writer person’s note – these are re-edited versions of stories which appeared a year or so ago on themalcontent.rocks
The hall was hot, the queue was long and the smell, although it would have been better described as a stink, was overpowering. The sign which had been printed then pinned to the entrance – the one he had come in through, at least – read ‘Heaven’ but underneath someone had added, in small, bold type, ‘although this term is only a suggestion’.
‘Ticket number thirty four,’ said the Tannoy, ‘Ticket number thirty four to reception.’ Eldritch looked down once more at his own ticket, which was marked four hundred and seventeen, and realised that his wait, which had already seemed like an eternity, had only just begun.
‘Can’t someone switch on the air conditioning?’ said a man, sat across the aisle from him.
Eldritch smiled. ‘I don’t know if they care about air conditioning in the afterlife,’ he said,
‘And you do I suppose?’
‘Yes. I’m sweating like a pig.’
There was a cough. ‘Do you mind?’ said a small woman who sat next to the man, her eyes emerging from underneath her burka. ‘It is bad enough to be trapped in here without hearing of the pigs. Please, show some sensitivity.’
‘Too right. And stop staring at my legs,’ said the man.
‘You … you don’t have any legs.’
‘Exactly. Now ask me why.’
‘Alright, I will.’ His pride had been awakened. ‘A landmine?’
‘You stupid racist,’ said the man, who was white but spoke with an accent that Eldritch could not quite place. ‘Yes, all injuries in Muslim countries are due to war and terrorism. You stupid fucking racist.’
‘Was it polio?’ said a voice.
‘Precisely,’ said the man. ‘Five points to you, madam, and none to the racist.’
‘I am not a racist.’
‘So you say.’
‘So I mean. You are white.’
‘Race is not just colour,’ said the man.
‘Too right,’ said the woman to his right, shaking her cloth’d head.
He had not been dead long but he was already sick of it.
‘Ticket number thirty-seven to reception,’ said the Tannoy. Eldritch looked at his ticket, which was still marked four hundred and seventeen. He sighed, and looked longingly at the frosted window which the recently notified ticket-holder was approaching, his tired limbs dragging across the tiled floor of the hall. ‘I suppose this must be purgatory,’ he said, to no-one in particular.
‘As I understand it,’ said the man across the aisle, wrinkling his considerable nose in displeasure, ‘purgatory is an almost entirely Christian concept.’
‘Catholic, specifically,’ said a old fellow, who lay with his body stretched out over a couple of seats down the aisle, ‘but don’t ask me how I know.’ They did not, but he told them anyway. ‘I was one of them, once, a good Catholic boy, and then my Susan – my beautiful Susan – died. Oh, the guilt they attributed to her! I told them – she has nothing to feel guilty about. She loved, she cooked, she laughed. Ah, but she was born, they said, and was guilty of original sin! I told them to fuck off. They didn’t like that. Still, I wonder if I will see her again. I hope she has bathed since the last time we met.’
‘I am neither Catholic or Christian,’ said the man across the aisle, his eyebrows dark and serious, ‘although in truth I do not know the difference. Besides friend, you should not have spoken with holy men in such a way.’
‘There is no such thing as a holy man,’ said the old fellow, who had not opened his eyes, ‘in the same way that there is no such thing as good luck.’ He coughed, but only as punctuation. ‘There is only the absence of bad luck,’ he said, ‘and a new day with which to hopefully repair the effects.’
‘There is indeed a great tradition of philosophical thought in the West,’ said the man across the aisle, dipping his severe head to address the woman in the burka, and although Eldritch could not see her mouth, or indeed much of her anything, he could tell that she was smiling.
‘You cannot speak English?’
‘No. Why would I? I can say Coca-Cola, Manchester United and smartphone. That’s it. I have no use for anything else.’
‘But I cannot speak anything other than English,’ said Eldritch, who was too embarrassed by the standard of his conversational French to admit to it, ‘yet I am perfectly able to understand you – the words at least, if not the madness which lies behind them.’
‘How curious,’ said the woman. ‘To me – to us – it appears as if you are speaking perfect Arabic.’
‘God works in mysterious ways,’ said the man across the aisle, unaware that this was a cliche in all cultures and languages.
‘Well,’ said Eldritch, who had decided to make an effort to get on with everybody, however objectionable they may appear, ‘at least we’ve established that this isn’t purgatory, at least in an official sense. That’s something, I expect.’
‘A shame,’ said the old fellow, who had still not opened his eyes.
‘I thought you said you were no longer a Catholic?’
‘I am not,’ he said, ‘but it would be nice to see some old friends, most of whom would be sure to be resident in purgatory, flawed but essentially good individuals as they were. For years now there has been nobody to talk to except grandchildren and – no offence – immigrants. I do not mind the immigrants, truth be told, but I must admit to having little in common with them.’
‘This is your fault,’ said the man across the aisle.
‘Hasan,’ said the woman, ‘behave yourself. It is his fault as much as it is the immigrant’s fault, most likely. It is the responsibility of everybody to make an effort, that is what our mother taught us.’
‘Our mother was mad.’
‘You do not mean that.’
‘I do not.’ He smiled.
‘You are related?’ said Eldritch.
‘Yes, because all Muslims are related,’ said Hasan, who Eldritch was sure was attempting a John Cleese impression.
‘Please excuse my brother,’ said the woman. ‘Thousands have before you.’
Eldritch smiled for the first time that day, or week, or month, however long it had been. It was not an unpleasant experience.
‘Ticket number 38,’ announced the Tannoy. ‘And please, switch off your cell-phones.’
‘Cellphones?’ said a young girl, who had sat slumped and unresponsive in the chair next to Eldritch since he had walked into the hall, ‘they have cellphones here?’
‘I think,’ said Eldritch, ‘that is a joke.’
‘These seats are a joke,’ said the man across the aisle looking down at his legs, which weren’t there.
‘Has anybody been here before?’ said Hasan, raising his voice to be heard over the staggering silence.
There was no answer.
‘Well, that rules out Buddhism,’ he said, and his sister laughed, a delightful sound that reminded Eldritch of a bubbling pot of stew, a meal that he did not particularly enjoy but nonetheless missed terribly, like all human tastes. ‘And Hinduism, possibly. I do not know. In truth, it is difficult to follow the precise details of everybody’s fantastical ideas.’
‘You both died at the same time?’ said Eldritch.
‘A car accident,’ said Hasan’s sister, who still did not have a name.
‘Bloody Hondas,’ said Hasan.
‘It is a common way to go in our country,’ she said, ‘what with the state of the roads and the madness and all. That is one cliche even Hasan will allow you.’
‘There is not a war?’
She shrugged. ‘War is one way to put it,’ she said. ‘Most people are just hungry.’
‘And thirsty,’ said Hasan. ‘Do not forget thirsty.’
‘I have not, brother. It is very much in the same category, don’t you think?’
‘You cannot eat a glass of water.’
‘Do you remember way back in the mists of time,’ she said, turning to Eldritch, ‘when my brother spoke dismissively of Western philosophical thought?’
Hasan snorted. ‘Some inconsistencies are to be expected,’ he said, ‘from a man who has no legs.’
‘Ticket number one hundred and thirty eight,’ said the Tannoy. ‘And please, do come forward to the window one at a time. Family groups are not to be admitted on one ticket unless there are accessibility issues.’
‘It’s actually quite tense, waiting to find out the truth,’ said Eldritch, unsure if the sentence was a question, a statement, or both.
‘Emphasis on the word ‘waiting’,’ said Hasan, checking his watch. ‘Besides, you are clearly not a man of faith. Beyond those double doors waits my God, I have no doubt.’
‘What is the time?’ said Eldritch, choosing to focus on the watch rather than the man’s words. There was a slither of doubt, he could see it, and more than that, it had brought along some friends.
’That thing,’ said his sister, ’has not worked for years.’
‘Like your husband,’ said Hasan. He blinked. ‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘That’s okay. He is a lazy man. It is known.’
‘I like him.’
‘Everybody likes him, which is why he is so successful at being lazy.’
‘Did he treat you well, your husband?’ said Eldritch.
‘If you mean, did he hit me, then no, he did not,’ said the sister. ‘He existed, I think. That is the main thing I can say about him.’
‘A worthy epitaph,’ said the old fellow, who had not spoken for some time, ‘or at least it will be, when his time comes.’
‘You are drunk,’ said Hasan, not trying to hide his disgust.
‘Damn right I am,’ said the old fellow. ‘And why not? God invented booze as he invented hangovers, and the fried breakfast industry thanks him for that every Sunday morning.’
‘Ticket number forty four,’ said the Tannoy, a little chirpily now, ‘four-four. Please take any rubbish with you and use the antiseptic wipes provided to clean up any blood or gore from your seat.’
‘If he seems excited,’ said Hasan’s sister, ‘it’s only because of the virgins.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Hasan.
‘Whatever you say.’
He blushed. ‘As a matter of fact I was speaking with my cousin, Aadheen, about this only the other week. Seventy two Virgins, I said, this does not seem feasible. Of course, he admonished me.’
His sister laughed. ‘This is a joke,’ she said. ‘Aadheen means obedient.’
‘He was well named,’ said Hasan. ‘I asked him – where are these virgins to come from, exactly? Hell, he said, although he did not sound sure. Aadheen, I said, why would I want to stick my penis in a woman who has been sent to hell? He only shook his head. Myself I would prefer one experienced, non-evil lover rather than any number of virgins – the Qur’an does not give a number, incidentally, and is remarkably vague on the whole matter. One would be too many, in my opinion.’
‘But you died in a car crash,’ said Eldritch. ‘Do you qualify?’
‘It is not just for martyrs, this fiction’ said Hasan. ‘That is something of a distortion, a form of propaganda for two audiences, both mine and yours. The hadith are confusing, though. You are forgiven.’
‘Virgins get very emotional,’ said the old fellow, who had still not moved or opened his eyes. ‘I have slept with five. Never again.’
‘They would not want you now, old man,’ said Hasan.
‘And I would not want them either.’
Hasan sniffed. ‘Although it would seem that it took five shots of your cock to come to that conclusion.’
‘It was a good mistake to make, I think. Healthier than smoking, by a hair.’
‘What do women get in paradise?’ said Eldritch.
‘One man,’ said Hasan’s sister. ‘Just the one. And I hope he is no virgin.’
‘Ticket number fifty seven,’ said the Tannoy.
‘That’s us,’ said Hasan. ‘Well, me at least. Obviously, my sister, I will require some help.’
‘I will lift you,’ said Eldritch, who had been working out enthusiastically for the last six months of his life, unaware that his efforts would only be rewarded by a pulmonary embolism as he cycled to the gym one dry summer’s day, his mind filled with nothing more than the possibility of changing banks for ethical reasons.
‘Thank you. I did not wish to … slither.’
‘It will be my pleasure.’
‘You are a nice man,’ said Hasan, ‘obviously with the usual caveats for Western Imperialist Scum, and white privilege.’
‘They still apply,’ said the old fellow, as still as a rock. ‘As they do to me, as they do to many in this room.’
‘This is very confusing,’ said Eldritch.
‘What is not?’ said Hasan, nerves beginning to show on his face as sudden, tiny ticks. He looked towards the frosted window of the reception area, behind which a dark figure stood, its features indistinct, staring out expectantly into the hall.