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If you’re reading this after Saturday you’re probably one of the unlucky ones left behind to suffer the world’s destruction after true believers have been whisked off into Heaven by Jesus in ‘the Rapture’, predicted by U S evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping. The 89-year old president of the multimilion dollar Christian radio network Family Stations Inc, which has 66 stations in America and broadcasts in more than 30 languages through international affiliates, says he is certain that a huge earthquake will shake the Earth on May 21, signalling the Day of Judgement. He came up with the specific date after decades of using math based on biblical scripture.
Upward of 2,200 billboards have been posted around the United States advertising the coming apocalypse, and T shirts proclaiming “I Survived Judgement Day 2012” are on sale for 20 dollars each. Camping’s followers urge people to get ready and prepare for the Second Coming. Apparently only 2 percent of the world’s population will be saved. All the rest of us will remain, in very uncomfortable conditions, until the final destruction of the universe on the 21st of October 2011.
All very dramatic stuff, and “break a leg Jesus!” It’s not easy being the Second Coming. I learned that to my cost when I took on the role in 1981 while working as a cleaner in London and trying to publicize a new political movement.
Here are some extracts from a journal I wrote of the experience –
“I’m reading ‘Resurrection’ when a film of the same name comes out on release at local cinemas, – not the same tale of Tolstoy’s stricken conscience – but about a woman (played by Ellen Burstyn) who develops miraculous healing powers after a near-death experience. I don’t see the movie, but I’m struck by the coincidence of the title of the book, the film, and the new idea I’m toying with all coming at the same time. For I’m considering becoming ‘the Resurrection’?
The International Front needs more members. There are so many Christians sitting around waiting for Jesus to come back to save the world, but when’s he gonna come? The way things are going, it might be too late by the time he does. So in the meantime, if I should adopt the role, and proclaim myself as ‘the Second Coming’, it might get the ball rolling and bring in a lot more voters in the form of Christians. It could even encourage Jesus himself to make an early appearance out of indignation!
I get out the typewriter and reword the introduction to the manifesto:
“I am the Resurrection. If you believe I can say that, then you are the Resurrection too. Vote for me, Michael Dickinson, by wearing the badge of the International Front, and we will bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth?”
The first person I inform of my new identity is Maria, one of the two Argentinean girls with whom l share the kitchen on the second floor.
I’d given them both badges when I started the movement, but I hadn’t told them about the presidency thing, so this new step may come as a bit of a surprise. I’d meant to tell Cecilia, first, because I’d spoken to her more frequently when we happened to be cooking at the same time, but she isn’t in her room. Maria is more quiet and shy, and I didn’t really want to disturb her. However, I knock at her door and she says come in. She’s lying on her bed, reading a book, and looks surprised to see me.
“Sorry to disturb you,” I say, “But I want to tell you something.”
My legs are shaking, so I crouch down near the door with my back against the wall and explain that I’ve just realized that I’m the Second Coming, and need to tell someone about it.
She listens silently, the late afternoon light from the small window on her long black hair casting her face in shadow. The scene reminds me of the Virgin Mary receiving the Annunciation.
“Do you believe me?” I ask eventually.
“Yes,” she whispers.
I get up and give her some badges.
“Tell others what I’ve said, and give them a badge if they believe you. See you later.”
I go down to my room quite chuffed. My first disciple!
The B house is quiet when I get there in the morning, everybody still abed. I go about my chores in the kitchen. There’s a heavy saucepan in the sink, stained red by some sort of juice. It takes a lot of scrubbing to get the stain out.
Later, J informs me that the German lady visitor, Nina, gave birth to a baby boy by herself, squatting on the fire escape during the night under the stars, and afterwards cooked the placenta with onions in a saucepan and ate it ? the answer to the mysterious stain I had scrubbed out?
When A is up and awake, I tell him about the new development ? me being the Second Coming.
“Are you quite sure about this move?” he asks, casually rolling himself a cigarette.
“Yes,” I reply, trying to convince myself. “I am the Resurrection.”
“You’d better be sure,” he says as he lights up. “Because there’s plenty around who will quote you Matthew 7, verse 15. ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’”
As he pads out to the bathroom, I remember that my sheepskin jacket was given to me by him?
That afternoon, aware that Stella Gibbons is a Christian; I spend the cleaning time pondering how to explain my new situation. When we share tea at the end of the stint, I put it bluntly.
“This may come as a bit of a surprise, but I’ve discovered that I’m Jesus,” I tell her after she’s poured our cups.
She’s quieter than usual as I try, rather badly, to explain. There are no questions and no refills. Somehow, I know, as I walk down the flower-bedded pathway from her door to the gate, that I will probably never see her again…
But suddenly a coincidence happens that makes me believe more strongly.
I’m sitting at the table in my bedsit, and I’ve just written a letter to ‘The Watch Tower’, the free magazine published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, explaining who I am. I thought it important that they should be informed of my return, since they’ve been proclaiming and expecting it for so long. I’ve thanked them for their patience and included the new manifesto and a couple of badges.
Just as I’m sealing the envelope, there’s a ring at my doorbell. I go downstairs and open the front door. Two smiling, white haired ladies are standing there, dressed in identical beige coats, with leather shoulder bags.
“Good news!” they say. “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we’d like to talk about the Kingdom of God!”
I’m surprised and pleased.
“Well, you’ve saved me a stamp! Just a minute and I’ll go upstairs and get the letter.”
I go and get it and give it to them. They look mystified.
“I’m the one you’ve been waiting for,” I say. “Take this letter to the Watch Tower. The badges and instructions are inside. Good luck, and thank you!”
I close the door and go back up to my room for a lie-down, rather amazed at the timing of the visit?
A couple of days later I receive a note in the post from Stella Gibbons, thanking me for my help, but saying that she won’t be needing me any more because her old cleaning lady who had been ill was now better and ready to start work again. She includes a cheque for some money, but I return it, along with a polite note of my own, explaining that I don’t have a bank account and thanking her for her kindness. I don’t ring the doorbell, just drop it through her letterbox and walk sadly down the pathway for the definite last time, feeling that I have become, in the words of Great Aunt Ada in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, ‘something nasty in the woodshed?’
Near Chalk Farm I come across a congregation of black people, men and women, boys and girls, all dressed up in their Sunday best, milling around outside a church, chatting after the service. Only it’s Saturday, not Sunday, because these are Seventh Day Adventists. They firmly believe that Jesus will come again one day in glory for the final deliverance of His people and the restoration of all things. I hand a couple of leaflets as I pass, not stopping.
One evening I even hand out a few badges and leaflets at the Salisbury Arms, a popular gay pub in the West End. It’s a warm night, and I buy a cool half pint of beer to drink outside on the pavement before I go on my way.
“I am the Resurrection…” reads a well-dressed, well-spoken young man standing with a group of friends at the door. He looks at me.
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“You’re too self-conscious.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a challenging role. I’m not quite used to it yet.”
I finish my drink quickly and leave.
My actor friend David was away on tour, but I decide to go round to tell his flatmate Joanna the news. I see her through the window on the living room floor doing something with a potted plant. She comes to the door when I ring the bell and invites me in.
“I’m just trying to train this ivy,” she says, kneeling down again and looping the branches through a little framework. “How are you?”
“I’m ? I’m Jesus.” I start to explain, but I get a bit tongue-tied. She stands up, hands on hips, angry.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t got time for this,” she says. “I’d like you to leave.”
I go obediently to the door and let myself out. Glancing through the window before taking myself off into the night, I see her again on her knees, training the plant.
Outside a local pub, I come across a semi-vagrant young man, a familiar figure in the area, usually muttering to himself, here begging for change. He asks me for some. I’ve never spoken to him before, but I feel I the need of some company, and invite him in to the pub for a drink. Surprised, he accepts. I feel a bit self-conscious as I carry our half-pints to the table, but apart from his unwashed blond hair and scruffy clothes, he’s not muttering at the moment, and the other drinkers are carrying on their conversations unconcerned.
“Cheers!” I say. So does he, and we drink.
Silence after that. I fill it by telling him about my identity and my mission and showing him a badge. He listens quietly for a while, but then suddenly slams his glass down on the table and glares at me.
“You’re a bloody psycho!” he shouts, gets up and storms out of the pub. Everybody stares at the swinging door before turning their eyes on me. I take a swig from my glass and pretend to be reading a beer mat until they return to their conversations; then I slip out as unobtrusively as possible.
Back home, I’m lying on my bed, depressed. Apart from being called mad by the local nutter, I haven’t got a penny left to my name, and I’d desperately like to buy a couple of cans of lager to take the sting off. But I won’t have any money until I get paid at the end of my three hours cleaning the next day. I’m trying to resign myself to poverty, when there’s a sudden ring at the doorbell.
I go downstairs and open the front door. It’s a dirty old tramp, quite classic in appearance, with long unkempt hair, matted beard, torn and dirty raincoat tied with rope, toes poking out of gaping filthy shoes.
“Can you spare any money?” he asks, sorrowfully and hopefully.
“I’m sorry I can’t,” I answer, very truthfully on this occasion. “But wait! I’ve got some clothes I can give you.”
I dash back upstairs and take out a great pile of cast-off trousers and shirts I’ve collected off skips, some of it good quality. I stuff them into a couple of plastic bags. What he doesn’t want to wear, he can give to his friends, or sell. I’d checked all the pockets when I first found the trousers and found nothing, but now I slip my hand into one haphazardly ? and fish out a five pound note!
So the tramp trundles off happily with his new old clothes, and I stroll off happily to the off-license to buy a few cans of strong lager to get me through the night. Charity is its own reward!
There’s an Anglican church that I often pass on my travels, and one evening I decide to go in. The vicar and a verger are giving directions to a man at the top of a ladder who’s busy tying the end of a banner to one of the pillars.
“Can I speak to you for a minute?” I ask the vicar, when he lowers his eyes and looks at me inquiringly.
“I’m rather busy at the moment,” he replies. “Can you call in and see me some time tomorrow afternoon? Office hours between two and five, at the vicarage.”
He hands me his card with the address, before turning his gaze upwards again.
“A little higher, Gabriel!” he calls.
The next afternoon at three I’m greeted at the door and shown into the vicar’s office by his elderly female housekeeper. A little daschund uncurls itself at his feet and runs to meet me, tail wagging.
“This’ll show him that animals like me,” I think, as I pat the friendly creature, “Just as they would be naturally attracted to Jesus.”
He asks me to sit down, and I do so, still stroking the dog by my side.
The vicar is slim, his silver hair well-groomed, his manner I suppose you would call ‘urbane’.
“And what can I do for you?” he smiles.
“I think I have a way of preventing any more of the hunger strikers from dying at the H Block,” I say. (Six have died so far this year, murdered by the intransigence of Mrs. Thatcher and her government.)
“Oh really?” He sits back, placing his fingertips together in front of him. “And how would you go about that?”
“If they were told that Jesus had returned and was on their side, they’d probably stop.”
“Hmm, I wonder. And where exactly is this Jesus?”
“I’m here,” I tell him, presenting a badge and manifesto.
He listens politely to my tale, says he’ll see what he can do, and even shakes my hand on the doorstep, little Fritz wagging his tail goodbye.
Encouraged by such a courteous reception, I decide to pursue this streak of opportunity and pay a call to another vicarage a few streets away from me in the vicinity of Swiss Cottage. It’s a very hot afternoon, and there’s a note pinned on the front door ? “We’re in the garden!”
I follow the stone wall next to the house and come to a wooden door, open it and step inside the lovely rectory garden with its flowerbeds and apple tree. A group of four are seated on the lawn; two sulky, pudgy teenage children of both sexes on a blanket playing cards, and two tubby adults in deck chairs with a pitcher of iced wine between them, she knitting, he with a Dick Francis on his knee and his collar off for the heat ? the vicar.
“Welcome, stranger!” he cries jovially. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
I feel suddenly shy at the effusive greeting.
“It’s something quite important,” I say.
“Pastoral matters,” he nods understandingly, fixing his dog collar back on as he gets up. “If you’ll just come this way!”
And he leads me inside the vicarage, through the chintzy lounge to his little cheerful office. He offers me a seat and sits down behind his desk, leaning back and beaming.
“Tell me about it. Don’t be shy! I’m all ears!”
I don’t feel I can speak to him properly. Instead I take out a manifesto and put it on the desk in front of him. He puts the pair of glasses that are hanging around his neck on his nose and reads.
In a moment everything is changed. His jolliness has become fury. His slack, smiling mouth is a grim line as he rises from his seat, takes me firmly by the arm, marches me to the front door and pushes me out into the street.
“And don’t come back!” he shouts as he slams the door in my face.
It takes me a while to get over that one.
It was a hot, dry summer that time. London streets were grimy, dusty and grey. Even the shadows seemed dusty. One day as I was passing along one of those streets I noticed a nun in front of me dressed in her bright white habit. I followed her for a while until she reached a grey building, a convent, and was about to disappear into the darker grey inside.
“Excuse me!” I stopped her. She paused and turned.
“Do you believe in the Resurrection?”
She gives a tight, dry, smile.
“I live it every day,” she replies softly.
“Then you might understand this,” I say, handing her a badge and leaflet, and continuing on my way. What would she make of it?
Again I feel I’m being watched by the Authorities and they’re sending out warning signals.
For instance, on my way to work across Hampstead Heath, on the route I always take, I find a message has been painted on a tree in big letters in white paint ? ‘THE ROAD TO HELL’ ? with an arrow pointing in the direction I go…
And another time, when I was going somewhere, I can’t remember where, but passing a newsagent’s that had a photocopy machine, I went in and had a copy of the manifesto made. About half an hour later I realised that I’d left the original at the shop and went back for it.
There was a man on a ladder cleaning the shopfront window. I went inside and asked the girls for the manifesto, but they said they didn’t have it. I was sure I’d left it there.
Suddenly the door opens and the window cleaner comes into the shop, wiping his hands on a rag.
“Have you ever heard of Jacob’s Ladder?” he asks, significantly, and slightly menacingly as he approaches.
“Yes, I have,” I testily reply. “And you can walk under it!”
They all laugh loudly at my exit-line, because I am out of there fast.
And then, there in the middle of the road on that hot, dry desolate day, the route I had come, and the route I was returning, on a crossroad in fact, on the tarmac, with nobody else in sight, scrawled in big white letters in chalk, is the message:
‘MATTHEW 12 V 17/21.’
I look it up in my Bible when I get home, and it reads:
This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he leads justice to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”
Who could have written that there on the road, and why? Was it a message for me? Was it another one of their tricks? Am I going mad??”
Michael Dickinson lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website – http://yabanji.tripod.com/