Behind door number 9 of the Jo Fletcher Books Christmas Advent there is a wonderful short story by our newest author Sue Tingey to get you in the mood for her Debut novel, Marked.
He glanced around at the other members of the team – no one was paying him any attention. He sank back into his seat. Christmas Eve had arrived, and with it the ten busiest days of his year. It didn’t help that in recent times the one-man department ‘downstairs’ had decided to start throwing out natural disasters on a regular basis: tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, you name it – and Peter was left to contend with the endless queue of frightened and bemused people that resulted from those actions. Perhaps it’s time for me to retire.
‘Ready for the off?’ a gentle voice said from beside him. ‘There’s already a queue.’
‘What have we got so far?’
‘Two naturals and a motorway pile up.’
‘All right, let’s get going,’ he said, and reached for his admissions book and pen.
The two naturals turned out to be an earthquake in Japan and a mudslide in Kenya. Twenty-four souls in total and all but one received admission. The pile up on the M25 was a different matter. The driver and his three mates who had caused the accident were high on crack and had robbed a pensioner an hour earlier, and their lives were a litany of cruelty heaped on innocents. Peter heaved a weary sigh as the last soul from the crash disappeared round the corner. He couldn’t fathom why humans were so self-destructive.
He glanced up from the register and took a moment to watch Teresa patrol the growing queue as it shuffled forward. She was an angel in every sense of the word. She calmed and placated with just a word, a gentle smile or a light touch of the hand. The rest of the team were also hard at work, sorting the huge numbers of souls as they arrived. Some were terrified, some were angry and others were still in shock, but each and every one of them was handled with quiet and calm efficiency.
‘There’s been some kind of mistake,’ a voice said.
Peter started, pulled from his contemplation, then turned his attention to the young woman in front of him. She was clearly agitated, but defiant.
He studied the ledger. ‘Amy Sanders, aged twenty-four from South London?’ he said.
‘That’s me,’ she replied.
Peter regarded her pretty, pale face for a moment then ran his finger along her entry in the book. This was definitely not what he needed so early in the shift: a self kill. And she was either in denial, or had a serious attitude.
‘Amy,’ he said, keeping his tone gentle but firm. ‘It says here that you deliberately ended your life at ten twenty-eight this morning.’
‘Why would I do that?’ she asked, genuinely surprised.
‘I don’t know. You tell me.’
She chewed on her lip in thought for a moment. ‘Okay, I can see how someone might think I wanted to, but I didn’t really. I mean he’s been such a pig and I wanted him to feel sorry for what he’d done and— Oh Hell . . .’ she said as the penny dropped.
Teresa led the woman away, speaking to her softly.
‘Up or down?’ Paul, his assistant asked.
‘It looked genuinely unintentional; a cry for attention gone wrong. The boss wouldn’t let her go downstairs for that.’
The hours passed in a whirlwind of sad and confused faces. Most of the new arrivals still did not comprehend what had happened to them, and Peter became more despondent with each admission. I’m getting too old for this.
‘Hello. My name’s Olivia.’
Peter looked up. A small girl was peering at him from across the other side of the desk, her chin almost resting on the polished wood. Her face was pale and she had dark smudges under eyes so big that Peter wanted to weep. Soft blonde down covered her head where her hair had started to re-grow and when she stepped back he could see that she was wearing a hospital gown.
‘Hello Olivia. How are you today?’
‘I’m very well thank you,’ she said. ‘I feel much better now.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’ He glanced at his ledger. Olivia Harris, aged seven.
‘Is this Heaven?’ she asked.
It usually took a while for the souls to understand where they were, but this little girl must have been living with death for so long that she had known immediately where she was. He nodded, unable to speak.
‘Can I wait here for David?’ she asked. ‘I think he’ll be coming soon.’
As Peter ran his finger down the lines of names, Olivia joined him behind the desk.
‘There, see.’ She pointed. ‘David Parks, he was in the bed next to me. We promised that whoever was first would wait for the other—’
‘I’m afraid that’s not allowed,’ said Paul from behind them.
Peter glanced back at him, irritated by the interruption. ‘I think we’ll make an exception for Olivia,’ he said, his voice unusually gruff. ‘Her friend won’t be long.’
Paul looked like he was about to argue, but then thought better of it.
Olivia rewarded Peter with a huge smile: payment enough for breaking one rule . . . and perhaps a few more.
Peter stood and turned to Paul, ‘You take over here for a while.’ His assistant looked at him, surprise in his eyes, and Peter well knew why – not once, in all his long years of service, had he ever left his post during a shift.
Peter ignored Paul’s shock and took hold of the girl’s hand, smiling. ‘Let’s go and see if we can find your friend,’ he said.
Her fingers curled around his and she pulled him with surprising force back along the waiting queue, chattering happily as they walked.
Perhaps I ought to retire, he thought looking down at Olivia’s animated expression, but sometimes this job really isn’t so bad after all.