Lost in the trees but a clearing is glimpsed ahead.

When Ted Faced Death

The surface of the coffee table speaks of a massacre. Gutted bags of kettle chips spill their contents into puddles of cheap lager, while clusters of nuts jostle lemming like towards the table’s edge and their inevitable doom on the carpet below.

Two men, lit only by the glow of a television, share the sofa nearby. One is soft and round, sunk deep into the cushions. The other looms above him. His hooked nose and scrawny neck giving him the unmistakable profile of a vulture. It is 4:36 in the afternoon and neither man has been further than the toilet since breakfast.

“Do you ever think about getting a job anymore?” Ted asks from deep in his nest of cushions.

Ron, who is reading the ingredients on a packet of crisps replies, “Fuck no. Getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Wouldn’t you like to have something to do though?” Ted sips nervously from his can and glances sideways at Ron.

“Nah, I like being unemployed, it suits my temperament.”

“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to adjust.” Ted says, gazing sullenly into the top of his can. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Ron smile and shake his head.

“It’s been six years, man. Get over it. You’d have to kill somebody to get a decent job now.” Ron pauses for a moment, considering, “Don’t worry though. In the future everyone will have nothing to do. That’s what progress is all about.”

“I don’t think that’s true Ron. If technical progress is supposed to improve efficiency and reduce the amount of time people spend working why do the folk that have jobs need to spend more and more of their time working, harder and harder,” Ted says, adamant there is a problem.

“Let’s try an experiment.” Ron suggests, attempting to lighten the mood. “I’ll bet you the rest of this bag of ready salted that in the next ad break one of the things they’re trying to sell us is essentially useless but gives whoever buys it more time to do nothing.”

“Alright, you’re on,” Ted replies, brightening, as he reaches across and bumps his can against Ron’s packet of crisps. Both men turn towards the screen where a program called ‘The Hunker Bunker’ is about to finish. “It’s a shame that blonde girl lost the Radiation Challenge. I really liked her hair.”

The first advert is for a new dual headed tampon to aid those with rectal laxity. Ted and Ron glance at each other with looks of incredulity. The second is for instant noodles. Now it is clear to both that an argument could be made, but neither man will hear a word said against a staple of their diet so they scrupulously avoid eye contact. The third is for an automatic dog walker that looks like a swing-ball and drags the unfortunate pooch round in a circle while its owner shelters in the conservatory sipping pink gin and sherbet.

Triumphant, and instantly forgetting his plan to cheer Ted up, Ron reaches across and takes the can from where it rests on his friend’s belly and shakes it next to his ear.

“What happens when the dog takes a dump though? You’re still going to have to get up and bag it,” Ted complains.

“If they had a scoop on the back it would be automatic,” suggests Ron, “Or what if the dog had a nappy?” His eyes widen at the thought.

“Well I don’t care how inevitable the future is,” says Ted, rubbing the wet circle on his t-shirt, “That bloke we met in the pub on Tuesday said I could get a job in security if I lost a few pounds so I’m going to get back in shape tomorrow.”

“It’s going to take a lot longer than a day, mate, unless the shape you mean is oval.”

“Starting tomorrow,” Ted, grumping, folds his arms and turns his attention, pointedly, back to the screen.

The following afternoon Ted waits patiently at the bus stop near his house for a number 19 into the city. The swirling breeze can do nothing to penetrate his significant insulation so it chooses instead to frolic with the flimsy garments of the two young women huddled at the other end of the shelter. He wonders how long ago it was that he became invisible to teenage girls.

“Hey mister,” the girl with the red hair says.

Well, maybe not entirely invisible.

“What time’s the next bus?”

“The big green taxi will be along just shortly,” replies Ted, smarming like a champ. The girl responds with the universal gesture for wanker, which Ted fails to notice as he basks in his moment of cross generational interaction.

While Ted rests against the shelter, causing it to bend slightly, one of the girls pulls a bottle of rum from her handbag and takes a swig before passing it to her friend, who gives her a bottle of coke in return. Ted eyes them surreptitiously, but decides that asking for a drink would be a breach of his new health regime. The red haired girl adds the coke to the rum in her mouth and swirls it round before swallowing.

When the bus finally arrives the rum is half finished and the girls are having trouble staying upright on their perilously high heels. The driver stops next to them, ignoring Ted completely. Ted walks up behind the girls as they board the bus.

“And where are you ladies off to this evening?” Ted asks as the red haired girl’s friend counts coins from her purse.

“Nowhere you’d fit,” she shrieks. The driver chuckles and gives Ted a ‘what can you do’ shrug as the girls clatter off up the stairs to the top deck.

Ted can still hear them laughing as the bus pulls away.

Walking into town takes Ted a long time and the shops are beginning to close when he reaches his destination. He strides purposefully down the pavement towards Jenkins’ Sports, famous locally for having the cheapest trainers in town. He arrives flushed at the door, determined to complete his mission.

Inside, a short flight of steps lead up from the grimy doorway to the shop floor. Ted is busy climbing the stairs when a track suit clad sales assistant approaches.

“Need any help there?”

Ted, annoyed, responds testily, “I can manage.”

“I meant are you looking for something in particular.”

Ted, now at the top of the stairs peers round the various displays to hide his embarrassment before answering, “I’m looking for some running shoes.”

“I see. And would these be for yourself?”

“Yes,” Ted replies, trailing into a hiss.

“Alright,” says the assistant mentally calculating whether the size of his potential commission will be worth working late for. He turns to lead Ted deeper into the shop, “Let’s have a look over here. Do you know what size you are?”

“Eh, large?” says Ted hazarding a guess.

The assistant turns to Ted and gives him his best retail professional trainee assessment, “That sounds about right.”

The next morning Ted sits at home in front of the television. His newly purchased trainers, glued together by Poles in a sweatshop near Doncaster, have pride of place on the table in front of him. It would have been nice to afford Chinese ones but his benefits just wouldn’t stretch that far.

He finishes his carb laden sandwich and steals a guilty crisp from the carnage on the coffee table before standing to return his empty plate to the kitchen. The baggy jogging bottoms he found in the back of a drawer have slipped down to expose his impressive builder’s cleavage.

Ted steps out into the crisp autumn air and pulls the door closed behind him. He looks around self consciously and brushes crumbs from his vest before beginning a series of warm up exercises half remembered from gym class. Across the road a curtain twitches.

Mrs Magin, a pensioner, turns away from the window to address her husband, who is reading the newspaper. “That heavy set fellow across the road has decided to kill his self.”

From behind his rustling pages, Mr Magin responds with a perfunctory, “Aye,” which earns him a laser like glare that would have burned through a lesser paper than the Sunday Post. Even after 38 years of marriage Mr Magin still hasn’t found a way to completely ignore her. Mrs Magin turns away from her husband, scowling, and resumes her station by the window.

Outside Ted completes his warm up, demonstrating admirably that a limited range of movement is no impediment to getting out of breath. He begins to jog experimentally on the spot, slowly building up a full head of steam before stomping off down the road, arms and legs pumping like great flabby pistons.

Ted’s breathing is laboured and his hair is plastered to his scalp. It has been almost a hundred yards of pure lung burning torment as he turns, face beetroot red, into the lane at the end of his street.

The narrow country road he finds himself on eventually is lined with trees and the dappled sunlight glistens on Ted as struggles along. A bright yellow car, of indeterminate make, blasts past Ted, spinning him around in a swirl of turbulence. Ted recovers his balance and looks to the road ahead where the car recedes in the distance.

Inside, Steve and Glen, both in their late teens, look back over their shoulders as they speed away. Ted can be seen shaking his fist, shouting, before doubling over in a fit of coughing. Steve, who is driving, returns his attention to the road, while Glen raises his hands in the air in frustration.

“You fucking missed him, man. He was hardly even moving.”

“I swerved you fanny. He would have taken the whole wing off if I’d caught him too thick.”

“He was a fat cunt right enough.”

Ted, still flustered, glances round warily before setting off again.

His feet slap the concrete in a painful but sustainable rhythm. The avenue of trees becomes a proper wood that fades to open fields, surrounded by dykes on verges as high as Ted’s head. He is beginning to feel uncomfortably like a rat in a giant maze when he rounds a corner and sees parked in a lay-by ahead, the cheese coloured car. Ted drops to a crouch and shuffles slowly forward. One of the wheels has been removed and the car sways on its jack. Approaching cautiously, Ted peers in through the tinted rear window, where he discerns, amidst a tangle of limbs, Steve and Glen, locked in a feverish embrace. He ducks down surprised and a little embarrassed, then begins to ponder how best to take advantage of the situation.

Ted runs out onto an old stone bridge, the hormone addled teens some distance behind. A mischievous grin breaks across his face as he pants to a stop. He leans cautiously over the low wall to catch his breath and admire the slow moving river below. Ted digs deep in his pocket and produces a handful of wheel nuts, which he drops, with a chuckle, over the side of the bridge.

As the ripples subside, the dark, slow moving water reveals his reflected surroundings as though it was night and Ted is surprised to see a building on the gentle slope to his right with a single flickering light in one of its windows. When he looks up from the water towards the stand of trees that should surround the building, only the trees are visible. Curiosity piqued, Ted walks to the far end of the bridge and uses the stone siding for support as he climbs over the fence.

The further Ted proceeds through the trees the more enclosed and constricted his passage becomes. Branches pull at his clothes, scratching his exposed skin and tugging his hair. He struggles on through the thickening foliage, eventually bursting out into a countryside that is silent and still. The colours bleached and faded. Even the sound of Ted’s breathing seems muffled and far away. Ted looks back at the seemingly impenetrable undergrowth he emerged from and seeing no way to return heads onwards through the tall grass, which wraps itself weakly around his trainers.

As Ted continues, the ground becomes soft and wet and when he glances down he sees half a dozen small spiders swarm his foot. When he lifts it in fright they drop off to disappear amongst the weeds but now his other foot is infested. After hopping in an increasingly agitated manner from foot to foot to foot, Ted makes a high stepping break for the edge of the field.

From his position of relative safety perched on top of a fence Ted shakes his feet to rid them of any remaining arachnids then climbs gingerly over. The grass bank on the far side lines a dirt track covered in a thin layer of white powder.

Further along the road Ted can see the building from the reflection and it dawns on him that if he takes the road in the opposite direction it should lead him back towards the bridge. Sticking carefully to the middle of the road he approaches the ruin.

The building resembles an old farm or coach house but without the yard or out buildings. It stands alone, all rotten wood, rusty metal and broken glass. If it were not for the flickering light in one of the windows Ted would have assumed the building had been abandoned years before. As he approaches, the static sound of flies buzzing breaks the otherwise deep silence. When he pushes the front door it squeals half open on rusty hinges.

“Hello,” Ted says into the darkness, not really sure if he wants a response.

Squeezing round the stuck door, Ted enters a short hallway with damp peeling paper and a tattered carpet. At the far end of the hallway stands another door. Light licks out into the dust from below it. Ted walks down the creaking hall and stops expectant. A grimy stained glass panel in the door reveals nothing of the room beyond. Ted feels compelled to knock and is startled by a flash of dark shadow across the glass. It takes Ted a moment to will his shaking hand to the doorknob and turn it.

The room beyond is lined with books and strange knick-knacks housed in shelves of deep brown wood. Through an arch in the far wall, Ted can see part of a strange apparatus, which stands as tall as a man and has a ladder beside it. A polite cough snaps his attention back to his immediate surroundings. In the middle of the room sits an antique desk dominated by a ledger, lit by an old fashioned oil lamp. The figure seated at the desk reaches forward to adjust the wick.

“My name is Death, Ted, and I have been expecting you.”

“And what did he look like?” Ron is craned far forward on Ted’s sofa, a bottle of budget premium lager grasped tightly in both hands.

“It’s hard to say,” Ted stands in place of the coffee table, which has been pushed to one side. “A bit like one of the newsreaders you remember from being a kid.”

“Which one?”

“Not one in particular, just that sort of face. Someone that knows lots of things you don’t. Someone that knows nearly everything.” Ted’s face takes on a rapturous quality.

“And that’s when you killed him?” Ron is almost feverish with excitement.

“No. No. It was later and it was an accident. I told you. He showed me my name in the book and said, ‘Now is the time to measure your worth,’ in a really deep voice.”

“I’m glad it wasn’t me. I would have been shitting myself.”

“I was bricking it when I opened the door but once I was in the room I felt sort of peaceful.”

“So what happened next?”

“Well I was supposed to get on this machine like giant scales with tubes going everywhere but while I was climbing the ladder the sole came off my trainer and I slipped and fell on him.” Ted looks sheepishly at his feet.

“So now you get to be Death with the ledger and everything.”

“I’ll probably have a PC. Apparently you use the tools of your own time.”

“So he wasn’t the original Death.”

“No, Ron, there’s been hundreds.”

“Well, here’s to you mate,” Ron raises his bottle in a toast. “It’s not going to be the same round here without you. I told you you’d have to kill someone to get a decent job.”

Ted looks up wondering how best to put his other news. “Actually, we might be running into each other again sooner than you might think.”

“Come again Ted?”

“We all have to go sometime,” Ted mumbled, looking towards his feet.

Ron nods sympathetically before the implication sinks in, “You know when I’m going to kick it?”

“Of course, but I’m not really supposed to say.”

“Not even a hint?”

“Let’s just say, doing nothing tomorrow might be a bit of a waste.”

Ted leaves Ron on the sofa staring blankly at the carpet, the bottle of beer he just dropped slowly emptying next to his shoe.

Outside Ted pauses for a moment to suppress a fit of the giggles. It would be another seven years before he saw Ron again and Ted hoped his minor fabrication might spur Ron into some lifestyle changes of his own. But somehow he doubted it.

Across the road Mrs Magin’s curtain twitches and Ted sighs lightly as he turns and heads towards it. Finally it was time for Mr Magin to receive his blessed relief.