Music in the Midst of Desolation

an excerpt

Patrick Evans wasn't entirely sure how he'd arrived where he was, and he wasn't ready to ask.

All he could be certain of was that he'd lived twenty-seven years on Earth, then been hit by a sniper's bullet in a trench in France while telling one of his company to "put out your damned cigarette before Fritz sees it." He'd known he was done for, known that he'd just a bit of time to put in order whatever needed to be put in order. He'd prepared for oblivion and then heard Christopher Williams's voice in his head-as lucid as if he was sitting next to the man on a cold winter's afternoon in St. George's chapel, reaching the end of Evensong and anticipating a pre-prandial sherry.

Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, oh Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. For the love of thy only son, our saviour, Jesus Christ.

Patrick had spoken the words along with the voice in his head, lying in the mud of the Somme, repeating the collect again and again and-for the first time in his life-actually meaning it. To his surprise, he'd awoken in another place and with another job to do, one a damn sight more pleasant than leading men into a hell of barbed wire and mud.

So Christopher had been right all along about an afterlife. Of course, that would turn out to be so; when had Christopher ever been wrong about anything? Magnificent, beautiful, infuriating Christopher who'd been the unsurpassed source of pleasure in Patrick's life. The one who had sat alongside him on the settee-and on his knee when the rest of the Evans household were out-and played such havoc with his sleep. Night after night for two weeks on one memorable holiday to Trouville, before Europe had been rent apart.

Patrick wasn't sure how long he'd spent there, in that other place where time no longer seemed to have the same dimensional qualities he was used to. Enough years for the world he'd known to have changed-some said progressed-considerably, by the time he returned to it. And now he was on Earth again, somewhere they had ships in the sky instead of just on the water where they were supposed to be, and cabs were pulled along by fiercely roaring engines rather than the docile horses God had intended for the job. If this was progress, he wasn't sure he liked it.

"You won't be bored, you know." The person assigned to settle Patrick in on his return to Earth, a tweed-clad lady of indeterminate age, had met him at Waterloo Station. She looked more Agatha Christie-Patrick had seen the author's picture on the cover of a book in WH Smith's store while he waited to be scooped up-than Archangel Gabriel. She'd extended a brown, wrinkled hand to be shaken. "Should have introduced myself properly. Call me Marjorie. It's not my name now, although it was my name once, and it'll do. Let's get you to your lodgings." She'd set off at a great pace, Patrick barely able to keep up with her.

"I've forgotten what boredom's like." Funny how tedium hadn't featured back there, but now a vague memory of what it felt like returned, along with recollections of other feelings he'd left behind. Hurt. Jealousy. Cold. Patrick pulled his jacket tighter around him and wished he'd worn a thicker sweater.

"There's work to be done and they've decided you're suitable to be entrusted with it." The woman stopped in her march, turning to face him and rolling her eyes, as if to insinuate that Raphael or one of his lesser lights was lacking in judgement this time around. "I suppose they know what they're doing."

"What exactly is it that you want me to do?"

When he'd first been given his notice to prepare for "embarkation," Patrick had wondered whether he'd be assigned to being Christopher's guardian angel. Any previous occupant of the post would have needed to take an extended sabbatical due to extreme mental fatigue. But now he was back on Earth, it was obvious the timescale wouldn't work out. According to the newspaper he'd seen at the newsagent's, this was 2011, so Christopher-if alive-would be one hundred and twenty-one and incapable of getting into any mischief that a guardian angel would need to get him out of.

"Do? Be patient in the short term." Marjorie snorted, turning a corner and leading him out of the concourse.

It was odd walking real streets again, even if they barely resembled the ones Patrick remembered. The snow-there'd clearly been a fresh fall during the night-was white or slushy grey, for one thing. Not brown with horse droppings, like it used to be anywhere that cabs and drays plied their trade. It had been speckled brown out in France. Brown and red.

The air was cleaner, too, despite the muck the vehicles threw out. They crossed the river by Westminster Bridge, making their way through the bustle until main roads gave way to a side street and then a labyrinth of residential roads. They ended up in front of a large, neat house with a substantial plot, one which didn't seem to have suffered the fate of similar properties they'd passed, redeveloped past recognition. Marjorie had kept up a constant commentary en route about what had changed, how the "war to end all wars" had failed to do so, and parts of London had been flattened by a conflict played out over its head and on its doorstep.

Still, in this cul-de-sac, by a white stuccoed Georgian villa, he could believe he was back on leave, newly deposited from a hansom cab and waiting for the footman to come and take his bags.

"Headquarters. At least HQ here on Earth." Marjorie opened the heavy front door, leading Patrick into a well kept, elegant hallway. Voices sounded from other rooms, the unmistakable sounds of people, or angels, at work, busy and content. "Come and meet Neville." She guided Patrick through an open door into a small study, whose french windows gave onto a garden blanketed in snow.

Neville looked just like his name suggested. Big, bluff, quietly efficient. "Ah, Evans." He gave Patrick a vigorous handshake.

"Pleased to meet you." Patrick frowned. "Have we met before?"

"Not directly, although I've seen you plenty of times. I had charge of a friend of yours during the great unpleasantness."

"Guardian angel? That couldn't have been an easy job." And why hadn't there been more of them? Uncomfortable memories of young lads-wounded, dying or simply going mad-calling for their mothers, flooded Patrick's mind.

"It wasn't." Neville sat down, encouraging his visitors to do the same. Back on Earth meant back with an earthly body and all the aches and pains that involved. "Easy at the start, nothing more complicated than saving him from stray bullets-albeit he had a nasty habit of trying to put himself in the way of one." Neville's face broke into an avuncular grin. "Had to make sure he was preserved-as per orders-to see out the war."

"Why weren't they all preserved? Why pick out just one or two for special treatment?" The return to Earth had brought a return of anger, too. He didn't ask it for himself-his end had been quick and relatively painless-but for those poor boys.

"Why indeed?" Neville spread his hands. "I could be complacent and say we couldn't have saved them all, not every day for four years. Everyone has to die sometime."

"But the manner of their deaths…" Patrick struggled for words; strange how he hadn't felt this way in so long. How he'd been grateful to have the sense of injustice flow away. How it had begun to make sense, back there, and now there was no sense to it at all.

"Heartbreaking. Not just here." Neville smiled, eyes burgeoning with tears, tears which were being kept under strict control. "You'll understand one day. Suffice to say that we don't like to intervene, but sometimes we have to. If the-what do they call it, Marjorie, the thing that sometimes goes down the wrong line?"

"Flow chart." Marjorie, voice softer than it had been, sounded as if she too was holding back from crying. "It's a modern thing, Patrick. A sort of map of what might happen if you choose one set of actions or another. Every time someone opts for a particular thing, all the chart lines ahead get reset."

"Sometimes there are key points in the process control system where we have to step in, or else the resetting causes chaos." Neville nodded.

Patrick, who'd just about followed the discussion, wondered what key point had been missed in 1914.

"And if you're wondering whether we ever miss any key points, it's rare." Could Marjorie be reading his mind? "No matter how bad it may seem, sometimes the alternative was worse."

Patrick shivered, despite the warmth of the room. Worse? What could have been worse than Hell?

"I think we should return to the matter in hand. Thank you, Neville." Marjorie tapped his arm, then smiled benignantly at Patrick. "Perhaps you can talk this young man through the general rules and regulations before you give him his specific briefing. No one better than you for that particular responsibility." She produced what seemed to be an uncharacteristic wink and disappeared. Literally.

"I wish she wouldn't-still gives me a turn when she pops back to HQ like that." Neville shook his head. "Let me show you where to stow your dunnage, then we'll organise a brew. Briefings are thirsty work."

Patrick was about to question the word "dunnage" when he realised there was something leaning against his leg-a small trunk, like an old fashioned midshipman's chest, the sort his uncle had possessed when he'd first served in Her Majesty's navy. He had no idea where it had come from, but nothing surprised him anymore.

"Yes, it's yours. Bring it up to your quarters."