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Standing beneath an arch, the keystone directly above his gelled hair, Ian Pamphlett, regarded the Hall of the Dead. It was fair to say it was the biggest room in the known or unknown universes, and that went for all the sub-dimensions too. Nowhere was there such a great square-footage with a roof. For a mile in each compass direction it spread, the vaulted roof and hanging chandeliers – of which there were close to twelve-thousand, constituting nearly a quarter of a million individual candles – faded into the distance like a lesson in perspective in a technical drawing class.
More impressive even than this were the rows of dead. They sat on long benches, rows upon rows of them, waiting patiently to be called. It was not Ian Pamphlett’s task to call them however, that was Helen’s job. Ian’s job was the assessment. Beneath his arm was his clipboard upon which was a list of his day’s lucky souls, complete with pertinent facts and pre-judged opinions of their likely destination. It was Ian Pamphlett’s job to take into consideration any pertinent objections or mitigating circumstances, and he did the job well. As well as anyone dead for a dozen years could.
He sighed. So many people, he thought, so little time. Then he laughed. That was a joke that not many would have got, mainly because not many people knew that time itself did not exist within the hall of the dead. All the people that would have got it were dead, which did not make for a good audience. In the secret confines of his heart Ian Pamphlett had always wanted to be a comedian. Instead he had tripped in front of the nine-o’clock from King’s Cross and somehow wound up an administrator for Death.
There was a ringing as the great bell tolled somewhere (Ian had never worked out where this bell was) and then Helen made her announcement.
“Archie Gillingham, please make your way to the front for your assessment.”
Ian had never met Helen, but he guessed from her voice that she was petite, brunette and pretty with just the hint of an overbite to take her a step away from being strictly beautiful. The truth would have surprised him.
There was movement within the rows of people as a figure stood up nearly half a mile away. Ian smiled his welcoming smile and waited.
With time being the subjective beast it was, it felt like a good hour until the shambling figure finally neared the arch, when in fact it was, contrarily, no time at all, and yet all of it too. That was the sort of temporal bullshit Ian Pamphlett was getting very used to.
The figure came to a halt before him. A man, wrinkled by no more than sixty years, he was younger than most. He wore a blood-smeared shirt and had the kind of squat solidity of a man used to manual labour. His eyes were glassy with death and stared blankly at Ian seemingly without focus.
Ian stepped up, his thin, pale hand outstretched and took a quick glance at his clipboard.
“Mr Gillingham? Archie Gillingham?”
The glassy eyes suddenly focused on Ian and widened. “Yes?” The old man’s hand instinctively grasped Ian’s and there was a clammy moment of confusion in his rheumy eyes.
“If you would follow me?” Ian said, pointing to an unobtrusive door nearby. Archie hesitated for a moment before following Ian through the narrow tunnel, past the unopened doors of other offices within Death’s administrative purview, and into Ian’s office.
As offices went, it was much like any other. It had a desk, upon which was a solitary lamp, a moderately filled in-tray and an empty out-tray, a tidy with a couple of pens, a handful of paperclips and a lump of Bluet-tac. There were two chairs, one at either side of the desk, a rather overgrown rubber plant in the corner, and a coat rack utterly devoid of coats. The walls were painted with patented ‘office hopeless’ beige, and the carpet was one of those abrasive sorts you find in doctor’s surgeries, also beige. The only thing that made the room anything other than your average office was the chandelier above, lit by nearly two-dozen candles that never went out or dripped wax.
As they sat Archie’s glassiness receded yet more and a look of consternation had begun to find its way onto his face.
“What is all this? Where am I?”
Ian smiled his obsequious smile, learned through many hours of talking to people that resented his very existence.
“You are, unfortunately, dead, Mr Gillingham.”
The old man stared at Ian for a good ten seconds before looking down at the back of his hand. He turned it over, looking at the palm with a confused look on his face.
“I can’t be. I was just going to get some bread from Tesco’s.”
Ian sighed and checked some details on his clipboard. “That must have been when the car hit you. I’m afraid you are very much dead, Mr Gillingham.”
“Car? What car?” A look of panic crossed his features and Ian began to suspect this was a Type Four.
In the dozen years (or not) that he had been working for Death, Ian had assessed a good many people, certainly in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. They each had their own responses when faced with the bare truth of their demise, and Ian quickly formed his own categorization, he being a young man with a penchant for organization and making lists. There were five broad types of responses.
Type one, the “Refusenik” as he called it, responded with blind disbelief, even going so far as to invent a hypothesis to describe the truth as they saw it. For instance, they could assume they had been drugged and were being tested on by the industrial-military complex, or were the victim of big pharma gone all George Orwell; certainly not that they were dead. This sort were often annoying to deal with.
Type two, the “Gratified”, were only too willing to believe they had died, often expressing some relief that it was finally all over. This was the rarest group, yet also the easiest to deal with, often finding themselves chatting amiably about the awfulness of their existence as a living being, and how they hoped they could finally make something of themselves in the afterlife.
Type three were no fun at all. The “Mourners” were the catatonic ones. The ones for whom it was all too much, their minds simply giving up the ghost (no pun intended). They stared at nothing, responded to nothing, were utterly absent, making it absolutely impossible for Ian to get a signature when needed. This meant a visit to the verification hub, and no small waste of time that was. No fun. At all.
Type four, like Mr Gillingham, the “Normals” would deal with their demise like any huge piece of bad news. The stages of denial, acceptance, regret, etcetera, etcetera, made this sort particularly entertaining. Most people took to their death with this sort of reaction.
The final type was the most distressing to assess. The “Screamers” went beyond panic into madness, the idea of death sending them into a downwards psychotic spiral. They would scream, rail, spitting furious curses until Ian was forced to send for the goons to take them away. As an assessor it was particularly annoying as this sort was automatically listed as unsuitable for the afterlife. This, in turn, led to extra reports that had to be filed, which was the primary reason it was Ian’s least popular type.
“But what about Ellen?” Archie said plaintively.
Ian looked at his notes. Ellen Gillingham, wife of thirty seven years, suffering from senile dementia.
Ian shifted uncomfortably. “Mr Gillingham, the nature of death is one of finality,” he said. It was a phrase he had heard on a television program before he himself had died. He shook his head, searching for the memory as he always did. Of course it was as all his memories of that time; faded, opaque. The nature of death was not only its finality but that it wiped away the past, even if only imperfectly. Lately Ian was beginning to see faces from his past, even though he did not know who they were. There were uncomfortable emotions connected with them, which Ian tended to want to avoid. He had never been a touch-feely kind of person. At least he didn’t think he could have been. Probably. It was all a bit annoying, really.
“But Ellen needs me, I can’t die!” The rising in My Gillinham’s tone was the first warning sign of a type five, though if Ian could persuade of the futility of going insane, he would have to do it now.
“Mr Gillingham,” he said firmly, snapping his fingers to get the old man’s attention, which had, in panic, began to range around the room. “You are dead. A car hit you. It is over for you. Finito. You wife will have to get along without you, and there are no other options for you to choose. You are powerless to change this…”
“But she needs me! She can’t even tie her own shoes anymore, bless her.”
“Even so, Mr Gillingham, the earthly authorities will have to deal with that, as I am sure they will…”
Archie Gillingham suddenly shot to his feet. “I have to go to her!”
Ian did so too, putting out his hands, placating. “Mr Gillingham, your body resides in a morgue as we speak, all that you are here and now is a manifestation of your consciousness. There is no way for you to go anywhere but this place. Look, sir…”
Ian frowned as Archie ran to the door and began to try to open it, getting more frustrated and desperate with each failure.
“Let me out, you little twerp!”
“Fuck you, I’ll not be kept prisoner by someone that looks like they just finished a shift at PC World.”
Ian’s eyebrows rose. He had not expected that. Archie was already showing distinct signs of going to Type five if he didn’t do something about it.
“Archie,” Ian said, sitting down, keeping his tone modulated. “Join me. I can show you Ellen.”
The old man turned and narrowed his eyes, finally giving up on the door. Ian was please he had remembered to lock it this time. The last time he forgot and someone got out, they’d caused all manner of mayhem. Ian had been in real fear of being sacked, a prospect that frightened him to distraction.
“Yes, Archie. Ellen. I can show you what is happening to her, but only if you calm down, and only if you realize that you are unable to go back.”
Archie’s face, so full of belligerence, suddenly crumpled. “Oh God!”
That was how it hit Archie Gillingham. Ian watched the old man seeming collapse like a black hole, his shoulders slumping.
“Well, not God, exactly, Mr Gillingham,” Ian said brightly, “but here, let me show you Ellen.” Ian slid open a drawer and brought out a scroll around which was tied a black ribbon.
Archie stumbled back to the desk, wiping tears from his face. Ian untied the ribbon and un-wound the scroll, using a couple of glass paperweights to keep the edges from re-winding.
“It’s blank,” said Archie dumbly.
“Well of course it is, for now. But let me…” Ian pressed his thumb to the bottom corner and a box appeared. He took a stylus from the desk tidy and wrote ELLEN GILLINHAM, NOW.
There was a moment and then the box closed and another opened in its place, revealin a room in what looked to be a hospital. An old woman was lying in the bed, hooked up to a ventilator and an ECG machine than beeped audibly, even to the realm of the dead.
“Oh God, Ellen!”
Around the woman were four people sitting in chairs, two of them holding Ellen’s hands. Two women and two younger men.
“Who are they?” Ian asked Archie before he could do any more wailing.
“That’s Alice and Helen, my step sisters. Ellen’s sisters. And the two lads are our nephews.” Archie stopped and looked at Ian. “What happened to her?” he said, his voice pained.
Ian felt the risk of Archie becoming a Type five receding and allowed himself a moment to congratulate himself. He checked the scroll.
“She, um, apparently collapsed in shock on hearing of your demise. She is unharmed, and will recover fully, I am sure. She has family around her, after all.
“But not me,” Archie said, slumping into the chair, a look of despondency settling over his features like a dusting of snow. “A car, you say?”
“A Volkswagon Golf, as it happens, Mr Gillingham.”
Archie nodded, staring off into the corner. He looked at the back of his hands one more. “So I’m dead.”
“Feels very much like a visit to my bank manager.”
“I’ve heard it said before, sir. I know it’s a lot to take in, but I really want to get this cleared up by lunchtime. Do you mind if we continue with the assessment?”
“What’s this assessment?” Archie looked up in sudden realization. “Are you St Peter?”
Ian let out what he hoped was a self-deprecating laugh. “No! My, no! I’m afraid we’re not that sort of outfit. No angels and things here. We very much deal with the practicalities as per certain pre-designated directives. The afterlife, we find, is better managed with decent administration and consideration of the realities. Angels? Where would we get the feathers from?” Another laugh.
“So all that religious stuff was wrong? Because I’m a devout catholic, so perhaps I should be…”
“Catholics, protestants, Muslims, evangelicals, Buddhists, in the end we all die, and we all go through the same sorting house. This place.”
“So…there is no God?”
Ian hesitated. This was dangerous ground, but he’d ridden such before and knew the lay of the land.
“I’m afraid I don’t know, sir. All we do here is categorise, and manage your introduction to the afterlife. What you will find when you get there…? Well, it could be God, or a magic toad named Reggie. It’s all beyond me…us…I’m afraid. We’re Death.”
“So what do you assess? Where we go, heaven, hell?”
“I assess if you get to go back and try again,” Ian said gravely.
“You mean the Buddhists were fucking right?”
“In a way. Only there’s no all-seeing anything watching on. We, that is to say Death the Corporation, have a job to do determining which of us gets to go back and roam among the real world again.”
Ian laughed uncomfortably. This was getting into territory he simply was not all that sure about anymore. “Because it is the way it is,” he said. “Now, I’m afraid I cannot divulge anything else, sir. We have to complete the assessment.”
Archie stared at Ian. “And then I will move on?”
“Yes, the afterlife or a new life. It all depends.” Ian reached to his clipboard. “I have a few questions I need your answers to. Is that alright, Mr Gillingham?”
Archie did not look to be paying all that much attention, but Ian knew this was a time of great mental upheaval. It was not everyday you found yourself facing Ian Pamphlett in the Halls of Death, being told you are no longer functioning and are nothing more than a construct of consciousness currently devoid of a body in which to inhabit. It was, as Justin in Appeals called it, a mind-fucker.
Ian nodded his thanks, clearing his throat as he flipped the page on the clipboard and dug out a half-chewed biro from the desk tidy.
“You name is Archibald Gillingham?”
“Of Mannerby Gardens, Tetherton?”
Ian looked up. Wry humour…that was always a good sign. “Quite. Born November third, Nineteen fifty-one?”
Now the real questions. “Mr Gillingham, are you a good person?”
Archie looked at Ian for a while, until finally looking down at his lap. “I stole money from my father when I was a lad. I lied to Ellen about…loads of things. I envied, was jealous, hated people, insulted people. I do not think I have led a good life.”
Ian nodded and ticked a box on his clipboard. Catholics always wanted you to know about the sins, which said a lot about that particular religion, Ian thought. “What about the good? Your love for Ellen, you caring for her day after day since the dementia became an issue?”
Archie nodded, miserable now. “I suppose, but I resented it. I do resent it.”
Ian waved a hand. “Yet still you stayed. You could have put her in a home.”
“She’s my wife,” Archie said. Ian smiled and made another tick in the box.
“Um, if you could change it all, go back to the start, would you do anything different?”
Archie’s response was immediate. “No. I would not.”
Another tick in a box.
“Uhuh,” Ian said, reading the paper once more. “That should be enough.” He looked up. “I am pleased to announce that you will be transferring onto the afterlife.”
Archie’s eyes widened. “Is that it?”
“Well, yes.” Ian did not say he had his quota of afterlife submissions to keep up if he was going to qualify for the end-of-year bonus. “Congratulations.”
“So I get to go to heaven?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know.”
Archie frowned. “But I don’t understand. Didn’t you say I get to go to the afterlife?”
“Yes, sorry, Archie, it’s fairly simple actually. We determine if you are to return to earth and be reborn, or if your death is the true finality of your existence. Quite what that afterlife is, I do not know. There are probably layers and layers of bureaucracy to get through before such matter are determined, if, if, indeed, it exists at all.”
“You don’t know about heaven or hell? What’s the bloody point of being dead if you still have most of the big questions unanswered?”
“You at least know there is something to go onto, even f I have no idea what that is.”
Ian smiled. “Not until we take that final step.”
Archie huffed. “Bloody liberty,” he grumbled.
“Quite.” Ian reached into his desk and brought out a small wooden box about the size of a matchbox.
“What’s that?” Archie asked.
Ian held the box up to the candle-light as Archie peered at it. He went to take it from Ian, who instead closed his fingers around it and pulled it close to his chest. “Sorry, Mr Gillingham. You don’t get to decide your fate.”
“It appears you do, however,’ Archie said with a frown.
Ian shrugged. “That’s true enough.”
“So are you dead too?”
“Oh yes,” Ian replied cheerfully. “I fell in front of a train.”
“So how did you become…this?” Archie swept his hand around indicating the office.
Ian stopped and frowned. “I…I truly don’t recall. Funny.”
“Bloody hilarious,” Archie said dryly. “Well, come on, let’s get this done.”
Ian stood up and offered his hand. Archie stood and shook it. “Good luck, Mr Gillingham,” Ian said.
With that he pressed one of the three buttons on the small wooden box and Archie blinked out of existence, on his way to the afterlife. Ian found himself alone in the room and sighed, troubled.