He started by telling them how they would die. Sometimes, he thought that selling deaths was all his job really was.
It was always good to start with the death. That's what the customer was invariably looking for. That's what really sold them.
Having described how his client would die, Quince would then go on in a rather matter-of-fact way to explain other notable features of the life he was hawking: childhood joys and traumas (as well as any exceptional neurosis that would result from them), love affairs, major accidents, famous things they would achieve, and so on. He would then finish off by displaying a rather nice rendering depicting a trans-temporal image of the body to be inhabited, tilting in holographic increments through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and so on until, after ninety degrees, to old age and death.
He would then look at them levelly and ask them: so?
Quince had never lost a client yet.
He had never lost a client. They always said yes. Not a single time in the whole of his existence - although he existed in a place where there was, technically, no time - not one single time had he even had to offer up a second life for perusal. The Poor Souls always snapped up what he had to give them.
Quince used to wonder if these Poor Souls were the only type. Certainly they were the only ones he ever came across. They were so empty and pitiful, these Poor Souls, these clients of his, so light. Of course, there was no sight here, just like there was no smell, taste, sound, warmth, cold, or anything else at all, at all, not even any time. And yet, were he asked to describe the Poor Souls, Quince would not have been at a loss for so much as a moment. They were symmetrical without having a shape. They were luminescent without having form or light. They were humble without having a self to humble. But, above all, they floated. Above all, they were light.
It came to him one day, as a revelation, that they were Poor Souls not because they were to be pitied, but rather because they were not rich. The Rich Souls - if they actually existed - never came to him. His job was to provide the Poor Souls with a means of gaining weight - he assigned them a life in which they might be forged into something with shape and purpose. Existence here was not a life-affirming experience. Only life was one of those.
This was a typical example of Quince's work:
'Hello,' he would say, his awareness lightly skimming the life he was about to offer to his newest client.
'Hello,' would come the reply, a faint tepid breath.
'Well, how can I help you today?'
'Oh, existence is it? Jolly good, jolly good! Well, we have this rather splendid life just in, let me see, I put it down here a moment ago ... Ah yes! Now, what have we here ...'
He would then go through the motions, acting as if he were perusing the life for the first time.
'Yes, this one's a real winner,' he might exclaim, 'Real first class death. That's what you should look for in a life, you know, a real top-of-the-range death.'
'Really?' the Poor Soul would whisper.
'Oh, absolutely, no question!' Quince would reply with feeling, 'Very character forming event in your average life, death. Very important.'
Here he would lean forward - even though there was no space here, he would lean forward - and try and intimate himself with the (usually slightly bewildered) Poor Soul.
'You know, between you and me,' he would say conspiratorially, 'Between you and me, there are some Souls that choose quite ridiculously mundane lives, purely on account of the fantastical deaths which they know wait for them at the end.'
'How fascinating,' the Poor Soul would reply, obviously impressed.
'Oh yes! Take this life, for instance. Well, it ends when, in the midst of bitter recriminations, your divorced partner decides they can control their grief no longer and plunges you both into the blades of an automated farming contraption! Just imagine that, will you?'
'I can't,' The Poor Soul would sadly reply.
'Well, of course you can't!' Quince would be enjoying himself by now, 'Not now you can't - but if you take this life, then you'll be able to ...'
The Poor Soul would be all too eager to jump for the life at this point, but Quince liked to play things out a bit.
'And if that isn't enough, then how about this?' he would leaf quickly through the life and find something that seemed half-interesting, 'You don't lose your virginity until you're forty - forty! - but when you do ... well, look at this!'
He would lean closer and show the life to his client.
'What is this?' the curious Soul would ask, perhaps slightly alarmed.
'They are quite common in the time when you will live, I am given to understand.'
'Horns, I believe.'
'And also this?'
'It appears to be a very small species of fish. Although quite what it's doing there is anybody's guess.'
'Although, of course, you don't have to guess. You could find out!'
The Poor Soul would be nuzzling towards him eagerly by now. A no-sale would be out of the question.
'And then there's the way you find out about your real parents, I mean wow ...'
And on Quince would go, until he grew tired of his sport, and allowed his client to pass through the life he held out, unto what lay beyond.
Quince liked his job, and was never lonely, despite the complete absence of any real company. In fact, this was one of the reasons he enjoyed it so much. Here, he was the exception. Next to the Poor Souls he was a real standout, something special, something different. Here he was a Big Deal.
Occasionally he would wonder if it might not be nice to have a change; sometimes he even found himself pondering a life with an almost personal interest, wondering what it would be like to experience first-hand some of the things that seemed to go on in them. He had always held the opinion that life was almost certainly overrated, and probably something of a fad. But as non-time wore on, he began to wonder more and more whether he could perhaps be wrong. After all, he had never had any complaints ...
One day - or night or, at any rate, instant - a most curious thing happened. Quince was perusing a life he had picked at random from the apparently infinite mass of them that jostled forever just below him. He had observed the death first, as usual, and had been mildly amused to see it involved a religious element of frightfully complex, vaguely hopeful, and magnificently erroneous conceit. After this he had leafed through the layers, seeing nothing more of particular note, until he was stopped short by a component that inspired in him a most unusual feeling.
The component was nothing special in itself - a simple pair of shoes carrying a battered look and bearing a distinctive gold stripe down one side.
The feeling it brought about was the worrying thing.
It was a profoundly strong and inescapable feeling. A feeling of utmost weight and undeniable truth.
It was a feeling of simple, absolute recognition.
Quince was shaken to his core. This had never, ever happened before. Although, when viewing a life so that he could describe it to his client, he was somehow instinctively aware of all that went on in them, nothing had ever before seemed to him to contain any personal relevance. Usually, it was as if he had a vast and automatic encyclopaedia splayed open in the centre of his being, something that transmitted to him every nuance of meaning in the lives he held. This was different. This was an item he recognised without its essence having to be translated for him.
'Those are shoes,' he thought, 'You wear them when you go outside. They feel good at the front where the tips have been broken in, and sometimes the back scuffs your ankle and the skin chafes away and you bleed. You buy them at a discount price from a market because you think your friend would like the gold striped design, but then keep them for yourself because you find you like them, too.'
It was an unsettling feeling, for the most part.
For the most part, but not entirely.
He put the life to one side, and often retrieved it when the desire struck him. He leafed through it with a strange, almost guilty pleasure that had barbs and hurt him almost as much as it pleased him. He lingered over it, searching in vain (and also with trepidation) for something else he might find similarly familiar. But he found nothing. Or rather, the only other odd thing he found about the life was a strange lack of something. There were things in it that he could not understand, and this was most unusual and worrying. It was as if the internal encyclopaedia he kept was failing when it came to this life. Worse, it seemed that this fallacy was growing - for he would swear that, when he had first looked at the life, he had understood the death with which it would end. He remembered thinking it absurd and pointless, but also understanding something of why it was done.
Now he could not fathom it.
He pondered the death most of all.
A Poor Soul came to him, as they always did.
Quince had been studying the life again, the troubling life with the familiar shoes, and had not been aware of the Poor Soul's approach.
He started, and then hurriedly pushed the life he had been perusing away into the distance.
'Hello, yes?' he asked, rather irked at having been disturbed.
'Hello,' said the Poor Soul.
'Well, what can I do for you?'
'I'd like a life, please.'
'Ah, very well,' Quince reached out and grabbed a life at random. He held it out for the Poor Soul.
The Poor Soul looked a little uncertain.
'Um,' it said.
'Yes?' asked Quince, acidly.
'Um, is it a good one?' the Poor Soul enquired meekly.
Quince was dumbstruck for a moment. This was not something that he was used to, a Poor Soul questioning the life that he offered it. But then, he thought, maybe he had neglected to give the life the spin he usually enjoyed presenting so much. Quickly, he glanced into the life, meaning to find a few succulent morsels there with which to tempt his client. But to his surprise, he found that much of the life had become quite opaque to him. He could see what happened in it, but he could understand very little.
'Oh, yes,' said Quince, stalling, 'Yes, quite a remarkable life, this one ...'
'Well, what happens in it?' asked the Poor Soul, politely, but with what Quince considered something of an inappropriate firmness.
'Oh you know ...' said Quince vaguely.
'I'm afraid I don't,' replied the Poor Soul.
'Well, you ... die on a ship,' said Quince at random.
'On a ship?' said the Soul.
'Yes, a ship. At sea. In a storm.'
'Oh.' The Soul seemed thoughtful for a moment. 'Is that much fun?'
'What? Oh yes, tons of fun!' said Quince, somewhat annoyed by the Soul's cheek. He offered the life up to the Soul with what he hoped was an obvious finality.
But the Soul did not take it.
After a moment, Quince shifted.
'Does there seem to be some kind of problem?' he asked coldly.
'Well the thing is ...' said the Soul nervously.
'Yes?' prompted Quince.
'The thing is, I ... don't think I'd like it.'
'What!' exclaimed Quince, positively flabbergasted by now, 'Well, I mean, what's not to like? I mean, it's the Sea! It's got it all! Power! Romance! The raw savagery of nature!'
'It doesn't really do it for me.'
'Doesn't really do it for you?'
'What about that one, there?' said the Soul suddenly, indicating the life Quince had been looking at earlier when the Soul had arrived.
'What, this one?' asked Quince, guiltily.
'No, not that one. The other one. No, not that one either. The one you keep sort of pushing away.'
'Ah, you mean this one,' said Quince, reluctantly bringing out the life that contained the familiar shoes.
'Yes, that's the ticker. What happens in that one?'
'Oh, very boring life, this one,' said Quince, a little too quickly, 'Not much happens in this one at all. Bit of a wasted life, one might say. Bit of a non-event. No, you're much better going for one of these nice lives, over here.'
'Hmm ...' The Soul sounded worryingly unconvinced.
'Well, hurry up, hurry up, I haven't got all of eternity, you know!' said Quince, quite untruthfully.
'Actually, if it's all the same to you, I think I will go for that life.'
'Well, as it turns out that life is ...' Quince thought desperately, 'That life is, uh, reserved.'
'Yes, reserved. Here, take this one.'
And he moved smartly forward and thrust a different life at random into the soul. Both Soul and life promptly vanished in a puff of nothingness.
The really strange thing was, Quince could not say for the life of him why he had done it.
After that, Quince was much more careful in the way in which he dealt with the Poor Souls. He made sure the familiar life he had found was always well hidden when his clients came to him. And he redoubled his salesmanship. The only problem was, he found he could hardly make any sense of the lives at all any more. They were growing ever more clouded to him, and he was reduced to spectacular bouts of lying when questioned on any aspect of them. Then again, he got rather good at this, and soon began to find it easier, he thought, to invent something from scratch than it was to undergo the restrictions placed on him by mere embellishment.
He pondered the irritating Poor Soul which had had the rare nerve to test his patience; but no more like it appeared, and gradually he began to forget about this strange occurrence.
Also, he was increasingly obsessed with the familiar life. He found that he could not go long without the desire to look at it growing quite sharp. But now when he looked into this life, there was virtually nothing in it at all that he could understand, although he became more and more convinced that he was recognising elements contained within. Almost everything in the life now seemed at once achingly familiar and nauseatingly arcane.
This life became both his torture and his salve; and his existence, which was technically infinite, collapsed inwards and wrapped itself in knots around the two of them, this familiar life and him.
And it was while he was in this strange state of mind that a most singular thing happened.
One of his clients came back.
It was unsatisfied.
He had been aware of the Poor Soul approaching and had, as was his wont, hidden the familiar life carefully before it arrived.
'Hello there,' he began, as usual.
'Hello again,' said the Poor Soul, with a strange infliction which Quince finally recognised as something between fear and determination.
'Er, have we met before?' he stammered, unnerved at the thought of a Poor Soul that was rich enough to carry emotion.
'Yes,' replied the Soul, 'I was here a while back. You gave me a life, I don't know if you remember?'
'Um, well, I give out rather a lot of those, you see,' explained Quince apologetically, although, of course, he thought he knew exactly which life the Soul was talking about. Quince had never come across the same Poor Soul twice before. He had been given to understand that life was something of a one-way process, and wherever it exited, it was not meant to be here.
'Yes,' the Soul continued, clearly uncomfortable but resolved to get through the encounter nonetheless, 'I thought perhaps you might. Um. It was a rather nice little European number? About so long? Ended with a death at sea.'
'Ah, yes, I remember now,' admitted Quince, deciding that this one was not going to be fobbed off, and might as well be tackled head-on, 'How did you like it?'
'Well, the sea was nice,' said the Soul quickly, obviously eager not to hurt Quince's feelings, 'But, well, it wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind...'
'Really? You must have liked the death, at least?'
'Actually, I didn't get to that bit,' the Soul confessed, somewhat sheepishly.
'Didn't get to it!' exclaimed Quince, thunderstruck, 'Well then, however did you get here?'
'Oh, you know ...' said the Soul vaguely.
'I'm afraid I don't'
'Well, it was simple, really,' stammered the Soul, 'I just, well, decided that it wasn't really my cup of tea. You know, it was very comfortable and all that but it just didn't feel, well, me.'
'You just decided to come back?' said Quince, disbelievingly. He had never thought that this might be even remotely possible.
'Yes,' said the Soul, and then plunged on quickly before its courage could fail, 'The thing is, you see, I kept finding myself thinking about that other life.'
'Other life,' interrupted Quince sharply.
'Yes, you know, that one you were looking at when I first came to see you.'
'Don't know what you're talking about,' growled Quince through metaphysical teeth which were, metaphysically, gritted.
'Oh, surely you remember? You were looking at it quite closely when I arrived. Well, there was just something about that life which sort of glowed at me. I'm afraid I don't know how else to put it ...' The Soul trailed off apologetically.
There was an extended silence.
Quince was just wondering how he might go about getting rid of the Soul when the little thing piped up suddenly.
'Oh, here it is,' it exclaimed happily, 'Yes, this is the one I'm talking about.'
To Quince's horror, he suddenly found that the Soul had somehow managed to locate the life - the familiar life,his life! - and had drawn it close.
'Excuse me! Excuse me!' he shouted wildly, and pulled the life back away from the Soul. 'Sorry,' he went on, sounding not a bit of it, 'These things aren't to be touched by anyone but the Management. Company policy,' he added belatedly.
'Oh, yes, of course,' said the Soul quickly, 'I quite understand. Only, I thought that well, if the Soul who reserved it hasn't turned up, well then, I might as well have it ... ?'
Quince took the life quickly, and hid it behind him. He decided abruptly that this had gone on long enough. Why should he, the special man, the Gatekeeper, the Big Deal, why should he be made to feel wretched by a mere Poor Soul? It was ridiculous! No, he must end this now.
'I quite understand your concern, Sir,' he began with polite firmness, 'But it's out of my hands, see? We operate a strict no-returns policy, I'm afraid. Myself, well, I'd love to let you have this life, but it's not up to me, is it? No, so if you'd like to go back to the life you left down there, then I'm sure you can bring up the matter with the appropriate authorities when you get to the Other Side ...'
Quince trailed off.
He realised suddenly that the Soul had taken on a strange, almost glazed over appearance. It was not hearing what he was saying anymore. In fact, he was not even sure it was looking at him at all. It was almost as if it was looking through him ...
Quince shifted a moment too late.
As has been said, there was no space here.
Nevertheless, there were different places that one could decide not to occupy space in, and the Soul had abruptly decided that it wanted not to occupy the same non-space as Quince.
The impact hurt quite a lot for something that had absolutely no mass.
As they fell together, Quince turned. He was aware of the life he had been hiding behind him. It was very near, and Quince had time to think that it seemed much larger and more real than it had ever seemed to him before.
Then they hit it.
For a moment they formed a frozen tableau. Quince, the familiar life, and the Poor Soul all merged together in the diaphanous, hallucinatory way of things caught in the interstitial spaces either side of reality.
Then they all vanished into an infinitely thin sliver of void which bubbled away silently into the ether.
There was warmth here and comfort, and Quince had a vague notion that he was not alone, that the Poor Soul was with him, and he held onto the awareness of this and an awareness of who he was for a little while before it leeched away from him like a dream on waking, and he became firmly and finally embroiled in the now, which was of course constantly changing, shrinking around him then emptying outwards, becoming cold and hostile, and lungs he had now, little lungs filling with cold fresh air, filling, screaming, pumping, he writhed on huge hands that held him gently, soothing him, and was moved to breast and Mother-Protection, a sanctuary which was his for an age until he grew bold and moved away on little legs growing ever stronger, taking him on his own wild adventures through early childhood, when, with shocking violence, he was taken away from those who loved him by an accident and placed in an orphanage, there to grow with blemishes and scars into adolescence, clever and suffused with talents but also wreathed in pain, and leaving here as soon as he could he leapt into life with abandon and passed through many strange and wonderful and terrible things until the fire cooled a little and love took him for the first time and carried him reeling against the harsher currents but with purpose until he begat and begat and begat a third and final time whence love was ripped from him once more, and he found solace in his middle years in his children until they too left, and he was once more alone but for a few friends who touched his surface as he touched theirs, in a vague, removed way, but which nevertheless helped and made some times joyous and others simply bearable, (and coming towards him suddenly were the shoes, the trainers, laced with gold, looking so strangely familiar that he suddenly wondered if there was perhaps a God or at any rate a god, something more than he had ever thought possible, so strong and strange was the feeling of recognition at the moment when he found them, but then they too receded into the past along with the rest of his spent life and were gone and the feeling of connection passed), but these friends gradually moved away, or passed away, or found others to whom their souls passed in favour of him, and he reached a point when his hair was silver when he realised his whole life was characterised by loneliness and loss, and so devoted his remaining years to poring over old books which described strange rituals and heathen rites, in the hope that he might find some crack in reality into which he could fit a lever and thus prise for himself a piece of creation that he could form around his existence to make himself more attractive to others, and in so doing secure their love for always and ever, so that he might never be alone again; and finding such spells in obscure abundance, he indulged in them fanatically, and sometimes felt as if they were almost working, and sometimes felt as if there was something else within him, a half-remembered presence of other, and this gave him the hope he needed to pursue his endeavours with renewed vigour, until, finally he died whilst in the midst of one such ritual, old and desiccated, the unintended victim of an arcane rite of frightfully complex, vaguely hopeful, and magnificently erroneous conceit.
He tumbled out of the other end of the life, into a bright white place. Picking himself up, he yawned, stretched, and looked around, wondering vaguely what he was supposed to do next. He could not remember quite why he was meant to be here. Then again, he could not quite remember who he was, or where here was in the first place, so he decided not to worry about it too much for the moment.
After a while, he realised he was not alone. A little way off, there was a line of other people. They seemed similarly bemused in a benign, un-worried sort of a way, so he decided to go and join them.
'Hello,' he said genially to the person ahead of him, joining the back of the queue.
'Hello,' said the person ahead of him, smiling a little.
'Excuse me, but do you know what we're queuing for?' he asked, at length.
The person ahead of him thought for a while. The line shuffled forward.
'Haven't the foggiest, I'm afraid,' the person said at length.
The person ahead of him seemed faintly worried about this for a moment, but then he shrugged. 'But I suppose it'll all become clear in a moment,' he went on, brightening up.
Quince shrugged too. This seemed reasonable.
Eventually, he got near to the head of the queue.
There was a large benign-looking being there, handing out tickets.
The person ahead of him was given a ticket, looked rather happy, and promptly vanished through a big white door into nothing.
Then it was his turn. He held his hand out for a ticket. The being leant forward as if to give him one, then checked himself.
The being looked him up and down carefully.
''ang on a minute,' the being said slowly, 'What's goin' on 'ere then?'
'Sorry?' he replied, quite unsure what the problem was.
'Well, there's two of you in there, in't there!' exclaimed the being.
'What?' he replied, confused, 'Is there?'
'Oh, well, I'm terribly sorry. I don't want to be any trouble, you know.' He really felt quite contrite.
'Most irregular, that, most irregular,' said the being severely, looking rather troubled, 'Gonna throw the whole system out of whack, that is, if I let you through.'
'Oh, well I wouldn't want to be the cause of any problem,' he said, 'Would it be better if I just go back?'
'Ooo, you can't do that!' said the being, sounding scandalised. 'Nah, it's a one-way thing, innit? No going back, mate, sorry.'
'What should I do then?' he asked.
'You'll just 'ave to wait here, I suppose.'
'Ah,' he said, and moved aside to let the others in the queue past.
After a rather large amount of non-time he had an idea.
'Look, as long as I'm here, is there anything I can do to help?' he asked brightly.
The being considered this thought for a minute.
'Well, the thing is, see, I can't let you any further on, on account of there's somehow more 'n one of you in there.' The being was speaking slowly, considering each word carefully.
Quince nodded sagely, as if he understood.
'And just out of interest, what is further on?' he asked politely.
'Why, Level Two, of course!' said the being. 'What you've been training for, back there in Level One. Oh, it's a whole new ball game in there, mate, believe me!'
He frowned for a moment. He hadn't considered there had been anything previous to this big white land, but now that he thought about it, he did seem to remember there being something before ... . 'Shoes,' he thought to himself, 'Shoes with a nice gold stripe. I wonder what shoes are?' For some reason, this thought bothered him a little. But he decided to let it go. After all, he had enough to worry about at the moment.
'But I can't go on to Level Two, though?' he asked, just to clear things up.
'No, mate, 'course you can't!' the being said, 'It'd be an unfair advantage, wouldn't it? With two of you in there, and all!'
'Ah, I see. And I can't go back to Level One, either. So, is there anywhere else I could go where I could be of service?' he asked.
The being considered this.
'We-ell,' it said, slowly, 'I do hear they're rather understaffed back at The Beginning.'
'Yeah, you know, where it all starts? I hear it's a real shocker of a mess down there. It's a bit outside the rules, but if you fancy it, maybe you could go back there and help out. Tidy things up a bit, sort of thing?'
He thought about it for a moment. It seemed reasonable.
'Alright,' he said, nodding, 'If you think it would help.'
'Oh, it'd help alright!' the being said, 'No question there! It'd help everyone! You'd be lending a hand where it's wanted, and well, between you and me, The Beginning's the best bit anyway! So probably good for you too, mate, actually.'
'So we have a deal then?' he asked happily, holding out his hand.
The being considered for a moment, then shook warmly.
'Yes, mate!' the being said, 'We've got ourselves a big deal!'
The being snapped its large fingers. Abruptly, Quince felt the world begin to stream away backwards. Everything became faint.
But before it was lost entirely, the being called out to him.
'Now, remember there's no memory back at The Beginning!' it was saying. 'On account of there being no time! Don't worry, in time it'll all make sense! Oh and here, take this back with you.' The being hurled something at him. He caught it. 'That's the life you rode in on, mate. Might as well find some use for it! I'm sure some Poor Soul will want it ...'
And with that, the voice trailed away and was lost.
Quince stood, surveying his domain with satisfaction. For a moment, he felt a little odd, as if something was slightly out of phase with how things should be. He frowned to himself. He felt slightly ... full. As if he had more substance than he should have. For a moment, he almost fancied he heard a strange - yet strangely familiar -voice echoing in his head. He puzzled at the feeling for a moment, but could not quite grasp it, and so let it go. It faded away like a dream.
He looked down. Ah yes. He was holding a life in his hands. How did this one end, he wondered? For some reason, he felt as if this life was important, somehow. It was as if it were tugging on him. He wondered why that might be. What could any one life contain that would make it more attractive to him than any other life?
He was just about to skim through it in an attempt to find out, when he noticed a client had arrived. He smiled brightly. He did love his job.
Putting the life to one side amid an infinite pile of other lives, he turned to face the Poor Soul.
'So,' he began cheerily, 'What can I do for you?'
'Oh, I'd like a life please,' breathed the Poor Soul.
'Would you, now?' grinned Quince, grabbing a life from the pile, 'Well, this is a most agreeable life, it ends quite spectacularly ...'
'The thing is,' the Poor Soul interrupted him, 'What was that life you were holding when I arrived ... ?'