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The Symphony of Life

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Movement 2: Spring

The world moved slowly, the car spun through the air as if held in the density of a viscous liquid. I could not move. I was rooted to the spot, Annabelle beside me locked in the same fear as the spinning chunk of metal approached us inexorably. Suddenly the car split into a million razor blades which sped right through us, our bodies sliced through in a thousand paper-thin slits and our life-blood seeping away at the cracks. My head was throbbing, Annabelle’s body slumped to the floor. We were on a railway track, too weak to move, the blood draining from us. I heard the sounds of a horn, the train was approaching. But the scene changed again and the train was no longer a train but a steam roller, moving painfully slowly. But before it could reach us a wall of flame arose from the road on which we lay. This was the end. I reached out a hand to Annabelle and for one intimate moment our fingers touched. The flames grew higher and hotter; poisoned warts erupted from the knife slits; it was too much to bear, too much, too much…

I awoke for the fifth time that night. Annabelle slept peacefully beside me, the traffic outside was at a pre-rush hour low and the clock ticked methodically on the dresser. All was normal and as it should be. But I knew from the angel’s warning that this was to be my last day, our last day. One of a million possible fates awaited us but there could only be one outcome. You cannot escape the inevitable.

I was angry, frustrated and frightened. I stumbled into the spare room and stood for a long time staring out of the window. The sunrise over the city that morning was beautiful. The orange fingers crept through the layered clouds on the horizon and poked thin, bright tendrils between them. The most beautiful thing about Autumn is the sky, the lower sun and later sunrises prolonging the glorious moments within our waking hours. But at the time I did not appreciate it. My sleep had been like swiss cheese, riddled with holes wriggling with bad dreams. Also my mind was totally preoccupied with the realisation that I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to scream and shout, to break something, I almost wanted to throw myself off the building, though that would completely defeat the purpose of my frustration. I bristled as I forced the emotions to remain internal. It was the horrible powerlessness which terrified me and the fact that so many horrible endings could occur. Unless there was an imminent health problem that neither Annabelle nor I were aware of, we were destined to die in an accident, a freak of nature or through violence. Even if I encased us in a cell with concrete walls ten meters thick we would still die… It was just so… inescapable. I threw the glass paintbrush pot to the floor in anger and it shattered. Within a day’s time that would be me… and her. her. her. I might have to lose her, I might have to watch her die.

“Make your last day worth it, make it count.” I turned to see the angel behind me. “You do know what day it is don’t you?”

I blinked in surprise. Of course, it was our second anniversary (of the first official ‘date’), October 30th 2014. I nodded.

“Make it a special day,” the angel said, and he was gone.

He was right. I could not escape the inevitable so there was no point in wasting time fearing it. That is what I told myself at least. It was my duty to make this final day the best it could be for her sake as well as mine. I almost smiled at the thought. First things first, she was not to know, the fear of an imminent death is as bad as the death itself. If she could live the day in innocence she could live it like any other and she could be happy. Maybe even I could be happy, for when she was happy I was already half-way there. A new front formed in my mind, a front of determination and perseverance. I would apologise for my rash remark of the prior day. I would make the day special; I would make it count. The secret metal box emerged from under my desk and the emergency thousand pounds came out. I could extract more from the bank later but there was no point in saving any of it, my life savings would go into this day for this day was the rest of my life.

I shut the drawer and moved back towards the window to drink in the view for the last time. Now that I had cleared my mind a little I could appreciate it for what it was worth. That was the last time I would look out over a London dawn. I felt a tear slip from my eye but I caught it and held back the rest. The day was to be a day of celebration, not sadness. It should be a day of happy memories, not fear of the future. Memories… I already had most of them. There would be about 24 hours to make some more then that would be it. My life was technically almost complete, though it did not feel that way, it felt like it had barely begun. All I could do was make the final memories valuable, everything that happened today would be for the last time. Perhaps if I got the chance I could also fulfil some firsts…

I cooked up the best breakfast my menial culinary expertise would allow. But then again it is hard to go wrong with a fry up. I carefully laid the table and arranged everything nicely, including opening the venetian blinds just the right amount to let the beauty of the morning light in without allowing it to be dazzling. I stepped back to admire my work. It would do, for the start. After breakfast I would take her to the national gallery, a favourite of ours. I would then find somewhere pleasant for us to enjoy an afternoon walk after a picnic in Trafalgar square. Finally in the evening I would take her out somewhere nice for dinner before returning home for a quiet evening together. We could indulge in the shared completion our two souls forged. Maybe we would listen to some music, or play a game, or simply lie peacefully in bed together, listening to one another’s heartbeats and steady breathing, feeling each other’s quietly powerful presence. I heard a sound as the door opened. Annabelle smiled shyly and walked in in her dressing gown. She looked so beautiful, her long hair flowing effortlessly in auburn waves down her back, her deep hazel eyes meeting mine with love. She was so at ease…

“This looks good!” she said.

I gestured towards the meal. “This is just me saying sorry.”

Annabelle smiled broadly. “I forgive you,” she said happily, “New day, new dawn! You can be a different person today, you aren’t stuck to the past!” She gave me a quick kiss, then embraced me in a long hug.

“Yeah,” I said gladly. “Thanks, listen I really am sorry…”

“And I’m not,” she said bluntly. “It happened; it is no longer happening unless you keep bringing it up. I really don’t care what you said yesterday because I know that is not how you usually are; I know you trust me, I know I can trust you. If two years have shown me anything it is that!” She smiled sweetly.

I smiled back. she was far too kind, far too forgiving, but I commend her for it. It would make my last day a world easier.

“You haven’t got class until later this afternoon and I’m free all day.” (That was not actually true, I would be missing an important lecture, but the whole last-day-of-my-life thing took priority). “So I planned something special for us to do.”

Annabelle’s face lit up. “Oh that’s wonderful Gabriel!”

“I thought we’d start off with a trip to the National Gallery, I know you love it there”

“Oh I do! I do! We have to seeThe Fighting Temeraire’ again and the ‘Marriage at Cana’, perhaps ‘The Four Times of day’ - I love the gallery; and I especially like going with you.”

She kissed me lightly on the lips. Her innocent excitement was beautiful to feel, her almost childlike delight a pleasure to be part of. I tried to let those positive emotions wash over me. I tried to create a separation between that day and the next, segregate the joyful celebration of us from the terrible impeding doom. But I could not. No matter how deep the love and excitements, the truths of tomorrow crept up from deeper depths and I could not swallow them. I wanted today to be about us, in complete ignorance of tomorrow. I wanted that so so much. But as hard as I tried I could not hide myself from it. Tomorrow is a curious concept, it is never tomorrow, but in a matter of hours it becomes today. And when tomorrow becomes today, it will be our time to go away…

After a brief taxi journey we arrived in St James’s Park, which would allow us a short and pleasant walk in one of London’s brilliant oases to the National Gallery.

“Shakespeare used green spaces a lot for emotional changes didn’t he?” I said.

“He did indeed,” Annabelle agreed. “I suppose that is because the orchard is a place of growth and fruitfulness. I love Shakespeare, especially the way that everything in that poetic text feels so deliberate, every phrase uniquely and beautifully articulated.”

I grinned, I could speak about the arts and literature with Annabelle forever.

“Have you actually seen a Shakespeare play performed live?” I asked.

Annabelle looked thoughtful. “I’ve studied so many of his works but never actually seen them on stage as Shakespeare intended. He’d probably be horrified that I’d only ‘read’ them’”

I thought for a moment. “You know what? I haven’t either, at least not live”. Then more quietly “I never got the chance…”

Would I ever get a chance? It seemed unlikely unless I managed to get some last minute tickets. There was of course the out-of-town walk planned for this afternoon but if I could get a matinee performance, things might work out a little differently. When I had a moment alone I would call some theatres and try my luck.

“I’d quite like to see ‘Macbeth’,” Annabelle said. “Pretty disturbing most of the time, but I just love that play!”

What you egg! Young fry of treachery!” I said, reciting the play’s curious, dairy themed, insult.

Annabelle laughed. “That’s the one! And what makes you think I am so treacherous? Just because I’m not such a fan of the Much Ado?”

‘Much Ado about Nothing’ was the play I usually gave as my favourite when questioned. I suppose only half of me liked it really, and only because it was not the obvious choice of ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Romeo and Juliet’ most go for. I have to say though my other half is rather more inclined to the cliché favourite of Macbeth. I had also heard it was currently playing at the Globe, so there was a chance we could get to see it.

“I’ll give in!” I said. “I will join you in the common but noble choice of ‘Macbeth’ as the superior play!”

“Well! I looks as if you are converted! What’s your favourite part of ‘Macbeth’?”

“I really love the dagger soliloquy,” I said, “where he sees an apparition of a dagger before him which encourages him to kill king Duncan.”

Annabelle cut in excitedly, “I think the dagger is some kind of creation of his mind as he has some kind of internal mental confusion. He creates the dagger to help him think straight and the dagger eventually encourages him to commit murder!”

“I thought the witches created the dagger?”

Annabelle bit her lip in thought. “The witches poisoned his mind, then his poisoned mind created the dagger as a symbol which encouraged the other half of his mind to give in and do the deed. Maybe.”

She thought for a little longer before reciting the exact lines which suggested Macbeth himself created the dagger:

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

“He created the dagger to help him deal with a difficult decision,” I said thoughtfully. “That makes sense. I had always presumed the witches had created it for him! Ah well, new ideas everyday!”

“We’re such nerds!” Annabelle laughed.

I joined in merrily and a couple of onlookers gave us confused looks, but we ignored them for they were part of our world only if we wanted them to be. When we were together the world was solely what we let it be! Until we reached the inevitable end that wasn’t, where we became what the world wanted us to be…

The national gallery was as vibrant and beautiful as ever. The place was a palace to the history of art, housing some of the greatest works from the finest artists and none of the bullshit that only hangs around for a few years before being forgotten. It was truly a temple to fine art. We had our old favourites and we had our unknowns. A trip would usually follow a set course around those said favourites before landing on a couple of paintings we hadn’t properly discussed before. To some people this may be a boring date, but to us it was what life was meant for, pure shared indulgence in humanity’s artistic excellence!

“I could never get bored in here,” Annabelle said. “The paintings, my mind - it leads to an interesting series of thoughts. It’s a quiet pastime, though obviously better when I can share my thoughts with you!”

“Yeah,” I smiled. “What do you think is the best thing about the paintings here?” I asked. “I don’t know but there’s just something about this place that stands out beyond all the newer galleries and newer paintings, even if the art itself is just as good.”

“It’s the History,” Annabelle said quickly. “Every painting here has been given heart and soul by its creator, it’s kind of a relic of them that’s left today. Plus the building itself is a work of art of equivalent status to the ones inside it - it kind of completes the experience.”

I liked that, it was a beautiful thought. Every painting a preserved soul with the building a monument to the artists housed within. It’s a pity neither Annabelle nor I will be preserved in such a place… Would it be a preservation worth having? Is a work a true ‘preservation’ of a person or merely something they left behind?

We came to her favourite painting, the Turner masterpiece of a steam vessel tugging a retired sail-boat home beneath a vivid and textural sunset. It was known as ‘The Fighting Temeraire’.

Annabelle smiled at the painting. “Just imagine Turner sitting in front of this all that time ago. Those strokes he made across the blank canvas are upheld here today. His life and labours are preserved here.”

“But is he?” I asked challengingly but not unkindly. “Is this preservation of his work really a memory of him? Does this painting really make the world remember Turner for who he was or is it simply that the painting itself is a special artefact outliving its time whilst Turner himself is just a name?”

Annabelle laughed. “You’re always so negative! This painting is what Turner left behind for the world, this is how he wants to be remembered.”

“I’m just saying,” I said, “that everyone who is remembered for a great work is remembered for what they did and not who they were. Do we know Turner as a person or as a painter?”

“If he’s truly a great master, it doesn’t matter. His person is as a painter and in his paintings he leaves behind his person! Maybe we should remember him merely as the guy who painted the ships in the sunset, maybe that’s how he would want to be remembered. Art is all very deliberate; everything in that painting he did for a reason and every decision he made while doing it was a reflection of him. Effectively he had the liberty to choose how the masses know him and perhaps to honour him we should look no further than his art to understand who he was.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I guess you win!”

“I guess I do,” she said playfully.

We sat down together on one of the benches in the centre of the room and stared longingly at Turner’s ships, the portion of his soul he left behind to live forever, perhaps. The longer you stare at paintings like that the further you see into them, as if they truly are a window into the artist’s soul. Annabelle gently put her head against my shoulder. I placed my arm lovingly around hers.

“I like talking to you about art,” she said. “You always have something interesting to say.”

I smiled. “A conversation is only good if there are two people, I couldn’t say anything ‘interesting’ without someone to appreciate it!”

“I love it when you get philosophical.”

We sat in silence for a further five minutes. Two sets of eyes carefully digging deeper into every inch of the painting and drinking in its rich use of colour and subtle changes in tone. It was in no way an awkward silence, for we had long ago reached that crucial point in the relationship where you can be together and interact only through presence. We didn’t need to talk to appreciate each other’s company.

“Another way of looking at the history that this piece holds is in the people who’ve looked at it,” Annabelle said dreamily. “How many people have seen this painting, ten thousand? A million? More? Think of all those eyes that have looked at those brush strokes, appreciated Turner’s work.”

“That’s a nice way of considering its historical value, yes I like that.” I smiled. It was a beautiful thought that Turner, though dead, had shown himself to so many lives. It makes me sad to think that the only lives I will ever get a chance to touch will be the few I have come directly in contact with. I won’t leave behind a great masterpiece, I won’t leave behind a novel, once my body turns to ashes there will be nothing left of me in this world.

A father and his young daughter of about five or six stood beside us. The two were very different in age and yet both enthralled by the same artefact, over a century old. It takes something quite special to achieve that effect.

“What’s the painting about Daddy?” the little girl asked. “Paintings always have a meaning don’t they? Everything important has a meaning”.

The father crouched to her level to speak to her directly. “Not everything has a meaning”, he said gently, “but I think this does. The painting shows the old ship being brought in from service, but that isn’t the end of navigating the oceans. Look, it’s being towed by a new ship, a steam ship. As the old ship ‘dies’ a new one takes its place. It’s like the sunset.” The father pointed to the vibrant shades of yellow and orange that stretched across the painted sky. “The sun’s setting on the sailing ship but we know it will rise again the next day for the steam ship. Things change, but the universe continues. That’s what I like to think the picture means.”

“I think it means there’s never really an end,” the little girl said intelligently, though she was really just rewording her father’s interpretation. “Like when you tell me I need to go to sleep and I don’t want to, but I know there will be another day, and another and another! So it doesn’t really matter if I sleep because I’ll always wake up again!”

“Yes,” her father said with an awkward laugh. His voice quavered slightly and I saw a hint of fear show itself in his face. It must be horrible considering your own daughter’s mortality, maybe even more so than considering your own.”

We moved on to the next room.

“What do you think of this one?” Annabelle asked, pointing to ’The Execution of lady Jane Grey’.

The painting was vivid beyond photographic. The lady in a silver gown was being led blindfolded to the block whilst an executioner watched and waited, his expression indifferent; to him it was just another job. To the other side of the image two ladies in waiting were complete wrecks of grief looking lifeless in the frozen form of the painting.

I wrinkled my nose at it “Isn’t it a bit morbid?”

Annabelle cocked her head to one side. “Is art meant to be nice to look at? Do you read a book or look at a painting because it is ‘nice’?”

“I guess art should produce an emotional response,” I said, “or else offer some new insight into something.”

Annabelle nodded in agreement. “So how about this painting? What does it do? for you?”

“I think it shows perception of death,” I said flatly. “To the lady it’s the end of her life, to the grievers it’s something awful that will eventually pass and to the executioner it’s an everyday event.”

“Do you feel - sorry for her?” Annabelle asked.

“I don’t know… I should but I can’t see her face properly because of the blindfold. She could be anyone… I guess I feel sorry for the actual lady, the real one who was beheaded… I hope it was quick… Is beheading quick?”

Annabelle paused. “It should be if it is done properly… It’s a horrible way to go for everyone else though, to have to deal with… you know…”

It was the lady who would be losing her life but at least it would be swift, the horrible aftermath of her beheading would not be one she had to deal with. How would Annabelle and I die tomorrow? Would we have a clean, swift exit? Would there be a horrific aftermath? Would one of us have to deal with it if death took the other first? The knowing but not knowing was frustrating and frightening me. Jane Grey knew she was going to die, but she also knew it should be quick. I did not know what fate would be at my end, or Annabelle’s. I only knew it was coming soon. What were the possibilities? What were the likelihoods? Could I prepare for the worst or predict the probable? I wanted to get my phone out and give google a quick search. But not here, not in front of Annabelle. I was confident that she must not know of my concern or my precognition. How could I hope to give her a decent final day if she knew it were her final day?

“Sorry, do you mind if I just go to the toilet?” I asked uncomfortably.

“No that’s fine,” Annabelle said. “You hardly need to apologise! I’ll be just fine waiting here.”

“Thanks,” I said quickly, then ran off to the quiet solace the toilets could offer. I locked myself in one of the cubicles and sat down shakily on the seat. This day was not meant to be a day of fear or of horror, it was meant to be a beautiful, emotional finale to my relationship with Annabelle. The death was unavoidable and hence not worth worrying about, but that did not mean its presence did not linger in my mind.

I twirled my phone around in my hand, debating internally whether I should read some feel-good meaning of life article to make myself feel better. I gave in and opened the browser but instead of searching for the meaning of life I felt compelled to search for ‘worst ways to die’. The thought of Lady Jane Grey was fresh in my mind. The article opened on the screen and the deadly list unfolded before me.

1) Starvation: That was hardly an issue for me; I could happily discount that as a possibility. The way death was to meet me would happen tomorrow, it would be relatively quick.

2) Fall into a volcano: I almost chuckled to myself, in the face of death I nearly laughed. Unless there was some mega apocalypse situation this too was not going to happen. Burning to death though, that would be pretty horrible and was a terrifying possibility.

3) Plane crash: I looked away from the phone; the thought of my parents’ death prodded with an emotional stick. I wouldn’t die in a plane but what was to say I wouldn’t die being hit by a plane? What if there was another 9/11 just around the corner?

4) Freezing: I considered this one for a little while; unless we became trapped in a freezer this was off the table. No doubt it would be a prolonged way to go though.

5) Eaten by animals: I nearly gagged; the thought of teeth and claws ripping through living flesh flashed across my mind. It would be agonising, brutal. I let out a small whimper. I could not bear to think of Annabelle in this way, torn to bloody shreds, screaming as teeth tore into her… It was too much. Too much. I scrolled on.

6) Crushed to death: I drew my limbs into myself and perched on the edge of the seat, feeling small against the vast weight of the world. Crushing could be quick, equally it could be the slowest. Being trapped under a crushing weight could keep you alive for hours until toxins eventually killed you or you bled out from burst arteries. I quickly moved on.

7) Torture: Shivers rattled down my spine and images from a hundred horror movies opened in my head like tabs in a browser. I could not endure this list any longer; it was simply too horrible to read any further. I closed the tab and sat in silence.

The sound of a man urinating violently beside me, the sound of a running tap, the sound of an over-powered hand dryer surrounded me. But beneath everything that was my world was the inevitable underlying end… death. Maybe I was being too pessimistic searching out the worst ways to die or maybe I was just preparing myself. Though what exactly could I do to prepare myself for something I could not control? I tried a new search, this time for the most common causes of death. I came to a rather nice interactive infographic which allowed me to put in my age gender and region. There was obviously a reasonable market for people trying to predict their deaths if someone went to the trouble of making this.

I left the sex field blank at first as I was concerned for both myself and Annabelle. I then selected 1-19 for the age range and London for the region. Coloured circles for each cause resized and aligned themselves in order of numbers. Cancer came top, with transport accidents second. Most of the other events were health related problems as I had expected. These were not really a risk for us as neither had any foreboding signs and only a day left. I would have thought anything sinister going wrong internally would have shown itself sooner. That left transport accidents, murder and non-transport accidents as major contenders. I thought back to yesterday and the pile up outside my flat and of the disappearance of the cyan spandex cyclist. That was our most likely end, crushed to death by a car or impaled by a stray piece of metal.

“Oh Annabelle,” I whispered. “Why does it have to be like this?”

I cried a little, but suppressed the tears so as to hide my emotional presence from the others in neighbouring cubicles.

I decided to choose one last search: quick and easy ways to die. Maybe it would give me some hope for the less painful possibilities. I came to a slightly disturbing article which spoke very practically about the best methods of suicide. I felt unclean reading it, as if its pragmatic approach to ending a life was somehow infectious. I quickly discounted jumping and hanging as those would be exclusively brought about by suicide, which was quite clearly not something either of us would contemplate. That led me on to shooting, drowning and suffocation. I felt uncomfortable; the shooting would be quick, the drowning and suffocation reasonably painless but very likely terrifying ordeals. It seemed the only quick death that could happen to me or Annabelle would be to get shot, unless shock or damage from an accident was great enough to cause instant death. It was an unnerving reality. I smashed the phone against the side of the cubicle in frustration and wept helplessly. I did not try to stop the tears flowing, I could not, I would not… Annabelle’s beautiful face filled my mind, but it was covered with blood, or burnt, or mutilated beyond recognition…

“Are you okay in there sir?” an American voice called from the next cubicle (or stall as he would say). Stall, that made me think of livestock. Livestock, slaughter, death…

“In here?” I replied. “No different from out there! I’m well or shit wherever I happen to be… I can’t do anything to escape… There is no place unreachable…”

“I don’t really understand what you’re on about and I don’t mean to intrude on you, or, anything,” the kindly voice said. “But if something is troubling you, you should get help. There’s no point in living if you live in misery!”

That was it; I was wasting time. If there is anything one should ignore on their last day it is death. I should be with Annabelle, not crying in some public toilet.

“Yes,” I replied, wiping tears from my eyes. “You’re right. Thank you.”

I needed to focus, to ignore the death and to open up to the life that I had left. I needed to make this day with Annabelle count. I strode briskly out of the toilet and back to the gallery space. I dialled the number for the theatre as I went, determined to fulfil Annabelle’s wish to see ‘Macbeth’.

“Hello Globe theatre? Can I book two tickets for this afternoon’s matinée performance of ‘Macbeth’?” I said hurriedly.

“We’re sold out,” the woman on the phone said politely. “You can book for…”

“I have £1000 in my pocket right now, I can get more if I need to!”

“Sir, you can’t just…”

“Please…” I sighed, I felt tears in my eyes. “Please, I want my girlfriend to see something there, she, she’s dying, this could really be her last chance. Please…”

I must have sounded sincere; I guess it helped that I was. The woman gave me instant sympathy, without showing a shadow of doubt.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I can talk to the theatre, we can probably allow a couple extra standing, maybe I can even get a couple of extra seats in the galleries…”

“Thank you, thank you so much, you will have my undying gratitude forever. I don’t care how much the theatre wants, you can have the £1000 and give them what you like. This means a lot. It really does.”

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