“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s been declined.”
“What? No, try it again.”
“I have, sir, three times. It’s no longer valid.”
Harvey felt his left eye twitch, yet again. It had been doing that for most of the day. He took a deep breath before holding the credit card out again. “It is still valid,” he insisted. “Please try it again.”
The barista squirmed, glancing awkwardly at the growing queue behind Harvey. “I – I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “But it’s expired.”
“It hasn’t expired!” Harvey barked, causing a pyramid of cups to rattle. “Look! It still has one day left!”
The young girl shook her head. “Today is the 18th!” she stated, pointing out the expiry date on the card.
“Exactly!” the man declared. “It expires today. Tomorrow it’ll be expired!”
“I’m s-sorry,” the barista said, her eyes brimming with tears. “But – but the till – it won’t take it!”
Like a phantom, a spotty-faced youth with thick-rimmed glasses materialised behind the counter. His dull blue eyes bounced from Harvey to the girl. “What’s going on here?” he asked with a cracking voice.
Harvey was astounded to see the word ‘Manager’ pinned to the boy’s apron. “This – this – this –” The barista was almost hyperventilating as she tried to get the words out. When this proved impossible, she simply held up the card, as if that would explain everything. And, after one glance, it seemed to do just that. The manager’s eyebrows shot up his pimply forehead, and his mouth dropped open. His face was pale as he looked at Harvey.
The man tutted angrily. He’d had enough of those sorts of expressions. “Can I just get a latte?!” Harvey snapped.
“Of – of course,” the manager stammered, bowing his head. That Harvey didn’t mind. The teenager elbowed the barista and she quickly went to work. Finally, the coffee was placed onto the counter, along with a muffin. “I didn’t order that,” Harvey said sourly.
“Oh, please,” the manager said, a mournful look on his face. “It’s on us.”
Harvey frowned. “What about the coffee?” he asked.
“That as well.”
Harvey had never been one to turn down a free latte and muffin, but the look of pity dominating the teenager’s face was certainly not welcome. Wordlessly, and trying to ignore the barista and manager, he swiped both the drink and muffin up. He was just turning away when the manager said: “I am so sorry, sir.”
Harvey’s lips curled up in disdain as he looked down the queue. Everyone waiting wore the same look of commiseration. Grunting incoherently, Harvey Bolton stomped out of the coffee shop.
He was halfway up the stairs to his flat when he fell still. He stared up at Leslie, his landlord. At least the man had the decency to look somewhat embarrassed. “Mr Bolton!” Leslie exclaimed, dabbing his brow with the back of his sleeve. “I – I thought you were out at work.”
“My last day was Tuesday,” Harvey grumbled, glowering at the young woman standing sheepishly behind Leslie.
The landlord followed his gaze. “Ah, yes, this is Miss Knowles,” he explained. “She – she was just having a look at –”
“My flat, yes. I can see that.”
“I – I like what you’ve done with the space,” Miss Knowles said, fidgeting with her purse.
“Thanks,” Harvey said.
“I – I noticed you haven’t . . . packed,” Leslie said, toying with his cufflinks.
“I’ve still got the whole day!”
“Right, right, yes. Of course.”
The three of them stood silent for several moments; Harvey, still trapped on the stairs, glowered at the two blocking his way. “Did you need anything else?” he eventually asked, rattling his keys suggestively.
“Oh! No, no, I think we’ve seen everything,” Leslie said with a strained smile. “Miss Knowles?”
“Hmm? Ah, yes. Yes, like I said . . . yes.”
“Good.” With that, Harvey clomped up the few remaining stairs, forcing Leslie and Miss Knowles to press themselves against the wall so he could pass. He was just stepping into his flat, when he heard the young woman say: “I just want you to know, I’m very sorry –”
He slammed the door shut before she could finish.
Harvey stood in the hallway, listening to the pair quietly retreat downstairs. Once the last echo of their footsteps was gone, he sighed angrily and walked into the living room. It was a small, dingy room with a lonely, flickering bulb dangling from the ceiling. In spite of the bulb’s best efforts, the room was in perpetual shade. The only window stared out at a neighbouring building that was close enough to touch. Harvey didn’t mind though. He had no choice. This flat was the only one he could afford. He placed the now lukewarm latte onto the crate that served as his coffee table, then threw himself onto the deckchair. They, and a portable television, were the only pieces of furniture he had in the room.
He sat there in silence. He’d been doing that a lot over the last few weeks. Simply sitting, staring at the damp patch on the wall opposite, and considering the last few years of his life.
On cue, this level of reflection became too much for Harvey and he sprang to his feet. Free from his weight, one of the chair legs suddenly snapped, prompting the entire thing to collapse into a heap of mouldy wood and tattered fabric. Harvey looked down. “Oh well,” he murmured. “Guess I don’t need it anymore, anyway.”
What he did need, however, was a cigarette. Unfortunately, his landlord had strict rules against smoking inside the flat. A rule that, usually, Harvey obeyed. He toyed with the packet in his pocket, wondering whether, on today of all days, he might finally break it. In the end habit won the battle.
Grumbling to himself, Harvey stomped back out the flat. By the sounds of it, he was just in time. From below came the sound of Leslie welcoming another prospective tenant, here to cast their beady little eyes around his cramped abode. Not wanting anymore awkward encounters, Harvey knew he could only go up.
He climbed up to the fourth floor, pausing briefly to get his breath back, and then ducked into the alcove housing the rickety ladder leading to the roof. Once outside, Harvey filled his lungs with muggy London air, and fooled himself into thinking things might work out. Slotting a cigarette between his lips, Harvey ambled over to what he was now calling his perch. He’d tried smoking back when he was around thirteen. But, fearing that it would lead to his premature death, he’d given it up, like he’d given up most unhealthy habits. A month ago, however, that mentality had fizzled out, and he was now on a packet a day.
Harvey was just lighting the cigarette when he realised that he was not alone on the roof. A young girl was sat on the edge, her legs dangling above the fifteen-foot drop. The older man cautiously approached her, all too aware that a sudden movement might provoke a rather large mess on the pavement below.
Fortunately, the girl chose that moment to glance up, and she didn’t look at all surprised to see him. “Oh,” she murmured, “hello.”
“Aren’t you the kid from upstairs?” Harvey said, the cigarette still dangling between his lips.
The child gave this thought. “Technically it’s downstairs,” she said. “But yes. Bella.”
“Harvey,” he said. He nodded to the spot beside her. “Mind if I join you?”
Bella frowned. “Are you going to be smoking that?” she asked.
“Yes,” Harvey stated, miles away from being in the mood to take health advice from this little girl.
“You know I’m only twelve, right?”
“So, if I offered you one, you’d say no?”
“Mum was right,” Bella said, turning away. “You are weird.”
Harvey paused. Had he ever met this child’s mother? Maybe. There were only two other flats above his, and one of them was occupied by a bald Greek man who liked to practice his trombone skills at eight o’clock every Saturday morning. Which meant – “Your mum’s the blond with the lazy eye and a mole the size of a grape, right?”
“No,” Bella said. “She had the mole removed last April.”
As he sat down, lighting the cigarette as he did so, he cast another glance at the child. He was about to ask what drew her up here, when he spotted the magenta-coloured envelope nestled in her lap. Then it all made sense. Until just a couple of days ago, an identical looking envelope had been stuck to his fridge.
“When did it arrive?” Harvey asked.
Bella tilted the envelope up, revealing the cursive, handwritten address on the front. There was no stamp. There never was. Nor was there ever a return address. “This morning,” she murmured.
Harvey nodded, sagely. Twelve years old, he thought. That sounds about right. His brother had gotten his at the same age, whilst he had received his when he was eleven. It had been the best day of his brother’s life, and the worst of Harvey’s.
There were lots of theories and stories about how the envelopes came to be. One popular one was that it was all the work of a Welsh witch that lived in a bungalow down Skegness. Whilst another posited that it was all worked out by a government-built supercomputer named G.R.I.M. Which story was true, however, didn’t really matter to Harvey. The only important thing was that people, all over the country, would receive an envelope just like that, and each would start the exact same way:
It is my humble duty to inform you of your day for departing this mortal coil.
And then, in a single sentence, the letter would state the precise date the reader would die. To this day not one letter had been wrong in its prediction, and people had long since stopped questioning it. In fact, people embraced it. Getting your letter was considered a momentous occasion; your first step into adulthood. Thanks to whoever, or whatever, was behind these epistles, death became a trivial matter. It became: Departure Day.
Harvey took a long drag of his cigarette, trying to hold down a chest-wracking cough, whilst he glared at Bella’s envelope. “Opened it yet?” he asked, thinking of his own letter, stuffed at the bottom of his kitchen bin.
Bella shook her head.
“You’ve lasted longer than me,” he remarked. “When I got mine, I ripped it open straight away.”
“Mum wanted me to do that,” Bella murmured, fiddling with the corners of the envelope.
The older man nodded thoughtfully. “Why don’t you want to open it?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Scared,” she said. It was an obvious answer, Harvey knew that. What he didn’t know was how to navigate the rest of the conversation. His mind was much like his flat; small, sparse, and usually quite draughty in the winter.
“I was frightened too,” Harvey admitted, stubbing out his cigarette, then instinctively lighting another. “Though not too much. My brother had gotten his a couple of months before. To be honest,” he added with a humourless chuckle, “I viewed it more as a competition.”
“And? What happened?”
“I lost,” Harvey stated sourly.
Bella nodded like a Tibetan monk just given a teasing question. “So?” she asked finally. “When is it?”
He suddenly lost his appetite for a third smoke, choosing instead to flick it over the edge of the roof. “Today,” he announced, giving it the same inflection as an announcement of an upcoming dentist trip.
The young girl gave him a questioning glance. “What are you doing on a roof then?” she asked. Panic suddenly flared in her emerald-coloured eyes. “Is this where it happens? I’m only twelve! I’m not qualified to clean up that sort of a mess!”
“It doesn’t say how,” Harvey said; though, now she had put the thought in his head, he squirmed uncomfortably on the ledge. “The letter only says when.” But only the date. The convenience only went so far. Then again, could he even call it convenient to begin with?
“So, why are you here?” Bella asked.
He didn’t like the pity he saw in her expression. He’d been seeing it far too often in recent weeks.
“I needed a smoke,” Harvey said, turning his gaze away.
“My grandad had a big party for his Departure Day,” the child said cheerfully. “There was even a clown.” A gloomy look suddenly stole into her eyes. “Though, the clown did get drunk on tangerine schnapps, and vomited in a pond.”
“I don’t have anyone to throw me a party,” Harvey stated. “And I don’t like clowns. Or ponds.”
“I just don’t see the point in them, that’s all,” he explained. “They’re just glorified puddles.”
“I was talking about you not having anyone to throw you a party!” Bella said, giving him a haughty, school-mistress-like look. “What about your family?”
Harvey laughed with barely restrained cynicism. “Haven’t got one,” he declared. “My mum’s in a nursing home, and I never got married, or had kids.” It was basically impossible with his departure date. Every first date would, inevitably, feature the question of Departure Days. No one wanted to embark on a relationship with someone who only had a few years left on the calendar. If they were scheduled to live to their eighties, they wanted someone similar. And, if you were lucky to find someone who also had a short span of life left, would you really want to have a child? You’d bring them into the world knowing you’d only have a brief time before leaving them on their own. Sometimes Harvey felt the real Departure Day was much earlier than what was written on the letter.
“I do have a brother,” Harvey admitted, quietly. He almost hoped the child hadn’t heard. But he had never had much luck.
“Why aren’t you spending time with him then?” Bella asked. “I bet he’d like to see you.”
“I’m not sure about that,” he murmured. “His Departure Day is the 17th of August 2065.”
Bella looked back at the envelope in her lap. “Must have been hard, I guess,” she said, once more sounding decades older than her age.
Yes, Harvey thought, yes it was. “I think people like him,” he said aloud, “when they get their letters, something must click in their brains. They stop thinking about things like consequences because, for them, the only one that matters is written in that letter. And that’s decades away.”
The young girl watched him pluck another cigarette from the box; his fingers had begun to tremble. “They grab life by the lapels and shake it until there’s nothing left to give.”
“That . . . that might be okay,” Bella said cautiously, toying with the sealed flap of the envelope.
“My brother tried everything once,” Harvey went on, as if he hadn’t heard the child beside him. “Drink, drugs, cigarettes, driving over the limit, travelling across the world, going up to a Millwall fan and calling them a bitch; he did it all with a smug little grin that never left his face.”
“You don’t like him then?”
“When he was twenty-six, he went to New Zealand,” the man said, watching the London horizon through a haze of smoke. “It was a pretty tame place for him, actually. I think it was his girlfriend’s idea, maybe. But, whilst there, he realised there was one thing he’d never tried, and that was bungee jumping.” He took a long drag, not realising that he had already reduced the cigarette to an orange nub. “Something was wrong with the cable, or the harness, or him – it doesn’t matter what it was. It just went wrong. He ended up breaking his neck, and now he’s a glorified vegetable.”
A pigeon fluttered onto the ledge beside the pair, took one curious look at them, then shot off again. “But I thought you said . . .”
“17th of August, 2065,” Harvey repeated. “That’s when he’ll finally be let off the machines that are keeping him alive. He can’t talk to us, he can’t hear us, there’s nothing going on upstairs for him even; but at least he’s got his Departure Day. That’s something no one can take away from him.”
“Has it ever been wrong?” Bella asked. Now the envelope was starting to twist in her hands. She was looking up at him with wide, petrified eyes.
That was something Harvey himself had asked countless times. The first time had been when he’d opened his letter and read the date. He had looked up at his mum, seeing a look of despair in her usually cheerful eyes. “This can’t be right, can it?” he had asked, allowing his brother to snatch the letter of his hands. But it was.
He had spent long periods of time researching the phenomena; in fact, it was the one thing in his life he had put any sort of effort into. But it had been in vain. He had gone all the way back to the first recorded letter, and the result was always the same. The Day never changed.
“If I don’t open it,” the child said, her eyes still swimming in fear, “then am I just going to spend the rest of my life worried that today’s going to be my last?”
Harvey stared at her wordlessly for several moments. Should someone her age really be weighed down by such worries?
“How did people do things before the letters?” she asked, looking up at him for answers.
His face flushed briefly with annoyance. “I’m not that old!” he retorted. “Even when I was your age the letters had been coming for years.” He frowned sullenly. “I’m guessing they must have been pretty worried as well though,” he went on. “But, also, a little part of me thinks they must have pretty lucky.”
“How?” Bella asked, her fingers poised the pry open the envelope.
“Well . . .” Harvey said, not at all sure how he was going to answer that question. “It’s all about respect. These Departure Days have taken away our respect for life.” He felt his fist tighten around the now empty packet of cigarettes. “People like my brother, who get told they have decades ahead of them, throw themselves in front of any danger they can find. I don’t know if they do it because of ego, or because a part of them wants to test whether the letter was really true.” He paused, unsure whether the girl was even still listening. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t speaking to her anymore. The words had been boiling inside his head for years now. If he didn’t say them now . . . well, you can guess the rest. “Then there are people like me. The ones who get told not to make themselves comfortable. We just spend our lives whiling away the brief time we’re allowed. We’re like guests in someone else’s home.”
“Why didn’t you do what your brother did?” Bella asked quietly.
Harvey shrugged. That was the question he hadn’t liked to ask himself, though it had kept haunting him late at night. “Pride, I guess,” he murmured. “A stubborn refusal to believe what couldn’t be doubted.”
He sank once more into silence, retreating again into a swirling typhoon of questions and wonders. He really had wasted it all. He’d been given a gift, when he thought about it. He knew the exact date. A countdown to achieve – maybe not everything, but, with enough energy, at least a decent chunk of it all. He could have travelled. He could have met someone. He could have found a job that he enjoyed. He could have given living a go.
His dark slide into regrets was interrupted by the sound of something ripping. Harvey’s head snapped to the right, just in time to see Bella release the magenta scraps over the edge of the roof. The pair watched the shreds scatter and drift down like flakes of dark snow.
“I hope that doesn’t cause an accident,” Bella said, chewing nervously on her bottom lip.
Harvey watched the last few scraps flutter down the street and felt his lips begin to stretch. “What now?” he asked, barely restraining his laughter.
Bella shrugged. “Don’t know.” The answer only made Harvey laugh harder.
“I guess you wouldn’t,” he said. He chucked the crumpled cigarette packet over his shoulder, then staggered to his feet. “Shall we call it a day then?”
The young girl continued to stare down for a moment. Harvey could see from the shadow in her eye that she was beginning to regret her action. But, in an instant, that darkness left. She looked up at him and nodded eagerly. “I don’t know what mum’s going to say,” she declared, bouncing to her feet.
“Just do what I used to do when I was your age,” Harvey said. “Don’t listen.”
Making their way off the roof, Harvey held the door open for the girl. “Be careful of the third step,” he warned. “It’s a little loose.”