Historical novelist, Robert Carter, takes us on a detour into humor with his latest book, Sheer Purgatory. The author offers a glimpse into an afterlife that awaits 95% of us, whether we believe in it or not. Carter says: “I happened to read in the Daily Telegraph that Pope Benedict XVI had abolished Limbo, and I thought, well, if he doesn’t want it, I’ll have it.” The annexation of Purgatory soon followed.
Here is a sample ...
The sight of a semi-naked man flying over the rooftops of South London at nine o’clock on a Thursday morning would normally have struck Dan Trench as a bit odd, but this morning was an exception.
Last night he’d been in the Red Lion with his pal, Kevin Evans. They’d been drinking “inappropriately” — whisky chasers, this time, and so many of them that pretty soon Dan had lost the ability to pronounce his friend’s name, then he had lost the ability to pronounce his own name, then he had fallen over. Judging by the eye-stabbing brightness now pouring in through Dan’s window, they’d carried on from “inappropriate” to “unwise” and very possibly on again to “insane.”
Dan searched his memory without result. Could he remember anything? Anything at all? One thing was for certain, last night remained a disappointingly featureless blank — as was most of Dan’s current field of vision
He held out a hand against the window glare and tried instead to figure out what day it was. Then he saw something that made him doubt not just his wisdom, but maybe his entire grasp of reality. On one of the houses in the next street there was a half-naked man clinging to a chimney. Dan peered hard at the figure as it began flapping its wings. An old TV aerial had come off in its hand and it was toppling backwards in a most theatrical manner.
Dan rubbed his eyes, then looked again. The figure was gone. And so was the TV aerial ...
He put the incident out of what remained of his mind and tried to think what to do about Belinda. The phone now nestling in his palm was his best clue. He’d got a message, just about the most pleadingly urgent message his girlfriend had ever left.
“Dan, please call me. I’m in terrible trouble. You’ve got to help. Meet me at the bottom of Nelson’s Column as soon as you can. It really is a matter of life and death!”
That made two emergencies.
Two? He thought fuzzily. Now, what was the other emergency again?
Oh, yes, of course. The other emergency was that he had lost his balls.
As emergencies went, this one was far from minor. He cursed and began to look under the bed.
“Please, please, please, let them have found their way home,” he begged, diving down and hoping it was all a bad dream. But the box he always carried his balls home in wasn’t there.
He began to look around frantically, a task that didn’t take long because Dan’s salary as a humble Lottery clerk didn’t extend to very much in the way of living space, even in this lowly part of the capital: a bedroom/living room that doubled as a kitchen and a tiny bathroom that you couldn’t rinse a cat in. He began to search. Three drawers, two cupboards and a small wardrobe later he sat down hard again on the end of his bed.
“Oh, damn it,” he told the pile of unwashed pots and pans in the sink. “Damn, damn, damn!”
The cussing was heartfelt, because the balls that Dan had managed to misplace were the ones on which half the nation’s hopes and fears rested twice a week.
Dan’s workmates at the Lottery liked to call him “the Keeper of the Balls.” It was a joke, certainly, but nevertheless a fairly accurate description of his duties. His job was to load the fifty perfectly-balanced plastic balls into the machine before every prize draw and, between outings, it was his responsibility to keep them clean and safe, which he did by nestling each of them into a velvet-lined case. This tender care was lavished so that nothing at all could possibly interfere with the natural operations of fate. After all, it would be terribly embarrassing if the Lottery started making millionaires of the undeserving and failing to make millionaires out of those whose destiny it was to become ludicrously rich.
Ordinarily, Dan took the precious case home after every draw and kept it under his bed. This was the safest place Dan could think of, a place so safe that no one other than Dan had ever been known to go there. Unfortunately, the strategy didn’t take into account the fact that he could be intercepted on his way home and dragged off to a pub by Kevin Evans.
“Damn! Damn! Damn!”
He might have left the case at the Red Lion, or at any of a dozen other pubs and curry houses that he and Kevin might have visited. Memories of the evening remained a stubborn blank, but there was one other way to find out ...
As Dan made the call, a fresh pang of anxiety ran through him. He failed to connect with Kevin, so he left a message and tried to sound urgent. To turn up at the office and have to announce he’d lost the nation’s favorite balls was not a prospect to relish. He had to find them, and soon. The trouble was that something large and square and unavoidable was standing in his way: the tantalizing message that five minutes ago had probably hauled him out of unconsciousness. Belinda’s voice boomed in his head, unusually excited and harder than ever to ignore. Whatever danger she was in, it sounded pretty serious.
“‘A matter of life and death,’” he muttered, feeling suddenly weak. “How can I ignore that?”
As he pulled on his jacket and checked his pocket for his keys, his befuddled mind was made up. It would be impossible to get into any pub or curry house to ask questions until later anyhow. The balls didn’t actually have to appear until Saturday. Today was … er … Thursday. No contest. Nelson’s Column it would have to be.
Victor 3157 landed badly in Dan’s privet hedge. As he folded his wings the postman delivering next door’s mail turned round in surprise, then looked him up and down. Vic, wearing only a pair of gold spandex underpants and matching slippers, grinned sheepishly. “Morning.”
“Busy night, was it?”
Vic folded an impressive pair of angel wings and brandished the remains of the TV aerial. “I suppose you’d call it a sort of ... fancy dress party.”
“What did you go as?” the postman asked. “Air male?”
He smiled indulgently, but as the postman moved on, Vic furtively opened his golden satchel and pulled out a long gray emergency overcoat. He put it on before ringing one of several unmarked door bells. Some moments later there came the sound of someone stamping down a long flight of stairs. It was Dan’s upstairs neighbor, a hard-faced, woman, who opened the door. She seemed to have failed her diploma in anger management.
“If you’ve come about the hamster, you’re too late,” she told him. “It’s gone.”
“Did you say hamster? I don’t know anything about any hamster.”
“You haven’t come about the advert in the free paper?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not here double glazing, are you? If you’ve had me walk down all them stairs for nothing I’ll wring your neck!”
“No, I’m looking for Dan. Uh, Dan Trench.” Vic produced his most winning smile. “Is he in?”
The woman grimaced. “Upstairs — me — bell! Ground floor — Dan — knocker!” she said, jabbing her finger at one of Vic’s coat buttons as if it too was a bell push. “Get it?”
The door slammed shut. The knocker knocked once like an afterthought, then all was silent. Vic reached out a dutiful hand to rap again. It’s hard to know whether a door can open viciously, but if it can, this door did just that.
“No point doing that now!”
Vic grinned nervously. “No?”
“No! Because he’s not in!”
Vic felt his anxiety double. “You don’t happen to know when he left?”
The neighbor put her hands truculently on her hips. “I’m not his secretary.”
“Or you wouldn’t know where he went? It’s very important.”
“You’re a pal of his, are you?”
Vic half nodded, half shook his head. “I’m here to help.”
“Help him do what?”
“Help’s probably the wrong word, I have to … sort of … save him.”
“Well, I’ve no idea where he’s gone. Dan and me is neighbors, see? He don’t tell me his business – and I don’t tell him mine. This is London, or ain’t you noticed?”
“Well, thank you, anyway.”
The woman continued to mutter as she watched Vic’s departing form. “Bloody Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Where Dan had actually gone was two streets away. With a dozen other people he had waited in line at the number 12 bus stop and now he was boarding a big red double-decker. The driver’s eyes registered him briefly, then followed him as he went to stand at the bottom of the stairs. The doors shushed closed and the bus set off with a vicious jerk. The vicious jerk was caused by the driver, someone whose idea of urban transport was to crash savagely through the gears to exact maximum revenge on both his employer’s property and every last one of their customers. Dan, clinging on with one white knuckled hand, juggled his phone and tried Kevin’s number again. It rang for a while then diverted to his answering message. There was no point in repeating himself, so he rang off. He looked around. All the other people were trying hard not to look at one another, so he stopped looking at them and instead fixed his gaze on the blur of shop fronts as the bus leapt from gear to gear.
Right, he thought. Now try Belinda again. The last time he’d actually spoken with her had been a week ago – when she’d stood him up again for the umpteenth time. He didn’t know why, but she seemed constitutionally unable to arrive at cinemas before films began, or to reach bars or restaurants at any given pre-arranged time. And every time she had a different excuse. Some of them were masterpieces of invention, others crude dollops of implausibility. But no matter how unlikely her reasons, he always forgave her, because, well, he loved her, and he knew that, deep down under all that unpleasantness, she loved him too.
He was just getting through to Belinda’s number when the bus began making a strange grinding noise and everyone looked towards the front. The driver pulled the bus over and stopped.
“Three-nine-five-seven to control,” the driver said into his microphone. “Engine malfunction, Westminster Bridge Road, over.”
There was an incomprehensible radio message in reply, then the driver emerged from his cab to address the passengers.
“Right! Everybody off!”
The passengers groaned.
“Don’t worry,” the driver growled back sarcastically. “There’ll be another three along about an hour from now.”
Dan got off along with the rest. Of all the bad luck! It seemed to piling up on him just lately. He checked his watch anxiously, and wondered what to do. Unlike the other passengers, he chose not to wait. Instead, he began to walk, phone clapped to his ear. There was still no answer from Belinda, and he had no option but to leave another update.
“Hi, Belinda. Listen — hang on! The bus, yeah, it’s broken down. I know I said ten. I will be there, but I’m going to be a bit late. Don’t worry. Kiss, kiss.”
Just as he finished speaking a man in a hoodie backed across his path. Dan tried to get around him, but had to step into the bus lane and ...
“Look where you’re going, can’t you?”
Dan’s foot missed the sidewalk. He stumbled. His phone clattered to the pavement and skittered into the gutter as a screech and then the bang of a greater collision drowned it.
The bus that Dan had just got off had run him down. The driver was grinning as he sat there, staring through the windscreen for a moment, then he got out of his cab and began to run across Westminster Bridge.
Up on the roof of the bus, Vic landed with uncertain agility. He walked to the front and peeked over. There was a figure, dressed in Dan’s clothes, arms and legs akimbo, sprawled across the pink tarmac of the bus lane. The figure showed no sign of life, and Vic knew with a sinking feeling that there was a very good reason for that.
He put his angelic face in his hands, covering an expression which, had it been visible at all to the people gathering below, would have been recognized instantly as one of appalled consternation. He had arrived just ten seconds too late. He was in big trouble now.
When Dan came to, he was standing in what appeared to be a thick fog. He shook his head and tried to peer through it, but without success. To his right was a brick wall, to his left a set of iron railings. There were other people here and there, some behind and others in front, but they were only gray shapes. He rubbed his eyes and stumbled forward — and made contact with something soft.
“Hey, will you stop shoving?” a female voice said.
“Who’s there?” Dan asked with trepidation.
A gruff sound came from behind him. “Keep your feet still.”
Dan staggered. “But I can’t see anything!”
“Well, poking me in the back won’t improve your eyesight,” the female voice said.
“I didn’t poke you,” said Dan, indignantly. “I can’t even see you!”
The woman, whoever she was, seemed unconvinced. “There’s always one, isn’t there?”
“Look, I’m just trying to find my way out of here,” Dan objected.
“Way out, he says!” The man behind him laughed. “That’s a good one.”
“Yeah, Carlton. We’ve got a right comedian here.”
As they fell silent, Dan listened. In the distance there were fog-muted sounds, a voice that managed to be insistent, official and creepy all at the same time. It sounded like an emergency announcement, but it was too remote and full of echoes to properly make out. What had all this fog come from so suddenly? Whatever this place was, it certainly wasn’t Westminster Bridge ...
The fog seemed to be thinning, and the woman in front of Dan began to materialize out of it. She was dressed in a long, black dress, had a colorless face, black lips and a mane of wild hair that was in keeping with her world-weary manner. Dan let out a yelp, then tried to head towards the back of the queue, but an even bigger figure in a black and white striped football shirt reached out a big hand and stopped him. He was oddly colorless too.
“Whoa! You don’t want to go that way.”
“Why not?” Dan asked, sensing that something awfully hard to explain had happened to him.
“Why not? Because you’ll lose your place.”
“He’ll lose more than that if he doesn’t stop pushing and shoving.”
“Oh my God,” Dan spluttered, looking at the woman. “What on earth happened to you?”
“What’s the matter, never seen a Goth before?”
“Yeah, kind of ironic don’t you think?”
Dan tried to remember where he’d been and what he’d been doing, but once again his mind failed to cooperate. He blinked, as if doing so would help his eyes penetrate the fog. “Has there been some kind of … a disaster?” he asked, at last.
“You could say that,” the woman told him. “On a deeply personal level.”
Dan stared through the thinning fog, saw now that he was part of a long queue. A dismal city street began to appear all around. “I’m sure it wasn’t foggy when I got off the bus,” he said, bewildered.
He began to pat himself down, then exclaimed suddenly, “My wallet, my phone ... I’ve been mugged!”
“Will you stop that?” the woman asked him. “Jesus, you’re like a headless chicken. Can’t you let other people rest in peace?”
But Dan wasn’t listening. He was looking down at his naked wrist.
“They’ve even taken my watch!” he groaned. “It wasn’t even a real Rolex.”
“Well, you can’t take that with you,” Carlton said, and laughed.
Dan began to lose it. “Will somebody please tell me what’s going on? I’m having a dream, right? No, it’s not a dream. This is a nightmare. I’m delirious. I’ve got alcoholic poisoning and they’ve put me in hospital. Nurse! Nurse!”
Carlton put a hand on his shoulder. “Will you have a bit of thought for other people? We’re none of us exactly thrilled to be here, you know.”
“I don’t think he knows where he is.” The woman turned to Dan. “I suppose yours came right out of the blue, did it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What did you do?” Carlton asked. “Wrap your motor round a tree?”
Dan, still in shock, could only stare into the blankness. Nobody was making any sense. “I don’t even have motor. I was on a bus. A number 12. And the driver threw us all off, and then the next thing I know I’ve been hit by it.”
The woman chuckled. “Oh, yeah! Run over by a bus. Classic!”
“This can not be happening,” Dan muttered. And what about Belinda? He turned to Carlton, his voice shaky and agitated now. “Let me get past. My girlfriend’s waiting for me. If I’m late she’ll kill me!”
But Carlton only grunted. “She’ll have a job on her hands there.”
The queue shuffled forward again, carrying everyone along with it, Dan included. The sounds were coming closer, distorted, repeating, like orders spoken through a huge speaking trumpet.
“Thank you. You are held in a queue. Your presence is important to us. You will be dealt with as soon as possible ... Thank you. You are held in a queue ...”
As the fog cleared further, there appeared out of the gloom what looked very much like a London Underground station. The sign read, “BRITISH MUSEUM.”
“I shouldn’t be here!” Dan said, panicking.
“Oh, I should,” Carlton said ruefully. “Too much booze. Smoking far too many cigarettes. Lying on the couch, sucking down all them half-pound grease-burgers instead of going out jogging in the freezing rain. Seemed like a great idea at the time.”
“What are you trying to say?” Dan said, drawing back. He was really starting to get scared now.
“He’s trying to say ‘myocardial infarction’,” the woman said.
“They used to call me Carlton, by the way.” The big man offered a hand. “Heart attack. Sorry about the cold hands and all.”
“And I’m Nena,” the Goth told him. “In my case, it was two boxes of pain killers washed down with a bottle of vodka. I don’t recommend it, guys. It’s a really crap way to mend a broken heart.”
Dan, terrified now, whimpered.
“Still,” Carlton said, “let’s try to look on the bright side. That means she’s got a pretty good idea where we are now.”
Nena tapped the Tube sign. “In case you were wondering,” she said, “there is no Tube station called British Museum. There hasn’t been one there since the 1930’s. You might as well get used to it — you, me and Carlton here — we’re all ancient history now.”
As they shuffled along toward the entrance Dan became aware of music playing. It was opera, which was not really his thing, but despite that he recognized it as something he had once heard on Classics Radio. It was the excruciating Queen of Night’s aria, from The Magic Flute, and it was being produced by a buxom, caterwauling singer and a string quartet. They were sawing away just inside the Tube station entrance, and just in front of them was a man dressed in a bright coat like a steward. He was carrying what looked to Dan like an old-fashioned speaking trumpet.
“Let’s keep it moving, shall we, folks?” he announced in a chipper, encouraging voice. “Almost there now.”
Dan felt a flood of relief as all his hopes became suddenly focused on the man.
“Steward! Please, I have to go,” he begged.
The steward looked askance at him. “Couldn’t you have gone before you started?”
“I mean, go back!”
“I knew what you meant, sir. Just my little joke.”
“Look — how do I get out of here? There’s something very important that I have to do.”
“Just you stay calm, sir,” the steward told him, laying a reassuring hand on his arm. “As you can appreciate, we’re doing our best to keep everybody moving as fast as we can.”
Dan drew near to the steward and lowered his voice, which was now quavering on the point of hysteria. “Actually, it’s these people, I’m with — I’ve got to get away from them. They’re dangerous lunatics. They think we’re all —”
He was about to say “dead”, but couldn’t quite bring himself. But the steward seemed to understand anyway, because he grinned.
“It’s no good working yourself up, sir. Why not just take a nice, deep breath and listen to the pretty music, eh?”
“But I told you — I have to be somewhere by ten o’clock. My girlfriend Belinda’s waiting for me and I mustn’t be late. Do you know the time? You see, I’ve had my watch stolen and I —”
The steward cut short Dan’s babbling with a shake of his head. “There’s no ten o’clock here, sir.”
“No ten o’clock? What do you mean?” Dan whispered, aghast.
“How can I put this? Did you ever hear that phrase, ‘one of these days you’re going to wake up dead?’“
The steward leaned closer and indicated the top of a stubby, swanlike wing protruding from the back of his jacket. “Well ... you just did.”
Dan felt suddenly as if he was going to faint. As the music swelled, so did his hysteria until it seemed he was going to burst. By now the sequin covered Queen of Night was screeching out the high notes of her aria with wincingly enthusiastic gusto, and Dan finally admitted to himself that, for him, the fat lady really had sung.
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