It was a Monday, at lunchtime. I was at my favourite café. An unopened menu lay on the table before me while I scrolled through my Twitter feed minding everyone else’s business.
The café’s clientele looked a lot like me. Suits. Young. All headed towards our 2.3 children, green Volvos, and white picket fences. Our sharp, skinny ties slowly constricted our dubious music tastes and late nights spent watching postmodern Hungarian films. We all paid rent and insurance. And medical aid. A couple of us probably sported some tattoos to dilute our corporate aura—Maori tribal art, nihilistic phrases from Camus, or a proverb from a lost civilisation—but mostly for conversation starters at our numerous house parties.
Cool ink, dude. What is it?
Oh, this? It’s a kraken eating a masturbating bicycle crank. In Indonesia it symbolises, strength, prosperity, a love for single-speed bicycles, and good coffee.
Sweet. Did you get it in Indonesia?
No…I got it done here.
Here and there, sprinkled around tables in the café, were rebel tee shirts and tight-fitting jeans. The ones that got away.
Not for long, I thought. The rising costs of living and loving in the city would soon have them part-timing, full-timing, and then rest-of-life-timing with the rest of us clock punchers, running towards the lie at the end of the tunnel.
I momentarily stopped scrolling through life, looked up from my phone, and saw Death walking towards me.
I knew it was Death because she bumped her scythe against a table leg, upsetting a drink perched near the edge of the table. The spilled liquid lunch drew an exasperated breath from the young patron who looked up from his tablet.
This incidence would derail his entire day, send stock markets plunging several points, and probably start a civil war in a small African country, I thought.
Little did I know Tuesday’s newspapers would declare Greece’s bankruptcy. Libya would go to war with itself.
Quickly, Death used a towel she pulled from a small apron around her waist to wipe the table, apologising profusely all the while. Behind her, at the café’s counter, I saw the manager shake his head with disapproval.
As she dried the table Death was careful to keep the scythe from bumping into anything else. She hurried back to the kitchen to prepare another drink.
Death came out of the kitchen with a fresh concoction and delivered it to the huffing patron, apologised once more. Then she made her way to my table, carefully manoeuvring her scythe so she did not disturb the causal fabric of the universe again.
When she arrived at my table she apologised for her tardiness in coming to take my order but she was cute so I told her it was okay. I did not tell her she was cute though. She rested her scythe in the crook of her arm and pulled out a small notebook to take my order.
“And what would you like to drink, sir?” she asked.
Death had a shy smile I would tip generously. I saw a tattoo nibbling at the edges of her crisp white shirt’s severe cuff.
I noted the absence of krakens eating masturbating bicycle cranks.
“Err…just hold on.”
I opened the menu and paged through it. Starters. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Drinks.
“Death by choice,” I said.
Her smile widened.
I said I would have a cup of tea. With warm milk. No sugar.
“Do you want to order something to eat now or would you like a moment to look through the menu?”
I scanned the menu and settled on a salad which had all of the right sounding vegetables. Death scribbled down my order and said my meal would be ready in about twenty minutes. She walked to the kitchen to place my order.
She returned soon after with my tea and tiny pitcher of milk which would require me to hold it with my thumb and index finger while my pinky angled into the wind.
Sophistication, I thought, is making everything small and impossible to handle.
As Death arranged my tea and milk on the table before me I tried to make small conversation with her. You know, the usual place in a girl like this kind of thing.
I avoided talking about the scythe.
“It’s a decent gig. Good tips. While I figure out what I want to study.”
“Oh, yeah? Any particular interests so far?” I asked. I drank my tea in what I hoped was a charming Colin Firth-y manner. Small sip, no slurps.
“Too many. But I think something in education would be nice. I like working with kids.”
I was careful to inject my response with the appropriate amount of interest in her career path without coming across as creepy. I offered some words about taking things easy, about having fun while working hard. Hypocrite shit. Half Khalil Gibran, half Nike one-liners.
Death seemed reasonably impressed by my wisdom. She nodded nodded throughout my small Socratic monologue.
“And you? What do you do?”
“I am the scum of the universe,” I said.
Death smiled when I said this. “And how is that working out for you?”
“Short days, long hours. Boss, clients, good pay, no play. The usual. I am running out of places to bury the bodies.”
I smiled. “Close. Advertising.”
I knew Death liked my sense of humour because she let out a little laugh. Light. Genuine.
We traded some more words before she had to excuse herself to fetch my salad.
She returned from the kitchen balancing my bowl of salad on a tray while carefully navigating the maze of tables. The other patrons did not seem to take note of the scythe.
I watched Death’s slim figure approach my table with my lunch.
When she put it in front of me I made a show of being excited by all the polysyllabic vegetables and unknown vitamins in my bowl.
“Yum. Chlorophyll,” I gushed sardonically.
She walked away to attend to another table.
I grazed on my salad in misery.
My lunch hour would end soon. I dreaded returning to the office. I would have to lead a brainstorming session about evangelising more consumers and delivering their souls from divine retribution. As usual, I would find myself hoping it was Thursday—the furthest from Monday and closest to Friday one could be in the working world.
While chewing my cud I looked around at my other payroll pals.
Paycheques, promotions, parenthood, taxes. Then what, I wondered.
I knew I needed a way out.
When Death came to clear away the table she asked me if I had enjoyed my lunch. I said I should have had something with two dead animals banned in at least four major religions.
“Imagine, I could die right now and the last thing I would have eaten would be a kumquat. What the fuck is a kumquat?”
That light laugh filled the air again.
“No point in eating like a saint,” I said, “when the fun is in the sinning, right?”
We smiled at each other for what seemed like a respectable amount of time before Death asked me if there was anything else I wanted.
I am not sure if I should have read more into her inquiry. I asked for more tea—this time to go—and the bill.
She brought my tea and the bill rolled up in small tin cup with the mandatory mint. I popped the mint in my mouth.
“You can pay at the counter,” Death said before she hovered away politely as I reached into my pocket for my wallet.
As I pulled the bill out of the cup I noticed some writing at the back. I unrolled it and read the neat handwriting:
Life is too short. Start with the dessert.
I smiled and put my money in the cup—settling on a generous figure—and stood up from my table. I looked around for Death but I could not see her on the floor.
Perhaps she is in the kitchen, I thought.
I took my tin cup to the counter. I did it as slowly as I could without being weird. All the while my eyes scanned the floor and darted to the kitchen to catch another glimpse of Death.
Eventually propriety took over and I had to pay my bill and leave.
I walked back to my office thinking about the laugh that made me want to propose marriage. When I got to my desk I woke my computer from its lunchtime nap and started typing up my notice.
An excerpt from the diaries of Oscar Q. who, during the small moments his of life, had chance encounters with Death and lived long enough to tell the tale. His diaries were discovered, as it were, posthumorously because life is a funny thing and there is such a thing as a laugh after death.