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It is televised, though not as we might know it.
The host is Beryl Lutwyche, a former resident of Earth who achieved near total enlightenment while raising three children and working in a dental clinic.
And then there is fancy Paul, standing there on the set of the ethereal production with nervous hands and a face like a lost homing pigeon; all over the place.
‘Paul, welcome back to The Life is Right. You are into the final rounds now, how are you feeling?’
‘Thanks Beryl, it’s good to be back. It’s been, uh, an experience. I have to say, I really want to win the major prize. I’m here to win.’
‘You are of course playing for eternal peace and rest. Let’s begin.’
A small orchestra somewhere out of sight strikes up a score. Lights flash in alternating patterns. The effect is dazzling; a studio thunderstorm. A frisson of danger in the thrashing of light and sound.
Within eyesight of host and guest, an oversized screen appears in the air.
‘Paul, we are about to watch your funeral service, held just a few days ago in a country church not far from where you were born,’ Beryl says, lighting a cigarette as she speaks.
‘How many people attended and what memories or impressions did they impart? We’ll have to lock in your answers before we check the vision.’
The contestant clasps his hands together, the smooth flesh of each palm sliding against the other in a slick of sweat.
‘It would have to be 50 people, at least, I reckon. Maybe 70.’
He falters here, eyes searching the air for the rest of an answer.
‘And I think they would say that I made people laugh.’
‘Very common response that one,’ Beryl says.
‘You’d be surprised how often it doesn’t quite match what happened. Technician, let’s see the action replay.’
It is a middling affair. The church clung low to the ground, as if it were avoiding the very heavens. Orange bricks, standard arrangement. No miracles there. Inside, just 12 people. Faces clean.
‘I’m so sorry Paul, wrong on the first answer. Let’s see who spoke and what they had to say.’
He stares at the screen and nods solemnly.
‘Oh gosh, that’s my mum. We hadn’t spoken in 10 years, though I couldn’t even tell you why now,’ he says.
The woman at the pulpit on screen composes herself briefly and speaks.
‘Of course we loved Paul, my second eldest and only son. He was such a bright young boy. So curious.
‘I liked that most about him, actually. He saw the world as an inviting puzzle, never quite caring if he actually solved it. The mystery drew him in, and it was enough to hold him.
‘Honestly, I feel like I lost him a long time ago. The rest of it is too hard. Perhaps if I leave it there, that is the version of Paul that will be honoured here today.’
Paul’s mum is followed by a priest who, for whatever reason, keeps calling him David. The mourners do not correct him.
‘A disappointing round, Paul,’ the host says. She has cheap acrylic nails that scratch her note cards accusingly. The giant screen disappears to somewhere in the roof.
‘What went wrong?’
A trained observer might notice Paul swallow nothing at all as he prepares to speak. The game show lights catch a hint of moisture bubbling to the surface near his eyes, though the volume is too small to acquiesce to gravity’s charm. When he speaks, his voice rises and falls in the elevator of his distress. ‘I think I remember that boy,’ he says.
‘Yes, me. But I’ve done so much else since then. I had friends and partners, worked hard.’
‘A walking LinkedIn connection, perhaps.’
There is a sharp voice from the shadow beyond the set lights.
‘Right, let’s take five and set up for the final run.’
A blitz of activity pierces the otherwise sealed atmosphere of the studio and Paul watches Beryl wander off the stage, lighting another cigarette as she goes. Her presence is matriarchal in the way it invites upset appraisals.
From behind his golden contestant’s desk, Paul moves to follow her. From his view, the set looks like it has no tangible edge. The light bleeds out before a wall of vanta-black. Still, he follows her.
Beryl is sitting on a ledge of light, feet hanging over and into an absence.
‘Tough day,’ she asks without turning to face him.
‘I’m really not sure what a day is anymore.’
She hands him her packet of cigarettes.
‘Oh, I don’t smoke.’
‘You didn’t smoke, but you’re off the clock now. You might as well.’
He takes one from the carton. Menthol, slender and white. Like fine mushroom stalks.
Beryl reaches over with a small silver lighter and runs the flame under it as he drags gently on the other end. The performance has the air of a tiny ceremony.
‘Can I ask you something?’
The woman makes a sound like confirmation and he presses forth.
‘What happens when we finish recording?’
‘They always leave it to me to tell ’em,’ she says, although it is a remark she offers to herself more than to Paul.
‘Short answer? Nothing. The reward is total silence, from a cosmic point of view anyhow. But that’s only if you win. And you haven’t been doing much of that I can tell you,’ she says.
‘I thought you were one of the best? Why are you still here doing this then?”
‘There are debts to pay.’
The two are at a conversational stand-off. One is reluctant to share information, the other desperate to find out what happens to him. They are a pair of superconducted ceramic tiles levitating above a magnetic field.
When Beryl flicks her ash over the ledge, it seems to disappear into nothing at all. Swallowed up by the void.
‘Your problem,’ she says, ‘is that you never loved anyone so I wouldn’t expect you to understand the equation.’
‘I have three kids down there. Two boys and a girl. Spitting images of their father, unfortunately, but God I would do anything for ’em.’
‘Is there a God?’
‘Don’t be an idiot. I’m trying to explain it.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.’
‘I loved them more than myself and let me tell you, I had to. It’s a rough place down there if you’re hurtin’. And we hurt. Most days, we were hurtin’. But we loved through it because it was the only way.’
‘The world can be a rough place,’ he says.
Beryl turns to face Paul, her eyes green like jade in sunlight.
‘I’m not sure you understand that sentence,’ she says.
‘I was in pain, too.’
‘We are more tolerant of our own pain,’ Beryl continues. ‘Another person’s pain is a difficulty unless you put more care into them than you do yourself, then it becomes the most unbearable thing. You’d go to war over it, if you had to.’
Paul reaches the end of his cigarette and flicks it over the edge into the nothing.
‘So you made a deal?’
‘I made a deal.’
‘That you would do this job in return for, what?’
‘Safe passage, after a fashion. For the kids.’
‘How old were they when you … you know, when you came here?’
‘Bobby was 14. Little dickhead most of the time, but a sweet one. Emily was 11, a heart pure as the morning sun. And my youngest, Jack, was just seven. The world was alive in him, I could feel it whenever he looked at something.’
Paul can see the sharing of this was a precipice. Much of Beryl’s studied composure is drifting away into the emptiness that confronts the pair. When one cigarette is burned to a nub, she immediately lights the next one.
Man and woman, surrounded by the curl of belligerent smoke.
‘I have to say, I never expected the afterlife to look like a smoking lounge in a Hong Kong airport,’ Paul says.
Beryl allows the shadow of a smile to cross her face.
‘I made it in my own image,’ she says. ‘But this ain’t no afterlife.’
‘What happens if I don’t win?’
The question has clearly been scorching his insides because it erupts from him as magma.
‘We’ll get to that,’ she says.
The uneasy reconnaissance is interrupted by a call from behind them. Everyone back on set. The final segment is about to begin.
Beryl dusts the ash from her floral dress. It isn’t a charming thing, necessarily, though she looks utterly charming in it. She raises her hand and motions for Paul to help her to her feet.
‘Look sharp,’ she says before wandering back to her place in front of a gaudy backdrop painted with love hearts and dollar signs.
‘Places everybody,’ the floor manager yells. He doesn’t wait for long before the crack of a board signals filming has resumed.
‘Welcome back to The Life is Right, I’m your host Beryl Lutwyche and our contestant is Paul Greeves, a single man from Sydney, Australia, and a former mid-level advertising executive,’ she begins.
Laughing, Paul says: ‘Ow, that hurts.’
‘Paul, this is it. You know the major prize but here’s what you’re playing for if you lose,’ she says.
The faux-wall behind Beryl rises and reveals what looks like a floating motorcycle. It bobs in a transparent pool of water.
‘It’s a jet ski!’
Paul wears astonishment on his face. He steps from the raised podium and paces over to Beryl.
‘That’s it? What the hell am I supposed to do with a jet-ski wherever this is?’
‘We want you to win, Paul. You’re a bit slow on the uptake though, aren’t you?’
The floor manager yells an indistinct warning in the background, though neither host nor contestant pay him any mind.
‘What was your deal for?’ Paul asks. ‘Who was it with? Who do I speak to about any of this?’
In this moment, a small figure steps forward from the ink of darkness off stage and into the light.
‘Hello,’ the little boy says.
Paul startles backward on his feet. There is an urgency written into his features.
‘This part is always too melodramatic for my taste,’ Beryl says.
‘Who are you?’
Statements like these are often too slim for the circumstances. What Paul means to convey is precisely this: how is it that he is standing before his own self, rendered as a seven-year-old boy? Or perhaps it is actually him as a boy?
‘It’s just a reconciliation process after the code has met its natural end,’ the child says. ‘I wouldn’t worry too much about it.’
Paul attempts to speak, thinks better of it and then stops himself. He does this a few times in quick succession, such that he resembles a fish plucked from the water and gasping for air.
The boy is without sentiment.
‘This is the end of the program,’ he says. ‘We bring the two selves together to establish how far from the perfect form the adult has diverged in their lifetime.’
Unbidden, Paul begins recalling the peculiarities of his boyhood self. How he always opened the door of the microwave precisely one second before it was finished. The interrogation of a rare moon halo on a snap-frozen night. The many ordinary inquisitions about the mechanics of the world in which he lived. The freshly lit kindling of flesh following a warm hug. He remembers the interior life of a boy unrestrained in his affections, elevated by discovery and animated by thoughts of an uncomplicated future, stripped of pointless adult rules.
‘Is this real?’ Paul asks.
‘Does it feel real?’
‘Then it is.’
The child adjusts a dinosaur-themed Flik Flak watch on his wrist.
‘Why are you here?’
Paul is growing unsure of himself.
‘I’m here to take you with me. This is the end of the show.’
‘We had another round.’
‘I’m not finished yet.’
‘No one ever is.’
There are ways back to love, none of which seemed obvious until now.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Paul the elder says to the boy.
‘I’ve let you down.’
The boy projects a deep compassion, as if he knows this was always the way things would end. As if he knows the mistake of maturity can only ever be the atrophy of wonder. He seems to understand that its victims — hopeless and ignorant — deserve pity above all.
‘You did what everyone else has done,’ the boy says. ‘Nothing more.’
‘What about her?’ he asks, looking at Beryl.
‘I’ll be alright, chook.’
‘No, you must have been stuck here a long time now. You need rest.’
He stops, briefly. Then musters the courage to continue.
‘You were wrong when you said I had never loved anyone more than myself,’ he says. ‘A love like that, so strong, it can diminish a person. Reduce them until there is not the faintest spark left for loving.’
‘I can’t let my kids go on alone, they have no one else,’ she says. ‘I can protect them here.’
‘Let me host. I can look after them.’
Beryl studies him with caution. He knows she has accepted his offer before she manages a word because the woman allows the tension in her body to radiate out. There is relief in it; an unbottling. She greets the feeling the way anyone who has steeled themselves for unceasing misery does when they understand they can be delivered from it.
Her wearying sacrifice can end.
‘I’m so tired,’ she says. ‘But I can’t ask you to do that.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘I do now.’
‘Go,’ he tells her.
There is a loud crack and confetti falls from above, coating everyone on the stage.
Beryl gathers her contestant in her eyes.
“Paul Greeves, you have just won The Life is Right in a thrilling comeback. With a little scratching, we’ve found a fundamentally decent human being beneath your surface,’ she says.
The child smiles, a big face-splitting thing.
‘People run so far away from themselves,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they don’t remember how to get back.’
Paul embodies relief and ecstasy.
‘This was a test?’
‘No. Search and rescue,’ the child says.
The boy offers his hand to Paul.
‘Come with me, I have something to show you,’ he says. ‘It’s a museum, of sorts.’
Beryl grins and nods, as if to grant permission.
Boy and man walk toward the edge of the set, small hand held by the other. Paul sees his field of vision change and it is filled with an infinite expanse of mornings frosts, summer storms, prodigious violinists in subway stations. There are metallic-feathered birds, shooting stars, the low angle of autumnal light on rust-coloured leaves.
Great sentences of literature adorn the chambers of this endless room. His father’s embrace on a cold night. Mum, teaching him to sound his words. It is a room filled with love.
‘Every beautiful thing you ever saw or felt or heard,’ the boy says.
‘Stay as long as you want.’
Rick Morton is an award-winning journalist and the author of One Hundred Years of Dirt, On Money and My Year Of Living Vulnerably.
This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.