I was pretty browned off by the time I inched open the door of one of the men’s dormitories in the Barnsley YMCA hostel and crept over to my alloted bunk without putting the light on. I had spent an entire fourteen-hour day on a simple looking software problem and I still hadn’t found the answer. At about seven, when I was the only one left on the premises other than the security man, I had decided to book in at the hostel next door and stay until I got the bastard straightened out. No point going all the way back to London and leaving it like that. Some hope! Ten minutes to midnight now and I was no nearer a solution than I had been when I started.
I was about to sit down on the bed when I noticed with a start that it was occupied. I was within a fraction of putting my hand on his sleeping face to steady myself.
Outrageous, I thought to myself, the only other person in the four-bunk dorm and he decides to sleep in 14B, the bunk allocated to me, as stated on my key-tab. I had a good mind to waken him up and make a scene, but what the hell? I was too tired to care. I carefully lowered myself on to the only other bottom bunk, silently removed my shoes, socks and trousers but left my T-shirt and underpants in place, and pulled myself into the regulation white YMCA sheet-bag. There had been a time, I remembered, when trouble-shooting for an American-based software firm had seemed like a glamorous job. But then again there had been a time when I had believed in the Tooth Fairy.
As soon as I lay down and tried to get comfortable I understood why my sleeping room-mate had abandoned this bunk in favour of mine. Directly outside the window was an orange sulphur street-lamp, and the curtains didn’t quite meet in the middle, so that a bright shaft of orange light neatly bisected the bed from head to foot. Whichever way I turned one or other eye seemed to be in the centre of the beam. I’ll just go and put a pillow over his face, I thought to myself, but it seemed like rather a lot of trouble and wouldn’t really solve the orange light problem. I pulled the end of the sheet-bag up over my face and tried to get away from the wretched beam. Ten feet away in Bunk 14B my room-mate began to snore contentedly.
It wasn’t the snoring or the light itself that brought me back to my senses but the fact that the light seemed to be flickering slightly as though passing through the branches of a wind-swept tree. But I knew that the night was still and there was no tree between the window and the lamp. Perhaps someone was moving the curtain? I pulled the sheet-bag down from my face and looked at the light beam.
To say that I was surprised at what I saw would be something of an understatement. Making its way slowly down the beam of light in the direction of my chest was a small luminous sphere, like a lump in a thin jet of gravy, but composed entirely of the same light into which it was set.
That’s impossible, I assured myself after reviewing some school physics, and closed my eyes to continue with the more important task of getting a night’s sleep. But observing impossibilities, I remembered, was not an encouraging sign in respect of one’s mental health, so I decided on reflection that it merited further investigation.
The luminous sphere, some nine or ten inches in diameter, had now come to rest on my stomach and was stretching and straining somewhat in an apparent attempt to turn into something else. Tiny cascades of bright points inside it were swirling around like luminous sand in an egg-timer and gradually arranging themselves into a coherent shape. As I watched the form of a miniscule glowing human figure condensed out of the flux and stood defiantly, feet apart, on the general region of my solar plexus. It radiated too much light to be distinctive in its features but my impression was of a male doll about as large as my own right hand. I checked that it was as insubstantial as it looked by drawing my hand straight through it at the waist.
“Would you mind not doing that, Sir?” it requested in what sounded like a faint Brooklyn accent, “it tickles.”
“Forgive me.” I kept my voice low so as not to waken the occupant of 14B. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I inquired, in an effort to prevent the conversation from flagging.
“Heaven is my home, Sir,” it explained pleasantly, “the celestial sphere. Abode of the Divinity and the souls of the righteous. That kind of thing.”
“I see... So you’re an angel?”
“Absolutely. Got it in one.”
“But aren’t angels a bit bigger... with wings...?”
“No, you’re behind the times Sir. Today’s angel is light, fast, energy-efficient, humanoid in general appearance, and virtual.”
“Don’t you mean ‘virtuous’?”
“No, no. Well, yes, that too, but I do mean virtual. Modern angels are entirely computer-generated. No call for the old crypto-human feathered variety. Slow, cumbersome, excessive wing-loading... unpredictable at the best of times. Look at Lucifer for example... No, it’s quite exciting really. With modern nanotechnology ten legions of angels can dance on the head of a pin. It’s our party-piece, an idea we got from the medieval theologists.”
“So... er... to what do I owe this pleasure? It’s not... the end, is it?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Just routine. We need to keep the database up to date, check some facts, ask a few questions. You know how it is.” The creature produced a barely visible oblong device and started to punch in numbers. I looked on with considerable interest.
“Is that a mobile phone?”
“Communicator, Sir. Mobile communicator. Allows me to access the database from anywhere in God’s Creation, apart from a couple of dead spots around Proxima Centauri that we’re working on. Or under bridges of course.”
“Just what database is it we’re talking about?”
“What database?” He glanced up incredulously, “THE database. The big one. The one where not a sparrow falls but He shall know. Or whatever the quote is.”
“You’re telling me that God uses an electronic database to keep track of mankind?”
“Wouldn’t be so bad if it was just mankind. Remember the quote: ‘Other Sheep I have, which are not of this fold: and there shall be One Fold, and One Shepherd.’? Or something? The Old Man’s got sentient beings all over the place on probation to see if they’re good enough to get through the Pearly Gates. All committing sins and performing virtuous deeds. The data handling problems are beyond your worst nightmare.”
“I thought all that end of things was handled by the Recording Angel?”
“The old RA? That’s a joke. There was a contest between the Recording Angel and an IBM Deep Blue a few years back. The computer won hands down. The old fool was still using parchment and a quill pen. We haven’t touched handwritten records since. Eternity isn’t long enough for that kind of nonsense.”
“So you’ve opted for IBM. Are you using Bill Gates’ software?”
“Bill Gates? Are you nuts? Everybody knows he works for the other side. No, St. Michael the Archangel wrote the software. With Lucifer out of the way he’s been making quite a name for himself up above. Always been a hot contender for the Old Man’s job: distinguished war record, medicinal plants, streams out of rocks, Marks & Spencer, calming the sea, that kind of thing. Pretty slick politician too, venerated by Christians, Jews and Moslems.” He glanced down at his communicator. “Anyway, let’s see what this is all about...” he hesitated. “Holy Ghost! This doesn’t look too good. According to our records you murdered two-hundred-and-fifty innocent people and then committed suicide in Wakefield prison...”
“That was Harold Shipman.”
“Sorry, you’re quite right, wrong name.” There was a pause. “Ah, here we are, under ‘W’... Oh no. I didn’t think it could get any worse but it just has. You’re not Terry Wogan are you?”
“Of course I’m not Terry Wogan. What kind of database is this?”
“Er, a slightly inaccurate one, I guess.”
“Well it’s not good enough. All that stands between me and eternal damnation is this stupid database that’s got all the wrong entries...”
“But we’re trying to put it right. It’s early days still. Bound to be teething troubles. What was your mother’s maiden name?”
“No, I’m sorry, it’s not good enough. This database is crap. I want to talk to the Boss. The Old Man Himself.”
The angel looked up coldly. “The Old Man’s semi-retired now and Michael’s in charge of the family business. If you’ve got something to say, say it to Michael.”
“You mean He’s stopped worrying if a sparrow falls?”
“Nope, He’s quite good with sparrows. Mass murderers and TV presenters He doesn’t deal with any more. Now just be patient and I’ll see if we can sort this out.” He punched a few more numbers into his tiny device. Although already luminous, his little face seemed to brighten up. “I think I can see what’s happening here,” he put the communicator away, “did you swap beds with your buddy last night?”
“He took my bed. He was asleep in it when I arrived.”
“I thought so. It’s the coordinates that are wrong. I’m talking to the wrong guy. You don’t pass over for another twenty six years and ten months. Oops! Sorry, forget that, I’m not supposed to tell you. Excuse the interruption. I’ve got business with your room-mate.”
“But you told me it was a routine data check, nothing to do with dying or anything serious like that.”
As he answered he made his way across to the other bottom bunk. “We always tell people that to begin with. Keeps them calm and cooperative while we check out their records. Then when we’re fairly sure we know what we’re doing, we give them the punch line.”
Having wafted his insubstantial form across the room he roosted on the middle of my neighbour’s stomach, where he started shouting “Wakey-wakey!” and jumping up and down.
“You know I said coldly,” I’m going to be pretty disappointed if all this turns out to be a dream.”
“Dream? No, I wouldn’t pull one like that on you. You should have more confidence in the Divine Author.”
At about seven thirty the following morning, just before they started serving breakfast, I reported to the sleepy young woman behind the desk that the other man in my room was stone dead. She looked up incredulously.
“You don’t mean dead drunk, do you?”
“No. I mean dead. No longer alive. That kind of thing.”
She didn’t seem convinced. “And when did this happen, Sir?”
“I’m afraid I didn’t look at my watch. St. Michael the Archangel could tell you. No, that’s not very helpful, is it? But he had lived a reasonably moral life, steering clear of murder and the Eurovision Song Contest. There were just a few queries about self-abuse and false tax returns. I brought up the question of stealing other people’s beds, but it wasn’t considered serious enough to merit damnation. I would say that on balance he scraped through the Pearly Gates. Oh, his mother’s maiden name was Wallace, by the way.”
“I see.” She seemed oddly nervous and backed away to the rear of the office where she lifted a telephone. “Charlie? I’ve got a gentleman down here who wants to report an... incident.”
And that’s all it was really, an incident. Life is followed by death for every one of us, nobody has ever pretended otherwise. Now that I am aware there is a moral order in the Universe, albeit a somewhat Heath Robinson one, I am a little more careful to treat others as I would wish them to treat me. Except in the case of beautiful women, where that principle doesn’t seem to apply. And that, folks, is the moral of my tale. Keep your nose clean while you’re here, you’re only visiting, and you can’t rely on slipping through the Pearly Gates as a result of a celestial cock-up (although it’s a distinct possibility).