‘I would like to take my own life,’ Kaj told the doctor on the telephone.
‘Are you ill?’ the doctor asked.
‘No,’ Kaj said, ‘I am merely fed up with this living: it has no soul.’
‘I may refer you to a psychiatrist,’ the doctor said, ‘provided you meet certain symptomatic requirements?’
‘I don’t think that will be necessary,’ Kaj said. ‘I have decided to kill myself.’
‘You will need to have a proposal signed by me,’ the doctor advised.
‘I will come today,’ Kaj said.
‘You will need to make an appointment,’ the doctor said and transferred Kaj to her receptionist without further ado.
‘Is it urgent?’ the receptionist asked brusquely.
‘I want to die,’ Kaj said.
‘Are you in slight, moderate or extreme pain?’ the receptionist listed.
‘Extreme pain,’ Kaj decided.
‘Next week, Tuesday,’ the receptionist said. Ten in the morning.’
‘Thank you,’ Kaj said because he could think of nothing else.
‘You’re welcome,’ the receptionist said. ‘Merry Christmas.’
Kaj did not waste the days until his appointment with the doctor. Right away he gathered his documentation and set out into town. The streets were packed with intent people and everywhere hung strings of stark white fairy-lights. Shop windows bulged with perfect gifts for her, for him, for the children, for the pets. In-store sound systems broadcast a clash of jingling bells and heralding angels at the crowd on the streets. Kaj did not find it cheerful. As his first port of call he went to the Party office to hand in his card.
‘Are you going to join another Party?’ the official asked.
‘I’m going to commit suicide,’ Kaj told him.
‘So, you won’t be voting in Communal elections in the New Year?’
Next, Kaj visited the State tax office. There were problems. It took the clerk some time to work out how they would calculate his contributions if he was not going to be around for the full tax year. She abandoned her tinselled computer and had to consult the office manager. The slight turn in her eye made her irritation all the more disconcerting for Kaj to face. Eventually, she unearthed a formula in a musty procedures manual which seemed to satisfy her: there would be a surcharge for the administrative anomaly. Kaj transferred the required funds from his bank account and bid the clerk farewell.
He posted in his Union card to HQ because the local office was already closed for the holiday. The shut-up-shop was commensurate with Kaj’s experience. For all the dues he’d paid, the Union had never been any help to him. Someone had set a plastic nativity scene in the office window: the donkey had fallen over.
The following day, Kaj tried to close his bank account. For procedural reasons, however, they would not let him withdraw all his funds. He could only have the cash after he was certified dead. The bank was wary of fraud. It had happened before, the teller pointed out, though he was unforthcoming on the details. So, Kaj went next door to a department store adorned with the ubiquitous seasonal livery and saturated with religious music which Kaj believed was not. After queuing for the worst part of an hour, he bought a bundle of randomly chosen designer clothes he would never wear. The balance of the money in his account he received in full as cash-back from the till operator. As she handed over his receipt and his red carrier bag, the woman mouthed seasons greetings without noticing him. Then Kaj returned to the bank and finished closing his account.
Jobless since he had been replaced by an internet package, Kaj had no need to inform an employer of his intended demise. Instead, he went to the offices of the Community to tell them that he would no longer be claiming benefits. After being shunted from department to department, explaining himself patiently to each new but far from fresh face, he followed a trail of pallid paper chains and came to a small office in a distant wing of the arcane complex.
‘Most irregular,’ the man tutted, handing him a stack of forms to complete.
‘That’s death,’ Kaj said.
By this time Kaj had accumulated quite a sheaf of papers to supplement his documentation: copies of tax exemption forms, a Party membership annulment certificate, and a stack of information from the bank which included various pension plan options. There were also the many numbered and coded forms and slips from the Community. Kaj decided to buy a plastic file to keep the paperwork in. But he no longer had a bank account and the stationary shop wasn’t equipped for cash transactions: they had no change for the quite large denomination bill which was all Kaj could offer.
‘Keep the change,’ he told the shop assistant, and left with his paperwork stored in the bright yellow file.
Kaj dealt with his various insurance policies, which was no easy matter given the circumstance. He informed the police of his intended movements and they duly and dully recorded the facts. Then they fined him for not carrying his driving licence, although he did not own a car, and wished him ‘Compliments of the Season!’ Kaj cancelled the lease on his Community apartment, cancelled the services online with a rank of private companies, de-registered with his dentist – an incomprehensible woman with fearful halitosis, recently arrived from some faraway place where it still made economic sense to train dentists. Kaj remembered to cancel the milk. Finally, on Saturday, he went to church.
He looked around the interior, wondering at the misery of it: the chill and the gloom. The organist was practising, grinding out an agony of mournful chords. Kaj studied Jesus suspended on the wall: his crown of thorns and his pitiable downcast gaze. He was almost sure that there should be colour and sunlight here; flowers and warmth. He was nearly certain the music should be passionate and joyful, not a score of asthmatic wheezes and somnolent sighs. He imagined Jesus as a dancer, celebrating life in death with exquisite, vibrant movements.
‘May I help you?’
Kaj had met the local Priest before. Once he had come to him for succour. And been sold Paradise Lottery tickets: ‘Heaven on Earth is just five lucky numbers away!’ Judging by his blank expression, though, the Priest did not remember their previous communion.
‘I want to leave the church,’ Kaj said.
‘Follow me,’ said the Priest, beckoning with a crooked finger.
In a small side room, appointed as an office, he sat down at a desk and motioned for Kaj to sit opposite him.
‘So,’ the Priest said, rummaging through drawers and producing a form, ‘sign here, here and here.’
‘I’m going to commit suicide,’ Kaj said.
‘Ah,’ said the Priest, nodding sagely.
‘They told me at the Community that first I must officially leave the church.’
‘Quite right, quite right,’ the Priest confirmed.
‘You aren’t going to try to talk me out of it?’ Kaj enquired.
‘It’s a free country,’ the Priest said.
Kaj signed the form and put his copy in the yellow file. Then he paid the de-communication fee. On his way out of the church, he paused at the visitor’s book. With the chained pen provided he wrote large on a whole pristine page:
Away with the old rugged cross
I am jumping Jesus
Jesus on a stick
He did not sign his name but placed virtually the last of his cash in the collection plate.
Kaj waited out the rest of the weekend and all through Monday. He cleaned his apartment twice. He tried to give his television to a neighbour, an immigrant labourer with a large family, but the man refused it: he already had three televisions, all with much bigger screens, better definition. Kaj gave him the red bag of designer clothes to wear to work.
On Tuesday morning, Kaj was at the doctor’s surgery an hour early. He paid his bill and then sat and tried to read the style and fashion magazines. This Christmas, red was the new black in cars and clothes, while gastric banding had become the hip lifestyle choice. The magazines were full of rich seasonal recipes. Twenty minutes late, the receptionist called his name.
‘Good-day, good-day,’ the doctor said. ‘And what can we do for you?’
‘I’ve come for the proposal to end my life,’ Kaj said.
‘Ah yes,’ the doctor said, studying her notes. Kaj waited. A gold star hanging on the wall behind the doctors’ head gave the impression of a halo.
‘We’ve tried all the usual drugs?’ the doctor asked after a minute.
‘I don’t want any more drugs,’ Kaj said.
‘There are certain new ones,’ the doctor said, ‘but I am a little suspicious of the long-term effects.’
‘No more drugs,’ Kaj said.
‘Well then,’ the doctor said, turning a quadruplicate carbon form towards Kaj, ‘if you’ll just sign this.’
Kaj signed. The doctor counter-signed and handed him the top copy.
‘So,’ she said.
‘What now?’ Kaj asked. ‘Can I kill myself?’
‘Not here,’ the doctor said. First you must take this form to the appropriate Community Registrar.’
‘I’ve already been to the Community,’ Kaj said.
‘That will save time,’ the doctor said. ‘Are your other papers in order?’
‘I’ve done everything,’ Kaj said.
‘Good, good,’ said the doctor. ‘So then, farewell.’ She extended her hand.
‘Goodbye,’ Kaj said.
Back in the maze of the Community building, it took Kaj until late afternoon to find the appropriate Registrar. The office was secreted in the furthest corner of the basement: no Christmas decorations here; no adornments at all, in truth. Kaj knocked on the door of the office. When he entered he found a man with rolled up shirtsleeves and a loosened tie sitting at a desk. To his left sat a Bishop, sipping tea and eating biscuits from a well-stocked plate.
‘Yes, yes,’ said the man behind the desk, accepting Kaj’s folder and forestalling his explanation.
While the man, patently the Registrar, leafed through his papers, Kaj looked and tried not to look at the Bishop. The Bishop did not look at him. Kaj cast around for a different focus. There was no computer in the office. In fact, there was no sign of activity: no filing cabinet, no in- and out-trays; not even a calendar. On the desk there was an advent candle, however, faithfully burned down to the correct date. Next to it stood a picture frame. It faced the Registrar so that Kaj could not see who or what it contained.
‘All in order,’ the Registrar suddenly pronounced, startling him.
‘Do you get many clients?’ Kaj asked.
‘We have our function,’ the man said. ‘This is your permission.’
He signed a paper and passed it over to the Bishop. The Bishop placed his teacup on the desk and busied himself dusting biscuit crumbs from his fingers on the front of his purple vestment. Then he squinted through pince-nez and counter-signed the permission. The Registrar accepted the paper back and placed it in the bright yellow folder with the rest of Kaj’s documentation. He dropped the folder on the floor, straightened up and laced his fingers on the desk in front of him.
‘Don’t I get a copy?’ Kaj asked.
‘For what purpose?’ the Registrar enquired.
‘Thank you,’ Kaj said and rose to leave. His knees were weak.
As the door was closing behind him, the Registrar took a biscuit and dipped it in the Bishop’s tea.