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Hard-earned privileges

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Julian would certainly have preferred the latest model, but as he’d learnt, when it came to this whole death business, beggars couldn’t be choosers. Not that Julian had begged. Of course not. He’d employed every tactic of persuasion he knew – lengthy speeches, listing the benefits to all parties, alluring promises, blackmail, obviously. None of it had succeeded in moving Alison, however. God, it had been easier to convince all those uppity misers to invest their money in imaginary schemes than it was sway that woman sometimes.

Still, Julian wasn’t one to give up easily. After much discussion with Robin, it had become abundantly clear that he might actually have to provide evidence that the promised benefits he’d listed were not merely talk. In short, he would have to be on his best behaviour for as long as it took. So, with Robin’s help – and on the condition that once Julian obtained the smartphone, he would download the crossword app that Robin had seen advertised – he had committed himself to being good. That meant no anecdotes of the sexual variety. No so-called lewd comments. No insults, no messing with Mike while he was working, no changing the channel in the middle of someone else’s TV time, no breaking anything, no arguing with Thomas, no interrupting, no spoiling the plots of movies, no spoiling the results of football matches, no asking for extra laptop time – the list went on. Robin had full permission to stamp on his foot or elbow him in the ribs whenever he slipped up, and the man was unfailing in his duties.

At first, the whole scheme seemed to yield no results, except a great deal of distrust and suspicion. Within a few days, Julian was tempted to throw the whole thing over – being nice got you nowhere except trampled at the bottom of the pile – but Robin convinced him to stick with it. Six weeks it took. Six, long, painful weeks, but by the end of it, Julian didn’t even need Robin’s elbow in his side; he could feel it before he even opened his mouth to speak. Six, slow weeks, but finally, finally, Alison had been worn down. She had presented him with Mike’s old phone, all connected to the internet and full of endless possibilities – well, as endless as possibilities got when you were dead and stuck in potentially eternal purgatory.

There were rules, obviously, though Julian expected nothing less these days. God, sometimes it was worse than being at boarding school. There was to be no Twitter. No dating apps. No porn. No editing his Wikipedia page. No messaging random numbers. No gambling. He was promised a small monthly allowance to spend on apps, but he wasn’t to exceed it. He would be permitted the phone between the hours of two pm and five pm. If he broke any of the rules, not only would the phone be taken away, but he would also forfeit his laptop privileges and his film club choices. The fact that he, Julian Fawcett, ex-MP and full-grown adult, was being reduced again to a small child with pocket money and time outs wasn't lost on him, but what could he do? Being dead really gave you limited leverage and sometimes you had to take what you got.

Still, he had tried to make a few negotiations around the rules. He’d suggested that he used an alias on Twitter and promised not to follow anyone he had known in life, but Alison wasn’t having any of it. He had tried to argue that the no porn rule was entirely unfair, since Alison was more than happy to provide Kitty with her erotic romance books, but Alison had merely fixed him with a look and told him to go read those if that’s what he wanted. He wasn’t about to admit it, but he had indeed tried it – look, sometimes a bloke gets desperate – but really, it wasn’t even worth the effort of turning the pages. Some of those so-called steamy romances read more like buttoned-up Victorian fiction and honestly, Julian had been to parliamentary debates with more sexual tension. Obviously, he had tried to raise the monthly allowance a little too, but Alison had raised a hand as soon as he started speaking and said one more complaint and she’d take the phone away. Since Julian was hardly about to give up his hard-earned prize, he’d decided that for the moment, it was best to be quiet.

On his first afternoon with the phone, he’d barely opened the app store when Robin had come bounding in. He’d sat down beside Julian, a grin on his face and he didn’t even bother to say a word. Julian made a show of heaving out a sigh, but they had shaken on it, they had both agreed that it was a binding agreement, and besides – well, it was Robin. So, Julian had found some cryptic crossword app and before he knew it, Robin had twisted his arm to spend some of his allowance on buying the full version, without advertisements and with infinite levels. And so that was how he spent his first afternoon with the phone, filling in seemingly endless crosswords for Robin. Ah well, he thought, when Alison took the phone away for the night, it was one afternoon and he had time, bloody buckets of it.

The problem was, whenever he did get hold of the phone, Robin wouldn’t be far behind, wanting crossword time. So Julian had to draw on those negotiation skills of his again and make a bargain with the man – twenty minutes of crosswords a day, then the rest of the time was Julian’s. Sure, they often ended up playing a game of virtual chess together against some stranger, but the point was, Julian was in charge. Besides, they made a good team and they usually won, so you know, it wasn’t all bad.

Still, Julian should have paid a fraction more attention to Kitty’s lingering presence in the common room whenever he had hold of the phone. Usually, she’d trail Alison round the house, or she’d be found with Pat or Mary or the Captain, but she’d taken to sitting in the common room instead, just watching Robin and Julian and the phone. One afternoon, when Robin had miraculously decided to entertain himself, Julian had rubbed his hands together and settled down to really make the most of the phone. Sure, Alison had forbidden Twitter, but she’d said nothing about Facebook and while she’d banned editing his own Wikipedia page, she hadn’t said anything about amending someone else’s. Ah, all those possibilities.

Julian had just set about Goggling – yes, he knows it’s called Google, but stupid names stick in the afterlife – when Kitty had appeared beside him, wearing a particularly sickly smile. For a moment, she’d merely watched him slowly begin to type, but then she’d edged closer, and he’d known what was coming. God, there really wasn’t any peace in this place. You could lock yourself in the bloody fridge and someone would still bother you. It was worse than having to speak to your constituents.

‘Julian,’ she said. ‘Julian.’


‘May I –’

‘I’m a bit busy, Kitty.’

‘It will only take one little minute. Please.’

‘Not right now, Kitty.’



‘Please. Please. Please–’

Honestly, sometimes Julian reckoned the Tories just ought to have put this lot in the House of Commons. The opposition would probably have just given in to shut them up for a bit. Not that any of them would have been willing mind, but you know, it was a thought.

‘Fine, fine,’ he said. ‘What do you want?’

‘Well, when Angela and Leila were here, they had this game on their phones, and they made themselves on it, so I asked Alison and she called it a dress-up game, and she asked them the name of it and I’d quite like to make myself on it, please?’

‘You mean, you want m– ’ Julian started, but he felt that metaphorical elbow in his ribs and remembered just how precarious his phone privileges were. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Come on then, what’s it called? We don’t have all day.’

And so Julian had spent his afternoon making a whole raft of Kittys in varying outfits and with varying hairstyles, each of which he had to download into his phone gallery and promise never to delete. By three o’clock, his hand was already beginning to cramp, but since the universe obviously hated him, Robin reappeared and on seeing the game, demanded that Julian made him too. Of course, that delighted Kitty and before he knew it, he’d been coerced into making not only himself, but all the other dead people of Button House. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he was then forced to move on to making the living – not just Alison and Mike, oh no, not even just Mike’s family, but seemingly every person who had ever visited Button House in the last three years. He even had the displeasure of creating Berk-ley Beg-Chetwynde and he wasn’t allowed to make him look more of a twat than he already did. When Kitty finally said they were finished for the day, Julian was severely tempted to sue the goddamn app for giving him RSI.

The next afternoon, after Robin had finished his crossword session, Kitty appeared with the declaration that today, they would be making her family on the game. Phone privileges, hard-earned phone privileges, Julian repeated to himself and fixed a hopefully convincing smile on his face. Her parents, Kitty made easily, as she did a couple of aunts and cousins, but when it came to her sister, things got a bit – emotional. Nothing was right. She tried every face shape, every hairstyle, every background, but none of them were ‘pretty enough’ for Eleanor. After fifteen minutes, Kitty was on the verge of tears and Julian was fighting every instinct to roll his eyes and walk away. One wrong move and he’d have lost the phone without even getting to edit a single Wikipedia page. Time to attempt to be – delicate.

‘Kitty,’ he said, ‘you do know it’s a game? It won’t be able to er – capture your sister exactly as she was when she was, you know, living.’

‘But I’ve got to make her right or, or she’ll –’

‘She’ll what? She’s not here, Kitty. She can’t do anything.’

Kitty’s bottom lip wobbled, and Julian held his breath – or rather, he would have done, if he wasn’t, you know, dead. So much for delicate, Julian. He’d done it now. Fuck it. He hadn’t even got a chance to look at that Reddit site he’d stumbled upon once on the laptop; hadn’t even got to send out a single e-mail to any of those idiots in government these days. Damn it. He looked at Kitty, and all of a sudden, she seemed to pull herself together and fix a smile back on her face.

‘I suppose you’re right. And she does look pretty, doesn’t she? Almost like Alison!’

‘Yes. I suppose she does.’

With that crisis averted and Kitty gone to find Mary, Julian didn’t have the energy for any of the things he’d planned. Instead, he found himself watching a whole reel of videos on that YouTube thing about people guessing whether they were drinking cheap or expensive wines and generally getting it wrong. Dolts, the lot of them. He would have been able to guess from a sniff alone.

After that, a sort of routine emerged. Julian would get the phone, he’d fill in a crossword for Robin, make three people on the dress-up games for Kitty and then the phone was his for the remaining two hours. Sure, sometimes Robin hung around and they played the virtual chess or watched some so-called conspiracy theory videos on YouTube – look, they were quite addictive now that nothing mattered and anything could be true – he was a ghost, come on – but the important thing was, Julian was getting his phone time and he’d yet to lose his privileges. Moreover, the whole letting Kitty have a go on the phone thing seemed to win him points with the others. Pat had even come up to him, nodded and said something along the lines of ‘good on you, mate.’

Naturally though, as with everything in this godforsaken afterlife, Julian’s apparent charity came with pitfalls – for him, obviously. No, pitfalls was too light a word. More like huge great canyons. More like potholes in the road and a whole bunch of old biddies writing in their complaints on a weekly basis, taking up his precious time with their whining. By that, he meant it wasn’t long before the other dead residents of Button House were appearing in the common room during his phone time, ready to pester him and take advantage of his gifts.

It was Pat who meddled next. He’d come into the common room and perched on one of the chairs, pretending to be all unobtrusive and cheery while Robin had his turn on a new app called ‘Wordscapes’ and while Kitty gave careful directions on how Julian was to manage her various cats and dogs and rabbits on the virtual pet apps that were now taking up space on his phone. Once the pair were gone, Pat attempted to wonder aloud as to whether the Scouts had created any new activity badges since his day and wouldn’t it be good, if he had something new for his next talk of the day.

Julian knew a hint when it hit him in the face, and he also knew that his fellow ghosts had a whole eternity to be persistent if they wanted to. With the most long-suffering sigh he could muster, he’d opened Goggle to search for ‘Scout activity badges’ and then spent the next two hours learning more than he’d ever wanted to know about ‘The Great Indoor Badge’, ‘The Entertainer Badge’ and ‘The Digital Maker Badge’. When Alison came to take the phone Pat was practically wheezing with excitement, espousing all sorts of terrible ideas about how he might actually be able to help the ghosts complete some of the new badges. Julian decided there and then that he would not be taking any responsibility for whatever kind of monster he might have just assisted in unleashing on Button House.

After Pat came Mary, brought in one day by Robin to discover the wonders of YouTube. Robin had wanted to show her some video about moonah, but once they’d manage to convince her that YouTube wasn’t the devil’s work, that no one had been shrunken and trapped inside it and that it was sort of just like a miniature television, Mary had become interested and wanted to see if there were any videos about ‘making things’ or ‘milking cows’. While Julian might have known a few freaks who were into the latter in his lifetime, he certainly wasn’t one of them, so he went with the lesser of the two evils. That had somehow landed them on channel called ‘Five Minute Crafts’ and Robin and Mary were hooked. The music was awful, the crafts were stupid and for the first time in his death, Julian was grateful for the limits of his powers. If he’d had been anymore dexterous, he was pretty sure the pair would have twisted his arm into picking up a glue gun. Luckily for him though, Mary and Robin had gone after Alison instead, with the request to make ‘salami earrings’ and ‘felt-tip fishes in water.’ Julian had sat back and decided to let her to figure that one out on her own.

It wasn’t long before it was Thomas who came sighing in and while Julian filled in Robin’s crossword, fed Kitty’s pets, let Pat check if Carole had updated her Facebook page, and showed Mary one video on growing plants indoors, Thomas had wandered round the room, sighing by the window, sighing on the sofa, before settling morosely opposite Julian once the others were gone.

Of all the ghosts, it was probably Thomas who irritated Julian the most, and if he was going to get away with upsetting any of them, then Thomas was his best bet. Still, if the others were persevering, then Thomas was more dogged than some cash-strapped kid whose mother had once told them she’d slept with Julian Fawcett, MP, back in the seventies. Sure, Thomas might skulk off today, but tomorrow he’d be back, languishing round the room like, well, like some sickly poet. Might as well rip the plaster off now and get on with it.

That was how Julian found himself with a poetry app on his phone that stored all the ‘classics’ but also brought up a ‘poem of the day.’ At three thirty, Thomas would arrive without fail to read said poem and then he would spend the next half an hour swooning over or berating it to whoever happened to be around. Unfortunately, that was inevitably Julian, and rather pathetically, he found himself defending the brevity of the haiku and the validity of poems that didn’t rhyme. For all that, it did at least seem to be expanding Thomas’s horizons a bit beyond the fluffy, fussy Romanticism he usually spouted, and one evening, Julian did stumble across him in his sighing spot, attempting to compose a poem in the style of William Carlos Williams. Perhaps the man could be almost tolerable, but Julian still waited with bated breath for a piece of Byron to pop up as the daily poem – ah, that would be the day.

The Captain and Fanny had stayed well out of the phone business at first, asserting that Julian would expose them to indecent material and that they had other more important business to attend to in the afternoons. That resolution lasted all of five bloody minutes before they too were showing up to the common room, just to ‘check’ on matters, individually, usually, though once they did arrive at the same moment and garble up some nonsense excuse to each other as to why they were there. All that flapping and Julian knew exactly what was coming.

Sure enough, one afternoon, the Captain hung around a bit longer than usual, and once Thomas had finished reading his poem (The Wild Flower’s Song, by Blake – the man had left mumbling ‘But O! met with scorn, But O! met with scorn’ to himself), the Captain had stood, tucked his swagger stick under his arm and declared that it was his turn, just like that, as if this was actually a thing they had been given turns with. It was Julian’s phone for fucks sake. It had been given to him and now here he was, working his finger to the bone for everyone else’s entertainment. He ought to start charging – one Goggle search in exchange for one film club slot, that sort of thing. And yet, Julian found himself Goggling ‘virtual war museum tour’, only for the Captain to absolutely lose his shit for half an hour over various tanks and uniforms.

Once the Captain had defected, it wasn’t long before Lady B followed. She showed up one afternoon to watch over the proceedings, and stood, nose turned up as if she’d just wandered into an entire room full of dog shit. It was her interested-but-don’t-want-to-be face and since it quickly became very irritating, Julian took pity on her and asked if she’d ever played Sudoku. She hadn’t – he already knew that, since a quick Goggle search had revealed it wasn’t popularised outside of France until 1979 and not really popular in Britain until 2004 – about the time Julian must have started seeing it in the newspapers Heather had left lying about on the few occasions she went out. Fanny immediately took it to be something unsavoury, reacting as if Julian had finally got onto the adult channel, lost the remote and interfered with her Murder, She Wrote. Still, once she’d realised it was only a number game, she’d quickly got the hang of it and seemed to quite enjoy it – well, excepting the fact that Robin had been looking over her shoulder excitedly the entire time and Julian had refused her demand that he removed the ape from the vicinity.

There was only one ghost left to claim their phone time – well, excepting the plague ghosts, but Julian preferred to pretend they didn’t exist – and that ghost found their way into the common room one Friday afternoon, about a month after Julian had first procured the phone. Of all the ghosts, he felt he knew Humphrey least, because you know, it was hard to get to know a head and to be honest, Julian hadn’t exactly bothered – so when Humphrey asked him to Goggle his own name to see if he’d been remembered as anything other than the man who’d died in the whole Catholic Plot thing, more specifically, if any of his paintings had ever become famous, he was a bit surprised. While Julian reckoned dying in a Catholic Plot was significantly better than dying in a sex scandal, he could still relate to the whole life being overshadowed by death thing, so he did the Goggling. Nothing came up, and Humphrey had shrugged it off – well, as much as a head could shrug – but, after several hours of digging, it turned out that a few of Humphrey’s paintings had survived. They were all listed as painted by Anonymous, which Julian thought was pretty shit – who didn’t want their name attached to their best work? – but Humphrey had seemed pretty chuffed anyway.

It was later that same night, once the household was all gone to bed, that something particularly unpleasant hit Julian, just as he’d got settled down to sleep. It was the slight cramping in his hand that triggered it, but it occurred to him suddenly that he’d had the phone for over a month and so far, he’d done next to none of the things he’d planned on doing with it. No emails, no Wikipedia editing, no watching the films he was banned from watching during film club. No – Julian had barely got a moment of his own on the phone. Shit. Shit.

It was the fault of the others – they’d pestered him and forced his hand. They’d taken over, ruined his fun. Except, he could have said no. There were no stipulations that required him to give the other ghosts a turn with the phone. That was never included in Alison’s rules. Julian could have argued that, if Alison had ever attempted to take the phone away on account of him not giving the others a go. Should have written the small print properly, he could have argued. Should have been more specific. And yet, here he was, feeding bloody cartoon cats, reading poetry, looking at tanks and filling in crosswords. Shit, shit, shit. He wasn’t even gaining anything from it. No extra turns during film club, no extra allowance, no extra phone time – not even a bit of peace and quiet. If anything, he was losing. Shit. He’d just done it – let his arm be twisted. He’d done – something – nice – without Robin even stomping on his foot or elbowing him in the ribs, without Alison taking anything away from him. Shit, shit, shit.

Julian got out of bed. He couldn’t sleep now. No, he was feeling – weird. He was feeling wrong. He was feeling – tricked? Nah, that wasn’t it. He was feeling – out of sorts, not right, not himself? He was feeling something, whatever it was. He walked down to the common room, paced from one end to the other. Was this the beginning of the end? Was this how he ended up getting sucked off – some kind of stupid, pathetic redemption arc? Nah, he didn’t feel like a good person yet. Yet? No. Shit. This was how you got fucked over. This was how they got to you. This is how you got yourself picked apart by the kind of vultures that ate you while you were still alive.

‘Why you awake?’

Fuck. Julian had forgotten Robin sometimes slept on the floor of the common room.

‘Ah, just couldn’t sleep.’

‘What wrong?’

‘Nothing, nothing.’

‘Nah – Robin knows. What wrong?’

Julian sighed. ‘I’ve been screwed over,’ he said. ‘I’ve let you lot walk all over me. I’m losing my touch. Turning mushy. Going soft. It’s not right – I’m not like that. Heartless bastard me, cold fucking –’

While Julian had been talking, Robin had come over and placed a hand on Julian’s shoulder. He leaned his ear against Julian’s chest.

‘What are you –’


‘Look Robin, I’m not sure what you’re doing, but the old ticker went out years ago.’

‘Heart in there somewhere,’ Robin stepped back, but kept a hand on Julian’s chest.

‘We’re dead mate,’ Julian said.

‘It's metaphor.’

‘I know, Robin, but it’s still –’

Robin stopped him talking with a finger on his lips. ‘Is there.’
Julian grumbled, tried to argue, but Robin only clamped his whole hand over his mouth. He pulled Julian over towards his normal chair.

‘You sleep. No worry about it,’ and with that, he curled up back on the floor.

Julian sat for a while, tried to think it all over, but it was late. There was nothing he could do about it now. Tomorrow, he’d put a stop to it. Tomorrow, he’d – he’d take back control. Tomorrow, he’d show them all. Tomorrow –

The following afternoon found him filling in Sudoku squares for Fanny, putting craft videos on for Mary and browsing through a constellation app for Robin. This was his death now. This was it. This was what Julian Fawcett, MP, had become. Shit.

Still, when Alison came to collect the phone that evening, she’d paused on her way out.

‘You can have it until six tomorrow,’ she said. ‘And in a month’s time, we can talk allowance increase – but any trouble then –’

‘Yes, yes, alright.’

Julian kept the smile off his face until Alison had gone, but then it broke out. Huh. Turned out being nice really could yield results. Who would have thought? Maybe he ought to have tried that when he was alive. Could he have – nah – no use dwelling on that now. Probably wouldn’t have worked in his old circles anyway. Julian shrugged his shoulders. Ah well. A whole extra hour – all those things he could do. All of those things he would get done. He was still smiling about it when Robin came in and asked if he wanted a game of chess.