Michael started his morning like every other for the past sixteen years, by searching through the Death Notices of the morning papers over a simple breakfast of corn flakes and coffee.
It was a habit he’d adopted by accident as an unhappy teenager. Having no other suitable table-cloth, his mother had lined the breakfast table with his father’s copy of The Times. And over breakfast, with his mind dwelling on another miserable day at school, he read the Death Notices in front of him: ‘Much loved father; died peacefully.’, ‘Dearly loved by Anne, James, Julia, and two grandchildren. Private funeral.’, ‘Passed away at Old Forest’s Nursing Home, aged 97 years.’ their little summarised lives said. He became obsessed with these faceless mini-biographies of people who had already endured misery, who had trudged through heartache to find joy and peace so he didn’t have to. Through these simple tributes he forgot about the concerns of his own life and obsessed about their simple deaths instead.
One September, a week into his final year at school Michael decided to become ‘HILL Brian sadly passed away at home on 1st September 1990, aged 86 years. Dear husband of Joan, father to Peter and Lena. Funeral service to be held at St. Mary’s Church, Ealing on Friday, September 21st at 11.00 am. Family flowers only please.’ He walked to school as Brian — with a slight limp caused by a mining accident after the war — talked with the slight Northern lilt he never lost and wrote in Brian’s decorative script; by becoming Brian, and knowing he was already dead, he could temporarily forget and escape the misery his own life was yet to serve.
‘Brian’ he would remind others when they addressed him by his real name. His fellow pupils just took this as another oddity, most teachers refused to acknowledge it apart from Mr. Morgan the deputy head and French teacher. Morgan wore fake epaulettes and had a predilection for poking young girls in the throat as punishment; there were rumours he poked worse things in worse places in boys, but fortunately — after repeatedly reminding Mr. Morgan that his name was ‘Brian’ — Morgan only inserted his fingers into Michael’s Adam’s apple over and over that morning: ‘don’t’ poke ‘be’ poke ‘a’ poke ‘smart’ poke ‘ass!’ poke, ‘Do’ poke ‘you’ poke ‘understand!’ poke ‘Yes sir.’ ‘In French!’ poke. ‘Oui Monsieur’, ‘Oui Monsieur what?’ poke, ‘Oui Monsieur Morgan!’
After several repeated pokings over several weeks, Michael learned to keep quiet about the name changes but continued to become somebody new each Monday, somebody who had already lived and died, but he found these weekly transformations quickly lost their vigour and he soon needed to transform more and more regularly to drown out his overflowing anxieties.
Over the years, he would sometimes visit their funerals, stand by the wayside behind a tree, a voyeur of other people’s grief, wondering if he would be grieved and missed too. But sometimes the personas got in the way, sometimes it got troublesome buying new clothes for his assumed identities, and knowing his identities were already dead, Michael had little motivation to progress in his careers or relationships and failed in forming lasting ties with employers as much as he did with partners.
Two weeks into another unfulling job that had advertised ‘flexible working hours’, which turned out to mean that most evenings were longer than others, and with another advert placed on another dating site that guaranteed ‘unique personalised matching of soul mates’ yielding zero hits, he found himself at another low point needing another persona to rescue and guide him.
Perhaps the Death Notice style dating profiles ‘I just died in your arms tonight…’, ‘Dead man seeks grieving partner…’ etc. had put off potential lifelong partners, and maybe his habit of addressing himself in the third person during meetings only isolated him further from colleagues.
But after sixteen years of becoming other people every day, Michael knew no other way of existing; the only way he could cope and face the world was by injecting himself with the summarised death of others.
However, as he sat down for his usual breakfast of coffee and corn flakes on the morning of his 32nd birthday, a terrible realisation dawned on him: none of that morning’s papers had any Death Notices.
He scrambled through the pages again and again with a rising sense of panic — kicking up their news of global wars and economic catastrophes all over the kitchen table. What would he do? How will he cope without his drug! Without a condensed, sobering eulogy pumping through his veins to give him courage, without knowing his new name, without understanding whether his death was sudden or peaceful, or whether he was dearly missed, he simply didn’t know how to function.
Perhaps he could call in sick and delete his dating profile, resign himself to the fact that he would remain unemployable and undateable, to be a penniless, bitter bachelor dying a yet unwritten death with nobody to grieve him.
Through some strange coincidence all the newspapers that morning had been misprinted and instead of printing the Death Notices they had all printed the Birth Announcements twice. And, with his head in his hands, staring with despair at the clumps of papers, there at the bottom right hand corner of The Times’s duplicated Birth Announcement section he found himself: ‘DOUR On 13th October 2006 to Kirsty (née Pleasance) and Edward, a son, Michael James.’
By whatever stars existed and guided, by whatever hands of fate that had rearranged the atoms that morning, by whatever gods existed in his cruel world, his own name was right there in black and white. Next to his parents’s names, written in small caps against his own birthday were fifteen words that announced his new identity: ‘Michael James Dour’ he found himself saying with clarity, ‘I am Michael James Dour! I am Michael James Dour!’
He kept repeating his name over and over at his desk to the annoyance of his colleagues. For the first time in his life he found himself looking forward towards an unwritten life (his) rather than looking backwards from a life already lived. He cut out the simple announcement and stuck it on his mirror and each morning he repeated that simple line to himself: ‘I am Michael James Dour.’.
He would continue to browse the Death Notices but more with curiosity than morbidity, wondering how his notice would read, writing and re-wrting it in his head throughout different stages of his life. He would often ask his wife how she would write it. A question he asked after they announced their marriage in Marriages section, and one he would ask again shortly after the publicised births of their two children, Richard and Monica; but Sally didn’t understand his obsession and each time she would just shake her head, sigh and joke that it would say he’d ‘worried himself to death.’