As a boy, I was terrified by the idea of God. I imagined him as I had seen him in my father’s bible: as an old, bearded, fiendish-looking man, with long, matted hair and a face as wrinkled as a rotting pumpkin. My terror of him did not disappear as I grew older, though it notably changed when I entered high school. If I no longer feared being struck down by lightning, I now pictured him watching with disgust when I took off my clothes. I thought of him inspecting my inchoate body, his eyes flitting about like insects, and I would cup my penis in my hands when I showered, just so that he wouldn’t see my shame.
Jesus instilled a different fascination in me as a fourteen-year-old boy. His pictures – standing on every available inch of space – were inescapable in my parents’ house, but while his father was all vengeance and fury, Jesus’ portraits possessed a lushness that almost bordered on the lascivious. One in particular held me captive, a painting in a gilt frame that stood in the centre of our mantelpiece. Here he wore a warm, yellow robe, like the inside of a nectarine, and there was a wistful smile playing about the corners of his mouth, as if he might disclose a secret. Yet his eyes, bright as stars, betrayed an almost unbearable sadness; he stared at me until I felt lightheaded and was forced to leave the room. As a boy, I had mistaken this feeling for compassion. I didn’t think otherwise until much later.
The year I turned fifteen had been a difficult one. I was doing badly at school, and my natural timidity meant that I didn’t really have any friends. This was also the time that my parents began to worry that I was weak-willed, that I would easily give in to peer pressure. They lectured me constantly about the perils of the opposite sex, but their desire to protect me was only equalled by the enthusiasm with which every girl I met ignored me.
But what my parents had failed to notice was that a new, unassailable feeling had suddenly entered the equation. I dreaded PE class at school and was always teased by the other boys, but in the changing rooms, the thick smell of sweat and cheap deodorant had a profound effect on me; my mouth would become dry and my whole body would start to tense. I would look around at the half-naked boys, at their drum-tight bellies and jutting collarbones, and would start to grow hard inside my gym shorts. This was almost inconceivable to me then, and I remember thinking that if God loved me as much as my parents said he did, he would surely put an end to all these mad, perverse desires.
My friendlessness at school wasn’t helped by the fact that my father was the local vicar. We lived in the rectory attached to St Lawrence’s, a small Anglican church from the eighteenth century, and I was enlisted to help in the chapel at every possible opportunity. I didn’t mind helping out – nobody my age ever attended the church – but the amount my father had me work left barely any time for me to socialise. Of course, I had accepted this fact years ago. I hated the kids at school almost as much as they hated me.
The crowning glory at St Lawrence’s was a life-sized statue of Jesus which had been mounted in the chancel behind the altar. This statue was unusual for two reasons; first, because the church records made no mention of who had carved it, leading to a local myth in which it had been carried down from the sky by a host of angels; and second, because the artist’s choice of pose had proven somewhat controversial. Instead of being strung up on the cross above the altar as in other churches, this statue was of Jesus at the moment of waking from the dead. He was slouching on top of a carved marble slab, and with his head thrown back and eyes half-closed in ecstasy, he almost seemed to be having an orgasm. Though his hands and feet bore the kite-shaped wounds of the stigmata, a flame-tipped arrow also protruded from his heart, presumably to symbolise his love for mankind. Around a mass of wilting tissue, marble blood dripped from the wound like candle-wax.
The statue was my least favourite thing inside the church. It was too life-like, too morbid, and the pained expression on its face had always made me feel uncomfortable. But a few days after my sixteenth birthday, I found myself dreaming I was with the statue, floating transversely through a network of those ever-widening eyes, just like a series of Chinese boxes. I dreamt that I was the one driving the arrow through his chest, staunching the blood with my hands as it fell creamily, like milk. Every time I woke from one of these dreams, I would find myself completely soaked with sweat. I often thought I had wet the bed.
Then, one evening in late autumn, my mother asked me to clean the chapel before my father’s service the next day. He was reading from the Song of Songs, and I remember being surprised when I heard him practicing the sermon in his study. All those references to love being as strong and heady as wine seemed to be at odds with what he usually preached: that love was an unfortunate necessity, something binding and restrictive. I argued that it was too late and that I wouldn’t do a good job now that the sun had set, but my mother was a staunch woman and had no time for my excuses. So, knowing there was nothing else I could do, I took the mop and bucket from the cupboard and made my way out to the chapel.
I tried sweeping the nave and wiping the pews with a feather duster, but the moonlight, streaming in through the stained-glass window, fell directly onto the statue, turning it a hazy shade of pink. It looked more alive than ever in the half-light, and I soon found myself moving towards it as if being pulled by an unseen hand. I knelt beside it and looked into its face, but for some reason, the statue didn’t look so grotesque now that I was alone. It was as if the darkness had softened it somehow, gracing it with a lazy, sleepy quality I had never noticed before. I started dusting his arms and was surprised, as I rubbed them down, to feel how muscular they were, how the curves and arches of his biceps seemed to yield underneath the skin. I soon abandoned the cloth altogether, rubbing and stroking my way around the hunched shoulders, the straight back, the sharp angles of his jawline. But though Christ was so skinny I could see his ribs, his belly was unusually fleshy; he seemed, from the chest down, more like a woman in a classical painting. I drew a little closer. The shroud, wrapped about Christ’s waist, revealed an obscene amount of flesh; I could almost see his pubic hair. But as I ran my hand down his chest, I felt myself starting to get hard. I was soon so stiff that it physically hurt, and before I had time to stop myself, I had climbed up onto the statue, straddling Christ’s body, my legs spread wide on either side of him. My penis was pressed awkwardly against his belly. I thought I was about to faint.
I managed to relax after a minute or two, moving my hips to feel a certain friction that was new to me. I then placed my hands on Christ’s face and pressed my mouth against his own. The blood, now pumping aggressively in both my lips, made it easy to imagine that he was alive, that his pulse was racing too. I wondered absently if God was watching us. For the first time in my life, the thought seemed utterly nonsensical.
I have no idea, in retrospect, how long I stayed there with the statue, only that everything seemed different to me afterwards. The kiss, so cold it burned, had confirmed everything I had fought so hard to suppress – my sexuality, my faith in God, the belief that my parents weren’t always right. It wasn’t long before I stopped believing in God altogether. I wondered what the point of life was if not to serve Him, but whenever my mind turned to these questions, I would think of that kiss, of the arrow that stood erect from Christ’s body, and I wondered if the answer might be much simpler than I had thought. Perhaps the purpose in life was just for us to find pleasure, to enjoy our own bodies; and, if we were lucky, someone else’s body too. I wondered why that always seemed so difficult.
Immediately after the kiss, however, things continued as they had always done. I still helped out in the church whenever my father asked me to, and I was just as quiet and obedient as I had been before. But something had changed in me that night, something deep and irreversible, and I began distancing myself from my parents; I knew they could never understand me. I never even told them about my sexuality, a topic which seemed less important as I grew older. But I suppose I spent the rest of my life looking to replicate the feeling that the statue had given me, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, fucking as many boys as I could. Yet none of them ever understood what it was that I was searching for – a love that was strong enough to pierce the heart, a love so deep that it left a scar.