The stunning new novel from Richard and Judy Book Club author Claire North: the voice behind the word-of-mouth bestseller The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.
He did not do this with words, nor mathematics, nor did his hands move, nor could he especially blame anyone else.
It didn’t occur to him that Death would come; not in the conscious way of things. Death was, Death is, Death shall be, Death is not, and all this was the truth, and he understood it perfectly, and for all those reasons, this ending was fine.
Tick tick tick.
The world turned and the clock ticked
tick tick tick
and as it ticked, he heard the countdown to Armageddon, and that was okay too. No point fighting it. The fight was what made everything worse.
He was fine.
He picked up the first pill, and felt a lot better about his career choices.
* * *
At the beginning . . .
The Harbinger of Death poured another shot of whiskey into the glass, lifted the old lady’s head from the dark blue wall of pillows on which she lay, put the drink to her lips and said, “Best I ever heard was in Colorado.”
The woman drank, the sky rushed overhead, dragged towards another storm, another thrashing of the sea on basalt rock, another ripping-up of tree and bending of corrugated rooftop,the third of this month, unseasonal it was; unseasonal, but weren’t all things these days?
She blinked when she had drunk enough, and the Harbinger returned the glass to the bedside table. “Colorado?” she wheezed at last. “I didn’t think there was anything in Colorado.”
“Very big. Very empty. Very beautiful.”
“But they have music?”
“She was travelling.”
“Get an audience?”
“No. But I stopped to listen. This was student days, there was this girl who . . . People won’t be booking her for a high school prom any time soon, but I thought . . . it was something very special.”
“All the old songs are dying out.”
“Not all of them.”
The woman smiled, the expression turning into a grimace of pain, words unspoken: just you look at me, sonny, just you think about what you said. “A girl who?”
“What? Oh, yes, I was, um . . . well, I hoped there’d be a relationship, and you know how these things sort of blur, and she thought it was one thing and I never really did say and then she was going out with someone else, but by then we’d booked the plane tickets and . . . look, I don’t know if I should . . . I’m not sure I should talk about me.”
“Well, this is . . . ” An awkward shrug, taking in the room.
“You think that because I’m dying, I should talk and you should listen?”
“If you want.”
“You talk. I’m tired.”
The Harbinger of Death hesitated, then tapped the edge of the whiskey glass, held it to her lips again, let her drink, put it down. “Sorry,” he murmured, when she’d swallowed, licked her lips dry. “I’m new to this.”
“You’re doing fine.”
“Thank you. I was worried that it would be . . . What would you like to hear about? I’m interested in music. I thought maybe that when I travelled, I mean, for the work, I’d try and collect music, but not just CDs, I mean, all the music of all the places. I was told that was okay, that I was allowed to preserve . . . not preserve, that’s not . . . Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk? When . . . when my boss comes . . . ” Again his voice trailed off. He fumbled with the whiskey bottle, was surprised at how much had already been drunk.
“I know songs,” she mused, as he struggled with the op. “But I don’t think they’re for you to sing. A woman once tried to preserve these things, said it would be a disaster if they died. I thought she was right. I thought that it mattered. Now . . . it’s only a song. Only that.”
He looked away, not exactly rebuked, but nonplussed by the moment, and her resolve. To cover the silence, he refilled her glass. The tumbler was thick, clean crystal, with a clouded band at the bottom where the base was ridged like a deadly flower – one of a set. He’d carried all four up the ancient flagstone road from Cusco, even though only two would ever be used, not knowing what he’d do with the remainder but feeling it was somehow wrong to part one from the other. He’d also carried the whiskey, stowed in the side of his pack, and the mule driver who’d showed him the way across the treeless road where sometimes still the pilgrims came dressed in Inca robes and carrying a blackened cross had said, “In these parts, we just make our own,” and looked hungrily at the bottle.
The Harbinger of Death had answered, “It’s for an old woman who is dying,” and the mule driver had replied, ah, Old Mother Sakinai, yes yes, it was another thirty miles though, and you had to be careful not to miss the turning; it didn’t look like a split in the path, but it was, no help if you get lost. The mule driver did not look at the bottle again.
They had camped in a stone hut shaped like a beehive, no mortar between the slabs of slate, a hole in the roof for the smoke from the fire to escape, and in the morning the Harbinger of Death had watched the sun burn away the mist from the valley and seen, very faintly in the dry stone- splotched grass, the tracings of shapes and forms where once patterns miles wide had been carved to honour the sun, the moon, the river and the sky. Sometimes, the man with the three surprisingly docile mules said, helicopters came up here, for medical emergencies or filming or something like that, but no cars, not in these parts. And why was the foreigner visiting Mama Sakinai, so far from the tarmacked road?
“I’m the Harbinger of Death,” he replied. “I’m sort of like the one who goes before.”
At this the mule driver frowned and sucked on his bottom lip and at last replied, “Surely you should be travelling on a feathered serpent, or at the very least in a four-by-four?”
“Apparently my employer likes to travel the way the living do. He says it’s good manners to understand what comes before the end.” Having said these words, he played them back in his mind and found they sounded a bit ridiculous. Unable to stop himself, he added, “To be honest, I’ve been doing the job for a week. But . . . that’s what I was told. That’s what the last Harbinger said.”
The mule driver found he had very little to give in reply to this, and so on they walked, until the path divided – or rather, until a little spur of dark brown soil peeled away from the stones laid so many centuries ago by the dead peoples of the mountains, and the Harbinger of Death followed it, not quite certain if this was indeed a path used by people or merely the track of a wide and possibly hungry animal, down and down again into a valley where a tiny stream ran between white stones, and where a single house had been built the colour of the dry river bed, timber roof and straw on the porch, a black- eyed dog barking at him as he approached.
The Harbinger of Death stopped some ten feet from the dog, crouched on his haunches, let it bark and dart around him, demanding who, what, why, another human, here, where no people came except once every two weeks Mama Sakinai’s nephew, and once every three months the travelling district nurse with her heavy bags not heavy enough to cure its mistress.
“You’ll want to learn how to deal with dogs,” the last Harbinger had said as he shadowed her on her final trips. “Ask any postman.”
Charlie had nodded earnestly, but in all honesty he wasn’t bothered by dogs anyway. He liked most animals, and found that if he didn’t make a fuss, most animals didn’t seem to mind him. So finally, having grown bored of barking, the dog settled down, its chin on its paws, and the Harbinger waited a little while longer, and when all was settled save the whispering of the wind over the treeless ground and the trickling of the stream, he went to Mama Sakinai’s door, knocked thrice and said, “Mama Sakinai? My name is Charlie, I’m the Harbinger of Death. I’ve brought some whiskey.”