Copyright Oggbashan June 2004
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
* * * * *
I was driving to my cold lonely house on a February night. My windscreen wipers were working hard clearing the sleet. My headlights didn't show enough of the twisting road so I was driving slowly.
I saw a shape standing beside the road. I slowed to a crawl as I came near. This was far from any houses. Anyone out here must be lost or in difficulty. I stopped beside the swathed shape, rolled down the car window and asked.
"Are you OK? Can I help?"
A woman's voice answered me.
"Yes. You can help. Can I get in?"
There was a special tone to her voice. Whoever she was, even as a draped shape, she was making me feel things I hadn't experienced for years.
"Be my guest," I said automatically, opening the passenger door.
As she got in I saw that she was wrapped in a sodden cloak hooding her head.
"There's a car blanket on the back seat if you want something dry around you."
"Thank you, Raymond," she said. She didn't take the blanket.
"You know me?" I was really surprised. I still had twenty miles to go to my house.
"Yes, Raymond. I know a lot about you. Thank you for inviting me into your car. That makes it easier."
I was puzzled. Her words seemed to have more meaning than the superficial.
"Yes. I could not enter without your permission. You went further. You made me your guest. That word is important."
I hadn't thought of it like that. I suppose I had accepted some sort of responsibility for her by picking her up but she seemed to imply much more.
"Who are you?" I asked. "How can I help you?"
"I am Brigit. I need your help, not for me, but for one of my namesakes."
"And what does the other Brigit need? I can take you where you want to go, but what does she want?"
I thought I'd humour her. She seemed strange, not deranged, but very different.
"You don't know who Brigit is, do you?" she asked. "You ought to know. You have visited Ireland."
"I have heard of Saint Brigid or St Bride..."
"I'm no saint!" she laughed. "Those saints are pale imitations of the real Brigit. They are good enough women but good. I'm not 'good'. I just am."
"So who is this Brigit I should know?"
She threw back the hood of her cloak. Her beauty dazzled me. Her red-gold curls waved around a perfect face. I had never seen a perfect face before. I shielded my eyes with my hand. I shrank away from her.
Her laugh sounded in my ear.
"You should have asked 'What is Brigit?'. I might have admitted. I am the triple goddess Brigit of Ireland. This is one of my more attractive manifestations. You invited me in as your guest, so here I am."
I tried to speak. Was I dreaming? Was I delirious? One didn't pick up Goddesses by the roadside in the twenty-first century, did you?
"You did, Raymond." Brigid answered my thought.
'O shit!' I thought. 'She can read my mind.'.
"Yes, Raymond. I can. Don't worry. I'm an earth goddess. I know what men are like. Nothing you can think could ever shock me. I came to you for help that you can give. For that help I will reward you."
'O shit' I thought again 'A goddess's reward can be fatal or at best dangerous'.
"Don't worry, Raymond. I won't harm you. I am your guest and guests have obligations, just as hosts do. Now, can we go to your house, please? You need a stiff drink."
She was right. I did. A good Irish Whiskey.
"That's the idea. Now drive!" she ordered.
I drove. I made it in one piece despite her presence beside me. I dared not look at her. I'd never look away and would crash.
I pulled in front of my isolated house and opened the car door for Brigit. I took her arm and led her to the front door. She seemed small beside me but her presence was massive. I knew that she was far more of a woman, or goddess if that is what she was, than I could cope with. I unlocked and opened the front door. The hall lights came on as the sensor detected the door opening. I sensed Brigit hesitate.
"Are you coming in?" I asked.
"I need to be invited in," she said quietly, "and preferably carried over your threshold."
"OK." I said. "Brigit, will you deign to enter my house?"
She nodded. I gathered her up in my arms. She was a lightweight but a heavy responsibility. I felt awe as I carried her inside, pushing the door shut behind me.
"Now you are in my house. Would you like a drink? An Irish Whiskey? I need one."
"Yes please, Raymond."
I carried her through to the living room, nudging the switch with my elbow. I didn't want to put her down but I couldn't get the drinks with her cradled in my arms. I lowered her to the settee. It hurt to let go of her. I poured two generous measures of whiskey and returned to sit beside her. I raised my glass and said:
"To the only goddess I've ever met. May she always get what she wants."
She smiled as I sank the whiskey in one gulp. I needed it. The face was that of the unattainable woman, the ideal of one's dreams. The smile was like a bolt of lightning – fascinating but dangerous if close. I was really afraid of Brigit. Why? I didn't believe in goddesses. Or I hadn't believed in goddesses. Brigit changed my mind. I believed her and in some sense I worshipped her. But I was too close. Goddesses should be remote, not sitting beside you on a shabby settee.
"You still aren't sure I'm a goddess, are you Raymond?"
How could I answer? She knew my thoughts. She raised her hand and the laid fire burst into flame.
"Could a woman do that?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"I'll stop teasing you, Raymond. I'll change into a more comfortable shape. More comfortable for you, that is."
As I watched she changed into my wife, not as she was just before she was killed in a water-skiing accident, but as she was shortly after we married. Yet I could tell that Brigit wasn't my wife. Brigit had introduced some small changes. Her appearance was close to my wife but could be a sister, if Mary had had a sister.
Brigit was right. I couldn't have stood her perfection much longer without turning into a babbling idiot. She shed her cloak, revealing a dark blue dress girdled with a golden belt. Her dress was high necked and floor length yet it revealed the curves beneath. If my wife had dressed like that we would have never got to the function she had dressed for. Brigit was still desirable but it was a desire within my ability to control. She held out her glass for a refill. I filled mine as well. This time I savoured the whiskey.
I dared to ask the questions I needed answered.
"Why me? What do you want me to do?"
"You? Because you are who you are and I can give you a reward without hurting you. What do I want? I want you to visit the other Brigit and help her."
"You'll know what she needs when you meet her. What she doesn't need is another man who would exploit her. She needs a friend who will ask nothing from her."
"And I'm to be that friend?"
"Yes. You could help her without wanting payment. She has nothing to give that you would want. You couldn't take what she has to offer, could you?"
That was a sore place. Since my wife died I had been impotent. Nothing and no one could arouse me. No, I was wrong. Brigit had aroused me.
"But I'm a goddess. I have that effect. The other Brigit won't have that power."
She was answering my thoughts again. This was uncanny. Was I dreaming?
"No, Raymond. I'm not a dream. I'm real. You know that. You have carried me in your arms."
Brigit leant towards me and kissed me on the forehead. I would have flinched but she gave me a mother's kiss. I felt the love, care and protection that my mother would have given me. It calmed my mind like a long skilled massage or a serene piece of music.
"See? I can heal you. I don't intend to hurt you, Raymond. I need to use you because... Never mind, just accept because."
I nodded. I had a certainty that whatever Brigit wanted me to do would be necessary and I would benefit from it. Her kiss had been a sign that she would do as she said.
I slept on the couch. The Goddess Brigit slept (if Goddesses do sleep) in my bed I'd newly made for her. I awoke from a night on that couch feeling years younger. Brigit joined me for breakfast. Over our coffee cups she came to the point.
"Raymond, I want you to go to this address," She handed me a piece of paper – heavenly missive, it wasn't. This was written on one of my post-it notes.
"Just tell the woman who answers the door that Brigit sent you. She'll be surprised but she'll invite you in. You'll know what to do."
"Yes. Because of who you are, Raymond, you'll know."
So it was. Brigit (the goddess that is) walked out of my door half an hour later. By ten o'clock I was knocking on the other Brigit's door. She had a council flat in a run-down area that was gradually being razed for new housing. Other flats nearby were boarded up. Feeling like an idiot I knocked on the door. It opened a bare crack.
"Who is it?" A whisper, too frightened to speak loud.
"Brigit sent me," I said.
"Brigit sent me," I repeated.
"How? Who?" The whisper was louder.
"Brigit sent me. You prayed to her so she sent me."
The door shut before opening fully to reveal a thin woman in her twenties in a torn and stained dressing gown.
"I don't understand," she said. "But you had better come in if Brigit sent you. I'd hoped..." Her voice trailed off expressing despair and loss of hope more eloquently than she could have put into words.
I stepped into the flat. A stench of wet nappy and damp hit my nose.
Brigit shut the door behind me. I followed her into the small kitchen. A baby sat in a high chair silently watching us enter. There was no animation in its face, just a smaller version of Brigit's hopelessness. I pressed a light switch. Nothing happened.
"I can't offer you anything," Brigit said. "I don't have anything."
I looked around. She spoke the truth. There was no food nor any sign there had been any. The work surfaces were bare. The open shelving held a couple of saucepans but no food. Everything was spotlessly clean but shabby.
"What do you eat?" I asked.
"Eat? Nothing. I haven't eaten for two days. The baby had our last food yesterday evening. Now I have nothing. No food, no money, nothing."
Brigit sank on to the only chair in the kitchen sobbing. I moved towards her, intending to put my arms around her. She flinched away like an animal that has been hurt too often.
"I can see why Brigit sent me," I said more to myself than the woman before me. "I'll be back in half an hour. Stay here, please."
"Stay? That's all I can do," Brigit replied faintly. "I haven't the strength to run away. I wanted to... but where could I go?"
I left the flat and drove my car to the nearest supermarket. I rang one of my golf friends, a retired general practitioner, and asked advice about food for the starving. His advice helped me choose as I walked round the supermarket with my mobile phone to my ear. He agreed to meet me by Brigit's flat. He did but I had hard work persuading Brigit to admit him.
Within an hour we had some food into the baby and Brigit, small quantities, but that was all they could take. My friend had examined both of them thoroughly. Lack of food was all that was wrong physically. Mentally? He diagnosed Brigit with reactive depression, a reaction to an impossible situation that she couldn't change. But I could.
Slowly over the next few hours we drew the details from her. She had been widowed when her husband was hit by a drunk driver who didn't stop and had never been traced. Her husband had been on his way home from the first day at work in four years. His benefit hadn't been stopped when he died and Brigit's benefit had been reduced to repay the overpayment that she had used to pay for her husband's funeral. She could have claimed money to pay for the funeral but she hadn't and now it was too late.
The authorities assessed her 'need' but then cut one third off for the overpayment. Then other 'authorities' assumed she had her full payment and demanded their pound of flesh for rent, heat, light and so on. Their deductions were more than she was actually paid so each week was a larger debt with no money in her hand. It was nonsense but she couldn't fight it without money for telephone calls and stamps for letters.
As I listened I became more and more angry, not with her, but with 'the system'. She had tried to meet every unreasonable demand. She had kept herself, her child and her flat clean and tidy until 'the system' broke her.
My first task had been easily solved. There was food in the flat and in them. There was no electricity. With my mobile phone and a knowledge of important people in the town I raised a furore in a couple of hours. By the afternoon the electricity was restored and the outstanding account written off. A housing officer and a benefits officer were on their way to meet me.
I was prepared to blast my way through opposition. There was none. Both official women came with bulky folders of paperwork showing how much they had tried to help Brigit. They had failed because they too were victims of the system that demanded proofs that neither they nor Brigit could provide and would not accept their word for the reality. They had willingness and dedication but they showed incipient signs of the depression that Brigit had writ large.
The housing officer beckoned me out into the hall.
"Mr Johnson. I should be telling you this but... Did you know that Brigit was raped last month?"
"No," I said dully. "Who did it?"
"Her husband's brother. She asked him for help. He laughed at her for 'choosing the wrong man', threw her on the bed and ripped her clothes off her before..."
"What's happened to him?"
"Nothing. Brigit is in no state to give evidence at a trial. His lawyer would crucify her. She withdrew the complaint. The police had to find her some clothes. He had torn everything she was wearing and she hasn't any spares. She'd sold all she had for food."
"Can't anybody do anything?"
"We have tried hard. We got charities to give her clothes but she had to sell those again. What she needs is money and they'll give her anything but that because they think the Government should ensure she has enough money. Some of the charities won't touch her now because she has sold the clothes they gave her. They think she has spent on it drink. It's not true but there are some unpleasant people spreading lies about her. They think she's like her brother-in-law. He drinks and fights and is a bad lot. Her husband was a good man but had poor health until recently. The job gave them just one day of hope. His death broke Brigit's heart and destroyed her. Even now you are involved she dare not hope. Do you know she thinks you are the answer to her prayer to a heathen goddess?"
"Yes. It will be my duty to make sure that her prayer is answered."
"How DID you become involved?"
"Someone told me about Brigit so I came."
"It is well that you did. Another day or two and she and her baby would have been dead. There would have been a public outcry and much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Perhaps even a public enquiry to conclude that everyone did their best but..."
"Everyone will do their best. I'll make sure they do."
"Mr. Johnson... May I call you Raymond?"
"Please be gentle on the little people like us. We have to abide by the rules all the time. We try to bend them and we do care but we have no more influence than Brigit. If the paperwork isn't right we will be fired no matter how good our motives."
"I'll try to remember but this makes me angry, really angry."
"It does that to all of us, but we can't change anything. You could if you wanted to."
It was then I knew what the goddess Brigit wanted from me. Not just help for her namesake and her baby, but for all those like her.
The next few months I was busy. I was a nuisance to all my friends and my contacts. At the end of it the local authorities rules and procedures had been totally revised and integrated with those for the health service and the benefits agency. One piece of information such as a copy of a birth certificate signed on the back by one of the 'little people' who actually met those like Brigit face to face sufficed for all the agencies. A claim for benefits would trigger all the agencies' resources and the reality of the claimant's need would be known accurately. One unintended side effect was that fraud was reduced substantially. Those in need were better off and the authorities were doing better with slightly less money. Everyone was winning.
The needy Brigit was no longer desperate. The money she was getting enabled her to live and afford a very few extras. Her 'debts' had been written off. She was rebuilding her life slowly. It helped that her brother-in-law had been jailed on remand waiting trial for an old rape traced to him by his DNA. She didn't need me any more. She was grateful but gratitude is no basis for a continuing relationship. I knew she was scared stiff of me, not because I was a physical or sexual threat to her, but because of my power in the community. She'd never met anyone like me. She was frightened of 'them' the authorities. I bullied 'them' at a high level. Once she burst into tears when she heard me telling the Mayor to do something physically impossible. She thought the Mayor's minions would evict her as revenge. I explained that the Mayor and I had been to the same public school and we had shared a set. I might have been talking Chinese for all she understood.
One evening I was driving back to my house thinking that the results of my efforts had been worthwhile when I saw Brigit, the goddess Brigit, standing beside the road in the rain. I stopped I felt a sense of deja-vu.
"Be my guest," I said automatically, opening the passenger door.
"Thank you, Raymond," Brigit said as she got in. This time she was already in the likeness of my wife's non-existent sister and wearing the same dress. I noticed that neither her dress nor her hair showed signs of the persistent rain.
"I'd almost forgotten about you," I said.
"I intended that you should," she said. "Pleased with yourself?"
"Yes," I replied, "and no. I have only changed things in this town. I don't have the contacts to go further. That is frustrating."
"Don't worry, Raymond. A report is already on its way to Whitehall. Being more effective, reducing fraud and saving money always goes down well with politicians. I just wish they could actually do it more often. This time they will. No one will thank you. That bother you?"
"No. I know what I've done. That is reward enough."
"Is it, Raymond?"
I didn't answer as I negotiated the entrance to my drive. When I'd parked the car I'd forgotten Brigit's question. I held out my arms to carry her across the threshold. She snuggled up to me, arousing me for the first time since I'd last seen her.
As I lowered her to the settee she said:
"You didn't answer my question, Raymond."
"The one I asked as we arrived. Never mind. Answer this one. Would you have worked so hard if Brigit's flat had been filthy?"
I thought hard. What should I say? Would it have affected me? I had to be honest with myself. This Brigit could read my thoughts. I imagined the flat as it could have been...
"No, Brigit, I don't think I would. It is unfair of me, I know. The other Brigit was depressed and had lost all hope. Yet the flat showed she had tried hard. That fired my indignation that someone could be reduced to starvation through no fault of her own. The anger kept me going even when the obstacles built up. Why?"