by Jason Jackson
I only know eight people who’ve died, and last month I started texting them. It started with Catherine, although she’s actually the most recently deceased.
It’s still hard to think about her that way but I suppose that’s the point of all this. We only worked together for a short time, and we weren’t close, but we’d chat about football— she was an Arsenal fan—and how much we hated our boss. Six weeks ago Catherine died cycling to work. A van hit her. She was wearing a helmet, but when a van hits you that hard, I don’t suppose it matters. Two days after she died, I realised there was still a conversation thread between us on my mobile. I read it back—it was just stuff about Arsenal—and I realised I hadn’t replied to her last text. It wasn’t the kind of message that needs a reply. It just said, We’ll still only finish eighth.
And as I sat there, realising that I couldn’t delete the thread, that it would just feel too weird, I started to type. Arsenal had just played that evening, and won, so I texted her the score. 2.0.
Then I went to get a shower.
Don’t worry. This isn’t going to get all Tales of the Unexpected or anything. She didn’t text back. But it made me feel better, somehow. Like praying, I suppose, if you believe in that stuff. Two days later I had a row with the boss at work about missing a meeting the previous week, and when I got home that night, I texted Catherine about it.
And then I started to think.
Eddie died in a taxi almost twenty years ago, a heart attack in the back seat. He was thirty. I’d known him since we both tried and failed to sleep with the same girl at university. She had good judgement, by the way. We were both idiots at the time.
My grandparents, all four of them, died within three years of each other. Granny Wilson died chasing a man who had tried to steal her handbag, in circumstances which my mother still veils in secrecy. Her husband, Granddad Ken, died in hospital of the lung cancer he’d already had inside of him when his wife died, and my mother says she watched him go, and it was peaceful. But I overheard her describing to my father how she’d watched a nurse pull strings of mucus out of his mouth in those last days, so I think she’s only trying to protect me from the truth. Weird, because I’m almost fifty now, but I suppose that’s what mothers do. The other two grandparents, Nana June and Granddad Pete died together in their Skoda. The driver of the other car escaped with nothing other than shock. And a vague sense of guilt, I suppose.
That’s six. The other two are different. Distant. A pretty and slightly overweight girl called Karen whom I’d known in primary school died in her thirties of breast cancer. I know because I bumped into a bloke who used to go out with her when she was older. I have very little recollection of her other than she used to habitually wear a green jacket that was a little too small for her.
And then there’s Mr Lake, English teacher, whose death was announced in the local paper in a cutting which my father sent to me. Forty years service at the same school. He had a brain haemorrhage while teaching the poetry of Seamus Heaney to a Year eleven class at the age of sixty-three. Poor bastard.
Anyway, after my texts to Caroline, I looked back in an old phonebook and found Eddie’s landline number. He’d died just before mobile phones, you see, so I didn’t have a number for him in my phone. But I typed this one into my contacts, and I sent a message. I cried a little bit, while I typed it. But after I pressed send, I felt good. Or at least as good as you can feel when you’re sitting alone in a flat texting your best friend who died almost twenty years ago.
And then I found the old landline numbers for the grandparents, and I saved them, and I texted them too. This was better, easier. My messages were jaunty, almost light-hearted, the way I used to speak to them on the phone. It was almost as if I were trying to hide the fact of their own deaths from them in jovial conversations about the new recipe for Spanish omelette with paprika I’d read about in the Sunday supplement.
Then Karen. It’s hard to text a girl you only knew up until she was eleven, but still, I found I had things to say. Things that somehow felt right in a text message to a little girl I’d hardly known—and perhaps bullied slightly, in my own pathetic little way—and who’d died, for me, long before the breast cancer got her. Of course, I didn’t have her number. So I just made one up. Someone texted back. Who’s this? it said. Just my luck. Freaked me out at first. But I knew it wasn’t her. I just sent back, Sorry. Wrong number. I probably won’t need to text Karen again anyway. I said what I wanted to say.
And finally, Mr Lake. Poor, passionate, wasted Mr Lake. In a room full of ugliness and barely-contained aggression, Mr Lake read Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking to us. To me. And by doing so he put something inside of me, a feeling which still haunts me, a love of words and a frustration that—whatever I do—I will never write something as beautiful as Blackberry Picking, so I texted him one word.
Jason Jackson’s prize-winning writing has been published extensively online and in print. In 2018 Jason won the Writers Bureau competition, came second (for the second year running) in the Exeter Short Story competition and had work shortlisted at the Leicester Writes competition. His work has also appeared this year at New Flash Fiction Review among other places. In 2017 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Jason regularly tweets @jj_fiction and has an occasional blog at http://jjfiction.wordpress.com.