Sample: © A. Colin Wright. For the story in its entirety, see www.authorsden.com/acolinwright

                                       

                                            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?”