Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS the middle of the afternoon on a warm Monday in April. The weather had been exceptionally good for the past week and spring had burst into bloom all of a sudden. A gentle breeze softly moved the trees and I could hear birds chirping in the background.
I arrived a few minutes early so I sat down on the motorway barrier and watched some cars and trucks pass by. The traffic wasn’t heavy and I was grateful for that. I find motorways incredibly noisy and they’re really not my favourite place to work. However, I don’t choose where to go; I just follow the instructions I’m given.
A blue car in the distance started to swerve precariously and I immediately knew Bill Jefferson was behind the wheel. I stood up and watched as the cars behind Bill started to slow down and keep their distance, which is a good thing as Bill lost control of his vehicle. With the sickening sound of twisting metal, Bill’s car hit the middle barrier, spun three times and finally came to a stop a few feet from where I was standing.
Huge commotion ensued, with people jumping out of their vehicles and rushing over to Bill’s car, trying to open the door and give him first aid. One woman shouted that an ambulance was on its way, whereas another ran over with a first aid kit and a blanket. I am always amazed at how people immediately spring into action when an accident like this happens — always trying their best to help. Unfortunately when I’m there, it’s always too late. Always.
“What the heck happened?” Bill said, appearing beside me, shaking his head and rubbing his face. He was about 75 and had a broad Cockney accent. His head was completely bald and his face was well weathered and extremely kind. I instantly sensed that he’d had a good life, a happy life.
He continued, “One minute I’m driving, singing along to the radio and the next thing I know my chest hurts like it’s being stabbed with a thousand needles.”
“It was a heart attack, Bill,” I answered and took his hand. “I’m very sorry, but it was your time.”
“Blimey,” was all Bill could say. He exhaled, shook his head and sat down on the barrier. He looked over to his car that was a mangled heap. “I’m… I’m… dead,” he stuttered in bewilderment, scrunching up his face. He looked at me, “But if I’m dead, who are you? I didn’t run you over, did I?”
He was taking this very well, I have to say. I have encountered all kinds of emotions when people pass and most of the time the sentiments — particularly the bad ones — are directed towards me. Bill was one of the calmest people I had ever been sent to assist.
“I’m here to help you transition,” I answered.
“Transition?” Bill repeated incredulously. “So you’re Death?”
I sighed. “Death, Angel of Death, Grim Reaper, The Fourth Horseman, El Muerte — I have so many nicknames.”
“What’s your real name then?”
“Toby,” I answered quietly and Bill guffawed so loudly I grinned too.
“Toby,” I repeated, more clearly this time. “That’s my real name. And as you can see, I’m not dressed in a black cloak, but in slacks and a T-shirt, and I don’t carry a scythe. I don’t decide who dies or when. I just get sent to make sure people aren’t on their own when they pass. And it isn’t just me but there are many of us — I can’t be in two places at once — it’s absurd!”
Bill looked at me and smiled, his blue eyes twinkling.
The ambulance arrived and we watched as the paramedics worked on Bill, trying to resuscitate him. Strangely enough Bill seemed quite comfortable as a spectator of his own passing.
“Were you expecting this?” I asked. “You seem so calm about it all. That doesn’t happen often, believe me. People can get very angry.”
“I hadn’t been feeling very well, to tell you the truth,” Bill answered. “And honestly, since my wife Josie passed three years ago — she had breast cancer — I’ve been pretty lonely. We never had any children. I’m just glad I was right in believing there’s life after death. Imagine my surprise if I hadn’t. You’d have given me a heart attack!” He laughed at his own joke and I joined in. “What’s it like — where I’m going I mean? When will I get to see Josie?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what it’s like,” I answered truthfully. “I’ve never been. One of my colleagues will arrive to take you there soon. I’m sure he’ll answer all of your questions. I do hope he’ll take you to Josie.”
“How long have you been doing this job?” Bill asked.
I’d never been asked that before. “For as long as I can remember.”
“It must be very depressing at times.”
I nodded. “Particularly when children are involved, it’s always very sad when a person passes when they’re young. It’s so unfair.”
“I can only imagine,” Bill said. “I was a paediatrician until I retired and seeing some of the kids terribly sick was heart wrenching. I almost got depressed myself until Josie made me take at least one day off every single week — sometimes two. We’d go walking, play golf or visit a museum. And every year she’d plan a surprise holiday somewhere warm.” He looked at me. “What do you do for fun?”
“Yeah, you know, on your days off.”
“I don’t get days off.”
“No,” I shook my head. “Never.”
“Blimey, you can’t possibly be expected to spend this much time at work, especially doing what you do, and never have a day off. That’s just not right! You should speak to your union rep.” When I responded with a quizzical look he shrugged and continued, “If you could take a day off, where would you go? I assume you can go anywhere you want?”
I didn’t hesitate. “An amusement park! I’ve always wanted to go to one of them for fun instead of work.”
Bill chuckled. “Well, Toby, there’s an amusement park just 10 miles from here.” He got up. “What do you say? Shall we?”
“I can’t go now!”
“Why not? Do you have any more, ahem, ‘transitioning’ to do today?”
“I haven’t had any instructions, but they could come at any minute and we have to wait here for my colleague to come and get you.”
“Pah! Let’s be rebels and go. If you get instructions, we’ll both go to wherever you’re needed and I’ll hitch a ride with whoever comes to get the next person. Come on — it’ll be fun!”
I’m not sure what came over me, but before I could change my mind I grabbed Bill’s hand and in an instant we were at the amusement park.
“Fantastic!” Bill said looking around, eyes wide. “That’s the way to travel! So what now?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never been here before.”
“I have — years ago with Josie. Let’s do all the big rides first. It doesn’t look busy; the park has just opened for the season. Anyway, I’m guessing we won’t have to queue as we’re dead? Bonus!”
Bill’s dark sense of humour was right up my street and I laughed. It felt good. I hadn’t laughed like that for years. In my line of work there really isn’t much comedy.
It quickly became apparent that Bill was 75 going on 15 and his behaviour was infectious. We went on the Blue Lizard first. It was a huge rollercoaster with loop-the-loops that looked so dangerous, they made my stomach turn. Like eager teenagers we jumped into a pair of empty seats at the very back of the train. There was a loud click as the automatic restraints came down and we were off, inching our way higher and higher up the metal structure. The train stopped at the very top — silently perched for dramatic effect. I looked at Bill, my eyes full of excitement and anticipation and he grinned his biggest grin yet.
“Put your arms up!” he yelled and I immediately followed his instructions.
The train dropped.
“Aaaaaaargh!” Bill and I screamed in unison as the train’s speed increased by the second, going faster and faster, twisting and turning along the rails. It was so fast I could barely breathe.
“Aaaaaaaargh!” we screamed again as the train finally came to a complete standstill. Nobody could hear us but we were laughing so hard we forgot to get out of our seats and went straight for another ride. And then another. And then a fourth.
“Which one next?” Bill asked, as we finally got off the Blue Lizard, our heads spinning.
“All of them!” I answered breathlessly.
The Firefly and the Howling Hound were incredible, both more daring and outrageous than the Blue Lizard. But the Ghost Train was our favourite and on the second ride I gently touched the hair of the passenger sitting in front of us. She screamed, jumped and spun around, which in turn made Bill laugh so hard if he had been alive he would most certainly have had another heart attack.
Two hours in, as we were walking through the park, choosing our next ride, my colleague James arrived with a sullen expression on his face.
“What are you doing Toby?” he asked gruffly. “You know very well that you were supposed to wait for me at the motorway with Bill. You’re in a heap of trouble.”
“Now, now, keep your hair on,” Bill jumped in. “It was my fault. I encouraged Toby to come to the park and have some fun. Did you know he hasn’t ever had a day off? Not ever! In his line of work it’s amazing he’s not suicidal by now.” He looked at me and winked. His wit wasn’t lost on me and I had to stifle a laugh.
James shook his head. “Time off? We don’t get time off! Toby has only been doing this for 500 years and clearly he’s still a novice. Toby, you must resume your post at once or you will be reassigned. Transition instructions will be coming soon.”
James grabbed Bill’s hand and they disappeared before I could say goodbye. I hung my head as I realized I’d never see Bill again.
A couple of seconds later the transition instructions arrived and I was sent to a hospital to assist an elderly woman. She got very distressed when she told me she wasn’t able to say goodbye to her daughters, and I comforted her. While it was still hard, I somehow felt more peaceful, calmer, and better able to help her. She thanked me for being there for her and after a while James arrived to accompany her. Much to my surprise he winked at me, and before they left he handed me a note. It read:
Your good friend Bill spoke to me this afternoon about the fun you had today at the amusement park and it got me thinking. Transitioning is one of the hardest roles and one at which you excel. You and Bill helped me realize that having to deal with the range of emotions you’re faced with daily is very taxing on the soul. Therefore, I have decided that you will all have at least one day a week to enjoy however you wish. It can’t be all work and no play — goodness knows we should understand how unhealthy that can be — and it’s never too late for change and progress!
Perhaps you, Bill and Josie would be so kind as to accompany me to the amusement park next Thursday and show me what it’s all about? Yours truly, G.”
I smiled, then laughed and guffawed even louder than Bill had as I started to plan my next day off.