At a loose end, I signed up for Pilbeam’s Crash-Course in the Imitation of Christ. Earlier in the day, plodding through the streets, I had been given a leaflet. The hawker who handed it to me was a person of regrettable grubbiness, and some of his filth inevitably besmirched the leaflet, which was smudged, with the effect that I misread The Imitation of Christ as The Imitation of Chris.
Chris who?, I wondered, hoping that Pilbeam was taking an overfamiliar tone with regard to the actor Christopher Plummer. It so happened that I was wearing a Tyrolean jacket not unlike the one sported by Plummer in his career-defining role as Captain Von Trapp in the film version of The Sound of Music. Dressed so, I felt I would have an excellent chance of crashing through the crash course and perhaps winning a plaudit or two.
Alas, a falling raindrop washed away the smudge and I realised the course was about Christ rather than Christopher Plummer. Still, I was, as I said, at a loose end, so I headed for the hall where the course was to be held, and I signed up.
Throng and hubbub packed the hall, but I found an empty seat and sat down. Soon enough, a fellow I assumed to be Pilbeam appeared on a dais at the front. The first thing he said was “I am not Pilbeam”
Had I been lured here under false pretences? The speaker cut a pale and widdershins figure and was almost as grime-splattered as the hawker in the street. It may even have been the same man, no doubt a rascal. But I had nothing better to do, so I continued to sit and listen.
“I am sorry to say that Pilbeam is not able to be with us today. He has been incapacitated by Mitteleuropean pig flu, and has asked me to deputise for him. While I would never make so bold as to compare myself to Pilbeam, please be assured that you are in good hands. I have spent many years studying under Pilbeam, eating from the same table, having my hair cut at the same barber’s, with the same pair of scissors, and wearing the same size shoes, like Beckett and Joyce. My name is Lars, rather than Pilbeam, but I can say truthfully that I am the next best thing to Pilbeam when it comes to delivering this crash course.
“So let us turn now to the crash course itself, the aim of which is to furnish you with the skills necessary to imitate Christ. As it is a crash course, we will not be seeking to imitate Christ in every particular. If we tried that” – he chuckled – “we would become so Christ-like there would be a risk of blasphemy. Far better, according to Pilbeam’s precepts, to imitate Christ in a limited way, enough for us to benefit and to become holier than we are, but not so much that we threaten the unique and ineffable goodness of Christ Our Lord Himself.
“I trust you are all keeping up. Excellent. In what way, then, shall we imitate Christ? You will all, I hope, be familiar with the story of the Gadarene swine. It is to be found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew 8 : 28-32, in Mark 5 : 1-13, and in Luke 8 : 26-33. Briefly put, a poor man possessed by demons begs Christ to release him from his torment. Christ duly casts the demons out of the man, and into some nearby pigs, which thereupon go rushing headlong into the sea, and drown. Certain details differ in the three accounts, but that is the general idea.
“Now, Pilbeam states that we can imitate Christ by driving a herd of pigs into the sea, or indeed into any large body of water. We need not worry our little heads about finding a man possessed by demons, and all that hullabaloo. For our purposes, we take a crash course shortcut by imagining we have cast the demons out of the man and into the pigs, and we simply goad the pigs into the water and make damn sure none of them manages to make it back to shore. The important thing, in accurately imitating Christ, is drowning the pigs. Any questions?”
I put up my hand.
“In your opening remarks,” I piped up, when pointed at, “You said that Pilbeam could not be with us because he is suffering from Mitteleuropean pig flu. Could it be that this whole crash course is his way of exacting vicarious revenge upon the flu-ridden pigs he blames for his condition?”
There were several gasps from the audience. Lars paused, menacingly, before responding.
“Seldom,” he roared, eventually, “Seldom have I ever heard so vile a calumny! O, vile!, vile!, the calumny you have committed upon poor saintly bed-ridden Mitteleuropean pig flu-ridden Pilbeam, that paragon among crash course tutors in the Imitation of Christ! How dare you, sir, how dare you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “It was just a passing thought, that was all.”
Lars seemed mollified, if only slightly.
“There is a fourth, apocryphal version of the story of the Gadarene swine,” he said, “In Pilbeam 6 : 42-51. Here, after driving the pigs into the sea, Christ has his henchmen – sorry, Apostles – attack the man from whom demons have been cast out, beating him insensible with spades and shovels before injecting his bruised and battered body with a virulent strain of Mitteleuropean pig flu and then abandoning him on a remote atoll far, far out at sea. Usually we do not attempt to enact the Pilbeam version on this crash course, for want of a volunteer, but on this occasion we shall take great pleasure in doing so.”
And Lars clapped his hands and summoned his Apostles – sorry, henchmen – and they dragged me out of the hall and off towards a coastal pig farm, and the vast, wet, unforgiving sea.