In front of me on a recent train journey, a young man stood up, apparently getting ready to leave at the next station. He seemed to indicate to the old man next to him that he could now take the window seat. The old man pointed to the young man’s bag, which he had left pushed under the seat, and said “Don’t forget to take your bag”. The young man shook his head and started to move away. A few people looked round. There was a slight shift in atmosphere. The old man, confused, insisted and then realised that he must be mistaken. “Oh, you’re coming back?” he asked and the young man nodded. The atmosphere shifted back. Everyone’s heightened these days, everyone a suspect. But here’s the thing. I didn’t even consider moving. If there’s a bomb in that bag, I thought in those brief seconds before the confused was cleared up, I’ll be right next to it. I won’t feel a thing. I’ll just die. And I was surprisingly OK about that.
As I read that back I realise that it could be perceived as disrespectful to the 31 people killed in Brussels not long ago or any of those who have died needlessly in Ankara, the Middle East, Paris, Tunisia and so many other places. I have friends in Brussels. I’m appalled by what happened, as I am by any violence; I’ve been a pacifist since long before I even knew what it meant. And I was appalled with myself too as soon as those initial thoughts disappeared, disgusted by my lack of thought for the others around me, for their friends and relatives, for my parents. But I wasn’t wishing for a bomb – or a bus crash or a plane crash or any of the other accidents I’ve imagined over the last couple of years. I wasn’t fantasising about people’s deaths. In fact, miraculously in none of these does anyone else die. Just me. I’m preoccupied with death these days. Not just suicide, which is predictable and boring given my current state of mind, although it is of course a regular feature, but any situation where the skeleton with the scythe might appear.
I think indirectly of death. I mentally compose goodbye notes over and over; I’ve even stepped up from imagining them and drafted a few which I keep for reference and possible future use. I tinker with these occasionally, re-drafting as the mood takes me, adding and taking away and restructuring: on ongoing operation in perfection.
I have also thought about my will. If I had anything of value to leave, I would undoubtedly have written one long ago. My parents will get everything, just so you know.
And I’m toying with the idea of leaving my body to medicine. I’ve been reading a book about it (Stiff by Mary Roach, a good read even for those not unnaturally preoccupied with death); I like the idea of finally being useful.
And finally, every time someone who was clearly loved and admired dies, I think “what a waste. How much better would it have been to be me.”
Thinking About Death by Frida Kahlo