Tuesday, March 24, 2020
As We Know It - Chapters 19, 20 and 21
Rumours spread like wildfire around the village. People were spending more time outdoors than they had ever done in their lives, all in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive Jesus. The Vicar had been planning to call a meeting as soon as possible to prepare the villagers for the news of Jesus’ arrival but unfortunately he’d been held invalid by a sort of diplomacy hang over and had been physically unable to leave his living room for twenty four hours. Had you been able to peep through the thick glass of the Vicarage windows you might have just seen him burbling away at the plaster on the walls and slapping his forehead harshly at regular intervals.
Mrs Shoe too had been slow off the mark to give the game away to her neighbours. She’d popped out for a stroll to do her usual rounds of the houses; up out of the estate which joined onto the end of the lane she shared with Sarah and Hamish, round the main road, up over the big hill past the school and back down into the deep dip past Nigel and Beryl’s shop and The Sizzle Sisters Fish and Chip Shop. She had almost completed her loop and made it back onto the home stretch towards her house without breathing a word to anyone, when she met Mrs White coming the other way with a bunch of cow parsley in one hand and Rufus’ lead in the other.
There are no pavements in a village like Norton Fitzwarren, and what with the lack of cars in recent weeks, the two pensioners had plenty of space to pass each other by with a polite nod of the head and a murmur about having places to be. Unfortunately, were you to drop these two sparring partners on either side of Russia and ask them to cross it in any way they chose, they would be unable to do so without meeting in the middle somewhere to have a pop at one another.
“Goodness! Look at you out on a walk with Mrs White, Rufus! Has she tired out your master so much he can’t even stand? My, my!” Clucked Mrs Shoe, scratching the wiry hair under Rufus’ chin and speaking to him in a patronising coo. Mrs White clucked and straightened up; the cow parsley twitching in her hand.
“My Baxter is perfectly capable of walking his own dog, thank you very much. He’s not tired in the least - not that it’s any of your business. I just happened to be heading out to pick some flowers for my vase and so I offered to take Rufus with me.”
“That’s very generous of you.” Said Mrs Shoe, straightening up much to Rufus’ disappointment. “Especially with those terrible hips of yours that you’re always telling us are so bad. They must be much improved for you to be out in this damp. Perhaps we’ll see you on Martin Young’s bike next?”
“My hips are not improved in the slightest, I’ll have you know.” Mrs White clipped, “Some of us don’t have any choice but to soldier on though. We aren’t all pally pally with the local surgeon.”
“My, my. What a martyr you are, Mrs White. I don’t know how you do it.” Mrs Shoe leaned heavy with the emphasis on the word ‘how’.
“Humph.” sulked Mrs White, aware she was losing this one. Thank heavens no one was around to see. “Well if you’ve quite finished I have to be off. I have someone waiting for me this afternoon.”
That stung Mrs Shoe; loneliness was not something she wore well and without even Duncan back at home to greet her she felt it keenly as a winter draught. Before she could bite her tongue and pay heed to her better judgement she let her prize information slip right out on to the lane in front of Mrs White.
“Yes, I ought to be off too. No one is waiting for me per say but perhaps I shall pop round to Sarah and Hamish’s house and visit Jesus. It was such a privilege to be the first of the village to meet him yesterday.” And with that she went to bustle off, shifting past Mrs White who was stood stock still staring at her. Mrs Shoe had fully passed Mrs White and was two paces down the lane before Mrs White caught her voice back and called after her.
“What do you mean ‘Jesus’? They found him? Sarah and Hamish are back? With Jesus?!”
Mrs Shoe silently mouthed counting to two and smiled slyly to herself before turning, ever so coolly, and glancing back at a gobsmacked Mrs White.
“Oh. Hasn’t he visited you yet? Poor dear. I expect he’s just working his way round in order of importance. No doubt he’ll get to you… at some point.” With that, she turned away again and demonstrated just how good a health service surgical procedure is by swinging her mint condition hips into a saunter which Mrs White watched sashaying into the distance for far longer than she’d have liked to.
After that, news spread fast. Mrs White told Mr Baxter, who told Arthur Arthur who told Nigel and Martin Young, who told Beryl and Angela Norman respectively, who between them managed to tell the rest of the village so quickly that before the sun had set they were retelling Mrs White because they were so keen on telling people.
Never before had the quiet, dead end road that Sarah and Hamish chose to live on been such a thoroughfare. Pets were walked so many times in the limbo between Jesus’ arrival and a meeting being called, that they were anxiously hiding their leashes to avoid being dragged out of the house and past Jesus’ hiding place again. Those without dogs could be seen walking cats, and Mr Frinton had called Martin Young a ‘plain old loony’ upon seeing him taking his lizard out for some fresh air and a change of scenery.
Of course, no one thought to actually knock at the door and ask if it was true or if they could meet Jesus. No, things had to be done in a certain way, the villagers were sure. Despite having no idea what that way was, they trusted that it didn’t involve them chivvying it along.
“What does he look like?” People asked, “Where did they find him? How long is he staying? What is he here to do? Should we be packing?”
Of course, the only people who could even begin to answer those questions were The Vicar, Sarah, Hamish and Mrs Shoe. The Vicar remained indisposed for the entire day, Mrs Shoe had decided to retain an air of mystery by remaining firmly indoors and not answering questions, and Sarah and Hamish had found upon returning home that the arguments they had tried to forget were neatly packaged up and waiting for them in every nook and cranny of their home.
“I can’t help that I hesitated!” Sarah finally relented to her frustration and shouted at Hamish. Their discussion had been heating and gently escalating as they retraced their steps around the well trodden argument.
“Really? You think you’d have hesitated for anyone? You don’t think it’s possible to be so in love with someone you don’t pause when they ask you to spend the rest of your life with them?”
“Would you please stop questioning my love for you? It was not about the way I feel about you. I love chocolate fudge cake but sometimes I hesitate before I get some. You don’t think I should be allowed to consider the most important question I’ll ever answer?”
“Cake, Sarah? Really?”
From his tucked away seat through the doorway in the corner of the kitchen Jesus thought the cake argument had certainly swung it in Sarah’s direction, but Hamish seemed less impressed.
“When did you decide you wanted to propose?” Sarah suddenly changed tack with all the skill of an experienced female debater.
“What?” Hamish stalled.
“When did you decide you wanted to propose?” She repeated. Jesus felt nervous; where was this going? He was finding it much harder to follow the argument and predict its next direction because he was hemmed in by the confines of his human brain. Without physical parameters thought was much easier, he was realising.
“I’ve known I wanted to for a long time… I’ve been planning the proposal since I bought the ring a few months ago.”
“A few months ago. Interesting. So, what you’re telling me is that you had all that time to get yourself ready, decide how it was going to go, plan how exactly you were going to say it… and you can’t even grant me a few seconds to decide how I’m going to respond?”
“What was there to decide?!” Hamish exploded.
“How I wanted to say yes, maybe? What words I wanted to use, perhaps? Maybe I just wanted a moment to drink in the fact you were doing what I’ve been dreaming about since I met you? You can’t dictate how I react to things.”
Hamish fell silent. He was trying to cool the anger in his forehead and breastbone. It was really quite an experience having the biggest argument of your life while the son of God was sitting in your kitchen busying himself with sandwich spreads for “research purposes”. Jesus’ presence was making Hamish really consider everything that came out of his mouth, which was difficult when his usual tack in an argument was just to launch any and every passing thought that came his way. It dawned on Hamish that actually this was how religion was supposed to work; the moderating influence of having something all powerful listening and judging everything you did. Kudos religion, he thought, because this is tough. .He looked Sarah in the eye and his response came easily.
“If those were the reasons you hesitated then I’d have been the happiest man in the universe while you did. Trust me, Sarah, when I say that your face did not look like the face of a woman who is about to burst into shrieks of delight and start prancing about the room.”
“But I WAS going to say yes. I still would!” Sarah protested wildly.
“Well, thank god for that!” Said Hamish, “Finish the planet off now if you weren’t!”
“Then what more do you damn well want from me? It’s not enough that I wanted to marry you - that I want to marry you? You need me to have behaved exactly as you wanted when I accepted as well?”
“I want you not to be ashamed of me.”
“I’m not ashamed of you!”
“So you’re ashamed of your parents then?”
“No, not really. They…”
“They have an excuse for their beliefs that I’m inferior?” Hamish interrupted.
“Oh for god’s… goodness sake, Hamish! This is ridiculous! You want me to prove my love for you by apologising for my parents? Is that what you want?”
Hamish hesitated. Jesus sat with his knife half into the lemon curd jar and waited to hear what Hamish said next.
“I want to be certain that you’re not wondering whether there’s any merit in what they say.”
There was a physical silence.
“How can you say that?” she uttered in a low, level tone. “Do you think it’s all been a lie? Everything we have? Why would you think that of me?” she paused, “And why would you want to marry me?”
“You go along with so much of what they say because you trust them and you respect them. There’s nothing wrong with you having respect for you parents but you can’t build a belief system because they have. I don’t want to get any more years down the line with you and for it to be any harder to get you to see sense on things… I know you - the less indestructible they seem the more you’ll want to go along with what they think so that you don’t upset them. You’re better than that.”
“Yes, I am better than that! I’m surprised you think that! What the hell are you talking about? You do realise I have a brain and can think for myself? I’m not some automaton acting on the instructions of my KKK parents!”
“So why hesitate?” Hamish brought it back round, “Why did their opinions have to factor into something that was just between us? If they’re not in your brain influencing your opinions then why did you hesitate?”
“I JUST DID!” Sarah blasted him. Jesus wondered whether he ought to step in. “I just did, ok? I hesitated. I didn’t say no, I didn’t laugh in your face, I didn’t agree to stay with you but only if it’s in sin so that it doesn’t upset them. I hesitated before I said yes. Why isn’t that the point for you? Why isn’t the main thing that I want to marry you anyway?”
“Because I don’t want an anyway.” said Hamish petulantly. He wasn’t very good at arguing and it didn’t take long for his whole body to just crave it to be over. He was sagging under the weight of being cruel to her. When your ultimate aim in an argument is to go back in time and erase the thing that had sparked the argument it leaves you feeling drained and unwilling to fight because you simply cannot win.
“But, if that’s the way they feel then there is an anyway and there’s nothing I can do stop there being an anyway.”
“Right.” said Hamish.
“No, don’t clamp down! That’s not the end of the discussion! I can’t stop there being an anyway, you don’t want there to be an anyway… where next?”
“I don’t know.” said Hamish. He didn’t.
Sarah thought briefly, “What would you rather have; an anyway, or a me?”
Jesus listened in, craning forward to hear the discussion coming from the lounge.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got you if there’s an anyway.”
Jesus’ palms were sweating.
“No it isn’t. I want you more than anything, but I don’t feel like our relationship is just us. It’s us, your parents and… and all the things we think differently about.”
“Church?” Sarah asked. Hamish nodded.
Jesus was worried now. Time to intervene, he thought, and straightened up out of the chair ready to stick his head into the lounge and interrupt. He wondered what strategy was best and then remembered he was in England and the only thing he could do would be to pretend he hadn’t heard a thing. He stepped into the lounge to see Hamish sat despondently on the sofa and Sarah stood looking out of the window.
“Lemon curd and horseradish is awful.” he announced, “Really awful. I don’t recommend it. Everything ok?”
Hamish smiled weakly, completely certain that things weren’t ok. Sarah continued to stare through the glass into the leafy garden.
“I’ve got two ideas…” said Jesus.
If Hamish wasn’t going to answer the questions seriously, then she wasn’t going to bother holding his hand to increase the positive energy between them. She shuffled a few inches away from him on the cream sofa.
It was later the same day, and the fallout from the earlier row was still clogging their airways. Jesus sighed. Things like this had been a lot easier when you were allowed to throw stones at each other. He strongly suspected instructing Hamish to launch a rock at Sarah’s head would land both of them in a bit of hot water with Mrs Shoe. She was on the militant end of the feminism scale; sort of where you’d expect Pol Pot to be had he been born with fewer appendages.
Jesus clutched his copy of “Relationships: Sowing The Benefits” and wondered where to take their little counselling session next. He was so far not particularly enjoying his first attempts at getting to the bottom of the issues between Hamish and Sarah. He felt out of his depth and clumsy when he wanted to feel eloquent and wise.
The book was a good crutch and he was grateful for some of the advice but truth be told parts of it were just plain confusing. He rummaged in his bag for his reading glasses to check whether page four did actually read “Focus on the levels of devastation you would feel should your partner come to farm.”
Privately, Jesus was hoping it did say “farm”. Farming was safer ground... if these two had fields to plough and cattle to keep alive they’d have far less time to bicker about sun tans and ages past cultural diversity. They’d barely have time to regret the marriage of convenience their parents had bartered them into if they were exhausted and covered in dirt.
Marriage had been simpler back when no one had really wanted to do it. These days, everyone wanted to make a meal out of it. “Marriage isn’t a buffet,” Jesus was fond of saying (although it hadn’t made the final edit), “You can’t just pick the bits you want. Marriage is a compulsory, sixty year, a la carte, continuous delivery of courses. And some of the courses are gross. Think about that, and if it seems too much then perhaps just get a sandwich.”
Although, of course, all that sandwich advice had backfired massively with a sharp increase in the level of prostitution in towns Jesus had visited recently. That hadn’t gone down well. Even Jesus’ insistence that any increase in employment rates was a positive in an emerging planet’s economy had fallen on deaf ears.
The trouble was, Jesus had never been married. Or, not officially so as the news was likely to travel anyway. He was on a special mission, no time for fancy distractions. A marriage on the grounds of research purposes was morally repugnant for a man pedalling the next best religion since the one with all the sitting down. Besides which, there were very strict limitations on what you could and couldn’t claim as a business expense when you were staying away.
Sarah spent a few moments analysing the expression on Jesus’ face. He looked troubled, either the glasses were the wrong prescription or he had just noticed the title of the book he was reading from. It had never occurred to her that even the Holy Trinity would succumb to some bad eBay choices too.
“Maybe we could break for lunch?” She ventured, hoping the manners she’d learnt in case she was invited for tea with the Queen were going to be good enough for the Prince of Men. “I’ve got some bread.”
“He can’t have bread.” Said Hamish.
“Why not?” Said Sarah.
Jesus looked up from his book.
“It’s got yeast in it.”
“He can’t have yeast.”
Jesus wondered briefly what yeast was and why he couldn’t have it.
“Why not?” Said Sarah.
“I don’t know. It just says it in the Bible, doesn’t it.”
“In the Egyptian bit. They baked unleavened bread to go out with Moses.”
“Actually that was a bit before my time...” Jesus began.
“I don’t think they did it because he was allergic or anything.” Interrupted Sarah, “It was more a case of them not having time for the bread to rise because they were in a hurry to get away.”
“Oh,” Said Hamish, thoughtfully, “So, does bread only take so long to cook because of the rising? Is it technically edible earlier?”
“I don’t know, I would imagine it’d give you a stomach ache.”
“Excuse me?” Said Jesus amicably.
“Yes?” Said Sarah.
“Well, I just wondered if we were going to be baking bread for lunch?”
“No, I’ve got a little bit that's still alright.” Said Sarah.
“Well then, we needn’t continue this conversation any further.” Replied Jesus and he shut the book and led the way into the kitchen to fix himself a sandwich. He was particularly interested in trying a new invention he’d got wind of involving butter and peanuts, although not necessarily in that order.
Sarah smiled as Jesus led the way into the kitchen. He certainly wasn't turning out as she'd imagined, and she found she was pleased about that. Jesus was funnier, more down to earth now that he was, well, down to earth. She and Hamish followed into the kitchen and she pulled out a chopping board to compile some sandwiches.
"So, you grew up in Scotland, Hamish?" Jesus asked a few minutes later through a mouthful of peanut butter. He immediately gauged the stickiness of the spread and regretted his decision to start a conversation so prematurely.
"I did, yes. I moved down to England for University."
Jesus' tongue was working overtime on the congealed, brown goo coating his teeth and palate. He dislodged a particularly belligerent peanut and spoke again;
"And you, Sarah?"
"I grew up in Dorset. Not too far from here, really, I suppose that's why we settled here. I wouldn't want to be too far away."
"Why?" asked Jesus, mildly.
"Oh, I just like it here. I like the way of life, I like the people, the scenery is beautiful. I'd miss my family."
"Is it a big family?"
"No, not really. Well, not in my branch, anyway. I'm an only child."
"Are you, Hamish?" Jesus inquired, hoping the answer was lengthy so that he could begin dismantling the next ball of tar between his teeth.
"No, no, I have three brothers. There are four of us boys. My poor mum! I'm the oldest and then there's Rory, John and Luke after me. Rory and John still live in Scotland near Mum and Dad, and Luke moved to Newcastle for University."
"Hamish misses his family. We don't get up to see them as much as we like." Sarah looked downcast. Hamish tried a quick smile in her direction but she didn't make eye contact. Jesus manipulated the peanut butter into a swallowable position and forced it down, pushing the plate to one side. That was enough peanut butter for one earthly visit.
"You seem a bit ashamed of that, Sarah?"
"I suppose I am." She admitted. Hamish looked up sharply, surprised at her candour. She continued, "I feel a bit guilty that we live so close to my family and we barely see them but if we lived up near Hamish's lot we'd be round all the time. They're such a great family. Mine are very quiet in comparison."
"Hey..." Hamish began, softly, reassuringly, willing her to lift her eyes to his. She flicked them up for less than a second and then busied herself in removing Jesus' half eaten sandwich and the rest of the plates.
"Would you like anything else to eat, Jesus?" Sarah asked from by the sink, looking worriedly at the sandwich and wondering if it was OK to remind the Son of God that wasting food at a time of such scarcity was not smart.
"No, I'm fine, thank you. But my teeth feel rather mossy, do you have anything I could get some of this goo off with?"