On the coroner’s report it said that James Grizzell-Jones had suffered ‘death by euphemism’. Those were the actual words, I saw them for myself. And it’s certainly true that my poor husband had shied away from matters of delicacy. He was not a man to call a spade a spade, not unless it were a good solid British spade with no nonsense or flim-flammery about it; offer him a spade that in any way suggested the sloppier, seedier, steamier side of life and he’d have refused it politely, thank you very much.
He died on a bus tour, high in the Cretan mountains. We’d just done some museum or another, now we were on our way to Knossos. The bus tour didn’t cater exclusively for the English, the commentary the guide gave us was in French, German, Spanish too, and one other language we couldn’t identify, James thought it might have been Dutch. Doing a tour with some Dutchmen, well – I suppose you get what you pay for, and this tour was cheap. “We should have gone for the more expensive one,” my husband muttered to me as we drove along. “Twice the price, but at least we’d understand what was being said to us.” I was inclined to agree with him; we agreed about most things, really. And I think they may have been the last words he ever said to me. He tutted. I tutted back in sympathy.
He’d had a moussaka the night before that hadn’t agreed with him. Or maybe it had been all the retsina, that nasty little waiter kept on filling our glasses though we’d told him not to. Or the vine leaves. Anyway, James had been up and down all night, out of the bed and into the bathroom. “Are you all right?” I asked him, and I could tell he was embarrassed, he told me to go back to sleep. But it was hard to sleep with all that commotion going on, when the bathroom door didn’t close properly and kept letting the light in, with the electric fan that turned on every time he went in there, with that smell.
Now on the tour I could tell he wasn’t feeling quite right. He kept on wincing, and grabbing at his stomach, and I’d hear the odd gurgle from within – and he’d clasp his hand to it to muffle the sound. It’s all that oil they put in their Mediterranean dishes, it can’t be good for you, though apparently all those Greeks seem to live a long time. Anyway, at one point he got up from his seat, and struggled down the aisle to the front of the bus. The tour guide was at that moment telling the French all about Minoan pottery; we’d already heard the English version, it was nothing to write home about. I could tell it genuinely pained my husband to interrupt her. He tried to whisper to her, but she was holding a microphone, and bits of their conversation were broadcast all around the bus. “Please sit down, sir,” she said; I’ll give her her due, she’d clocked we were British, right from the start. “I need to use the whatsit,” said James. “I beg your pardon, sir?” “The thingummy. You know. I need it very badly. Very urgently.” “I don’t know what you mean, sir, please sit down.” And so he turned around and came back down the aisle, and his face was burning red, and he was doing his best to walk proud and tall but he was starting to stagger. And there was some little laughter, but I couldn’t tell whether it was at my husband’s expense, or at some foreign joke that the guide had made about Theseus and the Minotaur.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked, and I got up so he could sit by the window. But he shook his head, angrily, as if angry at me, and he gritted his teeth, and he turned his head to look at the Greek countryside whipping fast past the window, and he died.
It’s not the way I would have chosen for him to go. But then, what sort of death would I have chosen? I’m rather glad I wasn’t presented with a set of options, frankly I’m rather glad the matter was taken out of my hands altogether. They say that the best way to go is peacefully in your sleep, and it’s certainly the one most people seem to pick. But how can they know? Maybe, at the very point of death, you suffer the most terrible nightmares. You look all peaceful on the surface, but inside something is raging. Maybe that’s what actually kills you. And all the nightmares you ever had as a child, the really big ones you never quite forgot, the ones that left you forever scared of the dark, or of spiders, or of great heights – all the nightmares come back for one last hurrah, and they torment you, and they fill up every inch of your sleeping body and crush your heart.
Really, these days I’m frightened to go to sleep at all. These days I keep the bedside lamp on, the television loud, the windows open wide and cold, anything. Just in case I never wake again.
The coroner’s report said ‘death by euphemism’, and I thought, how could they have known? And was it even true? If my husband had been able to overcome his embarrassment – if he had more cogently expressed the immediacy with which he needed to relieve himself – would it, really, have made much difference? It wasn’t as if he suffered for much longer, he returned to his seat and his kidneys ruptured and that was it.
But I do wonder whether had the tour guide given him some reason to hope – an assurance that his concerns would be addressed, or that looking for a rest stop would be made a matter of high priority – then it might have given James something to live for. I think the truth was, James just gave up. He was given two options. He could either die, or he could speak forcefully before a large group of strangers about his bladder problems. He went for the easy way out.
Sometimes I get cross with him for that. That after nearly fifty years of marriage I wasn’t worth fighting that little bit harder for. I wasn’t worth that little humiliation.
I mean, had it come to it, he could have dropped his trousers and done his business in front of everyone. He could have pooped right there in the bus aisle, and yes, it might have embarrassed both of us, but it would have saved his life maybe. I’m sure that’s what the Mediterraneans would have done.
‘Death by euphemism’ seems rather an odd thing to put on a coroner’s report. Unless I read it incorrectly, and it really said, ‘Death by (euphemism)’, as in, ‘Death by (insert euphemism here)’. It’s just possible that the coroner had opened James up and looked at the fatal accumulation of moussaka and vine leaves, and recoiled, and was still trying to find a pleasant way to describe it. Which would be reassuring, because it would suggest that James’ death wasn’t caused by any hesitancy on his part. But only a little reassuring – because we’re then left with this rather squeamish coroner who, like my husband did, shies away from the sloppier parts of life and wants to cover all that up with niceness and obfuscation. Now, I’m all for tactful politeness, but it isn’t what I look for in a coroner. I want someone out there who isn’t afraid to confront death head on, warts and all, and who can express it clinically and without shame. Because if even the coroners are forced to hide behind euphemisms, what chance have the rest of us got? And how awkward, how embarrassing, how cross-your-legs-tight and screw-up-your-eyes appalling must death really be?
Or maybe. The coroner was suggesting that James was killed by a euphemism – but not his euphemism, my own. Because even though I knew my husband was dead, or dying, I didn’t raise the alarm on the bus. There was his body lolling next to me and I chose to ignore it. Instead I read the guide book, I listened to the English bits of the tour commentary, I looked past James’ dead head out of the window at the scenery. And when the passenger across the aisle asked, “Is your husband all right?”, I smiled and said, “He’s just a bit under the weather.” ‘Under the weather’, of course, being a euphemism for ‘dead as a doornail’. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want to interrupt the tour guide, because my husband had already interrupted her once, I didn’t want her to think the elderly British couple sitting near the back were troublemakers. I didn’t say a word, in fact, until the bus had come to a designated shop outside a market selling souvenirs. I spoke up, after everyone else had go off, and said, “I think there’s a slight problem with my husband,” and they took a look at him, the bus driver and the tour guide, and they called for an ambulance.
I didn’t ever get to see Knossos.
They assured me they’d get James’ body flown home in time for the funeral. I made a joke. I said, “I hope he is home in time, I know he’d hate to miss it!” No one laughed. Perhaps no one understood it? Adam and Marcia took charge of all that, everything to do with the funeral. They were very proper and solemn, and I thought of how adult they’d suddenly become, and how unknowable. They kept on coming to visit me to see if I were all right, Marcia more than Adam, of course, because Adam’s kids are younger. They talk to me about how James was a ‘good man’ and a ‘good father’, as if they’d only barely been introduced.
Of course, it had all been Adam’s fault. James would never have eaten moussaka if we’d been on our usual holiday in Totnes. But Adam did insist, he said, “You should travel the world a bit, you’re not getting any younger, you don’t know how long you’ve got!” He would keep going on about it. One day James found in the local Oxfam a guide book, and it was only going for two pounds fifty, and it was all about the Greek Islands. And once he’d bought that, James had to have the holiday too, the book would have been useless otherwise and James did so hate waste.
The night before the funeral Marcia and her two girls stayed over with me. And I found her outside in the garden, in the dark, late. I asked her what was wrong. Her shoulders kept heaving. She said to me, “I can’t make the tears come out, no matter how hard I try. What’s wrong with me? Am I a bad person?” I said I didn’t know.
During the funeral everyone was very polite. It was said that James Grizzell-Jones had gone to a better place, although I rather doubted that – he’d never been religious when we’d met, and he’d not told me of any new beliefs he might have acquired, that was one of the things he would have found embarrassing to discuss – and besides! where could he have gone to that was better than Crete, the travel agent had told us it was one of the top tourist destinations. They told me that he was a good man, a good father, a good friend, a good husband. They told me that everyone would miss him.
It hadn’t been euphemisms in the beginning, had it? Between Jimmy and me. Back at the start we could hardly keep our hands off each other, he was always pulling me into corners and kissing me, on the mouth, in the mouth! – and sometimes with my parents in the next room! We said we’d know each other for the rest of our lives. And he wasn’t shy, and do you know, I wasn’t shy either, and we’d make love, and we wouldn’t worry about what to call it, we’d just rummage around with all of our bits until it felt good. He wasn’t ashamed of his thingummy then; I wasn’t ashamed of my whatsit. And I wondered, as the vicar droned on, as we stood up to sing a hymn Jimmy wouldn’t have liked, I wondered – when did we let the euphemisms creep in? When did we find the reasons to stop talking? Because once in a while James would say, do you fancy a bit of business this evening? Without even looking at me, he was blushing bright red. We did business a few times, but I never liked the word for it, it sounded so cold and formal – and maybe that’s exactly what it was, maybe the word changed it into something that was cold and formal, I don’t know. And after a while he’d ask if I wanted any business, and I’d say no – I’d say that I had a headache, needed to wash my hair, that I was feeling tired, that I was feeling anything, anything but the truth. And eventually he stopped asking.
Sasha was being noisy. Sasha, that’s Adam’s youngest. Sasha was saying, “But where’s Granddad? Is Granddad in the box?” And Adam and that wife of his were shushing her, they told her to be quiet. Yes, Granddad was in the box, ssh now. “You said he was with the angels! Are the angels in the box?” They didn’t know where the angels were, the angels were waiting for Granddad when he got out of the box. “How can he get out? He’s dead, isn’t he? Isn’t he dead? Isn’t he dead?” My son and that wife blushing to hear the word mentioned, and telling her to shut up, and looking so embarrassed, and trying to find the right phrase that would cover ‘dead’ up and make ‘dead’ all right again – he’s at rest, he’s asleep, he’s at peace now, ssh, he’s in a better place, he’s with the angels in the box, ssh ssh.
And I realised that it is the children who bring on the euphemisms. It’s the children who make us feel awkward, and send us retreating behind soft words and smooth blather. We look at the children, and we know that we’ve made them, and we don’t know how, they’re so fragile, and so very strange, we did it with body parts we no longer will describe in front of them, we did it by methods we’d sooner now do with the lights off, or once a month, or not at all. And we’d do anything to protect them, anything to save them, we don’t fear death for our own sakes, but for them we’ll do everything we can to hide death away where it can’t get them.
“I said, that’s enough!” hissed Adam, and he smacked Sasha hard, and she burst into tears, and he had to take her outside.
I don’t blame anyone for James’ death. These things happen. But if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s Adam’s.
Oh, I don’t let on. People would think it were odd. That I knew he were already dead, and did nothing. Sometimes I even pretend to myself I didn’t know, just to take away a little of that oddness.
I saw the actual moment he died. He grunted, turned from me towards the window, and sort of slumped. And in a moment he was gone. It didn’t look so bad, it didn’t look so frightening – that’s the sort of death I can live with.
He’d closed his eyes, and I was grateful for that, I could carry on as if he were just sleeping, or shielding himself from the glare of that Mediterranean sun – I wouldn’t have wanted to have closed them myself, that would have felt wrong, my skin crawls at the very thought of touching a dead man’s eyes. But I didn’t mind holding his hand. I took his hand.
And I pointed out bits of the Greek scenery to him. There wasn’t much scenery, we were on a motorway, but I did my best. I chattered about Knossos, all the things we were going to see together. All the things we’d ever see. And I told him I loved him.
“I love you,” I said; the very words, no substitutes, and this time he couldn’t flinch, this time he couldn’t back away, change the subject, leave the room or go and hide in the garden shed. “I love you,” I said, and he was mine now, he couldn’t help but listen; “I know we both thought I’d be the one leaving first, but I think it’s better this way.” It was better this way. His hand was still warm. His bare arm brushing against mine, it had started to tan. “I love you,” I said again. I had run out of ways to say it. I let go of his hand, picked up that old guide book he’d bought.
I’m not saying my husband’s death was a good thing, that I’m glad it happened. But at last the suffering was over. His suffering, my suffering. Same difference.
It’s not the way I would have chosen for him to go, death by euphemism. And yet, it makes me smile. It’s a mistake, I think, to read too much into the way a person dies, that it in any way sums up the way they lived. James’ death was silly. He was not a silly man. It was therefore an inappropriate death. But he’d had a sense of humour once, hadn’t he? I’m sure of it, I remember it from back in those days of youth and wildness and sex. It’s true, it hadn’t peeped out of him in quite a long time. I am glad, at the very end, that he let it peep out once more in spite of himself.
I was glad it was quick. To save him the need for some long drawn out goodbye. To save him that last embarrassment.
When the doctors said I was dying, James refused to discuss it. Not with the doctors, and certainly not with me. He insisted we mustn’t tell the children. We’d upset them. I said to him, “But they’re going to find out sooner or later, aren’t they?”
Now James is gone I could tell them. I could phone up Marcia right now, and Adam too, I suppose. I haven’t yet. I don’t know why. I might do it tomorrow.
The doctors say I could go off at any time. I shouldn’t be frightened. It could happen in my sleep. I don’t want to die in my sleep.
It’s a mistake, I think, to read too much into the way we die. But sleeping isn’t the way I would choose to go.
I wrote an ad for the personals column in the newspaper. I said that I was a widow with a dicky heart that could give up the ghost at any moment. And that I wanted to die in the arms of a young man. Oh, not in his arms, that’s a euphemism. Not just a young man, either, a stud. I said I wanted to die with a stud’s thingummy jammed high inside my whatsit. I wanted to die better than I’d lived.
I wrote it, rewrote it, replaced all the euphemisms I had put in. The newspaper published it, and put in lots of new euphemisms of their own, I hadn’t even heard of some of them.
No one has called yet. But it’s a big world, and there are lots of people out there. I have faith. I have faith someone will find me in time.
Because – will you excuse me? If I speak bluntly? Because death is a mean-spirited old cunt. And if she’s coming for me, she can catch me with my knickers down.
Rosa Macpherson said:
Simon K said:
Extraordinary piece of writing. Thanks!
James Grizzell-Jones said:
Simply sublime and wonderful! I’m quite scared by the fact that I do see a few of those very qualities in me. Hmmmm death by euphemism sounds like the way for me to go! Thank you so much Rob! I shall treasure it always!
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