JUST KEEPS ON ROLLING
By: Laura Sheridan
The Bible said that death would transform us in an instant - the twinkling of an eye. And it was true. Howard's body lay, like a piece of sloughed-off skin, as his energy ascended to hover over the mumbling sea of heads.
An ex-headmaster, stern of countenance and bushy of eyebrow, Howard had led an exemplary life. He'd never stolen so much as a paper clip, his lies had only been white ones and he'd never taken part in any illicit flirting, even though the peripatetic music teacher had made it fairly clear she was interested when she'd trapped him in the store cupboard at the end of the summer term.
The inside of the church was green and gold in the morning sunlight with stained glass patterned into angular figures of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary. It had been so peaceful only a short time ago, as the vicar - a thirty-something man whose face sported a born-again air of open honesty - invited the younger members of his flock to come out to the front.
"See these young ones here," the vicar asked the meagre congregation. "Unless you become as one of these." He laid his hands on the youngest Pennington - a lad whose eye turned and who already, at ten years of age, had a record for breaking and entering. Smoothly, he moved on to a different youngster. "Unless you are as innocent as a child," he amended. "You cannot enter the kingdom of…gonandigush."
For Howard, the end of that sentence had blurred into meaningless sounds. The pain had gripped him like an iron hand, cold and unrelenting inside him. He saw the open-mouthed stares of horror as he slipped off the pew and slid onto the floor. He heard the shrieks, babies started to cry and Stanley, in the pew in front, went into one of his involuntary wind-passing spasms.
So this is what it feels like, Howard thought. It hadn't been so bad. There had been all that rushing through the tunnel bit and he found that the bright light he was headed towards was simply liberation from the darkness of his body. The weightlessness was exhilarating. It was like floating in seawater. He drifted above the heads of the congregation and found he could move wherever he wanted, without even thinking about it. This suspension of his spirit, his consciousness - was as natural to him as blinking, or swallowing. All he had to do was…well…do it.
Miss Waddington had finally stopped punching his body in the chest, performing what she believed to be some kind of resuscitation procedure. Her face crumpled in acceptance of the inevitable and she stood up slowly and backed away.
Good God, Howard thought. Is that what I look like? Looked like, he corrected himself. His stocky body appeared slighter in death and that thinning patch at the top of his head was worse than he'd imagined. His face, with its bulbous nose and hamster cheeks, seemed to have caved in like a punctured rugby ball.
So what do I look like now, he wondered? And rather disappointingly, he found he was more or less the same - apart from the electrical threads of blue and gold that pulsed through his semi-transparent body. He was pleased to see he was wearing some kind of garment, white and flowing, like an operating gown - except that it didn't gape open at the back.
The ambulance arrived, manhandling his body onto a stretcher. The church was a hubbub of whispers and snifflings into crumpled tissues, while Howard floated, just above head height and wished he could tell everyone he was all right.
But as he thought this, a halo of light surrounded him, everyone below faded away and he realised he was hanging in a happy nothingness.
So this was it. He was about to enter into heaven.
Or the other place.
A secret fear chilled him, but he quickly dismissed it. He hadn't been perfect - nobody was. But he'd tried to lead a good life. Surely that had to count for something. Anyway, even the Catholics didn't believe in hell any more.
And as he comforted himself with that, he felt someone touch his shoulder.
He turned to see a youngish man, dark hair, bit of a beard, friendly looking face and the bluest eyes he had ever seen. Looked like Jesus, but it couldn't be. Could it?
"Erm - are you -?"
"Time to go, dude," the man said.
Dude? Jesus wouldn't talk like that, would he? Howard felt foolish, now. Of course it wasn't Jesus. He had better things to do than welcome every Tom, Dick and Harry into the next world. This had to be an angel, then. Some kind of usher to the afterlife. He asked, even though he was pretty sure of the answer. "Am I going heaven?"
The Jesus-like usher smiled. "Afraid not."
Howard gaped. If he'd had still had a heart, it would have stopped. "I'm not going to heaven?"
"Sorry, man. No such thing."
"No such -?" He blew out his spiritual cheeks. "But - there has to be."
"Sorry to disappoint you." As the angel spoke, several other people popped into spiritual existence.
All right, so maybe heaven was a kind of metaphor - a way of referring to the continuation of life in a spiritual sense. And whatever it was, Howard surely deserved to be a part of it "But, there is an afterlife - right?"
The angel gave a noncommittal shrug.
"So what happens, then? Don't tell me we just hang around here for all eternity."
The angel looked bored. "You know the thing about energy being neither created nor destroyed? Well, that's what I'm here for; to direct you to recycling."
Had he heard correctly? "You mean…death and rebirth? But…that…that's not in the Bible."
The angel didn't seem to care. "Move along the line, please."
"But," Howard protested. "This can't be right. It can't be, can it?" He asked a mournful old gentleman who had just appeared to his left.
"Don't freak out," the angel said. "You won't feel a thing."
The trembling guy at the front of the line slid away on an invisible current. "S- so you're going to recycle me?" Howard gulped. "Into what?"
"Who knows? Some new baby somewhere."
"Is that the best you can do? Surely you can tell me a bit more than that."
"Doesn't matter." The angel picked at his teeth with a manicured fingernail. "Most people don't remember a thing."
"And what happens if I refuse to go?"
The angel grinned. "Yeah - right. Try keeping your eyes focussed ahead - then you won't feel as dizzy."
Howard gasped, but before he could say anything else, a force gripped him by the ankles and felt himself being dragged along a strong current of air - a draught drawing him away. Not, as he'd hoped, upward but back down, inward, compacting him. A terrible dread surged through him.
"How many times?" He called.
The angelic usher cupped his ear. "What?"
"How many times? How many deaths and rebirths?"
"Forever, dude. Just keeps on rolling."
A ginger cat drifted past, followed by a lizard and a cloud of bees.
"And what are they doing here?"
"Who said humans were unique?" The angel called back. Anything that's alive - that has the spark - can be recycled."
"And what about you -?"
But he had drifted too far and the wind was gusting past his ears, making him unable to hear anything.
And in his last moments of conscious thought, he wondered why the ginger cat was heading for a maternity wing in Munich - and he was heading for the small nest in the tree outside.
About the Author
British writer, Laura Sheridan began writing seriously, a few years ago. Macmillan Publishers has shown an interest in her latest novel. She has also written dozens of short stories and has had some published, as well as winning first prize in two short story competitions. She is currently the compiling editor of a small press magazine called Pennine Ink.