Hugo Steer woke at two fifteen AM to find he was dying. Someone had placed an iron band around his chest and was slowly squeezing life out of him.
He lay in the old-fashioned double bed he’d shared for the past thirty-two years, unafraid but cross and perhaps a little sad. It was really quite unfair of God not to have given him time to put his life in order.
Hugo’s wife slept on beside him. He was pleased about that, because Mary was a great fusser, which he’d found flattering in the early days of their courtship, but which irritated him once he had to put up with her wittering all the time. He knew she meant well, but really, he wasn’t a child. And dying was such a momentous and personal thing, he feared that Mary’s fussing presence would reduce its significance. You only die once, so you may as well make the most of it.
What would Heaven be like? No question he would be going there. He’d lived a Christian life and that was the promised reward, wasn’t it? None of those activities in the boys’ lavatories at school that his mother had told him gave you horrid diseases. And he’d been to church as regular as clockwork his whole life. Oh yes, he was definitely heading upwards. The prospect was quite exciting – he just wished he could tell some of those idiots at the office what it was like once he got there. That would wipe the smirks off their faces. Oh, he knew what they said about him, the names they called him behind his back. Holy Hugo was one. They would laugh on the other side of their faces when their time came and they descended into the fiery pit, while he was floating around above them. This thought gave Hugo immense satisfaction, although his image of what Hell might be like was hazy: flames leaping out of chasms and bodies falling through the cracks into pits below.
He was having trouble thinking clearly now. It was getting more difficult to breathe, and he couldn’t see anything, not even the outline of the window behind the thin curtains. Maybe he had shut his eyes and didn’t know it. He tried to put a hand up to his face, but his arms seemed to be separated from his body and his hand refused to move from where it lay on top of the quilt. That was when a wave of pain battered his left side and his breath finally left him, driven out by agony.
Hugo groaned. ‘Damn. Now she’ll wake up and there’ll be fuss. And I really don’t want any fuss. I just want to lie here and go quietly. Come on God, it’s all right, I don’t mind dying, honestly. But if it’s all the same to you, I would prefer it if we could get it over with. All this hanging about is not much fun, and it’s beginning to be pretty painful.’
He waited for his life to flash before his eyes. But he saw nothing, and for a moment he thought perhaps he wasn’t going to die after all. Or perhaps his life had been so uneventful that there was really no point in having it flash by. No-one would say, on the anniversary of his death, ‘Oh yes, Hugo Steer died on this day. He was the man who-‘ What? Found a cure for cancer? Wrote a book that changed the face of modern literature? Was the greatest peace-maker of our time? None of those things. Not even, ‘Good old Hugo, he was the life and soul of the party. How we miss him.’ Oh, Mary would miss him – for a while, perhaps. Until she found some other boring soul to fuss over.
Hugo was overcome with regret for the life he hadn’t lived. ‘I want another chance. I’m not ready yet,’ he yelled inside his head. ‘I have to go back and do better.’
He felt himself sliding out of consciousness, and tried to keep a grip on reality but there was something dragging it away, the edges torn and frayed, and only a core in the middle hanging on.
Hugo had lost all sense of time and place. His body had stopped responding, breathing, and pumping blood around his organs. Now he was afraid. There had to be more than this. Anger bubbled up in him that all the beliefs he’d nurtured over his lifetime might have been built on a lie.
‘Where are the angels and the harps? I can’t stay here forever. For eternity. Can I?’
He became aware of the blackness lifting around him. There were no features about the place he was in, it was just grey, but at least that was better than the black. He looked down but couldn’t see his body. His mind, or consciousness or soul, was floating free of his physical self. The panic receded a little.
A deep voice broke into his thoughts: Hugo Steer, why are you here?
‘What do you mean? I don’t understand. Who is this?’ Hugo peered through the fog but couldn’t make out anything. The fear and panic rose again, and he tried to take back control.
You were meant to die and should be on your way by now. Why are you still here? The voice sounded aggrieved. You didn’t change your mind, did you?
‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, I did. I mean, I was all ready to go, lying in my bed, waiting for it to be over, when I had this thought: I haven’t DONE anything with my life. So, I changed my mind and was thinking, that I wasn’t ready yet and that I wanted another chance and then I found myself here. Where am I? It isn’t, um, it isn’t Hell, is it?
This isn’t anywhere, it’s Limbo. It’s where souls come who haven’t completely let go. All the stories about ghosts are about the souls who are waiting here. They are the ones who haven’t quite managed to get across to the other side.
‘But how long do they wait?’
Oh, some of them have been here for centuries. They get lost along the way and they never get back on track.
The voice sounded bored, but Hugo needed to know more if he was to have any hope of leaving. ‘So, how do I get out of here?’
That depends on you. Do you want to return, or do you want to go on? You have a choice to make. I suppose you want to go to Heaven? Hah. That isn’t where you were heading.
‘What? Why? I’ve never done anything wrong. Of course, I’m going to Heaven.’
You said it yourself: what have you achieved? Do you think they allow just any old soul through the Pearly Gates? You have to earn that privilege.
Are you prepared to offer recompense for the trouble you’ve caused, by changing your mind like that, when everything was set to bring you over? Have you any idea of the effort it takes, every time one of you lot does that?
Definite self-righteous indignation in the voice now. Hugo felt himself curl up in embarrassment, as he recognised the tone as being one he often used himself in the office when the younger staff had neglected to do some task to his satisfaction. He thought about what the voice had said. Could he really change his life and make a difference?
Well? What’s it to be? Make up your mind.
That tone again; how like himself – his old self – the voice sounded.
‘Please, I want to go back and have another chance.’
The voice sighed.. Very well. But take note, Hugo Steer: This is your only opportunity, so make the most of it. It won’t be easy – you will find things have changed when you return.
Hugo didn’t much like the sound of that. In fact, it seemed pretty threatening to him, but as he was pondering over what the voice could have meant, he realised that he could hear other sounds around him. This time he was sure his eyes were closed, so he opened them to discover that he was in a bed with high metal sides, surrounded by machines winking at him with red and green lights. They appeared to be connected to various parts of his body by means of wires taped onto his skin.
People were talking, out of his field of vision He knew they were discussing him because they mentioned both his name and Mary’s. He caught the odd word here and there – ‘vegetative’, ‘life-support’, ‘consent’. There was nothing he could make much sense of, but it seemed important to understand the people and make them aware of the fact that he was awake.
He tried to move so he could see who was talking, but his head refused to respond, and so he called out. No sound came out of his mouth. A door, opposite his bed, opened, and he watched Mary enter. The Mary who had irritated him so much only a little while ago. She looked shrunken and aged, and he wanted to call her name, tell her he was alright, but his body did not respond to his commands. He’d been cheated. How could he achieve anything if he had to spend his days locked in a useless shell?
Mary approached the other people in the room – doctors, he supposed – and now they moved to the side of the bed and he could see them for the first time. Mary, fragile and bird-like, appeared to be arguing with one of the doctors. She put a hand over Hugo’s in a protective gesture, without looking at him. He tried to grip the hand, but his fist lay, unmoving, under hers. The doctors left and Mary collapsed into a chair next to the bed, still holding Hugo’s hand, her eyes full of tears.
‘Oh, Hugo,’ she whispered, ‘You have to try. You can’t leave me. I love you so much. I can’t manage without you. Please, please, wake up.’ She put her head down on the bed beside him and wept.
Poor Hugo. He felt absolutely helpless and rotten, not only because he was awake and unable to make anyone realise it, but also because of all the times he’d snapped at his wife who was now so devastated at the prospect of his dying.
‘All right then. If this is my new life, I will have to make the best of it. I’m not going to spend the rest of it in this bed, tied to these machines. I will get better. So there!’ He yelled in his head to the voice.
He tried to move various parts of himself, concentrating on his fingers and toes to start with, but although he was sure he was sending the right signals, it seemed they weren’t getting through. At last he concluded that the only bit of him which worked was his left eye. He could make it blink, whereas the right one kept rolling around to the side, a most unnerving motion that made him feel sick and dizzy. Still, it was better than nothing. He practised blinking to himself for a while, trying to ignore the nausea whenever his right eye took off on its own trajectory. After a few moments he noticed that Mary had turned her head towards him and was staring so intently that a blush warmed his face. She’d not looked at him that way for a very long time. He focussed his good eye on her and blinked again. There was so much he wanted to say to her. She smiled with such joy that he knew it would be all right. He had been given his second chance and he was going to do his damnedest to live up to the promise he’d made. It might be a long road, but he was going to beat this.
Mary hugged him, her happy tears wet on his neck, and, in the distance, he heard the echo of a deep voice, speaking to him in a tone he recognised but would never himself use again: I told you it wouldn’t be easy.
Corin Burnside made a return to writing last year after a long hiatus. In the past she has had some success in short story competitions and this year she had a short story published in Virtual Zine, and was also a finalist in a flash fiction competition in the same zine. She completed her debut novel at the end of 2018 – a historical drama set in Ireland at the time of the Irish Rebellion. She is currently writing novel number two. She lives in the beautiful French Pyrenees with her husband and a dog. Twitter: C M D Burnside