There was nothing much to connect the deaths of Mr Diver and Mrs Lazenby except for three coincidences: they were on the same day, in the same town, and in the same workplace. Mr Kenneth Diver died at his desk, in his office, on his real-leather work chair, amid signing a bank statement. Neither the plush furniture inside, nor the gold-plated door sign of ‘Joint Managing Director’ outside, were sufficient to ward off the Angel of Death when he came. And that was that.
The funeral of Mr Driver was fat with mourners, since all the employees at his factory were given a quarter of a day off for compulsory attendance. Mrs Lazenby would have been one of those in attendance too since she was a cleaner at the factory. Some of her co-workers would have preferred to attend her smaller internment but were refused the choice. As it was, her funeral service was a leaner, quieter affair. But it was watered with real tears.
Mr Diver’s brother Kevin, known as Mr Diver the Lesser due to his slimmer waistline, was in full oratorical mode. A pillar of the community, nay of the nation, was now lying in state. The world of finance had lost another Brutus, and the world of industry had lost a second Ford. A grateful people mourned his passing. The likes of him would never live again. And all the time he spoke of his dead brother, Mr Kevin Diver only lamented himself, for who was left to say such words about him when his time came?
At the moment of his death, Mr Diver was shocked to lift up his eyes and behold the most beautiful face he had ever seen. This surprised him on several counts. For one thing, he didn’t believe in a soul or an afterlife. While still alive, to assure himself of these facts, he had once watched a video on YouTube of Professor Richard Dawkins who made the point quite eloquently that such things do not exist. And while he didn’t understand most of what was said, Mr Diver was convinced that Professor Dawkins did, and that was good enough for him.
Yet here he was.
On another point, Mr Diver knew in his heart of hearts that if there was an afterlife, he would most likely end up in the lower place, the fiery place, the place weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Not that he had ever murdered anyone or called them by the wrong pronoun or anything as big and bad as that. But he did treat his employees like the lazy scum they were, shouting at them during work, and groping them at drunken Christmas parties, and not giving them time off for family emergencies. He wasn’t literally Hitler. But he knew he was no saint either.
His biggest weaknesses when alive were clothes and food. Mr Diver spent thousands and thousands on suits and menswear made by Ralph Lauren as part of their Purple Label collection. Elegant, ultra-luxurious, classic – it really made him stand apart from his workers and their dirty, drab overalls. Silk ties and fine linen shirts were designer made for the likes of him, not for mere peasants. And every day he fixed it so that the most high-class local restaurant sent over some new lunch collection for him to try. Let his staff eat their overpriced canteen slop and be thankful for it! His dainties were not for them.
The being with the beautiful face welcomed Mr Diver to his new home, for such he said it was. The being glowed with a shine like the moon and the sound of his voice was beguiling. It pointed Mr Diver towards a roaring hearth and a table with a feast on it. The being bade Mr Driver warm and fill himself as he willed. But as he got up and moved towards the fire, Mr Driver noticed an embarrassing fact about himself. He was completely naked.
“Is it possible I could get some clothes to wear?” said Mr Diver. “And what should I call you, anyway?”
“My name is Lucius, the bringer of light,” he said. “As for clothes, you need them not. There is no hiding here. Everything is naked and open before the eyes of him whom we have to do. And you came without a covering.”
Mr Diver didn’t know what much of this meant and didn’t care to ask further. The thought of knowing more about this place filled him with the start of a secret dread that seemed out of keeping with everything else. He looked uncertainly at Lucius, who gifted him with a smile in return. There was no warmth of friendship behind that smile, but it was a smile nevertheless. Friendship could come later. Right now, there were more pressing issues.
“I’m cold,” said Mr Diver. “Probably because I’m not used to the whole nude thing.”
“Then warm yourself by the fire,” said Lucius. “Here there is much fuel for the burning. Cast in what you please.”
Mr Diver did as Lucius bid him. He walked over to the large fire, taking care where he placed his steps along the way because the entire room was so dark that he could barely make out the floor or the walls that marked its edges. There was no seat beside the fire and not so much as a stool to set his feet on. But Mr Diver was so cold by now that he didn’t care to sit. He longed for his entire body to feel enveloped by those flames. He threw in more big logs and waited for the fire to rise.
After a few moments, the flames grew in length and ferocity. But the longer they shot out, the colder Mr Diver’s flesh became. The flames didn’t heat him or cast any brighter light about the shadowy room. He shivered and squinted into the flames to see what was going wrong. What he would now give for one of his warm suits, or even a shirt and a pair of his favourite silk boxer shorts, so smooth on his body, so purple in his drawer!
“I don’t mean to be ungrateful but there’s something wrong with this fire,” said Mr Diver to Lucius. “It’s not giving out any heat or light!”
“If you want warmth, thrust your right hand into the fire,” said Lucius. “If you want light, pluck out an eye and throw it into the middle of the flames.”
“Bu-bu-but that’s monstrous!” said Mr Diver, shivering with cold and shock. “And against Health and Safety,” he added for secondary effect.
“Many things that were monstrous to you before will now become mundane,” said Lucius. “And the longer you stay here, you more you will satisfy yourself that neither health nor safety are my chief concerns.”
“Then I won’t, you know, I can’t…die from it?” said Mr Diver.
“Before you came here, death was a dream. Now you have woken up inside the house of the dead, never to dream again,” said Lucius.
Mr Diver took this to mean that the flames couldn’t kill him. After a few moments of weighing up his options, a mixture of cold and curiosity forced Mr Diver to act.
He lifted a shaking hand and moved it closer and closer to the fire. Mr Diver could feel no heat yet. He took his hand to the edge of where the flames flickered. The temperature remained almost the same, but it did lift a little. He could still see his own cold breath blowing out into the fire but only when he talked. Fear gripped his heart, even though he couldn’t feel it beating in his chest.
Suddenly, he pushed his hand into the middle of the blaze. For a few brief flashes, there was nothing. The anticipation of heat was delicious, as was his new immunity from damage. Then, in a twinkling of an eye, Mr Diver’s entire hand and arm caught fire, and an excruciating pain screamed though his never-dying soul.
“Save me, Lucius!” shouted Mr Driver. “I’m tormented in this flame!”
“There is no saviour in these regions,” said Lucius with a cool sneer. “But you may withdraw your hand by your own power if the heat offends you so.”
Mr Diver snatched his own arm out, fully expecting it to continue to burn of its own accord. But it didn’t. The flame gave way immediately to the cold of the air, and burn marks were replaced with goosebumps once again.
“That was quite an inferno. Have you supped since you came to this place?” asked Lucius, as if nothing had happened.
You know very well that I haven’t, thought Mr Diver. This small question annoyed Mr Diver worse than the fire. It was the beginning of a growing enmity towards Lucius that would last for ages. But at the time it seemed like the size of little dead fly in large bottle of otherwise pleasant perfume.
“Yes, maybe that’s the problem,” said Mr Driver. “Maybe I need something hot in my stomach, washed down with a warm spirit or two.”
“The spirits here are unlike any you have faced before,” said Lucius. “You will find them most vigorous.”
“Good, good,” said Mr Driver. But the feeling in the pit of his stomach was not good, and he wasn’t sure that that food would drive it out. But he would try, anyway. What’s better than good food to lift the mood and make foes into friends?
Mr Driver was surprised at the variety of dishes on display at the table and said so to Lucius.
“Many come from the east and the west to take their place at this feast,” said Lucius.
Mr Driver wondered where all those people were now and put that question in a place in his mind to ask next time. But now it was time to eat.
Among all the exotic dishes on offer, the first object that caught his attention was a round, silver-looking serving dish with a dome cover. Mr Diver avoided eye-contact with the reflection of his face in the ancient metal plate and lifted the cover to see what lay beneath. It was a large cube of beef, burned but bloody, just the way he liked it.
Mr Diver snatched a large knife that sat beside the dish – it was more a Roman short-sword than the usual sort of carving blade – and sliced it down the middle. No sooner had be pulled the blade away than scores of maggots and other creeping creatures wriggled out, making Mr Diver drop the knife and step back in disgust.
“What sort of place is this anyway?” said Mr Diver.
“Forgive my meat, as I forgive your grumbling,” said Lucius. “This is an ancient place where the worm dies not.”
Still hungry, and not to be discouraged, a small cauldron of plain beef stew drew the eye of Mr Diver. It looked homely, familiar, and above all, hot and filling, with no insects in sight. Mr Driver seized a steely bowl and a wooden spoon. He heaped the stew into a what resembled a small mountain in the middle of his place as a helping for himself. He then began to eat, quickly and greedily.
The stew was cooler than he would have liked but it wasn’t cold. But that wasn’t the strange thing about it. It was, to Mr Diver’s immense disappointment, utterly tasteless. No stock, no salt, no herbs, no sauce, no usual or unusual flavours – nothing! But that wasn’t the strange thing either. Mr Diver had widespread experience of mediocre foods as well as luxury cuisines, so sampling such a stew was unfortunately not new to him. What was new, what confounded him completely, was the more he ate, the hungrier he got, until he reached the final spoonful and his stomach felt like his throat was slashed. His last state was hungrier than his first.
Damn and blast it! thought Mr Diver. Is nothing in this place what it seems? Is everything upside-down? Well, I won’t give this Lucious the satisfaction of hearing another complaint from me. I’ll sort it out myself.
“Vert nice,” said Mt Diver to Lucius. “Very filling.”
“As you say,” said Lucius.
“When I was…” started Mr Diver but couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. “Before I came here, I took pleasure in cooking my own food. Could I do the same here?”
This of course was a lie. Mr Diver’s longsuffering wife Iris cooked most of his meals, at least when they were first married. Later on, since she started saturating herself with Gin and Tonics on a daily basis as soon as the clock struck noon, Mr Diver was happy to eat out and order in. Sometimes Iris would accompany him, sometimes not, depending on her level of inebriation and his desire to get away.
“We keep to the old ways here,” said Lucius. “It is our burden to serve and yours to beg.”
“There’s more than just you here?” said Mr Diver.
“There are legions of us here, behind the shadows,” said Lucius
“What do you do?” said Mr Diver.
“Labour to ensure you get your just reward,” said Lucius.
“And do you do nothing for yourselves?” said Mr Diver.
“Your reward is our reward, and we all reap together what we have sown apart,” said Lucius.
“That’s nice,” said Mr Diver, as be turned away his face from Lucius, no longer able to bear the cold reflection from the dark pupils of those beautiful eyes. Instead, Mr Diver looked again at the table, past the meats and platters and on to the many bottles that stood on it. He grasped the nearest one to him and poured out its liquid contents into a heavy, iron cup. From the clear glass bottle, the wine looked like the reddest Mr Diver had ever seen. But as he poured the wine out, it became dense and dull, with particles visible to the naked eye. At this stage, Mr Driver cared little for matters of palate because an incredible thirst came on him and he could hardly wait to drink it away.
Every gulp he took only made his thirst worse. So, Mr Diver emptied the entire cup to the dregs, until the wine dripped down his mouth and on to his naked chest. Its taste was as bitter as vinegar, but it was all that was offered. He drank a second glass and his throat felt like a dry desert under the noonday wind. The third glass made him choak and vomit on his feet.
“Can I not have some water to drink and to wash myself?” said Mr Diver.
“Here there is no hiding place from the wind or shelter from the storm,” said Lucius. “Here there is no stream of water in the wasteland or the shade of a great rock in a parched land.”
“Why do you talk to me in riddles?” said Mr Diver.
“Because the truth is ugly and you would perish from it,” said Lucius. “So, you prefer the lie, as do I.”
“I don’t understand!” said Mr Diver. “Isn’t there anyone else I can ask? Isn’t there anyone else here?”
“There are many hear who you will meet in due course. But they may make you wish for solitude again,” said Lucius. “Do you weary of my presence so quickly, after such a short time? You have only been here less than one hour, and you tire of me already? And how many hundreds of thousands of hours go to make up a single century?”
“Your fire doesn’t warm me. Your food doesn’t fill me. And your company leaves me lonely,” said Mr Diver, with the boldness that desperation brings. “Isn’t this supposed to be a happy place?”
“There are many lusts and desires in this place, as there were in yours. The only difference is that here they are born full-grown and take no length of time to ripen into corpses,” said Lucius.
“Well, if you can’t make me happy, can you at least show me someone who is?” said Mr Diver.
“I can and will,” said Lucius. “Look yonder!”
Mr Diver lifted up his eyes to where Lucius pointed. In the far distance, beyond the boundaries of that place where he was, Mr Diver saw a great chasm, and then a wall. And after that wall – how he was able to view such a distance, he did not know or dare to ask – Mr Diver saw a party of people in a garden. This walled garden was a wonder to behold. It was full of fountains and streams of the purest water and orchards with fruit-bearing trees of great beauty. A paradise of multi-coloured parks with abundant fertility and luxuriant vegetation.
As he looked further, Mr Diver saw that this garden was only one of many estates, all connected to each other by paths and gold-paved streets. And he saw these gardens were set beside many-roomed mansions and princely palaces with pearl gates. All this was spender was contained in a single city, square in shape, with a great and high wall. Each wall had three gateways, inscribed with names that Mr Diver couldn’t read, and guarded by a being whose face shone like the sun with legs like pillars of fire.
But a greater marvel than the city itself was the people who inhabited it. Perfect creatures, clothed with garments of light and eternal liveliness. Some feasted and drank, laughing and telling tales of great labours and victories past. Others danced and sang, to such sounds and with such graceful movements that left any viewer long for nothing more than to watch or join with them forever. Yet a third group lay in quiet repose and peace, resting on the laps of their companions in the way closest friends do, or those who have finished some arduous tasks with good success.
The face of one in this last group was strangely familiar to Mr Diver. He thought he knew her. But how could this be? If he had ever encountered one with such splendour and grace before, the memory would surely never have left him. And yet, he couldn’t quite place her.
“Lucius, you show me such a picture of happiness and bliss that it makes my own place a thousand times worse by comparison,” said Mr Diver. “But I am curious. I see a woman afar off who rests at the side of her dear friends, and who lies in their arms. I think I know her, but I can’t remember he name.”
“As for increasing your agony here, I only do as you ask, and you only received what you are due. Do you not know this yet?” said Lucius. “And as for the women’s name, you knew her in past days as Mrs Lazenby, but what she is now is far beyond both of us. Once, she laboured in your workhouse. Now, her days of toil and pain are forever finished.”
Mr Diver found it hard to accept the word of Lucious or even the testimony of his own eyes that this god-like creature was the woman he knew as Mrs Lazenby. Low Mrs Lazenby who worked for him and scrubbed his toilets. Poor Mrs Lazenby whose husband died early and who begged Mr Diver for work when her retirement age was past. Sick Mr Lazenby with the bad skin and the sores. Lonely Mrs Lazenby, childless and friendless, whose only companion was a mangy, mongrel dog that licked her blistered hands.
“How long has she been over there?” gasped Mr Diver.
“She came there the same day you came here,” said Lucius.
Mr Diver was shocked into silence at this revelation. But he was not as shocked as Mrs Lazenby herself was at the moment of her death, while on her knees, scrubbing the bathroom floors in the factory. For, instead of lifting up her eyes to look at a beautiful face, as Mr Diver had done, she looked up and saw several faces, but all on the same body.
The being that kneeled before her was awesome in appearance. It had six wings, four faces, and a white glow like bright lightening. One face was of a lion, fierce and bold. Another face was like an eagle, noble and lofty. A third face resembled an ox, strong and tireless. But it was the fourth face, shaped like that of man, that spoke to her.
“Don’t be afraid, fellow worker,” he said.
And as soon as he spoke these words, she wasn’t.
“The Ancient of Days has sent me to serve you and carry you a better place than this, a place better than all places,” he continued. “He has chosen you to attend his banquet. Wear these, the clothes of the wedding-feast, so all will know you are one of them and worthy of admittance.”
The four-faced being that burned like the sun then lifted her up, with might and gentleness in equal measure. At a sweep of its six wings, they journeyed beyond the sky, beyond the stars of space, over a great gulf, and into another place where there was a mountain, and on top of that mountain, instead of ice and rocky peaks, there was a garden-city. It was built by its designer and maker in such a way that no one could say if it was a city with a garden, or a garden with a city.
When they reached their destination, the four-faced being set Mrs Lazenby down with great fanfare and trumpet sound in front of a man, although many others joined them with laugher and shouts of joyful triumph. The man seemed very old, for his beard was long and his hair was a white as snow. But his flesh glowed with life, his eyes were clear, and his arms held strength. The man greeted Mrs Lazenby by name and decreed that a festival take place in her honour.
“I am the father of many nations and a friend to you in this place, until the time of the end,” he said to Mrs Lazenby. “Rest here from your works with those who have gone before you. Some of them you will know, and others are eager to know you in turn.”
And so, Mrs Lazenby rested until the time Mr Diver saw her across the great gulf and through the walled garden.
“Lucius, can I visit her?” said Mr Diver.
“No,” he replied. “None can pass between this place and that.”
“Can I speak to her?” said Mr Diver.
“No, none can disturb her rest.”
“Is there no one I can talk to over there?”
“There is one,” said Lucius. “The Father of Nations. You may call him, and he will speak back if he wishes. I have no power over there or over him to make him reply. There he is! The great old one that walks among them!”
Way in the distance, Mr Diver saw the man who had welcomed Mrs Lazenby and who looked like a patriarch among men. All those around him were his dear children, now as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. He seemed like a man that had wandered far on foreign lands, seeing this, his own country, at first only from afar, but then finally finding it. And the desire stirred in Mr Diver to join the man and his children, to live and walk in their garden-city, and find peace. But there were some things more important and pressing than that.
“Father, father, will you hear me?” said Mr Diver.
“I hear you, child,” he replied, turning his head over this great distance to speak with Mr Diver.
“Have mercy on me, as a father should!” demanded Mr Diver. “Send me Mrs Lazenby to serve me some water from your brooks and your springs. This place torments me with thirst and flame!”
“Her days of serving you are over,” he said.
“I don’t need much. Just the smallest of cups. Just the tip of her finger to drip water on my tongue,” begged Mr Driver.
“You in your life have received your share of good things, and she her bad things. Now she is comforted, and you are tormented,” said the Father of Nations. “You have already received your portion of comfort. You only gave thought to that life, and so there is no portion left for you in this one.”
“Have mercy, have mercy!” cried Mr Diver. “Send her, send her!”
“I cannot, child. As you have seen with your own eyes, there is a great chasm that separates us, fixed and bottomless. Those who wish to travel from here to you cannot, and none my cross from you to here,” he said.
“Then at least send Mrs Lazenby to warn my brother, my wife, and my three children,” begged Mr Diver. “I could not stand it if they joined me in this place of torment.”
“They have the old, dark book to teach them, if they would read it,” said the Father of Nations.
“No, no, no! If Mrs Lazenby was to rise from the dead and warn them, or her spirit was sent to them, they would have to listen to what she said!” screamed Mr Diver.
“If they won’t read the book, they wouldn’t be persuaded if someone spoke to them from the place of the dead.”
Then the Father of Nations left Mr Diver, and his vision of the garden-city with Mrs Lazenby in it ceased, and he was back to where he was.
“Do not worry. They may leave you, but I will not,” said Lucius to Mr Diver. “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”
And with that, Lucious laughed. It was the first time Mr Diver heard the laugh of Lucius. He wished it was the last. But that wish too, like all his others, would remain unfulfilled through the long ages to come.
Mr Diver realised that he hated Lucius as much as he feared him. The calm of Lucious he how saw as cruel indifference. The smile of Lucius he now recognised as scorn. The guidance of Lucius was nothing else than an invitation to agony.
“How can one so beautiful be so spiteful?” said Mr Diver, half to himself, half to Lucius.
“This is not my true appearance. This is me transformed into a messenger of light. I change my shape when I attend on mortals, lest my terrible form break your brittle, little minds. For we have observed from the beginning that your kind prefers a pretty lie to the cutting blade of truth,” said Lucius.
Then Lucious showed Mr Diver his true likeness and Mr Diver went mad with what he saw. But there was an abundance of time for him to recover and an abundance of infernal delights for Lucius to occupy him with as he did.