The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

  "It used to be things were not so different," continued the old woman. "Used to be lovely here, you know, all lovely. Bit of give and take between us. Terrible rows, of course, terrible fights, but really it was all lovely. Now?" She let out a long and tired sigh, and brushed a bit of nothing much off the wall.

  "Oh, things are bad," she said, "things are very bad. You see things get affected by things. Our world affects your world, your world affects our world. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what that effect is. Very often it is hard to like it, either. Most of them, these days, are difficult and bad. But our worlds are so nearly the same in so many ways. Where in your world you have a building there will be a structure here as well. Maybe it will be a small muddy hillock, or a beehive, or an abode like this one. Maybe it will be something a little grander, but it will be something. You all right, Thor, dear?"

  The Thunder God closed his eyes and nodded. His elbows lay easily across his knees. The ragged strips of Kate's nightgown bound about his left forearm were limp and wet. He idly pushed them off.

  "And where there is something which is not dealt with properly in your world," the old lady prattled on, "as like as not it will emerge in ours. Nothing disappears. No guilty secret. No unspoken thought. It may be a new and mighty god in our world, or it may be just a gnat, but it will be here. I might add that these days it is more often a gnat than a new and mighty god. Oh, there are so many more gnats and fewer immortal gods than once there were."

  "How can there be fewer immortals?" asked Kate. "I don't want to be pedantic about it, but--"

  "Well, there's being immortal, dear, and then again there's being immortal. I mean, if I could just get this knife properly secured and then work up a really good fling, we'd soon see who was immortal and who wasn't."

  "Tsuli . . . " admonished Thor, but didn't open his eyes to do it.

  "One by one we're going, though. We are, Thor. You're one of the few that care. There's few enough now that haven't succumbed to alcoholism or the on."

  "What is that? Some kind of disease?" asked Kate. She was beginning to feel cross again. Having been dragged unwillingly from her flat and hurled across the whole of East Anglia on the end of a hammer, she was irritated at being then just abandoned to a conversation with an insanely suicidal old woman while Thor just sat and looked content with himself, leaving her to make an effort she was not in a mood to make.

  "It's an affliction, dear, which only gods get. It really means that you can't take being a god any more, which is why only gods get it you see."

  "I see."

  "In the final stages of it you simply lie on the ground and after a while a tree grows out of your head and then it's all over. You rejoin the earth, seep into its bowels, flow through its vital arteries, and eventually emerge as a great pure torrent of water, and as like as not get a load of chemical waste dumped into you. It's a grim business being a god nowadays, even a dead god.

  "Well," she said, patting her knees. Her eyes hovered on Thor, who had opened his eyes but was only using them to stare at his own knuckles and fingertips. "Well, I hear you have an appointment tonight, Thor."

  "Hmm," grunted Thor, without moving.

  "I hear you've called together the Great Hall for the Challenging Hour, is that right?"

  "Hmm," said Thor.

  "The Challenging Hour, hmm? Well, I know that things have not been too good between you and your father for a long time. Hmm?"

  Thor wasn't going to be drawn. He said nothing.

  "I thought it was quite dreadful about Wales," continued Tsuliwaensis. "Don't know why you stood for it. Of course I realise that he's your father and the All-Father which makes it difficult. But, Odin, Odin--I've known him for so long. You know that he made a deal once to sacrifice one of his own eyes in exchange for wisdom? Of course you do, dear, you're his son, aren't you? Well, what I've always said is he should stand up and make a fuss about that particular deal, demand his eye back. Do you know what I mean by that, Thor? And that horrible Toe Rag. There's someone to be careful of, Thor, very careful indeed. Well, I expect I shall hear all about it in the morning, won't I?"

  Thor slid his back up the wall and stood up. He clasped the old woman warmly by the hands and smiled a tight smile, but said nothing. With a slight nod he gestured to Kate that they were leaving. Since leaving was what she most wanted in all the world to do she resisted the temptation to say "Oh yeah?" and kick up a fuss about being treated like this. Meekly she bade a polite farewell to the old woman and made her way out into the murky night. Thor followed her.

  She folded her arms and said, "Well? Where now? What other great social events have you got in store for me this evening?"

  Thor prowled around a little, examining the ground. He pulled out his hammer, and weighed it appreciatively in his hands. He peered out into the night, and swung the hammer a couple of times, idly. He swung himself round a couple of times, again not hard. He loosed the hammer, which bounded off into the night and split open a casually situated rock a couple of dozen yards away and then bounded back. He caught it easily, tossed it up into the air and caught it easily again.

  Then he turned to her and looked her in the eye for the first time.

  "Would you like to see something?" he asked.


  * * *

  A gust of wind blew through the huge vaults of the empty station and nearly provoked in Dirk a great howl of frustration at the trail that had so suddenly gone cold on him. The cold moonlight draped itself through the long ranges of glass panels that extended the length of the St Pancras station roof.

  It fell on empty rails, and illuminated them. It fell on the train departures board, it fell on the sign which explained that today was a Blue Saver Day and illuminated them both.

  Framed in the archway formed by the far end of the vaulted roof were the fantastical forms of five great gasometers, the supporting superstructures of which seemed in their adumbrations to be tangled impossibly with each other, like the hoops of an illusionist's conjuring trick. The moonlight illuminated these as well, but Dirk it did not illuminate.

  He had watched upwards of a hundred people or so simply vanish into thin air in a way that was completely impossible. That in itself did not give him a problem. The impossible did not bother him unduly. If it could not possibly be done, then obviously it had been done impossibly. The question was how?

  He paced the area of the station which they had all vanished from, and scanned everything that could be seen from every vantage point within it, looking for any clue, any anomaly, anything that might let him pass into whatever it was he had just seen a hundred people pass into as if it was nothing. He had the sense of a major party taking place in the near vicinity, to which he had not been invited. In desperation he started to spin around with his arms outstretched, then decided this was completely futile and lit a cigarette instead.

  He noticed that as he had pulled out the packet, a piece of paper had fluttered from his pocket, which, once the cigarette was burning well, he stooped to retrieve.

  It was nothing exciting, just the bill he had picked up from the stroppy nurse in the cafe. "Outrageous," he thought about each of the items in turn as he scanned down them, and was about to screw it up and throw it away when a thought struck him about the general layout of the document.

  The items charged were listed down the left hand side, and the actual charges down the right.

  On his own bills when he issued them, when he had a client, which was rare at the moment, and the ones he did have seemed unable to stay alive long enough to receive his bills and be outraged by them, he usually went to a little trouble about the items charged. He constructed essays, little paragraphs to describe them. He liked the client to feel that he or she was getting his or her money's worth in this respect at least.

  In short, the bills he issued corresponded in layout almost exactly to the wad of papers with indecipherable runic scripts which he had been unable to make head or tail of a couple of
hours previously. Was that helpful? He didn't know. If the wad was not a contract but a bill, what might it be the bill for? What services had been performed? They must certainly have been intricate services. Or at least, intricately described services. Which professions might that apply to? It was at least something to think about. He screwed up the cafe bill and moved off to throw it into a bin.

  As it happened, this was a fortuitous move.

  It meant that he was away from the central open space of the station, and near a wall against which he could press himself inconspicuously when he suddenly heard the sound of two pairs of feet crossing the forecourt outside.

  In a few seconds, they entered the main part of the station, by which time Dirk was well out of sight round the angle of a wall.

  Being well out of sight worked less well for him in another respect, which was that for a while he was unable to see the owners of the feet. By the time he caught a glimpse of them, they had reached exactly the same area where a few minutes previously a small horde of people had, quietly and without fuss, vanished.

  He was surprised by the red spectacles of the woman and the quietly tailored Italian suit of the man, and also the speed with which they themselves then immediately vanished.

  Dirk stood speechless. The same two damn people who had been the bane of his life for the entire day (he allowed himself this slight exaggeration on the grounds of extreme provocation) had now flagrantly and deliberately disappeared in front of his eyes.

  Once he was quite certain that they had absolutely definitely vanished and were not merely hiding behind each other, he ventured out once more into the mysterious space.

  It was bafflingly ordinary. Ordinary tarmacadam, ordinary air, ordinary everything. And yet a quantity of people that would have kept the Bermuda triangle industry happy for an entire decade had just vanished in it within the space of five minutes.

  He was deeply aggravated.

  He was so deeply aggravated that he thought he would share the sense of aggravation by phoning someone up and aggravating them--as it would be almost certain to do at twenty past one in the morning.

  This wasn't an entirely arbitrary thought--he was still anxious concerning the safety of the American girl, Kate Schechter, and had not been at all reassured to have been answered by her machine when last he had called. By now she should surely be at home and in bed asleep, and would be reassuringly livid to be woken by a meddling phone call at this time.

  He found a couple of coins and a working telephone and dialled her number. He got her answering machine again.

  It said that she had just out for the night to Asgard. She wasn't certain which parts of Asgard they were going to but they would probably swing by Valhalla later, if the evening was up to it. If he cared to leave a message she would deal with it in the morning if she was still alive and in the mood. There were some beeps, which rang on in Dirk's ear for seconds after he heard them.

  "Oh," he said, realising that the machine was currently busy taping him, "good heavens. Well, I thought the arrangement was that you were going to call me before doing anything impossible."

  He put the phone down, his head spinning angrily. Valhalla, eh? Was that where everybody was going to tonight except him? He had a good mind to go home, go to bed and wake up in the grocery business.


  He looked about him once again, with the name Valhalla ringing in his ears. There was no doubt, he felt, that a space this size would make a good feasting hall for gods and dead heroes, and that the empty Midland Grand Hotel would be almost worth moving the shebang from Norway for.

  He wondered if it made any difference knowing what it was you were walking into.

  Nervously, tentatively, he walked across and through the space in question. Nothing. Oh well. He turned, and stood surveying it for a moment or two while he took a couple of slow drags on the cigarette he had got from the tramp. The space didn't look any different.

  He walked back through it again, this time a little less tentatively, but with slow positive steps. Once again, nothing happened, but then just as he was moving out of it at the end he half fancied that he half heard a half moment of some kind of raucous sound, like a burst of white noise on a twisted radio dial. He turned once more, and headed back into the space, moving his head carefully round trying to pick up the slightest sound. For a while he didn't catch it, then suddenly there was a snatch of it that burst around him and was gone. A movement and another snatch. He moved very, very slowly and carefully. With the most slight and gentle movements, trying to catch at the sound he moved his head round what seemed like a billionth part of a billionth part of a degree, slipped behind a molecule and was gone.

  He had instantly to duck to avoid a great eagle swooping out of the vast space at him.


  * * *

  It was another eagle, a different eagle. The next one was a different eagle too, and the next. The air seemed to be thick with eagles, and it was obviously impossible to enter Valhalla without getting swooped on by at least half a dozen of them. Even eagles were being swooped on by eagles.

  Dirk threw up his arms over his head to fend off the wild, beating flurries, turned, tripped and fell down behind a huge table on to a floor of heavy, damp, earthy straw. His hat rolled under the table. He scrambled after it, stuffed it back firmly on his head, and slowly peered up over the table.

  The hall was dark, but alive with great bonfires.

  Noise and woodsmoke filled the air, and the smells of roasting pigs, roasting sheep, roasting boar, and sweat and reeking wine and singed eagle wings.

  The table he was crouched behind was one of countless slabs of oak on trestles that stretched in every direction, laden with steaming hunks of dead animals, huge breads, great iron beakers slopping with wine and candles like wax anthills. Massive sweaty figures seethed around them, on them, eating, drinking, fighting over the food, fighting in the food, fighting with the food.

  A yard or so from Dirk, a warrior was standing on top of a table fighting a pig which had been roasting for six hours, and he was clearly losing, but losing with vim and spirit and being cheered on by other warriors who were dousing him down with wine from a trough.

  The roof--as much of it as could be made out at this distance, and by the dark and flickering light of the bonfires--was made of lashed-together shields.

  Dirk clutched his hat, kept his head down and ran, trying to make his way towards the side of the hall. As he ran, feeling himself to be virtually invisible by reason of being completely sober and, by his own lights, normally dressed, he seemed to pass examples of every form of bodily function imaginable, other than actual teeth-cleaning.

  The smell, like that of the tramp in King's Cross station, who must surely be here participating, was one that never stopped coming at you. It grew and grew until it seemed that your head had to become bigger and bigger to accommodate it. The din of sword on sword, sword on shield, sword on flesh, flesh on flesh was one that made the eardrums reel and quiver and want to cry. He was pummelled, tripped, elbowed, shoved and drenched with wine as he scurried and pushed through the wild throng, but arrived at last at a side wall--massive slabs of wood and stone faced with sheets of stinking cow hide.

  Panting, he stopped for a moment, looked back and surveyed the scene with amazement.

  It was Valhalla.

  Of that there would be absolutely no question. This was not something that could be mocked up by a catering company. And the whole seething, wild mass of carousing gods and warriors and their caroused-at ladies, with their shields and fires and boars did seem to fill a space that must be something approaching the size of St Pancras station. The sheer heat that rose off it all seemed as if it should suffocate the flocks of deranged eagles which thrashed through the air above them.

  And maybe it was. He was by no means certain that a flock of enraged eagles which thought that they might be suffocating would behave significantly differently from many of the eagles he was currently

  There was something he had been putting off wondering while he had fought his way through the mass, but the time had come to wonder it now.

  What, he wondered, about the Draycotts?

  What could the Draycotts possibly be doing here? And where, in such a melee, could the Draycotts possibly be?

  He narrowed his eyes and peered into the heaving throng, trying to see if he could locate anywhere a pair of red designer spectacles or a quiet Italian suit mingling out there with the clanging breastplates and the sweaty leathers, knowing that the attempt was futile but feeling that it should be made.

  No, he decided, he couldn't see them. Not, he felt, their kind of party. Further reflections along these lines were cut short by a heavy short-handled axe which hurtled through the air and buried itself with an astounding thud in the wall about three inches from his left ear and for a moment blotted out all thought.

  When he recovered from the shock of it, and let his breath out, he thought that it was probably not something that had been thrown at him with malicious intent, but was merely warriorly high spirits. Nevertheless, he was not in a partying mood and decided to move on. He edged his way along the wall in the direction which, had this actually been St Pancras station rather than the hall of Valhalla, would have led to the ticket office. He didn't know what he would find there, but he reckoned that it must be different to this, which would be good.

  It seemed to him that things were generally quieter here, out on the periphery.

  The biggest and best of the good tunes seemed to be concentrated more strongly towards the middle of the hall, whereas the tables he was passing now seemed to be peopled with those who looked as if they had reached that season in their immortal lives when they preferred to contemplate the times when they used to wrestle dead pigs, and to pass appreciative comments to each other about the finer points of dead pig wrestling technique, than actually to wrestle with one again themselves just at the moment.

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