There are so many ways in which you could have died. You could have died in a dramatic gun fight with an enemy. You could have died flinging yourself off the top of a thirty-storey building with a malfunctioning parachute. You could have died old and cancerous, listening to audiobooks while you drift away in bed.
And yet you die like this: choking on a halloumi wrap at four in the morning, aged twenty-five. You are in a kebab shop.
The dying is not altogether pleasant. It involves a lot of breathlessness, panicking and heart palpitations. The drunk people around you frown, as if annoyed by the strange noises you’re making. Eventually, a woman realises the end might be nigh and pats you on the back.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
You – struggling to breathe, feeling colder and slower and deader by the second – nod.
Three seconds later, you kick the bucket. Your dead face rests in the remnants of the wrap. It cost four pounds fifty. It wasn’t even that good.
Enter the Afterlife
To be honest, you didn’t think there was an afterlife. You thought it would be much like before you were born: a big fat nothingy nothingness.
And at first there is a bit fat nothingy nothingness. But slowly, somethingness starts to punctuate the void. You see fluorescent lights, hear their hum, and vaguely wonder whether you’re in a hospital. Then you see Coca-Cola branded fridges, a sales counter, and a rubbish bin overflowing with garbage, and realise you’re still in the kebab shop. The clock in the corner shows four-thirty. There is no one else here save the man behind the counter.
Your body feels odd – cold, painless and weightless. You look at your hands, which, like the rest of you, have taken on a blue twinge. You run them through your hair and, to your mild surprise, find that a clump comes out.
You realise that you are a ghost. When you try to feel something about this – despair, fear, panic, rage – nothing comes. You just feel dead.
Make a Friend
The sun is coming up. Only a handful of ghosts pass you. It’s odd. You wonder where everyone is. Over the years, millions of people must have died in London. And yet, here you are, one of the few wandering in this afterlife. You drift, so light you’re almost floating, across the pavement, heading to the Tube.
“Haven’t seen you before,” a man says, both of you waiting for the next train.
“I haven’t seen you either,” you say. The man is tall, about your age, pale, with a series of nasty-looking bruises covering his face. Once, he could have looked quite nice, but not now. Now he just looks like death.
“So, what happened?”
“Yes,” he says. “How did you die?”
You shrug. “Halloumi wrap,” you say.
The man laughs. “That’s a shit death.”
“What about you?”
“A cow trampled me.”
“That’s also a shit death.”
He shrugs. “A lot of deaths are stupid, but my favourite deaths are the ironic ones. Round here, you’ve got a psychiatrist who committed suicide, a lifeguard who drowned, and someone else who got run over by an ambulance. I love that kind of stuff.”
There is a pause, during which you wonder whether you should be talking to this man. You wonder whether he is a trustworthy person, and if it’s wise to be taking the train with him. But the wondering is intellectual rather than emotional. Indeed, it’s hard to feel any real worry at all.
“What’s your name?” he asks, after you have been silent a while.
“Penny,” you say. “What’s yours?”
“Like fuck is it Caspar.”
He nods. “There are a lot of Caspars here. A suspiciously high number. But my name is actually Caspar. It always has been.”
You narrow your eyes. “OK, Caspar,” you say. “Tell me how haunting works?”
He grins. “You’ve just got here and you already want to haunt someone?”
“Well, you’re asking the right person,” he says. “Where are we going?”
Haunt Someone You’ve Always Wished Ill
You’re outside your old school. It is exactly the same as you remembered it: dilapidated, dreary, depressing. There isn’t a soul in sight.
You walk through the gates, and for the first time you see the living. They’re just tiny shadows, darting around in the corner of your eye – easy to ignore, easy to forget.
You and Caspar let yourself in and float through the corridors. You have forgotten which way it is, but next to the dining hall you cross a sign to the classroom of Madame Guillaume. The layout is exactly the same as it used to be, and memories of Guillaume come flooding back.
You enter and laugh a little maniacally before causing your mischief. You swap the lids of the whiteboard pens: the blue with a red, the red with a green and the green with a blue. You pick up a lever-arch file and swap around the contents: the section entitled “Exam Papers” with the marking keys, the “Marking Keys” with the reports, and the “Reports” with the exam papers. After this, you close the windows which were open and open the windows which were shut.
“That should do it,” you say, rubbing your hands together.
You turn around to find Caspar hovering in the corner, blinking.
“That’s it?” he says.
He scoffs. “I take it back. You’re an amateur.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You want to find her handbag, her wallet, her purse. Something she will really miss.”
You scan the room quickly before finding a black leather backpack tucked under the desk. You open it, find a packed lunch, a damp umbrella, a book, an Oyster card, and a wallet full of cards and cash. Without a second thought, you pocket the wallet, throw the Oyster card out of a window, empty the lunch in the bin, and for good measure remove the bookmark from the book.
“That better?” you ask.
“That’s better,” he says.
The park is relatively busy. There are a few people sleeping, two playing ping pong, three playing football, a couple walking ghost-dogs, a few solitary pedestrians and another ghost – whose hue is more grey than blue – hanging from a tree by his neck.
You find the sight of the hanged ghost vaguely interesting. You didn’t know ghosts could die.
“Caspar,” you say. “Are we in hell?”
“Dunno,” he says. “It’s not heaven, is it?”
“But, is there a hell?”
“Dunno. The afterlife doesn’t come with a manual.”
“But what do ghosts do all the time?”
He gestures vaguely. “Haunt people, stare into space, play ping pong, feel dead.”
You look around. That’s pretty much what people are doing.
“And why are you hanging around me?” you ask. Then: “And why am I hanging around you?
He shrugs. “Most ghosts are really old. Like fifty-five at least. It’s rare to bump into someone my own age. And I guess you’re hanging around me because you need someone to show you the ropes.”
Then, something that strikes you as a non-sequitur:
“We’re dying the dream, Penny,” he says, patting you on the back. “We’re going to be young forever.”
Haunt Someone Just Because You Can
It’s Caspar’s turn to choose who to haunt, and for reasons he does not explain he chooses Maurice. When you ask if Maurice is a family member, Caspar says no. When you ask if he is a friend, Caspar says no. When you ask if he’s an enemy, Caspar says no.
“He’s just someone who deserves to be haunted,” Caspar says. “That’s all you need to know.”
He tells you what he wants to do. At first, you wonder whether you should go along with it. It seems too much, and you are aware that, in your previous life, you would have been horrified by the mere idea of it. Indeed, it would have been seriously out-of-character for you to go along with such a plan. Here, though, you don’t really know if you have a character. Here, though, you don’t really care.
Armed with Guillaume’s money, you arrive at a petrol station and buy a can of fuel. You catch a cab to Maurice’s house. It’s huge. There are floor-to-ceiling windows that look over the docks and flood the rooms with light, balconies which wrap around the entire periphery of the house, and an interior which looks like it’s straight from a magazine.
Without so much as a word, the two of you head to the lounge, taking it in turns to douse the sofas and the carpets with petrol.
“Do you reckon we killed anyone?” you ask. It’s ten minutes later. The house is now thoroughly ablaze, and you’re both looking at the spectacle from across the street, munching on crisps which taste strangely tasteless.
“No,” says Caspar. “I didn’t see anyone, and if we had killed someone, we’d know about it already. They’d be ghosts.”
You lie on the grass. The sun is blazing. You try to bask in its warmth. You remain cold.
“Why are there ghosts hanging from trees?” you ask.
“Because some crazy people actually think the after-after life will be better than the afterlife.”
There is a pause.
“I wish being dead was like before you were born,” you say. “Like, nothingness, not even blackness, just a void.”
Caspar shrugs. “Yeah, I guess it would be nice to actually sleep.”
“We can’t sleep?”
“You can,” he says cautiously. “You can do anything here, but sleeping is like being awake – you dream dreams in which you wander around London, haunting people, playing ping pong and staring in nothingness. Then you wake up and do exactly the same thing. There’s no point to it, so I don’t really sleep.”
There is a pause.
“And where are all the people? The Romans, the medieval people, Grandma?”
Caspar looks as you as though you’re stupid.
“It’s a ghost town, Penny,” he says. “It’s deserted.”
Haunt Someone You Have Always Liked
You don’t know why you do it. You just get the idea and fancy it. After all, wouldn’t it be much better if you had someone you knew in the afterlife?
You go to her house, you let yourself in, you find her handbag on the sofa, you pocket her inhaler, you go upstairs, you rummage through the medicine cabinet, you find her spare inhalers and pocket them too.
You don’t think twice.
All you have to do now is wait, so you go downstairs, turn on the TV and stare at it. You half-expect it to be some special ghost television, but it’s the normal stuff. Only, for some reason, nothing grips you. You flick onto the news. In the real world, there’s been an earthquake and hundreds of people have died, the economy has gone to shit and human beings are one step closer to landing on Mars. You turn the TV off and stare at the blank screen.
Your sister comes down the stairs thirty-six hours later – sooner that you’d imagined. Her skin is blue, her hair straggly and thin and her aspect gaunt.
You greet her flatly, as if you meeting in the afterlife were the most ordinary thing in the world. “Hello,” you say. “How are you?”
“Hello,” she says, her voice is monotone and she looks entirely unsurprised to see you. “I’m neither good nor bad.”
You nod. You understand.
She nods. She understands you understand.
“So, what happened?” you ask.
“Yes,” you say. “What happened. How did you die?”
She shrugs. “I couldn’t find my inhaler.”
“That’s a shit death,” you say.
You find Caspar in a wooded area of the park, just floating. Around him, there are one, two, three ghosts hanging. It’s past midnight now. It’s creepy. You don’t feel creeped out though. You just feel dead.
“How did the haunting go?”
“I killed my sister,” you say.
“Shit,” he says. “Why would you do that?”
You shrug. “I kind of just wanted to know someone here. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. Actually, I know it was the wrong thing to do. But I did it anyway. It’s weird, isn’t it? Not feeling things. Being dead is so…dead.”
Caspar shrugs. He shrugs a lot, you think.
“You don’t have to stick around, you know,” he says. “Don’t do it for me.”
You float out on to the street and catch a cab to the only place that comes to mind, paying the driver with the last of Guillaume’s cash.
“One halloumi wrap,” you say to the man behind the counter.
“It costs four pounds fifty,” the man says, handing you over the wrap. He has bullet hole in the side of his face. “But this one’s on the house.”
You thank him, sit down where you sat before, and start to eat. It is four in the morning.
Alice Franklin has had her work published in the Financial Times, Liars’ League and three Spanish-language flash fiction anthologies. From September, she will be studying for an MA in Creative Writing (Prose) at UEA. She lives in London where she interns, writes and hammocks. You can find her on Twitter @alicenfranklin