“Is that what you meant to do?”
“You know it wasn't, Mildred. Does that make you happy?”
God he hated her.
Well, he didn't. She was his wife, so 'til death do them part and all that.
But... they were dead now.
It had been a quick death. They were driving along the A12 when Mildred yelled something about a deer. Not knowing what to do Bob had yanked the steering wheel sharply, sending them into the central reserve at 70mph. Which wasn't something their car was designed to do.
It was all a bit anti-climactic really. No bright light. No chorus of angels. No life flashing before their eyes (thankfully - Bob hated when they put reruns on the telly). One minute they were looking forward to their weekend away, the next they were queuing for Heaven. Well, Bob assumed it was Heaven. He couldn't imagine the other place would put much stock in queuing. And there'd be more flames, if rock musicians were to be believed.
“It's not so bad here...” said Mildred.
“I guess not. But do you know what it's not? Our weekend away. That's £300 gone. You couldn't have got us involved in a fatal road collision after the weekend could you?”
“Don't get angry with me!” said Mildred.
“I'm not angry!” replied Bob. Angrily.
“Good, I don't want you grumpy when we reach those opalescent gates.”
“The gates. They're pearly.”
“Oh no, I'd definitely say more opalescent.”
“They're pearly gates. As in the Pearly Gates.”
“I don't want to fight,” said Mildred, leaving no room for discussion. “Now cheer up, you've been in one of your moods since Chelmsford. It was bad enough thinking of you ruining the weekend, but I don't want you to ruin all eternity.”
“I just don't see why we have to queue.”
“Because,” said a voice just behind them, “this is Heaven. We don't let just anyone in.”
Mildred and Bob turned around to see a man in a very smart business suit with the shiniest shoes imaginable. He had neatly trimmed designer stubble, and a wide smile.
Bob hated him instantly.
“But surely the queueing isn't necessary? This is Heaven, you aren't exactly lacking for resources. Have budget cutbacks limited the armies of angels or something?” said Bob. But he wasn’t grumpy. Surly, maybe. But not grumpy.
“Now Bob,” said the stranger, causing Bob to bristle slightly as he hadn't given his name, “most people enjoy the wait. The anticipation. Adjusting to the fact that they're no longer part of that mortal coil. It gives them time.”
“Well I don't need time, thank you very much, Mr...?” asked Bob.
“Call me Pete,” replied the stranger. Or, well, replied Pete.
“I don't think I shall, thank you, Mr...?” Bob asked again.
“Wait, Pete?” said Mildred. “Are you... are you Saint Peter?”
“The one and only, which hopefully explains the logistics issue you had, Bob,” replied Pete, with a slightly self-deprecating smile. “Only one of me to go around. But you seem eager and well adjusted. To the idea of death, at least, so we'll skip you ahead.”
“Oh, I do like an upgrade,” said Mildred excitedly.
“There's always a catch though...” replied Bob, with a wary eye.
“No catch,” said Pete reassuringly. “You've both been good people throughout your lives. Admittedly, Bob, you're a grumpy bastard, but you're a good man. So welcome, both, to Heaven!”
Pete paused for dramatic effect. When neither Mildred nor Bob reacted much, Pete, slightly crest-fallen, continued.
“So I'll just let you say your goodbyes and we'll be off.”
“Goodbyes? Where are we each going?” asked Mildred excitedly, as she imagined spa treatments and all-you-can-eat cream teas.
“To Heaven, of course!” replied Pete simply, if unhelpfully.
“Why can't we go together then?” asked Bob.
“Well, my good man, Heaven isn't a place. It's not like going to Alaska, or India, or-”
“Or Yarmouth,” interrupted Bob. “Goodbye security deposit...”
“Right,” said Pete. “Heaven isn't a physical space, it's a state of being. You go to Heaven in the same way you go to sleep. You can sleep near each other, but you can't sleep with each other. Well, erm, I mean you can't share your dreams. And Heaven is the same.”
“What happens then?” asked Mildred.
“You'll each go to your separate, self-contained Heavens, where everything is perfect for you,” Pete replied, slowly.
“But I thought Heaven was shared. That I could, you know, meet Elvis, croon with Sinatra, get a birthday song from Marilyn Munro and all that?” said Bob, getting slightly exasperated.
“You can!” said Pete animatedly. “There are perfect versions of them in your Heaven. But Heaven is perfection, it can't be shared.”
Bob and Mildred were still no clearer on what he was going on about.
“OK, let's say you want a private show from Buddy Holly,” Pete tried explaining. “How many other people will want the same thing? Well, how can they have it at the same time? And, as you pointed out, waiting is less than perfect, so it ruins the perfection of Heaven.”
“And then let's say,” he continued, “that he didn't want to spend an evening with you. I mean, I can't imagine why not when you're such a... delight, of course, Bob. But hypothetically, for him to get his way, you miss out on getting yours. Someone is unhappy. And that's not perfect,” Pete finished, in a way that might be patronising, if he weren’t a saint and everything.
“OK, fine, no celebrities. But why can't we be with each other?” asked Mildred.
“OK, let’s run a hypothetical. Let’s say a man, Dan, marries the love of his life, Jane. But sadly Jane passes away. Dan never forgets her but, years later, he finally falls in love again, with a lovely lady called Sally. When Dan passes away, which of the ladies is waiting for him in Heaven?”
“Well... I... I don't know” replied Mildred, feeling rather downhearted from the hypothetical. Bob was very quiet, weighing it all.
“And even if two people choose each other,” Pete continued, “what if one wants to fish while the other wants to shop? Who gets their way?”
“Well, I guess...” Mildred started, but trailed off. Still Bob was silent, thinking.
“Did it never strike you as odd that you're taught there's an afterlife, but marriage vows specifically say 'til death do us part'?” Pete asked kindly. “As Sartre said, 'Hell is other people'. And there's no room for Hell in Heaven.”
“So we're losing each other?” Mildred asked as it sunk in.
“No! In your Heavens there'll be a perfect version of each other”.
“What do you mean perfect?” asked Bob, breaking his silence. There was always a catch.
“Well, by its nature, I meant whatever you mean. It's your Heaven,” said Pete with a shrug.
“So if I want lasagne for tea, Mildred would too?”
“And she'll buy new curtains without needing my opinion?” asked Bob.
“You've got it!” said Pete, visibly relieved.
“So we’ll be exactly what we want each other to be?” asked Mildred, catching on.
“Right” said Pete, raising his arms up to the heave- well, sky- in relief.
“Well, then it's not what I want,” said Bob, putting his foot down. Metaphorically. He wasn’t sure what would happen to the cloud if he did it for real.
“I want her,” he continued. “I want someone who'll make me eat sprouts because they're good for me. Someone who'll demand the remote ten minutes into extra time because her soaps are about to start. I want someone who'd rather we crash on the motorway than risk hurting a helpless animal. She's an absolutely maddening pain in the neck. And that's what makes her, well her. That's what makes her the woman I love. And I’m not smart enough to make that up for myself.”
Mildred patted Bob’s arm affectionately and smiled at him. The same smile she had smiled 42 years before when she said “I do”. God, Bob loved that smile.
“So... you'd give up bliss and eternal happiness for her?” asked Pete, taking his turn to not understand.
“No, I'm saying it wouldn't be bliss and eternal happiness without her,” replied Bob simply.
Pete looked confused. This had never been an issue before.
“What about you, Mildred? You can’t agree, surely?” he asked.
“Of course I do. Even in Heaven Bob would find a way to get into trouble without me.”
This was definitely going to be a problem.
“I'll have to speak to the Big Man upstairs, one moment,” Pete said, before touching his ear. For the first time, Bob noticed one of those hands-free phone devices, which did not endear Pete to him any more.
“Sir, we've got a problem. Uh huh. Uh huh. Yep.” said Pete, into his own ear. “Right. OK then!”.
Pete took his hand away from his ear and turned to Bob and Mildred. “OK, good chat. I'm afraid we can't let you both in together. It's physically not possible to share Heaven. The paradox would cause the entire concept to unravel for everyone. But we have a plan...”
A short while later Bob and Mildred were sat on the porch of a small house, built by a beautiful lake and surrounded by luscious green trees. Everything is completely still. Quiet.
“So this is Purgatory?” said Mildred. “While everyone else is up there having their dreams come true, we're sat here, looking out over the lake forever, with nothing but each other.”
Mildred reached out and grabbed Bob's hand. And then she smiled that smile again.
“The fools,” she said. “They don't know what they're missing.”