Title: The Carpenter’s Tale – A short(ish) story Word count: 4188
Frank Ward stood back and admired his craftsmanship. He had built his gallows from solid oak, with a drop height of eight feet and six inches, which according to Charles Duff in The Handbook of Hanging was precisely the drop required to snap the neck of a 175lb man.
Frank was nothing if not prepared. After a long, well structured and orderly life he was not about to abandon control over the manner of its end to the uncertainty and indignity of a debilitating and terminal illness. Meticulous planning and diligent application had afforded him a comfortable existence; the same methods, he reasoned, would ensure a quick, humane departure, on his own terms, and with no loose ends.
To that end he had studied death in many of its forms, considering on its merits each method in turn. It should, he reasoned, be as pain free as possible, quickly achievable and with, ideally, no period of suffering. The risk of failure must be minimised as failure might lead to incapacitation, and a slow lingering death over which he would have no control.
He had considered drugs, both prescription and otherwise, but the risks of failure, the potential for pain and suffering, and the difficulties in sourcing appropriate agents had led him to discount them as a reliable and predictable means to end his life. The thought of firearms made him shiver, and any method that involved shedding copious amounts of his own blood made his head spin. For many long nights he had agonised; how does a coward end his own life?
As he climbed the stair to the staging platform he let his right hand slide up the polished handrail enjoying the texture and the quality of the timber. He thought back to his wife’s funeral two months earlier and how the answer had been presented to him during her wake, from the words of an unsuspecting well-wisher….
“My dear Frank, how are you? I am so very sorry for your loss.”
Frank had studied the man for a few seconds through the fog of grief. He’d felt sure he knew the man, even that he didn’t like him, but why had escaped him. The man had continued to talk and Frank had strained to listen, looking for clues to the man’s identity.
“…such a dreadful tragedy. Ruth was an incredible woman, a fine wife and mother and if I may say so quite an accomplished actress too.”
So there it was – James from Ruth’s drama group. He’d allowed the man to recite his well-rehearsed tribute to Ruth nodding here and there in accord at the appropriate points, all the while sipping on his Glenfiddich as he had waited for the man to finish. But to his dismay, the man’s wife (Marjorie, she had reminded him) had joined them in what had appeared to be a deliberate ambush.
“So here’s the thing,” Marjorie had enthused, “we are putting on a musical stage adaptation of Hang ’em high! in August, and we have no one to build the scenery.” She glanced conspiratorially at James who by then was grinning like an idiot. “Anyhow, darling Ruth always used to tell us what a wonderful carpenter you are, so….”
A short discussion about their requirements had taken place and Frank had agreed there and then to build the sets and props for the show. He had even agreed to supply the materials himself, in memory of his dear departed Ruth. It was the perfect cover; to his well-wishers it was something to ‘keep the poor fellow occupied’, to give him a sense of purpose, while Frank got to build the instrument of his destruction unmolested, and right under everyone’s noses.
Standing on the platform of his gallows as the sun prepared to set on a sticky July afternoon – and on my life, he thought – he felt very much alone. He examined the perfect hangman’s knot, slowly fingering each of the thirteen coils in turn. Almost time. He gazed out through the open barn doors and waited patiently for the swollen amber sun to reach the rippling horizon.
Hundreds of yards away where his extensive property met the main road, orange sparks of sunlight glinted momentarily on a familiar car as it turned into the dusty drive that led to the ancient farmhouse. The red Volvo C70 approached with haste, its skidding wheels churning up twin spiralling plumes of dust that billowed in its wake.
Frank stood in the middle of the trapdoor, his chin resting on the loop of the noose. He reached out with his right hand and felt the strong, thick handle of the trapdoor lever. All he had to do was put his head through that loop, and pull on the lever and it would all be finished with. “Damn you Eddie!” he cursed, and stepped back from the noose. You just didn’t rush this kind of thing. His hands and knees were trembling now, and he felt the first sensations of doubt enter his mind; could he really go through with it?
He took out a silver cigarette case from his back trouser pocket and popped it open, the slightest of smiles struggling for expression at the corners of his mouth. Better than Dutch courage, he thought to himself snapping the case closed as the car pulled up in front of the barn.
Dr Edward Milligan had thought about little else since the day he had given his friend a death sentence. “I’m sorry Frank, the Cancer has spread from your lymph nodes to your liver and pancreas and this shadow here is an egg-sized tumour wrapped around the base of your spine.” He had put down the scan image and gently placed his hands palms down on the desk, summoning the strength to deliver the dire news.
He’d taken off his glasses as he always did when delivering bad news and looked into his friend’s eyes. “I’m thinking three months, possibly six. I am so sorry.”
Frank Ward had just leaned forward and smiled, as if he were relieved. “Don’t worry about a thing Eddie, everything is in order and it won’t affect me in the slightest.” He’d watched dazed as Frank had stood briskly and shook his hand. “Really Eddie, I mean it.” He’d added sincerely, gently squeezing the Doctor’s shoulder as he’d turned and left.
Eddie sat frowning, long after his friend had gone. What did he mean by ‘it won’t affect me in the slightest’? Why was he so chirpy in the face of such devastating news? He was so troubled by that conversation he had left his golfing weekend early, returning home on the Saturday instead of the Sunday night as planned, resolving to visit his friend and get to the bottom of his cryptic comments.
When he had opened his front door he had found a hand written goodbye letter from his old friend:
By the time you receive this letter I will have taken my own life. You have been a very dear friend to me for all my adult life and I know that you will understand me when I tell you that I have always done things on my terms, and I have no intention of changing now.
I would like you to break the news to my Samuel for me, because you were always his ‘favourite uncle’ and he will believe you when you tell him that I did not suffer. Please keep my golf clubs that you never got around to bringing back; I never used them much anyway.
Praying he was not too late, he had got back into his car and headed for Frank Ward’s farmhouse.
When he arrived the interior of the barn was bathed in a yellow/orange glow from the ripe, low hanging sun that faced the open doors. His friend stood inside waiting, for what? He wondered. He got out of the Volvo leaving the door open and approached his friend.
“Frank! Thank God!” he said, hugging him to his body. Frank patted his back paternally, a pained expression on his weathered face. Relief gave way to anger and he let go of his friend stepping back and pulling the crumpled letter from his jacket pocket. “Damn you Frank, what were you thinking?”
Frank’s shoulders slumped, his mask of bravado now all but gone. “Come on Eddie, sit with me for a while and let’s watch the sunset together. It was supposed to be the last thing I ever saw, so seeing as you spoiled things for me by turning up like that you may as well sit and watch it with me.” He grabbed two dusty saloon chairs that were waiting for a coat of varnish he would never give them and led his friend from the barn. “You still got that hip flask?” he inquired casually.
Eddie nodded, “It’s in the glove box.”
“No good there now is it?” He said without stopping.
Eddie returned to the car and fetched the flask. He picked up the pack of Marlborough Lights from the passenger seat and followed his friend. Frank had set the chairs on the mossy grass under the solitary oak tree that stood in front of the farmhouse. The tree stood slightly elevated from the wide dusty driveway that swept around it in a wide loop in front of the redbrick farmhouse and barn.
“Where’s the bench gone, Frank?” he said sitting down next to his friend. He’d spent many evenings sat there under that tree, chewing the fat with Frank, and was surprised that the sturdy teak bench Frank had so lovingly made was not in its place.
Frank took the flask from Eddie’s outstretched hand and took a long swig. He gazed at the tumescent orange sun for several long seconds before he swallowed noisily and replied in a whisper. “It just felt too damned big now she’s gone.”
Eddie took a swig of the malt and gave his friend’s hand a squeeze. They sat there for a while, no words needed, drawing comfort from each other’s presence as the sun began to sink beneath the greedy horizon.
Finally, as the last sliver of gold disappeared from view, Frank broke the silence. “You know, I had it all planned out for weeks. Everything seemed to be just pointing me this way. It all came together at the perfect time, so many circumstances just falling in to place, like a planetary alignment or something.” He looked at Eddie who was waiting for more. “I sold the farm. Walt dealt with everything for me, we complete next week.”
Eddie was shocked. Walt Browning was part of what Ruth had always referred to as ‘The Gang of Four’. They had met on the last Friday of each month to play poker for fifteen years until Elliot Fisk became bedridden following acute liver failure. That was three months ago, and they had called time on their little club once and for all.
“Walt is in on your plan?” said Eddie in disbelief. He couldn’t imagine the strait-laced lawyer could have gone along with Frank’s madness.
“Are you crazy? Of course not, he’ll get his letter in the post, same as Elliot will, on Monday.”
Eddie shook his head. “Frank, have you really, really thought this through? What about Samuel and the girls? How do you think they will feel when they get the news that you took your own life?”
Frank’s son lived on the other side of the world, but it might just as well have been the moon. “I have written to Samuel, Walt has the letter. The fact that I am dying anyway has made making arrangements a lot easier, it doesn’t arouse suspicion when you update your will, sell your home and leave letters with your lawyer to be opened in the event of your death. The girls have never even met me; Australia is such a long way away, so they’ll be OK.”
Eddie sighed and shook his head. “Frank, I am your doctor; I can’t support you in this. It’s my job to preserve life.”
“Eddie, you are also my friend. I have thought about this a lot, this is for the best. I could wake up any day now and not be able to get out of bed because the tumour around my spine has shut off the blood to my spinal cord. You said yourself I have just a few months left, and what quality of life will I have as the pain gets worse, my legs fail and I start to shit myself?”
As he argued with his friend Frank felt the fear and doubt recede. It was waiting that held the most fear, and waiting for what? Loss of independence, loss of dignity, a body pumped full of drugs to ease the pain as he slowly shrivelled up and died in a hospice bed surrounded by strangers? No, this was his decision; he would go on his own terms.
Eddie finished the whiskey and slipped the flask in to his jacket pocket. He had tried to convince his friend, but he knew his argument was weak. He took out the Marlborough Lights and offered one to Frank. “Can’t hurt you now.” he said with a rueful smile.
Frank smiled back mischievously, shook his head and stood. “Put those away, I’ve got something much better than that. Come on, take a walk with me.”
The two men headed back to the barn where Frank flicked a switch on the frame of the great wooden doors. Instantly the interior of the barn was bathed in brilliant light from four halogen floodlights that were mounted in the rafters above.
Eddie looked around the barn in admiration at the lathes, mills, bench saws and drills of his friend’s sanctum. Huge boards hung on the walls where a multitude of tools were suspended, a thick black line drawn around each of them, clearly delineating their rightful home. Such was the method and logic of their order, he felt sure that were all the tools piled in the middle of the barn, even he could have put each and every one back in its proper place.
To the left of the open doors Frank had placed the finished props and scenery for the forthcoming stage production. A white-wood gallows complete with noose stood at the very back of the barn, the one for the show. It had served as a dry run for the much larger and grander version that Frank had constructed to end his own life. Eddie was amazed at the size of the apparatus, and walked over to examine it.
He was five feet ten inches tall but the stage stood higher than his outstretched hand could reach. “It’s… incredible.” he marvelled.
Frank grinned, “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.” The stage was a platform built on a frame that stood twelve feet across, and twelve feet deep. To the right of the stage when facing, was a straight flight of stairs, its first step level with the front of the stage, with a banister and rail that ran up the right side, and enclosed the entire platform.
Eddie was speechless as they made their way up the steps. The stairs ended in a three foot square landing that extended from the right side of the stage platform at the rear, allowing the condemned to approach the gallows from behind. He looked at the beautifully turned oak spindles spaced exactly four inches apart. Frank had taken pride in his work.
“There are one hundred and thirty two spindles and one thousand eight hundred and sixteen feet of timber of varying sizes used in my gallows, held together with nearly three thousand screws and nails. It has taken me over two hundred hours to plan and build this beauty and it has cost me of a little over six grand.” He stroked the smooth, oiled trapdoor handle almost reverently. “She’s my best work yet.”
Eddie hung back against the rear banister, lost for words. Frank was excited now as he described the workings of his instrument of death. “I will place my head in this noose with the knot drawn close under my jaw near my left ear. I then pull the lever which causes the trapdoor to open, rapidly dropping me down inside. The purpose of the knot position is to break my neck cleanly with a sharp sideways yank. I am aiming to achieve a little over a thousand foot-pounds of torque to ensure that my axis bone is broken or dislocated by the fall, thus severing my spinal cord.”
Eddie grew pale as he listened to his friend explain the mechanics of his suicide. “This will cause my brain’s blood pressure to drop to zero,” Frank continued, “resulting in loss of consciousness within a second. Brain death will occur within a few minutes and complete death after not more than fifteen to twenty minutes,” he turned to smile at his friend, “but I won’t know anything about that, it really is very humane.”
“The stage has been built to allow a drop of eight feet six inches which is exactly the required fall for a man with my body weight.” Standing to one side he pulled the lever and the trapdoor split perfectly down the middle, dropping to reveal a darkened room below. He picked up a wooden toggle and hauled the trapdoors back into the place where they closed with a solid sounding clunk. “OK, now to show you downstairs.” He walked back across the trapdoors to demonstrate how well he had engineered them and headed below, Eddie following numbly.
The bottom of the staging was entirely enclosed in shiplap style oak cladding. At the rear of the construction was a door leading to a room beneath the stage. Frank had even gone to the trouble of installing electric lighting and flicked a switch to illuminate the windowless room. “My body will be suspended here, about six inches off the ground. There is a trolley there which can be positioned under me to facilitate moving my body afterwards. I don’t want that part to be any worse for people than it has to be.”
Frank looked around the barn at the work of his hands. “You know, if I have any regrets in my life, it’s that I didn’t follow my heart and became a carpenter, I just love making things.”
Eddie cleared his throat, his mouth tasted terrible. “I need some air,” he croaked. They left the gallows and walked out beneath the canopy of stars that had begun to spread from the east with the darkening sky as the clear evening gave way to a starlit night.
“You seemed to have thought of everything, I don’t know what to say.” He felt utterly defeated. This wasn’t like talking down a suicidal man from a window ledge, faced with overwhelming circumstances in the present, but with the promise of a life beyond the here and now. This was the reasoned determination of an intelligent man who had made a considered decision in his own best interests. While Eddie was filled with horror at the method, he had to admit there was a cool and undeniable logic to his friend’s plan.
Frank looked at his friend, he felt guilty for the position he was putting Eddie in, but he was committed now. “Look Eddie, here’s how it is going to be. We are going to pass a few more minutes having a smoke and saying our goodbyes then you are going to get in your car and drive home. Tomorrow you can call the police and tell them you just got the letter and they can come and get my body. All you have to do then is to call my son and plan what to say at the service, it is all arranged already.”
Eddie’s eyes were stinging with emotion as he tapped out a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth before fumbling in his pockets for the lighter. “Put that away Eddie,” grinned Frank, “Tonight let’s be young and stupid again.” He produced the silver cigarette case from his back pocket and popped it open. Eddie’s eyes opened wide with shock at the sight of the marijuana joint that Frank took from the case. “For purely medicinal purposes of course.” Said Frank with a wink.
It was turning into the strangest night of Eddie’s life as he sat beneath the stars and smoked a joint with his old friend for the first time in forty years. Not since his early twenties, before life, marriage and responsibility had led him to turn his back on the indulgences of youth had he done anything more illegal than accidentally parking in a disabled space. Yet here he was, sixty four years old and getting stoned.
He felt as though a blast of icy air was somehow blowing inside his skull, chilling his brain, spreading a cool tingle down his arms to his fingertips, and calming his entire being. The anxiety of what was to come was washed away in a cool detachment that seemed to relieve the entire burden of the intolerable sense of responsibility he felt towards his friend.
Frank sat smiling slightly, gazing up at the stars. He seemed to be on a higher plane of existence, and it occurred to Eddie that Frank had already made his peace with the world, that he didn’t need counselling, he just needed the support of a good friend. Whatever the outcome for him, whatever the consequences that lay ahead, he would be there for Frank and help his friend through his final journey.
They lost track of the hours they spent in animated conversation, swapping funny stories from times long passed and shedding tears of laughter until their sides ached. Finally they fell quiet, their memories all but emptied, nothing left to tell. In the calm silence that followed they both knew that they were ready. “It’s time Eddie,” said Frank scrambling to his feet, “time to go.”
Eddie stood and nodded, “I’m here Frank. I’m not going to leave you now. I’m here to the end.”
Frank squeezed his friend’s arm, and nodded gratefully. Away to the East behind the barn, the sky had begun to lighten as daybreak approached, but the harsh brilliance of the floodlights as they entered the barn still made them squint until their eyes became adjusted. They climbed the stairs slowly and deliberately until they reached the platform. At the back of the barn, opposite the great doors was a wooden door reached from a gantry, through which the grain sacks had been passed long years ago. As they made their ascent Frank noticed the door and an idea flashed into his mind.
“Eddie! I may have missed my sunset deadline, but I don’t have to miss the sunrise!” he pointed to the wooden door and Eddie smiled in understanding.
“I got this one.” he said and was down the stairs and heading for the gantry ladder as fast as he could. The bolts were stiff and rusty and his soft fingers struggled for a few minutes before they finally slid back and he was able to swing the wide door open.
“Get back up here Eddie, I can see the horizon!” laughed Frank as a wave of hope and euphoria coursed through him. Eddie made his way back to the stage and they stood for a few moments gazing out together at the landscape beyond the door. “When the sun breaks over the horizon I am going to do it.” he said, his voice resolute. He grabbed Eddie and squeezed him hard, then pulled away and placed the noose around his neck. He drew the knot close under his chin near his left ear by pulling the attached end of the rope and laid the slack over his shoulder.
Eddie’s mottled hands gripped the bannister rail like a fisherman clinging to the deck while the raging ocean juggled with his boat. He had been swept along with his friend’s insanity and now not an ounce of strength remained within him to fight the tide of momentum building moment by moment towards a terrible, tragic conclusion.
He studied Frank’s face in those final moments and knew that his friend had already departed. The spirit could not wait to be free of the shackles of a tired and worn out body and the eyes fixed eagerly on the horizon, hungry for the catharsis the dawn would bring.
Eddie sighed and loosened his grip, sliding his hands along the polished grain, his eyes following to admire the hand-turned spindles. “You are a carpenter Frank,” he sighed, “and a fine one at that.”
“Thanks Eddie,” whispered Frank, as the breaking dawn drove a golden wedge between the heavens and the land. Frank Ward drew a final deep breath and as the first light of the new day struck his waiting eyes, he pushed the lever.