Ken Foxe is a freelance investigative reporter and co-director of the transparency group Right to Know.
He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working or minding his two kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.
THE DEATH NOTICE
By KEN FOXE
The most peculiar thing about my death was sitting in my living room, reading about it in the newspaper.
My body was found at the Strawberry Beds in Dublin’s River Liffey, a couple of miles from where the clear water comes to meet the shopping trolleys, traffic cones, and dirty brown silt of the city.
It was near a favoured spot of mine, an area in which I cycled two to three times each week, the closest thing to countryside for those looking to escape the glass-strewn cycle lanes and rotten air of the inner suburbs.
Many were the days when I sat drinking a coffee and eating an almond croissant after my latest foray up and around the short sharp rides of Somerton Lane, Tinker’s Hill, and Rugged Lane. No matter how often I rode those little hills, they never felt easy. I suppose I should put it down to age; I was touching sixty and my body had given up on trying to improve.
That morning, I was sat in my armchair reading the newspaper. I use the word the, not because it was one paper among many, but because it was the only newspaper now available.
The city once had nearly a dozen daily papers, morning and evening, broadsheet and tabloid, conservative and liberal. Now we were down to one, not because the others had failed – though they had been failing – but because that was the way things were.
In the middle to late years of our republic, our geography had been advantageous – close neighbours of the United Kingdom, distant neighbours of the United States. When their democracies began to decline, we hoped we could withstand those forces. We were European now, not American, certainly not English.
Well, we were, until we weren’t.
How we got here is rarely talked about in public; how we recover from it, barely at all.
I am, was, an old enemy of the state though it has been many years now since I did anything to offend them.
I suppose you could call me a loose end, or at least I was one until my body was discovered in the River Liffey last evening.
The loose end has been tied off now. I exist in body but not in name.
I suppose on reading my death notice, I should have had some plan in place, a cyanide pill to chew on, a razor blade to incise me towards oblivion. But I am a coward, always have been, and cowards hope for the best – even when everything they know tells them otherwise.
Not all loose ends have to be tied off, I would tell myself.
My existence is a warning to others, I would say.
There is nothing to be gained from my death.
Please let these things be true.
The knock came on my door an hour or two later.
“Mr Maddox?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Not anymore,” he said, “you are deceased. I am your undertaker.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “You are deceased.”
I looked out onto the road. One of his assistants was sitting in an armoured van outside; I think he was sneering.
Across the road, I could see a neighbour quickly pulling the blinds in his bedroom. Another neighbour sped her walk, successful in keeping her eyes from my doorstep.
The undertaker walked inside, put the kettle on, apparently to make himself a cup of tea.
He would not ask me where the teabags or sugar were but instead set about opening every press in my kitchen.
“Can I help you find anything?” I asked.
“How could a dead man help me?” he said.
“I could tell you where things are.”
“A deceased person does not speak.”
I pondered this for a moment, trying to think of something intelligent to say, something subtle, something so well-crafted, that he would take my insult as a compliment. I could think of nothing, cowardice as usual.
The undertaker rummaged in the cutlery drawer, whetting a chopping knife against a tool I kept in the drawer beneath. I loved to cook but that was finished now.
“A dead man cannot speak,” said the undertaker. “If he were to try to speak again, this would be the instrument that would ensure silence.”
He returned to the kettle, poured himself a cup of tea, sat down at the counter and began to drink it while taking the last two biscuits from my favourite pack.
I didn’t know what to do. What else could I do? I returned to my armchair, sat down, and closed my eyes to try and still the panic.
The telephone rang, a landline not a cell phone. For people like me, mobiles were prohibited. Instinctively, I got up from my chair and went to answer it but met the undertaker in the hallway.
He picked up the receiver.
“No,” he said to the caller.
I could not hear the voice on the other end of the phone – even a muffled noise – though I am sure they were asking a question.
It could have been my daughter in Auckland, or my son in Darwin – over in the safer part of the globe. Who knows?
“Don’t you read the news?” said the undertaker. “Mr Maddox is dead.”
He hung up, pulled the phone cord from the wall, cut it in two with the knife he was still carrying.
All the while, his face – chiselled like that of a man who has once taken steroids – remained impassive, no different to that of an indifferent plumber here to fix a leaking pipe.
“A dead man has no need of a phone,” he said.
Later that day, construction men came to fit bars to the windows of my home, downstairs and upstairs. They installed a security gate at my front door, sealed up the back door, as well as the French doors that led out into my tended garden, where I would never set foot again.
The undertaker sealed up my letterbox himself.
“A dead man has no need of post,” he said.
They removed my bedroom door and the door to the shower room so that I would have no privacy. They fitted cameras in every room, the moving images sent to God knows where.
A chair was left outside my room where a night guard would come to relieve the undertaker of his duties.
The following day, they disconnected my computer. The day after that, they disposed of my music collection.
Food would come in trays and be left for me to eat in view of the undertaker; they would take the cutlery from me after.
Over the next few weeks, I had much time to think on the past because there was nothing else for me to do.
They took all writing materials from the house, every pen, every pencil, my PC, an old typewriter I’d once bought in a vintage shop in Phibsboro.
Then they began to take my books, all the fiction titles one day, the non-fiction titles the next.
They left just a single novel; I’m not going to tell you the title – I think they meant it as a joke. I was too frightened to read it again.
That past, the one where I used to be an investigative journalist, a sort of a professional nuisance; they called me a bottom feeder. I used to trawl for public records nobody else had the time or inclination to read.
Sometimes, those records would say things about powerful people that they would prefer had been left unsaid. Powerful people with long memories – the type of people who had since made sure nobody could trawl for public records.
I hadn’t done it in years anyway, burnt out, lost my nerve, could see in vague terms what was coming, not intelligent enough to explain it or do something about it … just smart enough to know it wasn’t good.
I thought I could cleanse my past, become a model citizen, tie up my own loose end.
These people’s memories though; they were not the forgetting types.
In the early days, they repaid their grudges in blows, and bullets, and the noose but when they got bored, they realised deferred pleasure was the greatest pleasure of all. A long game. That way, they could savour the thought of what was to come indefinitely.
That’s what I was now – like a counter in a game of Snakes and Ladders with a person unknown rolling the dice. Only there were no ladders, only snakes and the pit.
I awoke one morning to find my right leg chained to my bed, a chamber-pot in the corner.
My food would be placed at the foot of the bed – breakfast, lunch, and dinner, enough to keep me in reasonable health but always hungry. Plastic bowls now, plastic plates, plastic knives, plastic forks, and plastic spoons.
How many days there have been of this, I’m losing count as the beginning of madness unfurls.
My body is foul, my hair matted, my beard, long, grey, and ragged, my fingernails and toenails uncut and yellowing.
I have a bedsore on my righthand side, the same side as my manacled leg. It is near impossible to sleep with the pain from the infection.
They boarded up the windows so that no natural light can reach my room.
I am past the beginnings of madness now. I do something I promised myself I never would – I plead with them to kill me.
When they brought the open coffin to my room, I thought it might be over. “At least the dead can feel no pain,” said the undertaker, laughing.
I think of my wife. For the first time ever, I am happy she died before me. For I am almost certain they would have made her watch what is about to happen.