JASON ZERILLO, (fl 30 AD), inhabitant of Judea.

They’d all agreed, being with Jesus had been a right old laugh. He could get a bit holier-than-thou sometimes, obviously, but not with them, not with the Gang, just with the plebs, just with the ones Jesus sometimes referred to privately as ‘Mr and Mrs Ordinary’. With the Gang he was different, he would clown around; sometimes, in the middle of one of those sermons of his, with him sounding so earnest and solemn, he’d catch their attention, and he’d pull a face or cross his eyes or stick out his tongue for a split second, as if to say, God-get-me-out-of-here! Or Can’t-wait-til-we-can-sink-a-few-beers. And at the beginning, before he got famous, the hours had been good too – it had been so easy, a little spot of preaching in the afternoon, then the rest of the day could be theirs. They could go fishing, they’d get tickets for a gladiator game maybe, they’d just kick around the synagogue eyeing up the girls not doing much. Jesus wearing that big lazy grin of his – Jesus always took his work seriously, yeah, but he took his play seriously too, and there were nights he’d go to taverns and order these enormous jars of water, just plain tap water, then turn them into wine – and fortified wine too, these babies were ten per cent proof, and then the Gang would carry the jars back to Jesus’ place and then they’d lounge about and get pissed. And some nights, when he was in the right mood, or when they’d got him pissed enough most likely, they might get him to perform some miracles too. One night he turned Simon Peter into a goat. God, they’d laughed at that. God, even Simon Peter had seen the funny side eventually.

They all agreed, it had been a laugh at first, and it didn’t much matter whether they believed too much, Jesus didn’t ask them to justify their faith. He’d just say, go with the flow, don’t embarrass me in public, you’re my apostles now – and that was fair enough. Some of the stuff he came out with was nonsense, even Jesus knew that. The night after he’d said that ‘meek shall inherit the earth’ bit he’d laughed like a drain, he’d rolled his eyes with them afterwards when they went out on the lash and said he’d never live that one down.

It was hard to pinpoint the exact moment when it all just stopped being fun. But the Gang agreed, it was around the time Jason Zerillo had appeared upon the scene. And it may not strictly have been Zerillo’s fault, but that didn’t matter, no one liked Zerillo, Zerillo was an out and out tit.

He hadn’t even seemed much of a problem at first. “I’ve got a surprise for you tonight!” said Jesus, “I want you to meet someone!” All the apostles had planned a quiet night in, a bit of manna, some fatted calves, an awful lot of wine. “This is Jason Zerillo!” said Jesus. “And he’s a mime artist!” And that made sense of his appearance, at least: he looked so peculiar with his painted white face, his white gloves, his top hat, his mouth a dab of black lipstick pulled into a knot. And Jason Zerillo showed them what he could do – he walked against the wind, he pretended he was trapped in a box and kept patting against the invisible glass looking for a way out. “That’s great,” said Bartholomew, “yeah, that’s a riot. Now, who wants a bevvy?” “No, no,” said Jesus, “tonight we’re going to have a bit of culture, Jason’s got lots more, he’s going to perform for us.” And the Gang sort of shrugged, and they supposed that was all right, there wasn’t a lot of culture in their lives, the closest they got was when Jude got really paralytic and started lighting his own farts. Jason did his whole repertoire for them: he pulled an imaginary rope, he walked up and down imaginary stairs, fought imaginary duels with imaginary rival mime artists. He watered and sniffed at imaginary flowers; he plucked one of the flowers out of the imaginary earth, then with a show of exaggerated bashfulness, eyes downcast, finger in mouth, presented it to Jesus. Jesus was entranced. “He’s really very good, isn’t he?” he said. “When I first saw him there in the crowd I thought he was having a fit, or needed exorcising from demons. But he’s actually quite a talent.”

The show lasted nearly four hours. The apostles all agreed privately that the mime was very skilled, but that his act needed some judicious editing. “And I didn’t buy that mute thing for a moment,” added James, son of Zebedee. “I bet he could really talk if he wanted to.”

The next night Jason Zerillo was back again at their digs, waiting for them. “We going out on the tiles tonight, boss?” Simon the Zealot asked Jesus. “No,” said Jesus, “I want to see some more mime.” Simon said, “But we didn’t go drinking last night either, I’m gasping!” And Jason Zerillo smirked. He pulled his face into an uncanny imitation of Simon’s, his eyes blubbing, bottom lip stuck out in a sulky pout, and he played an invisible violin. Jesus laughed. “You prick,” raged Simon, “you want a knuckle sandwich?” And Simon advanced on the mime artist, but Jesus held up his hand. “Lo,” said Jesus, “no branch can bear fruit by itself, it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” Simon the Zealot looked perplexed. “And what the hell’s that supposed to mean?” he asked. But Jesus wouldn’t say.

And from then on, wherever Jesus went, the mime was sure to follow. Every day that Jesus would cast some evil spirits into swine, say, or he’d heal lepers, or raise men from the dead, there too would be Jason Zerillo. And before long he’d learned to mime alongside Jesus; so there he’d be, the son of God, performing these great miracles, and next to him for all to see was this white-faced clown, acting out the same scenes in exaggerated dumb show. The mime got quite as much applause as Jesus himself, but Jesus didn’t care. “This is my true and trusted servant,” he’d say, as he took his curtain call, “and I am well proud of him.” And of an evening, when the apostles wanted to relax, now they’d have to sit through a replay of all the day’s greatest hits, Jason Zerillo fine tuning the adventures of the day and turning them into little comic episodes of thrills and hijinks without benefit of speech or props. His presentation of the parable of the Prodigal Son was quite masterly, and Jesus laughed, and shed a tear, and said that this was high art indeed, look, it worked on so many different levels.

The Gang met in secret. They all agreed they couldn’t take it any more. Someone would have to tell Jesus – they’d go on strike, either the mime went or they did. But there was no telling Jesus anything any more. He wasn’t the funny silly jokey preacher they’d once loved with the lazy smile and the wandering hands – he had fire in his eyes now, and his parables had become darker and more apocalyptic, and he’d sometimes lose his temper for no reason at all, there had been that time he’d knocked over all the tables in the temple, what on earth had that been all about? The only time Jesus seemed happy now, the only time they ever saw him smile, it was when he was watching his pet dance about and gurn and juggle invisible balls – Jesus would giggle until the tears rolled down his cheeks, Jesus wept. They knew that if they forced Jesus to choose, he wouldn’t choose them. They had to take matters into their own hands.

And then there was that awful supper. Andrew had suggested they all go out for a meal, it was about time they had an evening out – and Jesus had agreed, much to their surprise, but of course he’d insisted he take his favourite toy with him. The mime bounced about and pulled faces, but for once Jesus wasn’t amused, he just glowered into his food, nothing could cheer him up. At last he said, “One of you will betray me.” And the apostles didn’t know where to look – they’d all betrayed him, really, hadn’t they? But it was for his own good, and he’d see that one day, it was an intervention, Jesus would feel so much his old self when he’d been cured of his mime artist addiction. They’d all drawn lots: Judas had been the one to go to the Romans, he’d shopped Jason Zerillo, said he’d been calling himself King of the Jews or some such nonsense. Judas was given thirty pieces of silver; he told the rest of the Gang that that was nice, they could buy Jesus a nice present with it, that’d make him feel better, something fun, maybe a gift token, he could get whatever he wanted.

The Romans came with swords. And there was some confusion – it was dark – everyone was drunk – Jason Zerillo was skulking in the shadows pretending to be a camel passing through the eye of a needle of all things. And the Romans got the wrong guy. That’s what happened. They got the wrong guy, and when the apostles tried to explain the next day there were so many forms to fill in, so much red tape to wade through, really, they couldn’t even begin to make sense of it.

Jesus was crucified. They nailed him to a cross at Golgotha. And the skies blackened with thunder, and Jesus cried out to the Lord. And the apostles stood by, awkward, guilty, God, was there egg on their faces! And in front of the cross, Jason Zerillo danced about, his arms stuck out at right angles like a scarecrow, wincing at an imaginary crown of thorns, miming what it would feel like to have a spear stuck right into your side. And Jesus looked down on him, and said, “Not now. Really. Not now.” And died.

*

The next day the Gang met up for coffee. They could barely look each other in the face for shame. “I don’t think,” said Matthew heavily, “there’s going to be any way we can put this right.” “All we can do,” said James, son of Alphaeus, “is carry on his work. Do what he’d have wanted us to do. Whatever it takes.” “Whatever it takes,” they solemnly agreed, and they all shook hands, and they left the cafe, and went out to preach across the world, and never saw each other again.

The first apostle to be martyred was James, son of Zebedee. He was put to death by sword. And as he died, he looked up and he saw Jason Zerillo there, contorting his white face into a comical display of agony, look how careless I’ve been, what’s this sword doing sticking into my body? Andrew refused to be crucified in the same manner Jesus had been, he said he was unworthy, and so was killed in Patras with his legs splayed; in Rome, Simon Peter pleaded the same thing, and was nailed upon his cross upside down. And Jason Zerillo was there for both of them, for Simon Peter he did a handstand. Bartholomew died in Armenia, Thomas in India, Jude the Farter died in Beirut – and in their final moments, as they reached out to Heaven and glory, out of the corners of their eyes there they’d spy Jason Zerillo, imitating their deaths in dumb show. Was it mockery, or was it mercy of a kind? They couldn’t be sure.

*

The last surviving apostle was John. John had never liked Jason Zerillo either, but had held his tongue, he’d never spoken out against him. That said, in truth, he’d never spoken up for him either.

Ninety-four years old, living in exile in Patmos, he was hardly surprised when there was a knock at the door. He let Jason Zerillo in. “I know why you’re here,” he said.

Jason Zerillo said nothing.

“All my friends have died. I know that. They died bravely. They died for something greater than themselves. But that was never part of the deal, was it? That we had to die?”

Jason Zerillo said nothing.

“I’ll be dead soon,” said John. “I have lived for longer than I should have, and seen things I would rather have not seen. Such terrible things. And then we’ll all be dead, all the Gang, we will all be the same. Dead forever, and what difference does it make whether I died fixed to a cross or in a warm bed?”

Jason Zerillo said nothing.

“I am not afraid to die,” said John. “And when I do, when I see my friends, if they think they have anything to blame me for, I’ll answer them. And when I see Jesus, if he blames me – then I’ll know.”

And Jason Zerillo said nothing.

“I’m not afraid to die,” insisted John. “If dying is such a great thing, what are you still doing clowning about? With your fucking white face and your fucking white gloves?”

Jason Zerillo said nothing, because Jason Zerillo never said anything, Jason Zerillo was a mime.

“I am,” said John – he whispered it – “I am afraid to die.”

And Jason Zerillo smiled with all his teeth, and left.

And John sat down and tried hard not to die. But it seemed to him that was like trying to escape from an invisible box, trying to walk against the wind.

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