An original story, written for the 2011 Halloween invitational. Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. firstname.lastname@example.org
Untitled - Halloween 2011
I'm battling my way to the bar, inch by sweaty, jostling inch, through vampires, ghosts, a couple of pumpkin-heads and assorted demons, hoping that I can gain my objective without knocking over anyone's drink. Suddenly I'm at the front and a Cruella de Ville behind the bar is asking me what I want. At that crucial moment I'm not paying attention. I'm thinking how uncomfortable it would be in those rubber masks, how glad I am I decided to go with a simple white face-painted zombie look, how a Halloween ball is no place to meet someone new (not that I'm really looking); thinking I'll just stay for a couple of drinks, to please my friends and then sneak off home—
"Excuse me, Madam, I believe it's your turn."
Madam? That's not a word you hear often in the Pussy Club. I turn to look at the source of this quaint turn of phrase.
There stands the Grim Reaper, scythe in hand, propping up the bar. I hope that thing's a repro, I think. You could have someone's eye out with that. What I can see of her face underneath the hood seems delicately boned and deathly white; a good make up job most unlike my own hastily applied pan stick. She's taken care over her costume. Then I notice her eyes. Totally, entirely, pure black. For a second I am a tiny bit spooked by those eyes; I entertain a ridiculous notion that they are looking right into the heart of me. The moment passes and I am impressed. Tinted contact lenses, now that's taking your costume really seriously.
On impulse I offer to buy her a drink. She holds up an almost full glass of clear liquid, shrugs and offers a hint of a smile. A nice smile, a little shy, not at all deathlike; a smile that seems to say: 'I wish my glass was empty because then you could buy me a drink and we'd have an excuse to chat, if only for a little while.' Or perhaps that's just my wishful thinking.
I order my round. Five drinks, four of them pints, and our table far from sight of the bar. Cruella offers me a tray, but I've never been good with balancing things, so I ask Death if she'd mind keeping an eye on them. I suppose I could have carried three and then two, but the place is heaving and I'm keen to avoid spillage. Four pints safely delivered to my friends, I fight my way to the bar for the third time where Death is waiting for me, guarding my vodka and tonic.
"Thanks," I say.
"You're most welcome," she says, inclining her head slightly.
She turns her head frontwards again to stare at her glass, which is still almost full.
"I like your outfit. The eyes are a nice touch."
"Glad you like them, they're the only ones I've got," she says to her drink. There must be something very interesting to be seen in that glass. Either that or she's giving me a big hint that she doesn't want my company. I decide to ignore the logical possibility.
Now I want to say I don't normally do this sort of thing: go to clubs, try to engage in conversation with women that I don't know. Given the option I'll always choose a quiet drink with friends or an evening in with a good box set. I know I'm not a risk taker. I like familiar, I like safe. Normally. But I've just spent the earlier part of the evening with Christine and Sue ¾ lovely couple, good friends, but sometimes so annoyingly positive ¾ giving me a concerned, caring, well-intentioned analysis of all that's wrong with my life and things I could do to make it right. Not content with dragging me to the Halloween Ball, they've been trying to persuade me to go bungee jumping with them the next weekend. No ulterior motive, of course; just a friend of a friend of a friend who is going and the two of us really ought to meet. "And even if you don't hit it off, you should at least try the jump. It's an amazing rush. Really, you need to live a little, you know, flirt with death."
And here Death is, standing next to me, like an omen, a portent and I get to thinking, well I could. It might be fun to give it a go, just for a little while. It'll probably end in horrid embarrassment, but... But I'll be able to tell Chris and Sue that I took their advice. I imagine the look on their faces; it'll be worth it.
So. Flirting. With Death. Never done that before.
"I like your outfit," I venture, "it's very... authentic."
"I should hope so."
"No really, I do. I mean, it's really believable, very death like, you know? It sort of suits you."
She mutters something that sounds like, "Then tell my boss that," and continues studying her drink.
So far, not so good. Ignoring the sensible voice telling me to just walk away, I launch into a babbling apology-cum-explanation: I'm rubbish at this, I'm not trying to chat her up or anything, I just thought she might like some company and if that's not the case she should tell me straight out because I'm very, very bad at reading hints, and perhaps I should just go before I make a fool of myself but...
I finish by telling her about Chris and Sue and their very sage advice.
That gets a laugh. Thankfully. She drags her eyes away from her glass and focuses them on me. "What's your name?"
"Pippa. Pippa Pearson."
"Pleased to meet you, Pippa Pearson." She raises her glass, takes the smallest of sips.
"Cheers." I down half my vodka in a single gulp. "What's your name?"
"What do you think?" She is smirking, and there seems to be a sparkle in those all-black eyes.
I shrug. I have no idea. "I'm no good at guessing games."
"Death, of course! I know some people call me the Grim Reaper, but that's such a mouthful. Death is simpler and much more to the point, don't you think?"
"Very funny. You're Death. Obviously. But what's your real name? What should I call you?"
She glances upwards and I get the feeling she's rolling her eyes. "Well, if you must be pedantic, my official designation is DTO 56. So there. Now you know. Hardly very awe inspiring is it?"
Unusual. Vaguely amusing. Not what I was expecting. My silence inspires her to continue.
"Oh come on, imagine it: you're in your final moment and I turn up — minus the costume, mind you, these days that's a big no-no — and intone importantly 'Hello. I am DTO 56 and I'm here to officially inform you of your death.' What would you think?"
I would think you're taking the piss out of me or you're one of those theatrical types. Had a dalliance with an actress once. It ended badly. So either way I should probably get back to my friends. Perhaps I would do, except that during her 'performance' I have downed the rest of my vodka and am in great need of another one. Preferably a double. Behind the bar, the harried staff, Cruellas all, rush back and forth ignoring my outstretched hand and my every attempt to make eye contact.
"Exactly!" Death exclaims. Apparently I have illustrated her point. "You wouldn't be impressed. You wouldn't bother paying attention." She lifts her arm, two outstretched fingers holding a folded banknote, points at a Cruella and then at my empty glass. Moments later a double vodka and tonic is placed before me. "Keep the change," Death murmurs, in a voice that sounds decidedly seductive.
"You gave her a twenty? If I'd known that was the trick to getting served quickly, I'd have taken out a bank loan."
"It's only money. I have no use for it."
Death has bought me a drink. I wonder if it would be rude to simply take it and leave. I decide that it would. Back to flirting then. Or at least polite conversation. With someone pretending to be Death and determined to stay in character. I can do that.
"Well thanks for the drink."
We stand side by side in silence. My glass has suddenly become very interesting. Far more so than any of the conversational clichés rolling round in my head. Eventually I have to say something.
"DTO 56. That's an unusual name."
"It's not a name. It's a designation.
"What, you think Death can be everywhere at once? I — we are split into many parts. I am one."
"Fair enough. That makes sense. You're part 56. But DTO?"
"Don't laugh." She seems embarrassed at the prospect of telling me.
"I won't." Why would I? It's all made up anyway.
"Department of Transition Officer."
I laugh. I'll give you this: it's different.
"You see? You see what I have to put up with? Nobody takes me seriously anymore."
"I'm sorry. But really? Department of Transition? You're supposed to be death, not a bloody civil servant." Perhaps she is a civil servant. I hope I haven't offended her. "I mean isn't death supposed to be all doom, gloom and a booming voice, a tall dark shadow cast across the land, that sort of thing?"
"Oh be still my imitation of a beating heart! Those were the days. Sadly they are no more. We've been rebranded."
"Why?" Why am I still here? Why am I asking this question?
"Because of you lot, that's why. Damned humans and your attitude. Believe me I've spent many eternal moments pondering where it all went wrong. Sometimes I think the roots lie in purgatory. Well, that's what Catholics called it, though they've never quite grasped its function. We used to call it Arrivals and Judgement, now it's the Department of Allocation. It's all the same thing really. It's where you wait while we check your curriculum vitae and decide where you're going next. Up or Down, Heaven or Hell, Good Place or Bad Place. Now that used to be a fairly easy thing to do: a few basic religions, mostly sharing the same concepts and expectations. But now... The problem really started when you re-invented democracy. Suddenly Arrivals was filled with souls spouting ideas of rights and freedoms. And before you know it there were Complaints. Hundreds of thousands of people, milling around forming groups: focus groups, protest groups, self awareness groups, groups for the sake of groups, all of them complaining. They didn't like the way Death had treated them. They hadn't been given enough information on what to expect. The afterlife wasn't catering to their particular belief system. Why did it take so long for CVs to be processed and what on earth were they supposed to do while waiting? Where were the hotels, restaurants, bars; where was the entertainment? Why wasn't there a 'Dead Friends Reunited' facility? And on and on.
"So now we've restructured and rebranded. It takes so long to process all the newly dead that we had to turn the DOA into a great metropolis just to accommodate everyone. We have help centres, counselling services, orientation sessions, feedback forms. Death has become the Department of Transition. And we, its faithful servants, have had to go on sensitivity training courses. No more black cloaks, scythes and portents of doom. Now, we have to look normal, friendly, approachable... human! Oh how I miss the old days."
"Sounds dreadful." It sounds decidedly weird. I'm beginning to wonder if this woman is on medication.
"Oh it is. D'you want to know the worst part?"
"Do tell." What will she think of next?
"For the next century or so I have to be especially careful. Last year there were two hundred complaints against me — what can I say, I was going through a bad patch — and now I'm on probation. An eternity of service and now I'm told if I don't improve my attitude, move with the times, I could lose my job!"
Am I imagining it or is there is real outrage and distress in her voice? I wonder if there is a kernel of truth to her story. Perhaps she is using fantasy to 'process' stuff in her life. Maybe she's a teacher or social worker and some delinquent kid has made a complaint against her. "I'm sorry," I say in what I hope is my most sympathetic voice. "Is there anyone you can talk to, someone who can represent your side. A union, maybe?"
She looks at me as if I were an idiot. "Oh please! You lot have unions and lobby groups and community forums! Us? We have orders from on high, and that's that."
Not in the public sector then. For some reason I am now quite curious to discover who this woman really is. My glass is empty once more. I really should slow down, though I don't feel at all drunk. "Can I get you another?"
She shakes her head. The drink she has remains mostly un-sipped. She is momentarily distracted by something beneath her cloak. She pulls out her smartphone, stares at it, then at me, then back at the phone. She seems... regretful?
Perhaps she is on call: a doctor maybe, a nurse or pharmacist. Perhaps she likes me and doesn't want to leave. Now that's ridiculous. Or perhaps she has a girlfriend. Perhaps I should have thought of that before I got myself into this ridiculous conversation.
"Work?" I ask, hopefully.
"Work," she confirms. She takes hold of her scythe and stands facing me.
I assume she is leaving. Before I can do anything so stupid as ask for her number — the woman's mad, why on Earth would you want to do that! — she blurts out, "Forgive me, Ms Pearson. Here you are at a club wanting a good night out and here I am moaning about my work. I'm really very sorry."
The phone, still in her hand, is flashing insistently.
She looks at me again. Wistfully. "It's such a shame. You're really very beautiful."
"Really." I look like a ghastly ghoul. "They teach you that in Sensitivity Training?"
"Look," she sighs, "I've never done this before so I apologise if I get it wrong but... Ms Pearson, may I kiss you?"
I'm not expecting that. I feel suddenly giddy with excitement, and possibly too much vodka. "Well if you're going to do that you might as well call me Pippa." I can feel an hysterical giggle coming on.
She pulls back her hood. Her hair is a jet black skull-cap, her face and lips so pale they are almost translucent. She is oddly, compellingly beautiful. She leans forward and her lips touch mine.
Fire and ice shoot through my body; every part of me is tingling. I want to laugh and cry at the same time. I can't quite believe it; this kind of thing has never happened to me before. It is good. It is more than good; it is divine. I am really dizzy now. I think I could fall into her arms and she could hold me forever.
Evening Courier, 1 November 2011:
A woman collapsed and died last night at a gay nightclub in Victoria Street. The death is currently being treated as unexplained, but not thought to be suspicious. Police investigations into this incident are ongoing.