I am an academic, broadcaster, and popular science and speculative fiction writer. Currently, I hold the post of Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. My books include A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you Never Wanted to Know, Surviving Armageddon: Solutions for a Threatened Planet and Seven Years to Save the Planet. My current books are Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes – ranked 5th in a Guardian list of the best ever eco books – and Global Catastrophes: a Very Short Introduction. I presented the BBC Radio 4 series, Disasters in Waiting and Scientists Under Pressure and the End of the World Reports on UK Channel 5 and Sky News, and was consultant and main contributor for the lauded BBC Horizon films; Supervolcanoes and Megatsunami - Wave of Destruction, as well as for the BBC drama, Supervolcano. I am a regular contributor to Focus and New Scientist magazines, and also write for The Guardian, The Times, The Observer, and other UK national and US newspapers. I live, run and grow fruit and veg in the English Peak District, where I reside with wife Anna, sons Jake (7) and Fraser (13), and cats Dave, Toby and Cashew.
MADGE AND DAVE HAVE A BABY
Consciousness returned incrementally, so it took a while for me to establish that I was lying face down in a field. The grass was cold and already starting to crisp with frost. I rolled over and looked up at a sky brilliant with stars. Shivering, but exultant, I tested my limbs – all seemed in working order – and sat up.
Even though I had been working towards this moment for almost a decade, I was stunned. I could barely grasp that it had actually worked. At last, I had succeeded in teasing apart the inscrutable veil that separated our reality from the one just next door. I was in an alternative universe; one where this little piece of space-time was occupied, not by my cramped and cluttered laboratory, but by open country.
I stood, rubbing my arms to try and keep the chill at bay, and looked around. In the far corner of the field, a cluster of black shapes resolved themselves into a small herd of slumbering cows. Past the cows was a gate, and beyond that a narrow path wound through a small copse. I could hear occasional traffic and see the headlights of cars through the trees. I looked down at the counter on my wrist. The orange digital display read three hours and 52 minutes. Plenty of time to take a look around before the relays on my apparatus clicked shut and I was hoisted back to my England; the grim and battered postwar England of 1948.
My breath clouded the crystal air and I chastised myself for not wearing something warmer, but at least I had remembered my hat, which I could see a few yards off, perilously close to a fresh cow pat. I retrieved it, jammed it on my head and strode off in the direction of the gate. As I rounded the cows, one raised its head and gave me a quizzical look before closing its eyes and returning to its bovine dreams. The gate was locked so I clambered over, catching my trouser leg on some barbed wire. I swore quietly at the sound of tearing worsted, and bent to examine a small rip below one knee. I swore again and started along the path. It was muddy and my brown brogues were soon thick with sticky black muck. Emerging from the wood I found myself on a grassy verge next to a small road. It was empty, but to my right I could see a starlit ribbon of grey winding its way up the side of a steep hillside dotted here and there with pale, fuzzy, blobs that I took to be sheep, and disappearing over the lip. To my left, the road plunged downhill and around a tight bend, beyond which a faint glow in the sky suggested habitation of some sort, and this way I turned.
Sticking close to the verge, I rounded the bend and was somewhat irritated to see that the glow was considerably further away than I had thought. Nonetheless, I marched onwards, stepping onto the grass as the occasional car passed. All the vehicles looked disappointingly normal. I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have been anticipating rocket motors or anti-gravity or some equally esoteric means of propulsion.
I paused for a rest in a small lay-by and, perching on a rock, reached in my cardigan pocket for my pipe. I blew to clear the stem, tapped out the dottle, and hunted with increasing foreboding for my tobacco pouch. After a minute or so of fruitless searching, it became clear that I didn't have it.
'Hang it all!' I muttered. Just when I needed a calming smoke more than ever before, my Virginia flake was in another dimension. I couldn't help but laugh and contented myself with a few sucks of tobacco-flavoured air.
A growing roar and a pair of brilliant headlight beams announced the approach of another car, and as I stood up it hurtled over the top of a small rise in the road. The driver saw me and screeched to a halt. The car was huge and ludicrously ostentatious; white with gold coloured bumpers. No rocket motors but, I was pleased to see, fins, even if these were clearly only for show. The window on the passenger side slid open, smoothly and silently, and I was tickled by my first experience of a technology that had not yet graced the motors of my England. A head peered in my direction and a voice called out. 'Need a lift mac?’ The accent was clearly English, but overlain with an affected American twang.
I nodded gratefully and walked across. The driver leaned over and opened the door and I climbed in, expressing my thanks. A miasma of overheated air and acrid cigar smoke greeted me, triggering a coughing fit that took me a while to control. To say that the interior was plush would be an understatement. The seats and the steering wheel were covered in what appeared to be zebra skin, while the dashboard was cream leather, trimmed in a darker shade. Aft of the gear stick, between my seat and the driver’s, was a miniature table of inlaid walnut with a brass restraining rail, on which stood a crystal decanter of what I took to be brandy, and two matching glasses, one half full.
All this flamboyance echoed the driver's facade. He was a small man, in his 60s I would say, huddled inside an enormous coat of shaggy brown fur. A black, wide-brimmed, felt hat, pulled down low, and an upturned oversized collar meant that I could see nothing of his face save a large, beak-like nose and horsey yellow teeth gripping the butt of a cigar. As we roared off, he turned and peered at me through horn-rimmed spectacles; his eyes magnified by lenses as thick as bottle glass. The whole ensemble put me in mind of an inquisitive owl.
'Guess you're heading for the show?' He queried.
'You're cutting it fine, she's due to drop any minute. I should have been there hours ago, but something came up. I hope to God I'm not too late.'
I had no idea what he was talking about and said so, somewhat apologetically. He gave me a look of incredulity. 'The Nativity, man; the Nativity!'
I said nothing, but must have appeared nonplussed.
The driver looked across at me again, owl eyes slitted in suspicion. 'Are you for real?' He returned his attention to the road momentarily, swerving to avoid a spellbound sheep caught in the headlights, and then his analytical gaze took me in again. 'You're not from one of them atheist cults that lock themselves away from the world are ya?'
I shook my head. 'Just a traveller. I have come a long way.'
Light seemed to dawn behind the bottle glass, and the man relaxed. 'Ah. You're from off-planet. We get a lot of off-worlders this time of year.'
I said nothing to dispel the driver's assumption, and inside I was thrilled. In this world, it seemed, humans had conquered space!
The man took a swig of brandy, smacked his lips and gestured towards the decanter. The car's heaters were going full blast, but I was still cold and needed no further persuasion. The brandy was warming and delicious. For a minute or two we sat in companionable silence; me looking out at the dark, sheep-strewn moors, my driver guiding his charge expertly around the many bends with one hand.
The glow in the sky that had first set me on the road seemed closer now and I broke the silence to question the driver about the Nativity he had mentioned. Was it a pageant of some kind? A show?
He gave me one of his looks again. 'A show? You mean the show.' It's the greatest show on Earth. The greatest show anywhere?'
I agreed that the Nativity was important where I came from too, and that many people commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ at this time of year, at which he laughed long and hard.
'I don't know where you come from, son, or where you've been hiding yourself. Hell's teeth, boy. We don't commemorate the Nativity. It's the real thing. December 25th; on the dot; every year.'
I said nothing. What could I say? He gave me a long, hard, look. 'You really don't know what I'm talking about do you?'
Slowly, I shook my head. I suspect he was beginning to think I was a bit simple. Exasperated, he took another gulp of brandy, and resigned himself to explaining, as if to a child.
'Every year, at Christmas, a Messiah is born; a son of God.'
The words registered, but made no sense. I think I sat there with my mouth open for a while, brain slowly grappling with the absurdity of the statement. The man kept one eye on the road; the other on my face, awaiting a response.
Eventually, I located my voice. 'But surely' I stammered 'that can't be....'.
A raised bushy eyebrow challenged me, causing my voice to trail off. I tried again. 'But....how long has this been going on?' It was the best I could come up with.
'Well, Jesus was the first of course, so getting on for about two thousand years now. '
'Two thousand years!' I repeated, dumbly. My companion nodded slowly; my dimness reinforced even further.
'But......all those Messiahs. What happens to them? What do they do? '
'You know Jesus was crucified, right? Well, since then most of the others have kept their heads down. Understandable, really. Over the centuries, one or two have stirred things up a bit, but they all came to very bad ends. Now they lead pretty normal lives; well, as normal as can be expected for a divine being'.
I was still trying to organise my thoughts, so my questions were somewhat arbitrary.
'How many are still alive?' I queried.
The driver took another snifter of brandy, and slowed as the road became constricted between drystone walls. 'I guess they could go on as long as they wanted, but it has become the custom to pretty much keep to an average human lifespan. I suppose this gives each a fair crack of the whip at trying to cajole humanity into behaving itself – a lost cause if you ask me - and there's always another waiting in line to take up the reins. So, in answer to your question - maybe seventy or so at the moment. All ages, of course.'
'Seventy Messiahs!' I was dumbfounded. 'Don't they get in each others' way? Step on each other's toes?
'Just the usual generational thing' my companion said. 'You know, the youngsters think the oldies talk bullshit. The oldies are convinced that they know best. I always find it comforting that divinity doesn't necessarily confer sweetness and light.'
I was quiet for a few moment, while I thought over this latest unlikely revelation. 'Are they all called Jesus?' I finally ventured.
The man glanced at me and then back at the road. 'Don't be daft. Their name depends on where they're born'.
'So it's not always the Holy Land?'
Again, he looked at me as if I was stupid. 'Well, if it was, I wouldn't be here in the heart of jolly old England, now, would I? Last year it was Mongolia; a hell of a trek, I can tell you. This is a doddle in comparison.'
'I think last year's Messiah was named Gerel.' My companion continued. 'I believe it means 'light' in the local language. This one will be Dave, after his dad. His human dad, that is.'
I pondered this. I'm not sure what I expected to encounter in an alternate 1948, but I was certain that the imminent arrival of Dave the Messiah wasn't it.
Another question struck me. 'How does anyone know where the next Messiah will be born?'
'They don't. Not until the star appears anyway, usually sometime in late November. There's a whole branch of astronomy devoted to it. The competition amongst observatories and amateurs to be the first to spot it is really hot. And then the search begins for the new Messiah's mother. Not an easy task, I can tell you. All of a sudden pregnant virgins are two a penny.'
I studied my companion more closely. His flashy demeanour seeming at odds with his religious knowledge. 'You seem to be very well informed', I hazarded somewhat intrusively, 'what's your interest in all this?'
The man took no offence and rummaging under the dashboard he picked up a card, which he handed to me.
It was white with a crenulated edge picked out in gold leaf. On it the words 'Curmudgeon, Solomon and Swift. Agents to the Gods. London, New York, Beijing.' were embossed in shiny black letters.
I looked up to see him grinning at me. 'I'm Solomon – the wise one. Dave is my client.' He winked and reached out a gloved hand. 'Jacob Solomon, good to meet you....uhm.....'
'Thomas...Tom will do.' I announced. 'You are the Messiah's agent?'
'Yes indeed Tom. A real coup, this one.'
'But, he hasn't even been born.'
'Well, you have to be quick off the mark these days.' observed Jacob. 'We have competitors you know, and some of them will go to any lengths – and I mean any – to get a Messiah on their books.'
I was incredulous. 'Why, for heaven's sake, would the Son of God – a Son of God – need an agent?
It was Jacob's turn to look at me in amazement. 'Why does he need an agent?! This is the biggest celebrity on the planet. He needs protection, guidance, counselling!'
I snorted with derision. 'The Messiah needs counselling!?'
'Of course. It's not like it used to be. They're in the limelight all the time. We try and keep them on the straight and narrow, but it's not easy. There are just so many demands on their time – the paps are all over them when they're young. Then later there are the chat shows; book offers; endorsements; sponsorship deals. And, of course, the Christian churches never leave them alone. Quite a few go off the rails and end up in rehab or a lunatic asylum. Others just can't hack it and either disappear or try and top themselves, and – let me tell you – for a Son of God that's not straightforward.'
I was silent for a bit, as I digested the implications.
'But what of the message they bring; love, peace, a promise of eternal life?'
Jacob yahoo'd as he took a hump in the road a little too quickly and the car left the ground for a few moments before crashing back down. He grinned across at me. 'Ah, Now that's where we come into our own. You see the message has lost a bit of its edge over the last 2,000 years. Everyone's heard it before so many times that, quite frankly, they're bored rigid with it. What's needed is an angle? Something new; something fresh, that makes the punter sit up and take notice.'
'The Messiahs haven't been too hot on miracles for a while,' he continued, after all it is the age of science and the masses like something a bit more rational; a bit more down to Earth if you like. The old resurrection business has died a death too – if you'll pardon the pun – so any Messiah worth his salt has to refocus; rebrand himself. That's where we come in'.
I looked more skeptical than ever. 'And what do you have planned for, uhm, Dave? What will his 'angle' be?'
Jacob's eyes twinkled with amusement. 'Well, now, that would be telling, wouldn't it?'
We drove on for a half-hour or so, largely in silence. The glow in the night sky was brilliant now; so bright in fact that the car's headlights were largely redundant. Jacob stepped on the accelerator and we surged up a long hill towards a wooded ridge. He looked across at me once more and grinned.
'Well Tom, I can see that this has all come as a bit of a surprise to you. I don't know where you're from and I don't care to know, but stick by me and you'll get the best view in the house.'
Before I could formulate an answer, we took a tight corner at speed and burst through the trees. There, laid out before us, was the most extraordinary vista. I gasped. 'By Jove.....'
The road fell away into a natural amphitheatre; a shallow bowl hemmed in by gentle hills dotted with small woods and criss-crossed by hedgerows. About one third of the way up the sides of the bowl a high wire fence sliced across the landscape, encircling and protecting within what I can only describe as a city of tents and marquees. At the very centre I could just about make out one of the broken-down stone barns that was a common feature of the countryside in these parts. Outside the barrier surged the greatest mass of humanity I had ever seen. All around, the multitude reached almost to the tops of the surrounding hills, draping the topography like a vast swarm of bees. Everything shimmered beneath the incandescence of a thousand arc lights, but even this could not detract from the brilliant yellow effulgence that burnished the eastern sky, where hung the brightest star I had ever seen.
I could sense Jacob looking at me, gauging my reaction, but I couldn't take my eyes off the scene and words failed me. After a few moments, he put his head back and chortled loudly, reaching out to pat me on the shoulder.
'Tom, ma boy. You ain't seen nothin' yet'.
We continued slowly down the winding road, Jacob easing his way through men, women and children spilling over from the surrounding slopes. The mood was cheerful, and many of those Jacob had to coax out of his path had clearly had more than a drop or two of the festive spirit. Eventually, we edged our way to the wire, and halted at a checkpoint manned by half a dozen bobbies. None were armed and all seemed to be caught up in the celebratory atmosphere, but I noticed in the shadows a platoon of green-clad troops toting machine guns. Hardly surprisingly, given the enormity of the event, nothing was being left to chance. The presence of the soldiers was incongruous, and it instantly took me back to my own world, still suffering in the aftermath of eight years of war. It struck me that I had seen no sign of such a dreadful conflict happening here
The inspector in charge recognised Jacob and waved us straight through. There seemed to be almost as many people inside the wire as crowding the hills outside, and my companion inched the car forward at walking pace as we followed the signs for VIP parking. Presently, I heard a tapping at my window and turned to look. A short, round, man in a dark suit at least one size too small, was gesticulating wildly and pointing past me to Jacob, whose attention he was clearly desperate to attract. The man had large, bulbous, eyes, book-ending a long, narrow nose, and his fleshy, pink lips were working away nine to the dozen, although I couldn't make out a word. I tugged at Jacob's sleeve and he grunted when he saw the animated little man. 'Fish!'
Jacob lowered the window on my side and we were instantly bombarded by the sounds and odours of the vast encampment. Fish gripped the sill with both hands, his expression panicked. 'Mr. Solomon, Sir; Thank God you're here. The contractions started three hours ago.'
My companion remained unflustered. 'Calm down Fish. I'm here now. Get in!'
Fish climbed into the back without another word. I could see his pale, pinched, face in the mirror looking at me with a mixture of irritation and curiosity. I could tell he wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there, but he had other things on his mind.
'P & P have been all over Dave. I tried to get him away, but you know what they're like.'
Jacob grunted again as he squeezed the car into what appeared to be the last available space. 'Piltdown and Prossit' he spat, by way of explanation. 'Our biggest rivals. Real bastards!'
Turning to Fish. 'They just won't let it rest will they. I better get over there and do my mother hen act. God knows what jive they've been feeding him.'
With that Jacob was out of the car and heading in the direction of the brightest lights. 'Fish will look after you', he called over his shoulder. 'Fish, make sure Tom gets a drink and a bite to eat – and a spot in our box. There's a spare guest pass in the glove compartment. See ya later Tom'. Without turning round, my travelling companion raised his hand in a wave and vanished into the throng, trailing a plume of blue cigar smoke.
Fish looked less than delighted with his new role as chaperone, and clearly wished to be rid of me as soon as possible. 'This way', he muttered, plunging into the crowd and leaving me trailing in his wake.
It took several minutes to forge a path to another security fence. 'The inner sanctum' Fish intoned without explanation. We waved our passes at the bobbies, discreetly armed this time I noticed, and squeezed though the intentionally narrow entrance. Beyond, it was a little quieter, although dozens of people beetled with intent this way and that across our path. I struggled to keep up with my escort and lost him for a moment. Then I caught sight of the little man clattering up a metal stairway at the rear of an enormous prefabricated grandstand. He waited for me on a landing, drumming his fingers on the handrail. Just as I reached the top of the stairs, he opened a door and disappeared through without a word, leaving me to follow. I found myself in a long, dimly-lit corridor, lined on one side with a series of doors. Fish marched to the far end and turned the handle of the last in the row. Inside was a square room, smallish but luxuriously furnished, with pictures on the walls and a thick carpet underfoot.
Half a dozen men, all in dark suits, were clustered around a long mahogany table, groaning with food and drink that had my war-famished mouth watering. Two of them looked around when we entered. They gave Fish a token nod, and reserved for me a look that mixed amusement with disdain. Suddenly, I was all too aware of my informal and by now somewhat grubby attire. Without greeting or comment, the two men turned back to their companions. None of the group showed the slightest interest in the extraordinary spectacle that revealed itself through the glass panel that formed the far wall of the room. I walked over and looked down across the heads of thousands seated in the open grandstand at the tumbledown barn I had spotted from afar. In front of me was a tableau so flawlessly stage-managed for public consumption that Mr. Hitler would have been ecstatic.
The front of the barn had been removed, revealing a punctiliously lit interior of dressed limestone, wooden rafters and a stone floor covered with fresh straw. Everything was spotless. Peering out of the shadows at the back were a couple of well behaved and meticulously groomed cows, lowing quietly, as if to order. Three lambs, their coats brushed and whitened, formed a huddle in one corner, one bleating plaintively. In the other, leaning back on a heap of hay-filled bolsters, lay the virgin – Madge, Jacob said her name was – legs akimbo; mousy hair hanging lank about a plain face. Bright red and blowing hard, Madge let out a humdinger of a yell as she pushed yet again, nails digging into the hand of husband Dave – a tall, dark-haired, man, thin to the point of emaciation - who crouched self-consciously at her side and bit his lip at the pain. Just out of view of the television cameras, which enveloped the whole scene, a uniformed midwife whispered instructions and encouragement. Taking pride of place, a simple wooden manger stood centre stage, filled with hay, covered with a brightly coloured quilt and awaiting the imminent arrival of its divine occupant.
Off to one side, four tweedy shepherds and a pair of border collies fretted nervously, awaiting their cue, while on the other three exotically dressed men were engaged in a very heated discussion.
Fish came up and stood beside me, clutching a plate piled high with canapés. He was more genial now that his belly was filling up, and nodded in the direction of the arguing group. 'It's always like this' he said. I awaited further explanation. 'The three kings. They can never agree about the order of presentation of the gifts.'
'I see they have given up travelling by camel.' I observed.
Fish snorted. 'Flew in last night. The tall one who looks like he has a dead chicken on his head is Louis XX, titular King of France. I believe he is bringing a gift of Channel baby-bath. The short, fat, one in the silks is a minor Thai prince, and the big, black, man in tribal costume is a member of the Botswana royal family.'
We watched in silence for a while, and I sneaked a look at my counter. I had one more hour. Madge gave an usually loud shriek that made Louis XX half jump out of his skin, and Dave grimaced as his wife's nails dug themselves deeper into the flesh of his hand.
I looked up at the dazzling star hanging in the east above the barn. It really was astonishingly bright. Too bright to be either Jupiter or Venus, and I couldn't see any sign of a tail or nebulous aura that would suggest a comet. A supernova seemed to be the best bet, and quite a close one. The Earth must be taking one hell of a radiation hit if one of these popped up every year.
'They didn't get here by following the star either, then?' I said.
Fish smiled. 'No. That went out ages ago. Now they're drawn by lot from the global aristocracy – or what's left of it. They love it. Keeps them in the limelight; gives them a few minutes of stardom. It can do wonders for a flagging reputation at home.'
A party of flashily-dressed individuals edged their way along the back row of the grandstand, looking for their seats and momentarily blocking our view.
I nodded to the crowd in the grandstand. 'Who are this lot?'
'The usual.' replied Fish, 'politicians, sportsmen, film stars, minor royalty, anyone rich enough or with the right contacts. This is the place to see and be seen. Of course the great and the good are all in the boxes adjoining ours; presidents, prime ministers, the governors of the Moon, Mars and Ganymede.'
I didn't want to open a can of worms, so said nothing, but again I was thrilled by the revelation that this Earth had colonies in space.
Some movement near the barn attracted my attention. Jacob had appeared and I saw him beckon to Dave, who extracted himself with difficulty from his wife's grip. I could see she was none too pleased, but he leant over and whispered something that seemed to mollify her. Jacob offered Dave a cigarette and stood with his arm around his shoulder, talking quietly in one ear. Dave nodded a number of times, took a last drag on his cigarette and headed back to Madge's side.
Jacob marched across to a pair of short gentlemen in matching ground-length dark coats and bowlers. 'This should be fun.' said Fish. 'Messrs Piltdown and Prossit.'
Jacob stood so close that the two were forced to lean backwards as they were bombarded by a wall of what I guessed would be particularly imaginative invective. As Jacob became more animated, arms flailing, eyes blazing, the gents leant back further and further so that I expected their bowlers to drop off at any moment. For a few seconds, the hubbub in the box died down, and I could hear Jacob's rant, faintly but clearly, even through the glass and above the noise outside. I chuckled, thinking back to basic training. My sergeant major would have been proud.
As Jacob crossed to his former position near the three kings, the midwife trotted over and knelt down in front of the puffing and blowing Madge. Her head dipped down for a few moments and then she stood and turned to look up – I presume at the television producer. He and his team were shoehorned into in the glass-bounded box adjacent to ours, but which projected further out into the grandstand so that I could see him in all his harassed glory as he orchestrated the scenes that Fish told me went out live not only across the planet, but onwards to the colonies. Last year, the audience for the virgin birth topped two billion, and they were confident of doing even better this time around.
The midwife was now holding up four fingers, which I guessed was some reference to the degree of cervix dilation. At this, the producer became even more animated, indicating to a minion by making a small circle with his hands and holding them up before his eyes, that he wanted a close-up shot. I had noticed and been enormously impressed by, the large, full colour, television screen mounted on one wall of our box, and looking up now I was confronted with an unsettling view of the flimsy sheet that covered Madge's nether regions. I turned away in some embarrassment, judging that sensibilities in this world were far less easily offended than in mine.
I stole a surreptitious glance at my wrist counter; less than 25 minutes left. Where had the time gone? I had never been of a religious disposition, except perhaps during some of the hairier moments of my wartime career, and those were fleeting, but all of a sudden I realised that I was desperate to see the birth. There was something intangible in the air; something that reached inside me and took hold of my heart and squeezed it. I felt scared, nervous and exhilarated, all at the same time. Of its own accord my hand reached for the pipe in my pocket, and I put it between my lips, imagining that it was full and smouldering nicely. But sucking at the cold, tobacco-fragranced air, did nothing for me and I put it away again.
A hush had fallen both in the room and outside. Someone had turned up the sound on the television, but there was no intrusive commentary, just the gentle, background, lowing of the cows, and Madge's increasingly desperate screams. Husband Dave sat on a bale of hay next to her; arm around his wife's shoulders; hand still gamely bearing the brunt of Madge's vice-like grip. I could see Jacob through the window, pacing nervously backwards and forwards, pausing only to light another cigar. Judging they had a bit of time, the shepherds had left their places and I could see them clustered around a tea trolley nearby, each clutching a warming brew that steamed voluminously in the frigid air. The three kings were still arguing.
I peered at my counter again. Five minutes! The midwife darted in once more and did a swift examination. Looking up at the producer, she tapped her head, meaning – I surmised – that the head was visible.
'Any minute now' I thought. 'Please hurry.'
Not wishing to intrude on the traditional tableau, the midwife retired, but I could see her lips moving as she urged Madge on from the sidelines. My heart was pounding now. My desperation to stay and witness the Messiah's birth was all encompassing; something visceral that seemed to me then the most important thing in all the world. I couldn't help it. 'Just one more push' I blurted out, eliciting an amused, sideways glance from Fish.
I feared it was not to be. Even as Madge gasped and strained once more, I could feel a fizzing sensation deep down, as if my insides were turning to a bubbly froth. I imagined each bubble growing swiftly before simultaneously popping out of existence in this universe and erupting back into the reality of my own. But then Madge gave one final, primaeval, scream and a tiny pink thing, slime-covered and bloody slipped out from beneath the folds of the modesty sheet. For a moment, the world seemed to stand still and I felt an extraordinary wave of euphoria wash over me. As the midwife rushed forwards to take up the newborn and hand it to Madge, my view of the world started to slowly revolve and I felt myself falling. Then everything began to stretch out and smear like cream stirred into a cup of black coffee. Around me rotated a kaleidoscopic whirlpool at the centre of which a point of brilliant white light grew rapidly until it overwhelmed me and my senses failed.
The cold stone of my laboratory floor ushered me back to full consciousness. That and the residual burbling and sparking of my apparatus in the corner. My head was splitting and despite the chill I lay there for a few minutes while my body recovered from its ordeal. Presently, I got to my feet and walked over to the workbench, where I had spied my tobacco pouch. I was still groggy and needed some fresh air. Climbing three flights of stone steps, I unlocked the heavy wooden door and strolled out onto the unkempt lawn of the ancient and rundown mansion. The air was crisp and but for a few wispy clouds, the eggshell blue dome of the sky was flawless. I looked across the fields and down into the valley, where the city crouched battered and unrecognisable after the year-long siege and bombardment. Closer at hand, I could hear the crunch of a morning patrol's boots on gravel and terse orders shouted in German. In my mind's eye, I saw Sarah's face again amidst the rubble; white with dust; dead eyes staring unseeing into mine.
Sighing, I sat down on the prone and decaying trunk of an ancient oak felled by a wayward shell in the last days before the city's capitulation. I reached into my cardigan pocket for pipe and tobacco and went through the comforting routine of filling, tamping and lighting. After a few draws of aromatic smoke I felt much better and bent my thoughts towards the extraordinary experiences of the last few hours. It was immediately apparent that something was very wrong and I was distraught to find that my memory of events was already fuzzy. Trying to pin down the details of my adventure was like grasping falling snowflakes that melted away as soon as they were captured. I may have triumphed over space and time, but it appeared that due to some unforeseen by-blow of the translation process I was destined to forget everything I encountered on my journey.
Suddenly, I felt utterly deflated. Perhaps my apparatus did nothing more than render me unconscious, and the whole thing was nothing more than a dream? Sick with growing disappointment. I put my pipe aside, rested my elbows on my knees and put my head in my hands. I stayed like that for a long time, while I weighed up the possibility, or more likely – it now seemed to me - the probability, that my astonishing experiences might have been all in my head. When I eventually uncovered my eyes, I noticed a scrap of something white on the ground in front of me that must have fallen out of my pocket when I took out my smoking paraphernalia. I knew what it was even before I picked it up - a business card edged in gold. I clenched my fists and cried out in jubilation. It wasn't all in the mind after all. It was true! It had happened. But I could recall almost nothing now. The slate would soon be wiped clean. All my mind's eye would let me see was the face of the midwife as she held the infant; the woman's eyes wide, mouth open in what seemed like shock. I could have imagined it, or maybe my dwindling memory was playing tricks too, but just before I was plucked away, I swear that I heard a distant voice cry in bewilderment 'it's a girl!'