Read by Sarah Feathers
They get on my bus at nine-thirty each morning. First bus they can board with their free passes; they’re not stupid. Azrael gives me a friendly nod as usual.
“Where are you off today?” I say.
He grins on all four faces.
“Senior Screening at Pictureville. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Free cup of tea and a biscuit.”
He walks to the back where Anubis is saving him a seat. We’re not really meant to allow dogs on the bus except for assistance dogs, but I make an exception for him. After all, he’s only canine from the neck up. The rest of him is relatively normal, although he does have a tendency to drool on the tickets.
It's like a school trip at this time of day. They all get on with flasks and sandwiches in their rucksacks, waving to their friends. The same old familiar faces time after time. Skinless Mictecacihautl with her mouth full of stars. Yama with his crown of skulls. Huie-nui-te-pō, elegant as ever in her gown of sunset. All laughing and chattering in anticipation of matinée theatre tickets and early bird menus.
“And how the hell can a god retire?” I asked Tuoni, the first week they arrived. “Sorry,” I added, noticing a strikingly well-toned Hades just behind him, pronged fork in hand. “Not the best choice of words.”
Tuoni shrugged his blue shoulders.
“Staff cuts. It’s the same story everywhere. You think austerity is just for the living. Ha!”
His laughter sounded like the grinding of aeons-old granite.
Hades nodded. “They can do it all by computer now. Just press a button and a hundred souls are harvested. Poof! Just like that.”
“Besides, it’s all multicultural now,” Baron Samedi added. “No need for every tribe and religion to have its own death god. That’s what they told me.”
“Self-service check-ins, that's the latest.” A Shinigami rolled its eyes. “It’ll be absolute bedlam. And who will they get in to fix the mess? Not us. Some spotty youth work experience? with a clipboard, that's who.”
The rest of them rattled their bones and clacked their teeth in agreement.
There’s not much you can say to that, is there? Other than, “Mind your step,” and, “Second stop after the lights for the Broadway Shopping Centre.” I did have to draw the line when Hades tried to bring Cerberus along. A fella with the head of a dog I can just about cope with after the night shift. A dog with three heads is just weird.
The other seniors didn't take to them at first. You can't blame them. When you're pushing eighty, the last thing you want to see is a god of death getting on the 637 to Bradford.
“I’m going to call the Imam.” Mr Zafar waved his mobile phone in my face. It might have worried me if he had remembered to switch it on. “They ought to be exorcised. And that icy one’s leaving puddles on the seat.”
“Elder abuse, that’s what it is,” Mrs Muranka added.
But everything changed after word got round that Ogbunabali knew how to access the free Wifi. Before long, there was a little crowd clustered around a tablet. By the time we reached City Hall, three of them had done click-and-collect at Argos, and Mr West had swapped email addresses with Proserpina.
Now Mrs O’Keefe hands round fliers for the University of the Third Age, while her friend Jemima Ambrose encourages Ankou and Erlik to join the over-50s rambling club. The three Valkyries who sit on the back seat are always making eyes at Mr Singh. Rumour has it that he has been out to lunch with one - or all three - of them.
They travel all over the place. Organ recitals. Trips to the coast. They particularly like Whitby. They enjoy lurking in the ruined Abbey and frightening Goths. And then there's the gym. Charon is forever telling me how many kilometres he can do on the rowing machine. Good for them, I say. It gives us all hope for life after death, doesn't it?
“Have a good one, Azrael,” I say, as he gets off outside City Hall.
He turns his third face to me and winks.
“I’ve got my eye on you. All of them.”
We laugh, as usual. But once he’s out of sight, I finger my rosary and say a prayer.
You can't be too careful.
(c) Elizabeth Hopkinson, 2016
Elizabeth Hopkinson has had around 60 short stories published, as well as a historical fantasy novel, Silver Hands. Her story Desperately Seeking Hephaestion was a winner in the Liars' League/National Gallery contest in July. She lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Website: elizabethhopkinson.uk
Sarah Feathers trained at East 15. Theatre work includes All You Ever Needed (Hampstead Theatre), A Hard Day’s Month (Rose Theatre, Kingston), 26 (BAC), Moll Flanders (Southwark Playhouse) and The Winter's Tale (Courtyard Theatre). Film includes Coulda Woulda Shoulda, Feeling Lucky and More Than Words. TV: The Real King Herod.