Of course I was still young in spirit, and I got bored of pretending to be an old lady quite quickly.
As I mentioned before, I stayed at the retreat for more than three years, although, as usual, it was impossible to keep track of the exact number of days and weeks that had passed, but we worked according to the seasons, which seemed to turn much slower than in life. Looking back it feels like a much longer time spent there – as much as five years perhaps.
That first winter dragged on and I intended to move on in the spring. I didn’t know what I was doing for the most part and found the work messy and clumsy and thoroughly infuriating. Jim’s constant cheerful encouragement got on my nerves as well, although I couldn’t very well complain. He meant well. At any rate I just felt stupid a lot of the time, and muttered to myself as I worked that I couldn’t see the point of this or that, and why didn’t we do it some other way, which made much more sense to me, and generally what was the point, given that we didn’t actually need to eat, or if we really felt like it, food would somehow turn up anyway, without our having to work for it? To his credit Jim heard me out when I had a suggestion and explained his way of doing things without putting me down. Somehow, by the end of these discussions I usually didn’t mind having been mistaken and was happy to go along with the established method. I guess I just needed to spew. My dad would have been dumb struck. We’d always ended up in a bad mood when we’d tried to do things together. It always pissed me off that he thought he knew best about everything, when I knew he quite often didn’t.
As time went on though, that first winter, I’d find myself in the middle of some repetitive chore – maybe digging a bed or shovelling shit – and realise I’d completely lost track of the time. There I was, out in the wet and cold, humming to myself or with my mind wandering about and I’d notice quite suddenly how elated I felt. I’d stand up straight, foot on my shovel or fork and look about me. There’d be no one else about, or maybe just a light from Jim’s shed as the daylight failed. I’d look at the tree tops in the fog beyond the walls and know that I’d never been so quiet in my head in my life nor since I’d died. At times like these the gardens seemed to stretch on indefinitely. The various trees and shrubs had been arranged long ago according to some long obscured plan and now grew apparently randomly in the maze of grass paths, hedges, irrigation channels and empty beds. It was easy to get lost wandering about and come across some unexpected corner with a little pond or bird table or seat, either neatly maintained by someone, or totally overgrown. I never found a complete plan of the gardens. Like most things in the afterlife, trying to account for everything simply leads to getting distracted and losing count.
The rest of the community were an odd lot. Apparently, I discovered, they spent their days in meditation, using some rooms I found on the ground floor. I saw them at meals and occasionally on their way from place to place, and they were always civil to me but never encouraged conversation. I went along to a meeting once and there was some quiet chanting and loud breathing and uncomfortable postures but I couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what the aim of it all was. At any rate it seemed to make them feel better about themselves so I left them to it. I'd just spent the whole time fidgeting and trying to chase away the memories that invaded my head the more I tried to relax and focus. Some of the people there also painted or practiced music but the results seemed vague, pointless exercises and I never felt inclined to join in. Some of the others who worked in the kitchens and gardens were friendlier but I sensed that Jim and Jo were the only people actually enjoying themselves. For the rest, it seemed like some kind of penance they were enduring.
It wasn’t until spring was well under way and I had been working more-or-less non stop, dawn to dusk (and beyond, with a hurricane lamp), sowing seeds, pricking out, potting on, planting, harvesting the earliest crops and of course weeding, that I realised I didn’t want to leave. Jim was in a frenzy of activity too and delegated some of the organisation to me, slyly getting me involved in planning next year’s crops and in the supervision of some of the other volunteers. This freed him up to work more with the animals, so of course I had to stay then.
I did manage to get Jo to talk briefly about the other residents one night when a bunch of us were up enjoying her best wine and cheese. There were a couple of the other kitchen staff there, and someone from the gardening crew. None of them was very easy company but they wanted to stay up and chat so that was something. Jim had enough energy for us all – he loved to talk and was usually worth listening to, so that was fine. Jo sat with her glass and fag and smiled and nodded. She was a big woman with a long plait down her back and looked about fifty, I suppose. I’d asked her about her life (a subject people usually avoided – I could never see why) and after initially demurring she’d told me she was ‘just a mum’ and I asked her about her kids and so on. As usual it was a sad conversation, full of regrets (it had been her own stupid fault, her death she said, indicating the cigarette) but her two lads were quite capable of taking care of themselves she thought and she looked away, hand over her mouth and tears in her eyes. ‘Good boys...’ she said and blew her nose on a cloth handed over to her by Jim. Then she asked about me and I said I was fed up of talking about me, and what about these other people here – why were they the way they were? I was aware we had some examples here with us and we both looked at them – deciding whether to go on with the conversation, but Jim was on a roll and they didn’t seem to be paying attention to us. We spoke in a whisper anyway.
‘They’re all looking for God’ she said, grinning.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Did you not have a faith, you know, in life?’
‘I don’t know. I always believed there was something...’
‘Nothing in particular though?’
I shrugged. I’d thought about it a lot. There had been a Christian union at school and there’d been some interesting discussions. I even went to church with them for a while, but I’d never really been one for joining things. I’d liked the sound of Buddhism.
‘Probably just as well’ she said. ‘Means you’re not disappointed, you know, when it’s all over.’
I thought about this. I hadn’t met anyone overtly religious since the start. It really hadn’t occurred to me what a problem this place would be for them.
‘God’s let us down badly’ she added, finally, taking a drag from her cigarette and turning to join in the other conversation, which seemed to be about bats.
A few new groups of travellers came through while I was there, complete with their guides, and stayed for a few nights before moving on but besides Jim and myself, nobody ventured beyond the gates if they could help it.
Jim occasionally made short forays into the immediate surroundings to find mushrooms and wild herbs and took small parties out botanising from time to time when they could be prised from their introspection. I went out fairly often but never overnight. Maybe their collective agoraphobia was catching, but I was less happy to venture out after dark without my own personal pocket guide. The forests thereabouts were deep and dark once you ventured away from the walls. There were no paths that I could find and the landscape was not level anywhere, but ridged, with bleached and thorny outcrops and sodden, fern-choked gulleys. The slopes between were a tangle of briars and low branches, with jagged rocks exposed here and there. It was always a relief to reach the top of a ridge and look back and see the walls of the retreat. After a couple of trips I gave up on putting any distance between myself and there, and settled for finding a comfortable place to either lie in the sun or swim in the water. I found four places in particular I liked – a rocky throne facing the evening sun among wild rose and pine, a small grassy summit under a birch, a flat rock beside a clear pool, and another pool with a cascade falling into it. At each place I took the opportunity to look at the local inhabitants and observe their behaviour. Tiny long nosed otters dipped and dived, hunting the sparkling shoals of vivid orange and turquoise minnows. Dragonflies with wings two feet across and sounding like animated umbrellas zoomed up and down. I trod on an enormous salamander, four feet long and feeling like a slab of dead meat under foot. It made me jump, but in its stupid, leisurely way it launched itself up and over a submerged log and disappeared under the opposite bank. A long bodied dog-like animal with black blotches along its flanks and a black stripe running through the eye from ear to snout was sniffing about among the rocks. I thought I was unobserved, but then it looked nonchalantly up at me and continued on its way. A herd of what looked like miniature goats but with sizeable canine teeth came swarming over the boulders some mornings. Huge birds of prey soared overhead. I had nowhere near enough ecology to know whether these were creatures from the same world I came from, or specialities of this place. Many seemed pretty improbable to me but I was captivated and always reluctant to go inside at dusk.
I did see Miranda once more before I left but if I hadn’t known that there were no dreams in the afterlife I would have sworn that was what she was. It was during the last autumn. Jim was sorry to hear I was moving on the next spring but was not surprised. He said there was still so much for me to learn about the garden, and I said I knew that, but there were also other things I had to do, and he said he understood and was surprised I’d lasted as long as I had. Both the hard physical labour and the getting used to thinking about how plants and soil and seasons worked had fulfilled parts of me I hadn’t known even existed before, but I needed other things. I needed other people. I needed jokes and songs and arguments and sex. I’d never really been any good at dealing with people but being here, with these sad, empty souls, I realised I had to try again.
It was the summer that had clinched it – my third summer there I believe, with glorious weather and a garden flowing with more milk and honey, literally, than we could ever possibly consume, and there they were, the inmates as I’d come to know them, cooped up inside, thinking about their breathing. I wanted to (and often did) strip off at the end of the day and jump in the fishpond and run dripping naked along the paths, but nobody joined in. They didn’t even disapprove. They didn’t really react. It was, as Jim often remarked, very strange. He didn’t want to strip off, but was with me in spirit he said. Jo just looked amused.
So when the weather made that subtle turn toward autumn, and I woke up one morning and the room had chilled damp during the night and I didn’t want to get out of bed, I knew it was time. I didn’t know it consciously, but I felt different. I thought of what I had to do in the garden over the next few months and part of me said ‘Not again’. Miranda appeared a few days later.
I say ‘appeared’ deliberately. No one saw her come or go as far as I know. I didn’t ask many people – there didn’t seem to be much point, but no one commented anyway, and you’d have thought they would.
I’d come in late from work, had a shower, hung my work clothes up in the drying room and gone up to my room in my indoor robe. I knew something was strange when I opened the door. The room seemed dimmer than usual, misty, out of focus. It was getting dark earlier now and I hadn’t had a chance to light a lamp so I stood in the doorway, trying to accustom my eyes to the gloom. There seemed to be a figure in the far corner, adjacent to the window, by the book shelf, but not an ordinary figure, a very tall figure, its head reached almost to the ceiling and it was slightly stooped toward me.
Time passed very slowly as I tried to focus on it, absolutely unable to move, eyes wide, waiting for something to happen. Slowly its body turned from shadows to pale, and big grey eyes came into focus, looking directly down at me. It felt as if my eyes were getting used to the dark (although it wasn’t that dark), and struggling to focus (although everything else in the room was now clear and distinct). The figure was looking intently at me, and it was as I looked into its eyes that I knew who it was. I said her name and the long pale limbs and red hair began to emerge like a body rising out of deep water. Finally I saw her blink and a sad little smile move in her lips. Her body was towering over me. The image of a human giraffe crossed my mind, with her freckles and her big intelligent eyes. Then, somehow she was on her knees and I could look into her face and I put my hand out and touched her cheek and she smiled at me, and I just fell forwards onto her and lay against her. I was so happy to see her.
She stayed with me that night. We put all the soft things in the room on the floor and settled down as best we could in the small space and we talked a little about what had happened since we last saw each other but conversation was not what we needed. Her body was strangely cool but soft and fragrant – like a salty honey. I stroked her breasts and her belly and kissed her freckly skin but I didn’t feel very sexy. We spent the night curled up there, with her body curved around me, sleeping on the floor. It was the most cared for I had ever felt. I tried to get her to tell me where she was going to go next but all she would do was hush me and stroke my hair tell me everything would be alright. There were tears in her eyes but there was a smile too. I almost allowed myself to believe her. She told me that ultimately we are all lost souls, looking for a home.
She disappeared while I was out getting some water early in the morning, and I had to think it had just been some sort of dream. The fact was though that I could smell her on everything. I still don’t know what to make of it.
I needed it though. As dawn came on we had lay there and talked – nothing very important, just silliness, for most of the night. In fact I can’t remember much of what we said at all. I know we laughed a lot, like before. She did say it was about time for me to move on, and I couldn’t afford to get stuck there. I asked about guides and she said there would be groups coming through I could join, or I’d be ok alone now – there were plenty of places to stay along the way if necessary.
My work did not go well for a while after that – my heart wasn’t in it really, but then there was a new gardening volunteer who seemed keener than most and Jim liked her, so I worked hard to help her with the arrangements for the coming season and I was ready to go just as the first spring greens were coming through. I packed my rucksack and Jo gave me some of her cheese and marmalade to take with me, and there was a somewhat choked-up farewell from her and Jim at the main door. Then I was on my way. It was bloody miserable wet overcast day, but it felt wonderful to be out again.
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