"If I ever die," she said, "and I hope you noticed the if …"
"I did," I said,
"And if, when it happens, you happen still to be spinning out that miserable life of yours …"
"You're far too kind," I said.
"I know," she said, "but anyway, in that doubly unlikely scenario, I require you, on pain of being haunted by my furious shade for the rest of your worthless days, to prevent anyone, anyone at all, from saying that I have … well, what do you think?"
"I think," I said, "that you feel strongly about this matter, whatever it might be."
"Too bloody right I do," she said.
I should perhaps explain at this point that she is, by profession, an editor. Not of newspapers but of books, or rather of the manuscripts that only become books after she has gone at them with her wisdom and her red pen, halving their length and doubling their potency. So language is her business and it matters to her.
"I give up," I said. "What is it that I am to prevent anyone saying of you post your improbable and hypothetical mortem?"
"That I have" - and here she paused and struggled to get the offensive words out, as if trying to spit out the wings of an insect - "passed away."
I was about to yelp with delight but she was going on with it before I got the chance.
"Die," she said, "is the verb to use. It is a strong verb, an honest verb, an Anglo-Saxon verb. It sounds decisive and grim, like the thing it represents. And that's what language is for. To reflect the world in vocables and thus to enable us to talk honestly about it. In contrast, pass away is prissy, evasive, timorous … do I need to go on?"
"Yes please," I said, because strong feeling and strong words are always of interest. They are colour in a pale and bourgeois world.
"Very well," she said, and I wish I could convey the passion with which she said it, "Passing away reminds me of one of those hospital deathbed scenes in a television soap opera, where the corpse-to-be, who is laid out on sheets of improbable whiteness and ironedness and hitched to an oscilloscope representing the attentions of medical science but who otherwise seems perfectly well and indeed quite nicely made up, has urgent things to say in a weak whisper to the assembled relatives. Having said them, effortfully, but with said relatives paying rapt and loving attention, he or she then gasps a little, shudders, stiffens, wrings the last emotional drop from the scene, then sighs and closes his or her eyes and the camera swings to show the contour lines on the oscilloscope dropping steadily to sea level and refusing to budge back up. That's passing away. It's corny, dishonest, fictional, and I shall not have it said of me. Have I made myself clear?"
"Abundantly and enjoyably so," I said. "But what if your mourners omitted the away? What if they just spoke of you as having passed? Would that be admissible?" It wasn't really a question, I'll admit. I spoke merely in the hope of a volcanic reaction.
I got a volcanic reaction.
"Passed," she exclaimed, "is worse. At least with passed away there is a suggestion in the adverb that one has actually gone, that one is no more. But in passed, not a hint of it. The dead one has merely, it seems, overtaken all those who continue to draw breath, has beaten them in a race to somewhere else and has not in so doing changed very much at all, let alone died.
"Someone who has passed, it is suggested, has merely found the little low door in the wall and gone through it to … oh spare us … the other side, that storied place of meadows and spring sunshine, where the family dog of your childhood, that was so sadly run over, senses its master's shade crossing the invisible divide between realms perks up its ears and gets to its feet, no longer run over, and starts to wag its bloody tail and … I don't think I can go on."
"Strong feelings are a tonic to the system," I said. "I think you'll go on for a long time yet."