Thursday, March 26, 2020

As We Know It - Chapter 24

Chapter 24

The atmosphere in the Village Hall was a muted mania. Every decade of the Twentieth Century was represented in the fashion show that was Norton Fitzwarren’s ‘best clothes’. Smocks sat alongside double denim ensembles, which were nestled behind chinos which accompanied sequinned minis which, in turn, caught the attention of cords and dungarees alike. Mr Young’s tie dye affair was a sight to be beheld, and if anyone had worked out why Nigel from the village shop was wearing a corked hat, they didn’t let on. A long table had been set up at one end of the rectangular space. Behind it sat The Vicar, Jesus, Hamish and Sarah. Thankfully, they at least seemed to have some kind of a hold on dressing appropriately.

In the rest of the hall sat the population of Norton Fitzwarren. The lucky early ones had seats, they packed themselves into neat rows with children on laps and anything and everything being used as a fan to soothe roasting skin. People were crammed in all around the chairs - crouching or standing and craning their necks for a view of the top table. The mass of people seemed like an impressive beast, shifting and wobbling... groans emitting from the centre as though it were some rural monster preparing to digest this unwitting newcomer. A very real communion.

The walls of the old hall creaked with the heat and the strain of expectation. This hall had stood proud, and then incrementally less and less proud as the years wore on, since 1957. It probably should have been knocked down not long after Macmillan departed, but somehow it clung on. Held together through the decades by rats' nests and each new generation’s pubescent desire for slow dances.

Today’s meeting eclipsed even the biggest historical events that Norton Fitzwarren Village Hall had seen.

If you were a simple onlooker, you would be hard pushed to tell who was more nervous behind the table at the top of the hall. The Vicar was swinging wildly between uncontrollable excitement and scathing scepticism, Hamish was singing Creedence Clearwater Revival under his breath and wondering why on earth he was behind the table in the first place, Sarah was counting all the biscuits that had been lavished upon the event, and Jesus, well Jesus was just looking nervous. Cartoon character nervous. Sweat jumping off his eyebrows nervous.

What he was struggling to work out, was whether they would prefer a collection of greatest hits, or if they’d desire something new and vibrant. There were jugs of water on the table before him, but no wine glasses. Was that a clue? He’d also been furnished with Custard Creams, suggesting that perhaps food was also taken care of. Having sneaked a biscuit while no one was looking, he was fairly confident these were not appetisers to precede a fish dish.

The Vicar looked around his comrades behind the table and nodded to each one. He stood up and coughed to get the crowd's attention. He failed spectacularly in this first mission and resorted to shouting, "Hello, hello everybody!" whilst waving his hands above his head as if signalling a plane down. The front row all obediently stared back at him - the rest of the room continued to fail to notice his desperate efforts. Jesus got to his feet to give The Vicar a hand. Sensing movement from their honoured guest, the entire room fell to silence. As if playing the Olympic Gold Medal game of musical statues, they sat frozen, anticipating his next move with bated breath. He simply sat back down and nodded to The Vicar.

The Vicar shuffled uncomfortably and nodded his thanks. 'Bloody show off.' he thought, 'Get your own flock.'

"Hello, everybody." He uttered out loud, "Hello and thank you so much for coming to this most prestigious meeting of the Apocalypse Committee. As you can see from our head table up here, we have made some exciting developments in the last few days and it's time to come together as a group to discuss where we go from here. Before we begin, shall we bow our heads in prayer?"

"Who to?" came a voice from the middle of the pack.

The heads of the top table whipped up sharply, the tension in the air was strung out on a razors edge.

"Er, I'm sorry?" floundered The Vicar.

"Who are we praying to? If you don't mind me asking." It was the voice of Martin Young, tempestuous upstart from the semi-detatched houses to the North of the village. At twenty four years of age he was a born and bred Norton Fitzwarrener who had elected to stay on in the village instead of going further afield to seek a life. The furthest Martin Young had travelled in his quarter of a decade was the suburbs of Bristol, and he'd only done that because he'd thought he was in love. It turned out he wasn't in love, he just liked seeing breasts that weren't on a screen. It had soon been made apparent to Martin Young that these could be found without having to pay the £21 return coach fare to this particular suburb of Bristol and the fair maiden had been cut adrift.

"We're praying to The Lord our God. Of course." The Vicar's voice cracked a little mid-sentence, he could sense trouble. Why couldn’t they just behave this once… it was like having your star pupil wet themselves mid story time during Ofsted.

"Can't we just speak to him directly... seeing as how, that's meant to be him, and all that?" There was a matter of fact-ness to Martin's speech that made it hard to laugh at. The congregation looked from Martin, to The Vicar, to Jesus and then amongst themselves as they tried to process the issue.

"Well, we will be praying to God, Martin, this, this is Jesus... his manifestation on earth. His son. Jesus."

"But I thought they was all one and the same and that. So, if he's here, no offence Jesus mate, I'm not having a go or nothing, I'm just saying seems sort of pointless to be praying to him. He’s there. Isn’t he?"

The Vicar's mouth hovered somewhere between open and firmly clamped shut. I'd say it was firmly clamped open. He'd always started everything with a prayer; since he'd found his faith quietly and unexpectedly, he'd began things with a prayer. It didn't matter if it was a small one to himself for himself or an all inclusive group affair for anyone who wanted to join in.

"Well, how shall we begin if we don't have a prayer?" He heard his voice asking. It sounded thin and weak.

The room was silent.

Jesus got to his feet again.

"Perhaps, I could do a blessing?" he offered. The Vicar nodded numbly and hastened back to his seat. He felt small, ridiculous, usurped and useless. He stared at his shoes and couldn't bring himself to put his hands together. Hamish placed a hand on his shoulder. The Vicar grasped it firmly and appreciatively.

"Ladies and gentleman," began Jesus, "Thank you for joining us today. Blessed be those who walk in the light of The Lord. Long may his love shine upon us all."

"I bloody hope not!" Said Mr Baxter.

"Steady on..." Came Nigel from the village shop's reply, "You can't say that to Jesus, not during a blessing!"

"I bloody can - carrying on like he doesn't know it's the end of the world - long may his light shine on us my tush - we're finished with all that aren't we? Let's just start dividing up who's going where and be done with it. It's too late for all these blessings and things now. It's dividing time."

"It's called Judgement Day, not Dividing Time." Said Mr Frinton, irritably. "And there's nothing to say all the final decisions, or judgements, have been made anyway so you might want to think about behaving yourself, Sir."

"Bloody fine religion it'd be if you lived a cracking old life like I have, obeying every bloody rule and then you get sent to hell anyway just for speaking out of turn before the minutes were even being taken anyway."

"Am I supposed to be taking minutes?!" Shrieked Karen Ford, who usually took the minutes at Village meetings. Her husband worked in the city (no one was entirely sure which one) and it left Karen with sufficient unemployed hours to keep accurate minutes with a fine level of detail. "I'm not going to hell for that, no one told me I was supposed to be taking them, my chair wasn't set out or anything."

"No one is going to hell..." began Jesus before uproar from the village forced him back into perturbed silence.

"What no one?!" Yelled Mr Baxter, "Not even this upstart..." he waved Rufus' lead in the direction of Martin Young "who's never attended church in his life and hasn't got a positive word to say about anybody? I'm not having that... Not after all the effort I've gone to leading a good Christian life."

"No one?" said Beryl, faintly, "Oh thank heavens for that! Literally, literally let's all thank heaven for that. What a relief."

"So when are we off?" asked Mrs White, in a practical tone, "Is there a coach? Will there be a beam of light? Jesus?"

Jesus was staring at the melee, wondering what fresh ruckus his next words would kick off. He felt like the end bearing in a Newton’s Cradle.

"No, no, hang on a minute... We're not all going to heaven."

The room paused.

"Purgatory." Muttered Mr Baxter. Everyone shuddered. "Like a New Year’s Day where you haven't bought milk in time and you've seen Ben Hur too recently to enjoy it."

All eyes were on Jesus as he rubbed his fingers across the palm of his other hand and tried to sense the needs of the room. What did they want from him? What could he say to calm them down? He took a deep breath and slowly surveyed the room, taking in each expectant face.

"Now that you mention it, I can see how you would believe that this was indeed Judgement Day. However, I'm afraid that on this occasion you have been slightly misinformed."

The Vicar bristled.

Jesus continued, "This is not quite the end of the world, or, should I say, it doesn't have to be. The purpose of this, er hiatus, of life as we know it, is to ascertain whether or not the continuation of the human race is worth it. Um..."

Every pair of eyes in the Village Hall narrowed. They stared at Jesus. Jesus swallowed, very aware that his words sounded ever so slightly more tyrannical than he had intended.

"So, let me get this straight..." Piped up Mr Baxter, "You're going to observe us for a bit, and then if we pass your test, we can all go back to carrying on as normal?"

Jesus hesitated.

Mr Baxter carried on, slowly, as if unravelling a logic puzzle by a series of simple solutions. "Because, I tell you, young man, I've lived through a few wars where people had ideas like that... You know, 'Live to this set of rules I've made up in my head or you're all going to die.' and let me tell you, none of them dictators was ever that popular. Or right. For that matter. So, perhaps you need to explain to us just a little bit more what you mean and why you got the right to be that way."

"Well, I created you..." Jesus began, trying not to smile at his new role as ‘young man’. 

"A mother gives birth to a child, don't give her the right to pop him off on his fifth birthday when the little tyke learns to talk back." Mr Baxter seemed oddly alive, given the apocalyptic circumstances. People stared at him, unsure whether he was talking them all into an early grave or rescuing them from certain slavery.

Jesus was stunned. His second attempt at being on earth was making it abundantly clear to him that absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder. Proximity to humans made them cross with him. He'd never felt so awkward or at such a loss for words. It hadn't meant to start this way - they were supposed to be sitting quietly and listening while he spoke, not shouting at him already. Of course what he had to say sounded bad, they hadn't let him say it right - they'd made him start in the middle. He looked to the other people arranged behind the top table, hoping for some back up. They all simply stared back. The Vicar looked oddly pleased. Jesus made a mental note to take the man aside for a quick chat at some point - check he was alright.

"Let me start again..." Jesus tried, but the crowd's blood was up and they were somewhere between terrified stampede and baying mob.

"What, you mean wipe us all out and start again?" Beryl from the village shop sounded close to tears.

"No, no, just start again with this meeting here today." blustered Jesus. "I'm sorry, I appear to have begun this badly and not really explained myself very well. I do apologise. If you will forgive me, I'll try and explain my reasons for being here much more clearly. Hopefully it will give you some peace of mind. Yes?"

The audience waited. Mr Baxter said nothing. Jesus nodded and was just about to continue when Mr Young piped up.

"Excuse me?"

"Yes?" came Jesus' voice, timid and a little tired sounding.

"Well, just before you get going, have you got any proof that you are actually Jesus? You got ID or something?"

Jesus did not have ID. Thankfully what he did have was indescribable gravitas. Like George Clooney but better. He smiled and gave a friendly wave of his left hand at Mr Young.

"Do you believe I am Jesus Christ?" he asked him, in a hazy, low voice made of brown colours and autumnal memories.

Mr Young's mouth opened to respond, it opened slowly to give his brain time to read his own thoughts. What it came back with surprised him...

"Yes. Yes, I believe you are Jesus Christ." And he did. Everyone in the room did, everyone in the room was sure.

Jesus nodded calmly at the lake of faces before him.

"I understand that you are nervous, frightened and perhaps even angry. I would be too. The truth is, I didn't make the decision to pause the earth lightly - I have deliberated over this for decades. Watching humans learning, changing and developing - choosing their own paths and then beginning the learning process all over again at the start of each new path. It has been a joy to behold - a spectacle more elaborate and beautiful than the rarest astronomical delight. I have trodden a unique, solitary path - somewhere between exhilaration, terror and exhaustion. I have watched alone as my most precious creation, companion and offspring makes their way so flamboyantly towards their future. So why stop you? Why step in? Why interfere and risk losing it all?

"Because I was afraid I was losing you. I have seen things that have shaken me, atrocities that have broken my heart more than I thought possible - but after these I have seen people, you, build the world and my heart back up to twice it's original capacity. You continually surprise me. But these breakages are growing more numerous, and clumsier - and more apathetic become your attempts to prevent and mend. I began to fear you were losing your way - so strident are your moves on each new path that you take no care to learn anything that isn't of your own progression.

"And then I saw something, here, in this village, something that seemed like the core of my fears in a nutshell. Something that tweaked at every niggle in my worry about the frailty of your bodies and souls. I saw love falter - a love that makes more sense than seasons, a love more generous than nature, a love more comforting than carbohydrates. I saw it falter and I knew that if I couldn't fix this love and negate the complications that threatened to overwhelm it then I had lost you - there was nothing to be saved except a slow descent into heartache for the human race. Without loves like these existing you will lose it, lose the point of your technology and your mass production. It is all so you can be with one another, have more time with one another, connect despite distances, be still with one another, worry less about mortality and enjoy one another. Without that love, you are nothing and you won't want anything.

"I chose you, and your village because of who you are and what you represent. I don't believe you represent the earth, but you represent the best of what you could be. I ask you to be courteous enough to allow me to live amongst you, to learn about you and for you to learn about me. I feel seven days is probably an appropriate amount of time - it's worked historically - for me to be here. After that, we'll decide together the route we should take. And don't be worrying that I am merely here to convert you - I have bigger issues than adding to the flock at the moment. I'll leave that to the Jehovah's Witnesses! Where did I go so wrong with them?! Memo to self: sort that mess out next!"

Jesus was quite aware he should have stopped talking a few sentences ago. Bowed out gracefully while the audience were still looking dumbstruck and in awe of him. His mouth, however, wouldn't stop. He was rusty, he could feel it. Only now was his brain kicking back in, reminding him where he was - the adrenaline of the speech wearing off slowly. He stopped speaking and looked back to The Vicar. Jesus nodded to him, not trusting himself to speak again in case another poor attempt at a joke came out. Although, he reasoned, he really wasn't all that jokey about the Witnesses.

The Vicar got to his feet and the two men crossed over as Jesus went to sit and The Vicar took the hot spot before the villagers. He asked if they had any questions. They had none. He bade them farewell and said they were all welcome to stay for a bit of a catch up should they wish to. They all left.

Hamish, Sarah, The Vicar and Jesus remained in the hall. All the wind swept out of their sails, all the energy in the room soaking back into the aged floorboards where it would join the dust and the dreams of generations of Norton folk passed. They sagged into their plastic chairs, eyes and limbs tired. Minds racing in slow motion.

Hamish was trying to piece together what he'd witnessed, whether he'd imagined the light and shade changing in the room as Jesus had spoken or if the man truly was a Prophet. How could you be faced with proof and still not believe?

Jesus was trying to remember what he'd said - he felt like it had been a pretty good speech given how long he'd been out of the game. He'd kept it to a tight seven minutes and the only real clanger had probably been the carbohydrates. He had no idea where that had come from.

Sarah was trying to keep her body under control - her stomach was churning. Arching one minute and spasming back down into cramps the next, leaving her terrified she would vomit or worse right here where she sat if she didn't concentrate fully. Had the rest of the village known it was her who had caused this nightmare? What would they do if they found out? What was Jesus going to do... what was he expecting from her? What would Hamish do?

The Vicar felt empty. Totally empty. He couldn't take his eyes off Jesus. He was distraught and baffled - how could this be happening? How could he be in the presence of the greatest love his life had ever known and feel uncomfortable, rejected and wrong? How could he not like Jesus? And was it possible that Jesus did not like him?

The four of them sat in the afternoon sun, the air still and aged. Hamish's hand found Sarah's and they hung together. Still, and confidently, if only physically, connected.

"Would you like a hand putting the chairs away?" Offered Jesus.

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