Read by Nicky Diss
When my sister Sonia called round unexpectedly at 2pm, I was still wearing my Bayeux Tapestry bathrobe. While I was explaining to her the origin of its name – that is, each stain or object recounted an episode in the last few months: the gravy blob from a TV dinner, for instance, or the encrusted cornflake from a late-night snack – she interrupted me. When was the last time I’d had a conversation with anyone? she asked. I had to think about that. Did the bin men count? I said.
My guess is, it was this encounter that prompted her to send me the book that arrived a few days later. Seeking Enlightenment, Finding Jesus, was its title. Sonia thinks that Jesus can solve anything, even gravy blobs and encrusted cornflakes. I have nothing against Jesus; in fact, in my youth, before I got distracted by field sports and boys, he and I were on fairly intimate terms. It was just that now I was officially an adult, we had drifted some distance apart.
But then strange things began to happen. The washing machine, for one. It started to whoosh like a desert storm, and then whee like a cry for help in the wilderness, and I could see it was trying to tell me something. And then my TV, phone, and digital clock all began to show only identically paired numbers, like “18:18”, or even palindrome numbers, like “21:12”. I tried to catch the numbers out by peering sideways at my digital screens at odd moments, but they always won by appearing deceptively normal until another significant number poked through. I didn’t know if Jesus was trying to contact me, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I covered all my electronic items with tea towels, and then hid for two days under the blankets.
It was on the third day that Jesus appeared to me. By chance that morning, I’d adjusted the dial on my toaster, and lo and behold, there it was on my slice of toast, the unmistakable profile of the Galilean, outlined in chestnut-coloured crumbs, complete with beard and fingertips raised in prayer. Feverishly, I dressed and headed into town, certain only that I had to do something about the powerful fluttering in my chest that was like a bird struggling to be set free.
It was at a stall on the high street that I saw him. Tall, spectrally thin in a long, white robe, and with the kindest brown eyes I had ever seen. In front of him on a fold-up table were sky-blue leaflets, which spoke promisingly to the bird trapped within me. I can barely recall our conversation now, suffused as it was in a soft, warm glow. All that remains is a series of mental snapshots: the honey of his voice, the delicacy of his fingers as he handed me a pen to sign up for a “taster weekend” in Shropshire; rolling hills, glassy lakes. everything provided. And a digital detox, so no phones or tablets. As I shut my front door with a definitive click, my final look at these last-mentioned items, still shrouded in their stripy tea towels, wasn’t even wistful.
Shropshire turned out to be one of the rainier counties. When it rains, like now, the view outside the kitchen window is a whitewash: the edges of the sheep blend into the edges of the hedgerows, which in turn fuse with the fuzzy mass of the high brick inner wall and the steel gate beyond. Sometimes I joke to myself that if Jesus tried to reveal himself now, he would disappear amidst all that blurriness. The reason I joke to myself is that the other sister-wives don’t have much of a sense of humour, particularly Josie, the newest and youngest, who earnestly explains everything to me with a Bible verse. This morning she quoted Matthew, saying that ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’, and I briefly pictured tugging hard on one of her silly Midwestern pigtails, but instead I smiled sweetly and asked her if she wanted more toast.
The mention of an extra slice turned out to be a mistake, as Dorothy, the most motherly, loves my “Galilean on toast” story and gets me to repeat it at the slightest excuse. Josie, of course, wanted to hear it, and when I got to the beard part, she coloured a little. The other wives and I turned away decorously; we knew from the sounds emanating from Jezza’s room last night that Josie, too, had now experienced the delights of our husband’s full and bushy beard that he uses to titillate the pink buds of each of his nubile initiates.
Today, Jezza is in town with practically-minded Maureen, who has been enlisted to buy the monthly products that we sister-wives require. All of us, apart from Josie who is still too new, have synchronised: another reason, I suppose, for Jezza’s need to continually supply himself with a fresh crop of female recruits. At least when he’s away, the left-behind wives seem to yield a little; not making such a show, for instance, of standing on chairs to dust in the hard-to-reach corners.
Today is also the day I have allocated for the preparation of my plan. After Josie has finished clapping her little hands at my toast story, I casually ask Dorothy if there are any binoculars in the house. I have spied a birdwatching guide on the living room shelf, I explain, and am keen to indulge my former hobby. At first Dorothy hesitates, knowing she should ask Jezza’s permission first, but then when I flatter her by saying she of all people knows every inch of our godly abode, she relents and says there is a pair in the attic.
After I’ve dried the breakfast dishes, left the bread to prove, scattered corn for the chickens, and fed the biomass boiler in the courtyard, I’m ready. I know today is an auspicious day, since when I look at the kitchen clock, it’s quarter past three, which in my former digital life denoted a highly significant 15:15. I install myself in the upstairs window and look out. The mist has thinned, and it’s possible to discern the pale stretch of the path curving towards the padlocked wooden gate in the inner wall (which is taller than the height of two average-sized people and one small one, standing on each other’s shoulders), and then the darker bars of the outer steel gate twenty yards beyond.
I keep watching. A small brown bird flits from the top of the birch tree to the hedgerow opposite, and is followed, close behind, by a similar small brown bird. I lied to Dorothy this morning, of course. I am no birdwatcher, and am incapable of telling the difference between a chaffinch and a blue tit. It is something else, someone else, I am searching for. Like the feathered creatures I am ostensibly here to watch, he or she will be identifiable by a flash of colour – a bold neon orange, most likely. If I wait long enough, I know that it will appear like a sudden flare in the monochrome landscape: a bright beacon indicative of a world beyond the hedgerow, beyond the wall, and beyond the implacable steel gate.
An hour or so later – personal items forbidden to us include watches – Josie comes into the room, ready to chat. I want to scream at her, particularly when she goes over to the window, blocking the view. As she asks me what I have spotted, I see, over her left shoulder, a vivid, neon orange flash beyond the outer gate. Ignoring Josie’s bewildered cry, I rush down to the kitchen. The clock stands at 33 minutes past four: 16:33 – not yet meaningful, but it’s a start.
Over the next two rainy days, I continue my routine. With Jezza back, the wives are scrubbing and sweeping with renewed vigour, but Jezza himself is preoccupied with the more immediate attractions of Josie. My latest hobby has not commanded his attention at all. And as far as his interest in my spiritual development is concerned, it’s been a long time since the kindest brown eyes I’ve ever seen have thrown even a cursory glance in my direction. For this, I am now grateful.
Mist, patches of clearing, small brown birds, more drizzle, and then suddenly, the bright orange flash, luminescent, joyful. It always stays for about two minutes, and then it vanishes again. My three-day sightings, which I record using the communal pen taped to the kitchen counter, are now precisely 16:33, 16:45, and 16:27. We’re not allowed paper, of course, so I mark the numbers on my hand. When Maureen asks me what the numbers mean, I tell her that I am recording the appearances of the sparrows. What I hope she doesn’t notice is that the numbers trouble me: no magical signifiers or prime numbers amongst them that could illuminate my own life path as I navigate my way. On the contrary, the readings are a particularly disappointing demonstration of numberhood. I am, however, running out of time. I can tell from the rosy sky this evening that the weather will clear tomorrow, and I will need to act while the ground is dry.
Like the blessing of the Lord himself, the next day dawns bright and fair. Outside, the sky is prettily blue, and a variety of green vegetative hues sparkle encouragingly. To keep my restless self busy until the afternoon, I rearrange the jams and chutneys in the pantry, putting them in alphabetical order. Dorothy looks on approvingly. She believes my new hobby is doing me good.
At 16.00, I begin to pack my basket with slices of toast. Josie leans against the counter, watching me. When she asks why I am feeding the birds with toast not bread, I reply that it is better for their digestion. When she wants to come too, I tell her it is my meditation time alone with the Lord and mercifully, she concedes defeat.
Kitted out by 16.16, I make my way down the path which glistens with interweaving snail trails, dropping the slices as I go. When I reach the first wall, I stop and pick up a stone, nicely heavy, but not too much so. After a couple of minutes of fumbling, I hurl the object with all my might, listening for the soft thud indicating its landing. Then I run back to the house, up the stairs, and resume my watch, heart thumping, and binoculars in hand.
It’s four minutes after my return – at 16.24: not identical, not palindrome, and not even prime, but I don’t give a hoot – that I see the neon flash. This time, it does not flare briefly and then disappear. Instead, it becomes an orange shape, which becomes a jacket, which becomes an attachment to the curious face of a postman peering through the bars of the steel gate. In his hand, I see that he is holding a slice of chestnut-coloured toast fastened with rubber bands to a large stone. Any moment now, I know that his expression will change as he sees that this strange and unexpected gift bears eleven numbers carefully scraped upon its surface.
What I also know, and he doesn’t yet, is that these numbers are, to me, the most significant in the whole world: the telephone number of my sister Sonia, who is coming very soon to save me.
(c) Sally Lane, 2017
Sally Lane grew up both in the suburbs of London and the Canadian outback, the contrast of which has probably given her a skewed outlook on life. She studied History/French at the University of Western Ontario before rooting herself in an English university town, where she is currently a historical custodian.
Nicky Diss is a co-founder of Open Book Theatre who perform free theatrical adaptations of classic literature in London's libraries. She is also the Artistic Director of Open Bar Theatre, who tour Shakespeare to Fullers pub gardens throughout the summer. She regularly reads audiobooks & recently recorded Enid Blyton's St Clare's series.