Thats when I died. I must have. Nobodys head hitting
a motorway bridge like that could survive. I remember the seatbelt snapping, my
body going through the windscreen, pieces of glass everywhere in my face, then
pain like nothing Id ever felt before.
A void silent, black and infinite.
In a hazy fashion I began to hear something I didnt know
and couldnt recognise. I felt my head and body and looked around
everything seemed intact and working except my watch. It had stopped at
A man I didn't know and couldn't understand was talking to me.
As my mind cleared I began to make some sort of sense of what he
What's your number? Where's your docket?
He was a tubby little man, five feet or so tall, aged about
sixty. Pale faced with a large nose, with false teeth that were either not his
own or were his but the wrong size, so when he spoke it was with a clacking
noise. What hair was left was grey and combed straight across from below his
left ear and plastered down to make the most of what remained, in the way that
Bobby Charlton used to. Not an attractive person to be accosted by when you
havent a clue where you are or even what time it is.
He was holding a clipboard, and in his top pocket I could see a
selection of coloured pens and a bleeper. His wings, coming through a slit in
the back of his long grubby white overall, appeared to belong to someone much
taller, and their tips were dragging on the ground.
Clearly he wasn't a patient chap.
Come on, I haven't all day. What's your number?
I didn't intend to be harangued by a man with dentures and
second-hand wings, a high-pitched voice and a Birmingham accent.
Hed rubbed me up the wrong way. I drew myself up to my
full five feet seven and a half, and told him so. The extra half inch is
important. Mike, my best mate, is just five seven and that bit extra is great
for bragging rights when were together. It helps in the pecking order.
I don't know what you're talking about. I'm new here,
Ive just arrived and I don't have a number. Even if I had, why should I
tell you? I dont know you from Adam. Anyway I have a splitting headache
and would give anything for a nice cup of tea. This last bit was me
trying to soft-soap him. It didnt work.
He reacted with a deep sigh, like a man whose patience was
running out after a long day, though why he should hold it against me
personally I dont know. After all we had only just met, so I cant
be held responsible for problems with his corns, piles or perhaps a nagging
wife. He wasnt angry or aggressive just a man who life had not
been kind to and who had become resigned to the fact.
Anybody can see you're new here. But when you checked in
at The Gate you were given a number and I need it. They tell new arrivals to
write the number on the back of your hand until you can remember it.
Thats Standard Procedure.
Just look at your hand, and read it out to me,
theres a good chap. How will I know if youre on my list or not if
you wont tell me what your number is? The list is in number order
not by names.
He was trying to patronise me and I didnt like it. Bite
your tongue Martin, sort it out calmly, then find a nice caff somewhere for a
sit-down and a mug of tea with a couple of aspirins.
I told him I hadn't come through any gate, and as far as I knew
had simply materialised on that very spot just minutes before. I mentioned
being beamed up by Scottie but my friend didn't seem to have much of a sense of
humour. Or maybe he didnt watch much television. Well he was a Brummie,
after all. The little man stared at me in disbelief.
The only way in here is through The Gate. You cant
come in otherwise, right? It isnt physically possible, take my word for
it. Nothing ever works unless people follow the rules. Now tell me what I want
to know. Im a busy chap and people like you dont make it any
I began to feel sorry for him. He was just a bloke with a job to
do. Then he upset me again.
His voice was getting louder and his right eye was twitching.
It won't work. I see now what your game is. You think
youre being clever, dont you? Dont try the old soldier with
me. Ive been round long enough to see through your little trick. This is
Holiday Section 32 and you want to come in but you're not entitled. You
havent qualified, have you? Youre not on my list because you
havent qualified. Youll have to go back to your own Section, then
come back when its your turn. You're a queue jumper, that's what you are
? a queue jumper ? and I'm not going to fall for that old trick. Youre a
He seemed to realise what he had said. Perhaps it was his first
ever example of spontaneous wit. What a shame it clearly came out of the blue
and was not of his making. Wherever it came from, he was claiming it as his.
For a minute or two nothing could be heard but his squeaky voice repeating to
himself the word Gatecrasher.
By now Id had enough.
It didn't take the Brain of Britain to work out where I was,
what with a man with wings and a reference to The Gates. With
weddings, christenings, and a few funerals I knew some basic Theology at
least as much as your typical C of E man does these days. So up in Heaven I
shouldn't have said some of the things I said, but this was becoming serious. I
was fed up with being messed about and, anyway, I was feeling hungry and
thirsty and my headache was as bad as ever.
So, after taking out some of my frustration on the guy I asked
him where I could go to eat. Though I thought my point had been reasonably put,
it still it seemed to upset him.
Right. Thats it. I've had enough. Im trying to
do my job and Ive got a gatecrasher under my feet and getting in the way.
Don't move from here while I sort you out.
He took the bleeper from his pocket and tapped it vigorously
with his fingers, muttering to himself as he did so something about the
batteries he was given to work with.
Ah, there you are. That you 14? 273 Roberts here. Look,
there's a man here who claims that he hasn't come in through Gates Department
and hes got no docket.
No, I know he can't have. But that's what he says and I
can't budge him. I think he's just trying it on to get into the Holiday Annexe
ahead of his turn.
Hes a Gatecrasher.
He chortled away to himself.
Get it? Hes a Gatecrasher. Good one isnt
Yes, its all mine. Just invented it. Completely
original. Youre the first Ive told it to.
Of course he knows about the waiting list, otherwise why
would he be trying it on like this?
His name? No, he won't tell me. I'll try again.
Suddenly his manner changed. His body stiffened as he drew
himself to his full height. My earlier estimate of five feet and a little bit
was less than fair - undoubtedly he was a full five feet three when he stood to
Yes, Sir. Of course, Sir. At once, Sir.
Roberts was oozing humility and smarm. It was most unedifying
and reminded me of Uriah Heap on television a while back.
He turned to me.
Come on now. You've had your fun. We've all had a
His face twisted into what he thought was the smile. The smile
of a fellow conspirator in on the joke that just the two of them shared.
The jokes over. Just tell me who you really are and
your number. Then we can put you on the next shuttle back to your Section and
you if you want you can go and get something to eat.
The thing to do was to tell him what I knew, so I explained what
I could. My name is or was? Martin Douglas and that I have only
just died: I think.
That I was driving north on the M6 when I was shunted into a
bridge by some idiot driving a white Transit van with Palmers
Plumbers logo. I surprised myself by remembering as clearly as I did
but it's not every day you die, is it? Perhaps total recall is normal to the
I remembered, but didnt tell him, that on Radio 2 Fred
Astaire was singing Heaven, I'm in Heaven when it happened.
Somehow I didnt think that he would have appreciated that.
He listened in silence, before responding.
I'll tell you frankly, I don't believe a word of it. I'm
due for my fourth gold watch in three years time, and this has never happened
before in all my experience.
Now that Ive listened, Ill make enquiries.
Till I hear back you can go through that door into the Holiday Section. Go
where you want. We know where to find you when we're ready for you. Dont
try to Gatecrash out.
Chortling away to himself he turned his back on me and went on
his bleeper. Feeling like a naughty schoolboy being dismissed, I went through
the door, pushing as I did against a creaking, stubborn turnstile that needed
oiling, reminding me of my younger days supporting City.
During my discussions with Roberts the combination of my
headache, hunger and his annoying presence had not given me time to look at my
surroundings, but subconsciously I had noted that everything looked normal,
that is as near as to what passes for normal round where I live.
Nothing at all to show where I was. No bright lights, no gold
tipped fleecy-white clouds, no bands of Angels, no Heavenly Choirs. I
didnt see anyone else with or without a halo. Not what years of
Sunday School had led me to expect. Perhaps Ive a case to make for a
refund for all those pennies Id put on the collection plates in my
childhood. The wrong-size wings that Roberts had was the only sign of anything
What Roberts had tried so hard to guard was a complete let-down.
I found just an uninspiring view just an open flat area with patchy
grass, basically a field and nothing else. At a distance I could see goal posts
but no signs of a game. I looked again. There was a game of sorts going on in
the distance that somehow I had missed. Perhaps its that headache but how
could I have not seen it moments before? Very strange.
A Holiday Annexe? Its all a big con. Its nothing
more than a recreation ground - the sort you can find in most towns. Someone
was having me on.
As I watched the field changed. From an area of staggering
dullness it changed to somewhere almost as unexciting, except that a few
buildings had appeared. Somewhere Id seen before but couldnt
Id seen Hi Di Hi on the telly and that
was set in the fifties somewhere. It was something like that an
old-fashioned style holiday camp.
As I looked more closely I could see neat rows of separate
wooden, single-storey buildings, each with its own gravel and grass surround
carefully marked out with newly whitewashed stones. Waste bins everywhere and
everything tidy much too tidy for eyes used to todays Britain. No
litter, no graffiti. Separate buildings at intervals that looked like toilet
blocks or showers: latrines was the word I was looking for
that came into my head.
Strange though, among the figures I could see there were no
women anywhere and everyone appeared to in blue. Air force blue.
Got it! Butlin's be blowed! I recognised where I was from
memories of 30 plus years previously. R.A.F. Lytham St. Annes in the
How the Hell did I get here?
Careful what you say Martin. Thats probably the opposition
youre talking about. Theyll be the away team up here.
Something clicked. Id been thinking how much Roberts
reminded me of an N.C.O. I had run across at Lytham back in my two years spell
of National Service.
I cant remember his name but he was the sort who would
pull rank at the drop of a hat on anyone, but went all smooth and smarmy when
anyone who outranked him was present. You know the sort. The sort they call a
'Jobsworth' these days a brownnoser. When I was in the mob he was the
sort of bloke we used to say who would wear his sergeants stripes on his
pyjamas just to impress his wife.
Nearby on my left a young airman was being dressed down very
publicly by someone I now remembered as Flight Sergeant Johnson (inevitably
shorthouse Johnson to us erks). Words and phrases I thought
Id forgotten poured back from then - best-blue, 1250, U/T, 48 hour
pass, last three (Douglas 372, Sir.). My father, long gone now, always
said that an ex-soldier never forgot his service number, and dad was one of
those at the Somme in 1916. The fact that I was as far away from my national
Service days as he had been from WWI when he said this to me put events into
The scene in front of me changed again. The huts vanished and I
found myself standing near the ticket window of a busy railway station. A
harassed looking man with a lot of baggage and several children was arguing
with the clerk, and there was some dispute about fares for under-twelves.
The man behind the little window was not being very helpful. I couldn't see the
face, but I'd seen that hair style somewhere recently.
The station was familiar, as was the clerk. He and I had clashed
before when his fussy ways had upset me. It wasn't just me he upset
Seeing a face I vaguely recognised I began to wonder. Would I
see anyone here I knew well? Just then I saw my wife approaching. My ex-wife
actually. The man she was with was my best friend. To be truthful he is
virtually a stranger to me and Ive only met him a couple of times, but
hed been my best friend since he took my wife to make her my
ex. I owe him a drink sometime. A large one.
I began to see an explanation for the weird things that were
happening. Just try something else to check my theory, and then ? Q.E.D.
The scene changed again. Yes, there I was where I wanted to be.
It was last Sunday. I was batting at one end, with Pete Scott at the other. The
same bowler running up and delivering the same ball. Slow, inviting, tempting,
and just wide of my off stick. This time, though, I was ready. I settled for a
single as I hit the ball into the covers. Pete wasn't too pleased. At the end
of the over he came down the wicket to talk to me.
There was another run there, Martin. Getting old and slow
then, are we? Cut back on the fags if that's what theyre doing to
I didn't bother arguing. He didn't know what I knew, did he? How
was Pete to know he would have slipped and been run out if we had gone for the
second? Anyway, it was the Annual Veterans Match and we were all being reminded
how the days of taking quick singles were behind us. It was much easier to lean
on the bat and gasp for breath than to take an extra run. Batting at the
bowlers end was beginning to have some appeal.
Well: that confirmed my theory. Just think of where you want to
be and there you are. Anywhere you like, when you like, and with anyone you
choose. Great. And you could avoid people too, if you kept them out of your
thoughts. And if you did remember them, well, all you had to do was think of
I could even change history. Win the Ashes every series and
thrash the Germans at penalty shoot-outs. Marvellous. No wonder there was a
waiting list. Far and away the best holiday venue I knew or had ever heard of.
You can keep your Blackpool, Southend or the Costa Blanca me, Id
choose Holiday Centre 32 over any of them. Pity it looks as if you have to be
dead to come here, though. Theres a fortune to be made if someone can do
something like it on earth. Hed make a real killing. Again, my choice of
word made me think. Apt perhaps for here, but not for whatever direction
England was from here.
Food. I was feeling ravenous by now. At Deaneworth Cricket Club
they do a great ham salad so Id decided to think myself back to the tea
interval when my thoughts were interrupted by a voice from a loudspeaker.
Calling Mr. Douglas. Mr. Martin Douglas.
It wasnt 273 Roberts. Instead it was a deep, boomy voice
with measured enunciation that sounded to me as somebody was part way through a
course of elocution lessons.
Would Mr. Douglas please leave by turnstile 44?
He didn't sound like a man who was happy in his work. Probably
looking up all his old clients from his day job as Director of a Funeral
I saw Gate 44 and went through it to see you Roberts with
another man. This other chap was well over six feet tall, with ruddy cheeks,
thin and erect with the look of an ex-military man who wants to be seen as
ex-military. His toothbrush moustache, black suit and bowler hat told me at
once that he was some sort of boss - even if a brief case instead of a
clip-board didnt give it away.
His umbrella surprised me. Somehow angel's wings, a bowler hat
and rolled umbrella didn't go together. Rain in Heaven? Another question for my
Roberts had an I told you so look on his face. As
the new man spoke Roberts began to nod his head at almost every word, clearly
trying to impress his boss. To me he looked more like one of those nodding dogs
you see in the backs of cars.
It was the voice I had just heard on the loudspeaker.
After what Id had to put up with earlier that caused my
eyebrows to shoot up I can tell you.
He continued. My name is Mr Merry. I have recently been
made Cognizant of the Exceptional - I might say almost Unique Circumstances
concerning this matter of your presence here. The explanation which you gave my
subordinate has been invigilated - most thoroughly of course - and its Veracity
has been Confirmed by Head Office.
At the reference to Head Office his voice lowered and I half
expected him to genuflect. He waved what looked like a fax at me. It puts
Head Office into what I can only describe as a 'Dilemmable Situation' at this
moment in time.
The more the man spoke with his repeated stressing of capital
letters, the more obvious it was where Roberts had learned his speaking style.
Quite simply, Mr. Douglas, you Should Not Be
As he said that one word, Mr Merry watched me to see if its
significance had registered with me. It had, and it must have shown on my face.
There is an Individual of the same Nomenclatural Adjunct
as yourself who should have arrived Here and hasn't, while you should still be
Down There. He made a gesture with his umbrella vaguely pointing
downwards. So we do go up to Heaven then and people have been right all the
time? We live and learn - or should it be die and learn?
The problem is, Mr. Douglas, that you are Premature.
I want you to understand that what has happened is in no
way due to any shortcomings in the Section which is under My Control. I am
responsible for Fun and Entertainment in Section 327/H and this quite appalling
lapse has been perpetrated elsewhere. I am happy to report to you, Mr Douglas,
that the person responsible for this gross error in the Records Department has
been renovated to another post.
Mr Merry looked across at his subordinate with relish. Roberts
looked happier than at any time during our short acquaintance. Clearly they
both knew the poor sod who was carrying the can for this clanger. It looked as
if it had made their day.
We take no pleasure at another's downfall, but Standards
Must Be Maintained.
Head Office has impregnated me- he waved the paper
again - to arrange for your return Down There. All recollections of your
time up Here will be impugned from your memory.
He paused, apparently expecting me to speak. I took my cue.
Right, I said. I understand. Im here by
mistake and these things do happen - even here, apparently. I
couldnt resist getting that dig in at this pair of clowns. But I
dont want to go yet - Im going to eat, have a cup of tea and a
couple of aspirins.
Anyway, while Im here there are people I want to
talk to. The Captain of the 'Mary Celeste' for starters. Then there's
He held up his hand. I found myself unable to speak, no matter
how hard I tried.
The matter has been decided by The Highest Authority. Your
wishes are of no imperative. You are to Go Back.
And no, Mr. Douglas. I am not permitted to revelate to you
when Your Time will be.
Roberts spoke next - for the first time since his superior had
You must leave at once. You can't stop here any
I felt myself going weaker by the second as the two figures in
front of me began to disappear. One second they were there - then theyd
gone. Only Roberts voice with its strong Birmingham accent remained.
His voice died away and my last thought was of the Cheshire cat
and its grin. Then I remembered nothing else.
Back to the black, silent void again.
The M6 around Birmingham is just about the busiest stretch of
motorway in Europe - or so Id been told. That day the traffic was
exceptional but even so I knew I was in good time for my appointment. Jane had
known that I needed an earlier start than usual that morning and had made me
coffee and toast to kick off the day. Shes a treasure that girl. I think
its getting near the time I popped the question and we really sorted
ourselves out on a truly permanent basis.
Id seen my exit sign and was easing down to leave the
middle lane when the accident happened. A red Sierra similar to mine and
directly behind me was hit by a Ford Transit van as we passed under a bridge.
It looked bad, but by the time I could have done anything I was too far ahead.
In my rear view mirror I could see lights flashing and the traffic behind was
either stopped or stopping.
Poor devils. I thought. Somebody's number's
up. Close it almost could have been me. Fred Astaire's song on my
car radio at the time was one of those unfortunate coincidences that happen.
Inevitable sometimes, I suppose.
I hardly know Birmingham at all. I'd been given brief directions
by the buyer I was going to see at Atlas Engineering, but somehow I managed to
get myself completely lost and was driving around in circles. To make it worse
I had a splitting headache that I hadn't been aware of until the accident. The
crash must have upset me, I suppose. As well I felt exceptionally hungry.
Strange that. It wasn't all that long since I'd had a stop and a snack at
Watford Gap. There was also a niggling feeling that there was something I
couldnt remember but wanted to.
In relief I pulled off the road, driving under an archway and
failing to see the sign over the gate.
I was rummaging in my brief case for my notes when there was a
vigorous tapping at my window. I wound it down to see a little man, who
couldn't have been much over five feet in height, wearing a grubby white
overall and with a top pocket full of coloured pens. He was nearly bald and
what hair he had was combed up and across from below his left ear.
The man was shouting and pointing at something. He had a very
strong Birmingham accent.
You must leave at once. You can't stop here any
I saw the notice Id missed as I drove in. There it was.
PRIVATE. NO ENTRY. ADMISSION BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
The little man was becoming quite agitated.
You can't stop here, he repeated. Please leave
He pointed to the way out, thrusting a card into my hand as he
did so. He turned away before I had time to ask him for directions, and as he
did I saw that there was a rip in the back of his overall. As if I hadn't
enough to do right now without noticing things like that. Unpleasant little
To add to my problems my brand new watch had stopped. Well, as
they say, it would be right twice a day - as long as its 9.58.13. God, I
need a cuppa and a couple of aspirins, this headaches getting worse.
Eventually I reached my destination and we did enough business
to make it worthwhile. And there was a promise, or at least a hint, of repeat
business in due course. With part of my income from commission thats
always god to hear. About the only thing so far today that had been half-way
decent. As I headed back south my head was still throbbing, so more tea and
aspirins were needed and even a grotty motorway meal would do for now as I felt
As I was parking the radio programme switched automatically to
one of its regular updates on road conditions so I waited a moment and heard a
woman's voice telling me I was dead. Or at least my namesake was after an
accident earlier on the M6 northbound.
The cars driver had been killed. He had been identified as
Martin Douglas, aged 55. Next of Kin had been informed. Two other men, both
plumbers from Warrington were in hospital. The Police wanted witnesses. The
road was now clear.
Obviously it was the crash Id just avoided that morning.
I shuddered. Talk about someone walking over your grave. I know
now what that means. Same age as me, too. Those coincidences stunned me. I
tried to calculate the chances of accidents involving similar cars, even down
to the same colour, with a driver the same name and age, but my maths just
werent up to it.
The news shook me up very badly. I picked up a tray and went
along the counter, choosing something with chips. Quite honestly, I
couldnt have told you what was on my plate, for despite being as hungry
as I was; my mind was on the crash earlier. Some blokes turn to a bottle of the
hard stuff when they need solace, I like tea and drink gallons of the stuff. So
with a cuppa I settled at my table.
First things first. I reached into my top pocket for the pack of
aspirin tablets I always carry with me. With the tablets my fingers pulled out
the card that man in Birmingham had given me. I used to work for a printing
firm so I could recognize it as a cheap, mass-produced card any back-street
jobbing printer would knock out for you. It was grey with shiny black embossed
printing inside a black border. Its message was clear enough.
J. P. Merry and Associate.
Interments with Dignity and Respect.
Caskets put away for small deposit.
H.P. Terms available.
See us before you go. Dont leave it too late.
The reminder on the card made me feel guilty. I hadnt
phoned Jane. The poor girl will be worried sick if she's heard the news. I
rushed my chips and something and went off to find a callbox.
What is round the corner for us? Nobody really knows and
personally I wouldnt want to. An early death maybe? Who knows? Perhaps
the little chap in the white overall is trying to tell me something about my
mortality. He might even have contacts up there a sort of private early
warning system. That would be useful in his line of business.
What a bloody awful day. The crash on the M6 that I missed by
just seconds, getting lost in Brum, that silly little man getting under my
skin, a splitting headache that wont go, something that feels important
that I cant remember and then hearing about my namesake being killed.
Gloomy thoughts about the future. The Grim Reaper waiting to harvest up more of
us from down here? It couldnt go any worse, surely. Im a fittish
fifty-five year old, after all. What am I worrying about?
Extract from the report by the Coroner, Dr. R. T. Michaelson, at
the inquest of Martin William Douglas.
There were several witnesses and ample evidence was
collected. The witnesses were queuing for a phone box to become available so
were watching the users of the telephones closely.
The deceased was seen making a telephone call, then he
appeared to drop something and bend down to pick it up, probably the 50 pence
coin that the police found inside the booth. He was seen to bang his head on
the glass wall of the telephone booth and fall to the ground. Very quickly
people went to help but found Mr. Douglas was dead. Several of the witnesses
referred to their surprise that such an apparently minor blow caused Mr.
Evidence from Home Office Pathologist Professor Andrew
Sowerby showed puzzling anomalies. Professor Sowerby referred to the post
mortem examination. The deceased, at 55, was in reasonable condition for a man
of his age and there were no physical reasons, other than a head injury, to
cause his death.
Examination of the skull showed that its thickness was normal
and on that basis a slight blow to the head should not have killed him.
However, Professor Sowerbys examination did reveal that
the skull was in his words like a glued together eggshell,
or a completed three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. He found that the head
had been very badly damaged but appeared to have healed or been restored in
some way that he could not understand. In his view the severe damage to the
head had been very recent, as had the restoration work. What he found was
unlike anything in his experience, and he could find no comparable case in the
specialist literature and the files available from any recognised source. The
restoration work could conceivably been done on a skull, but he found it
impossible to see how it could have been performed on a living person at the
present level of medical and scientific knowledge and skill.
The deceaseds Medical Files did not show any injuries
to the head. The condition of the skull after what had happened meant that the
slightest damage, any sort of minor blow to the head, could have caused death
The Coroner passed on his sympathies to Miss Jane Pargeter,
the partner of the deceased, and to his other relatives and friends.
Coroners verdict. Misadventure.