My story The Peacock House appears in Secret Stairs, published today (March 8th) by Silver Empire. The book’s on offer until March 10th. Find it on Amazon.
The authors included in the Death’s Realm anthology from Grey Matter Press were asked to write about their own thoughts on death. I am interested in the many and varied personifications of death created by writers and artists. I decided that it would be interesting to write a dialogue with death. That idea evolved into this story.
Conversations with Death.
I suspect everyone sees him all the time, on the corner of the street, in the train, in the car that passes you on the motorway. My only special talent has been to recognise him, though he wears a different faces. To an extent I’ve wasted this talent. I’ve avoided him, turned and walked the other way, not caught that particular bus, not stayed in that particular cinema. I’ve not evaded any disasters through this behaviour, not like in horror films: the theatre where I saw him watching Starlight Express didn’t burn down, the lift that he entered at the twelfth floor and which I left at the fourteenth didn’t plummet to the basement. But I still made myself scarce. Wouldn’t you? I think I might have hurt his feelings once or twice, but he’s not been vindictive in return. I see him as male, though you might not, I don’t know. Now I think of all the questions I could have asked, if I’d been less wary. That’s not to say that we’ve never talked. Through the years we’ve done so several times.
The first time was on the beach. We were on holiday and I must have been only four or five. I saw him prodding a dead jelly fish with a stick. He was a boy my age, thin and pale. He wore a pair of dark blue trunks. He picked the jellyfish up with a toy spade and dropped it in a tin bucket.
“Hello,” I said.
He looked up, surprised.
“Hello,” he said in return. All around us children screamed and laughed and adults chatted, turning lobster red in the Welsh sun. I carried a plastic bucket and a green mesh shrimping net.
“What have you got?” I asked and peered into his tin bucket. It was empty. Everything was strange and wild on holiday so I thought nothing of it.
“Do you want to play?” I asked.
“OK,” said Death.
I can’t remember exactly what we did while my mother snored on a beach towel. We must have fished in rock pools and poked sea anemones with a finger to feel the delicate grip of their feathery tentacles. We must have climbed on the cliffs and made castles in the sand and paddled in the ocean. It was many years ago, so you must forgive my fading memory. We chased each other up and down the beach.
“Can’t catch me!” I taunted him.
“Could if I wanted to,” he said.
I don’t remember much else from that day. I didn’t know enough to be scared. After all I was immortal. My mother woke up and we went back to our holiday cottage. The next day I found other playmates, a family from Swindon who were my best friends ever for three hours.
Don’t expect profound insights by the way. My talent is a bit odd I’ll give you that but in all other ways I’m very ordinary.
When I was twelve he was at my grandmother’s funeral. He sat on the churchyard wall drumming his heels against the lichen encrusted stone. He was the same age as I was, a dark haired boy in a grey school jumper and brown Clark’s Commandos. I stomped over to him. He smiled as if he was pleased to see me.
“You killed my Gran!” I said, my voice cracking.
His smile fell away.
“Your Gran smoked forty a day for fifty two years!”
That was true. I was still angry but the boy seemed innocuous. I kicked the wall in frustration. Never do that in sandals by the way. He watched me hopping round and swearing. My Mum looked over from the graveside, a warning in her eyes. The boy watched me but he didn’t laugh, which was what I’d have done. That made me angry too. I sat down and rubbed my toe.
“I’ve never killed anyone. You’re mistaking me for someone else,” said Death.
“I dunno. Hitler? The Master?”
“The Master’s not real. He’s just on TV.”
The boy shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. I was having difficulty maintaining my anger in the face of his calm.
“Are you here for my Mum? Or my Dad? Me?”
He pointed to my feet. I looked down. A dead beetle lay at my feet. It was flattened, black shiny carapace cracked, legs splayed.
He hopped down off the wall, picked it up, produced an envelope from his trouser pocket and slipped the beetle inside.
“A unique beetle. From its own point of view it was the whole universe. So now a whole universe has ended. Not everything’s about you, you know.”
He wandered out through the lych gate then turned and looked at me over the wall.
“I collected it but I didn’t kill it!”
“What did then?” I was struggling to understand what death was. I really wanted to know.
“You did. You trod on it!” He turned and went.
He looked quite different from the back. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was though. When I looked down the husk of the dead beetle was still at my feet. I wasn’t that surprised.
At a party when I was twenty two I saw him dancing to the boxer beat. He was the same age as me again, a studious looking type with lank hair, glasses and skinny jeans. I turned around and went into the living room. A moment later he followed me.
“Hello again!” he said.
“Hi,” I said. I was more scared this time. I had stuff to lose, a future, things I wanted to do. I’d realised by then that things changed as you grew up. People went away. I didn’t like it.
I can’t remember whose house the party was at. They had one of those reproduction Viking chess sets on a side table. I pointed to it.
“Are you going to challenge me to a game of chess?” I asked. I’d done a film studies module. I thought I was being clever or ironic or something.
“I’m not that keen on chess”.
He shrugged. “What about rummy instead?”
I didn’t know how to play but he produced a pack of cards and showed me. We sat in the middle of the noisy party, with shrieks and laughter ebbing and flowing around us and we played rummy. He beat me four games to two. He put the cards away and stood up. Suddenly I was frightened.
“Bye then,” said Death and turned to go.
I felt confused. “Weren’t we playing for something?”
Unseen he walked through the midst of the dancing students and they parted before him. On his back was something bright and shining but I couldn’t see what it was.
I saw him many times after that but we rarely spoke. When I was in my forties we met in the supermarket and discussed sell by dates. I wondered if he was trying to get me to be blasé about salmonella and after he’d gone I put a few things back on the shelves and then picked some of them up again. I was confused.
In my fifties I saw him while I was scuba diving on holiday. We didn’t speak. We were underwater after all. He waved and swam away. I surfaced and scanned the sea for sharks until I was safely back in the boat. I cancelled the next day’s lesson.
Many years later when I was seventy six he pulled up next to me in a big camper. I was walking home from the shop with a bag of groceries. He was a perky old guy, same as me, with grey hair and big aviator glasses.
“Want a ride?”
I looked up at him.
“I’ll walk. Thanks.”
“Would it kill you to accept a ride?”
He cracked up at that. I had to smile too.
“Walk into the road. Do it! Now!” he said, suddenly a sergeant major from a war movie. I was startled.
“I’m not crazy!” I said.
He relaxed and grinned again. “There, you see? Free will: it’s terrific. If you’re not ready to come with me: don’t walk into heavy traffic! Sure you don’t want a lift?”
I thought about it. Home was half a mile away. A lift was a lift. I got in. The camper smelled of new leather. We drove off. Death was a careful driver. He stayed five miles below the speed limit. We pulled up outside my house. I got out with my shopping bag. The dog in his kennel next to the house raised his head, looked at Death in his camper van, sighed, unimpressed and put his muzzle back down on his paws.
Death waved and drove away. This time it looked as if he had a face on the back of his head, like that teacher in Harry Potter.
I took the shopping in to my wife. Next day we went to the movies and that year we had a holiday in France.
The last time we met I was sitting on a park bench watching the pigeons who hopped around my feet in case I might have some crumbs. I didn’t feel old in my seventies, not really, but I certainly did now I was in my nineties. I saw him coming up the path. It took him a long time. He was stooped and wore a cap and an old green cardigan. He walked with a stick. When he reached the bench he subsided onto it, grateful to sit down. I waited for him to get his breath back.
“Everything aches these days,” he said.
“With me it’s the hips. I said.”
“You look like a scarecrow,” he said, “You eating properly?”
“When I remember,” I said, “The grandkids pop round with stuff for the freezer.”
“Grandkids! Lucky you,” he said.
I looked at him: a little old man, like a sparrow. I tried to see what was on his back but he shifted on the bench to face me and I gave up.
“How’s my wife?” I asked. She was twelve years gone now. Time flies.
He just smiled. I figured he wouldn’t tell me anything but it didn’t hurt to try. For a while we watched children in the park, running and screaming, kicking balls around, riding scooters. They were like another species. I couldn’t remember when I last kicked a ball.
“I get so tired,” he said.
“Me too,” I said.
“You ready to go? Or do you want to shoot for the century?”
I looked at him. “Can’t see much point. It’s just a number”
He nodded and smiled.
“I’d appreciate a couple more days though,” I said, “If that’s OK.”
“Sure. Why not?”
He levered himself to his feet, using his stick to take his weight. I held his elbow to help him up. Once he was standing he straightened his clothing, tipped his hat and ambled off down the path.
Finally I saw what was on his back: another person, young, golden and glowing with life. It looked just like me when I was little, so many years ago on that beach.
I should have worked it out. Life and death, they go together of course. I watched as he walked away and the glow faded.
I’ve always seen him, all my life, everywhere I’ve been, but I think he’s everywhere, all the time. I’ve wasted time worrying about him, looking out for him, avoiding him. Sometimes that’s meant I’ve avoided life too.
There were many questions I could have asked. What happens afterwards? Is there anything at all? If I had to guess I’d say no: we just disappear like the jellyfish and the beetle and don’t go anywhere else. That’s what we’re scared of isn’t it? But who knows, I could be wrong.
Chess is a game of skill. You could beat him if you’re good enough. But life and death doesn’t work like that. Rummy though is partly down to chance. You can play a good game and you’ll still lose at some point. A winning streak doesn’t last forever. We can choose not to step into traffic but sometimes a bus mounts the pavement. Our own decisions make a difference but luck’s involved too.
When I see him again will I still be afraid? I think I’m ready but when it comes to it maybe we never are. Perhaps I’ll make a very slow run for it. But that would be undignified. Better to invite my old acquaintance in and offer him a last drink, a toast, to old times.
In the time that I’ve been submitting short work to publishers the majority have either rejected a story outright or accepted it more or less ‘as is’.
My story ‘March Hays’ in Grey Matter Press’s new anthology ‘Death’s Realm’ went through a rigorous editing process which was hard work but very enjoyable. They worked with me to make the story better and we went through about three drafts. This was sometimes about language and grammar but more often about the mechanics of the story and ensuring its effect on the reader was what I intended. At no point did I feel that changes were being imposed upon me. 95% of the time they were right and the edits benefited the story. On the few occasions when I didn’t agree, it forced me to articulate what I was trying to do and if I couldn’t do that then I was probably clinging onto something that shouldn’t be there.
In the end I’ve still got the original version sitting on my computer and if I really thought it was better than what we’ve ended up with in the book I can still go back to it. But I actually don’t think that. The version in the book is better and benefited no end from having someone take a critical look at it and ask me to do rewrites.
Having worked in theatre, where the process of getting a piece of writing on stage is by necessity a collaborative effort between the writer and the director, actors, designer, lighting designer, stage management and so on, I’m happy with that level of input from a publisher. I feel a bit uncomfortable when it isn’t there to tell the truth.
I’m excited that my story ‘March Hays’ is about to appear in the Grey Matter Press anthology ‘Death’s Realm’. They’re sending out contributor copies this month and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished article.
The story is set in the aftermath of WW2 in a stately home that’s been converted into a hospital and recuperation home for injured members of the armed forces.
More information here: Grey Matter Press – Death’s Realm