A question on morality is what I have, and the question starts here:
I went upstairs and rang Denis’s bell. You can hear it jangle loosely behind the door. It’s an actual, physical bell. You work a little paddle with thumb or forefinger and some strings pull away beneath the woodwork and the bell on his wall gets shaken into life. It’s one of the better features in our building; it works during power-cuts, of which there are some.
I was there, unwillingly, to talk about hoover bags or something similar. Talking to Denis was not so much chore as terror. It was a task that could be delayed for sometimes days, while the gutted vacuum sat around my kitchen floor in a tableau vivant of busy housecleaning.
It was his aunt who answered the door, and that was a surprise. I do not mean to suggest that I would immediately recognise his aunt, that information came through after some conversation across the threshold. Other information that came through was that Denis was dead.
“A brain aneurysm. Is what it was. And poor Denny with never a sick day in his life. A picture of health. A paragon of virtue, neither drink nor smoking nor drugs nor fancy dancing ever a trouble to him. A fine figure of a man with nothing dragging at his heels and no reason he shouldn’t have lived to be a hundred. But God peels him away from this Earth and aren’t we all the poorer for it?
“They took his liver you know. Him almost forty and they take his liver, probably put it into a teenager. If that’s not a mark of a healthy man I don’t know what is.” I decided not to mention that Denis spent most nights I knew him warming a whiskey with one hand and cooling a cheap cigar with the other. “I’m not really sure about this donor business, but he had the card in his wallet and that was that. Pup was old enough to make his own decisions. I just hope whoever got his fine liver doesn’t go bringing the family into disrepute.”
And that was Denis, with the addition of the funeral the following Thursday. And the addition of his magazine subscription.
To National Geographic. Which I’d sometimes read sitting captive on his couch. It seemed quite normal, really, to begin to take the magazines that continued to arrive in the post piled up in our lobby. No harm to anybody. Think of it as a subscription transplant. I did remove the labels from the front of each issue, however. Make of that what you like. I treated them well, read them fully from cover to cover. In his honour. To make my taking of them seem… worthwhile at least.
But as months passed and my stack of ill-gotten knowledge grew, there began what I can only call a monumental and serious decline in the quality of the publication. I am not exaggerating when I say that articles focusing on plesiosaurs and UFOs increased tenfold. I noticed this mainly because these were Denis’s twin obsessions, topics over which I spent many hours pinned on the balcony or in the hallway, skin crawling.
Advertisements have quadrupled, and all they seem to be selling are the base vices of my former neighbour, the cheap whiskeys and bad cigars. Golf-fashions. Upmarket microwave dinners.
Most strange and most difficult to describe is a general change in tone. Respected wildlife scientists and explorers writing in a manner that recalls to me clearly those fidgeting, awkward conversations with Denis. A kind of embarrassing earnestness mixed with lack of insight. Thinking I might be cursed, I visited a newsagent hoping to find my copy defective. It wasn’t an anomaly. They are all the same, all gone to ruin.
It’s obvious by now, I suppose, what has happened. The question is not whether I single-handedly ruined National Geographic for the world. The question, I think, is whether the Ghost of Denis, or whatever cosmic justice has wrought this act can be justified in their response. A little harsh, no? Perhaps it is not my place to ask. Perhaps the Greeks were right: the gods think like us only a bit madder.