Fame and Honour
I slowly walked into the private room, my hand tight around my pencil and pad. George lay, broken, in the hospital bed. His arms were entwined with snaking cables, filling with red and yellow liquid, squirting and squeezing their medicines into his veins. His face was worn with age, lined with wrinkles that seemed so deep they would penetrate his skull. White hair floated round his head like clouds, never touching the age-spotted skin below it and his breathing was laboured. His eyes were closed, covered by folds of leathery skin. The oldest man in the world was about to die, and I, Tony Donovan, was going to be the last person to see him alive.
“Mr Williams?” The old man glanced up. His eyes peeled apart and he looked at me, his wrinkled, toothless mouth forming words no one could hear. He squinted and suddenly his grey eyes sunk down further into his skull, dead and lifeless.
“Yes,” he croaked. A cough ripped through his body and suddenly his voice was clearer. “Come in, come in.” His twig-like fingers grasped the arm of a chair beside him, and he started tugging it, yanking it towards him.
“Here, let me get it.” I curved my fingers around the arm-rest and pulled it nearer the bed. George smiled for a second, his eyes glowing, but then he returned to his saddened self. His hand flopped back onto the bed and he sighed.
“What do you want?” He looked at me and then stole a glimpse at my pad and pencil. “Come to watch an old man die?” He laughed silently, and started coughing. I glanced around, unsure what to do. Was there water anywhere? Ah, yes. There we go. I handed him the small glass of water on his bedside table, placing it in his quivering hands. He nodded appreciatively and gulped it down.
“Ahh,” he said, putting the cup back on the counter. “Now, where were we...?”
“I was about to introduce myself. I’m Tony Donovan, reporter with The Sunday Times. I’m writing an article on your life, and I needed a first person narrative. Is that ok? It won’t take two minutes.” Not waiting for an answer, I began. “First of all, how was your childhood?”
“It was ok, I suppose. Living in the 1900s was much different than it is now. One of my earliest memories is seeing a car. They were relatively new then, you know. It must have been a hundred years ago now. When I was eleven.” He smiled slightly, his puckered lips turning up at the corners. “I remember my first girlfriend as well. “16 I was, if I remember correctly. I was one of the few lucky ones to stay on at school. Betty, her name was. See, in those days, relationships were important. Proper. You had to be a certain age and even then....”
I struggled to write everything down as he prattled on, telling me about everything from boiled sweets to his best friend in school. He went on and on and on, until I finally had to interrupt.
“Thanks, I’ve got everything I need on that. Now, what about your wife,” I flipped the pad back to the first page and scanned the lines, “Florence Thayer? It says here she died of natural causes in 1979 and you had been together for 33 years. Was that hard for you?”
George’s face fell. “I don’t want to talk about it.” He shifted to the other side of the bed, unconsciously moving away from me.
I could have just left it - hell, I should have just left it - but I was a journalist, and I needed this article. I was young, and a good article like this would make or break my career. “It’s alright, but I just need a quote.” I looked at him and smiled. “What was your last memory of her? What was the last thing you said to her?
George gasped and buried his face in his hands. For a moment, I thought he was crying but then he spoke.
“You know, don’t you? You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t know...” He looked at me, his eyes filled with sudden regret.
I stared at him, confused. “What do you mean?” A sudden thought struck me. “I’m not a priest. I don’t do confessions.”
George put his hands in his lap. “You know...how did you find out...?” He took a deep breath and stared at me. “When I was 59, I did a terrible thing. I’m going to Hell for it - I know I am.” He paused, and a sob broke through the silence. “I-I-I killed her...” His voice was barely audible, quieter than a whisper.
I put my pad on my lap and leaned in close. “What did you say?”
George’s eyes slid to the window, overlooking the car park. His voice cracked. “I killed her...”
I sat in the chair, my mouth open. I was sitting with a murderer! An old one, but nevertheless, a murderer. The instinct to run away was overpowering, but one look at the man changed my mind. This could be it. My big break! I needed to crack this one wide open.
I placed my hand on Georges shoulder and patted him gently. “I know,” I said smoothly. I always had been an expert liar. “What happened?”
“She was dying,” he croaked, sobs breaking up his words. “She was sick, so sick, and I couldn’t watch her anymore. She had asked me months before...” He began to cry, his body quivering and trembling. Silvery tears spilled onto his wrinkled cheeks and suddenly his eyes were alive, full of regret and pain. His hands were shaking and his body bent in anguish. You could hear his spine crinkle like a dry leaf, ready to break with the slightest touch.
“She was lying on the couch. I went up to her and she simply looked at me and said ‘Sandy?’ I nodded and held her hand. I told her that I would meet her soon and then, then...I picked up a cushion and pressed it on her face. She didn’t struggle or cry. She just lay there. I think she knew she was going to a better place.”
“I promised I would go after her, but when I came to do it I couldn’t. My plan was to take sleeping pills, and go peacefully like she did. But I couldn’t. It was too clean. I needed to feel the pain for my sins. So then I found a gun. I was about to pull the trigger when the phone rang. It seemed like an omen.”
He looked at me, his grey eyes blurred and his nose running. “That phone call was a job offer to take over a business. I took it, and afterwards, I couldn’t destroy myself. Not for her. Not anymore. And here I am, 114 years old. I would have given every moment for another five minutes with her. Her old self, not the shell she became.”
My hand was still poised over the pad when he stopped talking. I couldn’t write anything - my hand was frozen, paralyzed. I was sitting with a murderer, but not a murderer. A killer with compassion.
“I-I need to go.” I stood up out of my seat and hurried to the door, cold sweat pouring down my back. I needed to get to the office. Immediately. Throwing the door open, I sprinted through the hall, down the stairs and into the car park. I could still see George’s face staring at me, his grey eyes peering at me through the window, his cheeks streaked with tears, full of regret.
George Williams was an amazing man. He survived two World Wars, created a successful business and lived to 114, dying only yesterday afternoon. But he had a devastating secret...one that would change his life forever.
I hastily pressed the backspace button on the keyboard and leaned back in my chair, placing my hands on my head. The office was thriving, full of life, editors and journalists working and chatting and editing and writing. Everyone was busy. Apart from me. I blinked and stared at the blank screen in front of me. It was taunting me, mocking me with its pure white finish. Sighing, I pressed my fingertips on the keyboard and took a deep breath. Nothing. Negative. Zilch. Zero.
My body sagged and I slumped into my chair again. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t. Not with this raincloud hanging over my head, threatening to pour at any moment. I glanced at my pad, the one I had used yesterday.
It still hadn’t sunk in. A murderer. What should I do? I had no idea. Should I tell people? Yes. People would talk about me in the papers, on the street - “Did you hear about that Tony Donovan lad?” “Ooh, yes! Imagine getting a scoop like that!” A smile slipped through my lips. Fame and fortune. The question was, could I tell the world? This man had lived through two World Wars and it wasn’t technically murder...
On the other hand, I could just leave the killing part out of it. I mean, he had killed his wife so she didn’t have to suffer. And that was alright. Wasn’t it? I had no idea. Still, not writing about it would be honourable, courageous. And that was better than fame, or so everyone said.
I twiddled my thumbs and looked around. The editor was nowhere to be seen. Good. I had nothing to show her, despite being in the office for over three hours. My head just wasn’t working right. My brain refused to function properly. I was a journalist - meant to report interesting stories. The euthanasia would be the cherry on the cake, if I put it in. But then again...
I slapped my hand off the table and sighed. I had to produce something by the end of the day. I glanced up at the clock and groaned inwardly. I only had an hour and a half. My eyes drifted back towards the computer and shaking my hands, I pressed my fingertips to the keyboard once more. I needed to choose. Fame or honour? Honour or fame? The question buzzed in my head like a swarm of wasps, stinging and buzzing through my thoughts. Making my name in the world, being rich and happy, or living my life content with the fact I had done the right thing. The second option was more morally acceptable but then again...fame and fortune...
Closing my eyes for a second, I began to write.
The next day the editor strode up to me and handed me a copy of that morning’s paper. “Good article, Donovan. Keep it up and you might get promoted!” She smiled and walked off, leaving the paper limp in my hand. I rifled through it until I found my article on page 5. The Life and Times of the World’s Oldest Man.
My eyes skimmed the words, catching on the last few sentences.
George Williams was an amazing man. He lived through two World Wars and created a successful business, dying only yesterday. He loved his wife dearly and when Florence passed away he was devastated, almost committing suicide to be with her. There is just one last thing that needs mentioned. George Williams was...
“Tony!” The editor was shouting me. I glanced up and saw her manicured nails waving me forward. “The mayor’s here to see you! He wants to congratulate you on your article!” I grinned and puffed my chest up with pride. Throwing the paper down on the table, I sorted my tie and hurried out the cubicle, the last words on the page still echoing in my head.
...the most courageous, honourable man I’ve ever met. Rest in peace and God be with him.