I suppose I was surprised, when the offer came. I hadn't expected it, but being newly unemployed (in a manner of speaking) and at something of a loose end, any work seemed better than none. Or the alternative, which might have been untold millennia basically just dossing around and getting into trouble in the caravan-park of the afterlife.
'So, what do you say?' God's Brows drew together. I say Brows, but I couldn't really see Him – it was more the impression of brows. The concept of brows. As if all brows were merely poor copies of primordial Brows that somehow definitely existed, and were being furrowed in front of me, but which I couldn't quite fix upon.
'It's... quite a big ask, though,' I said. 'I mean, all this—' I gestured at our surroundings, a wooden table with green velvet chairs completely incongruous against the background of archetypal white clouds—'this isn't really what I was expecting. No offense.'
'None taken, old chap, none taken. No one expects it, really. Confuses the Hell out of most people. So to speak.' God took a deep breath and leant back. I had a sneaky suspicion it was mostly for effect – as if He was simply playing a role designed to put me at ease.
'Oh, I am.' God grinned. 'You want to ask me why. I'm getting on a bit, and I fancy a break. And this place,' ¬– an airy wave of the Hand – 'requires maintenance. Fjords to raise, glaciers to shake out like a duvet, that kind of thing.' God sighed. 'And I need someone to keep an eye on Prestatyn.'
'You'll like him.' God smiled, slightly. 'He's a blue-footed booby who is absolutely convinced he's a hoover salesman. One of your predecessors tinkered with him a little bit. A sprinkle of extra sentience, a pinch of consciousness, a smattering of dreams. Immortality. Honestly, he's a great guy. Great guy. Just don't ask him about a Dyson.'
'And he's named after a town in North Wales?'
'Rhodri was very proud of his roots. Who am I to gainsay him?'
I was a bit dubious about that. Lumbering an overblown seagull with a mind of its own and a moniker like that didn't seem like a terribly nice thing to do to a bird. Although, boobies. I bit down a snigger. I'm such a child.
'There's good dental coverage, too.' God said, crossing his Hands across his Belly – and suddenly his Belly was the curve of the globe, the shifting of the oceans, clouds dancing across the skies.
I rubbed my eyes. 'No offense, but that's actually very distracting.'
'Sorry', said God, entirely unapologetically. 'So?'
'What happens if I say no?'
'Nothing at all. We finish our tea', – I hadn't noticed we were drinking tea until he spoke, but then I realised the silver service had always been there – 'and you go on about your way. Off to your own personal afterlife.' He leaned forward, with the lurch of tides shifting. 'What are you, Hindu?'
I rolled my eyes. 'A turban does not a Hindu make, you know. How do you not know this?'
'Actually, and I'm a little embarrassed about this, I died at a fancy dress party. You know Mystery Men? I went as the Blue Raja.'
God seemed a bit nonplussed, which I supposed was fair. I can't reference the entirety of the observable history of the universe, after all, so expecting Him to know nineties superhero films seemed unreasonable.
'I choked on the punch.' Actually, I'd choked on my own vomit, passed out on a pile of coats. But who says that in an interview?
God clapped a Hand to His Forehead (a small landslip blocked a rural railway line). 'That was you! Of course. I remember now. Punch, eh?'
Yep. Not fooling Anyone, there. Well, it wasn't as if I had plans, and in for a penny, and all that.
God Smiled (the sun, beating on the Gobi). 'Excellent!' He slammed a meaty Hand down on the table, and I blinked in surprise and—
I was everywhere. I was nebulous, my consciousness spiraling fractally and unwinding from my head like a ribbon caught in the breeze. My skin blossomed and burst. Blood boiled away in the moment between heartbeats, my body exploding into a cloud of atoms smeared across the universe, a rainbow of photons dancing around maypole stars. I was the breath of mountains, the long, slow murmur of magma, shoals of glittering herring, a twirling simoon, a child in the womb. I was the founding of villages and the death of empires, I was love and sex and gritted teeth and tearing nails and everything and everywhere and all things at all times and—
'I've never liked lapsang,' God said. 'Smells like emergencies. Not the thing for this kind of work. Takes you by surprise.'
I blinked. We were standing on the tip of a mountain. Snow lay in blankets, everywhere, but I wasn't cold, or even making a mark on it. God Cleared his throat, and a small shelf of ice broke away and started an avalanche. I'm not going to mention that kind of thing again, but take it as a given: when God speaks, stuff seems to break.
'Sorry about that,' God smiled. 'Took you apart, fiddled with some stuff. I won't bore you with the details just yet. Ideally you wouldn't see all that.'
My sharp, pithy reply was entirely spoiled by my stomach, which noisily evacuated itself into a snowdrift. God seemed unperturbed, though, so perhaps this was normal.
'Pretty much.' I wiped a hand across the back of my mouth. When did I eat carrots?
'Right then.' He stooped, and scooped a handful of snow, and Made a planet out of it, which, when released, bobbed around him erratically. 'Catch that?'
I thought so, so I took a handful too, and Made one myself. I have no idea how. I suppose that's a side effect of having your consciousness spread across the galaxy. That, and a certain sangfroid; because honestly, this entire thing should have been bothering me more. I felt like a little mental insulation had been added, some padding around my mind to stop me from curling up in a whimpering little ball and shrieking.
So obviously I yelled 'HOTH!' and hurled my planet at God, who turned out to be as nimble as an arctic fox. The next several hours were spent merrily clambering through the ravines hurling planets at each other. And here's the weird thing. I could swear on at least a few occasions that I saw those planets – I mean, each time as they neared me my vision sharpened and I could see little continents, and seas and buildings and tiny, screaming people and then snow, in my eyes.
'Fiat lux!' God said, and suddenly a great light sprang from all around. A multitude of glimmering orbs fell into being like pearlescent spheres in the inky void. Stars stitched themselves across the backdrop of the universe, blankets of wispy nebulae wafted into being and a lonely comet soared across the night.
God looked smug, I thought. It was hardly his first time here. He was showing off in front of the work-experience kid, like an oily salesman bragging by the watercooler, dragging his latest conquest's name through the mud. The kind of person who's always called Colin, or Derek, or Steve.
I realised God was speaking. 'Sorry?'
'Now you try.' God smiled. Beatifically, I suppose. Can a God be saintly?
I rolled up my sleeves, the faded corduroy I'd manifested in a more hipster moment bunching uncomfortably over my elbows, and assumed what I hoped was a striking pose appropriate to the creation of a metaverse. Charlton Heston would have approved, I think. God rolled his eyes as I cleared my throat and took a deep breath.
And then I spoke, letting the syllables roll up from deep within my chest – great, shimmering words that buzzed off the tip of my tongue like electricity, words to change the fabric of creation: 'Fiat Punto!'
There was silence for a long time, after that. And then finally He spoke.
'There are times,' God said, 'when you suffer from a distinct lack of seriousness. And, may I add, class.'
God and I had got into the habit of catching up for tea every fourth Wednesday. Not good tea, either. He added milk first, which was for us an eternal bone of contention – the lynch pin around which all our disagreements seemed to revolve, the keystone in the conceptual bridge that separated us.
Wednesday was a slightly arbitrary designation; time had a tendency to flow strangely around God, and I'd seen nebulae blossom like lilies and fade to nothing in the time it took him to pour a cup of tea and so we had come to the agreement that Wednesday was simply whenever God popped by. Our entire calendar was therefore built around wild, irregular Wednesdays that came and went with all the regularity of dandelion clocks. Weekend Wednesdays, bank holiday Wednesdays, curry Wednesdays, that weird Wednesday when God dressed as Woden and made me dance – I had half come to believe that all other days of the week were just propaganda spread by the people whose job it is to sell filofaxes.
I'd chosen to make my – for want of a better word – laboratory, resemble an old potting shed. Its walls were bottle-green, the paint flaking as if generations of children had spent England's humid summers picking at it. Its shelves and benches were stained with soil, their wood worm-holed and splintering. Old, rusted tools hung on bent nails, the looming shadow of tetanus ever-present. A broken watering can with a candle inside hung from a rafter, casting dancing shadows into the cobwebbed corners.
When He manifested in my workroom I was engrossed. To my left, a pile of seven Araucana eggs, their shells a delightful shade of the palest powder blue. Before me, a pot of calcium carbonate. In my hand, a paint brush, which, in a fit of whimsy I'd woven together from starlight and the sensation that one feels when one encounters a lover whose name one has forgotten. To my right, something in the order of seven million tonnes of unfinished eggs all of which needed their cuticles painted on by hand. Granted, it was going to take a while, but my workroom was conveniently sited in the space between one thought and another, so I had plenty of time.
'When I said you needed to be more hands-on, this wasn't really what I had in mind,' God said, tapping the watering can with a curious finger. Wax splattered across the floor, and I fought down a surge of annoyance.
I shrugged. 'It helps me focus.' I picked up another egg, and brushed a web of tiny fissures across its shell. 'Will you pour? I've got my hands full.'
'No need. We've already had our tea', God said, and adjusted reality so that It Was So with a maddeningly casual wave of his Hand.
I bit back a wave of irritation. 'I really wish you wouldn't do that. It cocks up my internal narrative something fierce.' Not to mention the sensation of two cups of tea making their presence known in my bladder.
'Impressed you managed to finish all those eggs so quickly, too', he observed, arching His terrible Eyebrow. 'You've really got a feel for this kind of thing.'
'Oh for the love of— you're just messing with me now, aren't you?'
'Wouldn't dream of it.' He clapped his hands together. 'Same time next month?'
Beaches are fiddly. God had been speaking about taking a holiday for a while, and had a mind to visit the Seychelles, which, all things being equal, could use a spruce-up. I'd manifested a few extra arms – nothing major, just enough to hold every grain in place while I worked on it. They had a tendency to slip, and nothing ruined a few years of good work more than the whole shebang sliding into the sea. I'm not saying I had anything to do with Heracleion – but I'm not saying I didn't, either.
The strain of paying attention to several billion small crystals of mostly silica dioxide but also a few other bits and bobs had been giving me a headache, so I reached back in time, webbed together a few million stars in a pleasing pattern, dropped nebulae into the gaps between and shunted my mind over there for a while. My body seemed a little surplus to requirements, so with a thought I rendered it into chunks of flesh exactly one centimetre square in size and scattered it across the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay for the crabs.
Nearby – although what does that mean, in cosmic terms? – a galaxy went squish and with the last fragments of its fading light, God blinked a message in genocidal Morse:
==:NICE DISTRIBUTED BRAIN:==
==:LIKE WHAT YOU'VE DONE WITH IT:==
==:HOLIDAY NOW THOUGH:==
==:LOOK AFTER PRESTATYN:==
And just like that (and before I could ask him why He had collapsed stars for the sake of some fancy punctuation), there was a great, sucking absence at the middle of everything, everywhere and nowhere, all-encompassing and like a great, rushing tide I fell towards it and filled it and I swear I heard something like schloop.
Prestatyn looked nervous. The feathers on his neck were ruffled, and he kept twitching as if fighting the urge to preen. One of his eyes twitched, and he was slowly hopping from foot to foot on the desk, like a lizard on hot sand.
I'd manifested the whole white-clouds glowing-lights thing. It seemed appropriate to the occasion, and I had a certain fondness for it, even if I could barely remember that first conversation with my erstwhile mentor. I wondered where He had left the chairs.
I leaned back and relaxed, folding my Hands across my stomach. 'Been a while, hasn't it?' I said. 'I thought I'd look you up, see how you're doing.'
The poor little booby seemed so worried. I chuckled to myself – boobies! – and a continent groaned and shifted.
'Lapsang?' I smiled like the yawning of stars, and offered the pot.
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