Life or death

 

 

Frank scuttled forward, peered over the line in front of him and returned to gazing at his well-worn trainers. Being British, Frank was not one to break the mould; he too hated a queue. This queue, he entertained, was possibly the largest he had ever stood in. It snaked left and right. At points, it was two persons wide and it had seemed to have no end. At the head of the queue, a good fifty people away Frank surmised, was a wide row of wooden-clad counters. He noticed there were no metal poles with ropes attached to help keep the line orderly and civil. This was very disappointing and unacceptable, he thought.

Behind every window there sat an annoyingly chipper assistant. They were all of them singing the same song, ‘how may I help you?’ and ‘You have a nice day’ and – this was Franks personal favourite-, ‘It’s been a pleasure serving you today’. Behind the desks were floor to ceiling windows, allowing the light to bathe the entire hall in an ethereal shimmer and glow. It looked like a grand lobby of a building he was sure he had seen in pictures or in movies. The hall itself was massive, swallowing everything and everyone inside, and hummed with the sound of a thousand voices, telling a thousand stories. It was tastefully crafted in a gothic style with slender arches that seemed to touch the sky. The vaulted ceiling looked out of place, and perhaps belonged to a splendid European cathedral from a century long gone. Frank took his eyes away from the hall and focused on the queue once again.

The queue shuffled a few feet. In front, an overweight woman with a personal hygiene issue was busy talking to the man ahead of her about ISAs and other financial issues of the day, all of which made Frank want to remove his eyes with blunt pencils. He was sure to keep his finances in reasonable health, but the finer details, and indeed any discussion regarding them bored him to tears. It immediately reminded him of a dinner party a few years previous. A man named Kent and his impossibly good-looking partner. A small grin attempted to grow across his face as he recalled her making a pass at him in the kitchen later that same night. Another lost opportunity, he sighed. Frank peered to the side again at the head of the queue. He cast a wistful look at his watch, which had stopped. He tutted, making sure everyone close was aware of his annoyance. He would have verbally berated his watch, hoping that others would listen, but as he had not had his morning coffee, he thought this unwise. Directly behind him was a young teenage boy, all slick hair and tight-fitting clothes. The young man was busy on his phone. Frank rolled his eyes and shook his head. The queue was testing his patience, but its members were tipping him over the edge.

Frank was just able to make calls and work out how to send a text, so any youths fascination with their calculator-sized life support system baffled him. The youth looked up from his phone and directly at Frank. Frank looked away. Best not to antagonise the youth of today, he reasoned.

It had been a good start to a Monday, as Mondays go. Frank had no pending meetings that morning, his boss was on holiday for a fortnight, and that night he had bagged himself a date using an online dating site. They had exchanged several messages, and she didn’t seem like a bunny-boiler or a psychopath, so things were looking up. On his way into work, he had once again flirted with the barrister at his local coffee shop and dreamed of sordid flings and weekend getaways as she prepared his skinny latte. She was, at best guess, around mid-twenties, not long out of University. This was most likely her first proper job. Frank imagined she harboured dreams to write a screenplay, travel the world and teach in a third world country. For now, she would make do with Dulwich and her daily exchanges with a thirty-two-year-old journeyman.

A good half an hour passed, and the head of the queue was starting to seem like it might be reached before the next summer solstice. Frank could almost see the faces of the assistants behind the glass, except as he looked closer, he couldn’t. He stared harder. Every one of them was wonderfully bland, totally devoid of a face except for an ever-grinning mouth. They were all white teeth and rosy, featureless cheeks. Frank stopped staring and looked once again at the watch that had stopped sometime before. The time had stopped at 8:13. Frank through hard about why this time would be in any way significant to him or anyone else, and then totally lost his train of thought as the teenager’s phone prodded his middle lower back.

Frank was now thirteen from the front.

The woman in front was now talking about the Great British Bake Off. He hated the programme, hosted by an unfunny duo, a man having a mid-life crisis, and an older woman in need of an iron.  Frank tried to unhear the conversation, but the woman’s voice was so grating, it seemed like it was only broadcasting to him, a personal wavelength to feed his already swelling annoyance at the mornings events so far. He much preferred panorama and re-runs of Bottom. He was a man of habit, he liked certain things, and he liked them in order. There was a lot of order in Frank’s life. This had most likely contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to Greta. They were childhood sweethearts, and destined to remain together forever, or so he had hoped. She tolerated him at school when nobody else would, and in time, she grew to like him. This, eventually, gave way to a strange, but workable love. They had no children, and no mortgage, and although no divorce is ever pleasant, it could have been much worse. He often thought of Greta. Her wild, blonde hair and wonky nose. The way she would giggle at the most inappropriate things. His Auntie’s funeral was not a highlight during their brief marriage.

Frank was now five from the front.

He looked again at the faceless assistants with the perma-grins attached to their egg-like heads. Just then, the most annoying thing happened. A smartly dressed, friendly young man started down the line from the front, asking people if they would like to participate in a brief survey. Frank never liked surveys. He wasn’t going to like this one, so he willed the line to hurry.

Frank was now three from the front.

The man with the clipboard was edging ever closer.

Frank was second.

He felt a skip in his heart as the shutters on all five counters came down. An audible gasp echoed down the line behind him. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Each one of the shutters was marked with a single sentence.

It read;

‘Closed for lunch.’

A small volcano bubbled in his lower gut. He was sure it was rage and not that mornings breakfast about to repeat on him. He started to get a tickly itch on his scalp; he was sweating.

He could hold it no longer. He spun around in dramatic fashion.

“God sake,” he yelled.

The sound carried throughout the entire hall. People several hundred metres away stopped and looked directly at him. Time stood still for a moment as his outburst caused the room to freeze.

Frank looked back.

A tall man in a grey suit was stood before him. He had a full head of blonde hair and a neat beard, which didn’t quite match. He was tall and had a kind face. He pulled out a small device and started to swipe at it with his finger.

“Hmm,” the man said.

“Hmm?” said frank. “Hmm?”

The man nodded, still fixed on his device and not on Frank. This annoyed Frank.

“Frank Dimbleby. 222 west Morland Crescent. Marketing assistant, single, smoker. Dead.”

“Excuse me?” said Frank.

The man chuckled to himself. He had done this before, Frank could tell.

“I’m sorry, how rude,” he said. “You died, Mr Dimbleby. This very morning. Hit by a number 37. Nasty.”

Frank stared like a child into a toy shop window. He was frozen. He had nothing to feel, no words to utter to this man. Dead? That was ridiculous.  This had to be a prank – some spotty, college dropout would appear at any minute waving apologetically, telling him it was a prank.

They didn’t.

“Number 37?” he whispered, almost to himself.

“Yes,” said the man. “It was late too.”

Frank was there, but he wasn’t. His ears were still attached to his head but he was sure they weren’t working. The delicious irony in the man’s words lost to the ether.

Frank shook his head, as if coming back from a daydream. He looked around him. Nobody was interested in him or the conversation he was having with the bearded man. In fact, nobody else in the queue seemed to notice the man.

A muffled ringtone, one Frank recognized played.

The man held his hand out apologetically, mouthed ‘sorry ‘and pulled out a phone.

“Hello.”

Frank took a good look at the man, he really studied him.

“Really?” said the man, his brows arched like a stone bridge.

The man nodded several times.

“I see,” he said, smiling. “You’re certain?”

The man looked Frank up and down, making Frank feel rather uncomfortable.

“Jolly good,” said the man. “Speak to you soon, bye.”

The man tucked the phone away, sighed and placed a hand on Frank’s shoulder. Frank could feel the weight as his hand pressed down into his bad shoulder; It was a tennis injury.

“There’s been a development,” said the man.

“A development?” said Frank. “Care to explain?”

Development could mean anything. War in the middle East? Cat stuck up a tree in Hull, these are both developments.

The man chuckled, as if on the brink of delivering the punchline to end them all. Just then, things got weird. Franks whole person wibbled and wobbled. Frank blinked furiously. Everything around him now seemed clouded in grey mist. It was like he was stuck in the middle of a dense fog. A dense fog that made him feel almost drunk. Suddenly, familiar sounds channelled into his ears, although right then, he wasn’t sure exactly what they were.  His arms and legs were bending like plasticine. The surroundings got whiter and whiter and a feint voice spoke to him.

“See you soon,” said the man.

Everything was white. The queue had gone, replaced by a brilliant nothingness. It was like a showroom from Ideal homes magazine. Perfectly bland in every way.

Frank came to, coughing and spluttering, gasping for air. The sounds he sort of recognised grew louder and sharper.

He was in the local high-street, and he was lead down.

“Stand back,” shouted a female paramedic. “He’s coming back.”

Franks vision unblurred. He could see a crowd gathered. Eyes fixed on him. One young man had the audacity to be filming the event on his phone. On any normal day, this behaviour would have enraged Frank, but today, as he peered along his body to see bone sticking through his trousers, he simply couldn’t muster the will. The paramedic leant in, placing a mask over his mouth and nose. He caught a whiff of perfume as his eyes blurred, again. His nose was filled with flowers and the scent of a summer meadow. The paramedic was smiling. Her eyes glistened with too much mascara. Frank closed his eyes – again, and not for the first time that morning, he went on a journey.

 

Published by Jason Moody

Wannabe writer. Husband. dreamer. Part-time idiot.

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