Photo by James Langlois.
After my girlfriend had left me alone – at my request, it has to be said – I made a cup of black coffee, put on a mournful record and sat down in my armchair, in my living room. I began to think, for no particular reason, about what the exact series of events would be were I to die at that moment – before, even, my coffee went cold; before, even, the second song had begun. (People do.) (You might.) My girlfriend, Kate, lived with a female friend, Isabel, a short bus journey away. Before Kate left, she and I had agreed to meet up again around seven o’clock that evening, to see a film. It was Saturday. When I didn’t turn up at the cinema, my girlfriend would first off be angry – perhaps angry enough, I thought, to go in to see the film without me. Or maybe not. If she waited until it was no longer worth going in, she could use missing the film as another such a bad boyfriend crime to lay upon my head. On the other hand, she might decide that if she saw it anyway, and it was good, she would be able to gloat over its excellence – which I had so stupidly missed. I began to think, for no particular reason, about what the exact series of events would be were I to die at that moment – before, even, my coffee went cold... But I tended to think she would wait for me in the lobby until roughly five minutes after the adverts had started. Then she would get out her mobile and call my mobile. As she dialled my number, she would be readying herself for argument – and so the ringing followed by the going-to-answerphone would shock and infuriate her. I imagined my body, lying, unlistening, with the mobile vibrating in my left trouser pocket. By then, I would have been dead four hours. My girlfriend – who’d still be thinking of herself as that – would go home, and probably try calling again. Her mood would be calmer, slightly more anxious. When, an hour later, calling from her shared flat, she still got only the leave-a-message message, she would really start to worry. At this point she would either come round immediately or think fuck him. That probably depended on whether she truly minded missing the film. I wasn’t sure how much she’d wanted to see this particular one. It was hard to judge. The film was French. Say she came round – that would mean a feeling-stupid bus journey for her. What if he’s about to dump me? she would think. What if he just doesn’t want to see me ever again? At this point I began to feel terrible for her. I hated the idea of being the one to inflict such suffering. I had always been the dumpee, not the dumper. On arriving back at my block, she would stand in the grubby entranceway and press the buzzer of my flat, number sixteen. (She has no keys. We haven’t done that yet – though now I wish we had, and not only because it would avoid much of what comes next. Keys might mean something to her, in future.) Surely even if he’s been avoiding speaking to me on the phone, he’ll let me in now. I wonder if he’s in love with someone else? Is that what all his recent preoccupation has been about? She will try once, twice. She will think about going away, giving up. If I was being silly like this, then let me. She wouldn’t want to speak to me until I’d apologized. She might not want to speak to me ever again. Then she will press the buzzer of Phyllis, who lives below me, number 13. Phyllis, as her name suggests, is an old lady – and thus is almost always in. She will buzz Phyllis, who will answer and ask Who is it? Kate will explain herself. Phyllis will remember her (Phyllis remembers everyone) as the slightly unfriendly girlfriend of the quietish chap upstairs. Phyllis will let her in, on condition that Kate come up and see her first. Perhaps Phyllis will need an explanation before she lets Kate in. The traffic on the dual-carriageway out front will be quieter than when she left, earlier. The sky will be yellowy dark. Kate will climb the four flights of stairs. Phyllis will be standing in her doorway, perhaps in an acrylic dressing gown. Kate will explain to Phyllis what happened. I imagined my body, lying, unlistening, with the mobile vibrating in my left trouser pocket. Phyllis will say she hasn’t heard anything from upstairs. At this point I find myself becoming glad that Phyllis is involved: Phyllis will make things happen faster. Because of Phyllis, it will all be over much sooner. The two women climb the final flight of stairs. When they pass the kitchen window they will see a light on. There will be a brief moment of hope for Phyllis (who already thinks the worst) before Kate points out that the standard lamp in the living room is on a timer. For extra drama, at this point, the light may click off – as it does for a couple of quarter-hours every evening, just to try and convince any burglars that someone is really in. They reach the door and knock. My body is stiffening, or is already done stiffening, upon the armchair. The record is going round and round with a ’nm and, after a moment, an ’nm – very like a heartbeat. Kate will crouch and peer through the letterbox. There will be, as they say, no sign of life. She will call out my name. (Perhaps this anxiety won’t happen until the second, third or fourth day. I am always surprised how quickly people seem to report missing relatives to the police; although I am also aware that the police always wait twenty-four hours before taking any disappearance seriously.) The police will occur at this point to Phyllis, as well. She has her generation’s lack of inhibition about both trusting them and calling upon them for assistance. Kate will try to persuade her not to. Phyllis will prevail. She will go downstairs to her flat and phone. The police will ping her from switchboard to switchboard. Finally, she will persuade someone to take her seriously. After getting properly dressed, Phyllis will make a cup of tea and bring it up to Kate. Kate will feel guilty for all the times we made jokes about Phyllis downstairs. Phyllis’s loneliness will not be irksome any more. Kate will not worry, as she would, were I definitely alive, about the possibility of Phyllis discovering that we’d taken the carpeting up off the parquet floor – in direct contravention of my letting agreement. The police will take their time arriving, and when they do it will be routinely. Their attitude will convey a deep expectation that they are having their time wasted. They will barely be polite. As soon as Phyllis starts to explain, they will file her replies under unreliable witter. Then they will see what variety of this category the incident will prove to be. Kate will perhaps be crying at this point. The sight of uniforms will have disturbed her, as it always does. As if they haven’t at all listened, the police will call through the letterbox – as if to say, The mere fact of our having a stranger’s voice will work wonders. Kate will become more assertive and say, We want you to break the door down. They will ask for a fuller explanation. She will tell them: the arrangement, the cinema, the calls, the light. You can always call a locksmith, they will say. Phyllis will insist they remain. She will find some pretext for keeping them. The Yellow Pages will present her with a bewilderment of locksmiths. One will be selected, phoned, on his way. The police will meanwhile make their escape, with a promise to return. Phyllis will persuade Kate to come and sit in the flat downstairs. There will be more tea. My girlfriend will listen to the clicks and creaks of the building, as if they were my footsteps upon the parquet flooring above. (She will remember the secrecy of the carpet’s midnight removal.) (She will dismiss it at this point, as unimportant compared to what might be.) The locksmith will buzz up, a little earlier than expected. The two women will meet him on the stairs and lead him up to the top floor. He will be carrying a blue toolbox. He will say, It’s always the top flat, isn’t it? Kate will ask him if he can do it, and he will know that he can, but will say, Should be able to, just so as not to make the pretty young woman feel any worse. He will open his toolbox, thinking about previous times he’s been asked to unlock flats from the outside by pretty young women. The locksmith will be kinder than the police. He will open his toolbox, thinking about previous times he’s been asked to unlock flats from the outside by pretty young women. (Or maybe he will be thinking about what he’s recording from the television.) Kate will give him unnecessary information about the locks, and he will let her. It turns to the right. Sometimes the Yale’s a little stiff. Especially in wet weather. In five minutes, the door will click open. Phyllis will thank him as Kate, who has been all a-hover, pushes rudely past. The living room is straight ahead and she comes straight in. I imagine what position I’d be in, were I to die sitting as I am now. I guess my arms would fall off the arms of the chair, and my head loll to one side or the other. In order to allow myself this little movement, I think of releasing my neck. The dead head lolls naturally to the left. She, on entering, takes in the fact more than the direction of the loll. It is a sure sign of unconsciousness. And unconsciousness is a marker of deadness. (My empathy with her, over my own death, is becoming near unbearable. I want to phone her. I want to run out of the flat after her, even though she is long gone. I can’t die without telling her that I loved her.) How would she react? I am faced with the different choices made by scriptwriters, actresses and directors. One would, perhaps, have her scream and scream and piss herself with the force of her screams. One would have her halt in the door, her hand leaping to her gasping mouth. Another would have her rush to my side only to squeak grief at the coldness of my hand. An older, stagier tradition, but who is to say no less true, would have her flinching away as if unable to bear the sight of me. An older tradition still, and she swoons. Phyllis and the locksmith will come in behind her. Phyllis will takes in the uncarpeted parquet floor, but feels quite rightly that this isn’t the time to mention it. Kate either will or will not approach me. She will or will not touch me. Oh please, touch me, I think. If only in imagination. If only in my thoughts of myself dead and you touching me and me not being able to feel that touch because dead. And she will touch me, and find me dead cold. There will be doubt, but there will be no real doubt. The only doubt will be universal: that she has always been lied to, that cold bodies can live, that death is reversible, that this can’t happen to her. Phyllis will know. She will see from the doorway. Her first thoughts will be for Kate, who hasn’t had to cope with death as often as Phyllis herself has. The locksmith will feel embarrassed about having to ask to be paid. He will add this to his nine other discoveries of dead people. He will think what a shame it is the young man was so very young and had such a tidy flat. He will notice the record going round and round but will not think it his place to say anything. The police should be here, Phyllis will think. Maybe they will already have come back, miraculously unpolicelike. If they haven’t, Phyllis will use the phone on the kitchen wall to call them. In the living room, Kate will have started grieving. I wonder how much. My eyes are open, both the live and the imaginary dead. I am trying to see in her imagined distraughtness how much she really loved me. But if I really loved her, could I be putting her through this? Even in a way she will never know about? Must never know about. Or is it not proof that I do love her terribly that I am imagining such things? The police are there now, either called or late. Kate is insisting on staying with me. Phyllis has called for an ambulance, and the police have radioed to confirm this isn’t a cranky timewasting request (but also to hint that it isn’t a particularly urgent one). Now they take Phyllis seriously. And now Phyllis takes the opportunity to mention one or two other things that have been bothering her – the theft of plants from the communal car park, the burnt-out car outside the pub that stayed there for two weeks. The police regret this, but know they must listen. Phyllis has hugged Kate until her hugs were ineffective. The locksmith says he’ll invoice them for the bill. But Kate pays cash, and tips. Cinema money. The size of tip obviously worries her. The locksmith wants to get away and thank his lucky stars and watch television. The ambulance arrives. The ambulance-men buzz the buzzer. Of course, it’s the top floor. It’s always the top floor, isn’t it? The ambulance-men buzz the buzzer. Of course, it’s the top floor. It’s always the top floor, isn’t it? They carry CPR equipment and a fold-up stretcher. Despite her varieties of distress, I still am not sure how Kate really feels. Might she look secretly relieved? Might she be almost smiling? Perhaps it is just the shock. Phyllis is annoyed about the underhand removal of the carpets from the parquet floor. Phyllis trusted me and I betrayed that trust. Phyllis is annoyed that she will never be able to tell me. Phyllis – the fat of Phyllis – is getting in the way. Because here I am, sitting, dead, in my armchair, looking back across – across what? – at Kate, my not-grieving-enough girlfriend. ■