When Mr. Penny died that night on the operating table. It seemed to him that the ceiling above changed from plaster to glass, then shattered. A few shards cut him, as they fell — or ought to have cut him, though he felt nothing. He tried examining his arms, but couldn’t find them, and had the same trouble locating the rest of himself. But there I am, he realized, catching sight of a familiar-looking form on the table below, being thumped and prodded by a growing horde of whitecoats.
Like a panicked frog, he tried swimming downwards, but with his limbs a dozen feet beneath him, that hardly worked. Shouting proved equally ineffectual. Nothing seemed to slow or stop his steady upward movement. This was a conundrum, and conundrums gave Mr. Penny migraines. So he turned his head (preferring to think he had one), and waited, as patiently as he could, to see what happened next.
There were stars overhead, now, and beneath him, the frantic shouts and alarms grew softer every moment. Soon there was nothing but darkness and stars all around.
Mr. Penny longed for his telescope — momentarily. But when he actually passed through a star (he liked to think it prickled), he realized he was as close to stellar phenomena as anyone could ever care to be.
The distance between the stars was increasing so rapidly, now, that Mr. Penny, who suspected the universe was running out of ideas, was very close to boredom. So it was a great relief to him when he spotted something that, even under the circumstances, seemed peculiar.
It appeared to be — floating in the middle of space, no less — a long red carpet terminating in a beautifully furnished sitting room. In the middle of the room (which was roofless, like a play) was a round table, complete with a silver tea service and a basket of what were, Mr. Penny hoped, scones. There were two chairs at the table, one empty, and one occupied by a plump, sweet-looking, elderly woman.
Alighting on the carpet, Mr. Penny was pleased to see he had his body back, and that everything was where it ought to be. He was relieved, too, that the carpet bore his weight as well as any solid floor, and he didn’t go plummeting through it or the universe. He’d had quite enough of that.
He proceeded timorously into the sitting room. The woman, who was smiling in silence, seemed pleasant enough. Her tightly curled hair was almost certainly dyed (red). She wore a bit too much make-up.
“Mr. Penny,” she said, filling her cup, “I’ve been expecting you.”
“Me?” He could hardly believe it.
“Free?” said Mr. Penny, thinking it was a rhyming game.
“It won’t cost you a dime,” said the woman, “Take a seat.”
He did — on the chair furthest from her, but nearest to the basket (they were scones, nice fat ones). He looked about nervously as she filled his cup.
“Scone?” she asked.
Being partial to scones, Mr. Penny didn’t hesitate to take one.
“No butter, I’m afraid,” said the woman, “It’s a little hard to come by, in these parts.”
Her guest tried not to look disappointed.
“How was the journey down?”
It had seemed more like a journey up to him, though all Mr. Penny said was, “Fine, thanks.” That was his pet expression, and all he ever had the chance to say to most people. He’d noticed long ago that the same neighbours who’d stop one another in the street to talk about family and television and politics only ever asked him how he was, before continuing briskly on their way. Another conundrum, that.
“Do you have any questions?” said the woman, after a long pause.
Mr. Penny ought to have had a question or two, but nothing came to mind. It can be tricky, he’d always found, coming up with something to say to a stranger, particularly when they’re looking you in the eye. So he timidly picked at the scone, and glanced around the room.
Just over the woman’s shoulder was a portrait of — Well, it had to be her. The old woman. When she was younger. The painted figure reclined against a piano, smiling. She was pretty and thin and really very different from her present self. But her smile, Mr. Penny thought, was identical.
And there was a portrait on the opposite wall. Of a man. He seemed awfully familiar…
It’s me, Mr. Penny realized. He was so young in the painting (Nineteen? Twenty?) that he barely recognized himself. His portrait-self sported a trim moustache and the same orange coat he’d worn to the hospital, minus the worn spots and patches. He was holding a briefcase, and smiling. Mr. Penny couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled. Suddenly, he didn’t want to look at the picture anymore.
“You’ve had a very long trip,” said the old woman, “You must be tired.”
Mr. Penny nodded. He suddenly was.
“Perhaps you’d like to go to your room?”
“It’s a long way back,” said Mr. Penny, slouching a little.
The woman smiled. “I wasn’t talking about your old room. No … I was talking about your new one.”
“New?” said Mr. Penny, sitting upright.
“Of course. I should think you had the old one long enough. Ten years, was it? Dismal little place, especially after your mother died. Lonesome, too, I’ll bet?”
A comet passed overhead, sprinkling a trail of dust over the room. The woman clapped her hand over her teacup — Mr. Penny followed suit — until the dust settled.
“It was lonesome,” he said, “Though Mrs. Mickleson, the landlady, made excellent scones. These are excellent, too,” he added quickly.
“Thank-you,” said the woman, with a smile. She helped herself to a scone, then continued, “There’s a time for everything, Mr. Penny, and I’d say it’s high time for a change. What do you say?”
He was about to blurt out, “Yes, please,” when the thought struck him that the new room might be more cramped and cold than the last one, and wouldn’t be a good trade after all. “What sort of room?” he asked, cautiously.
The woman filled him in, between sips of tea, “Fully furnished. Private bath. Fridge and stove in perfect condition. Brand new cupboards and floors. And a marvellous view of the stars, of course.”
“But what’s it per month?” Mr. Penny asked, knowing he only got so much, and the room sounded too good to be true.
“No charge. And you can stay as long as you like.”
Mr. Penny was in awe.
“Are you God?” he asked, at last.
The woman flushed. “Bless you, dear. I’m just the housekeeper.”
Mr. Penny looked appraisingly at the room.
“Am I God?” he ventured.
The woman only smiled.
“Some more tea, Mr. Penny?” she asked.
Mr. Penny thought carefully, then answered, “Yes.”
© Rolli 2019