Malcom Mallow grinned at the dinner jackets and cocktail dresses packed inside the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Gazing through the camera lens, projecting his power, he reached out to all those in TV Land, to the millions of fans worshipping his image on their Zenith colour screens, sat on their modular settees in the comfort of their new-build semi-detached homes. He let the seconds run down to remind the bitch in the control room who the real talent was. He owned the stage. Tonight, he owned the entire English nation.
‘Your Majesties, ladies and gentleman,’ purred Mallow, ‘I know there’s one of you out there, somewhere.’ The warm currents of laughter lifted his soul to the domed ceiling, ‘The EMFAT awards are a very special event. It is you, the great English public, who decide the winners – not some cabal hidden amongst the Hollywood Hills. It is the sound of the crowd that chooses who wins, who loses. It has been a tremendous year for film: De Niro in The Deer Hunter, Travolta in Grease. And what a year for music! Dusseldorf’s finest gave us The Man Machine, and Springsteen found Darkness on the Edge of Town. And it has been a fabulous year for television here in Good Old Blighty. Our next gong is the ‘Used to be in film but ended up on the tele’ award – just kidding, it’s the best male actor in a situation-comedy award. I’d love to tell you who the nominees are, but my wonderful producer is telling me we haven’t enough time, so let’s go straight to the winner; he’s known as the Harrogate Hellraiser, he’s England’s answer to Steve McQueen, it’s Brian Belbury!’
Rapturous applause broke out from the stands and balconies. Mallow nodded sagely, ‘Unfortunately, ladies, Brian can’t be with us tonight. That’s right, he is opening the new ward for alcoholics at Jimmy’s in Leeds – he’s the first patient!’
The audience dissolved into hysterics – cameras moved in for close-up shots of rivers of mirth running down inebriated celebrity faces. ‘Seriously though, sssh, quiet please, sssh,’ continued Mallow, ‘ever since I took up cocaine I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol; marvellous stuff; the kids have packed in their paper-rounds and are selling it to their school friends – high-margin-high-risk, ladies and gentlemen, but the product loyalty is incredible. Back to tonight’s awards; not since Marlon Brando sent an Indian squaw to pick up his Oscar for Best Actor have we had a stroke on this scale, because here tonight to collect Brian’s award on his behalf is – wait for it – it’s God’s number one, it’s Heat magazine’s winner of ‘Best Celestial Torso’, it’s the seraph even I’d like to serenade, so a big EMFAT welcome please, madams and gentehommes for tonight’s messenger from God, it’s the Archangel Gabriel!’
The entertainment elite were on their feet laughing and clapping. A man dressed in a black suit, open white shirt, and white training shoes walked onto the stage. He shook hands with Malcolm Mallow as the nation’s favourite chat-show host handed over Belbury’s award. The audience noise died away as an expectant nation awaited the birth, live on stage, of a new comic talent.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ said Gabriel, ‘Brian Belbury died this night. He stepped out of time just as this show went on air. He had friends with him when he died in his hospital bed, and he had friends waiting for him when he woke to life. Brian asked me to mention that love is stronger than death.’
The audience stirred uneasily. A lone voice shouted, ‘Get him off!’
‘And I bring you the most incredible news. This night, in de Montford’s town, a child is born who will be King. You will find him in a women’s refuge with his mother, dressed in a second-hand baby-grow, lying in a plastic laundry basket.’
Gasps echoed around Covent Garden, and around the coffee tables of the entire nation. For one split-second the camera panned onto the unsmiling faces of England’s King and Queen. Two security guards burst through the red stage-curtains and bustled Gabe off stage. The camera switched back to a grinning Malcolm Mallow standing rigid at the podium.
‘Well, ladies and gentlemen,’ growled Mallow, ‘I don’t know what that mad fella’s been snorting back stage but save me a line won’t you, Gabe!’
The nation breathed, laughed, relaxed. Control had been restored. The brief incursion into the nation’s light entertainment schedule by the eternal had been taken care of by the authorities… and forty-eight million people were complicit in their own enslavement.
‘And it’s straight to our next category, Best Celebrity ‘Celebrity Competition’ Show. Our nominees are; Channel 6 for Strictly Come Embalming, EBC for Stars in a Lion Cage, ITV for Little Celebrity House on the Moon and finally UK Bronze with Exhumed.’
Dave McGuiness laughed as Malcolm Mallow insulted the Scots, suggesting that the Russian-made-short-range-nukes they had aimed at English cities wouldn’t make it past Gretna. ‘God bless the 51st state,’ the jowly chat-show host pronounced to a standing ovation, ‘and God save our King!’
Dave glanced up at the bank of grainy CCTV screens. Nothing moved outside Warwick Fine Foods. The signal on his small TV descended into static – he twisted the loop aerial one hundred and eighty degrees, but the swarm of bees on the screen did not move; the CCTV screens followed seconds later. Cursing, Dave got up from his chair, put on his hi-vis jacket and grabbed his torch.
The security lights failed to switch themselves on as Dave descended the wooden step from the security cabin. He jarred his bad hip in the dark and hobbled across the car park towards the despatch area at the rear of the factory. The night-shift despatch team leader, Ajit Aroji, was wheeling a steel cage across bay one into the back of a refrigerated trailer.
‘Aj, you had trouble with power back here?’
‘No man. We’re good.’
The lights in the factory flickered and died.
‘You were saying Aj?’ said Dave in the blackness.
A pure white light shone from the window of the production area.
‘Check that out, Aj, would yer? Just have a peep for me? I’ll call the energy company, get someone out.’ Ajit raised an eyebrow. ‘Go on, son,’ said Dave switching on his torch. ‘Meet you back here in five.’
Ajit Aroji worked his way through the steel roll-cages filled with Marks and Spencer Chinese ready meals: special noodles, chicken chow mein, barbeque spare ribs, sweet and sour pork, packed and sealed in 300g trays. Peering through the safety glass separating the despatch office from High Care packing, Ajit saw the twelve-strong team of women standing, listening to a woman in white. The workers stood in their grey overalls, safety shoes, and blue hairnets. The woman was barefoot, her hair flowed free, arms uncovered – it took Ajit a minute to realise the light in the room was emanating from her. She turned towards him and smiled. He stared back, unable to move. Then the factory lights burst back into life.
For a moment, Ajit was blinded by the white-yellow glare. Through the kaleidoscopic blur burned into his retina he saw the operatives leaving their work stations. Stainless-steel trays of char sui pork, fried vegetables, and noodles, stood waiting to be weighed and packed into black plastic trays. The woman in white was nowhere to be seen.
Ajit stumbled through despatch, knocking over stacked green crates and tripping over GKN blues. He found Daring Dave, the fat Manc, waiting for him by the ramp at Bay 1.
‘You find owt?’
Ajit rubbed his eyes, ‘There was some lass, dressed in white, talking to the girls in High Care; they’ve done one.’
‘You’re kidding? Maybe she’s Union.’
Both men walked towards the staff entrance just as the first of the woman began to leave. ‘You can’t leave,’ said Dave, ‘there’s food to be packed. You’ll be sacked for sure.’ He scanned their faces; twelve women: black, white, Asian, tall, short, fat, thin.
‘What’s going on, ladies?’ asked Ajit.
Becca; tall, black, beautiful, and capable of weighing 140g of fine egg noodles faster and more accurately than any machine, stepped forward. ‘Something wonderful has happened,’ she said to the two men. ‘That’s what’s going on. And we’re going to see him, born this night in Kenilworth, the saviour of the world. God has blessed us. How could we say no?’
Bishop Drysdale shook her head. The endless debate dragged on. Various members of the English Church Synod had fallen asleep in their conference chairs. The motion being debated was an important one; ‘Should the English Church remain the established religion of the land, joined to the state by law, or should we sever the link and become disestablished?’
For Karen Drysdale, the answer was simple – the Church was better off independent and free of the stigma of being run as a nationalised industry. The church was dying – strangled by ineffective leadership, asphyxiated by lack of purpose, an organisation with a customer base that was rapidly deserting it.
The motion had been proposed by a young man that Karen respected, the newly appointed Bishop of Southport, Michael Connolly. Connolly believed the only reason to have a Church was for the betterment of the spiritual health of its individual members. Bishop Karen Drysdale supported his view that unless the Church took control of its own future, elected its own leadership, set its own agenda, innovated, took best practice from industry and retail, then the Church of God would continue to dwindle into insignificance in England. Yes, there would be drawbacks in disentangling the Church from the State: loss of representation in the King’s Chamber, tax privileges would be curtailed – but the pain of rebirth would be followed by the joy of new life.
The ancient white-bearded speaker at the microphone continued to drawl on about how it was not necessary to believe in God to be a member of the Church, that the Churches’ social policies were an end in themselves; disestablishment, he argued, would increase the entrance fees for visitors to famous churches and most likely lead to an outbreak of prayer in some of the countries’ most popular grade-one listed buildings. The Church must be sure, he continued, not to cause offense to Atheists when they go sightseeing.
This proved too much for Bishop Connolly, whose remonstrations earned him exclusion from the rest of the debate. Karen stood up, stretched her long legs, and decided to go for a toilet break. It was only when she was outside the main hall that she realised it had gone dark outside.
Bladder emptied, caffeine consumed, Bishop Drysdale munched on a biscuit that had gone soft over the course of the day. In the atrium of the conference centre, a talk was being given by a black female missionary. Karen went over to listen.
‘Many of my family were against me going there,’ said the speaker, ‘into the Heart of Darkness, but I felt I had a calling from God. I left my home in Lagos and made my way to Surrey. There I found savagery, slavery, idolatry, abuse of children, and the worship of demons.’
Troubled by the missionaries’ words, Karen returned to the main hall. The previous speaker had been replaced by the Archbishop of Truro, a good looking sixty-year old and favourite of late-night Current Affairs shows, where television networks would pit his affable charm against the rehearsed cynicism of a panel of celebrity Home Counties’ nihilists.
A child walked onto the stage behind the archbishop. Taken off-guard, he stopped mid-sentence. ‘Hello young lady, are you lost, you need your mama?’
‘Tonight,’ said the girl, ‘in Kenilworth, the Christ is born. She will be queen. Rise up, go worship her, the wait is over.’
The archbishop smiled. ‘Discussions on the Christos are scheduled for Friday little one. Don’t you worry about theological matters that would be over your pretty little head. That’s what we’re here for – to do the hard thinking for you, to talk at you for twenty minutes each Sunday. Anyhow, where was I? Er…. could someone come and find this little girl’s parents, please?’
‘Come with me and see the child who is your queen.’ The girl turned to the seated audience, ‘Follow your heart and you will find her there.’
Karen would tell people for the rest of her life that the girl spoke directly to her. There were others who heard it, who felt it. Of the three hundred and twenty-one delegates in the main hall that night, only sixteen made to their cars, fifteen switched their engines on, and fourteen made it onto the road heading north to the junction with the M40.
‘Did organised farming precede religion, or did religion precede humanity’s first attempts at civilisation?’ Simon Wolfenstone read the article in the weekend newspaper magazine and decided that the archaeologists who had excavated the site of a fourteen-thousand-year old temple were asking the wrong question. They were treating religion as a strand of sociology. Simon thought that the real question was; ‘Did these ancient men and women go to such effort because they instinctively understood the eternal conflict of the Will to Power and the Will to Love within their souls?’ The ancient temple was adorned with images of scary wild animals: lions, snakes, scorpions, wolves. His guess was that this creepy place was somewhere that he’d rather have avoided had he suffered the misfortune to live in the neighbourhood all those centuries ago. From the pictures the temple looked like a place of fear, power, and control.
Simon’s own temple was the local Evangelical church, the place where he and his family worshipped the source of love and creation, the place where the Wolfenstone’s shared their joy as part of a wider community. There were no carved lions, no snakes, and no scorpions on the stone columns in St Stephens, Higher-Longford. The only things that adorned the stone columns in St Stevie’s were the Bose speakers for the sound system.
Hamid Saloo was a working-class Muslim. Hamid was an intelligent boy who left school at sixteen because his family was poor, his brother was disabled, and because he wanted to help. His first job was working in his uncle’s garage, which was situated behind the old mill on Longford High Street, two hundred yards down the road from St Stevie’s. His uncle favoured his own two sons, and Hamid soon tired of playing second fiddle to his idle cousins and found himself a job as a night security guard at a local distribution warehouse.
One night, Hamid was hit from behind and held a gunpoint whilst the yard was broken into. Industrial bolt cutters broke open the gates, and five trucks filled with confectionery and biscuits were driven away into the night. He mentioned his suspicion that one of the distribution managers had been in the gang that robbed the yard to one of the other managers – Hamid was ‘let go’ soon afterwards. He then found himself the job in the local Tesco supermarket as a security guard, a job that he had now held for eight years.
Hamid read the article about the ancient temple one day during his lunch break. Someone had left the pristine unopened Sunday newspaper supplement lying on the table in the staff canteen, next to a well-thumbed sports section. Eating his chips and beans, he read the magazine with interest. Hamid paid attention in his local mosque, he prayed diligently five times a day, and he knew that there was only one God, and he was Allah. And yet… the pictures of the carved animals on the stone columns spoke to him. He understood what they said. Underneath the pretence of organised religion, world politics, corporations, and in the interactions of everyday human-beings he heard the whispered poisoned voices of the carved stone animals still at work. Hamid was troubled. He prayed that God would send him a sign that his will was still at work in the world. He prayed that he, Hamid, could be part of Allah’s plan for the human-race.
The same customers came into the store, usually at the same time each week. Very few people noticed the Asian security guard by the door, but one white guy who did his shopping with a small boy each Saturday morning always made the effort to say hello. On that grey morning in October, a day that changed the world forever, Hamid noticed that arrival of two of the store’s regulars.
Little Alexander Wolfenstone was five years old. He walked through the main entrance of the supermarket holding his daddy’s hand. His Daddy said hello to the man in the blue shirt by the door. Then Alexander saw the pretty flowers in front of the newspaper rack, and together they turned and walked through the turnstiles into the main part of the store.
‘Daddy,’ said Alexander, ‘I want to make pastry, with two kinds of pastry, and put some popping candy in, and then melt some chocolate on top.’
‘Do you?’ replied Simon, ‘What about we buy some cookie dough and then you can cut some shapes out and sprinkle some popping candy on top of them.’
‘Okay, Daddy,’ said Alexander. Together father and son made their way down the aisles putting the weekly shopping into their trolley.
‘Love you, man,’ said Simon to his son.
‘Love you too,” said the little boy as he squeezed his father’s hand in response.
In the confectionery-aisle they couldn’t find popping candy, nor could they find any cookie dough in the chilled section. Instead, the Wolfenstones bought a pack of ready-made pastry, and three different types of jam, so they could make jam tarts. Alexander chatted all the way around the store, and, after they had paid at the check-out, he insisted that he carry the bags with the baking things in. As they walked past Hamid on their way to the car-park, Simon and Alexander smiled at him.
His Daddy strapped him into his car seat. Alexander patted the bag of goodies that lay on the seat beside him. Simon finished packing the shopping into the car and started wheeling the trolley back to the store. The explosion in his chest as he pushed the trolley into the trolley-bay sent him crashing backwards onto the tarmac.
Hamid saw people running in the car park. Others were standing around something, or someone, on the ground. Beckoning a colleague over to watch the door, Hamid made his way outside to see what was going on.
Alexander watched as his Daddy opened the driver’s door and sat in front of him. ‘Daddy,’ he said, ‘can we bake together as soon as we get home?’
‘Alex,’ said Daddy, ‘your Grandma is going to come here to pick you up and you are going to do your baking at her house.’
‘Because, in a few minutes a man called Hamid is going to open your door, and he’ll talk to you. You can trust him. I love you so much. There is something that I’d like you to do for me. Can you be a big boy?’
Hamid saw the man lying on the tarmac by the shopping trolleys. A red-haired woman was punching his chest and blowing into his mouth. Recognition dawned inside Hamid’s mind. ‘Where’s the boy?’ he breathed. He walked along the row of Parent and Child spaces and saw the child in the back seat of a green estate car.
The boy looked up as Hamid opened the door. ‘Hi there,’ said Hamid. ‘What’s your name?’ He knelt so their eyes were level.
‘Hi Hamid, I’m Alex.’
Hamid glanced down at his name badge. ‘Nice to meet you, Alex. You’re a clever boy to be able to read.’
‘My Daddy told me you’d come,’ replied Alex. ‘He said that you are a good man. He said that you asked God a question and that I was to tell you something…’
Hamid heard Arabic coming from the mouth of a white child; he heard his secret name; he heard words of peace, of encouragement, that he was to teach others about God, that many roads led to the One, that there is only one Noun and all men and women are called to be verbs; he heard that a special child was born that very night, and that this child would grow into an important prophet, and that he, Hamid, was to play a pivotal part in accomplishing God’s plan for the world.
And Hamid Saloo was filled with wonder and great joy.