42 - Step 46
Monday evening at six and Rich Lister was in the kitchen, feeling like crap, with three days of plates in the sink and a wilting some sort of green plant in a red plastic pot and an empty cat bowl. Puss had gone missing. He was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book, an epic novel full of excessive words and way too many pages, drinking hot, black coffee having pushed the screwed up copy of Racing Ahead to the other side. That is the copy with the black ink circles around five losing horses. He cut a piece of Victoria sponge cake that his Grandpa had made to cheer him up, who was a master baker, that was so light and tasty he thought It could have been eaten In heaven by angels. His hand had been resting on the open book as he had cut the slice and as he raised his hand with the cake the book blew back a number of pages. Or they seemed to blow back but there was no draft. The page number was 46 which did not have any significance for him so he Ignored It and returned it to page eighty six where he was reading. Picking up his phone he looked at his favourite betting site just to make sure. And yes, he was skint. Had done the last of his Munz and everything was maxed out. And worse. And that worse he had been trying to avoid.
A tap on the front door broke his contemplation. A gentle little tap, the kind that might have been made by a sweet little old lady come to shake a tin for donations to her favourite cause. He opened the door to be greeted by a fine, grey, check tweed suit with a fleck of yellow containing The Right Honourable Earl St Thomas who had tapped with the narrow end of an extremely vicious looking shillelagh. A clever ruse to ensure his knocking was answered and no mistake. His title was merely spurious, used by his many “clients” as a demonstration of respect. Earl St Thomas he was though and a mighty big chunk of Irishman at that. A chiseled, solid chin and nose that had seen one too many fists with a huge, grinning, overlarge mouth. Wide, muscular, hunched shoulders reminiscent of an Andalusian fighting bull preparing to charge.
“There ya are m’darlin,” he said, showing several gold teeth, “Wouldn't like to think yous been avoiding me. Would I? Now yous know why I’m here, don't yous?”
“Sure Your Honour,” Rich, nice and polite with exterior cool but interior wobbly jelly. “Will have it for you next week. No problem.”
“Now there’s a problem all right, to be sure. Overdue already and me two lads here,” flicking a thumb in the direction of two very large but not quite as large chunks holding up the gate posts, “they think we should be taking proper steps.”
“I will get it Your Honour. Give me a break. I’ve never let you down before. Have I?”
“Yous are right m’darlin, yous haven’t and yous won’t now. Will yous? Two days. We'll be back Wednesday at six. Give him the package Billy. A demonstration of our determination. Now, don’t get lost again.”
Billy threw Rich a large, screeching, brown cardboard box with holes in it.
Back in the kitchen with Puss’s bowl full and no longer a taste for reading or angelic cake or cold coffee Rich turns on the TV to catch the end of the news. Headline - 46 killed in mining accident in the Ukraine.
Tuesday and Rich is heading to work, standing at the bus stop in the pouring rain talking to a blond girl in a black mac but only so he can share her umbrella. His bus comes. A number 46 that will take him all the way to his yard. Normally he drove in his truck but that was out on site earning the money he so desperately needed. Glad to be out of the rain he sits in a seat in the middle but not next to the blond girl who got on first. “After you,” he had said using his best manners. The lady opposite with the strained, I’ve had too much of this, face and short untidy hair and makeup giving an Illusion of a smile when she did not possess one, was having a tough time. Her boy, maybe eight, who was obviously bored and being dragged somewhere he did not want to go. Clearly exasperated, she raised a hand to slap him then stopped and looked at Rich watching her. He looked away and she said quite loudly to the boy, “will you please behave? I have already told you at least 46 times that we have to go whether you like It or not.” Where they were going was a mystery but they got up and got off at the next stop.
They passed the church of St John the something, the one with the immense spire that directed the sumptuous praise of the people magnificently up to heaven now looking quite in need of a makeover and new roof. The huge, red thermometer sign indicating the pace of donations stood at 46 thousand. Just four short of the target. Rich smiled. He had been keenly watching the rise for two years. His company Rich Roofing had offered to replace the roof at cost price. An excellent PR exercise that was sure to attract much work over the next few years. As an additional fund raising effort last weekend he had organised a tile signing. The congregation and local people came to sign a roof tile for a donation of five pounds that raised two thousand pounds. Two thousand pounds that he had in his office safe and coincidentally the exact sum owed to Earl St Thomas. Two thousand pounds that would be sure to save his legs or arms or even skull from a wicked lump of wood. After all he was doing the work for cost and the church did not know how much he had raised. The vicar was away that weekend. “I will give them a few pounds later,” he thought. But pangs of guilt were eating at his soul.
Fiona was at her desk staring into a compact mirror when he walked into the office. “Morning Mr Rich,” she said whilst plucking an out of place eyebrow hair, “look at the paper on your desk. Good news eh. New building starts projected to be up 46% this year. Rich shuffled a few papers around, opened the post, made some calls, then retrieved the cash from the safe.
About lunch time he said, “I’m off now Fiona. Everything is in place for the next few days. Couple of things to do tomorrow so won’t be in again until Thursday.
Tuesday evening at about six and he is back at the table, in the kitchen. More cake and coffee and the same book open and at the same page. The phone rings and it is his Grandpa and he tells him the cake is nice and he will see him tomorrow, Wednesday, his usual day. When he took his hand off the book the pages blew back with the non-existent draft to page 46. This time he thought it odd.
Eleven o’clock and off to bed after spending an evening not being able to settle. His mind continually turning over with thoughts of a church roof fund. Quickly asleep and straight into dream mode where he is standing in a long line on an extended flight of wide, winding stairs heading upwards. He was near the top. There are numbers on each step. Rich notices he is standing on step number 46. He could see a closed pair of golden gates with a golden table and an angel sitting on a golden throne with a golden quill in his right hand and a piece of Grandpa’s Victoria sponge in his left. Going off to the left of the gate was a pathway winding downwards disappearing into a red glow. There was a woman at the table remonstrating with the angel who was consulting a long list.
Then coming down the stairs was a tall, handsome and muscular angel with his wings flapping and a long, flaming sword hanging from his waistband by a golden loop.
When the angel is next to Rich, Rich says, “scuse me matey who are you and what gives here then?
“I, am ArchAngel Gabriel,” the angel replies in a very high pitched, squeaky voice and pumping up his mighty chest, “The Guardian of Paradise. Piss me off at your peril.”
Rich thinks, “Bit squeaky to be taken seriously but that flaming sword is rather intimidating,” so says, “Fair doos. But what am I doing here?”
“You’re in line. Waiting until it’s your turn.”
“Waiting for what though?”
“For entrance to Paradise of course.” Gabriel says with an over the eyebrow stare, “or, maybe, to be sent the other way, if you fail the test,” he continued, adding a most intimidating scowl.
“Fail what test and what is the step number for?”
“The test of worthiness. The test of how nice you have been. Have you been nice? Or should you be worried? He will know. Up there at the gate. He has….. The List. The step number is how far you have to go. There are 45 in front of you. How fast the line moves depends on them,” indicting those above with a long sweep of his arm,” and you. You can go backwards, head back down a long way with a bit of “doing the right thing”. Or leap forward if you regress. To be so high up you must be contemplating a wicked deed. Very wicked indeed I would surmise. The queue is constantly changing. Get to the top and it’s too late to repent, as that lady up there is finding out. She has failed the test and is discovering that argument is futile. Soon she will be cast down and the queue will move on.”
At that moment Rich shifts up to number 43 and two people slip past going down. “Reprieved,” says Gabriel, watching them disappear into the clouds a long way down, “but her….,” pointing as the lady is shoved, quite ruthlessly, down the winding path to disappear screaming into the red glow. “See what I mean. Your doom is in your hands.”
Then Gabriel’s demeanour suddenly changes as he starts walking down the steps saying in a light matter of fact way, “can’t chit chat all day, got serious Guardian work to do,” and he is gone.
Rich wakes early with a determination. Things are going to change. He will make them change. His addiction will stop. From today there will be no more gambling. He picks up his phone and deletes all his gambling site accounts. He goes online and cancels his subscription to Racing Ahead. Then he closes his book on the table that incidentally had been open at page 43. At six o’clock he is waiting on the doorstep as Earl St Thomas arrives by slick American Pontiac limousine.
Before His Honour can speak Rich says in a very carefully prepared and determined speech, “Your Honour, I did have the money, I was going to steal it from the church donation I had raised for their new roof. But I find I cannot give that to you. So I have nothing for you and you will have to do what it is you do. Though that will make no difference to whether you get your money now but might affect if you get it later. If I cannot work you will never get it. If I can work I can pay you over several weeks with a suitable interest that you can determine and we can then part friends.”
“A very pretty speech to be sure m’darling,” Earl said, “and very noble of yous.” Then with a sideways ponderous stare, glanced at Billy and his mate and took a firm grip on his shillelagh. “Yous understand, I know, that it cannot be seen that Earl St Thomas is becoming weak. But... it can be seen that he is fair. Five hundred a week for eight weeks. Yous agree?”
“Very fair and thank you for your generosity, Your Honour.”
Later that evening Rich went to his Grandpa's and told him the whole story. Promised him he would change. He knew his Grandpa would offer to pay the debt but he turned this down. “I got into this mess and I’ll get out of it. Not gambling will give me enough to pay Earl St Thomas and the interest is my penalty for even thinking of swindling the church,” he said to him then told him about his conscience-provoked dream.
He arrived home quite early and sat at his kitchen table, fed the cat and ate the last of the cake. His book was still open at page eighty six. His phone rang. It was the vicar ringing to thank him for the two thousand pounds that he had posted through his door on the way home. He could hear the vicar’s voice saying, “Mr Lister? Richard, Richard are you there Rich?” but he was too dumb struck to reply. He was watching the pages of his book slowly turn to settle at page eight hundred and ninety four.