The Germ of an Idea

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In an article in the Guardian published on the 18th June the following quote appeared which inspired the beginning of the short story below:

“In 2001, Leonard Leibovici of Tel Aviv university published a study in the British Medical Journal, testing the power of prayer. He argued that as we cannot assume a priori that time is linear, or that God is limited by linear time, why not pray for patients without their knowledge, after the disease has been treated? He conducted a trial that was randomised, blinded and statistically controlled involving 3,393 patients who had been treated in hospital for bloodstream infection.

Years later, long after treatment had concluded, a short prayer was made for one group randomly assigned by the toss of a coin. The patients subjected to remote retroactive intercessory prayer tended to have less fever, reduced hospital stay and lower mortality.”

The full article can be read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/jun/18/christian-doctor-lucky-not-struck-off?INTCMP=SRCH

 

Economy of Prayer

 

“That concludes your performance appraisal, Winston. Before lunch I need you to say sixty-five Hail Marys and twenty Our Father’s.”


Sixty five HMs?” Winston repeated, agape. “That’s up by 10 from last week. I barely have time to have lunch as it is-”


Mrs Johnson barely even looked up from the tablet she was stroking, flinging management information this way and that. Her office was spartan and featureless, save for two photographs on her desk; one of her with two small girls, and another of her with an elderly couple. “If you have trouble with quota you can make it up after your shift finishes. Can you ask Dave to come in when you leave? Don’t let me keep you.”


Winston left her office. Don’t let me keep you. Classic management-speak for “fuck off already”. He motioned to Dave, who got up off his knees with some difficulty. Dave was fifty-six and had been a builder for twenty-five of those years, his knees weren’t what they were. Their eyes met and Winston grimaced sympathetically as he made his way to his-

 

“Oh come on Shirley,” he said, looking down at the small mountain of beads vaguely shaped like a person kneeling before him.

 

-art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit-

 

“Shirley I was only away for ten minutes. You know this is my mat.”

 

…amen,” concluded Shirley. Her tablet counter added another to her HM tally, which was already way past quota. She deigned to spare him a glance even as she took a sip from the blessed water fountain. “Read the workplace rules, Winston. We hot-mat. This isn’t your anything. Hail Mary, full of grace-

 

In lieu of something better, he settled for flipping her off by way of response. Finding an unoccupied mat – as he’d grimly suspected, one of the ones next to the sodding window – he passed his ID over the tablet and knelt, checking his watch even as the picture of his subject flashed up. She looked like a nice old bird, someone’s grandma probably. Forty-five minutes for 65 HMs and 20 OFs.

 

Jesus…

 

**

 

“Winston!” Dave called to him in the canteen, indicating an empty chair at the table.

 

“Thanks. How’d it go with you and…”

 

Dave rubbed his eyes. “She showed me the cancer ward pics.”

 

Winston barked a laugh even as he unwrapped his egg mayo and bacon. “The Little Timmy speech? She never changes.”

 

“My son died of leukaemia,” Dave said quietly. There was a moment’s silence as Winston, not knowing what to say, simply took a bite of his sandwich and chewed it contemplatively until he judged it was safe to reply.

 

“Sorry.”

 

“What you sorry for?” Dave said, forcing a grin. “You weren’t on his contract, were you? They didn’t even have any of this back then. You just relied on doctors and surgeons and drugs and things by themselves. Seems like a lifetime ago.”

 

“They’ve got the RRIP contracts,” Winston said weakly.

 

Dave shrugged. “You know what they say. You can’t change an outcome for the better, but you need to make sure it doesn’t change for the worse. I’ve already got 20% of my wages going on retrospective MediPrayer plans for me and the missus, mate. She had a breast cancer scare ten years back, went into remission. Can’t risk going uninsured. I can’t afford to add…” and he trailed off, not quite able to say the rest.

 

Attention,” the intercom broke in, “excellent news. Aplea has just secured the RRIP contract for World War One.”

 

A collective groan went up from everyone present in the canteen. Rumours that Aplea were trying to go for one of the World Wars had been circulating for months; it was part of the reason why targets had been raised so often of late, to compete with NTRI&T in the States. Now that they’d gotten it-

 

Mandatory overtime will be required of all workers, beginning immediately. Meeters will advise their teams. And remember, workers - Aplea; praying on your good nature.

 

“Oh Godddddddd,” Winston groaned, face pressed into his palms.

 

“Problem, Winston?”

 

He looked up into the arched and disapproving eyebrows of Mrs Johnson. “Just getting appropriately pious,” he said with a bright smile. She snorted under her breath and walked over to the management table, where conversation was already buzzing no doubt about the size of the contract – enough to keep the firm going for the next few years, at least.

 

Gulping down the rest of his lunch, he and Dave went their separate ways as they moved back to the workfloor. As he moved to the rows of blue mats, a hand fell on his arm.

 

“Winston,” said Shirley. The muscles in her neck stood out like rope. She wore at least forty holy necklaces. It was rumoured that she smuggled in a piece of the True Cross via a route he didn’t even want to think about. The numbers didn’t lie, however. Her prayers had the highest proven success rate in the entire branch. She’d refused promotion to Mrs Johnson’s position (and higher, so they said) more than once.

 

“Shirley,” he nodded, trying to be civil. “Can I help you?”

 

Wordlessly, she handed him a card with a single word written on it – POTS – and a number. His eyes widened. He looked to her for confirmation of what he was seeing and, after a quick glance to her left and right, she nodded. An expression of pain crossed her face and she shifted her legs from side to side.

 

“You OK?”

 

“Splinters,” was her reply.

 

**

 

Phut-phutphut. Phutphutphut.

 

“Don’t…” Winston pleaded. “Please, don’t…not now…”

 

It was useless. The AA van took two and a quarter hours to hove into view. They needed instant payment. All forms of insurance had been illegal for years now. He was handing over next week’s rent.

 

“Try the bookies,” the AA guy snickered when Winston expressed the same sentiment to him. Gambling had gone the same way as insurance.

That night, dinner eaten and television muted, he dialled the number on the card. It was answered almost immediately.

 

“Who gave you this number?” a voice demanded.

 

“Shirley.”

 

There was a pause that he took as acceptance of this. “You understand what we represent?”

 

He did. Prayers On The Side. Illegal, off-the-books praying, unlicensed and highly lucrative. Being handed that card had illuminated at once why Shirley hadn’t ever wanted to leave the workfloor; she could make more siphoning off some of her quota via POTS than she ever could on a management wage.

 

“Yeah. But I’m not sure – I mean, the risks…if I’m caught, I could lose my job. I could go to prison.”

 

“The rewards are worth it. Tell me you’re in and I’ll start by giving you a sample.”

 

Winston held the phone away from his ear, and took a long look around his shitty flat and by extension his shitty life. He thought about his shitty car and his shitty bank balance and how much the vet bills for his cat’s chronic constipation were costing.

 

“I’m in,” he said.

 

“You won’t regret it. What troubles you, my son?”

 

Winston thought. “My car broke down again today. Means I won’t have enough money for next week’s rent.”

 

“Your car has been dealt with.”

 

“My car?” Winston echoed, baffled. “Why would you need to deal with my car? My car is fine.”

 

“And next week’s rent?”

 

“Next week’s rent? What about it?” he said, puzzled.

 

The voice sounded vaguely amused. “Just curious. Keep an eye on your tablet, Winston. You’ll know what to do when it happens.”

 

**

He knelt on the mat beside Shirley. She was mumbling furiously. He realised after a few moments of eavesdropping that she was speaking Latin. Showoff, he thought.

 

Waving his hand over his tablet, it flared into life and showed his daily quota – depressingly high, as he’d feared. Today was the beginning of the World War One contract and he’d been drafted into the Ypres team.

 

The screen flickered. The picture changed. Instead of a picture of the battle, a message appeared: TIME TO PAY FOR THE CAR, WINSTON.

 

The battle reappeared, but after a second a picture of his car appeared on the screen, only for a moment, before the battle reappeared.

 

Another message. THAT LASTED ONE SECOND. EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THIS BUILDING JUST SAW THE SAME IMAGE FOR ONE-ONE THOUSANDTH OF A SECOND.

 

WHETHER THEY KNOW IT OR NOT, FIVE THOUSAND PEOPLE ARE NOW PRAYING FOR YOUR CAR NOT TO BREAK DOWN YESTERDAY.

 

Winston’s mouth was dry. He gulped down a mouthful of water. So that was how POTS siphoned off the prayers; there were rumours, but no one ever talked. Subliminal messaging in the tablets. That meant…he could have already been praying for other things and never known about them.

The messages vanished abruptly, the battle returned. His mind still racing, Winston barely noticed until a shadow fell over him.

 

“Get into my office. Now,” said Mrs Johnston.

 

If you'd like to see how the story pans out why not email my publisher to see whether this one has made the cut for a book of short stories.


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