Till death us do part
Rachael was still in bed when I set out for my early morning walk. Summer was a marvellous time in the campus, because, in the morning sunlight, the magnificent grounds turned golden like fresh toast. Or, if you looked at it another way, like my mother’s tongue, as she turned 60, and we discovered she had Crohn’s disease. My morning walk had become an unfailing ritual of mine for the past 40 years that I’d been a library assistant in the University of Wilmington. But that’s it, in four days I’d be saying farewell to this cruel, pointless world.
By now I could do the entire circuit in my head because I could almost predict who, or what, I was bound to encounter as I turned the next corner.
Just a few blocks and I would meet Alan Smith the cheerless milkman. Between the two of us, we’d demonstrated conclusively that it was possible to conduct a full conversation entirely in grunts and nods, both of us moving on fully assured that we had given nothing away.
Next, Professor Dixon walking his dog – or perhaps it was the other way round, since the Alsatian was a hefty beast, and the poor Prof was a geriatric hare. Watching them, you’d think that The Hound of the Baskervilles was dragging off another hapless victim.
On the other side of the field, a cabal of stray cats squatting on the fence, looking like a convocation of voiceless mourners - whereupon I’d quickly turn away and hasten my pace. As I passed by the sports field, I’d observe the PE students in their early morning training, their bodies heaving with excessive vigour, which I considered utterly disgusting: My own abortive forays into badminton, when I was about ten, were marred by clumsy, but painful, accidents that had put me off any kind of sport ever since.
Down by the lake, a pleasant view of wild lilies and hyacinth with irregular sightings of swans, ducks, geese, coots or moorhens. However, as you crossed the bridge over the lake and walked farther, you were likely to come upon a drunken student – or lecturer – lying on the grass, or a couple of lovesick students kissing behind the acacia trees.
The circuit would never be complete without the ferocious altercation from the apartment of a junior technician rowing with his wife all night, and the disgruntled complaint of the poor dog whose sleep had been disturbed by the kerfuffle.
When I returned, Rachael was on the phone to Patrick Willoughby.
I went straight to the kitchen and found that the kettle was still warm. Then I became aware that I was the subject of their discussion. It was okay, Rachael routinely discussed me as ‘an object under observation’ regardless of my presence there, and it never bothered me, anyway.
‘He's been behaving rather strangely lately’, a brief pause occupied with the munching of a toast, followed by a turkey chuckle. ‘Ah, yes, even more... He suddenly seems to be taking more interest in things. I found that he'd been smoking one of my tampons ...’, throaty laughter. ‘Yesterday he went to the chapel ... first time in years, then this morning he was singing as he marched out of the flat. Sounded like a rhinoceros in labour.’ she let out prolonged peals of unrestricted laughter.
Of course, I knew what was going on between those two, Rachael and Patrick. I knew Patrick when he was a lad. His dad was a lecturer in the Faculty of Science. He died of some undisclosed brain disease in his late sixties. The result of some experiment gone wrong, perhaps. It was all hush-hush, but I saw him in the hospital around the same time my mom was in for chronic tonsillitis. Patrick’s dad had to be strapped to his bed because he had restless legs syndrome, which was one of the symptoms of his disease. The only other symptom was death.
I used to see Patrick doing the paper round during my morning walk. He was a cocky young lad bristling with useless energy and mindless mischief. He had a penchant for molesting the cats, and soon enough, they all knew him by sight and respectfully made themselves scarce before he crossed their path - A much-revered villain in the cat world but a wretched coward among his human peers.
I saw more of Patrick in the library when he was doing his degree in mathematics or economics - I’m not quite sure which. Back then, he showed even less respect for the books than he showed for the cats. If some vital pages were found to be missing in a book, the culprit was sure to be Patrick Willoughby.
He and Rachael had something going during Rachael’s final year of her BSc degree, but they lost touch afterwards for several years. It was widely rumoured he'd divorced and remarried a few times before settling with his current wife, Molly. But shortly after they married Molly was struck with a double whammy of meningitis and cerebral palsy and had needed care since then. I guessed he and Rachael were waiting for Molly to die before making their next move. But, in my humble opinion, and judging from my own mother's drawn out battle with various forms of ill-health, they could have mighty long to wait. The thing with the terminally indisposed was that no mater the extent of your despair on their behalf, and your desperate wish - for their sake, and everyone else - for them to die, their incredible and meaningless tenacity of life was always most effective. For this reason alone, I’d mentioned it quite often to Rachel that I had no desire to live longer than 65.
When Patrick came back on the scene three years ago, and I spotted him in a black vintage Jaguar XJ, I was surprised to see what the passage of time had done to him. He was now in his late 40s and his corky charm had weathered into less elegant features. Rachael was in the car with him; and the passage of time hadn’t done her any favours either.
Since Patrick’s return, Rachael had seen less of the other blokes she normally hung around with under the guise of 'research and collaboration'. Most of them were alumni of the university – old flames from her student years. And Rachael had more old flames than a blazing Australian bushfire.
Rachael was on the phone for the best part of 20 minutes, staring directly at me through the kitchen doorway with the look of a child who had just taken off the two hind legs of a grasshopper and waited to see what it would do.
‘Why are you smiling?’ She asked.
But I wasn’t smiling.
‘Four days to go, eh? Are you scared?’
Although we had been married for 15 years, ours was like a marriage between a circus elephant and a frivolous meerkat. She was like a rent-free lodger who came and went as she pleased and I was just an awkward piece of furniture in the corner of the living room. I'd first known her as a student in uni. Her first degree was in Psychology, and she was a regular at the library where I worked 9 to 5, stacking books, or just looking busy – the latter, an art which I had mastered almost to perfection. She often stopped by, and we – no, she – chatted, which was odd because I never had contact with any of the students although I was aware that they called me ‘Biggey’.
One day she informed me that I was to be the subject of her final year dissertation, which was about dysfunctional individuals and asocial eccentrics. I was the perfect specimen - someone who possessed all the qualities of a geek, but without any of the intelligence. I would be helping to test some significant new hypotheses. By the end of her research, she’d be able to confirm whether I was a genuine retard or a straightforward misfit. Her interest at this stage was purely academic, of course. Besides, she was exceptionally friendly with many of the male students and was particularly infatuated with Dr Woods, a young Philosophy lecturer who was married at the time.
Rachael Weybridge graduated with a first class. I thought I had seen the last of her until she reappeared two years later for her postgraduate, which she pursued as fiercely as she did Dr Fredrick Woods, who returned her affections with an equal but spectacularly opposite reaction. By this time, I had resumed my duties as her research specimen. I was subjected to MRI scans, hypnotism, electrocution, and a bunch of other curious experimentations.
And then, she proposed.
At first, I thought it was part of her experiment. The whole thing caused quite a stir in the sleepy academic community where the biggest scandal up to that time was when Professor Johnson found a condom in his custard pie.
Rachael insisted on a church wedding, especially because her parents were opposed to the whole idea. Her dad, who was an Anglican Bishop, threatened to disown her at first but, in the true Christian spirit, attended the wedding to give his prodigal daughter away, although her mom did not even show up. Although only few were invited, the campus chapel was packed, mainly with curious students and bewildered professors who considered the whole thing an astonishing phenomenon. I’d never forget the face of the officiating vicar. He had the expression of a medieval cardinal summoned, on the pain of death, to conduct the funeral of the royal cockroach.
Rachael's voice broke through my reverie. She was holding a lottery ticket. ‘Found this under the table lamp, I guess it belongs to you?’.
‘Yes, it’s mine. I got it yesterday’.
‘Thought you didn’t approve of the lottery, you always said it was a waste of money’
‘Well, I thought I’d do something new...’
‘Ten things to try before you die, eh?’ performing her trademark chuckle that could curdle milk, 'Ah, let's see... Have a goulash bath... Bleach you eyebrows and dye your moustache bright red...snug a pot-bellied pig...dance with a Tricomalee turtle...’.
But she couldn’t have been more wrong. None of those things was on my list. The horoscope was one, and it was what led to me playing the lottery in the first place - nothing to do with any prospect of good luck.
‘Unlucky’ was my middle name. Sickness and disease ran in my family like an Olympic torchbearer. Between my mom and dad alone, they’d notched up more diseases than the Cambridge compendium of curious medical conditions. When he was 55, my dad caught a particularly nasty gout. His left foot was the size of a 4-week old Labrador and sometimes it smelt like one. I even thought I'd heard it yelp. Despite his constant pain, he always smiled, which was something between a wince and leer. When accompanied by his distinctive chuckle, it made a lasting negative impact on children.
He also suffered from an undiagnosed lung condition, which started after his 60th. No matter how many times you heard him cough, you were still always taken by surprise. One day, now in his 70s, he began to drip all over the place like a hog on the spit. A few days later, I arrived home to find him on the bathroom floor. His bladder had swollen to the size of an Australian pumpkin, and he feared that it was about to explode. In the end, it was not his bladder that killed him, but something he caught in the hospital five days after his 76th birthday, having lived most of his later years in misery, pain and discomfort.
My mom had cirrhosis, a liver condition that caused her much suffering, but which she bore with extraordinary bravery. But when, at the age of 55, diabetes and hypertension joined the party, her fortitude gave way to despair and resentment. She became unbearably foul tempered and extremely difficult to look after. This only worsened after my dad died. Although she lost some weight every day, developing dark, prominent eye sockets, she still managed to stretch it out until she was 68. By then she had become so gaunt she looked like a bird of ill omen.
And even when I was free of the responsibility of being their full time carer my lifestyle remained every bit as restricted and as despondent as when they were alive. Of course, they hadn't left me any inheritance except for dad’s reassuring voice as he patted his swollen foot and winced at the pain from his hurting lungs. 'One day my son all this will be yours'.
So, ten years ago, Rachael asked: 'Biggey, if you are so paranoid about ageing, why haven’t you developed an exit strategy?'
Of course, I knew what she meant and thought she could be so devastatingly rational sometimes. When she asked me that question, it hurt. However, the more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make. A few months later, on my 55th birthday, Rachael gave me a remarkable birthday present in a gilded A4 envelope. I was aware that she stared at me as I opened it with trembling hands. It turned out to be a sort of certificate. A death certificate with my name on it, dated for 7 August 2002 - my 65th Birthday.
She read out from a piece of paper in mock foreign accent, '... premium voluntary self termination service provider based in Lithuania... Ve guarantee absolutely that you will not live beyond the date on your personalised death certificate...' Then she said, 'Of course you don’t have to... But I think it’s something that might interest you.'
I avidly read the accompanying leaflets. You could choose your own death - peaceful, accidental or violent. There was also the choice of ‘designer death’, which would be 'customised to meet your own particular needs - exotic or mysterious' - something that would be talked about for years to come.
After much contemplation, I agreed that it made perfect sense. Death on your own terms was a luxury that only few could boast. My life had been remarkably unremarkable thus far, without the remotest likelihood of any change in fortune or circumstances. So, I opted for a Sherlock Holmes mystery-murder death. I signed the accompanying INDIGNITAS form with a flourish and posted it that same day.
Rachael later confided that it was the most expensive present she had ever given anybody. She was pleased that I liked it. It was no less than I deserved.
The following day after I was quizzed by Rachael over the lottery tickets, I was about to leave for work when I noticed a copy of the Wilmington Advertiser on the kitchen table. The words 'THIS WEEK'S LUCKY NUMBERS' stuck out of the front page like a red doubledecker bus on a horse racetrack. I retrieved my lottery ticket from my jacket pocket but immediately put it back. What was I doing thinking about the lottery so early in the morning when I should be getting ready for work? It was already 8:30am, time only for a toast and a cup of tea.
As I sipped my tea, I caught my hand snaking towards my pocket, so I obliged. However, right at that moment there was a knock on the front door.
'A parcel for you, sir; If you will kindly sign here...' It was a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adam, which I had bought by mail order. I did not intend to read it, of course, since I couldn’t possibly understand it, but I wanted it to be known that I was clutching on such an important book as I lay dying at the bottom of the stairs. I put the parcel on the mantelpiece and went back to the kitchen.
I was still in shock when I realised that Rachael had come down the stairs and was staring at me. The paper and the lottery ticket on the table told her all she needed to know.
'Let's have a look' her frown was intense. Her voice raised a notch as she called out each number, comparing it with what was in the paper.
'Blimey...we won the lottery!' at no time since I had known her had I noticed her cockney accent to be more pronounced.
'65 million whoppers!’ I heard myself whisper. It seemed too obscene be said aloud.
Her face bore the expression of a kangaroo on LSD, which became even more uncanny as she as she struggled to regain her normal self-assured facade.
I took the ticket, folded it and put it in my pocket.
She scowled at me and then smiled. ‘What a thing to happen, considering you have only three days to live. I'll see to it that you have a fantastic funeral.‘
I did not say anything.
‘What? You haven't forgotten, have you? ... You’re not thinking...’ She wagged a finger at me and then sighed ‘Aw, you poor thing’.
'Look, Biggey, you signed a contract, remember? I don't see how you can get out of it now. It doesn’t matter where you hide, the hit man will find you. He will kill you just like you requested.'.
'Well I don’t -'
'Don’t be silly. The thing to do is to make your will - I will arrange an appointment with Patrick's solicitor. Make a list of all the things you would like to rectify - charities or other donations that you have in mind. I assure you that no expense will be spared.'.
I don’t know how I made it through the night without altogether losing my mind. I did not sleep a wink. My thoughts were a melee of apprehension and relief. Suddenly I no longer wanted to die. I fully understood and appreciated the enormous difference such a large amount would make to my life even at 65. In the morning, for the first time in over 40 years, I did not go on my morning walk; instead, I went straight to the Police station on Merrow Street.
There was only one officer at the counter. His badge said 'PC Watson'. He had the face of a constipated bulldog, which made his smile far from reassuring.
'How may I help you, sir?'
'My name is Terry Biggleswade. I need protection at once. There is someone out to get me.'.
'That's serious.' he said picking up a Biro and pulling a blue plastic clipboard closer. 'I need some more details'.
'It’s going to happen tomorrow' I could hardly recognise my voice.
'Okay. Do you know who it is?'.
'I got him from my wife as a birthday present'
'Sorry?' PC Watson's brows shot up to the ceiling. Then he pushed the clipboard aside and slowly put the Biro down.
'It was ten years ago. I signed a contract...' I wiped the sweat from my face with the back of my hand.
'You signed a contract to have yourself killed?' His voice cracked as he gave up trying to keep a straight face.
I felt like hitting him. It was not funny at all.
The PC stared at me for several seconds. 'Look, I advise you to go home, run yourself a hot bath and relax. Your hit man has probably forgotten all about the affair after all these years.'.
'What? No police protection?'.
'Nope. Not with a crooked story like that. What you could get, if you don’t leave the premises at once, is that I may charge you with wasting police time, which could invariably earn you a short spell in jail'.
I left the Police station in haste. In the whole of my life, I had never been more annoyed, more afraid, or more desperate to be alive.
So what choices did I have? Option 1: Hop on the next plane to Timbuktu and tuck myself away in a nasty dark cave. But the claustrophobia would be too overwhelming for me. Option 2: Change my identity, sprout a goatee, and spend the rest of my days dressed like a Rastafarian which had no appeal for me. Option 3: Perhaps I could fake my own death. Now that's a terrific one. That would throw the killer off the scent. It was tricky, though. It would have to be a fire. There’d also have to be a body. I thought of Patrick. Finally, I decided that It was all too complicated. Option 4: Go public - put an Ad in The Sun or Mirror. Or, better still, sell my story - hire Max Clifford. But it immediately occurred to me - Imagine if the killer had forgotten and then he (or she, for that matter) reads about me in the papers. Not clever. Option 5: Hire a couple of bodyguards, a solicitor and a private detective. After all, I could afford all that now.
However, none of that was necessary as I was to find when I got back home. Rachael was in a rather more amenable mood and had a certain glow in her eyes.
'Hey Biggey, I have some fantastic news for you.' She was wearing a red dress and a pleasant perfume. 'Come on, you look tired. Let me take your jacket.'.
I sat down on my favourite lounge chair facing the TV and she brought me a cup of tea.
'I've tracked down your hit man'
'Where is he? Have you spoken to him?’ I put down my tea.
'I invited him for dinner'
'You did WHAT?' the ceiling reverberated as it was hit by my shrill voice.
'But what if he -'
'Don’t worry about food. I ordered pizza'.
But I wasn’t worried about the food; I was worried about my life.
The knock on the door caused me to be launched out of my chair like a V2 rocket.
'It’s OK, dear. I’ll get it'
It was the pizza delivery man. She took the pizza to the kitchen. 'Want another cuppa?' she shouted.’
When the second knock came, I definitely spilled my tea. My heartbeat pounded in my ears like jungle drums. I opened the door with trembling hands and my heart almost stopped. Patrick Willoughby.
'Relax, Biggey' Rachael said, before Patrick could say anything, 'Patrick is not your hit man.'
Patrick was wearing a black suit, an opulent pink shirt, a floral silk tie and a frown. 'What's going on here? Have you two been rowing?'.
'Certainly not.’ said Rachael
'Well, are you ready, then?'
'Sorry, Patrick, I'm spending some time with my husband tonight'
I was taken aback by her sudden show of affection. In all our 16 years of marriage, she hadn’t once referred to me in public or in private as ‘my husband’.
Patrick looked as if he had been stung by a large swarm of giant Asian hornets. 'Well, in that case I'll leave you two alone...' It was not his usual confident voice, but he was calm and controlled.
But Patrick did not wait. He turned round and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Rachael had the look of a child who’d just been reprimanded for taking the TV apart. 'Oops, how clumsy of me'.
She took my hand and towed me back to my chair. Her hand was soft and warm.
'So, what about the hit man?' I asked.
She put the pizza on the table, with some plates and glasses. 'I’ve been meaning to tell you, dear, but I didn’t know how.' she disappeared into the kitchen leaving me to contemplate on the emphasis on the ‘dear’ and to wonder about what she was going to say. She caused a racket with the opening and closing of the cabinets in the kitchen. It seemed she was looking for something. Then she came out again.
'There is no hit man'
'Yes. I made it all up as part of my long-running experiments. I am proud of you because you have helped to confirm a singularly important hypothesis in Parapsychology...'.
'You mean, all that -'
'Yes. You are no longer in danger, isn’t that marvellous? Come, let's celebrate.'.
At that moment, I had everything in the world except an appetite. However, I went on and joined her at the table. She opened a bottle of champagne. It made a loud noise, but my nerves were already too frayed for me to be startled. She filled our glasses and raised hers, 'To a wealthy and healthy new beginning'.
I’d never had Champaign. I raised my glass too and said 'Amen'.
The woman at the reception of the National Lottery House had a friendly smile. ‘Mrs Thomson will see you shortly’. I nodded back respectfully and sat on one of the chairs. The walls of the waiting room were adorned with paintings of country landscape that might have been painted by an extremely talented monkey or a teenage graffiti artist with a low self-esteem. Mrs Thomson soon came out of her office offering a hand. It was like grasping a sick toad, but I smiled politely as I followed her into her office.
'Congratulations, Mr Biggleswade. I understand that you have come to claim the big one. I assure you that the paperwork won’t take a minute.'.
I handed the ticket to Mrs Thomson as we entered her office. She did not sit down. Her smile turned into a petulant scowl. ‘You’ve got the wrong numbers, Mr Biggleswade’.
‘Yes, I'm afraid, sir, these numbers are for the Wednesday lottery, not Saturday. You should have confirmed over the phone before coming to claim.’.
Suddenly I felt as if someone had stolen all my bones and replaced them with marshmallows. All my dreams - the enormous white cottage in the countryside, the Range rover convertible, everything - had gone down the crab hole in one dismal instant.
She pushed a small hardback chair towards me, and I sank gratefully unto it. She poured a glass of water from a crystal jug on her table. I started to feel much better. Perhaps the water had something in it. It seemed they already had a procedure in place for this situation. They must receive hundreds of idiots, like me, claiming to have won large sums of money when they had, in fact, only hit an imaginary jackpot.
She disappeared into a back room, as if she desperately needed to use the toilet. Then I heard what sounded like a wheeze, the forced expulsion of air from a pair of traumatised lungs, and then a distinctive outburst of suppressed laughter. It was unforgivable.
But It did not take long for me to recover from my disappointment. Despite the issue of the nonexistent lottery money, I felt much better than I’d done in years, and I was rather much relieved that I was not about to be murdered. I wasn’t sure how to tell Rachael about the Lottery money, though. It would probably break her heart. Anyway, I guessed she would eventually make up with Patrick and promptly move in with him once Molly was out of the way.
Even as I entered the flat and she took my jacket at the door I was still muttering a rehearsal of my apologies. ‘Don’t be silly, dear’ she said, as I followed her, wondering at the commotion taking place in the flat. ‘Of course, there’s no money, all that was part of the therapy for your gerontophobia. Now don’t just stand there like a lemon, your 65th birthday party is already in full swing!’.
Due date: 20 Jan 2011
Working Title: The weight of friendship
Henry would never have considered dating a fat girl; they were just not his cup of tea. So when he first met Lucy, it was obvious that any kind of romance was out of the question.
Kenneth was Henry’s best friend, but there was a lot he did not know about Henry. When the truth finally came out it looked like it was the end of their friendship.
But Lucy’s involvement in their reconciliation was to make both men look at her in a different light. The only trouble was that now had something else to fight over.