My grandmother Florence told me that you could always recognise people by their cough. “There’s no mistaking that”, she would say: “it’s the one thing you can’t disguise.” I asked her how she knew with such certainty. So one day, as a bedtime story, she told me.
It was during the blackout. There was no street-lighting, and all the windows had black blinds or curtains. People walking about had dimmed torches. The streets were thronged that night. A delicious, dangerous anonymity was in the air. You might be anyone, you might love anyone. After all, if you might be blown to bits, what was the harm in a little dalliance with a stranger?
But she was looking for her husband. It was a bad marriage, but it was all she had ever known. She paced the roads, looking for him; he was late. The suddenly she heard a cough. It was him.
His name was Francis, but he was always called Chum. “Chum!” She called sharply, “Chum, is that you?”
He loomed out of the blackness, and she saw dimly that he had a woman in tow, younger and prettier than she. He said “look, you might as well know. This is Vera, and we’re going to get married after the war is over.” All she could think of to say was “I knew it was you by your cough”.
After the war came the court, the divorce, the bitterness which lasted a lifetime. Florence began to compile a taxonomy of coughs. The nervous one which presaged a demand for money owed: the rasping one which belonged to the angry butcher: the hollow one which recalled a long stay in the sanatorium. She could foretell the arrival of the rent-man and the tally-man by their coughs as they walked up the entry. As she became older, Florence began to hear a new cough, and it belonged to no-one she knew. It was a fruity, loose affair, and sounded as though it was streaked with blood. It was not a polite or an apologetic cough. She said she could hear it in the ear of her mind. “I know who it is” she said one day: “it is Mister Death”.
He did come for her, as he comes for us all. And now, every time I hear a cough, I think it might be him. If the cough is raw or bloody, I am afraid. If it is mixed with laughter, or is a little staccato, then I know it is nothing. Nothing. For the moment.