Final credits. Show’s all but over. One last tune from Ed’s iPod and the crematorium doors widen. I’m going where the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain. Randall lurches outside, wobbles in a thank-god patch of sunshine. Going where the weather suits my clothes. The family shuffle themselves into a line-up: the deceased’s mother reaching just the shoulder of the deceased’s wife. Ed’s brother next? Very tall and looks a little like him. Ed’s children, the daughter only up to her uncle’s waist. A face she loves interrupts the protocol and the little girl’s smile slashes the dark fabric of today. Ed’s son, adolescent and alone at the end, arms meshed over the outrage in his gut. Here now we see the stiff bar chart of the family, offering some kind of analysis.
The aftermath plods on. Day 6 already and the fleshy part is done; no pecked death for the living’s further consideration. Just the weightless cream envelope stamping against our anti-hero’s chest.
I won’t presume to ask forgiveness. This letter is designed to help you move forward, to ‘move on’, everyone says. I’ve heard that phrase over and over from my wife and my father, since the embezzlement charges. I’d heard, I should be saying, not I’ve heard, because of course I will be dead when you read this.
Yesterday, dinner in the kitchen was over-lit: an interrogational feel, the fingertips of confession scratching at Randall’s throat, a need to sign something. His own children plunging noise up and down, rubbing their backs against this rare opportunity: their parents’ silence. Randall turning the food on his fork with a glass blower’s attention and his wife, Sarah – the one person who knows what Randall has done – well, she is difficult to read. Perhaps Sarah is tossed among feelings which have no letters or words. Then their daughter goes too far and Sarah stands, chair shrieking across the floor tiles.
When I’d decided to do it – and that part, the deciding, was easy enough in itself – I had to make a plan. I had to find someone like you. This took some doing. Other things were much easier. The letters to my family were in the bread bin to start with, then I put them in the fridge door between the cranberry juice and the milk. You can imagine the kind of thing, how much I love them (loved them), how it’s not their fault in any way, how it is my dearest wish that they ‘move on’! This is all true, Randall. There’s no need for me to lie at this point. And I don’t mean to give the impression that it was easy to write those letters. I practically took the letter opener to my heart. I’m straying a bit here but do bear with me because I would like you to know that I picked you because you are the best sort. It had to be someone new, really. Do you see that? Not an old friend. I couldn’t. But what do I mean by best? Kind, strong, reliable. Decent, Randall. That’s what I could so clearly see. And so when you mentioned the five aside team, I seized my chance.
Quarter to seven on the eve of the funeral and the continuity announcer on the tv doesn’t give a damn. Almost ten in the bedroom, Randall takes off all his clothes and stares at his wife so that she will do the same. Sarah does this without enthusiasm and without redress, they begin making what? Randall’s tongue collects his tears, left to right. Sarah’s eyes remain unsurprised. Words now come into her mind, as the remedial work ploughs on: salt, dry ice, yes I love you. They wait a long time for him to come and although there is very little audible, visible, rhythmic progression, eventually he does. An excess sliver of life streaks the inside of her thigh and they lie apart.
Being in the team was a way of getting to know you and of course you were puzzled that I rarely showed up for practice. You found a way to be patient, to laugh it off. That’s the sort of person you were (are!). But you see, I was like one of those Twin Tower pilots who didn’t need to learn to land.
Post funeral, Randall reads the remainder of Ed’s letter by the river. He lies back, grinds his shoulder blades into the grass, like sledge runners; imagines his body sliding itself down the river bank and in, watches it corrugating over the fast waters, waves it off.
But the wind flicks and jabs at the letter, so Randall rolls onto his stomach.
I enjoyed drinking pints with you, Randall. I’d stopped doing that kind of thing. I was so busy working, terrified about losing my job, debt stalking me. All the stuff that seemed so vital for so long. I can barely remember how that feels, as I write now.
You know I can’t think when I last used a stamp. We only ever emailed, so you won’t have recognised my handwriting on the envelope. And of course it’s quite possible that when you see this letter from me, you will rip it up, burn it. I hope not. Because I’ve done a terrible thing to you and the last effort I should now make is to tell you why.
The whole thing is the purest of selfishness. I do know that. Not just the suicide itself but wanting to be in my own home. But here I actually believe that my wife would rather that, for my sake, because she does love me, or did for a long time. Rather than a rope in a barn. We had a neighbour do that early on in our marriage and I remember her saying she couldn’t think of a worse memory for those left behind. Peacefully in my own home, was the idea. As I might have hoped to do one day in the far future.
The first email was sent at 8.45am and simply said, ‘Hey Randall, I’ve got to send you an email later today but you have to guarantee you’ll pick it up. It’ll be around 2.00pm. Can you do that?’
Orange colours splash Randall’s eyelids. The sun must have skated into a clearing in the clouds. He thinks of later: the wild cough of kids at the mouth of the school gates, the skin of his daughter’s cheeks stretching over the epic narrative of her day. All is torture or ecstasy: for her the gulf between is either forgotten or doesn’t exist. Randall cannot remember ever inhabiting such a world. Sometimes his son pretends not to see him. Just a little game, a telling, rivalling power; so far unnoticed by his sister. Sometimes they stop in Newhall Park to make reed boats and float them downstream. The children’s hands are practised and harmonious in this, behaving the way children behaved decades ago. Sometimes, Randall squeezes his eyes, blurs his kids into Blyton characters; gives her pigtails, him a sweater vest.
Lettermelater.com is the service I used to have the email delivered. I wrote ‘around 2.00pm’. Tried to be relatively casual and you gave me your assurance that you would pick up the second email. Curious, you were, to know what was ‘going down’, naturally. Not ‘some exploding message’, you said and I put, ‘Don’t be daft. Just make sure you open it.’ I wanted to say, ‘Promise me,’ but I think then in the intervening five hours, you might have had some suspicion, or some sort of instinctive feeling. We never got far enough into a friendship for me to really judge your imaginative capacities but I decided that you would pick up the second email without having to press you into some kind of sworn statement.
Getting this letter sent was a little trickier though. I wanted to give you some days. To get over the shock of my outrageous demand upon you. Turns out it’s quite hard, nigh on impossible, to get a letter delivered on a specific day. So I paid someone to do it. Of course I had no real way of trusting them and I had to recruit there too. I always think that dog walkers are very solid, trustworthy folk. I picked a man, I knew that I would. I watched all kinds of dogs and judged the owner by the breed. A lab owner would be too kind, concerned – not that I gave them the back story, of course I didn’t – but those owners and spaniel people, they’d be too worried. And terrier walkers might need too much information. So I picked a cross breed owning man. I swore to him on the life of my children that there was nothing illegal in this act and having established that he was unemployed and desperate for money, I persuaded him. So I very much hope that this letter is in your hands.
The process became quite consuming, almost a hobby. It brought a cooling to my head, like ventilation. Took me one floor down from the crazy storey. I felt I was making a separate self and wondered would the real me finally intervene? I don’t want that to happen and if it does, you won’t be reading this letter. If it does, I shall have to find my mongrel man and snatch the letter back.
So there you have it. Many questions answered, I trust. Closure. God, that steady stream of now words. Yay! That’s something I won’t miss. What was wrong with Peking? Old, Randall, I was getting old. Old enough to know better.
The second email came in at 2.00pm and said, ‘Randall, I need you to read this very carefully. I am at home. I am dead, in the master bedroom. The front door key is under a wooden block in the dog kennel (there is no dog). Please ring the emergency services and alert them now, so that preparation is made for my family returning to the house just before 4.00pm. Thank you.’
The drugs, and the knowledge for effectively mixing them, were of course easy to acquire. They will have told you all that, the medical folk, how quick it was, how painless.
I know that the hours from 2.00pm must have been hell for you, Randall. I couldn’t find a sure fire way of messaging the ambulance service at the right moment and I couldn’t allow my family to find me. Please know how sorry I am for inflicting this unholy scene upon you.
I had planned a day with my family. Nothing fancy, just a picnic, the bikes. But the way I presented it must have seemed rather false or silly and they found reasons not to go. It is very hard to be around each other since the indictment and it will become harder, it would have become harder, if we had gone ahead with the trial. Pleading guilty, as I am, will shorten, would have shortened, proceedings but I know my wife would have been there, my son too was making all kinds of noble declaration. It’s too much, Randall. I know that it is too much for them. When I am no longer here, they can repair their lives more quickly. There will be no hiatus for my prison stretch, no need to be hanging on for reclamation of our life together. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t have the picnic. I know how much they mean to me. I just wanted to be sure that they know, to show them my old self, to give them that memory but Lord, was my timing off there.
My friend, thank you for helping me and my family. I am forever grateful.
Randall begins to fold the letter this way and that. There is a pebbled patch at the edge of the river bank, just right for a family of water voles clad in striped swimwear for some animation. Confident that she is the greatest God, our sun crashes over the water, convincing us now to concern ourselves with just the inch or two on the surface. Randall is no longer fooled though. He remembers the front door to Ed’s house. The key retrieved from the dog kennel. The ‘thank God’ he whispered as the siren wailed up the driveway to the front door which had a new coat of paint. Eyes left, some freshly pointed brickwork; up, to pristine soffits. Last chores to be appalled or marvelled at. The ambulance crew blasted past Randall as he swung round accusingly at the honeysuckle climbing a trellis on the shed. Imagined his friend inside, cleaning the paint brushes finally, saw his own hand missing on Ed’s shoulder.
Randall’s lip scollops at the sun, as it cajoles us, beckons us with all the sincerity of a coconut shy. The hero lowers himself down onto the pebbles and holds the paper boat by the tip of its sails. The current gobbles up the words and irony begins to poke around the side of Randall’s mouth as he hums The Last Post.
Jenny’s debut novel is ‘Piano from a 4th Storey Window’. Shortly to be released as a short film. You can check both out at: www.jennymortonpotts.com