I always knew how I was going to die. By saying that, I don't mean I was psychic or had visions of the future. For all I knew I was just as likely to die from falling out of an aeroplane or being eaten by a shark. No, what I mean is that after my death I had everything planned out. Just as a bride to be plots and plans her wedding, so I tortured myself over my funeral. Everything had to be just right.
At first I was going to have a classic old school burial in the ground. This is appealing because of its cost and there are fewer chances for something to go wrong. But it didn't seem adventurous enough. I wanted something that would spark off a rash of suicides as people tried to outdo each other in the big event stakes, a James Cameron funeral if you will.
Cremation was the next possibility. The fiery death is certainly dramatic, but nobody can see your coffin as it 'goes' into the afterlife and I'm robbed of people seeing me being sunk into the ground, preferably as drops of rain fall on the roof and roll down the sides like tears. Great stuff, very dramatic and something you'd probably want to record on a camcorder and watch every year at Christmas.
The burial at sea was certainly novel, but also very expensive. I would want to do it right, so a large cruiser would have to be hired along with catering staff and a captain. The danger here is that once I've been lowered into the sea, the cruiseboat will still be floating around. This could lead to lots of drinking in the sun and an impromptu Rodney Dangerfield type party could start, accompanied by bad 80's pop music. Hardly respectful of the dead, i.e. me.
So I had my problems. Every type of funeral had its own advantages, which were cancelled out by the disadvantages. It reached the stage when I was just going to have a plank of wood saying: "Here lies Paul Turner. Go fuck yourself. RIP." but this might be considered vaguely cheeky. I think it was in 2008 when I finally hit upon the solution.
Why not combine them?
It was a great idea! After some careful planning I decided on the following strategy.
I would have a huge Viking boat at a dock. My grieving friends and family would be gathered around the sides of the harbour and would watch my coffin be lowered onto the deck. Then said coffin would be set alight along with part of the boat and it would be sent out into the ocean, maybe with a discreet propeller to make sure it went in the right direction. After around 8 minutes the boat would start to sink and I would disappear into the sea. The throngs of people would stay for a respectful amount of time, before departing for sandwiches.
I had yet to decide whether or not to have a buoy float up from my coffin and mark my burial spot. At first I was going to have a lightbulb on it flash morsecode messages at people saying thing like "See you soon!" or "Doing fine and the weathers great" but I don't know how legal that is.
Weather was also a concern of mine. I didn't want it too cold or too hot. I settled for August as the best month to have it. I also decided that if I reached the age of 95 I would commit suicide in the summer so as to ensure perfect conditions. It would be really gutting to hang around and die of natural causes on Hogmany in the middle of winter. Terrible timing when you considered the weather, plus it would clash with the biggest party of the year.
Finally, after I was buried/cremated/sank at sea, there was going to be a huge ballroom extravaganza with whatever bands were fashionable at that time playing live for my guests. The best food would be served, the finest champagne and to top it all off at every table there would be a special effect picture of me. If the guest looked at it from the left-hand side they would see me sleeping peacefully. If they moved to the right, I would suddenly wake up and give them a wink. I'm sure it could be tastefully done and the kids would enjoy it.
All in all, the only bad thing would be the fact I couldn't attend it myself. But you can't be the star on the big stage and watch from the crowd at the same time. Also, I'd be dead as well, which whatever way you look at it, would be a downer.
But beyond that, every base was covered. I was really looking forward to it and had to keep forcing myself not to bring the date forward (actually this wasn't a major concern as the estimated cost of my funeral was 10 million pounds and I only had a fiver in my savings account). I couldn't wait.
Then a man called Alan King entered my life and fucked everything up.
The day I did die was the 29th of April, a Friday on the eve of a bank holiday weekend and a payday no less. It was not a good day to leave this mortal coil.
Perhaps I should introduce myself though. My name, as I might have mentioned earlier, is Paul Turner. I live and work in Glasgow, Scotland which is a relatively nice place. I'm of average build, average height, and average intelligence. An average guy basically. I have a girlfriend called Kate Geller, who is also average across the board in all catageries. As you might be able to surmise from my negative thoughts I was not too happy with the way my world was and the fact that I had to go to work on a hot Friday wasn't helping my mood.
Nobody wants to work on a roasting day. Nobody wants to work fullstop apart from the 2% population of the world who get that elusive gift that is more rare and precious than the lost treasures of Atlantis; job satisfaction. But on a sunny day like this all you want to do is go down to your local river, peel of and jump in, ignoring any sewage that floats past your nose for the thrill of pretending to be Huckleberry Finn for an afternoon.
That morning was unusual in that I was sober for a change. Usually my flatmate, Rob Diaz, who is below average in many respects and could be classed as lazy or insolent, would coerce me to go out for a few drinks on a Thursday night. The few drinks would lead to a nightclub, kebab, taxi and a headache all before my alarm went of at 7.00am.
But Rob was saving up for The Party. This was going to be the biggest event of the year, bar none. Drinks, drugs, women, men, animals, if it wasn't there, then it probably didn't exist in the first place and it was all taking place this weekend. The host of this sordid night of fun was none other than Samantha Frost.
It was hard to describe quite why men and most women loved her. On a purely mental level, she was the equivalent of a 90-year-old pensioner with one tooth and more wrinkles than an elephant's testicle. The woman simply couldn't hold a conversation for more than a minute and usually spoke in sentences containing less than 3 words. But physically…Jesus H. Christ. She had long blond hair, red full lips, and deep blue eyes. Her figure was the shape of an hourglass that shouldn't be possible in a universe governed by the laws of physics. You could get an erection just hearing her name. Sweat would pore profusely out of your body if she walked past you. Someone had died of a broken heart after just meeting her (actually that last one is rumour, but hell, it seems possible). On some instinctual level deep in your genes from cave man days, you knew that this was the perfect mate who would give you a flawless child. Your balls cried out to be emptied before a Tyrannosaurus Rex came by and ate you.
Yeah, she truly was a thing of beauty, a legend whispered around pub tables everywhere. Of course, not that I cared. I was perfectly happy with my girlfriend, Kate, who understood that I would maybe look, but never touch. Maybe just a poke or a prod, but never serious touching.
The only problem with this party was that neither me nor Rob knew where it was. Or indeed knew Samantha Frost at all. Still, Rob seemed confident in his detective skills and I was just glad a long weekend was coming up. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. 3 days of lying about doing nothing, assuming Robs legendary skills happened to fail us.
That was the reason I was suprisingly fresh for 7.05 in the morning as I walked out my room.
Rob was already up, sitting in the good chair watching cartoons and spilling milk from his Rice Krispies down his t-shirt.
'Uhh,' he said, not looking up from the television. This was suprisingly articulate for Rob first thing.
He waved his hand, but his eyes were glued to the screen.
I popped two pieces of bread in the toaster and had a look at the diary calender to see if anything important was happening this week. The diary part was blank for the entire first half of the year, as neither Rob nor me really had crucial events we had to go to usually. A picture of my girlfriend stared down from the top, with the words JUNE printed across her forehead.
Rob said it reminded him of Big Brother from "1984" and had actually spent an afternoon trying to hide from the gaze of Kate. He worked out that unless you squatted directly underneath it, her eyes would follow you round the whole room.
It was meant as a gift from Kate for my 25th birthday and she got it especially made, but it was quite spooky. She also gave us one for the toilet but Rob drew the line at that, and I didn't like the idea of her knowing what I was doing in the bathroom either.
I checked the calender and saw today was Audit day. I groaned. Every year in my work we would be tailed by a shadow as we went about our daily business. They would have a checklist of procedures and if we did not adhere to every one then they would fail us and the company would lose its prestigous A.S.O award, which really meant nothing to the workers, but could mean the sack for the supervisors. Also, I'd been given the responsibility of organising the staff for the visit (for no extra money I might add).
Just what I needed on a Friday. I silently thanked God I hadn't gone out last night, as my bread popped up.
I went to the fridge for butter, but saw only an empty carton of milk.
'Rob, did you get more butter?'
He craned his head round to look at me. 'Nah, I though you were going to buy some Paul.' He wiped some of the Krispies off his shirt and on to the floor. 'Why, are we out?'
'Oh well.' And with that went back to the TV.
I decided not to press the issue and added it on to a list of things that Rob hadn't paid for yet including rent, TV licence, phonebill, and batteries for the remote control, which had vanished last week and somehow ended up in our neighbours sex toy (though how Rob knew that I didn't want to know).
I opened the cupboard for some juice and saw an empty plastic container with the words "Juicee Delight" printed on the side.
I poured some water into a glass and sat down on the couch with my dry toasted bread. I munched and slurped as loudly as I could, but it's almost impossible to annoy Rob with bad manners and I began to feel ridiculous, so I stopped.
After finishing my Prisoner cellblock H breakfast, I put on the kettle for a cup of coffee. Most of our mugs were stolen from various friends and aquantencies and Rob seemed to take great pleasure in drinking from the "Happy 99th Birthday Great-Grandma!" mug. I settled for any cup with a handle and no hole.
While I waited for the water to boil I went to my wardrobe and tried to find something that was vaguely office like. The only tie I had was a black number that either made folk think I was a dick because I was trying to appear cool or I had a huge family and attended funerals on a semi-regular basis.
My office gear was in fact my high school gear, to my eternal shame. I was skint pretty much all the time and I really hadn't grown since school, so I figured why waste money on clothes when I could spend it on food to stay alive for another month.
After dressing I went to the coffee jar to find, of course, it was empty. There was also still no milk in the fridge since I last check 10 minutes ago.
He raised his head. 'What?'
We had had thrilling conversations like this for the past 3 years and somehow I never tired of them. The kettle came to the boil, so I poured the water in and had a cup of hot water. I noticed that my mug had a drawing of a naked man with a thermometer penis on the side of it that frankly failed to amuse me.
I finished of my hot water with out scalding myself, grabbed my denim jacket and left with out saying goodbye. I didn't know it, but that was the last time I would see the flat before I died.
It was 8.00 am and the sun, which would become a huge ball of fire in a little under 2 hours, was still low in the sky but burning off the morning cold quickly.
I have always hated the commuting part of getting to work. It's bad enough being up at some insane time in the morning and knowing you have to do something you don't want to do for the next 8 hours, but then you see everybody else who is in the same boat as you. It’s like the living dead on the zombie train as we all shuffle into the carridges and shuffle off, thinking about eating brains. The collective misery is worse than your own individual sorrow.
So I always buy a tabloid to keep me sane for the hour-long journey on the train. I usually can't read anything before 9.00am, but I look at the pretty pictures and that keeps my mind off the daily slog.
Today though the papershop had sold out of red tops. It looked like everybody was having the same idea as me, so all that was left was a couple of broadsheets. I groaned inwardly, but given the choice between looking into the eyes of a flesheating cadaver and reading the upper class toff's papers, I'll plump for the politics.
I paid for the suitcase of a paper and felt my muscles twinge as my arms lifted up the enormous tome. The trouble with broadsheets is that they're designed to be read on a flat surface, say, the size of a ballroom dance floor. That way you can spread out all the sections and sub-sections. On a train however, you sit (if you are lucky), and can read the front page easily enough, but your personal space is limited to the end of your nose. When you try to turn to page 2, it's like turning the sail on a boat.
You send it out into the open and hope it travels round a 360 degrees arc to your waiting left hand. What inevitably happens though is that it encounters somebodys arse and bounces back or a gust of wind hits it, taking the entire page out your hands and sailing through the open door. Once I saw a rogue broad sheet page detach and wrap itself around an unsuspecting passenger's face, like some malevonent creature. Said passenger ripped it off and stamped on it fiercely, but he still eyed it warily as if it might try to bite his ankle.
I trod up the road to Queen Street station and prepared my self for the worst.
I was pleasantly surprised by the train being on time. Unsurprisingly it was as busy as a bar in a nightclub. Once the train pulled into the station and opened the door, there was a 4.2 second gap for anyone wishing to actually leave the train to do so. After that a rush of workers flowed through the doors and instinctively searched for the best seat, then a seat, then somewhere to stand and finally just to get on the bloody train before the doors shut.
I used my Times to clear a path before me, like a plough scoops snow to one side. Once on the train, my predatory instincts revealed that all the seats on this carridge were taken and there wasn't enough time to go through to the next one. Without thinking, my subconcious memory reminded me which passengers usually got off at the next stop and I subtly (if that’s the word when you're barging people out the road and silently threatening them with your eyes) made my way and stood next to them.
The doors closed and I saw a few unfortunates through the window who hadn't managed to make it onboard, either lacking a ruthless streak or new to the savagery that is early morning commuting. Never mind endless discussions about evolution and man, if you want to see Darwin in action, visit your local train station.
My instincts proved right as an elderly gentleman with huge grey muttonchops suddenly stood up before the train was even halfway to the next station. This caught me off balance and I nearly missed the seat as a nice enough woman, who looked like an elderly librarian swooped down like an eagle on a rabbit. Once again, my paper saved me as I threw one of the subsections ('The Euro and how it will benefit Britain') on to the floor in front of the now vacant seat. This seemed to take librarian woman by surprise and I near enough jumped over the man sitting by the aisle to grab the seat. Victory!
The librarian woman backed away, but not before marking me with a look that is more commonly found on serial killers targeting their next victim.
I sneered and began picking up my 20 pages of supplement, before realising I didn't want to read it anyway, so dropped them back to the floor.
I looked at my watch and saw it was 8.23. All in all, not a bad start to the day. I had a paper, a window seat, the sun was beginning to rise in the sky and it was payday. I've had worse mornings.
The office I work in is in Union Street, facing a bar tastefully called "Bobs Boobies" and a burger joint. There was also a church a few doors down if you found you couldn't resist the temptation of these delights and had to cleanse your soul.
My employer, Janson & Janson, operated on the 4th and 5th floors. Travel agents had the bottom, a work agency had the 2nd and 3rd and the samartitans had the 6th . Presumably this was so they could spot jumpers on buildings from their windows and coax them down with a loud hailer.
It was also a building with air conditioning that worked when it could be bothered. Dust would swirl in the shafts of sunlight and dance like tiny fairys, but none of it went outside. It just gradually came to rest on whatever surface it could find, including your lungs.
Our setup in my department of the office was fairly simple, as was the job. 9 fax machines were arranged in a circular shape on a large desk. Out of 4 of these machines would come requests for clients paperwork. All the files were kept on the 5th floor in allegedly alphabetical order. So you take your request, go up the stairs, collect the file, photocopy the relevant pages and fax back the request in the 5 remaining machines. Simple.
Except round about 11.00 a.m., these machines started spouting out page after page every minute. And theres only 6 people to retrieve them. So you have to run like a vampire that finds himself unexpectedly in the Sahara desert.
As I said earlier, today was Audit day, which was the first piece of bad news.
The second unfortunate piece of news I received was that 3 people were off sick. I was suspicious to say the least. Who actually falls ill in summertime? Around 5% of the population, and that’s being generous. No, what we have is the sick-of-work day when you can't be arsed going into the office. To be fair I was going to do the same, but I was plagued by Catholic guilt the night before and felt obliged to come in.
We also couldn't keep any doors or windows opened for fear of a security risk, despite the rising heat. Never mind that we're 5 storeys up, there may be a pink panther type burgler scuttling around, stealing incomprehensible legal documents and selling them on street corners.
So the basic team for today was me, a woman called Lea Buckett and old Archie Adams.
Lea was 31, a devout Christian and believed Jerry Springer was possibly the new messiah. She ate chocolates and based her life on what adverts and articles told her would make her happy. She was the first stereotype I have ever actually seen in real life and despite her apparent blandness, was a continual source of facination for me. If The Sun editorial said something, then she adopted that as her own stance. If another paper contradicted it, then she changed her mind straight away. She'd have made a great fascist, following orders blindly without question. Still, Lea did made a great cup of coffee, so I loftily forgave her shortcomings.
Archie was drunk. Not a drunk, but continually sloshed. I had worked for J&J for 3 years and I had never once seen Archie sober. He conducted conversations, read books, watched films, got married, had kids - all the time he was drunk. I had only saw him sober up once after a party in the Luss Hotel out by Loch Lomond.
You couldn't buy booze from the Hotel so we had brought our own carryouts. Archie had purchased 24 cans of lager, 1 bottle of Vodka (or Voo Doo as he called it) and 1 bottle of Whiskey. The poor bastard had totally underestimated his capacity for booze and by 3.00am he had exhausted his entire supply. Then he took ours. He was about to start on petrol from cars nearby when the Taxi came to take us home.
On the journey back, his eyes became less glazed, his pupils started to focus, and bit by bit he sobered up. He gradually looked like a man who was witnessing horrific things through the gates of hell.
He staggered from the taxi as soon as we reached Glasgow and ran with a look of disgust and fear on his face to the nearest off licence. That was the last time I saw Archie sober.
'Alright Archie,' I said, slipping into the seat beside him. I took a sip of my coffee from the machine (and winced at the horrible aftertaste - if I gave blowjobs for a living, my mouth would surely taste like this, although I'd probably be on better wages) and looked at the back page of the Metro.
'Look, the Ger's are chasing after that foreign reje-' I stopped talking right away. I had looked in Archies eyes and saw they were focused. Nuclear dawn bloodshot eyes, but definitely not glazed. Archie was sober.
I lowered my coffee slowly to the table. 'Archie, bigman, what's happened, what, I , a…' I wanted to hug him, to tell him it would be ok, we would find whiskey from somewhere, but the truth was it wasn't even 9.00 yet and the day was gaping before us like an endless wasteland.
He looked me in the eyes for the first time and sighed. 'Gina, my wife, you know her, she's very headstrong when she gets an idea in her head.'
I nodded. Gina was apparently over six feet tall and looked more masculine than Chuck Norris in "Delta Force 2". I hadn't met her, but this was apparently not a woman you fucked around with.
'Well, she decided yesterday that I drink too much and before I knew it she had poured every bottle down the sink. Every hidden stash I had is gone. She even called the supervisors and told them where my caches are in here.'
Archies stashes were legendary and you might think it odd that the bosses tolerated a drunken worker who could be a danger to him self and others. But the fact was that Archie was the best worker in the place and the more he drank the less he talked, so they turned a blind eye to it.
However Archie couldn't pull out a bottle of hard liquor and start glugging it at teabreak time. He had to be discreet and secretive, so one day on a particularly boring lunch hour, he shuffled his chair over, looked around to see if anybody was watching (which included Lea who was watching and looked very interested in what was going on but Archie stared at her until she went to the sink and started washing dishes, even though she brings a packed lunch in every day) and pulled out a tatty, but carefully folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket.
It was in fact a map.
It was covered in clear polythene and had yellowing sellotape round the edges. In the bottom left hand corner was written v3.2 and had dates written in small neat handwriting down the side noting what changes had been made and when.
It was two blueprint pictures of the 4th and 5th floors top down. The supervisor's rooms and cleaners rooms were labeled red, as these were the most dangerous locations. Hidden booze was marked with a yellow X and there were 17 on the 4th and 25 on the 5th. The stashes also ranged from the sensible to the outlandish.
He had whiskey hidden in plantpots, cisterns, under floorboards, inside old folders. He had 2 bottles dangling out of windows on pieces of string that faced onto an alleyway.
The ladies toilets Tampax machine wasn't safe, neither the charity box (which was a real indicator of how inclined we workers were to part with our cash since no one had contributed any money in the 4 years I had been working) or old filing cabinets.
There were bottles hidden that even Archie didn't remember and he would occasionally scutter round corners and rap his knuckles on walls to see if any old treasures could be found.
Today though, which was rapidly going downhill, Archie was dry as a ship in a desert. And he didn't look happy about it.
'I don't know what to say. Have you tried the shandys from the vending machine.'
'Removed and replaced with more of that fizzy juice stuff that rots your teeth.'
As opposed to your brain, but I kept that thought quiet. 'Listen, Arch' you know that the Auditors are coming today, right. I mean you've read up on the rules and regs?"
Whichever one of the three Auditors seemed the sternest, the most unwilling to bend rules, I was going to present them with Archie. Drunk, the man was a walking mine of useful information, and I couldn't see him slipping up. Now I was worried he might vomit on them.
I turned to Lea to come up with a new plan, but she was over at the window, shielding her eyes and looking down at the road outside.
She turned round and audibly gulped. 'They're here.'
I ran over to the window and subtly nudged Lea (i.e. elbowed vicously) out of the road and looked down.
My eyesight is shit at the best of times but I could make out a dark BMW parked by the pavement and three ominous dark blobs moving across to our entrance.
I wondered if Archie or Lea had ever taken sniper lessons and wondered where to find a firearm at this time in the morning, but it was too late for thoughts of homicide. They were in.
I grabbed hold of Lea and Arch and shoved them roughly in front of the door. I looked them up and down like soldiers on display.
Archie was looking like a homeless mans third year on the streets. He'd only been sober four hours and already his hair was sticking up, his glasses seemed askew, no tie and stains of a dubious origin were on his right trouser leg.
Lea looked smart in a pink cardigan and a ridiculously long skirt that reached the floor and made her look like she was levitating everwhere. She looked presentable enough, but if one of the Auditors somehow managed to broach the subject of Religion, then she was going to go off on a tirade that would give a Jehovah's Witness a run for their money.
I hated to admit it to myself but I was going to have to bite the bullet and take on the worst of the Auditors.
I looked over at the elevator and saw that it was slowly counting up to 4.
One last chance to get this right.
'Ok, you two, remember; don’t swear, don't offer them gifts, don't spark up conversation if it isn't invited, don't look them in the eye, don’t don't not look them in the eye in case they think we've something to hide, don't rush your job, but don't go too slowly and finally don't fuck this up or we'll all be out on the street. Ok?'
Lea nodded her head and Archie grunted something that sounded offensive but I took it to mean yes anyway.
I looked back at the lift and saw 4 appearing on the LED. The doors opened. The Auditors walked out.
First to appear from the lift was a woman who looked quite jolly. Bubbly curly hair fell over her chubby red cheeks and her wide white smile was contrasted with the strikingly red lipstick she was wearing.
The second was a skinny chap with no hair and a hooked nose. He had on the thickest pair of glasses I had ever seen and made his eyes look 10 times bigger than they should.
Last out and most worrying was a whippet thin woman whose hair was tied into a pianowire tight bun. The skin on her forehead seemed to be stretched back by the roots of her hair. She wore a similar skirt to Lea's, but you could see the tips of her shoes which were pointed and looked like a weapon in a James Bond film.
'Welcome to Janson and Jansons Legal and Mortgage offices,' I said with a huge fake grin on my face. 'My name is Paul and this is Archie and Lea'
The two of them held out their hands to be shaken which were looked upon as vipers from the Auditors apart from the fat jolly one who pumped them like a prospector trying to get water from a desert well.
"My names Carol", said the fat jolly one, "And this is Hugo and Victoria"
Hugos eyes seemed to enlarge for a second, then settled back into their Jupiter sized balls. Victoria nodded her head slightly, but it might have been my imagination.
'Shall we begin?' Victoria said in a prim school mistress tone. I hated her already.
'Yes,' I said through my fixed smile that was beginning to hurt. I wondered how Breakfast TV presenters did this for 3 hours every morning and was beginning to find an unheard off respect for them. 'I thought we should pair off for the day. Victoria, if you would like to follow me, Hugo, I thought you could go with Lea and Carol, if you'd like to team up with Archie.'
I looked at the clock and saw it was 9.00am. Time to start.
What followed over the next 8 hours has already been described in such tones as "The darkest day of this esteemed companys history" and "Oh God, we're gonna get sacked". Another favourite is "Fuck" and "Shit" and any other curse word, which you can repeat over and over.
It's fair to say it didn't go well. Yet it started so positively.
After we had paired off, Victoria and myself went to the fax machines to await the first request. I didn't bother trying to engage her in conversation and we spent an awkward 10 minutes until the first one came through.
It was a simple request and we found it easily enough on the 5th floor, photocopied it and faxed it back to the respective office. I kept an eye out for Archie and Lea while I wandered back and forth between floors. Archie seemed to be having his ear chewed off by Carol, who incredibly was still smiling and talking 100 words per minute. Lea had the worst of the bunch really. Hugos eyes were hypnotic and looked as if they could read your mind and know instantly if you fed him any bullshit.
Victoria, despite her stern appearance was actually very nice after the first hour and dare I say it, sweet. She would compliment me on my selection of tie and tell me I was doing a great job, no uncomformities.
I was polite and possibly charming, so come lunchtime I was quite chuffed with the way things were going. Even the air conditioning unit seemed to be putting in a bit of effort to keep us cool. That was until I caught up with Archie and Lea at the dinner table in the kitchen area.
The Auditors had gone out for lunch so for the moment we were free to talk.
'How's it going?' I said taking a large bite out of my burger. Lea was eating her celery sandwich and Archie appeared to be pretending his water with ice was straight vodka. There seemed to be an ammonia smell coming from it and I wondered if he had added turpentine to give it a kick.
'Hugo's a bit strange,' said Lea, then giggled nervously and looked over her shoulder like a bird keeping an eye out for a cat that was stalking it. 'But he seems to be happy with the way things are run and praised me once or twice on my performance.'
We turned to Archie, who looked up from his strange concoction with hound dog eyes and peered blearily at us. The more sober he was, the drunker he appeared.
'I hate Carol,' he said. 'Hate her. And if she says one more thing about her two pet dogs, Harry and Larry, I'll be forced to punch her out. She also seems slightly psychotic and I hate you for putting me with her.'
'Apart from that though, pretty good, eh?'
He just stared at me and took another sip of his god-awful drink (and was it tainted slightly blue? Surely that couldn't be Domestos?), screwing up his face as he tasted it.
We spent the rest of the hour talking about keeping up the good performance and going over routines (If you receive a fax that has no stamp from the corresponding office what do you do?). It was like the worlds most boring pub quiz, but I felt confident that if the afternoon went half as well as the morning, the A.S.O. would be ours.
Outside the sun began to rage. What was a hot day and got gradually hotter became the hottest day in the history of Scotland. Pale skin people frazzled and crawled into the nearest available shade. The Clyde began to rival the Costa del Sol for people as everybody started to run for cool wet places.
The sun was now an angry orb of fire, insisting that it wasn't spicy enough yet, it knew we wanted more heat, dust plains of Africa heat, Sahara desert heat. You bitching about the cold weather? Well here's a little heat for ya! But what do you do if the worlds a kitchen and you can't stand the heat. Where do you go?
The sun continued to burn and the temperature continued to rise.
It was 1.29 pm when our air conditioning broke. The fact it was even on to go off in the first place was a miracle in itself, but finally, finally, it sucummbed to the heat. Which was very unfortunate for us.
The system started making coughing noises akin to a 40 a day smoker getting up in the morning. It seemed to right itself as if it had got rid of something choking it, but then a faint smell of burning drifted around.
The sound of its machinery started becoming choppier until finally, like a huge aeroplane cooling its engines, it wound down. The sounds of the fans turning were punctuated by longer and longer gaps as the blades slowly started to swing more lazily round in easy arcs until finally, all sound stopped. The air conditioner was dead.
Without any fans to circulate heat and bring in cold currents the temprature started to build astonishingly quickly. Walking through the rooms became more of a struggle than it had any right to be. Dust started to settle and would only be disturbed by one of the faxers rushing by and creating eadies in their wake.
I heard somebody try to slyly open one of the windows, but the boss rushed over and slammed it shut. He gave the employee a long lecture that was cut short an eighth into it when he realised how hot it was and retreated to his office where he had two electric fans on his desk.
In a muggy tropical heat like this, as the temperature soared, so the threshold for patience shortened. It's not any type of excuse for what happened, but it definitely was a factor.
The time was 3.03 pm when two separate factors collided with each other. One was the fact that Archies mental armour, which wasn't very strong at the start of the day, was beginning to show signs of cracks appearing. His back was drenched with sweat, but he also seemed to have developed a tic from somewhere. His eyes were now almost completely red apart from a hint of green in the irises and tiny, tiny pupils. That was the most scary thing. He looked as if he's been staring at the sun for 3 weeks. Archie was a dam in a bad Charlton Heston disaster movie getting ready to break and wash the townsfolk away.
Number two was the jolly fat Auditor, Carol. In this instance I will take some of the blame, but really, who could have seen this. Carol apperantly decided that she was going to play the good cop/bad cop routine on her own. The first half of the day she was what she considered the soul of the party and great company to be around. In the afternoon she had turned into terminator psycho bitch whose only aim was to break you in half.
Every time I saw her with Archie she was being critical about his work, his tie, his smell, the way he did stuff, the way he didn't do stuff. The worst thing through out all of this (and all the Auditors were the same) was that she showed no signs of ill effect from the heat. Despite the fact that her face was covered in makeup not one smudge or line of sweat appeared. The possibility they were robots was never far from the front of my mind.
I had considered buying booze at lunchtime to give to Archie, but it wouldn't have had any effect. He might have achieved a slighly higher state of soberness, but it would take barrels of the stuff for him to go back to the worker he was.
I was still trying to think of ways I could swap places with him, so he wouldn't have to face this barage of questions, when he snapped
That simple, one minute he was photocopying a document, listening to Carol going on and on and on, and the next moment, he was insane
The photocopier was the first, but not the last innocent on his rampage. He looked round at Carol, who was still talking, but shut up promptly when she saw Archies face. He resembled Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk.
Smiling (though I've seen corpses with agony rictus grins look more appealing than the one Archie had on) he turned back to the photocopier and casually knelt down and unplugged it from the wall.
Then he swirled it round 45 degrees, the carpet bobbling up as the machine had no wheels.
At this stage no one quite knew what he was going to do. He still had that mad grin on his face and I feverently hoped he was simply shuffling furniture around "Changing Room" style to brighten the place up.
He walked round to the side of the photocopier and placed both hands on it. Then he simply stood there, tensing his muscles in his arms as if waiting for something. Perhaps even then he could have been talked out of it. Perhaps he was having second thoughts about whatever he was going to do. Perhaps.
But then Carol spoke and it was as if a starter pistol had gone off: 'You know you only have a minute left to finish that fax don't you?'
Archie looked at her, then at me, then the photocopier and then straight ahead.
Then he pushed.
The 'copier started sliding along the carpet, making a noise like a sledge on soft snow. Archie kept pushing, pumping his legs, veins sticking out on his neck. His glasses had rivulets of sweat on them. Occasionaly a rip could be heard as the 'copier snagged a part of the carpet, but for the most part it went smoothly along. Everyone in the office was staring at Archie, understandably, as you don't see a madman pushing a piece of office equipment up and down the aisles of desks everyday.
I was looking at where he was going though, and I groaned inwardly. He couldn't be really doing what he was going to do, was he?
Directly in front of him was a floor to ceiling window. It looked onto the alleyway and it was always something of a mystery why anyone would want a brilliant view of a grubby back alley. All I knew was that Archie was pushing a large piece of machinery at it very fast.
The glass was made of material that was supposed to be near enough bullet proof, so I was hoping that it might just bounce back and hit Archie in the stomach, where he would lie winded on the floor and we would pump him full of tranquilliser darts like the ones they use on rogue elephants. However, I think a sheet of tissue paper would have held up better resistance than the glass in the frame.
As the copier hit it, the window seemed to flex slightly, as if it was going to bend outwards, but finally come back into shape. Then it broke.
Rather than a dazzling shower of glass shards, the pane of glass simply broke in two straight along the centre. The two rectangle pieces fell out neatly as you please and dissapeared from sight. There was an air off disappointment in the office. Then the photocopier disappeared into fresh air.
It hung, just for a second as its momentum hurtled it onwards, then it fell like a lead weight, trailing behind the cable with a small plug still attached.
For one second I though Archie was going to go out the window as well, but he somehow managed to stop his run just before the edge.
Everybody ran forward to see the results of Archies work.
Thankfully the alley was empty of people, only a few old skips and binbags were victims to Archies onslaught.
The glass from the window frame surprisingly didn't break when it reached the concrete. The two pieces bounced up in the air a couple of times, vibrating like a tuning fork for a few seconds and then lay silent.
The photocopier was a lot better. As a general rule of thumb, it seemed to be the more expensive the piece of machinery, the sweeter the destruction. A £4,000 state of the art colour photocopier with 4 paper trays, auto feeder and sorter was one second away from its death.
Everybody agreed that it was the best explosion they had seen of expensive office equipment and silently applauded Archie for the style and choice of office gear he had chosen to destroy, if not publicly for fear of being sacked
The 'copier exploded on impact with the old worn concrete. The casing cracked in two and hundreds of technical components which nobody had any idea were for flew out away from the machine like ripples from a stone landing in a pond. The glass in the machine shattered much more satisfactory then the windowpane and separated into thousands of tiny dimonds. The main part of the 'copier which hadn't been destroyed bounced once, then twice then on the third landing it dissipated its kinetic energy and lay on the road, slowly spreading itself outwards. All you needed was a groan coming from the photocopier and it would have finished the scene.
Since the 'copier wasn't forthcoming, I provided one instead and sat heavily onto the floor. This was shaping up to be a bad day and I wasn't even dead yet.
I leant my head against the window looking out on to the main street and watched the Auditors walking away to their car. I had just come out of a 2 hour debriefing with the bosses who it was fair to say were not happy with Archie and by default with me since I was supposed to be in charge. Archie was sitting in the cafeteria sipping on iced water. I suspected manslaughter charges wouldn't be brought against him since it was an inanimate object he had hurled through the window, but it was safe to say his career with J&J was over. As was mine.
Two hours they sat opposite me and discussed how this had come about, only to fire me at the very end of the meeting. I didn't feel any real sorrow at losing the dead end job and dodgy pay, but it was sad to think of the future staplers and pens I would no longer have the opportunity to steal.
The clock on the wall said 4.57 but I decided to be cheeky and leave a couple of minutes early. I walked to the table where Archie was sitting and looked at him.
He looked back.
'Pub?' he said.
I nodded. 'Pub.'
We grabbed our jackets and a box of pens and paperclips, before walking out for the last time.
The pub was called "Old Tams" but no one had ever seen Tam or knew if he was indeed old or not. No one probably cared though, as Tams had the cheapest alcohol on offer in all of Glasgow, discounting homemade meths.
Predictably on a Friday before a bank holiday weekend the place was heaving. Archie and me had devised a plan of attack at the bar called the Pincer move, apparently very popular in WW2. I went to the left, Archie the right. Whoever reached the bar first and got served would automatically buy the first round. Simple.
I threaded my way through the crowd, my elbows threatening to spill somebody's drink at any moment. A couple of women were in deep conversation in front of me and after about a minute of violating their personal space, they let me through. I was sweating and the bar was still halfway away. I had a quick look to see if Archie was faring any better, but he had long since been swallowed up by the crowd and I just hoped he hadn't fainted in the heat.
The next obstacle was a large group of 5 men. Going through the middle of them was an option, but usually cut of their conversation and was considered slightly rude. On the other hand going round them would mean drifting away from the bar, plus the fact that I might lose my momentum. I decided on straight through the middle and managed to avoid standing on everyone's feet.
Finally, my quest was almost over, but I faced the toughest obstacle - the "Norm Factor". Made popular by that highly rated 80's sitcom "Cheers", sitting, standing or slouching at the bar was seen as a great way to spend your time in a public house. In Cheers however, the bar was huge and there was always a gap for you to get through. Old Tams bar was a very small "U" shape and would be lucky to accommodate 12 people. Why did these bastards not understand that for other customers to buy drink they have to get to the bar? Instead they sit there, like a resurrected Berlin Wall for people wanting a drink.
There is no polite way to shift these bar limpets. Usually I would just put a ten-pound note in my hand, slide it through the tiny gap between two bodies and whack it down until I got served. However sitting in front of me were three of the biggest skinheads I had ever seen. Now, having a grade one haircut doesn't automatically make you a bad person, but it does make you look slightly intimidating, especially if you're six and a half feet tall.
Still, I had no choice. I wasn't prepared to back away and attack another part of the bar for fear of being held up again. Plus, who was to say that I wouldn't find another bunch of neds sitting at the other end of the bar?
I swallowed, took out my tenner and prepared to get into my first fight since I was nine. Then I heard someone shouting my name.
I looked across the bar and saw Archie, waving a pint at me and sloshing it onto the wooden bar. I was saved!
We managed to find a small table in the corner with a couple of stools. I took a sip of my beer (a third of it still lying on the bar incidentally) and savoured it in my mouth before swallowing.
That was all I needed to say really. It spoke volumes. Archie wasn't the type to bother with sound effects. He had already downed his first pint and was threatening to finish the second before my lips had even left my glass. I for one didn't fancy navigating my way back to the bar and was about to tell him to slow down when I saw one of the barstaff clearing a passage through to us. He had a tray in two hands with 6 pints of lager situated precipitously on it. The full glasses slid back and forth on the greasy tray like crates on a ship in a stormy sea.
He reached our table and put them down with a noisy chink as they rattled against one another and threatened to knock each other down in a domino effect.
'Put it on the tab Jimmy,' said Archie, not able to drag his eyes away from the tray of delights.
'Yes Sir,' said young Jimmy, who looked as if he was finally realising that working in a bar to earn money while you are studying at University isn't as romantic as it first seems. He backed away and soon disappeared into the crowd.
'Good idea Archie,' I said. 'Getting a big bunch of pints for us instead of going back and forth to the bar.'
He took one long gulp of the first pint from the tray before returning it back, only a little froth in the bottom to let anybody know there had ever been alcohol in the glass. 'What do you mean? These are for me.' And proceeded to down the second pint.
I decided to drink slowly and hope I seen someone I knew who was going to the bar and might kindly buy me another beer.
'So Arch', what are you going to do now? Hire yourself out as an assassin for office equipment? Maybe try to go for a world record of how many different places you can shove a photocopier out of a window?'
'Dunno really,' he said, ignoring my witty and Oscar Wildeian one liners. 'I might try and go back into the Merchant Navy, if they'll have an old fart like me.'
He took another gulp of beer, but he did seem to be slowing down. 'What about you Paul? Whats your plan?'
'My rent is paid up for another week or so, but after that I'll need to find another job or move out.' Neither option was really attractive. Though I despised my job (previous job I corrected myself), it was piss easy and I really liked where I was living. You had a terrific view of the bedroom window across the road where a very attractive woman lived. I saw her sometimes at the train station, but couldn't think of an opening gambit that didn't make me sound like a pervert peeping tom. Which I suppose to be frank I was.
And then of course there was The Party. I wasn't sure if Rob and his sources had located the, eh, location of the event, but I doubted it. Damn shame as me and Archie could really be doing with a shindig. Plus, Samantha Frost…I took a slug of my beer and accidentally finished it earlier than I intended. I looked longingly at the 4 beers still sitting on Archies tray, untouched, condensation drips sliding down the glass, down the legs, Samantha Frost… Slapping myself on the side of my head, I managed to put my libido back in the box. For now.
'Listen Arch', is there any chance you can give me a loan of one of your beers.'
'A loan? What are you going to do, regurgitate it back in an hour? Aye, in fact that’s exactly what you will do I bet.'
'I can give you money for it -'
'No. N-O. That spells…' He drifted off, thinking about something, hopefully realising what an arse he was being in the increasingly stowed pub which was incredibly still letting people in the door. If no one can move to get to the bar, how is the pub supposed to make any money? Crazy. Archie turned back to me. '…maybe. If you do me a favour?'
Archies favours were notoriously unbalanced. If I were to do a 20 year stretch in prison for a murder that Archie had committed he would greet me when I got out with a pat on the back and a pint of lager. That would be us square.
'What is it?' I asked in an unapologetic suspicious voice.
'Simple enough. I want you to go home with me and tell my wife that I've been sacked.'
My eyes widened. 'Fuck off. That spells fuck-off. No offence but if you're chickening out of telling her it, what makes you think I'm going to do it. Anyway, you're the one that committed photocopiercide'
'I will admit that I don't want to tell her. But I'm betting that this here pint.' He stroked the glass as if he was a desert merchant trying to sell me a wife. 'Will convince you otherwise…'
Archie had on his cunning look that meant his eyes were 20% less watery than they usually are.
'All right, but here's a counter proposal. You give me two pints of lager and you tell Kate we won't be going to Ethiopia this summer.' I'd always wanted to visit Africa, but going to a region that's a Third World country for a vacation seemed vaguely offensive to me. You could argue she was going to do charity work, but then why was she planning on bringing tanning lotion and enough books to start a mobile library? No, she wanted a cheap holiday.
'One and a half pints, plus I'll chuck in these peanuts.'
'Archie, that’s an empty peanut bag, you emptied them all into your gob the second we sat down. Two pints, nothing less."
Archie looked longingly at his pints, but common sense prevailed.
'Aye, alright, anything to avoid the dragon.'
He shoved them over to me and I took a long slug before letting out a resounding "Aaahhh…"
I let my eyes drift over the crowd and accidentally saw Rob looking for me.
'Rob! Over here mate. Get a few pints in before you come though, eh."
Rob nodded his head, looked at the bar and started easing his way in through the crowd.
'I'm telling you Archie, this could be very good news approaching us.'
'You're not kidding, I was genuinely worried about how we'd get our next pints.'
'Yeah, that's great.' The pint situation had dropped to Def Con 1 for me as I had one and a half glasses sitting in front of me. 'But I don't mean the booze. I'm talking about the party.'
'No, The Party.'
I proceeded to tell him about Samantha Frost, who incredibly he had never heard of, and the wild tales and urban myths that surrounded her.
'Sounds alright,' slurped Archie over his beer.
'All right? This is like the Oscars crossed with the MTV awards crossed with,' I waved my hand in desperation. 'Something amazing!'
He looked up at me. 'Yeah. Like I said. Sounds alright.'
I thought about punching him. Again. But Rob appeared with pints.
'How the hell did you get those so fast?'
There were 5 all held together in his 2 hands by sheer pressure. It was exciting but dangerous at the same time.
'You've just gotta have the moves,' he said as he plopped them down (Archie breathed a sigh of relief) then managed to find a stool from somewhere, despite the fact that there shouldn't have been any. He truly was gifted in someways.
'So how was work today?'
'Not bad,' I said.
'Anything interesting happen?'
'Nowt much,' said Archie.
'Fair enough,' said Rob.
And that was the small talk done with.
'I may have a lead…' Rob looked slyly over his pint.
'What on The Party?'
'No, Lord Lucan. Of course The Party you doink.'
He let the silence spin out for a bit, master of the dramatic pause. 'Well, it seems that the guy who works on Aisle Three, cheeses, has a cousin who is friendly with a showbiz lawyer. And he has heard rumours that the old Taylor house has had a lot of frenetic activity happening to it. Scaffolding going up, windows being replaced, a basic worksite. But get this. It's all being done at night. During the day, all the workmen and machinery has gone."
'What's the old Taylor house?' asked Archie.
'It used to be owned by a really rich guy called Raymond Taylor, but it's been standing there for Decades. It's huge inside apparently, four floors and a swimming pool out the back, east and west wings, all the gubbins. But Taylor lost all his money a couple of years ago in the whole dotcom business thing. He thought he could make a lot of money on it, but then he got to thinking that if he invested everything, and I mean everything, he could be richer than Bill Gates within two years.'
'That's a lot of money,' I chipped in.
'You're damn right, but unfortunately for him, he made really bad choices and within a year he was crippled financially and was bust.'
'Does he still live there?' enquired Archie.
'Nah, he left for America to live with his sister and lick his wounds. Though some people say that he dresses up as women and try's to prostitute himself in Glasgow. Doesn't even bother to shave his legs.'
'How do you know all this?' I asked, genuinely interested.
'Guy who works in Aisle Two, House Wares. You don't think I work in the shelf stacking industry for the glamour and minimum wage do you?'
'But back to The Party. The rumour is that this Sunday night it's going to start at 10.00 pm and finish at 10.00 am, Monday morning. A 12 hour booze fest of booze and loverly ladies.'
'That’s actually very impressive detective work on your part,' I said. 'Well done.'
'Yeah, good stuff', said Archie.
'Just doing my job gents, just doing my job.'
We talked at length for football after that. Rob was a die-hard Partick Thistle fan and felt that every one in Glasgow was betraying their local club. I was Celtic and Archie was Rangers. When it came time for somebody to order the rounds we sent up Rob every time. I couldn't get to the bar after half an hour of trying and Archie nearly caused a fight every time he tried to advance 2 paces. Rob, however, had "the gift" and could pass through crowds like a ghost. It was spooky.
However time marched on and eventually after a good few beers, I finally felt drunk enough to approach Archie's wife.
I don't know why Archie and me didn't tell Rob about being fired. Archie was embarrassed I guess, and I didn't really want to spoil the weekend, the bank holiday weekend no less, for Rob. So when it was time to leave I said I had to pick up work related stuff at Archie's, and we left Rob to finish the beers and get a taxi home himself.
It was still light outside and not a cloud was in the sky. Stars struggled to assert themselves in the still too bright night and only Venus or possibly Mars were really making an impression.
Archie lived in Holytown, which was about a good 5 miles away. Trouble is, trying to get a taxi in Glasgow was tricky at the best of time. At 3.00 am in the morning it's impossible. Short of throwing your self on the bonnet and holding on in "Starsky and Hutch" fashion, the taxis won't stop. Unless you are a leggy blonde. Me and Archie were in no serious danger of being even slightly recognised as a couple of page 3 stunners.
However the Gods were shining on us that night (for a while at least) because no sooner had we stood at the rank (which was very unusually empty for 11.55 pm. This either means that it was chocka five minutes ago and every taxi was now occupied or a kebab shop was for some reason giving away free pakora) than a taxi pulled up. We got in and the cab drove off.
Archie gave his address and we sat and looked out the window.
I was beginning to regret having spent a small fortune in the past six hours. I really should have kept that money for rent and now I only had a couple of weeks at best to find a new job or source of income. I felt sympathy for Raymond Taylor and wondered how I'd look in a mini skirt.
I was also regretting agreeing to speak to Archie's wife on his behalf. Gina Archibald, as I mentioned before, was a very tough woman. If she was in Prisoner Cell block H, she would work the presses and be the "daddy". The two pints I had bartered with was long ago now and I couldn't even remember if I really enjoyed them. And of course this was all a gentleman's agreement at this point. If I decided not to do it what was Archie going to do? We didn't work together anymore so there was no real need to put on a friendly face if I didn't want to. And if he thought I was an arse, I'd never see him again. I was just beginning to think these traitorous thoughts when we pulled up to the house.
I didn't bother offering Archie any money for the taxi. How often do you hear of prisoners about to be executed tipping the driver of the meat wagon.
We got out and walked slowly up the path. The front gate squeaked on orange rusted hinges and I winced, hoping that Gina hadn't heard that. The house was a semi-detached, two bedrooms, front and back garden. The garden had long ago gone native and didn't look like showing any signs of being tamed soon. A BBC documentary could spend weeks in there and still have stuff left for a second series.
We walked up to the door and Archie stood, key out, but no attempt to insert it in the lock.
'Well here we are,' he said.
'I just want to say, before we go in, that you've been a great boss.'
'Archie, I wasn't your boss. I just ran a bit of a department. I was on the same wages as you.'
'Never the less, there were a lot of times that you could have shopped me for stuff and never did.'
This was beginning to make me fell awkward. Sweat began to drip down my back and I was suddenly aware of how hot it was, despite the time.
'C'mon Archie, no need for tears just yet eh? Lets just go inside and see what Gina has to say.' I gave him a comradely pat on the shoulder.
'Yeah,' he said, giving a weak smile. He pushed the key home, opened the door and we entered.
I wasn't really sure what to expect. No, that's not true. I expected yellowing wallpaper. The aroma of a chip pan that was in constant use. Cigarette stained net curtains, old wood varnish electrical goods. I couldn't have been more wrong.
The walls were painted white and everything was immaculate. Polished surfaces, clean windows, beautiful plants. The video and TV was modern looking and had a surround sound system that looked like it could rival a multiplex cinema.
The only smell was of lavender and reminded me of children rubbing their faces into fluffy yellow towels.
We walked through to the living room and heard Gina in the kitchen.
'Hi honey,' she shouted in a sweet voice.
'Hi dear. Eh, I brought Paul home with me. Hope that's alright.'
'No problem, I'll just make some iced drinks.'
'Thank you,' I shouted to the voice in the kitchen.
We sat on the couch and stared at the wall, which had a copy of a Picasso on it. I fidgeted with my fingers and was surprised to see Arch' doing the same. We were both so nervous, it was as if we were going for the same job that had a fantastically high wage.
I stared out the window and noticed that it was getting slightly darker. Not black yet, but very deep blue.
Gina finally appeared and was very different from what I had heard and imagined. She was tall and did look very fit. But she had a very feminine face and you could honestly describe her as pretty. I wondered if anyone in the office had actually ever seen her and not just heard Archie moaning about her all the time.
'There you go,' she said, passing me the cold drink. I saw it was iced tea and again wondered how someone so seemingly high class could let the front of the house go. Perhaps she was simply secure enough that she didn't need affirmation from people that she was ok. She knew it in herself.
She gave Archie his and sat down in the armchair next to the fire.
We all sipped from our glasses. It was all very nice.
'It's nice to finally see one of Archie's workmates"
Ex-workmates I silently amended.
'Did you have a good day today?'
Archie was staying silent and I realised that not only was I expected to tell her about the Bad News (which had acquired capitals in the taxi over) but also I was going to have to handle the entire conversation myself. With a woman I had never met before but someone I had pre-conceived ideas about. And not very nice ones at that. This was going to be tricky.
'Erm, yeah it was interesting anyway,' I said weakly.
'Oh?' Was this just polite interest or did I detect a certain suspicion creeping in there. I didn't know her mannerisms. I decided then and there to use Archie as an emotional barometer. If he seemed calm and sipping his tea I knew I was doing good. If he started sinking back into the couch, sweating heavily and staring at objects with sharp edges, I could take it I was going down the wrong conversation path.
'Yes, the Auditors came into day. They just have a look round and make sure everything is shipshape. No mistakes or anything. Then they give us a pass or fail mark at the end.'
'How exciting. Did you pass?'
'I'm afraid I'm not sure yet. But I think we possibly failed.' Throwing a copier from a building was considered bad judgement I felt.
'Oh, that's disappointing.' She straightened slightly in her chair and uncrossed her legs. And did I imagine it or was Archie slightly lower in his chair. I took another sip of my drink
'Yes, and unfortunately that's not the only bad news.'
'Oh?' Definitely a lot sharper this time.
'Ah, I'm not sure how to put this…'
Archie had broken out into a constant sweat now. He looked as if someone had suddenly poured a bucket of water over him. All my drunkenness seemed to have ebbed away. I could have driven in the Le Mans 24 hour race I was so sober and alert. I decided to go for the short and sweet approach.
'Me and Archie were both fired from work today.' Silence from the armchair. 'We will get a weeks pay, but after that we're on our own.' She still wasn't saying anything. 'But we did manage to steal a few staplers and stuff.' I pulled a stapler out of my pocket, saw her face and put it back in.
'How did this happen?' she asked in a still sweet voice. She didn't sound strained at all but her knuckles were hot white. I feverently hoped the glass wouldn't shatter.
'Well…' I didn't know how to say this. Go for the run-around, lie or tell the truth. Archie said she was like a human truth detector, could pick up on body language and detect the 24 signs of when a person is lying. I went for truth. 'Archie accidentally pushed the photocopier out the window.'
Silence. I wasn't sure what to add.
'She looked at Archie for the first time since we sat down. He was now red and practically horizontal on the couch. He looked like someone about to enter a very difficult limbo contest.
'Did he do anything else?'
'No, no that's pretty much the whole story'
'Well…' and at this point I realised that the conversation could go two ways. Quite simply a happy ending or sad. I truly didn't know what to expect. 'I fully understand Archie doing this because he's an oaf. But you. You are his immediate supervisor are you not?'
'Well, not really, more of a-'
'Are you. A fucking. Imbecile!' She screamed the last word at the top of her voice. Archie whimpered. She threw her glass and it smashed right through the window and imploded in the path outside. Glass shattered from the window and fell in the carpet. It mage an ugly startling sound.
'Why did you ever let him be put in a position where he was bound to fucking fail! He is an idiot! And so are you! Are you fucking in-bred!?'
'I fucking hate you!' she screamed and picked up a plant pot. Archie had apparently been in this situation before. He jumped in the air like a rabbit and dived over the back of the couch. Thank Christ for instincts or I would have died there and then. I ducked and the pot went flying over my head to bounce of the wall and land with a crash on the floor. It didn't smash but the plant emptied out over the floor, spilling dirt and roots everywhere.
I noticed for the first time that the cupboard behind her was a veritable arsenal. A pot, plates, ornaments and vases. She picked up a plate, still screaming and threw it. By this time I had enough sense to jump over the couch and hide with Archie. She wasn't even shouting intelligible words now. Just screaming noises.
'Jesus Christ Archie!'
'I know, I know.'
'You willingly let me walk into this!'
'I'm sorry, I just couldn't do it myself.'
A vase hit the stereo and turned it on. Andy Williams singing "It's just to good to be true" came on, full blast. The room seemed to be reverberating. Incredibly I could still hear Gina screaming.
Pots and plates continued to sail over head and smash, raining splinters of pottery down on us. Some bounced off the couch to land on the floor.
'Don't think badly of her,' shouted Archie over the music, 'she really is a wonderful person!'
'Oh, I can fucking see that!' I shouted the top of my voice.
'She just has a terrible temper. She'll be so embarrassed in the morning.'
'That will be a great comfort to me when I'm in my grave! How the hell do I get out of here!'
'Wait another minute and she'll run out of ammunition! Then follow me and you can leg it out the back door!'
Andy crooned at the top of his voice and Gina fumed and wailed. I wondered if she even remembered we were still here. Eventually 60 seconds expired and there seemed to be a general lack of things being smashed.
'I just want to thank you again!'
'Yeah, no problem. Next time you want a favour don't call me.'
I think he misheard me but my voice was hoarse and I couldn't seem to match the volume of the music let alone shout louder than it.
I felt like I was in a Vietnam film. Archie propelled himself surprisingly quickly through the kitchen door for someone his size. I followed close behind, but risked a quick glance at Gina. She noticed the movement and started screaming again. She chased after us.
Archie was at the back door, feverishly trying to open it
'Fucking hell, come on Archie!'
He finally turned the tumblers in the lock and we rocketed out on to the back green.
If anything this was even more over grown than the front. Grass reached my knees and plants towered over me. It was like an alien planet on Startrek. Gina screaming behind me propelled me on though and I ran blindly forwards.
'Where's the exit!' I shouted at Archie.
'There isn't one, you'll have to jump the neighbour's garden and reach the path at the back.'
'For fucks sake!' I shouted and ran for the concrete wall at the back.
Old gardening tools long since abandoned had welded themselves to the hard earth and threatened to trip me up. I came up to a large bush that had vicious looking barbs and sharp spines all along its branches. It was the most evil looking piece of fauna I had ever seen.
I sidestepped to avoid it and nearly ran into a bike, coated with rust that was the colour of brown. It looked bizarrely like a Penny Farling. I risked a look back and saw Gina was not following, but was still throwing things at me. Not plates this time but silvery metal things. Then I realised they were knives. I cursed Archie again and tried to squeeze my way through the two bushes.
Thorns and sticks scraped my face. A large barb caught hold of my shirt and wouldn't let go. But I couldn't stop so I ignored it. A large ripping noise came from below and I saw my shirt was neatly torn in half. My beer belly peered out, wondering what all the excitement was about.
Finally, I got between the bushes and reached one of the tallest concrete walls I had ever seen. Thankfully someone had placed a wire mesh for ivy to crawl up and I grabbed hold and made my ascent.
Dust poured onto my face, slick with sweat and blood now. Occasionally I would hear Gina still shouting, at Archie now that I had disappeared from view. More worrying I heard the odd twang as some of the bolts holding the mesh to the wall threatened to let go. I realised if it did break, I would fall back into the Bush of Death, as I had newly christened them.
I hurried up my climb and finally made it to the top. The wall was a foot thick so I sat down on the top and had a breather, relatively safe from harm.
I could see over the tallest bushes now and saw Archie talking furiously with Gina. He saw me and waved. I gave him the finger.
Gina started shouting but Archie pushed her out of the way and shouted if I would phone him about the party.
I shouted Fuck off and he gave me the thumbs up, so I don't think he heard me properly again. Mind you, he might have been in denial to be living with a psychopath like that.
I looked around and saw the best way to get back to the main road was to cut across the three remaining back greens. After my hi-jinks over the past ten minutes I thought it would be a doodle.
The first back was easy. After I clambered down the wall on the opposite side of Archie's Lost World garden, I came across a veritable Eden. No blade of grass was longer than a centimetre. The bushes were all pruned and kept neat and tidy. Actually flowers grew in the dirt and not things that could kill you. I ran across the lawn reached the wall and climbed up. It was made a lot easier by having a wooden lattice.
When I reached the top I looked back. I could just see Archie and Gina still arguing. I laughed and climbed down into the next garden. This is where it got tricky.
A large pond covered the majority of the back. There was some room next to the house but I would have to walk right past the large patio windows. I could just make out a family watching TV through the window. Light spilled out and illuminated the immediate outside better than any spot lamp. My only option was the ponds' end nearest the back. But there was very little room to walk round it. Only the width of a kerb, then a large wall. Still, I had little choice.
I walked up to the edge of the pond and carefully started edging out, hugging the wall. The sides of the pond were damp and greasy, with slippery algae or something growing on it. Weeds had also taken hold and I realised a third of the way across that this wasn't going to be easy.
A wind had picked up, incredible in such a sheltered enclosed area and I nearly lost my footing. My bare midriff had goose pimples as the cool breeze chilled my skin. I was half way across when it happened. It was inevitable really. I had never seen a movie where the hero thinks he's made it across the dodgy bridge or whatever and something happens to undo him. In my case it was a bird. Or to be more specific a Sparrow. It had built a nest in the wall and it was just at head height. I noticed a cavity, then heard a flurry of wings and a squawking. I half screamed my self, instinctively pushed back to get away, my brain coming in to late to remind me of my current situation.
I tumbled back and landed in the pond with an almighty splash. The water was icy cold and green scum attached itself to me. I stood up with a gasp and hurriedly waded across to the opposite end. Plant life and algae stuck to my head and I must have looked like an alien. The kitchen light went on and I heard frantic talking from the living room.
I stepped out of the water and hurriedly ran across to the wall, shivering and dripping.
Hastily I climbed it using a wire mesh like Archie's (and how I cursed that bastard) and made it to the top just as I heard the door opening and shouting revolving around my arse being kicked
I reached the top and quickly scaled down the other side.
This was the third and last back green. One more wall and I would be at the road. I squatted in the bushes and tried to scope out any obstacles. It seemed a straightforward back, short grass, couple of gnomes sitting down, some plants. I could just make out the mesh on the opposite wall, shining in the moonlight. The lights were off in the living room and the house looked deserted.
I was just about to stand when one of the gnomes stood up and walked across the grass. On all fours. Then I realised they were not Gnomes. They were two very large pitbulls. They didn't seem to have spotted me, but I couldn't work out how the hell I was going to get across. One of them started growling and walking towards me.
I slowly crawled back and scaled the wall again. On the top I flattened my self and could see the occupants of the previous house were still out, examining the pond and shining torchlights in the bushes.
One of the dogs was directly below me on the other side, sniffing at the spot where I had been.
I closed my eyes and wished I were in my bed, safe and dry.
Then a light shone upon me.
'Hey you! Get bloody down here!'
It was like I had received an electric shock. I practically rocketed down the wall away from the voice, ran past the dogs and was on the other wall before any one had blinked. The dogs were fast though. They darted after me and one of them locked it's jaws on the back of my jacket.
I tried to climb but the combined weight was too much. I must have been three foot of the ground when I wriggled out of my coat and let it fall to the ground.
The two dogs pounced on it and savagely proceeded to rip it apart. There goes my £100 leather coat I thought as I climbed up to the top.
I looked over the wall and finally saw the welcoming glow of a sodium street lamp. And a road. It never looked so welcoming. I looked back and saw Archies backlight was now out and the door closed. I also saw somebody on the wall at the other end of the garden.
'Hey you! Stop!'
God almighty, all I had done was fall in a pond. Is that a crime?
I was about to climb down the wall to safety when I realised there was no mesh. I though about jumping but it was still to high.
I saw the guy on the other side had gingerly climbed down the wall before the dogs spotted him and ran over. He scooted back up and glared down at them.
I decided to hoist myself down so I turned over and lay on my stomach. Then I let my feet dangle and dropped my body down, just hanging on by my fingers.
Then I let go.
I landed on a bit of grass next to the concrete path but it was still bloody sore. One of my ankles gave a yelp of pain and I sat down heavily on my rump.
I rubbed my sore joint and painful stood up.
I half hobbled, half walked down the pavement and tried to hail a cab.
Not surprisingly none stopped and I had a look at my self in a shop window. My face was scratched and bloody, hair stuck to my scalp, pondweed and plants stuck all over my body, half a torn shirt on and I was soaking wet. Yeah, but I still had my cool. Then I remembered that my wallet was in my jacket. I hung my head down. My money, keys and cards. I shouted "Fuck!" at the top of my voice and truthfully I did feel a bit better. But the black cloud came back and my mood darkened accordingly.
I began the long plod home.
It must have been about 1.15 am when I reached Glasgow centre. Lots of people were milling about; nightclubs still open and food shops making a fortune. Pubs were emptying out punters for waiting taxis to eat them up. I asked a few people for change for the phone, but I was actively avoided. Eventually a few people threatened to punch me and I got so disheartened that I decided to stick to the back streets and try to avoid the busy places.
I ended up actually walking down the alley with the smashed photocopier. It had been cleaned up now and the remains were unceremoniously dumped in a skip. A few shards of glass and wires were still lying about. I felt like kicking one, for putting me in this whole situation. If it hadn't gone flying out the window none of this would have happened tonight. Mind you it wasn't really the 'copiers fault. It was Archie's. No that was quite true. It was the Auditors. In fact, it wasn't really anybody's fault. It was just a bad set of circumstances. I walked on, still hobbling.
I reached Union Street and took a shortcut through a back alley whose name, if it ever had one, had long been forgotten.
Cobbles were unevenly covering the ground. The moon shone down, illuminating bins, dusty windows and black bin bags, piled on top of each other and looking close to bursting.
And that's when I saw him for the first time. Alan King. He was rummaging in a skip, the whole of his upper body submerged in the trash. A shopping trolley procured from Asda stood faithfully next to him, filled with bottles and cans.
He was wearing a long dressing gown, original colour unknown. It looked pale green, maybe brown. He had four pairs of socks on and different matching boots. When he finally emerged from the trash he had half a discarded hamburger in his mouth and a bottle of liquid. I hoped it was orange juice.
His hair was missing on top, but stretched out comically into two points on either side of his head. Three different jumpers and a collection of plugs from baths and sinks were draped around his neck. He was clean shaven, which was strange, but maybe he didn't get much growth.
I took all this in because I had frozen to the spot the moment I saw him. Usually I wouldn't even be in this situation, but if I was then my Standard Operational Procedure was to turn around and don't make eye contact. But I had had a really shitty might. And if I had to double back I would be adding 30 minutes onto an already long journey. And I just wanted to get home. Plus I looked considerably worse than he did. So I decided just to walk on, and try and draw as little attention to myself as possible.
This was a great plan until I hit an old-fashioned metal bin. The lid crashed onto the road and rolled down the alley like a giant 10 pence piece, before stopping at a door and falling on its side. The sound was deafening, irritating in the silence that had preceded it. But the stranger never even looked up from the skip.
I paid attention to every step I made and carefully and quietly made my way along the path. I was just about to pass when I sniffed, a cold coming on probably from being soaking wet for the past 2 hours.
He heard that all right. He spun round and glared at me.
'This is my stuff! Get your own.' He positioned himself in front of the trolley and unfortunately right in my path.
'I don't want it. I just want to get past'
'You sure you don't want it. Why wouldn't you want it? It's all good stuff.'
He held up a mummified rat from the trolley. He looked at the rat with affection and at me like I was mad.
'No really, I just want to get-' I was going to say home, but I didn't want this guy to know that. He might think I had something worth stealing. Apart from my underpants though, every thing was ruined. '-to get by and move on.'
'Where you going?'
He took a step closer and I smelt him clearly for the first time. It was like every sewer drain that has been blocked for 2 months with the rotting carcass of a cat or dog. And that was just the overriding smell. Underneath was mixture of scents, all offensive. Urine, faeces, old food, fruit gone bad. It wasn't nice.
'It's like I said, I just want top get past. But you know, it doesn't matter. I've clearly disturbed you so I'll just backtrack and let you continue your evening in peace.'
I turned to leave and suddenly he grabbed my arm. But he didn't look threatening. He looked in pain. His face, even under the grime, I could see was very pale. His eyes were rolled back in his head.
He grabbed me with his other arm and started shakeing like he was having a fit. The muscles in his legs went into a spasm twice, then gave up. I had a 12 stone weight holding on to the front of me and after my exertions of the night I had nothing left to give. We fell to the ground and he suddenly hugged me tightly. Spittle was flying from mouth and I realised this guy was dying.
I couldn't think properly. All I wanted was to be free of this grip and try and get some distance. The smell alone was overpowering and threatening to knock me unconscious.
Incredibly he gripped me tighter and I realised his hand was on my heart. He was also saying words, not just gibbering rubbish. They sounded Latin or German but I wasn't sure. Occasionally I would catch a slice of English but the only thing I could ever make out were the words: 'Him for me. Him for me. Him for me.'
It was spooky stuff and I was beginning to get very freaked out.
I tried to give one last push and was nearly free, was almost going to break the grip, when the strange stuff started to happen.
All of a sudden the background faded away. Walls, bins, rubbish disappeared into blackness. The moon vanished as well but bizarrely the light directly above us was suddenly stronger, more piercing.
The strange chants got louder, more powerful and I think I knew even then that I had left it too late. What ever was going to happen would happen. I was along for the ride.
The wind, which had died down after my incident with the pond, had picked up strongly. It was practically a gale and almost drowned out his words, but I could still hear them and I sensed more than saw something approaching from above.
It was like the biggest black cloth I had ever seen. It billowed in the now storm like circumstances but never looked in any danger of blowing away. To say it was black was to do a disservice to it though. No light would ever be reflected from this thing. The brightest torch would never penetrate that darkness.
And it was coming right for us. Or, to be more accurately, for me.
I saw a quick glimpse of metallic silver that hovered for a few seconds, as if unsure what to do. Then it swooped and in the second while it flew threw the air, I heard nothing. No wind, no chanting, no anything. Apart from my heartbeat. And then that slowed down. And stopped.
Blackness like the shroud above me overcame me and I swam into oblivion.
I opened my eyes and instead of darkness all I could see was white. Not the kind of white that is cast of from a light source, just white. Like an artists canvass.
I was still lying on my back and it took me a few seconds to work out what had happened and where I was. I still didn't know where I was but my memory was coming back in stops and starts. I remembered Gina, the dogs, then the old homeless man. Then I remembered everything. The strange guy had tried to kill me!
Or maybe he had been a little more successful than try.
I sat up and looked around. The view was a bit clearer but not by much. A white mist was all around turning my hands into ghostly images and reducing visibility to the end of my nose. The ground fog was incredibly dense and I couldn't see my legs. I hastily felt for them, then my crotch, just to make sure they hadn't gone missing.
My old clothes were still on my back, but they seemed to have lost their colour. You could still make out the blues of my tie, the black trousers, white shirt. But they all seemed scaled down colour wise. A uniform grey seemed to be the overriding feature. Even my skin, usually milk white, had taken on a grey tone.
I stood up and looked around.
White mists were everywhere and nothing was making a sound. Where the hell was I? I decided to pick a direction at random and started walking.
I continually looked around and treaded carefully, because you literally couldn't see your own feet.
I wandered for an unknown amount of time. My watch was still working but it didn't feel right. Too much time was passing for what it said. After what must have a couple of hours my watch was giving 3 minutes as having passed.
I wasn't tired either. All my nerve endings seemed to have been desensitised. Scratches on face weren't hurting anymore. My feet, usually sore after walking more that 10 minutes in my work shoes, were fine.
I think it was another 2 hours after that, that I saw my first object. At first I thought I was imagining things, but no, there it was. Gradually fading in and out. A sketch drawing at first. Something I so desperately wanted to see that I thought I was imagining it. But then it started to solidify. A tall object, 3 foot wide, stretching up into the mist before it was cut off.
I walked hastily to it before it disappeared or suddenly a bank of mist drifted across it. Eventually I burst out running, desperate to find some focus point in this sea of uncertainty.
I reached it and saw it wasn't square or rectangular as I had previously thought.
It was in fact a pillar, bright white, seemingly not having to obey the physics of this place that toned down colour.
I touched it and it was cool. I walked round it, just looking at it, never taking my hand of it. How long I stood and just rested my two palms on it I will never know. I felt my sanity gradually drip back to me. Until I had found it I hadn't realised how close I was to losing it.
I sat with my back to the pillar one hand on it at all times, feeling the texture and just sat there. Then, incredibly, I fell asleep.
After waking I immediately turned round to make sure that the pillar was there. It was indeed still standing, like a silent sentinel watching over me. And it wasn't the only one. Whether the mist had cleared or my eyesight had got better I wasn't sure, but I could make out various other pillars, each about 300 yards apart. They also all seemed to be heading in one uniform direction.
Standing up and rubbing my eyes, I pondered whether I should just stay where I was. I still didn't have the faintest idea where I was and I was extremely reluctant to give up my only touchstone with reality.
But I guess curiosity was burning stronger than I anticipated. Still, it wouldn't hurt to leave a marker so I would know this if I came back to it.
I thought a minute, searching my pockets for a pen or marker, but could find nothing. Then a thought occurred. I took of my tie and tried to wrap it round the pillar. It was no use though; the pillar was far too wide. I thought for a bit, then simply put it down at the base and took my hand away. It was instantly swallowed up by mist.
I put my hand back down again in roughly the same place and was relieved to feel the cloth again (though still with that slightly deadened feeling in my fingers) and picked it up again.
Pondering what to do I fingered the tattered remains of my shirt and came up with a new plan. Putting the tie back down carefully where I knew I could find it again I unbuttoned my shirt and took it off.
It really was a disgrace. Bloodstains, grass stains, pond stains, rust stains…the list went on. Plus it was missing the bottom front half.
I reached down again for the tie, took the right arm sleeve and tied them together into as strong a knot as I could muster.
Then I put it at the base and slowly walked round the pillar, my hands being cut off by the ground fog. I searched around for the other end of my shirt and eventually found it when I came almost full circle.
Gently working it up the pillar I could finally see the cloth and eventually I got it to shoulder height. Then I tied another knot and voila. I had a recognisable marker if I should ever have to come back this way or if I accidentally walked around in circles.
I thought I would have been cold, but it was pleasantly warm. I still couldn't feel anything really, the anaesthetic affect still coursing through my whole body, but I felt all right.
I gave the pillar a friendly pat, made sure the knot was tight and the marker wouldn't slip down, then set off for the next pillar.
It was further away than I first anticipated. My initial calculations of 300 yards seemed way off. The pillar was definitely getting bigger, but very slowly. Still, time wasn't really an issue when you were dead.
I stopped walking suddenly and just stared at nothing, my eye's wide, re-running the sentence through my head.
I was dead? Did I genuinely believe that? It sounded crazy, but the fact was that something strange was going on here. It could even be UFO's, alien abductions. But I didn't believe in Aliens.
It was a fact that every alien abductee came from a small town, with one pub, one shop and no excitement.
Why was it that you never heard of anyone on a 2 week holiday to Ibiza meeting strange green men? Why is it when you are having the time of your life, no UFO appears? Coincidence? Happenstance? Crushing boredom with reality more like.
But in my case, right now, something was definitely off. I continued walking, thoughts buzzing through my head.
Eventually, I reached the pillar. It seemed to be the exact same dimensions as the previous one, minus my shirt and tie wrapped around it. I knelt down and felt along the base. Just in case I had somehow lost direction and turned 180 degrees around. But there was nothing there.
The next pillar was closer than the last one and seemed clearer too. Still slightly hazy, but much more solid than the last two.
I walked on with a brisk step and found that I reached the pillar much quicker than the last two.
Feeling much more confident I moved on to the next pillar and the next, all lined up neatly in a row.
The mist was clearing now too, and everything seemed brighter.
I walked on, the pillars coming at 50 yard intervals now. I began to notice other shapes around me, more pillars, all in a line but all seeming to lead to the same direction I was. Then I saw it.
There was no mist to blur or haze it. With crystal clarity I witnessed the Archway coming into view.
It towered into the sky, no mist obliterating it, just the sheer size of the thing meant that you couldn't see the top. I started running, somehow knowing this was the most important find I could have found since I arrived in this strange place.
It seemed to be some sort of polished marble. Veins of black and blue ran through it, almost seemingly pulsing in the strange light
There were flowers carved into it, but these were insanely intricate. I peered forward, and almost had my nose touching it. Still, there were details on details that I couldn't make out with my relatively good eyesight.
I walked round it and saw that there were more pillars marching of in to the distance. The mist was only clear round this area to the space of 50 yards. Then it started again, a lot like a fogbank.
I wandered back round again and wondered why I was so nervous to walk through it. I think I so expected it to be a portal of some kind that I was going to be devastated if it wasn't. What if I walked through…and nothing happened? What would I do then? There didn't seem to be any other options. I guess I would just keep walking into the mist, following the pillars until they got so spaced far apart that I would be simply walking through mist..forever.
I didn't want to do that, but I wanted put out of my misery. As boldly as I could I walked through the arch, eyes closed, fingers crossed.
A second passed. Nothing happened. Another second passed. And suddenly I was somewhere else entirely.
After the serenity and lack of anything tangible, what I entered into was a cacophony of riotous noise.
It was a busy city street like any other. Filled with people, talking to each other rushing about, some just sitting and drinking coffee and thinking. But it was also like no street I had ever seen.
The buildings were of every style you could think of. Deco, modern skyscrapers, Russian. But also strange bizarre buildings that shouldn't have been able to exist let alone be on a street corner. Large trees with many floors, organic buildings then looked like flesh, water buildings splashing round but never collapsing. All of them soaring high into the sky that was bright blue and green and black and every colour at the same time but only one as well. I turned my head away, eyes watering, my head reeling.
Then I really notice the people on the street. Most looked human, but there were cats and dogs, things that looked like mantis walking and shopping, robots of different sizes. Some were walking, some flying on paper thin wings or huge feathers. Robots buzzed about on rockets and helicopter blades.
I turned around and noticed that I was still standing next to the Archway. Then I noticed a few other Archways, then hundreds of them. People were walking in and out of then, a continous train of bodies.
I heard the voice and turned around. An old gentleman was standing next to the Archway, a blue gown on and nothing else. He had a large moustache and kindly eyes.
'Hello,' I said.
'You know, I think you're only the fifth person I've seen come through that Archway.'
'Yes, not very popular this one. Can't blame people really. Some find it quite unsettling, plus it is dangerous.'
'Oh yes, you get lost in there you could wander for all eternity and never find your way back to the Archway.'
'Eternity?' I said weakly.
I paused for a minute and looked around. He was right about nobody walking through this Archway. It was the quietest part of the entire street.
'I wonder if you could tell me where this is.'
'Ah, are you knew then?' I nodded. 'Well right now you're on level 1. This is ground zero if you like, the start of it all. Then you've got Level 2, 3, 4, 5…well you get the idea.'
'And how many levels are there?'
He smiled. 'How many grains of sand on a beach? How long is a piece of string? To be honest, I don't think anyone knows really. So many are added every second that you can't keep up. You'll always find what you're looking for though.'
'I don't actually know what I'm looking for right now though.'
'Ah, did you die quite recently then?'
'Well, I'm still not sure, but it was about two hours ago according to my watch that I was knocked unconscious in an alleyway. Then I ended up through there.' I pointed at the Archway.
The man frowned. 'You mean you appeared in the Foundation with out going through the Archway?'
'Yeah, that right. I just saw the pillars and luckily they led me right to here.'
'Lucky? You don't know the half of it. If you had gone the other way, why..you could have been lost in there forever.' He shuddered and I felt goose pimples on my skin for the first time since I awoke.
'That's why there is always somebody watching this Archway. If somebody was to wander in unprepared it would be a tragedy in the making.' He put his hand on his chin and rubbed thoughtfully. I was still thinking about how close I came to being lost for all eternity. 'I don't think you should be here.'
'Tell me about it.'
'No I mean all new arrivals go to the Waiting Place. For at least 48 hours anyway. I've never heard of anybody bypassing that area and coming straight here. And certainly not in the Foundation."
'What is this actual place though.'
He looked at me as if I was making fun of him, but he saw in my eyes that I was serious. 'Why, son, this is Heaven.'
I stared at him and was about to refute it when I realised I simply believed him. Instinctually I knew he was telling the truth. To deny it constantly would be tiring and unproductive.
'Alright then, I'm in heaven. And that's great, I mean this is where I wanted to go when I die. But there's definitely been a mistake. Some guy was with me when I got…transported here and I think he was supposed to go instead of me. I've gotta get back to Earth.'
He looked at me again with sadness. 'My boy, once you are here it is a one way path. Unless you mean reincarnation and that is a whole different department.'
'But I really shouldn't be here yet!'
'Ok, Ok,' he said trying to placate me. 'There will be one man who will know what to do. He deals with this kind of stuff every day.'
'No, no, you hardly ever see God these days. Always off doing something interesting. No I was talking about The Caretaker.'
'Yes, he will know what to do.'
He put his two fingers in his mouth and let loose a piercing whistle. He looked up in the sky, searching for something. I looked up as well and could only see the many thousands of strange objects flying back and forth..
Then, out of the sky, a large shadow detached itself and suddenly darted down to where we were standing.
I jumped out of the way with an unheroic welp and stared boggle eyed at the creature that had appeared.
It seemed to be a horse, made entirely of metal and robotics. Pistons whirred, wires hung of the underbelly and occasionally steam would vent out of small side pods. It also had 2 dark beautiful looking rubies as eyes. Curiously, it had wings and these were very much organic. Huge feathers coated on each one which looked soft to touch.
The horse whinnied and stepped back and forth as the man calmed it down and got it relatively settled.
'These are beautiful creatures but they love to fly. Hate being on the ground even for a minute unless they are going to sleep.'
'What, what..is it?'
'Well, it's a flying horse isn't it.'
I looked at him and saw he was grinning slyly at me. He continued to pet it as he talked. 'It's name is different for everyone, because they have no fixed titles. I call them Nomads, for that is what they are. They fly and play through all the levels, but will help out a person if they are in trouble or someone has a need to get somewhere quickly.'
It was an amazing creation, something that shouldn't exist but did.
'They have no masters, but you can get friendly with some of them. I've ridden this one a few times, sometimes on a job, sometimes just to see where she will take me.' He continued to pet it and looked at it with unconcealed affection. 'Come on,' he said to me, 'hop on.'
I looked at him, then the Nomad. It stared right at me and I saw my face reflected countless times over in the facets of its ruby eyes.
'Does...does it like me?'
'I like you and I'm a good judge of character. The Nomad like me and trust my decisions, therefore by association they like you.' His face creased slightly. 'Plus, you are in trouble my boy. You're right when you say you shouldn't be here yet. You remind of a round peg that’s been forced into the square hole. You just don't fit in right now. Not yet. Now get on.'
I gingerly walked forward and with the man giving me a hand up, I managed to sit comfortably on the Nomads back. There was no hair to hold onto but a couple of metal bars were right where my hands were placed and I gripped them tightly.
The man stood close to the head and spoke directly to into it's ear. 'Right, now, this young lad needs to see the Caretaker pronto. He wandered in out of the Foundations, so you know already that something had gone wrong. Best speed my dear.' He looked up at me. 'And all the best for you too. If anyone can sort this out, the Caretaker can.'
'I can't thank you enough. I don't even know your name.'
He smiled. 'Ask when you come back. When you are supposed to be here. I'll still be around. Now go!'
The horse neighed and suddenly started flapping its huge powerful wings. I held on tighter and leaned closer in to the body. I felt a thrumming, like a power surge and heard various machinery chinking and clicking.
There was no run up, no fast gallop. One minute we were stationary on the ground, the next we were soaring high up into the air.
Various birds, flying creatures and robots whisked past us as we shot up, still rising. The Nomad had constant control of what she was doing and flew upside down and side ways around various buildings and objects.
There must have been a million various exciting things I could have seen, but the speed we were travelling at made my eyes water.
I lowered my chest closer to the back of the Nomad and felt the metal on my bare chest. It wasn't cold, but warm and almost pleasant.
Eventually we stopped rising and looking around I couldn't see anything close to us. The sky, which caused such headaches for me before, was now much easier to look at. The colours swam together like the aureoles borealis, huge pallets running into each other and creating new vivid colours.
Looking down I could just see the tops of buildings and various dots moving back and forth, in and out of each other.
We stayed stationary for a minute, hovering, the huge wings beating. I wasn't sure what she was thinking, or even where we were going so I just stayed quiet and enjoyed the view.
After a couple of minutes I felt the cybernetic muscles underneath me tense. Every thing seemed to be getting taught and tight and I suspected that we might be going some where very fast. I gripped the bars tighter and flattened my self again against her back.
We started to descend. The wings stopped beating and flattened themselves out next to her sides and over my legs.
Nose first we dipped down, picking up speed and accelerating fast. I risked a quick look and saw the buildings, which previously looked tiny were hurtling quickly towards us. Still we accelerated going faster and faster.
I had full trust in her, but I don't mind admitting that fear was at the foremost of my mind.
Down, down we went, passing windows and buildings. When we encountered the first of the flying traffic, the Nomad opened her wings straight out and glided her way down, flying past objects at suicidal speed, still totally vertical.
Bugs, bird's, robots, things I had no idea about flew past, seemingly missing us by inches. And still we fell faster.
Then I felt more than saw the wings start to shiver slightly, tensing up for action.
A large bridge was approaching us at a very fast rate of knots. This would surely kill us. It was too big to navigate round. There were thousands of different beings, walking and talking. They seemed totally oblivious of this falling comet of a horse and passenger approaching them at 250 mph plus.
Then I felt a slight tilt in the angle of her head and we screamed into horizontal mode, flying beside buildings, instead of approaching them from above. Incredibly, our speed was still increasing. Her wings started pumping furiously, rocketing us above walkways, under bridges, swerving around buildings.
We stayed on one street for a while, swooped left, then right, and then another left. It was exhilarating stuff.
Another couple of turns and we were on the longest strip I had ever seen. It literally seemed to go for miles, in a straight line. Turning my head back, I saw it continued, seemingly into infinity.
Our speed was increasing but in incremental stages. I doubt she could go much faster. The buildings on either side of us blurred together and people on the road were gone in the blink of an eye. Far off in the distance I could just make out a black building. It was no bigger than a dot, but we were accelerating to it quickly.
I closed my eyes and waited, feeling inordinately calm for my current situation.
After a few minutes, I looked up and our destination was closer now, but I was wrong about the size. It was a lot smaller than I had thought, especially when you compared it with the Archways. Plus, it was not in fact a building. I realised the black I was seeing was the mouth of a tunnel. The road and traffic went right through it, but didn't disappear. It looked bizarre precisely because it was so ordinary looking.
We rushed on, skimming over the heads of people and vehicles by about 10 feet. The tunnel approached us and seemed to suddenly grow bigger. I realised we were a lot closer than I had thought.
Lights were dotted on the roof, and they seemed to be advancing in a downward direction. The tunnel was just in front of us, and then suddenly we were in, the darkness enveloping us.
It was pitch black inside, apart from the lights in the ceiling that shone a puddle of light on the road every 15 meters. Echo's went back and forth from the walls and the sound of the Nomad breathing was suddenly very loud. No people were below us, only a steady flow of cars and creatures scuttling very fast along the road. I also realised that we were the only ones going into the tunnel. Every body else was heading in the opposite direction. This unsettled me more than I can explain.
I was illuminated by a variety of green lights and I realised it was coming from the Nomads body. In between the cogs and pistons, there were slight gaps in the joins of her metal bodywork. Shining out in various places was the green light. It must have been her powersource or even her soul. I didn't know. Her eyes were casting out a bright red light as well, almost like headlights.
I felt the Nomad start to turn slightly to the right and drop slightly. I was correct about the road dipping and we started to go round the corner. Our speed had dropped considerably as well, though whether it was because the Nomad was tired or we nearing our destination I couldn't be sure. The corner didn’t straighten out fully and the road was still dipping.
We continued down the spiral, slowing down with every corner we passed
Her wings were barely beating now, half gliding, just keeping us afloat and no more.
Down we went passing level after level. The corners started becoming more and more tighter, until finally the tunnel straightened out into a long strip, much like the one we had flown down to get here. Far of in the distance I could make out a small white dot, which I realised must be the end of the road.
We flew along, starting to pick up speed again, though nothing like the speeds I had encountered earlier.
The end of the tunnel was bright but nothing could be seen beyond the lip. I suspected this was a portal and not a simple exit (or entrance depending on you direction). People and creatures down bellow us were gawking at us a lot more than they had up above. At first I thought it might have been due to the fact that we were heading in the opposite direction from them. But it was more the fact that a mechanical horse with wings was flying just above their heads. They simply had never seen one before. They were new arrivals to this place. Feeling like I was driving a Ferrari with the attention I was getting, we swept on and finally came up to the end of the tunnel. Slowing down considerably, the Nomad steered over to the left, where there was a small pavement next to the wall. She glided down and landed, just about 10 meters away from the end of the tunnel.
I sat on her, not quite sure what was going to happen next. Possibly somebody was going to meet us. She bucked slightly and my hands nearly lost their grip. Then I realised that she wasn't going through the gate. I would have to walk through myself. Carefully lifting my leg over her back, I stepped down and managed it without falling over or making a general fool of myself.
Walking in front of her, she let me pet her, the strange feeling of feathers and hard metal feeling right, but wrong at the same time. I wasn't sure what to say to her.
It seemed to be all I could think off.
She whinnied and trotted back a little, before spreading her huge wings and seemingly with no effort managed to take off and coasted upwards. She didn't fly away though. Just hovered stationery above the centre of the tunnel, waiting for me to go through.
I felt touched and gave her a little wave. Beside me the traffic, at least 13 lanes deep was still materialising and speeding along the tunnel.
I turned away and started walking towards the light.
There was a familiar feeling of being disorientated. I thought I might have become more used to it but clearly not.
It was different from previous times though. It felt a lot longer for one thing. And there was a definite feeling of being transported, if that was the correct term. But eventually, the lightheaded feeling passed and suddenly I was standing in another place altogether.
It was very much like the Foundation. All mist and white light. But the mist wasn't quite as thick this time. On the floor, It swirled and cut my feet of just above the ankles. But there was only a thin haze everywhere else. Like looking at the world through a thin veil. It was also slightly cool, almost chill. Goose pimples ran up my arms and across my stomach. I noticed really for the first time that I was naked from the waist up. This place seemed a lot more real to me. As if all my senses had been previously asleep. Everything seemed ultra sharp.
There were pillars as well, but smaller in scale and size. And people. Lots and lots of people. From different places, different solar systems, possibly even parallel universes. Tall people, small people, creatures that walked like humans, dogs that talked. Robots of so many different sizes. Cats and dogs and various animals ran about. And everybody was talking at the same time. Though the questions they were asking seemed to be of the same variety. "Where am I? What's happening? Who's responsible?" Over and over again. In a hundred, a thousand different languages. Also people kept appearing or disappearing. All of a sudden, someone would be walking and they would vanish, the mist quickly rolling in to fill the gap. Then you would sometimes see people who had been lying down in the ground fog, rising suddenly and looking frantic. The majority of people just walked around, slightly dazed and oblivious to all that was happening.
One oddity that did stand out was the lack of traffic. There was no vehicles or forms of transport of any kind. I had expected to find my self next to the equivalent of a Los Angeles freeway. I wasn't sure what to do so I walked around looking at people, trying to find some that seemed sane and spoke English.
A man was sitting on one of the many marble benches that were dotted around. He was wearing a rugby top and had mud stains on his elbows and some smeared across his face. His hands were clasped in front of him and he seemed to be saying some sort of prayer. I didn't recognise it, but it was definitely English. Walking softly up to him, I tried to enter into conversation. However he saw me first and seemed very to eager to talk.
'Do you speak English?' he said
'Yeah, pleased to meet you.'
I offered my hand and he pumped it like someone trying to get water from a well.
'My names James White.'
'This place is crazy isn't it.'
'You're telling me. How did you get here?'
'I honestly don't know. I was playing in my university's local rugby match, and we were winning by a mile. I got the ball and somebody barged straight into me. It was painful but then I felt something explode in my chest. I remember dropping to the field and people standing around me shouting. Then I fell unconscious and woke up here.' He looked around, as if trying to convince himself that this was actually happening. 'What about you?'
I told him much the same thing. About the alley and the homeless guy attacking me. I left out the part about the Nomad and the things that I had seen. It might have been a tad too much for him at the moment.
'Where the hell are we?'
'I truly don't know.' That was the truth at least
There was a pause as we both contemplated what we suspected to be the truth.
'We're dead. Aren't we?' said James
I looked him in the face. 'Yes. I think we are'
We stood in silence. People drifted round us, talking, shouting, wondering what had happened to them
'It's not what I imagined.'
'No?' I enquired
'I thought it would be clouds and angels with wings. You know, the classical version.'
'But this. It seems to be chaos. I mean who's in charge here?'
'I think it's somebody called the Caretaker.'
'Yeah? Well he's doing a pretty piss poor job of it if you-'
And with that he vanished.
I was so startled at the suddenness of it that I gave a small yelp and watched the vacuum being filled. There was no trace he had ever been sitting there.
I moved on.
I saw various things on my walk. Aliens, people, things that shouldn't have been able to exist according to the laws of physics that I knew and understood.
I don't now how long I wandered. There was no escaping the crowds. There must have been literally millions upon millions of beings in this one place. I could have ran for miles in one direction until my heart burst and my lungs gave up and still not find a quiet place to sit and think in quiet. It was a recluse's worst nightmare.
I found a bench and sat on it. I felt truly depressed since the first time I arrived here. Where was the Caretaker? I had asked hundreds of people, even the animals that looked at me strangely before running off and chasing something. Why had the old man not told me about this place? What was I supposed to do next? I hated cryptic stuff. I put my head in my hands and decided to wait. Until the end of the world if I had to.
I sensed more than saw the person in front of me. Looking up I noticed the running shoes, then the jogging shorts and hooded top. Finally the face, which was truly attractive, with blonde hair in a ponytail. Unfortunately a large ugly gash went right across the side of her neck.
'Hi,' she said. 'Can you help me?'
It was a sign that I was becoming much more used to this place than I expected in that it wasn't the gaping wound that disturbed me. It was the fact that in her hand was a set of keys. And attached to them was the biggest number of keyrings I had ever seen. Garfield, bottle openers from 10 different countries, pictures of cats, dogs, stars. There were only 2 keys on the ring.
'Well if you're looking for another keyring I'm afraid I'm out.'
Her face crinkled in puzzlement, then she looked at her keys and gave a pleasant sounding laugh. 'Ah right. Are you making fun of my collection?' she said smiling.
'No, they're great. I was just wondering how much it was costing you to hire out the two muscle men to lift the keys so you can put them in the door lock.'
'Very funny,' she said dead pan.
'Do you want to sit down?'
'Sure. Though you'd never ask.'
We sat there, in content silence
'This is someplace.'
'I don't think its Heaven though.'
'Well it's all a bit…rubbish really. If anything it reminds me of London underground on a Monday morning. Everybody's tired and irritable and they really don't want to be there.'
I laughed and she gave me a nice smile. My eyes drifted to the ragged cut in her neck. 'Do you mind me asking what happened to you?'
'No, not at all. Some jerk was driving his car and swaying all over the road. I think he must have been drunk because he was half asleep and had a can of beer in his hand. Anyway, I was out jogging because a fortune teller had told me to keep fit and healthy and I would live a long and successful life." She gave a sharp laugh, more bitter than anything. 'So I notice the car and I gave it a wide berth. Then all of a sudden the thing seems to drive right at me. Going something like 60 mph. I remember flying into the air, but I don't think anything was broken. Unfortunately I landed right on a metal fence.' She pointed at her mutilated neck and I winced in sympathy. 'Hey presto, next thing I know I'm dead and I've woken up in a Sci-fi costume convention. And that's my sorry tale. What about you?'
I decided to tell her everything. For one thing, she seemed to have her head screwed on pretty tight (no pun intended). She was also funny and while I was walking to her I didn't have to think about this place. So I told her about jumping the backgreens, waking up in the Foundation, the wild ride on the Nomad and finally ending up here.
She sat and stared out at nothing. 'Well, that's a relief.'
'To know that this isn't it. You don't know how scared I was that this was going to be me for the rest of eternity. Walking around with a bunch of strangers, forever meeting people then having them disappear. Forever. I mean, that's a long time whichever way you add it up. Thank you.'
And she leaned over and gave me a kiss. He lips were cold, but I could feel her hot breath in my mouth. She kept her lips on a fraction more than was strictly 'we're just friends' territory then pulled away, looking me in the eyes. I didn't know what else to do so I leaned forward and kissed her properly. We stayed that way for a long time, oblivious to everybody walking by, to the noise and the chaos surrounding us. We were in our own little universe. We broke apart and sat holding hands, smiling shyly.
'Thank you,' I said
'For making this place a little more endurable.'
'No problem.' She smiled and gave me a peck on the cheek and leaned back, but still held onto my hand. 'What are you going to do if you can't find the Caretaker?'
'I don't know truthfully. If I can't find a bus back to earth, then God knows what I'll do. I guess I'll have to accept that I'm dead.'
She gave my hand a squeeze. 'You know what's going to happen don't you?'
'One of is going to vanish soon and we'll never see each other again.' Her eyes had grown watery but they weren't tears yet.
'Hey, don't say that. I don't know what this vanishing thing is, but there were millions of people up above. Maybe we go somewhere else then we appear in the real Heaven.'
'Yeah,' she said, wiping her eyes with her free hand.
'We'll definitely see each other again. Don't have any doubts about that. Ok?'
She smiled. 'OK.'
'You know, I don't even know your name.'
'That's a nice name. Mines is-'
And with that, of course, she vanished. Except she hadn't. I had.
This was different from the previous 2 transports. My vision went grey, then black. Then monochrome again and suddenly I was in a different place altogether.
It was a quaint old fashioned office. The walls were dark wood and the windows on the wall had blinds on them. Various pictures of places on earth and other planets were hanging on the walls. On the far wall sat two large electronic counters. The top one had "In" written on it and was counting up a ridiculous large number at a very fast pace. The red LED was a blur. The bottom counter had "Out" written above it. This had a huge number as well, spinning equally fast, but counting down the way.
I was sitting on a comfortable wooden chair. A large mahogany desk with various piles of paperwork was dotted around it. And sitting on the opposite side was an old man. He wore a tartan waistcoat and had half-moon glasses. His white hair was combed back and the only thing that ruined the illusion of a quaint old gentleman was the long grey ponytail that reached down to his lower back.
'Hello,' he said in a soft, but clear voice. 'My name is Ronald Spears. But most people call me The Caretaker.'
'You must be slightly confused by all this.'
'Yes, quite frankly I'm not sure what is going here.'
'A common enough reaction, I assure you. If you will just give me a second to get your file we can begin with the interview.'
Interview? I wanted answers, not a new job. Actually, I did want a new job. But that was beside the point. The Caretaker swivelled his chair round and opened the drawer of a small metallic filing cabinet. I leaned over for a better look and saw that it seemed to be window on another place. I felt like I was looking through the skylight of the biggest warehouse in all the land. I just made out a hand with a beige folder wrapped in an elastic band being given to him from the drawer. He closed it and turned to face me.
He looked at the name printed in neat handwriting on the folder.
'Ok Paul. Before we begin, I like to give everybody a little talk about what has happened, and what will happen next.'
I nodded and he continued.
'First of all Paul, as you may suspect, you have died. This is not the end of the road. In fact it is the beginning of a whole new chapter. Think of your time on Earth as a prologue to the main story. It just gives you a taste of what is to come. The place you just came from is called The Waiting Place. Whenever a person or a living thing with a soul passes on, they arrive here. It is a place where you can collect your breath, if you will. It is also, unfortunately, a confusing and scary place, simply because there is nobody to answer your questions. For this, I apologise. Since time began this is how it has been. In the far distant past, people used to materialise instantly in Heaven or Hell. The shock was too much for some and their minds were almost instantly ruined. All eventually made full recoveries, but in some cases it can take years, decades even. We are aware that the current set up is not ideal, but so far nobody has come up with a better plan. Are you with me so far?"
I nodded again.
'Excellent. What happens now is that I will look over your folder.' He tapped it with his finger. 'It lists every decision you ever made. From choosing what type of coffee you bought when you were Twenty to the boy you bullied when you were Seven.' He saw my face and held up his hand. 'I hasten to add these are examples and not from your file. There are three categories you can fall into. Quite simply if you have been a generally good and morally sound person, then you go into Heaven. If you were borderline and did some despicable acts, but show complete remorse and sorrow, then it's a grey area and will need to be seen by someone else. If you have committed various evil acts and take enjoyment from them and have every intention of carrying them on, then I'm afraid it's straight to hell. However I still have to read your file. If you would care to wait outside for a minute I can peruse it and let you know where your final destination will be. Any questions?'
'I saw some pretty strange things out there. Were they…aliens?'
'Alien to you, but then, you are the alien to them. Paul, everything with a soul, from every corner of the galaxy, comes to the exact same afterlife. You don't expect to meet everybody on earth before you die do you?'
'Exactly. There are millions upon millions souls you haven't met in the brief time that you had available to you. Don't worry, you will. Anything else?'
'Just curious about this process. How do you decide if a person has been good or not?'
'I was picked because I'm a good judge of character and I'm completely impartial. I don't have any biases, no grudges, no opinions on race, sexuality, creed or colour. It is incredibly simple really. Most people know themselves if they have been 'good' or 'bad'. It's not a hard task.'
'And you do this for everyone.'
'Won't you be in this office for ever then? I mean judging by how many people were waiting there seemed to be millions.'
'A lot more than that I can assure you. Time is malleable here as you will discover. I assure you I do this from 9.00 in the morning 'till 5.00 at night. I always leave every night and never miss a dinner with my family. So please don't worry about me on that score.'
'What happens though if you get a really bad serial killer though? I mean a real brute. Won't he attack you or even try to kill somebody in The Waiting Place?'
'Safeguards are in place for all new arrivals. If somebody attacks another person with genuine malice they forego the right to an interview and are transported straight to Hell. If it's simple confusion or misunderstanding, which has happened many times in the past, they simply get transported to a secure unit by themselves and wait until I see them. As for me, well, appearances can be deceiving.' As he said it and his eyes twinkled with an unknown power, suggesting this old man could do anybody some damage if he wanted to. 'Is that everything for now?'
'I guess so.'
'If you'd care to wait outside, this won't take long. My secretary will make you a cup of coffee or whatever your drink of choice is.'
I stood up and walked to the door. Opening it, I was about to walk out when I paused and looked back at him.
'Hell. Is it as bad as they make out?'
He looked at me and I saw in his eyes pity. Not for me, but for everybody he had ever sent there.
'Pray you never have to find out.'
Nodding, I turned away walked out the office and closed the door.
The reception area wasn't much bigger than the office. A front door led out to bright light but I couldn't see any objects out there. I suspected it was a transporter.
It was decorated in the same style as The Caretakers office. Wood varnish effect and old fashioned phones and equipment. It reminded me of a private eyes office from a 1930's black and white movie.
The receptionist was a nice looking woman, wearing a long dress and curly hair, which fell down to her shoulders. She came from behind her desk and walked over to me.
'Hi, how are you doing?'
'Not bad, considering…'
'Yes, you poor thing. Would you like a drink?'
'A cup of tea would be nice.'
'Certainly. How do you take it?'
'Milk, two sugars please.'
She gave me a smile and walked over to the kitchen area.
I looked at her desk and saw it was pretty much the same set up that The Caretaker had in his office. Filing cabinets, cups full of pens, piles of paper on various parts of the desk.
She opened a cupboard that seemed to have shelves of every type of beverage you could imagine. Coffee, tea, coke, alcohol, meths, water, unknown liquids that bubbled and steamed. She stared into the cupboard for a second then a cup that wasn't there two seconds ago appeared at the front. I wondered if there was a telepathic connection that I didn't possess.
She came back with the coffee and passed it over.
'If you want more milk in it, just help yourself.'
'She went back to her desk and I sat on one of the green leather couches just below the windows of his office. The tea tasted good, not too hot, not cold, just right. I guessed I was in Heaven after all. Well, not quite yet, I reminded myself.
'You must see a lot of folk passing through these doors,' I said, trying to take my mind of my folder (my whole life in a folder?) by making conversation with her.
She looked up from her paperwork and gave me a tired smile, one which implied that everybody who sits outside the office wants to talk with her instead of letting her get on with her work. Perhaps that was her real job. Did receptionists really have to exist in the afterlife?
'Yes, I have seen a few. And I'll be honest. Nine times out of ten, it always goes all right. Almost everybody manages to get into Heaven.'
'What about the other one?'
She shrugged. 'Very, very rarely, some people will simply have to go to Hell. But you'd be surprised how few it is. There are more good people out there than you know.'
'Yeah,' I said, sipping my coffee but noy entirely believing it. After all, wasn't I in this position because of a slimebag? 'How long have you worked for The Caretaker?'
'Mr Spears? Oh, I don't work for him. We don't get paid if that's what you mean. This is entirely voluntary. I just help him out from time to time. When he's getting overwhelmed with casework.'
'So you two do this on your own free time.'
'Yes, it's an honour to be in this position. Sometimes it can be hard and especially when you see the few truly bad apples it can be quite disturbing. But mostly, people are happy and are relived more often than not to simply see a friendly face.'
'Yeah I guess that would be quite satisfying.'
She smiled again. 'It is.'
The Caretakers door opened and he looked at me. 'You can come back in now Paul.'
I finished off the tea and placed it on the desk. 'Thanks for the drink. I think It helped calm my nerves. Slightly.'
'You'll be fine. Good luck.'
I walked through the door and closed it behind me.
I sat down and The Caretaker looked at me, hands closed together and lying on top of my file. I saw he had another file open as well, next to mine.
'Well, Paul, we have a problem.'
'There has been…a mistake.'
'Yes, according to your file, you were not supposed to die until 2052, in a -'
'Whoa tiger. Don't tell me that! I don't want to know when I'm going to die.'
'I apologise. I thought since you were already dead you would be all right knowing these facts. I could have it arranged to erase the sentence from your memory?'
'No, none of that brain wiping stuff. I know now, fine, whatever. Just be careful what else you tell me.'
'Ok. First off, why don't you tell me exactly what happened just before you died. Omit nothing. Everything, no matter how irrelevant, could be crucial.'
I proceeded to tell him the whole sorry tale, starting with my being fired through too the old man and his mutterings. The Caretaker stopped me there.
'What do you think he said?'
'Well I couldn't make out exactly everything, but it sounded foreign, Latin or German possibly, I'm not sure. The few bits of English he said sounded like "His life for mine". It was spooky stuff.'
'Yes. Spooky indeed. Continue please.'
There wasn't much left of the tale. I mentioned the black cloak that appeared before I passed out, waking up in the Foundation (he visibly looked startled at that) and finally coming down here.
He sat back in his chair, a look of deep thought on his face. Choosing not to disturb him, I stayed silent and tried to get sly glimpses of my folder.
Finally, he spoke. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, before replacing them.
'Yes, we do indeed have a problem. I did some research while you were away. It took a few days, but I believe I have tracked down exactly what happened.'
'A few days? I was only out there five minutes tops.'
'Yes, but as I have told you time is malleable. I am one of the few who has the privilege of being able to slow it down or speed it up.' He turned to the other file and opened it up. 'Here is what we believe to have happened and what the consequences are. It is very important you understand, but if you have any questions please ask me after I have finished, but not during. Ok?'
'Good. At 1.33 am on Saturday morning, 26th of April, Planet Earth, you, Paul Turner, were assaulted by a man named Alan King or Crazy Al as knew him. He was a homeless man who had fallen on hard times recently. In the past he had tried to use black magic in his business, a house building firm. King thought that if he applied this magic to his firm, it would guarantee him success and fame. And it did at first. But eventually, like many before him, he couldn't contain it. Only the very strong and those who are borderline genius can use it successfully and even then it is seldom. King paid the price with his sanity and he lost the business and ended up on the streets. He was destined to die of a heart attack, brought upon by years of abuse and poor fitness, at 1.36 am the very same night you were walking down the alley.
He should have died alone in the alley. Unfortunately a strange set of circumstances led to you walking down that alley when normally you would have been nowhere near it. When King realised he was dying he saw you as a lifeline and invoked an incredibly powerful spell. Ironically, if he were sane and capable of rational thought he never would have had the pure unhinged mental strength to pull it of. But whatever his mental health was, he was not stupid. He was almost certainly going to Hell and he knew it.
The exact spell is too long and complicated to go into. And it is not always guaranteed to work. But the upshot is that when Death came for him, he managed to fool her. This has never happened before. King convinced her that you were the one dying of a heart attack and she took you instead. This, as I have said before, is most unfortunate.
You should have ended up in The Waiting Place, like everybody else who passes on. But somehow you turned up in the Foundation. That place is exactly what it is called. Namely, the Foundations of Heaven. No one really understands it and it is without doubt the most dangerous place you will find in the afterlife. Worse than hell arguably. If you lose your way, you will walk around in the mist for eternity.
Luckily for you, you materialised relatively close to the Archway. If you had picked the wrong direction to walk though, you could still be in there now. The pillars are direction posts, but the further away you walk from the Archway, the further apart the pillars are. Eventually, they would be continents apart and completely useless as signposts. But I digress.
You found your way out and appeared in level 346 of Heaven. You should know that you are the first person to ever bypass the interview system and go straight to Paradise. However, it is doubtful you would have fit in. Not quite dead, not quite alive, you may have been driven insane if you had attempted to live there.
After you climbed on the Nomad you flew down the corkscrew exit. The cars and vehicles you saw were all coming from the Departure Lounge. That is where successful applicants go and board a craft to take them to level 1 of heaven. You should have materialised there theoretically when you were coming to see me, but again you were the first person to go through a one way transporter. You were probably lucky you ended up in The Waiting Place instead of back in the Foundations.
Which brings you neatly to your present situation.'
He paused and picked up a glass of chilled water. He took a long gulp before continuing. 'Now, on Earth, events have happened while you have been here. As I said, time is not the same here, so only three hours have passed on your planet. But basically, Alan King awoke after Death claimed you, took your shoes and ran off with his trolley. He has now gone missing. Which is again, unfortunate. Because we really need to find him if we want to resolve this situation. Quickly.
You see, according to his file, King is now dead. He has been judged and gone to Hell. Except he's not dead. But the file thinks his life is over, so it isn't saying what he is up to or where he is going because technically, he is dead.
The trouble is, we can't simply send you back to earth and that would be it. If we did, you would be still be in your current limbo state. Half dead, half alive. There is also another problem. When someone dies there is a 48 hour waiting period before they finally pass over. That time is spent in the waiting room and the departure lounge. I have spoke to a lot of people, done a lot of research, and surprise surprise, it turns out this is the first ever case of this situation.
What we believe is that you have roughly 48 hours to find Alan King, confront him and send his soul to the afterlife. Once you do that, your soul should return fully to Earth and you can live the rest of your life as it was intended. If you don't find him however…well, no one's exactly sure what will happen. You will definitely die 100%, that is for sure. But where your soul will end up is another matter. It could go to Heaven, The Waiting Place, The Foundations. Possibly even Hell. Because you are not bound by the same laws as the rest of us, it could end up anywhere. That is why it is so important you find King before 48 hours. Or dawn of Monday morning.' A pause then another drink of water. 'Any questions?'
'Just one,' I said. 'Am I screwed?'
He looked at me closely.
'I won't lie about your chances. I can locate any person or animal in the entire solar system, apart from the one person we desperately need to find. But he can't have got too far. He will still be in Glasgow. And we will keep an eye out for unusual happenings with other people who live there. If King starts to interact with people when he should rightly be dead, then that will show up.'
'Why can't you just turn back time? Put me back in the alleyway just after I was attacked? Then I could catch him and you could do your thing. What ever that is.'
'First off all, it doesn't work that way. You are lucky we are even able to send you back in the first place. They don't call it a one way trip for nothing you know. If you do manage to find him we will take his soul directly. A tad unorthodox, but this whole situation is unusual in the extreme.'
'What about some help? Can you give me a Nomad or an army of angels to try and find him?'
'Unfortunately no. Again, it simply doesn't work that way. Angels cannot visit earth in corporal form.'
'Does anything work up here?'
He smiled. 'There are, however, exceptions to the rule.' He pressed a button on his desk. 'Ms. Cardoy, will you send through Alice please.'
The door opened behind us and a woman in her early 20's walked in. She had straight jet black hair that reached her jaw line. Her skin was extremely pale, almost shock white. But her eyes were deep blue, almost black they were so dark. She was wearing a long black dress that was extremely figure hugging. It occurred to me this was an extremely attractive looking woman, yet my hormones were staying stone dead. It was puzzling.
'Paul, this is Alice.'
I offered my hand and she shook it. Her skin was ice cold.
'Hello Paul. Pleased to meet you.'
Such a soft lilting voice, yet definitely something hard underneath. She pulled a chair over and sat down next to me.
The Caretaker looked at me again, a half grin on his face.
'As I said, Angels are not allowed to go down to Earth. Apart from one. The Angel of Death.'
I looked at him and rewound the last sentence in my head. 'Wait a minute, you mean Death?'
I looked at her. 'You are Death?'
'You're not what I expected.'
'I'm sorry I don't meet your expectations.'
'No, no, I mean, you look much better than I thought. You're beautiful. Not that I'm trying to pull you, you understand. I'm just pleasantly surprised. Plus, I didn't think you'd be called Alice.'
'Why, do you think everybody calls me Death?'
'Do you expect everybody to call you Human? Or Office Clerk?'
'I like the name Alice. Don't you think it's a nice name?'
She was starting to sound a tad defensive.
'No, no, it's a great name. You just have to understand that all my life I was brought to believe in the afterlife in a certain way. I mean, I thought Death was a skeleton in a cloak.'
'Well when people see me, I do wear a black cloak. That much is right. But the skeleton part? And the scythe? All I have is this pin.' She reached in and pulled it out of a pocket from her dress, which I could have sworn wasn't there a minute ago. 'When someone is about to die I prick them slightly and that’s it. Not painful, all very quiet and understated. Still if people want to believe I'm a grim reaper, then what can I do? Everybody will find out eventually I'm not a monster.'
She held the pin up to the light, and even though it looked small and harmless enough, it still seemed sharp enough to penetrate a soul. I could almost see a blue haze slowly drifting round it, as if air molecules were silently being cut as the drifted across it. She put it back in her pocket that again seemed to seamlessly merge back with her dress.
'But how are you going to do your…job and help me at the same time?'
'I don't want to get into the technical aspects, because I'm not sure I understand it myself. But basically I'll still be claiming lives when they are about to die. But I'll also be with you while we try to find Alan King.'
She saw my blank face.
'Basically I've split into two people.'
'Ah. That I understand. Like that Startrek episode with Captain Kirk.'
'Well sort of. Not really. Who is Captain Kirk?'
'Please don't try and explain it more fully. You're going to come with me and help find King. That part I get.'
'Also, could I get some clothes. I've been walking about like a refuge for ages now. Any chance of some new gear?'
'You understand Paul…may I call you Paul?' I nodded. 'That though this is a material world, you aren't bound by the same rules as on Earth. If you rip your shirt, it can simply mend itself by you thinking it, or wishing if you like.'
'So if I simply wish for a shirt on my back, it will appear?'
I thought strongly about a CK shirt in my arms. After 10 seconds nothing appeared. I tried imagining me wearing the shirt. Again nothing happened. 'Excuse me, but this doesn't seem to be working.'
'Hmm, it could be to do with your current status, half alive, half dead. Tell, me what sort of shirt do you want?'
I told her what I had tried to wish for, giving exact specifications. She closed her eyes and voila, in front of her on The Caretakers desk was the shirt I wanted.
She crossed her legs and looked back at the caretaker. During the exchange he had been sitting back, with a look on his face as if he was silently enjoying it. He leaned forward again. 'Well, I can see you two are going to get on famously. Now please listen up the pair of you. Time is marching on, and the sooner you two get down there, the sooner we can get this sorted out.
Now there is only one way down there and that’s level 234. Down the end of a street there is a shop that is permanently closed. Inside is a lift. That will take you down to earth to exactly the place you were killed.'
'Can't we go the way Death, sorry Alice, goes to claim souls?'
'No,' said Alice. 'I won't be an Angel this time. I'll be flesh and blood, albeit slightly more powerful than your average human. This is the only way down.'
'It's a backdoor, if you like,' The Caretaker said, looking at me,'Only three people know about it, four if you include yourself. Me, Alice, you and..' He cocked his head sideways, eyebrows raised upwards.
Alice started doing it as well. 'You know. Her. The All Powerful?'
'I'm still not getting it.'
Alice looked as if she was going to clock me. She looked around and behind her before mouthing a word. It sounded like dog. Then it clicked.
The two of them started waving their hands furiously and looking above as if excepting the ceiling to cave in.
'Keep it down!' said The Caretaker.
'What, doesn't he know about it?'
'No,' said Alice, 'And it’s a she.'
'Go-' I saw the looks and stopped. 'What's her name is a woman.'
'Yes. Do you have a problem with that?'
I thought I sensed the defensive tone creeping back. 'No, no, it's just I though what's her name had a beard and was an old man.'
'Well, she doesn't.'
'And does she have a name?'
'Of course.' And she mouthed God again.
'So that's her name?'
'Yes, what else would it be?'
I felt like saying something about why it was perfectly reasonable of me to expect her to be called Death then, but decided not to bring it up. 'Why doesn't she know then?'
The Caretaker leaned back and looked slightly embarrassed.
'Well, she's away at the moment. She trusts us to do just as good a job of keeping Heaven a paradise as she would herself, so she has gone away. No one's sure where, but all we have to do is call her name and she will come back and help us if necessary. And we are doing a good job. Apart from this one erata.'
'Listen if she can help us-'
'No, Paul, I assure you. If I thought she could help us even slightly, I wouldn't hesitate for a second. But she can do no more than we can right now. And it would not be fair to disturb her…vacation.'
'Well, alright. Just so long as its not some ploy to keep your jobs.'
'These are not jobs. We don't get paid. It's entirely voluntary.'
'Ok. Sorry. Back to what we were talking about.'
'Right,' said The Caretaker, collecting himself. 'The lift on 234 takes you back to earth. I imagine dawn will just be breaking on Saturday by the time you get back. You'll have 'till dawn on Monday morning to find him. Two days. The weekend basically. After that…' He shrugged his shoulders.
'Well lets get going then,' I said standing up.
'One more thing before you go Paul. You may see something's that look strange or even disturbing. You're in a strange place at the moment.'
'You're telling me.'
'Because you are half dead, you might sometimes see…behind the scenes as it were. There are a lot of things that are going on in earth that no one knows about, or simply shouldn't know about. I would appreciate it if you would not interfere with other people's lives. It would have a knock on effect on the files and destinies could be changed forever. Not always for the worst. But you simply don't know what could happen. And we wouldn't know either. You are in a unique situation Paul Turner. You could conceivably destroy heaven and hell.' He stared intensely at me. 'Be careful. That's all I ask.'
I looked back at him. Then leaned over and shook his hand. 'I will.'
But as Alice and me left the room, I wondered just how much resolve I would have if one of my friends were in trouble.
'Good luck,' I heard the caretaker say softly, 'Good luck.'
We closed the door behind us and walked over to the only available exit. Bright white light was still teeming through it.
'Okay,' I said, 'Where does this place lead too?'
'This takes us to the Departure lounge. Normally you would have to wait until an available transport was free to take us. But I have contacts.' She winked and walked to the door.
'Cheerio.' said the receptionist, whose name I had forgotten.
I waved goodbye and followed Alice to the door.
'You know what to expect from these transports?'
'Well I know they don't sit well with me, but I can handle them, yes.'
'Let us depart then.'
And with that she walked in and disappeared. It was actually the first ever time that I had seen somebody being transported up close. It truly was a strange sight. There seemed to be a moment of transparency, like they were an optical illusion or some such, then they disappeared. I held my breath and followed her in.
That same swirling feeling came back, but even worse than before. Colours swam across my eyes and blended into one oil slick mixture. Looking at it made me feel sick. But when I closed my eyes I could still see it. Weren't these transports supposed to be instantaneous?
Finally the light faded and I felt myself on solid ground again. I looked around, then promptly fell to my knees.
Alice came running over to me, her leather boots clacking on what felt like concrete.
'Are you alright?'
I nodded, then promptly threw up.
'This is very strange. The first time it's every happened to me. We should have materialised together in a flash, but you appeared over here.'
I looked around properly for the first time and saw we were in the biggest bus station I had ever encountered. Huge rows of vehicles, old coaches, station wagons with horses, large insects, everything looked bizarre, yet strangely recognisable underneath it all since they were all basic buses.
At one end was a huge white transport tunnel. Cars and vehicles piled in. At the opposite end was the exit tunnel. That where I should have materialised before.
'I think your current status, whatever that is, must be affecting you more than we realised.'
'You're not kidding,' I said weakly.
'The transports don't seem to know what to make of you. Tell me, was it like this the first couple of times that you jumped?'
'No way. The first time, in the Foundation, it was really quick, painless. Almost enjoyable really.'
'Hmm, it sounds like the transporters are starting to reject you. I don't think you can actually go through a couple more or you would die. Again.'
'Well how are we going to get to earth?'
'Don't worry, the lift is exactly that. A lift. No transporting necessary. However, I was going to suggest that we transport up to 245, but I don't know if you would make it.'
'Could I honestly die?'
'I don't think you would die…but you may end up transported anywhere. Or even be stuck between portals.'
I remembered how sick and strange feeling I felt in transit.
'Well, fuck that. We'll walk if necessary.'
'That would take a bit longer than you realise. Don't worry, I've got another plan. You just sit there and rest.'
I dropped to the concrete and lay on my back, slowly catching my breath. Small stones and pebbles stuck into my back, but I didn't care.
I closed my eyes and started to get sleepy. I seemed to have developed an amazing talent for falling asleep in the most inopportune places.
Feet clicked there way towards me and I heard the tell tale signs of Alice's boots.
'Upsaydaisy sleepy head.' She said, picking me up with unconcealed strength. 'I managed to procure us a ride.'
'Yes, an old friend of yours.'
I heard the beat of wings and saw the Nomad who had brought me here flying along the roof with others of her kind. She detached herself from the group and swooped down next to us.
'Hiya,' I said clapping her.
She neighed and stomped, clearly not too happy at being round al these people. Even among the many sights that a first timer saw, she was something from the norm.
'How did you find her?'
'I contacted your aquantince at the Foundation Archway. I've looked through your file and I know where you went so he seemed the best chance of contacting this Nomad. Very rare you see somebody making such a bond with one of these creatures. She seemed quite partial to you as well.'
'Yeah, I like her a lot.'
'let's climb on board and I'll tell you the plan on the way.'
She helped me up and I held on to the familiar bars. Then Alice climbed on behind me and put her arms round my chest. Her skin was cold and made my skin ripple with goosebumps, but it wasn't unpleasant. Her breath was cold in my ear as well.
The Nomad took off and we were flying close to the roof and travelling over thousands of buses and cars.
'Normally the only way out is through the exit portal. However, I don't think you could make it. There is another way however, a bit more trickier, but doable.'
'What is it,' I shouted. The Nomad was picking up speed again and it was getting hard to make myself heard.
'It's difficult to explain if you're not an Angel or a spirited creature like the Nomad. But we're basically going to fly outside Heaven, then re-enter round about level 243.'
'You mean The Foundation?'
'No, but close to it. There is a slender gap between Heaven and The Foundation. Relatively speaking on a cosmic scale anyway. Enough room for us at any rate. If we approach it at the right speed we should be able to break in.'
'Where is the entrance?'
'See that wall up ahead.' She took one arm of my waist and pointed straight ahead.
'That's the entrance. It's one of the few weak points in Heaven. If you know exactly where it is and you have the right equipment to get you through, then it's no problem.'
'What is the problem?'
'If we don't approach it fast enough, we'll be spread out across the wall.'
'How fast is fast enough?' I had to scream my last words. The Nomad was reaching suicidal speeds again.
'We'll know soon enough,' shouted Alice and held on tighter.
I realised that this was a ridiculous situation. How could Alice be afraid if she was Death? Couldn't we get a 48 hour exempt pass? Still these were strange times. Lots of groundbreaking stuff happening in the afterlife this morning. Perhaps even Death could die?
We rocketed past people and motors, all becoming a coloured blur.
The wall approached faster and faster, the nomad's wings pumping for all she was worth, mechanical cogs and pistons turning at a furious pace.
'Here we go!' shouted Alice.
I kept my eyes open as we approached the wall. If I was going to die or be lost for all eternity I wanted to see it out like a man. Plus the fact I was to scared to blink.
I shouldn't have worried. The Nomad started veering to the top right corner. Nothing special about it but I did notice that it seemed to be wavering slightly. I could have sworn it flexed for a second. My eyes were streaming though, so it could have been my imagination.
We approached it full pelt, going so fast we must have looked like a jetfighter to people down below.
The wall approached, and then we were in it. Just for a second, I seemed atomically small. I could see the chains of atoms in the concrete that made up the superstructure of the wall. It was almost impossible to explain. Then we were through.
It was dark grey, light enough to see where we were going, but not too far in the distance
'Where are we?' I asked softly. My voice sounded like it was coming from deep under water.
'The gap between Heaven and Hell. Down on the other side of this wall is Hell.'
'Couldn't people escape from Hell into Heaven?'
'Theoretically, but they'd have to know where the weakpoints are. And believe me, there is not many. But frankly they aren't in a position to find them. To do that you'd have to be free and walking about. I -'
She paused, as if considering.
'You know, I don't want to tell you about it. It is a burden. Believe me, all the biggest secrets are. And the secrets of Hell are the biggest of them all. The only people who find them out are those who are sent there. And they soon wish they didn't know.'
'Like Alan King.'
The Nomad was drifting slowly in an upward direction, but it was hard to work out exactly where we were going. All speed had dropped.
Then I started hearing a person laughing. Except he wasn't. He was crying. Screaming in fact.
'Is that..?' I pointed to the opposite wall.
'Yes,' said Alice in almost a whisper
'Can they hear us?'
'No. But they can sense us. A soul that is untainted is unknown in hell. They sense something. But they can't locate us. Like a maddening itch. But most went mad centuries ago.'
The shouting was joined by other voices. Some male, some female, some younger than you would like to believe. The wailing turned into hysterical screaming.
The skin like surface was throbbing red and the veins were sticking out black.
'We're nearly there.'
The Nomad flew up to a seemingly normal bit of wall that was like any other. The voices were still loud, louder than should have been possible in this environment. English, German, French. So many languages, some which could never even be uttered by a human tounge. Accents, familiar like American, Russian, Indian, all screaming, all pleading, all saying the same two words over and over again: 'Forgive me.'
I closed my eyes and leant closer into the Nomad. I also thought Alice's arms tightened round me, perhaps to console me, perhaps to console herself.
It can't be easy knowing you helped send millions to their horrible fates, even if they deserved it. But sending someone to an eternity of punishment is one thing. Seeing them living it is another.
The wall had that same sort of water effect when we entered this no mans land.
'Won't we need to be up and running to get through? We're not going very fast?'
I heard a snuffle and felt her arm moving against her face. I suspected she might have been crying slightly. 'It'll be Ok. You only need to go full speed to get in. It's impossible to get trapped in here. From this side of the wall, the substance is as thick as butter. But only at the actual weak points.'
'How does she know where to go?' I said, indicating the flying creature underneath us.
'She's a Nomad. They know pretty much every shortcut in the book.'
We drifted higher, the wings barely moving, just slowly drifting upwards as if on a draft. The screaming had died down slightly, but occasionally a piercing cry would come through, unnerving us.
'Do any of them ever get out?'
'They need only do one thing and none of them can do it. When they have seen the horrors they have unleashed and inflicted on other people, when they feel every thing they've done reflected back on themselves, then magnified 100 fold, they simply cannot do it.'
'Forgive themselves,' she said so softly I barely heard it.
We flew on in silence, our thoughts our own.
'I want to thank you,' I said quietly.
There was a pause. 'For what?'
'For doing this. For taking this difficult route instead of the portal. I know, or I can try to imagine at least, how difficult this must be for you.'
There was silence again and I felt her laying her head on my back. The Nomad flew ever upward getting closer to the wall. If she understood anything we were talking about or felt unnerved by this place, she didn't show it. She did seem to be flying slow and soft though.
'I should apologise to you,' said Alice.
'Because you're in this mess because of me. I was the one who made the error. I took your soul instead of Kings. I'm the one who should be made to pay. This is my fault.'
'Hey, don't say that. First of all, King did this. Not you. He did the weird black magic stuff. And you heard what The Caretaker said. This was a spell no one had ever successfully pulled of before. You've gone millennia without being fooled. This is your first ever gaffe. And it's a small one at that. We'll find him and you can sort him out. I'll help you give him a good kicking if you like. Okay?'
She just sat with her head resting on my back, her arms round my waist.
'Okay,' she said so quietly I barely heard it.
Strange drifts of organic string passed us by. When they touched my skin I felt a mild revulsion. They reminded me of optic nerves. Thankfully The Nomad started raising higher or lower to avoid them. Whether she sensed my discomfort or possibly didn't like them herself I didn't know. I noticed her feathers rippled whenever one of the strands lay on it.
'How many people have been down here, in this gap?' I asked, trying to get Alice's mind off things relating to Hell.
'Not many. You could count them on one hand. The Caretaker comes down to check on the weakpoints. I think he's worried from time to time that they will get bigger or something will get through them. But I don't see it ever happening. There isn't many. One in the departure lounge, one in the Level we're going too. Some people think there is some in the Foundation but how you could check it out I don't know.'
'I meant to ask you, the names of these places. The Departure lounge, The Waiting Place, all the roads and cites, and cars. I never thought Heaven would be so…mechanical. Am I really seeing these things? Or is just what my brain is translating them into?'
'When you see a bus up here?'
'I see a bus as well.'
'Heaven is paradise. It is the balance of organic and inorganic. If you were to divorce the two of them, it would be so much the poorer.'
'What I don't get is why there are so many humans? I mean I saw a few...aliens I guess. But The Caretaker said there was millions of planets in millions of galaxies. And that doesn't even include parallel universes.'
'Did nobody tell you?'
'Tell me what?'
'This is the Human district. Mainly for humans from earth and other planets of similar genetic origin. Who have just arrived. There are millions upon millions of districts. It would be impossible to visit them all in a lifetime, even if you only spent a second in each one'
'How do you manage to see them all then?'
I sensed rather than saw the smile.
'That's why we're immortal.'
We approaching the rippling wall. The Nomad paused for a second, seeming to sniff the air, then slowly put her head through. It was unsettling seeing the head suddenly cut off like that but slowly the rest of her body drifted through.
The last time I had done this, we had been at mach 3. Now we seemed to be oozing through and I wasn't looking forward to it.
'Close your eyes, if you want,' said Alice, reading my thoughts seemingly.
So I did. I felt the cold surface of the wall envelope my face, then my chest and body. It was like water being poured on top of me, but leaving me instantaneously dry at the same time.
Then I felt light on my face and I opened my eyes.
'Welcome to level 183,' Said Alice
I turned around and saw a white wall. It looked solid enough, but if you stared at it too long your eyes got watery, and you felt as if you were staring at the sun for too long.
We had appeared in a shop that was seemingly closed down.
But standing around were 10 of the tallest muscular people I had ever seen. 7 were female and 3 were male. Some of then looked human, but most were alien to my point of view. One thing they did all share was wings on the back of their shoulders. I realised these were Angels. They all held huge swords that crackled with barely harnessed energy. One sword was in flames.
They looked at us with red eyes, more organic than the nomads, but not too dissimilar. Alice started to talking to one of them in a language I had never heard before.
It sounded like instrumental music, but harsher.
The Angel talked back to her and after a minute, he nodded at one of the others and an Angel opened the door.
The Nomad trotted out and the door was quickly shut behind us.
We were in a street similar to the one I had appeared in before. Busy looking people bustled back and forth up streets into and out of shops. The roads were filled with cars and buses, but none of them gridlocked. Things flew about in the sky, going so fast they were a coloured blur.
'Who were those people?'
'As you might have guessed by the wings,' said Alice, 'They were Angels. They guard the entrance too make sure no one unauthorised comes through.'
'They looked quite dangerous looking dudes.'
'Lets just say you wouldn't want to get on their bad side.'
The Nomad trotted out and took off into the air.
'Right, next stop level 254.'
We flew up and into the sky.
It took us longer than before to fly the levels. I think the Nomad might have been getting tired. After all she had flown at rocket speeds twice in the space of a day. Plus flying through the gap seemed to have drained her slightly.
Eventually we reached the level and coasted round the buildings until we reached our destination.
I noticed the sun was beginning to set and shadows were being cast on the street.
'I never noticed a sun before.'
'You were on a different level. Every level has it's own lightsource. Some levels have a 24 hour cycle. Some are permanently nightime. This level is always sunset, just before it sinks.'
'It looks beautiful,' I said and it did. The sky was crimson red and the clouds were illuminated orange. Reflected off the glass buildings was the deep red sun and everything had a twilight quality to it.
'That's why we call it Heaven.'
'Alright, you've already made that joke. You can't make it again.'
She said nothing, but I suspected she was smirking. Drifting down I noticed the streets were not as busy as other levels. In fact, only a few people were walking around and in not much haste either. A few cars lazily drove up streets, but no real destination in mind. I mentioned it to Alice.
'Yes, this is one of the quietest levels. People just come to have a walk round, collect their thoughts, and not have to rush anywhere. There are various levels like this, so if one is busier than others, then you can go to another. It's peaceful.'
'Do you come here a lot?'
She sighed. 'I used to, when I first arrived. Everything was new and a miracle. I'd love too just walk down the street with my dog and go to the beach.'
'Yes, at the end of this road is one of the biggest beaches you will see. I'd just sit there and watch the tide come in and the sun, frozen in position, but always setting.'
'Can I ask you a personal question?'
'Have you always been Death?'
She laughed. 'No, no. Why, if I was the first Death, who claimed my soul when I died then?'
'God?' I whispered.
'No there has been hundreds, probably thousands of Deaths. After a while, which could be anything from one year to a thousand, the person doing the job wants to leave it. Then somebody else comes in and fills their shoes.'
'Don't you get tired of it? It seems a lonely job.'
'It is lonely. And don't get me wrong, it's hard work. But it's satisfying, knowing you are helping, being of use. You get to see things no one else does, like the Angels, and the gap…'
'Yes, and Hell. Like I said, it's hard work.'
'How long have you being doing it for?'
'Roughly 23 years. But I'm thinking of giving it up. The very fact I'm coming with you to get this sorted out is pretty good evidence that I'm tiring of it.'
'So is somebody filling in for you?'
'Yes, I don't know who. It's almost unheard of, Death taking two days off to solve a problem. It's like a busman's holiday in my case. But I've got to do this myself. You understand?'
'I'm not sure that you do. I mean, this is the first time, since Heaven opened its gates, the first time in all eternity, that Death had claimed the wrong person. And it was on my watch. It was my error. For better or worse, I've got to solve it.'
'I understand. Really.'
'I'm sorry. This is just such a difficult time for me. Especially for you. But I'll sort it out. I give you my word on that.'
'I believe you. And The Caretaker believes you, otherwise, he wouldn't have sent you.'
She didn't say anything and I took it that was the conversation over.
We had been flying round the level now for at least an hour. It was a lot bigger than I had first envisioned. Plus the Nomad was slowing down. The bright green that had been emanating from the cracks and spaces in her body were definitely fading. The only thing illuminating it was the coloured light of the sun bouncing of her metal shell.
We started to drop slightly to the road in a controlled fall. We were upside down just 15 feet from the ground before the Nomad righted herself and landed gently on the concrete. She seemed to take an enormous pleasure in causing me shocks that would kill me, if I weren't already dead.
We started trotting on to the pavement and reached an innocuous looking shop. Slightly dusty windows with blinds on them. On the front of the door was a closed sign.
'This is us,' said Alice and hopped of.
She helped me down and I walked around, stretching my legs after being on the Nomad back for so long. It probably wasn't all fun and games for her either, carrying two people on her back for ridiculous long journeys at a time.
I stood in front of her and clapped her, thanking her again for coming to my aid. I looked over at Alice who was peering in the window.
'I wish I had sugar cubes or something. What do Nomads eat?'
'They don't eat anything,' said Alice, wandering over and clapping her as well. 'When they are running low on energy they fly round a sun. The light powers them up.'
'Like solar power.'
'I dare say it is a bit more complicated than that, but yes, it is the basic same principle.'
The Nomad gave a friendly neighing noise then trotted off, before taking to the sky and flying off into the sky.
'She will get some energy from the setting sun, not as much as a full one, but enough to make her journey home.'
'Where is home?'
'Where ever their hearts take them. That's why they are named Nomads.'
I watched her fly off, just a black silhouette in the distance, surrounded by a bright blazing orange sun. Then she disappeared.
I wandered over to the shop and had a look through the gaps in the blinds.
An old wooden counter sat at the back. On the walls were shelves, all covered in dust. Old floorboards sat without carpets, an odd page of some celstial newspaper scattered around.
Alice put her hand into a part of her dress and pulled out a small key. She looked back and forth up the street, saw there was nobody close by, slotted the key home, turned the lock and opened the door. I hurried in behind her and she closed the door, locking it again. The bell dinged duly above us in the musty atmosphere.
'I can't believe how unguarded this place is.'
'It's a nice quiet spot. No one would suspect that such a place would be hidden here.'
'Don't the Angels want to protect it?'
'If she wanted it,' said Alice, pointing upwards, 'then she would have them here. But she doesn't, and nobody who wasn't supposed be here has ever abused it, so I guess she knows what she is doing.'
I nodded and we wandered over to the back. The floorboards creaked and our footprints left marks in the dust, like it was soft sand.
At the back of the shop was a door.
Alice put her hand into the same pocket as before and pulled out another key. She entered the second key into the door and opened it up. Behind was another door. Or more precisely, a lift door. It was white metal and had a red LED on the side with two triangular buttons indicating up and down.
She pressed the down button and I heard a quiet hum.
'I don't know who used this elevator last, so I don't know where the lift is. Might be a while before it arrives.'
'I still find it hard to believe we're going back to Earth in a metal lift.'
'Believe it,' she said with a smile.
'You seem quite chipper.'
'It's because we're on our way. All that talking, the waiting, it gives you time to think, to go over your mistakes. But once we go into the lift, that's us halfway to solving the problem. In the mean time let's try and get you something decent to wear.'
'Hey, I like my shirt and trousers.'
'The shirts ok, but I'm not sure about those.'
She pointed at my trousers, which was sans belt, cuffs, one pocket and a trouser leg. Plus my shoes had disintegrated. One toe poked cheerfully out the top.
'Ok, maybe you have a point.'
'You better believe it. We cannot go on a man hunt looking like that.'
So for the next couple of hours we went shopping. In the sense that I would name an item of clothing and Alice would make it appear.
We must have gone through 20 entire wardrobes before we settled on almost the exact same set up I had before. I was happy with practically every item of clothing, but Alice would agree for a second, before shaking her head, and conjuring up another piece, slightly different, but basically the same item of clothing.
The only thing I disagreed with was the sarong and though it was nationalistic, the kilt. I didn't have the knees to pull it off.
I ended up in a pair of black Levi's, blue versace shirt and a black leather coat that Shaft could have pulled of, but made me look like an undernourished waif. Still 80% of being able to wear these things is confidence and it made me feel better, rather than wearing my old rags which lay on the floor in a heap.
Alice agreed. 'There. You look ready to take on anything.'
'One thing I don't really get is why I appeared with what ever I was wearing.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well say I died at sea. And a fish had swum into my shirt just before I died. Could I be said to be wearing the fish? Would the fish be transported with me? Who decides exactly what the definition of clothes is?'
She looked at me blankly for a few seconds. 'Do you try to pick flaws in everything?'
'Can't help it. Seen too many films with plot holes and now I can't help but look out for them.'
'Well that's a charming trait I'm sure but for now, lets just concentrate on the matter at hand and if we get through it them I promise you I'll look into it.'
I shrugged my shoulders.
A loud ping rang out in the silence and the lift doors slid open smoothly.
'Ah, finally. In you go,' said Alice.
I walked into the lift.
It wasn't quite the tardis effect, but it was bigger on the inside than out. Albeit, only slightly. It was circular shaped and had beige couches to sit on. The panel on the left of the door had a small computer screen and on the right 3 buttons.
Alice closed the shop door behind us and locked it. Then, standing in the lift proper, she walked up to the panel and pressed a button that closed the doors.
The slid shut without a noise.
'Okay, where do we want to go?'
'Let me ask that again. Where on Earth do we want to go?'
'Back to the alleyway I guess.'
She stood thinking. 'Yes, that is the best place to go. If only to pick up your body.'
'Wait a minute, I'm still lying down there?'
'I thought I would…I dunno, float float down and superimpose myself on to it.'
'You do watch a lot of films don't you. I'm afraid you are stuck in your afterlife body for now. When we catch up with King, you'll go back into your material form. Theoretically anyway. But you shouldn't be too bothered by it. You are in a much better body now. Look at your self.'
There was a mirror at the side of the elevator and I looked at my 'new' body. It was undeniably true. I seemed to have bronzed skin, whiter teeth, my hair wasn't sticking out in all directions. I seemed to have more muscles and the long leather jacket seemed to be filling out better.
'Wow,' I said, 'I swear I didn't look like this yesterday.'
'Probably not even a few hours ago. I'm not sure if you're mindset is gradually adjusting to the fact that you can look what you want too up here. Or maybe because we are leaving Heaven, you aren't 'glitching' anymore. You're obtaining full use of all the privileges that go with being a member of Heaven. You see yourself as you'd like to appear.'
I twirled round in the mirror and looked at my ass. Then stopped and felt very self-conscious. I turned and looked at Alice. 'You must think I'm the vainest person you ever met.'
'Not at all. Enjoy it Paul. You're not a bad person you know. Why not look good? It's not a crime to be happy.'
I smiled and looked at myself again before flumping down on the couch and staring at the doors. 'Okay, let's get this show on the road.'
'Right.' Alice opened a small compartment in the wall and a keyboard slid out. She started typing and looking at the screen which was showing various diagrams and schematics.
After a couple of minutes she slid it back in and closed the door. Then she walked over to the other panel and pressed the second button. The walls disappeared to leave an opaque substance. The only thing that looked solid was the couch, the floor and the door panels.
'I thought you might enjoy the view as we descend. This truly is a once in a lifetime, once in an after-lifetime chance to see some pretty amazing sights.'
I could see the shop in front of me, the floor covered with clothes that we had discarded. Behind me was space, filled with spectacular galaxies, red and purple swirls, and suns far off in the distance.
'Cool,' I said. Woefully inadequate, but I was truly almost lost for words.
'Going down,' said Alice and pressed the downward triangle button. It lit up and at the top was a long led screen which read 'Level 254'
We started to descend.
It was a strange feeling at first. Alice had joined me on the couch and asked me not to disturb her until we were close to our destination. She didn't need to sleep exactly, just re-calibrate certain things. It sounded like woman stuff, so I steered well clear and respected her wishes. Not that I would have been much use as a conversational partner anyway.
I was in awe at the sights outside.
In front were the levels of the human district of Heaven. We slid slowly down them, invisible and seemingly intangible as well.
Not that I knew this at first. After we had cleared the buildings I noticed that we seemed to be heading straight for a busy motorway. It was at least 20 lanes wide and the elevator showed no signs of self-preservation.
We descended right into the middle lane and cars sped towards us disappeared then appeared again behind the lift. I was frozen to the spot as cars and trucks thundered towards me but passed right through us. Or rather, we passed through them.
We continued down in a straight line.
The red LED clocked of the levels, giving more accurate information than your standard lift. It reminded me of those stock exchange ticker machines that have sentences constantly rolling across the readout as it is continually updated.
When we passed through a building selling food, the readout displayed 'Jack and Karen's café - kitchen area - level 212 - human district - street 295 - building 1765 - ' then it would be cut off and start again with new information. I don't think it ever once got the chance to finish of a complete description. Once the novelty of looking at people when they couldn't see me, but I could see them had worn off, I turned around and sat on the couch, looking out at the cosmos.
Apparently this really was looking into the infinite as new places were invented and came to life as souls arrived. Perhaps even simple imagination was all that was required.
We slowly drifted down, passing level after level. Constellations that I had never seem before passed by me, too many sights too take in.
I saw a cluster of Nomads soaring round a sun, glowing bright green and playing with one another. They were smaller than the one I had ridden on and I realised these must be children. How they were created I didn't know. Two broke away and started chasing each other. They flew right at the elevator and passed through it, seemingly oblivious to our passing. A larger Nomad, possibly the mother, chased quickly after them and easily caught them before curtailing them and sending them back towards the others.
Then they were gone and we passed on to another level.
The lift seemed to be going faster as well. I didn't know if it needed time to get going or warm up, but suddenly the outside started rushing past at great speeds. We were going easily faster than even the Nomads could manage.
The LED was a blur. No sentences could appear only a list of letters that clocked round faster than a fruit machine. There simply wasn't enough time to describe where we were. It kept cutting of it's own sentences before they even had a chance to get the first letter out.
The outside of the elevator was becoming a coloured blur and I started to feel like I was watching a film that had been made with a bright strobe light flashing all the way through it. I stood up and walked over to the right hand panel.
Alice was still asleep or meditating or whatever it was she was doing.
The buttons were clearly marked, so I pressed 'walls open/closed' and silently the windows filled up with a creamy white texture again, blocking out the outside.
I wandered over to the other panel and looked at the small TV screen.
It had a column to one side that had numbers scrolling up it at the same speed as the led counter. On the right was a diagram of earth and a small map of a city. After a moment I realised it was Glasgow. It slowly advanced on it so the map got bigger. Just one area of it though. The rest was cut away every 5 seconds, presumably as we got closer to earth.
I sat down again and closed my own eyes.
I hadn't really thought much about how I was going to go about finding King once I arrived.
I figured I could carry my body (and that was a strange thought. I wondered briefly if I could be accused of own murder?) to the flat. Explaining it to Rob might be tricky, but I'd make him understand. Somehow. Finding Alan King though. That would be the real hard part.
And Kate! I had forgotten all about her. Perhaps it would be best if I never told her. After all, what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. But what if it didn't work out and I died, genuinely this time. I would never have told her how I felt about her. How I loved her. But did I love her? I didn't know. The fact I even asked myself that question seemed to indicate that there might be doubt in my mind. But how the hell was I supposed to think clearly in my current situation. And of course, as soon as I thought of Kate, I thought guilty thoughts. And Samantha Frost came into my mind. But that wasn't love. How could I love someone I had never met? It was lust, pure and simple. But shouldn't I lust after Kate then?
I slapped myself on the side of the head so hard that I actually hurt myself. This was why I didn't like spending too much time in one place. Once you have nothing to engage the brain with, it starts thinking. And that can be dangerous stuff. I stood up again and pressed the wall open button again. Anything to stop my brain thinking. The walls fell away and I was quite surprised to see grey mist everywhere. I realised we were in the foundation.
The fog must have been speeding past us at incredible speeds, but it was impossible to tell if it was moving. There was no sensation of g-forces or weightlessness. It was only when you would see a pillar suddenly scream past the window that it was clear that we were still descending.
The led simply read 'Foundation - Foundation - Foundation' over and over again.
Some of the pillars were enormous as well. Huge bloated things, the size of some countries seemingly went past the window. The pillars still held the basic shape and form I had seen earlier, but nothing like the size of these behemoths.
'Oh, we're in the Foundation.' Alice got up and stretched. 'You should have woken me.'
'I didn't know we'd have to go through the Foundation to get to Earth.'
'Yes, it's the quickest way. It's the only way in fact.'
'But have you seen the size of these pillars? I mean we must be deep into it if they're this size.' As If to prove my point another huge pillar came into view. It just looked like a very large wall. We were the size of a fly compared to it.
'Yes, these will be big, no doubt about it. But they aren't big compared to some of the ones that are really far in. Don't forget these are the foundations of Heaven and Hell. If the afterlife is infinite, you're going to need some strong ground to place it on.'
'But isn't there a chance we could get lost?'
'No, the elevator knows where it's going. Anyway, there is only one direction and that’s down.'
I nodded, but I still didn't like being here. If we weren't successful in finding King and I did lose my soul, it might end up here. How long would it take me to walk to the Archway? What if I never found it?
I sat down again and stared at the floor.
Alice seemed to pick up on my discomfort. 'Do you wish me to close the windows?'
'No, it's alright. Once we're out of the Foundation, I'll be okay. Thanks anyway.'
She nodded and went to look at the screen, pulling out the keypad again. While she typed, I thought about giving the old trick of morphing my clothes into something else another try.
I wished that I were wearing a T-shirt. I felt my jacket starting to change, it's colour turning white. The material softening. Then it seemed to snap back into place and I was still wearing the same clothes. Beads of sweat stood out on my forehead.
Alice looked over at me. 'Don't be discouraged Paul. It'll take some time before you finally get the knack of it. You nearly had it.'
'Yeah, if I could just -'
The Foundation suddenly disappeared and there was darkness. Then a cavalcade of stars and planets started rushing towards us.
Alice gave me a smile. 'Excellent, we're into the universe. Still at the wrong end mind you, but we'll soon be in your solar system.'
'So we're in actual outer space now?'
It felt good to be back in the real world again. It was a ridiculous thing to think, considering I was in a travelling lift and in the deepest portion of space you could imagine. But I wasn't in the afterlife either and that was something. Finally, I didn't have to ask questions every two minutes. I knew where I was and where I was going. How many people can say that?
The stars became burred lines that wrapped themselves round us. The description on the display read 'x64537.89.3 - y34454.38.0 - The Quasduff Belt - Planets include Quasduff Alph-" Then it was cut off as we passed into a new section.
Alice sat down, reached out and held my hand. We flew on, passing galaxies in the blink of an eye. I didn't feel any motion but I noticed the stars were starting to slow down. The lines were beginning to fade and the pinpoints of light took a more stable look in the blackness.
Planets started to drift past us, unrecognisable to me. Then I spotted Saturn, with it's rings and I realised we were home.
'Is this the Sol system?" I'd saw it being called that on a Star trek episode once and I hoped it made me look slightly knowledgeable.
Alice nodded and I turned back to look out the window.
More planets sped past us; Neptune, Mars, the other one whose name I couldn't remember, but looked nice.
Then finally, the blue green orb I called home. Earth.
'Wow,' I said.
'Yes,' said Alice and gave my hand another squeeze.
We started to drop down, travelling across the atmosphere of the world until I saw the familiar shape of Europe.
We continued down, going into darkness as the sun was hidden from view by the horizon line until Great Britain was recognisable. No clouds were above so the view was unspoiled. We descended, heading in a nothernly direction until Scotland was the largest thing we could see.
A grid of lights and straight lines revealed the major cites and gradually we homed in on one: Glasgow. Buildings grew from dots too recognisable structures and I spotted landmarks easily.
We carried on, much the same speed and distance as a helicopter landing. I saw the alleyway and watched as the buildings rose above us on either side.
We were 10 feet from the road when I spotted my body. It gave me a very strange feeling, seeing myself lying there dead.
The elevator was 3 feet, then 2, then 1 foot and finally touchdown with a gentle bump to let us know our journey was over. But our quest was just beginning.
The readout said 'Glasgow Scotland Planet Earth - 2nd Alley of Union Street - 06.19am'
I couldn't believe so little time had passed since I had been away. But there was no slowing down of time now. We were back in the real world. The clock was going to continue ticking for two more days then my time was up.
I stood up and looked up at the sky. There were a few dark blue patches but it was mostly light blue. Dawn would be breaking soon and we needed to get my body back to the flat.
'Alice, can we use this lift to travel round the city?'
She shook her head. 'I'm afraid not. This isn't simply a Roald Dahl type glass elevator. This is the most powerful tool in all of eternity. If the wrong hands ever got hold of this, well, it would not be nice.'
'How are we going to look for King then?'
'We have other options at our disposal. We had better get going though.'
She walked over to the computer and pressed a button that wiped the screen clear. Then she opened the doors. I walked out and looked back. It was a surreal moment seeing inside the lift but not anything else.
On impulse, I walked round the back and found that the open doors disappeared. Knowing that the back of the lift must be here I walked through empty space and didn't bump into anything or feel a shiver. It simply wasn't there.
I rushed back round the front to make sure I wasn't hallucinating and was relived to see Alice pressing a few more buttons, making the walls solid again and sending the elevator home again.
'Right,' she said and walked out. The lift doors closed with a chime that was cut off and it was gone.
'Is that it away?' I asked
She stared upwards as if she could see it. 'The Elevator will go back to the shop and stay there until somebody uses it again.'
'What about you though? How are you going to get home?'
'The Caretaker will be keeping an eye on us. Once we've located King, he'll send it back down for me.'
We walked over to my body. King had long since departed. My shoes were missing and one of my socks. I also noticed a rat nibbling on one of my toes.
'Hey! Get off there you filthy piece of vermin!' I ran over and aimed a kick at it, but it was too fast and agilely jumped away and ran under a skip. 'Oh man, look at my toe! It's been chewed over.'
It looked really gross. My nail was missing, and large chunks were missing from it.
'What are you worried about. You were rubbish at football anyway.'
'This isn't funny!'
'I know, I'm sorry.' She didn't look sorry, standing there with a large grin on her face. 'Don't fret, when we get this fixed I'll make sure your body is as good as new. Better even.'
'Well, okay, but let's put me somewhere safe. I don't need anything else gnawing on me.'
I walked round to my shoulders and picked myself up under the armpits. Alice got the legs. It was incredibly strange, looking at my self dead. I closed the eyelids of my double before we started. It just didn't feel like me. I felt that this was someone who I was close to, but not actually me. If nothing else, at least this would be cast iron proof for Rob that I wasn't trying to play a strange joke on him. I also couldn't keep my eyes of my toe. What else was that rat chewing on? I tried not to think about it.
'Hey!' I shouted, nearly dropping the body.
'One of my fingers is missing!'
'Two in fact! Goddamn rats!'
'Actually that might have been King.'
'Yes, when you cast a spell of that magnitude, you have to replenish yourself immediately. It's very draining. He probably went to the nearest food source. You, basically.'
'What, do I have a sign round my neck saying 'all you can eat or your money back'! I wish things would stop eating me.'
We got to the end of the alley and placed my body down into a doorway. It smelled of urine and other unpleasant things, but there didn't seem to be anything that would want to dine on me.
'Okay, how are we going to do this? We can't carry the body all the way to the flat. What if someone sees us? Or the police? We'd look like Burke and Hare.'
Alice stood thinking. 'What about your friend, Rob. He's got a car, right?'
'Yeah, that's right. I'll give him a phone.' I put my hand in my inside pocket to grab my mobile phone, then realised it wasn't on this body. I reached down to my doppelganger and remembered I'd dropped the jacket in the backgreen with the rabid dogs.
'Shit, I don't have it! I lost it a few hours ago.'
'Do you have any money on you?'
Alice walked out into the street and started looking at cars that were parked on the side of the road. She walked past one before stopping and looked in, her face against the window. She pulled her arm back and punched it straight through the side window.
Glass shattered onto the pavement and inside the car.
I looked around wildly, but couldn't see anyone, or any lights going on in the flats above the shops. Surprisingly, no alarm had gone off. I wondered if it was a new silent one that was connected to the owners baseball bat.
She reached in and pulled out an object. I saw it was a cell phone.
She walked back to me and calmly handed it over. 'There you go.'
'What are you doing?! What if somebody comes out and catches us with a dead body who bears an uncanny resemblance to me?'
'Calm down. Nobody heard us. And I noticed that he hadn't turned his alarm on, so we're okay. Phone your friend and tell him to pick us up.'
I glared at her but she was already walking away, looking at buildings and objects like a tourist. I dialled in my flat number.
The phone rang 5 times then the answering machine came on: 'Hello, this is Paul & Robs flat. We're not in at the moment, but if you're thinking of breaking in we have a large pitbull.' Loud, rather fake sounding growls could be heard in the background. 'If you are a friend, please leave your message after the beep.'
'Rob! Rob! Wake up you lazy piece of shit! It's me Paul! Wake up! I really need your help man! I'm in real trouble! Wake up! I know you're in there! Wake -'
'Hello?' Rob's voice came on, sounding tired and slightly disgruntled.
'Rob, thank Christ you're in.'
'Man, you woke me up from a great dream. I was with-'
'Yeah, great, listen I'm really sorry to spring this on you but I really need you to drive out and pick me up.'
'Drive out? It's…6.31 in the morning. Are you nuts? Where are you anyway? That guy Archie phoned about one o'clock. He was asking if you got home all right. I could barely make out what he was saying though. Kept whispering all the time. I thought you'd got lucky and managed to pull a bird.'
'Well, I am with a woman.'
'Hah! I knew it! You can make your own way home Romeo.'
'No listen, I really need a lift. There's a guy in serious trouble here, he might be dying.'
'What? Phone an ambulance then you dumb prick.'
'No, I think he's taken drugs. Ecstasy or something. We just need to get him some water, get him into bed, some rest and he'll be as good as new.'
'Who is he? Do I know him?'
'No, he's…a cousin of mine.'
'You'd better not be joking about this.'
'No joke. I swear.'
'Alright, where are you?'
I gave him the address and he said he'd be round as quick as possible.
Casually as I could, I walked back to the car where we had acquired the phone. Pausing at the broken window, I fired it into the car and hastily walked backed to the alley.
The roads were beginning to get busier, even at this time in the morning. Although it was a Saturday, and a holiday weekend at that, some people still had to go to work. A street sweeper was working his way up to us on the other side of the road.
'Alice, help me move the body back into the Alley a bit.'
We hauled my dead self down a few yards and shoved him next to a skip. I found an old wet smelly blanket and shoved it over the body. I was worried that the rats and other creatures might start dining out on me again, but I didn't really have a choice.
We walked back to the mouth of the Alley and waited for Rob.
The sun hadn't risen yet, but the sky was very bright. Only a few clouds whisked across the sky and they would soon be burned away. Overhead planes far above scratched white lines across the morning sky.
'It's beautiful you know,' said Alice.
'The Sky? Yeah, it is.'
'Yes, but not just that. Everything, the fresh air, the designs of the buildings, even the rats.'
'Can't agree with you on that last point.'
'Its all so real is what I mean. Anything can happen in the space of a minute. You run along the edge of the blade every day, even in the most mundane things. If you get on a train, it could crash. You could fall of it and split your head. You could get electrocuted. You don't know what is going to happen minute to minute, second to second.'
'And that’s good?'
'It's unpredictable. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's bad. But you just don't know what is going to happen. In Heaven, there are no risks. Apart from the Foundation, there is nothing that could possibly harm you. And that's great. But after an eternity, you sometimes wish for…something else.'
'I don't know, I'd quite like a safe paradise where everybody's happy. I mean, you said it yourself, that is why they call it Heaven.'
'I know, and I'm not complaining. Really. But when you visit a planet again, you're reminded of how unstable is can be. How exciting it is.'
'Sounds to me like you're a bit of an action junkie.'
She smiled. 'You're probably right.'
We fell silent and watched people start too bustle about onto the streets, still tired and rubbing their eyes.
Finally, after 37 minutes I spotted Rob's car turning the corner. It was an old Lada, painted creamy white. The exhaust was giving off large noxious fumes and one of the headlights was smashed.
I waved my hand until Rob saw us and pulled over to the side. He got out the car and walked over to us.
'Hi Rob, thanks for coming man. You really are a life saver.'
He still looked half-asleep. His T-shirt was on back to front and his hair was sticking out everywhere. He wore a pair of jeans (which I recognised as a pair of my Levi's, but I didn't feel this was the time to get into the matter) and trainers with no socks.
He gave a huge yawn. 'No problem mate. Just let's get your cuz in the car and we can head back, then get some sleep. Where's this girl anyway?'
On cue, Alice walked out of the Alleyway. 'Hi Rob, Pauls told me all about you.'
Rob was too tired to slyly look her up and down, so he blatantly checked out her legs and chest. 'Alright, how you doing? What's your name again?'
'Hey, cool name.'
And with that, Rob was officially in Deaths good books.
'Right,' he said. 'Where's your cousin?'
I had been dreading this part. 'Back here,' I said and walked to the body under the cover. Rob followed with Alice waiting at the mouth of the Alley. I reached down and pulled of the blanket
Rob looked down for a second and didn't say anything. 'Man, he looks nothing like you.'
'Yeah well, what did you say?'
'I look more like you than that poor geezer.' He leaned down and gave him a friendly slap in the face. 'Hey, don't worry, buddy boy. We're going to take you home and get you into a nice bed. Okay?'
'Eh, he's really fast asleep. Very Heavy night.'
'You're not kidding,' yawned Rob again. 'But man, where has he been. You can barely see his face under the dirt and blood. And what the hell has happened to his toe.'
'Oh, ingrowing toenail. You know.'
He looked back at the body. 'I'm telling you dude, you should get a doctor to check that out. Doesn't look healthy.'
'He will. Can you help me move him?'
We picked up the body and draped an arm over each of our shoulders so the corpse was in the middle, then shuffled of down the alley to the car.
'Paul, I don't mean to be rude, but this guy stinks.'
'It's okay, we'll wash him up when we get home.'
Alice saw us coming and opened the back door of Rob's car. A few more people had appeared on the streets, but it was still quiet and nobody was taking any real notice of us.
I clambered in the back seat and dragged the body into the car. It slumped over onto the floor like a sack of potatoes but I righted it and kept a hand on the chest so it wouldn't slide again.
Paul and Alice got in the front of the car and closed the doors. Immediately, the smell of the body was overpowering.
'Jesus Christ,' said Paul and rolled down his window. Alice and me did the same. Then he started the car and we were off, to the relative sanctuary of the flat.
It was about 7.30 when we finally reached the car park. Alice and me hauled the body out of the backseat and managed to shuffle it along to the buzzer entrance. Rob opened the door with his key and we all walked/dragged the body to the lift.
I pressed the button and noticed no light came on. Then I saw the sign that read "Out of Order".
I groaned but we had no option. Our flat was on the 4th floor, the very top. We all grabbed a piece of clothing and hauled him up the stairs. The only person we met was the postman, who gave us one glance, smelt the odour of the body and carried on with his rounds, possibly more quickly than before.
We finally reached the front door of the flat, waited for Rob to open it and staggered in, the body becoming heavier with every second.
'Where will we put him?' asked Alice.
I didn't want him in the living room or my bedroom. But we had a spare room that was in fact an ambitious utility closet. It was dark and usually quite cold, so I nodded to the room at the end and we shuffled down.
Opening the door with my shoe, we dumped the body into the room and onto an old mattress.
Rob looked in. 'So, what, we just going to leave him to sleep for a bit yeah? Let him crash out until tonight?'
'Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,' I said.
I put the body's limbs into a more natural poise and quickly closed the eyelids, which had sprung open when we dumped him onto the ground.
The body just looked like a normal alive person sleeping off a particularly heavy night. I still couldn't believe that was me, my body from not even 7 hours ago. I wondered if I would ever feel the same way again if we were successful and I was transported back into it. Would I feel like I was wearing a cheap suit, forever scratching away at places that were too tight?
I stepped back, closed the door and walked through to the living room. Paul was in the kitchen, pouring himself some water.
I looked at Alice. 'What are we going to tell him?' I whispered.
'Does he have to know?'
'We need his help and he needs to hear something.'
'Well, can't you make up a story?'
'About Alan King. Some reason why we need to find him. And quickly.'
She was right about that. Sunlight was pouring through the window now and the sun was almost half risen. I had two full days left on the planet to find him.
Paul walked into the room with his water and sat down on the couch. 'Alright, so is somebody going to tell me what is going on here?'
I looked at Alice again. And decided to tell the truth. However ludicrous it sounded, I'd have to make him believe. 'Well basically we need your help. Again.'
'Who do you think I am, Superman?'
'We need to find a guy called Alan King.'
I took a deep breath and bit the bullet. 'He-'
'He stole Paul's wallet,' said Alice.
I looked at her. 'Yeah?' said Rob.
'That's right,' said Alice. 'Which is bad enough. But it also contains Paul access cards for the computer in his work. These are literally irreplaceable. If they were too fall into the wrong hands, the entire company could go bankrupt by Monday.'
'Nah!' said Rob.
'Tell him Paul.'
I wasn't sure what she was talking about, but we were already halfway down the garden path so I thought we might as well continue. 'It's true. You're not supposed to take them out of the office, they're incredibly valuable. But I wanted to show them to Archie.'
'The guy who phoned during the night?'
'That's right. He was probably wondering what had happened to me. You see, I got mugged. This homeless guy assaulted me and grabbed my coat. It was only later that I realised that my wallet was missing. I asked a few guys who were hanging around and they said he was called Alan King.'
'Apparently he's a down on his luck Bill Gates type,' chipped in Alice. 'A real computer nerd type, but he could ruin Paul's company. Paul could even end up doing jail time.'
This story was getting out of hand.
'Christ,' said Rob, 'we'd better phone the police.'
'No! We can't do that.'
'Why not man?'
'Because if they find out I took the cards, it'll be me who does serious prison time. King will probably get away with a warning.'
'This is dodgy shit.'
'No kidding. We've got to find him and get them back before Monday morning. At the latest. If we can retrieve them, then I can put them back in the safe and nobody will be any the wiser.'
I just remembered that I had actually been sacked from work anyway, but it didn't matter. As long as Rob bought it.
'Well no worries mate. We'll start looking for him straight away.'
'We'll get some breakfast first though. No point any of us fainting.'
'Yeah, and I'll get the car refuelled. Don't worry Paul, we'll find him and get those cards back.'
He gave me a pat on the shoulder and went to the bathroom.
Alice wandered over to me. 'He's a good friend.'
'Yeah, but I feel like a lying sack of shit. I mean, he's really worried for me.'
'He should be. Don't forget, you are in genuine trouble. You're just protecting him from…certain facts.'
'I know, but I was really all set to tell him. Why did you cut me off?'
'One, he might not have believed us and simply blown the whole thing of as a joke. Two, by the time he did believe us, it may be too late to find King.'
'I guess you're right.'
'I am. You know I am.' She rubbed my shoulder. 'Come on, I'll make you a cup of tea.'
So we sat on the windowsill, looking out through the glass at the world, drinking hot cups of water (Alice apparently couldn't resurrect an old teabag) and watched the sun rise fully.
It was still blocked by buildings, but it would soon soar into the sky, a yellow baleful eye staring down at me and my quest for King. And for the sake of my Soul.
Rob had gone to take a shower and gathered up his list of contacts that might help us find our prey. I didn't think they would help much, but it was all we had at this stage.
I checked in on my slightly decaying corpse. Seeing it there, peaceful and looking asleep, I was reminded of how fatalistic I had been my entire life. I mean, I'm a cheery guy, but I had an almost morbid fascination with death. And here I was, drinking with Death herself, while my body lay in the spare room. I realised how much I didn't want to die. Not yet anyway. In the future, far in the future. But not now. And not like this. I took another sip of my hot water and closed the door.