I don’t know how long I sat there. I arrived in the cafeteria some time later, red eyed and drained. The wide, low-ceilinged wood-panelled room was filled with a low hubbub of conversation. A few people looked around at me as I searched for Joe. I avoided their eyes, but one of them got past my defences and insisted on introducing himself as Ray. He took me over to a table where there were some other people, apparently friends of his. ‘Can I get you anything son?’ he said, and for a moment I wondered if he was somehow my dad, but he wasn’t. I was relieved about that. I looked around at them. There were two women and two men, all looking about forty years old. The two women (Liz and Brenda) had a lot of make-up on and permed hair. I could smell soap and hair lacquer. The men (Harry and Solly) had suits and ties on, and very stiff, shiny hair. I suppose they were just trying to be friendly but for some reason I felt really uncomfortable about them. Ray brought me a coffee, which I was not pleased to discover contained whiskey but I thanked him politely anyway. ‘Get that down you’ he said, ruffling my hair.
Not heaven then, I thought. Joe rescued me by ‘reminding’ me of my appointment.
‘How’re you doing?’ he asked, once he’d got me sat down at a window table with a proper coffee. The sea was just as grey as yesterday, but rolling heavily and the air was clearer and I could see further out. White birds soared and glided. ‘Where is this?’ I asked eventually. I had so many questions. I plucked one at random.
Joe looked a nice chap, concerned but not intrusive. I knew at once that he would be there to help but that I didn’t have to make friends with him. That was a relief. ‘Is this a dream?’ I asked. I was very sure it wasn’t but I wanted to ask anyway.
‘No, it’s not’ he said. ‘What’s the last thing you remember about your life?’
I had to think quite hard. I had images of the house, my parents, school, then work and suddenly I remembered Tim and Gillian and the party. It seemed such a long time ago. I told Joe about being up on the Downs that night. It was the last thing I remembered. ‘I died, didn’t I’ I said.
Joe relaxed visibly. ‘Well, that makes my job a heck of a lot easier’ he said, ‘not having to break the news...’ but I’d gone into a spin. I had guessed but not really believed it. The confirmation took the floor away and next thing, I found myself lying on it, under the table. People were fussing around me. It took a moment to get my balance, and I pushed my way through them and strode quickly up onto the deck. The wind was icy and blowing hard, and I leaned over the rail and looked down into the water. I felt so angry.
Joe turned up soon. I was silent, fuming, looking around me.
‘Shall we go somewhere quiet?’ he said. I nodded and followed. We sat down in what looked like someone’s study.
‘I’m sorry’ I said ‘it’s just all those people, fussing...’
‘They were worried’ he said. I nodded, but I suspected they were just nosey and liked the drama. I kept that to myself. I had more important questions.
‘So, this is the after life?’ I said
‘Yep’ he said. He was watching me closely, cautiously, like I might go mad any moment. That pissed me off too. I wasn’t going to hurt anybody. Why did people always look at me like that?
‘What are you then, an angel?’
He smiled broadly. ‘Hardly’ he said and shook his head. ‘No I’m a guide. We’re here to look after you through the journey. There’s twenty or so of us on this trip, and we get assigned a group of passengers. You don’t have to stick with me if we don’t get on. It’s up to you. Basically I’ll try to answer whatever questions you have...’ He tailed off and looked a bit worried. ‘Look’ he said leaning forward, elbows on knees. ‘I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t done this before. I don’t know all the answers. None of us does. Angie’s done several trips so she probably knows more than most of us but... the thing is, we do a course. If we choose to go back and be a guide we go to a place and they give us some lessons in how to be a guide. A lot of it’s just regular Samaritans stuff – listening skills, basic psychology...’
‘Except you don’t get to deal with suicides’ I joke.
Joe smiles awkwardly and leans back in his chair. ‘Well actually that’s not quite true...’
‘I mean they may have committed suicide, but...’ he’s shaking his head. Clearly there is a way to commit suicide even after death.
‘I will explain, later’ he says. ‘The other thing we get taught about is, um...’ he shrugs and looks at the ceiling for inspiration ‘...the way this thing works. Life, death, after life, rebirth, and so on’.
‘Rebirth?’ I say. ‘Really?’ Now I am interested.
‘They don’t tell us everything. Between you and me, I don’t think they know everything themselves. I can’t tell you anything about the big questions, the meaning and nature of the universe, God, spirit, all that. I don’t know where we are now in relation to the world, or what we are. I don’t know if we’re spirits or souls or actual physical beings or figments in the mind of God or whatever, and I don’t actually know that this isn’t some kind of dream. Sometimes, particularly on the next part of the journey it can seem a lot like being in a dream. A lot of it won’t make much sense at first but it’s my belief that it does have a certain weird logic to it.’
‘Like Alice in Wonderland.’
‘Perhaps. Sort of. I think sometimes, in a way it’s here to show you things. Which can be like a dream if you think about it... Anyway, I do know that no one ever actually dreams here. So that could be a clue.’ He pauses again. ‘You’ll get memories come in the night sometimes. It’ll feel like you’re right there again, back in your life, which can be quite unsettling... Anyway, what I do know is that, after you’ve completed this journey, if you want to, you can be reborn.’ He waits a moment for that to sink in. ‘But it’s not like the Hindus and Buddhists and New-Agers say, in case you were wondering. You don’t come back as someone or something in the future. All that stuff about people remembering past lives when they were Marie Antoinette or Genghis Khan must be something else – I won’t hazard a guess what but it’s not reincarnation. No, you come back as yourself.’
He knows how I’m going to react, but I do it anyway.
I stand up and pace around. ‘How? Why?’ I say.
He looks up at me from his chair, grinning ‘Why not?’
I’m looking out the window. I want to say something about time but can’t quite phrase it properly. It’s too obvious anyway – he’s playing with me. He must understand why I object.
‘Traditional notions of reincarnation depend on a rather limited notion of time’ he says smugly. ‘Physicists know about this. They don’t know about this exactly...’ he says indicating the room, the ship, wherever we are ‘...but they do know, in theory, mathematically. Our normal idea of time is a convenient fiction. It’s a structure we use in order to get stuff done, but it’s not universal, or absolute. Look, I don’t know how to explain it, I’m not a physicist or God or whatever. You can look into it for yourself if you want to.’
‘I read somewhere about Einstein saying how space and time are part of the same thing. You can go backwards in space...’
‘Absolutely, and they always say the spirit is a non-material thing. Maybe it’s a non-temporal thing too.’
‘Anyway, all I know is, whatever we are, here, goes back and gets born again, over and over.’
‘How do you know?’ I say sceptically.
‘Ask them, other passengers, here on this boat. Not all of them. Some are here the first time around, some don’t remember, but a few...’
I still am not convinced. Why should they be telling the truth, these people? Why should they lie? Why should they do anything? What are we? Where are we? Why should I imagine I should be able to make any sense of any of this at all? I sit down again.
‘This is not your first time around by the way’ he says.
I want to ask a question but am not sure what it is.
‘That’s enough for today’ he says ‘Come and find me tomorrow. We’ll talk some more.’
And off he goes. I don’t have a single coherent thought in my head. What would be the point? Every thought is as useless as the next, except breakfast that is.
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