Authors: Charles Christian
Eventually we pull up outside my cottage and, just before I get out, I turn to her and say “I appreciate the need for discretion and that you wouldn’t want to be seen here at my cottage at this time of night in case the locals start gossiping but do you want to come in for a tea or coffee before you go back to the Rectory? You seem distracted and I don’t want you driving alone down these country lanes when you are upset.”
For a moment Ursula stares rigidly out through the windscreen. Then, her whole body relaxes and, with the first trace of a smile I’ve seen on her face for the past hour, she replies “Yes, I’d like that.”
As I set about boiling the kettle and organising some mugs, Ursula slumps down into the chintz armchair and lets out a long sigh.
I bring her a mug of green tea, set it down beside her and ask “Out with it. What happened back there at John’s place that upset you so much. One moment you were rolling your eyes in amusement as we were being told the true significance of Joey the Clown, a character best known for dragging around a string of sausages while Punch chases him with a slapstick shouting ‘That’s the way to do it.’ Then, the next moment you act like you’ve seen a ghost?”
“You’ve heard the phrase
Someone has stepped on my grave
?” asks Ursula.
“You mean the sudden, goose-pimples down the back, shuddery feeling we all get from time to time?”
She nods. “Yeah, except the sensation I had back there was ten times, if not a hundred-fold worse. I just have this awful premonition that we really are entering the End of Times. That our days, or at least my days, are numbered and we are not going to get out of this alive.” She smiles weakly in my direction and shrugs her shoulders. “I’m sorry, that’s part of the baggage that goes with being a priest. We actually do believe in all that stuff in
about Hell, Salvation and the Resurrection.”
Ursula stares into the middle distance as she sips her tea. When she’s finished, she puts down the empty mug and turns towards me. “Lex, I really don’t want to be alone tonight. Can I stay here? Only...”
“Only what?” I prompt.
“Only this isn’t a come-on, I just need someone to hold me.”
When I wake the next morning, the other side of the bed is empty and Ursula has gone. I do try to contact her but her phone goes straight to voicemail and she doesn’t answer any of my texts or emails. There again, I recall her mentioning she had a lot of parochial visits to catch up on over the next few days so I think nothing more of it.
About ten days later, I return home from a shopping trip and am just carrying the groceries from the car to the cottage when I catch sight of the ghost leaning out of the upstairs window. As I approach the porch of the house the ghost waves at me but I pay no notice as I’ve seen it so many times before. But then the ghost calls out my name and that certainly grabs my attention.
“Well that’s a fine thing Lex! I come out of my way on my only free afternoon of the week to see you and you don’t even acknowledge my existence.”
I do a double-take and look back up at the window. As I do, something else catches my eye. Hidden on the far side of the cottage, where it is not going to be seen by any passers-by, is Ursula’s pale blue Beetle.
I let myself into the house and head straight upstairs. My bedroom is empty so it can only mean Ursula is in the haunted front bedroom.
I open the bedroom door. Ursula is lying on the bed, the duvet pulled up to her throat but, when she sees me, she throws back the covers to reveal she is naked. Well, not completely naked, as she’s still wearing a large silver crucifix on a chain around her neck.
I join Ursula on the bed. She makes no objection to my presence there. Far from it. She kisses me passionately on the lips and begins to unbutton my shirt. “You know you were the perfect gentleman the other night and made no attempt to take advantage of me. I thank you for that. Besides, it just wouldn’t have been right.”
“But now?” I ask.
“But now, stop wasting your breath asking me stupid questions.”
I take the hint.
Sometime later, I feel something hard and cold digging into my leg. It’s the crucifix. At some point during our love-making the chain must have come undone. I retrieve the crucifix from the bed and show it to Ursula. “Looks like the clasp has broken. There’s a jobbing jeweller in Southwold though if you’re not in a mad rush, I can fix it for you?”
“Will you? That would be sweet. The next few days are manic so I’m not sure when I can get it into a town. Besides, I’ve a plain wooden cross I can wear. Probably more appropriate around here anyway, as I think a silver crucifix is a little too
for some of my congregation.”
She pauses. I notice a faraway look in her eyes, as if she is thinking of something else. “That’s broken my dream,” she says.
“What,” I ask, “the sex?”
“No, silly. The chain snapping on my crucifix. In my dream I reached up for the cross but it was missing.” She goes silent for a few moments before continuing. “Tell me Lex, what do you dream about? Do nightmares about ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the dark keep you awake in the lonely hours before dawn?”
“The complete opposite,” I reply. “Totally mundane stuff about colour-coded stationery, rushing to catch trains, remembering to put out the correct wheelie bin on a Thursday evening. Maybe it’s because I encounter all my nightmares doing the day-job, so my psyche feels it needs to unwind at night with dreams of a bland and unimaginative nature. Would I be right in guessing, by the way you phrased your question, that you are currently having disturbed nights. Not been sleeping at the Old Vicarage at Hopton again have you?”
“One night there was enough and that was before you warned me of its dubious reputation. I’ve since put in a recommendation to Archdeacon Jaffa that the place be declared redundant and sold off for redevelopment. It’ll upset the church wardens but it will pay for roof and chancel repairs elsewhere in the diocese.”
She pauses again, clearly remembering an incident. “Before I moved here, I think my dreams were also pretty much meat-and-potatoes stuff but over the last few weeks they’ve been taking on a less pleasant, surreal, if not downright apocalyptical tone. There’s one that keeps recurring, one that only started after I met you, well it would have to have been since I met you because you are in it, and each time a little more of the detail unfolds. I’d had it the night before we visited John Patmos, which is one of the reasons why his Punch and Judy revelations so freaked me out. And I had it again last night, right down to the detail of the missing crucifix.”
“Tell me about it,” I say.
“Are you sure? It’s very long and could be a bit of a downer on this afternoon?”
“Just tell me about it.”
“It starts with the two of us cresting a hill in the Beetle. We’re definitely in East Anglia and I think we’ve been driving along the Waveney Valley. Then we descend down a narrow winding lane into a little valley. To our right, perched on top of a small hill in the middle of the valley, is a church. It’s the usual flint and stone construction you get around here, except it also has a square tower in red brick. But the most memorable feature of the church in my dream is that the clock on the church tower is 20 minutes slow.”
“How do you know it’s running slow?” I ask.
“Because in my dream I glance at my wristwatch when I see the church and notice the time difference. Then I make a catty comment ‘What sort of place is this? The Land that Time Forgot?’ or something like that.”
“Anything else you can tell me about the location, as I’ve a feeling I know the place you are talking about.”
“Yes, there’s a big, cream-painted rectory close by the church, almost French-looking with shutters on the outside of the windows. But in my dream this building is no longer a rectory but belongs to a famous writer-friend of yours. He’s letting us stay in the place as house-sitters while he’s on a lecture tour in the United States. You’re very excited about all this because you are working on a new book and plan to make some astronomical, or maybe even astrological, observations from the top of the church tower.”
“Whoa, spooky,” I say, interrupting the flow of her story. “That’s an almost word perfect description of the church at Denburgh and the rectory there does now belong to a well-known author.”
“Is he a friend of yours?” asks Ursula.
“More of an acquaintance. We share the same literary agency although I’ve also visited his house. But, and this is the really weird coincidence, the church clock at Denburgh always does run 20 minutes slow. Some longstanding fault the parish can’t afford to fix. It’s a mechanical clock and needs rewinding every 14 days. According to my writer acquaintance, one of the covenants that come with the rectory is its owner has responsibility for keeping the clock fully wound, though in return you do get free access to all parts of the church tower. Anyway, back to your dream.”
“As we unpack the car, I notice you’ve packed a big brass antique telescope, mounted on an equally impressive brass and wood tripod. This is dream logic for you, as there is no way we could have ever fitted a thing that size into the Beetle. I ask you why you are suddenly so interested in stargazing and you reply, cool as a cucumber, that you are planning to watch the apocalypse!
“You go on to explain this is not the Biblical Apocalypse of St John the Divine or our mutual friend John Patmos but an End of Days caused by all the planets falling into alignment and cosmic gravitational forces ripping the Earth apart. You know, the usual New Age, hippy-drippy mysticism, counter-culture conspiracy theory stuff.”
“You are aware,” I say, “that real astronomers reckon all these cosmic alignment theories, like the Mayan
Long Count Calendar
thing, and the risk of a collision with the lost planet Nibiru everyone was talking about the other year, are just bollocks and will never happen.”
“I know that and you know that but in my dream you are a firm believer in the coming cosmic disaster. You even talk about podcasting from the roof of the tower. ‘Reporting live from the Apocalypse,’ is how you put it. Oh, and then you toss into the conversation the fact this little hill the church and rectory are built on, is located on the same
Great Saint Michael
ley-line that makes life so miserable at the Hopton vicarage.
“The next incident in my dream,” continues Ursula, “is one morning I walk into the kitchen only to find it piled high with cases of canned food, long-life milk and bottled water”
“Well that makes sense,” I reply. “If the world really is going to end and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are in the neighbourhood, you wouldn’t want to inadvertently starve to death because the cupboards were bare and you couldn’t pop out to the nearest store. I hope someone in your dream also remembered to bring a can opener.”
“Very droll,” says Ursula. “I must have missed the scenes in the
movies where Mel Gibson is tucking into tins of
sliced pears and
“So go on,” I say, “tell me what happens next?”
“What happens next,” says Ursula, “is it’s the eve of the Apocalypse and we are sitting on top of the Denburgh church tower waiting for darkness, so you can resume watching the planets positioning themselves for a final frame of cosmic snooker. We are also well into our second bottle of rosé, which is clearly your bad influence again, as the first time I’d drunk it in years was when I visited your cottage that first time.
“The night rolls on. Overhead us hangs a large yellow harvest Moon. We talk about life, love, sex, music and work. We talk about ley lines: You tell me before the present Christian church was built in Denburgh, the hill was a sacred ritual site and that two Neolithic standing stones were subsequently incorporated into the fabric of the church tower. Neither of us are sure if this was just Mediaeval stone masons being thrifty with their building materials or else covering their bets (and their souls) by backing both the Old Religion as well as the new.
“Finally it starts to grow dark, though with this being high summer, it is not until well past eleven o’clock that the skies are black enough for astronomy. You gaze through the telescope then suddenly exclaim ‘Bloody hell! The planets really are aligning along the plane of the ecliptic, just as the ancient prophesies foretold. And look at the Moon, it’s turning blood-red in colour!’
“You ask me the time. I look at my watch and then lean over the parapet of the tower to check the church’s clockface. ‘In the real world,’ I reply, ‘it is 15 minutes to midnight but here in Denburgh it’s still only 25 minutes past eleven.’ Then we look at each other and realise the only sound we can hear is the slow, deep, repetitive tock, tock, tock coming from the clock mechanism lurking in the chamber beneath our feet.”
Ursula pauses briefly in the telling of her tale and once more I see that far away look in her eyes.
“The seconds become minutes,” she says “I check my watch again. And again and again. The countdown to midnight is underway. Five minutes to go. Four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes. One minute. Midnight. Then... nothing.
“Nothing for about 40 seconds but then we hear a deafening, earth-rendering roar begin to rumble and roll all around us. I see trees in the distance violently shaking. Lights in nearby houses flicker on and off before being extinguished forever. The surrounding hillsides ripple as they are convulsed by earthquake-like forces. Yet where we are, bizarrely, all is calm and still, with the church tower not moving, not even shaking, while all around us the cataclysm rages.