A strange sensation of weightlessness surrounded Archie as he sat up with a start. His hands shot up to his face and for no apparent reason his fingers did a reconnoitre of his features, then both hands cradled his head.
‘Bloody hell. That must have been some night, my fucking head’s killing me.’
Realising he was surrounded by a thick white mist he quickly clambered to his feet and staggered around, like a blind man trying to find his way in an unfamiliar place.
‘Oh my God. Fire! The theatres on fire!’
Archie got back down on all fours and began frantically scrambling around looking for an exit. He suddenly stopped his scurrying and sat up onto his heels.
‘What the hell! Why am I not choking? It feels like warm smoke, but I can still breathe.’
The mist thinned in places and Archie saw he was right on the edge of a steep hillside. Far below, a shining black river meandered its way through the floor of a deep green valley. Archie quickly backed away from the precipice.
‘What the fuck happened? Where am I? Where is everyone? Where’s all this fucking smoke coming from?’
The mist swirled and closed back in around him. Archie tried to remember the hours leading up to finding himself here, wherever here was, but the harder he thought the more he realised he couldn’t remember anything; he felt strangely empty.
‘One minute I was on stage, then bang, then here. Oh Shit. I must be dead.’
A crying and lamenting coming from all around him in the mist was terrifying his very soul. Archie’s head spun from side to side, trying to see where the poor suffering creatures were, but the thickening mist, driven by a constant moaning wind, swirled in around him.
Something passed not far from Archie’s face, something grey and shapeless. Frightened to move and shaking with fear he began to see many shapes moving all around him in the mist.
‘Hello. Who’s there?’
A dark shadow floated towards him. As it got closer Archie could see it was human shaped.
Waving his arms he tried parting the mist, but the thick vapour just swirled around him.
Archie raised his voice. ‘Who’s there?’
A face popped out of the mist, startling Archie and making him stagger backwards.
‘What you shouting for?’
The mist parted like a pair of net curtains and out stepped an old bloke with a bristling white beard and wearing a blue duffle-coat and a flat seaman’s cap. He walked up to Archie.
‘You just got here have you?’
Archie, the last descendent of a long dead Scottish clan of thieves and ne’er-do-wells, stood at six feet two. His pencil thin frame, pasty white face and long black unkempt hair, gave him the appearance of a Victorian undertaker; Archie was definitely not one of the grateful dead. With eyes like two piss-holes in the snow he stared down at the little bloke. ‘What? Yeah. Where am I?’
‘Nowhere mate, sort of in between,’
The man offered his hand. ‘My names Arthur. Wot’s yours?’
‘Archie, I think.’
Archie went to shake Arthur’s proffered hand and disappeared right through it as if it was made of smoke.
Arthur laughed. ‘Gets em’ every time that one does. Sorry mate, couldn’t resist it.’
‘How do you put up with this constant noise, the crying and moaning?’ asked Archie
‘I don’t listen to it. Got on my bloody nerves at first, then I learned to block it out.’
‘I’ll show you.’
Arthur placed a hand either side of Archie’s head, covering his ears. ‘Close your eyes and think the noises away. Imagine my hands are always there, blocking out the sound.’
Archie scrunched his eyes shut. With Arthur’s hands over his ears he could barely hear the terrible sorrow the other souls here were suffering, then all the mournful cries were gone.
‘Open your eyes. Now concentrate, keep that thought in your head.’
When Arthur removed his hands Archie staggered and looked like he was going to fall. Arthur gripped his arm, steadying him.
‘Takes a bit of getting used to. You all right, son?’
‘Yeah, thanks Arthur. How did you do that?’
‘I didn’t. You did it yourself.’
‘Take too long to explain, son.’
‘Well, thanks anyway.’
‘What happened to you then?’
Archie thought for a moment. ‘I don’t quite remember. One minute I was playing the guitar on stage and the next I was here.’
‘It’ll come to you. Your memories have to catch up with you. It’s cos your spirit moves a lot faster than them, but it don’t take long. Have a seat til they get here.’
Archie looked all around.
Arthur watched him, curiously. ‘What you looking for?’
‘The seats. You said have a seat.’
‘No, what I meant was... look, watch me.’
Arthur sat down on an invisible chair, crossed his legs, then folded his hands in his lap. ‘You try it.’
Archie crouched. He thought he could feel something under his bottom, something solid. He hit the floor with a thump, banging his head hard.
‘Bloody hell. That hurt.’
Arthur smiled. ‘Here, take my hand.’
Archie got to his feet unaided and rubbed his head.
’Why do I still feel pain if I’m dead? I am dead, aren’t I?
‘Oh you’re dead alright mate. And you only think you feel pain. You’ll get used to it.’
‘How long have you been... dead, Arthur?’
‘I don’t really know son, time’s funny up here.’
‘What’s the last thing you remember?’
‘I was walking up the post office to get me pension and that’s when it hit me.’
‘What hit you?’
‘The heart attack. That’s what killed me. Then I woke up here.’
‘And when was that?’
Arthur lifted his cap and scratched his balding head. ‘Seventy six. I think.’
‘And you have no idea how long you’ve been here?’
Arthur went quiet for a moment. ‘No son. Like I say, time’s funny here.’
Archie was suddenly slammed to the floor. He felt like he’d been hit by a bus.
Arthur smiled. ‘That’ll be your memories catching up with you.’
Archie sat up shaking his head. ‘Oh shit. I can remember everything, how I died, everything.’
Arthur put his feet up on an invisible table. ‘So what year did you pop your clogs?’
‘It was, uh. I can’t remember. Let me think for a minute, it’s all a bit of jumble in here. Wait. I remember. It was August 2016. We were playing a gig at the Empire in London. I was on stage when...’
Arthur’s face took on a look of anger and turned blood red.
‘Forty years. Forty bloody years. Those bastards have had me walking about up here for forty bloody years. They told me I’d only be out here for ten as a penance for all my sins, and they’ve bloody forgot about me. Bloody typical.’
Arthur stood up, rolling up his sleeves. ‘I’ll give em’ forty bloody years. He turned to march off.’
Archie panicked. He got up off the floor. The thought of being left on his own in this place terrified him. ‘Arthur, don’t go. Who are you talking about? Where were you promised you could go?’
Arthur stopped and turned around. ‘Sorry Son.’
He sat down again but not in the same place. Archie wasn’t going to try sitting again so he remained standing.
‘Before I go I’m going to mark your card. Now listen up. That St. Peter at the gates won’t just let anyone in. If your face don’t fit it’s just like when you was alive.’
‘The Pearly Gates. The gates that lead into heaven. What bloody gates d’you think I mean?’
‘Sorry. Go on.’
Arthur cleared his nose and throat and spat out nothing. ’Sorry son, old smoker’s habit. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah... When I died I ended up here just like you. I wandered around for God knows how long and ended up outside these big gates. There was this bloke standing behind the gates; sharp suit, smart haircut, fancy beard, you know the sort. Bloody jobs-worth. He’s got this big book on a lectern and two big angels with him, one either side. Right Nancy’s they looked. All over tans and muscles everywhere, and little gold shorts that was having a right job holding it all in. So I walks up to the gates and says. ‘Hello, I’m Arthur Crown.’ Well, my names always been a bit of a joke, cos of the old money see, but I’ve heard every one of em’ countless times over. When they stopped laughing I says. ‘Is this Heaven?’ The suit gives me this look and opens his book. He starts reading out all the things I did wrong when I was alive. Petty things. Right back to when I was a nipper.’
Archie was getting a real feeling of dread. It wasn’t looking good for him.
‘Then the suit shuts the book and says, because of your sins you must wander for ten years as a penance. Then come back and we will review your case. Well, I weren’t having that. I stepped forward to argue my case there and then and the two Nancy boys walked right through the bleedin’ bars, and they didn’t look like they was about to buy me a pint. Sod this I thought, so I legged it. What they didn’t tell me was, there’s no way of knowing when the ten years was up.’
‘Sounds like bureaucracy has made it to the afterlife, Arthur.’
‘I’ll give em’ bloody bureaucracy. I’ve learned a trick or two since I’ve been up here. Let’s see em’ fob me off this time.’
‘Can I come with you?’
‘Yeah, course you can. You’d never find it on your own anyway.’
Arthur walked into the mist with Archie close on his heels. They’d only gone about twenty steps when Arthur stopped.
Seeing the confused look on Archie’s face Arthur explained as best he could. ‘Time and space son. Time and space.’
As they cleared the mist they were looking down into a glaring white arena with high steps leading down to a wide stage. White fluffy clouds floated lazily across a deep azure blue sky. Two angels appeared next to them sporting very long shiny brass trumpets resplendent with unfurled banners. Turning to face Archie and Arthur they proceeded to announce their arrival.
Archie screamed as the trumpet, not six inches from his ear let out a deafening blast.
Furiously rubbing his ear he turned angrily to the angel. ‘What is bloody wrong with you? You could have deafened me.’
The angel smiled angelically and they both disappeared.
Arthur laughed. ‘They do that with all the new arrivals.’
Looking down into the arena they could see the semi-circular stone seats were full of souls waiting for their final judgement, either lying around or worriedly pacing the arena floor. All eyes were raised to Archie and Arthur, but the souls soon lost interest and went back to their worried musings.
At the back of what appeared to be a stage stood a huge pair of white gates, all shimmering and sparkly with points of light rising high into the sky. Two majestic angels with outstretched wings, that looked as though they were carved by Michelangelo, adorned the top of each gate post.
As Archie took it all in he felt a powerful feeling of serenity enclose him like a warm duvet. He followed Arthur as he walked down the steps, well, lagged a fair bit behind.
No point upsetting anyone just yet, thought Archie
Arthur, rolling up his sleeves, marched up to the gates. A large black wrought iron sign hung from the bars by gold chains. Written upon the sign in beautiful gold lettering were the words.
Heaven. Authorised Personnel Only.
Arthur pounded his fist into it then shouted through the bars. ‘Open up.’
A tinkling of tiny bells followed by a thinning of the heavenly vapours behind the gates revealed two angels, each sporting a very large trumpet which they raised to their lips and sounded out an ear-shattering fanfare. Archie had already taken a few steps back, he didn’t fancy another ear bashing.
As the angels lowered their trumpets St. Peter appeared and stepped up to a lectern holding a very large book.
Archie could see what Arthur meant when he said the angels were all muscles and lunch-boxes.
Backing slowly away he decided it would be prudent to watch from a safe distance.
The angels, their wings tucked neatly behind their backs, took up their positions, one either side of St. Peter. He looked through the bars at Arthur as though a bad smell had just assaulted his delicate nose.
St. Peter opened the book. ‘Name?’
‘Arthur Crown. I was here before and you told me I had to wander for ten years as a penance for my sins. Well I’ve been wandering for forty bloody years. Now open the gates.’
St. Peter ran his finger down the page, shaking his head. ‘There’s a florin, a Tanner, and a Penny someone, but no Half a Crown.’
The angels stifled their giggles.
From where he’d backed up to Archie could see that Arthur was getting mad.
‘Sorry, but you have to see the funny side of it. What was the name again?’
‘Arthur. Bloody. Crown.’
This brought further gales of laughter from the three of them. That was the moment Arthur lost it. He reached through the bars, grabbed Saint Peter by his designer tie and dragged him forward.
St. Peters face crunched up as it hit the pearly gates. The angels, taken completely by surprise, tried to stop Arthur choking the life out of St. Peter, if that was possible, and as his face was going bright red it seemed it was more than possible.
Two pairs of muscle bound arms fought to prize Arthur’s hands from St. Peter’s throat, but when they did it all happened very fast. The angels, holding tight onto Arthur’s wrists, rushed through the gates and threw him to the floor. Arthur was back on his feet in a flash.
The souls in the arena cheered loudly as Arthur got ready for the affray.
Archie, looking around for angels with trumpets, watched from the swirling mists where he had backed up to. ‘Not bad for an old boy.’
The arena was filled with applause as Arthur charged at the angels and brought them both down with a flying tackle. He was doing quite well until a large group of burly angels appeared and jumped on top of them, like a rugby scrum. A bright red light flashed along the ground and when all the angels got up Arthur was gone.
The angels walked back into heaven dusting off each others little yellow shorts and disappeared as the mist swallowed them up.
A multitude of sighs could be heard as the waiting souls realised the entertainment was over.
The angels fussed over St. Peter, helping him to adjust his clothing. He slapped their hands away and they stood back; they could see he wasn’t pleased.
Archie looked back wistfully at the mist then, under the scrutiny of many pairs of eyes, walked cautiously towards the gates where St. Peter, now fully composed, had moved the lectern further back.
’Hello. ‘Is this where I report to heaven?’
‘Archie. Archie Miller.’
St. Peter flipped quickly through the pages of the book. He turned to the angels. ‘Oh look. A whole page all to himself.’
The angels leant forward and looked at the open book. They returned to their upright positions and a knowing smile passed between them.
‘So. Mr. Miller. Otherwise known as Drax. What can I do for you?’
‘Is this where I report to heaven?’
‘Yes. All newly departed souls must, after spending a given amount of time in purgatory, report here. Now, like I said. What can I do for you?’
‘I’d like to come in please.’
St. Peter seemed to be having trouble with his face; it was still quite red after the altercation with Arthur, and the angels were both looking upwards.
‘Let’s have a look shall we?’
St. Peter ran his finger down the page, tut tutting as he did so. ’It says here that you had a musical band called ‘Demons from Hell.’ Is that correct?’
Archie nodded. He knew this wasn’t good.
‘You’ll need to speak up for the record please?’
‘Yes what? Mr. Drax.’
’Aye. I had a band called ‘Demons from Hell.’
This isn’t looking good at all, thought Archie.
‘But it was just music. I’m not a real Devil Worshipper.’
‘And you sacrificed small animals and performed very realistic human sacrifices to Satan. Would that be correct?’
‘Aye,’ muttered Archie. ‘I’m fucked.’
‘Speak up please, Mr. Drax.’
‘The record shows that during your last concert you viciously assaulted a Fender guitar by biting off its strings, causing the guitar to defend itself by electrocuting you and welding itself to your face. Is that correct? Mr. Drax.’
‘What is this? A courtroom?’
‘Yes. This is the final judgement on you, Drax. Or may I call you by your full name; Drax. Servant of Satan?’
Archie stood with his head bowed. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s a little too late for that, Drax. Servant of Satan.’
‘So I can’t come in then?’
‘Do the words Camel, sinner, and the eye of a needle mean anything to you? Now fuck off downstairs. I’m sure Satan will find room for you on his griddle.’
Archie turned slowly around then took off like the wind, clearing the arena stairs two at a time.
As Archie disappeared into the mist the raucous laughter echoing around heaven cut into him like knives.