There’s change in my pocket. It jangles while I walk heavy against my leg. The dog is at home; too yappy to walk with me this morning. I left the chaos of the house behind. I needed this walk. Calm. Soothing. Quiet. I’ll never tire of these views. The smell of the sea. The salt on my lips. The crash of the waves against the bottom of the chalky cliffs thunders in my ears and I take a long deep breath. That tang in the air.
I pause. Hands in the pockets of my waterproof. I wore it just in case spotting those few clouds. Perhaps it’ll rain.
‘A good day…’ The voice permeates my mind. People often approach me when I’m out and I turn, presented with Death.
My heart clenches. The beat irregular.
‘So death is the Grim Reaper.’ I don’t experience any fear, a sense of calm has engulfed me. I have no idea if Death is looking at me or not but the open hood turns in my direction.
‘I come in the form you expect,’ Death replies, ‘You expected the hood and the scythe.’ Bones clatter with his shrug. ‘Here I am.’
‘So you can come in any form?’
My thought and the transformation come instantaneously and before me is my grandfather. Cloudy blue eyes, sagging cheeks, even the flat cap he had worn to hide his thinning hair.
I nod. I don’t trust my voice. What better way to greet death than in the form of a man I loved.
‘Shall we walk?’ he asks.
We continue along the coastal path and it makes me worry about who will find my body. A dog walker I expect. It’s usually dog walkers. Or runners. The silence soothes me and I struggle to remember that this isn’t my grandfather. The change rings again in my pocket.
‘So what happens now?’
‘You have a choice.’ His voice is like I remember it. ‘We can go now, or you can buy one hour more.’
‘How much is an hour?’ I ask expecting some intangible concept that will balance the cosmos. An hour of my life for the shine of a diamond.
‘How much is an hour of your life worth?’ he replies. I think on that question. How much? One hundred pages of a book? A TV documentary? Cooking dinner? A conversation with a loved one? But these things are how I fill an hour. How do you put a price on an hour of life?
Grandfather is studying me. No doubt hearing the thoughts I think. His lip twitches lifting in amusement. A familiar smile.
‘Money,’ he says to clear up the ambiguity. I don’t understand, money is a human creation. How can money determine the value of my life? ‘How much were you paid for an hour of your life?’
I’d worked every day of my life. Generic. Overstated. False. I’d had sick days. Many. Mine and the kids but I’d always worked since I could. An hour of my life when I first started, four pounds eighty five pence. I was young, inexperienced; an hour of my life somehow worth less money then than an hour now.
I tried to calculate it, curious. How much am I worth now? Thirty years later. We stopped at a bench dedicated to a couple, both long dead, and sat down looking over the cliffs at the black sea. I’d loved coming here. I love coming here. I’m not sure if I’m dead yet.
‘Not yet,’ grandfather says reassuringly.
So how much am I worth now? Twenty two pounds and five pence. That’s what an hour of my life is worth. I tell grandfather even though it’s not necessary to speak aloud.
‘Do you want to buy an hour?’
Of course. Who doesn’t want to buy an hour? Who wouldn’t clamour for sixty more minutes of life? Then realisation hits. What would I do? If I buy this hour, how would I spend it? I’d rush from place to place, eyes glued to my watch waiting for the eventual moment that everything ends. Terror. Anxiety. Prolonging the inevitable.
I think of the people in my life. My children, my friends, my parents, my wife. I could phone Seb and Lucy but would I get through? I’d waste time trying to track them down or they’d screen their calls rolling their eyes that dad was calling again. Then when they find I’m dead, they would feel awful. I don’t want that.
Ana is at work. I’d be able to make it across town and see her but what could I say? I’m sorry. I love you. I wish I’d tried harder. Loved you better. That I’m grateful for the last twenty five years we got to spend together.
Mum and dad? Kids shouldn’t go before their parents. What could I possibly do to ease their burden? Remind them I’d had a good life. I’d fallen in love, worked hard, procreated, seen some of the world. But not enough. I wish I’d travelled more. Experienced more.
‘What’s death like?’
I need to know. Do I continue on in some form? Could I do all those things I’d never found the time to do? Is it a bit like retirement?
‘There’s only one way to find out.’
Or in three thousand six hundred seconds.
‘What do most people choose?’
I should have walked the dog. Ana will have to come home to a house with an agitated dog and no husband.
‘What feels right to them.’
That isn’t my grandfather. He was always straight down the middle. He’d have probably clipped me round the ear and said to live as long as possible. I look at my watch which stopped at the moment Death appeared. I don’t like that it’s my grandfather anymore. This is just Death wrapped up in a more aesthetically pleasing packaging.
I don’t even get the words out before Death is before me again. He stands. Scythe. Hood. Black.
That’s better. If I’m going to deal with Death, I don’t want to be clouded by sentimentality. It seems sick that a man in an office has dictated the cost of my last hour. But is it any worse than the one who dictated the cost of my first?
I wring my hands and close my eyes. My wife, my children, my friends and my parents. Would I want one more hour with them if any of them were going to die? Would I pay death for their last hour?
Of course I would.
I look up at death, eyes searching the darkness of his hood. The wind blows but it doesn’t touch Death. Death is beyond our realm. Lucky bastard.
‘Alright,’ I say. ‘Twenty two pounds and five pence.’ I stand up reaching for my wallet. Death extends his hand, uncurling the bones of his fingers and I lay two crisp ten pound notes in it. My hand dips into my pocket bringing out a collection of coins. A gold pound, silver, bronze. Two pounds exactly. I look up.
I don’t have enough.
Victoria Williams was born in England and has worked overseas as a Primary school teacher since 2011. She has worked in both Kuwait and Beijing. She recently attended a summer school at Oxford University and has been shortlisted for the TSS Flash Fiction prize and the Writer’s Bureau 2018 short story prize. Victoria also has a blog at vwilliamswriter.wordpress.com. Connect with her on Twitter: @victoriaw_88