‘The Life Insured’

A long short story first published by the culture website The State Of The Arts.

 

I woke on the morning of the twenty-third to find my palate dry and my bed wet, as if I had drooled myself to sleep and through my five hours of REM had simply not let up.

My loofah of a tongue stirred in its pit. 

‘Fucking hell.’

‘John. Oscar.

Oscar? Yeah, there he was: there you are, you little tike. You little monster. C’mere. C’mere, you.

‘‘Scar. Here.’

‘It smells and Mummy’s mad,’ he said, from a safe distance.

Of course. Of course, I was being disingenuous before: I had, in fact, pissed the bed. Was Mummy mad? Hoo. Hoo yeah.

‘You’re a real – ‘

‘Charlotte. Oscar.’

‘Yeah well you’re a real – a real good Dad, you are, John.’

She doesn’t mind so much about Oscar being exposed to sarcasm. Foul language, she minds; foul language is right up there with a pissy bed. Christ, does she mind.

But sarcasm, it seems, is a-ok.

Me, I take a more cautious view. I don’t want the boy to start being facetious before his time. I feel like a wealthy father holding out on a shiftless heir: not until you’ve earned it.

When I was his age… ah, but there’ll be time for that later.

October. Rain clatters from a flaw in the gutter outside.

 ‘You’d better go and do some ruddy laundry, hadn’t you, John?’

She’s standing by the bed now, Charlotte, in her nightdress, flame-cheeked and tousled: altogether quite rousing, in fact, but I’ve the feeling we’re not in that place right now.

Ruddy? You sound like a bachelor uncle.’

‘You know what I meant.’

‘Oscar? What did Mummy mean?’

Oscar wrings the hem of his pyjama-top and says: ‘You’ve got all wee everywhere.’

Which is true enough, though not wholly germane.

I think she meant – ‘

‘John. Now.’

Sometimes, you know, I wonder why I fucking bother.

There’s an oppressive presence in my life, these days. There’s a great heft of commitment where before there was – what? Not happiness, exactly; not exactly liberty.

The old days, it’s true, were frequently – regularly, if not routinely – horrible. But these new ones: man.

‘Are you going to work today Daddy?’

‘D’you know, Oscar, I’m not sure. I just don’t know. What do you think?’

‘Stay at home and play. Stay at home and play Animal Alphabet.’

John,’ says Charlotte warningly.

‘All right. All right.’

As I descend the stairs to the bathroom I see her smoothing my work-trousers on their hanger.

Work. Christ.

Is one year of my life worth £200,000? I think so. I thought so. Just sign here. It’s just one year, after all. And it’s a lot of money.

At times like this my conscience comes over all melodramatic: For God’s sake, think of the child!

And I obeyed, and signed, and here I am.

I’m such a fucking coward. I had principles when I was seventeen. All right, so they were shit principles – I was your ten-a-penny off-the-peg libertarian wanker – but they were a damn sight more than I’ve got now.

Ban the bomb. Make love not war. Live free or die.

 

Go back to 2001 – yeah, let’s all go back to 2001.

I drank a lot back then and sometimes I’d wet the bed and sometimes I wouldn’t but in any case it was my bed, whether I wet it or not, and no-one else’s. No Charlotte, then: no, nor any Oscar either. I could piss where I liked before those bastards came along.

Let’s go back to The Ship, for instance: I’d drunk there as a student, and now that I was a lecturer at the same university I thought I might as well carry on drinking there. I couldn’t see the percentage in going elsewhere.

‘Dostoevski has a, a telling passage on the subject. The Idiot, chapter three. Or four. Myshkin, of course. In the, in the train carriage, you’ll recall. Myshkin remarks that…’

I achieve a great deal of this sort of talk when I’ve been drinking. Anyway I forget the point I was attempting to make.

Peter Collier was there – the Proust man – and Sammy Iqbal, who was an Eng Lit postgrad, and Professor Hewitt and – oh, some others. Who knows. A crew, anyway. And it was late but not all that late.

I must have tired of the Dostoevski theme eventually, because I remember sitting there – slumping there – all silent, sullen and adrool while the others talked on, and all of a sudden making eye-contact with this fiery-haired girl across the room.

When I’m drunk, I can be quite charming, in a lubricious sort of way. And then there’s these fucking good looks of mine.

‘Hey. You. You in the jacket. Get me a drink,’ she said.

‘I don’t even know your god damned name.’

‘I’m Charlotte,’ Charlotte said.

When, four years later, I straddled the eighty-foot ladders of the gasometer in the high cold wind of the Armley gyratory, I thought: if only I hadn’t been drunk, if only I hadn’t worn that jacket, if only she hadn’t been her.

  

***

Starling-shot roofs and lamb-grey bluffs of underlit cloud. The angles of red cranes stooping over part-built office blocks.

I perched on an iron rung, watching the city light decline as below me – ah, too far below – rush-hour traffic snarled and jockeyed on the ring-road.

From up here I could see the ghost-white pillar of the university clock-tower and, over there, blue drifts of smoke rising from Holbeck chimneys and, further still, to the west, a contrail scoring a steep silver line at thirty degrees to the horizon.

I say thirty degrees. Who knows.

Christ, that climbdown – a climbdown both literal and figurative, of course, but it was the literal version, the real version – as real as frozen rusty ladder-rungs and the warning groans of old scaffolding – that I remember best; that I can’t, for that matter, forget.

The first climbdown, the figurative sort, the one that prompted the other, well, that was more or less a piece of piss. It wasn’t my first time. I’ve stepped down from the rail of the bridge that crosses the M62 at Saddleworth and I’ve removed my head from a gas-oven on two occasions.

Second thoughts, you’ll surmise, are something of a speciality of mine. ‘Sod this for a lark,’ I’ll conclude. ‘Fuck this for a game of soldiers.’ Those are normally my second thoughts.

My first thoughts tend to be more bleak, and more lyrical, somehow, and more heavy, more desperate; they tend to resound, somehow, in my hollow gut, in my gums, under my fingernails, in my viscera.

But that’s enough, for now, about them.

So: I climbed down – Christ knows how. Down eighty feet of wind-harried gasometer laddering, soused with tears, shivering; no-one down there on the gyratory showed much interest. I was, they must have supposed, some sort of gasometer rigger or roustabout, some such industrial human fly; they must have supposed that I knew what I was doing.

I made it, anyway. I stood, there on the roadside grass, gagging on car-fumes, knees knocking, knuckles raw and banged-up. I threw up, perfunctorily, in the gasometer’s cold shadow.

I’d descended into night-time: most of the cars had their headlights glaring.

Scampering unsteadily – still weak-kneed and vertiginous – across the roads towards town, I dreamed a waking dream of The Ship: its scuffed darkwood panels and cut-up seats, its students and its radish-faced saggy boozers and its tramps with their long-lasting halves of tramp’s cider, its low gold lights and chuntering pooltable.

Its beer, of course, too, and its ranks of upturned bottles with glugging optics.

Up past the alien-lit shopfronts and the fugged glass of chipshops and on to the Headrow, the grand old Headrow, the grand old civic Headrow. I stood lurching on the spot for a minute on the corner of East Parade. Around the gritstone municipal baroque of the town hall a black flag of starlings furled and unfurled.

‘Christ,’ I seem to recall saying.

Then on, stumbling up the hill towards the university and The Ship. Past the kippered black church.

People passing me by must have seen nothing too unusual in this scruffily dressed alky staggering apace in the direction of the pub – and, indeed, I am not, and never have been, so unusual.

 

Emerging from the bathroom, showered and piss-free, I found Charlotte draping laundry on the landing radiator, and I took hold of her waist, gently, apologetically, and kissed her neck, apologetically, and said: ‘I’m sorry.’

She didn’t say anything. She shook out a wet sock that had been turned inside-out in the washer.

‘I don’t think you know,’ I said – gently, apologetically – ‘how hard it is for me to leave you and go out and face the world.’

‘Well you might as well just go and get pissed, then,’ Charlotte said sharply. ‘That’ll pay the bills.’

I thought for a moment that she was being improbably perceptive, but then I realised that she was just being sarcastic, and dropped my hands from her waist and stamped downstairs.

That day, that day in September, a month before, when I climbed down from the gasometer and made for The Ship

I felt fucking awful that day. Charlotte, Oscar, work – and by work I mean the reading of obscure journals of Tolstoiana and Chekovology, the lecturing on the pastoral and the provincial modes, the talking – Christ, the talking – with bearded fellow-souls from Petersburg and Moscow – such is my work.

All that. It hurt. Every day hurt. My head – my brain: the fucking thing just wouldn’t quit. The fucking thing just wouldn’t shut up.

I feel different now. Better? Just different.

That day, late in that September day, when I turned off Woodhouse Lane, I thought, just two hundred steps, just one hundred steps, just fifty steps and you’re there –

Christ, did things go wrong that day.

 

***

I’d been very good; Charlotte had commended me. I hadn’t been to The Ship since high July; I hadn’t drunk at home since August. On August 19th I’d poured two bottles of gin and a bottle of whiskey down the toilet – without, for a change, first filtering it through my urinary tract.

I’d been very good. I’d been sober. I’d worked hard. I’d published a paper on nihilism in Turgenev and I’d addressed a symposium on violence in Pushkin.

I’d played games with Oscar and read him stories and cooked him fish-fingers.

Yeah, I’d been good.

But those thoughts – those first thoughts I mentioned. Those ones that tug like a turbulent gravity on your innards. My innards, anyway.

Thus I found myself on the teetering ladders of the gasometer, preparing to plummet.

Having climbed down from that suicidal coign of scaffold, having thought of the child and of the lover, of duty and – abstractly, as one might think of Mars, or the Rennaissance – of hope; having, in sum, done the right thing, I thought that another drink was the least I deserved.

If only a quarter-pint of beer. If only a sniff of the wine-cork.

I would toast myself: ‘To you, John. You’re not so bad, after all. You’re still here.’

I turned off Woodhouse Lane on to Saint John’s Walk and then off Saint John’s Walk on to Saint John’s Place and then I saw that they had taken the fucking Ship away from me.

 

Essentially, they’re paying me to live my life. I thought about this – I’m nearly always thinking about this – while I stood leaning in the kitchen and sipping my coffee.

Charlotte was still upstairs, in the top bedroom, combing Oscar’s flyaway brown hair.

Little do they know it, of course – my paymasters. They haven’t got a clue about the bargain; if they did – the fat besuited dandruffy raw-chinned middlebrow bean-counters – they’d be outraged.

‘And what exactly, Mr Harper, is in this for us?’

That’s what they’d say, glancing up, startled, from fan-fold printouts of actuarial tables and balance sheets. What do we get out of this?, they’d demand.

And I, whimsically, with a dotty-professor air and perhaps with a toss of my head, would reply: ‘You get to know that I am still here.’

A ransom is what it is. And who’d pay a ransom of £200,000 for me?

The Ship had gone, yes, in any case. Gone, quite gone. The chippy next door seemed still to be in business, although in place of the front windowpane a trim rectangle of chipboard had been nailed to the frame. As far as I could see, the bookbindery on the other side remained a going concern.

Only The Ship had gone.

And in its place, bright-lit and bedecked with logos and primary-coloured cardboard displays, was an insurance office. Northern Assurance, or Premier Life, or something of that sort.

I saw that they had put an insurance office where the The Ship should have been, and I felt a leaden despair swell in my throat. I wanted to weep. I wanted to raise clawed hands to the sky and keen like a widowed Arab.

I wanted, certainly, to smash that bright picture-window with my boot, and hurl curses at the drones within.

Then, all of a sudden, I thought, these people will pay me to kill myself.

I wouldn’t say the idea cheered me up, exactly, but it gave me something to think about.

 

Springtime now.

Charlotte thinks that I’ve just had a relapse, that I’m just backsliding; she’s very disappointed in me. I’m still drinking; I started drinking again on the day I found that The Ship was gone and I haven’t yet had occasion to stop.

Such an occasion will, of course, come soon enough. I’m past the half-way mark.

You’d think she’d have left me by now. Charlotte. You’d think she’d have been out the door by now, suitcase under one arm and Oscar under the other. But no, somehow, for some reason – masochism? martyrdom? or that raddled old standby, love? – she sticks around. Her and the boy. My son.

Perhaps I’m not so bad, really. Although there’s still the drinking, I do play with Oscar, and read him Where The Wild Things Are, and cook his fish-fingers, and play Animal Alphabet on the living-room carpet.

I’m still working, too, and bringing home most of the shoddy salary that that affords me. I’m the batty academic, these days, the sozzled prof: the students, I tell you, they fucking love me since I started drinking again.

You know what I’d been afraid of? Springtime. Through February and early March I’d lived in dread: still more dread, that is, than usual. I’d watched with trepidation for the emergence of limegreen buds on the rowans by the roadside; I’d averted my eyes from snowdrops and catkins, and, turning up my collar, hurried on by.

I was shambling down Greek Street in mid-March when the first suggestion of warm spring breeze ruffled my hair. I froze: I was terrified. I waited for the sunshine to strike, for the Vitamin D-rush to seize me, shoo away my cares, fling me into a wild dance of elation; any second now, I thought, I’m going to decide to make a go of it, or turn over a new leaf, or wipe the slate clean

It never happened. Thank fuck for that. The eggy-coloured mid-March sun did break through, as it happened, but I only pulled my coat closer and trudged on.

This isn’t as self-indulgent as it sounds, honestly it isn’t. I simply can’t let go of my despair: I’m not only inclined to melancholy, I’m contracted to it.

Put up with this – with life,  with Charlotte and Oscar, and with that damn brain of yours – put up with this for one year, the contract reads, and we the undersigned will release the sum of £200,000.

Just one year.

‘We’ll be okay, you know,’ I said to Charlotte one night at the kitchen-table. It was disingenuous of me, I know. But she was so sad-eyed and her hands upon her tea-mug were so pale.

And she smiled.

‘Will we?’ she said.

Yes.’

Said with emphasis, and with a tender hand laid against her white freckled cheek. 

 

***

I’d smoothed my hair in the window of a VW Golf parked at the kerb on Saint John’s Walk. I’d wiped my shoes on my trouser-cuffs and straightened my lapels with care.

Then I had proceeded into the insurance office and asked to speak to someone about life insurance. Of course, of course, they said, falling over themselves in a cloud of aftershave and scurf, panting with enthusiasm for my wealthy professorial signature.

I suppose they thought: a bit scruffy, but after all he is a professor. Bit of a whiff of booze about him, but I bet he’s got a fortune squirreled away somewhere.

They thought: this feller’s spent too much time thinking – about cancers and car-crashes, heart-attacks and embolisms; I bet this guy worries about diseases we’ve never even heard of.

I suppose they like a careworn face, these insurance men. They like to see a worry-wart come in through their door.

So we agreed, in an airy open-plan office, this young man named Craig and I, to some pittance of a premium and peace of mind for life. Just sign here, et cetera.

Then a clammy handshake and the deal was done. I went out and got shitfaced to celebrate.

 

I want them to be well, this family of mine, I really do. I do love Oscar, even if, I think, I stopped loving his mother even before he was born. Before he was even conceived. Even if, that is, I never loved his mother.

I’m fairly sure, now, that I never did.

When I was his age I had a mum and a dad who loved me – as far as I know – very much, and who provided for me, and cooked my dinners, bought me gifts at Christmas, and didn’t drink a lot, or fight, or swear, or lie; one never inflicted hurt upon the other.

And look how I turned out. 

Today is September the twenty-third. I suppose you know what that means. It’s been a long summer. Summer went on for too fucking long.

Oscar’s brown hair was bleached almost blond by the incessant summer sun and Charlotte’s skin is not so pale these days. Was that really just one summer? Felt like more. Felt like a dozen summers. Felt like a hundred Junes and a hundred Julys.

Well, however many damn summers it was it’s fucking well finished with now.

The bluffs of clouds this time are blue and shine in the descending September sun. 

I have my wallet in my hands. I’ve been over the regulation stuff: the foxed snapshots of Charlotte and Oscar, she always selfconsciously tousled and toothy, he always regarding the camera with curiosity – and seeming, now, to be thinking: ‘What are you doing up there, Dad?’

I’ve been over those and now I’m looking blearily at the two slips of paper I carry with me.

One seems so pompous now – it’s Dostoevski. It’s a telling passage. The Idiot. Chapter three. Or four. Myshkin, of course – in the train carriage, you’ll recall.

I wrote it out one morning on the back of a milk-bill.

‘The chief and worst pain may not be in the bodily suffering but in one’s knowing for certain that in an hour, and then in ten minutes, and then in half a minute, and then now, at the very moment, the soul will leave the body and one will cease to be a man –’

Pompous and pretentious and redolent – far too redolent – of the piss-artist professor and tap-room bore whose life I have come to value so little – but still, here I am, perched on my rung, and weeping over this scribbled fragment on a milk-bill.

‘- and that that’s bound to happen; the worst part of it is that it’s certain.’

Author’s italics.

The other piece of paper is also hand-written, by me – this time on a scrap of blue-lined notepaper. I copied it out, and put it in my wallet, and carried it about with me, and thought myself rather fucking clever for doing so.

‘If the life insured – ‘

I can hardly read it now. It’s this wind. I can hardly read it for the fucking tears in my eyes.

‘If the life insured commits suicide within twelve months of the date of commencement of the cover shown in the insurance schedule, we will not be able to make any payment under the policy.’

There you go.

In any case the twelve months are done with now and the appropriate documentation – all stamped, signed, double-checked and correct – is folded in a brown envelope on the kitchen table. The envelope is marked ‘Charlotte and Oscar’.

I can’t bear to think about it.

They’ll think it’s a present. A surprise. A pop-up card. Tickets to Eurodisney. They’ll come in from the shops – Charlotte pink-cheeked and heaving supermarket-bags, Oscar maybe ambling behind, carrying a French loaf or a two-litre pop bottle – helping. And they’ll see the envelope on the kitchen table.

I can’t bear to think about it.

‘Hello, what’s this? What’s this, eh, Oscar?’

I can’t bear to think about it.

I let the two slips – the milk-bill, and the scrap of blue-lined notepaper – be whipped away on the high cold wind. I stand quaveringly on my rung.

Eighty feet below the cars on the gyratory jockey and snarl.

 

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12 thoughts on “‘The Life Insured’

  1. Hi there, I think your site’s got beautiful design and such interesting pieces, so I’m following! 🙂
    I really enjoy your posts and look forward to your next.
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    Sherry

  2. You always get to me. My dad was an alcoholic, I’m a suicide survivor…you have to always keep writing. Therapeutic tears for this one.

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