The house was derelict. The garden was a mess. No one remembered anyone living there. If anyone had checked with the Land Registry they would have been surprised that there was no registered owner. More to the point there was no house shown on the official maps, but since no one checked, no one was shocked, no questions were asked. Indeed, until last Thursday, no one would have known there was a house and garden there at all. You walked along Carpenter Close, maybe noticed the yellow rose in the front garden of number 37, smiled and noticed a similar, albeit red rose at number 39. What you couldn’t have said, what you’d be incapable of describing was the boundary between the two, a boundary where this crumbling pile now sat.
Rene Gade took her tea to the front window and stared at her new neighbours. Well, the house anyway. She tutted – she was an expert tutter, teaching year 10s as an elective on the art of tutting and harrumphing – and glanced at her phone. Should she ring again? She answered her own question with a ‘what’s the point’ harrumph. The local authority were useless.
‘Yes, madam, I heard you. A house has appeared next to yours. When you say a house…?’
‘Four stories, Victorian…’
‘A complete house?’
‘Indeed. And it’s a mess. There are probably rats and all sorts.’
‘Madam, are you sure…?’
After that the call went downhill.
Rene wasn’t going to wait for some jobsworth. She put down the cup, pulled her house coat tight and marched out of the front door.
Close up, her new neighbours’ house was more decrepit than she’d thought. A sign, covered in dust sat next to the door. ‘The Hatchery’ it said. Bloody stupid, Rene thought and raised her fist to knock. As she did so, the door swung open.
Had Rene been less alert, she would have been drenched by the murky brown, frothy liquid that gushed out but her Viennese waltz had won plaudits across Lower Sydenham, enabling her nimbly to avoid the torrent.
Applying a suitable ‘disgusting’ tutt, Rene stepped inside, halloing as she did so. From somewhere towards the back a deep voice replied, not that Rene could make out the words, beyond the voice was male and clearly drunk.
Well, she’d see about that. You didn’t dump a complete house next door and ruin the neighbourhood on Rene’s watch. Tugging her all purpose house coat tighter she headed towards the incoherence.
As Rene followed the narrow corridor, she had a moment’s concern that the house was so much a ruin that it might, at any moment collapse. However Rene hadn’t been conker champion for six seasons without developing a resilience and animal cunning. She skirted the gaping hole by the stairs, held her breath as she trod through the thick sulphurous green fumes that emanated from what appeared to be the downstairs toilet and pushed open the kitchen door.
What faced Rene would have been a terrifying sight to anyone not used to the 2pm slot on a Friday with Form 9E. In front of her was a large black table, though ‘black’ was merely the nearest colour Rene could call to mind, unless Dulex did an ‘Absence Of Light’ option. At the table a figure sat. A skeletal figure wearing a black cloak, with its hood thrown back. It eyed Rene, though again ‘eyed’ merely describes the position in the face that gazed at Rene. Socketed, might be nearer the mark. In its bony fingers it held a large pewter tankard which it proceeded to drain. As it did so, the dark brown fluid gushed out from under the cloak and began flowing towards and then past Rene. Once the tankard was drained, it hit the vessel on the table top, instantly refilling it and draining it again.
Between swigs the figure said, ‘yes?’
Rene sniffed, offering a tutt that combined disappointment with distaste. ‘Why aren’t you speaking in CAPITALS?’
The figure shrugged. ‘I resigned. They took away my voice, scythe and horse. If I wasn’t an embarrassment showing off my bones, I expect they’d have kept the cloak.’
‘There’s a new Death?’
‘It’s being advertised. Pestilence is doubling up for now.’
‘No one’s dying?’
‘Nope.’ The Skeleton Formerly Known As DEATH shrugged and emptied another gallon of ale. ‘It’s a new policy. Started last week. Compassionate Transition or some such bollocks they’re calling it. The old days of a swift dispatch are over.’ Another tankard went the way of the last.
Rene pulled up a seat. ‘That’s no excuse for dumping this excrescence of a building on my doorstep.’
‘It’s been here forever. It’s a halfway house. It’s just been invisible before.’
‘You’ll be seeing more of these. All about openness and transparency, though I’ve always been pretty nearly transparent. Don’t worry, they’ve plans to tart it up a bit.’
‘I never knew. I thought, you know you died and that was it.’
Ex Death laughed, not with any humour. ‘Goodness me, no. You’d not believe the admin. No, I’d do my thing and then you’d come to one of these, and be judged or repent or what not and then,’ Ex Death pointed, first above its head and then below. ‘You want to see?’
‘Why not? I’m not on the payroll any more.’
Rene followed as an unsteady Person of the Apocalypse led her to a battered door that she’d thought was the toilet but was, in fact, the basement and hefted it open. ‘Hold your breath and take a peek.’
It was ghastly: boiling pans, writhing bodies, endless TED talks on mindfulness. Rene stepped back hurriedly.
She turned but the unhorsed horseman was already climbing the stairs. By the time she’d caught up, it had pulled down a ladder and handed her a stick. ‘Just push up the hatch.’
She climbed the metal steps and pushed at the square of wood. As it hinged open she caught a flash of pink buttocks and a giggle.
Below her, the Pre Terminator sighed. ‘Sorry, I should have said to knock. They lack a little modesty. It’s all about them, you see. Total ego.’
Rene was no prude, but all that running around albeit in green Elysian Fields full of daisies and frozen yoghurt fountains seemed both energetic and a tad Disney. ‘Is this heaven?’
‘Not your sort of thing? If you pass the entrance test, there’s an app that will show you the options. Some people like rain, some sun. You get the choose. Mind you, it’s a bit tedious, all that fun.’
‘Can you change your mind?’
‘Not now but that’s on the agenda. Seen enough because I need to get seriously sloshed?’
They set off down the stairs. Rene rubbed her chin, ‘Why do you call this place the Hatchery?’
The skulled head turned back to Rene and offered her a rictus grin. ‘Oh these days we can do irony, too. It’s all part of this rebranding, making us a post-modern post-truth caring spectral transference operation. In the past we ended lives,’ it essayed a scythe-less swish and instinctively bowed its head, ‘but now we are part of the cross-over from one existence to the next. Management want us to take a more positive view on our work, be more inclusive. In the last, those who came through here knew whatever had gone before was gone, dust, dereliction. In the future it will be seen as a positive move along the path of existences. So they’ll be sofas, meditations and flowers and,’ he glanced around, ‘patchouli. They want you to think about being hatched rather than dispatched, see.’
They were back in the kitchen. The Spectral Assassin clicked his bony fingers, magicking two tankards that filled with the same brown liquid. ‘I’m meant to be clearing out my things but sod it. You fancy joining me? They still do a pretty decent nectar, although take my advice and avoid the crisps.’ He pointed at the floor. ‘They make them down there. A little fleshy, if you know what I mean.’
Rene sat and raised the tankard. ‘The Good Old Days,’ she toasted.