Another year and another novel. 😀
What I particularly love about this book is that it’s a complete departure from anything I’ve written before. Much less science-fiction and a lot more of a fantasy thriller. The only thing it has in common with Regarding Avalon is that I’ve once again blended real-life and fantasy. At its heart though, Leonard Bliss… is a comedy.
And so it was …
That on the first day, Leonard Bliss unchained the hearts of men and fled the Afterlife…
That on the second day, free of his dominion, the human race sought to end poverty, disease and war. A rapture of love and understanding embraced the world, and mankind took its first steps toward an age of enlightenment and the Kingdom of Heaven.
And on the third day, Heaven looked down upon the Earth and saw that this would never do.
And so it was that on the fourth day, Heaven dispatched a celestial field agent to find Leonard Bliss and return him to the Hereafter.
And though mankind’s destiny hung by a most delicate thread, Heaven chose to send Alfred Warr – the immortal coward and disgraced Horseman of the Apocalypse.
Marble, Magdelena decided, as she stormed across fifteen miles of arid scrubland, wearing her second-most favoured suit and a fashionably impractical pair of high-heeled shoes.
Marble, limestone, granite and slate: collectively, the four words she hated most in all creation.
Stone tablets. She pushed a startled elephant out of her way. In this day and age.
A dazzle of young zebra stepped quickly aside; a wildebeest standing in her path received a less-than-gentle nudge, and his eight thousand companions, seeing that today was not the day to trifle with the CEO of Purgatory, stampeded out of her way. The wildebeest left a mile-wide path to Magdelena’s office, a shaded tract of sparse flatland that lay at the centre of a spent volcano. Upon this relatively small patch of the basin stood a painter’s easel, an executive chair upholstered in the finest Italian leather and a large, ornately carved desk hewn from the trunk of a prehistoric mahogany tree. There were no doors, walls or windows; instead, the boundaries of her ‘think space’ were marked by framed certificates in Divinity, Law & Business Administration that hung on copper nails driven into thin air.
Magdelena Cane took her seat and began typing another email dispatch to the three branches of the Afterlife. The communiqué explained, once again, why stone tablets were no longer considered a practical medium for communication. Her nostrils flared; her fingers rattled across the glass keyboard, addressing the email to the billions employed by Purgatory, Heaven and Hell.
Six hundred years ago, during a banquet to celebrate her promotion, Magdelena had made a fire-and-brimstone speech in which she’d promised to drag the Afterlife, gnashing and wailing, into what the human race would one day call the 20th century. Fighting words, she thought, glumly received and begrudgingly applauded by Leonard Bliss, Hell’s Chief of Operations. But then, glumly and begrudgingly was how Leonard received everything.
Mr Gee, on the other hand, had clapped stoically during her speech. Wistfully, even.
Mr Gee, the CEO of Heaven and Chairman of the Afterlife: wise, omniscient and annoyingly difficult to read, even for a people person such as herself.
She remembered it was much later, after the festivities had begun to subside, that Leonard – drunk as men often were – had lurched lecherously towards her – as men often did.
‘Two hundred years,’ he’d said. ‘Two hundred years and you will wish with all your heart that you were but a simple painter again.’
Magdelena reached down and stroked a lioness that had wrapped itself around her feet. As well as being a curmudgeonly individual, Leonard had always fancied himself as something of a doomsayer.
But it was Mr Gee who had applauded and smiled and who would have known, in his annoyingly omniscient way, that six centuries later she’d be at her desk, beset by anger and wondering if it would take a greater deity than herself to bring change to the Afterlife.
Yes, there was a reason the CEO of All That Is had looked stoically wistful that day. Magdelena looked to the painting set upon the easel: a half-finished picture of herself and Alfred Warr, making love beneath the shadow of the volcano. She’d realised long ago that the Afterlife was the embodiment of still life and as such there was little reason to capture it in oil, especially since she and Alfred were no more …
She steeled herself against a wave of self-pity and returned to the task at hand. Her keystrokes became key stabs, and the lioness, sensing that all was not as it should be with the Head of Purgatory, padded away to rejoin the pride still feasting on the remains of a zebra. Magdelena watched the lions for a few moments and then looked over what she’d typed so far.
Reason 1, the email read, cutting and pasting text from stone tablets takes days of painstaking work and an inordinate amount of masonry glue.
She read it three or four times until she was laughing uncontrollably, then stopped when she heard her own laughter mocking her from across the landscape. Magdelena shuddered and held her finger down on the backspace key. She hissed, ‘Get a hold of yourself, woman,’ and then typed again:
If we’ve learned anything from the incident with the thirty-nine commandments, the line read, it is that stone tablets represent a serious health and safety concern when transported by the elderly.
She sat back, chewing thoughtfully on the end of her pen. ‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘Now I sound ageist.’
The lions turned from their feast and looked to the sky. They sniffed restlessly at the air, and almost by reflex, Magdelena wheeled herself back from her desk.
A column of marble tablets fell from above and, with a thunderclap of biblical significance, embedded itself into the dry earth, scattering the pride in all directions.
The column stood in a plume of dust, glowing patiently with a strange inner light and throwing bolts of lightning into the sky. Magdelena waited for her heart to slow down before rising from her chair, smoothing down her skirt and brushing the fine white dust from her blouse. She stepped around her desk and stood in front of the tower of polished stone, running her fingertips over its surface.
It certainly didn’t feel like a regular memo.
Then the phone on her desk rang. The red one. The one that hadn’t made a sound in almost five years.
‘Magdelena,’ Mr Gee replied with not so much a voice as a memory, as though she’d heard his words spoken a lifetime before and was only now reliving them. ‘And how is my Head of Purgatory this fine morning?’
Magdelena shielded her eyes and looked to the sun. The sun that never rose and never set. The mornings never came and never left, and whatever passed for weather in the Afterlife was always fine. ‘I am well, sir, and how are you?’
‘Fair to middling, fair to middling. Still haven’t finished the painting I see.’
‘I’ve been very busy,’ she said, and instinctively looked behind her.
‘Too busy to finish what would be your finest work?’
‘Is there something I can do for you, sir?’
‘Yes, yes, of course, if you can find the time. I’ve just sent a little something for your perusal.’
‘So I see.’ She eyed the tablets disdainfully. Cumbersome and dangerous if delivered carelessly: precisely what she’d been saying for the past two hundred years. ‘What is it, exactly?’
‘A new testament. Well, a newer testament. Just the first few chapters. Look it over when you have a moment.’
Magdelena suddenly felt quite sick. ‘Has … something happened, sir?’
Mr Gee said nothing for a moment – long enough for Magdelena to draw breath and, someplace else, for an entirely new species to evolve.
‘Not yet,’ he said, wistfully. ‘Soon, but not yet.’
‘Another flood?’ She took the first tablet from the column. It was written in English, not Hebrew, and every character was etched in gold.
‘Just read it for me. Let me know what you think.’
‘’The Book of Leonard’? You’re writing a testament for Leonard Bliss?’ She scanned the first paragraph, arching an eyebrow when she collided with the words fucked comely.
‘It’s a working title,’ Mr Gee said. ‘Always open to suggestions if you have something better.’
Well, yes I do as a matter of fact, she thought. The Book of Magdelena. She read on until her eyes fastened on Alfred’s name. ‘Shouldn’t we leave this to Marketing?’ she said with as much aloofness as she could inhumanly muster.
‘The Catholics will be quite busy for the next few years. Best we handle this ourselves.’
‘I’m a little short of time at the moment, sir,’ Magdelena said, reading quickly, trying to measure Alfred’s involvement in The End Of Days.
‘Ah! The Hitler hearing.’
‘He’ll be here soon, and I really think I should be at the harbour to—’
‘Yes, yes, of course. Do not concern yourself for now, but as soon as you have a moment. What’s his argument this time?’
‘Sorry?’ Magdelena had counted only four, perhaps five occurrences of Alfred’s name, which she thought was a good sign – a hopeful one at the very least.
‘Unteroffizier Hitler,’ Mr Gee said. ‘What’s his defence?’
She placed the tablet gently on the desk and picked up the case notes, rustling them near the phone’s mouthpiece; a switch to paper would at least be a start. ‘He submits that he was sent to Hell on the evidence given by his own conscience.’
‘As is everyone.’
‘He argues that since history judges him insane then his conscience cannot be considered a reliable witness.’
‘That’s desperate, even for him.’
‘It is, sir.’ She glanced at the tablet and saw that Alfred’s name appeared again at the rightmost edge of the stone, surrounded on three sides by sadness, suffering and a slow, painful death.
‘He must not win.’
‘Who?’ She bit at her lip and thought, Please, not Alfred; he has suffered enough.
‘Hitler! He’s not to win this appeal. Do you understand?’
‘If I have to grant him entry to the Kingdom of Heaven, then I will have to admit Bundy, and Stalin, and West, and Shipman.’
‘And I won’t have Shipman here.’
‘The man is unspeakably dull.’
Mr Gee sighed, and Magdelena thought she could hear ten thousand archangels sighing with him. ‘I suggest you argue there is no official record of this alleged insanity and so no grounds for a retrial.’
‘That was my plan, sir.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Then why did you mention it?’ She snapped at him without thinking and immediately wished she could take it back. As an unspoken rule, Mr Gee tended to allow his staff two passes at verbal insubordination per century. This was her seventh.
But if I were you, she thought, then I could take it back. I could do anything. I would know all things and I would act wisely upon them. I would not sit on my eternal throne and do nothing while … You’re not listening, are you? Please, don’t listen inside my head. I know you promised that you would never do such a thing, but if you are listening then please know that I didn’t mean it. And if you are inside my head and you are seeking to punish mankind again then could you please not involve Alfred?
She shrieked into the handset.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Fine, sir, yes, I’m absolutely fine.’
‘Good,’ he said, warily. ‘I’ll leave you to get on.’
The line clicked softly and Magdelena allowed the air leave her lungs. Why mankind craved for him to answer its prayers was beyond her. She gathered her papers and pushed them into a glass attaché case, along with her mobile phone and a hairbrush. The desk intercom buzzed while she was thinking feverishly about hats.
‘Ma’am, Unteroffizier Hitler has arrived at the harbour.’
‘Thank you. I’ll be down in a few minutes.’
‘And Leonard Bliss is with him, Ma’am.’
She sucked at her front teeth. ‘Leonard? Here? Are you sure?’
‘I’ve just received a call from the harbour master. Mr Bliss wasn’t expected?’
‘No,’ Magdelena said. ‘No, he wasn’t.’ She decided against the hat. Leonard always laughed at hats, regardless of the occasion – or the hat.
‘Best not to keep him waiting.’
‘If he’s come unheralded then I’ll keep him waiting for as long as I wish.’
‘Of course, Ma’am.’
She pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. ‘No, I’m sorry. Seem to be a little out of sorts today.’
‘You’ve just spoken to Mr Gee.’
‘Then I understand.’
Magdelena said, ‘Oh, it’s more than that.’ She took a deep breath to explain then thought better of it; where Alfred Warr was concerned, explanations often took the better part of an eternity. ‘Call the harbour,’ she said, ‘and tell them I’ll be there in ten whatever-passes-for minutes around here.’
‘Just call them.’
Another click as the intercom switched off. Like herself, a tiny echo in the wilderness. Across the plains, beyond the lions, and the zebra, the giraffes and the elephants; a single baobab cut into the horizon, a family of baboons playing near its exposed roots. Magdelena wished dearly that she could join them. She cast her gaze to the west; it was seven miles to the valley that led to the Quay of Purgatory, a distance she could cover in about a minute and a half, or faster if she carried her Pradas.