They came bursting into the house as I was finishing breakfast, with a clatter of confused explanations to my wife, and a hasty pat on the head for little Abi. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was out in the street, still clutching my half-eaten bread roll, and being carried along much faster than was comfortable.
We'd got halfway to the crossroads before I recovered enough to ask any questions. "What... where... who...?" I started, not even quite sure which was the right thing to ask.
"The teacher! The one who heals people! He's at home!" puffed James, somewhere above my right ear.
"Yes! They say he got back last night. And we're going to get you there first this morning," added Paul, twisting round from his position holding the front left of my mat, and giving me a big grin.
"Too right," said Zach, next to him. He was a man of few words.
"What? Who are you talking about? What teacher?" I had a horrible feeling I knew, but I wanted to be sure.
"Jesus of Nazareth, of course! Where have you been - under a rock?" That was Tom, behind my left ear.
"Under a log, more like," guffawed James. "Get it, Phil? Under a log?" He gave me a cheerful poke with his free hand, but I couldn't even attempt a smile at his feeble joke about the cedar trunk that had caused my injuries.
In my head, the crowds of dark thoughts gathered, squawking and circling like crows, screaming words like evil and guilty and liar and murderer. He would know, wouldn't he, this teacher? He named demons and cast them out. That's what people said. He would name me as the awful person I really was, and I would be cast out, and even James and Paul and Zach and Tom would never come near me again.
"No... No!" It was meant to be a shout, but came out more like a feeble gasp. Tom, ever the considerate one, took it as a cry of pain at being jolted around. "Hey, Paul, Zach - slow down a bit," he called. "You'll be giving poor Phil worse injuries if he falls off this mat before he gets to the healer."
Zach and Paul obediently slowed their trot into a fast walk. "Not far now, anyway," Paul said. "Just around this cor.... Oh." He stopped so suddenly that the lads in the rear almost folded me in half.
Hoisting myself awkwardly onto one elbow, I peered round Zach's broad back. The street was crammed. Jesus' house was down there on the left, but we'd never get through the crowds. Not a hope. I was safe!
I lay back in relief. "Well, it was a good try, lads. Maybe another time?"
They weren't listening. Above my head, there was a discussion going on. "That alley, up from the river..." - "Yes, we can get to the steps..." - "The roof, if we can just get onto it..." - "Need a bit of rope..."
The roof. I knew exactly what they were planning. We'd built dozens of these houses, me and my mates from the timber yard, and they were all the same. The roof was made with long beams, placed from wall to wall, and filled in with a mix of straw and mud. If that mix was old, and had dried and crumbled under the hot sun, it would be easy to scrape out from between the supporting timbers, leaving a perfect Phil-sized hole.
Great. So now I was about to meet the famous teacher and have all my crimes revealed, including destroying half his roof.
Sadly I wasn't saved by a fierce dog, armed guard, or even the rope snapping halfway through my descent. All too soon I was flat on my back in a crowded room. I closed my eyes tightly. All around I could feel the silence pressing in. Everyone was waiting to see what Jesus would do.
Well, if this man was going to make me an outcast for ever, at least I could see what he looked like.
I cautiously opened my eyes. A grave face looked down at me. He did know, then.
It all came rushing back. That day, a couple of months ago. It had just been me and little Jonny, the apprentice, on the yard, and a timber wagon had come in, piled with enormous cedar trunks. Sometimes we'd get away with two unloading, but these were massive - definitely a three-man job. I was in a rush, though, and maybe wanting to show off to Jon, so I tossed him an unloading pole and told him we'd get it done before the others got back.
That big trunk got him right in the head, they said. Dead in an instant. Never knew what happened.
Me, I was lucky, apparently. Only my legs paralysed.
Everyone assumed it was Jonny's mistake, not mine. I didn't correct them. After all, he was dead. Didn't have a family to support. Didn't have to lie in a corner watching his wife pretend she wasn't hungry so the kids could have more. Didn't have to watch her doing washing and sewing late into the night, to earn a few more pennies now that her husband was useless.
But all the while, as my body healed and my friends came round every day, trying to lift my spirits, those dark birds clawed at my chest and circled my dreams. Evil. Guilty. Liar. Murderer. Finally I was about to hear those words spoken out loud.
The grave eyes held mine, seemingly reading my thoughts. Then Jesus spoke, but the words weren't the ones I expected. "My son," he said. "Your sins are forgiven."
Around me, a babble burst forth. Up on the roof, I could see my friends looking at each other in consternation. This wasn't what they'd expected at all! But inside me, a peace was flooding in. Suddenly I couldn't care less about my paralysed legs. Someone had seen, and understood, and told me I was forgiven. That was all I needed.
Jesus was saying something to the crowd now, and I paid attention in time to catch his last words. "So you think that forgiving sins is so much easier than telling someone to walk, do you? Let me show you something..." and he looked back down at me. The grave look was gone, and there was a twinkle in his eye. "Stand up," Jesus said to me. "Take your mat, and go home to your family."
For a moment, my brain refused to understand what I'd just heard. I didn't move. Jesus reached out his hand and gave me an encouraging smile. In a kind of daze, I reached up, took his hand, and stood up. He nodded to the floor. "Don't forget your mat, Phil."
As if it was any other morning, I bent down, automatically rolled up my mat , and put it under my arm. I looked at Jesus one more time, and turned to leave.
The crowds silently made way for me to pass through, and I walked out of the house and into the morning. Behind me, the chatter started up again, louder than before. But in my heart there was quiet, and peace, and a bright blue sky.
And into the blue a lark rose, singing.