On a cold Shrove Tuesday morning three weeks after Henry Gray had been admitted to the hospice, God paid him a visit. He sat on the edge of Henry's bed and they talked for about fifteen minutes. They talked about life and death, about magic, about responsibility. They talked about Doreen. Eventually, God told Henry what he had in mind.
Afterwards, Henry listened politely as God tried to crack a joke. It involved hospital pancakes, suspender-belts, and a nurse called Edna. It could have been funny, but God's delivery wasn't up to much. Henry hoped he wasn't planning on touring the stand-up comedy circuit, because if he was his routine was likely to be embarrassing. Now if God were to try his hand at a magic act, like the one Henry and Doreen used to do in the old days - well, he had natural advantages, didn't he? The punters would come flocking. But comedy? No. Forget it.
Henry smiled in the right places, but he was thinking how much better Doreen would have told the joke. She'd been a natural, able to leave you weeping with laughter almost without trying, and he wished now that he'd made more of her talent for comedy in the magic act. As usual his ego had got in the way. One of many regrets.
God laughed at his own punchline, then stood up.
'Well, Henry,' he said. 'I really must be going.'
'Things to do?' said Henry.
God sighed. 'You could say that.' He sounded tired. 'It's not easy, you know. Which is why I'm hoping you'll be able to help me out. Take a bit of the strain, so to speak.'
He loomed over Henry's bed and touched him on the eyes, nose and lips.
'Now don't let me down, Henry Gray,' he said.
'I won't,' said Henry. 'But remember your half of the deal. Remember Doreen.'
God smiled, turned away, and walked briskly through the ward, heading for the exit.
None of the other patients paid him any attention. There was no reason to - God didn't look like anybody special. He looked like an accountant. Ten minutes after you'd met him, you wouldn't be able to pick him out of an identity parade. At the door he turned and gave a parting wave. Now the wave was good, thought Henry. Very royal, very House of Windsor. Breeding will out, his mother would have said.
He managed a slight nod of the head in return, little more than a twitch really, but God saw it and smiled. Even the tiny sparrows, Henry thought. Even the tiny sparrows.
A nurse came through the door and God stepped to one side. The Lord and Father of Mankind stepping aside for a nurse pushing a medical trolley. Then he moved through the doorway, and vanished into the dismal NHS corridor. Henry wondered what he thought of the puke-green paint on the walls. Quite a contrast to what he must have been used to.
He lay back in bed, thinking, mulling over what he'd been told he must do. Listen to your body, God had said. All well and good, but it wasn't quite as easy as that. He'd spent the last few weeks trying not to listen to his body, trying to block out the unwelcome messages it kept sending him. Before he could start listening to it again, he had a few mental barriers to dismantle. Still, like Doreen used to say, you don't argue with the Creator, do you? And if God kept his word… well, it would be worth a little pain.
Cautiously, Henry began taking down his defences. He braced himself for the expected flood of agony and nausea. It didn't come. He dismantled a few more struts, removed a few more sandbags. He waited, but still it didn't come. In fact, for a sixty-three-year-old who was supposed to be knock-knock-knocking on heaven's door, he didn't feel too bad. Not too bad at all. A damn sight better than he'd been feeling before God's visit, that was for sure. And soon, it seemed, he was going to be feeling a whole lot better.
'Three days, Henry,' God had said. 'Maybe less, certainly no more. I want you out of here. You have work to do.'
Henry was so deep in thought, so busy thinking about his new job and about Doreen, that he didn't notice the nurse standing by his bed until she began straightening his pillows.
'You're looking perky this morning,' she said.
Henry grunted. He didn't like many of the nurses, but he liked this one. Red, that was how he thought of her. Red, on account of her hair. It was a lot like Doreen's. Beautiful breasts, too, from what he could see. A pair of beautiful breasts, just like Doreen used to have, but packed away, out of bounds, strapped and tucked into her tight blue uniform.
'I'm too old to be perky,' he said. 'But I'm surely feeling better.'
And yes, he really was. Better with every passing second. Three days? No, Henry didn't think so.
Red lifted his hand to take his pulse, her fingers leaking warmth into the thin skin of his wrist. Maybe the watch pinned to her uniform told her what Henry already knew. He saw her eyebrows lift a little.
'Hmmm…' she said, laying his hand down on the sheet again.
He remembered another bed, another hospital. He remembered laying down Doreen's hand, laying it down for the last time. Tucking it beneath a white sheet. Never picking it up again.
Red started to fiddle with the bag hanging from a stand by the side of his bed. She checked the plastic tail of tubing that looped directly from its base, ending in a catheter plugged into Henry's left arm. Morphine. Henry and Mr Morphine had become very good friends recently. Much too good. It was time to say goodbye. He turned his head, aware that it moved more easily on his neck now.
It's not the morphine,' he said. 'I had a visitor, see.'
Red was straightening his sheets. 'Is that so, Henry?' she said. 'The Invisible Man, was it? I've had my eye on you, and I've not seen a soul.'
He paused for a moment, wondering if he should tell her. What the hell, he thought. It wasn't as if he'd been sworn to secrecy or anything. And anyway, the situation was going to become obvious enough to everyone pretty soon.
He sat up and yanked the catheter out of his arm. Red looked alarmed.
'Henry! What are you doing?'
'God came to visit me this morning,' he said. 'We had quite a chat, me and God.'
'God?' Red had taken the catheter from him and was trying to reinsert it. Henry grabbed her hand.
'God,' he said. 'And I don't need that thing. I'm cured, see. I'm not going to die, I'm going to get better. I'll be going home. Back to my wife.'
'Henry, this is your medication talking. Let me just...'
'No.' He kept hold of her hand. 'I've got a bit of a job to do. Just fancy that, nurse. God hasn't finished with me yet. Not with old Henry Gray. He's given me a bit of a job to do. And he's promised me something in return. Promised, he has.'
Doreen, thought Henry, remembering her wink. Such a wonderful, sexy wink.
He reached out and found Red's left breast. He gave it a gentle squeeze. It felt delicious.
Red stared at him, her eyes and mouth a triple triangle of zeros.
'Sorry,' he said, 'but I've been dying to do that for weeks. Now, is there anywhere around here I can get hold of a decent atlas?'
* * *
Five days later he stood naked in front of his bathroom mirror, shaving the hair off his legs, arms and chest. Joe Sanderson, the barber he'd been going to for the past twenty years, had already shaved his head, but Henry felt happier doing the more intimate parts of his body himself. He'd put newspaper down to save making a mess of the bathroom carpet, but there was still hair and shaving foam all over the place.
'God, you move in mysterious ways,' he sighed.
Joe had been pleased to find Henry looking so well.
'You old bugger,' he'd said. 'I didn't think we'd be seeing you here again. Not after, well... you know.'
'I got better,' said Henry.
While still in the hospice, he'd learned that it was wiser to shut up about his visit from God. Everyone he'd mentioned it to had suddenly become very uncomfortable. Joe didn't push it, though. He wasn't the type. He just nodded and got on with his job.
'So what can I do for you today? Same as usual?'
'No,' said Henry. 'Shave it all off.'
Joe had looked at him in the big wall-mirror. 'All of it?'
'All of it.'
With a shrug, he'd reached for his electric clippers.
They'd done tests on him, of course. The doctors had done all kinds of tests. Most of them had refused to believe the results, and they'd wanted to do further tests, but Henry had said no. He was well, he had a job to do, and he was going home to do it. End of story. Against their advice, he'd discharged himself.
It was nice to be back in his own place again, to be amongst his memories. Doreen had been gone over four years, but the feel of her was still there. For now, though, he was alone, and that was good. He was free to begin work, to start conducting what God had called their 'little experiment'.
After Joe had finished with his head, Henry had gone shopping. There were several things God had told him he was going to need: new razor-blades, shaving foam, some fine-tipped magic markers, and the best world atlas he could find. At the big chemist in town he'd bought a top-quality first aid kit. Then, back home, he stripped off and got down to business.
He stood looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. He'd shaved off all of his body hair except the pubic bush above and around his penis. He'd left that until last for sentimental reasons. He remembered how proud he'd been when his first pubic hair arrived. It had been like a present from God, a sign that his manhood was just around the corner. He remembered Doreen on their first date, forty years ago, grinning up at him on the back seat of his car. He shivered at the memory.
But now the tiny island of grey curls in the middle of an otherwise unbroken sea of pink flesh looked ridiculous. With a heavy sigh he covered it with shaving foam and reached for his razor.
When he'd finished he dried himself carefully and, still naked, went into the living room, where his new marker pens were waiting for him on the coffee table. The atlas was already open at a map of the world, showing the various lines of latitude and longitude that God said he would need to transfer. This next stage was going to be tricky. He picked up one of the pens and began.
An hour later he walked back into the bathroom and took a good look at himself in the mirror. His body was covered in a grid of fine black lines that corresponded fairly accurately to the lines of latitude and longitude on the map. The Greenwich meridian ran straight down his front, splitting his nose, lips, navel and penis into two halves. His penis tended to flop to the left, which spoilt the symmetry. That was annoying. It was an important reference point - the equator also ran through it, slicing it from top to bottom as well as from side to side. Still, he thought he could probably work around the problem.
Using his Greenwich meridian and his equator as starting points, he'd drawn other lines at fifteen degree intervals, north, south, east and west. He'd made a good job of his front, but it had been tricky getting an accurate grid on his back. Fortunately, his back was mostly Pacific Ocean, so accuracy hadn't been so critical there.
He'd also pinpointed several key locations and transferred them to his body. At 51 degrees north, London was in the middle of his chin - much higher up than he'd thought it would be: New York, at 40 degrees, was lower down, back near his right shoulder-blade.
'OK, God,' he said. 'I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Let me have it.'
He grabbed a beer, returned to the living room, switched on his TV set, and settled down to wait.
* * *
It was several hours before anything happened. In fact, Henry was on the point of dropping off when he felt a sharp pain in the back of his right calf. He looked down and saw a small yellow bump forming, exactly where he'd estimated New Zealand should be. When events occur, act quickly, God had said. And this was it. His first job. His very first event.
Henry took a pin from his first aid kit, burst the bump, and mopped up all the gunk that pumped out of it. When it was empty, he applied TCP, stuck a plaster over the wound, and waited.
The TV news came on. The second item was a rushed report of a volcanic eruption in New Zealand. There was confusion amongst the experts. The initial stages had been very violent, but activity had almost instantly subsided. A baffled-looking professor of geophysics came on the screen, his hair an Einstein halo. He seemed almost angry. 'I don't understand what's going on here,' he kept saying. 'It doesn't make any sense. This thing should have been another Mount St. Helens, but somehow it's just... stopped!'
Henry looked down at the plaster on his leg. He patted it gently.
'Well what do you know?' he said. 'It works. It really works.'
He sat up in his chair and looked around the room.
'OK, God,' he said. 'Where is she?'
There was a noise behind him. He turned. Doreen was standing in the doorway, her head cocked to one side, a huge grin on her face. His chest got tight.
'Henry Gray,' she said. 'Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look? What's with all the lines? You look like Spiderman on bath-night.'
He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. Doreen shook her head and came walking towards him. She wasn't fully materialised yet, and as she crossed the room he realised he could see through her. Still, a semi-transparent Doreen was better by far than no Doreen at all. She stopped in front of his chair, bent at the waist, and planted a kiss on the top of his bald head. It was like being touched by the frozen shadow of a feather.
'Cat got your tongue?' she said. 'What on earth do you think you're doing?'
He reached out a hand and moved it through her.
'I… I'm saving it,' he said.
'The Earth,' said Henry. 'I just stopped a volcano in New Zealand. It's a kind of magic.'
The air inside Doreen's outline felt cold and a little thicker than the air outside, but that was about it. Still, he loved the feel of her, however slight.
'Oh my,' said Doreen. 'How long have I been away, Henry? It doesn't seem long enough for you to go senile on me.'
'You've been dead four years, Doreen.'
Henry nodded. 'Dead. And I've missed you. I've been ill and I've missed you - I can't tell you how much. But I'm better now, and you're back.'
Doreen looked down at him. Something dawned in her eyes.
'Yes,' she said, frowning, her head cocked as if she was listening to something. 'Yes, I understand. A kind of magic. We're back on stage again, aren't we?'
'Yes,' said Henry. 'A bigger act this time around. Bigger part for you, too, my love.'
He felt a sudden burning sensation on the inside of his left thigh.
'Henry,' said Doreen, 'your leg's on fire.'
He looked down and checked his map. 'It's that drought in Namibia,' he said. 'The little they've got left is going up in flames. Quick, put your hand on my leg.'
Doreen raised her eyebrows.
'Hurry up,' said Henry. 'People are dying.'
Doreen reached out and rested her cool hand on his thigh. The fire went out. The pain in his leg vanished.
'Well done,' he said. 'You're a natural.'
'You know, if we pour a glass of water over your leg, I think we can put an end to the drought.'
'Good idea,' said Henry. 'Worth a try, anyway.'
Doreen patted his thigh and moved her hand up and down. She was rather more solid now, and Henry felt things stirring.
Doreen coughed. 'Aren't we a little old for that kind of thing, Henry Gray?' she said.
Henry grinned at her.
'You're as old as you feel,' he said.
'Well, I don't feel dead,' said Doreen. 'That's for sure.'
Henry grinned wider. 'Oh, I think we can forget about death, you and I.'
'Yes,' said Henry. 'God's little helpers on earth, that's us. God's little trouble-shooters.'
Doreen laughed, low and breathy.
'You know what God wants to fill the world with, don't you?'
'With love, Henry. With love. He's always going on about it.'
'You're right,' said Henry. 'He is.'
Doreen nodded and moved her hand a little higher up his thigh. Henry felt his eyes growing wide. Doreen winked her old, sexy wink and kissed him.
'So… it's been a while,' she said. 'What do you say we make a start?'
Prizewinner in The Philip Good Comp. Published in Anthology March 2002