With the last vestiges of his strength, Barry put in the fastest hundred yards of his life and managed to get to the bus before it departed. Breathless he had boarded to the chagrin of the driver who had seen him coming and was hoping the traffic would clear so he could avoid the sheer banality of stopping and engaging with the public again. The bus driver was the irascible sort with a penchant for collecting steam engines and the hard wiry sideboards of a man who, if he had not been down a pit perhaps should have been forced to do so.
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Barry found a vacant pair of seats – there were few passengers at this time of the day. Nobody really wanted to go where the bus headed, except those hardy souls that wear too much goretex and talk about “briskness” and other intangibles with distressing eagerness. Barry was not this sort – he was relatively normal, he liked to think. Perhaps a little too chubby and a little too scruffy at times, but normal in the common sense of the world in that he enjoyed some stuff and disliked other stuff but he never did either in a demonstrative way. He enthused quietly and raged with incoherent blazing fury equally quietly and usually alone and with little fuss.
He unpacked his ipod and a copy of PG Wodehouse. He listened to one and read the other with his usually diligence. It was because of this that Barry Priestly - assistant deputy for HR (Human Resources – previously Personnel until they realised that it was easier to sack a resource than a person and that a resource somehow cost less) - did not hear the squeal of brakes coming from the sixteen tonnes of juggernaut that slammed so hard and fast into the side of the bus that it nearly tore it in two.
One minute the austere tones of Ella Fitzgerald and Jeeves raising an eyebrow imperiously – the next the sense of flying and a distinct realisation of something “impending”. Impending was not a good word where juggernauts were concerned.
Fluffy is better but less relevant.
Barry found himself sat on the verge with the wind blowing through his hair and the sound of “Summertime” by Gershwin echoing inside his mind. He tried to breathe in but could not. Somehow, this did not upset him as much as he considered it should have, where was the blind panic? He looked down. Where were his legs? And his arms and hands – where were they? That didn’t seem to matter either. Overall Barry felt slightly like there was something he really should be doing and sitting on this verge wondering about the lack of any limbs (his arms seemed not to have bothered appearing either) was not it. Wasn’t he going to visit his aunt? Something about that dashed Bertie Wooster? Summertime?
The sound came from inside Barry’s head and resonated deeply. Barry looked up to see the world beginning to resemble an impressionist painting. Focus swept in and out and all of a sudden Barry knew one truth with more certainty than he had ever known anything else in his bare thirty years subsisting on this earth.
He was dead.
And it felt slightly like a cross between concussion and the first ten minutes of a Woody Allen film.
“Morning!” said a voice with the sort of forced cheeriness usually adopted by Post Office workers.
One moment Barry had been rather confused and staring at the remains of the crash, the next he was just as confused but in a white interview room sat across from a young man with the sort of moustache you usually find on the upper-lip of a Spanish Senora. After a moment’s panic Barry looked down at himself and realised with relief that he was fully limbed up again. He must have been dreaming – he had probably been concussed, he supposed. But then he thought up a question he thought he ought to ask of his young interviewer.
“Am I dead?” The young man’s smiled never wavered.
“Of course, sir. At least from a certain perspective,” he added.
Barry took a moment to absorb this. He’d been told things in his life that had left him out of kilter with the world around him. There was that time when he’d been told his Mother had died. There was that time he’d been told he was tone deaf. And there was that time when his careers advisor had advised he had little chance of making it as a pimp in rural North Yorkshire (there was simply no call for that sort of thing).
So this is what death was like, thought Barry. He’d always had the vague C of E idea of death and the afterlife. Something akin to eternity at a Sunday school, or a never-ending evening with Val Doonican. He had never imagined the first port of call would be a bare and brightly lit room with two chairs, a table, a junior manager from PC World and his own corporeal image.
“So, Mister, uhm,” the youth glanced at his clipboard, “Priestly.” His smile had the sort of permanence that usually came with a minimum wage and the service industry.
Barry sat up a little straighter and took a good look at his interviewer. Slickly gelled hair tightly parted on the side, the white skin of the sort of youth that spent a great deal of time imagining interesting places to put zips or leather bands. His eyes were most curious. A dark brown so deeply absent of any colour that they seemed to suck light from around them, leaving the eyes sunken and sullen.
“Yes,” he said with as much confidence as he could muster.
“I am Investigator Pamflett – Ian Pamflett.” Pamflett put a hand out for Barry to shake. Barry shook it with little enthusiasm. “I am here as a conduit…” smarmy smile “…between your good self and the afterlife.”