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As Buddha mentioned to the pig, it's possible to walk from anywhere in heaven to anywhere else in half an hour. All you have to do is think of who you want to see and start walking – in any direction. It's a personality-based system. You can be sure who you'll finish up with, but you can't be sure where.
After twenty minutes of passing through indeterminate woodland my path descends into a shallow valley and I groan as I realise I'm approaching the smouldering wreckage of Valhalla, where presumably Joe Progress must be. I am the guilty party revisiting the scene of a crime. Maybe I should come back later when he's at a less embarrassing location. But no, I'm in the mood for confrontation, and that's the kind of mood that can't wait.
Joe Progress stands by the edge of the ruins wearing a suit and tie. On his head is a bright yellow hard hat, and the small amount of hair it leaves uncovered looks freshly trimmed. His girlfriend, Mercedes, the god of Private Motor Transport, stands next to him, overdressed in a white halter-neck number and matching strappy white sandals, cigarette in hand. In theory she's very attractive, but it's a beauty lost on me. I see a veneer of make-up and a perpetual chain-smoker. Give me a natural woodnymph any day.
Joe Progress spies my approach and gives her the gangster's nod. Before she makes way for business she gives him a brief kiss of the body-contact kind, establishing partnership matters for the audience, which is me, I suppose.
"Take a look at this place," Progress tells me, waving his hand across the debris. "It had a roof made of shields, with spears for rafters. How safe was that when the ceiling came down? Not very safe at all. First a rain of spears, then a rain of shields, not the ideal sequence. Had they never heard of building regulations?"
"I don't think there was anybody inside when it came down." I would prefer to be somewhere else, but now I'm in this position I'll be honest.
"And that's not all," he says. "This was a huge building with five hundred and forty doors, and not one of them was suitable for disabled access." His movements are graceful and he has the habit of pausing before he speaks, to check the words he is about to publish are absolutely the correct ones, all things considered. He shakes his head and hands me a yellow hard hat to wear, then whistles under his breath. "We found two hundred empty mead barrels, four hundred vodka bottles, and eighty-nine bodies with sword wounds. Some party this must have been."
He's not wrong. I can remember the singing, the dancing, the sex, and the drinking, vodka and mead, vodka and mead, and the call to arms and rushing out of the great hall, eight abreast through each massive door, but the rest of the night is only now beginning to return.
The morning after was one of the worst I've known. It was mid-afternoon before the internal refrain of 'never again' changed to 'not for a while' as it always does, eventually. And two days before I stopped smelling of woodsmoke. The great hall of Valhalla, once the most magnificent building in heaven, is reduced to ashes. All the great shields and banners, the hundred-foot tables sliced from single trees, the coats of arms, animal trophies, all gone. A few massive timbers continue to smoulder, still not quite burned through, even though Ragnarok had to be at least two weeks ago. Workmen move through the ruins with fire extinguishers. Others tune arc lamps on tall pylons to light up the devastation, as afternoon is turning into evening and the light is beginning to fade. In the background, a dozen generators hum.
"You did a fine job," says Progress, and he seems genuine. "This is prime development land, yet we could never have got permission to knock down Valhalla. Look at it now. A day with the bulldozers and there won't be a trace remaining. Did you enjoy the party, Pan?"
"The bits I remember, yes."
Progress sketches out a vision with precise movements of his hands. "This flat area over here will be the parking lot, with space for over two thousand cars. And there in the centre we're going to build the largest shopping mall that heaven has ever seen, ten storeys high, with magnificent escalators, brass banisters, a clear roof bringing sunlight down to a garden café on the ground floor. Believe me, you won't have seen anything like it."
Valhalla was my favourite building in the whole of heaven, so large and airy it hardly felt like you were indoors. I don't like buildings, generally, but this was an exception. Just the roof of shields and the spears that supported it were enough to entertain a drunk leaning back on his chair for an hour or more. And now it's about to be replaced by a shopping mall. I don't even know what a shopping mall is, and yet it's only through slow contemplation that I realise this. Progress is a charmer. He has none of the airs and graces that might belong to a president, and certainly belonged to my grandfather Zeus when he held the post thousands of years ago. I've not been criticised or commanded, I've been given a yellow hard hat to signify my membership of this club to which I don't belong. I've neglected my own values. In short, I've been charmed.
I try to put on my token yellow hat but it doesn't have space for my horns. It sits on top of them at the front and I imagine it has the comical look of a partly open lid. As we move down into the ruins, I catch workmen turning away to hide their amusement.
Progress kicks over the timbers with his shiny black shoes. The red charcoal immediately bursts into flame. "You know what the biggest disaster is? All this valuable wood gone to waste. We have a desperate shortage of building timber. If they'd asked me, I'd have knocked the whole thing down and rebuilt it in concrete, no charge, just in exchange for the wood."
Mercedes has joined Mammon at the edge of the destruction, and from there they watch us impassively. Progress is instantly likeable. I'm supposed to be set against him, but in his company it's difficult for me to remember that. Mammon, on the other hand, is a mean brute of a god, intense, powerful, far bigger than Hector. His suit is smarter than the one Progress wears – it's a statement of superiority. Also he's balding and has grown his hair long at the back in a ponytail, so the amount of hair is the same as it would be for a non-balding non-ponytail god, simply the distribution is different. I'm not sure if this philosophy works worse with a ponytail or a beard. And finally the ponytail is ginger. Need I say more?
"Do you think Valhalla could ever have looked the same in concrete?" I ask Progress, which is hardly an aggressive question but at least makes me feel I'm being argumentative. "Surely it would have lost its character?"
"Oh no, we'd have put in polystyrene wooden beam facings, plastic shields and spear shapes in the roof space, nobody would have noticed the difference. Imagine a modern building with sealed windows and doors to get rid of all those nasty draughts, and lovely bone-dry air conditioning. Much better. With nylon carpets and metal banisters we could have had a real laugh with the static. And I was thinking about some of those fancy solar toadstools for the paths outside, you know, the ones that collect sunlight in the day and shine at night, so the drunks could find their way home. Maybe have a little strip of them leading into the well…"
I'm about to protest that he must be joking, and then I realise this might be a foolish thing to say. I look at him closely. His skin is the freshly tanned image of health, and I suspect it looks that way every day. It looks too good, objectionably good. I suppose he's good-looking in a freshly-trimmed plastic kind of way. I begin to wonder if I admire him in some unaccountable fashion.
Maybe he works this out.
"You couldn’t help with the shortage of wood, could you?" he asks, as one friend to another. "I've been trying to track you down for weeks to ask you this. Every day we send the lumberjacks out to the forest, and every evening they come back with big smiles and no timber. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
This is my second opportunity to put across my own point of view, and I grasp it. "I imagine that's the woodnymphs defending themselves. When you destroy woodland you're killing them, literally forcing them out of existence. Have you ever thought about that?"
I say this gently, considering how I feel about it. The response takes me by surprise.
"Oh, come on. Don't give me that nonsense. Woodnymphs are mythical beings, they don't really exist. We can hardly stop what we're doing for the sake of some flight of the imagination, can we?"
"You've never seen a woodnymph?"
"Of course not."
"Ever been inside a wood?"
"Why would I want to? I prefer buildings and cars."
"Let me take your there, introduce you to the woodnymphs. They're lovely. Come and meet Echo and her friends. You'll like them."
"How can you introduce me to something that's mythical, to something that doesn't exist? That's ridiculous."
I have no clue where to take this conversation. No wonder Progress is unable to find a solution to the empty-handed lumberjacks. But then he's hardly likely to make the best decisions about woodland management either. Maybe I should be pleased to find that my opponent has such a clear weakness, but I'm not.
The heat is uncomfortable. I'm beginning to sweat, but Joe Progress shows no sign of perspiration. He's still kicking through the hot ashes with his smart shoes. From time to time he glances at my hooves, which might be more suitable for the job, but I'm not inclined to help. Of the shields that once formed the roof, nothing recognisable remains, the wood has burned and most of the metal has melted, just the occasional spearhead survives. Most are average in size, but now Progress unearths a massive metal head, around a foot and a half long, a reminder that the heroes of Valhalla were destined to do battle with giants, and that Ragnarok was supposed to be that final battle, not a debauched party.
"Do you remember the days when Ragnarok was a weekly attraction?" he asks, while his feet toy with the hot spearhead. His smart shoes are ruined. He doesn't care.
"Yes, I do."
"All those giants. They were mean bastards, weren't they? I'm not sad to see the back of them."
He has a point. The giants were thoroughly unpleasant and nobody misses them, with the possible exception of Odin and Thor, who saw the writing on the wall. If there are no giants, there is no need for the heroes who do battle with them.
Progress half reads my mind. "End of an era," he says. "Things move on."
"And how much did you help them move on?"
"I supported the party, supplied the vodka, and the complementary matches. Glad you enjoyed it."
It's not clear to me why he's so keen to have a good relationship with me, which he seems intent upon, but I've been careful not to reject the idea, because I have my own plans.
"Listen, Joe, there's something important I'd like to talk to you about. In my neck of the woods we've been seeing a lot of strange items recently – citrus fruits that walk, pigs that fly, almonds with legs, that kind of thing. It's all getting very disturbing. I wonder if we could talk about it for a moment?"
"Ah, yes. I thought that subject might come up. Genetic enhancements for self-harvesting. In the long run this should save us all a lot of bother with cutting fruits from trees and rounding up animals, such a waste of energy, so much more efficient if edible produce can present itself at a distribution centre."
"Well, yes, but this new system is destroying the feel of the forest."
"The feel, the atmosphere, the beauty."
"I don't see the problem. Some vague intangible is left by the wayside, and in return we get a more effective harvesting system that will save everybody immense amounts of effort. Don't you think that perhaps you're just an old fart who can't change his ways and refuses to recognise the advantages of new technology?"
So much for a close relationship.
"Perhaps we could have a sector of the forest dedicated to self-harvesting crops," I suggest. "And others dedicated to beauty and relaxation?"
"What a waste!"
"I'm prepared to fight you over this."
Suddenly the smoke of the still-smouldering site overwhelms the throat of Joe Progress. He has a coughing fit that doubles him up. When he stands straight again his eyes are pink and wide open, but he's smiling
"Really?" he says. "And how far are you prepared to go?"
"You're campaigning for re-election. I'll try to stop you."
"And what are you going to do? Prance around the other world showing off your goats legs and shouting 'Hey, look at me. I've got mixed genes and I'm a disaster. Don't vote for Joe Progress.'"
He seems amused by the idea.
"But you can't do that," he adds, "Because you don't believe in the other world, do you?"
He stares at my hoofs for so long that they begin to shuffle self-consciously, of their own accord. I prod a few metallic-looking bits amongst the embers, simply to disguise the movement.
"Listen…" I begin.
His face has turned serious. He continues to think for a while. Whatever he's thinking of pleases him. He runs a finger across his lips three times. "I'm going to take you up on your challenge. And if you win you can have your old-fashioned forest back. How does that sound?"
It sounds terrible. "You're on."
"But you're at a disadvantage. You don't believe in the other world and you don't know where to start. So let's even things up a bit. I'll give you a clue."
He beckons to Mammon, who's there within seconds.
"Show him the newspaper," says Progress.
Mammon smiles, which isn't pleasant, and produces a fat newspaper that couldn't possibly have come from his pockets. This is a common trick in heaven. I can produce my Syrinx, my pipes, in exactly the same way, and I don't even wear clothes.
"Page sixteen," says Progress, handing me the News of the World.
I flick through until I'm stalled by a tall picture almost from top to bottom of a page. It's of me, and as usual I'm nude. My private parts are obscured by a black circle, which could be larger.
"Fame at last," says Progess. "I thought you'd find it interesting."
I can't think of anything to say.
I begin to read.
I'm Just Like You,' Claims Half-Goat Man.
By our Science Correspondent.
Peter Alan Nesmith has the legs of a goat. And that's no exaggeration, they're real goat's legs. He has massive white hairy thighs and strong fetlocks, and two-toed feet that look like hoofs. He also has two horns growing out of his forehead. Otherwise he's human.
Peter is a genetic experiment.
There's more, but I'm too bewildered to take it in. The workmen have stopped what they were doing and are grinning at me inanely. Have they all read this?
Progress writes something on the back of a business card and hands it to me. "I bet you'd like to meet whoever wrote this. Her name's Stephanie McVeigh, she's a publicity agent. Here's her address. She's holding a garden party tomorrow. You should go."
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