I hate days like this, I’ve looked everywhere. In the draws, through the cupboards, down the back of the sofa and I can’t find them anywhere.
Oh, there they are, on the side. I’m sure I just checked there.
Ouch! They’re red hot. They’ve just burned my hand. How can that be? I am standing here desperately blowing on my hand, trying to cool it down. Still, I need to get out, I’m late for work. I need something to pick the keys up with. I’ll use an oven glove.
Oh no, the gloves gotten stuck on my hand. I am pulling and pulling but no matter how hard I try I just can’t seem to get it off. At least I will be able to pick the keys up now. I’m fumbling at the door. Every time I try to put the keys in the lock I drop them. It’s this stupid glove but it still won’t come off.
Finally, the lock turns, I can open the door and I’m outside.
Who is that! She is the most beautiful girl that I have ever seen. I have to talk to her. I’ve gone over to speak to her but she’s ignoring me. She’s far too busy playing that trombone. I am waving my arms in front of her face to attract her attention but she just keeps playing, keeps ignoring me. I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to propose. That should get her attention.
Here I am, down on one knee, confessing my undying love for her but she still doesn’t acknowledge me. Hang on, who’s that other guy? The one acting like a bit of a Lothario. He’s after her also. I am going to fight him for her. I hope this stupid glove doesn’t get in the way.
Fortunately for me, I am a black belt in karate and many of the other martial arts, I’m going to batter him. Hang on he’s a bit tasty himself, he looks like a champion boxer. Our arms and legs are flying everywhere but we just can’t seem to hit each other, must be down to all of this custard that we are immersed in.
The only person among us who seems at home with this sea of yellow is the Olympic swimmer who has been doing lengths up and down the custard ever since we started. You know the guy, the one who always jumps every time he hears the word ‘dinosaur’.
I know that you are laughing at me but let me tell you it’s not funny.
Don’t think that I can’t see you. Sitting at your tables, dressed up in all your fine clothes with your bottles of wine all laughing.
Although not all of you are laughing. There’s the man in the smart suit. He not laughing. He’s just counting backwards.
“Five, four, three, two, one. You are no longer in a trance and you’re back in the room”.
I can’t believe that I have made it this far. The odds are surely insurmountable; I feel like some kind of superhero. I remember little before the amphibious landing craft hit the beach. I think my amnesia is due to adrenaline running through my body. There were hundreds of enemy soldiers waiting for us. Now the whole beach is carnage, strewn with blood and bodies. Bullets flying and shells exploding. I feel strangely oblivious to the horror of what I am witnessing, focused purely on the objective, to capture the beach. Everything else, even my own mortality is secondary. The objective is everything. How I managed to get through the blockade it is nothing short of a miracle. I have done campaigns before. I’ve been stationed in the desert, parachuted behind enemy lines with the special ops to capture a radio station, taken out enemy munition dumps. You could say that I am something of a veteran but this is by far the bloodiest conflict that I have seen.
I made it to the top of the beach and took out the machine gun nest inside of the pill box with a grenade. Inside the concrete bunker, once all of the enemy had been neutralised, I found some stores. I have managed to replenish the ammunition of my pistol and have swapped my rifle for one I found inside. My new rifle is lighter and has a bigger magazine that my previous model. I also found some food I scoffed instantly and it has helped to restore my strength. I ran out of the bunker and vaulted over the barricades that lay behind. That’s when it happened. Judging by the force of the impact it must have been a bullet from a high calibre sniper rifle that hit me right between the eyes. I didn’t stand a chance. The last thing I remember thinking was ‘Bloody hell, that was a good shot’. As I lay there bleeding on the ground a white mist surrounded me. It swirled and twisted into a vortex, into a tunnel of white light and I felt myself being drawn along towards a portal at the end. “That makes sense”, I thought as my soul travelled towards its final heavenly destination.
I have to say that I was less than prepared for what happened next.
I emerged from the light into a very large room with bench seating that stretched as far as the eye could see. On the benches sat various soldiers from all of the ages, sitting in groups. There were Tommie’s from the first world war. There were Knights and Persian warriors I assumed a fall out of the Crusades. There were what looked like Vikings and there were some very futuristic looking soldiers in black armour wearing full face helmets. That bit I could cope with. That bit kind of made sense. What didn’t make sense were the groups of dragons, wizards, elves and talking dogs, that was just weird. A guy approached me from one of the benches.
“How far did you get?” He asked enthusiastically.
I froze. He looked exactly like me. Not in a kind of familiar way. Not even in an identical twin kind of way because in all honesty, even identical twins are not actually identical. No he looked exactly like me. His uniform, his hair cut, his face, everything.
“Pardon?” I said. It was all that I could muster.
“How far did you get?” He said again and then he said “Oh right, sorry, you’ve just come through, I’ll give you a minute to acclimatise”.
“The beach” I stammered, “I was on a beach. There were bunkers and”
“The Beach!” Blurted out my doppelganger “You made it as far as the beach. “Hey lad’s.” He turned to a bunch of identical soldiers behind him and shouted “Pete made it as far as the beach.”
He turned his attention back to me again and said:
“If you got past the bunkers you were nearly there; the extraction point is on a hill just behind them. Then of course you would still have had to infiltrate the fortress, which is no mean feat but if you’d done that you’d have finished”.
“Finished?! What are you talking about!” I exclaimed, I could feel my frustration growing.
“Don’t worry mate, it’ll all come back” said the large blue hedgehog who was passing by with a tray full of coffees.
“What the?” I said to my mirror image friend.
“Come and sit down” he replied, “soon you’ll understand”.
Sitting down sounded like a good idea. Five minutes ago I was storming around a beach in Normandy and now I’m talking to a spiky blue mammal in bright red shoes and spats. I sat down with my look alike to find myself surrounded by many more people who looked just like me. I should have been shocked but after everything that had gone before the whole thing now seemed kind of normal.
“He made it to the beach!” said my new found friend.
“The beach!” exclaimed my counterparts “You were almost out”.
“I know,” I said, “I’ve heard”.
“Still the beach,” said one of my guys on the bench “I didn’t make it out of the desert”.
“You were lucky,” said another “I didn’t make it through the tutorial”.
“The tutorial!” The other’s laughed in unison and I have to confess I laughed along with them. I was starting to feel at home. There was a kind of a camaraderie between us, that and there was a familiar sense about the place, like I had been here before.
“Alright!” replied the poor bloke seemingly regretting his admission. “It’s not my fault, I wasn’t in control”.
“How did it happen?” I enquired.
This was clearly a question that he didn’t want to hear. “I ran straight off a building” he mumbled into his collar sheepishly and then turned away to cover up his ever-reddening face.
“Is it starting to come back yet?” asked a guy from the bench.
“Yes.” I replied. “It all seemed so real”.
“So real!” exclaimed one of my look-a-likes from the end of the bench. “Which part exactly? The fact that you could suddenly take on the whole German army pretty much single handed or the bit where you could be shot repeatedly all over your body and then be restored to full health by eating a loaf of bread an apple and a banana?”
“Give him a break” said another of the mirror image men, “it does look so real now. I mean in the old days when the bad guys were basically made up of assorted blocks and they spoke but their mouths didn’t move, then there would be that voice at the back of your head that said ‘hang on a minute, something’s not right here’ but now it’s much more lifelike. There are shadows that move according to what time of day it is. The sun comes up, you can see the grass move, water actually looks like water. If you ask me it’s getting scarily closer to reality and if you’re in for a while, I think that it’s understandable if you go native.”
That’s when the whole thing came flooding back. My name is Peter Pixel and I am not a war hero, I am an entertainer. You have seen me many times before in many guises but it’s always me. I change my appearance to suit your requirements, it all depends on what game you choose to play next. In this one I was the war veteran, the man who could get hit and keep getting up, the man who goes for days on end without any sleep, the man who can fire a sniper rifle in the wind and take out a guy in a tower a mile away. I was the impossible hero. Who knows what I might be tomorrow? Perhaps I’ll be battling zombies or fighting dragons. All the worlds a stage, well, mine is.
“Pete, can I see you in my office please?”
I was being called into the manager’s office and he looked worryingly uncomfortable about what he had to tell me.
“Have a seat Pete, I’ve got good news for you. You won’t have to go on a vigorous gym training routine for the next one. In fact, we want you to do as little as possible and while you are at it we’re putting you on a high-calorie diet ready for your next role”.
Strange I thought, what kind of hero am I?
“And here’s the new uniform,” said the manager reaching in a cupboard behind him and producing a pair of brown boots, a hat, a red sweatshirt and dungarees.
Christ, it’s hot in here but then I somehow think that it’s supposed to be.
This place is hermetically sealed with no door or windows. I heard once that the average person gives off the same heat as a two bar fire and with the amount of us kicking around the stifling climate comes as no surprise. To be honest, like all things, you get used to it after a while. Most of us have adopted the same attitude, none of us want to be here but we have little choice in the matter and as time passes you become more resigned to the situation. Some still rant and rave but about the injustice of it all but what’s the point? It doesn’t change anything and you just end up winding yourself up. I say that most people here are the same but not all. There is one who is an exception.
Alison is always smiling. She has to do the same mundane tasks as the rest of us but she does them all with a cheery disposition. She is polite to all of her fellow inmates, not matter how nefarious they might be and the woman never stops singing. To make matters worse she isn’t really supposed to be here, you think that that would make you at least a little bit pissed off but not Alison. Honestly, it’s like working with Mary Poppins.
I first got to know Alison back in the day, more by proxy really. I used to teach her kid history at the local secondary school. I also got to know him much later but in a very different capacity. Jamie was a good lad. He was bright and good looking in a roughish kind of way although he was no child genius he just, well shone. The thing about Jamie was that he listened to people and he didn’t judge. He didn’t care if you were one of the cool kids or not he would talk to you never the less and he would listen to you your responses. That’s rare in kids and even rarer in adults. What made him that way? I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I blame the parents, or in this case the parent.
Alison was an exceptional mother. She was always there at the school gate every morning making sure that he had his books and his lunch and that he was ready for his day. It’s kind of unusual for a mum to do that with a boy of his age or even younger, we live in an age where making lunch normally consists of: “here’s two pounds for McDonald’s”. Other kids would occasionally give him grief about it but he would just tell them where to go. In truth, I think the other kids were just jealous and the both parties knew it but Jamie would never throw it back in their face, like I say, he was a good kid.
Once Alison had dropped Jamie off she would then go off to her job at the law firm. She was a part time legal secretary but at night she studied law and she had made good progress to the point that she was about to take the bar exam. All driven by the prospect of a better future. Not for her but for her son. After school, she was always first at the gates, early to make sure that she wouldn’t miss him. Or perhaps the reason why she was early because she did miss him. When he wasn’t there she missed him oh so much. Jamie and Alison had a special relationship, as well as being mother and son they were also best of friends. Parents and kids spa, I watch it all the time, they never did and the reason why was clear. Alison was a single mother. Her husband died during childbirth. It’s unusual that it should happen that way round but it did. Alison went into an early labour her husband making his way back from Afghanistan. On the way to the airport his troop carrier drove over an AT mine, the poor bastard didn’t stand a chance. Alison didn’t get the news until a few days later and she was understandably devastated but left in his place was this small beautifully formed life. I suppose her utter devotion started there.
Not everyone takes to their kid straight away, some people never do at all. You are led to believe that the second you clap eyes on your child that a wave of unconditional love engulfs you and from that moment onwards you are tied through an unbreakable bond. Not true. When I held my child for the first time I didn’t know what to do with her. The nurses asked me if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord and I thought ‘Why? Isn’t that your job? I’m not qualified’. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I couldn’t wait to give her back to the nurses so that I could get back to sitting on the plastic chair in the corner, out of the way. The one with the hole cut out of the back so your bum doesn’t sweat, just like the ones we have in the school. That made sense to me, I was comfortable there. If I am totally honest what I was really waiting for was for my wife and child to be moved to a bed for the night so that I could go out and wet the baby’s head. I never said I was a model father but at least I am honest about it. As it was, over time, me and my kid did become close but for some that bond never comes. They just don’t click. I used to see them at parent’s evenings. They make all the right noises, how they are concerned about little Johnny’s progress and whether or not they were happy at school, but you can tell that they’re not really interested. You can practically read their minds. They’re thinking ‘what is the minimum amount of time I have to spend in here so the teachers don’t think that I am a shit parent? ‘And how soon can I leave for home and a large red?’ If that’s the case then do us all a favour and don’t come, it’s fine. Personally, I think that parent’s evenings should be made illegal. A load of adults parents and teachers alike all sitting in a room when none of them want to be there while their children sit at home shitting themselves over the fact that the teachers are going to tell their parents how little effort they are putting in. Who thought that that would be a good idea?
I think that part of the problem is that now a day we are judged as people by the amount of time that we put into our children. It is like the balance of power has switched. There was a time when we told our kids what to do, now society dictates that we have to do everything that they are even mildly interested in. Football practice; ballet; cubs; swimming; karate. All that time and money because young Susan has now decided that she wants to learn to play the violin and you just know that she’s going to get bored of it the very instant that you actually shell out for the instrument. I think it’s all a bit arse about face. I prefer the seventies when you were allowed to hit your kids or go down the pub and leave them in the car with a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke with a paper straw. I never said that I was model individual either.
Despite her best efforts for Alison it was tough. She was devoted to Jamie and she did her very best to raise him but it’s hard being a single parent and in our neighbourhood, it doesn’t take much for a kid to go off of the rails. It doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slippery slope. Money was tight, Alison’s job was only part time and Jamie set out to make some extra money on the side. He wanted to contribute to the running of the home, help out with the bill and maybe from time to time he would be even to get some of the stuff that his mother was missing out on. The odd bunch of flowers, a new outfit, the things that make us feel human. Now Jamie was no fool, he was the entrepreneurial sort. He knew that the twenty pound a week that he could make from a paper round wasn’t going to touch the sides and his mum wouldn’t let him get a part time job in McDonald’s. She wouldn’t let anything get in the way of his school work. Besides, she would miss him too much. It had to be something on the side, something that he could do without her knowing and something that had the possibility of making real money and in our neighbourhood that meant only one thing. It’s easy enough to get involved in the drug business if you know where to look and our estate you don’t have to look very far. After all, there’s only one reason a teenager hangs around a park on a BMX. All the decent kids are at home playing on their X-box or watching porn on their lap-tops. The ones in the park are delivery drivers. They run the drugs, or more accurately they ride them. You could say they’re pedalling them.
So Jamie became the new recruit. Small time at first he was small time, running drops into the flats into the estate with all of the other part time wasters but like I say Jamie had his eyes on bigger things. He was gaining contacts. In the beginning, when you go to work for a gang, they really look after you, a bit like when you sign up with Sky TV. Most of the youth take their new found wealth and blow it on trainers and bling to show off their new elevated status in the community but not Jamie, he saved his. He had worked out that a day’s wages would buy a nine bar and a months would be enough to buy a stash and then he could start trading. It also gave him a month to build up some contacts for his new found enterprise. So, Jamie went into the drugs game, all with the intention of making life better for his mother, the poor misguided fool. Obviously, there were risks, he knew that. If someone knows you are holding a stash of drugs you suddenly become a target and if the people who are supplying you find out that you are dealing on their territory there would be hell to pay. Jamie thought that he was smarter than that. He would just supply friends, people he knew, people he had met on his rounds that he felt that he could trust.
Problem is, people talk. When it’s late and you can’t get hold of your regular supplier or your supplier is out that’s when someone says “I really shouldn’t tell you this but I know this guy but you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone”. That’s the thing about secrets, people love revealing them, it makes them feel big. I no time what so ever there were people turning up at the flat at unsavoury hours, people he knew and then people he didn’t. He should have denied all knowledge, told them that they had the wrong guy but when someone turns up with money in their hand it’s hard to turn them down. There’s a saying in the business community, ‘never refuse a profit’. Sometimes you should, sometimes you definitely should. Jamie got called in to see the boss. They told him that they were impressed with him and that they wanted to give him more responsibility. They wanted him to do a big warehouse drop. You could see it coming a mile away but once you’re in, you’re locked in. There’s no going back and there’s no saying no. Jamie got to the warehouse with the package but instead of meeting a man in a black Mercedes he met four big guys with baseball bats a chair and some rope. It wasn’t pretty. Big turn-out at the funeral apparently. I couldn’t make it I was working. By all accounts Alison was more than beside herself. Her whole world fell apart, or at least it was about to.
Alison’s grief was inconsolable, why had he got involved in drugs, he was always such a good boy. As it was there was a way. There’s a lady on the estate who has a gift. I know there are a lot of shysters out there but there are genuine people too and I know for a fact that she is one of the good ones. They don’t tend to advertise, it’s kind of a personal thing. Alison knew Monica from the school and fair play to her Monica offered up her services, she could see how much Alison was suffering. Big mistake. Alison made contact all right only to find out that Jamie’s journey through the afterlife was to be spent in the place you don’t want to go to. Turns out celestial entities take a very dim view on drugs.
You have to give credit to Alison, most people on hearing that news would have completely fallen apart but she refused to accept that her child was dead and there was nothing that she could do about it, heavy emphasis on the second bit. It was partly a matter of belief and partly a matter of law. I know for some believing in the whole life after death thing is a bit of a stretch and I totally understand that. I was an atheist until I got first-hand knowledge and once you accept that there is an afterlife, then it is not too greater leap to accept that if something exists then there must be a way to reach it. I don’t mean send a message or make contact, I’m talking about actually travel.
The joke of it all is we have all experienced transcendence; we just didn’t realise it. Again if you might still be sceptical about the whole thing and again I don’t blame but ask yourself this question: If it didn’t exist then why does the term exist? Furthermore, why are there whole monasteries in Tibet devoted to the task? They’ve been there for thousands of years, they haven’t gone bust and they seem to know what they’re doing. Anyway, transcendence.
You know that time when you were lying on a beach or by a pool in the late afternoon sun, you might have had a couple of drinks with the family over lunch and as you lay there on your lounger without a care in the world thinking about how happy and lucky you are, you shut your eyes and rather than seeing dark grey shade a white shade slowly emerges from the bottom of your eyelids upwards. That means that the door is open and with the right pass you can get in. Not that most of us are even aware that it is a door and even if it was we wouldn’t choose to open it. Desendance is understandably quite different. Have you ever had a time when things weren’t going well at all? I’m not talking about that time when your boyfriend dumped you or you lost of a loved one, I’m talking about real despair. Real despair is not always brought on by an event, it can be brought on by nothing. Something stupid that someone said, maybe not even meaning any real harm but something that festers in your head until it becomes all encompassing, it becomes all you can think. Sometimes it’s just a state of mind. For no reason what so ever you just can’t be around people, sure you can smile nicely and those around you would be none the wiser but what you really want to do is go to bedroom, lock the door, shut the curtains and pull the duvet over your head hugging the pillows hoping that sleep will take the pain away if only for a little while and as you drift off into your temporary oblivion what you probably don’t notice is that on the outside, on your peripheral vision, cracks start to appear. Cracks that look a bit like those drawings we used to do as kids. You know the ones when they made you colour a sheet of paper with multicoloured crayons and then had to cover the whole thing in black so that you could then scratch out a colourful image with a compass. A little colour in the black. It’s a tough metaphor for a five-year-old, if only they knew. Well those tiny etched cracks are the same ones that start to appear in the corners of your eyes at times of despair and again that’s how you know door is open, it’s a feeling that Alison knew only too well.
Alison set about getting in touch with the guy in charge of this place and ordinarily he’s not an easy person to get hold of, after all, it’s a hell of a busy job. Monica had to enlist the help of some of her heavyweight friends but she managed to get Alison an appointment with the boss and give the devil his due, if you shout loud enough you will get a personal appearance. Speak of the devil and he shall appear, as they say.
Now Alison’s no fool. She knew the law and she knew how it could be twisted but she also knew that this was it for her. She just couldn’t live with the knowledge of what had happened to Jamie, it was something that would haunt her forever and so she formulated a plan or to be more precise a proposed trade. That’s the way it works, there are three ways to get the attention of the man in charge. You either gamble (which let me tell you is a really bad idea because even if you think you’ve got all of the bases covered, you haven’t), you challenge him to a contest (I’ve seen the boss play both guitar and fiddle and he’s really really good, don’t do it) or you trade. It won’t be a fair trade, that’s the nature of the beast but needs must when the devil drives. Still, it is not a trade to be entered into lightly. We are talking about the most precious commodity in the universe here, your immortal soul. It is your passport, your passport to freedom forever. I don’t think everyone appreciates just how valuable it is. I know of one guy swapped his just to be really good at the mouth organ. That’s really stupid. If you want to be good a mouth organ, practice. How difficult can it be, it’s a mouth-organ. Well, Alison knew what she was letting herself in for and exactly who she was dealing with but she had one major advantage. She set out to lose. She set out to make a poor trade because by making a poor trade, she would make a good one. I’m being opaque, let me explain properly.
Alison loved her son more than life itself, again, literally. She knew from the life that he had led that even with his redeeming features had dammed him and however unfair there was nothing that was ever going to change that. In addition, she was sure that being a decent woman who led a fairly sin free life that she was also only going one way, a fact that would make most people very happy but not Alison. She wanted her son back. He was the only thing in the world or any other that she wanted and she was prepared to trade her life for his. That was the deal that she, take me instead. Her soul for his. Lucy was perfectly happy with the arrangement (we call him Lucy for short, never to his face you understand he’s not the kind of chap that you want to piss off). Of course he was, it was double prizes. I think supermarkets call it bog off, buy one, get one free. Jamie would return to Earth and in return, Alison would stay here but when Jamie died there was only one place that he could go. There is no right to appeal as far as celestial justice is concerned. It wasn’t so much a trade, more of an extension. Alison and the Devil shook hands, the contract was signed and the exchange was made.
That was how Alison came to be here, in the hot, hermetically sealed place we call hell. An eternity of damnation with no time off and no chance of parole. Still every day she smiles and she sings because she knows that someday soon she will have her son back again and when she does it will be forever. She gave up her immortal soul just to be with her boy, that’s a mother’s love for you. To be honest, I think Alison looks on it as a fair trade and I’m sure that her cheeriness is getting on the boss’s nerves, he’s just not used to it. I even believe that he might be regretting the trade, which means that perhaps Alison did get one over on him after all. Hell is like local government, think about it, if you’ve ever worked in local government, it’s Hell on Earth. Ever heard of ‘The Peter Principle’? It’s a real thing.
The Peter Principle is when you get someone in your department who is an irritating incompetent fool. It happens more than you might think, civil servants recruit in their own image. The thing is, you can’t sack them because technically they haven’t done anything wrong and you can’t move them sideways because everyone in your neighbouring departments also knows that they are an idiot and they don’t want them either. The only way to get them out is to promote them, that way it’s the problem of the department above. How do you think they solve it? Same way you did. Before you know it you have a complete group of idiots running the show and if you do ever get someone capable makes their way the top they are not in a hurry to get rid of the idiots because, after all, idiots make you look good. It’s a bit like making yourself look slimmer by hanging around with fat people. Well down here they can’t promote you out, that would be just giving you more power which would make you more irritating than you currently are, there is nowhere to go sideways, it’s all pretty shit and they can’t demote you because where exactly could they demote you to? No, if things don’t work out here they reluctantly (the Devil never gives up on a soul easily) send you back to the point where things started to go wrong and tell you to get it right next time. They ‘let you go’, Alison and her son would be removed and everything would continue as if the whole thing had never happened. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. Surely you’ve heard of ‘the Fires of Hell’.