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the dead bar-tender

chapter one

It was a moonlit night in autumn. The air was soft and scented and moths spiraled lazily round the garden lights that lit up the flower beds of 19 Bretton Ave. Laughter sounded inside the house, and then the front door opened and it came tumbling out into the evening along with Paul and Genevieve in a sudden shaft of light. There was a woman’s voice full of laughter deep in the house, and Paul answered, ‘Don’t worry, Ms Gardener. You don’t have to tell me how precious she is. I’ll get her home safe and sound.’

But Genevieve had him by the sleeve and was tugging him impatiently. ‘Hurry, we’ll be late.’ He shut the door, and together they hurried across the lawn, cleared the strip of garden that served as a front boundary and crossed the pavement to the car which was shrouded in the shadows of the flowering cedars that lined the street. It was not Paul’s car, it was his mother’s, but she let him use it in return for small favours.

Good-looking kids they were, both nineteen, both slender, Paul rather spruce in his clean-cut grey suit and pinstriped shirt, Genevieve a little vampish in silver grey satin and her dark auburn hair in a top-knot – her mother had not quite approved. Still, it was only for Blue Maxe’s, the wine-bar Paul worked in, where everyone knew them and no one would mind. They got in, shut the doors and kissed. But Genevieve pushed him away suddenly, saying, ‘Come on, let’s go. It’s late. Hurry!’

She fumbled with her seat-belt while Paul started the car at once without bothering with his, and swung out onto the road – right into the path of a speeding taxi. There was a squeal of brakes, a roar of metal and a shattering of glass as the taxi slammed into the driver’s door and the passenger door slammed into the tree. Paul died instantly, his neck broken. Genevieve died six shocked seconds later in a shower of shattering glass. The cab driver walked away unharmed, except for a few bruises.

Genevieve was a good girl, well brought up, with balanced attitudes and a social conscience, and her soul went to heaven, a blessed soul, according to the religion of her parents, sincere church-goers and walkers after the Way. Paul… Paul woke up in a long narrow room with one other person in it, a black man in dread-locks, wearing a crimson sarong slashed with a cream-coloured swathe, a lot of cheap silver bangles, and a piece of cheetah skin looped through his belts.

Paul was on a bed at one end of this room, which was just wide enough to fit the bed. There were benches along both walls with tops at different heights leaving only a narrow walk-way between them. The floor was patch-worked with bits of old lino and woven matting. Along the tops of all four walls was a continuous curtain of hessian, finger-painted in murky colours, depicting Paul could not tell what – trees?… people?… telegraph poles? Children’s paintings, no doubt.

It took Paul a few moments to come to his senses enough to be aware of these details. He was lying down on the bare mattress, still dressed for the evening, and feeling fine. He took in all the details, the painted doors of the cupboards under the benches, the tall cupboard, a broom-cupboard or wardrobe perhaps, that stopped him seeing the far corner, the baskets ranged along the far wall, where the man was sitting, bare-foot, sucking a biro and staring wide-eyed at nothing, all without much surprise. He let his mind savour it all, waiting for it to mean something, for a good minute or two before he sat up.

There was a screech of rusty bedsprings. It was an old bed. The mattress was flock with painted metal buttons, and the ticking was faded and worn in places. Would have made a good shirt. Op art, early seventies, cool stuff. The idea entertained him for only a moment and then he began to remember . . .

‘Hey. . .’ he began.

The man did not move, except to tap the biro end against his teeth.

Paul coughed loudly. Then he shifted noisily on the bed making the springs screech and squeal. The man lowered his pen and tapped it lightly on the bench-top. Paul got anxious. Why wouldn’t this guy listen? Couldn’t he hear? He’d been making enough noise, hadn’t he? Why didn’t he react? He had bare dusty feet, bangles around his ankles. There were things in those baskets, sticks, leaves, berries . . . He was beginning to remember – he wasn’t sure what, something scary . . . No. This guy was in a trance; that was it. He’d come out of it in time.

This room now. How had he got here? He had died. Yes, he had. He had a memory of that, of the car smash, of the death. It was trying to escape from him, but he’d caught it now, and he could keep hold of it. Scary, hey? He even remembered his own last words: ‘Oops, er. . .’ Not very impressive, eh? But nuh! Scary.

But he was okay and it was over; he’d been through it. He’d died – like mozzies do when you slap ‘em. Died. Death’s nothing, you’re still live. He was still alive, wasn’t he? But hey, who was this guy? Why wouldn’t he turn round? ‘Hey, g’day!’ he said. He’d meant to say it louder, but he was too scared. It came out a hoarse whisper.

The man did not respond. Paul went cold suddenly. He was dead, yes, he knew that, but this guy wasn’t, and now he was only a ghost. And that man wasn’t answering him because he was only a ghost, invisible. He could yell and shout and roar at this guy all he wanted to and the guy wouldn’t hear him. He could go outside and see other people and he could yell and shout and wave his arms and hit them, hurl himself at them and they’d never respond, they’d never hear him. If he really went wild and thrashed about he could throw things across the room, break vases, rattle windows, blow out candles, but here could never make them see him or hear him at all, maybe forever. Suddenly that forever yawned terrifyingly in front of him, and he jumped physically, with a screech of bed springs, and groped for a grip on the past, on the bed rails, on the steering wheel, on the edge of the mattress. He couldn’t help himself then – he panicked. He yelled, ‘Eh!’

At that the man seemed to draw himself in from somewhere on a long, slow breath, and as if returning from a long way away, which he was, he turned very slowly towards Paul and looked at him. He put down his pen, making the silver bangles shiver as they slid down to his wrists. He was well-built, like a dancer, and his movements were graceful and easy. He said, ‘Mmmm?’

‘Um, I… I died,’ stammered Paul. ‘I died, I just died. Or I think I died.’ The man looked at Paul for a while, and Paul began to worry that he might not be able to speak English. He needn’t have.

‘Yes,’ he said at last. He was about thirty.

‘Yeah, I died. Killed, instantly,’ he added, enjoying the newspaper headline sound of the phrase. ‘Well, it wasn’t so bad,’ he smiled, bravely. ‘So, where are we now, then? It’s not heaven is it? There’d be angels, wouldn’t there. Must be purgatory, hey? How long have you been here? I mean, when did you die? Hey, do I know you? Do you know me? Do we . . .’

‘Have a cigarette, Paul.’ Paul waited, but the man wasn’t offering him one. Then, embarrassed, he found his own in his shirt pocket and shook one out, nifty movement, just like in the TV ads, always made him feel suave, three smart taps on the packet. He found his cigarette lighter, lit up and took a long, slow drag, breathing most of it out into the room before speaking again. ‘Hey, you know my name? You know me? Do you know my girlfriend? Did she die? Hey, shouldn’t there be people, you know, people you knew when they were alive? I read about it. There’s always a beautiful meadow and people running across it to meet you, Aunty Jean, now she’s dead. Where is she? Grandma Pearce and Grandpa Pearce, they’re dead, my first Dad, my real Dad, where are they?’

‘Hush, boy, calm down.’

Boy? I’m a man, thought Paul. But he said, ‘I’m calm enough.’

‘You’re crying.’

‘I am not.’

‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’ He talked posh.

Paul put on better manners. ‘Yes, please.’

He sat quietly while the man got off the high stool he’d been sitting on and walked along the room to the sink, which was sunk into one of the benches. He found instant coffee in a cupboard and a china mug with no handle and a chipped rim, and running the tap till steam rose, he mixed the coffee in the mug and walked the rest of the way with it to give it to Paul. It was a fair hike.

Paul said, ‘Ta, any milk?’

The guy gave him an amused smile, which looked almost like a wince, except you could see the humour in his eyes. He walked soft-footed as a cat to a different cupboard and brought him a bottle of milk. Paul was charmed. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘A real old-fashioned milk-bottle. You don’t see many of them these days. Not on earth, anyway. Hey, you didn’t tell me, where are we? Looks like Earth, Are we still on Earth? Nuh, it isn’t Earth is it.’

‘The milk?’

‘Yeah!’ Paul took the cap off and poured, watching the liquids swirl together in the mug. ‘We’re flat-mates then, are we? You know my name? How come you know me? Do I know you? How do you know me?’

‘Finished with the milk?’

‘Yeah, ta.’ He handed it back, almost dropping the top, which he’d forgotten to put back on. Then he watched while the black man put it back in the cupboard and walk back down to his seat at the far end. When he got there and resumed his seat and let his eyes resume staring at nothing, Paul said, ‘It’s not purgatory is it? We’d be in torment if it was, wouldn’t we. At least we’re not in torment.’

But the man had gone back into his trance and Paul felt suddenly weak. He finished his coffee in a few gulps – it was luke -warm, weak and unpleasant, and the milk had that grainy texture that poorly mixed milk powder has, but it grounded him – and then he lay back on the bed to finish his cigarette. There was no ash-tray so he used the mug instead.

*                                 *                                    *

Genevieve did not go straight to Heaven. At the instant of her death she left her body and rose high up into the air. She looked down upon the accident scene, saw the police and the ambulance speeding towards it, a crowd forming as people ran out of nearby houses, her mother in a house-coat, her father, a neighbour running across the road to their side.
Away on all sides spread the city, glittering like diamonds, like handfuls of precious jewels, with a stream of headlights flood-lighting the broad arterial roads, the flow pulsating to the long, slow blink of stoplights. Genevieve saw the city centre, sprawling like an octopus, its tentacles snaking away into the suburbs, she saw the dark line of the sea, the black expanse, merging with the starry sky away to the west, the low ranges rumpled like star-strewn velvet away to the east, the straggle of glimmering suburbs along the southern coast, and more along the northern beaches too.

And she realised she was saying goodbye to it all, which seemed very strange, because she couldn’t believe that it could be so. Yet already she was very high up and getting higher. The city was itself a sparkling jewel in a cloak of jewels, the land was far away, and she was beginning to make out the outline of the continent. And she had the extraordinary feeling that it was aware of her, and was giving birth to her, through this hole in the sky.

For suddenly there was a hole, and through it she flowed, into a swirl of music and radiance of light too beautiful to describe here, because it is transcendent, and cannot be imagined. Because the sky had become a dragon, and was swallowing her, as it swallows all the little angel souls of the mortal world. And she came at last to a beautiful flowery meadow, and there was a woman coming across that meadow dressed in flowing robes, and Genevieve was embarrassed, still dressed as she was in her strapless silver satin, with strappy silver shoes that looked, as her mother had protested, ‘already a bit tacky’ though they were fairly new. And yes, this angel, perfumed and sweetly radiant, had a pair of wide, white feathery wings.

By the time she reached Genevieve, their eyes had met and the somewhat hazy, elusively perfumed, aethereal beauty of her face had mesmerised Genevieve. She had become awestruck, had been swung violently back into her childhood by this Sunday School angel, straight out of the holy pictures they used to give as prizes for attendance (and she had all her mothers’ and her own, because she’d sort of kept them), whose smile was of all sweet accord, just like in the hymns and holy poems. It wasn’t, after all, she decided, that it wasn’t real. And she’d fallen away, gone a little bit New-Age, and now they were saving her soul? She heard a distant scream, and wondered vaguely if it was herself, dying perhaps in a shower of light. But it was far far away and she could no longer see, though she thought she vaguely identified the distant echo of some long-forgotten ache.

She had time for these thoughts as the angel glided up to her. In a state of confusion, she tried a clumsy genuflect, not easy in silver high heels. The angel gave her a brilliant smile that dropped her onto her knees in the grass, which as you know, or can imagine, is certain death for silver satin. But Genevieve could only gaze in mute amazement at the angel, who had stopped a comfortable distance away and seemed willing to chat. Clumsily she got up, conscious of having put green knees in her skirt and with damp on her hands, and found her feet again.

One shoe was almost off, and she hesitated over whether to put it back on or take them both off. They were not much good in this grass, but what would the dew do to her stockings? She left them on and then shook out her skirt. Then she looked again at the smiling angel and was seized again by a terrible confusion that left her open-mouthed and speechless. It released her after a moment and she heard herself say, ‘Where’s Paul?’ Briefly she wondered who Paul was, and then, remembering, she understood that she cared. She wanted to know where he was.

to be continued. . .