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A Corned Beef Tin's Got Corned Beef In

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The Member of Parliament for East Sussex Coast And Downs dropped dead in the middle of a meeting of the Committee for Safety In Public Transport.

After a little while, she saw the funny side.

When she boarded the bus, she saw the funny side of that, too. At first she looked, with an attention born of habit, at the handrails and the window catches; and then, laughing at herself, she remembered that none of that would matter here, and she sat back in her seat and watched the featureless grey mist drifting past the window.

She hummed, under her breath, O you'll never get to heaven – On a Southdown bus – 'Cos a Southdown Bus – Is too much fuss.

Then she caught sight of her own reflection in the glass, and was briefly startled by the bright blaze of lipstick.

O you'll never get to heaven – In powder and paint – 'Cos it makes you look – Like what you ain't.

But, she thought now, it had always made her feel more like herself, not less. Taking up a campaign on behalf of her constituents, rising to speak, she had worn it like armour, like a crown. The Honourable Lady...

She had not expected to keep the lipstick. But then, she had not expected to be making this journey at all. Nor had she not expected a welcoming party to meet her off the bus, or, if she had, had assumed that it would be one or more of those whose absence had painfully shaped her adult life.

But it was her quiet, wry, constituency office secretary, who had observed much and remarked little, to whose funeral she had sent a wreath, who was moving now across the springy green grass with a purposeful grace. In life, she had been half a head shorter, and not given to high heels. Here, barefoot, she seemed tall, and more solid, more real.

Perhaps, she thought, it was only that she had never seen her outside, in the sunshine, before. But she knew that it could not be only that. For the grass and the sunshine seemed more real than anything she had known on earth. She glanced down at herself and saw a wisp of matter, and grass through it.

Before she had time to be frightened, the Other had reached her, and was extending a hand in welcome.

'It's you!' she exclaimed. 'I didn't expect...'

The Other laughed. 'I know; I didn't expect to be here either. But here we are, and it will all make sense soon.'

'But – forgive me for asking – why you? We didn't know each other all that well, much as I'd have liked to, and I had assumed...'

'That it would be your family who came to meet you. A very natural assumption, but you see, we're not dealing with nature any more.'

A horrible possibility struck her. 'Aren't they here?' She glanced around. The place was thronged with people: faint wraiths like herself, and substantial beings like the one who had come to meet her. Had the landscape not been so vast it would have seemed crowded. She did not seem to know any of them.

'Yes, they're all here, but they... came another way. It will be a while before you can see them, or they you.'

'But it was thirty years ago –' she began, and then remembered. 'No, I know, I suppose time works differently here, doesn't it?'

The Other nodded.

'I want to see them again. Of course I do. But if it takes another thirty years – or thirty thousand years, if we're working on that sort of timetable – then I suppose I shall have to be patient.'

'It's for the best,' said the Other. 'You see, you need to stop worrying about them now. You need to understand that you're here, and that it isn't a mistake.'

She let the words settle with a disbelieving thrill. It isn't a mistake. 'I always heard,' she said, 'that if you didn't believe you'd get here, you wouldn't. So I thought that was it, for me.'

The Other said, quietly, 'They told me that I couldn't come here, either, so long as I insisted on being who I was, which I did. Because the sort of person I was, didn't. Just didn't.'

She nodded, understanding. 'You'll never get to heaven in a corned beef tin, 'cos a corned beef tin's got corned beef in.'

'Yes. Exactly. But here we both are, you see. We'd been told wrong all the time. And you always hoped, just a little, didn't you?'

'Yes,' she admitted. 'And despised myself for it.'

'Of course. One does. Sour grapes, except that when one gets them after all they're the sweetest thing in creation, but one has to let go of one's pride to admit it.'

She looked around at the vast green sweep of hills, the lovely violet horizon, the glint and swirl of the river. 'It is beautiful,' she admitted. 'What happens now?'

'We have a long way to go. I'll walk with you, show you the way. You'll become more...'

'Like you?' She took a step forward, and winced at the painful resistance of the grass underfoot.

'No. Or yes, but mostly no. Like yourself.'

'Can I ask you...?'

'Anything you like.' The Other grinned. 'I may not be able to answer you.'

She shook her head. 'I don't even know how to put the question. I was wondering about things back on earth, and then I thought perhaps I wasn't allowed to know, perhaps it's just vulgar curiosity now that I'm not in a position to do anything about it. At least, I assume I'm not?'

The Other shook her head. 'They have Moses and the prophets. By which I mean, the work that you did on earth. What did you want to know?'

'Specifically, about Taunton, what exactly went wrong. I suppose I assumed that either I'd arrive here knowing, or that I wouldn't care any more. And I don't know, and I still care.'

'Well, what would you say it was?'

She shrugged insubstantial shoulders. 'Human error. Human carelessness. Human arrogance. Everything we ever looked at, those were at the bottom of it. Even when there was some obvious mechanical failure, it tended to come down to some check not having been completed.'

'Or, perhaps,' the Other said, 'lack of human imagination. A failure to see a possibility.'

'Yes,' she said. 'That, too. We saw that a few times. It had simply never occurred to anybody that what had gone wrong, could.'

'It's a very human failing,' the Other said. 'Not seeing the whole story.'

She winced. 'You know mine, I take it?'

'I do. It seems to have been a very remarkable experience.'

'Yes,' she said, 'if only one could have remarked upon it.'


'I was so lonely in America. Eventually I met one girl who seemed to understand. I thought she might have experienced something similar, and I told her. And then she told everyone else. They all thought I was nuts, and when I got home everyone there thought I was nuts, too, except the vicar, who thought I was making up blasphemous stories for the sake of the attention. And, you know, I'd been told that I couldn't go back, and I started wondering what the point was. So I learned to keep quiet about it. And I tried to get the others to keep quiet, too, for fear of the same thing happening to them, but they never would. I suppose it didn't matter, in the end.'

'But it mattered to you, didn't it?'

'Yes,' she said, and suddenly found herself weeping. 'Because they were all gone and I was never able to talk to anyone about anything, ever again.'

'Let's rest a little while,' the Other said, and led her into the shade of a great strong oak tree.

She leaned half against the crinkled bark of its trunk, and half against the comforting solidity of the Other. 'Can you tell me? Did I do any good at all? Can you point to some human being and say, because of the work you did, the... New Malden disaster of 1995 never happened and Mary Smith who would have died in it is alive and well and is doing her own good work? You can't, can you? I'll never know, and nor will Mary Smith.'

'And if I could,' the Other asked, 'would it make a difference? Because, you know, you weren't doing this for Mary Smith.'

'I wasn't,' she admitted, 'and it never did make a difference to what happened in 1949. And I always knew that it couldn't.'

'And yet you did it.'

'Well, of course. How could I not?'

She looked up, and saw that the Other was smiling.

Somewhere a long, long, way off, Lucy, once and always Queen in Narnia, was looking across the wide, new, familiar spaces, to a landscape that she had known when she was very small. Her eyes caught and, joyfully, followed her parents.

She did not see the ghostly figure that grew steadily more solid, a tall woman who seemed at once thirty and sixty years old, in whose dark hair streaks of grey had become gleaming silver and whose mouth was a royal crimson. And if she had seen her she would not have known her, and if she had known her she would not have understood. But there was a long way to go, for both of them.