Alice was surprised. In her worldview, everything was hopeless, but you just had to get on with it. And there wasn't much point changing what you believed at this late stage of the game.
She considered whether to answer seriously or lightly, and decided on the latter.
"As long as your god allows drinking and smoking and fornication."
"Oh, he's very keen on all of those."
"How about blasphemy? I always think that's the key test when it comes to a god."
"He's indifferent. He sort of rises above it."
"Then I approve."
"That's what he does. Approves."
"Makes a change. For a god, I mean. Mostly they disapprove."
"I don't think I'd want a god who disapproved. Get enough of that in life anyway. Mercy and forgiveness and understanding, that's what we need. Plus the notion of some overall plan."
"Did he find you or you find him, if that makes sense as a question?"
"Perfect sense," replied Jane. "I suppose you could say it was mutual."
"That sounds... comfy."
"Yes, most people don't think a god ought to be comfy."
"What's that line? Something like: 'God will forgive me, it's his job?'"
"Quite right too. I think we've overcomplicated God down the ages."
The sandwich trolley came past, and Jane ordered tea. From her handbag she took a slice of lemon in a plastic box, and a miniature of cognac from the hotel minibar. She liked to play a little unacknowledged game with her publishers: the better her room, the less she pillaged. Last night she had slept well, so contented herself with only the cognac and whisky. But once, in Cheltenham, after a poor audience and a lumpy mattress, she was in such a rage that she'd taken everything: the alcohol, the peanuts, the chocolate, the bottle opener, even the ice tray.
The trolley clattered away. Alice found herself regretting the days of proper restaurant cars with silver service and whitejacketed waiters skilled at delivering vegetables with clasped fork and spoon while outside the landscape lurched. Life, she thought, was mostly about the gradual loss of pleasure. She and Jane had given up sex at about the same time. She was no longer interested in drink; Jane had stopped caring about food - or at least, its quality. Alice gardened; Jane did crosswords, occasionally saving time by filling in answers which couldn't possibly be right.
Jane was glad Alice never rebuked her for taking a drink earlier than some. She felt a rush of affection for this poised, unmessy friend who always made sure that they caught their train.
Excerpted from Pulse by Julian Barnes. Copyright © 2011 by Julian Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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