October 17th, 2020
A Plaque Before I DieOn his way out, Mr. Layton, who wore the smallest pair of glasses Martha had ever seen, paused, opened his mouth as if to speak, shook his head and sighed deeply, his shoulders slumping with defeat. He stepped out and turned, one hand on the doorknob, opened his mouth again, shook his head, sighed, and closed the door. ‘Has he gone?’ came the cry from the next room, separated by a screen that glowed white from the heavy lights behind. ‘Yes, he’s gone,’ Martha called back, holding the backs of her sleeve to her eyes and blinking hard. She stood at the door for while, before stretching out her mouth into a smile and going back through to the other room. ‘He didn’t like me.’ ‘I don’t know if that’s true.’ ‘Don’t take his side Marnie, I don’t need that.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘What did he say? When he left, what did he say?’ Martha looked at the floor. ‘Come on Marnie, I can take it, what the hell did he say?’ ‘He just wished you well.’ The old man sat back in the bed, the mountains of cushions around him opening to receive his body like an anemone withdrawing into its soft shell. He stared blankly up at the ceiling, his jaw on a slow revolve as though he chewed some invisible hard gum, the sour flavour of which caused a grimace of bitterness to spread across his face, already drawn pale by the thinning illness that was to finish him off in the early hours of the following morning. A good five or so years ago, in the office where he had spent the majority of his life, the same man who now lay dying had signed away a not inconsiderable share in the company which bore his name in exchange for safe passage into the finer realm of the afterlife. The family had, upon learning of the agreement, set up a number of lawsuits in an effort to have the contract revoked, and the money reinvested in the business, which, once news of the quasi-religious soiree had sounded in the public ear, was floundering under the weight of mistrust and the enviable power of the two words sell and now. Some quarters later however, and the company, which was responsible for the long-distance transportation of the sorts of goods and hardware it’s hard to imagine being worth much at all on anything but the largest scale, was doing better than ever. In the board room sat representatives from the Church, some minor stakeholders, and the man himself, whose position was by this point ceremonial rather than managerial. They talked of the rising share price, the success of recent transactions made in Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen, and Manila. They worked through a fresh proposal that would build headquarters in Europe, in the Middle East and the South China Sea, the modernity of the Church was coming through to spread a web of communications outlets across the globe. All the while, the old man sat in the high backed chair which had stood in the board room since it had been gifted by the noted professor of a noted University upon their retirement twenty years previous. He felt the soft leather under his thumb and considered to whom he might pass it on, the meeting taking place in front of him sliding by his glazed eyes. Someone spoke directly to him and he nodded a gruff approval, he didn’t sign things anymore, his hands were too stiff to hold the pen, and a lawyer had agreed, with an extra fee of course for discretion, to allow non-verbal approvals to be taken as contractual. So the meeting came to an end and the Church representatives left the room, with pleasant smiles and small bows of deference to their white-haired puppet. Of the four who remained, three were white haired men, all on the edge of signing their parts away for the promise of an easy end to lif, had a sense of loyalty not woken them in the dead of night to sweat though the pores of anxiety they hadn’t exercised since they were young and full of guilt. ‘I don’t know why you let them in,’ sighed one, lighting a cigarette and tipping back in his chair with a moan. ‘Don’t, Hank,’ warned another, elbows on the table, face pressed into his palms to block out the light. Hank went to argue, then conceded, and they sat in silence for a while, smoking and blowing air from puffed cheeks, each remembering a different time in their lives when the company had made them happy men, free to roam the streets of their Free Land with space to push or pay away the pressing questions. The old man looked out the window. He saw a hospital bed, and his daughter, the bright white lights and the man who came to take down his last official words for the morning news. He saw the picture they would use for the article, the headline, the phrasing of the column, the adverts he already had arranged to go alongside his obituary, everything was accounted for. With a shiver he saw the funeral procession as it went slowly down the broad avenue, passers by stopping to bow their heads in respect, tears held back for the titan who had personified business and success for so long. He looked up at the wall opposite and saw the plaque that read his name, the year he was born, this year that he will die, and underneath his profession. What did it say, Businessman? That seemed too small, too regular for what he was. Entrepreneur perhaps, or even Explorer given his globe-encompassing endeavours. Had he not breached new land where no foot had trodden, no soul had searched? Had he not deserved the inscription, the procession, the tears, the majesty of the occasion? In the boardroom he shivered and thought of the hospital, and his daughter.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale