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Authors: Charles Christian

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BOOK: Tomorrow's Ghosts
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“That’s the Spring Festival of St Michael?”

“Precisely, its influence is said to be at its most powerful and most dangerous at dawn that day. There’s a rumour, strongly denied by the Archdeacon I should add although that only gives it more credibility as far as I’m concerned, about one of your predecessors going mad after sleeping in the vicarage on such a night. Apparently he went to bed on the evening of the 7th of May totally sane but woke up the following morning in such an unhinged and demented state that he rushed out of the vicarage in his nightshirt and set fire to the church. That’s not the current church but the original St Margaret’s, which is now nothing more than a ruined tower and chancel. But come on, out with it, you still haven’t answered my question. What particular manifestation of the weird prompted you to seek me out today?”

After a moment she answers me. “Have you heard of a character called John Patmos, who lurks around this parish and apparently claims to be the reincarnation of Saint John the Divine?”

I’ve been asked some odd questions in my time but this one is so surreal it makes me laugh out loud. “Don’t tell me,” I reply, “John is scaring the natives again with his prophecies? He’s been telling little old ladies that at any moment the Great Whore of Babylon is going to sweep into Aldeburgh, astride the Seven Headed Beast of the Revelations, to carry off to Hell any senior citizens who’ve ever drunk anything stronger than cream sherry. So now a deputation of concerned parishioners has asked you to intervene?”

She nods her head in agreement. “So you have heard of him?”

“Oh, yes and let me guess, you asked the Archdeacon for guidance?” She nods again. “And he referred you straight back to me.”

“Right again. In fact he said Lex Byter is the only man you need to speak to as he’s known Patmos for longer than anyone in this part of the world. So is he your friend?”

I shake my head. “I suppose I have known him longer than anyone else although that’s not saying very much. But, I wouldn’t describe him as a friend, way too flakey for my taste.”

“So?” she prompts.

“So I guess I do have some involvement as I’m the person who first found him. Saved him from a watery grave.”

“You found him?”

“It began like this... it was an early November about ten years ago. I was in a relationship with a poet at the time. You are actually sitting in an armchair she gave me, in an attempt to domesticate me. It didn’t work, my world was incompatible with the world she occupied. Anyway, she lived in Cornwall but had been invited up to Aldeburgh to read at the annual poetry festival. We’d stayed together at the White Lion Hotel for the weekend and on the Sunday afternoon, after she headed back to the South West by train, I was cycling back home to Dunwich. I’d only gone a couple of miles riding along the coast road that runs into Thorpeness. Do you know it?”

“The place with The House-in-the-Clouds folly and the ersatz mediaeval castle?”

“The very same place,” I reply, “when I noticed some large pieces of wreckage washed up on the beach. They hadn’t been there a couple of days previously, when I’d made my way in to Aldeburgh, and the fact they were lying on the tideline with incoming waves breaking over them made me think they must be part of a very recent shipwreck. So, I left the road and walked across the beach to take a closer look. I could see parts of a white painted hull and what looked like varnished deck-planking. There were also some large strips of canvas sail washed up in the surf.”

“The wreck of a yacht?” suggests Ursula.

“That or at least a sailing boat of some sort. Then I spotted the body of a man lying entwined in the rigging still attached to a broken mast spar. Of course I ran over and to my surprise and relief found he was still alive. I assumed he must have been caught up in the rigging and dragged to his fate but it subsequently transpired that when the yacht started to break up, he tied himself to the spar and used it to keep himself afloat in the swell.

“I gave him a combination of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, improvising madly as kissing bearded sailors is not something I’d had any prior experience of, and after a couple of minutes he was breathing regularly. He opened his eyes and stared straight at me. It was a look of fear... of incomprehension, as if he didn’t know where he was. And then he opened his mouth and spoke. His first few words were in Aramaic and then he switched to Greek, but it was in
Koine
, an archaic form of Greek rather than the modern variety.”

“You understand Aramaic? The language of the Messiah!”

“It can come in handy in my line of work, it’s the language of choice among all major league demons.”

Ursula gives me a quizzical look before asking me what the shipwrecked mariner said.

“He said, and I’ll paraphrase what was a long and rambling speech – and I admit my Aramaic is a little rusty...


I was on a galley carrying me from the Island of Patmos when a squall erupted. Then, from out of the storm-lashed waves, the Great Beast rose and bore down on our galley, its many heads twisting and writhing in anger, and shattering our oars and masts as if they were but matchwood. Our vessel began to founder and I was pitched into the roiling waters. There I grabbed onto a splintered transom for buoyancy. Then darkness overcame me and when I awoke I was wearing strange raiments, still clutching at a spar of timber but in a cold and alien ocean.’

That’s his story and he stuck with it. It was the same tale he consistently told the ambulance crew, who I’d called to the scene, and later both the police and the Coastguards when they investigated his experiences.”

“Do you believe him?”

I shrug my shoulders. “If he is Saint John the Divine, then we have to believe he fell through a tear in the fabric of time that propelled him the best part of 2000 years into his future. I think a more likely explanation is as a result of shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injury – maybe a blow to his head while the yacht was breaking or hypoxia from nearly drowning – he now genuinely believes he is Saint John of the
Book of Revelations
.”

“What was the official explanation?”

“The wreckage definitely belonged to a yacht, a yacht called
The Four Apostles
that was registered on the Greek island of Patmos. It had been in British waters throughout the summer, taking part in various races and regattas around the coast. Its crew were last seen drinking in the yacht club at Lowestoft. They were discussing sailing the boat down to the marina at Ramsgate, where they were due to meet up again with her owner, who had been away on business. There was one crew member among them who spoke mainly Greek or, more to the point, very little English and who fitted our shipwrecked mariner’s description. But that’s as far as it went.

“The guy I found on the shore that evening had no identification papers nor any memory of either who he was or where he’d come from. He was the sole survivor. No other bodies were ever found. Unhelpfully, there were no records of anyone fitting his description being reported missing in Greece. In the absence of anything better to call him, somebody in one of the seamen’s missions where he was staying put the name John Patmos on his paperwork. And it stuck.

“The next thing I heard, he was learning English and living in a beach house. Actually that description is a little over-generous. It’s more of a wooden hut on a run-down caravan park near Pakefield just south of Lowestoft.” I pause. “But then came the fateful day he saw his first Punch and Judy show.”

“What!” exclaims Ursula.

“You heard me right, Punch and bloody Judy! What happened is he saw his first ever Punch and Judy show about eight years ago, on the pleasure beach at Great Yarmouth. It was one of your interfering do-gooder predecessors who decided it might be nice to introduce this poor shipwrecked foreigner to a little bit of traditional English popular culture. Ice cream, fish and chips, candy-floss and a puppet of a little man in a red coat who beats his wife and baby to death before being attacked by clowns, ghosts, a hangman, the Devil and a crocodile. The experience blew John’s mind, which had quite clearly been in tatters since the day he was first washed ashore, if not before. It clearly struck an unfortunate chord in his psyche that set off all his worst apocalyptic fantasies.”

“Such as?” asks Ursula.

“Such as? Well, why don’t we go ask him ourselves.”

3. Punch and Brandy

Forty minutes later we pull into the caravan park near Pakefield in Ursula’s Beetle.

“I see what you mean about beach house being a generous description,” says Ursula, as we park outside John’s black tar-clad hut.

“This is nothing,” I reply, “just wait until you see inside.”

She flashes me a worried look. Justified as it happens, as the interior of the building is painted throughout in narrow, red-and-white vertical stripes, echoing the candy-stripe canvas exterior of a Punch and Judy booth. I hear Ursula take a sharp intake of breath for surrounding us, everywhere we turn (and I do mean everywhere) on table tops, propped up on book shelves or else huddled together for support on chairs, are a legion of Punch and Judy show puppets, their staring, painted eyes seemingly following us around the room.

John greets me as if I’m one of his oldest friends and, I must confess, over the years we have met from time-to-time to share a bottle of
Metaxa
7-Star
Greek brandy and drink it late into the night discussing everything and nothing. He chastely greets Ursula as ‘Little Sister,’ his Greek Orthodox upbringing unable to conceive of women having any role to play within the church except as nuns.

I fear John’s fascination with Punch and Judy has slipped over the boundary between healthy interest to unhealthy obsession as there are many more puppets here since the last time I visited. Old ones, dating back to the late nineteenth century, so badly battered hardly any of their original paint remains, along with newer ones, still in relatively pristine condition. And then there are ones John is creating from scratch, carving their heads from driftwood found on the beach.

Along with Mister Punch, Judy, the Baby, the Policeman, the Doctor, Joey the Clown and the Crocodile, John also has some of the characters no longer regularly seen in modern seaside shows. There, sitting among John’s belongings, are Jack Ketch the Hangman, the Ghost, the Skeleton, Pretty Polly, the Devil and even a rare Mister Scaramouche, a puppet who’d vanished from the repertoires of most Punch and Judy
professors
long before my old mate Freddie Mercury thought it would make a neat line in a song.

I think I know what’s going through Ursula’s mind, so I save her the trouble and ask the question for myself. “John, can you explain to us the evangelical significance of Punch and Judy?”

John pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath and then the floodgates open “Shortly after you rescued me from the Tempest, I had a dream. It was a Revelation as God allowed me a glimpse of what He and His Heavenly Host has in store for Mankind.”

I see Ursula glance my way and give me a
he can’t really be serious look
. I nod my head and make myself as comfortable as I can, sharing a raggedity charity shop sofa with two Mister Punch puppets, a headless Judy and a Crocodile with a broken lower jaw as, over the next hour, John Patmos talks of how his puppets are a metaphor symbolising the approaching Apocalypse and the struggle between Good and Evil.

Growing increasingly excited as the evening wears on, John explains each puppet’s role in turn. The Hangman, the Skeleton, the Ghost and the Doctor are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Pretty Polly is the Great Harlot of Babylon. The Crocodile is the Beast of the Apocalypse. Judy and the Baby are
the Woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars and her Child
. Scaramouche and the Policeman are the Two Witnesses, while Mister Punch, with his predilection for thwacking everybody with his stick is the Archangel Michael.

“OK,” says Ursula interrupting John mid-flow. “I can understand the imagery and I’m guessing the Devil is Satan but who is Joey the Clown meant to represent?”

“Why,” replies John, as if he has just been asked the most reasonable question in the world, “Joey the Clown symbolises the False Prophet, who lies and misleads all mankind.”

“In that case,” asks Ursula, “who is the Antichrist?”

“That,” says John, “is the one remaining Great Mystery the Good Lord did not choose to share with me. It is my task, my mission, my burden, my quest, my sacred duty to answer that question. I have dedicated my life since I was pulled from the Ocean to just one cause: to find and to destroy the Antichrist. And if it is my fate to perish in the process, then so be it for that is God’s Will and His ways are beyond our understanding.”

It is at this point that Ursula leans over to me and whispers in my ear “I have heard enough. I think it is time for us to leave.”

Given the pressure with which Ursula digs her finger nails into my arm as she says this, I’m left in no doubt how serious she is about wanting to go, so I make our excuses to John. For his part, John appears totally oblivious to the sudden change in Ursula’s attitude and wishes us both a fond farewell as we head off into the night in the VW.

It is not a cool evening but there is a distinctly chilly atmosphere in the car as we drive back in silence, Ursula seemingly unwilling to say anything about her impression of John or whatever else it is that is bugging her this evening.

BOOK: Tomorrow's Ghosts
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