JESUS AND THE ICE CREAMS

(Winner of 1st Prize, Writers' Forum #229)

‘What? Every dog shit and Hitler?’

     ‘Or Jesus and all the ice creams, depending on how you want to look at it,’ says his brother, typing code upon the television screen:

     10 PRINT “I am skill”

     ‘That can’t be true.’

     ‘No, it’s true. Everything will become one. The universe will shrink and meet in a pinpoint.’

     ‘What? Everything?’ James knows his brother. He’s watched something, one of those Horizon science programs again, probably. Or his friend who told him did. The wording – especially the pinpoint – isn’t his.

     Tim looks at him, as though enjoying the gradual, fearful enlightenment only an older brother can induce, while relishing the delusion that he himself is stoic enough to take the truth, the idea of everything ending.

     ‘Everything,’ he affirms, eyebrows all raised as he finishes typing.

     20 GOTO 10

     ‘The moon and Mars?’

     ‘The moon and Mars.’

     ‘All the pocket money I lost?’

     ‘Yes. Even if stolen.’

     ‘Mum and dad?’

     ‘Mum and dad.’

     ‘Forever?’

     ‘Forever.’ He widens his eyes at his younger, more gullible sibling, makes a show of pushing down the ENTER key, for the phrase to repeat itself, scrolling endlessly.

     I am skill

     I am skill

     I am skill

     ‘You?’

     ‘Me.’

     I am skill

     I am skill

     I am skill

     ‘Me?’ James holds down the CAPS SHIFT and SPACE together, to halt the repetition, to end the audacious lie, a novelty wearing thin.

L BREAK into program.

     ‘You.’

     ‘Well, it’s a theory,’ Tim adds, ‘There’s others. Something like the universe will get bigger and everything will freeze.’

     ‘That’s okay, then. Jesus’s ice creams won’t melt.’

     Tim presses down the eject button upon the silver, rectangular Bush audio tape player, a thousand tiny holes dotted upon its speaker, its black audio cables feeding into the ZX Spectrum 48.

     ‘So, you really want to play Chuckie Egg?’

     Their most popular platform game, taking on the role of a small yellow farmer springing across green platforms and climbing purple ladders to collect the eggs before the patrolling large, long-necked birds come peck you or else you misjudge the jump and fall to one of your many deaths. James has been asking to play it since they got everything out, with his brother delaying, messing around with his silly little coding, but mostly delaying it because he can.

     James nods back in the affirmative. Thinks it better not to speak.

     His brother unhinges the cassette box, takes out the tape to insert it, snapping the box shut with the satisfying sound of its closure.

     ‘You know what I think would be really scary?’ Sometimes James feels compelled to share his own thinking, to put things out there.

     ‘Mum walking in on you while–’

     ‘No. No. Well, yes, but no.’

     ‘The whole world reading those poems you wrote, that you hide at the back of the drawer?’

     ‘Wha–? No. I didn’t write any poems.’

     ‘Yes, you did.’

     James quickly changes subject, or rather, pursues the original one. 'What if everything we watch or read or imagine is true? That it will all be true after we die, in the afterlife.’

     ‘Okay, my tortured little weirdo of a brother. Continue.’

     ‘Everything from the future, is trying to communicate with us from ahead, and we see glimpses of it while we still live, in whatever form, and what we see, well, that’s what will come.’

     ‘Like life is just about showing you everything you’ll see after life, when you die?’

     ‘Yes. It… I don’t know… it seeps through. Backwards. Maybe as signals. Data?’

     ‘Wow, brother. Deep. You okay? Wanna talk to someone about this? Maybe that Chemistry teacher? She’s hot.’

     Miss Bailey. And she was. His brother even knew his crushes. Being young she stood apart from the overly disciplined female PE teacher with the funny name who glowered above him or the stodgy History teacher that came unpacking her own history of disappointment. There weren’t so many role models at his school either. The likes of Mr. Robinson, the English teacher with his handlebar moustache and his Shakespeare recitals aloof from the students who ignored him, engaging in their own chatter. Or the dour smoking Geography men who wore jumpers without sleeves, and the drunk Physics teacher who’d chalk upon the board pages to copy from textbooks, then disappear into another dimension. Was that how the universe worked? One of its natural laws? Miss Bailey then, she stood out. In his theory, he hoped the idea of school, more specifically his school, would cease to persist, if not now then at least beyond the point of death. For that’d be hell.

     And Tim was right in saying he had no-one to talk to. Kick a ball with, yes; talk to, no. And his parents were both busy working jobs, which they told him was for his good as much as theirs, returning too exhausted to talk as they microwaved a mug of cold stewed tea and put on the news. They were right. He was way beyond old enough to think that this very computer came from Santa, or that their family holidays to Ilfracombe were for free.

     ‘Anyway, so what do you mean exactly?’ His brother pushes him to elaborate further as he types, stabbing the rubbery keyboard letters, holding down the J and Symbol Shift keys with his left thumb while his right index finger prods twice at the P, the white arc of its forward-looking head fading from constant use.

     LOAD ""

     He presses ENTER. Presses play on the cassette player.

     ‘Well, that hitcher who killed all the drivers, he’ll be there.’

     ‘The real guy or the movie version?’

     ‘There was a real–? Both. Nothing disappears. Everything returns. But the version of everything that enters your head. That’s the one, I guess.’

     A large square appears upon the TV screen, colourful lines slowly flicker behind it in synch, the drawn out electronic screeches of the first data blocks loading.

     'Who else?’

     ‘Well, King Arthur, The Shining guy, Monty Mole, The Child Catcher. And The Terminator. That freaky doppelgänger on Dramarama yesterday. Or that mutant creature that killed all the scientists after the first episode.' James picked out one of the horizontally-stacked game cassettes at random from the black and burgundy-striped portable case besides him. ‘Or even Horace from Horace Goes Skiing. All our thoughts, good and bad, they’ll all be there. For us.’

     ‘So all together somehow? That’d be hell, right?’

     ‘Well, there’d be the good, too. The Jesus and the ice creams, as you said.’

     ‘Yeah, but who wants an ice cream when there’s a killer over your shoulder?’

     'Maybe Jesus could do something.’

     ‘Ah, Jesus the superhero. Is the psycho gonna find the right path? When I see killers and paths, I don’t see happy endings.’

     ‘Well, he could see the light. He could change.’

     ‘What? Fall to his knees, lay down his machete and stop ripping things apart?’

     ‘I guess.’ James has another theory: the main reason for the existence of older brothers is to find flaws in everything their younger brothers say.

     ‘Good name for a band though,’ says Tim, nodding his head repeatedly.

     ‘What?’

     ‘Jesus and the ice creams.’

     James smiles at having been acknowledged as contributing something of worth. For a brief moment anyway, before realising he wasn’t the first to speak it. The smile fades a little.

     The sound intensifies as the thin blue and yellow loading bands escalate in their flickering, screaming as line by line, the binary graphics of the loading screen appear.

     ‘I think maybe a bit like the data of the program is now, these flashes as it loads before the program runs,’ James adds, as if clarifying his theory to himself as much as Tim.

     ‘I’m not sure I like that idea.’

     ‘Me, too. It scares me.’

     ‘Do you even believe in heaven?’

     ‘No. Maybe. Some version.’

     ‘Could be this, couldn’t it?’

     ‘What?’

     ‘Me and you playing games on the Spectrum forever, talking for eternity.’

     ‘I guess.’

     ‘I think I’d prefer that.’

     ‘Me, too.’

     The audio halts abruptly, the menu appears and the options scroll horizontally across the bottom of the screen as the piezoelectric buzzer beeps away the Birdie Song.

     ***

Having taken a rear position as pallbearer James smirks at the song chosen as he enters the crematorium reception hall. “What difference does it make?” by The Smiths. Undoubtedly his brother’s choice. He angles his neck out a little more, wonders why, all boxed, his brother isn’t so heavy, forgetting the last few times he saw him. In his mind Tim remains of taller, larger physique, built by beer and the endless quest for every kind of cheese, long before the cancer with its hospital stays came to diminish his stature.

     A beautiful ceremony, one Tim’d have liked, and no doubt what countless guests will repeat to his widowed wife. Good speakers, too. Clearly experienced, the right people for the right job. For a moment, as James stares at the casket, he imagines it being lowered into flames, sees the flickers of fire as the flashing of yellow and red horizontal lines, hears the crackle and crunching of high- and low-pitched sounds, the reading of data blocks and the burning of bones.

     ‘It’s okay, I know. It’s hard to find the words.’

     He’s a little ashamed that Tim’s widow Michelle is doing the comforting. That he can’t bring himself to arrange or emit any phonemes, construct them in longer, meaningful strands of sentences; even just a ‘sorry for your loss’ or the callous ‘he was taken too early’. Saying at least something, he admits, might help, yet he remains unable to do so. His brother took this cancer gene for him, that’s what he thinks to say but won’t. His filter does work, perhaps works too much. Besides, who’s to say that’s true about the cancer? Another couple of years down the line, and who knows? Him next? All things in sequence.

     ‘There’s sandwiches in the dining room on the left,’ she directs him.

     ‘Thanks,’ he replies, soft, quiet like a dropped tissue. Roles reversed, his brother would've been stronger voiced, more persistent in doing and saying the right thing at the right time.

     ‘Can we go online, mum?’ His two nephews plead in their funeral suits, both embarking upon adolescence in height and occasional pimple.

     ‘There’s guests, darlings. Like Uncle Jim here.’

     ‘I don’t mind.’ He’d like to see what kids play nowadays. ‘Maybe I could join them for a while?’ he offers.

     ‘Go on then. But no longer than 30 mins. Okay? And take Uncle Jim with you.’

     The boys consult one another as to what to do next hurrying towards the other world of their bedroom. A different life James knows little about.

     ‘Oh Jim, that reminds me. There’s something I want to show you later.’

     She’ll need help clearing out, he thinks. Probably photos and other stuff she needs identifying or evaluating and stuff to fill the charity shop bags in the weeks to come.

     ‘Watch out that psycho’s coming again.’

     ‘Yeah, you’ve got to get the key.’

     ‘Yeah, but where do I get that?’

     He thinks to ask how they’re coping, but he doesn’t think the physical world should intrude right now. Who is he to demand as an adult that they show some emotions? Especially him? He figures this escape is good for them. But he sees their online world as subversive; fast-paced and dizzying in its exploration of three-dimensional, 360 landscapes, and yet on the separate screens of their tablets these kids sound as though everything is under control. Still, James can’t refrain from a little negative judgement. He’s not like his friend who spends so much energy and time still avidly keeping up with what’s happening with bands and fashion trends, like a Canute holding back his age. James thinks he may not be able to get out of the online rooms these kids play in, but he, at least, can exit the physical one any time he chooses. He’s not convinced they could. Or that they would want to.

He recalls a radio discussion heard yesterday. That Silicon Valley theory doing the rounds again. The idea we’re all part of a grander computer simulation. He views it narcissistic, that people place the meaning of their very selves within their own creations, that now god has cleared off they’re here because of something they can themselves understand the design of, that they can create. That nothing is permitted to be unknown outside of their framework. Another emerging religion, perhaps.

     Now, his fifties in view, the mornings of the days come less friendly, needing to be eased into. A coffee and a sit down. If everything is a computer simulation, he thinks his bones weighed down with large block graphics, heavy with basic code and bits, rather than these younger, more modern, finer detailed pixellations today.

     Later, as the last of the guests leaves, his nephews, having stood politely as required to see everyone off, indulge in whispers the intrigues of their game world. James himself makes to leave.

     ‘Oh, Jim. So, there’s a few things to sort. You’re the only one of Tim’s family left, apart from the boys of course, and, well, there’s no point making you travel here again so soon. So, I figure now is as good a time as any.’

     ‘You sure?’

     ‘Of course.’

     She heads off to what he knew to be his brother’s study, where he made his living in IT security. A much tidier place than if it’d been his. A few binders with the hard copies of existence, all the certificates and tax forms taking their necessary places upon the shelves. He wonders if his brother’s death certificate is among them; the Facebook memorial page straight up the day after he died. He wouldn’t put it past Tim to have somehow managed to do that himself. Michelle kneels down to open the small cupboard door under the desk drawer, lifts out a box.

     ‘Here, he got it out from the attic after the diagnosis last March. Started playing with it. He’d tell the the kids, “Old school’s the best.”’

     ‘Wow. I didn’t know he still had it. It still works?’

     ‘Yep. He told me you both used to play as kids. Said he wanted you to have it. And let’s face it, these children nowadays, they’re not interested. They’d be bored in two seconds flat.’

     He inspects the original box with its bruised corners and slight tears. There’s even a cassette recorder, not the same Bush, but a cassette recorder all the same, and an assortment of tapes in the same tape holder. James smiles in recognition.

He doesn’t know what to say, never really has, but he forces himself to speak on this one occasion, half afraid it will come out as nothing other than meaningless beeps.

     ‘Michelle,’ he says, ‘I’m glad Tim found you.’

     ***

There’s nothing to distract him but occasional visits from his cat. Yet James’s stared at the box for a few days, unsure what memories it’ll contain once opened and emptied. Its simple white font and the large photo of its keyboard, diagonal rainbow stripes running across its bottom right corner. He unpacks it, plugs the computer in, sets it all up as if there had never been a break in doing so.

     He reacquaints himself with the keyboard, the old code functions, turning the screen into different colours.

     BORDER 3 INK 4

     Tries all the different numerical values, all 16 variations.

     IF x = A THEN PRINT “I AM SKILL”

     He repeatedly presses A, each time grinning as the phrase pops up.

     FLASH

     RUN

     and

     CLS to clear the screen.

     He turns to the games on the cassettes, leans against the bottom of the sofa, swigs from an open bottle of Merlot to his side.

     LOAD ""

     Presses ENTER.

     Jet Pac, Dynamite Dan, Commando, Ant Attack, Attic Attac, Skool Daze, Spy Hunter, Bomb Jack, and Way of the Exploding Fist. James remembers each one. Some original, some copies with their titles written in Bic, the messy loops and uneven slants of his brother’s handwriting upon the sides of the C60 tapes. He plays a few, proudly achieves level 21 on Chuckie Egg, before a sadness befalls him, the eggs come to resemble tumours and he bemoans the yellow bird locked up, all alone in its cage. He directs then the farmer off the highest platform, to lose the last of his lives. He leans back, gazes up, out the window over his shoulder to verify that late afternoon is now night.

     He looks again at the game collection, the room lights shining off their transparent casings. Lucky the only one cassette to strain, to have its screeches elongated in electronic agony, followed by the inevitable, unnerving crackling of its tape innards being mangled is the least popular choice. Horace Goes Skiing. Rarely ever played, a freebie bundled with the machine. He looks at the tangle of ribbon, wonders how it could communicate anything, puts it to one side, telling himself he’ll put a pencil within its spools to see if he can make it work again. Even if he never plays the game, he feels obliged, so that Horace can go ski. Somewhere.

     There remains one last tape to try, an unfamiliar one, more modern than the others, a later TDK D90, appearing as though never rerecorded upon. He remembers fondly their new plastic smell, sniffs it, it’s faint but there. There’s nothing written on it. He thinks to try it anyway, presses eject, places it in the recorder.

     LOAD ""

    A few blocks of colour, a few ac companying screeches and seconds later it has loaded. The program runs straight away.

     Jesus and the ice creams

     Jesus and the ice creams

     Jesus and the ice creams

     Jesus and the ice creams

     Jesus and the ice creams

     James leans back against the sofa, smiles, watches it scroll.