I met a dead man once. He was lounging on the pavement outside one of the fancy shops on the high street.
He had his back pressed to the faux marble wall and his legs stretched out before him, and seemed to watch hundreds of shoes bound onto warm bodies pass to and fro on their way to do exciting,
pointless activities. His own feet did not have any shoes encasing them, but his big toe was poking out of his left sock in a comical sort of fashion.
"Hello, dead man." I said. The wind stirred his sodden coat and tugged a colourful chocolate wrapper across his chest before throwing it into the air and chasing it down the street.
The dead man said nothing. I gently kicked the ball of his right foot. I did not want to disturb the other with such an enormous and knarly toe as a sentinel. "I said, 'hello, dead man'" said I.
He started as if woken from a deep sleep. "I must have been asleep," he said, "must've...yes...hello."
"You weren't sleeping," I replied, "You were dead."
"Yes, like a dodo, or a plesiosaur."
"As in, not alive?"
"That too." I stared hard at him. His chest never rose nor did it fall, and his eyes had a strange glassy quality to them as if they were there for decorative purposes rather than seeing.
"I think you are still dead."
"Oh." He was quiet for a moment, attempting to make sense of a world that had suddenly decided that he ought to be extinct.
I suppose it is the sort of problem is difficult to resolve, but I had to be home by five and so decided to kick him again.
"What are you doing here, dead man?" I asked.
"I. Am dead."
"I know that, you smell like a corpse. You look like one too." I proffered my compact mirror. "Would you like to see?" I asked, helpfully.
He seemed to shake his head but did not move it an inch, "Not really." I put my mirror away.
I tried a different approach, "Didn't you know you were dead?"
"But doesn't it feel...well..." I paused, struggling for the right adjective. "Dead?" The dead man did not look at me, he also did not shrug.
"What is dead supposed to feel like? What does life feel like?" he asked. I had no answer and began to suspect that he was a philosopher in his past life.
"Were you a philosopher in your past life?" I replied, avoiding his question. He answered mine;
"What were you, then? You couldn't have been a dead man all your life."
He did not shrug again. "I was in the military once. Grenadiers."
I tried to sound knowledgeable, "I can tell by you bearing. Very official, very official indeed."
"It was a long time ago." As if to make a point, his eyes crossed slightly and he farted, his body slumping further onto the street.
Instead of feet, he now stared at hands holding bags, and phones, and other hands. "A lifetime ago." He whispered, half to himself.
"Did you like the Grebaneers?"
"Grenadiers" he corrected. "Royal Grenadiers. It has a marching song, too. Would you like to hear it?"
"Yes please." I said.
He began the song. It started one a note somewhere between ELO's 'Rockaria!' and 'Mars' composed by Gustav Holst.
'Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules // Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these. // But of all the world's brave heroes, there's none that can compare.
// With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers...'
The dead man proceeded to sing the next four sections in a voice that was not unpleasant, but also disquieting, as if his tongue was instead a flattened sausage. "...
for the British Grenadiers!" He finished triumphantly and trilled sausage-like. I applauded appreciatively and he almost beamed. "I have not sung that in so long.
We used to cry it out as we marched, all together.
Left, right, left, right, boots crunching along anything - everything! We went everywhere, oh, how I remember! There, there was a group of us lads that signed up.
Left school at sixteen, no education worth mentioning, said we'd join up. Had nothing back home, so why not? Got the uniform, got training, got - got a place.
A real place to be wanted, to be proud, you know?" I did not know, but he did not notice, so wrapped up in memories. "Then off we went to tour the world.
Been to deserts, been to jungles, been to New York for a parade? Imagine that, eh, me - waved on by thousands at a parade in bloody New York! Ever been" I decided to nod again.
Once I visited its much older namesake on a school trip about Vikings and that was probably close enough. "Brilliant, isn't it," he sighed.
"But it weren't all larking - there was real tough stuff too. Hard stuff. Things I ain't never wanted to see." The dead man's tongue transformed into a bullet, heavy and wounding.
"That's when it got too much. When Mike..." he trailed off, the memories that had swaddled him moments before became a snare, a barbed wire net, gutting him.
"When Mike," I prompted, gently.
"'S nothing. Past now, anyway. I'm dead now, ain't I?"
"Dead man, is Mike dead too?" The wind caught up again, much harder than before. With the wind came the beginnings of a rainstorm.
I shifted about in my coat, tugging at my buttons to secure them before shielding my head with my hood.
The dead man had no such clothes, instead he stayed in much the same position as before,
but his straggled beard was caught up in the wind's game and cruelly jerked this way and that before being tossed aside for another toy.
"Nah, Mike's not dead." He finally answered. "Not dead like me, anyway. Still rotting."
"Got hit with shrapnel. Right by the temple." He did not indicate to the left side of his head with a blackened nail. "Doctors said he were lucky. Got a sense of humour."
"Doesn't sound all that funny to me."
"It was a joke."
"Ah." I said lamely. "But he isn't dead."
"Not alive though, neither. In a ve-ge-ta-tive state. Nah, he's gone alright."
"What for? Wasn't you that got him. You weren't even alive then, were you? How old are you?"
"Twenty three. People say I'm three times that though."
"Yeah, well I am about the same age as you then."
"You're never twenty three!"
He barked a phlegmy laugh. I think bits of decomposed lung shot out between his two blistered lips. "Nah, girl, I'm the wrong side of fifty. Fifty eight to be precise. Birthday's in June."
He looked closer to eighty, the rigor mortis did not help.
"But Mikey. Poor bastard. Never even made it to thirty. Not really anyway."
The rain decided to retake the stage, driving people into the doorways of shops.
They then proceeded to peruse the aisles, picking at unnecessary items until they found what they really did not need and dump it at the till.
I drew my hood up and tightened my scarf into a noose. " 's getting colder." I said, my voice muffled through the layers of cloth.
"Oh." A fat raindrop fell off the corpse's nose and trickled down his lips before being caught by his beard where it sat like a great diamond.
"I need to go." My voice sounded apologetic but firm.
He did not look at me with miserable, pleading eyes. "Why?"
" 's getting cold and wet."
"Stay a little longer. Please."
I took a step back. "Sorry. No."
"I got no one."
"You are no one." I countered. It was unkind to say, but looking at that pathetic heap, it was true. "I am someone still."
"You were." I stepped back once more, bumping into someone. The woman was large and dressed entirely in purple.
Attached to her meaty fist was an equally large little boy carrying and orange racing car. They were both warm, both breathing.
"Watch it." She snapped. I cringed. I hate touching others, even by accident, even to escape the sad eyes of a dead body.
I stammered to the purple woman, "s-sorry." I jumped forwards again, kicking the cup that the dead man had placed in front of him when he was alive, hoping for some change.
It was empty, save for two dulled five-pence pieces that rolled out and ran down the road.
"Idiot." She said.
After the woman had continued down the street out of ear shot I turned to the dead man, "Sorry."
"'s alright. Couldn't spend it anyway."
"Suppose not. Can I get you anything? By ways of an apology."
He made a strange noise that I took to be a laugh. It sounded awful, like a cat running headfirst into a child's speeding bicycle. After the cat finished dying he said, "A priest."
"I haven't one of those on hand. Sorry"
"Well in that case there ain't much. Go on, girl. Get gone."
"Right, well, bye. See you sometime, maybe"
"Make it a long time, this sometime. Go now, 's getting colder."
I had nothing else to say, so I simply turned on my heel and left. I never looked back at the dead man, but he was on the news the next day. Frozen to death.
There were wails of anguish, cries of what could have been done. The next week, in another town, another one was found. A young woman, and there were yet more demands for action.
After her, another two, and then another. I stopped watching the news after that. It was easier to pretend it never quite existed.