Waiting tables has to be the worst job you can get. For one, it’s tiring – all that hovering. Secondly, you get sucked into other people’s lives when it’s not your intention or business to do so. You overhear bits and pieces but never the full story. And what does the mind automatically do? Connect the dots.
For instance; take this cafe, where I am working right now. Two attractive young women are having a right giggle along the far wall.
‘So…how did it go?’ The blonde with dancing eyes had asked.
I was moving away when the dark-haired and darkly dressed companion responded with a childish giggle. The blonde put her polystyrene cup on the wooden rail along the wall instead of the table and leaned forward to press for details.
Now, what do you make of that? Personally, I don’t like to make assumptions. I like cold clean facts. But our minds are programmed to create a picture out of a few splashes of colour aren’t they? My assumption is that they’re friends and one had a date last night. Cliché, I know. Why waste time and effort thinking up something spectacular like my friend Shaam? He waits tables from time to time too and conjures up some stories you could sell to Hollywood.
It’s a Saturday, so this place is beginning to get busy. A fed up looking guy in a beanie hat and sunglasses takes a table at the window. A podgy little boy wearing a football jacket, a size too small, sits down opposite him. The glasses come off as they take a menu each from the other waitress. A single parent I expect. Or it’s his turn to entertain the well-behaved child. Wonder what Shaam would make of this guy’s grim face. I look down the list in my arms and then check the digital timer counting down at the top of the clipboard.
It’s about to happen; I brace myself.
Thirty seconds later the red double-decker bus teeming with tourists and shoppers explodes right outside the cafe. I don’t feel the impact, not like the people it’s happening to, but I always flinch as they do when they watch a horror movie.
I check the name at the top of my list again. Ben Jenkins. Wonder who that’ll be. The grim-faced guy and his boy by the window are buried under all that glass and a part of the bus roof. Bet it’s one of them. I look at what remains of the bus outside and nod at my colleague who raises his clipboard at me.
A whimper joins my side.
‘Hey, you must be Ben?’ I ask in a tone that’s been drilled over a million times.
The boy nods as his slightly transparent body hovers unsteadily in the air. I reach for his hand and help him to become steady. ‘Don’t worry; you’ll soon get the hang of this.’
I turn him away from the sight of blood and dismembered limbs. ‘Here, watch this. It’ll explain what’s happening. I’ve got to collect the others okay?’ I place a small console in his hands and float back to the cafe floor. I’m so grateful for those things. They’re a great gap filling exercise when there’s a mass death scene. The last time I had to cover an incident like this was a train wreck in Canada. Took almost three hours between the first and last soul collection.
Natural disasters I can handle. Stuff like this though – man-made – makes me sick. And lately, there’s been a lot of them. Especially by these so-called Muslims. Shame I’m not covering the bus. Would love to have been the one to tell the suicidal idiot that blowing up innocent people is no way to martyrdom or a palace in the sky full of virgins.
It’s taken less than an hour, and all my souls are accounted for. I tell them to close their eyes and imagine pushing up beyond the cloudy sky. To make sure they’ve done what I asked, I linger a little. I’m not in the mood to deal with any runners today. None remaining – good. I head upwards, leaving my colleague from the bus still hanging around for stray souls from the pavement.
Little Ben is taken off my hands first by the Underage Coordinator with pigtails and a grin most suited to her role. Turns out the guy with him recently found out that he’s not his father so there’s no separation anxiety or time-wasting questions to deal with. I lead the nine other fatalities down a yellow corridor.
The first door on the right is marked ALEX JENKINS. Before I can call out his name, the man wearing the beanie hat is standing by my side. I nod for him to open the door. When he does, the side wall becomes transparent so that we can see in.
I step inside with Alex and motion for everyone else to remain watching outside. ‘Welcome to your sorting room Alex. Please sit down.’
The room is nothing more than a naturally well lit, windowless space with a desk and chair. ‘You’ll each have a room like this with a box of these.’ I lift up the lid and take out what they would call a cue card.
‘Each card contains a brief description of an action you took in life. Then there are four options to choose from. Was it a good action or a bad action? Did you have good intentions or bad intentions before doing it? You must always select two choices. One for the action. One for the intention.’
If they were capable of experiencing emotions like they did when they were alive, I’d have seen some of their horrified faces just now. When I first took this job, I didn’t understand why The Chief designed it this way. But then I realised, it helps these people make objective decisions during the sorting process. They lost their ability to feel as they walked down the corridor just now.
‘Everything you’ve ever done is in the box on your tables so it’s natural you’ll have forgotten a lot. Turn the card over and tap this symbol. A video clip will play out on the wall in front of you. Watch the scene and make your choices. When you’re done with the card, drop it to the floor beside you and it’ll go to the Accounts Department.’
I place the card back into the front of Alex’s box and tell him someone will be here to meet him when he’s finished. When I shut the door behind me, the transparent wall becomes opaque once more and everyone looks at me.
‘All doors are marked with your name. You understand what to do.’ I stand to the side and gesture for them to walk on ahead.
‘Hey Jaleem,’ I greet the Duty Officer by his proper name even though we’ve nicknamed him ‘pigeon breast’. I deposit my clipboard into the Collections Complete box.
‘Good timing, Naaja.’ His humongous chest leans over the desk towards me. ‘You know that leader that’s been in a coma? He was collected earlier.’
‘No way! Which sorting wing’s he in?’ I ask.
‘Green. The penthouse suite.’
‘Yeah, I expect he’s got a lot of cards to get through. When’s Judgement likely to be?’
Pigeon breast leans back and checks the monitor above his head. ‘Got a long way to go yet but spectator reservations are filling up quick. Should be a good one, once his emotions kick back in.’
‘Put my name down, would you?’ I lean on the counter with both elbows. ‘Nearest the front.’
‘Already did.’ He winks.
I have a reputation for getting riled up about genocidal politicians. I never miss a Judgement when it comes to their types. That’s got to be the best bit about this job: watching justice take place.
‘Ready for another?’ Pigeon breast is reading between the two clipboards in his hands. ‘I’ve got a small village in South Sudan or a McDonalds in Ohio. Both shooting sprees.’
‘No more waiting tables for me today Jaleem. I’ll have South Sudan.’ I take the clipboard from his outstretched hand before adding, ‘When the bastards responsible for this get collected, I want a seat.’
As I walk away, I hear him say, ‘I know. Nearest the front.’