Back To Normal?
'Weren't you close to that train wreck outside Bordeaux?' a work colleague asked on Robert's first day back. 'Thought you'd have marked yourself safe on Facebook if you were, so I suppose you were nowhere near. Just shows.'
Yes, it just shows. One minute you're looking ahead to retirement six years ahead, the next your life flashes before you. Or that's what he assumed. It all happened so quickly. He couldn't quite remember the noise, nor the smell of the brakes that everyone had talked about. Only the painful impact of his shoulder on a blunt corner and then his back on the floor.
'I suppose I could easily have been,' replied Robert vaguely.
'Thin line between life and death,' said his colleague absent-mindedly.
That's what troubled Robert. Exactly how thin was this line? At the moment of impact his body must have been launched in such a direction to cause him minimum harm. what was the chance? A random path that ended in life not injury or death. The child (he forgets already if it was a boy or girl) was only alive because he pulled them out to be amongst the first to receive attention.
'Back to normal then?'
'Yes,' replied Robert unconvincingly.
'What a story though, if you had been there. You'd have been the centre of attention for weeks. As it is I'll give you three days and I bet you'll be back to normal.'
But of course the memory hadn't gone, and it never would. Try as he might, it wasn't the images that were fused behind his eyes, but the road that lay ahead, stretching into the distance. It all looked very different now.
Frank Landow’s late. In the twenty two years since he’d started working at The Hermeson Bureau he’s always been sat at his desk at 09:00 prompt and even though he abhors what he does, he is too far embroiled in the bureau to quit.
His temperament is severely tested this morning when his company car, a moderately inexpensive Japanese Mazda, inexplicably overheats, a trait not normally associated with Japanese fan assisted motors vehicles. He believes the designers in Tokyo or Fukishima or wherever should experience a 41 degree New York heatwave one day and decides to check out Mazda designers when he gets to work.
The subway now is his only alternative, a mode of transport he detests. It isn’t so much the train but the people he'll have to travel with, those of low intellect, the sad commute of loud, coughing, whingeing plebeians, and the inevitable touching of strangers that a crowded compartment offers.
A group of Japanese tourists delays his wait for a couple of minutes longer at the ticket machine. They are probably Mazda workers. This may be a bad day for Japan.
The morning gets rapidly worse. He’s missed one train already when there's an announcement.
“Please evacuate the station. There’s no need to panic. Please use the stairs. Do not use the elevators. Please evacuate in an orderly manner. I repeat, there’s no need to panic.”
People panic. Frank watches the writhing throng head up the stairwell and calls work.
“Late you say? A breakdown? Mazda’s never break down. You’re where…the subway. Evacuation. You think it’s a bomb. Wait…no, there’s no bomb scheduled in that area for two years. Trust me, okay. Get here when you can!”
He switches off. He glances at the stairwell and thinks “Fuck it” and heads for the elevator.
It's still in operation so he enters and presses the “up” button. The doors close and it starts ascending, then with a shuddering jolt it stops. The lights flicker and in the darkness he swears, slamming his hand against the door. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. In the silence he hears the drip, drip, dripping of water. He moves his feet. A splosh. Looking down he sees he’s treading water.
“You signed the paper.”
Franks’ knees buckles at the sound and he twists back, slamming himself into a corner. The lights come on again exposing a crouched figure in the opposite corner. The figure wears a hoodie and sits squat in a foetal position. Water drips from its clothing.
“What the… who are…how did you get here?”
The figure raises its head and uncovers the hood. It’s a woman, her drenched face coloured ashen grey seems devoid of life, her hair limp and straggly sticks in emaciated strands to her face and her eyes although just opaque pools of darkness hides behind them a hellish whirlpool of circumstance.
“You signed the paper, you’re just as guilty as much as my killer is.”
Frank Landow’s face twists in fear.
“l…I don’t know what you’re talking about. I work in insurance, I do claims…”
“My name is Rose Wilson. Two days ago I was murdered. They haven’t found my body yet, it’s still in the Hudson. I’m dead.” She shuffles forward. “I didn’t believe there was an afterlife Mr Landow, but there is. You know that because you work for Hermeson. You work for the Deparlier section, the one that signs off the killing lists. The lists that end lives. You never read them, do you?”
Frank shakes his head.
“It’s just my job.” He mutters
“The Deparlier group’s part of the Four Horsemen, a secret, ethereal society that controls life, death, famine and war. Look, don’t let’s waste any more time. You know when you die you’re put in a big white room and told about everything there is to know. Angels, fate, heaven, everything and about Hermeson and the Four Horsemen. Everyone thought it’s quite cool. How these things really are so Twilight Zone. Look, I want you to get my papers rescinded, I want my murderer found before he kills again.”
“What! You know that’s impossible. How did you get out anyway? It breaks all the rules.”
“The Gate Keepers asked me about my life. I’m one of life’s losers. It was one lump of crap from start to finish. Abused, bullied, drugs, prostitution; then just as it seemed to be taking a turn for the better, I get raped and killed. I put it more eloquently there and gave one of them a blow job. Old habits, you know. There wasn’t a dry eye in heaven, so they gave me a redemption card, a last chance but only if my death can be rescinded. As I said, I’m a loser but I want to win, Frank. Just once. You don’t know what it’s like, do you? To be one of life’s losers? It’s like a faulty tap. Drip, drip dripping. Little thinks go against you, all day, every day. I accepted it in the end. I accepted that I am…was, one of life’s losers. That is until I found about the truth; about life and death and then I got angry and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be a winner. I wanted to know what it really felt like. I want my life back, Frank. A little bit of normal, you know, another chance.”
She stood close to Frank Landow’s face.
“Elation, Frank. To me, it’s just a word, like symbiotic. I have no idea what it means. I’d like the chance to find out. I want to be a winner, Frank. I want to win the Lottery, I want to marry Johnny Depp. I want…I really want normal and nice, Frank. Maybe I will, if you’ll give me that chance. I’m not asking you for a winning run of good fortune but just this once Frank, just once, I really want to win. I want my life back.”
“In all my years of working at Hermeson, I’ve never known anyone get…oh God, I hate my job I can’t do this anymore. The misery I’ve wrought. I’ll give it up….”
“No, please. Please Frank, at least not yet.”
The elevator restarts. Landow startled, looks up then back at the woman but she’d gone.
When he finally arrives in work he asks to see copies of the death files for two days ago.
“In case we have an audit,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to make a mistake.” Later that day he pulls out another file, postdates it two years ahead and signs that off too.
At four fifteen that afternoon Patrolman Ryan Wyzinski radios in to his precinct.
“The Wilson woman. I’ve found her, yeah, in the Hudson. Got caught up in a reed bank just off Fisherman’s Wharf. She must’ve been here while and she’s in a bad way but she’s alive.”
Two years later, as serial killer Rodney Anders sits in the electric chair, he looks at the gathered group that have come to witness the execution. Some are judiciary, some guards and there’s that fucking Wilson dame that fingered him. How had she survived?
He stares at the smiling man behind her, who’s waving a piece of paper. Who the fuck is he?
Being born, he remembered, was a difficult and messy business. Pain and discomfort had to be endured while being forced from a cosy, warm environment into a harsh, cold and noisy world. Eventually the birth was over. A teet was either placed in his mouth or he instinctively reached out for it. He sucked on it and fell asleep, not bothering to open his eyes. There would be plenty of time for that.
How long he stayed in that sleep-food state he did not know. But now there was work to be done. He opened his eyes. The light was too much. Images swam before him. He blinked a couple of times. At last, he had something to focus on. It was mainly white with some patches of black and brown. It seemed to move rhythmically, like a calm white pond. Good God, he thought, it’s a cat.
Before he could react the animal leaned forward and licked his face.
“Yuk, that’s disgusting. Get off me you minging old moggie.”
“That’s no way to talk to your mother, you ungrateful little stray,” said the cat. His jaw fell open.
“Oh my God. If you’re my mother then I must have come back as a cat.”
“Well done, genius.”
A quick inspection was all it needed to take in the four legs and a tail. He tentatively licked his front paw. It was like sandpaper on velvet. “There must be some mistake,” he said. “I should be in human form. Who’s in charge around here?”
“Get used to it, kid. It’s going to be a long time before you’re walking around on two legs and have opposable thumbs.”
“This is outrageous,” he hissed. “I am an important man with vital work to carry out. I must complete my mission.”
“You can’t do it as a kitten,” said the mother. “Listen kid, you obviously didn’t listen to the rules. They are quite simple. If you’ve been a bad ’un as a human then you get reincarnated as a cat, time and time again. Eventually you can return as a human but only when you are no longer a threat to society.”
“I see,” said the kitten. “Who were you before you became a cat?” The mother purred. “My name won’t mean anything to you but you’ll probably know me by my nickname. I was Jack the Ripper.”
“Wow. I’ve heard of you. Didn’t you kill five women in London?”
“Eleven, actually. There’s about five or six officially attributed to me but there were others, believe me. What about yourself?” The kitten’s chest swelled with pride.
“I was Adolf Hitler.”
“Never heard of you.”
“Never heard of me? I was the most dominant and feared world leader of the 20th century. There has never been a more powerful figure than me. I took over half of Europe and started a war which involved just about every nation on earth. How could you not know who I am?”
“Listen, kid. I spent the whole of the last century as various cats. I didn’t have access to newspapers and news reels. Come on, tell me more about this war.”
“Oh, where do I start? I invaded lots of countries like Austria, Poland, France, Italy, Russia and Belgium. I took it upon myself to wipe out the entire Jewish race. I didn’t quite do it but I killed six million of them. But that’s nothing compared with the Russians. I reckon about 20 million died because of me. There were millions of others if you include the Americans, Canadians, British and most of the rest of Europe.”
The mother sat up. “This isn’t fair. I’ve spent the past hundred and fifty years as a cat and all I did was kill less than a dozen women. But you wiped out half the world. You should have been a cockroach for a couple of thousand years first before working your way up to a cat.”
“Nonsense. I am from a superior race. You are just a common or garden psycho.”
“Ooh Mr Kettle, come and meet Mr Pot.”
“How dare you! I am Adolf Hitler and – ”
“Were, kid. You were.”
“Don’t keep calling me kid. You may address me as Mein Fuhrer.”
“No I won’t. I’ll call you Tibbles.”
“This is outrageous,” the kitten hissed.
“Get over yourself, you little runt.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“I’m sure you’ve been called worse.”
“I could have you shot for this.”
The mother laughed. “No one takes orders from a kitten. You are nothing but a ball of fur and therefore not in the least bit frightening. Get used to the feline life, son. Embrace it.”
“I just want things to go back to normal,” said the kitten.
“This is the new normal,” said the mother, her tone softening. “You are going to spend a lot of time in this form so give up the idea of world domination.”
She leaned forward and licked his ears.
“Why do I get all the nutters,” she sighed.
“What do you mean?”
“A couple of years ago I gave birth to someone like you. He said he was called Mussolini.”
“Benito! How is he?”
“Dead. I can’t remember if he was the one who got hit by a bus or ended up in a kebab shop.”
“Nasty. It ended badly for him as a human too.”
“Yes, he told me. Did you get shot and then strung up by an angry mob?”
The kitten sighed. “I killed myself.”
“We were under siege in Berlin. We had the Russians on one side, the Americans on the other. The war was lost. I got out.”
“Hang on, did I hear you right? You killed tens of millions of people and you still lost?”
“Don’t you start. There are – ”
A hand picked him up and bundled him into a sack. There was only a brick for company. He realised what was happening even before he was thrown into the air.
The cold water scared him and as he sunk to the bottom of the river he knew he would have to start the whole process over again.