I’m a lover of the short story form,which is harder to pull off successfully than is generally acknowledged. So many writers of short-stories,and that includes acclaimed novelists,simply leave things up in the air at the end. It’s as if by saying nothing they think they’ve got away without having to conclude their characters’ story,letting the reader fill-in the gaps. That’s lazy – you don’t want to over-describe the action,but nor should you leave the reader thinking “what the hell was that all about – what was the point ? “ And worse,”why did I read that ?”
The inspiration for ‘Due–Date‘ was the notion that what would you do if you knew the exact date you were going to die ? It would make a major difference to how we lived. It could be as much of a reassurance as it would be terrifying. And that would be for those personally affected,so I began to wonder how knowing people’s dates of death would affect an observer,when they had no clue at all. That would be really unsettling.
Some of the incidents in ‘Due-Date’ come from personal experience. Samuel’s near death experience was mine,at the age of eleven when I bled-out in hospital following botched dental surgery. The figure of the great-grandfather is based on my own. I worked as a librarian for about six years,stamping the due-date on many a date label back in those pre-computer days of the early seventies.
Dedicated to those who really decide our fate.
“The great Western Disease lies in the phrase ‘ I will be happy when’…”
Samuel watched the electric train glide smoothly to a halt,the doors hissing open,allowing frowning commuters to leave and more to join the carriage. It was a pleasant day,the platform bright with low Spring sunshine. Red tulips swayed in the breeze. A few dusty pigeons pecked listlessly at the fine silty grit under a bench. Should he join the train ? It descended underground after a few more stations. It looked quite safe,though Samuel wasn’t so hot at predicting the due-dates of large vehicles.
He hadn’t noticed any imminent departures among the passengers waiting for the train to arrive,but he’d been trying to concentrate on other things. Reducing the amount of information that was projected onto his conscious was becoming a skill he’d never imagined he would have to acquire. Most people wrestled with trying to recall things,and were poor at remembering what they’d just seen,even though if asked they would have claimed that they were blessed with good memories and keen observation skills. Samuel could just cope if he tuned the non-stop feed of due-dates into background static,so he could observe one optimistic sight at a time.
Traversing his eyes to detect pleasing objects,and focussing on one specific portion of civilisation needed intense concentration,though he’d learned how to cloak this. When he first returned and realised his new power,it was all that he could do not to stare at beautiful things without pause,which made him look insane,like he was about to attack whatever had captured his attention. Bystanders gave him lots of space,and officials felt compelled to interrogate him,seeing him as a potential vandal.
Being awake was marginally easier than watching the doom-filled cinema-show which illuminated his sleep. It was much trickier to project attractive and amusing images onto his mind’s eye when there was a ceaseless film of the famous,the celebrated and simply ordinary citizens all with their due-dates as sub-titles passing frame-by-frame. Samuel tried sensory distractions,such as music played through head-phones and strongly-scented joss-sticks,but the awful nocturnal transmission was too mesmerising to ignore. He woke feeling more exhausted than when he’d gone inside his eyelids. Who were all of these night-wraiths ? Some were recognisable,well-known historical faces,and even a few people Samuel met in his own life,but he suspected that many of them were beaming in from a future he wasn’t looking forward to.
It was gruelling enough to know the exact due-dates and closing thoughts of those who’d died years ago,and a constant torture to know the fates of his contemporaries,but to be further wracked by predictive seeing would be intolerable. There was no way of turning it all off though – he’d tried,with frustrating and inexplicable consequences. Meditation cleared his viewer for thicker droves of visions to fly in formation. Sedatives or alcohol muddled what he was seeing as he slept,but reduced the limited amount of control he used to switch channels. Did he have a due-date any more? There was no way of knowing what his current status was. He had a damned good idea what his final thought would be though : -“ At last ! “
He might as well jump into the carriage. The station-master was edging closer,given him suspicious glares. Samuel tried not to look too closely at the corpulent,florid-faced railway manager,but a side-glance at knee-level showed a faint silver due-date that was twenty years hence,which rather surprised him as the man looked unhealthy enough to drop dead soon.
Samuel wasn’t that keen on being confined in rattling trains. There was little that was edifying to concentrate on,though the advertising posters could be colourful. Passengers carried accoutrements – messenger-bags,handbags,electrical devices that were interesting,though he’d found that it was unwise to linger too long on any one thing as it made people nervous,thinking that he was about to mug them.
One of the biggest problems created by his withdrawn demeanour,by the faint ambience that he radiated,was that it attracted rather than repelled strangers. They weren’t that keen on him if his bright eyes burnt too tightly on something that they were holding,but as soon as he averted his gaze he could feel their eyes examining him. Often they moved closer to him,like tourists daring themselves to approach a dangerous beast they’d encountered.
They never got too near,and once when he was trapped by a surge of passengers into a lift he’d been amused to see that there was an empty arc of space around his position in the corner,a force-field two feet wide that none could cross. If he’d been of a more sensitive disposition he might have thought that he was emitting a repellent body odour,but he knew that other more ethereal factors were at play.
He found the whole thing funny which made him chuckle furtively,causing his fellow passengers to back further away crowding closely together in the opposite corner of the elevator-car. He understood their nervousness – who would want to stand near a weird man staring intently at the floor and laughing ? This made him snort loudly at the craziness of his life : all of the passengers got off at the next floor.
Samuel was torn between avoiding close contact and yearning for the touch of another human-being. Even sharing a glance told him more than he wanted to know about a person,so hugging someone to him while studiously looking away didn’t seem possible somehow – most would be offended,fond gazes being essential ice-breakers.
He pondered on the feasibility of approaching a blind woman,but doubted that he could stand the intimacy of the face searches they made. He’d watched blind lovers in the park running their fingers over facial contours to understand the appearance of their partner. Would such scrutiny,where they were ‘seeing’ him mean that he’d become aware of their due-date,even if he wasn’t looking directly at them ?
He knew that he could physically feel others fairly well,though there was a dullness to his touch,as if he were wearing boxing-gloves. As for others touching him,he felt like a block of hard rubber not human density at all. Several times people clumsily trod on his toes or jostled against him,and neither party had been aware of the exchange for a few seconds. He felt like part of the scenery to them,and his awareness was so muffled that he was practically petrified. He was there,but not there.
His extra sense of being able to predict when someone was going to die and what they would be thinking as they did,appeared to have stunted his awareness of how he was feeling in the here and now.
Samuel wasn’t a religious or superstitious man,and he’d never given much credence to scary stories about ghosts,vampires,werewolves and aliens. He knew that he wasn’t dead,but he didn’t feel undead either. He still sensed mental anguish and emotional turmoil,even if his skin was as sensitive as wood. Perhaps he was in a state of limbo,though what was supposed to happen next he couldn’t work out. But then who could ? Life was a mystery to most,it seemed. Purposeless and with no clear destination in mind. Nothing much had changed.
He could remember little of his previous existence,and guessed that he was about 50 years old. He’d been like this for two months and wasn’t ageing,so far as he could see – but could you see any alterations when you reached a certain state of decrepitude ? Two months was a drop in the ocean when you were 50. Strangely though,his stubble didn’t grow and nor did his nails.
He experienced vague flashbacks to what must have been his job as a librarian,classifying and shelving books,and stamping return dates on date-labels. Was that why was now lumbered with the power of being able to see when folk were going to be checking out ? And what about their last words,few of which were meaningful,let alone likely to become quotable. If you were well-known it was expected that you’d say something profound with your last breath,even amusing would do,but many people uttered such daft things that it was as if they didn’t comprehend they were dying.
Some asked for a cup of tea,while others optimistically announced they were feeling better,even as the life-force was leaving them. Those who died in an act-of-passion,rather than flat on their death-bed could also be delusional. Many people claimed that they’d be happy to die making-love,but the indignity of an orgasmic groan or worse,ecstatic oath,was not something to be remembered for – or to have carved on a grave-stone.
Young men often died soon after boasting “ look at this ! “,as they sped their car into a corner and straight into a tree. Declarations of love were frequently the last proclamation that people made,even if the loved one was absent.
Samuel wasn’t sure what he’d say,or what he said,though he hadn’t really died. He could recall a circle of medical faces looking down at him,doctors and nurses all with concerned expressions as they pounded on his chest. There was a coppery smell and taste,which must be that of blood. There were clear plastic-bags of plasma and blood hanging from a chrome stand next to his bed,from which snaked feed-pipes to needles in his arm.
Seconds later,his being,essence,spirit,whatever it was had risen above the hospital bed into the roof-space beneath the eaves. There was no golden tunnel of light,though he was emitting a shimmering glow which offered some illumination but no warmth. He was floating in the centre of what looked like a dandelion-clock,all spiky shards of light-filaments with him gazing through the glare.
He could navigate around the dark air beneath the roof-planks,which was quite fun,though he brought his aery transport to a halt when he saw two figures watching him from the gloom. They weren’t radiating any light or much energy either,and looked sad and tired though they cast patient expressions at him as they beckoned. One,he realised was his great-grandfather,a man he’d only met a few times as a little boy. He was a family-legend as he’d lived a devil-may-care life,travelling the seven-seas,marrying often,producing many children,fighting in wars and generally over-indulging in vices that were meant to be harmful – he lived until he was 104 ! Standing next to him,was the little girl who’d died in the bed next to his a couple of nights before. She’d been operated on,but unsuccessfully,and Samuel could see a fearsome wound across her throat. Her tiny hand was protectively hidden in the huge scarred fist of his notorious ancestor.
“ Go back,Samuel. It’s not your time yet. You’ve things to do.”,his great-grandfather boomed.
“ Yes,please go back. It’s so cold and lonely here. Go back to your nice warm bed and body “,
the girl cried,shooing Samuel away.
He looked below at himself. A nurse brought a crash-cart over to his bed,and a doctor was applying electric paddles to his chest. He gave a convulsive jerk as current was zapped into him. Peering back at his great grandfather and the girl he saw that they were fading away. He felt his buoyancy sucked into a vortex coring his torso.
So,he lived. Sort-of. But he left the hospital to a solitary existence, He didn’t have any family,none he could remember at least. His footsteps took him to a perfectly acceptable home,which he couldn’t recall buying,though he knew the layout of the rooms and there was plenty of food in the cupboards and refrigerator. He’d briefly worried about employment,as he was unaware of having any qualifications with which to earn a living. Checking his bank account showed that he was well-off,so he decided to simply get on with whatever fate not dying had given him. His needs were few. He owned a good wardrobe of clothing,but wore the same drab and forgettable garments all of the time. He felt little appetite,but made a habit of eating regularly. He couldn’t taste much,but his digestion and excretion systems functioned.
He’d first become aware of his new ability while watching television one evening. He kept the set on largely for company,and usually with the volume muted,just sitting in the flickering light from the screen and trying to remember anything before the accident. Whatever the accident had been. A veteran film-star who Samuel admired,was being interviewed,and he became puzzled by the numbers that floated over the actor and interviewer.
They could be dates,but why have them as captions ? He turned the sound up,to hear the actor laugh “ It’s been a wonderful life,but I wish I’d slept with a few more of my co-stars “,which brought a roar of laughter from the audience and a chuckle from the interviewer.
The star was renowned as a seducer of women,so his disingenuous regret was amusing. The date that hovered mysteriously over his body was two days away – perhaps his new film was out then ? The interviewer’s numbers were for twenty years time,so maybe they meant nothing. It could simply be some glitch on the broadcast,running times,film-speed or something. They’d subtitled the actor’s funny regret though,and the words ‘natural causes’ were written underneath,for some inexplicable reason.
Samuel became virtually catatonic by day,sitting slumped on the sofa recovering from restless nights in which his dreams were causing him insomnia for the first time ever. The inhabitants of these nightmares also appeared with numbers or dates ghosting over them,and the odd remark or saying scrolled across the screen of his mind. Perhaps he was hallucinating all of the time. Should he go to the doctors for medication to control these visions ? He’d sound like he was going bonkers if he tried to explain what he was seeing. What made them commit you in this day and age ?
A news-flash caught Samuel’s attention.. His favourite actor’s face was on the TV screen with the year he was born and died as a caption. The dates were definitely there this time. Samuel realised that today was the date that he’d seen as a faint image two days before. Raising the volume,he watched an extract of the final interview with the old cove,and his chagrin about not being even more promiscuous were given as his final words. His body was found by his cleaner that morning. He’d died in the early hours,in bed and of natural causes.
Samuel was flabbergasted. Perhaps he’d got second-sight,could predict things – he should have a go at doing the lottery !
He found that if he concentrated on objects,the television,the kettle and cars parked in the street he could sometimes discern dates in the corner of them. It only worked if he unfocused his vision and thought about how they functioned. They had to move in a mechanical or electrical way,not just sit there doing nothing,like the sofa and table. He couldn’t see much point to this ability. It was a bit like a sell-by or use-by date,the sort that were printed on food packaging. Most things these days came with built-in obsolescence,so one expected them to give up their ghost sooner-or-later.
It could be useful were he to buy a used car,he supposed,but he wasn’t intending to do that. Just walking the pavement required concentration not to see things. He’d be in a collision straight away should he take to the wheel.
It felt a ghoulish thing to do,but he felt compelled to check that his vision of dates and last words really was some prescience he couldn’t understand. He made his way to the nearest hospital accident and emergency ward to be closer to people who were likely to be at death’s door. On his walk there Samuel paused at a cemetery to watch a funeral. Nothing could be gleaned from looking at the coffin as it passed into the earth,so it looked like his ability only worked on the living.
Gazing at the elderly mourners he noted that many of them would soon be joining the recently deceased,two of them the very next day. They must be a married couple,for her last words to him were: “ Look out for that bus ! “ And the cause of their removal from life was ‘blunt-force trauma’.
At the hospital he spoke to the receptionist,saying he was there to collect someone to drive them home. He didn’t want to arouse suspicion,for he wasn’t obviously injured. Many of the patients who sat around him were plainly in great pain and the air reeked of bodily fluids and fear. Broken bones and bloody bandages identified the wounds that some had sustained. None of these victims were in immediate danger of dying,at least if the dates that Samuel could see on their chests were reliable. It felt like a grotesque search but he scanned the ashen faces for anybody with a date closer to the here-and-now.
He was shocked when he found a middle-aged woman with today’s date floating over her jumper. She looked like she was nursing a broken arm and her face was bruised,a black-eye developing. A man Samuel guessed was her husband sat next to her,offering little comfort and looking annoyed to have to be there. They were ignoring one another,so Samuel had a good idea how the injuries were caused.
As he watched her,partly shielded by a newspaper he’d retrieved from a chair,she began to rub the upper part of her broken arm,which seemed like a strange thing to do. Her mouth sagged open as she slumped in the seat. The receptionist noticed her plight before her husband did,and immediately called for a gurney. Samuel knew that it was too late. She must have suffered a stroke,brought on by the stress and the head injury.
Her final words,revealed as a shadowy epitaph on the sheet draped over her body were : “ I did it falling down the stairs.”
Surprisingly,the husband looked distressed,though Samuel didn’t know if it was from his wife’s unexpected demise or fear of being identified as the cause of her passing. His own death was five years away,of cirrhosis of the liver,with his parting words being : “ Nurse,could you turn the pain-medication up ? “ Perhaps there was a God after all.
Samuel didn’t know whether to feel pleased or not at this apparent confirmation of his ability. It was a horrible thing to be able to foretell. Why couldn’t he have gained powers of divination about more pleasant things ? Such as how many children someone would have,or who they would marry ?
Still,he had almost died himself,so it almost made sense. But why could he do this ? What was the point – should he be writing these observations down somewhere,but for whom and why ? It all indicated that there was some divine power,which he really didn’t want to think about. It would mean that he was one of ‘the chosen’,in some way – wouldn’t it ? Did that mean that the little dead girl and his great grandfather were chosen too ? Were they angels ? They hadn’t looked angelic,just exhausted,worn-out and not alive. No wings or halos,just shabby clothes.
The woman’s death brought a pall of doom over the injured in A&E,as they were reminded of how mortal they were and what a lucky escape they’d just experienced. A few called out for attention enquiring how much longer they’d have to wait to be treated,so Samuel made his escape.
Walking home,he found it best not to look at other pedestrians if he could help it,and screwing his eyes up and blurring his vision gave the effect of making dates and words fuzzy too,which helped. He found it particularly upsetting to notice imminent due-dates on children. He knew that there was nothing he could do about such observations. If he approached a mother to say that her toddler was going to choke on a plastic soldier,she’d call for a policeman and have him arrested as a pervert.
He didn’t know that even should his warning be heeded if it could affect their destiny. Was he meant to warn people – surely not ? There were far too many due-dates to process as it was,and sorting through which ones were coming up would be impossible. And,anyway,if something was writ didn’t that make it inviolable ? We were all going to die. That was the only certainty of life.
He needed to think things through,so ducked into a quiet leafy park and sat down on an empty bench. He wasn’t used to having this much responsibility. So far as he could recall,his previous life had been as free of obligations as he could make it. He couldn’t find any evidence of family members,and his computer showed that he wasn’t dating and didn’t seem to have any close friends.
The only contacts in his online address book were for dealers in books and stamps. He liked order,that was evident,as the book-shelves at home were as neatly arranged as those at a library. His stamp-albums were models of precision,though Samuel couldn’t think why he’d ever wanted to make such a large collection. Perhaps that was how he’d accrued so much money in his bank accounts – perhaps he’d sold some valuable stamps at auction ?
He’d visited several of the nearest library branches to see if any staff recognised him,but he’d been as ignored as the tramps snoozing in the newspaper section. Still,he did have memories of stamping return dates on library book labels,so he must have worked somewhere.
“ Excuse me,mate. Have you got a light ? “ Looking up,he saw a couple of teenagers standing nearby. Just beyond them was a third lad,also wearing a jacket with the hood up and smoking a roll-up cigarette. He was looking around furtively for anyone approaching and was standing between Samuel and the park-gate. Returning his attention to the pair next to him, Samuel tried not to look at the numbers and words over their chests but to concentrate on their eyes.
“ I’m sorry,I don’t smoke,so don’t carry matches or a lighter. But your friend there is smoking – why don’t you ask him ? You are together,aren’t you ? “ The taller of the boys frowned,glaring over his shoulder at his friend smoking.“ Yeah well,it don’t matter. Can you give us a Pound for a cup of tea ? “
“ Again,you’re out of luck,I’m afraid. I came out without any money on me. I’ve just been to the hospital. “
“ What’s the matter with you ? You don’t look ill. You don’t have anything infectious,do you ?” The boy moved back a step when he said this,nudging his mate.“
No,but I have been feeling a little strange recently,so thought I’d go and check things out “ Samuel smiled as pleasantly as he could at the two,but they weren’t in a friendly mood and glared intensely back at him.
“ Christ,are you thick or something ? Just give us your wallet and watch. And your phone too. Come on,empty your pocket, granddad ! “ Samuel wasn’t surprised by this – it was obvious that the teenagers were muggers as soon as he saw them. But it was hard to be frightened of people who were going to be dead soon. And he didn’t think that they could hurt him,not really. And if they did,it might make these tiresome visions disappear.
“ Look,I know you don’t believe me,but I really don’t have any of the things you want. Something weird happened to me recently and I don’t care about or need any of that stuff. Look ….”
With that,he took his jacket off with a theatrical flourish,turning the pocket linings inside-out to demonstrate their emptiness. He did the same with his trouser pockets,and rolled his shirt-sleeves up to prove he wasn’t wearing a watch. He wasn’t even carrying a house-key,as he hadn’t locked the door.
“ You’re kidding,no one walks the streets with nothing on them.” The shorter of the pair sounded cheated in some way. “ Even the homeless have got belongings.” The boys looked at each other in confusion,trying to decide what to do. “ We’ll beat you up,if you don’t give us something.” The taller lad was waggling a fist.“ I don’t think that you can,but feel free to go ahead. “ Samuel leant forward,offering his arm and shoulder to them.
“ You fucking twat” the lanky mugger swore,and hit Samuel as hard as he could on the bicep. His mate was soon grinning as the blow made the would-be thief swear even more as he shook his damaged hand.” Bastard’s made of rock – look at him. Didn’t feel a thing,did he ? Just standing there still. I think I’ve broken some knuckles. “
“ The hospital is just down the road.” Samuel offered.“ You could have a cast put on. Though there’s not a lot of point. It won’t be long now. “ He’d notice the shorter mugger taking a knife out of his pocket,and the look-out was shuffling closer anticipating an attack he didn’t want to miss.“ What do you mean it won’t be long ? Won’t be long before what ?“
“ Before your deaths,of course. You both die tomorrow,and your friend standing there the day after that. You steal a car and get chased by the police. Your mate here tries to beat a train across a level-crossing,but you don’t make it. You’re all horribly crushed. Your mate lingers for twenty-four hours,but he wouldn’t want to live,not like that,with all of his lower extremities gone. You two have to be cut out of the mangled wreckage in bits. “ Samuel tried a comforting smile at the three muggers,who turned grey with repulsion and disbelief. At least the knife was being slid back into its pocket.
“ Is there anything else you’d like to know ? Your last words,for instance ? Not nice,by the way – swearing. Not the sort of thing you’d want your mums to hear. “ “ You’re a fucking mad bastard ! That’s what you are. What are yer ? Escaped from the nut-house,did’ja? That’s why you don’t have nothing. Come on lads,lets get out of here. “ Shrugging their shoulders in a show of bravado,the muggers adjusted their hoods and swaggered out of the park. One of them gesticulated at Samuel as he passed through the gate.
Well,that was a lot easier than he’d thought it would be. Not that he’d needed to lose his temper. Just talking calmly about exactly when someone was going to die terrified them,it appeared. Samuel chucked dryly,as he put his jacket back on. He hadn’t laughed for ages. Perhaps he should stay in the park and scare a few more criminals. He probably shouldn’t have told them their due-dates,but he was getting exasperated with their unreasoning persistence and nastiness. He didn’t think for one moment that he’d scared them into going straight. They’d write him off as a madman and ignore his predictions. They’d see a car with the ignition key left in it,and off they’d go – then off they’d go !
Samuel wasn’t sure that he liked being right. At least not this right, He hadn’t made them die,had he ? Was he living life backwards ? Could that be possible ? It would make as much sense as anything else that was happening to him recently. He could write a note to himself to find the next day,or the previous day,if this theory was correct.
Was anybody watching what he did – was there some cosmic monitor of his actions ? There was no one else in the small park,and looking through the railings Samuel couldn’t see anybody observing him from the street. He was turning paranoid,but as the expression went ‘ that didn’t mean that they weren’t out to get you’. Feeling foolish,he gazed skyward. Nothing but dirty clouds and a few ragged crows passing overhead. What had he expected ? A giant eye in the sky ?
Best get back home. He should eat something he supposed – his scheduled meal-time was coming up. He never felt hungry,didn’t relish what he ate and felt the same after he’d eaten as he had before. But he felt like it was his duty to stick to a regime. He hadn’t divined his purpose,but he believed in maintenance and keeping order,and anyway he needed some structure to hang the remnants of his life on.
Pushing the front door of his house open,Samuel noticed that the daily post had been delivered,and it was stacked neatly on the hall table – he didn’t remember doing that before he’d gone out – were there visitors waiting for him ? A burglar wouldn’t have been that tidy and courteous,surely ? Perhaps there were friends or relatives he couldn’t remember. Easing the door to the sitting-room open,Samuel squinted through the gap between the edge of the door and the door-post. Sitting on the sofa was his great-grandfather.
He appeared to be dozing,with his chin resting on his barrel chest. Samuel examined his ancestor carefully. He could hardly remember him from childhood – just a gruff voice and a huge scarred fist which he used to shake hands with Samuel testing the strength of his grip in a jokey way. Samuel was fascinated by the blue tattooed swallows on the old man’s hands,which he could make fly by flexing his thumb. The scars came from countless fights,and his nose was as bent and furrowed as a piece of old rope.
Samuel was impressed and scared of his great grandfather in equal measure. An ancient man who outlived his own son,Samuel’s father,and who still possessed a commanding presence. Samuel wasn’t able to make out much of the old man’s appearance in the dark of the hospital roof,but he now saw that the shabbiness he’d been aware of then was real. It looked like his great-grandfather had been wearing the same old suit for twenty years – it was grubby with dirt and stains,shiny with wear,stitching loose on the seams and buttons were missing or dangling loose. His black leather shoes were scuffed so badly that there was only a little of the black still showing and the soles were peeling at the welt..The blue swallows were faded dark blurs.
Quietly entering the room,Samuel was surprised when his great-grandfather immediately opened his eyes,watching him as he sat down in a chair.
“ Sorry,I didn’t mean to wake you. “
“That’s all right,boy,I wasn’t asleep. Oh,I see you’re grinning,thinking that’s what silly old people say even when they’re dead. No,I was just watching the due-dates inside my head. Looking for anybody interesting coming along.”
“ What are you doing here ? I didn’t expect to ever see you again,but then I hadn’t been planning on meeting you in the eaves of the hospital ward either. Tell me,am I dead,half-dead or what ? I keep seeing all of these dates and words on people. I’m fairly sure what they mean,but you said something about due-dates – is that really the day that people die ?
His great-grandfather chuckled,and pulled himself forward on the sofa,so that he was looking more directly at Samuel. He spread his huge hands,filth-encrusted palms upwards and wheezed :
“ Let me explain a few things. “
Suddenly nervous,Samuel shrank back in his chair. Did he really want to know what this grimy spectre was going to tell him ? He may be flesh-and-blood,but his seeming humour barely concealed an icy seriousness. He probably wasn’t that much flesh and blood any more either.
“ I’m dead. Fully dead,that is – and in need of a bloody good rest. I’ve been the Death Accessions Official for twenty-odd years. You’re on your way to being dead,but it’s going to take a while,I reckon – usually does. Have you lost feeling when you touch things and are you increasingly immune to pain ? That’s one of the first things that happens,along with generalised apathy about how you look,poor grooming and a disinterest in food. I expect that most of your memory’s shot too. You don’t need anything but the basic skills to do this job,and you don’t want thoughts of happier more interesting times intruding and making you feel even more wretched than you already do. You are unhappy,aren’t you ?
“ God,yes. I wish I was dead. How long does it take ? Why did you stop me dying – I was on my way out,wasn’t I ? “
His great-grandfather grimaced : “ Yes,that was down to me. I saw you shuffling off your mortal coil,as they say,and thought he’ll do – keep it in the family,as it were. You see you’ve got an aptitude for the job,having been a librarian for so long. You’re used to handling dates,keeping systems neat and their final words could be amusing to a literary man like yourself. I got the post of accessions official because I was good with numbers,sorting out the ship’s stores for long voyages and commanding men in tight situations. Admittedly you’re quietly-spoken,but that can work too.”
“ Yes,but what am I supposed to do ?”
“Why,ease the dead souls into their new state,store ’em away,saving the best bits for recycling. It’s mainly the essence of what made a person who they were,their character I’m talking about. We try to keep good honest souls going,let the nasty ones go to waste but there’s always a few make it back into the system – can’t be helped,they’ve got more determination than a lot of the nice ‘uns. Persistent little bleeders…“
“ What system,what are you talking about – do you mean Heaven and Hell,or Eternity,the Great Hereafter – what ? ! “ Robert was becoming irate and was leaning forward so that he was face-to-face with the old man.
“ Well,there’s no angels or demons,no God or Satan,not as I’ve seen anyway. Could do with some hell-fire really,as it’s all a bit cold and damp – gets into my bones,it does. It’s more of a big warehouse – you know,a storage depot where material for new souls is kept. It’s your job to keep your eyes out for likely donors – you’ll see when they’re going to die,so find out what you can about them,and if they seem decent hang about when they pass and escort their souls to the warehouse. You’ll soon get the hang of it,and sorting them out for storage is a breeze. “
“ But there’s millions of people die,thousands every day – how can one man do all that ?”
“You won’t be rushed off your feet. Not everybody gets through,of course – that would be impossible. It’s down to you to choose who to accept – souls who might come back in some form or other. And you’ve only got to take care of this neck of the woods – there must be other officials who handle elsewhere. I don’t know about that. It’s not that bad really. You can pace yourself – have busy days and easy days. Have fun with it – I have. “ His great-grandfather gave a mirthless fixed smile,exposing a few teeth as brown as weathered gravestones.
“ Are you telling me that I get to pick who’s reincarnated ? What happens to all of the others ? Do they just disappear ? Turn into ashes,worm-food,piles of bones ? What ?”
“ That’s about it. The Circle of Life,I think they call it,though a lot of folk would say it was just a Dead End ! Hah-hah,made meself laugh…..You shouldn’t look so serious,Samuel. It’s not like you’re being made into a god. You’re just a glorified clerk,who gets to sort out the usable spirits for safe-keeping. It’s not even up to you when they’re used again – they just sort of disappear,drift off,then reappear in someone else. Reincarnation I think is the proper name for it.”
“ But I still don’t get why they chose me to do this.”
“ There’s no they. I haven’t seen any other officials at all. Or higher-beings wafting about in cloaks,with beards and halos,or with horns and scaly tails,come to that. It’s just been me,and it’s blooming lonely,I can tell you. Not so much night-watchman as soul-watchman,that sums it up No,it was me and just me who chose you. I knew you’d be good at it. If you think about it Samuel,it isn’t royalty,politicians and the wealthy who run the world – it’s paper-shufflers,those who sort out the official records,who make people’s lives simply mundane but tolerable or wholly miserable and wretched. And why should things change when we die ?”
“ What’s going to happen to you now ? Seeing as how I’m going to be doing your job,do I get a say in what happens to you ? And what happened to that little girl ? She looked scared.”
His great-grandfather smiled sweetly. “ Yes,poor little mite,she was afraid. But then she went to sleep on the operating-table and woke up with some old wreck of a sea-dog holding her hand. I made sure her soul was safely stowed away in one of the more comfortable storage-bins. The world needs all of the innocent souls it can get. As for me,you don’t decide what happens. My soul is as dried-up as my body. I’ve turned to a block of India-rubber – feel that. “ He grabbed Samuel’s hand and tapped it on his leg,which was indeed the consistency of a volley-ball.
“ I am going to lie down somewhere,once I’ve settled you into the work involved. It might take a while for my body to break-down and disappear,but I reckon whatever’s left of my soul will blow away on the first breeze. You’ll do the job until you feel yourself getting worn-out,then it’ll be up to you to find a replacement. Have we got any descendants I’ve forgotten about,who might do – I haven’t kept up.”
“ I can’t remember myself any more,but I don’t think it’s very likely.“ “ Well,keep your eyes open in about twenty years for a well-organised office-type who’s one-foot-in-the-grave but doesn’t know it. You’ll know what’s needed by then,so I’m sure you’ll make a good choice”
Faced with something that he could never do anything to change,Samuel sighed and looked around the sitting-room. There was nothing he was going to miss about this house,but it sounded more comfortable than where he was going – which was where,exactly ?
“ I’ll show you.”His great-grandfather twinkled his eyes.
” Yes,I can read minds a bit too – comes with practice,watching people live and die. All part of predicting what people will think. We’re all pretty much the same – the same hopes and fears,and we die in similar ways too. We’re born alone and we die alone. Are you happy with what you’ve got on,because you’re going to be wearing it for a long time.” I was at a friend’s funeral when I snuffed it,if you can believe that – scared half the mourners to death too ! Anyway,that’s why I’m rigged-up like a showroom dummy. Wish I’d had my captain’s uniform or even my sou’wester on,rather than this get-up – I look like a country estate agent or auctioneer. Still,that’s safe and boring – you don’t want to be alarming souls that are looking for a new home.”
“ Will I do,then ?”,Samuel looked down at his fawn corduroy suit and desert-boots.“ Yes,you’ll do,lad. You look just like a librarian -and who would be scared of that ? You might want to slip that raincoat on that I saw hanging-up in the hall. It can get a bit nippy where you’re going.”
With that,the two family members left the house. Samuel pulled the door to,slamming it shut. Who knew how long it would be before anyone checked why he wasn’t coming and going any more. He hadn’t spoken to any of his neighbours in the last two months,and couldn’t remember them anyway.
What did it matter ? It was over for him. He’d always liked helping people,as long as it was in a defined way,for a short period of time. And what could be more limited and controllable than interactions that involved observing people at a distance,appraising their qualities,processing them as they entered his collection,then storing them safely away ?
It was much like being a librarian or stamp-collector, Reinvigorated by this realisation, Samuel looked around to see if there were any pedestrians nearby that he could give the once-over. He suddenly realised that he hadn’t brought anything to read with him. He’d have to guard against choosing people who had interesting final words on them.
Seeing that his great-grandfather was walking away,Samuel hurried to catch up with him. He was going to enjoy his new job.