Saturday, March 28, 2020
As We Know It - 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?"
"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.”
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.