Via RTÉ Radio 1, listen to another entry from the shortlist of this year's Francis MacManus Short Story Competition - Toby, Toby, Toby by Dee Roycroft.
The comic and inventive Toby, Toby, Toby features a dog in a celestial spirit world, hoping to get to the next level of reincarnation. It's read by actor Andrew Bennett - listen to Toby, Toby Toby above, and read it below.
"Does he know?" asked Clark.
The Angel shook its head.
Sighing, Clark leaned forward, speaking slowly and clearly. Her voice echoing slightly in the confines of the cloud.
Tobias T45 to Level 1841, Cloud 3 please. Level 1841, Cloud 3. Thank you.
Tobias sat up. Scratched an itch behind his left wing. Wanted on Level 1841, eh?
What might that be? Too soon for his next transformation. Maybe some Guiding?
Sometimes a messy resuscitation back home left spirits stuck between Earth and the Idyll. Hovering in the Veil. It was easy to get lost in the Veil too. All that grey, no up or down. Occasionally they sent a Guide like Tobias to lead them out. It was a job he was good at and he liked the feeling of the chilly air washing over him, soft under his paws. Reminding him of morning swims in the bay all that time ago. Ah! The bay. Home to tickler crabs, and Frisbees. He wondered if he'd see that bay again – not that he’d remember. Memories were reset when you transformed. Otherwise the shock of a new body, new existence could be too much. There were accidents of course.
Sometimes memories weren’t reset fully, especially with humans. Lots could go wrong with humans.
Even so, Tobias really hoped to be a human next time round. The very thought made his tail thump excitedly. He had a good chance too. Solid transformation records up the evolutionary scale. The odd lapse but no major transgressions. He had fulfilled his assigned function at every step; from being a well-dispersed virus in South America, to an exceptionally-photogenic hamster in Japan. And his last transformation as a beloved family dog had gone exceedingly well.
Tobias almost missed Earth, but you didn’t really miss things here in the Idyll. There was no feeling of need, no want. Everything was pleasant, always – well, no. Not precisely. Wraiths weren’t pleasant. Toby shivered just thinking about them. Wraiths were there to help things run smoothly, to counter-balance all the rapture. It wasn’t the fact they were mouth-less and eye-less that scared Tobias. There were all sorts of creatures in the Idyll. No, it was something to do with never having been conceived.... they were sort of Not-Beings, different to all the rest. They never transformed, they never Ascended, they always seemed lonely. Unpleasant, upsetting.
A soft chime filled the air, a gentle alert. Level 1841, Cloud 3 please Tobias. The voice more insistent now. Tobias stood, shook off the last of his morning doziness and leaped into the great beyond –
He flew swiftly through the levels, passing the indistinct outlines of spirits and ghosts, the odd mythic God reclining on a chaise. Though you lost your corporeal body when you transformed to the Idyll, you kept the shape of your last physical manifestation – so Tobias bounded by, all floppy Saint Bernard ears under his translucent wings.
Level 1841 looked like an administration level. The air full of names and digits, a constant scroll of data. Cloud 3 floated at the end of a block, a reddish blush to its edges. Somewhat unusually, a desk sat in its centre, and behind it was a faun. Nervous, twitchy. She stood as Tobias arrived, holding out a hand.
"I’m Clark, Immigration Officer. Please sit," she said.
Tobias obeyed. Immigration? Why was he at Immigration? There’d been no problem with his last transformation....
Clark looked at Tobias.
"14 Transformations. Last one as Tobias, Saint Bernard dog. 1988 – 2000. Beloved family pet. Currently working as a Guide in the Veil, correct?" she said.
Tobias nodded, mystified.
"Right", said Clark. "I’ll go through everything first, then you can ask any questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them. It’s a whole new area for us, we’re still trying to figure out the more technical aspects".
Tobias sat back. "I’m listening".
"Tobias, when you passed, your human family froze some of your cellular material. Enough to retain your blueprint. The humans have initiated a cloning process and you will be reborn in 24 hours. As you can imagine, this poses some logistical problems."
She paused, "You will have to return."
Tobias reeled. Return? No-one returned. How could you Transform if you returned? "But.....even if they use my blueprint, it wouldn’t be me..... it couldn’t be me".
Clark shook her head.
"I’m afraid it could. They rebuilt using your coding, so it would be you. Of course, they might call you something else, and your memory will be wiped. Your circumstances may be different, so you’ll be living a different life, but essentially, your 15th transformation will be a repeat of your 14th."
"Will this affect my progress towards Ascension?" Tobias asked, with growing horror.
There was an awkward pause, Clark shuffled her hooves under the desk.
"We don’t know. Hopefully we’ll have it figured out by the time you arrive back in the Idyll. But if your genetic material is taken out of the Energy Cycle, if it’s retained in this way, then no, you can’t progress."
She seemed frustrated. "You’re not the only one..... it’s a growing trend, we’ve had to take on three more Immigration Officers to cope. There are almost four thousand sheep, a mammoth, even two humans all in this predicament. They’re actually considering re-opening Limbo as a temporary measure. Frankly, it’s a mess......." Toby was aghast. Without any hope of Ascension, then what’s the point of..... everything?
Clark’s voice pulled him back.
"Tobias? Are you listening? I’m very sorry. They’re waiting for you on the Transformation Level." She paused. "We just didn’t expect evolution to head in this direction."
Toby stood. "Can I contact my humans? Tell them to stop? I know there are ways...." Clark’s head tilted as she said softly, "Off the record, yes, there are tears in the Veil at the lower levels, sometimes spirits get through – haunting, visitations, but it’s totally unregulated. Humans do hold séances trying to communicate with us, but how would you know if your particular humans are? Even if they are – well, there’s no guarantee you’d even manage to find an active tear."
Clark watched Toby float away, distracted. Some cherubs wiggled around him giggling but slunk off in disappointment when he couldn’t even raise a tail wag. Clark pressed a button flush with her desk.
"We may have a runner. Tobias T45."
It was out of her hands now. The Wraiths would take over.
A chime nudged Tobias back into alertness..... TobiasT45 to the Transformation Level immediately please.
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t go back like this. He wouldn’t go back like this. He had to try to communicate with his humans, make them realise this was not what he wanted, it was not part of the Great Plan. Surely if they cared so much for him, they would have tried to communicate with him already. A thought floated into his head. Perhaps they were trying to contact him right now, this very moment. Perhaps they were bringing him back because they couldn’t contact him.
Another chime. Slightly louder now. Reminder: Tobias T45 to the Transformation Level. Tobias whined nervously. He liked order, he liked rules. Never in all his existences had he been so torn. But his humans had put him in this position; risk the Wraiths and contact his old owners, beg them to halt his return – or be doomed to a postponed future, an eternity of Limbo. No. He growled in anger. This must not be. Tobias folded back his wings and plummeted.
As he descended, the air grew denser, colder. He was approaching the Veil, but this time not as a Guide. Not as a loyal and trusted worker. He knew the tears Clark spoke of, had seen them while guiding, those gaps where fleeting moments of contact happened between Earth and the Idyll. Used mainly by the desperate or delinquent, the tears provided a leaky mesh between the two worlds. But as Clark said, he had to find an active one. Another reminder chimed by Tobias’ ear. Urgent: Tobias T45 to the Transformation Level immediately. They were getting louder each time.
He’d better hurry, soon they’d start looking for him and that would not end well. Gliding past a couple of lurking phantasms, Tobias caught a glimpse of a tussle in the distance. At these lower Levels, a cluster of less-incarnated beings could mean only one thing. He had found what he was looking for. An active tear.
High above, a dark wispy Wraith dipped and dived. Inhaling deeply, it caught the scattered scent particles of TobiasT45, breathing them out again in a low hiss, swirling down, down, down, following his trail as easily as if he had left crumbs marking the way.
Far below, Tobias continued to swoop and glide towards what turned out to be a daemon and two sprites tussling beside a ragged-looking patch in the Veil; the sprites flying off when Tobias arrived, skulking a few levels up, kicking footfuls of cloud in annoyance.
A rough wind blew through Tobias’ fur. His heart drummed in his chest.
"What do you want?" The daemon eyed Tobias suspiciously.
"I have to make contact with some humans......"
The daemon cackled. Daemons were souls lost through neglect or badness. They lied. Another chime. A different tone. RUNNER ALERT: TOBIAS T45 TO BE BROUGHT IMMEDIATELY TO THE TRANSPORTATION LEVEL.
The daemon whistled in awe. "A runner," it said softly.
Tobias began to pant with fear. An alert meant the Wraiths were on to him. He had less time than he thought.
"Follow". The daemon beckoned him through the small tear. A damp cold soaked through his fur. Through the breaking and shifting mist, Tobias could make out indistinct shapes and patterns. His eyes blurred trying to focus on the swirling clouds. From behind he heard a giggle, then another to the side.
"Listen," cackled the daemon. "The humans are all around. Listen to them."
Tobias’ ears filled with murmurs. Words, phrases, snippets of long-lost sentences. The Veil wasn’t a mist, he realised, it was breath. Thousands, millions of breaths all whirling and swirling in the ether. Each one a thought, a word, a wish sent up to the Idyll. Tobias bounded through the wafting vapours, whipping each aside, searching for one that might be familiar, sniffing, seeking.......Toby, Toby, Toby!...... HIS NAME. He froze. Ears twitching, focused on that one quiet, tiny breath.....Toby....Suddenly he saw it, a shadowy cluster below him. Some shapes huddled together, holding hands, swaying. Then, the familiar voice.......It’s him! I feel him, he’s here, it’s Toby! Oh, good boy Toby!..... he ached with warmth. Raising his head, he howled long and loud. His breath mingling with the millions of others, adding to the glorious cacophony.
The Wraith, nosing around the bottom of a dirty-looking cloud, bolted upright. Quivering, it fixed on the echo of Tobias’ howl in the distance, glided silently to a nearby tear, and stepped through.
A shockwave rippled through the grey mist. Tobias turned but the daemon had vanished. His skin crawled. His fur stood on end. A Wraith nearby, in the Veil. He could feel it. The murmuring paused, stilled..... this was Tobias’ only chance. Focusing on the dissipating shapes below, he gathered every drop of his will and let loose a searing cry, Please, let me go. Don’t bring me back.......
His plea reverberated through the Veil, echoing across aeons, let me go-o-o-o... But Tobias’ prayer held, suspended, too late. A particle in Time, caught in the emptiness of the beyond. Numb, he didn’t feel the Wraith’s dry touch as it wound its spidery limbs around him and carried him back up into the vast reaches of the Idyll.
Far below, the shadowy shapes continued their séance, swaying... one lone familiar breath curling through the Veil..... Toby it’s ok, we’re bringing you back. We’ll see you again soon..... Toby, Toby, Toby.... one lone familiar breath joining the millions, the billions of breaths, spreading out across the heavens.
Toby, Toby, Toby by Dee Roycroft is one of the ten shortlisted stories from this year's Short Story Competition in honour of Francis MacManus. The three judges of this year's awards were writer Liz Nugent, RTÉ's arts and media correspondent Sinéad Crowley, and Declan Meade, publisher of The Stinging Fly. The programme was produced by Sarah Binchy.