Tense – A novel in tiny, serialised snippets… Chapters 7 – 16

Chapter 7

By the time they stood up to leave the café, the table was covered with plates, bowls, empty mugs and other paraphernalia. Tense pulled out his wallet, bleakly surveying the detritus of Sally’s little snack, and hoping against hope that he could cover it.

‘My shout’ Sally piped up, pulling out an enormous wodge of bank notes. She peeled off a few and placed them on the table.

‘Keep the change’ she announced, waiving an arm airily towards the waitress who was waiting by the till.

‘You’re not short of a bob or two then.’ Tense observed, eyeing the bundle with disbelief.

‘A girl needs to pay her own way’ Sally gave him another one of her smiles. Tense imploded.

‘Otherwise gentlemen expect things.’ Sally’s look combined wide eyed innocence with something entirely else.

Tense collapsed back onto a chair with a whoosh of suddenly expelled breath. He just sat there looking befuddled.

‘Shall we go?’ Sally indicated the direction of the door vaguely, with one finger.

Tense struggled to his feet and puffed uncertainly out of the café and into the busy street.

‘We are here to bear witness,’ Sally was off again, ‘to experience everything that can be experienced and to bring that experience home bit by bit, until all experience is complete.’

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Tense could hear the sound of an asthmatic child blowing weakly through a straw. In his mind’s eye he could see himself rotating slowly like a table tennis ball on a faltering column of air. At this rate, he thought, any moment could be his last.

Looking down, he noticed he was still carrying a plastic bag containing two kilos of best minced beef.

‘Better get this into the fridge before it goes off.’

Sally took his arm.

‘Lead on MacDuff’, Sally was gazing around at the busy scene, taking everything in. Tense sighed, even Angel’s, it seemed, could be relied upon to misquote Shakespeare. Was nothing sacred?

Tense attempted a little light banter, ‘So, you’re here on holiday, looking to replenish your grief?’

‘That’s right.’

‘You sure know how to have a good time.’

Sally the Angel pursed her lips, ‘It’s no laughing matter’ she said, ‘I am a Grieving Angel after all.’

‘Angels come in types then?’

‘Well of course, it takes all sorts you know, and I’m the Grieving variety.’

‘What’s your job then, your role – in Heaven I mean?’

Sally treated Tense to a look of weary disdain, ‘Well to grieve of course. It’s in the name.’

Tense had to admit there was an obdurate sort of logic to what Sally was saying.

‘Ok, I get that your job is to grieve, but why is grief necessary in Heaven? I thought everyone was supposed to be blissful?’

‘I grieve for you, feckless, idiotic humans.’ Sally paused, smoothing the fabric of her dress with the palms of her hands, ‘only, one can become a mite nonchalant. Over time I mean, over the centuries.’

‘Yes, but why? Why do you grieve?’

‘Well you people are pretty messed up aren’t you? I mean, with respect. With the best will in the world, sort of thing. You are a giant cluster-fuck of a species.’

‘But God made us this way! It’s a bit bloody rich to blame it on us isn’t it?’

‘It’s all about attitude. It’s like that lovely German man said…’

‘Who? Victor Frankl?’

‘No, Karl Marx. He was a bit bloody sheepish when he showed up, I can tell you.’

‘Karl Marx is in Heaven?’

‘Yep. And he’s still getting over it.’ Sally allowed herself a brief snigger.

‘Shouldn’t snigger,’ she said, ‘it’s not decorous.’

‘Well what did he say then, Karl Marx?’

‘He said “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.

Tense was getting a little bit lost in all this esoteric stuff, which was in itself something of a surprise as he could usually be relied upon to wade into it up to his neck.

‘What’s that got to do with attitude?’

‘Nothing really, you’re quite right.’

‘Quite right about what?’

‘It was Victor Frankl. The attitude thing,’ Sally, grinned broadly.

‘You’re taking the piss aren’t you.’

‘Yes’ she sniggered again, then stopped abruptly, covering her mouth delicately, with one hand.

Sally continued. ‘He said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

‘I’m not so sure about that’ Tense, paused, deep in thought, absentmindedly scratching his balls, ‘I tend to go with his other saying, “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.”

As the pair approached the stairs leading to Tense’s unit, he made one last attempt.

‘What is the actual purpose of grief in Heaven?’ he asked.

‘Oh’ for a moment Sally seemed a little nonplussed herself, ‘We add tone I guess.’

They walked on for a few more paces in silence.

Sally spoke again, ‘Grief is contrapuntal.’


Chapter 8

‘It’s up three flights I’m afraid.’

Sally made no comment as the pair made their way up the concrete stairs to Tense’s third floor apartment.

‘You’ll have to excuse the mess’, Tense looked, well, tense, as he tried the key in the lock. He found himself stuck between, on the one hand, the potential mortification he would experience if the key no longer fitted the lock, and on the other, the embarrassment and shame he would feel when, within the next few seconds, Sally was exposed to the calamity that was Tense’s apartment.

Tense struggled with the lock which, in Tense’s view had chosen that moment to demonstrate the sardonic phenomenology of inanimate things. Could be worse, Tense conceded to himself, it could be an example of how events on the micro, quantum level, show up in the macro world. Perhaps the state of the lock had been spread, probabilistically along a continuum from ‘working fine’ to ‘irretrievably buggered’, and the wave form thus created had only just collapsed into a state of being ‘irretrievably buggered’ the instant he entered the key into the lock. In the latter case it was, arguably, his fault. Typical.

Tense heard Sally shift her weight behind him. Perhaps she was impatient. It was all going to go horribly wrong, he could just sense it.

‘You’ll think I’m some kind of wierdo’ he said, wishing immediately that he hadn’t, ‘I’m not though. A wierdo I mean.’

‘Is the key stuck?’

‘Yes. It just won’t budge.’ Tense gave it one last despairing twist. The door immediately flew open and Tense fell into the darkened hall way. His plastic bag of best mince skidded a metre or two down the hallway.

‘Upsidaisy’ Tense struggled to his feet, brushing his hands together as he did so, stooping once again to pick up the shopping bag. He switched on the hallway light which flickered twice before treating the pair to a bilious greenish glare.

‘Upsi-fucking-daisy’ he thought to himself, ‘what on Earth was I thinking?’

Tense led the way down the hall and into the kitchen. He opened the fridge door and placed the plastic bag alone on a shelf.

Sally took a look around. The place was immaculate. There was no washing up in the sink. Everything was put away nicely. The floor had recently been swept or vacuumed. Tense followed her gaze, relief slowly flooding his sensorium as realisation set in that all was not lost. Not yet at least.

They walked through into the sitting room. It was dark. The curtains were drawn.

‘I left early this morning,’ Tense explained, ‘it wasn’t yet light.’

Sally wandered over to the window and threw open the curtains, allowing dazzling sunlight to flood in.

The small sitting room was neatly and simply furnished. There was an old but serviceable brown leather sofa, a large, old fashioned flat screen TV on a stand, a coffee table, and over to one side, a small round dining table with four matching chairs.  Polished floor boards and a couple of pleasant rugs finished it off.  There was a door to one side of the large window which led out onto a broad and generous balcony.

Sally tried the door, which opened immediately. She wandered out onto the balcony to take in the view.

‘Oh Wow!’ She said, ‘what a stunning outlook!’

Tense joined Sally on the balcony and stood for a few moments gazing out. Down below, was a small green park leading to a neat little promenade and a narrow sandy beach. Beyond the beach was a broad blue bay filled with little sailing boats and runabouts, bobbing at anchor.

There was a rickety table on the balcony accompanied by two, old, but nevertheless willing rattan arm chairs. Tense was momentarily engulfed by the overwhelming sorrow genetically programmed into any and all of Anglo-Irish descent by the sight of a forgotten cup of tea, for there, on the table, quite alone, stood a stone cold mug of tea, neglected since the morning.

No one could be expected to understand his pain. Tense knew this and accepted it as one must the staggering tsunami of agony accompanying, a moment later, the savage stubbing of a toe.

Bravely, but without hope he lifted the body of the deceased beverage, wandered disconsolate into the apartment, and poured it down the sink. There was a weary air of finality to the gesture, one oft repeated and never welcome.

‘I know’ Sally was still out on the balcony, taking in the view of Sydney Harbour, ‘let’s go for a swim.’

Tense didn’t swim, ever. It was not that he couldn’t, he just didn’t. It had become a point of principle, the origin or even purpose of which was long forgotten. He didn’t wear shorts either for that matter, quite possibly for the same long forgotten reason. Tense did however possess a pair of bright red swimming shorts, again, as a matter of principle, this time remembered.

He was not going to allow himself to become a servant of fate. His life would be constructed and made meaningful by his own choices, and owning-but-never-using a pair of bathers afforded him, in his view heroically, to forge his own destiny in the very teeth of a macabre and implausible universe. Not swimming because one did not own any swimming trunks, would make him the grovelling slave of doom.

Explaining all this seemed to Tense to require a level of patience in his audience that he suspected even an Angel would be hard pressed to evidence.

‘Great idea’ he said, wondering where, now he came to think about it, he would find said swimming trunks.

‘I’ve got my cozzie on, under my clothes’ Sally called out.

‘Of course you have’, Tense felt himself tending once more to the morose and tried to snap out of it.

‘I’ve got mine around here somewhere?’ On a hunch he pulled open the cupboard under the sink where anything that might one day be useful, but was unlikely ever actually to used, seemed to find its way. Immediately, as though they had been awaiting this moment to make their escape, a small tidal wave of  crumpled grey plastic shopping bags exploded across the kitchen floor. Bending and reaching in, Tense was delighted to see the vagrant red shorts hanging jauntily over the white plastic ‘S’ bend under the sink.

Quickly he grabbed them and headed to the bathroom to change, emerging a few moments later looking somewhat like a plucked chicken wearing crimson shorts. He had a pristine white towel over his shoulder and another over his arm.

‘Sorry’ he said, ‘I don’t have any proper beach towels.’

Sally grinned. This time Tense held his ground. He was, he realised, learning coping strategies to prevent implosion each and every time she smiled. This time he drove his finger nails into the palms of his hands, an impromptu cilice allowing pain to counteract the overpowering effects on his nervous system of the beaming Angel.

Sally having wandered in from the balcony, had closed the door. She began to disrobe, right there, in the sitting room of Tense’s flat.

‘Oh God. Oh God-Oh God-Oh God!’ Tense found himself muttering over and over again under his breath.

‘Ah, that’d be right,’ Tense found himself blushing a profound carmine, it was all too much. As the smooth skin and curves of Sally’s inevitably perfect physical form emerged from what Tense was fast deciding was entirely superfluous human clothing, Tense felt a certain stirring.

The stirring became an agitation, and the agitation became a rousing, bulging, magnificent statement of the power and ferocity of the autonomic nervous system.

Mewling incoherently and bent double, his facial hue having passed through crimson on its way to scarlet, and now achieving an almost impossible ruby, burgundy tint, Tense raced for the bathroom.

In a moment the sound of the shower could be heard, accompanied by an uneasy warbling as Tense began to sing.

‘Just thought I’d have a quick shower’ Tense called out, after a minute or two.

Sally sat on the sofa, staring at the closed bathroom door, apparently somewhat nonplussed.


Chapter 9

‘It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini’ the words went round and round in Tense’s head as he showered, the ice cold water having at last the desired effect. Yet still, even after he had emerged from the shower and dried himself on his pristine white towel, he could not bring himself to leave the bathroom.

He was afraid to come out. Had she seen his evident, and even if he said so himself, extravagant, enthusiasm? Had she noticed? He thought not. Probably. But one could never be certain.

Perhaps as an Angel she had certain extrasensory capabilities. Perhaps, being at one with the mind of God, she knew everything about him anyway. Every thought he had ever had, every good deed, and every shameful act. Oh Christ! Tense paled at the realisation – perhaps she could read his mind. Perhaps she was doing so at this very moment.

‘What on earth are you doing in there?’ Sally sounded baffled and perhaps a little bored, ‘I thought we were going swimming?’

‘Oh how very clever’ Tense thought to himself, ‘How exquisitely sneaky!’ How conveniently she had chosen that precise moment to say just the right thing to allay his fears. Well, there was nothing for it any case but to emerge in the end.

Adopting a bright and breezy air, Tense unlocked the bathroom door and stepped out, busying himself all the while with folding his now somewhat damp and crumpled towel, into a perfect rectangle approximately forty centimetres by thirty.

Sally gave him a quizzical look.

‘It’s just something I picked up in Japan’ Tense lied, ‘I can’t bear to bathe without showering first. Silly, I know.’

Staring at Tense as though really seeing him only for the first time, Sally came to a sort of epiphany.

Transcendence was a funny old thing, she realised. All this man, all any human man or woman really wanted, was transcendence. To transcend their physical existence. That was all. Not a lot to ask really, in the great scheme of things.

The old wisdom came back to her. Suddenly truer than ever before. Or seeming to be.

To a single point, transcendence is extension. Simply extending into a line – from a point into a dimension. Such is the phenomenology and experience of the infinitesimal.

From the point of view of a line, a unidimensional thing, transcendence is extension into a plane, but from the purview of a plane in two dimensions, being a line is a stifling, pitiful existence.

And for a plane, transcendence is extension into three dimensions. And so from three to four.

Humans have transcended a three dimensional existence by persisting in three dimensions while experiencing sequential change. Their fourth dimension they have called time. It’s the thing they experience three dimensional change in.

Transcendence for a human is to extend a step further, from a four dimensional existence, albeit with freedom of movement only in three, to a five dimensional existence, with freedom of movement in four.

Their whole sad, sorry little existence starts and ends in a mere four dimensions. Sally shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about. And if it didn’t bear thinking about, then it certainly didn’t bear dwelling on.

Still Sally dwelled. It was their bodies of course. That was the problem. No mystery about that. If the foolish creatures would insist on tying their being to a physical substrate what on Earth could they expect?

Sally watched Tense potter semi-aimlessly about his apartment. He appeared to be collecting things. He had a large stripy bag into which he was stuffing a variety of objects. Watching him like this. Observing him as it were, the tragedy of embodiment struck her anew, with a harshness, with a savagery, she had not experienced before.

There was to Sally, a kind of agony to experiencing with Tense the excruciating, glacial, unfolding of his life line. Immersing herself in this unfolding, this life-stream, was purgatory.

How could these poor bastards bear it?


Chapter 10

Sally was still meditating upon the appalling torture of experiencing change sequentially, one damn thing after another, plodding gamely from one sodding instant to the next, when Tense finally announced that he was ready to go.

The pair walked in single file from the apartment, along the corridor that led from his front door and down the three flights of stairs. As they did so, step by step, one foot in front of another, experiencing the unfolding of the timeline from the purview of the miserable four dimensions open to human beings, a slow, boiling rage began to grow in Sally’s gut.

‘How can you stand this bovine existence?’ she snapped at last, throwing Tense a venomous look (which he missed) as though it were somehow his fault.

This was a question that had vexed Tense’s quieter moments since he was a child. He was across it completely. There wasn’t the tiniest nuance, twist or turn, shade, tone or gradation in this line of thought that he hadn’t considered. He was already entirely, indeed intimately, familiar with the whole sorry mess.

Tense smiled. Sally was on his wavelength. Here at long, long, last was a girl after his own heart.

‘It’s just life’, he ventured, ‘it’s just how it is.’

Sally’s snort of derision caught Tense a little off guard.

‘Well, how else could it be?’ There was in Tense’s tone, something of the sad, lost, little boy of seven vainly seeking answers to life’s mysteries from the pair of hedonistic air-heads that brought him up.

Sally knew this of course, that was the whole problem. Sally could still see the conversation unfolding twenty something years earlier. There stood the joyous, warm, but hopelessly feckless couple, just arrived home from yet another all-night party. There on the sofa, just beginning to stir into wakefulness, was the baby sitter. And there was young Tense, before he was Tense, when he was just Adam, trying without much luck to make sense of it all.

And there, ambling along in front of her was older Tense, now that he was Tense, none the bloody wiser.

It was all too much. She’d be having words with someone when she got back.

As they ventured outside, the day was warm, the sun was shining, a gentle breeze caressed their skin and a flight of gorgeous rainbow lorikeets flew skittishly through the stand of palm trees that skirted the water’s edge.

Tense plonked the bag down on the narrow beach and laid out a large blanket across the sand. The sun was directly overhead so Tense set up a very old and seldom used beach umbrella. He couldn’t get it to stand properly and after a few attempts he left it at what he hoped would pass for a jaunty angle and sat down.

He stared at the tiny waves lapping the shore. Sally sat down next to him, very close. He could feel the shimmering warmth of her body a few centimetres away.  He could feel her presence. He was in love. He knew it. There was nothing he could do. There never had been anything he could do. It was going to be bad.

‘Live in the moment. That’s my motto.’ Tense turned and smiled at Sally, their faces close under the shelter of the umbrella. He could feel the gentle warmth of her breath on his cheek.

‘Isn’t that just making a virtue of necessity?’ Sally attempted to stifle the waspish tone in her voice.

There was a moment of silence, then Sally reached out and gently took his hand. That was life, she realised, for human beings. Given his existence was something of a fait accompli she had to admit he was handling it quite well. Probably better than she would under the same circumstances.

Tense stared down at his hand. Hardly daring to move, hardly daring to breathe. Sally shifted a tiny bit closer and laid her head on his shoulder.

‘Mooo!’ she said, after a moment or two. Tense swivelled, confused, staring at her lovely face.

‘Moo! Moo! Moo!’ she said again, and then, moved to sadness and compassion for this brave ordinary man, she leant forward and kissed him briefly on the lips.


Chapter 11

What was that? That kiss? It was nothing. It was something. It was everything.

Tense sat, staring down at his hand in hers. Unwilling to move. Not daring to move in case he broke the spell. Willing the moment to continue forever.

‘If I could freeze time in this instant’ he said, more to himself than anyone, ‘I would gladly sit here, on this beach, with your hand in mine, for ever.’

Sally smiled, ‘You are, silly. You will. That’s the way it works. This moment exists, has existed and will exist for all time.’

‘That’s good.’ Tense said, his imagination failing fully to encompass the scope of what had just been said, ‘That’s very good. That makes me feel better.’

‘Last one in’s a billy goat!’ Sally rose swiftly to her feet and made a dash for the water only a couple of metres away.

Tense, galvanised into action by the heinous threat of being likened to a billy goat, leapt to his feet too and ran after her. Sally reached the water first and stopped, squealing happily, the water only up to her knees. Tense hurled himself passed her and into the crystal clear salt waves, supressing a howl as the cold took him. He burst back into the air a moment later. Alive, invigorated, his entire being focussed in this glorious moment, with her.

‘You’re a billy goat!’ he announced, triumphantly. Sally laughed and slipped beneath the waves, rising a moment later to stand beside him.

Life was good. Life was bloody marvellous. How the fuck did that happen? Tense, perhaps for the first time in his life, set aside analysis, eschewed examination, and dived once more beneath the waves, swimming as far and as fast as he could, while his breath held out.

He erupted once more from the briny deep, gasping for air. Sally was right beside him, calm and demure as ever.

‘This is it’, he thought, ‘this is as good as it gets.’ Steeped as he was not only in the culture of the Age of Uncertainty, but in its mood, Tense found himself quite unprepared even for a moment of ‘faith, truth and certainty’. Yet there it was, slapping him in the face will all the vigour of a freshly caught halibut.

Tense allowed himself a second of reflection. Just for a moment he considered his lifelong fear of fate, and in that moment realised that what he feared was not that his every action had been predestined since the beginning, but that it had not. What he feared most was that his fate was entirely in his own hands but that, as he had once read somewhere, his hands were weak.

Nevertheless, buoyed by the presence of this celestial woman, Tense resolved to make of his life a work or art. He would embrace both destiny and tragedy as equal partners in his performance. Knowing himself to be an ordinary man, he would attempt to accept that the best he could do at any point was indeed the best he could do. He would switch his point of view, change his attitude and move from viewing the world as a work of art, to fashioning a work of art within it. He would gain strength from this he knew, not from Nietzsche’s stupid dictum, but from striving, and failing, and striving again. If he could only keep Sally by his side.

There was a gap of course. He knew that. There always would be, between the perfect work of art that he would conceive, and the reality. But he would learn, he would grow. He would perhaps become worthy in the end, of the woman he now loved.

Secretly, as with all men possessed of the love of a good woman, he would come to doubt his own worth. He would prophesy her loss, and he would struggle against himself to fulfil the prophesy. It was inevitable. It was the trade he had made. After the faith, truth and certainty that he had so suddenly gained, would emerge from his own shadow, the doubt and fear which would threaten to destroy it.


Chapter 12

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. For now, our hero remains unconcerned. For now he has hope. Blessed creature. For now he has purpose. And that is enough. For now.

Tense and Sally made their way back to the beach and plonked themselves down on the blanket. Wrapping themselves in Tense’s pristine white bath towels, the pair sat staring across the water. The afternoon sun was racing into the West behind them, casting long shadows of palm trees across the thin ribbon of sand that constituted the beach.  A cool wind blew up, or perhaps it was merely the effect of evaporation. Tiny beads of salt formed on Sally’s skin. Tense watched, absolutely absorbed, as a fine patina of tiny grains materialised across her shoulders and down her back.

Was this what contentment felt like, Tense wondered? Or was this merely the calm before the storm. He had no experience to guide him. This was uncharted territory, devoid of landmarks.

As though sensing Tense’s inner turmoil, Sally shuffled a little closer to him on the blanket and laid her head on his shoulder.

‘This is Heaven’ she mumbled, her voice barely audible above the small sounds of the waves. Tense shifted slightly, trying to get a look at her face without shoving her off his shoulder. He could hear no irony in her voice. She seemed sincere.

‘Yes’ he said, ‘it is.’ And in speaking those three little words, Tense felt the resolve quicken within him. He had embarked finally upon his great work. He would fashion himself into the expression of all he aspired to be, or could aspire to be, now he had Sally. If he had her. Assuming he did.

And so the world turns. With any Ying there must be a Yang. Opposites interpenetrate. As you probably already suspected, Tense began to perceive a swarming torus of doubts forming far off. Circling at a distance. Getting their bearings.

The eternal Tao, the struggle between essence and appearance, coalesced around the pair. Some words of the Tao Te Ching came back to him, half-remembered.

“Once beauty is known as beautiful, it becomes ugly. When virtue is known as goodness, it becomes evil”

Yet, for all that, there was hope. Tense could feel it. There was opportunity and there was risk. Perhaps they amounted to the same thing in the end. It was up to him.

The words of the miserable Swiss philosopher Jaspers were never far from Tense’s thoughts. Each of us faces a choice it seems, to resign ourselves to despair, or take a giant leap of faith toward our own Transcendence. To be fair, Tense wasn’t feeling all that transcendent at that moment. He was not keen to confront his own limitless freedom. What he fancied most of all, at that precise instant, was a nice hot cup of tea.

Sally kept only half an ear to Tense’s inner dialogue. It wasn’t that she was snooping per se, it was just that he was so damned loud. Other humans seemed to keep up a constant low key drizzle of grumbles and semi-formed thoughts, but Tense, quite unknowingly, bellowed his hopes and dreams, doubts and fears, even his most trivial and transitory responses to sense perceptions, at a million bloody decibels – figuratively speaking. It was near impossible to shut him out.

Sally had her own concerns to chew over. First was the growing realisation that embodiment did have its compensations. The food had been nice. Eating was evidently a very good thing, and the cool fluidity of the water was a marvellous surprise. And then, and this one was really totally unexpected, there was the snuggling. Just leaning her weight against Tense’s body, laying her head on his shoulder, and feeling the closeness that came with it, revealed both an upside to locking the soul in this rudimentary clay, and at the same time suggested (dare she say it) a potential downside of a purely spiritual existence.

There was no snuggling in Heaven. There was nothing to snuggle with, as it were. There was no ice cream either for that matter. Things were clearly not as simple as she had once thought.

Tense very gently slipped his arm around Sally’s shoulders, drawing her closer. The gesture was entirely unconscious, protective rather than possessive.

Sally tuned in a little more closely to Tense’s inner world. A piping hot cup of tea did sound pretty good.


Chapter 13

As the couple packed up their things and headed back to Tense’s apartment, Sally began to mull things over. It was becoming abundantly clear that there was more to life on Earth than she had previously thought.

Embodiment was the key to it, that much was evident. After all, it was embodiment that led to birth and death, eating, sleeping, walking, talking, working and sex. There really was nothing, well, hardly anything, that human beings did or thought, that was not in some way bound up with having a physical body.

There was something about physical reality too, that was becoming wholly beguiling. She couldn’t yet put her finger on it precisely but it was something to do with the completeness of the illusion. There was a gritty, grainy, dirt-under-your-finger-nails reality to physical reality that really was very impressive. She could see that, brought up with this and nothing else, one could quite easily come to the conclusion that it was all really real. The idea was quite shocking to her, she had to admit. She had come here fully expecting to be a bit bored and listless but was finding her immersion in this shadow reality quite bracing.

Some human assumptions, that has always baffled her in the past, were slowly beginning to make a weird kind of sense when seen in their originating context. It was one of those occasions when one really had to be there. For instance, matter versus energy, a total brainteaser to an immortal multidimensional being, but weirdly rational when faced, say, with an oak table made of nothing but energy, yet undeniably bloody solid when barking your shin against it.

But subjectivity versus objectivity – what was that about? It had to be, in its way, the weirdest fetish so far. It seemed to take the place in human philosophy of ‘reality versus non-reality’ amongst the Angel-kin. But here was the thing. If the physical world was actually real, then there was obviously a separation between people, and between people and things, even between their consciousness minds and their bodies. From personal experience she knew this was totally false. Once they got over their obsession with separation, which surely to goodness they would, any day now, things would have to start to settle down. They just had to. This confused bumbling around had to stop sometime.

Sally paused as Tense went on ahead, struggling a little with his beach bag and ancient umbrella. She watched his receding back as he stumped up the steps into the apartment block. He was humming to himself. He was at peace. It was heart breaking.

Somewhere, at the very back of her mind, slithering and shy, began to form the idea that there might be more of a reason for her stint on Earth than she had at first thought.

Sally picked up her pace, finally catching up with Tense as once more he slipped the key into the lock and began again his endless struggle with the latch.

Outside the sun was beginning to set. Thick, syrupy rays of golden light, oozed and spread their way across the horizon. It would be dark soon.

Tense had been thinking hard all the way back from the beach. He was trying to figure out if he had all the ingredients he would need to make dinner.  He had some onions and potatoes. They’d probably still be ok. And he had the mince from the morning. He thought he had enough, just about. He hoped so.

The capricious latch finally gave up and let them in.

‘I’m starving’ Sally announced, ‘and I’m knackered. Can we eat in?’

A wave of relief flooded over Tense. He dreaded sharing her with his fellow humans. To be perfectly frank he wanted her to himself.

‘Yes’, he replied, attempting nonchalance, ‘I’ve got everything I need for a cottage pie.’

‘Oooh, goody,’ Sally smiled, ‘that’s my favourite.’

‘Really? You like cottage pie?’

‘Never heard of it actually. But I’m sure it will be wonderful.’ Sally stifled a laugh at Tense’s confusion.

‘I’ll make us a piping hot cup of tea while you get the food ready.’

Tense began to assemble his ingredients and utensils. He was orderly and methodical. In a few moments everything was laid out across the kitchen counter in strict sequence. Sally had been wandering around the kitchen, at first apparently purposeful, but dwindling at last into a desultory series of aimless movements, randomly picking things up and putting them down again.

Tense looked up for a moment, noticing Sally’s faltering pace.

‘I don’t know how to make tea.’ She confessed, sadly, ‘It’s been a while.’

Tense took her hand and kissed it gently, ‘It’s alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll make the tea.’

Sally smiled a smile even more glorious and sunshiny than before. Tense just stood and stared in mute adoration.

‘The spirit is willing,’ she said, somewhat abashed, ‘but the flesh is weak’, realising as she spoke, that she was beginning to understand what the phrase might mean.


Chapter 14

Sally sat on the balcony nursing a cup of tea while Tense made dinner. It had been a long and eventful day. One instant she was a disembodied, five dimensional, immortal spirit, and the next she was a youngish human woman on a mission from God. It was a lot to take in.

She could hear the pleasant, domestic sounds of Tense pottering around his kitchen, chopping and frying and fossicking in cupboards whilst all the time keeping up, sotto voce, a reassuring private monologue.

‘I’ll just pop those there for a moment to rest.’

‘Now where are those shallots?’

‘Frozen peas? I think not.’

And so gently on and on as the dinner slowly came together.

Tense, for his part, was attempting the potentially impressive feat of concentrating his entire mental arsenal on the vexed question, ‘Who or what is Sally?’, whilst simultaneously affecting an insouciant ‘just whipping up a little light supper’ air, as a cover. It would probably not be long before tiny beads of blood would begin to appear upon his brow.

In a sense, even the question ‘Who or what is Sally?’ was itself merely a cover for the deeper, and to Tense far more important question, irrespective of what she was,  ‘What were his chances?’

From the purview of an omnipotent, omniscient creator the scene unfolding in Tense’s little apartment might have been interpreted as an amusing confluence of competing principles: male versus female, mortal versus immortal, reality versus fantasy, and perhaps even hope versus experience. It was also, and perhaps this would be its sole redeeming feature, a scene in which were playing out genuine feelings of care and concern, and even, nascent but emerging, understanding and devotion.

Neither party fully understood how it had come to this. Neither could clearly chart a course of their own choosing that would have brought them to this juncture, but both were, for their part, content with how things were panning out. Sally of course, was fully aware that God worked in mysterious ways, and for Tense, it was emerging as the only possible explanation.

It was getting dark. Tense brought out a fat scented candle in a glass jar, placed it on the balcony table and lit it. A powerful, and somewhat unexpectedly pungent scent of bananas immediately filled the air. Sally smiled.

‘It was on special’ Tense said, frowning slightly at the candle as if he held it somehow personally to blame. He disappeared back inside. The pottering sounds and monologue continued.

‘Fucking bananas! Who makes a candle that smells of bananas?’ A cupboard door slammed. Tense banged a can of tomatoes down on the work surface.

‘I mean, what is their fucking target market?’ Stomp. Stomp. Bang.

‘No wonder it was on special.’ And so on.

Sally finished her cup of tea and brought the empty vessel inside.

‘Just put it down by the sink. I’ll wash everything up later.’ Tense returned to stirring a pot on the stove.

Sally walked up quietly behind him and slipped her arms around his shoulders. She leaned in, lifting herself very slightly on her toes, and kissed his neck, just below the right earlobe. Tense felt the passage of time slow, the sounds of the kitchen faded leaving only the slow steady beat of his heart testifying to his ongoing existence. He felt the lightness of her lips on his skin, and the warmth of her embrace. He could not breathe. He could not move. He was held, feather like and floating, waiting for the next puff of air to carry him off.

‘Thanks for making dinner,’ she said, ‘it smells wonderful.’ Tense reached up and wrapped his arms around hers, holding her close, willing the moment to continue.

‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

‘You could lay the table.’

Sally turned to look at the table.

‘You could set out the knives and forks.’

‘Oh, right. Of course.’ Sally took a step towards the table.

‘They’re in the top drawer next to the sink.’

Sally smiled broadly as she slid past Tense and opened the drawer. As always his heart skipped a beat, but he did  not become light headed and managed to avoid putting on his gormless grin. Tense was adjusting to the presence of his new guest at last.

As she set the table, Sally returned in her mind to the vexed question of human creativity. The sonnet/haiku analogy that had seemed to neat in the morning, was beginning to feel a little trite, if not actually patronising, by nightfall. Her own life as an Angel, she realised, was not a work or art. It could never be a work of art, ever. It was impossible. One cannot fashion a work of art from the infinite. Limitation is absolutely essential in the creation of any art work. Creation must begin and end.

This was a sobering idea. When she thought about Tense, when she reviewed the story of his life, she was forced to admit that what he had shaped, from all his little victories and defeats, from all his good deeds and acts of omission, from everything that he had been capable of as his lifeline unfolded before him, was a web of extraordinary delicacy and beauty. Tense’s life was short by her standards. Barely a flicker and he was gone. But from down here in the weeds, surfing the outer edge of creation, second by second, instant by instant, ‘in real time’ as it were, Tense had achieved something no Angel ever could. He had created a truly lovely work of art, brave and tragic, doomed to falter and fail, but blessed with a magnificence she could never have hoped to emulate.

Never, that is until she accepted her current mission. There was no fathoming the mind of God. She knew that perfectly well. That was a given. But there were times, she thought, when the colours of some broader or deeper plan, grinned though the thin veneer of reality. She had, she realised, been given the gift of mortality, for good or ill, to do with as she pleased.

‘Dinner’s ready.’ Sally snapped out of her reverie to see Tense setting down two plates. Each contained one perfect rectangle of cottage pie precisely fourteen centimetres by twelve centimetres. Each sporting a jaunty sprig of parsley at its centre. And each accompanied by precisely five green beans set side by side like an honour guard.

‘This looks lovely’ Sally sat across from Tense at his small dining table. The room fell suddenly silent. Tense had stopped talking to himself. Sounds from the bay to one side and the street to the other were muted and distant.

‘Would you like to say grace?’ Tense wasn’t sure what the protocol was with Angels.

‘Do you say grace?’

‘Not really. Do you think I should?’ Tense glanced upwards nervously.

‘Well no need to say it on my account.’ Sally picked up her knife and fork and dug in. Eating really had proven to be a very good thing, well worth exploring further.

Tense needed no further encouragement himself. He was starving. He gingerly tried a small forkful. It wasn’t bad. If he said so himself. It was pretty good.

‘Yum yum!’ Sally munched away happily across the small table from him.

‘You must have lots of rules in heaven I should think. Very strict.”

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘Really, how?’

‘Well there are many, many rules if you want to break them all down, but for simplicity there is really only one.’

‘Only one rule in Heaven?’ This was revelatory stuff.

‘Yes, but it is the strictest rule of all.’

‘That figures’ Tense was filled with foreboding, ‘go on then, what is it?’

Sally had stuffed an enormous mouthful of cottage pie into her mouth and was struggling to deal with it in what she hoped might pass for a lady-like manner. Eventually she forced it down.

‘This is fantastic’ she said, tapping the plate with her knife.

‘The strictest rule?’ Tense prompted.

‘Oh yes,’ Sally began once more heaping a giant splodge of cottage pie onto her fork. She looked up.

‘Love God, and do what you like.’


Chapter 15

Dinner was over, the washing up had been done and everything had been put away. It was Sally who had done the putting away so the likelihood of any particular item being where Tense might expect it to be next time he looked, was slim. However, and nevertheless, the place was tidy, the evening was getting on and Tense had remembered, found and opened a good bottle of shiraz.

The pair were back out on the balcony. The shiraz, as it turned out, had a cork. This had thrown Tense into a bit of a tizzy until he remembered that the really old fashioned tin opener that he kept at the back of the utensil drawer, meaning to chuck out, had a rudimentary corkscrew in the handle. The evening was saved.

Tense poured out two exactly equal measures of wine and passed one glass to Sally.

‘You are allowed wine are you? Alcohol?’

Sally looked momentarily puzzled.

‘I suppose so,’ she ventured at last, ‘let’s find out?’

Tense gingery took a small sip of shiraz. The bottle was around five years old and had been kept, more by accident than design, lying on its side under his sofa. Tense was not a drinker. He was not a smoker either. Or a gambler. In fact he really wasn’t much given to foolish or unproductive pastimes.

To Tense’s delight and amazement the shiraz was excellent, at least as far as he could judge. He watched while Sally took a sip.

‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I like it.’

Tense sighed, relieved.

‘I expected it to be sweet, like grape juice, but it’s quite bitter really isn’t it?’

‘Take it slowly, until you get the measure of it.’ Tense did not want to be held responsible for getting an Angel drunk, especially not if, as seemed to be the case, she was somehow ‘on duty’.

Far off, across the bay, a boat sounded its horn three times.

‘Probably a ferry.’ Tense thought out loud. He looked up and across at Sally.

Sally sat leaning both elbows on the little table, cradling the wine glass between her palms, listening to Tense’s inner dialogue. He was calm and at ease, but there was some thought at the back of his mind bobbing around, trying to find its way to the surface.

‘What would you like to ask me?’ Sally took another sip and smiled. Shiraz was good.

Tense took a moment to compose his thoughts. His process seemed to Sally to be surprisingly well ordered and considered.

‘You said earlier that you were here to replenish your grief. I couldn’t tell if you were joking or not.’

‘Is that your question? Was I joking?’

‘Well no… I guess my questions was if that was the only reason you were here, and if you were going stay long, and how were you actually going to do the replenishing.’

‘That’s three questions.’

‘Yes it is.’

‘Ok. I’ll answer them in reverse order. I hadn’t really thought about how exactly I would go about replenishing my grief. I guess I assumed that compassion for the human condition would do the trick, like I could sort of fill up again, at a grief bowser.’ Sally paused, mulling over what she had just said.

‘I know it sounds stupid, or ill prepared. Just not very well thought through I guess. But in my defence I would just say I had less than a millisecond’s warning.’

‘Bloody hell!’

Sally’s head snapped up achieving a weird kind of double-take thing as she attempted to look both ways at once.

‘What do you mean?’ Sally peered into the darkness off the balcony, ‘What have you seen?’

‘No. Nothing. It’s just an expression.’ Tense thought about trying to explain further but abandoned the idea immediately.

‘I was just surprised that you literally got no notice at all.’

Sally nodded, realising with some relief that the Hell-Mouth was not about to open just off the edge of the balcony.

‘You asked how long I was planning to stay. Well the typical sojourn on Earth for an immortal is approximately one human lifetime.’

‘You’re here for a lifetime.’ A fog of joy and relief flooded Tense’s conscious mind such that all he could manage for several seconds was to rock back and forwards in his chair, grinning like an idiot.

A stab of pain shot through Sally, piercing her to the core. Tense’s joy was so intense, his relief so palpable. She wanted to cry out loud, she wanted to howl at the moon hiding behind the clouds on the other side of the bay. It was unbearable. She had forgotten how unbearable it all was. This was going to be hard.

‘Yes’ she said after a moment or two, ‘three score years and ten, or there abouts.’

Tense had regained a modicum of composure and was sipping slowly, bathed in a warm bath of contentment.

‘Your first question is the trickiest.’ Tense looked up, trying to recall what it had been.

‘Is replenishing my grief the only reason I’m here?’ Tense nodded, waiting for Sally to continue.

‘I’m not sure now. I thought it was the only reason, at first.’

‘And now you’re not so sure?’

‘That’s right. I think there might be something more to it than that.’

‘What? What more to it?’

‘I don’t know, but I’m beginning to suspect.’ Sally fell silent.

After a little while Tense spoke. ‘That’s actually quite funny you know. We spend our entire lives wondering why we’re here, what it’s all for, if there’s some grand purpose to it all, and now you find yourself in exactly the same boat. Even though you were specifically told the reason, by the man himself, you have no idea either.’

‘Yes’ Sally managed a rueful smile, ‘it’s a real bummer.’

‘Tell me about it.’ Tense reached over and refilled their glasses. In the distance a ferry could be seen making its way swiftly down river towards Parramatta. Simultaneously they both stood and wandered over to the railing to watch it go.

There was a slight chill to the night air. Sally leaned against Tense, snuggling slightly for warmth.

‘Can I ask you another silly question?’

‘Ask anything you like.’

‘We’ll I just wanted to check, you’ve actually met God right? You’ve had an audience or whatever?’

‘Met God? What a lovely way of putting it. I can’t really explain what’s it’s like, but yes, for the want of a better metaphor, I have directly encountered the creator.’

‘I’m not sure if that’s a relief or not.’

‘I’m not sure I follow.’ Sally turned her attention back to the shiraz, these were the kinds of questions one always got asked and there really was nothing for it but to try to answer them.

‘Well, to be really honest, and no offence meant and all that…’ Tense trailed off. He couldn’t believe what he was about to say. Sally smiled encouragingly.

‘I thought he might be dead.’



‘God dead?’

‘Yes. It was just a thought.’

‘But why? Why on Earth would you think the creator had died? Could have died?’ Sally was genuinely nonplussed.

‘I wondered if he was still around. I thought perhaps we just hadn’t heard.’

‘Or maybe he’d gone on his holidays?’ Sally was smiling broadly.

‘Well everything’s so fucked.’

‘Here on Earth?’

‘Yes. It’s a total cluster fuck. Nothing works. All our politicians are liars. All our bankers are corrupt, and we are doing all we can to destroy the climate, destroy our ecosystems and wipe out every other species on the planet.’

‘It’s not ideal, I’d have to agree.’ Her smile was gone.

‘Not ideal! It’s a million fucking miles from not ideal.‘

‘I’ve been away a while. Last time I was here the Normans were conquering Britain.’

Tense had to pause at that, ‘Fair goes’ he said, ‘you probably have got a bit of catching up to do.’

The cloud that had been hiding the moon moved off suddenly allowing the shimmering moonlight to sweep across the bay. It was a lovely night. Down by the water the palm trees glimmered in the silver light.

‘You know we ask ourselves a different question.’

‘You do? Angels you mean?’

‘Yes, we ask ourselves if the Creator is alive.’


‘Yes. Like a living being. Like us Angels but more so.’

‘Blimey’ Tense found himself wanting to scratch his head, but managed to resist the urge.

‘Some of us think the question is invalid. That it is only our rudimentary level of understanding that enables us to ask it in the first place.’

‘I’m not sure I understand. Actually, I’m bloody certain I don’t.’

‘Human beings have it all wrong. You wonder if your lives can have any meaning without for an instant realising that yours are the only lives that can have meaning.’

‘Human lives?’

‘Yes. Well, mortal lives to be precise.’

‘Only mortal lives can have meaning?’

‘Yes. But it’s more than that, much more. Only mortal lives can really be called lives at all.’


‘Well immortality, living for ever, is not living a life. Not in any meaningful sense of the world. We are alive of course, Angels and so forth. The immortals. We are definitely alive, but we don’t live lives. We live for ever. We persist. Our lives can never be meaningful the way yours can. We are servants.  We serve, and we are happy to do so, but we don’t serve as it were “for a lifetime”. The phrase would be meaningless if applied to us. We simply are, forever.’ Sally fell silent, giving Tense a moment to digest what she had just said.

Tense took another sip of shiraz, and then another.


‘Quite. Well not literally of course, but I know what you mean.’

‘But now you are a woman.’


‘A human, mortal woman, and you’re going to live a lifetime.’




Tense reached out and put his arms around Sally the Angel. He held her close.

‘It’s alright’ he whispered, stroking her hair with one hand, ‘It’s all going to be alright.’

Sally clung to him.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Yes, Absolutely. This is all part of God’s plan. What could possibly go wrong?’


Chapter 16

The city was still. There wasn’t so much as a breath of wind. The ferry boats had finished up for the day and the harbour was quiet. Sally and Tense polished off the last of the shiraz and made their way back inside.

‘I’ll make up a bed on the sofa and you can have the bedroom.’ Tense placed the used wine glasses down by the sink, ‘and  I’ll wash these up in the morning.’ He said.

‘Thanks, but it’s probably best if you take the bedroom. I’m not sure I will sleep. I’m not sure I can actually.’

Tense made a few desultory attempts to change Sally’s mind before bringing out an old sleeping bag and a spare pillow.

‘I don’t often have guests. Will these do?’

‘I’ll be fine. Thanks.’ Sally was wearing a far-away look. She was processing her situation.

Tense did not intrude. Instead, he walked silently into his room and began getting ready for bed. It was Tense’s habit and long established preference to wear cotton button-up pyjamas. These he had in two varieties, one was plain navy blue woven cotton emblazoned with the motif of small sailing boats, and the other, for the winter months, was bright red flannelette sporting a variety of tropical fruits.    As the evening was cooler than usual, and he suspected that his blue pyjamas could probably do with a wash, Tense donned the resplendent red flannelette pair.

As he wandered out of his bedroom to brush his teeth, Sally was standing staring at a black and white reproduction of an Ansel Adams photograph of the Tetons. A silvery river snaked left and right across the image, craggy mountains in the background against a forbidding sky.

‘It reminds me of Jeremiah’, Sally spoke quietly, ‘he’s always banging on about the river of Babylon, vengeful bugger.’

‘Ansell Adams’ Tense said, as he wandered past into the bathroom. Sally did not respond. Tense began brushing his teeth and then wandered back out into the sitting room.

‘It’s all about catching the instant, isn’t it? It never occurred to me before but that’s it isn’t it?’ Sally was engrossed in the picture, she had clambered up onto the old sofa and was half standing half squatting on the back, staring, her face no more than a few centimetres away from the surface of the print.

‘What is?’ Tense was still brushing his teeth and the words came out a little indistinct.

‘Art. Beauty. The human aesthetic.’

‘Err. S’pose so.’ Tense paused his brushing to get a better look at the old print. He’d had it ages, since he was a student. It had been a statement of his refinement and sophistication. Like the Frank Lloyd Right book he used to keep on the coffee table before he loaned it, against his will, to someone he didn’t much like, and never saw it again.

‘That’s what’s so damn hard for Angels to get. That’s why we can’t really ‘see’ human art.’


‘Yes. It’s obvious now I’ve said it.’

‘Said what exactly?’ Tense had the feeling he must have missed a couple of sentences while he was in the bathroom.

‘Well maybe I haven’t actually said it, but now that I’ve realised it, it’s completely obvious.’

‘Oh good.’ Tense wanted to be supportive of this earth shattering revelation, whatever it was, but was a little on the outer having no idea what Sally was going on about.

‘Could you maybe elucidate a little? For the non-telepaths amongst us.’

Sally paused, looking away from the old black and white image. She stepped down from the sofa and wrapped her arms around Tense, snuggling into his neck and resting her head on his shoulder.

‘Angels see the whole thing, the process from the beginning to end. It’s almost impossible for us to alight upon an instant, to ‘see’ an instant. You guys exist in the flicker of movement from instant to instant, we exist in the silence of the ages, anything less than an eon is hardly worth getting out of bed for. That’s why we don’t chat much.’

‘We don’t chat much?’

‘Humans and Angels. It’s very difficult to establish a common frame of reference.’

‘Yeah, that’d be why.’ Tense smiled, ‘nothing to do with Angels being intellectually superior telepaths.’

‘We don’t feel superior you know?’

‘You don’t? Angels?’

‘No. It’s a funny thing but we think you’re his favourites.’

‘Humans are God’s favourites! You’ve got to be kidding, if we’re his favourites God help anyone he doesn’t like much.’

Sally didn’t say anything. She turned her attention back to the picture.

‘He waited ages for the right moment to take these photos you know. He waited days sometimes.’

‘Yes. That’s right.’

‘He was waiting for the exact right instant. That’s what we Angels could never fathom. That a particular instant could be important, any more important than any other instant, any more important than the grand sweep of history.’

‘But it is.’ This made perfect sense to Tense. His life had always lurched from one pivotal moment to the next.

‘Yes it is. From the purview of mortality, every moment counts.’

I don’t mean to seem insensitive’ Tense shifted his feet a little, slightly uncomfortable at what he was about to ask, ‘ but can you explain why Angels think we humans are God’s favourites.’

Sally stared at Tense for a little while. She hadn’t been told of anything specific that she couldn’t mention. There were no particular interdictions on her actions at all in fact. Still, this was a tricky one.

At last she decided to speak.

‘We think that we might be a failed experiment.’

‘A failed experiment? Can God make a mistake like that? I mean, being omnipotent, omniscient and so on. I’d have thought it would be a wee bit impossible?’

‘Good point. Those who think we might be a failed experiment also think we were meant to be a failed experiment.’

‘In which case how could the experiment have failed?’

‘Well it could have failed if God had wanted it to fail couldn’t it.’

‘Could it?’ Tense was beginning to feel a bit wobbly. He was also beginning to feel grateful than Angels and humans didn’t chat much.

‘Well to say that God cannot decide to make a failed experiment is to place a limit upon the limitless.’

‘Well whatever. Why was the experiment supposed to be a failure?’

‘We cannot bear witness to nitty gritty events. We cannot see meaning in the fall of a single leaf. We cannot feel passion the way you feel passion. We cannot hope and despair, and transcend and die, the way humans can. We cannot love the way you love.’

‘I love you.’ Tense blurted it out. He hadn’t seen that coming.

Sally smiled, lifted his chin with the index finger of one hand, and placed a gentle kiss on his lips.

‘I know’ she said, ‘and because you will otherwise forever be in doubt, I love you too.’

‘How is that possible? We only met today?’

‘The Lord works in mysterious ways.’

‘Really? That’s all you’ve got?’

‘Well you are kind of cute too you know.’

Tense, pushed way beyond his philosophical and intellectual comfort zone, now found himself emotionally overwhelmed.

‘Do you think we could call it a night?’ he said, ‘I really don’t think I can take any more?’

‘Sure. Sleep well.’ Sally kissed the tip of her finger and splodged it against the tip of his nose ’you get off to bed. I have some thinking to do.’

Tense flopped into bed at the end of the longest day of his life, quite unable to string together two consecutive thoughts. In seconds he was asleep. The last fragment of a thought that passed through his mind before he lost consciousness was ‘but she’s human now…’

It was approximately four hours later, in the darkest hour before dawn, that he was awakened by a tapping at his door. He turned on the bedside light.

‘Yes’, He said, ‘who is it?’ Immediately regretting the arrant stupidity of the question.

The door opened and Sally walked in, wide eyed and shaking, clearly very distressed.

‘Oh my God,’ Tense jumped out of bed, ‘What’s wrong?’

‘I’m sick!’ Sally almost wailed.

‘What do you mean? How do you know?’

‘Just look’ she said, ‘My skin has come up in a terrible rash and I’m shaking all over.’

Tense took Sally in his arms, ‘You’re freezing’ he said, ‘what have you been doing?’

‘I’ve been standing out on the balcony counting stars.’

Tense pulled the doona off his bed and wrapped Sally in it, swaddling her tightly.

‘It’s ok’, he said, ‘You’re not sick. You’re just shivering because you’re too cold.’

‘Can I stay with you tonight?’

Tense disentangled Sally from the doona so they could both snuggle under it.

‘Sure’ he said, ‘but no funny business.’



No. 32 Tense – Chapters 4, 5 & 6

Chapter 4

They walked in silence, side by side. To Tense, the short walk to the café seemed to stretch and extend to match their pace.  Each step appeared to leave the haven of the café neither nearer nor further away.

He began to think. His mind, left as it were to its own devices, raced. This was bad. This was potentially disastrous. A mind such as Tense’s should never, ever, under any circumstances, be left to follow its own path.

What, he wondered, if she were a serial killer? Tense knew from his extensive study of all things serial-killerish, that female serial killers were extremely rare, practically unheard of. Men made the best psychopaths, always had, always would. That was common knowledge. Oh God, he wondered, was he being sexist? Was he displaying a typical male chauvinism by laying claim to masculine supremacy when it came to the sociopathic arts? The whole thing was turning into a whirling vortex of politico-sexual confusion. It was all too much. Faced with the imponderable, implausible, indissoluble knot of self-doubt that threatened to swamp him completely, his mind simply stopped, paused for an instant, and then reset. Only to be attacked immediately and without mercy, by yet another misgiving.

What if, contrary to all evidence, reason and the laws of nature, she actually was an Angel? What then? Could a relationship, a you-know, boy-girl type thingummy-jig, could such a thing be possible? What would it be like, he wondered, in bed with an Angel? What were the proprieties? No doubt there would be some kind of heavenly etiquette of which he knew nothing. There was bound to be an angelic sex protocol which he would be quite unable to follow. The whole thing was doomed. Either the woman with the sunshine smile was a serial killer or a sexually unobtainable Angel. This must, he thought, be the worst day of his life.

Fortunately, while distracted by these primal fears and generally otherwise engaged, the pair had managed to reach to the café. It was open. There was an empty table. They sat down. A waitress approached. Tense pulled himself together.

In a fit of what he hoped would come across as proactive gallantry, Tense began to speak.

‘We’d like two flat white coffees please. One smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, and bacon and eggs for two.’ Across the small Formica topped table, Sally the Angel smiled.

‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’

Tense was thrown immediately and without a moment’s notice once more into a state of total confusion, on the one hand he was buoyed, swept away and captivated by the supernatural smile, on the other, cast into the nethermost pit of uncertainty.

‘Forgotten something?’ Tense wracked his mind, desperately searching his memory for any hint of the missing item.

‘Fresh fruit salad with double cream and vanilla bean ice cream.’ Sally smiled. Tense, momentarily entranced, was of course, quite unable to speak.

‘Will that be all?’ The waitress smiled at Sally. Tense imagined that some feminine or perhaps Divine understanding had passed instantaneously between the two women.

‘I thought you were joking! You’ll never eat all that.’ Immediately regretting his outburst, Tense blushed the deep purple of a Queen Garnet plum.

‘Never doubt the powers of an Angel’, Sally was suddenly serious, almost sombre.

‘But if you’re good I might let you have some of my ice cream.’

A vagrant thought scudded, carefree across the surface of Tense’s mind.

‘Do you have wings?’ he asked, craning to one side in the hope of a glimpse.


Chapter 5

N-dimensional isotropic phase space. Apparently that was the explanation. Sally, it transpired, did indeed have wings. Wings which she kept tucked neatly away in n-dimensional isotropic phase space. At least this was what she told him, and he was really in no position to challenger her on it.

Tense wondered vaguely if he too could get hold of a pair of gossamer n-dimensional wings. If, as must certainly be the case given the evidence to date, his personal existence preceded the development and evolution of his essence as a person, then perhaps a pair of winglike extensions awaited him, out there, somehow, somewhere. There must surely be at least one future in which he and Sally fly off into the sunset?

While Tense pondered these weighty questions, Sally stuffed her face. Smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel wolfed down with a giant slurp of near boiling coffee, was followed with gusto by loud munching on bacon and eggs. Sally paused occasionally, only to gasp for air. Slowly the café fell silent as fellow diners, at first merely baffled, and then increasingly appalled, watched the display.

At last Sally looked up, tiny dribbles of egg yolk making their way sluggishly down her chin to drip, pendulous and proud, into the otherwise enticing cleft of her bosom. Tense, having finally noticed the atmosphere of rapt attention gripping the room, and ever the gentleman, leaned forward, a crisp, new paper tissue in his hand.

To Sally’s evident surprise her new male acquaintance began to dab gently at her chin, removing one by one, the offending rivulets of congealing egg yolk. The process was slow, considered. For some reason Tense felt no sense of urgency.

It was a very gentle and very paternal gesture. Somehow, suddenly, and for that moment only, their roles were reversed. Tense playing the part of mature, confident adult, while the immortal, and one would hope finally satiated woman, messenger of God no less, sat quiet. At last her face was returned to the pristine state of nature.

As one, the focus and attention of every man, woman and child in the café, turned to Sally’s prominent bust. A hushed silence fell across what we must now describe as her audience. Would he or wouldn’t he?

Tense retrieved another tissue from the box on the Formica table, and paused. You could have heard a pin drop. Slowly Sally glanced down, noticing for the first time the streaks of yellow goo coalescing in the confluence of her upper torso.

She looked up. Their eyes met. Sally observed the tissue in Tense’s hand and fixed Tense with a look honed through all the ages of mankind. A look which said, ‘Don’t move a fucking muscle. Do not so much as twitch or I shall smite thee as thou hast never before been smitten’.

Tense complied. Sally reached forward with deliberate precision and retrieved the tissue from Tense’s outstretched hand. Swiftly, and with movements of such agility and deftness as to call into question Sally’s regular eating habits, she removed the offending liquor. The assembled diners, as one, began to breathe again.

It was of course at this moment that the waitress appeared.

‘Fresh fruit salad with double cream and vanilla bean ice cream.’ She placed the bowl on the table and left.

The groan produced by a café-full of diners driven way beyond their comfort zone by a very hungry Angel, hung in the air like a stultifying smog.

Tense, as was his habit at these times, took refuge in his own inner world.

If, he thought, man exists, and if in the process of existence man defines himself and the world through his own thoughts, and if he wanders lonely as a cloud between choice, freedom, and existential angst. Then surely, somehow, this was all his fault.

Sally glanced up briefly from her desert, let out a powerful, reverberating and extended belch, and set to work.


Chapter 6

At last Sally looked up, dabbed the corners of her mouth delicately with a clean white tissue, and smiled.

‘Hungry, were you?’


‘Been a while since your last meal had it?’

Sally paused, calculating, ‘About a thousand years I think. What year is it?’

Tense was not sure how to respond. If Sally was having a little joke then she certainly was persistent.

He tried another tack, ‘So what brings you to Earth?’

‘Oh, I’m just here to replenish my grief.’

‘Your grief?’


‘It needs replenishing?’


‘And why is that?’, Tense felt his consciousness shifting kind of sideways in an attempt to accommodate Sally’s peculiar world view.

‘One can become a tad blasé. ’


‘Yes’, Sally paused, and for the very first time, frowned slightly.

‘Being disembodied you see.’

Tense shook his head slowly. He didn’t see. He most certainly did not. He was, finally, and perhaps a little late in the day, beginning to suspect that he’d picked up a nutcase.

‘No bodies you see.’

Tense stared blankly at the exquisite object of his desire.

‘In Heaven. We don’t have physical bodies in Heaven.’

‘No. I suppose not.’

‘And after a while one begins to forget what it’s like.’

‘Having a body?’


‘I see.’

Sally and Tense sat staring at each other, separated by a growing gulf of understanding and a thousand years of hunger.

‘Humans are embodied you see,’ Sally leaned forward, suddenly intense, ‘It’s the human condition.’



Tense paused for a moment, mulling over what he had heard. He had always, at least for as far back as he could remember, considered life, embodiment, indeed making sense of anything, to be a kind of desperate compromise between the embarrassing vagaries of the physical body, the bewildering misconceptions of the mind and a desperate attempt on some spiritual level to discover or impose meaning and significance upon an otherwise listless and disinterested universe.

To be fair, he could see that after a thousand years without a physical body, a slap up feed might be in order.

‘What were you doing in the super market?’


There seemed to be nowhere to go from that. So Tense sat silent, wondering what revelation the next moment would bring.  He was not disappointed.

‘Humans have bodies for a reason you know?’ Sally reached for the menu as she spoke, ‘there is a purpose to containing the spirit in flesh.’ Sally paused, observing Tense carefully, weighing things up. At last she appeared to come to her decision.

‘It’s a bit like sonnets’ she said, ‘or haiku’.

‘I see’, Tense did not. He had no idea what this crazy, gorgeous woman was on about.

‘Setting limits forces creativity.’

‘It does?’

‘It does. Definitely. You see being forced to write a sonnet within the rules of sonnet writing, or a haiku within the rules of haiku writing, creates the boundaries within which creativity can flourish.’

‘I see’, and he did, sort of.

‘That’s the thing about embodiment,’ Sally checked that Tense was following before continuing, ‘embodiment, imposes severe limitations on the human spirit, providing the opportunity for transcendence of one’s self and of self-detachment.’

This was all getting a bit much. It was about to get worse.

‘Humans live in four dimensions, but have freedom of movement only in three, whereas Angels live in five dimensions, but have freedom of movement in four. That’s the main difference really. Oh and immortality of course. That makes a difference.’

‘What about God?’


‘Yes, How many dimensions does he get to swan around in?’

‘Don’t be cheeky!’ Sally gave Tense a very old fashioned look.


‘The Creator gets to do whatever he, she or it wants.’

‘It’s alright for some.’

‘Well when you create your own universe you can make the rules. Until then accept your limitations.’

Sally turned her attention once more to the menu.


It was going to be a long day.

No. 28 TENSE

A novel in tiny, impromptu serialised snippets…

Chapters 1 to 3

The past is the past, where the dead live. The future is chaos where the unborn wait. Every human being who lives, who has ever lived or who will ever live, will live in the Now. Never so much as a nanosecond earlier or later.

The same goes for every animal, plant, river, puff of wind or grain of sand. Everything that has ever existed, that exists now, or that will ever exist is constrained to exist entirely within the infinitesimal flash of creation that is happening now. Now. Now. Now.

The entire universe and everything in it slips instantaneously from now to now, creating the past and anticipating the future, without ever persisting in its transitory state for longer than the flash required by creation to create the next instant.

The rumoured Big Bang, if bang there ever was, continues to this day, rippling ever onwards and outwards, moment by moment, instant by instant, flash, flash, flash.

Our consciousness, our awareness of this amazing unfolding, is pieced together like an animation, flickering from second to second, creating the illusion of continuity, of continuous change, when in fact all is discontinuity. Existential angst, which any degree of self-knowledge would proclaim as the very essence of the human condition, is the only possible, natural, sane response.

This therefore was the very anxiety experienced on a daily basis by our hero as he machete’d his way through the torment of life. Imagining himself as a ping-pong ball suspended upon a tiny column of air blown thorough a straw by a small, asthmatic child, he wrestled second by second with the certainty that any moment might be his last. After all, how long could one expect said small asthmatic child to continue to blow? What is the maximum duration possible even under the most auspicious circumstances? Whatever it might be, things didn’t look good.

It therefore came as something of a surprise for him to encounter, as he did, just before midnight, on that particular New Year’s Eve, the woman who smiled sunshine. There was no other word for it. Her face at rest was perfectly pleasant, symmetrical, with all the right bits in reasonable proportions. Her eyes were a piercing aquamarine, and if her face were at rest, that would be her most notable feature. When she smiled however, the clouds pulled back, and against an acetylene blue sky, she smiled pure sunshine. Warm, radiant and instantly beguiling. She exuded an existential joy that could, or might if he would let it, soften our hero’s angst, allow in at least the possibility of better times to come. Here at last was a metaphysical Ventolin, balm for the constricted bronchia of our allegorical asthmatic child.

Would he speak to her? Would he summon up the courage? Or would the moment pass? Would it slip instantaneously and irretrievably into the domain of the dead and moulder through all eternity alongside every other missed opportunity.

In the sombre halls of Valhalla would our hero’s forbears slap their foreheads in disbelief, stamp their feet in frustration, and mutter ‘Gutless fool’ into embarrassed silence?



Chapter 2


We all have our ‘Sliding Doors’ moments. Whether planned well in advance or apparently random. We can all point to pivotal moments in our lives when we went left when we should have gone right, when we hesitated when we should have jumped in, or, alternatively, when we jumped in with both feet when we should, most definitely, have hesitated – in retrospect.

For our hero, the next few minutes, pregnant to bursting with possibility, promised to trigger either a helter-skelter, roller-coaster ride into an unknown future, or a timid, inglorious retreat into morose introspection and self-hatred. Which was it to be?

For those given to the optimistic and wholly implausible paradigm of free will, driven by chance and the accidental emergence of pattern within our otherwise plainly haphazard lives, the outcome was up to him. On the other hand, for those intellectually and emotionally drawn to the equally unlikely notion that free will is an illusion, and that everything, down to the tiniest detail, the tiniest possible instant, is preordained and inevitable, the die had already been cast. Our hero would be propelled to his doom like the proverbial lamb to its inevitable slaughter.

He could choose or not. Either way his future, whether destined or fortuitous, would emerge. And emerge it most certainly did.

Transfixed by the solace of her smile, our man hesitated, just for a moment. But a moment was all the woman needed, oblivious to the impact she had inadvertently had upon the hapless fellow, to march smartly from the crowded supermarket. Once again, as had happened so many times in the past, he was faced with the conundrum of choice. Yet again this tiny speck of humanity must, in the face of what he suspected was an implacable or at the very least an indolent universe, wrestle the future into a configuration of his own choosing. We can all appreciate I think, what an immense, potentially overwhelming task that would be.

The two kilos of best minced beef which he had snapped up as it was on special, adamantly refused to register at the self-service checkout. Within seconds a breezy and efficient looking young woman appeared silently at his side, brandishing an electronic pass key and demanding to know if he needed any help. He said not, but the self-service checkout supervisor, for this is what her name badge proclaimed her to be, blithely ignoring his claim, swiped her pass against the till and keyed in the appropriate price. She smiled sweetly and walked away. ‘Bitch’, he thought to himself, entirely without justification.

The woman with the smile was still visible through the glass walls of the supermarket. She was on the phone. Into the vacuum of indecision rushed a familiar, if not entirely welcome, vortex of morose introspection and self-hatred. There was a certain comfort to be had in familiarity. There was something to be said for the known, even a dreary known, when set against a potentially malevolent uncertainty. Our guy was not a great risk taker. He was not at all the sort to make a heap of all his winnings. Maybe it was better this way.

He began to slump into his habitual slough of despond. And would have continued to do so but for the fateful, or entirely accidental, intervention of harassed middle aged woman accompanied by altogether too many children. Into the backs of his ankles, with a sickening crunching noise, crashed her fully laden shopping trolley. Left unattended for the briefest moment while a snotty nose was wiped with a grubby tissue, the trolley, perhaps in some phenomenological manner sensing its freedom, picked up momentum as it careened down the slight incline in the direction of our emotionally imploding hero.

The pain was immediate and excruciating. A pristine fight-or-flight response, hardly used since childhood, snapped him into a sudden, savage rage. Unable through long avoidance to focus his wrath upon another human being, the roiling mushroom cloud of anger and indignation poured outwards and away, finding at last its target in the miserable, wretched universe that had hounded him for as long as he could remember. Enough was enough. The world could bend to his will or break, its call.

Only one person saw the agonised look on his face as he made his decision. Only one person noticed as he drew himself up to his full height, squared his shoulders and marched out into the supermarket carpark. The trolley woman’s daughter, who had backed away at the very first sighting of the grubby tissue, and who takes no further part in this tale, watched him go.

Within a few steps he caught up with the woman.
‘Excuse me’ he said, his voice sounding surprisingly firm and confident even in his own ears. The woman turned.
‘You have a lovely smile.’ The man waited. The woman said nothing.
‘Actually, lovely doesn’t quite do it justice. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but when you smile your whole face lights up.’ Still she said nothing.
‘It’s like sunshine.’ He trailed off. At last the woman responded.
‘Thank you. That’s a lovely compliment.’ There was a pause before she continued.
‘My name’s Sally.’
‘Tense’ he said, ‘everyone calls me that. It’s a nickname.’
The woman smiled. Our hero blushed beetroot.
‘Tense’, she rolled the sound over in her mind for a moment, ‘pleased to meet you.’



Chapter 3


As our hero began to speak, a plane flew overhead. It seemed lower than usual, deafeningly loud. He stopped speaking, waiting for the ill-timed intrusion to end.
He and the woman with the sunshine smile stood silently, staring at each other for a few moments as the huge Airbus A380 wallowed slowly towards its nearby destination.
‘It’s the ten o’clock from Dubai.’ Tense shuffled his feat uncomfortably, bravura fading fast.
‘Is it?’
‘Yes.’ Tense was a gentleman of exceptional self-knowledge and had, as his psychotherapist was always so very keen to remind him, “a very rich inner life”. Consequently, Tense realised that, like a clay pigeon at the very end of its trajectory, about to fall humiliatingly from the sky, unless he acted with unaccustomed speed and resolution, he was about to crash and burn. He gave it another go.
‘I wonder…’ As he began to speak again the, now gloriously snot free, child of the trolley woman careened into his leg. Having in the past relied solely upon purely ontological proofs either of a malevolent universe or a capricious God, here at last, snot-free child in combination with sudden appearance of a low flying aircraft, was clear cut epistemological proof. Whatever, it was enough to precipitate him once more into action.
‘The universe is out to get me.’
‘That must be disconcerting.’
‘It is.’ Here, once again, the conversation faltered, and would have stuttered into silence and utter failure had not the young woman offered her opinion.
‘I don’t believe in a malicious God.’
Tense was flummoxed. Had she not just witnessed the Machiavellian workings of the substrate of our shared hologram. Or to put it another way, was she mad? Intrigued by the possibility that there might be someone even more deluded than himself, Tense decided to investigate.
‘Is it that you don’t believe there is a God, or that you believe that God is not malicious?’
‘Oh it’s not a matter of belief, I know there is a God and I know that God is good.’
Tense, subjected without warning to an animalistic fight-flight response for the second time in so many minutes, stifled the almost overwhelming desire to turn on his heel and run.
‘W.T.F?’ he thought.
‘You’re quite right’ the woman smiled, bathing Tense in warm, comforting sunshine and a sense of general wellbeing, ‘I should have said, I’m an Angel.’
‘You’re an Angel?’
‘Yes.’ Sally the Angel continued to smile. Calm and quite unabashed, she gazed around the busy carpark. Tense, as so often before, found himself in uncharted territory. She was gorgeous, no doubt about that, and he was besotted. So what she was mad as cut snakes, he could see the advantage of having an Angel in his life.
‘Well what brings you to earth?’
‘I’m on my holidays.’
‘You’re on holidays?’
‘On Earth?’
‘Where are you on holidays from?’
‘Well Heaven of course?’
‘My reading of the scriptures has been regrettably sketchy, but why would anyone leave Heaven to go on holidays on Earth?’
‘Well there are only two possible destinations, I mean, from my point of view, and Earth is the better of the two.’
‘Ah, yes, I take your point.’
‘Besides’ Sally smiled again with renewed vigour. Tense almost passed out.
‘It’s nice sometimes to do a bit of field work,’
Tense was momentarily lost for words. The morning was getting on and he was hungry.
‘Coffee?’ he ventured.
‘Sounds wonderful, with salmon and cream cheese bagels?’
‘But of course.’
‘And bacon and eggs?’
‘And fresh fruit salad with double cream and vanilla bean ice cream?’
‘Well, let’s see what they have.’
Sally burst out laughing and took his arm, ‘Only joking.’
As the young couple walked slowly, side by side in the direction of a nearby café, Tense found himself musing on the events of the morning. He’d fallen in love, sustained, no doubt permanent, damage to his Achilles tendons, met an immortal, spiritual being and messenger of God, successfully chatted her up in a supermarket carpark and invited her for coffee.
Against all experience and his better nature, Tense found himself conceding, things were looking up.