Philip Brown’s last words were staggering – so profound that everyone in the vicinity who heard them felt the very breath catch in their throats, and the lifting of something inside, deep inside, where even the crassest of us appreciate true wisdom. Within those words there was nothing morbid, just an acceptance that this is what life should be, fleeting, and yet beautiful for being so fleeting, a dash of colour against the darkness of an eternity in which we would no longer exist but had once existed and by dint of that had once mattered; there was a summation, then, a sense that within an ending one could look back and get full perspective on all that had gone before; in death we had at last achieved a completeness, and that was a blessing, a gift – because all that seeming randomness we had lived through now was connected, had purpose, fairly burst with meaning. Philip Brown was not a man given to profundity, and the people who overheard him at that moment – his wife, his teenage children, a few lone customers and the check-out girl at the supermarket – could in no way have anticipated that his final statement would have had such power. It made them want to applaud, frankly. It made them want to give him a standing ovation.
And the only false note was that when Philip Brown uttered these last words he was reasonably healthy. He was forty-four years old, and a little overweight maybe, but the doctor was happy with his cholesterol levels and said his blood pressure was so precisely normal it was almost text book. He was about as far away from death as any averagely unspectacular middle-aged man could hope to be.
Philip Brown looked as surprised as anybody else that these words had popped out of him. He chewed at the air for a moment, as if trying to get his mouth back into the right shape for the sort of forgettable nonsense he would usually come out with. And then he opened up wide, and he took a breath, and he was going to speak, he was going to spoil everything – and his wife actually clapped her hand to his face to stop him. “Don’t,” she said, “you’re never going to top that.”
Pretty soon they weren’t just last words, they were famous last words. One of the customers at the supermarket had sold the story to the newspapers – or maybe it was that check-out girl, there had been something nakedly acquisitive about her features. Even though Philip’s words had suggested that the pursuit of money was a futile exercise, and that true wealth could only be found through spiritual endeavour. A reporter came to the Brown house. He rang the doorbell. Mrs Brown answered. The reporter asked what Mrs Brown’s impression was of the last words, and Mrs Brown said she thought they’d been very nice. The reporter asked whether they might form the epitaph for her husband’s gravestone, and Mrs Brown said that was a good idea – though there were rather a lot of them, she might just use edited highlights. The reporter concluded by expressing his condolences for Mrs Brown’s loss, and Mrs Briggs said there was no need – not now – not yet anyway – Mr Brown was in the sitting room watching the snooker on television. But, thank you anyway, she said; when the time came, it’d make his passing easier to bear.
Philip Brown had not spoken since, of course. Hadn’t been to work, where the job requirement to talk about sales figures for gardening equipment could only have been seen as a crashing anticlimax. He had reached his apogee, and now he was there he could do nothing but shut up and accept it, he had no more words to add, his greatness stood for itself without need for embellishment or elaboration. And though his family had a new respect for him, they felt there was still something rather smug about that. He was given charge of the remote control, and would change the television channels without warning, and that could be irksome; he would let them know when he was hungry by clapping his hands or stamping his feet or by any method of slamming his body parts audibly against a standing object to get their attention; he would tell them what he wanted to eat by getting out tins from the kitchen cupboard and pointing. His wife and children still talked around him, naturally enough; they were only in the presence of greatness, they weren’t great themselves; they hadn’t yet said anything sufficiently meaningful they had nothing left to aim for. But conversation always felt a bit forced, no sooner were words out of their mouths than they would somehow stutter and wither and die, it was as if there was a black hole in the room sucking every syllable into silence.
His words were printed in magazines in every country around the world – or, at least, in every country which had the sort of Western culture worthy of them; choice phrases were quoted on mugs and ashtrays and T-shirts. And along came the copycats, of course. A fourteen year old boy in Wisconsin tried to better Brown, came up with famous last words of his own. They won their admirers, but most agreed that they were too practised, the boy had written them down in advance and that seemed a bit like cheating, and when after uttering them the child had thrown himself off the freeway bridge to a gory death below it was felt that the whole project had been just a tad gauche. The power of Philip Brown was that his words had been given to the world quite freely, there was no pretension to them, they were the complex sentiments of a simple man. And that’s what inspired everybody. The teenage American was soon forgotten, by all but his parents and a few of his more impressionable high school classmates. Whereas Philip Brown just lived on.
He was given a memorial service. The people insisted. A cathedral was hired for the event – one of the smaller cathedrals, anything larger would have shown an ostentation at odds with the basic tenets of Brown’s teachings. His famous last words were recited by a well-respected actor; the actor managed to bring such artistry to his performance, mining from Brown’s words both the triumph of life everlasting and the dread of inevitable loss, and Brown himself could never have said them so well, not with his monotone and his mumbling and his flat vowels, not if he’d rehearsed his dying message for weeks. The congregation was moved; one woman cried out, “Love you forever, Philly!”, though she’d never met Philip, though she’d never known him, though Philip hadn’t been called Philly since he was twelve and hadn’t liked being called Philly since seven. Philip Brown himself was present. He sat near the back, he couldn’t afford the more expensive seats – or maybe that was down to his characteristic humility, yes, it would have been the humility. Philip Brown thought the service went off rather well. But he couldn’t express his satisfaction verbally. He gave little smiles and nods, that was how his family registered his approval. And they were happy for him. And they mourned.
Mrs Brown hoped that grief would bring her family together. After the service she gave both her children a big hug – and they looked so smart, dressed in their best, she said she was so proud of them and that their father would have been proud too – and then she hugged their father as well, though that was something of an afterthought – she hugged them all, and told them that she loved them, and that the times ahead were going to be hard but that she knew they would weather them, that if they just held tight they would come out stronger.
The children went to see a counsellor on Thursdays. The daughter overcame her initial reticence, and soon let out her feelings about her father quite volubly and without inhibition. She was angry she’d lost him. She was angry he was gone before she’d taken the chance to get to know him properly. The counsellor suggested she could take some comfort in his famous last words – death was not an end, it was a new beginning – or maybe it was a continuation, it was sometimes hard to work out exactly what her father had meant, but it was all very uplifting nonetheless, didn’t the girl think so too? Couldn’t the girl be happy that her father had been a great man and that his words had inspired so many? And the girl said it made it worse, so much worse. Because she didn’t recognise from those words the man who had watched Top Gear and had drunk lager in front of the telly and belched and farted and whose stares had embarrassed her friends. That if death merely robbed you of a person then that was bad enough, if it took from you any sort of future you might hope to share – but death did more than that, it took from you the past as well, it sentimentalised the deceased, it made them seem more kindly and more interesting and more profound, it changed your memories of the one you’d known and left you with someone strange and unknowable. Death was such shit. Death was such a lying piece of shit.
The son was much less affected by the loss; he said he wasn’t bothered at all; he soon stopped going to counselling altogether, and that was all right, the counselling was expensive. And then he was busy, staying out late and getting drunk and committing acts of petty vandalism, knocking over lamp posts and setting fire to cats. And it was perfectly possible this had nothing to do with his father. He might well have been doing all that stuff anyway. Both Mr and Mrs Brown thought there was every chance this was just a harmless phase of ordinary teenage hijinks.
As for Mrs Brown, she was lonely. She hadn’t spoken enough to her husband, and she regretted that, but she refused to be bitter, she just knew that if she ever met another man she’d have to try harder and seize every moment and never take him for granted. She met a man at church. He began visiting after service on Sundays. And then he began visiting her during afternoons whilst the kids were at school. One day she took him to her bedroom, and he started to get undressed, and she froze up, and cried. She said that she couldn’t go through with it, it was disrespectful to her husband, why, his body was still warm! And the man said her husband had been a great man, but she was still young, her whole life was stretching out before her, Philip wouldn’t have wanted her to grieve forever. And at this they both looked across to Philip, who looked frankly non-committal, but now at least moved to the far side of the bed to give them more space. She said he could never be the equal of her husband, and he agreed, too easily. So then she accused him of sleeping with her just because of her famous husband, it wasn’t for her at all – and he admitted it, he wanted to touch where greatness had touched, he wanted to go deep inside her and see whether he too might be inspired to find words of grace and wisdom and genius. She let him take her then; she let him take her clothes off, and climb on top of her, and go as deep inside as he wanted – and she held back her tears, she knew his passion wasn’t hers at all, this wasn’t the expression of earthly lust but an appeal for something spiritual. “Oh God,” said the man as he shot his load, “oh God, oh God, oh shit, oh God.” And Mr and Mrs Brown exchanged glances at that, and neither was much impressed by the words the man had found. And Mrs Brown got up from the bed and put back on her clothes and redid her make-up, and supposed she should refuse to see him again. But she managed to keep some sort of relationship with him going for the next nine months; and when they broke up, she found someone else.
The children grew up and went away. They said they would come back and visit, and to be fair, they sometimes did.
Mrs Brown got old. Her hair turned grey, then white, then fell out altogether. She put on weight, the flesh just spread out every which way – and then, just as suddenly, retracted again, leaving her thinner than she’d ever been before. She found it hard to walk. She found it hard to breathe. She’d wake up some mornings and there was a pain inside, thrumming away, and she couldn’t work out which part of the body it came from.
And one day she went to the hospital, and she knew she wasn’t going to see her home ever again.
Philip Brown went to see his wife. He brought her some flowers, and the nurse cooed and put them in a vase. He nodded his thanks to the nurse silently, then sat beside his wife’s bed and took her hand.
“I love you,” she said, “I love you,” and it may have been the medicine talking, or maybe it was fear, or maybe the cool reality that comes over us before death. “Do you have any words of comfort for me?” And he smiled, and she smiled back; of course he didn’t; of course not.
“Will you stay with me?” she asked. “Will you make love to me, one last time?” So he climbed into bed with her, and he took it very slow and soft and made sure he didn’t give her a heart attack.
He stayed with her for the next few days, right beside her, right close, and no one seemed to mind, after a while the doctors and nurses seemed to pretend he wasn’t there. And he was with her at the end. She suddenly gripped his hand, her eyes were wide open, wider than they had been in years, wide like a child’s.”Oh God,” she said. “I think this is it. Oh God, oh shit, oh God.” She winced then, screwed those child eyes up tight so she couldn’t see what was coming for her. “God, it hurts, it hurts, you said it would be kind, oh God, you lied to me, you lied to me, you fuck.” As last words went they weren’t profound, and they would never be famous, but they were sincere at least, and that must count for something.
The grip on his hand slackened. He let go of her. He stroked his wife’s dead forehead. He kissed it. He kissed her lips.
She opened her eyes. She sat up. She smiled.
And now she kissed him back, and her lips weren’t dry and cracked with age, they were so smooth they slid right off his own lips and on to the chin, on to the face, all over the face.
No words. No words left. Nothing to say any more.
He offered her his arm, and she got out of bed. And, dressed in her nightie, she left the ward, together they walked right out of the hospital and into the world and went some place new.