Conor had seen this in a comedy program once, and it had been amusing. Now, it was puzzling.
He had discovered the little lane – a seldom-used back route to town – almost ten years before. It was a pretty and pleasant walk between green fields, and it provided just enough exercise to keep his old body limber and the blood flowing. He took it daily, had a cup or two of tea in town with friends, and then walked the lane back home.
Today, the path had a new feature: a doorway.
It sat right in the middle of the lane, facing him. The frame was painted forest green, the door was white, and the doorknob and knocker were a highly polished brass. There was nothing to support it, but it stood solidly nevertheless.
Conor looked around carefully but couldn’t see anyone watching him. He peered around the door frame and found no one behind it.
He leaned on his cane and stared at it a while. Finally, he shook his head and walked around the door and got back onto the well-worn path. He turned and looked at the door again. There was a knob but no knocker on this side, as was correct. He shrugged and went on his way into the little town. At the inn, he had his usual tea and a scone with his friends – children of friends passed on, but now friends in their own right – and kept quiet about the door on the path. He figured a door that could suddenly appear could just as suddenly disappear, and he had no desire to look the old fool.
“Conor,” Colm said, “I keep wishing I knew how it is you are pushing hard onto your centennial but you look no more ancient than I do.”
This was not flattery. Conor knew that he looked no older than some of the others around him, even though he had a good three decades on them and had known their parents well. His appearance mocked the fact that he was the only survivor of his generation in the area.
“None of my people were long-lived,” he said. “I stopped aging about the time they all did. I just forgot to keel over dead.”
There was general laughter at that, and some were heard to say they wished Conor would teach them the trick.
The morning ritual broke up and Conor began the little trek back to his home in the country.
“It’s no trick, Colm,” he muttered to himself. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s no trick.”
As he topped a little rise on the path, he saw the door sitting where it had been earlier. He shook his head and snorted. As he neared the door, though, he saw it had been turned around so that it faced him again.
“Oh, very well,” he said. “I’ll play along this time.” And he reached out and made three sharp raps with the knocker.
“Come in, please,” a pleasant feminine voice said from the other side of the door.
Conor jumped back about a foot. His eyes narrowed and he went forward again and looked on the other side. No one was there. He walked completely around the door. He saw no one around, and he could find no electronic speaker to project the voice.
He reached out and turned the knob. “Don’t keep her waiting, lad,” he told himself.
The door opened into a long, bustling office. File clerks went smartly from one cabinet to another with their folders. Others were busy typing, some on computer keyboards and others on actual typewriters. One was speaking quietly to a glowing green cube. Conor walked in and the door closed quietly behind him.
“Good morning, Mr. MacKenna,” an attractive young clerk said. It had been her voice beckoning him to enter.
Conor automatically removed his cap. “Good morning. May I ask…?”
“Please come with me, sir,” she said. “You’re expected, and Director Arbuthnot will answer all your questions.”
She led him down the length of desks and cabinets to a richly varnished door at the left. The sign on the door read: Stanley Arbuthnot, Regional Director. The young woman opened the door.
“Mr. Arbuthnot? Mr. MacKenna.” And she closed the door after Conor.
A portly fellow with dark, slick-backed hair smiled happily and stood up from behind his desk.
“Conor MacKenna! Good to meet you at last,” he said, shaking Conor’s hand. “Good to meet you, indeed. Won’t you have a seat?”
Conor took the proffered chair and found a steaming cup of tea at his right hand on the director’s desk. Arbuthnot took a chair on the same side of the desk.
“Let’s get right down to cases, shall we?”” Arbuthnot said. “I am this region’s director for Heaven. And I’ve got something quite important to discuss with you.”
“Heaven … has a bureaucracy?”
“Not originally, no. Although Hell has always had one. But in the last couple of centuries, as people have come to their eternal reward, they found they missed the positive aspects of keeping information neatly available. Needless to say, He has no use for any of this, but it comes under the heading of Heaven being whatever makes one happy, so He indulges us. From time to time, people sort of graduate from this and go on to enjoy Heaven without the clerical work. But I feel sure I’ll be here for a good while yet to come.”
“Ah. So … am I now dead? And in Heaven?”
“No. And yes. One of a rare handful of people ever to do so. And therein lies our discussion. You’ll recall the runaway horse you were on when you were eight years old.”
“I certainly do, like it was yesterday. It was a miracle I survived that.”
“Literally, it was a miracle. Every resident of Heaven is permitted, now and again, to perform a miracle on Earth. That was what saved you. But in looking at our records, we’ve found that the miracle went a bit overboard. New man, you understand. Not only were you saved from death that day, but you were accidentally saved from death permanently.”
“Yes. You were effectively made immortal that day. Not impervious to injury, as you’ve known over the years, but you cannot naturally die. So long as you avoid accident, you could live an earthly existence for however long the Earth lasts. As you told your friends, you did, in fact, cease to age when you otherwise would have died at … let’s see.” He consulted a clipboard. “Yes, here it is. You would have died at age 62.”
Conor thought a moment. “That was the year Ailean died.”
“Yes. It would have been a bit poetic. You would have died only a couple of months after your dear wife. But because of the miracle, you did not and – again – short of accident or other outside influence, you will not. Which, as you can consider, is a bit problematic. For you, mostly. People have been good-naturedly asking you about your youthfulness and longevity for some time, now. But it will begin to get serious before long. Doctors and researchers will want to study you. The government’s bureaucracy – far more like it is in Hell than our purified form – will begin to ask rude questions, such as, ‘How can you possibly be who you say you are? How are we certain you aren’t pulling a fast one?’ You see the problems coming, surely.”
Conor hummed a bit. “Yes, I do see your point. So what do you recommend? That I throw myself in front of a big lorry or something?”
Arbuthnot chuckled. “Nothing that drastic, no. Once an angel performs a miracle, it cannot be undone without the consent of the recipient. If you give your consent, the part of the miracle that made you immortal can be rescinded. You’re still in excellent health and may live some more years. But you won’t live so long as to become an object of concern.”
“Ah, well, that seems only reasonable. I’ve outlived my family and all the friends who were my age. And this up and coming world is getting more difficult for me to understand. I have no wish to go on indefinitely. I trust some of those folk I miss are here.”
Arbuthnot pointed to a golden door on the other side of his office. “Right through there, Mr. MacKenna. Your parents, Ailean, Ronan, Fiona, Declan, Nora … so many others.”
Conor looked at the door. He wanted to run over and yank it open.
“It won’t open for you now, Conor,” the director said gently. “You don’t yet belong here.”
“Where do I sign?”
Arbuthnot produced another clipboard with a word-filled sheet of paper on it. “This is just for our records, of course. Your decision has already been registered where it really matters.”
Conor signed on the bottom line. Then he saw a date was called for next to his name and filled that in.
“So what should I do?”
“Are you happy doing what you’ve been doing?”
Conor thought only briefly. “Yes, I am.”
The director smiled. “Then keep doing that. And someday, we’ll meet here again. And you’ll be able to open the other door.”
“ ‘ ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.’”
“In His own good time, Mr. MacKenna. At last, in His own good time.” Arbuthnot stood, and Conor understood the meeting was ended. They shook hands, and the nice girl from the outer office opened the door and showed Conor out.
The white door with the forest green frame closed behind Conor as he stepped onto the country lane and adjusted his cap on his head. When he turned around, the door was gone, and no imprint on the land showed it had been there. Then Conor realized he was facing toward home, even though the door had been turned in the other direction when he first went through.
He looked around the familiar countryside. Everything seemed to be just as it should. The sky was not more blue, the gentle breeze was not now more sweet than it had been. He had known he was immortal for only a moment before signing it away. So life was as it had been.
He began his walk toward home and the rest of his day. “No reason to be any different,” he told himself firmly. Yet the image of a golden door remained with him until he slept that night.