Writer. Rock musician.
Staring in through the window, watching the woman who was your wife getting humped on the kitchen table by the man who was your best friend, you have to wonder if they waited until after you died.
Given the way he knows exactly how to please her - something you know from experience takes a long time to master - there is a good possibility they did not; they’ve probably been swapping bodily fluids for months, years even.
You can imagine them sneaking around behind your back every day you went to work, soiling the sheets on the faux-antique four-poster bed she had to have in order to maintain appearances. The thing was a fake that still cost more than her car; an illusion, the same as the melamine worktops hand-painted to resemble Italian granite, or the linoleum that could be book-matched teak as long as you don’t look too closely.
The same, it would now appear, as your whole marriage.
In stress management classes, you are told that being angry is okay - it’s a natural reaction anyone might have when presented with this kind of scenario, what they might call ‘a difficult situation’.
What the dictionary might define as betrayal.
In stress management classes, you are told it’s okay to feel this way as you stalk round the room pushing over chairs, your face puffy and eyes bloodshot, voice hoarse from swearing all that revenge. The most important thing, however, is to deal with the situation and move on, even when rationality has vanished beneath the red mist. The most important thing is to not take that revenge.
You must never act in anger.
Standing here in the bushes outside of what used to be your own house, the strange thing is the anger has dissipated. Instead, watching them grind away at each other, all that crosses your mind is how Tom’s mottled ass resembles orange rind.
The way you can go anywhere and do anything, the way you can drift in and out of the lives of all the people who once called themselves your friends, being dead is so liberating; you will never feel so free.
With you being dead, any time one of them catches a glimpse of you - a reflection in a store front or a glance through the window of a passing car - you see them pause before carrying on with a shake of their heads; telling themselves it was just a figment of their imagination, that it was just someone who looked like you.
You could stand right behind them and whisper their name into their ear, your warm breath on their skin, and they’d tell themselves it wasn’t real.
Because you are dead.
The funny part about all this is how much closer you feel to those people you were already supposed to be close to.
Being dead, with all the time in the world on your hands, you have to find things to occupy your mind. Heeding the advice of your stress counsellor, you spend your days in the warmth and quiet of the library expanding your knowledge and broadening your horizons. You find you can really invest in learning when the subjects - locksmithery, forensic science, computer ‘deprogramming’ - are of your choosing.
When not at the library, you hang around outside the homes of your former friends, watching them come and go. Observing the ebb and flow of their lives, making notes - when they are in, when they are out, when they are asleep.
Waiting for an opportunity to put everything into practice.
In your former line of work you had encountered procurists and facilitators, people who operated in the greyer margins of legality. You would find them via the personals in the back pages of local newspapers, advertised as ‘financial services’, their offices located in the back rooms of more legitimate businesses - bars, barber shops, second-hand car dealerships. You knew you had the right place by the incongruous placement of mountain-sized security guards, the underarms of their jackets pulled taut against the bulge of their guns.
Whatever it is you want, these are the people that can get it - from hard drugs to weapons to Russian orphans. The insides of these places stink of bleach and hand sanitizer and, once you’ve palmed over the money you’ve begged, borrowed and stole to accrue, you make your escape. The first breath of fresh air outside is nothing less than nirvana.
Now you have the knowledge and the equipment you need to re-enter your unsuspecting friends’ lives. This isn’t breaking and entering, not really; after all, these people used to welcome you into their homes with open arms all the time.
This is more of an unannounced return visit.
It’s amazing how many things you can find out about your friends when you’re alone in their homes; dirty little secrets you never had a clue about.
Your erstwhile friends are the kind of people considered to be pillars of the community. Upstanding citizens, they earn good money and give generously to charity. These are family people with two-point-four kids, overweight pedigree pets and their portrait printed on their Christmas cards. Instead of numbers, their houses have names - ‘The Hollies’ or ‘The White House’ or ‘Casa Rosa’. They play racquetball or tennis on Saturdays and have communal barbecues on Sundays.
The men, the husbands and fathers, are highly-placed executives in continent-straddling mega-corporations, or lawyers making a killing defending celebrities. They run their own dental practices and accountancy firms. They drive highly impractical sports cars and fantasise over their au pairs.
The women, the wives and mothers, shop and do lunch and gossip about other women they know. They spend hours in the gym, desperate to regain and maintain the bodies they had Before Children, drooling over their physical trainers now that their husbands are older, fatter, greyer, balder.
These people all grew up together and went to the same schools and universities. Now they live in close proximity to each other in a microcosmic proxy of their parents’ suburban cult of privilege, a multi-faceted entity acting as one big happy family. Breeding little carbon copies of themselves to send off to boarding schools to learn how to ski and play polo and become future leaders of commerce. Living the dream, a middle class model that everyone should aspire to.
You were always plagued by the notion they looked down on you because you didn’t come from the same background; you hadn’t grown up with a heated indoor pool and a maid and a trust fund. Your father was a motor mechanic; your high school had been sponsored by a fast-food chain. You always felt the outsider, fake-smiling around clenched teeth, pretending to know what they were talking about when half the time you didn’t have a clue.
Your wife would deny it, telling you to stop talking nonsense; they thought of you as an equal, a friend. Of course, she would say this with the lights off and her back to you in bed.
Tom the adulterer, the man who took you golfing and introduced you to good whiskey, earned six figures-plus last year. His wife Judith is the heiress to her father’s jewellery store empire. Their eldest child is a promising track athlete.
And yet, behind every perfect dream is a dirty little secret. It’s a sure thing not many people know about the contraptions, the devices, the things, kept hidden in the secret room behind the false wall in Tom’s basement. You have to wonder how many movies - what you might term specialist interest films - have been made on the compact video-editing suite down there. You have to wonder what kind of person makes them, let alone buys them.
And Judith more than knows about it. Every Sunday the pair of them would sit at whoever’s barbecue acting as normal as the rest of us, only it’s clear now why they never touched each other, why they barely even looked at each other. Why Judith would wear long-sleeved, high-necked tops with her hair down, even in the height of Summer.
Little things that only add up and make sense when you’re dead and running around behind the scenes of your former friends’ lives.
The story is the same whichever house you visit - the Brannocks, with their stash of far-right, anti-Semitic literature. The Crosses, the fraudsters. The Joneses, the accidental murderers. The Huntingdon-Smiths. The Tans.
Secret after secret after dirty little secret.
We all knew the Blacks’ child was adopted; we didn’t know it was never official, never legal. The child was the product of George’s affair with a prostitute drug addict. He convinced this girl not to have a termination and was left holding the baby when she choked to death on her own vomit. Alison was going to throw him out but George - ever the master salesman, the silver-tongued manipulator - talked her into keeping him and the baby.
And even after all that he couldn’t help himself; one illicit liaison too many and now his life expectancy is two, maybe three, years.
Secret after secret. Dead and piecing it all together.
Your wife, the adulteress, had her secrets too, not just from you. The family business had gone bankrupt years before you met her. Her parents shielded her from the awful truth as long as they could but eventually she found out that there was no more money - no trust fund, no credit cards, no way to pay for the fashion boutique shopping trips or dinner at Saki’s.
No way other than the humiliation of having to get an actual job.
Your wife vowed she would do whatever it took to elevate herself back to where she belonged, to the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, to which she was entitled. She was damned if she was going to do the heavy lifting herself, though. She just needed someone willing to do it for her, to work all the hours God sent and bury themselves under enough debt - mortgages, loans, credit cards - to purchase a small Third World country.
What the dictionary might define as a stooge.
A prime candidate was the colleague who had been making eyes at her ever since she started work; you were okay-looking and not too stupid, if a little naïve. All it took to have you eating out of her hand was a little cleavage, a few after-hours drinks and the promise of dirty sex.
You saw her as a goddess; turns out she saw you as a meal ticket.
Dad never approved. Wiping motor oil off his hands with his ancient red rag, the skin under his fingernails a perpetual black, he would ask why someone like her would want to be with someone like you.
“People like her do not fall in love with people like us,” he would say. “The differences between us are just too great.”
Of course, he wasn’t right. He didn’t understand. He didn’t realise times had changed, that social boundaries weren’t as rigid as they had been when he was younger.
“It’s okay to move outside your sphere of influence these days,” you would tell him. “She doesn’t care about where I come from. It’s who I am that matters.”
At first, it seemed you were right. She helped you land a job at Brannock’s firm on the pretence of escaping the dead-end she convinced you your life had become at that point. You were so blinkered, so blinded, by whatever it was you felt for her that you didn’t question her motives. You just went along with it, working your way through a series of jobs that started out ethically reprehensible and ended up outright morally bankrupt.
After a couple of months, she quit her job. A couple of months after that, you were moving into a house at least three times the size of the one in which you had grown up. You found yourself working eighteen-hour days, every day, to counteract the increased demand on your finances. After six months the sex dried up, which you put down to stress; as frustrated as you felt, it was also a relief given how exhausted you were.
Even after all this, it took a long time to realise your wife was just using you to keep up with the Joneses, and the Tans, and the Crosses.
It took being dead to realise your father was right all along.
Not a lot of people get to attend their own funeral, observing from the graveyard shadows. Your father looked more tired than upset; worn out, a cheap knock-off version of the real him. Jaw clenched, staring down at hands that still had oil under the nails, the only time he looked as though he might break was when the priest said parents aren’t meant to outlive their children.
It would be a heartless bastard who didn’t feel just a little guilty as his sobbing widow laid flowers on a coffin that contained a body she didn’t know wasn’t actually her late husband. It would be a real asshole who didn’t doubt just for a moment that - in spite of everything - dying had been the right thing to do after all.
Which only goes to show how stupid you were.
Planning your own death takes a year, maybe eighteen months. Most of that time will be spent talking yourself into, and out of, doing it. After all, it’s not a decision to take lightly. There are so many things to think about, so many questions to answer: Where do you go when you die? What happens when you get there? What about those you leave behind? How will they cope?
Do you even really want to die in the first place?
To die takes money, too; lots of money. Even being dead everything costs, so in addition to planning your death, you have to plan how you’re going to fund the afterlife. You have no-one to ask for help; there is no point in turning to your friends because they’re all her friends. You can’t ask your father without him raising a lot of unanswerable questions.
Banks would only swallow your money up as insignificant drops in the ocean of debt and the only people willing to loan you money are likely to kneecap you in the event of default. Stashing cash away in the house would be nigh on impossible: your wife checks every corner of the house when you’re out, the pockets of your clothes, the collars of your shirts. Being a liar and a cheat is conducive to a certain level of paranoia.
In the end you settle for a lockable metal cash tin, hidden in the one place your wife would never venture - the mulch pile at the bottom of the garden. As time went by, the garden had become a refuge of sorts. Your wife had wanted to hire a gardener, some illegal immigrant to fawn over the same as everyone else. In sufferance of her petulant spoiled princess glare, you convinced her the financial position was precarious enough that you had to do it yourself - it was either that or lose something else, maybe her weekly mani-pedi. She chewed on it long enough for you to wonder if she’d had a stroke, before muttering fine as she stormed away.
After that, every time you told her you wanted to do the garden she would turn away in silence and, although you know you’d pay for it with a cold shoulder for the rest of the day, you’d have an hour or two of respite. The one olive branch she extended to you was a Christmas gift set of garden tools - a hoe, rake, spade, pick-axe - paid for out of the money you earned and branded with some fashionista’s name as though that would be some badge of quality. You thanked her anyway and stored them in the shed unused.
It’s surprising how much money you can get together over a year or so when you give up buying magazines, smoking, lunch - things your wife wouldn’t need to know about. You were just grateful she didn’t comment on how your breath smelled better or how much weight you had lost. Not that she said much to you at all by the end, anyhow.
Sneaking out in the middle of the night, money in hand, you got to know the grounds like the back of your hand. If there’s anything you miss, all this time later, it’s that fucking garden.
To make the decision to die takes a total lack of self-esteem, a complete sense of rejection and a total loathing of yourself and everyone around you. A job you can’t stomach, a wife who doesn’t love you anymore if she ever did. A father who won’t speak to you because of the thing you’ve become. You have to hit rock bottom, when dying looks just the right way of getting out.
To die, you have to know there’s no point in living.
The plan was to find somewhere far, far away to start over. You would find some lodgings, a job; a place and means to rebuild yourself from the ground up.
To choose where your new life would begin, you dropped a pin in a map. After three attempts you had somewhere that just might work and stood back to watch the map burn on the bonfire.
The day after your funeral you got off the bus in Eden, blinking in the sunshine of this Utopia. You had a new outlook to go with your new alias, a new spring in your step to show for the weight now lifted from your shoulders. Your backpack contained a few carefully chosen articles of clothing - items you had supposedly thrown away or given to charity over a period of months - but you were otherwise unfettered by the past. The future was as bright as the sunshine that day.
It wasn’t hard to find work, or people who would pay you cash in hand to do that work. You rented a one-room apartment overlooking the docks; it was small, plain and functional, but after all the ostentation and speciousness it was more than satisfactory. You settled into a routine, enjoying the freedom of living alone with no-one to answer to, no-one but yourself to please.
You found a place to eat where the food was cheap but good, run by a grey-haired widow and her daughter. The daughter had blue eyes that sang with sadness, yet she always had the time of day, a kind word, a brush of the arm.
You eventually worked up the courage to ask her out, and the moment she said yes was nothing less than nirvana.
Coming back wasn’t part of the original plan, but the plan changed when it transpired the daughter had an ex-boyfriend with a history of robbery and assault. Having served time in prison for armed stupidity - the length of his sentence reduced after he played nicely for long enough - two years earlier than she had expected he was back, looking for her and finding the both of you.
After the fight, after they told the ex-boyfriend he would need surgery to wire his jaw back together and that he might never see out of his left eye again, there was no choice but to vanish again. If the police had found you, that would have been the end of the charade; for the rest of your days, you’d be in prison trying to justify everything you had done.
You had no choice but to die again.
Being dead again, only this time with no money and no map and no pin, what choice did you have? To become a vagrant, living on the gratuity of soup-kitchens and sleeping under bridges? Slowly going insane, unseen and ignored by those who passed you by? To give in? To curl up and die, only this time for real?
What choice did you have?
Staring in the kitchen window watching Tom and your wife betray your memory as his own family are asleep just down the road, right now you should feel angry. Instead there is only a Zen calm.
At first, robbing your friends and eating out of their fridges, stealing their clothes and sleeping in their garden sheds, was an exercise in survival. But once you started finding out their dirty little secrets, all that changed.
The counsellors who tell you that the most important thing is not to give into the urge to take revenge are wrong.
At first how you were going to get your own back on these smug, superior, self-important bastards was to expose each and every one of them, to shatter their lives by exposing their underbellies to the wolves. To watch their egos splinter as their names and reputations were dragged through the mud, as everything eroded, as they ended up jobless, homeless, washed up and washed out. Their marriages fallen apart, their lives ruined.
And at that perfect moment when they were cleaning toilets or whoring themselves out just to survive - when they were at rock-bottom, thinking about the quickest, least painful way to die - you’d walk in with the biggest shit-eating grin on your face and have the last laugh, good and long and hard.
Surprise, you fucks!
That would have been good. That would have been enough.
But to see Tom’s pale mottled ass banging away on your wife is just one betrayal too many. There should be rage and anger and hatred, but there’s only the cool quiet of clarity. In this moment, with the rain coming down and the only light coming from the kitchen window, the next move is clear. There is no doubt anymore.
The counsellors who tell you to work through your difficult situation and to not take revenge have missed the point - these things are one and the same.
With the rain beating down on the ghost of you, the weight of the pick-axe in your hand is nothing less than nirvana.
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