Michael Bell died, and went to heaven, and was told by the man on the front desk where he could collect his seventy-two virgins. “Oh,” said Michael, much surprised, “I don’t think I’m entitled to… There’s been a mistake… I mean, I’m not a Muslim,” and the man on the desk looked cross and said that if Michael had any complaints could he please take them up with someone else, it was a busy day, and he had a lot of corpses to process. So Michael apologised, signed the register, took his room key, and set forth into the afterlife.

He had been assigned his own apartment. They called it an apartment, but it was more like a mansion, really – there was a garden with a swimming pool in it, and a billiard room, and a study, and a kitchen full of all the latest mod cons, and a basement with a swimming pool in it. It would have been too big for Michael all on his own, so at first he was rather pleased there were seventy-two virgins to help fill it.

Some of the seventy-two virgins were useless. He could see that in an instant. Eleven of them were babies. Eighteen of them were men. Four of them weren’t even human; he’d been given two virgin cats, one virgin goldfish, and a virgin grey squirrel. But that still left him with thirty-nine virginal women – young (mostly), ripe (he supposed), and his for the taking. “Hello,” he said to the throng, a little shyly, “my name’s Michael, but, uh, why not call me Mike?” He asked them their names. “Goodness,” said Michael, “I’ll never remember all those. Maybe you should all wear name badges?” So, for a while, they did.

He told them they should feel free to use all the facilities. The swimming pools were at their disposal, and if anyone ever wanted to join him in a game of billiards, all they had to do was ask. None of the virgins liked swimming, apparently. And no one fancied billiards. They would instead crowd into the sitting room around the widescreen television set. They would squabble for space on the single sofa, and shush each other when the ad breaks came to an end. Michael sometimes watched TV with them, but they never seemed to want to watch any of the programmes he liked, and besides, he was never fast enough to get a spot on the sofa. Sometimes he’d hang out in the kitchen and make himself toast. He couldn’t work out how to use most of the mod cons, but the toaster was nice and easy. Or he’d go to the billiard room, and he’d roll all the balls from one end of the table to the other, and then walk to the other side, and roll them all back again.

*

He got to know Eliza quite well. Eliza was fond of toast, and would sometimes come into the kitchen when Michael was making some. She wouldn’t say much, but her fingers and his fingers might collide taking slices of bread out of the bread basket.

Michael began to think about Eliza a lot. He wondered if she ever thought of him too. One day he asked her why she didn’t watch TV with all the other virgins, and she blushed, and said she didn’t like TV much, and that besides, she’d rather be with him. She wasn’t especially pretty, but she looked as if she were in her teens, and Michael was pushing seventy, and he felt guilty for flirting with her until she told him she’d died of scarlet fever in the 1860s and was therefore older than his grandmother.

He asked her whether she’d like to be his girlfriend, and steeled himself for a rejection, and she kissed him gently on the cheek and said that that’d be all right.

He was intimidated by his own bedroom. Sweet incense and crushed silks and pillows that were fleshy – he couldn’t sleep like that. He’d kicked the pillows on to the floor. Before they got into bed together, Eliza stacked the pillows high again.

She said, “I’m scared. Is that silly?”

He said, “Of course it’s not silly.”

She said, “You won’t hurt me?”

He said, “I promise.”

“Tell me,” she said. “What it was like. Your first time. Were you scared?”

“No,” he said, wanting to be brave for her sake, but he had been terrified. He could remember the circumstances now, and the basic sequence of events that had got the girl from the dance floor to the car seat, but there were events missing, the bits that linked a to b to c. He remembered now only the urgency, the desperate urgency, the need to be a man and abandon his childhood as fast as could be, and that he wasn’t sure during the whole thing whether he was in the right hole or not, the girl seemed to have grown holes all over the place, was she going to laugh at him? – and then afterwards the dull realisation that the world hadn’t changed, everything was just the same, he may now be a man but nobody cared.

“But it was nice?” she said.

“It was very nice,” he said.

They had sex then, and it had been so long since he’d done it with Barbara that frankly he felt just like a virgin too.

And after he was out of breath and was sweaty and his heart was going like the clappers, and he wondered whether he might be having a heart attack but supposed he couldn’t die twice. He stroked at Eliza’s hair, kissed her softly. He asked her if her first time had been all right.

“It was very nice.”

He fell asleep then, with Eliza in his arms, and he dreamed of Barbara, and he hadn’t dreamed of Barbara in ages, really not much since the divorce at all. And there were some bad things in the dream, inevitably, but it wasn’t quite bad enough to be a nightmare.

When he woke in the morning Eliza wasn’t there. He thought she might be making some toast. She wasn’t.

He asked the other virgins if they had seen her. They were watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, they didn’t want to be disturbed.

Michael went back to the man on the front desk. He explained the situation. The man didn’t look very sympathetic, he spoke to Michael as if he were an idiot. “You get seventy-two virgins,” he said. “She’s not a virgin now, is she? She’s gone.” Michael could see the logic of that. But he asked whether he could have Eliza’s address. Even if they couldn’t be anything more, and why should she want to be, with an old man like him, he’d be a fool even to think it – even so, he hoped they could still be friends. He’d like to see her still, as a friend. The man rolled his eyes. “When I say gone, I mean gone. That’s it. One bang, and she’s gone forever.”

*

From the remaining seventy-one virgins there came one morning a deputation of ambassadors to his bedroom. “We want you to get rid of Cheryl,” they said.

Cheryl was big and blousy and so fat she took up space for two upon the sofa. She talked too loud during the programmes and had an annoying laugh and would fight for the remote control, and, moreover, was an utter bitch.

They brought Cheryl to his bedroom later that evening. There was a sack upon her head. There was some evidence of a struggle, her legs were bleeding, and she had had to be dragged to him. But she was quiet now, accepting. They pushed her into Michael’s arms, and shut the door on them.

Michael pulled the sack off her, asked her to sit down, tried to be as nice as he could. “It’s all right,” he said. “We don’t have to do this, you know.”

“No,” she said. “I suppose I’m going to have to pop my cherry sooner or later, may as well be with you.”

They both got undressed in silence. He tried not to look at her, all drooping bust and tummy. She had no such qualms. She stared at him, grimly, as if staring at an execution block.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know I’m not much to look at.”

She shook her head.

“So, what?” she said. “You get killed in a war, or something?”

“Me? No.”

“To get all us virgins.”

“No.”

“But you did something heroic, right?”

“No.” Michael’s death hadn’t been especially heroic. Up to the end in that hospital pleading for even one more day of life, and all of the nurses trying to reassure him that it was going to be all right – and he’d felt, he really had felt, that they had never seen this happen before, that he was the very first man in the world who was going to die, that he was special. “I didn’t go to war. There wasn’t any war on.”

Cheryl sniffed. “There’s always some war on somewhere, if you just look.”

“I suppose I was too scared.”

She nodded at that, seemed to accept it. She got into bed. She seemed resigned now, not too nervous, neither of the loss of her virginity, nor of the oblivion that would happen afterwards.

She kissed him on the lips, almost by way of experiment. He kissed back. It was nice. She kissed at his neck then, and he nibbled at her ear, and he’d never thought to be a nibbler before, not ever, not even when he and Barbara had been happy. She moaned a bit, and he was worried for her, but she said it was a good moan.

“You’re wonderful, Cheryl,” he told her. “Do you know that? You’re wonderful.”

And she smiled at him, and she cried a little.

“I’m going to make the very best love to you that I possibly can,” he said, and she thanked him, and true to his word he did his best.

*

He tried to remember the last time he and Barbara had slept with each other, but there hadn’t been a last time, not as such, but then, there had to have been a last, surely? But it had been nothing momentous. It hadn’t been so bad that it had caused either one of them to have been banished to the spare bedroom, there had been no tears or anger. One night he and his wife had had sex, and, as it turned out, they’d never bothered to try it again.

In the same way, nothing specific had ever caused the divorce. Looking back, he couldn’t even decide which one of them had brought the matter up. – No, it had been her, definitely her. Still.

One night as he dreamed of Barbara he realised he’d given her Cheryl’s face. And try as he might, he couldn’t recall what Barbara had looked like. And one night, whilst he dreamed, he realised he couldn’t recall Cheryl’s face either.

*

He killed Eunice quite by accident. She’d suggested they just fool around for a bit, and Michael had never been much good at foreplay, he just told her he’d follow her lead. They didn’t do anything worse than kiss and squeeze at the other’s genitals, and yet in the morning she was gone, and there was no way of getting her back.

And Natalie was unhappy, she had attempted suicide any number of times, she had tried drowning herself in the swimming pools, she had stuck a fork into the toaster. Nothing had worked. Before she impaled herself upon him, Michael asked her what she was so upset about, and the poor woman had burst into tears – “It’s my babies, I miss my little babies.” Michael asked her why she had ever been given to him, she wasn’t a virgin at all then, surely? – and Natalie shrugged, she really wasn’t interested in discussing the finer points of her employment contract, not now – and she flung herself upon him, all lactating breasts and crude stretch marks, and she was gone.

The other virgins kept their distance. Michael didn’t blame them. It wasn’t that they were afraid of death, it was simply that they didn’t like him very much. Even the squirrel gave him a wide berth.

And in the summer the eighteen young men lay out in the garden and sunbathed, and they bronzed there naked, and their muscled limbs gleamed golden in the heat, and their tackle looked thick and firm like barbecued meat, and Michael thought he had never looked as good as that, not when he’d been young, not his entire life.

One day he came up from the billiard room to find all the virgins were having an orgy. To be fair, they asked him if he wanted to join in, but he could see they were just being polite. There was a lot of sucking and suckling and squelching, everybody was trying to find ways of inserting themselves into another so that they became some writhing wall of flesh, even the goldfish was throwing herself into it – and as they did so the virgins began to break apart and pop like soap bubbles. Michael went and hid in his room for a while. When he came out later, he was entirely alone.

*

Michael didn’t see anyone for quite a while. He ran out of bread to toast, and so moved on to cereal.

*

They came for him one night, put a sack over his head. They said, “You’ve been reassigned, handsome.”

He was taken with seventy-one other virgins to a new, bigger apartment. They called it an apartment, but really, it was more like a palace, it had everything, Jacuzzis and saunas and an entire beauty salon. The virgins were mostly young men, but there were a few girls thrown in, and some babies, and half a dozen squirrels. Michael said, “There’s been a mistake… I mean, I have had sex, really.” They told him to shut up.

And Barbara arrived, and inspected her entourage, and seemed pleased by the young men, and bemused by the squirrels – and when she reached Michael in the line she just stopped, and stared, and swore. “I’m sorry,” said Michael. “Just keep away from me,” she hissed, “and I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Michael could never get a seat on the sofa, let alone get close to the remote control. But Barbara cut a swathe through her virgins, showing a sexual voracity now she was dead she’d never hinted at when she’d been alive. She got through all the boys, then the girls, then the babies, then the squirrels, and didn’t even spare a glance at her ex-husband. Michael was a little hurt, but soon enough he was able to stretch out wide and comfy upon the sofa and watch whichever channels he liked.

*

They muddled along amiably for a while. They’d potter about in separate rooms during the day, in the evening they’d sit together silently and watch television. Then they’d say good night, and go to different bedrooms. It was very safe, very familiar.

One evening Barbara turned off the television. Michael looked up at her in surprise. It had been Coronation Street, it was one of her favourites. She went without a word to the kitchen, returned with two glasses and a bottle of rose wine.

“We’re going to have sex,” she said. She poured two glasses, both to the very brim. “Whatever it takes.”

They drank three bottles before Barbara was in the mood. She fell off the sofa flat on to her arse, which she found hugely funny. “Sod it,” she said. “Too much wine. I’ll know better tomorrow.”

The next day they drank only the one bottle, Barbara was strict about that. They drank it very slowly, and Barbara said they would have to wait for it to take full effect. Some half an hour after the last dregs were drained, Barbara nodded primly, said, “It’s time,” pulled Michael up from the sofa, pulled him into the bedroom.

The sex was quite nice, and their bodies sort of fitted together in all the right places, and Michael wondered why they’d ever stopped doing it all those years ago.

Afterwards she looked at him intently, and Michael wondered whether she was wanting to say something loving. Then realised she was just waiting to see if he would pop.

“How do you feel?” she said.

“Fine.”

“No, I mean, how do you…?”

“No, I know, fine, fine.”

“Okay.”

They lay there for a bit. He said, “Would you like some toast?” She nodded. He got out of bed. She watched him carefully, as if to see whether his weight upon the carpet would be too much for him, whether at last his structural integrity would break. It didn’t. He brought her in some toast. He’d buttered it thick, the way she’d always liked it. She munched upon it gratefully.

“What are you going to do today, then?” he asked her. She didn’t know.

They got up eventually. He sat down on the sofa, watched afternoon television. She stared at him for a bit, then went off to the kitchen to wash up his breakfast things, clear up the mess he always made.

She went out shopping later. Before she went she kissed him on the cheek, said goodbye, just in case he wasn’t there when she got home. When she returned she looked annoyed by his continued existence – but as Michael helped her put away the groceries, he noticed she’d bought ready meals for two.

That evening they watched television. And she sighed, and said, “One more try. Okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed.

She fetched the wine. She seemed somewhat impatient this time, they barely had more than a glass each.

They got undressed. This time they watched each other. They’d not bothered before – either they’d been too drunk, or too disinterested, or both.

He said to her, “I’m going to make the very best love to you I possibly can.” And at those words a faint memory of Cheryl stirred, it’s true. But Barbara didn’t know.

“I’m going to miss you,” Barbara said.

They made love very gently this time, hoping against hope they wouldn’t damage the other.

“Are you done?” Michael asked her, and she smiled, and said yes. He didn’t pull out. He thought he’d wait.

And he felt something for her that was a little like love – but it wasn’t love, was it? It was relief. And it soared inside, he felt it fill his body up, he filled up like a balloon. He looked at her, and she was still smiling, and he could see that she felt the very same thing. And they both held on to each other, and waited, to see which of them would burst first.

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