The Universe is very old. Much older than that old guy at the pub who has occupied the same corner of the bar longer than anyone can remember. Older still than the pub itself, and even older than the textile factory built on the site before it was repurposed as a place where people drink too much and tell each other entertaining lies. It is even older than Redhead Harry, the ghost that haunted the textile factory and, more recently, haunts the aforementioned pub. This is no mean feat, because reports of Redhead Harry date back at least to the time that the once factory, now pub, was a field full of cows. That’s actually quite a long time ago, but not nearly as long ago as the beginning of the universe. Current scientific understanding tells us that the Universe came into existence approximately 13.8 billion years ago. This will be important later.
What is important at present, is the pub itself. After a few false starts, and a suspicious fire, it now goes by the name of Red Harry’s Arms. For a brief time it had been called the The Arms of Redhead Harry, but that had been considered too wordy, and was hard to fit on the signage that hangs – on chains that rattle – over the door. Not because the proprietor couldn’t get a sign that was big enough, but because he didn’t want to spend money on one large enough for the name to be read at a distance. For this, and other reasons, the publican is known by regulars as ‘Cheap-Arse Logan’. Cheap-Arse Logan is currently a very happy man.
Cheap-Arse Logan, or Cal as he is more commonly referred to when someone needs to order a drink, is not the only happy person in Red Harry’s Arms this particular evening. To be fair, all in attendance are more or less happy for the same reason, but Cal’s joy has more to do with the inordinate amount of money that this reason is bringing over the bar. For, on this particular night, Red Harry’s Arms is the venue for a funeral ‘after party’. This has meant that the place is packed wall-to-wall with patrons; an unusual circumstance for a Tuesday. All of these patrons are in the throes of a very serious thirst; one born of an equally serious joy, and excessively salty bar snacks. You see today, the villagers of Cowston Field buried one of its most annoying residents: one Finley Jansen Guildersand.
It was not that the late F. J. Guildersand was an evil man. He wasn’t. Nor was it because he was so repulsively ugly that he’d given the village’s children nightmares or learning difficulties. That honor belongs to Old Stan at the bar, whom most agree probably got that way from a life many would also prefer not to know the details of. In truth, Finley had been moderately pleasant to look at in his youth, and was not considered unpleasant to look at by the time of his death last week. It wasn’t even because he’d worked in broadcasting – on some really atrocious reality television shows – that had made him so widely disliked. It was because, while still alive, he had been the most self-involved man ever to be born at Cowston Field General.
In life, there were many evidences that Finley had been self-involved, and consequently annoyed those who knew him. Of all of these, there were two traits of the late Mr. Guildersand that were considered to be the most irksome. The first, was that he believed himself a very remarkable man; a man, moreover, at the center of all things. This meant that he always knew, for a fact, that everything was about him in some way, especially when it could be clearly demonstrated that some things weren’t. For example, when it was once pointed out to him that the suffering of people he had never met could not involve him in anyway, he strongly disagreed. On that occasion he argued, not without eloquence, that those people only suffered because they had never had the chance to meet a man as remarkable as himself. Ipso facto, their pain was clearly because of him. Not that he felt good about it, you understand, but he hadn’t asked for the responsibility of being the World’s pivot point, so it wasn’t his fault, either.
The second, and more regularly annoying thing about Finley in life, was that you could never have a conversation with him. He just talked at you, about himself. He was one of those people, all too common nowadays, that only pretended to listen while you talked to him. What was really happening, was that he was paying no attention at all, and just trying to think of the next thing he was going to tell you about. Now, everybody does this sometimes, yet he had managed to make an art of it. For instance, you could tell him how proud you were that your friend had managed to recover from a leg amputation, and he would counter with: “Yes, I agree that I look really good in this shirt.”
All this rampant self-involvement had an up-side, however. At least, it did for Finley. It made him an extremely happy man, as being full of his own self-importance, it never occurred to him that he was not also important to others. The downside to this, although he could never see it, was that he had always been terrible at understanding what was actually going on in the world. In short, it made him a deeply oblivious man. A trait he had carried with him into his death, and which was now causing the ghost of Redhead Harry some frustration.
“I keep telling you, my name isn’t Harry, it’s Haldrick! HAL-DRICK.”
“Really, Harry? You think I look good in this shirt? I must say, I’m inclined to agree with you.”
“I have said nothing about the goodliness of shirts, man! I have made no comments as to the state of your apparel, whatsoever!”
“If you think this looks good, you should have seen the suit they dressed me in for my funeral. Truly, I looked quite dashing.”
This response threw Haldrick. “What? Are you telling me that you went to your own funeral? I mean, on purpose?”
“Of course. I was very important when I was alive. I had to go to my own funeral as a sign of respect.” Finley squinted at Haldrick, paying attention to him for the first time that evening. “Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing you there. Too busy to pay your respects to me, were you?”
Haldrick felt that this was unfair. He would have gone to the funeral, if he had been able. He understood well the importance of paying last respects to the dead. Especially, as had been the case for Finley, if the dead had not been truly respected in life. Alas, because the rules of being dead had been slightly different for him, his ghost had never been able to stray too far from the site of his murder and subsequent dumping of his body into a shallow grave near by. For a couple of centuries, he had just assumed that was the normal lot for a shade. Until he noticed that other ghosts seemed to be able to come and go as they pleased. Once the bar had been established, some of these specters would even drop in and try to order pint, before becoming frustrated at never receiving one, and grumpily exit through the nearest wall. Haldrick had now come to believe that he had been cursed by the Witch-Hag of fate to keep eternal watch over his mouldering bones. And so this is what he told Finley, by way of an apology for not being in attendance at the funeral. Uncharacteristically, Finley appeared to be listening.
“So,” Finley asked, “what you’re telling me is that you’re buried here?”
“Underneath the pub?”
“That is correct.”
The shade of Redhead Harry, more properly called Haldrick, struck a dramtic pose and pulled his face into what he hoped was a mournful expression. He raised his left arm and pointed, with some melodrama, towards the pub’s far wall. “My grave,” he said, “lies through yon portal.”
Finley looked in the direction indicated by Haldrick’s phantom limb. “You’re buried underneath the Men’s toilet?”
Haldrick slumped. “I’m afraid so, yes.”
“I’d really prefer not to say. It’s a bit embarrassing.”
“I’d wager it’s already quite embarrassing,” Finley retorted. “C’mon, might as well tell me the whole story. I mean, you’re already dead, it’s not like letting me know can do you any harm.”
“I’d rather just leave it at the Men’s toilet, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Go on,” Finley prodded, “It’s not like I could tell anyone. Well, only you, and you already know, what would be the purpose in my saying anything?”
Haldrick supposed that Finley had a point. After all, he’d already gone this far, he might as well answer the question and get it over with. “The urinal.”
There was an awkward silence.
“I see,” said Finley. His face softened to a look of compassion. He placed a comforting hand on Haldrick’s shoulder. “That’s not so bad, you know?”
“Oh no,” Finley reassured. “It could be far worse.”
“Most definitely. For example, they could have buried me underneath a urinal, and then I would have had people pissing on my grave. You see? Not that bad at all. Cheer up!”
Haldrick did not feel very cheered.
“Can you see that Harry?” Finley had already moved on.
“I keep telling you it’s Haldrick! Given the discussion we just had, which you seemed to pay close attention to, I believe you are getting my name wrong on purp–.” Haldrick stopped short. Finley had a very strange look on his face, a flirty kind of look. “See what?”
“That beautiful young woman over there. She’s looking at me with bedroom eyes. Odd that she seems to be able to see us, don’t you think? Perhaps she’s also a ghost? A very attractive ghost, one that is no doubt very attracted to yours truly. And really, who could blame her? If I’d known that the afterlife was so good, I’d have died a lot sooner.”
Haldrick followed Finley’s gaze. He could see no attractive young woman, at least not one looking in their direction. There was a woman though, an old and ugly crone. Haldrick gasped, and recoiled slightly in fear. “By the Boar’s tusks, man! That’s no beautiful young woman, that’s the Witch-Hag of fate! You should flee!”
∗ ∗ ∗
The Universe is very old. At least as old as Mamma Universe, the being that is supposed to make sure the whole Cosmos works properly. Which she did, for a time. As she was created at the same time as the Universe itself, it took her aeons to realize that she didn’t have to. Not really. Well, perhaps she did have to, but as she had not created the Universe, she found that she had no enthusiasm for the task of making sure it ran smoothly. Also, the work was really boring, and so she stopped paying attention. Occasionally she’d step in and do something if it looked like it was necessary, but only in a half-hearted way. Mostly, she just let take care of itself. Until recently.
Recently, because she had decided to peek in on it quickly, she noticed that the Universe was doing something very strange with the dead. Specifically, they didn’t seem to be ‘deading’ in the right way. While some were moving on to wherever it is they are supposed to go once they are no longer alive, many of their number were not. Apart from the terrible mess that this was creating, she found that it was also quite a mystery, even to one as old as she was. After all, she had quite literally seen everything, a mystery should not be possible. Consequently, for the first time in as long as she could remember, Mamma Universe was intrigued. She would solve this puzzle. What’s more, she would employ at least one of these ‘not-quite-departing’ dead to help her. Not that she needed one, just that she thought it would make it interesting. Additionally, if she got bored, she could just leave it with whomever she recruited to take care of it.
It was for this reason that she was now standing in a crowded pub staring at one recently dead Finley Jansen Guildersand. She’d taken an interest in him, mostly because he seemed to be so interested himself. As an added bonus, young Guildersand had brought a friend with him, whose name she did not know. Not yet, anyway. Two for the price of one was a definite bargain, although the Stag might not think so, he’d been very grumpy of late. She wondered, briefly, how she appeared to these two deadlings? For, and this was kind of a bummer, she had no control over how she would look to others. Each individual would picture her according to his or her own temperament. Still, that could not be helped, and at any rate, it was time to move things along.
Mamma Universe glided across the floor towards the two ghosts. One of them was screaming in terror.
END OF PART ONE