Copyright (c) 2020 Alby Stone
Another midnight, another bloody crossroads. Humans are so unimaginative, always choosing tradition over comfort, or even common sense. It would be nice, once in a while, to be summoned to a table in a well-appointed bar, or perhaps a lounger by a swimming pool in the Algarve on a warm, sunny day, a tray of ice-cold cocktails and a bikini-clad beauty or two to enhance the sea view. But no, there I was yet again on a wet, chilly night in the middle of nowhere, dragged to discomfort by another nobody who wanted to be somebody. Early June in Buckinghamshire, if the airborne tsunami, poorly-maintained road and ambient smugness were any guide.
But where was the client? I squinted but couldn’t see a damned thing through the water streaming down the Perspex visor, which was also misting over on the inside thanks to that absurd surgical mask.
I like to set a good example, and Christ knows humans need one. They certainly haven’t done too well in that department themselves, preferring to imprison, execute or assassinate anyone born with an ounce of compassion, decency and common sense. The present situation only underlined just how fucking stupid so many of them are. As, to be fair, did most of their history. But I digress. I needed to see who I was dealing with, so I removed the visor and mask and threw them into the air, where they vanished with a barely-audible pop.
My heart sank when he emerged from the shadows. Not him again. We already had a meeting scheduled a few years down the line but no, that wasn’t enough for him. I’d never met anyone who needed so much attention. He would try the patience of a saint, and I’m certainly not one of those. ‘What the hell do you want now?’ I growled testily. There was a strangled squawk as a parakeet fell from a nearby tree, stone dead. And another from the creature he was holding by its feet, upside down and very angry. ‘What did I tell you about poultry? And put down that stupid machete before you have someone’s eye out.’
Smith – let’s maintain the pretence, as it’s more fun to work it out yourself and besides, I am bound by strict rules of confidentiality – replied with one of those looks the British public seem to adore: sheepish, furtive and arrogant in equal measure. The effect was somewhat undermined by the chicken shit on his suit and a stray tail feather sticking up on the crown of his head. ‘Well, ah, I, I…’ he extemporised.
‘Come on,’ I sighed. ‘Out with it. I haven’t got all bloody night. But I should warn you that you have everything you asked for and, frankly, nothing left to pay me for anything else. And for heaven’s sake close your mouth when you do that. You look like a parson’s nose sticking out of a haystack.’
‘Look here,’ he blustered. ‘You can’t talk to me like that. Do you know who I am?’
I stared at him. Did he really think that line would impress me? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And you know exactly who I am.’ I grinned, extended my height by six inches and my pointed beard by twelve, and gave him a little whiff of brimstone. He flinched and took a step back. ‘So piss or get off the pot. I don’t have time for self-serving timewasters like you. I was playing darts with a bishop when you brought me here, and later I’m booked for snooker with Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein.’
His face fell. For a moment he seemed exhausted and vulnerable, an honest man who’d given his all, beaten the disease, yet still faced insurmountable odds. For a whole nanosecond I was perilously close to a billion miles away from feeling sorry for him. Fortunately I’ve always been exceptionally good at resisting temptation. ‘Spit it out,’ I commanded.
‘It’s this bloody virus,’ he blurted. ‘It’s playing havoc with the economy. The nation is facing bankruptcy, utter ruin. Companies going bust, my chums losing dosh like there’s no tomorrow. My popularity is plummeting. People are even dying, though thankfully no one important has popped their clogs yet. Can’t you do something about it?’
‘Me? What makes you think I can do anything? I don’t control viruses. Or anything else. I’m strictly a crime and punishment guy. This is his work.’ I jerked a thumb in the direction of the waterlogged night sky, making several points simultaneously. ‘You’d be better off nipping into a church and getting down on your knees. Though with your background there’s no way you’ll be heard. Not without deep, loud, celestial laughter by way of reply.’
‘But what about the Bible? It’s you, isn’t it> Four horsemen and all that. Plague is one of them, right? Or is it Pestilence? Or Poverty?’ He shuddered at the last.
‘Nothing to do with me,’ I told him. ‘The book you are referring to was written by a bloke who was completely off his head on infections caused by excessive mortification of the flesh, plus dodgy mushrooms and the odd slice of mouldy bread. We’ve all tried to figure it out over the past two thousand years but neither we nor the guys upstairs have the faintest idea what Mad John was going on about. My old mate Mingscum reckons it was written as a satire on contemporary socio-religious values in the context of cultural upheaval caused by rapid expansion of the Roman Empire. Says it’s hilarious. But Mingscum does have a very strange sense of humour. The more ruthless he is, the more he laughs. A law unto himself.’
‘Sounds like somebody I know,’ said Smith uneasily.
‘I’m sure it does,’ I replied.
‘Can’t you do anything?’
‘All I can do is offer advice that would solve all your problems.’
He leaned forward eagerly. I lengthened my right arm by a metre or so – yes, along with the visor and mask I like to set a good example by maintaining social distancing – and tickled the chicken under her beak. She was a fine specimen and I knew a male of her species who was pining for company. ‘Yes, all I can do is offer advice. Trouble is, it’s way too late for that. This one’s down to you, Smith. Good luck, because you’ve fucked up royally so far.’
‘But it isn’t my fault,’ he groaned.
‘Not entirely, no. Part of it is the collective responsibility of you and anyone else who served in your party’s governments over the last decade. And anyone who voted for you, really. Maybe if you’d been less fixated on austerity and that dreadful European business you’d have been more willing to ensure the PPE stockpiles set aside for this very situation were audited and kept up to date. Maybe if your lot had spent less time and effort shafting the NHS and running it on a shoestring there would have been more critical care beds, nurses and ventilators when they were needed, like now. Maybe if you’d spent less time and energy shagging around and positioning yourself for personal glory you would have paid attention to what your country really needed.’
‘But it needs me.’ He puffed himself up and assumed that now-familiar expression he thinks makes him resemble Winston Churchill but actually makes him look like a sheepdog with its bollocks caught in a mousetrap. ‘I’m the man with vision and plans. I’m in charge.’
‘You keep telling yourself that. Not that your plans amount to much more than getting your leg over, avoiding difficult conversations in public, and repeating cheesy slogans ad nauseam as a poor substitute for substance. But I’d watch my back if I were you. As soon as this is over and your mates need someone to blame, the knives will be out. Look what they did to Thatcher – and they worshipped her like a goddess. Okay, it was that scary Hindu one with the skulls and bloody swords and all the arms, but even so.’
‘Well, if you can’t stop the virus, how about doing something about my image? The public already think I’m an entertaining sort of chap, even lovable – but I need to be seen as a statesman, a stable and reliable chap with the interests of the hoi polloi at heart. Champion of the Great Unwashed. A man of the people, eh? Why should I be remembered by the oiks as the man who presided over the pandemic disaster? Shouldn’t be too difficult. You are the Father of Lies, after all.’
‘Actually, that’s Mingscum – though to be honest his current favourite human protégé isn’t too far behind. Me? I never lie. That would make me no better than one of you, and that would defeat the whole point of my existence. My function is essentially juridical and I am, and must be seen to be, beyond reproach. Though that doesn’t stop you mortals blaming me for your own character flaws. Read my lips, Smith: I gave you what you wanted, admittedly for a handsome price, but what you do with it is up to you.’
‘Ouch – look here, will you take this bloody bird? He keeps biting me.’
I rolled my eyes so that the irises disappeared upward and reappeared from my lower eyelids. I love doing that. Guaranteed to put the willies up anyone from small children to the Pope. Just ask him. ‘He’s a she and chickens don’t bite, they peck.’ I took the fowl in my extended arms and patted it on the head. She nestled contentedly against my chest.
It’s not generally known that I’m an animal lover. A few thousand years ago, when I was only a kid, some halfwit humans saw me out and about in a Greek forest frolicking with the local wildlife, and a myth was born. Horns, tail, cloven hoofs – I don’t often manifest like that now, usually only when I’m communing with nature, but I suppose it is quite a potent image. Back then it scared the yokels shitless. And the name they gave me that day has seeped into human consciousness, directly through etymology or by homonymy, an explosion of lexical associations culminated in the here and now. Pan. Panic. Panorama. Pandemonium. Pangolin. Pandemic. Spooky, eh? All because a bunch of ignorant foragers thought I was some sort of zoological deity. And now here I was bickering with a fool who couldn’t even orchestrate a pantomime properly and who’s been caught with his pants down more often that Brian Rix. But that’s evolution for you.
I decided to call the hen Pandora. My mouth watered at the prospect of scrambled new-laid eggs for breakfast. They’d go down a treat with devilled kidneys.
As far as I was concerned, my business with Smith was concluded. It was time to get back to the bishop. I had some excellent ideas for that triple-six finish. And I needed to check that the cues were sharp enough for my stint on the green baize with Jim and Jeff. There was also the future to consider. What games would suit Smith? I shrugged. I had a few years to think of new entertainments. An eternity to dream up many, many more.
Smith’s lower lip quivered as I began to emanate the sulphurous mist that has become a trademark component of my departure routine. ‘So you’re just going to leave us to get on with it? Sink or swim? Have you no compassion?’
I laughed in his shifty face. ‘It wasn’t me who failed to ensure that the pandemic PPE stockpiles were audited, checked and updated. It wasn’t me who ignored early warning signs and fucked off on holiday instead of getting my arse in gear and making plans. It wasn’t me who delayed, downplayed, prevaricated and acted the fucking goat while the virus spread and people began to die by the truckload. Compassion? That’s what I am, mate. I’m the one who sees what you horrible bastards do to one another and tries to mete out justice for your crimes of selfishness, stupidity, hubris, laziness and greed. I’m the one who cannot ignore the suffering of innocents, who is unable to turn his face from human brutality, cruelty and treachery. I’ll let you into a little secret. Do you know what an egregore is? Well, that’s me. The embodiment of your species’ need for justice and punishment, for retribution, restitution and redress. For balance. You humans made me to keep your baser instincts and desires in check – then had the bloody cheek to turn me into the cause of all your sins.’
He gave that some thought, about thirty seconds worth, which is quite a long time for him if it doesn’t involve getting his leg over. ‘So, if you’re not the embodiment of evil, who is?’
‘Have you read the Bible? I expect not, as it contains no pithy Latin soundbites likely to impress posh totty and facilitate the swift removal of lingerie. Well, here’s your starter for ten. Which Biblical character is the most greedy, jealous, narcissistic, controlling and vengeful? Who has serious problems with anger management? Who commanded the Israelites to commit genocide, enslave women, and mutilate their son’s penises? Who impregnated a twelve year-old girl without her knowledge or consent? Who arranged his own son’s torture and execution? Who gave the Israelites a weapon of mass destruction? Who destroyed whole cities because they didn’t follow his instructions? I won’t even mention poor old Job. So who was it? I’ll give you a clue – it wasn’t me.’
This is the big problem with egregores. The more solid and realised we become, the more we are thought of as gods. And, being essentially constructed from human nature ourselves, we all too often get too big for our boots and start acting the part, throwing our weight around. We become dictators, every bit as bad as Mugabe, Pol Pot, Hitler, Ceausescu, Stalin… Of course, there are those like me who detest authoritarianism and try to promote freedom of thought. We have some successes – polytheistic religions tend to have inbuilt checks and balances – but monotheistic systems give full rein to spiritual totalitarianism. And the bigger they become, the more permanent they are, and the more they will absorb of humanity’s dark side. Believe me, if there ever comes a time when everyone believes in only one god, Homo sapiens is screwed. Because the sole remaining egregore will be an Adolf Hitler, not a Jesus Christ.
‘Believe me, Smith. You’d be worse off upstairs. Nothing but worshipping that vicious egomaniac and singing his praises for eternity. It’s a place fit only for the mindless. At least my people offer variety.’ Yes, a million and one different torments, all adopted from the ever-expanding repertoire of good old Homo sapiens. We learn from the best. And why reinvent the wheel?
‘Well, thanks very much for the theology lesson,’ Smith said huffily. ‘But if you can’t help with the pandemic and put the shine back on my popularity, it leaves me on a very sticky wicket. What am I to do?’
‘That’s your business, sunshine. According to my calculations I won’t take delivery of you soul until – well, let’s leave that as a surprise. But until then you are responsible for your own actions and must accept the consequences, which for you should be a novel experience. You could make use of that good solid British common sense, if you’re ever lucky enough to encounter some.’
‘Common sense? That’s no use to me.’
Well, I never thought it would be, but I had to make the effort. Four years earlier, Smith had taken advantage of a legal loophole to offer me the souls of the entire population of the United Kingdom in exchange for the political bagatelle that would kick-start his ascension. Obviously, I didn’t do a damned thing to help him achieve that – in my experience stupidity tends to take care of itself – but what humans always fail to realise is that the deal is meaningless, mere window-dressing. Sure, there’s a contract, but it’s the desire for that which completes the sale. Once you decide to do it, that’s it. You’re mine, permanently. Oh, I don’t own you, but that same subconscious desire for justice which created me dictates that sin must be punished. In other words, as is so often the case with you jumped-up apes, you do it to yourself. The same goes if you allow someone else to do commit heinous crimes on your behalf. And, Mr and Mrs British Voter, and all those encompassed by your votes, you have done it. It’s what happens when you accept a political system that makes you government property. With any luck your descendants will push for a formal constitution that makes government subservient to the will and needs of the people and which makes its institutions less important than the wellbeing of the masses. Frankly, I’m not optimistic about that either. I mean, have you seen the United States of America lately? There’s not much point in a constitution if you encourage some deranged fuckwit to defecate all over it simply because he tells you that all the stupid things you believe and fear are true, and that none of it is your fault, especially when it is.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘this virus is out of my hands. It’s a natural phenomenon. It must run its course, make people ill, take lives. It’s what viruses do. Human intervention can slow the spread, find palliatives and care for the sick, perhaps find a vaccine. All governments can do is make sure your doctors and nurses have everything they need, follow scientific advice, set clear guidance on how people can keep themselves and others safe, and ensure workable plans are in place to look after the old, the vulnerable and those left without money. Popularity should be the very least of your concerns. But if that’s what you want, just have a think about what will make you popular again.’
Smith frowned. ‘Well, we did the main thing we were elected to do. Other than that…’ He shrugged.
He really was hard work. ‘Well, what do the people want?’
‘Oh, that’s easy. They want the pubs open. They want to go to the beach in this nice weather. They want their children back at school. They want to be able to travel on crowded trains and buses again. They want to have parties and get drunk and have sex. Barbecues and shopping. Visiting their families and friends. Ordinary, safe stuff.’
‘Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they shouldn’t be doing when there’s a lethal and highly contagious virus doing the rounds.’
‘But it’s what people want.’ His face now bore that optimistic but slightly guilty expression that usually means he’s thinking. And suddenly I knew exactly what sort of plan was hatching within that unruly nest perched on the top of his head. A really stupid one.
‘You can’t,’ I said, horrified. ‘It’s too soon.’
He waved that away. ‘Poppycock and fiddlesticks. The British people know what’s best for them. Common sense, remember?’
He stared into space. I had ceased to exist for him. He saw only that approval rating, climbing and climbing. Another term in office. A reputation repaired. Posterity smiling upon his memory. Casualties irrelevant if he could only pull off the unthinkable and give people what they want. They’d love him for it of course they would. It was only common sense, right? Good solid British common sense. No doubt Smith meant the kind of common sense that in recent weeks had been the prerogative of politicians, government advisers, footballers, and other complete and utter fucking idiots who think they can get away with it. Common sense? Why, only yesterday fools were jumping off cliffs for a lark and burning down mobile phone masts because even bigger fools had told them the virus could be transmitted electronically.
But I digress yet again. Blame the lockdown. It’s been weeks since I had a decent face-to-face conversation. As I said, I like to set a good example. That’s why I introduced darts and snooker as torments – the space between the oche and the bishop’s arse or face is perfect for social distancing, as are the width and length of a snooker table – and insisted upon two-metre pitchforks and red-hot pokers. I’ve even been communicating with my hellish but frankly dull minions by Skype and Zoom. I had no idea so many of them had cats.
I sighed yet again and began the manifestation reversal process. Glowing sulphurous mist, dimming of ambient light, eerie silence, a vague suggestion of manic laughter. I’m not what you’d call a stickler for tradition but I know what works.
The hen clucked nervously but cheered up when I stroked her feathers. She and Johnson the cock would make a fine pair. I put Smith and his follies to the back of my mind and thought about eggs and their uses. ‘Tell me, Pandora,’ I said. ‘Have you ever seen Alien?’