Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Andrew Campbell-Kearsey
The first time I died was in 1997.
It was a rather rushed affair. I saw my window of opportunity at the end of August. Nobody would look too closely into my demise. I’d never been a huge fan of the Royal Family but to this day I appreciate the hoo-ha that surrounded Diana’s death. Mother Teresa hardly caused a ripple by dying that week so I would never even register on my own invention – ‘The Sliding Scale of Death’. Please excuse my gallows humour. This was my own creation. It was to measure the effect that one person’s death would have on the national consciousness. I provided a definition running to several paragraphs with impressive looking links but unfortunately Wikipedia declined to include it. I wanted to give Beaufort and Richter some healthy competition. Pity.
I’d left a hurried, incoherent letter in my bedsit. I rambled on for a few pages about how I couldn’t go on anymore, nobody loved me, blah, blah, blah – self-indulgent tosh. I thought of finishing it with ‘Goodbye cruel world’ but I decided against that. I didn’t want to overegg the suicidal pudding. I was fortunate with the weather. The currents were particularly strong that evening I supposedly jumped off Beachy Head. I know it’s a cliché but please forgive me. After all, I was a novice at this stage. The coastguards said in the local press that there would be little chance of retrieving my remains, as my body would have been swept out to sea.
My estate consisted of a small insurance policy and precious little else. I had left instructions in my will to dispose of all my belongings to local charities. I bequeathed the money to a long-lost, fictitious, distant cousin in Scotland. When I claimed the payout I think I was rather convincing, even if I say so myself. I chatted to the solicitor’s assistant for some time about the loneliness of modern existence and how sad it was that I had not been able to reach out to my deceased relative. My regret at the time was that the death payment was rather modest. Perhaps I should have paid higher monthly premiums. It was a valuable lesson.
I had made few friends in my life. Please, no sympathy. I simply found little use for them. You end up having to care or feel things. Such wasted emotion. But there was the outside possibility that I would bump into a former work colleague, who’d heard I’d died, if I stayed in England. So I settled in France. A short ferry hop and not even a half glance at my new passport at Calais. I needn’t have bothered. My money was securely earning me interest in my Swiss bank account. Terribly efficient system – I recommend it. I kept some aside for living expenses but that wouldn’t last forever.
I had planned to lie low for a while. I reinvented myself as a nondescript borderline simpleton, to whom repetitive factory work was a challenge. I was readily employed by a company manufacturing fireworks. Their health and safety regulations were woefully lax, especially the close proximity of the assigned smoking area to the abundance of combustible materials. I was a firm believer in the adage that when all you have is lemons, then lemonade is the most appropriate beverage to concoct. So, surrounded by copious quantities of potassium nitrate and sulphur, the addition of the lit match caused a fantastic pyrotechnic display that illuminated the Toulouse skyline one summer’s evening. There was considerable attention in the local press paid to the unfortunate British night-watchman who had tragically been the sole victim of the accidental explosion. Police were not hopeful of finding much or any of his body for burial as he had been at the very epicentre of the blast.
I was on a train to Warsaw the next morning. I would have liked to know how much I would be missed by my colleagues. I travelled across international borders without having to present my paperwork, thanks to the European Union Schengen Treaty. Occasionally I wondered whether my death had inspired a floral tribute at the gates of the factory. But I’m not one for sentimentality so I dismissed such mawkish thoughts.
The insurance company was not terribly prompt in paying. I considered writing a formal complaint to their trustees but decided against it. The sum received this time was quite considerable. I allowed myself a healthy percentage and invested the rest. I became a tourist for a few months.Eastern Europe was refreshingly inexpensive. On one occasion, I could have sworn that I saw my old geography teacher. She was part of one of those guided tour groups which I so assiduously avoided. I realised I wasn’t a huge fan of Polish baroque ecclesiastical architecture. I was gazing unimpressed at the gaudy architecture in St. John’s cathedral when I spied her. It was well over thirty years since she had bored the pants off me with talk about artesian wells and tectonic plates. But I couldn’t risk detection so I developed a sudden urge to confess my sins. I stayed kneeling, rapt in prayer, until her party left the church. My legs took me a few hours to forgive me.
I’d missed a trick with 9/11. I could have disappeared almost effortlessly. I’d considered moving to the States but their immigration controls can be a little over zealous. I did not want to put my new identity to such a stringent test. So I remained in mainland Europe. I rented a dacha by a Russian lake. Apparently the owner only expected a summer let but I paid in advance for a whole year. It was a good country for my circumstances. No questions were asked as long as I paid in cash. And they loved dollars. The exchange rate was not too favourable but it was a small sacrifice to pay. It was time for me to consider the future. Could my luck hold or was a third death tempting fate or even gilding the lily? I was rather proud of my accomplishments and ability to cover my tracks. I didn’t want to tarnish my unknown reputation. I idly scanned an old Guinness Book of World Records that I haggled over in a Moscow market. I was disappointed that there was not a highest number of recorded deaths for one individual section. I had nothing to aim for.
I discovered after a freezing winter alone that I possessed a strong need for achievement. I would almost call it a drive. So I took up ice fishing. I amused the locals by kitting out myself with all the necessary equipment. The local store was delighted to have such a big spender. Their words of advice were redundant since my linguistic ineptitude rendered their tips totally wasted. I found the Cyrillic script utterly impenetrable.
The coroner’s report detailed how local residents had attempted to warn this plucky foreigner of the hazards of such a high-risk sport. It was common for participants in this extreme sport to go missing and to be found months or even years later deep in the permafrost. The insurance company coughed up quickly this time. I would certainly recommend them in the future. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to use them again. They were rather fussy about that sort of thing. There was something in the small print about the same person not being able to claim twice for their death. Rather petty of them.
I decided it was time for a change of climate. I headed south and purchased a whole new wardrobe. I travelled light and after scouting possible nesting places I plumped for the Isle of Capri. It had a certain cachet in my mind and living there did not disappoint. After paying lip-service to the obvious tourist destinations, I soon crossed the Blue Grotto and a boat trip around the Gulf of Naplesoff my list. I settled in a charming little flat overlooking the Marina Piccola. It was true that I had grown weary of dressing every morning with at least five layers to avoid frostbite, yet even the many charms of this southern Italian paradise began to pall after a while. I grew restless.
The only way to stifle my overactive imagination and constant planning was to give myself over to my new passion. I became an addict of the cathode ray tube or whatever is the new-fangled, vital component of plasma televisions. I subscribed with my new identity to a dazzling amount of channels that my satellite dish beamed into my home. Naturally I learned quickly to sift through the viewing chaff on offer. I soon became quite an expert on Australian soap operas. If my anonymity were not quite so precious I could have been tempted to apply for Mastermind. The events and characters of Neighbours and Home and Away would have been my specialist subject.
Despite the beautiful surroundings, my Italian haven provided me with no inspiration for a foolproof way of faking my own death for the fourth time. The somewhat limited appeal of Ice Road Truckers sparked off an idea that I found difficult to repress. My driving history was clean in many different names. I could easily study for my HGV licence. I rather fancied the idea of the long distance haulage journeys delivering essential supplies to grateful, isolated Alaskan communities. It would be on one such journey that my truck could lose control on a particulary icy stretch or my rig, as I learned they were called by their drivers, might attempt to fatefully cross a patch of thawing road in a desperate race against the onset of the summer melt. I had to stop watching that channel eventually as I knew thatUS border controls would be too officious.
So I turned my attention to a different part of the Americas. I started some research on the isthmus connecting the two American continents.Panama intrigued me. All I knew about it was its renown for hats. I soon became a fact junkie about its economy, exports, chaotic political history. I made plans to fly to South America. I figured that security wouldn’t be so tight since half of Hitler’s cronies seemed to have found it very easy to relocate there after the war. I would then travel up to my new home with some sightseeing thrown in. I had booked my ticket to Rioand was making an appointment for travel vaccinations when there was a curious item on the news. I suppose that I should have seen this as a sign at the time. I soon learned to despise the name of John Darwin. What a complete amateur he was. He made a pig’s ear of faking his own death. I could have pointed out to him that he should never have allowed himself to be photographed. The canoe story was frankly preposterous. My plans were scuppered.Panama was now off the itinerary.
But I was never one for wasting anything and the ticket to Brazil was paid for, so I packed my bag once again. I checked into a modest hotel and awoke refreshed to sample the delights of this new city. I almost quibbled with the lady in the ticket office. I knew the cable car journey to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain took only three minutes and the cost of eleven dollars struck me as exorbitant. I now wish that I had followed my parsimonious instincts and declined the ascent. The following one hundred and eighty seconds sowed the seeds of my downfall.
There was no escaping her gaze. As I stepped into the glass capsule I lost interest in the sleek Italian design of my new means of transport. The anticipated delights of the effortless climb with its spectacular view no longer held my interest. My palms began sweating as I came face to face with my former geography teacher. Why was I cursed to bump into her again? Although of all my former teachers, her choice of subject made her the most likely to have developed a taste for wanderlust. She neither spoke nor attempted to grab my attention. Yet she conveyed that she knew. She just smiled and I knew the game was up, to use the American vernacular.
I couldn’t wait for the return journey to come to a stop. Just before the doors opened, she reached out and handed me a piece of paper. It stated the name of her hotel with the word ‘bar’ and the time of 8pm. I could simply not turn up. I could book a flight to anywhere in the world rather than meet my potential nemesis. I knew that the message was an order and not a request. But I didn’t have to do as she said. For heaven’s sake, she’d lost what little power she had over me the day I left school.
I sat in my own hotel room and considered my options as calmly as possible. Flight was always a possibility but the constant readjustments were becoming a chore. I could turn up at the rendezvous and discover what she knew. Perhaps it was an elaborate flirtation and she didn’t recognise the geographically-challenged teenager she had taunted in class. Maybe she was attracted to this man of mystery. If she turned out to be a blackmailer I could dispose of her. I’d done it to myself three times already. It might be fun to add another string to my bow.
She had made a considerable effort with her appearance. Even after all these years it struck me as weird to see my former geography teacher sipping from a cocktail glass.
‘Care to join me in a daiquiri?’
I nodded in agreement and she called out to the barman, ‘Two more please.’
She seemed at ease swivelling on her bar stool. ‘You’ve done rather well for yourself. I would never have put you in the most likely to succeed category. I’ve been doing a little research since we bumped into each other again in the cable car. Fantastic views, weren’t they?’
She wasn’t expecting an answer and continued. ‘I took early retirement about ten years ago but I still receive the termly school magazine. It’s mostly fundraising and statistics worthy of a cub reporter on Pravda. One day the new head will crow about his 110 percent exam pass rate. The little obituary written about you was rather touching. You did not seem to have achieved much, but I wasn’t that surprised. I was though when I caught a glimpse of you in that church in Hungary –’
‘Poland.’ I couldn’t stop myself. The thrill of correcting a teacher was thrilling, especially on a point of geographical accuracy.
‘Thank you. I wasn’t entirely convinced it was you, but now I know. I was on one of those hideous coach trips where you are herded about from one tourist trap to another. I’ve since learned that travel should be savoured but unfortunately that is a costly pursuit. I long to visit the places that I have taught about and stay as long as I like. I won’t burden you with my precarious pecuniary position but my pension is the wrong side of meagre. So you can imagine how surprised I was to see you today. It proved that my eyesight and memory are rather good. One does worry about these things as the years go by. I was wondering whether you could give me some advice.’
I was taken aback. This wasn’t where I thought the conversation would be heading. She took a handful of nuts from the bowl on the bar.
‘What sort of advice are you seeking?’
She waited until she had finished chewing the peanuts in her mouth.
‘Well I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong person. Perhaps your local bank has somebody who could advise you?’
‘I think that you would be the very best person to help. You left school with very few formal qualifications and no apparent means to support yourself. Yet you seem to have carved out a comfortable existence. Perhaps you could provide me with some advice about life assurance for instance?’
The smile she gave me caused any doubt to evaporate. My lucrative scam was about to come to an end. I could run I suppose. Although she struck me as rather well-preserved, I still had twenty or possibly twenty-five years on her. I could outrun her. I could be at the airport within an hour.
She interrupted my thoughts. ‘I’m not a greedy woman. I don’t intend to call the police. I would just like to share in your good fortune.’
Now I understood – blackmail. I spoke the word out loud.
‘Oh let’s not talk like that.’
‘Well what would you call it?’
‘I saw us entering into a business arrangement.’
‘What do I get out of it?’
‘My silence and occasional company. Your existence, through necessity, must have become terribly lonely.’
Oh dear, if she was expecting some sort of physical relationship then that was a step too far. I could cope with giving her money, I certainly had plenty to spare but the thought of –
She interrupted, ‘I simply meant that there must be times when you would like to share the secrets of your ingenuity. You’ve outwitted the authorities and yet have nobody to tell. To be brutally frank, my recollections of you in the classroom did not augur well for your future success. You were hardly my most promising pupil.’
I suppose I should have been rather hurt. Everybody thinks that they are exceptional in some way or other. But she was right. I had passed through the corridors of my school unnoticed. No wall was emblazoned with the outward display of my academic prowess.
She continued, ‘I’m rather impressed with you.Beachy Head was a little obvious but do tell me how you managed to collect the insurance money yourself.’
That was a glorious evening – one of the best of my life. She only knew about one of my deaths. When I told her about the others she was the most agreeable audience and genuinely appeared impressed at my achievements. I was surprised at my own reaction. It was strange that even after all these years I should be so bothered about the approval of a former teacher. But the fact is that it meant a lot to me. She craved details and did not allow me to skate over any of my escapades. She was fascinated about the amount of research I had put into my plans. It was a relief to tell my story to another human being. Her proposal was simple. She would set up an account that we would call her travelling fund. I would make a monthly payment. The amount proposed was not excessive. If the money failed to turn up in her account she would inform the authorities of my crimes. She betrayed the sentimental side of her personality when she suggested an annual reunion. I agreed half-heartedly. I thought that sending each other postcards on a semi-regular basis would suffice. As a warning she told me that she had drafted a letter to her younger sister that afternoon. It contained a sealed envelope that should be only be opened upon her death. This letter provided detailed information about my first faked death. This way, she pointed out with a big grin, I would have rather a vested interest in her continued good health.
After several more cocktails she responded favourably to my invitation to discover the city at night. Observers would have noticed a couple, perhaps mother and son, out for a night-time stroll – both in good spirits. I suggested we visit a hotel bar on Ipanema Beach to toast our collaboration. She liked the sound of that. We clinked our cocktail glasses and then stood enjoying the view from the seventh floor.
It was tragic how she fell from the beach bar balcony. That’s what I told the police officer sent by the hotel to investigate her sudden death. I explained that, despite my warnings, she had insisted on leaning over the balcony to obtain a better view. The post-mortem revealed an excessive amount of alcohol in her blood. Therefore I escaped any suspicion. I’d never been much of a gambler. Poker had never appealed but there was something in her manner that told me she was bluffing about the letter to her sister. I took the risk.
I could have afforded to pay her a monthly stipend. But it was the principle of the matter. It struck me as rather immoral that she should profit from my hard work. But it was a great feeling to know that I’d left my mark on at least one teacher from my old school.