‘What the ...?’
I was standing in the middle of Tooting Beck High Street, like the proverbial rabbit, watching the number 219 bus hurtle towards me. It was only as it smashed into me that I remembered how to use my legs. Unfortunately, my crushed skull was no longer capable of sending instructions to them. Seconds later, I was standing looking down at my mangled body; There was no way I was going to be able to re-inhabit it. I hung around watching the chaos that my carelessness had caused. A crowd had started to gather. The bus driver sat immobile at the wheel. His face ashen. A young lady was vomiting in the gutter. A man in a suit had taken charge of the scene, whilst talking loudly to the emergency services on his mobile.
If I’m being brutally honest, I felt a bit like a spare part at the scene of my death. I wasn’t really sure what the protocol was. I looked round for a tunnel with a light at the end of it, or a man with a loin cloth and sandals. Neither appeared to be present. I felt bitterly disappointed. I sat down on the kerb and pondered what to do next. As resourceful in death, as I had been in life, I formulated my plan. If God wasn’t coming to get me, then I’d have to get to Heaven on my own. I looked up and down the High Street, wondering which direction Heaven was most likely to be in. There was no celestial corner shop, where I could buy an Afterlife map. I had a choice, Mitcham or Balham. As I was hoping to go to Heaven, I chose the latter.
I sauntered down the busy street, watching for some indication of what I ought to be doing. No one looked at me. On a few occasions, they actually walked through me. This sent my stomach churning and my body shivered uncontrollably. It was only as an ambulance screeched past, that it occurred to me that, maybe, I should have stayed with my corpse. I turned and sprinted back towards my body, desperate to make it before the ambulance left. I was so entangled in my panic that I sent a stocky old man tumbling to the ground. I halted in shock.
‘I hit you’
‘Tell me about it, you inconsiderate bastard.’ His scarred face angry.
‘But everyone else just walks through me.’
‘Yeah but everyone else isn’t dead.’ He dismissed my offer to help him up impatiently. ‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’
‘Back to my body.’
‘Are you the squished bastard up the road?’ I nodded, suddenly feeling miserable. ‘Why would you want to do that?’
‘I dunno. It seemed like a good idea .’
‘Definitely not. It will start to smell and all sorts. No, what you want to do is catch the number 219 to Balham underground.’
‘Balham underground?’ The old man chuckled, as he stuck out his arm, stopping a large green bus in its tracks. I followed him on and was surprised to find that it was packed with unwell looking people.
‘It’s the time of year. Loads die. By the way I’m Arthur, welcome to The Afterlife.’
‘Dave, pleased to meet you.’ He held out the remains of his right hand and I took it hesitantly. It was only then, that I noticed that mine wasn’t in much better shape. Arthur noticed me shudder.
‘Don’t worry you’ll be right as rain once we’re finished our journey.’ He motioned for me to sit next to a skeletal old lady. The bus lurched forward and we were on our way. A badly burnt bus conductor headed towards me.
‘Have you got your oyster card?’
‘But I’m dead.’
‘You still need an oyster card.’ I rummaged in my pocket and to my relief found that I still had it on me.
‘I can’t believe I’m going to Heaven on a bloody bus.’ I muttered.
‘Oi language! If you continue you like that, I’ll have to put you off.’ The conductor scowled and headed off towards the back of the bus. The skeletal woman turned and spoke to me.
‘It’s to reduce the carbon footprint.’
‘We’re going on a bus, so as to reduce the carbon footprint.’
‘Why on earth would God be concerned about that?’
‘He’s not a hypocrite you know? If we have to be green, so does he.’ I shook my head in disbelief. I started to study the passengers around me. In some cases it looked obvious how they had died. There was a man at the front, who was still sporting a large axe in his head. I turned to look at the old lady, unsure of whether, what I was about to ask, would be deemed offensive.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did you die?’
‘Not at all. I died from natural causes, though it took them four weeks before they found my body. I waited until it was discovered, then made my way to the bus stop.’
‘Oh.’ What else could I say?
Soon, we all bundled off the bus and followed Arthur down the steps to the ticket barriers, oyster cards at the ready. There were about thirty of us in all.
‘Keep together everyone, when you get to the bottom of the escalator get on the Northbound platform.’ Arthur instructed. The tube train howled to a stop and we took our seats. It was strange. There were no living people in our carriage.
‘We will be getting off at Waterloo.’
‘Waterloo’ grumbled the woman next to me. She had an extremely puffy face. ‘I don’t see why we couldn’t just hire a coach all the way to Lewisham.’
‘Cut backs’ answered Arthur.
‘Why are we going to Lewisham?’ I asked.
‘That’s where the Celestial Gardens are,’ explained Arthur, opening an A to Z of London and pointing to a road marked Celestial Gardens.
‘Lewisham, but that’s a real place.’ I whispered in horror.
‘Of course,’ smiled Arthur.
‘Heaven isn’t in Lewisham’ I shrieked. By now the other people in the carriage were staring at me in alarm. Arthur smiled at them reassuringly.
‘It’s okay. He’s an RTA.’ Everyone nodded sympathetically.
‘Poor love,’ commiserated a lady, whose neck was at a funny angle. ‘I’ve heard that they have problems adjusting.’
‘RTA?’ I asked Arthur, panicked.
‘Road Traffic Accident. People who have them, always seem to suffer from the most shock, but don’t worry.’ He put his hand on my shoulder, then made his way down the carriage to answer a query from a small, smashed up-looking boy.
My mind was numb. I turned and stared out of the window into the darkness. There was no reflection of me in the glass. I wanted to cry; throw things. It had been a rubbish day. As far as I could tell, I had two options. I could leave the others and go my own way, or I could go with them and see what Celestial Gardens was like. I consoled myself that I didn’t need to stay, if I didn’t like it.
We stopped at various stations and more dead people piled in. One woman made a hell of a fuss about getting on. It turned out she had been run over by an underground train earlier that morning and had developed a bit of a phobia of them since then. Eventually, the tube train rumbled into Waterloo. I lingered behind the chattering throng, no longer enthusiastic to arrive at my destination. Arthur noticed and held back to wait for me, with the funny angled neck woman.
‘Dave, this is Iris. She’s going to be your train buddy.’ We walked together in silence on to the platform, where a large shiny red steam train was waiting. Arthur guided Iris to a window seat and told me to sit next to her. He sat in the aisle opposite. I watched as the train slowly filled up with optimistic passengers. Then it struck me.
‘How come everyone but me knows that Heaven is in Lewisham?’ I could feel the anger beginning to swell up in my chest.
‘I take it you didn’t read your letter?’ rasped Iris, causing me to jump.
‘On the day of your death, you receive a brown envelope through the post, marked private and confidential. It contains everything you need to know, to get where you ought to be going.’
‘The post usually comes after I leave for work.’ I lamented. Arthur nodded sagely.
‘Yes that seems to happen a lot. Though, it could be worse. Poor Iris here, broke her neck when she fell downstairs, on the way to get the post.’ Iris sighed.
‘So everyone receives different instructions?’ Arthur shifted uneasily.
‘Yes, unfortunately so. Some people ignore them and decide to go their own way. Others have to prove themselves worthy. Then there are those who have no option, but to catch the night bus to Twickenham.’
‘The night bus to Twickenham? Is that....Hell?’ Arthur looked upset as he nodded.
‘Funny, I always liked Twickenham’ I muttered to myself.
The train rushed along at a furious pace, not stopping at any of the stations. I began to feel more relaxed and my body started to tingle. It was almost imperceptible at first; a bit like pins and needles. I look down at my mangled hand to see that it was shimmering.
‘Arthur look. What’s happening?’ I looked up in surprise to see that the other passengers in the carriage were also glittering. Only Arthur seemed unaffected. He smiled sadly.
‘You are being restored so that you can enter the Celestial Gardens.’ I noticed that the other passengers somehow looked more beautiful than living people. Vera’s neck was no longer crooked. I laughed, my heart swelling in my chest with ecstasy. The train whistle sounded, echoing the ecstasy in my soul.
We alighted from the train. The crowd’s joy infectious. It was a short walk to Celestial Gardens. We turned into the tree-lined road. It was set up like a street party; bunting hung from the trees, trestle tables were set out sporting a huge feast. A crowd was gathered in the street waiting for us. There were cries of delight as husbands and wives, parents and children were reunited. I stood trembling, unable to pinpoint how I felt. A hand lightly brushed my shoulder and I turned to see a young woman, who looked vaguely familiar.
‘Don’t be alarmed, dear. Remember me?’ I nodded, though finding it hard to reconcile the beautiful young lady with blond shiny hair, with the Gran I remembered.
‘You look amazing.’
‘And you’re as careless as ever. Fancy getting run over by a bus.’ I threw my arms around her and then turned to introduce her to Arthur, but he wasn’t there.
‘He’s gone dear. He cannot enter here.’
‘He is a troubled soul and has to probe himself worthy.’
‘He is worthy.’ I whispered, emotion stealing my voice.
‘I’m afraid that’s not your call to make. I’m sure he’ll make it one day’ She took my hand. ‘Come and see your Auntie Mary and Grandpa.’
‘What about Uncle Jim?’
‘I’m afraid he took the night bus to Twickenham.’