CW: Brief, non-graphic violence.
The meow of the klaxon called me to my third appointment. Finally, it was time for me to be seen. I weaved my way across the waiting room between bowls of cream, balls of yarn, and litter trays. Trust me, I wasn’t about to spring onto all fours and play with a ball of yarn whilst awaiting the outcome of my death. Why those bureau-cats left their rubbish lying around in a waiting room for humans was beyond me.
I hopped onto the escalator. A vast network of criss-crossing stairways conveyed me to my destination. I slowed to a halt outside a fifty-foot-high door, inscribed with ‘Mammal Division of the Animal Afterlife’, and slipped through a human-sized flap in its bottom corner.
A giant black cat yawned. I clung to my bowler hat. The moist draught subsided, yet the cat remained curled in its wicker basket, bathing in the sunlight trickling through the glass-domed roof. The cat refused to acknowledge my entrance. How rude. I yanked at the rope to my right, and a bell echoed through the circular chamber. The cat’s ears flicked towards me, and I pulled even harder on the bell.
‘Oh, for mouse’s sake,’ the cat said. ‘Not another human. . .’
The cat’s mouth gaped open, and I pressed myself against the wall. A fishy typhoon blew by me and fluttered the lapels of my jacket.
‘Not another bureau-cat,’ I muttered.
I rode another escalator up to the mezzanine level that surrounded the cat at neck height like a Jacobean ruff.
‘Come closer so I can hear you,’ the cat said.
I inched toward the edge of the balcony, and took hold of the railings.
‘Name?’ The cat asked.
‘Ian Doveland.’ I puffed out my chest and imagined myself as an intrepid archaeologist on the scaffolding of the sphinx at the Pyramids of Giza. Just making some minor restorations here. Nothing to panic about.
‘One moment,’ said the cat, craning its neck down to a bowl. Its fervent lapping frescoed the walls with flecks of cream. I had been this close to a bureau-cat before, but I felt unnerved by this one. Its black fur defied optical comprehension as if swallowing light; each hair, a cable as thick as a suspension bridge’s—and probably as strong.
‘I need some answers,’ I shouted over the lapping sounds.
The cat looked up from its bowl.
‘I’ve been here a fortnight,’ I said, ‘ping-ponging from department to department, and no-one has told me why I’m here, or what’s going to happen to me.’
‘Use the bullhorn to address me,’ the cat said. ‘I can barely hear your tiny voice.’
Relative to the cat, I was mouse-sized—so I pressed my lips to the mouthpiece. ‘Can you please—for the love of God—tell me what I’m doing here?’
The cat rose and stood behind its desk. It licked its paws and leafed through some papers. ‘According to our records, your death had something to do with animals. Hence, you were diverted from the human afterlife to here.’
‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?’
The black slits in the cat’s yellow irises dilated. I almost ran back down the escalator.
‘Thanks to the ineptitude of The Human Afterlife, your papers were delayed. They’ve offloaded a lot of their own cases on us. Very last minute.’ The cat slammed its paw on the desk.
‘And why is that?’
‘Pffft. How should I know? Humans just take joy in putting animals to work.’
‘I prefer to think of it as a symbiotic relationship. One in which we benefit each other, no?’
‘How trite,’ said the cat. ‘This is a stressful time for all involved,’ the cat continued. ‘Dealing with humans is complicated, and the scant information provided by the human afterlife department doesn’t do much to help.’
He ducked his head below the mezzanine level and nuzzled at a jungle of catnip growing from raised beds. His eyes mellowed and his jaw relaxed. ‘I must ask you a few questions now. Shouldn’t take long.’
The cat licked himself clean, emptied his bowels in an arena-sized litter tray, and sharpened his claws on a tower made of seagrass, which took up pretty much the whole appointment and distracted from discussing anything relating to my fate as a human in the animal afterlife.
The cat reclined in its office chair and put its sleek, large legs up on the desk. ‘Well,’ it said. You’d better scram. I’m off the clock in a few minutes.’ It yawned again.
I descended the escalator, none the wiser about my destiny than when I came in.
‘Don’t forget to pick up your ticket on the way out. . .’ the cat said.
I snatched a small slip of paper from the slot by the human flap and squinted at its tiny print. ‘Your next appointment is with Claire and Voyant—the psychic cows.’
‘You’re. . . standing. . .’ I said.
The Friesian cow folded its arms and tutted at me. ‘What’s the matter? Never seen bipedal bovines before?’
The Highland cow with a ring through its nose pointed an accusatory hoof at me. ‘I bet you were a milk baron, weren’t you? You look like the type to rob millions of calves of nourishment.’
‘We’ll find out soon enough, Claire,’ the Friesian said. It gestured to a stone trough. ‘Let’s take a look inside that brain of yours, Mr Doveland.’
I followed the cows over the muddy grass to a trough, and they instructed me to peer into its still water. Ripples appeared; my dormant memories played back like a flick book where I could choose which passages to view. What did I do for a living? Oh, yes. Right there.
I had performed surgery on cats and dogs—administered their medicine; taken their temperatures. The pet owners smiled and thanked me, complimenting me on a job well done.
I stepped back from the trough. Surely this was nothing I could be penalised for; I had nursed many pets back to health by the look of things.
‘Did you see that?’ I asked the cows. ‘I was a veterinarian. Is there anyone kinder to animals?’
They shrugged and lingered over the trough, looking in.
‘You see? I’m not a milk thief. I deserve a place in the human afterlife.’
The cows grunted. They trotted away from the trough and huddled together secretively. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard cows trying to whisper, but they really do struggle to modulate their voices.
‘Is a veterinarian a good thing?’ asked the Friesian.
‘I think they try to help us, mostly. But they also kill animals sometimes.’
‘Hmm. So where do we send this guy?’
‘Well, Brian’s good with morally ambiguous cases.’
‘Let’s just get him out of here. Humans smell weird.’
‘I agree. They’re way too difficult to process, and I still haven’t done the required reading on their complicated morals and ethics.’
‘I know, right? Humans are riddled with cognitive dissonance. . .’
The cows shooed me toward the human flap. ‘Brian will see you later today,’ they said, ‘he’ll sort you out.’
Who was I to argue with their bulk? They didn’t seem to take a rosy view of humanity. I grabbed my new appointment slip, stepped through the flap, and poked my head back through. ‘I’ve had just about enough of this scurrying from department to department,’ I said, ‘I’ll be making an official complaint.’
The cows chuckled, assumed their traditional position on all fours, and grazed the grass.
The escalators were running excruciatingly slowly. Their mechanical incompetence was an unbearable passive-aggressive sabotage. If I was late to our appointment, would Brian—the potential key to my escape from the Animal Afterlife—be upset? Would he wilfully hinder my progress like everyone else was so intent on? And what was he? A giraffe? A duck? An otter? A dinosaur? I hoped not. One stoned cat, two temperamental cows, and a jillion sluggish escalators had tested my patience enough already.
I arrived at Brian’s office and perched myself on a high wooden stool, waiting for the red square on the door to turn green. Ten minutes later, a wild-looking man with long hair and a beard shot out of the office, glanced at me, and jogged down the escalator.
‘Mr Doveland?’ I heard from within the office. ‘Come in and have a seat.’
‘You’re human,’ I said, ‘a human bureaucrat.’
‘Yes, last I checked.’
The tension in my shoulders melted away. Could Brian be the sole voice of reason in this inhospitable place? I lowered myself into the chair and rested my escalator-weary knees.
‘Look, I’d really appreciate it if you’d fast-track me to the Human Afterlife as soon as possible,’ I said. ‘I looked after animals—saved their lives.’
‘It’s not quite that simple. I mean, from our perspective, you certainly qualify for a place.’
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen cats and cows. Now I see you, and it sounds like you don’t know what to do with me either. Why can’t anyone give me a definite answer?’
‘I’m here to make sure we all get along. Humans and animals. Like these happy campers. . .’ Brian showed me a framed photograph of himself crouched, with each arm around a Golden Labrador.
‘Oh, no. . .’ I said.
‘What is it?’ Brian asked.
‘Dogs,’ I said. ‘Dogs, dogs, dogs. I’m ruined.’
The photograph triggered a dormant memory. At my veterinary practice, I’d put several noisy dogs to sleep so that I could sleep; my family could sleep; and the community could sleep. By the second or third one, they become easier to dispatch. Perfunctory, even. Reassuring, like buying a new pair of ear plugs. I would call the offending dog in for a scan and declare the sudden onset of a fatal tumour, recommending that they be mercifully put to rest. The dog owners—particularly Mrs Percival, whose dogs were the worst offenders—shed their tears. And me—I slept soundly.
Brian furrowed his brow. ‘What’s this about dogs?’
‘Oh nothing,’ I lied. ‘I just miss my own pooches. I miss throwing them their balls. Their yelps of joy. They really are man’s best friend.’
Brian closed his eyes and nodded. ‘They’re the best, aren’t they?’
‘So where do I go from here?’ I asked. ‘Please don’t tell me you’re sending me to another animal officer.’
‘There’s a human encampment. I suggest you make contact with them.’ He handed me a hand-drawn map. ‘Sorry to rush you off, but I have another appointment now.’
I stood up and grasped Brian’s hand. ‘Thank you,’ I said, and looked him in the eye.
I scanned the escalators for cats and cows—but only a few humans drifted along apathetically, so I rode to find the encampment. My whole life, animals had hidden from me—avoiding injections, refusing to swallow pills. Now, it was my turn to hide from them.
Kudos to the founders of the camp for making it almost invisible. Hidden under a thick network of escalators, with tents made from the pilfered grey fabric of waiting room chairs, which blended in with the ubiquitous chrome. A dozen people sat cross-legged on cushions made of animal dander—deep in discussion.
‘Welcome, pilgrim,’ said the man with long hair. He extended his hand to shake mine. ‘The name’s John.’
‘I saw you outside Brian’s office, didn’t I?’ I asked.
He nodded. ’Join us.’
I took a seat on one of the furry pillows.
‘So, what’s your situation?’ Joh asked. ‘We’re all either on trial, awaiting trial, or on the lam.’
‘I’m figuring out how to get to our own afterlife.’
‘Ho-ho!’ John said. ‘That’s optimistic. Like we all were. When we first arrived.’
‘I’ve seen enough bureaucrats already to know how lackadaisical the whole system is,’ I said. ‘I just need a strategy, that’s all.’
A friendly enough welcome—although one perturbation soured the atmosphere of the camp for me; the piercing yip of multiple small dogs emanating from a tent. A large woman, who had been shooting daggers at me since I arrived, waddled over to the tent and unzipped it. Three Chihuahuas burst out, yapping. They incessantly bit at my shoes.
‘Come here, babies,’ the woman said, and the dogs immediately scuttled to her side.
‘So what did you do to land yourself here, friend?’ John asked.
‘I know what he did,’ the dog owner said. She grimaced as she held her dogs back by their collars. ‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’
Mrs Percival. Three dead dogs and counting. ‘No, I’m sorry—I don’t,’ I said.
She pointed her joint-of-ham-hand at me. ‘He deserves to be here. We don’t. We all just wanted to make an honest living alongside animals, but this ‘man’ abused his position and murdered my babies!’
Gasps abounded. Everyone’s heads swivelled toward me.
‘I did no such thing,’ I said. ‘I was a very caring vet. Still am. Not only do animals get my respect—they get my love. I’m a healer.’
Mrs Percival tickled one of the dogs under its chin. ‘Is this him, baby? Is this him?’ She let go of all three dogs. They scurried over and sniffed at me. I squirmed and flinched, struggling to maintain a relaxed posture.
‘Yep,’ said one of the Chihuahuas, beady black eyes beaming maniacally at me. ‘That’s him.’
‘We are all fishermen, sheep-shearers, stable hands, game keepers, and butchers—all noble professions,’ John said. ‘But a murderous vet is the lowest of the low.’
The group growled in agreement. Their incredulous chatter escalated to commotion. I chopped through the air with my hands. ‘Are you saying that because I profited from a relationship with animals that I should be judged for it? You have all done the same. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. . .’
Mrs Percival spat on the ground. ‘Phooey,’ she said. ‘Dogs are man’s best friend. Killing one is as rotten as killing a man.’ Her Chihuahuas nipped at my ankles, forcing me to stand. I kicked at them, but they yapped shrilly and bit at my trousers.
‘There’s nothing else to it,’ John said, looking around at the group. ‘This vet ought to be put to death.’
A resounding roar resonated. Everyone closed in on me; sweeping me off my feet. They held me over their heads, in a palanquin made of hands, and boarded the nearest escalator.
‘Where are you taking me?’ I shouted.
‘Let’s throw him in the escalator motor and be done with it,’ Mrs Percival said.
‘Or we could take him to the courthouse and let the animals decide,’ said John.
‘That’ll take decades!’ Mrs Percival said. She shoved John, and a mess of long hair and limbs tumbled down the escalator stairs, his head bumping against the steps.
We’re gaining height. If I struggle, I might fall over the edge. I laid back, and the palanquin of hands carried me upward.
The thrum of the engine room grew louder. Mrs Percival kicked the door in with a thud, and the mechanical groan of huge cogs grinding became clamorous.
‘Justice is served,’ Mrs Percival said, and her hounds howled.
‘What about you all?’ I asked the group. ‘You’ll never get into the human afterlife if you murder me!’
My final plea for mercy was drowned by mechanised whirrs and shunts. The group’s drive to dispatch me was singular. Unstoppable. From the edge of the railings, I was launched into the pit of cogs.
‘Mr Doveland, ’ a lady said. ‘If you’d like to come with me, please.’
I rubbed my eyes and sauntered across the waiting room toward the receptionist standing by her desk. Hang on—why isn’t my body a mangled wreck? My trousers looked freshly pressed. I even wore a fluffy robe and slippers. The room was distinctly lacking in something. What was it? That’s right—bowls of cream, balls of yarn, and litter trays. Even if they had been there, I wouldn’t have kicked them or stamped on them. My new environment was pristine. Well kept. No fusty cat smell, either. A human receptionist—that’s a good sign. Am I finally in the right place?
‘I’ll direct you to your accommodation now,’ said the receptionist. She opened a door to reveal a leafy suburb in full autumn colour. ‘It’s in the dog-free zone.’
Oh, yes. I’m definitely in the right place.