This story was originally published on needleinthehay.net on the 6th September.
The number for Better to Know is still on the screen, along with the length of the call: 2 minutes, 23 seconds. I hold the phone in one hand, seeing the slight tremor of my wrists tilting its flat surface, and feel numb. The backlight dims into a black mirror in which the ghost of my face swims, eyes scooped out into shadows and lips blooming like grey bruises.
I didn’t want to know, but it’s too late now.
Paper walls surround me, a cardboard kitchen that might blow over at any moment. It was Claire’s idea to come down here, to her parent’s beach house on the toe of the peninsula. The bay on one side, the ocean ragged on the other, no traffic, no internet, no worry. Pots and pans from the seventies in the little cupboard, and copper pipes that swell as the water heats and send shards of ice against my back in the shower. A place, Claire might have thought, where time could not touch us.
But I had dialled the number. I had given my name, George Briggs, my date of birth, 5 October 1978, and the zombie voice from Better to Know had told me the exact year, minute, second, that I would die.
A wet concrete block sluices through me, from chest to gut, settling low against my groin. I blink and wait for my body to fall backwards into the salt-brushed chair, an inanimate lump of flesh and nerves acting beyond my own will. But I remain standing, phone in one hand, looking at the linoleum tabletop, at nothing in particular.
A car door sounds from the drive, followed by a wind-swish of plastic bags. Claire’s neat shoe-steps clap the concrete as she walks around from the driver’s seat, probably lifting the groceries from the back. I drop the phone into my pocket, feel it sink like a lead weight against my thigh. With both fingers I try to mould the clay of my face, my lips and cheeks, into something like a smile. I hear Claire coming up the wooden steps.
When the scientists figured it out, how to calculate chance and count the biological ticks, I didn’t want to know. Not my own date. Millions of other people clamoured to find out, fixated on the exact moment when life would evacuate their fleshy bodies, and so services like Better to Know and Liberate had emerged. Any skepticism quickly gave way beneath the frightening accuracy of the dates.
There were two common reactions to finding out the death date: people either went away, or fell apart. Few people stayed on and continued life as before, like Claire. She had another forty-five years left. She didn’t want to drop life and run, but did suggest that a quick sojourn down the coast might get us out of the frenzied death-obsessed city. This decision from Claire came suspiciously soon after I had my “accident.”
The key rattles in the door.
Claire’s voice precedes her into the room. She stumbles in with groceries swinging, her face flushed pink, whipped with salt wind and evening sun. Her straw coloured hair is dragged back into a pony-tail, like a wrinkle-eyed school girl.
She dumps the bags on the table and we kiss, a ritual movement to each cheek, her lips grazing my stubble. My wife’s eyes flick to my hands and back. “What have you been up to?” she asks.
I shrug. “Nothing.”
The flicker of a frown presses against her lips. “Have you been reading your book?”
“Been out to the beach?”
“You’ll feel better if you get some fresh air.” Her eyes touch the puckered white lines across my wrists. “You should grab hold of this free time whilst you have it, George.”
That’s how we talk about it: free time. Not unemployment, not fired from the job I’ve worked since I was nineteen. We speak in the language of leisure and rest, like I wanted to walk away from my only means of going on.
And beneath Claire’s words I sense something else, something of the nagging duty to ‘live in the moment’ that has become a ubiquitous pressure since the death-date technology. I feel the phone, heavy in my pocket, and turn slightly so that it is concealed by the table-top.
Claire and I put the shopping away in silence. A seagull squawks out on the veranda, sounding very much like an injured cat. Beyond it the crush of waves forms a white-noise backdrop.
Claire closes the fridge and turns to me, her eyes flat. “I thought we could walk along the back beach,” she says, “not the bay but the proper ocean. Would you like that?”
I smile and the movement hurts my jaw.
Claire drives. I stare out at the white line which runs between the car and pavement, threads of painted bitumen held together by our movement. It diverts around bus stops, following the edge of the road, an endless, unbroken line.
I hear my boss’s voice inside my head. I’m very sorry George. I can’t keep overlooking this. You’ve been late every morning for the past year – I know you’ve worked here a long time, but coming in to work at 12 o’clock is not acceptable.
Trying to explain that I couldn’t get out of bed, that I couldn’t sleep at night, that I had started seeing a psychologist, none of it any use. He assumed I’d seen my death date and had decided to pack it in early, like so many others.
My working life packed up into a little box with a limp plant. I shut my eyes and listen to the road noise. Another image swims into my head, eclipsing my last day at work; a year, a minute, a second. I feel sick.
Claire pulls into the carpark and switches off the engine. I sit for a moment in the petrol residue and then step out, pulling my jacket tight.
The back beach is mostly rock, pools forming at the ragged edges of waves. We look down on it as we walk along the cliff, bypassing the little wooden staircase that would lead us to the sand. Claire keeps her eyes straight ahead, arms swinging by her side, as if the point of this excursion is simply to be outside, to walk, and the location is of little importance. It’s a therapeutic exercise.
The jagged tips of rocks seem to float on the surface, green-grey plants spread on them like slime. Froth like spit in a sink rushes together and apart under its own internal logic. From the low-slung sun appears a ship, forming in the white spots where my eyes can’t go; it’s the same dust-yellow that scatters across the sandy path, onto my shoes.
Beyond the rusted fence footprints venture towards the cliff edge, shallow bowls with grey pooling in them. Perhaps they’re from unafraid pioneers who know they’re not going to die yet. Mortals become invisible.
“Listen to those waves,” says Claire, her voice a low hum.
They sound like cars on a highway. “They’re nice,” I say. We round a corner, following the cliff-edge, to where another staircase leads onto the adjacent beach. The tide is out, the sandbar raised. I point at it. “I want to go down onto the sandbar,” I say.
“Now? The tide’s coming in.”
Claire rubs one eye with her knuckle and seems to sigh, though the sound is whipped away with the wind.
“I won’t be long,” I say.
“Ok. I won’t join you though – I’m not wearing the right shoes. I’ll see you back at the house.”
Kiss on each cheek, our necks stuck out like birds, our bodies not touching. Claire’s eyes jump to my wrists as she turns away.
I walk down onto the sandbar, straddling the zone where white-lipped waves lick the shore. My trainers sink into the soft sand, letting water in. On the horizon a monolithic ship cuts a single line through the ocean.
When I reach the furthest point I turn and look back. It’s not too far to the shore, but far enough. I lie down and close my eyes.
The edges of the sea bite my elbows. I jolt awake, eyes opening onto a charcoal sky, a shard of ice running through my side. There’s a fishy smell in my nostrils, not like salt on scales but the heavier scent of flesh that moulds the fragile bones together. Freezing water splashes around my fingertips in its bid to consume the sandbar.
I shut my eyes again. Wet fabric clings to my skin, itchy and sore. Sand has clumped in my hair and gotten into my socks, and my feet have swelled inside the sodden trainers. A strange, stinging tickle runs through my sides as the water rises against me, lapping and retreating like a wary animal.
I feel completely numb.
A year, a minute, a second, indelibly stamped onto my body.
The sea enters through my nasal passage, stings my throat. My mouth is water-logged. I keep my eyes tightly closed, trying to hold my breath, and air seems to be expanding inside my head, pushing against my skull. I could stand up now, wade back to the shore. My muscles twitch.
No. Think of the beige plastic waiting room at the welfare centre, the fish-eyed woman behind the desk. Zoom in on the thin line of the boss’s mouth, ex-boss now, the skin between his eyebrows pinched. Sleepless nights and fitful mornings blurring one into the other, seemingly endless, this humiliating, painful life. Feel only the coolness of Claire’s cheek as I kiss her, because she doesn’t like the taste of my lips, doesn’t want to look at me.
I can’t go back. I can’t go on.
The end is here.
The ocean swallows me. I struggle for a fraction of a moment, and then let myself sink, red and black patterns bursting on the underside of my eyelids. Down, down, and I’m gone.
The ocean spits me out again.
Face down on the sandy rocks, a greyscale night surrounds me. The waves break, endlessly, inside my eardrums. I push myself up, pain radiating from my elbows, acid tearing up my throat. Vomit splatters onto the grey sand, bits of carrot and cornflake, and is stolen by the reaching water. Sand clings to my face, my eyelashes, my stubble. I let my head drop again.
I can feel a dead weight by my side, bumping rhythmically into my leg with the insistent current. Slowly, a spasm running through my arm, I reach into my pocket, take hold of the phone.
It’s dead, but the date is still there, the screen stiffened with rigor-mortis. I look through salt-stained eyes at the time of my death.
I don’t want to go on.
I didn’t want to know.
The death date sits there blankly, a year, a minute, a second. I can’t force it to come any earlier, I can’t put it off.
I have another forty-nine years to live through, and there’s no way out.