Archive for death

Bones & Stories; Morgue Drawer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by ofherbsandaltars

Magnetic as the moon –

No one could help

But love the lunatic

Who licked faces left and right

And hid every inch of his ongoing plight

Behind smiles and drugs

And the warmest of hugs

 

Now he’s lying cold in a morgue drawer

Lost and gone forever more

 

They’ll slice a V in his neck,

Bloodless flesh

Bleached yellow with death

Crack open his ribs

Weigh his heart, check it for size,

It was plenty big enough – no one’s surprised

They’ll test his toxic tissues

And take slivers of his brain

In that organ nothing will remain

Of the superstar he used to be.

 

Some people want to let the dead lie

And just lie down and cry

Because dead is dead

So sterilise it, synthesise it, powder it up

Take it away – don’t let me smell the stench of decay

But the fact is it’s all true

It’ll happen to you, it’ll happen to me

No one gets immortality

In the flesh

And that flesh, that fleshy vest

It comes off, it gets sliced and prodded

It lies in the ground and it rots

Bloodless with decomposition

Eyeballs fall back, gasses burst free

Veined purple with pooled lividity

Underneath –

That’s all any of us are

In the end.

 

In the end, I want answers

In the end, I want to see him

Even in this state –

It might seem real then

It might be final then

That he’s really gone, forever –

Misshapen and cold on the cutting room floor

In the cold, cold blood-scented air

Of a sterile cold morgue drawer

He’ll never style his hair again

And it might seem real to me

Some kind of epiphany.

 

Is it easier to let the dead live on?

In photos and stories

Of their joyous former glories

Or is it better to tell the truth?

To be perfectly ruthless

And grab it by the entrails

And pull them out until you see

Until you see the end of you and me.

 

I promise I’ll love you just as much,

Cold and stiff on a tray

I’ll just have to love you in a different way

Because you won’t talk back anymore

And your kisses are cold, they taste like frozen meat

There’s a tag dangling from your icy feet –

I’d want to warm you up.

 

Like you’d done something stupid

And taken too many pills

Then gone for a walk, got lost, caught a chill

I’d want to invite you back in for soup and a beer

But you’re never coming back here,

Are you?

 

You’re lying in a morgue drawer

I hope it doesn’t hurt your back

I want to give you a pillow and a duvet in there

But soon, you’ll be ash

Or beneath the earth

Crumbling away, never so pretty as on even your worst day

 

Just bones, just bones

And stories

 

Never forgotten.

I need to know how you died.

I need to know why you didn’t say goodbye –

That’s all.

 

Just bones and stories…

Just bones, and stories.

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Twisted Sunrise, May 2014

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 16, 2016 by ofherbsandaltars

I wish I could go back

To before

I remember the full moon was beautiful

And you were pissing me off

I was pissed off with you a lot,

If I’m honest

You were so far in denial

With the rainbow bandaids all up your arms

The cutesy artwork

Hiding a mess of cigarette burns

And the food, the fucking veganism

Those goddamn healthy pitta-breads

And the endless candy

That you were only going to throw up

The fact you were so obsessed with your fucking self care

With your rituals – your movies, the incense, the yoga, the nail polish

Self care – like a sick joke

Healthy food. Cutesy bandaids.

And we were all supposed to ignore the fact

That you were drinking with your pills

That you had pneumonia more times than I have fingers

That you crashed your car every week for a fucking month

That you’d been disappearing for over a year

Until you looked 67 instead of 32

And I barely recognised you anymore

And your goddamn idiot teenage fans

Those fucking repulsive teenagers, who idolised you

And idolised you even more once you were dead

 

So, yes. You pissed me off.

But I wish I could go back, to before

Before the full moon

Before your brother’s crass announcement  –

Or maybe not crass – he just couldn’t find the words,

But all he said was “Gretchen is dead. She died in her sleep last night.”

Just that. On your account. As a status update.

And I’m sorry, but I laughed at it

Because it had to be bullshit

I saw you drinking cocktails in the sunshine

Just two days before

And you’d been here forever

In my life

So you couldn’t just be gone –

Not you

I thought it was bullshit

 

Because I’d been to that place too –

Hadn’t we all?

Bleeding and emaciated and silently screaming

Eating and puking and posting pictures of nothing

But endless food and our shrinking selves –

The only things we valued

Bones and sinews, and shiny candy wrappers

But it never lasted – it never took anyone –

That’s why I was so pissed off

I was pissed off with you

Because you wouldn’t just move on

From this annoying phase

This dip into idiocy that we were too fucking old for

I thought you’d come back, and then you’d be fun again

I didn’t see it.

That we were too fucking old –

That was the clue, the clue I missed

Too fucking old to weigh 60lbs

To live on alcohol, and pills

And just keep on going

That we weren’t 18 anymore

I didn’t see it

And I’m sorry

I’m sorry for that

 

But I don’t know what I would have changed

I was mean to you, sometimes

Because you were being stupid

And those teenage fools were idolising your self destruction

And you believed your own lies

And I wanted to slap you

So I did, verbally, a few times

I hope you forgave me

But I suppose it doesn’t matter

I think everything was too late

Your collision course was so long in the making

I couldn’t stop you

Maybe even you couldn’t stop you

 

But I wish I could go back to before

Before the full moon

And tell you how much you meant

That I loved you even though you fucking pissed me off

And that I’d miss you forever

And that you mattered

I don’t think you knew that

How much you fucking mattered

Like a goddamn rockstar

And the mourning spread over the whole world

For you, for weeks

You left holes in souls on every continent

 

I see you in every rainbow

In every full moon

And if life ever gets too much

It’s nice to know that I’ll see you again

When I get there.

 

Miss you, G xx

The Dying Ones

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 13, 2016 by ofherbsandaltars

The children were afraid of death, because it seemed so black, so final – it was darkness, the shadows in the depths of the closet, it was the unknown, all those myths of hellfire and damnation, or the booming voice of some frightening, stranger-God who watched you stealing sweets and judged you for being naughty. And above all, for the children, everybody they loved still shared the Earth with them – there were no welcoming faces waiting in the realm of the dead. A child in pain wants their mother, above all things – separation is unthinkable, to go into the terrifying black arms of death, where a mother can never follow, can never comfort. This seems the worst thing of all.

But the old men do not fear death, because it no longer seems like that yawning black void, a fatal drop into the endless unknown – oblivion. For the old men, death had changed, in the way that America, the New World, changed with the invention of the aeroplane. It wasn’t the great beyond anymore – anybody could get there in less than a day. And then people started making friends over there, until the internet was connected and people were talking face to face with those friends across the Atlantic, and that big cold scary sea no longer seemed so big and bad. It became a safe little puddle, just a short hop away, and that was how the old men felt about death. When they lost their first friend, it was devastation, unthinkable – it pierced their shield of invincibility, of childhood. All children grew up invincible, thinking that death was for the old, for the weak, for the grandmas and granddads, but it’s not for us. Not for you and me – we’ll be here forever, or at least until we have grey hair, and we’re riding round Waitrose on our motorscooters, pissing ourselves and laughing about it – that’s how the future goes, for the invincible, staying real, staying true, staying young inside until it’s finally time to go. But then the first one dropped dead, the first one in the gang, and maybe he was only 27 or 32, and that shield of invincibility was shattered forever. And it hurt like hell.

But then time goes on, just like it always does, and death becomes more common. Sometimes it still shook the earth, other times it was just a fleeting sadness to raise a beer to. But by the time those children were old men, death didn’t seem so far away, because there was more comfort in those cold black arms than was left anywhere in the realm of the living. The comfort of their mother was in that place, the great beyond, and so was the bravery, the camaraderie, of all their friends. It was always easier to follow a friend than to go alone. And so the old men knew, if Bob and Dave and Sally and Paul, and Scruffy the dog and Fluff the cat, if they’d done it already, experienced whatever surreal mindfuck really met you on the other side of the great divide, it just couldn’t be that scary. It wasn’t a vague, menacing place anymore – it felt like a trip to Benidorm or Majorca, just a quick hop away, then they’d wander into some hotel lobby, and there they’d all be, Bob and Dave and all the rest, a bit sunburned, cocktails in their hands, and after a few rounds they’d all go reeling up the road to find a decent Chinese. And that couldn’t be so scary, could it? Not if Bob and Dave and Scruffy were there already.

By the time you got old, death just felt like mass immigration. Like everyone you knew and loved had one by one decided to abandon the boring little town you all grew up in, moving away down to the unthinkable chaos of London. Abandoning you, one after the other, until you couldn’t help imagining what London really felt like, with the whole gang back together again. More than that, the town, the realm, that had always been your home, it felt empty now, and cold. Time moved on, everything had changed, and the old men were left behind – the last ones lingering at a dying party. And so, for the old men, death wasn’t that terrifying black oblivion – it was just a triumphant return to an old, familiar pub.

On the Other Side of the Ouija Board

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2015 by ofherbsandaltars

Steven was getting pretty pissed off with the living, of late. Ouija boards everywhere, all these jumped up bastards surrounding themselves with candles, trying to feel like their dull little lives would be a tiny bit cooler if they could just rattle off a ghost story at the local pub. Everywhere he floated these days, Steven found these obnoxious breathers pestering him with their Ouija boards, their ridiculous questions – Is anybody out there? Is Granny Marshall listening? Give me a sign! Admittedly, Steven quite liked that last one – he was getting rather adept at giving them a sign, but they never seemed to cotton on. Steven’s favourite ‘sign’ came in the form of ghostly flatulence – he would summon up the rotting gasses from his decaying remains, where they lay buried in mud some fifteen miles away, and he would release this ungodly spectral fart into the room, directly into the face of his questioner. Sadly, it never seemed to terrify them – they usually blamed it on the dog. Best he ever got was a bit of retching. And then the inane questions would resume.

Is Granny Marshall listening? Well, what the bloody hell do you think! Steven found it endlessly infuriating, how naïve the living could be about these matters. He honestly wondered whether the whole world had gone completely senile – didn’t they understand the most basic fundamentals of time and space, let alone of social etiquette? If they had a friend called Bob, and Bob lived in London, then Bob lived in fucking London, didn’t he? Just because Bob had a passion for Levi jeans, you couldn’t walk into a shopping mall in the middle of California and start hollering, “IS BOB LISTENING? GIVE ME A SIGN, BOB!” No matter how dead Bob, or Steven, or Granny Marshall might be, they weren’t God, and that meant they were never going to be omnipresent. And didn’t they realise the dead had better things to be doing, believe it or not, than floating around the rooms of their relatives, watching them burp and fart and masturbate, year after year, on the off chance that they might finally bother using a Ouija board – Granny Marshall had places to be, and things to see! Things that were far more interesting than watching her grandchild scrolling endlessly up and down Facebook while picking her nose – the kind of spirits who found that interesting, weren’t likely to be the ones you wanted to converse with, as Steven saw it.

Although, of course, Steven supposed it was really the telephone that had fucked it all up – breathers could actually do that these days. They just pressed some buttons, and summoned up any living entity, anywhere on the planet, speaking right into their ear. And for some ridiculous fucking reason, they assumed that ghosts had worked out the same technology. Those bloody breathers thought that Ouija boards were like a telephone switchboard, and that any ghost in the vicinity would happily sit there all night like an unpaid receptionist, wiring them through to any poltergeist, ghoul or shadowchild anywhere on the planet. And quite frankly, Steven thought they should all just fuck right off. In fact, that was his signature phrase – it took a lot of effort to push those damn things across the board, particularly against the will of breathers who inevitably shoved the thing about on their own, spelling out all the drivelling bollocks of their deluded, egotistical minds, but on days when Steven was feeling particularly powerful, he got great satisfaction out of telling them, amidst a sinister cloud of ghostly flatulence, to –

F – U –C – K – R – I – G – H – T – O – F –F

But the thing that Steven really didn’t get, the thing that really, really ground his gears about the whole Ouija board palaver, was why the breathers gave a shit in the first place. Didn’t they realise that ghosts were just dead people? Didn’t they realise how socially inept, bizarre and deranged they seemed, behaving in this way? When Steven had been a living person, no one had found him very interesting at all! Certainly, no strangers had spoken to him on the street, much less invited him randomly into their houses and begun asking him personal questions about their love life. So why in hell did the living do these things to him now that he was dead? Why was talking to strangers suddenly so fascinating, just because the stranger was a dead one? Wasn’t it just a bit weird, to walk into a half empty room full of total strangers – an art gallery, for instance – and suddenly start hollering “HELLO?! AM I GOING TO GET PREGNANT THIS YEAR? GIVE ME A SIGN!” – Steven knew for a fact that you’d get tossed into the loony bin within a month, if you treated the living the way they treated the dead, but with this Ouija board craze, all rules of politeness and sanity went straight out of the window!

Of course, Steven did get bored, and lonely, now and then, so occasionally he’d indulge the whims of these socially backwards breathers, but it was always a depressing affair. No one ever gave a shit about Steven. He could’ve told them a few interesting things, if they’d actually bothered to ask – the dynamics of summoning up a ghostly fart, for instance, or how in cemeteries, the undead got drunk on ectoplasmic mead and told crude stories about all the personal secrets they’d been given across a Ouija board –

“You would not believe it mate, you would not fuckin’ believe it, the shit I was told last night by this girl! I mean, she wasn’t bad looking, all in all, had a bit of a weird eye, been eatin’ too many pies, but I’d’ve done her if my cock wasn’t rotting off in that tomb over there, but anyway, anyway, that ain’t the point, is it? I’m gettin’ off topic here! Point is, she ain’t bad looking, so I told her I was this handsome vampire, you know what they’re like these days, vampire’s the thing to be – so I’m this six-foot tall vampire called Edwardius Prenderghast (that took a lot of shovin’ around the board, let me tell you, but it was worth it!), and as soon as she thinks I’m this muscly sexpot spectre, she starts telling me all this bollocks about her relationships falling to bits, and how she thinks it’s because she’s got the soul of a fucking fairy and no one understands her, and how she’s drinking this iodine bollocks to clean out her third fucking eye – what the fuck is it, mate, with humans these days obsessing over having an extra eyeball in the middle of their fucking foreheads? Oooooh, I’d be an all powerful god if I could just clean up my imaginary fucking eyeball! Flouride in the water what does it, innit, clogging up my fucking mystical eyeball! That’s why I’m so fucking single! Jesus fuck, mate, this bird was bollocks raving nuts. She went off at me for half the night about all this crap – wanted me to summon up a unicorn ghost for her, so I told her I was already riding one, and she got really excited then. Like…sexually excited. And you know I’m up for that, rotten cock or no, but I couldn’t get into it, fact is, I couldn’t stop laughing. Best thing about being dead, I reckon – breathers treat you like the local priest, they tell you fuckin’ everything! And none of ‘em know that every night we’re down here takin’ the piss out of all the total bollocks they spout!”

So admittedly, for Steven and the rest of the dead, there were some positives to Ouija boards. The living got their ghost stories, and the ghosts got their “aren’t the living a bunch of total twats” stories. But all the same, it made Steven a bit depressed. The living were so self obsessed – if he ever replied to them on a Ouija board, they’d just ask him questions about themselves – Will I get a new job soon? Does Mikey really love me? Will I ever get pregnant? – or they made him jump through pointless, stupid hoops – What’s my favourite colour? Blow out a candle! Knock on the window! GIVE ME A SIGN! – or worse, they made it patently obvious that they didn’t give a shit about Steven, and only wanted to talk to a very, very specific ghost, which was a double kick in the eye. For starters, Steven had been polite enough to reply, and they didn’t even give him the courtesy of a five minute chat about spectral fart technology, and secondly, why in hell did they think ghost stories were so unusual? These sodding breathers, why couldn’t they put two and two together? Billions of them on the planet these days, thousands of years in human history – didn’t they realise how many people had died in the world? Didn’t they realise that they’d be tripping over ghosts left, right and centre, every moment of every day, if every goddamn Granny Marshall remained floating about the planet waiting to talk to them across a Ouija board?! It was so obvious, but the breathers never got it – it was a curse to be stuck here, and every time they asked to speak to someone who wasn’t there, who was in a better place, Steven was reminded of his curse – of his misery.

The real reason the ghosts liked to get pissed up every single night and bitch about breathers, was because it made them feel better about their own shitty situation. Nothing cheered up a morose soul quicker than talking about what a wanker somebody else was, so that was what they did, every damn night for all eternity, or until they finally found their way home. What lay on the other side, what lay in the promised land, the earthbound ghosts still didn’t know. Some of them had caught glimpses, and it wasn’t at all like the Biblical heaven – understandably. The humans only knew life on Earth, caged in their bodies, trapped by the rules of earthly physics. The great beyond had a whole new set of rules, and from the little Steven knew, it was surreal enough to blow the minds of all those Bible-clutching breathers. But what he did know, was that you weren’t alone there, not anymore – not ever again. Souls lost their shape there, which sounded terrifying, but it wasn’t really – everyone melded together, until communication was wordless and immediate, until loneliness and misunderstanding and awkwardness ceased to exist, until every soul was immersed and glowing in the everlasting cuddle-puddle of eternal bliss. From the glimpses he’d seen, it was as warm and bright as the haloed flames of a million shining candles, it was a soft feather bed on a winter’s day, the laughter of young lovers, it was gleaming gold and pearl white and rose pink, the colour of peace, the colour of angels, and one thing Steven knew for sure was that no one ever came crawling back to this shitty existence, having spurned the embrace of that perfect realm. But despite all his longing, Steven had never made it there.

The problem with the great beyond, was that it truly was beyond. The laws of physics on Earth were very different to the surreal set of rules in the great beyond. And that meant that travelling between the two was somewhat fraught with difficulty. Every soul had an automatic ticket, precisely four days after the expiration of their fleshly form. Four days, a spirit had, to say his goodbyes, and get ready for lift off, but not every spirit made the flight. Most that stayed behind were bitter and evil, and rather than saying goodbye to their loved ones, they realised how much fun it was to be dead, and sinister, and accursed. They chose to stay behind, forever fucking with the minds of the living. Others remained on earth because they were afraid – fear of change was innate to the human condition, and ghosts weren’t so very different. Most of the spirits getting drunk in cemeteries filled this category – they were comfortable with their world of beer and football, and they couldn’t leave without seeing the next match, without getting a solid confirmation on whether Stella Artois existed in heaven, could they? Then, finally, there were the disorganised spirits, who just plain old missed their flight. Steven was one of those.

Steven had always been disorganised, and it seemed a cruel irony that his disorganisation had not only killed him, but cursed him to wander the Earth eternally. On his final day as a breather, Steven had missed his train, and been forced to take a phenomenally expensive taxi to his business meeting, which as a final insult after shelling out fifty fucking quid, had been ploughed into by a lorry and Steven had been crushed to death between that sodding lorry and a particularly large and stubborn tree. And after that, well, he’d gotten the memo about the Four Day Rule – get back to your corpse for the pick up, or you’ll be sorry – but after spending four days shooting around England trying to get a quick glimpse of his ex girlfriend in the nude, and paying a final visit to his mum’s grave in case she was waiting there for him, he tried to fit in a quick visit to a stripclub to really make the most of his invisibility in the changing rooms, and he got so carried away that he misjudged the time and got there an hour late. And that was that. Stuck on earth forever.

But there was hope now, finally – a slim hope, but hope nonetheless. A crackpot idea had been passed on by an old ghost called Edgar, which all the other ghosts had blown off as babbling nonsense – a way to hitch a ride into the great beyond. It had seemed like utterly deluded bullshit for years, until all of a sudden, Edgar disappeared. Vanished completely – couldn’t be found anywhere. He’d actually made it, out of this accursed place, and into the great beyond. And after that, Steven had been forced to believe. Edgar’s theory had been that a newly-dead soul had passage to the great beyond, obviously – that golden one-way ticket – and perhaps, that soul could bring a passenger along…but only if both souls were willing. This was where the challenge lay, he had said, remorsefully. Four days was all you had, to track down a freshly dead soul, and befriend it so hard it would risk its own everlasting happiness to bring you along with it. Which, of course, was complicated even more by the fact that newly dead souls were so damn busy during those four days – so many relatives, so many friends, to say goodbye to; most of them floated about weeping piteously as they watched their wives and children grieve them. It wasn’t really the best sort of time to sidle up and start with the New Friendship Conversations, asking them what team they supported, whether they’d read a good book before they kicked the bucket, that sort of thing. They’d usually just stare at you with reddened eyes, and tell you to fuck right off.

So, although Steven had the formula, he was well aware that it might take months, years, even decades. Edgar had been trying since 1976, before he finally vanished into the great beyond. And after a long period of depressing failures, Steven had decided that the only way to preserve his sanity was to take the occasional break. Three weeks out of every month, he haunted the local hospital – an obvious breeding ground for newly-ejected souls. This way, he could float about, reading patients’ charts and listening to doctors, getting an idea of who was likely to croak. Then, he’d stay in their room for days on end, getting to know the dying one, and all their family members, so that as soon as they dropped dead, he could behave as though he was their guardian angel, watching over them, ready to ease their transition from the trauma of death, towards the eternal bliss of the great beyond. His approach was getting pretty well polished now, but it was still slow going. Ghosts were as unpredictable as breathers, and in a hospital like this, Steven had plenty of competition – all too often, the newly dead would latch onto a ghost in the same situation, frequently another ex-breather they’d known in the hospital. They were in the same boat, and Steven couldn’t compete with that. It was a long and frustrating crusade, and as a result, Steven had begun taking one week off in every month, just to keep himself halfway sane.

But between the hospital trips, and all these sodding Ouija boards, Steven was getting more and more pissed off with the living. All those poor unfortunate bastards dying in hospital beds, full of regrets, scrabbling to make amends to those they’d hurt, those they’d ignored. And then out here, in the world, all the healthy breathers were just carelessly pissing their lives away, huddled over that damned Ouija board, obsessively harassing the ghosts of total strangers. If they were so desperate for conversation, why didn’t they talk to their lonely old neighbour instead? Why didn’t they do some good on Earth instead of relentlessly pestering imaginary entities, or talking to ghosts who thought they were deluded fucking wankers? Wasn’t there something better they could be doing with their precious, limited time? Instead of trying to talk to the ghost of Granny Marshall when it was much too goddamn late, why didn’t they go and visit their mum instead, so that when she died, they wouldn’t have any regrets – they’d just let her drift off into the afterlife, where she was supposed to be. Round and round they went, in this shambolic, idiotic spectacle – obsessing over the realm of the dead, obsessing over the ghosts they’d wronged, ghosts who’d moved the hell on, whilst continuing to blunder through their real lives, ignoring all the other people, the living people, who needed them so much more.

It was a pretty infuriating thing to watch, night after endless night, and the only things Steven could do to keep his sanity intact were to spend half his week off getting pissed up in the cemetery with the other lost causes, and the rest of the time, he would vent his wrath through the medium of spectral farts and snarky Ouija board messages like

S – U – C – K – M – Y – D – I – C – K

and

Y – O – U – F – U – C – K – I – N – G – P – I – L – L – O – C – K

But mostly, Steven just kept his eyes on the prize. He had the solution now, the recipe for success – eventually, he would vanish, just like Edgar, into the eternal bliss of the great beyond. And so, when the breathers drove him mad, he tried to satisfy himself with that, with the knowledge that soon he would be free of all these imbeciles, the dead and the living alike. All these misguided prats huddled over their spooky boards, they’d find out soon enough. And by then, Steven would be long gone, basking in the candlelit warmth of his hard-earned afterlife.

Soon enough, they’d see.

 

Paradise

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 21, 2013 by ofherbsandaltars

It was Sunday, and Ray was feeling good about life. He had slept in until midday, and when he finally crawled out of bed and opened the curtains, the sky was a perfect shade of endless blue, the garden a vivid green paradise in the sunlight, and he barely felt hungover at all. And last night – last night had been fantastic. Colin had brought his cousin Kerry to the club, and even though Ray hadn’t seen her since Colin’s wedding three months ago, she had come bounding up to him and given him a hug. They spent all night drinking Jagerbombs and dancing together, until Kerry grabbed him, pulled him towards her, and kissed him hungrily, Aerosmith pounding out of the speakers, her mouth tasting of the strawberry fizz of redbull, her skin hot and damp and alive, pressed up against him. Finally, sweaty and euphoric, they stumbled out into the cool night air, where they sat on a wall, smoking Kerry’s Marlboros and talking about everything and nothing, as they watched drunken partygoers stumbling down the neon-lit stretch of the road opposite.

Ray smiled as he padded into the kitchen, pouring himself a cool glass of orange juice and tossing three rashers of bacon into a frying pan, his thoughts still tangled blissfully in the events of last night. The orange juice tasted like liquid sunshine, frying bacon filling the kitchen with a mouthwatering smoky aroma, and to Ray, it seemed the beginning of a new life. It was summertime, and finally it felt good to be alive. For too long he had dwelt in the shadows, in the rubbish-strewn dump of his chaotic bedroom, marinating in the odour of his own sweat, his t-shirt feeling soft and damp from weeks of constant contact with his unwashed body.

For a moment, Ray felt a flicker of remorse, a sinking sensation of guilt at his own happiness, but he quickly quashed it – Anita would have wanted him to be happy. However uncomfortable and depressed Anita’s Christian funeral had made him, it was what she had believed – that she was going to heaven to be with God and the angels, and that death should not cause sadness, because the dead were smiling down on the living, waiting to be reunited in the lush meadows of God’s eternal paradise.

In the pews around him, Anita’s family and church-going friends had been singing with an enthusiasm borne of burning faith, their faces uplifted, eyes closed as they swayed slowly, letting themselves drift away on the current of heavenly love. And Ray had felt his heart shrivel into a cold grey rock, sinking hopelessly into the pit of his stomach, because he knew it was a load of crap. He wanted to believe, had never wanted anything more in his entire life than to believe it – that Anita was up there, her short blonde hair gleaming with heavenly light, smiling down on him. That she was happy and whole, being cared for with the utmost fatherly affection by a white-bearded man with twinkling eyes, who would love her and keep her safe until the day that Ray finally came to join her. But he just couldn’t do it, couldn’t erase the black cynicism from his heart, the myriad niggling details that just didn’t make sense. How could Ray believe in this loving, protective father-god, when he had let this happen to Anita? Anita, who prayed every morning and night, who never killed spiders or took His name in vain, whose one Earthly sin had been allowing Ray into her bed without the blessing of holy matrimony?

Pure and loving, shining with the inner light of unwavering faith, Anita had kissed Ray goodbye that Friday night, her mother and father driving her away to Suffolk in the gleaming burgandy horsebox. In the back, rugged and bandaged and spotless, was Sunny, 16 hands of muscled horseflesh, industriously tearing mouthfuls of hay from a bulging haynet. Anita always said a prayer before a competition, leapt on board her gleaming horse aglow with Christian faith, but on that one unremarkable Saturday, God had turned his back.

Ray was told the story by her father, afterwards, and despite the terminology that was nonsense to him, he got the general gist. They had been three fences from home when they came to a double with a hidden drop beyond the second obstacle. Something had spooked Sunny as they approached, a spectator in a brightly coloured t-shirt, a bird erupting from the trees – they would never know. He threw himself over the first diagonally, and as Anita hauled him back into line, he tripped, stumbled, regained his footing, and launched himself into the air, but it was a split-second too late. The horse’s front legs slammed into the solid wooden obstacle, the power of its own forward momentum flipping them over in a horrifying somersault, and they tumbled helplessly six feet down to earth. Anita smacked into the packed mud, half a ton of horseflesh crashing down on top of her, cracking her ribs, puncturing her lungs, shattering her pelvis. Sunny had staggered to his feet, shaken himself, and cantered away towards the finish, reins and stirrups flapping loosely around his empty saddle, but Anita was dead before they got her into the ambulance.

When Ray drove to the hospital to say a hopeless goodbye to her cold, stiffening body, her mother hugged him, smiling through her tears. Anita is in heaven now. Anita’s in a better place. And Ray knew that it was crap, wanted to scream at her that it was all just crap, that Anita was dead and gone and about to be buried forever beneath the cold uncaring mud, and nothing would ever be alright again.

Ray drained his glass of orange juice, firmly banishing the familiar misery to the corners of his brain, fixing his mind on the glowing amulet of last night. Maybe next weekend he would invite Kerry home with him, and on Sunday they could have slow, luxurious sex before strolling out, rumpled and deliciously satisfied, to the local pub. They would sit in the sunshine, sipping cold lager and eating thick, salty chips, as they watched gleaming houseboats glide along the sun-dappled water of the canal. The idea made Ray smile. He could almost taste the cold lager, see the pale amber liquid glittering in the sunshine, and it was so tempting that he padded back to the bedroom to pull on some clothes. He would sit in the sun with a pint and a book – a peaceful beginning to a beautiful summer, and a wonderful new life.

Outside, the warm summer air carried the scent of freshly cut grass, a faint delicious waft of barbequeing sausages, the gentle hum of a lawnmower. Ray slipped on his sunglasses, the dark lenses lending a warm sunset tint to the bright blue sky and vivid greenery, and he strolled at a leisurely pace towards the pub. He passed his elderly neighbour, out walking his scruffy white dog, and they exchanged jovial, meaningless chatter for a few minutes, before Ray continued on his way, stuffing his earphones into his ears and starting up Bob Marley. Every little thing’s gonna be alright, sang Bob, and Ray believed him, smiling as he wandered slowly down the sunlit street, over the peak of the humpbacked bridge, and the pub drifted into view, warm red bricks overlaid with lush green ivy.

As Ray strolled across the empty road towards the pub, he didn’t hear the heavy rumble of the lumbering furniture van on its blind approach to the bridge, still immersed in the laid-back sunshine vibes of Bob Marley, walking peacefully to the reggae beat. He was wondering whether to get the garden burger or the fish and chips, when the van loomed over the crest of the hill, and bore down on top of him. The impact smacked the air out of his lungs, hurled his soul right out of his body even before his torso was crushed beneath the front wheels, mangled beyond all hope of recovery. Ray stood in the road, in the strange weightlessness of his naked soul, and at first he was so confused, he just kept walking towards the pub. But then he heard the moans of horror and panic from behind him, and he turned back. The front of the lumbering white van was splattered with fresh blood, and a sprawled arm protruded from underneath it, the knuckles scuffed and bloody.

And then Ray knew, with horrible certainty. He recognised that wristwatch, recognised the strong, stout fingers that had been a part of him for 26 years, saw them lying bruised and abandoned on the hot tarmac. I’m dead, Ray thought, feeling bemused. I’m dead, and I only wanted a fucking beer!

Before Ray could fully comprehend the gravity of the situation, he found himself being pulled away against his will, drifting slowly and unstoppably upwards into the perfect blue sky, leaving those splayed, bloodied fingers behind him, and he struggled against the unseen force with all his strength, fighting to return to the ruined flesh of his broken body. There were so many things that he needed to do, and the sheer inconvenience of it all infuriated him. He wanted that cold beer, and now he came to think of it, he had decided upon the garden burger, and he wanted that too! He hadn’t fed the goddamned goldfish, and he still had three episodes of Breaking Bad to watch – this entire thing was just ridiculous. A wave of panic and mortification flooded through him as he remembered that his fleshlight was lying underneath the bed, and now someone was going to find it! It would probably be his mother – this was just ludicrous! And then he remembered Kerry, remembered all the things he wanted to tell her, to share with her, and as the image of her drunken, laughing face drifted across his vision, he howled at the unfairness of it all, hurling himself downwards, flailing his fists, but it didn’t make the slightest difference. The van was receding beneath him, the sunlit street drifting irrevocably away, the world shrinking to a toy map of vivid greenery and wiggly grey roads as he rose higher and higher, cursing and screaming and kicking, into the endless blue of the sky.

As Ray floated helplessly through the summer sky, the entire Midlands spreading out beneath him, lush green countryside and tiny grey toy cities, his fury died down into peaceful awe. He was soaring like a bird, like an angel, the endless blue sky his own personal playground, and he began to think that maybe being dead wouldn’t be so bad after all. He had always wanted to try skydiving, but had never quite worked up the nerve. And now he was doing it, and it was even more beautiful and exhilarating than he ever could have guessed. He let out a joyful whoop, rolling gleefully around in the warm summer air, stretching out his arms and legs like a starfish, the breeze fresh on his skin. His hands looked the same as they ever had, unmarred by bloody scuffs, and he thought that maybe, this was better than surviving the accident – lying in an itchy plaster cast in a hospital bed, marinating in pain and boredom, permanently crippled. He grinned widely as he considered all the wondrous possibilities open to the newly dead. He could wander into the girls’ changing room at the local gym, and stare openly at the naked, youthful flesh, uninhibited by laws or social convention. Maybe he could even swim to the bottom of the sea and witness the behaviour of weird, alien fish. He could visit Thailand and Australia, fly to the top of Mount Everest! But the unseen force was still dragging him away from the Earth, and he had no idea where it might be taking him, or whether he could ever return.

Ray rolled over in the empty air, and realised that he was being pulled towards an enormous cloud, vast and luminous in the perfect blue of the summer sky. As he drifted closer, he saw that it was shimmering with strange rainbow tones as though the spectrum was splitting into a myriad of colours, shining from within with an unearthly light. Anita’s funeral flashed through his head, the nonsensical bible quotes about God and the angels, and he laughed out loud at the insanity of it all – Anita had been right! The strange, ridiculous fairy stories bound within that dusty old book – they were all true. Ray was going to heaven, and if he had been deemed good enough, then Anita was definitely there too, had probably been given a vast, sprawling mansion at the heart of God’s paradise!

Ray hastily smoothed down his hair and straightened his t-shirt, preparing himself to meet God or Jesus or the Angel Gabrielle, strongly hoping that Anita had put in a good word for him. Maybe she would be waiting there personally, ready to welcome him inside! Fizzy with anticipation, Ray let himself drift towards the vast, pearly cloud, until he was swallowed into the heart of it, his vision filled with shimmering rainbows.

As Ray drifted out of the cool, glimmering mist, he saw ahead of him towering walls of pure white stone, gleaming with a subtle pink pearlescence. They stretched out into the distance in both directions, standing atop a blanket of cloud, miles above the vague greenness of the world below. At their midst were two vast, imposing gates, wrought from ornately carved gold that glinted in the sunlight, and though they were in the distance, they appeared to be slightly ajar, as though awaiting Ray’s entrance. As he floated slowly towards the gates of heaven, Ray’s eyes began to fill with tears of awe, tears of joy at all that he was about to behold. Maybe his childhood cat, Mr Snuffles, would be there, along with his Nan and Grandad, all gathered to greet him, and they had so much catching up to do. And not just his own loved ones, but his idols – Kurt Cobain, Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde, Joey Ramone, all hanging out together in a bizarre mingling of intergenerational genius. Winston would be sporting a huge green mohican as he proclaimed Oscar Wilde’s eloquent rap lyrics to the angels, with all the stage presence of a world leader, accompanied by Beethoven on an electronic keyboard, Socrates and Cleopatra and Margaret Thatcher whirling madly around in a stomping, kicking interpretative dance of heavenly euphoria!

But as Ray drifted up to the gleaming golden gates, he began to feel slightly confused. On closer inspection, the gold paint was chipped and peeling, exposing patches of dull grey steel. The mighty walls of pearlescent white stone had been scribbled on, were hashed and smudged with spraypaint tags and felt tip scribbles. Scattered around on the cloud at their base were empty beer cans, cigarette butts, ketchup-smeared paper plates. It looked more like the end of Glastonbury festival than the entrance to eternal paradise. Ray’s feet touched down on the cloud, and his body became his own again, the unseen force no longer dragging him forwards. The cloud beneath his feet was solid and slightly dirty, and he walked up to the gates, tentatively pulling one back. It opened with a rusty, scraping creak, and he stepped inside. Before him, a deserted mud track stretched out, overgrown with weeds at its edges, litter scattered about and stacked in vast piles. The track was bordered by woodlands, but the trees were bare, their bark an unhealthy shade of grey, marred by strange clusters of sickly lesions. Ray stared around himself in confusion, until he heard a cough from behind him.

He whirled around to find a bored looking guy with long, tangled, dirty brown hair sitting slumped against the graffiti-smeared wall, a can of beer in his bony hand. He was watching Ray with a resigned expression, and he drained the dregs of his beer can, tossing it into the dying trees and dragging himself to his feet. He let out a weary sigh, and stuck his hand out, stating unenthusiastically,

“Hello Ray. Welcome to heaven.” He rolled his eyes slightly on the last word, giving Ray an apologetic half-smile.

“Hi…” Ray replied, frowning. He took the man’s grubby hand and shook it, not knowing what to say.

“Not what you were expecting, huh?” the guy asked, in a tone that made it obvious he had endured this conversation a thousand times before. He gave Ray a wry smile, continuing in a mildly hysterical American accent, “But where are all the angels? Oh, but it’s so dirrrty! Where’s Gahhhd, I need to speak to Gahhhd!”

Ray laughed despite himself, but after a moment he cut himself off, wondering whether this was some kind of perverse morality test, before being admitted entrance to the real heaven.

“Are you God?” he asked, as politely as he could.

The guy let out another snort of laughter, stating wryly,

“Only as much as you are. God is in everyone, etc etc…”

After a moment, he let out another weary sigh, and added rather reluctantly,

“Name’s Jesus. Don’t freak out about it.”

“Oh wow!” Ray spluttered, taken aback. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognise you, I mean I didn’t, oh god, I mean, shit! Sorry!” He cringed, forcing himself to stop babbling, convinced that at any moment the dirty cloud beneath his feet would break open, and he would be plunged down into the depths of hell.

“Relax,” Jesus said, smiling slightly. “He’s not here to hear you.”

He bent down and picked up a fresh beer can that was standing at the foot of the grubby wall, and he offered it to Ray. Ray took it hesitantly, still unsure if he was being tested, and cracked it open. He took a swig, and grimaced slightly – it was warm. Jesus apologised, reaching out one thin, dirty finger, and Ray instantly felt it become ice cold, condensation frosting the sides of the can.

“Thanks!” he said, taking a more enthusiastic swig. Now that it was cold, it was the most delicious lager he had ever tasted, and he held up the gleaming silver can to read it, but there was nothing on it except a large halo, which shimmered with rainbow tones in the sunlight. “Great beer,” he added, trying not to laugh at the sheer insanity of getting drunk with Jesus Christ.

Jesus nodded, retrieving a second can for himself and cracking it open. He took a sip, and started walking down the mud track, gesturing for Ray to follow. After a few moments of silence, Ray began hesitantly,

“You said…God’s not here? Isn’t he everywhere?”

Jesus sighed, and took a large swig from his beer can.

“You religious?” he asked, glancing across at Ray.

Ray frowned, wondering how honest he should really be in the presence of Jesus Christ.

“I haven’t…been to church, in a while…” he said slowly. “But obviously I believe now. I’m sorry I didn’t always.”

Jesus nodded, taking another sip of beer.

“God’s gone,” he stated flatly. “He left a long time ago.”

“Gone?” Ray repeated, frowning.

Jesus glanced across at him with an apologetic smile.

“This isn’t his only world, these days. He’d been getting pretty stressed out about this one for a while, disappearing into his studio for years on end, creating mad things that he just hurled thunderbolts at. I told him he should go down there, perform some miracles, get in touch with the people again, but he wasn’t big on the idea.” He glanced quickly up at the summer sky as though checking for witnesses, adding in an undertone, “Way I see it, people were getting too evolved. Some of the things you guys have invented, even he didn’t see coming. Dented his ego a bit. Why do you think they call it a God complex?” He let out a mirthless laugh, taking a sip of his beer. “Back in the beginning, it was a simple place full of simple people, and all they had was what he gave them, hills and rivers and sunshine, and the whole thing was his baby. Now, more of it’s made by them than by him, and I guess he just felt a bit irrelevant.”

“Is he coming back?”

Jesus shrugged. “Who knows. Wouldn’t hold your breath.”

“But he left you here too? You’re his son!”

“Only as much as anyone else is,” Jesus replied, with a wry smile. “He really cared for Adam and Eve, talked about them a lot, but by the time I came along he was father to millions of humans, and I was closer to Mum and Joe than I was to him. When he left me down there to get crucified, all that nastiness, we had a big bust up. I kept telling him I couldn’t do the whole thing on my own, that he needed to go down there himself and really shake things up, but he was always obsessed with the mystery and melodrama angle.” He rolled his eyes. “When he told me he was leaving, going to this other world, where I’d never even been, he wanted to send me down there to get martyred all over again, and I said no thank you. So he left me here.” He lapsed into silence, frowning slightly as he drained his beer can and tossed it into the dying trees.

“Is that why everything’s so…” Ray trailed off, making a helpless gesture with his beer can, not wanting to offend Jesus by being overly explicit.

Jesus sighed, abruptly dumping himself down in the weeds at the side of the mud track, and pulling a pack of rolling tobacco out of his pocket. Ray sat down next to him, and was surprised when Jesus started rolling a joint, his bony fingers working with skilled dexterity.

“There’s only so much I can do,” Jesus stated, pausing to run his tongue along the rizla. “Water into wine, everlasting beer, that’s about my level. I can do enough to keep things running, but I’m not God.”

He sparked up the joint with a flick of his purple lighter, and exhaled a vast cloud of weed smoke, continuing bleakly,

“The disappointment’s killing the trees. Heaven was always a self-perpetuating state of bliss – God made paradise, and the happiness of the souls kept it that way. But now, everyone who rolls up here sees the state of the place, and I have to give them this depressing spiel-” he glanced at Ray with a crooked smile, adding conspiratorially, “I sugarcoat it for the really religious ones, so they don’t freak out, but I’m giving it to you straight. There’s just this constant bleak vibe of eternal disappointment. Paradise can’t run on misery.” He took another huge drag on the joint, and passed it to Ray.

They smoked in silence for a while, and soon the sickly, dying trees didn’t seem so bad to Ray. The sun was still shining, he was getting stoned with Jesus Christ himself, and the promise of eternal beer wasn’t to be scoffed at. Soon though, his mind drifted away from the mystery of a missing God, and back to his family and friends.

“Is Anita here?” he asked, passing the soggy end of the joint back to Jesus. “Is she waiting for me?”

Jesus frowned slightly, taking a final drag on the joint and stubbing it out in the weeds. After a slight pause, he gave Ray an apologetic smile.

“I told you it’s always harder on the religious ones,” he said thoughtfully, gazing up at the summer sky. “All their life they’ve been praying to God, preparing for heaven, and they roll up here all excited to find he’s abandoned them. It’s a tough pill to swallow. They don’t stay long, and your Anita, she left a few months back. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, man.” He laughed bitterly, adding under his breath, “Not that I ever do anything else, these days…”

“She left?” Ray repeated, frowning. “To go where?” His eyes widened with horror, and he demanded, “She’s not in hell is she?”

Jesus laughed, shaking his head. “Not many people go to hell these days. You’ve got to be a real piece of work to end up there now, and it’s not a permanent thing anymore – God created hell on a really melodramatic day.” He rolled his eyes slightly, than he gave Ray a sympathetic smile, explaining, “Anita went back to Earth. Maybe if she’d known you were coming so soon, she might have waited, but seeing the future isn’t part of my skillset. Right now, she’s a bouncing baby boy of four months old, name of Charlie. Nice parents, I saw to that.”

Ray stared at Jesus in confusion, feeling like he had somehow stumbled into the most surreal stoner movie ever made, and beginning to get the strong impression that he wasn’t enjoying it.

“Anita’s a boy now? Like, reincarnated? As a boy?”

Jesus shrugged. “You were a girl the time before last. Your name was Gia, and you lived in Italy. It’ll probably come back to you if you stick around long enough.”

“I’ve been here before?” Ray asked, surprised. “How many times have I been reincarnated?”

“Not that many, you’re pretty new, as things go. Since God left, the whole reincarnation thing’s got a bit messy. Used to be a pretty rare thing, for people to go back for a second go, and as soon as they got back up here, they remembered everything – all their lives. Gave them a lot to think about, and they’d stay for centuries, catching up with all their relatives. No one wanted to leave, not really. But now, the state the whole place is in, people can’t wait to get out, and there’s so much traffic both ways I just don’t have the power to sort everyone out, so most people don’t remember further back than their last life. The weird thing is, people seem to remember more than they used to, when they get back down there. People are more afraid of dying, these days, because on some level they know there’s nothing to come back to. That’s why the population’s skyrocketing, everyone breeding like rabbits, through the subconscious instinct to keep their loved ones down on Earth, where there’s still hope.”

Ray frowned at Jesus for a long time, trying to comprehend everything he was being told, and Jesus gave him a sympathetic smile, his hazel eyes warm. But before he could say anything, there was a fluttering sound above them, like the beating wings of a vast bird, and a large something tumbled out of the sky, crashing down in the weeds in a chaotic sprawl of white feathers. Ray stared, wide eyed, and the feathery shape rolled over, sitting up slowly in front of them. It was a thin, topless boy with long, tangled, white-blonde hair, his pale skin luminous in the sunshine. His eyes were the sparkling aquamarine of a Mediterranean sea, dominating his fine-boned features, and he beamed widely at Ray with an expression of angelic bliss, spreading his wings in a dramatic salute. The feathers were sparse and rumpled, and a few dropped out, drifting slowly down into the weeds around him.

“Behold!” the boy declared, “I am an angel! I bet you’ve never seen anything like me before! Aren’t I beautiful!” He beamed expectantly, reaching out one long delicate finger and stroking Ray’s beer can.

Jesus laughed, shaking his head slightly. He picked up a crushed beer can from the tangle of weeds next to him, and Ray heard a gentle pop as the can reshaped itself. Jesus held it out, and the boy grabbed it eagerly with both hands, but instead of drinking from it, he closed his eyes, an expression of absolute serenity passing over his exquisite face, before he exhaled into the can. When he opened his eyes, he took an experimental sip, and beamed, stating proudly,

“I do better beer than him. Would you like to try some?” He reached out an eager finger towards Ray’s can.

“Not right now, Raphael,” Jesus interjected. “He only just got here. How many of those things have you had, anyway?”

Lots,” the angel replied smugly. “I have had lots! But I did share,” he added, with wide-eyed sincerity. “I am a generous angel!” He gave Ray another peaceful smile, and wrapped his wings covetously around himself, until only his startling turquoise eyes were visible, peering out from between the bedraggled feathers.

“So…the angels didn’t go with God?” Ray asked, tearing his gaze away from the wide, sparkling eyes that were watching him with unblinking fascination.

“Not all of them,” Jesus replied, leaning back against the pock-marked trunk of a grey tree. “Metatron went, obviously, and-”

Suck up!” the angel hissed gleefully, the feathers on his wings quivering as a quiet snigger emanated from within them.

Jesus laughed, picking up another empty beer can and taking a sip from it as it popped back to fullness.

“Michael went too,” he continued. “Along with a lot of the lesser ones. But the angels had spent a lot of time on Earth, being called on by humans, watching over people. They were pretty down with modern culture, and they didn’t really want to want to leave, so-”

Telly!” the angel declared ecstatically, bursting out from behind his wings and spreading them wide with an excited wiggle that shed a few more feathers. “They’ve got telly on Earth now, and guitars and cheesecake and Nintendo and Lamborghinis!” He beamed delightedly, running his hands through the chaotic tangle of his hair before throwing them into the air and howling at the summer sky, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Lambo ‘ventador, I promise, I promise, I won’t be sick on the floor!”

“This is why God left you here,” Jesus commented, with a crooked smile. “You never got this excited about the stuff he made!”

“I did!” the angel protested, frowning at Jesus with a petulant pout as he picked up his beercan. “I got very excited when he made the first cow, and he made milk come out of it. I thought that was very clever indeed. And starfish, I liked them too. And dolphins and pomegranates and moonstone and foxes and seaweed. I liked lots of things he made.” He nodded decisively, taking a sip from his beer can. “But,” he continued, holding up a self-righteous finger, “But, he made me to do all the healing and stuff, that is my purpose, and I couldn’t leave when people were being so interesting. Cutting each other open and taking things out and putting things in and then sewing it up again. Growing ears out of mice and slicing things up with lasers and turning boys into girls. Penicillin and aspirin and oxycontin and 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine!” He finished with a proud smile, pointing one finger surreptitiously towards his beercan, and giving Ray a big wink.

“He’s got most of them down now,” Jesus agreed, with grudging admiration. “But it mostly just makes him the worst influence in the whole of heaven.”

“Am not! You need bliss to make the trees grow, and I’m helping! And then in the morning when people are hungover, I go round making morphine jacket potatoes! I even put cheese on them – if that’s not bliss, I don’t know what is. I am the most helpful angel in all of heaven!” He beamed, giving his wings another ecstatic little wiggle.

“God would not approve,” Jesus stated firmly. “Corrupting heaven with mortal sin. You’re a bad influence on everyone!”

The angel blew a long and petulant raspberry, muttering sulkily,

“I help. I’m helpful.”

Jesus sighed, conceding, “I suppose so. I know you mean well.”

“You’ve offended me,” the angel muttered, wrapping himself in his wings and scowling out from between the feathers. “I’m all offended now…”

“I’m sorry, Raphael,” Jesus said sympathetically. “I do love you. It’s not your fault this place is falling apart.”

Raphael scowled at him for several seconds, before reluctantly emerging from behind his wings, and shuffling over to give Jesus a hug, the bedraggled feathers of his wing brushing Ray’s face.

“Love you too,” the angel said quietly. “I am trying to help…”

Raphael sat back down with a mournful sigh, and started delving around in the weeds, until he found a large pebble. He held it up to his face in both cupped hands, and closed his eyes, blowing softly over his pebble. By the time he opened his eyes, it had been transformed into a small potato, dropping softly in half to reveal a layer of melted cheese, and the angel began delicately nibbling it.

“Is anyone I know here?” Ray asked, trying to drag the bizarre conversation back to the matter at hand. “Have you seen my Nan and Grandad?”

Jesus sighed, replying,

“I’m really sorry, man. They’ve gone. But they’re both living in Tennessee, and they’re good friends, even though they’re only seven. They’ve got a long life ahead of them, and I think they’ll always be close, maybe even get married again.”

“Could you do that for me and Anita?” Ray asked hopefully. “Put me down there with her?”

“You’ll have to be a girl,” Jesus warned. “If you want to get married.”

“Don’t have to be,” Raphael cut in, glancing up from his half-eaten potato. “Boys can like boys too.” He gave Ray a shy little smile, and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “I like you…”

Ray didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything, and the angel sighed, adding despondently,

“Not like that. Angels don’t have sex… I wish we did. I think I’d like it…” He gazed at Ray with a forlorn expression, but then he seemed to brighten slightly, adding, “But we do kiss people. I like kissing.” He beamed at Ray, and returned to his potato.

“I don’t think I want to be a girl,” Ray said, frowning. “Do you know if Anita…Charlie, is gay?”

“Much too early to say,” Jesus replied. “If God was here, he could probably tell you, but he probably wouldn’t, just to be mysterious.”

I’m mysterious!” Raphael interjected, beaming. “I bet you thought I was really mysterious when I descended majestically from the heavens just now!”

Jesus started laughing, reaching out to stroke Raphael’s wing. The angel gave him a shy smile, and started licking the grease off his hands like a sleepy cat.

“So could you do it?” Ray asked. “Put me down there with her? If you made me a boy, we could just be friends, maybe?”

Jesus nodded thoughtfully, then he stated,

“Give me a minute.”

He closed his eyes, lapsing into utter stillness, and Ray waited. Raphael was gazing peacefully up at the summer sky, combing his fingers through the luxurious tangle of his hair. Finally, Jesus opened his eyes, and smiled at Ray.

“You’re in luck,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “There’s a boy going to be born on the same street as Charlie. Obviously I can’t promise the parents won’t move house before you’re old enough to meet, but it’s the best chance I can give you.” He held his hand out to Ray, and Ray took it, Jesus pulling him to his feet. There was a flutter of wings as Raphael stumbled up next to them, and Jesus started striding away down the mud track, Ray hurrying after him.

They quickly emerged out of the sickly trees, into a large town square. The buildings at its edges were large and grandiose, built from gleaming white marble with vast pillars bordering the doorways, but they were hashed with graffiti scribbles, a few beginning to crumble. Beer cans and cigarette butts littered the cobbled street, and at the centre was a vast, ornate fountain, but the stone angel’s face had crumbled away, and the water pouring from its outstretched palms was a murky shade of green. A teenage girl with long blonde hair was asleep on a tattered orange couch that had been dumped at the edge of the square, and an extremely bedraggled angel was standing motionless next to the fountain, frowning up at the summer sky with a bemused expression. The sparse feathers of his tattered wings were the palest shade of lilac-tinged blue, sprouting from his thin, bare torso, his long tangled hair a soft strawberry blonde.

“Uriel!” Raphael called out, spreading one wing and wiggling it in greeting. “Come and meet my new friend!”

The angel didn’t seem to hear him, still gazing up at the sky, and Raphael sighed, cupping his hands around his mouth and hollering,

“OI, ANGEL!”

The angel jumped slightly, and glanced over at the three of them, his emerald eyes huge and confused in his delicate face. After a moment though, he smiled sadly, and plodded over to them. Raphael wrapped his arms around Uriel’s bare torso, and the angel hugged him back, his bedraggled wings curving around Raphael’s bony shoulders. When they broke apart, Raphael dragged him over to Ray, stating proudly,

“This is Ray, he’s my new friend, and I’m the first angel he’s ever seen! That makes you the second!”

The angel gazed at Ray for several seconds, before giving him a sad smile, and holding out his hand. Ray tentatively shook it, and the angel said quietly,

“Hello Ray. I’m…” He trailed off with a confused frown, glancing across at Raphael and whispering, “What’s my name? I’ve forgotten again.”

Raphael’s turquoise eyes began to glisten with a film of tears, and he said quietly,

“Uriel. That’s your name. I wrote it on your hand so you wouldn’t forget.” He gently took the angel’s left hand, and turned the palm upwards so that Uriel could see the biro scribble across his dirty skin. Uriel sighed softly, and went back to staring up at the sky.

Raphael sniffed, balling his delicate fingers into fists and scrubbing at his eyes, his wings drooping forlornly from his bony shoulders, and Jesus gave him a hug. After a few quiet sobs, Raphael pushed him away, grabbing Uriel by both shoulders and kissing him on the mouth. Uriel smiled, tangling his dirty fingers into Raphael’s hair, their thin bodies pressed together, until they broke apart and Raphael said quietly,

“Come on. I’ll make you a potato.”

“Can I have that stuff on it?” Uriel asked hopefully. “The stuff that tingles?”

“It’s called Tabasco,” Raphael told him, giving him a little smile. “You can have anything you want…”

He took Uriel’s hand, and led him away towards one of the crumbling mansions, continuing quietly,

“I’ll brush your hair, and we’ll watch that film you like until you fall asleep, the one with God and the funny man.”

“God?” Uriel repeated, his tattered wings quivering excitedly. “He’s in a film?”

“Not the real God,” Raphael replied, his voice cracking slightly. “Not our God. But he’s a bit like God…”

Their voices faded out of earshot, and Jesus sighed, gesturing for Ray to follow as he continued on through the cobbled square.

“Why doesn’t he remember his name?” Ray asked, frowning. “What’s happening to him?”

Jesus glanced across at him, his hazel eyes bleak.

“The angels were the purest of God’s creations. Without his love, they’re pretty lost, Uriel particularly. I should have insisted that they go with him, but Raphael wanted to stay, and I didn’t really want them to leave me.” He sighed. “It was selfish. Raphael looks after him, puts on a brave face, but some nights after Uriel falls asleep he creeps into my bedroom and cries until dawn, wrapped up in the moth-eaten old robe that God made for him…”

“Will they lose their wings?” Ray asked, watching the bedraggled angels disappear through the doorway of a rundown mansion. “All the feathers…”

“I hope not…” Jesus said quietly. “They love their wings. If I can spend enough time with them, keep them happy for a few days, they start to look better. I hope they’ll be ok, eventually.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t go yet… I could try to help. Raphael likes Nintendo, right, and I’m pretty good at Diddy Kong Racing. Maybe I could cheer him up?”

Jesus glanced at him with a warm smile. “Thanks for the offer, man. It means a lot. But I can’t let you miss your chance with Anita. You dying today, right before the birth of that child, it feels like destiny, and it’d be wrong of me to stand in the way of that.”

“But I can’t leave now!” Ray protested. “Not knowing all this! It’s just so sad. There has to be something I can do?”

“It’s not hopeless,” Jesus replied, giving him a crooked smile. “Way I see it, all this was an inevitability. God made man in his own image, made him the highest creation on Earth, which meant that someday, man was always going to become his own God. Earth is the new heaven – the hope is in humans now, not gods and angels. The world is what you make of it, and when people grasp that, start changing the world for the better rather than relying on the hope of heaven, it’ll be a good place. And when they get up here, they’ll make this place better too. It’ll be full of love and hope again, and the angels will find their way, I really believe that. We’ll be ok.”

Ray lapsed into silence, following Jesus through the cobbled streets, and eventually they emerged into a small park, the grass and trees lush and vibrant in the summer sun. A group of women were sitting in a circle, dressed in a bizarre array of clothing from modern jeans and t-shirts to flowing robes of vivid colours, and they appeared to be knitting. Jesus came to abrupt halt, looking slightly guilty, and he raised his outstretched palms up to his head, running them slowly down his body. As Ray watched, his tangled hair became straight and clean, gleaming with a chestnut tinge in the sunlight, the grime vanishing from his hands, and he glanced at Ray with a crooked smile, until one of the women called out,

“I saw that!”

Jesus laughed, and a woman in a blue robe with dark, braided hair put down her knitting and walked over to them, smiling.

“Would it kill you to brush your hair in the morning?” she asked, glancing at Jesus with a fond smile. “You’re the first thing anyone sees when they get here, and you just look homeless.”

“It’s grunge, Mum,” Jesus protested. “I’m down with the people!”

She rolled her eyes slightly, as though they had had this discussion a thousand times before, then she glanced at Ray, asking,

“You leaving us?”

Ray nodded, and Jesus explained,

“This is Anita’s friend Ray, he’s going back to join her.”

“Ray!” she repeated, smiling. “Anita talked about you a lot, before she left. She’s a good girl, I’m glad she’ll have a friend down there. Maybe by the time you both get back, it’ll be a nicer place. We’re working on it.”

She glanced back to Jesus, asking,

“You given him something to eat before he goes?” Frowning slightly, she added, “And I am not talking about Raphael’s potatoes…”

“We had a beer,” Jesus told her. She looked disapproving, and he added firmly, “It’s what he wanted. He was on his way to get a beer when he died. I thought it’d be a nice welcome.”

She nodded reluctantly, and then she smiled again, stating,

“Wait here – Anita made something for you.”

She hurried away to the group of women, delving under one of the benches, and returned with something green and woolly.

“I taught her to knit,” she said proudly, stretching it out to reveal a green jumper, with Ray’s name written across the front in curly black font. She laughed, adding, “I guess you’re not going to need it now, so I’ll keep it here for you, until you get back.” She delved in the folds of her robe, and held her hand out to Ray, adding, “She also left you this.”

In her outstretched palm lay a small silver heart pendant, inset with a glittering emerald, its fine silver chain pooled around it, and Ray smiled, warm memories flooding his mind. Anita had never taken it off, not even in the shower, and he reached out to take it, suddenly feeling excited about returning to Earth, finding Anita again. He remembered everything he had loved about her, and even if they were both boys in strange new child bodies, he felt sure they would still be firm friends.

“We need to get going now,” Jesus interjected.

Mary smiled at Ray, and gave him a hug. He hugged her back, feeling slightly awkward, and when she let go, she said gently,

“Try to remember what Jesus told you. Our faith is in you now. And whenever you get back, we’ll be waiting. It’s not perfect, but we’ll always have a place here for you. And look after Anita, won’t you?”

Ray nodded, his excitement tinged with sadness that he was leaving so soon. Mary gave him a last warm smile, and returned to the group of women, sitting down and picking up her knitting. Jesus gestured for Ray to follow, leading him across the vivid green grass, until it petered out into cloud, soft and silent beneath their feet. After a few steps, they reached a perfect round hole in the cloud, revealing the patchworked fields of Earth, far below.

“Where am I going?” Ray asked, feeling slightly apprehensive. “What country, I mean?”

“America,” Jesus told him. “California, to be exact. Anita had some relatives there, and she wanted to live somewhere sunny.”

Ray nodded. “California sounds nice. Do I have to…jump?”

“You won’t fall,” Jesus told him, smiling. “I’ll float you down. It won’t be scary.”

“Will I remember any of this?” Ray asked, suddenly feeling anxious now that his time was running out.

“You might,” Jesus said thoughtfully. “Like I said, people seem to be remembering more these days. I’ll do my best to let you hold onto it, but it’ll probably seem more like a vague dream than reality.”

There was a flutter of wings from behind them, and Ray jumped, turning back to find the angels standing on the cloud. Raphael’s arm was around Uriel, who was smiling as he gazed at the world below.

“We came to say goodbye,” Raphael explained, beaming. “Because we like you, and also because it’s exciting!”

“Thanks,” Ray told him, smiling back. “It was nice to meet you. I think I’m going to miss you all…”

“I’m going to visit you,” Raphael declared cheerfully, spreading his wings and giving them an excited wiggle. “Not when you’re doing anything rude, but other times. You won’t be able to see me, but sometimes you’ll find a chocolate bar hidden in the sofa, or a bartender will give you a free drink for no reason at all, and that’ll be me! I’ll be doing that! Because I like you.” He beamed widely, and Uriel laughed, leaning over to give him a kiss.

“And if you feel sad,” Uriel added, giving Ray a shy smile, “You can talk to us. Because we feel sad too, and helping people…makes us feel a bit better…”

“And,” Raphael added, “Because we like going to Earth! So if you’re ever playing Nintendo, or you see a Lamborghini, definitely talk to us then, and I’ll come down as fast as I can. I’d really like that!”

Ray laughed. “I promise I’ll invite you over every time I play Nintendo.”

Raphael bounded over in a flurry of feathers and gave him an enthusiastic hug, sneaking in a quick kiss on the cheek before he let go, and returned to Uriel.

“Wait,” Ray said, reaching into his pocket. “You should have this.”

He held out Anita’s sparkling silver necklace to the angels, and Raphael beamed, snatching it out of his hand and admiring it covetously.

“You should wear this,” he said to Uriel. “It matches your eyes.”

Uriel smiled, and Raphael slipped it over his bowed head, gently pulling his hair out from under the chain, and standing back to admire the glittering silver pendant lying on Uriel’s pale chest.

“It’s beautiful,” Raphael said, giving him a shy smile. “Just like you.”

Uriel beamed, and Raphael kissed him, wrapping him up in his tattered wings. To Ray they seemed to glow with a warm white light, until they broke apart, smiling.

“You ready?” Jesus asked.

“I guess so,” Ray conceded, slightly reluctantly. “Thanks for everything, Jesus.”

“No problem,” Jesus said, smiling. “We’ll all be waiting for you.”

Ray took a last look around, the women still gathered on the lush, grassy park, Jesus watching him with a kind smile. Uriel was gazing peacefully at Anita’s necklace as Raphael held the pendant up for him, tilting it back and forth so that the emerald glinted in the sunlight. Suddenly Ray realised that his feet weren’t touching the cloud anymore – he was hovering, weightless, beginning to drift over the hole in the cloud, sinking slowly down through the warm summer air.

“Bye bye!” Raphael called out, waving enthusiastically with both hands. “See you soon!”

Ray laughed, waving back, and soon their smiling faces drifted out of view, the cloud above him white and luminous in the perfect blue sky as he drifted gently downwards, towards a new life. He tried to hold onto everything he had seen and heard, but soon it slipped away, along with his memories, his name, every word he had ever learned, until there was nothing left but a warm feeling of contentment at the sun on his face, the love that surrounded him – as above, so below, on Earth as it is in heaven. Amen.