Volume 1.4: 'Death Loves Jazz'
Deep within Death’s kingdom, past the tar pits but not as far as the bottomless chasm, there lays the gutted remnants of a building. When the wind is in the right direction, you can hear the faint sounds of jazz music echoing through the empty wreckage.
I’ll never understand what possessed my brother to develop an interest in jazz music. He’s certainly not renowned for his interest in the arts. Chess, certainly. Death has always had a very keen interest in chess. Many people, especially grandmasters, play him at chess but none of them ever win. Despite his professionalism, he’s very proud of that. Sometimes he invites me over to his house so that we can drink beer and throw the bottles into the endless abyss, but he always contrives a reason to show me the chess set in his study.
I don’t particularly enjoy going there. It’s a large and gloomy space, charged with a constant sensation of unfulfilled potential, but the thing that disturbs me most is the obsessive cleanliness of his desk. My desk is awful in comparison – piled high with papers and old coffee mugs overflowing with mould. My wife scolds me incessantly until I remind her how busy I am. Death, on the other hand, is very good at moving things into the “OUT” tray. He also doesn’t have a nagging wife.
His chess set disturbs me as well. The board is beautifully constructed from polished white squares of dinosaur bone and black squares carved from the carapaces of some extinct beetle species from Alpha Centauri. The pieces are poor quality, badly machined plastic and were bought from the last Woolworth’s store in their last closing down sale. He says that extinct things amuse him.
We’d been sitting at the gorge one afternoon in peaceful silence - in fact, I'd been wondering how long it'd be until the chess set excuse came up - when he’d turned to me and said,
“Brother Life, I’m going to open up a jazz bar.”
I just raised an eyebrow at that. He looked very serious, but then he always looked very serious. He’s famous for it.
“I like music and it’d be nice to have more people over to visit. It gets a little lonely out here some days.”
I thought it was a bad idea, but I didn’t tell him that as we finished the last of his booze: he's quite intense. We chatted about this and that – about rising birth rates and air-borne Ebola viruses – until I left him: a white-faced, sunken-cheeked man with black-rimmed eyes, lost in thought at the edge of an eternal drop.
I came to the opening night. Death had converted one of the outbuildings on his palatial estate into a smart-looking establishment and had converted the extensive cellar system into a cool jazz bar. I gave my hat and coat over to the flickering shade lurking at the cloakroom and was rewarded with a respectful, “Good evening, Mr Life.”
The club room itself was a masterpiece of elegant decoration. The bar was twenty feet long and carved from a single piece of highly polished mahogany. My brother stood behind it, dressed in a well-tailored black suit and bright red tie, rubbing at the surface with a pristine cloth. The tables set up around the central spot-lit stage were totally empty.
“This place is dead. If you’ll excuse the pun,” I joked. My brother didn’t even smile.
Swallowing my mirth, I sat down one of the tables close to the stage and waited patiently for the music to start. After an hour, I was on my fourth drink and Death’s bar was still empty. Eventually, he swallowed his pride and came out from behind the bar to sit with me.
“I invited water nymphs and lesser gods and every ghoul in the book,” he said sadly, gazing into and through his drink. I clapped him on the back cheerfully.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I said and snapped my fingers at the stage.
Four obviously dead jazz musicians shambled onto the stage and began to play. The music was expertly played but it did nothing at all to raise Death’s spirits.
“I won’t let them die properly,” he said miserably, barely looking at them.
I came the next night and the next. No-one else ever came, but the undead musicians were always forced to lurch on to the stage and play their jazz routine to his empty bar every night. Death looked more despondent with every night's performance and starting spending each night getting drunk.
I stuck with it, fortified by a brother’s love, until the first ten thousand years passed. After that, I stopped going. I’d come to the conclusion that I was prolonging my brother’s misery.
The bar burnt down in the end, collapsing into a devastated, cinder-choked shell which completely buried the cellars. Death still maintains that it was faulty wiring in the lights. I suspect that one of the musicians was driven mad by two hundred thousand renditions of “What a Wonderful World” and tried to take their own life.
Unfortunately, in Death’s kingdom, nothing can ever truly die. I just hope that they’re not still down there. I’m not a big fan of jazz.