. Yet here he is now … at the very pearly gates he has so long thought absurd.
The man on the throne is sitting patiently, still looking towards him.
Eventually Davie manages to speak: “… Saint Peter, I presume?” His voice silent, inside a head he no longer has, yet nonetheless apparently audible to Saint Peter, who nods gently, with the slightest of movements.
“Is this … heaven?
Saint Peter nods again and points between the pearly gates behind him. Once again Davie tries to take in the scene through the gates. He cannot bear to look, yet somehow knows the essence of it. Does he remember? It is tranquil, beyond sorrow, an immersion in pure love and boundaryless beauty. He feels a relieving swell of joy and moves forwards, towards the gates … “May I?”
Only then, in searching Saint Peter’s face for permission does he notice his eyes. They are large, kindly, deep, and oh so sad. Saint Peter shakes his head slowly, but unmistakeably.
Davie feels suddenly cold, shocked now to the core. He can’t believe this. “You know who I am?”
Saint Peter nods again. His face is all knowing.
“But … but I got the Nobel peace prize … I campaigned successfully for significant social reforms, I’ve given generously to charities, the poor and the needy … I’ve always been there for my family, for my friends … I am sure they are mourning me now. No-one has a bad word to say about me … I don’t think I have any enemies … “ He breaks off, suddenly aware of his defensiveness and hubris … two traits he has fought all his life to transcend, painfully aware too of the compelling ongoing sadness in St Peter’s eyes and his continued silence.
… “Well what is it? What more could I have done?” His voice breaking now, with an unfamiliar shrillness. Still he can’t believe this is happening.
Saint Peter stares into the distance: “I’m sorry, Davie.” He says quietly at last. His voice soft.
“But … but … why? Is it because I didn’t believe in, that I doubted … Christ?”
“No, it isn’t that. I too floundered in that.”
“Why … why then?”
Saint Peter stays silent for another agonising period whilst Davie’s soul fills up with terror. “Almost everyone fails at these gates. Here is the absolute test of purity. Only souls so pure that they do not need to be reminded to be moral by memories and instructions, only those that have lost all selfishness, those that have been honed through countless cycles of immersion in suffering may enter.” He pauses and looks down at the ground “You did … quite well but … but you still have … so far to go.”
Davie waits in stunned silence.
“You lived in an expensive house.” Davie nods reluctantly. “Quite expensive – but I earnt the money myself.” He still feels compelled to argue, despite mounting despair.
“You went on expensive holidays, always ate well, went to fine restaurants, had several expensive cars, enjoyed many luxuries …”
“… Yes, but I was always careful to acknowledge how fortunate I was … and you do need some relief in order to keep going with the work. Some reward and respite … ” His voice trails off as he notices Saint Peter looking at him levelly with his sad, sad, eyes.
Then slowly and with supreme tenderness Saint Peter continues: “throughout your life many people, including children, died of starvation and preventable illness … people you could have saved by taking less for yourself … do you want me to give you numbers?”
And now he can no longer bear it and impulsively shakes his head. He knows it to be true. Somewhere he has always been aware of his hypocrisy, though he had started to believe that he had done alright.
The light is growing dimmer now and the pearly gates and all behind them are fading fast. He is falling, falling, through a hole in the non-existent ground, it is all dreadfully familiar.
He is manifesting physically again, remembering nothing. This time he’s somewhere in Africa, in a country at war and with an enduring famine. He re-enters at the point where the sperm from a rapist, his father, is meeting an egg from his mother, a malnourished 13-year-old.
So here's a tricky paradigm: There ain't such a thing as continuous time. No common clock, or steady flow. It's relative, granular, stoccato. Time has no time for common sense, and with motion, or mass, will stretch, or condense. We don't even share the present moment, which for some is to come, for others - long spent. Time flows faster for mountaineers, and our feet are younger than our ears. It slows for the hare and speeds for the tortoise ... or so the physicists have taught us.
We should be heartened by the resignation of Amber Rudd over the windrush debacle. Perhaps too, effective pressure may be brought to bear for Theresa May to resign. But however welcome individual resignations may be let us not be fooled into thinking that this will resolve the problem. It isn’t so much individuals that need to change but the whole system.
The windrush generation is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless other examples of cruelties perpetrated by a Home Office that is rotten to the core and and the only thing that will really change things would be its root and branch reformation.
Here are just a few examples of its cruelty:
- Routinely returning people to their home countries when there is clear evidence to suggest that they will be tortured, raped or killed if they are returned (and later documentary evidence that this actually happened).
- People dying as a direct result of brutality during the process of their deportation.
- Imprisoning people who have committed no criminal offence, including (still) children, indefinitely and without charge. Britain is the only European country to do this and has one of the largest ‘detention estates’.
- Gross miscarriages of justice and a culture of disbelief and hostility.
- Unaccompanied children who have fled to this country and been looked after by us, sometimes for many years, having their ‘status’ removed when they reach 18.
- Kafkaesque bureaucracy and inefficiency.
- Uncounted numbers of people who are left stateless, often for many years, without rights to benefits, healthcare, legal aid, or permission to work.
For more detail and evidence on all this (and what I think should be done) see my paper: An Analysis UK Cruelty Towards Asylum Seekers and what should be done about it.
This is a rare opportunity to begin the much needed process of reforming the whole system and Sajid Javid has a huge task on his hands. But we must keep up the pressure on him and successive governments to ensure that any changes that follow his appointment are deep rooted rather than cosmetic.
Magpies, kites, seagulls ... flying through the dawn-toned sky: hello and goodbye.
Let go now, ego. The strands you've tried to weave with: haven't any ends.