Those who maintained that Dr. Foster’s demise was the result of a pact he’d made with the devil were, quite frankly, mistaken...
THE COMEDY OF DOCTOR FOSTER
Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain,
He fell in a puddle
up to his middle
And never went there again.
Those who maintained that Dr. Foster’s demise was the result of a pact he’d made with the devil were, quite frankly, mistaken. They were members of the congregation of St. Joseph’s Church, Wittenberg, Ontario, and they had cause to remember Dr. Foster with some alarm. But the people of St. Joseph’s didn’t know everything, or even—with the exception of the rector—very much at all. As they said, “There’s no smoke without a fire”—but it wasn’t hell-fire that Foster was involved with.
It’s as well to set down the facts. Foster was not on his way to Gloucester but merely to Toronto. It wasn’t raining at the time but had been one of those days in mid-summer when warm sun alternated with violent thunderstorms, and it had rained shortly before he set out. The “puddle” was one of those insignificant rivers one finds along the 401, and in which Foster’s car had landed after going out of control. He died instantly, and thus not only did he never go to Gloucester—Toronto—again, he never even reached it. His name, however, certainly was Foster: John Foster, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
The rhyme? Well, some malicious person scrawled it on the wall of St. Joseph’s the day before the funeral, and it was later suggested as a fitting epigraph for Foster’s tombstone. For Foster will never be forgotten by that long-suffering congregation, whose only option over the years had been to show Christian endurance towards the man. The obituary notice in The Wittenberg Torch stirred up further animosities.
“Written by one of his colleagues,” Major Austin told everyone he met: “praising the originality of his thought or something. Which only goes to show the preposterous ideas that are taught to young people nowadays. I read it until I got to the part about Foster being an expert on Nitchy.” (He meant Nietzsche.) “Nitchy, I ask you!”
The remark fell flat, as nobody else, except for the rector, was sure who Nietzsche, or Nitchy, was.
Twenty-four years earlier, when Foster had first come to the nearby university, he’d already had a reputation as a scholar. He also published novels, under a different name, and was a competent amateur artist too. (“Something must have gone wrong since,” the rector’s wife would later say. “Even I could paint better than that.”)
In those early years, as a few old-timers remembered, Foster had been one of the pillars of the community and of St. Joseph’s in particular. True, he had his oddities. Then in his fifties, he was divorced and so not quite respectable. He read books that couldn’t be approved of. He showed a singular indifference to the niceties of parish behaviour by attending church in baggy trousers and a jacket with patches on the elbows, and those who sat near him maintained he ostentatiously left out certain sentences from the Creed. But he attended regularly, and no one paid much him attention.
And then it started: in the summer of 1960 to be exact, twenty-two years before Foster’s death. He was looked after by a Mrs. Wignall, who came to clean for him twice a week. No harm there, for she was a good soul and likewise a respectable member of St. Joseph’s. But suddenly she fell sick, and Foster used that as an excuse to replace her. By a blond creature, a foreigner, in her twenties or younger, and with a figure... well, the male members of St. Joseph’s would, in their jocular, broad-minded moods, describe it with whistles. What’s more, she lived in. Now no one could prove anything. But they talked and shook their heads. Some even sniggered. Only they couldn’t interrogate the girl directly, or have the pleasure of snubbing her, because she didn’t come to church at all—and Foster, when tackled discreetly on the subject, laughed the whole thing off. But already there were murmurs about such things being a threat to the moral fibre of the community.
Actually, the rector met the girl and reported that she was charming, intelligent, and seemed happy working for Foster—and refused to speculate further on their relationship. Others were dissatisfied, saying the rector wasn’t sufficiently on guard against sin. (That was the old one, of course—there have been two more since—but all of them for some reason stood up for Foster, even when it became obvious to everyone else that he was an evil man.) Anyway, later that year the girl was obviously pregnant. Foster seemed cheerfully unrepentant and just answered “yes” when someone asked him about it. No shame at all, and now people started avoiding him even in church, which he didn’t seem to mind.
The girl finally went away somewhere, and never returned. Foster carried on as usual, or rather, worse than usual. It was one thing to live in sin with an outsider whom nobody really cared about, but quite another to seduce the organist’s wife. Oh, the affair didn’t last long and the stupid woman soon went back in tears to her husband, but the effect on the congregation was shattering. The more so because even after her husband took her back in loving forgiveness she refused to show repentance or to say a bad word about Foster. She seemed almost willing to run to him again and, for all the wrong he’d done her, to offer him the other cheek (or whatever part of the anatomy was involved).
It was now that Foster began to get objectionable. He’d always sworn a little. Now he swore a lot. He pretended there was no such thing as “good” or “bad” language (except when it was ungrammatical): just that certain language was appropriate for some contexts and not for others. When someone objected that swearing was morally reprehensible because it took the name of the Lord God in vain, he countered by asking why it was all right to say “my God!” or “heavens!” and not “Christ!” or “Jesus!”; or why, in Spanish, even an archbishop could use Christ, the Virgin Mary and all the saints thrown in as a simple expression of surprise, which no one took amiss. When someone else claimed that swearing reduced everything to the unpleasant aspects of life, he asked what was unpleasant about shitting and fucking, adding that he enjoyed both.
“It’s not the meaning people are afraid of,” he’d explain as though the worthy members of St. Joseph’s were mere students, “but the sound of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is nothing but magic: belief in the power of the word.”
Foster didn’t swear indiscriminately, rejecting this as debasing the vitality of the language, which had to be used with precision. He did indeed swear with precision. He was vulgar with precision. Called things by their names with precision. Once in church, after a piece of unusual metaphysical nonsense in the rector’s sermon, farted with precision.
He told Constance Nightingale, a neurotic
spinster in her forties, to take her pants down and have an affair. Then, worst of all, he seduced the seventeen-year-old daughter of one of the tediously married sidesmen. He became a problem. The rector couldn’t turn him away from St. Joseph’s and in any case was convinced the church was for sinners rather than the righteous (a sincere if naive man, the rector). And over the next two years Foster had even greater success.
“St. Joseph’s is becoming a congregation of cuckolds,” Major Austin commented with his usual bluntness—causing the rector, the only one who knew that Joseph was actually the patron saint of cuckolds, to suppress an inappropriate chuckle.
Before Foster’s break with the church the majority of the congregation had come to hate him. They could have forgiven him nice, respectable sins. They could perhaps have forgiven a certain sexual licence, provided it were discrete, as a kind of childish last fling before he entered his golden years (or old age, as he indelicately called it). What they couldn’t forgive was his threatening all their cherished ideas.
“Of course I’m a threat,” he would roar. “Why is it that Christians have to be so goddamn dull? Do you think Christ wanted a religion of ass-sitters? I’m more Christian than all of you. Read Kierkegaard!”
“Kierke-who?” asked Major Austin, who was deaf. “Is he swearing again?”
More offensive than anything was the fact that Foster was so obviously enjoying himself. Whereas the others were supposed to be living in God’s grace, it was Foster who was happy; Foster who, they said, couldn’t really believe in religion at all.
Why did he come to church? The answer was supplied by the eighteen-year-old son of the Harrisons. A pleasant couple, but their son had “got” religion and had recently written a letter to the "Torch" saying he was seriously disturbed about the moral standards of the community because a strip-tease was being performed in one of the local hotels. Anyway, he’d just entered theological school in the university and thought he knew everything.
“Obviously,” he said, “Foster must have sold his soul to the devil. And he’s making witches of all his, hm, paramours.”
Now although the idea was ridiculous, there was a spark—a very tiny one—of truth in it. And it caught on because of a comment Foster made the very next Sunday at coffee hour, after the boy who’d got religion started to talk about stories of pacts with the devil.
“That’s all nonsense,” Foster said to the boy with an odd look in his eye. “Have you ever stopped to consider the idiocy of making a pact with the devil? Why the devil? When God is omnipotent, why not ask Him to grant your requests? More effective, and incomparably better as life insurance.”
“Man’s desires are often evil,” said the boy who’d got religion. “God can only work good.”
“That’s simple-minded theology, young man.” Foster was now the serious professor. “God’s omnipotent, the sole source of power. Man cannot limit Him to his own ideas of good and evil, which are hopelessly muddled. God gave man the world to enjoy, and the desire to do so. Won’t God then grant man his desires?”
“Not if they’re evil.”
“Don’t you think that God might grant man’s true desires, for the love of man—rather than this far-fetched devil creature wanting souls to torture? In my experience man’s desires are evil only when they’re petty and short-sighted. But his true desires are no more than the natural demands upon life that God’s given him.”
“So what are they?”
“To experience and know God’s world to the full. To share love with all, both spiritually and sexually... ”
The boy pounced. “Spiritually yes, but sexually no. We’re told to renounce the flesh!”
“Are you sure that’s what Christ tells us?” Foster asked. “He says only that the flesh profiteth nothing—in the sense that human power is helpless as compared with spiritual power. Oh I know that church Christianity has always insisted on the renunciation of human desires as the ultimate virtue. I disagree with the church.”
“But that’s terrible,” twittered Constance Nightingale, who’d just joined them. “How can you possibly disagree with the church?”
Foster didn’t deign to reply.
“Then,” the boy went on, “there’s no such thing as evil?”
Foster reflected. “What’s evil is man’s attachment to pseudo-desires, which seem important only because, unless you have God’s help, they’re easier to achieve. Making money, for its own sake, is a pseudo-desire: the real desire is still for other things, excitement, adventure, security—which in itself is only freedom from fear. If you can have them, your true desires, then money itself is unnecessary. Stealing is similarly evil, because it arises from this pseudo-desire for money. Love of material possessions is evil—didn’t Christ himself say that?—only of course it’s so much easier to flaunt your luxurious houses than to live, which involves risk. Fear can be evil. Love of power over others, violence and murder: all are evil, but again they’re pseudo-desires, to compensate for a lack of love and our wanting just to be recognized by others—whichh we all desire but find difficult to achieve.”
“But stealing other people’s wives?” the boy insisted.
Foster dismissed the objection. “A wife isn’t a possession to be stolen. If you consider sex as wrong, but made permissible by limiting it to couples with property rights over each other, then obviously sex with anyone other than your spouse is wrong too: a position the church has adopted since the days of St. Paul”—Foster walked out of church during certain epistles)—“while ignoring the far more insidious sin of coveting one’s neighbour’s possessions, which our whole advertising industry encourages. If on the other hand you consider sex as a natural, God-given expression of communion and enjoyment, to be shared as Christian love is to be shared—and who would dream of making that exclusive?—then the only ‘wrong’ is the hurt caused to others: but this is based on a human vice, jealousy, which in turn is based on fear.”
A few of the more thoughtful of those present were uncomfortable, but the majority were horrified, particularly the boy who’d got religion. Foster concluded by saying that God united flesh and spirit, was as much at home with paganism as with church Christianity, in both of which there was evil as well as good, and that these ideas could be found in any number of writers too.
“Blasphemy!” Major Austin snorted. “Religious anarchy, sexual anarchy, moral anarchy! Why, if this fellow continues making such a noise about things, he’ll scare everyone away and where will our property values be then?”
“Blasphemy,” echoed Constance Nightingale.
“Rather wicked, don’t you think?”
“Blasphemy,” said the boy who’d got religion. “Can he be excommunicated or something?”
“Blasphemy,” said the rector doubtfully. “I suppose so.”
“He’s obviously in league with the devil,” the boy continued. “Did you notice how he talked about making pacts? I tell you, he’s sold his soul.”
At this period Foster was doing a lot of writing, and painting too. Not many knew about it, because the people of St. Joseph’s didn’t know everything. One might have wondered how he found time to sleep, for his sexual romps continued as usual. And he still taught in the university, where he was adored by his students (even though they found his standards too exacting), loved by some colleagues, who regarded him as a genius, and hated by others, who considered him subversive. His life, it seemed, would burn out from its very intensity, but in fact the opposite was the case: he was in perfect health, tremendously vital, and creating picture after picture, writing page after page.
“Fucking woman after woman,” Major Austin commented.
“Horace!” his wife remonstrated. “You’re not in the army now!”
His ideas, though, did have some influence, so that gradually a group of supporters—mainly younger men and women—grew up around him. The things they perpetrated were beyond belief. Sexual, drunken orgies and obscenities of all kinds. The boy who’d got religion attended a number of Foster’s parties to try to exert his influence to stop them, and reported on all the disgusting details. He asked the congregation to pray for their lost brothers and sisters, and for him too, for all the humiliations he had to endure at Foster’s house. The congregation’s prayers had a positive outcome: the boy was miraculously cured of acne.
And then, insult of insults, this man who’d so impracticably preached on the evils of money suddenly received a great deal of it, from the publication of the first book written under his own name. The novel was outrageous and had an immediate success with the non-discriminating public, which lapped up any kind of perversion. Well, the critics hailed the novel too, and the following year it was put on the Canadian literature course in a number of universities, but the members of St. Joseph’s didn’t know about that. Anyway, with the publication came money. Which to everybody’s consternation Foster spent, frivolously, on his riffraff friends. Nothing, by reliable reports, went into life insurance or pension plans, or into any kind of solid investment. Nothing was given to the Progressive Conservative Party. Foster didn’t even consider improving his house or putting in a swimming pool, which might have raised the tone of the neighbourhood.
“No, they’d only have orgies in the pool then,” Constance Nightingale giggled, to everybody’s surprise.
But then, thank God, Foster went away altogether.
The rector had at last found the courage to ask him to stop coming to church.
Foster understood immediately. “I won’t give you any more trouble, Hugh,” he promised.
The rector grinned. “I’ve never had such an exciting time. Between you and I”—Foster interrupted to correct his grammar—“I get pretty fed up with the triviality of some of them, as you said once.”
“Pissed off were the words I used.”
“Well, er, pissed off, then.”
“I’m going away for a while anyway. I’ll be back, though—you won’t get rid of me entirely.”
The business over, they passed onto other topics, as two friends. But since both were, in different ways, religious, it’s not surprising that religion was a central topic in their conversation. And somehow they started to discuss the nature of heaven.
“Do you want to know what my dream of heaven is?” Foster asked.
The rector nodded.
“I dream first of a cottage, in a clearing in the woods, by a broad river with a sandy beach. With sunlight, not too hot, and no mosquitoes or thorns or things like that.” He gave a smile:
“Because I like woods and rivers, but not the mosquitoes. Or perhaps there’d be mosquitoes only they wouldn’t really bite, or the thorns wouldn’t really prick: rather they’d produce brief scratches of almost unendurable pleasure, just so you’d know that everything was real, more real than this world which surrounds us. And the rest of heaven would be an infinity of beautiful places to explore and discover. Forests, mountains, snow, sun, beautiful cities, a land where all could have that simple joy they most desire. Humans would have access to God’s omnipotence and omniscience: to learn and, in the fullness of eternity, to discover the secrets of the universe. They’d be able to travel at will within it—oh to see and comprehend it all!—but always to return to their one spot in heaven to gaze on its beauty and know, know of the rest of the infinite beauty round about.
“There’d be libraries, institutions of truly higher learning, art galleries, concert halls: for who can conceive of heaven without art and music? People would perform, and create, as they do on earth. All that’s best of humans would be there. And all that’s worst, for they must not be ignorant, and need to know the bad too. So there’d be museums of horror, vice, pettiness. Of course there’d be no war, no conflict except for earnest dispute, no sickness, no politicians. Not even any social scientists, thank God. Doctors, I suppose, yes—but to study the inner physical workings of man.
“And then, most important of all, we’d be resurrected in our young, healthy bodies instead of our old, ailing ones. Death would be an awakening out of sleep into the reality of life. Or perhaps we wouldn’t even notice death: life would be forgotten like a dream it’s not worth making the effort to remember. In our wonderfully real bodies our appetites and desires would still exist, for food, sex and all the pleasures of life. Only now it would be with all the vigour and passion of first youth. Love-making would be there in its most voluptuous, most erotic and most spiritual form, for now there’d be no jealousy, no fear of being displaced in another’s affections. One would meet again, know and explore—completely, carnally—all one’s old loves as well as those one never had time or opportunity to know on earth. Whenever one wished, one would know where one’s loves were, whom they’d be with; one would rejoice that all are joined in a common love of God, who uniteth all things, in whom is the sacred and profane, the humorous and the serious, the joy and the suffering, the beginning and the end.” He paused. “But there would be solitude as well, for humans have need of solitude to create.”
“The God you speak of isn’t the Christian God.”
“Not that of the Christian church at any rate,” Foster said sadly.
And so Foster went away, and life became more peaceful for the members of St. Joseph’s. He would return again after many years, but in the interval, with things in the parish back to a normal observance of religious proprieties, be became a mere conversation piece, to be remembered even with nostalgia. How could a man behave in such an extraordinary way or hold such disturbing ideas? Was he really in league with the devil?
There was, of course, an explanation. The people of St. Joseph’s didn’t know everything and would have been surprised to learn that before it had all started Foster had quite seriously considered making such a pact: to that extent the later rumours had some validity. The problem was that he didn’t know how to go about it. He was a highly intelligent man and didn’t for a moment believe the devil would appear before him, horns, tail and all, or in any of the traditional forms. But he’d studied the devil as a literary figure and recognized him as a valid symbol of man’s aspirations for knowledge and experience: in revolt against a God who in the thoughts of some would prefer man to remain innocent and ignorant of evil.
It was knowledge and experience that Foster wanted. He was already a scholar of no small reputation; he’d published his novels and painted pictures that hung in a few of his relatives’ living rooms. But he knew that his achievements were minor. His scholarship was sound but inessential; his novels had been published under another name because they were trivial; and his pictures... well, what was wrong with them was precisely that they could be put up on his relatives’ walls, alongside pictures of forest streams, lakes, mountains or sentimental women and children which had been bought at Zeller’s.
“He’s artistic,” one of his aunts would tell her friends, unaware of the fact that the word was used of people who produced flower arrangements or suchlike with no comprehension of what art was all about.
This wasn’t what he wanted, and he was miserable. Unable to endure the high-minded snobbery of his colleagues or the inanities which were the daily life of the members of St. Joseph’s—and being uninterested in the fact that his neighbour’s three-year-old was now toilet-trained (which everyone else seemed to regard as the most important piece of news since the day it became known that old Mr. Krapowski was no longer toilet-trained)—he was isolated from others, lonely. Which wouldn’t have been so bad had he not craved some intimate contact beyond the superficial level, while at the same time being tormented by simple sexual desire. The two were linked. A great deal of “experience” meant for him sexual experience, for he was well aware that this was one way of coming close to another human being without the meaningless exchange of information which takes place in other social situations. For sexual experience understood in such a way masturbation was a poor substitute, and in any case seemed somewhat ridiculous in a fifty-year-old man.
And so he thought of a pact with the devil. Not with smoke and magic circles and incantations, not at first. Foster, although he knew a lot about witchcraft in a literary sense, didn’t take it seriously. No, he realized he needed to change his life, to rid himself of his old inhibitions and attitudes, and he saw a pact with the devil as a symbolical representation of that change. But how was he to go about it? Even if the devil were only a symbol he had to make it into one that was real for him. So finally he decided to devote himself to the mumbo-jumbo of magic—not because he thought spirits would arise before him but in order to convince himself of what he was doing. For this he had to study many obscure works, whose authors in some cases might be simply charlatans. He joined a group of devil-worshippers, whose practices he found grotesque and ridiculous. But he put up with it, feeling in his soul he was an outsider, although the others welcomed him as a convert and took it for granted he shared their beliefs in the same way as the members of St. Joseph’s took it for granted he shared theirs.
The night came for his first practical experiment in summoning the devil. He’d removed the carpet and most of the furniture from his living room, leaving only a couch and chair, and now he brought in the other things he needed: candles, candlesticks, chalk. It didn’t take him long, and he then lay back on the couch and went to sleep.
He didn’t know what time it was when he awoke. He lit the candles, placed the candlesticks in their pre-assigned positions on the floor, and started to draw on it with chalk, beginning various incantations as he did so. “Bloody fool,” he thought, “what good will all this do?” He worked eagerly, though, enjoying it. The procedure was complicated, involving some foul-smelling liquid he had to prepare. He couldn’t remember everything, but was sceptical enough not to think it mattered.
Finally he came to the words that were meant to summon the evil one.
“Venez, venez, seigneur, venez!” he pronounced, wondering why the devil should respond more readily to French than to English, and whether it made any difference if the French were Parisian, Old Norman or Québécois.
Nothing happened. Of course. But to make sure, he repeated the French in different dialects, then checked his chalk figures and found he’d made a mistake. So he got down on his knees to correct it, murmuring further incantations, but sticking in a few swear words because he was annoyed at himself for being so ridiculous.
“What the devil are you doing there on your knees, you stupid runt?” came a voice from behind him.
Startled, he turned round, put out his hand, and stared at the stranger. “Say, then, who art thou?… ”
“Oh cut out all that crap,” the other interrupted. “You don’t really believe in it, do you?”
Foster hesitated. “No, of course I don’t.”
“Good. Then turn on the light and come and sit down on the couch like a human being.”
Foster did so, looking at the guest, who was a shortish old man of about eighty, with long hair that merged into a beard, and dressed in a white robe. A bit like Karl Marx in a nightgown. “How did you get in?” he asked.
“Through the door, you idiot, how else?” The man was looking around with an expression of distaste. “Pretty sparse place you have here. Why don’t you get some decent furniture? Make it comfortable for your guests. And what’s that revolting smell? Oh, that liquid over there. Pour it down the drain, for God’s sake.”
Foster did as he was told, then returned and sat down on the chair opposite. As he looked at him the old man’s rather irritable appearance softened: he was still stern but kindly too, trustworthy. Strength and knowledge was there, sadness and humour. No longer like Karl Marx now that the irritation was gone. Younger perhaps. Or older. Not really how he’d conceived of the devil at all.
“But then I’m not the devil,” the man said. “You should be ashamed of yourself believing in that nonsense.”
“Only as a symbol,” Foster justified himself.
“Oh, as a symbol I’ll grant you he serves a purpose. But he’s one-sided. Much as your church God is one-sided too.”
“Who are you then?”
“Come, Foster, you know who I am.”
Foster was embarrassed. “God?” he ventured.
“The trouble with that word,” the old man said, “is that people misunderstand it. They think of me as the God they’ve created in their image. The half-potent God, able to do only what their limited minds think of as good rather than evil. Let’s call me something else, shall we? To prevent confusion. What would you suggest?”
Foster thought. “Yahweh,” he said.
“That will do splendidly. Sufficiently pre-Christian. Close enough to paganism without entirely suggesting my sole purpose is to strike people with thunderbolts. I like it.”
“Is that your usual appearance?” Foster asked with curiosity.
“I’ve no appearance, you dunderhead,” Yahweh said, getting irritable again. “I merely chose the form I though you’d most appreciate.” Suddenly he let out a roar of laughter. “And you’ve got to admit it’s better than those Santa Clauses or sickly sweet pictures of Christ they’re fond of putting in children’s books and on church walls.” He became businesslike. “Now, tell me why in the name of thunder were you trying to call up the devil?”
“To make a pact with him.”
“To renounce God, to get the devil to serve you for twenty-four years, and in exchange to give him your soul for eternity, I suppose? I must tell him that the next time I see him, he’ll die laughing. Between you and me he’s getting a bit sick of all these pacts.”
Foster was puzzled. “But who is the devil then?”
“Didn’t I tell you?: I am.”
“You said you weren’t.”
“How can you be and not be?”
Yahweh laughed. “I’m omnipotent, that’s all. I am. And that includes I’m not. Don’t worry about it. You’re making human categorizations.”
“And then you’re God too?”
“And Buddha, and Mohammed, and... “
“Oh do stop going on and on! It’s all the same anyway, what difference does it make? I am, and am not, all of them.”
Foster was sarcastic. “Is there anyone else that you’re not? Or that you are?”
“Yes,” said the other. “Or rather no. I’m you too, and not either, or hadn’t you noticed? Or at least you when you’re not pretending to be someone else.”
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Foster said gloomily.
“Sure it is,” Yahweh exploded, “if you try understanding rather than just thinking! You disappoint me, I expected more from you. But tell me, why did you try to summon up the devil rather than me? When I’m the source of power, wasn’t that rather stupid? What can he do that I can’t?”
“Well, I guess I thought what I wanted was evil. No, that’s to say, I didn’t think it was evil, but that God would. And that therefore God couldn’t grant me my desires.”
“That’s simple-minded theology, Foster. You’re confusing me with your church God again. I’m omnipotent, not half-potent, I tell you,” he suddenly roared. “I can give you anything you want. And what’s more, I’m the only one who can.”
“But will you?”
“Of course,” Yahweh said happily. “Love to. Provided you tell me your real desires.”
“And the conditions?”
“Not important. All this stuff about selling souls: your soul will be mine anyway.” He intoned flatly: “Was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen!” Businesslike: “Now, let’s make a list of what you want.”
Foster, at least, had his list prepared. “Fame,” he said, “so that people will love me. Riches, so that I may travel, live riotously, and have the means to acquire knowledge and be independent. Power, to get people to do what I want. Creativity, to do something of what you can do—no, I don’t want omnipotence, it won’t be fun if it’s not difficult. Joy and suffering, because one can’t create without them. And immortality.”
“Hold on a minute, can’t you? I may be omnipotent but I can’t write that fast. Let’s sort these out a bit. How about we just put down love instead of fame? That’s what you really want, isn’t it?—and although you forgot to mention it, you want to love others too. We’ll throw in a bit of fame along the way, but deep down you know it’s not the important thing. Can we cross out riches? You’ll get money now and again, but what you want is travel, independence, experience, knowledge, and riotous living—by that you mean sex, I suppose.”
“Yes. You see I think sex is the greatest form of human communication... ”
“Oh be quiet! Of course it is. Don’t start explaining the world to me! O.K. No problem, at least for your lifetime: the generation after you will have to be far more careful than you will, because of a devilish virus getting loose somewhere. Now power: you don’t really want to boss people around and feel important like a tedious Prime Minister? No, you want love again, to be an influence for the better in the world and, for all you give the impression of thinking only of yourself, the satisfaction of doing something positive for your fellow humans. Right? Creativity, joy, suffering—that’s all excellent. Wise man not to ask for happiness, the sop of those who want to live like robots. Immortality you have already. Now what can we add? Knowledge we have, but how about a bit of wisdom? And courage in being yourself. You’d better keep a few vices too: the people of St. Joseph’s will be happier if they have something to hate you for. So keep your arrogance, your lack of courtesy. We’ll add on a solid dose of vulgarity too, and outspokenness. Let’s stir things up a bit. Now, is that the lot?”
Foster was delighted. “More than I expected.”
“Fine. One thing: you’ll keep your loneliness, and an inner emptiness that can only be filled at the time of your final union with me. On earth one can’t have wisdom without it.”
“And when will I die? Do you want me to sign a pact?”
“You and your confounded pacts. Of course not. You have my word. And I am the word. I suppose you want me to give you twenty-four years of life too? It doesn’t make much difference when life’s eternal anyway. Just let me know when you feel like a change.”
“I never imagined you could give me all that,” Foster said. “I mean, the church is so set against a lot of it.”
“The church has a sin of its own,” Yahweh said, not without sadness. “It’s called respectability, which is a form of fear. And you thought I should be a respectable God. Me, Yahweh! Ha! The sole source of power. The creator of all things. The beginning and the end. Alpha and Omega. Me, who designed man to be Lord of the opposites, as one of your German writers so aptly put it. You recognize the quotation, I hope?”
“And no doubt,” Yahweh said, getting up to go, “you’d like a little bit of skirt to spend tomorrow night with? Intelligent, beautiful and sexy, right?”
Foster by now was more courageous. “Yes, and she should be... ”
“Spare me the gruesome details, please. I know your tastes. I gave you them, remember?”
Foster looked at him and laughed. “You old bugger, you!” he said slyly.
Yahweh burst out laughing again. “That’s the spirit! Never be afraid of me. Tomorrow Mrs. Wignall will be sick. Get rid of her. You’ll find a better applicant for the job.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Oh, say the Magnificat a hundred times or something. Live, damn you, live!”
They shook hands, and Foster found himself lying back on the couch again with the lights out.