Wrestling Angels is a collection of new stories written with the support of the Arts Council East's Escalator Scheme:
The awards in 2007 were aimed at writers from 'other' disciplines who were interested in broadening their careers to include literary fiction. Fraser was one of the ten writers, including journalists, academics and poets, to be chosen for the project, which was completed in January 2009.
So far, the. writers have attended workshops run by the New Writing Partnership based in Norwich, aimed at homing various skills, including performance and marketing.
In May 2008, the ten writers showcased their work in short readings at Foyle's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road in Central London- to an audience of agents and publishers. It was so successful that the ten are planning to present work at festival events throughout the region- watch this site for news!
Fraser's own collection, Wrestling Angels, retells classic biblical stories, but with a very modern-sometimes shocking - twist. In Wrestling Angels, despite the biblical nature, the eye is tightly focussed on the present. At the heart of this collection is a vital and very contemporary philosophical question: is humankind made better, or worse off, by its dealings with the eternal? And what are the consequences for the world?
Once I Was Dead' by Fraser Grace
Once I was dead, now I'm alive. Not many people have been in my position. Apparently, that makes me interesting. It's my catchphrase as a matter of fact, my slogan. I was dead for a week; I was ill, I got worse, I rallied, I died. Fifty people signed an affidavit, lodged at the temple: 'Between dying and burial, he was never alone'.
It was my sisters who washed my body- an intimacy for which I'm glad I was not conscious. Then the Mothers of the Street took over; ointments and spices, pummelled into every crease of my skin, so that what was parchment before I died, briefly learned to be taut again, pinging to the touch like a baby's cheek.
(I still smell that smell, the smell of anointing. It has never left me. When I feel odd in the world, as I often do since my return, I push my face close to the soft white skin on the inside of my arm- the one private part of a man that he can reach with his nose- and inhale. They are warm, pungent smells, and strangely, though slowly fading now, they remind me that I am a miracle, and blessed).
After ointments, the rag work. Old linen, torn into strips and pushed into my darkest spaces. More strips fastening my jaw, teeth clamped tight around fresh herbs, keeping the breath of the grave at bay. Then the shroud, the trip to the graveyard, the prayers, the wailing, the grinding of stone on stone as the capstone is shoved into place- by the time you're my age funerals are humdrum. Then nothing. Four days off nothing. Zip.
I have never previously supposed what went on in a grave- like most people, nothing was the best I could imagine. But I have asked around, and I have watched. I am often asked to sit with the dead now, when there's a night to be passed, as if something from my rising might rub off. I am happy to do it, this sitting. The process of death- the processes, plural- are my obsession. I can report- this may shock you- 'nothing' has nothing to do with it. In the few hours I have kept a body company, I have seen that death is a non-stop activity. The settling of an arm bound less tightly than the rest- that's just the beginning. Darkness leaks unstemmed into pores, stillness gives way to chemistry, the water of life soaks into all those bungs of clean rag, and the rag swells, filling every accessible cavity. Gas escapes. Everyone knows the dead can fart.
And so it must have been with me, the first day, then the next, a third, and on to the fourth when- so the gravediggers tell me - insects get interested. 'A beggar's corpse feeds a thousand mouths' they say- a prophecy in my case. The earth tugs life back to itself, via bluebottles. Except in my case this 'nothing' was interrupted. Another invasion took place, not by insects, pestering, but by a sound- this other violation, calling.
I'm sorry to say this- because, for this, I have no explanation- this part I remember. Creeping through rock and bier and bandage, through the over-shroud, sewn by Martha (who never gets lost in detail but always takes care of the whole), through herbs coiled in my ear by my younger sister Mary (the sex-worker, who thought it would make my dreamtime sweet)- comes this sound. My name, Lazarus, piercing the quiet, drawing together all the spinning, unravelling, leaking threads of me- Lazarus. Calling me back into being, bringing me back to the present, to a point. Lazarus. For the first time in my life (it is widely muttered around Bethany, this god-awful town of ours)- I am brought to a different kind of point-to a purpose. I am Lazarus, raised by Jesus of Nazareth- once I was dead, now I'm alive. Knock twice. See, and believe.
It is remarkable how much rag will pack into a bowel. Sitting- or squatting- in the old yard behind the house, pulling yard after yard of ribboned sheet from my arse, it was easy to be blinded by the care my sisters had taken. But today there is no rag left, and I am a realist.
Martha is resentful that I am alive, by how briefly I was dead. I became the past to Martha, a truth to be dealt with- like realising that her sister- our sister, Mary- was a prostitute, slipping from wayward spirit to lost soul in a frightening city fifty miles away, and that she, Martha, would have to somehow bring her back.
But I was gone more permanently than Mary. Martha had reconciled herself to my passing- 'as best she could amid the numb winter of her confused emotions'. I'm told she even tore Jesus off a strip for not getting here in time to salve my fever; he could have saved the cost of a burial. Now here I am again, after all.
We bury our dead quickly here; I am not a stupid man. The truth is my sisters are shocked by what has happened to me, appalled in a tiny part of themselves. They had begun to feel the space I had left behind- a feeling of loss, yes alright, but beyond loss, of relief, of possibility. Of spare capacity. In the house, and in their emotions, space mushroomed before them. A lodger? Perhaps. Room for a business? Perhaps someone's niece might want a place to stay, someone who might help in the kitchen; a girl who might grow to love both sisters, equally, be a buffer between them, as I have never done, or been. Maybe even Jesus might stay more often now, now there's a room to talk in, a lounge to lounge in, a place to hold a woman's hand in.
They were overjoyed, mostly of course. No one likes to lose a loved one- even a useless brother- and the extra income I bring in now, for the sitting, for the questions- is a new business of a kind, and we eat much better now, we entertain.
Still, the first thing I noticed when I came back to the house- fresh from the tomb, bowel still uncomfortably stuffed- was that Martha had made new curtains, and hung them in my room. Mary smiled when I noticed. Martha has such faith she says - she means faith that I would return- but she quickly looks away. Poor Mary- her big useless brother can't even stay dead properly. Can't leave a room empty for whatever the future might bring. I am one more pothole on the path of love.
As I said to Jesus, Martha is angry, but then we never got on. But Mary...Let's face it, Mary is a whore who loves a charlatan. You exploited her dead relative to make a name for yourself. Well unfortunately, Jesus, a living man needs a bedroom.
Tuesday comes. The Queues of the Curious are as long as ever. Across the street bluebottles buzz just as loud. They want to know how I fooled death, they've taken it personally, the priests, you can see that. You've made a fool of all these priests Jesus, I say, letting the curtain drop. They won't rest now till you're deader than I was.
Jesus smiles his charlatan's smile, tolerating the cares of lesser mortals. What are you afraid of, he says, death didn't harm you any. And the smile again.
Whatever you hear, whatever stories are told about the compassion of Jesus, his healing, his miracles, his immense and humane wisdom, never forget the thing I'm showing you now, in this room by the roadside, the smile I'm pointing out to you. In the lips, this man's smile is as full and frank, and open as a child's, it's the abandon that draws you in. But in the eyes, there is something else. Hardness, a seeing-further-than-you-will-ever-see, a pig-headed determination to go there. It makes me want to punch him. Put simply, the man's an idiot- worse, a user. I'm the red rag he shakes at the bull, knowing he will be gored. And now I've mixed my metaphors-bluebottles, bulls-whatever.
I'll have to start again, from the beginning, I say, throwing down my paper, annoyed with another wasted morning. Jesus stands up and stretches, like the laziest cat you have ever seen. First you've got some people to see, he says. Come on. And he walks out into the sun
I wasn't quite honest about the questions- I mean about people asking me questions. That suggests intellectual curiosity. It's more basic than that. There's a lot of touching goes on. Prodding, squeezing. It's clear the aliveness of a man is established for most people not by sound, much less by sight. Eyes and ears play tricks and smells, as we've established, can mislead but touch is a sense that people trust. The sense-the sensor- of humanity. That's why murderers and despots wear gloves so much, get obsessed with washing- they must create a barrier, remove the evidence. Naturally, they pass the obsession on to their victims; they too are desperate to deny that what brushed by them just now, or on that day they'll never forget, could be human. People trust bare fingers more than anything; flesh does not lie
This old woman in front of me now is as dry and dust-bitten as a donkey, more pitted by life than the road she walks on, her face sunbeaten, punctured with dull eyes, but she grips my arm and squeezes gently, rhythmically, all the time we are talking, in time with her breath, or my breathe, or my pulse. It's as if she's in the market, buying vegetables. Yes, this one's good, she's thinking flesh warm and blood hot, a healthy thing. It's not until I sneeze that she flinches and pulls back-afraid of what is in her head, about demons making their exits, or fruit that splits.
No it's OK I say, I'm fine. Don't be afraid. Jesus is impatient. He waves the bowl in front of her, smiling till she pays her due.
Thank-you mother, he says. She turns away, shaken, knowing she has met something- death and life in one unfathomable package- nervous about the next meeting, the meeting everyone gets, the free one.
Wasting your time, smiling at her, I tell him. She can't see you. She's blind. Maybe not, he says, spitting on his fingers, pinching up some dust. Ooops. Look up Lazarus, they're coming for you. They are, too.
I don't know why I call them bluebottles, these priests. Something about the shape I suppose, the appearance from nowhere, the utter predictability of their interest.
Lazarus, how are you today? Good, thank-you, your reverence.
May we speak with you?
There's a queue, actually, says Jesus, and then seems to soften it. But we're always glad to talk with my Father's friends.
He smiles, this spokesman of the priests, the smile of a furious man, being patient.
Perhaps you can tell us, Lazarus, what it is like to live in heaven.
Ah, there's an assumption, says Jesus, winking at me.
I couldn't tell you, I say.
So you didn't go into heaven? You didn't meet the Father?
I say what I always say. Perhaps God does not allow me to remember; the pain of returning to earth, this world of troubles, would be too great.
Mmm says the priest, it's true that the world has many torments. He looks away, and turns back again smiling. Perhaps your fault was timing. Jesus here resurrected you on the Sabbath. The Almighty could hardly let a Sabbath-breaker into heaven. Or could he?
Jesus buts in again, Your reverence, wouldn't rescue a goat if it fell in a dyke on the Sabbath? We shouldn't expect a goat to know what day it is, should we?
Then he throws something at him.
Take that your reverence- freely- for when you next meet someone in need of healing says Jesus. The priest catches a small ball of earth, rubbed between finger and thumb these past few minutes. The priest turns it over, gingerly. Will this heal such a person? he asks.
What do you think your reverence? says Jesus, that hardness edging into his eye again.
Well, says the priest, we know only Almighty god can heal or raise the dead. Certainly not a ball of mud.
So not a priest, or a charlatan, either, then?
Your words, says the priest, grinding them out now, sensing the trap.
Then we agree, says Jesus, triumphant. Only god can raise the dead, on the Sabbath, or any other day. And Lazarus is certainly alive. Would you like to touch him now, your Reverence? There passes between us all a period of time with no speech. The waiting crowd listen in pricked silence, before the priest turns and walks away, cloak flapping in the breeze.
Why do you do it? I say to Jesus at supper. Martha has made baked lamb and the house is crammed with people. Why do you bait them like that? He is going to have you killed for blasphemy, they all will if they can. O, Lazarus, Conqueror of death, Wonder of the New Age, why are you still afraid of dying?
It's not my death I'm talking about. He blinks. Why should I be afraid to go somewhere my friend already went? And came back from so easily?
It's not a joke, I say. The bile in my stomach is starting to rise again. Waking up in a foul tomb, stuff in your mouth, bandages crawling with maggots- that really isn't funny. I think it's done something in here, I say, tapping my head. I mean it.
But you were raised, Lazarus, he says, You're alive, then pauses; and you were always stupid. The point is, if you die, you'll only have me. There will only be me on the outside, surely you see that.
There'll be Mary, too. Yes and Mary...And the other Mary, my mother...
Yes alright. And maybe Martha as well, I'm not saying you're short of friends, but none of us can...we won't be able to...Jesus, I can't reach you anymore, even in life, let alone in death.
He smiles again. Lazarus, how little faith you have. Then he raises his voice, making this something for the whole room, and I feel cold dread pricking at my scalp. Lazarus lives! So if the Son of Man dies , will he stay dead? Tell me, friends , which is easier- to clear your own throat or clear someone else's?
They laugh but I'm not having that. Ask about cutting your own hair, Jesus. I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking. What's that? he says. Ask about cutting your own hair. Then you'll get a different answer. Or scratching your own back. It's easy to scratch someone else's back, but what about your own?
There's a moment then before, Jesus bursts out laughing, and everyone follows. Genius he shouts, chucking a piece of bread at me, you, brother are not far from wisdom. Dying's been good for you! Later, in a private voice, he pulls my head close, stroking my head. Poor Lazarus. Just when your troubles are over, here you are again, back in this nasty confusing world. And he kisses me.
The next morning, the rest of his mob arrive- young men, mostly, zealots some of them, looking for a fight. Fortunately, there are older heads too, keen to preserve their champion a bit longer, persuading him to back off to the desert for a while, till the priests calm down a bit, forget about me. When they are gone, I sit in the yard, enjoying the sun, and my sister Mary comes out.
You alright, Laz? She says, using the name she used to use, when we were children. Fine, Maz, I say, tired that's all. Spent. She sits down beside me on the warm stone bench, slides her hand along my forearm and into my hand, lacing fingers. Then she rests her head on my shoulder, and warm tears slowly soak through to my skin.
I'm glad you're here, she says, sniffing. Really, I am. I can't help smiling. Oh, I don't think I'll be here much longer, I say. And then I say another colder thing. Best not to get too attached, Maz. To me, or to anyone. Death comes to us all, in the end, even Jesus.
She looks me in the face for a moment, searching for information, then lays her head down again, knowing her brother is a wise man, but that wisdom in matters of the heart, as with so much else, is useless. We sit for quite a while like that,. Behind us, we can hear Martha banging around in the kitchen, being resentful. I feel the sun beating down on Mary's copper hair, while round our feet, ants build entire civilisations. Bluebottles take off and land, take off and land, and I notice, in their way, they are beautiful.