Death by water bottle – Alison Healy on life and fate

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Self-isolation for Covid provides a useful insight into what life would be like if you were dead. You’re sitting in your bedroom, listening to family life continuing outside the door, but you’re not involved in any way.

It can be a bit disconcerting to realise that everything goes on as normal without you. Well, apart from the fact that no one appears to be capable of loading a dishwasher correctly or switching off a phone charger at night.

If death is on your mind, you can console yourself with the fact that your eventual passing could never be as traumatic as that experienced by the Greek playwright Aeschylus.

In his latest collection of diaries, US author and humourist David Sedaris notes that Aeschylus died after an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and smashed a tortoise onto it, hoping to break the shell.

It is not clear how anyone knew about the eagle’s thought process.

Maybe he just had a sloppy grip of his prey and the tortoise realised this and made a heroic bid for freedom? Perhaps it was the tortoise who mistook the bald head for the safe haven of a rock?

Whether the story is true or not, it would be an appropriate exit for the man who was known as the father of tragedy.

Weren't deaths so much more dramatic in the good old days? Take King Alexander of Greece, for example. He died from a monkey bite in 1920. He had been walking his German Shepherd when a barbary macaque attacked the dog. The king intervened and was bitten in the skirmish. He later died of sepsis. Royal historians are silent on the fate of the poor dog.

I briefly diced with death once, but had it happened, it would have been more embarrassing than dramatic. I was merrily driving home during evening rush hour when a rogue water bottle rolled around the footwell and lodged itself snugly under the brake pad. I was in the fast lane, preparing to move across two lanes for my exit when I tapped the brake and got no response. I couldn’t safely reach down to dislodge the bottle, nor could I kick it free.

There was a car in front of me and I was hurtling towards it. I turned on the hazard lights and, through sheer good fortune, other drivers allowed me to move across to the hard shoulder. I lowered gears as I went and eventually pulled the handbrake in a fog of exhaust fumes and shattered nerves.

Being killed by a water bottle on the N4 would have been an ignominious way to go. Almost as embarrassing as accidentally shooting yourself while demonstrating how someone might accidentally shoot themselves.

That was the fate of Clement Vallandigham, a US congressman who does not emerge from the history books in a glowing light. He vigorously opposed the abolition of slavery and was a major thorn in the side of Abraham Lincoln.

After many forays into politics, he returned to his law practice and found himself representing Thomas McGehean in Ohio in1871. McGehean, who was no stranger to the courtrooms of Ohio, had been accused of shooting Thomas Myers dead in a saloon brawl. The lawyer's argument was that Myers had accidentally shot himself dead with his own pistol.

Preparing his argument in his hotel room, Vallandigham demonstrated how someone might accidentally shoot themselves and did exactly that. He died 12 hours later.

McGehean was eventually acquitted of the crime. You might have hoped he would have avoided saloons after that, but you would be wrong. He opened his own saloon and was shot dead four years later, while standing behind his bar.

But when it comes to dramatic deaths, former king of Sweden Adolf Frederick really knew how to make an exit.

He died after an epic last supper in 1771. It included caviar, lobster, smoked kippers, sauerkraut and champagne. But the final nail in his coffin, so to speak, was his fateful decision to have 14 semlor for dessert. These sweet buns with an almond paste and cream filling were the king’s favourite, served in a bowl of hot milk.

Just as we stock up on pancakes before Lent, semlor are traditionally made in Sweden on Fettisdagen, also known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday.

I’ve eaten these buns and can concur that one is never enough.

However, 14 might be a few too many. But if you are emerging from your quarantine cocoon and looking for a post-Covid comfort food, then treat yourself.

After all, you never know when an eagle might mistake your head for a rock.