2017/08/18- Six weeks after The Cataclysm Event.
St Thomas’ Church, Wiltshire
After the townsfolk had shuffled out of the church and into the unfriendly night, Father Enoch stepped down from the lectern; his shadow was thrown, large and sinister, across the back wall by the long red candles that burned in neat rows in front of the altar.
He had just given the evening’s service to thirty-nine people and one dog; his largest congregation yet. There’d be more people tomorrow; the apocalypse had a way of making people reconsider their theological viewpoints.
People had stood outside in the chill night air, blowing into their hands and stamping their feet on the gravel path as they listened intently. He had given one of his favourite sermons, and it seemed apt given that most people believed – and rightly so – that it was the end of the world.
He had started with his favourite quote from Jerimiah 4:25; “I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord,” he’d said with ecclesiastical gravitas. There’d been real fear in the eyes of the townsfolk, bright like beasts in the flickering candlelight.
The dog had curled up and gone to sleep. Ignorance was bliss.
Enoch sighed to himself, reflecting on the service, unsure whether he wanted those words to be true or not. Six weeks ago, the world had fallen to ruins, and humanity, as pampered and privileged as it had ever been, had been blown back to the Dark Ages. The global death toll in the first few hours alone had been astronomical. Ten minutes without Facebook and everyone was foaming at the bloody mouth
. He had assured them that greater and bigger things than themselves were in operation and that the Lord would provide some kind of answer, and that maybe it was a punishment wrought upon us all as a result of our self-centred egotistical hubris. What else could it have been? The sudden unplugging of all of our electrical devices, the subsequent persistent failure of any new ones constructed. Then, the floods and the torrential rain for five days straight. All of it just smacked of the end times.
Before the Event, it had been a long time since Enoch had seen the place lit only in candlelight and he found it both beautiful and sinister at the same time. The ancient grotesques and the angels carved in stone atop the grey columns along the walls were given a lot more depth and impact; they almost seemed animated. Jesus looked on forlornly from his crucifix, and Enoch clutched at the simple iron cross hung around his neck; a gesture that had become automatic and comforting.
He had eschewed trying to amass any kind of riches himself, preferring instead the quiet life in Wiltshire, far from papal politics and judgemental finger pointing. He was fine with the homosexual agenda, he didn’t have any feelings this way or that about female priests, and he thought that Africa should start a programme of education on the benefits of safe sex. All unpopular beliefs with the church and in the small town he lived in generally. There was plenty to love about the place; the long walks along the idyllic rolling landscape, birdsong, and a glass or two of Jameson before bed. It’s not that he had become cynical, it was just that the world had changed without him and he stubbornly refused to adapt.
He needed to appear calm and without fear; that was what he’d been taught at the seminary. He needed to appear brave to his congregation. If reports were true, his congregation would continue to grow; from what he had heard from the steady stream of travellers and refugees, most of England appeared to have floated away into the sea. When he went for his usual morning walk – a ritual he maintained even given everything that had happened – he now saw new lakes and rivers where once there’d been valleys.
It truly felt like the Biblical end times and Enoch wondered why it had not strengthened his resolve, why he had not become more fervently religious, and why he just remained his normal stoic self. He was certainly glad that the rain had finally stopped though; the damp had played merry hell with his rheumatism. The new church roof had held up well against the nonstop downpour, which was more than could be said for a lot of people’s houses.
Most people had left, but a few had remained in prayer, near the front of the pews. Enoch blessed them as he walked past.
A woman was sat at the back of the church on her own. She was crying.
“Is this really the end Father?” she sobbed, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her dirty coat.
“Who is to say?” He replied, and smiled sadly, “Regardless of what happens now, time will march steadily forward, and we will need to face what comes at us with open hearts.”
She smiled nervously. He desperately wanted to believe that himself.
“Does God hate us that much?” she asked.
I’m afraid so, and who can blame Him, he thought, but replied, “Of course not my child. These things are sent to test our faith. We must be resolute, and have faith that He will provide.”
“But I didn’t believe. You know, before. Am I going to go to Hell for that?”
Yes. “Of course not, child. Better to believe now, then never at all.” He tried to sound convincing, “All who accept Him will be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
He reached over and rubbed her shoulder reassuringly. He knew he was wrong, but he couldn’t help but feel a tiny flicker of disdain for her, and those like her. They’d sneered at the church and the faithful all their lives, and now here they were, like people who turn up to a party late and claim they’ve been there the whole time.
“Thank you Father,” she said and went back to praying. She seemed genuine, at least. He felt immensely guilty and he resolved to pray for forgiveness later.
He stayed for the next hour listening to people confessing their sins to him. He listened to the townsfolk confess to affairs or impure thoughts or minor dismeanours. One man, older than Enoch, confessed to killing over a hundred Nazi’s in the war, some up close and extremely personal. One particular incident involved him, a lead lamp and two enemy soldiers being clubbed to death in the middle of the night. He said it happened in a chateaux just outside of the French town of Valence-d’Agen.
The old man had looked at the palms of his shaking and liver spotted hands as he told the story as if he could still see the blood on them.
Enoch had forgiven him, and reassured him that he’d just been doing his duty and defending the world against the evil of the Axis force, and there was no way God was going to forbid him entry into the Kingdom of Heaven for that.
All the while he talked, Enoch was desiring a very stiff drink.
When the church had finally emptied, it was sometime after midnight and Enoch was exhausted. He stepped outside for some fresh air, and was greeted with a panoply of stars winking in the cloudless firmament. The moon was huge and luminescent in the bejewelled sky, and moonlight limned the contours of the landscape.
Far away, a building burned, orange in the velvet-blue night.
Enoch breathed into his hands; it was unseasonably cold for August.
He went back inside and closed the heavy double doors behind him. He locked them and let out another long sigh as he pulled the white collar from around his neck. He looked up at the crucified Jesus and formed the sign of the cross, drawing two fingers down from his forehead and then across his body.
When he’d finished the motion, the air suddenly felt heavier. At first he thought there was something wrong with eyes or that he was having some kind of episode. He rubbed his eyes, and when he looked back his jaw dropped in an almost cartoon gesture of disbelief; Jesus had suddenly disappeared, along with the altar and the lectern.
His old heart was thudding and he felt a warmth in the back of his throat as he slowly walked up the aisle, resting his hand on the tops of the pews for support. There was a faint smell of rain on dry grass, and burning metal. As he breathed this in, a long-buried memory rushed to the forefront of his mind; being a boy and running under a bruised sky, through freshly quenched fields that surrounded his childhood home.
Enoch stopped a few feet from where the lectern had been. He heard a faint buzzing, more like a vibration in his ears than an actual sound. He thought it actually was just a problem with his ears, the same way he’d presumed the heat-haze shimmer had been a trick of his eyes, but when he turned his head the sound oscillated. It touched a nerve in his brain, and made him feel uneasy and afraid.
The air was still visibly rippling. It almost looked like a trick of the light, but if he cocked his head that way and this, he could see in mid-air the faint reflection of a candle flame, pulled long over the curved, invisible surface of whatever it was that had disturbed the air. He took a few steps back, and saw a shift in the light, a blank space that was bending and refracting light around it, like a soap bubble.
Enoch was a calm, sensible man by nature, but right then he felt a sudden very urgent urge to run screaming into it and into the arms of Jesus and the lord himself because at that instant he knew what it was; way down past his rational minded cynicism, and from the deepest depths of his faith he knew that this was the gateway to heaven and that the rapture had finally come. Firstly though, he needed a whisky and then he needed to tell someone.
He stopped himself from running through, and chided himself for his selfishness. The gateway wasn’t just for him. It was for all of them.
His congregation had to know. They had to be told that salvation was here.
He didn’t know how long the doorway would be there and whether or not it was meant for anyone else other than him, but he beat those thoughts away. He was just excited and scared because it appeared that the Lord had answered his most secret prayers.
Sleep was hard at first; he kept thinking about the gateway, and wondering what really lay in wait for them in the hereafter, and whether or not it would still be there in the morning. Twice he found himself forced from the warmth of his bed to inspect the thing, to assure himself that it was still there. Finally though, exhaustion had him, and he fell into it and dreamt of nothing, except for the excited buzzing of the sphere.
The first thing Enoch did the next day was to call around to his assistant, Pike, who lived at the edge of town in an old stone cottage that the church had assigned to him. He was a bit slow and naive, but his heart was in the right place. When Enoch thought of the young man, he usually thought of the similarly dim but charming character Private Pike from the old TV show Dad’s Army, though he knew that to do so was mean-spirited.
Pike was perched on top of a wooden ladder, clearing the guttering with his bare hands when Enoch arrived. The grass was still wet from a recent downpour, and Enoch noted that the house hadn’t faired as well as the others in town, most likely on account of its age. Enoch had actually lived in the house himself until a few years ago, but had given the place up to move into the small dwellings attached to the church itself. His knees hadn’t been up to the long walk up the steep hill to the church anymore.
The rose bushes Enoch had planted as a young man had been pulled out and replaced with sunflowers; he didn’t care for them, or for the crazy paving path. Still, it wasn’t for him to get upset about, and anyway he had a grander purpose; a divine mission that he needed to set Pike upon.
The young man climbed down and greeted him with a smile, and they both went inside the small cottage. Pike’s wife was a thin slip of a woman, with long mousy-coloured hair and great brown eyes. She was stood over the wood-burning stove at the back of the kitchen. The air was heavy with the smells of cooked meat and coffee, and Enoch’ mouth started watering; he’d had nothing but tinned food cooked over the feeble flame of an old Calor gas stove since the lights had gone out.
She turned as he and Pike entered the kitchen, and beamed at him.
“Care for some breakfast Father? We’ve still got some left over!” Her cheeks were ruddy from the heat and she was wearing a cloth apron that may have once been white. The whole scene reminded Enoch of his childhood, just after the Second World War; in fact everything recently had reminded him of that.
He and Pike sat at the kitchen table. Like all the furniture in the place, it was old, solid dark wood.
“I won’t, thank you Elizabeth. I would murder for a tea, if you’ve some?”
She smiled and nodded, and busied herself with a pan of hot water.
“So, Father,” asked Pike, “What’s brought you down here so early?”
“Is it early?” Enoch asked, and then chuckled to himself. He looked at his wristwatch – dead since the Event, like all timepieces – that he was still wearing out of habit. “You know, I’ve lost all notion of time.”
Elizabeth brought over his cup of tea.
“It’s black,” she said apologetically. “What with the cows being… well. You know.”
“It’s fine Elizabeth. This is perfect.”
Elizabeth smiled, and was about to say something when she was interrupted by the cries of small child, coming from the other room. Elizabeth’s bright smile was replaced by a look of concern.
“I’ll go and see if she’s okay,” she murmured.
“I can-” Pike started to say, rising.
“No, no, it’s fine,” said Elizabeth. “I’m sure Father Enoch has something important to talk to you about.”
She hurried out of the room.
“Eloise?” asked Enoch. “Is she alright?”
“Nightmares,” Pike sighed. “She’s not making it through the nights. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. She’s scared.”
Her and me both, thought Enoch.
Enoch held the white china cup in his hands, and stared down into the tea for a few moments to gather his thoughts. He was asking a lot, after all.
“Michael,” he said, forming each word slowly and carefully. “The Lord has sent us a sign. It’s time for those worthy of forgiveness to move on.”
Pike was stirred by the use of his first name, and looked up from the scratched wood tabletop. The two men locked eyes for a second. The only other time Enoch had used Pike’s first name was four years ago, when Pike’s mother had passed away.
“What do you mean Father?” he asked, confused.
“Last night, after service. There was a…” he paused for a second, searching for the words, “A… gateway, or a door. I’m not really sure what to call it. But it opened up there in the church, and Jesus was there Michael. He was there in front of me, as real as you are to me now. Then He was gone, disappeared.”
“Actual Jesus?” Pike asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“No Pike, the plaster one on the cross,” snapped Enoch. You stupid boy, Private Pike.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I looked away for a second and He had gone. Taken by the Lord Himself, just as He was in the flesh. As God as my witness, it’s true,” he said, looking up and crossing himself quickly. “It’s a sign. I know it. We are supposed to leave this place now.”
“Have you told anyone else?” Pike asked.
“No,” replied Enoch. He took a sip of tea to try and steady his nerves for what he was about to say. “I… I have a job for you, Michael.”
“Yes. A job. Not just me. The Lord.”
Pike frowned. “Don’t you realise what’s going on?” he said. “I have to take care of my family now. That’s my job-”
Enoch closed his eyes and sighed, “Psalm 118:19-20,” Enoch cut in. He hated to do it, but needs must. He pointed a shaking finger at Pike. “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous will enter through it.”
Pike looked dazed and a little upset by the zeal in Enoch’ voice.
“I… I mean, I can’t….” he stammered.
Enoch drained his cup and slammed it down on the tabletop.
“Come with me then. Come and look at it. After that, we will see what jobs are important.”
Pike kissed his wife and child, and the two men left the house to wander slowly up the hill. Strangely, they did not speak about the portal. Instead, they took in the view as the land rose; the crowded and uneven layout of the town, a mix of ancient buildings made of uneven stones and post-war brick buildings. The air smelt of honey suckle and rapeseed and as they climbed the hill to the west they could see the bright, yellow fields, methodically cut there amongst green fields dotted with purple lavender and golden hawthorn.
Much like the surrounding countryside, St Thomas’ hadn’t changed significantly the last three hundred years, even surviving unscathed during the Blitz, unlike other parts of the town. It stood solid and defiant in the face of chaos, the calm at the heart of another storm, a beacon of hope for the lost and scared.
They walked through the churchyard. Enoch glanced at the graves, some as old as the church itself, and blank as slate except for faint curlicues and greenish lichen. He wondered how many of these departed souls he would meet when he went through the doorway himself.
They went inside. The sphere was still there, distorting light around it. Pike’s mouth hung open as he stared at it.
“I can hear it buzzing,” he whispered. He reached out a finger as if to touch the shimmer, but drew it back at the last moment.
“Do you believe me now?” asked Enoch. “What else could it be if not a sign from God?” He handed the man a small pre-prepared tumbler of whiskey and watched the amber liquid disappear down the young man’s gullet.
Pike took his eyes from the sphere to the priest and then back again, “I do believe you Father,” he said finally. “I’m sorry I doubted you. Forgive me.”
“It’s fine Pike,” Enoch said. “In your position, I would’ve been just as skeptical.”
They stood and looked at the sphere for a while, neither of them speaking.
“Have you been through yourself?” asked Pike.
“No, just in case I couldn’t get back,” said Enoch. “We need to tell everyone first. This is a test Pike, a final test. We have to tell as many people as possible that salvation is to be found here. Do you understand the nature of what you need to do now? It’s a mission from the Lord, and we’ve been chosen to spread the word as loud and as far as we can.”
He reached out and took Pike’s hand in his own.
“We can save them Pike!” he said fervently. “The townsfolk, Elizabeth, Eloise… all of them! We can save them all!”
Pike nodded, knowing that this was indeed his job. He would be the Lord’s messenger. There was no longer any doubt in his mind.
They sat in Andrew’s office and talked about how Pike would go about his mission; he would have to travel to as many towns as he could, tell as many people as possible, and hope that word spread even further. In a world without phones, email or even a postal service, word of mouth was all they had. When Pike’s work was done, he would go through himself.
Pike went to fetch the mayor, and brought him back so that he could be told everything. After he’d seen the gateway – and after Enoch had pushed a glass of whisky into his trembling hands – they’d told him their plan.
“I’ll let everyone know,” said the mayor, accepting a second whisky. “A town meeting. Yes.”
An emergency town meeting was held. Ten minutes later, the whole town was crowded on the hill outside the church. There was some shoving and impatience, but the general sense was one of immense relief. People were crying, hugging, praising God for delivering them from suffering. Even the staunch atheists – and there were fewer and fewer of them each passing day – had come along, out of amused curiosity.
No one was carrying luggage; they wouldn’t need their belongings in Paradise. The old and young alike climbed the hill, taking one last look out across the abandoned fields.
Enoch welcomed them all with warm smiles and kind words. He stood at the head of the crowd, and felt an overwhelming pressure to give some kind of sermon; something that might set the people’s fears at rest. So he did, telling them that all of their lost ones would be waiting on the other side in the Kingdom of Heaven. They were blessed, he told them. God had chosen them to survive this nightmare. They had been tested, and their faith had carried them through this most awful of ordeals.
In the crowd, he spotted the woman who had been crying the other night, and she smiled nervously at him, as if she was worried that things seemed too good to be true.
Enoch managed to get people to form a queue. There was no rush, he told them. Heaven was eternal; it wasn’t going anywhere. He managed to get people singing as they waited, good rousing hymns like Amazing Grace and Jerusalem.
The first person to enter was the old soldier that Enoch had spoken with the other night. He shuffled up to the curve in the air, and squinted at it with his watery blue eyes. He murmured something to himself – his wife’s name, who knew for sure? – and then stepped through and disappeared.
Cheers filled the room and then, one by one they all began to shuffle into the church, down the aisle, and up into the heat-haze shimmer; some wept as they went, some approached it with reverent silence, others laughed and sang even louder. It filled his heart with great joy and terrible loss.
Not everyone went willingly. A young boy screamed at his mother that he didn’t want to go, but his mother pressed forward, holding his hand tightly in hers. Like everyone else, they stepped into the sphere and vanished.
It took most of the day for all the townsfolk to pass through. The mayor was one of the last, and he shook Enoch’ hand vigorously.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” he laughed, and practically skipped through. “I’ll be at the bar.”
Pike led his wife and daughter up the hill to them. His wife’s eyes were rimmed in red and it was clear that she had been crying.
Enoch fumbled for some comforting words, but Pike spared him.
“Now now Liz,” he said gruffly. “Father Enoch has given me an important job. I’ve got to go tell everyone about this here doorway.”
“But why has it got to be you?” Elizabeth wailed. She was crying again.
“Because God said so,” Pike said, and that was that. He embraced her and his little girl, and whispered promises in their ears that they’d see each other again. Enoch looked away, awkward and embarrassed to be intruding on the family moment.
“Bless you Father,” said Elizabeth, hugging him.
“And you, my child.”
“Bess oo,” gurgled Eloise, wrapping herself around his leg.
Pike went inside with them. Eloise waved back at Enoch with a chubby hand.
Enoch waited outside for Pike to exit, affording him some time to say good bye. He sat on the uneven stone wall and watched as the sun set, setting the yellow fields ablaze. A large blackbird squawked in the boughs of the willow tree that hung languidly over the northern section of the graveyard.
He was at peace. He’d done a good job; more than any man could ever hope to do.
Pike walked out of the church looking utterly bereft. Enoch went to him and hugged the young man hard.
“I suppose it’s your turn now,” Pike said. He sniffed, and wiped his eyes.
The priest shook his head, “I will linger a little longer and help shepherd any stragglers through. They may have their doubts and will need me to… you know, allay their fears.”
His mind wandered to the bottle of thirty year old Glenmorangie safely nestled away in a locked drawer in the bottom of the old filing cabinet in his office. He had his own personal reservations at relinquishing the pleasures of the flesh and he wanted at least one more night with his old Scottish friend. The lord could wait one more more day.
He squeezed Pike’s shoulder. “You aren’t alone in this, Michael. Now go, rest. You should set out tomorrow, as early as you can. Who knows how long the gateway will stay open?”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Don’t thank me, Michael. Thank God.”
They said goodbye, though Enoch emphasised that it wasn’t final and the old man clapped the Pike on the shoulder and smiled. They would meet again, when Pike’s work was done.
Enoch went back into the church. Pike went back down the hill, casting one last look back at the old man who had saved the town and delivered them into the arms of the Lord.
Pike spent the night curled up in bed surrounded by the scent of his absent wife. The idea that she was no longer on this physical plane greatly upset him. He hoped that she could see right down, into his secret heart and know that he missed her and Eloise so much that it felt like it might break.
At dawn the next morning, Pike packed for his journey; it was only a twenty mile walk into the next town. He took only one photo of his beautiful family, which he kissed and then folded it up and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket.
He wondered if he should go and see Father Enoch before he left, but they’d said their goodbyes. Besides, they would see each other again soon. He’d promised after all, and Pike’s ma had always taught him that priests never broke their promises.
Pike started to walk, humming cheerfully to himself. Finally, everything would be alright.
Father Enoch stood before the gates of heaven.
It had been five days since Pike left. He’d made signs over the past five days and hung them around town; if strangers came by, they’d know where to find salvation.
When he was done, he passed the time reading during the day and drinking away the lonely nights.
People had come to him; refugees and people from other towns. Pike was clearly doing his job. People were listening, and desperate to be saved. Enoch had taken each of them into the church, listened to their prayers of thanks, and ushered them through the gateway.
The sphere wobbled and rippled in mid-air. A tiny part of him had wanted the whole works; golden light, angels singing and then St Peter… but the Lord worked in mysterious ways.
Enoch closed his eyes and readied himself, took a deep breath and then stepped into the sphere.
Bright white light assaulted him, and he raised his hands to shield his eyes from the blinding glory of God.
Except it wasn’t God, and this wasn’t Heaven. Something was wrong.
Something was dreadfully, dreadfully wrong.
The cold was savage and complete, and ripped the air from his lungs. A howling wind sent icy shrapnel biting into his face. He pried his eyes open slowly, and he saw Jesus; the plaster Jesus that had hung above the altar in St Thomas’. It was rimed with frost.
Enoch’ eyes adjusted, and he also saw the lectern and the altar. Around him, the tall blue-white teeth of mountains spread off into the distance. The burning light, it seemed, was the sun bouncing up off the snow; snow which seemed to stretch infinitely in all directions.
Littering the snowfield around him were the bodies of the townsfolk who had frozen to death in their hundreds. The entire town. He saw Eloise wrapped in Elizabeth’s arms, both of them stiff and grey-blue, the sunlight dancing on their crystalline skin.
This wasn’t salvation. This was extinction.
Enoch stumbled in the snow. He had to get back, to get away, God had chosen him, he couldn’t die here… Something gripped his chest and squeezed.
The portal didn’t work. He staggered into it, but he went through it as if it was plain, empty air.
He went to try again, but he physically couldn’t; the cold had completely consumed him. Worse than the cold was the realisation that he had killed these people. The guilt and rage hit him like a wave, he ripped the white collar from his cassock and screamed like an animal into the biting air.
Then it hit him; the knowledge that Pike, a good man, would keep telling more and more people about the gateway. No-one would ever know. There was no way to warn them to stay away. They would keep coming, and they would all die here in the snow.
The thought was too much for Enoch. He collapsed onto the freezing ground, hand stretched to the sky as if pleading for a true miracle, or at least an explanation as to why this had happened.
He lay on the freezing ground clutching his chest; in the last, frantic beats of his heart, he turned his eyes skyward, and they were filled only with regret.