Doctor admitting it’s fatal (8)
I have fifty days to live. I don’t mean roughly fifty days. I mean exactly. My life ends on 30th December 2016.
How can I be so certain? Trust me, I am certain….
How will it end? I will be drowned.
I may stay far inland and shun all invitations to swimming galas and hot tub sessions but to no avail – somehow I will be drowned. Perhaps, like Brian Jones, I will be pulled under by some rapacious tradesman, spluttering asthmatically, engulfed by a white wall of chlorinated spume. Or, like Virginia Woolf, I will float seraphically through a knot of lilies and industrial slurry.
Maybe I will make more of a splash, like Donald Campbell, up-ended in Bluebird almost exactly fifty years ago, or Captain Ahab, snarled up in his own harpoon-rope?
Should I seek out my fate, stalk my dark bride, like Sir Gawain bidding farewell to his hard-partying pals at Camelot to spend Christmas journeying alone across the badlands of Cheshire? Perhaps if I embrace my fate, I will somehow be spared? Or should I hide whimpering under my antique MFI bed in my tiny room on Osney Island until Isis herself comes crashing across the threshold?
Fifty things to do before I depart this vale of tears:
- Spend the night with Marie-Claire Goodwin
- Spend another night with Marie-Claire Goodwin …
That’s as far as I’ve got with my bucket-list. Fifty days may not be long enough to fulfil that first objective, so it would be a mistake to be sidetracked by the usual spurious carpe diems of the condemned: the parachute jump, the trek through the rainforest, the pilgrimage to the Stadium of Light (Sunderland, not Lisbon).
A couple of chance meetings have been engineered already this week. On Monday I spot Marie-Claire, sheathed in lycra after her cycle ride from the labs, arriving for lunch in Hall with some professorial dotard and I loiter out of the drizzle in the Porter’s Lodge, ready to saunter insouciantly across Front Quad the moment she re-emerges from her repast.
“Hi, Marie-Claire!” I extemporise as our paths cross.
“Hi, er …” she temporises, shaking the rain from her predictably lustrous, black tresses.
“Sorry, I … good to see you, Alex…”
While I blush, Marie-Claire passes by with hardly a break in her step. If we had world enough and time, I would let things develop naturally. But at my back I hear the Grim Reaper honing his scythe.
Why should a glamorous young geneticist like Marie-Claire even notice me? Oxford is stuffed with scholarly rejects, the city’s white, male middle class underclass. Osney Island alone is chokka with the products of Oxford’s doctoral sausage-machine. But there is no deep freeze to store us in. We sit on our dusty shelves and the whiff grows a little more pungent each day. We should have been put out for recycling, yet here we still are.
We are scratching out the odd article, introducing ever more fantastical lies to our CVs, pretending that in a slightly different academic “climate”, our micro-wisdom could be exchanged for hard cash – OK, perhaps not in Oxford but at some former polytechnic on the banks of the Thames, Trent or Tees. But there are no jobs to be had. The inexorable rise of student fees has done for us. Or so we claim. The truth may be rather simpler, that we simply aren’t good enough.
“So, Alex, have you written the play-list for your funeral?”
This is not quite the response I am looking for.
“I’m serious, Phil. I have fifty days to live …”
But Dr Philip Sherborne is too busy chuckling into his pint of Purple Moose.
“Yeah, right … and which droog would you be?”
“A bit of gospel with Led Zep’s In My Time of Dying?” Phil is getting into his stride now. “It’ll be so cool! Don McLean’s The Grave? No, perhaps not. A mash-up of Fauré and Duruflé’s requiems? Ziggy Stardust singing My Death Waits at the Hammersmith Odeon?”
“But my death really is waiting for me.”
“I do, I do!”
Phil finishes his pint with a flourish. Our squash game in the bowels of the Goodhart Building always leaves us pretty thirsty and the prices in the Beer Cellar are far from prohibitive.
“And what’s left of our band could bash out Knocking on Heaven’s Door with a hundred singalong choruses at the end!”
“Just you dare.”
“It’ll be massive,” Phil muses. “That’s the benefit of dying young – a huge turnout. If you peg out at 103, all your friends will be long gone and you’ll be lucky to fill a telephone kiosk. Dying now, aged 28, you could have as many as, ooh, ten or fifteen friends and acquaintances turning up for a free sarnie and a chance to sing along to GDP!”
“What a consolation that will be. Just get some more ale in when you’ve finished cackling. And a few crisps would be good …”
“They don’t do vegetarian crisps here.”
“Course they will. Cheese’n’onion …”
“No, they’re all saturated in animal fat. Can’t be doing with those.”
“The beer’s OK, is it? Only an acceptable number of hops died in order that you might become intoxicated?”
“You can mock!”
“I certainly shall until you finally get that wallet out …”
I should explain that Gross Domestic Product is the name of our band – perhaps you’ve heard some of our stuff on YouTube? It’s domestic in that we all fit in Phil’s back bedroom, and it’s certainly gross, so we can’t get done under the Trades Descriptions Act. I play bass, sort of, and sing a few backing vocals. As you will have guessed, Phil is the front man and general obergruppenführer. We started out as nerdcore hip hop and then got into Swedish doom-metal (think Candlemass, only not quite so cheerful) when Stig, the guitarist, accidentally bought a nyckelharpa on eBay. He thought he was getting a hurdy-gurdy so we should be thankful for small mercies.
Our latest incarnation is as a Rolling Stones tribute band. So on a Tuesday evening, I’m Bill Wyman, all brooding indifference as I meander up and down the bass fretboard. Maxim magazine once put Wyman at number ten in its Living Sex Legends list. When my musical competence was challenged one evening, I did point this out, so now I am known respectfully as Leg End.
Frankly, that’s an improvement on most of the nicknames I have collected down the years. With ‘Hogg’ as a surname, I was never going to have an easy time of it at school. I’m ‘Roadhogg’ whenever I’m out on the public highways. I was ‘Warthogg’ through my acne-plagued teenage years and Hoggweed after my friends/tormentors were persuaded to listen to early Genesis. I am regularly exhorted to “go the whole hogg” and to “hoggwash” – my, how I chortle at such merry quips!
Phil returns with two more beakers full of the warm south (well, Cornwall anyway) with beaded bubble winking at the brim, and asks why I’m so sure I’m going to die at the end of the year. But my heart is not in it any more and I decline to tell him. Phil has news of his own anyway. He fishes out his i-phone and gets me to read a message from his ex-wife, Hattie:
Goodbye, Phil. I forgive you for everything.
I try to look as blank as possible.
“So, what do you make of that?” he asks.
“That she forgives you everything?”
“No, the first bit. Why should she say goodbye?”
“Perhaps you should ask her that question?”
“I’ve been trying. Her phone seems to be permanently switched off. It’s clear she doesn’t want to speak to me. Do you think she’s gone abroad?”
“I doubt it. She wasn’t fond of flying, was she?”
“I just hope she hasn’t done something … stupid.”
The thought has crossed my mind too, of course. Hattie is a very volatile girl and she has been in a bad way since Phil walked out on her and their two kids. Jobless, living in various grimy dives in central London, drinking too much. But still heartbreakingly beautiful. Poor kid – she was still just a schoolgirl when Phil took a shine to her.
We stare at our pints for a while in silence, our squash game long forgotten. But it’s not long before Phil wants to pick the bones out of yesterday’s American Presidential election.
“What are the chances of any of us making it through to the end of 2017 with Trump in power?” he asks. “World War Three may be only a matter of weeks away.”
I agree that the shock result is an unmitigated disaster for the planet. Phil is never short of a theory to explain the seemingly inexplicable.
“Elections are no longer settled along the old fault lines of wealth, class and religion,” he assures me confidently. “Nowadays, the key thing is IQ. Everyone with an IQ over 100 voted for Hillary and everyone below 100 voted for the guy with no political experience, ludicrous half-formed policies and offensive views on almost every subject. Hillary actually secured more votes but in the wrong places, so the dullards won.”
“Does that explain Brexit as well?”
“Of course. Almost every disinterested observer was convinced that we’d all be worse off if we came out of Europe – every economist, nearly every politician. Those of us with an IQ above 100 listened and voted Remain. The rest ignored all the arguments they didn’t understand and voted according to the usual dictates of xenophobia and blind prejudice.”
“My Dad voted for Brexit …”
“Ah, OK. Perhaps there are exceptions to every rule. But it was no accident that the biggest majorities for Remain were not found in the City or the stockbroker belt but in Oxford and Cambridge. That wasn’t because of self-interest, it was purely a reflection of intelligence.”
“I’ll go home and tell Dad he has to leave town immediately.”
But when I get back to Swan St, Dad has fallen asleep in front of Hive Minds (the Logophiles versus Prime, with the lovely Fiona Bruce in the chair) and I don’t have the heart to disturb his reverie …