It’s 4pm on a drizzly afternoon in Rochdale and I’m parked up outside the Central Mosque listening to a giant rabbit complain about his recent bout of gastroenteritis. As the mosque doors open he turns to face me, his long whiskers brushing my cheek as he stoops slightly to stop his ears bending against the roof.
“This time,” he says, a hint of nervous excitement in his voice. “I’ll find them this time, just you wait and see.”
Unlike ‘Harvey’, the invisible rabbit who befriended James Stewart in the film of the same name, this rabbit is not a result of my drink-addled imagination, nor is he the manifestation of an undiagnosed mental illness. This rabbit is a 46-year-old man in a costume. A cheap, poorly-fitting, and probably highly flammable, costume. His name is Gordon Flowers and he’s a man on a mission.
The objective: To find a Muslim offended by the word ‘Easter’.
“It all started a few years ago, when I read on Twitter that they’d removed the word Easter from all the Easter eggs in Morrison’s,” he had told me an hour earlier, as we sat drinking lukewarm tea in a local greasy spoon.
“I hadn’t noticed it before but then people started posting pictures all over Facebook and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“I mean, I’m sure that they used to have Easter plastered all over everything, in big letters, Easter this and Easter that, but now it’s hardly mentioned at all. And we all know why, don’t we?”
I shrug my shoulders in a non-committal way, trying to ignore the single baked bean stuck to the side of his chin. He either doesn’t realise that it’s there or just doesn’t care, it’s hard to tell.
“Because of ‘THEM’, obviously,” he says, the quotation marks he makes with his fingers mimicking the rabbit ears I can see sticking out of the Lidl bag at his feet.
Gordon is one of a growing number of people who have become convinced that the word ‘Easter’ has suddenly vanished from Easter egg packaging because manufacturers are scared of offending Muslims. Like the others, Gordon rejects assurances from the likes of Cadbury’s and Nestle that this is not the case and shrugs off all photographic evidence to the contrary. He also dismisses my argument that if it is happening, it’s probably just a cynical attempt to boost sales in an increasingly secular and diverse marketplace.
“That sounds like leftie liberal Jihadi-appeasement to me,” he says, shaking his head with a mixture of pity and contempt. And possibly confusion. I’m not convinced that he knows what secular means.
Fast forward to the Central Mosque, and we’re now standing outside the gates as worshippers start to make their way home. A few children have gathered nearby waiting for their parents, several pointing over at Gordon and whispering to each other with looks of bemusement on their faces. A boy of about 12 eventually plucks up the courage to come over, the others egging him on. Some of the adults have also clocked us and are looking on with cautious interest.
“Hey mister, why are you dressed like a rabbit?” he asks.
“I’m not a rabbit, I’m a bunny,” says a muffled voice from inside the costume.
“What, the Playboy bunny?” laughs the boy, which in turn draws giggles from the other children, who have started to shuffle over under the watchful gaze of their parents.
“The Easter bunny!” states a defiant Gordon.
“The Easter bunny? Does that mean you’ve brought us chocolate?” asks the boy.
“What? No. No chocolate for you,” Gordon replies, shaking his massive rabbit head.
“Then why are you here?” asks one of the other children.
“To wish you all a happy Easter!” says Gordon, looking around at the dozen or so people who have stopped to watch. Getting no response, he says it again a bit louder, only this time he does jazz hands. There was no need for jazz hands.
“Hang on, is that that nonce again?” says a male voice behind us. “You’d better get out of here, mate, or we’ll call the police .”
At this point, Gordon starts to say something silly about the Prophet Mohammad and little girls, so I drag him off to the car as the small crowd jeers.
“See! See!” he shouts as I begin to drive away. “They were going to call the police because they were offended!”
“They were going to call the police because you thought you were a paedophile,” I tell him. He now has the rabbit head off and his fat sweaty face is grinning at me.
“You believe what you want, mate, but we both know what happened there.”
I later learn that this is the third Easter in a row that Gordon has caused a scene outside a mosque. Two years ago he pitched up outside the Golden Mosque and started jumping up and down on the spot, shouting the word ‘Easter’ over and over again. Last year, he stood at the gates of the central mosque handing out cheap chocolate eggs with the word ‘Easter’ scrawled across them in marker pen. Police were called on both occasions; the first time because they thought he was an escaped psychiatric patient, the second because they thought he was trying to groom kids.
Despite the setbacks, Gordon remains defiant and tells me that he is “just another Christian martyr in the war against the Islamification of the UK”.
“Me, Tommy, Jayda, Paul,” he says. “If it wasn’t for what we’re doing, you’d all be speaking Muslim and having to obey Sharia Law in a few years.” I ask him what any of that has to do with chocolate eggs.
“First they came for the Easter eggs and I did not speak out,” he says, with a wink.
“Because you’re not an Easter egg?” I reply. He ignores me and goes back to detailing the day’s events in a post on one of the many ‘Knights Templar’ Facebook pages. I don’t remember the part where we were chased away by a baying mob hurling bricks and shoes, but I’m maybe not reading it correctly. It’s a struggle to read it at all. Like a lot of ‘patriots’, Gordon appears to have more contempt for basic rules of spelling and grammar than he does for Muslims.
As I drop him off at his house, I ask him if he has any plans to attend a church service this Sunday, or even just get together with family to have a meal and remember Christ’s sacrifice all those years ago.
“Nah, footy is on, mate. Want to see Arsenal getting fucked by Stoke,” he says.
I’m sure it’s what Jesus would have wanted.