A cautionary tale from John Griffiths
It was Hell. Or, to be a little more specific, it was Hell’s Reception Room looking, to Archie Banks’ jaundiced eye, like the kind of Job Centre to be found in any town. And as an actor who had seen better days he had experienced plenty of those in his time. The only difference was that every desk, and there must have been at least a hundred of them, was staffed by a female of outstanding beauty. Hell’s Belles, he muttered to himself, that’s more like it. He even felt his spirit rising at last.
In his time. That’s a point, he thought. What was he doing here at all? If he’d had to go anywhere, surely it would have been to the other place. He didn’t consider his life had justified being directed to wait here, and , anyway, hadn’t he been remarkably fit for his age? Wasn’t it only that morning he’d been playing golf, so pleased with his round that he had ignored all the signs of the gathering storm? Ah,…. the storm. The flash of lightning as he bent over his ball on the eleventh green studying the lie. He hadn’t seen the flash, of course, nor heard the crash of thunder immediately following it. Studying the put was the last thing he remembered before entering the door over which was the sign in big letters, HELL RECEPTION.
Seated on one of the uncomfortable chairs lining the walls, he had time to take stock. It was certainly basic. Whoever held the purse-strings here kept a pretty tight hold. But then, unlike his own business, there was obviously no problem attracting bums on seats here. It was crowded with every desk busy and all the chairs around him occupied. As an actor, (shouldn’t that now be ex-actor?) it was an interesting exercise in people watching though whether this would be helpful where he was going was yet to be determined.
He looked around at those waiting for their turn, people of all shapes and sizes, all nationalities, all age groups and was disappointed to find that there was not a single well-known face, no criminal celebrities, no dictators, serial killers or bankers that he might have read about recently. No, this crowd looked terribly ordinary and it was difficult to imagine that any one of them warranted being here. It cheered him he was, probably, the most celebrated figure in the room.
Gradually he became aware that the person sitting next to him, a bulky fellow with a shock of red hair, piercing blue eyes and heavily tattooed arms was similarly engaged. His gaze slowly came to rest on Archie, the pale blue eyes squinting as he struggled to focus at close range.
Archie saw a glimmer of recognition light up the other man’s face, the eyes opening wide as he stammered ‘Hey, w-w-wern’t you A-A-A….?’
‘Archie Banks’, Archie finished for him. ‘Yes. And, as far as I know, I still am…At least I was till this morning’.
Beaming now, his neighbour blurted out ‘I saw all your f-f-f-films and t-t-t-t-television shows. I thought you w-w-w-were f-f-fantastic’.
Archie began to warm to him a little. The man had a strong Australian accent as well as his pronounced stammer; he must have caught up with his television series when it was repeated over there some years ago. However the warmth quickly dissipated when the stranger went on to insist that he could have made it just as big as an entertainer if he had had the opportunity and tried to justify it with a string of awful jokes made infinitely worse by being unable to deliver the punch-line because of his affliction. He was totally unaware of his limitations throughout. Archie, meanwhile, groaned inwardly. Was this to be his form of punishment in Hell?
He was rescued, at last, by a summons to attend one of the Reception desks. Approaching, he noted that the young lady waiting for him was particularly attractive, the scarlet, figure hugging, tunic of her costume setting off her tumbling blonde locks to perfection. Perhaps this isn’t going to be as bad as I feared, thought Archie.
The young lady introduced herself as Samantha, and she was happy to be called Sam. Archie plugged into his memory bank and recalled all the many girls he had known who were happy to be called Sam.
Her expression becoming business-like, Sam concentrated on the computer screen before her. Archie, who had been studying her face with interest, was a little disconcerted to see a small frown appear to spoil her perfect features. Finally, she spoke.
‘There appears to be an unfortunate mistake’. Her voice, pleasant to the ear, but concerned. ‘According to the information I have , you shouldn’t be here at all’.
Archie’s spirit rose yet again. He knew he should have been sent to the other place, now perhaps they’d get it sorted. He relaxed.
‘No, according to my computer, you should have been directed to the VIP Lounge where we select appropriate, special punishments to fit particularly horrible crimes’.
His mouth opening and closing in horror like some gaffed pike, Archie could only gasp, ‘Come again?’
‘Yes, I have you down here for a gangland killing, the murder of a police-man during a bank raid, arson, tax-dodging and attacks on at least two of your wives. You have been busy’. She looked at him almost admiringly as she completed her role-call of misdemeanours.
Then the penny dropped. Archie leant forward quickly, his arm extended to catch her attention.
‘Whoa,,,, hold it there’, he cried. ‘Don’t you see? They’re all parts I played in films and on television. They weren’t for real. It’s my appearance, my face. It’s so pug- ugly I was type-cast. I couldn’t get any other parts. I didn’t do all those things. You’ve got to believe me, it’s a computer error. Can’t you check? The thought of what might happen in that VIP lounge had turned him to jelly, his voice a cry of terror. Hardly the hard-man he had played on screen. Heads were turning to look at him from all sides but he was past caring now as he pleaded his case.
Sam looked up at him from her screen, a feeling of un-certainty beginning to dawn, perhaps. She had seen similar pitiful begging from others sat opposite confronted with dreadful crimes; she was aware, of course, that he was an actor, but there seemed to be something convincing about him that made her hesitate, then decide to discuss it further with a supervisor.
Archie had to sit it out for what seemed to him another life-time, while Sam disappeared to seek out some hidden- away , all-powerful, authority at the heart of this hellish, unfeeling organisation. Was his future, if you could call it that, to be determined by a computer glitch?
With trepidation he watched her return, her expression offering no clue to the outcome of her consultation. Settling in her chair at last she simply glanced at him, then again at her computer screen.
‘You will no doubt be pleased to know that an error has been made’, still no relaxation of her features, ‘and the crimes you committed as an actor have now been deleted from your files’.
Archie controlled an urge to leap to his feet and cheer, but the relief on his face was un-mistakable
‘However, before you get carried away’, she went on, ‘you still have remaining on your files, your ill-treatment of your wives and the fact that you were regularly un-faithful to all of them’.
Instant implosion of euphoria. ‘But that was an occupational hazard in my line of work’, he blustered. ‘Women threw themselves at me, even with my looks. Really, it would have been unkind and un-gallant to reject them… and I had a reputation to maintain. It was almost a requirement’. Archie was beginning to feel most aggrieved that he was having to justify a role that had been expected of him, almost written into his contracts.
‘Never-the-less we have agreed that your punishment should be appropriate’, said Sam with finality, ‘and you should now leave by that exit’, nodding in the direction he should take.
Archie rose to his feet, at a loss for once, unable to think of anything further to say. Heading for the designated exit he wondered what on earth would be waiting for him beyond.
And then he awoke. In his own bed. Beside him lay his latest young wife , her face relaxed and beautiful in deep sleep. Had it all been a dream after all? His joy was heightened as he looked about him at the familiar details of the room. Ecstatically, he turned to his wife , threw his arms about her….and felt nothing. It was as if his arms vaporized as he touched her and she was totally unaware of his presence.
His terrible cry of despair was long, desperate — and utterly silent.
© John Griffiths 2017