‘How are you feeling?’ asked Joe casually after I'd sat down.
‘Oh, ok’ I shake my head dismissively and shrug.
‘How have you been filling your time?’
‘Oh you know, staring at the sea, eating. I found the library’ I add mock brightly.
I think for a moment, puzzled ‘No, actually. I feel pretty good.’ I realize I actually feel remarkably relaxed. I spend hours, days, nights, I don’t know how long, sitting up on deck, in a lounger, in my sleeping bag, looking out to sea. It’s amazing. ‘Most of the time I just feel, well, content I suppose.’ I shrug again.
‘Some people get very low’ he says, leaning over to get his coffee from the shelf behind him. ‘This voyage is supposed to be like a decompression stop, or convalescence if you prefer. It’s best to go with it, enjoy the ride, get some rest. We’ve a long way to go yet. What’s wrong?’
‘I keep thinking about home and everything. I want to cry a lot of the time.’
‘That’s understandable. It’s not just them. You’re grieving too. You’ve suffered the loss too, leaving them all behind. It’s hard.’
‘I won’t ever see them again, will I?’
‘Not the way you did, no.’
‘But I can be reborn – to the same life all over again?’
‘Exactly the same except for the things you change. Well... that’s not strictly true... But anyway...’
We pause and I look about, he looks at me, sipping his coffee.
‘So who are all these people?’ I nod my head at the door. I mean the other people on the ship, Ray and the others in particular.
He smiles broadly, like it’s funny. ‘It’s very interesting actually’ he says. He straightens and puts on a deep ‘portentous’ voice and a ‘sincere’ expression. ‘You wish to know, mere mortal, how you and all these other people were selected from among the countless billions of the dead to accompany each other on the long journey of the spirit?’ I nod. He continues. ‘What arcane equation thrust you together on this eternal quest?’ He adds pompously. I wait patiently. ‘Well,’ he continues conversationally, ‘sorry to disappoint you but the fact is these are merely the hundred people that happened die about the same time you did in the same part of the world.’ He sits back smiling to let the idea sink in. ‘Cool isn’t it?’ he adds. I sit back too, incredulous. ‘It’s worked out regionally’ he continues. ‘You were in southern England. We waited until we had our hundred, and we set sail. That’s it.’ He grins at me happily. ‘Now if that’s not proof of God’s omnipotence I don’t know what is.’ I laugh a little. It’s ludicrous. We relax a little. I feel quite peaceful.
‘So why? What’s all this about? What’s it for? Why are we here?’ I ask earnestly.
He looks more seriously into his empty cup, turns and puts it back on the shelf. ‘Honestly?’ he says, ‘I really don’t know.’
Clearly I don’t look like I believe him.
‘It’s true. We’re not told. We, the guides are just like you, except, well, for a lot of us we just weren’t ready to be born again yet, if ever. Or we want to help. I like to think I’m in the latter group. Basically there’s four options. A, you go through the whole journey and are reincarnated, if you think it’s worth a shot – if you think there’s some fairly specific changes you’d like to make, assuming you remember anything when you get there. We need to talk more about the details at some point, but anyhow, option B. Some give up – nothing to be done about their lives – nothing they can imagine changing that would make enough difference.’ He pauses. ‘It’s pretty horrible a lot of it, how people have died, and suffered all their lives, powerless to... Well, anyway, that’s why I came back – try to stop them throwing themselves over the side.’ He stops to gather himself.
‘Anyway, option C is that you find somewhere here to stay. Later on in the journey you’ll find places where people have settled here and there – real little utopias some of them, bloody frightening places some of the others. You’ll see them.’
‘That sounds alright’ I can see from his face there must be a catch.
‘Except it is forever. Wherever you stop, you’re there for eternity. It’s kind of a big decision. You get some time to make up your mind, I’m not sure how long, but after that, that’s it. People tend to get what they always wanted here. It’s not always a pretty sight.’
‘But if you don’t choose somewhere you just go round and round for all eternity.’
‘Exactly’ he says.
‘Bloody hell’ I say wonderingly.
‘Well there’s lots of details we can talk about some other time. Right now...’ He begins to stand.
‘What was the fourth option?’
‘What? Oh, option D. Just a temporary fix I’m afraid – do what I did, become a guide. I need to look around a bit more before I decide. Come on. Let’s get some fresh air’ and he gets up to leave. I follow him up on deck. Standing at the rail he turns to me as I pass. ‘We are going to need to do some work on your past at some point you know.’
‘Oh. Right’ I say uncertainly. I suppose we will. I head for my room.
Lying in my crib – with its cut-out plywood side, linen sheets, watching the tops of the waves and the birds outside (actually It’s a nice bright day out. The weather seems to be improving of late) I can think. I spend quite a lot of time down here, it’s quiet and comfortable, and nobody bothers me, thankfully. I do some reading, writing, drawing, and some you-know-what... I think a lot about Lucy. I know she doesn’t fancy me. I think I can tell by now. I made a twat of myself enough times at school. Still... I lie naked in the light from the porthole and imagine her in a little black dress with no knickers on...
There are really only two options when you think about it – the utopians and the lost spirits. Heaven and hell. Everything else is just going round and round. There must be more to it than that.
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