Hello, Richard said, today I’d like to talk to you about an idea for a sitcom I’ve been developing. It’s about a serial killer. He gets caught after several killings and is given various consecutive life sentences, adding up to two hundred and fifty years of imprisonment. This is all back story though, and will be revealed in the first couple of episodes of the sitcom, in flashback. When we first see the main character, he is being taken into prison. He goes into jail and he’s got these two hundred and fifty years to serve, so you think, he’s never going to make it. And this is a tough prison he’s in too, maximum security. It’s a punishment that’s intended to last the remainder of his life. But this guy, the main character, he’s in there, in prison, and let’s say he’s forty when he goes in, right? So he’s forty years old, and he lives in the prison for fifty years, until he’s ninety. Still no chance of a parole hearing, no chance of any change to the sentence. He admits what he did by the way, there’s no doubt over his guilt. As I say, that’s all back story. We first see the guy when he’s in prison, at age forty, and he lives for fifty years there, which is more than his entire lifetime before he went in. And we see that he gets a few years taken off for good behaviour, but he also has the odd run in with the prison warders and so on, so his sentence gets extended at other times too, but roughly it balances out. And so we see him at age ninety, being denied the possibility of parole by some official, and he, the protagonist, says to this official that he can deny him parole, it doesn’t matter because he’s going to survive for the entirety of his sentence, and when he gets out of prison, not only will this official be dead, but his children will be dead, and their children will be dead, and their children will be dead, and so on. So he’s this man of ninety, already one of the oldest prisoners in the world, and he comes out with this.
Another decade passes, and he’s a hundred years old. He’s served sixty years of a two hundred and fifty year sentence. There’s some talk in the press of him being released – how much longer can he possibly live? they say, but there are equally strong voices that continue to condemn him for his crimes, and in the end he’s not released. Another decade or so passes, and he becomes the oldest person alive, older than any other human on the planet, and in prison. And the thing is, he looks quite good on it, he could easily pass for eighty. So it’s at this time, around the time he becomes the oldest person alive, that two quite different public reactions take place. One is that there’s a call for the death penalty to be used in this case and the other, perhaps more interesting, is that a few people start to take seriously his claim – which by the way he has made public in the few press interviews he has been permitted to give – that he is going to survive the sentence and be released. Both reactions come from a similar point of view. They both acknowledge that something is going on here, but they approach it from different directions. The death penalty isn’t employed, however, and the protagonist begins to receive letters from people who feel that they can gain something from interaction with him, despite the fact that he’s spent most of his life in prison. He begins to gain a following and, in some people’s eyes the very fact of his longevity exonerates him from the crimes he has committed. He continues to live and, at a certain point, he becomes the oldest person to have ever lived, alive or dead. He’s a little frail, but still, his doctors say, in good health. He reaches his one hundred and fortieth birthday, and soon he gets to the one hundred year anniversary of his incarceration. He has been something of a thorn in the side of successive governments, but this date brings a renewed call for his release (along with a renewed call for his death from some quarters). How can you, people say, keep people locked up for all that time? The families of the victims are all dead, almost nobody in the world was alive when the original crimes were committed, nobody remembers them, but the government stands firm. The mere fact of his living so long does not, they say, mitigate against what he did, and any sentence given must be respected. One official, speaking publicly on the matter is even drawn to say that if he was to live and serve the entirety of his sentence, he would be released as any prisoner would; the first such official acknowledgement of a feeling that has been percolating for decades. And then, a few months shy of one hundred and fifty years old, he is taken ill. The doctors say that he has cancer, and inoperable. He’s given weeks to live. There is a great deal of reaction to this – some people greet it with elation, he is merely human, and mortal, and others are devastated for precisely the same reason.
Again, both reactions are just iterations of a deeper belief, or anxiety about the possibility of someone living for so long and not dying, and this deeper belief is itself embedded within a fear of death, a great anxiety about mortality. So he is moved to the hospital wing of the prison and watched over by guards and doctors. Of course, he has no family left, no friends, and he is not permitted any outside visitors.
He is hours away from death. A guard is stationed outside his door and he is left to die, alone in his room; newspaper editors make space for his obituary, television stations place reporters outside the prison where they are met by protesters both for and against him. The night passes and in the morning the doctors open the door to the room to find the bed empty, the prisoner sitting in the corner. He raises his head to them, and shakily gets to his feet. He rubs his eyes. Every minute that passes he is a minute older, for another minute he’s the oldest man that has ever lived. The doctors run tests and find that the cancer is in remission, he is healthy again. There is uproar. Outside the prison the two sets of protesters clash.
The government of the day is forced to make a statement which is careful not to suggest that they are unhappy he hasn’t died, but which assuages the increasingly virulent calls for him to be put to death. Support for him continues to grow, and the news of his survival leads to this support becoming more intense – certain strands become more cultic, and there are rumours that he is being worshipped as a living deity. This comes to a head when a middle aged man attempts to copy the sequence of murders in an attempt to extend the length of his life. He is caught midway through the sequence and is jailed. Again, there is public outcry. Time continues to pass, the copycat killer dies in prison; the protagonist reaches two hundred years old. He has served one hundred and sixty years of a two hundred and fifty year sentence. A short time after that, a guard attempts to murder him. He is stabbed several times but survives. The guard goes to jail and dies fifteen years later.
The pressure on successive governments to do something about his case mounts and then falls away. He is remembered and then forgotten. Time passes constantly. On the occasion of his two hundred and thirtieth birthday he is permitted to give an interview to a newspaper. He reiterates his claim that he will survive the sentence, but says that he is constantly tired, and sleeps as much as he can. The series of photographs that accompany the article are made up of close-ups of his face. The captions declare his expression inscrutable, but if you really look at them, it is possible to read the face as an index, a spore. Here is a man who had spent nearly two hundred years doing nothing except being a prisoner. The article estimates the cost, to the state, of his incarceration. It details the various different institutions he has been housed in, the major world historical events that have occurred during his time in prison, the prisoners he has known as friends that were now among the numberless dead that had lived and died during his imprisonment.
It is also around this time that a flurry of academic books are published. There are medical studies in which doctors claim that testing and examination revealed no special qualities about the man, it is simply that those things which kill people had not happened to him. Every moment he lives, the odds against him living a moment more grow longer and longer, but he does not die. He is named as being in the top ten longest living animals on the planet. Philosophers debate the meaning of a life which spans several centuries but which has no access to the world. Membership of his cult grows, and their actions became more sophisticated.
Lawyers, politicians, lobbyists, CEOs and other powerful people number among his supporters, and they begin to exert more and more pressure. He himself, when asked about his followers, is characteristically gnomic, only saying that he hopes they will not be disappointed in him. The central component of their campaign concerns the immense scientific and social significance of a life that had been lived for so long, and the great human tragedy that it had been mostly lived in captivity. Several academic historians are among their ranks, and they consult archives and records to discredit the victims that the protagonist had killed, showing them to be malicious people, unworthy of such a punishment in their name.
All this leads to a long, drawn out review, which lasts several years, and tries to adapt existing legislation to the current circumstances. All those decades ago, it is asked, when this sentence was handed down, it was done so in a spirit which assumed that the prisoner would not live to be anywhere close to release, surely therefore it is merely a symbolic figure, the two hundred and fifty years, and not to be taken literally. Therefore, should the prisoner not be released? Has he not suffered enough for his crimes? Has he not made amends? The report recommends his release, though it admits that such a release, which rewards the prisoner for something essentially out of his control – his longevity – does some damage to the power of the rule of law. The government of the day consider the recommendations of the report and choose not to uphold them. He remains in prison, and ages.
He lives to be two hundred and fifty. Many of those involved in writing the report, producing the articles about him, campaigning on his behalf, are dead. His supporters continue to grow in number, and the occasion is marked by yet more articles, books, papers, and speculation. Many of those alive now hope to be alive when his sentence ends, forty years hence, though that does not stop the protests and the campaigning for early release from continuing, though successive governments show no sign of acquiescing, out of fear of seeming weak, of giving in to the myth.
Time continues to pass. He is two hundred and seventy, then two hundred and eighty. Merely a decade of the sentence remains. Again he is taken ill, again he recovers. Another interview is granted. How does it feel, being so old? he is asked. Do you ever think you’ll see the outside world? Do you worry about adapting to life as a free man? His answers, though they possess a quiet grace, give little insight. But to see him talk, to be in his presence, that really feels like something, the journalist writes. He writes that he cannot decide if the prisoner is lucky or unlucky. Though it appears very prominently and is widely read, the article is a disappointment, as all previous ones have been. If everybody lived this long, one commentator writes, our prison system would not allow this. One question, however, that the journalist asks does pique the interest of all readers. Just at the close of the interview, the prisoner barely awake in his chair, gaunt, saintly, is asked, Would you kill again, if you were released? Oh yes, yes, he replies quietly.
Hysteria mounts as the day of release approaches. The estimated cost of the increased security around the prison and the procedure for release are commented upon with a great deal of derision from all sides, but, it is argued, this is what is necessary to prevent a riot. The sitcom ends on the last day. There are two huge camps of protestors – those for and those against, those who have come to see their deity and those who have come to spurn, to gawp and to declaim – they are kept separate, long lines of law enforcement between them. Every major news organisation, and hundreds of minor ones, have media presence outside the prison. It feels as if the preceding two hundred and fifty years were always like this, that these events are instantiations of a mindset that extends beyond individual thinking. People have been thinking and talking about this man for more than two centuries – he is the locus for debate and argumentation that unites minds across time. Many of those assembled are there just to catch a glimpse of something – a piece of sleeve, a hand, that will feel historic. It feels as though the preceding two hundred and fifty years were leading up to this moment. Amid all the speculation about what happens next, what he will do with himself, whether his release will show him to be just an old man with some unique, unidentifiable biological quirk, or whether he will ascend and take his place among the pantheon, amid all that, there is the chatter of people jostling for space, selling food, the grey air, those working and those using their leisure time to do this, families, kids.
The sitcom ends like this: There is a hush at the front of the crowd, they think they’ve seen something, and it spreads backwards. People check their phones for updates. The feeling dies down and goes away, people start to chat again, but then it returns, this time more palpably. Dozens of officials start to emerge from the door of the prison. There is cheering, crying.
Singing breaks out among some of the more dedicated cultists, and they beat out rhythms on improvised percussion. The crowd moves forwards. There are skirmishes, arrests. The line of officials stand outside the door for several minutes. Everyone feels as though what is going to happen ought to have happened, the singing continues, people become restless. There is more activity at the doors, some men go in, others come out. They don’t look at the crowd, they are behind fences, behind lines of police. Their job is simply to get an object from one place to another. In the weeks leading up to the day, there has been much speculation about how the release will be managed. Those campaigning on his behalf argued that he should be permitted to walk out of the doors alone, see the crowds, some of whom have camped for days, even if he was then taken away in a van. This, despite a last minute legal battle, was not allowed, he would be released in a van and taken to an undisclosed location; smaller groups station themselves outside nearby hotels and embassies. The sky stays grey, it is mid morning. The earth is churned by moving feet, afterwards the whole area will be bereft of grass, empty, brown. Another five minutes passes, and another. Bodies shift around. People make sarcastic comments, they joke. Short sentences are uttered, everywhere the news reports nothing happening. Nothing happens again and again. In time, there is activity at the door, the officials move to one side, they form a line and ensure it’s precise. Nobody knows if it’s theatre they’re seeing, or boredom. The larger doors open, some people are quiet, some raucous. The television coverage reaches a pitch. Welcome is sung. People spit at the ground, people swear, or cheer. The opening remains empty for a minute or so. The van drives out, as far as the first gate, which opens, and to the second gate, which also opens. There is a lot of noise around. Dogs bark over the singing, there are banners, crying. The van gets out of the gate and drives towards the people. A line of police cordon it off, things are thrown, and shouted. The van has no windows, nor markings. And as the sitcom draws to a close, we don’t see the man inside it, but we see that it is a simulacrum of the entire imprisonment. He is here, among the people, though distant from them, invisible to them, yet still having an effect on them, whether it be positive or negative. The van winds through the people, who rush towards it, are held back. A bottle of energy drink hits the side, thuds off the side and onto the ground where it is seized. Kicks are aimed at the van, declarations of love, of forgiveness are yelled at the van. The driver is behind black, bulletproof, glass. The television reports that he is out. It gets all over everywhere, everyone hears about it. Inside the belly of the van is the prisoner, the world’s oldest man, two hundred and ninety years old, being driven to an undisclosed location, where he will be freed.
Kieran Devaney is from Birmingham in the UK. He has published one novel, Deaf at Spiral Park (Salt, 2013).