It was the 23rd hour of the 364th day of the 51st year of his life, and Edward Purcell was sitting in his late father’s study wondering where it had all gone wrong.
He could not come to terms with the gravity of his error. For decades, he had been so completely sure of himself. Yet now, with each tick of the clock, it was becoming increasingly obvious that he had been mistaken. His entire adult life, it now appeared, was predicated on a heinous misjudgement. It didn’t make sense. Or, if it did, there was absolutely no comfort in its making sense.
He looked up at the books on the shelf. The visionary writers he had delighted in for so long, Blake and Swedenborg, were now exposed as nothing but the ravings of optimistic madmen. Much more on point, it seemed, were the gloomy tales penned by Russian realists that rested on the shelves beneath. He scanned the names from left to right: Turgenev, Goncharov, Chekhov.
On the wall, just across from the bookshelf, hung his late father’s shotgun and, next to that, a portrait of his late mother.
He let out a long breath and focussed his thoughts inwards. He was nothing but a joke. The living, breathing punchline to a hysterical yarn that everyone got to laugh at but him. It was a terrible state for a grown man to find himself in. His entire existence, he felt, had been solely for the amusement of other people.
What do you call such a man? A man who lives exclusively to satisfy his peers? A slave? No, he was not quite a slave. Great monuments have been built upon the sacrifice of the slave. The Pyramids and the Great Wall were lasting testaments to the labour of slaves. There was a degree of honour in a slave’s suffering and Edward Purcell could claim no such dignity. His sacrifice, he told himself, had been less for the glory of mankind and more for the piddling amusement of a few lukewarm acquaintances.
To this degree, he felt more like a clown than a slave.
(For a moment, he pondered the depressing concept of the Clown-Slave. It was more than a few rungs down the romantic ladder from Rousseau’s Noble-Savage and nowhere near the lofty echelon inhabited by Plato’s Philosopher-King. It was barely in the same division as Dr Downs’ Idiot-Savant.)
“Oh, they are all going to love this,” he thought. “They’ll absolutely bloody love it.” “Here comes the great prophet!” they’ll say. “Hey, Nostradamus, want to ask the angels for tonight’s lottery numbers? Going to tell us who wins the steeplechase tomorrow? I could do with a few quid at the bookies.” The fun they’d have at his expense – the whole village. They’d be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of his years of divine braggadocio finally being exposed as nonsense.
He let out a groan at the notion.
Now, it would be very easy at this juncture to accuse Edward Purcell of being melodramatic in his self-pity. But put yourself in his shoes for a moment. How would you like it if everything you had ever believed was suddenly revealed to you as nonsense? How would you feel if your most staunch convictions were exposed as baloney? What if you had staked your otherwise excellent reputation on the certainty of being right, only to find beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were mistaken and, worse still, that you were probably deluded into the bargain?
Because that was the long and the short of it for Edward Purcell as he sat in his late father’s study on this cold, October night. And no matter how much he tried to rationalise the situation, the same stark, tormenting thought kept coming back to him:
“My entire adult existence has been an error.”
It would have been easier for him to rationalise if it were happening to someone else. He’d have found the whole episode quite amusing if it were happening to a mad hillbilly on an American daytime television show. But it wasn’t. It was happening to him, and it was happening now. And existentially that’s what was hurting so much. We all know what it means to observe and be amused by absurdity. But have you any idea how much it hurts to actually be absurd? It’s a tough medicine to swallow for anyone who has ever had the temerity to take himself seriously.
He looked around the room again, hoping for a way out of his intolerable malaise. But there was no avoiding it: in less than an hour, Edward Purcell would be 51 years old.
We can pinpoint the exact date that the seeds of his current malcontent were sown. It was the 18th October and the day of his 18th birthday. It was then that Edward was to witness what he would for years afterwards call ‘his miracle’. In actual fact, it was more of a visitation than a miracle. But Edward thought a ‘visitation’ sounded like something you get from the postman. What he had witnessed that fateful day was nothing short of miraculous. It was a divine vision. An act of God.
This so-called miracle had occurred in less serious days at university, after he had returned home from his first legal night of drinking alcohol. His new friends had plied him with multiple pints of best bitter to celebrate his big night and he had cheerfully washed them down with many of smaller glasses of blended whisky. It was a raucous evening and when the young Edward returned to his dorm and settled into his bed he was sure that it was over.
However, only a few hours later, he was startled awake by the feeling that someone else was in his room with him. As he came to (feeling more than a little worse for wear) he saw that his instincts had been correct. Only, it was not ‘someone’ that was in his room with him, it was ‘something’.
As far as he could ascertain, he was in the presence of a ghost. Gripped by fear and startled into sobriety, his first reaction was to plead with this spirit to leave him in peace.
“Don’t hurt me!” he whimpered, pulling his sheets up to his nose.
The ghost manifest itself as a tall, translucent, haloed figure. It had a soft, motherly face and wore an iridescent robe of blue and green. Its luminous skin reflected the light of a misty moon that flickered through the open window of the dormitory. The phantom hovered magnificently in the air and seemed to Edward’s senses to be every bit as real as the bed in which he was lying. The young man vowed never to have so much alcohol to drink again just as long as this horror would leave him unharmed and let him return to his sleep.
“Do not be afraid,” spoke the visitor. “You look as if you have seen a ghost! But tell me, friend, have you ever seen a ghost with wings before?” At which, the apparition turned around to give Edward a better view of the rack of silver feathers that were appended to its radiant scapulae.
“No I haven’t,” responded the young man with a snivel. “But then I’ve never seen a ghost at all before.”
“And nor have you seen one yet, Edward. For my name is Gabriel and I am no ghost! I am the Overseer of the Kerubim, the angels of light and glory; I am Archangel of the ninth sefirot Yesod and I am the representative of the Almighty Living God!”
“I’m Edward Purcell,” the young man replied, “I’m a sociology student.”
“Oh, I know who you are, Edward, and I know that today is your 18th birthday. In fact, I have been given word to visit you on this precise day to bring word of your impending death.”
“I knew it!” bawled Edward, “You’ve come here to kill me!” And he immediately burst into tears.
There a followed was a long interchange in which this angel, Gabriel, reassured the young man that all deaths are technically ‘impending’ from an eternal point of view and he apologised for his choice of language (he sometimes forgot mortal men had such a naïve understanding of temporality). The archangel then explained that what he had meant to say was that he had come specifically to inform Edward when he was going to die – which, as it happened, was not right now but when he was 50 years old.
Seeing the horror that had filled the young man’s eyes upon hearing this news, the archangel tried once again to allay his fears. He explained that this knowledge was a divine and precious gift. Edward should count himself honoured to receive it. Gabriel proclaimed that human beings’ ignorance of the time of their own death was one of their greatest afflictions. Everyone knew that they would die one day but since people live in constant denial that it is going to happen any time soon, they never actually accept it will happen to them at all. He lamented that millions of souls were lost every year because of this oversight. After all, those who don’t give much thought to their own death aren’t likely to give very much thought to an afterlife either, and so most people just roll along from one day to the next accumulating all manner of sins without paying any mind to where it was all leading them. Far better, the archangel explained, for a person to know when their number was up. Knowledge, as the saying went, was power and Edward was being given a very great power indeed.
At first, the young man remained unconvinced. He said he had hoped to live rather longer than just 50 years. In fact, he thought it was a terribly young age to go and he complained that the archangel had no business breaking such bad news to him on his big day.
Gabriel listened to these concerns with forbearance before declaring that old age was nothing but a series of indignities designed to enforce humility upon the proud. It was not something to hold in very high regard. And, besides, life on earth was positively hellish in comparison to the rich fruits that awaited a person once his time was through. Gabriel assured Edward that if there was any bad news being delivered it was simply that he had to endure life up to the age of 50.
The young man was in a privileged position. This notice period, if you care to call it that, would allow Edward to manage his expectations of life. He could live with abandon, free from fear in his youth, and when the time of his demise would finally arrive, he need not leave anything unresolved, unsaid or undone. It was truly the most holy of blessings.
The two spoke long into the night. Gabriel explained that he brought this news because Edward was lucky enough to have been deemed one of the elect, and that he was one of only a handful of people upon whom such knowledge is bestowed per earthly millennium.
Accepting this news more willingly, Edward’s mind started to fill with mischief. He asked if being one of the elect meant he could do whatever he wanted while on earth and still reap the rewards of heaven?
The angel told him he was correct; he would ascend to the heavenly spheres unconditionally. But he also made it clear that anyone who was given the concrete assurance of an afterlife was usually compelled to behave decently. Their knowledge made them less susceptible to the cynicism and selfishness that blight those who are expected to behave according to blind faith alone. Edward would come to find that the deadline of 50 years would focus his mind, and he would soon see that an earthly existence is really of very little time at all. This gift, the angel said, would inspire the young man to live a devout life and all temptations of sin and error would very quickly lose their appeal.
It was at this point in the discussion that Edward suddenly realised he’d left one vital question unasked, “But how is it going to happen?” he blurted out in panic. “How exactly will I die?”
The angel said no more. It closed its eyes, its heavenly body glowed white and it vanished in an instant – leaving Edward alone in his bed, reeling with amazement at what had he just witnessed (and starting to feel queasy from the alcohol he had imbued only hours before). It wasn’t very long before he was fast asleep again.
The next morning, Edward was quite unsure of what to make of the events just described. Had they been a vivid dream? Had they been the product of too many best bitters and blended whiskies? After much to-ing and fro-ing, Edward decided that the events had been no dream. They had been as real as the sun that sets in the evening.
And so it was that Edward Purcell would embark on the rest of his life knowing with certainty two things he hadn’t known the night before. First, he had been assured of his ascension to heaven. And, second, he would die when he was 50 years old.
A lot of time had passed between that evening and this. To say the visitation had been the defining moment of Edward Purcell’s life would be an understatement. Over the years, the serious man now sitting in his late father’s study had gradually eschewed his earthly ambitions in favour of a more contemplative and devout life, just as the archangel had foretold he would. The divine insight had influenced Edward’s decision not to marry. It had quashed his appetite for wealth. It had defined his entire adult existence. In fact, the ethereal encounter was so central to his sense-of-self that, for one score year and thirteen, it was all he would talk about when in the company of others. Rare was the conversation in which Edward Purcell did not mention the year of his own death.
It would have been wiser for him to keep his own counsel. Whenever he told people he had been visited by an archangel who had revealed to him his future, it aroused either deep suspicion or cutting ridicule.
When Edward started his career as a humanities teacher at the local school, for instance, the headmaster invited the eager-eyed professional into his office to talk about pension options. The young charge replied matter-of-factly that it was kind of his new boss to take such an interest in his future, but he had no need to pay into a pension as he had been granted the grace of God and was destined to die when he was 50.
“I see,” the headmaster had said, leaning backwards in his chair and casting the kind of quizzical, penetrating look that would become all too familiar to Edward Purcell during the course of his life.
By the time he had reached his forties, Edward’s continual references to his ‘miracle’ had led to his peers marking him out as an eccentric. He was the queer, unmarried fellow who claimed to know things beyond the ken of mortal men. He was the subject of whispers, sniggers and stares from the people he met. Children would point at him and teenagers would call him names.
Even on the rare days Edward didn’t talk of his experiences directly, they were always there, hanging in the air, framing the man’s existence in a comic way that only a fully public mental breakdown would ever undo.
Yet, in spite of this, Edward’s peers never came to view him as a total madman. That was because, as we’ve already mentioned, in all other aspects of his life he was a sensible and serious man. At work, he was diligent and professional (yes, he was derided by his pupils and regarded with suspicion by his colleagues, but name a teacher who isn’t?). In his free time, he was a community-minded member of his local church and was widely known for his selflessness and acts of charity (when his father died, leaving him an enormous sum of money, Edward donated it to a religious charity, retaining only the family home so that he might have someone where to live). So while the villagers were happy to accuse Edward of being a religious lunatic, they could never accuse him of a lack of conviction in his lunacy.
However, Edward’s fondness for professing his divinity would occasionally lead to confrontations. In most cases, he could hardly be blamed for the tumult. He was simply living an honest life according to his own experience. Much of the mean-spiritedness and hostility came from people who were easily angered by Edward’s belief in things from which they were excluded and who resented the personal superiority that was inherent in his propositions.
His most notorious row was with the local vicar: a prim, puritanical man by the name of Martin Peters.
Edward had been a regular member of Martin Peters’ congregation for years. On most Sundays, he would approach the vicar and try to enter into a theological discussion with him. Edward hoped he would find – in a clergyman of all people – someone who would take his miracle seriously and help him extrapolate its significance. However, in Martin Peters, he found no such man at all. Martin Peters anathematised Edward’s claims and flatly refused take the ridiculous events in the slightest bit seriously. Martin Peters thought that Edward Purcell suffered from arrogance. He found his claims far-fetched, syncretic and blasphemous. And as for his preposterous assertion that he had been directly granted grace as a pre-approved member of the elect? Well, really! What could have been bolder, prouder and more offensive to the ears of God?
Edward found the vicar’s attitude hurtful. Here was a man of faith – a responsible member of the clergy – being as dismissive and closed minded as the most irreligious of rogues. This vicar purported to believe in the archangel Gabriel, grace and divine prophecies. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to believe they might be revealed to a lowly member of his own flock? An infernal contradiction! How was it that a man could find the most improbable things so probable and at the same find so improbable the idea they could ever actually take place? Martin Peters, Edward came to believe, was a hypocrite who spent most his time trying to persuade people that God moved in mysterious ways, and the remainder trying to persuade Edward that He moved in no such ways at all!
He eventually came to the conclusion that it was a matter of sour grapes and decided to tell Martin Peters to his face. And so it came to pass that, one Sunday, Edward accused his local vicar of the sin of jealousy and of wishing he had been granted the angel’s wisdom instead. He said Martin Peters was trying to belittle these very real experiences because he couldn’t cope with the idea of a member of his congregation being more holy than he was. There was a grain of truth in this accusation, and that’s what made Martin Peters so furious. He blasphemed terribly at Edward and threatened to physically assault him if he ever entered his church again.
Martin Peters was subsequently so embarrassed by his threats and loss of temper that, a week later, he resigned his post in shame. He moved to another parish where he hoped to find fewer troublemakers.
Then there was Edward’s next-door neighbour, Edwina Wishart.
Edwina Wishart was close to Edward for a number of years but, after a while, she too would become exasperated by all the talk of miracles and visions. When she first moved to the village, she had found Edward a deeply fascinating character – as eccentrics often are in the early days. The two neighbours would enjoy lively discussions over a glass of red wine, usually in Edward’s late father’s conservatory. Edwina Wishart enjoyed dabbling in epistemological matters from time to time. Initially, she had found Edward’s world-view riveting and made it her personal mission to persuade her neighbour that his views were logically unsustainable.
“But this is not proof, Ed! What you experienced was a delusion. A hallucination!”
“It is proof to me, Ed. I observed it with my own eyes. The fact that there was nobody in the room to share the experience, or that it hasn’t happened again since is neither here nor there. You can tell me it didn’t happen and I will tell you it did. It’s your word against mine, and if I am the jury you’re trying to convince, then I will take mine, if it’s all the same to you. Do you really expect me to cede the sovereignty of my own experience to the minds of others, when they themselves are no less existentially dubitable?”
“But it’s all so convenient though, isn’t it Ed? That it was just you who was there? Is it not more likely that you had too much to drink that night? Or you were suffering from stress? Or you have, I don’t know, some deep-rooted messiah complex that means you need to make yourself sound more interesting than you actually are?”
“More likely according to what? And I’ll thank you not to make this personal, Ed.”
And so it would go on into the evening. The discussions were a regular feature in their lives for years before Edwina Wishart finally tired of her neighbour’s unwillingness to yield to reason. If he would not come to see the light of a rational, Godless universe, then let him be damned to the darkness of delusion and loneliness. Over time, she came to give her neighbour the time of day and little more, and Edward lost a good and trusted friend.
As the years wore on, he became more and more of an outcast.
When he visited his local public house – as he liked to do from time to time – a silence would descend as he entered the room. He would politely order a pint of best bitter and the landlady would cordially serve him. But it would never take long for a chuckle or two to bubble up from a corner of the room. Often, the more brazen locals at the bar would pick on him. This would consist mostly of sarcastic jibes intended to raise a cheap laugh at his expense. The assembled wags might ask him to predict the future of a looming event, or to absolve them from the sin of ‘being half-cut on a work night’ – crossing themselves in the Catholic fashion – that kind of thing. It was, to Edward’s mind, pretty low-grade, irritating repartee, but it was nothing he couldn’t cope with.
However, if it was later in the evening, or if the drinkers were feeling particularly boisterous, these interrogations could be rather more aggressive in nature.
“Are you full of shit, mate?” they might demand. “You think you’re special, do you? Come on, admit you made the whole thing up. Admit you’re a fucking liar who thinks he’s better than all of us in here …”
When this sort of thing happened, Edward would simply return his glass to the bar (regardless of whether it was empty or not) and embark on the long walk up the hill to his late father’s home – trying his best to keep a stoic expression on his face and the hurt from his heart.
It wasn’t easy for him to endure this ridicule and rudeness. Edward Purcell was a serious man and, although he had a predilection towards the pride and self-aggrandisement that is born out of seriousness, he was also a good man. He always tried to live his life as honestly as he could in light of the events he had experienced. He had never asked for an archangel to tell him the year of his death. He knew how outlandish his experiences must have sounded to other people. He knew his claims contravened every empirical law in the universe. He knew the events were impossible from a scientific point of view. So he knew why people were so sceptical about what he had seen. But, for all of the events’ impossibility, he also knew that they had happened and, naturally, he wanted them to be given consideration. It annoyed him that something so incredible and otherworldly should be so carelessly written off.
What’s more, Edward resented being viewed as a fool – especially by people whose way of life he regarded to be more foolish than his own. To his mind, his accusers were in no position to mock him. These were people who carried on as if their lives were going to last forever! They held nothing sacred! They had little understanding of themselves! They saw nothing that was important or eternal in life! And when they wanted to distract themselves from the meaningless of their lives, they would seek succour in a vacuous prayer, or else drown their existential woes in alcohol at the public house! It was all so unfair. How was it that these people were able to confer foolishness upon him? Surely he was the one coming from a position of authenticity here?
But facts are facts. And whether Edward liked it or not, the facts existed with the consensus – regardless of what had or had not occurred.
Edward Purcell knew that the only way he would ever be taken seriously was if the events of the 18th October all those years ago could somehow be proven to be factual. If he could demonstrate that an archangel had visited him in the middle of the night then he would be justified in every way. But, frustratingly, in the absence of any kind of evidence , that was out of the question.
Unless . . .
Edward Purcell would only be taken seriously if the event that lay at the heart of his prophecy – that is, his death – was to occur as he predicted. If Edward was to pass away, at 50 years old, as he had so boldly and vocally claimed he would, then it might just be enough to make people think he’d been telling the truth about what he had witnessed at university. Of course, it wouldn’t be proof enough to rewrite the laws of physics – the cries of ‘coincidence’ would be deafening. But it would certainly be enough for some of his peers to pause for thought. The people in his community, the people who knew him, the people who mocked and teased him so mercilessly, they might all stop for a moment to think about how they had treated this enigmatic – perhaps even holy – man who had walked amongst them.
Throughout his adult life, that had been Edward’s great consolation.
Until today, the absolute certainty of his untimely (or perhaps all too timely) death had given Edward the fortitude to keep his head held high in the face of the public derision. He had been able to roll with the punches as he knew his claims would turn out to be justified. When the day came that he ascended to heaven as per his vision, everything would finally make sense to the people he left behind. Then they would come to think of him in an entirely different light. Or, at least, so he liked to imagine.
In quieter moments, at home on his own, Edward would allow himself to pursue this line of thinking. He would let the ideas grow fat and juicy in his mind. He would sit in his late father’s study with a glass of blended whisky and let the prospect of his death wash over him. How he loved to picture the disbelieving faces of the villagers when they heard the news of his passing. They’d be shaken to the core! The ramifications were colossal! If he had been telling the truth, then here was a first-hand account of the veracity of the Abrahamic religions! These swine would soon come to regret their sinful and mocking ways and come to repent their foolish lifestyles! At thoughts such as these, Edward would clasp his hands together with glee. How glorious it would be!
Edward took such delight in these thoughts that he would take them to extremes. When serious men are not taken as seriously as they would like, they are sometimes disposed to creating private mythologies in which their own importance becomes amplified. Sometimes this can manifest itself in vanity projects – think of the talentless trustee of a local charity, or the chinless chairperson of a needless committee. Other times, it can manifest itself in the amour propre of a successful career – think of the now wealthy businessman who was taunted and teased as a child.
In Edward’s case, the bitterness manifest itself in what you might call a kind of auto-deification.
In his private hours, with his glass of blended whisky, Edward would allow himself to think that, in time, people might not just take him seriously but would come to venerate him as a prophet. His imagination conjured up images of repentant villagers congregating to talk fondly of the misunderstood man who, like Nostradamus, had correctly predicted his own death and conversed directly with the angels of heaven. How humbled they would all be to have lived in such close proximity to him! Perhaps they would erect a statue of him on the village green? Or, when word of his death spread around the country, perhaps a small cult of followers would make regular pilgrimages to pay homage to this humble mystic who had seen behind the curtain and brought news from the other side? Perhaps they would exchange small gifts with one another on the 18th October?
Edward would become drunk on these ideas. This imagined time-after-death, this Edward-less future out of the reach of ridicule, was so delightful to his mind that his imagination would take him there more often than was sensible. Sometimes it seemed that Edward was more present in the world in which he was not present than the world in which he was.
It is fair to say that no healthy man has ever relished the prospect of his own death more than Edward Purcell.
Of course, right now, as Edward sat in his late father’s study, such thoughts couldn’t have been further from his mind. As the clock continued to tick its way unremittingly towards the unhappiest birthday anyone had ever known, he felt bereft. Everything he had held to be sacred and true was about to be exposed as nonsense.
How had it come to this? Ever since this time last year, when he had joyfully turned 50, he had been carrying himself with a palpable air of expectation. He had known that, any day now, he was going to be whisked away to a land of milk and honey and he would soon pass into legend. He felt smug and self-assured, as if a long-overdue promotion was coming his way. He had made sure he was prepared for the big event. His affairs were all in order. He had accomplished everything that had wanted in his life. He had even resigned his job at the school under the guise of taking early retirement. He had been feeling wonderful. Even the sarcastic greetings of “Still here then?” from moronic neighbours when he went for his morning walk hadn’t been able to remove the spring from his step. Yes, for the last 12 months, Edward Purcell was certain his ascension to Elysium was imminent.
It was destiny.
However, in the last few days, Edward had started to worry that destiny was leaving things rather late. And, as strong as his faith was, a creeping sense of doubt and terror had started to grow in his mind. More than once, he had woken up in the middle of the night, not to a vision of angels, but to what felt like the precipitous edge of an abyss of utter meaninglessness.
“What if … ”
“But what if I imagined the whole …”
No. It was a thought too horrible to entertain.
Yet now here he was.
There were just a few minutes to go until he turned 51 and acceptance of his error was unavoidable. At first, he tried to make sense of the situation through his belief system. After all, one’s faith is not something easily surrendered. It can only ever be wrenched from a stubborn heart. So his first thoughts were that perhaps Gabriel, or even God Himself, had seen into his arrogant soul and taken offence at his thoughts of, for example, having a statue erected in his honour, or inspiring his own personal sect of worshippers. Maybe he’d gone too far and the archangel had chosen to abandon him? Perhaps Martin Peters was right? Perhaps his pride was an affront to all that was holy?
He thought of auto-deification being the root of all sin: the undoing of the garden of Eden and the damnable crime of proud Lucifer.
But then, hadn’t Gabriel himself said that, for Edward, no sin was punishable and that he would ascend to heaven unconditionally? Had he not been told that he was one of the elect and not to worry about such matters?
Until this moment, he had always thought so. But as Edward looked around his late father’s study at this late hour, he realised that there was only one possible explanation and it was time for him to face up to it. There had been no angel Gabriel. There had been no ‘miracle’. He was an idiot! The truth was that he had imbued too many best bitters and blended whiskies on his birthday and he had imagined the whole thing in a childish, alcohol-induced fervour.
What a collapse of faith he then started to experience!
What if there was no heaven either? Imagine! If the central tenet of his entire belief system was wrong, then everything that resulted from it was most likely wrong as well. His hands felt cold and skeletal. His mouth dried. His heart began to beat furiously. The atheists were right: life was not a rehearsal. There was only the here and now. It suddenly occurred to Edward that he had let the best years of his life slip away from him. He had no pension. He had no friends. He had no wife. He had no children. He had gambled it all on the promise of heaven. Now he had only his old age to look forward to with no glorious reward at the end of it.
He felt the weight of the enormous injustice. None of this was his fault. His chest continued to tighten. He lamented the waste of an adult life – no, not just an adult life, his adult life. He cursed himself repeatedly for his stupidity.
His frantic mind turned once more to the avalanche of ridicule that would soon come his way. How could he ever show his face in the village again? If only he’d been more circumspect. More dignified. He had upset and annoyed everybody and they would make him pay for it. They had never liked him. They would laugh more loudly than they had ever done. They would tease him mercilessly and he could have no complaints. It was bad enough before, when at least he’d had the reassurance that he’d one day prove them all wrong. But now, nothing.
It was such a lonely, terrifying realisation. At least other religious people had the consolation of never being proven wrong in their lifetime. They could talk smugly of heaven and never face earthly contradiction from their peers. Pascal’s wager was win-win. Edward’s was madness.
There was nowhere for him to hide. He remembered the public house. The school. He thought of his beautiful neighbour, Edwina Wishart, and of the parishioners of the local church. Then his mind turned to Martin Peters. Oh God, that snake would no doubt be one of the first to pay Edward a visit as soon as he heard the news. Ostensibly, of course, his visit would be to forgive Edward and console him for not being quite as dead as he’d hoped he’d be. But in actual fact, it would be to laugh in his face and scorn him for being so proud.
But now, as Edward considered the bigger picture, even that didn’t seem to matter. All joy had left the world.
He looked up once again at the clock on the wall. It was just two minutes to midnight and there was no denying it any more. He had been wrong about everything. He was a wretched fool who had been too willing to believe in his own importance just as they all said he was. Hadn’t they warned him? Hadn’t they tried to save him from his own stupidity? Hadn’t they, with the best will, tried to reach out to him before his stubbornness had become unbearable?
“My entire adult existence has been an error”
It became unbearable. There was one minute to go. He got to his feet and muttered something inaudible before fumbling in his trouser pocket to locate the cartridge he had procured from the unquestioning farmer earlier in the day.
He stumbled across his late father’s study like a drunk. He rested his arms against the bookshelf and let them take the weight of his body. He looked up: Blake and Swedenborg. He cursed them both. He looked down: Chekhov. He cursed himself.
He was a joke. He was a clown. He was a fool. He was …
He looked over at the shotgun. He steadied himself before removing it from the wall. Edward held it under his right arm while his trembling left hand inserted the cartridge into the chamber. He straightened his back and shoulders. He looked his late mother’s portrait in the eyes. He put the barrel in his mouth and, as if his fate compelled him, quickly squeezed the trigger.
A tremendous bang rattled the windows of the old room as Edward’s confused brain was blown out of its skull.
His body fell emptily to the floor and began to bleed out over its late father’s carpet.
The clock struck midnight, by which time Edward Purcell was dead.
It was a shame, really.
He was only 50 years old.