Josua Orville Brown was in a bright and cheerful mood as he walked down the road from the train station to his nice little detatched suburban house on Tuesday evening, and the last thing he expected to see was a removal van parked in the road outside his home. He could see, as he walked closer, the greater part of his worldly possessions loaded into the back of the van. The front door of the house was open, and his wife, Gladys, was standing in the doorway. She looked distressed of course, but she was managing to maintain her composure with considerable aplomb.
"Whatever is happening?" Josua inquired, as a large man with an unusually beautiful face pushed past the couple with a murmured "'scuse me", carrying Josua's favourite standard lamp. He was naturally quite perplexed, as he paid all of his bills and taxes well before the due date, just to be on the safe side. Nevertheless, he stood well aside for the young man, as it always paid to be polite to people. He wondered briefly if Gladys were leaving him, but he could think of no reason why and it certainly seemed unlikely. For a brief moment he speculated that his wife had been leading a double life and had run up huge gambling debts, but that seemed equally unlikely, and not at all the sort of thing that Gladys would do.
"Oh Josua," his wife said in a slightly trembling voice. "Have you done something terribly foolish?"
"I?" Josua replied, baffled. The question was preposterous. Josua Brown had never done anything foolish or reckless in his life. Gladys had married him - twenty-eight years ago - precisely because, as she put it, he was so safe and sensible. Some people had felt this was a back-handed compliment, but to Josua it was the highest form of praise.
"Their foreman says he wants to speak to you. They have documents," she hastened to assure him, as another man exited the front door of 23 Laburnum Drive, carrying the television. Oddly, he too had an unusually beautiful face, and indeed seemed to Josua to be almost identical to the first removal man. Perhaps it was a family firm, Josua thought, but deemed it impolite to comment. Then he went inside to speak to their foreman.
Josua's first thought was that maybe his wife was leaving him, and that this so-called foreman was her new beau. He certainly would not have blamed her, for if the twin removal men were beautiful, this man was positively radiant. He dismissed the suspicion again as unworthy, and realised besides that the man was not his wife's type. He had a delicate, almost effeminate look, rather like that young actor chap who seemed so popular with the younger girls at the office. This man was holding a clipboard, and so Josua knew he must be official.
"Can I help you?" Josua asked. He was not sure why he asked that, as the man and his workforce seemed intent on helping themselves.
"Josua Orville Brown," the man said, but it was not a question. His voice was light, and strangely melodic, and he seemed awfully sad about something. "My name is Gabriel. I am sorry to inform you that my associates and I have been authorised to strip you of all your worldly goods." He presented Josua with a lengthy document, bearing a most impressive seal and a scrawled, spidery signature. It all looked very official, and although it was written in a language quite unknown to Josua he looked it over and came to the definite impression that it was all quite above-board.
"I see," he said, sadly. "May I ask why?" Gladys came in and gave him a cup of tea. She brought one to Gabriel as well, as was only fitting as - whatever the circumstances - he was a guest in their home. He took the cup with a word of thanks and a dazzling smile which brought a blush to Gladys' cheeks.
"A breach of contract," Gabriel replied, in a voice filled with infinite sorrow.
"But that's ludicrous!" Josua replied, heatedly. "I've never broken so much as a promise, let alone a contract," he added more calmly, chiding himself for his outburst.
"When was the last time you went to church?" Gabriel asked.
"What does that have to do with the price of fish?" Josua replied.
"Well, you see Josua - may I call you Josua - the thing is that you have broken covenant with the Lord, and in his infinite wisdom he has decided that it is appropriate to visit you with suffering at this time." Josua was quite taken aback by this news, having always considered himself a good man.
"I see," he said. "So anyone who hasn't been to Church is getting this treatment?"
"Not everybody, no," Gabriel answered. "In fact, just you."
"I see. Why is that?" He asked curiously. It did seem very odd to him, and indeed unfair, but he supposed that there must be a reason for it, and he did not want to make a scene. "Why not, say, him next door. I'm sure that he never goes to church, and he has all those people round his house of a weekend, chanting that strange mumbo-jumbo." Gabriel looked pained.
"Mr Lowenstein is a Rabbi, and his house is the local synagogue," he said patiently.
"I suppose I hadn't considered that," Josua admitted. He had wondered what exactly his neighbour of seventeen years and his friends did at their meetings, but he hadn't liked to pry. "So what did I do that was worse than everyone else?" Gabriel glanced around furtively.
"I really shouldn't tell you this," he admitted. "But I suppose you've a right to know."
"Would you like a biscuit?" Gladys asked, entering with a small plate, piled high with biscuits. "I thought you might as well have them all, since your boys just took the biscuit barrel," she added with one of her sweet smiles.
"Thank you very much," Gabriel replied. "If you leave the plate I'll take it with me when I go."
"Righty-ho then," Gladys answered brightly.
"Thank you dearest," Josua said.
"Charming lady, your wife," Gabriel commented. Josua noted with approval that he waited until Gladys had left the room to do so. If nothing else, this Gabriel was a perfect gentleman.
"I've always believed so."
"I do feel quite bad about selling her into slavery," Gabriel added, his voice touched with regret.
"I beg your pardon?" Josua was appalled. There had been no mention of slavery up until now. "If you'll pardon me saying - and I'm sure that you know your job, sir - that does seem rather unconscionable." Gabriel looked terribly uncomfortable, and Josua felt quite guilty for making a scene.
"It is a little embarrassing for us," he admitted. "But it is part of the regulations. I'm afraid they are a little out of date."
"Ah," Josua replied, understanding. He worked in business after all. "Red tape." Gabriel nodded his beautiful head gravely, then leaned in closer to Josua.
"I'll try to make sure we sell her to someone decent," he whispered. "no sweatshops, I promise."
"That's very kind of you," Josua said, although he was not really sure. However as Gabriel was clearly going out on a limb for him, it would not feel right to ask for more.
"Least I can do," Gabriel waved away the thanks. "But you were asking why you in particular. Well, I shouldn't say so, but the truth is that it was felt that an example needed to be made, and your name just came up. We would have picked someone famous, but we figured that the papers would just make out that it was the Mafia or drug-dealers, and the Lord does so hate it when other people take the credit for his work. We had a committee working overtime dreaming up something nasty for Darwin, I can tell you." He took another sip of tea. "This is a sterling cup of tea, I must say. Also your initials spell the name 'Job', and the Lord does like symmetries. They remind people that there's a plan."
"I understand that this must be a trying time for you," he added." At that moment the telephone rang, and was cut off when one of the removal men pulled the cable from the wall and carried the telephone to the van.
"I do hope that wasn't important," Josua said. "It could have been someone in trouble," he considered aloud.
"It was your eldest son," Gabriel told him. "He wants you to pay his bail. Since you couldn't afford it now, it's probably best not to worry your wife with it."
"Joseph has been arrested?"
"Yes. A most unfortunate and most incriminating set of coincidences has led to his arrest for mail fraud."
"Good gracious. I hope that Martin can help him." The Brown's second son, Martin, was a lawyer.
"That would be unlikely, as Martin's energies are likely to be more concerned with his own case."
"Martin as well. What is he supposed to have done?" Gabriel checked one of the forms on his clipboard.
"I am sorry to say that Martin has been arrested for over-charging his clients and stealing from his employers."
"How shocking," Josua observed.
"Divine wrath is rarely a gentle thing," Gabriel reminded him.
"What about Mary?" Josua asked in growing horror. Gabriel consulted his clipboard again.
"Mary is fine," Gabriel assured him. "The kidnappers are treating her very well indeed." He reached over and patted Josua gently on the arm. Josua felt a little faint. "Buck up old chap. Their problems will all be over in five or ten years. It could be worse; not so long ago it would have been required for them to be killed."
"Oh dear me," Josua said. It did seem frightfully unfair, but he supposed that it would do no good to grumble. "So is there anything more?"
"Just the one thing. My associates and I will have to afflict you with boils and sores."
"Will I be able to get that treated on the NHS?" Gabriel shook his head sadly. "Oh dear." Gabriel looked around him.
"Well, Josua. It looks as if we're almost done here; if you'd like to come out to the front with me." Nodding mutely, Josua followed Gabriel into the front lawn, and waited patiently while the Archangel locked the door. Gladys, who he noticed was wearing nothing more than a sack-cloth tunic with a rope belt, gave him an encouraging smile.
"Sorry about this, my dear," he said.
"It isn't your fault, dear," she replied. "We've had a good few years, and we must just grin and bear it, mustn't we?"
"Quite right," he agreed. "Take the rough with the smooth." Of course, this probably counted as the very rough, but the adage applied.
"I must say you're both taking this very well," Gabriel said. "I only wish all of our clients were so reasonable."
"Well, you're only doing your job after all," Gladys said. "It wouldn't be fair of us to get angry at you."
"And I'm certain God knows what he's doing," Josua added. "After all, he's God. So I'm sure it's for the best."
"It's been a pleasure working with you both," Gabriel assured them. "Bob:"One of the young removals men looked up. "Would you please help Mrs Brown into the back of the van."
"Please. Cal me Gladys."
"Bob; please help Gladys into the van." The angel Bob nodded and took Gladys by the arm.
"Good-bye, dear," she said.
"Cheerio," Josua replied. He might have said something more, but people were watching. Bob closed the back of the van behind Gladys, then he and his colleague climbed into the cab. Gabriel came over to Josua.
"If I could have you wallet and keys, please." Josua dutifully handed them over, and as an afterthought his pocket watch. Gabriel took them and made a note on the form on his clipboard. Then held out the board. "If you could sign here, here and here for me, please." After a moment, Josua took the pen from the side and signed the form. Gabriel tore off the top copy and handed it to Josua. Then Gabriel extended his hand to Josua, who accepted it and shook it solemnly.
"I wish you the best of luck in the future," Gabriel said. Then he too climbed into the van, and it rolled slowly away down the road. Josua watched as his whole life was driven away. He felt a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat, but he forced back his emotions, realising that Mr Lowenstein was watching him from next door.
Then he realised that he was not entirely without possessions. Gabriel had left him the clothes the he had been wearing, that his hat was still on his head, and that his umbrella was still in his hand. Suddenly, the world did not seem quite so grim.
"What a charming fellow," he said to the world at large, then set off down the road with a spring in his step, and just a slight limp from the first of his sores.