‘The World, the Flesh and the Rev. Howell Jones’ was first published in Cambrensis 27 (1996), pp. 3-6.
The World, the Flesh and the Rev. Howell Jones: A Short Story
At 11:55 one Friday morning, the Rev (in name only) Howell Jones, obese and a smoker, suffered the first of three strokes that carried him off to his Maker when his son, John the builder, had slipped out for a hourī. This was in the basement living room of his house, No.7 Coed y Bryn, one of those endless black stone terraces on a hill overlooking the south coast.
The Rev Howell Jones sat in his patched arm chair, and at his feet lay the aged black Labrador, Schopenhauer, who continued to gaze adoringly at his master as the first of his convulsions passed over him. The whisky tumbler shook in his hand, shedding plashes of alcohol onto his trousers and into his face; the cigarette fell, providentially, into the basin of the candlestick that the Rev Jones kept by his side as an ash tray; the hand followed it, clutched at the candlestick, and shook it as he shook, releasing mingled smoke and ash into the air.
The Rev Jones’s house was large and sparsely inhabited. In the basement was the Rev Jones’s apartment: his bedroom, his living room and the kitchenette, which John used to cook their meals. The floor above that, the ground floor, was John’s domain: it contained the nether household’s bathroom, John’s own kitchen, which seldom contained more than a loaf of bread, some sour milk and some coffee, his bedroom and other, empty rooms. The floor above that was the realm of the lodger, skinny Steven the dreamy-eyed poet, the collector of rejection slips and the butt of many jokes, which with the sensitivity of all his clan, he remembered and did not forgive. Steven endured that household for the sake of cheap rent and comparative independence, being content to meet John on the stairs, or when the two door bells were confused by a caller. Occasionally he ventured into the basement sitting room to present the rent, and only find whisky or curry pressed upon him, or the conversation fall away enticingly into philosophy, or ecclesiology, or anthropology or poetry - but at other times he was seldom inconvenienced by his landlords, for he seldom heard them. Steven was in his living room that morning, and hard at work, but if he heard a faint voice filtering up through the floorboards, calling as though drunkenly for medical assistance, he assumed John was in, or pretended to be out, or was unaware of it.
The Reverend gave up screaming. Holding once again onto the candlestick for support, he levered his half-paralysed body further forward in his seat, and gave Schopenhauer a nudge with his toe. ‘Go on,’ he muttered. ‘Fetch the lodger. Fetch Steven.’ Schopenhauer was not sore distressed. He licked the ecclesiastical boot, and then licked his private parts for good measure. ‘Steven!’ said the Reverend, and continued the prodding. ‘You know Steven! Where is he?’ The dog gave it up for a bad job, and moved out of reach.
On the side of the room close to the door was a small tiled fireplace, and over the fireplace a shelf. Framed above this was a certificate of the Reverend’s ordination, and next to that, not framed, was a letter informing him that he had been defrocked. The shelf contained a censer and a picture of the Virgin (the Reverend had flirted with High Church) and a framed post card of the Devil’s Kitchen, Snowdonia. To the right of the fireplace was a stack of books, including the Bhagavat-Gita and the Qū’ran, and a bundle of letters, for the Reverend had flirted with other things. Leaning against the books was a bronze poker. The Reverend’s mind, in the hope of encouraging the dog, fixed itself on the poker. Repenting the neglect of castors, he put his foot to the floor and pushed. The chair moved slightly. This new disturbance was sufficient for Schopenhauer. He picked himself up and trotted to the door. The door was ajar. Schopenhauer sat down on his haunches again, and looked at the door handle hopefully.
Steven, the lodger, had a secret. In this house of dodgy building deals and defrocked clergymen, it was not much of a secret, but it was damning enough. His Divine Grace expected the highest standards of moral and legal probity in his lodgers; all other aspects of his life were above board; and this was only, as it were, in the course of duty. Haunted by the image of a circus sea lion spinning a beach ball which, his instincts assured him, possessed some unfathomable universal significance, and now bothered again by his landlord shouting drunken abuse at the dog, Steven produced this guilty secret from a drawer, rolled some of it into a cigarette, and set a match to it. Reclining on the floor, he exhaled significance through his nostrils.
The Rev Jones suffered the second of his strokes, and stopped shouting. By dint of effort, pushing with his one good arm against the back of the seat, he had managed to bring himself to a half-standing position, and now he slumped back, with his face towards the ceiling. Pain passed over him, the first he had felt.
The door on the Reverend’s left led into the kitchen. On draining boards a little rusted, an impressive collection of used saucepans and plates had built up. There was also, by the over-flowing rubbish bin, a plate for the dog, in which the flies were starting to take an unhealthy interest. A back door led onto waste ground, which commanded a view of the hill and the sea. From here, if the Reverend had been able to move, he would have seen a rusty green estate car labouring up the hill.
The car was John’s. Inside it was John himself, driving, a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of whisky and a few four-packs, and John’s girlfriend, Jeanette. The cigarettes and the whisky were intended for his father’s consumption, the four-packs and the girl for his own. Jeanette, who believed John loved her, sat in the passenger seat and allowed his hand to stray over the more desirable parts of her anatomy.
From where His Rotundity was now slumped he could see the ceiling, blackened over his chair with a halo of smoke. A filigree of cracks decorated the ceiling, a message of warning on which Steven had commented with alarm and which John had dismissed as unimportant. The ceiling also sagged very slightly. The Reverend swallowed with difficulty, and closed his eyes.
A key turned in a lock. The dog pricked his ears. Upstairs, the front door opened, and feet were heard on the stair. ‘I’ve got the whisky, Dad!’ came John’s voice. The dog was transfigured by this annunciation. Overcoming his reluctance to move and his inability to move doors simultaneously, he put his nose round the door and pulled. Short seconds later John entered.
‘You all right, Dad?’ he said.
But Dad did not reply. His eyes moved to follow John as he crossed the room; his lips quivered, but produced only a moan.
‘He’s got himself stone drunk,’ said John.
And at this point Jeanette entered. ‘John, I think he’s had some kind of fit,’ she said warningly.
She walked across the room and bent over him. The Reverend saw her neck like a smooth white tower, her breasts hanging limply over his face, and her legs, an ecstatic, delectable bareness, rising like pillars to the sublime and dizzy heights of her skirt. With this final, adorable vision before him, he turned up his heels and died.
As he did it, John howled.
The Shulamite left him to it. Running upstairs to call a doctor, she bumped into Steven who was staggering down. He was holding a spliff, and had a vacant expression. ‘What’s the noise?’ he demanded, and Jeanette told him. But somehow, the information failed to make an impression. He looked blank, and carried on downstairs.
John looked up as Steven entered. ‘Help me move him,’ he pleaded, without clear intention. Steven put down his spliff and joined him. Together they heaved and grunted for a while, and slowly it began to dawn on John that Steven’s help was doing more harm than good. He noticed the spliff, and the vacant expression.
‘What are you smoking?’ he demanded, belligerently.
‘Smoking?’ said Steven.
‘Give me that!’ said John, took hold of the cigarette, and sniffed. His face was bright red when he looked at Steven.
‘Get out!’ he said.
Jeanette found the telephone in John’s living room. It was a pay-phone. She looked in her purse for change, and gave up; started scanning surfaces, opening drawers. Finally she thought of John’s bedroom. With her hand on the door, she heard the shouting. She ran downstairs, and met Steven going up.
‘Where are you going?’ she demanded.
‘To pack,’ said Steven.
‘Sod that!’ said Jeanette. ‘Call a doctor!’ She pushed past him, and ran downstairs.
But entering the basement room she stopped, and nearly screamed. It was a sight more terrifying than Arjuna’s vision of Sri Krishna in his four armed form, but it was only John, man-handling the dead body of his father across the room by his arm-pits. Jeanette leaned back against the door frame in relief. ‘You scared the bloody life out of me,’ she said.
But John ignored her. He reached the door; Jeanette backed off; and he stopped. Backing away up the stairs, Jeanette heard scuffling, creaking, the occasional curse, and then a heavy thud as John dropped his burden, and started to cry his eyes out as though there were no consolation.
Alarm gave way to curiosity, and Jeanette descended the stairs. Standing in the doorway it was obvious what had happened, a delayed revelation of indignity. At last His Rotundity had attained to such girth, that in death his body would not fit through the door.