Saturday, 27 February 2010

Voyage IV – Lucy

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...’
‘For tomorrow...’
‘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.
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Sunday, 21 February 2010

Journey II – The grateful dead

When Kev caught up with me I’d got a long way off the road, up in the mountains. He scolded me unconvincingly and introduced me to a very nice couple, Jeannie and Duncan, who took me in for a while. He had to go back and look after the others but he made me promise to stay with Jeannie and Duncan until spring. Then he reappeared unexpectedly on a horse in the thick of the winter sleet with the tent and other equipment.
Kev is (was?) a stocky Canadian – even wears a lumberjack shirt. He’s decided to do a stint as a guide because he’s ‘not ready to go back yet’. Something vulnerable about him gives him immense strength I feel. He likes to appear very tough and taciturn but then I catch him in tears for no obvious reason and I say ‘Are you ok?’ and he gives me a collarbone cracking, one armed hug and he nods and smiles. I feel very reassured. He makes me smile.
Jeannie and Duncan live in an amazingly weather-beaten three-room shack on the edge of a canyon, close to the tree line. The rooms are snowed under with books, clothes and tools. We were sitting on the stoop looking at the godawful weather across the valley. Jeannie came out with coffee. She’s also looks weather-beaten, a tall, bony woman, always in leather and denim, always in her wax cotton hat. She comes and sits down with us.
‘Still got a fair bit more of this shit to come’ she says nodding at the freezing rain, taking a sip. Kev seems preoccupied with something on the steep slope below. I always think he’s got something important to say but he never says it. ‘Lot of crows today’ he says. There’s some commotion in the treetops directly below us – squabbling over nesting sites perhaps, then something much bigger soars out and the crows go after it. ‘Any idea?’ he says turning to Jeannie. She shrugs.
‘Back home I used to be pretty good but every fucking thing looks different here’ she says. ‘I’d say it’s a raptor of some sort...’
‘But not with that crest’ Kev observes. Jeannie nods.
I don’t know. I knew a bit about the wildlife I saw on my walks but I don’t expect to be able to identify things. For someone like Kev though, who spent his entire life living with nature, travelling when he could, or Jeannie, who lived miles from anywhere in New Zealand and never travelled but knew absolutely everything about every organism in her patch, and read up on the rest, it’s a constant frustration. Animals here look familiar but not quite, and you never get close enough to really look at them properly. Sometimes we hear enormous things moving in the forest in the fog or in the night but there’s never any trace of them when we go to look except some flattened undergrowth. Kev says he’s never heard of anyone being attacked and Jeannie says they’ve never lost so much as an apple from the garden all the time they’ve been here, but it’s unsettling anyway. Jeannie says they’re like mythical beasts. Seems they’re here more for dramatic effect or to symbolize something than for any sound ecological reason. Neither of them is sure if I’ll be ok out there alone. Jeannie is doubtful. Kev is optimistic though, like he has something up his sleeve.
What does Duncan think? Who knows? We don’t see much of Duncan. He spends a lot of time looking after the garden and the chooks. He does most of the cooking and general maintenance. He jokes that Jeannie rescued him but it’s not funny. He didn’t cope with death very well for reasons she won’t go into, and you get the impression that if he doesn’t keep himself busy something very bad might happen. He’s a wiry, prematurely bald little man with a freckly pate, a great listener and nothing is too much trouble. You can tell she loves him dearly, but it’s hard to be around him somehow. When the weather improves he goes ‘fossicking’. He used to work on the railways in Eastleigh, which is near Southampton apparently and this backwoods life style, you can tell, is still a great novelty. The only time he looks really alive (besides the being dead and all) is when he’s heading out into the bush, or just arriving home. Still there’s always the feeling (look at Jeannie’s face) that if he spends too much time out there he’ll get lost for good. He’s a constant worry. She immerses herself in her books.
‘He’ll be right’ he says unexpectedly looking up from his tools ‘Stick to the path, you’ll be right’. He turns to Jeannie. ‘I’m heading off now’ he says. ‘Shouldn’t be too long this time.’ He kisses her freckly forehead and heads down into the brushwood. Soon he’s out of sight. She shakes her head and goes back to her book.

‘You really should wait ‘til spring before you head out you know’ says Kev at last. I stare at the scree opposite, materialising and dematerialising in the passing haze.
‘I’d like to get going’ I say. I’ve stopped thinking about it. I just want to be alone. ‘Well I can’t die of cold can I.’
‘You know what we’re worried about’ says Jeannie.
‘You might meet Harry for one thing’ says Kev trying for a laugh. I don’t respond. ‘No, the path is easy enough to find, if you want to, but it’s entirely up to you.’
‘But does it really matter?’ They look at me solidly.
‘It’s entirely up to you’ he repeats, looking away. He’s exasperated with my attitude. Generally he’s very patient, but I’m being adolescent, I know that. But I don’t know what to do instead.

The essential thing with ‘The Afterlife’ apparently is to keep going. Even if you don’t know where you’re going, the thing that gives you the chance to try again is wanting to. You can get utterly lost, cold, hungry, thirsty, but you can’t die. The real danger is to give up. Then you really are lost. I remember Joe talking about ‘lost spirits’ and I smiled sceptically, it sounded such a cliché, but there they were, in the water you could see them sometimes, and now, sometimes, especially at night you can hear them in the trees, whispering. He said that some people, faced with an afterlife, and the prospect of going back again to do it all over again, can’t face it and get lost. They allow themselves to wander off, or allow the already lost spirits to take them. At any rate they gradually lose themselves, who they once were, and merge into the place – the forest, the desert, the ocean. Eventually, they disappear altogether.
At first you can still talk to them, hear what they have to say, why they couldn’t go back. They are usually the ones whose lives were so horrific, and who feel so powerless to do anything to change it that it doesn’t seem worth the risk to go back. Most are thankful that it’s finally all over. They are the abused, the tortured, the addicted, the chronically sick. Clearly that isn’t me. I’m not self-pitying enough to presume. I just somehow didn’t get my life together and I stopped trying. I really do want another go, although I’m not exactly sure what I’d do differently. But I’m not going to give up. I think Kev knew that about me, but I had to try the idea out.

Now I’m up here I feel sure someone’s with me. Whoever it is she’s not very stealthy. A couple of times I’ve heard rocks falling or branches snapping and then a small female voice swearing - I’m almost certain. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Maybe I’m just comforting myself. I’ve never been this alone before for so long.
Is there supposed to be some parallel between the ordeal we are set in the afterlife and what went on in life or not? All my life I avoided trouble by going off alone. I wasn’t running away – I just didn’t know what else to do.
So I've gone off on my own here too. The forest here is getting worse. I’m not sure I even have the path, the way is so strewn with broken wood, needles and bits of bark and the branches are so low. One minute I’m crawling under, next, clambering over them. I’m down under the canopy, dead brambles bind everything together, and dense mats of fallen needles fill the spaces. It is a dead, silent place, no light, only the cold water seeps through, dripping off the branches. I can’t see where to go.

It’s not that I wanted to spend so much time alone when I was alive. I really wanted to be like the others, in a way – go and see people when I wanted to, go out, do things, maybe see a band – get a girlfriend for fuck’s sake. I don’t know. I didn’t really get on with the other boys. I hated football, and the way they talked to girls like they were idiots. I’d like to have thought I could have been more like them though, if I’d wanted to. I’d like to have had the choice.

My pack, usually so uncannily light, is bulky and impractical today. Suddenly it feels much bigger, that or I’ve shrunk somewhat. I slump down on the forest floor and wonder vaguely if I have lost myself after all. I said to Kev that I wasn’t going to give in and he seemed to believe me but maybe I was just kidding myself. Why did I think anything had changed? I always give in. I lie back and look up through the branches. Squinting, the light that gets through looks like stars in a dark sky. Kevin seems to think it’s very important not to lose that sense of self if I’m going to go on alone. I call to whoever she is again but it’s just the sound of water and wood. I’m getting sick of it. It occurs to me that maybe she’s another one of the passengers, set off alone, like me. Maybe I should go back for her.
I don’t know how long I’ve been going. Time here is hard to pin down. You feel you can account for the last day or so, but beyond that is uncertain. The more you try to keep count the more you can’t remember if it was the day before yesterday or some time last week. The days seem to go on a lot longer than they should too. The seasons are interminable. Space likewise. I’ve literally no idea how far I’ve come, or in what direction. Sometimes it feels like I’m on a loop, going around and round on the same bit of mountainside endlessly. The trees and rocks here look much the same as the ones I saw at the beginning. The mountain tops and the sky, the rain and what little there was of the sun, all just variations on the same theme, over and over. Even the snowfall was thin and short-lived.
I feel it’s been maybe about three months. That feels about right. A couple of weeks of sun down on the coast but then just colder and colder and wetter and wetter the higher I climb. Three months of winter, maybe more. That’s how it feels, just trudging through a freezing wet forest, over these jagged escarpments, wading through freezing streams or black sulphurous mud. I don’t know if I really want to go on after all. Ok, my life wasn’t a tragedy, but is it worth repeating? Can I really make it be different?

I feel the lost spirits about. They’re everywhere, always. Do they sense my mood? They sense company. I sense they want company. Do I want to be here forever? Maybe. Why not? I put the tent up and look out. What light there is, is fading. ‘I know you’re there’ I say quietly but she won’t answer. Maybe I’m insane but I’m sure she’s out there. I lie in the dark and listen to the water. I can hear it running under the ground sheet. Later I can hear something small snuffling near the tent, looking for food maybe. I turn over and there’s silence.

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Sunday, 14 February 2010

Voyage III – Nerds.

Next day I was on my way through to the bar and Harry was there with Solly. I thought I might as well join them, to take my mind off things. Harry said ‘You still got that bloody handbag?’ Solly laughed and shook his head.
They hadn’t mentioned it before. I’d taken to carrying my things around in this canvas shoulder bag – just some paper and pencils, my book, some chocolate, the plastic fish.
They stood there, leaning on the bar and watching me, grinning and chuckling. Then they went back to what they had been doing, chatting up one of the bar staff.
Why shouldn’t I carry my things around in a bag? I used to when I was alive. Everything just got lost otherwise.
I went and sat in the library.

One of the men there noticed I was looking at a book on marine ecology and it turned out that that had been his field of research. He said the book was quite up to date, but not one he was familiar with, which surprised him. ‘I’ve been supervising some students for their doctorates. You have to know the literature, so...’ He paused and flicked through again, pausing here and there. ‘Of course, this is what you might call “popular science” but still... it’s pretty good. I’ll have to put it on their reading list, next term er...’ He realized what he’d said and looked up toward the portholes but without really focusing. Finally he took his glasses off and, squinting down at them, polished the lenses with a tissue. ‘I’m sorry’ he said. ‘Fergus’ he added, and held out his hand to me. ‘Gabriel’ I said and shook his hand. I was happy to notice he refrained from crushing mine. Why do men do that? He pointed at the book with his glasses and put them back on. ‘It’s an interesting book’ he said. ‘Probably not available yet, in the, you know, ordinary world. I expect publishing’s a bit different here’. He seemed a bit confused and upset so I asked him about some of the amazing things I’d read in it and couldn’t be sure were real; mid ocean ridges, larvacean houses, turbidity flows, spiral shit animals. ‘Yeah, they’re all real’ he said, and sat down and explained a lot of other things to me, some of which I frankly didn’t get, but which sounded fabulous. My science has never been very strong although I enjoyed biology and should have passed... But I told him that the thing I drew and painted most was the sea, or things from the sea, and he seemed really interested and said he’d like to see some of my work some time. I didn’t know if he was just being polite, being a scientist and all. My stuff must seem pretty woolly by comparison with all his instruments and equations and so on...
Anyway, Fergus must have been an excellent teacher. I learned a lot. He said he really missed his students. I said I was glad to fill in for them. He smiled and shook my hand again and headed up to the deck. ‘See you around’ he said in the doorway.

After that I spend a bit of time thinking about things. I glance at the pages of the book but I can’t focus on it any more. I look around at the other people sitting there. Some of them are chatting quietly and there’s a woman over in the corner reading. I sort of feel that other people would go over and make conversation. I keep thinking I could but I don’t know what I’d say. She doesn’t look like she wants to be disturbed anyway and the others already seem to know each other. They don’t need me, coming and making a nuisance of myself. I don’t really know how other people manage to make friends and so on. I always feel I might be doing something weird, or say something wrong. It’s easier just to keep to myself I find but I sometimes wish I could do it, fit in I mean, if I wanted to.
On the other hand, sometimes I used to look at them, the other boys at school and just think ‘Oh my God, look at them. What a bunch of wankers.’ Either they were obsessed with sports and just ran around the place yelling and hitting people or they were the nerds, and just looked weird and talked a lot of rubbish all the time. I wasn’t into science fiction comics or building model aeroplanes. I just didn’t get it. The only alternative on offer as far as I can see, if you wanted to be ‘different’, was being gay, like Mark Almond or Tom Robinson.
I suppose most people would have put me in with the nerds. Everybody said I read too much and was always ‘off in my own little world’, but they were wrong. It wasn’t a little world at all. It was enormous. There were landscapes and characters they wouldn’t even have come across in their weirdest dreams. I spent a lot of time getting it all down on paper – writing about it or drawing and painting. I did some huge scenes – part map, part landscape, with gargantuan shaggy beasts and archaic birds, engaged in incomprehensible behaviours among misshapen trees and alien fungi. Offshore, vast dead-eyed fish and primitive whales turned among forests of coral and kelp. I don’t know where it all came from. Nobody ever asked me about it. Dad and mum just shook their heads and tutted and went away. In my world there were settlements too; some of exquisite architecture and peopled by gentle and tolerant souls. Others bristled with armaments and dripped with pollution. And always there was a woman, and she looked past all the crap and saw me as I really was, and we’d be happy together. I always imagined that happening but it never did.

Everybody thinks, if you’re not one of the sporty types that you don’t really think about sex, that it’s just how you are; sexless, celibate, virgin, because the girls are never interested in you, because you’re ridiculous. They think it doesn’t matter to you because you don’t really care about that sort of thing anyway, so you don’t miss it. You don’t mind. Some people seem to think being one of the nerds is maybe sort of cute or funny, like Charlie Brown or that obnoxious weed Adrian Mole.
So the worst part, the final indignity if you like, is not that we are sexless and ridiculous, but that they imagine we’re happy that way, laughable, harmless nonentities. We just smile apologetically and go back to our wargaming and our comics, with our innocent minds and our greasy hair and our no doubt tiny atrophied penises.

But we don’t, we fume and rage in private and we fantasise of terrible things, pumping relentlessly on our immense engorged cocks, craving it, probably more than they do. And we’re desperate and obsessed and maybe that’s what makes us look weird because we’re just so cramped up with it, and twisted, having to hold it in. Sports guys can only look that cool because they’re not that bothered about it. They’d prefer to play with a football.
I don’t know. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do, given the chance. To have a woman there, beside me in bed, sharing that small space, with her heat and her odour and her moisture and looking at her and touching her... I’d never do anything else if I could have that.
I can’t believe it. I died when I was nearly nineteen and I reckon I’d been looking at the girls since I was eight at least. I fantasised about Donna Redmond even in Miss Williams’ class and I didn’t even know what sex was back then, so that’s over a decade of total frustration. Sometimes I looked at a girl and I had to stop myself just... doing something violent, just forcing her to... to just look at me properly and say... I don’t know what. Sometimes, the way they looked at me, like I was just a smear of something on their perfectly polished shoes... Sometimes, I just wish I could have talked to one of them properly for long enough so she’d understand.
Then I’d catch sight of myself in the mirror and I’d think ‘Yeah, right.’
Why would she want that? Why would anyone want that?

I’ve got tears in my eyes again. I need to find a tissue from somewhere. I wonder where they keep them. Maybe I could find Angie or Joe and ask them. That woman’s looking at me. I can’t really see her expression in the dark. I expect I’ve pissed her off. I’d better leave her in peace.
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Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Joe II – The reality of it all

‘Zo...’ said Joe in a cod Viennese accent, ‘tell me about your childhood’.
He was wearing a plastic Groucho Marx nose, moustache and glasses and was pretending to smoke a fat pen. I didn’t smile. For all I knew this was how people normally behaved in the after life, but Joe assured me it was supposed to be a joke. ‘Never mind’ he said, putting the mask on the table. ‘You ok?’ he continued more seriously, almost apologetically. I shrugged.
‘Ok. Part of what happens here’ he continued, ‘is you get the chance to look at your life, think about what’s really important, try to make some sense of it.’
I suppose I was looking a bit blankly at him. Anyway, he leaned forward. ‘Is it about, for example, beauty, or love, or truth?’ he suggested ‘or having a career or a vocation perhaps or, I don’t know, is it about “making a difference” as they say? Hmm? You know, standing up for what you believe. Stuff like that. Or is it just about hedonism – getting what you can get out of life, just living for yourself, sex, money, sensation, experience. Do you see what I mean?’ I nodded but I didn’t know what to say.
‘You’re very young’ he said unexpectedly. ‘Too young really.’ I was a bit offended. I was nearly nineteen. I’d read Plato, and Sartre and Oscar Wilde for God’s sake.
‘I do understand’ I said, more peevishly than I’d have liked. Why can’t I stick up for myself without sounding like I’m sulking?
‘Of course you do Gabriel’ he said but he was thinking about something else.
‘My parents’ he said eventually, ‘they thought life was all about duty – doing what you had to do, that and the church. They thought life was all about having to give an account of yourself to God at the end. I have no idea what they make of all this.’
‘What about you?’ I said.
He looked a little sideways at me and I knew he didn’t really want to talk about himself so I said ‘It doesn’t matter, you know, if...’ I shrugged and he looked away, towards the window and we sat in silence for a while.
‘Anyway’ he said at last, clapping his hands on his knees. ‘Now’s a good time to consider all that. Think about what you want, what’s important to you. And think about who you are, deep down.’
‘Some,’ he added, nodding toward the door ‘choose not to, but it’s a great opportunity. I recommend it to you. Have you ever been to a therapist, counsellor, whatever?’ I shook my head. ‘Ever read any psychology?’
‘I read some Freud’ I said.
‘Oh. Good. What did you read?’ he sat forward in his chair eagerly.
‘I don’t remember. It was a book about him from the public library. Sorry’
‘No, that’s cool. At least you know something about it. You wouldn’t believe some of the... Anyway, what did you make of it?’
I said I vaguely remembered some things about the sub-conscious, the id and the ego and superego and infant sexuality. I mumbled some stuff about what I thought about that - about how so much of a person’s life was set in the first few years and how it keeps coming back to mess things up later on. He told me that I’d basically got it and how that made things a lot simpler for him. He told me his degree had been in psychology, partly anyway, and that he was always amazed how people tried to get through life, get married, have children and so on without ever thinking about what was going on in their heads, far less checking what other people had worked out about it previously. ‘It’s like driving a car without ever looking under the hood to see where all the grinding noises and sparks are coming from’ he said with exasperation. ‘So, really, I mean it, ‘tell me about your childhood’’.
‘Where do I start?’
‘At the beginning? When? Where?’
‘Brighton, England, February 24th 1966.’
‘Ah, Pisces’ he said portentously.
‘What does that mean?’
‘Probably nothing, but you never know. Which was pretty much what I concluded in my dissertation: “Astrology and Psychology”. Anyway, do go on. Brothers, sisters?’
‘Two sisters, nine and twelve years older than me. I was a bit of a mistake.’
‘That’s an unfortunate way to put it, don’t you think?’
‘How do you mean?’ But I knew exactly what he meant. I’d said it like that deliberately.
‘Do you think your parents saw you as a mistake?’
‘Well, they were getting on a bit’, I smiled ‘well, late thirties. I don’t think they thought they were old... but you know what I mean. Mum was running a nursing agency and Dad – um – was busy. They didn’t need another kid running around the place messing their things up did they?’
‘But it wasn’t your fault?’
‘No no.’ Now I felt disloyal and ungrateful. ‘I know they did their best and everything. It was ok.’

He takes a moment – gives me a hard look, as they say.
‘Forgive me’ he says at last ‘but you don’t seem to be taking any of this very seriously – what happened to you, the effect on your friends, your family...’
I want to say ‘Hah! What friends? What family?’ I want to say ‘Well serves them right. Those shit heads’ll have to take me seriously now.’ But I know they won’t. They’ll just think it’s yet another stupid thing I’ve done. And they’ll be right.
I expect Joe to tut and be very ‘patient’ with me but he doesn’t. He looks into my face with an expression like he might cry any moment himself and says softly ‘Good God Gabriel. You basically killed yourself – at eighteen years old. You don’t seem to understand. That’s not a cry for help.’ He shakes his head slowly, wondering. ‘What happened to you?’ he says and I can feel the tears welling up again. He passes me a tissue from the box on the table. I sit and sniff for a while, feeling sorry for myself. Then I say ‘My sisters were good with me.’
‘And what were their names?’
‘Justine and Amelia...’
‘Tell me about them.’
‘Well, I don’t know, they were just... when I was little... I...’
And the next thing I know I find myself crying, tears pouring from my eyes onto my knees, then my whole body hunching forward in the armchair with deep groaning noises coming from my chest. Everybody must have heard. I started to slap the side of my head over and over, trying to stop this stupid howling but I couldn’t. I could see their faces, looking down at me, Justine and Amelia, the way it must have been when they found my body. I’d caused so much hurt. I couldn’t stand it.
Later, I felt Joe’s hand gently but firmly holding my wrist to stop me hitting myself, I tried to pull away, but not very strongly and I ended up slumping forward against him, my head in his lap, his trouser legs saturated from my tears. It felt a little embarrassing, but really I didn’t care enough to move. Eventually I sat back, but he stayed squatting in front of me, holding a tissue for my face. The sobbing subsided and I took some deep breaths. I sat back. I felt absolutely spent. He sat back. That was when I noticed someone else in the room. It was the young woman who’d first shown me to my cabin standing by the door. They both looked concerned, but not horrified as I’d expected. In fact they didn’t seem at all surprised by my behaviour, which was reassuring. Eventually she – Angie – left and Joe waited for me to settle.
‘Do you want to go on a bit more?’ he asked gently. I felt drained but oddly at peace. ‘You don’t have to today, or at all, if you don’t want to.’
‘No, I’d like to. Maybe another time. Could I have a drink?’
‘Not a whiskey?’ he said smiling.
‘Not a whiskey’ I confirmed.
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

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.