From out of nowhere a surge of disgust radiated through Alfie that was so powerful he felt as if he were lit up. He was fantasising about the vegetables of a woman he barely knew. What on earth was wrong with him?
He was dead of course. Right, he knew that. But surely being a ghost had its advantages? He could haunt someone like Marley’s ghost in “A Christmas Carol” or perhaps he could secretly direct someone to do something wonderful with his or her life so they could avoid being as unhappy and lonely as he had been in his final days. He could always do some butt slapping.
A small smile curled on his lips. Just as he was wondering who he could slap, a low moan came from the bottom of the stairs. Alfie listened carefully, his head cocked attentively. The only sound he could hear was the old kitchen clock but yet the moan was unmistakeable. There could be no one else in the house. The front door was locked as were all the ground floor windows. He had not been the kind of man to take security risks.
The kitchen clock read 11:05 am. By his reckoning, he had been dead for nearly an hour.
Back in his knock kneed youth, he and his friends had been fascinated by dead bodies. Ghouls they were, Alfie thought with disgust. They had made it their mission to see a real dead body.
“I already saw a dead body,” said Mickey. Mickey had a pug nose that meant anyone could see straight up his nostrils. It was a highly unattractive trait and Alfie wondered how on earth the boy’s parents had fallen in love when they must have been looking up each others’ nostril every time they moved in for a kiss. He also had ears that stuck straight out.
“Awww, your ma doesn’t count,” teased Steven. Steven’s nose was long and straight, elegant even, most certainly a genetic gift from his father who was part Indian. Alfie’s own nose was unremarkable, sensitive enough to distinguish between fresh and sour milk, a delight to pick when he thought no one was looking and free of freckles in the wintertime.
“Leave my mother out of it,” Mickey had growled in warning.
“What I want to know,” said Alfie, “Is what does it feel like to be dead?”
“It feels like nothing, you eejit,” Mickey said, rolling his eyes and tossing his head back just enough to give them a full glance up his nostrils.
“And how would you know?” Steven had asked. He was the kind of person who always knew what to say in a crisis. Alfie liked him for this reason. He had a good come back for any teacher or shopkeeper who thought they could mess with him. Although he had no idea what he was like with his parents.
“Because, wise ass, dead people don’t move around.” As if to make a point, Mickey picked at a scab on his elbow, making it bleed. He wet a finger and patted it over the wound, rubbing the blood away.
“I heard hair and nails grow after you’re dead!” Alfie had interjected. “And I heard some people are still alive when they’re buried!” He had felt proud of himself for contributing something useful to the conversation.
“You read too many comics,” Mickey scoffed. He was still tending to his elbow.
“What makes you so sure about dead bodies?” asked Steven, who was watching Mickey with disgust.
“I seen one at a funeral. My uncle Ralph died suddenly of a heart attack and he had an open casket.”
Alfie had heard of such things back then. He didn’t like the sound of it. Imagine having to lie down in your Sunday best with everyone gawping at you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The three lads thought about this in silence. Alfie had shuddered.
“Did he look like he did when he was alive?” It was the first time Steven had ever taken an interest in anything Mickey had said.
“Well I think he had a bit of make up on, you know, to give him some colour but I thought he looked better than when he was alive.”
Again the boys were silent. To Alfie, the thought of having make up put on you when you couldn’t defend yourself only added to the indignity of the whole thing.
“What else happened,” he had asked cautiously.
“There was some singing and the preacher said a few nice things about my uncle.” Mickey said this all so casually that he sounded like an expert. “Things I never knew about my uncle like he had been scouted for the minors when he was in high school, that he played the tenor sax too. Oh!” Mickey froze and his eyes opened a little wider.
“What?” Steven and Alfie had asked in unison.
“My uncle had an affair just after he got married and—“ Mickey paused to slap his own leg. “The daughter from the affair showed up!” He laughed at the memory of it and leaned on Steven as if for support.
Alfie desperately wanted to ask Mickey if the uncle had a turned up nose and if so, did the daughter also have one but Steven looked a little angry.
“That’s not funny,” Steven said. “I bet your family was upset.” He crunched down as if looking for something on the ground.
“They sure were. My ma and the girl’s ma had a huge ruckus right there in the funeral parlour! My ma would have decked her if my dad hadn’t stepped in and stopped it.” Mickey was smiling at the memory and Alfie didn’t want to hear any more of it. A family fight should stay in the family and not be broadcast to strangers.
Mickey was just taking another breath to add something to the story when a huge shadow cast over them. It might have been a total coincidence that the clouds had chosen to cover the sun right at that instant but to Alfie, looking back on it from a different perspective, it was called, in the author’s craft, “foreshadowing.” All three boys looked up and stood a little straighter.
“Well, well, well. . .what do we have here?” Ivan the Terrible had arrived. Of course no one had called him this to his face but everyone said it behind his back. It had never occurred to Alfie that Ivan may have been trying to live up to his moniker but with a new perspective, it all made sense: Ivan was terrible because everyone expected him to be so.
It all made Alfie wonder why on earth he didn’t change his name to something more innocuous. Like David. Or Joe. Pete. Sam, something less menacing than Ivan.
Ivan was smoking. He held the pinched end of an unfiltered cigarette in one hand and a can of cola in the other. It took a few minutes before the boys realised that not only was Ivan smoking but he was simultaneously chewing snuff. He spat in the can noisily.
Ivan smiled, showing the gnarled, yellowed teeth of a 40 year old, 2 pack a day for 30 years smoker. Ivan was 13 years old. “You guys look like you’re having some,” he paused as if looking for the right word and then emphasised it when he had it, “fun.”
“Ah yeah, well,” Mickey stammered, looking as if he had just been busted out looking up someone’s skirt.
“We were just talking about dead bodies,” Steven said evenly as if he wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated. Again, Alfie held him in the highest respect. He would have to remember to high five him as soon as Ivan’s back was turned.
“Ah,” Ivan said as if it were expected. The three boys looked at each other. He had said it like he expected them to say it and as if he knew something about.
Alfie’s curiosity was piqued. “Mickey here was saying he had seen a dead body at a funeral.” He hoped this might give Ivan the opportunity to show off what he knew. The three boys looked at Ivan expectantly. To their mutual dismay, he didn’t take the bait.
“I’ll leave you to it,” he said, shrugging. He took a final drag on his cigarette then threw it to the ground, grinding it into oblivion beneath his heel.
Back in his own kitchen, Alfie silently drummed his fingers again.
“Ivan sure was a strange old coot,” he said to no one in particular. He rubbed his face and absently wondered if he’d ever feel whiskers on his face again. It was one way of proving whether or not hair continues to grow after a person dies.
As he was thinking this, the moan came again. This time, it was slightly longer and slightly louder. Alfie was no longer in doubt of where it was coming from: it was coming from his own body.
Back in the school yard, Mickey had nudged Alfie. Go on, his look had said, stop him. Alfie had been too curious to stop himself. As if watching himself in a movie, Alfie had reached out and caught Ivan’s sleeve. To his complete horror, Ivan’s entire sleeve came off at the shoulder. For a moment, Alfie had stood there with Ivan the Terrible’s sleeve in one hand and his own balls in the other. In his mind, he had run over several scenarios:
To his surprise—or maybe horror—Ivan the terrible started to laugh, giving them all a clear view of his stained and now clearly cavity filled teeth. Again, the boys looked at each. This time with unmistaken uncertainty.
“We should run,” Mickey whispered.
“We should hide,” Alfie offered.
Steven was either too fascinated or terrified to say anything.
As it happened, they had all stood rooted to the spot. When Ivan finished laughing, he started coughing. He coughed long and hard and eventually spat out whatever he had been coughing on into the cola can. He wiped his brow of perspiration and looked at the three of the levelly.
“I’ve seen a dead body,” Ivan shrugged his sleeveless shoulder as if it weren’t a very big deal at all. “My grandfather,” Ivan paused movingly, crossed himself, then took a deep breath, “My grandfather had a massive heart attack right in front of me. He was gone before he hit the floor.” Ivan shook his head sadly, the terribleness completely absent. He sat down on the dirt and propped his elbow on one knee. The others took it as an invitation to join him.
“Oh Ivan, man, that’s terrible!” Alfie wanted to punch himself in the face. He caught Steven’s eye and pleaded for rescue.
“Condolences, man,” Steven said to Ivan, giving him a manly slap on the shoulder. “That’s awful,” Steven glanced at Alfie pointedly.
“I called for my mam but she was out,” Ivan shook his head slowly. “So I sat with my grandfather until someone else got back. I had been sure he was dead—he wasn’t breathing. I had a mirror, you know?” He looked at the boys to check for understanding but they were too stunned to acknowledge they got it. “I had put the mirror in front of his face to see if it fogged up?”
“Whoa. . .” said Mickey in admiration.
“And?” Steven prompted.
“Nothing for like an hour.”
“You were left on your own for an hour?” Alfie had asked stupidly. Then he remembered the grandfather was probably looking after him. Fortunately no one paid him any mind.
“I watched him like a hawk. He looked like he was asleep but there was more to it than that: it was like some of the stuffing had been taking out of him.”
“Like his soul or something,” Steven said excitedly.
“Yes!” Ivan returned Steven’s manly slap on the shoulder. “His soul had gone.”
For several moments, they all considered what this meant.
“And then the funniest thing happened,” Ivan suddenly smiled.