Sunday, 28 August 2011

Journey XVI – Down to the Seaside

Come evening a boat arrived down at the quay and moored just beyond the turbulence. Marvin arrived soon after. I told him about the ‘children’ and he said it confirmed what he’d been told. ‘So nothing to worry about after all’ he said, slapping my back. I went up to get my things and we got ourselves on board. It was neat little boat, with a canopy and broad couches. I got myself settled into a sleeping bag and Marvin produced a bottle of Calvados and some cups.
‘This could take a while’ he said. ‘Chin chin.’

It took all the night and most of the next day to reach the other side of the lake where, in a pretty and busy little Alpine town we picked up fresh horses and headed down to the coast. That took another couple of weeks and we stayed at other small establishments along the way whenever we could. The landscape became increasingly rocky and dry as we descended, and the temperature rose steadily, at least during the daytime. At night we froze if we were in the open. We passed through pines, then tall evergreens, then tussock grass and aromatic scrub, every so often catching a glimpse of the river rushing along in a gorge some way below us. The scenery was magnificent. The peace gave me time to think about what had happened since the we all got off the ship, and about what happened on the ship too, for that matter.
I wanted to talk about Sophie and Andrea, but I didn’t feel comfortable raising the subject with Marvin. We weren’t on those kind of terms. I still find it hard to accept that, given my lamentable record with women in life, here I’d actually done rather well with the ladies. It all seemed a bit implausible. My old, homeless self (or worse, my middle aged loser self, still living with his parents) insisted I must have been imagining it. They were just being nice or something. But I couldn’t deny it. For the first time ever I’d felt genuinely at least as desirable as other, normal people. What had made the difference? Actually the answer was obvious, but depended on a new insight – to wit – I was actually alright, just as Andrea had said I was. It was my life that had made me mad – all the chaos of trying to make a living that didn’t feel totally humiliating and abusive, and then failing, and trying to get by somehow without giving in to dependence and to violence and ultimately to a sordid death. I didn’t have any of that to contend with here. Previously I’d have thought there was something intrinsic to my character that would always make me a failure and an outsider, but here I discover that’s not true. Instead of being astonished that at least a couple of women here found me attractive, I found myself wondering how I’d come to be so very unattractive in life.

Maybe then, I think, I should stay but it feels like a cop-out. I have to go in again, knowing what I know now. Like Sophie said – I need to use this experience.
I was also worried about what had happened to all the people I had met along the way, and in particular, about what would happen to Sophie – whether she chose to stay or to somehow make a break for it. It wasn’t a happy thought. I really wanted to ask Marvin about what had happened to us in the town but for some reason I was reluctant to broach the subject. I suppose it was guilt – survivor’s guilt. It was preying on my mind though. It was a very long time ago now, but just occasionally a shadow would move in the twilight and it was all I could do not to scream and run. One evening he was watching me when this happened. I grinned apologetically and he nodded as if he knew what was going on. We were camping that night and he threw a twig on the fire. He looked like he was thinking about it.
‘What do you think they were?’ he said.
‘I was hoping you could tell me.’
He shakes his head. ‘All I know is there’s a lot of things here we don’t know about.’
‘I thought we couldn’t be hurt here’ I said, my voice breaking a little. I’ve been bottling this up a long time.
He shrugs. ‘The ship is a kind of a safe house, but otherwise... That’s why they usually recommend you travel with a guide – gives you a measure of protection. I’m truly sorry you had to go without that.’
We sit and look at the fire a bit more. I glance at him. He seems nearly as upset as I am.
‘Did you get a good look at them at all?’ he says after a while. The view down into that basement comes to mind. It’s so horrible. Ian is gone too. Did they get him?
It takes me a while to say something. ‘I saw something. It looked like a man, pale, tall...’
‘Did you see the face?’
‘You know, at first I thought not...’ I look at him quizzically, hoping for something. ‘I don’t know...’
But I do know. I try to think how to describe what I saw. I say something about the thin shell of a gourd I found once in a bucket of rainwater and which I thought at first was a reptile egg, or a baby’s skull – brittle and wet and full of black rotten stuff and tiny white worms.
He purses his lips and nods his head. ‘Nice imagery’ he says.
I want to ask him the stupid question that’s been nagging at me.
‘Is it because of what we did?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The sex, the partying, the drugs, I mean, not me so much, with the drugs, but the drinking... Is it our fault? Was it the price we paid, because if it was...’
‘The Wages of Sin?’
‘But it’s not death is it? We’re already dead. It really is a fate worse than death.’
‘Whoa. I don’t think so. First up – sex ain’t a sin, none of that is, not here. It’s a pure simple pleasure, doubly so since you can’t get sick or pregnant. All that living in sin’s just dreary scriptural trash from the days when men felt the overpowering need to know exactly who their sons were. But sex is a good thing. You don’t appear to be convinced.’ He takes a long swig from the bottle and looks out into the night. ‘The evil is in the abuse of it – the lies and the betrayal, the brutality, the exploitation, the unloved children – and the disease of course. Some abuse it but then, there’s always someone’ll abuse anything. Don’t make it intrinsically wrong...’
‘Oh I don’t know...’
Something about this man makes me feel small and naïve once again. It’s an odd feeling, long lost. I think I’m regressing. He nods and goes on.
‘Anyway, second – it don’t work like that here. I don’t know what we’re here for, but so far I have no sense that it’s to be judged or punished, and I have seen no evidence of anybody or anything here in a position to enforce a penalty. So far as I can tell we’re here to learn, but at bottom, it’s probably just something we go through and it may have no meaning at all.’
‘But all that pain and horror...’
‘Just creatures doing what creatures do. My guess is you were just easy pickings. Hell, I’ve seen it – people always on the move, coming and going, nobody knowing from one day to the next who’s staying, who’s leaving... If there’s a moral to the story it’s that ideally, people should keep a proper look out for one another.’
‘But they didn’t deserve to be... treated like that.’
‘It’s not about deserving Gabriel. It’s like a disease, or a predator. It’s not about what’s fair or just. It’s just bad luck, probably. It’s not justice. It just is, so to speak.’
‘Hmm’ I say, doubtfully, lying down on my sleeping bag. It’s getting cold. Maybe I should get into it. He lies down too, tipping his hat over his eyes. I still feel like we should have maybe tried to do something – tried to rescue at least someone. I don’t know. I still feel like we must have done something very wrong. I feel in need of absolution or something.
‘What about Sophie?’ I say, almost inaudibly. Her name catches in my throat. I've not said it out loud in a while.
He looks over at me and there’s a trace of a smile that tells me he’s been waiting for this.
‘Tell me about Sophie’ he says.

‘She’ll come when she’s ready’ he says when I’ve finished my account. I’ve tried to be even-handed, but between being mortified at my own cowardice and my fury at her stubbornness, my explanation is not very fair on either of us. I guess I look pretty hopeless.
‘I mean it’ he says, more insistently. ‘She’ll be there. If she really wants to, she’ll be there.’
If she really wants to... I’ve heard this before. What happens in this place is supposedly all about wanting things badly enough. But how can you tell? James had seemed the most keen of all of us to get out, and Liam too, and look what happened to them. How could anyone say that they were any less ready than, say, Diane, who just seemed to be there because she fancied Nick? All anyone can say is she must have wanted it more because look, here she is – a self-fulfilling thingummy if ever I saw one. I don’t know. Who can fathom people’s true motives? I feel as sure of Sophie as I have ever felt of anything, and yet here we are, apart. There’s nothing anyone can say.

Then, as I lie there I remember that tomorrow is the big day. I muse vaguely on what that means and instantly feel the kind of sick anxiety I used to get all the time in life but which I haven’t felt very much at all since I’ve been here, despite everything. I've tried to think constructively about how I will change my life but it all just seems like a massive sooty grey tangle, like trying to find a needle in a stack of jagged and rusting metal. All I know is that on midsummer’s day in the year 2000 I will go to the Palace Pier and try to find Sophie. That’s it. Everything else is just noise. I hope she’s there. I don’t know what I’ll do if she’s not.

When we finally reached the further shore there were grey sand beaches alternating with rocky headlands as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was overcast and coming on to drizzle. I’d expected something different. I didn’t know what. Marvin lobbed a rock manfully into the surf and said ‘As good a place as any...’ under his breath and we began to climb down closer to the edge.

Beyond the rocks below us the sea crashes in in the usual way but then I notice, some hundred yards or so out, there seems to be a horizon, except it is way too close. The sea seems to just cease. The sky beyond has a peculiar pink hue. I look at Marvin for reassurance.
‘You ready to do this?’ he shouts over the crashing waves. There’s no particular concern in his voice. He just wants to be sure.
‘Might as well’ I say. And he tells me a little of what to expect – the strange sensation of losing ones body and dissolving away. Funny I never thought to ask what would come next.
My last memory was Marvin and I sitting on the sand drinking the last of the Calvados.
‘Any last requests?’ he said.
‘A long and happy life?’
‘I’ll drink to that’ he said and we raise our glasses to what ever is out there.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Voyage XIII – The Leaving Do

I don’t think I was expecting very much but I have to hand it to Paul – he knows how to throw a party. Of course the bar was always free but he managed to get them to relocate up onto the deck and he asked the chefs to do a barbecue there too. I was involved in going through the library after some likely looking tunes to play. A few passengers had musical instruments with them and there were other performers among us – a poet, a contortionist and a rather risqué cabaret singer. (This is what happens when your catchment area includes Brighton.) Another group insisted on organising party games. We arranged the chairs for an audience but planned to move them back later if people felt like dancing. Tuxedos were obtained from somewhere for the men and the girls were very secretive about what they would be wearing. Normally I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a tux but it seemed a bit late to be worrying about that. There were lights and bunting and we decorated the rails and ropes with them as best we could. By the time it was dark there was quite an excited atmosphere.
I was determined not to let things get to me. As will be obvious by now, parties had never been a good place for me – not because I don’t want to have a good time. Possibly I want to have a good time too much. Anyway the strategy I decided on here was to sit toward the back and remain a little detached – do some people watching. This was not the first time I’d attempted this strategy but I was willing to give it another go tonight.
The first hitch was Fiona dragging me to a seat near the front and insisting I ‘loosen up’. Paul was sitting joking with the Asians and making an unsubtle play for one of the women. She didn’t seem to be objecting as much as I’d have expected.
‘You take yourself a bit too seriously Gabriel if you don’t mind my saying so’ he said, leaning over and ruffling my hair. The booze seemed to be working better than usual. Trevor grinned at my discomfort.

I shan’t go into all the details. Suffice it to say the revelry went on until dawn and I did not get off with Fiona. I still couldn’t find her attractive enough. I spent the whole evening half expecting Andrea to make a fabulous entrance in a gorgeous low cut frock or something, but I did my best to enjoy myself, and I did a lot of dancing and eating and drinking, and even got chatting to a few people I’d not talked to before. Isn’t it strange how easy it is to make friends when you know everything’s coming to an end? We chatted about where we would be going next, and whether we’d be able to choose who we travelled with. We were all quite excited at the prospect. As we’d neared our destination over the last few days we’d seen the land in more and more detail and could make out fields and buildings among the hills and woodlands. It all looked very verdant and well tended. For the first time I really began to think about what it might mean to stay here, to find a place to be and let the years slowly melt into one another until time became meaningless and the day-to-day was all that mattered. I could imagine that happening in the landscape we were passing. I wondered if there would be a woman there I could fall in love with. I wouldn’t have to be unemployed and homeless and mad and she could see me for who I genuinely was and for the first time ever, I knew that that would be a good thing. I went back and I danced with Fiona and with Cathy and I really did have a good time.

Harvey said he’d been talking to his guide about what I’d said about being reborn. I said I couldn’t remember what I’d said and he had to remind me.
‘There’s a problem with two people both being reborn and both changing their lives’ he said. I looked confused at him.
‘Ok’ he said. ‘Supposing you arrange to meet a young lady you’ve met here, in your next life. Both of you will be changing your lives in order to meet.’
‘Ok’ I said.
‘But...’ he continued. ‘But Brian, my guide, maintains that the only changes in your new life can be those wrought by yourself, so...’
‘So she cannot be expecting to meet me?’
‘Precisely, but it’s more complicated than that, because this girl might be engineering a meeting with you in her new life, as you will be in yours, but the chap she meets (you) will not be expecting her, and your girl will not be expecting you. You see?’
‘Because their lives will be the same as the ones they lived during my previous incarnation...’
‘Except to the extent you alter it for them.’
‘What?’ Bryony has been listening in on all this and looks doubtful. ‘What the hell are you guys blathering about?’ She looks quite drunk and holds her wine glass at a worrying angle. She certainly is wearing a fabulous low cut frock, but made of something black and clingy. I’d love to say something meaningful about it but as usual, can’t think of anything. I tell myself I’m waiting for Andrea anyway.
‘Parallel realities my sweet’ says Harvey putting on his most unctuous voice. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’ She slaps him playfully with her fan and walks away swaying her arse provocatively at us. We both take a moment to appreciate it and Cathy comes over and slaps him too, with her gloves. ‘Hey...’ he says and she sits herself down into his lap and surveys the crowd, which is getting lively. After a time she turns and drains his glass and asks what we were talking about. She looks fabulous too in a little creamy number. In fact everyone looks fabulous and I begin to well up. Harvey gets up, dropping Cathy in his place, says do I want another? and heads for the bar. Cathy leans on me and giggles. I want to put my arm around her – just in a friendly way but feel uncomfortable about it, with Harvey and her being together and all.
‘You’re a silly boy, aren’t you’ she says.
‘Am I?’ and suddenly I’m eight again, with one of my sexier aunties.
‘Will you promise me something?’ she says.
‘I’ll try’ I say, brightly, hopefully.
‘Not try’ she says. ‘Do. I want you to promise me that when you go back into life you will grab it by the bosom with both hands, and stop all this shilly-shallying about. Find yourself a nice young lady and travel the world with her. Will you do that for me?’
I want to say it’s not as simple as that, but I say ‘Yes, absolutely’ and mean it, more or less.
‘The thing is’ interjects Harvey returning suddenly and pulling up a third chair opposite us. Cathy has her arm around my shoulders. He doesn’t seem to mind. ‘The thing is, what this implies is a whole lot of people going back, all intent on changing their lives, all needing an unchanged world to go back to, hence, multiple worlds. And if you have billions of people doing this, each going through several incarnations, we are talking about a very large number of parallel worlds indeed. Do you catch my drift?’
‘Yes, but Brian said that doesn’t happen didn’t he darling’ says Cathy languorously sliding back onto his lap.
‘Well, with all due respect, perhaps he doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ says Harvey nuzzling under her hair.
‘And perhaps you don’t know what you’re talking about, darling, with all due respect.’
‘Maybe you need a good spanking’ he whispers, rather too audibly in her ear and she leaps up and grabs his hand and forces him onto the dance floor. Harvey looks back helplessly at me but what can I do? I just grin at him. Then Fiona is with me and asks how I am getting on. I say I’m ok and point out Harvey hoofing clumsily to some Sly and the Family Stone we miraculously found in an old box in the forward lounge. Fiona laughs and then points out Paul with the Asian girl, evidently getting on very well indeed.
‘Well my date hasn’t turned up at all’ I say, looking around, again. Fiona does not seem put out I am pleased to note. The alcohol is apparently not that effective, and I still don’t find her attractive.
‘I saw her down in the bar. You mean that guide, what’s her name?’
‘That’s her. She said all the guides were coming up soon...’
And I can feel my heart leaping about in its cage. I almost feel sick. Should I go down and find her? Suppose she changes her mind? What if she’s pissed off that I’m hassling her? And then I realise it’s not up to her. It’s up to me. What do I want to do? I want to go down and find her, that’s what. If it’s the wrong thing to do, well, maybe she’s not the girl for me after all. I get up to go. ‘Sorry’ I say to Fiona.
‘Go’ she says waving her hand to dismiss me, but smiling nevertheless.

I arrive in the entrance to the bar in my waistcoat, tie askew, and see them, the guides, also in their suits and posh frocks, crowded at a table in the middle of the room, laughing and joking. I hesitate to interrupt. They’re still in charge after all, and they seem to be having a good time without us. Then I catch sight of Andrea, sitting on the table in their midst, laughing at something with a champagne flute in her hand. I can see she is indeed wearing something low cut, but it is something ethnic, as she would put it, something in cerise. I move a little closer and hate myself for my hesitancy. Then I think ‘Sod it’ and stride up and she turns and beams at me and I grin back.
‘What kept you?’ she says happily. All the others turn to look at me. I don’t care.
‘You look absolutely beautiful’ I say and smile and nod my head sideways indicating the stairs and the party above and she hops down and pushes her way through the others, glass aloft, gives me her arm and lets me lead her on deck. I have nothing to say. I am just so deliriously happy.

I’d like to say we spent the night together in the fleshly sense but we didn’t. After much dancing and laughing with the others we cuddled up in a lounger and watched the land get closer and the sun loom up out of the distance like a train coming out of a tunnel.
‘This doesn’t often happen you know’ she said as the sky turned from black to lapis lazuli.
‘What, the party?’
‘Oh no - this is quite normal, but no, I mean us, like this.’
‘Well, there is that, but being a guide – it’s a difficult situation.’
‘Do you think I’d make a good guide?’
‘I honestly believe you have too much to live for Gabriel. You need to go back.’
‘What about you?’
‘I will, someday. I’m not done yet.’ And we sit and chat and I take the chance to ask her more about her life. She tells me about her father and how he wouldn’t talk to her for years because she wouldn’t go into practice with him and ‘justify his investment’. She goes on to tell me a little more about Africa – not about the horrible things, but how she loved the people she met, and, toward the end, how she had such hopes for the future there. She’d been HIV positive for years when they finally brought her home to die. She’d been one of the last people ever to die of AIDS. She didn’t say it with any anger. She reckoned she’d had a good life.
We sit quietly for a while and then I ask her about what Harvey said about the billions of parallel universes, if that was all true.
‘No’ she says. ‘They’re always arguing this at the academy...’
‘There’s an academy?’
‘It’s like a university. Guides can go there to get trained, and there’s research, publishing. It’s all very disorganised but they do seem to have some insight into what’s going on here – how all this works.’
‘And what do they say, about this parallel universe thing?’
‘People who know they’re living again recognise each other sometimes. I don’t know how it works, but there is just the one universe apparently.’
I want to ask if she thinks we could really meet again but in a way, I don’t want to know. I let it go. We look at the view some more. It’s a beautiful view but I am not relaxed. Sitting half behind her, with her half on my lap I feel her weight pressing against me, and with my arms around her I can feel her soft curvy body through the thin material, and I cannot help but watch her breasts rising and falling, soft and pale. She turns and kisses me on the lips and I am shaking from it.
‘It’s not professionalism I’m worried about’ she says quietly. ‘I can’t go further with this because I know we will have to go our separate ways tomorrow. Can you just hold me and talk to me – is that ok?’ She looks away. I nod and kiss her behind her ear and find I am suddenly very relaxed. And I’m more than ok with it. It’s far more than I ever realistically hoped for.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Journey XV – Poppy

‘You can rest here awhile’ he says after we’ve been riding for a few days. I’m not used to it and my thighs ache. We follow the track down a steep slope under low beech boughs and ridged with their roots like rungs on a ladder. The caramel gold leaves spatter the ground and garland our shoulders and hats. Ahead I can see water and what appears to be a solid stone quay with a carved stone balustrade. Turning a bend in the road a substantial house comes into view to our right, built of the same grey stone as the quay and facing the water, which turns out to be a vast lake.
‘This is the mill’ says Marvin. ‘They’ll put you up here for a couple nights. I have some business to attend to. I may be a few days. Don’t panic. Just wait and I’ll see you in a while.’ I nod and he gallops off, back the way we came. I look around. Evening is moving in. Everything is dripping wet. On my left, on the lake’s rocky edge I see pines and rhododendrons leaning out over a shingle beach. The water laps fitfully – like a storm is coming. Leaning back in the saddle because of the incline, I descend the slope and the sheer size of the lake becomes apparent – accentuated by the lack of a horizon. It’s an inland sea. In the hazy distance I can see mountains and some of them already have snow on their peaks.
On the cobble road between the lake and the house I dismount and fuss my horse a little. I have a feeling we may be parting company here. I look at the view a bit longer and notice lights here and there along the shores. A voice behind me makes me swing around. There’s a woman in a doorway in a grey dress and white apron. ‘Gabriel?’ she says. I move closer to see if I recognise her. I don’t.
‘They said you would be arriving. Would you like to take him around the back?’ and she indicates a way around the side where presumably there are stables. I nod and lead the horse around. As I walk past the impressive frontage I look up at the windows and think that it’s how I imagined a hotel somewhere in central Europe might look, somewhere in the French Alps perhaps. There’s something distinctly Napoleonic about it. The first storey windows are floor to ceiling and all have matching white lace curtains and red geraniums.
Inside it is very warm and exactly as I imagined a continental guesthouse to be – all starched tablecloths and polished silverware, rich red carpets and oil paintings in gilt frames. I appear to be the only guest. It all strikes me suddenly as impossibly funny. This whole place makes no sense at all, and just then the lady of the house comes through to ask me if I would like the casserole or the fish. She doesn’t enquire as to what I might be grinning about.

Next morning, after a wonderfully deep sleep in a most voluptuously pillowed and quilted four-poster, and after a deep hot bath and excellent coffee and croissants I set out for a walk along the shore. I look down over the stone balustrades and see water crashing out from under the road and under the house presumably. I turn and look up at the crag behind the house and wonder where it’s all coming from and what it’s being used for, if anything. Turning back to the lake I look at the long grey view over the water, which is now quite choppy and I watch dark clouds passing across. Slanting lines of heavy rain are visible beneath them, even at this distance and I can hear the steady rush of heavy weather on its way. And there’s something else too. Something I’ve not heard in a very long time. Children. I can hear children’s voices.
Suddenly it seems very strange that I hadn’t missed them until now and surely they shouldn’t be here. This is what I was told long ago. There shouldn’t be any children in the afterlife. And then I spot them – quite a way away, jumping about among the rocks and tree roots further along the right-hand shore, among the trees, ten or twelve of them, brightly dressed and running in that unmistakable way children have. I wonder who they belong to or how they got here otherwise. I decide to explore the left bank.
That night at dinner I ask Colette, the mistress of the house, about them and she says vaguely that they come sometimes and maybe they belong to the people along the shore. She doesn’t know. I’m not sure why they disturb me so much. I learned to avoid children in life. It was safer that way – no misunderstandings. And yet here they are, unattended. Anything could be out there. I look out of my window long after dark that night and I can still hear them up in the woods on the promontory. They worry me.

Marvin doesn’t come the next day, nor the next. I’m worried about him too now, although Colette makes mollifying noises and yet more coffee and extraordinary cakes. It is raining heavily outside and the cobbles are adrift with fallen leaves from the maples above. I sit in the window and watch.
On the fourth day, the rain eases up and Marvin appears, clearly in a hurry, still needing more time and making apologies. He wants to check I’m ok and I say I am but that there are children here, unsupervised apparently.
‘Are you sure?’ he says, making time for at least one cup of coffee and a slice of cake. He looks troubled by this too. ‘I didn’t think that was possible’ he says into his cup. Two more cups and the better part of a walnut cake later he gets up suddenly and says ‘Gotta dash’. I see him to his horse.
‘I’ll ask about the kids ok?’ he shouts as he wheels around and heads back up the hill.
‘Ok’ I say and wonder who he will ask. It’s becoming apparent that there must be a whole invisible network of guides and their facilities working behind the scenes. I wonder who organises it. I go back in, out of the rain and find a book to read. Colette offers me more coffee but I ask if she’s got anything stronger and she reels off a long list of liqueurs and aperitifs. I ask for Calvados. I only had it once in life and this seems too good to miss.
By evening the cloud has broken and the sky is deep blue where it is visible among the black silhouette clouds. I take a short stroll along the quay. I can hear birds but no children. I wonder what happened to them.

Next morning I am awoken by the sound of the children under my window. I look down cautiously and there they are, five of them, playing right on the edge of the quay, balancing on the balustrade. It’s terrifying but I don’t know what to do. Go and find Colette is the obvious answer. I put a gown on, taking one last look out to check they’re still there. They are, but my eye is caught by one of them, a girl somewhat older than the rest, sitting, looking directly up at me. I feel like I should know who she is. I tear my gaze away and head downstairs. Colette attempts to interest me in the day’s breakfast menu but I insist she goes out and says something to the children.
‘Why mister Gabriel’ she says ‘Do not trouble yourself. They are often like this. They are quite safe. They have always been like this.’ and she looks enquiringly into my face as if I am very foolish. ‘It is normal. Now, if you put your clothes on I will make you eggs and ham, hmm?’ I force myself to calm down and nod. I will get dressed and have breakfast. On my way up I find I am trembling.

When I arrive for breakfast I look out the window and the children have gone again. I heard no splash, and no screams so I guess they have survived. I sit down and find I am ravenous.
After breakfast I am finishing my coffee, looking out the window when I notice the older girl sitting on the balustrade, swinging her legs. I have the sense she is waiting for me. She wears a neat black dress with a prim white collar and has long straight black hair and seems very slightly built for her height. As I watch she looks up and directly at me. My heart thumps.

I go out and sit on the balustrade facing the lake. She is sitting sideways facing toward me about twenty yards away but also looking out across the water. Every so often she picks a leaf up off the ground and throws it in the swirling water below. I want to say something but don’t dare.
Eventually she slides lazily from her seat and comes over. I pretend not to notice her, try to keep cool. ‘Can I sit here?’ she says eventually. I look at her. There is a slightly bored pissed-off look on her face – trying to pretend she doesn’t care either. She fidgets and sways, waiting for a reply. I say ‘Why not?’ desperately trying to appear mature.
‘What are you looking at?’ she says once seated.
‘The mountains’ I say.
‘Are you going there?’
‘I don’t know. My guide, Marvin should be back soon...’
‘I don’t have a guide’ she says, as if she is far too grown-up for such molly-coddling. We sit quietly for a short while. ‘I saw you watching us’ she says after a while. ‘It’s ok. We know what we’re doing.’
I look at her. She can’t be more than thirteen. She has unusually large dark eyes and pale skin.
‘Where are your parents?’ I say, expecting to be slapped down for being boring. Instead she tells me they’re dead. ‘But don’t worry’ she says ‘We can handle ourselves.’
I smile and say ‘I’m sure you can.’ And I am. I never had this kind of confidence at their age and I envied it so much at the time – still do. I look around and down at my hands – my thirty-something-year old hands. I’ve been a pensioner and a teenager and now I feel like a schoolboy trying to get the courage up to talk to the prettiest girl in the class. How ridiculous – after all I’ve been through. But making a twat of yourself to a twelve year old is much worse than making a twat of yourself to someone your own age. I turn and ask what her name is.
‘Oh, sorry’ she says and holds out her hand. ‘How rude of me. I’m Poppy, and you?’
I shake her hand. ‘Gabriel.’
‘Gabriel?’ she says frowning. ‘Why did your parents call you that?’
‘Well you can talk, Poppy’ I say, feeling a little more confident.
‘Poppy’s alright’ she says, clearly a little miffed. ‘Anyway, it’s not the name my parents gave me. I don’t remember what that was. I chose to call myself Poppy. It’s a flower.’
‘I know. I used to be a gardener.’
‘Did you have poppies?’
‘Sometimes. They were always turning up in unexpected places, seeding around. Poppy. It suits you. I like it.’
‘Gabriel was an angel’ she says.
‘That’s true, at the nativity.’
‘Was your family very religious?’
‘Not really. I think mum just liked the name.’ She nods and swivels around to look at the water a bit more. We sit quietly for a bit longer and then she says she has to go and ‘See you later.’ I watch her disappear up among the trees. I feel strangely uplifted by our chat and head in the opposite direction, up over the rocks, through the bracken to the ridge where I can see further along the left hand bank of the lake. I decide to spend the day exploring. Later on I spot some of the children in a boat with a make-shift sail far out on the water - clearly having a great time.

The following morning I get word that Marvin is on his way and will be here by nightfall. I look out the front door and Poppy is there again. ‘She likes you’ says Colette without a trace of suspicion. ‘They don’t very often speak to adults.’ I fetch my wet weather gear because it’s drizzling and go out to her.
‘Want to see our house?’ she says and without waiting for an answer, briskly heads for the steep eroded bank up under the rhododendrons where she disappeared the day before. She seems impressed that I can follow so easily. ‘Most adults can’t’ she observes haughtily. I tell her about the forests and crags where I’ve been, and the river where we all swam.
‘We swim here, in the summer. You should come’ she says. I follow her up over the grassy ridge among what look like overgrown garden shrubs rather than wild plants. Huge pines and redwoods rise out of the red, stony soil. Further out along the promontory we skid down through some wet bushes and find what looks like an abandoned quarry below. Half way along on the other side I can see a wooden shack, faded and slightly tilted but apparently sound. There seem to be logs for legs holding it level on the slope. Smoke is rising out of a metal flue in the roof. I go to take a closer look but she grips my sleeve and shakes her head. ‘You mustn’t tell anyone. Promise?’ I nod vigorously. ‘And you can’t go any closer’ she says. ‘It’s secret.’
‘Ok’ I whisper, and we watch. I can hear there’s a lot going on in there. ‘How many of you are there?’
‘Twenty?’ she shrugs.
‘Do any of you ever go missing?’
‘No. Never. We look out for each other.’
‘Good. I’m glad to hear it.’ And I think I believe her. It’s a terrific camp they’ve built, or, somebody’s built for them. I still can’t quite believe no one’s looking after them. I look around at Poppy. She’s looking intently at me. There’s something strangely familiar about her.
‘You’re scared of me aren’t you’ she says.
I say ‘Children make me nervous’ as lightly as I can.
‘We’re not really children you know’ she says, and suddenly I can see that. It’s very obvious.
‘How old were you?’ I say.
‘I don’t know. I can’t remember. Quite old.’
‘I was over sixty when I died’ I say.
‘Not that old’ she says grinning and punching me in the arm. ‘Maybe thirty. I had children of my own, I know that. Anyway, like I say. We can take care of ourselves’ and she turns to go and I follow.
Back at the pensione she reaches up and kisses me on the cheek and says goodbye. I go back in and get more coffee and some of the amazing Danish pastries they do. I think about them – the children all living together in the woods here. It makes perfect sense. How many of us I wonder would spend eternity as a child if we could?
Well not me as it happens, but I could see the appeal.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Andrea XIII – Parting

Our final session. It’s rather early and I’ve come along with an orange for breakfast. I just fancied it but now I don’t know what to do with it. It’s going to get messy and I don’t have a knife on me. I fiddle with it for a while and she looks at it irritably. I notice she has a glass of the freshly squeezed. Why didn’t I think of that?

Andrea is trying to avoid politics by injecting some levity into the proceedings. She’s trying to get me to tell her some more about my pathetic attempts at chatting women up. I don’t want to talk about politics but I don’t want to go over all this either. I’m telling her about a date I had. How to describe the scene?
‘I made a complete twat of myself’ I say.
‘What happened?’
‘It was just stupid. I see that now. I knew it was supposed to be just a one night stand...’
‘What did you do?’ she says, obviously preparing herself for something unspeakable.
I can hardly bring myself to say it. ‘I made breakfast’ I mumble.
‘What?’ she says, trying not to laugh. ‘You did what?’
‘I wanted it to be nice... not like those other... blokes she knew.’
‘So you made her breakfast?’
‘I know, I know... She was absolutely livid, like I’d asked her to marry me or something.’
Andrea shakes her head slowly at me. ‘How old was she?’ she says at length.
‘I don’t know. Early twenties?’
‘And you were what, thirty something?’ I nod. She sits in disbelief for a while, just looking at me, giggling slightly to herself. I suppose it is funny but I’m not in the mood. She sees my serious face and pulls herself together. ‘What’s wrong Gabriel?’ she says.
‘I’m sorry Andrea’ I say abruptly, ‘I know this stuff is maybe important but really... I’m going to be going back into the world soon.’
‘And I don’t want to be out on the streets again.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’
‘I don’t want to be in and out of hospitals and helping the police with their enquiries or dossing down at my parent’s because nobody else will have me.’
‘Well, good.’
‘I’ve got to do better this time.’
‘And I’m sure you will Gabriel. I do understand.’
‘I’m not sure you do. Sorry babe but I think we’re missing the point. I’m still not entirely convinced I don’t need some help with the whole getting a job and making a living thing. Surely it’s what gives people their purpose in life and self-respect and dignity and so forth. All this stuff about chatting women up and having sex is fun but I don’t really know if it’s doing much good. I’m sorry Andrea. I know you’re trying to help.’
‘Do you believe that?’ she says, at length.
‘You believe your sense of self worth would be best served by getting yourself a career? I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a career but... I just don’t think that’s where your heart is. I don’t think that’s what you missed most. Really...’
‘Well, I take your point about there being someone for everyone, but I’ve seen the kinds of ladies my fellow travellers consorted with and quite frankly I was not envious.’
‘Have you noticed how you go into this pedantic polysyllabic way of expressing yourself when you’re unhappy? It’s quite off-putting.’
That shuts me up. But I know what she means.
‘It makes you sound like a pompous old fart. It’s not attractive.’
‘Thanks’ I say quietly and sit and think for a while. Maybe I’m pushing myself away, trying to make leaving easier somehow. Or maybe I’m trying to string it out a bit. It reminds me of when Justine died. I was the last of our family. I watched them all go one by one, me shuffling inexorably to the head of the queue. Today I remember what it is to be an old man again. It’s a perfect place for the addled and arthritic, this. You don’t have to get up and eat if you don’t want to, and nobody fails to get to the loo in time because there’s no need to go to the loo at all if you don’t want to. Paul pointed out with some amusement that some still seem to visit the toilet regularly, even though their body no longer has the physiological need to excrete, but then I honour meal times even though my body has no physiological need for sustenance. I suppose some people saw their time on the bog as quality time. I didn’t. I saw it as a waste of time – a time of waste. I thought I had better things to do.
I didn’t know what to do when Justine was dying. The hospital was too far away to visit regularly, with the NHS ‘restructuring’ and so on – and I hated myself for not having learned to drive and not being able to afford the train as often as I’d have liked. Justine’s sons would have nothing to do with me so I was stuck. I wasn’t there when she died. No one was.

I can’t believe we’ve wasted all this time here, farting about, talking about girls when there’s this chasm of utter incompetence in the middle of my life. Oh there’s someone for everyone alright. I have a sudden memory of Ned’s girlfriend, running down Trafalgar Street with her legs together, the back of her pink leggings already translucent with piss. I got on ok with Ned – he fancied himself as a bit of a philosopher – used to get into some amazing discussions but he was a total alkie. They all were.
I look at Andrea. She looks at me.
‘I can’t go back, not the way I was’ I say. ‘I couldn’t stand it.’
‘Do you think that’s likely?’ she says, impassively.
‘I don’t see why not’ I say, reproachfully. She knows what I’m getting at. I dig my nails into the orange. Who cares if I get sticky hands?
‘What do you want me to say Gabriel?’ she says – another phrase I hate. It means she thinks she’s told me all I need to hear, and if I can’t handle it, well... But I don’t think she has. Now I have all these ideas that a lovely woman could really love me back and of having a life with her and a place of our own and holidays and all the stuff I never dared realistically hope for in my life and...
And suddenly I can see what she’s done. The cow has done it again.

It never felt realistic before, all that stuff. I still don’t know the details but it does actually feel like it could happen. I could make it happen. A smile spreads across my face. I can’t help it. She knows what it means too.
‘It will feel worse, at first’ she says gently ‘but it will get better. I promise.’
I separate the orange segments and share them with her. I can feel the sticky dried juice on my hands but the orange came apart easier than I expected. There’s a metaphor here. I can’t think what it is right now.
‘Will I see you again?’ I ask.
‘Here or in life?’ she says, smiling now. We’ve both relaxed. It’s over. It’s time to go now and it’ll be ok. I can do this.
‘Either’ I say. ‘I think Paul wants an End of Voyage party. You could come... I’ll buy you a martini.’
She smiles, a little sadly I think. ‘We’ll see’ she says.
‘And then there’s always the festies – I’ll come and find you in The Healing Space.’
‘I’d like that’ she says, and means it I think. ‘I’ll look out for you.’ and we stand and hug briefly and I kiss her cheek and leave the room. I don’t expect to see her again.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Voyage XII – Harvey's Tale

We’ve just had a bit of a revelation. It turns out that Harvey can remember having gone through all this before. It was raining hard outside again and we were ensconced down in a booth in the bar, trying to get enthusiastic about backgammon and griping about this and that, and how nobody seems to have much idea what it’s all about, when Harvey pipes up.
‘I can’t remember it all’ he says. ‘It’s like a dream. I can remember parts – some of the afterlife, and going back to life...’
So we all want to know what that’s like. He sits back in his chair and snuggles closer to Cathy. This is the other surprise. While I’ve been mooning over Andrea and Paul has been trying to get into Fiona’s knickers, Harvey has coolly moved in on Cathy and they are clearly very much together now. (So it turns out the afterlife is the place to get laid after all.)
‘Do you remember being born?’ asks Bryony, wrinkling her nose up. This is something we all wanted to ask but thought best not to.
‘Up to a point...’
We’re all aghast at the implications. ‘What was it like?’ we chorus.
‘Disembodied. I don’t think I was actually in my body at that stage. I was just... about, in the air, watching.’
‘So you don’t remember your mum, you know, feeding you and stuff?’ says Paul with obvious relish, miming holding a baby to the breast. We all look at him. ‘What?’ he says.
‘I don’t remember very much of the earliest days at all, thanks for asking, but that’s not because I was too immature. I was aware, as I am now. I just wasn’t fully in my body, as it were. It’s as if my body was simply working on instinct at that stage and then it slowly became conscious as I entered it more fully.’
‘But you were there, watching somehow...’ says Fiona.
‘In a vague, distracted sort of way, yes.’
‘You know, I always thought that about my eldest’ says Cathy ‘that he came to inhabit his body in time, as if his personality was fully formed in advance, but not entirely at home or something.’
‘Did you manage to make any differences to your life, because you knew things from before?’ asks Fiona.
‘It was more about recognising things. I didn’t really have enough information to know what was coming next very often. Once or twice...’
‘Like déjà vu?’ I say.
‘No, well, maybe. Stronger than that though.’
‘My guide said déjà vu is just what this is – flash backs from previous lives’ says Cathy ‘but they’re usually too unexpected and short to be much use – that’s not what yours were like, were they sweetie?’ Harvey is nestled down under her arm now, looking very comfortable indeed. He shakes his head.
‘No. I could go back in my mind, as it were, and work my way through the memory, as you can with normal memories, and even make small changes as a result.’
‘Such as?’
‘Well, you could do something different to what you know you did last time. The trouble was the changes would be somewhat random because I had no way of being sure of what the consequences were last time, if you follow me. It was all rather disjointed.’
‘Tell them about the time you saved that girl though’ says Cathy. They really are very sweet together.
‘Oh yes’ he says, sitting up, getting into his stride. ‘That was one of the very few opportunities I had to actually make a significant change. I think it’s the big, dramatic occurrences that stay with you.’ He pauses. We look at him.
‘And...’ says Paul.
‘Oh, yes, well there was a girl, Frances, who I knew quite well in Worthing, and we’d been friends for a few years, as before. So far so good, and then one day I was standing in my kitchen and I had this image of Chanctonbury Ring, on the Downs, near Steyning, you know it? Well anyway, I knew that something horrible was going to happen to her soon in the vicinity of the Ring, and that she would kill herself soon afterwards. The trouble was I couldn’t pin down precisely when she was there, or even how she got there. It was possible she was abducted you see, and taken there.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Well, I kept on making excuses to go round there and spend time with her but as you can imagine, she found it all a little unusual to say the least. We hadn’t been terribly close up until that point. Well anyway, I could feel the day approaching, although I couldn’t tell exactly how close it was, only that it was getting closer and in desperation I made up a story that there’d been a plumbing disaster at my place and could I come and stay with her for a while? Now, what I hadn’t realised was that she had secretly been having an illicit affair with another chap, name of Lawrence and that it had been getting a little out of hand between them...’
‘And it was him...’ gasps Fiona. Harvey smiles and holds up a hand to quieten her so he can finish the story.
‘It was Lawrence. He was married but he had arranged to take her away to stay at an hotel in Steyning with him. She didn’t want to go any more but was afraid of what he might do if she said ‘no’. I turned up and gave her an excuse not to go.’
‘Didn’t he try again later, after you’d gone? You couldn’t stay there for ever.’
‘I could and I did. Friends, I married her’ says Harvey, triumphant. ‘Thirty years we were together.’
I look at Cathy for signs of jealousy but she is beaming with pride.
‘After that, of course, my premonitions were useless. My life moved onto a entirely different track.’
‘What happened the time before then? If you weren’t with whatserface – Frances?’ asks Paul.
‘I think Leeds, long hours in a very dull office, and I remember a thin little woman with halitosis. I’m not sure which was worse – Leeds or the halitosis. No, I think I made the right move.’
‘Sounds like it.’ says Trevor from behind me, and raises his glass. ‘That sort of luck to all of us next time.’
‘To all of us’ I say and I see Cathy and Harvey looking into each other’s eyes. I have a feeling they won’t be going back.

Harvey and I end up sitting up together when the others have gone to bed. I ask him what happens to us all next, if he can remember.
‘Long journey overland I think. Several years perhaps.’
I imagine all of us, and others from the rest of the vast fleet that must be out there somewhere, all the souls who died the same day, marching across a massive empty plain. It sounds awe-inspiring I tell him.
‘It isn’t like that I’m afraid. A, They split us up into small groups, ten or so I seem to recall and there’ll be a guide allocated to you. B, It’s a rough, often steep, narrow track. You rarely see anyone else along the way, unless you stop for the night at a settlement. Cheer up Gabriel. What’s the worst that can happen? We’re already dead after all.’
‘I suppose so... Do you remember any details – good roads, places to stay perhaps?
‘It seems a very long time ago now. Well, it is, isn’t it. It’s at least eighty years.’ He looks about forty-five but he’s old enough to be my dad.
‘I suppose so.’

‘How old were you when you died?’ he asks.
‘Sixty-eight I think. I don’t know. I lost count.’
‘Best way. Do you think you’ll go back?’
‘Definitely. You?’
‘No. I don’t think I can improve much on last time, not realistically.’
‘Don’t you want to see your wife again?’
‘Of course I do. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than go home and take her in my arms, see her face...’ He takes a moment, swallows, ‘But you see, if I go back, well it might not work out this time. I might be too late, or I might be so intent on recreating the past I might put her off. Or I might forget and let her fall into his hands again, you see? I can’t risk it.’
‘I see.’
‘No. Let it be. I’ve done my best.’
‘But if you’re not there at all, won’t she go on alone and suffer whatever...’
‘No no’ he says a little impatiently. ‘It doesn’t work like that. We’ve had our time. That’s it finished.’
‘But what if she chooses to go back? How does that work?’
He sits and thinks for a while. ‘You know I’m not sure’ he says finally. ‘But I do know that I will not be absent, no matter how many times she goes back and tries again. I’m not sure how though.’ He takes another break to think about it. ‘You’ve really got me thinking now’ he says jovially.
‘So what will you do next? Find a place to stay here? I haven’t asked how it works yet.’ Something about him makes me feel rather inadequate. He has the air of a man who knows exactly what he will do next, and probably has a brochure, ordered prior to departure.
‘I hardly remember to be honest. Some of the settlements were delightful as I recall. I understand the idea is to find one you like and, well, stay there.’
‘Perhaps. Who knows.’
‘What about Cathy?’ I ask. I know I’m being impertinent and he eyes me appraisingly for a moment before answering.
‘She’s a nice girl isn’t she? She doesn’t want to be alone here. I can’t say I’m complaining’ he says coolly. I have no further questions.
‘And now...’ he says, getting up from his chair and arranging his things ‘I must bid you good night.’
‘Good night’ I say and watch him leave.
It must be nice, I think, to see your life that way, to feel that you’ve done the best you can and it’s time to let it go. It must be a huge burden lifted.
But more than that, if everyone is going back, trying to live the best life they can and then sticking when they feel they’ve done their best – does that mean the world is getting steadily better and better? I suppose it depends on what you consider good.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Journey XIV – The Meek

That last trudge out into the open was frustrating almost beyond endurance and took most of the day. We could see the countryside well enough but couldn’t seem to find a way out between the houses. All the roads curled back in on themselves and met up with new closes and avenues. There were twittens that seemed to go in the right direction but they were narrow and overgrown. Eventually we realised we would have to take one. By that time we were all near to tears and stumbling and slow. Meg took charge once more and roped us together and chose a path into the back garden of a huge house not unlike the one we’d slept in. We simply obediently followed her. She had us sing ‘We are the Champions’ at the tops of our voices as we passed through into the overgrown back garden. At the end of the garden we came to a bramble tangled wooden fence. We all kept a very close eye on each other, watching for other movements in the undergrowth around us. Lisa found a gap to crawl through and we queued anxiously. I went last. It was the longest time I’ve ever waited for anything in any life or afterlife and I scuttled through sideways under the briars. I swear something was moving rapidly toward me as I was in that most immobile position but suffice it to say it didn’t catch up with me and I stood up on the other side with the others and we all just ran as fast as we could. None of us looked around, I don’t think, until we were on the next hill, overlooking the town. Then we stopped and rested for a while. None of us said anything or even looked at each other. I know, for me at least, the relief at being out at last was almost immediately blackened by thoughts of everyone we had left behind, and that one person especially. Any ideas of going back to get her out were immediately and totally silenced by the fact that I knew I would never go back under any circumstances whatsoever. We got up and ran some more until it got dark. When we couldn’t see where we were going any more (or literally, our hands in front of our faces) we stopped and huddled together on an open, grassy slope above a valley and slept very little, if at all.

We all looked about anxiously when we awoke. It was late. Somehow we’d dropped off, all in a heap on the grass and now we dreaded the consequences of our lack of vigilance. It all seemed ok though. Everyone accounted for, and standing up, looking around, it was like a poisonous gas that we had become accustomed to breathing had been blown away and we were left, clean and free on a hillside, overlooking a wide river valley. The grass was full of the seed heads from the summer’s flowers and a few late bees and butterflies were still optimistic about finding something to eat. We got up and stood about, no one prepared to make a move, but all of us clearly relieved to see where we were. At the same time I know the image of what we had seen in that cupboard came back to me almost at once, and I couldn’t help brooding on what we had left behind, and what had happened to the people we knew, and of course, I thought about my gorgeous girl and prayed to whoever might be listening, and in a position to do something, for her safety. I guess the others had similar thoughts, for, despite the amazing new sense of freedom, we were all very withdrawn. The couples sat uncomfortably apart. There was nothing to say. I looked at Gina, and she was so obviously in fresh mourning I didn’t want to disturb her. Eventually we all got up and started moving down toward the river.
At the river, without a word, we began, tentatively at first, to undress. Once we were all down to our undies we hesitated, looked about, avoiding eye contact and then made our way solemnly down to the water and dropped in. It was absolutely freezing.
It took us a while to get our breath back, but slowly, it was as if feeling came back to us through the frigid water. We swam about, dived and splashed and slowly smiled a little, played a little, and then just stood and looked about. Some of us hugged. Gina came over to me and we held each other until it got embarrassing. Meg was standing alone, dripping and shivering and trying to look as if she didn’t mind but we beckoned her over and included her in our huddle.

We walked all morning, more or less non-stop. There was no path but no argument either about where we were going. Away, was pretty much the consensus. At midday we stopped and talked a little about where we were headed but had no better idea than to keep on the same general direction – following the river. We carried on like this for four days.
Toward the end of the fifth day Meg, who liked to scout ahead, said she thought she could see roofs and chimneys ahead. The land had become more thickly forested and craggy and the valley steeper sided and tree lined. We could see the river rushing around huge rounded and pitted rocks some way below. She pointed out her chimney in the valley below, and sure enough, there was smoke rising slowly in the still autumnal air. We weren’t sure what to do. While we’d been in the town we’d become inured of the claustrophobic malevolence of the place. By contrast the countryside here felt completely clean of evil spirits or whatever they were and now we were intensely alert to any suggestion that we might slip back into that miasma, or anything similar. We decided to try to get closer and see how it felt. None of us wanted to split up, so we all went.

Below us we saw what was clearly some sort of farming community, set in a bend in the river – a collection of buildings of various sizes with long, low roofs and broad eaves. There was a farmyard with chickens and a horse, and a pond to one side with ducks, and a huge walnut tree in the middle with doves. We lay and watched from a bank of weeds under the hedge that bounded the steeply sloping field between us and the farm. The buildings seemed to include a large L-shaped two-storey house and several lower out-houses. All were timber framed and tiled, and looked old – very old. We could see the bulky brick chimney – the one Meg had seen, at the far end of the main roof.
As we watched, two figures emerged from a covered porch and might have been looking over at us but we couldn’t be sure. They had dogs with them - big dogs - hunting dogs maybe. We watched them there – standing in the doorway until it got too dark to see. Then we lay back and wondered what to do next. Eventually the men appeared out of the darkness with their dogs and told us to get up and follow them.

Nobody said much when we arrived. We were shown into one of the smaller buildings and there we found a group of people, men and women, young and old, olive and white skinned, plainly dressed, and leaning against the walls or perched on sacks or crates. It appeared to be a storeroom. We all looked at each other, more at a loss for words than suspiciously.
‘Where have you all come from?’ was the obvious place to start. A tall stern woman said it from the back of the group. From the look of them we couldn’t tell if they'd know anything much about any other place.
Gina said, pointing vaguely, ‘There’s a town over the...’ but she didn’t need to finish her sentence.
‘We know it’ said one of the men with the dogs, shaking his head resignedly.
‘We do get the odd stray’ said the tall woman. ‘You’re not the first. Phillip here was the last. When did you arrive Phil?’
Phil looked barely eighteen and was shy and inarticulate. ‘Two years?’ he said, looking around for confirmation.
‘My name’s Fabio anyway’ said the man, ‘and this is Maria, and Luke, Sally... O you’ll work it out for yourselves’ and they all got up to go. ‘There’s some bedding in the small shed (if you’d like to see to that John? Thanks.) and some left-over soup and bread in the kitchen. I recommend you use the shower through there, get clean, come through for some supper and we’ll talk about what comes next from there. Does that seem fair?’
We were overwhelmed with gratitude and relief (but underneath it all, still on our guard) and mumbled our thanks and trooped through to where he’d indicated – a dark grey little room at the back with straw on the floor and, at the far end, four metal shower heads. A woman appeared soon with some rough towels and some extremely shapeless grey brown underwear and gowns, which nonetheless smelt fresh and clean. We hardly said anything as we sorted ourselves out. Nicholas and Lisa were both in tears as they showered and dressed. Meg, once clean and clothed, sat on a barrel and looked at the floor. I couldn’t think about what had happened. I didn’t want to go there, not yet.
Fabio and Maria sat impassively and watched us eat, but none of us ate very much. None of us said anything at all. We were beyond politeness.
When we’d finished Maria just said ‘I’ll show you where you can sleep. Come on...’ and we trooped out like obedient children.

The next morning was overcast and damp. We were in an upstairs room without glass in the windows or carpet on the boards. We had slept in a pile of pillows and mattresses – all curled up together in our fortress. Still we didn’t trust the place and the first thing we all did on waking was check to see if anyone was missing. I think it was a good month before we stopped doing that, and we shared a room that whole time. We went downstairs alert for shadowy movements and kept close together at all times. Phillip we noticed had to hold himself back from joining in. Maria kept a gentle hand on his shoulder when she saw this and we watched him hold himself back. I know we were all thinking. ‘Two years?
‘The best thing for you’ said another woman, Helen, next day after breakfast ‘is to get out and do something. Do some work. Keep busy.’ We nodded weakly. We didn’t care.
‘Now, mostly in the past’ she went on, ‘others like yourselves have preferred to work together in the open am I right?’ We nodded again, but more assertively. That was exactly what we wanted. ‘Well alright. Jessie will find you something to do down in the potatoes for a start. They’re nearly all in so there’ll be something else to do after lunch. How does that sound?’
We all mumbled ‘fine’ ‘good’ ‘ok’ and so on. Personally I felt numb and just wanted to do as I was told.

Weeks pass and our little group recuperates quite quickly. It turns out that poor Phillip arrived alone and with severe injuries, having lost all his companions. He had been very lucky but is still suffering. Some nights he still believes he sees them coming for him and his screams shake the whole community.
Speaking of which, the locals seem to be unusually good people – understanding and patient and generous with their time and whatever they can spare. Our suspicions dissipate relatively swiftly.
It soon becomes obvious that the community is chiefly made up not of what had been professional farmers and wealthy landowners but of various greens, pagans, new-agers, diggers and peasants who, in life, had believed in the soil and in nature and in their bond with it. Some had no doubt been deeply spiritual in life – they had that look about them, but, as with so many of us, the nature of the afterlife had called for a re-think on all that and here they merely worked and lived together in a beautiful place and no longer felt the need to posit any deeper significance to it. It was enough.

We took six weeks, I suppose it was, to recuperate and decide what to do next. The others quickly became bored and moved on as soon as a guide came along with another party. Besides myself, Meg stayed on longest. She claimed to like the simple life, but had had enough of it by the following spring. We’d been told during the first week that guides came through on a fairly regular basis with parties from the same docks we landed at. The first party in fact arrived in deep snow only a couple of months after our arrival and their guide, Mitch, was shocked at what had happened to us. His group had only arrived a week before and looked oddly bewildered and vulnerable, soft little souls. Not like we hardened veterans.
Mitch tells us there should have been someone there when we disembarked to meet us and get us out of the town as soon as possible (unless we'd been really keen to stay, as some apparently were). Like any settlement here he says, nobody should stay who hadn’t chosen to, but it’s a far from perfect system.
‘We do our best. I’m sorry’ he adds. I wonder jovially if there’s someone I can sue, but don’t say anything.
When Mitch left he took all but Meg and I along with the ten travellers he already had.

I settled in remarkably quickly. It was after all exactly what I’d been trying to do in my last few years of life except here I had company if I wanted it. I remember one evening, standing alone on the edge of the kitchen garden where I’d been lifting some late carrots. It was just getting too dark to see what I was doing but we were expecting our first real frosts of the season and I was keen to finish. I had a lamp ready near by if I needed it and I stood up and looked around at the trees, which were already half bare and silhouetted against a maroon sky and I felt suddenly and profoundly good. There were no demons in the bushes, nothing to be afraid of. Somewhere an owl called in the darkness. If there were any spirits out there they were calm and peaceful. Somewhere in the house someone was singing. In the fields a horse was snorting. It was going to be a beautiful clear night and we’d freeze in our loft. Meg and the others had been complaining about the cold and the lumpy mattresses but I thought ‘This is where I belong.’

The people of the farmstead found us more permanent accommodation after the first month – a loft with broad beds and a feather mattress each and a window under the eaves looking out over the river. I had to share with Nick and Warren at first but after they left I had it to myself. I suppose it would not have been to everybody’s liking. There was a lot of wildlife up there for a start – I shared with spiders and crickets and mice and bats and all manner of primitive terrestrial arthropods. There were wasps and swallow’s nests up by the window and some sort of stoat-like animal that seemed to enjoy my company. The floor was strewn with woodruff and flag and various dry goods were stored up there too. I didn’t mind. It wasn’t that different to home except there were always people downstairs making the place feel homely and safe. Andy and Esmie, who not so much owned the building as ran it for lodgers, were generous but not intrusive and, once the others had gone, were keen for me to feel entirely at home, providing mountains of bedding and food and subtly indicating to me which of the local girls were single.

I took my time getting to know the others and none of them was especially outgoing. There seemed to be about forty of them, either there in the main farmstead or close by in other cottages. I couldn’t say that any one of them was my special friend (which suited me at the time) but they were all straightforward and down to earth, without being thick or slow. You could tell that they’d been of a somewhat romantic and idealistic mind in life and probably abused and derided for their trouble. Probably they’d been rather naïve, but now look how they’d been rewarded. Should the meek ever get what’s coming to them it would probably look a lot like the farm.

It was truly an idyllic spot. The farmstead was about three hundred yards from the river. There was a raised road out across the water meadows and reed beds to the main stream where there was a small water mill, a jetty, and some boats for fishing. The other side of the river was a large area of reeds and alders where we went for waterfowl and eels.
Hedged or tree-lined tracks lead out from either end of the farm yard, parallel with the river, giving the impression of the farm being on a thoroughfare but the lane gave out after only a mile or so either way, merely serving the furthest coppice and sheep pasture and some of the other cottages along the way. After I’d been at the farm through the first winter I moved into one of these and had a proper bedroom all to myself for the first time.
On the three other boundaries were the kitchen gardens and pens for pigs and other livestock, then beyond them the larger fields for cereals and grazing and orchards. Beyond these were the woodlands of hazel, sweet chestnut, elm and lime, which were only visited on any regular basis by hunters after deer and partridge but we all went there for nuts and mushrooms on occasion, and of course for timber. I went walking out there increasingly often, taking the dogs, or sometimes on a horse. I got to know the country quite well although I was careful not to stray too far and to be back by dusk. I never quite lost that haunted feeling when I was out there in the forest or beyond, on the heath. Others had noticed it too. ‘There’s spirits out there but I don’t think they’re unfriendly’ said Esmie when I mentioned it. ‘Just restless’ said her husband. ‘Best not to have too much to do with them.’

The river too was not navigable for more than a mile or two in either direction so the community was, to all intents and purposes completely cut off. Diane and Gina found this got to them quite quickly. The abysmal diet at the hostel notwithstanding, the plain winter food here bored them. The dust and chaff in everything, the smell of the animals, and the unsexy conversation all conspired to make them grumpy and argumentative. Me it made serene and philosophical. I took to the manual labour that was our rent like a natural, and thoroughly enjoyed the fresh cheese and bread and beer and all the stews and pies and puddings that were our wages. This was how I had always wanted to live, at the end of my life, in my garden, with my dog and my chickens and my compost heaps, with a sunset to watch and a soft bed to sink into at the end of the day.

That first winter, after most of the others had left I discovered how extremely cold this area became, with several feet of snow and all water supplies completely solid. Within two months of our arrival it was time to bring everything in to store and for all of us to bed down in the main hall where the big fires were lit. This was an excuse for music, theatre and comedy long into the night, with everyone together, sitting around or collapsed in each other’s arms, watching the embers glow and passing around a mug of whatever was on offer or something to smoke. As the night wore on the air in the room got distinctly chewy with wood smoke and roast pork and dogs and another smell that took me a while to identify. Oddly sweet and disturbingly musky I eventually recognised it as the natural odour of human bodies but it was nothing like the rancid stench of chemicals, sickness and neglect that I’d come to know so well from my time on the street. This was an altogether warmer, richer perfume, and deeply nostalgic.
All in all I found it rather cosy, curled up in my blanket with the other people there among the sacks and the pillows and the rugs, with someone intoning some boring old ballad or plucking the strings of an aged mandolin across the room sending us all to sleep. I noticed several of the villagers took advantage of the gloomy corners for a little surreptitious canoodling. I joked to Meg that it reminded me somewhat of the parties back in town but she couldn’t see it. She hated every minute of it and gathered extra bedding and went to sleep in my attic on the milder nights.

Over the winter I was given kitchen duties – mostly cooking, which I discovered I had a bit of a flair for. Nothing though took up huge amounts of time or energy and I had plenty of leisure to think or read or chat if I wanted to. Mostly everyone went into a kind of hibernation, just staying awake enough to throw another log on the fire. A few times I was called out to rescue a sheep, or bring in more wood for the fire or ice for fresh water but generally the winter went uneventfully. I didn’t really bother anyone and no one much bothered me. Sometimes I would awake in the darkness of the small hours and look at the bodies around me, all breathing regularly, or shifting clumsily in their sleep (no snoring or farting in the afterlife apparently). I’d gather my thick winter clothes around me and look at the faces – many with young complexions but aged expressions. It gave me time to think back over what I’d done in life and wonder about them. This might be their paradise, but what hell had the world forced them to live in? I had some ideas about that. Nobody talked about life. Many had been here too long to remember and were clearly going to stay forever. There was a suspicion that some had been here a very long time indeed but there was no way of telling who they were. Certainly the architecture, with its vast oak beams and irregular clay tiles suggested some very ancient building methods. No arts-and-crafts mock medieval here – this was the real thing (although with some mod cons I noted – the showers for example). I got up stealthily and went to the window. Here there was glass, seedy and uneven but triple layered. Outside the snow came horizontally but there was scarcely a draught. Not a night for walking. There would be wild animals about too, looking for prey, so another good reason to stay in. All the stock had either been slaughtered or was indoors by now, but the herdsmen took turns to stay up all the same. On the boat, as well as in the town I’d got used to there just always being something to eat, or wear, or read and it was somehow refreshing to have to work for it here, and to take care of what we had. I asked Andy about this and he told me they all knew they didn’t strictly have to work to make a living, but they all wanted to anyway.
‘It’s a myth that folk will only work when they’re compelled to by threat or reward’ he told me. ‘In truth it’s just the bosses feel that way and they assume we’re all alike. Folk like us will work for the love of it – because we want to do a good job. They don’t understand that and they hate us for it. They try to corrupt us by giving us meaningless, demeaning chores but what actually happens is we leave or sabotage and the quality of the work declines and everybody loses out.’
It made me wonder about the town – the neglect, the apathy, the lack of any real consequences for any of the things we did. Was that why we were preyed upon by demons? Was it the price we paid? Was it some sort of hell we’d blundered into? And who were the ones who were content there, and who were the ones who were tortured? And who were we that had escaped? And who, of those who had tried to leave, had been taken, and who had survived? What had we done to deserve it, was what I was asking. On the long winter nights in the great hall, or quietly in the corridors and staircases that linked the various parts of the building I wondered at my luck. I looked out at the darkness. Was this my reward? And I thought about Sophie of course. We had not been careless. We had been genuine, hadn’t we? But she seemed increasingly unreal. It all did. By the window I notice with a jump that a woman’s eyes are open and looking at me. She smiles a little but I think she’s asleep really. Her husband curls tighter around her, wrapped into a goose-down quilt. Maybe I should try to woo one of the girls here.

Come the spring of course there was much more to do, preparing for the new season’s crops, working with the animals, repairing and planning. Meg left with the first group to come through after the thaw and there was an emotional scene. I couldn’t forget her leading us here and I was truly sorry to see her go. Then as summer arrived everyone was busy until very late, sowing, weeding and harvesting. I remembered well my skills back in Sussex and slotted myself pretty seamlessly into the routine, although my experience had been of a place much less alive with beasties. The sheer fecundity of this afterlife world left me breathless on a regular basis – the huge flocks of sparrows and starlings that came whenever scraps were thrown, and which I’d forgotten from when I was a boy and the swarms of insects, including huge furry moths and glow-worms that appeared every night through the long hot summer and which had not battered themselves to death on a lit window in my life since I was ten. A thick pelt of woad, stitchwort and poppy filled every neglected corner of the kitchen gardens, and the hazel hurdles were choked with madder and hop. All the world here was fragrant and fetid by turns, dusty and rank, burgeoning and decomposing, one on top of the other. By comparison, my little allotment at home seemed very barren and weak.
On the down side, I found the locals were not keen to involve me in the decision making and there seemed to be a fairly static organisation. I was given my tasks, but not watched especially closely, and nobody said anything unless they were not done (and I gave them no reason to complain). My chores were menial and repetitive, but not very demanding and they gave me plenty of time to wander and dream and look about the area. I wonder, if I’d made friends or found a girl I liked, if maybe I’d have stayed but I didn’t. I used to help a girl called Melanie with the bees sometimes. She reminded me somewhat of Sophie, with something of her smile and her ease chatting to pretty much anyone and for a short while I thought maybe she liked me too, but then I realised she behaved the same with everyone and I missed Sophie even more. Sometimes, after work and on days off a lot of us went down to the river and spent hours swimming, fishing and picnicking and I began to get to know some of them a little better, and it wasn’t really until then I realised that I’d found a place where everyone was a little too much like myself. That was my first hint that I wouldn’t be staying there for all eternity but it was good to find some peace in the mean time.

And so it went on for two more summers, passed in a honey-scented haze. I was aware that there was something naïve and quaint and maybe a bit too picturesque about it but then, maybe that was what my heaven ought to be like. I sat on a little landing stage hidden among the rushes at the end of the first summer, a menagerie of creepy crawlies buzzing, trapping, chewing, rowing and generally busying itself around me. There were roach plopping at my feet and a water vole munching to my left and I thought ‘This is it. This is all I want’.

By the third spring I could feel myself losing track of what had gone before, of how life changes and moves on, of where I had come from, and I could almost see that advancing wave of eternity approaching, where each year would be every year and nothing would make me fear for the future or hope for something better ever again. It was a very appealing prospect. I looked around me. No one was ever bored here. There was always something to do, tasks to organise, techniques to perfect, endless permutations of the same time-honoured ingredients. Nothing was ever quite the same two years running. I sat in my room and thought about it, looking out of my bright square window with its blue painted wooden cross frame (just like windows ought to be.) I looked back into the room, at the cheerful pale yellow walls and the plain oak boards and the simple wooden framed bed. It was a double. I thought of whom I might share it with one day. Nobody immediately sprang to mind, but folk were regularly passing through from the coast. (‘Folk’. Not a word I was used to using.) I looked across the reed beds to the hills on the other side of the river. This would be my view now and it was very lovely. Manny was in the garden, arranging frames for the sweet peas. Silly old bugger. I might be living down the landing from him for all eternity. He was a nice enough chap but in small doses. He didn’t have a clue about gardens but insisted on being in charge here anyhow. ‘Eternity’ I thought, and went down to make tea, or what passed for tea here. I really missed my coffee. So I went upstairs with the pot and gathered my memories up while I still had them. I thought back over my stupid life and almost gave in then and there. What a god-awful mess it had been. I thought about what it would mean – going back. What could I do to make a difference? I took my question to the next guide who came through.

Her name was Alison – a small, dark skinned, plumpish woman with long straight black hair that smelled of coconuts. I took her down to the river because it was both beautiful and private, to the jetty and we finished a bottle of cider together. I’d not really talked to anyone from outside in months and I could feel parts of my consciousness reluctant to uncurl and move about since I’d left them to vegetate. I was aware that if I left them much longer they’d fossilise. I told Alison about Andrea and about Sophie and showed her the scrap of paper with Sophie’s writing on it. We joked about what would happen if I had to choose between the two of them in life. I said I wouldn’t say no to a threesome and she laughed loudly and slapped my thigh. It was a feeble joke but of a kind I couldn’t have made with any of the people at the farm. I missed smuttiness.
‘So what you’re telling me’ she says, after giving it some thought ‘is that you may have to leave because it’s all so nice here and nobody’s giving you a hard time. Is that right? It’s a bit like what happened with this Sophie person.’
That stings. I ask her what she means.
‘She loved you as you were – didn’t give you a hard time, and so, of course, you had to leave her.’
‘That’s not why I left’ I protest. ‘You know that’ I add feebly, but it hurts.
I fantasise all the time now about what might have happened with us together – when I think about the pleasant but rather distant people here, and further forward, to my new life. I’m definitely a different person now because of our short time together. She looked at my obsessive self-involvement and recast it as a heroic attempt to make sense of my limitations. She saw my bad temper and recognised it as the perfectly valid response of someone who has been frustrated and derided for much of his life and has refused to give in to it. She took my naivety and showed it back to me as a profound optimism and faith in human nature. Another year of that and who knows – I might have even started to believe it myself.
The fact was I couldn’t seriously believe that she believed it. She was just lovely. Everyone felt special in her company, not just me. I was just one among many. Being lovely came as naturally to her as being a pain in the arse comes to the rest of us. I should have given her more time, stayed with her longer – if I’d really loved her. If I really loved her now I’d go back perhaps. But I know I can’t ever do that.
‘You might just as well say that if she’d really loved me she’d have come with me’ I say, but I know it’s a feeble rationalisation and Alison knows it too.
‘You’ve never been loved before have you Gabriel?’
I tear off a reed and begin stripping it, dropping the strips into the water between my feet, where the little fish come and nibble at them.
‘I don’t know.’
‘What don’t you know Gabriel?’
‘I suppose...’ I throw the remains out into the river and tuck my head down onto my knees. ‘I suppose I don’t know what she thought of me.’
‘But you just told me how she saw you.’
I uncurl and lie on the boards, shielding my eyes from the sun’s rays, and hiding my face from Alison.
‘Which was all very nice and supportive and... charitable of her’ I say impatiently.
Alison splutters ‘You think she was being charitable?’
‘She wanted to help me.’
‘So, let me see if I’ve got this straight – basically you were seduced by your therapist? That sounds highly unprofessional.’
‘Well if you went to her as a patient...’
‘As a pupil?’
‘No. That’s not what I meant.’
‘Well what did you mean?’
‘I mean... I wanted her... I wanted to be with her, always, all the time. I wanted to be everything. I loved her.’
‘And yet she treated you as a patient?’
‘No! No it’s not like that. She was...more than that.’
‘A friend?’
‘Yes. I think so.’
‘A close friend? A good friend?’
‘What makes you think she didn’t love you back?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But you felt it nonetheless – that she didn’t love you.’
‘No. No, I accept she acted exactly as if she loved me.’
‘A damn good actress then.’
‘No she was totally genuine. I never met anyone so genuine.’
‘But she was like that with everyone?’
‘But you said she was the same with everyone.’
‘Well... no, she was, I don’t know, she put people at ease. She was funny. She liked to hear what people had to say. She made them feel good. Everybody liked her.’
‘She sounds charming.’
‘Yes, she was... She is. She’s absolutely charming.’
‘And you can’t tell the difference between a person being charming and a person being in love with you?’
I pick another reed and study the way it is put together. I drop it in the water and it bobs and lies back and floats away.
After a pause she says ‘You know this was different Gabriel. You know you do.’
‘I just can’t...’
‘You just can’t believe in it can you? It is simply unthinkable isn’t it, that a person might love you back. So you explain it away. It simply does not make sense in your universe. It’s as paradoxical in your world as, I don’t know, as red and blue making yellow. So you simply ignore the evidence. It must be lying to you. You must be mistaken. She must be deluded. And yet...’
‘And yet...’
She smiles at me and pats my shoulder. I clutch the scrap of paper even tighter, then, in a panic, loosen my grip and smooth it out. It’s all but unreadable as it is. I need to make another copy.

‘Ok’ she said, smiling brightly at me ‘Just a thought. But I do think you will have to leave this place quite soon.’
I nodded and said I wasn’t sure I could ever really be settled here and she said I could because my memory of the alternatives would eventually atrophy, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that at the moment, while I still remembered the alternatives I was restless. She said she believed no one should rest until they are at once aware of the alternatives and yet do not feel restless. ‘That time has not come yet for you, sweetheart. You needed a break after what you’ve been through, and from what you tell me, that’s fair enough, but you are not ready to stop yet. Do you want to come along with us?’
‘Give me another few months’ I said. ‘I need to finish some things. I’ll join a group before the autumn sets in.’
She nodded and headed back to the house to organise her charges. I could see what she meant. I had needed a break. I’d been through a lot, but I shouldn’t mistake hospitality for home.

Just as the weather turned for autumn a solitary guide looking very striking in a calf-length Drizabone came through on a horse with another on a lead for me.
I took my time, packing up, finishing my chores, having a last look around, saying my goodbyes. Nobody was particularly sad or happy for me and I asked Marvin, which was the guide’s name, if that was normal. He said ‘Nope’ and we left without looking back much.
‘Some of these very simple-living places tend to loose the more interesting parts of their personalities’ he said once we were out of ear-shot. ‘It all looks very quaint, and it suits the extremely – how should I put it?’
‘I was thinking “vegetative”, like a human yam. Wholesome, undeniably, but muddy, heavy and not something you want to be faced with raw, three meals a day, every day for all eternity.’
‘Ah. I missed this.’
‘What’s that?’
‘Eloquence, irony, wit.’
‘Exactly. We need to find you somewhere sexier. Giddup.’

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Andrea XII – Idealistic old fool

Next time I see her I make an effort to be nice - to soften my voice. I lean forward, elbows on knees, hands as if in prayer.
‘Andrea’ I say ‘I think you’ve got the wrong idea about me. I’m really not just this miserable old bastard who hates the world...’
‘Really?’ she says flatly.
‘Really. I know people love to harp on about how life’s so hard these days - how the world’s so much more dangerous than it used to be...’
‘Because it is. Where the hell have you been?’
‘What? Andrea, how can you, how can anyone who knows any history whatsoever think that the world is a worse place now than it used to be?’
She looks at me blankly.
‘Pick a period, any period. Warfare, torture, slavery, massacre, pestilence, plague. Ok the technology’s changed. We’re screwing up the environment. But otherwise...’
‘Gabriel, I hate to break it to you, but didn’t you read the papers? I know you lived like a hermit but did you not hear about 9/11 where you were?’
‘Which was terrible, of course. But compared to World War One? The Black Death? The Holocaust? The Crusades? The Inquisition? And that’s just Europe. Seriously Andrea, there’s just no comparison.’
‘Do I have to remind you where I spent the last few decades of my life Gabriel? AIDS? Genocide? Rape? Torture? Child soldiers?’
I almost point out the connection between the word ‘infantry’ and ‘infant’ but manage to resist. But I can’t compete with her on first hand experience and it seems crass to even try. I think she’s missing the point though.
‘I know’ I say gently. ‘Obviously I’m not suggesting that the world’s a lovely safe harmonious place. That’d be ridiculous. I’m just saying that compared with the rest of human history the twenty-first century’s been a doddle. The modern tragedy is that we don’t bother to look after people these days even though we could. We didn’t used to have the option.’
She still looks defiant but doesn’t argue. I see her soften a little, or slump a bit actually.
‘Look’ I say, ‘I know what you’ll say, and it’ll sound funny coming from me, but actually, in many ways I do believe things are better now than they’ve ever been. I believe there’s hope. We’re at a turning point. For the first time in history, life doesn’t have to be nasty, gruesome and short. I know it still is for a lot of people but it doesn’t have to be. There’d be more than enough to eat if some of us weren’t so greedy. We can travel and communicate as quickly as we’re ever likely to need to. We’ve got cures for most of the major diseases... And incidentally,’ I add for good measure, ‘I think you’ll find the UN figures show there’s less wars nowadays than at any other time in history, and with fewer casualties.’
I know I’ve slipped back into my pompous voice again and I know she’ll be sarcastic back.
‘Well that’s alright then’ she says, huffing exasperatedly, leaning back with her arms crossed, but then suddenly leaning forward, in my face. ‘All that stuff’s irrelevant Gabriel. It’s not about technology or medicine or communications. It’s about how people behave... And I don’t see any grounds for optimism there. Quite the reverse actually...’
‘Are you serious?’
‘What about the abolition of slavery? What about democracy?’
‘What about them?’
Now it’s my turn to be exasperated. I lean forward and count on my fingers. ‘Ok, look, it used to be taken for granted that the victims of war would be massacred or raped or sold into slavery, yes?’
She nods and shrugs simultaneously.
‘Racial segregation and queer bashing were normal, accepted behaviour.’
She nods again, somewhat impatiently.
‘Until very recently, a woman belonged to her husband to do with pretty much as he liked. Child abuse was pretty much a fact of life...’
She looks unimpressed. I lean back. Her turn.
‘But Gabriel, all that stuff still goes on. Honestly, I think you’re being a bit naive about all this.’
‘But nowhere near as much, and now it’s pretty universally considered to be wrong isn’t it? All over the world, even where you were – you know, human rights, international law...’
‘But they’re still getting away with it.’
‘Precisely. They’re getting away with it. Don’t you see? It’s not acceptable any more. It’s a crime. That’s huge, don’t you think? That’s unprecedented.’
Another pause. We stare hard into each other’s faces.
‘Ok, so who’s going to arrest these guys? The United Nations?’
‘For example...’
‘The United Nations is crap Gabriel. I’ve seen them – they’re worse than the warlords some of them.’
‘A few I'm sure, but I still think it comes under the heading of things that are basically a good idea but need work.’
‘You’re familiar with the old adage about the road to hell presumably.’
‘But you have to have good intentions Andrea. How can you possibly achieve anything without good intentions? Just because it doesn’t come off doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. That’s all I’m saying. We need to try harder.’
She looks fed up. I think maybe it’s time for us to call it a day but then she says ‘Well, I still think you’re being somewhat idealistic Gabriel.’
‘Fine’ I say, throwing up my hands. ‘That’s fine. I’d rather be idealistic than a “miserable old sod” as you put it.’

After a while, sitting, getting our breaths back she says quietly ‘The UN never did anything about what was happening where I was...’
I look into her eyes. She looks away. She almost looks like she might burst into tears any moment. I hate to think of some of the things she’s seen. I really want to stop now. We’ve hardly got any time left together. Why are we wasting it like this? I want to just stop and go over and hold her and cover her in kisses and tell her it’ll all be alright. But I can’t, can I.
‘When I left Somalia’ she continues, ‘I mean, ok, there were the desalination plants along the coast, and a whole lot of Hydro-Gen plants, and things were definitely getting better but then there were a whole load of new mines going in, killing the rivers with cyanide, and then they started fighting over it all, again, which meant more mercenaries, more child soldiers, then more refugees, more disease, more starvation.’
‘Mainly because of Mithras.’
She looks at me unhappily. ‘Well, partly...’ she says. ‘Things had been settling down before that and then these companies came in and... Not American actually, the Chinese, the Russians, the Arabs...’
‘But the way people behaved was nothing new was it? It was the technology that changed, and the climate of course, but that was ultimately caused by the technology. Do you see what I mean?’
‘I do’ she says and sniffs a little, ‘but I don’t see what you’re getting at.’
‘I’m getting at... Hang on...’
She huffs at me impatiently. What am I getting at?
She prompts ‘People are just as bad as ever but technology makes things worse?’
‘I’m saying people are much the same as ever - good and bad.’
‘Ok. So?’
‘So that’s quite a major point don’t you think? You were telling me how terrible everything is “these days”, as if things were so much better in Victorian times for example, or during the cold war...’
‘So... what? It’s all technology’s fault now?’
‘No’ I say with exasperation, collapsing back in the chair melodramatically. ‘Well maybe, but the point I wanted to make, is that you talk about how dreadful we all are “these days” and I don’t.’
‘You don’t?’
‘I don’t. Actually I like people.’
Now she really looks like she doesn’t believe me. I’m not surprised. She’s angry and tired I know but I don’t know why she wants me to concede that everything is hopeless. I don’t understand why that would make her feel better.
‘Ok look, we’ve talked about whether human nature is essentially good or evil.’
‘Yes and...’
‘And since we’re so obviously not saints you’ve decided we must therefore be just plain evil. People love talking about all the murders and abuse and wars and torture and so forth. Journalists are the worst – they revel in that stuff. Good news is no news, right? But just because they give us more and more atrocities to look at doesn’t mean there’s more and more going on out there.’
I look at her and she has an intense, hard glare I’ve not seen before. I have to look away.
‘But I wasn’t reading about it in the Daily Mail or whatever’ she says, a disturbing grin on her face. ‘I didn’t watch it on CNN. Do you really want me to tell you about some of the things I came across while I was out there? About the boy that came onto my ward with his shiny new semi-automatic and just started shooting the kids in their beds, grinning at me, daring me to try to stop him? Hm? Do you want to hear about that? Or the time I had to try to help a woman who had been raped with a... a...’ She leans forward, bending down so far that her head is between her knees, her hands covering her face, sobbing hard into them. I kneel down before her and try to put my arms around her but she just stiffens, even takes a feeble swipe at me. I crouch there with my hand resting on her hip not knowing what to do. Her hip feels like bread dough, freshly proved from the airing cupboard. All I can say is ‘I am so sorry’ over and over. I’m near to tears myself.

Time passes. I look around at the room.
She sits back and takes the tissues I have in my hand. ‘I’m sorry’ she says and blows her nose. She even smiles a little at me apologetically and clutches my hand.
‘No. I’m sorry’ I say, ‘going on and on like that at you.’
‘No. It’s ok.’
I wait a moment for her to collect herself.
‘You must have believed it was worth trying though’ I say softly, ‘when you started out, I mean.’
‘I did. And I’d do it all again – probably will. It’s just sometimes... Sometimes it’s hard not to believe the human race isn’t just full of evil and hatred and destruction – you must know what I mean?’
I nod. I saw some of it in my time, but nothing like what she describes. We grip each other’s hands for a time. She wipes her face and it gradually reverts to its normal, pale complexion, apart from her nose, which stays bright pink. I’m ready to call it a day but she says ‘You think there’s hope for us yet. Tell me why you think that.’
Where to start, after all this?
‘I just can’t accept that human nature is plain evil’ I say after a while. ‘Ok, obviously it’s a part of human nature but I don’t think we’re fundamentally good or evil.’
I sit on the floor before her. After a while I realise I’m massaging her feet. She doesn’t stop me.
‘You want to know my theory?’ I say. She nods. ‘Ok. I think most people, most of the time, just want to get on with life. They don’t want to upset anyone especially. They aren’t especially greedy or violent, and usually they’ll try to help if it’s not too much trouble. That’s what I believe. Everybody is mean sometimes and everybody is generous, but nine times out of ten the people you’ll meet will be honest, decent, helpful...’
She’s sitting forward in her chair, her hands between her knees, clutching her mashed tissues. She looks past me but nods. She knows this, or she wants to believe in it, one or the other.
‘They might be scared,’ I continue, ‘they might be desperate, but given the chance, they’ll do what they can for you. You know that don’t you.’
‘That’s the problem with your thesis though isn’t it’ she says sadly. ‘What’s that quotation about evil flourishing if good people stand around and do nothing? People get scared and they do terrible things.’
‘I know, and ignorant – you left out ignorant. But it still doesn’t make them evil. I’ve had people point out to me that everyone has their price and they think that proves we’re all scum at heart but it doesn’t. People behave badly. People behave well. It doesn’t prove anything. Anyway, I don’t believe you should judge people by what they do when they’re desperate.’
‘Really?’ she says, quite taken aback, as if this is an entirely novel idea and she’s not sure if it’s worthy of ridicule or serious thought.
‘I suppose it’s the opposite of what most people think but I believe in it very strongly. The trick is to try to make sure people aren’t desperate, if at all possible.’
I see her relax a little. She sits back and thinks about it, smiling a little. She has very nice feet – small and rounded.
‘All want to be good and all want to prosper’ she quotes. ‘God grant you never have to choose.’
‘Exactly. That’s exactly right. I think real evil’s quite rare. I always think ten percent sounds about right. Mostly people just want to quietly get on with life.’
‘But there’s always that ten percent...’
‘I know...’
‘They sure do keep us busy.’
‘Law and order breaks down and the psychos take over. It’s why I’m not a revolutionary in case you were wondering. Some people just lurve the chaos...’
‘I suppose... Mostly it was just ordinary people. I couldn’t believe it. I’d known a lot of them... from before...’
She turns away, looking across the room at her memories, clutching her tissues. I know my reasoning seems ineffectual in the face of all that horror but it’s all I have. I lean forward, speaking softly, trying to be comforting, trying to be optimistic. She looks so hopeless. ‘Ten percent you reckon’ she says.
‘It’s always the ten percent’ I say.
‘Seriously’ she says, with just a trace of a smile. ‘They’ve measured it I suppose.’
‘You’re making this up.’
‘No I’m not. Ninety percent of road accidents are caused by ten percent of drivers. Ninety percent of classroom disruption is caused by ten percent of pupils. It’s a fact. Look it up. It’s about as close to a sociological rule as you’ll ever come across.’
She laughs a little, which is good to see.
‘Given the chance’ I say, clasping her hands, ‘I think most people would rather do the right thing, don’t you? If they possibly can? Even if they don’t really like you, they’d rather not hurt you? Actually I really believe in people.’
‘Seriously? I find that hard to believe’ she says, suppressing a humourless laugh.
‘I mean it. Scoff all you want, but you know what I mean. Stuff people do, sometimes, given the opportunity, when they try... You must have seen it, amidst all the mayhem. Seriously, I have great faith in the human race.
Ok. You know I told you about that night I ended up on the pavement outside the Top Rank? The night I got beaten up?’
She nods.
‘I don’t really remember a lot about what happened immediately after that. I remember a lot of people standing around, asking each other whether they thought I was alive or not, whether they should try to move me. Nobody actually wanted to touch me, not surprisingly...’
‘People love to gawp...’
‘Doesn’t mean they’re not concerned.’
‘Doesn’t mean they are.’
‘Anyway, next thing I know, I’m in the back of a black cab and there’s a young lad sitting across from me, and I’m propped up in the corner and the driver’s saying something about not bleeding on his upholstery but the lad’s ignoring him, just glancing over at me from time to time. He couldn’t’ve been more than about twenty. Lanky, blond, good-looking kid. Student probably. He says they called the police but they couldn’t spare an ambulance and the taxi driver wouldn’t take me on my own so there we were. I heard him mutter that he was supposed to be on the dance floor by now, with all his mates. I was trying to work out what he wanted from me but he just sat there, looking out the window. Anyway, we arrive at the hospital and I can hear him telling the driver how he can’t afford the fare back into town. He even got out and started walking but I think the driver took pity on him. Anyway... an example.’
She looks at me for a long time. I know it’s not exactly The Good Samaritan and anyway, it’s just an anecdote. I know it doesn’t mean anything in itself, on its own.
I can see she wants to say something. She wants to find fault, to dismiss it somehow – question the lad’s motives in some way or make it trivial. All she can come up with is ‘Sounds like he was quite pissed off with you.’
‘Absolutely’ I say. ‘But he did it anyway. That’s precisely my point. If he’d got some pleasure out of it it wouldn’t have meant so much would it?’
She smiles at me gently. So now I’m just a harmless lunatic.
‘He did it because it was the right thing to do, even though it pissed him off, having to.’
I feel very strongly about that lad. Andrea does not contradict me. I came across a lot of well-meaning do-gooders in my life, and all credit to them, but that lad... He’s the one I remember. He maybe saved my life.
‘So how come you had so much trouble with the rest of us back there?’ she says.
I sit back and look as if I’m thinking about it but I already know the answer – I think maybe I was one of the ten percent.
‘I don’t know’ I say eventually. ‘Most people just do what's normal. I don’t blame them especially. I just wish they’d tried a bit harder, thought things through a bit more.’
She sits and thinks a bit more.
‘So you believe there’s a ten percent of good people too?’ she says at last.
‘Well you should know babe’ I say, grinning.
She smiles sadly but doesn’t argue. We sit in silence for a while. We should have finished ages ago.
‘You think I’m deluded don’t you’ I say.
‘I don’t, not entirely.’ She shoves the mangled tissues in the tiny pocket of her tunic. They don’t fit. She looks about for the bin. I pass it over to her and she drops them in. ‘Actually I think you’re right about a lot of it, at least in theory. I just don’t know if it’s very realistic, things changing I mean.’
‘Doesn’t matter. You keep trying because you know it’s important.’
She sits back and nods appraisingly at me. The smile on her face suggests that she thinks I am an idealistic old fool, but that’s ok. I’d rather that than the cynical, defeatist old git she thought I was before.

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.