Happy Hour in
Purgatory

A novel in pieces.

chapter two.

(or, start from the beginning)

‘Eureka!’, Augie exclaimed. He’d found his keys.

The keys, as you can imagine, were rather confused, but also relieved that another sentient being — some species of ape, as it appeared — had taken notice of them.

‘Hello!,’ they said brightly, and discovered that they had no capacity for speech. The ape dangled the keys ominously from its fingers.

Augie tidied his apartment as best he could, checked his hair and shirt-collar in the bathroom mirror, sucked in his gut and stepped out into the hall. He locked the door behind him.

It would be hard to describe exactly what the keys were going through at this moment. Fear, delirium, euphoria: in short, the keys were having a transcendental experience. The existential crisis only set in when they realised that their Great and Higher Purpose was to lock and unlock a door to a run-down apartment in outer-suburban Melbourne.

*

Virgil the Ghost didn’t turn up for a while, and the longer he didn’t turn up the more psychologically unstable Augie became.

Shelley insisted he go see someone, so he went to see his friend Pete. Pete would be no help in the matter.

Pete was an irresponsible, puerile, unattached and marginally alcoholic call-centre manager whose shoes, on any given day, were worth more than Augie’s car. It was one of those impossible friendships that couldn’t be rationally explained, except to say that in high school Pete came off looking better with the girls whenever he stood next to Augie. So he stood next to Augie a lot.

‘A ghost?’ Pete exclaimed. ‘Did you have a camera?’

‘Nobody can see him but me,’ Augie replied.

‘What good is that? Tell the ghost he needs exposure.’

In the end Pete’s only advice was to get to a doctor and demand the strongest drugs available. This is exactly what Augie did: after a number of lengthy, invasive and expensive procedures he was declared perfectly — and irrevocably — sane.

Shortly after this, Virgil reappeared.

Augie was in the shower. It was a Sunday night and Shelley was asleep.

‘I have a question for you,’ said Virgil.

Augie shrieked and nearly slipped. He tried desperately to cover himself with his hands, then grabbed for a towel.

‘What the hell,’ Augie exclaimed.

‘Your mother,’ said Virgil, ‘wants to know’ — here he paused for effect — ‘what you see in that woman.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Your mother has asked me to ask you this question.’

‘My — my mother’s up there with you?’

‘I wouldn’t describe it as ‘up’. Perhaps more ‘inside’, or ‘around.’ Or ‘through’, even. But in any case, yes — I have spoken to your mother and she has asked me to ask you this question.’

Augie’s mother had died of cancer six years ago.

‘Well let her ask me, then!’ Augie exclaimed.

‘Impossible. For reasons I cannot explain, you appear to be able to speak only — and exclusively — to me. Your mother tells me she’s come back — through, whichever — many times to talk to you. She’s scolded you. She’s shouted at you. She’s wrapped her fingers around your neck. No response. Nothing.’

Augie sat down on the side of the bath and ran his fingers through his wet hair.

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Despite what my doctors say, I’m prepared to believe that this is actually happening to me. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’d prefer it wasn’t actually happening to me.’

There was silence.

‘What shall I tell your mother?,’ Virgil demanded.

‘Tell her fucking anything! Just — would you just leave me alone?’

Virgil shrugged and gloomed off through the bathroom door.

*

At this point it may be useful to explain a bit about quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics was a scientific theory that sought to explain the unruly and improbable behaviour of physicists who spent their time looking at infinitesimally small bits of stuff.

Utter nonsense, of course. But it did lead to the discovery that there are an infinite number of mutual realities, all co-existing in the same space-time. It also led to an alarming number of unhappy cats.

Erwin Schrödinger, a prominent scientist — and more of a dog person, truth be told — proposed a thought experiment in which a cat is placed inside a steel box with a device which will either kill it or not kill it. A lid is secured to the box so that no outside observation is possible. Schrödinger argued that, in the absence of observation, the cat is both simultaneously dead and alive inside the box, and it is not until the lid is removed that the possibilities resolve, quite randomly, into either one outcome or the other.

Schrödinger was clearly not interested in the cat’s perspective. The cat, in most cases, resolved firmly to remain in the ‘alive’ category, even if it meant being stuck in a stupid box.

The point — and there is a point — the point of this interlude is that Schrödinger’s cat paradox led to the discovery of the existence of infinite multiple realities. It became clear that, at the moment of opening the box, reality splits in two: one where the cat is alive, and one where the cat is dead.

It was thought that interaction between realities was impossible, or at least highly improbable.

Things tend to get messy in the quantum world, however. Multiple realities get all tangled up, and you get situations that produce cats which are neither dead or alive. Either way, the cats are consistently — and predictably — pissed off.

So you see there is a perfectly rational explanation for the existence of Virgil the Ghost. At the moment of his passing he simply refused (or forgot) to decide whether he was alive or dead, and thus became both, simultaneously.

He became unresolved.

Once this phenomenon was understood and accepted, an entire industry grew up around providing services to the unresolved. August Hindenburg is considered a pioneer — a trailblazer, a genius before his time. There are now legions of ghost psychologists, ghost dentists, ghost tax accountants and ghost dermatologists who owe their livelihood to Augie’s entrepreneurial acumen. Unfortunately for Augie, wealth and fame were not to tangle their way into his particular reality, at least not in his lifetime.

*

Jane was most definitely a cat person.

She had four cats. She lived in a third-floor apartment across from Ringwood station. She never let her cats out for fear they might run away. Their names were Behemoth, Persephone, Helen and Jesus H. Christ.

The other reason she never let her cats out was that she didn’t want to have to call their names in the street.

Suffice to say Jane was unattached romantically.

When someone did or said something that disagreed with the careful way she organised her world, Jane made a mental note of it — of the perpetrator, the nature of the offence, the time and place in which it occurred. She simmered the offence over a low heat until she returned home, then wrote it down on a little yellow index card. She filed this card in a cabinet purchased specifically for the purpose.

She’d developed a baroque taxonomy to organise her offences, but to say ‘developed’ implies that she’d finished the job, that her ontology of affront was complete. This is far from the truth. New categories of outrage were presenting themselves all the time. Each new offense required a great deal of thought. When a 70-year old fruiterer appeared to be staring at her breasts as she leaned over to select an avocado — did this belong to the ‘Males’ category (quite large), the ‘Disappointing retail experiences’ category, or the ‘Lecherous older people’ group, which she’d split off from ‘Males’ to free up a bit of room? Or did it require a new classification: ‘Sexual advances from people without teeth’?

Had she known the consequence of her categorisations, she may have resolved to be kinder. In a parallel reality (of which, we now know, there are an infinite number), on an alternate Earth, the Queen of a matriarchal Stygian empire would consult a certain Great Oracle of Punishment, whose brain had become inextricably quantum-tangled with Jane’s index cards.

The populace lived in mortal terror of the Oracular Visions. When the Prophet, emerging from a long trance, proclaimed, ‘Stubborn fridge mould!’, ‘Cat tray leakage!’, ‘The Price of Petrol in Rural Areas!’, they knew that many of them would be exterminated for no discernible reason.

By a turn of fate, it was Jane who’d been set up on a blind date with Augie. She was an acquaintance of Pete’s sister, and Pete’s sister had firmly resolved to get her friend out of the house more often.

They met at a café in Eastland shopping centre. Jane had chosen the place for good reasons: it was noisy, busy and safe; if the date started well they could go to a movie; if it didn’t she could shrug off her disappointment with a dose of retail therapy at a pet store. Either way it was close to home.

Augie arrived eleven minutes late, looking (despite obvious attempts to achieve the opposite) dishevelled and anxious. He tried to seat himself suavely at Jane’s table and knocked over a salt shaker in the process.

‘Sorry — ha. Uh -’ he splurgled, setting the shaker to rights.

In her mind, Jane began planning the index cards she would write later that evening.

He managed to order a coffee.

‘Blind dates are funny things, aren’t they.’

‘I suppose,’ Jane replied, Sphinx-like.

‘When Pete suggested it, the first thing I said was no. It was, you know, not something I’d thought I’d ever do. But — well, I guess it’s better than those awful dating sites. Or going to bars.’

Jane raised an eyebrow as she looked into the cup of coffee she was stirring.

‘I mean I don’t go to bars. Well, I haven’t gone to a bar in a long time. I’ve been married eight years, you see. Just divorced. So all of this is sort of, ah, unfamiliar.’

‘Stephanie mentioned that,’ Jane said. Stephanie was Pete’s sister, and Jane was quietly resolving to write six cards on the topic of the woman’s compulsion to set up her single friends.

‘So what do you do, Jane,’ Augie asked.

‘I’m a receptionist in a dental surgery,’ she replied.

‘In Box Hill,’ she added, for completeness.

‘Oh,’ said Augie. He said this because he didn’t know what else to say. After a moment’s pause, he continued: ‘Do you like it?’

‘It pays the bills,’ she said flatly.

More silence.

This isn’t going well, Augie thought, and he was right.

‘What caused the divorce,’ Jane asked, looking up from her coffee. She had large thick-rimmed glasses and her magnified hazel-brown eyes struck Augie as rather beautiful, if not somewhat piercing at the moment.

‘I — well,’ he exhaled. His coffee arrived and he sipped it. ‘I, uh — saw a ghost.’

‘Pardon?,’ said Jane.

‘Yes, well — I know it sounds mad, and maybe it is. Shelley certainly thought so. In the end she couldn’t live with the two of us.’

‘What do you mean, a ghost?’

‘His name is Virgil and he just turned up one day. I’m the only one who can see him. He’s friendly, for the most part, if not a bit up himself. A bit bored, I think, also.’

Jane opened her mouth to speak, then closed it firmly and leaned back in her chair.

‘Look I don’t want to scare you — I’m not crazy or anything. It’s just something that’s happened and I’d rather let you know about it now before we’ve, you know, maybe got to know each other a bit more.’

Jane indicated with a less-than-subtle facial maneuver that there would be no danger of this happening. She opened her bag to look for her purse.

‘Shit,’ Augie said, putting his face in his hands. ‘I’ve blown it. I’m very sorry Jane, I -’

At that moment the universe churned ever so slightly and Virgil the Ghost materialised in the middle of the coffee shop. He gloomed sullenly over to Jane’s side of the table.

‘Things not going well?,’ Virgil said.

Jane looked up from her purse. She looked at Augie, who obviously hadn’t uttered these words. Then she saw Virgil. Augie, whose face had already contorted into a number of grotesque expressions of shock, did it a few more times.

‘You can see him?’ Augie exclaimed.

Jane’s mouth hung open. Her index cards would be no help to her. This was the kind of thing that required a whole new medium of affront.

‘Wha — ,’ she splurgled.

‘I said the very same thing,’ Augie noted.

‘Aeh -’, Jane said.

Virgil looked around at the people in the cafe. He saw a clock hanging on the wall.

‘Oh dear. You two better pay up and get out of here. It’s almost time.’

‘For what?,’ Augie demanded. Jane sat there, paralysed.

‘Never you mind. Now pay the bill and get out of here — you’ve got a film to watch.’