This week I finished the second, and final (ish), draft of a short story I wrote about a year ago. The original was entitled ‘The Inevitable’. Without giving too much away, it concerned the return of a Canterburian cleric to his childhood home in Cornwall. The Canterburian’s world is a parallel of our own in which children are ‘read’ at an early age and given the precise date of their death. I was never sure what this information would do to a society. I realised, several weeks after writing the first draft, that I wanted to get to the heart of something that consistently amazes me about the human condition: people seem able to carry on regardless of the fact that they are certain to die. Where is the depression? What cures it? This odd heroism makes a fitting subject for a story, I think, and the first draft was a good stab at creating the mood I was reaching for.
A few weeks ago, I was prompted by a friend to read A. L. Rowse’s ‘A Cornish Childhood’. It turns out that my friend’s mother nursed the nonagenarian Rowse in his final days at Mount Edgcombe Hospice, St Austell. I’m Cornish myself, so I was interested to read about the childhood of this great Oxford historian and public figure. He was certainly a complex individual, perhaps homosexual and struggling against it, and I was gripped by his constant attacks on destiny and fate. He was a self-made man who broke the yoke of his unintellectual family and ultimately triumphed. (One can’t help but feel very sorry for him; his love-hatred for Cornwall crippled him emotionally, while simultaneously providing him with a drive to succeed. His attacks on members of his family, such as his brother, are startling and disappointing.)
With Rowse in mind, I rewrote ‘The Inevitable’ as ‘Coming Home’. The story is now set in the far future. The protagonist, Fairweather, shares some of Rowse’s precocity — hopefully, some of his voice too — and the story now attempts to fuse the feeling of inevitable death with the triumph (in the end, a failure) of tihs man’s dignity and humility. I’ll take the unusual step of including my story in this blog.
I have five days until my death. My family have arranged a farewell party for Saturday, which will be my last. That day will be followed by my last Sunday. On the Monday I will die. The date of that Monday is as familiar to me as my name or the dull angles of the house I grew up in, a house in a village by the sea. Cornwall: my life’s magnet.
The Predictor came to our village when I was ten years old. His arrival was marked by a parade in which the villagers took on the roles of the Trickster, the Hero, the King, the Queen, and more: crude-drawn folk from the happy stories of the daytime and the unhappy stories of the night. My interest in history grew from those stories. That day, I followed the procession and tossed flowers onto the broken pavements, stopping occasionally to adjust my uncomfortable costume. Through the twenty streets of the village, following its long corners and quick ups and downs, I flung flowers until I had no more. I was already awed by the parade and the sight of my empty basket pitched me into a tantrum. My father, dressed as a fox, tossed me onto his shoulders and told me to clap in time with the drummer, which I did, and soon my tears had turned to air.
The next day, the Predictor arrived in St Austell on a train. I had never seen a real train. It was a larger than I imagined, but this did not blunt my confidence as I outlined the principles of the steam engine to a young boy called Matthew, who stood in the Predicting queue behind me. A string band was playing on the platform and our parents had gathered behind a cordon at the Par end. We children were to go first. Very few adults were Unpredicted. Though my mother and father were not visible and I was nervous, but Matthew, who was six months my junior, was close to panic, so I made it my duty to settle him with talk of the steam principles. We had almost reached the head of the queue.
“The steam causes the air in the piston to expand, which pushes the piston rod alongside the wheel.”
“‘An the wheel turns,” he said.
“What if the wheel dun’t turn?”
I laughed. “Don’t be silly. It always turns.”
There were posters on the side of the train. I had seen those same posters during the parade the day before. ‘Be Predicted and Be Safe’. ‘Prediction is the Law’. ‘Knowledge is Power’. Pictures of healthy boys and girls showing tickets to their proud parents. An abstract sunrise on a perfect cornfield. Sunset on leafless trees.
The carriage windows were smoked. Some of the older boys in the queue entertained us with talk of lurking Arabian sultans, belly-dancers and swirling purple smoke that would transport us to other worlds. But I knew what was to be found inside the carriage. My father had told me. The Predictor was just a man with a list of names in book that was so heavy and so important that it was chained to the floor of the carriage, which itself was no more than an office. I relayed this to Matthew, who nodded. His hand, clinging to mine, was boneless and slippery. I did not have a brother, but if I could have chosen one, I would have chosen Matthew.
A nurse-like lady waited by the door to the carriage and put a hand on my shoulder as the girl before me climbed the ladder-steps, made a turn of wonder in the vestibule, and pressed on into the carriage proper. It took only minutes for her to be Predicted. In that moment, which stretched and stretched, the great engine of the train snorted and I thought of Billie, our pony, standing on the cracked concrete of the station car park with our picnic in his side-bags.
A door opened at the other end of the carriage, near the cordon, and the girl stepped out into the arms of her mother, who had ducked beneath the rope to receive her. A red piece of paper fluttered in the girl’s hand as she was borne into the crowd.
Then the nurse’s hand lifted from my shoulder. Matthew let go of me too and I smiled at him so he would know everything was alright. He did not smile back.
The main compartment was larger than the hall of my father’s Reading Room. Three low chandeliers lit the chamber. They were studded with light-in-glass, and I shook my head at the toys our government guarded. My father and I had studied the work of Dr Faraday but we had not managed to replicate his famous machine for the conversion of kinetic energy into electricity. The electric lights were not burning, however, and the smoked windows put the room into a never-ending sunset. At the end of it, a man was sitting behind a desk. He wore lawyerly clothes and did not look at me as I approached; he watched the children queuing on the platform. Closer, he was older, but his dusky eyes were kind. His desk warped under a stack of flat, leather-bound books.
He put a hand on one of them. “Name?”
“Fairweather. Peter Fairweather.”
“Can’t you children arrange yourselves alphabetically?” he said gruffly, tugging a book from the bottom of the first pile.
“I’m sure we can, sir.”
“That was a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question -”
“Is one that has no answer.” I added, bravely, “My father is master of the Reading Room.”
For some, the churches of St Austell were the last sites of spiritual asylum. People knelt in their ruins to pray to God, or what was left of him. For my part, I felt sanctified only when I crossed the threshold of Reading Room. It had been salvaged by my father from the old library. We had a set of Oxford dictionaries — the full second edition — and I loved the onion-skin pages, the sunlight through the words. I imagined Oxford to be a place of great learning. A city of libraries, or one great library.
“Reading Room?” The man looked at me. “Then you should read his books with greater care. A rhetorical question is one where an answer is not anticipated. That does not mean the question has no answer.” He shook his head once, and in the gesture I saw his life: town after town, child after child, and the struggle to contain his humanity. “Your name?”
I almost did not answer. “Peter Fairweather.”
“Fairweather, Fairweather, Fairweather.” When he found my entry, his expression was not dissimilar to my own upon finding a beautiful, arcane word in the Oxford dictionary. The old man turned to the desk behind him and pushed metal levers on a portable printing press. Soon, he turned back to me with a slip of red paper. It read, ‘You, Peter Fairweather, will die seventy-eight (78) years, four (4) months, and twenty-two (22) days hence.’
“You may go,” he said.
“I would like to ask why people are Predicted.”
He did not reply. He preferred to watch the queue through the sunset windows. Did he see children or numbers? I smiled despite my frustration. Children, numbers: another question unanswered. I held my ticket proudly as mother and father received me on the platform. Seventy-eight more years! I felt destined to live forever.
The struggle is, of course, to make your destiny your own, even when it has been written. By the time I was a young man, the trains were coming through St Austell with greater frequency as rails were reforged. The post came once a week, then once a day. The day after my twenty-first birthday, my father and I travelled to Exeter. It was the first time either of us had been out of Cornwall. Scholars had been collecting in Oxford for some years and now they wanted to reform an idea from antiquity: university. In the vaulted space of Exeter cathedral, I took the entrance examination along with two hundred other boys and girls. Only one child could win the competition for passage to Oxford and, once there, board and study.
An interview followed the exam. I remember sitting with father before a triumvirate of scholars. Each man wore clothes richer than out-of-town marketers, the richest people I knew. It was a difficult interview. At its conclusion, the chairman asked father if it was his wish that I attend Oxford. The question was not so straightforward; few families, with the hardship of life at that time, could bear the loss of a young man without complaint.
Father started his sentence again and again. Finally, he said, “I should like for’n to.”
Today, I am looking through the train window as Cornwall approaches. My trunk is packed with the last of my possessions. One of which is my robe for the office of Deputy Vice Chancellor of Brasenose College, Oxford. I will be buried in it.
In the cottage of my younger brother, who was born to my father’s new wife two years after my departure to Oxford, I listen to the sea. It is fully dark and I am in bed. I picture the waves as they founder and throw up the spit-surf, gritty and foaming. My brother’s young family, chaotic and charming, has thrown me a party, because this will be the last night of my life. I am exhausted but no matter how deep my body sounds, it will not reach the darkness of sleep while my mind buoys it so powerfully.
What waste this business amounts to.
The sea sound is tempered by the lazy thump of Hetta, my brother’s wife, making cheese for the market on Monday. The business of life, of waste, may observe a minute’s silence at my passing, but not a second more. I wish I could see my office in Brasenose one more time. There is a clock above the hearth that I stopped on the day of my wife’s death. It is difficult to accept that a younger Fellow will have already moved into my office. Jenkins, probably. He was a student of mine, and a fine one. His graduation was marked with modern pageantry. It is a cartoon of the pageantry we, humanity, once had. I recall the carnival that preceded the arrival of Predictor when I was ten years old. Such carnivals are no longer seen, at least in St Austell. My brother, Garth, told me as much.
Garth has electric lighting throughout his home. I am an old man and unused to these things. We have a ghost-army of candle-lighters at Oxford. Lanterns catch flame in their wake. Oh, I miss Oxford and its traditions, each one a tick at the same second, clockwork jammed.
I wake early in the morning to a gathering of crows. My throat is sore from the sea air. It is six o’clock. I mutter a brief thank you that I am not yet dead: today is my last day on earth, and it began at midnight. I might have died in my sleep…and yet I do not believe that my body, which is sturdy and faithful, if sleepy, will cease to work during the course of the day. I am more than eighty years old. In former times, men routinely lived to such an age. Though this age is rare today, I am sure my body will not unset my ghost without violence.
I flick through the possibilities as idly as a gambler thumbs through a deck of cards. A wooden beam might fall on my skull. A pack of moor dogs — rarer these days — might draw me apart. A horse’s kick. A fall down the stairs. A knife in my back.
A cup of tea steams on my bed table. Listening to the crows, I sip it. I have consumed a number of cups of tea. This number was set at my birth. It is large, but finite, and has counted down over my years. Tea with my wife. Tea with the other Fellows. Tea with the undergraduates. As I feel the steam on the white stubble of my lip, I know that the number is now one. This is my last cup.
Garth knocks at my door. I bid him enter. We talk about my funeral.
“Tom Perrick, he reckons some lads up Foxhole should be able to play that song of yours. What did ee call it?”
“‘Let It Be’.”
“‘Etta’s goyn lay on sandwiches, cakie stuff. And beer for they who want it.”
“Please thank her for me.”
Garth sits on the edge of the bed. He picks at the calluses on his huge hands and I remember his childhood, which I sampled each Christmas and Easter. He regards me, I think, more as an eccentric uncle than a brother. “Do ee believe in it?”
“In the Predictor? Of course.”
“Some of us reckon tis only something to keep us in our place.”
He looks at me, and suddenly I am giving my final tutorial. “Why do they do it to us?”
“They say it’s a book that was sent from the future.”
He thumps his knee. “But why? And how can it come from the future when the future hasn’t happened yet? Only now is happening.”
“In Oxford, I knew a man who was driven insane by the thought of his death. Two weeks before his Deadline, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.”
“Did he die or no?”
“Yes, he died. Two weeks later.”
Garth stands and walks to the door. “We’ll have some breakfast.”
“Garth, what would you do if you knew the date that a person would die, and the person did not?”
“I’d have to tell ‘em, I s’pose. Gently, mind.”
“See you downstairs.”
I do not eat breakfast. I dress and leave the cottage through the front door. Bones, the dog, licks his lips as I pass his basket. In his eyes I see Matthew, the little boy who stepped into the train carriage after me. I waited for Matthew even as my mother tugged at my arm. I wanted us to compare results: mine was an A, first-class. What ticket would he receive?
There was no sign of Matthew for several minutes, and the crowd grew nervous. The string band was shushed. The nurse guarding the carriage entrance climbed inside to fix the hold-up. By this time I was acutely anxious. When my mother tugged my arm again, I pulled away from her furiously. I put one foot on the plate with the intention of re-entering the carriage to get Matthew. But, ultimately, I could not; the nurse was coming out. Matthew clung to her chest.
I tapped him on the knee as he was passed, without touching the ground, to his father. His red ticket fluttered to the ground. “What is it?” I asked him. Matthew was lost in his tears and could not answer me.
I crouched for his ticket, read it, and tried to stand. I fell onto my hands. Mother scooped me to my feet and pressed away my own tears with her gloved thumb. I showed her the ticket. It read, ‘You, Matthew Rowe, will die today.’
The wind is sharp on the cliff’s prow. Below, great cymbals of water crash against the rock. During my fall, I watch the rocks loom. Cornwall: my magnet. I will die today. A rhetorical question answered. I strike the rock and bounce once before coming to rest. Garth will find my body without too much difficulty. At the last — with some pride, my body lingers a few seconds more, and takes the last word as a bloody cough — my destiny is my own.