A Christmas story with a difference ….
End of Days
‘I sat on the back of a hairy caterpillar,’ the elderly Chinese man said with a heavy accent. ‘I had to hold on very tightly, for fear of falling over its head into the path of its terrible mandibles as they cut their relentless path through a vast, crunchy leaf.’
‘Stop. I think we have heard enough.’ demanded the Dreamcatcher, his frosted, bushy eyebrows meeting in the centre of his forehead in a frown. He stroked his long, snowy-white beard as he assessed the Chinese man’s account for validity, his long purple sleeves falling back to reveal smooth, slightly tanned forearms, which didn’t match his advanced years.
The Gatekeeper leaned forwards, his stumpy fingers and thumbs interlocked under his pock-marked double chin in a thoughtful pose. The Chinese man fought back a smile. The Dreamcatcher reminded him of a crazy, hyperactive wizard and the Gatekeeper resembled a toad, his front legs bowed outwards, his eyes bulging, keen and staring, waiting for the right moment to open his wide mouth and capture him with a quicksilver, forked tongue.
The Gatekeeper shuffled his papers into some sort of order and placed them neatly at his side, as if he had already dismissed the Chinese man’s dream. Without looking at the Chinese man, he said in a rasping, gravely voice: ‘And what colour was the caterpillar?’
‘Err … fifty shades of grey, russet, brown and black,’ replied the Chinese man with a suppressed smirk as he tried to concentrate on his dream instead of the Gatekeeper’s odd, amphibious features. ‘And, of course, the leaf was thick, a brilliant green and its juice flooded my mouth with sweet syrup as I bit into its fresh, crunchy surface.’
The Dreamcatcher cast his arms wide, his palms upturned in a theatrical pose. His piercing blue eyes darted from side to side, before his gaze rested on Pandora, who sat quietly by his side, picking the nail varnish from her nails.
‘Have you anything else to ask the Chinese man?’ he said to her, momentarily distracted by a ray of sunshine on her tumbling, golden hair as it slid over creamy, blemish-free shoulders and breasts that were barely concealed by jade green silk the exact colour of the ocean beneath a cave.
Pandora fluttered her long eyelashes at the Dreamcatcher, before smothering a flirty smile. She looked at the Chinese man. ‘Did you hear any sounds in your dream?’ she asked, her voice sweet and soft in contrast to the slick flippancy of the Dreamcatcher’s overly melodramatic manner and the Gatekeeper’s saturnine, dour body language and saw-like voice.
The Chinese man shook his head. ‘Not that I can recall.’
‘Then you may go,’ said the Dreamcatcher. ‘If the Committee finds your dream authentic we will let you know within three days.
The blind woman was guided into the hearing by her mother.
‘Sit down and start when you are ready,’ demanded the Dreamcatcher. ‘What is your name?’
‘My real name or my given name,’ said the woman, her unseeing eyes opaque in their sockets like watery blue marbles.
The Dreamcatcher shrugged. ‘Whichever name you wish to use.’
‘Zuleika,’ said the woman. ‘My name is Zuleika.’
The girl’s mother gave an exaggerated sigh and shook her head wearily. ‘It’s Lauren. Lauren Smith. I don’t know where she dreamed up that name …’
The Dreamcatcher silenced the blind woman’s mother with the palm of his hand and a cold stare. His eyes slid slowly from her startled face to that of the woman.
‘Zuleika, would you like to tell us about your dream?’ asked Pandora, leaning forwards and smiling at her, even though she knew she couldn’t see the smile. Zuleika took a deep breath as she began her account.
‘I spread my arms wide and embraced the black, star-studded universe above me. I was wearing a necklace of sea shells around my neck, which turned instantly to diamonds as an electric blue, blinding light crashed over my world.’
‘Where were you?’ Pandora said, interested.
Zuleika did not answer.
‘Don’t you know?’
She shook her head.
‘What happened next?’
‘When I woke up I felt someone’s hands on my shoulders. “We have a survivor ” said the voice. It vibrated in my ear, distorted and electric as if through a policeman’s walkie-talkie. I opened my eyes and a man, wearing a white suit and helmet stood over me. There was a strange smell, like burning metal and electrical cables mixed with an aroma like wet grass just after a thunderstorm.’
‘When did you first have this dream?’ asked the Gatekeeper, suddenly curious to know more.
‘Zuleika’s eyelids flickered over her milky eyeballs. ‘It was the day before forever and the last day of time.’
Zuleika’s mother interrupted. ‘It was in 1995,’ she said abruptly. ‘When she was very ill with meningitis and unconscious, so the doctors said. She couldn’t possibly have been dreaming, could she?
‘How old are you, Zuleika?’ asked Pandora gently taking Zuleika’s hands in hers over the table, ignoring her mother’s statement.
Zuleika shrugged. ‘Fifteen?’
The answer was a question. Zuleika’s heavy eyelids closed over her strange eyes. ‘I’m not really sure how old I am,’ she added.
‘She thinks she is fifteen,’ her mother said in a long-suffering whisper. But she isn’t – she’s thirty-two. She keeps forgetting. It’s like that stupid name …’
The blind woman jumped up, her arms outstretched. She threw back her head, her overt but unseeing eyes embracing the universe.
‘My name is Zuleika! I am come to save the world and all mankind, just like Jesus before me,’ she shrieked.
‘What makes you think your dream is true,’ the Gatekeeper asked, wrinkling his sceptical, toady face. ‘It is very important the Committee chooses the correct dream – the future of planet Earth depends on it. The Gateway cannot be opened until the one, true dream is correctly identified. It is the key to the Earth’s future.’
Zuleika’s eyes looked directly at The Gatekeeper. ‘Because I know it is,’ she said simply.
The Dreamcatcher snapped shut the book before him, put down his pen and took off his glasses.
‘We will let you know within the next three days,’ he said. ‘If you are successful you will be brought before the Committee at 11.00 am on the 21st December.
Later, the Committee assembled to hear the evidence of the Hearing Panel. On three carved mahogany high-backed seats, Pandora, the Gatekeeper and the Dreamcatcher gave evidence and politely answered the Committee’s questions about the dreams of the Chinese man and Zuleika, which were the only two shortlisted.
The President shook his head. ‘There is one vital piece of evidence that has been overlooked, I fear,’ he said solemnly. ‘It is quite impossible for the Committee to choose at the moment. ‘The Chinese man’s dream obviously relates to the ecological imbalance that has come to Earth, relating as it does to the food chain. Zuleika’s dream is less believable, but we cannot discount this dream just because the woman suffers from a disability.’
The Gatekeeper swept his fingertips over a touch pad screen that rested on his squat knees. ‘Is it significant that the blind girl’s conception would have taken place on or around 25th December 1980, sir? Are there any relevant world events around this time?’
The Gatekeeper looked up at The President, who consulted a large, old book before him. He struggled to manipulate the heavy, leather-bound cover and turn the huge pages to the correct date. Strange images and hieroglyphs embossed in unfamiliar ancient, yellow parchment changed as he ran his finger over them. He blinked, fascinated by the apparent magic before him.
After a few seconds of silence, The President spoke.
‘Rendleshem Forest in the United Kingdom’ he said. Christmas 1980. The Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery has never been reconciled. I think we may have the answer.’
As the curtain fell, Mr Martin clapped his hands together theatrically. ‘Well done,’ he gushed. ‘This is going to be the best sixth-form drama production of all time and that final rehearsal was practically perfect – apart from your totally unnecessary reference to “Fifty Shades of Grey”, he admonished the Chinese man, who grinned.
Mr Martin turned to Lauren Smith. ‘And on the night we’ll have none of that jumping up, young lady! Ad-libbing about saving the world and all of mankind … totally unnecessary, it was. I don’t know what came over you, Lauren. I know it’s Christmas, but we’ll upset the Christians and God only knows who else!’
The Dreamcatcher ripped off his fake, white beard and then peeled off his eyebrows with an exaggerated squeal of pain. ‘Lauren – you were absolutely brilliant, he said. ‘Where on earth did you get those contact lenses? They’re awesome!’
Lauren didn’t answer. She rubbed her feverish brow with a shaky hand. She really didn’t feel well, and the production itself was really getting to her. As she had played the part of Zuleika over the last few weeks, she had almost found herself believing a strange, vivid dream that kept repeating itself in the subconscious world of her sleep. And last night she had gone to Church with her friend, Peter, and actually enjoyed the carol-singing. She had never before been to Church without it being to a wedding or a christening. Just lately she felt strangely drawn to all things religious and had even been reading the Bible.
A few minutes later, The President wandered into the dressing room behind the stage, holding the book of hieroglyphics. ‘Where did this come from, sir?’ he asked seriously. ‘I haven’t seen it in the props before.’
Mr Martin, the drama tutor, frowned. ‘I don’t know … he began as he touched the embossed, leather surface of the book and then jumped back as his arm tingled and fizzed with static electricity.
The President (real name Damon Sims), placed the book on a table and opened it. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘When you run your fingers over the symbols, they sort of change and then bounce back. It’s really weird.’
Pandora (real name Basienka Mykowski) tossed back her long, blonde hair and giggled as she ran her fingertips over the hieroglyphics. ‘That’s so cool – how on earth does it work?’
The Gatekeeper stood quietly at the back of the room, his arms folded over his convex chest. It wouldn’t hurt the children to play with the book for a while. After all, he had waited a thousand generations for this moment. He glanced towards a store cupboard, where short, squat Harry Neal lay unconscious in his Gatekeeper’s costume, dusted liberally with a sleeping potion that would last at least another hour.
The Gatekeeper finally began to relax. There were only three rotations of the earth to spare. Thirty-two years was not long in the history of the universe and he had arrived on Christmas day in 1980 just in the nick of time to plant the seed of Zuleika in her mother’s womb fifteen years later, two thousand years after the work of the first saviour had been completed and he had returned to The Kingdom. The tiny, blue planet would be safe now that Princess Zuleika, the daughter of God, was walking upon it with her powers finally unlocked. He smiled at the teenagers and their teacher playing with his book. They would never know they had just saved the world and its millions of precious species. 21st December 2012 would pass by in just three days’ time and people would laugh and joke about Armageddon, not realising just how close the world came to complete and instant destruction.
‘Merry Christmas, everyone,’ he said with a wave as he left, his job done.