Dying hadn’t been as painful as Mary expected it to be.
The moments just before she died had hurt, hurt beyond anything she had ever experienced – more than getting Malaria. More than when she got shot even. She didn’t think anything would be more painful than getting shot. Her mother had always told her she was risking her life “running around in warzones” – how banal to have died in a head on collision with lorry just outside Hemel Hempstead.
Mary had never been one for religion – which came as something of a surprise to a lot of people she met – she decided at an early age that what happened after death didn’t matter a jot, it was what you did before death that counted, and she’d not given it much of a thought after that.
What she definitely hadn’t expected was the plain white walled waiting room she found herself in now. One moment she was blinded by lights, spinning out of control, feeling the sickening crunch as her ribs folded in on themselves, puncturing her lungs, the stench of petrol hanging in the air, the next she was stood in her best dress and cardigan, handbag hooked over her arm, in front of a desk where a bored red-haired receptionist sat, idly flicking through a magazine.
After a moment, Mary gave a small, polite cough.
The woman at the desk licked her finger and turned the page of her magazine.
“Welcome to the afterlife,” she said in a bored voice, not bothering to look up. “Please take a seat while your paperwork is processed.”
Mary looked around and saw the rows of plastic moulded chairs. A couple of others were waiting, staring into space with the glazed look of all who are forced to sit and wait in a public space. One of them was rocking in her seat. Mary sat quickly, not wanting anyone to think she was staring and being rude. She crossed her ankles neatly, trying not to slide forward in her seat. It was tilted uncomfortably, like the kind of seat used at a bus stop to discourage teens from congregating there when it was raining. She pushed her weight through her heel, trying to counteract the tilt. The chair squeaked embarrassingly loudly. Mary thought she heard the receptionist tut.
At least she had her bag though. If she had her bag, Mary was sure to have her book. She never went anywhere without one, after all you never knew when you end up unexpectedly waiting. Mary fiddled with the clasp on her bag. It was easy to open, usually, just turn the central piece of metal from its upright position to horizontal and the whole thing would pop apart. Only, Mary couldn’t seem to grasp it. Maybe the clasp was greasy from the crash? Her fingers couldn’t gain a purchase on it.
The chair let out another tremendous squeak, the kind that sounded remarkably like Mary had loudly broken wind. She blushed, folded her hands together and tried to sit as still as possible.
She tried to let her mind drift, but one of the other waiters had an irritating cough. It switched between a dry tickly ahem and a full, throaty, phlegm hacking cough, restarting again just as soon as Mary was sure this time it had finished.
There was a clock, somewhere out of sight. At first Mary couldn’t be sure she was hearing it but gradually it got louder until it seemed to fill the room. Slightly off beat, tocktick tock and then, just when it seemed like it had stopped completely, a sudden sporadic tickticktick before settling into a comfortable tick tock for a heartbeat or two before changing once again.
Mary had never been particularly religious. She hadn’t known what she was expecting after death.
But it hadn’t been an uncomfortable waiting room.
She had a brief moment of pain for the child she had been on her way to meet. Mary was the foster carer social services turned to when all other placements had failed, and no one else wanted the child. She took the children that had health problems or behavioural problems or emotional baggage beyond the capabilities of other foster carers. The child she had been on her way to meet and take home had already suffered much more loss and rejection than a twelve year old should, and now she had let him down too. She wondered how long it would be before he ended up in a secure unit, written off before his life had begun.
Still. She had saved lots of kids from that fate. She had thought, when she retired from her humanitarian work, that her caring life would be over, but Mary had never been one to walk by. Her “retirement” had been just as active as her working life, although thankfully with fewer people shooting at her. She fostered children, ran the community garden, and the community kitchen, that gave out food made by the community garden…would anyone think to check the stocks tomorrow? It would be awful if her death resulted in hungry bellies…come to that, who would cover her shift at the school? Children with special educational needs can’t have just any old stranger coming in to read with them, they need time to adapt to change.
But Mary was out of time.
How long had she been sitting here? An hour, a day, a century? Five minutes? There was no way of knowing. Was it too early to ask if the wait would be long?
A sudden phlegmy cough, from the man behind her.
The woman on the desk didn’t look up from her magazine.
A side door opened, and everyone in the waiting rooms sat up expectantly, causing a cascade of multipitched fart sounds from the plastic chairs.
A dark haired man in a black suit crossed over to the receptionist and murmured something into her ear. Mary couldn’t work out what. The receptionist swivelled her chair around and pulled open a drawer in the filing cabinet behind her.
“Here you go,” she handed him the file. “Do you need any more?”
“No, that’ll be all.”
He disappeared through the side door.
An eternity passed, marked only by the disrhythmic ticking of the clock and the tickly coughs from behind, and the intermittent clicking of the receptionist’s nails on her desk.
Mary started to become uncomfortably aware of her bladder. It had been a long while since she had visited the ladies, and sitting there with nothing to think about…
Eventually she could take it no more. She stood up and hobbled over to the desk. Her foot had gone to sleep, and fuzzy puns and needles shot up her leg with each step.
“Excuse me,” she said quietly.
“Already? That was quick,” said the receptionist. She sat back in her chair and folded her arms. “Go on then, let’s hear it.”
“I was just wondering if you could point me in the direction if the ladies?”
The receptionist stared, incredulous.
“What?” she said eventually.
“The bathroom? I need to…spend a penny, you know.”
The receptionist stared at Mary until she felt like a new and interesting species of beetle.
“Are you saying you need a piss?” she said eventually.
“Don’t be so blessed ridiculous, you’re dead you silly cow. You don’t need to piss, you did that all over the road when your brain splattered over the dash. Sit down.”
Mary sat back down, clasped her hands in her lap, and stared at her thumbnails, cheeks burning in shame. She still needed to pee.
“I can’t take it anymore, I’m sorry!” the man behind, the one with the phlegmy cough, Mary thought, though she couldn’t be sure. He leapt to his feet and charged at the desk. The receptionist smirked in calm detachment, lightly filing her already perfect nails. He fell to his knees in front of the desk, held his hands out to her in supplication. “I’m sorry. I really am. I deserve every torture you can possibly inflict on me. Whatever punishment you think necessary. Just please please let me out of here. Let me stop thinking about it.” He began punctuating his words by smacking his head into her desk. “I” smash “can’t” smash “stop” smash “their” smash “screams.”
Blood and teeth littered the desk. The receptionist stretched her hand in front of her, inspecting her perfect nails as the man sobbed and coughed in front of her, his face a mess of blood and snot and tears.
After an eternity she picked up the phone, flicked a fragment of skull off the keypad and pressed a button.
“Hello, it’s Lillith, you ok doll? The torturer is ready for processing when you are….hang on let me check,” She held the phone away from her face. “Oi, nonce girl! No, not you pisspants, urgh.” She held the phone back to her ear long enough to tell the person on the other end to hold on, then laid it on the desk. She walked around the hysterically sobbing man without a glance, as if he were a piece of furniture, and walked up to a woman who was sat in the back corner of the room. Mary forgot all social protocol and turned in her seat to watch.
“I was talking to you,” said Lilith the receptionist. “look at me!”
The woman was curled up on the chair, her forehead on her knees, arms curled round her knees. She was rocking slightly. She reminded Mary of heroin addicts in withdrawal, just as the pain is starting to get too much, just as they are about to break.
“Please,” sobbed the woman “it weren’t my fault, it was Danny, I would never have hurt them! It was Danny’s fault!”
“Pathetic.” Lilith turned and walked back to her desk without another word to the unfortunate woman.
She picked up the phone. “she isn’t ready yet.”
She hung up and went back to her magazine.
“I’m a terrible person,” the man gibbered, looking at Mary as if she could make him good. “I hurt people. I really enjoyed it. Seeing them break. Because of me. The mind games too. I loved it. I loved hurting people. I’m a terrible person. I deserve what’s coming. I do.”
Mary didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything.
Eventually the door opened again and the suited man returned.
“Mr Blair? Along with me please.” He said briskly. He glanced down at his clipboard, then raised his voice, aiming it at the woman in the corner. “You’re only delaying the inevitable Ms Sanderson. And each time you deny it, you’re making it worse for yourself.”
The corner woman sobbed and rocked, covering her ears. Mary felt indecent looking at her in that state, but she couldn’t look away.
“What’s the deal with that one?” The suited man jerked his head in Mary’s general direction. Lilith shrugged a shoulder nonchalantly.
“No clue. Smells weird, doesn’t it?”
“Indeed, how intriguing. No, Mr Blair. You were told to follow, not to stand. Stay down!” the suited man snapped his fingers at the mess of a man trying to stand up in front of him. He immediately fell back to his knees. “I’ll investigate if things haven’t moved on by the time I return for Ms Sanderson. Come along, you disgusting creature, let’s get you processed.”
“Oh thank God, thank you sir, thank you-“
“You’ll miss me sooner than you think, believe me,” said Lilith. “Can you send up a cleaner please doll? There’s brains all over the place.”
Another eternity passed.
Mary watched the flayed , imp-like creature arrive and push the blood and brains around with a dirty mop, and tried to work out what she could possibly have done to deserve going to hell. There was no way this could be the waiting room for heaven.
While she waited for the suited man to return and “investigate” Mary considered her life. She tried hard to leave bias aside and examine it as if she were a historian or biographer trying to give a balanced view. She couldn’t think if anything she had done that warranted hell. Ok, so she did covet Mrs Jenkins rose bushes, but that was only because, great though she was at growing vegetables, Mary had never had the knack of growing anything purely decorative, and they smelled amazing in the evening sun. Surely that wasn’t enough to damn her to an eternity of pain? Was taking that one extra biscuit at the school fundraising meeting last night really gluttonous enough to condemn her immortal soul? Surely, at the very least, she didn’t deserve to be classed in the same tier as torturers and paedophiles?
There must’ve been some kind of mistake.
Mary had been a quiet and bookish child. The middle of three children, she had always just faded into the background at home. At school she had been the type of child teachers describe as “a joy to have in the classroom” – studious, conscientious, considerate. At university she found herself a bit of loner, given that she never got a taste for drinking, and wasn’t into the dramas of the rollercoaster of young adult relationships. She spent her evenings studying her international development course, and her weekends volunteering with homeless people in her local wet centre. She found she was good at working with vulnerable people -addicts and alcoholics and those made homeless through trauma so great that they just couldn’t function under the demands society foisted on them. But she had been committed, so when she finished her studies, she went to Sudan to help the fight against Malaria.
Her aid work had taken Mary all around the world, shown her the true depth of the spectrum of inhumanity. She had never stopped marvelling at the new depravities the human mind could devise to hurt each other. But she also never stopped marvelling at the resilience of human spirit. One time, in Yemen, she had watched as a skeletal mother picked through the cracked concrete pavements, searching for grass seeds to feed her child. She must have been in agony, every movement costing precious calories, no fat to cover her delicate bones. But she didn’t give in. She was driven by love.
Maybe that was the incident that led Mary here. She had stolen a tin of milk powder and a lump of cheese from U.N. stores and given them to the woman. She had been too exhausted to move her mouth to smile, but Mary had seen it in her eyes. That theft almost certainly kept that family going, if only for a week or so. If that had landed her in hell, well. Mary had a few questions about how things were being run round here.
She shifted in her seat, causing a loud screech. Mary barely noticed; she was focused on skimming through her life.
She had taken retirement earlier than some, though she had lasted decades in a job that burnt people out quickly. Her mother had developed dementia and needed full time care. But her sister had a family, and her brother wasn’t prepared to give up his job, so Mary had come home and taken on the task alone. Her mother no longer remembered her, thought she was a nurse who had been stealing from her purse, but Mary endured the slaps and accusations and night time wanderings with a cheerful humour, even if she did cry to herself in the kitchen when no one else was around. Some nights she would lie awake, listening for the cowbell that she had hung on her mother’s bedroom door, wondering why evolution would be so cruel as to keep the body going, long after the mind had departed. Was the relief she felt, standing in the graveyard in the drizzle, relief that her mum was finally out of pain and fear, and at peace, was that enough to have landed her in hell?
Tocktocktock ticktick tick
After her mum had died, Mary threw herself into her local community. She had been isolated at home for years, and although she had never been particularly sociable, she had missed helping people. She volunteered at the local school, for children with special needs, and quickly found she had a knack for helping children that other people struggle to understand. It was all about getting on their level, sympathizing. Mary was good at that. It had only been a short step from there into fostering. She had never had children of her own, but she had 6 boys and 3 girls who came home to her for Christmas, and between them they had 5 kids that called her Nanna.
It had been a good life.
“Please, I can’t take it anymore, please!” The woman from the corner, Ms Sanderson, had finally broken. Mary turned, saw a glance of the woman tearing chunks out of her own face, and screwed her eyes tight shut, turning back away. She hoped Lilith would rush over to the woman’s aid, but she sat, staring impassively.
“Whose fault was it, nonce girl?” she said eventually.
“My fault, my fault, it was all my fault. If anything, I encouraged Danny. It was all my fault”
“What’s your excuse?”
“I haven’t got one, I just liked it. I liked their fear. I liked the power. They couldn’t stop me. I could do whatever I wanted.” She fell to the floor, smashing her forehead against it, time and again. Mary stared at the floor. A piece of bone or tooth or something skidded across the floor in front of her.
“Please make it stop,” the Sanderson woman groaned. “Please.”
“You’re sure you’re ready to move on?” smiled Lilith.
“Yes please, I’ll go anywhere.”
Lilith picked up her phone again. “Ms Sanderson is ready for the flaying room.” She said, and hung up. She went back to her magazine again, seemingly oblivious to the groaning, racking sobs coming from the ruined skull of Ms Sanderson.
Mary was no Angel, she knew that much. She had a fierce temper, particularly when she felt someone vulnerable was being threatened. She had stared down marauding fighters, protected a class full of children from men with machetes by yelling at them until help arrived. She had punched a man, hurting her wrist quite badly, when he tried to grab her breasts when she was trying to fix her tyre. She had even called her boss the c-word, once, in a furious row about resource management during a cholera outbreak. But she had never hurt someone for fun. She had never exploited her power over someone, not intentionally at least. She had always seen herself as fundamentally good, at the base of things. She had always done her best to help people.
There had to be some kind of mistake.
She rehearsed what she was going to say in her head while she waited for the side door to open. When the suited man arrived with his clipboard she stood quickly, smoothed down her skirt and took a couple of brisk steps towards them, wearing what she thought of as her ‘I’d like to see the manager’ face.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I think there may have been some kind of clerical error. I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”
“Oh, you don’t think you’re meant to be here?” he said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable.
“Sit down and think about what you’ve done, pisspants,” Lilith thundered.
“No, I really must protest. I have reason to believe I’m being held for processing for hell, is that correct?”
Lilith snorted but the man said, “Indeed.”
“Well I believe there has been a mistake. I shouldn’t be here. And,” she took a deep breath. “I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge.”
Lilith brayed so hard with derisive laughter that she almost fell off her chair. The man just goggled at her, staring with his mouth opening and closing like a fish on land.
“You know you’re going to hell and you want to see the manager?” Lilith wiped blood red tears from her eyes. “You wanna see the head honcho do ya? Here? That’s blessed hilarious, you’re making me wanna pee myself now, pisspants!”
The man consulted his clipboard. “She’s been here a while, hasn’t she? Any effect so far?”
“No, she just keeps smiling.”
“What’s she in for?”
Lilith‘s scarlet nails tapped across her keyboard.
“Not sure. It just says wholesale.”
“Interesting. I’ll take her in, see why she isn’t reacting. She should be a gibbering wreck by now. Come along, Ms Granges. You’ll have to wait here a little longer, Ms Sanderson.”
“No please,” what was left of Ms Sanderson groaned “please don’t leave me here with them, please. I was here first, please.”
“When Alice Robertson, aged four and a half, begged and said please, did you stop what you were doing to her?” he asked mildly.
The woman went back to beating her head on the floor. Grey goop flew from her head in chunks. Mary closed her eyes, but she couldn’t close her ears to the sickening thunks of her head smacking into the tiles.
“He asked you a question, nonce girl!”
“No” the woman groaned.
“No, I didn’t stop” thunk. Something warm sprayed Mary’s legs. She didn’t look at what it was.
“With me please Ms Granges”
Mary opened her eyes and followed the suited man back through the side door.
“How did she not die doing that?” she whispered.
“How can you die when you’re dead?” he said cheerfully.
The room beyond the side door was circular, with two doors leading off it. The floor was covered in thick, luxurious black carpet. Mary vaguely hoped she wasn’t treading brain into it. She sat on the plain black straight backed chair in front of the huge black desk while he settled into the huge leather recliner on the other side. He pressed a button on his phone and said “Could you please bring me Ms Granges files, Myra.” He pressed another button, folded his hands together neatly, and said
The man’s eyes turned completely black for a second before settling back into a normal, human looking brown.
“Don’t interrupt me, Mary,” he said mildly. “I don’t take kindly to it. I am Mr Fetch, I will be processing you this evening. But first we need to find out why it’s taking you so long to reach awareness of your crimes. What was going through your mind in the waiting room?”
“I was worrying about the child I was supposed to be collecting when I crashed, mostly. He is nonverbal you see, and I’m not sure his social worker can sign, so he might struggle to understand why I’m not coming.”
“Yes, yes but what about your life? Did you think over the terrible things you’ve done?”
“Well I don’t think I’ve done anything much really. Not anything terrible at any rate. I mostly thought about all the people I’ve helped along the way really….I’m not much of a sinner by any religious standard.”
“Everyone is a sinner Mary.”
“I mean, I’ve bought cheap clothes when I had to, and that probably exploited some people, but I’ve always bought fair trade when I could afford it. It was that or be naked, I’m not sure I should be in trouble for that.”
“No, that’s a point. Wholesale on your notes means we’ve probably got you under one of the seven deadly sins. Lust is a very popular-“
“Ah. Well pride maybe, you’re a prime candidate for pride.”
Mary considered. It was possible she had deceived herself her whole life, that her motivations were fuelled not by a need to help people, but by a need to aggrandise herself. She had never really thought about it. She just remembered often thinking as a child that someone should do something about all the suffering in the world, then realising that she was someone. She could do something. It might not change the world, but it was better than nothing. But she had always felt like a slight imposter, like she didn’t deserve the praise her superiors gave her, that she could work harder.
“I don’t think so,” she said “I really don’t. I could be kidding myself, but I don’t think so.”
One of the side doors opened revealing a blonde woman carrying a file. The smell of roast beef and bacon fat drifted through the room, with her, making Mary’s stomach lurch in hunger.
“The file you requested, Mr Fetch.”
“Thank you Myra, that will be all.”
“That smells delicious,” said Mary almost involuntarily.
“Ha!” He grinned. “Does it indeed?”
“Yes, it’s making my mouth water.”
Mr Fetch chuckled, and opened the file.
“Ah! How very interesting. You are a perceptive one Mary. You’re almost right, you were indeed miscategorized.”
Mary perked up. There had been a mistake. Perhaps she hadn’t been meant to die at all, and she would shortly wake up in hospital. Or perhaps someone from Heaven would be along to take her to a more pleasant waiting room, with comfortable chairs and a nice cup of tea.
“You are a wholesaler, but not one of the deadly sins….But why have you come through here instead of with the other click and collects?” he said almost to himself.
He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a perfect sphere, so dark it was like a hole in the universe, dark even in comparison with the completely black room.
“Catch,” he threw the ball up high. As it left his hand it lost its colour, so that by the time it reached its zenith it looked like an orb of water.
Mary held out her hand and it dropped into her palm, cool and dry and smooth like glass. She closed her fingers around it and watched, fascinated, as it filled with pure white smoke, slowly transforming into a white ball with faint veins of palest pink and milky blue. It was , so bright it lit up the room.
“Fascinating,” said Mr Fetch. He stared at it for a few moments then shook his head, and reached his hand out for the ball. The smoke inside instantly turned black at his touch, stifling all the glowing light smoke until once again it looked like a patch in space.
“It seems you are correct Mary, in that you are not a sinner. In fact, you have the purest soul I have seen in the last 700 years or so. Had you died 20 odd years ago, you probably would’ve gone straight upstairs, no messing. One of the best seats in the house I should think. A virgin who has devoted her entire life to service. Saved several lives I see. And you’re an organ donor, so that’s at least 8 more for your record. Delicious. Absolutely delicious.”
Mary grinned. It would all be sorted out. Just an admin error.
“I’m so very glad we got you instead.”
Mary’s smile froze.
“Indeed Mary, I’m afraid you are supposed to be here. You lived a great life. Barely sinned at all. It’s a shame for you. But you sold your soul, Mary. You made a deal with the devil. And it’s water tight.”
“What? I most certainly did not!”
“You absolutely did. Here.” He pulled a sheet of parchment and started to read.
“And I, the undersigned, do willingly, gratefully and wholeheartedly accept the Dark Lord, Prince of inhumanity, gatherer of souls to be the sole owner of the soul of my first born child. In the event I do not have a child, I instead pledge my own soul, in eternal service, to he who is most unholy, keeper of darkness and scouge of man. I understand that this agreement cannot be broken by any means, included, but not limited to, witchcraft, religious conversion, soul letting, sin eating, confession, abatement or redemption-“
“But I would never sign something like that!”
“Ah but you did Mary. At 10.02pm, on March 1st 7 years ago, you clicked a check box on a groceries website that said “I have read and understood the terms and conditions. Look here, its very ckearly marked as ‘first born clause’ it’s in paragraph 57, subsection b.”
“There are no buts Mary. You clicked, you signed, you’re damned.”
He placed the paper carefully back in the file.
“You were sent to me instead of being processed with the other click collected souls because your soul is unusually pure. That’s rare here, so it’s valuable. We need to get all that extracted before your torture can begin.” He pressed a button on his phone again. “Ms Granges is ready to go through now.”
“But, you can’t do this! I’ve been good!”
Mr Fetch shrugged.
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The other door opened revealing a skeletal man, at least 8 foot tall. His grey skin was covered in a thick, jelly like substance, and his face was all jaw.
“Ms Granges is ready for the extraction chamber. Be sure to make certain she is milked absolutely dry before she is sent to corruption please, I dont want a single drop of pure-soul wasted.”
“This isnt fair, you can’t do this!” Mary screamed as the giant creature closed his damp hand around her waist.
“It’s perfectly fair Ms Granges. Any fool knows you always read the terms and conditions.”