Your Own Death, and how to Cope with it
The irony of Sophie Smith was all she ever wanted was to be normal, and because of that, she never could. While most children wanted to be pop stars and actors, Sophie wanted to get married. She wanted a great white wedding, a beautiful house, and beautiful children. She had certain expectations, and she expected them to be adhered to. She was the child who always played by the rules, not because she wanted to, but because she had never considered anything otherwise.
And then Annie Anding had ruined it all when she kissed her in the school chemistry closet. Sophie had been reaching up for the test tubes and Annie had been reaching down for the bunsen burner and somehow they'd met, maybe by accident, maybe not, in the middle. And they'd bumped noses, and Sophie spilled baking powder all over the floor and it was all wrong because Sophie wasn't like that and how was she going to have a great white wedding now? It was too much acid and not enough alkaline and it was absolutely abnormal.
Sophie changed classes, got a boyfriend, got married, and yet she could never completely get away from Annie Anding. She had her white wedding, and yet, through the whole ceremony all she could smell was...
"Darling, your nose is twitching. What's the matter?" asked Tom, her husband of five minutes.
"Baking powder!" Sophie exclaimed. "Like it's right up my nose. Baking powder!"
The wedding night went well enough. Sophie had always been a strong believer in fake it till you make it, though there seemed to have been a lot of faking over the years that hadn't amounted to much making. But soon, she'd perfected the perfect Darling, not tonight. I have a headache, and then before too long that girls had come along and happily she'd let them hop in the bed with them. "Tom, we can't!" she'd gasp. "Not with the girls here." Tom would grumble a bit, and roll over. On his side, with his broad shoulders, he looked ludicrous, like a sleeping grumpy bear. Admittedly, her and her husband argued more than she envisaged all those years ago, and sometimes, she'd slump into a strange depression, something she hadn't envisaged at all. But...
Sophie had everything she wanted. Her life was perfect. Absolutely peachy.
Sadly, it wouldn't last long. In six months time, Sophie Smith would be dead.
Please state, in your own words, the circumstances of your death.
Sophie had assumed- apparently naively- that one of the few perks of being dead would be no more irritating paperwork.
On the desk in front of her laid a fat fifty page questionnaire including questions such as Where were you at the time of your death? What were you doing at the time of your death? The document cheerfully concluded, Sign here, if you are dead.
"Oh, and here's something to take a look at when you have a chance," said the receptionist. She put a leaflet down in front of her and patted her hand comfortingly.
The leaflet was entitled;
Your own Death, and how to Cope with it
One paragraph jumped out at her; Try to stay positive. All your bills, pets and children are now somebody else's problem.
"Who wrote this?" Sophie asked.
"Me," said the receptionist. "Good, isn't it? Very uplifting, I've been told."
The receptionist also happened to be an angel. Sophie had always thought angels were abstract concepts. Metaphysical beings, or even metaphors. But unless metaphors wore pencil skirts, stockings and blouses with little name badges declaring, My name's Raziel! I'm here to help, she wasn't too sure any more.
Sophie said anxiously, "Hey, listen. Is there anyway I can get in contact with my children?"
Raziel had teetered on her heels back to her desk, where she was busy checking her Amail. She tossed over the screen, quite casually, "Are they dead?"
"God, no!" said Sophie.
Raziel coughed politely.
"Oh," said Sophie. Before adding grudgingly; "Sorry."
"That's quite alright," Raziel said, in a very lofty air. "I had to ask. I'm that case, I'm afraid not. But you do get one phone call before your trial. Provided the person you're trying to reach is dead, that is."
Sophie decided to call her Aunt Fiona. Raziel led her into little room with what looked a lot like a BT phone box with an old-fashioned gilded receiver. Hesitantly, Sophie picked it up and held it to her ear. She wasn't sure what to do, so she called the operator.
The sound of harps played a soothing shopping melody. "Hello, Angel Operator speaking. How may I help you today?"
"Um, I'd like to speak to Fiona Smith, please."
"Would you know whether the recipient is in Heaven, or in Hell?"
"Uh, I'm not sure. Heaven, probably." There was no way her sweet old aunt would have been condemned to Hell.
"One moment please."
Her aunt's voice boomed out of the receiver; "Sophie m'girl! Good to hear from ya. Well, not not so good, seeing as it means you're dead, but you win some, you lose some, eh? Last time I saw you, you were wee high. How've you been?"
Sophie felt slightly stunned. She said, "What, you mean for the last twenty years?"
How to sum up twenty years in a single sentence? Sophie settled with, "Fine."
"What did you end up doing with your life? Last time I saw you, you musta' been about ten. Spend all day drawing and designing your dream wedding. Ha!"
"Oh," Sophie said weakly. "Yeah, I got married."
The line went quiet. "Is that all?"
Adding with a small sense of desperation; "And I had two kids. Emma and Charlotte. They're great girls. Very well behaved."
"You didn't want to do anythin' else?"
"I'm- I was, the vice president of the PTA, and a school governor. And I organised lots of events in the village, things for charity. And..."
She faltered. Fiona's voice echoed in Sophie's head, cawing like a jackdaw. It asked, Is that it? Is that all?
"Well," Fiona said, overly loud and cheerful, "At least that means you'll join me up here, for sure, aye? I only got in by the skin of my teeth, what with all that bad business with Bob. I tell you, it's great Soph. You get anything you want. I mean anythin'. Lakes of champagne, a house made of marshmallows. Anythin'! And it was rude of me to judge ya like that. It was up to you to do what you wanted with your life. I was just surprised you didn't want more. But you enjoyed it, that's the main thing. You did enjoy it, right?"
The last time Sophie saw her aunt, she was a doddering, sweet old woman. What had changed? Or was it just her perception? Had she ever seen anything clearly?
"I don't know..." she whispered.
Outside the phone box, Raziel motioned at her wristwatch.
"Listen," she said, "I've got to go."
"Alright then Sophie. Good luck with your trial. I expect I'll be seeing you!"
"Yeah," said Sophie. "Sure."
"Oh, one last thing," said Fiona. "There might be a bit of wait."
The waiting room in Heaven looked an awfully lot like the one at Sophie's dentist's. It was remarkably unremarkable, right down to the cream wallpaper, fish tank and out of date magazines. In fact, if it wasn't for the television displaying a live televised trial conducted with a jury of angels, and the fact it went on for miles, she might have thought it was her dentist's waiting room.
Raziel tore a ticket stub off the machine and handed it to Sophie. It read, MMXXVIVXII.
Sophie asked, "How long is this going to take exactly?"
"Actually, waiting times have been pretty good this century," Raziel said, as she rearranged the stack of magazines on the coffee table. "Should only take a decade or two. Now, what would you like to read? Cosmopolitan or OK?"
Then she asked, "Sweetie, are you alright? You look a little pale. Maybe you should sit down."
Raziel guided Sophie to an empty chair between a dozing old woman, and a man with an axe buried in his head. She slumped down into it like a sack of potatoes.
"A few decades?" she murmured.
"It'll breeze by," Raziel assured her. "I've even got a few Woman's Weekly if you want."
"Raziel," Sophie said, "do you think I'm going to Hell?"
"Couldn't say. I'm not allowed to look at anybody's court notes. I'm just the Angel of Tea and Biscuits."
"The angel of tea?"
"And biscuits. Please don't forget the biscuits. It's half the job description. People die, I make tea, serve biscuits. Well, I clean the fish tank once in a while and change the magazines every few years, but those are really just side jobs. And the pamphlets are just a hobby." She dumped a heap of magazines into her lap. "You got everything you need?"
"I'm set for the next decade."
"Excellent!" said Raziel.
Sophie settled in to a fifty-year-old edition of Good Housekeeping, and a bourbon.
"Yeah, angels don't really pick on the sarcasm. Or humour in general." Sophie looked round. The man with the axe in his head was talking to her. He said, "I mean, if you want to talk about different types of biscuits, Raz is your gal, but she can be kind of dry. But I guess I'd be dry if my whole existence centred around digestives."
Sophie didn't mean to, but she stared. The man touched his head self-consciously. He said, "I know. But I can't decide whether it'd be worse to take it or just leave it in."
"Doesn't that hurt?"
"Naw. Sure, when she swung it at my head it did. Completely caned. Dying was a bit of relief, I can tell you. Now it just makes doorways a bit of a problem."
"You were murdered?" Sophie asked incredulously.
He leant in close to her, narrowly avoiding her head with the handle of his axe. "I'll be honest. I haven't followed the old straight and narrow my whole life. Hoping to go for the I was murdered by my pycho serial killer wife sympathy plea route."
Above on the television an angel thumped his fist down in front of the accused.
Did you or did you not, maliciously- and with intent- steal that bag of frozen peas when you were eleven?
No sir! No sir! Three bags full sir.
Her eyes drifted to the fish tank. An underwater waving aquatic world, it was obscured by a thin film of dirt. When the goldfish swam, it whisked the dirt up, flecks twirling like synchronised swimmers .
A few decades, sat in a waiting room. Sophie wondered if she hadn't gone to hell already.
As well as the axe man, there was a glamorous, moody looking woman, looking as though she'd been wrenched from the red carpet. Two children languishing on the floor, doodling lazily with crayons. An old couple, holding hands, bickering.
"Something beginning with... T."
"How did you know? You must have cheated!"
"You've used that one fifty times already, dear."
A group of old men huddled round a deck of old, faded playing cards, and a rowdy gang of teenagers were singing at the top of their voices.
"Seventeen thousand bottles of beer on the wall! Seventeen thousand bottles of beer!-"
The husband opposite her was shaking with anger.
"If I hear- one single more bottle of beer-" his voice quivering like a cello string.
"Now darling, keep calm. Think about your nerves." said his wife, putting her hand on top of hers.
"Damn it, Martha, forget about my nerves already. We're dead!"
The axe man leant over her. "So," he said cheerfully, "how did you die?"
On the TV screen, the accused burst out into tears, grabbing the prosecutor and sobbing into his gown.
Alright, I did it! I did it, okay? I killed her. I murdered her. I forgot to feed her and I flushed her down the toilet.
Mr Golding, we're talking about your girlfriend.
Yes, I know.
Someone called, "Hey, can we switch this over? I want to watch Jeremy Kyle."
Sophie said to the axe man, "I don't want to waste your time with my life story."
"Well," said the man, "we do appear to have a bit of a while."
Sophie buried her face in her hands with embarrassment. "It's just awful," she said. "I choked to death on a pringle. Isn't that lame? Just think how it's going to look on my gravestone. "
He shrugged. "I've heard worse. Steve over there drowned in a paddling pool."
But in Sophie's eyes, it was more than lame. That week, after fifteen years, she'd ran into Annie Anding at Charlotte's parents evening. And Annie had told her she'd never forgotten her. Told her to leave her husband, elope with her, they'd disappear into the sunset together, ect, ect. It was something that might have happened in a fairy tale. A one in a million chance.
And Sophie had said no. And she'd been miserable, slumped into the kitchen to sob over a pack of pringles. Then, just like that, she'd died.
All her life, Sophie had spent waiting for something that had never happened. Even dead, she was still waiting. She felt so depressed she started thinking about killing herself, before she remembered with deep disappointment that actually, she was already dead.
She couldn't stand it.
"I can't stand it!" someone screamed. It was the glamorous woman. She was caked with make-up, choked with diamonds. She snagged and pulled at them and shouted, "Sixteen years! Sixteen fucking years I've waiting! I shouldn't have to wait. Do you know who I am? Do you?"
Raziel attempted to sedate the woman with a plate of biscuits. "Calm down. Have a McVities."
"I don't want a bloody McVities." The tray crashed the ground. McVities went flying. Raziel stared, agog. Evidently, this was too much for her.
She said, "Take a seat, or I'll call security."
"And what are they going to do?" she said. "Huh? What can they do? I'm already dead."
Raziel scuttled to her desk and picked up her phone. The whole waiting room gaped, the children scurrying out the of the way, as the woman trashed the room. Toppled chairs. Crushed biscuits under her stilettos. When the two security guards came into the room, she was snapping crayons in two. The security guards were big, beefy, with fluffy white wings. Their name tags declared them as Greg and Bob. One took the woman by the left arm.
"I think you've caused enough trouble, luv."
The other took the right.
"I think you'd best take a seat."
She wrenched out of their grip. "I will do no such thing." And she picked up a ginger nut and snapped it in front of their faces.
"I'm only gonna give you one more chance luv. Sit down."
"Oh?" she said. She squared right up to the guard, hands on her hips. "What are you going to do?"
The guards seized her, wrenched open a door that read, "Emergency Exit." Inside was a long chute, and it smelled an awful lot like sulphur.
"Stop! What are you doing?" she cried. The angels picked her up, and with a heave ho swung her like a sandbag down the chute. "Don't you know who I aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam?"
The whole waiting room had gone deathly silent. Someone coughed.
"Anyone else got a problem with waiting?" said Greg. He caught Sophie's eye. Very quickly, she dived for her copy of Good Housekeeping.
Suddenly, waiting didn't sound like such a bad idea after all.