Joseph of Arimathea knocked on the door. For a moment nothing happened. He knocked again. “Enter!” said the Supreme Being. Joseph did so.
The room was not large, not as large as it could have been. Nor was it small. It was…for the millionth time, Joseph found himself frustrated at being unable to comprehend the concept of relative size in this relatively infinite space in which they existed. He could remember, as if in a dream, that fleeting moment on earth when he had been a builder, when the exactitude down to the fraction of a digitus or pollex was a vital part of his life. Others seemed not to be so afflicted: Abraham, for instance, or Joan of Arc – both could effortlessly say that this was smaller than that and be right. Joseph had lost the knack. It was if an eternity of precision had been used up in 45 short years on Earth…Earth. Yes. This was what he had come about.
The Supreme Being – Gudan as he currently liked to be called – was looking cross and worried. With good reason, Joseph thought.
“Well? What is this tumult outside? What is it?”
“It’s Earth, sir.”
“Earth? Yes, of course it’s Earth. What about it?
Joseph delivered his message. There was a long silence.
“And they’re all…up here?”
“Well, not yet…but it’s not looking good.”
Gudan seemed to be having trouble comprehending this. Joseph continued.
“So it seems. We’re waiting for you, sir.”
Joseph stood aside to let Gudan pass, then followed him out of the room, down a corridor and into the Disciples’ Chamber. This – unlike the halls that (or so Joseph was told by Abraham and Joan of Arc) were “a million times the size and then a million more”, whatever that meant, than those used for the more formal convocations of the Saints, the Deliberations of the Blessed and other bodies whose sessions were, so he had been told, very similar to those of the Chinese Communist Party – was comparatively snug. There was a table with thirteen places and a coffee machine on a unit in the corner. Eleven of the places were occupied. Gudan moved down and took the place at the head of the table. Joseph sat down between Simon Peter and the Abbess of Crewe.
Gudan glanced around the room, though the faces were familiar to him. To his left was Mary; to his right, Jesus. He sometimes felt that having two close relatives at his top table smacked of nepotism and, more faintly, of weakness; but everyone seemed to accept this. If they didn’t then Iscariot, to Mary’s left, would have learned about it. “My most successful double agent,” Gudan referred to him when the supposed traitor was appointed Head of Intelligence: for it should not be supposed that Paradise, or Gudan’s version of it, was harmonious and obedient in all respects. Free will was a hard habit for its residents to shake off.
Next to Iscariot was Samson, who was in charge of security. Unsurprisingly, he was looking twitchy. Not very bright but intensely loyal, Gudan reflected.
Exactly the reverse could, he felt, be said about the Abbess of Crewe, one place beyond Samson. Gudan had at first been worried by having a fictional person amongst his closest advisors: but, as Simon Peter had pointed out, (a) many of them were at least partially fictional in any case and (b) what did it matter now? Gudan had also wondered, but somehow had never dared to enquire, how a fictional person had managed to acquire an immortal soul. Increasingly he suspected many of his subjects had been created by humans rather than by him.
There were a lot of grey areas. Falstaff and Macbeth, for instance, had certainly existed but he could not say for sure which soul he was enveloping with his infinite love: those of the obscure real-life humans or of the grotesque versions of them which had been created by that troublesome Englishman. Othello was another enigma: had he in fact existed at all? Gudan didn’t know. There was, he now realised, much he didn’t know. Omniscience only went so far. He could peer into people’s thoughts and know when a war was going to break out: but up here, when everyone was shed of their corporeal ties, matters were less certain. Was he in fact ruling over, if that was the right phrase, a legion of fictional imposters?
His gaze flicked on to honest Joseph and, beyond him, to solid Simon Peter. SP always insisted on sitting in the most junior place, mainly because he had never got over that evening in the bar in Jerusalem when he had denied Jesus three times. Even though this had been part of the plan, SP abjectly continued to blame himself. This frequently annoyed Gudan to an extent he hoped he was able to conceal. The extra space also gave SP room for the vast numbers of scrolls and ledgers he brought to every meeting. SP was anxiously flicking through them now as if searching for a precedent for the catastrophe they were here to discuss. Gudan quailed slightly at the thought of this, then moved his gaze to the right.
Jesus was, as ever, immaculately dressed: very à la mode, very BCBG. Gudan could, just, indulge this for someone who was an eternal Dauphin or Prince of Wales. He tried to imagine how he would feel about this were their situation to be reversed but, once again, found the required level of empathy impossible. All he saw was a trim, alert thirty-something-year-old carefully checking the messages on his mobile.
Next to his son was Eve who was, as usual, dressed in a way which seemed less than appropriate. Why had he decided to make sure that the first humans were naked? Prurience? Curiosity? It had all gone horribly wrong, as it turned out that there were two others there before them: Satan; and Genesis, the tabloid journalist. It had taken all Gudan’s threats of eternal damnation to get Genesis to write an even half-way acceptable version of the story of the priapic devil and the naked woman romping in the orchard. Even now it pained Gudan to think that his first dabbling with humans had resulted in such a staggering misjudgement. They were a tricky and contrary lot, as his son had discovered. Certainly with regard to Satan, he felt he’d been on the back foot ever since. The least he could do was invite Eve into his inner sanctum, not that she ever contributed much.
To the right of her was Moses, who could always be relied on to contribute plenty. The business with the tablets of stone had given him a sense of overwhelming self-importance that not even forty years wandering in the desert had undermined. Suffering, Gudan had always tried to explain, was the purest form of love. It seemed Moses had learned this lesson all too well and remained passionately, and times almost irritatingly, devoted. He also had all the facts at his fingertips and often spent an age in articulating them.
Next to him was Pope Joan: like the Abbess, another fictional, or quasi-fictional, character but one whose clarity of thought and crispness of expression, again like the Abbess, often spoke to Gudan more clearly than the mutterings and mumblings of his patriarchs. He allowed himself only a second – a fraction of a moment of infinity – to reflect on the fact that the two people whose opinions were most incisive were female and fictional before flicking his all-seeing gaze at the last two members of his inner circle.
To the right of Pope Joan was Otto von Bismarck. Gudan had been impressed with his conduct on earth and marked him down as someone who could get things done. Anyone who could unify Germany was, Gudan reasoned, a person to reckoned with. So far, he had not been disappointed. He had certainly kept Satan in check since he’d arrived: until now, perhaps.
Finally there was Mother Theresa. It had been a toss-up between her and Princess Di, both of whom had arrived at about the same time and between them sparked an uprising of emotion that even Iscariot’s cunning and Samson’s ruthlessness had barely been able to supress. It had been clear that one or other would need to be accepted into the inner circle to quell the wailing and unrest. Francis of Assisi had sportingly said he would step down as he wished to spend more time with his aviary. Gudan had been left with the choice and decided on Theresa. This was mainly because he suspected Di knew the journalist Genesis and he could do without every deliberation being leaked: also because Theresa had believed in him during her life, which seemed worth rewarding.
All these reflections passed through Gudan’s relatively omniscient soul in a period of time so short that it could not be measured. He had, in any case, had had a relatively infinite number of opportunities to observe most of them before. The rest were relative newcomers, appointed as a result of the diversification crisis.
“So,’ Gudan said, “what exactly has happened?”
“An asteroid about 400 kilometres wide crashed into the Pacific about thirty minutes ago,” Joseph said as if reading from a script, which he was.
“Didn’t they see it coming? Haven’t they got telescopes?”
“It seems not. There was no particular distress.” ‘Distress’ was something that could be felt in Paradise whenever the population was particularly exercised about something such as a global pandemic, a major war or the immediate aftermath of a World Cup final.
“So how many are…up here?” Gudan went on.
“About half,” Jesus said.
“Plus the three, who were on the International Space Station,” Joseph of Arimathea corrected him. Jesus shrugged. “But we’re…well, not hopeful about them. Not that…” Joseph wondered now why he had mentioned this. His search for precision, in this place of billions, still tormented him. He had tried to introduce a census some time ago but no one had cared. Exactitude – still he craved it; increasingly it eluded him. Joseph, perhaps more keenly than any of them, felt the souls now swarming around the gates, uncounted proof that something more terrible had happened than any of the assembled group had yet understood.
Gudan, indeed all of them, fed on the emotions that arose from the inhabitants’ curiosity about the existence of an afterlife and what form this might take. For billions of years, Paradise had been a cold and lonely place, inhabited by Gudan and a few others who had little to do except prosecute their pointless wrangle with Satan.
The genetic accident that enabled humans to achieve sentience was a game-changer. The resulting aspirations towards eternity gave Gudan a purpose which he had immediately exploited. He soon realised that certainty was the enemy of emotional energy. It was the not-knowing that kept the pot boiling. This was supported by what Gudan still rated as his finest idea, the concept of faith. If the existence and nature of the afterlife had been an established fact, it would have created no more emotional reaction than would a train timetable. Neurotic thoughts might then have drifted toward some other mystery which, being more immediate and terrestrial, Paradise would have received little benefit from.
It was decided that, for this reason, direct manifestations were to be kept to a minimum. There had been long and acrimonious debates about the wisdom of Jesus – who, Gudan realised, was not wrought quite as much in his own image as Gudan would have liked – being made flesh and going down to stir things up when it looked as if Hellenic-Roman pantheism was getting too strong a grip.
The mission had achieved its ends. His son had proved adept at making remarks which, on later examination, were shown to be in direct contradiction to each other. This was vital to prolong terrestrial debate. He was also careful to provide subtly different information to his four biographers and eleven disciples: the twelfth, Iscariot, was the only one in on the business from the beginning and had an essential role to play at the denouement.
Gudan recognised the success of his son’s adventure and was also aware that this had created a duality of views about his nature. Previously, he had been a wintery hardliner; just but not merciful; avenging rather than forgiving. Jesus had portrayed a meeker, more accommodating face that also offered pragmatic observations about life as it was lived in the world, rather than handing down invariable precepts and then sweeping off in a roll of thunder. This was good in that his son’s activities had been responsible for the fissures such as Islam and the Reformation. These had done so much to increase the spiritual and emotional neurosis on earth and thus the amount of warmth, comfort and, frankly, purpose which Gudan and the rest received.
As regards the day-to-day life in Paradise, however, Gudan was less happy. Jesus had, perhaps without meaning to be, become a second centre of authority. Some seemed happier receiving orders from him rather than from Gudan. There was the slight appearance of two camps. This was reflected in the current membership of the Inner Council, with the five non-family members being drawn from what even Gudan sometimes referred to as ‘the old days’ and five from those of Christian vintage. It was also impossible to ignore the fact that the religion was named not after him, but his son.
These reflections were a waste of time. Gudan rapped on the table to call the meeting to order, even though no one was talking. Immediately several people began doing so.
After a while, he put his hand up. Moses, as ever spluttered on for some moments. “Diversification…” was his last word before silence descended again.
Jesus took up the cue. “Yes,” shooting his cuffs. “We’ve been into that before. Water under the bridge.” He was careful not to look at Gudan, who was careful not to look at anyone.
This was Gudan’s biggest single error: proof, if proof be needed, that infallibility was not given even to the great. It had provoked several resignations, including Martin Luther, Henry VII and Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as the sacking of HP Lovecraft. On a personal level, Gudan had had no regrets. They had been a miserable bunch, though he was more than once reminded by his son that the Disciples did not exist as an adjunct of Gudan’s social life. As he grudgingly admitted at the time, their point had some merit. It was now clear they had been right.
The issue was one of striking simplicity. Most deities – whose number was legion – had numerous planets from which they and the souls in their care derived their sustenance. Prayer was one form of this, though not always the best. Any form of intense emotional activity, good or bad, would generate the spiritual energy on which each community thrived. It was human hopes and fears that brought Paradise to life, rather than the other way round.
Some deities had over two hundred planets. His ever-energetic son had visited some of these other paradises and reported back on the diversity of the spiritual offerings provided by an assortment of worlds with varying kinds of dominant and sentient life. In one case, this was creatures with legs and arms who breathed gasses of various sorts; in another, a hyper-intelligent kind of enormous dolphin; in a third, highly socialised termites living in pressurised methane lakes a few degrees above absolute zero. Jesus had referred to several extinction events which, with a large number of planets, were of little consequence to the diet of adoration: for those with only one, however…for greater emphasis, the young man – Gudan was incapable of thinking of Jesus in any other way – would leave this point hanging.
The matter had been debated many times. The problem was that diversification needed time and investment. It also required wheeling and dealing with other deities to acquire or swap planets like some cosmic game of Risk, or else expending even more energy in appropriating hitherto un-deified planets where sentient life had recently emerged or been identified.
Gudan, who was lazy, had missed several opportunities. The moment had now all but passed. Like Africa in the 1850s, most of the best bits had been snapped up by the energetic colonialists, leaving the latecomers to fight over scraps. Each new opportunity presented itself increasingly infrequently, required more work and offered fewer returns. Eventually, a weary fatalism settled on the Disciples. Most accepted that the situation was beyond redemption.
There was another reason, aside from laziness, why Gudan was also unwilling to absent himself. Travel, for a deity, was not a problem as regarded distance: time was another matter. Even a short trip might provide both the reason and the opportunity for a coup d’état. In this matter, Jesus was obviously the main focus of his concern.
Gudan was a one-planet god: that was just the way it was. He was sure there must be others but had never met any of them. That was another thing Jesus had often banged on about: networking. Opportunities had been suggested but each presented, or so Gudan had argued, insuperable obstacles. As he had no planets to swap, he would have to make the advances. Even Jesus’ salesmanship could rarely convince him of a favourable reception nor what his angle in any discussion might be.
The one exception had involved a deity called Kaddesh who had needed help with physical manifestations similar to those Jesus had performed on Earth. He had indicated he was prepared to offer a planet in return. Jesus and his team had put together an impressive presentation and Kaddesh was sold.
Then, at the last minute, Gudan had vetoed the plan. Things were, Gudan judged, shaky on Earth and he had argued – though had not fully believed – that a brief and ambiguous second coming might be the answer. He had dangled this possibility before his son for long enough for Kaddesh to go cold. His real reason had been a fear that Jesus would, in the time-honoured fashion of sons everywhere, use the opportunity to build up an alternative power base and mount a hostile takeover.
In his more honest moments, Gudan admitted this had been an oversight. His relations with his son had never fully recovered. Ever since he had sensed a reserve on the part of the young man, a suspicion that he often said less than he truly knew or felt about any situation and that their interests or goals were not always aligned. Increasingly Gudan found himself wondering if he had by thwarting the Kaddesh deal in fact created the very situation he was trying to avoid.
Gudan was thus a frightened and indolent deity trapped in a prison of his own devising. Now, the day of reckoning had arrived.
“As Jesus has observed,” he said crisply, “we have been over this before. We are where we are. Otto – you views?”
Von Bismarck blinked a couple of times. “We at a critical point have arrived at, majesty. Over half the souls currently awaiting clearance. As for the rest, a good deal of – upheaval.”
Gudan inhaled. Yes, he could sense it. Young love, power frenzy, creative delight, spiritual anguish, theological debate – all of these could feed Paradise. Nothing, however, was as potent as immediate, naked fear. Of that there was, at present, a lot: a huge rush of a drug that might not be available again.
“The problem,” said Joseph, as if reading Gudan’s thoughts, “is that this is very short-term.” He glanced round the room. Gudan noticed the hyper-bright expressions on everyone’s faces. Joseph gestured towards the curtained windows. Beyond them, as everyone knew, was chaos.
“So, Gudan said, “what’s the situation?”
There was a pause. Eventually Simon Peter cleared his throat. “It’s a question of processing.”
“Yes, yes,” Gudan said impatiently.
“This normally takes,” Simon Peter ploughed on, “about 300 earth years. Of course, in exceptional cases…”
He began a recitation of statistics which he delighted in compiling and which, until now, he had never had the opportunity to offer to a captive audience. Joseph gave him a nudge, just as Gudan raised his hand.
“Yes, quite. Look – how many processors do we have?”
“Sixty thousand. Each processing takes, obviously, about a lifetime to complete and normally…well, people don’t mind waiting.”
“Well…no. In the circumstances.”
“Well – eternity and so forth.”
“Oh, I see,” Gudan said. He had never taken much interest in the details. “Because they know they won’t have long to wait and in any case because…”
“Because time doesn’t matter anymore,” put in the Abbess of Crewe.
“Quite, yes,” Gudan said, beaming down the table.
“But,” she went on relentlessly, “until they’re processed, it does matter. It’s because they are still informed by the idea of time it was decided to have so many processors. The logic was that, pre-processing, they would see themselves as being in queue and react accordingly.” She turned to Simon Peter. “What is the normal number of arrivals each day?”
Gudan felt he was losing control of the meeting but said nothing.
“The average…oh the average – well, the peacetime average is currently around one hundred and fifty five thousand each day.” SP shuffled his papers. “to be precise, one hundred and…”
“Good enough,” said the Abbess. “A queue of a hundred and fifty thousand people looks daunting if you’ve not been acclimatised to eternity. It was felt this might cause…”negative energy” I believe the phrase was.”
Gudan nodded. Processing had been another of his ideas – a good one, he had felt. All humans, after their death, had a wealth of residual emotions which could be extracted to power the furnaces of Paradise. Nothing provided as much spiritual anguish as a thorough and pitiless examination of every aspect of a life. It was also recognised that any residual human emotions needed to be stripped away were Paradise to continue to be the peaceful, if bland, place that it was. Processing, by trained inquisitors, was therefore vital both to feed Paradise and preserve its sanity. The question was how long the deceased would be made to wait.
Simon Peter had given the clue to this, describing the time he had spent before his interrogation after Gethsemane as “the worst three hours of his life.” As his interrogation itself had lasted one hour, and as three seemed to be a propitious number, it had been decided three lifetimes was a suitable time for people to wait. Experiments had supported this. Anything less, the emotional input was diminished; anything more, the post-human but pre-processing impatience produced negative energy and disruptive emotions requiring, as Samson had menacingly explained, “tough measures.”
Gudan didn’t want to know the details of these “tough measures”. It seemed easier to hit upon about sixty thousand processors who were able to do the work of processing about one hundred and fifty thousand people who arrived each day. So matters had been arranged and so they had remained, adjusted for population increase.
“How many people do we have for processing at present?” Gudan asked.
Simon Peter mumbled something.
“About four billion,” the voice of Moses thundered from across the table.
Gudan picked up his fountain pen and put it down again, this time at an exact right angle to the edge of the table. “And how many years’ processing is that? Not three hundred, I imagine?”
As he expected, Jesus was first with the answer, his fingers flying across his smartphone before Moses, Simon Peter or von Bismarck had managed to pick up their pens.
“Sixty-six thousand six hundred and sixty six years.”
Gudan frowned. “Not a very auspicious number.”
There was a silence. From behind the thick curtains the sound of wailing was becoming louder.
“Do we feel,” Gudan said, addressing a familiar theme which had sustained him through numerous difficulties, “that we detect a familiar hand here?”
Gudan had not been slow to realise the power of an adversary. Every setback could be laid at the door of this jumped-up sprite who was, if only Gudan had seen it, of less threat to Paradise than the consequences of Gudan’s own inadequacies. Introducing him to humans as a creature of equivalent worth to himself had been a calculated gamble but one which had paid dividends in terms of the fear, and thus the emotional energy, which this had created.
With each hot rush derived from this, however, Gudan had become more and more convinced of Satan’s power. It became hard to separate the monster he had created from the one he believed existed. His tendency to blame Satan for misfortunes had not helped. Did this catastrophe have a Satanic cause or was it an act of chance? Gudan’s instinctive suspicion that it was the former showed how far he had become lulled into believing in an implacable and powerful enemy. This in turn gave him an empathy with the billions now beating their heads outside his gates, many of whom saw just this power at work in their premature change of status. Gudan had the awful, vertiginous, feeling that he had created a situation that he was now unable to manage. Instinctively, he shot a glance to his right.
“If I could make a suggestion…” Jesus said.
“Please,” Gudan said.
“We need to reduce the processing time by a factor of about fifty. A year or so. If people see that they’re moving forward they get less twitchy, right?” Moses, who had spent a fair bit of his time on earth hanging around, nodded. “Deal with any problems as they crop up.”
At the mention of “problems” everyone looked first at Samson and then at Iscariot. Their combination of brawn and guile had solved every problem that Paradise had so far encountered. Whether they would be up to this one was another matter.
“I think…” Iscariot began: but at that moment, there was a huge surge that washed through them all: a crazy high of warmth and elation followed by a gathering of the clouds and a vision of growing darkness.
“That’s that,” Pope Joan said. Her voice seemed to Gudan to be coming from under the floor.
No one tried to question this. They had all felt the results. From outside, the wailing had doubled in volume. Inside the room, no one could bring themselves to speak.
Jesus glanced down at his phone and read a message which had just appeared. He typed a quick reply. A few moments later he gave a grim smile, put the device in his pocket and stood up. As he did so, von Bismarck, the Abbess and Pope Joan got to their feet as well. There was a surprised pause. Then, looking slightly shamefaced, Iscariot stood up too.
“Well?” Gudan said.
“That’s it,” his son replied. “We’re finished. There’s nothing left.” He looked round the room and read in the haggard faces of the seven people still seated the confirmation of his remark. The temperature had already dropped. Everyone felt themselves starting to slow down and grow dimmer, like stars which were just slowly burning out their reserves: no longer raging but now going gentle into the good night.
“Where are you going?” Simon Peter asked.
For the first time, Jesus looked shame-faced. “A better offer,” he said at last. “They wanted the…well, the top team as well,” he added, indicating the other four. “No offence.”
“Kaddesh.” There was a pause. With a sinking heart, Gudan remembered the name. “I suggested you meet him…several times. There was always some reason why it couldn’t happen,” he added dryly. “He has over thirty planets, more than he’s been able to service. He needed to organise…manifestations to get attention. He liked what I’d done on earth…”
Gudan opened his mouth to suggest that “what we’d done,” would be fairer but the young man had beaten him to the correction.
“What we’d done,” Jesus said.
Gudan was shocked to see that Jesus was including not him but Iscariot.
“In exchange,” Jesus went on, “you’ll recall he promised us a world – young, sentient and almost un-deified. The best deal we were ever going to get. I think you thought that…what was it…” Jesus could clearly remember perfectly well but was milking the moment. “Oh yes – that you didn’t want me to be away for so long.”
“The Fourth Crusade…” Gudan muttered.
“I know. We went over it. It seemed like a disaster at a time. Excommunicated armies, sacked cities, broken promises – negative energy everywhere. But it worked out. You just had to keep Innocent III in the Vatican for another ten years or so – you took my advice about that – and everything was fine. It’s what I always said,” Jesus went on, now less in valedictory mode than rehearsing his keynote address at the board he was about to join, “we can deal with anything except indifference. There was a lot of that in 1204, but it passed. People didn’t know any better. They’ve got cleverer now, sure – but there are a lot more of them and they’re at each other’s throats half the time, fighting over resources, beliefs, tiny differences in ideas.”
Gudan was forced to acknowledge the truth of these remarks. As the population had sundered into distinct groups, Gudan was at first all for using these differences as a basis for encouraging the strife on which the emotional energy depended. Jesus had pushed the other way: the more people had in common, he argued, the more they could find to disagree about. Events had proved him right. Minute doctrinal divisions, often resulting from no more than a mis-translation of one line of a text, had produced conflicts that had raged amongst neighbouring and intermingled cultures for centuries.
“Why do you think,” his son continued, now warming to his task, “I made all those ridiculously contradictory remarks? You have to keep the theology inaccessible. That lot have supple brains – nothing to do with us, just the way things worked out. Give them a paradox and they’ll turn it into schism, then each one of those will split and you’ll have fifty denominations, each claiming they’re the righteous ones and raining hell-fire on the rest. That’s all we needed to do.”
At this point, he seemed to struck by a genuine sense of sorrow.
“Fifty years of mostly misery in exchange for eternity in Paradise – they just had to worry and bicker so as to feed us, and reproduce, to create to keep the whole thing going. Granted, it’s not the most exciting paradise I’ve been to but at least it’s safe and warm. At least,” he added after a short pause, “it was…”
“So you’re upping and leaving, you…traitors,” Simon Peter said, pulling himself to his feet. Moses did likewise. The others seemed undecided whether to make a stand or, if they did, what form this would take. Gudan gave them no lead but shot Jesus a glance that would have frozen hydrogen.
“Look,” Jesus said in a more conciliatory tone. “I’ve got to go for this. What are we going to do otherwise, now ? We don’t know what’s going to happen. I suspect we’ll just run out of fuel. If we go to Kaddesh and do what he’s asked we’ll see about re-locating.”
“Starting,” Iscariot put in, “with the ones that haven’t been fully processed. Still energy there to be tapped.”
Von Bismarck nodded. “More energy Kaddesh to warm his Paradise now needs,” he explained lugubriously.
“That’s it,” Jesus said. “Or maybe pick up one of his planets. It’s not a great time to do a deal but what option do we have?” He gave a glance to each of his accomplices. All nodded but in a way that suggested they had been taken by surprise. This condition of their departure, which they hadn’t discussed – for the offer had been made some time before the asteroid disaster – was a piece of improvisation. It needn’t come to anything, of course. As Jesus himself had pointed out, it was always useful not to be too specific.
“I’ll text you,” Jesus said to Gudan. “Keep it going ‘til I get in touch.” Then, with a nod at his divine father and his corporeal mother – who, perhaps sensing what was about to happen, had throughout the meeting remained as blandly and tragically trance-like as she had so often been portrayed in Renaissance paintings – he and his accomplices were gone.
Before any of the remaining Disciples had had a chance to speak, Gudan reached for his pen and scribbled some names on a sheet of paper. He tore it off and gave it to Joseph of Arimathea. “Summon these to join our council,” he said in his most official tone.
Joseph scanned the names, his eyes widening. “’Mohammed, David Ben-Gurion, the Dalai Lama…Richard Dawkins’ – are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” Gudan said.
“Dawkins isn’t…that’s to say, he hasn’t been processed yet.”
“All the better. Show us what we’re dealing with.” There was a collective sigh of doubt around the remains of the meeting which Gudan realised he had to deal with now or never at all.
“Look,” he said, bringing his fist down on the table, “we’re in extremis, as my dear son has pointed out. We’ve got nine billion applicants and have to keep the lid on this til he can sort this out.” He briefly considered whether he should claim pre-knowledge of, or even complicity in, this filial betrayal. Better not, he thought. As his son had said, keep it ambiguous. He smiled to himself. Finally, he was starting to get it.
“We need to get everyone onside. So – we go ecumenical, big time.” There were groans from Moses, Simon Peter and Mother T. Joseph, as ever the perfect diplomat, made no commitment . Nor did Eve who, understandably, had never fully grasped the concept of human diversity. To his left, Mary seemed even more locked in her private sorrow. Fair enough, Gudan reflected : she’d just seen her only son walk out without so much as giving her a peck on the cheek. One had to make allowances.
Gudan turned to the groaners. “Any other suggestions? Good,” he added after the briefest of pauses. “Joseph, please see to it. Have them here immediately and we’ll get to work so we can keep this show on the road.” From beyond the windows, the sound of lamentation – now mixed with anger – was getting louder. “We’ve no time to waste.”
“There’s one name I can’t read,” Joseph said, “the last one. Derek Caneroom, is it?”
“David Cameron,” Gudan explained.
“The hapless former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,” Gudan explained.
“Jesus,” Simon Peter exclaimed, glad that for the first time in two thousand years he could take the name in vain without getting a cold look followed by an even colder text. “What do we want him here for?”
“Because,” Gudan said, “I need someone who has failed. I need a loser.” He might also have added that he needed a smoothie-chops who reminded him of his son but carried none of his son’s threat. “I need someone to remind us all that, even when things seem impossible we can triumph, just as he failed when failure seemed impossible. I need someone who is full of glib phrases that sound well but mean nothing. We’re going to be needing a lot of those. Do you remember the “big society”?”
No one did.
“So few do. But he believed in it, for a while. It’s time may have come. That’s what we need here – a bit of the “all for one and one for all” mentality.”
“Communism?” Mother Theresa asked in alarm.
“No, no,” Gudan reassured her, “just a form of words.”
He glanced round the table, satisfied that he had, for now, quelled any flicker of rebellion.
“Ecumenical,” he repeated. “Inclusive. Global.” He intoned these last three words with carefully judged pauses, emphasising both their connection and their capital letters. “For we must not forget,” he concluded, putting his fountain pen in his pocket and standing up, “that we’re all in this together.”