The Easter Story by Salley Vickers
‘I have to go,’ Cherry Stilson said to her husband. She was struggling to get her boots on. ‘Could you start the car for me, love? The windscreen’s frozen over.’
March was making a climate change point and having come in like a lamb was going out like a lion.
‘More like a polar bear!’ Millie, the Stilsons elder child, had said when her mother had quoted the age-old saying. Mille had left already for the school bus, well kitted out in bobble hat, fake fur fleece and knitted leggings. Thomas, her younger brother, was lying on the hall floor still in his Starwars pyjamas.
‘Tom, darling,’ his mother said now, conscious of a foolish note of pleading in her tone. ‘Hurry up and get dressed or you’ll be late for school.’
Thomas looked at her with eyes that the uninitiated likened to an angel’s, though if they resembled those of any angel it was the forbidding cherubim with the flaming swords who reputedly guard the gates of Paradise. ‘I am not going to school, actually,’ he announced calmly.
‘Of course you are, ‘said his mother. ‘Anyway, I have to go. Daddy will help you get dressed.’ She hurried past her husband out to the Peugeot, its windscreen clear of frost.
Mark Stilson turned and shouted as she backed the car out of the drive, ‘Oh great, thanks a million!’
‘Why are you thanking, Mummy?’ Thomas asked.
‘It’s called irony,’ Mark said. He worked from home and consequently saw more of Thomas. Unlike his wife, he had abandoned any attempt to speak to his son as if he were a child. Thomas, in Mark’s view, had been born with the brain of an adult and a highly successful one at that. He had the successful adult’s facility of not caring whether or not he pleased. It was not that he preferred not to please. Simply that it appeared to be neither here nor there to him whether or not he did.
‘I don’t think that’s irony,’ Thomas said. ‘I think it’s being rude.’
‘Listen,’ said his father. ‘if you hurry and get dressed now we’ll have time to go past Mrs Grierson’s goat’.
Thomas, who had professed unceasing love for this animal, turned fickle. ‘I don’t want to see her today. I saw her yesterday. Anyway, I’m not going to school.’
‘Yes, you are’, said his father. His voice lacked conviction.
‘No I’m not. I’m not going to school until Easter is over. I don’t like Easter. It’s not fair.’ Thomas got up from the floor and proceeded up the stairs. His father looked after him shaking his head. Then, conscious that there was no audience for this piece of pantomime, he followed his son upstairs.
‘It was the same last year,’ he said that evening to his wife, adding that Thomas had spent the day in his bedroom constructing an atom smasher.
‘What’s that?’ Cherry asked.
‘It’s what they have at Cerne. I asked him how it worked and he said it was too complicated for me to understand.’
‘For God’s sake, let’s have a drink,’ Cherry said.
‘We’ve only got red.’
‘What do you mean it was the same last year?’
‘The Easter show, don’t you remember? We had to send a fake sickie.’
‘Oh God, I’d totally repressed it.’
The previous Easter Thomas had returned home with a note requesting that on the coming Friday he bring a yellow t-shirt, or something yellow, to school for his performance as an Easter chick. Thomas, it was agreed by his parents, could not have read the note as it was found intact in his school bag.
‘I’m not wearing that,’ he had said when on the appointed morning he was offered his mother’s yellow t-shirt.
‘You haven’t got anything yellow, darling. And look, this is very small. Daddy shrunk it.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Mark. ‘You’ve put on weight.’
‘I haven’t, only a couple of pounds.’
‘I’m not wearing anything yellow,’ Thomas announced. ‘I am not going to be a chick. Are there any Jaffa cakes?’
‘No there are not,’ his father started just as his mother began to say, ‘Not so soon after breakfast, darling.’ Both parents stopped short and glared at each other.
Thomas began a slow climb upstairs. ‘I am not going to be part of the Easter show.’ He spoke patiently, as if to two much younger children. ‘Children aren’t chickens. They are boys and girls with arms and legs. Not wings ,’ he explained. ‘Or beaks.’
‘It’ll be fun,’ his mother had called after him. But even as she uttered the words she heard in them the note of failure.
She recalled this defeat now as she swilled wine round her glass. ‘They say red wine’s got Resveratrol in it.’
‘What the hell is Resveratrol?’
‘It’s supposed to be anti-aging. God knows I shall need it if Thomas is going to go on like this.’
‘It’s likely to get worse. This year they’re doing The Easter story.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘It’s the whole shebang, leading up to the crucifixion.’
‘A bit of leap from chicks and Easter eggs.’
‘It’s this new head master. He’s mad keen on them getting to know about Jesus. I told you this would happen if we sent them to a church school.’
The Stilsons, like many ambitious parents, had elected to send their children to St Katherine’s, the Church of England Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ primary school, which was the feed to St Stephen’s the, even more ‘outstanding’, Church of England comprehensive, an establishment much sought after because of its unusually high Oxbridge results. Millie had advanced painlessly through St Kats, taking active parts in the school assemblies and even reading a lesson at the end-of-year service, before moving to the comprehensive. The Stilson parents, who were staunchly atheist – though Cherry veered somewhat towards Buddhism, which, after all, didn’t hold with God – had swallowed their principles for the higher cause of their children’s education. And since the arrival of the new and zealous headmaster at St Katherine’s, they had even begun to attend church, to avoid arousing any suspicion of a lack of commitment. A neighbour’s child’s future at St Stephen’s had been put in jeopardy by his parents’ desultory church attendance. It was rumoured that the father been summoned to the school and quizzed by the new head on the doctrine of atonement.
But so far, unless you counted the lengthy assemblies, the religious material had seemed blessedly thin. True, Baby Jesus was evoked at Christmas, as were the Virgin Mary, the Angel Gabriel, the heavenly choirs and the faithful shepherds but these had a wide popular following, and indeed commercial, sanction. The Crucifixion was another matter.
‘It’s that new head,’ Mark said again.
‘You’ve already said that.’
‘Well, it is. This is what happens when you forget your principles.’
Mark and Cherry had met at a peace rally as students. Over time, a lofty ethical position had somewhat abated and other, more self-regarding, goals had insinuated their world view.
‘Has Tom said what he’s supposed to be?’
‘Apparently a Roman soldier. He has to stand by while Jesus is talking to Pontius Pilate and then he has to drag Jesus off.’
‘To be killed?’
‘I s’pose. That’s how the story goes, isn’t it?’
‘That’s appalling. I mean for God’s sake they’re only seven, eight at most. We should complain.’
‘But we can’t, can we? I mean the Crucifixion is kind of the whole point of the thing, isn’t it? It’s like saying we don’t believe. And…’ No need to spell out the consequences of a fall from grace in the eyes of the St Katherine’s head.
‘So what are we going to do?’ his wife asked. ‘We can’t make him. And it’s going to look odd if he’s ill again at Easter. Is there any more wine?’
‘It’s finished. D’you want mineral water?’
‘Only if you can work a miracle,’ Cherry said glumly.
Nothing was said about The Easter Story the following morning and to the Stilsons surprise Thomas offered no objections to going to school. He chatted to his father on the way, in the slightly patronising tone that he adopted when conversing with his parents, but Mark was so relieved to have him out of the house that he accepted the role of inferior ungrudgingly.
‘How did it go?’ Cherry asked that evening. Thomas was upstairs in the bath where he was testing out the latest model of his nuclear submarine.
‘He seemed fine,’ Mark said. ‘Quite chirpy, in fact.’
‘I wonder what changed his mind.’
‘Don’t ask,’ Mark pleaded. ‘You know what your mother says? “Let sleeping dogs lie”.
Mark appeared a little later, already in his pyjamas and with damp hair.
‘Darling,’ said his mother, surprise mingling with delight. ‘That’s wonderful.’ Hair washing was usually another ordeal.
‘I need to look OK for the play,’ Thomas said. ‘By the way there’s a note for you.’ He went to fetch his school bag. ‘Here.’
Cherry read, ‘”Please send an old sheet and a pair of sandals with Thomas to school on Friday”. What’s this for?’
‘For me in the play,’ Thomas, said briefly. ‘Are you coming?’ He looked at her pointedly.
‘Yes, yes of course. I’ll take the afternoon off. I’d love to see you in the play.’
Mark was waiting for Cherry when she arrived at the school.
‘I’m not late, am I? I got clobbered on my way out.’
‘It’s still only Reception, I think.’
They stole into the school hall, where two Easter bunnies were whispering a song. When it finished, they hopped jerkily off to enthusiastic applause.
They were followed by Year One (Easter hares delivering Easter eggs) and Year Two, (lambs cavorting amid dancing spring flowers).
Mark nudged his wife as a small red-headed boy with glasses solemnly announced ‘Now our class is going to tell the Easter Story.’
‘That’s Rufus, Tom’s best friend.’
‘He looks sweet.’
‘He’s a monster.’
The opening scene had Jesus arrive on a shakily-constructed cardboard donkey, followed by a scene of what looked like a picnic with some bread rolls.
‘What are they doing?’ Mark whispered.
‘I think it must be the Last Supper. Yes, look, Ribena for wine.’
The boy chosen for Jesus was tall and dark. He plainly knew he was handsome and smiled rather smugly showing off very white teeth and occasionally waved his hand, presumably in blessing. Soon he was captured by some guards dressed in tunics and plastic helmets.
‘Where’s Thomas?’ Cherry whispered.
Mark was about to answer when their son, draped in white, strode centre stage.
‘That’s our new duvet cover,’ Cherry said.
‘Shhh,’ said Mark. ‘He’s going to speak.’
‘Are you Jesus of Nazareth?’ Thomas asked. He spoke in a firm, commanding voice.
‘Yeah,’ agreed the tall youth, rocking on his bare heels and grinning.
Thomas frowned menacingly. ‘Are you extremely extremely good?’ he enquired.
The tall youth remained silent, though it was unclear whether or not this was scripted.
There was a dramatic pause while Thomas appeared to be weighing words.
‘In that case,’ he finally pronounced, ‘I pardon you. You are free to do what ever you like. Have some wine.’
From under the white toga he produced a plastic cup of Ribena.
‘My duvet cover!’ Cherry exclaimed.
Jesus, receiving the cup, took a tentative sip then waved it cheerily at Thomas, who nodded in approbation.
‘Cheers, mate,’ Thomas said.
There was a silence in the hall followed by a few titters. Gradually, the titters grew and soon bellowing laughter filled the hall. The frantic apologies of the headmaster were inaudible in the hubbub. It was generally agreed by all who spoke aferwards to the Stilsons that Thomas’s Pontius Pilate had greatly improved the Easter Story.