Saturday, 1 September 2012
NO SHORT CUT
A short story by
BY RAY JOHNSTONE
‘The most difficult thing about life is death,’ was Andy’s usual opening gambit. It was his favourite subject, and he never got tired of talking about it. As if he was on a mission. To change people. And their ideas. On a subject no one likes to talk about. Or even to think about.
Sandy always agreed with him.
‘What a pair,’ some people said.
Andrew and Sandra Forbes – universally known as Andy and Sandy – enjoyed their lives to the full even though they’d planned their deaths. They knew how they were going to die. And when. They’d done it meticulously. In every detail. And they’d put it in writing. So that in the cold light of day anyone and everyone, at the appropriate time, would see what they wanted for themselves when the time came.
‘I refuse to die in a home. When I’ve lost it, I mean.’ Andy could be quite forthright. ‘In one of those institutions full of puking, mewling old dodderers spilling food all over themselves and wearing adult nappies. In tacky surroundings, with horrible smells, disgusting food and unable to get to the lavatory by yourself. Always needing to call someone to help you have a shit.’
Sandy usually had her say too. ‘And, speaking as a woman, I like men’s company. But most of these places are segregated. I think that’s the case anyway. And I’d want to see Andy. And if he wasn’t around, other men. Not just rows and rows of gaga old biddies making signs with their hands and incomprehensible sounds with their mouths. No, no those places are not for me either.’
‘So we’ve got this pact you see,’ Andy would always follow up. ‘So that when one goes, or is about to go, we’d both be ready. And we’d make sure the other would exit at the same time. More or less. And as far as possible.’
Andy and Sandy always seemed to be doing something interesting. They worked hard to make sure that they were always having a good time. They were never afraid to indulge themselves, and were in the happy situation to be able to do it. Seats for the theatre or the tennis. Regular visits to good restaurants. Ski breaks in the winter and summer holidays at smart resorts in some far flung tropical paradise. And even a last minute weekend in Venice for Sandy’s birthday last year.
They knew, they said, that this would all end one day. It does for everyone. There’s nothing surer. So Andy and Sandy decided they were going to control what happened. They both knew what to do in the event of a sudden stroke, or the obvious onset of a debilitating illness: mutual suicide. Even though it was illegal.
‘Fuck the law,’ Andy would say.
‘Darling! Why do you have to put it like that?’ Sandy would always respond.
Some people found this boring and them quite trying. Even scary. Because of their ideas about dying. And their preoccupation with death. And how they always found a way to manipulate the subject of conversation onto what seemed to others like grisly talk. Their own deaths. Then other people’s. And, if possible, the deaths of everybody who was present.
Sandy asked one day, ‘Darling, do you think our circle of friends is diminishing? We don’t seem to see as many people as we used to. And I’m sure we don’t get invited out as often as we used to.’
Andy knew she was right. He’d had the same impression. Because even their oldest friends didn’t like to think about the fact that they would die one day. And it’s even more sobering to be reminded that one never knows when.
‘That’s the really big unknown,’ Andy liked to say. ‘It’s all very well being in denial. Like we all are, and never thinking about death. Our deaths, I mean. But one day it’s going to hit us like a tidal wave. Except for the lucky ones, that is. Those who die quickly. In their sleep. Those who don’t need help. Or those who don’t spend a long time dying. With some dreadful and debilitating disease. That makes them a burden on everyone. Their families. And friends if any are left after a few weeks.’
‘Yes, I agree,’ Sandy would add. ‘I can’t think of anything worse than being one of the living dead. After a stroke. Or when Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s have got you in their grips. But haven’t decided yet when they’re going to kill you.’
Andy would hop straight back to his favourite lines. ‘You see, it’s all very well thinking it will never happen. Or that you’ll handle the situation when it arises. Because then it’s too late. And the only really certain thing we have in our lives is that we’re going to die. But picking the when and the how is the difficult part.’
Even their kids found them difficult. They were discussing it over dinner one day when the children were still quite young. Patrick got quite worked up. ‘No I won’t take you to Switzerland when you’re at death’s door. How could you think such a thing?’
And, just before she left the table suddenly, Patty’s Parthian shot was, ‘What about the chances of a last minute recovery? If you think euthanasia’s OK you can bloody well drive yourselves to that terrible place.’
It was obvious that their children didn’t like talking about their parents’ deaths either. Or their own. Or anybodies for that matter. As far as they were concerned it was a taboo subject. One best to avoid.
‘They’re like ostriches with their heads in the sand,’ thought Andy, but he didn’t say it out loud.
They stared at him. ‘Oh no, not this again,’ they all thought.
Andy had just said, ‘About as much chance as a black rapist on death row in the Deep South of avoiding the electric chair.’
Andy went on. ‘That’s your chance of having a seemly death. Unless you spend a little time working a few things out. I mean before you go.’
Sandy bought a book about planning for the end. Dying with Dignity it was called. Or something like that. They showed it to everyone. Or those few who were receptive anyway. Most of them glanced at the cover, saw what it was about, and tried to change the subject.
Then they got Jenny’s news. Jenny who had been at school with Sandy. And lived in the same neighbourhood. Where they’d grown up together. Jenny Robinson, who’d lived an exemplary life and who wasn’t that old really. It was bad news.
Jenny’s preoccupations had always been lot’s of fresh air, as much exercise as she could get and finding good, healthy, and if possible, tasty food.
She’d never experimented with tablets and pills. Her doctor knew she disliked taking medicines and would only prescribe them when absolutely necessary.
There was no stress in her life thanks to her rich-as-Croesus uncle who had conveniently died young, and even more conveniently, without any heirs except Jenny.
When she got the news, Sandy said, ‘We’ll have to go and see her. She’s on her way out it seems. I’ve known her all my life and together we’ve know her for a very long time.’
Jenny lived on her own on a small but opulent property just outside a very beautiful village. They were shocked at what they found, because she had difficulty working out who Andy and Sandy were.
‘That’s drugs for you,’ said Sandy when they were leaving.
Poor old Jenny. Who never drank, nor smoked. ‘Nor poked,’ Andy would always add - and he did so then.
‘Be quiet Andy. That’s so uncalled for. Why do you insist on saying that kind of thing? It’s really unnecessary. Now’s not the time for your smutty drivel. Nor is it ever, I should add, so don’t say things like that about Jenny. She’s my best friend.’
Although Andy felt a little embarrassed at Sandy’s strident reproach, he couldn’t help saying to himself, ‘If she was any good in bed, she’d have been more likely to have had a husband, and that’s it.’ He was careful not to say it out loud.
Yes, poor old Jenny, a debilitating terminal disease diagnosed at fifty five. With only nine months notice. That was all she had left to live, they said. When the Grim Reaper sends his calling card he’s anxious to put in an appearance as soon as possible.
Her neighbour, who was looking after for the moment, told them the onset had been sudden, and the prognosis was poor. They said she was going downhill fast, she said. She was due to move into a hospice shortly. For Jenny the end was neigh was the way she put it.
‘Well, at least she knows she’s on her way out,’ was Andy’s take. ‘Not many of us have that luxury. We just sit around waiting. Not knowing when or how. Or what’s in store for us. In blind ignorance of what will happen in the end.’
They tried to see Jenny once a week. Always a bad and depressing experience. Sometimes she was up, but most times she was down. Andy couldn’t help thinking that every time they visited her she has one week less to live. She was like a prisoner who scratches the days on the wall of his cell. Six verticals and then a horizontal scored through the uprights. Marking seven days. Representing the weeks he’s been serving. Waiting for his sentence to end.
But in Jenny’s case the end of the sentence meant something different.
‘Darling I know you mean well, but Jenny’s not in the right frame of mind to think about your radical ideas about ending life.’
‘I’m not sure that’s right. She’s got no future. But she knows how long she’s got. She knows things are going to get worse and worse. And one day it’ll be too late. She’ll have lost the opportunity. Lost control, if you like. Of her life, I mean. So there’s no point in waking up to reality when it’s too late. Because control is the most important thing. Never loose control. Of your life, I mean. Of what you’re going to do with it. Especially when the writing’s on the wall, so to speak.’ He thought about the man locked up in jail again.
‘Yes, darling, I know all that,’ said Sandy. ‘We both do. We’ve discussed it for years. For far too long perhaps. Sometimes I think we talk about it too much. But comparing Jenny’s life – or what she’s got left of it - to putting a dog down… Well, I’m not sure that was the appropriate thing to say.’
‘In a way she’s one of the lucky ones, don’t you think? She’s been told when she’s going to die. She’s been given a date. She knows how much time we’ve got left. We don’t.’
Andy said no more. They both lapsed into silence. He was thinking about what he’d said to Jenny. He remembered doing it. Even though it was years ago, it could have been yesterday. What he’d done to the family dog. What he’d had to do. Because her time had come. Just like Jenny’s, he thought.
He remembered his rationalization at the time. Tootsie was starting to become a nuisance. She was listless. No one wanted to walk her because she lagged behind. She was incontinent during the night. But she was still their dog. Part of the family, so to speak.
But the family was changing too. Like all nuclear families do. Because they’re not designed to be cohesive forever. Eventually they explode, and everyone goes their own way. To start their own lives.
Patti had moved out to live with her boyfriend. Then Patrick found a flat with friends near to the university. It put those tedious train rides from home into the city behind him. So both kids were gone and the family dog became, in a way, redundant.
So Tootsi remained, and became more and more morose and bad tempered. Either because she was lonely, or because no one took much notice of her, or because she was getting older, or because her time had come.
Or was his take on all this simply unjustified anthropomorphism?
In any event it was obviously his job to sort it out. He decided on a Monday. Yes, he’d do it on Monday morning on the way to work. So his daily routine could help him to forget what he’d done. But Monday came and went and Tootsi was still at home when he got back home that night.
‘I suppose we often forget to do what we don’t want to do,’ he thought.
Then, ‘OK, OK,’ he said to himself, ‘Next Monday. Definitely.’
A month later the dog was still moping around the house and getting in everybody’s way and on everybody’s tits. Everybody being the two of them.
So eventually Andy got up early one Saturday morning. ‘Sorry Old Girl,’ he said as he helped Tootsi onto her blanket on the back seat of the car.
As usual, she refused to get out when he parked in the vet’s car park. He felt a surge of anger. ‘Come on you stupid fuckwit,’ he said grabbing her by the collar and leading her to the door marked RECEPTION.
A woman leaving with a cat in a box looked as him sharply.
He knew the vet quite well from Rotary.
‘Don’t worry, she won’t know anything about it,’ he told Andy. It was something he said to everyone every time he administered this end of the line injection.
‘Do you want the body?’
‘Sorry? The body?’ Andy was confused.
‘Yes, you know, to say goodbye. Closure. For the kids, I mean.’
Andy took a while to understand what the vet was getting at. In itself an indication of how he stood on the matter of putting the family pet down. He was upset, but didn’t want to show it.
‘No, no. No thank you, please dispose of the body for me. The kids have both left home.’
‘Perhaps Sandy’s right,’ he thought. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have used that putting the dog down analogy with Jenny.’
I’m dying to go there, you’ve always known that. It’s my birthday, and there’s a special offer. Must be a sign of the times. Everyone in business is struggling these days. And, if you ask me, they’re just about giving the weekend away.’
‘Mmm. Well, OK. Seeing as you put it so succinctly. Not to mention emotionally. Dying to go. You know that appeals to me. So I suppose so. Yes. Let’s go. If you like.’
Soon Andy got quite enthusiastic about the weekend they’d planned.
He told them about it at the golf club. ‘I think she’s thinking about it as a quick remember of our honeymoon. The weekend we’ve booked,’ he said. ‘So I hope I’m up to it.’ They laughed. ‘It’s a really good deal. They’re advertising it with a bottle of champagne, a five-course meal and breakfast for the same price as an overnight stay. We need a change of scenery. And it’s always fun to fuck in someone else’s bed.’ They laughed again. Andy was such a card, they thought, when he wasn’t talking about planning to die.
But the best-known schemes of mice and men have a tendency to go off the rails, and all their years of careful planning went awry when unbeknown to them a truck driver was getting ready to do everything they’d planned for themselves. He was looking intently at his GPS trying to find the delivery address he was destined for. Soon he’d start feeling around for his phone.
But not just yet. He was still trying to make sense of he electronic map on his dashboard. So the timing was not quite right. Andy and Sandy weren’t quite ready. The moment critique had not quite arrived. They were not yet in their car. But it wouldn’t be long now. He started looking around his cab. He’d have to phone his destination for directions. Where had he put their number? And where the fuck had he put his mobile?
‘This is a one way street, darling,’ Sandy reminded him as he took his usual short cut to the motorway. Their weekend break had started and they were on their way.
‘Yes, I know, and you always remind me that it is. But it’s not a very long bit of road and there’s never any traffic. Nor any cops. And I’m only going one way anyway.’ He laughed at his tired old quip. ‘Just call it my way of living dangerously.’
They had the roof down and were both enjoying the wind in their hair. Sandy was thinking about Jenny. Andy was thinking about last night’s sex. He’d enjoyed it, but had he given enough pleasure to Sandy? Had he spent enough time on her? Or had his anxiety about his erection, albeit it misplaced on this occasion, propelled them towards the end too quickly.
Sandy was actually dozing when she heard her husband shout ‘Fuck!’
Cars and lorries around them skidded and swerved and smashed into each other.
She looked up just in time to see that a truck had mounted the median strip. It crashed through the safety barrier at high speed, going the wrong way on their side of the road. And heading straight towards them.
In a split second the two vehicles collided. There was a flash of roaring red and then a deathly quiet as everything went black.
The silence and the blackness went on forever. For both of them.
Just after she had the news of the accident, Jenny Robinson went into remission. As far as can be ascertained, she is still alive and reasonably well today.
Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – Seize the Day, and put as little trust as possible in the future. (Horace – 65 BC)