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Some Secrets in a Privacy Forever Ours

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It was the grey, chill hour just before dawn, and John, who could not sleep, slipped out of the house without waking James or Peter, and went down to the lake. He felt a dull ache behind one temple, but it wasn't that that drove him out of doors, but a blank emptiness. It was less than three weeks since they had all walked singing into Jerusalem, thinking that the Kingdom was about to come and Israel be restored, and the world had been turned upside down several times since then. It felt as if everything he had believed had been taken, tossed in the air, and handed back to him in a new pattern he couldn't make sense of. He ought to have been filled with joy, and indeed he had been when the Teacher had come and stood among them; it was as if everything sad and wrong that had happened since the beginning of the world had been revealed as a lie. The resurrection in the last days could not be more joyous – indeed, perhaps they were the same thing, he had thought.

But the Teacher came, and went, and came and went again, and meanwhile the world went on in its own way, except that they were alone. The Romans still ruled Israel and most of the world beside, the rich and powerful still did what they liked and the poor still went hungry and in fear, the High Priest and his coterie were still a set of complacent, conniving, murderous bastards (and the worst of it was, they probably thought they had saved the nation. Maybe that was even true). And sickness and sorrow and weariness had singularly failed to vanish from the earth.

Underneath that, though, there was a private feeling of loss and blankness that he was ashamed of, but couldn't put aside. Jesus had been his best friend, whom he'd loved more than he'd thought possible, who had always, even in the first moment they'd met, seemed to know and recognise and understand him. And he had felt he knew him – it was a bit like falling in love at first sight, and a bit like meeting a friend or a brother you'd long been parted from and finding them just as you remembered, and not really like anything else in the world. He hadn't always understood Jesus, though he had understood him a bit better than the others, but he had always felt that loving recognition, even at that moment on the mountain when the glory of the Lord had shone in the mortal flesh, and he and Peter and James had seen what no man ought to be able to see and live.

But Jesus had died, and though the Teacher had stood among them and eaten with them – and even cooked them breakfast – John wasn't sure what had happened to his friend. Being the friend of a prophet, of the Lord's anointed, was one thing – but the Teacher was more than that. My Lord and my God, Thomas had said, speaking the name that might not be spoken, and they had known it for the truth. It was the greatest thing that had ever been, it would have been unbelievable except that it was impossible to believe anything else (the Teacher a sorcerer and a liar? He'd believe that the sun was black first, or that water was poison). Only, he thought and hated himself for it, where did that leave the man Jesus who he had loved, who he had laughed and talked with, who whistled like a lark and had a strange sense of humour and an enviable ability to fall asleep however cold or noisy or uncomfortable things were? None of that seemed to matter: the Teacher was the Son of God risen from death, was (John shivered) God Himself, and how on earth could you be best friends with the Lord God of Israel?

He was being a fool, and a selfish fool at that. He knew the Teacher loved them all – had died for them, had been sent to seek them and all the world beside, and here he was sulking like a whining little boy that can't bear that its mother turn away from it to look after her other children. Only knowing that he was in the wrong didn't help; it only made it worse. He thought, ruefully, of the demon he and the other disciples hadn't been able to cast out, and the almost casual authority with which Jesus had dealt with it; "Some will only yield to prayer and fasting," he had said.

There was light in the east; the sun was rising. Time to say his prayers, though he felt curiously reluctant to do so; for one thing, he wasn't entirely sure what to say any more. Apart from his words, of course.

"Our Father in heaven," he began, and then paused. There were footsteps coming down the path behind him, and someone was whistling a rather sentimental love-song that everyone had been singing two summers ago – what on earth was it called? Lalage? Judas had hated it, for some reason, and had kept going on about how people would rather waste their time listening to cheap rubbish in pubs than listening to holy scripture in the synagogue, and the Teacher had told him not to be a snob and daintier than the Father, who taught the birds to sing and gave men and women ears and voices too.

He knew who it was even before he turned round. "Teacher," he said, "Lord. It's – it's good to see you."

The Lord smiled, and sat down on another rock beside him. His smile was the same slightly crooked smile as before; his hair had fallen forward on his forehead, and the scratches which the thorns had left were hidden. But they were there all the same. "It's good to see you too, John. I wanted to speak to you. We've scarcely spoken six words to one another since Golgotha."

John sighed, despite his best effort not to. "It's all right. The others needed you more. Thomas couldn't bring himself to believe – you know what he's like, I think he couldn't bear the thought of finding it wasn't true – and Peter; well, poor Peter. I half thought he was going to kill himself that awful weekend. I've never been so unhappy in my life as I was then, but it was worse for him, because – well, you know why. And he's more important than me, anyway. You said you were going to build up the church on him." This was true, and sensible, and that didn't change the strangeness of it.

"John, I know what 'it's all right' means. It either means 'it isn't all right, but I don't know why', or 'it isn't but I don't want to say why.' Which?" The Teacher's eyebrows were raised, and for the first time since – since he had come back – he looked a little tired.

John sighed again, and didn't bother to hide it. It had never been any good trying to hide your feelings from him. "Neither. Or maybe both. I – I keep thinking about the story of Tobit."

He paused; the other looked at him evenly, but said nothing. John looked away, staring out over the lake as the light strengthened. "I – this sounds silly, but when I was a child the end always upset me. I always thought it was so sad, and no-one else ever understood why. I mean, I wasn't sorry that Tobit married poor Sarah, or that Tobias got his sight back. It was the bit where the angel Raphael reveals himself to Tobit and Tobias; they thought he was their kinsman and friend, and he tells them he was an angel, who only helped them because it was the will of God, and only seemed to eat with them. It was all – I don't know – all just a shell or a screen that was broken and tossed away. And I'm sure they did praise God for what he had done for them through his angel, but – surely they missed their friend Azarias too? It was worse than if he'd died – he'd never been, and how could the friendship they'd had for him mean anything then?"

There was, to his shame, a catch in his throat. "I'm sorry, Lord, I'm being a sentimental fool. If you start preferring an illusion to the truth you're done for, but I-"

"Stop that. Stop that at once." The Teacher's voice was sharp, and he reached out, caught hold of John's hand, and held it. "John, beloved, listen to me. Look at me."

John did, but he could not bear the other's eyes, and dropped his own gaze to their clasped hands. This time his eye fell, not on the marks of the nail at the wrist, but on the old white scar on the side of the thumb; he had asked about it once. An accident with a chisel in the workshop in Nazareth…

"I was born of a woman as you were born; I have known hunger and pain and the fear of death, and I have laughed and sung and been happy, too, and been glad to feel the morning sun on my face. I'm flesh and bone and sinew, and my heart beats like yours does. This hasn't been some sort of complicated illusion, and I am definitely not an angel in fancy dress."

John laughed, reluctantly, "No; you're nothing so unimportant. I keep feeling I ought to be afraid of you; I am afraid of you sometimes. You are the holy one of Israel – you're God's Son – you are God, and I am your creature. And yet – here you are, sitting beside me. I don't understand anything when you aren't with me; I don't understand it now, but I can bear it when you're with me. I would beg you never to leave me, but how could I dare to…"

He raised his eyes; Jesus was looking out over the lake, a strange light in his eyes. "Indeed and indeed, I am the Son of God and the Son of Man, and I can see the secret fire I kindled in the heart of the earth, and I feel the stars turning above our heads –" and he turned back to John, "but I am no less human for it, and whatever else I am, I am always, always, your friend, and nothing can change that, not even you."

John opened his mouth, but he could think of nothing coherent to say. Instead he said "Oh Jesus, dear Jesus," and began to cry. Blindly, he felt Jesus' arms close round him, reassuringly muscular under the rough cloth, and suddenly weary to his bones, he laid his head on a shoulder which was too warm and solid to be that of a phantom.


John could not have slept long, if at all, but he felt refreshed for the first time in weeks, and his headache was gone.

"You've been sleeping badly," Jesus commented. It wasn't a question, but John nodded nonetheless.

"It's hard for you all just now. Hardest of all for you and Mary, perhaps, who have known me most closely. It won't always be this difficult. I must soon go back to your Father and my Father, but I will send you another to go with you."

"You told Mary that we can't possess you until you have gone up to the Father. I don't understand that, either."

Jesus laughed. "No, I didn't suppose you would. I'm sorry, but you can't understand it, not yet, and I can't explain it any better; you'll just have to wait. And then I will send you out –"

"To bring in the Kingdom?"

"Yes, and to bring good news of God's love and forgiveness, and to make the world my disciples and friends. Oh John, you're not still sad, are you?"

"No, really I'm not," protested John. "Well, perhaps a little. It's just – so much of this time we've had together – all of us – will get forgotten. And I suppose it doesn't really matter, in the greater scheme of things. No-one else will care that you liked figs better than dates, or that I could beat you at swimming nine times out of ten – I mean, that sounds totally stupid. The Lord who we sought suddenly visited his temple, and wasn't very good at the front crawl because he didn't grow up next to a lake."

"I had no idea being good at swimming mattered that much to you."

"Oh – you," said John, and found himself laughing. For a moment it was as if none of the last few weeks had happened. "But really – how is anyone to believe any of it? We believe, because we've seen you and known you, but anyone else? I suppose the Greeks might believe it, but they'd probably get it mixed up with all those wild stories of theirs about demi-gods or whatever they call them, and as for our people? An angel in fancy dress would be a lot easier to sell, frankly."

"Yes, I daresay it would," said Jesus, "But I seem to remember that ending wouldn't do for you – and you were quite right. How could the lost sheep be found unless the shepherd came to find them? And how could the eyes of flesh see God unless he were revealed in flesh?"

"Yes, I know – but what about all the silly little things that being human brings with it? They don't mean anything – do they? – but I don't like to think that all these things that will be forgotten because people don't need to know them to understand who you are don't matter."

"They matter," said Jesus, "And they won't be forgotten. You will remember them, and so will I. The angels don't know what swimming feels like, or food tastes like, and they wouldn't see why anyone would want to – and they miss a lot of pain that way, to be sure; but we know it, and they can't ever."

"That's an odd way to look at it. I always thought the angels were more blessed than us – well, not than you, but than ordinary sinful people like me."

"There's more than one way to be blessed. The animals, the flowers, the very stones – they're all blessed by God in their own way; but you're neither an animal nor an angel but a man. Would you want to swap?"

"No. Not now I know you."

They sat in silence, side by side, and the morning sun shone on their faces, and danced on the water. Nothing more needed to be said. It was one of those moments which, though they pass swiftly, are so complete in themselves that no-one could wish them longer.

"I ought to get back to the others," said John, at length. "They're still a bit nervous, though they won't admit it. Will you come in for breakfast? - They'd love to see you."

Jesus shook his head. "You will all see me again soon."

"All right – I mean, good. When - ?"

"Soon. Peace be with you, until then," he said, and was gone.

John smiled, a little – if the truth be told – exasperatedly. "You know, beloved, this sits a little oddly with the 'as human as you are' stuff. Not that I'm finding fault."

He could almost have sworn that he heard a voice saying quietly in his ear, "That's not being inhuman. It's knowing how to do it properly," but he was not quite sure, and he did not stay to debate the matter. The others would be wakening, and it was his turn to cook breakfast.

He went up the path, whistling softly to himself. It was a beautiful day.