Type
Fiction

The inconvenient dead

A week after he killed himself, Dane Johnson came to visit Toby at the service station. It was a Friday, which wasn’t usually one of Toby’s nights, but Toby was working anyway because one of the other guys had quit unexpectedly and the manager hadn’t had time to put a replacement through the two day unpaid customer service accreditation scheme new employees were required to complete before beginning their trial period.

Dane appeared at the edge of the light in the service area at about ten. Toby was watching the television screen that repeated advertisements above the fridges, and though he wasn’t looking in Dane’s direction something about him caught Toby’s eye and made him turn.

He knew straight away that whoever it was was Dead: the slow shambling motion of their walk was unmistakable. But it took a moment or two longer for him to recognise the hair and clothes, and to rise to his feet in surprise.

For a few seconds he didn’t know what to do. He supposed he should have been frightened, but what he felt wasn’t fear, more like a sense of slippage, a queasiness, as if the world was shifting beneath him. On the screen above the fridges, the advertising montage began again, the images of people smiling photogenically at each other flickering silently across it, but Toby barely noticed. Instead he flicked the safety on the register, set down his drink and stepped out through the sliding doors.

Dane didn’t move as Toby crossed the service area towards him, and for a moment Toby was reminded of his sister, who sleepwalked, of the way she looked when he or his parents found her in the hall or the kitchen in the small hours of the morning, the way she could appear to be awake yet somehow absent at the same time. Once people believed sleepwalkers would die if you woke them. That was a lie, Toby knew, but still he was unsure what to do when Dane did not seem to notice him, even when Toby was standing right in front of him. So he just said his name, first once and then again, until something seemed to register and Dane turned towards him, his eyes fixing on Toby briefly before moving on and away. Yet it was only when he spoke for a third time, to ask him if he was okay, that Dane finally focused on him. On the other side of the service area a car had drawn up and a man was standing by the petrol pump, watching them. Toby glanced round at him, then back at Dane.

‘Do you want to come in?’ he asked.

 

It had been happening for a while, of course, the Dead-coming-back thing. Not often, but often enough. Nobody seemed to know why it had started, nor did there seem to be any particular rhyme or reason to who came back. In the beginning people tended to assume their return must mean something, that those who came back had left things unsaid or undone that they needed to set right. But after a while it became clear this was not the case. Although a few of the Dead did want to return to the life they had known when they were alive, most did not, preferring instead to move on, leave behind wives and husbands, children and parents.

For all the pain it caused there was no malice in this, no desire to harm or distress. Indeed for the most part the Dead seemed almost entirely uninterested in the repercussions of their presence. Instead they were just there: heavily, inconveniently there.

 

Once they were back inside, Toby offered Dane a seat in the corner behind the counter. He wasn’t crazy about having Dane there but it was better than leaving him out in the service area or standing near the food. His manager, Ahmed, would be pissed whatever happened but at least this way he could argue he’d put him somewhere the customers were less likely to see him.

Not, of course, that they wouldn’t know what he was if they did. Like all the Dead, Dane’s body seemed unable to shed the rigor of the grave, meaning his every action had a jerking quality, a quality that in Dane’s case was underlined by the angry line of the ligature beneath his jaw and the unnatural angle of his head upon his neck.

Nor was it just about his pallor or his neck. Last summer, riding home after a party, Toby had seen one of the Dead in a park, standing quietly just out of the reach of the streetlights. He hadn’t seen her face, but he knew at once from the way she stood, the passive, waitingness of it, that she was Dead.

He hadn’t been frightened that night. In fact, as he coasted past he had looked back, struck by a feeling he couldn’t name, something more like yearning, or sadness.

He wasn’t sure Dane made him feel like that, exactly. Yet it was difficult to avoid the sense Dane had come loose from whatever held him to his former life, that however much he tried he was no longer part of it, of this. And, as the customers came and went, he could see they felt it as well. One by one, they started, or did double takes, some going so far as to place a hand over their hearts or mouths in surprise. The living Dane probably would have relished the response ; now he seemed to barely notice it.

Yet as the night wore on Toby began to wonder if there wasn’t something more to it. Dane himself might not want anything, but his presence, the unwanting thereness of it, weighed upon him, made him uncomfortable. It was as if just by being there Dane demanded something of him, something Toby had no idea how to give. Once or twice he glanced across at him, expecting to find Dane looking his way, but he never was. Instead he sat staring off into space, his eyes fixed on some invisible point in the middle distance.

Nor was making conversation any easier. Dane never spoke unless spoken to, and even when he did his replies were halting, distracted, meaning any exchange sputtered out almost as soon as it began.

Of course Dane hadn’t been much of a talker when he was alive, either. But this was different. Now his silence made Toby so uncomfortable and frustrated that it was almost a relief when, just before dawn, Dane stood, and after hesitating for a moment shuffled out from behind the counter towards the door.

Rising Toby hurried after him.

‘Dane?’ he said, first once and then again, louder this time.

In front of him Dane stopped.

‘Where are you going?’

Dane didn’t answer. For a moment Toby thought about reaching out, taking hold of his arm, but he didn’t.

‘Will you be back?’

This time Dane hesitated, then shrugged.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘maybe’. Then turning away again he headed out across the service area and away into the soft grey of the pre-dawn light.

 

Toby had been at home the week before when Dane’s father rang. He heard his mother answer, then she was at his door, the phone clasped to her chest.

Afterwards he opened his computer, pulled up Facebook. People were already leaving messages on Dane’s profile, little notes of shock or grief saying things like ‘I’m crying for you, Dane’ and ‘Sometimes the world is just too sad’, or just lines of hearts and little pictograms. He should write something, he knew that, if only because he had known Dane the longest, but as he watched the messages appear, one after another, the things he wanted to say all seemed to somehow miss the point, to be too weak, too obvious.

They hadn’t been friends, of course, not really, not for a while. Indeed as he sat there in his room with the computer he found he couldn’t remember the last time they’d spoken properly. Now he thought about it, he wasn’t sure when he’d last seen Dane having a proper conversation with anybody. It wasn’t just that Dane was mopey or weird or angry, though he was all those things. It was that he was so obviously in pain, and that was too difficult to deal with.

 

When he woke up that afternoon he called Mav. When Toby told him about the night before, he whistled.

‘No way,’ he said. ‘For real?’

Hearing Mav speak, Toby felt suddenly uneasy, the events of last summer reasserting themselves.

‘For real.’

‘Are you on again tonight? I have to see this.’

Afterwards he wondered why he had called Mav instead of somebody who had known Dane a little better. Had he thought Mav would be impressed? Or was it just that he thought Mav understood the strangeness that sometimes came with night shifts at the service station, the way the gap between the fluorescent light and plastic surfaces within and the sodium-tinted dark without could combine to make the world seem both too real and oddly distant, as if one had fallen unexpectedly out of sleep into sudden wakefulness.

Either way the result was that at ten, when Dane appeared on the edge of the light again, Mav was seated inside with Toby. Seeing Dane shuffle into view he stood and gave a low whistle.

‘Where do you reckon he’s been all day?’ he asked. ‘Do they go back underground or something?’

Toby remembered the Dead woman in the park, her quiet presence in the shade of the trees when he went back the next day, the way she had seemed part of that green. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Perhaps.’

As Dane approached, Toby wrinkled his nose. The night before Dane had smelt of earth and hospital, the close reek of the dirt mingling with the medicinal tang of disinfectant and surgical soap, but there was a new note to it now, something sweet and slightly foul.

As Dane drew near Mav grinned and nodded his head as he did when appraising a car or a girl he admired.

‘Hey Dane,’ he said.

Dane stopped and jerked his head around. ‘Mav,’ he said, his voice coming loose and rasping from his ruined windpipe.

 

When Toby started work at the servo the summer before, neither he nor Dane had ever really spoken to Mav. A year ahead of them at school, the captain of the rugby team, Mav would usually have looked straight through both of them, which meant Toby was surprised when he turned up for his first shift and found Mav working behind the counter in the Mountain Bean Café (‘Real Coffee! Real Baristas!’) that occupied the other half of the building.

That first night Toby was more absorbed with trying not to mess up the intricacies of the register and the toilet checks and the cash drops than the question of what he would say to Mav when or if he had to speak to him, which is why he was surprised when, at around eleven, Mav appeared at the counter.

‘You’re Toby, right?’ he’d asked, and when Toby told him he was he shook his head, grinned, and said ‘Welcome to the crappiest job in town.’

Toby never deluded himself into thinking Mav would seek out his company if they weren’t stuck working together. But as the weeks passed it became a sort of habit, and on those nights the two of them were both rostered on Mav would usually drop past and waste an hour or two with Toby before heading home or out to his meet his mates. It wasn’t friendship exactly, but as time passed Toby found himself coming to enjoy the shared bullshit of his company. There was something cheerfully uncaring about Mav, a casual arrogance that made him surprisingly easy to be with.

Then, a month or so after he started working at the station, he heard the sound of skateboard wheels bumping in across the service area. Glancing round Mav made a face.

‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Look at this loser.’

As he spoke Toby saw it was Dane, and, surprised, got to his feet.

‘What?’ Mav asked. ‘You know him?’

Toby hesitated for a moment.

Mav snorted in disbelief. ‘No skateboards!’ he said.

Dane glanced around, then, placing one foot on his board, flicked it up and caught it. For a long moment he’d stood staring at Mav, then turning, had looked at Toby and said, ‘Hey.’

Toby didn’t know why he’d come: the two of them hadn’t really spoken for the last year or so. Exactly why wasn’t clear to Toby. When he was with Dane it was impossible to escape the feeling Dane felt Toby was missing some bar Dane had set, not giving enough, or pushing hard enough, yet no matter what he did, however hard he tried, Dane would just lift the bar higher, until one day it just seemed too hard, and Toby stopped trying.

Yet when Dane walked in that night it was as if none of that had ever happened, and so, even with Mav there, it didn’t take them long to fall back into the rhythm they had always had when they were alone together.

After that night it became a routine: every Friday and Saturday night at around ten Dane would coast his skateboard to the doors and step off it with a practised flick. If Toby was serving he would pause by the magazines or flip through the CDs on the counter, pausing over the ones called things like Death Metal Madness Vol 6, until eventually the customers left, and Toby was able to talk.

Looking back, Toby realised he didn’t really remember what they talked about, or even whether they talked much at all. Dane was often distracted, and the constant flow of customers meant it was difficult to have a proper conversation, but in a weird way that seemed to make the whole thing easier, almost as if the interruptions kept Dane from focusing for too long on any one thing, or from trying to push Toby about this or that.

All the same, Toby couldn’t have said he wanted Dane there. Although he was pretty certain Ahmed didn’t check the CCTV footage all that often, he’d made a big deal about friends not being welcome when Toby did his training, and the one time Ahmed had caught Dane there he’d asked Toby the sort of pointed questions about who Dane was and what he was doing hanging around that made it clear he suspected Dane was more than just a blow-in on a skateboard.

But the real problem was Mav. After that first night he seemed to make a point of coming through to hang out when Dane was there. Exactly why wasn’t clear to Toby. He and Mav weren’t friends precisely, and in the scheme of things Dane was nobody, especially to Mav. Yet something about Dane, or perhaps Dane’s relationship with Toby, seemed to bother Mav, and not in a good way. On nights when Dane didn’t turn up Mav used to ask Toby about him, about what Dane had been like when they were kids, about why they’d been friends, about what it was Toby saw in him now. Not that they actually were questions, not really: as Toby quickly came to understand, they were better seen as a sort of riff, an extended speculation on why anybody, and in particular Toby, would be friends with somebody like Dane.

Nor was it much different when Dane was there. Although after a time it settled into an uneasy banter, Toby saw how Dane tensed up when Mav appeared, the way his jaw set and his hand closed tighter over whatever he was holding, the way he grew still as if he might disappear.

But Mav wouldn’t let him. Leaning on the counter he made a point of asking Dane’s opinions, of including him in the discussion. ‘Hey cockhead,’ he’d call, grinning as he paused so Dane would have time to recognise his failure to respond to the insult. ‘You listen to this metal shit, right? What’s the point of it?’ Or, ‘Is it guys’ cocks or their arses that turn you on?’

There was something oddly coercive about Mav’s manner, a sense in which the openness and ease of his belligerence made it almost impossible to protest without seeming unreasonable. Part of it was that he was often genuinely funny, but it was more than that. For Toby understood that to complain would be to show he was like Dane as well, and that to do so would be a mistake.

What made it worse was that Toby understood how much Dane hated it. Although he only rarely responded it was impossible to watch the two of them together and not see the way Dane tensed up in Mav’s presence, the way Mav’s taunts unmanned him.

All of which made it stranger to see the two of them here again, to see Mav staring at Dane in his demanding way, and Dane, his face obscured behind his hair and his mouth loose where the piercing in his lip protruded, staring, refusing to meet their eyes, his gaze sliding down, or away over their shoulders, as it always had.

At first Mav seemed unsure how to engage with Dane, preferring to stare at him while he asked Toby questions about when he had turned up, how long he had stayed, whether he had looked this fucking bad last night. But then he paused, his manner growing more deliberate as he asked Dane how he had got out.

For a brief moment Toby had an image of Dane swimming up through the earth like something quick and slippery, the flash throwing him off balance for a moment.

‘I dunno,’ Dane said. ‘Dug.’

Mav shook his head. ‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘With your hands?’

Dane nodded.

‘And they’re not all torn and shit?’

As if the question had not occurred to him before, Dane looked down at his hands. Still covered here and there with black nail polish, his small, bitten fingernails were chipped and broken, his fingertips black with grime. But it wasn’t his fingers or fingernails Toby found himself staring at but Dane’s skin, which was waxen pale and mottled purple and green, as if with fading bruises.

‘Huh,’ said Mav. For a moment nobody said anything, so when Toby’s voice came again it sounded loud, uncertain.

‘What was it like?’

‘What?’

‘Dying.’

There was a pause. Dane tilted his head and looked past Toby. ‘I dunno.’

‘What do you mean, you dunno?’ Mav asked incredulously.

Toby glanced at Mav, willing him to be quiet. ‘Was there a light or a tunnel or something?’

Dane shook his head. ‘Not really. I remember being on the rope, being afraid, and fighting, then next thing I knew I woke up in the coffin.’

‘So you weren’t, you know, aware?’

Dane shook his head.

‘And it didn’t hurt?’ Mav asked.

‘No,’ Dane said. ‘I don’t think so.’ He paused. ‘I remember being cold, I think. And alone.’

‘And now? Does it hurt now?’ Toby asked then, one hand rising, as if to touch the mark on Dane’s neck. Opposite him Dane lifted his head, his eyes meeting Toby’s.

‘No,’ he said. ‘At least, not compared to being alive.’

 

It was after three before Dane left, and although Mav wanted to follow him, Toby held him back, telling him it was better to leave Dane be. But as they watched him lurch off into the dark, Toby could see Mav already had some new object in mind.

‘We should get some of the others around,’ he said, once Dane was out of sight. ‘Get some kind of party going.’

Toby hesitated. ‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,’ he said.

‘Don’t be a dickhead,’ Mav said, flicking his phone on. ‘It’ll be cool.’

Which is how there came to be twenty people waiting in Mountain Bean when Dane turned up the next night. A couple were friends of Mav’s, the rest kids from school, a group of girls, a couple of guys Dane had been friendly with years before.

Released from his shift Toby lingered on the edge of the group, listening and watching. There was something skittish and stagey about the gathering. Several of the girls kept bursting into tears, while the guys talked too loudly, their movements forced and oafish.

Some time around ten it occurred to Toby that Dane might not come, that his first two visits might have severed whatever vestige of his past life remained. But then one of the girls gasped, and, glancing around, he saw Dane approaching.

Despite the nervous energy of that past half-hour the room fell silent as Dane entered. Part of it was the fact of his presence, the way he looked, but Toby could see from the way several of them stepped back, hands raised to their mouths, or the protective way one or two of the guys closed their arms around their girlfriends, that it was more than that as well. For a long moment nobody moved, then Mav stepped forward, and with an oddly solicitous gesture placed a hand on Dane’s shoulder and drew him into the group.

 

As Toby watched Mav’s guests take Dane’s hand and clap him on the shoulder he found himself wondering at Dane’s manner with them. The Dane he knew would have hated this, would have sneered at the fake emotion, said they weren’t here for him but for themselves. Toby had hated his anger, hated the way Dane could never leave it be, never stop riding the people around him until he provoked exactly the reaction that would confirm what he believed. Until he made them hate him.

Yet the Dane he could see tonight wasn’t that Dane. It was as if the anger had drained away, and in its place there was only a sort of emptiness, as if Dane was already gone.

At first that didn’t seem to matter. Just as at the funeral the girls cried and hugged each other, though now they also made a show of sitting with Dane and talking to him. Some held his hand. The guys embraced him or shook his hand. Mav called him brother. People said you should have told us, and you know you can talk to me, we’re always here. And for a while that was enough.

But as the night progressed, Toby felt something begin to shift in the mood of the group. Whether the others felt it or not he wasn’t sure, but to him it felt like a sort of dissatisfaction was setting in. It wasn’t enough, it seemed, for Dane to be there, he needed to give them something as well, to be grateful for their grief.

At first he wasn’t sure whether he was imagining it or not. But as midnight approached it was obvious something was wrong. Even Caitlin, who had been crying on and off all night, burying her face in Amber’s shoulder and sobbing about how much she missed him, seemed almost angry when she came to say good night.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, but Dane just looked at her without speaking. Then he nodded. Yet that moment, that space of seconds, was enough for something to turn cold in Caitlin, for her to pull away, cheated.

Afterwards, when it was just Mav, Toby asked how it had gone. Mav glanced over at Dane.

‘You’d think he’d be pleased, wouldn’t you?’

‘About what?’

‘All these people turning up. That they’re so upset.’

Toby shrugged. ‘I suppose.’

Mav shook his head. ‘You don’t think there’s something really passive-aggressive about it?’

As he spoke Toby turned to look at him, remembering all those Friday and Saturday nights the year before, the way Mav had tormented Dane.

‘What?’ Mav asked, but Toby only shook his head.

‘Fuck you, Mav,’ he said.

 

Outside, Dane was sitting in the air and water bay, his arms wrapped around his legs. Toby walked over, sat down beside him. Dane was doing the staring thing again, his eyes fixed on some invisible spot up on the service station roof, his expression blank. But when Toby spoke he knew Dane was listening.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked. Seated beside him, he could see the line of stitches running up the side of Dane’s head, the white of the skull beneath. Suddenly he remembered something he’d heard about the pathologists removing people’s brains to do toxicology and wondered whether Dane’s was in there or not.

‘They could have done that whole evening without me, couldn’t they? I was only there to give them a chance to feel good about themselves.’ When Toby didn’t answer Dane looked at him. ‘Is that what my funeral was like?’

Toby hesitated. ‘A bit.’

Dane looked away again. When he spoke again his voice was quieter. ‘I spoilt it, didn’t I?’

‘Spoilt what?’

‘This. Before. All of it.’

Toby didn’t reply at once. ‘Why did you do it?’

Dane shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I just wanted it to stop, I think, just wanted it to be over.’

‘You could have tried to talk to me.’

‘Would you have listened?’

Toby didn’t answer, the blood rising to his face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said at last.

For a long time neither of them spoke. Then Dane rose.

‘I have to go,’ he said.

‘Go where?’ Toby asked, looking up at him.

Dane did not answer, just turned, began to walk away.

‘Wait,’ Toby said, standing up. ‘Isn’t there something I can do?’

As he spoke Dane hesitated and looked around. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Not anymore.’

For a moment Toby thought to run after him, tell him to stay, but he knew there was no point, that however much the thing in front of him looked like Dane it was not, or not in any way that mattered, that everything that mattered about Dane, all his anger, all his need, had died with him, and all that remained was a memory of that need. And as he did, he understood something else, something about the Dead. People wondered why they were here, what they wanted, what they needed. But that was the wrong question. The Dead didn’t want anything: it was the Living who wanted, who needed. And that this was their tragedy, to be caught in a story that would not end, to be inconvenient, to be extraneous. To be alive.

James Bradley is a novelist and critic. His books include three novels, a book of poetry and, most recently, The Penguin Book of the Ocean. He blogs at cityoftongues.com.

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