cover missing

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by John Niven

Dedication

Title Page

Epigraph

Part One: Heaven

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Part Two: New York City

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Part Three: Road Trip

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Part Four: Los Angeles

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Part Five: Paradise, Texas

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Part Six: Aftermath

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Copyright

About the Book

God takes a look at the Earth around the time of the Renaissance and everything looks pretty good – so he takes a holiday. In Heaven-time this is just a week’s fishing trip, but on Earth several hundred years go by. When God returns, he finds all hell has broken loose: world wars, holocausts, famine, capitalism and ‘fucking Christians everywhere’. There’s only one thing for it. They’re sending the kid back.

JC, reborn, is a struggling musician in New York City, trying to teach the one true commandment: Be Nice! His best chance to win hearts and minds is to enter American Pop Star. But the number one show in America is the unholy creation of a record executive who’s more than a match for the Son of God ... Steven Stelfox.

About the Author

John Niven was born in Irvine, Ayrshire. He read English Literature at Glasgow University and spent the next ten years working in the UK music industry. He has written for The Sunday Times, The Times, Scotland on Sunday, Esquire and many other publications. He is the author of six novels including Kill Your Friends and Straight White Male. He lives in Buckinghamshire.

The Second Coming

John Niven

 

ALSO BY JOHN NIVEN

Music from Big Pink

Kill Your Friends

The Amateurs

Cold Hands

Straight White Male

For my Mother

1

‘GOD’S COMING – LOOK BUSY!’

SO SAYS THE tattered sticker on the metal filing cabinet by the water cooler. But today it’s no joke: God really is coming and people really are trying to look busy. Raphael and Michael are standing next to the bubbling glass dome, both clutching sheets of paper (that time-honoured office trick, designed to make the wanderer appear purposeful) and their conversation – in contrast to the leisurely banter the two angels have enjoyed around this very water cooler for the past week – is snatched, hurried and delivered sotto voce out of the corners of their mouths, accompanied by nervy glances down the main hallway.

‘When’s the old man getting back?’ Raphael says.

‘Any time now. Late morning according to Jeannie,’ Michael replies without looking at his friend. He’s concentrating on the cooler, tugging the lever for the water, a big bubble flubbing up in the crystal tank.

‘Shit. Think He’s gonna be pissed?’

‘Pissed?’ Michael considers this, looking out over the main office, sipping his water.

The main office in Heaven is much like any other open-plan office – cubicles, desks with metal filing baskets on them, telephones, waste-paper baskets, photocopiers and shelves full of files – but there are differences too. There is, of course, no strip lighting in Heaven: rather everything is suffused, bathed, washed, whatever you’d like to call it, with pure celestial light, the freshly minted light of a perfect May morning. The atmosphere is generally one of happy, focused, excited work (although today, for the obvious reasons, there is an undercurrent of nervy anticipation), for in the main office in Heaven it is, of course, forever Friday afternoon. Another slight difference – the honeycomb of desks and cubicles extends as far as the eye can see, flattening out towards the horizon and surrounded by cotton wisps of clouds. It may surprise some to learn that people work in Heaven, but it was one of God’s most inspired directives. (And God is no stranger to inspired directives.) ‘People want to work,’ He told Peter. ‘Shit, people need to work. Look at the long-term unemployed. Look at the idle rich. They look happy to you?’ Therefore anyone in Heaven who wants a job – and most do – is given one.

Michael tips the paper cup back and closes his eyes in pleasure as the last drops sluice down his throat. The water in Heaven . . . well, you can imagine.

‘Pissed?’ Michael repeats. ‘He’s gonna go fucking nuts.’

Even Jeannie, God’s PA, who is normally unflappable, who, like the chess grandmaster, routinely thinks fifteen or twenty moves ahead, even Jeannie is a little on edge this morning. She’s in her early forties, once insanely attractive, now just very. ‘No, Seb,’ she is saying to one of her two assistants, ‘He’ll want it chronological. Put those boxes at the front.’ In God’s outer office Jeannie is putting together a review of the last four hundred or so years on earth. There’s a lot of stuff: boxes of files, papers and DVDs are piled high on a chain of trolley carts many miles long. There are a couple of miles of carts filled with CDs alone; the entire recorded musical output of earth for four centuries.

Sebastian is bickering with Lance, Jeannie’s other assistant. ‘No, asshole! Those should go with these, if –’

‘Ooh, get her!’ Lance says, flattening a hand on his chest. It’s hard to tell which of them is camper.

Something Jeannie learned early on when it came to hiring staff for the inner sanctum, and something they seemed to have gotten strangely wrong on earth: God loves fags.

‘Because, dumb-ass, Jeannie’s saying it’s to be chronological!’

‘Oh, be nice!’ Lance says, waving him away. ‘I was trying to hide it.’ He holds up a file marked ‘CATHOLIC CHURCH: RECENT HISTORY’. ‘You think He’s gonna want to read this?’

‘Come on, you two,’ Jeannie finally snaps as her phone starts ringing. ‘Just get on with it. And there’s no point trying to hide anything. He’ll read it all.’ Then into the phone, ‘Yep?’ Jeannie listens. ‘Aha. Yep. OK.’ She puts the receiver back down. Seb and Lance look at her expectantly. ‘He’s on His way up,’ Jeannie says.

God, coming through the main office, beaming, slapping backs, exchanging hellos, returning high fives, stopping to talk with people in cubicles. He’s now into what people on earth would perceive as his mid-fifties and he’s . . . ‘handsome’ wouldn’t quite cover it. God is movie-star handsome, He’s a goddamn heart-throb is what He is. His hair, once black as motor oil, is now flecked with silver. Silver in His week-old stubble too. And those eyes – pale, pale blue, the blue of the shallow water in a tropical lagoon at midday on a summer afternoon. God picks up His rod and walks on down the hall.

He is dressed in fishing gear: plaid shirt, canvas waistcoat with various bits of paraphernalia stuffed in the pockets. On His head He wears a battered fisherman’s hat with brightly coloured flies and lures stuck to it. In one hand He carries his rod and tackle box; in the other hand three fat, perfectly speckled trout dangle from a piece of line tied through the gills.

‘Hey, Marcus!’ God shouts to the black kid from the mailroom. ‘How’s it hanging, son?’

‘Between ma knees, big guy!’ Marcus shouts across. God laughs. God loves spades.

He throws the doors to His outer office open. ‘Honeee, I’m home!’ He says as he hugs Jeannie with whom He enjoys a healthy flirtation.

‘Welcome back, sir!’ Jeannie says.

‘You miss me?’

‘Of course we did.’

‘Hey, fellas,’ God says to Seb and Lance. ‘How’s tricks?’

‘Great!’ Seb beams, nervous.

‘Hey,’ Lance says, running a hand down God’s battered canvas waistcoat, ‘nice outfit. I normally don’t care for John Deere but this . . .’

God laughs. ‘Get her.’

‘And how was your vacation?’ Jeannie asks.

‘Oh, terrific. Just terrific. You were absolutely right. I will not be leaving it so long before I have another one.’

‘Mmmm.’ Jeannie smiles, thinking about how quickly this view might be changing. It is painful for her to see Him in such a good mood when she knows that the mood will soon be shattered.

‘Oh, here . . .’ God swings the trout up and passes them to her. ‘For you. Just brush ’em with a little butter, salt and pepper, thank you, Seb,’ God says, taking the steaming coffee mug that says ‘I’M THE BOSS’. ‘Stick ’em in the oven at about 350 for fifteen minutes. Squeeze of lemon juice when they’re done. Mmmm!’ God kisses His bunched fingertips. ‘I been eating ’em straight out the river for the past week. So – what did I miss?’

‘Well,’ Jeannie says as she leads the way towards God’s private office. She throws the doors open: the office is the size of a football field and is covered by several city skylines of boxes.

‘Shit,’ God says, blowing on His coffee. ‘They been busy down there, huh?’

‘Mmm-hmmm,’ Jeannie says, not making eye contact. ‘Now, a lot of the older stuff’s in these files, but the more recent data’s on disks, videotape and on your hard drive.’

‘Huh?’ God says.

God is a fast learner – the fastest. Under Jeannie’s tuition it takes Him maybe one and a half cups of coffee to get to grips with all the technology that has made its way up since he left for vacation: phones, email, computers, CDs, DVDs, television and the like. A brief detour on the fax machine, a now redundant piece of twentieth-century hardware. All this cool stuff that wasn’t around when He left. Busy little creatures. He enjoys a playful diversion catching up on video games: stunned that it seemed to take them a quarter of a century to get from Donkey Kong to Halo 3. (He completes the latter in seven minutes.)

‘Jeannie,’ God says, standing up, stretching, surveying the miles of boxes, the files glowing on the screen of his new laptop, ‘is this going to make me unhappy?’

‘Ah, I think that’s a fair assessment, sir.’

God moves forward, sits His coffee on a packing crate and picks up a file at random. It is marked ‘18th CENTURY: SLAVE TRADE’. Huh? Slavery God was familiar with, unfortunately. Bastard Pharaohs had been mental for it. But slave trade? ‘The fuck is the “slave trade”?’ God asks, opening the file, frowning.

‘I think it’s best if we give you some time to go through all this,’ Jeannie says.

2

A WORD HERE about the difference between celestial time and time as it is experienced on earth. Time still passes in eternity but slower. Much, much slower. A day in heaven passes by at about the same rate as approximately fifty-seven earth years. When God took His first – until this past week His only – vacation four point six billion years ago it was the Hadean aeon. There was no oxygen and the earth was basically still a molten ball, fresh and smoking from the Big Bang some ten billion years before. (That had been a total accident, of course. God enjoys the occasional morning toke, but sometimes rues the results. Hammerhead sharks? Platypuses? The baboon’s ass? Come on. You’d cut back, wouldn’t you?) It would be thousands of years before there were even oceans. A guy could take a little time out, right?

When He took this week off it had been the year 1609 on earth, the height of the Renaissance, which God had been enjoying enormously. Copernicus, Michelangelo, da Vinci. What’s not to like? When He left, tackle box tucked under His arm, fishing hat jauntily perched on his head, King Lear was being performed on the London stage while, across town, Bacon worked on De Sapientia Veterum Liber. El Greco – tongue pressed into his upper lip in concentration, brush trembling – was painting The Opening of the Fifth Seal. Galileo was squinting through his prototype telescope, his eyes alighting for the first time on Jupiter’s four satellite moons. Monteverdi had recently finished composing L’Orfeo. A good time to go fishing, God thought.

When He returned from the far-flung countryside of Heaven, refreshed and bearing trout, almost exactly four hundred years had passed. It was the year 2011 on earth. As we know, it had not been an uneventful four centuries . . .

God is a fast reader. The fastest. He is capable of digesting thousands of dense documents near simultaneously while watching the videotapes and DVDs and clicking through the computer files that make up His briefing on the latter part of the time He has missed. It takes God the whole morning and a little of the lunch hour to get up to speed. He quickly learns a torrent of geography: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Belsen, Guantánamo, Belfast, Cambodia, Vietnam, Flanders, Ypres, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Bosnia. From time to time Jeannie, Lance and Seb jump at their desks as they hear the muffled screams and cries.

As He works through the twentieth century – pausing regularly to throw up – God learns about strange, incredible new concepts, about capitalism and communism. About nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. About the military-industrial complex. About pro-life and zero tolerance. About junk bonds and short-selling. Gazumping and negative equity. Fatwa and jihad. Ethnic cleansing and repatriation. Photos, taken in hot, dusty squares in Arabic countries: two gay kids being hanged. A woman, an adulteress, crying, buried up to her shoulders in sand, a crowd of men hefting stones visible a few yards away. He turns to the computer and clicks on a file on the desktop marked ‘Islamic Fundamentalism: Beliefs and Practices’. Mmm, something called the Taliban. Right, what was going on with these dudes? Busting some bad-assed beards from the looks of things . . .

A few minutes later Jeannie can hear muffled screams and swearing coming through those heavy, cathedral-sized doors. Stuff being kicked over.

God reads about the burqa and the hijab. The deal according to these dudes seemed to be something like this: all men are barely contained rapists who can be provoked by even a glimpse of an ankle. So chicks have to march about in head-to-toe black sacks. But all women are basically temptress whores who want to fuck all men all the time. So if one of them somehow breaks a good, honest married man down by wantonly flashing, say, a kneecap at him, and he gives in and fucks her, then it is suitable for her to be literally stoned to death – a big circle of men hurling rocks at her fucking head – while the guy gets a parking ticket. He reads on – a list of stuff the Taliban guys were resolutely not having: ‘pork, pig, pig oil, human hair products, satellite dishes, cinematography, music and equipment that produces the joy of music, pool tables, chess, masks, alcohol, tapes, computers, VCRs, television, anything that propagates sex, wine, lobster, nail polish, firecrackers, statues, sewing catalogues, pictures and Christmas cards’.

Sewing catalogues?

He reads about the execution of homosexuals. The stoning and whipping of people for . . . well, for not very much really. About a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl getting hanged for something called ‘crimes against chastity’.

Then, for balance you understand, He watches a quick compendium of the most popular American TV shows – a gang bang of reality buffoonery, get-rich-quick, get-famous-quick nonsense – and, just for a brief moment, He gets a flash of how those Taliban dudes must be feeling, sat there in your cave, with your AK-47 and your bowl of mung, thinking about fucking a goat while you’re watching America’s Newest Top Whore Meets the Kardashians. God experiences an urge to ban television Himself.

A couple of fingers of malt whisky and a big, tightly packed joint constitute lunch and help get Him through more of the recent past: Deforestation. Globalisation. Collateral damage. Brand awareness. Marketing. Product placement. Corporate sponsorship. Inbuilt obsolescence. Republicans.

For the remainder of His lunch hour, God weeps.

In the outer office Jeannie has sent the boys off to lunch. She bites her lip as she listens to Him sobbing, a sound she has never heard before. Because, despite His chummy, friendly demeanour, God is old school: a tough guy. A man’s man. After a while it is quiet for a long time.

When He throws the doors open He has composed himself. Only the slightest rawness in the voice would give away what has just happened. Jeannie looks up and swallows. He is no longer heartbroken, He simply looks very, very angry. This is actually a good sign, Jeannie thinks.

‘Jeannie,’ God says softly, His throat raw, His fury quiet and controlled, ‘where is the little bastard?’

3

IT’S LIKE, UH, like a dip type of thing, you know? Kinda like baba ganoush? I think there’s chickpeas in there, maybe a little cumin, lemon juice, onion, and, uh, here . . .’

Jesus takes a heroic toke on the blunt and passes it back. The reefer in Heaven – well, you can imagine. You know what He left down here, right? Shit, even Thai stick doesn’t cut it in Heaven.

‘. . . and, uh, garlic. But it’s not like one of those garlicky things where you’re like “uh, there’s a lot of garlic in this, man”. It’s just like a hint. They spread it on this really thin, toasted pitta bread and it’s like . . . ohhh, mama!’

‘Shit, man,’ Jimi says, drawing heavily on the blunt himself now, ‘shut the fuck up! You’re making me hungry.’

‘I’m telling you, baby, I had it down there a couple of times. The Middle East, it, it’s like a really underrated food region. I, fuck, I’m . . .’ He gazes off into the thick blue skeins of marijuana smoke, his train of thought tumbling off the tracks and barrelling down a hillside.

Stoned? Wrecked? Blitzed? Totalled? Wasted? Trashed?

No.

Jesus is cunted.

They’re stretched out with the usual paraphernalia scattered around – a cooler full of beers, ashtrays, pipes and bongs, roaches, torn cigarette packets, pizza boxes, amplifiers and leads. Jimi is cradling his white Fender Stratocaster. Jesus’ rosewood Gibson SG lies on a cushion beside him. Jesus has inherited many features from his dad: he’s tall too, a little over six foot, and undeniably good-looking, with those liquid blue eyes. (Admittedly, they’re flecked with red right now.) The hair is blond though, thick and long, hanging down to his shoulders. Absent-mindedly, Jimi flicks off a little riff high up on the fretboard, the last note echoing off into the clouds around them.

‘Wow,’ Jesus says. ‘How d’ya do that?’

‘It’s just a little blues thing, man.’

Jesus picks up his guitar and Jimi begins showing him the lick. Jesus likes fooling around with Jimi best. There were some other great players up here, no question – Roy Buchanan can really make that Telecaster cry, but Roy can be, well, cranky. Jimi, on the other hand, is such a nice dude. Hendrix, in his turn, has found Jesus to be a very promising pupil, a more than capable rhythm player who has some talent for chunky, ringing bursts of lead. Guy had a great voice too, no denying that. A few passes and Jesus has the little riff down cold. ‘And if you’re in, like, a minor key,’ Hendrix says, ‘you can just . . .’

They’re just getting it together, each playing the same riff in a slightly different place on the neck, the two guitars locking and chiming together, when Lance materialises. He takes in the cloud of sweet smoke, the detritus of another dope-fuelled jam session and the misty-eyed pair in the centre of it. ‘Oh my,’ Lance says. ‘Looks like a couple of teenage potheads threw up in here.’

‘Hey, Lance,’ Jesus says. ‘You want a beer?’

‘Oh, beer! How macho!’ Lance says, clapping his hands together. ‘I’ll pass, a little early for cocktails for me. Your dad wants to see you.’

‘Shit, I forgot. He’s back today, huh?’ Hendrix says.

‘He’s back and he’s bad, sweetheart.’

‘OK, tell him I’ll be right up.’

‘Uh, no offence, but I think He meant now. As in right now.’

‘Ah shit.’ Jesus unstraps the Gibson and takes a last hit. He gets up, his tall, gangly frame unfolding languidly from the beanbag. ‘Later, Jimi.’

‘Be nice,’ Hendrix says.

‘Always.’

God looks up to see Jesus strolling in, Jeannie closing the doors behind him. ‘Dad!’ Jesus says, arms outstretched. ‘How was it? Fish biting?’

Father and son embrace, the son smelling trout, sweat and stale plaid – for God has not had time to change since his return – and the father, in His turn, smelling beer and pepperoni sausage and the sweet fragrance of very good grass. ‘Son,’ He says brightly, ‘take a seat! How you been?’

‘Oh, great, just great.’

Jesus takes the seat closest to his father’s desk and swings his bare feet up onto the edge. God perches on the edge of the desk.

‘Good, good,’ God says, beaming. ‘What you been up to?’

‘Ah, you know, just chillaxing.’

‘Taking it easy, huh? That’s great.’

‘Yeah, playing a little guitar, a little golf. Blowing some grass?’

‘Yeah? You look a little parched, son, you want something to drink? Nice glass of water or something?’

‘Uh, yeah, that’d be cool, thanks. You know, you look good, Dad.’ God, His back to Jesus, pours a glass of water from a pitcher. The water is rust-orange in colour, with thick sediment in the bottom. God brings it over, His hand covering the glass as Jesus goes on. ‘Look like you got some sun.’

‘Yeah?’ God says.

‘Yeah, Jeannie was right. You should get away more often.’

‘You think?’ God says, handing Jesus the water.

‘Shit, yeah. You gotta take some time for, for yourself now and then, right? Gotta –’

‘Mmmm.’ God watches, smiling as Jesus breaks off to take a long drink.

Krrooooo-aghhhh!’ Jesus, spraying the water all over the place, retching. ‘What the fuck is –’

‘THAT IS A WATER SAMPLE TAKEN FROM THE GANGES RIVER THIS AFTERNOON!’

‘It’s . . . uh, what?’

‘THEY ARE USING THAT PLACE AS A HUMAN FUCKING TOILET WHILE YOU’RE LYING ON YOUR ASS, YOU LAZY LITTLE BASTARD!’

God in a good mood? The kindliest uncle you ever dreamed of. Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart on Ambien. God pissed? A Hollywood studio chairman with a lousy opening weekend on his hands. Joel Silver or David Geffen on crack.

In the outer office people bury their heads in paperwork. This is tough. Everyone loves Jesus.

‘I . . . I . . .’

‘Come here. Come here.’ God grabs Jesus by the ear – ‘Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!’ – and pulls him towards a huge white Nobo board where He has written various headlines from his briefing. ‘They are using the rainforests as a goddamn lumber yard. There is a hole – A FUCKING HOLE – in the ozone layer the size of my dick. The oceans . . . what fish are left in the oceans are living on a diet of turds, crude oil and old refrigerators.’ God lets go and Jesus goes stumbling back, rubbing his ear. ‘I, Dad –’

God holds up a finger. Jesus shuts up as God brings this finger close to His son’s face. ‘That’s just the eco crap. Morally, I . . . have you any idea where those people are at morally nowadays? You’d find more common decency at a rapists and usurers convention.’

‘I, you know, I haven’t been back that long myself, Dad!’ (This is kind of true. A couple of thousand years: just a month or so in celestial terms.)

‘You couldn’t stick your head in and see how things were going? You know what your trouble is? You’re feckless, lazy and unfocused. You seem to think you can bowl through life with kind words and a goofy smile. You never –’

God went on with the parent speech. Oh boy, He thought as He listened to Himself, hearing Himself saying things like ‘responsibility’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘attitude’, did this speech sound old. Even in Heaven – were we ever going to evolve to the point where you could stop having to say stuff like this to your children? Everyone else loved the kid. Was it just that you expected so much more from your own?

Finally, sensing Jesus is on the verge of tears, God takes a deep breath and reels it in, His tone softening as He comes around to perch on the desk closer to His son. ‘Look – don’t get me wrong – you’d earned a vacation, no question. But I thought you’d, you know . . . mind the store a bit while the old man was out of town?’

‘It’s just . . . the ones I’ve been meeting from the twentieth century have all seemed so cool.’

God sighs. ‘You’re in Heaven, numbnuts. Of course they’re gonna be cool. And you always think the best of people anyway.’

Father and son gaze at the board in silence for a moment or two: at the terrible facts and figures, the names and the various photos God has stuck up there: the piles of naked, skeletal corpses behind barbed wire, the children on pipe-cleaner legs with swollen bellies clutching empty bowls, an enormous nuclear submarine.

‘Shit,’ Jesus says quietly. ‘What happened to “be nice”?’

‘Be nice’. Whenever He reflected on the wonderful simplicity of this, His original and only commandment, He automatically flashed onto the following thought – fucking Moses. What kind of arrogant fuckstick bins the one commandment they’re given and rocks up with ten of their own? Moses, that’s who. Whole bunch of shit about coveting thy neighbour’s goddamn ox. (Moses, it was well known around the place, had always been a little nuts. A little nuts? The dude was off of his freaking teats.) Why? Why’d he have to go and sex it up? Power. Ambition. Ego. The usual reasons stuff got done.

‘That’s what we’re gonna find out,’ God says, swinging into getting-stuff-done mode, thumbing the intercom on His desk. ‘Jeannie? All the Head Saints please, in the boardroom now.’ God sighs again as He says this. Because God hates meetings. You spend all your time in meetings, you’re just firefighting, dealing with problems.

‘Already done, sir. They’re in there waiting for you.’

‘Good girl. And Jeannie?’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘Sandwiches, coffee and doughnuts. We’re gonna be a while . . .’

4

FOUR VERY NERVOUS saints – Peter, Matthew, Andrew and John – sitting around the conference table, smoking and chugging coffee. The conference table is enormous, made of glass, and has a map of the world finely etched upon its surface. Each of the saints has a pile of papers in front of him.

Peter’s pile is an overview prepared by all departments. As General Manager of Heaven the buck theoretically stops with Peter. However, as God’s consigliere – and the only person who told Him a holiday might not be a great idea (Peter had an inkling as to how religion was taking hold down there) – Peter is a little less nervous than his colleagues.

Matthew’s pile, as befits a former tax attorney, deals with statistics, facts and figures. Matthew is bespectacled, balding and drinks from his water glass with a trembling hand. He is also the proud possessor of one of the most boring voices known to man or angel: a monotone purr capable of reducing the finest prose to the phone book.

Andrew’s pile is small and relates mainly to the twentieth century. The patron saint of Scotland would be best described on earth as God’s spin doctor. Andrew is good at his job, but he knows it’s going to be hard work to put any kind of positive gloss on what’s in front of him today.

John’s pile contains radical ideas and future projections. Fittingly for someone whose father was named Zebedee, John is something of a ‘blue-sky’ man. An ‘outside-the-box’ thinker. (But God help you if God heard you using expressions like that.)

‘Oh God, oh God, oh God,’ Matthew is saying as he pores over his briefing.

‘Give it to Him straight,’ Peter says. ‘Just paint a clear picture.’

‘A clear fucken picture, ya fucken wide-o ye?’ Andrew says. ‘Like a picture o’ a fucken giant turd that some cunt’s pished on and then stamped intae the fucken ground with a size ten Doc Martens boot? Would that aboot sum it up, dae ye think?’

Matthew sighs. ‘Does everything have to be turds and piss with you?’

‘I think we’ll be OK,’ John says, looking up from the joint he is building. ‘I mean, down there, yeah, it’s a bit like, uh, Dad went away and the kids had a party, you know, the carpet got stained, a few glasses got broken, maybe like, uh, a window got smashed, but, at the end of the day, the house didn’t get burned down, right? No one died.’

Andrew snorts a derisive laugh.

‘Er, actually, statistically speaking –’ Matthew says, looking up from his charts, graphs and lists.

‘John?’ Peter interrupts.

‘Mmmm?’ John is putting the finished joint in his mouth, patting his robe for a lighter.

‘Shut the fuck up.’ Peter snatches the joint from his lips and lights it himself. John shrugs as they hear voices and footsteps approaching. ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God,’ Matthew says again, and then, suddenly, the doors are flying open and God is entering, Jesus trailing behind Him.

John is closest and first on his feet. ‘Hey! Welcome back! Looking good.’

Matthew gets as far as, ‘I hear the fishing was excell—’

‘You two,’ God says, cutting them off, ‘can the fucking bullshit right now and sit your asses down or, I swear, I will rip off your fucking cocks and wear them as earrings for the rest of this fucking meeting.’

‘Sorry,’ Matthew says.

‘No problemo,’ John says as they both sit back down.

‘Hey,’ Peter says softly as he and God embrace. ‘I’m not one for “I told you so”, but –’

God holds up an index finger, silencing him.

‘A’ right, chief?’ Andrew says simply, nodding across the table.

‘Hey, guys,’ Jesus says, grabbing a doughnut from the buffet and sliding into a chair beside Matthew.

‘Right,’ God says, rapping his notes on the table and settling himself down at the head. ‘Seeing as they seem to be throwing themselves into a genocide or a famine every ten to fifteen minutes, let’s get to it. So . . .’ God plants his elbows on the table, clasps His hands together and leans in towards them. ‘What the fuck is going on down there?’

5

HOURS LATER. SHIRTSLEEVES rolled up. The ashtrays full. Coffee mugs and dirty plates strewn everywhere. Papers spilling over the table and onto the floor and the air thick with dope smoke from the many joints being passed around to aid concentration and radical creative thinking. God sighs, exhaling herby, woody smoke as He finally asks the obvious question.

‘What the fuck,’ God asks, ‘happened with the Christians? There are fucking Christians everywhere.’

‘It, uh, it got convoluted,’ Peter says.

‘Convoluted? What the fuck is there to get convoluted about “Be nice”?’

‘If I may, sir,’ Matthew says, standing up. God gestures, indicating that he has the floor. ‘There’s been a lot of splintering going on. You have the Catholics obviously.’

‘Right, so that’s one,’ God says.

‘Not exactly one, sir, no. There’s various, um, subgroups within the Catholics. You’ve got the Maronite Church, the Melkites, the Ruthenian – or Byzantine – Catholic Church, the Chaldeans, the –’

‘Look, what’s the difference?’ God asks.

‘Well, they mainly believe that the Pope is your representative on earth –’

‘Fuck me,’ God says.

‘But,’ Matthew continues, ‘there are differences of theological emphasis concerning, er, things like, say, the Latin depiction of purgatory.’

‘Who,’ God says, pouring more coffee, ‘gives a drop of fucking piss about the Latin depiction of purgatory?’

‘A fine point, sir. However, some seem to. Then there’s things like the Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe, there’s Oriental Orthodox Churches – as you’ll remember they didn’t accept the Council of Chalcedon back in 451 – the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Assyrian Church of the East . . . Mariavite Church, Palmarian Catholic Church, True Catholic Church, Liberal Catholic Church, Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Catholic Charismatic Church of Canada, Communion of Christ the Redeemer, the –’

‘These are all still the Catholics?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Skip forward,’ God says. Matthew’s voice, literally driving everyone insane.

‘Well . . . then there’s the Protestants. Within that you have Presbyterians, Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Pentecostalists, Episcopalians, Charismatics, Neo-Charismatics and the, um, Lutherans.’

‘Right. Thank y—’

‘And within those groups there’s the likes of the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America, the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, the Remonstrant Brotherhood, the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, the Upper Cumberland Presbyterian Church – this list is by no means exhaustive by the way –’

God disagreed. He was already exhausted.

‘Then there’s the Amish – you’ve got Swartzentruber Amish, Old Order Amish, Nebraska Amish, Beachy Amish, then the Hutterites, the Bruderhof Communities, Abecedarians, no, hang on, they’re extinct, sorry, the Mennonites, and, within that, the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference, Holdeman Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonites. The Methodists – Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Free Methodists, United Methodists, Primitive Methodists. The Baptists – Old Time Missionary Baptists, Regular Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Progressive Baptists, Separate Baptists, Separate Baptists in Christ, Seventh-Day Baptists, Southeast Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists of Texas, Free Will Baptists, Bible Baptists, Conservative Baptist Association of America, Primitive Baptists, Black Primitive Baptists, the Norwegian Baptist Union and, um . . . the Interstate and Foreign Landmark Missionary Baptist Association.’

‘That’s it?’

‘For the Baptists. Then there’s the Brethren – United Brethren, Free Evangelical Brethren, Plymouth Brethren, the Pentecostals – Church of the Little Children of Jesus Christ, Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas –’

‘Hang on,’ God says, stubbing a joint out. ‘The Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas? Are you making this fucking shit up?’

‘No, sir. The God is Love Pentecostal Church, Church ofGod Jerusalem Acres, Church of God with Signs Following . . .’

Jesus – asleep now.

‘. . . Church of God of the Original Mountain Assembly, Potter’s House of Christian Fellowship. The Charismatics – Calvary Chapel, Charismatic Church of God, City Harvest Church, Jesus Army, Ministries of His Glory, New Frontiers, True Jesus Church, New Birth Movement, New Life Fellowship, uh, sorry, the last few were actually Neo-Charismatic. The Quakers, the Stone-Campbell Movement, the Millerites, Southcottites, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Mormons, they believe your son visited Salt Lake City in Utah at some point where he ministered to –’

‘Hey, dufus,’ God says to Jesus, who is snoring lightly. God throws a pencil at him, getting him on the forehead and causing him to snap awake.

‘Uh, what?’

‘Were you ever in Salt Lake City?’

‘Is, is, this about that girl? Look, she said she was eighteen. I –’

‘Forget it,’ God says, waving a hand for Matthew to continue.

‘. . . ministered to the, uh, Nephites. Then there’s the Latter-Day Saints, the Prairie Saint denominations – Hedrickites, Bickertonites, Cutlerites, Strangites and so on. Then there’s the more out there stuff like the Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, Spirit-Wrestlers, Subbotniks, Molokans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Swedenborgians, the –’

‘OK, OK,’ God holds up a hand. ‘Matthew, please, shut the fuck up. Cut to the chase, OK? How many of these sons of bitches in total?’

‘Different Christian denominations? Um . . .’ Matthew consults his notes, ‘a little over 38,000.’

A long silence before God says ‘Fuck me’ once again.

No one’s arguing with that and, after another long moment of silence, God asks, ‘How did they get so caught up in the worshipping thing? I mean, do they think I care if they believe in me or not?’

‘They all got really hung up on biblical interpretation,’ Peter says.

‘Man, the fucking Bible?’ Jesus says.

The fucking Bible. What a lemon. They’d got hold of a few stories – anecdotes, gossip – and they’d appended, annotated, amended, extrapolated and embellished until folk could extract a rubber stamp for just about anything they wanted to do out of that shit. (The feeding of the five thousand, yeah, right. Jesus remembered that meal: you were lucky if there were fifty of them there. But it was like Lenny Bruce at the hungry i, or the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club: if every fucker who claimed they’d been there had actually attended those gigs then they wouldn’t have fitted into Yankee Stadium. And, aside from the loaves and fishes, they’d used a lot of fucking couscous that night, man. A lot of fucking couscous. Stretching that food dollar.) Not that the Bible had a monopoly on this kind of generous interpretation of course. A beardy German economist knocks out a little theoretical number on the nature of capitalism. Half a century later here comes Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, and before you can say ‘means of production’ some poor Cambodian motherfucker’s lying there bleeding into the ground, watching his liver getting carried down the street on a stick because he owned, like, a fork and there’s something like fifty million Russians queuing up at the Pearly Gates.

‘Oh, haud oan a minute,’ Andrew says, pointing at Matthew. ‘You left oot the Creationists, ya fanny.’

‘Well, actually, Andrew,’ Matthew replies, ‘I think you’ll find that Creationism is a belief that’s spread across many different sub-branches of Christianity rather than an actual distinct branch in and of itself.’

‘Creationism?’ God says. ‘What’s that?

‘Right,’ Andrew says, already laughing, ‘there’s these bams doon there, mostly in America, right, they’re aff their fucken heeds, so they are, Boss, but check this oot, ye’ll no believe it, these cunts believe that the earth is aboot ten thousand years old.’

God looking at him, not understanding. ‘What do you mean “believe”?’

‘Ah mean,’ Andrew says, ‘they believe it. They took the ages of every cunt in the fucking Bible and added them up back to Adam and Eve and that’s how they reckon the age o’ the fucking earth. Ten thoosand years.’

Another long pause before God explodes with laughter.

God’s laugh – you really have to hear it. It’s the most infectious, throaty cackle ever. After a minute everyone is howling so hard that Jeannie pops her head around the door to check everything’s OK. Fuelled by the spliffs, soon God is on His knees on the carpet with tears of mirth streaming down his face. ‘Oh, no, oh, I . . . I . . .’ God is saying, gasping for breath, ‘oxygen, need oxygen.’

Ten thousand years!’ Jesus repeats. ‘Oh man.’

‘No, stop it!’ Peter says.

‘But . . . but . . . what about the rocks?’ God asks, fighting to speak. ‘The fossils? Haven’t they figured out carbon dating yet?’

‘They have, they have,’ Matthew says. Even Matthew is crying with laughter.

‘But,’ Andrew says, ‘check this oot – the Creationists say you created the earth with the appearance of age, so people would think it was older than it was!’

‘AHHHHAHHHAAHHH!’ God is helpless with mirth now, banging the desk with His fist. ‘You, you mean I gave it a . . . a nice antique-y feel?’

Everyone screaming with laughter.

Finally God pulls Himself up into His chair. ‘Oh dear, oh man. That . . . that’s priceless.’

‘I know!’ Matthew says. ‘You wouldn’t believe so many of them would go for it, eh?’

‘How do you mean?’ God says, still chuckling, wiping a tear away.

‘Well, some estimates put the number of Americans who believe Creationism has some validity at between 40 and 45 per cent of the population.’

God stops laughing. ‘What?’ He says, very quietly.

‘Yes,’ Matthew says. ‘They teach it in schools.’

‘They teach this shit,’ God says slowly, biting His lip, ‘to kids?’

‘Umm, yes.’

‘ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?’

God smashes the place up.

Files going flying, a heavy ashtray shattering off the back wall, a coffee mug following it, a chair getting upended. Everyone stares at their notes, waits for it to blow over. Finally, breathing hard, He sits back down. ‘But what,’ He says, ‘what about this kid Darwin? He pretty much figured it all out bang on.’

‘Aye,’ Andrew says. ‘They say he’s the devil.’

‘Are these people literally fucking morons?’

‘Ah, it would appear so, sir, yes.’

‘I mean –’ God takes an unlit joint from the ashtray and holds it up – ‘aren’t they smoking enough grass?’

‘Well, not really, sir, no,’ Peter says.

‘Uh, Dad,’ Jesus says, ‘hello? Grass is, like, illegal in most places down there.’

‘It’s what?’

‘It’s against the law to sell or possess marijuana in –’ Matthew checks his notes – ‘America, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan, Canada . . .’ he goes on.

‘Why?’ God says leaning towards Peter, ignoring Matthew’s drone. ‘Why would they make something I put there for their pleasure illegal? Don’t they like to get high?’

‘They largely use alcohol and tobacco,’ Peter says.

‘. . . Italy, Spain, Argentina, Ireland . . .’

‘But –’ God takes a quick, deep toke – ‘why one and not the other?’

‘Money,’ Peter says simply. ‘They –’

‘. . . Belgium, Thailand, Finland, Iceland, Norway –’

‘OK, thank you, Matthew,’ God says.

‘They tax the sale of booze and cigarettes. It’s –’

‘. . . Russia, Germany, Singa—’

‘WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP?’ God throws a doughnut at Matthew who shuts up.

‘It’s a big money-spinner.’ Peter says.

‘Is there anything,’ God asks the table, ‘they won’t do down there for a fucking buck?’

Silence. God rubs His temples, twists His neck, working out some tension before He says, ‘And we haven’t even gotten onto what the Muslims are up to yet. Have you been keeping tabs on all this?’ A few sad nods around the table. ‘I mean, obviously not all the Muslims. But some of these guys they . . . like these Taliban guys? Or in Iran? The shit they’re up to? I . . .’ Running out of words, God hits the speakerphone button on the telephone. ‘Jeannie, did you get hold of Muhammad yet?’

‘He’s holding for you, sir, I’ll put him through. He’s in the car.’

‘Hello there!’ Muhammad’s voice comes crackly and cheerful through the speaker. ‘How was holiday?’

‘Great, great thanks, Muhammad. You’re on speaker. I’m here with Peter, John, uh, Matthew and Andrew and my son.’

‘Hello, my friends!’

‘Hey, Muhammad!’ everyone choruses. Everyone likes Muhammad. A nice dude.

‘Jesus, my man!’ Muhammad continues. ‘How you liking being back?’

‘Ah, it’s all good, buddy.’

‘The fuck it’s all good,’ God cuts in. ‘Listen, Muhammad, down there, on earth, what the fuck’s going on with some of your guys?’

‘Ah, look, I know what you mean –’

‘These Taliban dudes, I mean, these fucking guys, man.’

‘Ah yes. Bad men. Very bad men. I agree. I – Pick a lane, dipshit!’ They can hear Muhammad getting on the horn. ‘Sorry.’

‘Yes, but what are we going to do about it?’

‘It is very difficult. They read something, they have their own ideas . . . next thing you know, is all very bad.’

‘No shit,’ God sighs. He’d only been back half a day and He was already heartily sick of textual interpretation. Fine for an undergraduate lit course. If all you’re gonna do with your interpretation is sit in the student union bar and argue about Joyce’s symbolism then go, as they say, with God. But these guys – these fucking guys – were taking their textual interpretation and going out and telling folk they had to walk around in a sack their whole lives. Stoning people.

‘Look, God, my friend, I hate to say this, but you –’

‘Muhammad, I promise you, this is not the time to start in on me about free will.’

‘OK, OK. Hey, what does Muhammad know? I only work here. I –’ A jarring burst of static, crackling radio waves. ‘We . . . should . . . perhaps . . . when . . .’

‘Muhammad? You’re breaking up.’

‘Listen – I am . . . tunnel . . . you back later?’ The line goes dead. God jabs the phone off and sits back.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ He says finally. ‘What are we going to do about all this?’

‘It may be a moot point, sir,’ Peter says. ‘We’ve run some projections. At the current rate they’re using up natural resources – the melting of the polar ice caps, ozone depletion, greenhouse gases and so forth – they’ll render the planet uninhabitable within, oh, three to five thousand years. I mean, if you look at something like this . . .’ Peter thumbs a remote control and the centre of the great glass desk lights up, showing an image of an ocean. He zooms in further and an enormous dark grey swirling pattern becomes visible. Peter zooms again and they see that it is a series of gyres, an enormous vortex of chemical blackness.

‘What the fuck is that and what’s it doing in my fucking ocean?’ God asks.

‘It’s what they’re calling the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”,’ Peter says. They see now that much of the expanse is made up of plastic waste, chemicals and sludge, all trapped in a frothing cross-hatching of currents. It looks enormous. ‘A black hole of man-made non-biodegradable waste.’

‘How, like, how big is that?’ Jesus says.

‘It’s hundreds of thousands of square miles,’ Matthew says. ‘Approximately six times the size of mainland Britain. Or twice the size of Texas.’

God stuffs a fist in His mouth and stifles a scream.

‘And it just wasn’t there a couple of days ago,’ Peter says. ‘I mean, a couple of days our time. They’ve done that in sixty or seventy years their time. It’s contained to a degree by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, but unchecked, within another century, it’ll basically be a continent of shit.’ He hits the remote again and the table goes blank. Everyone stares at the blank table in silence.

God gets up and walks over to the window. He looks out over the endless springs, meadows and beaches of Heaven. At the perfect sunshine. ‘Fuck me,’ He says for what feels like the umpteenth time this morning.

‘I don’t think we should let it get to that,’ John says. Everyone at the table turns to look at him.

‘Go on, John,’ God says, His back still to them.

‘We need to make a statement. Why let those animals just gradually trash the place on their own? Fuck all that.’ John stands up, takes the floor. ‘What we need to do is remind them who’s boss. Out with a bang, not a whimper. I say we take them all out now while we’ve got the muscle. I’m talking Revelations-type shit, I’m talking fire-and-motherfucking-brimstone. Floods. Locusts. Tsunamis. Armageddon. Asteroid collision. The Four Horsemen riding in, Gabriel’s trumpet right up the ass. The earth splitting open like a goddamn piñata. Judgement Day and SAY HELLO TO MY LEETLE FUCKING FREN!’

‘Wipe them out and start again?’ Matthew says.

‘Yeah, fuck them.’ John is breathing hard and he has flecks of saliva at the corners of his mouth.

‘Boy might have something,’ Andrew concedes. ‘Whit dae ye think, sir?’

God picks up a small rock from the windowsill and turns it over in His hand. On the bottom is the fossilised impression of a tiny trilobite, a kind of woodlouse that lived over 500 million years ago and one of the first organisms to develop something resembling eyes. God runs a finger tenderly over the impression. ‘Precious little creature,’ He whispers to Himself.

‘Sir?’ Peter says.

God turns to face them and speaks quietly. ‘Are you guys out of your fucking minds? “Start again”? What do you think this is, a jigsaw puzzle? A batch of chocolate cookies? Have you any idea how much work went into that place? It took me a couple of billion years to get to this.’ He holds up the trilobite. ‘You guys have been up here for about five fucking minutes. I had to sit through the Archaean and Proterozoic periods on my own. You try having a conversation with a eukaryote. Then there was the Palaeozoic – that was a bunch of fun. Three hundred million years with nothing but bugs and lizards? Oh yeah, that was party-hearty. Even when Man arrived,’ God, moving around the conference table now, His hands behind His back, His voice gradually rising as He addresses each of them in turn – ‘you think that was a blast? I mean, have you any idea how boring the Bronze Age was?’ He asks, stopping behind John, leaning close to him. ‘The main form of entertainment WAS FUCKING BRONZE!’

Everyone looks at the floor.

‘Then, finally, the Greeks – literature, drama, fags. It was all happening. The Romans –’

‘Hey, hey, hang on, they crucified the shit out of us!’ Jesus says, gesturing around the table.

‘Aye, you hud it easy,’ Andrew says. ‘Try getting crucified oan a fucking X-shaped cross. That’ll wake ye up in the morning, son!’

‘Get bent,’ Peter says. ‘They did me upside down.’