The Fourth Guy Upstairs

When Layla, trapped under a fallen bookcase, calls for divine help, the last person she expects to answer her call is the Fuck Up Fairy….. Warning: Bad Language, religious irreverence. 18+

It had NOT been Layla’s day. The hot water system had died a natural death during her shower, she’d been overcharged at Sainsbury’s for some very indifferent Bulgarian red, a trolley had added a new feature in the way of a creative dent in the rear panel of her car when she finally found it in the carpark (after almost dropping the two bottles she’d fought over), a traffic snarl made her fifteen minute journey home take 35, and that was all before 10am. Since then she’d learned the water system wouldn’t be fixed for at least three days, her boyfriend had left an ominous message on the answering machine that simply said, “We have to talk,” in a way that said he was about to dump her, the secretary of the CEO she was supposed to interview that afternoon (deadline for major business article: tomorrow) rang to say she’d got the dates mixed up and the CEO was currently en route to Rio de Janeiro and couldn’t be contacted, and a letter from the bank informed her politely she was overdrawn.
Layla fought the impulse to scream at the secretary, but instead persisted like a bulldog until she got the Rio hotel details out of the stammering woman. She had a feeling the telephone on the other end had turned, of its own accord, to ice. Great, now she could add a nice international phone call to the overdraft.
Carefully she put the phone down, resisting the impulse to hurl it through the window. Slowly she turned around, and harnessed all the pent up energy and anger she had.
“Aaaaaaarrrrghhhhh!!!!” Layla screamed, and aimed a kung fu kick at the loaded bookshelf.
Being a cheap, self-assembled loaded bookshelf, it seemed to take offence and wavered ominously before toppling forward.
Disbelieving, Layla watched like a rabbit trapped in headlights as six feet of printed material and electronic equipment cascaded onto her shoulders.
“Shiiiiiittttttt!!!!” Layla staggered under the weight, but couldn’t escape.  She was pushed to the floor in two reckless, whirlpool seconds.
Layla found herself trapped under vinyl-covered particleboard, several dozen heavy folders and even more books. As a final insult, the small television set with incorporated video player bounced twice on her buttocks and came to rest on her lower back.
Experimentally she wiggled her fingers and toes and thought she could feel all of them.
She wriggled her entire body but couldn’t escape.  There was an encouraging grating sound against her expensive leather jacket, but it came to nothing.
“Bugger!” Layla gasped, grabbing the carpet and trying unsuccessfully to drag herself forward.  “Oh, SHIT!”  For the first time ever, she was scared of living alone.
Awful visions of being found mummified several months later when the electricity people demanded to know why she hadn’t paid her bill or when her boyfriend finally decided to see if she was still alive invaded her mind. No! That was for losers!
She struggled harder, but the TV set seemed to settle down and make itself more uncomfortable on her spine, and the bookcase found a new and even more painful niche on her shoulders.
“Shit,” “Fuck,” “Bastard,” and “I’ll bloody put you on the woodheap!” didn’t shift the bookcase.
She found herself screaming, “God! If there’s a God, any God, for God’s sake, help me!”
Layla wasn’t a religious woman, not by any means. She regarded herself as cheerfully agnostic. She went to church on the occasional Christmas Eve because the carols were nice and once a year you could forgive small children for screaming in an echoing environment and being generally a bloody nuisance. Otherwise she picked up bargains at the church jumble sale, but always with a feeling that any second now she’d get struck by lightning for being a non-believer.
She was as much surprised by her heartfelt plea as the omniscient being who responded several seconds later.
Layla heard a muffled “whoosh!” and saw a dirty white robe appear in front of her.
“Thank heavens! How did you get in? Who are you? Can you shift this sodding bloody bookcase?”  She gave another wriggle to demonstrate how stuck she was.
“Er…”  A youngish face surrounded by wild brown hair and a faint but sad attempt to grow a moustache was suddenly level with hers.  “I..um…came in the usual way. For me.”
“Well, whatever. Look, give me a hand, can you? I’m trapped.”
“Um….I can’t. Not really.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
“Well, that’s it. You DID call, didn’t you? It WAS you?”
“What?”
“You called on God. I responded. Job description and all that.”
Layla shook her head and pinched herself hard enough to make a bright red mark on the back of her hand.  “Am I insane or are you telling me you’re God?”
“Well, I AM God. Er…A god. Anyway.”
“A god. A higher being. Eternal life and all that,” Layla prompted, wondering if she’d suffered a concussion from the bookcase.  Her untrapped right hand told her her head felt just fine and there weren’t any chicken egg lumps sprouting from it. A minor bruise, that’s all. Probably a result of a bouncing hefty paperback.
“That’s right,” he said encouragingly.  “But I can’t move the bookcase.”
“Look, if you’re a god, you can do anything. You can move the bookcase. And since my circulation seems to be dwindling, I’d rather you did it now.”
“I can’t. I can only change it into something else.”
Layla groaned. “Well, can you do that? Change it into thin air, for example? Make it disappear completely?”
“Haven’t had much luck with that, but I’ll try.”  He sat cross legged before her and Layla tried very hard not to look up the clouds of dirty white robe. Did gods wear underpants?  She’d rather not know. His face went into a concertina of concentration, and the almost-moustache quivered with the effort.  He looked less like a god than a scruffy student who studied Arts and smoked joints in between lectures.
She felt the weight on her back transform, and sighed with relief. Only to realise it had got more painful!
Layla twisted her head and discovered the bookcase had turned into a very large fishtank swarming with unnameable brightly coloured fish.  It started at her shoulder blades and finished at her knees.  Her glossy brown hair was trapped under the tank.
“This is NOT thin air!” she yelled.  “This is WORSE!”
“Thin air, water, they’re ….er….rather similar. Just different levels of oxygen,” her companion said encouragingly.
“Just DO it!” snarled Layla, trying unsuccessfully to pull her hair free.
The god screwed up in face in a vision of concentration.  Three seconds later the tank itself had disappeared and Layla lay in a pool of water surrounded by gasping fish.  Her television set had apparently turned into a ferret, which waded through the water with a disgusted expression on its face before shaking itself and starting to groom its coat.
Layla sighed. “Thank you. Whoever you are.”
“My pleasure. I think.”  He peered at her face and, satisfied, sat back on his haunches and watched her slowly pick herself up.
“Poor fish!” Layla said sadly, trying to scoop them up in her hands. They wriggled and flapped out again, determined to die a death on the carpet.
“Er, I think they’re your books actually.”
“My BOOKS!” Layla’s reference library had cost a bomb to get together.  “Can you change them back?”
“I was afraid you’d ask that.”  The look of concentration returned and as Layla watched the fish turned back into books – the complete set, in hardback, of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.
“I give up,” Layla sighed. “The insurance people will never believe this. I’ll have to say they were stolen.”
“They ARE books,” her companion pointed out.  “For me, that’s a raving success. I must be improving.” He grinned delightedly.
Layla wrung the ends of her hair out and slumped into her office chair. “What kind of god ARE you, anyway?  I mean, there’s just God, isn’t there? You’re surely not – He?”  Was this what people prayed to? A higher being who, by his own admission, couldn’t get anything right?  Well, it certainly explained a lot about the world and human nature, Layla thought wryly.
“Um, no. That’s a long story.  I’ll start with higher beings in general.  Now you lot down here think we created the earth and everything in it, don’t you?”
“Not personally,” Layla assured him. “I’m a big bang followed by evolution girl myself. In fact I’m even contemplating the idea that I’m unconscious under the bookshelf right now and having a nightmare.”
“Hmmph! Well, anyway. You’re right about the big bang and evolution. YOU created US. We didn’t create you.  You wanted an answer to why you were here and blamed it on a higher being, which wasn’t the case at all. But we’re talking Bronze Age here; you try and explain evolution to Bronze Agers. Let alone the concept of the universe being 20 billion years old to people who count on their fingers. Anyway, the communal belief throughout humankind of higher beings was so strong that in fact, we came to life. We started to exist. The power of belief and thought and all that. Quite incredible, really. People wanted to believe in something, they wanted to know how and why they came to exist. So they believed in us.”
Layla retained enough journalist wit to realise she was either on the scoop of a lifetime or had a great story for News of the World. She surreptitiously turned on her tape recorder.  “Go on. So you know God, do you? And Jesus? And who are you and where do you fit in?” She raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“Ah, me. Yes. I’m only fairly new at the game – as you’ve noticed. God in training you might say. Fulfilling a reasonably recent requirement that appears to have come up. My name is….er…. Dork.”
“Dork!? You’re named after a whale’s penis?” Layla started to giggle. “It does suit you though.  Do you have a pair of spectacles held together with plaster as well?”
“I’ll put that bookcase back on your back in a minute,” Dork threatened.
This was a horrible contemplation. It mightn’t be the bookcase. It might be the entire house.  Layla bit the insides of her mouth and tried to look serious.  A god called Dork!  “Nobody I’ve ever heard of prays to Dork,” she said gently.
“Well, they sort of do. They invoke me under another name, quite an insulting one, really.”  Dork looked down and picked at his toenails, which were remarkably dirty, Layla realised. He mumbled something.
“What was that?” said Layla.
“They call me the Fuck Up Fairy,” Dork said defiantly, glaring at her with his mini-moustache quivering.
This time Layla howled.  She laughed till tears ran from her eyes and her ribcage ached. It took three tissues to mop her face.  “Of all the….Oh God, I mean Oh Dork!  Just when I need help, the bloody Fuck Up Fairy comes along!”
“I’ll go, then,” Dork said huffily, wrapping his robes around him in a theatrical way.
“No, don’t,” Layla begged.  “I won’t laugh, honest, I won’t. This is very interesting. Cup of coffee? Or something stronger?”
“Coffee’s a no-no for me,” Dork said. “Every time I get involved in a coffee incident I either burn myself or stain my robe. The last time I had a coffee burn I got so flustered I caused a forest fire that destroyed half of western Canada.”
Wordlessly Layla poured out two measures of scotch and downed her own in a fiery gulp.
Dork sipped at his and spluttered.  “What on earth is this?”
“Scotch. Gets you drunk. In your case it might even be an improvement. You might relax more. So you’re the Fuck Up Fairy. Have you been hanging around all day? I’ve had a real crap day so far.”
“Well, yes. I’m on duty at the moment,” Dork said rather proudly. “The world is my oyster, as you lot say. Quite why you want to live under the sea in a shell when you could have a nice place like this is beyond me, but that’s humans for you.”
“You’re – on duty? You mean you lot have a roster? God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and you? Are there any more?”
“Nope, just us. At the moment, just me.  Perhaps even for the foreseeable future, just me.”
“The – foreseeable future? What do you mean?” Layla nudged the tape recorder closer.  “Are the others on holiday or something? Do you take holidays? What do you do all day?”
“So many questions!  In a nutshell, the others have buggered off. They’ve had enough.”
Layla sat with her mouth open.  She mentally categorised this as News of the World. It was getting all too bizarre. Any minute now this charlatan would tie her up and rob her of any valuable – or turn it into blancmange or something.
The ferret had finished wandering the room and nipped Layla hungrily on the ankle. She yelped.  “Sod off! No, not you, Dork. The ferret. My television, I think. So where’s God then?”
Dork took another sip of his scotch. “This isn’t too bad, you know. Ah, yes, the Boss. Nervous breakdown, really. Poor bugger, spent the last thousand years spreading Himself too thin.  Called on by billions all over the world. AND in different time zones, too.  America almost drove Him insane with all the different ones over there. For the last few years He’s managed to avoid the Bible Belt completely; it was doing His head in. He’s been cursing ever putting His name to the Bible, I can tell you! Caused no bloody end of trouble, that has, with all its inaccuracies. ‘Last time I ever do a product endorsement,’ was how He put it to me. Serves Him right for not proof reading it, really.”
Layla absently refilled her glass. “So what happened?” she asked.
“Well, it was a Sunday. They’re the worst days of the week for us, I’m sure you can relate to that. Deadlines everywhere, prayers to be monitored and collated, action lists drawn up, the odd prank pulled like a crying statue or something. God said He was taking a few hours off and wandering around Earth for a bit. He does that from time to time. Usually on a Tuesday or something though when it’s a bit quieter.
“So He goes and sits in a pub and listens to the local vicar grouching to the publican about opening on Sundays. It’s all too bloody petty, He thinks, so what if the pubs open, it’s a new millennium, and orders a pint. Publican and vicar don’t know what to make of this bloke in a robe but think He’s off to a costume party. After three black ales He’s feeling pretty relaxed and like everyone around Him enjoying a peaceful Sunday afternoon.  For once, He can forget being an omnipotent being. He can forget the stress of running the universe.
“A bunch of people come in and He gets chatting to them. He’s on His fifth pint by then. They’re not big drinkers – they’re Buddhists – but unlike most people He comes in contact with or has to answer prayers from, they’re happy. I mean happy. How many people are happy these days? Even God isn’t happy. He’s thinking there’s got to be more to life than this, although the pints are doing a pretty good job. For a bloke who lives in Heaven, He’s pretty miserable.
“Two hours later He’s back in Heaven, handing in his resignation. Had enough, He said, and going to join the Buddhists and find Nirvana, so He can be happy too.”
“But…but,” said Layla, “I didn’t think Buddhists believed in God!”
“They don’t,” said Dork.  “And believe me, that’s taken all the pressure off Him. We got a postcard the other week. He’s really getting into meditation and reckons He has a much clearer view of the universe and how it all works.  ‘Wish I’d known this when I was putting my initial Word out’, the postcard said. Can I have another of these scotches?” Dork held out his glass.
Layla splashed some scotch into it. “So what will happen now? Without God in Heaven?”
“The whole Soul Office is a bit of a mess,” Dork admitted. “Without the Boss there the angels have taken matters into their own hands. Ditched the white robes and the harps, are wearing jeans and learning Lennon and McCartney songs on electric guitar. Makes the whole place a lot more cheerful. If the Boss comes back there’ll be Hell to pay – so to speak.” Dork grinned.  “It’s had a real domino effect on the whole organisation, actually. Speaking of Hell, we did have a concern that Satan would try for promotion and get the Board to appoint him to Chairman. But actually, no. He’s made a fortune out of buying souls and has decided to pack it in too and do what he really wants. I mean, without The Boss the competition’s gone out of the whole job. There’s no challenge. Given my capabilities and monumental stuffups, I’m doing half of Satan’s job anyway without intending to! Satan’s heart just isn’t in it, and to be honest I think he’s a bit jealous of the Boss getting so happy. So he’s come to Earth and is starting up a TV chat show, Jerry Springer style. He’s got the perfect personality for it. And being Satan it’ll have a bit of a gimmick factor, too. People will be queueing to get on there and blame their ex for having it off with the dog.”
Dork sipped at his scotch. “Jesus is the really interesting one, though.”
“And what’s Jesus doing?” Layla said, trying to sound serious although she had the feeling her leg was being thoroughly pulled.
“Firstly, consider this. He’s been hanging around for 2000 years.  He’s used to reverence – Jesus our dear Lord and all that. People prostrating themselves, praying for hours on end, the whole caboodle.  Then the 20th century hits, along with Jesus H. Christ, Jesus Bloody Christ, Jeez, Christ On A Bicycle and a whole bunch of other names, none of them particularly complimentary.  The guy can cope with blasphemy, don’t get me wrong.  But he’s sick to death of the sound of his name. He’s been muttering for the last few hundred years apparently that he wished he’d been called Fred or something instead.
“Seeing his Dad toss the towel in left him with two options. Either run the show as best he can, or say, ‘Right, that’s it, time to move on.’”
“Don’t tell me, he’s moved on.”
“Got it. He changed his name to Norbert Sidebottom – I can’t really imagine anyone praying to THAT, can you? – and snuck back to Earth. No massive Second Coming, no Armageddon, although Jesus did say, last thing when he left, ‘Armageddon outta here!’ I bet he’d been planning THAT line for centuries!”  Dork shook his head fondly at the memory.
“And Jesus is now doing – what?”
“He’s starting up a used car yard near Woking. Sidebottom Motors. ‘Divine cars at heavenly prices’.  Lots of Jaguars, Rollers, Porsches, Ferraris. Drives a 911 cabrio Himself, actually. He’s really cut loose since he left The Business.”
“So who’s in charge then? The Holy Spirit?”
“Who, Frank?! Give over! How do you think the angels got out of control? No, he’s retired.  Has a place on the outskirts of Heaven and is fulfilling a lifetime ambition of being a home brewer. Doing a bit of a roaring trade actually with the locals. Brews a wicked ale and he’s just got the hang of the new still. He’s making a potent liquor from ambrosia called The Holy Spirit.  Has a running joke every time he drinks it that he’s full of The Holy Spirit.”
“So that leaves – you,” Layla said slowly. “Dork, The Fuck Up Fairy, is in charge of the universe.”
“Well, yes,” Dork said modestly, dusting a spiderweb off his robe. “The bugger of it is, I’m only half taught. The Boss took me on as an apprentice when Frank decided to retire. Now He’s gone I have to rely on His books, which are so deep and heavy I can’t understand them, and my ability, which, as you can see, isn’t the greatest.  But it’s a sign of the times, isn’t it?  A growing belief that there’s Someone Up There who fucks things up.  I have a feeling it’s karma. That I was MEANT to take the job.”
He paused, and his face screwed up. “Oh, bugger!”
“What?”  Layla looked around in case her fridge or something had turned into a giant tarantula.  Thankfully it was still there; the ferret was pawing at its door.
“I shouldn’t speak and do God-stuff at the same time,” Dork groaned.  “I was trying to fix up a situation in Chile and I think I’ve caused an earthquake!”  He sighed. “This is getting worse and worse.  If I leave and become a disc jockey or something, do you think people would notice?”
“Um….possibly no. For example, how many people get their prayers answered anyway, in the big scheme of things?”
“Very few, really. In fact for the last few years, zero,” Dork conceded. “And nine times out of ten the situation remedies itself without our help, and we get all the credit. Nice, that!”
“Well, um, thanks for answering mine, then,” Layla said. “Do I have to become a believer now?”
“I wouldn’t. Not with ME in charge!” Dork chuckled. “And I won’t take offence if you don’t.  No one-way trip to Hell or anything. Or I won’t charge you Sin Tax even  though you’re a journalist. Sin Tax. Syntax? Geddit?” Dork howled at his own wit and then cleared his throat. “We’re a pretty magnanimous lot, what’s left of us. Seriously, though, I felt sorry for you. I’d been watching you all day, as you probably gathered. I’d picked you as a random subject to try and do something nice for you. Something I could get right as a practice run, if you like. But it all got stuffed up. I’m just thankful I didn’t try and provide a meteorological condition that would make that bloke’s ‘plane turn around so you could interview him. THAT could have been nasty!”
Layla reflected on this last comment. Not a pleasant thought.  “How many accidents have you caused, do you think, trying to do the right thing?”
Dork groaned. “Countless. Absolutely countless. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m really in the wrong job. I should have joined the Underworld instead, I seem to be a natural at it. I only applied for the job because being an angel was desperately boring back in the days of white robes and I couldn’t play the harp worth shit. At least you lot, after all your years of worshipping, seem to be fairly forgiving though. To err is divine, to forgive is human, as we say in the Office. Or I say, anyway.  Perhaps, when I think about it, the job’s grown into me rather me growing into the job.”
“So if you, as the remaining omniscient higher being, vanished, gave it all up, shut up shop, how long do you think it would be before people noticed?” Layla wondered.
“They might never notice,” Dork admitted. “Until they die. And even then we’d probably keep the Afterlife program going, it seems to run quite well without too many hitches. Don’t know who’d do the Judgement though if we keep that part of the program on. Possibly St Peter, I would think he’s got enough job knowledge to take on the extra responsibility. He’s been in charge of Afterlife long enough.”
“The Heaven and Hell thing. How does that work now God’s not about? Or Satan?”
“Well we’ve made a few changes recently with the resignation of the Directors.  Moved Hell upstairs next to Heaven to save on maintenance costs. The only real difference is that in Hell you don’t get a decent view from the windows. We also provide the odd bit of torture, which people seem to expect, but it’s nothing like the old days. Oh, no! The reformation back in the 1960s after the whole free love episode and subsequent Pearly Gates rebellion (now there’s a story!) saw to that anyway, and I think Satan was only looking for an excuse to leave. Let’s say you hate Michael Bolton music. Well in Hell you get to listen to that – and only that – for the rest of your existence.  Or if your husband or wife nagged you and you couldn’t stand it.  Eternal nagging for you, my friend.  And if you killed your husband or wife because of said nagging, you get to watch them enjoying themselves in Heaven via closed circuit soulwave. Bad enough in its own way. The Hell Fires were painful, but this can drive you seriously insane!” Dork grinned.
“But ultimately, the whole facility is a soul-recycling holding pen,” he continued. “Until we came along dead souls just drifted around aimlessly in the fourth dimension waiting to be reborn.  Here we can expedite the process. A bit of hanging about in Purgatory, but it’s not too bad now we’ve improved the check-in process and replaced the cleansing fires with some of Frank’s cleansing ale. Rehabilitate the souls in Hell – and believe me, after 20 years or more of Michael Bolton, you’ll be begging to be reborn and promising to be good! – and really whip the Heaven-bound souls around in next to no time.  Chance to say hi to the family – whoever’s left up there and hasn’t been recycled yet – then presto! Back to Earth for another crack at it!  Given the way the population’s been exploding turnaround is pretty quick. So yeah, Afterlife is in good hands. If St. Peter chucks it in too there’ll be chaos for a bit, but eventually it’ll work itself out. It did before we came on the scene.”
Layla surreptitiously changed the tape in her recorder while Dork closed his eyes and had a strained expression on his face. The expression, Layla thought, was ominous. Like there’d be something she’d be seeing on telly tonight in the ‘world disasters’ section of the news. If only her telly hadn’t turned into a ferret.
“So how long do you think belief in the whole Heaven, Hell, God, Jesus, Christian thing will last?” Layla probed gently.  “And what will happen if belief finally ceases? What will happen to all of you in the …er…Soul Office? Will you just vanish and cease to exist?”
“Well, we’re unsure of that at the moment. Oh, shit!  Triple shit! Shit on a stick!” Dork gasped.  “I’ve done it this time! I’ve really stuffed up!  Gotta go!  Nice chatting, Layla, and be careful of your front door!”  With a sucking sound, as if the atmosphere had taken a deep breath, Dork vanished.
“Well!” said Layla. “Well! I’ll be buggered!”  She clicked off her tape recorder and sat back in her office chair with a sigh, closing her eyes. She leaned backwards until her hair almost touched the ground, and yelped when the ferret tugged it.
“As for you,” she growled, grabbing the ferret, “You’d better behave, mate! First thing I do is buy you a cage.”
The ferret chattered and chattered at her until she took it into the kitchen and fed it a mixed platter of whatever she could find in the fridge. It ate greedily until there was a knock at her front door and then it scurried, growling, into a corner.
“Laaaaylaaaaaa!”
Layla jumped. Her boyfriend. Of the ominous phone message. That was ALL she needed today.  A damned good dumping, a trip back to Singleton City.
She took a deep breath and walked into the hall, hearing, at the same time, Don’s key turning in the lock. She’d have to get the spare key back.
She reached for the handle but the door swung inwards quickly as if Don had his entire weight behind it, and thumped her straight on the nose.  She saw stars, lots of little ones in pretty colours.
“Owwwww!!!!!” howled Layla, in turn thumping back against the wall and hitting her head for the second time.  “Oowww!!  Oh shit!!!”
She opened her eyes to find a gigantic bunch of flowers filling her vision. It was the biggest bouquet she’d ever seen. Don must have bought up the entire florist. “Sorry, love,” came a muffled voice from behind the bouquet.  “Tripped on my way in. Couldn’t see with this lot in front of me.  I sent you an email earlier today but this is to say ignore it.  I’m sorry. It was a shit thing to say, what I said in the email. Layla? Layla? Are you OK? Sweetie?”
Layla hardly dared breathe. There was something…something in the bouquet…tickling her nose, her very, very sore nose.  She held her breath…then let fly with a massive sneeze that covered 15 roses, 25 gerberas, nine orchids, another six unidentifiable species of flora and her favourite pair of jeans in bright red blood.
The flowers vanished to be replaced by a concerned Don, who yelped when he saw her swollen nose and bloody face.  “Darling, I’m so sorry!” He put his arms around her and nestled her to his shoulder. She winced when he stroked her hair and encountered the twin lumps on the back of her head.
“Bloody hell, what happened with the bookcase?”  Don looked over Layla to the wreck of the living room. “Did you get burgled?”
“It fell over,” Layla mumbled.  “Landed on top of me.”
“And now I’ve hit you in the face with your own front door. Christ, you really HAVE had a visit from the Fuck Up Fairy today, haven’t you?”
“You don’t know how right you are,” Layla mumbled.
*    *   *
Even News of the World wouldn’t touch it. National Enquirer politely sent a reply saying it was even too unbelievable for them, but if she had a photo of Dork flying off in a UFO they’d possible consider it as they had a giant UFO feature planned for next month.
Despite citing evidence such as the Chilean earthquake and the subsequent mysterious message that was subsequently carved into the Chilean mountains in 200 foot high letters (“I’m sorry – Dork”), Layla’s article was news poison.  The reason Dork had left her in such a hurry – the mysterious disappearance into the sea of an entire Polynesian island, the inhabitants of which had been praying for a bumper sea crop for their fisherman – wasn’t good enough either. It was proven that an undersea earthquake had done the damage.
She’d driven to Woking and found Sidebottom Motors but the yard was shut and only half stocked. It was, after all, Sunday.  And perhaps Norbert Sidebottom hadn’t got his act quite together yet re the motor trade. She vowed to go back when she’d completed some of the assignments she was actually getting paid for.
Layla gritted her teeth and put together her own website on the dissolution of The Soul Office in her almost non-existent spare time. Her workload had trebled recently as a result of the CEO interview, which had led Layla to do deeper probing on the story and come up with some goods that had the potential to bring down a government. Suddenly her life – and earnings – was in a major upswing. Don thought the Dork story a huge joke and sat with Telly the ferret on his knee as Layla read out some of the abusive email and eternal damnation threats from Christians she got via her website. He didn’t believe the story about the television turning into a ferret but stated that Layla must have been burgled while she lay unconscious under the bookcase, and that Telly was a stray who’d adopted her.
After a while the flood of hatemail died down and Layla, caught up in real assignments, had almost relegated the Dork story to the back of her mind. She was even beginning to doubt it had all happened herself when, six months later, she glanced at the TV guide and noticed a new starter in the awfulness of daytime television: “The Devil Made Me Do It”.  The blurb about it said, “New chat show from America starring controversial host ‘Satan’ who encourages people to perform evil deeds or reveal evil deeds they have already done.”
Excited, she switched on her new, widescreen TV. The show had just started.  The screen filled with a face that didn’t look overly demonic, but more the kind of character who peddled drugs in seedy nightclubs.  Apart from the very pointed ears that sat against slicked back blue-black hair (which perhaps was styled to cover the plastic surgery scars from the horn removal), ‘Satan’ had winged black eyebrows over very hard, pale silvery blue eyes that were almost white, and thin, non-existent lips. Despite the makeup Layla could see a five o’clock shadow where Satan had once had a beard, but obviously the TV spin doctors had suggested he get rid of it. “And what’s YOUR story, Melissa?” said he in a voice of molten honey, an enticing voice that could obviously spellbind its audience.  Layla saw something twitch behind Satan as the camera panned out and wondered if it was, in fact, a tail.
“Oh, Satan, yuh jist wouldn’t buh-lieve it,” gushed Melissa, who was so fat she could barely squeeze into the guest chair.  “Last night, I sat on my mother-in-law, and smothered her.  That’s right, smothered her to smithereens. With my own ASS!” She patted her ample behind.
The studio audience went wild, screaming and cheering. Satan smiled a thin smile that didn’t show any teeth, pointed or otherwise. Layla would bet he’d had them capped anyway. It was then that Layla noticed Melissa’s other hand was handcuffed to a police officer who stood behind her.  “Miz Jones, court hearing’s on soon, you’ll have to wrap it up,” the officer said.
Layla shook her head in incredulity at the American public and reached for the remote. Had she really been visited by Dork? And was he right?  She thought so. As she hit the OFF button, the screen filled again with Satan’s face, and his left eye winked. Right at her.
She decided that perhaps it was time to go looking for a new car. She rather fancied a test drive in a Porsche, it would go with her new image of cutting edge investigative journalist. She just hoped her old Sierra would make it to Woking.
Cheerful bunting flapped in the pleasant breeze as she pulled up in front of Sidebottom Motors with the Sierra making an ominous rattle.  “Divine cars at heavenly prices” flashed on and off in white lights politely at the back of the yard, behind dream machines that promised low miles and one owner.
There was nobody about. Layla wandered through the Jaguars, Rollers, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, BMWs and Porsches. Should she try the 911 or go a bit cheaper and have a ride in a Bimmer Z3?
“You’re definitely a Z3 girl,” said a voice behind her.
Layla spun around to find herself facing a typical used car salesman in his mid thirties. He wore a grey suit that didn’t quite fit perfectly coupled with a garish tie. His rather overlong dark hair was brushed behind his ears, and he grinned from behind a neat beard. If Jesus was, in fact, a twenty first century used car salesman, this was precisely what she’d expect him to look like. “Norbert Sidebottom at your service. Welcome to Sidebottom Motors.” He even sounded a bit like your average Essex boy made good.
Layla shook the proffered hand and felt a slight tingle. You’re imagining things, she told herself.
“Layla Fenchurch.  How did you know I was thinking about a Z3?”
“Oh, I can tell what a customer wants the instant they walk in the yard,” said Norbert airily.  “It’s a talent of mine. I can also tell you’re just tyre-kicking and have no intention of buying, but that’s OK too.  Everyone’s welcome to have a look.”
Norbert escorted Layla to the back of the yard, where a blue Z3 sat cheekily close to the ground beside the workshop.
A series of muffled bangs emanated from the workshop, and a less muffled “Jesus Fucking Christ!” followed.
Norbert noticeably winced. “I mustn’t mind,” he muttered, “I’m Norbert Sidebottom. Norbert.”  He leaned into the workshop. “Must you say that?”  he yelled.
“Sorry, boss,” came the reply from under a Mercedes Kompressor convertible. “But the ‘fuck’ is okay, isn’t it?”
“’Fuck’ away,” replied Norbert cheerfully. “Just don’t say the other.” He turned back to Layla. “Right. Sorry about that. Can’t stop mechanics swearing but there’s a limit to what I’ll take.”
“So do you enjoy running a car yard, Norbert?” Layla asked idly, caressing the Z3’s curving bonnet.
“Best career move I ever made,” he replied cheerfully.  “I get the odd customer who wants to crucify me when a car comes back with warranty problems, but I’m used to that. Look, take it for a spin. And if you ARE interested, we might be able to do a deal for cash.”  He winked at her, a car dealer’s wink that said the advertised price was too high anyway but he’d knock it down to something realistic.
Thirty minutes later Layla’s head was spinning.  She was frantically trying to work out how she afford to insure the wretched thing if she bought it. Which of course she wouldn’t.
She shoehorned herself out of the car and swaggered like a film star into Norbert’s office, which was a caravan at the side of the yard. He was on the phone, reclining back with his feet on the desk.
“Yeah, mate. Yeah, mate.  How many miles on it? How many miles would you like to see on it? Hah hah!”
Layla diplomatically turned away.  Pinned to the corkboard were a dozen or more postcards, and she couldn’t help but read a few of them.
“Now I understand the Four Noble Truths. Blindingly obvious. This is brilliant. Not coming home. Ever. Love, Dad.”
“Why didn’t I think of the Eightfold Path? Better than the Ten Commandments! Love Dad”
“I hear Dork stuffed up again. Chile and Polynesia in one day. If you see him, tell him to leave. He’s fired. Love, Dad.” There was no date.  In contrast to the elegant script on the other postcards, this was in heavy capitals in thick black pen. It meant business.
This last one riveted Layla to the spot.  Fired? Then…..then the universe was running without any God. Even the Fuck Up Fairy. She thought carefully, putting the Z3 to one side. How many disasters had there been lately in the news?  Not many. Not as many as there used to be. Her computer wasn’t crashing as often. There were less pileups on the motorways. No country had declared war on another for oh, at least four months.
“Yeah, mate. Yeah. Look, I’ve gotta go. Got a lady here who’s v-e-r-y interested in that little Bimmer. Suits her to a T. Cheers.”  Norbert hung up and swung his feet off the desk.
“Nobody will believe you if you tell them,” he said idly, fingering the last postcard. “In fact, they won’t WANT to believe – they’d much rather we were still running Heaven as usual. They’ll just think you’re another crank with a contentious website. God at a Buddhist retreat, Jesus running a car yard, Satan on a chat show (although that’s all too believable), the Holy Spirit getting full of The Holy Spirit each night and the world left in the hands of the Fuck Up Fairy who now, incidentally, works in a nightclub.”
“He did say he wanted to be a DJ,” Layla replied, wondering if she was really having this conversation. It was about as unreal as her signing the papers and driving off in that Bimmer.
“Oh, he’s not a DJ,” Norbert assured her.  “He lasted a night. Stuffed the beat up so much fifteen dancers got whiplash and sued the club. No, he’s the cleaner. Keeps saying he wants another bash at the job in the Soul Office, but really, the whole place is running better without him there. Or any of us, honestly.”
“But what will you tell all your followers? This will destroy them!” Layla protested. “Millions of people going to church each week believing you’re up in Heaven and that they’ll go there too!  They’re going to church under false pretences! To say nothing of the collection plate!”
“Do you think they’ll ever know?” said Norbert. “Name me one person who’s come back from the dead since….er…me, and said what happens when you die. What heaven is like. Really truly. What I look like. What God looks like. What St Peter wears under his kilt. Or whatever. What happens to your soul. Excluding the National Enquirer, that is. People get as far as seeing a white light in near death experiences, but they can’t tell you any more. That’s life. They’ll eventually work it out for themselves regarding the Trinity, anyway. Science is well down the path to that, so really, it was time for us to get out and let you lot get on with discovering the truth about the universe instead of attributing it all to higher beings. I feel a bit bad about it but I’ve got a new business to run now. Speaking of which, are you on for the Bimmer? Can give you an almighty part exchange on that crappy Sierra, which incidentally is going to suffer major irreparable engine failure on the way home.” He grinned and winked. “Trust me.”
*   *   *
Unlike the Sierra, the Z3 had a radio that actually worked.  During her dream run home on the motorway, Layla heard a news report that nearly had her up the back of the Golf GTI in front.
“And finally in London today, a nightclub has burned to the ground and taken the surrounding buildings with it. The fire has been attributed to an accident caused by the cleaner, who claimed he was trying to move the furniture by supernatural means to clean underneath it.”  Layla wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard a snigger in the newsreader’s voice.  “The cleaner responsible, who gave his name as Dork de Souloffice, cannot be found. Police are searching for him and there is some concern for his sanity. Anyone encountering the man is warned to use extreme caution.”
Layla changed down a gear and swept past the Golf.
The world was going to be just fine.
The end
© Copyright Caroline Sully 2003
Reproduction without the author’s permission strictly prohibited

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