21 September 2009


I came across
a waterfall
in a forest
that surprised me
because there
had only ever been
dry earth there,
but now it was a
long, flowing
that ran in
gentle curves and
almost silence
down between the trees,
little clear pools
that played
so fragilely
with the first
fallen leaves of autumn
that I wondered
whether they had
even the slightest

14 September 2009

The Interesting Death of Daniel Price (Pt. 1)

It was the change of wind I noticed first, and then the old man walking down the beach toward me as if he was ordinary and had simply been brought here on a day trip. He was wearing the same dark grey coat as all the other times I’d seen him, and had that long crooked stick that he obviously didn’t need for walking. I’d never seen his face close up before. Somehow he had always kept just far enough away; stood at the back of a crowd or turning just as I’d realised he was there. I’d never even been brave enough to talk to him.

But here he was walking past me now, giving me a brief and empty glance that dried my throat up instantly. He carried on past and worked his way to the high tide line. He had arrived with the returning tide and the change of wind made the waves crash heavily on the sand. He stood appropriately silhouetted against the finest sunset of the year.

I knew I had to talk to him this time, but for a short while I let him be there by himself. There was no one left on the beach for him to bother anyway, except me. My breath became shallow and quick as I climbed down from my lookout chair. I took as deep a breath as possible and walked down to where he stood.

He didn’t notice me, or seemed not to, for quite a while. I turned to look at his face and saw for the first time the wrinkles and folds of his skin. He had a much kinder look about him than I had expected, and his eyes were lost behind bushy white eyebrows as he stared out at the sky painted sea. It was still a full minute before I could bring myself to speak.

“Excuse me,” I said, in a predictably dry voice. “Can I have a word please?”

He didn’t react. Could he even hear me?

A few seconds later however his posture grew slightly tense and he turned slowly to his side. His eyebrows rose up over his eyes and his mouth hung slightly ajar. He stared at me like a bewildering work of art.

“You can… see me?” he said, carefully surveying my face. He spoke very slowly.

“Yes.” I replied. “I can see you. And I know what you’re here for.”

His eyebrows descended in a concentrated frown. He dug a small notebook out of his coat pocket and flicked to a recent page. He seemed to read for a moment and then looked back into my eyes.

“Joanna… Cox,” he said, with the slightest of smiles. “Interesting.”

His manner, just as I had expected, was of complete calm. He seemed to consider carefully the words he spoke, and the sounds that came from his mouth were deep and smooth. He spoke impeccably like someone who had been doing a very formal job for many years.

“It is not yet your time,” he said, continuing his search through the pages of his notebook. Eventually, he gave up looking for clues. “This… has never happened before.” He put the notebook back in his pocket, sighed and looked back out over the sea. “I suppose you have questions for me? It seems that you should have them answered.”

I nodded.

“I shall give you six,” he said. “Six is a good number.”


After,” he interrupted, holding up a bony hand, “you have answered one question for me.”

“Fine,” I said.

“How does Joanna Cox know who I am?”

He asked the question word by word, as if it contained many sentences. As he spoke wind became noticeably cooler. He waited, looking out at the sea with eyebrows raised, for a reply. I took a deep breath.

“I’ve seen you before,” I told him. “Several times. The first was the day my father died. I was nine. I remember being sent to my room while the family went crazy downstairs. Anyway, I saw you, from my bedroom window, leading him away down the street.

“I shouted down at him, but he… ignored me. My mum heard me shouting eventually and came into my room. She didn’t believe me of course. Eventually I didn’t believe me either.

The man stood silently for a while. The ocean churned in the strong wind. He nodded slightly. “And the rest?”

“I’m a lifeguard. I’ve seen you three times on this beach in five years. Last year-“

“Melissa… Cook,” the old man interrupted. He said her name slowly with his eyes closed.

“Melissa. Yeah. When I brought her body out of the water, there was a big crowd, and behind them, you were there, holding her hand. She was watching me.”

“Sometimes,” the old man said, “the young ones have to watch for a while. To understand.”

I took some time to calm the memories that had been brought back to the front of my mind. The man seemed satisfied with my answers and said no more. I watched some gulls for a while circling gracefully above the bay, and then remembered about the questions.

“So,” I said, taking another deep breath. “Who have you come for this time?”

“A boy,” the old man said. “He is called Daniel Price. He is twelve years old.”

I didn’t recognise the name. He would be one of the nameless thousands that visit this beach with their families every summer.

“Does he drown?” I almost didn’t need to ask.

“Yes,” the old man said. Just as he answered the wind picked up more strongly. The waves crashed a little louder.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“You should… console his parents.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“No,” he said. “It cannot be stopped.”

The sun was almost down and we watched it blend with the water for a while. It was a fine sunset.

“But, stopping people from drowning is what I do. I’m good at my job, you know.”

“Indeed,” the old man said. “That is… precisely why Daniel Price drowns.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It is best for you that it stays that way.”

The gulls decided to stop circling and headed back to the cliffs on the western side of the bay. They left their inane chorus trailing back toward us.

“Can you not take someone else?” I asked. “An old person?”

“No. It does not work that way. Tomorrow… here… is Daniel’s day.”

A family appeared on the beach further down from us. They had two dogs that ran in and out of the surf, barking loudly. The sight of a young boy with them made my stomach churn. Tomorrow?

“You said tomorrow? What are you doing here now if he dies tomorrow?”

The man pointed slowly out to the horizon. “The sunset.”

I gave an accidental laugh. This old man was really not what I had expected. “The sunset?” I asked. “What do you care about the sunset?”

The old man gave a small but kind smile. “Do you not think it is beautiful?”

“Of course I do. But…“ I really had no idea what to say.

“I have been doing this job for… a very long time, Joanna” the old man said, sounding slightly weary now. ”I have spent a great deal of time in the company of your kind. I have… learned to appreciate some things as you do.”

“So now you enjoy sunsets?”

“Amongst other things.” He gazed out at the sea again, which had become momentarily calm. There was only a small sliver of sun remaining over the ocean. He looked to be thinking about something.

“Joanna, I want you to know something. That is, I do not enjoy causing so much sadness. To begin with, the weight of the will of the universe felt good on my shoulders. But I am… tired of it now. Now that I understand you more completely.”

“Then choose,” I said. “Choose not to take Daniel Price tomorrow.”

“I cannot.”

“You’re choosing to talk with me now. You’re choosing to watch the sunset. Choose.”

He sighed.

“You must remember that we are different, Joanna. For you, existence begets function, and therefore choice. For me, function begets existence. If I chose to ignore my responsibility tomorrow, my existence will cease. It may come as a surprise to you but I do not wish to die.”

“Neither does Daniel Price.” I felt guilty saying this, and then confused.

The man said nothing for a while. His breathing had become noticeably heavier and he held his walking stick tightly. His knuckles were white.

“The job would be completed by another,” he said, eventually.

“At least it wouldn’t be you.”

He paused momentarily. The final words he spoke that evening were, “You have already had seven questions, Joanna Cox.”