Translated and introduced by Alice Menzies
This article appeared in the 2014:1 issue.
Hearing a knock at the door in the middle of the night, Erica is convinced that it must be her partner Tom, coming back to her with his tail between his legs. Her near-perfect life had been thrown into chaos the evening before, with the shock announcement that he was leaving her. Standing outside, however, is not Tom but Death. He has knocked on her door by mistake, looking for her neighbour Malkolm. Rather than feeling terror or shock, Erica allows Death into her life. He is an elegant, stylish man, one who cooks excellent food and who enjoys an espresso. He is tired and weary, and wants someone he can talk to, someone who understands him. Gradually, he starts to fill the void left by Tom, and as Erica grows increasingly bitter, she starts to help him in his work, ‘cleaning up’ the world around her, with devastating consequences.
The events of the past twenty-four hours would have been enough for a considerably longer period of time. It was 4pm, and almost exactly a day since I’d stretched my limbs, finished the last sentence of the day and shut down the computer to start getting myself ready for dinner with Tom. What had I been wearing? The things I’d thrown to the floor by the bed last night, presumably; the things I’d shoved into the washing basket this morning, a black skirt and an open-backed top. I’d never be able to wear them again without thinking about abandonment and unexplained death. Clothes interwoven with tragedy.
The thought returned me to our dinner and to the fact that Tom still hadn’t rung. Was he really that hurt or that cowardly? Tom had never had any problems expressing himself verbally, but now, when it mattered, he was lying low somewhere. He fitted the description of dried-up old revolutionary better than I did. He’d been reflecting and thinking, here in this flat, without having either the courage or the desire to subject me or himself to these potentially shattering thoughts, and then he’d left me, in a restaurant, in the most clichéd manner possible, and he couldn’t even ring to check whether I’d made it home all right.
My self-pity was interrupted by the doorbell ringing again. Like before, it rang three times, and like before, I got quickly to my feet. This time, it could hardly be anyone other than Tom, and it was good timing now that I’d gathered my thoughts and managed to both pull myself together and get absolutely furious with him. It would improve my bargaining position considerably. Unless it was Hans Nordsjö coming back for something he’d forgotten. I flung the door open so violently that Death, standing outside, was forced to take a step back.
He was dressed just like before except that he now had the scythe in his hand, holding it out to me the moment I appeared in the doorway.
‘Here, take this. Now you’re armed. I’m not here to collect you or hurt you in any way, but I do need to talk to you. Besides, I need an espresso.’
Before I had time to protest or to feel anything at all, he had squeezed past me in the hallway and hung his cloak on a hook. Underneath, he was wearing black jeans and a black polo shirt, and the same shoes as before. Death went straight for the blue velvet armchair, sat down, and swung his legs up over the armrest in a graceful and supple movement, like a snake in a patch of sun which will do for the entire afternoon.
Any fear I might have felt didn’t even have a chance to rear its head. Instead, I was angry at his nerve and at the fact he’d kept his shoes on, a rage which threatened to work itself up into a proper climax to all the feelings I’d been experiencing during the past twenty-four hours. But I didn’t have time to say even a word before Death held up his hands in a playful, apologetic manner.
‘Sorry for barging in without being invited. Sorry for tumbling into your life by mistake. You don’t know who I am, and I know too little about your instincts, even though I can guess. You don’t see me as me, but think that I’m anything from an innocent madman to a potential murderer. I’m neither and I want to explain. So please, if you can make a double espresso and listen to me, everything will become clear. You’re curious by nature, don’t try to claim otherwise, and you’re desperate for an espresso, too.’
Damn the man, he was right. I was craving an espresso, and I was more than happy to find out who he was. Besides, I suddenly knew that he wasn’t going to do anything to me. Call it a primitive instinct, the thing he wasn’t aware of but assumed was there, but this stranger wasn’t going to do anything hasty or unexpected.
I went over into the kitchen and made two double, extra-strong espressos while I watched Death closely, sitting in the velvet armchair. He wasn’t doing anything in particular, just looking around, placing his fingertips together and closing his eyes. I would later learn that this was his way of relaxing.
Death greedily took the cup I held out to him, took a sip and sighed happily.
‘Fantastic. Could wake the dead. You’ll have to forgive the black humour, but he who can’t make fun of himself rarely lives long, and I’m trying to lead by good example. When it comes to living, that is. Everyone has to manage the dying themselves.’
I sat down on the sofa, sipping my espresso. I had taken the scythe with me and leant it against the wall. The wood was old and worn but sturdy as a well used cane, and the blade was newly sharpened and well polished.
Death took another sip and leant towards me.
‘I know that I gave you a shock. Like I said, you aren’t one of those people who recognise me right away. In some countries, or at least in some parts of some countries, I can wander around like a member of the community or the village, and everyone knows who I am. I’m asked in for food, I share people’s lives, and I can prepare them for coming deaths. Births, too, for that matter. Even here, there are people who recognise me immediately, but they’re less common. They’re the kind who normally spend time with the ordinary people, who talk to them in the same way that they talk to me. Malkolm was one of them, and you could be, too. If you wanted to be. I saw that yesterday.’
‘So you’re actually Death? You visit people to tell them they’re going to die, and then they do? Go into their flats without taking your shoes off, giving them heart attacks or whatever, and then disappear?’ I know that I sounded just as sarcastic as I felt.
Death looked at me with amusement.
‘Westerner, urban dweller. Think you’ll get the truth it’s taken mankind millions of years to reach served up to you on a plate.’
He took another sip of coffee. It emptied almost the entire cup. ‘But essentially you’re right,’ he continued. ‘I am Death, and I have been for many years. And I do visit people who are going to die, that’s also true. I can’t be there in person for everyone any more, even if I do have an amazing capacity to move quickly, but I go to those that it’s most important for me to be with. I decide who. And The Highers. Otherwise, I’ve got brilliant staff who help me make sure that no one has to die alone. Well, almost no one. We do the best we can, and it’ll be fine as long as we’ve got the people on our side. So, there you have it. Now you already know more than the vast majority of the world’s population, and it didn’t take more than a few minutes. Don’t ask me why I told you that, because I don’t have the answer.’
He peered at me with a faint smile, and I had the chance to observe him more closely. Skin which clearly spent the vast majority of its time outdoors, greyish green eyes which seemed to change colour with the light, hair lightly peppered with grey. Beautiful hands with well-kept nails, cut straight across at the tops. Quite tall but with a slim build. Good-quality jeans and top, some nondescript brand. He continued.
‘I’ve known Malkolm a long time. He was 47, which was several years more than planned, and he knew he was living on borrowed time. That it would be his heart, too. But he was one of the few in this town I could drop in on after a hard night, and sometimes a person who’s needed gets to cling on to life a little longer than planned. The Highers draw up the bigger plans, of course, but I also have a say on some things. Besides, there are quotas for unplanned cases and for those where I get to choose all on my own.’
So far, I hadn’t managed to say a word. It seemed so utterly presumptuous to ask about humanity’s biggest mysteries as though this was some kind of ‘At home with...’ interview. But I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
‘Who are The Highers? Is God pluralistic, despite everything? And if there are several of them, are they the ones we recognise down here? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and Allah and Yahweh and Buddha, though he was just a prophet, or what about the cow god, or Shiva and...’
‘... and a few more,’ Death finished when I couldn’t think of any others. ‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Mankind has had contact with so many gods or powers for so many years that it is actually conceivable that some of them are represented amongst The Highers. But for goodness’ sake, don’t ask me to explain exactly who they are or how they work. That’s information that very few have access to. In due time, everyone will know. Or almost everyone.’
I’ve spent summers on the west coast and been out at sea during fierce storms. The same sinking feeling of inevitability came back to me now. Death sitting in the armchair, talking about having staff and about The Highers. The rational Erica defended herself, mumbling ‘crazy person’, while another part stood up, stretched out her arms and yawned as though waking from a long sleep. Perhaps this was the part of me Death had mentioned, the part which had an underdeveloped ability to see him for what he was.
Death was watching me closely.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Erica. Well, not really, of course, that’s only a small part of my role, but you do learn with time. Part of you is thinking that you’re on some kind of hallucinatory trip and another is guessing that isn’t the case and is worrying about the consequences. You don’t need to. You know that people die, so I’m not scaring you with any revelations there. Now I’m telling you that they don’t do it alone, that I exist, and that I, along with my staff, am in control of what can, for many, seem random. Why am I telling you this and taking the effort with someone who didn’t already know it from the start?’
Death licked the cup clean, and I noticed that his tongue was neither black nor forked.
‘The fact is that I myself don’t really know why I’m sitting here, but I’ve been tired lately. Sick and tired. It’s getting harder and harder to find someone to talk to or even just relax with. To learn from. Give and take. Cross-fertilisation. Maybe it sounds absurd, but even I need to wind down from work sometimes. And when I saw you yesterday, I got it into my head that you could be someone who understood. Someone who could learn to take eternity and the bigger questions for granted, without forgetting about everyday life. Someone who holds infinity in the palm of their hand and finds eternity in an hour. To cite a great poet who was, by the way, a very good friend of mine.’
Death stood up.
‘I’ll leave you alone now. I’ll put on my cloak and go out into the stairwell and then you can give me back the scythe, so you can be sure I’m not going to ambush you. Thanks for the espresso, by the way. Fantastic. I knew it would be. Another reason to get to know you a bit better. I’ll come back, and when I do, I promise not to just barge in. If you say no then I’ll leave you in peace. Until it’s time, that is. I promise to be at your side, personally. But, like I said, it’ll be a while.’
Death stood up, pulled on his cloak and opened the front door. I couldn’t think of anything else to do other than take the scythe, which wasn’t as heavy as I’d thought, and give it to him. He thanked me and walked down a few stairs before he turned around.
‘By the way, when the police get in touch, you should be prepared for them not to have found anything. With Malkolm, I mean. I don’t leave any tracks like fingerprints or bloody footprints. The cause of death can leave a trace, but not me. If you can understand the difference. And then you can decide for yourself whether you want to tell them about this visit. If we’re going to be friends, you and I, then I can’t impose any kind of restrictions on you. But you can hardly count on them believing you.’