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Jul/Aug 2006 Fiction

The Easter Men

by Louis Malloy

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor


It was Ben's idea, but it would never have got beyond the talking stage without Larry. They had covered the office with streamers and tinsel and were intent on using the whole box of Christmas decorations. There was one folding-out silver star left, and Ben stuck it on the ceiling above the Project Manager's desk.

"He'll like that," said Larry.

"Probably not."

"He will. Thinks he's a star."

"He'll think he's the Christ child. He'll expect some shepherds to come along," said Ben.

Larry looked at him and nodded once, as if he didn't understand the reference.

"Yeah," said Larry after a while. "The twat."

"Of course, if he is the Messiah," said Ben, continuing because the thought was amusing to him, not that he now expected Larry to really follow it, "we could crucify him at Easter."

Larry grinned. "What? On a cross?"

"Yes. Nail him up."

Larry's grin was much wider now, like a wound across his tough face.

"Nail the fucker up!"

They began to plan the event. Ben read up on crucifixion. He studied the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Carthaginians. This would all be wasted on Larry, but Ben wanted to do things properly. They needed an upright (the stipes) and a cross-arm (the patibulum). He wanted to use the right words, but that would confuse Larry beyond reason, so when he explained the plan he kept to basic woodworking terms.

There was a telegraph pole at the back of the building, just beyond the company grounds. They spent some time outside, staring at it and making approximate measurements.

"We want him high," said Larry. "It'll only look good if he's right up there. Fifteen feet maybe."

"Okay." Ben was pleased. Larry wasn't an articulate person, but he clearly had vision. The same vision as Ben.

"I know where to hire a crane lift," said Larry. "Like one of those things they go up in to mend lampposts. Hydraulic. Or something."

"How much?"

"It'll be a few hundred. We'll only need it for an hour or so. And I know a bloke at the place. As long as we're quick and get it back in good order, then I bet he'll do it for a few hundred. Maybe less."

A few hundred was good. Other than that they needed the cross-bar, which would be just a solid piece of timber, and some hardware. An electric saw, a drill, a big bolt. Nails.

Ben drew diagrams. He drew timetables. Ideally, according to his research, they would have the Project Manager carry the cross-bar himself, through streets where people mocked and spat at him. That wasn't going to happen; they would build a cross and nail him up, that was all. Ben studied the technique of nailing. They went through the wrists—the nails—not the palms.

"Through the wrists," he explained.

"Wow," said Larry, like the vicious schoolboy he must have been a few years before. "The wrists."

"If you do the palms, it won't hold," said Ben. He wondered why they didn't bleed to death. He would have to learn about arteries and how to avoid them.

Roger, the Project Manager, strutted around the office, unaware.

"Did you check that data?" he said to Larry.

"No," said Larry.

In this situation Larry would usually tense and expand. In the suit that always looked like it must be too small, at the desk that he loomed over like a man at a toy piano, he would be ready to burst out of his jacket, then out of his seat, and demolish snipey Roger with one monstrous blow. But now he just grinned, looked up nastily from under his big eyebrows, and said nothing.

"Standards," said Roger. "You know where the checklist is. You should be ticking every item off before the data is sent. You know that, don't you? Don't you?"

Larry still grinned and nodded. Roger squealed criticism and complaint so that everyone in the office could hear and then went back to his desk at a fast trot, shaking his head. Later he came over to Ben.

"You need to make sure that he uses the checklist."

Ben nodded.

"If we don't actually use these standards, then there's no point in having them. And if we don't follow them, we'll get caught out when we get audited. Do you want to be that person? The person who is responsible for us failing the audit?"

"Oh, no," said Ben. He summoned up the cargo of sarcasm and contempt from his gut. "No. Certainly not."

"This needs to taken seriously," said Roger, who knew what was happening here. Though he couldn't, surely, have foreseen his martyr's fate.

The air in the office seemed heavier every day. They made Roger angrier, treating his lectures with more silence, with more dull animal responses. He lectured, and he shook his head, and he told them about himself to shame them. He told them that he stayed till nine in the evening, having come in at seven. He even stayed until ten sometimes. He had no lunch break. He took work home in the evenings.

Easter was fast approaching.

Ben bought a ten foot stretch of four by two. He treated it with dark stain to match the telegraph pole. Larry was left to organize the crane lift and borrow a drill. Ben bought the bolt. He bought six-inch galvanized nails and a brand new claw hammer.

Lately Roger's eyes were rimmed red with rage, and he shook his head nearly all the time. The other people in the office were in the background now, always spectating. Ben wondered who they could be. Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees? He couldn't remember all the details, but he knew that in the end those people didn't do much about anything. They just watched and let things happen and called out names when they were asked, but they never actually stopped anything. This was how life was. Even if all of the details weren't true, the principles were. A few people did stuff, a few people suffered, but everyone else was more or less a spectator.

"Doing anything at Easter?" Roger asked a girl called Jenny.

Larry laughed out loud at that.

"You will be," he said very quietly, so only Ben could hear properly.

Roger looked around at Larry and glared, but nothing more. He didn't understand how far things had gone.

The way it worked out was perfect. Larry really got it wrong typing in the data, and a row blew up. And so Roger, raging and squealing and hoarse with anger, said that he—Roger—was going to have to come in on Good Friday to plan how they were going to get out of this mess. Ben and Larry, with faces as mournful as they could manage, said that they would come in, too. They would help. And Roger bought it. He didn't smile or say thank you but just nodded, as if he had realized that they now knew the error of their ways. He told them to come in at eight. He would be there. The martyr would be waiting.

Ben and Larry arrived at six. The crane lift was easier to use than Ben had thought, but the saw was tricky. They ran a long line from the office for the power. Chopping into the pole wasn't too bad, but trying to extract the square shape into which the cross-bar could fit was hard work. He sawed, he used chisels, and he belted away with a hammer. Finally there was enough wood splintered away, but it wasn't as neat as he had wanted. They put in the crossbar and drilled right through it and then through the pole. Sawdust blew across the car park. They took it in turns to force the bolt into the hole, and then they tightened the nut. It worked. As crosses went, and they had never seen one before, let alone built one, it was a solid job.

Larry went over the road and brought back breakfast. They went into the office and ate egg and sausage cobs. They should have brought some for Roger, but Roger didn't eat that kind of thing. He drank coffee and ate ginger biscuits, which was no kind of meal for a condemned man.

As soon as he arrived, they grabbed him. Ben had thought of waiting, of letting him settle in and then marching him away at a precise hour, but they needed to get it done before anyone spotted the cross. The security men would be chatting in reception, not likely to rise from their seats until eleven.

"What the hell?" said Roger. "What—?"

Larry slapped a big palm, warm with grease from the cob, over Roger's little, heart-shaped mouth. When they put him into the crane lift, he was scared enough to put up a fight. He wriggled like a panicky reptile, and hit out as well. They laughed at him until he caught Larry in the eye with a backhander.

"Fucker!" said Larry and belted Roger in the face twice. Roger's body was suddenly heavy in their arms, and he stopped shouting. Now it was a pitiful crying sound bubbling though the blood around his mouth and nose. He slumped into the basket of the crane lift.

They went up, just Roger and Ben. Ben hammered the biggest nail he had into the pole; that was for Roger to sit on while the rest of the nailing was done. He balanced Roger on the nail, and Larry manuvered the crane so that the basket was hard against the body, keeping it in place. Roger was crying harder now making animal sounds, like the cries of a fox at dawn. Ben slapped him a few times, but it made no difference. He punched him in the stomach, but that didn't help, either. It was time for the nails.

Through the wrists. Ben had done his preparation and knew exactly where he was aiming. He nodded to himself as he went into the flesh, missing the artery and the main bone. He suspected that surgery was probably more a matter of nerve than knowledge. If you had the information, then it was no more difficult than being a car mechanic, for example. It wasn't as if you had to discover it all for yourself. You could read up, and then suddenly the mystery was gone, just like the mystery of a car engine. He did both wrists within a few minutes. Roger let out ghastly screams, then he seemed to lose consciousness, then he'd scream again. This cycle continued. In the silent moments, Ben could hear Larry chortling below.

The legs were more difficult. It took longer to get through the ankles, and whenever Roger regained consciousness, he kicked out and the feet would separate. Ben swore and pressed the ankles together again. It was five minutes before he nailed through to the second one. Then it was easier. He pounded with the claw hammer. He should have brought a heavier hammer as well, for the ankle work. The blood on his neck and chin was hot and starting to dry out. He hadn't thought of that. Unbelievably, he had not thought of blood. This was why you needed a book, like the mechanic or a surgeon would have a book, to remind you of the details that were obvious but could so easily be overlooked.

Roger was pinned firmly to the cross. Larry brought the crane lift away a little, and Ben pulled out the supporting nail from under Roger's crotch. Immediately the screams got louder as he sagged down. He tried to push himself back up, but then the screams were even worse. He didn't seem to be losing consciousness now. It was just one cry of pain after another. Larry brought down the crane, and Ben stepped out. They looked up at the crucified man.

"Can't breathe properly," noted Larry.

"That's what they die of," said Ben. "They can breathe in but not out. Builds up carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood."

"Nasty," said Larry.

"Very. So they suffocate, in effect."

"Carbon dioxide," said Larry, nodding, like he did at work when he didn't understand. "Is that what comes out of cars?"

"No."

"Right," said Larry, still nodding.

Ben had the sponge and vinegar, and he had a sword which he'd bought from a second-hand shop years before for no good reason. He was glad to finally have a use for it. He hadn't studied the bible story again, having been too busy looking into the practicalities of the crucifixion, but he recalled something about vinegar and then a sword through the ribs. He wasn't sure at what stage these should be used, but in any case they were interrupted. It was Jenny, evidently working on a Bank Holiday, running and screaming and waving her hands.

"No. No. What is it? What is it?"

She was making no sense. Ben wished her name was Mary. He remembered that there was Mary Magdalene, the woman at the foot of a cross. A prostitute maybe, or a lover. That could have been Jenny. He was nodding to himself again.

"It's your boyfriend," said Larry.

This seemed to snap her out of her hysteria. She ran back to the office.

"How long till he runs out of breath?" said Larry.

"Not sure. Another half-hour at least, I think. But it's not clear in anything I've read. Maybe longer, maybe less."

Larry nodded.

"Should have got another cob."

Ben looked up at Roger. The small man wasn't crying anymore, but his face was in agony. This really was agony, more pure than anything Ben had seen before. This was the only way to really understand. With the sun strong behind his stretched, heaving body, Roger appeared to have achieved some kind of dignity.

Then suddenly he screamed, "It's all a fucking lie!"

Ben marvelled at the words. So unexpected and so right, as if Roger had arrived at an undeniable truth at the peak of his agony. Ben felt a sudden companionship for the man and smiled up at him. He could hear Larry whistling a tune. He could hear running and voices, and after a few minutes, a police siren. He could feel the world closing in, but maybe Roger, at least, would be saved. With his brutalized body and eyes so deep in pain, Roger would be saved after all.

 

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