William Henry Lock, officially the oldest man in the world, waited for the children to arrange themselves in a semi-circle at his feet before addressing the room.
"Am I dying? Or is this my birthday?"
His voice was gargled and uneven, like a bag of rusty pennies. Yet he seemed pleased with his remark, and allowed a smile to provide a horizontal break across the otherwise vertical lines of his creased head, hairless and ancient, like a cracked dinosaur egg.
The ten or so children of Greenfield Primary watched him with something approaching awe. This had less to do with deference towards the 116 years that he'd been on the planet, or even the thirty or so years that he'd been a fixture in that chair, but instead had to do with their more immediate knowledge of the suffering he had caused them. Here was the living and breathing source of all the extra work that had been sent their way during the past week. They had suffered through the innumerable maths problems that had been creatively built around the number 116, or around his six children, his seventeen grandchildren, his thirty-six great grandchildren, his forty-four great great grandchildren, his two great great great grandchildren, and the respective dates of birth of each one. They had struggled with pie-charts and time-lines that dealt with his birth date in 1894, his retirement from teaching in 1956, and everything that fell in-between. Kings had to be identified and fashion shows had to be staged. Every child had to handle a lump of coal. Exhausted, wonder was mixed with dread as they finally came face to face with this most unusual of foes.
Behind them, and to their left, their teacher, Miss Richards, waited anxiously. She'd only been at Greenfield Primary for six months and she was well aware that the success of this field trip (one of her own devising) was vital in ensuring that her position would remain a permanent one. The occasion of antiquity and venerability that she had cultivated in the classroom had already been broken by the sight of Mr. Lock wearing blue Levis (who ever heard of an old person wearing jeans?!) and had now been further disrupted with his strangely morbid opening remark. It was a full minute before she managed to recompose herself.
"Would anyone like to ask Mr. Lock a question?"
The children knew their cue.
"Kim?" She could always rely on Kim.
"Mr. Lock. What was it like when you went to school?"
He leaned back in his chair, smiling, looking for the big-eared boy. There was always a big-eared boy. But no answer.
"Ok. What about James. Do you have a question you'd like to ask?"
"What did you do before there was a television?"
He closed his eyes.
Owen was the only child who didn't have his arm eagerly stretched above his head like an aerial. Having recently been the first pupil in the school to hit puberty, his eyes were transfixed on the loose skin on Mr. Lock's neck, and the shocking realisation of the resemblance it bore with the skin on his rapidly transforming testicles. Disturbed by the thought that this was where old age began, he felt sick, and was in no mood to answer Miss Richards' request.
"What are your grandchildren's names?" Kim again.
"Do you have a goldfish?" Scott Turner.
Scott was always the first to pick up on any lapse in authority, and before Miss Richards could remember if she had scripted his question or not, the others had sensed it too.
"What was it like when everything was black and white?"
"Are you friends with the Queen?"
"Mr. Lock, did you know that snakes are deaf?"
"Who's the youngest man in the world?"
"You can't have a youngest man stupid."
"Yes you can."
"No you can't. You can only have an oldest man. There--"
"Children please. This is no way to behave in front of Mr. Lock."
Miss Richards could already feel the morning--and her career--slipping away from her when the children released a collective ooh.
Their vowels filled the room like ocean spray in a cave. With it came the presence of Mork, an overweight tabby cat that strolled over to Mr. Lock and began using his lower leg as a scratching post, a regular occurrence that had years earlier prompted his granddaughter to buy him jeans in order to minimise the disturbance to his flesh. Again, Mr. Lock was unresponsive to the attention of his cat, and to the children's requests to discover its name. After over three minutes of complete silence, Miss Richards soon found herself wondering whether her freedom was about to disappear alongside her career. Was he dead? Had they killed him?
William Henry Lock gave up smoking when he was a 104 years old. He had fallen asleep in his chair whilst reading an article in the local newspaper about new regulations regarding school uniforms, when his cigarette had dropped from his mouth, simmered amidst the folds of the paper, and eventually ignited the flames that woke him. Unable to lift himself out of the chair, in his panic, he first swatted at the flames with a copy of a national newspaper that lay by his side, before that too caught fire and he managed to throw them both onto the floor. As both fires died a death either side of his chair, and he winced with pain as he felt the burnt cotton of his trousers knit with his flesh, he became aware not only of his brush with possible death, but also of the realisation that he would have gone to his grave with his final words on this earth being a string of hasty and decidedly unromantic exclamatory remarks: 'oh no! Um. Um. God. Oh my God! Um. Fire. What? Ah. Arghh. Ughh.'
From that moment on he became determined that he would not part from this world on such an undignified note, dedicating himself to the pursuit of his dream that one day, he too could go out with the style and wit of Beethoven's 'friends applaud, the comedy is over,' the profundity of Gertrude Stein's 'what is the question?' or the heartbreaking bathos of H.G. Wells' 'go away. I'm all right.' To alleviate his concerns that his final words would go unheard, his recently retired granddaughter, Bronwen, moved into his home to provide him with constant care, attention, and more importantly, a healthy pair of ears. Moreover, years later, when the Italian shepherd Antonio Dinella passed away and relinquished his title of World's Oldest Man to Mr. Lock, he acquiesced to her desire for them to capitalize on his new found fame by inviting the media, and more recently, groups of local schoolchildren, into his home.
"Well if they can't learn from the oldest man in the world, then who can they learn from? You know?"
"Well if you're sure he'll be ok. Our children can be quite boisterous at times. I wouldn't want us to cause him any discomfort."
"Oh no, my dear. Don't you worry. He'll be fine. He fought in a war you know. He'll tell them all about that too."
What usually happened when Mr. Lock found himself uttering a remark that he felt would adequately serve his passing from this world, was that he would fall silent for five or so minutes--often much longer--or until it became apparent that he wasn't going to die anytime soon, before finally deciding to continue speaking (often coinciding with a desire for a cup of tea). On one occasion, however, so pleased was he with his response to Bronwen's query of whether he was uncomfortable ("No, I'm just waiting."), he persevered in a state of pregnant silence for six whole months.
"What's her name? Mr. Lock, what's her name?"
"His name's Mork."
"Hello Mark. Maaark. Maaaaark."
Mork, whose contempt for children knew no bounds, remained unimpressed as the children's sticky breakfast fingers made their way towards his precious coat, swiftly turning and making his way back from whence he came.
"My cat's name is Furry."
"My cat's name is Jeff."
"My Uncle's name is Jeff."
"Do you have a goldfish?"
"What was it like when everything was black and white?"
Mr. Lock was happy to talk to the children, whose enthusiasm came as a welcome respite to the stilted exchanges he usually shared with Bronwen. He had often felt like the site of an archaeological dig, yet he was far happier for the children to dig through the dust of his mind than Bronwen, whose excavations of late seemed to be far more motivated by greed than any genuine interest in his history. Today, he was even gladdened by the sight of the children sitting in a semi-circle in front of him. The only angles that stay with you in old age are right angles, the only shapes maintained, rigid and uncomfortable squares. The flexible geometry of today's seating arrangement brought joy to the heart of this former mathematics teacher, and enabled him to include them in his world for that one morning.
Mr. Lock told the children about how his first job as a barber had been interrupted by the First World War, and how he had kept himself busy in the trenches by cutting the men's hair. He then described how the pain of seeing so many of these men killed made him hang up his scissors at the war's end ("everyone whose hair I cut seemed to die. Do you understand? I just couldn't do it anymore."), and led to him taking up a teaching post at Greenfield Primary. He told them how many of his first pupils--including two of his very own sons--had perished in the Second World War, and how a third son never got out of his pyjamas after his return. He explained his subsequent retreat into his work and the world of mathematics, and how he never again ate beans in tribute to his hero Pythagoras, who he'd read had refused to touch them as they reminded him of testicles.
"Beans?" gulped Owen.
"Yes. But not baked beans. I wouldn't give them up."
"Baked beans are yummy."
"I like peas."
"Yes, Kim. Peas are good too. I've got nothing against the pea."
"Mr. Lock, would you eat a pea if it was the same size as an apple?"
"Hmm. I'm not sure--"
"I'm hungry. Miss Richards, is it dinner time yet?"
He learnt from the children about video games and DVDs. They argued over the relative merits of John Charles vs. Ryan Giggs, and decried the popularity of the chunky Kit-Kat ("If anything, it's too chunky."). They discussed school uniforms, calculators, and Narayan Shah, the Nepalese farmer whose family claimed was a 130 years old.
"You see children. It's not even worth talking about as he hasn't got a birth-certificate. They can't prove it so why waste everybody's time. You know? You know. You're good kids. You're not stupid."
Miss Richards, to the back of the room, chewed on a bon-bon and wondered whether she should move some of the children who sat closest to Mr. Lock to an area outside the splash-zone of his stray saliva. But reminded of a time when she had ringside seats at a boxing match, she decided it would add to the experience, and bring them closer to the past.
"Mr. Lock, where's Mark gone?" asked Kim.
"He's probably gone to sleep somewhere quiet. He's not used to all this disturbance you see. This is usually a quiet house."
"My cat likes to sleep by the window."
"My cat likes to sleep in a box."
"Yes James, cats like to sleep in all sorts of places. Did you know that I've had thirty two cats in my life?"
"What are they called?"
"Oh I can't remember all their names. It's--"
"Are they with Mark?"
"Oh no. They all died a long time ago. Mork's the only cat I have now."
"Why did they die?"
"Oh they were old. Like me. They didn't suffer. Not all of them anyway. Some died in their sleep. Some were knocked over by cars. One was killed after a fight with a dog. I remember one, Paisley, came in to where you're sitting now and he was sick so much that his insides came up through his mouth and onto the floor. His eyeballs popped out of his head, just like that. Oh that was a shock. Poor chap. You can still see the stains in the carpet if you look hard enough. But no. No. Don't cry. Don't cry Kim. James. It was a long time ago. He's happy now. Children. Stop it. Don't cry. You're not supposed to cry, you're children. You're supposed to laugh. Where is the laughter? C'mon, where is the--"
Mr. Lock paused here and considered what he had just said. He balanced up its potential for meaning and philosophical possibility, profundity and intellectual interpretations. He saw it written in epitaphs and encyclopaedias, examined and discussed in newspapers and on television shows. He saw university courses established in its honour. His eyes looked at the crying children. His eyes, their cataract lenses and the tears they seemed to trap within. 116 years of tears trapped within. He smiled, whispered the words once more, and fell silent.
"Where is the laughter?"
BIO: JP Zammit is previously unpublished, Welsh, and currently lives in a town called Llanelli. To get there you need to put your tongue behind your top row of teeth, and breathe.