Balloon Phobia and God

by Nod Ghosh

 
I found God through a property manager in North Christchurch. The Almighty sat on the floor of a flat I was viewing in London Street. He was flicking through a copy of Hustler, smoking a mentholated cigarette casually dropping ash onto the carpet.
            I was looking for somewhere to live. He was looking at the beauty of human flesh.
            I’d been discharged from the military a month earlier, and things were tough. I needed a flat. I needed a job. I needed to get my life on track.
I came home to discover my fiancée Beth no longer saw me as suitable marriage material. She’d left me for a loss-adjuster with a ponytail, said I didn’t have the courage of my convictions, whatever that meant. I reckon the loss-adjustor had a better bank balance, or a better ass. Whatever. I was out of the picture.
            Renée Morgan was waiting for me outside the flat on a cool Friday evening. I followed the property manager up the external stairs leading to the first floor apartment. Her dagger-heels made a plink plink sound. My army boots rang on the treads, like nails hammering tin. I thought her shoes might poke through the gaps in the steps and send her arse over tit. But they didn’t.
            Renée was well turned out, except for a few wiry hairs poking from her chin. She twisted the key in the door, let the light in ahead of us, and that’s when I saw God. Renée acted like she didn’t see Him, though she coughed and waved a hand in front of her nose. Guess the cigarette smoke bothered her. The property manager walked me into the bedroom without a word. I suppose she hoped I wouldn’t notice the water stains on the wallpaper, the threadbare carpet, and the pile of crumpled newspapers in the corner. Or the deity sitting on the lounge floor.
            None of that put me off. I could move out of Mum’s house, where I’d trod uneasily around my stepfather since my return. I had nowhere else to go.
            “I’ll take it,” I said, and Renée launched into discussing bonds and references. She doled the information out quickly, glossing over my details. I guess the landlord wasn’t particular about who rented the place.

On Monday, I unloaded cartons of utensils, bin-liners full of clothes, and rickety furniture from the back of my brother-in-law-not-to-be Jason’s van. We were still on good terms. He lifted my belongings and dumped them on the pavement outside the flat.
            A procession of limousines pulled out of the funeral director’s opposite. I took my cap off and bowed my head as the first drops of rain pocked the pavement. Jason shuffled next to me, bags in his arms. He stepped towards the van and back again, before lowering his head too. Then I looked up at the flat window, in case the Lord had put in an appearance again. He might have wanted to wish the dearly beloved well as they accompanied their loved one’s remains to the Linwood cemetery. When the funeral party departed, Jason shovelled the rest of my things out of his van, whilst I waltzed my mother’s easy chair towards the metal steps.
            “Well, that’ll be it then?” Jason asked when the van was empty. It was a statement and a question at the same time. I didn’t know if I was supposed to answer or not, so I didn’t. The rain thickened, and I asked a question instead.
            “Is he any good for her?”
            “Who? Good for what?” Jason seemed in a hurry to get off.
            “The loss adjuster with the cute ass. For Beth.”
            “Phil? He’s a good egg. I’d best be going.” Jason rubbed his gloved hands together against the cold wet air.
            “I’d ask you in for a coffee, to say thanks and that, but I’m − ”
            “Nah, s’allright. I’d best be goin’.” Jason pulled himself into the driver’s cab and roared away.
            Another hearse pulled into the funeral parlour. Organ music competed with the random beat of rain on the pavement. I suppose I’d eventually get used to the noisy neighbours.
            I grabbed two bags of bedding and bolted up to the flat, two steps at a time. The key stuck in the lock. Had it done that for Renée Morgan? Had it hell. I leaned against the door, twisted until something clicked, and I was in. A floorboard creaked and my heart thumped in its cage.
            “God?”
            Silence.
            “Almighty one? Father?” I sounded stupid, but there was no one else to hear me, or was there? I wandered from room to room. A minty aroma hung around the place. It competed with the mustiness from the long unopened the cupboards.
            “You here?”
            There was no reply. Bolts of rain hammered against the window like bullets so I ran down to the pavement to pick up the rest of my gear before it got soaked. Two sullen boys in shorts splashed a tennis ball in the gutter. They leered at me with blank questioning looks.
            Upstairs, I found tea bags and filled the jug. The tap hissed like an angry cat, and spat out as much air as water. I shuddered. I’m not good with air in places it shouldn’t be, not since I returned from Besmaya. I pulled two cream-coloured mugs that Beth detested out of a box and dropped a teabag in each for God and me. I wondered if a biscuit might be in order, but couldn’t remember where I’d packed the Mallow Puffs.
Stepping out of the kitchen, I tried a new tack.
            “Our Father?” Maybe a prayer was needed. He wasn’t in the laundry. “Who art in − in heaven −”
            But was He in heaven? Probably not, since I’d seen Him clear as a lamppost, sitting cross-legged on the floor last Friday, smoking a fag.
Of course, when Renée showed me the apartment, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen God. I’d known Him as a kid.
            My stepfather Donald was a mean fucker. He scared the pants off me, knew exactly what frightened me, but acted innocent if anyone caught him tormenting me. Donald discovered my fear of balloons. I don’t know how, but he knew.
            The day before my sixth birthday, Donald turns up with a gigantic black plastic bag. Something’s squeaking inside. He waits till it’s just the two of us in the lounge, and splits the bag open. Out spill balloons, thirty, forty, a hundred. I don’t know.
            I scream.
            Donald puts his hand over my mouth.
            This is fun, he says, with menace in his voice.
            He holds me close with his other arm. I kick and squirm, tensing like a spring every time one of the − the things brushes past my leg. I’m terrified one’s going to go bang.
            Where is my mother?
            I scream again, but all that comes out is a strangled hoot, like a car horn, as I force the air from my lungs into Donald’s cupped hand. He loops an arm around my torso. I’m small for my age, helpless as he lifts me from the ground. He swings my legs through a sea of floating balloons. They bounce like gas-filled severed heads. My stifled screams fill the room like the screech of a harmonica.
            And still there’s no sign of my mother.
            Then I lose it. There’s a thud as Donald drops me onto the floor, and the sting of his slap cuts into my face.
            You disgusting little shit, he shouts.
            Mum walks in with a tea towel in her hands. I hang my head in shame as what’s left in my bladder trickles through my track-pants onto the carpet. Hiss. A green balloon drifts towards me.
            Donald points to a dark oval patch on his trousers.
            And my mother laughs. She laughs.
            That night I wish so hard for God to come and take me away. I squeeze my eyes tight until all the light left in them turns into swirling patterns and window shapes. I hope, and then hope again. He feels so close. I’m sure I see Him, with a full beard, and chalk-white skin.
            At least I think I saw Him.
            God’s come to me several times since then. Sometimes He’s a pattern in the sky. Sometimes He’s there when the other guys get hurt, but we don’t. Sometimes He’s good weather. Sometimes He’s just a feeling.
            But when I saw God sitting on the floor of my flat in patched jeans with mud at the knees, I knew He was the real deal. Incarnate. That’s what they used to say at Sunday school. God made flesh.
            I took a sip of tea and looked at the rain-covered bags waiting to be unpacked. I was investigating the green mould in the fridge, when God walked into the kitchen unzipping His polar-fleece.
            “Got any cigarettes?” He slumped onto a crate of saucepans for want of anything else to sit on.
            “Ah there you are. Wait a sec.” I rummaged in a box and found ginger nuts in a zip-lock bag. “D’you wanna biscuit with your tea?” The drink slopped onto the Lino by His feet. I made sure the trapped air in the bag didn’t do anything unpredictable when I popped it open.
            “Nah mate. Just a fag’ll do.”
            “I’ll get my ciggies, your − you − anyway, what do I call you?” I grabbed my jacket, hanging on a peg on the door.
            “Terry.”
“Terry?” I turned around and looked at him. “Is that short for something? As in Almighty and Terri −”
            “Terence. Like any other Terry. Now where’s them durries?”
            So, God did have a name, and it wasn’t Harold. He dragged his sleeve across his nose and snorted. A line of silver mucus streaked onto the pilled blue fabric of his jacket. It was almost beautiful in the grey afternoon light. Divine.
            “Here we are.” I tipped the last two cigs out of my pack, and passed one to God, a holy offering.
            “I prefer mentholated,” He said, “but these’ll do.”
            Later, when the rain cleared, we went out for more cigarettes. We stopped at the Richmond playground. God kicked a ball against the blue mural, that bloody awful mural. Funny, I hadn’t seen a ball on Him when we apartment. Guess He must have found it lying around. Or something. The mud and turf churned up under His boots. I dodged over to the side as the black and white ball hurtled towards me.
            “Missed!” Honestly, He was like a big kid. Strands of grey-black hair bobbed on His head like spaghetti as He ran past me. “Come on!”
            “I’m not good at ball games,” I said, heading past a derelict lot towards the dairy. I didn’t tell Him why I wouldn’t go near the damn ball. Compressed air. Fuck. He must’ve known though. God knows everything, doesn’t He?
            “Boring,” He sang, and came into step beside me. The ball had disappeared.
            We picked up some beers. Or I should say I picked up a six-pack. He pointed at the cigarette dispenser. When I asked if He wanted to go halves, He turned the pocket of His polar fleece inside out. Two ten-cent pieces fell out and rolled underneath the counter.
            “I’m like the Queen of England,” He said, smiling to reveal a broad gap between his front teeth. “I’m don’t carry much cash.”
            “It’s alright, Terry,” I said. “I’ll get these. You get the next lot.” I made sure to use Terry when we were in public. It wouldn’t do to call Him ‘our father’ to his face whilst the Asian shop dude put my Speight’s Gold Medal in a bag.
            Back in the flat, we had a laugh once I got the telly working.
            My Kitchen Rules, he’d insisted. The programme made us hungry, so I warmed beans in a pan. God didn’t eat much. He asked if there was more beer.
            “Nah, this is the last one,” I said, nudging my toe against the half empty can on the floor.
            “Watch this.” He grabbed the creamy-beige mugs, swiped my tinny, and blew across the hole on top, and filled both mugs to the brim.
We nattered about all sorts. Hours went by, drinking, drinking, drinking. He poured out more beer. And more.
            My eyelids started to close mid-sentence. I was rat-arsed, but tired.
            “You’ll be arright on the couch?” I asked. “Ah’d besh be off t’bed, Holler if ya need anything −” I headed to the bathroom for a leak.
“Haff anuther beer,” was all He said, before tipping more amber fluid into my mug.
            And that’s the last thing I remember from the first night I hung out with God.

I woke up freezing cold on lounge floor.
            “God?”
            No answer.
            “Uh − Terry?”
            Zilch.
            It was still dark, so I flicked the light on. Beer cans lay scattered on the floor. I kicked them into the pile of newspapers in the corner. I peered into the bedroom. Nothing. I pulled the quilt out of its plastic bag, enveloped myself in its scanty fluffiness, and wriggled onto the mattress. It was perishing. I lay for hours, drifting in and out of sleep, my head pounding. The report of gunfire, the weight of my helmet, the security forces, curling hashish smoke, bodies in the street. The bodies in the street. The explosions. Would those goddamn explosions ever stop?

When I woke up, God was sitting at the foot of my bed.
            My throat was hangover dry. “Jesus Christ!” I tried to swallow the words back. No one wants to be reminded of a dead son, do they? “I mean, sorry. How much did we drink, Terry?” I did a beany fart, and wondered how it changed the composition of the air around us.
            “Can’t you take your liquor?” He asked, inching away from me. He was still wearing the dusty blue polar fleece.
            “S’just I thought we only had six tins −”
            “Yeah, right.” His sarcasm was acidic for the time of day. He pulled a cig from my packet, lit up and sucked hard. A long line of ash drooped and threatened to fall onto my quilt.
            “What shall we do today?” He poked me beneath my left armpit. I stifled a giggle because it tickled.
            What was there to do? I could send off job applications, if I could find any vacancies I was qualified for. I could have a go at reading the self-help book from my psychologist, but the words usually danced on the page and hid their meaning. I could carry on unpacking and tidy the flat. Or I could hang with God.
            “Hey cool. DVDs?” He was thumbing through my collection, still in the box, waiting to be unpacked.
            “Wanna watch Star Wars?”
            So that’s what we did. It was grey and gloomy outside, and we spent the day watching film after film.
Later God popped out and came back with a parcel of fish’n’chips. Guess He must have found His wallet.
            “Manna from Heaven,” He said, tipping steaming food onto two plates I’d prized out of a box on the kitchen floor. He chucked the chip paper, fat and all, into the pile of crap in the corner, and popped the cap off a Steinlager bottle. “Here,” He said, passing me the bottle before opening another for Himself. “Got any ketchup?”
            “What’s it like being You?” I asked, squeezing sauce I’d found in the fridge onto our plates.
            “What about it?”
            “You know. Knowing all there is to know, being all-powerful, creating everything, and − and − whatever else it is you do. What’s it like?”
            “S’allright,” he said picking a strand hoki from between his teeth.
            “Is that it?”
            “Yeah. Let’s go to the pub after. Whad’ya reckon, Pomeroy’s?”
            “Okay,” I stuffed a chip in my mouth, wiped my finger through the puddle of sauce and licked it. He was on his feet, pulling the blue fleecy jacket on, scratching at yellowy strands in his beard. We drained our Steinlagers, locked up and went down the stairs, God’s holy boots clanging on the metal treads, mine ringing out behind him.

It went on like that for months. I couldn’t find work. Well I wasn’t really looking. Everyday, God and I would do something together. Hang around in the park. Walk into town on a Saturday night to look at the girls pouring out of the clubs. We’d watch movies, or talk about the rugby. The weather got colder. A howling wind blew through the loose windowpanes.
            The mess in the flat grew deeper. Anything I hadn’t unpacked after a month, stayed in boxes towering to head height in the spare room.
I heard noises from the boxes. Once I saw a little grey body dart between a carton of car magazines and the bag of clothes.
            “Think I need some bait,” I said as God walked out of the bathroom, my All Blacks towel tied around his waist.
            “What for?”
            “I’ve got mice.”
            “Nah, don’t bother.”
            I got it. They were His creatures. So I left them to it. Left them to nibble at my comic collection, the wires of my speakers that I’d not got round to setting up, the kite Beth had given me for my thirtieth. I left them to gnaw through Mum’s photo albums, and her Nottingham lace tablecloth that I’d had to sneak out from under Donald’s daughter’s noses when Mum died. I left the mice to bite through old birthday cards with my Dad’s shaky writing on them. I let the mice turn everything to dust, leaving pellets of poo in their wake.
            I came home from a jobseeker support interview one day to discover Him leaping about like a giant kid, hopping between the piles of rubbish. He was blowing bubbles, dipping a plastic wand into a tub. I walked straight out the door again.
            Bubbles.
            Ew.
            I was going to have to have a word with Him about that. That and other things.
The second-hand washing machine I’d bought died, after spewing its soapy contents all over the laundry floor whilst God and I were out at the Casino one night. I worked with my mop and bucket, trying to soak up whatever I could.
            “Don’t think it’ll make any difference.”
            “Huh?”
            “Just leave it,” God said.
            “But it’s tracking into the spare room.”
            “Ev’rything in there’s fucked anyway.” He cleared his throat and hawked a greenie into a flyer advertising half-price heaters, rolled it into a ball and chucked it into the corner of the lounge with all the other rubbish. I couldn’t remember the last time either of us had taken out the trash. The mound of junk was edging up towards the ceiling. Fag ends filled old baked bean tins to the brim.
            The place was a tip.
            And what did my roomie do? He’d found some scissors buried somewhere in the box mountain, and was paring His toenails, long and curling, flicking them into the pile of mess.
            “You know, you could do a bit more to help around the place,” I said, my voice squeaky with emotion. Lately I struggled confrontation.
            “Yeah.” He shrugged, and carried on separating the yellow talons from His feet.
            “And you could help me with the rent too,” I hadn’t wanted to bring it up, but it needed to be said. “How long have you been here now anyway? Three months? Four?”
            “Yeah.” He chucked the scissors on the ground, and took a swig from the bright green tin of ‘V’ next to him.
            “Well?”
            “Well what?”
            “Are you gonna help out?”
            “We’ll see. Anyway. I’m going to the pub.”
            I’m going to the pub. For months it had been we and us. For months, God and I had done everything together. Let Him, I thought. He’ll soon come crawling back.
            But He didn’t. He didn’t come back that night. He didn’t come back the next night, or the one after that.

I started to clear out the mess. I got some Chux superwipes, air freshener, bleach, and rolls of bin bags. I asked Jason to help.
            “Sure, mate,” he said, “but it’ll cost ya.”
            “Oh?”
            “You know, at the dump, they weigh your van before and after, charge you by the ton. Won’t be cheap.” He cleared throat. “And there’s petrol.”
            “I ain’t got much cash.”
            “Well − I know a way we can make it cheaper.”
            That’s how I found myself on Dyer’s Pass Road in the middle of the night, chucking my shit out of Jason’s van. We tipped it over the bluff, careful not to loose our footing. We had to work fast. Anyone might see us and call the cops.
            Afterwards, Jason and I headed back to London Street.
            “So, how is she then?”
            “Eh?” Jason coaxed the van into a lower gear as we turned the corner. There were lights on at the funeral parlour. Shadowy figures moved within the windows. I’d never seen anyone in there at night before. Jason pulled the handbrake up outside the flat. It was nearly three o’clock in the morning. I didn’t get out of the van straight away. I wanted to chat, even though the pong of mould, and all the other crap that had oozed out of my bags was overpowering.
            “Beth. How is she?”
            “She’s good.”
            “And, she still with ponytail-man?”
            “Phil? Yeah.”
            Something churned in the pit of my belly. I hadn’t thought about Beth much in the last few months. Not like I used to, every day, every hour of every day. I’d been too busy doing things with God.
            “And you?” Jason asked. “How you doin’?”
            “I found God.”
            “Oh?” There was an edge to his voice, something between pity and disapproval. “No, that’s good, I mean it’s great,” he continued.
            “Yeah, but I think I just lost Him again.”
            “Oh.” Jason said, his tone neutral. “Well I’d best go. Cheers for the petrol money.”
            I let myself out of the van, and climbed up the stairs, fiddled with the key, in-out-in-out, until the door popped open. I flicked the lights on. The smell of stale cigarettes and wet stuff hit my nostrils, but the lounge was bright and clear. I popped my head into the spare bedroom. The stained carpet was dotted with the few boxes and bags I’d held onto. I looked into the bathroom, the laundry, and my bedroom. Zilch.
            “Terry?” I said weakly, just in case there was somewhere I hadn’t checked. “God?”
            Nothing.
            I found a saucer to use as an ashtray, and lit a fag. It was the first time in ages I’d bought normal cigarettes, not mentholated.
            I kicked my boots off and crawled into bed. It was a warm night, but I shivered.
            I was drifting off to sleep, when I heard a bang. A bomb. A fucking bomb in Christchurch. I sat up, my teeth rattling. Then there was another. Bang. Pop. Bang-a-Bang.
            What the fuck?
            I went into the lounge, and there He was, grinning like a maniac. The room was full of balloons. Grey streaks of dawn-light fingered the sky outside, silhouetting Terry’s dancing limbs.
            “I got these.” He tipped more out of a black plastic bag. “Thought they’d brighten the place up.” I suppressed the urge to scream. He stirred His hands through the floating balloons, took one and rubbed it on His polar fleece, and then gently stuck it to the wall. I couldn’t move.
            “That’s cool innit?” He picked up another, a green one, rubbed it on his fleece and came towards me.
            “FUCK OFF.”
            “Eh?” He jumped from one foot to the other, almost tripped over a cluster of yellow and mauve balloons.
            “I hate them. I hate balloons. You should know that.”
            “What? How can anyone hate balloons?” He pushed the green balloon against my chest. I came close to throwing up. “I brought them home to celebrate.”
            “Home? You don’t even live here. Why don’t you just fuck off?”
            “Mate. You don’t mean that mate.”
            “Get those things out of here.”
            “Aawl right.” He started popping the balloons, with His feet, with His hands, even His teeth. It was horrible. I went into the bedroom and sat on the floor, fingers in my ears, shaking.
            The banging stopped, and there was a gentle tap on the door.
            “Mate?”
            I swung it open in His face.
            “You’re not really God are you?” My voice was calm, controlled.
            “God?” He smiled at me, arms akimbo. “You get some funny ideas into that head of yours sometimes, mate.” The carpet was littered with the dead skins of balloons. There were three intact ones in the corner, red, yellow and green.
            “Get. Rid. Of. Those. Things. NOW.” I felt like crying.
            “Okay mate, calm down.”
            Terry led me by the arm into my bedroom, closed the door. I sat on the edge of the bed, breathing heavily.
            “I thought you’d be pleased.” He nudged me with his elbow. “Thought you’d be happy to see me.”
            I was, but I couldn’t tell him that. I said nothing.
            “Don’t you want to know what the surprise is, what we’re celebrating?”
            “What?”
            “I got us somewhere new to live.”
            “What’d’ya mean?”
            “Well, we can’t stay here anymore, so I got us a place in a squat. You’ll love it. Real fancy, really −”
            “What do you mean, we can’t stay here anymore?”
            “These came. They’re from her with the heels and facial hair.”
            He took a pile of letters out of the pocket of his polar fleece, six of them. I pulled them from their envelopes, waited until the words stopped dancing, and read them. They were from Renée Morgan, outlining the process of my eviction.
            “You bastard,” I threw the letters on the floor, pushed his chest. Hard. I walked out of the bedroom, skirted around a few intact balloons and went out of the door. At the top of the steps, I lit a cigarette, drew in the smoke. I wasn’t sure if I was angrier with Terry, or with myself for being such a shmuck.
            “Mate.” The flat door opened a crack. “Hey. Have you calmed down?” He stepped out and stood next to me, leaning against the railings. “Give us a fag.”
            “You’re a fucking freeloader. Get the fuck out of my hair right now.”
            “Hey but − “
            “I mean it. Stay away from me.” I edged away from him.
            “Aw but − “
            That’s when everything went mental. I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, pulled him towards me.
            “Get, the, fuck, out of my life.” I thought one of the neighbours might come out to see what the noise was about. No one did. It was still early.
            “We can work something −”
            I squeezed the rest of his words into silence as I tightened the grip around his throat. He kicked my shin. I punched him with my free hand. He put his fingers to his eye, shouting, screaming. I pushed. He pulled. It could only have been a second between him slipping over the barrier, and the crunch-thud of his body landing on the concrete below.
            Still no one came.
            “Terry?” I looked over the railings. He wasn’t moving. A maroon bulb oozed out from the side of his head, wetting the silver-black hair on that side. Shit. It grew larger, fuller, like someone blowing up a balloon. I was frozen to the spot. I clenched and squeezed everything to stop my bladder from emptying. Any minute now, someone would come out and see what had happened. See what I’d done. The reddish-brown circle was the size of his head. Then it stopped growing. My ears were ringing, the silence around me deafening. One by one bangs and crashes broke into the silence.
Exploding artillery. Batteries of howitzers. The bodies on the streets. The bodies on the streets.
            My cigarette was still glowing on the ground. I stubbed it out with my toe, closed my eyes, and opened them again. I edged down the steps, forcing one foot in front of the other. The bodies on the streets. I held onto the bannister, closed my eyes again at the bottom.
            I twisted round and opened my eyes.
            Terry had gone.
            I ran to the spot where I’d seen the red circle. I sank to my knees, brushed my hands against the concrete, and examined them for blood. For stigmata.
            Something was banging between my ears. Boom-thud-boom-thud-boom-thud. I thought about the bodies in the street. The explosions.
            “Terry!” I shouted. Loud. “Where are you, you sly bastard?” Someone opened a door. “I know you’re there,” I continued. A neighbour came out of her flat. Someone I never spoke to, an old Pakistani woman with a drooping eyelid.
            “Ebhritheeng ol right?” She twisted her scarf around her neck. I tried not to stare at the hairs growing from the mole above her eyebrow.
            “Yes, we’re fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”
            “I hear the shouting.”
            “It’s nothing.”
            I lit another cig and paced towards the Richmond playground. With each step, the banging in my head grew louder. Stronger. More frequent, until the gaps between the explosions all but disappeared.
            I went on, looked over my shoulder, in case.
            But there was no sign of Terry.
            Just that god-awful banging.

            That banging’s in my head again.
            Feels like my ears are going to burst.
            It’s the banging that never stops.
            And I wish to god that it would, just for a minute.

Balloon Phobia and God