I couldn’t avoid them forever. I felt like I was letting them down somehow, which seems ridiculous in retrospect. I went through to the bar and ordered a half of lager and Ray came up beside me, as I knew he would. He called the barman over and said ‘Let me get you a proper drink’ and he ordered another Scotch for me. I protested quietly, but, as usual, I didn’t want to make a fuss. What was I afraid of? Rebelliously though, I held on to my lager.
During all this, a very elegant young woman with long black hair, a tight black ‘v’ neck jumper, and eyes I’ve always thought of as cat-like (although they’re not, in any literal sense, like a cat’s) came up to the bar near us, and reached over to say something to the barman. I couldn’t help noticing her breasts, which were quite big and plumped nicely on the polished wood as she spoke. Ray turned around and straightened his tie and, even I could see it, addressing her cleavage, asked what a nice girl like her was doing in a place like this. She observed him coolly for a moment, looked questioningly at me, and moved elegantly away. He turned around to face me, grinning saliverously and said ‘Later’. We headed back to the table. As it happened the woman was sitting with some other people at a table not far away from ours. She had her back to us and didn’t appear to notice us return. Ray cocked his thumb at them and did his appraising look. Harry looked over. ‘Dyke’ he said, and went back to his cards. ‘You in?’ he said to me and dealt me a hand. There was no point arguing. They’d been teaching me poker, and I was really trying to concentrate. It had been humiliating at first, despite the stakes being only bottle tops he’d got from the bar. The absence of money in the afterlife irked Ray and Harry deeply. As time had gone on though, I’d begun to win. I’d bluffed totally haphazardly as a kind of revolt, and won consistently. Then I started to lose on purpose to avoid upsetting them, but my acting stupid seemed to upset them even more. I’ve never been much of an actor, or maybe I was doing it on purpose. It was the first time I felt I’d been able to really get to them without them really knowing what to do about it.
‘So what’d you used to do?’ said Harry, finally, still, as usual, studying his cards. I wasn’t sure what to say. I wasn’t sure why, but the DIY shop was not something I wanted to talk about. I wasn’t a schoolboy any more. I wanted to say I was an artist. Finally he looked me in the face, his teeth oddly tight in his mouth. ‘Your job son. What’d you do?’ I looked briefly at Ray who looked worryingly gleeful. Everyone else was concentrating on their cards. I decided to come clean.
‘I worked in a DIY shop.’
‘Is that so?’ mused Harry, nodding, taking his time, rearranging his cards and proceeded to ask my opinion on aspects of joinery, plumbing and plastering, ostensibly to be friendly, in truth to make it clear to everyone that I knew fuck all about the subject, which I freely admitted once I realized I would soon be exposed as a fraud. I really didn’t care. The shop had just been a crappy Saturday job, but I could tell that it meant more to Harry and Ray. Like everything we talked about, this appeared to be some sort of test, and I knew I was failing again.
‘Actually, I heard you were some sort of an artiste’ he said, emphasizing the ‘tiste’ like it’s stuck in his teeth.
‘Well’ I said, ‘I’d like to...’
‘Uh-huh’ he continued ‘what do you do, draw? paint? sculpt?’
‘Er, well, I draw, and paint’ I said weakly. He was still looking at his cards.
‘And what’s the purpose of that may I ask?’ he said, without changing his voice or his posture, still rearranging those cards. Ray was smiling at him. Liz looked tensely at her knees. ‘Hey?’ he asked, a little louder. Silence.
‘You been to college I take it?’ he resumed.
‘No’, I said quietly.
‘You want to go to college?’
‘Maybe, one day...’
‘Waste of fucking time. Waste of fucking taxpayer’s money. See this?’ he rolled up his shirtsleeve and showed me his forearm. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking at. He stared intently at me, moved his red face toward mine ‘Forty five years.’ He sat back and pulled his sleeve down again. Then I saw him smile mischievously at Ray.
‘The thing is, Gabe, ...’ said Ray sincerely, also rearranging his cards, ‘The thing is, in the real world, you’ve got to learn how to play the game. No point poncing around.’
‘No point’ said Solly shaking his head. The women were just heads down, look at the cards.
‘You’re wasting your time son’ continued Harry. ‘Look at me – villa out in Gib, time I was thirty. You know how?’ I shook my head. He put his mouth near my ear. ‘Well let’s just say I wasn’t fucking painting’ and all three men laughed loudly, like they’d been waiting for that line. I had no idea what was going on.
Then the woman with the tight black top was there, behind them, facing me.
‘Why do you let these cretins talk to you like that?’ she said. Everything went quiet. Ray started giggling. She looked hard at him. ‘I know all about you’ she said ‘and you’ she added turning to Harry. That shut them up, which was interesting, but it didn’t last. ‘Give us a kiss love’ said Ray, and made a revolting slurping licking movement with his tongue, all around his chin and his lips. She smiled arrogantly and wiggled her little finger at them. Then she turned and went back to her table.
Ray, Solly, Liz, Brenda and Harry all began to play cards again. I looked at them. The silence at our table was broken regularly by the laughter from theirs. Everyone else in the bar had gone. Then her table all got up to go, and I said I was tired and got up to go too. No one said anything until I got to the door, but I didn’t hear what it was.
I didn’t talk to Ray and the others for a couple of days after that, but I ran into the woman in the tight top next morning. ‘What was that all about, last night?’ I asked as I walked along beside her.
‘Just a bit of fun’ she said.
‘What did you mean though, about knowing about them?’ We got to the cafeteria and were perusing the breakfast bar. She started loading her plate.
‘Nothing. I don’t know anything about them um...?’ she pointed at me, her face full of toast. ‘Gabriel’ I said. ‘Lucy’ she said putting the toast with the bite mark in it on her plate. ‘I just like messing about with those sorts. They’ve always got something to hide. It was a fair guess.’
‘I think you upset them. Mind if I join you?’
‘Fine’ she said indicating the seat opposite. Then two of the guys she had been with the previous night turned up and shoved in with their trays beside us. ‘Matt, Damian’ she said pointing at them. ‘Gabriel’ I said. They both shook my hand fiercely, but were more interested in their breakfasts. They both wore leather jackets, but Damian was a very skinny guy with a lot of earrings and spiky black hair, whereas Matt was more ordinary looking, like a mechanic or the bloke who worked in Albion Timber.
‘So...’ I continued, more self consciously now, ‘what do you guys do all day here?’
Damian shrugged and shovelled beans in his mouth.
‘Same as everyone here mate’ said Matt, ‘eat, drink, be merry...’
‘Shit, too late!’ and they both fell about laughing for a while.
‘I hear you’re an artist’ says Damian tucking in, slurping his tea. I shrug and nod at the same time. ‘Cool’ he says. Lucy smiles at him over her coffee cup. He grins and nods. I want to talk to them more but it feels awkward. I see Ray, Solly and Brenda go past. They pretend not to see me. That cheers me up and worries me in quick succession.
Finally Matt goes to leave. ‘Gotta practice’ he says. ‘Guitar’ he adds, miming a low-slung guitar. ‘Cool’ I say. I want to ask if I can come and listen but it doesn’t seem to be an invitation. Damian and Lucy also get up to go and I tag along, up onto the deck, look out to sea.
‘Look here’ says Lucy, finally, turning to me. She waves Damian away with an affectionate smile. He smiles back and saunters off whistling. There are gulls all around him. ‘Look here Gabriel, (That’s a really pretty name by the way), you’re a lovely lad but please don’t think of getting attached to me.’
‘What?’ I feel like I’ve just been hit in the face with a cold wet pillow. ‘I wasn’t, I know... I was just...’
‘Last night wasn’t about you. I just like to see their faces’ and she begins to walk away. I stand there wondering what just happened. She turns around. ‘How old were you by the way, when you died?’
‘Ok now, a word to the wise – don’t tell anyone else.’
‘What? Why not?’
‘You haven’t twigged yet have you?’ She looks exasperatedly at me. ‘No one here is the age they look. Ask your guide. Here you look the age you were when you were at your best in life, however they calculate that. Christ! Imagine if everyone looked the way they did when they died! Wouldn’t that be a horror show? But anyway, people make a lot of assumptions about a person by their age, who’s in charge for instance, who they can boss around and abuse. They think you’re a child, they’ll treat you like a child.’
I think about this.
‘Oh, and, ever wonder why they like having you around so much?’
I realize suddenly I haven’t the faintest idea.
‘Like I said, you’re a gorgeous lad, but don’t bother me ‘til you’ve grown a pair. I mean it’ and she blows me a kiss and strolls off to be with Damian.
I don’t know what she’s getting at. I don’t even like pears.
To continue reading either go to Lulu to buy or download the book, or let me know when you want to read the next bit and I'll post it on the blog.