A million doubts flooded his mind. He had never really contemplated his own death before. Sure, he knew he was going to die one day – everybody knows that. But at thirty, a man has a life to live. Thirty is just the tip of the breaking wave, it’s all a ride in from there. He’d set himself up, a good job, a stable career which he enjoyed. There were years ahead to cover before death became a recognisable shape on the shoreline.
Yet suddenly, here he was, standing with his nose to his bathroom door, about to be accosted by the spectre of death itself. And not just death, but his death. Did he want that? Is that knowledge anybody wants? Which is preferable, to know your moment of death or remain ignorant?
He and his friends had once floated the idea as a thought experiment and much discussion ensued, but all of it hypothetical. Now, it was about to happen. Could he avoid it? His experiences of the night suggested not. But he couldn’t use the bathroom with his eyes closed, or blindfolded. For a start, he had to shave each day. Nor was it sensible to smash the mirrors. Eventually a mirror would catch him out. In a shop somewhere, in a men’s changing room trying on a shirt, the barber, anywhere, anytime. Best do it now in the safety of his own home. So he was faced with the grim inevitability of it.
He gripped the door knob.
What fate would be revealed? Maybe it’d be a good one, like Rajiv the Uber driver. Maybe he’d see his future family and himself as a senescent corpse surrounded by family, joined by grief, love and gratitude.
But what if not. What if he was one of those on the bus who lay dead in a park, possibly of a heart attack while out on a run in his fifties? Right when the hard work of family life was beginning to show rewards, as kids grew older and more independent, leaving active parents heading to healthy retirement. Or what if his fate was shorter – say five years, after which a disease took him? How would he respond to that? Or worse, like the hobo tonight, what if he died tomorrow at, say 11am, run over by a bus? Could he avoid that? If that was the vision, couldn’t he just stay in bed all day and not venture outside? Is what is seen inevitable, or was there a loophole here? Would he know he had been run over? Or would he just see his broken frame on a road, flung there by who knows what force?
Whatever the answer, he would only find out by looking. Not looking is like the world, like he was until tonight – where the time of your calling was unknown so you charted the best life you could in your circumstances. Live each day like it was your last, and like it was one of many more.
But he was different. He could find out. He would find out, inevitably.
He shut his eyes as black fear rose in his chest, and turned the knob with a shaking hand.
A last thought occurred to him, and he paused mid entry. Would this even work in a mirror? Or would he remain as he always had been, unable to see his fate, but burdened with the gift of seeing others’? What then? Condemned to self-ignorance, but a seer of others. What an awful fate, to stand almost in judgment over your fellows, without domain over yourself. Yet, he realised as he leaned on the half open door with his eyes closed, even this last thought could only be resolved in one way, by looking.
He pushed open the door and shuffled in shut-eyed, and placed his hands on the basin in front of him. He breathed in a deep and tremulous lungful of air, and, steeling himself, opened his eyes.
It was all he could have wished for himself.
Sixty-seven years from now, his last breath fell in a neatly tended bed in what was evidently his bedroom. Next to him stood an elderly woman, silver haired and frail. Her stance – leaning on the bed with her face bent close to his – suggested she was his wife. Opposite her were three adults – two women and one man – who looked like they were in their late fifties, or early sixties. His children he thought.
Relief flooded his body, causing a huge smile to swell on his cheeks, and he leant in to study the scene more closely, with increasing fascination.
The room was hot with grief, he could sense that. It was darkened; the dead seem to elicit a grey light. The walls were olive green. A chest of drawers sat opposite the bed end. Above it paintings hung from a picture rail; he could not discern their subject.
On his bed, the blanket across his body was a neat check of green and pink, tucked in. A white sheet was neatly turned at its upper end. He studied the children. Yes, they were his. He saw in the man his square chin, in one daughter his uneven eyes. They had their arms linked and hands held pressed together. The one closest to him was a fading redhead; her hair, still scooped in elegant swathes about her shoulders, had clearly been as rich as sunrise in her youth. And she was holding his hand. Out from under the bed covers her manicured hand held his knuckly fist; he saw she had a fat diamond on her ring finger.
He was tempted to look closer at the old lady, his widow, but resisted. He thought he should leave something for the future, and not overindulge in this moment. This would be his joy, to join with her in her youth, and watch her age over the years as they travelled the paths of life together, not to start the summer of love with the image of her winter. Yes, he thought, some things were best left unknown, to be discovered, and relished for their realisation.
Then his focus turned to himself, the slight figure secreted in the bed sheets. He lay still like a dried piece of rind, wrinkled, blanched and shrunken. His features though were still his, albeit in melted facsimile. His hair had all but disappeared, but had been neatly combed and he was clean shaven; his family had taken evident care of him. His mouth was ajar, with waxen lips open as if singing the great chorus of the afterlife. His eyes, however, were shut. Although diminutive compared to the others in the room – Geoffrey could scarcely believe how much he was going to shrink over the decades – he was nonetheless a presence, like a piece of sculpted milkstone on a brooch.
Words were being said; he could not hear them. One daughter held a scrunched tissue to her eyes. He wanted to shout out to them all, to reach across the void and yell, “Don’t cry! I see you! I am here, with you, my family. You have been my greatest joy, my chief delight. Rejoice, for you have been with me on the greatest adventure a man could ever hope for!”
He took a step back from the mirror and the image faded, leaving his round face smiling back at him. He yelped wildly and pointed at the mirror. “You beauty!” he shouted to his reflection, and pointed at himself, grinning wildly. “Yes, you!” He slapped his hand on the hard benchtop and ran from the bathroom.
He danced his way into the living room, punching his fists into the air and shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” over and over. “My family, my future!” He poured himself a liberal shot of whisky and held it high to the ceiling light.
“To me!” he shouted and took a slug from the glass. He laughed as it burned his throat, and he leapt on to his couch. He did a little jig, endeavouring unsuccessfully to keep the whisky from splashing from his glass, and then sank down on to the soft grey cushions of the sofa. He finished the glass, wriggled in delight and sprang up for a refill.
The bottle was next to his phone on the side cabinet. He had to ring someone, and share this moment. He went to Lucy’s text message and dialled. It rang for some time.Just when he thought it might go to voicemail a gruff voice answered.
“Hi, Lucy, it’s me, Geoffrey.”
“Geoffrey, from the pub tonight.”
“Sorry, I’ve got you at a bad time.”
“No, it’s okay, I was just sleeping.”
Geoffrey fiddled with the glass in his hand.
“That’s what I meant,” he said.
“No really. It’s nice to hear from you. You kind of ran off. Well not kind of, you did.”
Geoffrey thought of the kiss they had had.
“I’m usually a very orderly person,” said Geoffrey, “but I got a bit knocked around today.”
“I can understand. It was an awful, awful night.”
She’s so nice.
“In more ways than one,” said Geoffrey. He levered the cork out of the whisky bottle with one hand.
“It wasn’t all bad though,” he added.
“How so?” said Lucy.
“Í met someone.”
“Someone … like a celebrity or a famous footballer I wouldn’t know about?”
“A woman,” said Geoffrey.
“A woman you say?”
“And what was she like, this woman you met?”
“She was a gorgeous redhead,” said Geoffrey. “Still is, no doubt.”
“Well she’s just been woken up, so I doubt her hair will be as neat.”
“Not so, she’ll be just as good,” he said, and added, “I’m drinking whisky here, just so you know, to pluck up my courage.”
“I thought you were an IPA man.”
“And what is that?”
“I met a woman.”
“Oh we’re back here again.”
“But with a whisky in my hand.”
“Are you a single malt kind of guy?”
“I only want the best.”
“Smooth, too, I see.”
“The right age. Twenty-four years in a port cask, very expensive.”
“Flattery and expensive trinkets, is that your tactic?”
Geoffrey took another swig, and began pacing the room slowly
“Please, go a bit easy on me,” he said. “I’m not very good at this. I thought it might be good to get to know you better.”
“Why don’t I get a drink then?” The phone went quiet. Geoffrey took the whisky bottle and placed it on a shaped red plastic coffee table which he positioned next to the couch. He sat down and waited, the phone glued to his ear. He heard her breath.
“What did you get?”
“Well, seeing as it is a special occasion, I got what was open in the kitchen, a glass of red.”
“Cheers.” He heard her take a sip and thought of her lips on the champagne flute earlier in the evening.
“So where shall we start?” she said. “Or should I say, you called the meeting Mr – . I don’t even know your surname. How about we start there?”
“Okay,” said Geoffrey. “Hanson. Geoffrey Ian Hanson.”
“Ma’am. Geoffrey Ian Hanson, Ma’am, thank you very much.”
“Geoffrey Ian Hanson, Ma’am, thank you very much. And yours?”
“Berger. Lucy Beatrice Berger. Sir. Please and thank you.”
“Beatrice you say?”
“Lucy the Beautiful Berger.”
Oh shit, I’ve gone too far. That was too cheesy.
He heard her take another sip from her glass. Her tongue kissed the roof of her mouth as she swallowed.
“Flattery, Mr Hanson,” she said, “is always welcome. All the more so for being slightly clunky.”
He sighed quietly.
“Nervous are you?” she asked.
“I was trying to be quiet and subtle,” said Geoffrey.
“No-one in lo -, in your position, is subtle,” she said.
Geoffrey sprang from his seat.
Did I hear her correctly? Did she just stumble on love? And who was she talking about, me or her?
“I find it hard,” he said.
“Just relax and be yourself,” she replied. “That’s what roused my interest tonight.”
Oh good, she’s roused.
“But I’m just an auditor -“
“Standing in a room on the phone with a girl asking her to – to what exactly?”
“Get to know you better,” said Geoffrey.
“We do go round in circles, don’t we,” she said.
“Then let me ask you this,” said Geoffrey. “If you could know the exact time, date and place of your death, would you want to?”
Lucy shrieked with laughter.
“Goodness, that escalated quickly!” she said. “Is that number forty-three in your Auditor’s Guide to Making Conversations on a Date?”
“No, seriously. It happened tonight. You were there. I had a spazz attack about Slabs leaving the pub.”
“Yes, that was really curious.”
“Well, follow the logic to its extreme. What if you had a spazz attack about yourself? Or more specifically, what if you knew precisely the time, date and place. Would you want to?”
“You are an interesting fellow.”
“Yes or no?”
“Very well. No.”
He heard her swallowing as she began to speak.
“In my view, life is to be lived, not known. I’d prefer to find out what happens as it does.”
“So discovery is all?”
“If you put it that way, yes.”
“But what if you discover that your life has been long, and prosperous, and your last moment surrounded by family who love you?”
“Family? You want kids?”
“Is that what this phone call is about? Is this your Auditor’s approach, to cut to the quick and invite me to bear your children?”
“Not at all. It’s just, you’re really nice to talk to, and I’m usually hopeless at chatting to girls.”
“Chatting to girls.”
“Talking with women.”
“You’ve done pretty well so far.”
Geoffrey sat on the edge of the couch.
“You make it easy.”
“Well, here is my answer: if by some magic or surreal psychology you have the ability to pinpoint the time of my demise, please don’t. Or if you do accidentally, please don’t tell me. We all have an allotted time, and on average in this country it is eighty-six years for women, and eighty-three for men. We take sensible precautions to prevent being short-changed, but if something happens to you like your friend, there’s no sense in knowing that beforehand.”
“What sort of precautions do you take?”
“Oh everything, from small to big. Using pedestrian crossings and taking vaccines, to preserving the institutions of civil administration.”
“Is that what you do?”
“All of them. I’m a stickler for zebra crossings.”
“But the institutional stuff?”
“I work in politics. And in politics people are mad enough to harm others to get what they want. So the constraints on the exercise of power in our system of government are incredibly important. The presumption of innocence, the separation of powers, the rule of law, that sort of thing. It’s kind of the mirror image of what you do. Everyone in politics is a kid picking his or her nose. And it’s the job of the civil structure to keep the tissue boxes full so they don’t flick it at each other.”
“Well played, Lucy. Do you enjoy what you do?”
“For the moment. They can get a bit tiresome. I’ll try something more entrepreneurial one day. Plus I’m twenty-nine. There’s the question of marriage and family you mentioned.”
Marriage? I never mentioned marriage!
Geoffrey lay back on the couch, his head on one arm and his feet on the other. Lucy continued,
“I’m just a shy public servant. I like counting dugongs on distant shores and watching turtles hatch on quiet pacific beaches.”
“I’ve seen them on Attenborough too,” said Geoffrey.
“You’ll have to come with me next time,” said Lucy.
“When do I see you next?” said Geoffrey.
“How about Tuesday? I’m free for dinner then.”
Geoffrey looked at the moulded patterns on the ceiling above him, and crossed his fingers.
“We could do now.”
“Thank you,” said Lucy, “it’s a lovely idea. But let’s be honest. It’s 2.45 am, and we’ve both had a pretty traumatic day.”
“But in keeping with the spirit of adventure that took me out tonight, I’ll offer you phone sex. How’s that for a deal?”
“Okay.” Yes yes yes.
“I’ll start, do you want to know what I’m wearing?”
“Since you ask.” Of course I do.
“Of course you do. Well, you got me out of bed, so I was wearing what I always wear to bed.”
“A pair of black stockings, the kind with the seam up the rear, six inch heels, and to balance it off, a soft black silk choker around my neck. Nothing else. That’s what you boys like, isn’t it?”
“For balance,” said Geoffrey.
“I prefer satin sheets too,” said Lucy. “The heels really shred cotton bedlinen.”
“So how do you want me? On all fours waiting for your ardour, or are you a missionary man?”
“What do you like?” asked Geoffrey.
“Oh, I’ve been working my way through the Kama Sutra,” said Lucy. “I’m up to position number fifty-four.”
“And what is that?”
“It’s called the Pungent Lotus.”
“Ha!” said Geoffrey. “How does that work?”
“I’ll read it to you. The male wears an old t-shirt that he has not washed for four nights in a row. The female has an equally worn tank top and boxers. They approach the bedchamber after consuming an aphrodisiac consisting of a strong beef vindaloo and several brewed beverages…”
* * * *
Geoffrey woke, the sun harsh in his eyes. His neck ached from sleeping on the arm of the sofa, his mouth was parched. He forced himself upright, and groaned as the headache hit. Daylight streamed in through the open curtains, and the room was hot and stuffy.
His phone lay on the floor. He picked it up. There was a message.
“Night night, sleepy head. Lovely talking. See you Tuesday. Excited. Let me know time and place (two things I need to know this time). Kisses and hugs. Lucy XXX.”
He fell back into the couch and smiled. Success. After all he had been through last night, here was at least a silver – nay gold – lining.
Then he caught his breath. He stood up quickly and ran out of the flat down the stairs and into the street. A woman was walking by, quick and sweaty in skins and t-shirt. He smiled at her. She smiled back and lay gaunt and waxen in the back of an ambulance, a paramedic looking over her and removing the oxygen mask.
He stood stock still in the street, the heat firm on his forehead. He still had no control over the visions. And he had made a date with Lucy in two days’ time, when she had insisted that he not tell her.