Ostensibly, it appeared to be a significant improvement on Larkin’s usual choice of hostelry. Outside, there was no gaggle of wizened, gimlet-eyed daytime drinkers sucking on Superkings and grunting incomprehensibly at one another. There was no tattered metal sign faintly advertising ‘The Hangman’s Arms’ or ‘The Barrel Filer’s Rest’. The pavement outside appeared to be free of any strange, indelible stains. There was no van full of police officers watching nervously from across the road and, perhaps most importantly for Merritt, its large, intact windows projected the reassuring air of an establishment whose reputation remained unblemished by any recent lager-fuelled, chair-hurling uproar.
However, a short wait at a pedestrian crossing offered a chance for Merritt to subject the place to a more thorough inspection. His initial sense of relief quickly began to fade. The pub’s sign appeared to be constructed out of three tatty old railway sleepers. Someone had messily painted the word ‘Eugenix’ across it in pale blue gloss. Adjacent to the door was a muddled, Banksy-style mural of Joe Strummer brandishing a bottle of rum in one hand and a Cuban flag in the other. A sandwich board outside bore a convoluted message scrawled in chalk advising that a fifty per cent surcharge would apply to Daily Mail readers and Donald Trump.
‘Oh Jesus wept,’ he muttered, crossing the threshold.
Then was then the arduous process of negotiating a drinks order with an aggressively-groomed young barman with a waxed moustache and overly intense manner who insisted upon repeatedly referring to him as ‘bud’. They didn’t do wine, this was an artisan cocktail bar, bud. There was a penny farthing hanging on one of the bare stone walls. No beer either, bud, just cocktails. The other bare stone wall consisted of metal shelves adorned with cacti planted in hideous teapots presumably procured from nearby charity shops. We can do you neat spirits but I’d have to charge you full price for a cocktail, bud. Here, have a shoofty at the menu, bud. The bar itself appeared to have been constructed entirely from distressed early 20th century suitcases. Merritt sighed, gave the menu a cursory glance and hastily ordered two of something entitled Richard Burton’s Angry Welsh Breakfast. It’ll be a few minutes, Just sit down, your mate’s over there, I’ll bring them over to you, bud. The place was geared up to cater for several dozen people, but lay completely deserted.
He found Larkin in a corner, recumbent on a faded, sagging chaise longue. He put Merritt in mind of an eastern potentate merrily casting his eye over a specially selected line-up of slaves for exotic new additions to his harem. He pulled up what appeared to be a rusting metal garden chair and slumped down opposite. A low table, which on closer inspection turned out to be an old, scuffed filing cabinet, lay between them.
‘Eugenix, Larkin? Eugenix?,’ he hissed.
‘Yes, old chap. That fellow over there doing a juggling act with the bottles is called Eugene. He owns the place. It’s a play on his name, you see. It’s awfully nice to see you too, by the way, Merritt.’
‘And does Eugene know what eugenics actually means? Seems to sail a bit close to the old Heinrich Himmler side of life for my liking.’
‘I imagine he knows fine well its meaning and implications, Merritt. He’s a mixologist. He’s got a degree in it, he says. A bachelor of arts, a learned man. It’s probably all for irony’s sake, like his moustache and that portrait of Eric Bristow over there.’
Merritt shuffled uncomfortably in the cold garden chair. It wobbled horribly on the uneven wooden flooring.
‘A degree in mixology, Larkin? Throwing a few shots of booze into a glass and stirring it qualifies a fellow as an ologist these days, does it? My Classics dissertation was entitled Dreams, Perversions and Ecstasies of Subversive Reception: Ovid and Renaissance Epyllia. Mixology. Pfft. No wonder this country is going to the d…’
Merritt stopped abruptly as Eugene appeared at his side and ceremoniously placed down two blue antique poison bottles on the filing cabinet. Brightly coloured children’s curly straws protruded from their necks.
‘Two Richard Burton’s Angry Welsh Breakfasts,’ he announced. ‘That’ll be thirty two pounds eighty, bud. Cash or card?’
Following a sharp intake of breath and a brief moment of light-headedness, Merritt composed himself, fished a bank card out of his jacket pocket and resentfully tapped it against Eugene’s reader. No, he did not want a copy his receipt. His wife might find it and then all hell would break loose.
Both men tentatively picked up their poison bottles. Dark, pungent liquid slowly looped around their straws until it hit their lips. They recoiled and gasped simultaneously.
‘Good grief,’ sputtered Larkin, struggling for breath. ‘That…thing, Merritt, is the genesis of a lost weekend if I ever tasted it.’
There was a hint of whisky in there, perhaps a touch of gin. But beyond that it was conceivable that Eugene had topped it up with unrefined evil harvested from the bowels of hell. Merritt eventually managed to unclench his facial muscles just long enough to exhale a brief reply.
‘Which reminds me, how did the reunion go?’
Larkin’s eyes lit up and he straightened himself out a little on the chaise longue. He was about to spin a meandering yarn. Merritt knew the signs. He tentatively glanced at his watch and winced.
‘It went wonderfully. Absolutely splendidly,’ he enthused, taking another long sip from his straw. ‘A decent crowd. Bracegirdle, Stroker, Harry Relish and little Bambo all made it along. Dennis Happy was down from Scotland, Berrycloth flew in from Berlin. Everyone was on absolutely top notch form. However, the weekend was marred by an unfortunate incident in the early hours of Sunday morning.’
An expression of envy flashed across Merritt’s face, but only long enough for him to remember he had declined the invitation for a good reason. The joy of a weekend of drunken revelry with his old schoolmates was vastly outweighed by the high likelihood of it resulting in a night in the police cells and a criminal conviction.
‘A fine crowd indeed. I’m sorry I missed it. But what happened on Sunday morning?’
‘I died,’ returned Larkin, glibly. ‘For about ten minutes, I died.’
Merritt let out a long, pained groan and slumped back in his chair.
‘Oh do shut up, Larkin. You always complain you’re dying after a night on the brandy. It’s pathetic.’
‘No, really. I was clinically dead for ten minutes. I was hit by a seagull.’
Merritt stared at him coldly. Larkin’s statement did not, he thought, deserve the dignity of a reply. Nevertheless, Larkin continued undaunted.
‘We were all barreling along the street at about half past three, four sheets to the wind. We’d just come out of the casino. Stroker had scored a cracking big win on the roulette table so he was going to treat us to bite to eat from whatever cat-slaughtering, Saracen fried chicken shack we could find open at that hour. Then all of a sudden it’s bang! Lights out.’
Merritt narrowed his eyes. ‘A seagull?’
‘Well, Berrycloth was adamant it was an owl in the immediate aftermath. Swore blind to it. There was serious talk of suing the borough council for allowing owls to swoop about the place willy nilly. But then one of the town hall wallahs pulled the security camera footage and it turned out a monstrously large seagull had spotted a dropped kebab, got into a rather single minded froth about it, misjudged its landing and whacked me full on in the side of the head on the way down. Incredible piece of bad luck that, eh?’
‘And you died?’
‘For ten minutes. But that’s not the interesting part. It’s what happened when I was dead.’
Merritt raised his right hand imperiously. The yarn had not even begun. He would need to manage this carefully if he stood any chance of avoiding a string of awkward questions, stony silence and an uncomfortable night’s sleep on the sofa at home.
‘Larkin, I’m going to stop you there momentarily. The wife thinks I’m out taking artistic photographs of the sunset with that Victorian folly in the park in the foreground. The sun goes down in about twenty minutes, so that’s how long you have to relate this story before I begin to stretch the outer limits of plausibility…Doable?’
Larkin raised a cynical eyebrow.
‘Well, Merritt, if you’d cease and desist with these incessant interruptions, perhaps so.’
‘Go on then, let’s hear it.’
Larkin lounged back on the rickety chaise longue, crossed his legs and took an almighty slug from his straw.
‘When I was dead, Merritt, I spent some time in Heaven.’
‘Oh for crying out loud, Larkin,’ snapped Merritt, half rising as if to leave. ‘That is utterly ridiculous, even by your ludicrous standards.’
‘I’m telling you the honest truth, old chap. Do sit down, won’t you?’
‘Yes, yes, you saw a light and heard a voice calling you towards it. It’s just the drugs they pump you full of Larkin, you fool. It’s a well documented phenomenon.’
‘No, not that old hat, Merritt. That’s not what happens. It’s far less impressive than that.’
‘The very thought that they’d let you in,’ scoffed Merritt. ‘That Saint Peter would allow a man with your thoroughly reprehensible track record to saunter through the gates of Heaven. Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.’
‘That’s not how it works. It’s more like going through passport control. Saint Peter just sits in an office somewhere out of sight tearing his hair out and trying his damnedest to administer the whole thing.’
‘Yes, the queue was a mile long. About an hour later I got to the front and was called up to give my name to a chap sitting in one of a long line of little booths. It turns out all it takes is a quick glance over your file and a yay or a nay to it.’
‘They glanced over your file and still let you in?’
‘They were letting practically anyone in. I think they were rather overwhelmed by the queue. If your file wasn’t flagged for murder, rape, paedophilia, genocide or Labour Party membership that day it was a case of in you go, just carry straight on up the wide corridor and check in at the induction desk. It’s rather symptomatic of the dysfunctional way things work up there.’
Merritt took another face-melting mouthful of his cocktail. He could no longer feel his teeth. ‘What the blazes do you mean, the way things work up there? I thought it was supposed to be all eternal bliss in the God’s kingdom as a just reward for living a decent Christian life.’
‘Yes, well that was the original idea,’ sighed Larkin. ‘However, the truth of the matter is that the whole thing has gotten completely out of hand.’
Merritt stared at his friend inanely. The crippling aftershock of whatever Eugene had put in the cocktail prevented him from doing very much else. Larkin interpreted this as a cue to continue.
‘You see, Merritt, the whole Heaven thing was originally a gimmick geared up to make sure a few thousand first century Judeans were taken care of. It was a crowded market for deities back in those days, so God needed something to make him stand out from the crowd. But then Christianity became a surprise hit and Heaven has had to process everyone from the Romans onwards. It just wasn’t thought through well enough.’
Merritt pinched his brow. ‘You managed to glean all this within ten minutes?’
‘Ten minutes amounts to about twenty seven years up there.’
‘Absolute rot, Larkin, how does that even work?’
‘I’ve really no idea, I completely zoned out of that part of the induction if I’m being honest. I was wracking my brains trying to work out where I recognised the bird giving the talk from until I realised it was Ava Gardner .’
Merritt attempted to focus on his wristwatch but it appeared to have grown an extra hand and half a face. Larkin’s voice continued to cut through the haze.
‘Anyway, once you get through all the dull stuff about where you are and what to do with Ava, you’re handed your basic package and left to your own devices.’
‘What do you mean, basic package?,’ sputtered Merritt, attempting to straighten up in his chair. ‘Eternal bliss in the bosom of the Lord isn’t some cruddy Mediterranean cruise, Larkin. I don’t remember there being any mention of there being packages in the Bible.’
‘Merritt old chap, imagine this: You never feel hungry or thirsty. You never get ill, pregnant or injured, fat or too thin. You can’t die. You’re permanently about 28 years old. It’s always a perfect temperature and on top of all that you’re given your own villa to live in.’
‘Doesn’t sound especially basic to me, Larkin.’
‘Ah, but as I said, it wasn’t thought through well enough. It’s all well and good for a while, but it’s not in the nature of humanity to sit around in blissful shiftlessness for more than a few weeks, let alone all eternity. Once the novelty of your dead granny introducing you to all your ancestors has worn off you just end up sitting around wondering what to do with yourself.’
‘I still don’t quite see the problem, Larkin. It all sounds pretty much in order. Eternal rest, no pain or suffering, reunited with loved ones and so forth. That’s pretty much what Christianity has been advertising for centuries.’
Larkin sat up, an uncharacteristically agitated look playing across his face. He had begun to punctuate his words by angrily prodding the top of the filing cabinet.
‘I’ll tell you what the problem is, Merritt. People got bored and started building. The Romans started it by getting bored and recreating ancient Rome. One can now marvel at the wonders of 8th Century Constantinople, wander around renaissance Florence, watch the inquisitors wandering aimlessly around a replica of old Aragon, stroll through the palace of Versailles, walk down Oxford Street during the reign of Queen Victoria. It’s a horrible, sprawling mess of countless disparate souls from all the eras of Christian history.’
Merritt attempted to interject, but Larkin was now in full flow.
‘So there’s always something better being built in the image of the most recently deceased generation. But if people want to live in these places or even travel there they need money for rent and to ride the subway system…yes, they built a subway system Merritt…And here’s another prime example of how it wasn’t properly thought out – God forgot that an absence of hunger and thirst is no barrier to the human desire to eat, drink and be merry. So you need cash for booze and restaurants. Not to mention tickets for all the musicians who just carry on performing up there. Sinatra, Jolson, Hendrix, McCartney. It all adds up. ‘
‘And how, may I ask,’ sighed Merritt, ‘does one go about earning money in the afterlife?’
‘I did what everyone else does. I got a job.’
Merritt sat up, dragged his hands through his hair in despair and pushed his poison bottle towards Larkin. ‘Do you want the rest of my Richard Burton thing, old chap? I don’t think it’s very good for me.’
Larkin took an almighty pull on his straw until an unpleasant dry gurgling noise echoed around the bottle. He cast it aside and immediately made a start on the remainder of Merritt’s.
‘So you’re sitting there with a straight face telling me you got a job…in Heaven.’
‘Ah, yes. I got an administrative job. Five days a week. Half an hour each way on the subway to an office in seventeenth century Berlin.’
‘Doing what, exactly?’
‘Yes. For example, if the Department of Building Regulation needed to carry out an inspection of an ancient Judean hut, I would be the chap who looked through the database for someone who could speak both Mishnaic Hebrew and the language of the inspector and get them all together at a convenient hour. Tedious stuff, really. Lots of paperwork. Everything in triplicate.’
‘It sounds ghastly, Larkin.’
‘There are better jobs, right enough. I always fancied being an Integration Officer. It mostly involves dealing with the meltdown when Jehovah’s Witnesses realise there are more than 144,000 people up there. The cushiest job is supervising animal heaven. No feeding, mucking out or vets. Just throwing a ball around and suchlike to stop them from getting too bored.’
The feeling had returned to Merritt’s face and he was now once again able to read his watch. Larkin’s deranged, absinthe-fuelled stream of consciousness needed to be reined in. He needed to burst his friend’s deluded bubble before he started going around repeating all this to respectable people and making a spectacle of himself in polite society.
‘Larkin. I’m saying this to you as a friend. You did not ascend to Heaven. You suffered a massive head trauma and had a very lucid dream brought on by morphine. None of what you are saying actually happened. I mean all that in the kindest possible way.’
Larkin beamed back at him, shaking his head.
‘I know for a fact that it happened, Merritt. I was bored one afternoon at work and greased one of the archivists’ palms to have a sneak peek at your file.’
‘No, Larkin. You did no such thing. You dreamt that you did.’
Larkin leant forwards and cracked his knuckles. He looked Merritt dead in the eye.
‘The twenty third of July, the year of our Lord twenty fourteen,’ he stated, with cold certainty of a High Court judge. ‘Your sister-in-law’s wedding up at the Corncrake Hotel. Your wife’s cousin. The disabled toilet. You’re an utter scoundrel.’
Merritt’s face turned grey. He was suddenly stone, cold sober once again. His mouth began opening and closing like that of a dying fish as he grasped and gasped for an explanation as to how Larkin had come upon this rather dark slice of knowledge.
‘Seventeen, still doing her A-Levels’ continued Larkin, wagging his finger. ‘You sailed perilously close to having your name added to the register there, old boy.’
Merritt let out a long, mournful groan.
‘I could go into the granular details of the thing if you think I’m bluffing. You’re a real sprint to the finish line man, aren’t you? Oh..is that it?…No, don’t worry…It was fine…There’s no need to cry…’
‘Okay, okay,’ spat Merritt, his face turning an angry shade of scarlet. ‘That’s quite enough.’
‘Don’t worry, you’re still getting into Heaven old boy,’ cackled Larkin, taking another pull on his straw. ‘It’s barely a category C sin and you’re allowed thousands of those before it becomes an issue at the booth.’
Merritt suddenly began to regret giving the rest of his drink to Larkin. He needed something to take the edge off it all, and quickly. He had, once again, been well and truly drawn into his friend’s psychosis.
‘Right then, answer me this’ he said, gripping the sharp arms of the rusting garden chair. ‘Supposing this isn’t all some kind of morphine induced hallucination and you’ve actually been to Heaven – God is an all powerful being, so why doesn’t he just fix all these administrative faults with Heaven by clicking his fingers?’
Larkin sighed and lay down almost horizontally on the chaise longue.
‘You’re asking the wrong man, Merritt. Why doesn’t he fix all the administrative faults with life on Earth?,’ he mused. ‘The old boy is semi-retired these days, more of a figurehead. Shuffles onto the stage and gives a speech about how proud he is of us all every year at the Annual General Meeting and that’s about all you see of him. He’s left Jesus with the arseache of running the show day-to-day.’
‘But can’t Jesus perform one of his miracles to sort things out?’
‘Not really. He’s a good natured enough chap but his solution to everything is more bureaucracy. That thing he did with the loaves and fishes? He’s pulled exactly the same stunt up there, only with regulatory departments. He can’t stand to see people kicking around without jobs so the bureaucracy is perpetually expanding to accommodate all the newcomers. A bit like the NHS.’
The pair sat in silence for a few moments, Merritt gripped by the horrors of sudden sobriety and Larkin luxuriating in the blissful anaesthetic all-over glow of a man who has imbibed very heavily over a very short period of time.
‘So how did you end up being brought back to this life?’
‘Well, like many things, Merritt, it boiled down to woman trouble,’ said Larkin. ‘I ended up getting rather too friendly with a cracking bit of stuff. A Venetian bird from the fifteenth century. She’s a teacher. That is, she works at one of the facilities where they educate dead children until their personalities are mature enough to let loose in their adult Heaven bodies.’
Merritt glanced at his watch. shaking his head in disbelief. ‘I’ve got three minutes, cut to the chase.’
‘Three minutes is all you need from what I’ve read,’ roared Larkin, clapping his hands in self congratulation.
‘Very good, Larkin, very good. Two-and-a-half minutes, Larkin.’
‘Okay, okay…Well the problem was that at that point I’d been married to Princess Marie Bonaparte for a considerable amount of time. That and the fact that she caught me in flagrante delicto with the rose of Venice back at my original villa. Oh, and the fact that she worked at the desk opposite mine in the Interpreter Booking Service.’
‘Toxic is more the word for it, Merritt. You know how women are. They don’t take these things with anything approaching decorum and it got to the point where the work of the department was being disrupted by a constant cacophony of furious Gallic screeching.’
‘So what you’re saying, Larkin, in a round about way, is that they fired you for being a chronic womaniser.’
‘Yet again, you have leapt to the worst possible conclusion, Merritt,’ sighed Larkin. ‘It’s like talking to Princess Marie, I swear…No, I was not fired. My job up there is waiting for me. Actually, it was decided that because I had been dead for less than fifteen minutes, it was within the bounds of plausibility to send me down for few more years in this life to let things cool down. A sabbatical, they said. My job’s still there when I get back. She’ll have calmed down and moved on in a few thousand years.’
‘You’re telling me the only reason you survived a catastrophic head trauma involving a seagull was because you cheated on Princess Marie Bonaparte with a fifteenth century Venetian girl in Heaven and they had to send you back for a while because it was disrupting the harmony of an obscure administrative department of the afterlife?’
‘That’s about the measure of it, old chap.’
Merritt let out a long, weary breath. He stood up and straightened up his jacket, his chair scraping unpleasantly across the floor as he did so. He shaped up to walk out without another word in protest at the absurdity of his friend’s conversation. However, he was struck by a vitally important thought.
‘Tell me something Larkin,’ he said. ‘Will my wife get into Heaven?’
Merritt had always been a man to hedge his bets whenever he spotted the opportunity.
‘I don’t see why not, old chap.’
He grimaced involuntarily. ‘Is there any way to…erm… fix it so she doesn’t?
Larkin raised an eyebrow. He remained recumbent. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was staying for a couple more of Eugene’s brain crushing creations.
‘My, my,’ he grinned. ‘The fact that you even said that out loud will be in your file now. Attempting to manipulate the flow of arrivals into The Kingdom of Heaven. Category B. Tut tut.’
‘Seriously Larkin, I can’t face it,’ said Merritt, a sense of desperation growing in his voice. ‘If you’re not completely off your rocker and spouting undiluted rot it sounds like it would be exactly like this life, only forever. With no way of ending it.’
‘Don’t worry old boy,’ he said. ‘I know a chap in the Sin Archivists’ Department. An African from eighteen thirty two converted by a missionary. If I croak again before you do I’ll make sure he plants so many red flags in her file that she’ll spend eternity filling in forms in Purgatory.’
Merritt surveyed his friend lolling untidily across the chaise longue, red glassy eyes, the two poison bottles laid out in front of him. He contemplated the potential damage a man could do to his liver during a sustained session on such absurdly potent cocktails.
He then contemplated the soul-crushing implications of his friend outliving him and his wife and the eternal drudgery to which it may lead. He fished a pair of crumpled twenty pound notes from his trouser pocket and tossed them onto the filing cabinet.
‘You’re a good chap Larkin,’ he said. ‘Have another couple of Richard Burtons on me.’
© DH 2022