One quiet night at the tail end of last year, my chef at the restaurant, my kids asleep, I open an email, its subject line, “On Luke’s Passing”.
“Dear Ms Alpine-Crabtree…”
My eyes run ahead, in search of the punch line. There’s a split-second moment when holding my breath seems to suspend the passing of time, allows me to hover between the not-knowing and the knowing. If, on facing death, it is true that our life flashes before our eyes, it stands to reason that, on facing the loss of someone we love, it is our relationship with that person that flashes before us.
“…Luke Rhinehart is dead”.
I’m in a hotel room in a mountain village in Cyprus, a used copy of The Dice Man clutched in my hands, oblivious to the fading light, my family assembling for dinner downstairs.
“He very much wanted us to tell you this as soon as possible so that you wouldn’t be annoyed that he wasn’t replying to your emails.”
Clutching to my breast – be still my beating heart! – a printout of an email given to me by the publisher of my first novel, in which Luke Rhinehart, author-of-Loaded-Magazine’s-Novel-of-the-Century Luke Rhinehart, has referred to me as “the brilliant young writer”.
“… His dying was neither sudden nor slow. As some of you know, he had been writing ‘Death Poems’ for at least a decade before his last one. Of course, at the same time as he was writing these he was also writing ‘Birth Poems’, so we saw nothing foreboding in his writing of death.”
Turning up on a General Election day to interview Luke, a blandly elegant hotel suite, too stoned to remember how each of my questions began by the time I reach its end.
“Luke didn’t fear death, although he confessed to being a bit nervous. Death to him was just another one of life’s unknowns, like traveling to a new land, starting a new book, trusting a new friend. Every human act was a step into the unknown, death simply one of the scarier ones. Luke liked to laugh at death, but then again he liked to laugh at everything. Since he always saw seriousness as mankind’s fatal flaw and humans seemed to take death most seriously, he felt confident that death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”
Wearing a borrowed ten-gallon hat while drinking whisky with Luke long into a London summer night, doors thrown open to the street, a girl-adventurer pirate in rapture to a pirate king, my chef, brand new in my life, a thing of wonder, talking recipes with Ann, Luke’s wife.
“… For a man who believed in chance and change Luke was discouragingly consistent. In fact, many of us who knew him were disappointed in his willingness to roll along on his familiar patterns. ‘It’s not rolling along in the same old patterns that is bad in itself,’ he said, ‘but rather if you’re enjoying the rolling. If you’re comfortable in the selves you’re rolling along with, then roll on. Most people aren’t.”
Lunching with Luke, Ann, Luke’s brother, at The Wallace Collection, a space as light and airy as a pink Ladurée macaroon, baring my soul over a plate of beef carpaccio.
“… We want you to know that Luke uttered no famous last words. He was determined to say nothing of significance since whatever it was he feared it would be given too much importance.”
Writing because of Luke.
“No single statement should ever have too much importance.”
Copy editing Luke’s writing.
“The whole secret of happy living, he sometimes said, is to avoid thinking anything has much importance.”
Telling Luke and Ann I’m a mother.
“With a bunch of us around him and Luke barely able to breathe, he pushed himself up into a sitting position and turned and looked fiercely at us with unaccustomed seriousness.”
We’ve had another baby.
“We could see that he was determined to say one last thing before he died. One or two of us leaned forward to catch his last words.”
Clicking on a link Luke has sent to a documentary on his dicing life, with the note, referring to his on-screen younger self: “How serious I took myself!! I act as if dicing were as important as the hula hoop.”
“’So long,’ he said.”
Tears run down my cheeks for the lost past. For all good things having to come to an end. For the invitation to visit Luke in upstate New York, never acted upon.
How old was Luke? 75? 80? What was it he’d written me recently? “We hope to see you and your family before we slip noisily into permanent darkness. Perhaps even this spring (seeing you, not slipping noisily).”
And now he is slipped. The Great and Powerful Oz. And so George Cockcroft, the man who writes under the pen name Luke Rhinehart, is slipped. The Man Behind the Curtain.
Travel guide subbing abandoned, Christmas card writing shelved (one fewer now to write), I press the heels of my hands to my eyes, rub two black mascara pirate patches onto my eyelids, think: “Christ. Christmas is almost upon us. I have to take the kids to a party tomorrow. Another the day after. There are presents to wrap. A journey the length of the United Kingdom to undertake with two pre-schoolers, two suitcases, a cat. The hours are few. I must write to Ann! Right now!”
And so I write an email of condolence. I write with “great bucketfuls of love. Love enough to fill all the lochs of Scotland.” I wish for her the support of family and friends, because even “formidable, beautiful, creative women such as you need propping up sometimes”.
Lying in bed, anxious, lonely, cold, I wish for my chef, not wanting to tell him the news over the phone, in a text. Being a child of the Atari 2600 age rather than the digital one, it has not occurred to me to check Google. To check Twitter. Now it does. I pick up my phone.
Find another email.
“Dear Ms. Alpine-Crabtree…”
“We all wish Luke were still with us … Please don’t grieve over his passing since that is the last thing he would want. Kiss your babies, eat a full good dinner prepared by the Chef, and have at least three nice drinks. And expect to hear again from the departed rather soon.”
At the same time as I’m getting goose bumps, a kind of thudding rush of adrenaline through the veins – Luke is risen! The sheer fucking audacity of it! – my toes are curling into the sheet: “Haven’t you heard, they’ve taken the word ‘gullible’ out of the dictionary.”
And yet. Who among us wouldn’t want to attend his or her own funeral?
I wrote to Ann!
Another email arrives from Luke. George.
He explains that he’s done an interview with Steve Boggan, “a journalist writer who somehow got The Independent Saturday magazine to want to do an article on ‘The Day the Dice Man Killed Himself’”, based on his “Death Letter”, sent out to 25 people in August of last year, and to several others around, well, around the tail end of last year.
“At least it was a distraction from the kids,” he says.
Eighteen minutes past midnight, another email. “Help! Reassure me you’ve gotten my letter apologizing… …(asshole that I am).”
For several minutes I do not know how to reply, am rendered dumb by what research scientist Brené Brown would describe as my vulnerability. (Watch the TED talk.) Behold the power of my vulnerability!
My chef gets home. I tell him I have a story, pour myself a triple Hendrick’s and tonic, start talking.
The next day, I stand in line in the rain, trail round a rugby field as the kids ride a fat grey pony, its black eyes shiny as glass, fake antlers bedecked in tinsel. Inside the clubhouse, I get talking to a tall woman in an outsize Fair Isle sweater who I know, in that way you just know, I’d like to be friends with, here, in this place where I’m still new, still friendless. In explaining why it is that I am wincing through an old-school hangover at the Teenie Weenies Christmas party, 9am on a misty Tuesday morning, I summarise the death hoax over a Coke Zero. It doesn’t come out sounding like I want it to. In the cold light of day, the bare bones of the telling reflect badly on Luke. Badly on me.
Back home, I receive another email from George. “Who, besides me, do you think could possibly have written that first sentence ‘It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead’?
“Nobody but you… But that made it no less plausible… … the assumption was you’d written it yourself in preparation for the ‘event’.”
“… You’re right. I originally wrote that letter in 2010 for precisely that purpose.”
And then, the following day, one from Ann, this flurry of transatlantic correspondence a welcome distraction from the demands of the festive season (as are the texts pinging between Sarah – of the outsize Fair Isle sweater – and me). Ann, a writer herself, is warm, witty, charming as hell.
“Sorry about the ‘neath the earth business’. I did not know about it til after the fact… …I was ready to crown him! Have you read the story about ‘crying wolf, wolf’ to Milo yet?”
I smile, glance at the scrap of paper on which I’d earlier scribbled the words, “Dice Man who cried wolf”.
Christmas is almost upon us. I have to take the kids to a party. Another party. There are presents to wrap. A journey the length of the United Kingdom to undertake with two pre-schoolers, two suitcases, a cat. The hours are few. The hours are precious.
Soon, the spring flowers start to appear, a sprinkling of hundreds and thousands, purple, white, yellow. Luke Rhinehart, literary hero, mentor and friend, is not dead. And neither are a lot of other people.
“How serious I took myself.”
Luke Rhinehart lives!
Kiss your babies. Eat a full good dinner. Have at least three nice drinks.