I turned 108 years old yesterday, and as much as I would have liked to spend the day in quiet contemplation of the big questions of the universe, they insisted on throwing another party for me. I’d only had a handful of parties thrown in my honour over the course of my life, but since I turned triple digits they’ve taken to throwing one every year. Presumably because they think they won’t have to do it again next year. And then they do have to do it all over again the next year because I carry on living. Not that I want the party, but they don’t ask me. So, being the guest of honour, I have no choice but to attend.
Year after year I must endure the sensory assaults of the brightly coloured banners and balloons, and the dry shop-bought cake masquerading as Victoria sponge. To chew anemic looking cocktail sausages and endure the feeling of suffocation as I’m grabbed and hugged and patted on the head, and my wheelchair is commandeered and wheeled around for selfies. And after all of that, as always, I’m compelled to grin for a group photo until my jaw aches and do an interview for a local newspaper, answering the same questions every year with exactly the same answers.
It’s all incredibly tedious, and you might wonder why I endure it. It’s simple really: I cannot afford to commit the crime of ingratitude. You’ll understand how fatal a crime this can be when you are very old and fully dependent on others for every little thing.
Jess, my main carer, arranges the annual interview. I think she likes to take some credit for the fact that I’m still here, and that I don’t totally resemble an animated corpse. I do the interview without complaint because I need Jess, but I also like Jess very much. I like that she confides in me about the ups and downs of her love life and asks my opinion on her Saturday night disco outfits on ASOS and shows me pictures of her pet cat, which she allowed me to name Mouse. I like her freckles and her big smile and her round cheeks. I like that she slips me the second or third large whiskey when I want it and combs my hair so that it sits just right over my liver-spotted bald patch. But most of all, I like her smile; because it is genuine. So I did the interview yesterday. I did it for her. And this morning Jess walks in waving a newspaper around and I force my jowls to rise up into a big smile.
“You made the front page,” she says, “you’re a celebrity!”
“Marvellous!” I reply.
What breaking news did I trump to grace page one of the Greenwich Tribune? The fox epidemic sweeping the town? The council’s abject neglect of the pothole situation? The recent spate of wheelie-bin thefts? She shoves the paper under my nose.
“Don’t you look handsome?”
I look nothing of the sort. I’m like a piece of overripe fruit with the pulp scooped out. In the photo Jess is standing behind me, beaming; all dolled-up. Her hair curled at the ends, and a full face of makeup. Jess once told me she wanted to be a model. She’s pretty, but she is only five foot tall and she’s “pleasantly plump” as my mother would say. I think her plumpness is mostly down to the fact that there’s always a box of really good chocolates in my room. I have no interest in them, because my taste buds aren’t what they were; but Jess? She pops in and out of my room and steadily devours a tray in a day, taking no more than one chocolate at a time, as though this reduces the overall calorie load. And maybe I want her to eat the chocolates and be pleasantly plump and not make it as a model and never leave me. Like the story she read to me one day from a women”s magazine, about a man who was afraid his wife would leave him so he started fattening her up by adding extra butter to all of her meals. She still left him for another man. A man with a penchant for pleasantly plump ladies. Which is ironic really.
“It’s a nice picture, isn’t it?”
I realise she is looking for a compliment in return:
“You look very lovely in it, as always.”
“Do you want me to read the article out for you?”
I’ve done the same interview for the past eight years, but I say yes anyway. She clears her throat and starts reading.
“The oldest man in London turned 108 yesterday. George McCarthy celebrated his birthday surrounded by family and friends at the Silver Stream Nursing Home in Greenwich. Eighty-three members of four generations were present from his son Henry (85) down to his great-great-great granddaughter Millie (5). Mary, his granddaughter, (62) baked an enormous birthday cake to feed the many party-goers.”
“My backside she baked it,” I mutter. Jess throws me a smirk and continues:
“George puts his longevity down to smoking a couple of hand-rolled cigarettes per day, doing The Times crossword and a daily glass of whiskey,” she pauses and presses a finger to her lips conspiratorially, as she knows well it’s three glasses I have a day. “Also in attendance was special guest, and fellow Greenwich resident, Lily Lawrence, the oldest woman in London (115). She and George exchanged smiles, laughter, and a cheeky wink. One attendee informed us that there is definite chemistry between them. Is it possible that George is Lily’s toy-boy lover? We will keep our readers updated as this breaking news progresses. George is the second oldest man in Britain, after Reginald Davis, now aged 110.”
“You old devil,” Jess says with a grin.
I swiftly change the subject.
“That decrepit old git Davis—still alive and kicking is he?”
We joke that Davis is my nemesis, but it’s not really a joke. I hate that man for no good reason other than he’s still alive and I want to be the oldest man in Britain for at least one of my birthdays, so that I have a shot at getting into the national papers. Selfish bastard won’t give me my turn. Sometimes, I wonder if the desire to outlive him is what’s keeping me going. That the fuel keeping the engine ticking over can be something as petty as wanting to outlive another human being. That gives me hope, because my greatest fear is that the only reason I’m still alive is because I cannot be anything else. Because I shouldn’t be here at all. I’m a time thief, and a coward. And I should have died one hundred years ago…
When I was eight years old my father beat my small body so badly that my broken ribs put holes in my lungs. I overheard the doctor talking to my mother from behind a curtain as I lay in my hospital bed. He was listing the multitude of injuries I had suffered from after my unfortunate “tumble down the stairs.”
“Little boys have died from less on my operating table,” he said, “your boy — he should have died.”
His choice of words never left me. That he didn’t say “he could have died”—but “he should have died.” I knew the difference, even at eight years of age. Should. Such an accusatory word. Like I’d done something wrong. And I felt a pang of shame. I knew he was using the word as a way of reproaching my mother, but it felt as though he were reproaching me too. The only person that made the guilt go away was my mother when she came in and sat beside me.
“Did you hear what the doctor said?” she asked in her gauzy voice, flimsy like the thin hand she placed on my cheek. “She said you should have died, but you didn’t. Do you know why? Because you’re a special little boy, George. You’re special. I knew it the day you were born.”
My mother always put a positive spin on every terrible thing that happened in our lives; but especially this event. She formed a belief that I was somehow immune to death, and that when my father beat me no real harm would come to me—a delusion that would cost me many broken limbs over the years.
When World War II began I joined the army and found that I was unusually comfortable living in a warzone. I think it was from growing up in a household where the heavy clouds of potential violence lingered overhead at all times. When the bomb hit and killed every single one of the men in our squadron except me, and the medics found me underneath my dead comrades, barely breathing, they said those very same words.
He should have died.
That accusation. Again, a wave of guilt and shame, but this time it was followed by a rush of anger. Why couldn’t people just be pleased that I was still here? And when I phoned my mother she said: “my special boy — you did it again.” And she banished the shame away.
In my fifties, I had a heart attack. That word returned. Haunting me. Reminding me that I should be a pile of little boy’s bones under the ground. And then I had the audacity to go on and survive my wife and most of my children. My wife died the day before my 99th birthday, my youngest child a few days before that. That was the only time I wondered what the point of it all was. But then I overheard an Irish nurse say:
“He’ll be dead of a broken heart before long.”
And I took great exception to that. The idea that I should mindlessly follow anyone into the earth like a lemming. That my life is meaningless unless attached to the lives of others. That I am not a whole person in and of myself. And so, I’ve come to the conclusion that partly, I’m alive out of pure stubbornness, because I refuse to yield to the expectations of others. But there’s another reason. That for every person that thinks I have no right to be here, there’s another that thinks: He should be dead. He has been through so much and he has never given up. I think they see hope in me. They are inspired by me. They see that I symbolise human resilience in a way; and so I think the biggest part of me lives for them.
Jess is called away. She folds the paper and leaves it on my tray. The door opens just as I’m nodding off. A woman stands in the doorway. She has a familiar face.
“May I come in?” she asks.
I can’t place her, and it frightens me. My finger hovers over the alarm. I’m too embarrassed to ask who she is, because I know that I know her, but I can’t remember her name. And I can’t say “no,” because she might be someone important. So I say “yes, of course” and I smile at her.
She walks in and I put on my glasses to take a good look at her. She’s average height, she wears black shoes with a sensible heel, a floral dress; her mousy hair is loose around her face. Her skin is pale and smooth, but her watery blue eyes tell me she is older than she appears. She is a nondescript woman. The kind of person you’d pass in the street without seeing her at all. Neither attractive nor unattractive. She is ordinary in every way you could imagine. Extraordinarily ordinary, you might say.
Her demeanour is so relaxed that I’m not alarmed by her presence. She must have the right to be here. It makes no sense for it to be any other way. A thief would want to get in and get out, and I’d let them. It isn’t as though I could put up much of a fight. She could take every material thing I own and it wouldn’t be worth the inconvenience of a broken finger to me.
She rearranges the cushions and sits down on the peach armchair beside the bed. The remains of Elsie’s hideous three-piece. Its garish peachness gives me comfort in a place where everything is sterile and beige. Functional and inoffensive. The woman is like the physical embodiment of this place. Perhaps that’s why she looks so out-of-place on that armchair.
She laces her fingers together and leans forward.
“How are you?” she asks. It seems a genuine question, not asked to pass the time.
“I’m tired and I’m sore,” I reply. An honest question warrants an honest answer. “I’ve been old a lifetime.”
“How are you passing your days?” she asks, rummaging in her pocket and placing a notebook on the table in front of her.
“Waiting,” I say.
A journalist. At least she is asking more interesting questions than the other one. She doesn’t have that patronising tone, that sympathetic tilt of the head and for some reason she is listening to me. Really listening.
“Why do you think you’re still here, George?” she asks. Steepling her fingers under her chin. They are long and slender fingers. A piano player’s fingers.
“Well… I can’t use the stairs in my old house.”
“No. I mean… here… on this earth.”
Okay. I have it now. She’s a religious nut. Looking to convert me and convince me to bequeath everything to whatever wackadoodle church she’s a part of. My finger hovers over the alarm again, but I don’t press it.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I reply.
“Are you grateful?”
“What are you?”
“I’m perfectly aware that life is a thing that has a beginning, a middle and an end,” I say, “I’m a stalked animal.”
“So, you’re afraid?”
She reaches out and takes my hand in hers. Her skin is pleasantly warm and soft, but her touch sends memories surging through me in a wave.
She was a nurse at the hospital I stayed in as a broken little boy.
She was the soldier that passed me in the triage tent.
She was the surgeon’s assistant standing over me on the operating table when my heart struggled to pump blood through my body.
Sometimes young, sometimes old. Sometimes male, other times female; but always so ordinary I didn’t notice her. But for some reason I remember now. I withdraw my hand.
“You’re disappointing, you know?” I tell her.
Her mouth curls slightly at the corners. Her eyes remain still. Unmoved.
“I’m glad to say I can’t say the same about you.”
I cough. Coughing isn’t the minor inconvenience it used to be. It makes every bone in my body rattle in my skin.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says. She stands up, moves around the room, examining things. She picks up a picture of Elsie; places her long thumb over my wife’s face, making it disappear.
“Oh, I know that,” I say.
“I went to the hospital when you were eight years old. I was there to collect a few. You know when people seem to die in clusters? They do. I hang around a place for a while. Like when I took your wife and your youngest son in the same week—it’s nothing personal. It’s out of pure convenience,” I’m relieved when she places the picture back in its spot, sits down on the chair. She leans back and laces her fingers over her chest.
“That night, at the hospital, I took an old woman and a young father. You were to be my third. Just before I was due to visit the surgery, I stopped for a moment to admire a new-born baby cradled in the arms of her mother. I was thinking what a shame it was that she would fall out of a second storey window, and die in her father’s arms in three years” time.
“Don’t look so surprised that I feel pity! I don’t pity the dead, nor the dying; they can’t come to any harm, but I feel sorry for the living. And that made me late for you, by exactly ten seconds. But those seconds were crucial. The doctor working on you managed to bring you back and I missed my chance… and then I went to collect at the bomb site, and for some reason I couldn’t detect your soul there. The sound of it was drowned out. The shape of it concealed by the others. I took twenty-two young men that day—I missed you.”
“I cheated death.”
She nods, that wisp of a smile reappears.
“To err with a person once is not unheard of, but twice…?”
“And so you’re here today—to collect.”
“I’m here to collect.”
I begin to tremble. And I feel shame at my trembling. I should be ready, but I’m not. There is no readying oneself for the unknown. She removes a pristine pair of white gloves from her handbag. I close my eyes and tell myself that it will be okay. I will see the face of my wife again.
“I’m here for Mrs Harper, Mr Smith and Mr Larkin.”
I open my eyes. She has the notepad in her hand.
“No. Not special George,” she says, “after the war I made a decision. I decided that I’d never take you. I decided that I’d let you come to me instead.” She closes her notebook with a snap, stands up and approaches the bed. She leans over and whispers: “A belated Happy Birthday, George.” She presses a brown bottle into my hand. Squeezes my fingers over it and as she pulls away from me her features begin to melt and distort until I’m looking into my own eyes and I suddenly feel an overwhelming need to sleep.
I wake up an hour later. I pinch myself to make sure I’m still alive. The bottle is still in my hand, under the covers. I examine it. There are thirty chalky-white pills inside. She knows that I can’t do this. That I can’t take my own life. It’s not that I don’t at least want the opportunity to end things when I’m ready. I am glad of that; but if anyone were to find out I’d done away with myself, their opinion of me would completely change. Everything they believed about me would be destroyed. And so I cannot even have these pills in my possession, lest a fit of melancholy take me one night as they are wont to do.
In a fit of anger I buzz the nurse. I plan on handing the pills over but as she walks through the door but instead, as I hear her walking in I snatch them up and clutch them under my blanket. It is as though my hand is no longer my own.
“Are you alright George?” she asks.
“I’d love a cup of tea?”
“Of course, pet,” she says, and plumps the pillows up around my head.
“Very sad,” she says; “Mrs Harper passed away an hour ago.”
“What did she die of?” I ask.
Old age isn’t a condition, I want to tell her, but instead I ask the next question.
“So will you do an autopsy?”
“What a morbid question, George. No. Her breathing was very bad before she went.”
Hope fires up in my heart. I have issues with my lungs too.
“So the doctor presumes the cause based on recent illnesses?”
“Here? In most cases, yes.” I hold the bottle of tablets tight in my fist until she leaves and then I push them deep under the mattress. She comes back a few minutes later with tea and a plate of custard creams. “Oh, and I have more sad news,” she says, “Reginald Davis isn’t well by all accounts.” I seek out the positive in every terrible situation. I am my mother’s son.
“Not well?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
“Hanging on by a thread.”
I lift a custard cream and dip it into my tea.
“How very sad; but I suppose 110 is a good innings.”
And as I sink my dentures into the soft sweetness of the biscuit I make a decision. I decide that 111 is a good age. Has a nice ring to it. Yes. That is when I’ll go to her.