General Fiction posted September 30, 2013

This work has reached the exceptional level
Quotas are everywhere

The dead line

by snodlander

We had to make the deadline. Management are very hot on that sort of thing. It would have been nice if they gave us the resources to meet the ever-increasing demand, or gave us some wiggle room in the case of a sudden surge, but no. It's written in stone. All worksheets to be completed and goods delivered by the witching hour, because at midnight we get given the next day's schedule.

Most of the time it isn't too bad. If the demand is steady, the vast majority of the clientele have done most of the work already by the time we get there. It's simply a matter of shutting the door after them and filling in the paperwork. It's hectic in the winter, especially during sudden cold snaps, and of course there's always the possibility of war and pestilence, but most of the time we can service the clients.

Oh, yeah. They're clients now. Not customers, not since they stopped putting pennies on the eyes, and not any of the politically unacceptable terms from bygone days. Call a client a stiff or meat popsicle and you're hauled up on a disciplinary before you know it. Even 'corpse' is dodgy now. Clients. As though we're consultants they're bringing in as subject matter experts.

Few people are prepared to meet us. Oh, sure, if they were lucid up to the end of a protracted and fatal illness, and if they accepted it deep inside themselves, but how often does that happen? Hope burns eternal, even when you've lost sixty percent of your body weight and your teeth have fallen out, you still, deep down inside, think maybe they made a misdiagnosis. But once it's happened, once you're presented with the irrefutable evidence that the slab of meat you're staring down on used to be you, then you know what to do. You see the light, you walk towards it, then we shut the door after you and fill in the form.

What happens then? Why ask me? Not my department. Don't you think I have enough on my plate just hitting the deadline? I should worry about some other schmuck's job too? You think we're just box tickers? Let me tell you about the Colonel.

Oh, I don't know that he was a colonel, but he had that air about him, you know? Used to giving orders rather than following them. He had a dispatching time of eleven-thirteen a.m. Busiest time, round about eleven in the morning. Most people are surprised by that. They think it's in the small hours, died-peacefully-in-his-sleep kind of thing, but no. Eleven in the morning. Even death has a circadian rhythm, apparently.

The trouble was, we were behind schedule. Not our fault. Our patch had a stretch of motorway and an accident and emergency ward. Combine that with a sudden snow fall and you've got chaos central. We might have been okay if we hadn't had three, count them, three resuscitations. You know they're going, but you have to wait until the final gasp. So we didn't get there at eleven-thirteen, or even eleven-number-of-your-choice. We had to skip lunch, and we still didn't get there until after one. Now, with most people, they would have walked down the corridor, greeted the relatives that had gone before, and all we would have is the scent of old man's aftershave and the paperwork.

Not the colonel. We got to his home and he was nowhere to be seen. The flat was immaculate, mind. You get that sometimes with old people. Either they think they're going to live forever, so they keep their home spic and span, or they know their time has come, and they don't want anyone coming into the flat and thinking they were a slob. Like that would make any difference to them after, but there's nowt as queer as folk. Go figure. But that didn't help us. He wasn't home. Oh his body was, of course. Demob suit and regimental tie, shoes polished like black mirrors, moustache trimmed and hair brushed. The whole effect was hardly spoilt by his body sprawling over the living room Axminster, but death is rarely pretty.

But the part of the colonel that made him him wasn't anywhere near the body, and the door was still there, light shining, relatives tapping their feet and looking at their watches at the other end of the tunnel.

Officially, passing someone on is a two man operation. Verification, see? Oversight. Self regulation. Because, believe me, you don't want to be anywhere near the fan when a dispatch doesn't happen. But like I said, we were behind schedule, and when you're two hours adrift you don't want to faff around locating a soul that's decided to go walkabout. So Sheila, that's who I was partnered with at the time, she went on to the next name on the list while I tried to sort out the colonel. Absolutely contrary to protocol, but every team does it. How else do you think we hit the deadline so often? So off she went, and I turned detective. They don't give you training on this. You hit the schedule and you don't need it, but this was the real world, and you tend to pick up all the tips and tricks.

People will tell you spirits caught between the planes don't realise they're dead. Bull. They know. You look at yourself on the floor, skin blue and bowels vacated, you know you're dead. There are plenty of reasons a spirit goes walkabout, but ignorance isn't one of them. The trick is, finding out the reason, extrapolating from that where they might have got to, and then working on the best technique to get them the hell down the tunnel and off this mortal coil.

I searched the flat. Photos of family on the mantelpiece. Old, by the looks of them. I checked the database. Wife passed on ten years previously. Two kids, still current. No photo of the kids around the place older than their twenties, so his children didn't visit regularly. A loner then. That helped. Loners were creatures of habit. A couple of photos of the colonel in uniform, the greys faded with age. Good. Military men had a schedule.

I opened drawers and rifled papers. No help there. He paid his bills, he shopped at the local supermarket, he donated to the veterans' fund and a horse sanctuary somewhere. I checked the kitchen. Everything cleaned and stowed. Meagre rations in the fridge. Plenty of vegetables, though. Not bagged and tagged, not pristine and cosmetically perfect the way the supermarkets like them.

The hallway didn't offer much. Coat and trilby hanging on the coat rack by the door, umbrella furled in the stand. A carrier bag by the front door contained wellington boots, muddy soles. I frowned. Muddy boots? In a second floor flat? Really? Organic vegetables in the kitchen. Where did he get them from? The nearest farm shop wouldn't be readily accessible, even with an Old Age Pensioner's bus pass. Two o'clock. Damn, this was taking too long. Sheila couldn't make up the time, not on her own, and if midnight arrived with spirits not passed on, there would be hell to pay. Literally. You don't want to know the penalty clauses in the Service Level Agreements we have.

So where would a lonely old guy, fending for himself, disciplined, proud, get fresh organic vegetables? I pulled out my phone. How did we cope before Google? Allotments. He'd been raised during the Dig For Victory period. It made sense. He'd have an allotment, partly for independence, partly for money. How else would a widower fill his days and not empty his wallet?

There was a council allotment half a mile down the road. I left the flat and sprinted down the road. I hoped I was right, because otherwise he could be anywhere. You know what these old codgers are like. They'll hop on a bus and end up at the other end of the country thinking they were on a trip to the local High Street. Try explaining that to Auditing, how a local transition ended up haunting a bus station in Cornwall.

The allotment was like most across the country, a strip of land separating the backs of two streets, divided into neat rectangles. Each gardener had his own approach, and so the plots were easily demarked without the need for fences. There was a plot full of flowers, there regimented vegetables without a weed in sight, another with vegetables struggling up between thistles and dandelions. And there was the colonel.

I sighed with relief. Even without the database records I would have recognised him. He stood at ease at the edge of a plot, hands held together behind his back, spine straight enough to use as a ruler. I walked up beside him and joined his examination of the plot as though I knew what I was looking at.

"Onions need lifting," he said, by way of introduction.

"Yes," I agreed.

"There's some weeds poking their heads out over there."


We stared at the plot in silence for a while.

"You a gardening man?" he asked eventually.

"Me? Wouldn't know a potato from a hole in the ground."

"Ha!" We continued to stare at the plot.

"Need to look after the place, you understand?" he said, after another pause. "Can't let it get like that." He nodded at a plot several yards down the allotment. It was what generous gardeners might describe as fallow. "He kicked the bucket a couple of years ago. No one wanted his plot, so it's just gone to ruin. Can't let mine go the same way."

"No? Why not? I mean, in the long term, we're all grass, aren't we?"

He stared at the plot. "Tried to lift the onions. Couldn't bloody shift them. Couldn't even shake the leaves."

"Well, they're quite bushy leaves."

"Those are cabbages. I'm talking about them there. The onions. You're right, you're not a gardener. You a drinking man?"

"You think I could do this sober?"

"I've got some gin in the shed. Fancy a snort?"

I shook my head. "On duty," I said, because I didn't have the heart to tell him lifting a glass would be as fruitless as trying to lift onions.

He nodded, eyes fixed on the dirt in front of us.

"What happens? I mean, to my allotment."

"I have no idea. Down to the council I guess. Might your son take it over?"

"Ha! When pigs fly, maybe. No, I've got to look after it."

"Sorry, sir, but you don't. You have to come with me. It's the way it is."

He turned and looked at me for the first time. "I have to, do I?" He suddenly threw his arm forward. It, of course, passed right through me, but I never get used to that. It creeps the hell out of me. I gave a start.

"So, what if I say no? I'm a ghost, right? Can you make me? No, I didn't think so. Look at this place. Now look at my plot. No, I'm not going. I'm staying here and making sure this place doesn't go the way of that one over there. I'm going to make sure my plot stays neat and tidy. This is all that's left of me, see? And I'm not going to see it go down the toilet just because I'm dead."

I stuffed my hands in my pockets and turned back to the tiny rectangle of green things. I didn't see the point, but then, I'm not facing extinction. People grab hold of what's familiar, and reason has precious little to do with it. I needed a fresh approach.

"Look, sir, I'm in a bit of a bind. I have a quota, see? I need to get you safely onto the other side, otherwise I'm on the rack over it."

He shrugged. "Your problem, not mine."

"Your wife will be waiting for you on the other side. Haven't you missed her?"

"Amy? Of course I have, but you have to understand. We're not like your generation. We didn't have starter marriages. In sickness and in health, never mind if she kept putting the cheese knife in with the steak knives. You made a commitment, for better or for worse, and you stuck with it. Till death do you part. Well, she went and died, didn't she, and left me on my own, and you know what? It was easier, not having to tiptoe around her sensibilities, leaving the seat up and not having to have those bloody stupid antimacassars on the back of the sofa. So death parted us, and I had to go along with that, and good luck to her, but I got along just fine, even better in some ways. So thanks, but I'm staying."

"Jesus." I ran my hand through my hair and hoped upstairs weren't recording. "You know the trouble you're causing? You know what the bean counters and the pencil pushers are going to say if I don't meet my target? Never mind you, you cantankerous old sod, but every minute I spend with you is a minute I can't spend organising all the others to pass on. You have no idea how difficult it is to classify people into groups, get them to line up into the right queue, then move them on in time."

"Ha! You think that's hard? You try and organise a bunch of conscripts who don't know their left from their right, their arse from their elbow. You try getting them to march in the same direction, never mind in step."

"Yeah, yeah, but then there's the paperwork. Never mind you've passed everyone on, you have to prove it with the right paperwork."

"At least you have those computer things to help. In my day we had carbon paper if we were lucky. Most of the time we had to physically write the same thing in triplicate. Don't talk to me about Johnny Bureaucracy."

"Right. Because computers are perfect and never totally screw things up."

"Stop whining. It's just a matter of organising things right. You think I didn't do the same thing? You just need a system. Simple."

"Yeah, right. Easily said."

"What? You think I'm talking out of my arse, pardon my French? I bet I could have your recruits lined up and marching in time before you could fill out any computer form."

"Yeah right. You want a bet? Your bottle of gin against, oh, let's say your transition. Bet?"

"I win and I get to look after my allotment?"

I waved a hand over the allotment. "Fill your boots. If you win, of course."

He spit on his hand and tried to strike mine. It passed through, of course, but the deal was struck.

Afterwards I felt a tad guilty. I mean, you have no idea how complicated our classification system is. Even so, we hit the deadline, thanks to the colonel. If his wife hadn't 'accidentally' crossed the line and badgered him into the light, he might have been organising the dead lines even now.

This Sentence Starts The Story contest entry

allotment - plots of land, typically owned by local government, leased out to locals to grow veg and flowers.
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