Have you ever had that conversation with a loved one? The one where you discuss who you would prefer to die first? It’s a bit morbid (okay, entirely morbid), but it’s romantic too. It’s about love more than it is about death.
You’re watching some TV show when one of the protagonists is hit by a truck – flattened and flat-lined – leaving their husband, wife, bit-on-the-side alone and bereft.
Or maybe this new stiff is the victim of a murder. Perhaps they’re killed in action. Or in a boat. Up a mountain, down a cave. An earthquake, perhaps, a typhoon, lightening, tsunami. An explosion, a sudden and total loss of altitude, a dropped piano. Decapitated, asphyxiated, exsanguinated. They die in bed and on the table. Under the knife. These deaths can be sudden or – always worse – protracted. The expression of professional regret on the doctor’s face: “I’m sorry, Mr Soontobegone, it’s the size of a grapefruit.”
And the boyfriend, the girlfriend, the other-half is all of a sudden (or gradually and painfully) uncoupled. They are no longer another half – they are an isolated and reduced whole.
So where do our sympathies lie? Six feet beneath the loose earth? Or above in the rain, clutching a handful of dirt? On the warm side of the bed or the cold?
We turn to our own partners and we say: “Would you rather I died first or you?”
As dilemmas go, it’s a doozy. Because I don’t want my wife to be left like that awful widow on the TV. I don’t want her crying into her pillow, then her cornflakes, then her pathetic portion of a meal intended for two.
I don’t want her frightened and alone at night. I don’t want to her to have to take out the bins on a Tuesday (cardboard one week, plastic the next). She is – true to the cliché – terrified of spiders, she can never find her keys, she doesn’t shake enough ice through the Saturday-evening martini, she needs me – needs – me – to make a pot of tea on a Sunday night. The thought of leaving her like that kills me.
But the alternative is unthinkable. I literally cannot imagine life without her.
It’s a conundrum the characters in my latest novel don’t have to worry about. Not that they don’t know love (they do, the nun included), but they are all dying. And soon. These are the ones who will leave some other one behind. No conversation in front of the TV necessary.
But just because these seven are dying, don’t think they’ve given up living. Far from it – they have taken it upon themselves to put together a play of Shakespeare’s greatest deaths before they succumb to their own.
Hamlet slain in a duel.
The Duke of Clarence drowned in wine.
Antigonus perused by a bear.
Chiron and Demetrious baked in a pie.
And, of course, Romeo and Juliet – the lovers dead in each other’s arms.
Love and death, you see. After all, doesn’t the knowledge that one is inevitable make us feel the other more keenly?
People say you should live every day as if it’s your last. Good advice if you want to wake the next day with an all-consuming hangover and an intense feeling of regret. Better advice (I’m stealing it from my main character) is to ‘live every day as if it’s your last with the people you love. Because one day . . . it will be.’
Talking of inevitability, let’s return to the sofa. With me and Mrs Jones sitting in front of episode 9 of whatever box set we’re currently watching.
A man and woman exit a restaurant, they kiss and say goodbye, the woman walking one way, the man the other. He steps of the curb and . . . bang, straight into the path of an oncoming bus.
I turn to Mrs J. “Who would you rather died first?” I say. “You or me?”
“Dunno,” says Mrs J. And – never one to miss a good segue – she smiles. “But I’ll tell you what, I am dying of thirst.”
I get up from the sofa and go to make tea.