When Dennis Sheldon lifted his head from his desk on Monday morning, he had already been dead for some hours. While working on Sunday afternoon in the dim electric hum of the otherwise empty office he had begun to feel queasy, had felt the half-expected chest pain, had seen the traditional bright light and had fallen forward, denting his now senseless forehead on the corner of his Italian marble desk-set. The desk-set had been a gift from his father.
Now Dennis looked around for his father – shouldn’t he be here? Didn’t the flimsy dead appear to guide their beloved newly-deceased into the well-illuminated after-life? But neither of his parents nor any of the other dead were there. Only the living. Sonja, his secretary, sat across the desk from him, weeping into a tea-towel. Simon – his junior partner – stood beside Sonja, staring . He heard the swing-doors at the top of the stairs bang open and Maria, the receptionist ran into the room, shrieked and fell into wide-eyed, toneless wailing.
Dennis knew he was dead. He knew that they couldn’t see that he was standing now, behind his chair. He knew that the living could only see the pop-eyed, purple-faced body hunched over in front of him. He knew all this – it was unsurprising and mundane. If the thing with the ancestors leading him across fragrant meadows to the glory-seat wasn’t going to happen, then what? He took a cigarette from the packet beside his blue hand, a lighter from his pocket and lit up. Hand on hip he watched as ambulancemen carried his body out. He watched from his first-floor window as the ambulance drove away, slowly.
“Has Bernie been told yet?” Simon was sitting in Dennis’s seat.
Sonja stood next to him, phone in hand, going through Dennis’s diary and cancelling his appointments for the day in hushed, self-important tones. Annabel Hooper, the third and most junior solicitor, stood in the doorway.
“I’ll do it” said Sonja quickly, hanging up.
“Isn’t it a job for the police?” asked Simon.
“I told them I’d do it” answered Sonja. “I don’t want her to hear it from a stranger.”
“After all, we all know how much she loved Dennis” said Annabel.
Sonja looked at her reproachfully.
“Dennis’s wallet, you mean” said Simon. Sonja smiled and then suppressed the smile by covering her face with a tissue from the box which had replaced the tea-towel.
Shock, thought Dennis. Shock and disbelief.
“I’ll come with you” said Simon. “I’d like to see the mansion too”.
Dennis wasn’t interested in the scene which he knew was to follow at his brand-spanking new Tudor home with a triple garage and sea views. He knew that Bernie would shriek and cry and carry on until she ran to the phone and called her sisters over. Then they would all shriek and cry and carry on and take it in turns to sneak upstairs and go through his study looking for his insurance policies. Bernie’s round face would go all red. Her hair would escape from its Alice band. She’d quiver.
Eventually, solaced by sisters and Serepax she would sit, stolid and mute. God knows, he’d seen enough scenes like it before. No, he’d rather be at the office. He had to watch that no-one shirked for long. It was important to maintain continuity of the practice without too much disruption.
More staff arrived. They stood about in whispering knots, or raced to the phones and gabbled excitedly to their friends.
Dennis wandered about the office. He walked and stood and sat. He couldn’t glide through doors or float to the ceiling. He found that if he took a cup of coffee from someone’s hand, it became two – one which he drank and the original, over which the unsuspecting bereaved secretary continued to shake her head sorrowfully. The same system worked with phantom cigarettes and cigarette-lighters. No longer inconvenienced by a nasty cough, a dodgy bladder, a chorus of “it’ll kill you” s, he would have loved a drink with his cloned cigarette, but here his posthumous skills failed. He dragged at the door to the drinks cupboard, he belted the mullioned glass with his dead fists but he just could not move the corporeal. He would have to wait until Sonja returned. As always, Sonja would know what he wanted.
But when would Sonja and Simon be back? For perhaps the first time Dennis noticed Time. It had begun to do strange things. It seemed to slow down, meld, speed up. He found himself suddenly in another room or listening intently to someone who had appeared in an empty place. All in all it was a bit like being very drunk. It was neither entirely unpleasant, nor at all unfamiliar.
Then it seemed to be night. Neither Simon, nor Sonja had returned. The office was quiet and dark. He lay down on the chesterfield in the client waiting area. Did the dead sleep? Would he now be visited by the ghosts of ex-partners? Dennis had not been an imaginative man in life and so, in death, he slept soundly and late into the next morning.
He was awakened by awful, crushing pains. The Rendells were sitting on his chest and knees. Maria was at the reception desk, sniffling portentously. The intercom buzzed and she bravely managed to say, “Simon will see you now”. Dennis sat up, wincing and followed the Rendells upstairs. He wanted to watch Simon handle this. Max Rendell, orthopaedic surgeon, had been at school with Dennis. Max and his wife Pamella now lived next-door to the Sheldons. Dennis had been conducting a medical negligence defence for Max and had made this appointment for him a week ago. He was glad to see that Simon was not letting the practice slide.
Dennis found himself in his own office, – which Simon had already claimed, – sitting between Max and Pamella. The conversation, it seemed, had been underway for some minutes. Max was saying, “I won’t miss hearing Dennis and Bernie screaming at one another, I can tell you that.”
(“You rude bastard” said Dennis.)
“Or the door-slamming . Remember the fight about the new car? Poor Bernie” said Pamella. At this Dennis was rather surprised. He’d been fairly sure Pamella fancied him. It was just that he’d never been able to get her alone.
“It’s sad, he was my age” continued Max. “But considering his lifestyle…And the problem is, he didn’t really seem to care about anything much, except this little empire.” He laughed.
(“You dickhead! You quack!” Dennis shouted.)
Simon nodded at Max in deprecation or in agreement or both. He had learned a repertoire of expressions and gestures which were capable of as many interpretations as he had interlocutors. That way he could be all things to all potential benefactors. He began to talk about the settlement offer which the plaintiff had made and which had given rise to this appointment. To Dennis’s horror, Simon recommended that Max consider it very carefully.
“It’s too much!” said Dennis. “We can screw them down if we hold off. The plaintiff’s already half-dead”. He picked up a spectral pen and tried to write, but the paper remained blank. He tried to set it alight but his cloned lighter only worked on cloned cigarettes.
Simon continued oblivious. “Dennis might have given you different advice in these circumstances” he said. “But his style was different from mine. I for one favour a quick wrap up”.
“I had rather the feeling that Dennis thought this would go on for some time” said Max.
“Yes,” replied Simon. “That was Dennis’s way. Without meaning to speak ill of the dead, well, he was one of the old school. That eighties way of drawing things out just sends costs through the roof.. I’m all for a quick turn-over, now that I’m in control – until Bernie decides what we’ll do with the practice, that is” he added.
Now Dennis really was horrified. For the first time since he had entered the after-life he felt a true sense of helplessness and awe. Simon was going to ruin the practice. Sheldon’s. His practice, the practice that bore his name. He could not stand by and watch it happen. He would just have to continue to do the job himself.
So Dennis sat in on Simon’s interviews with clients and, to a lesser extent, on Annabel’s. Hers didn’t matter as much because he’d never given her any really important work to do – just the matrimonial stuff and conveyancing. But it became harder and harder for him to bear to eavesdrop . Simon was turning over work far too quickly, costs on each file were too low. He left early. He was too chummy with clients and staff alike. He had let discipline go over the weeks since the senior partner’s death. On one memorable occasion he bought some wine and they had drinks in the office on a Friday evening! The only consolation for Dennis in this instance was that he was able to finish off whole bottles without anyone whingeing. Then he tottered down to the old striped sofa in the basement and slept.
Dennis had moved to the basement because it was warmer than the upstairs floors of the building. The office felt colder every day, even though it was summer. Dennis found a jumper in the kitchen, the ghost of which he put on under his suit. He put on a replica of his court robes.
He was lonely. He had been a man who loved to talk. And talk. And talk. The interest or otherwise displayed by his audiences had been a matter of indifference to the living Dennis. Indeed, he had usually been unaware that his listeners were simply mesmerised by his kafkaesque powers of boredom. Dennis was immune to pointed watch-checking. He knew that he was a superb orator. His views were always captivating and his insights shrewd. At his very best Dennis exhibited his linguistic and tactical powers by dictating letters at his clients in his office while they watched, bemused or (if they were aware of the Supreme Court Scale of Costs) stared, rigid with anger . And now that he was dead, no-one could hear him. Dennis longed to be heard. He went from desk to desk, shouting. He yelled into Sonja’s ears. He swore at Simon. He screeched at the dial tone. No-one heard.
Dennis hunched, shivering, on his old desk one morning as Simon dictated answers to his mail. Desperately Dennis tried to snatch the handset from Simon’s hand. Without Dennis’s supervision, Simon clearly had no idea. No idea at all. His letters left so much out! So much important detail of the sort which Dennis had so carefully filtered and refined over hours and hours at his desk, often long into the night, Sonja typing and finding files for him.
Dennis lurched down the stairs to the ground floor – stiffly, his bones ached in the cold. He looked out of the open street door. Nothing to stop him from leaving. Then, as he hesitated, something wet prodded his hand. He looked down. A large, black labrador sat at his feet. He told it to piss off. He waved his hands. He shoo-ed it away. He kicked at it. It did not move. It watched him with red-rimmed, gummy eyes. Dennis tried to dodge around it. The dog moved with him. Dennis turned and walked back into the office. The dog followed.
Dennis created an office of his own in the large, dimly-lit basement. It was getting warmer there. He was able to discard his robes at first, and then his jumper. He couldn’t move furniture so he made the striped sofa his centre of operations. He wrote notes which couldn’t be seen and pinned them to the sofa and on notice-boards around the office. He dictated supernatural tapes which couldn’t be heard and piled them up around him. He worked day and night. He knew that sometime Sonja would come into the basement.
The black labrador sat beside Dennis as he worked. It paid no attention to his kicks or shouts. It came with him when he ventured upstairs – less and less often now. It was too cold upstairs, the decline of the practice frustrated him and besides, he had work to do.
One person in the office did seem to be vaguely aware that Dennis was there. Once, when Dennis stood behind Annabel’s desk and looked down her blouse she turned around sharply, looked directly at him and frowned. Another time, when talking to Sonja, Annabel sniffed and said, “Yuk. You know, I can smell something – just like Dennis when he was alive. Sometimes I think he’s still here.”
“B.O. and stale smoke you mean” said Sonja. “I couldn’t wait to get new curtains in after he died.” Dennis sped back to the basement and dictated a set of memoes regarding staff behaviour, respect and protocol. There was a particularly long memo to Sonja. Her attitude was a disappointment. When he had finished, he saw that there was another dog, a sort of gingery dingo-cross with three legs, sitting next to the labrador and watching him as he worked.
Dennis was woken the next morning by a cool tongue licking his face. A third dog, a chill little white dog with faintly oily short fur was sitting on the sofa. Day by day the pack of dogs increased. Dennis became slow to raise his eyes from his work because he might see yet another silent, panting beast at his feet. He didn’t look at them too closely – some had mange, one had bleeding ears and another had what looked like a nail through its tongue.
Now Dennis only went upstairs at night, long after the staff had left. He put on his jumper and robes and hauled himself up the basement stairs by the rail, hand over hand. He put on the light in his old office and looked through the mess which Simon left on the desk, reading files and making notes on how to correct Simon’s errors when the time came. When the cold got too bad, he crept back downstairs with an armful of notes and, when he could manage it, a copy of a file.
Dennis wandered about the basement in his underwear, dictating and scribbling. One day, while drafting a pro forma letter to his old clients, expalining that he would be soon be back in charge, he dropped his cigarette lighter. A patch of the industrial strength, plastic carpet melted, smouldered and smoked nastily. The black patch stopped spreading. It continued to glow red and orange at the edges. Several times over the months Dennis had tried to set the building alight to demonstrate his presence upstairs but nothing had ignited. Now he tried again. He fired a line in the carpet; two lines, three lines – a letter, a word – HERE.
Every day Dennis waited for Sonja to come down to the basement. At night he still climbed the stairs. The dogs patiently followed him upstairs and they followed him back to the basement where the burning paths continued to glow. Gradually the paths put out feelers and ran suckers across the floor, joining and obliterating the letters, making a map of blue carpet and red rivers.. The dogs kept to the edges of the room. Dennis wore only his shoes and hopped naked from island to island.
He stopped dictating and writing. He liked to lie on the islands of unburned carpet and peer into the glowing cracks. He could see only a yellow and orange blaze underneath, as if the very foundations were alight.
Although the basement was almost unbearably hot now, Dennis no longer left it. It was just too cold anywhere else and clearly, Sonja would soon notice the fire in the basement. The molten runnels spread and joined. Few islands were left now and with them, the dogs disappeared. The sofa, the dictaphone, the notepads, the tapes, the spare filing cupboards, the empty cartons, the out-of-date text books all dropped into the fire. Dennis began to throw his notes and files into the widening cracks. He kneeled and squatted where he could, to see them sucked down.
He no longer slept. He stood on one of the last islands, back to the wall and watched as more and more of the carpet fell into the fire. By day and night he watched. And now he was afraid. He must not move. He must not move.
But he did. One Friday, about three months after his death, Dennis Sheldon took a step forward.