“‘If only,’ ‘if only,’” the stranger interrupted, mimicking a whining child before resuming his usual gravelly tone, “Nearly everyone starts with ‘if only.’ I’m sick of hearing it!”
“Can I just get this off my chest, please?” Nigel asked. “After everything that’s happened, I think I’m entitled to rant for a bit!”
The stranger nodded a begrudging assent and Nigel continued, “If only the weather had lasted one more day. It had been perfect all week; dry, cool, light breeze. But come the actual day of the race and the sun comes out blazing like a prize-fighter out of retirement. ‘Someone up there doesn’t like me,’ I thought.”
The stranger snorted and smirked simultaneously.
“It had seemed inspired at the time, the idea of running a marathon for charity. Mind you, that was when I was sitting at a dinner table, full of wine, spouting off among friends. How was I to know the training would be so much easier than the actual race? It’s all very well jogging along in Lycra, but, let me tell you, foam rubber fashioned into the likeness of a rhinoceros is freaking heavy. And hot! You’ve never felt such heat - it was unbelievable!”
The stranger gave another knowing smirk but Nigel was on a roll, so he ignored it.
“It was okay at first, but come noon, I was sweating like a drugs mule going through the green channel...,”
“Yep, got a load of them in ‘ere ‘n all.”
“As I was saying, I knew it was gonna be hard but it was for such a good cause. The local playground was a disgrace. The other ones in town had shiny swings, hi-tech roundabouts, fancy new witch’s hats. And there’s ours with a climbing frame in the shape of a tank that’s been there since world war two! Anyway, it was awful. All those people cheering us along but all I could hear was my own breathing and the thump, thump, thump of the enormous arse...”
The stranger guffawed.
“Not mine! The rhino’s! I couldn’t see properly, blinkered by this stupid, tiny opening at the front, bumping up and down with every step.... Is something wrong?”
“No,” the stranger managed before bursting into laughter.
“Just what is it that you find so amusing?”
The stranger struggled to compose himself. He did not answer. Instead, he asked, “This good cause: why did you have to raise funds for it? Isn’t that the duty of some bureaucratic body or other? Isn’t that what you pay taxes for?”
“Haven’t you heard? We’re in times of austerity! The council said they’d match whatever we raised in the community so that we’d get top-quality playground equipment.”
“And you believed them?” There was a pause followed by a long “Hmmmm.”
“Well, why wouldn’t I?” Nigel asked, raising his voice.
“Nigel, Nigel, Nigel. Parish councils, county councils, borough councils, committees, quangos, governments: whatever you want to call them, all bureaucratic set-ups are where we do our best work! We love them, adore them. The more you set up, the happier we are. The opportunities there for us to entertain ourselves are endless: complacency, nepotism, idleness, arrogance, deceit, sleaze as well as everything from stationery-cupboard theft to outright fraud and corruption. They’re our playgrounds, if you will.”
Nigel met the fixed gaze of the stranger. A thought began to take shape that was so terrible he tried to shut it out but it remained, half-formed, lurking in a dark corner of his mind.
“Perhaps I was naive, but I took them at their word. Then, well, with all that heat... I felt terrible, but all I could think about was the kids and their faces when they saw the playground of their dreams.”
“Well, you survived and, credit where credit’s due, you were the driving force behind a record-breaking fund raiser. You can blow your own trumpet here.”
“Yes, yes,” Nigel nodded. “You’re right. Not deliberately, maybe, but I was the driving force. All because of my heart attack and all the publicity, we raised over a million pounds! You can’t imagine how happy everyone was. Then those bastards started backtracking, giving us a load of flannel about ‘budgetary constraints,’ ‘unforeseeable and exceptional circumstances,’ blah, blah, blah,” Nigel sniffed. “We were still chuffed to bits. They gave us the amount they reckoned they could reasonably have expected to fork out; a paltry amount in comparison to all those donations that had flooded in...”
“Humankind, so full of compassion,” said the stranger.
“Anyway, the site was shut for nine whole months. The kids missed their playground...”
“Bet the parents missed it more,” the stranger chipped in.
“But there was a lot of excitement. We were all expecting such great things. With all that money, I was sure we’d have the very best park in town, if not the whole county!”
Nigel avoided meeting the stranger’s gaze directly, but from the corner of his eye could see him pulling a face of mock-sympathy. He might as well have said “diddums,” but Nigel was past caring. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed. Tears and snot flowed freely. It was difficult to speak, but he was determined to finish his story.
“Come the day of the grand opening, I got down there early, camera at the ready and I... I couldn’t quite believe what I was looking at. No one could. There was the same old equipment - two swings, a slide and a springy donkey - albeit with a lick of paint - just moved around a bit. There were some new stepping stones but they led to a tiny sandpit that already had cat shit in it. The tank climbing frame was still there but with the long barrel removed - something to do with ‘European safety regulations.’”
“Ahh, yes. Gotta love the European parliament!”
Nigel shot the stranger a sideways glance.
“Sorry, Nigel,” he said without a trace of sincerity, “Do go on.”
“Everyone started to complain and ask exactly how the money had been spent. That slimeball councillor started going on about the consultants they’d paid thousands - no, tens of thousands - to tell us all we should be encouraging our children to use their imagination. I nearly went for him then, but I stopped myself. I only found out how conned we’d really been when I was out running again...”
“You learnt your lesson, then,” the stranger muttered.
“It was a half-marathon for the British Heart Foundation. I turned the corner at St Michael’s...,” Nigel ignored the stranger’s flinching. “And nearly ran into him as he stepped out the driver’s side of a brand-spanking-new Mercedes SLS; top-level spec - two hundred grand’s worth of car. Him! A spotty council employee, a civil servant, shitty rap music blaring out of his optional Bang & Olufsen sound system...,” Nigel realised he was shouting. The stranger was nodding.
“That would be enough to drive any man to... well...”
“I’d do it again,” Nigel growled. “If I had the chance.”
“Well, you’ll find him here somewhere, so feel free! In the meantime...”
“He’s here? You mean... I’m... This is, actually...”
“That thought’s fully formed now, is it, Nigel? You were never going to survive a second heart attack, I’m afraid. All that running, then jumping that guy...”
“I’m dead!” Nigel gulped. He looked around. He’d known all along, and yet it hadn’t seemed possible. “So you must be...?”
“I am Baalberith, Secretary of the Archives of Hell and Demon of Blasphemy and Murder at your service,” said the stranger, and he gave a deep bow.
“But why?” Nigel wailed.
“Oh, I am sorry, but only our top sinners get checked in by the Lord Satan Himself. You know, war criminals, serial killers, personal injury lawyers...“
“No! I meant, why am I here? When I did so much for all those good causes? It’s not fair!”
“Life’s not fair. Neither’s death. But, if you really need an explanation.... Let me see, it’s all in your file. Yep, quite a long list, my friend. I see you’ve done a bit of coveting - your neighbour’s car, his house. And his wife. Adultery with the aforementioned. Keeping the Sabbath holy? Epic fail there. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of beating a man to death. Although...”
“Strictly speaking, it was kind of an accident that the council guy died. But you were beating him to a pulp when you collapsed on top of him. No one knew he was there under that huge costume - he was a small, skinny chap, after all. So, he kinda, well, suffocated. But no matter how, killing’s a definite ‘no no’ as far as ‘er upstairs is concerned. Still, you never know, she might summon you and give you a chance to repent,” the demon spat the word, “Which is up to you. Not as easy as you might think. In the meantime, enjoy your stay with us.”
With that, the demon leaned casually on a small lever to his left, and the great wooden doors to Hell swung open.
Nigel stared ahead, then turned and looked at the demon who returned his gaze with a puzzled expression.
“Yeah, actually,” said Nigel. “Can I at least take this fucking rhino suit off first?”
Bio: H. T. Garton is a British author who lives in a small market town with spouse, kids and dog.