On a Lighter Note

“Anyway, that’s that. Very little I can do about it all now. I can’t really talk about it, to be honest,” he says, with a helpless shrug. “On a lighter note, infanticide.”

I nod, relieved. I have been hoping this would come up sooner, rather than later. I can guess what he’s about to say and I’m prepared.

“There is no compelling evidence that Herod did carry out the Massacre of the Innocents,” he begins, authoritatively, “despite that story being the main thing most people think they know about him. It only features in Matthew, nowhere else. Josephus doesn’t mention it at all and that’s definitely the sort of thing he would have included in his story, had it happened.”

I try not to roll my eyes and repeat once more that the whole point had been that we’d decided on Josephus as a good Greek chorus-slash-unreliable narrator, precisely because he was such a slippery sod. “He was writing for a Greco-Roman readership, remember, and killing kids was workaday stuff for them. Maybe he left it out because it wouldn’t appeal to his audience. Unlike ours.” I gesture to the somber congregation of fellow regulars gathered at the bar. They are all silent, frowning at crosswords or gazing, in deep contemplation, into their drinks. It occurs to me that none of them actually would be interested in our play.

He shakes his head and takes a sip of the pint he’s been holding up next to his mouth while I’ve been speaking. “Nope. No. Wrong. It might have been normal for them, but it certainly was not in Judea. We need to present Herod in a more sympathetic light than people will be expecting. Otherwise people won’t buy into him as a tragic hero.”

He is starting to look agitated. I decide to let it go. He can have this one, I suppose. I remember what he said about his dad. I think about the time I watched him play piano—Mozart—angrily for too long at a party and how genuinely unsettling it had been. A frantic exorcism of some kind. I feel a familiar impulse to make everything light again for him.

“Well, I reckon after we’ve written this, our next King Lear-style tragedy should be about Jim Davidson.”

Ben’s face relaxes and he almost smiles. That’s it, I think. I hope that he is silently comparing himself to Jim Davidson, and feeling validated; one step towards actually forgiving himself for all those nameless, formless, imaginary wrongs.

“You’re Scottish,” he says. “What about John Knox?”

I consider this. “Nah. Only people with awful piles can truly understand the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.”

He nods sagely. We both sip silently for a moment.

“Oh—did I tell you I vomited at work the other day?” he says. I shake my head. “All over the floor between the kitchen and the till. Luckily, Murray wasn’t there and no one saw. But it was rank.”

I remind him of his often repeated, now familiar brag that he is immune to hangovers these days.

“I am, usually. But I’d not eaten dinner and I’d been drinking red wine all night. It smelled like vinegar and looked like blood.”

“Then why did you keep drinking it all night?”

“Not the wine, the spew.” He rolls his eyes up to the ceiling, and fixes them there. He inhales audibly. There is a suddenly an uncomfortable unspoken understanding between us, and it prevents us from looking at each other. We both channel our gaze back towards the regulars at the bar.

I wonder if we will ever write a play, but at least we’ll talk about off and on, and allow ourselves to cling to the idea of rewriting the old stories. We also know there are a thousand ways to slaughter the innocents. And they stay slaughtered.  

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