Oliver knew that every person must one day face their appointment with Death. Of all the millions of human beings who had come before him, across many nations and all the continents, they had historically either all died or were in the same position as he: sitting in the waiting room, anticipating their name to be called.
Oliver feared this eventuality. He feared it with a guttural, human anxiety. To die was to leave behind all the joys and pleasures of life, eternally and forever. To die was to lose.
Oliver was sat uncomfortably in the waiting room, anticipating his name to be called by the secretary. An incidental television blared idly in one corner. Opposite him was a shelf neatly stacked with literature about tooth decay and gingivitis; in the corner a solitary child was ineffectually pushing wooden blocks around a playpen. Oliver was violently distracted by the shooting pain in his molar: it was an all-encompassing pain, one which grew and grew and filled the universe so that no other thoughts could pass through, eclipsing all else.
Yet incidental thoughts nevertheless did flit by, wisps around the blind focus of attention which brought into uneasy relief the differences between the clean, healthy world around him and Oliver’s own existence. The waiting room was hygiene-white and meticulously in order – Oliver’s own life seemed fragmented and incomplete in comparison. The child was in gleeful ignorance of everything – Oliver had never had a child. That child… that child…
Drawing his eyes away in an involuntary flinch of agony, wincing at a sudden sharp scream of toothache, Oliver glimpsed across to the seating area further down.
Sat motionless, a few feet away from the child, was the dark and soundless figure of Death.
Utter silence befell the waiting room. The child’s innocent playing, the television, the movements of the secretary: even the hysterical pain of his molar died down to a deaf, complete stillness.
In the vast emptiness created by that death of sound, an ancient and relentless fear returned to him. It rose and filled that silence, it flooded him, he was drowning breathlessly in it: the very shadow of Death before him…
The surgery he was due, the knives and blood, the drill: that was to be his final appointment on earth…
Oliver was not ready for his appointment with Death: and before he would allow his name to be called, he cursed under his breath and fled.
The pain from the molar resembled at times a wound of the mind, a knife pressed urgently and permanently against a live nerve. Oliver dwelt in a world separate to those around him: perhaps the pain, left unattended by Oliver out of fear of that spectre’s return at any surgery, had created a changed reality he was to haunt forever; perhaps the elusion of Death had placed him on a plane of existence distinct from others, who still lingered helplessly in the shadows of mortality. He existed, in a pyrrhic manner, still able to read and drink whiskey, still able to enjoy music and the company of friends, yet somehow incompletely.
Life for Oliver, though stolen back by some strange miracle, was nevertheless dominated both by the pain and by the fear that his escape could only last so long. There remained an understanding, inchoate yet relentlessly present, that this diversion from Fate was little more than an interlude.
Walking back through streets he once knew so well as a child – streets he once paced, an errant schoolboy truanting from lessons – he recalled that conditional freedom of delinquency. An hour was reclaimed, no doubt: but eventually an authority would place his hand upon your shoulder – the authority would whisper, “You should not be here” – and would return you to your rightful castigation.
The main street was drenched in sunlight. This bright, perfect light had brought out youth and life onto the walkways of the city. Walking past the carefree and the beautiful, Oliver wondered at their sweet and ephemeral delight.
Approaching the traffic lights, cars streaming before him while the traffic light remained green, Oliver was almost able to entirely forget the burdens of this world. Young men in sunglasses talked with ease to young women in shorts and breezy, chiffon blouses. All around him was a glimpse of a worldly and understated paradise…
And across the road, waiting for the lights to change with all the other pedestrians, stood the defiant figure of Death.
A lorry flew by, causing a flurry of hot, foul wind to gush past the bystanders; Oliver’s vision was obscured, his senses were failing him; could he still see, past the roaring traffic, the shadow which haunted him even now?
Perhaps this crossing was accursed for him. Maybe he had been made aware of a sign, a solemn and ghostly warning not to continue over that road. It is possible, he thought, that this crossing might otherwise have been his ending. This could have been another appointment with Death: but surely, he thought, it cannot be my time? I can change my path, I can take another route, and pass harmlessly past this direful meeting-place…
He turned, sobered by the thought – the sunlight no longer seemed ethereal, the people drifting around him seemed without glamour or glory – and retreated back down the street, along which only moments before he had wandered in peace.
He had missed all his appointments. Soon Death would realise this evasion, and would return – Death was no fool, this much at least Oliver knew – soon, Death would rearrange for another meeting.
But he had won, surely? Death had been waiting for him at the dentist’s: the surgery which should have ended his life had been surpassed, obviated, discarded! And the collision at the traffic lights, he had seen that coming and chosen to live. By choosing to live, surely, Oliver had bested Death?
The toothache was no longer acknowledged in Oliver’s mind. It had resigned itself to an incidental position, a tiring fact of life but one which no longer retained the conscious power it once held over him. He had grown with the pain.
The fear, though: the fear did not quieten, or fade, or alter. Escaping from his mortality only proved to Oliver the sheer scale of what he had to lose. Even this life, though weary and agonising, was the sole existence to which he could fleetingly cling.
No child, no wife. Pain, and displacement, and the soundless footfalls behind him.
At times he imagined that he might flee to the desert, far from the city: far from the people who drew Death towards them, irresistibly, fatefully. In the desert, far from the frailty of man, he would find the oasis of cool springs. He could find an eternity there, in a sanctuary…
Sanctuary, he thought: a place of safety and purity beyond the reaches of malice…
Oliver barely knew why he returned to the parish church of his youth, with its leaning gravestones and unattended grass: grass, which by the gentle breeze left sweeping patterns around his feet. The cobbled stone walls of the church felt cool and familiar to his fingertips. Above him, the high spire of the place reached enormously to that tremendous blue, above.
Staring upward at it, he remembered how as a boy he would ease open the frail old doorway to the belfry stairs, and spider-like clamber up and up to the very heights of that precipice. He remembered how glorious the summer trees seemed from above, gathered together like patchwork around the parish. He remembered the peace of it.
Waking from his reverie, he returned his vision to the graveyard and searched around for the great oak doors to his sanctuary; against that bright and pleasant wind he walked, around the stony walls, past lichen-ridden monuments and marble angels weeping for forgotten names.
His heart froze. Before the ancient wooden doors, which stood tantalisingly ajar, stood the shrouded presence of Death.
Fear overflowed into fury and confusion: Oliver was racked with pain and fatigue, the heartache of disappointment at the final stretch, the final few paces before sanctuary. The cool oasis was mere feet away… and still, and still…
“This is not my time!” he cried, his voice competing with the wind as it gathered force: “I avoided our appointment in the dentist’s chair. I did not cross over to you on the street. I have cancelled all of these appointments, and still you come!”
Death did not move. He continued to stand before the doorway: but soon, with a voice like a cavernous echo, he spoke:
“There has been a mistake, Oliver. For my appointment at the dentist’s surgery was with the girl. My appointment on the main street was with the young woman, talking distractedly to her lover in the midday sun. None of these appointments were with you.”
Glimpses of the past eddied before Oliver’s eyes. Amongst them was the absent child; amongst them was the absent wife; amongst them was the pain, the sheer pain, and the fear; the memory of the belfry, and the great heights and the thought of peace half-remembered from a difficult childhood: the promise of peace and a final release, to fall away from the pain of all of this…
Death gestured through the gap in the oak doors, to the far doorway where the stairs to the belfry stood. Past those doors, and up those stairs, were the clear blue height and the promise of release from the long, long life of hurt.
“Our appointment has always been for today.”
This is the long-awaited response to Gary Holdaway’s excellent piece, The Survivor Chronicles, which you can (and should) read here: http://garyholdaway.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/the-survivor-chronicles/
I read into this remarkable piece of first-person narrative, the ostensible theme of which was “Alone”, a quite different concept. I was taken by the powerful motifs and effects of “Illusions and Elusions” in this story. Without giving anything away for those who, for no good reason, haven’t read it yet: the narrator perseveres with a particular goal in mind, one which is arbitrary, delusional and ultimately hopeless. He preserves his isolation through his own obsessions and failures. It reminded me of an ancient Middle-Eastern tale, one of the oldest in literary history, of a man who attempts to avoid his appointment with death by fleeing to an oasis. He believes he is cheating Death, or the world, or Fate, and somehow working towards a great personal victory. Needless to say, when he arrives at the oasis, he is gently disabused of his hubris.
Shout-outs go to my homies Agatha Christie, whoever wrote the epic of Gilgamesh, and to Robert Louis Stevenson. Them’s my homies. Yeah.