Death and the End of the World
I was taking a much needed break from a hard morning's filing, watching the latest episode of Father Brown on i-player, with a cup of tea and a kit-kat, when I was interrupted by a furious banging on the front door.
As Death’s PA I’m not used to receiving many visitors. Death deals with his clients at their own convenience and they are never troubled to visit his realm. As a result the only visitors we ever get are from the occasional passing God and, very rarely, from one of Death’s fellow Horsemen.
Though War had only visited once before, I recognised his distinctive knock.
“Come in,” I shouted, hoping my reply was in time to prevent him knocking the door down.
He charged in, as if he was a military commander leading the final assault. Old habits die hard.
“Aha, it’s you,” he bellowed, “my favourite mortal.” I bravely attempted to fight off his kisses.
“What an unexpected surprise,” I said – he never rings ahead – “I’m rather afraid we weren’t expecting you, Death is out at work. Can I help at all?”
“Ha, that’s me keeping him busy that is. Well, I’ll just have to wait is all. I suppose tea for the troops is out of the question?”
“No problem at all, the kettle’s just boiled.”
“And if you’ve got any more of those biscuits.”
Always hide your kit-kat when War appears – he’ll have your last chocolate wafer, he’s absolutely no scruples that one.
“What was it you wanted exactly?” I asked, as I brought him a strong, sugary tea in his favourite mug.”
“Oh nothing really,” he said as he dipped his enormous beard distractedly into his tea – War isn’t used to thinking and drinking at the same time. “Just a thing I heard, some prophecy about the end of the world. I just wondered if there was anything in it and, well you know, if there is whether it’s anything to do with me.”
“Oh yes, the old Egyptian prophecy they found. Death hasn’t mentioned anything about it being true – why, were you planning the end of the world?”
“Ha, ha,” he laughed, almost choking on his kit kat. “Well I’m always trying, you know that, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, you never know.”
I didn’t let on that I knew the prophecy was rubbish. I’ve already checked my own timeline (though don’t whatever you do tell my boss) and I know that the much-hyped world ending on 22 November this year will not be happening.
“Well you’ll just have to wait for him to get back.”
I left War in the corner reading his way through a pile of my magazines. However, I’d hardly settled back at my computer before I was interrupted again, this time by a sudden flash of light and the ‘as-if-by-magic’ appearance of Pestilence Herself.
“Dotty dear,” she said, “my you do look lovely in black – is it one of his old dresses?”
She was interrupted from her flow by the enormous blast of laughter from War’s corner. “Oh that’s a good one – one of his old dresses. You’re such a charmer Peti.”
“Oh hello Scraps, you here about the prophecy as well?”
“Thought I’d see when I could collect my winnings Peti. Have been lining up a few soldiers, just wanted to check if this was the date of the big battle.”
“Oh you poor old thing, still believing in that tired old warfare nonsense – it’ll never wipe out mankind, you must know that. No, actually I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve, so I was wondering…
“New tricks, Peti, from you? Your same old germs have been festering around for a billion years, just waiting for mankind to swat them down with science. Not like me, the better the science the bigger the war – they’ve gone from banging each other on the head with sticks to a nuclear capacity that could scrub out the Milky Way, and in all that time your sneeze-makers haven’t evolved a jot.”
It’s always like this when They meet up. A childish squabble-fest about who’s killed the most. I do offer them the latest stats, as a factual answer to their disputations, but they’d rather just shout about it.
“I’ll have you know that my little babies are evolving all the time. Why, my super-bugs are almost immune to antibiotics now – within a few years every medical advance of the modern era will be lost to my A-team. I was rather hoping that the visitation of iguana-flu I’ve got planned for this autumn would be the cause of the, you know, Big Goodbye.”
“Iguana-flu! My dear, you really are getting desperate. If it’s not ducks it’s sheep, penguins, iguanas, any random farmyard help to sex up your ineffectual tissue-fodder.”
Famine’s soft tapping on the door was almost lost amidst the shouting match of his Horse-brethren. He looked startled to see them, but then he always looks startled.
“Ah, the complete set,” I said, “I’m afraid Himself is busy, can I get you a cup of anything while you wait.”
Famine shook his head and sat silently – he’s not one for a wasted word.
“Ha, are you here about the prophecy too?” War shouted across at him. “Wasting your time, you know it’s not going to be one of yours. I mean famine, that’s old hat, Sir Bob Geldorf has put paid to that with all his aid for Africa gubbins. Virtually done you out of a job single-handed.”
Famine mumbled: “climate change.”
“Climate change? Oh don’t give me that, since when has a few sunny days wiped out civilisation?”
“You forget, I do drought too – there soon won’t be enough water.”
“Ha, well we’ll all have to drink beer instead. Did you hear that Peti, we’ll have to drink beer instead.”
“Very droll dear. You must have so much time on your hands to think of these jokes, what is it now, seventy years since the last big war.”
“Since when more people have died in wars than ever before. Why, there are more guns in circulation today than there are children, and most of the children are carrying guns. I do love a child soldier, the best education there is. I agree with Michael Gove on that one.”
Unbeknownst to the Three, my master had arrived silently, and was watching the squabbles without comment. Eventually he decided to reveal Himself.
“MY, I CAN’T REMEMBER WHEN I WAS SO POPULAR. IS IT MY BIRTHDAY? HOW NICE, I DIDN'T GET SO MUCH AS A CARD LAST YEAR.”
The Three all jolted in surprise, abandoned their arguments mid-word and turned towards Death.
“Ah, yes, sorry I missed your birthday,” said War, “but I was up to my elbows fighting.”
“I SEEM TO RECALL THAT YOU HAVE IN FACT MISSED MY LAST 47,936 BIRTHDAYS.”
“Well, war’s pretty all-consuming, you know that, you must spend half your life on battlefields.”
“Oh don’t listen to his nonsense Scraps, his birthday was in January, you know he’s a Capricorn. You know why we’re here Bones, it’s all this fuss about the prophecy. Is it true? Is mankind going to end in November?”
“Yes, and if so who’s is it? Peti here thinks everyone’s going to get iguanaed, but I explained that bombs are a little bit more persuasive when it comes to getting mortal souls to leave their bodies.”
“YOU KNOW I CAN’T REVEAL THE DETAILS OF THE BIG DAY. THESE THINGS ARE KNOWN ONLY TO ME.” (Actually it’s known to me as well, I’ve had a sneak peek in the Book of the Dead and I can reveal that the world will end on a Tuesday – don’t worry though, it’s not going to happen for a long, long time).
“HOWEVER, I’D HATE FOR YOU TO LIVE UNDER FALSE EXPECTATION. LET ME JUST SAY IF YOU WERE ALL TO GO ON HOLIDAY IN NOVEMBER YOU WOULDN’T MISS ANYTHING IMPORTANT.”
The Three Horsemen (don’t every try calling Herself a Horsewoman, she detests the term and will probably strike you down in a plague of boils) tried to shrug off their disappointment. A few polite “how are you anyways?” were passed around before they all slunk off to their own private realms and Death and myself were left alone.”
“I SOMETIMES FORGET I HAVE SO MANY FRIENDS,” Death said eventually. I understood Him well enough to detect the loneliness behind his words.
“You’ve always got me,” I said.
“NOT ALWAYS, I AM SORRY TO SAY. FOREVER IS NOT SOMETHING HUMANS ARE VERY GOOD AT I’M AFRAID.”