Walk into the light. The instinct was so strong, so compelling. The urge to cut loose, to leave the stars behind and submit to the insistent tug of...what? The unknown. But it was so easy, so painless. Just one step. One small step. Step out of the darkness. The light was blinding, the stars obliterated in its startling brightness. One step was all it took. That's it. Wasn't so difficult, was it?
The instant that the door swung closed behind them with a quiet finality, there was a heavy silence. Shaz's mind whirled. Whenever she'd considered the existence of some kind of heaven – which wasn't often; she liked to think of herself as more down-to-earth than that – she'd imagined one of several equally fantastic things. Hordes of cherubs hovering around a pair of enormous pearly gates; a garden full of apple trees and streams and dappled shade; an infinite expanse of twinkling stars. One thing she had never factored into her heaven was a pub.
The man who'd met them outside – who, or what, was he? Some kind of guardian angel? – had edged back behind the well-stocked bar and was engaged in lively conversation with a couple of young men propping up the bar, half-full pint glasses in front of them. Peering through the throng of people nearby, Shaz could see that their arrival had been for the most part unnoticed, but the circle immediately around them had fallen silent. Decks of cards half-dealt, cigarettes hanging from lips, mid-sentence, they regarded the newcomers with unveiled curiosity. Under their inquisitive gazes, directed for the most part at her, Shaz involuntarily shrank back slightly behind the others, and was glad to feel Chris squeeze her hand in reassurance.
"Bloody hell, Chris, it really is...it's the Railway Arms!" Ray's stunned exclamation was met by scattered laughter from the people nearby as, coming to life now that the ice had been broken, they nodded in welcome and offered their hands or a smile to the newcomers. Ray pulled his hand from Shaz's immediately and approached the throng eagerly, his expression at once baffled and delighted. All at once, there was a crowd pressing around them on all sides, a sea of grins, of proffered hands, of shouted greetings.
It was their joviality, their excitement, the fact that they were all so very alive, that hit Shaz like a bullet between the eyes and sent her reeling. For a moment, this warm, lively pub seemed to her to be filled with corpses, choked with the living dead. Their hands reached out to grab her, to pull her among them and smother her with their dead flesh. Their bright eyes were threatening, their closeness stifling. She felt suffocated by the dead. It reminded her of a film she'd seen once, a low budget zombie movie with laughable costumes, miserable backdrops and worse scripting. Had that been in the eighties? With Chris? Or in the nineties, with the gang of mates she could just about remember if she thought really hard? Shaz took a deep, shuddering breath. Realistically, she knew she was imagining it. These people were just like her. And you're just like them. A chill ran down her spine.
"New arrivals! Welcome." A portly, middle-aged man dressed in a mustard yellow waistcoat swung into view and grasped Shaz by the hand, his smile warm and his handshake enthusiastic. "Can I buy you a drink, sweetheart?" Shaz shook her head mutely and pulled her hand out of his, her breathing coming faster as she turned away, dizzy amongst the sea of people.
"Shaz? You look like you've seen a ghost." Chris chuckled at the irony of his own comment. "What is this place?" he continued before she had a chance to formulate an answer, gazing around them in bemused wonder. "I mean, it's...it's exactly like the Railway Arms, but it's...I don't know what it is..." At a loss for words, he shrugged and laughed in that unmistakeable, bewildered way that only Chris could. "If heaven's a pub, count me in." He slid an arm around her, seemingly completely unfazed. At his touch, Shaz flinched and her breath caught in her throat. Dead. He withdrew his arm and looked at her in confusion. "What's up?"
What's up? Shaz's head spun and her stomach twisted. She felt slightly sick. Was physical discomfort supposed to be possible in heaven? Certainly no-one else here seemed to be suffering from it. The atmosphere in the pub was one of joy, almost celebration. At the bar, free drinks were creating a buzzing crowd, and the noise levels had tripled. A welcome for the new arrivals. For the new corpses. Shaz shuddered. The people around her looked totally normal. Smiling, happy, talkative. Some were in uniform, some not. They looked like off-duty officers who'd dropped into the pub for a pint after work. Until recently, she'd have thought they were. Just as she'd thought she was. Shaz closed her eyes, trying to listen to reason. She felt solid. She felt normal.
"Fancy a drink, then?" The words were infinitely familiar, the tone achingly reminiscent of so many evenings at Luigi's. Had none of that life, that heartbreakingly wonderful life, been real at all? Shaz opened her eyes and gazed blankly at Chris for a moment, willing herself to focus on the life in his eyes, praying for the realisation that this was all an elaborate practical joke. He looked back at her in uncertainty. "Shazzer? Anyone in?"
"They're dead, Chris. All of them, they're dead." She gazed at him in horror. "You're dead."
"Shaz..." He glanced around them, clearly feeling awkward in the face of the expectant expressions of the people standing around them. Sensing that the show was over, the crowd started to disperse as he pulled her over to a table in the corner, accepting the raised hands and pats on the back with a distracted smile. "What's wrong?" he asked, as soon as they had sat down. She pulled the cut-glass ashtray towards her, feeling its edges sharp against her skin, trying to discern her reflection in its shiny surface. It was distorted, grotesque. Where to start?
"I don't feel dead." The words sounded silly, ridiculously simple and inconsequential considering the bizarre reality they'd found themselves in. Shaz took a deep breath, trying to experience everything at once, to hear the laughter and smell the cigar smoke and feel the blood pumping through her veins. Surely, surely, those superficial senses were lost to you when you died? When you died you let go of everything, you rose up from the constraints of your body and you floated among the stars. Been there, done that. Chris was watching her silently, carefully, his expression giving nothing away. Shakily, she reached out her hand and pressed her palm to his chest, her fingers splayed across his heart. Her eyes met his. "It's beating."
"That's good to know, I s'pose." He covered her hand with his own, his fingers fumbling to lace with hers. She almost smiled at his clumsiness. "Shaz, I've been dead since I met you. Since a long time before that. So have you. But it don't make a difference, not really. I dunno about you, but...I've felt more alive since I came here than I ever did before."
"So have I." Now that she knew the truth, Shaz could dimly remember her life before she ended up in Gene Hunt's world, the memories woozy and unfamiliar, but undeniably there. She remembered the frustration, the sheer tedium of her job. The way she'd look at the older officers and think not me. I don't want that to be me. Perhaps that was why she'd been so eager for the heroics, something to break the boredom, to make her different, to make her job mean something. And that had brought her here, to Gene Hunt, to CID and to Chris.
Here, in Gene Hunt's mad, wonderful world, this was where Shaz had found a purpose. Had found herself, if she could forgive the cliché. This was where she had felt valued, where she had yearned to prove herself, where she had fallen in love and where she had spent so much time without ever realising how lucky she was. Chris was right – this place, right here, or out there, anywhere but where she'd come from, was where she felt alive. For a moment, she considered the memories she was missing with a sense of detached regret, but she didn't long for them. Real life was like a dream to her now – a hazy, half-remembered impression in which details floated just out of reach.
The smell of her mum's cooking...the unfamiliar spices when she'd decided to try something new, the eye-watering chillies she'd picked up at a market and thought would go down well. The satisfaction – no, the euphoria – when she was accepted into the police...the feeling that now, now she could make a difference. Her family...had she had a brother? There'd been someone...someone who'd listened to music she didn't like, and brought his washing round to hers, and years before that had given her piggyback rides round the park...so real. But so much less real than this.
Shaz clenched her fists in impatience. "How can I be dead, though, Chris? How can I? How can none of this be real? I can't even remember my brother's face, but I could walk blindfold through the evidence room and know where everything was. This place looks real. It feels real." She squeezed his hand, its warmth reassuring. "You feel real. I can't be...dead."
Chris leaned forward across the table, his expression never wavering in its utter conviction. "Listen, Shazzer, you've gotta trust the guv. You've gotta believe what he says, or who are you gonna believe? This feels right. You know it does. And if the guv says we're dead..." He laughed slightly, almost wonderingly. "If Gene Hunt says we're dead, then we're bloody dead, Shaz." Chris genuinely seemed unconcerned by the reality of what he'd just told her. He said "we're dead" in the same tone in which Shaz might say "two sugars", or "pass the ketchup". Some of her disbelief must have showed on her face, because he sighed and closed his eyes briefly. "Look, Shazzer, I know I'm no good at all this...emotional stuff, like, but d'you think I was dead when I asked you to marry me? And when you said yes, do you reckon you were dead then?"
He leaned back in his chair, clearly pleased with his powers of analysis. Sometimes, Shaz thought, it must be nice to be Chris. To have such unswerving belief, such conviction that everything was going to be all right. To never really consider the other options, because whatever was in front of you seemed so real, so understandable, that there was no way it could be wrong. And yet, she knew that what he was saying made sense. She would remember that moment forever, the moment she'd agreed to marry him, just as she would remember the way his face had crumpled when she'd told him it was over, and how right it had felt, just today, to confess that she'd been wrong. If that wasn't living, she didn't know what was. As if he was reading her mind, Chris laughed, almost wistfully.
"You know what, d'you remember the day we met?" He grinned. "You lent me two quid for a cup of coffee."
"Yeah..." Shaz rolled her eyes. "You'd lost a fiver betting Ray I'd be middle-aged with a perm. I had you down as a daft bugger even then. Didn't half get a shock when I found out you were supposed to be my DC."
"That's right..." Chris winced. "Knew I was blocking that out for a reason. Lucky I lost though, eh?"
Shaz laughed. How could she ever have had doubts about this? Whatever her life had been once upon a time, she wouldn't swap the present for the past in a million years. She'd fitted in here from day one, as if this world had been moulded around her, as if all her life had been leading up to her arrival here. As if she was coming home.
When she'd worked out where she was – when she was – she'd expected to have difficulties. She was twenty-one, a young female police officer in what was categorically a man's world. She remembered foreseeing problems with Ray in particular, but to his credit he'd recognised immediately how nervous she was, how inexplicably lost, how eager to please. And Chris had shown her the teabags and handed her files and covered for her mistakes until she found her feet. Even the guv, who hadn't spared her blushes or gone out of his way to make anything easy for her, had made her feel like part of the team, even if that meant setting her to work making countless cups of coffee and answering the phone every five minutes. As for Alex Drake...well, she was Alex Drake, with her psychology and her unfathomable way of making everyone, no matter how unimportant, feel necessary, valued, as if they had something to give. Of course, Shaz had always known she had potential; she wasn't stupid. It was just a matter of realising it.
They might not all be together anymore, not the whole team, but Shaz had no doubt that it would only be a matter of time. And in the meantime, this would do. It was, after all, heaven. Which was, by all accounts, supposed to be pretty good. Perhaps it was strange that it was only in death that she could honestly say she felt truly alive. Perhaps she should grieve for what she'd lost rather than feel as if her heart would burst with happiness. She knew it didn't make sense. But then again, nothing in this world really made sense. And, after all this time, that was just how she liked it.