Ending One: The Thorn Tree was a pub in Wakefield, infamous for being an excessively violent place in which to drink. My friend had taken me there specifically to prove this point and was duly rewarded. Within an hour a fight broke out between two women. Some karaoke was hastily cobbled together. The mood calmed somewhat.
I believe (if memory serves – it was a long time ago) that I was in the process of being light-heartedly chastised for something when my friend stopped mid-sentence and glanced over my shoulder.
‘I think the man behind you is dead.’
He repeated himself. I turned to look.
‘No, don’t look. It’d be rude!’
‘How am I supposed to verify if…?’
For a few awkward moments we debated what to do – finding it semi funny / semi disturbing, and pretty certain that it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding.
‘No, I think he really is dead.’
We both stood up and took a few short paces over to the man’s table. He was sitting bolt upright, his face composed, eyes wide.
‘Evening,’ my friend said.
‘Excuse me?’ I added.
‘No blinking – He’s not there.’
An old gent, out on his own, a half finished pint, a silent slipping away. It was real.
Whilst my thoughts drifted towards the realms of ‘Is it sad that he died alone or good that he died in pub?‘ my friend had far more practical considerations in mind. Eager to preserve the man’s dignity he calmly made his way over to the bar and informed the landlady. Her reaction was the complete opposite of what had been hoped or intended. Rather than quietly dealing with the matter she flew into a fluster and started making it all about her. A very public call to the emergency services alerted the entire room to what had transpired, and we watched in bemused horror as she draped a bright yellow tea-towel over the man’s face in order to hide the fact that he was dead.
‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ I asked.
‘Well I can’t hardly use a sheet can I? He’d look like a ghost. ANYONE KNOW WHO HE IS?’
‘I can’t tell,’ one of the punters replied. ‘He’s got a bright yellow tea-towel over his face.’
Some in the room found it tragic; others hilarious. A few (me included) found it both.
This blog is read by a few hundred people. Statistically therefore one of you (us) is going to die a comedy death at some point, and all the things you’d like to be remembered for – being a great man, woman, lover, philanthropist – will take second billing to having chocked on a dildo during a hen-do gone horribly wrong, or decapitated by a shard of frozen urine being expelled from a plane (‘You remember Pete?’ ‘What, Pissy-Pete?’ Or ‘Hey, how about Phil?’ ‘Oh yeah, the tea-towel guy?’ etc)…
Ending Two: Mike, 59, ex-marine, ex-North Sea oil rig diver, IT developer, salt-of-the-earth, two weeks from getting married for the second time, December 2005 – my leaving do. Mike’s a naturally scruffy person (a man after my own heart), but under his fiancée’s instructions he’s gone out and bought an incredibly expensive suit – Armani, voluminously huge – the kind Al Capone would’ve worn. He spends the evening taking it out of a travel bag to show people, uttering a single, well rehearsed line of dialogue and replacing it in its bag. The line:
‘I’m only going to wear this twice. Once when I get married and one when they bury me in it.’
At 10pm he leaves – last train to the south coast. We shake hands. It has truly been a pleasure. We’ll see each other tomorrow for my final day.
The next morning a phone call diverts me from the office towards a coffee shop. ‘Leaving presentation’ my all-about-me brain suggests. I push through the front door and someone is whispering in my ear that Mike died in his sleep from a brain aneurism. There then follows a fog of floating into the office, gathering up my traumatised team and taking them somewhere they can breathe. We are joined by our project sponsor, a very senior manager who laments ‘It’s a shame the pubs aren’t open. If ever there were a need for a stiff drink…’
The phone rings – my boss – Where are you? – In a coffee shop – Your team? – With me – Have you forgotten that you need to get a software build out my lunchtime? – Mike… – Yeah, I heard – Then you’ll know that the software build will need to wait a little while – I know you’re in shock, but that’s no excuse for being unprofessional – There are grown men here crying, you need to dismiss the idea from your mind – Listen Martin I will not…
The senior manager can hear what is happening. He makes a gesture to me that I should hand over the phone. ‘Hang on, Rob want’s a word.’
‘Hi Andy, it’s Rob. Yeah listen, show some compassion and f@$* off!’ He ends the call and hands the phone back with a wry smile.
I write to Mike’s fiancée (whom I’ve never met). She asks me to read the letter out at his funeral. The whole team are there, and the senior manager, and his manager, but not my (now ex) boss. All throughout the service I am feeling sorry for him and thinking that he has failed to grasp one of life’s fundamental lessons – that life does not go on, and that all things stop for death.
Mike’s fiancée comes up to me afterwards and says: ‘He rolled over in the middle of the night and whispered, ‘Great to be in bed with the one I love.’ That was the last of him.’
In moments such as these you can only go with your gut. A phrase like that doesn’t need my sympathy. It needs admiration:
‘My word,’ I reply. ‘That’s how I want to go out!’
On Christmas day 2001 I went with my father to lay a wreathe on his mother’s grave. It was cold and had snowed recently. It was a sombre moment and there was a pregnant pause that needed to be filled with some poignant words.
But I wasn’t the one to fill it. Feeling somewhat belligerent I decided that my father (a man private about his feelings) was going to be the one to speak and not me. A considerable amount of time passed in silence. It became awkward, oppressive, slightly funny, then awkward again. Eventually, when he realised that I wasn’t letting him off the hook my father turned to me and said:
‘You know, when I pop my clogs, I’d like to be buried in a snazzy cardboard box – a pink one – something garish that offends the mourners.’
This is how we’re dealing with bereavement is it? I thought. OK, I can run with it…
‘When I die,’ I responded, ‘I’d like to be liquidised and surreptitiously added to the reception punch. I could then literally be a pain in everyone’s arse.’
Father upped the ante: ‘I’d like to be loaded into a catapult, fired into the air and, wherever by body lands, be left to rot…no, not a catapult – a trebuchet – I’d go further.’
I brought it home: ‘When you go I’m going to have you fitted with animatronics so that I can remote control you to rise from the grave going RRRRAAAHHHH!’
‘And that’ll help you cope will it?’
‘I imagine so yes.’
Epilogue: Why have I written about death? It’s not because I’m building up to a personal revelation. It’s simply this.
I was meeting an old friend for lunch on Friday, but she cancelled due to fears about getting on a train to London. The killings in Paris had her on edge. I was socialising with a client a few days beforehand when we heard that a couple in San Bernardino had killed fourteen people over a work dispute. They themselves were later shot dead by police. On Thursday a man in London arbitrarily pushed a complete stranger off an underground platform into the path of an oncoming tube. The blogosphere is currently alight with debates over gun control and whether or not to invade Syria, blaming God, David Cameron and the American senate to name but a few. A company I’m working with offers terrorism insurance. I’m led to believe it’s now a fairly standard practice. I have a strong opinion on all of these things, but in some respects that’s also part of the problem – Everyone shouting into an abyss. Never before in human history have people been spoon fed death, terror, death, terror by ubiquitous media morning, noon and night. Never before have they had to be so sophisticated in compartmentalising certain horrors and placing others into context so as not to go insane, so well done you!
That’s probably the only point I was trying to make – Well done you. That I’ve chosen silly slants on the stories is part defiance and part irreverence. I once saw someone I love die and there was nothing warm or graceful about it. Afterwards I carried the mantra around in my heart: You are fragile and temporary. It would help all of us I think to know our place in the grand scheme of things…
…But statistically the world is becoming a far safer place – more parts of it enjoy more liberties then ever before, there is more diversity, less racism, greater rights for women. If we can work out how not to use everything up we might just get where we’re going.
For example: In the dim and distance past if I’d taken a shine to another man’s wife (or his cave) I’d have had to bash his head in with a rock and move in. Now alI I have to do is stalk her on Facebook, take her out to an obscenely priced restaurant, get criticised for not knowing which fork goes with which course, have her post my faux-pas on Twitter and subsequently struggle to gain the acceptance from all of her judgmental friends.
Simpler, happier times…