Waking Up Dead by Nigel Williams is both a screamingly funny cozy mystery and startlingly strange ghost story asking the question: What would you do if you could bear witness to your own demise? (Available August 23, 2016)
Retired bank manager George Pearmain is, apparently, dead. According to the behavior of everyone around him, it would seem that he is no more. Not only that, but his mother has also passed away too – and on the eve of her 99th year, poor dear. Not only that, it could be that they were both murdered.
He feels fine otherwise.
As George's family gather for the birthday-celebration-that-never-was, he hovers around the house, watching and listening, entirely unseen. As a result, he makes all sorts of discoveries about himself, his wife Esmeralda, and his supposedly happy family…
‘George!’ said Esmeralda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?’
It was true, George reflected, that since he’d retired from the bank he had been getting up later and later. Why not lie there all day? Was there anything, really, that made getting up a worthwhile proposition?
It had not always been like this. In the first few years after what his friend Porter had called the Great Escape (he had sent George a note on the day of his leaving party, which read, ‘Don’t stop running till you reach the perimeter fence’), he had found it impossible to stay asleep after eight a.m.
He had, after all, been getting up at eight a.m. for nearly thirty years. It was a wonder that he didn’t shoot out of bed, struggle into his suit and find himself halfway down Putney Hill before he woke up to the fact that the NatWest bank had no further need of him.
For about eight years and six months, of course, he had had to get up in order to stop Partridge crapping on the floor. More positive-minded people than George might have put that another way. Why could he not tell himself he simply wanted to see the dog? To share the Irish wolfhound’s simple joy in the world? To get out there on Putney Heath and watch him sniff his way through the heather? To try looking as if he hadn’t noticed when the animal relieved itself of about half a kilo of intricately coiled faeces?
George, however, had never been positive-minded. His relationship with Partridge was one of Strindbergian complexity and awfulness. Somehow, George’s role seemed to be to stop it doing any of the things it wanted to do – like eat the sofa and defecate on the floor – and in the process he had more or less ruined the dog’s life.
It was, he decided, all Esmeralda’s fault. It was Esmeralda who had kept up a vicious campaign against the animal for every minute of its increasingly narrow and wretched life.
‘Don’t let him into the kitchen with dirty paws.’
‘Don’t let him lick the dirty plates in the dishwasher.’
‘Don’t let him eat things off the sides.’
One of the few high points of Partridge’s life had been the moment he’d realized he was large enough to eat things off the work surfaces; but after Esmeralda had screamed at him when he attempted to repeat the experience, he retired to his basket and spent most of the rest of his life staring glumly over his paws at the distant horizons of Esmeralda’s kitchen floor.
And now he was dead. He had gone where the good doggies go. To a place where Esmeralda could not scream at him any more.
‘Lying there!’ she was saying. ‘Like a toad! All I can see is bits of your hair poking out from under the duvet!’
She obviously thought he was asleep. If he carried on lying very, very still, she might continue to think that. And, possibly, shut the fuck up. Although the likelihood of Esmeralda ever shutting up about anything was – George had to admit – pretty remote.
She had a few more important criticisms to make before she was through.
‘It’s a quarter to nine. There are hundreds of people in the house. The whole of your fucking family. Your mother. Your brother. Your sister. Your mother’s mad lesbian friends. And you are lying there like a toad.’
Why had she got it in for toads? Toads were nice. They crouched in the bushes, doing no one any harm.
‘Barry and Maurice are here. Ella Bella is here. Bella Ella is here. Jojo is here. Ginny is here. You bloody asked them. And you’re lying there like a toad.’
For a moment, George thought she was going to poke him. If she did, he didn’t feel it. It seemed possible that running through a few of his deficiencies had made her feel better about the world in general.
She lowered her head slightly closer to the duvet as she remembered a few more. ‘You’re so vague. You never engage. You don’t seem to live in the real world. You won’t come to the book group. You were appallingly rude to that electrician. You sneer at the television. You’re fat.’
This, George thought, was low of her. It was about the worst word in Esmeralda’s vocabulary. It was, for her, the equivalent of someone accusing Hemingway of being a fruit.
She had obviously decided he was asleep. There was a confident, almost relaxed tone to her voice that suggested she knew that, for once, she was not likely to get any comeback. George was not usually a man to take an insult lying down. If you called him fat, he called you fat right back.
Yet this morning he seemed to be taking this lying down. Literally. Why? Was he losing his edge? Perhaps now, at the age of sixty-five, he had decided to retire, hurt, from the long sparring match that was his marriage.
‘I’m going downstairs to tidy the kitchen,’ Esmeralda was saying. ‘As I did yesterday. And the day before. All you do is lie there. You are completely … irrelevant. You are a minor person of no importance.’
It was hard to find an answer to this. Perhaps because – at the moment anyway – it seemed to be pretty much on the money. Perhaps also because he had heard it all before. In forty years of marriage they had just about said everything they had to say to each other.
George heard her stomp off to the bathroom. There were women, he had heard, who spent hours perfecting their appearance before they went out to meet the world. Esmeralda was not one of them. It was into the bathroom, grab the bra off the radiator, peer at herself critically in the mirror, on with the tracksuit and the gigantic bracelet, then off downstairs to shout at people.
Once, her brassières had performed an important erotic function in his life. These days, they played the same role in his existence as did his socks in hers. She never wore knickers. This was not, as she had patiently explained to George, to do with sex. ‘It’s for myself!’ she had barked, when he had asked her why she did this. ‘I feel free without pants!’ Free to do what?
She was now clomping down the stairs, to make life difficult for people other than George. If there were any brave enough to have ventured downstairs. George knew every timbre and half-tone of her footsteps and, from their texture and quality, he reckoned things were going to be pretty rough for anyone foolish enough to find themselves in the hall/kitchen-diner area.
‘Ha!’ he heard her say, as she reached the ground floor. ‘Ha!’
This sounded, to George, like the kind of ‘Ha!’ that meant she had found new evidence of his failure to be a decent human being. A shoe, perhaps, abandoned before the long, slow trudge up the wooden stairs? A half-empty wine bottle? A cigarette – horror of horrors? Possibly all three. He had been drunk last night. He remembered that.
As she headed for the kitchen-diner, she kept up her monologue. Though it was still aimed, principally, at him, other people, like driftwood in the aftermath of a tsunami, floated past on the great sea of her contempt for the world and the people in it.
‘… no thought for anyone and just off with the shoes and fling them on to the stairs as if some butler was going to pick them up, the butler being me, I suppose, and a fucking cigarette. I do not believe it! Was it that Mullins woman? I do not know why I have to put up with the long face from you and the “Is there any bacon?” rubbish when all you do is waddle around on your stumpy little legs and…’
This, thought George, really was not fair. He did not have stumpy little legs. His legs – most people thought – were his best feature. Even as he articulated the idea, however, he realized he had absolutely no evidence for its being true. Most people had no views, favourable or unfavourable, about George’s legs. He had them. They got him down the hill to Waitrose and up the hill to the common, but they were of no interest to anyone apart from him and, so it seemed, Esmeralda.
But thinking things seemed to make them true. Why? George was wrestling with this deep philosophical conundrum when Esmeralda let out a scream of the kind usually reserved for housemaids discovering a dismembered body on the drawing-room carpet.
Perhaps she was just registering the fact that he had left a half-eaten sausage on one of the dining-room chairs, or, possibly, vomited all over her copy of The Selected Poems of Carol Anne Duffy. He was pretty sure he had chundered last night at some point in the proceedings. He had been hitting the parsnip wine pretty hard.
Had he possibly done a Partridge? Surely not. And yet … it was just conceivable that he had done a massive dump somewhere on the property. It had been a pretty uninhibited evening. It had been a night for saying what you thought of Ed Miliband. Or really getting down to brass tacks on the subject of Wagner and the Nazis.
Why not round it off by lowering the trousers and emptying the bowels in a quiet corner of the scullery?
‘Oh, no! No! No! No!’
Whatever George had got up to in the early hours of the morning, he couldn’t help thinking that Esmeralda was overreacting. You would have thought he had strewn the remains of a full-on voodoo ritual all over the sideboard, or artfully inserted a severed human finger into the cutlery basket of the dishwasher.
‘Oh, my God! My God! You must come! George! Stephen! Lulu? Did you stay? Oh, my God! It’s Jessica! Jessica! Oh, my God! Jessica!’
Why was she shouting George’s mother’s name? George always felt peculiar when he heard her using it. ‘Jessica – can I have the recipe for that wonderful chocolate cake you make?’ ‘Jessica – was George a competitive child?’
‘Jessica’ was a completely different person from George’s mother. George’s mother was ‘Mum’ or ‘Ma’ or ‘The Old Lady’ – or, if you were feeling annoyed with her, ‘Mother’. If he was feeling even more annoyed with her she could become ‘The Madwoman of Chaillot’, ‘The Old Bat’ or ‘The Witch of Endor’ – but she was never, ever ‘Jessica’. Jessica was who she had been before she embarked on the all-important task of being George’s mother. Jessica was the name by which the Mullins woman, Sylvia Deakins and all those other women from her teacher-training college all those years ago used to call her. Jessica was the woman in the skiing photographs of the 1930s when she and other perfectly formed youngsters swanned around the Sud Tyrol trying not to look as if they sympathized with the Hitler Youth.
George was not entirely sure whether, if he had had the chance to meet his mother in 1936, he would have liked her.
‘Oh, Jessica! Oh, my God, Jessica! Jessica! Jesus, Jessica! Jesus! Help! Oh, my God! Jessica! Help!’
George’s mum had, presumably, fucked around with the coffee machine or something. Esmeralda hated anyone touching her coffee machine – almost as much as she disliked George spitting into her side of the basin when brushing his teeth. George felt he really ought to make some kind of response – even if it was only to turn over and pretend to be deeply asleep. Somehow he just couldn’t seem to manage it. He was not up to even trying to earn the award of Esmeralda’s favourite adjective – ‘involved’. Someone from Wandsworth Council had rung him the other day to ask him how he thought the council were doing. He had answered, ‘Don’t know,’ to all fifty-one questions. And these were about things that, normally, he cared about. Things like … dustbins and parking restrictions. He was getting old. Old and apathetic.
‘Jessica! Come, someone! Please! Someone, help! Oh, Jessica! Jessica! Jessica! Oh, my God! Jessica! Jesus Christ! No! Jessica! What’s happened to you, Jessica? Speak to me, Jessica!’
Perhaps she had broken the Venetian glasses. The ones they had brought back from Murano three years ago. As, somewhere on the upper floors of the house, people started to wake up in response to whatever it was that was making Esmeralda come on like a freshly crucified soprano, George found himself once more pondering his wife’s inability to use his mother’s Christian name without revealing the terrible inadequacy of their relationship. When Esmeralda said ‘Jessica’ – particularly when doing so to her face – she managed to make it sound as if they had only just met. Not only that. She also managed to suggest that she was about to uncover new and difficult truths about the woman almost everyone, in and out of her family, referred to as ‘a marvel’ and ‘an astonishing old lady’.
She was ninety-nine today and, until whatever had happened a few seconds ago, she had shown no sign whatsoever of slowing up. Perhaps she had finally been a little too free and easy with the Zimmer frame. Perhaps she had done in the other hip. Perhaps—
‘She’s dead! Oh, my God! She’s dead! Jessica is dead! Jesus Christ! Come, someone! Come! Come! Oh, God! Jessica’s dead!’
This was sensational news. Unless this was an even more than usually elaborate attempt to gain attention, it looked as if George’s mother was dead. He had better do something. Quickly. Other people seemed to be rising to the occasion. Stephen was clattering down the stairs at double-quick speed. Lulu, of course, had not stayed the night, but Barry and Maurice and Ginny and Jojo were here, as was, inevitably, Frigga. George could hear her familiar footsteps in the box room and then on the stairs. Could he hear the more masculine tread of the Mullins woman and the pad-pad of Beryl Vickers?
George heard Stephen’s voice – manly, responsible and, as always, sounding very grown-up for a younger brother.
‘George, mate! George! A serious situation here I’m afraid, mate!’
Well, thought George, I’d rather gathered that.
Then, above the babble of screaming, crying and vaguely audible attempts at amateur medicine (‘Try to sit her up!’ ‘Give her the kiss of life’ ‘Is she breathing or not, do we know?’), he heard the unmistakable sound of Frigga backing into the limelight of concern. Her high, wobbly voice and her habit of accentuating the wrong word in each sentence suggested she was auditioning for one of the small but impactful roles she so often played for the Putney Thespians – her Nurse in Romeo and Juliet or her (less successful) French Lady in Waiting in Henry V.
‘Oh, my God! How can this be? Can my mother be dead?’
Frigga always talked like a character in a Victorian melodrama, and the sudden death of a close relative had not added any restraint to her performance.
‘We must do something! We must hit her in the chest!’ (Why?) ‘I have some St John’s wort in my bag! Or coltsfoot! It is very restorative! Or…’ a slight pause before she added this clearly less attractive alternative ‘… we should get an ambulance! Or a doctor!’
Why not both, Frigga? Preferably at the same time! George still could not understand why he seemed unable to get out of bed. You would have thought that the death of one’s mother, even at the ripe old age of ninety-nine, would elicit some more positive response than hiding under the duvet until it was all over.
He was under the duvet. Of that, he was absolutely sure. And yet, George found himself thinking, how did he know he was under the duvet? He could not feel the familiar sensation of high-thread White Company linen. He was not aware of the slight but comfortable pressure of the goose down on his chest or shoulders. Well, he knew he was under the duvet because Esmeralda had told him so. You knew things without necessarily experiencing them. That, thought George, was what being human was all about. The next time Esmeralda – or someone like her – had a go at him for being vague, evasive and not in touch with things, he should point that out to her.
Downstairs, Esmeralda was saying, ‘He’s just asleep like a pig! He just lies there like a pig! Snoring! His mother is dead and he just lies there like a pig!’
For once George was prepared to admit that this might be a fair comment. He really ought to get up and join in more. There were people down there clearly in need of his unique blend of judicious self-interest and total indifference to the feelings of others. Someone needed to go down there and tell them all to get a grip on themselves. Stephen, as usual, was doing a lot of responsible acting, which, if past history was anything to go by, people were not taking at all seriously.
‘What we need to do,’ he was saying, in his best newsreader’s voice, ‘is get on to the police ASAP. And – obviously – a doctor. ASAP again. I’m happy to do that, Esmeralda. She is my mother, after all. It is your house but she is … er … my mother. Obviously.’
Esmeralda was on her way. She made even more noise stomping up the stairs than she had done stomping down them. George made one more determined attempt to lever himself up from the prone position but, somehow, he did not seem to be making any more progress than he had in any of his earlier efforts. He just stayed right there under the duvet, aware, because she had told him so, that a tuft of his thick black hair was poking out on to the pillow, a guilty signpost to the trail that led inexorably to sixteen stone of Retired High Street Banker – a man so totally callous to human feeling that he could not be bothered to climb out from under the bedclothes and take a shufti at the freshly minted corpse of the woman who had given life to him, sent him to a minor public school and even managed to pretend to tolerate the small, muscular, irritable woman to whom he had been married for forty years.
‘George! Have you no feelings at all? Are you dead to the world, George? Why are you just lying there like a toad when this terrible thing has happened?’
From downstairs, someone – the Mullins woman? – was saying something about the police but here, in the bedroom, things had gone suddenly very quiet indeed. Esmeralda had whipped off the duvet. George knew that she had done this because he was aware, somehow, that it was lying in a tangled heap on the floor, some two yards from the bed.
This was, in itself, unusual.
For him to be able to do this, he should, logically, have lifted his head at some kind of angle to the horizontal and yet, in so far as he was aware of anything at all, he would have said that he was still offering an angle of 180 degrees to the plane surface on which he seemed to be fixed. He might have insisted he was lying down but his field of vision seemed to be that of a standing man. ‘Insisted’ was the wrong word. He was just lying down. That was all there was to it. He did not seem to have any choice in the matter.
No. Not quite. Not quite that.
Esmeralda seemed rather less assertive than usual. If George had not known her better, he might have said she was showing some concern for him. This was, he thought, very worrying. They had been married for an interminable length of time, but he had known her for much longer than that. They had met at St Jude’s Church of England Primary School, Putney, at about the same time as the Suez crisis. George had been – or so he told people at dinner parties – seven and a half years old. Esmeralda was nearly nine. She had hit him with the handle of her skipping rope. George had burst into tears. ‘It was all downhill after that…’ George often said, adding his carefully worked-up ‘boom’ laugh to let people know that it was supposed to be funny. He had said it so often that Esmeralda was now occasionally heard to remark that if he did so one more time she would hit him with something a lot harder than a skipping-rope handle.
She never showed concern.
‘George! Oh, my God! George! What is it? George! Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, no! Oh, fuck! Oh, no! George! George! George!’
What was the matter with her this morning? She was leaving herself nowhere to go. If she carried on like this she was going to be in full hysterics by elevenses and as crazy as Ophelia in Act Four by lunchtime.
She seemed to be putting her hand to his face. She did this with the kind of caution that suggested he was about to lift his head from the pillow and bite off one of her fingers. This, thought George, was excessive. No – he did not like being woken up but he was a reasonable man. His mother was dead. He was – in the fullness of time – going to make a real effort to respond to this news.
Esmeralda’s voice had dropped to a whisper.
‘Speak to me, George! Say something, George! Tell me you’re still there, George! Just let me know you’re there! Oh, my God! Oh, darling!’
Darling! This was obviously very serious indeed.
‘Darling! Tell me you’re not dead!’
George pulled himself together. Or, at least, he had the illusion of doing some of the things associated with that course of action. He was pretty sure he had opened his mouth. He was almost positive he had lifted his left arm and even, perhaps, raised himself to a sitting position in order to let his wife know that, although he was sixty-five and then some, and not, admittedly, in superb physical shape, he was – in his opinion anyway – not actually dead yet.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, God! Oh, no! Oh, fuck! Oh, for God’s sake! How can they do this? You can’t be! Oh, George! Oh, no!’
She was in tears now. She was also leaning forwards and trying something she had not attempted for at least fifteen years – an early-morning embrace. It wasn’t a very successful one because, as far as George could tell (although he was beginning to lose confidence in the reliability of his senses), he did not make any kind of response. That was almost the strangest thing to have happened so far in this unpleasantly eventful morning. He usually tried to make some kind of response to a direct physical approach – even if it was only to tell her he had a headache. You had to take it where you could find it at sixty-five.
His being dead might explain his lack of enthusiasm for a bit of pokey. Maybe he was dead. If he was, sex was liable to be out for the foreseeable future.
‘Come! Come up here! Please! Come here now! It’s George! This is unbelievable! I think George is dead too!’
Copyright © 2016 Nigel Williams.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Nigel Williams is the author of over sixteen novels—including the bestselling Wimbledon Poisoner. He wrote the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning Elizabeth I, starring Helen Mirren, and his stage plays are performed around the world. He is also the host of the long-running BBC Radio comedy show HR with Jonathan Pryce and Nicolas le Prevost. He has lived in the London borough of Putney for thirty years.