Instead of paradise, Jackie finds his dragonesque ex-wife Pearl waiting on the other side.
Old Jackie had finally succumbed to death. He’d held on by hook or by crook, the thread sometimes as tenuous as ether. But with his beloved Sally gone, what was the point …
The first thing he noticed as he surfaced on the other side was: no more pain, no more weariness, no more fog, no more anger and frustration. The former burdens had increased steadily with age, while the latter, the anger and frustration had been lifelong – so he could now finally admit to himself from this safe vantage point beyond the grave.
‘Jackie!’ A voice called.
‘My God, my God!’ He thought to himself. ‘I’m finally home! That must be Jesus – at last! My Lord, My God. . . at last!’
‘No,’ thought Jackie, as his head began to clear, ‘that gruff voice. . . not Jesus, I’d recognise Him. Must be an Archangel. . Gabriel? Is that You? Michael?’ And what of his beloved Sally, he wondered. Was she here to greet him too? This thought finally jolted him upright. ‘Yes! Sally! She must be here. . . .but where?’
‘Jackie! Wake up, dammit!’ the voice demanded.
He looked around, in the direction of the voice, one that was sounding increasingly impatient.
‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘Are you Michael, or Gabriel? St Peter? Am I here at the pearly gates at last?
At that, the voice degenerated into a cacophony of guttural and hearty laughter. ‘Pearly gates! Fat chance, but close! Jackie, you old fool! It’s me! Pearl! Don’t you recognise me?’
‘Pearl? Pearl? What? I don’t believe it! Where’s Sally? Where are the Archangels? Where’s St Peter and the Pearly Gates!’
More ugly laughter . . .
At this, his old anger flared up again. This wasn’t what he’d been expecting. And after a lifetime on his knees before God’s high Alter it was payback time – and he wanted his money’s worth, his pound of flesh. Now, everything seemed distorted. Something must be wrong, he thought….and the heat! My God! It’s as hot as hell in here! A funny thought, entered his head, but left just as soon as it came. . .
‘Jackie! It’s me! Pearl! Remember me?’
‘Yes, yes, of course, but, what?. . .I don’t understand?…’ Pearl was of course, his first wife, who’d died 35 years ago. Her life had been tragic, and ‘fireworks’ would be a fair way to describe their former relationship. Oh, how he longed for Sally, his beloved second wife, who had to all intents and purposes been the opposite of Pearl – calm, stable, non-alcoholic, loving, devoted, loyal, admiring – yes, definitely all the opposite of bloody Pearl, he thought again.
‘Jackie Benson! Shit! It’s been a helluva long wait, but finally you are here! Don’t you get it? You’ve died and come straight down to hell!? Now get the hell over to that drinks cabinet and fix me a drink!’
As his eyes focused, he noticed she was wearing that gold lamè gown he remembered she’d ignited all those years ago on the Pendennis Castle when she was refuelling her lighter when she was pissed – and how many times hadn’t he warned her about the drinking, smoking and buggering around with the bloody gas lighters. But there was no mistaking that dress. And sure enough, there she was smoking again – Texan plain with the diamond studded holder he’d gotten her in Venice. Hell, he thought, don’t tell me they resurrect all that crap with you. He had a moment of elation as he thought of his lovely gold signet ring, but the feeling vanished just as fast as it had come, as he twaddled his thumb where it used to be (for the last 50 years)….Oh yes, he remembered. His eldest grandson Billy’s got it now.
But then how did she get her stuff here? He wondered. Before the thought had quite left him he remembered all those years that he’d had everything put away in that bank vault. At the time he never understood why. Other than that he’d had a nagging, persistent feeling deep down inside that the stuff had to be put away. Far, far away from the grabbing grasping daughters. Another surge of anger worked it’s way through him as it struck him that somehow Pearl had actually been manipulating him into putting it away from beyond the grave so that she could use it herself! If only the daughters could hear about this – after all those years he had to put up with hearing them bleat about how the pearls were deteriorating from ‘not being used’. If only they’d known.
‘Pearl! I’m horrified at what’s going on here,’ he said, lips quivering, the worlds tumbling out of him like dirty laundry, clumsy, inappropriate, lifeless. Then, overcome with frustration and bewilderment: ‘What the HELL is going on?’ he demanded, flaring up. ‘Are you bloody mad, woman?’
She guffawed heartily, billows of smoke thundering out of her in pulses, marking her enjoyment and glee at his discomfort – as if he needed the visual accompaniment to tell him how much she was enjoying this.
‘Jackieeeeeeee, Jack-eeeee,’ she cajoled, ‘have some respect, damn you! I’m your bloody wife! And with increasing volume: ‘The mother of your children, for God’s sake! Aren’t you happy to see me?’ More guffaws and smoke, this time a double-barrelled volley through the nostrils. Fuck he hated her so much now. It had all come back, all those years he’d put up with her so stoically.
‘Chin up old boy!’ She crooned. ‘Dulce et decorum est!’ she rasped, hoary and parrot-like.
Dazed, having been recently resurrected be confronted by what he hoped and prayed was the apparition of his severely dysfunctional (and alcoholic – in case you hadn’t figured it out for yourself) first wife, he barely managed a meek ‘Yes dear’.
Defeated, he looked around. There must be a way out of this. Was it a test? Purgatory! Yes, that’s it! Must be purgatory, he consoled himself. He caught a glimpse of what looked like an arrow somewhere in the distance. Maybe a way out? He pulled himself together and started to stand up, wanting to get a bit closer – see if he could find out a way out of here, or at least make some sense of all of this.
Then he heard a beloved familiar old sound. It was his Steinway Grand! ‘How the HELL did they get a thing that size here?’ he marvelled. ‘Didn’t one of the musically inclined grandchildren get it?’ he pondered.
At that moment, Pearl took centre stage again as she released a magnificent cloud of smoke – all the more impressive as she’d managed to fill her lungs in a split second. He glared at her. He could see that now she was really on a roll, enjoying herself thoroughly. ‘The Great Jackie Benson!’ she roared, ‘The great concert pianist!’ she bellowed imperiously, from somewhere beyond the all encompassing smoke. Now she had him, and she knew it. Her expression was like the great big fat cat that just caught a stinking rat. Never a tall man to start with, now he was shrinking visibly.
Meanwhile, the Steinway grand, always the life of the party, had taken the liberty of accompanying Pearl. It now broke into a rather over-the-top rendition of the Warsaw Concerto. Jackie knew it well, an old party favourite of his. The Steinway remembered it well too he noted, and was playing it the way he himself used to play it all those years ago.
‘Do you remember your best performance of all?’ She challenged, placing her 60’s style, horn-rimmed, diamond-studded glasses on pertly – all the better to see his discomfort with, no doubt. He knew exactly where she was going with this old story, and sure enough...
‘The family loved that night!’ she guffawed. ‘Your son-in-law’s been telling the story all these years – to your credit, I might add, because thanks to his embellishments and exaggerations, not forgetting the sheer proliferation of his tales, you’ve been depicted as Ramsgate’s Rachmaninoff, on a concert grand!’ She took a deep swig of her drink, her enjoyment transparent. ‘Ha!’ she squawked, ‘You remember I’d told everyone earlier my headache was killing me and went off to bed early. You insisted on entertaining them endlessly, until I came flying down the passage like Stravinsky’s Firebird and slammed the lid of the piano on your hands!’ She accompanied this with a dramatic “down!” gesture of the hands, before degenerating into a cacophony of hysterical laughter, filling the room with it. Meanwhile, in the background the old Steinway had been enjoying her tale thoroughly, and had gone so far as to accompany her “down!” gesture with a perfect reproduction of the horribly discordant noise it had produced on that night.
Then, ‘Jackie, my darling husband, she said,’ matter of factly (the certainty of which terrified him more than anything else). Her expression changed as she killed the cigarette and did some housekeeping around the ashtray and diamond-studded filter. ‘Who would have thought, eh? Who would have thought that all those hours – years and years of it – the sacrifices we both made, and the story most often told about your concert pianist career was that one.’
She really knew how to bring the worst out of him, and he recognised this was exactly what she was up to now. Up to her old tricks again after all these years. Since she’d died he’d had peace, reigning supreme as master of the house, lord and master, unchallenged, surrounded by sycophants bowing and scraping: In the office it was ‘Yes Mr Benson, no Mr Benson, 3 bags full Sir, and how high shall I jump Mr Benson.’ And of course, ‘Yes daddy, no daddy’. Even Sally – what a saint – it was ‘yes darling, no darling’. Pearl however, had been a very different kettle of fish entirely. There was no controlling her. At some point along the road as her condition worsened he’d realised that it was all rather futile – resistance or reason for that matter, was futile. No matter how high and mighty he’d risen, and he had indeed flown amazingly close to the suns and moons of his dreams, she’d been there to remind him – in her spectacularly dysfunctional and nasty way – that he was only human after all. He’d learnt not to get too embroiled….to withdraw respectfully. So there he was, the great Jackie Benson, after all these years, docile and compliant again. She had him at her mercy again. In a way that nobody else ever could. And they both knew it.
He looked at her again, realising the scene seemed to be changing, as the smoke cleared….he found himself looking at a younger version of her. She’d died after a dreadful illness in her early 50’s, but there she was, young again, and beautiful. This was how he’d always liked to remember her. Her blue eyes, in particular, were as beautiful as ever – if not more than ever. He suddenly realised that he too had been transformed and was young and handsome again. My God, how good it felt – to be 45 again!
‘My dear,’ he ventured, ‘you are looking so beautiful again. Just the way I’ve always remembered you in my fondest memories.’ She smiled at him radiantly, her eyes twinkling. ‘You too my dear. I so wanted to be the first to see you when you passed through. Managed to make a special arrangement. You were right about the Purgatory thing. You were going to go there for a brief panel beating before they let you in upstairs. I persuaded Him to let me teach you a little lesson in lieu of it. So here I am!’ She laughed. Actually, one of my old friends and your sister put me up to this.
‘My sister?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Petra. She never did get over being dumped in that retirement home! This was her little payback.’
He was smarting visibly, and the feeling of guilt was overwhelming. His older sister had taken him in after their parents had died when he was only nine years old. Then when she was old and in need of care he’d put her in a home.
But Pearl brightened. ‘Well now Jackie. Now that the fun and games are over – we had to keep it short because you’re in high demand. . .’
‘You mean….’ He asked.
‘Yes darling. There’s someone else here that’s been waiting for you, very impatiently actually.’ In fact, a lot of us have been waiting for you and you’ve certainly kept us waiting! But yes, Sally’s here. . .’
At this he finally broke down and wept. Grabbing her hands he asked passionately: ‘But what about you? What is to become of us?’
She laughed her lovely happy laugh – the one he’d almost forgotten as it had been so very long since he’d heard it. ‘Darling,’ she replied, ‘this is paradise. Everything always works out for the best. I’ve also moved on you know. Everything is very different now. Everything is so very beautiful here. But no time for details now! Let’s get up above where there’s a huge party waiting for you!
Well, there’s no describing the bliss upon Jackie’s arrival! The smell of roses and peaches, the songs of nightingales and canaries. A banquet had been laid out and food beckoned everywhere. There was his mother! His father! His sister Petra couldn’t wait to see him again. But best of all, there was Sally.
His old mother-in-law, Granny Anderson (Pearl’s mother) was there too, and she hadn’t changed a bit. ‘Jackie!’ she bellowed. ‘Thought you’d never die! Now fix my bloody drink!’
At that he heard a great whinnying. It was one of Pearl’s nephews, yet another heavy drinker on that side of the family. Ah, he thought, Gary Anderson is here too, I hear. Better get the liquor cabinet keys ready. But then it all became clear to him. This was paradise, so there are no keys, and no need for them. There are no harmful addictions, so you can drink and smoke as much as you like, as often as you like and you just keep getting healthier and happier. To his amazement and relief he realised that despite everyone around him smoking he couldn’t smell a thing. Paradise apparently had permanent clean air.
‘And when the hell is Mark Anderson gonna bloody-well die?’ Granny Anderson demanded impatiently, banging the ground with her stick and suddenly sounding decidedly ugly. Mark was one of her youngest nephews, and her favourite. ‘Now he always knew how to fix the drinks, man! He’s the one I’ve been waiting for - to come and sort me out’ she confided, wiggling her near-empty drink in the air suggestively. She stuck a feisty tongue under her false teeth plate and had a good slurp - dentures protruding in a deathly grimace – then washed it all down with a hearty swig, emptying yet another glass.
At a very happy moment Jackie caught the most beautiful scent of lilies, nightshade and carnations and suddenly remembered Pearl. He startled! Where was she? In the distance he saw her, walking slowly by the water. Hand in hand with someone. They walked closely and as he held Sally close to his own side, he knew that his journey was over.
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