On the day Death came calling for her, Antonia Priver had already left. Clothes shopping, as usual. Unfortunately, given the ever-increasing weight of his workload, Death had barely had time to skim through her case notes that morning, let alone analyse her spending habits. He’d clocked her age and address and committed her photo to memory (there’d be hell to pay if he took the wrong client by mistake) but the detailed lists of likes and dislikes had rather fallen by the wayside.
It probably wouldn’t have made much difference anyway. Death, with his limited grasp of high street retail trends, was blissfully unaware that the long awaited Next sale had started at six o’clock that morning. The whisper was that the coveted caramel cashmere tops would be entering the fray at fifty percent off, but he’d never been one for idle speculation and caramel just wasn’t his colour.
“Come on, Ms. Priver,”he thought, checking his watch. “I haven’t got all day.” It was always depressing to fall behind on the first job of the morning. “What’s keeping you?”
But when the door was eventually opened, after a toe-scuffing two and a half minute wait on the leaf-strewn doorstep, it wasn’t Antonia standing there. Death thought he recognised the dressing-gowned old woman, peering out at him from the coolness of the tiled hallway, as her grandmother. Yes. They were old friends in fact. That’s to say their paths had crossed a couple of times before, which was as close to friendship as Death ever got. As unpleasant occupations went, his was right up there with sewerage plant worker and taxman. No one ever wanted to sit next to the reaper at parties. And dating was proving a complete no-no too, thanks to the uncompromising hours.
“Hello,” murmured the old lady, the word loitering somewhere between a question and an apology.
“Ah, Madame Priver. I’m sorry to call so early. I was looking for Antonia.”
The old lady’s eyes narrowed to thin black hyphens as she tried to remember what her granddaughter had told her about letting strange men into the house.
“Have you come to read the meter?”
“No,” smiled Death. “I’m here to see Antonia.”
“What’s the password?”
Death sighed. Young people were by far the hardest part of his job, but it was almost as cruel to keep the old ones hanging on so long. To wait until Time had already ravaged their minds.
He fixed his attention on the tight grey bun on top of the woman’s thinning scalp and plunged into the tangled chaos of her thoughts. An ailing cat jostled for attention with her great uncle’s butterfly collection. Characters from her favourite novel argued over an inheritance while her younger brother drowned unnoticed in her grandfather’s pond. Fragments of shopping lists and a recipe for apple almond tart had twisted themselves around her seventeenth birthday. Odd words fluttered above the general mêlée. Death seized one at random.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think it was that.”
He tried another. “Laburnum?”
She rolled it over on her tongue, head to one side. “Laburnum, laburnum. Hmm, I’m rather afraid we chopped it down. It’s poisonous, you know.”
“Pacific? Viper? Baguette?”
“Baguette.” She smiled triumphantly. “Yes that’s it. I knew it was something to do with cheese. My late husband was French.”
Death stepped across the threshold. “Ah yes, Albert. I remember him well. Such a shame about his heart.” He recalled the stoic look of suffering on Madame Priver’s face as she’d sat by her husband’s hospital bed, all those years before, waiting for him to arrive. She’d been quite the beauty in her day.
The old lady raised her eyebrows noncommittally. “It’s in the under stairs cupboard, at the back. You might have to move the ironing board out of the way.”
“That’s perfect,” said Death, peering through the darkness at the electricity meter. “Now tell me, Madame Priver, when are you expecting Antonia home again?”
“Oh don’t ask me,” she muttered crossly. “She was down there queuing from five o’clock this morning. How long can it take to buy a jumper?”
Death did some silent calculations. If the girl was back within the hour he might still make it to Epping in time for his next appointment.
“Her mother was just the same,” she said. “God rest her.”
“Ah yes, Madeleine. How sad.” He shook his head in a clumsy gesture of shared sorrow. “If only she’d jumped away from the propeller blade… still, at least Death was swift,” he added, with a shade more pride than was strictly tactful.
“I try not to think about it. I fully intend to slip off quietly in my sleep.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he smiled. “And in the meantime, could I possibly trouble you for a glass of water?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. “Of course, of course. Where are my manners? Would you like a cup of tea?” The old lady was already shuffling down the hall towards the kitchen. “The kettle’s not long boiled,” she called over her shoulder.
“Thank you. That would be lovely.”
Death followed her into the kitchen and sat down at the table, which wobbled alarmingly despite the folded piece of cereal box wedged under one of the legs. He watched as the old lady cut open a pair of tea bags with the garden secateurs, emptying the loose leaves into the chipped yellow pot. She poured on a good measure of boiling water and stirred thoroughly, before turning out all the kitchen drawers in turn, in search of a tea strainer. She settled, finally, on a large metal sieve, balancing it on top of the cups with one hand as she manhandled the teapot with the other.
“Sugar?” she asked, stirring in the milk.
“Two please. Bit of a sweet tooth.”
She tutted. “My husband was just the same. He was French, you know.”
The paper brown hands shook as she handed him the rattling cup and saucer and he had to fight back the urge to steady them with his own.
“You must meet a lot of people in your line of work,” she said, brandishing a battered green biscuit tin under his nose.
“Yes,” he agreed. “I’ve rather lost count over the years.” He rummaged for a moment, enjoying the knock of crumbling biscuit against the metal of the tin, before selecting a Custard Cream. “This is lovely,” Death told her, leaning back in the stiff wooden chair with a soft sigh of satisfaction and levering off the top half of the biscuit with his front teeth. “Do you know, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anyone’s invited me in for a cup of tea.” He held up his right hand as he spoke, enjoying the early morning light filtering through the net curtains and bouncing off the curved pinkness of his manicured nails. “You meet a lot of people but you don’t make any friends.”
“All my friends are dead.” The old lady frowned at him across the table.
She shrugged. “Comes to us all sooner or later. Another biscuit?”
“Yes, thank you, I will.” He found a chipped Rich Tea lurking at the bottom of the tin under a cluster of Chocolate Digestives.
“Letty went a couple of weeks ago,” she sighed. “Lost her glasses and fell down the stairs in the middle of the night.”
Death nodded glumly. It wasn’t one of his favourite methods but what choice did he have? According to the latest government statistics a thousand people were expected to take a fatal tumble every year.
“They didn’t find her for three days. All very sad. Lovely do after the funeral though. Little fancy vol-au-vents and breaded chicken bits. I’ve told Antonia I want crab sticks and scampi at mine. I don’t mind what flavour sandwiches she orders but I definitely want scampi.”
“A fine choice. I’m sure it’ll go down a treat. Tell me,” he blushed, “do you think about Death a lot?” He knew it was poor form to ask but it would be useful to get some genuine feedback.
She thought for a moment. “Not so much in the day time. But at night…well it’s not that I’m scared exactly… it’s the not knowing where or when that’s unnerving. Don’t you think? And the ‘how’ just doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Really? I always think it’s Life you’ve got to worry about, personally. That’s where all the pain and suffering is.” It was true, he thought glumly. Only everyone loved Life, didn’t they? Couldn’t get enough of him. “If you ask me, Death gets rather a bad press, that’s all.”
The old lady took a noisy slurp of tea. She didn’t look convinced.
“Speaking of which, did Antonia tell you what time she’d be back?” He checked his watch. With a clear run it was probably only half an hour to Epping on the Central Line.
“Oh, Antonia never tells me anything. Though she did leave me a note – something about a jumper she couldn’t live without. Now, what did I do with it?” She heaved herself up from the table with an alarming groan and started rifling back through the kitchen drawers and cupboards. “I expect you get a lot of this in your line of work,” she said, as she rummaged.
“What do you mean?”
“Batty old women who can’t remember where they put anything.”
Death nodded. “Quite a few, yes. But I’ll let you into a little secret. Often they’re the ones who make the job worthwhile.”
She flashed him a shy grin, the puckered skin of her lips stretched tight across her dentures. “Well, I might have lost some of my marbles but at least I still know where the meter is. I leave all the bills and things to Antonia but I know where to find the electricity meter in an emergency. And,” she added proudly, “I never forget the password… it’s cheese, isn’t it? Something to do with cheese. My late husband was very big on cheese. He was French you know.”
Death helped himself to another biscuit.
From somewhere in the next room came the muffled shrillness of a ringing phone.
“That’ll be Antonia now I expect,” said the old lady, breaking off from a thorough search of the fridge to go and answer it. Death slipped a couple of Rich Teas into his jacket pocket while she was gone and edged his chair nearer to the wall to listen.
“All right, Dear,” she was saying. “Not to worry. I’ve got the electricity man here... well I wouldn’t have let him in without the password... of course I remember it. Anyway he wants to speak to you… I don’t know, he didn’t say... OK. I’ll tell him…”
When she returned the trust had all drained out of her face.
“I think perhaps you should go now,” she told him. “There’s a problem with Antonia’s train – it’s only going as far as Homerton and she’s got to walk the rest of the way. She said anything you need to discuss can be done over the phone.” The old lady peered at him suspiciously. “What did you say the password was again?”
“Hmm. Still, I think you should go.”
“Of course. And you’re quite right, matters of electricity billing are probably best dealt with over the telephone at a mutually convenient time. She’s getting off at Homerton did you say?”
The old lady nodded.
Death stood up with a mock bow. “Madame Priver, it has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for your kind hospitality.”
“You’re welcome.” She walked him out to the front door. “Now then,” she said, scanning the small gravelled front garden, “I must see about chopping back that laburnum. What did I do with the secateurs?”
“In the kitchen I believe.” He would be gentle with her granddaughter. It was the least he could do. A bus perhaps? A speeding lorry? She’d never even know what had hit her.
“Thank you again.” Death raised the old woman’s shaking hand to his lips. “Au revoir, Madame. Until next Tuesday.”
Jennifer’s short fiction has appeared in numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including The Guardian, Mslexia, Daily Science Fiction, Route 16, The Fiction Desk, The First Line and Short Fiction. She is a previous winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and the winner of this year’s Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Contest. Find her online at jennifermoore.wordpress.com or on Twitter @JennyWriteMoore.
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