A shorter version of this was a recent compo winner despite having to be whittled down to 1500 words. This is the full length and unrestricted version that delves deeper into the reasons behind the protagonists’ decision.
“Ouch that smarts!” He exclaimed as he tried to pick the remote control off the floor. He thought to himself that that was utterly depressing, that he had come to this, plagued by aches with every movement, prescribed medicines for everything he has had, and susceptible to everything he has still managed to avoid.
“You shouldn’t try to overdo things the way you are.” She said. It was not like she was being discouraging, but to some extent, every pang of pain that shot through his body seemed to be transmitted to hers. Sometimes she bemoaned her good health, she was almost a decade younger than him, but had never known him as anything other than the energetic firebrand that turned her world inside out.
“I’ll try a bit of that soup if I may.” His voice almost whimpered out the request. Where was the voice that boomed? Consumed, like the rest of him. She went towards the kitchen but was interrupted by the sound of the intercom.
“Nobody knows we’re here, do they?” She asked. “Nobody, hardly nobody, I mean, knows just how bad you are, do they?” She asked with that look.
“I have followed yours and the doctor’s orders.” He smiled.
She picked up the intercom and looked over to him. “It’s George.” She said, giving him that look again.
“I didn’t tell him.” He said as she left.
She returned a few moments later followed by George and told them she would leave them to it. He was not sure what was going on, maybe his medicine was causing him to hallucinate but that was not George. He hadn’t actually seen him for a couple of years, but people don’t change that much.
George, sat down and made himself at home.
“It’s good to see you. Well, let me rephrase that. It isn’t. You look dreadful. That is because you are two days away from death. Never an easy piece of information to digest so I like to get it out there without fuss. You’re not a well man, but I have an offer for you that I would like you to consider. All ears?” George said.
He knew that he should not listen to this imposter, but something told him to give the guy a listen, the way he felt at that moment, two days seemed like an awful lot to bear. He nodded to the man, who continued.
“I can offer you another five years. Pain free, illness free, exactly five years. But there is a catch. The world will believe you will be dead in forty-eight hours, only your wife will know that you are still here, and only she will be able to see you. The offer is on the table for the next two hours. I assume you have some questions, I will grant you three.” George smiled at the man.
“How do I know any of this is true? I mean you are not even George, anyone can see that.” Without knowing it, he used up question one.
“How do you feel right, now?” He asked.
“Like death.” He said.
With that, the man not called George put his hand on his shoulder and the pain left his body. He felt young again. Even better than before the diagnosis.
“Can I do anything?” Was question two.
“You can’t produce anything as such. If you try to pass on anything to your wife for her to do so, she will forget it immediately. You just have five years to enjoy your time together, a quiet simple life. That said, you can travel together and do things that a normal couple do all the time, just only she will be able to see you, everyone else will think she is alone, mourning maybe. However, if she speaks to you, nobody will see her lips move, so she will not end up getting committed, for a while people will think she is a little sad and forlorn, then people will forget about her. You have one left” Ungeorge smiled.
“Do I need to pooh?” Was the last question. It was a waste, but he could not think of another. George’s hand had left his shoulder and the pain returned tenfold.
“You do not need to partake in bodily functions but can for pleasure. By that I mean you can eat, drink, make love, fight, scream and do all the other things normal and abnormal couples do. But you must remember one thing, if she spills the beans, you will both be taken from the Earth that very moment. After the five years are up, it is like your hologram is deleted. Shall we bring her in to help with the decision-making process?” Sonotgeorge asked.
She asked for proof and with Whocouldthinkthisisgeorge’s hand on his shoulder again, he did press-ups, then he sang to her and played the piano. When the hand was removed, the notes sounded like a clumsy giant trying to escape from a puppy pound.
Obviously, she preferred the offer on the table than the thought of her husband dying painfully in less than forty-eight hours, yet, there were still issues that sheneeded to resolve. She felt bad about this from the outset as she had lived a charmed life, yes, the last eighteen months had be a bind, to put it mildly, but she had done volunteer work in her time and seen the misery that for many forms the basis of their daily lives. Who was she to ask for me? And yet still, doubts plagued her. The visitor picked up on this.
“You don’t seem convinced, my dear.” He said. “Please share any doubts with us.”
Her initial thoughts were ‘patronising twat’ but she retained her composure and made a mental list. “I mean, when we are together it’ll be easy, but I don’t see how it will work when we’re out and about. Someone will notice that something is afoot. What if I give myself away unwittingly? I could have a glass too many of wine and make some comment that I thought was harmless and throwaway and it could spell the end for me. Then all this will have been for nothing.” Her eyes ensured that the listener was aware the punctuation at the end was a question mark.
“You overestimate people. They will honestly stop caring once the next news item comes along. People will act like it is the end of the world, but it will die down. You will be fine; an aura will protect you.” He smiled as if those words would actually comfort her.
“With all due respect, a fucking AURA? I’m afraid I am going to need more assurances than that.” She tried to look menacing.
“Fine, try this.” Maybe he was used to this reaction from his clients, but he was getting a trifle bored with this stubbornness. “The minute I leave, the man you love will turn into this (he clicks his fingers and husband writhes in spasms of pain). He will remain like this until the end, he won’t get any better and between now and forty-eight hours his body will surrender. I am sure you do not like the terms but there are no others on offer. Trust us and enjoy your time together.” When he clicked his finger again, her husband stood up and began to dance.
“What about his children? Can’t they know?” She beseeched of him.
“In my experience the more people that know, the more problems I have to clear up afterwards. Once they have experienced an acceptable mourning period, they too, will be protected by the aura. They have their own lives to live.” He said.
“But how on Earth am I supposed to keep acting normal in front of everybody? I will give the pretence away, I am no actress. What am I supposed to do bawl inconsolably when my husband is actually at my side at his own funeral helping himself to the canapés.” She asked.
“Well, I’d suggest you work on your act, or say your goodbyes now. I reiterate though that you will be protected, and the world will see you as you would be expected to be seen at each time. You will be viewed with stoic dignity, nobody will think the less of you. Whatever decision you make. Time is pressing though.” Now it was his turn to beseech.
“Can I phone a friend?” She joked.
“Hilarious. You have five minutes.” With that he disappeared.
“Neat trick.” He said. “I don’t really want to die in pain tomorrow or the next day, as you may have guessed. I would like you to say yes but if you are against it. No it is.”
“Yeah and I would feel some sort of bitch rather than your queen for ever. I just feel bad for the kids. Especially after what it has taken to recoup your relationship with your eldest.” Were her words.
“So, what better way for him to remember me as the man who wiped away all those years when I was too busy for him who built bridges despite it almost being too late. With our daughter I did not make the same mistakes because I had you. Can you handle being the only person who sees me for five years?” He laughed.
“Nice move, dickhead, you’ve just talked me out of it.” Then she laughed and went to get a pen to sign the contract.
NeverGeorgeEver returned and looked at them aghast. “What’s the pen for?” He asked.
“To sign the contract.” They both replied in unison.
“You are delightfully old-fashioned.” He laughed and pointed a thin pencil at their irises.
“All done. Enjoy.” He said and disappeared again.
On the table was a sheet of electronic paper that contained a document giving them pointers on how to handle their new situation, it was rather amusingly entitled ‘Guidelines for Grantees of Semi-Perpetual Life Extensions’. Page one suggested they show this document to someone outside the ‘Circle on Continuity’, so they took it to the live-in nurse for her to peruse it.
“That’s nice.” She said. All she could see was their wedding photo in a fancy frame. “I haven’t upped his meds”. She looked pleadingly at his wife who laughed.
“I know, Anna. You’ve been so good to us. You really deserve a holiday. I don’t think there is much more you can do as we are approaching the end. I would like it to be just the family for the final moments, I’m sure you understand. Our lawyers will make sure you are well taken care of.” She left them together for a moment and he bade her farewell. She left balling like a child.
“I’m crap at dying.” He told his wife.
Two days later, and unbeknown to the couple, he died. She opened a letter that the visitor had left with some advice on protocol and began making the funeral arrangements. Her husband stubbornly choosing a casket with guitar-shaped poles and a leather interior. Feeling better, he painted it with a sort of swoosh design, like a coloured bolt of lightning, but once he stopped to admire his work, it disappeared.
His funeral was televised, he was not just any old guy. She tried to work out some way in which she could not attend but it was impossible, it was simply the done thing to attend your husband’s funeral. The first problem they encountered was sitting together. She wanted to sit next to her husband, but the seating arrangements did not take him into account. He was not actually an entity so could have sat on top of the person next to her, but that might have had a negative effect on her composure. Thus, he was banished to the back of the building along with others who had snuck in.
She was expected to give an address. She knew that she could claim she was overwhelmed with grief, though she was equally worried about bursting into laughter. As she began, her voice trembling, she saw out of the corner of her eye Yeahyourereallygeorge and he seemed to conduct her as if he were leading an orchestra, the words flowing out of her with elegance and eloquence in equal measures. She was not actually sure what she was saying by it made it onto the news and her place in history was assured.
Social media saw an outpouring of love and respect that made it easier for them. Her press office made an announcement that she was thankful for these messages but would like to be left alone for the time being. She had bought some time, after convincing the kids that she would be fine, they could get on with the serious business of being dead.
They spent the first night at home. She cooked, and he had a glass of wine. He had not touched the stuff for years, but now, dead, it had no effect on him, it was to keep her company. After dinner, they were each other’s dessert, and the next day they went to Bali.
They had had a property there for years and it was where they went when he went to wind down after particularly fraught periods of professional activity. They loved it there as they could wander round the markets and generally act like no-one cared a jot about who they were or the life they had in New York, or indeed the world over. Bali was like a sanctuary to them, so it was little wonder that she chose to up sticks and take her grieving over there. Inevitably the media got wind of this move and went to see if there was a story behind it, but all they saw was a woman whose husband had died recently, and even they thought that was going too far.
So, for a while the press wondered about her, but whenever they snapped her, she looked, well, boring. She was a nothing story. In reality she was laughing at his antics but no-one else could see that. She joked to him “the lad’s insane!” in a mock Yorkshire accent.
And so it began that they were more often than not supremely happy in these idyllic surroundings. It was something of a struggle at the beginning as their schedules and independent lifestyles had meant that they had not actually spent that much intense time together. She had not realised just how many foibles he had, and seemed quite displeased that he had brought them with him to the after-life. She compensated this fact with the idea that at least he did not need to take care of personal hygiene these days, but deep down felt that she had given up much more than him for this to work.
Yet after a couple of months in Bali, being in each other’s hair so much began to grate. She was not wont to leave him as she felt that it was her duty to stay by his side now that they had been given this extra time together. The thing was that when he was alive they were married but also had their own things going on. They were never shackled together twenty-four-seven like now. She felt she was having trouble breathing almost and then felt awful as she wanted time away from this healthy dead man.
Inevitably the rows started. Whoever you are and whatever you have experienced in this life, something trivial will send you over the edge when tensions are high. He didn’t clean the chopping board while making some awful concoction that he had found in a local magazine. Now he had decided to become a dab hand in the kitchen after years of ignoring the place, she thought to herself.
“It’s fine for you as you are fucking dead.” She berated him. “I have to be on the lookout for germs because this place is not exactly the cleanest. You said you would take care of it but half the time I have to traipse around behind you gathering the bits you missed. You know, I’ve been thinking maybe we need to have some sort of structure, other activities to have a bit of a break from each other.” There she had said it.
“Well, you could always wait four years and nine months, then you will have all the break you need.” Was his response.
“Dignified.” Was hers. “Put your hand where your heart used to be and tell me you want to spend every waking minute (as you don’t sleep that’s more than me) in my company. That you long to enjoy every second together. That you don’t want to run off on your own or sit at a piano or do a crossword or even just have a crafty, sly dead wank. Tell me that and I will bite my tongue the next time on your six million annoying traits sends me closer to insanity.” She said.
This incensed him, and he thought about a tirade before the television magically turned itself on and they saw themselves in the New York apartment the day Georgeasif visited. The image was of the husband writhing in agony followed by the message “Find the solution. George X”.
George X was right. Even the dead need their space, and living with dead means you need ever more. She began tennis classes and he began to work again. The latter purely for his own pleasure as whatever he produced disappeared or would become utterly worthless, as if his product decayed and died whilst he remained alive.
They travelled the world together, her sparing no expense with his sizeable life insurance pay out, although money had never been an issue for them. She laughed by his side as he wrote things for her, solely for her, works that would disappear the next day, but that would stay in their hearts until the five years were up.
After the first six months, they managed a routine that allowed them to remain sane and prevent the cracks from acting on them. Over dinner one night she said to him: “Let’s just take this like beginners”.
“Absolutely.” Was his single word response.
They did things that they might never have otherwise. They travelled to places that even they had never heard of. Money was never an issue and they helped and supported the estranged son to get a foothold in the career of his choice. Her relationship with the latter grew stronger and stronger as the allotted period elapsed, and he became a regular on television after an awkward career that saw him move from station to station.
With their own child they worked out a way for the three of them to be together by being the rules after finding an annexed attachment to the document left on their coffee table. She didn’t know, per se, but she didn’t not know, and her mother’s games brought her a sense of peace and wellbeing that she decided not to question.
For every unforgettable stolen moment, there were times she wanted to rekill him. And him her. But they learnt a lot about each other, and about themselves, and whilst at times they thought that this “being dead lark is not all it is cracked up to be”, it was certainly better than the other option.
She was more fearful of the passing of time in the first year than in the fourth. She wondered how she had managed to make this deal and still remain on the planet. How many others would have sold the world and kept mum? As the time went by, she accepted fate with a placidity that pleased her, glad that she had had this time and ready for the end in the full knowledge that she had done her best, more than that, she had done bloody well. She looked in the mirror and was sure she had not aged a day since that visit, some would say she looked even better, and that that was no small feat.
As they moved into the last year, the constraints of time began to cause concern for him. He was still fine with idea, not that he had much choice to be otherwise, impressed that she had not faltered and stood by his side. Her health remained steadfast so none of the five years was spent in doctor’s waiting rooms, so that was another source of relief. By the end, doing mundane things together became just as pleasurable as snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef or making base camp on Kilimanjaro. One afternoon they sat on the sofa with him reading Dickens and her doing a sketch and he struggled to find a happier moment in his memory bank. When his daughter came in with some homemade biscuits (he wished just once she would not call them cookies), the scene was complete. That night in bed, she broached the subject and he said that he would stand by her wishes if she was sure.
With just a month to go, they were visited by the liar formerly known as George once more and spent an enjoyable evening with him. They informed him of their decision and he said he would respect it.
That took them to the very last night, four years and three-hundred and sixty-four days since his death, it was time to die. They sat at the piano together and she asked him to play one last song. Before he did, he asked her, again, if she was sure of what she was doing, she said he was. His fingers danced along the keys and he sang the words:
‘It’s a god awful small affair,
to the girl with the mousy hair….’
Iman cried as he finished the song and started her live Instagram feed.
When it was recording, she made an announcement to all of her followers.
“Thank you for tuning in. As you know it has been Five Years since you think David passed away, but it was not true, he has been here with me all the time, and today we go together…. “
With that, her feed stopped and Iman and David Bowie left the Earth together.