A short story.
Davie, lies inert on the raised hospice bed and takes what he knows will be his last breath. His tattered lungs scarcely inflate at all, his emaciated body feels almost two dimensional now. He remains conscious, aware of many close friends and family crammed up close around the bed, aware they think him unconscious and that they are waiting anxiously for his next breath. But he knows he has no energy left for this, that it will soon be over … and he feels profound relief. His lungs have earnt this rest. His faithful heart too can stop soon … and this incessant thinking. Tired to his core, he lets go, surrendering into the oblivion he once feared, but now looks forward to, as an eternal, featureless, peace.
He is drifting now. He can hear their silent sobbing, the occasional muffled sniff as they listen in strained hope. He can feel the squeeze of his dear wife’s hand in his but can no longer respond.
Outside the room the corridors and waiting areas are packed with white, tear stained faces, respectful whispering. The hospice say they’ve never had such a reaction, the phone has been ringing non-stop. So many, it seems, would like one final chance, one last audience, one last sight of him, to say goodbye, and thank you. Reporters wait outside the building. Others prepare adulant obituaries for the news.
But Davie doesn’t care about any of that any more. He observes the releasing rest that starts to saturate his body, irreversibly. Yes, he’s glad to let go, at last, exhausted, spent, peaceful …
He wakes, incorporeal, in a scene of stunning brightness. A man, in long soft robes, is sitting on a comfortable throne and looking towards him. Beside the man on a small shimmering table is a large book and a huge key. Everything is translucent, both here and not here. Behind the man are some shining gates and through and beyond them he can see a scene, a scene … an exquisite scene so elating and sublimely beautiful he cannot take it in. The shining gates frame it, they are silver, grey-white … they are made of pearl, he realises.
He is flooded with astonishment and remains in a state of paralysed suspension that seems beyond both time and space – perhaps it’s for minutes, perhaps eons, he has no way of telling. He tries to understand, yet it seems beyond comprehension. All his life he’s been a confirmed atheist, convinced that all talk of an afterlife, and of heaven, was just fairy-tale nonsense – manufactured to give people false reassurance of immortality and ultimate purpose. Yet here he is now … at the very pearly gates he has so long thought absurd.
The man on the throne is sitting patiently, still looking towards him.
Eventually Davie manages to speak: “… Saint Peter, I presume?” His voice silent, inside a head he no longer has, yet nonetheless apparently audible to Saint Peter, who nods gently, with the slightest of movements.
“Is this … heaven?
Saint Peter nods again and points between the pearly gates behind him. Once again Davie tries to take in the scene through the gates. He cannot bear to look, yet somehow knows the essence of it. Does he remember? It is tranquil, beyond sorrow, an immersion in pure love and boundaryless beauty. He feels a relieving swell of joy and moves forwards, towards the gates … “May I?”
Only then, in searching Saint Peter’s face for permission does he notice his eyes. They are large, kindly, deep, and oh so sad. Saint Peter shakes his head slowly, but unmistakeably.
Davie feels suddenly cold, shocked now to the core. He can’t believe this. “You know who I am?”
Saint Peter nods again. His face is all knowing.
“But … but I got the Nobel peace prize … I campaigned successfully for significant social reforms, I’ve given generously to charities, the poor and the needy … I’ve always been there for my family, for my friends … I am sure they are mourning me now. No-one has a bad word to say about me … I don’t think I have any enemies … “ He breaks off, suddenly aware of his defensiveness and hubris … two traits he has fought all his life to transcend, painfully aware too of the compelling ongoing sadness in St Peter’s eyes and his continued silence.
… “Well what is it? What more could I have done?” His voice breaking now, with an unfamiliar shrillness. Still he can’t believe this is happening.
Saint Peter stares into the distance: “I’m sorry, Davie.” He says quietly at last. His voice soft.
“But … but … why? Is it because I didn’t believe in, that I doubted … Christ?”
“No, it isn’t that. I too floundered in that.”
“Why … why then?”
Saint Peter stays silent for another agonising period whilst Davie’s soul fills up with terror. “Almost everyone fails at these gates. Here is the absolute test of purity. Only souls so pure that they do not need to be reminded to be moral by memories and instructions, only those that have lost all selfishness, those that have been honed through countless cycles of immersion in suffering may enter.” He pauses and looks down at the ground “You did … quite well but … but you still have … so far to go.”
Davie waits in stunned silence.
“You lived in an expensive house.” Davie nods reluctantly. “Quite expensive – but I earnt the money myself.” He still feels compelled to argue, despite mounting despair.
“You went on expensive holidays, always ate well, went to fine restaurants, had several expensive cars, enjoyed many luxuries …”
“… Yes, but I was always careful to acknowledge how fortunate I was … and you do need some relief in order to keep going with the work. Some reward and respite … ” His voice trails off as he notices Saint Peter looking at him levelly with his sad, sad, eyes.
Then slowly and with supreme tenderness Saint Peter continues: “throughout your life many people, including children, died of starvation and preventable illness … people you could have saved by taking less for yourself … do you want me to give you numbers?”
And now he can no longer bear it and impulsively shakes his head. He knows it to be true. Somewhere he has always been aware of his hypocrisy, though he had started to believe that he had done alright.
The light is growing dimmer now and the pearly gates and all behind them are fading fast. He is falling, falling, through a hole in the non-existent ground, it is all dreadfully familiar.
He is manifesting physically again, remembering nothing. This time he’s somewhere in Africa, in a country at war and with an enduring famine. He re-enters at the point where the sperm from a rapist, his father, is meeting an egg from his mother, a malnourished 13-year-old.