“I used to be somebody, once.”
Geoffrey Stancombe stared miserably into the dregs of beer pooling in the bottom of his tankard.
Philomena Bucket patted his shoulder consolingly,
“You still are somebody, you daft thing. Sure, if you weren’t, I couldn’t be seeing you sat sitting there, now could I?”
“No, I mean really somebody. I used to have it all. Money, power, a girl on each arm. It’s all gone… all gone.”
The other drinkers in the bar of the Squid and Teapot said nothing. They had heard it all before. This had been a regular lament of Geoffrey’s ever since he had washed up on the island a few days earlier, boasting of his luxury yacht and expensive clothes. All his rescuers could see was a slightly built, wild-eyed man of middle-age, who had arrived bedraggled, half-dead and clinging to a rectangular piece of wood that had once been a door. In fairness, Geoffrey was not that unusual. Newcomers frequently made improbable claims, citing wealth and position but – even if these were true – such things cut no ice on Hopeless. Anyone who managed to survive more than a few weeks would be simply judged by their ability to fit in, and the ways in which they might contribute to the benefit of all. So far it looked as though Geoffrey was doomed to fail on both counts.
It was half a lifetime ago that he had met the stranger who had turned his destiny upon its head. He had been sitting in a dockside pub in Liverpool, drowning his sorrows in a smoke-filled bar, when she sidled up and offered to buy him a drink. Geoffrey was well aware that he was being set-up for some scam or other, but he was slightly drunk, down to his last few pounds and she was young and attractive; what was there to lose? Several more drinks were taken before she made her play. He could recall their conversation as if it was yesterday.
“I’ll give you twenty-four.”
“Oh, come on! I was hoping for at least forty.”
“Sorry, twenty-four or the deal’s off.”
“But why? I’ve heard that you’ve offered hundreds in the past.”
“That, as you rightly say, was in the past. I cannot afford to be so generous these days. Times have changed.”
Geoffrey remembers himself hesitating, until the stranger purred softly in his ear,
“Look… it is an excellent bargain. You’d be a fool to walk away from it.”
He felt himself weakening.
“And you would meet all of my demands?” he asked
“Oh yes. I am not out to swindle you.”
“And I get twenty-four years.”
“Twenty-four years and not a minute less,” she smiled. “It’s a small price to pay.”
When you, yourself, are only twenty-four years old and are offered the same span again, pain-free, trouble-free, debt-free and guilt-free, it feels like a no-brainer. You are standing in the very centre of a story, your own story. Your life, so far, feels long and endless. Much of it is a blur, or something viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Time has been slow and kind, a sluggish stream that never reached birthdays, Christmas and school holidays quite soon enough. So you reason that future time will equally languid. Forty years would have been good but, hell, in forty years you would be really, really ancient and probably in no fit state to enjoy the extra time afforded to you anyway. No, twenty-four years of luxury would be good enough.
“What a fool I was,” Geoffrey thought bitterly, not realising that he had said the words out loud.
“And why a fool?” asked Philomena, sitting down opposite him.
Geoffrey said nothing for a moment. The easy way in which Philomena’s voice had sidled into his head, shattering his reverie, reminded him of the young woman in the pub in Liverpool. But there the resemblance ended.
“Can you come and walk with me a while?” he asked her, almost shyly. “It’s nothing that I want to speak of in here.”
“Give me a moment,” said Philomena, “I’ve a couple of things to finish off, than I’ll be with you.”
They walked in silence for a while, making their way in the direction of Chapel Rock.
Philomena slipped her arm into the crook of his. It felt the right thing to do.
Geoffrey told her about the conversation in the pub and the bargain that he had struck. He told her how his life had changed, almost immediately. Everything he wanted was suddenly available. Nothing was beyond his grasp. For years this hedonistic lifestyle seemed wonderful then one day, not so long ago, he woke up and realised that his existence was a totally empty sham. He had no friends or lovers, just a great many people who were attracted only to his wealth and power. Everything had gone sour and all that was left were his possessions, each one no more than a lifeless trinket, a symbol of his squandered years. To make matters worse, time itself had somehow forgotten how to dawdle. He had failed to notice how the lazy stream of his remembered youth had become a raging torrent that cruelly and casually swept away twenty-three years and eleven months in the blinking of an eye. The bargain he had made granted him twenty-four years and not a minute less. Now all that was left was one month and not a minute more. He was terrified.
Geoffrey fell silent. Minutes that felt like hours slipped by. Unable to bear it any longer, Philomena asked,
“So what did you do?”
“I ran away. Leastways, I sailed away. I had a yacht and a crew of three to sail her. But there was a storm. That’s all I remember until I found myself on this island. I suppose the crew must all be dead by now.”
“But you escaped… whatever it was you were running from.”
“Do you think so?” he said, brightening up.
“I guess it depends on how long you were at sea,” Philomena said, then added, “I’ve got to get back to The Squid now. I’ll catch up with you later. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
When Philomena arrived back at The Squid and Teapot she found Bartholomew Middlestreet sitting at a table, in the now empty bar, playing solitaire.
“What was that all about with Geoffrey?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Philomena pensively. “What he told me was difficult to believe, yet there was something…”
“Well, those things he said in here about being rich and powerful, not a word of it is true.” Bartholomew interrupted. “But I’m not calling him a liar – I think he’s genuinely deluded.”
“Well, that’s a relief, anyway” said Philomena, thinking of the story Geoffrey had told her. “But how can you be so sure?”
“When we found him I could have sworn he was dead,” sad Bartholomew. “There was no pulse that I could feel, then suddenly he sits bolt upright, throws up a great stream of water and asks where he is. They say that drinking sea-water drives people mad and I guess that’s what happened to Geoffrey. Besides, the girl who turned up the following day says that they were part of the crew of the yacht that floundered on the rocks off Scilly Point. They were the only survivors.”
“At least the bit about the yacht was true, even if it didn’t belong to him,” said Philomena. “I didn’t know about the girl, though. Where is she now?”
“I haven’t seen her since then,” said Philomena replied Bartholomew. “Odd that. Most newcomers stay here in the Squid.”
Geoffrey didn’t return to the Squid that evening, or ever again. He seemed to have vanished completely. The general feeling was that, in the state of mind that he was in, anything could have happened. Philomnena was sad but not surprised. Such things occurred on Hopeless with monotonous regularity and all thoughts of Geoffrey and his talk of a mysterious deal eventually faded from her mind.
It was a some months later, while rummaging in the attics of The Squid, looking for something to read, that Philomena found the following passage in a slim book of short stories. For reasons she could not fathom, it made her blood run cold:
A rich man, living in Baghdad, sent his servant to market, as he did most weeks. When the servant came back, his face was pale and his hands trembled. His kindly master could not help but be concerned and asked the cause of his distress.
“When I was in the marketplace,” the servant replied with a shaking voice, “I spotted a woman in the crowd. I recognised her at once – she was Death. She looked at me with surprise and it seemed as though she was threatening me. My heart missed a beat. I was certain that it was I whom she sought. Oh, beloved master, I must flee from this city if I am to avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra where Death will not find me.”
“Take my fastest horse,” said the rich man “and ride like the wind.”
The next day the rich man went down to the marketplace himself, and who should he see but Death, mingling in the crowd.
“Why were you so surprised to see my servant when you saw him yesterday? He seemed to think that you were threatening him” said the rich man to Death.
“It is true, I was surprised, but there was no threat intended,” agreed Death. “You see, I did not expect to see him in Baghdad yesterday, for I had an appointment with him last night in Samarra.”