St Peter was inspecting the paintwork on the Pearly Gates when Derek arrived in a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoky steam. St Peter spun round at the noise and, unable to see the soul for the steam, waved his hands to disperse the cloud. Eventually he saw a face that was a study in bewilderment.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked.
‘Er… I dunno, I’ve only just got here,’ said Derek. Vapour rose from his battered corduroy trousers, crept over the collar of his open-neck checked shirt and drifted through the holes in his frayed and bobbly knitted jumper. As he brushed himself down, he noticed the gates, the saint’s robes, a lectern and the lack of any other visible structure. ‘Hang on – are you St Peter?’
‘The very same,’ said St Peter cheerfully with a slight tilt of the head and a wry smile at being recognised. ‘The Keeper of the Keys, The Guardian of the Gates… at your service. What can I do for you?’
‘Any chance you can slap me?’
St Peter’s smile vanished. ‘Slap you? What for? Don’t you think you’re in enough trouble?’
‘Not sure. I think I’m dreaming and I’d like to wake up now.’
The saint sniffed. ‘Fair enough.’ He tapped Derek lightly on the cheek.
Derek looked unimpressed. ‘Harder than that.’
He found himself on the business end of a right hook that a nightclub bouncer would have been proud of.
‘Any better?’ asked St Peter, rubbing his knuckles.
‘Not really. I’m still here.’
‘So you are. What’s your name?’
The Guardian of the Gates picked up a clipboard from his lectern and checked through the names on his list. ‘It seems we’re not expecting you, Derek,’ he said, then his gaze drifted past the bottom of his clipboard. ‘What’s up with your foot?’
Derek looked down. ‘Ooh,’ he winced. ‘That looks nasty, doesn’t it? Can’t feel anything now, mind you. But since you ask, a garden fork went through it. I blame the optician, to be honest.’
‘An optician stabbed you in the foot with a garden fork?’
‘No! I dropped the fork on my foot.’
‘So what’s the optician got to do with it?’
Derek sighed. ‘Well, I got these new glasses…’ – he put his hands up to his face to demonstrate – ‘…glasses which I don’t appear to have at the moment, but… Anyway, I’m not sure the optician’s got the prescription right because they make me a bit wobbly. And I was doing the garden, wearing the new glasses, trying to make my mind up whether I just need to get used to them or they are the wrong prescription…’
‘And you accidentally stabbed yourself in the foot with the garden fork?’
Derek shook his head. ‘No, I stabbed the hosepipe with the fork. It was a green hosepipe on the green grass, you see?’
‘Well I didn’t. I didn’t see the hosepipe so I went straight through it with the fork.’
‘And your foot was under the hosepipe?’
‘Nah,’ said Derek in that voice which usually adds ‘you numpty’ afterwards. ‘If I’d felt the hosepipe on my foot, I wouldn’t have shoved the fork through it, would I?’
St Peter put his clipboard back on the lectern. ‘No, you wouldn’t, would you.’
‘Anyway, the end of the hosepipe fell out of the wheelbarrow and landed on the cat.’
‘I don’t suppose there’s even a remote chance that the cat attacked you and made you drop the fork on your foot?’
Derek blew out his cheeks. ‘Not even close. The cat shot off across the garden, right across the fresh concrete that I’d just patched the path with, through the patio door and into the kitchen where Sharon was making a risotto for lunch.’
St Peter pulled a chair from seemingly nowhere, sat down wearily and folded his arms. ‘Risotto,’ he said flatly.
Derek looked at him. St Peter looked back. Derek set his mouth into a line, widened his eyes and silently pointed to the chair.
St Peter rolled his eyes and pulled up another chair. ‘Here, have a seat.’ He could have been accused of a lack of enthusiasm as he said, ‘Do go on.’
Derek sat down. ‘Well, I put the fork on the ground and went to smooth the concrete over, and then I heard the crash.’
‘Crash? What crash?’
‘Ah, now, see, the cat was going at such a lick that it couldn’t stop on the polished floor and it slid through the kitchen, into the dining room and ploughed straight into a big vase of flowers. Over went the vase, leaving water, flowers and bits of broken pottery all over the— did I say it was a polished floor?’
‘Right, so, Sharon turned off the risotto and went in the dining room to clear up the mess.’
‘What about the cat? Was the cat all right?’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Derek, waving one hand airily, ‘the cat was fine, but it didn’t much like the polished floor, so made its way back to the garden across the kitchen worktops and the hob.’
‘Let me guess – it burnt its feet.’
‘No, but we’ve got one of these touch-sensitive hobs and the cat accidentally turned the risotto back on.’
‘Of course it did,’ sighed St Peter.
‘So whilst Sharon was busy mopping up, she didn’t know about the risotto.’
‘And you didn’t know about the risotto either?’
‘Me? No. I was outside putting the gardening tools away and trying to keep the cat off the concrete. I’d just picked up the garden fork when I heard the smoke alarm going off.’
‘Aha!’ said St Peter, livening up. ‘Now we’re getting to it. That’s when you dropped the fork on your foot!’
Derek grimaced and shook his head again. ‘No. It took me a few seconds to realise it was a smoke alarm going off, but by the time I’d realised it was our smoke alarm and turned round to go into the house, Sharon had got to the kitchen and thrown the risotto pan out into the garden.’
‘She didn’t hit you with it, did she?’ said St Peter, more in hope than expectation.
‘Nearly. I turned round just in time to see it coming towards me so I dodged out the way.’
‘Mmmm. Unfortunately, I dodged right onto the garden rake. That swung up and hit me in the chops, and that’s when I let go of the garden fork straight onto my foot.’
‘At last,’ said St Peter. ‘But having a garden fork through your foot isn’t normally enough to get you up here.’
Derek raised a forefinger. ‘Ah, well, you see… Sharon came out, shouting about what the cat had done and I told her to get the first-aid box. She went back inside, I got the fork out of my foot and took my boot off to see what was what. I was hopping about on one leg, trying to make my way back to the house and by now my foot was hurting like bugg— hurting like hel— … I was in considerable pain, and I overbalanced and put my foot on the risotto pan.’
‘Which was still red hot?’
‘Which was still red hot.’
‘Yay, I got one right,’ said St Peter.
‘Anyway,’ continued Derek, ‘I hopped over to the fish pond and jumped in there to cool it down.’
Derek frowned. ‘Too quick, I’m afraid. I landed on the pump in the bottom of the pond, there was a flash and a bang and the next thing I know is I’m standing here and you’re asking if you can help me.’
St Peter held up a hand.
‘Say no more, Derek – I’ve heard enough. More than enough.’ He stood up and took a deep breath. ‘Derek Middlecombe,’ he said in the manner of a judge about to pass sentence, ‘you are not getting through these gates today.’
Derek shot to his feet. ‘What?! Not getting in? You’re sending me to the other place?’
St Peter laughed. ‘Whatever makes you think that? No, you’re not going to the other place either. I’m sending you back.’
‘Back? Back home?’
‘Unless you want to go to the optician’s.’
Derek quickly shook his head. ‘No, no, home’s fine… erm… thank you… but why?’
St Peter beamed and rubbed his hands together.
‘Let’s just say it’s your lucky day.’