But seriously, any feedback much appreciated. Thanks.
As usual, the day was hot in the hills above the desert. The snake didn't really like the place, because, as he was currently manifest in reptilian form, he spent the first half of the day too lethargic to move, and then most of the afternoon so full of heat and energy it was like he'd been knocking back espressos by the bucket. But, professional that he was, he knew he could rise above it.
Slithering down some scree, pebbles and grit casting down the hill aside and ahead of him, the snake saw his 9.00 waiting on the tiny plateau below, leaning against a boulder and idly kicking rocks down the drop into the valley. For a man in his thirties, he had a gangly awkward look – more like an awkward teenager, still getting used to the shape of his body. Not having the right apparatus to do it outwardly, he sighed inwardly.
'Morning,' he said to the client.
'Morning,' was the response from the slouching figure.
'So, where did we get to yesterday?'
'Come on, we've been doing this nearly four weeks now.'
'Yeah, well it's all merging into one for me, frankly. What have we done so far? The problem of evil, the teleological argument, natural selection – which coming from a talking snake's a bit hard to take seriously I'm afraid, inconsistencies in scripture ... loads of that -'
'Well, this stuff's important, son. You want to be the Son of Man? You've got to know your brief.'
'Well, what with the midnight visits, the sleep deprivation, playing that Metallica album at top volume all day and those bloody mushrooms you made me eat, it's hard to be sure that I know anything any more.'
'Well, that's scepticism covered then! Come on, what about yesterday?'
'I remember, I think. It was quantum indeterminacy, wasn't it? How can my Father be all-knowing in an indeterminate universe?'
'Good. And what was your response? Do you remember that?'
'As I recall, I said that indeterminacy helped reinforce the doctrine of free will.'
'Excellent, now we're cooking with naphtha. So, now that we've covered the theory, it's time for a practical. Here's your workbook.'
'Where did you get that from?'
'Same place I got the Powerbook and the projector for the Keynote on natural evil last week. Have you got a pen?'
'I think I must have lost it last night. Those mushrooms are quite more-ish you know, once you get past the taste.'
The snake sighed, and produced a biro from the same place. It was one of those ones with 8 coloured inks in. 'Try not to lose this one, OK? I swear, at the rate you get through them, there's going to be a geological layer of Bic in this valley that's going to keep archaeologists arguing for decades.'
'Just, be careful, OK. Right. Ready?'
'OK. Now, before we get started, there's a few pieces of housekeeping. First off, health and safety. There should be perceptual filters on the population to stop anyone taking any notice of you, but that doesn't mean you can start jumping up and down in front of them, calling them names or making rude gestures. If you cause enough of a fuss, they will see you, alright?'
'Alright,' the client muttered.
'OK, second thing is you're not to go around changing anything. Your Father will be most annoyed if you do, and has given me a very graphic description of what will happen when you get home if you disobey Him on this one.'
'He said you'd ask, and told me to tell you “Come and see.” OK?'
'OK,' was the grumpy response.
'Good. It shouldn't be a problem, since we'll be in a state of temporal grace. But no parlour tricks and no healing, OK?'
'OK!' he said, clearly exasperated, 'I'm not a bloody child you know.'
'To me, everyone is, mate. And to Him.
'Last thing, make sure you've got something to drink. Fasting is fine, but you know how matter transference takes it out of humans, so you'll need something to cushion your system a bit. There aren't any emergency exits, and we're not expecting a fire drill, so if the alarms go off make sure you evacuate quickly but calmly. There's going to be a buffet back here at sunset, and there's an itinerary in the front of your workbook. Clear?' a nod. 'Good.'
The first stop was contemporary. They went to Jerusalem and the snake found himself slithering on the edge of the roof of the temple. The client bent down and picked him up, putting him round his neck for safety.
'Hey, I'm a viper, not a bloody boa, thank you very much'
'Oh hey, thanks for picking me up there Jesus, I could've fallen off then, might not have been very nice having to re-incorporate myself at short notice, so cheers for that.'
'OK, sorry, you're right. Thank you for saving my, well for want of a better word let's call it 'life'. It was very kind of you.'
'Don't mention it,' said the client, a trifle smugly for the snake's taste.
'Anyway, take a look out over this city. Here it is, holy of holies. Capital of the Chosen people. You'll be coming here yourself soon, and you know it's not going to end well.'
'What's your point?'
'Well, look down there. Three blocks from the temple. What's that?'
'That's the prostitute's district.'
'Right next to the temple! Doesn't that just make you so angry?'
'Not really. From a socio-economic point of view you would expect to find people desperate enough to sell their bodies for sex in close proximity to a group of men who have to surreptitiously purchase it. Besides, prostitutes are part of my target demographic, as you would say.'
'OK, but what about there, the alleyway near the Palace? Some farmboy's just about to get knifed, two dozen steps from the Governor's guards, all for the sake of some gold coins and a couple of apples. You can't trust people to behave even in plain sight of the Law! Why do you want to help them?'
'Compassion should be the essence of being human. That and unquestioning allegiance to me and my Father. When everyone believes this there will be no contradictions; the system will be just. At the moment, people are torn – there is the Law of God, and the Law of Pilate. Then there's the Law of the Syrians, the Laws of all those damn Greeks, and all their gods into the bargain. Everything needs to be made simple. I can help do that.'
The snake cast a sidelong glance at his client and erstwhile saviour. Sometimes, he thought, I wonder just who the bad guy is here. He goes from telling people to worry about the logs in their eyes before the dust in their neighbour's, and accusing those bourgeois stuffed shirts at the temple of hypocrisy to things like this. Times like this, all he needs is an undersea volcano and a white cat. 'Jahwol mein Fuhrer, anything you say,' he said aloud, sarcastically. But the client had that strange, intensely peaceful look he got on his face at times like this, and paid no attention.
They stayed a while longer, the snake pointing out various instances of rampant vice and trampled virtue, but nothing shifted the client an inch, as expected. The client filled in the relevant questions in the workbook, and completed the extension task about the universality of sin. At length, the snake did a wriggle, which was the closest he could get to a shrug, and said, 'Well, time to be off then.' Casting a glance at the drop below that had so nearly started the day off very badly for him, he added 'of course, if it'd been you, Daddy'd have stopped you mid-fall or something. Probably had Gabriel catch you or something similar. I don't suppose you have to worry about re-incorporation.'
'Not yet,' corrected the client, shooting a withering glance at his companion.
'Quite so,' conceded the snake. 'Let's get going then. Busy day ahead.'
They appeared outside a wooden Jesuitical mission building on the 6th August 1945. Inside, a middle-aged German priest was making breakfast. Around them, the local citizenry were on their way to work on foot and by bike. A few cars and vans threaded their way through the traffic. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day. The currents of people moved inexplicably aside for the dishevelled man with a snake round his neck, creating a circle about four feet across where no one walked, without appearing to notice that they were doing so.
'We're facing the wrong way,' said the snake suddenly. They turned round, looking down the street towards the mouth of the river delta, where the bridges joined the city to the docks and the railway lines threaded through and joined up most thickly. There was a very, very bright flash, as 64 kilograms of Uranium-235 were banged together very, very hard. The blue sky seemed to blink out with it.
A few moments later, the Mission was a dessicated pile of rubble. Small fires were starting amongst the beams as a tremendous heat and burning wind passed through it. The snake and his client found a wall of dust parting around them, leaving a lozenge-shaped hole in the storm. Bicycles were in the street, thrown up against walls and rubble and people. Vans were on their side amongst and on top of it all. And the dust and heat kept coming. Smoke was everywhere, and fires were beginning to take hold everywhere. As the roar from the explosion and the wave of dust began to die down, the snake said, 'two of the priests in that building are dead you know. Good Christian folk killed by that good Christian bomb. Not to mention all these poor Shinto and Buddhist souls out here. Not that I suppose you're so bothered about them, being outside the Law and all.'
The client bristled. 'I may want to bring everyone within the Law but that doesn't mean they deserve this! Of course it matters to me. I am the Son of Man, the subject of God's plan and the victim of its consequences! Do not think I only have compassion for those who follow me. This is a thing terrible to behold. Why are we here?'
'I think you know. It is one thing to be aware of the problem of evil, quite another to see it first-hand. Here is suffering on an unimaginable scale, so I have brought you here to witness it; you have no need now to imagine it at all.'
The client did indeed look shocked. His face had slackened, and he looked quite lost. Forbidden by his Father to interfere, he got a bottle of water out of his satchel and turned it into a double vodka, apparently without noticing. Around him, bodies groaned, and bled, and died, whilst the hot irradiated dust settled on them. Scratched and bleeding survivors appeared, wandering in shock, uncomprehending, through the wreckage. Some of them were so bewildered they transgressed the circle and bumped into the client, apologising politely before rebounding off in another direction. All the commotion was making it hard for the client to concentrate on filling in the worksheet. Occasionally he stopped to wipe the tears from his eyes.
'Come on, it's time to go,' said the snake at length, not unkindly. The client nodded, and then, before the snake had time to say anything, swiftly reached down into the rubble and touched a young woman who had died, crushed, under a heavy timber support. Suddenly, with a scream, her whole body convulsed. Her eyes ceased their fixed stare and started darting about, madly. The timber, it now appeared, had miraculously fallen in such a way that it had shielded her from the lethal shards of tiles and debris that had been thrown up with the blast, and somehow she had escaped unharmed. The client helped her up and watched her stumble off towards the northern part of the city. The snake rolled his eyes.
'Her children will be grateful,' was all the client said.
'There will be Hell to pay when you see your Dad, that's all I know. And for the sake of children, too! You know, in your day no one would think of such a thing for whelps. It's as bad as the prostitutes and tax collectors. Why on earth do you care so much for people who are so utterly worthless?'
'You know why. No one sends a doctor to the healthy.'
Patronising git, thought the snake, but it wasn't in the script to say it. 'Fine. Let's move on then, shall we?' The client nodded.
The trip took them to many places that day. Tsunamis and earthquakes, massacres and skirmishes, riots and revolutions. The last stop was a kitchen in a nondescript Barrett home on an estate near Watford. A woman stood at the table, making two packed lunches and putting them in the fridge. One was in tupperware, and one was in a purple plastic lunchbox with Barney the Dinosaur on the front. A crucifix hung on the wall. There were no pictures on the walls and nothing on the fridge apart from a memo pad for shopping lists. Through an arch, a living room waited in spotless sterility, its only decoration a well-dusted abstract print, all angles and straight lines. The woman had the radio on as she sat and did a crossword from a newspaper, and every few minutes her eyes would quickly flick to the clock on the wall, though the one partially obscured by the swollen, angry-purple bruise seemed to move a little more slowly than the other. At three minutes to four she got up and switched the radio off, and put the newspaper, crossword unfinished, into a box with the word 'recycling' printed neatly on its lid. Then she sat, waiting, her eyes on the front door at the end of the hallway. She barely seemed to be breathing.
The snake and the client exchanged glances, and the workbook was quietly folded up and put away in the satchel. They waited until two minutes past four, when a silhouette appeared in the frosted glass of the front door, and then took their leave.
They returned to the rock overlooking the valley at twilight. Neither said anything for a while. Then the snake said suddenly, 'Oh, I forgot about the buffet. Hang on a sec.'
'Don't trouble yourself,' came the reply, 'if I really wanted to eat I'd turn these stones into stotties. Somehow I just don't have an appetite today.'
The snake wriggled, uncomfortably. 'Well,' he said hesitantly, 'busy day, eh?'
'Lots to think about, I've no doubt.'
'Well, look, I'll leave you to it. If I could just have the workbook back – thanks – and here's a feedback sheet for you. If you've got any suggestions for improvements to the course, well, have a think, and I'll pick it up when I see you tomorrow.'
'Yeah.' A pause. 'Look, can I get you anything?'
'No, thanks. I think I'll just have a bottle of wine,' he gestured towards the Evian they'd picked up in Paris in '68, 'and a bit of a think. Feels like that kind of a day.'
'Right. Look, I just want you to know, I don't enjoy doing this. It's just part of the job. I'm much more at home with straightforward punishment of sinners, you know? By the time most people get to me, they've made some pretty deliberate choices. The game's already over, and I'm just doing the tidying up. Watching it all happen right in front of you, the way they behave sometimes, how they ignore the consequences of their own actions, or even enjoy it – well, it's not my idea of fun either. I just wanted you to know that.'
'I mean it.'
'Sorry. I know. Thanks. You know, after these forty days are up, I'm not going to have someone I can talk to – properly I mean – for quite some time. The lads'll be great in their way, and Mary M's a sweetheart, but they don't really know what it's like, this life.' He gave a short, bitter laugh. 'And in some ways they're not the most enlightened bunch. You know they're going to cut out all the lectures about abolishing slavery and emancipation of women? I did handouts and everything.'
He faced the snake sitting on the still-warm rock and waved expansively out over the valley behind him, 'You know, in thirteen hundred years my followers will be wracked – and some will be racked – over the question of whether I own these clothes or not! In two thousand, people will be killed over my views on a medical procedure that doesn't even exist at the moment! I will be used to justify the rules of despots and empires, slaughters, genocides and deceit! And for millennia to come the symbol of my words and deeds will be my execution, not a healing hand or a loaf of bread. Makes one wonder sometimes, whether it's all worth it.' The snake looked up, a little startled and a little hopeful. The client noticed and added quickly, 'don't get your hopes up. Don't forget that I am Him as well as His son. The plan is the best of a bad lot. There will also be charity and compassion and the symbol of the fish. If I had my time over again, I think I'd do without the concept of sin, but, see, the world was made a material thing so in the end they can only work with the material they've been given.
'Yes, yes, we let them make their own history, but it's hardly under conditions of their own choosing is it?' he added, rhetorically. The faraway look had started to take hold again and he looked out over the gathering gloom, not seeming to see it. In the valley far below, lamps sputtered into life and stabbed pinpricks out of the darkness, and he gave a start. He shook his head, slowly, and turned back to the snake.
'Well, look, anyway, I just want you to know that I appreciate it. I'll make sure Dad knows, OK?'
'Well, He already does, doesn't He?'
'Of course. But I'll tell Him anyway.'
Hum, thought the snake as he wended his way back up the mountain, the Son also rises, eh?
Behind him, the client sat kicking his legs on the rock, watching the darkness deepen, taking the occasional swig from the bottle and thinking whatever he was thinking.