Death was bored. It was Easter Sunday and he had a few hours to kill and no appointments in his diary, so he went to the stone ring at Avebury. Death liked Avebury. It soothed his temperament and brought back memories.
When it was being built there was plenty of work for Death – those stones were big and falling under one of them tended to be fatal, so he collected a number of Neolithic souls during the construction. Neolithic man hadn’t got around to inventing health and safety, so people died. Quite horribly sometimes. No one got sued, though, because in Neolithic times, if you got caught under a stone that fell over, then you shouldn’t have been there in the first place and you weren’t going to complain about it afterwards anyway. The general attitude being, that it was a convenient sacrifice for the gods and the gods were happy with what they got. Those, Death reflected, were the good old days and the work was easy and plentiful.
These days there is a pub right in the middle of the circle, where tourists go to eat and drink – and no one dies here anymore. Health and safety gone mad, he thought glumly to himself. Death considered idly that maybe the Neolithic builders should have put a pub there first to add some ambiance to the place. Then almost as soon as the thought entered his head, he rejected it. The place would never have got built and he would have been overworked and that wouldn’t do at all.
Sighing to himself he mused that a pint of the good stuff would taste nice but for the inconvenient fact that it would have poured out all over the place through his ribcage and got his cape rather wet. The smell would linger for days.
He leaned his scythe against one of the stones and slumped down to watch the day as it passed, feeling the warmth of the sun on his weary bones. As the first bank holiday of the year, the tourists were out enjoying the fine warm day. He pondered on the desire of humans to all rush out on a bank holiday and spend it sitting in traffic queues on the M4. Each to his own, I suppose, he sighed to himself. Sometimes, he reflected that it was because he never really understood them that he liked them so much – they were an enigma and enigmas are fascinating.
The daffodils were out already and there was a gentle hint of the summer to come in that early spring sunshine. A little way off, there were rabbits bobbing about, their white cottontails dancing as they hopped from burrow to burrow. A raven settled on one of the stones and cocked its head, staring at Death with a beady black eye. Death raised a hand in greeting. The raven cawed in response, ruffled its wings and settled down for some people watching. Like Death, the raven was fascinated by this peculiar species and they always provided free entertainment.
Death became aware of a presence behind the stone he was resting against. He listened for a moment or two. Yes, there was definitely someone there and that someone could see him, so was either a child or a cat.
“Come out, I know you are there,” he said.
A small girl of around ten or eleven stepped out from behind the stone he was resting against.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello. And who are you?”
“You should know that already,” she said.
Death was taken back a little. “You know who I am?”
The girl looked at him from dark brown eyes sitting in a plump round face below a dark bob. She wore a stained tee-shirt and jeans that were scuffed at the knees, indicating that she was used to messing about and getting dirty. Death took an immediate liking to her.
“Of course,” she replied. “You are the grim reaper. Everyone knows that.”
“I’m not so sure about the ‘grim’ bit,” he said archly. “I am maybe a little less than cheerful sometimes, but hardly grim. I am happy in my work.”
The raven cawed with amusement and Death silenced it with a glare.
“Then I shall call you the not quite grim reaper,” she announced.
“Shouldn’t you be with your parents, little girl?”
“My name is Dorothy Parker,” she said primly. “And they are in the pub. They said I could play among the stones.”
“Well, Dorothy Parker, didn’t your parents tell you not to talk to strangers?”
“You are not a stranger. Strange, maybe, but not a stranger.”
Death couldn’t make up his mind whether he liked the precociousness of Dorothy or whether he should strangle her now and save someone else the bother later on. While he was pondering this matter, a rabbit wandered across the grass and stopped in front of the stone. It lifted itself onto its hind legs and stared at Death – eyeball to eye socket. Death reached across for his scythe and waved it gently at the rabbit. The rabbit’s tiny carcass fell to the ground and its shade nodded briefly and hopped away.
“You just killed the Easter Bunny!” Dorothy admonished. “How horrible you are!”
“No, I didn’t. It was his time. All I did was allow him to go on to the next place.”
“Oh.” She looked down at the small lifeless body and picked it up, holding it close. It was still warm and limp and she stroked it gently as if it could feel the touch of her hand. “Where is that?” She asked.
“Wherever it believed it would go.”
“Heaven? That’s where people go, isn’t it?”
“It’s not as simple as that,” Death explained. “Some people go to Heaven if that is where they believe they will go. Some people believe that they will go to Hell and others believe that they will go nowhere at all.”
“So where do they actually go?”
“As I say, where they believe they will go.”
“So if I believe I will go to Heaven, then I will?”
“Oh, yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Why not? It’s supposed to be lovely, isn’t it?”
“Do you like libraries?”
“Yes, they have lots of books.”
“But would you want to spend eternity there? Where no one does anything except say ‘shush!’ when you try to speak? And where no one is allowed to drink or smoke and there are no parties or debauchery?”
Dorothy thought about this. “I’m not sure I would like no parties,” she said. “I like parties. I had a party the other month for my birthday. No parties would be very dull, indeed. No, I wouldn’t like that one little bit. And no birthday cakes and candles. You get those at parties.”
“Well, there you are, then.”
Death realised at this point that maybe he had dug himself in too deep, but he had a ready cop-out. “Ask your mother,” he said.
“Oh. Alright. What about Hell, then?”
“Oh, there are parties in Hell, aplenty. And it’s warm. Very warm. Everyone is busy drinking and smoking and dancing and singing and generally having all the fun that you won’t get in Heaven. Even the angels nip down there from time to time for a break and a sneaky ciggie and pint. I understand that Gabriel is partial to a single malt whisky when the occasion allows, but you mustn’t let anyone know. He will be in all sorts of trouble if anyone finds out. Heaven is controlled by the anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol brigade and he would be drummed out before you could say ‘temperance’.” Death sighed heavily. “Himself was issued with a fine the other day.”
“Lighting up a cigar in one of the libraries. He was not best pleased. There was a certain amount of smiting after that, I can tell you.”
“There was a thunder and lightning storm last week.”
“That would be it. So, Hell is probably place to be. And keep shtum about Gabriel.”
“I won’t tell,” she promised in a stage whisper, “I swear.” She paused in thought for a moment. “Mummy says smoking and drinking is bad for you.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Some people like to enjoy the journey even if it is shorter. Besides, no one lives forever even if it seems that way sometimes. I always get to call eventually, so live life as if every moment is your last. If you enjoy something then do it and do it well, grasp every second; live every minute, revel in every hour – take life by the scruff and wring every ounce of enjoyment from it.”
She thought about this for a moment and smiled, her face lighting up. “You mean be naughty?”
“Sometimes, if that is what it takes,” he said.
“And debauching?” She asked, returning to an earlier point. “Do they debauch in Hell?”
“Oh, yes, there’s plenty of that,” Death said, nodding sagely.
“And what about people who don’t go to either?”
“Then they go nowhere. They just vanish into a puff of nothingness.”
“Oh, that’s sad. Perhaps they would prefer to go to Hell.”
Death smiled inwardly – it being the only kind of smiling that he could do, given that he had no lips with which to smile – for atheists are regularly advised to go to Hell and it amused him no end. From the mouths of babes, he mused.
He felt something buzzing against his ribcage and reached into his cloak and pulled out a smartphone. There was a reminder for his next appointment. “I must go,” he said, scrabbling to stand and grunting from the exertion of moving old bones.
“Yes,” she said. “I will see you again one day, though, won’t I?”
“Yes, Dorothy, but not for a while.” He flicked though his online diary – another eighty years.
“Well, goodbye,” she waved as she walked away. Death watched as the child’s mother came over to her and admonished her for carrying a dead rabbit, scolding her about the germs she would get. He watched with idle amusement for a moment to see how Dorothy’s mother responded to being asked to explain ‘debauchery’ and was not disappointed. Just as well, he thought, that adults could not see him until it was their time. “Grim Reaper, indeed,” he said to himself.
Eighty Years Later:
Death walked through the care home, noting those he would be seeing before long. The place reeked of demise, of lives at an end, waiting for his visit. A sad, desolate place of faded memories and despair. He sighed. He hated these places and the sooner he was out of here, the better. Eventually, he found the room and walked through to the bed and the old woman lying there. A shadow of her former self, little more than a living cadaver waiting to die.
“Hello, Dorothy,” he said.
She opened her eyes. “I’ve been waiting for you. You look just the same, after all these years.”
Death smiled inwardly. He liked that about humans, they had a sense of humour and he appreciated a sense of humour. At the hour of her going, Dorothy still maintained the spark he had seen in that child so long ago. “You were very naughty,” she said.
“You set me up, getting me to ask my mother about what debauchery meant. She scolded me so much that day for that and wanted to know who had told me, and you were nowhere to be seen. That was a wicked thing to do.”
Death chuckled, a hollow resonance that echoed through the aeons. “I have to get my amusement where I can,” he said.
“The not so grim reaper,” she smiled.
“Yes. You had a long life,” he said.
“I did. I took you at your word. I had a good life and I lived it well – every moment lived as if it was my last. I wrung it by the scruff and it was a ball. I had a wonderful husband, Alfie, and two lovely children. They are grandparents themselves now. I had my career and I travelled.”
“Indeed. You were a respected journalist. I noted your work. Very good, I thought.”
“You read it, then?”
“I did. I followed you and your travels. I never forget, you know. And I never forgot our time that Easter Sunday when you were a child.”
“I have only one regret.”
“That my time with Alfie was so short. He has been gone a long time now.”
“I so long to be with him again. To see his face and hear his voice, feel his touch. That would be Heaven, to see him again for the first time, to enjoy our children as they grew. To live my life, that wonderful journey that I have lived so well. It has gone by so quickly. Oh, to have it all again, to savour every moment as if for the first time. That life was Heaven for me.”
Death reached forward with his scythe and Dorothy sat up, leaving her lifeless cadaver on the bed. She looked back at it as if it belonged to someone else in another life; an empty container that once was Dorothy, but was now just a shadow of her once vibrant personality. She stood and walked with Death as they left the care home, drifting through time and space. “I don’t want to go to Heaven,” she said.
“I don’t want to go to Hell, either, despite the parties.”
“Yes, I understand.”
They arrived in moments in Avebury. The village looked the same as she recalled it all those decades ago. It was a sunny spring morning. “Easter Sunday,” she said. “Just as it was. The daffodils are so alive. I can smell spring in the air…”
Death looked across at her. She was no longer the old woman in the bed in the care home, but a small girl of ten or eleven years old, dressed in a stained tee shirt and scruffy jeans. A round, chubby face and dark eyes stared back at him. They stood by the stone where they had met that Easter Sunday eighty years ago.
“Sit,” he instructed and she complied. She looked around her and he was gone, his job now done. He had delivered her to her destination. She sat back for a moment and savoured the feel of the spring sun on her face. She became aware of another behind her on the other side of the stone.
“Come out, I know you are there,” he said.