The phone was ringing again. Wincing as I swallowed the dregs of my tepid coffee, I pressed the answer button with one hand while adjusting my headset with the other.
“Good morning, National Health Helpline.” I pitched my voice as I’d been trained: calm, professional, interested but not too interested. “I’m here to answer all your medical questions. How may I be of assistance?”
“Oh, hello.” The voice on the other end was deep. Unusually deep. Like the call of a foghorn or the lowest string on a double bass, even down a crackling phoneline. “I have a problem I hope you can help me with.”
“Of course.” I ran an idle finger along the stained rim of my mug. “Why don’t you start by listing your symptoms, and we’ll go from there.”
“Symptom, really.” I got the impression it was a joke, though there was no hint of humour in the resonant boom. “I only have one symptom.”
“I am deaf.”
My finger stilled against the cracked porcelain. “Then if you don’t mind me asking, sir, how is it that you can hear me?”
“You mean … not having any ears?” was the reply. I sat up straighter, frowning.
“Sorry – you don’t have any ears?”
“Of course not. I am deaf.”
I shook my head, trying to shift the words of the conversation into a more comprehensible order. “What?”
“What?” he echoed, equally confused.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t understand,” I said, enunciating each syllable with care. “You say you’re deaf, but you seem to be hearing me perfectly well.”
“Ah. I think we have reached a misunderstanding.” If possible, the deep voice dropped even deeper. “Not deaf. Death. D – E – A – T – H.”
“You mean …” I stopped talking, trying to work out what on earth he could mean. He was dying, suffering from a terminal illness? Suicidal? A murderer?
“I mean Death. Black robe, skeletal figure, scythe. Harvester of souls, the ultimate conqueror of everything. As inevitable as taxes. Death.”
Great. Apparently even a medical helpline could get the occasional crank caller.
“Oh,” I said. “That Death.”
“The one and only.”
“So what exactly can I do for you, sir?” I asked him, lounging back in my chair and looking up at the ceiling. I had the sudden urge for a cigarette. “Is it a hairline fracture, perhaps? Osteoporosis? Bit of repetitive strain injury?”
“None of those things.” He ignored my sarcasm. “As I told you, I have only one symptom. I am Death. Now tell me – what is my cure?”
“You want a cure for death?” I wondered if my supervisor would notice if I lit up at my desk. “One thing’s for sure, if I had that I wouldn’t be on the phone talking to you right now. I’d be in the Bahamas with three yachts and a helicopter.”
I reached out to cut him off at the base unit, but the deep voice was already speaking again.
“I have been in this job for millennia, and I am growing tired of it. Sometimes I consider trying to find another position, but with the economy the way it is …”
I grimaced at the phone – he wasn’t the only one. When I set out to get my medical degree, I never imagined I’d spend my days trying to reassure hypochondriacs that they weren’t dying of bubonic plague. Or, in this case, dealing with madmen who thought they were anthropomorphic personifications.
“I jet from one part of the world to the next, severing souls from bodies left, right and centre, never a moment to relax,” he went on. “And with every passing decade I get busier and busier. If I am not careful I will burn myself out.”
I sighed. “Listen. It sounds to me like you’re just working too hard. You need to take some time off. Walk in the park. Watch the flowers grow. Hang out with your friends.”
“I have no friends. I am –”
“Death. Yes, I know.” I rubbed a hand over my face. This one deserved a two-cigarette break. “But even Death needs company. That’s your cure, right there.”
There was a pause. Then he said, with what sounded like genuine satisfaction, “Thank you.”
And put the phone down.
For a stunned minute, I sat there listening to the dial tone. Then I tossed my headset onto the desk and leaned back in my chair once more. What a nutjob.
Something flashed in front of my face, a glint of metal passing too quickly for me to be certain it was even there. I jerked backwards, and the wheels of the chair slid out from underneath me. The world tumbled around me, a kaleidoscope of whirling colour – then a moment of jagged darkness when my head cracked against the corner of the filing cabinet –
Pain. Then nothing.
I got to my feet. The darkness was growing, filling the spaces at the corners of my vision. But on the floor – I blinked, then rubbed my eyes. My body lay there, motionless, blood oozing from the cracked skull. I frowned at it.
“Am I –?”
“I took your advice,” said a familiar deep voice. I turned. He was there beside me: robe, scythe and all. Grinning as if my prone corpse was a great joke – though I suppose he couldn’t help that. It’s hard not to grin if you don’t have any lips. “So what shall we do now, my friend?”