Of course, when I woke up I was dead. It was easy to tell, with the whole body temperature thing. I didn't think too much of it at the time, though. You know how it is.
So I went to work, as usual. It was much like any other day, except that I got tired of hearing people say, "You look like death." I even ran out of smart answers. There's only so many times you can say "Well, there's a reason for that..." without the words jarring in your own ears.
When things got a bit quieter I sneaked into the gents to take a look at myself in the mirror. I could see why everyone kept commenting. My lips had looked a bit blue when I had got up, but my whole face now looked positively cyanotic. I hoped I wasn't beginning to smell yet. I had a surreptitious sniff under my armpits, but all I could detect was stale sweat and cheap deodorant, which I supposed was acceptable. Still, when my body odour was bad I tended to be the last person to notice, so maybe I wasn't the best judge of it.
Late morning, my boss called me into his office for a chat. "Is there something wrong, Dave?" he asked.
"I'm dead," I told him.
"Ah. I knew it was something."
I thought he was going to sack me, or at least tell me to go home until it had passed. I had assumed that there's not much call for corpses in the workplace, even in marketing, but it turned out the company likes dead employees: they don't need to match our pension contributions, there's little chance of us making a claim on the health plan and there are some fairly impressive tax incentives. Also we're pretty likely to decompose completely before there's any need to make us redundant. Apparently we're even better than contract staff. My position had never been so secure.
I tried to pass some time before lunch flirting with one of the finance temps. "What kind of pervert do you think I am?" she asked, after I made only the most proper of improper suggestions. I realised then that this would pose a new complication in my life. I wondered what it would be like dating necrophiles. I had never met one and had only what were probably quite unflattering stereotypes in my head - kind of like goths, only worse. Maybe, I thought, there's some kind of dating agency for them.
I had to leave work early, begging off sick. I had started to seize up. I noticed it first in my jaw - I kept mumbling, unable to pronounce my words properly. I tired easing my jaw open, to see if I could loosen it up, but I was just rewarded with a loud, distressing crack.
The underground journey home wasn't too bad, at least. Everyone wanted to give me lots of room to myself, which was a help. I think my skin was mostly purple by this stage, which must have given the game away. I didn't bother trying to sit down as I wasn't sure with the growing stiffness in my joints that I'd be able to stand up again.
By the time I got home it was getting really awkward. Luckily I didn't seem to feel much in the way of pain any more, but the stiffness was still distressing. I decided to go to bed and wait it out.
Well, I bet you can guess. The next morning I woke up with a full-blown case of rigor mortis. It was really miserable. I could barely move. It reminded me of one time when I was a child and I'd had an accident falling off a roundabout and had pulled a muscle in my leg. I had lain in bed for hours wanting to go for a pee, but unable to move my leg enough to get up. At least this time I didn't need to pee. One of the advantages of death - urination becomes less of a priority.
The day went pretty slowly. It was Saturday, so I didn't have to worry about phoning in sick, which was something. I felt guilty enough about spending the day in bed without worrying about not having called in. Eventually my joints started to feel a bit looser and I found that through sheer effort of will I could get out of bed and hobble around a bit, so I went downstairs and watched Blind Date, which mostly distracted me from my situation. All of the contestants looked like they were alive, but I started having doubts about Cilla Black.
Sunday was pretty dull. I thought I'd better go to see my doctor, but the surgery wouldn't be open until Monday. I decided against the idea of going to the Accident and Emergency department at the local hospital as they were busy enough trying to sort out the living without dead folks wasting their time.
I made the mistake of having a bath. The bath itself was all right, but it meant I ended up standing naked in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom afterwards. I wasn't a pretty sight. Luckily the weather was pretty cold, being January, and I thought it was unlikely I'd get wormy too quickly. Despite that I was beginning to look pretty disgusting. My skin had gone from pale and bluish to red and a bit green. I decided I looked like a sunburned cabbage. My eyes looked like they had developed the worst case of cataracts I had ever seen. I hoped my eyesight would hold up. Being dead was bad enough, but it would be intolerable if I weren't able to watch television.
Speaking of television, by some wonderful coincidence Channel 4 were showed a documentary that evening about a small group of dead people and how their deaths had changed their lives. While the slant of the documentary was vaguely ironic, and you could tell the film-maker really wanted to make fun of these people, their stories still filled me with some degree of warmth and hope.
Celia was a housewife. Her death had brought her family closer together. After the initial shock, they realised that even dead she was still the same person they had always loved. Everything went fine for the first couple of months, but then her husband ran off with a living woman. To be fair, having seen the pictures of her at the time I can see his point. She was very bloated and discoloured and her hair was beginning to come away in clumps. God only knows what she smelled like - although she said that she had found that a leading brand of women's body spray kept the worst of the smell of decomposition at bay. Maybe men can get away with lots of Old Spice. Anyway, even after her husband's departure the rest of her family gave her lots of love and support and said they would carry on doing so until she was skeletal. "Even those last days will have their advantages," Celia said cheerfully, "In that I'll have the figure I've always wanted".
Eddie didn't have the same kind of support. He was a bachelor, like me, and had worked as an air steward. His employers (who the programme makers declined to name - unfairly so, in my opinion) decided that Eddie's death made him an inappropriate choice for dealing directly with customers. He had been offered a desk job, but had discovered how much he missed the human contact his job had brought him. His solution was to go self-employed, working as a touring exhibit in medical schools. He would lecture classes in the process of decomposition, showing slides of himself as he had been and illustrating how his condition had progressed. He would then allow the students to examine him, stopping short of a full dissection. It may not be demanding work, but, as he said wryly, it's a living.
My doctor wasn't too impressed that I had made an emergency appointment to see him. The soonest I could get to see him otherwise was Thursday, and although I knew better I couldn't shake the idea that I'd have bits dropping off by then.
"I don't know what you expect me to do," he said. "You're dead. Dead people don't need doctors - they need undertakers."
I nodded quietly. Many years of being an NHS patient have taught me that one needs to show the right degree of obeisance for the doctor not just to dismiss you out of hand. "I know," I said, "But with all the breakthroughs in modern medicine these days and the fantastic things you people can do, surely there's got to be some hope."
The doctor glared at me. "I know it's not a very politically correct attitude these days, but I believe that dead is dead. If you really want my opinion you should stop all this play-acting, pretending that you're still alive, and settle down into a nice, well-earned death."
"And there's nothing else you can do?"
After a brief scribble on his prescription pad, my doctor handed me a slip of paper. "This is for antidepressants," he said. "They're a new type - the reports are very good."
"Will they help?" I asked.
"Well, they certainly won't hurt."
It wasn't until I got home after seeing the doctor that it occurred to me that I'd had the central heating on all this time. I didn't want to think about how much that had sped up my decline. I looked at myself in the mirror and caught my first maggot. I suppose they could have come quicker - the English climate does have some advantages.
I just looked at the prescription the doctor had given me. A tub of ice cream was all the antidepressant I felt I needed, but since my death I had lost my appetite. I screwed the piece of paper up and threw it against the wall.
The doorbell went. I found two well-dressed young West Indian women on my doorstep. "Have you given any serious thought to the afterlife?" one of them asked.
"More than you know," I said quietly, closing the door in their faces. "More than you could ever know."
Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, my parents turned up. I'd forgotten they had arranged to come round for dinner. It was an irregular thing, but it gave them a chance to check how badly I'd been screwing up my life in their absence and how they could offer me guidance to sort everything out. It was my own fault really. In my parents' minds my functional age was halved by my not being married, which knocked me back to being a teenager in their eyes. At this rate it would be another ten years before I earned the key to the door all over again.
"Darling," my mother said, stopping on the doorstep, "You look terrible. Are you eating properly?"
"No mother," I said. "I'm dead. Dead people don't eat much."
My father glowered at me. "There's no need to be cheeky."
"Children are cheeky," I said. "I'm in my thirties now. I think I've moved on to sarcastic."
"This is terrible," my mother said. "How are you ever going to find a wife if you're dead?"
I looked around for my coat, desperate for an excuse to change the subject. "We're going to have to go out to eat, I'm afraid. I've been a bit distracted lately and I haven't got any food in. Any preferences? There's quite a good Indian that's just opened up the road."
My mother stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips. "Never mind that, let me look at you. Have you put on weight again?"
"No, mother. I think you'll find that's bloating. As you decompose you start to swell from the gasses and..."
"That's quite enough of that talk," my father said sharply. "Can't you see what you're doing to your mother?"
"Anyway," he continued, "It's all very well to complain about these ill-effects, but what are you doing about it?"
"I went to the doctor," I ventured.
"He prescribed me some antidepressants."
"Oh. So that's your plan, is it? You're going to stay dead, but at least you're going to be happy about it?"
"You're not being fair," I said. "There's not a lot I can do about being dead. The doctor was bugger-all use. He said there are no treatments for this kind of thing. What do you expect? No one just gets over being dead. Well, not for the last couple of thousand years, at least." I regretted the last bit as soon as I said it. My mother has a random but potentially extreme reaction to mild blasphemy - sometimes she thinks it's funny, sometimes it's one step short of sodomising the Pope. This time her face just froze.
"Well, if you're not going to do anything useful about it I suppose it's going to be down to me, as usual." My father walked over to the telephone and dialled the Talking Pages. "Yes," he said, "I need the number of a good funeral director."
Funerals are like weddings in a way: they're not really for the participants, more for the attendees. After about twenty minutes of mine I was anxious to get in the ground, away from the mourners. My parents had insisted on an open casket, and I had to put up with an endless stream of relatives who had never been bothered about me in life leaning over me and crying.
"It's OK, really," I said to the first few, but their faces just hardened and they moved on. I suppose it was some kind of breach of etiquette for the corpse to offer his sympathies.
There had been no arguing with my parents. If they were never going to see me married at the very least they were going to see me sent off with a good, Christian funeral service. I had tried to press for a simple, non-denominational cremation, but they were worried about what the relatives would think. Anyway, it turns out my father had invested in a small plot in one of the better graveyards in town for mother and himself, but under the circumstances he decided it would probably be of more use to me. I was touched. Really.
The service itself went on and on. A priest I had never met before told everyone what a good, kind person I had been in life. I thought about getting up and correcting him on a few details, but figured I had upset everyone enough already. There were a few hymns that were noisy and badly sung enough to make sure I couldn't even nod off and then I was driven to the graveyard. At least by this stage they had closed the coffin, so I had some peace and quiet.
With the muffling effect of the coffin lid I missed most of the graveside service and prayers, but I wasn't too worried about that. There was a bit of a lurch as the coffin was lowered into the grave. It made me think of the first movements of a carriage as it starts out on a rollercoaster; what kind of ride was this going to be?
After the noise of the first handfuls of earth being thrown down on me, and the later cacophony of the grave being filled in for real, everything became very quiet. At least my parents had splashed out on an expensive coffin. The padding was nice and comfortable and there was a good, soft pillow for my head. Now all I had to do was wait in darkness and silence.
In time my body would liquefy. Fly eggs already laid on my skin would hatch soon, releasing the maggots that would be my companions in these last days. Worms and beetles would find me and speed up the process. I had no idea how long it would all take, but I had nothing better to do than wait it out. I hoped it wouldn't get too boring.
Maybe, I thought, I should have put my foot down and insisted on cremation. It was my funeral, after all. You only die once.
Still, not long to wait for the maggots now.
(c) 1998 XoYo
Back to index