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The Botanical Gardens in Glasgow are situated in one of the more peaceful areas of the city, just off Great Western Road, deep in the heart of the West End. It was the part of the city where, if you had to live in Glasgow, you would want to live.
As in all good short stories, it was a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in the park. Single mums pushed their prams, cooing at their mixed-race children, the flowers and bushes bloomed in their full glory, dogs gambolled about, quite happily chasing and fetching sticks thrown by their doting owners, the sun glinted off the not-yet-broken windows of the huge hot-house, and the drunks lay happily comatose on the grass, clutching tightly their empty bottles of cheap cider.
Two tight-lipped old ladies, their faces lined with years of disapproval of life in general, glanced at the drunks with withering contempt.
"Disgraceful," hissed one. "You'd think the Council would do something about them"
"The Zyklon-B treatment," suggested her companionable crone, who had strong views on men, drunken men in particular.
In one of the quieter areas of the park, two men sat quietly on a park bench. Between them on the bench was a chessboard. Like all chess-players, they were deeply absorbed in their game. A passing chess-player might have noticed, had he cared to look, that white was subtly winning.
The white player, who was none other than God, seemed to be enjoying the way the game was developing. During his frequent games of chess with the devil, he declined to use his supernatural power to win. Instead he trusted in his skills as a superb chess-player to constantly defeat his old adversary.
The devil sat hunched up on the bench staring miserably at the chessboard. He suspected that there was something miraculous, something downright unfair, about the way God always won.
The devil himself was no mean chess player and had lost count of the number of souls he had won from humans daft enough to accept his challenge to a game. He particularly liked playing people who considered they were experts at the game. People who were arrogant, smarmy and pretentious were his favourite targets. As he sat on the park bench, he sniggered to himself. He always won against them: he always cheated.
God sat in a relaxed manner, his left arm casually draped over the back of the park bench. He was a snappy dresser, but a little old-fashioned in his dark suit and his Fedora sloped arrogantly over his forehead. He looked rather like a character in a painting by Jack Vettriano: a painter for whom, for some peculiar reason, God had a particular admiration.
God moved his horsie two forward and one to the side, threatening one of the devil's castles.
"Why do you want to save her soul, if it's not too cheeky a question," said the devil. "She was a slut. A junkie. Died of an overdose."
"One of my beloved daughters," murmured God. He spoke, perhaps in deference to the sensitivities of the city, in a deep rich Scottish accent: a bit like Sean Connery.
The devil contemplated the board, trying to work out his next move.
He looked ordinary enough, like an old man with a wrinkled face who had perhaps often indulged in too many glasses of whisky. He was dressed in a rumpled suit, a shirt with no collar and he definitely hadn't shaved that morning. However, he was not dressed in black, nor did he have a pair of horns sprouting from his forehead. "She was definitely a loser. In a way, it was a blessing that she died when she did. She was of no use to anyone. Why would you want to try and save her soul?"
"She used to go to Mass on Sunday morning. When she was a child," God replied softly.
"So did Joseph Stalin," came the devil's retort. "I fail to understand your obsession with trying to save people. If a person has led a sinful life, she should be mine. By rights."
The Devil made a surprise move with his castle, taking out one of the pawns. However, he didn't murmur "my precious, my precious," as he removed the white pawn from the board.
God tipped back his Fedora as he regarded the board. He was working out the devil's next few moves, not supernaturally. He smiled smugly to himself. He could see the way the game was developing. He would take his time, enjoying this pleasant afternoon in the park.
"You can't deny she was a sinner," insisted the Devil. If a person died in a state of sin, she belonged to the Devil. He had certain rights that God could not overrule. However, he could never resist a challenge from God to play a game of chess for the soul of a dearly departed. It was his one small weakness. The one chink in his armour. Otherwise, he was pretty damn near foolproof. He had his own domain where he ruled supreme. But like all gamblers, he could never resist just one more bet.
The Devil continued, "She was by all accounts a total slut, a whore. Not a devout Catholic, as they say. She was wretched, miserable. A slave to her heroin addiction. Two detoxes had failed to wean her away from the Devil's Sugar. Her very existence was a blight on the city. What possible value could she have to you?"
God ignored him.
"I had been looking forward to getting her down into Hell. Do you know what I do with women like that in Hell?" sneered the Devil. "I don't let them burn. No. I can think of nastier things. It's actually disgusting what I do with them. You probably find that quite repulsive."
"Hell is your domain," said God calmly. "I don't interfere."
"You can't," snapped the Devil, with a malignant grin. "That's one area where I have all the power. I do whatever I want to do. And some of it is pretty ghastly, I can assure you. I sometimes torment the souls of the damned by offering them their favourite vice, their private sinful obsession, and when they reach out to grab it, I snatch it away. They howl in anguish."
God said nothing.
"This slut, this wretched whore. I am going to torment her eternally by dangling finest quality heroin in front of her, but keeping it always just out of reach. Of course I also have other plans for her. I have a full corporeal body in Hell; I can enjoy all the pleasures of the flesh. Know what I mean? Oh, I have plans for her. Admittedly rather disgusting plans."
The woman in question was Catherine Connelly. She had been a good Catholic schoolgirl in her younger days. But once she got seriously into heroin in her early teens, she had declined rapidly. Within a few months of her first hit, she began selling sex in one of the more squalid council estates on the outskirts of the city.
Her parents had despaired of her and kicked her out of the family home: they didn't want any scandal. She moved in with her pimp, who raped her and beat her up on a regular basis.
She bore the pimp's child at fifteen. At sixteen she had lost the child to the Social Services. At seventeen she had undergone two abortions.
Then the overdose, not completely accidental.
"Not much you can say in her defence," said the Devil. "You wouldn't want someone like that in Heaven, would you? It would lower the tone of the place."
God reached out a well-manicured hand and moved his Queen into the attack.
The Devil stared at the board. He reached up and took a roll-up from behind his left ear and lit it. "So what do you think of this city?" he asked, as he sucked in a mouthful of smoke.
"I've been in better places," admitted God.
"I get half of the souls in this city," smirked the Devil
"And I get the other half," said God quickly.
"Oh, they're a rum lot, these Glasgow people," muttered the Devil. "Troublesome, troublesome. I mean, they're not like your average damned soul. Most people who end up in Hell gradually become accustomed to their plight. They accept their fate with rueful regret. They become habituated to being in Hell and suffer patiently. But not these Glasgow types. Oh, no. It's protests all the way. They never stop complaining. The fires are too hot: the fires are not hot enough. They don't want to be in this part of Hell, as there are too many Protestants. They don't want to be in that part of Hell: too many Catholics. And where can they get a decent curry?"
God listened sympathetically: he had the same trouble in Heaven.
"A bunch of bloody troublemakers, if you want my opinion," snarled the Devil. He looked at the board for a few seconds and then rashly moved one of his castles two squares to the left.
God's hand swooped down and swiftly moved his Queen. He smiled at the Devil as he murmured, "Checkmate."
"Bloody Hell. You've done it again. Are you sure you are not cheating?"
God gave him an open honest smile. "Would I cheat?"
The Devil stared at the chessboard for a few seconds with mounting fury. He was sure God was cheating in some way. It was impossible that he should win every game. With a sudden sweep on his hand, he knocked the board off the bench. He glared at God for a few seconds and then, with what sounded like a soft "plop", he vanished.
God smiled smugly and lay back on the bench, tipping his Fedora forwards to shade off the glare of the hot sun.
God chuckled to himself. He knew that it made the Devil furious when he lost every game. God loved to torment the Devil: it was his one uncharitable character trait, the one stain on his soul.
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