He was dead.
He had been that way for many years. Nobody had noticed as no one had cared. James Harrison had enjoyed in death the isolation that he had sought in life. The curtains of his flat had remained drawn. Only the tiniest shaft of light had penetrated on those days when the sun had been released for good behaviour. For all intents and purposes, this was a tomb not unlike those that were sometimes found in Egypt.
He had been sitting, seething at the television screen, wondering if he should collect another bottle of cider from his fridge and thinking that he should turn down his central heating, when it happened.
Again he found himself watching some nonsense on the telly. Young people, sleep-arounds who wallowed in their own importance, seemed to have it all. Whole programmes, entire nights, were devoted to them and the rubbish they spouted. When he was young, there was no such thing as this. Respect, that’s what they had in the past. Now it was all about sex and drugs; rock and roll had died with Elvis.
Normally, he just needed to reach to the side and pick the remote control from the table, but this time it wasn’t in the usual place. His hand searched more frantically but without success. He searched for something to blame yet realised there was nothing other than himself. There was nobody else in his life and there was nothing beyond the radius of his TV and armchair that could have effected anything. Swearing under his breath, he leant over and found that the thing had fallen to the floor. He attempted to reach it but only managed to nudge it under his chair. His frustration and blood pressure rose.
Now he had to get up. With a strain that surprised him, he prised his body from the comfort of the cushions and was able to stand, before lowering himself to the carpet. His hand felt blindly in the darkness under the chair and he thought that he felt the hard plastic touch of the control. Yet, as he moved to clasp it, it moved away from him. Now his heart beat with primal anger.
The first of many tiny explosions of white fireworks interrupted his vision and he felt the air seeping from his lungs like a departing breeze. His first thought was that he must be coming down with something and his second was to blame the outside world of people for being incubators of such diseases.
The next thing that happened caused him concern. His attention was dragged from the underworld of the chair to the doorway where he thought that he had seen movement. It had only been in the corner of his sight yet he was sure that something small and dark had scuttled along the line of the skirting boards. His mind registered vermin.
When he had been working the trawlers, he had seen rats as big as cats patrolling the darkest corners of the boats. They had developed a taste for the sea and had gorged upon the fish that had been the grail of the fishermen on their long, cold ventures. Somehow, they could never find the things when they were searching back in dock. They just seemed to have disappeared.
Again, he had seen something move and this time it was bigger. He looked more closely, ignoring his original mission but there was nothing. His eyes were playing tricks. One final push brought success and he muttered his begrudging satisfaction before returning to his seat.
The presenter was leering at him. Her irritating voice was filling the room as her false smile reached the sides of the screen. Like an executioner, he pointed the remote control and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened.
He pressed it again and nothing. Again and again and again. He exploded into obscenities as the audience fell about in sick-bucket induced laughter. He threw the malfunctioning remote at the plastic smiles of the winning couple and watched it bounce off their arrogant faces.
Behind him, he heard scratching. It was getting louder and he was sure that it was moving towards where he sat solidly in his chair.
His mind’s eye saw it first. It was a rat the size of a dog and it was, he would never know how, smiling at him.
At exactly 8.27 pm, he died. Disbelief swept over the muscles of his face.
The end credits rolled with the theme tune that was to play his death march. This was natural selection for a society that found it had no time to care. The weak, the old, the homeless, the outsiders, would not be missed. Death would come for them as a hunter tracking its prey. It would not be on the great plains that they would meet their end but in the places of safety and protection; the towns and the cities. Vulnerability has no walls to protect it.
At around the same time as Harrison met his eventual path into eternity, many more were disappearing from the field of existence. For them, life had blinked and was gone. Whatever it had failed to give them, many of them still harboured some hope of a kinder afterlife. Harrison too would have had this if it were not for his unfortunate meeting with his personal ferryman.
In Britain during that winter, there was a rash of unreported deaths. The divorced, the disabled, the rich and the once famous were being carried away in the full view of a world that simply did not see. Many deaths went undiscovered.
In Birmingham, a fifty-five-year-old man ‘vanished’ while seated at his dinner table. His last meal awaiting his attention, cooled and then decomposed in a parody of himself. The apartment block, in which he had lived for fifty years, had been declared officially empty and stood awaiting a purchaser and redevelopment. A downturn in the local economy had helped to keep this opportunity closed like the lid of a coffin. The initial odour that rose from his corpse was not noticed and his mummification was ensured.
In Manchester, the body of a travelling salesman, back for a not so festive break from the distraction of his business, was left to its own devices in a flat that had not been visited by members of the outside world for years. These, like their other unknowing companions in death, benefited from conditions that favoured the preservation of their cadavers if not their memories. It was as if someone had drawn up a list of the more desirable and had gone out collecting in time for Christmas.