Hounslow of the Dead
Death made little initial immediate impact on Rachel. She remained in the family home. She even continued to work.
However, gradual changes were afoot. In the evenings, she, along with several other candidates, attended Orientation Classes. The Instructor prepared them for the challenges that lay ahead, for the transition into the realm of eternal dreams.
“Has mummy gone, daddy?”
“Is she… dead?”
She’d said as much in the e-mail. Her last words, her last typed words were: “I’m still here Michael, in the front room.”
But he couldn’t reach her now, she was beyond the veil; a couple of council brickies had been in all yesterday, and blocked up the connecting door.
Death had come suddenly for her, well before the brickies, crashing in while she was on the computer.
“I’m Bob, he’s Dave, destroying angels.”
Previously Bob and Dave from the council, she recalled. Still in the same overalls, but now with added wings scribbled onto their backs in biro.
“No drama, it’s just a formality. Dead is dead.”
“I’m not dead.”
“Says here you’re dead,” said Bob, waving a clipboard under her nose.
I can’t be, I’m halfway through writing a proposal.”
“Last minute decision. Rushed it through. We’re snowed under you see. You can work to the end of the week, but your death certificate will be backdated. It’s not that you’re indispensable, it just we don’t want to leave it all messy.”
She’d sat with Bob and Dave as the brickies did their work, and they all watched as the locksmith changed the locks to the exterior door.
Once they’d gone, she’d e-mailed Michael.
It was the only way she could communicate.
“They’ve chosen me Michael.”
“I am so sorry.”
He wasn’t good with words, and he was useless at typing. She filled the gaps, the virtual silences, by telling him the latest.
“A man picked me up in a Renault Megane, like the one in the adverts. Nice car.
Took me to Orientation classes. You know, for the dead. The local ones anyway. You’d know some of them.”
She ran out of words.
Michael replied: “I’m so sorry.”
She sent: “I love you.”
And so on. One cannot type in a wavering voice, the screen does not bite back its tears.
It’s all in the words, and they eluded them both.
And then they pulled the connection.
But on day two it was a hubcap-free Ford Orion that dumped her at the Larchwood Community Centre, where Bob and Dave (destroying angels) ushered her through the double doors with the rattling spider webs of shattered reinforced glass, evidence of some Saturday night fracas.
In the bare hall stood a sad little ring of plastic chairs, half filled by the same faces as yesterday: local residents, most known to Rachel.
Yesterday had been happy-clappy: the Instigator – “call me Stig” - in his oversize home knit sweater had waved his sleeves about and got them to their feet:
“Now, some of you are new, so let’s all go round and introduce ourselves.”
And round they went.
Rachel had still been in a state of shock; she let it all roll over her. She’d shown no emotion when they ran out of t-shirts for her. The others were wearing theirs proudly. Cheap Sunday market affairs they were, sort of grey-white. Ready soiled, Rachel mused. Across the front in simple black letters they said:
“I Am Dead!”
They found her a badge instead.
But on day two, Rachel was ready to kick off.
First she had to shake off Mrs Carson.
Mrs Carson, from number 22, had spotted Rachel as soon as she entered the Hall.
“Ooh ooh, Rachel!” she cawed, waving a pudgy little arm at her.
“Ooh ooh, there’s a place here.”
Rachel resigned herself to her plastic seat.
First you’re dead.
Then you get stuck with Mrs Carson. Rachel considered the prospect of spending her death with the wittering old bat. There’s a Greek myth about it, surely, she thought. I'd sooner have my liver ripped out.
“So they got you too then?”
Rachel declined to answer. Mrs Carson didn’t bother to wait:
“Ooh, they walked right in yesterday, not so much as a by your leave. They made my Reg go and wait in the shed while they banged some plasterboard up over the front door, then put some more up in the hallway so I couldn’t get out. They said I’d never see him again.
‘You are now officially dead, Mrs Carson,’ said the man, ‘please act accordingly until we ship you out.’
Poor old Reg. He put a brave face on it though, smiling through the shed window.”
I bet he bloody did, thought Rachel. I bet he’s down the George and Dragon right now, getting the drinks in.
The instructor came in; Rachel jumped up and stopped him at the door. He was tall but so was she. Their noses were nearly touching.
“I am not dead.”
“Says here you are.” He waved a clipboard in her face. Rachel batted it away and stepped closer, so their noses were touching.
“I am as dead as you are. Are you dead?”
“So why are you here?”
“Then I want to facilitate.”
“Only angels get to facilitate.”
“What makes you an angel?”
I am wearing angel’s overalls. You, my dear, are wearing an “I am Dead!” badge. Let that be an end to it.”
Rachel wasn’t done: “What about my family?”
“What about them? Alive and well last time I looked at the list.”
“Can I see them?”
“If they happen to stroll past the window you can.”
Rachel bit her lip. “No, I mean, can I see them, to talk to, one last time?”
“Come back from the dead, you mean? Never heard of such a thing. Don’t be silly.”
“But I’m not dead!”
“Badge says you are.”
“I am not dead!”
“Badge says you are. Forms say you are. Instigator says you are. I say you are.
Dead dead dead. You might do well to get your head round it dearie. Life would be much easier.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, life would… ah, yes.” The instructor laughed.
No-one else laughed. The instructor pulled himself together:
“Sit down Mrs Browne. The decision is final. The move will be final. There is no returning, there is no coming back from the dead. If we got all wishy-washy about it, if we went ‘oh, alright off you go then,’ it wouldn’t be called death now would it. There’d be no finality to it.
It’s a designation, a category, so called because, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, that is what you are.
Gone. To never return.
Beyond the veil.
Crossed to the other side. So we can all save on what you don’t use.”
“Kill the poor!”
It was the professor kicking off. The professor (had) lived in a glorified shed at the bottom of the cul-de-sac adjacent to Ashley Drive. Rachel recalled that its door had bits of hardboard banged over the holes and missing panels, and its broken windows were stuffed with old curtains. A hand painted sign nailed to the porch declared it to be “The Cottage.”
The professor (for that’s what he was; professor of Anthropology no less) was as run-down as his abode, his thinning hair was in need of a trim, his glasses were held together with tape, and his ill-fitting jacket was patched up with other cannibalised coats.
He was known as a quiet man. Reclusive even.
But now he was letting rip.
“Kill the poor!
Kill the queers!
Kill the drug addicts!
The asylum seekers!
Take them away and put them in camps. Not us. Not me. Make some sense of this.
“Now now,” said the instructor, “that’s not very nice. That’s not how we do things.” But the professor was all red-faced and indignant, and there were supportive shufflings of feet from the also-dead.
“I’ll handle this,” said Stig, appearing at the door. He took out his pen with the torch on one end and shone it up his face from under his chin, speaking in a wailing ghosty voice: “Death does not care! The grim Reaper comes for his harvest at all and any times. No-one gets to choose! Wooooooo!”
“Wanker” sneered Rachel. But the shuffling slowed and stopped, and the professor fell back in his chair and said no more.
In the following days, to assuage the guilt of a society looking the other way, the instructors taught them how to tie knots and how to make fire from rubbing sticks together.
Actually, the latter had been theory only; the sticks coughed up nary a spark before they snapped into pieces too small to hold.
“You get the idea,” Stig had said, swiftly moving on to descriptions of edible weeds.
They got the idea: they were out of the loop.
No food from outside.
Nothing from outside.
They were dead to the world
Day Ten. They were off.
The dirty-white minibus chugged and shook, coughing out little puffs of blue smoke from its back end.
“Next stop, the realm of eternal dreams!” chirped Dave the angel, and they all climbed on.
One hour’s silent journey in, - the anger and resentment having given way to thoughts of what it could hold for them, being dead, and all that - the driver ( who, for some reason, had introduced himself as the Boatman) turned to Dave and Stig and said,
“Can you smell burning?”
And then they could all smell it.
And to bang it home, the engine coughed out a wisp of black smoke from under the bonnet.
“I’m pulling over,” said the boatman.
“But we’re nearly there,” said Eric.
Nearly bollocks. I ain't taking no chances,” and Boaty swung the bus into the hard shoulder.
Meanwhile, back in Ashley Drive…
“Where’s mummy now, Daddy? Is she in Heaven?”
“Yes, son. Mummy’s in heaven, with all the beautiful angels. She’ll be having a lovely time, and she’ll be waiting for us.
Don’t you worry. Mummy’s in heaven.”
They newly dead sprawled where they’d clambered out, along the hard shoulder and up the grass verge. Rachel leaned against one of the wheels. Bob and Dave had their heads wedged under the bonnet. Boaty looked on, chainsmoking roll-ups.
Just yards away a road sign poked up from a scruffy smog-blackened bush.
A large piece of brown cardboard had been sellotaped over it, and it bore the biro-scribbled words:
“Relm of iternle dremes.”
Not only was it misspelled, but the anonymous signwriter had lacked any design skills and foresight, and where the letters had started off big and bold, they shrank and crowded into each other near the end, and headed off to the edge in a downward curve.
The inquisitive professor got himself upright and wandered over to the sign. They watched lazily as he tugged at a corner of the cardboard. It peeled back a few inches, revealing a letter “H”.
“H…for Heaven!” squealed Mrs Carson.
“H is for Hell,” drawled Rachel.
The professor tugged harder, the sellotape gave out and the cardboard fell away, and they all read:
Two hours later they reached their destination.
A malaise hung over the town.
All the Hounslovians had been cleared out to make room for the coming dead. Abandoned blankets, knives and forks and slung away useless bits and bobs trailed out of still-open front doors to where family cars had once waited, before leaving tyre-black signatures of their hurried departure towards the A129.
In their stead, small, loose-knit gatherings moped round the streets and houses, rooting about distractedly among the belongings of the previous (living) occupants.
Rachel had expected riots.
They soon found that they could wander as far as the corrugated iron fence, which snaked through suburbs, wobbled over surrounding hills but stopped short of giving anyone a real sense of space and freedom; an hour’s wandering would take one past the same miserable faces.
There was still petrol in the cars. Generators held power. There was food in the shops. They could all pretend for a month at least, before those knot-tying skills would be called upon.
And as these resources ran out, there were some that resorted to the savagery one sees in those terrible “survivor” films.
But there were many more who just sat down and cried.
And some curled up and died a proper death.
And some, however…
One year later…
“Did little Tommy see a scary thing?
“Tell the nice man, Tommy.”
“I think I saw my mummy.”
It was true.
There were ghosts. An infestation, the free papers called it.
And where there were ghosts, there were ghost-catchers.
And one phone call away were the ghost killers (Bob and Dave, at your service), for the lairy ghosts that wouldn’t come quietly. Some of these ghosts were tooled-up. Some were heavily armed.
But most were just tearful and desperate, and they got rounded up quick enough, found looking through windows at their loved ones.
They were led by the hand to the minibus and returned to their Hounslow of iternle dremes.