What would you do if you had but ten minutes to live? Seek out pleasure, a last thrill? Surround yourself by loved ones? Would you wail or laugh or rail or meditate?
There: a minute's passed while you've thought about
I knew someone who faced that question. No warning, no time to prepare. He simply found that he had ten minutes to live, and the clock was ticking.
He wasted no time pondering or dithering. He knew instantly what he wanted to do.
He spent the last ten minutes of his life trying to change the world. And he damn near succeeded.
* * *
Thomas Robert Gunn was born in 1964. There could only be one nickname for him.
Tommy made his way through life falteringly, excelling at nothing except mundanity, leaving school at sixteen, passing through a succession of low-skilled jobs, marrying more out of a sense of what was expected than anything so quixotic as love and accepting divorce with the same resigned shrug.
Surprisingly, Tommy ended up working as a Data Processing and Filing Clerk for a High Street bank. I say surprisingly because Tommy had by then taken to indulging the one passion in his life. He was a chronic alcoholic.
"I sometimes hate my job, John," he confided to me once as we sat in a smoky pub. "It's a constant round of sticking numbers into a computer or sorting through dusty old papers in the vault." He sighed. "I have to do something to keep me in beer, but it can be so tedious."
"Then why don't you quit the booze and find yourself something better? You could make so much more of yourself. All it would take is a little focus."
He took a deep draught of his pint before peering at me from beneath his scraggy mop of rusty hair.
"Because," he said slowly, "I can't be fucking bothered."
That summed Tommy up. His indifferent attitude frequently enraged me, prompting me into haranguing him, attempting to provoke some sort of reaction. But he would sit quietly and wait for my wrath to pass, as it always did, before shrugging in a maddening way that made me want to slap him, though I never did. Maybe I should have.
In case you're wondering why I, a successful lawyer with a pretty wife and two delightful children, should waste my precious, and extremely expensive, time on such a loser as Tommy Gunn, the answer's simple: he was my brother.
* * *
The call came at a few minutes past six on a stormy Friday evening in November. I had just arrived home from work. Cheryl answered the telephone while I went through my usual routine of tickling three-year-old Scott and hugging five-year-old Briony.
The urgency in Cheryl's voice made me look up.
"John, it's Tommy. John!"
She held the cordless phone in one hand, covering the mouthpiece with the other.
"He sounds ... strained."
Divesting myself of giggling children, I stood and took the phone.
"I'll take it in the study," I whispered. Cheryl nodded, her bottom lip tucked between her teeth.
Closing the door behind me, I sank into the leather armchair and raised the phone to my ear.
"Thank God ... no, I don't believe in Him, thank goodness you're home."
"It's Friday. The one evening I try to get home at a reasonable hour. You okay?"
Tommy uttered a strange, hollow sound. It took me a moment to realise he was laughing.
"Okay? Not exactly. Do something for me, John. Have you a spare tape for your answering machine?"
"How much recording time's on it?"
"About fifteen minutes, I think. Why-"
"I'm going to end this call. Go and place the clean tape in the machine and switch it on."
"Okay, but why?"
"No time to explain. Just do it. I'll ring you back in a minute."
"Tommy, wait …"
I was speaking to a dead line. I hurried to the kitchen where we kept the answerphone. Cheryl was there, a child on each knee.
"John, what's ..."
I silenced her with a shake of my head, and rummaged in a drawer for the blank tape. I had just managed to insert the tape and switch on the machine when the phone rang, making me jump. The spools of tape hissed as they started to turn.
"Let the machine run," I said to Cheryl. I picked up the phone and returned to the study.
"Is the tape running?"
"Yes. Where are you? You sound distant, tinny."
"I'm on my mobile. Signal's not good ... Oh, John, I'm scared."
A knot of dread curled tight in my stomach.
I heard him take a deep breath. "You won't believe what I've done."
"I'm in the vault. The door's locked."
For a moment, all I could do was grunt.
"Remember, John? I told you about the vault. It's airtight. Once the door's locked for the night, that's it. Anyone caught in here has ten minutes before the air runs out."
"What ... how ...?"
"I went to the pub lunchtime. Normally I wait until five o'clock, or I'd lose my job. But today I thought, why not? Manager was out, I had nothing much to do except locate some old deed packets ..." He sighed heavily. "Had a couple too many - you know what I'm like once I start - and it's warm down here. I fell asleep in the back of the deed cupboard. And got locked in."
My mind raced furiously. "How can we get the door open? Who can I call?"
"The door's time-locked. Once it's closed, it can't be opened until morning."
"Nonsense! There must be a way to override the system. Someone must-"
"John, listen. The door is set to close at six o'clock every weekday evening. The setting can be changed, but only when the door's open. We have this drummed into us from day one. If you're caught in the vault when the door closes, that's curtains. An alarm goes off a minute before to warn anyone still foolish enough to be in here to clear out. I ... I heard it, but my mind was foggy. I thought I was in bed ... my alarm clock sounds similar. Just as I realised I wasn't at home, the door clanged shut."
"Why didn't someone check-"
"There's a fire escape. We're not supposed to, but ..." I could almost see him shrug his shoulders in that infuriating way. "They would have thought I'd gone home. Or to the pub."
"No! This is crazy. I'll ring the fire brigade ..."
"John, please. The door's six inches of solid steel. It'd take hours to cut through. And I've already been in here ..." Tommy drew in a hissing breath "... six minutes. Little bruv, I'm running out of time."
"No! No! I refuse to accept that-"
"You're not listening. There's nothing anybody can do."
"No!" I was nearly screaming. "There has to be-"
"Shut up! You have to-"
"No! No! No!" Now I was screaming. Somewhere in the background I heard Briony crying. At that moment, it didn't seem important. "Tommy, I'll come myself! I'm on my-"
"John! I've less than four minutes to live and I don't want to spend it listening to you going apeshit. So will you shut the fuck up!"
I opened my mouth to scream something else, then closed it abruptly. It was my turn to draw a deep breath.
"Okay," I said. "I'm listening. I'm sorry."
"S'alright." I could hear him taking deep breaths. Already I thought I could detect a hoarseness to his breathing. "Listen carefully. I've pretty much thrown away my life. I know you agree with me so don't waste breath - ha! - arguing. I don't want to waste my last ten minutes ... altho' there's only about two left now."
I winced, but managed to maintain my silence, only distantly aware of the tears that trickled hotly down my cheeks.
"So, bruv, this is what I want you to do. Keep the tape running. Maybe nothing'll happen ... I'll just croak and that's that. But perhaps there'll be more. If there is, send the tape to people."
Now there was no mistaking the harsh gasping that had become Tommy's breathing.
"Right," he continued. "This is what I want to say:
"My name is Thomas Robert Gunn. I am thirty-eight years old and of sound mind. You are about to hear the last few moments of my life. As the air is used up, I'll probably slip into unconsciousness, like falling asleep. I intend to fight it for as long as I can."
The door to the study opened behind me. I glanced back to see Cheryl's worried face, blurred by my tears. I waved her away.
Tommy's voice came again, broken and disjointed as he struggled to fill his lungs with air.
"I am a lifelong atheist. That does not mean I cannot accept that I might be wrong. I hope to either prove or disprove my lack of belief in the next minute. Some people tell of near-death experiences. They report travelling through a tunnel towards a brilliant light. Heaven ... afterlife ... whatever. We shall see. I shall see." He coughed. A dry, wracking sound. "It's getting hot in here. Think I'll lie down now."
I heard muffled noises through the handset, then silence.
"You there? Tommy? Please?"
"Still here, bruv." He must have raised his mobile back to his mouth as my ear became filled with the rasping sound of panting. "Fading fast …"
"Tommy, let me do something ... please."
"... just keep taping ..."
"I'm sorry for giving you a hard time. I ... I love you."
"Love ... you too ... John ... now hush ..."
I pressed the handset to my ear, straining to hear. He was still breathing, just.
"Going, John ..." His voice was barely a whisper. "... oh ..."
I held my breath as though that could help him find another.
"Something ... a bridge ... it leads ... oh ... lights, beautiful lights ... gonna cross it ..."
The ragged sound of his breathing became fainter, faded to nothing. I bowed my chin to my chest.
"John!" Tommy's voice, stronger than before.
"Yes! I'm here."
"Doesn't matter ... what god you worship ... or if you don't believe ... none of that matters ... live and let live's what counts ... tell them ... everyone ..." The strength drained from his voice. "Crossing the bridge, John ... rainbow ... so bright ..."
I heard him then for the last time; three sighs.
"Gotta go ... beautiful ... so beautiful ..."
* * *
Tommy nearly changed the world.
I sent copies of the tape to people: journalists, religious leaders, politicians, New Age groups, old age groups, anyone I could think of.
The tape caused a worldwide uproar. Basic tenets that had held sway for centuries were re-examined. People questioned. Leaders conferred, squirmed, blustered. For a while, it seemed that religious wars might become a thing of the past. Sure, there would still be wars - people can always come up with an excuse for killing each other - but a healthy injection of tolerance wouldn't hurt anyone, would it?
Then the results of the post mortem were read out in the inquest and certain phrases - "presence of alcohol" and "signs of cirrhosis" - were seized to pour scorn upon Tommy's final words as the ramblings of an alcoholic. Widespread condemnation of the tape was followed by threats against me. I had to take my family into hiding at the height of the vitriol.
And that, more or less, was that.
I hear that there are people who remain convinced of the efficacy of Tommy's final words. They've organised themselves into some sort of cult, telling anyone who cares to listen of the wisdom of 'Gunnism'.
Aren't they missing the point?