Monday, March 30, 2020
"Your parents are arriving today!" Pronounced Jesus gaily when he emerged from the spare room on Day 21 of the Great Apocalypse. There was no concrete record of when it had officially been upgraded from a regular Apocalypse to a great one but somehow it had slipped into village vernacular. If there was another one in the future then they could always swap to calling this the first one, it was funny how repetition devalued an event somewhat.
”Oh, right. I'm ever so glad they're safe." said Sarah.
"Looking forward to seeing them?" asked Jesus lightly.
"Yes. Very much. Obviously I wish it was under better circumstances, but, it'll be nice to air some things."
"And, when we've done this," interjected Hamish, thoughtfully, "Everything will go back to normal,
will it? The world will un pause?"
"Can’t see why not!" Jesus evaded eye contact and busied himself with the marmite and peanut butter. He'd taken to mixing peanut butter with other things in an effort to reduce the stickiness of it without losing the enjoyment.
"What are you not telling us?" Hamish persisted.
"Well, obviously I can't tell you that. If I tell you what I’m not telling you then it’s just something I’m telling you so you still wouldn’t know what I’m not telling you. No one can ever know that.” Jesus looked delighted with himself. Hamish frowned and Jesus relented slightly, “I just need to see where you get to on your own."
"So, it could all still go up in flames?" Sarah sounded nervous.
"No, I wouldn't use fire. I'd think of something much more deitane than that." said Jesus, swirling the brown mixture onto some granary. He was feeling low level anxiety about having dishonestly told them he had any plans to end the world. Of course he had no intention of doing anything of the sort, but he was finding the overhanging threat very useful in getting them to take it all seriously. Never underestimate the power of a good impending peril.
"Deitane?" frowned Hamish.
"I don't like to say 'humane'," explained Jesus, "I think it gives the human race credit where they've not necessarily earned it."
"Right." Sarah was struggling to get her head around the events to come. "So, Mum & Dad arrive, we chat to them - Lord knows how I'm going to start that conversation..."
"You're right, he does." said Jesus through an unsatisfying mouthful - not as good as jam and peanut butter, it turned out.
"What? Oh, sorry. Blasphemy. Um, so we have a chat with Mum & Dad, get them to understand how I feel about Hamish and how this could never be wrong, and then we agree to get married with their blessing, and the world goes back to normal?”
"Something along those lines." Jesus was grinning from ear to ear. He also had peanut butter gobbits covering similar regions so he looked a lot less smug than he might otherwise have done.
"I'll go and pick out a dress." Sarah disappeared upstairs leaving Hamish staring at Jesus from the kitchen table while the Son of God scowled at his crusts and sighed heavily as he folded one into his mouth.
Jesus felt content. It was all going to be OK.
Frank and Katherine hovered on the doorstep for a second before Frank struck out an arm and knocked sharply. Waiting was making him feel anxious, and anxiety was not an emotion he had ever bothered taking nonsense from. The knock sounded loud in both their ears and they waited silently for the padding of footsteps on the other side of the door.
Katherine was pleased to see it looked like a very presentable house and the garden was well looked after. That must be Hamish’s doing, she realised, remembering Sarah had about as much time for gardening as she did for clothes shopping and people who set fire to live animals.
They had waited 8 seconds (as long as it’s physically possible for a British person to wait before they have to consider a second knock thus experiencing the wave of panic associated with possibly being perceived as rude) when they heard footsteps on the other side of the door. Katherine felt relieved; her arm had urgently wanted to knock but the fear that someone was already en route to the door and might have to mutter under their breath for her to hold some horses was very real in her mind. She felt confident in herself that if she could refrain from knocking twice, she could cope with anything. Frank felt relieved; footsteps meant Sarah was probably fine. Footsteps were good.
Jesus, Sarah and Hamish had been in the garden when the knock came. The sun was shining brightly on the grass and they’d decided to relax outside while waiting for Frank and Katherine to arrive. It all felt really very civilised.
"I do hope they find it OK." Sarah had said nervously a few hours before after realising suddenly that Frank and Katherine had never visited the house before.
"Why have they never visited?" Jesus had asked earlier, unwittingly spooning worms out onto the pristine kitchen counter at which he sat.
"I don't know." replied Sarah, "I'd never really noticed they hadn't."
"Had you not?" Hamish said, curtly.
"No!" Said Sarah, surprised by his tone. "Had you noticed? Why didn't you say anything?"
"I just assumed you would have realised your parents had never visited your own house." Hamish's tone was icy and patronising.
"It's not like I haven't seen them," Sarah protested, "We've just always gone to them or met them somewhere else. They've never said, 'No, we refuse to set foot in your house' have they?"
"Well that's half the problem, isn't it?" Hamish retorted, "If they ever voiced their problems then we'd have had it out and we wouldn't be in this mess. But they never bloody do and neither do you and so it's awkward and unspoken. No one ever says anything."
"Alright then, what would you like to say?"
"That your father is a racist and it's the reason you were unsure about marrying me."
"He's not a racist!" Sarah's voice lurched up.
"Ok, he's not a racist; he's just a man who doesn't want his daughter to be with a black man. But not a racist one... unless you just don't think that opinion is racist? Sarah?"
The tension was horrible. Jesus was fighting the urge to ask them to calm down and not do this now; he'd clearly been in England too long as the force was strong enough to keep lowering his bottom jaw in preparation for the words. Sarah had sat conflicted and despairing in the kitchen while Hamish glowered from his vulnerable position by the fridge. He knew that he could push, and keep pushing, and he might get a result but it was unlikely to be the result he wanted it to be.
"I don't know what you want me to say." was Sarah's only response and Hamish felt anger at it. Just anger and disappointment that he had a list of things he'd love to hear come out of her mouth and he knew not a single one of them would make him feel any better.
"We'll talk when they get here." Jesus had finally relented to his troublesome jaw. He wandered out into the garden to enjoy the sunshine. It was really a rather pleasant heat here; not like last time. That had been a little too much at times.
A few hours later the knock at the door finally came and all three of them looked at each other. They felt like naughty children caught up to no good. Sarah moved to go and answer the door but Hamish stood up tall and strode towards the house,
"I'll get it," he said, "It's my house, too."
"That was fucking unnecessary." Sarah muttered under her breath. Privately Jesus agreed but then Sarah swore too and he couldn't quite remember whether that made it alright or twice as bad. He really should have done a bit more revision.
26 awkward minutes had passed since the fearless second knock at the door and Hamish’s swift journey through the house to settle the Gilmores in the garden. If you believed in divine control, you would have had to assume the remote had been handed to a lethargic apathist with severe paralysis and narcoleptic tendencies. The warmth of the garden was putrefying any urgency to get the ball rolling instead of simmering it gently to a productive bubble. Nobody had baked. That was the core issue with the meeting. There were no baked goods from either party to represent an effort having been made. It is always difficult to get an event off the ground without anything covered in buttercream to get tongues moving.
Katherine and Frank had reacted most interestingly to being introduced to their Lord and saviour. They had quite effectively managed to behave as though they had obviously expected Jesus to be there, and that it would have been more surprising had he missed it. To say they took it in their stride would be an understatement; they crafted a new stride out of supple willow and ushered the news into a custom made resting cot where it sat comfortably, unaffected by the movement of the stride. Frank's immediate internal reaction was that showing surprise at seeing Jesus at what he'd largely assumed to be the end of the world was tantamount to blasphemy.
He and Katherine had felt dimly aware that there was a final feeling to the world for a few weeks now, ever since the air had changed and the new feeling had settled on them. The fact that he and Katherine had felt it simultaneously and without discussion cemented it for them. Their friends and neighbours had been less jumpy about the situation; almost blissful and content to meander about on permanent holiday. Only Frank and Katherine had shown any agitation at the situation and it unnerved them to have been singled out from the others. Which direction were they selected for?
Having been led directly to Jesus, while their peers were still back at home learning to live without reality television, had settled their minds and they were trying their best to act as though there was no doubt in their souls they were meant for this and had been preparing for it. Katherine was overjoyed to see that Jesus did indeed look like Ashley from Gone With The Wind, and she hoped this meant that heaven also looked as it did in her mind; like the contents of Habitat strewn about a mackerel sky. Frank liked the way Jesus tied his tie, but felt a little old in his presence and decided he thought God would be much more up his alley.
Once sufficient pleasantries had been exchanged they began to shuffle their feet for something to do and Hamish suggested a tour of the house. Sarah felt cross with herself that she suspected him of getting at her parents for not having seen it before. Her loyalties were pulled in all directions and stretched so thin she feared with much more pressure she'd rip and be flung too forcefully in a direction not of her choosing. The tour was stilted at best.
Sarah wished she could be showing her first home off to her mother under slightly better circumstances. She’d always thought the guest bedroom was rather nicely decorated and kept, however, showing it off under the pressure of “This is the room in which I’ve been housing the Son of God.” suddenly took the shine off Sarah’s perfect coving. Mothers never find it easy to praise their daughters’ homes, it is exceptionally hard to do so when lurking in any un-dusted corner could be the reason for the assumed end of the world.
Jesus was wishing he could exchange some of his immaculate inner moral compass for a bit of social know how; he didn’t know how to get them chatting and neither of Sarah’s parents could quite bring themselves to look him in the eye. Their brisk formality was intimidating. Jesus thought it interesting how a species could remain so similar over the course of an evolution, and yet be so wildly different from one generation to the next.
The tour ended rather lamely with them all peering at the cupboard under the stairs. Jesus tried a Harry Potter joke but neither Katherine or Frank had read the books. Hamish smiled and Sarah shook her head affectionately; Katherine wondered how the books didn't fall through the clouds. Sarah had offered to start a fire and make some tea but Katherine and Frank trotted out 'Oh, no, don't go to that trouble... water is fine.' despite both desperately wanting tea, and so the party had been sped back out to the garden with water in hand for a sit down.
Now they were sitting round the bird table; Hamish sulking and unsure how to behave, Sarah trying to be overly nice and fix all problems using impeccable hospitality, Katherine and Frank largely monosyllabic in as positive a way as single utterances can allow.
“Hamish made this bird table!” Sarah chirped.
“It’s very nice.” Said Frank, really focusing his compliment on the joint work rather than the hand carved robin decorations around the edge of the bowl.
“Does it go someway to making up for the fact that Hamish is black?” asked Jesus.
I really do believe if the world could have stopped more, it would have. It turned out to be a superb turn of events that there had been no baking from either party; had anyone been chewing on a slice of Black Forest at the moment Jesus spoke it would surely have spelled the first fatality of the entire crisis as they inevitable choked on a cherry and beat Jesus to his own doorstep.
Sarah turned to stare wide eyed at Jesus, part baffled part marvelling. Hamish thought Heaven must be a nightmare if this was the way they dealt with things; British people would be clamouring for hell within minutes of the first argument. He hadn’t thought it possible to be quite so perfectly blunt in such quaint surroundings - he’d always thought something about privet hedges must keep it in check.
“I’m sorry?” Said Frank.
“Well, that’s a good start. Sarah? How are you feeling?”
“Er…” Sarah started.
“What did you just say?” Frank asked Jesus, rewinding the conversation back over in his head.
“I asked Sarah if she was starting to feel more reconciled with Hamish now you had apologised.” Jesus was positively delighted with how things were progressing. An apology within the first few minutes? He felt like a strong contender for some kind of chat show host.
“What do I need to apologise for? Sarah?” Frank’s voice was grave and low. Sarah instantly felt sick and curiously guilty. It was a mixture of emotions she closely associated with having recently stolen something from the kitchen.
“Er, well, I’m not saying you necessarily have to apologise for it…” Hamish shot her a look. “I mean, I think you do, if what we think you think is correct.”
“I don’t follow…” Said Katherine, looking from Hamish to Jesus with a painfully confused look on her face.
“Dad,” Sarah began slowly, “This whole ‘paused world’ is because of us.”
“You and Hamish?” asked Katherine, her eyes flitting suspiciously to Hamish.
“Yes. And you two.”
“Us? How are we involved?” Katherine was shrill and panicked.
“Calm down mum, don’t worry.” Sarah tried.
“Don’t worry? You’ve just told me I somehow caused the end of the world without knowing and yet I shouldn’t worry? Of course it’s my fault, it’s always my fault isn’t it? I should have known it’d be the parents’ fault.” Katherine was reaching the hysterical point that she always managed to locate at family events, stressful situations and weekends.
“I’m not saying it’s your fault, mum, listen to what I’m saying. The world, er, paused, when Hamish proposed to me…”
“YOU’RE ENGAGED AND WE’RE ONLY JUST HEARING ABOUT IT NOW?” Shrieked Katherine.
“Mum! No, we’re not exactly engaged…”
“How can you not be exactly engaged?”
“Alright then, we’re not engaged.” Sarah hated saying it.
“You said no? Why?”
Hamish felt oddly buoyed by Katherine’s dismay and outrage at the news. She seemed genuinely surprised and upset. That had to be a good sign.
“I didn’t say no!” Said Sarah quickly, she turned to look at Hamish and repeated herself, “I didn’t say no. I didn’t say anything. I hesitated and then the end of the world happened and we’ve been a little busy.”
Katherine stopped to digest this information for a moment. Frank cleared his throat.
“Why did you hesitate?” he asked. Sarah slumped, unsure exactly how to phrase it.
“I paused because, because I was unsure how you would react to me marrying Hamish. Because… because I didn’t think you would be happy. Because I think you disapprove a little bit of our relationship, and, I, we think it is because you don’t like me in a relationship with a black man.”
The garden was silent. The still air seemed to cease to exist; time lay prostrate where it had been since the apoclaypse and gave up any hope of ever existing again in the future; the family sat stock still. Nothing rustled, nothing squirmed, nothing dared fill its lungs.
“Must we air our dirty laundry in front of Jesus?” asked Katherine quietly.
“Where on earth did you get the idea we have any problem with Hamish’s skin colour?” Frank’s tone was even and menacing.
“I… well, I don’t know. You…” Sarah began, crumbling under her father’s grim voice.
“You say things like ‘my kind’ and you make questioning comments about my background. You give off an air of not being sure about me and you make it uncomfortably clear that you are not 100% about Sarah and I.” Hamish met Frank's tone with certainty and cordial delivery.
Frank thought for a long time; considering his hands and occasionally nodding slightly to himself and ficking air out across his teeth. “I see.” he nodded conclusively, “I see how you have come to that assumption." He looked up into Hamish's face, "Hamish, I apologise unreservedly that you’ve considered me such a flagrant racist in the time that we’ve known each other. I’m disappointed you would think that of me and upset that I haven't had the courage to discuss my feelings earlier and clarify the situation. I'm not sure what I think, that you were willing to put up with that kind of behaviour from the parents of the one you love; I'm not sure if that's bravery or other. I, well, Katherine and I, do have reservations about your compatibility. But it has nothing,” Frank’s eyes rested on Sarah’s on the word ‘nothing’ hammering home his anger and disappointment, “to do with your colour or race. We consider ourselves to be living under the faith of God and the teachings of the Christian church and we see no place in that life for racism or small mindedness concerning colour. My concern has been, and remains, how someone of faith constructs a life and an afterlife with someone who has turned their back on God. I don’t want my daughter to marry an atheist. That’s my problem; your lack of faith. I cannot possibly see how a marriage between you could work when you have such a fundamental difference.”
Sarah was speechless. Hamish sat, stunned in his chair; cross with himself and thrown off balance by Frank’s speech. It may have been the longest he’d ever heard Frank speak in one sitting.
From behind the hedge a small voice could be heard saying, “Well I didn’t expect that.” and a much older, more Mrs Shoe like voice shushed it immediately.
Jesus was holding a pint and looking extremely pleased with himself. He'd decided it would be a good idea to get Hamish on his own. Man to man... or, as close to that as he could achieve: deity to man. Singular. Deity to mankind would be a whole different ballgame and he really didn't want them all to have a pint in their hands if he ever attempted that. He wasn't even entirely sure he'd get away with referring to them as mankind anymore - it felt outdated given the direction the human race had gone. Personsapathetic might be more appropriate.
Hamish was also holding a pint and grinning broadly at how happy Jesus looked. It was like having a nephew or a God-child, excuse the pun, who had just turned 18 and you had the honour of taking him for his first pint. Jesus had sampled each of the ales Derek still had running before selecting the Doombar and leading Hamish over to a small table with two stools. Jesus was insisting on using a coaster and looked utterly delighted with proceedings.
Jesus had decided that he needed to hear from Hamish his own version of the issues in the Gilmore/Stewart household. He slightly suspected that Sarah was hiding something and before he got them all in a room together he wanted a bit of time with Hamish - he liked Hamish, and it was always interesting to talk to atheists. For him, it is a bit like you sitting down to a dinner party with someone who doesn't believe in people who read books.
"So..." Said Jesus, with a grin bounding back across his cheeks.
"So!" Said Hamish, mirroring the smile and wondering how much this looked like The Ring of Bells' first gay date.
"So, you proposed to Sarah?"
"I did." Said Hamish, and looked down at the table. Jesus was blunt.
"Really? I would have thought I should have done it years ago for it to be honourable in your opinion." Hamish tried to keep his tone chatty, he didn't want to seem accusatory - it was interesting to have the source here rather than a disciple. Once in an afterlife time experience.
"Times change. If you don't think religion moves with the years then you're a little stubborn. That's my opinion. I often wish the Bible had been a magazine rather than a book - it'd be a blog by now I suppose. The letters section would certainly have made more sense if it had been a magazine. The psalms could have been detachable... Hmm. I'm getting off topic, what I mean is it would have helped so much with keeping things up to date."
"So it's not set in stone?"
"Well, except the Commandments. Really, how hard is it for you lot to follow? The bits that are set in stone we literally set in stone. We just thought that was foolproof."
"I guess now I think about it. Yeah."
"So, back to the point. You proposed to Sarah?"
"And she said...?"
"She hadn't said anything. You know, when the world stopped. She hadn't said anything yet."
"How long had it been?"
"Since I asked?"
"I don't know... a few seconds?" Hamish felt squirmy, unsure where all this was going. He knew that his and Sarah's relationship had brought Jesus was here but he felt distinctly uncomfortable now he was actually having to discuss it.
"Were you expecting her to wait a few seconds before replying?" Jesus asked. Hamish faltered.
"Um, no. No, I wasn't really." He paused but Jesus remained silent so Hamish sallied forth into the conversation. "It's not like I was expecting her to leap into my arms and be overcome with excitement, Sarah's lower key than that. But, I did think she'd say yes instantly. I know she was going to say yes - I know she was. But, I suppose the pause was unexpected. But then the Apocalypse happened and that really messed with things. Maybe she wasn't going to say yes at all."
"She was." said Jesus, simply and swiftly. "You can tell. No, it's the pause I'm interested in."
"Right." Hamish sipped the foam on the top of his beer.
"Why do you think she paused?"
"Waiting for a better offer?" Joked Hamish. Jesus frowned. "I think it would have to do with her father. Has she told you about Frank? Her Dad?"
Jesus shook his head. Even this miniscule, so whiter than white it was bordering on transparent lie made his stomach churn.
"Frank, Sarah's father, doesn't seem to really approve of me. He, well, I think he doesn't like that I am black."
"I'm black - you know, coloured skin?"
"I thought you were Scottish." Jesus looked puzzled.
"I am. I was born and raised in Scotland, it's my mother - she's from Jamaica. How she swapped Jamaica for Edinburgh I don't know but she did and she met my Dad, who is Scottish, and white, and they had a family." Hamish felt like he was narrating a very poorly thought through children's book about the birds and the bees.
"Right." said Jesus, thoughtfully. "And that makes you black?"
"What? Well, yes, I mean - look at the colour of my skin... it's darker than everyone else here? Except you, obviously. Yes?" Hamish confusedly held out his forearm to show it to Jesus.
"Right. OK. That is good information. Put your arm away, no use showing it to me - I don't see colour. Don't look at me like that, I mean that literally. It turned out to be a side effect of squashing a God into a human body - you lose some strange things. I can't sneeze either but that is less helpful to a peace loving spectre than the inability to see race." Jesus giggled to himself conspiratorially and leant in towards Hamish, "Sometimes I daydream about being like one of those Apple geniuses, and downloading an upgrade into you lot where you can't see colour either! Wouldn't that be smart! Steve Jobs is my idol."
Hamish felt his spine chill - you got half a pint into Jesus and the all powerful thing really showed new dimensions. Hardly surprising, given he'd stopped the world over a moment's hesitation. What would have happened if she'd said no? Or, had he stopped it because she was going to and he didn't want to deal with that. Hamish swallowed.
"Yeah, that'd be useful!" he was far from convincing.
"So, you think Sarah paused because her father doesn't like you?"
"I don't know that he doesn't like me... I just think he has a slight issue with me, not that he's ever been rude or awful, but he's clearly not sold on me and, and Sarah picks up on that. She knows something is wrong. He just doesn't think of me as one of them." Getting these words and thoughts out was like trying to hold 50 pomegranate seeds in your mouth and recite Richard III backwards with a different regional accent for each character. Hamish picked his way awkwardly through the staccato sentences, his eyes fixed on Jesus; trying to mitigate the impact of his words.
"And you think it must be because you're black?" Jesus continued his questioning.
"What else could it be?"
"That you're Scottish?"
"Easy! Well, I suppose it might be..." Hamish laughed, "No, they have Scottish family. No, it's not that. He just... well, he says odd things sometimes. He once asked me what 'my sort of people' do for weddings, when Sarah and I had been together a few years. He says things about my upbringing and I overheard him ask Sarah once if the school I'd gone to had 'covered even the basics'. I mean... that's rude, isn't it? Maybe it's just ignorance... I suppose it usually is with this sort of thing. But, I think it's influenced Sarah. I suppose she just had to weigh up what marrying me would do to her relationship with her Dad."
Jesus was thoughtful. It certainly sounded as though Frank Gilmore might have something to do with the problem.
"Surely," Jesus countered, "By marrying you, Sarah is leaving her family behind? Shouldn't she have been making up her own mind?"
"Well, yes..." responded Hamish slowly, "But she's still going to see them every year and she's very close to her parents. Listen, I don't think she was going to say no. Do you? Are you supposed to make sure we get married? If she wasn't going to say yes then why would she be staying here now?"
"I'm here because there shouldn't have been a hesitation. This should have been the simplest situation in the world. I happened to have been paying attention, something felt wrong, I looked a little closer and I saw a problem that seemed ludicrous. If you two had a hesitation, then someone else would have had a screaming row and if something as perfect as your love wasn't flawless then the worst problems have no chance. If I can't make this village work, then everywhere else is doomed."
A crack of lightning and roll of thunder wouldn't have seemed out of place to Hamish in the pause that followed. If Hugh Grant had been playing his role then he'd have had an awkward quip on the tip of his tongue ready to go, but unfortunately the weather wasn't on the payroll and neither was Hugh.
"Right." Said Hamish, wondering if 'What Would Hugh Do?' bracelets could catch on amongst men left floundering by the recent migration to metrosexuality. "Where do we go from here then?"
"I've invited Frank and Katherine down to Norton Fitzwarren." Jesus polished off the rest of his beer and swung his legs round the stool to go and fetch another.
"How does that work? With the pausing?" Asked Hamish, "There's no electricity or anything... is the whole country stuck like we are? Does everyone know the world's paused?"
"Yes." Said Jesus, pointing to the Doombar pump and winking at a delighted Derek. Some landlords decorated their pubs with the C-Listers who'd deigned to sip a Chardonnay, the Ring of Bells would have a real star on the wall. "I've paused everyone, I thought it would be simpler, but, everyone else is a little more relaxed about it. I've let a peace settle on most places."
"Yes. There's a rather lovely little trick that I have at my disposal where I can lay a peace across a place. It has a beautiful effect on humans - it makes you so serene and clear about things. I use it quite a lot over Christmasses for groups of people, I try to get it to the 3rd or 4th hour after a new baby has been born, it once worked absolutely heart breakingly during what you refer to as the 2nd World War, it's one of my favourite parts of the job. As it is, I'm using it over the rest of the world to keep things in a state of happiness until I decide what we're doing here."
"Right. And, Frank and Katherine... what do they know?"
"They just have a desire to get to their little girl. It's quite natural. I left them out of the peace to see what they would do and I am just delighted that this was their inclination. It means we're off to a great start."
"But they don't know that it's anything to do with Sarah and me?"
"No. Not as yet. Human parents can struggle a little with their children being involved in saving the human race. Mary was alright but Joseph really struggled sometimes, personally I always felt he had a rough old ride of it. Solid chap."
"Wow, so, when they get here... what then? Are you planning for us to have it out with them face to face?"
"Not quite," replied Jesus, "I've planned a series of elaborate physical and mental tasks for you all to participate in. You'll be working in teams, in the specially built arena I've had created called the Diamond Labyrinth. And the shell suits should be arriving tomorrow."
Hamish blinked three times in rapid succession. Jesus looked disappointed.
"You're not very good at getting jokes, are you?" sulked the deity. "Yes, you'll be having a chat. But if that doesn't achieve the results I'm looking for then I really can source shell suits."
"I'm not joking."
This was, what Frank termed, ‘a bloody long walk’ and he and Katherine were feeling the strain of the worry and the miles beneath their feet. They’d not spoken for the last 8 miles and neither of them had noticed.
Katherine walked a little way ahead of Frank, twisting the cuff of her coat up in her right hand and letting it fall loose again. She was humming a tune that alternated between Fleetwood Mac’s Gypsy and something from an advert she didn’t like. Every time the advert crept back in she vehemently forced Gypsy back onto her lips in an effort to prove to herself that advertising execs weren’t that clever and she could certainly best them if she put her mind to it.
Frank was about 4 steps behind her and his mind was vaguely chewing over the question of which advert the tune was from. He was also singing the lyrics to an Alison Krauss song over the top of Katherine’s rendition of Gypsy, but it was keeping him happy. He was pretty sure it was a DFS advert. To Frank, it felt like roughly 75% of the adverts he saw were for DFS which was a surprise given that most people had a maximum of 2 sofas and rarely changed them. He would have thought it much more likely that you’d see shoe adverts at a greater frequency. But that hadn’t been his experience with advertising prior to the apocalypse and he didn’t have the capacity to challenge his data now that the electricity had finished.
The apocalypse had been very surreal so far for Frank and Katherine. Every one in their village had taken it pretty well and seemed to be confident it would play itself out like an unseasonal weather system if they gave it enough time and board games. Frank and Katherine had been privately unsure. After a week of nodding and smiling and pretending to the outside world that they were enjoying the cessation of the daily grind, they’d sat down on their only sofa and decided they needed to get to Sarah.
“I feel a very powerful urge to be near her.” Said Katherine, “I feel very maternal.”
“Righto.” replied Frank.
“Do you?” Said Katherine.
“Feel maternal?” asked Frank, “Certainly not.”
“No… feel like we should go to her?”
“Well, yes. Yes, I suppose I do.”
“I certainly do,” said Katherine, dreamily. “I feel like a lioness. I feel like Meryl Streep or Glenn Close in one of their films. They’d have to play me, if this was a film, given the way I’m feeling at the moment.”
Frank sighed and let Katherine’s tendency for melodrama wash over him. He’d agreed to leave they’d take a day to pack up, get ready and prepared, and they’d head off for Norton Fitzwarren. He was very pleased to be going. It didn’t do for him to look too enthusiastic, it wasn’t how men were supposed to be, but he was very glad to be heading for his daughter. He felt confident in his heart that she was safe, but he wanted to be there… just in case.
He had not coped well with ageing as a father. As a husband, it had felt right; he’d aged with Katherine. As a father, he’d felt panicked and unsettled by his advancing years. He didn’t like being a Dad who was weakening; Dads were supposed to be invincible, a constant source of comfort and security. He felt outdated, nervous, superfluous. Sarah had always been so clever and thoughtful, he’d watched cautiously as she’d passed by his level of intellect and continued travelling. He was thrilled that she’d become such a woman; but it left him unsure of what else he could do for her besides be a source of worry and embarrassment.
Of course, he’d never mentioned any of this to anyone; Frank thanked God every day that no one expected a man of his generation to be able to locate his emotions, let alone elaborate on them. When she’d met Hamish he’d been relieved, to a certain extent, that she had someone to take care of her. But he couldn’t help the pangs of disappointment that Hamish wasn’t, well, a little more like himself. He’d tried not to interfere but it baffled him that Sarah could see a future for the two of them given their different backgrounds. Was she in denial?
He ploughed on behind Katherine, step after step, mile after mile, Gypsy after sofa theme, hill after hill. They walked on in comfortable silence until Katherine suddenly stopped in the middle of a roundabout.
“Wait a minute… how will we know when we get there?”
“What?” Frank caught up with her.
“How will we know when we get there?”
“There’ll be a sign, of course.”
“No, not Norton Fitzwarren,” Katherine tutted, “Sarah’s house. We’ve never been there. We won’t know what it looks like.”
“We’ll ask someone.”
“What if there isn’t anyone to ask? They might be dead.”
“Why would they be dead?” Frank quizzed.
“Because it’s the end of the world.”
“No one was dead at our place.”
“True. But we can’t ask for directions to our own daughter’s house. What would people think?”
“They’d think it was our first visit… because it is.” Frank was beginning to realise what was panicking Katherine and he didn’t really want to deal with it until he’d had time to chew the problem over.
“But it shouldn’t be. They’ve lived there for 4 years.”
“Well, the person we ask isn’t to know that. It’ll be fine.” Frank tried to start walking again but Katherine pulled his arm back.
“I expect they might. It’s not a big village, is it? I expect they’ll know and wonder why we’ve never visited.”
“Katherine, really, love, it doesn’t matter that we’ve not visited. It’s not like we haven’t seen her for 4 years, it’s just that we’ve not been to the house. Let’s keep walking.”
“What are we going to tell them? I don’t even know why we haven’t been. Seems silly now I’m thinking about it.” Katherine’s tummy felt acidic and turbulent. “Why haven’t we been, Frank?”
“I don’t know, Katherine, we just haven’t. Not had an occasion for it just yet. But we’re going now and that’s the main thing. When it comes down to it, we’re doing what we need to. Come on Katherine, we need to keep moving.”
“Oh I am glad there are no wolves in England.” Said Katherine and Frank heaved a sigh of relief that his wife’s ever flighty attention span had moved on. They walked on, still thinking, still humming, still worried.
The Vicar felt like he was meeting up with a long lost ex from a relationship that had ended rather acrimoniously. He sat on Dorothy Pewter’s Memorial Bench (Because She Loved It Here) on the village green and twiddled his thumbs nervously.
Jesus crunched along the path on his way to the green to meet the vicar, with a frown on his face. He had decided to be very forthcoming with the full story to the vicar and it was still troubling him as to whether this was a good decision.
The bench offered a lovely view of the village green, which sat just to the south of the village’s main stay of residences. It was reasonably bare but that seemed to be how the villager’s had liked it over the years. Various proposals had gone in at different times for slides, swings and aerobics machines that could happily rust away beneath a lacklustre veneer of graffiti. They had all been rejected as people realised that actually what they liked was the space. Dogs much older than Mr Baxter’s Rufus had scarred the face of the green across the years with temporary unspeakable blemishes. The blankness of the green was it’s strength as far as the imaginations of Norton Fitzwarren were concerned. The youths of a century had transformed it in the blink of an eye from a green to Lords, to the moon, to the space shuttle yard that launched the intrepid explorers to the moon it was about to become. That green had held castles, forts, ramshackle hamlets, science laboratories and cattle ranches. It had seen greater battles than the town of Hastings and more complicated plots than some reality television shows. It was about to see something else.
It wasn’t that Jesus had lied to anyone or deliberately evaded any conversations, it was just that there were certain parts of certain things that he hadn’t volunteered and therefore hadn’t really had to explain. He decided that if anyone deserved to know, and hopefully comprehend, it was the vicar. A man who had given his entire life over to trusting Jesus, to the point where he had even foresaken his own name, almost unnoticeably becoming the only person in this entire book whose name you don’t know. Even Mr Baxter’s dog is known as Rufus, and yet the vicar… It was a curious thing. If you chose to label any other character by their profession it would be an interesting device you had selected to spice things up or say something about them as a person. Let’s pretend there are no obvious legal problems with having a character called The Doctor who was never named, it would be a device that the author was using to put up boundaries between The Doctor and the reader. But call the Vicar “the Vicar” and no one blinks an eye, you are just making use of boundaries well established by the life they already lead.
The vicar had come plain clothed to his rendez-vous with Jesus. As he’d dressed that morning, humming to himself in a way that suggested his motor functions were not entirely linked to his passage of thought, he’d got dressed to the point of shoes when he’d caught sight of himself in the mirror and stopped to stand up straight and take a better look. The usual comfort he found in his dog collar was missing and his chosen black jumper looked sombre and costume like. Was there really any need to be dressing up like a vicar to go and see Jesus? He usually felt like his attire was as much for the benefit of his villagers as himself - it was far easier to talk about awkward subjects or ask for advice to someone who didn’t look regular; someone who was clad for moral authority. His collar was the desk he would have sat behind had he been a bank manager. It provided distance, and clarity as to his motives. The vicar stood looking at his reflection and realised he didn’t want to be the vicar today. He looked himself in the glassy eyes and pulled the collar out, then crossed his arms over himself and tugged his jumper up using both arms over his head. It came off inside out and he turned it back the right way and folded it up. He unhooked the belt on his black trousers and loosened it off, allowing him access to the fly which he undid and shook his trousers down to his feet. He sat on the edge of his bed and pulled the trousers entirely off. His reflection was sitting in a white v neck tshirt and boxer shorts looking at his socked feet on the carpet.
The walk from Sarah and Hamish’s to the village green was by no means a long walk but it was one of the longer ones you could make whilst remaining in Norton Fitzwarren. Jesus was eking it out as much as possible so that he could have his mind ready for meeting the vicar. He knew things had so far been awkward and he felt sad and a little ashamed about that. He wanted to make it up to the vicar if he could.
Jeans, the vicar decided, he wanted to wear jeans. He wanted to go as himself. All of the teachings about not needing idols and symbols, churches and clothing seemed a lot more understandable when Jesus was here. All you needed was Jesus. He felt a small pang of failure in himself that it had taken Jesus physically arriving to make the vicar certain that Jesus was actually here. Shouldn’t he have always felt this way? This sure and connected. He opened his chest of drawers for his sole pair of jeans as the failure turned to anger… how could he have remained this sure when there had never been anything concrete? Nothing at all. Nothing in exchange for all these years of praise and service and total adoration.
“It has to be about faith” said Jesus, looking earnestly at Ben. “If it’s not about faith then I truly believe there’s no point.”
Ben thought silently and carefully, “I understand, I think. But, I don’t always. Sometimes I don’t understand why you have to make it so hard.”
“Because…” Jesus summoned every ounce of eloquence in his body to do justice to Ben’s eager eyes, “Because my hope for you all was that you would want to be the best you could be. If I am a certainty then you’re no longer doing it because you believe in what I mean; you’re doing it because of fear.”
“Yes. You’re right. As ever.”
“Why does that make you sad?”
“Because it has lead to a steady decline in people who follow you… it’s lead to misappropriation of your teachings, anger at you for your absence, mockery of your children and it’s been a slow tread towards religious apathy.” Ben sighed.
“But, do you think humans have got worse, overall?” Jesus countered gently.
“Do they murder more? Are they becoming degenerates? Has hedonism won?”
“I wouldn’t say so…” Said Ben, thoughtfully, “I don’t think we’re perfect but I don’t think things are getting worse. Generally...” he trod carefully, “I’d say we’re doing better.” His face almost seemed to be asking Jesus for confirmation that he was right.
“I agree.” said Jesus, his mouth wearing a solemn smile.
“So?” asked Ben.
“So, that’s a good thing. Isn’t it?” said Jesus.
“What does it matter to me if they’re doing it my name or because they just want to do it? I’m no egomaniac. I have said it a hundred times and I will say it a hundred more if I have to - you are all my children and I take pride in your achievements whether you credit me or not. The earth was my creation and I gave it over to mankind to have as their own. It’s not a loan. To dictate the way you ran it would be a huge hypocrisy and would make the whole thing irrelevant. If you believe in me, it has to be about faith. I won’t be a dictator.”
Silence fell on the bench. Easy silence, though, not the jagged silence that had reigned when Jesus had first paced up to the bench and sat down beside the vicar.
“Good morning.” Jesus had said. “Lovely spot”
Somewhere, unseen, Dorothy Pewter beamed.
“Good morning, I wonder if I could invite you to call me Ben?” asked the vicar.
Jesus was sensing a pattern with his one on one meetings with the villagers.
“Of course,” he replied, “Ben. A fine name. I see you have dispensed with your collar? I hope I’m not going to have to request a P45 for you after this morning?” he chuckled a little to show Ben he was joking.
“Ha!” said Ben, and he very much did say it - let me make it clear it was a man saying ‘Ha!’ rather than a man laughing. Ben was far too uncomfortable to be laughing at anything, let alone that. “Not in the slightest. I hope you’ll understand what I mean if I say I wanted to meet you today as myself. Rather than as my job. I rather think my job has become a little redundant since you arrived.”
“I was afraid you might feel like that.”
Ben smiled sadly.
“I won’t be here forever.” Jesus said.
“Really?” Ben looked up at him.
“Don’t sound too pleased!” Joked Jesus.
“No, no… I’m not at all. Where will you be going? When?”
“I’ll be going… back. Back to being my usual self. As to when, I’m not sure… not long. A week? Maybe more, maybe less. That depends on others.” He eyed Ben to see how much he had sussed out, waited to hear if he would take the bait.
“Sarah and Hamish?” he said, chomping down on the hook and waiting.
“Yes,” replied Jesus. “Yes, and Sarah’s parents.”
“I’ve never met them. I hear they live a little way from here?”
“They do indeed. They are coming here, though. To help Sarah and Hamish straighten out a few personal issues.”
Ben didn’t want to pry into Sarah and Hamish’s relationship but he felt like that might be where Jesus was prompting him to go. Sarah had certainly never mentioned to him in his role as vicar that she might need advice or a shoulder to, well not cry on - that wasn’t very Sarah, but a shoulder to talk to perhaps.
“I do hope they’ll be ok.” Ben decided on as an appropriate response that didn’t entirely close up the thread of conversation should Jesus want to continue down that route.
“I have faith that they will. Before I leave I need there to be no barriers between them and a happy marriage.”
Ben’s face lit up, “Is there a wedding on the cards between them? Oh what wonderful news.” He felt a pang of sadness that he hadn’t been one of the first to know, and then tried to remind himself that he wasn’t competing with Jesus. However much it might feel that way. Jesus was his reason, not his equal.
“The night the world paused,” Jesus began, and stopped to let the word ‘pause’ sink in for Ben - he could come back to that later if necessary, “Hamish had just proposed to Sarah. She hesitated. The tiniest moment of uncertainty crossed her mind about whether she could marry him. I felt it and I thought I had to do something. So, I created this current condition in which I can visit the earth and put things right between them.”
“May I ask why she hesitated? I’m assuming you know?”
“I do indeed know. She hesitated a moment wondering whether her parents could ever truly approve of their marriage, and as a consequence of that uncertainty, could her marriage ever be truly perfect.”
Ben let it sink in. “Do Sarah’s parents have an issue with Hamish’s, er, race?”
“All the evidence seems to point that way.” was Jesus’ downcast response, “It’s ever so disappointing. They are the perfect Christians in many, many ways - they rarely miss a service. They truly live to worship. But I wonder how they could have come so far astray on this point. How does it keep happening?”
Ben knew exactly what he meant. It was a hard job to teach the rules of the church and keep everyone firmly on the right path without straying down terrifying avenues. It was the conundrum of his life that the really very simple set of religious instructions he followed were so easily confused with what seemed to him the polar opposite teachings. How did ‘Love thy neighbour’ become ‘Fear Islam’? How did ‘Honour your father and your mother’ become ‘Women are worse’?
“I can see why that would make Sarah pull up short. She is a very faithful woman - how does one choose between a husband and a parent?”
“So you have come down to fix them… that’s a huge intervention for a minor point.”
“Why minor?” Jesus quizzed.
“Well, it’s one relationship out of millions… unless, is there something special about Sarah and Hamish’s unity?” Visions of carpenters and donkeys flashed before his eyes.
“No more special than any other relationship.” said Jesus, “I need to know that this one can be ironed out. I think, in many ways, this little family is a microcosm of some enormous issues plaguing my earth, and if I can’t fix them here then I fear I’m not going to win overall.”
“But why not fix the whole thing while you’re at it? Why not appear in a blaze of light and shock and awe the world into listening?” asked Ben eagerly, feeling the adrenaline pump through him at the thought of being involved in a biblical experience of old. He fervently wished he’d already started growing his beard for the occasion.
“No, that’s not how I want to play it… I don’t mind revealing myself here and now where I know I can erase myself again easily. But, overall, I can’t keep manhandling man into position.”
Ben thought, “But why not? You are God. We are your vessels, we’re yours to do with as you wish… why not get the best from us?”
“It has to be about faith” said Jesus, looking earnestly at Ben. “If it’s not about faith then I truly believe there’s no point.”
And then you know the next bit, right up until Jesus says “Blah blah blah… If you believe in me, it has to be about faith. I won’t be a dictator.”
And at that point Ben asked a question supremely helpful to plot development, which was:
“Well what does this intervention count as then? How are you going to fix Sarah and Hamish without dictating and celestially overruling the way their human intentions were leading them?”
Jesus grinned, really enjoying Ben’s company. “Yes, it’s going to be delicate, isn’t it? I think I’ve decided I don’t mind playing a part as long as the part I play is a human one.” He looked triumphant.
“Keep going…” said Ben, “I’m afraid I’ll need a little more than that!”
“Well, I have justified my intervention on two counts: 1) Whilst I am here I have limited my abilities to purely human ones. I cannot read minds, I cannot change your behaviours and I have only the 6 senses that humans are permitted.”
“Oh! 6? Really? Well you really called that one didn’t you Bruce…” Ben muttered, but Jesus cannoned on,
“I have reasoned with myself that intervening as a human is a justifiable interaction. It’s what I started to do last time and then found myself going down a slippery slope with miracles and things.” He shuddered as his eyes flicked to the cross pendant around Ben’s neck. Morbid things.
“But then why come back as you at all? Why not come back anonymous and do it as a proper person? Not that you’re not a proper person, just, you know… you’re you.”
“Well, partly because of count number two, and partly because it is practically impossible for people not to know it’s me. Who and what I am is more than a physical form… I cannot disguise myself in the traditional sense because the reality of who and what I am is bigger than flesh and blood. Even having given myself a human body to inhabit, I am still not bound by the limitations that mankind are in their skins. My, er, appearance is totally unique to… to each and every one of you.”
Ben nodded. He was the only person in the village to have guessed that so far. When Jesus had turned up and been the spitting image of the older brother Ben had lost at the age of 14, he’d had a lot to contend with. First he’d had to accept within himself that he really had done that to Michael’s memory, and secondly he’d earned peace knowing Jesus was not angry. It was quite natural, perhaps.
“So what is count number two?” asked Ben.
“After I leave here this time, I will leave no memory or trace of my visit. When I go, I am gone and whatever state your belief in me is in, it will have no proof of my existence to sustain it once I am gone. The last thing I need is for an entire village to have boundless, undeniable enthusiasm for the truth of my existence and for that to catalyst into some kind of cult once other people find a way to harness that energy. I’ve been there before. So, when I go - I am gone. If you truly want to believe in me then you will be able to, but there will be those among the village who have remained sceptical within my presence and will therefore forget within minutes that I was real and go back to the way they were. It’s more natural that way.”
“And you’re happy with that?”
“Oh, I’d love to have you all on board. But it has to be about faith.”
“So, you’re human and I’ll lose you?”
“I always have been and you never will.”