The sounding of the morning bell drew the schoolchildren inside, leaving Pembrooke School’s religious education teacher, Greta Astonberry, caught in the middle of the playground, deep in thought. “Hey,” Harry asked as he passed by, “are you okay?”
“Harry – Mr Buckley, good morning.” Greta replied, brought back with apparent suddenness to her surroundings by the enquiry. Harry Buckley came to a stop, his left leg bent at the knee lifted up in slow-motion, then supplied the momentum to spin his body around to be facing his colleague.
“Greta..? You look troubled, please don’t tell me you’re regretting what happened last night?” A lone child in an ill-fitting school uniform walked between the two teachers, dragging a sports bag along the path leading to the main entrance. “Jefferies, pick up your bag off the ground and carry it!” Harry shouted after him.
“Yes sir.” Came back a sombre reply.
“No, no – of course not Harry.” Greta tried to order her thoughts entirely towards the man staring at her, seeking her reassurance. Or was he? She couldn’t be sure.
“Look Greta, we had some fun – didn’t we?”
“Oh, fun. I see.”
“I like you a lot and we both enjoyed ourselves last night and we can do it again.” Playfully, he nudged her elbow with his own. “But, with Miss Harris returning soon, I am only here for this week. Okay?”
“Just this week?” The sun moved clear of a cloud and poured out sunshine; Greta reflected upon how it had taken her six weeks to conjure up the courage to ask Harry out. By the end of the week, as a supply teacher he’d be gone, with no particular need on his part to stay in touch. Or so it seemed.
“If it’s not about last night, what is troubling you Greta?” He stopped before her, scanning her face carefully for clues. “I can tell something’s up.”
“Well…” Greta hesitated.
“Look – let’s talk at lunch break,” Harry interrupted, glancing at his wristwatch, “whatever it is you can get it off your chest with me then, okay?”
“Okay,” said Greta, “thanks Harry.” She forced a grateful smile as he turned away, then sighed quietly to herself and watched as he hurried through the double-doors and disappeared into the corridors of the school’s main building. “I’m not sure you’ll have the answer Harry Buckley, but it’ll be good to talk to someone about this.”
A dinner plate loaded with a salad; Greta pushed her tray along the canteen service counter and fetched a clean glass. As she filled it with water from a jug, she cast her gaze across the busy dining hall, beyond the tables filled with schoolchildren engaged in excited conversation. She spotted Harry sat alone at a table located in a corner, engrossed in a newspaper.
“Hiya.” She said, as she approached, wondering if he would remember their chat scheduled for this moment. “Am I disturbing you?” Harry looked up from the sport’s page; his eyes sparkled.
“Greta!” Jumping up enthusiastically from his seat, he pulled out a chair for her to sit on, alongside his own. “Do you know how beautiful you look today?”
“Oh – Harry…” Her difficulty in accepting a compliment temporarily took control of her response. “No, really? You’re very sweet to – um, suggest, well, what you said, thank you Harry, you’re very sweet – and handsome too Harry. Yes, you are very… handsome. You’re a handsome Harry!” Greta told herself to shut up, felt awkward, her cheeks flushed, but she didn’t listen to herself. “It’s very warm in here, isn’t it? I really don’t think there’s any need for the heating to be on. I mean, it’s nearly spring and there’s enough heat generated by the kitchens anyway. They should save money – the school Harry, the school should save… some… blasted money – they keep on complaining about how they haven’t got any.” Harry didn’t reply. Instead, he watched as she laid out a paper serviette onto her lap, flattening out the creases with the palms of both her hands. The exercise brought with it calmness, followed by a forkful of lettuce and cucumber.
“Okay Greta, what is it that’s troubling you?” Harry said, folding his newspaper and sliding it across to the far side of the dining table. It was as if, Greta thought, that by this action he had committed his full attention to her. A ‘Harry’ like this doesn’t come along very often – not as handsome and as wonderful as this one.
“Oh Harry…” she fought against the sensation of tears welling up, “There’s something really important I want to talk to you about.” Greta forked a cherry tomato into her mouth, munched on it, an unbroken stare fixed on Harry as she did so…
“You want to talk to me about religion?” Harry had not expected the revelation.
“Well, yes. You see, something’s happened. I have experienced a change of heart – or more to the point, a change of mind. Oh Harry… I have lost my faith.”
“Oo-wee…” Harry rocked back in his chair, “Wow Greta, why – I mean how? You’ve had an epiphany or something?”
“Well, no, no epiphany, so-to-speak. It’s been a gradual process, research spread out over time – research that made me realise a fault line in my faith.” A chorus of chair legs scraping the floor forced a pause in the conversation, as groups of children rose from their tables, gathering up plates and cutlery to stack on a nearby trolley.
Greta ate more salad; Harry switched into supervisory mode, calling across to the group. “Emily, stop pushing Marta! Leave, the dining hall, in an orderly manner, please!” Satisfied, he turned back to Greta. “What sort of fault line do you mean?”
“I had a religious upbringing, Harry, I grew up unquestioning, committed. My father was the local minister, my mother a doctor. Expectations were for me to follow a vocational career path, to become a nurse, work overseas for an NGO, or something in a similar vein.”
“Like teaching?.” Harry concluded.
“Well, my first love was for history, I excelled in the subject and read History at Cambridge. After university, and with a good degree under my belt, I really didn’t have a clue what to do. My parents encouraged me to begin teacher training and, long-story-short, I drifted into R.E. as a specialised subject.”
“I studied History at university too!” said Harry, smiling broadly. “Cardiff.”
“So you understand how an ‘enquiring mind’ goes with the discipline.”
“Yes I do.” Harry leaned forward in his chair, rested elbows on knees, chin in both hands. “Subjectivity, objectivity, scrutiny, appraisal, it is – as you say, a discipline.”
“Indeed.” Greta ate more greenery, dabbed at her lips with the serviette, inhaled deeply.
“You realise,” Greta continued, “There is little to no hard evidence that Jesus ever lived?”
“Well, I am aware it’s arguable, for sure.” Harry checked the clock in the dining hall, noticing the catering staff closing down the service counter and most tables now cleared of schoolchildren.
“We both understand how unreliable accounts of historical events can be – usually from the hands of historians themselves and very much dependent upon which side you’re on. The differing accounts surrounding Jesus’ life weren’t written during his lifetime – and were probably not written by the men referred to as the authors.”
“Eat some more of your lunch.” Harry told Greta, pointing at her plate. “Look, I understand where you’re coming from; the same can be said for the Buddha. There’s little-to-no evidence he existed, the traditions depicting his life implausible and yet, if you attend a Buddhist meditation session, you’ll hear quotes – where it’s the Buddha said this and the Buddha said that.”
“And,” said Greta, stacking the remaining vegetables onto her fork, “it’s much the same with many other faiths. All we have are stories.”
“Fables and folklore” Harry watched on, as a spring onion spun around on Greta’s plate, evading all efforts to be pronged. “Come on Greta eat, lunch is nearly over.”
“Religion is merely an instrument of power, exerted by a privileged, powerful few over the gullible instincts of the many.” Greta said, picking up the wayward vegetable and popping it into her mouth. “The stories don’t change in substance and are used to form a belief system offering salvation to its followers, in exchange for their blind devotion. Suffer now for a better afterlife later.”
“It’s why people generally are skeptical about science. Because our understanding of scientific ‘facts’ change over time – therefore what is there to grip hold of?” Harry reached across the table and retrieved his newspaper. “You really do need faith to hold steadfast and maintain a belief in something that keeps changing.”
The bell sounding the end of lunch rang out in three separate five second blasts. Greta stood up from her seat. Harry stood up, pushed both chairs under the table.
“Perhaps I should have been a science teacher.” Greta said as she gathered her plate, cutlery and glass tumbler together onto a tray. “Look, thanks for listening, I want you to know that I really appreciate it.”
“My pleasure.” Harry winked.
“By-the-way Harry, are you free tonight?”