Don't Come Till We Call You by Harry Downey
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 9.58.13.
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 was saying.
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 easier.
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 gatecrasher.
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 it.
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 attention.
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 laugh.
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 newly dead.
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 vaguely ethereal.
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 immediately place.
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 fifties.
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 perspective.
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 everyone.
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 you.
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 something else.
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 Parlour.
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 ever-lengthening list.
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 Here .. Yet.
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 arrived.
You must leave at once. You can't stop here any longer.
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 longer.
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 at once.
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 man.
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 so hungry.
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. Douglas death.
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 instantaneously.
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.
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