In the morning she comes in with coffee and croissants and jam and cheese, and sits with me in bed. We eat, we make small talk, we don't look at each other. This is not like us.
‘Gabriel’ she says when all the food is gone. ‘I can’t come with you yet. No, let me finish, please.’ She pauses, fiddling with the tie of her kimono. ‘I’m not sure you’re wrong, about this place. I don’t know.’
‘I just don’t get why you want to stay here’ I say. ‘It’s not like you really fit in. It’s just.... I don’t get it. What’s keeping you here? Really, I mean it Sophie.’
‘Don’t shout at me.’
‘I’m not... Ok. Sorry.’ I stand naked and impotent at the bottom of the bed. I can’t bear being here and I can’t leave her here alone. She looks away. Why doesn’t she get it? She understands everything else so well.
‘I have to stay a bit longer’ she says, almost silently. I half form the word ‘why’ but she shushes me. ‘I have to get through this. You don’t understand, I know.’
‘Explain it to me then.’
‘Now, if you’ll give me the chance.’
She looks out of the window and pulls the duvet up to cover her breasts. I sit down near her and reach out but she draws back. ‘Let me think for a while will you?’ she says quietly.
We sit for what seems like half an hour and then I go and make more coffee.
When I hand her the cup she cradles it close, as if she needs all the warmth she can get. She looks hunched, like an old lady in constant pain.
‘When we got off the boat...’ she begins, ‘When we first got off the boat we didn't know where we were supposed to be. We couldn’t find our guide. It was getting dark. I ended up wandering around this dead town on my own. Hmm...’ She stops and sips her coffee. ‘No, what you need to understand is... My parents, they weren’t abusive or anything... well, I suppose they were, technically, but they never... anyway, my point is, by the time I died, I didn’t believe in their religion, not really. But when I arrived here, alone, I just thought it was where they said I’d end up. I thought I was in Hell. The boat was like being in Limbo and this was like Hell. And I was expecting it, no, more than that, I deserved it.’
‘Hang on. What had you ever done to deserve going to Hell? That makes no sense Sophie.’
‘You don’t know me’ she says simply, and I have to admit she’s right, I don’t, hardly at all.
She says ‘None of this makes sense, don’t you see? None of it – the boat, the landscape, the people. Why shouldn’t it be called Hell?’
‘Ok, call it Hell. But what did you do to deserve it?’
‘Nothing. I don’t think I did anything to deserve it.’
‘No. You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter what I think or what you think. It’s not a matter of personal opinion. You go to Hell for breaking the rules. God’s rules. I broke the rules, ok Gabriel? I broke God’s rules and now I’m in Hell.’
‘But you don’t believe in all that stuff. You told me.’
‘I don’t think it’s literally true, no. And yet here we are – getting hacked to pieces for fun apparently, according to you.’
We take a little time to sip our coffee. I stand in the window and look across at the houses opposite. Are they in there, the demons? Are they listening to all this I wonder? I bet they are, and having a good old laugh at us too.
‘Gabriel’ she says softly and pats the bed beside her. I go and sit down. She strokes my arm. I try to look implacable.
‘You want to know what I did?’ I nod. ‘It’ll seem silly to you.’
She lies back hugging her pillow and breathes out.
‘I had my tubes tied’ she says. ‘Sterilisation.’
‘What? That’s it? You’re consigned Hell because...’
‘Because I didn’t want any more children.’
It takes a while for me to be sure I haven’t missed something. It seems ridiculous. I can’t believe that’s it.
‘You don’t understand how serious that is’ she continues, ‘in my family. It means I wanted sex – just for pleasure. I don’t think, unless you knew them, that you could understand how completely and utterly and absolutely despicable that would be to my mum and dad. Totally obscene. As bad as an abortion. As bad as if I’d taken one of my own babies and slaughtered it in the kitchen along with the Sunday chicken.’
‘But it’s not against the rules. You were married. I don’t understand.’
‘I can’t explain. It’s not about The Bible. It’s about... It’s about my mum and dad. It’s like there’s all these babies out there – little innocent souls waiting to be born. And I’m rejecting them – flushing them away like excrement. Oh, I knew they were wrong – rationally, logically, I knew that. I don’t really know how I knew but I did. When I was younger... When I was a girl... I don’t know... I mean, I knew what sex was. Kids do I suppose, at some level. They experiment. They play with themselves. And as I got older I couldn’t see why it was so bad. But that’s not how I was brought up. I can’t explain it. It’s like they’re all in my head, this trinity - the father going “Sophie, you’ll be damned to hell, you even think about it!” and then there’s the child, little me, furious at the unfairness of it all. And then there’s this ghost – my spirit, my reason, me as a grown-up, pleading with them – going “Its ok Sophie. It doesn’t matter.” But she just can’t hear my voice over the screaming.’
She looks around the room. Her eyes glisten and I want to hold her in my arms again, like before.
‘It’s exhausting’ she adds after a while, ‘fighting all the time. I don’t think you can really know what it’s like to grow up in a house where there is absolutely no compromise, where there are absolutely no other points of view. It didn’t matter what I read later on – Freud, Greer, Masters and Johnson... There were just all those years and me just thinking “What the hell’s wrong with me?” Apparently Florence Nightingale had the same problem – couldn’t stop playing with herself. How about that? It didn’t make me feel any better though. I knew all this stuff but I just felt so guilty all the time. I thought I must be a sex maniac. You must think I’m a sex maniac.’
I shake my head but have to admit it has crossed my mind.
‘I had so many punishments... Oh nothing weird. I got beaten a few times, locked in my room, made to do extra chores, that sort of thing, but the thing was their disapproval. That was the worst. They were everything to me, my mum and dad. I loved them, I really did, but I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t stop doing it. I hated disappointing them. You have no idea what it’s like – your whole family, all your brothers and sisters, lined up on their knees praying for you because you’ve been caught with wet knickers again. You’ll have noticed my little... er...’
‘Ha, yes. My little squirt. It’s hard to hide. Mum told me “Sophie, it’s God’s way of making it so you can’t hide your sins.” Didn’t work of course. I just did it sitting on the loo.’
She slumps back, wondering at her own story. She doesn’t seem angry, just bewildered.
‘So then I met Doug and I just thought – Great! Now we can do it whenever we want. I hadn’t thought about getting pregnant and having a load more kids to look after, but anyway Doug wasn't that keen on having sex with me. He told me I should “exhibit more self control” and it wasn’t “decent”. He just liked to get it over with without me getting too ‘excited’ so I went back to my old ways. Just a couple of times a week, down the allotment, in the shed, but I thought, well what the hell? I’ve done it now. There’s no going back.’
She shrugs and looks away, shivers a little and rubs her exposed upper arms. It’s getting chilly. I offer her a cardigan and she takes it and puts it on.
‘Of course’ she says, ‘now I understand I was just a fairly normal woman with a crappy sex life, but at the time it was like they were all watching me, with that look on their faces. I can’t describe it...’
‘Contempt, disappointment, embarrassment.’
‘Exactly’ she says, pleasantly surprised. She smiles for the first time since the story started. ‘You know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you. Hah! How about that? So, anyway... Then I had the op. I was nearly fifty. I made an appointment and went and had it done. They didn’t know, my family. I didn’t tell them. But there was a complication... So here I am – divine retribution.’
We sit silently for a time, watching the darkness close in once more outside.
‘I still don’t get why you have to stay here’ I say.
‘I don’t really either’ she admits, smiling feebly. ‘It’s just a thing I have to do.’
‘Like a penance.’
‘More like an I told you so. I honestly don’t know Gabriel. There’s just something I have to do here. There was something the guide said on the boat... I was so depressed and confused and scared back then. I couldn’t think straight. I thought – what will I do if I go back? What can a ten year old girl do to change the rest of her life? Wherever I go, whatever happens, I’ll be like this. I was ready to jump over the side, I can tell you. Then she told me – she said “I can’t promise anything but things that happen to you here can change everything.” You carry them with you – like an alternate version. There’s a freedom here. Do you see? It’s about fighting your demons. Maybe that’s it – that’s what you’ve been seeing – people’s demons. Maybe it’s time we all stood up to them. Then when I get to thirteen next time I’ll be ready. I’ll know they’re talking out of their arses and I’ll be able to tell them so.’ She grins mischievously. ‘Or more likely I’ll just smile sweetly and say “Yes Daddy. Whatever you say Daddy” like a good little girl, because I’ll know better. Honestly, when there’s so much torture and death in the world, you’d think the religious would have something better to bang on about besides sex. It’s idiotic. I’m quite sure God would agree with me if He existed. Jesus definitely would.’
I sit down in the wicker chair in the window. It’s totally dark now. I look at my hands. She can see I’m not satisfied with her explanation.
‘And I’ve had your love here too’ she says softly. ‘I’ll carry that with me, and I’ll look for you when I get back. And when you find me you’ll know I was right won’t you. Hm?’
My tears are coming again. I can’t stand this.
‘I just need to do my time ok?’
‘But how much time?’
‘I don’t know. But I do know I can’t just leave because you want me to. Do you see that? It has to be when I’m ready. And you can’t stay, just to look after me. I have to do this on my own now. Do you understand?’
‘I suppose so. No not really...’
She comes over, puts her arms around me again and rests her head on my shoulder.
‘I’ll be ok. I promise’ she whispers.
‘But, how can you?’
I try again to say something. ‘Ssh’ she says gently, her finger to my lips. ‘I know you’re afraid for me, and I will be extra careful. I promise. I won’t be alone...’
I sit back, utterly miserable.
‘I didn’t mean like that’ she says, unconvincingly I think. She pulls me against her and I allow her to half hug me. ‘I’ll make sure I always have friends around, and not go out alone at night. I didn’t used to before anyway. I think... Well, whatever. I’ll be ok, and I will leave. I will come after you. We will meet again, in life, I promise’ and she kisses me hard on the mouth and I turn and hold her tight. We both know it won’t be as easy as that but she finds a piece of paper and writes - Palace Pier, Brighton, June 21st, 2000, three in the afternoon, by the doughnut stand. She folds the paper up and puts it in my bag, grabs my face in both hands and kisses me hard again. ‘Now you have to go’ she says. ‘Talk to James and the others. Go!’ she says, smacking my arse as I roll off the bed.
It took a while. I had to find my clothes and things and I found other excuses not to leave, and we cuddled and kissed a few more times. I told her to be careful so many times it got ridiculous, but eventually I went through the door and down the stairs and out down the street.
The hostel was exactly as I’d left it and James and Liam and some of the others were there. I told them I was leaving town, so if they wanted to come...