Saturday, March 28, 2020

As We Know It - Chapter 27

Chapter 27
Iris was sitting in the garden enjoying the warm autumn day. This was her favourite kind of weather - when the heat was all encompassing and wholesome. The summer warmth from the earth was still lingering, and as it rose up and met with the descending day's sunshine it melted beautifully into the bones. Iris thought the heat was kinder in autumn. Autumn heat is not sharp like heat in spring, where the sun is just starting to pierce the remaining chill of winter. In autumn the heat is gentle and relaxed; no need to try too hard. The sun's work for the year is done and now it's just easing itself off in search of new surroundings.

Iris didn't much mind seasons changing... she'd seen enough of them not to become too concerned about the temperature adjusting one way or the other for a few months. Once you reached a certain age you picked a jacket you liked and wore it all year round regardless of weather. It was just easier.

Iris liked to imagine that in winter the sun had another home it went to live in. As she and Colin would have done had they had the money and the fearlessness. She thought the sun probably enjoyed the break from the English gridlock. It was kind enough to leave it's wintry hologram up there to light the days for them, but Iris knew that it wasn't the real sun. Neither was the summer sun real to her; the summer sun was too grandiose, too imposing... too eager to show off to holiday makers and doubters. She felt someone should tell the English sun not to try and compete with those ones overseas - it's not who you are, you don't need to be so intense for us we're happy as you are. She felt the summer sun showed off like a teenager whose parents had tolerant friends over - the sort who might coo over a mantle piece performance or two. It was the autumn sun that she liked best; when the campers had trailed back up the M5, the Spanish students had gone home to their Spanish desks, and country life was back to normal. Then the sun seemed genuine... it seemed to relax - content to give it's best few weeks to people at home in their gardens. Late evening BBQs and frantic veg patch preparation could be done with this friendly orange face nearby to say, "Well done, we did it. Another year's busy season done."

As she sat on the green canvas, reclinable chair the thought crossed Iris' mind that sun worship didn't seem so daft when you really thought about it. There was much stronger evidence for a causal link between the sun and prosperity than there was for a God. She'd always thought it lightly amusing that people had once offered gifts up to a ball of gas like the sun, but now, as she sat with only the sun for company, she realised that actually she had a lot to be grateful to it for. She and Colin had always loved the sun... sought it out for holidays, made the most of it in their own gardening, and added a conservatory as soon as they had realised conservatories existed. After Colin died, the sun had been the first solace Iris found. His death had brought dull panic to a life she quickly discovered had been emotionally privileged to the utmost. She'd felt routinely crushed by the daily bouts of realisation that this new life was permanent and that all the empty spaces opened up by a lack of Colin, were now constant. For the first time in her life Iris had wished for children - begged the heavens to let her wake up having had a child with Colin 40 years ago so that now she'd have another version of his face to miss his old one with her. But every day she'd woken up childless and alone in a house that felt too big for the love she had left for it. Her own attention to it couldn't fill the corners any more and the visitors who shuffled round kept leaving tupperware dishes of good intentions that would sit in her fridge for days while she stared at them. She didn't want to reheat a lasagne portion and eat it in front of the TV, she wanted to chop an onion for a soup while the pips played on the radio and Colin chose that exact moment to wash up and get under her feet.

She'd felt wretched without him. The sort of heartache you thought you'd left behind in your teenage years could still find you despite your wrinkled disguise. Iris hadn't been totally sure if she was allowed to cry and wail and stay in bed, or if people would think that odd. She felt an unspoken assumption that if your partner died in old age, you were supposed to be ready and prepared for it. The fact that you knew it was coming and had already spent a life together, meant you didn't have many hard feelings about him going now. Iris didn't have hard feelings - she'd had wet feelings; mushy and limp feelings. Feelings that made her want to keep her eyes closed because thoughts didn't settle so firmly if you were looking at the colour lights on the black of your eyelids.

She clearly remembered that the sun was the first thing that made her want to bother being Iris without Colin. She'd been hungry, and a panicked loyalty had overwhelmed her brain so that she couldn't bear the thought of eating anything but Colin's tomatoes. She wanted to show him how she still loved him - she wanted to fill herself with something he had put so much time into. She wanted any tiny, miserable way to be with him. She'd slipped out the back door, up the step, along the path and down to the grow bags at the front of the greenhouse. Then she sank to her knees and began piling tomatoes into her mouth... red, round... green and hopelessly unripe... yellowing... she pushed fruit after fruit into her mouth. Not letting a single pip fall from her lips to be wasted. Then she sat back down onto the grass and just cried. A tear for every second she had loved that man, and an extra one for every long minute she now had to 'get on with it' without him. She cried until she was exhausted and then lay back on the grass and drifted off to sleep. When she woke, her first thought was how pleasant the burning sun felt on her skin. It was like fingers massaging into her cheek bones. As her drowsy thoughts came awake and she remembered why she was lying in the garden, she realised that for the first time since his death her first waking thought had not been Colin. The sun had given her a few brief moments of respite - the smallest insight into the possibility that one day there would be more thoughts that weren't of a lack of Colin. The sun had given her hope.

Her meandering thoughts were interrupted, not by the sun, but by the son. The side gate to her little house scraped along the uneven concrete as Jesus pushed it open and poked his head around the wall.

"Hello Mrs Shoe. Not interrupting anything am I?" said Jesus with a smile.

"Just a load of internal wittering! Hello Jesus!" Mrs Shoe pulled herself up in the green canvas chair and worked up the forward momentum to rise from it. "Goodness me, this chair is tough. If there's one thing the youth of today really ought to dread it's not losing one’s marbles, it's sacrificing the ability to rise swiftly from repose. How utterly undignified. Anyway, how are you?" She got to her feet and strode over to Jesus to shake his hand. Jesus was smiling warmly.

"I'm very well - all the better for seeing you." he replied.

"I have another canvas chair in the shed," said Mrs Shoe, "I'll fetch it for you." She ambled off up to the shed, dug out the canvas chair from beneath the spider webs and dust, and brought it back down to the lawn for Jesus to sit on. "Would you like a drink, Jesus? I have a secret stash of elderflower cordial in the cupboard if you would like to partake?"

"Ooh! The strong stuff!" said Jesus, "You're really spoiling me. Go on then, that sounds lovely. Thank you. Can I help at all?"

"No, no." said Mrs Shoe, already heading down to the back door, "You get yourself comfy. I shan't be long."

Jesus settled into the chair and looked about the garden. It was really very well kept; the sort of garden that could only be produced by a certain generation of British adults. It was beautiful - all the flora of the British colonial expeditions sitting triumphantly side by side in neat beds with a lawn to be proud of laying calmly down the middle. The make up of residents of the English countryside seemed to be roughly 75% pride and 25% absolute refusal to accept the unpalletable - gardening was an excellent activity to reflect that. An entire history of uprooting the bits they weren't keen on and pilfering the pretty stuff on the surface, all consolidated into a square patch of ground behind each person's house. An Englishman's home may be his castle but his garden is his legacy.

Mrs Shoe returned promptly with two tall glasses of elderflower cordial. She passed one over to Jesus and settled herself back down into the sagging canvas.

"You will call me Iris, won't you?" Mrs Shoe began. "I feel like I've spoken to you all my life and whilst I haven't always been Mrs Shoe when we've spoken I have always been Iris."

"Of course." said Jesus.

"Do you have a surname?" asked Mrs Shoe, "Oh, wait. Of course you do. It's Christ I suppose?"

Jesus smiled.

"Er, no, technically it's not Christ. Christ is a term of endearment that was bestowed upon me. It means anointed. Last time I was on earth surnames were not quite what they are now. A name was derived from where you came from; genetically and geographically. They called me Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus, son of Joseph. Personally, I like not having a surname; I feel like Cher."”

Iris wasn’t 100% sure she knew who Cher was but Jesus looked happy so she smiled back at him and sipped her elderflower cordial.

“How are Sarah and Hamish?” she asked.

“They are plodding along. They’re good people - I’m really very grateful to them for putting me up.”

Iris really felt like there ought to be something pressing she should have to say to Jesus. Surely there should be more floating around in her mind than idle chit chat. The thing is, Jesus had always been the sort of deity that had welcomed a conversation - Christianity was very much built around talking things through. So, even now that he was actually here in front of her, she still felt like she’d pretty much said most of the important things that had ever crossed her mind. It wasn’t like some long lost family member had turned up and she could finally pour her heart out - she’d been gently siphoning off her heart’s contents to this man for decades.

There was one, tiny, small, silly little thing that she sort of wanted to ask. One thing that she wanted to ask but knew she really shouldn’t because it was ridiculous. One thing that she knew the answer to anyway so what was the point of asking… but, oh would you look at that, her mouth was opening and she seemed to be asking it anyway…

“Did Duncan make it up to you, at all?” Iris felt so cross with herself for asking it she could quite happily have just stalked out of the garden to save herself the embarrassment of waiting for his reply. “Yes, Iris, of course your tiny toy was given a place in heaven. Naturally. Any other dazzlingly stupid questions designed to make you seem like a stereotypically country bumpkin octogenarian?”

“No. No, he didn’t.” was Jesus’ amazingly straightforward reply. “He could be there when you arrive if it was something you still wanted, but I’m assuming as you’ll likely be reunited with Colin you won’t have much of a need for Duncan any more? Loyal as he was.”

Iris wouldn’t have thought it possible that Jesus could really shock her but he had. Calmly and quietly he had listened and responded and given her consolation - she felt a little ashamed that she’d ever doubted that would be his response. Hadn’t she been taught since school that this was who and what Jesus was? Why was she expecting him to behave by human standards?

“No. I suppose you’re right. I wound up with him for comfort after Colin died. He was a present from my great-niece… her mother was mortified when she gave him to me. I liked having him though - it broke up the day having something that relied on me.”

“Yes, I can certainly see the appeal of feeling needed by something that is very easy to fix.” Jesus said thoughtfully.

“We must be a terrible handful?” said Iris.

“Yes and no. In theory, you’re all actually very easily manipulated should I choose to do it. However, we decided that it was pointless if we got involved all the time… it missed the point of seeing if you could do it alone. I’ve had my heart broken more times than you could possibly imagine across the millenia… every time I’ve had to not meddle and it’s caused a small piece of the world to shatter for someone. But if I intervened then you’ve lost your lives - because then you’re just an extension of me… you’d just be game pieces. If there’s no peril for you then there’s no life. At least, that’s what we think… I didn’t want you to be pets.”

Iris thought about it and it seemed to make sense. “You don’t seem overly happy with it though, Jesus?”

Jesus sighed, “It’s the age old problem of no one thanking you for the hard bits.”

Iris thought some more. She was rather hoping she’d find a suitably eloquent way to reassure Jesus that he was on the right track. It felt right somehow to be able to give back after a life time of asking. She supposed this was the Christian’s equivalent of being able to go to a concert and scream your delight at the greatest hits. She thought about the lows of her own life, and tried to imagine what it would have been like if they’d been smoothed over.

“I suppose…” she began ponderously, “I suppose there are a number of tragedies that don’t happen? I assume you intervene at times, do you?”

“Well, I keep the earth spinning and functioning to a certain degree. Despite your best efforts. It’s the personal traumas I choose not to attend to… Although sometimes I find it very hard to stick to my guns. Listening to 100,000 people a day wringing “Why, God, why?” out of their vocal chords is very difficult when the only answer you have for them is, “Because this is the reality of living”. I sometimes wonder if I should assume full control and be done with it… but you’d lose so much that you don’t even know you’re enjoying.”

The worst thing that had happened to Iris was losing Colin. She could have not lost him if Jesus had intervened - they could have fallen asleep together on his 100th birthday when no surviving family members could have been too sad. That would have been infinitely nicer.

“What sort of things would we lose?” she asked tentatively.

“Well,” Jesus said, “If I prevented all pain and loss in your lives then you would have no concept of them. Without a concept of the alternative you cannot appreciate what you do have. When you have been underwater a long time and you come up to the surface and take that first breath of air it is physically a wonderful feeling… but when you have been out for a few minutes you barely even appreciate you are breathing. You forget for days at a time that there is air. If I prevented every sadness coming your way, then everything you consider a joy at present would become as unremarkable as each breath you take.”

“Yes, that’s a valuable thing to remember. Gosh, the joy I felt when I married Colin… that pure elation in my skin when we tied the knot - I don’t think I could have given that up. If you fixed everything I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised and grateful to have met him?”

“Exactly.” Said Jesus, “Everyone would meet someone, so you’d all just expect and wait for it to happen.”

“Oh no…” Iris said with a smile on her face, “No, I couldn’t go back and give up that feeling. That feeling of being so, so lucky to have him. I never once took him for granted.”

“I know you didn’t,” said Jesus, “And so does he.”

“Good.” Said Iris, the happiness slipping a little from her tone.

“You wouldn’t have lost him if I meddled.” Jesus tested.

Iris cocked her head to one side, “Humans like independence. Look at the way we seek it out in the rest of our lives; we leave home as teenagers when we could stay secure with our parents, we war for democracy; we make life harder for ourselves so it’s satisfying. I think you have got it right. Despite what we say when we’re angry.”

“You were pretty angry… when Colin died.”

“Yes.”

Iris wasn’t sure what else to say. Of course she’d been angry. Who wouldn’t have been angry? The Dalai Llama maybe… but he was unlikely to be talking to Jesus about it even if he had been angry.

“If heaven was just a bit more of a concrete promise,” she continued slowly and thoughtfully, “then I suppose the anger might not be so quick to appear. But we’re never sure - are we? We just know we’ve lost them, not that they’ll definitely be back with us.”

“Do you know we actually created heaven after you did?” Jesus said conspiratorially.

“You what?” asked Iris, baffled.

“Humans came up with the idea of heaven and we thought it was so lovely that we couldn’t see any reason not to do it. That was a day of pure beauty for me… when my own creation created their own paradise. I am more proud of heaven than of anything else in existence; that even with all the other things that have come into being since Day 1 what you all wanted in your ‘heaven’ was each other. Each other for eternity. That was it; you asked for all the good people to be waiting for you. My idea for earth was quite self-contained but after you’d dreamed of that I wanted more than anything to make it for you.”

“So it is real, then?” asked Iris, enjoying the way the conversation was starting to feel like a cosy lie down in a familiar bed. She felt wide-eyed; a child on Christmas Eve who knows this last poem is all that lies between her and the day she has been dreaming of. The realisation of what he was saying was the beginning and the end of everything for her; the start of eternity with Colin and the end of considering life as she knew it. She felt ethereal.

“Heaven is as real as the emotion you are ready to put into it. I created heaven based on the human imagination of it but it needed it’s own rules to work and so I decided on this… It works like one of your ‘Hall of Mirrors’, it takes the things you feel most passionately about and it projects them all around you - they become all you can see and feel and experience. For you, Iris, it should be love for Colin that faces you from every angle, as it seems to be that which your heart is full of. For someone with less focused passions and loves, it will be a reflection of a wider multitude of things but to a weaker degree… so, someone with four children they love equally will have the experience of that love for them. Someone with no passion, no love, no flare will have a mediocre heaven… someone with only darkness and no repentance will have that facing them.”

“So, a murderer will always be watching their murders?” Iris asked.

“Heaven is not about deeds.” Jesus said quickly, “Your heaven is not a result of your actions - your heaven is built on the things you feel and the emotions that drive your behaviour. A terrible deed can be cleansed by true repentance so that, whilst your heaven may not be the passions of your life, if you are truly sorry then your heaven will be a sweet respite from the guilt. The deeds are irrelevant; heaven is a reflection of what fuels you. I felt it was the best way to get people what they deserved.”

“Gosh.” said Iris, quite lost for words.

“Quite.” Said Jesus, keeping an eye out for any steam coming from Iris’ ears - a sure sign he had accidentally blown yet another mind.

“What would a greedy person feel?” Iris questioned, extremely interested.

“It would depend on the person. Perhaps they are greedy because they want to be better than anyone else, in which case heaven would sadly be a reflection of that keening feeling of inadequacy that has fuelled them.”

“It’s quite scary.” said Iris.

“Yes, it is. But, even without heaven to reflect this way on you, you should still have spent your whole existence with these feelings, so it is in some respects the same as if heaven had never existed. Heaven is also, in a way, kaleidoscopic in the way feelings can blur and blend and shimmer into one another. You may have loves and strengths in your heart that tumble and change about across one another. It is never too late to repent or fall in love and change it all.”

“And is heaven eternal?” asked Iris, shy suddenly, not sure if she wanted to know.

“Heaven will last for as long as your passions burn.” Jesus turned to her with the warmest smile she’d ever seen. “It tends to be longer for those with real love in their hearts. Hate whimpers out first; only a few thousand years usually. Fear clings a very long time… but love, love is for the millenia.”

“Thank you Jesus. This has meant the world to me.” Iris patted him on the back of the hand.

“You didn’t ask about what’s going on at all…? Jesus ventured.

“No, that’s not my concern I don’t think.” Iris said lightly, “This conversation has been the privilege of a lifetime. I consider myself an extremely lucky old woman.”

“Old,” Tutted Jesus, “Don’t give me that. You’ve got nothing on me…”

“Well, I’d best get us some more cordial then, hadn’t I?” Said Iris, “Save those old aching bones of yours!”

“In a moment,” said Jesus, “Let’s just sit for a while. It’s so peaceful to be with an old friend.”

Iris rested back into the green canvas chair and closed her eyes; content, as she had been her entire life, to keep Jesus company.

As We Know It - Chapters 25 and 26

Chapter 25

The Vicar turned the big key in the door to the Village Hall. He barely knew why he was locking it - crime in Norton Fitzwarren had never been much of an issue, even before the end of the world. Now they were joined by the man in charge of your final resting place, not even the spritely youths from the council houses would risk their eternal souls for the chance of spray painting their initials and stealing some neglected Brownie subs.

The lock clunked across and The Vicar turned around to look at Sarah, Hamish and Jesus.

“Well, I think that was a success.”

Nobody responded. The Vicar continued, “I mean, it was pretty vague but it seemed to satisfy everyone. I suppose there’s not much point in me asking if I can know a little more… er, is there?” He looked hopefully from Sarah to Jesus. Jesus shook his head.

“I’m sorry - I would prefer to keep the finer details of my visit under wraps if you don’t mind?”

“Of course not. Whatever you say goes. As ever.” The Vicar tried to laugh, shake off his awkward body language and seem casual. Hamish eyed him, unconvinced by the stretchy smile. “Well, I’d better be off. Lots to do. See you later!”

The Vicar scuffed his shoes on the concrete step and then strode off, a purposeful rhythm to his swinging arms. He held his head rigidly as if forging himself forward by the power of his eyes.

“Poor guy.” muttered Hamish.

“You see it too?” Said Jesus.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Very astute of you.”

“Right.”

“It must be hard,” sympathised Jesus, “I get this a lot - you spend an entire life talking to me and hearing my responses through your own interpretation and it’s a bit difficult when you meet me in person. I’m told it’s a lot like internet dating.”

Hamish’s mind raced - thoughts of newly settled Heaven dwellers cosying up to Jesus and regaling him with tales of their dubious forays into online partnership. “Well, Jesus, he had excellent grammar… but he was a foot shorter than he said, and they really ought to introduce a tick box for bald as a coot...”

Heaven was going to be a lot weirder than he’d first anticipated, Hamish realised. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure he’d even ever actually considered being in Heaven. It seemed like a big ask; eternity. Hamish had been quite looking forward to oblivion.

Jesus stretched his arms above his head, reaching first left, then right - enjoying the physicality of it. Stretching was something you really needed a body to enjoy. It made Sarah smile - there was something so childlike about him. He smiled back at her - gladder than he expected to see someone smiling so genuinely at him.

“Right,” he began, “If it’s all the same to you two I might need a bit of peace and quiet. Would you mind if I took a wander and met you back at your house later in the evening?”

“Of course,” said Sarah, “Not a problem at all. Will you be OK?”

“So long as you don’t have any Romans no one’s told me about!” Jesus joked.

“Not that I know of.” replied Sarah, grinning. She was beginning to really like Jesus - not that it should have been a surprise, she reminded herself.

“Well then,” said Jesus. “I shall take myself off for a bit of an explore and we’ll reconvene later. Enjoy yourselves!” He waved casually and headed off down the path in the same direction The Vicar had taken minutes earlier. Sarah thought she could see similarities between the two men, she was surprised they hadn’t got on a lot better so far. She turned to look at Hamish,

“Shall we head home?”

“Sure thing. Are you hungry?”

“Not really.”

“OK.” He nodded, and they started off in the direction of their house. Both very aware of the clawing formality between them that wouldn’t quite wipe away. Hamish squeezed his fingers nails into the palm of his hand and prayed to the man a hundred yards behind him that he had a better plan than the abyss occupying Hamish’s brainspace.

The man a hundred yards behind Hamish was fighting with a heavy sensation behind his nipples. He was staring at them, wondering what on earth this new sensation could be. He’d not had a human body for two thousand years and, truth be told, it was a bit of a beast to negotiate. Like upgrading from a first generation Fiesta to the Millenium Falcon. He’d already ruled out hunger - he knew that was meant to be a little lower. It was way, way too high to be the opposite of hunger, it wasn’t a headache and he didn’t think a heart attack would feel this drippy and frustrating.

He tried to focus his mind on exactly what the feeling was. His chest felt; heavy. Heavy and a bit wet and foggy. Like a gloomy day. Gloomy. That was it! He felt gloomy. He smiled brightly; once you knew what a problem was it was far easier to fix.

 “So, why the gloom?” He asked himself, as his feet took him further up the main road towards the church. He searched his feelings again and realised his chest gloom was mainly a result of his performance in the village meeting. Disappointment? Not quite… just a strange and unfamiliar feeling of not measuring up.

The meeting had seemed fine on the outside and Sarah and Hamish had been wildly complimentary about the speech. So why had Jesus left feeling like he’d failed? It didn’t feel like the victories of old and he felt the frustrated cumulonimbus building in his chest. He tried to pinpoint exactly what about it hadn’t made his mind race - bubbling with success inspired ideas for how to do it again and better. Today’s speech had felt like a total concentration on getting through the material in front of him... a good speech he barely noticed giving because his mind was on the next one. On the next phrase on the next lesson on the next person who needed him. It was like those dreams where you are running but your feet never impact - a perfect forward motion, fluid, focused energy. The scenery is rushing past you and you know exactly what it is but you never linger, you never have to focus. You can absorb it all without giving it a second thought.

He looked up and realised he’d reached the church - the doors were open but he didn’t head in yet. He sat down on the grass near the path, next to some of the oldest gravestones in the yard. They had lichen of all colours stretched across the facades, covering names he half recognised from lifetimes beyond the imaginings of the people who now passed them.

When had he got so nervous? When had this happened? Somewhere between Cyril Barrie 1875 - 1926 and Eleanor Burkitt 1911 - 1978 - Devoted Wife or much, much earlier? He remembered a time when he could sweep into a room and think quicker than any other person staring back at him. When the answers people wanted were ready on his tongue before they’d even asked for them, before they’d even become aware that they were looking to him for an answer. When had that gone?

The grass was still a little damp; he felt it creeping through the fabric of his clothes and irritating the skin. Not wet enough to be wet, just wet enough to cause an itch. The sort of itch that is unscratchable - the bain of the school child’s life as they squirm about on plastic chairs, protected only by nylon skirts and unbreathable underwear. Not even a well placed ruler can satiate that itch, as many a shatterproof has lived to witness. Jesus marvelled at the complexity of the human body - so many purposes and opportunities and yet still so damn distractable and fragile.

It was easy for others to criticise. They didn’t know what it was like… He didn’t know what it was like. He never had to actually come down and be flesh and blood, be one of the people he was supposed to be leading. The earth had a strange way of confusing and distracting you. If you explain wind in words and science it is simple. When you feel it on your skin, on your face, on a dark night, when it feels like a solid thing and it's pulling your mind in a thousand different memories... well then it becomes inexplicable.

He pulled his wayward thoughts from his bothered backside to the speech he had just given. It had felt so dry today, every simile had needed a moment - just to stop and see if anyone else had seen it to. Had they liked it? Should he point out what he had liked about it too? Just to check? Would that seem desperate? His mouth had dried. He’d smiled, talked quicker. Just wanted them to love him.

Today he had watched himself feel his way blindly through his own visions - he felt a bit of a fraud. An amateur. It was not a feeling he liked. To feel unsure of his own ideas, to feel they looked dusty and staid. To feel like the audience he so desperately desired might have outgrown him. Just when he needed them most.

He was rusty. He knew it. Too long out of the game. Too long sat dreaming of it going well so that by the time the lights were on his face he was nervous that it couldn’t be as good as he needed it to be.

An elephantine yawn prised its way from his mouth, clambering awkwardly between the teeth and settling inches from his face. He pushed himself up off the ground and smoothed his clothes down, sneaking in a mild scratch of the posterior to try and soothe the persistent chatter of itchiness. He decided to go into the church and headed towards the door. The enormous iron hooped handle was cold in his hand and he enjoyed the exertion it took to lift it anti-clockwise and push the door forward.

Churches have strange air inside them. Whether it’s the dust, the prayers, or the light from the stained glass, I don’t know, but it’s strange. Jesus didn’t seem to mind. He just stopped inside the door and dragged the strange air in through his nose in one long, strong heave. It was very quiet in the stone walls. He eyed the gold eagle lectern and felt the gloom prodding his self-esteem from its curled up posture on his lungs.

Had it gone? Was it still there but the hit wasn’t as good? His thin ribs sank in on themselves. Had it only ever really been about pleasing himself... that was the question he didn’t really want to answer. When he’d first started it didn’t take much to feel that glorious ringing in his ears, the billowing chest pump of success that obliterated his senses and heightened every perception. It felt like flying into ultra violet. Now he could master the basics, he needed to be cleverer, but the clever stuff wouldn’t sing so finely.

He could return to the original tricks and tools or he could continue to persevere with the longer lasting tack... the things he really believed in, the things that were good, the things he wanted to say to people. But one way or the other it wasn’t ever going to feel the same as that first miraculous experience of pleasing people.

He was glad he’d come to the church - it felt right to be thinking in this symbol of humans’ interpretations of his last visit. He was standing in a stone consequence of previous actions. Humans seemed to like stone, they liked things to be permanent and unswerving. Jesus felt a little loop of the knotted problem fall looser as this thought came to him. He moved further into the church, slowly walking up the central aisle and allowing his hands to run across the tops of the pews, bouncing off the bibles laying in wait on the ledges.

‘How do you continue when you’ve vastly outgrown your original material?’ He thought, realising he had idly lifted one of the Bibles from its place and was turning it over and over. If no fool had ever written it down it would be easy to backtrack - perhaps that was the problem? Whoever told them it was the written word that mattered was to blame. Two thousand years of taking things literally with no one around to chip in with a "common sense" flag seemed to have aged his previous arguments to an unsalvageable point.

“Yes, well technically we did say that sodomy was an abomination. Yes, we said it was for sacred reasons. What we meant was, we needed you to have sex with the other gender so that there’d be more humans. There are more than enough of you now so you go ahead and make love to whatever gender you see fit. Do it by yourself by all means... again, no longer a sin because it was only ever a sin if it led to the casual extermination of your race because you were all at home masturbating.”

Somehow he felt that wouldn't make much of a publishing deal for his sequel. He placed the Bible down carefully and wandered up to the altar. It all needed messing with a little bit. Loosening, like the knot in his chest. He moved the heavy gold cross from the centre of the altar to one side and turned round to face the empty pews. He placed both hands on the thick purple fabric and sprung up backwards so that he was sitting on the Altar. Delicious sacrilege. Given that his body and blood were passed out from this table every week, he felt that he had earned the right to rest his still tickled rear on it for a few minutes.

The thought of the look on Sarah’s face if she could see him sitting on the altar brought a smile to his face. Her hand would go up to her mouth, her eyebrows would twitch and her weight would swing from side to side as the arguments for and against his actions rang through her mind. He smiled wider. That was precisely what he needed to do - tap dance on the altar, swing from the rood screen, sing the wrong hymn lyrics and still be a damn good Christian. Sarah needed loosening, just enough that she could love three very different people without an internal struggle. She needed setting free within her own mind. Jesus hoped he was the man to do it.

Chapter 26

In contrast to Jesus' need for solitude after the meeting, the majority of the villagers found they couldn't bear to go home. There'd been a seismic shift during Jesus' speech that their bodies and minds were struggling to get to grips with. Philosophical jet lag.

Outside the Village Hall they'd milled about a bit, waving good bye to the few people who were leaving for thinking space, and trying to make small talk with those who remained; clinging to camaraderie to counteract the exposing sense of uniqueness they'd each felt under Jesus' gaze. Eventually Derek had jangled the keys to the front door of The Ring of Bells and raised an eyebrow at Mr Baxter. Mr Baxter bobbed his head in return.

"I, er, I'll be opening the pub if anyone fancies a drink... or just a chat. Like old times." Derek called out. People visibly relaxed; English people know where they are with a pub. Put a pool cue in a man's hand and he is a politician for a frame. Add a roaring fire and a friendly hound and I defy anyone with English blood not to feel almost American levels of positivity about the world, deep down obviously. Very deep down.

Derek lead the charge down the path and right onto the main road towards the pub. He pushed the front door open and trekked behind the bar to find the Cook's matches he kept for power cuts. He lit the four thick white candles on the bar and then encouraged the early birds to use the flames to work on the smaller stick candles stuck haphazardly into Jack Daniel's bottles on the tables. He'd lost count of the number of nervous dates he had watched play out across these candles over the years, he wondered how many of them would have been overcome by the nerves if it weren't for the candle wax and the careless shredding of beer mats to keep jittery hands busy. Now, the candles were easing out a reassuring glow across the inhabitants of the pub. People filtered in and began to fill up the tables. Someone lit the fire. Martin Young popped home for his guitar and Derek very quickly and apologetically explained that his live music license had expired and hid the guitar behind the bar.

Derek felt there was no need to be selling drinks in the usual sense, he lined up wine and beer across the bar and let people tuck in themselves. He joined Nigel, Beryl, Mr Baxter, Arthur Arthur and Mrs Shoe at a large round table by the window.

"Well." Said Mr Baxter; they all nodded in agreement.

"I know." Said Nigel.

"Quite." Said Mrs Shoe.

Then they were silent, listening to the growing conversations around the tables near them. They felt very weary, very old all of a sudden; separated from the immediacy of the problem by decades of other problems. Arthur Arthur watched Martin Young talking to Angela Norman as though he were no longer in the same room as them, no longer on the same planet.

Jesus' speech had struck a potent chord with the older residents. It was a strange thing to be old in a time of such progress; watching young lives around you that bear no resemblance at all to the one you led. In a generation of technological advances every week it was easy to feel outdated if you just caught an early night. Arthur Arthur felt prehistoric.

"He was good, wasn't he?" Mused Beryl.

"Jesus?" confirmed Mrs Shoe.

"Well, yeah. That man, the Jesus man.”

Everyone looked at her. Nigel cocked his head to one side.

"What do you mean?"

"I dunno. I don't know. Don't you think he's a bit too 'good'?" said Beryl, cagily.

"Well I should bloody hope so! He's meant to be perfect, isn't he?" spluttered Arthur Arthur, his throat leaping. He couldn't totally pin down why he felt so defensive of Jesus, but he hoped it could only be a good thing in earning him brownie points with whoever was watching.

"I just... I don't know. It sounds stupid, doesn't it? I'll shut up." Beryl sank back into her chair and sipped her red wine.

"Oh Beryl, no, don't you worry. We're all just a bit tense. Go on love, what do you mean?" Mrs Shoe rubbed the back of Beryl's forearm supportively.

"Oh I don't know," Beryl seemed on the verge of tears, "I'm just not sure. He looks EXACTLY like I thought he would... I mean, exactly. Isn't that a bit strange? Shouldn't I have got it a little bit wrong. And they weren't gone long, were they? Sarah and Hamish? They weren't gone long. How on earth did they find him so quick? It's all just been a little bit too easy. A bit too slick." She deflated and gulped another mouthful of red, seemingly relieved to have rid herself of these thoughts. Her eyes kept flicking nervously across to Nigel, just checking she hadn't gone too far. What with the recent slapping debacle, she felt she ought to check herself more regularly these days. Testing times an apocalypse, everyone knew that.

Mr Baxter whistled through his teeth and shook his head, his right hand idly scratching the top of Rufus' ears.

"You've got a point, I suppose Beryl. Finding him did go quite smoothly... but, we didn't start looking for a week. Poor guy might've been holed up in a cave for all of that time while we was organising the Line Dance."

"There aren't any caves round here... nearest ones are Wookie and he wouldn't have hidden there because of the witch." said Nigel.

"It's not a real witch..." said Beryl wearily.

"I know what I saw." said Nigel, firmly.

"But, maybe it is a plan -" piped up Mrs Shoe, "I mean, if he's Jesus - and just for the record I wholeheartedly believe that he is..." she glanced up to the yellowed ceiling, "...then he's going to have a plan, isn't he? He's not just going to turn up and hope it all pans out. That's not very God like."

"I suppose so." mumbled Beryl, trying to smile.

"I have to admit," said Derek, clearing his throat thoughtfully before he spoke, "I wasn't sure how I felt before the meeting. But, when he spoke... I mean, not just when he said anything, but when he did his speech... That was something else. Wasn't it?"

"Did you feel it too?" Nigel's eyes questioned Derek's earnestly.

"Yes, I think I did. I couldn't tell you what it was, mind, but I certainly felt something. I just felt very sure. Very confident."

"I felt like I could think at a thousand miles per hour." Said Mrs Shoe, "I could see all my thoughts and images clear as a cinema screen. It was wonderful.”

"Did you feel something, Beryl?" Nigel asked his wife, shyly.

Beryl stammered, "I don't know. I mean, yes, yes, I did. But only I don't know if I liked it. That was the problem. I didn't know if I wanted to give in to it - I could feel what his words were doing to me, felt lifted up and cradled and shown things he weren't even saying... But part of me wanted to fight it. Is that bad?" The poor thing seemed beside herself, meek as she was she seemed in no fit state to inherit anything.

"Well that's alright." Pronounced Mrs Shoe, confidently.

"Is it?" pounced Beryl, her eyes wide as lemons.

"Of course." enthused Mrs Shoe, "It wouldn't be right if you didn't question yourself a little bit, would it? If you just blindly went along with everything then we'd all be in cults and wars, wouldn't we? You've got to question. Don't you worry yourself any more, Beryl. Have some more wine." Mrs Shoe practically forced the glass to Beryl's lips - Employee of the Month at the Merlot Foie Gras farm.

"Thank you," said Beryl, dodging the rim as it pranced towards her teeth. "Thank you, Iris, those are very kind words."

The atmosphere in the bar bubbled away, people were excited and positive - happy to have a direction to look in.

"I wonder what he's going to do while he's here?" asked Martin Young.

"It's a bit like an Ofsted inspection! Isn't it? That’s what The Vicar said to me - I thought it was very funny. Ofsted!" giggled Karen, who was drenching her earlier nerves in Pinot Grigio. "I'm sure I've still got my school uniform somewhere!"

Martin Young swallowed nervously. Sometimes Karen could get a little out of hand and he felt trying to rein her in on his own might not be wholly successful given he'd been nursing a painful crush on her for years. He attempted a witty response, bit his tongue, choked on a gobbit of wayward spit and blinked furiously at her for a few seconds. She giggled in response and drained her glass.

"Do you think we’ll be going to church still?” asked Angela Norman, who was sitting to Karen’s right.

“Why wouldn’t you?” asked Martin Young.

“Well, we can just talk to him direct now, can’t we? Seems a bit silly to be directing prayers up into the ceiling when the actual bloke is in the village. Like leaving a voicemail for someone you’re sitting next to.”

“I guess so. I dunno. I never went anyway.” There was a bit of a tremble in Martin Young’s voice and the women sat by him averted their gaze down onto the wooden table. A few seconds passed by before Karen spoke;

“Are you regretting that now?” she said it softly, it wasn’t a dig at him or a chastisement, that didn’t feel right given the depth of the subject.

“Do you know what, I’m not?” the answer tumbled out of Martin Young’s mouth along with a heavy expulsion of sigh. “I wondered if I would be. Turns out I’m not. It’s weird, but, even though that guy is there, and I totally believe he is Jesus, I still don’t think I’m a Christian.”
That stunned them.

“How can you believe Jesus exists and not be a Christian?” asked Angela Norman.
“I don’t know. But, even if the world switches back on and he goes home again. I’m not going to start going to church. I don’t think all that spiritual stuff is for me. And I hate the singing. And I sort of get the impression that he won’t mind very much anyway. He seems cool.”

“So, let me get this straight…” Angela Norman was frowning now, “You like Jesus, you believe he exists and you think you’ve met him, but you don’t think you’re a Christian?”

“Well, no.”

“Why not?”

“I dunno, do I?”

“Don’t you?” It was The Vicar. No one had seen him come into the pub, but there he was, settling down onto a vacant chair at the table with Martin, Angela and Karen. “Don’t you know? Really?”

“Sorry Vicar, I wasn’t meaning to be rude or anything.” Martin Young raised his hands in genuine profferance of apology.

“No, no, I know you weren’t, Martin. I’m just very interested is all. Do you really not know?” The Vicar really did seem interested, he slid the candle away to one side and leant forward on the table.

“Well, I can’t say for sure. But, I suppose, what I feel is… if I get to carry on with my life, like, before it was the end of the world and stuff, then I don’t want it to be all about God. If he created us, which is looking all the more likely and stuff now that I’ve met his son, it just seems a bit weird to me that you’d then spend your whole life having to say thank you all the time for it. Why would you make something that served no purpose other than to praise you? Makes him seem a bit of a bell end, sorry Vicar, if you ask me. And having met Jesus, I don’t think that’s what they were going for. So, I would probably say, if the world carries on, that although I’ll know Jesus does exist, instead of making a resolution to go to church more often, I’d probably make a resolution to go out and see more of the world. Seems more likely to me that that’s the whole point of him having made us; so that we could make something of ourselves.”

The volume control for the pub seemed to have been flicked to mute. No one had ever heard Martin Young say more than a few snippy sentences designed to be slightly superior. Hearing him so earnestly divulge his feelings was something of a revelation. To have them make sense was bordering on revolutionary.

“Wow.” Said The Vicar.

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful.” said Martin Young.

“I don’t actually think that was disrespectful.” said Angela Norman, looking at him with new eyes.
All other eyes in the pub were on The Vicar who had gone quiet. He was toying with his right cuff, his stare firmly fixed on the loose threads.

“It wasn’t disrespectful at all.” He said finally in a low voice that wouldn’t have carried without the electricity in the air. “Not at all.” He tried to smile but his pupils couldn’t quite meet Martin Young’s. “Maybe you are right,” he continued, “Maybe the best people don’t need religion to tell them to be good people?”

“Perhaps, but I don’t think it makes you a worse person if you have chosen the church to help you.” Mrs Shoe was in on the conversation all of a sudden. Her tones were warm, carrying across the pub like a ship’s bow breaking in on the Vicar’s gloom. He looked over to her, appreciative. She smiled back, glad he was a big enough man to be able to accept her support. The atmosphere in the pub, which has chilled with concentration, began to reinstate itself as one or two tables returned to their own conversations and small sprigs of laughter showed shoots.
Mrs Shoe considered the hunched curve of The Vicar’s frame at the table and decided the man needed baked goods and a person to talk to. She decided to tell him he would be joining her the following day and made her way across the pub.