Chapter 16 


It's difficult to tell which one of us is more surprised, Joe Progress or me. He inspects me like I'm a brand new sculpture  

"You're not dreaming," he says. 

"No, I've just been killed." 

"Well, that's one way of getting back." 

And now I'm sure which one of us is more surprised. It's me. I'm standing at the bar in The George and Dragon, the pub in heaven that Buddha led me past a long time ago, and I have a giant Margarita in my hand and I haven't a clue how I got here, apart from the lethal assistance of Elliot Harmon, but the rest is a blur. 

The bar is heaving. Father Christmas is playing pool against Vishnu, and although they're well known as a pair I've never seen either of them here before. Rapunzel is at a table with Einstein, probably discussing unified field theory, as I've heard she has a few ideas on the subject. I can see Homer, Theseus and St George himself. For a couple of seconds I wonder if this party if for my benefit, to celebrate my return to heaven, but my adventures on Earth have left me less naïve than I once was and the delusion doesn't last for long. In any case we have the wrong selection of gods for that. No Hector, no Achilles, no Uncle Bacchus. A few feet to my left sits the God of Fashionable Trainers, who's hardly likely to attend anything for my benefit. His hoodie is up and he's furiously tapping at the tiny keyboard of his mobile phone. Mammon, Mercedes and Quetzalcoatl are on stools at the bar. It's many years since I last saw Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec plumed serpent. He's well known as being part of Joe Progress's crew, one of the backroom boys in the Workshop of All Invention. He doesn't look much like a plumed serpent, having broad body features and a large and somehow rectangular head with massive eyes, but he has the aggressive attitude of a snake and wears beads in his hair in a way that might suggest a plume. 

Mammon and Mercedes look especially happy. Mammon is actually smiling from time to time, though it's not a pleasant smile and makes me wonder if we might find a heap of tortured cats in a nearby yard. Mercedes throws her head back and laughs joyfully between pulls on a series of cigarettes. 

"I keep to my deals," Progress tells me. "What was it? No more genetically modified organisms in your neck of the woods. That was it, wasn't it?" 

"What are you talking about?" 

Yet another god approaches Progress to shake his hand and congratulate him. I think I have some idea what's going on here, and I don't like it. Above the hubbub of indeterminate chatter I can hear the sound of David Bowie's Heroes. "We can be heroes, just for one day."

Dreams. I have dreams or vague memories circling inside my head like debris after a tornado. I'm walking along half a mile of corridors in a dull concrete building with thousands of other-worlders, many of them old. There are window-like openings in the walls but nothing distinct on the other side of the windows. We're all nude, which doesn't bother me in the slightest but seems to disturb my companions, who try to cover themselves with their hands and look around at each other as if something important is riding on how many people see them undressed. Our corridor opens up into a great hall with a single line of desks across it. At each desk is a figure of authority, and we have to join one of these lines and take our turn at answering questions.  

Reality intervenes. My turn at the desk is interrupted by somebody snatching my Margarita from my hand and placing it on The George's bar. I'm about to protest when I'm enveloped in a bear-hug that squeezes the breath out of me. It's Buddha. 

 "Pan, Pan, Pan! What happened? Where the hell have you been my munchkin?"

He lifts me off the ground, twirls me round 360 degrees, puts me down and ruffles my hair, which is a very annoying thing for him to do, and requires skill to avoid the horns, but I let it pass. 

"Elliot Harmon killed me," I tell him. 

"Yes, I know that. But where have you been since? I've been looking for you for ages." 

"How long have you been looking for me?" 

"At least a day." 

"Hmmm. It looks like I'm missing a day." 

Buddha tells me what's happened since Elliot Harmon killed me. The press conference certainly drew plenty of coverage, almost all of it negative. Foxglove Laboratories lost two thirds of its share valuation in one day. Elliot Harmon came on TV personally to say I'd taken my own life using the slaughterhouse gun in my sheep pen, which pretty much everybody believed, apart from Buddha and John Frum. 

The 200s program was pilloried by newscasters throughout the world, changing public perception and having great influence on the heavenly election that followed a day later. Unfortunately, the public at large associated the 200s program with Doctor Longlife, not with Joe Progress, so faith in the Doc was destroyed and Joe Progress romped home.


Joe Progress is still next to me, listening to Buddha's explanation. I turn on him. 

"You can't get away with that! You lied. You told me the 200s was your invention." 

"No, I've been very careful never to say that. I told you that Foxglove takes most of the inventions from Q and myself and introduces them to the other world. You made the assumption this included the 200s. But it didn't. The 200s program was developed by the Doc." 

No wonder Progress was so keen for me to go down to mortal Earth and interfere! I've been doing his work for him. Buddha was right, I'm not cut out for politics. I've been played like a fool. 

"Things worked out very well," says Progress. "Not only did I get re-elected, but we also managed to kill off the 200s program. I've always been dead against it, and now it'll be decades before anybody dares to bring it up again." 

To be fair to Joe Progress he doesn't say these words in a gleeful way that I might find offensive, more like a boss congratulating an underling, as if we're both on the same side and things have worked out very well for both of us. I was never a great fan of the 200s program myself, so I don't mourn its loss, but it puzzles me that Joe Progress was also set firmly against it. How can a god who is at the very forefront of invention and change take a strong dislike to the latest scientific development? Surely there's some paradox here? 

My muddled head returns to vague memories, to the great concrete hall with the line of desks. I'm standing in front of a desk and the questions begin.  

–What is your religion? 

–I don't have a religion, I am a religion. I'm the god Pan. 

–Please state the good things you have done in your life, and the bad things, and you will be judged according to the rules of 'religion-I'm-the-god-Pan'. 

My questioner wears a peaked cap that shades his face. I lean closer to take a look. The other-worlders at nearby desks seem petrified and wouldn't dare do such a thing, but I'm suspicious.

–You're a machine! You're an automaton! 

–Judgement complete. Please take the corridor to the right. 

I join the stream of other-worlders entering the right hand corridor. Its walls are pink and featureless and it has sharp bends. I haven't gone far when I'm plucked from the crowd by two uniformed guards. 

–Are you the one who claims to be Pan? 

–That's me. 

–He certainly looks like Pan. 

I'm taken out of the corridor to an office where I get to meet a real figure of authority rather than a machine. 

–You say you're Pan? 

–That's right. 

–We already have a Pan in heaven. We don't need two. 

–I think you'll find the one you thought was in heaven is missing. We're one and the same. 

–Really? If you're Pan then what's your surname? 


I wait a few seconds. 

–Aren't you going to ask me how to spell that? 

–In my own time. 

Back in the bar in heaven, Buddha is shaking me. "Pan? Pan? What's wrong with you?" 

My head comes back to The George. "I think… I think I have some idea where my missing day went. Do we have something in heaven that's like an arrivals hall for other-worlders who reach the end of their mortal life?" 

Buddha gives me a puzzled look.  

Joe Progress answers the question without looking at me directly, "If we do, then it's not something we talk about." 

I'm desperately trying to hold on to this memory, because I feel it's an important memory and I want to keep it, yet it's behaving like a dream. It's passed through my mind just once, and now it refuses to be remembered again. I can sense it slipping away. And now it's almost gone. I have a big hall, a line of fuzzy desks, a flash of pink and nothing more.

Joe Progress, I sense, knows this has happened. 

"Well, I must say you're looking well, especially for somebody who's dead," says Buddha, more to break the hiatus than for the value of the observation. 

"Thank you." 

"You look a thousand years younger," says Progress. 

I don't thank him, but that's about as rude as I intend to be. I should hate him for manipulating me so expertly, but, as Buddha once said, I'm a lazy bastard, and hatred is an emotion that requires dedication and a great deal of energy. 

"How did you get back to heaven?" I ask Buddha. My mind is very mixed up. I should have asked this the moment I saw him. 

"The Axis Mundi is back in position at the atheist society," he tells me. "Whoever moved it returned it." He glances at Mercedes, but doesn't say her name. "John Frum is still in the other world. He's got a new Argos catalogue." 

Noah arrives to pay his respects to the freshly re-elected president of heaven. He is the oldest god here. He hugs Buddha briefly and nods a greeting at me. 

"Ah, Noah," says Progess, "there's something I've been meaning to ask you. What's the Ark made of?" 

"Wood," says Noah. This isn't a difficult question. I suspect Progress already knew the answer. It's like asking Noah if he's interested in animals and sailing. 

"You know, there's an acute shortage of wood," says Progress. "And the Ark must be very difficult to maintain and keep waterproof, especially with it being so old. I have a suggestion. How would you like a new Ark made of steel or glass-reinforced plastic? A straight exchange for the old one." 

"No thanks. I'm very happy with the Ark as it is. " 

"But I'd really love to have all that wood," says Progress, "It would come in useful for my new supermarket project. I could offer you a brand new steel ferry in exchange." 

"Make it a ro-ro," says Mercedes, turning towards us to deliver these few words and then going back to her conversation with Mammon and Quatzalcoatl. 

"I do not want a steel ferry," protests Noah. "I like the ark as it is!"

"Gas turbine engines, twin propellers, bow thrusters, satellite navigation," offers Progress. "That's a lot better than just drifting around hoping for the best." 

"The ark is guided by a higher power," says Noah. "And I'm too long in the tooth to start using all this fancy technology. I've said this before and I'll say it again – I'm far too old to change the way I do things."

"I was thinking of a compromise," says Progress. "Maybe you'd be prepared to part with the upper structure of the ark, the top deck, roof, walls, and in return I'll give you a new topside in steel or GRP, and stop sending you pairs of transgenic animals." 

"Transgenic?" says Noah. "You mean those abominations like the crocorabbit and the frog-shark? Oops!" He holds his hand to his mouth. 

"I'd be happy to make that deal," says Progress. 

Whether Noah accepts or declines is lost on me, because my head has gone on one of its journeys again. One thing I'll say for my recent adventures is that I've changed from being an unthinking layabout into a much more perceptive being. I doubt that Joe Progress could fool me into blindly doing his work a second time. I've just worked out why he was against the 200s program, and it's almost as interesting as my earlier revelation concerning the collective imagination. 

Here's the way it comes to me. Noah is complaining that he's too old to change his ways, and indeed I can't see him picking up the instruction manual for a satellite navigation system or a bow-thruster. Then I wonder how keen I'd be on these things myself. I suspect I might cope with the bow-thruster but I'd have some trouble with satellite navigation. And who in our present company would easily deal with both? Look no further than the god of Fashionable Trainers, who must surely have calloused thumbs and failing eyesight by now, he's so busy with his mobile phone and it's so damned small. But he's an expert with it and I'm sure he would soon become an expert with anything else technical that came his way. Indeed, if he was in charge of the Ark he would demand that it had satellite navigation and bow-thrusters. 

And what's the difference between us, what is it that determines these attitudes to items new? The answer is age. Noah is ancient and he can't cope with the new. The god of Fashionable Trainers welcomes the new with open arms, and I'm somewhere between the two of them both in age and attitude. 

And this is why Joe Progress doesn't want the other-worlders living to 200 years old. They'd all become Noahs. Not in a literal sense, of course, but far too many of them would take on Noah-like attitudes. Joe Progress would send down his latest invention and ninety percent of the population would say – No, I've been around too long to start changing my ways now. 

In a larger sense, progress with a small p relies on youth, it relies on youthful attitudes. The old don't drive progress, they inhibit it. Joe needs the other world to be full of young people if he's going to prosper. The old are not his friends.  

And in a broader sense still, this is why the other-worlders die. They have to die for their society as a whole to progress. If they stop dying, their society will stagnate, or at least move forward at a snail's pace. The old tend to be richer than the young, and more powerful. The only way to get them to stand aside and make way for the new generation is mortality. 

See how slowly things move forward here in heaven? The heavyweight gods are thousands of years old. A few lightweights pop up, last a few generations and are gone. And nothing much changes. Joe has his work cut out even trying to get us to drive rather than walk, or to shop in supermarkets. He's far more successful down in the other world, because they have shorter lifespans.  

Death and progress go hand in hand. 

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