Paradise (part 3)

Gosh, I’ve just re-read some of what I wrote before and it doesn’t half sound gloomy and ungrateful. I had to give myself a talking-to about that; ‘you’re in Heaven for goodness sake, get a grip. How many people would kill to get where you are?’ (That wouldn’t work of course-I can’t imagine pre-meditated murder would get you up here, even for supposed repenters. As I understand it, pre-meditated means you’re evil and truly evil people can’t repent at all: it just doesn’t work. I may be wrong, but that’s how I interpreted it anyway.) I’ve wandered off topic again, as that was then and this is now. I didn’t hear anything for a fair while after I’d submitted my application, but then I was summoned to a meeting with a ‘senior human resources assistant’ to ‘assess my suitability for the post’. Standard gumpf, you know. Bloody bureaucrats. The interview unhinged me a bit, as I wasn’t expecting one straight away, but I did my best and hoped that she was on the ball, rather than just the polished trophy of the HR team; y’know, all shine and no substance. Lovely girl, smashing low-cut blouse; made it difficult to keep my mind focused in all honesty, but I managed somehow. One thing I’ve never understood about women; they wear revealing clothes and push-up underwear but then complain men don’t make eye contact with them. During the equal rights demonstrations from all those years ago I remember women burning their bras and saying they were free from the shackles of male oppression, but I always thought women wore bras for their own comfort, not for men. It didn’t bother me whether my wife wore one or not, as long as she was comfortable. I said that to her once and she told me she’d never go bra-less as it would be ‘like wearing a very heavy necklace’, which confused me even more. I guess with women you never really understand what’s going on in their heads and what’s more, you’re better off not trying to. So I got the job. I have no idea how; maybe I was the only applicant, but I doubt that as haunting opportunities come up so infrequently and there’s always loads of folk who fancy giving it a try. Some people think it’s an easy-in for moving on to the Big Place although why it’s considered a short cut I’ll never know. The only person I knew who took on a haunting role had to give it up after a while because, according to him it was ‘knackering’. The massive points value helps draw them in too of course, so I really must have been the best candidate; either that or she felt sorry for me, but who cares? I got it and that’s what matters. Once I’d got the position I admit I felt a little nervous; I hadn’t had a new job for so long and there was also the difficult point of telling the wife what I’d done. Needless to say, she was not happy when I told her but once I explained that she could relax down here for as long as she liked and eventually she’d have enough points for automatic promotion she cheered up a bit. I honestly want her to stay here and get pampered for a good long while as if anyone deserves it, she does. All those years of caring for other people means she’s earned a rest now. No, once she got over the shock, she began to see that I was right and I’m glad. I’m sure by now you’re desperate to know how I got on with my new role and you’ll be pleased to know it started off very well. I spent most of my day down in Acacia Close and then came back up here for a relaxing evening with the wife, although as it progressed I did have to start working some rather more unsociable hours. As I’ve already explained though, time doesn’t mean much here, so it’s not the end of the world and we made the most of each other’s company. By the way, the astute among you will have noticed that I’m talking about it in the past tense and will have figured that I’m no longer doing the job, but that I haven’t actually got my promotion yet either. Well, there’s a reason for that which I will of course tell you in due course, but for now I need to say more about the property in question and its inhabitants.

Number Six, Acacia Close was occupied by two members of a thoroughly rotten family named Morebad and never was there a more fitting surname in my opinion. Previously all four members of the family had lived there but for various reasons I’ll go into in a moment, there were only two left in the house by this point. (I know I make you wait rather a lot-I’m sorry about that. I know how impatient the living are; but sometimes waiting is unavoidable.) The father, Mr Rufus Morebad, fifty-six years old and as far as I’m aware never having lifted a finger in gainful employment, had two children with his wife Janet; Jeffrey and Ruth. Now I can only offer conjecture here as to what the real story with their children was, but it seems that even the job of helping his wife conceive was too much like work for old Rufus, as after Jeffrey was born they waited a couple of years and then adopted Ruth. There’s a suggestion that Ruth was the daughter of Janet’s sister who decided to give her up (or was encouraged to) but that has never been substantiated, no matter how many conversations I eavesdropped on in number six. Jeffrey was actually quite a sweet kid when he was younger, sweeping leaves, mowing lawns and offering to run errands for the folk in the close, but that’s where the problems really stemmed from. At first, everything was fine and folk were really pleased with Jeffrey’s kindness, but after a while he started short-changing folks, blaming the shopkeeper, or people would notice things had gone missing when Jeffrey had been in the house. One by one, people stopped giving Jeffrey tasks to do and I truly believe he held a vendetta against the older folk in the close, blaming them for losing him trade. Unfortunately, my wife had been the only one of the older residents brave enough to confront Jeffrey directly, which hadn’t exactly endeared us to him or his family either. After one particularly unpleasant exchange with his father because we’d caught Jeffrey pulling up flowers from our front borders, we decided that we would gather support from the other residents and lodge a formal complaint with the authorities about the Morebad family. I’ll talk about all that again shortly, but I want to introduce Ruth first. I know I haven’t talked about her much yet, but that’s been deliberate. When the business with Jeffrey really began in earnest Ruth was only about ten years old and we strongly believed that she wouldn’t turn out as bad as he had. How wrong we were. If anything, Ruth was actually more antisocial than her brother and people soon got sick of having to tidy up her messes. When Ruth was twelve, Jeffrey when to a young offenders’ place for a few months for some misdemeanour or other and the rest of the close breathed a collective sigh of relief. Without Jeffrey, people’s flower borders would be safe and there wouldn’t be him and his mates sitting on the drive in his Dad’s battered pick-up truck, listening to loud rock music every evening. The first night was relatively quiet, which lulled everyone into a false sense of security, as by the second it became painfully clear that Ruth was trying to emulate her brother, presumably in some misguided attempt to impress him or continue his ‘work’. The next morning, the neighbours in the close woke up to deflated tyres, bent aerials and/or scratched paintwork on their cars and they really didn’t have to think too hard to know who’d been responsible. Unfortunately, the Morebads went to great lengths to reassure the police that their daughter was emotionally damaged due to her brother being ‘inside’, and her mother sincerely promised the officers that  the family would do everything in their power to put Ruth back on the ‘correct path’. In truth though, Janet Morebad could do nothing with her daughter and had no influence over her behaviour at all, so her reassurances were groundless. The officers had spent a cursory five minutes with Ruth, in which time she’d promised never to do anything else ‘mischievous’ and to keep away from the neighbouring properties, so satisfied that the matter was closed, the police departed. It was about eleven-thirty that night when I heard a noise like splintering wood and bleary-eyed, I leant out of the bedroom window and told whoever it was to ‘piss off and come back at a more reasonable hour.’ ‘Fuck off you old bastard!’ was all I heard, as a projectile made contact with the lounge window and shattered the large glass pane. I told my terrified wife to stay in the bedroom and call the police, as I pulled on my slippers and dressing gown. I also grabbed my golf putter from behind the bedroom door, confident I was adequately armed should the need arise. I carefully opened the lounge door, worried that there would be glass everywhere and I wasn’t wrong. The large main window had a massive hole in the middle and when I got closer I could see there was a brick nestling in the deep pile rug. I said a silent prayer of thanks that neither of our two cats was asleep on the sofa at the time as they would both have been covered in flying glass, but even so, I knew they’d be hiding somewhere, petrified by the noise. For now though, I couldn’t worry too much about them, I had to see what was going on outside. I went up to the window and thanks to the lamppost right outside our house, I could see that there was a young figure stood on our front lawn; just standing there stock still and staring in my direction. ‘What do you want?’ I called, but the figure neither moved nor spoke, so I went into the hall and opened the front door before stepping outside. I repeated my question, my voice faltering slightly now, unnerved by the way the figure stayed inanimate. ‘I want you old man,’ came the reply, as the figure stepped into the circle of light cast by the street lamp, revealing the protagonist to be the young Ruth Morebad. ‘This is for you because you got my family evicted. You grassed us to the rest of this fucking road and now the landlord’s chucking us out. Bastard.’ ‘You’ve got a vile mouth on you for a young ‘un,’ I said before I could stop myself. ‘Your mother should wash your mouth out with soap.’ Before Ruth could utter forth any more expletives though I heard my wife cry out in shock. ‘Oh what have you done, you evil child?’ I spun around to see my wife looking at our shattered fence panels which up until that point I hadn’t even noticed. In the poor light I hadn’t been able to see anything, but my missus was shining a torch beam onto them and I could see they’d been kicked or smashed with something heavy until they’d given way. ‘You’re a nasty little wretch. How dare you upset my wife like this,’ I cried, hearing sirens approaching in the background. I didn’t want her to get away before they got there though so I walked forward to try and grab her, but she dodged out of my grasp. ‘Don’t fucking touch me!’ she screamed, as she began walking backwards away from my position. Most of our other neighbours had come out of their houses by now and despite being in nightclothes or sweatpants they had come rushing over to see if they could help. Observing that she was now totally outnumbered, the girl went to make a break for it, but as I caught her wrist she twisted and grabbed a large stone from our rockery and slammed it hard into my forehead. I heard my wife scream and several other voices shout ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ but as a splitting pain accompanied by a blinding white light shot through my whole skull, I fell to the floor. The next instant I could feel my wife kneeling next to me and stroking my head, her sobbing just audible, along with the sensation of her holding my hand. At first, I couldn’t believe that this had happened and I presumed that any second the white light would begin to recede and the agonising pain would start fading, but nothing seemed to be changing, except that the sirens were now deafeningly loud and I wanted them to stop. The next thing I remembered was being lifted into an ambulance, my wife climbing in beside me and us speeding through the night, presumably to the hospital. Somewhere along the way I became aware that I had died. My wife was rocking back and forth, moaning and crying while a paramedic worked on me and called to his colleague to pull over and come and help him. The driver had to gently push my wife so that she’d move back and he could help work on me, as otherwise she would’ve stayed where she was hanging onto my hand, bless her. The chaps were trying their best to resuscitate me but I could have told them not to bother; I didn’t need my physical body anymore and it was a bit of a relief if I’m being honest. I was hovering at the ceiling of the ambulance, watching everything that was happening with a kind of detached disinterest; like you might have if you were sitting through a TV programme you never usually tuned in for. I was fascinated to discover that just by lifting my head I could actually see outside the ambulance too, the night sky clear and cold with what looked like billions of stars hanging there. In my youth I’d been quite keen on astronomy and even had a telescope for one of my birthdays. Not an expensive one you understand; it didn’t really focus very well or show much detail but it had been mine. I could look out at the infinite blackness and dream of the day when space tourism would be a reality and I’d treat the wife to a trip around the Moon for our hundredth birthdays. Of course, thanks to Ruth Morebad neither myself nor the wife made it that far, either physically or metaphysically, if you know what I mean. The night I died set off a chain of circumstances that culminated in my wife joining me up here in less than a year, partly from the stress of the trial and having to leave the house that we’d lived in for so many years as well as her beloved garden. On top of that, my wife and I had been one of those married couple who actually liked spending time together and since we’d retired we’d done little else. Not everyone’s cup of tea, living in each other’s pockets like that, but it suited us and she couldn’t get over losing me in such a violent manner, bless the poor old girl. Thankfully, one good thing came out of my passing, which was the Morebad’s landlord did good on his promise and evicted them almost immediately. They’d gone by then anyway; moved on and rehomed by the council I expect, as the police knew that if they’d stayed in the street some of our neighbours may just have turned vigilante on them and metered out their own kind of justice. So now I hear you asking, if the Morebad family don’t live there anymore, why did I want to haunt number six Acacia Close? Well, if only that was the end of the story, then it would have been great for everyone else who lived on the close, but bugger me if the landlord didn’t go and let them move back in some months later. He stated to the neighbours who asked that the Morebads had left it in such a mess he hadn’t been able to rent it to anyone else and the council had come to him cap in hand, desperate to get shot of the troublesome family from their books as it were. So he let them move back in (no doubt after a large backhander from the authorities) and as several of the original residents had now sold up and moved, unable to stare at my place of death on a daily basis I like to think, people that were living in the close were largely unaware of the Morebads and their history. Ruth didn’t return of course; she is in a young offenders’ institute, serving a minimum of eight years for my murder, the jury not buying her plea of manslaughter I was pleased to see, but Jeffrey’s back at home now and so is his father. I never found out what happened to Janet Morebad; I hoped that the mother of those hateful children just had enough of living in a household of such idleness and evil, as to be honest she was the most approachable of any of them and was possibly a victim herself, but it was more likely taken out of her hands. Either one of the family killed her and she’s buried in the garden of their previous house, or it could just be that she wanted to live closer to her daughter’s ‘hotel’. Either way, it was only the father and son who moved back into number six; a fact that was probably not much more reassuring to the poor sods that had to inhabit the same airspace as them. So in time Jeffrey began his petty misdemeanours again, although his time in prison had obviously taught him some useful rules that might have been heeded by his sister, had she not clubbed me to death with a lovely smooth giant pebble some time before his release. Firstly, he took to heart the sage advice of his cellmate that you ‘never shit on your own doorstep’, choosing instead to carry out his burglaries, car break-ins and ram-raids as far from where he lived as was practical and possible. Second, after a night of cheap vodka-drinking he had managed to get a girl in the next close pregnant and her father wanted to ‘rip Morebad’s head off’ as he’d put it when the girl had tearfully confided in her parents, so spending as much time away from his home was not only advisable it was downright essential, as far as Jeffrey was concerned. This meant that Morebad senior, or Rufus as I remembered he was called was often alone in the house, sometimes all night, which made it easier for me to exact my revenge on the man who had spawned such evil offspring and done nothing to control their behaviour. He would not only drink cans of lager while sat in his jacked-up truck, arguing with the police that he couldn’t be arrested for being drunk in possession of a motor vehicle as his had no motor, or even any wheels, but he’d play the stereo he’d rigged up at varying times of the day or night, depending on Rufus’ mood and intoxication levels. I started small; just the usual things like making the lights flicker, tapping on the walls and moving objects slightly, but unfortunately Rufus Morebad is not the kind of man to pick up on subtle signals. By the end of the first week I was starting to get restless; I would only get my massive points bonus if I achieved my objective, which I now believed was to get Rufus to leave, so I had to start thinking big and pulling out the stops. I hadn’t worked this hard in such a long time but I knew it would be worth it for me to get up to the Big Place as I’d planned. However, by the tenth day I hit on a bit of a brainwave; Rufus spent most of the day sleeping and most of the night awake smoking cigarettes of dubious origin so no wonder he wasn’t spooked by my nocturnal nuisances, he probably hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. What I needed to do was think bigger; I needed the kind of display that even Rufus wouldn’t be able to ignore. I needed spectacular. Okay, so with hindsight the rest of my plan wasn’t entirely foolproof, but how was I meant to know that the kid would come back and decide to have a kip at his Dad’s house that one night out of so many he’d been absent? Burning someone’s house down when you’ve lit a match in front of their face in mid-air and set fire to the chair they’re sitting in is nigh-on genius in my opinion and Rufus would probably agree, when he’s got over the shock and all that. Unfortunately, the problem with a supposedly foolproof plan, is forgetting that you’re dealing with people even lower on the intelligence scale than fools are. Rufus was probably a buffoon, or more likely an idiot, or maybe even as far down as a moron, so when you’re dealing with that amount of missing brain cells, mistakes can be made and unfortunately, on this occasion they were. The trouble is; the biggest mistake was made by me and I know I’ve possibly forfeited my promotion to the Big Place because of it. Rufus Morebad leapt out of his burning chair and, being under the influence of goodness knows what, grabbed his most prized possession; no not his son sadly, but a framed football shirt signed by the entire Manchester United football squad, circa 1997. Despite the fact that it had been Jeffrey who’d found the shirt on an online auction site in the first place, it still didn’t trigger anything in Rufus’ mind that he should check the bedrooms in case his son had returned without him knowing. I watched from my old front yard as Rufus run out of the back door and down the close, then I followed him as he continued to run towards the High Street and the local police station. Being well-known to the officers there of course, the desk Sergeant looked up as Rufus, struggling for breath, collapsed into the foyer and cried out for help. ‘Well Morebad, you don’t usually save us the bother of having to come and get you. What’ve you been up to this time?’ ‘You don’t understand!’ cried Rufus, cradling his precious football shirt, ‘I’m under attack!’ ‘Oh God, not Aliens again?’ laughed the Sergeant, calling over his colleagues, ‘was it the anal probe this time?’ As the other police officers stood around Rufus laughing they were surprised to see tears rolling down his face. ‘You don’t understand! There’s a ghost in my house and he’s trying to kill me!’ As I heard Rufus’ words I was surprised that he’d picked up on my intentions so lucidly. I’d thought that he would’ve just presumed insanity or intoxication rather than the fact I was an actual entity trying to do him harm and I wondered if he possessed slightly more aptitude than I’d originally given him credit for. ‘’course you have Rufus,’ chuckled the duty officer as he helped him to his feet, ‘don’t say it too loud though or everyone will want one!’ ‘You don’t believe me do you? None of you do! He’s real, I’ve seen him.’ A chill went through me when he said that. Surely he hadn’t actually seen me? The information pack I’d got about the case had stated that none of the Morebads were on the Psychic register which meant none of them had any recognised spirit-spotting abilities. Maybe Rufus didn’t mean he’d literally seen me; maybe he’d sensed me or just put two and two together. Either way it had unnerved me, but it was about to get worse. ‘He’s here now! He’s stood by the notice board! Don’t let him get me!’ I turned slightly, alarmed to see that I had inadvertently positioned myself next to a glass-covered felt board that had various warnings about scams, chaining your door and not giving out your bank details over the phone. The police officer s’ laughter died down as they all turned and looked my way. For a moment I thought something had gone dreadfully wrong and I was visible to all living beings, but just then one of the officers turned back to Rufus and took his arm. ‘You had us going there for a minute old son; come on, we’ll take you for a nice rest in a cell and then you can make your way back home when you’re feeling better.’ Rufus suddenly leapt up as if he’d been still sitting in the burning armchair. ‘Home! I can never go back there, not with that ghost in there too!’ The desk Sergeant’s phone rang and after checking who was calling, passed it over to the duty officer. He had a brief conversation without muttering more than ‘right’ and ‘I’ll tell him’, before replacing the handset, his grave tone making all the other officers look concerned. ‘Constable Peters, Constable O’Brien, you’d better take Mr Morebad into the relative’s room and make him a cup of coffee. I need to come and talk to him.’ With a muted ‘Yes Sir’, the young officers walked with a suddenly silent Rufus Morebad down a corridor that led from the foyer and into a room with a frosted glass door. ‘What’s this about lads? It’s only been medicinal use like I promised you.’ As I slid through the door and joined them, Rufus once again began to get agitated. ‘Oh God, he’s here again!’ No-one had time to think about his words further as at that moment the duty officer came in and Rufus quieted down, casting furtive glances in my direction every few seconds. ‘Mr Morebad. Rufus,’ began the duty officer with a solemn expression on his face, ‘I have some rather unpleasant news. There’s no easy way to say this but-‘ ‘He’s burnt my fucking house down hasn’t he? Hasn’t he?’ shouted Rufus, pointing at me. ‘Arrest him then! He’s right there. He’s a pyrotechnic. He should be locked up!’ Rufus’ words made me laugh out loud and I mentally filed ‘pyrotechnic’ away to share with Reg when we next played canasta, as he’d find that sort of cock-up funny too. I wouldn’t be sharing any of this with the wife though; she’d expressly asked that I never again mentioned the Morebad family to her as she just wanted to forget it all and I respected her wishes completely. ‘Rufus, please-‘ began the duty officer, as the other officers rolled their eyes. ‘He’s laughing at me now! He thinks burning my home to the ground is funny! Why aren’t you arresting him?’ ‘Rufus, there’s more I’m afraid,’ said the duty officer in a raised tone and Rufus looked up. So did I. There shouldn’t have been more; I’d got him out and burnt his house down. That was it, wasn’t it? Objective met. I could retire again after this and make my way to the Big Place at last. ‘Rufus, the fire brigade found a body upstairs…’ I felt an icy shiver pass over me as the duty officer paused to let the severity of his words sink in. ‘You can’t have,’ said Rufus at last, ‘my wife has been dead, er, gone for months and my young ‘un is inside. That only leaves Jeffrey but he hasn’t been home for days.’ I was starting to feel panicky; surely I couldn’t have burned the house down with someone still in it? I wouldn’t have been that careless. As the duty officer carried on talking though and Rufus broke down sobbing, it began to appear as if I’d done exactly that. Somehow, Jeffrey Morebad had entered his Dad’s house without being noticed by Rufus or me and had fallen asleep listening to a CD, his huge headphones melted to what remained of his head. You couldn’t really blame Rufus for not checking upstairs before bolting from the house, although you’d like to think that most fathers would have looked anyway for peace of mind, but you also couldn’t blame Jeffrey; as he’d presumably seen his Dad snoring away in the filthy armchair he called home most of the time and figured he’d go straight upstairs to get some sleep. So that just left me. I searched for a reason not to blame myself but couldn’t easily find one. Page one of the ‘Haunter’s Guide’ states that if you are intending to take any course of action where property will be damaged or destroyed you must check the house thoroughly before said action commences. I hadn’t checked the house before I started the fire; I’d just got caught up in the moment and if I’m being honest I’d enjoyed the power I had over Rufus, or so I thought, which was the biggest rookie mistake anyone can make. Jeffrey Morebad was an unpleasant young man but he didn’t deserve to die in such circumstances. I’d played God with someone else’s life, albeit inadvertently and as such had to be punished. I was summoned back up for a meeting with human resources as soon as the news broke about Jeffrey Morebad’s demise. I saw a different lady this time; she was older, with close-cropped hair and large glasses and she didn’t smile once. Her nameplate read ‘Miss King-Human Resources Manager’ and straight away I knew I was in trouble. ‘This is a very serious matter you know, very serious indeed,’ began Miss King and I nodded. I knew that I was in for it badly but just how badly didn’t become clear until after Miss King had droned on for another ten minutes about ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘amateur mistakes’. ‘Don’t you want to make a defence for your actions?’ I didn’t. I couldn’t see the point in all honesty. I was guilty; she knew it and worse, I knew it so there was really no point in dragging things out and I said as much. ‘Your honesty and willingness to accept responsibility are admirable and I do understand the highly emotive circumstances of your history with this particular family-‘ she consulted her notes, ‘-the Morebads. However, I’m afraid the rules on such things are very clear and my hands really are tied. After careful consideration I have had no choice but to permanently revoke your possibility of promotion. You will never be able to ascend to the Big Place.’ ‘What? But that’s-‘ ‘Furthermore,’ continued Miss King, ‘you will be required to attend a one week’s equality and diversity course on following protocol correctly, to be arranged in Hell during the coming month.’ ‘But you can’t!’ I blurted out, horrified that I’d ruined mine and possibly the wife’s chances of promotion and worse, they were sending me to Hell, even if it was only for a week. ‘I’m afraid I can. I have no other choice. You can of course appeal but I wouldn’t recommend it. It costs upwards of four hundred thousand points and has a very low chance of success. Good afternoon.’ I walked out of Miss King’s office close to tears. How could I have been so stupid? What was I going to tell the wife? She’d expected me to come back with news of when I was getting promoted not a week’s one-way ticket downstairs. As I walked into our home she took one look at my face and knew the news hadn’t been good. I explained everything to her and she surprised me by saying she’d secretly hoped I’d be prevented from getting promoted and she was glad it had happened. ‘How can you say that? I’d always dreamt of the Big Place and now I’ll never get to go. You can’t imagine how despondent I feel.’ ‘I can imagine how you feel as its how I felt when I knew you weren’t going to be here with me much longer. It’s the same way I felt when you were slipping away from me the night you died and I couldn’t do a thing to stop you. And it’s the same way I felt every day of the year we spent apart before I was able to join you up here, you silly old man,’ laughed my wife, as she stroked my hand and my head. I suddenly had an enormous déjà vu moment of the day I was killed and how my wife had done the same things to try and comfort me then. Instantly, the disappointment about not ever getting promoted didn’t seem to matter, as I remembered why I had even wanted to get revenge on the Moorbad family in the first place. It wasn’t about my death, it was because of what they’d done to my wife that I wanted to hurt them, but I’d missed the point entirely. My wife didn’t care about revenge or restitution; she just wanted us to be together and had actually been grateful when she’d suffered her enormous heart attack and died at home before an ambulance could even be called. When she’d joined me so suddenly I was angry for her, but it had taken all this time for me to see that she wasn’t angry about it, she’d been glad it happened. The only sad part was that young Lee from next door had to find her on the floor the next day, after she’d noticed that our milk hadn’t been taken in but that even had a silver lining as Lee now looks after our two cats Tango and Smudge and I’ve observed on several occasions that they’ve both never been happier.

So there you go. Every cloud, etc. I spent the whole of last week in Hell which wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be actually, except for the mind numbing HR course I had to sit through. However, I nodded and smiled in all the right places and now I’m back up here with the wife and my record is reset like none of the Acacia Close stuff ever happened. I even saw Jeffrey Morebad in Hell and he insisted on buying me a drink in gratitude for getting him access to the ‘coolest fuckin’ place I’ve ever been, man’ as he told me about thirty times. We parted on good terms and with hindsight i have to say that week in Hell has done more for my state of mind than the rest of eternity in therapy could ever do. ‘What’s that love?’ Sorry, the wife’s just called out to let me know Reg is here for canasta, so I’ll have to go, but before I do I’ll leave you with this one thought. However nice I’ve made it sound up here, don’t be in too much of a hurry to join us, as you’re in a pretty good place there too. Oh and everything happens for a reason, as I hope you will have realised by reading my tale. Good night to you all, oh and don’t forget to look at the stars once in a while will you?

Paradise (part 2)

Of course, Paradise is going to be different for everybody. We get the brochures from time to time that tell you to pre-book your ‘ideal Paradise welcome party’ with ‘fully trained staff who can guide you through your first few confusing hours in the Big Place’. Like I said, time isn’t technically a factor here but it can be hard to stop thinking in such terms. The wife and I have chatted about what we think the Big Place is going to hold for us when we get there, although I can’t imagine it’ll be anytime soon, for her especially. She worked as a nurse for forty years and considers doing nothing her payback for that, and although she got a shed load of points for such heroic and selfless work she’s not amassing any on a daily basis now. She says she’s not bothered how long it takes her to reach the Golden Total, as they say when we get promoted we don’t actually remember our loved ones, so why hurry? I don’t think it’s like we forget everyone though; I imagine it’s more that our consciousness moves onto a higher plane where emotions are redundant, so those we loved, hated, pitied, envied etc in life just don’t factor. That’s what I like to think anyway; it suits my outlook better rather than thinking we just forget each other after all these years of marriage.
Anyway, I was telling you about Marty. Well, Marty was one of those guys who was just good through and through. He worked all his life as a school janitor, but that was just a title, as in reality Marty was a guardian angel to scores of kids who went through the school, especially those who came from difficult backgrounds. He’d spend his weekends fixing their bikes, running go-kart derbies at the local community centre and paying for snacks and drinks out of his own pocket. He also used to tell the parents who were short of money that he’d pay for their kids to go on school excursions, give them birthday parties in the school hall and make sure that they all had someone to confide in if they needed it. It wasn’t just the kids though; he’d help the less educated parents with form filling and run Saturday morning reading groups for those who wanted to improve, as well as helping people apply for jobs and writing them references when required. It broke his heart when the council made him retire at sixty and he had to give up his cottage in the school grounds, and even though local people submitted a petition to keep him in the job the council weren’t shifting. Marty was canny though; he approached a local community group and carried on his work from their premises instead and even from his small local authority flat when necessary.
So you understand why Marty came up here with so many points already banked. But instead of relaxing like my missus has, when Marty got up here a year ago he took jobs as a golf caddy, a hotel porter and a volunteer in a children’s nursery. Therefore, his points were racking up at an astounding rate and I knew he wouldn’t be around here for long. He deserves it, especially when you consider that he shouldn’t by rights have been up here at all yet, only being sixty-three when he passed. He even passed in an heroic way; saving a child from the flat upstairs from his when some youngster decided to shove a petrol-soaked rag through their letterbox and light it. Marty jumped through the kitchen window to get to the child and her mother and had gone back for the little girl’s pet cat when the ceiling gave way and fell on him. Ironically, the bloody cat had already jumped out of the window without any of them noticing and was hiding in the bin cupboard so he technically died unnecessarily, but that was just like Marty; he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t at least tried for the girl’s pet.
So I have to say I’m not surprised he’s gone up already, I personally wouldn’t have expected anything else. I’m quite keen to move on myself which is why I’m even looking at the board, but the wife is happy to wait a while so I might not tell her, as it would only upset her. Trouble is, she’s happy to browse the shops and chat to her friends whereas people like me and my canasta partner Reg are getting quite bored with it all, so that’s why I’m looking for a job. If I get something that will give me lots of points then I’ll be ‘bye bye boredom, hello Big Place’ and I’d be over the moon. Yes, I’d be sorry to go without the wife; the old girl and me have had some great times together over the last few decades (we managed fifty-six years married on earth before we came up here) but I know she’d be okay without me, whereas I don’t know how much more of all this I can stand.

(C) Sarah Butcher 2014

Paradise (part 1)

The newly-pinned notice caught my eye.
‘Haunting opportunity,’ it said, ‘6 Acacia Close, Wiseldon, England. All interested parties please apply to..’ Blah, blah, blah.
Now you might be wondering why I’d be interested in a haunting opportunity when I’ve got a pretty good deal going on where I am. Up here in heaven it’s all very nice of course; breakfast in bed if you want it, bingo and bowling every afternoon and even guest quarters so your friends and relatives can stay for Christmas and the like, but the truth is, sometimes it’s just a little too nice. The wife loves it of course as she can get her hair done whenever she likes and never needs to make an appointment, but I have to admit to sometimes getting a little bored. My old mate Reg and I play canasta most days and I have been known to hire a rowing boat occasionally and just potter about on the lake (no money needed here of course-the deal is, if you’re good enough to have got in then you’ve already paid in life) but, well, I really thought if there was such a thing as an afterlife that it wouldn’t be quite so much like a Saga holiday. All very nice, but full of oldies, if you know what I mean.
So that’s why I happened to be browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ board that day (we don’t actually have days and nights as such here, but it’s hard to break a habit of a lifetime. Literally.) I’d seen that the golf club were looking for a new caddy which I was really pleased about, as it meant that Marty had got his Paradise posting at last. I’d never known a harder-working guy than Marty, so it was fantastic he was being promoted to the Big Place.
I should explain how the system works before I go any further with my story, otherwise you’re just going to get confused and you’ll probably stop reading this altogether, which would be a shame as it really does get a lot more interesting from hereon in. When you die you go to Heaven if you’ve been good (or if you’ve been bad but you’ve truly repented and your soul is pure-and believe me, they can tell) but if you have no hope of rehabilitation then you’re going to Hell with no chance of parole. From what I hear though, Hell itself isn’t so bad; for those who like those sort of basement bars where there’s never much light, the beer is warm and the women are loose. Anyway, Hell isn’t the problem; it’s where you’re demoted to from there that those low-lifes should be scared of. The rumour goes that it’s only the real lost souls, the ones who did things in life that were so bad they don’t even stay in Hell, that end up ‘down there’ as we refer to it here.
Anyway, I digress. I was talking about Marty’s promotion. The Big Place is what’s always been called ‘Paradise’ in church and with good reason. Only a few people get to the Big Place as quickly as Marty did, but that’s because he was a selfless guy in life and a selfless guy in death. Honestly, he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, or his coat in a snowstorm, which I actually saw him do on more than one occasion. Yes, we still have snow up here, but only in the sector where people who want snow reside. It wouldn’t be much of a Heaven for sun-worshippers if they had to put up with cold weather would it?! So you get the idea. The better you are in life, the higher your points total when you arrive here. You then amass more points depending on what role you take (selfish or selfless, service industry or getting waited on day and night- you get the picture) and as soon as you reach the golden number of points, off you go to Paradise.

(C) Sarah Butcher 2014

Delayed

The platform was empty for once, but that didn’t inspire relief in her; more so it made her worry that she’d got the departure time wrong or that the train had been cancelled. Wiggling her toes to try and keep warm, she read another page of the book she’d brought with her, and silently urged the train to appear. A woman on the opposite platform asked if anyone wanted to share a taxi to her destination as their service was so late, but no-one even looked up, let alone answered her. With a slightly defeated air, the woman muttered a muted ‘No?’ before shrugging her shoulders, lifting her head and striding off towards the rank.
As one or two more people arrived on her platform she felt her insides relax a little; she hadn’t made a mistake-this train was still running today. She knew there’d been an accident earlier on and she’d felt guilty that her first thought had been about affected timetables rather than the poor man who’d seen no alternative but to throw himself under the fast service to London. That was human nature though she thought; to think about how inconvenienced one was by an event once the initial ‘oh dear’ feeling had worn off. No need to castigate herself over that, it was just what happened on a daily basis. She was surely no different to anyone else in that regard.
A man in a sports coat was talking loudly on his phone and she listened to the one-sided conversation, trying to imagine what the person on the other end was saying.
Man: Yeah, some selfish twat threw himself under the fast train.
(Pause)
Man: Yeah, I know! (Hearty laughter)
(Pause)
Man: I dunno either mate. They must know how much disruption they’ll cause; they probably do it deliberately.
‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘that’s exactly what someone so incredibly depressed would be thinking. Not, will the world be better off without me, but how can I piss off a load of commuters on the inbound service?’ Before she could stop herself, she’d said ‘idiot’ out loud, causing the man to look her way. Registering her lack of importance in the situation, he swiftly turned away again and continued his conversation, while kicking at the platform tarmac with an expensive-looking brogue; an unknown man’s suicide evidently not something he would spend any time dwelling on.
She thought how typical it was that she had to be delayed on such a cold day, making a mental note to dig out her winter boots from the loft when she got home. That was the sort of thing she would’ve asked Marcus to do in previous years, but now Marcus had a different loft in a different house and that meant if she wanted the boots she’d have to get them down herself.
Checking her watch again, she noted that if the train didn’t come in the next ten minutes she’d have to ring Mrs Mountgate and tell her that she’d be late collecting Zara. That wasn’t a phone call she relished; her daughter’s child-minder was ferocious on a good day and a parent being late fetching their offspring did not constitute a good day in Mrs Mountgate’s eyes. She was superb with children though and Zara adored her, so she figured a little verbal violence from the child-minder was worth it for her daughter to be settled while she had to work.
She fleetingly allowed herself to again curse her ex-husband (she’d never get used to calling him that) for deciding that he’d rather be with a vacuous blonde in her late twenties than his wife and toddler daughter, causing her to return to full-time work two years earlier than they’d originally planned. Marcus earned good money, so they’d figured that she could stay at home until Zara went to pre-school, which would be good for both mother and child. It would also save a lot in child care costs they’d agreed, so the decision was made and she’d been happy with the plan.
However, suddenly becoming a single parent had thrown her into financial turmoil. Marcus stopped paying the mortgage almost immediately, meaning she’d had to once again find a well-paid job in the city, necessitating an hour’s commute every morning and evening which she loathed.
They’d bought the house in an area that suited Marcus more than her, but as the idea was she’d be giving up work after they’d got married it seemed to make sense. Marcus liked the idea of the ‘little woman’ waiting for him in an apron when he got home from work; in fact he liked it so much he often made her wear it in bed, which always made her cringe and was as far removed as you could get from the successful banker she’d been when they’d met.
After she’d conceived Zara she was thrilled to have an excuse to not have to indulge in Marcus’ perversions, for there were many. She presumed that was what probably drove him into the arms of the pneumatic blond from his firm’s Personnel department in the first place but in all honesty, despite not wanting her marriage to end, she was relieved that the strange things Marcus enjoyed were now the other woman’s problem rather than hers.
Friends had thought they’d been helping when they told her about single men they knew who’d be ‘just perfect’ and ‘loved kids’, but truthfully she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone touching her, or worse, expecting her to touch him and for the time being at least, she was happy it was just her and Zara. Marcus had shown little interest in seeing his daughter once he’d moved out; the once or twice they’d made an arrangement he’d turned up late and had to leave early, meaning the time they had together was barely enough for Zara to even remember who her father was. Despite trying to encourage his visits for her daughter’s sake, she had to admit defeat when on the third occasion he’d actually brought the other woman with him, expecting them all to sit and chat in such a civilised manner about why the pair of them had destroyed her and Zara’s supposedly happy lives.
It hadn’t worked out like that in the end. After she’d seen the blonde woman strapping Zara into the car seat she’d seen red and gone rushing out to tell her that she’d already ‘stolen her husband’ and she was ‘buggered if you think I’ll let you have my daughter too’, so Marcus had called her a ‘fucking nutter’ and said he wouldn’t be visiting Zara again until his ex-wife had apologised to his fiancée. Weeks had passed and Marcus had been true to his word so far, so she presumed that was the end of her ex-husband’s involvement in their daughter’s life, suspecting that he would eventually feel it more keenly than his daughter ever would.
She did her best to give Zara a happy and enjoyable home-life whenever they were together and she had negotiated an early finish on Fridays so that they could have a long weekend to spend however they liked. She had to admit that the evenings were the hardest though; once Zara was asleep she had several hours of solitary television watching, book reading and web browsing to get through and she’d acknowledged that she was relying more and more on a bottle of wine or two to help her while away the time. Her mother tried to help but she lived two hour’s drive away, having escaped the city as soon as she was able and retired to a life of countryside village bliss. She did visit a couple of times a month though and the company was welcome, as well as the importance of her daughter getting to know her grandmother.
The station announcer brought her back to the present as the speaker crackled and an automated voice informed them that their train was ‘delayed by twenty minutes.’ As it was already thirty minutes late by that point nobody took much notice and carried on what they’d been doing before. Most people had earphones poking out from upturned collars, or were staring vacantly at smartphones and tablets and she pulled her book out of her pocket and once again tried to read.
‘Rubbish this waiting around isn’t it?’
She ignored the voice at first, presuming it not to be addressing her and resumed reading the chapter.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your reading. This waiting around though; it’s a lonely business don’t you think?’
Realising that somebody had moved closer to her and was now standing at her shoulder made her push the book back into her pocket and turn around slowly.
‘I beg your pardon? Were you talking to me?’
Straight away she regretted the formality in her response as she saw the man of a similar age to her shrink back slightly, perhaps thinking he’d offended her by stepping over the boundaries of polite society and talking to a stranger. She smiled thinly and spoke again quickly.
‘I-I mean, yes it is inconvenient, but the poor man who jumped must have been pretty desperate to do something like that. I guess a short delay is nothing compared to how he felt?’
The man’s face changed as she spoke and he visibly blanched.
‘Oh my God, is that why the trains are late? Shit. Poor fellow. I feel awful even mentioning the delay now, you must think I’m heartless.’
‘Of course not,’ she stressed hastily, ‘it’s only human nature. I was thinking something similar myself before I found out the reason the train’s late. Don’t worry.’
The man smiled broadly and half put out his hand as if wondering whether he was being too forward, but then he decisively held it out while introducing himself as Alistair. Shaking it firmly, she looked at his face properly for the first time and had a sense of familiarity.
‘Do you catch this train every morning?’
‘Most days yes,’ said Alistair, ‘although I do work a day a week from home. Company cutbacks and that sort of thing,’ he continued, explaining.
‘I thought I recognised you. I catch it all week too. I work for Bloom Brothers in the city.’
‘Really? Gosh, you must be a high flyer. I don’t do anything nearly as exciting as that. I work for a small publisher of not very popular romance novels; not much cash in them these days thanks to e-readers and the like but I do it for the love of books. I must admit, that’s partly why I spoke to you; it was so refreshing to see you reading an actual book rather than a tablet or looking at a phone. There aren’t many of us left now you know.’
She absently touched the top of the book now wedged in her wool coat’s pocket and smiled widely.
‘You’re right, I don’t see many people reading actual books on the train these days either, but I’m afraid I’m about to disappoint you. I do own an e-reader; it was a gift from my-from someone a couple of years ago.’
She couldn’t understand what had stopped her mentioning Marcus; normally she wore her ex-husband like a suit of armour, almost to prove that despite losing him, she had at least once managed to marry someone.  It was a desperate measure she admitted, but she even still wore her wedding ring; her self-confidence not yet repaired to the extent where she could go out in public without that symbol of conformity and reassurance present.
‘Can I ask what it is you’re reading?’ Alistair’s voice had a warm, comfortable tone to it that made her feel they’d been talking for years rather than minutes and she had to admit that she was starting to regret that the train would probably soon arrive and break up their little bubble of co-dependence.
‘Oh I doubt you’ll have heard of it; it’s very old. It was one of my mother’s books, but when she moved she had to get rid of so many. This was one I remember her reading when I was little so I knew I had to hang on to it.’
Pulling the book out of her pocket, she brandished it towards him and let him take it from her. Cradling it carefully he turned the cover over and over and let out an exclamation.
‘I don’t believe it! It’s one of ours! This is incredible.’
‘You’re joking! But my mother’s had it for years.’
‘She would have,’ said Alistair laughing, ‘this was one of the first titles our publisher ever produced, in the early 1970s. Well I’ll be damned.’
Feeling pleased that he’d not only heard of the book but worked for the company that actually published it, made her feel like they had an even tighter connection than simply catching a train at the same time from the same place every day. While Alistair continued to look at the back cover of the book and chuckled to himself, she almost unconsciously worked her wedding ring from her left hand and dropped it into her other pocket.
‘Look,’ said Alistair, shuffling uncomfortably, ‘it doesn’t look like this train’s going to come anytime soon. I don’t suppose you’d…you’d like to come for a cup of coffee would you? It’s just I’m freezing stood here and there’s a really great café just up the road.’
Forcing down her feelings of under-confidence and pushing all thoughts of Marcus from her mind, she looked up and smiled.
‘Yes please; that would be lovely.’
‘Okay then…Hang on; I know you and your mum have a great taste in books but I still don’t know your name. You never told me.’
‘It’s Claire,’ smiled Claire, as she walked alongside Alistair up the platform and left the station.

(C) Sarah Butcher 2014

Bank Job

When he’d said ‘stick ’em up!’ she’d wanted to laugh. That was the kind of cliché only movies dared to use, not real-life actual bank robbers. However, that’s what he’d said and due to the gun he was thrusting through the slot of the cash window, that’s what she did.
He’d demanded that she fill a bag with all the money in her drawer but as she’d carefully pointed out, she could hardly do that with her hands in the air, could she? He’d begrudgingly agreed to let her put down her hands but to keep them in view, however, he couldn’t have known about the tiny alarm button her finger brushed over while gathering up twenty pound notes, which alerted the back room staff to the emergency situation in progress.
The robbery would’ve been seamless if her supervisor hadn’t come storming out of the office, demanding to know ‘which of you idiots has set the alarm off this time?’ suggesting that accidental deployment of the alert was a regular occurrence. This time of course, it wasn’t accidental, which the supervisor discovered as he came face to face with the man brandishing a handgun. The cashier’s face became a picture of resigned expectancy, which the supervisor could see reflected back at him in the toughened safety glass, but what he didn’t expect was the gunman’s next course of action. His face twisting up into a picture of disgust, he ordered the supervisor to swap places with the terrified cashier, whose life had flashed before her that very second and who’d been convinced she was about to die. The supervisor hesitated long enough for the gunman to scream that he was putting everyone’s lives at risk, as for the first time since the drama had begun every person still in the bank became an unwitting cast member of the drama playing out before them.
The supervisor had evidently been on a course that told him what to do in such situations as armed robbery, as he now tried to take control of the situation by supposedly engaging the culprit on his own level.
‘You don’t want to do this mate, you’re only young. Got your whole life ahead of you. Why not put the gun down and run while you can?’
Unfortunately, the supervisor had no way of knowing that his words would make things worse, despite them being from page one of the bank’s ‘how to deal with armed robbers’ ring binder that every new employee was forced to read.
Despite wearing a scarf around the lower part of his face, the fury in the young man’s features was evident to the supervisor and he realised too late how he’d misjudged things.
‘I haven’t got my whole life ahead of me have I?’ screamed the man through the window, his breath leaving a film of condensation on the glass despite his mouth being covered. ‘I’m dying, yeah? I’ve got nothing to lose. What about you though? What have you got to lose? And all you lot?’ the gunman swung round and addressed the remaining customers who’d been trapped inside after the self-locking door was triggered by the alarm.
No one dared speak, presuming the gunman’s questions to be rhetorical, but as he scanned the room, his eyes alighted on a young woman holding a baby that looked to be about six months old and he spoke to her directly.
‘I’m going to be a Dad soon; my wife’s five months pregnant. I’m doing this for her and the baby, so they’ll be alright when I’m gone. Or maybe I can pay for treatment abroad and I’ll actually get to stay alive long enough to meet my child, I dunno.’
‘I’m sorry,’ whispered the woman, almost involuntarily and for a split second they had a connection; a shared belief of the injustice and fragility of life.
Spinning back round to face the glass, the gunman saw that the supervisor had not continued the cashier’s efforts in filling the bag and his eyes took on a hard, determined look once again.
‘Haven’t you got anything to live for either then mate?’ sneered the young man.
‘W-what makes you say that?’ stuttered the supervisor.
‘Cause you’re certainly taking your time filling that bag.’
Unbeknownst to the young man, the supervisor had frequently spent time thinking he had nothing to live for. Working all week in the dreary sub-branch that his hometown contained, then going home to his small flat in a converted Victorian terrace; spending the evenings listening to his neighbour below playing heavy metal music and his neighbour above having arguments with his girlfriend, followed by noisy ‘make-up’ sex.
‘Maybe I don’t,’ said the supervisor, his hand poised between the cash drawer and the bag.
‘What?’
‘Maybe I don’t. You reckon you’re the only one with problems? You’re not, but you don’t see everyone going around threatening to blow people’s heads off.’
Suddenly emboldened, the supervisor began taking money back out of the bag and returning it to the cash drawer.
‘What the fuck are you doing mate? You’re gonna get everyone in here killed, you know that? Stop being a hero and fill the fucking bag!’
‘Look, the police are on their way already and you can’t get out of here because the doors are locked. Why don’t you come back here with me and I’ll get you a cup of tea? Give yourself up, yeah?’
Everyone in the bank held their breath momentarily, as at first it seemed like the young man would actually go along with the supervisor’s request. However, as the seconds passed the gunman turned to the assembled hostages and pointed his gun at them indiscriminately.
‘He’s getting you killed!’ he shouted to a man in his mid-fifties wearing a shirt which was now heavily coated with sweat. ‘He’s getting all of you killed!’
He pointed the gun at a man who looked to be in his early-thirties and went to pull the trigger. The man began crying and when he saw that the gunman lowered his weapon.
‘I can’t shoot someone who’s crying man, don’t do that to me.’
The cashier who’d originally been on the till looked across at the gunman, then placed her hand on her colleague’s shoulder.
‘Shall I do it Henry? You’re not putting the money back in. Do it Henry, for goodness sake!’
‘Yeah, listen to her Henry,’ parroted the gunman, ‘do as she says.’
‘I can’t,’ said Henry, trembling. ‘I can’t move.’
‘I’m losing my patience with you mate,’ said the gunman, ‘do it now or get a bullet in the head. The choice is yours.’
‘I-I think my colleague may have to do it for you,’ said Henry, shaking uncontrollably. ‘I can’t seem to do it.’
‘You weren’t so hesitant when you came out that door at the start, were you? Do you know why I wanted you to do it? Because of how rude you were to the cashier ladies. You’re a nasty piece of work, y’know that?’
Henry couldn’t believe he was getting called a ‘nasty piece of work’ by a man brandishing a handgun. Had he really sunk that low? Was he really such a cowardly, snivelling individual that he was even prepared to let the cashier take his place?
‘No.’
‘What d’ya mean ‘no’?’ said the gunman.
‘No, I don’t need my colleague to replace me, I can do it. I’m not going to be difficult.’
‘Very sensible of you mate. Now fill the damn bag.’
Suddenly, the sound of a voice enhanced through a megaphone filled the small bank vestibule.
‘This is the Police. We have armed officers out here and you will not get away. Come out now with your hands up and throw down your weapon.’
The gunman grabbed the nearest hostage, which happened to be the woman with the baby. The child began screaming and the woman struggled to get free, but the gunman held her tighter.
‘I’m sorry love; you’re the last person I’d want to do this to but I’m desperate. We’re going out there together.’
Grabbing the bag that Henry had stuffed through the service hole in the window, the gunman shouted at him to release the door, which he did. In the seconds that it took for the gunman to reach the outside, Henry had decided what he had to do. He jumped up and pulled open the staff access door and sprinted across the vestibule. He launched himself at the gunman and grabbed the child from the woman’s arms, causing her to scream and the gunman to jerk back in Henry’s direction.
Seeing the confusion, the police marksmen shouted for the gunman to let the woman go. The cashier had followed Henry outside and he thrust the baby into her arms before rugby-tackling the gunman to the ground. As the gunman fell he let go of the woman, who rolled away from him and scrabbled towards her baby.
‘Henry, they’re safe. Leave him!’ cried the cashier, who had reunited the woman with her child and was now concerned about Henry.
As the tussle between the two men continued, one of the police marksmen pulled the trigger, hitting the gunman in the back and causing his body to spasm. His finger, which was in the trigger, involuntarily pulled backwards and his gun fired.
Henry felt a burning pain spread from his stomach and his vision clouded over, so that all he could see while lying on his back was the blue of the sky.
‘Why haven’t I stopped and looked at the sky more?’ thought Henry, as he felt his bodyweight start to float upwards, ‘why haven’t I counted the stars when the sky’s been clear?’
‘Henry!’ screamed the cashier, as she rushed to his side, ‘Henry, stay with me. Somebody call an ambulance!’
Even as the sirens got louder, Henry knew his time on earth was drawing to a close, and he thought about his childhood, his schooldays, his adolescence and finally his working years spent entirely at the bank.
‘I never did go to India,’ he thought, as he felt someone kneeling beside him and cradling his head.
‘Henry, don’t go, stay here. Help is on its way.’
Recognising the voice of his colleague, he squeezed her hand and smiled.
‘It’s okay Sheila, it really is. I’m going to India to count the stars. It’s beautiful.’
‘Oh Henry, why did I never tell you how much I admired and liked you? Why have I waited until it’s too late?’
‘You admire me?’ croaked Henry, his voice starting to fade, ‘why me? I’m nobody.’
‘How can you say you’re nobody? You’ve just saved the life of that lady and her baby and probably the rest of us too. You’re a hero. You’re amazing!’
Henry felt the soft touch of Sheila’s lips lightly brush his cheek, as the blue sky enveloped him and whisked him upwards. When he opened his eyes again he was lying on his back, looking at the night sky, the stars twinkling and glowing before him. Reaching out to touch them and feeling their warmth in his hands, he floated closer to them and began counting.

(C) Sarah Butcher, 2014.

Their Place

This place had always been their favourite, hers and Damien’s. They’d first come here when they were dating (‘courting’ his Nan had called it) and he’d even proposed to her in this very spot. When it came to booking a honeymoon, her friends had suggested Goa or the Maldives, or even Thailand but she’d said no; this was the only place that would have felt right. They’d spent a blissful week; walking hand in hand or wrapped in each other’s arms to keep warm during the day, and no different at night.

She was sure she was pregnant on the third evening but Damien said she was being silly; there was no way she could be sure so early, but she’d known. She’d said it was mother’s intuition or something similar and he’d laughed and spun her round the room, before they’d collapsed into bed and tried to double their chances. He’d had to apologise when it turned out she’d been right all along and in between kissing her hands and rubbing her belly he’d called her ‘magical’, ‘incredible’ ‘miraculous’ for harbouring their new life inside her. When six weeks later their dreams had died, she’d seen a look in his eyes that she never wanted to see again and worse, be the cause of. He was lovely of course, saying all the right things and absolving her of any blame but she knew; she knew deep down that he held her responsible, because she felt she was.

Months turned to years and they rubbed along happily, just the two of them. Nobody could understand why it wasn’t happening for them, so the doctors carried on prodding, poking and peering until one day she’d said ‘enough!’ and that had been the end of that avenue of hope. They both claimed not to mind; each happy in their own way, either when together or apart, but they did mind really, they minded a great deal. It stood them apart from other people that they knew; meant people watched their Ps and Qs when talking to them and it got wearing after a while, trying to put others at ease when you cared little for their feelings. It also made everyday life difficult; she’d given up her job after it happened, as being around children all day was just too cruel of fate to orchestrate. The worst of it was the mothers though. They’d grip their children a little tighter when she approached; either because they wanted a reminder of the fact that they’d successfully managed that one duty that only a woman can fulfil, or because they thought her bad luck might rub off on them and their offspring. She’d joked that ‘maybe they think I’m so desperate I’ll snatch one of them’ but it had been an empty, hollow laugh that Damien had heard her conclude the story with and she’d been ashamed of herself for making light of the one situation that no amount of praying seemed to change, or that her usually so practical husband could alter through his own volition.

They would have been alright, she felt, if it had just been them and they’d been left alone but that was too much to ask it seemed. Well-meaning women from up and down the street evidently thought that their emptiness could be filled with an endless supply of Victoria sponges, lamb casseroles and bottles of cheap sherry. It was kind of people of course, but they were never alone long enough to acknowledge what they’d lost, or rather what they’d never quite managed to find, which was where the rot initially set in. Damien didn’t talk about much else either, preferring evenings nursing a pint in the pub to discussing his evident failure as a male of the species. When the money ran out, as it began to shortly after pints had given way to doubles of whatever the barman was overstocked with, those gifts of sherry and cherry brandy from the back of someone’s drinks cabinet became Damien’s weapon of choice. He discovered that, for remarkably less than what he was paying in the pub each night, he could achieve equal or greater levels of intoxication and therefore numbness, without even having to leave his armchair.

Of course, that state of affairs was never going to be maintained on a long-term basis and after he’d set himself and his chair on fire after lighting a cigarette then falling into an alcohol-induced stupor, the landlord wanted assurances that it wouldn’t happen again, along with a security deposit, damages and a higher monthly rent. Unfortunately, she couldn’t satisfy his mind on any of the raised points no matter how much she negotiated, especially as neither Damien nor her was coping well enough to hold down a steady job, so after living in that house for years they were asked to leave and they packed up what they could fit in the car and left.

They imposed on friends for as long as they dared, neither of them having family as such to speak of, but then they resorted to sleeping in the car; once again wrapping their arms around each other to stay warm but now out of necessity, rather than any suggestion of desire. That final night Damien had clung to her tighter than she’d ever known him do and he’d cried. He’d never cried in front of her before and maybe she should have been more concerned, but she was tired and cold and maybe she did blame him for their bad luck, more than she cared to admit. Whatever the reason, when he stirred at first light and kissed her on the forehead she let him go without any semblance of guilt.

She must have fallen back asleep because there were suddenly voices laughing and chatting outside, the sunshine still bringing tourists to the beach, even though the season was as good as over. It was only then that her thoughts turned to Damien; he must have been gone a long while by that point as the car park was busy with motorists and families and dawn was several hours behind them. She never understood just how she knew, but she had an unshakeable realisation that she would never see Damien alive again. Later, she was told that someone called an ambulance because she was apparently so distressed, sat in the car surrounded by bags of memories and boxes of clutter, but it transpired she was in the hospital when a nurse and a policewoman came and told her they’d found his body, washed up in a cove a few miles up the coast. The cove was a well-known favourite amongst families with young children, due to its shallow water and golden sand, but she knew that the last thing Damien would’ve wanted to do would be to upset or scare children; that was ironically the bit that upset her the most. It wasn’t her personal loss so much as the unpleasant circumstances of her husband’s discovery; even in death she was still sure of what he would and wouldn’t have wanted, and he wouldn’t have wanted that.

So that brought her back to this place. Their place; the one place she knew she could always feel happy, always feel at peace. It had to be here, there was nowhere else she would ever have the nerve to do it and nowhere else she would feel Damien so close by her side, reassuring her.
Climbing onto the railings, she looked down and saw the twinkling blue of the water; the late evening sun reflected as it disappeared on what would become the last day of her life. Feeling herself suddenly weightless, she had the purest sensation of being alive, being part of something bigger that no person could ever understand until their life-seconds were counting down to single figures. As the water came up to meet her, she knew she was no longer alone and would never be alone again. Damien’s hand slipped into hers and squeezed it tightly as he held her to him, before kissing her forehead and once more spinning her around the room.

(C) Sarah Butcher, 2014.

My novel is on Kindle!

I am very happy to report that my debut novel ‘When will I be famous?’ is now available to download from Amazon Kindle worldwide! It’s the culmination of a long labour of love and it has been a massive learning curve, but I’m so happy and so proud to have done it!

Search for the above title, or for Sarah Butcher, and you should find it! Thank you!