“Ten minutes is all you need. You have died and past your own expected life but ten minutes is all you will need to find out where your family will end or begin. With this gift of ten minutes you will see all and hear all. Oh, I do hope they meet a favourable end, John, because if they don’t, you will see that too.”
John Windom bent down and, with both hands, raised the plant pot from the floor to the table in his greenhouse.
“I’m getting far too old,” he said to himself as he looked around at all he had built.
A life of constant hard work had taken its toll, in mind and body. Now this green house was his last stand against the tide of regular retirement and a place where he could escape his family. John loved them just like every man in his position did. He had a beautiful wife, Linda, and two stunning children, Jodie and Maxwell. They had their faults, just like every other family, but they all had a special place in his heart.
“John?” Linda shouted from the house. “Are you going to stay in there all day or can I put the supper on?”
John heard her very well but still raised his hand to his ear and shrugged. This was something he did often and found incredibly amusing. It was one of only a few pleasures he had left in life and Linda fell for it every time, usually she would come out to the greenhouse to repeat what she said but would also bring a nice cup of tea for him.
“I said are you going to stay in here all day, rotting like these tomatoes?”
John loved her smile and her incessant use of sarcasm.
“You should use them, my dear, they might make dinner taste a little better.”
“Oh you,” she said and gave him a kiss. “Get yourself inside. I don’t want to have to…John?”
John went as white as a sheet. His head was swimming and his vision blurred. Suddenly a sharp, shooting pain spread across his chest and he slid to the floor.
“John?” Linda screamed “Oh John, what’s happening?” She dropped down also and cradled his neck. His vision had gone dark from the pain. It was so intense that he wished for an end, a way out. John’s request was granted and he was pulled into the dark and away from his sobbing widow.
John opened his eyes and saw the greenhouse. The sunlight shone beautifully through the glass, submerging him in calm. He tried to stand but his legs did not respond to the command and the feeling of calm left him. He cried out and tried again to no avail. He remembered his heart, how it burned in his chest and made him pass out. Had it caused him to lose the use of his legs?
John looked down at the chair. There weren’t any wheels attached. He thought Linda might have put him here; after all it was his favourite place.
“Please God, don’t let me be a cripple,” he said.
“Oh, you’re not a cripple,” said a voice coming through the glass. “You’re dead.”
A man appeared through an unnatural gap in the side of the greenhouse, wearing a dishevelled suit with his hair combed back to his scalp. He waved his hands in the air and made a chair appear in front of John. He took a seat.
“Dead as a door nail I’m afraid and I’m a soul relocation officer,” the man chirped.
He waved his arms again and a laminated piece of paper appeared.
“I’m dead?” John asked.
The man smiled.
“Oh yes, very much so.” He made another piece of paper appear and began to read.
“John Windom, aged 72 years, died the 3rd of July 2013, due to a heart attack.”
He placed the piece of paper down and it disappeared as soon as it left his hand.
“Happens all the time, John. Can I call you John?” He asked but didn’t wait for a response.
“Well, I say all the time. Somebody falls over, clutching their chest every 0.6 across the time stream on earth.”
He tapped the laminated paper and held it up.
“Which means I have a lot of people to get through so let’s get on with it shall we?”
He stood up and cleared his throat and began to read.
“My name is Mr Andrews and I will be your soul relocation officer. The unfortunate, but evitable has happened to you. You have died in the way in which you were meant to – brutal agony from a heart attack.”
If John had time to process what was happening he would have completely lost his mind.
Mr Andrews continued without looking up from the sheet.
“Because this was how you were always meant to meet us at the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program, we can offer you a family resolution package. This isn’t mandatory but it allows the deceased to, for a short time period, see how their family copes with the loss of their loved one and how they survive for up to two generations. It’s an attempt to give the deceased piece of mind before relocation.”
“You will now have a few moments to ask any questions you may have formed during your time with the relocation officer.” He moved the sheet down from his face, locked eyes with John and raised an eyebrow.
He looked back stunned after a moment of silence, in which Mr Andrews brought back up his reading material, but before he could continue John spoke.
“Am I in heaven?” he asked softly, not really knowing why that question came to mind.
Mr Andrews brought back down the sheet and still had his eyebrow raised, then he exploded into a fit of laughter which felt, to John, like it went on for hours. This included the occasional knee slap, belly holding and a token wipe of a tear from the eye.
“Oh, you human, you wonderful, wonderful human,” he said. “If only it was that simple, John. Can I call you John?” Mr Andrews said again
John went to reply but he was again cut off before he could speak.
“Heaven is a human invention, it keeps the little ones of your species in line because the big ones know that if the little ones ever got together, ever put their heads together, they would realize they outnumber the big ones…” He curled his hand into a fist and hammered down on the opposite palm “And they would crush them. It’s a wonderful yet primitive way of mass manipulation.” He lent back in his chair and continued.
“It’s not the best thing to have to break to you guys when you come up here, and I really shouldn’t be saying it, but if it’s any consolation you won’t remember a thing.” He raised his right hand and gave a thumbs up while extending a cheesy grin around his face, then beckoned John for more questions.
“So if this isn’t heaven, where am I?”
“You are in my office, it doesn’t look like an office I know, it automatically takes the form of a location close to your heart, unfortunately for you it was a bit too close to your heart, eh?” said Mr Andrews and he chuckled before resuming.
“You are in the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program and my job is to make sure that when a human being expires they feel looked after and worthwhile. It’s my job to send you on your way in the best possible state of mind so your consciousness can be rebooted and started again in an unknown location.”
He crossed his legs and made the laminated paper disappear.
“Of course I don’t always do a good job. Most of the time its fine though and the odd time I do so well they become the people life-forms look up to or idolise.” His face suddenly lost its grin and it turned more into a grimace. “But the times I don’t, you become something much worse.”
He looked up at John with a pained expression but then snapped out of it back into a grin.
“But you’re a happy chappy aren’t you? I feel this is going well, ask me more.”
John sat up straight and realised it was the first time he had moved since opening his eyes again, if indeed he was opening them.
“I don’t really know what to say.”
“Good,” replied Mr Andrews and he made the sheet reappear and started to read.
“Mr John Windom, you have lead a good life, nothing remarkable, but good. Therefore we at the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program will grant you the chance to see out the final years of your immediate family.”
“Think of it as one of those picture films, key to human culture. In the allotted time their lives will flash before you from a location crucial to events, but you won’t be able to leave or interact with the living.” Mr Andrews waved his arms in the air hiding the sheet once more and pulled his chair close to John.
“Ten minutes is all you need and ten is all you will have,” he said in a sombre voice.
“It will seem like they are talking directly to you but they won’t see or hear you.”
John didn’t understand what was going on. He just stared at Mr Andrews and nodded when he had to, like he was in an unbreakable trance.
“You have died and past your own expected life and I will give you ten minutes to find out where your family will end or begin. With this gift of ten minutes you will see all and hear all.”
Mr Andrews stood up not breaking eye contact.
“Oh, I do hope they meet a favourable end, John. You seem like such a nice chap, because if they don’t, you will see that too.” He clapped his hands and plunged the green house into total darkness.
John opened his eyes and looked around. He was still in his green house. It was raining outside which to John looked like tears. He knew he was dead, and he knew what he was here to see.
Linda walked out of the house and slowly opened the greenhouse door. She stepped inside and took a tissue from her jacket and dabbed at her eyes. John saw her crying and his heart broke. He had seen her cry before but she was such a stubborn woman that, in front of him, she would cover it up. Now John knew Linda’s real tears, and they cut him up inside.
“I miss you, John,” she said to the green house.
John found it hard to get the words out even though he knew she couldn’t hear him.
“I miss you too, darling,” he managed.
She walked over to where he was sat but stopped just in front.
“I hope you can hear me wherever you are. The kids miss you too, and Pete doesn’t really have anyone to talk plants with anymore.” She smiled through the tears.
“He’s been over a few times trying to get me involved but I’m not really interested as you know. I come in and water them as much as needed. Don’t worry, but I’m not sure how long I can go on doing it.” Linda started to cry harder.
“John, your insurance fell through. They said it was because it was a hot day and…”
She broke down for a while and he threw his arms out towards her. They didn’t reach and he was still stuck in the chair.
Eventually she spoke again.
“I don’t think I can save the house, John. I really don’t know what to do.”
With those words, the colour in his eyes burnt bright and began to mix together. His mind reset into a different time.
His son Maxwell was now in the greenhouse. He looked older, more like a man now but still with that shade of innocence. He was looking at the new flowers and cutting clippings off here and there. John was annoyed that his perfectly grown plants had been replaced by ones that were blatantly from the local garden centre.
“Dad?” Maxwell whispered “Dad, can you hear me?”
“I can hear you son,” John replied.
Maxwell’s face shone for a moment but then went grey. He turned to leave but something stopped him.
“Dad, I need to move away from here. Mum has kept the bank off her back for this long so I don’t see why I should stay just to get a shitty job and pay her way.”
He stepped over to the garden tool kit and put back the clippers.
“I know it’s selfish but it’s something I need to do. I want to go to uni, see the world and meet new people but I’m stuck here, pruning your fucking roses.”
John’s heart ached, even the dead have feelings.
“Sorry, it’s just if you were here…” Maxwell looked over to the exact point John was sitting but saw no one.
“If you were here,” he repeated as the colours merged once more.
It was a crisp autumn evening when his form had finished its jump, but John couldn’t feel the cold. He would have given the world to feel the cold again. His time jumps may not have the quality quantum leap had, but his own trip through time had a worse kind of ups and downs. They were personal.
He looked towards the kitchen door just as it was opened. A frail girl stepped down on to the stone steps and arched her back to stop from falling over. When she got to the bottom, she looked at John but he knew she could only see an empty chair. Jodie looked older than her years and she was moving very gingerly, favouring her left side. She slowly slid the door open and shuffled through, leaving it ajar, and slumped in the seat next to him.
John followed her gaze to the flower bed in the centre of the greenhouse and saw his own face staring back at him. They had placed a picture there in his honour and it was horrific to look at.
“You were right, Dad,” Jodie said towards the picture.
John knew she wasn’t addressing him but couldn’t help himself from responding.
“Right about what, sweetheart?”
“About Darren.” She took a cigarette from her top pocket and lit it. “What did you always used to tell me?”
John joined his hands.
“That he had quite the temper for a boring sack of shit,” he replied.
She started to well up and stared at the picture of her father.
“You said he had quite the temper…” She didn’t finish and broke down into her shirt sleeve.
John had had never wanted his legs to move more, but they remained still, and he had to endure his bruise covered daughter crying hard, until the colours started to merge again.
This is moving too fast, John thought.
He didn’t have the time to process what he was seeing. A part of him wanted to think that he was being shown wasn’t real but he knew better than that. What would be the point of showing lies?
He materialised once more and looked around. The greenhouse looked the same but the plants had died, the place was unloved now he was gone. He checked the watch, 1:57, not much time left.
Linda opened the door, left it open, walked down the stone steps and entered the green house. She shut the door and pushed a broom in between the handles. John could hear three loud bangs on the front door.
“Mrs Windom, this is your last chance to pay us…We don’t want to take the house but you have left us no choice.”
John desperately tried to get up again but, as always, he was rooted to the spot. Linda looked old now as she searched under the middle table of dead flowers. She was no longer his Linda, just a twisted shadow of the woman he loved. She was panting franticly and pulling at tools, throwing them behind her.
“Linda?” he said. “Linda please stop… tell me what’s wrong”
“It’s all your fault!” she screamed and picked up Johns picture.
“I told you it was too warm out here in summer and it would make you sick, but no, you never listened to me, did you? You came out here to get away from me and look where you are now.”
John began to cry but didn’t bring a hand up to stop the flow.
“You left me with nothing but this house and now they’re taking it. The kids have gone and won’t help. Ungrateful little shits,” she shouted whilst spinning and throwing the picture against the glass. The greenhouse pane didn’t smash but the picture did. Linda was back rummaging under the table before the smashed remains hit the floor.
“Oh my love, I’m so sorry,” John whispered and knew this final vision wouldn’t end well.
Linda found what she was looking for. A long piece of rope he had used to tie up his prized sunflowers in winter so they could all receive the same amount of heat and water.
She rolled up onto the table and swung the rope over the main light fixture.
“Mrs Windom?” called a voice from the front door.
“FUCK YOU!” she bellowed as she tied a noose in the rope.
“Please, Linda, no,” John pleaded.
“I’ll meet you soon you deserting bastard,” she said, looking up at the sky.
John strained so much from the waist up but to no avail.
“I’m right here, Linda. Don’t do this,” he struggled out.
She hooked the noose around her neck and pulled tight. Her breathing had become even heavier, and John’s heart broke. He stopped struggling and watched, completely broken.
“FUCK OFF” John replied for her.
Linda turned around and made a gap in the table for her to kick it away then stood up straight. She looked towards the smashed picture of John and began to cry heavily.
“Why did you have to die?” she only just managed to push out as the tears claimed her breath.
“I love you, John.”
“I love you, Linda.”
She kicked the table away and the rope pulled tight. John screamed and tried to look away but his head wouldn’t let him. As Linda’s face began to turn purple, John tried to move once more. He saw under her that the people banging on the door had broken it down and moved into the house.
Suddenly John’s left leg moved and he grabbed at it with both hands, pulling it as if to break away chains around it. He regained feeling and did the same to the right leg. He looked up at Linda and her face was becoming less purple and more the face he remembered when they were married.
“Linda!” he shouted and her eyes came down to him.
He stood up and rushed over to her, grabbing her legs and trying to relieve the pressure, but she was solid and wouldn’t move. He felt like the strength was coming back to his body, it seemed the more the life left Linda, the stronger he felt.
He looked up at her face and she was looking at him. She smiled.
John let go of her and stood back, staring at her face.
“John?” she whispered.
He looked at his hands to make sure it was him before he replied. The liver spots and callouses had gone. Even though these weren’t his hands, they didn’t seem alien to him.
“Yes, honey. It’s me.”
She smiled wider.
“Am I dead yet?”
The men who had broken through the door were auguring between themselves as they franticly pulled at Linda’s legs. He saw they had broken a window of the greenhouse to try and save her.
“Oh, Linda, what have you done?” John said looking back to her face. It was becoming the face he knew, the face he loved.
“John, I’m scared. Hold me.”
He rushed over again and held her legs close to him. She wasn’t rooted in place now.
She’s coming through, he thought.
John and the bailiffs were holding the same person but not in the same place and the arms weaved in and out of each other like ghosts, but John had forgotten all about them. Linda stroked the top of his head and made soothing noises. The men cut the rope and released their Linda from the noose. She dropped silently to the floor and the men huddled around her. John’s Linda was safely in his arms.
They embraced for what seemed to be an eternity, every feeling of happiness filling them both to the core. They were crying with joy and telling each other how much they loved each other, through snivelling un-audible breaths. They finally looked up from their embrace. They were young again. They were still in the greenhouse but outside it was the whitest of whites. Nothing was outside. John heard a clapping noise from behind them and there stood Mr Andrews.
“Bravo guys, bravo,” he said, still clapping. “That was fun wasn’t it?”
He came over and put his arms around them.
“You’re lucky to have got Linda though. Never happens, and unfortunately it was a major balls at our end which will give me a mountain of paperwork.” He made a file appear with a wave of his hands and brought out a pen.
“Would you like me to send your wife off on her own? I know that sometimes, from a human study, that the female can be quite difficult.”
“No,” John said emphatically and Linda squeezed him tighter.
“Well, if you’re sure…” Andrews replied and turned to Linda.
“Mrs Windom, would you like me to send Mr Windom off on his own? I know, from a human study, that the male can be quite difficult.”
Linda laughed and shook her head vigorously.
“Well, if you’re sure…”
John looked around at his wife. They were as young as they were on their wedding day and he thought Linda had never looked more beautiful.
The couple smiled at each other with a new youthful enthusiasm that they remembered all too well.
Mr Andrews made a laminated sheet of paper appear and cleared his throat.
“Mr Windom, and now Mrs Windom, We at the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program, hope that your allotted time has been happy. If it hasn’t, we, as previously stated, will not be held responsible for any wrongs that may have happened to your family and will frown upon any signs of negative emotions.”
The young Mr and Mrs Windom both laughed and Mr Andrews smiled with them and threw the paper away in a ball of smoke.
“Well, it is pretty silly I suppose. Nothing with these Ten Minutes has gone by the book so why start now?” Mr Andrews said letting out a short laugh.
“What’s next?” John said.
Mr Andrews jumped away from them and hopped onto the table in the centre.
“Oh, John. Can I call you John?”
Mr Andrews, once more, didn’t let him reply.
“That would be telling now wouldn’t it? All I have left to say is I hope whatever you do or wherever you go, try and make a difference, because unfortunately your time has finished. Your Ten Minutes are up in 5…4…3…2…1.”
- Staircase for the Soul – Short Story by Andy James (europaoutlaw.wordpress.com)