Glenda checked her hair in the hallway mirror, adjusted the collar of her blouse, then opened the door with a gently quizzical smile on her face. It was three p.m., and she wasn’t expecting anyone, which meant it was probably a door-to-door salesman, or those nice religious folk. She always listened politely, and if it was tea time (like now), she’d invite them in, because it must be dreadfully hard to go around knocking on doors and being turned down. People could be awfully rude, too. She’d seen Mr Carter, who lived across the street and down two doors, chase a salesman away with his walking stick. Ridiculous. Of course, some of them were pushy, but it didn’t mean you had to buy what they were selling, or be nasty about it. A nice firm hand was all it took.
The man on the doorstep had stepped back, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, his face lifted to the early spring sky. His shoulders were broad, muscular in his t-shirt. Not a salesman or a religious type, then, she imagined. They didn’t tend to wear t-shirts.
“Can I help you?” Glenda asked brightly.
A white-toothed smile broke across the man’s face, then faltered as he examined her. Glenda didn’t much care for the way he was looking at her. It was appraising, and she lifted her chin slightly.
“Do you need help, sir?” He might be terribly good-looking, but he was very young, and she wasn’t having any nonsense. Not on her doorstep.
“Mrs Glenda Holt?” he said, and his voice was deep, smooth.
“Yes, that’s me.” She gave him her own appraising look. He didn’t just look young – he positively glowed with robust health and good humour. She half expected bluebirds to start flitting around his head.
“Huh. You’re not quite what I expected.”
She frowned. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“I just – well, I guess I expected someone – well.” He lavished that smile on her, and she imagined it made all the young girls go week at the knees. And boys, for that matter. Although she was rather too old for that sort of thing.
“If you were expecting Glenda Holt, you’ve found her. Now how can I help you?”
The big man ran a hand through an overabundance of blond locks, his smile fading. “Are you the only Glenda Holt?”
“Certainly the only one that lives here. Now are you going to tell me what this is about, young man? Because I was about to sit down with a cuppa.”
“Oh, that’d be nice.” The smile was back.
“You haven’t even told me what you want.” Her patience was starting to wear thin.
He looked puzzled. “Well, we’re meeting here.”
Glenda planted her feet more firmly and glowered. “See here, young man -”
“Oh, you’re here already.” They both turned to look at the newcomer. He bustled up the garden path, a portly man in a green three-piece suit that didn’t fit quite as well as it could, his scalp gleaming through his combover. “Trust you to be early, Pest.”
“I’m entirely on time,” the young man replied. “Anyway, it appears D hasn’t even swung by yet. Glenda doesn’t know about the meeting.”
“That’ll be Mrs Holt to you,” Glenda said, and glared at the new arrival. “And who might you be?”
“Ah. Yes. I am a colleague of Pest here.” He gave Glenda the same evaluating look the younger man had, and her frown deepened.
“Just because I’m an old lady, don’t think I’m falling for your scams,” she said. “Either you tell me exactly what you’re doing here, or you can get on your way before I call the police.”
“No scams, madam!” Green Suit looked horrified, one hand pressed to his chest. He seemed ridiculously small standing next to the man he’d called Pest. “Our mutual colleague was meant to set up a meeting with you. I’m not at all sure what’s kept him.”
“Well, that’s not my problem. And unless you have some official papers from the council or something, you can get out of here.” She stepped back inside and closed the door firmly as the two men exchanged confused glances. She turned the deadbolt, then went to lock the back door. Just in case.
She was just sitting down to watch Bondi Vet when the doorbell rang again. She frowned. It was 5 p.m. Some people even had their dinners at 5 p.m.. It wasn’t the sort of time to be ringing on people’s doorbells willy-nilly. She got up and went to the door, bristling with indignation.
When she opened the door, Pest and his friend were both standing a respectful distance away from the step. “What?”
“Has our colleague been by yet?”
“Don’t you think you would have known if he had, considering you’re still on my doorstep? Have you been here this whole time?”
“Well – “
“Get out of here, both of you. I will call the police.”
Glenda grabbed the late Mr Holt’s cricket bat from the coat rack behind the door and shouldered it, stepping out into the scented evening. “Don’t make me say it again.”
“Understood.” Green Suit backed away, hands raised apologetically, and Pest followed with an amused little half-smile on his full lips. Glenda watched them until they were out of the gate and walking away, then went back inside and poured herself a small whiskey. Her hands were shaking.
She didn’t expect to sleep very well, but the whiskey had other ideas, particularly when she had a second one after dinner. There had been no more doorbells, and when she peered out the window before closing the curtains, there was no one outside, not even any unfamiliar cars on the street. Maybe she’d scared them off, although she had a feeling that wasn’t the case. Never mind – if they came back tomorrow she’d meet them with phone in hand.
She woke with first light, padding softly through the familiar rituals of waking – opening curtains and brushing teeth and brewing tea and turning the radio on for the news, although she tried not to listen too closely these days. There was never anything good on it. Or if there was, it was a fireman rescuing a duckling to set against floods and genocide and war. Not much balance.
Her doorstep was empty when she ventured out to the shop after breakfast. She didn’t need much, but she liked to walk to the local shop each day. Twenty minutes each way, and it cleared her head nicely. Which was just what she needed after yesterday.
She was home, deciding between weeding the back garden or baking a cake for bridge club tomorrow night, when the doorbell rang. She frowned, shoulders tensing. Surely it wouldn’t be them. She’d been very clear. Very clear indeed. But the amount of people that just didn’t take you seriously when you were a woman, let alone a woman of a certain age. She straightened her back, put her phone in her pocket, and strode to the front door. She was done being polite.
She jerked the door open, a scowl on her face, cricket bat already shouldered, and the man on the doorstep jumped back with a yelp.
“Oh! Frank! I’m sorry.” She put the bat down hurriedly, flushing.
“It’s okay, Glenda. No harm done. Are you okay, though?”
“Yes, sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
“I see.” He gave her a puzzled look. “Well, I was just passing, and thought I’d stop by – do you need a lift to bridge tomorrow?”
“No, thank you, Frank. You know I like to have my own transport.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” She waited while he looked at her hopefully, then eventually accepted that he wasn’t going to be asked in. Just like last week. And the week before.
“Well, I’ll be off then. See you tomorrow?”
“Yes, see you then.” She closed the door as he walked away, shaking her head. He was terribly slow on the uptake. Of course, she shouldn’t have gone to dinner with him that once. But it had been ten years ago.
The doorbell rang when she was halfway back to the kitchen and she turned around with a sigh. What now? “Oh, I just happened to have a spare ticket to this show that you might like?” Or maybe, “I’ve got a voucher to this new restaurant, shall we try it?” You couldn’t fault his persistence.
She jerked the door open, starting to say, “Frank, look,” and stopped short as the man in the path looked up at her. He was tall and slim, his face grave.
“Mrs Holt,” he said.
“Yes?” He didn’t look like a salesman.
“I believe my colleagues visited you yesterday.” He waved behind him, and Glenda saw the two men loitering at the gate. Green Suit looked uncomfortable in the mild sun, but Pest stood with his arms crossed over his broad chest, smiling at her.
She frowned. “Look, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but -”
“Mrs Holt. I apologise for them, they were impatient. I do have serious matters to discuss with you, though.”
“Well, discuss away, then.”
“Perhaps inside would be better?”
“Why on earth would I let you lot into my house?”
He smiled. “You could keep hold of the cricket bat, if you wanted.”
She glanced down at it, then sighed. “Alright. But there’s nothing to steal in here, and I’m not signing anything.”
“Of course not.”
“And I don’t need saving. I’m quite capable of saving myself.”
“I can see that.”
She watched him for a moment longer, trying to decide if he was being patronising or just extraordinarily guileless. He certainly wasn’t smirking.
“Fine,” she said. “Come in. But I’m not making any fancy coffees. Tea or instant.”
“Tea will be wonderful.”
Glenda led them through to the sun-filled kitchen, wondering what she was thinking of. But it was certainly the most interesting thing that had happened since she’d adopted Scoundrel and he’d bitten the postman on his first day.
She served tea in her not-for-best, mismatched mugs and opened a packet of Jammie Dodgers.
“If I’d known you were coming, I would have baked something.”
“This is perfect,” the tall man said, picking a biscuit up and examining it. “Very pretty.”
“Pretty? Well, I guess.” She sat down and frowned at them. “So? What can I help you with?” She felt calmer in here, more in charge. Although she had brought the cricket bat in with her.
The tall man was rolling the biscuit in his long fingers as if he’d never seen one before. “What is it?”
“What is it? It’s a Jammie Dodger.”
“D, you’ve had them before.” Green Suit grabbed two, then saw Glenda’s face and put one back guiltily.
“I have not had one before. How does one have them?”
“It’s a biscuit,” Glenda said, bewildered.
“Ah. I see. I have heard of these.” The tall man held the biscuit out at arm’s length, squinted at it, then licked it. His tongue was blue. “Hmm. Very nice.” He licked it again, and Glenda stared at his companions.
“Is he alright?”
“Well, D doesn’t get out much,” Green Suit said.
“I’m out all the time,” D protested, still licking the biscuit. His tongue really was extraordinarily blue.
“Not with people, you’re not.”
“Oh, a kitty,” Pest said suddenly, and made a smooching noise. “Here, puss puss.”
Scoundrel had slouched into the room. He gave Pest a baleful look.
“Don’t touch the cat, Pest,” D said sharply.
“Aw. I like cats.”
“He bites,” Glenda said, dunking her biscuit in her tea.
D copied her, watched her bite the soggy bit, then did the same, scattering damp crumbs on the table. “Oh, dear.”
“Can’t take you anywhere,” Green Suit said, rolling his eyes expressively at Glenda.
Scoundrel hissed, and Pest said, “Ow.”
“I told you not to touch the cat,” D snapped. “We’re guests.”
“I didn’t touch him! He just bit me!”
“Likely story,” Green Suit said.
“He does do that sometimes,” Glenda admitted.
“Is he up to date on his vaccinations?” Pest asked, rubbing his ankle.
“He’s not going to give you rabies,” Glenda snapped.
“Oh, I’ve already got that,” Pest said comfortably. “I’m more worried about what I might give him.”
Glenda stared at them, at Pest with his glowing skin, and Green Suit surreptitiously stashing two Jammie Dodgers in his breast pocket, and D absently stirring his tea with one long finger. She pushed back from the table, folding her arms across her chest and planting her sensible shoes firmly on the floor. “Right. Start talking. And make it good, otherwise you’ll find Scoundrel isn’t the only one that bites.”
Green Suit took a noisy gulp of tea, and Pest suddenly became very interested in the hem of his t-shirt. D took a sip of tea and said, “Very nice, this.”
“It’s bloody Yorkshire tea and Jammie Dodger biscuits, not high tea at the Carlton. What are you three playing at?”
D interlaced his fingers carefully, and lifted his dark eyes to hers. “We have a vacancy.”
“Yes. A position needing to be filled.”
“Well, I don’t know what you’re doing here then. I’m retired.”
“This is not the sort of position that is limited by age. Luckily.” His companions chucked, and Glenda frowned.
“What’re you talking about? Kids, all of you.”
“Appearances can be deceiving.”
“Well, I’m still not looking for a job.”
“You’re our ideal candidate.”
“Yeah, about that, D -”
“Sure, but -”
D turned and scowled at Green Suit. “It’s her.”
“If you’re quite done arguing among yourselves,” Glenda said sharply, “Why on earth would you think I’d be your ideal candidate? What do you even do?”
“We bring on the Apocalypse,” D said.
There was quite a bit of confusion after that. Glenda ordered them out of the house and started waving the cricket bat around when they didn’t get up quickly enough. Green Suit got overexcited and broke the table in two when he put his mug down. D was trying to calm everyone, and Pest was just laughing in the corner like a five-year-old, while Scoundrel scratched himself furiously on the windowsill. There was tea and Jammie Dodgers all over the floor, as well as a broken vase of flowers, and when Glenda took a swipe at D with the bat she slipped on a daffodil and went down hard enough to jolt her spine and bite her tongue. She sat there, amid the debris of her rather old and lovely table, and said plaintively, “I only let you in to be polite.”
“I’m very sorry about this,” D said, helping her up. “Shall I make more Jammie Dodgers?”
“They come from the shop.” His hands were desperately cold, and she wondered if his skinny jeans weren’t a bit too skinny, his cheekbones just a little too high under his dark skin.
“Do you know how to make it?”
“I observed you. It didn’t seem complicated.”
“It’s not hard to make tea, but it is hard to make good tea.” She pointed at Pest, who was still giggling. “You – clean up this mess.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He scrambled to his feet and starting picking up shards of vase. “Oh, I think I gave your cat fleas.”
Making tea calmed her. There was still a tremor in her hands, but that was hardly surprising. She’d just tried to take someone’s head off with a cricket bat. And she had three lunatics in her kitchen.
“We can sit down in the living room,” she said. “Since I no longer have a table.”
“Terribly sorry about that,” Green Suit said. “I forget my own strength.” He puffed his chest out proudly even as he tried to look contrite, and Glenda caught Pest rolling his eyes as he bundled up the daffodils. Her lips quirked into a smile that she forced firmly down again. Well, it was interesting.
She led the way into the living room and opened the windows a crack, letting in the smell of cut grass and damp earth.
“So,” she said. “You bring on the apocalypse. Is this your religion, or something?” I gave your cat fleas. I forget my own strength. She pushed the thought away.
“No,” D said. He’d sat down in the middle of the sofa, the other two wedged in uncomfortably to either side of him, leaving the armchair free for her. She didn’t sit down. “People use us in their religions, but we’re outside all that.”
“I see.” Glenda sipped her tea. “So if you’re not priests…?”
“We’re the horsemen of the Apocalypse,” D said.
“I see,” she said again. “Shouldn’t there be four of you?”
“As I said, we have a vacancy.”
Her hand surprised her by trembling a little, and she covered it up by putting her mug down and taking the chocolate box from under the coffee table. She offered it to the men, and D took one, slapping Pest’s hand away.
“Don’t touch.” D gave the younger man a chocolate, then took one for himself.
“Bet it’s the cherry one,” Pest muttered. “I hate the cherry ones.”
Glenda chose a caramel for herself, and nibbled on it thoughtfully. “Death, Pestilence, War and Famine, right?”
“They are the most common names for us, yes.”
“I’m Pestilence,” Pest said cheerfully. “I’m sorry about your cat’s fleas.”
“And you?” Glenda nodded at Green Suit.
“War,” he said, looking aggrieved. “Surely you saw my strength -”
“Be quiet,” D said again.
“Which makes you Death, doesn’t it?”
“Well, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but you all seem terribly ordinary.”
“We’re all very ordinary things,” Death said. “We’re all around.”
“So what happened to Famine?”
“Well, he sort of retired,” Death admitted.
“Yes, he said there was nothing for him to do. Humans are doing far too good a job of starving themselves and each other.”
“But – if people are starving -”
“He doesn’t need to create famines. There’s call for them. Pest here can still go around stirring up new diseases and reawakening old ones. War whispers in lots of ears.”
“I don’t whisper.”
“Evidently,” Glenda said. “But you can use your inside voice for the moment.”
War looked embarrassed, and eyed the chocolate tin.
“I will never be out of work. But Famine – the world’s starving itself. Humans on strange diets, or over-farming land, or changing the climate, or just not helping each other -” Death shrugged. “He was out of a job.”
“Well, you’ve got the wrong woman,” Glenda snapped. “I would never starve anyone. Quite the opposite. I do everything I can to make sure people eat. I work at Meals on Wheels. I donate to food drives and aid agencies. I take food to anyone I know that’s having a hard time. I -”
“You make sure your grandkids eat till bursting,” Death said, that smile blossoming across his face. “Yes. You’re perfect.”
“How am I perfect? I am not Famine!”
“No. You’re the opposite. The new horseman. You’re Plenty.”
Glenda stared at him, black spots starting to swim in her vision. When Pestilence jumped up and grabbed her arms she didn’t even resist, despite the heat in his hands that made her skin crawl. He deposited her in the armchair, and she closed her hand around her knitting needles, wondering if she’d have more luck with them than she’d had with the cricket bat. “But I can’t be,” she managed. “I can’t -“
“I’m sure, Glenda. Death is always sure.”
“He is,” War agreed. “It’s very irritating.”
“That’s unnecessary,” Death said.
“It is annoying,” Pestilence said. “Really. You should give it a break some time.”
Death grunted, and looked at Glenda. She tightened her hand on her knitting needles. “But I’d have to leave,” she said. “My kids – my grandkids -”
“You’ve already left,” Death said gently.
“What do you mean? Of course I haven’t!”
“Why do you think my colleagues had to wait for me to arrive?”
She glared at him. “Rubbish! I’m not dead!”
“You are, actually,” Pestilence said. “Heart disease. Sorry. You keeled over when your boyfriend left.”
“He is not my boyfriend.”
“Well. You did.”
Glenda got up unsteadily, slapping Pestilence’s hands away. She tottered into the hall. There was somebody lying there, just behind the door, her face pressed into the ground and one hand under her body. She had bobbed grey hair, like Glenda’s, and wore a pretty pale blue cardigan over grey slacks and a white blouse. Glenda looked down at herself, plucked at her cardigan, then turned back to Death.
“I didn’t say goodbye,” she whispered. “Not to anyone.”
“I don’t choose the way,” Death said. “I only witness the passing.”
“But I don’t want to be a horseman. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Think of them as temptations,” War said, his voice surprisingly soft. “No one has to pick up the chocolates, any more than they have to pick up the gun.” He was cradling the chocolate box as he spoke, and she frowned at him. He put it back hurriedly.
“What if I say no?” she asked Death.
“Then you pass on.” He shrugged. “In time, I’ll find someone else.”
“And what happens then? When I pass on?”
“No one knows.”
Glenda hugged her arms around herself, glancing back at the body in the hall. When had her hair got so thin on top? When had she got so old? “And if there’s no Plenty?”
“People continue to starve, Famine or no Famine.”
“So I’d stop people starving?”
“Yes. What they do after that is up to them. It’s always up to them.”
She considered for a moment. “I don’t even know how to ride a horse.”
Death grinned. “Well, they’re not real horses. They’re kind of metaphorical horses.”
“I’ve still got my old Vespa. Can I ride that instead? I haven’t had it out in years.”
“Well, like I say, they’re metaphorical -”
“So I can have a metaphorical Vespa?”
Pestilence started laughing. “Dude, yes. I want a metaphorical Vespa too.”
“You can’t have one. But Glenda can. Why not.” Death swept her a suddenly, stately bow, and said, “Welcome to the Apocalypse, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Glenda said. “Should I make us a pack-up before we leave?”