“Welcome back to Tabitha Talks here on BBC One. Joining me now is the world’s oldest man, Crowley McGovern,” the short, spunky, redhead bobbed, this time without losing her seat.
Beneath Tabitha’s high-pitched squeak, close-cropped spikey hair and cat-eyed glasses lurked something of a domestic tigress, the hostess always on the verge of exploding with neutered animal excitement. But today she demure and genuinely curious, open to anything Crowley had to say. After all, wouldn’t you want to know what it’s like to live to 122 despite an ever-present yet stealthy plague that could kill you at any moment?
“Thank you for coming on the show, Crowley.” Crowley gently nodded at Tabitha, his neck popping and creaking as he did so. Today, the hostess’ subdued voice was close to a whimper rather than her usual shrill. She continued with genuine wonder. “It’s been 40 years since The Cough, now known to be dormant in everyone until that fateful moment, arrived on the scene and claimed its first victim. And it was only fifteen years ago that scientists revealed that no one was dying of old age anymore and that only the virus could kill you, barring a horrible accident of course.”
“Or suicide,” Crowley interjected so softly Tabitha rolled right over him.
“So, you were 82 at the time the plague was announced. We were speaking during the break and you said The Cough didn’t change your life, not until recently. How do mean?”
“Well, Tabby,” the teetering old man began to speak crookedly, “I was in real good shape back in those days, could easily pick myself up off the floor if I fell down. I attributed this to…mostly clean living.” Crowley nodded in the affirmative, or maybe was he just old. The fuzzy white-haired senior, senior citizen leaned toward the camera on his cane and began to speak a bit more firmly. “I didn’t drink alcohol, I tried to eat the best and freshest foods – no red meat! – and I made sure I did my Tai Chi every day. Started doing that when I live in China for a bit and it really kept for joints loose.”
“And do you still do those things?” Tabitha gently interrupted.
“Well, here’s the thing,” Crowley licked his lips and his eyes gleamed at the entertainer. “I sure did keep doing those things for some time. Even if I was going to have that cough and find myself with five minutes and twenty seconds left to live, I figured I might as well go in good shape and not die in some poorly upholstered chair like most older folk.”
All things considered, Mr. McGovern did look like he was in all that good of shape. But he was 122 after all and really, exactly how young can even the most ardent Tai Chi adherent stay? Crowley may be well practiced in the ancient art, but under the unforgiving stage lights he appeared a frail creature, his spine so bent it might snap at any second.
“That’s a very hearty attitude, Crowley, sir. Please, continue,” Tabitha offered.
“Yes, um, hearty,” the old man seemed temporarily distracted. Was he lost in thought or spying Tabitha’s cleavage? “Yes, anyway, so I kept on the straight and narrow for a good 25 years, habits being what they are and all, up until those biologists figured out old age wasn’t a problem anymore.”
Tabitha’s eyes widened and she sat back a bit (which lifted her bosom). She assumed her guest must have still been on the righteous path. He had managed to come to the studio under his own power and that’s not something the average 122 year old can do. Crowley continued.
“So I started thinking, ‘Why am I wasting my time staying in such good shape if I can’t die unless I have The Cough?’ Young lady, do you know what it’s like to do cocaine when you’re 107 years old?” Crowley asked rhetorically.
Tabitha’s eyes exploded and her chest heaved. Though caught by surprise she was still light of tongue. “Um, no, sir. I’ve been told I don’t need it!” the hostess chuckled.
“Well, it really gives you a lot of energy, enough energy to throw back eight pints before rounding out the rest of the night with three tarts.” Crowley grinned, saliva glistening his uneven yellow teeth. “What we did that night…”
Tabitha shoved her chest forward and immediately went flush with regret, but at least it stopped Crowley in his tracks. “So what you’re saying is that you abandoned your healthy lifestyle.”
“Abandoned a healthy lifestyle?” Crowley mulled. He rubbed his chin between his thumb and index finger. “I’m not sure what you mean, Tabby. Now it did take me a good week to recover from that night of debauchery, but that night I felt more alive than ever before. That night made me realize that my body was healthy, but my soul wasn’t having any fun. Shouldn’t a healthy lifestyle include some fun?”
“Yes,” Tabitha drew out slowly. “But there are many ways to have fun that don’t include drug addiction and venereal disease,” she said in such a high pitch that ‘drug addiction’ and ‘venereal disease’ sounded like candy. Tabitha’s producer pinched her fingers together and furiously turned an imaginary volume knob while pointing at Crowley with the other hand, indicating to Tabitha to ratchet things down a notch. Tabitha cleared her throat.
“Okay, Crowley, well, tell us more about staying fit. I’m sure more people want to know how to stay fit into their later years should they be fortunate to live so long,” the hostess sat up straight.
“There’s something to be said for staying fit, you’re right!” Crowley exclaimed. Then he turned to the camera. “But with The Cough about to kill you at any moment, you’ve got to get all your living done now, as much as possible, as soon as possible! I waited until I was 107, for piss sake! Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, tons of liquor, gambling, property destruction, urinating in public; and a different bird every night, at least until the money ran out.”
Tabitha shook her head. She may have looked like a subversive, but it was just a way to grab people’s attention. The hostess was as straight as an arrow. “Well I don’t think that’s a good way to live, Crowley. Perhaps you had some fun but you don’t seem as spry as maybe you once were.” Her words were dry and unapproving.
“I still have a move or two. You want to shag after the show?” Crowley croaked to Tabitha.
Tabitha withdrew body and soul while her producer’s lips twisted deciding whether to pull the plug on the shoot. The hostess stood up and peeled the mic set from her lapel and waist. “I’m sure I’m not the first one to tell you you’re a dirty old man,” she huffed and threw down the mic. “I don’t care if you have dementia or, or whatever. I hope you get The Cough.”
“Ain’t had it for forty years!” Crowley crowed and stomped his cane on the floor while Tabitha turned her back to him. His laughter was deep and the heartiest he’d acted all interview. But as if the universe had its own moral code, before Tabitha had even taken a step away, a quick, dry wheeze abruptly interrupted Crowley’s glee. He unfolded his crooked back and straightened up his spine as if Jacob Marley’s chains had been lifted off of him.
“Finally,” he breathed. “Start the clock!” Tabitha’s producer started a timer on her smartphone.
Tabitha turned around and scrunched up her pixie features. She didn’t mean to invoke some secret power, not really. “Oh, Crowley, sir, I’m so sorry. Is there anything we can do to make this easier?” Tabitha asked wringing her hands, afraid Crowley might petition for a pity shag. “I mean, anything but…”
Crowley reached both arms out to be hugged. Tabitha cringed. “Oh, not that, dolly. Help me up. I need to get to the roof! Get me to the roof!” Tabitha lunged forward and brought herself under one of Crowley’s arms. Her producer wrapped Crowley’s other arm around her shoulders. The trio shuffled in a ragged line to the nearest lift while a cameraman hoisted a mobile camera onto his shoulder and pursued them.
“Why are we going to the roof Crowley?” Tabitha asked inside the stuffy lift. The producer nodded energetically at the cameraman, making sure that he was recording.
“This here’s a forty story building. Figure I’ll get at least a good two seconds of flying time in. If we time it right, The Cough will kill me before the pavement does.” Crowley craned his neck at the producer’s phone, breathing heavily as time wound down.
“What? You can’t jump of the roof! I mean, I suppose you could but what if you land on someone? Wait, why do you want to jump off the roof?” Tabitha, doing her job, asked.
“Ach, they won’t let me skydive alone, say I’m too old and I’ll hurt myself,” Crowley hemmed. “I even said I’d sign all the waivers, but they’re all wankers!”
“You could still land on someone,” Tabitha protested. “I think you should be allowed to die on your own terms,” she pouted, “but it’s not fair to ruin someone else’s life.”
“Well, someone better make a call and get the runway cleared, sweetie, ‘cause ol’ Crowley here’s going for a whirl!” He turned his head at both women and the cameraman.
“Don’t look at me; I can’t manage a call and the timer,” the producer returned. Tabitha’s phone was in her purse downstairs. The cameraman fished his phone out of his pocket and nimbly dialed with one hand while keeping the camera steady on Crowley.
“I need security on the fortieth floor,” the cameraman said. “I got this crazy old bloke who thinks he’s going to jump off the roof!”
“Oh, hell with you lot,” Crowley gruffed. He took a deep breath, let go of Tabitha, turned at the waist and swiftly came back around with a palm, knocking the cameraman hard against the lift’s wall. With the producer’s arm still around Crowley, the momentum of the spin maneuver smacked her against the wall, too. The lift rang and the doors separated to give Crowley a clear path to the far side of the office where a pane of glass separated him from his final experience.
Crowley ran halfway down the hall. A bunch of office drones popped their heads up like gophers to see what the commotion was all about. “Time?” the centurion barked at Tabitha like a drill sergeant.
Tabitha reached down to pick up her producer’s phone from the stunned woman’s feet. “Thirty seconds!” The hostess shook her head ‘no.’ “Don’t do it, Crowley,” she pleaded as the old man tiptoed toward down the hall like a ninja.
“It’s my life. Always been my life. Always going to be my life. And I’m going to enjoy my life this one last time. Should’ve done it sooner but there’s no time left for regrets. Remember that, Tabby. Your next breath could be the last,” Crowley spoke and finally turned towards the window down the corridor. “Time, Tabby?”
Tabitha dropped her arms and her head but flashed the phone back up at her eyes. “Seven seconds,” she could just barely be heard. But like Crowley who had just mustered every last bit of ferocity, so too did the tigress. “GOOOOOO!”
“Thanks, love,” Crowley spat out as he cantered into a full sprint. Three seconds down the hall. Cubicle jockeys’ heads turned and mouths fell open. One more second to put his arms up in front of his face and leap with everything through the glass. A million shards around the crazy shit. Crowley spun around in mid-air, turned a bit pale, and just before dropping out of sight cried out.
Tabitha smiled. They didn’t get that on video but it’d be something the town would be talking about for the week to come. And that they would, because Crowley wasn’t the only one to pay the price for his life.
All Rights Reserved (c) March 2017 John J Vinacci