Kickin' the Can
Everybody has a novel in them; their magnum opus.
I must have heard that saying a thousand times in my thirty-nine years on this earth. Well, what I have to tell you is not long enough to be a novel. But, to be honest, who said anything about word count or how big the stack of A4 paper is once you’ve finished? A story is a story, only this one is factual from beginning to end. Also, this is a one-off. There will be no follow-up stories, no film deals with multi-million pound contracts. Once. That’s it. I must, for the sake of consistency, get everything right.
Here goes . . .
Location. That’s always a key point in any film or book. Yet in my story there really is only one true location, and that is outside a HMV music store in Kingsgrove Shopping Centre. I love music. I enjoy listening to the likes of Moby and R.E.M; chilled out stuff that you can doze off to sleep to, or have played at your funeral. That sounds gloomy, I know, but don’t tell me you haven’t wondered what will be played at yours at some point in your life.
What I never imagined, however, is listening to a My Chemical Romance album as I spent my last few minutes – perhaps fifteen; I’m no longer sure – on this plane; their dulcet, yet whiney tones giving a perfect backdrop to the whole scene. I remember it all so clearly; Katherine, my wife, and I heading towards Asda with a shopping list longer than my forearm. I recall her speaking to me as we dodged and weaved our way past crowds of Joe Public. I heard her telling me that she hoped the buy-one-get-one-free offer was still active on toilet rolls. Riveting stuff. I remember hurrying past Costa Coffee and breathing in the heady scent of roasting coffee beans. Kingsgrove Shopping Centre is one of those ultra-trendy places – all air-conditioned with shiny marble floors, luscious green hanging plants, and up above us a huge glass and steel framed roof shelters everybody from the English weather. We frequent the place every Saturday, without fail, me following Katherine obediently as she scours the clothes shops; trying on garments she has no intention of buying. Today, though, I’d treated myself to a present. A book from WHSmith’s entitled British Legends and Lore; a tome I fully intended to enjoy each night in bed, yet that never happened – not on this world, anyway.
The pain struck me without warning. I say pain, yet it was more like an incredibly strong band wrapping around my chest and squeezing hard. I stopped at once, my legs locking up on me. I breathed in purely out of reflex, and felt another agonisingly hot twist inside my heart, or lungs; couldn’t quite decide which. I groped out to my right and grabbed a doorframe, the doorframe to HMV to be exact, and used that to steady myself. For a moment the world spun sickly around me and I clung to the doorframe harder. I breathed in yet again, expecting that horrible, hot wrench. The pain was there, but lesser. A third deep breath; the squeezing-wrench vanished, leaving me feeling confused but otherwise fine. From within HMV, My Chemical Romance blared out over the wall and ceiling mounted speakers.
I blew out my cheeks and let go of the doorframe. I began to walk, wondering at the same time what had caused the unsettling pain. I thought back to the previous night, to the take-out Indian curry Katherine and I had devoured, and mentally nodded. Must be that, I thought, although at this point something told me otherwise. As I walked, I shot my best irritable look over at Katherine, mildly hurt that she hadn’t even asked me what the matter was, or if I was OK.
She wasn’t at my side.
Biting back my annoyance, I stopped and turned right round, convinced that she had ducked in to another shop without having the decency to tell me. I hadn’t gone far from HMV, five or six paces at the most, yet for some reason a crowd was gathering outside the store’s entrance. Most of them were speaking; interrupting each other, and I quickly picked up on a tense atmosphere. I saw a young, gangly man wearing a white shirt and dark trousers break away from the excited, chattering crowd. He was jabbing urgently at the keypad on his mobile phone. He jammed the device to his ear and stood there, waiting for somebody to answer his call. Puzzled, I craned my head left and right, wondering what had happened. In situations like this I don’t like to become a typical, morbid rubbernecker, but sometimes you just can’t resist, can you? I wandered closer, suddenly worried because I couldn’t see Katherine anywhere. As I moved position, I noticed that two people in the crowd were kneeling down alongside a sprawled shape, yet their backs blocked any further view. That was enough, though. I stopped dead and stared. Somebody had collapsed, seconds after I’d walked past the store by the looks of it, and still I couldn’t see Katherine anywhere . . . A rush of panic clutched at my heart, and I suddenly wanted to lunge forward and push the crowd apart, distraught at the picture in my mind – Katherine lying on the cold marble floor, shopping bags scattered, the breath gone from her lungs. This image worsened when I heard the gangly young chap on his mobile phone say, ‘Ambulance, please. Kingsgrove Shopping Centre!'
Then I spotted her.
She had been standing amongst the increasing crowd outside the music shop, and when I saw her I should have felt relief, but my scalp and spine tingled unpleasantly.
She looked so pale, almost bloodless, and she had both hands cupped over her mouth; eyes wet and glistening. Automatically, I said, ‘Katherine?’ and stepped towards her, yet my words were drowned out by other voices. ‘Katherine – what’s wrong?’
She did not even look in my direction and, before my confused eyes, the gangly chap finished with his mobile phone, shoved it back in his pocket, and put a whip-thin arm around her shoulders. I immediately felt a clench of anger in the pit of my stomach. If my wife needed comfort then she could get it from me, not some perfect bloody stranger. I said, ‘Kath!’ with much more force, stepping closer to her. I glanced quickly at the sprawled shape, but still couldn’t see past the people kneeling down. A security guard had joined them now, his walkie-talkie crackling and spitting. I was dimly aware, at this point, of somebody calling my name, but my focus was on Katherine, so I didn’t turn round to see who it was. I reached the gangly young chap with his skinny arm hooked over my wife’s shoulders and, being polite, said, ‘OK mate, I can take over from here, thank you.’
He didn’t look at me; nor did Katherine. She wiped her reddened eyes and swallowed hard. Whoever’s collapsed, I thought, must be a close friend of hers, unless . . .
‘Mr Ross!’ a voice shouted, only half snagging my attention.
Without really thinking, I reached out and went to grab the young man’s other arm, just to tug it lightly; let him know his services were no longer required. I aimed for his elbow, meaning to give him a gentle shake.
My hand didn’t vanish, as such, but melded into his limb like hot oil in lava lamps oozing together. His arm seemed to absorb my entire hand, sucked it quickly and painlessly into its mass. Everything around me seemed to slow right down. I stood there, mouth agape, staring at the bloodless stump of my wrist; my mind racing with absurd thoughts and notions. I wanted to scream and yank my hand out, but couldn’t. I felt uselessly heavy, horribly frightened. The young chap did not even cast a glance in my direction. He turned to my wife, however, and appeared to utter soothing words close to her ear. That did it. I shook my head to clear the fug and wrenched backwards, reeling away from him at the same time. My hand re-appeared at once; intact and unscathed, yet still I lifted it up to my face and wiggled the fingers, just to make sure everything was working.
From right behind me, a voice said, ‘Mr Ross? Hello, Mr Ross?’
I wanted to turn round, to see who it was, but my attention was riveted on Katherine. I wanted her to look at me, see me, acknowledge me!
She was crying now, openly and freely, and the gangly chap pulled her closer. At the sight of this I went ice-cold inside. Every hair on my body tingled and stood erect. Slowly, begrudgingly, I turned my head away from Katherine and looked back at the crowd outside HMV. One of the people who had been kneeling down stood up, allowing me to gaze upon the face of the body. I’ve always wondered what I looked like from another perspective. Absurdly, stupidly, the first thing I thought was: my hair needs cutting, and then I noticed how blue my lips were, how horribly pale my skin was, how my mouth hung slack and my eyes were frozen open; unblinking.
A woman of about fifty was busy doing cardiac compression on me, a woman who, only moments before, had been going about her own business. The rest of the crowd looked on, waiting for the paramedics to arrive. My first reaction was to laugh. It came out involuntary, a suddenly barking chortle that I had no control over. Here I stood, yet there I lay, I was – at that point – two people at the same time. The me on the cold marble floor looked hopelessly done for; my mouth gaping open, eyes staring at nothing, giving me a slightly imbecilic expression. The woman trying to resuscitate me was counting out loud as she pressed down on my chest. Once she reached thirty, she stopped, tilted back my head and poked a finger inside my mouth to check my airways. I admired her throughout this, because you ask yourself, don’t you, whether you would do the same if situations were reversed. I’ve always hoped that I would stop and leap into action should a fellow human being need urgent assistance, but then again your mind has a funny way of stopping your body at the last moment; leaving you flapping around like a fish strangling on a river bank.
The woman pinched my nose, closed her mouth over mine and blew air into my lungs, twice.
I stood watching this with a curious mixture of hope and dread; could have almost forgotten that this was happening to me right now. I felt as if I was watching a Saturday night television drama unfolding before my eyes.
‘Mr Ross, can you hear me?’
The sound of my voice being called, this time much louder and from my right hand side, was enough to yank me out of my reverie. I looked over, almost casually, and found myself staring at a man dressed in an immaculate charcoal-grey suit. He was a fraction taller than me, and his hair was thick, black and lustrous. It was brushed over to one side in an appealing, boyish manner, framing a strong angular face. Under his smart, fitted jacket he wore an electric blue shirt and matching tie; on his feet, a modern pair of light brown slip-ons. He smelt strongly of expensive aftershave, maybe Prada or Hugo Boss, yet beneath it I detected another stench, something wild and earthen. He looked at me, saw me, and smiled kindly. At once, the entire length of my spine ran cold. It wasn’t so much a feeling of evil, or badness that I felt radiating from him, but I got the distinct impression that there was something wrong with the man in the immaculate suit. For a start, he could see me, whereas Katherine, and everybody else in the mall, could not. He reached out and laid a hand on my shoulder, the way one would greet an old friend. He didn’t squeeze too hard, just enough to convince me he possessed strength far beyond my means. ‘For a moment there, Mr Ross,’ he said, ‘I thought we were going to have communication problems.’
His voice was smooth and cultured; with an accent I just couldn’t place. It had a hint of Welsh and a slight lilt of Scottish. He did not remove his hand from my shoulder, and I could feel his strong fingers digging into the muscle of my shoulder blade. I winced.
I spoke without realising I was going to. ‘I don’t want to be dead.’
The smartly dressed man nodded sagely. ‘I’ve heard that quite a few times in my long career, Mr Ross. Or can I call you Eric? I find it much easier to operate on a first name basis.’
His inane chatter made me step back, more alarmed than ever. I looked over at the crowd gathered around my body; at Katherine, whom I wanted to hold in my arms. The gangly chap and a girl who worked at the coffee shop were leading her towards a chair, which she promptly sat down on. ‘I’ve got to see her,’ I barked, twisting my shoulder savagely, breaking loose of the man’s grip. I felt horribly suffocated; buried alive. I started to run towards my wife with blindness of thought, meaning to dodge and weave my way through the gawking onlookers, yet they could not see me, and before I knew it a youth of about fifteen stepped into my path and I ran straight through him.
It’s nothing like the movies, believe me. When Patrick Swayze did it in Ghost, he was able to take over other people’s bodies and use them like a puppeteer, but the reality of it is much different. As I melded into the youth’s body, I instantly became aware of his hormone-fuelled, teenage emotions. They thundered into me; mixed with my own. I also heard his thoughts, and they too crashed into my own and produced an awful noise – almost like electrical feedback over a microphone.
‘Fuckin’ parents who fuckin’ needs ‘em fuckin’ dad always used to fuckin’ come into my bedroom when mom wasn’t there and fuckin’ touch me should be him lying down there dead the fuckin’ arse-‘ole.’
Struggling, thrashing, I tried to break free of the youth’s body, but again, it’s not that easy. Once you’re in, it’s like being stuck in solidifying cement. It’s warm in there; in fact it’s hotter than an oven, and when I opened my eyes all I could see was an intricate criss-cross of thin tubes, all branching off in different directions and full of dark fluid. I also became aware of a heavy, deep-bass noise – thud-a, thud-a, thud-a – that filled my entire head like a sickening migraine. His heart, I thought, I’m hearing his heart and seeing his blood-filled veins. I let out a cry of horror, and kicked backwards with my heels, wanting out. The youth lost interest in watching my sprawled body over by HMV, and started to walk away. As his legs moved, so did mine, and with each step we took I felt a painful wrench in my pelvis. I was stuck fast, trapped inside a pulsing, hot suit of my own.
A hand, with fingers harder than granite, fastened onto the scruff of my neck.
Yet, before that hand had chance to yank me out, I picked up on another of the youth’s thoughts.
‘Self harm must self harm self harm is the only way . . . only way to forget . . .’
The man – Immaculate Suit – dragged me clean out of the youth’s body. I staggered and almost fell, my knees buckling under me.
‘Never, ever, do that again, Eric,’ Immaculate Suit growled, his fingers squeezing my neck. ‘Only professional spirits can enter human bodies. You need years of training, and even then it’s strictly forbidden unless necessary.’
‘He . . . the boy . . . he needs help,’ I managed to gasp. I felt exhausted; as if I’d just finished a ten-mile sprint. ‘I heard his thoughts!’
Immaculate Suit hauled me to my feet. His strength frightened me.
‘He’s self harming,’ I said, even though my mind was still focused on reaching Katherine.
‘So?’ Immaculate Suit demanded. ‘What the living do is up to them. My concern is the dead. The dead like you.’
‘I can’t be dead,’ I insisted, glaring hard at Immaculate Suit and speaking through gritted teeth. ‘I’m thirty-nine! I’m still young, I . . .’
‘It was a cardiac arrest,’ the powerful man said, cutting across me. ‘An undiagnosed condition, I’m afraid. Your grandfather died of the same thing.’
‘And who the hell are you?’ I snapped, ‘God?’
He laughed at me, flashing unnaturally long teeth. ‘Not even close, Eric. Who I am is not important. It’s time for you to move on.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I returned, ‘I can be saved . . . that lady, the paramedics; they’ll be able to re-start my heart.’
‘No, they won’t.’
Angrily, I spun away from him, even though he still clutched my shoulder painfully. ‘Katherine!’ I shouted, struggling like crazy. ‘Katherine – I’m over here, look at me, I won’t die, sweetheart, I won’t!’
I tried to drive an elbow into Immaculate Suit’s stomach, but he moved swifter than me. He grabbed my shoulders in both hands and bore his incredible weight down upon me, buckling my knees; killing my struggles.
Close to my ear, he whispered, ‘Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.’
Why that particular Shakespearean quote relaxed me, I do not know, but it did. I felt my muscles un-burden and I slumped in Immaculate Suit’s iron grasp. ‘He wrote such beauty and truth, didn’t he?’ Immaculate Suit continued, his breath tickling my ear. ‘I think that particular piece of writing is so fitting in these situations. Life literally is a candle flame; one strong gust of wind and the light is snuffed forever.’
‘Are you . . .’ I swallowed hard and heard my throat click. ‘Are you . . .’.
‘The devil?’ Immaculate Suit said. I felt his smooth cheek rub against mine as he spoke. ‘No, I’m not the devil and I’m not God. I’m an agent of the latter, if you like. It’s my job to collect fresh souls; send them on their way. We’re invisible, Eric. Nobody can see or hear us, so you can shout and holler all you want. We’re ghosts.’
As if to prove a point, Immaculate Suit let go of me and stepped into the path of two people who hurried in our direction. I noticed that both of them wore green jump-suits; the attire of paramedics. The first held a large case in one hand, while his red faced companion struggled along with a fold-up wheel chair and red blanket.
Both of them passed right through Immaculate Suit as if he weren’t there, which, of course, he wasn’t. For a moment his image crackled out of focus, almost faded away, leaving his wide grin floating in mid air like some maddening Cheshire cat’s. His body snapped back into reality – at last, my reality – only when the two paramedics dashed through him and headed for me, the seemingly dead me, outside the music store.
‘You see?’ he asked, grinning wider than ever.
All I could do was shake my head and step back from him, for, even though I saw great warmth in that grin, a kindness to his green eyes; I also felt danger, an air of violence radiating from him. The two feelings were not happy bedfellows; and for a moment my mouth flapped open and shut in sheer terror.
‘What are you?’ I asked when my voice recovered.
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘I don’t know. The Grim-fricking-Reaper?’
Immaculate Suit pulled a face as if he’d sucked on half a lemon. ‘Don’t!’ he said, waving a hand at me. ‘I hate the ‘grim’ part. It makes me sound like a character in a Stephen King novel!’
His reply should have shocked me, knocked me backwards, but quite frankly it didn’t. I probably suspected it from the very beginning. ‘Death,’ I said.
‘Yes. Death Reaper, not Grim,’ he replied, proffering his right hand towards me. Dazed, shaken by everything that was taking place, I merely looked at his extended limb; an offer of greeting, or farewell, but certainly not a threat. Yet . . .
‘It won’t bite,’ Death Reaper said, grinning wider still.
Robotically, I reached out and clasped his hand in mine. I felt as if I were a spectator throughout this, watching from the sidelines. His palm felt smooth and warm, his grip tight but not excessively so. ‘You’re a good man, Eric, and I’m sorry to have to take you with me. I always find it difficult with the good souls, they find it so hard to let go.’
‘You look . . .’ I struggled to find my words, my throat felt clogged with chalk.
Death Reaper chuckled; a sound that prickled every hair on my body. ‘I look what, normal? You expected a black cloak and hood? A skeletal face and one of those, uh, what do you call them, those blade things?’
‘A scythe,’ I told him, numbly.
This time Death Reaper laughed heartily, and if the chuckle had been eerie, this explosive bark was worse. I smelt his breath, and it wasn’t bad, as such, but it carried the wildness of spices; the stench of something ageless. ‘Yes, that’s it, a scythe. I love that depiction of me; it’s so Biblical.’ He stopped laughing and looked at me. ‘I can look like that if I want to. I can look fifty times worse than that if I so wished.’
I believed him. I believed every word.
‘As I’ve already said,’ Death Reaper went on, ‘You’re a good man. I don’t need to frighten you because you’re frightened enough as it is.’
‘Thank you,’ I said quietly.
‘Don’t thank me,’ Death Reaper snapped, ‘I’m taking you with me, away from your wife, away from everything you know. To coin a phrase: your work here is done. Think yourself lucky, though, for if I hadn’t come for you, you would have been left to haunt this awful shopping centre for the rest of eternity, and that’s punishment, Eric, because nobody would see or hear you ever again. You’d wander this place screaming and the screams would fall on deaf ears. Eventually, you’d go death-mad.’ As he spoke I sensed the danger in him, the violence he was capable of bubbling up to the surface. I knew what he was saying, though. My life had not been without sin, because I’m not perfect and nobody is. He could punish me for the affair I had five years ago; the one that wounded Katherine’s heart so much. He could punish me for the time I bullied a kid at school when I was eleven. Even now I feel deep-rooted guilt for what I used to say and do to him; the taunts, the name-calling, the arm punches and shoves from behind. Countless things rose in my mind, mistakes and none mistakes, horrible things I’ve said to Katherine in the past, awful things I’ve said to my own parents! I wanted to take every bad thing I’d done in my past back, scrunch them up like old paper and burn them so they could never hurt anybody again. Death Reaper seemed to gloat throughout my guilt-fest, watching me closely. ‘Do you feel that, Eric?’ he said, his voice a whisper. When I looked at him I noticed he had vampire fangs; gleaming white incisors that poked against his lower lip. ‘Aren’t emotions a force to be reckoned with?’
I tried to reply but my voice failed me. Instead, I merely nodded, unable to control a huge swell of self-pity that rose up from the pit of my stomach.
More things – things that I’d forgotten all about, came back at me in a relentless barrage; images flitted past my eyes. ‘Why?' I managed to croak, bending over and planting both hands on my knees. ‘Why . . . are you doing this to me?’
Death Reaper stepped forward and grabbed both my shoulders. He straightened me up so that I was looking directly into his face. The vampire fangs were gone; maybe they’d never been there in the first place. ‘I wanted proof,’ he said mildly. ‘I wanted proof that you really are human. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I’ve seen in the past, the fake-folk, as I call them, who give me snot, tears and gnashing of teeth; but I see through them. I see them for what they really are because everybody is held accountable to me in the end.’
‘Have you got your proof?’ I asked, ‘Or am I one of these fake-folk too?’
Death Reaper shook his head. ‘You’ve made plenty of selfish mistakes, Eric, but then again you humans are all the same. No, you’re not one. I class the paedophiles that groom youngsters in Internet chat-rooms as fake-folk; they’re the same as rapists and terrorists, basically scum with no human qualities at all.’
My vision suddenly misted over white, and I blinked rapidly to clear it, yet the swirling whiteness did not dissipate. I looked around me and noticed that most of the shopping mall seemed to be enveloped by it. ‘I can guess where you send them,’ I said absently, wondering, at the same time, just what the white stuff was. It had no scent, so it wasn’t smoke, nor did it constrict my lungs.
‘No, you can’t,’ Death Reaper replied sternly. ‘Your conception of Hell is spurred on by films and what you’ve read in books, but the reality of it is so much worse. No flames burn down there; not in the ice-chambers they don’t.’ For a second he paused, as if thinking carefully about what he was saying. He continued. ‘Imagine being locked in a tiny windowless cell made of ancient, compacted ice. Above you there’s a rusty metal grate. Demon-guards squat on that grating to take a piss and a shit, and believe me, Eric, those things piss and shit a substance that burns naked flesh like battery acid.’
I didn’t really want to think about that situation at all, but by then his speech had planted the seed inside my head. I briefly saw them in my mind’s-eye, hideous things with red eyes squatting over, and shitting through, a metal grate.
Death Reaper, his face sometimes masked by ebbing particles of mist, kept his hands on my shoulders. He said, ‘Time draws short, Eric,’ and nodded in the direction of my sprawled body.
I looked across and noticed that the two paramedics were kneeling down next to my motionless body. One of them was busy removing a device from the case. I guessed it was a portable defibrillator. I quickly looked away and focused, as best as I could, on Katherine. ‘Do I get to say goodbye to her?’
‘She won’t hear you.'
‘I want to say it anyway.’
Death Reaper half shrugged. ‘If it makes you feel better, go ahead.’
I thought he would let go of me then; allow me to wander over to her and say what I needed to say in private, yet Death Reaper was now fully responsible for me and did not intend to let me out of his sight. We both glided over, silently and smooth as you like, his hands still clutching my shoulders. The mist swirled and tumbled over our heads.
Eight years of marriage to me had not stolen Katherine’s beauty. I stood before her and studied every inch of her face. She was looking back at me, her eyes still red and moist. Of course, the ‘me’ she was looking at was the one outside HMV; the husk, the empty shell that I once, and never would again, had full control of.
‘Hey,’ I said softly. ‘I’m here, sweetheart. I’m OK.’ As I spoke I found myself reaching out to gently stroke her cheek, but checked myself at the last moment. The sheer fact that I couldn’t touch anything made my stomach feel hollow. ‘I love you, Katherine. I always have and I always will. I’m so sorry for . . .’ I struggled to find the words, struggled to talk full stop. Death Reaper stood right behind me throughout this; did not speak or hurry me along. ‘I’m sorry for everything I did to you. I’ll find a way of showing you how truly sorry I am. I will. I promise. I love you.’