At first, all you might notice was the thumb. Pushed upwards and outwards and fixed. Whatever they did, the thumb stayed proudly protruding. Simon was sure he'd spotted it before anyone else, but he had no way of knowing for sure. Because when it started, it started quite suddenly.
It was grandma. Lying in the hospital bed, the family gathered around. The way everyone hoped to pass. Simon was stood to her right. He'd eased back the tray table which swung over the bed so he could get close to her. He was sad, of course he was, but the excitement of seeing a real live dead person was overwhelming. It would be a badge of honour at school. Plenty of scope for him to embellish things. He’d make it more gruesome for the boys, more emotional for the girls.
As he waited for something dramatic to happen, he concentrated on her hand. The loose skin like the surface of a barren moon. The hospital had inserted a drip – a short needle attached to her with what looked like masking tape. Simon couldn't imagine any blood flowing through the hand. It was so, well, dead-looking.
And then her thumb twitched. Just once to begin with. This is it, thought Simon, I'm going to see someone die. He prepared a space in his head to carefully store the memory. Lining it with velvet to better preserve the mental picture he was about to take. Then the thumb started to shake. Vibrating as if trying to take flight. But a few seconds later it stopped and just stayed there – alert and erect and arching confidently out of grandma’s ashen hand.
Simon looked at his grandma’s face. She looked dead. His mother – her daughter – had her head buried in Aunt Sydney’s shoulder. Simon’s sister Cassie was sitting on the only chair in the room, trying not to look at her phone. Bye grandma, thought Simon. She smiled at him.
Apparently it happened throughout the hospital that afternoon. Of course, it took time for the pieces to come together and for anyone to realise quite what was happening. In A&E, car crash victims in the process of being pronounced dead, smiled. Suffering children, who’d battled incurable diseases for their entire lives, fell silent and then grinned. But Simon was pretty sure it was him who’d first spotted the thumbs.
A few moments after the smile, Simon’s grandma sat up. Granted, it wasn’t the smoothest of movements, but then she was – or had been – 86. Simon’s mother and her sister were staring at the woman in the bed, who, by any sensible reckoning, had died a few minutes before. Cassie hadn’t been paying much attention and so was pleased to see her grandma alive and apparently well.
“Are you feeling better, grandma?” It seemed like a reasonable question.
Grandma didn’t look at Cassie as she took a moment to reanimate her jaw.
“No, quite. No, quite.” came the reply, punctuated by clicks as her mouth seemed to force against itself and open just wide enough for the sound to emerge.
One of the features of the freshly alive was their inability to say anything more than “no quite, no quite”. And this, coupled with the cracking jaw, sounding like a languid woodpecker, earned them the name “knock knocks”. For a while too, it felt as if a particularly bizarre joke was being played on the country. The usual rules of life and death had been suspended. Reactions were predictably unrestrained.
Simon, for his part, was rather pleased to have grandma back at home. And this new grandma came with none of the nagging about homework and unremitting sense of loneliness. In many ways, Simon preferred grandma now, with her face permanently adorned with a smile and her vocabulary so limited.
There had been a hurried debate at the hospital about whether patients should be allowed to leave in this new state. But the passion of loved ones – parents of the youthful victims in particular – overwhelmed the authorities. What right did they have to keep these perfectly pleasant, happy and harmless dead people from their families?
Simon’s mother, for all her love for her own mother, had made plans for the spare room. Her time had come and then this had happened. Although she too took some solace at the lifting of the weight of her mother’s disappointment. She would no longer be repeatedly reminded that Simon’s father had left her for someone better at “keeping a home”. She began to cleanse herself of parental expectation and found comfort in her mother’s newly apparent support.
“He was a selfish man, mother. No time for Simon or Cassie. Only eyes for other women.”
“No quite. No quite.”
“And we’re better off without him now. You see that, surely?”
“No quite. No quite.”
It so happened that this fracture in the nature of existence was short-lived. For two weeks, no-one died. And then as quickly as it had started, it stopped. This was just long enough to convince a few people of their own immortality. In some ways, Simon felt sorry for the jumpers whose televised bids to defy the grim reaper timed precisely with the end of the outbreak. It also meant the impact of seeing a dead body was significantly lessened. Of course, being there at the beginning gave him a certain cachet, but now that “knock knocks” had become a familiar, if not overwhelming, sight on streets around the country, his potential star turn was quickly forgotten.
The government, for its part, was essentially paralysed. Almost as soon as the news became public, talking heads appeared on television advocating equal rights for “pro-lifers” and denouncing the term “knock knock” as abuse by typically blinkered people who’d failed to check their undeniable privilege of actually being alive.
Just as high profile were the “knock em downs” – or KEDs – who emerged from various existing politically isolationist movements to form a party demanding strict controls on this new and frightening demographic. The KEDs were thrown into chaos, however, when ever-increasing numbers of their membership were caught out in secret recordings advocating an absolute cull of the “knock knocks”. Despite the leaderships’ best efforts to deny that such an extreme solution had ever been KED policy, the sense lingered that this was a group channelling deep-seated resentment about other issues onto a new and convenient scapegoat.
In the mainstream, opinions were also divided. Particularly polarising was the case of a man who’d attempted to murder a former associate over a business deal gone wrong. Due to an unfortunate timing miscalculation, the would-be murderer had simply created a stylishly suited “knock knock”, whose winning smile and cheery demeanour made him the poster boy for the suddenly undead.
Simon was rather proud of his grandma, who not only received admiring glances in her role as a trailblazer for these new people, but was considered exceptionally polite and generous, in a way she hadn’t always been in life. Despite the lack of verbal communication skills and an unchanging expression, grandma was able to function largely as normal. Her movements were laboured, but, Simon thought, more graceful than her painful shuffling before the incident. She had no need for food, didn’t appear to feel the cold and required no entertainment. This rendered her easily persuadable when it came to buying treats for her grandson.
There was an extensive legal row raging about the rights of the “re-people”, as they were officially named, but this largely passed Simon by. He’d caught sight of a story of a man suing his sister for asking their father to buy her a new house. Happy enough to stand rigid in the garden – come rain, snow or shine – the dead father had apparently obliged. Why not? The brother was furious, but the courts could find no grounds to rule in his favour.
To a twelve-year-old boy, reunited with an upgraded version of a close relative, all this was mere noise. He had a reliable and willing source of magazines and chocolate and his mother was pleased to see how easily he’d adapted to the new reality. It was only after the incident with the cat, when doubts began to creep into Simon’s mind.
Walking with grandma back from the shops, her potentially off-putting grey pallor enlivened with theatrical make-up, she stopped next to a cat sitting on a low wall. The cat – a long-haired grey with a suspicious face – became rigid as they approached. Simon saw grandma’s arm reach outwards and her thumb, still set in its upwards pose, seemed to prod into the animal’s ear. Almost instantly – Simon recalled a pause of perhaps two seconds – the cat toppled to the side as if poleaxed. Moments later, it righted itself, made a clicking sound and walked off stiffly along the wall.
“No quite. No quite.” said grandma and turned back towards home.
Simon became increasingly fixated on grandma’s thumbs after that. He noticed that she used them to prod inanimate objects, like a snake tasting the surroundings with its tongue. And the thumbs were the only part of her that looked traditionally alive. Whether because they were desensitized by television, or just too inward looking to properly notice, after a month or so, people in general no longer stared much at the “knock knocks”. This despite the fact that they were manifestly dead. And so perhaps they didn’t pay real attention to the thumbs. Families often dressed their dearly undeparted in vibrant clothes and, like Simon’s mother did for grandma, insisted on a heavy layer of foundation to lift their skin tone. But all the time, the thumbs remained flushed with a life force, skin taunt over sinew.
When late one afternoon, sat in her bedroom with the family busy around her, grandma reached her arm towards Aunt Sydney, Sydney was happy to lean her head forward to affectionately accept her mother’s touch. Of course she was. They’d lived in gentle harmony for nearly six weeks. She paid no heed to the thumb probing her ear and the smile she was wearing when she fell was the same one planted on her face as she gingerly stood up a few moments later.
“No quite. No quite.”
While Simon couldn’t confirm that grandma was the first person to rise from her deathbed all those weeks ago, he felt certain that what happened to Aunt Sydney was indeed ground-breaking. And that he was the first to witness it.
His mother, subtly storing her books and photo albums in grandma’s room as originally planned – grandma neither noticed nor cared, it seemed – reacted violently to the development. Her first response was to call the “re-people emergency line”. Set up at the beginning of things and initially inundated with panicked calls, the bored operator sounded relieved to hear from someone when Simon’s mother rang in a state of high anxiety.
What was set in motion then was rapid and surprisingly efficient. Police and medical staff, drilled relentlessly over weeks for just such a development, swept down on Simon’s house and erected a white tent over the entire building. Fortunately, it was a detached bungalow. Simon wondered precisely how they’d have dealt with a mid-terrace town house, but such was the military precision of the exercise, he trusted they had a plan in store.
Orders were in place, it transpired, to eliminate any “knock knocks” as soon as there was a sign of contagion. From inside the now sealed house, Simon heard sirens wailing across the town. Operatives donned full biological warfare suits with a relish born of lengthy anti-climax and entered the room containing Simon, his mother, Aunt Sydney and grandma. Cassie was out at a friend’s. Sydney and grandma were standing face-to-face, smiling contentedly at one another and were largely ignored by the response team, all focused on individual tablet computers and the plan. Simon’s mother was in tearful conversation with a lead medic. Simon sat alone on grandma’s bed.
While the noise and activity and excitement swirled around him, Simon stood up, walked to his grandma and aunt and whispered “goodbye”. He took their right and left wrists in his opposite hands and, with an instinct he’d later describe as “spooky”, pushed their thumbs into their own ears and stepped back. The smiles on the two women’s faces relaxed and they fell away from one another, like repelled magnets. Grandma’s shoulders hit the bed, while Sydney’s momentum sent her into a policewoman, who dropped her iPad, which broke on the wood laminate flooring Simon’s mother had recently installed.
Within a matter of 48 hours, the undead were dead again. Families grieved, but were comforted by the element of control they could take over the final act. Simon returned to school a minor and temporary hero and his mother replaced grandma’s bed with a sofa.
“Just a better use of the space, isn’t it Simon?”