The Long Defeat

A pair of old acquaintances meet in a greasy spoon to catch up, but all is not what it seems. Who are Joshua and Snake and what is it that concerns them on this bleak Autumn day?

There was a forlorn jangle from a bell above the door as Joshua shouldered his way in to the steaming heat of the greasy spoon café, his thick-rimmed glasses immediately fogging to spare him the embarrassment of seeing everyone look up reflexively from their oil- and tomato sauce-spattered plates and thick, strong tea in thick, strong mugs to see who had entered their domain. Awkwardly, as always, Joshua sidled around the room, avoiding close-set Formica tables and haphazard chairs strung about them, looking for the man he had come to meet. Outside it was a blustery November day, with brown leaves caking every gutter, wind whipping litter around the streets of Manchester, a few spots of stinging rain in the air. His overcoat became stifling before he was halfway to his destination – a table in the corner at the back, set in half a booth – and he was tugging off his scarf, his gloves, his hat, wiping at his glasses with an air of defeat.

“Won’t you join me?” Snake asked, laying his copy of The Sun to one side and taking a bite from his bacon sandwich. Grease ran down his chin, grey with stubble, as he watched his companion laboriously remove his coat and fold himself slowly into the chair opposite. His dark eyes danced with amusement.

“This place is horrible,” Joshua said quietly.

Snake laughed with his mouth full. “Careful what you say,” he said in a spray of crumbs, “you’ll damage your reputation.”

Joshua sighed. “Such as it is. Anyway. You look well.”

“No, I look like shit.” He put the sandwich back down and ran a fleshy, be-ringed hand across his paunch, straining at a stained grey polo shirt he wore beneath his scuffed leather jacket. His hair was slicked back, but greying heavily at the temples now, and a mass of chins wobbled above his hairy chest, in which a gold medallion nestled. His breath was laboured, even when sitting near-motionless. He seemed cheerful though, unlike Joshua, whose pinched, bearded face was framed by curled payot and who sat hunched uncomfortably in his tweed suit, his angular frame perched on the edge of his seat like a timid bird ready to take flight in an instant. “Order some breakfast,” Snake suggested.

“Do they have anything not made from pork?”

“Probably not.” He worked a morsel of bacon free with the end of his finger. “What does it matter?”

“It matters to me. You know that.”

“Well not to anyone else.”

“There are millions to whom it matters, Snake. You know that too.”

“Well half of them are on my side.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Told by your side. Anyway, I don’t see Shahid showing his face around here. Or anywhere else for that matter…” He guffawed at his own joke.

“I’ll take some tea,” Joshua said, refusing to rise to the taunts.

“You have to go to the counter.” Snake pointed. A young girl with a leaf tattoo on her shoulder and a face too pretty for this place was standing by the till, looking bored.

“Never mind then.” Joshua hunched his shoulders even closer.

“Suit yourself.” Snake popped the last mouthful of his sandwich into his mouth and leaned forward across the table. He tapped on the Fomica surface with his index finger. “Let’s settle up then. Come on.”

Joshua reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a battered notebook, bound in dark leather. On its cover was etched an unreadable symbol. He leafed through the dog eared pages and then laid the last one open on the table so Snake could read it. It was filled in with lines of tight script written with a blunt pencil. The characters were Aramaic, but the words were in a language understood only by the two of them, with grammar and syntax that would fox even the most hardened linguist. It was a code that had been perfected over a period of some two millennia. “As you can see,” Joshua said, keeping his voice low, “you claimed seventeen million last year, while I only managed six.”

“Six million, or just six?” Snake quipped.

“Don’t be crass,” Joshua told him snippily. “You’ve no need to rub it in.”

“I don’t know why you even bother to keep score these days,” Snake said with a wave of his hand as he lounged back into the booth on the other side of the table, “I’ve beaten your squarely every time for…what? Three-hundred years now? Why don’t you just give up for good?”

“That would rather defeat the purpose of the game, wouldn’t it?” Joshua closed the book and put it back into his pocket. “Unlike you, I consider every one scored to be a victory in itself. The final tally is unimportant.”

“So you keep saying, but you still keep track of it in your little book.”

“That is precisely why I keep track, Snake.”

The fat man laughed. “The day I took the New World was the final nail in your cross, Joshua. Sending those idiots with the buckles on their hats over there with you in their books and me in their hearts was the best idea I ever had. Now there’s millions of them, all doing my work in your name.”

“Your work is hardly what it used to be,” Joshua observed, “your physical deterioration speaks of that.”

“Look who’s talking,” Snake sneered.

“Once we met in cathedrals and amongst soaring standing stones. I wore robes of light and you wore armour lacquered black. You were tall and strong, and I was young and radiant.”

“We were boys,” Snake spat. “We knew nothing. We thought the world was built to house us; a stage for the greatest sibling rivalry in human history. But we were wrong. They decided to evolve beyond us, and we had to slither into the gaps, take on new guises, plant new seeds.”

Joshua nodded. “But, the battle continues…”

“As long as men hate. As long as they give in to temptation. As long as there is rape, and ruin, and war. As long as buildings are knocked down and places of worship defaced in the name of bigotry. As long as foulness clogs the minds of mortals. Only when all this ends, will this be done for good.”

“And as long as there is love, and forgiveness, and poetry and music and laughter, those things will be opposed. And the battle will go on.”

“But never be won.” Snake watched his opponent carefully.

“No,” Joshua said with a slight incline of his balding head, “it will never be won.”

“So I ask, for the two-thousand-and-sixteenth time, knowing full well what you’ll say: in the light of this latest defeat, do you concede the war?”

Joshua stood up and began to gather his possessions. He donned his jacket, wound his scarf around his slender neck, carefully pulled on his thick gloves, replaced his hat and, with a wan smile, said, “Not today.”

Outside it was still cold, and the rain had intensified into a biting, lashing downpour. Joshua turned up his collar and splashed through a puddle slicked with oily iridescence. The sky was an unrelenting steel-grey, and there was no sign of a change in the weather but, nonetheless, he had more of a spring in his step than before.

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