In a dark wood in Suffolk, Steve was dead. This, as it turned out, was much less of an inconvenience as he had previously believed. For starters, the horrific wounds on his body from where the tree had inconsiderately leapt out before his car weren’t much of a bother. Even better, the tormenting and ever growing bald spot that had been plaguing his crown appeared to have vanished. Overall, Steve hadn’t felt this good since his 29th birthday do. Why his 29th? Don’t ask. Suffice to say the morning after his 29th birthday had felt a lot worse than Steve thought his body was feeling right now. Cattle may have been involved. But enough of that, there were more pressing issues. Such as could he still claim the insurance on his Porsche posthumously?
It was at this point Steve noted the unearthly light illuminating the scene of his death was not in fact unearthly at all, but coming from two headlights parked in the road. Steve was pretty sure they’d been there the whole time, but had no recollection of anyone else on the road. As he walked over, a little bit disappointed by the lack of ethereal floating, he noticed a man in a suit leaning on the bonnet and having a smoke. Correction, it was not a man, but a skeleton in a black boiler suit. “What in the actual fuck?” Steve murmured, causing the skeleton to turn and look at him.
“Well lookee here, you’re conscious.”
Steve was a tad taken aback by this. “Am I doing it wrong?”
“Well, under normal circumstances, I just collect the dead soul and chuck them in the back of the van, drive them over to processing then it’s their problem. Problem is, you’re not dead. Well, you are, just not properly.” The skeleton shrugged nonchalantly and went back to his impromptu cigarette break leaning on what turned out to be, of all things, a fucking white van.
Steve frowned. This was like when he’d had the builders in to do the extension. White van fuckers. “So what do expect to do about it?”
The skeleton turned back with its blank, expressionless skull and jerked a thumb in the direction of the van. “You get in and I give you a lift to purgatory so you can apologise for fucking up the system and someone more qualified can deal with you.”
“Apologise?” Steve felt his temper flare, this working class shithead expected him to apologise? For what exactly?
“Yeah, now you got anything better to do? Didn’t think so. Get in.”
Steve opened his mouth to protest, but for the first time in his adult life couldn’t think of how. He closed his mouth and petulantly kicked a wheel of the van as he climbed in. In the dim light of the cabin he noticed a name tag stitched onto the skeleton’s boiler suit “Steve Bernice Grimm”. Steve took some minor offence that such a low grade jobsworth shared his name. Steve had taken offence in such a way at least once a week for the past 45 years and he wasn’t about to let death stop him.
Grimm got into the van and looked over his shoulder into the back. Steve copied him. Steve regretted it. The back was full of dead people. Steve had the sudden urge to make a Sixth Sense reference, but had the feeling that Grimm either wouldn’t get it or would punch him because the obvious joke was so obvious. Grimm turned the key and, to Steve’s great surprise and dismay, Disney songs started to blare at heavy metal volume from the stereo. Steve shrank into his seat. He had a 10-year-old daughter. He knew all these songs and hated them passionately. What was worse was that Grimm singing along, perfectly out of tune. Perhaps being dead was more of an inconvenience than he’d first thought.
The journey to purgatory took them about an hour. Well, Grimm called it purgatory, Steve called it…
“Heathrow fucking airport? Are you shitting me?”
“Can you think of a more appropriate place for the local branch of purgatory?”
Steve thought for a second. “Actually no, Heathrow makes perfect sense.”
Steve clambered out of the van and in the ugly, yellowish glare of Heathrow noted the lettering on the van: “Grimm & Sons, Professional Reapers since the Birth of Mankind”. Steve was starting to seriously hope he was either drunk, comatose or in a white padded cell because, if the afterlife was as mundane as real life, then he’d kill himself. Steve groaned. There went his last hope.
Steve followed Grimm, now wondering if he was the Grimm or just one of the sons, into Heathrow. Oddly enough, it was bustling. Demons, angels and beings from mythologies Steve had ignored in school carted souls around, manned check-in, served in the McDonalds. Hell, some were even complaining to customer services. “This is purgatory?” Steve asked Grimm, who was at this point signing some forms for the souls in the back of his van.
“Yep. Shithole, no? Fact remains lot of people die every day and we have a backlog as is, lot of processing to be done. These days most go to the big recycling centre they’ve got out in Germany, all those ecomaniacs pushing for ‘sustainable use of souls’ that ‘reincarnation is the future’ and all that bollocks. Fucking hippies if you ask me.” Steve reckoned Grimm bitched about these people with regularity and suddenly found himself warming to the skeleton. “Anyway,” Steve continued “We need to get you over to someone of an appropriate pay grade, ’cause I’m not going to deal with the shitstorm you’re gonnna cause.”
Several hours of bureaucracy ensued, cementing Steve’s opinion that the afterlife was just real life, but without the joy of retirement. One particular highlight was watching security cherubim escort Odin off the premises for decking a check-in demon because he’d missed his own flight, whilst Anubis and his already drunken Stag, who were next in line, pissed themselves laughing. Minor incidents like that or overhearing Colonel Sanders himself walking past a KFC uttering the words “11 secret herbs and spices my ass” made the whole business just about tolerable. Eventually, Steve found himself talking to the top dog as everyone else, much like Grimm, decided he was “above my pay grade”.
“In case you hadn’t guessed,” said the Devil, “I’m the Devil. You may call me Steve.” A flare of pride quickly subsided as Steve remembered he was talking to the Devil.
“That might get a little confusing, you see I’m Steve and the Grim Reaper was Steve and…” Steve found himself only able to mumble like a first year in front of a headmaster after he’d been caught using stolen chemistry supplies to blow up the loos.
“Hmm,” said the Devil. “Back in my day mortals were actually educated. Not any more it seems. For now you may refer to me as Big D then, I believe that’s current lingo with the kids.”
“I’m not a kid,” Steve mumbled, and then added “Big D”.
“You are to me. Anyway, to business. I’m informed that you’re the drunken idiot who wrapped his car around a pagan tree and failed to die properly.”
“Firstly, three pints is under the legal limit – ish. Secondly, it was the tree’s fault.” Steve protested automatically, causing the Devil to raise an eyebrow. “Mostly – ish.” Steve’s protestations petered out. “Besides, what even is a pagan tree?”
“A tree ritualistically used by pagans or some such. This one, it appears, was used in sacrificial rituals and a lot of the red tape is still in place, leading to your soul remaining active. This really is rather a cock up. I do apologise Steve, but I rather lack a precedent here. We haven’t dealt with posthumously active souls in over a millennium.” Steve felt a quick rush of smugness: he liked being apologised to.
The Devil leaned back in his chair and gazed absent-mindedly about his rather plain office. After a brief while he pulled open a drawer in his desk and removed a file. He chucked it on the desk in front of Steve. “Your permanent file,” said the Devil.
“You actually have those?” Steve asked.
“Yep, read it,” said the Devil. Steve picked it up and opened it. There was one word on a single page. “Arsehole”. Steve was not impressed. The Devil laughed. “It’s funny because it’s true,” said the Devil, wiping a tear from his eye. “We don’t keep records anymore, we kind of kicked the afterlife thing in the head a while back and now they’re rather redundant. So, I’m afraid I can’t offer you an afterlife. What I can offer you is a job.”
“I need a new Beelzebub and I reckon you’d work quite nicely. If not, well, it’s just a matter of deactivating your soul and shipping you off to processing.” The Devil peered over his spectacles at Steve. “Your choice.”
“I don’t suppose you offer trial periods, Big D?” Steve asked.
“I like the way you think,” said the Devil, “And please, call me boss.”
WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD