Purgatory Platform

The narrator, Brian, wakes up with a shocking realisation - he has died! Trapped in a place where sin works like monetary debt, Brian must find a way to lose his sin and board the train that will take him to the afterlife.

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1. Purgatory Platform

I was running; my lungs burning as if the air was acid, my muscles slowing like failed pistons, refusing to propel me forwards. I had to make the train. I didn’t know why – I couldn’t even remember where it was supposed to be going – I just knew that I had to get on.

The air was all smoke and bright lights, filled with the sound of ringing steam and hurried shouts. I stumbled, threw my arms out, and crashed headfirst into the train guard.

“You going somewhere?” he sniffed, looking down at where I had collapsed like a crumbled envelope.

“Train…” I panted. “Get… the train.”

“Have you been weighed?” The guard asked. “And where’s your ticket? No getting on without one of those?”

I could hear the wheels beginning to turn. The shrill whistle blasted out across the platform, and the train departed. Wherever it was that I was supposed to be going, I would be late.

“When’s the next one?”

“Trains go every hour,” the guard said, scratching his nose. “You’ll be waiting a long time though – no ticket, not been weighed – don’t suppose you’ll be very light either. Nope, you’ll be hanging around for a long time.”

“But why?” I asked desperately.

“Just look at the queue,” he said smugly, pointing behind me.

I turned around. What I saw was so shocking that I almost fell to the ground again. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were lined along the platform, stretching back as far as I could see. I must have run straight past them when the train smog still hung in the air.

“Well where can I get a ticket?” I asked, wanting to make the best of the situation.

“I wouldn’t bother,” the guard replied, turning away. “You’ll never leave. There’s too many people.”

He walked off down the platform, without so much as a backwards glance.

I mopped the sweat from my cheeks and looked around for a sign. There had to be directions somewhere: what kind of train station didn’t have signposts?

“Are you lost?”

I spun around, looking for the owner of the voice. It wasn’t until I looked down that I spotted the speaker. He was a small boy, maybe ten or eleven, certainly no older.

“Sorry… um… where am I?” I asked at last, feeling foolish for not knowing.

“This is Purgatory Platform. Everyone knows that. You must be new.”

“New? Purgatory Platform? Is that on the Jubilee line? Why are there so many people? Is there an event going on? What a weird name for a train station!”

The small boy sighed and looked up at me.

“This might be a bit of a shock… but you’re actually dead.”

This time I actually did fall over. I didn’t even feel my knees smash into the stone platform.

“What?” I shouted. “That can’t be right! You’ve got a lot of nerve telling me that! How can I be dead?”

“Can you remember how you got here?”

I paused. Nothing came to me.

“No,” I admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I’m dead.”

“That’s what everyone says at first. Most people anyway. That’s the thing about death – it doesn’t usually give you too much warning. I expect it was sudden – you probably got hit by a bus or something.”

“I wasn’t hit by a bus!” I shrieked. “I’m not dead! I just want to catch the train and get out of here!”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know! Does it matter?”

“Why are you so sure you want to get the train? Why not just walk outside?”

“Maybe I will.”

“You won’t.”

“Why is that?”

“No exits. The only way out is on the train.”

“Why aren’t there any exits?” I asked, desperately scanning the platform for the green illuminated signs that marked the way out in platforms all over the country.

“Because you’re dead. You came here when you died. Dead people don’t come back to life, so there’s no need for an exit. It’s not like there’s going to be a need to evacuate or anything – you can’t die again.”

“Stop saying that I’m dead!”

“If you keep shouting at me then I won’t help you. Besides, people are starting to stare.”

I looked around. The boy was right; thousands of eyes were fixed on me. Every single person in the enormous queue was looking at me with such intensity that I wanted to fling myself off the platform and wait for the next train to flatten me.

“They don’t like people shouting about death – reminds them that they’re dead too,” the boy whispered.

I looked back at the staring horde. Some people had already gone back to their business. Nobody looked quite right: even though their stares were sharp, there was a hollowness behind the eyes, a paleness to the skin, and a fixed expression of sorrow. Everyone looked like they had been waiting a long time.

“You said you can help me?” I asked, unable to look at the crowd any longer.

“Well I doubt I can help you get on to the train, but I can show you where the ticket office is, and other places too. I can help get you weighed too. I’m Josh, by the way.”

“Brian,” I replied, shaking the child’s hand. “What’s this about getting weighed? The train guard kept saying it too.”

“They weigh you to see how worthy you are,” Josh said. “The more you sinned in life, the heavier you are. People without sin get on the train first – the heavy ones have to wait. On Purgatory Platform, sin works a little bit like money. If you want something from someone, you have to take some of their sin in exchange. You can even work off your sins – that’s probably what the train guard was doing.”

“How long do most people wait?

“Years. Too many people keep dying. The system is clogged. Only the purest people ever get on the train. That guy over there,” he said, pointing to a balding man who was slumped against a column, “he’s been here for months, and he was a priest before he died! What chance does that give everyone else?”

We walked on in silence, past the mass of people. Nobody seemed to be talking; everyone was a stranger, packed against dead men they’d never known in life.

“How long have you been waiting?” I asked.

“Over twenty years,” he replied. “But that’s not too bad. I died young, so I don’t have a lot of sin. Besides, I’m waiting for someone.”

“Who?”

“My brother. When he dies he’ll probably have a lot more sin than I do, so I thought that I could take some of it, and we could wait together.”

“That’s very nice of you.”

“When I was in the hospital, waiting to die, my brother was my only friend. He made those horrible days better. Whatever has happened to him since, I want to say thank you by helping him here. In the meantime, I help people like you, who get a little bit lost.”

“Why?”

“At first I tried standing there like everyone else, waiting in line, staring at the tracks in silence. It got boring though. Not many people like to talk. Everything they say reminds them that they’re never going back, so they don’t mention their family, friends, favourite tv shows, nothing like that. There’s no weather here either, just this awful grey glow, so people can’t talk about that. I spy is out too.”

“What do people do then?”

“They come here,” Josh said, leading me through a huge archway into what looked like the biggest shopping mall I had ever seen. Crowds of people, dead-eyed and shuffling, filled the walkways, silently funnelling in and out of arcades, shops and cinemas.

“Shops? In Purgatory? You have to be kidding.”

“I told you that sin worked like money here – this is where people work it off, and add to what they already have. Capitalism isn’t just for the living, you know. There’s an economy here in Limbo too, and sin is the currency of choice.”

“I don’t understand. What could people possibly want to buy?”

“People pay for experiences – anything to keep decades of purgatorial boredom at bay. Some places offer glimpses back into the world of the living – those are particularly popular services, but very expensive too. I’ve seen people doom themselves to an eternity on the platform because of all the sin they’ve gained for a few hours gazing at their family.”

I stopped. “How much for a few minutes?” I asked.

“It depends. Probably over one hundred sins, which equals about four hundred days extra of waiting.”

“One sin is worth four days of waiting?”

“People sin a lot, and they’re always dying. The afterlife isn’t immune to inflation, either. There’re only so many people you can let on the train at once, and prices go up with demand. I wouldn’t do it if I were you – it’ll only make you feel worse.”

“Well what should I buy?”

“Nothing. At least not until we’ve managed to weigh you. Then you’ll know how much sin you have work off. As I said, at the current rate of exchange, one sin takes four days to work off by itself, without doing anything. That’ll probably go up in time. Prices and times are always increasing around here – it’s out of control. Best to not add to your debt.”

We’d arrived at a large marble building with the words ‘Weighing Station’ engraved above the door.

“Let me guess,” I said as we walked in. “There’s a queue here too?”

Josh smiled. “Only a small one. They have a lot of these stations to keep up with demand – the bureaucrats like people to know how much they have to play with. It stops most people getting too optimistic and encourages them to accumulate sin to pass the time. With forty years of sin, what difference will a few extra months make?”

We joined the queue. There was no pattern to the dead; young and old, male and female, Asian and European: everyone died at some point, only to find themselves here, trying to figure out just what had happened in the midst of a cold, grey hall. A few people ahead of us were crying into their hands. Others were staring ahead into an invisible abyss. One man was shouting about how he was going to kill ‘that idiot bus driver’. At least he knew how he had died – I was still clueless.

“Compared to this lot, I’d say you’re taking the news of your demise rather well,” Josh said with a smile.

“I did shout at you a lot.”

“Yes, you did. You’re lucky I’ve had twenty years of waiting to get used to these things. If you’d shouted at me when I was a ten year old fresh from death, I would probably have burst into tears. Sometimes I find it very strange, having been around for twenty-nine years, but still looking like a child.”

“I guess dying forces you to grow-up quickly.”

Josh laughed. “Yes. How ironic!”

We were at the front of the queue now. A gruff, hairy man beckoned for me to come forward.

“On the scales,” the attendant said, barely raising an eye to look at me.

I stepped forward, placing my feet evenly on the broad pedestal that rose up from the floor. Gears began to whir and hidden hands started to tick, increasing in speed until the individual sounds blurred together. Eventually a small bell rang sharply, and the whirring stopped.

“Here’s your account balance,” the attendant said, handing me a tiny slip of paper. “The number at the top is your sin, the number underneath the number of days you’ll have to wait. It updates automatically, so there’s no need to come back and bother me. Just don’t lose it: I hate time wasters.”

I looked down at the slip. It was no bigger than a mini-statement from a cash-machine. My throat tightened like a noose, and I began to shake. I narrowly avoided falling over for the third time in an hour.

“This can’t be right,” I choked, staring at the numbers.

“The machines don’t make mistakes,” the attendant insisted, already trying to move me along so he could weigh the next walking corpse. “They’re divinely powered.”

I stared back at the paper. All that was printed was the following:

 

Total Sin: 24686.5

Waiting Time: 98744 days

 

“Seriously,” I insisted. “This has to be wrong. I mean, what even is point five of a sin?”

The attendant sighed. “Do you want a full statement of sin?”

“Yes,” I said, swallowing the lump in my throat. “I do.”

“From birth?”

“Of course.”

The attendant pressed a few buttons on the side of the scale. More whirring and the sound of tiny keys hammering away filled the room. A tongue of paper began to emerge from a gap in the wall. It wasn’t divided into individual pages, but instead spilled out in one long, continuous roll. At first it hung from the thin gap, but was soon beginning to pile up on the floor. Ten minutes later and the paper was still pouring out as the tiny keys continued to smash away. It was unbearable. Once the statement began to intrude on the other weighing areas I started to feel more than a little embarrassed. The attendant stared at me the entire time, a look of immense annoyance fixed on his bearded face. Despite everyone around me having an eternity to wait, I felt like an enormous time-waster. Finally the clicking stopped and the final inches of paper were spat out into the room.

“Thank you for waiting,” the attendant said dryly as he handed me the mound of paper. “Any discrepancies – of which there will be none because there never are – can be taken up at the Office of Sin Measurement and Soul Quantification.”

I hauled my statement away and found a quiet corner to study the details.

“This is ridiculous,” I said as I leafed through the roll. “Five sins for stealing a penny sweet at the age of four. I can’t even remember doing that! And here – twenty sins for pretending to be sick so I could miss school. Fifty sins for insulting my boss! I didn’t even mean that!”

“It’s amazing how these things stack up,” Josh consoled.

“I’ve got sins for things I didn’t even do! Two sins for thinking evil thoughts! And again! And again! This is ridiculous! It makes me look like some kind of monster. I’ve never killed anyone! Or stolen anything!”

“Except for the penny sweets.”

“Every child pinches sweets at some point.”

“Every child gets five sins a sweet then.”

“How is that fair?”

“You’re asking the wrong person.”

I tossed the paper aside. “98744 days,” I moaned. “That’s forever.”

“Just over 270 years, I think.”

My heart sank even further.

“What can I do?” I said at last.

“The attendant wasn’t lying – there’s no point disputing it. This entire place is built around people trading sin. The bureaucrats will never let anything slide. You’re lucky – I’ve seen a lot worse.”

“Can I work it off?”

“You can try. Jobs are in high demand, and the working conditions are always terrible.”

“What do you mean?”

“Most places are run by corrupt men. When you sign up they give you a share of their sin, which you have to work off alongside your own. They say that this is a fair trade for them giving you the chance to accelerate your way on to the train. Really the only people who get on any faster are the men at the top – they offload all their sin onto the workers and hightail out of here.”

“How can that be allowed? That’s not fair. The whole point of Purgatory is that the worst people have to do the most time!”

“That’s why you have to be patient. Don’t let the owners of Memory Mart pass their sin on to you in exchange for a job. Most people, once they get ‘jobs’, end up stuck here longer than they would have if they’d just waited.”

“But how did this happen? Where’s the justice?”

“Just people don’t live here. Anyone who’s pure gets on the train – everyone who is left is a sinner. In that situation, it’s the very worst people who exploit the system.”

“In that case, there can’t be a God.”

“Then where does the train go?”

I stared out into the packed mall. Each and every storefront promising glimpses of loved ones or cures for boredom.

“I want to get a closer look,” I said, rising to my feet, leaving the enormous sin statement behind me.

“Just be careful,” Josh said as he followed me. “One handshake and you could find yourself with another two hundred years’ worth of sin.”

I wandered along the row of shop windows. They were just like highstreet shop fronts – bright lights and glittering displays, backed up by catchy slogans and promises of a better future, all for just a little sin added to your balance.

“Listen to your loved ones! Only five sins per second! Cheapest price this side of Paradise!” one seller called out from behind a street stall.

“Puzzles and brain-teasers! Ten sins per item! Stave off station boredom! It just costs a little sin!” cried another.

“Jobs available at Sin Supermart! You work for us, we’ll TAKE your sin away! Lose up to thirty an hour!”

Everywhere, between the bright lights and gaudy slogans, the people, dead-eyed and heavy-footed, walked. There may not have been any eternal fires, or prancing demons, but the commercial furnace was a hell of its own.

“I don’t think I want to be here anymore,” I sighed.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be here,” Josh replied. “But they are.”

I didn’t know what to do. Powerless against the situation death had thrown at me, I slumped to the ground, crashing to my knees in the middle of the street. Nobody stopped to look, but just kept shuffling on by.

I sat for what felt like hours. There had to be more people here than there were alive on earth; men and women of every age and race, dressed in every conceivable outfit. Appearance and attitude made no difference: everyone was laden down with sin.

My eyes watched a small girl, no older than five. She wandered through the crowd, lost and with silver tears falling down her face. She walked along the shop fronts, dazzled by the bright lights and loud shouts of the hawkers.

“Want a colouring book, dear?” one merchant shouted. “It won’t cost you much, no for someone so pure!”

“How’s about a teddy bear?” cried another. “Something to cuddle while you wait for your train? I’ll do a special price!”

“Want to see your mummy and daddy again?” shouted a third, straining to raise his voice above the din. The girl, still sobbing, stopped and turned to face the salesman, whose black eyes lit up with delight.

“You know where they are?” she asked, wiping her nose with a tiny hand.

“I’m sure I can find them,” he replied. “But it will cost you – five hundred sin!”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the man held out his hand, waiting for the girl to clasp it and close the deal.

“I don’t understand,” she said, starting to back away.

“It’s simple,” the merchant coaxed, “we trade – I give you some of my sin, and in return I’ll let you see your mummy and daddy again. How does that sound, princess?”

“That’s enough!” I shouted, running to place myself between the conman and the girl.

“Who the hell are you?” he shouted, pushing me. “She’s my sale! You have to wait your turn to offload on to her.”

“Nobody is offloading anything on to her,” I replied, hoisting the small girl up and carrying her away. The merchant’s curses rattled in my ears as I retreated.

“Well I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Josh said, as I placed the girl down on the ground.

“It wasn’t right what he was doing.”

“It happens every minute though. The sin salesmen love the kids – so confused and naïve – all they want is to be back with their parents. It makes it so easy to load them with sin.”

The girl was still crying for her mother. I knelt down next to her and tried to whisper calming words, to no effect. Then, out of nowhere, an idea came to me. I hoisted her onto my shoulders and marched to the Weighing Station. I pushed ahead of the queue and plonked the girl down on the scales. The machine ticked and whirred; the bell pinged, and out came the slip of paper.

 

Total Sin: 2408

Waiting Time: 9631.8 days

 

“Not so bad compared to yours,” said Josh.

Ignoring him, I turned to the girl. “Hello,’ I said. “I’m Brian.”

“Hi Brian,” she squeaked.

“Here’s an idea – how’s about you tell me your name, and in return for that, I’ll take 2408 sin from you. Does that sound like a fair trade?”

The girl looked up at me, unsure. I held out my hand, and did my best to smile reassuringly. Eventually, she pressed her palm against mine.

“I’m Emily,” she said.

I gripped her tiny hand and felt something like an electric shock ripple up my arm. I winced, and felt my body grow a little heavier. Something must have happened. I placed Emily back on the scales and waited. When I looked at the new slip, my eyes lit up.

 

Total Sin: 0

Waiting Time: 0 days

 

“It worked!” I laughed. “It worked!”

When he realised what I had done, Josh was laughing too.

“Let’s get her to the train!” I shouted, grabbing Emily and running off like a madman. Soon we were at the platform, standing by an open carriage door. I guided Emily on board, promised her that she’d find her parents at the next stop, and turned to face Josh.

“You should go too,” I said. “Give me your sin.”

“Why? You’ll be stuck here forever.”

“It’s the only way out. One person has to be left behind. After you, I’ll take the sin of everyone who isn’t freeloading in the market. Everyone will be able to get on.”

“But…”

“Do it.” I reached out and grabbed Josh’s hand. Electric blades raced up my arm. I felt as if gravity had tripled in strength.

“Get on the train,” I said, once I had recovered.

“Not before you,” he replied.

“I can’t. I’ve probably got a thousand years of sin weighing me down now.”

“Not anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“You passed the test,” Josh said. “By doing something so selfless – by taking somebody else’s sin on to your own shoulders, you’ve earned a clean slate. You’ve done what so few people ever even think to do, and for that you can board the train.”

I stared at my companion, mouth open in shock.

“If you knew this, then why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell everyone?”

“It’s not a sacrifice if you do it as a means to an end. You willingly took the sin of another, believing that it would doom you to stay here. All these people who step on each other to board the train, if they ever get on, find themselves back here again. It’s a cycle, and you’ve broken out of it.”

“So I can board the train?”

“Whenever you like.”

“Will you come with me?”

“No. I must stay here, to help the next person.”

With a final farewell, I stepped up into the carriage. Steam and smoke filled the platform as the great whistle echoed out along Purgatory Platform. The wheels began to move, and the train forged ahead into the brilliant white beyond.

 

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