Four people break into the Bible using a few wires and a glass of green smoking liquid. They then embark on a series of adventures and encounters. On the way they bump into Ruth, Samson, Esther, Jonah, Gideon, Sarah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John, Jesus and plenty of others. A great book for rediscovering the biblical stories in a page-turning, unexpected and extraordinary fashion.
An extract from the book
1. The Sandwich Maker
I could see he didn’t believe me from the first off. The get go. Why should he? Perhaps you can only believe something like this if you’re prepared to look beyond yourself, and what is ‘real’. To other places. Other worlds. Other ways of doing things. Beyond your own limits. To recognise frailty, and vulnerability, and endless possibility. The realisation that we can do a lot. But not everything. To see beyond this visible world to another world, another dimension, a reality we cannot control. A reality we can only partly grasp with our flimsy earthly fingers, a world that sometimes seems as solid granite yet at other times as slippery and elusive as soap. I had been to that other place and I think that’s why the tale seemed so strange when I told it in this world.
But I did my best. I sat in his old, stale armchair, the one that had no doubt housed plenty of neurotics and hopefuls before me, and I tried to tell my story. And as I talked I flicked at the moleskine notebook with my fingers, and clutched that leather pouch with those very green leaves in. He merely stood still, looking through his murky bay window.
It's hard to even begin to tell you how it came about. That’s what I told him, as he continued his staring. This road trip, I said. This odyssey, if I can dare call it that. All I can say is that I'd known Aladdin Strike for the best part of three years when he took me aside in his dusty, sun-streamed apartment one day and told me about the sandwich maker. Al said that he had this friend who had been reading about these four ancient mystics who had once broken into paradise via the biblical book, Song of Songs, way way back. A kind of celestial breaking and entering. We’re talking a long time ago. These ancient sages believed that this bit of the Good Book represented a doorway into a close encounter with the riches and mystery of God. A portico that transported any explorer across the bridge and over the cavern that stood between this world and the next. For those brave enough and crazy enough to go looking it offered the opportunity to sneak into paradise by a side door, a sort of divine fire exit. A portal for getting back into Eden in a strange mystical way. The four mystics had plotted, prayed, meditated and somehow managed the break-in. However, only one of them, a guy called Akiba Ben Azzai, actually made it in and out without going mad, dying or generally losing the plot.
And this had inspired Aladdin’s friend to get all creative and start working on inventing some kind of novel chemical process, along with some kind of state-altering device, that meant he could do the same thing. This friend turned out to be an old priest of sorts. A priest, yet also a scientist, and a chemist, and a visionary. And a sandwich maker who ran his own movie-themed sandwich bar going by the name of Reservoir Dog’s Dinner. This extraordinary dude was now looking for a couple of young guys with enough energy and madness to want to try the trip with him.
We met late at night in the cobwebbed, dimly lit back room of the sandwich bar. It was the first time I saw the sandwich maker and he did look a little kooky. He had patches of grey and red hair sticking out of the sides of his head and clumps of auburn whiskers on his neck and chin where he had failed to shave properly. He was wearing odd shoes and only one sock, and a lab coat spattered with all kinds of potent looking stains. He could have been anywhere between 25 and 50, it depended on the light. He was kind of ageless to be honest. And weatherworn, as if he’d seen too many wars, too many hard times and too little nourishing food and friendship. He had wrinkles like scars and a frown on his forehead so deep it looked as if the information in his brain was cracking his skull to get out. Because he clearly had something else too. A kind of genius. He radiated it. It hung around him like moths on an old suit.
He also had John Lennon glasses that should have been cool but stuck out a little too far from his head like insect antennae. The lenses were so thick they might have been strong enough to channel lasers. He both terrified and inspired me. He looked exactly like the kind of scatty headed, other-worldly-minded boffin who could somehow break into an old book and enable the likes of me to walk across the vast landscapes of its wafer thin pages. So I trusted him and I didn't. He thrilled me and he horrified me. But there was little time to wrestle with that or debate with Aladdin. We were in his back room and we were handed vials of smoking green liquid, while he told us of his scheme. He had spent 18 months blending and mixing and calculating and now he figured his life's work was done. He had created the means of entering the Good Book, delving into the depths of its power and drinking deeply of its hallowed nectar. Sucking the sacred marrow from its pages. Even maybe, entering paradise itself, as the four seers had once done. That set me on the edge of my seat a little. Three of the seers had come to a sticky end. Madness, death or legend. Which closing scene awaited us the old sandwich maker couldn't say. The only thing to decide was whether we were up for the ride. Whether we were ready to find out which end was ours.
Then Isabeth Constana turned up. A young woman with sleek silver glasses and sharp red lips. Her whole being was sleek and sharp too. Cool blue eyes that could keep you so fixed, so rooted to the spot it was as if she'd grabbed you by the shoulders.
'Who's she?' I muttered to Aladdin, and obviously everyone heard me say it.
Isabeth didn’t bat a cool eyelid. Aladdin shrugged, adopted a kind of attitude as if to say he’d barely noticed her enter the room. But it was clear he was smitten.
'My niece, three times removed,' the sandwich maker mumbled.
Can you have a niece three times removed? I didn't know and couldn't ask.
'She's coming too,' was all the sandwich man added. He handed her a vial of green liquid.
'Is there alcohol in this, ‘cause I don't drink,' she said, and her voice was cool like her blue eyes. I guess it could be sharp too, if she wanted.
The sandwich man shook his head. 'Alcohol should be the least of your worries with something like that,' he added. Then he grabbed a handful of spindly white cables and handed them round.
'Everyone ready,' he mumbled, more a statement than a question.
Six months ago I wouldn't have been, but now I seemed to have hit one of those troughs in life, one of those times when you feel as if you have nothing to lose. I was ready.
We drank and plugged the white wires into various bits of ourselves. Nothing too invasive, but strange enough that you wouldn't want a photo of the moment. The green smoking drink was bitter, like over-stewed tea, mixed with bad fruit and sour wine. I drank it down in two gulps, I would have finished it in one, but there was too much of it and the bite of the mixture made me splutter part way through. I just hoped that the sandwich man wasn't a madman set on poisoning us all. Aladdin turned a little green but quickly adopted his crooked grin, and that's when we plugged in, sat down and the sandwich man switched his switches. The machine he'd created was a little on the small side, certainly didn't look any kind of time and space travelling device. Not much more than an overblown toaster. It even had a couple of dials on the side, like you'd use for adjusting the length of time you wanted to cook your bread. We waited. I got bored. There was no flash, no room shuddering, no mighty wind or flash of lightning. I did feel suddenly tired, and that made me shut my eyes for a moment.
Then I felt something dust my face and I put my palm on the film of sand that had collected on my cheek. There was a breeze and I felt the gentle sting of soft, hot grit. I opened up, looked around. I was no longer crammed into the sandwich maker's back room with the others. There was no sign of Aladdin or Isabeth or the white-coated, tufty-haired madman. My head suddenly swam and I felt momentarily nauseous, some kind of travelling reaction. I sat with my head down until it abated and then I raised my eyes and looked around. Cautiously. I was sitting on the floor of a bleak barren valley, my knees pulled up to my chest. Walls of rock bordered the place and I was alone. Just me and the breeze and the sand. And a distant speck on the horizon. A moving speck. A speck that took limbs and a lilting gait as it kept walking towards me and morphed into a tiny figure. I sat and watched, my knees pulled up and my feet flat out front, the sand forming micro mountains on the top of the toes of my scuffed-leather baseball boots. The figure was a man, and as he came closer the first thing I noticed was his weird dress sense. Bright blue baggy trousers, crumpled and needing an iron, a yellow flowery shirt hanging down around his hips, not tucked in, and a tartan headband clasping his wild hair to his head. Eventually he rocked up nearby me and shielded his eyes from the sun. He looked at me then looked away. He dropped to his knees, then flopped into a twisted sitting position, looking not much more than a bundle of bright rags on the desert floor. Kind of like next week's washing.
Aladdin and I were different. Quite different. Yet the same in enough ways to make our friendship hold together well enough to survive three years’ worth of knocks and misunderstandings. I'm a shy guy, quiet, people-watching, making mental notes all the time. Instinctively. Liking one-to-ones but avoiding the crowds. Aladdin, now he was the crowds man. The entertainer, the party people person. When we'd both had enough of the crowd, me sooner than him, we'd hide away with a drink and a half hour of old jokes and laughter. And a few serious one-liners to strengthen the cement of our friendship. He's the go-to, can-do guy. I'm the yes-man, wanting to be liked, desperate to please. I guess we complemented each other. And I could have done with him right now.
I pulled out my smart phone and switched it on. Best thing to do was call him and get him over here. Doublequick. The guy in the rainbow clothes didn’t look too dangerous but you could never tell these days. Nothing. The phone was a dead thing. No signal, no power, no chance of calling in the cavalry. Odd that. It had been full of juice not too long ago. I tried a few times, jabbing at the on/off button like a woodpecker on speed. No go. No good. Right now I was on my own in this world.
To break the ice with the pile of blue, yellow and tartan washing slumped in front of me, I spoke to him. But it was as if he didn’t see me. Instead he jumped up and kicked at something on the desert floor, like a sulky schoolboy scuffing at the pavement. He kicked a couple more times until something he kicked came loose and stuck up in the sand, all white and spikey. It turned out to be a bone. And not a little finger but a human rib. Rainbow-clothes-man picked it up and then crouched down and found another, and another. He mooched about and kept kicking and the more he kicked the more bones protruded from the valley floor. Eventually there was a total jigsaw of legs, arms and ribs bursting up from the ground. An army, or if not an army then a sizeable unit. The kind of crack force you could capture a building with, if they only had muscles and sinews and a few tools of the trade.
I spoke to him again. He glanced at me, then came over and stopped in front of me. He looked to the sky, and nodded. He looked my way, then back the way he'd come, then to his right and then his left. He reached out and snapped his fingers, just by my left ear. It was so close it was like a gunshot. Just as I was recovering from the resounding crack he opened his mouth and bellowed, right at me. It was loud. And I mean LOUD loud. Fortunately he twisted on the spot, spinning around and away from me as he continued spewing out his yelping. I tried to interrupt but the words just got swallowed up in the sound pouring from the other guy. The reverberations from his spinning and calling out started kicking up the sand and the ructions spread in waves away from us both, hustling the bones together in little piles. And the piles became skewed figures on the fast rippling floor, and then the skewed figures jolted as if someone had plugged power cables into them. My eyes nearly burst from their sockets as the figures sat, stood up and stared. The long dead bones found one another once again, locked into place and became their old selves. The sound dropped to silence and the skeletal unit stood stock still. All skulls and bony limbs. And as I watched the unthinkable happened. Flesh and muscle and sinew grew back onto the bones, like fast moving moss, snaking across a sea of bleached twigs. Like paint seeping through canvas to form a wholly new and original picture. The muscles and sinews and flesh weren’t old, rotting and grey, as in some horror flick, but lively, pink and blood-infused.
The rainbow guy seemed anything but fazed by all this, as if he came to the valley regularly to resurrect the dead, and before long he looked to the skies and nodded again. I heard nothing but he clearly got an earful of something. His face creased into various expressions as he received instructions. That’s when I noticed the wind brewing up. Rainbow guy started spinning on the spot with his arms out, as if he was stirring a maelstrom, conjuring the vortex which came thundering in from all sides. It didn’t last long but the moment it died away I heard a cough. Then another. And a gasp. And the place was alive with spluttering and sneezing. And the eyes of the long-dead swivelled in their sockets as their limbs began to stretch and exercise. There was more coughing and groaning as the once-dead started kicking again. The rainbow man snapped his fingers again, another whip-crack sound, and the army immediately froze, stock still and upright. They seemed to have grown in number, the valley was full of them now. I hoped there was a mess tent nearby ‘cause these guys would be ravenous after centuries without any grub.
Rainbow guy looked to the heavens again, gave another nod and turned and walked away. Just left them. No orders, no mess tent, no nothing. I ran to catch him up.
‘Aren’t you going to do something now?’ I asked.
He looked at me as if I’d just appeared out of thin air. He scratched his head and blinked his big eyes. ‘I already did something.’ And he went on walking.
I gave a single glance back to the valley troops. They were still statue still and I wondered how long it might be before they faded back into the desert floor, just the same old bundle of dry bones, waiting for the next resurrection show.
‘Does it mean something?’ I asked.
‘Of course. It always means something. But I doubt they’ll notice.’
‘This lot.’ And we stopped on the brow of a small hill as he snapped his fingers and flapped a hand in the direction of a bustling city below. It was almost as if he’d conjured the place out of his imagination.
He looked at me and I noticed he had a clown kind of face, given to quick and easy expression, but with deep-set, implicitly sad eyes.
‘They never listen,’ he said. ‘I was warned when I started the job. No one would listen he told me, and he was right. They don’t. They just turn up for a bit of gleeful entertainment, something weird to watch. The local prophet putting on a show.’ He shook his head.
A sudden thought cross-bowed its way into my brain.
‘You know you’re in the Bible?’ I said.
‘A book – called the Bible.’
‘Yes…’ I felt my pockets and found my old moleskine notebook. ‘A book.’ I waved it at him.
He took it and thumbed it with wonder in those big eyes of his. ‘A book.’ He said. ‘A book.’ The word tripped clumsily over his lips. ‘A book.’ He looked at me. ‘This book?’
I laughed and he looked startled. ‘No, that’s just my notebook. The Bible’s much bigger. Massive. The world’s bestselling book.’
‘There are other books?’
‘Yes, but you’re in the bestseller. You and this valley and probably plenty of the other things you’ve said and done.’
‘You know for a fact?’
I didn’t. ‘What’s your name?’ I said.
I had grown up hearing various bits of the Bible, but many of the stories had been buried under life’s luggage. I was pretty sure Ezekiel was in the Good Book though. I even had recollections about that valley and the bony soldiers.
He shook his head and handed my notebook back. ‘No one listens,’ he said again. ‘They just want a show.’
‘But they will. They may not be listening now but yours is the sort of stuff that’ll last forever. Maybe that’s what it’s about. Talking to another time.’
He went. But with every heavy-footed step he took I was sure he was in the Bible. I looked around. I didn’t fancy a trip into Ezekiel’s town. Not yet. I needed to find Aladdin and the sandwich maker first. I turned and picked a path across the sand.