My great aunt Roberta was blessed with the second sight – or so she claimed; as a child I used to joke that she ought to have been given some first sight to go along with it, as she was nearly blind as a bat, and had spectacles so thick you couldn’t see her eyes through them. (I remember being told off quite a lot for making that joke. One day she actually beat me. Every single blow found its mark.)
Anyway, the particular properties of this second sight were that Roberta Fleishman could tell when a person was going to die, just by standing next to them in bus queues, or shopping in the same supermarket as them, or walking past them down the street. And not just when, but the manner of it too. She would tell them her visions in painstaking detail. There was nothing, she said, that they could do to avoid their fate. It was all predestined. I asked her once why she bothered to tell them then, since it was of no earthly use to them, and she sort of shrugged. And beat me again.
As she grew very old and infirm, she found she couldn’t get out as much as she’d once liked to, and so no longer was able to meet anyone. And so instead she would leaf through the telephone book, and randomly pick out people’s names, and call them up, and pronounce judgement upon them. And she’d save up some of the best deaths, and at Christmas she’d copy out their postal addresses from the phone book, and send them festive cards reminding them of their forthcoming demises, and just how much pain and anguish they should expect.
We all used to help her. My sister would lick the envelopes. I’d put on the stamps. And as a family my parents would help us take them all down to the post office, to make sure all the cards got there in time for Christmas Day.
She knew her own death too, of course. And she got the exact date right. Though – and here’s the ironic thing – not the means by which she died. She always told me she’d hang herself. In fact, she died of an overdose, a fatal cocktail of anti-depressants and laxatives. I don’t know why destiny changed its mind. Maybe when it came to it, destiny couldn’t help Great Aunt Roberta find a rope.
Christmas traditions are hard things to break. They’re the pieces of our past that have the most nostalgia, and remind us of when we were young and innocent and full of hope. I know my sister carries it on; last year, she told me with pride, she’d sent out a hundred and fifty Christmas cards; I think that was some sort of record for her; she gathered around all her children, she’s got five of them, and her adoring husband, she’s been so lucky, she’ll never die lonely when the time comes; they all helped her pick the names, they listened to the deaths, they all applauded the really grisly ones.
I don’t have second sight. I don’t know what I’m doing from one day to the next. And I have no one to share my predictions with, no one to console me when they don’t come true. But I do my best. I open up the phone book, pick out some random strangers. I write in their cards, “You’re Going To Die Some Day,” because it’s the most precise I can get. I hope they derive some comfort from that, if nothing else I hope they appreciate the accuracy. And I hope too, that wherever she ended up, Great Aunt Roberta looks upon me, and is proud.