Authors: Charles Christian
“Perhaps another minute of chaos ensues before the entire valley lying in front of the church erupts into a wall of fire and flying debris.
“Then you shout out ‘Since when did Norfolk become a volcano zone?’ You are right. The only way to describe the inferno surrounding us is that it’s as if we’ve been pitched into the caldera of an active volcano. Where minutes ago there were the green rolling hills of arable farmland, there is now the cherry-red glow of flowing lava, while pyroclastic clouds envelop the water-meadows that this morning were still the haunt of dragonflies.
“But, once again, there is the glaring anomaly of our own location. The fumes, the heat, the flying ash, the lava flows. None of this reaches us on our hilltop. Neither the church nor the rectory are affected by the volcanic activity. In fact our perch at the top of the church tower is growing decidedly chilly as the cool, damp air of a typical English summer night swirls around us.
“More time passes. In the sky I can see huge pieces of white-hot rock plummeting down towards the Earth and in the distance enormous plumes of impact debris being thrown up high into the atmosphere. Falling meteors? Perhaps the fragments of an asteroid or meteor the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs?
“Above us the sky, jet black with no trace of the Moon. Below us, the ground has been ripped apart, the terrain unrecognisable as deep canyons, filled with swirling magma, buckle and fold around our hilltop.
“To the west, the entire night sky is momentarily illuminated by the brilliant flash of white light that seconds later transforms into a giant mushroom cloud. ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘That’ll be the arsenal of nuclear weapons, that officially aren’t stockpiled in this country, detonating at the Mildenhall and Lakenheath air force bases,’ before returning to watch the carnage unfold around us.
“Then I see something flying high above our heads, the light of the inferno’s glare glinting off its body. I swing the telescope in its direction to take a better look. Seven heads. Ten horns. A golden crown on each of the horns. The body of a leopard, the mouths of a lion and feet of a bear. It is the Beast of the Revelation, the harbinger of the Biblical end of the world.
“As if to confirm my worst fears, one of the Beast’s many heads turns in our direction. Even from the church tower, I can see its eyes flash in black hatred. I hear a roar of rage as the whole Beast turns and violently twists in the air before soaring down towards us at great speed. But, equally suddenly, it veers away as if some invisible force is protecting us. It swoops down upon us twice more only to swerve away at the final moment.
“I glance over to you for an explanation. For a few seconds you seem puzzled, then you click your fingers as if a thought has suddenly sprung to mind and you ask me what the time is. I check my watch and see it has stopped. ‘Your watch is digital,’ you say, ‘the EMP, the electro-magnetic pulse, caused by all the crap going on all around must have fried everything electronic we have with us. Hang on,’ you add, ‘I’ve a better idea.’
“Then you rush to the edge of the tower and peer over the parapet so you can see the church clock. ‘The clock,’ you call out, ‘says 11-50. Last time we checked it was running 20 minutes late, so that means in the real world it’s now ten minutes past twelve.’
“I ask why, if that’s the case, we are still alive and you reply ‘It must be the ley line. We’re sitting on a sacred site where time is running 20 minutes behind the rest of the world. Either the location or the time disparity, possibly a combination of the two, is shielding us. That’s why the seven-headed Beast couldn’t touch us, our time hadn’t yet run out. Amazing! We have front row seats for the Apocalypse. Of course what we’re seeing now is probably what will happen to us in ten minutes but in the meantime welcome to my world of myths, magic and mysteries, where the normal rules of science and logic no longer apply!’
“There is a further disturbance in the air above us. We both look up to see an enormous feathered creature being chased by the biggest hound I could ever imagine. ‘So remind me,’ I ask, ‘which End of the World myth involves a big chicken being chased across the sky by a giant hairy dog?’
“You reply ‘That’s not a chicken we are watching but Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent once worshipped by the Toltecs, the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Aztecs had their own apocalyptic myth in which the return of Quetzalcoatl heralds the end of the world and the planet being torn apart by earthquakes. As for the big dog chasing him, that’s Fenrir, the giant wolf of Norse legend. Fenrir is seriously bad news and even kills the god Odin during the events of
, the battle at the end of the world that heralds the Twilight of the Gods of Asgard.’
Ursula shakes her head in my direction, as if in disbelief. “I’m quite clearly losing the plot here aren’t I? I’m a vicar of the Church of England yet when I dream of the Apocalypse, I don’t see angels or devils. No, what I witness is some kind of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-denominational equal opportunity Doomsday! What is this, political correctness gone mad?
“In my dream,” she continues, “the next thing to happen is we catch sight of another winged creature slowly emerging out of the murk and gliding towards us. This one is different. It has the size, shape and form of a winged woman and comes to a halt, floating in mid-air, a few feet away from the parapet of the church tower. For one moment I think it may be a miracle and an angel sent to rescue us, afterall that is what is supposed to happen to the Righteous in The Bible. But then I see the angel is clad in black, not white samite, and instead of being made of feathers, her wings are leathery, like those of a giant bat. In one hand she holds a scythe and in the other an hourglass. And her face! Do you remember the story I told you about the woman I caught having sex in the churchyard in Leeds? This creature has her face.”
“Well, well, well. So that’s the second meeting you’ve had with Azraella, the Angel of Death. Better not let there be a third occasion or it’s game over,” I say.
Ursula nods. “That’s not exactly a comforting thought but at least that encounter only took place in a dream, so that doesn’t count. At least I hope not,” she adds with a worried smile. “However I must say I am impressed by your knowledge of angelology.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” I reply, “but our paths have crossed before. For an angel, she’s a miserable piece of work. Always in a hurry, no wonder she’s the patron saint of Goths.” Ursula looks at me askance. I shrug my shoulders. “It’s another long story and now is not the time to tell it, let’s get back to your dream.”
“For protection, I instinctively reach for the crucifix around my throat but it is missing. The chain has snapped, just like the one I was wearing earlier this afternoon. When Azraella sees my futile gesture, she grins at me. I can still see the smile on her face and the way she bares her teeth: a mouthful of long, needle-like teeth that remind me of a barracuda or piranha. Then she glances back to the hourglass and I can see the upper bulb contains just a few remaining grains of sand.
“Just as I feel a wave of despair wash over me, you grab me and say ‘Suppose we totally jam the clock? Would that stop the passage of time altogether? Only one way to find out but we’d better move quick. Ursula, I love you but we only have four minutes left to save the world!’
“You pick up the telescope and its tripod, adding ‘This big boy looks stout enough to do some serious damage’ and head down into the bowels of the church tower. Pausing only to wave goodbye to the still hovering Angel of Death, I follow you into the pitch blackness of the tower and down towards the heart of the slowly ticking clock.
“And then I wake up.”
By the time Ursula finishes recounting her dream, she is shaking and covered in sweat. “Hold me,” she says, “I need to feel your arms around me. Pull me back into the real world and out of this nightmare.”
Time passes. I gently stroke my fingers through her hair until I feel her relax in my arms. “How long,” I ask, “have you been having dreams like this?”
“I told you,” she replies, “only since I first met you.”
“No, I don’t mean this particular dream. I meant dreams generally of a revelatory and apocalyptical nature. Since you joined the Church? Or did you join the Church in the hope it might help you escape these dreams?”
“What are you getting at?” she asks.
“Come on, this is my special subject area, I don’t need to phone a friend. Ursula Southill is not a common name but it’s familiar in my circles. It’s the name of the woman better known to history as Old Mother Shipton. She was a sixteenth century psychic, seer and white witch from Knaresborough up in Yorkshire. The woman has even been described as England’s own Nostradamus.
“She predicted the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, Drake’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Great Fire of London and the End of the World, though it seems she got the date wrong on that. How does it go...
The Worlde to an end shall come, In Eighteen Hundred and Eighty One
As I talk, I notice Ursula avoids making any eye contact with me. “You are one of her line, aren’t you?” I suggest. “That’s what’s eating you up inside. There’s some kind of hereditary trait running through your family’s gene-pool that gives you the gift of prophecy. Only you are not comfortable with the visions you see?”
Ursula remains silent for a few moments before nodding her head in agreement. “Prophecy is not a gift, it’s a curse. The original Ursula Southill may be the best known for it but all the women in my family have had the faculty in one form or another. I had it as a child, along with telekinetic powers. I’d have been one of those kids at the centre of your Type Three category poltergeist hauntings. And you’re right, as the dreams became more intrusive, I sought the solace of the Church. It helps but sometimes something in the environment triggers it off again.
“Moving to this parish was a mistake. I thought I’d be escaping to a rural idyll but instead the history of the place, the influence of the ley line, the time I stayed at the Hopton parsonage and, finally, my encounter with John Patmos have just exacerbated the situation. You haven’t helped either,” she pauses to smile, “though you do offer consolation in other ways. In fact I could do with a little consoling right now.”
“I can do that,” I reply. “And remember, Mother Shipton was happily married and lived to a ripe old age, at a time when most people barely survived beyond middle-age.”
“It sounds corny,” says Ursula, “but I think Mother Shipton really did live a charmed life. Do you know the words they inscribed on her tomb?”
“Naturally,” I reply. “
Here lies she who never lied – Whose skill often has been tried – Her prophecies shall still survive – And ever keep her name alive.
“Wow, she really is your special subject,” says Ursula, snuggling up closer to me.
“Actually,” I say, “the present-day Ursula Southill is my special subject.”
But, even as I pull Ursula closer to me, at the back of my mind is a nagging memory of a comment she made the evening of our visit to John Patmos, “I have this awful premonition that my days are numbered and I’m not going to get out of this alive.”
I also remember something else.
According to the legend, the original Ursula Southill correctly predicted the date and time of her own death.
Summer turns to autumn, then to winter, before turning to spring again. Much to our mutual surprise we keep on seeing each other. Will something more permanent ever come of our relationship? Who knows? As they say on Facebook: “It’s complicated.”
Our lives contain certain immutable incompatibilities. There’s a part of her world I can never share in. And there’s a part of my world I must always shield her from.
I still remember a conversation I had with Archdeacon Jaffa a couple of years before I met Ursula. At the time we were sitting in the Abbey Gardens, at Bury St Edmunds, drinking neat malt whisky poured from a teapot into bone-china cups.
“Perfectly logical,” Jaffa had explained. “When actors are required to drink whisky as part of the
in a play, they use cold tea. The audience are none-the-wiser as, from where they’re sitting, the liquid in the glasses looks exactly the same as Scotch. I’ve just reversed the logic by decanting the malt into a teapot. Besides, it would be highly inappropriate for a senior cleric of the Church of England to be spotted drinking alcohol at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in such a public place.”
At some point that afternoon, we get onto the subject of the latest American armageddon cult to find itself with egg on its collective face, when their self-appointed messiah’s Day of Judgement failed to take place on schedule.
“The trouble with these latter-day prophets of doom,” said Jaffa, “is they are so busy foretelling death and damnation for others that they forget to watch out for themselves and more mundane risks closer to home.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh, you know. They are forever warning us to repent because
The End is Nigh
and that the Angel Gabriel is poised to blow his horn but then they die in a house fire at their own home because they forget to replace the battery in the smoke alarm! Truly a prophet is not honoured in his own land. In fact it’s hard to take them seriously at all.”