An extract from The Library of Babel
I was on the bus after work to visit Grandad when my mobile started vibrating in my pocket. Its urgency disturbed me: phones were always for bad news in my mind. This time I was right – it was Dad and he was calling to say Grandad had died a few minutes ago.
My voice turned to a whisper. I didn’t want these strangers on the bus knowing my business. I asked Dad if he was coping okay, a stupid question, but I didn’t know what else to say. He said he was okay. I told him I was nearly at the hospice.
The book I’d been reading sat forgotten on my lap. I felt cheated that I’d nearly got there, that I could have seen him one last time and I hadn’t. I looked all around me on the bus, and then I couldn’t get my eyes off the stupid advertisements on the inside walls. There was nowhere I could go without people trying to sell me stuff.
I wanted someone with me but I couldn’t bear to ring Anita. I didn’t want to say Grandad was dead. Spreading the news would make it seem more real. The best thing would be to tell no-one, and then, as far as the world was concerned, he would go on living.
I suddenly realised I had no grandparents left, then I reproached myself. I was being so selfish. The person I should be thinking about was Grandad. I wanted to think precisely of what had just happened to him, to get past the words to the event itself. His consciousness had been extinguished. As far as his body was concerned, he no longer existed.
Everyone always said how sad it was for the people left behind, but I was thinking how the real tragedy was for dead person. How could it be possible to die? For your mind to be thinking thoughts one moment, and then not thinking thoughts the next? How could it be possible to have a final thought?
He had a final thought, and no-one will ever even know what it was. Let alone what came next for him. I wondered if he had last words. No-one even cared about last words these days. People used to care about last words; they probably used to rehearse them, to make sure they had them right. Your last words were the culmination of your life.
I went a few stops past the hospice. It wasn’t like I was thinking very straight. Stepping off the bus into the dusk, I had to walk back along the highway. Bus shelter ads, fast food litter on the uneven slabs of the footpath and all the cars rushing past with such violence. The sun was gone and chill of the night was setting in. I needed to ring Anita, I still couldn’t bear to. This could be an ordinary Tuesday night, I could be going to a pub – not that I ever did, but wouldn’t it be such a comforting, ordinary thing to do tonight? – or going to see a cheap movie at the cinema. But these weren’t options tonight.
An innocuous blue sign pointed down a sidestreet to the hospice. It was a residential street, lined with trees. None of these people in their houses knew that a long had just ended in their street. It happened daily, people’s long life stories coming to an end in beds inside a building on their streets. Did they know how much was being lost around them?
Dad, Uncle Graham, Aunty Pat were gathered in the room where he had died. His body had already been taken away. The bed was empty and unmade. I gave everyone subdued hugs.
Dad asked in a low voice if I wanted to see his body. I said no. Even seeing the empty bed was too much. I hadn’t seen a dead body this far in my life and I didn’t want to start today.
On the beside table was an old paperback. I picked it up; a bookmark from his local library was stuck between pages 190 and 191. He only had a few chapters to go. While everyone was talking, I slipped the book into my bag.
That night, I sat in the lounge room until one a.m. reading the old paperback. It was A.J. Cronin’s autobiography, Adventure in Two Worlds. Uncle Graham had probably grabbed it from Grandad’s shelf. I wondered if Grandad had read it before, or if it had been one of those books he had bought at a garage sale and been meaning to get to for the last twenty years.
It was a cheap paperback edition from the 1960s, the cover declaring it an international bestseller. I disliked bestsellers, but I had sympathy for the forgotten bestsellers of the past. Their obsolescence was touching, as was their misplaced self-confidence. They encapsulated their time and its passing.
Grandad liked to read old paperbacks. Whether it was chosen for him or he chose it, it was a fitting book for his last read. It was a life story imbued with the same old-fashioned notion of common sense that Grandad lived by, and the same refusal to be subversive, crude or despairing. It starts out in typical autobiographical fashion, full of the young doctor’s struggles to succeed in the world. But as the doctor becomes a best-selling writer, the narrative becomes more and more choked with anecdotes until it seizes up altogether in sermons.
I got to Grandad’s bookmark and powered on past it, reading what he had never got to read and thinking how he would have loved the end of the book, as Cronin at the height of his powers looks back on a successful life in a self-congratulatory tone I found difficult.
I got to the last word and shut the book. The book was finished, Cronin was at the height of his powers and Grandad was dead. But Cronin wasn’t really at the height of his powers. I got onto the internet and looked him up. He’d died in 1981, twenty-nine years after he wrote the story of his life. The year I was born. His narrative had started in 1917 when he was 18, the year Grandad was born. The coincidences didn’t lead anywhere, were all vague, but they gave me a sense of appropriateness. The book was finished, the book was out of print, Grandad was dead but Cronin was dead too.
There should be a book for people to read on their deathbed which explains everything. So that you’ve got something to look forward to. The last book you read should be the one which makes sense of life. But what if you lived on too long, finished that book, and then had to start something else? What were the odds of dying at the right time, when you’ve just finished a book? It wasn’t good to leave a book unfinished when you died. Poor Grandad. At least I’d read it for him, that had to count for something.
I had thought that when I finished the book I would want to sleep, but I still felt dissatisfied. I wished I could write in my diary and capture the feelings and thoughts of the day, but I didn’t feel able to. I wanted to listen to the radio, but there was never anything good on that late and it would wake up Anita. She stirred as I came to bed and asked me if I was okay. I told her I was probably more okay than Dad and I was definitely more okay than Grandad.