Axiom - February 2000
Theme and Six Variations - h-l
(page 7/18)

Theme and Six Variations

Sam McGee was being pursued by a stranger. Everywhere Sam went, the man seemed to follow. He was always two steps behind, or a glance in the mirror, or - every so often - Sam would turn round to see a flash of black macintosh disappearing behind an obstacle. Sam was being stalked systematically. But why?

Then one day, while Sam was at work, the stranger revealed himself. He wouldn't give his name (or perhaps he didn't have a name), but he had a proposition for Sam. And it was this: the chance to receive one million pounds, conditional on Sam's dying one year later.

"I'll give you a chance to think about it," the stranger said.

Variation One

Sam thought about his wife, Isobel, and their children, William and Victoria. He'd been promoted at work a few times, and was now a director of the company, but there were rumours flying about a hostile merger and heads rolling. He knew that at 55, his chances of getting another job were remote, and while he'd receive a hefty amount of severance pay, even that wouldn't be enough to maintain the lifestyle they were accustomed to. Perhaps they could learn to be happy with less, but he'd always given his family the best in the past. This money could be extremely useful.

"I'll take it," replied Sam.

During the next few months, Sam's company did indeed get bought out. Sam was retained as a "special consultant", which meant that, in return for going into the office three times a week, he got half his original salary. Sam and his family went on holiday to Disney World in the summer, and that autumn his elder child Victoria started at a posh girls' public school. In the winter, Sam had to fly to Boston on a business trip. The company chartered a plane to take the executives. On the way back, it crashed into the sea. There were no survivors. It was exactly a year after Sam and the stranger had met.

Variation Two

Sam thought about his girlfriend, Isobel. She was desperate for a child, but they were unable to conceive. Over the past few months, Sam had visited a number of bank managers in an attempt to raise the money for IVF treatment, but when they'd seen his credit rating, they'd all shaken their heads. While they were still polite to him, it was a different kind of politeness to before. Meanwhile, Isobel was getting more and more depressed, and there was nothing he could do. Here was a lifeline.
But how could he bring a child into the world knowing that he would not survive to be involved with its upbringing?

Sam took the money anyway. He invested in a large insurance policy. Sam and Isobel went together to a private clinic in London, where tests were carried out to discover what was wrong. Isobel was implanted with a number of embryos. A few weeks later, she started to feel sick in the mornings. Nine months later she gave birth to healthy twin boys.

Sam was walking to work one morning, thinking about his wife and children. He stepped into the road to avoid an old lady, and just had enough time to think "oh shit" before the bus hit him. He was dead on arrival at hospital. He left behind a will, bequeathing a small amount of money to a charity for the childless, a video of Isobel's pregnancy, and a letter explaining what he had done and why. Isobel read the letter, and wept.

Variation Three

Sam didn't even have to think. "I'll take the money," he replied.

Sam knew that his boyfriend, Izzy, had only months to live. Diagnosed as HIV-positive only a short time before they'd met, Izzy had been taking a cocktail of pills for years. In the last few months, his condition had worsened into full-blown AIDS. Straight friends thought Sam was crazy, or thought of him as a martyr for sticking with a boyfriend who was so ill. Sam loved Izzy too much to leave him, caring more about him than any possible risk to his own health. Izzy had always been honest - he'd been upfront about his HIV status as soon as it was obvious that their relationship was to be more than a casual fling, and Sam respected him for telling the
truth.

Over the next few weeks, Sam started getting his affairs in order. He wrote a will, and started contacting old friends he hadn't seen for too long. He employed a nurse to look after Izzy, and they took a number of long holidays. The money paid for everything, including the bribing of immigration officials in countries where patients with AIDS were still considered unclean. When Izzy caught pneumonia, Sam knew that things were coming to an end. A year to the day after Sam had accepted the stranger's gift, the lovers were found dead, lying in bed together with arms wrapped around each other. The official cause of Sam's death was unknown, but privately his friends considered that he'd died of a broken heart. His will left £200,000 to the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Variation Four

Sam looked around her grotty office and thought about her life so far. As a media assistant, her earnings were poor. She was paying half the rent on a tiny little flat in Leeds, with her girlfriend Isobel supplying the other half. Money would be extremely useful. The death thing less so. Somewhat indecisively, she asked the stranger "How will I die?"

"However you want to," replied the stranger.

Sam thought about good ways to die and bad ways to die. Most of the good ways involved spending her last year on earth happy. "I think I'll go for it," said Sam.

That night when she got home she told Isobel of her meeting. At first Isobel was sceptical, but when Sam showed her the balance of her bank account, she believed. "But what's going to happen to me when you're dead?" asked Isobel.

Sam was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Haven't you always had eyes for that girl Beth?"

Sam, Isobel and Beth moved in together. With Sam's money they could afford a house with a garden on the outskirts of the city. Sam quit her job and went to university. She knew some of the other students made comments about her unusual home life, but she really didn't care. The money had freed her to be able to do what she'd always wanted to do, which was to paint.

Isobel and Beth encouraged her in her ambition, and later that year her tutors entered some of her work into a major art exhibition. When, a few months later, she was found dead at home, having suffered all along from an undetected heart complaint, it made the front page of their local paper. She'd had a great year.

Variation Five

Sam looked around his grotty office, and came to a decision. At 21, he didn't believe for a minute that he could actually die in a year's time. "Of course I'll take the money," he said.

Sam quit his job on the spot and bought a first-class ticket to Australia. With no need to spend his summer earming a pittance to help pay off his debts, he decided to spend a couple of months surfing.

In Australia, he met a beautiful Scottish girl called Isobel. She was also a student, and the two of them fell in love almost at first sight. At the end of the summer, Sam transferred his course up to Isobel's university. They bought a house together, and thought about scary things like marriage.
One day, Sam told Isobel how come he could afford anything he wanted. She thought he was a good storyteller.

Their bliss continued for the best part of a year. Then Isobel fell ill. She was rushed to hospital, where doctors discovered that she was in the advanced stages of a particularly virulent cancer. There was absolutely nothing they could do except to ease her pain a little.
Sam had never believed he would die, but he hadn't thought about falling in love, or how the death of a loved one would make him feel. All the money in the world would not be enough to compensate.

Variation Six

Sam sighed, and shook his head.

"Are you sure?" asked the stranger again.

"Yes, I'm sure. I don't want to die in a year's time. No amount of money will make up for that."

The stranger disappeared - not literally, but it was as if his black macintosh had folded in on him. When Sam looked up, the stranger had gone.

"Well, that was rather odd," he thought.

Sam finished his work for the day, and got in his car to drive home. The motorway was slow-moving, and he found himself starting to fall asleep. At 5.46pm, his foot jammed down on the accelerator, and his car lurched into the lorry in front. Sam didn't even wake up. Instead of having another year of life and money to go with it, he was certified dead later that day.

Theme

Sam woke up with aching arms, having fallen asleep at his desk. Guiltily, he looked around. No one had noticed. He'd had a very strange dream.

That night in the pub he told some of his work colleagues about it. Some of them would have happily accepted the bargain, others less so. How much their lives were worth varied from person to person.

Everyone agreed it would be a hard choice to make.

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h-l