Jason’s life sucks. It goes well beyond sucking, deep into Shitsville. And Jason’s going to handle it by doing the only thing he has left. Only, it turns out suicide’s not as permanent as he thought…
As the windscreen shattered, Jason had a moment in which to reflect on whether this was the best way to commit suicide. Then, with the tortured squeal of tearing metal, the car broke through the barrier and the Thames came rushing up to meet him. He thought he was ready, but he wasn’t expecting the blast of cold water that crashed into him, stealing the air from his lungs and smashing his head back against the seat rest.
The next second, the lights went out and all he saw was blackness.
Something was clicking, again and again, like a frenzied PA with a biro and a coke addiction. It was right beside his ear and it wouldn’t stop. He opened his eyes and stared at his wrist. His watch, one of the old crappy Casio ones, tapped again and again against a cold concrete surface.
He was shivering. It wasn’t just his arm, either. Every part of his body shook, twitching, spasming. He lurched upright, hauling himself off the floor. His clothes were soaking and stunk of mold and dirt, his hands wrinkled like he’d been sitting in a bath for hours.
He closed his eyes and it flashed back. He saw his mum’s car plunge off the edge of Victoria Bridge, like he hadn’t been inside it, but been standing on the pavement instead. He saw it crash into the water, sending spray high enough to strike the screaming bystanders on the bridge. Then he saw it sink, traceless and silent, into the street-lamp-lit Thames.
He opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and screamed. The sound bounced around and came back to him. He sounded… tired and a little out of shape. As the singer in a metal band, he really hoped for more from his lungs. But they felt wasted and weak, barely up for speaking, let along screaming.
He wasn’t the singer anymore, of course. He wasn’t anything anymore. His note had made sure of that.
He had two choices. He could, as he desperately longed to, lie down, curl up, and wait for the shivering to finish him off. Or he could find out where he was and why he wasn’t dead. Unless he was dead.
‘Am I dead?’
‘An excellent question, to which the answer is undoubtedly yes. It is, however, also no.’
‘Not such a great question. What what?’
‘Did you just say I was dead?’
‘Oh.’ He closed his eyes again and the crash came back. This time, he was high above the bridge, watching the tiny shape of mum’s car blast through the barrier and disappear into the water. He opened them, taking a breath to stop himself from screaming again. ‘Where am I?’
‘Another good question. You’re doing very well for someone who’s only just crossed over.’
A long sigh filled the darkness around him. ‘You’re Inbetween.’
‘I almost don’t want to grace that with an answer, what with the name being so self explanatory.’
‘Am I in, like, purgatory?’
‘Bravo, young man, most impressive. No.’
Light filtered into the room and Jason made a slow circle, shifting on his heel to take a better a look at his surroundings. The floor wasn’t concrete, it was stone, pale grey and smoothly flat. The walls were brick, but the sort you got in Charles Dicken’s books, soot-covered and ancient. The bricks were tiny, too, to match the lights. They hung from the ceiling like Christmas baubles, small globes, each glowing a soft yellow. One alone would have done nothing, but there were hundreds of them, enough to illuminate the man walking towards him.
He looked like he sounded. Smart brown trousers, smart checked shirt, a blazer and a top hat, he could have come straight out of a Dicken’s novel. Except there was no mistaking the smart phone he held in one hand and he had what looked like a lap top bag slung over one shoulder.
‘Your purgatory comment has earnt you a few minutes reprieve, mostly because you’re the first I’ve had in a few months to use that word.’
‘I learnt it from an Iron Maiden song.’
‘Who’d have thought heavy metal would come in handy once you were dead?’
‘Am I dead?’
‘That, young man, is up to you.’
‘I want to be dead.’
‘Are you sure?’ the man paused, head cocked to one side, forehead scrunched up. He reminded Jason of one of the lecturers at college, the one who was supposed to teach music history, but spent most of his time mumbling into his lectern and teaching next to nothing.
‘I was committing suicide.’
‘Ah, that explains your presence here.’
‘If this place isn’t purgatory, then what is it?’
‘Imagine Purgatory is like a casino. Huge, fun filled, but essentially a waiting place until you find something more worthwhile to do. Only, without the fun bit.’
‘Right?’ Jason could feel himself frowning. Was this guy for real? There was a good chance he was all in his mind, the last thing he was thinking about before he drowned. That made him look down at himself. He was still soaked, still shivering, though he was barely aware of it now. If he was dead, surely he’d be like a ghost or something. He was definitely solid.
‘This place is the entrance hall of that casino. This is where you decide whether to go into the casino, or find something more entertaining to do with your life.’
‘Aren’t casinos meant to be fun?’
‘That depends upon your definition of fun. And remember, purgatory doesn’t come with slot machines and crap tables.’
‘What does it come with?’ He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation.
‘Oh.’ He took a breath. ‘So if I say no to purgatory, what happens?’
‘Well, you have two choices. You see, as a suicide, the powers that be frown upon your selfish waste of the most amazing gift of life—’
‘Yeah, well, maybe they should have helped make it a happier one instead of letting it get like it did.’
‘Would you like to tell me what happened? I can pass it on to them. They can’t do anything for you now, but perhaps they can help others in the future?’
Jason sniffed. He didn’t give much of a toss for people in the future, but if the people in charge knew how much of a screw up they’d made of his life, maybe they’d do something to help him. ‘Hang on, before I tell you. You said I have two choices?’
‘I did indeed. Choice number one, go to hell. Simple, eternal, very unpleasant.’
‘Hell is actually a place?’
‘I see you don’t know your heavy metal all that well. I presume you’ve seen the cover of Number of the Beast?’
‘Well, yeah, but that was just a picture, right?’
‘Not so much.’ The man cleared his throat. ‘Anyway, that’s the first choice. The second is to become a nightmare.’
‘Already been there.’
‘Yes, well, not like this, you haven’t.’
‘I don’t want to go to hell.’
‘Driving your car off a bridge—sorry, correction, driving your mother’s car off a bridge into the Thames probably wasn’t the best choice of action, in that case.’
‘If you knew wh—’
‘Please, tell me, I’m all ears.’ The man smiled in a way that made Jason itch. Then he sat down. There hadn’t been a chair there a moment ago, but now he plumped himself onto a high backed chair covered in dark leather and dull metal studs. It was the sort you see in charity shops and were extraordinarily uncomfortable, yet inordinately expensive. The man was making it look quite the opposite.
Jason checked behind himself and found an identical chair. The thought of putting his cold wet arse onto the seat made him shudder but, just as he turned to say as much, a fire appeared in a metal grate that, just as with the chairs, had appeared beside them. He knelt, sticking his hands out to warm them before turning and presenting his backside to the flames.
Once he felt warm enough to sit without wincing, he slumped onto the chair and looked the man in the eyes. They were grey, so pale he looked like an albino. After a few seconds of that, Jason decided the man never blinked, which would have been freaky had he not already gone deep into the realms of disbelief to hide out until he woke up or died for real.
‘It’s my mum. She hits me.’
‘She hits you?’
‘I see. Tell me more.’
This was like being at the psychiatrist. Like Jason had imagined it would be. He’d wanted to talk to one for ages, but they wouldn’t send him to one until he was 18 and that had only happened a couple of months ago. Before then, he’d had counselling, which was the mental version of throwing miniature bottles of spirits onto a fire to put it out. Every session just fanned the flames.
The difference was, the man before him wasn’t feigning an interest. Jason wasn’t convinced he was interested at all, but that was fine, because he didn’t need to be interested, he just needed to listen.
‘Started when I was about five or six. Dad left and mum just…’ he swallowed. It had been easy when he was writing his note. Then again, typing was much easier than speaking and Facebook didn’t judge, not until you hit post.
‘She just started hitting me. Smacking me round the backs of the legs, or pinching me, that sort of thing.’
‘That doesn’t sound nice.’
‘Really not. So then I got a girlfriend.’
‘When you were six?’
‘No, this was two years ago. And she was a bitch, a total bitch. She made me feel this big.’ He held his thumb and forefinger up, a centimetre apart. The man nodded, making the shape with his mouth people did when they wanted to sympathise but thought you were being a wuss.
‘Hey, it hurts, alright. I thought she loved me and it took ages to realise she didn’t. Everyone was laughing at me.’
‘I’m not sure this is as bad as your mother hitting you.’
‘Yeah, well, it was just part of it. I’m in a band, well, I was in a band. They ditched me. Said they were breaking up, then found another singer.’
‘Yeah, exactly, right? So I started college a couple of months ago and met this girl, Janey, and she’s amazing, totally amazing. We start going out then she cheats on me.’
‘She cheated on you.’
‘Yeah, with this other guy, this guitarist.’
Jason clenched his teeth together. The man was mocking him. He was sitting there, legs crossed, with his perfect clothes and hat, mocking him.
‘You know what, if you didn’t want to know, why did you ask?’
‘I told you, I intend to pass your complaint on to the powers that be.’
‘And what are they going to do?’
‘Well, based upon what you’ve told me so far, very little. Except, your mother might be seeing a particularly unpleasant time in hell.’
‘She’s going to hell?’
‘Of course. She’s abusing her only son, what did you think would happen to her?’
‘How do you know I’m her only son?’
‘Well, first of all, your other complaints have shown me a supremely self-pitying, whiny little brat, which is most likely to be found in an only child. And secondly, it’s my job to know, so…’ he spread his hands apart, palm up, looking vaguely apologetic.
‘I’m not self involved.’
‘Maybe not, but using being dumped or cheated on by a girl as a reason for driving off a bridge is impressively dishonest to yourself. You committed suicide because your mother has been incapable of showing you love, or indeed any kind of affection, for nearly 15 years. That you’ve made it this far is impressive, but that’s the cause. Blaming anything else is just avoiding the issue.’
Jason stared at his hands. They were clutched together, clinging tight as if he was about to fall. He thought he’d already fallen. He’d spent the last month feeling like he was falling every day. But here, in this strange place, in front of this strange man, was when he fell the rest of the way.
The ground was hard and cold and brought tears streaming from his eyes and down his cheeks.
‘There, there, it’s a hard lesson to learn.’
‘Why didn’t she love me?’
‘Would it be disingenuous if I said she has issues?’
‘It wouldn’t help much.’
‘I’m not sure there is any way to help. But I will pass it on and, though it’s not exactly within my remit, I will make sure your mother burns a long time.’
‘You can’t! I mean, I don’t want her to burn.’
‘I’m afraid that’s out of your hands just as much as it is mine.’
Jason rocked back and forth on his chair, waiting for the weight that had settled over his chest to lift. His eyes drifted until he lost himself in the fire, letting the tears fall, uncaring of the man still watching him.
Some time later, though he had no idea how long it had been, the man cleared his throat.
‘I am sorry to stop you, but I’ve already given you far more time than I should. I must press you to make a choice.’
Jason cleared his throat and scrubbed his face with one damp sleeve. ‘What does it mean, being a nightmare?’
‘The streets of London are dangerous places. For most people, the worst they might see is a mugger, or maybe an overly enthusiastic Spurs fan. But for the one percent, the unfortunate few whose lives cross over into the world beneath, they will see something far worse.’
‘Exactly. By day, you’ll be who you’ve always been. Gifted a second chance now you know what you know. But at night, you will change. You’ll have no choice and no control. On the plus side, you won’t remember what you do. Although, based upon what happened to the last one I made, I’m not sure forgetting helps much when you’re scraping blood out from beneath your fingernails every morning.’
‘What happened to the last one you made?’
‘He killed himself. The irony isn’t lost on me. The first time it was sleeping pills, the second time he tied a rope around his neck, tied the other end to one of the Thames ferries, then wrapped both legs through one of the chains on Embankment. Becoming a nightmare will definitely improve your sense of theatre.’ The man smiled, then shook his head, as though he knew it was wrong to find it amusing, but couldn’t stop himself.
‘Who are you?’ Jason asked.
‘No one, really. A gate keeper, a record keeper, occasional table football fanatic.’
‘So if you turn me into a nightmare, I’m alive again, right? I mean, during the day, I’m just normal me?’
‘What aren’t you telling me?’
‘I’d have thought the nights prowling London for people to maim and murder would count as a large enough disincentive to not need further hidden catches.’
He had a point. Except, Jason had often dreamt of killing people. Not tearing them apart as such, but certainly gassing them in their sleep, or throwing them off tall buildings. Most people deserved to die. Most people had no idea what it was like, growing up as he had. And most people didn’t care.
He rubbed his temples and let his head sink into his hands. He deserved hell. He wasn’t a good person. But he wanted to live. He knew it was his mother’s fault, now. He’d always known, but not believed it, not really. Now he believed it. His misery wasn’t his fault. Janey cheating on him wasn’t his fault, it was mum’s.
‘I’ll do it.’
‘You need to be a little more specific than that, young man.’
‘Make me a nightmare. I want to live.’
‘Never make the mistake of thinking this is living. You have died and are being granted a second chance, but the life of a nightmare isn’t real life, not how you imagine it. There are some, myself among them, who would say it is, in many ways, far worse than hell. At least in hell, you are among others like you.’
‘Just do it already.’
The man nodded and waved a hand. The room went black.
Jason sat up, gasping, choking. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.
‘Easy, easy, roll on your side. NURSE! Help me out, here.’
Hands grabbed him and shoved him onto his side. He coughed and a great gout of water burst from his nose and mouth, splashing onto the floor. He coughed again, vomited up more water, before collapsing onto his side, groaning.
His throat was burning. Where was he? The walls were familiar, but only from TV shows. ‘What’s going on, where am I?’
‘You’re alive, which is a bloody miracle, frankly.’ A bearded man leant over him, shining a light into each eye. A women in blue overalls bustled on the other side of him, pressing a finger against his wrist.
‘Yes, and sitting up speaking, which is even more remarkable.’
‘Why, what happened?’
‘Well, about three minutes ago I declared you dead from drowning, so you can understand why I’m so surprised.’
Jason blinked and let his head thump back into the pillow. The car. He’d driven the car off the bridge. He stared at the ceiling, tears swimming in his eyes. He’d left a note, on Facebook. God, everyone would know he’d tried to kill himself. He covered his face to muffle his scream.
It was just like him to fail something so simple as a suicide. All he wanted was to end it all and he couldn’t even manage that.
They released him a few hours later and put him in a taxi. Mum was at work and couldn’t pick him up. Not a surprise. As he watched the houses drift past, he blinked and caught flashes of the crazy dream he’d had whilst he was dying. He’d read about near death experiences, about the things you saw when you were that close to checking out.
What a mad dream, though. He checked his fingernails, though he had no idea why. He could only remember patches, faint, faded images floating through his head. But he could still feel the heat of the flames on his fingers and the man’s smell, somewhere between old bookshops and cinnamon.
When he went to sleep that night, he thought about locking his door. He knew it was stupid, but he thought about it, anyway. Then he left it open and went to sleep. He and mum had argued, so he wasn’t in the mood for getting out of bed. He wasn’t in the mood for doing anything.
When he woke the next morning, he threw the covers off and inspected himself. Nothing. He was in the same pajamas, there was no blood, no nothing. It had been a dream. He blushed and stomped down to breakfast, oddly pleased that mum hadn’t yet left for work.
‘Love you, mum.’
She glanced up from her phone and gifted him a rare smile. ‘Love you too, Jason.’
It wasn’t true. She couldn’t love him, he knew that. But it was nice, anyway.
Life went on, and on. It didn’t get much better, but it didn’t get worse, either. Now and then he would dream of the man in the strange brick building, feel the heat of the fire as the words flowed over and around him. But the longer he waited, the fainter they became.
It was almost six months later when he found himself in bed with Janey. He hadn’t expected it but when it happened, the fear and panic he had been expecting was absent. It was special. Not magical, not like the songs had made him think it would be, but, for a few short minutes, he forgot everything he was. As they lay together, breathing in one another’s smells, he finally decided that what his mother had done, and failed to do, wouldn’t rule his life.
This was the start of a new him, a new life. He went to sleep with a smile on his face.
He woke covered in blood.