In the year 1750 I was working at the church in Castleton, a small town in the south of England. One night a knock at the door woke me up. Outside was a poor little girl, crying loudly. After a few minutes, I understood that her father was very ill, almost dying, and she wanted me to come to him.
'Of course I'll come,' I said. 'Where do you live? Who is your father?' She did not answer but began to cry more loudly. Again I
waited until she was calm, and then asked her the same question.
'My father is Pat Connell,' she said, 'and now I'm sure that you won't come.
I knew about Pat Connell. He was a bad man, who often stole things, and he drank too much beer. I never saw him in church. He was a bad man, but he was dying and I had to go to him, to say a few words to help him as he died.
I put on my coat and followed the poor little girl through me cold, dark streets. We walked quickly and our way took us to the worst part of the town. The streets were narrow, the houses were old and there was a terrible smell. The girl went through a small door and I followed her up the broken stairs to the top of the building. She took me up to the bedroom where her father lay. His wife and children were sitting round the bed watching worriedly. The doctor was also with him. I went closer to the man and looked at his face, which was blue from too much drink. His lips were black and, from his breathing, I felt sure that death was not far away.
'Is there any hope?' I asked the doctor. He shook his head and listened to the man's heart.
'This man is dead,' he said, and turned away from the bed.
The wife and children began to cry. I stood still, watching them, feeling sad that I was too late to help the dead man, too late to talk to him about God.
Suddenly the wife screamed and pointed at the bed. I turned round quickly and saw the body of the man sitting up in bed. For a few seconds I could not move. I stood, confused, thinking of dead men and ghosts until I realized that the man was alive. The doctor ran to look at him and found blood running from a cut in the man's body.
'The blood coming out has made him better,' he said. 'I've never seen this before. He's very lucky.'
The doctor and the man's wife made him comfortable, and I left, promising to return the next day. I did go back the next day and the day after, but the sick man was always sleeping. On the third day I returned and found him awake. As I went in, he shouted, 'Oh, thank you, thank you for coming. I want to talk to you.' I sat down next to the bed and he began to talk.
'I've been a very bad man, I know that,' he said. 'I've stolen, I've drunk too much, I've had a bad life, but I don't want to go to hell.' He began to cry and could not stop for some time. I gave him a glass of water and he continued. 'I must tell you what happened that night you came here. I know you'll understand as a man of the church. I came in late after drinking a lot of beer. I went to bed but woke up a few hours later. I wanted to get some air but I didn't want to wake the children by opening the window, so I started to go downstairs. As it was very dark I counted the stairs so that I did not fall at the bottom. Well, I got to the bottom of the first stairs, but suddenly the floor broke under me and I started to fall.
'I fell and fell for a long time through the blackness and when I stopped I was at a big table. Sitting at the table were lots of men. There was a smell of fire all around and the light was red. Suddenly, I realized that I was in hell. I was dead. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. I tried to stand up. I wanted to run away, but the man sitting next to me put his hand on my shoulder. "Sit down, my friend. You can never leave this place," he said. His voice was weak, like a child's. Then at the end of the table the tallest of the men stood up. I felt that he was able to control me; he seemed very strong, and he had such a terrible face. He pointed at me with his long, black finger. "You can leave now," he said in a frightening voice, "but you must promise to come back in three months' time." I shouted, "I promise to come back, but in God's name let me go now."The next thing I knew I was sitting up in bed and the doctor was there. Oh, please tell me, was it hell? Did I go to hell or was it just a terrible dream? I don't want to go back.'
I thought carefully, and then I said, 'Pat, I'm sure it was a dream, which you felt strongly because you were ill, but it is also a warning to you. Only bad people go to hell. If you live a good life from now, if you stop drinking and stealing and come to church, you will not go back down there.'
When I left he was looking much happier. A few days later, I visited the house again and found him much better. He was mending the floor at the bottom of the first stairs. 'This was where I went through. I just want to be safe,' he explained.
For several weeks Pat Connell was a different man. He stopped drinking and stealing, he worked hard to look after his family, and he came to church every Sunday. One day I met him in the street, coming home from work. We spoke a few words and when I left him he looked happy and well. But a few days later, he was dead.
I went to see his wife and she told me what happened. 'Pat was doing so well. I was proud of the way he stopped drinking, but one night he met an old friend, just returned from the army. He was so pleased to see him that, without thinking, he went into the pub with this friend. Well, of course, they started drinking, and one beer followed another. His friends had to carry him home and we all put him in his bed. I stayed down here by the fire. I was feeling sad, thinking about all our problems. I think I fell asleep for a few minutes.'When I woke up, I saw two people, one of them my husband, Pat, going silently out of the room. I called to him, "Pat, where are you going?" but he didn't answer me. The door closed. Then I heard a terrible crash from above. I ran up the first stairs and there was Pat. He was dead — his back was broken. I think he was coming down from the bedroom when he fell at the bottom of the first stairs, you know, the place he was mending when you came to visit.'
I remembered the place well. The place which, in Pat's dream, was the entrance to hell. The place where he knew he had to go back.