Chapter 3 


Most of the next ten hours I spend searching for Buddha. The regular think-of-who-you-want-to-see system fails miserably. I try all his favourite haunts: Noah and his Flood Cruises, the Mahabharata, Epic of Gilgamesh, Legend of Hiawatha Canoe Tours, but no luck. Then I'm in Faerie Lane, close by the Iliad, and out of nowhere he appears next to me. 

"I hear you're looking for me." 

I can't help my tone. "Where've you been?" 

"I've been at work. Now I'm taking a nap on the sofa." 

I haven't time for this nonsense. I dig the newspaper into his belly. "Look at this." 

It's already open at my page, but he leafs through it to find the front. "Ah, News of the other World. Where did you get this?" 

"Progress gave it to me. Well go on, read the article." 

He hands it back. "No, I might drop it while laughing. But you can read it to me if you like."  

He gets my steeliest glare, which has no affect, so I begin to read aloud. "'I'm Just Like You,' Claims Half-Goat Man. By our Science Correspondent." 

"Oh, you're screwed," says Buddha. "Science Correspondent? That's the tea-lady's niece, whose friend did physics at school. Go on." 

"Peter Alan Nesmith has the legs of a goat," I read. "And that's no exaggeration, they're real goat's legs. He has massive white hairy thighs and strong fetlocks, and two-toed feet that look like hoofs. He also has two horns growing out of his forehead. Otherwise he's human. 

"Peter is a… genetic experiment." 

At this point Buddha guffaws and slaps his thigh, which I ignore. 

"This half-goat, half-human is a fine musician and very sure-footed on rocky slopes. But one thing he doesn't have is a birth certificate, because Peter wasn't born, he was created by the scientists of Foxglove Laboratories.  

"They took genes from a goat and a human and combined them in an artificial womb. Eight months later, out popped Peter. Yet he talks and acts just like us. See him on the street fully dressed, with a hat to hide his horns, and you wouldn't know the difference. If you live in Cricklewood, where he shares a home with an estate agent friend, you might have met him already."

Buddha stops smiling. "Hey, that's me! The cheeky so-and-so's." But soon he's back in jovial mode. "I didn't know you were born in a laboratory." 

"I wasn't! I'm sorry, I shouldn't shout. But this is complete rubbish, every word of it. It's completely made up. It's like they've written about somebody else and put my picture there."

Buddha is sniggering. He stops for long enough to tell me, "That's fairly normal, though I'm sure it doesn't help. Please continue." 

I read out more. "'I don't feel any different to a normal human being,' says Peter. 'I eat the same kind of food, watch TV and go to work, just like anybody else. The only difference is that if I get something wrong with my legs, I can't go to the doctor, I have to find a vet.' 

This doubles Buddha up. 

"A vet? A vet?" I whine. "Where did they get this garbage from? I haven't said any of these things."

"And your name's not Peter," points out Buddha. 

"The sad thing is," I read, "that Peter probably won't be around for long. Like most products of cloning technology, he has an ageing problem. Although it was just two years ago that he came out of the artificial womb, already he looks well over fifty. His body will be ready for a pension before his biological age makes him ready for school. And he won't be eligible for either.  


I must have read this article twenty times, and each time it feels like I'm being beaten up – or at least my persona is being beaten up – and left bleeding in the gutter.  

Buddha is highly amused. "I'm sure I've known you for more than two years." 

"Oh, stop it. It's all nonsense. None of it's true." 

"Except that you've got goats legs and horns." 

"Except for the legs and horns." 

"And you say Joe Progress gave you this?" 

I explain about Progress taking up the challenge, even though that wasn't the outcome I'd hoped for, and about being given a clue, and I hand over the business card that Progress gave me. 

"Wow." That brings Buddha back to reality. "A garden party. Do you know where this place is?"

"I haven't a… any idea. I was hoping you might help."  

"Yes, I can. Do you want to go there?" 

"Well of course I want to go there. I want to meet the ignorant… wretch who wrote this item and tell her what I think of her." 


"I'm too mad to think of a good insult. I'll work one out on the way." 

"Follow me." 




At the bottom of Faerie Lane we go through the iron gate on to the promenade, a broad path with benches at the sides and flowerbeds and precisely planted trees. We pass the George and Dragon public house, with its half-timbered walls, thatched roof and smoking chimney.  

We say hello to Ishtar as she hobbles past in the opposite direction, probably on her way for a drink. She's a sad case, forever pining for her lost consort, Tammuz – once famous, then obscure, now non-existent. She's much older and frailer than I remember. A few thousand years ago she was stunningly beautiful, but time has passed and so has her beauty. How old is she now? A few hundred years older than me. I get a brief glimpse of how I might be in a couple of hundred years, and don't like it. 

In contrast, the next god we pass is the youngest in heaven, the god of Fashionable Trainers, who's barely of shaving age. His bicycle is propped against the back of the bench directly behind him and his legs are crossed, enhancing the display of immaculate white footwear. He has his hoodie up and his shoulders hunched forward, lost in a world of his own, tapping at the bird-noise machine in his lap. It's a tiny thing and we rarely get sight of it. He presses buttons with his thumbs and from time to time it gives out noises like birdsong – though not quite.  

Finally we arrive at a small building set back from the path. It's very dull looking – one storey, few windows, a flat roof with some kind of machinery on top – and a big surprise to me. 

"Is this it? Is this the place?" I ask. 

"Not exactly. No."

"How come I've never seen it before? I must have walked down here thousands of times and it's new to me." Yet the building itself is clearly not new. "What's going on?" 

"You've never seen it before because you didn't believe in it. Welcome to the Axis Mundi. Step inside and we'll get you some clothes. The other-worlders are very keen on clothes." 

The walls inside are barely visible beneath layers of coats, hats, trousers ad shirts hung from pegs. There's no order to the arrangement, with pristine garments sharing hooks with rags. 

"We really must get the costume section sorted out," says Buddha. "Ah, here we are. These should work." He hands me a loose white blouson and sand-coloured chinos, along with a short stovepipe hat, slightly crushed. They're a passable fit, though I never feel comfortable in clothing. 

"You're telling me I'm going to the other world, this garden party is in the other world?" 

"Only ten miles or so from where I live. You'll enjoy it down there. Take my word." 

It's hard for me to deny the Axis Mundi exists when I'm standing inside it, so I say nothing. 

"You look fine," says Buddha, "as long as nobody spots your hoofs." 

"I like my hoofs." 

"I'm sure they'll be very popular. Everybody will want a pair." 

In the middle of the building is a doorway that leads into a separate room, small and entirely divorced from the surrounding chaos. Buddha ushers me in, but he stays outside. White light falls from the ceiling, one wall is mirrored and shows me sniffing around like a bear in a new cave, the others are coated with dark red carpet, divided at waist level by a shining brass rail. Above the rail is a small plaque holding a single red button.  

"When you're ready, press the button," he tells me. "The doors will close and you'll feel yourself going down. It takes about half an hour." 

"Aren't you coming?" 

Buddha has made no effort to dress. He's still wearing is his favourite orange loincloth. 

"I can't. I'm already there."

Most of his nonsense I can afford to dismiss, but this time it's important. "Buddha, you're standing in front of me. How can you already be in the other world?" 

"I've tried to explain this before. Thanks to years of practice and strong meditation, when I'm asleep in the other world I can dream myself into existence here. Why do you think I can't be found sometimes on weekdays? How do I suddenly disappear and reappear?" 

It's true. I've been told these things before, I just ignored them – until now. 

"Are you ready?" he asks. 

"I suppose so." 

"Good. I'm going to wake up and I'll see you at the bottom. Don't wander too far from the exit. It's very busy down there." 

He does his vanishing trick. 

I could stand here for a long time and wonder what I've got myself into, whether I really should be doing this. But would it make any difference? No. Anyway, I like mysterious red buttons. 

This one needs to be pressed. 





It's no surprise that I'm feeling nervous when the room comes to a halt and the doors open. I peek out like a fox through a hedge, but the coast is clear. There's nobody around. I'm in a narrow corridor with stairs at one end and an outside door at the other. Buddha said don't stray too far from the exit, but I'm sure I'm allowed to go through that door. 

The outside world takes my breath away. I'm on a busy street, and I mean busy, a hundred times busier than anything I've ever seen before. It's heaving with cars and buses, four lanes of them, moving forward in small shuffles from green lights to red, and so noisy. On the pavement, multitudes of other-worlders somehow manage to avoid bumping into each other as they walk this way and that. Oops, no they don't. The buildings are tall and elegant, with a shop on every ground floor. There's an Italian tailor on my left, a children's toy store almost opposite. Many of the other-worlders are carrying shopping bags. 

It's hard to think of a scene that could be more convincing, not just through its strangeness but through its sheer busy-ness. There's too much going on here for this to be heaven. And how fascinating the other-worlders are! Their clothes, their faces, their walks! They're all different and yet so much the same. Each face and locomotion has a story to tell. A mass of stories rushing past each other, streaming rivers of tales.

I've stalled on the pavement directly outside the door, and now a man in a tweed jacket wants to get past me and go inside. He waits for me to move, yet at the same time he doesn't really see me. Strange. 

When I turn to let him pass I see the gold plaque on the wall next to the door. British Atheist Society, 296a Regent Street. Ha! How clever is that? What a perfect place for the Axis Mundi. 

I'm still in a daze when Buddha turns up, wearing a suit without a tie and a camel-coloured coat with a brown collar. He looks very much at home here. 

"Come on," he says. "We'd better get you in a taxi. You're already late." 

He steps into the street and flags down a black car.  

"Richmond," Buddha tells the driver, and shows him the card that Progress gave me. Then he opens the door for me to climb in the back. 

"Here, you'll need money." He hands me a roll of notes. 

"What do I need money for?" 

"Absolutely everything, believe me." He gives me another card. "And this is my home address." 

I feel like a child being bundled off on their first lone journey. And I suppose it's true that my behaviour is childlike. As the cab sets off, I'm craning my neck to take in more of this fascinating world.  

There are so many beings. There must be literally thousands of them here in this other world. I think about the election for the president of heaven, the election that I'm supposed to be influencing. What a silly idea. What possible mechanism could influence all these people? 

The cab driver sees me rubber-necking. "First time in London?" he asks. 

"First time in this world, actually." 

He frowns and puts the radio on. 

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