I saw Cathy and Trevor and the others from time to time. (Paul, it turned out, was not particularly a friend of theirs and was usually to be seen in less articulate company). I’d smile and nod when I saw them but it took Fiona to actually come and ask me to join them before I felt ok to go over. I’d always felt awkward in a new situation – everyone already seemed to have made friends and I didn’t want to have to intrude. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always have this feeling that you can’t just expect to join in with a conversation, at a party for instance, unless you have something very interesting to offer and everyone is going to like you (which is obviously not the case here). Otherwise it’s a bit presumptuous I think. You’ve got no friends but for some reason you expect them to take you in anyway. I just don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.
So anyway, it was nice when Fiona came and asked me to come and join them, although I still thought at the time it was partly out of charity. She sat down and asked me what I was reading, tipping the book up to look at the title, then pushing it over so I couldn’t read at all. ‘Come and join us’ she said. ‘It’s happy hour.’ The drinks were always free so I guessed she was making another point.
I went over and she introduced me to everyone. We dourly nodded our greetings and I sat down and Fiona went and got the drinks. No one said anything much. I felt like I’d butted in on the middle of something, and the panic began to rise. I could feel it swelling up under my diaphragm. I knew they wouldn’t want me here, but I didn’t feel I could just get up and go. Maybe I could go and help Fiona I thought, but I could see she was already on her way back now with the drinks on a tray. Once everyone had got their drinks she went and found another chair (I realised too late I had taken her seat) and we all sat in silence and sipped. Everyone looked very serious. I felt terribly self-conscious. I thought I’d died and left all this pressure behind. This was why I went and hid down the bottom of the garden for twenty years – to avoid just this sort of situation.
‘Do you know anything about human biology?’ said Trevor eventually to me. I wasn’t sure what he was implying. He looked almost menacing – pent up, frustrated.
‘Not really’ I said ‘Why?’
‘Aorta!’ said Cathy suddenly, hitting the table, and suddenly everybody relaxed and congratulated her.
‘That’s the one’ said Trevor. ‘And the other one’s the vena-cava.’
‘That’s it. I knew I’d get it eventually’ said Cathy, taking a long drink from her pint.
‘So tell us about yourself er... Gabriel?' said Trevor. ‘We saw you sitting on your tod over there - weren’t sure if you wanted interrupting or not? Is it a good book?’
‘It’s alright, but yes’ I said, much relieved. ‘I needed a break.’
‘You’ve come to the right place’ said Fiona raising her glass and winking at me, a fag end between her fingers.
I went and sat with them quite a lot after that. Mostly we just sat together and read or ate and drank or looked at the sea. Sometimes we discussed what was going on here, what this was all for. None of us was very sure, and our guides were so far being a bit cagey.
What we did know was that we were going to live our lives again at the end of it, enriched, it was hoped, by what we learned here.
‘I’m not learning anything I don’t think’ says Trevor one morning, dunking his croissant in his chocolate. ‘It all seems like a bit of a waste of time if you ask me.’
‘You’re dead you berk’ says Fiona jovially. ‘Do you have something better to do?’
‘I have a theory’ says Bryony, a pale girl with very straight black hair and wearing what appear to be widow’s weeds. We turn to listen. She doesn't normally say much at all.
‘There isn’t a point’ she announces dismissively. ‘It’s like life – it’s just something you go through until...’
‘Until what?’ asks Cathy despondently.
‘Until you stop, I suppose.’
‘That’s a bit bleak’ says Harvey, the third man around the table.
‘I don’t know what any of this means’ says Cathy, rather hopelessly. ‘I just want to go home.’
And there’s nothing any of us can say to that. Trevor looks around, absentmindedly mushing his croissant. Harvey looks at his book but doesn’t focus. Fiona grips Cathy’s hand. I try to appear downcast too, but I’m actually quite enjoying myself.
‘I was a ghost for a while’ says Bryony cheerfully another morning at breakfast.
None of us can hide our amazement. We sit there looking at her, speechless, except for Fiona, who says ‘Shit. What was that like?’
‘Fairly boring actually. Less fun than you’d think anyway.’
‘How’d it happen?’ I say. ‘Did you put in a request or something?’
Bryony is dissecting a Danish with her fingertips and feeding the tiny pieces between her ruby-rouged lips. She’s amazingly erotic at times.
She shrugs, not looking at us. ‘I spoke to Ian, my guide. He said it’s like they say. Your spirit just sort of hangs around if it has unfinished business in the world.’
‘What was yours?’
‘Your unfinished business?’
‘Oh. Doesn’t matter. Anyway. Basically it’s a bust. You can’t do anything useful at all. It’s like one of those nightmares where you know you have to do something but you can’t quite get it together. You can’t even remember what it was you were supposed to be doing most of the time.’ She feeds the last morsel in without touching the sides and looks around at us rather too directly. It’s a bit unnerving actually. The black eye liner doesn’t help.
‘But what’s the point of that?’ says Fiona.
‘Of being back in the world as a ghost and not being able to do anything while you’re there. It’s stupid.’
‘Well duh, I don’t think there is a point. That’s what I’ve been saying. It’s just something that happens. You die, you’re not really paying attention for whatever reason and you fail to go toward the light or something. I don’t know.’
‘But did you end up just, well, haunting somewhere?’ asks Cathy. Bryony nods and turns to her blackcurrant smoothie, pumping the straw up and down.
‘I was just stuck in the house where... well anyway’ she flicks her fingers, as if shooing away a troublesome bat, or perhaps drying her purple nail varnish. ‘I just kept coming down this hallway, over and over again. And I knew something was supposed to happen but I couldn’t figure out what. Then I found myself back at the beginning, starting all over again.’
‘How long did that go on for?’ and ‘Did anyone see you?’ say Fiona and I at the same time.
‘Seemed like forever. I guess time is even more irrelevant when you’re a ghost, and yes, once.’
‘Anyone you knew?’
She goes quiet and looks away. I suppose this is what she doesn’t want to talk about.
‘Did you achieve what you wanted to?’ asks Cathy, clearly concerned.
Bryony doesn’t respond.
‘How did you get here?’ I say.
‘Look I just gave up ok? Sheesh I wish I’d never told you guys. I just found myself giving up on it and... ended up here. Look I’m sorry. I wish I’d never started this. Can we change the subject?’
We all agree, reluctantly, to change the subject.
We can talk about it later, after she’s gone...