The librarian, sitting in his familiar place in the pub that evening, had been uncharacteristically quiet. But, according to people who were there, from the moment he pushed through the doors, Arnold looked as if he was bursting with something momentous to say.
When Arnold did speak, after he’d settled down with a drink, he said to the friends and acquaintances around him, ‘There are things you want to know. There are other things you need to know. And, more importantly, there are things you don’t want to know, but which – should you learn them – will benefit you in the long run. I could obtain that information about each of you right now,’ he said. ‘If I look into your eyes for a short time, I can retrieve that knowledge. I can pass it right on to you and change your lives – immediately.’
This village pub was the friendliest place for miles around, and although food prices had increased and people were poorer and in worse health than they had been since anyone could remember, the community still gathered there most nights.
They played games like darts and pool; sometimes there was music, dancing or a comedian. But the evening when Arnold appeared, it was relatively quiet.
Arnold was known to be clever and educated, erudite even. It was said he was the only person in the village whose lips didn’t move when he read. Though this was not true, his learning made him an excellent competitor in pub quizzes. Certainly, he wasn’t one for conspiracies or bizarre stuff.
The pub’s regulars had noticed that since the end of lockdown Arnold’s appearance had deteriorated. Like a lot of local people, he had been off work with anxiety. Then the library was closed due to lack of funds. What did he have left? Soon his hair was no longer neat, his clothes were worn and shabby. He shaved badly now, leaving haphazard tufts behind, as if he couldn’t pay attention or had forgotten to turn the light on.
Arnold had lost his parents to Covid. Most people in the village had experienced death in some form. They’d also been scared, if not paranoid, during that long period when the world had become even more dangerous.
Arnold also suffered the loss of his lodger and only companion. This man had left a bag of pharmaceuticals in his bathroom and Arnold, having once been a ‘head’ when such people still existed and now with time on his hands, took a good look through them. He found a tab of what he thought was LSD, which he hadn’t taken for decades.
The village was in lockdown; misery and time was all they had, the days, weeks and months merging one into another. Arnold’s house was full of books; he had plenty to read, but his eyes tired easily these days.
According to those who knew him, Arnold dropped the tab of LSD – this last gift from his friend – and came round two and a half days later a changed man.
It must have been strange and powerful stuff. Arnold discovered he had been granted ‘a gift’ of prophecy. It wasn’t that he could see into the future generally. He couldn’t tell you whether interest rates would rise or give you the name of a horse that would win tomorrow. But he could do this one thing: if he looked into your eyes, he could read the time, date and circumstances of your death.
To say the least, the couple of people he eventually confided in were sceptical of this ‘talent’. Who wasn’t aware of the sheer amount of falsity and fakery out there, of the crazy claims made by all sorts of charlatans?
Arnold was claiming that during the pandemic, when he cycled around the village kindly still dropping off books outside people’s homes, when he waved at them from the end of the path, or spoke to them through a window, their ‘death particulars’ had begun to pop up in his mind, like departures on a destination board but with additional details. Unfortunately, he said he had been proved right every time.
What were these interventions? Were they thought-murders or illuminations? He didn’t know. He was unable to defend himself against them. Once, while knocking his head against a wall in order to bang some sense into himself, he spotted a delivery driver walking down the front path. Taking the parcel and being sure to keep the man on the doorstep a few minutes, he couldn’t help but understand that the driver would die of a stroke and drive into a parked car. Yet the man seemed so cheerful!
The man died as Arnold predicted. It kept happening, and it was disconcerting, terrifying, like being possessed or going mad. But Arnold kept it to himself for months, living alone in his cottage – cowering, he called it – and not seeing anyone. Until he realized that he had to make the most of this condition. He had to deal with it optimistically.
Now, in the pub, someone asked, was it a burden? A dreadful thing to know? Yes, for what seemed a long time he wished he had the ability to blot this knowledge out. But once you knew something for sure, there was no going back. What he wanted to do now, having thought it through, was to share his knowledge. To use this gift and opportunity for kindness and good, giving people time to prepare for their end, if that was what they wanted. The power was with them, not him. He was not God.
Now, this evening, having begun to talk about his gift openly, he was being challenged to confirm his flair in public. ‘Yes, indeed. It is true. The moment has arrived,’ he said. ‘I’m aware of that, and will do what I can to show you.’
Looking across the faces watching him, he asked for a volunteer. All were curious; none seemed enthusiastic. Who would it be? Anyone?
A regular called Big Keef, a burly, tough and always cheerful builder, stepped forward.
‘Why not? Yes, bring on the truth, my clever Cassandra! I’m not afraid! Let’s hear it! I’ve already got debts! Now I can accumulate even more and why would I worry?’
More people gathered round. Appalled, excited and curious faces watched from the bar, eager to see what kind of demonstration this would be. Drying glasses, the landlord was keeping an eye on proceedings but said nothing.
Arnold took his place on a stool not far from Keef and looked into his eyes. Keef was, for once, sitting very still, as if posing for a portrait. At last Arnold nodded and said he had it. He knew.
When Arnold gave Big Keef his death date, in five years’ time, and the circumstances – heart attack while asleep – Big Keef was not alarmed.
‘Don’t be afraid, that wasn’t so bad,’ he told the onlookers, adding that at least he wouldn’t be shot by a random fanatic or fall into a well.
Arnold wouldn’t know this, but Big Keef’s father had gone the same quiet way. It would be ‘comfortable’, as Keef put it. As ends went, who could ask for a better one?
Big Keef got up, thanked Arnold, and said he was reinvigorated and looking forward to the rest of his life.
A local woman who rarely came to the pub, but had popped in to visit a friend and stayed to watch, immediately came over, sat on the stool and volunteered.
‘Me next, please,’ she said. ‘I’m someone who just has to know.’
‘All right,’ said Arnold. ‘Since you’re so keen. You will be the last one today. The procedure will be the same.’
This woman was a Buddhist and was always seen around the village in an eccentric straw hat. Arnold gave her a long look and informed her she had three and a half years left, and would die quickly, of stomach cancer.
‘Thank you so much,’ she said, kissing him on the cheek. Addressing those around her, she said. ‘I’m seventy-nine and know that dying isn’t failure.’ And turning to face those sitting at the bar, she continued, ‘Since life is only a passage and not the destination, isn’t it inevitable that I will disappear from the Path in good time? Everyone has a death waiting for them. We should thank the Cosmos for such mercy: there will be an end to suffering.’
She went on to inform everyone that in time there would be heat death: the earth would be burned up by the sun, and out of the ashes something new and vital would emerge. It could be a new race of rats, raptors or pumas. Or magnificent flowers in colours never seen before. At that moment no one knew, not even Arnold. However, we could take comfort in the idea.
By the end of the night, when the landlord called ‘time’, Big Keef and the woman in the straw hat were laughing, dancing extravagantly, and embracing one another. Arnold had been bought many drinks and was pleased with the congratulations he was receiving. It was as if he’d found a new vocation, a new beginning. ‘Sometimes one has to be a little cruel to be kind,’ he announced, helpfully, to the onlookers.
The following evening Arnold arrived at the pub early, wanting to see those he was now referring to as his customers. ‘Or should I say “clients”?’ he said to Big Keef.
His first trial had gone well; perhaps other people would be interested. He had no idea how long his ‘gift’ would last, or whether it would disappear as quickly as it had arrived. But if, in this difficult time of hope contraction, he could assist people ‘in their lives’, as he put it, he was glad to be obliging. They could buy him a drink or two to thank him.
Almost as soon as Arnold had sat down, he was approached by Peter the local postman, who had been waiting at the bar. ‘After seeing the other two volunteers, I thought this over all night,’ he said. ‘It is rational to want to know when one will pass.’
‘Only you can answer that for sure,’ said Arnold, both to Peter and to his audience. This time Arnold was being more of a showman. ‘You must ask from your heart, Peter. Do you really want to know?’
‘Well, I saw Big Keef earlier, and he was even more cheerful after you did him that compassionate favour. My parents died young. Will I follow them? Please, I need to know. Would you take the time to look into my eyes?’
‘If you’re sure.’
‘Yes, I am.’
Arnold leaned forward and did so. This time the procedure took a little longer, as if Arnold wanted to make it more dramatic.
The postman’s voice trembled. ‘Do you see it, Arnold? Is it there?’
‘Yes. It’s coming through.’
‘Really? Say it then, Arnold. Please. Just say it.’
‘Twelve. You have twelve years.’
Arnold gave him his exact end date. It was on the weekend, a Saturday evening.
‘Not bad,’ said the postman thoughtfully. ‘Twelve good years, eh?’
‘At least eight of those with Alzheimer’s.’
‘Ah,’ said Peter. ‘It’s true then. You do say it as it is.’
‘I am not a doctor,’ Arnold said. ‘Nevertheless, if you imagine history is a nightmare from which we will never awake. Think of slavery, the Holocaust, Empire! – there is always something worse coming at us – called the future!’
‘Can I buy you a drink?’
‘Make that a double, please, with a ginger ale on the side.’
Not long after Peter had left, his wife rushed into the pub and went right over to berate Arnold, shoving her finger in his face.
‘Arnold, who gave you the right to do that to my husband? He doesn’t want to live another day! He wants to cancel our future already! Why couldn’t you have told him a nice little story?’
‘I am not the lying man,’ said Arnold, with his usual innocence. He pointed at a scruffy man at the bar, who worked for the local paper. ‘The lying man is over there, the journalist. Why don’t you ask him for a nice story? He will have more than he can use himself.’
At this, Big Keef thought Peter’s wife might leap forward and slap Arnold. As Arnold backed away, Big Keef took her arm, invited her to stand up, and then firmly led her out into the fresh air. The drinkers could hear her voice from outside as she continued to curse at Arnold.
Arnold finished his drink and said he was done with the forecasts. For the immediate future he would avert his eyes from others. After all, prophets were not always thanked for their work. Some of them had nasty ends. Look, for instance, at what happened to Tiresias who was told the future by birds. He was made into a woman and then blinded!
Arnold was hurriedly putting on his jacket. The atmosphere around him was not warm. He had started out with certainty and confidence, but now he thought it wise to get away.
Before he could get out of the door, a local farmer hurried over with his wife and planted himself in front of Arnold.
She was hypochondriac, he explained. The pandemic had exacerbated her condition. She was nervous all the time. She could barely go out. Even when she was inside she was full of ‘nervousness’, thinking that diseases were ‘pursuing’ her.
‘The doctors all say she’s fine, but she no longer believes in herself,’ said her husband. ‘She is dying inside. I heard about you today. We’ve been discussing it. What you could do for us is let us know definitively her condition. Tell us where she will be exactly in X number of years. Then we can live again. We can go on holiday. Perhaps we could pay you something . . .’
‘That is not necessary,’ Arnold said. ‘It would be wrong. But, as a special favour and because you both are so needy, I will make an exception.’
The woman didn’t appear to have come willingly. She was shrinking back. She wanted both to know and to not know. Still, at last, she took her seat. Arnold was looking into her eyes. She took a deep breath. She was shaking.
‘Yes,’ the woman said. ‘Ready. Go ahead.’
‘You haven’t been well, I can see that. You have a little time – one and a half years before you fall down on the street. You will die in hospital on 16 June, at 1.24 a.m. That’s a Wednesday, I think.’ Arnold offered the woman his hand. ‘Thank you for asking me to do this. But I’m done for today. I think I’m exhausted. I must get home. This work is not so gratifying.’
The woman stood up and began screaming. She threw the salt and pepper shakers at the wall above Arnold’s head. She made to attack him while he shrank back and then tried to slip away.
She was yelling, ‘No, no, that can’t be it! That’s wrong.’
‘Maybe it is,’ he said quietly. ‘Who knows for sure? You took the risk. We must be courageous and face reality!’
‘How about I kill you?’ she yelled.
‘It is not my time.’
‘When is your time exactly? Don’t you know? Did you open your eyes and look yourself?’
She picked up some plates and threw them. Then the table was overturned. She was looking for the next thing. For a hypochondriac with not so long to live, she had some strength, thought Arnold.
Her husband and Big Keef took her outside. She was dragging her feet; she still had business with Arnold. But they made sure she was taken away.
‘Bye, bye everyone,’ said Arnold, standing the table back on its legs. ‘Enjoy the rest of your evening . . .’
Before Arnold could leave, the landlord and his son went over and addressed him.
‘Not one more moment of this,’ said the landlord. ‘This is a drinking house, not a graveyard, it might have escaped your attention. I am barring you for three months – no, make it six!’
‘But I was helping people,’ Arnold said, ‘foolish as that may seem to you, and indeed to me right now.’
For a moment Arnold stood there defiantly. He had his standards. The two men took hold of his arms and marched him towards the entrance, where there was a mirror.
They held him up to it, confronting him with his own face.
‘Open your eyes! Look, look, and tell us what you see!’
‘Only one word.’
‘Saying what? What is the date? When is it?’
‘It says “now” Now!’
The two men led him out of the pub and across the road to where the forest began.
‘It is now,’ said Arnold.
‘It is now,’ said the men. ‘Let’s go through there, towards the clearing!
Image © Like_the_Grand_Canyon