We were travelling to Exeter in Alex’s Ford Dilemma when it happened.
It was a sum that added his lack of attention to the treachery of a dark country road, and then multiplied the jeopardy with another car coming the other way, too fast to negotiate. At that last instant before the collision Alex stopped talking and we swerved in strange silence. It was time for goodbyes, but we just gawped at the inevitable. The car jolted a vast single noise of impact and we spun through cool air. The scything motion of the car came to an abrupt, black end.
Then, without a moment to compose myself, I was pushed forward, stumbling through a galvanised door into a brightly lit corporate foyer. I stood, askew with surprise, in a wide open glass chamber with a shiny marble floor. There were many more chambders to my left and to my right, each with desks at the head. And there were other people through there, in these parallel foyers, suggesting we were all trying to gain access to the vast administrative building beyond.
On the floor in front of me was a huge white enamel arrow, slightly scuffed at the edges, that had evidently been repaired a couple of times over the years. Looking around I could see that every parallel foyer had an arrow of its own. In each case the arrow led to a desk where two clerks were waiting. Two by two, across the foyers, as far as I could see, this was the situation. Behind me, beyond the glass door, was blackness. Night. I retreated, pulling at the door handle. It wouldn’t budge.
As I looked about I saw more people stumbling through doors in the endless procession of glass corridors either side of me. Some keenly approached the desks ahead of them. Others stood, seemingly stunned. Some of the desks hosted customers who gesticulated wildly or stood, silent and thoughtful as the clerks explained something to them. I craned my neck. Was that Alex? I thought I could make out his awkward posture, off in the misty multi-paned distance.
I approached my desk. The clerks ignored me until I got up close to them. They were both dressed quite elegantly in stylish 1950’s-cut suits. Narrow ties. Pinstripe. The right-hand clerk was talking: ‘…herded by mutually inclusive momentary individualities,’ he explained to his colleague. The conversation trailed off as they turned to regard me with flickering eyes.
The clerk scanned something behind the desk, out of sight. ‘Hah! He’s the son of that other Rossignol,’ he said to the second clerk. Then to me he said: ‘Did you know your father died just an hour before you did? What a coincidence! Isn’t life full of them?’
I shrugged, having no good opinion on coincidences, or fathers. The clerk scanned me with as he spoke, as if checking for something. The second man behind the desk turned to rifle through a filing cabinet, mouthing something as he did so, something for the benefit of his partner, but hidden from me. He was oddly hunched. Perhaps there was something under his suit… across the shoulder-blades?
‘Mr J M Rossignol… yes. You’re an atheist! It says here you insisted on the non-existence of God just last week.’
‘That’s right,’ I said.
He seemed smug; evidently he enjoyed pointing this out to the non-believers. I was too stunned to be frightened or nauseous. This wasn’t how I’d wanted to go. I felt like I should be panicking, but my Englishness buried the horror that was balling up in my chest. At this point, of course, there was something more fundamental hatching behind my eyes: my carefully-crafted personal philosophies were collapsing. The afterlife was not a comforting fiction.
‘Well,’ said the first clerk. ‘You haven’t done anything that really defines your rest, so I’ll have to recommend you’re briefed by Mr Wilson.’
At this point I was directed to the second, more sneering, clerk, who indicated for me to follow him through a sliding door at the back of the room. I did so, noticing as I went that there were dead flies in the neon-strip light-cover overhead.
In the room beyond there were a table and two chairs. I wished there had also been a water-cooler, since I was really very thirsty. But there was not and it seemed rude to make any demands at this stage. We sat down. Mr Wilson did not smile.
‘Mr Rossignol, you’ve not done anything genuinely damnable, but you’re also one of these rather selfish creative types… and an atheist. This means we’ve a number of options for you. Management does pride itself on providing choice for our newly-dead. And the non-religious get to try out some of His more experimental afterlives.’
‘So, here’s the list of the afterlives my colleague has selected as appropriate for you. I’m sure you’d like to read it for yourself.’
Mr Wilson pushed a few sheets of A4 paper towards me. I picked them up and read:
1. Ambient Male #4 – Fly and/or walk through a beautiful land of ambient imagery derived from your own subconscious. Ambient Male #4 is a solitary afterlife that caters for the hermitic tendencies found prevalent in your material existence. It has a low bliss-factor but is likely to cater to intellectual needs with its own space-station library hub.
A list of perplexing statistics followed.
I turned the page.
2. Robotus! – One of our new afterlives where you can live out a fantasy of becoming an automaton. The ever-changing technological environment allows you to experience a vast array of artificial existences, including battle and robotic copulation. Modular play and the possibility for technological hybridisation will allow you to experiment with your automated systems in the safety of our fully furnished hyperlab.
More strange numbers and factoids.
3. Socratic Party – Exist in intellectual and chemical delirium in an ever-changing existence of philosophical celebration. You will exist to party hard with all the personally interesting (to your psychological makeup) people from the last two thousand years. We have selected Socrates, Horace and a number of your favourite fictional philosophers and cosmologists to join you in this after-life. Additional thinkers can be summoned on demand, each with their own repertoire of soul-pleasing epigrams.
I leaned back in my chair, glazing over the facts while my brain looked for a joke that would dismiss the situation. I looked around, waiting for a prankster to explode forward with manic grin and camera crew.
Mr Wilson tapped his fingers on the table. I skipped a page or two.
7. Romantic Liaison Hyper-Intensity #1048520 – Pursue endless romantic gratification with a sublimely attractive (tattooed) female scientist. Your coupling will be given hyper-intensity status by your being forever pursued across a mesmeric landscape by a giant red crab. (As per dream 17,928, from your dream profile. [Available on request.])
8. Intoxication Fantasy Beach Scenario #4564 – Enjoy the company of exotic animals and a race of witty amphibious sea-people while wandering in a garden of exotic fruits and narcotics, designed to allow an infinite matrix of psychedelic indulgence…
9. The Conversation Scenario #6 – The endless joy of the perfect conversation, unravelling for all time…
10. Champion #1924 – lead the people of Earth to perpetual victory over monstrous alien armies while collecting a harem of extra-terrestrial brides…
I looked back at Mr Wilson. ‘How many of these are there?’
‘Fifty three,’ Wilson nodded. ‘Each one derived from His direct access to your stream of consciousness.’
‘–aren’t your only options, no. You can choose any of our traditional afterlives, or from our top twenty young-male fates. You’re not quite old enough to experience the eternal family-man afterlife, and I don’t think it would suit you.’
‘So what would you recommend?’
‘Nothing on this list struck you as tempting?’
‘One of them, certainly.’
‘But you still want my advice?’
‘Well, Mr Rossignol, I think you should opt for having your consciousness permanently extinguished. There are a number of reasons for this: your possible restlessness in the afterlife, which might have some ugly psychic side-effects, but primarily the fact that by accepting His will, you are denying the humanist precepts which you preached with such fervour. You would, in effect, be crossing out your life and the moral structure you built for yourself.’
‘So I should give up eternal life because I drunkenly argued against the tenets of religion with Bible-bashing friends?’
Wilson eyed me coldly. ‘They say the English are the most natural hypocrites,’ he observed.
I considered the list once again. I took my time. I imagined those fates. I wondered how God had managed to formulate these scenarios from what he’d glimpsed of my imagination and dreams. Did know how often I thought about… Yes. The evidence was right here.
I held my breath for a moment and then let it out, very slowly.
‘Hmm. Okay,’ I said, leaning forward across the desk.
‘You’ve made a choice? If you don’t one will be made for you.’
‘Yes. And I choose…’