Then he was there. It always came a little too quickly for him, even though he hurried towards it impatiently. He always hoped it would unfurl ahead of him slowly, like a fresh denouement, or an unexpected twist, rather than with the rapid cliché of its familiarity.
He smiled at the thought of her; at the memory of her face that he could picture even now, at her wisdom that had always underpinned him. He had realised a long time ago that he only ever smiled here anymore; that he only ever smiled when he was with her.
He looked at the dates inscribed in black and recalled all the history between those two points, the wider story of the world they had existed in, and all of the personal memories that those dates spoke of.
The tears rolled down his cheeks. He had realised a long time ago that he only cried here anymore; that he only ever cried when he was with her.
The lips of the priest had stopped moving and even in the further thrown gloom of their shadows he could see the blue of death beginning to touch him. The old man looked very small and far away, and the boy wondered if this was what God saw when people died.
Without his collar the priest appeared naked, as if God might not recognize him without it. To the boy, the bandit had stripped the old man of his life and denied him his proper place in heaven. For the first time, he was ashamed of his father; wished he could be elsewhere living another life where death came more slowly.
He noticed them the moment they stepped into the carriage. It wasn’t the clothes they wore, nor their age or skin colour, or even that they were noisy that drew his eye and kept it on them. It was the way they moved and the places where their hungry, agitated eyes settled.
It was early in the morning for the commuters clinging to the roof rails pretending not to notice the young men pushing past, late in the night for the edgy and chemically restless lads. Their voices were raised, their language coarse and threatening as they barged and glared. The uneven switching between laughter and abuse, unpredictable and irrational, created a palpable fear in the carriage.
The words he had heard from the voice in the chapel before he walked away had been good words, well-chosen words gleaned from listening to those who had known the man they were here for today. But such words were not enough. To understand what someone meant to another it can only be heard directly. The truth was not in the words; it was in the catches of emotion and the breath of remembrance.
'If being in a coma is better than life, maybe death is better than being in a coma. Just think, there we all are clinging onto life when the best is yet to come. And I don’t mean in a heaven-is-waiting Christian way, or innumerable virgins in a sadly misogynistic Muslim way - which strikes me as a peculiarly grounded man-made reward; after all, what did those virgins, who are also clearly in Paradise, do wrong? No, I mean it in an early death as a benefit way – no pain, no irritations, nobody trying to steal from you, harm you, or put you in a coma, or try and sell you something you don’t want, and so on. Every little niggle of life that intrudes on the pleasures all gone, replaced by nothingness. Temperate painless ease. Fantastic. Or not, if there really is a Hell. The downside of course is that it gives serial killers an excuse.'
She can remember their father – the ghost; recalls him in no more than pale or dreamlike images, a figure in a doorway, or a disconnected beard, an abrupt voice, a self-centred sadness. But he exists more as a memory on the phone. Not his voice or his words, only her mumbled responses. She recalled much more the effect of his disconnected words on her mother.
She can see her mother’s shadowed profile against the sun glazed window; the thousand shades of yellow from a sepia past. Her mother’s head dips and sways in response to what is coming down the line. She throws a single hand up and shouts back. Her voice rises in pitch and anger, before dropping low to plead. The tears come only slowly, but they come and then seem as if they will never stop.
Then the voice on the line is gone and she looks at the receiver as if she will be able to see the reason. Tears roll down her face to collect in the corners of her mouth and slide sideways along her pressed lips.
Available late 2017
There have been other attempts to document the life of a man who was known as the actor’s actor. A man who never won an Oscar, but who won the plaudits of many of his co-stars and the movie professionals he worked with. But it wasn’t a life without conflict or problems, and for every plaudit there was a brickbat from those he worked alongside. To some he was wonderful and brilliant, to others difficult and selfish. Such is the reputation of a Hollywood actor. And such is the reason for the polarity of the two biographies that have been written about the man. The official one with access to those who knew him best, and which praised him as the best of his generation, but which his detractors called a travesty of history being rewritten. Then there was the unofficial one that was far less flattering, but which his fans labelled a ‘hatchet job’. Perhaps, like so much else, the truth lies in the middle.
Alice looked at each man in turn. Anywhere else her resting gaze would have drawn unwanted attention, trouble even, and the six men could have visited that on her in their own unique and diverse ways. She was unsure if that was a reasonable summation with its artistic license, or prejudice revealed.
Her gaze swept back around and settled on one man. The rest were agitated or bored, stared back with contempt or amusement; sexual longing. But this one, the man on the end, his chair slightly apart from the next in the small semi-circle of drab uniforms on institutional furniture, looked at her differently than the others. She found it hard to interpret his expression, felt that she was the one being read by him instead. She shifted in her seat. He looked at her as if he recognised there was zero science in the way she was judging them.
His name was James Standford. It was the only thing she knew about him, but she sensed a depth that frightened her and excited her. Of all of them, she wanted him to sign up for the study.