In later years, God would consider his greatest mistake not to be disease, or suffering, or engendering a warlike impulse in Man; it was not the pips that ruin the satsuma, or the stones that compromise the enjoyment of the plum; it was not the way that Winter could be far too cold and Summer was frequently much too hot. God’s greatest mistake was opening his heart to Kevin Collins. Really, he should have taken one look at Kevin Collins and started running.
It was all so much simpler back in the olden days. The peoples of Earth either obeyed God, or they didn’t. Those that didn’t were liable to be turned into piles of ash or pillars of salt, drowned in big floods or plagued by locusts. Those that did were sometimes rewarded with coupons in the post offering them discounts on manna. There was none of this problem with faith, none of the not-believing-in-God thing. Everybody believed in God. Why wouldn’t they? Once every couple of months or so they’d get to see God; he’d make a spot check on them, and they’d all have to get into line whilst God looked them all over and up and down and every which way he chose.
The chief of the peoples was called Moses, and so it was that when God decided he ought to set down some of his commandments in stone, it was Moses who would traipse up the side of Mount Sinai every morning to record them. God told Moses that he really didn’t have to be the one who did all the secretarial work – “Haven’t you heard of delegation?” he asked – but Moses just said this was an important job and as team leader he wanted to make sure it was done right. They’d work from nine in the morning til five in the afternoon, with a lunch break never to exceed sixty minutes in duration, and God would impart to Moses the laws by which Mankind was now to live, and Moses would chip them down into marble with a hammer and chisel. Moses never passed comment upon any of the commandments, not even God’s really good ones, the ones God thought were truly inspired and that he had taken all night to come up with. They didn’t fraternise. In the lunch hour God ate alone in his office; Moses had usually packed sandwiches and had them at his desk.
One day Moses didn’t show up for work. Instead, with slab of marble at the ready, was Kevin Collins.
“Where’s Moses?” asked God.
“Off sick,” said Kevin. “Think it’s a cold or something. Anyway. I’m Kevin. I’m the temp.”
God wasn’t very good with faces, but he could tell immediately that Kevin looked very different to Moses. He didn’t look quite as respectful, somehow, and that worried God a bit, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why Kevin seemed disrespectful, not as such – he’d dart a look at him every now and again to catch any hint of insubordination, but there was nothing, really – the eyes were livelier, maybe, they twinkled a bit, and God wondered whether there was something ironic in that twinkle when he was called ‘Lord’ or ‘Sir’, but he couldn’t honestly tell – his skin seemed finer than Moses’ skin, his beard was shorter – wait, Kevin didn’t even have a beard – that was it, that was the problem, this Kevin was young. “I hope you realise the great importance of what we’re doing,” growled God to him at some point, and Kevin politely said he did, and smiled, and God still wasn’t able to decide whether there was something just a little jocular about that smile. And, indeed, he had to admit he had nothing to be concerned about. Kevin was just as good a worker as Moses. If anything, he was rather better. The younger man could hold up the marble slab for longer before getting tired, and the handwriting seemed neater and more confident, there had been a wobble to Moses’ own style that possibly came from the fact his hands shook so much.
In the afternoon, Kevin said, “Got to say, I loved the one about not coveting your neighbour’s ass. That was brilliant.”
“Oh, thank you,” said God, surprised. “Thanks.” He thought for a bit. “Why?”
“Well, you know. It’s an ass.”
“Yes?” said God.
“Asses are funny, aren’t they?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes,” said God. “I suppose they are.”
Kevin chuckled at the thought of asses, and of anyone fool enough to covet asses, for a moment longer. “Brilliant,” he said to himself.
They worked in silence for the rest of the afternoon, though God felt something had happened, the mood had lightened somewhat. And he wondered what Kevin would make of the next commandment up his sleeve, the one about honouring fathers and mothers, he wondered whether he’d think that was brilliant too.
At five o’clock God said, “That’s it for the day,” and Kevin nodded, stretched, and laid down his chisel, nearly halfway through carving a ‘shalt’.
Kevin got his things together. “Well, night then,” he said.
“Good night,” said God.
“And what are you up to this evening?”
“You’ve got nothing planned? Going to stay in, take it easy, yeah? Brilliant.”
No one had ever asked God before what he might be up to of an evening, not any evening, not ever. “Oh,” said God. “Well. I might work on some more commandments.”
“Might come up with some new ones. You know.”
“Okay,” said Kevin. “Well, don’t you work too hard, eh? You know what they say. All work and no play, and all that.”
“No,” said God. “What do they say?”
“You know. Makes you dull or something.”
“You think your Lord and God is dull?” And there was just a hint of thunder in God’s voice, there was a distant rumble and the skies blackened somewhat.
If Kevin had noticed he didn’t show it. “Nah,” he said. “I mean, come on. You’re the guy who came up with the ass, right?” And he grinned. And God couldn’t help it, he grinned right back, and the clouds parted, and there was sunshine.
God thought about Kevin that night. He went back to the first draft he’d made of his ass commandment, the one which said, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass, or anything else belonging to the neighbour, or any ass belonging to anyone not your neighbour, or anything else belonging to anyone else,” and wondered whether that had been even funnier.
The next day Kevin came to work again. He was twenty minutes late. “Sorry, sorry,” said Kevin. “I overslept, yeah? I’ll make up for it in the lunch hour, yeah?”
“You’ll have to,” said God.
“Sure. And how are you today, God? You get up to any fun last night?”
“I think,” pronounced God, “we should get started, shouldn’t we? There’s a lot to do, and enough time has been wasted already.”
“You’re the boss,” said Kevin amiably, and finished off last night’s ‘shalt’ with cheery gusto. He began to whistle as he worked, and God didn’t like whistling. But he hadn’t the heart to tell Kevin off, it was just a little whistle, quiet through the front teeth, and besides, it was quite a nice tune, God thought it was quite nice.
Good progress was made that morning, and at lunchtime God told Kevin that he could take his full hour’s break after all, and Kevin smiled, and said, “Sure.” God said, “And I’m perfectly fine, thank you for asking.”
Kevin didn’t seem surprised it had taken God so long to answer his question. “That’s good,” he said. “Because, you know, I’d have thought it must get a bit lonely, up here on your own.”
“Oh no,” said God. “No. No, no.”
“No. I don’t have time to get lonely. There’s so much to do. There’s always so very much to do.”
Kevin nodded, and agreed that there must be, yeah.
God decided he wouldn’t eat his lunch shut in his office today, he stayed out with Kevin. God ate some manna, and Kevin ate a sausage sandwich, and God rather liked the look of that sausage sandwich, and Kevin asked whether he’d like one, and God said that’d be lovely if Kevin didn’t mind, and Kevin didn’t, so God took a sausage sandwich, and asked Kevin whether he’d like some of his manna, and Kevin said no, he was okay.
Around half past four, God cleared his throat, and said, “So, what are you up to this evening?”
“Well,” Kevin said, “it’s Friday night, isn’t it? Friday nights I go down the pub with the lads. Gary, Barry, and Stew, Stew talks such shit, he’s brilliant, he’s mental. Have a few beers, it’s a laugh. Hey, you could come with us if you like.”
“Me?” said God. “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”
“Why not? The lads won’t mind.”
“But it wouldn’t be. Well. It wouldn’t be professional. Would it? If I were seen to, you know. I have to maintain a certain authority, I wouldn’t want to be recognised, I wouldn’t want to be seen, I… I’m God, I’m your lord and master.”
“No one’s lord of anyone on a Friday night,” said Kevin. “But it’s up to you.”
Around quarter to five, God cleared his throat again. Said, “I do get a bit lonely, actually.” And Kevin said, “You could wear a hat.” And that was the matter sorted.
And so, disguised in a blue baseball cap, God followed Kevin into the pub. There were butterflies in his stomach, he hadn’t felt this nervous since he’d triggered the Big Bang – but maybe nerves were a good thing, maybe they made him feel alive. He was introduced to Gary, Barry and Stew. “This is Norman,” said Kevin, “I know him from work;” “All right?” Gary, Barry and Stew all said, but they didn’t seem especially interested in the answer. The pub was full to heaving, crushed with the bodies of all God’s followers let loose at week’s end with a pay cheque, and it was very loud, and to hear what Gary, Barry and Stew had to say God had to huddle closer to them than he really felt comfortable with. “I’ll get the first round,” said Kevin, and God said he’d go with him to the bar and help carry the pints back, he just didn’t want to be left alone with the lads, he’d already run out of things to say to them. “They’re just the lads,” Kevin reassured God as they waited to get served, “they’re brilliant, they’re nothing to worry about.” Kevin ordered five pints of lager, and together they steered the glasses back to the table. God had never tasted lager before, and discovered it got better the more he swallowed – by the end it wasn’t horrid at all, it was brilliant, yeah, brilliant. The lads all talked about girls, and how much they liked girls, and whether certain girls were up for it or not, and how the ones who weren’t up for it were ugly anyway, ugly or lesbian – and God felt quite proud, he’d been the one who’d created girls in the first place, girls were really his whole idea, he was rather inclined to tell the lads and take the credit. But that would give away his identity, and even four pints down he still wasn’t able to lose that many of his inhibitions. Barry knocked his glass on to the table, mock accidentally, and said, “Just as well my glass were empty,” and the lads all laughed, and looked at God pointedly, and Kevin had to tell him it was his round. And God blushed bright red and said sorry – and he went to the bar and to make up for it, he ordered ten pints of lager, yeah, and five packets of crisps whilst you’re at it, and peanuts too, no, I don’t mind, salted, dry roasted, what’s easier – he didn’t want the lads to think he was mean. “You shouldn’t try so hard,” Kevin hissed at him, but the lads didn’t seem to mind, they cheered him as he necked one pint and then the other and they tried to match him for speed. And Gary tried to say something funny but the words didn’t come out right, but that didn’t matter, that was quite funny anyway, and Stew – well, Stew talked such shit all right, he made God laugh so hard with all that shit, he was mental, he was brilliant, the lads were all brilliant, God liked making new friends.
A bell was rung, and the barman called time, and the lads groaned and said they weren’t done yet. There was this club nearby that was open all night, Barry said, although it may have been Gary – a cover charge to get in, but drinks till dawn. So they went down there, and there was a huge queue to get inside, and the lads kept on saying it wasn’t worth it, they should just give up and go home, it wasn’t fucking worth it – and then suddenly they were at the front of the queue, so that was all right. A man on the door the size of Goliath told God he couldn’t come in wearing his baseball cap, and God said he wouldn’t take it off, and Goliath said he wouldn’t be let in then – and God said, “I’m keeping my baseball cap on, and I’m coming in, no feat is too impossible for your Lord,” and it wasn’t clear what happened, it was as if Goliath just gave up, he sort of shrugged, and sighed, and waved them all in. God had thought that the pub was busy, but the club was just wall to wall flesh, he hadn’t realised he’d created quite so many people, he began to wonder whether it’d be time soon for another cull. And the noise was loud, you had to shout to hear yourself heard, the bass music got into everything, it got into your very bones. Gary and Barry and Stew were soon lost within the crowd, and God never saw any of them again, except for Stew a couple of hours later who seemed to bob to the surface like some stray piece of jetsam only to be pulled back under the surface again – God called out to Stew then, but Stew didn’t seem to recognise God, maybe he was too pissed, maybe he just didn’t care. God grabbed on to Kevin’s arm – “Don’t you leave me,” he said, and Kevin promised he wouldn’t.
A couple more pints later Kevin shouted to God, “I think those girls are eyeing us up. Which do you prefer, the blonde or the brunette?” And God opened his mouth to say that he thought he should get home now, he was tired and he had to write more commandments in the morning, but what came out was, “The blonde! The blonde! The blonde!”, and Kevin laughed. The blonde shouted her name was Cheryl. The brunette shouted her name was Cheryl too. “That must be handy!” shouted Kevin, and the girls laughed, they shouted back that it was handy, they were inseparable, the two Cheryls, they were like sisters, like. Kevin took his Cheryl on to the dance floor. The blonde Cheryl said to God, “I like your baseball cap!” And God said, “I like your… hair. I like your hair. Your hair.” She pulled him on to the dance floor too. She didn’t seem interested in dancing, she just gyrated her body against God’s irrespective of the music’s rhythm, and God tried to gyrate back but found it just made the room spin. Cheryl gave him a pill, and he swallowed it, and he told her he now wanted to create entire new worlds, entire new planets from scratch, he could do it too – but she wasn’t listening. She put her tongue in his mouth and God tasted fags and booze and sweet fruit, the fruit was ever so sweet. God told her he loved her, or started to tell her he loved her, or only mumbled it so she didn’t hear, or only thought it so no one would ever hear, and then he panicked, he couldn’t see Kevin anywhere, he thought he’d lost Kevin – but then he saw Kevin, it was all right, and Kevin was snogging too, and then Kevin caught God’s eye, raised a thumb and grinned, and God wasn’t sure what that meant – but then Kevin was leading his girl out to the back, and God supposed he ought to do the same. In the alley outside the sudden cold hit him, and he could now see Cheryl more clearly, and he didn’t think she was a real blonde. Kevin was leaning against a wall and was back to the snogging, and God thought he’d copy some of his moves. And then Cheryl said, really very politely, “Do excuse me, I’m about to be sick.” And she was, and God was relieved, frankly, it could so easily have been him who’d been sick first.
“I am your lord and master!” said God. He began to shout it rather a lot. He told Kevin he wanted to go home now. Kevin told him he was quite busy. “Don’t leave me,” said God, “you said you wouldn’t leave me.” And Kevin sighed, looked at the brunette, who was so obviously gagging for it, you know – and looked back at God, who was his mate. “All right,” he said. And he took God off to find a taxi. “Take him to Mount Sinai,” Kevin said to the driver, “take care of him, yeah?” And God said, no, no, not to Mount Sinai! It made it obvious who he was! No one should know who he was! The lord and master! – and Kevin took hold of God by the shoulders, very gently, and it seemed that there were too Kevins dancing in front of God’s eyes – “No one cares who you are,” Kevin said. “Do you hear me, God? No one cares.”
The next morning God rolled out of bed early to start work as usual, and his head was swimming, and he had the most peculiar bad taste in his mouth. So he commanded that no one should work on the Sabbath, got back into bed, pulled the covers over his face, and went to sleep.
God didn’t know what he was going to say to Kevin, and he rehearsed many different openings leading to many different outcomes. But Kevin didn’t come to work on Monday. Moses was there, the same long beard, the same respectful expression, those eyes that never twinkled. “I’m feeling better now,” he said. God didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.
At length God said to Moses, “Your replacement. Kevin Collins, I think that was his name.”
“I don’t want him working for me any more.”
“Yes, Lord. Do you want him stoned, or crucified, or…?”
“No, no!” said God. “Can’t we just sack him? Can’t we just let him go?”
“Without necessarily killing him in any way? I just… Look. I don’t want to see him ever again. All right? Does that make sense?”
God then said, as an afterthought, “And I want you to tell him. Um. It wasn’t him. All right? It was me.”
And later he said, as another afterthought, “And. If he wants any references. You know. Tell him they’ll be excellent.”
Moses worked diligently that day, but he wasn’t as fast as Kevin had been, his writing really was more quavery, and he didn’t whistle. God felt the urge to make up a really stupid commandment, just to see if Moses would react. But he knew he probably wouldn’t.
Five o’clock, time for Moses to go home. He got up to leave without a word.
“Just a second,” said God, and Moses stopped. He turned back towards God, but didn’t look him in the face, he never looked God in the face, what was all that about? “Moses, my commandment about the neighbour’s ass. I was wondering. What do you think if it?”
Moses stood up straight and tall, as if he were on parade. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass, sir!” he barked.
God thought about that for a moment. “That’s it, Moses, that’s right,” he said, and sighed, and he felt something light fall from his shoulders, and something heavy as stone take its place, and that was right, that was just, that was Godly. “Well done.”
God had had such plans for the commandments. He’d thought at first he might write a million of them! But his appetite for the project had gone. After he’d dictated the tenth, he said to Moses, “Well, I reckon that’s your lot.” God thanked Moses for his sterling work, shook him by the hand, and told him they wouldn’t be meeting again.
And once he was on his own, he stretched out Mount Sinai, good and long, some seven and a half thousand feet into the air, so no one would want to climb it. And he locked his doors.
One evening, listlessly going through his pockets, he found a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. It was written in lipstick. He couldn’t be sure who it belonged to, but he had his suspicions. “Hello, is that Cheryl?” he asked, when a young woman answered. He wondered if it were the right Cheryl. Cheryl was polite, but he didn’t think she remembered who he was. “I’m Kevin’s friend,” he said at last. At that he could hear her voice lighten. “Oh, Kevin’s friend, yes, hello!” They arranged to meet for a drink, but at the last moment God didn’t bother to go.
He threw out his baseball cap. Then retrieved it from the rubbish. He threw it out quite often, usually in the dead of night, usually if he’d been drinking. It was always waiting for him in the morning.
And many years later, God received a Christmas card from Kevin. It was the very first Christmas, in fact, Kevin wanted to send his congratulations. ‘Congratulations’, was all the card said, there wasn’t even an exclamation mark that might make it sound softer or warmer or more jolly, and God wondered whether the message was ironic. When God thought back on Kevin Collins, he often wondered whether all of that, that spark of friendship, had been meant ironically.
God mulled over the card for a few days, then decided to reply. He used a really nice Christmas card, one of the expensive ones, not a jokey one with reindeer on but something fancy with his son in a manger and angels all around. And he wrote a long letter to Kevin inside. He said he was sorry. He said he hadn’t been a good friend to Kevin, he wasn’t very good at handling that sort of thing, maybe he had something broken inside. He said he was still lonely. He said he missed him.
Of course, he didn’t send it. But it helped him to write it all out. It helped, for a while.
God hadn’t been to a party in ages, God didn’t like parties, but this was Baal’s party, and God always felt it best to attend parties thrown by the minor deities, he didn’t want to seem grand and standoffish. And it was there that he saw Kevin Collins, and he didn’t recognise him at first – he’d put on weight, his skin was sagging, he had a long white Moses beard, he was old.
God’s first instincts were to turn and run, and then he thought, why should I run? I’m God. I’m God, and what is he? He’s nothing. And he put on a big smile, the one he kept for Popes and martyrs, and stepped forward to greet him.
“Kevin, isn’t it?” he said. “Kevin, how are you? You’re looking good.” No, not merely old, this man was decaying!
“Thanks, I’m fine,” said Kevin Collins, a little stiffly.
“So! So, you got a job working with Baal, then? Glad things worked out okay.”
“Yes, I got a job. Eventually I got a job. Even without a reference. If you’ll excuse me.” And Kevin turned to go.
And God actually felt the blood drain from his face. “No, wait,” he said. “Wait, Kevin, that isn’t fair. I gave you a reference. I told Moses. I said, give him a reference.”
“If you say so.”
“No, please.” And he was holding on to Kevin’s arm. “I can’t have you thinking that… Jesus. You don’t mean to say you didn’t get it? It was a good reference. Kevin, I promise you. The best reference. You have to believe me.”
“Okay,” said Kevin. “You sent a reference, okay.”
“No, but it’s important,” said God, and his fingers were digging into Kevin’s arm tight. “I can’t bear the idea that you have spent, what? All this time, millennia now, thinking I didn’t give you a good reference? Tell me you believe me. I’m a good guy. I wouldn’t have done that to you.”
“Tell me you believe me.”
“Please, let me go.”
“First, tell me you believe me.”
“I believe you, sure.”
“I’m a good guy.”
“You’re a good guy.”
“Good. Because I did, Kevin, send that reference. I know I didn’t treat you… I know mistakes were… But I would never, ever, have held you back. I’m not a vengeful god.”
“Okay,” said God. “Brilliant! And look, this is silly. We should catch up. We should definitely do that, and have a drink some time. Would you like that? We should definitely exchange phone numbers. Have you got a phone number?”
“Can you write it down for me? If I, if I let go of your arm…”
“Sure,” said Kevin. “There. We’ll have a drink. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Sure,” said God.
“It’s the boss’ party, I have to mingle…”
“Sure,” said God.
God thought that maybe they’d have that drink. But Kevin’s eyes hadn’t twinkled much. Maybe that meant he wasn’t being sincere. Or maybe with age his eyes didn’t twinkle any more.
The music got louder, there was dancing. And drinking, oh, and God remembered he did like parties, why did he always forget? Parties were brilliant. God and Kevin didn’t speak again all night, but once in a while their eyes would catch, and God would smile, and Kevin smiled back. So that was a good thing. That was a good thing. Probably.
The blonde girl was at God’s arm suddenly. “I like the baseball cap,” she said. She smelled of fags and booze and blood.
“Thanks,” he said. He was glad, actually, he wasn’t talking to Kevin much, the old man would have cramped his style. “I’m God, and you are…?”
“Impressed,” the girl finished. “I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are.” She leaned into him, suggested something in his ear.
“Yes,” said God. “Yes, I would like that.” And he let her take him by the hand, she knew where she was going, he’d let her be the boss. And they went somewhere private.