Please Have the Exact Money Ready
When I got up one morning three weeks ago, I didn’t know that I was going to cross a significant threshold that day – one which we all must cross sooner or later. Yup, that’s the one: the ‘D’ word (capital ‘D’, always). Death. No-one wants to think about it, do they? Newsflash: it doesn’t matter whether you think about it or not, it’ll find you.
So, my trip to Hades. D’you know, the most intriguing part of it was that there really was a boat. And a ferryman (Charon, naturally), a stocky figure dressed in an ill-fitting tunic of a coarse, dark fabric. Who, incidentally, was most pedantic about the fare. He had silently held out his hand. Apparently it was up to me to judge a fair price to be transported to the Underworld so I gave him two pound coins. Frugality is a habit of mine.
Charon looked at the money for a moment or two. ‘Has to be silver, doesn’t it?’ he said as though I should know this already, scrupulously counting the £2 back into my palm. I searched through my change again and offered him two persistent Swedish 5-Krona coins, which a year after a long weekend in Stockholm still haunted the edges of my change purse.
He bit them and, apparently satisfied, put them in a small bag which nestled in the bottom of the boat. It must have been a good day in the death (sorry, ‘Death’) business as the bag looked plump and heavy; good ballast for the boat.
Before I was dismissed for an incident in the library involving some missing (they said ‘missing’; I said ‘borrowed’) incunabula, I taught Classics at a minor public school in Dorset. Now I found myself too intrigued to discover that this mythology stuff was true to be as scared as I should have been. I seemed to be the only person here, but perhaps this was the part of the Underworld set aside for borrowers of rare books.
You might be wondering why I was there. I wish I could say I had been abseiling down one of Dorset’s many lofty cliffs for charity and had fallen, or in rescuing a drowning child from a stormy sea had been taken in the poor mite’s stead, but it was rather more mundane than that.
Badly hung-over, I hadn’t looked both ways when I crossed the road outside the Tesco Metro in Hawkchurch St George having bought a copy of the Hawkchurch Mercury (and twenty Silk Cut, if you’re asking). I found out later that one of my ex-pupils, whose idiotic parents had given him a BMW coupé for his seventeenth birthday, was also hungover that morning (blood alcohol level of outrageous point outrageous). I had stepped out in front of the car, his reflexes were shot by the shots he’d drunk last night and the outcome was boringly inevitable.
FYI, the waters of the River Styx are dark red, but not like blood as you might expect: deeper, more of a claret colour. The river flowed swiftly and strongly, yet quietly, through a vast, rock cavern lit from above by dim lights encased in crudely-made, semi-transparent holders. There was no daylight and the dark walls of the cavern dripped with moisture and gleamed in the green-ish light and I shivered, even though it wasn’t cold.
Charon began to pole the boat away from my embarcation point beside an apparently storm-blasted tree, although how a tree could grow in this dank place I don’t know.
‘What am I doing here?’ I asked tentatively, grasping the edge of the boat as it lurched away from the shore. The ferryman shrugged one oak-like shoulder.
‘Just do the boat, don’t I.’ A statement rather than a question.
‘I did pay you,’ I said with a degree of asperity surprising for a man who had just discovered that he was a) dead and b) travelling towards an unknown destination in a boat propelled by a mythological ferryman. ‘Surely you can tell me something?’
‘Can’t tell what I don’t know, can I?’ he said with evident satisfaction.
I gave up and settled into the dusty, red velvet cushions at the back of the boat. It resembled the flat-bottomed pirogue of the Louisiana bayous and to begin with felt unstable, although I doubted that falling into the swift waters of the Styx would put me in an appreciably worse position than that in which I already found myself.
Once away from the shore, the boat stabilised and began to skim smoothly over the water, lulling me into a pleasant state close to a post-lunch doze. I was jerked awake by a violent sensation gripping my chest and then my entire body. I felt as though someone had smashed a sledgehammer into my ribs. My visual field darkened rapidly until I could no longer see Charon or the wine-coloured waters of the Styx.
When the darkness cleared, I saw a man (not the ferryman) leaning over me. Wearing a green cap, white mask and loose green tunic, he slapped a circular chunk of cold metal over my heart.
‘He’s back. Get him out of here and up to ICU stat.’ Nurses with bloodied aprons hurried to obey. The doctor turned to me. ‘Your lucky day, my friend. Your heart stopped for five minutes.’
I went home two weeks later with a fine collection of bruises, one cast on my left leg and another on my right arm. It took me a few days to locate and then unpack the plastic carrier bag containing my possessions the nurse had handed me on my departure from hospital (the remains of the clothes the A&E staff had cut off me, the two-week-old Mercury, my watch, wallet and change purse).
I threw the clothes and the newspaper away and emptied the purse. About £20 in fivers and loose change, just as I expected, but the two Swedish coins were no longer there...