104

--

John Doe, Obituary Writer

Jane Doe was only 42 when the stroke hit. From the hospital, the doctors warned us she might not make it through the night. They would just have to try their best to stop the bleed in her brain. Turns out, God had already tended to that. In surgery they discovered the aneurism had dried itself up. That was some 21 years ago….

 

 

In writing about their death, it's your job to find meaning in their life.

It sounded rehearsed. They had yet to find a seat but he had gone straight to what he believed was the heart of the matter. Ben had his notebook out. He jotted down that Galloway didn’t like small talk under the heading, For Colour.

Galloway took his time looking over the cakes and biscuits in the display case, oblivious to the steam of the queue building behind him.

What can I get you? the barista prompted.

Just a coffee. Galloway dug his hand into his pocket.

Oh, I’ll pay for this.

Galloway had his back to Ben and seemed surprised to be reminded he was there.

I can afford it.

It’ll be on the paper.

There was a terse bob of his head. Coffee, then, please.

What kind and size? The barista’s hand hovered over three graduated stacks of upturned cups. 

Kind?

Latte? Cappuccino? Macchiato?...

And what’s the difference? Galloway leaned forward with genuine interest.

The barista who had been working the coffee machine came round to alleviate the queue. Ben smiled apologetically to the people behind them.

Well, the Americano is your basic espresso with water added. The latte is made with steamed milk-

I’ll have the Americano, then. Normal size.

I’ll take a medium soy latte, please.

Galloway picked a nearby table next to a window. The galvanised sky pressed up against the glass. In one decisive movement, Galloway took off his tweed cap and threw the rain from it towards the floor. A silvered memory of fishing with his dad slipped through Ben's mind. Galloway scraped his chair back from the table and sat down.

Trying to match his immediacy, Ben said, Are you married?

That came out of leftfield, didn’t  it? Galloway ripped into two packets of sugar at once and emptied them together into his drink. Well, I was. He ruminated while he stirred. He looked his age and like his photograph. His face was vacuum packed by a hurried hand. A web of spider veins stretched across his nose. Ben was only surprised by the duck-like stoop of his neck and wasn’t sure if this too had arrived with age or the weight of the rain.

Galloway tapped the spoon twice on the edge of the cup, a dink, dink gently ringing out, the way she used to, one of the fragments of her that had embedded in him.

The milk steamer made its plosive sounds. Anyone getting their coffee had to turn sideways and edge around them. Several times Ben, irritated, inched his chair more under the table. He had expected the meeting to take place somewhere more hushed, somewhere more Galloway, somewhere that wasn’t straining for cosy with orange lightbulbs. Galloway was unruffled, content, it seemed, to sit in silence. Ben wasn’t: Sorry if that seemed abrupt but you don’t have any online presence; it was difficult to find out anything about you. A gull called outside, far from the coast.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what you want me to tell you. I hope you haven’t come to meet me to learn some “tricks”. I don’t have any I’m afraid. Just solid research.

Except for the Does.

Galloway smiled into his coffee. Except for the Does.

He remembered holding her desiccated hand in his as if he was strong enough to keep her, and promising her life, lives, to those swollen eyes.

They were what gave the job purpose. Oh, I don’t mean to come across like a stuffed shirt, I know it’s your job now but there seemed something gregarious, or, or crude really in celebrating the people who had already had celebration heaped on them in life. It was freeing creating lives.

It was one of your Jane Doe pieces that made me want to write obituaries. Ben had tried to hold on to his cool but the fawning sentence bucked up and out of him.

Galloway was pleasantly taken aback. He set his cup on its saucer. Tell me more.

You probably don’t remember it, you’ve written so many, it was one phrase that stuck out and caught me, “Turns out, God“

“-had already tended to that,” Galloway cut in.

And do you believe in God?

Another big questions, huh? …For a while back there, I did.

I was studying journalism when I read it. Everyone on my course wanted to be the next Joan Didion or Studs Terkel; for me, it was you. That sentence changed everything for me.

Galloway let his shoulders come down to rest. 1968 was when the idea first came to me. It was the first time my wife was in the hospital and in the next bed a girl died.

Ben nearly interrupted.

She was young, beautiful, healthy-looking albeit she hadn’t been conscious for any of the time we had seen her.

You must have married young.

Back then, where I grew up, it was normal to marry out of school. I thought, who are these people that no one knows?

And what was it like where you grew up?

Galloway shifted and pulled himself together again. I’m sorry but I can’t possibly see how that will be of use to you. Let’s get back on track, shall we? You’ll find it gets to you after a while, writing about death. But the paper’s been good to me, always fitted around what I needed to do. Hopefully you’ll find them the same when you start proper.

Ben frowned. I’ve been with the paper two years now.

Are you sure?

Ben wanted to laugh and be sick. He hadn’t known what to expect when the paper had asked him to prepare Galloway’s obituary but it wasn’t this punch to the ego.

Galloway shrugged. I’ll have to read some of your stuff.

Ben felt twelve years old again. You’ve not read anything of mine?

Don’t sulk; I barely read my own work.

You quoted yourself back to me not two minutes ago, Ben thought and he put his head down.

Galloway felt lost again. All those lives, living, and by necessity dying, over and over, you'd think it would've blunted by now, the pain, he said aloud, forgetting himself, forgetting he was no longer alone in his house.

Ben scribbled in his notebook. Galloway tried ignoring him and his own watering eyes.

Galloway groped for something to say. It’s a bit personal but I’ll share with you that I’ve recently been thinking of writing a profile for an, erm, dating site. Don’t laugh. I don’t expect anything to come of it. I feel quite foolish saying it out loud. I haven’t even written it yet. Probably won’t. I don’t see how it can work.

You should give it a go. I have a couple friend who met online and they’re very happy that they’ve found each other.

Galloway had discovered there was no room in his life for happiness. Perhaps that was the therapist’s hopeful outcome for suggesting it but she was beyond replacing. Within three sentences of meeting her she had told him that; 1, she split her time between Cork and London; 2, that her grandfather had designed the very building they stood in; 3, that she had just finished a meeting; and 4, had decided to catch a later train despite having another meeting just to see the building. And then she was brazen enough to ask him out for a drink. She tugged the suitcase behind her like a tough, misbehaving child. The things he remembers about that first date: her educated voice shining through the fog of cigarette smoke; realising she’d been given the space to grow into her own sprawling, eccentric shape; and the life after. The Jane Doe's had been for her, to live and live again.

Galloway waved the thought along. It was the idea of a friend, he said.

Could I contact your friend? Do a follow up?

He’s not even a friend, really. Follow up? Galloway's teeth caught on the two words at the end of Ben's slow melting sentence.

This isn’t what- I thought you were taking my job, that you needed- I’m not ready for this. His face was petrified. Galloway stood faster than he had sat down. He left Ben and a half drunk Americano in his wake. He hadn’t waited to put on his hat and coat and instead struggled to put them on outside in the rain. Ben watched him through the window, drowning while putting on his jacket.

Comments

Please sign in or sign up to comment.