The place, like all take home, flat pack superstores, was cavernous. The majority of the space was taken up with furniture displays and, in this part of the building, the thousands of flat-packs themselves. On this particular late, Thursday afternoon in December, despite the cold, dreary weather, the car park was jammed and most of the warehouse full of shoppers falling over themselves to spend their hard-earned cash. All except this particular aisle.
It amazed me that, in the midst of all this turmoil, there could be a spot such as this. The aisle, as far as I could make out, was numbered 27B. I could find no reference to it on the site map and certainly it wasn’t the aisle I was looking for. I wanted the location of my, carefully selected, flat pack table, attractively entitled, I thought, Sven. The aisle seemed to run at right angles to all the other aisles, quite contrary to the usual layout policy of this company. I had more or less stumbled on it by accident. I had walked down aisle 27, turned to my left expecting to walk back down the parallel one – aisle 28. But that aisle wasn’t there, aisle 27B however was.
At first I was attracted by the solitude that this spot seemed to offer. Despite the presence of other shoppers only a few yards away, I felt when I stepped across the threshold of this aisle, I had been almost, daft though it sounded, transported to another world. I stopped and looked around me. There was no natural lighting anywhere in this part of the warehouse but here the artificial lighting seemed altogether different in character. It was softer and in a curious effect, it seemed to cause the whole of this view to shimmer as if in a summer’s heat.
But this part of the building was anything but hot. In fact, I noticed it was definitely cold. I shivered with the cold but part of the shiver was one of excitement for the secret world I had discovered. It sounds dramatic, but, well, that’s how it felt. I took a few more steps forward and stopped again. Something, I couldn’t immediately put my finger on, had changed. The chattering of other customers walking with me down the previous aisle had stopped. In fact all sound had stopped. In one of the busiest superstores in the country there was absolutely no sound and I was entirely alone.
Perhaps I should have been spooked by this sudden transformation, but I was not. I looked around me more closely and began to read the writing on the boxes stacked high upon the shelves which reached to the ceiling on either side of me. There were a variety of large boxes measuring 2 metres by 65 centimetres as well as a whole range of smaller cartons. They all had those marvellous Swedish names, the big ones with names like – Coffi, Resta, Peac and the smaller ones – Handl, Secur, Deat. In my huge ignorance I assumed they were some kind of table or bookshelves or kitchen cabinets. I was wrong.
As I walked on I became increasingly puzzled by what kind of furniture this all was. However, before I could come up with an answer, I turned the comer and immediately I was no longer alone. Twenty or thirty people were walking down this aisle. They were looking at the cardboard boxes on the shelves, carefully studying catalogues and, at the far end, apparently queuing to pay for their purchases. I felt a small pang of regret that my solitude had ended so abruptly.
Among all these people I saw a man in the characteristic, red shirt with logo walking towards me down the aisle, clipboard in hand. He seemed to be checking stock levels. “Excuse me,” I said. “What kind of furniture is all this stuff?”
“I thought that would be obvious,” he replied making no effort to look up from his clipboard.
“Well, it isn’t,” I said, surprised at his lack of politeness in responding to my enquiry. “What’s your name,” he asked, equally perfunctorily.
“What the hell has my name got to do with it?” I snapped. For some strange reason I had an increasing feeling of unease about where I was and why I was here. He looked up from his clipboard and smiled at me. For some reason I felt compelled to give him my name.
“My name, for whatever it’s got to do with anything is Jack Ramsey.” He turned over several sheets of paper and looked down again at his clipboard. He smiled again and looked up at me.
“You’re on the list. You wouldn’t have got in if you weren’t. Here’s your authorization. Go ahead and make your choice.”
He handed me what seemed to be a receipt. The paper said – one coffin, interior, with all necessary fixtures and fittings.
I stared at him in disbelief.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about,” I whispered. He looked at me with a look of forced patience, the one he had been trained to deliver at this point.
“Let me try and explain,” he said putting his pencil behind the clip on his board. “It’s a relatively new service for us, but an obvious one if you think about it. We make and sell about everything else why not flat pack coffins. Choose your colour, material, fabric, fixtures and fittings. Take them away and make them up. There’s special tools for the horribly maimed and instruction booklets in braille for those that unfortunately lost their sight. Of course some people, those dying in a huge explosion, that sort of thing, they’re likely to need some help and we provide a delivery and assembly service then.”
He said all this without pause. I felt my mouth drop wider and wider. My look of disbelief didn’t stop him. He carried on.
“What makes it totally original of course is that the recently dead, the dying and soon to be dead – according to my list, that’s you – can come here and choose their own coffins. That took some negotiation I can tell you. We had to draw the line at the horribly disfigured of course. We’re big on equal opps but this is a business after all.”
I looked at him, ready to laugh. It was a good joke. A little bit in poor taste but clever for all that. But no smile crossed his face, his mouth did not twitch at the edges and his eyes showed no sign of mirth.
“You mean all these people are either dead dying or soon to be dead and they’re choosing their own coffins?” Even as I spoke I felt the blood drain from my face.
“That’s correct. You’ve got it now.” He gave me what I supposed was meant to be a smile of commiseration but he merely looked ghoulish.
“But I’m not dead or seriously ill and I have no intention of dying in the near future,” I said.
“That’s what they all say,” he said looking rather bored with our conversation now.
I left him checking a shelf of coffin handles against his sheet on his clipboard. I moved on through the dead and dying, desperately searching for a way out of this nightmare. Then I saw him. I hadn’t seen him for probably ten or fifteen years not since we’d fallen out about our mother’s will and he had gone off to live in Australia, but of course you’d know your identical twin anywhere.
“John, is that you?” I asked when I had drawn level with him. He turned to face me, a look of surprise on his face. The surprise did not last long and was replaced with a look somewhere between cunning and malice. He looked me up and down and in the end I felt compelled to speak again.
“I thought you were in Australia,” I said.
Finally he spoke. “Yes that’s what you were supposed to think. In fact I’ve been living less than twenty miles away from you for the last three years. After the way we parted I wasn’t in any great hurry to get in touch. I suppose I intended to some time. I guess I left it a bit late.”
He half smiled at me as he said this.
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t it obvious Jack. I died last week. Heard about this new service they were running and here I am.”
He paused for a moment.
“What are you doing here, anyway. You’re not dead are you?’
“Not as far as I’m aware,” I replied trying to force a smile
“They must have got you mixed up with me. I believe it happens sometimes. You always were the jammy half of the family. We got equal shares but you’re going to live to use it longer than me. And don’t think you’re getting any money from my will.” He added as an afterthought.
“Here take your ticket, the one in your hand,” he nodded down at the paper I had clenched in my hand, “and get a refund.”
I stood and stared at him. Finally, seeing that I was rooted to the spot, He prised the crumpled paper from my hand and read it.
“Yes you see this has just got my initial on it – J -. You’ve got to admit that it’s pretty unlikely you’d get two J Ramseys in here at the same time but that’s what’s happened.”
I stared at him still. He made to turn away but then he seemed to have another thought.
“I can’t say I wish you a long and happy life, Jack. But this time it’s you that gets to walk out of here and carry on living,” he nodded towards the queues at the end of the aisle, “go on, go and get your refund.”
With that he walked away from me. For several seconds I stood rooted to the spot. Then I made myself, despite my fear that it would tum out that John had been teasing me, look down the aisle towards the queues of people. To my complete amazement above one counter there was the single word REFUNDS. I walked, as if in a dream towards it. There were no people in front of this desk. I walked up to the man behind the counter and simply pushed my form towards him. I could not speak. I waited for him to confirm my nightmare. He scrutinized my form and when he did speak what he said was so ordinary, I could not stop myself from laughing out loud. He looked at me then as if my reaction was completely normal.
“Yes, it happens occasionally,” he said looking closely at my form.
Perhaps I realized then that I was going to walk out and carry on with my life. A feeling of anger replaced my previous gut-wrenching fear and I rounded on this poor man.
“How does it happen? The whole thing’s like some terrible nightmare and all you people can say is – it happens. What happens, for Christ’s sake?”
“Well in your case, it’s a simple case of mistaken identity. They get sorted out when it gets to this point. Then you’ve got the miraculous cures. People who’ve been told they’re going to die in a week but make a complete recovery. And of course, there’s the ones that actually die and cross over to the other side but the Lord sends them back. They can end up here for a short time. You’ve got your extreme narcosis, catalepsy and cataplexy cases. Yep, we get them all in here. Mostly they’re just relieved when they find out it’s all been a bit of a mistake.”
With that he picked up a rubber stamp from the counter, stamped my form and then signed it. Then he handed the form back to me. I looked at what had been stamped on my form. It simply said – Returned without Prejudice.
A curious expression, I thought. But he was right I was relieved. He had moved on to his next satisfied customer. I had beaten the system, I had outlived my brother. Not a thought did I spare for my closest relative as I ran, skipped and jumped out of that ghastly place. I was so pleased with myself that I didn’t see the delivery truck and the driver didn’t see me until it was too late, way too late.