‘What’s the point?’ he says as the ancient Acer wirs and beeps and birrs away beside him. The room smelling of the weight of the history of the books surrounding it. The dust that has accumulated on them being rustled as they are picked up by the few after so long a time. Meanwhile Bugattis, Napiers and Delages blast past the window up the main straight and into turn one leaving cascades of demonic black smoke falling onto the anxious pit crews below. The smell of the fuel creating its own unique scent that perfumes the crowd wrapped in their shawls and Chanels.
Downstairs he goes, past the other librarians waiting to use the room he has just vacated for their own personal cataloguing. Outside, the young helpers, doing their Shilling’s work on the lap boards and position counters, take no notice of this alien in their midst as they themselves try not to lose the likes of Benoist, Campbell and co in the fog of burning Castrol and smoking Dunlops. Around the corner, dazed, past tourists with their iPhones and guide books there’s a shout and a swerve, “Oi lad! Look where your going, this bloody things on in the next meeting!”. “Head in the clouds or what this one” this gent says above the din to his driver, competing in the women’s only handicap race, Kay something her name was from what I recall.
Oh never mind, she’ll be quick I suppose, the entourage surrounding her with their flashes, pipes and note pads seems as interested in her as Cobb and his lot, already pounding away at the opposition in that glorified mirror they call a car. Loud and large, just like the damn time keepers, rotund in their pretensions as the guardians of time itself. Still, won’t stop me taking the scenic route to the coffee machine any time soon and well, they can go shove it.
Another tourist catches my badge, bleary eyed. Teenager? Nah, but no
adult either, no identifying marks to suggest they know where they’re going or
are entirely oblivious to what they’re doing. Car rides fodder I’m sure. Still,
“Yes, its £2 a ride sir, no worries sir, anything I can do mate just ask.
Oh yes, well the simulator is open until around 5 but we close after
Quite a lovely chat that and could have gone on longer but a cheer from the crowd suggests either a crash, a daring overtake or that the race has come to an end. Its all three, Cobb has won, Benoist has crashed and a lucky souvenir hunter has knocked someone out to get the gear stick from the Bugatti.
Lucky sod, it’ll go in a Museum one day.
And then I woke up.
What’s the last thing you remember?
What about you?
2 people are sitting on a bench overlooking a dirt track circling around the incline. They’re dressed in 1950s attire. One is dressed in tan, the other grey.
Funny thing to ask Death don’t you think
Not really. There is always a first for everything. You I believe are
the first death. There is no death without a life that came before it.
Ironically you’ve survived death, and I’m in no rush to find out what happens
Classic Dyspraxic. But I’ll humour you. I was a single cell, an atom effectively, that lived for a split second then died to live on in Death. Don’t ask, this guy gave me a job and so here I am, a random life given death to live in, much like a random sperm getting an egg to fertilise.
Then why here? This hill? For our little chat?
The answer is right in front of you so I’ll wait. First you answer the question I posed.
Smiling Death drags on the cigarette, blue smoke emits out.
The grey suited man smiles: The wall. Back against it, trying to get
away but slipping on that cold tarmac.
The cliff edge…I read the report. Driver leaves the road, no tire marks. Henry Toivonen, 1986, Corsica.
Quite, but there was no drama, just a loss of control on a dark night.
So where are we then?
You don’t recognise it? Even without the tarmac, road markings, church and signs?
Even without that.
What if I told you that one day a church will be built just behind us, a pub too next to it and, in time, a hotel a little further on.
What if I told you people would come to bury their dead here, one of them your father.
Before you died he buried your grandfather just a few yards away from us and that a few yards further on is a stone shack upon which your holidays will be built.
You’ve got the idea
Because this is the middle ages and people at this time are uneducated and scared. We are but two ghouls sitting on a bench in strange garments, no one will come within a thousand yards. All in all it’s a good place for a chat.
Is understated and rather comfortable don’t you think? But the location! You wrote about driving here.
Another pause in which the grey suited man (not long into his thirties and not far away from his twenties) looks down almost mournfully for a past that still lies someway forward into the future.
Death: Let’s go for a walk. C’mon let’s go. Time to go, or shall I say move, forward.
The two step up from the bench and move down the hill onto the track that is now a road.
GSM: Same place, now a lot, judging by the pub, further…on!
At this moment a green Mini Countryman turns up the gravel road adjoining the pub. The grey suited man stands back surprised to see himself, speechless.
Death: You’d just come back from the tip, held back through Stiffkey, left a 2 minute gap to the caravan in front and had what you described as the most intense driving experience; on the edge, in control, “third gear singing”. Poetic.
GSM: How come?
You can’t see yourself standing in 1950s gear next to Death? This is 2014, the annus horibilis of your adolescence, just after that break up, and the age of social media. We really don’t want to be seen, not now, not by you.
Why here? Is there a philosophical point to be made? Is it nostalgia? Or do you just want a Mini with relatively low mileage?
He smiles and so does Death too, a friendly smile
Always the philosophical one. It’s a lovely day out and you’re finally happy after an emotionally interesting time.
I could feel the feelings rushing over like several rivers coming to break over me at once. My future self getting a glimpse at the optimist I once was, before the icy cliffs, but after the suicide poem.
Death looked across, smiling in the way only a benevolent demon can smile.
Death: Shall we get a pint? A bit of Dutch Courage eh?
He winks, we’re heading to a conclusion at some point but this first fallen spirit, hardly no Adam, is being as enigmatic as his smile portrays him to be.
Fate says sitting one wall from your past is a bad thing. Knowing you are on the other side of a wall is both metaphorically and physically possible. In this case I wished the latter was not happening being as I was suspended in Life drinking with Death.
GSM: So we can’t go in?
You’ve seen Doctor Who, what do you take it for?
We saw enough
Yet he saw nothing. (I ask calling myself a stranger in a familiar setting)
Saw what he wanted to see. I didn’t make us invisible you know, merely placed us out of his eyeline.
Because who looks left when they’re turning right?
Someone about to crash, or at least trying not to.
That’s all that driving quickly is isn’t it? Trying to crash but every time at the last minute deciding that its best not to, flight over fight. Drifting a car is just a Lemming pulling a parachute.
The beer leaves a small foam moustache on Death’s upper lip. The grey suited man looks suspiciously at Death
Can’t Death be fun? Look at Mexico. I have a grand old time. British? Formal and sad.
Another pause whilst Death and the grey suited man take a drink of their beverages.
Death: Thought about it? Happening in a few weeks (he says taking another sip of his beer).
Weeks? Days? I’ve only just got here.
No you haven’t mate. You’re not even fully dead yet.
I’m still in the coma?
No, your heart’s stopped and kidneys are shutting down. Still, not much time.
Time? I’m not dead yet.
No, you’re still dying my ooooollllldddd mucker. Little longer until you join the club.
I pause, how can I talk with Death yet not be dead? Dentists, Doctors, Councils, Schools, even Museums have waiting rooms, never imagined adding Death to that list. Yes, just wait, got another few thousand people in the queue dear, Elvis is just in the bathroom, been a while actually.
D: I’ve nearly finished my pint. Time to go.
Finished mine ages ago, parched isn’t it in your waiting room.
Fine fellow! We’ll stay for another! (To the barman he winks), Another two for a couple of lonely bed fellows my good man. (The gsm winks at death)
Barman: Fancy dress lads? Off to a party?
D: Something like that.
The next thing I know we’re downing the pints like we’ve entered in from
the seventh circle of hell instead of North Norfolk.
Death: Parched in here isn’t it.
I’ll need this will I?
Purgatory will do that to you. Or at least your form will
The GSM laughs, Personalised Purgatory?
Its what you believe in, it was that or stints with the bloke downstairs. Surprisingly popular actually, does a mean vodka tonic and torture. No, you get purgatory, a kind soul gets the kind punishment.
An atom, no chance to do good or bad. Just died, boring life. Why they gave me a job. Mind the dead, chat with the dead, remind
GSM: The Dead
D: Gotcha. But I know what you’ll ask next
GSM: So, Hitler, Hussein, Stalin
The GSM throws him a questioning look
D: Talked too much. All the others just sat and looked pensive. Mussolini had a smoke just out there (pointing to the middle of the road), laughed at the way traffic just passed him by. Italy’s greatest dictator, smoking in rural Norfolk. Hadn’t told him that according to everyone else it was just me in this pub and not him, still, kept him occupied before he was picked up by the guy from downstairs. Never got my letter funnily enough…always nice to hear how they’re settling in. Some for longer, others for shorter.
GSM: Where are we now?
GSM: Kidneys, Heart? Balls (he laughs), they went long ago.
D: Liver, Spleen: A dying body isn’t like turning off a tv you know.
Imagine coming to a standstill in an old aircraft, god knows I’ve talked to too
many airmen in this pub, and switching that off. It’s a process. Check all the
switches and dials, let the engine tick over as the heat dissipates. The switch
has been turned but its not lights out yet. Besides I still need to do the
whole wise bit of this thing and
Death: Settle up, you’ve got a tenner in that pocket, right year by all accounts and just enough for four drinks. One good thing about this job I tell you? Free drinks (again a slight smile comes over his face, just enough to glimpse his white teeth as he removes a cigarette from a packet in his lower left pocket).
D: Thank you barman, I look forward to enjoying your custom again.
(To the GSM), He won’t. He’ll keep the money and walk into amnesia, I’ve drunk here a million times and anonymity has been my friend.
BM: Thank you mate and enjoy the party!
D (turning back): Trust me we will.
The Grey Suited Man and Death walk up the street and cross it onto the road that leads to the Quay.
So this wise schtick
Not yet. Still some time to chat before the dramatic climax. Although I’ll tell you one thing. Every time I say this even I’m a little bit surprised given how much people write, talk and pray about me.
I meant to ask…
Away, good fellow.
Do you ever have a day when you’re not chatting to soul after soul in
the same pub?
Like a day off? Never. Only the location and language I speak changes. The locations are my choosing, every day, if you like, is a holiday. One day I could be atop a Mountain in Kabul, another a gay bar in San Francisco or in a retirement home in Tenerife. No, I like this job and though I do not have a day off I still have a few minutes before each of you to do a spot of reading.
For the next minute or so, they walk along the road down to the quay in silence. Death smoking a cigarette casually whilst I, lanky in my suit, wonder why here and such a familiar setting. I get the feeling…
I can hear your thoughts? Not quite but I’m a dab hand at knowing when people are pontificating. Why here? I say I can go everywhere and I very nearly have but even I have my favourites. After so long you slip into a habit and find a place that…works. This quay, this place works. I have seen how young, we’re all young aren’t we at heart, people in their twenties and thirties react. It’s a clean, soft, break from the business of life. It’s also where your story ends.
We had walked onto the start of the sea wall, atop it is a path that, if you walk its entire length, takes you to Blakeney and onto to Cley and then Cromer.
I always thought it would you know. Had a dream once about a future where this was an Prison’s Execution section.
D: Never knew that.
I’d only come up with the idea a few minutes before the crash, not enough time to be added to the file.
And you probably knew this because you’re right. You are in a waiting room but not, my, waiting room.
No, don’t worry, not the bloke from downstairs. His is in Bury St Edmunds.Right…
They’re wrong about me you know. You’re wrong too. Its not that you’re in my waiting room, its that I am the waiting the room.
I was told my job is to guide people from one life to the next, my problem is that there is no next life for me, like you and all the billions and trillions of lives here, I just don’t know wht’s next.
Walk along that path and you will find out what is next. I can’t tell you how long you will walk for but at some point, you’ll find out.
What about you?
Haha, a short break then the next man, woman, child, dog, tree or
Because I’m a bit teary eyed, I have to watch as I send people to Allah knows where and know wherever they go I won’t get a slice of the action. I am the ultimate misunderstood entity, the one everyone fears and runs from. I am the proverbial messenger whom everyone shoots at but never hits.
If there’s nothing? I can’t help you (he says resigned).
I take off my hat: I will remember sir, have a drink to that, I will remember you.
Thank you. (he smiles once more)
You must be going, you know this path well enough and I know you know you will find something at the end of it.
Bis spater mein freunde
With that I start walking, not looking back. Behind me I can hear Death
walking away, allowing us to be seen by the passers by in their shorts and
T-Shirts, in their boats and launches, with their smartphones and cameras.
I can hear my shoes crunching on the orange Earth underneath me as I march towards Blakeney, watching as the curve begins to get closer as I pass the first set of stairs and then minutes later the next. The curve comes up and that’s when it starts, the horizon stops coming closer. Looking behind I realise the small quay I left behind will continue to gradually, yet slowly, get further away and Blakeney will come no closer. This is purgatory for me then, a very long marsh walk in mid-Summer dressed as if I am on the way to a fancy dress party.
Will I see anyone? Unlikely, despite this after a while I check to look at the pocket watch given to me as part of this outfit and find it has given up on time. Not even stuck on a time just refusing to tell it. In spite of this my muscles begin to grow weak and the sweet pint of just a few bitter hours ago becomes a distant memory of blissful nostalgia. Damning the fact that I wasn’t given a pedometer I continue on, jacket off and tied around my waist. My fedora is long gone, thrown into the marsh after a few moments out of some desire to be just a tad dramatic at the start of my final walk. This is a regret as the sun beats down on my head of gelled back hair, it will not burn strangely and neither will my skin.
Days pass because I assume the sun will not set in the West as it is accustomed to. Legs have gone beyond tired now and it is not long after that dehydration grips me like it did that day in Central London. Sun spots are only just the beginning and after a few minutes the peripheral vision is gone and I’m looking through an irritatingly familiar tunnel of incapacitation. I am suffering and sweating, but that’s what purgatory is for I suppose, sweating sin in the same way as letting blood to get rid of an infection in Victorian times.
The pain is unbearable now, not just in my feet, but in every bone in my body. My head is sore from the lack of water and I find that every muscle in my stomach has woken up, realised the situation and cramped. How long am I taking to die up there in that hospital room? Why didn’t I ask sweet eyed Death, the eternal hospital porter, about time being frozen inside this place? Will it hit me at the end of this purgatory? Will I reach the end of human endurance, is that it? My sins will leave me once this temporary body has expired, once my resolve has gone and been lost to the marshes? The curve still continues and straightens and then curves again like the old Esses at Kyalami in 1976. Then it hits me. No it actually hits me, a spike of pain that has gone straight through my spine and into my head. It’s like that scene out of Hot Fuzz with Timothy Dalton!
New character: No it isn’t.
I can see a figure walking towards me in the distance so I keep walking,
well I say walking, I mean crawling at this point. I just keep going.
Hello Grey Suited Man. Do you know how long you’ve been in here? Longer than most I can tell you and that is a good thing. You believe what?
(Confused that he appeared to be reading my thoughts), That you’re going to tell me I’m in here for much longer than I thought I have voluntarily spent in here.
No, you can if you want, but your time is up.
Oh yes (I say exasperated), my body in the hospital! .
No! The body died weeks ago, buried now. Can’t say where but you’re buried but it was sweet.
Where to now then? I suppose this is the next stage Death talked about.
Touch my hand, time to complete the circuit. Don’t ask what I mean but for a split second you will understand. Put it this way, remember that scene from the film trench when the main protagonist is shot in the neck?
(Reaching into my mind when I watched that film a couple of times those years ago), Yeh? I mean,
Bit like that, though without the bullet, war, terrible writing and general end.
Yep. Now touch my hand, its about to happen and we can’t miss it. I know you’re going to grasp it and that’s fine, anti-sweat coating works brilliantly for bare hands.
I realise he’s talking about some form of cream. Whomever this is they’ve done this…
A lot? Yes but don’t worry, I’m not one to fear. Who knows what you’ll fear next actually. (He smiles, in the same kind way Death did)
I take a deep breath, not my final one, that happened a long time ago. I find my last big surge of whatever is keeping me going, step up and take his hand.
Immediately everything around me goes white and this man, this being, fades quickly away. In the distance I here screaming, not a man’s, not a woman’s, not mine no, no, no, it it it it, is mine. That’s my screaming but, not, my screaming?
Its only then I begin to see the blurred operating room with a calendar on the wall, the date of my death embossed on it and strangely I feel, really feel, the screaming. Yep that’s definitely me.
I realise what’s happening and my mind, my memory goes blank as the realisation hits me, and I am aghast again.
It was then that I knew it was over. I’d gone into the corner far too quickly. The road had been so alluring and we were familiar with each other, each curve and crest and dip. The road wasn’t a familiar lover that night however. It was a siren on the rocks.
The corner in question was light, fast, banked, banked right, fifty miles per hour tops. Fifty-five at a push in the dry; forty-five if you were feeling lucky in the wet.
Execute the corner correctly and it was a sure fire way to the next, another banked downhill curve, this time to the left. Getting it wrong meant you bounced off the bank and onto the marsh, the other way lead to the sea.
It was with wide eyed fear that I recognised I would be facing this particular fate.
They’re right you know, time does slow down because it wasn’t midway through the turn that I realised I was a goner. A true driver knows through initial turn in if ‘shit sticks’ and with narrow tyres, a wide track, a wet road I knew this had no chance of sticking no matter what I did.
The most irritating thing? Having the riff of Owner of a Lonely Heart blaring through my speakers as the Astra understeered through the corner, almost dignified, and off the edge of the bank and into thin air just a few hundred metres above the North Sea.
It had been such a good evening as well, sitting with her over the bay, her brown hair tinted with the faintest red highlights blowing gently in the wind as we lay on the bonnet of the car adorned with a chequered blanket. Battered sausages and chips never felt so exquisite and neither had that part of the coast, normally so drab as to make the PM’s policies look interesting. Yep, life was good despite the storm approaching, “A storm we would weather” she said. We, not I, she said.
Met in the only way I ever imagined I would meet, in a coffee shop off the main road that wound its way through the centre. It looked like the inside of Jack Sparrow’s mind, jumble everywhere, no square metre looked the same as the last. All vegetarian too, and though it was very schizophrenic, perfect for writing a dissertation in, so I had been told. As it was, sitting in the corner doing some fiddly dialogue, only in there for coffee and cake, I hadn’t been aware of her standing nearby.
Trainspotting fan are ya? Her light south coast accent permeating my ear drums, pricking my untouched emotional nervous system.
I looked up. Standing there, petit, uni student, two years either side I thought, denim shorts, t-shirt with a shirt loosely wrapped round her shoulders, freckles on her cheeks and nose from where Spring’s rays had had their early say. Did I mention the hair?
‘You walked in humming the T2 tune. Looked like a guy who’d seen the original not very long before the sequel. That and the fact that you have a sticker on your laptop cover with the trainstation from the first film on it’
Confused, ‘Both or the latter?’
‘Latter then the former’, she smiles seemingly wanting to ask what as opposed to why I’m writing.
Finally its my turn, smiling.
‘You seemed like a guy who wanted to be asked. Going for the whole mysterious writer in here writing look. Trying to “exude a mysterious atmosphere both enigmatic and concentrated on the task at hand”. I thought I’d humour you, find out if there was something behind the understated propositioning. Also you’re cute.’
‘What?’ (I smile, and yes she was bang on, I can’t reveal that this is both performance and practice).
She smirks, ‘ARE you writing?’, sitting down on the other side of this small table in the corner of a spacious cafe. Uninvited? Yes. Unwelcome? No.
From there the picture, the scene, the conversation, like an accident, happened in slow motion and in remarkable detail. Every word hangs on my ears, every spoken syllable I pray has not pulled me into any sort of dyspraxic contusion.
And it hasn’t, the freckles on her face glisten and rise when every
joke, every quip, hits its spot. One wart in the air though, stands out.
She sees the question before I ask it.
‘No I don’t’
‘Did once though, short lived, a few months then he was off, I was off, it was, well, off. Mediocre man, a friendship that took a step it should never have taken. So there you go, out of the way’. She winks, does that a lot.
At that moment she looks like she’s just about to exhale from the pullof a non-existent cigarette, like that Album cover from Love Actually, odd that that should now come to mind.
We chat for a while longer until the cafe closes, an hour early at 17:00, its the Chef’s Birthday. Almost in apology the cafe owner comes over to part the conversation and tell us we have twenty minutes. Twenty minutes? Do we have to part I ask her with a look that can only convey wet sadness. Her look back accepts the time will run out unless we do something.
‘Have you got any plans after this?’ we say simultaneously, resulting in the sort of mild tittering only two pared souls can enjoy in.
At heart I genuinely do, drinks with an old friend from secondary school. He doesn’t mind my absence when I text him my condolences later.