Eyes open in numbness, but pain follows swiftly. First a flood of memories, cast aside as a heavy thump kicks in, as if someone has whacked me on the back of the head with a frying pan.
The hangover escalates rapidly. Whoever likened the feeling in your mouth as being like the bottom of a birdcage knew exactly what they were talking about, and probably sampled several birdcages during his research.
Then comes the urge to pee, which necessitates getting out of bed, ignoring the spinning head, stumbling across the landing and plonking my arse on the seat, thankful that I managed somehow to lose the fancy underwear adopted for yesterday’s evening on the town before going to bed.
I fight back the bile and successfully avoid throwing up, stand and flush hurriedly. This is premature to get up, even to make a pot of coffee, in spite of the desperate cry for caffeine from every cell in my body. The stomach is definitely too queasy to warrant any intake just yet.
No, experience tells that the only viable option at this juncture is to return to bed and allow the swimming room to come slowly back into focus.
But it’s the pernicious memories that return to haunt me first. Not drinking, not vomiting in the loo in some club, not even wailing bitterly in the street 20 minutes later. None of those things.
It’s François. Him. My boyfriend. My ex-boyfriend. The one I was dating, up to the point when he yelled at me and walked out, telling me to grow up and find a therapist or a pusher (ouch, that hurt!) I wouldn’t mind but it was in the same sexy French accent that made me want to snog him even when he was telling me to fuck off and die.
I clamber back into bed and realise I’m face to face with the sadly defrosted remains of a bag of peas, presumably acquired en route to calm down an already pounding head. I throw them in the bin, thankfully next to the bed, and bury my head in the feather pillow.
Something registers. I open my eyes again and pull my bag of bones up against the head board enough to see across the room. I let out an involuntary scream, for lounging on the comfy chair in the corner of my bedroom, quietly regarding me in what I take to be slight puzzlement, is an unshaven round-faced youngish man in black framed glasses, a baseball cap, a crumpled t-shirt with a deeply cool slogan, and the sort of low-slung denims worn by young men who haven’t worked out the prison origins of such attire, nor yet how stupid it makes them look.
He is chewing heavily, which makes me retch.
“Getting shit-faced when you’re dumped is a really bad idea,” he says to me in a clipped accent, redolent of Queens, NYC rather than Queens Park, London. “What you need are painkillers and Alka-Seltzer. Want me to be the perfect gentleman and get them for you, old sport?”
The mimickry makes me laugh. I’m still not sure which is worse: being accosted by a complete stranger, being accosted in my own home by said stranger, or being told what is best for me. Being patronised always irritated me, right back to when I was five. My pupils would narrow to pin-pricks, my hair would stand on end, as if flowing with static electricity, my face would turn purple and whoever was in my path would beat a hasty retreat.
On reflection, I think it is the sheer affrontery and chutzpah of this stranger that gets my goat. I am at my most pathetic and yet he has the nerve to offer me cures without even the common courtesy of an introduction.
“Who are you? And what are you doing in my bedroom?” This speech seems so obvious and jejeune I wonder why I bothered asking. Needs an angle, and the obvious one is to pull the duvet up over my skimpy shirt. “You’re not here to…”
“No, I’m not,” he says in a flat voice verging on boredom. “And you can call me Bobby.”
“Bobby?” I repeat. This is absurd. Who calls themselves Bobby these days, unless it’s a joke?
“OK, it’s not my name but it’s user-friendly. Helps put my clients at their ease, you know?”
“You’re saying I’m your client when I haven’t even met you?”
“In a manner of speaking. No clients have met me before we work together, just an occupational hazard that I have to arrange introductions. Yeah, it can be awkward but it’s kinda fun to find a cool ice-breaker, to put you at your ease. I pride myself on doing it well, call it professionalism, dude!”
“Professionalism? You look like you were dragged up in a squalid slum, not honed at a Swiss finishing school.”
Bobby looks down at his attire and frowns. “Oh, have I got it wrong? I thought this was how people dressed nowadays?”
“No, unless you want to look like a complete moron.”
“Fuck it! And I tried so hard too.” He looks at me and pulls a sour face. “That was bitchy, you know. You ought to take account of people’s feelings before you speak. Maybe that was why Frankie Frenchman walked out on you.”
“How did you know about that and what business is it of yours anyway?” I really sound like a cheap novelette. I really ought to avoid being dragged down to the level of whoever I’m speaking to. My friends often mention it but as a natural mimic I pick up the worst of clichés wherever I go.
“Look,” I continue sheepishly, “You don’t come over like a rapist but how did you get in here? I’ve been broken into before and I’m a bit nervous.”
“That’s more like it,” he says, mollified. “Tell the truth, it wasn’t difficult to get in, but then I can get anywhere I want…”
I interrupt as loudly as my banging head will permit. “I don’t want to offend you but you really need to go, just go please.”
He smiles, more like a cheesy grin, and blows a bubble, which collapses back on his face. “No can do, sister. You see, I had to talk to you and I knew you wouldn’t be in any state to go to work…”
“Oh my fucking god, what is the time?”
Bobby stops chewing for a brief moment and regards at a very chunky watch. “Well the big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the ten…”
“… but I took the liberty of calling in to tell them you were sick. Told them I was your brother.”
“My brother? You must be kidding! I am in deep shit…”
Hi voice instantly changes to a soft English burr. “No, it’s fine. I do put on voices, and though I say so myself I did a very good impression of Martin.”
I’m shocked, to the point of forgetting my headache. “You know my brother?”
“Well, not as such, but I do know all about you. I have to. Let’s say it’s my calling.”
I’m beginning to feel seriously spooked now. I break off eye contact to spot my phone on the bedside table. He has spotted it too. He shakes his head with a grin.
“No, don’t even think about it. I’m here because we need to talk, so let’s talk. But first I need you to clear your head so let’s get the pills and the Alka-Seltzers first, eh?”
He rouses himself and saunters towards the kitchen as if he lived here, using what I can only describe as an mock-teenage simian swagger, the sort that could only be devised if you were trying hard to put it on and failing miserably in the process.
On my own again I’m struggling to assimilate the data about this guy and why he is here. He studiously avoided answering my questions but what he did say added to the mystery. He clearly knows who I am, but didn’t come here to burgle or assault me, but even though he has never met me seems intent on talking about some unspecified topic, and even refers to me as a “client.”
This is truly bizarre! I can’t imagine any of my friends would have played a practical joke on me, so I’m forced to the conclusion that the guy must be genuine and that he will tell me what it is he wants with me, for which I only need to pay him the courtesy of listening. Nevertheless, I am keeping my mobile in hand on 999, just in case.
He returns with a tray of goodies: a fizzing glass of Alka-Seltzer, a glass of plain water and two paracetamol, plus two mugs of steaming coffee. He places them on the table and allows me to take a deep draft of coffee followed by headache pills and acid relief before I reply.
I look back at him in surprise. “You know exactly how I like my coffee. Nobody does that, not even François!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. One and half spoons of instant, one and a half sweeteners, dash of milk. Easy when you know how.”
He settles himself down in the corner with a foul-looking brew tinged with green. I choose not to ask him what it contains.
Upon reflection, I select from my armoury a meek and mild approach, all the better to engage this strange man in conversation and even more to avoid upsetting him since he appears to hold all the cards in this discussion.
“You said Bobby isn’t your real name. If we’re going to talk, may I ask what your name is?”
“Oh I’m sorry,” he murmurs absent-mindedly, “didn’t I say? You can call me Death. Or the Grim Reaper, though that is a bit of a mouthful. Grim for short. You probably know my twin brother, Hypnos. He does sleep, which is sort of half way to death. My little joke haha.”
I must have gaped back at him since he snorts with derisive laughter. “Your face! Hasn’t death featured in your family then?”
“Well, obviously, but I’ve never believed in a personification of death. Nobody does these days.”
Bobby AKA Death snorts again. “I keep hearing this crap. It’s a fucking disgrace, honestly it is. Time was when people were petrified of me. Nowadays they would sooner play on their X-Boxes and smartphones than pay any attention to Santa Muerte. I have to catch them by surprise or they simply laugh when I strike them down dead in cold blood.”
He giggles in anticipation at the thought of cutting the sceptical down to size.
I’m struggling hard not to giggle back at this self-righteous indignation. “But surely you’re not helping your cause? Aren’t you supposed to be a skeleton clothed in a black cloak with a hood, carrying a scythe?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, that is soooooo Medieval. And in any case, it depends where you go. I’m supposed to appear as an old bearded man in a white gown to the Greeks. To the Bretons I’m a tall, haggard figure with a wide hat and long white hair. To the Irish I’m supposed to be a dullahan, a headless rider. In Scottish folklore I’m Cù-Sìth. Do you have the slightest notion how degrading it is to have to appear as a large wolf?”
“So that’s what you do?”
“Yes I do like to dress up a bit, depending on what they expect of me. Life would be tedious without the occasional fancy dress party, don’t you think?”
“In that case, why are you appearing to me as an American nerd?”
Bobby Death shrugs forlornly. “I was just trying to lighten the mood a little, you know. We all have to keep an eye on our image and a festering corpse is not a good look.”
“So you appear in different guises to different people?”
“You got it in one. I go incognito these days. So much better if I do a song and dance act. That was a joke! And anyway, death isn’t all bad, you know. Thanks to the religious mob it got such an awful reputation for centuries, but it can be quite good fun with the right company, you know what I’m saying? ”
“No, I don’t think I do, to be honest. But think of it from my perspective: either you’re some bloke who’s broken into my flat to scare the shit out of me, in which case you succeeded. But if you are really who you claim to be, why should I believe you?”
“They all say that too. You want a magic show, is that what you’re saying? A few tricks just because I don’t carry a calling card. Remember the Medusa Touch? Richard Burton proved his telekinetic powers by causing a plane crash in that movie. How destructive is that? I really only do that stuff in emergencies. Anyway, he didn’t really do it. I could if I wanted to.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“OK, OK, I hear you. Tell you what. See your goldfish?”
It’s true I have a goldfish called Eric, who swims contentedly around his bowl on top of my chest of drawers. He is gulping contentedly as I turn my head towards him, not a care in the world.
“Right,” says Bobby, “now watch this!”
He sits very still, looking towards the bowl, eyes focused, finger outstretched. Suddenly I realise he is deadly serious. I turn back towards the bowl but it is too late. Eric is floating on the surface of the water. He is an ex-goldfish.
“Poor Eric!” I sob.
“Nah, he was due to go next week anyway. It’s a kindness really. You can’t imagine how boring it is swimming in circles around a glass bowl.”
“So you did that, did you? You caused Eric to die? How did you do that?”
“It comes naturally to some of us,” says Bobby, inspecting his fingernails modestly.
The paracetamol are kicking in and my mental faculties are beginning to recover. Perhaps that is not a good thing, since realisation suddenly dawns.
“Just a moment. You say you are Death?”
“I do say that! It just happens to be true.”
“So what are you doing here, now?”
Death pauses with the air of a man caught in the act of something shameful. “Ah. I was just coming to that. No rush, I’ve got all night. We can chat happily about the weather for a while if you like, just so you can get used to the idea of the Grim Reaper in your bedroom?”
I swallow hard and ask the question I know I must ask. “Are you here to take my life?”
“Well, that would be one outcome, but it’s not the only one. It’s not all straightforward stuff, you know. You’ve heard the expression ‘dancing with death’ I expect? It’s not just about you, there are several possible outcomes to any given scenario, so my job is to resolve them. Only trouble is that I do have to return with a soul, but it doesn’t have to be yours.”
“If you believe the tosh they tell you at Sunday school animals don’t have souls. All crap. The Styx is awash with dogs and cats, I can tell you. The noise is unbelievable.”
“So why are you here?”
“It’s your boyfriend, Frankie or whatever he’s called.”
“François is dead? Oh my god!”
Bobby waves his hand uncertainly. “That would be another scenario. Maybe he deserves it. He always was a bit jealous, wasn’t he?”
“Well, he’s passionate.”
“Ha! One man’s passionate is another man’s abusive. Come on, admit it – he slapped you around a bit, didn’t he?”
It’s my turn to be defensive. “I can’t deny that, but it was only because he cared. I think he loves me.”
“Bullshit!” retorts Death, “that’s domestic violence, and you let him get away with it. So where is he now, if he cares so fucking much? I may be Death but I’m damn sure love doesn’t demand physical pain and suffering. It’s supposed to be about joy and pleasure, isn’t it?”
I resort to quiet dignity. “Whatever you say, I know he cares. He walked out on me because he loved me and he will always love me. He might be back here any moment, but I haven’t had a chance to contact him yet. You got in the way.”
“Oh come on, pull the other one. If he cared you’d have a stack of texts begging your forgiveness. Check your phone, bitch. Not a word from that toss-pot.”
Hurriedly I take the phone from the pocket on my dressing gown. Sure enough, the only messages I have are from my boss and my mother, both complaining they haven’t heard from me. From François it’s radio silence.
“So what are you saying?” I utter in barely a whisper. If this was a joke, that joke has now worn off. Death might just as well be in the form of the Grim Reaper. He’s scaring me.
“Relax, sugar. We have to do a little negotiating here, a bit of good old-fashioned bartering to gain a win:win – that’s what we want. There are three scenarios here, and you’ve already hinted at two of them. We just have to decide which one came into play last night.”
A horrible thought occurs to me. “You’re not saying I’m already dead, are you?”
“I always hate it when they ask me that question. It’s so awkward, as if I have all the answers. Fact is that it’s up to you, but if you defend the bastard chances are you’re as dead as Eric. Let’s just say that for the moment time has stopped, so this is your Yes/No Interlude. Sorry, that was another joke. Before your time.”
I shake my head. This is beyond my comprehension. “No, no no! What do you mean? I don’t understand.”
“OK, let’s start from scratch. Tell me what you did last night. If you miss anything out or edit the details I will know, so tell the truth, the whole truth and all that crap.”
“Right, after work I met a few friends. We went for a drink in town and then to a pizza place for dinner. We were thinking of going to another bar and on to a night club, but François came in. I have no idea how he knew we were there, or whether he was just passing, but he ordered me to go with him. I refused, saying I was out with the girls. He started getting a bit loud so the manager threw him out with help from the doorman. He slunk off with his tail between his legs.
“Everyone asked if I was OK but I laughed it off. We finished our dinner then went on to the bar. We started drinking cocktails, then shots. It all started getting a bit out of hand, so we were going to leave and go to the club. Then I saw François, just outside the door. He wasn’t nasty then – he greeted me with a kiss as if nothing had happened. I asked him if he was alright but he didn’t answer. He asked if I wanted to go home, but the girls pulled me away and we walked on. He followed us to the night club.
“I started to feel a bit scared, so I told the bouncer not to let him in. So then he started shouting and ranting at me, told me to fuck off and die. The bouncers started getting physical with him so he turned and stalked off again. I didn’t see him after that. We went into the club and we came home in the early hours.”
“Did you? Do you actually remember coming home?”
Suddenly I see what he is getting at, and it chills me to the bone.
No, I don’t remember coming home. Up to this point I’ve assumed my mates must have brought me back. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been out for a raucous drunken night and forgotten the journey home, but this time it carries additional significance. I’m almost too terrified to ask.
“What happened? Please tell me…”
He blinks at me through black-framed glasses. “That’s where it starts getting complicated. You see, there is time to adjust reality here. Call me old-fashioned but I do like a happy ending, and in any case part of my job is to see that justice is done and the right person lives. Not quite like Judge Dredd, but memories can be altered a smidgin.”
“You can change who dies?”
“Well, after a fashion – we just have to decide who it was that died. A guy develops skills over time, you know, and I’m talking centuries here. Actually, I’ll let you into a little secret: it’s all about delaying the paperwork a few days so there’s no official record.” He taps his nose knowingly.
“Go on then, tell me the full story.”
“Here’s the bit you don’t want to hear. After you’d been at the night club, you left with your friends. You were insistent you would find your own taxi home, so your friends waved you goodbye. You staggered down the road in the direction of the nearest taxi rank, but before you got there Frankie boy intercepted you and pulled you into a dark alley. He was intending to have it out with you but things got a little heated. You pushed him away and tried to escape but he held you from behind and slipped a flick-knife into your heart. Shocked at what he had done he stood and watched as you lay on the bin bags and bled to death before him. ”
Tears are forming in my eyes at the very thought of my own demise, most of all at the hands of a man who had always had the capacity to thrill me, to make me feel special.
“Oh no, that’s terrible. Surely he wouldn’t have done that to me… would he? I’m not even 30, It’s not my time to die. My parents would be shocked. And anyway he would be charged with murder and spend his life in prison. Can’t you find another way without killing me?”
He waves away my emotional outpouring. “They all say that, but sometimes I have no choice. Tragedy, schmagedy. People live, people die. What do you expect?”
“Why me though?” I wail back at him, “I’m not a saint, but do you think I deserve to die like that?”
“You make it sound like only the bad are entitled to die. Happens to us all, you know. Well, to you all, not me, obviously. No, I don’t think you’re a bad person, but good people have to kick the bucket every single day. Fact of life.”
“But you said you wanted to see justice.”
“Yeah, so I did. Want to hear another version of events?”
“Yes please, do go on.”
“Well this time it happens exactly like the one before but you sober up fast. When he catches you from behind you hold his arm with the flick knife and turn around, only to realise that the force of your momentum has pushed the blade into him. He staggers back and falls, and you stand powerless while he bleeds to death, yada yada yada…”
“So what you’re saying is that I saved myself in self-defence, but caused his death? So I live but I have to live with the knowledge that I’ve murdered my boyfriend?”
“Yeah, but the self-defence bit plays out well in court, so you will probably only get manslaughter over here. You should be out in 6-8 years, not that that’s the form of justice that concerns me. It’s whether you live or die that we’re talking about, and that’s rather more permanent.”
“Oh no, those are both appalling. I’m not happy with him but I don’t want him to die, and I certainly don’t want to be the cause of his death. Nobody would want that on their conscience. What would you choose?”
“Well since I am technically undead neither are very relevant to me, but in your shoes I’d choose to live. There’s an awful long time to be dead and it’s really boring.”
“You said there were three scenarios though, and you also said you have to take a soul.”
“True on both counts. So you’re wondering whether the third involves you both being killed or some passing innocent?”
“You know that’s what I’m thinking.”
“Well chill, baby. There is another answer but before I tell you let’s think ahead. Suppose you and he both live. What then? Are you going to forget me and pretend this never happened? Or do you intend to ignore it and stay with the guy? If he doesn’t kill you this time, he might next time. Next time I won’t be so sympathetic.”
“But if you’re saying he has the capacity to murder and I keep him from my life then probably some other woman may be put in the same dilemma. Is that right or fair? I can’t let someone else die because I was selfish and chose to live, can I?”
“Life’s not fair,” he says with a grin. “You think it would be easy? Every day you have moral dilemmas of one sort or another, and just occasionally they skirt by death. There’s always an alternative reality in which those near misses come to pass and you find yourself the victim.
“Think of it this way – if you were to die in this situation you will be a beautiful corpse, mourned by thousands. He would be a beautiful corpse too, but his reputation would be tarnished. If anyone else died you may be guilty for a while but then you’d go on living, particularly if no-one connected the death with you. You’d be amazed what capacity human beings have for rewriting their own life stories to put themselves in the best light.”
“Carpe diem then? I might just as well think, fuck it, live for the moment and if I die in the process, so be it. But it’s not pre-destined – my life doesn’t have a limited lifespan?”
“Nah, I have an issue with the Hindus about that. So do you want to hear the third scenario?”
“I’m not sure I want to know but please tell me anyway.”
“Simple really. You have the altercation in the alley, you grab his arm and he drops the knife. Suddenly he realises how close you both came to a tragedy and holds you in his arms, telling you how sorry he is. You’ve heard it all before.”
“But where is the death?”
“You’ve been making a lot of noise in the alley, so the old lady who lives in the flat above comes out to see what the fuss is about. She trips over the step and falls, suffering a fatal heart attack on the way down. Just like Eric she was due to go anyway, so it wouldn’t be any great hardship to take her now. What do you say?”
It seems such an obvious face-saver, but I feel guilty as my heart leaps at the thought of a passer-by filling a coffin instead of me or François, so I have to assuage my own conscience a touch. “Would anyone miss her?”
“Yes but it’s not a major issue. The real issue is what you would do with Frankie boy. What’s your answer?”
Suddenly I’m filled with resolve. “I’m going to leave him. Or rather, I’m going to accept his leaving me, since he told me to….”
“…fuck off and die,” he finishes my sentence with a wink. “So how are you going to stop him pleading for your attention? He sounds a bit obsessive to me. Don’t think he will give you up in a hurry once he realises that you and he are both still alive.”
“Well that’s what life is about, isn’t it? Solving problems, moving on, finding the right partner, doing important stuff together. He has to know that time is over and he has to make the right choices for him too. Hanging on to me is not the answer,”
“But you will always know what he is capable of doing. That will be at the back of your mind.”
“At least I can take precautions though. If I let him down lightly he might just accept it.”
Death looks back at me, nodding slowly. For the first time I get the impression he is proud of the choices I’m making. Call it learning from experience, but I want to get it right.
“OK, so option 3 it is. Are you quite sure?”
“Only if I know who the lady is, so I can send flowers to her funeral.”
“No problem. I’ll make sure you know. Her name is Annie, by the way, Annie Green.”
He sticks out a chubby hand and shakes mine warmly. Somehow I expected to feel the icy touch of death, maybe even skeletal fingers gripping my hand as if to lead me to… to wherever.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you. So long, honey. Toodle-pip!”
“Hope we don’t have cause to meet again.”
He points a finger at me and grins, “Ah, they all say that one. Your time will come, but hopefully not yet. Right, I’m off to take a few more souls, so please excuse me.”
And suddenly the room is empty, but for me and the late, lamented Eric.
Eyes open in numbness, but pain follows swiftly. First a flood of memories, cast aside as a heavy thump kicks in, as if someone has whacked me on the back of the head with a frying pan.
I remember something of a dream about death but rub my eyes and try to focus on the room swimming around me.
The phone rings. My trembling fingers stumble on the table to find it, but from the ring tone I know already who is ringing. Poke the green button and answer.
“Paulina, how are you? I’ve been frantic with worry. I was worried I had hurt you. I know I said some terrible things to you last night. I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me.”
The desperation and sincerity in his voice is plainly evident. I keep him hanging on for a few seconds before I reply.
“François, I need to know whether I can trust you.”
“Trust me? Are you kidding? I put you in a taxi last night after you passed out.”
“But you didn’t come home with me, did you?”
“No, I couldn’t. Something came up, I had to go.”
“Who was she, François? Was she the reason you told me to fuck off and die?”
He sighs and answers slowly. “I really did not mean that, you have to believe me. And the reason I had to leave you was because an old lady fell down some steps, so I waited for the police and ambulance. But it was too late – she was already dead. Paulina, I had to stay, I am so sorry. You got home safely though?”
I don’t answer for a moment. I can hear him calling my name but somehow I can’t be bothered to answer. I look at the glass bowl on top of my chest of drawers. Seems Eric died in the night, poor thing. He is floating on the water, oblivious.
“The knife. Why did you threaten me with a knife, François?”
The line goes silent. I can hear him breathing, hear the cogs whirr.
He draws breath ready to launch into a stream of apologetic rubbish. I can hear him telling me how much he loves me before he utters a word.
In a moment of clarity I hang up and toss the phone on the bed. Time for some strong coffee, paracetamol and Alka-Seltzer.