Chapter 5 


Buddha's home is a small semi-detached house deep in the suburbs of Cricklewood, and very modest compared to Stephanie's. I've been here a couple of days now and I spend as much time as I can in the rear garden, where the plants and bushes grow wild, the grass is waist-high and there are butterflies and a family of foxes. I keep hoping to see a woodnymph posing beneath one of the sycamores. No luck so far. 

Buddha once waded out into the middle of the grass to meditate, but spends most of his evenings on the sofa catnapping and watching TV, which he claims is pretty much the same thing. In heaven, I can't recall ever seeing him sitting with his legs out of the lotus position, yet here in his lounge he comes back from work and shakes his shoes on to the carpet and spreads his legs along the sofa, props a cushion behind his back and sighs, clearly content. 

"Ah, this is the life," he says, leaning forward from the quicksand sofa for another slice of pizza. "TV on, fast food delivered to the door, nice comfortable sofa." 

My easy chair has its own quicksand habits – it's easier to enter than to leave – yet I'm not so easily seduced by the rest of suburban life. I admit I've taken a liking to Pepperoni pizza and I'm beginning to follow Eastenders, but I still have a way to go.  

"There's a meditative quality to evenings like these," continues Buddha. "Here we are in a pleasant semi out in the backwaters, with no traffic noise, nobody at the door, the front garden acting as a buffer zone, plenty of shops conveniently close yet far enough away not to be a nuisance. It's a semi-detached life in all kinds of ways. I just love curling up on the sofa and watching something mindless on the box. It's as close as you can get to meditation with no mental effort. And the fantastic thing is, there are millions of people on this same longitude doing exactly the same thing. I love the collective mindlessness of the evenings. It's simply beautiful. Pan! Stop clicking your hoofs together." 

"I can't help it," I protest. "I'm feeling restless. I don't think semi-detached life is for me. I want to be out there doing things, chasing nymphs, dancing, finding out what Joe Progress is up to and how to get into Foxglove." I wave a sheet of paper at him. "Stephanie managed to get me an application for an investors' tour, but the only people they let inside are fund managers and multi-millionaires." 

When I've finished protesting I do as I'm told and stop clicking my hoofs, as I'm still mildly in the doghouse for eating the aspidistra in the hallway. I love the idea of snack plants spread around a house, yet apparently that's not why they're there. In heaven I tend to sleep in caves or under bushes, so houseplants, paintings and ornaments are all a mystery to me. There are dozens of shelves in Buiddha's lounge and every one if them is taken up by ceramic cats playing ceramic violins.

I've brought up the issue of ceramic violin-playing cats with Buddha, and he tells me he finds them useful for the purpose of personal centering. If by some chance he begins to feel that everything in the universe makes sense and that life has some ultimate and definable purpose, he has only to glance at his collection of ceramic cats to recognise that this is merely a passing illusion. Apparently, many other-worlders hoard ridiculous ornaments for this same purpose, and even pay large amounts of money for them to ensure that the realisation hits with full force. 

We're currently watching The World's Wildest Police Chases on TV, which, as Buddha has already stated, is fairly mindless, consisting mainly of footage of fast moving vee-hicles squeezing between and around slower moving vee-hicles, often viewed from a helicopter, while a breathless commentator compliments the chasing police on the quality of their work, even when they're clearing fouling up. On these occasions, when two unmarked police cruisers collide with each other, when eight burly cops pounce on a driver who's already surrendered, and when the driver of a station wagon simply gets away, Buddha slaps his sides and guffaws, though I don't think the programme intends to be funny. 

This is the first real TV I've ever seen. I heard of them in heaven as mythical objects belonging to the other world, along with planes and helicopters and anti-wrinkle creams, but I've never seen one before. Just as the myth says, it's very much like a window into another world, or a theatre, or multiple theatres. The myth also says they're water-powered, and from looking at the pipes plugged into the back I can see this is a possibility. 

Our suburban idyll is broken by the sound of the doorbell. 

"Do you mind getting that?" says Buddha. 

I can hear mischief in his voice. When I open the front door, I understand why. 


"Pan! Hey, fella, nice to see you down here." 

John Frum gives me one of his rib-crushing bear-hugs. It's a few seconds before I can speak. "I thought you'd…" 

"Faded away? No, I just like it down here. Came down the Axis Mundi, saw my first mail-order catalogue, never went back."

I haven't seen John for years. He's a god of the Cargo Cult. Many times in heaven John and I would flatten grass into smooth strips called runways and  sit together in the tiny wooden control towers he built and press buttons made of gourds and acorn caps and say thing like 'This is Bay Area Control calling A-Six-One-Niner on final approach' into freshly-picked bulrush heads. I never really expected an aircraft to land and discharge its cargo, as to me they were just mythical items from the other world, but sometimes I think John was genuinely disappointed. Anyway, it was a great deal of fun and I developed a soft spot for him.

"What are you doing in London?" I ask. "Aren't you supposed to be in New…er…" 

"New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia? Nice places, sure, but if you want cargo you need to be here in London, where the action is." He clicks his fingers. "Or New York, Tokyo, but no way out in the sticks. Whew! No cargo." 

John is tall and athletic, though not especially broad. Muscles on his chest and upper arms are enhanced by the contrast of his black skin and stand out like foothills beneath a rising moon. His hair is close-cropped yet still densely curled. He wears plain green combat trousers cut to mid-calf, and no shirt. He likes to go around bare-chested, and if I ever saw him wearing a top in heaven it was only ever a white teeshirt. For all I know, it might have been the same one every time.  

We go through to the lounge. Buddha isn't there, but soon comes in from the kitchen with a selection of bottled beers, even though he doesn't drink alcohol. It's at times like this when I thank myself for my choice of friends. 

"I thought you two might like to catch up," he tells me." You know, there are six or seven gods living in London alone, leading quiet lives in the suburbs."  

"I'm in Muswell Hill," says John, which means nothing to me. He inspects the beer bottle labels. "This one makes you witty," he says, pointing. "This one turns you into a good musician, this one makes you attractive to women, and here's one that makes your penis grow." 

"That seems so unlikely," I say, more loudly than I intended. 

"Oh, I'm sorry," Buddha says to John. "I thought at least one of them might make you feel refreshed and light-headed." 

John takes this statement at face value and is puzzled by it. 

"I'm willing to give it a try," I say, intending to move things on, though I notice I've unintentionally picked the last beer that John mentioned.

"John takes TV advertising more literally than the rest of us," explains Buddha. "You should see his house. You can barely move for crates and boxes. Washing machines, tumble dryers, multigyms, dartboards, golf sets, paint strippers, cordless drills, horse grooming sets…" 

"Have you got a horse, John?" I ask. 


"But it can't just be cargo that keeps you here," I say. "You can have any material item you want in heaven. You'd only have to think of them, just imagine them, and they'd be there." 

"Hey, half this stuff I couldn't dream up. How about a combination kettle/radio? When the music stops you know the water's boiled. Smart, eh? There's one in the hall, though I don't use it. Or a hostess trolley that doubles as a painter's gantry. Try the front bedroom. A door that's also a six-inch wide aquarium? Can't lift it, but it looks great, even in the box. The best thing about being here is you don't even have to think about what you want." He points at the TV. "You see that? It tells me what I want to buy, and why I need it. They've got the whole system totally sorted, from beginning to end."

I recall Buiddha's comment about needing money for everything. "And where do you get the money for all this?" 

"Ah," says John, "I use a slightly different system. It's called credit. You'll see it advertised." 

Buddha shakes his head despairingly. 

"Buddha doesn't approve," says John. "Even though he's in the sharky business himself." 

"I'm not in the sharky business. I'm an estate agent," protests Buddha, "at Ratcliffe's, on Cricklewood High Street. Very respectable." He's drinking bottled water. I notice that as this is a special occasion he's cracked open a bottle of sparkling. 

I'm lost. "A what?" 

"A realtor," says John, equally mysteriously. 

"I buy and sell homes," explains Buddha.  

I must still be looking puzzled, because he adds, "You can buy and sell anything here." 

"But surely not homes?"

"Especially homes. Everything in this world has a monetary value - your home, your kidneys, an accident, a death, a baby, a finished marriage. It takes some getting used to." 

The conversation moves on to the subject of why I've come down the Axis Mundi to Earth, and I tell John about the mixed species items in my favourite forest, about Joe Progress and the forthcoming election, about Stephanie McVeigh and Foxglove Laboratories.  

John puts his finger to his lips. "Shhhh," he says. "The shopping instructions are on." 

A TV ad introduces us to a car that's good for the environment.  

"I'd better get one of those," says John. "All my cars make the air dirty. I should get one that cleans it." 

"Om! That's not really what the advert means, John," says Buddha. 

"'Course it does." 

"They mean it's a car that's less damaging for the environment than other cars." 

"That's not what they said." 

Buddha raises his eyes. He directs his explanation at me, though I suspect it's for John's benefit. "Adverts don't tell you much about products, they tell you what people want. If an advert tells you a car is good for the environment, it doesn't mean the car is good for environment, it means that people want cars to be good for the environment. You have to interpret, you have to filter." 

"Ok, so a face cream ad teaches me that people like to look young," I suggest. 


"What about burger ads?" 

For a few moments Buddha looks less comfortable on the sofa than usual, until he thinks of the answer. "People get hungry." 

"I see." 

Against John's protests, Buddha flicks through the channels until he comes across a program with the subtitle 'Aliens abducted my grandmother's brain'. 

"Ah," he says, with satisfaction. "Reality TV." 

Proud teenagers parade their grandparents and compete over whose is the most senile. Right now the TV competition is down to the final two oldies and is getting tricky to judge as neither of them speaks or responds to external stimuli.

"Isn't this in bad taste?" I suggest. 

"Compared to what?" says John, who seems very happy with Buddha's choice of programme. "Compared to 'My wife is a slag' or 'My children are so stupid I've cooked cleverer chickens'?"  

 We're watching a carefully-monitored blinking contest. First oldie to blink loses. They've now managed four minutes and the presenter is beginning to wonder if he made a mistake. We're poised on the precipice, waiting for an ancient blink, and when it finally arrives we're all eternally grateful.

The host of the show interviews the winner – the grandson of the non-speaking, unblinking grandmother – who is ten and a computer expert, and whose current ambition in life is to own a Burger King franchise, so he can eat as many burgers as he wishes. 

Buddha grimaces. I get the impression his theories on filtering and Zen TV have suffered a setback. 

"I used to work in one," he says, "when I first arrived here in the other world. I worked in a Burger King on Charing Cross Road." 

"Was it bad?" 

"Very good for the humility, not for the bank balance." 

"So you became an estate agent." 

"Not straight away. I enrolled at a Buddhist monastery, but I got kicked out. The head monk said I was misinterpreting the teachings." 

"Didn't you tell him you're the teacher?" 

"What would be the point, if he didn't already know?" 

This brings a smile to my face. Buddha may be slightly different here in the other world, but he's still reassuringly perverse. 

"Anyway, there was no money in it," he adds. "They have a very fair method of distributing money in this world. If you're doing something worthwhile, they don't give you much. But if you do something fairly pointless then by way of compensation they give you shedloads. So teachers and nurses earn next to nothing, but footballers and rock stars earn millions." 

"Otherwise everybody would want to do something worthwhile," I suggest. 

"Exactly. My boss, for example, Paul Ratcliffe, the guy who owns the estate agency, he earns a fortune, and all he does is sell other people's houses."

"Poor sod." 

"Actually, it's worse than that. Nowadays he just employs other people to sell houses for him, while he sits on a yacht in the Caribbean. A completely worthless life, so he's paid handsomely for it." 

"That's Progress," says John. "Can I have another beer?" 

"Sure," says Buddha. "Which one would you like this time?" 

"One that helps me play football. I've got a game tomorrow." 

Buddha carefully selects the correct brand. 

We say nothing for some time. Buddha changes channels again and we watch a programme on fad diet plans. We learn about the cabbage soup diet, the Atkins diet, and the latest contender based around a mild dose of typhoid. My media filter mechanism is working well, indeed it's hyperactive, as I notice all that every participant in the programme is still overweight, apart from the typhoid dieters, who weigh no more than seven stone but are a disconcerting shade of yellow.  

That's not the only thing that occurs to me. 

"Your boss, does he come back to this country often?" 

"Paul? Hardly ever. It's a peculiar system. Most over-paid people are kept out of this country by their accountants. I can barely remember what he looks like." 

"So it's unlikely that anybody else would recognise him. He might happen to have wide feet and always wear a hat, for all anybody knows, and be very keen to invest in Foxglove Laboratories." 

Buddha smiles and strokes his chin, thoughtfully. "Yes, I see what you mean." 

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