top of page

Vivaldi Between the Walls - A Short Story

When the border was created, it was hailed as the first in a long line of electrifying feats to grace the field of technoparanormal engineering. The human brokers rubbed their hands together, smiling as their eyes cha-chinged with paper-green dollar signs. Their angelical co-conspirators had presumably displayed their own form of self-congratulation, but those were beyond the comprehension of the many journos present.


“Number 482.”


Finally. What had logic felt like? He wasn’t sure the crepitant tannoy announcing the numbers followed any logic he remembered.


Nothing here in the in-between tasted quite right: neither the dead-cardboard-grey of his beyond, nor the kaleidoscopic every-thing-every-flavour of the past, of life. There was a greasiness he hadn’t expected. It buried into what had been his teeth, left a film across what had been his skin. It tasted metallic. He could hear, as if through a thin apartment wall, the unmistakable sixteen bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, on repeat.


He had waited here patiently through two of the four years' mandatory holding period, a figure based on his final salary bracket at time of death. And now that the wait was over, he rushed through the white door through which everyone before him had gone with only a polite tip of his head towards the poor souls left in the waiting room.


Strange. He hadn’t seen anyone pass back through. But he knew: either you crossed the border or you didn’t, and if you didn’t? Well, you had to come out somewhere on his side, even if he didn’t know where that door stood, bolted into the fabric of the universe.


He only had one friend - an acquaintance really - who’d been successful in their application, and he had only found that out when they returned, hundreds of hours later, giddy, smelling of salt and already pining for another holiday. Most had come home much sooner and begun to wait out their allotted cooling off period in clenched silence before they could start the application process anew. Some had never been seen again.


The corridor stretched before him and for the first time in either life or unlife, he could see beyond where a horizon should be. Nauseating, but what did you expect from a system that hammered physics, biology and theology into a flat plane that could be traversed? And then - he blinked, and there was a door in front of him. He knocked, a gentle wind.


“Enter,” said a disembodied voice. The door opened itself.


As he crossed the threshold, particles, infinitesimal in size but countless in number, shot into and through him, steadily osmosing until he became at one with the room’s atmospheric composition.


The man sitting at the desk behind the glass wall introduced himself as Kevin Price and indicated for him to sit down. Without ever seeing the man himself, he knew - like he used to know of a splinter’s intrusion within his skin - that Kevin Price was a 100% bona fide, real, alive human, and that he was a complete and utter tool.


Without conscious choice, he found his mind sliding back into old pathways. Every foreman, every work coach, every manager, and agency representative projected onto his own ghoulish reflection that fish-bowled across Kevin’s spheroidal helmet. There walked a man who enjoyed the well-lubed rotation of being an integral cog in the machine that was the Department for Unliving Affairs. He imagined the governmentally appropriate smile underneath the protective gear: slight, detachable, stored in a drawer on lunchbreaks. You wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression, even when the customer couldn’t actually see you.


Kevin Price informed him that their conversation was being recorded for the purposes of an accurate application and for later training purposes. He was asked if he understood; he said that he did, and Kevin Price clicked somewhere on his screen.


“Name?”


“Sonny Evans.”


“Date of birth?”


“24th November 1979.”


“Place of birth?”


“Doncaster.”


“Doncaster, United Kingdom?”


“The only Doncaster I’ve ever known.”


“Doncaster, United Kingdom?”


“...Yes.”


“Date of death.”


Sonny baulked - no-one asked that, not where he was from. It just wasn’t worth upsetting those you were destined to spend eternity with. There was nothing, in this world or the previous, as sad as a ghost with no friends.


“16th February 2020.”


Age at time of death?”


Sonny chose not to joke about Kevin Price’s proficiency with maths.

“Forty-one.”

“Time since death?”

Sonny looked at the place on his right arm where a wristwatch would have been.

“Twenty-five thousand one hundred and ten - no, twelve - hours.”

“I need that in years please.”

“That’s four. Four years, three days.”

“Thank you, Mr Evans. I see you were in income bracket L when you became deceased?”

“Sure.”


Kevin Price clicked.

“Right, now that we have the formalities out of the way, can you please tell me what is your reason for requesting a visa?”

This was it, what he’d been waiting for. Sonny had churned his reason around at the visa support group, down at the club on what felt like a Friday. You were only allowed to attend once you were three months off your consignment to the waiting room - they were that oversubscribed.


Once upon a time, in the haze of his mid-thirties, Sonny had stood up from his seat in the circle of an AA meeting and introduced himself as an alcoholic. This, he knew without being told, was the support group’s spiritual hook in the living world. While he’d waited his turn to practise his reason, he’d found himself transfixed by the fire-hydrant, cast-iron radiator, noticeboard, fire-hydrant, cast-iron radiator, noticeboard, fire-hydrant cast-iron… composition of the club room that mirrored the church hall where that twelve-step group had met.

That is to say that his reason was as central to who he was, as sober corporeality had been when he was alive. And it would be a long wait until he was next eligible to apply if this went wrong.


“Well sir, that really just boils down to two people. I imagine it’s usually a ‘someone’. Strange, isn’t it. How they never could get that right in all those ghost films. Always made it seem like it was a place that brought you back. But it’s not houses that get haunted, is it? It’s people, or probably, in a lot of cases, just a person. Just one person, maybe two, if you’re lucky.

For me it’s two. Paula, and our baby. I... I didn’t ever get to find out if we have a son or a daughter.”

Beneath his helmet Kevin Price made a curt nod that he hoped indicated sympathy and did not betray how many times he had heard this story. It was impossible to get the undead to cease their critique of the unrealistic nature of ghost stories.

Sonny, of course, could not see this. In fact, if Sonny had been a guessing man, he would say that Kevin Price had untuned from the conversation, that his brain was a clothed monkey clapping brass cymbals. Sonny irked. It undid the fluency of his performance.

“I... I just want to see them. I just want to see them...just them. Just…whatever they’re doing, I want to see it.”

Weak, a sputter at best.

“Is that all?”

“That’s all.” Kevin Price’s spherical helmet stared at Sonny before returning to his screen. Kevin Price clicked.


“Is the ‘Paula’ you mentioned a ‘Miss Paula Juska’?”

“Yes.”

Kevin clicked.

“And do you have any other kin-of-past?”

Sonny considered this for a moment. His mother, God bless her, was squarely over this side of the border. He liked to visit her on what felt like a Sunday morning but he could feel her begin to move on. Some people just faded faster than others.

And as far as Sonny was concerned, he had no father, even though he now knew with a certainty only the dead were burdened with, that the bastard had outlived him. That only left-

“My brother. Phil. That’s, uh, Philip Michael Evans.”

Kevin typed something into his computer.

“I can see Mr Evans is in…oh bracket N.”

“Yeah. He’s, uh, not had the greatest luck in life.” It was the polite way of saying most of Phil’s income was not shared with His Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

Kevin Price made a noise that was meant to sound compassionate, but from within the helmet and beyond the pane of glass sounded more like the gurgle of an unhappy washing machine.

“And will Ms Juska or Mr Evans be willing to pay for your visa?”

Sonny felt some of the alien particles squeezing out of his form as his perimeter clenched in on himself.

“I mean…I don’t have any way of asking them…”

Kevin Price clicked.

“I can see that no money was set aside as part of your funeral expenses for such a case."

"Right"

“That is typically how these things are done of course.”

“Right.”

“Would you like me to enquire whether either Ms Juska or Mr Evans-”

Sonny remembered the door closing behind Paula as she rushed out to the balcony to chain trembling fags whilst he opened the brown windowed envelopes that carried important letters. She never could manage it without him. He imagined a brown windowed envelope joining the piles of overdue parking notices and crumpled takeaway menus on the floor behind Phil’s front door.

“No. I think it’s better - let’s just leave it.”

Kevin Price clicked.

“That leaves us with two options, Mr Evans. Would you like to see if you qualify for an Exceptional Citizen Visa?”

The area around where Sonny’s eyes had once been fizzed. ‘Exceptional Citizen’? Sonny didn’t think he’d ever been called exceptional in his life.

“Sure,” he heard himself say as his mind rose to watch the scene from the ceiling of the room.

Kevin Price typed something into his computer and clicked and clicked and clicked.

“Do you have any criminal convictions, Mr Evans?”

Sonny felt himself slip under the weight of remaining composed. “...Yes.”

“What were you convicted of, Mr Evans?”

“...Assault. Possession with intent to supply. I got three years. But I was young,” he felt his voice bloat and distort in an entirely ungovernmental manner. “It was ages ago; I did my time!” He caught himself, held his own hand. “I’ve regretted that day for twenty-one years. I took every step I could to make things right. Went to every class, every workshop at Doncatraz. Got an apprenticeship - that must be on your records somewhere. Worked my way up. And, and…” Anger spiralled into panic.

Kevin Price, silent as a predator, let Sonny unfurl.

“Since I’ve been here, there are loads of folk that’d vouch for me. They say I’m the only one that will listen most nights. Do you know what awful things I hear? Do you know how many horrible ways there are to die? Cause I do. I’ve heard things that would turn your skin inside out. It doesn’t go away, you know. The fear. The memories. But I listen. I’m there for them.”

Kevin Price was silent. Mr Evans was not Exceptional. Very few people were. It said it right there, in black GDS Transport font, a hundred different times over. In the handful of seconds it took the screen to load, the computer had dredged through all the big hitters: Home Office, Police, NHS Digital, the Sex Offenders Register, Facebook, even a few more exotic, like INTERPOL or EURODAC. Not that Mr Evans was that interesting; quite the contrary. No exceptionalism whatsoever. Only petty crime, the type committed by petty people.

“Mr Evans, did you ever hit Paula Juska?”

Rage rose like a pressure hose, bees swarmed from within Sonny Evans.

Once, just that one time and it was sutured to him like an ankle tag. Never again, he had promised and never again had it happened but it only took one time, just once and you were a wife beater.

“No.”

The blank helmet stared at Sonny. Sonny stared back.

Kevin Price returned to his computer and made a big show of making one final click.

“Would you look at that - visa denied.”

Sonny sagged like a discarded marionette.

“Which means the only viable option left is a Return-to-Work Visa.”

“Return to what? How does that…I’m dead mate! Fucking snuffed it! Have you not been listening? I died, and all I’ve learnt is that there’s no heaven; there’s not even a hell. There’s just a wasteland waiting for you at the end of it all and even then – even dead! – you lot are still making us jump through hoops to prove ourselves. How the fuck are you talking to me about work?”

“I guess things have moved on a bit in four years. Haven’t you heard of,” and Kevin Price made air quotes with his gloved hands, “‘the unseen workforce’? No? I have a leaflet here somewhere…” He frisked the papers on his desk, retrieved a leaflet and placed it through the slot in the glass wall.

Underneath the HM Government logo read ‘Return-to-Work Visa: Information Leaflet.’ Beneath that was an illustration of a Casper the Friendly Ghost lookalike wearing a yellow construction hat. Sonny thumbed through it while Kevin Price droned.

“It’s all very new-fangled. Still a few creases that need ironing out, of course. Always the case with these national rollouts. All you need to do is sign a contract with an employer with a sponsorship licence. I can take a look and see who’s hiring. It won’t be the most interesting work I’m afraid – they have to try and hire someone alive first, of course. Can’t be undercutting the labour market. There’s a lot of sanitation roles, cleaning fat-burgs, things like that. But if you’re really lucky, there’s sometimes search and rescue jobs going. Warzones, natural disasters. Lots of travel.” He said it like it was the carrot next to his stick. “Or there’s nuclear power stations, if that’s a bit too grisly for you. Let’s see…Glanford Brigg isn’t too far from Doncaster, or…Salt End. That’s a new power station, a very desirable match. With your skill-set and character check, you’d be looking at a contract of” - Kevin Price clicked six times and tapped the ‘enter’ key - “the next one hundred and six years.”

“One hundred and six?” Sonny creaked. He suddenly felt very dry all over.

Kevin Price raised a hand to his screen. “That’s what the computer says - the algorithm is very precise. It’s really outside my control I’m afraid. But you’d have visitation rights to your designated haunting location - once a week at first but who knows! It can always go up.”

“But Paula won’t even be alive for another hundred and six years!”

“No, but think of all the things you’ll see! And there’s your daughter, and you never know - there might be grandchildren, even great-grandchildren!”

Sonny tried to grasp Kevin Price’s words but they kept running away from him. One hundred and six years…

“Is there really no other option?”

Kevin Price, briefly animated, returned to stasis.

“All decisions are final Mr Evans. You do not qualify for an Exceptional Citizen Visa and you have no right of appeal. The only remaining option is the Return-to-Work Visa. If you do not accept these terms, you will have another opportunity to apply in ten years from today. A transcript of our discussion today will be made available to you if you request it. Do you have any further questions?”

Sonny was questionless. Through the static that squatted his mind came creeping the unmistakable sixteen bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, on repeat.

“I repeat, Mr Evans, do you have any further questions?”


-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Alice Griggs (they/them) is queer, chronically ill and wears many hats, most of which are figurative. After graduating from the Warwick Writing Programme in 2017, they began organising with Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. Since 2021, they have worked for a small charity providing legal representation to destitute asylum seekers. They are interested in storytelling as both a liberatory and oppressive act, particularly when considered in the context of legal and administrative procedures. Despite a tendency to talk about state violence more often than most people, they are, actually, quite fun at parties.

147 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page