I remember the next part of my journey through the afterlife as a good time. Everything was simpler – the paths were easier to find and lead through a lush upland landscape of rolling hills and wooded valleys. Miranda the nymph as I jokingly called her was something of a naturalist it turned out – she had what seemed like ancient memories of a country childhood, running half naked through the meadows, jumping in rivers, climbing trees, riding ponies, playing with dogs and rabbits and ducks. I asked if she’d ever go back but she didn’t seem to think it was possible any more. She pointed out the birds and the bees, the orchids and the trees and told me how they fed, how they grew and reproduced. She told me to put away my papers and pencils. She said they were coming between me and the world – I was always trying to make a picture instead of looking at what was actually happening around me. She said I should just look, then, one day maybe I’d make something truly worth looking at. I knew she was right. I sat and looked. And not just looked – I rolled about in the long grass, jumped in the rivers and ran up the ridges, usually with her on my shoulders, to see what there was to see on the other side. I got cut, stung and bitten and bruised in the process but it was worth it.
We were bashful about our bodies although we had both been naked when we met and she must have seen me before that, washing and so on. Still, it seemed wrong to just not care. She wore a piece of red and orange silk as a sarong, and I kept my shorts on. Still, I watched her surreptitiously, and she knew it too – she told me later – sometimes carelessly letting her little pink boobs pop out as she moved about. She couldn’t help but notice my response, which was more than half as tall as she was, but we played a delicious game of not reacting.
We talked a lot more as time went on – her revealing more about her past as we went along, but swiftly changing the subject when we got to “the nasty bits”- she'd suddenly get excited about some new insect or flower or fish and set off with remarkable speed and agility after it, then she'd tell me something amazing about its ecology. Other times she would just come out with something ridiculous and make me laugh. We spent a lot of time laughing but there was always something else going on with her – you could see that, something in her expression.
‘Dad really changed when my stepmother moved in’ she told me one afternoon. We’d been swimming and were just sunning ourselves on a ledge. She looked at me. I could see from the expression on her face she was going to tell me something important today and I turned on my side to face her. She turned on her back and looked at the sky. I noticed her take trouble to cover herself up properly, which was not like her at all.
‘She didn’t like me being around anyway’ she continued.
‘How old were you?’
‘Sixteen, seventeen maybe.’
‘What about your mum? Didn’t she say anything?’
She never answered that, just stared at the sky. She’d told me before that her mother had been depressed and drank a lot.
‘It wasn’t him incidentally’ she said, turning to me, ‘in case you were wondering. He never actually abused me, physically.’ Up until then it hadn’t occurred to me at all but now all sorts of possibilities came to mind. I knew she’d been a bit of a wild child and her parents had let her do pretty much whatever she wanted, including losing her virginity at thirteen. I suppose I knew that people abused their children but I’d never really given it much thought.
‘He was a very manipulative man. There was always this thing that me and my mother were interchangeable somehow, and then she got older and I got more... “developed” as he put it... It was always a bit weird but I idolised him. All my girlfriends did. He was really good looking, and charming, my father. Everybody said so.’
I wanted to say ‘So what happened?’ but I knew hurrying her would make her change the subject so I had to wait.
‘I was spending a lot of time in a squat in Brighton at the time. It was all pretty mad...’ and she looked at me again, trying to decide whether to go on, whether I’d be too shocked. I made as subtle encouraging noises as I could and she lay down again. ‘I don’t want to go into it’ she said finally, covering her face with her hands, covering her eyes. I lay back and looked at the sky. I knew what was coming. She’d joked about it – messy, badly lit rooms, the dope and speed and vodka going around, and the sex. I’d found it kind of exciting at first – the thought of her doing that... Then, as I got to know her more I felt jealous. Now, I could see how hurt she was. Maybe I was growing up. Who knows? I reached over and touched her arm and she uncovered her eyes and gripped my finger. I could see she’d been crying.
‘What happened then?’
‘Oh they kicked me out. I had to have an abortion. I got sick, blah blah blah. Oh look I just can’t...’
‘It’s ok, it’s alright. Look...’ and I indicated a space in the crook of my arm where she could curl up and she came over and fell asleep on me.
Another time, when we knew each other better, I asked her why she wouldn’t go back and try again, avoiding all that pain. It seemed to me that the nasty parts should be easy to avoid if she knew when to expect them. She said it’s not that simple and you don’t necessarily remember enough, or anything, of your previous existence next time around.
‘I couldn’t take the risk’ she said sadly. ‘I couldn’t put her through all that again.’
It took me a moment to realise she was talking about her younger self.
‘But you could settle somewhere here couldn’t you? Somewhere, I don’t know...’ I look about at the view, avoiding her eyes on me. I don’t understand, I admit that. How can she just give up? She seems so, I don’t know, lively, and clever. How can she just let herself snuff out?
The landscape around us gradually assumed a more cultivated look as the days went by (How many days? I don’t know. It seemed like about four months, but I couldn’t be sure. Time just swelled and flowed about us). Fields and hedges emerged more often from the wilderness as we travelled, overgrown and unkempt to be sure, but undoubtedly fields and hedges. The paths remained rocky and uneven, but wider. At one point we came across a shed, big enough for cows or horses and still with stale straw on the floor. A fat grey dormouse watched us from the rafters with the shiniest little black eyes. I saw her mood drop a little in there. She didn’t want me to notice, but I did. When she turned around it was as if nothing had happened.
The possibility of being seen by people made me a little more inhibited but she carried on as before and urged me not to worry – we had a while yet she said. I didn’t ask.
She asked me about my past, and in particular about the women in my life. I told her there wasn’t much to tell, skimmed over my adolescent infatuations and humiliations and briefly mentioned Naomi and what had happened there. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea but she insisted and didn’t laugh too much. It all seemed a very long time ago and an extremely long way away. All around us insects were swarming about amid the early summer flowers, and sun sparkled in the dew on their hairy stems. Everywhere, the sheer detail of veins in leaves, in the red stain in the leaves behind the blue petals, and a black fly buzzing there, and a blue spider, sitting, like a crab, in the centre, waiting for it.
‘Actually, birds eat bees’ she said suddenly, looking out across the valley. ‘It’s an apposite metaphor for life don’t you think?’
‘Not always’ I said, although I’d like to have eaten her at that moment. She turned and smiled at me. ‘What are you thinking?’
I couldn’t tell her I was thinking about licking her entire body in one mouthful.
‘About who of us is the bird and who is the bee...’ I said, lamely.
‘Maybe we’re both birds’ she suggested.
‘Except we don’t have wings’ I pointed out.
‘I wouldn’t want to be a bee I don’t think – maybe one of those big fuzzy mama bees with all her daughters hidden in a hole in the ground...’ and she asked me how I’d been bitten. I said I wasn’t even sure if it wasn’t all in my imagination, and I explained about what happened with Lucy – how naive I’d been. ‘I know it’s not exactly the end of the world’ I said finally, tailing off.
‘But you’re so young’ she said compassionately. ‘How could you have known?’ and I suddenly felt like crying because she was on my side and I wasn’t used to that. I had assumed it was probably mostly my fault, as usual, but she didn’t think so.
‘I despise her already’ she said ‘and I haven’t even met the woman.’
We sit and look and think for a while. So much birdsong, a lizard on every available rock, as many butterflies as flowers. Maybe this was what England used to be like, before we humans got our hands on it. Miranda points out a stork, sailing over the treetops opposite. I watch a crow swoop down from behind us into the valley. In a few seconds it is over the stream, in another few it is among the trees where the stork was, maybe half a mile away. What a way to get about!
‘I’d never do something like that’ she says. ‘If I took my clothes off for you, no matter what the pretext, you’d know exactly what I was there for’ and she looks momentarily sideways at me with that bad smile of hers, tongue literally in cheek. I smile and look across the valley again.
‘I think I need to cool off’ I say, getting down off the wall and standing to face her.
‘Very sensible’ she says. ‘You do that’ and she lies down in the sun, and I look back just in time to see her tiny nipples ping free over the top of her sarong as she raises her arm to shade her eyes. Its lower edge comes up to expose almost the full length of her thighs as she bends her right leg up. ‘Don’t be long’ she says.
I bound down the valley side, through the long grass, grasshoppers springing merrily aside as I go.
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