Thursday, March 19, 2020
As We Know It - Chapters 3, 4 and 5
Sitting staring at the phone wasn’t getting any more logical. It wasn’t going to ring, the fact that she knew this with such certainty spoke volumes about the reality of the current situation. The world was over. She fingered the receiver, holding it up to her ear for the millionth time only to not hear the dialling tone once again. It was time to accept the conclusion that longing for contact was not helping. Hamish had shuffled out of the house before they’d eaten lunch, mumbling something about his fishing rod. Since he’d left, Sarah had been sat in the hall on the carpeted floor by the phone table in the increasingly chilled air of the afternoon. She knew if she got up and did something the life and warmth would find her limbs once again but she couldn’t pick herself out of the mental funk. The hypnotic pull of a silent phone on a lovelorn English woman is too strong to be broken with will power alone. Her mind wandered aimlessly round erratic memories of the dizzy unreality of the past few days, trying to find a semblance of normality. These ramblings inevitably brought her back to Hamish and the night of the candles and the WHOOMPF noise. One of the benefits of this apocalypse seemed to be that they’d somehow managed to hold things together.
Every time she looked at him she saw the reflection of 49 candles in his eyes; the visible sagging of his shoulders as she’d broken him. She felt sick and empty thinking about it. How he was still sticking around she had no idea, she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to do the same in his shoes. Misguided chivalry, she supposed, no man in the Stewart clan would walk out on a woman in the middle of an apocalypse. Even if her recent behaviour rivalled a dung beetle for sheer depth of shittiness embraced.
“I don’t know how to fix this.” She said out loud into the still room. That was the most disconcerting thing about this Armageddon world - everything was so still. So, so still. The air seemed listless, as though every movement through it was an inconvenience. The rivers were moving, but petulantly slowly.If the trees had eyes they’d have rolled them at the breeze. Sarah had always imagined the end of the world would have bodies everywhere and decimated buildings. Where were the zombies?
It also seemed categorically unfair to have to deal with the end of an 8 year relationship as well as the end of the world. Most people are allowed to deal with heart ache without also having to attend Apocalypse Committee meetings with the rest of your half-baked village.
“Not you, Sarah Gilmore, you really know how to jump head first into a mess don’t you?” Tears took her by surprise and a lump caught the rhetorical question in her throat. She frowned back the tears and her hands twitched for the phone receiver again.
“I’m not sure you can reasonably blame the end of the world on yourself. Not even you can have that much residual guilt.” Hamish’s voice. To say it broke in on her scene would be unfair, it wrapped itself into the gaps where her thoughts weren’t. He had a lovely voice, she’d always thought that, it was just on the right side of gravelly. Like a hot chocolate, but with bits of broken up Crunchie in to keep you interested. People were always a little surprised when they first heard Hamish’s voice, he had a soft Scottish hint to his accent which became remarkably broad when he was in the company of his brothers and father. Sarah smiled despite herself remembering her introduction to Hogmanay. It was so very, very different to the stale parties she had always attended with her parents. “It won’t ring.” He continued, “It wouldn’t have rung before and it certainly isn’t going to ring now it can’t ring. It’s best you just stop staring at it.”
“I know, I know. I don’t know what I’m waiting for.” She eased her stiff joints and made to stand up.
“It’s natural to be worried about them.” He busied himself with his fishing rod so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with her. He’d avoided it since Sunday night and was finding it made things slightly easier on his delicate mental balance. “I’m sure... I’m sure they’re fine.”
She wanted to hug him, she wanted to fling herself across the room and throw her arms around him and just make him forgive her. Just hold on and force his forgiveness out of him until he had no choice left except her. She didn’t move, her foot twitched imperceptibly, but she stayed exactly where she was feeling achy and pathetic. It was hard to seek forgiveness for something you hadn’t been blamed for.
“I know... well, I just... It would just make it a bit easier if I could speak to them.”
“They won’t have changed their minds.”
Her back frosted.
“They might have.” Her voice was too shrill and she knew it. Not an attractive tone. How long would it take him to realise that and find some other post-apocalyptic broad who didn’t have the family from hell and the voice of a rodent? She flinched; not even comfortable with unspoken disloyalty to the parents she was currently blaming for everything. “Maybe this has all been a bit of a wake up call?”
“You think the apocalypse is a modern day cure for racists?”
Sarah felt the familiar panic start to form, like plastic static on her neck and up into her hairline.
“Well, if this doesn’t work, what will?” Now she sounded childish, this was barely better than the shrew. “I just...”
“Just wanted to phone them and tell them you were going to marry me anyway?” He finally lifted his eyes to hers and let them hang there. Sarah felt like a cartoon character. Her idiot mouth gaping and her eyes panicked and strained.
“Yes.” She faltered.
“No.” He turned in a slow circle, like the death rattle of a plastic bag in the wind.
“Hamish!” Adding ‘desperate’ to her vocal range, Sarah stood up, “Hamish, wait.”
“I am.” He said, smiled briefly, and walked away.
By Day 6 of the apocalypse they had pretty much all agreed that the biggest problem was the lack of death. People were starting to get fractious. Even the stalwart Christians were showing signs of noticeable anxiety about the length of time between the end of the world and the appearance of their Lord and Saviour to tell them what to to do and shepherd them to a chaise longue with a few grapes.
Mrs Hemell had written a strongly worded letter to the BBC and had been very close to sending it before Mr Baxter pointed out that the BBC probably had little to do with the whereabouts of Christ. No one was really sure whether Points of View was still running as they'd not had power since the end of time. They’d not had time either.
The missing Jesus was a cause for some concern at the first meeting of the Apocalypse Committee at the Village Hall. Iris Shoe caused violence to break out by suggesting that perhaps Jesus was just working his way down the country and that really 6 days was quite reasonable if you considered he was probably going to do the cities first.
Mr Arthur (first name also Arthur) asked her if Jesus would be visiting all the towns in size order, Mrs Shoe said that she assumed so as that’s how she would do it and the two of them were really very similar. Mr Arthur responded that both parts of that sentence were ridiculous but mainly the logistics part; he said he'd driven a lorry for 38 years and biggest cities first was the most illogical assumption possible. He said any traveller worth their salt knew you should plan your route geographically. Beryl, from the village shop, slapped him around the face for suggesting Jesus was a gypsy.
Iris countered that, if you didn't start with the biggest place, how would you know where to begin the tour? Everyone agreed that the country's extremities were no place to begin a mission of salvation - Scotland was not designed for such prestige. Iris again asserted that she felt they would be reached in due course once the Good Lord had reached them on his list. Unfortunately, Beryl's hand got away with her again when she worked out that this meant that the nearby village of Staplegrove (Norton Fitzwarren’s rival parish) would be visited first, despite the fact Norton Fitzwarren had twice beaten them at the South West Floral Village Awards between 2006 and 2009. Beryl was one among many villagers who might have to seriously rethink their religion should Jesus choose to visit Staplegrove first. Despite the differences between the two villages being barely perceptible to an outside eye. At this point Nigel decided he ought to take Beryl home as there were whisperings about Apocalypse Fever. Mr Baxter wrapped Rufus' leash firmer around his hand.
With Beryl and Nigel gone it was felt that perhaps they should put the issue of what to do until Jesus got there to one side for a few minutes in favour of more immediate practicalities. Mr Young pointed out that some of them didn't really think he was coming anyway, and even when he did turn up, there was no guarantee they'd want to go with him.
"We'll have to wait and see what he's got to offer first. Might be worth our while to barter a little bit."
The Vicar stood up at this point and declared that there would be no bartering with Jesus Christ. Mr Young said that he’d thoroughly enjoyed bartering with the Moroccan stall owners when they’d visited last year but the Vicar said it didn’t matter and that all their bartering should really have been wrapped up in prayers in Church before the apocalypse had even happened.
"But we didn't know when to expect it." Came Mr Young's sullen reply, "I was still making my mind up."
The Vicar said that the power of the Lord should be felt in your heart and soul and you shouldn't need persuading. Mr Young said that it wasn't his fault if Sky had more compelling programming than the pulpit. I think they were secretly beginning to miss Beryl.
The idea was floated that, perhaps they should split the Apocalypse Committee into a further sub-committee entitled, The Welcoming Committee and this would take full responsibility for what they would do when Jesus got there. A buffet seemed like the most logical option and so the Vicar agreed to work with Mrs Shoe and Nigel on planning a menu and looking for a suitable venue. If they could give it a lick of paint then the Village Hall would do at a push, but there was a feeling in the room that perhaps Jesus was a little more outdoorsy.
Mr Baxter had managed to fall asleep twice by the time they had all agreed on this and, as they had eaten that week's ration of Bourbons, they decided to call it a day and reconvene when Mrs Shoe and Nigel had an update for the next meeting. Mr Baxter made a hasty exit with his dog as the Welcoming Committee's conversation turned to Jesus' morally surprising lack of vegetarian persuasion. No one wanted to be caught with just hummus if Staplegrove had sprung for pigs in blankets...
By day 8 the overwhelming feeling in the village was that something, anything, should be happening by now.
“Even if it was just a small angel,” Mrs Shoe could be heard saying to anyone who would listen. “It wouldn’t even have to have wings, I just don’t want to have sacrificed Duncan for no reason.”
“How are you going to know it’s an angel if it doesn’t have wings?” asked Arthur Arthur, as they settled down for the beginning of the meeting.
“It’d be all glowy wouldn’t it?” came the indignant reply.
“All glowy? All glowy??” stuttered Arthur Arthur, equally indignantly, “I have never heard such nonsense.”
“And it’d have a booming voice, wouldn’t it, Vicar?” Said Mrs Shoe eagerly. She wore the delighted look of a 6 year old answering the day’s literacy questions before her addled schoolmates.
The Vicar was sitting with his head in his hands, wondering if the placement at the Croydon Comprehensive would have been less soul destroying had he opted for that six years ago when the two offers were on the table. Somehow he’d been convinced that a rural position would be more nourishing for the soul after his years of military work. Why did people assume proximity to grass and livestock was healing? Or, perhaps it was, if you manage to find a spot without any locals in it. The Vicar shook the animosity out of his head, it was the apocalypse talking; these people were his people… though what that said about him he wasn’t quite sure.
“And ringlets,” continued Mrs Shoe unabated, “That’s how you tell apart a prophet from an angel, isn’t it Vicar? We’ve all seen the windows. Only the angels have ringlets.”
“How on earth would that work?” said Arthur Arthur,
“Don’t you mean how in heaven?” giggled Martin Young and got a frown and the threat of an old man’s backhand for his trouble.
“What do you get,” continued Arthur Arthur, “Eternal life, total absolution, a set of wings and a perm? Don’t be ridiculous, Iris.”
“I’m not being ridiculous,” protested Mrs Shoe, “I’ve seen it in the pictures.”
It was at this point that The Vicar stepped in, whether or not to prevent a fight or the complete loss of faith in his life’s work remains unclear.
“The lack of intervention by some sort of messenger at this point is... unfortunate.” He summised, leaving his chair and pacing towards the dusty window. Sunlight tapered in through the thin glass, illuminating the chipped paint and cracking lead. There was just never enough money to fix it, that was the problem. Maybe now that the world was over they might qualify for a grant or something? A prize for being the last flock standing? That was, of course, assuming they were the last flock standing? Maybe there were other villages just like theirs? Perhaps this was just a thinning of the herd? Why were the religious constantly being compared to groups of docile animals? He wished his particular cattle were a little less uppity today. There were only so many inane questions he could handle on a Sunday morning...
“It’s unfortunate...” he continued, “but hardly the end of the world.” Nobody laughed. They would have laughed in Croydon, he thought wistfully. “It’s unfortunate,” he continued to continue, wishing no one was narrating his inner monologue so he could finally get to the end of the sentence, “It’s unfortunate, but it might mean that perhaps the Lord is testing us. Perhaps we are meant to be actively seeking our salvation and not just sitting back waiting for someone else to do all the hard work for us. Perhaps this challenge has been sent to test us.”
“But nothing has been sent, I thought that was the problem?” Said Martin Young, slyly.
“Exactly!” Chimed in Mrs Shoe, “If they’d sent something we’d know where we stood but what we’ve got is an absence of sending. It’s like the bloody, sorry Vicar, it’s like the postal strikes all over again.”
“You make a fine point, Mrs Shoe, perhaps this is a sign that we should be seeking our own route to the sorting office in the sky? Why sit idly by for the messenger to come to us? Were we not, by the grace of God, granted two legs upon which to walk?” The Vicar was warming nicely to his theme now, “Why should we lounge through these heady days assuming we are worth seeking out for the Heavenly Kingdom? Idly dreaming when we could be learning? Perhaps it is our duty to find the Lord’s word ourselves?”
There was a silence in the room as the group digested his sermon. The Vicar hoped fervently that no one had picked up on his repetition of ‘idly’, it would never have happened to Clement Freud. He scanned the faces of his congregation for signs of agreement.
Eventually Arthur Arthur cleared his throat:
“Well, we can’t all go.”
“We can’t all go can we?”
“To look for this curly headed angel. What if we all disappear off looking for him and then he comes here? There’d be no one left to serve the buffet.”
“I thought the buffet was in case Jesus came?”
“What, we’re not doing any food for the angel? Seems a tad unfair if he’s come all this way.”
“Maybe we could just do some cold bits?”
“I’d just like to point out the angel might be a woman…”
“Well, woman… man… one of them ones with the smooth bits...” grumped Arthur Arthur, “If we’re all gone off on a wild goose chase then there’ll be no one here to greet our messenger of non specific gender.”
“We could leave a note?”
The Vicar decided now might be a good time to step back in before the conversation turned to which font type an angel of the Lord would most prefer. He simply didn’t have the strength to argue the case for Helvetica against a room full of people who had grown up without computers.
“Perhaps we should just send a select search team? Plan a route and send a few of our more able neighbours to scout around and see if they can’t unearth the unearthly?” He really was wasted on these people.
“I like that idea,” piped up Nigel, “That way, we cover our backs whatever happens. We look proactive if they do find anything, and we settle our minds to getting on with… whatever this is, if they don’t find anything”
And so it was agreed, they would choose some volunteers to venture out into the surrounding area and collect any wayward deities or celestial minions who might be struggling with the local geography. Clues as to what they should be doing that did not come in the form of a messenger (permed or otherwise) would also be gratefully accepted. Mr Frinton suggested that they start near Ilminster because the bypass always tended to get snarled up, but Arthur Arthur countered that, unless there was a heavy convoy of messengers, it was unlikely there would be much traffic on the roads.
“Could happen,” sulked Mr Frinton.
“But unlikely,” said The Vicar kindly, “besides which, they’re very likely to be able to fly.”
“Perhaps we should wait until we’ve decided who’s going and then see where they’re keen to start out?” Chimed in Mrs Shoe, with what seemed frighteningly like more than the usual modicum of sense. “They might have had somewhere in mind already for a nice little getaway? Kills two birds with one stone, doesn’t it?” And the usual order was restored.