Alfie had not been able to think of anything that could have been funny under those tense circumstances.
Ivan crossed himself again. “Forgive me Father,” he said looking heavenwards. Alfie was worried Ivan was going to break down but then he realised he was trying to suppress giggles. “There I was all scared about my grandfather’s ghost being around when the old boy cut loose.” Ivan threw his head back and roared.
Steven and Mickey looked at each other uncertainly and then smiles twitched at the corners of their mouths.
Ivan said again, this time directly to Alfie: “He cut loose!!”
Steven and Mickey joined Ivan in their laughter but all Alfie could think of was that the grandfather hadn’t died after all, that it had been a dreadful mistake on Ivan’s part. He could only watch them guffawing with mild amusement, not finding it funny enough to join in.
“Don’t you get it?” Steven said with tears now streaming down his face. Mickey was laughing so hard, he had rolled into a ball on his side. “The dead guy faaaa—“ A new wave of laughter rippled through them. Ivan was on his back, his legs drawn up to his stomach and Steven had to prop himself up with one to prevent himself from the same fate.
Alfie had not known what became of Ivan or Mickey but he knew Steven had died in a car accident a few years later. Steven had been the first person Alfie knew that had died. There one moment, gone the next. The thought had terrified him. He glanced up at the kitchen clock: it was 11:36 and he still did not have the courage to check on his body.
He was at a loss at what to do—a preposterous state to be in considering he probably had the whole of eternity to find something to do. Again, that low moan came from his own body. Body gases leaving the body. Alfie didn’t want to hear the same indignities suffered by Ivan’s grandfather and suddenly, perhaps not quite as strong as other types of impulses he had felt as a youth, he wanted to get out of the house as quickly as he could.
In times past, leaving the house meant a little preparation. He had to spruce up, wash his face and put on some clean clothes. Brush his teeth, find his hat and in other little ways, make himself presentable to the world but when he looked into the mirror, he could not see himself anyway. The world could accept him as he was.
A bigger problem he had was finding a way out of his house. He imagined he would have to confront his lifeless body and step over it to leave. This was enough for him to abandon his plan to get out of the house and, as his mother would have said, blow some stink off. He could not face the fact that his body was getting cold and would soon start to harden. Tears sprang to his eyes at the thought that if no one found him soon, he would really start to stink the place out. He didn’t want his obituary to indicate he had been dead for several days, even weeks, before somebody had found him. He again thought of the young woman who brought him his Sunday roast. It would be a week before she would return and the thought of her turning away from his unanswered door with his hot meal in her hands made him want to roar with the unfairness of the situation. Falling over his own damn feet down the stairs! He just couldn’t believe it.
Without thinking too much of it, Alfie began to pace up and down the narrow corridor between his front room and kitchen. Then an idea hit him: he was a ghost! And what do ghosts do? They walk through walls. The thought was so liberating and seemed to make so much sense that he abruptly turned to his left and barged straight at the immediate wall. He didn’t so much as crash into the wall as much he bounced from it as if it were covered in some sort of cling film. He leaned against opposite wall and blinked, trying to make sense of it all. He couldn’t make a cup of tea because his hand went through the kettle and his tea drinking days were over anyway because his physical stomach was rotting with other lumps of useless flesh at the bottom of the stair. He could sit on a chair and walk on floors without falling through.
The whole thing didn’t make sense, he thought to himself as he made his way through to his kitchen. He just needed to think a little more. As he passed his bathroom, he passed a door that had not ever been there before. Alfie blinked at it. It wasn’t so much a door but a dark passageway, like a shadow. He couldn’t see where it went but he knew if it was a portal in the real world, it would take him out of his house and into the patch of grass between his and his neighbour’s house. He licked his lips and stroked his chin thoughtfully. It could be a long corridor to somewhere he didn’t want to be. There might be all sorts of things he didn’t want to see in there. It could also be the portal to hell, he thought, and he would never be able to get back in his house and would never know about what happened to his corporeal body. There really could be a place of unimaginable anguish and terror. It could also be a place to heaven with unlimited joy (although the idea of being reunited with loved ones didn’t really appeal to Alfie and in his childhood reflections of heaven, all the smiling and laughing had rather gotten on his nerves). He looked at the portal again. It was like those silly game shows were the host asks the guest to choose a door and accept the consequences of what was behind it only there was only one choice. Well, he thought again, two choices: stay where he was and accept things as they were or take his chances.
That low groaning of escaping gases came from his body again. Alfie looked down the corridor to the top of his stairs again. He could not see his body but the idea that he might never see it again made him bold. Taking a deep breath, he walked back through his corridor and forced himself to look down the stairs at what had remained of him.
He could see that he indeed broke his neck: he was laying belly down with his head at an angle of greater than 90 degrees to the rest of his body. Alfie descended the stairs to have a closer look. The clothes he had been wearing were unremarkable but he was astounded at how big his rear end had gotten. He had always fancied himself as someone who was one of the lucky ones he looked the same in old age as they did in youth. Certainly when he looked down at his body from the front when he was alive, everything seemed to be in pretty much good working order. He had reckoned his belly was more or less as flat as it had been most of his life. He just did not ever consider that he broadened so at the hips. And his hair! Yes he had known it had thinned but he had no idea of how big the bald patch was. Or how big his ears had grown. He looked at himself a little closer and saw tufts of hairs growing out of his ears. His hands, so useful in life, were turned uselessly with the palm facing the ceiling. It looked like he didn’t even try to break his fall.
Alfie sat down next to his body so he could study his face. He had never considered himself a handsome man although he wife had convinced him of his attractiveness just before he had asked her to marry him. He was so glad it wasn’t her that had to find his dead body. He remembered the anguish of his lonely nights after she had gone. Throughout their long marriage, he had sometimes thought that he could find happiness without her during the really bad fights and disagreements. He could take up a hobby or maybe learn to plan bridge, hang out with friends and do as he pleased, wear what he wanted and generally have a far better time without her than with her.
And when the stroke came and it became so completely obvious that not only was the woman he had loved so much when he first married her was never coming home but that he would not be able to care for her, he felt as if the world had suddenly drained of colour. The house was too quiet and very gradually became dusty but not too messy. He tended to follow the same trail each day and even left her side of the bed untouched.
Alfie studied the hands of his body again. They had always been very strong and broad. He thought of holding his wife’s hands when they were watching the telly or occasionally, touching her hand in appreciation as they ate one of her special meals. As she got older, she became more stooped and much, much slower than she had been as a young woman but essentially the same traits remained with her until the end. The way her face set when she was concentrating on something. The way she tended to hunch over her to do list each morning. Their children had come and gone so quickly but he could remember her hands moving from firmly pressing uniform trousers with the iron to deftly braiding someone’s hair to putting the remaining parts of the school lunches together. Somehow she got everyone out of the house on time.
He used to imagine her watching the telly while he toiled away. He was never any good at making money but she could, with her untrained skills in budgeting, make the money last. She could even surprise him with a birthday or Christmas present or sometimes just a little something so he’d know she had been thinking of him.
When the children had all reached an age when they were all in school, she announced she was going to get some extra work in a local nursing home. Oh how that had hurt his feelings and he did everything he could to stop her: he started staying out late just to throw her careful schedule out of kilter, he made a huge mess at breakfast and lunch hoping to make her late. He made unreasonable demands of her at night and even encouraged the children to play up. He once bribed all three to pretend to be sick so she would be forced to stay home to look after him. On a few occasions, he even hit her.
Shame and humiliation flooded though him as he stared at his hands. They had been his best friends and his worst enemy but they had been the most trustworthy part of his whole body.
Through all of his attempts at sabotage, she had grimly set her jaw and ploughed on. The shopping got done, the meals got done, the children did their homework and eventually, they were able to afford to send them to college to study. They did well, all of them, but Alfie had the nagging thought that things were too easy for them. They had come to expect that everything was achievable. There was no such thing as “maybe” or a notion of having to put in extra hours at work or paring down the family menu for a vacation. Somehow it seemed too easy for them, for anyone of that generation.
With the exception of his head at an odd angle to his body, none of the hard times he had imagined showed on his face. In death, he looked peaceful, relaxed and, if Alfie wasn’t mistaken, he could see a whisper of a smile on his very dead face.
He figured perhaps he was being far too hard on himself. Yes, of course he had made mistakes but there had been joys too. Like when he became a father for the first time and the tiny bundle that was his son was finally placed in his arms. Lucy’s pregnancy had gone into overtime and her labour was far from quick and easy. Back in those days, men were not allowed in the delivery room and Alfie was glad of that. He did not think he could have taken the guilt of seeing someone he loved in so much pain. His son had been present with his own wife as she gave birth but he had been traumatised and distressed by the experience. Alfie had tried to joke with him about it but the lad had not even raised a smile.
But then Elliot had never been one for jokes. There were many times when he had tried to engage the lad in banter but Elliot had simply rolled his eyes. If they were out in public, Elliot avoiding looking or speaking to his father as if he were ashamed or embarrassed. This unreasonableness made Alfie angry. He didn’t expect Elliot to love him unconditionally the way some fathers expected but, dammit, he thought Elliot could have put a bit more effort into acting as if he were a little bit grateful for what his old man had provided for him.
Alfie looked down again at his dead face. He was glad he hadn’t suffered! How many times did he toss and turn in bed, fretful of a searing pain in his chest or worried about some radical cancer treatment. As a kid, he used to hate to travel in cars because he was afraid of being in an accident, becoming trapped and burning alive. He wondered if his wife had suffered, if she lay in silent agony, unable to tell anyone she was needed pain killers or something to take the edge off. And then he wondered if she too had been like him, stuck in a place she wanted to escape but unable to find the way out.
And then it hit him: what if he could find her somehow? He could tell her he was sorry for his wrong doing. He’d tell her he was sorry he tried to put a spanner in the works over her job at the nursing home. He would tell her he was sure she had been a comfort to all those people in the home.
Lucy had seen many dead bodies. Towards the end of her work career, death became so frequent that she had been practically impervious to the death of others. She would even forget to tell him so and so had died when she had spent so much time regaling him in the characters and the past lives of the people she took care of. She was such a good mimic. She could tell stories so well that Alfie would sometimes forget he wasn’t actually their friend. Every voice nuance, the gestures, the physical characteristics she could describe to him in perfect detail.
She would sometimes be sad too. She especially hated it when a young person came in. Once, there was a man named Les who had a waxy complexion and a ring of white hair. He had had diabetes and had lost a foot and one of his lower legs. He could not have been more than 50 years old.
“He was a mess,” Lucy had said. The worse part about looking after Les was the vacancy in his eyes. “He had just given up on everything,” she had told Alfie sadly. She had cut his over grown hair and helped him to shave, gave him sponge baths—the only thing that prevented Alfie from being jealous was that she also cleaned his soiled bed linen and emptied his potty every day.
Alfie had to admit he was glad to have been spared the indignity of being wheeled to the corner of a room for volition and then having some pretty nurse comment or write notes on what had been left in the pot. Lucy had said very often patients would not have any privacy to do their business. And everyone had come to expect that their bodily functions would be discussed openly. Yes, he was very glad to have been killed without even being aware of it.