The Afterlife of Walter Augustus
Author: Hannah M. Lynn
Genre: Humor, fiction, contemporary
Publication date: July 12th 2018
Walter Augustus is dead. His current state of existence has become a monotony of sweet tea and lonely strolls and after decades stuck in the Interim — a posthumous waiting room for those still remembered on Earth — he is ready to move on. Only when he is forgotten by every living person will he be able to pass over and join his family in the next stage of the afterlife. At last the end is tantalizingly close, but bad luck and a few rash decisions may see him trapped in the Interim for all eternity.
Letty Ferguson is not dead. Letty Ferguson is a middle-aged shoe saleswoman who leads a pleasant and wholly unextraordinary life, barring the secret fortune she seems unable to tell her husband about. However, when she takes possession of an unassuming poetry anthology, life takes on a rather more extraordinary dimension.
The corridor in the interim was by no means your standard corridor. In fact, it would not, by the average lay-person’s standard, qualify as a corridor at all. A sea of free-standing doors stretched out endlessly into an infinite landscape which — like the doors themselves — would change and transform almost daily. It was easy to see how people found pleasure in the unexpectedness and beauty that rose from this magnificent panoramic backdrop which was so central to the interim afterlife. Although Walter was not one of those people.
Today, the doors were a heavily stained cedar, from which rose an earthy and damp perfume that blended perfectly with the cut grass and linen aroma. The floor, by contrast, was an infinite expanse of powdery sand that shimmered and glinted in the soft light, and from somewhere far off came a light-fingered mastery of the mandolin. The destination of these doors was, to Walter, as elusive as the manner in which they were constructed.
Perhaps, it was his age or the cynicism that had grown from being alone for so long, but to Walter, the interim no longer possessed the irrefutable prestige it once had. There had always been the odd rancid egg — those that had difficulty letting go or found pleasure in the obscure — and, of course, those whose memory lived on for the most abhorrent reasons — but it was the vast quantity of them still hanging around that was worrying. Men, calling themselves actors, gathered in droves, discussing the time they had a walk-on part as a half-eaten zombie or laughed about their pet cat on ice going viral, whatever that meant. Wives of ex-cons gossiped and whinged about the good old days over frozen margaritas and manicures, not in some secluded doorway, but out in the open, for everyone to see. Gamblers, addicts, and musicians: once their time here had been brief, but now, they never seemed to leave. Yes, in Walter’s opinion, the prestige of the interim had most definitely deteriorated.
Walter kept his head down as he hurried through the corridor. He had visited Betty often since she had moved into the home and barely needed to lift his eyes to find the way. After a few minutes and having successfully avoided the gaze of every person on his route, Walter found the door he was looking for. He twisted the handle and stepped through.
Elizabeth Mabel Green was the last person on Earth who knew who Walter Augustus was. She had read Seas, Swallows and all but Sorrows — the only remaining copy — in the early sixties, and while some parts of her memory had given way over time, she had remembered his name as clearly as she remembered her own. She remembered how she chewed on a crumpet whilst her father read the poems over breakfast and how the melted butter dripped down her chin as she listened. She remembered the coarse woollen blanket that covered her knees while she fought off the cold and re-read her favourites in the first home she had ever owned. She did not remember every word of every poem, but she remembered the way they made her feel.
When Pemberton finally departed the interim, Walter had assumed he would not be far behind. But Betty continued to cling to his name and his poems. Even now, in her last days, Walter could feel the tugs as he flitted through his memory. After all, Walter was family.
Betty Green’s hospital room was adorned with several bunches of flowers. It sported a small white cabinet and plug-in air fresheners at every available socket, although they did little to camouflage the scent of Dettol and urine that rose from the carpets and bed sheets. Betty lay beneath a powder blue blanket that, at a casual glance, appeared motionless, although Walter— and any person who cared to sit and study it long enough — could see there was still life in the old girl yet. Walter watched the faint rise and fall. He could hear a gentle hiss as the air was drawn in and then expelled from his great-great-great-great-granddaughter’s lungs and the weak double thud of her fading heartbeat.
‘Are your kitchen tiles a nightmare to clean?’
Walter jumped back from the bed.
Behind him, a small black box was affixed to the wall, inside which a tiny woman was on her hands and knees scrubbing a floor. She looked out at Walter, opened her mouth and spoke. Beads of sweat began to bubble on his forehead.
‘You need to try Fleazy Klean.’
The woman’s voice, rather than coming from her mouth, came from another little black box, two feet to the right. Walter shuddered. A television. Even avoiding the present day as he did, Walter had not managed to evade this unnatural source of wizardry. One glimpse of the shiny black glass was enough to send his post-organic frame rigid with tension and his surplus-to-requirement pulse into overdrive. He side-stepped away — keeping half an eye on the mini-man who was now on screen, apparently trying to sell him some kind of dental apothecary — and focused his attention on Betty.
Walter knew there must be pain; there always was at that stage, but for now, she seemed at peace.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, leaning over and whispering. ‘It’s not the end. Everyone’s waiting for you.’ Betty mumbled softly. Walter reached down and stroked her forehead. ‘Take all the time you need,’ he said. He waited another minute, offered a final uneasy glower to the man with too many teeth on the television, then opened the door and stepped back into the corridor, a spritely spring in his step as he walked.
Low slung clouds shrouded the sky as Letty strolled up the high street. The evening was cool, and a light breeze carried on it an aroma of oak trees, honeysuckle, and the slight hint of motorbike fuel. Donald would be glad of rain, Letty thought. The humidity of the last month had played havoc with his joints too. A little way up the high street, she stopped. Resting her arm against the yellowish Bradstone wall, she kneaded the base of her spine with her knuckles. In one of the stores across the road, the back-to-school sales signs were already being pulled down and replaced with pumpkin banners ready for Halloween. Letty’s stomach churned. If the thirty-first of October marked everyone else’s Halloween, Letty’s personal day of nightmares came a few weeks earlier each year.
Despite living less than five miles away, Letty and her sister Victoria saw each other an average of three times a year, Christmas, the twins’ birthday, and once in July to remember their mother’s birthday. Occasionally, they would place a meeting somewhere between January and July to bridge the sixth month gap, but that was not always the case. As it was, Victoria had cancelled the July meet-up this year, as the twins had a last-minute gymkhana competition they simply couldn’t afford to miss.
There were various reasons that meetings with Victoria tended to be tense, one of the overwhelming factors being money. While Letty suffered from an affliction of saving money, the same could not be said for her sister.
‘It will just be a short-term loan,’ Victoria said the last time. ‘And the interest we’ll give you will be far better than any you’d get at the bank.’
‘But what about Mum’s inheritance?’ Letty said. ‘That was over twenty thousand pounds.’
‘My thoughts exactly. And I’m guessing it’s just sitting in your account earning you nothing. If you look at it that way, we’re actually doing you a favour. Think of it as an investment opportunity.’
Letty had mumbled something unintelligible as she shifted uncomfortably.
‘Great,’ Victoria said. ‘Do you want me to set up a bank transfer before I go?’
‘What’s she doing with all their money?’ Donald said when Letty told him of the conversation a couple of days later. ‘And what happened to her share?’
‘I didn’t want to ask.’
Donald huffed. ‘Well, you know how much you’ve got left of that money. If you think we can lend her a couple of grand, then it’s up to you. But don’t go leaving yourself short.’
That had been over a year ago, and Letty had neither seen or heard anything of her investment opportunity since.
The other point of tension came from the children. As anyone who had witnessed Letty at work could testify, she had an uncanny affinity for small children. Be it screaming toddlers, or sulky teenagers, somehow Letty could bring the best out of them all. All children, it seemed, apart from her nephew and niece.
Whilst some may have seen fit to liken the pair to characters from a Stephen King novel, Letty would have considered this unfair, given the possible moral redeemability of the bloodsucking clowns and monsters Mr. King portrayed. Likewise, adjectives such as spirited and boisterous seemed far more suited to rescue puppies than to the double delinquents with whom she somehow shared DNA. Born after years and years of trying, Victoria viewed her children as nothing short of miracles. Throw in the added guilt she felt at being an older parent and a father who was barely home, and it was clear how Victoria and Felix had raised nothing short of monsters.
Every visit included a fight. Sometimes, these involved weapons, such as a plastic Buzz Lightyear or a conveniently placed lamp. Other times, it was simply teeth and nails.
‘They’re energetic,’ Victoria said. ‘Lots of intelligent children are like this.’
Letty wasn’t so sure. The twins’ birthday, the singular time of year when Letty truly considered giving up baking for good.
The cake thing had become somewhat of a venture lately. Twelve months ago, she had been doing one order, maybe two a month. Now it was more like that a week. And gone were the days of simple round cakes with a little bit of pipe work. In the last month alone, she had created one Peppa Pig cake, two M&M piñata cakes, a Louis Vuitton handbag, three cupcake wedding towers, and a hen-do cake that even now turned her cheeks scarlet at the memory. Of course, the area manager had dropped by for a chat on the morning she had taken that one into work. The meeting had been tortuous. Letty sat nodding, her mouth bone dry, beads of sweat trickling down her forehead as the box sat perched above his head resting on top of the size 12 men’s brogues.
‘There’s really no need to look so worried,’ the manager had said. ‘Everyone’s numbers are down on this time last year. You should see Stroud’s numbers.’
Letty nodded mutely.
When he finally left, she had told Joyce she was taking an early break, at which point she collapsed onto a box of lime green flip-flops, red-faced and trembling. No more hen party cakes, she decided after that one. Not unless they were picked up from home.
‘You should be charging proper money for these,’ Donald said, almost every night as she stood in the kitchen rolling out fondant and mixing up buttercream.
‘I’m not doing it for the money.’
‘Well, maybe you should be. You’re wasted at that shop. And we can’t rely on my wage forever. I’m getting old.’
Despite Donald’s concerns, Letty was savvy enough not to be out of pocket. She charged enough to cover the ingredients and a little bit more so that people felt they were getting quality. In her opinion, people always became suspicious if they thought things were too cheap.
The sky twisted with soft greys and lilacs as Letty ambled towards the crossroads. Somewhere, a bonfire was burning, and the tang of pine drifted the air. She glanced down at her watch. Five thirty-two. Friday night meant Donald would be out for drinks with the other men from the water board. A homemade pie was defrosting in the larder, and a large apple crumble awaited them for dessert. She had a little time to spare. With one last glance at her watch, she changed her course and crossed the road. Thirty seconds later, she was standing inside the bank.
Letty preferred these bank machines, as unlike the others on the high street, they were tucked away inside a building. Whenever she used the outside ones, it felt as though someone was there, peering over her shoulder, trying to steal her PIN code or tutting if she took too long. That afternoon, only one of the machines was in working order, and when a young man with a toddler in tow stepped through the automatic door only a moment after she did, she waved him in front.
‘Honestly, you go,’ she said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course, of course. It’s no problem.’
Letty stood what she considered a suitable distance behind, while the man did his business. After he finished, she offered him a polite smile and watched as he exited the room. Only after the automatic doors had closed and she felt certain that no one else would be entering for at least a minute, Letty moved to the cash machine, inserted her card, and tapped the screen.
Entering her PIN was a reflex response. After all, she had had the same PIN for every card that she had ever owned and had no intention of changing it anytime soon. A series of options, including Cash or On-Screen Balance, appeared in front of her. She selected balance.
As she waited for the number to appear, she withdrew a small notebook and pen from her handbag pocket and wrote the date at the top. A moment later, a number appeared. Sixty-seven thousand, six hundred and sixty-eight pounds and twenty-four pence. Letty wrote it down in her notebook. After confirming with the machine that she did not require any more services, she withdrew her card, placed it back in her tattered old wallet, and selected another.
This second account gave a similar reading to the first, as did the third and fourth she checked. The fifth came in slightly lower, at only twelve thousand, two hundred and nine pounds and thirty-three pence. She was about to check her sixth when a cough behind her caused her to jump.
‘Sorry,’ Letty gasped. She pulled out her card and hurriedly backed away from the machine. ‘I’m all done now.’
Even two minutes later, when she was back on the street, her pulse was still pounding. Her money situation, she reasoned, had lost control. Letty sighed, causing a small flock of pigeons on the pavement beside her to take flight. She was going to have to tell Donald sooner or later. She just had to find the right way to word it.
Deciding to make the most of what was possibly his last day in the interim, Walter gathered a loaf of bread and small bottle of ale from his miraculously stocked larder and placed them into his satchel. He was dressed in his usual attire of a twill woven shirt and breeches, but had abandoned his apron for the day. With a light-hearted jaunt, he stepped out through his back door and strolled to the end of the garden.
A narrow path lined with daisies and buttercups materialised and meandered down to the bottom of the cliff. His feet crunched on the fresh grass. He would miss this scent, he decided, but then perhaps, it was the same wherever he was going next; after all, it seemed too good a choice to meddle with. Walter closed his eyes and breathed in the warm, salty air. He couldn’t have asked for a better day.
A little way away from the shingled coast, Walter was stopped. He stared and blinked and felt his pulse hasten in his veins. Dampness built on the palms of his hand, and a noose-like sensation tightened around his throat. He gaped at the figure on the shore. This was his beach. Why would anyone come here? Who even knew about it? Walter’s pulse cranked up another notch as he scanned the area. It was definitely his beach, his place alone, his private corner of the interim. Perhaps it was a mistake, he thought and, with silent steps, trod forward. The grass gave way to sand dunes and then to shingle, all the while his eyes locked on the shadowy figure. He was less than six feet away before the air was knocked from his lungs.
‘No,’ Walter gasped.
The face turned around to look at him. It was a long face, so long it was difficult to see where his nose ended and chin began. His cheeks were hollowed, as if sucking on a sweet, and the smell of pear drops that emanated from his breath appeared to confirm this. In one fluid movement, the body went from sitting to standing and then peering straight down his nose to Walter.
‘Well, Augustus,’ he said his voice patronisingly slow. ‘What have you done this time?’
Q & A
What books are in your nightstand?
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. That’s always there. There’s also usually something by Margaret Atwood and Murakami too. These are my go tos when I need inspiration.
What’s the first book that made you cry?
The Horse Whisperer. I was on holiday at the time. I can’t remember where, all I can remember is not wanting to leave my room so that I could finish the book.
What’s your favourite childhood book?
Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. I have no idea how many times I have read that book. Now I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to start loving it too.
How do you choose which book to read next?
Like a lot of people I binge read authors. If I’m seeking something new I’ll ask friends for recommendations. It’s rare that I will read a book cold so to speak, which is a shame as there are probably lots I’m missing out on.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
My iPhone. Games. Social media. It’s not just writing Kryptonite, it’s human interaction Kryptonite.
Do you try to be more original or to deliver what readers want?
I try to write the story that I want to write in a manner that readers will enjoy. However, when an editor tells me I need to change something, I usually do! Eventually.
Do you think someone can be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I don’t know. I know that I do. In a recent book I was writing I couldn’t manage more than two lines at a time due to the tears, but each writer has their own way. I’d hate to be the judge on something like that.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
My cat feels that she is my spirit animal without a doubt, but I’d be inclined to go for something a little different, like a kestrel.
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Both! I grew up with dogs but now have two cats. Both are rescue, one we brought all the way from Malaysia when we moved back to Europe:
What’s your Favorite writing snack?
Chocolate. It’s my favourite everything snack. Or apple and cashew nut butter
Earlier morning writing, followed by a walk then lunch with my daughter. The afternoon would be something craft-y, or involve music. It would definitely end with a long soak in the bath with a book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hannah Lynn was born in 1984 and grew up in the Cotswolds, UK. After graduating from university, she spent ten years as a teacher of physics, first in the UK and then around Asia. It was during this time, inspired by the imaginations of the young people she taught, she began writing short stories for children, and later adult fiction. Her first novel, Amendments, was published in 2015, her latest novel, The Afterlife of Walter Augustus, is out July 2018. Now as a teacher, writer, wife and mother, she is currently living in the Austrian Alps.