© Simon Totten
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You Never Know
One winter's morning, as I sat in my kitchen munching cornflakes, gazing out of the window at a grey mass of cloud, blown apart by a molten yellow holocaust, I felt a dark presence beside me.
It drifted mysteriously from the shadows, extended a hand and reached into my soul.
Gripped by a sickening terror, I choked, spitting a mouthful into my bowl. A figure, almost human, with no face, gradually took shape in front of me. A long hooded cloak flowed behind, as it floated onto the table. A huge pair of black feathered wings slowly unfurled on its back and fanned out against the ceiling.
‘That’s better,’ it breathed. ‘A good stretch is all it takes, sometimes. You sent for me?’
‘Me?’ I stammered.
‘Err just let me check.. you are… let me see,’ it hissed, appearing to scan down an imaginary list. … 'Lisa Fellowes? Flat 34C, Dorking Road?’
‘Err yes, that’s me,’ I said, my voice and hands trembling.
‘Excellent… so I am in the right place after all.’
‘Look…I don’t know who you are or what you want but I’m trying to eat my breakfast here and I’m going to be late for work.’
‘Muriel,’ she said, in a deep velvety voice that echoed slightly. ‘Angel of Death, 69th Division. I have an order here from Archangel Azael himself. I am to collect your soul, immediately.’
‘Errm… there must be some mistake.’
‘No, I’m afraid not… Azael is all seeing, all knowing. He deals with life or death every day, Do you really think he’d get a simple thing like that wrong? It clearly states here: Lisa Fellowes, Flat 34C Dorking Road. Suicide.’
At first my words stick in my throat. ‘Errm… well, I think I might know why you’re here. This morning, I was getting ready for work, ironing a shirt and burnt a hole in my ironing board. When I saw the geranium plant on my windowsill was dead, something inside me died with it. It was like a thick fog had settled in my head and I couldn’t see a way out. From that moment my mind was made up. I decided to put myself out of my misery. I'm going to kill myself.’
‘That explains it then. I’m relatively new in the job, you see. I seem to have jumped the gun. It has been known, I need to work more on my timing. I owe you an apology. Ready when you are.’
‘Well… wait a minute, I can’t just end it all just like that.’
‘But you just said...’
‘Well.. believe me it would solve a lot of problems but... ’
‘Oh, here we go, there’s always a but with people like you isn’t there?’
‘Well it’s just that, I've had some time to think, Suicide’s not to be taken lightly is it? It’s a once in a lifetime, forever decision.’
‘I understand, it’s not for everyone but the thing to ask yourself is are you prepared to give it a go? Are you a serious player?’
‘Well that’s the problem. When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I can go through with it.’
‘Trust me, you’ll be fine. I’ve seen thousands, millions myself, maybe more… I lost count. It’s no big deal really. At the end of the day you’re just another drop in the ocean, a grain of sand on a beach. A tiny star in a galaxy.’
‘Well… thanks, that’s very reassuring.’
‘Just saying. Doesn’t matter to me one way or another. It’s all down to you. I’m just doing my job. So what’s it to be?’
‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t want to, I do… it’s just…’
Muriel sighed, tapping her bony fingers with long perfectly manicured fingernails, impatiently on the table as if she’d heard it all before.
‘Hurry up, I haven’t got all day. I’ve got places to go, souls to collect.’
‘Ah right… don’t pressure me. It’s easier said than done, that’s all. I think I need help.’
‘Hey…don't look at me. I’m an Angel of Death, not a fucking counsellor.’
‘I know but…I’ve thought about it a lot and I just can’t decide on the best way to do it.’
‘I see, well…for every success there are twenty five failures who live to tell the tale, You’re spoilt for choice really. How about hanging? I went to this house the other week and found a rock star dangling from the ceiling. Trying for the perfect orgasm he was. I thought that was a good way to go? What do you reckon?’
I gave Muriel an intensely disapproving stare but she carried on regardless.
‘Mind you it’s not the kind of thing you want to get wrong is it? I mean, no offence or anything but you don't look like the lightest person in the world,’ she said, sizing me up.
‘Excuse me? What are you trying to say?’
‘Well, you don’t want to break the rafters, collapse the place do you? I mean then what would you do?’
‘Fair comment,’ I said nodding with an air of resignation, pushing my cereal bowl away.
‘And…’ she continued, shamelessly. ‘Not everyone gets the knot right either and all they end up with is rope burn.’
‘That kind of rules that one out then.’
‘Errm… you could try some rat poison with those cornflakes?’
‘Worth a try I suppose…’ I said, keeping an open mind.
‘On second thoughts, maybe not. I've seen a few who've been found in time and get a liver transplant that helps them survive.’
‘How about jumping off a bridge or building?’ I suggest.
‘Depends if it’s high enough. If not, you could end up in agony, wired up to some machine that helps you breathe instead. Really, I think you’d be better off with a sure thing. Something final, perfectly absolute, like blowing your brains out with a shotgun. Throwing yourself under a train. Taking a bath with an electrical appliance. Swallowing bleach or stabbing yourself.’
‘Ok… ok… that’s enough, I get the picture,’ I interrupted. ‘Cheery soul, aren’t you?’
‘Well you did ask… I’m just giving you the benefit of my experience. You can take it or leave it.’
‘Not my style really,’ I said, after giving each of them serious consideration.
‘What none of them? All quick and fairly painless if you ask me. Got a 99% success rate, virtually guaranteed. Can’t go wrong really.’
I shake my head solemnly.
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘Far too messy. I like things just so. Always have.’
‘Oh, that’s a bit better. I do like the sound of that. Peaceful, tranquil, almost meditative.’
‘See… the thing to get right with drowning is location. It can be a bit tricky round here. There aren’t any decent rivers and your bath isn’t exactly the Grand Canyon is it? Plus, this time of year you’re more likely to freeze to death than drown in the sea. And I’ve seen those lifeguards at the swimming baths. They’re good, I’m telling you. Something peaceful you say?’ said Muriel, pausing for a few moments of quiet contemplation, while retracting her wings and rearranging them neatly behind her back.
‘Got it…’ she said. ‘I know just the thing. How does slipping away quietly in your sleep with a lethal cocktail of pharmaceutical goodies grab you? No fuss, no mess, just job done.’
‘Ahh, now you’re talking… that’s more like it. Sounds perfect actually.’
‘Phew,’ said Muriel. ‘Thank Azael for that. I thought we’d never agree. Ok so, we’ve established if and how, that only leaves when. I don’t know what your schedule’s like but I’m snowed under at the moment. Must be time of year. You know long dark nights. The thought of spending Christmas with your family. And you know what they say? There’s no time like the present. Strike while the iron’s hot. So if you wouldn’t mind getting down to business straight away, I’d really appreciate it. Where’s the pills?’
‘I err… haven’t got anything in at the moment.’
‘What nothing? Nothing at all?’
‘No, I don’t believe in them. I’m more of a natural medicine, homeopathic type.’
‘Ah, I might have known.’
‘I’ll have to go to the Chemists and get some.’
‘What? You want me to hang about for you?’
‘Well... it’s my life and I’ll take it how and when I want. You got a problem with that?’
‘Fuck! Have you always been like this? No wonder you’re single and miserable. Don’t take this the wrong way but you are without a shadow of doubt the most awkward customer I have ever come across. Most people don’t think twice but you?’
‘Sorry, I know. You’re not the first to say that. Thanks for your help anyway. You’ve been… well, an absolute angel. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have finally sorted it. I;ve been wanting to get it off my chest for a while now. It’s like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders,’ I said, tucking in to my cornflakes again.
Well, if I was going to execute my cunning plan correctly, I couldn’t do it on an empty stomach.
With breakfast out of the way, it took a while but Muriel eventually squeezed the last of her humongous wings into my Ford Fiesta. She sat leaning uncomfortably forwards in the front passenger side, on the short road into town. Lloyd’s Pharmacy was a bitch to get to but at least it was reliable. It always stocked an extensive range of drugs and so easy to access too.
As my car wheels skidded on the ice, a chaotic blizzard whirled in the sky, laying a thin white carpet gently on the ground. Perfect suicide weather, I thought. Numb and frozen so I won’t feel a thing. I’ll just go to sleep and never wake up. I’d always hated Monday mornings but the relief of knowing this would be my last, eased the pain.
‘Must be tough carrying those great huge things everywhere?’
‘Well… musn't grumble, they’re pretty useful in the air.’
‘I can imagine … but how do you manage in the wet? They must get pretty heavy do they?’
‘Powderdown. Works wonders. Makes them water resistant, like birds. I can soar like an eagle with that stuff.’
'What’s it like on your side of things?'
'How do you mean?'
'What can I expect? You know on the other side... the spirit world'
'To be honest I couldn't tell you. I'm so rushed off my feet with collections. They say there's no rest for the wicked but its the same for an Angel of Death. It never stops, busy, busy, busy all the time. I never get to see anything.'
Disappointed, I hung my head and sighed.
Looking like she felt obliged to break the uncomfortably long silence, Muriel fidgeted. ‘So… this is a first for me,’ she said. ‘I don’t normally get to spend time with my customers. Usually it’s in, grab the soul and out again, then on to the next one. I mean… tell me if I’m over stepping the mark here, I know it’s a bit of an awkward question but… what made your mind up to err… pop your own clogs, so to speak.’
‘What didn’t you mean? In a word, Life. I mean in your line of work you must have seen more than your fair share of fuck-ups?’
‘Hah, tell me about it,’ huffed Muriel.
‘Well take that and multiply it by a thousand and you’ve got me.’
‘That bad eh?’
‘When I was young I used to think I was indestructible, I could survive anything, live forever but bit by bit, over the years, all that’s gone. Then, Bella, my cat, kept me going for a while but she went blind, then agoraphobic and died a few weeks back.'
'Then there's my family. They’re all gone now, except for Dad. He’s in Happy Valley care home with Alzheimer's. Can’t even remember who I am. Every day I expect a call to say he’s choked it. Then it’ll be just me. Sometimes I think I live on the moon. My telephone seems to be in a permanent coma these days. Nothing happens. Nobody calls. Nobody visits. Long dark, silent days, except for the loan shark and the mortgage company of course. They're always on my back and final demands land on my doormat badgering me for money I haven’t got.'
I changed down into second gear, pressing down harder on the accelerator, revving the engine to a growl to make the steep incline that led up into town.
'You know… I used to look outside and think the world’s not such a bad place after all. There are some things I’d miss. Sunsets, birds singing, rolling landscapes, fields and trees, chocolate, that magical flurry of snowflakes dancing around us out there, but I can’t think of much else.'
'I get the odd, brief moment when I think my luck will change, things will get better, something will give…like I dunno, a headhunter will recognise my untapped potential and offer me a dream job or the Lotto will call to tell me I’m a millionaire or the online dating agency will find some handsome, rich Mr Right and we’ll go riding off into the sunset together.’
‘Well, if you’re having second thoughts, maybe I should come back when you’re ready?’
‘No… don’t worry.. it never lasts long. They’re nothing more than pipe dreams, I know that, They’re not real. None of it will ever actually happen. I really hope there isn’t a next life but if there is, knowing my luck, I’ll come back as a sewer rat.’
‘Right well I see,’ said Muriel. ‘I think I understand now,’ said Muriel wearing a hang dog expression.
I negotiated the irate drivers on the roundabout like dodgems at the fairground and took a sharp left past ‘Barking Mad Dog’s Home.’
‘That's where I work. Been a Dog Rescuer, since I was 18.’
‘Really? That's a long time. Been busy lately?'
‘Nah, not really… it’s been pretty dead. I think it’s the weather. Gets busy after Christmas. All those unwanted puppies see.’
‘I can imagine. What sort of human abandons adorable creatures like that eh?’
‘I know… tell me about it, enough to make you lose the will to live, isn’t it?’
My phone’s tinny Star Wars music ringtone shattered the silence.
‘I should get that…’
‘No…don’t, probably a cold caller. Been to enough messy accidents lately. Went to one guy last month, took a PPI call and ten minutes later he'd slit his wrists…and believe me, you wouldn’t want that. Not a pretty sight, I can tell you and it only works at the first attempt six percent of the time.'
‘Great, thanks for the tip,’ I said, pressing accept.
‘Barking Mad Dog Rescue, how can I help?’
‘There’s a hound, big and vicious it is, loose in the graveyard,’ said a slightly unhinged voice on the other end of a crackly line.’
‘I’m sorry madam, I can hardly hear you… can you speak up?’
‘The bitch needs fetching and locking up Mrs. Can you come?’
‘It’s Miss actually and err… what’s it doing exactly?’
‘Terrorising a grave it is. Shouldn’t be allowed. Let the dead rest in peace, that’s what I say. I think it’s possessed.’
‘Really? What makes you say that?’
‘The eyes Mrs. Cold as ice they are, like a wolf. Just staring out from the grave.’
‘The graveyard you say? Highgate Cemetery is that right?’
‘That’s right and come quick Mrs, its howling. Awful it is… like a werewolf or summat.’
‘Ok… I can be there in five.’
The line went dead.
‘See… that’s the problem with this job. Can’t get away from cranks and weirdos. I mean I ask you? A werewolf in the graveyard? But I should probably go… just in case, do you mind?’
‘Why? What on earth for? In an hour or so you’re not going to care one way or another are you?’
‘Yes I know but…this job is the only thing that’s kept me alive for this long.’
‘So why don’t you want to carry on?’
'Ahh,' I sigh. ‘I think I'm just sick of it all really. I’ve rescued a lot of dogs in my time but the buzz just isn’t there anymore you know… there’s no job satisfaction. Just the groundhog drudgery of wake, eat, work, sleep and repeat. I’d like to go out with one last job though. One final act of kindness, if that’s ok?’
‘Very well then… as long as you’re quick.'
‘I will be. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to top myself before you know it.’
‘Great, nice morning for it, anyway,’ she said.
You know you’ve reached the point of no return, when the Angel of Death is trying to lighten the mood.
I parked near the cemetery and locked up. Muriel followed me into a gothic wonderland of crisp white globs of snow on the tops of tombstones. A glistening sparkle lit up the evergreens, bending their branches. Sharp, icy gusts swept around my ears, burning my cheeks. An eerie silence descended. The place was deserted, no people, no dogs nothing. Just row after row of frozen graves. Knowing I would soon be at peace there, gave me a comforting glow, a sense of belonging.
‘I hate graveyards,’ pronounced Muriel. ‘I mean.. they’re so boring. All the souls have been taken by the time they’re in the ground. There’s nothing to do so if you don't mind, I’ll wait for you up there.’
Muriel extended her wings and flew up into the clouds. Like a giant raven she circled around the church a few times before perching herself on the steeple at the fulcrum of its triangular roof. The bell in the church tower tolled slowly like there was a funeral. Looking down at me, she made a shushing gesture that I assumed meant hurry up, get a move on. The fog surrounding her looked like swirling hot breath, but I knew it couldn't be.
As I walked, searching for the dog, the hint of a whine got louder, turning into a whinge, then a faint yelp. I ventured closer to where it was coming from. Right at the far end, the dark outline of something moved. A werewolf? An Angel of Death? Or just another stray pooch?
Under the skeletal branches of a sickly tree was a weeping angel made of the finest, white marble, her slender arms draped over the tombstone in mock despair. With small, delicate wings, she was heavenly, exuding the kind of elegant sophistication, Muriel could only dream of. I'd like to have her on my grave, I thought but she looked far too expensive to me.
Below her, lying on a fresh, recently laid grave was a scrawny Alsatian bitch, belly on the cold ground head laid on its paws stretched out in front of the grave. The woman on the phone was right. Its eyes, one pink, one blue, were wild and scary. The words IN LOVING MEMORY OF DEAR HUSBAND, SON AND FATHER FREDERICK GOLDSMITH 1956- 2017, RIP, were carved on the headstone.
Usually I’d just catch the animal and bundle it into the back of the van and drive it back to the Rescue Home. As I got closer. I expected the dog to scatter or bolt but it didn’t so much as flinch, not for a second I reached out to smooth the wet fur on its head to comfort it but as soon as I got close it growled.
Its eyes shone with so much hunger, loyalty, devotion and sorrow, they melted my heart. This wasn’t part of the plan. I wasn’t supposed to feel pity on my last day on earth. It whined like it was grieving. I could see that the last thing it wanted was to be rescued. Frederick must have been some owner.
‘What am I going to do with you?’ I asked. ‘Come on, let me help you? I haven’t got time to mess about. I’ve got plans you know. Well, one anyway.’
‘You alright there?’ said a voice. I turned around. A tall, young man smartly dressed in a suit and dark overcoat, carrying a bunch of radiant yellow carnations stood in front of me.
‘You know… I do a lot of that myself' he said. 'Talking to graves that is. We must be mad. A waste of time really, I mean its not like they can hear us or anything is it?’
‘No… I wasn’t. I was talking to the dog but I don’t think it’s listening either. I’m a Dog Rescuer you see and I’m not sure what to do with this one.’
‘Oh…’ I said, spinning around to find it had gone. ‘That’s strange, there was an Alsatian here a minute ago, I swear. Can’t have gone far.’
Noticing a jagged crack under the headstone just wide enough for a dog to get in, I lay horizontal, face down on the cold ground, palms flat on the freezing ice, craning my neck to peer inside. There, staring out, were the Alsatian’s eyes. Two bright burning coals in the semi-darkness. Either she’d dug a shelter from the biting cold or wanted to be closer to Frederick.
'What should I do now? Looks like she’s stuck down there.’
‘Oh… yeah, I see what you mean,’ said the man crouching low to see inside.
‘It’s grieving. Wants to be with its owner.’
‘Well it can’t stay there, poor thing will catch its death,’ he said. Without a moment’s hesitation, he stooped and put his hand in the hole.
‘Be careful, it might bite.’
In seconds the man had pulled the dog up out of the grave by the collar and I had secured it with a lead. ‘Wow, how did you do that? You certainly have a way with dogs.’
‘Oh, it was nothing. I’m used to animals, grew up on a farm,’ he said. ‘Ahhh wow, look,’ he said pointing into the gloom below. ‘She’s not grieving at all. It’s instinct to go to ground and shelter. It’s love. A mother’s love,’ he said, pointing at a heap of shrivelled up Alsatian puppies in a silky film of birth fluid.
‘Amazing. One, two, three, four, five, I think.’
‘Oh my God. You must think I’m stupid?’
‘Not at all. Easy mistake to make,’ he said smiling.
‘They’re not for me are they?’ I said, nervously joking.
‘No, goodness, no’ he said awkwardly with a dour, almost glum expression before wandering off, somewhat embarrassed.
I pulled the puppies out of the grave one by one, wiping each of them clean while massaging their hearts to make sure they were alive, before placing them safely in an animal carrier.
‘Been busy I see?’ asked Muriel, standing on top of the car resting her wings, as I returned to load the dogs into the back. ‘Thought you were never going to finish.’
‘Yes… it was quite a palaver in the end. Just got to take these back to the Rescue home. Then it’s the Chemists and I’m all yours.’
‘Bout time. By the way, who was that you were talking to?’
‘Nobody,’ I said. ‘Just some bloke.’
‘Here we are, home sweet home at last,’ I said, placing a crisp white paper bag bursting with pills, on the kitchen table and removing my coat.
‘Well named aren’t they? Painkillers. Solve a lot of problems these will.’
‘Sure you've got enough? Only we don’t want any slip-ups do we?’ asked Muriel.
‘You could knock out a herd of cows with this lot. Just you wait, I’ll be Sleeping Beauty in no time, well, sleeping anyway. I’m just going to make one last call. Say goodbye to Dad.’
‘Oh really? Do you have to? Only I’m pushed for time, there’s been a road traffic accident a mile away… a mother and daughter’s souls are waiting. Can’t you just get on with it?’
‘Blimey, patience isn’t exactly your best quality is it? Not on commission by any chance are you?’
‘Well… dead or alive it’ll be all the same to him. With the Alzheimer's, he won’t know it’s you anyway.’
‘I s’pose,’ I said, sadly.
Clutching the white paper bag stuffed with bottles of tablets, I wandered upstairs. In the bedroom I set the bag on the side table, laid down on the bed and dragged the covers over me.
Muriel followed closely behind me, no doubt, relieved her wait was finally about to end. I unscrewed the cap on one of the bottles and set out the pills in front of me.
‘Right, here goes then. Nighty night. Or should that be Bye-de-Bye.’
Muriel moved closer and sat next to me on the bed. I took the first pill with a glass of water, then the second.
Already, I could feel Muriel reaching into me, tugging at my soul. I took one last look at the dull shabby room.
‘Not much to show for 20 years work, is it? I won’t miss this dump.’
‘Keep going, you’ll need a few more than that to do the job.’
As I crammed a mouthful of dry chalky tablets into my mouth, my phone rang again. Unknown number. I took more with a swig of water.
‘Don’t stop, now,’ said Muriel.
‘You never know…’ I said.
‘No, don’t answer it. You’ll lose the momentum,’ insisted a frustrated Muriel.
'Might be important.' I press accept.
‘Hi err… is that Lisa?’
‘Look, you’ve caught me right in the middle of something important here. I’m a bit busy right now. Can I call you back later?’
‘Not sure it can wait really.’
‘Fuck’s sake, well make it quick then will you? What is it?’
‘Sorry to disturb you but we met today. The man from the cemetery remember?’
‘How’d you get my number?’
‘From your work, I called to pick up a puppy. Thought I’d take it in. Give it a loving home. I just thought I’d call to say thank you.’
‘What for? Should be me that’s thanking you.’
‘No… I don’t think so.’
‘Well, I’ve been taking yellow carnations to my wife’s grave, same time every Monday, for the last two years without fail. They were her favourite you see. But ever since I saw the puppies in the grave, it made me realise for the first time that good things can happen. New starts happy hearts and all that. I think it was a sign.’
‘It’s time… time I moved on. I want to celebrate. And who better to do it with than the person that made it happen. Are you busy tonight? Fancy going out somewhere? Have a chat. A drink? A bite to eat?'
‘No thanks…’ I said, eyeing the tablets on the table. Muriel made a cut-throat gesture, urging me to end the call. ‘Another time maybe? Got a lot on at the moment.’
‘Well how about a nice cup of tea in the cafe? Nothing heavy. You can say no if you want. No pressure.’
Muriel's cold shadow crept over me. Slowly but surely, like oil in water, she spread darkness in my mind and twisted my insides, wrenching my soul loose. Dizzy and faint, tears flooded my eyes. I let go and floated into the black. Muriel was waiting for me.
A white light rushed in, visions of snowflakes, angels and yellow carnations drifted in my mind's eye.
Then as the young man in the cemetery smiled at me. Air filled my lungs again.
'I think I’ve changed my mind,' I whispered.
‘Great. Well, say four o’ clock at McGuffy’s in town?’
‘Fine,’ I said, putting the phone down. Sunlight flooded the empty space where Muriel had been.