Saturday, March 28, 2020
As We Know It - Chapters 25 and 26
The Vicar turned the big key in the door to the Village Hall. He barely knew why he was locking it - crime in Norton Fitzwarren had never been much of an issue, even before the end of the world. Now they were joined by the man in charge of your final resting place, not even the spritely youths from the council houses would risk their eternal souls for the chance of spray painting their initials and stealing some neglected Brownie subs.
The lock clunked across and The Vicar turned around to look at Sarah, Hamish and Jesus.
“Well, I think that was a success.”
Nobody responded. The Vicar continued, “I mean, it was pretty vague but it seemed to satisfy everyone. I suppose there’s not much point in me asking if I can know a little more… er, is there?” He looked hopefully from Sarah to Jesus. Jesus shook his head.
“I’m sorry - I would prefer to keep the finer details of my visit under wraps if you don’t mind?”
“Of course not. Whatever you say goes. As ever.” The Vicar tried to laugh, shake off his awkward body language and seem casual. Hamish eyed him, unconvinced by the stretchy smile. “Well, I’d better be off. Lots to do. See you later!”
The Vicar scuffed his shoes on the concrete step and then strode off, a purposeful rhythm to his swinging arms. He held his head rigidly as if forging himself forward by the power of his eyes.
“Poor guy.” muttered Hamish.
“You see it too?” Said Jesus.
“Don’t be sorry. Very astute of you.”
“It must be hard,” sympathised Jesus, “I get this a lot - you spend an entire life talking to me and hearing my responses through your own interpretation and it’s a bit difficult when you meet me in person. I’m told it’s a lot like internet dating.”
Hamish’s mind raced - thoughts of newly settled Heaven dwellers cosying up to Jesus and regaling him with tales of their dubious forays into online partnership. “Well, Jesus, he had excellent grammar… but he was a foot shorter than he said, and they really ought to introduce a tick box for bald as a coot...”
Heaven was going to be a lot weirder than he’d first anticipated, Hamish realised. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure he’d even ever actually considered being in Heaven. It seemed like a big ask; eternity. Hamish had been quite looking forward to oblivion.
Jesus stretched his arms above his head, reaching first left, then right - enjoying the physicality of it. Stretching was something you really needed a body to enjoy. It made Sarah smile - there was something so childlike about him. He smiled back at her - gladder than he expected to see someone smiling so genuinely at him.
“Right,” he began, “If it’s all the same to you two I might need a bit of peace and quiet. Would you mind if I took a wander and met you back at your house later in the evening?”
“Of course,” said Sarah, “Not a problem at all. Will you be OK?”
“So long as you don’t have any Romans no one’s told me about!” Jesus joked.
“Not that I know of.” replied Sarah, grinning. She was beginning to really like Jesus - not that it should have been a surprise, she reminded herself.
“Well then,” said Jesus. “I shall take myself off for a bit of an explore and we’ll reconvene later. Enjoy yourselves!” He waved casually and headed off down the path in the same direction The Vicar had taken minutes earlier. Sarah thought she could see similarities between the two men, she was surprised they hadn’t got on a lot better so far. She turned to look at Hamish,
“Shall we head home?”
“Sure thing. Are you hungry?”
“OK.” He nodded, and they started off in the direction of their house. Both very aware of the clawing formality between them that wouldn’t quite wipe away. Hamish squeezed his fingers nails into the palm of his hand and prayed to the man a hundred yards behind him that he had a better plan than the abyss occupying Hamish’s brainspace.
The man a hundred yards behind Hamish was fighting with a heavy sensation behind his nipples. He was staring at them, wondering what on earth this new sensation could be. He’d not had a human body for two thousand years and, truth be told, it was a bit of a beast to negotiate. Like upgrading from a first generation Fiesta to the Millenium Falcon. He’d already ruled out hunger - he knew that was meant to be a little lower. It was way, way too high to be the opposite of hunger, it wasn’t a headache and he didn’t think a heart attack would feel this drippy and frustrating.
He tried to focus his mind on exactly what the feeling was. His chest felt; heavy. Heavy and a bit wet and foggy. Like a gloomy day. Gloomy. That was it! He felt gloomy. He smiled brightly; once you knew what a problem was it was far easier to fix.
“So, why the gloom?” He asked himself, as his feet took him further up the main road towards the church. He searched his feelings again and realised his chest gloom was mainly a result of his performance in the village meeting. Disappointment? Not quite… just a strange and unfamiliar feeling of not measuring up.
The meeting had seemed fine on the outside and Sarah and Hamish had been wildly complimentary about the speech. So why had Jesus left feeling like he’d failed? It didn’t feel like the victories of old and he felt the frustrated cumulonimbus building in his chest. He tried to pinpoint exactly what about it hadn’t made his mind race - bubbling with success inspired ideas for how to do it again and better. Today’s speech had felt like a total concentration on getting through the material in front of him... a good speech he barely noticed giving because his mind was on the next one. On the next phrase on the next lesson on the next person who needed him. It was like those dreams where you are running but your feet never impact - a perfect forward motion, fluid, focused energy. The scenery is rushing past you and you know exactly what it is but you never linger, you never have to focus. You can absorb it all without giving it a second thought.
He looked up and realised he’d reached the church - the doors were open but he didn’t head in yet. He sat down on the grass near the path, next to some of the oldest gravestones in the yard. They had lichen of all colours stretched across the facades, covering names he half recognised from lifetimes beyond the imaginings of the people who now passed them.
When had he got so nervous? When had this happened? Somewhere between Cyril Barrie 1875 - 1926 and Eleanor Burkitt 1911 - 1978 - Devoted Wife or much, much earlier? He remembered a time when he could sweep into a room and think quicker than any other person staring back at him. When the answers people wanted were ready on his tongue before they’d even asked for them, before they’d even become aware that they were looking to him for an answer. When had that gone?
The grass was still a little damp; he felt it creeping through the fabric of his clothes and irritating the skin. Not wet enough to be wet, just wet enough to cause an itch. The sort of itch that is unscratchable - the bain of the school child’s life as they squirm about on plastic chairs, protected only by nylon skirts and unbreathable underwear. Not even a well placed ruler can satiate that itch, as many a shatterproof has lived to witness. Jesus marvelled at the complexity of the human body - so many purposes and opportunities and yet still so damn distractable and fragile.
It was easy for others to criticise. They didn’t know what it was like… He didn’t know what it was like. He never had to actually come down and be flesh and blood, be one of the people he was supposed to be leading. The earth had a strange way of confusing and distracting you. If you explain wind in words and science it is simple. When you feel it on your skin, on your face, on a dark night, when it feels like a solid thing and it's pulling your mind in a thousand different memories... well then it becomes inexplicable.
He pulled his wayward thoughts from his bothered backside to the speech he had just given. It had felt so dry today, every simile had needed a moment - just to stop and see if anyone else had seen it to. Had they liked it? Should he point out what he had liked about it too? Just to check? Would that seem desperate? His mouth had dried. He’d smiled, talked quicker. Just wanted them to love him.
Today he had watched himself feel his way blindly through his own visions - he felt a bit of a fraud. An amateur. It was not a feeling he liked. To feel unsure of his own ideas, to feel they looked dusty and staid. To feel like the audience he so desperately desired might have outgrown him. Just when he needed them most.
He was rusty. He knew it. Too long out of the game. Too long sat dreaming of it going well so that by the time the lights were on his face he was nervous that it couldn’t be as good as he needed it to be.
An elephantine yawn prised its way from his mouth, clambering awkwardly between the teeth and settling inches from his face. He pushed himself up off the ground and smoothed his clothes down, sneaking in a mild scratch of the posterior to try and soothe the persistent chatter of itchiness. He decided to go into the church and headed towards the door. The enormous iron hooped handle was cold in his hand and he enjoyed the exertion it took to lift it anti-clockwise and push the door forward.
Churches have strange air inside them. Whether it’s the dust, the prayers, or the light from the stained glass, I don’t know, but it’s strange. Jesus didn’t seem to mind. He just stopped inside the door and dragged the strange air in through his nose in one long, strong heave. It was very quiet in the stone walls. He eyed the gold eagle lectern and felt the gloom prodding his self-esteem from its curled up posture on his lungs.
Had it gone? Was it still there but the hit wasn’t as good? His thin ribs sank in on themselves. Had it only ever really been about pleasing himself... that was the question he didn’t really want to answer. When he’d first started it didn’t take much to feel that glorious ringing in his ears, the billowing chest pump of success that obliterated his senses and heightened every perception. It felt like flying into ultra violet. Now he could master the basics, he needed to be cleverer, but the clever stuff wouldn’t sing so finely.
He could return to the original tricks and tools or he could continue to persevere with the longer lasting tack... the things he really believed in, the things that were good, the things he wanted to say to people. But one way or the other it wasn’t ever going to feel the same as that first miraculous experience of pleasing people.
He was glad he’d come to the church - it felt right to be thinking in this symbol of humans’ interpretations of his last visit. He was standing in a stone consequence of previous actions. Humans seemed to like stone, they liked things to be permanent and unswerving. Jesus felt a little loop of the knotted problem fall looser as this thought came to him. He moved further into the church, slowly walking up the central aisle and allowing his hands to run across the tops of the pews, bouncing off the bibles laying in wait on the ledges.
‘How do you continue when you’ve vastly outgrown your original material?’ He thought, realising he had idly lifted one of the Bibles from its place and was turning it over and over. If no fool had ever written it down it would be easy to backtrack - perhaps that was the problem? Whoever told them it was the written word that mattered was to blame. Two thousand years of taking things literally with no one around to chip in with a "common sense" flag seemed to have aged his previous arguments to an unsalvageable point.
“Yes, well technically we did say that sodomy was an abomination. Yes, we said it was for sacred reasons. What we meant was, we needed you to have sex with the other gender so that there’d be more humans. There are more than enough of you now so you go ahead and make love to whatever gender you see fit. Do it by yourself by all means... again, no longer a sin because it was only ever a sin if it led to the casual extermination of your race because you were all at home masturbating.”
Somehow he felt that wouldn't make much of a publishing deal for his sequel. He placed the Bible down carefully and wandered up to the altar. It all needed messing with a little bit. Loosening, like the knot in his chest. He moved the heavy gold cross from the centre of the altar to one side and turned round to face the empty pews. He placed both hands on the thick purple fabric and sprung up backwards so that he was sitting on the Altar. Delicious sacrilege. Given that his body and blood were passed out from this table every week, he felt that he had earned the right to rest his still tickled rear on it for a few minutes.
The thought of the look on Sarah’s face if she could see him sitting on the altar brought a smile to his face. Her hand would go up to her mouth, her eyebrows would twitch and her weight would swing from side to side as the arguments for and against his actions rang through her mind. He smiled wider. That was precisely what he needed to do - tap dance on the altar, swing from the rood screen, sing the wrong hymn lyrics and still be a damn good Christian. Sarah needed loosening, just enough that she could love three very different people without an internal struggle. She needed setting free within her own mind. Jesus hoped he was the man to do it.
In contrast to Jesus' need for solitude after the meeting, the majority of the villagers found they couldn't bear to go home. There'd been a seismic shift during Jesus' speech that their bodies and minds were struggling to get to grips with. Philosophical jet lag.
Outside the Village Hall they'd milled about a bit, waving good bye to the few people who were leaving for thinking space, and trying to make small talk with those who remained; clinging to camaraderie to counteract the exposing sense of uniqueness they'd each felt under Jesus' gaze. Eventually Derek had jangled the keys to the front door of The Ring of Bells and raised an eyebrow at Mr Baxter. Mr Baxter bobbed his head in return.
"I, er, I'll be opening the pub if anyone fancies a drink... or just a chat. Like old times." Derek called out. People visibly relaxed; English people know where they are with a pub. Put a pool cue in a man's hand and he is a politician for a frame. Add a roaring fire and a friendly hound and I defy anyone with English blood not to feel almost American levels of positivity about the world, deep down obviously. Very deep down.
Derek lead the charge down the path and right onto the main road towards the pub. He pushed the front door open and trekked behind the bar to find the Cook's matches he kept for power cuts. He lit the four thick white candles on the bar and then encouraged the early birds to use the flames to work on the smaller stick candles stuck haphazardly into Jack Daniel's bottles on the tables. He'd lost count of the number of nervous dates he had watched play out across these candles over the years, he wondered how many of them would have been overcome by the nerves if it weren't for the candle wax and the careless shredding of beer mats to keep jittery hands busy. Now, the candles were easing out a reassuring glow across the inhabitants of the pub. People filtered in and began to fill up the tables. Someone lit the fire. Martin Young popped home for his guitar and Derek very quickly and apologetically explained that his live music license had expired and hid the guitar behind the bar.
Derek felt there was no need to be selling drinks in the usual sense, he lined up wine and beer across the bar and let people tuck in themselves. He joined Nigel, Beryl, Mr Baxter, Arthur Arthur and Mrs Shoe at a large round table by the window.
"Well." Said Mr Baxter; they all nodded in agreement.
"I know." Said Nigel.
"Quite." Said Mrs Shoe.
Then they were silent, listening to the growing conversations around the tables near them. They felt very weary, very old all of a sudden; separated from the immediacy of the problem by decades of other problems. Arthur Arthur watched Martin Young talking to Angela Norman as though he were no longer in the same room as them, no longer on the same planet.
Jesus' speech had struck a potent chord with the older residents. It was a strange thing to be old in a time of such progress; watching young lives around you that bear no resemblance at all to the one you led. In a generation of technological advances every week it was easy to feel outdated if you just caught an early night. Arthur Arthur felt prehistoric.
"He was good, wasn't he?" Mused Beryl.
"Jesus?" confirmed Mrs Shoe.
"Well, yeah. That man, the Jesus man.”
Everyone looked at her. Nigel cocked his head to one side.
"What do you mean?"
"I dunno. I don't know. Don't you think he's a bit too 'good'?" said Beryl, cagily.
"Well I should bloody hope so! He's meant to be perfect, isn't he?" spluttered Arthur Arthur, his throat leaping. He couldn't totally pin down why he felt so defensive of Jesus, but he hoped it could only be a good thing in earning him brownie points with whoever was watching.
"I just... I don't know. It sounds stupid, doesn't it? I'll shut up." Beryl sank back into her chair and sipped her red wine.
"Oh Beryl, no, don't you worry. We're all just a bit tense. Go on love, what do you mean?" Mrs Shoe rubbed the back of Beryl's forearm supportively.
"Oh I don't know," Beryl seemed on the verge of tears, "I'm just not sure. He looks EXACTLY like I thought he would... I mean, exactly. Isn't that a bit strange? Shouldn't I have got it a little bit wrong. And they weren't gone long, were they? Sarah and Hamish? They weren't gone long. How on earth did they find him so quick? It's all just been a little bit too easy. A bit too slick." She deflated and gulped another mouthful of red, seemingly relieved to have rid herself of these thoughts. Her eyes kept flicking nervously across to Nigel, just checking she hadn't gone too far. What with the recent slapping debacle, she felt she ought to check herself more regularly these days. Testing times an apocalypse, everyone knew that.
Mr Baxter whistled through his teeth and shook his head, his right hand idly scratching the top of Rufus' ears.
"You've got a point, I suppose Beryl. Finding him did go quite smoothly... but, we didn't start looking for a week. Poor guy might've been holed up in a cave for all of that time while we was organising the Line Dance."
"There aren't any caves round here... nearest ones are Wookie and he wouldn't have hidden there because of the witch." said Nigel.
"It's not a real witch..." said Beryl wearily.
"I know what I saw." said Nigel, firmly.
"But, maybe it is a plan -" piped up Mrs Shoe, "I mean, if he's Jesus - and just for the record I wholeheartedly believe that he is..." she glanced up to the yellowed ceiling, "...then he's going to have a plan, isn't he? He's not just going to turn up and hope it all pans out. That's not very God like."
"I suppose so." mumbled Beryl, trying to smile.
"I have to admit," said Derek, clearing his throat thoughtfully before he spoke, "I wasn't sure how I felt before the meeting. But, when he spoke... I mean, not just when he said anything, but when he did his speech... That was something else. Wasn't it?"
"Did you feel it too?" Nigel's eyes questioned Derek's earnestly.
"Yes, I think I did. I couldn't tell you what it was, mind, but I certainly felt something. I just felt very sure. Very confident."
"I felt like I could think at a thousand miles per hour." Said Mrs Shoe, "I could see all my thoughts and images clear as a cinema screen. It was wonderful.”
"Did you feel something, Beryl?" Nigel asked his wife, shyly.
Beryl stammered, "I don't know. I mean, yes, yes, I did. But only I don't know if I liked it. That was the problem. I didn't know if I wanted to give in to it - I could feel what his words were doing to me, felt lifted up and cradled and shown things he weren't even saying... But part of me wanted to fight it. Is that bad?" The poor thing seemed beside herself, meek as she was she seemed in no fit state to inherit anything.
"Well that's alright." Pronounced Mrs Shoe, confidently.
"Is it?" pounced Beryl, her eyes wide as lemons.
"Of course." enthused Mrs Shoe, "It wouldn't be right if you didn't question yourself a little bit, would it? If you just blindly went along with everything then we'd all be in cults and wars, wouldn't we? You've got to question. Don't you worry yourself any more, Beryl. Have some more wine." Mrs Shoe practically forced the glass to Beryl's lips - Employee of the Month at the Merlot Foie Gras farm.
"Thank you," said Beryl, dodging the rim as it pranced towards her teeth. "Thank you, Iris, those are very kind words."
The atmosphere in the bar bubbled away, people were excited and positive - happy to have a direction to look in.
"I wonder what he's going to do while he's here?" asked Martin Young.
"It's a bit like an Ofsted inspection! Isn't it? That’s what The Vicar said to me - I thought it was very funny. Ofsted!" giggled Karen, who was drenching her earlier nerves in Pinot Grigio. "I'm sure I've still got my school uniform somewhere!"
Martin Young swallowed nervously. Sometimes Karen could get a little out of hand and he felt trying to rein her in on his own might not be wholly successful given he'd been nursing a painful crush on her for years. He attempted a witty response, bit his tongue, choked on a gobbit of wayward spit and blinked furiously at her for a few seconds. She giggled in response and drained her glass.
"Do you think we’ll be going to church still?” asked Angela Norman, who was sitting to Karen’s right.
“Why wouldn’t you?” asked Martin Young.
“Well, we can just talk to him direct now, can’t we? Seems a bit silly to be directing prayers up into the ceiling when the actual bloke is in the village. Like leaving a voicemail for someone you’re sitting next to.”
“I guess so. I dunno. I never went anyway.” There was a bit of a tremble in Martin Young’s voice and the women sat by him averted their gaze down onto the wooden table. A few seconds passed by before Karen spoke;
“Are you regretting that now?” she said it softly, it wasn’t a dig at him or a chastisement, that didn’t feel right given the depth of the subject.
“Do you know what, I’m not?” the answer tumbled out of Martin Young’s mouth along with a heavy expulsion of sigh. “I wondered if I would be. Turns out I’m not. It’s weird, but, even though that guy is there, and I totally believe he is Jesus, I still don’t think I’m a Christian.”
That stunned them.
“How can you believe Jesus exists and not be a Christian?” asked Angela Norman.
“I don’t know. But, even if the world switches back on and he goes home again. I’m not going to start going to church. I don’t think all that spiritual stuff is for me. And I hate the singing. And I sort of get the impression that he won’t mind very much anyway. He seems cool.”
“So, let me get this straight…” Angela Norman was frowning now, “You like Jesus, you believe he exists and you think you’ve met him, but you don’t think you’re a Christian?”
“I dunno, do I?”
“Don’t you?” It was The Vicar. No one had seen him come into the pub, but there he was, settling down onto a vacant chair at the table with Martin, Angela and Karen. “Don’t you know? Really?”
“Sorry Vicar, I wasn’t meaning to be rude or anything.” Martin Young raised his hands in genuine profferance of apology.
“No, no, I know you weren’t, Martin. I’m just very interested is all. Do you really not know?” The Vicar really did seem interested, he slid the candle away to one side and leant forward on the table.
“Well, I can’t say for sure. But, I suppose, what I feel is… if I get to carry on with my life, like, before it was the end of the world and stuff, then I don’t want it to be all about God. If he created us, which is looking all the more likely and stuff now that I’ve met his son, it just seems a bit weird to me that you’d then spend your whole life having to say thank you all the time for it. Why would you make something that served no purpose other than to praise you? Makes him seem a bit of a bell end, sorry Vicar, if you ask me. And having met Jesus, I don’t think that’s what they were going for. So, I would probably say, if the world carries on, that although I’ll know Jesus does exist, instead of making a resolution to go to church more often, I’d probably make a resolution to go out and see more of the world. Seems more likely to me that that’s the whole point of him having made us; so that we could make something of ourselves.”
The volume control for the pub seemed to have been flicked to mute. No one had ever heard Martin Young say more than a few snippy sentences designed to be slightly superior. Hearing him so earnestly divulge his feelings was something of a revelation. To have them make sense was bordering on revolutionary.
“Wow.” Said The Vicar.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful.” said Martin Young.
“I don’t actually think that was disrespectful.” said Angela Norman, looking at him with new eyes.
All other eyes in the pub were on The Vicar who had gone quiet. He was toying with his right cuff, his stare firmly fixed on the loose threads.
“It wasn’t disrespectful at all.” He said finally in a low voice that wouldn’t have carried without the electricity in the air. “Not at all.” He tried to smile but his pupils couldn’t quite meet Martin Young’s. “Maybe you are right,” he continued, “Maybe the best people don’t need religion to tell them to be good people?”
“Perhaps, but I don’t think it makes you a worse person if you have chosen the church to help you.” Mrs Shoe was in on the conversation all of a sudden. Her tones were warm, carrying across the pub like a ship’s bow breaking in on the Vicar’s gloom. He looked over to her, appreciative. She smiled back, glad he was a big enough man to be able to accept her support. The atmosphere in the pub, which has chilled with concentration, began to reinstate itself as one or two tables returned to their own conversations and small sprigs of laughter showed shoots.
Mrs Shoe considered the hunched curve of The Vicar’s frame at the table and decided the man needed baked goods and a person to talk to. She decided to tell him he would be joining her the following day and made her way across the pub.