Posted in Ghosts & Gowns, Short Stories

Life is Compulsory, Death is Optional

Professor Richards, Master of Devon College, knew he was dead when he woke up and found Death sitting by his bedside.

‘Well, I must say! This is entirely too inconvenient, you know? Very ill-timed indeed.’

And yet, I am afraid I must offer you the report of your own death, Horace Richards.

Death turned its head towards him. It was hard to make out its features, Richards thought to himself; not because it was shrouded in shadows or hoods or anything so overly-dramatic. It was simply as if one’s eyes refused to discern anything at all about the face save the knowledge that Death did indeed have one. Richards had been the youngest professor in his field back in the day, had changed the whole course of his colleagues’ thinking, had all but invented several systems of future discovery-making, and he most certainly had not lived so long and risen so well through troubling himself by arguing with Nature. Natural way of things and whatnot.

Ch.1 - Life is Compulsory - small


Well really! It is not as if Richards was not a busy man with Much To Do, after all! And it was not as though Richards had any great plans for his afterlife.

Others, Richards knew, longed to see loved ones again, to be rewarded for a life they considered to have been well-spent (although Richards had his personal doubts for some of them) for rebirth or eternal peace. But Richards had no loved ones to pine for, no interest in any life other than this one and no desire to have any force on earth yank his toils and tribulations from his hands under the guise of rewarding him for performing them well. Richards knew the true reward for good service was further service and for once he was going to demand precisely what he wanted!

‘No, no, I really must protest about this! There shall be no dying for me, I’m afraid. Not today at least.’

I am not quite sure I understand your meaning, Horace Richards. All things must come to an end and whatnot, as you say. It is time.

‘Nonsense! I have far too much to be doing! We’ve that new idea to remodel the Dining Hall to be stamped out, and the governance procedures need looking at and if I were to bugger off to the afterlife now, the Bursar would sweep all my ideas under the carpet and keep doing things like they’ve always been done. Badly, I mean. They’ve been done very badly.’ Richards drew himself up as he lent against his pillows – he really ought to have risen from the bed for this discussion, on reflection, beds were not where the Great Battles were Won – and looked Death as squarely in the face as one can when one cannot, in fact, look Death in the face at all. ‘I am sorry to cause you bother and all, and no doubt you will suffer Paperwork or some such. However, I must absolutely refuse to go with you today.’

Death paused and took in the small man in front of him. You are dead, Horace Richards. You cannot go back to being one of the living. Your life is at an end-

Death got no further.

‘Well, that’s merely a technicality, is what I call it! A technical technicality indeed! One doesn’t need to be alive to run a college you know? Certainly not this one!’

Death was clearly still trying to work this one out. My understanding is that one vacates one’s job after death, does one not, Horace Richards?

Richards waved a hand dismissively. ‘Balderdash and piffle, my dear fellow! Balderdash and piffle is what I calls that! Oh I dare say that used to be compulsory and whatnot, but these days! These days they have all these useful rules, very good ones, I must say, I wrote some of them myself, you know? Anti-discrimination laws and such.’

I did know, Horace Richards, but I must confess –

‘Quite! I expect you’re the sort to Know All Sorts of Things, are you not?’ Richards decided that since he was dead the Laws of Physics were entirely optional and drifted up through the covers to float across the room and back with Great Speed and Vigour! ‘Exactly the thing, what? Regardless! I say that if they can’t make a fellow (or fellowess, indeed, I should not exclude my Valued Colleagues in These Matters) retire on account of one’s age I say that they can’t throw a fellow (or fellowess, as I have mentioned) out for being dead! Not if they don’t wish to, anyway. And I don’t wish. I have far too much to do. No slacking off, even in these extremes!’

Death sighed. Being an intangible being of purely metaphorical existence, this ought not to have been possible, or required, but Death was sensing that a man who had lived his entire life and made his career and his fortune entirely based on arguing other people into submission was likely not to be swayed from this course of action.

If you truly wish to continue as you are, I suppose there is no rule to prevent it…


Do not think that I will come to help you if this goes badly, however.

Richards stopped his pacing and turned to give Death an Outraged Look. ‘My dear fellow! I should like to think that of all people, you would be one I could trust to know that I have never needed the assistance of anyone in my whole life! No matter what straights I might find myself to be in!’

Death bowed its head. I wished merely to ensure that we understood one another-

‘Good day sir or madam! To think that Death itself would think I should require assistance in merely continuing to live my life as usual…’

He turned back to his pacing as he muttered, grumbling still further when he found that his hand floated through the papers on his desk.

Death gave sighing another go, decided it liked the action, and left the room. It had Other Places To Be after all…