“See that? That’s mildew that is.” The speaker indignantly thrust the lapel of a fungal-spotted jerkin under the old man’s ancient nose, then jerked it away distastefully as the nose erupted in an heroic sneeze.
“YARROUCHE!” The old man dabbed spittle away from his beard with the corner of his robe. “Oyyy! Don’t do dat! It’s bad enough having a dose this size without a cold as vell - and smelling soot and vet laundry doesn’t do it any good at all! YAAAAAR...OUCHE!!” He subsided onto his throne, looking like a wrung-out dish cloth. “Not dat I can sbell anything at all. My life!”
The mephistophelian figure opposite scowled, cooling condensation dripping off the forks of his beard like a luke-warm shower. “That’s all very well for you to say. You haven’t got an atmosphere you could swim fish in,” he said, mopping his brow. “Except they’d turn out poached,” he added as an afterthought. “Look! I’ve been up here half-an-hour now, and I’m still dripping! In all my years I haven’t seen anything like it. Whatever possessed them?”
The old man sighed. “I don’t know. Progress? First it’s burials, den it’s cremations, now it’s cryo-bleedin’-genics ... if you’ll pardon the expressi...AAAAARCH! Oyy, my life! I vish I was dead. I vish I could be dead. Not like these poor devils we’re getting now, with this cryogenics fad: neither one thing nor the other.”
Satan eased sodden material away from his neck. “I mean, it seems so bleedin’ obvious if you stop to think about it – which they didn’t” he said. “Slap the dear departed in a virtual block of ice before they shuffle off the mortal and what happens to the souls? They all arrive downstairs in escrow with overcoats you could run a ski slope down, that’s what. Stick ’em in the furnaces like that and I get steam so superheated it spits out through the rivet holes like a million factory hooters. I could get done for starting up a Chinese laundry without planning permission. As it is, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Why, I’ve even got Turks down there who’re refusing to stoke the boilers, and they’re used to Turkish Baths!”
“... And vot about ...AAAAAARCCHHE! ... us!” the Almighty butted in. “Like ve got flu epidemics arriving by the flickering chariot-load! I got so many people ill they got to start a vaiting list to go sick. It makes the National Health Service look like the Garden of Eden. Natural it ain’t ... AAAAARCHHHE. Oyy, that I should vork a six day week for this? And anyway, why are you putting them in the furnace, already? Ve just got the lien on these souls. They’re not the dear departed yet.”
“Why! You may be running a charitable institution here but I got a business to run. People got to pay their way. I’m not into Rent-a-soul. If they want to buy immortality, they better take out a better policy! It costs to keep the heating on. If they wind up my way now, then odds are they’ll end up there when they pull the plug anyway. But that’s not the point. Burning wet fuel isn’t cost-effective. Not to mention the condensation.” The Devil pulled again at the sodden material of his tunic whilst the old man blew his nose with an harrumphing blast that would have paled the horn of Gideon into an insignificant tin whistle, if Gideon had been able to blow it (which he couldn’t, on account of having exhaled it into cometary orbit in a coughing fit two days ago).
Satan looked on almost sympathetically. Set above a mountainous red nose, the Almighty’s poached egg eyes swam vaguely in a sea of tears, some of which had slopped out of the corners and were now soaking the extremities of his moustache. “You should take something for that,” he remarked mildly. “You didn’t ought to go catching a chill at your age ... all right, all right, sorry! But I’ve got problems of my own. I’ve lost three stones since last Thursday. If it goes on at this rate the only way you’ll be able to tell me from this trident is by the rust. What are we going to do about it?”
“Ve? Vot are ve going to do about it?” Since when has ‘ve’ been a word in our vocabulary ...AAAARCHE!? There’s you, there’s me, ‘ve’ there ain’t ... HARRRUMPH!” That last sneeze rattled the windows and somewhere in the far distance a wall fell down. The Almighty ran a tired hand down his face in resignation. “That make’s three this morning. At this rate the many mansions vill be just so many piles of rubble. With my own hands I should have made these people. Oyyy! Free vill I give them and look how they repay me.” There was a sound overhead like a baby sneezing and something small, round and pink plummeted out of the sky and lay feebly kicking on its back. The Almighty rolled his watery eyes. “Oyyy. Out of the sky they fall like grouse. I got so many cherubim in the sanatorium it looks like a population explosion in a maternity ward. AAAAAARCHHH!”
Satan retreated under the hail of phlegm, distastefully brushing at his tunic. “I didn’t come up here just for the sake of my health, you know ... well, all right, I did, but you’d never know it! Can’t we call a truce until all this gets sorted out? Which is going to have to be soon, because every stitch I’ve got has started shrinking, and it was skin-tight to start with – just as well I’m losing weight.” He eased the crotch of his costume and squeezed the hem of his tunic out like a shammy leather.
“You vant ve should make a pact? An old man I may be, senile I ain’t”.
Satan raised his hands in denial. “Did I say anything about a pact? All I said was ...”
“I heard vot you said. And it sounded suspiciously like there was this ‘ve’ business again.”
“And what’s wrong with that? After all, we’re not so very different, you and me. Opposite sides of the same coin, so to speak. Stand it on edge and give it a good spin and who’s to know the difference?”
The old man choked on a spoonful of medicine, spluttering it out in a spray of scandalization. “Vot? With my own ears I wouldn’t have believed it!”
“It’s not as if it hasn’t been done before,” Satan pressed on. “What about the Agreement? You up here, me down there. If that isn’t a pact I don’t know what is.”
“That wasn’t a pact,” the old man scoffed. “That was retribution ... AAAAAARCH!”
“You call it what you like. Fact is ...” and he leaned forward to press his point home “... fact is, if I have to put any more frozen stiffs in those furnaces, the whole thing’s going to blow, which means there’ll be nowhere else for them to go but here ...” he leaned back and hooked his thumbs where his braces would have been if they hadn’t perished long ago, “... so how do you like them bad apples rolling about the Elysian Fields?”
The old man’s eyes took on a haunted, glazed, look: the sort of look you get when you know that inevitability is cracking its knuckles right behind you and, sooner or later, you are going to have to turn round and take it square on the chin before it stiff-fingers you up the arse. “Oh Sod!” he cried, at last. “Oh sod and damn and buggeritalltohell! I can see ve’re going to have to intervene and send somebody down,” He said. He picked the cherub up by the scruff of its neck. “This is vot ve pay you for? For lying down on the job? Go and fetch Galadriel.” The cherub weaved away uncertainly, blear-eyed, the old man glaring after it. He noticed Satan’s quizzical stare. “Vell! I got a cold. For liverish I can be excused. I bet you done plenty vorse vith your minions down below!”
Satan smiled evilly. “Worse than you can imagine ... but, Galadriel?”
“You got a better suggestion, maybe? Maybe you think I should get involved myself. An old man in my state of health? Maybe you think I keep dogs and make myself hoarse vith barking? I got a sore throat already thank you very much.” He sat down again irascibly.
“Yes, but Galadriel? Isn’t he the one with the tin ear and a bit on the simple side?”
“And like I got a choice, maybe?” The Almighty indicated out of the window where a Heavenly Horde could be seen dosing each other up with medicine with wings that drooped from their shoulders like wet blankets. “Galadriel is just about the only one left standing who’s in any sort of state to do anything. And don’t forget, he’s been downstairs before, as you vell know!”
Satan scowled. “Thank you for reminding me,” he said heavily. “That is an incident I’m trying hard to forget.” Both fell silent for a moment, contemplating the event that brought back such painful memories when Galadriel and one of Satan’s minions, Zelzebub, had been sent on a mission to relight the fires of Hell: Galadriel because of a temporary mental abberation on the Almighty’s part and Zelzebub as a penance because it was he would had let the fires out in the first place, having been entrusted with their care during Satan’s annual holiday. It hadn’t been a particularly illuminating experience for all concerned but had resulted in success, more by luck than judgement. What was even more galling from Satan’s point of view was that Zelzebub had subsequently defected and been enrolled as an apprentice angel as a consequence. Galadriel and Zelzebub had since struck up an unlikely partnership, both being the odd ones out in the Heavenly Horde, and regarded as very much the Abbot and Costello of Eternity (although not in Zelzebub’s presence).
“May I forgive myself," the Almighty said, and unscrewed the cap off another bottle of medicine.
Galadriel was plugged into his electric harp when the cherub arrived at his Gate, a legacy of his previous expedition to save humanity (although not from his music). He was quite oblivious to anything that was going on around him and the cherub had to lift one headphone pad from Galadriel’s ear and croak into it before the angel came down from whatever plane he had been on. “Eh, what? Oh, sorry. Business been a bit slow. Seems to be a bit of a backlog on the stairs. Most of them are having to stop half-way up for a rest. All this flu, you know. So I thought I’d get a bit of practice in. Was there anything?”
The cherub blew his dripping nose on his loin cloth and croaked. “Old man wants to see you ... now. I’ll get someone to take over ... if I can find anyone still standing, that is.”
Galadriel shrugged and stowed his harp away while the cherub staggered off. “Get Zelzebub!” he shouted after him. “It’s about time he did something more responsible than polishing halos.”
Zelzebub looked up from his present ‘privileges’ of polishing a never-ending pile of halos as the cherubim weaved unsteadily towards him, glad of any company at all to relieve the tedium. Being an apprentice angel wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, in his opinion, even if you were a reformed demon. Hands that were once grimed with coal dust from stoking furnaces were now caked with orichalcum polish and it was a toss up whether zombiefied boredom or metal poisoning would get him first. The cherubim staggered over to where Zelzebub sat, idly flicking his polishing rag, and stood there before him, wheezing. “Aaaagh … You ... Galadriel …Galadriel ...Galadriel ... Aaaagh ... Old Man … Aaaagh … now,” he gasped, waving his tiny arm vaguely in the direction of Galadriel’s distant gate … then collapsed in a swoon.
Zelzebub stood there, scratching his head. “Well, I wonder what all that was about? I’m supposed to be telepathic now, as well?” he said and scooped the inert little body up. “One more for the sanatorium, I suppose,” he sighed. “For immortals, they’ve got constitutions like wilting pansies, this lot,” and he trudged off to deposit his charge into the hands of an overworked and irritable Aesclepius. Then, putting the only construction he could on the cherubim’s words, trudged off to look for Galadriel wondering, not without some foreboding, what the Old Man wanted with the both of them this time.
“Well, I can’t help that. That’s what the poor little sod said.” Zelzebub shrugged as Galadriel stood, perplexed. “You must have misunderstood. I wouldn’t be at all surprised, particularly if you’d got that thing going,” he said, looking in the direction of Galadriel’s discarded harp and shuddering.
“But, who’s going to look after the gate? I sent for you to do that. No-one said anything about you going as well.”
“Must have changed His mind. You know what the Nobs are like - he definitely said ‘you, me, Old Man.’ Can’t have it much clearer than that.”
Galadriel looked doubtfully down the golden stairs. “Well, I suppose it’s all right for a while. It’s not as if there’s much activity at the moment. We ought to be doing a ferrying service to pick them up, by rights, but there’s hardly anyone left standing to do it. They’ll just have to make their own way at their own pace, that’s all.”
“Spoken like a conscientious angel,” said Zelzebub with heavy irony, “now come on and let’s see what his nibs wants. We don’t want to keep Him waiting in His frame of mind. A bloke with a cold in a hooter that size could be capable of anything.”
Galadriel hung a ‘Back in five minutes’ sign on the Gate and frowned.”I wish you wouldn’t keep calling Him ‘his nibs’ like that. One day you’ll let it slip in front of Him and I wouldn’t want to be stood anywhere near when you do.”
Zelzebub sniffed. “It’s not as if I’m called into The Presence on a regular basis so there’s not much danger of that. I’m surprised He still knows I exist, incarcerated in that halo store.”
Galadriel drew a scandalised breath as they set out over the Elysian Fields. “I’m shocked you can say that! He knows Everything!”
Zelzebub sighed. “I do wish you wouldn’t capitalize like that. You sound like a raving prophet. You’ll be growing a long white beard and fasting next. What do you think He wants us for anyway?”
Galaldriel shrugged as they walked along. “Dunno. Could be something to do with this crisis I suppose.” He waved an arm at the Elysian Fields stretching away to Infinity. Normally full of contented souls picnicking on manna sandwiches and knocking back the ambrosia amongst the waving grasses, they were eerily almost empty, occupied only by that strange new breed of grey souls that had been arriving lately - not entirely finished with the mortal coil nor ready yet to embrace the infinite joys of eternity, and wandering about aimlessly - or, as Zelzebub had recently been heard to describe it in one of his more charitable moments, ‘bloody miserable sods mooning about all over the place ’ - and with streaming colds to boot.
They finally arrived at the portals and Galadriel reached up and pulled on the bell rope. A sound somewhat akin to Armageddon’s Overture tolled out, bringing forth an immediate howl of anguish from within followed by the hasty withdrawal of bolts. Then the doors swung open to reveal a feverish figure holding its temples. “All right, all right!” it snapped. “Never mind the headache, just ring the bell why don’t you? Did nobody teach you to knock? Better still, did nobody teach you not come bothering a sick person? What is it?” The clerk shuffled back painfully to his desk and buried his head under a towel from which the reek of menthol crystals crinkled the air, setting Zelzebub’s eyes watering.
“The Old Man sent for us?” Galadriel ventured and the clerk raised his head from beneath the towel suspiciously, consulting a diary.
“Oh? And where’s the appointment, then? There’s nothing in my book.”
Zelzebub was used to officialdom, and had his own inimitable manner of dealing with it. It couldn’t be called angelic by any stretch of the imagination, but it did get remarkable results. As the clerk spluttered from beneath the upturned bowl and Galadriel looked on aghast, Zelzebub said “I believe you’ll find He’ll see us now. Am I right?” Recognising defeat, the clerk groped for a bell-push and feebly waved them on into the ante-chamber.
“There’d be a few shake-ups around here if I was in charge," Zelzebub muttered darkly as they took their place in the queue: a queue that was shrinking rapidly as petitioners succumbed to the ailment currently infecting most of the Heavenly Horde and either crawled off to the Sanatorium or were hauled off by Aesclepius’ overworked assistants. It was a combination of that and Zelzebub’s reputation preceding him (as well as the odd elbow and heavy foot) that soon had them at the head of the queue. Zelzebub’s face was a picture of innocence as he and an increasingly embarrassed Galadriel confronted the harassed clerk seated at the doors to the Inner Sanctum.
“I take it He’s in then?” Zelzebub said, indicating the seething, and sniffling, queue behind them. “Only we had a special summons and it wouldn’t do to keep Him waiting. I expect you’ll find the consequences all spelled out in Article 364 Section 29 sub-section 115(m)(as amended) of whatever rule it is. I expect you know it off by heart. I never knew a bureaucrat who didn’t.”
The clerk looked up sourly. “Oh, it’s you is it? You and that long streak with tin ears.”
“Oh, my friend Galadriel you mean? Assistant Gate Keeper First Class, with special commendation? That long streak? Tin ears I grant you, but then you can’t have everything.”
Galadriel opened his mouth to say something but then changed his mind and stood there, beaming angellically. Then, there was the sound of a rasping, hacking cough from behind the closed doors and a pair of false teeth shot straight through the panel, causing Galadriel to duck. There followed a dull thud inside, and then the door burst open hurriedly and a worried-looking figure, dressed in a red tunic and tights and dripping puddles, dragged the clerk inside without a word.