THE CHURCH OF ST. JOHN
It stood sandwiched between two terraced houses, a tall grey skinny building with a door of peeled blue paint and a single window, always curtained shut. It wasn’t anybody’s house. John had passed it lots of times, often wondered what it was or who used it, but had never been inside. He found it fair to assume that it was a church, or some sort of place of worship on account of the simple two-lined fish carved into the stone above the entrance, but nobody he knew had ever been able to confirm or deny it. His friend Maurice, who worked down at the History Centre, didn’t know anything about the place and there was nothing in the local records to give any clue. John had bought or borrowed virtually every book available on the subject of the Avenues and surrounding area, but none of them made any mention either.
On this particular Tuesday afternoon in late August, John was hurrying to the barbers for a haircut when he passed the building and noticed the door was open. Not wide open, but enough to afford a look. John stopped and peered inside. It was a dingy high-ceilinged room with a scuffed maroon carpet and dull beige walls, a dado rail running around the middle. There was another door set in the far wall, closed. There didn’t seem to be any furniture; certainly not in any part of the room that was visible.
John was torn as to what to do. He wasn’t the type of fellow given to wandering into anywhere uninvited. Generally speaking, John liked to mind his own business and expected others to extend him the same courtesy. But this was a place he’d wondered about, off an on, for a few years. Usually, he didn’t get too bothered by such things, but with a place so near to home, it was the not knowing. That stone carved fish could mean anything. He knew it was a Christian thing, the fish, but he had never seen the door open before. And now the door was open. He was early for his haircut, and the heat was making his head throb. It would be cooler in there, inside the building. He had time.
He stepped inside.
It was bigger than he had imagined. Wider. The sunlight fell from behind him and spread his shadow on the floor. It smelt faintly sweet and fusty, like a charity shop. The smell of old books and damp cardboard. John looked around. No altar, nowhere to sit and contemplate. No candles or pulpit. It was totally empty. For some reason, he was reminded of school assemblies at Constable Street Primary, some forty-five years gone now, the taste of warm souring milk in his mouth and the floorboards hard and shiny beneath his folded ankles. The teachers dusty giants on the stage, looming over him and the other rows of chuldren. Hands together, softly so. Little eyes shut tight. The words wandered into his mind, but he couldn’t place them. A poem? A song? He couldn’t remember.
There was a notice board on the wall to the right, three posters pinned up. John unfolded his glasses from out of his shirt breast pocket and slid them onto his face. He stepped closer. Two of the notices were pictures. One of them looked like a bird in flight, another some kind of rolling green scenery. It looked rather like something a child would draw. The third notice was just words, black type on yellow. John could see the headline in large bold capitals:
IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE.
He couldn’t quite make out the rest.
Hello? Hello, can I help you?
The door in the far wall was open and a woman stood there. Early fifties or thereabouts, long grey-streaked hair tied back in a pony tail, plain dark jumper and jeans.
She gave him a polite, enquiring smile.
Oh, I’m sorry, said John. I didn’t mean to intrude. I saw the door was open and I thought I’d … he tailed off. He didn’t know what to say, exactly. He didn’t know what he wanted, exactly.
The woman nodded.
That’s OK, she said, that’s absolutely fine. Our door is always open to visitors, she said.
I just wanted to look inside, said John. I’ve always wondered what this place was.
This is our church, the woman said. She stepped forward and offered her hand.
I’m Dina, she said.
I’m John, said John, and he shook her hand.
The woman’s face lit up.
Oh, how wonderful, she said. John! And this is the Church of St John! She took both of Johns hands in hers and shook them like a tambourine. Yes, she said, yes, yes, yes! She beamed at him. John just stared at her. He felt his mouth curl into a nervous grin. He looked down at her hands. It looked so strange. He didn’t quite know what to say.
You must come and meet everyone, said Dina.
She turned and led him back through the door, pulled him almost, and John had no option but to follow.
There were around half a dozen or so people sat around a table in a small kitchen area, men and women, most of them middle-aged or older. There was a pot of tea and a packet of biscuits on a tray, along with milk and sugar, and spoons. Books and pamphlets stacked neatly in several piles. The men and women were all looking at the doorway as he came in. All smiles. It was as though they had all been sat waiting patiently for him.
Everyone, said Dina, everyone, this is John! John has come to see us!
There was a chorus of John! Hello! Hello John!
One of the women got up and pulled a chair out for him.
Sit down, John, she said, please.
I can’t stay long, said John, but he sat down.
Would you like a cup of tea, John? Dina opened a cupboard above a sink and took out a mug. She sat down next to him and poured tea.
There’s milk and sugar there, she said. We have sweeteners, if you prefer those? Colin, she said, Colin, where are those sweeteners you had?
A heavy set dark-haired man at the end of the table reached into his shirt breast pocket and produced a small yellow and white tube. He stood up, leaned across and placed the thing next to John’s drink.
There you go, John, he said.
John smiled and nodded, added milk to his tea and picked up the tube of sweeteners. He squeezed out two small white pellets, plip-plop, stirred with a small silver spoon, tapped twice on the rim of the mug and placed it carefully back onto the tray.
Why had he done that? John didn’t have anything sweet in his tea. He had given sugar up last summer after his father had dropped dead in his back garden whilst watering his roses. John had found him face down on sodden grass, hosepipe still running, a pool formed around him. Heart attack. Ever since then, John had been watching what he put into his body. No sugar, no processed food, as little salt as possible. He’d stopped drinking bottles of red wine during the week and left the car at home for all local errands within a five mile radius. Movement. Exercise. His father’s death had acted as a wake-up call. Heart problems, they can run in the family, his doctor had said. John was trying to live a clean life. Five fruit and veg a day, every day, and nothing artificial. He certainly didn’t have sweeteners in his tea. In fact, John could remember trying them once and absolutely hating the taste. Bland. Synthetic. Sickly. He lifted the mug to his lips and blew gently on the hot liquid, placed it back down.
Father just before we go.
Everyone was looking at him.
He cleared his throat. So, what sort of church is this? he asked.
Oh, a Christian church, said Dina.
She picked a pamphlet up from one of the piles and handed it to him. There was a picture of people on a hill, scores of figures bathed in a celestial golden light that spilled from the clouds above them, their arms raised up to the heavens. Some of the people were lifted off their feet, they looked like they were drifting upwards, rising up into the luminescent sky.
“We who are alive … will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord.”
Rapture, read John out loud. He put the pamphlet down and looked up.
What, he said, like the end of the world?
Oh no, said Dina.
More like a new beginning said another lady at the other side of the table. She was small and blonde and chubby with bright, laughing eyes.
John looked at her evenly, tried not to smile.
You believe that you will be … spirited away?
We believe that we will transcend our earth bound bodies and live in heaven with our father. She spoke gently and calmly, as if explaining something to a child.
By being literally lifted off the ground and rising up into the sky?
Yes, said Dina. Exactly that.
John looked at her. She smiled at him.
And when will it happen? This Rapture?
We don’t know. What we do know is that it will be followed by seven years of tribulations.
What, like plagues of locust? John struggled to keep the mockery out of his voice.
Wars, said Colin. Earthquakes, floods. Natural disasters.
Well that happens now, said John. All of that happens now.
One of the men at the far end of the table leant into to his neighbour to exchange a whispered aside. John caught the movement from the corner of his eye.
What was that, he asked. What are you saying?
The man ignored him, carried on his whispering, the woman nodding slowly, yes, yes, her eyes on John.
The room felt warm. There were windows high up in the wall, but they were fastened shut and the air was still and thick. John could feel the dampness gathering under his arms. His fingers touched his mug, but it was still piping hot, too hot to drink. He didn’t even want a cup of tea. What he wanted, really was a glass of water. He opened the pamphlet and flicked through the pages. More pictures of clouds and hillsides. Barren fields and deserted cities. Planets and outer space. A huge and shadowy Jesus figure stood on a mount, his arms outstretched as if in welcome.
Hear our prayers tonight…
It’s not just natural disasters, John, said Dina. Man will turn on his fellow man.
And where are you lot when this happens, asked John, regretting his words as soon as they had left his mouth. You lot. Sounded condescending. Aggressive, even. He didn’t want to offend these people. They were clearly nuts, he thought, but this was their place, after all. He had wandered in uninvited and they had welcomed him. He had asked and they had answered.
We are all thy children here …
We will be in heaven, said the small blond woman with the dancing eyes. She leaned across the table. Everyone will be in heaven, she said.
Well, everyone, who has accepted Jesus Christ into their heart as their Lord and Saviour, said Dina.
And what if you haven’t?
Well, you’ll have to go through the tribulations. you will be persecuted as a Christian.
I’m not a Christian though, said John.
Wait till the Anti-Christ walks the earth, said Colin. You’ll wish you were a Christian then. He gave a grim chuckle and folded his arms like that was that, end of debate.
That sounds like a threat, said John.
Nobody around the table said anything. They just looked at him.
So what else happens in the tribulations, he said. Apart from the earthquakes and floods and the plagues of locust. What else?
Great hardship, said the woman who had been whispering with her neighbour. Persecution, she said. She nodded gravely, yes. Life will be difficult for many people, she said.
It’s difficult now, said John..
But then Jesus will return and make his Earthly Kingdom, said the man sat next to her. He had an accent; eastern European, Czech or Polish, thought John. He couldn’t place it exactly.
Oh, so it’s not all doom and gloom then? John attempted to lighten his tone, sound jolly, but there was no response in kind. Nobody laughed. But there was no animosity in the room. No tension in the silence. He looked around the table, met each of their eyes in turn and saw nothing but kindness.
This is what we pray …
John, said Di, drink your tea. It’ll go cold.
He looked down into his mug. His mouth felt dry and there was a faint sourness there, but he had no desire to lift the cup to his lips and drink. Those little white pills. Those sweeteners. He could still taste them. He looked up.
And when it happens … the Rapture … where will you be?
Be? asked Di.
Where’s the…the meeting point? The gathering place? Are you all coming here?
No, she shook her head. Sadly, this is our last day in our church. That’s why we’re a bit bare. We’ve had to take all our things out.
Case of having to, I’m afraid. The landlord sold it to someone else. A business man of some kind. A property developer, I think. They want to turn it into flats, I think.
How long have you been here?
Around fifteen years, said Colin.
And is it an actual church?
Yes, said Di. It’s our church.
Yeah, I know, but is it … what I mean is, can you actually do that to a church? Just turn it into something else?
So it would seem, said the blonde lady.
So where will you go, said John.
That’s what we need to discuss, said Di.
Keep us safe when dark is near.
It was a prayer, that was what it was. A prayer from infant school. They would say it at the end of every day, after they’d been read a story. They would sit on the mat, all of them, the entire class, their hands together softly so, their little eyes shut tight. And there was a tune to the prayer, and they would sing it, all of them together. And he would sing it again to himself later on, before he went to sleep every night, but quietly, under his breath, so his brother wouldn’t hear him at the other end of the bed. His brother was older than him and didn’t say his prayers any more, thought it was for babies. John tried to remember when he had stopped. But he couldn’t think. He couldn’t remember.
And through all the day.
His haircut. He was going to be late.
Well, thank you, said John, thank you for letting me look around.
It sounded ridiculous, saying that. Look around where? Jesus.
Oh John, you are so welcome, said Di.
She touched his mug of tea, turned it around so that the handle was facing him.
But come on, finish your drink first, she said.
I’ve got to go, said John. I’m going to be late.
But he couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t make his legs work. It was like they’d gone to sleep.
God, this room was so warm. How could they stand it?
Listen, he said, I don’t think I …
He fell quiet. He didn’t know what he didn’t think. He pressed his fingers to his temples and shut his eyes, tight. Stars exploded behind his lids. Stars and white shapes rushing past him. He rubbed hard, then opened his eyes.
They were all looking at him, waiting.