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.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Journey XIII – Sleep

I awoke suddenly in the small hours. All our lamps were out but there was light coming from around the closed door. All our barricades had been moved away. Diane was lying on her side with her back to me and was watching intently, waiting for something to happen. I looked around. Everybody else was still there sleeping. I looked down at Gina and watched her breath. Diane turned to look at me, eyes wide, unable to speak.
‘Have they got in?’ I whispered. She looked around jerkily, and shook her head a little.
‘I don’t think so’ she said in a tight whisper. I eased myself up so as not to disturb Gina and looked about. ‘I can’t see anything’ I whispered back. We sat in silence, listening. There were noises so tiny I couldn’t be sure they were not in my head. I breathed again and we sat petrified, waiting.

I don’t know how much later I awoke again. It was still dark out but I realised with a sickening terror that the door was wide open and I could see out into the brightly lit landing. I looked around to check we were all still there. I don’t know how long I sat and looked at the doorway, waiting for something to come in. There were small noises coming from below – disjointed thumps and taps of things being moved. After a long time I couldn’t stand it any more and I got up as stealthily as I could and crept over to the door. I stood just inside and watched and waited. I could see some way down the stairs. All the lights were on. On the landing the other room’s doors were open but dark inside. I thought I saw a movement in the one at the end of the corridor out of the corner of my eye and ducked back in and shut the door, breathing hard. I propped a chair under the handle and crept back to our nest.
‘What was it?’ said Gina, sitting up, a silhouette among the shadows.
‘I don’t know. Something’s happening down there.’ She asked me why I had opened the door and I told her I hadn’t. She didn’t know what to say to that. We settled down together to watch.

The third time I awoke there was the feint light of dawn in the room. The door was still closed. Everyone else was sleeping peacefully, breathing steadily and I felt warm and cosy among them there. I wasn’t tired any more and I got up to look out of the window. It was cold and grey outside. The sun was there in the distance but still very tiny. I sat in an easy chair in the window with a blanket around me and watched. Everything felt very still. Light was still leaking in around the doorframe but I had the very strong sense that whatever had been in the house had gone now. I found something to drink and sat and watched the others sleeping as dawn came along.

The fourth time I awoke it was light. The door was open again and there was a space where Lisa and Warren had been among us. I woke the others up and everyone looked around with unbelieving, horror stricken faces. We looked at the door. We didn’t dare make a sound. There were definite noises coming from below, metallic noises, sounds of tools on work surfaces, hushed voices. None of us wanted to look very far out the door but we knew we couldn’t leave them. I looked at the window. Maybe it would be better to go down that way. I couldn’t think straight.
‘Do you guys want coffee or tea?’ came a voice suddenly from the kitchen.
It’s a measure of the tension we’d been under that we all at first assumed it was some kind of trick or illusion, and none of us answered. Then Lisa’s head appeared at floor level through the banisters. It was still attached to her shoulders, and presumably to the rest of her body.
‘I heard you guys moving about up here. Do you want a drink? There’s instant coffee and tea bags. It looks like the owners came home last night.’ We all slumped in a relieved and giggly huddle and said we’d be down soon. Lisa thought it was hilarious when she realised what we’d thought.
When we got down Warren wasn’t there which wasn’t so funny but we assumed he must be about. There was something of a party atmosphere stemming from a very strong sense that we were on the other side of something very nasty. We sat at the breakfast bar with our mugs and looked about happily. Warren did indeed appear soon – he’d been out looking at the garden. ‘There’s an amazing greenhouse’ he said. I went to have a look at it after breakfast and it was indeed amazing – spanning the entire width of the very large garden, totally overgrown and with most of the glass missing. I looked about, taking in the bright sunny weather and the roses still blooming over a collapsed pergola. Gina waded through the long wet grass toward me, smiling broadly. ‘Everybody’s thinking about going’ she said. ‘You ready?’
I nodded and went down to follow her in.

I suppose that final horror hit us worse because we thought it was all over, although I also think we knew we couldn’t have got away that easily. We’d been packing up to go, wanting to take as much food as we could because although food is superfluous in the afterlife, it is comforting and we needed comfort. Lisa was the one who looked in the cupboard under the stairs.
So predictable. How many horror films had we seen? We all just ran. Leaving all the food we’d collected, we crashed out of the back door, around the side of the house and out onto the lane. Only once we were some distance away did we stop and look back at the house. All the lights were on. Music was coming from one of the downstairs rooms. Several of us vomited. We all stared and waited. The sun was shining and birds were singing and to our right, beyond the houses, there were fields and trees. I recognised the music. Whoever they were they were into Pink Floyd.
We told ourselves it couldn’t have been the people we had set out with - the ones we had lost along the way but it was impossible to be sure - in that dim and dusty space under the stairs were body parts mounted and arranged on hooks and shelves along the wall behind a chicken wire screen like some psychotic Victorian menagerie. I remember especially a collection of hands pinned in their pairs to the wall, flexing and scratching at the boards, unable to extricate themselves. Six eyeballs in an egg box stared lidlessly back at us, trying to focus. Some pink and grey internal organs oozed in a white enamel bowl on the floor. It was a living museum of human anatomy, the personal collection of an enthusiast. A finger curled like the leg of a starfish. Some poor boy’s penis engorged and shrank like a sea cucumber in its dish. The entire lower half of someone’s head screamed silently on the top shelf. Its teeth seemed to have been removed - why, I couldn't imagine. I remember thinking how little blood there was, and how little odour. Everything was meticulously labelled.
I threw up my breakfast, ran out and stood gasping with the others.

Meg, I think it was, eventually said something about going back to help them but none of us were going back, ever. It was simply impossible. Eventually though we did manage to gather ourselves and stand up straight and then we walked away. We told ourselves there was nothing else we could do.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Voyage VIII – D-Day

‘I was never in a war of course’ I said as conversationally as possible. ‘Obviously I can’t know what it was like...’
Trevor nodded.
‘I suppose we’ve been very lucky really, my generation...’
It was too humid to sit in the sun so we’d retreated to the reading room. No one else was there. It was dark and cool and he twirled a slim red volume between his index fingers. I’d been subtly trying to get more information about his past out of him. Partly it was just plain curiosity on my part. I just hadn’t had the chance before to talk to someone who had seen so much life. Everybody I knew had been so very young. Dad would have been the one to ask but he was never very forth-coming.
Partly though I was concerned. There was always something preoccupied, or absent about Trevor, something seething, with just a thin crust of urbanity to conceal it. Actually he reminded me a great deal of my father. Perhaps that’s why I persisted. For his part, I don’t think it was that Trevor didn’t want to talk about himself – he just wanted to be sure that I wanted to listen – not just to be polite.
‘It wasn’t the war’ he said, wearily. ‘The war was fine. I mean, it was terrible...’ He shakes his head – shaking out a memory. It settles. He moves on. ‘But it’s never given me nightmares...’
‘So what is it then?’
‘Who says it’s anything?’
I raise my hands in surrender. ‘Ok’ I say. There seems to be no point pushing. I rise to go.
‘It was cancer’ he says.
‘What sort?’ I sit down again.
‘Not the quick sort. Not the painless sort.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
We sit in silence a while. I know there’s more coming. He’s put down his book. I wait.
‘It seems selfish’ he says. ‘I was at the liberation of Belsen but I got over that. I can still see it, but I got over it. It doesn’t affect me, not really. You asked me a while back when I died. I’m actually not sure how to answer you. I want to say 13th of January 2015. That was when I knew it was terminal. My life sort of ended there. I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t... make the most of the time I had left, as they say.’
He puts his head back and his eyes sparkle. He bites his lip and leans forward.
‘The thing is’ he says. ‘The thing is I didn’t believe I should have to go through all that... time. It seemed... it still seems, so unfair, pointless.’
I want to ask why he thinks death should be fair. People always do though don’t they? They ask ‘Why? What did I do to deserve this?’ It seems as if some malign being is deliberately (or worse perhaps, negligently) putting them through hell. I suppose the natural impulse is to blame someone but I never did. I nearly died several times but I always knew it was either a meaningless accident or my own stupid fault. But I know better than to tell him this and so I sit quietly and try to look wise.
‘The trouble is I can’t forgive her.’
‘Johanna. My wife, and my sons. Sorry, I’m not making much sense.’
‘Forgive them for what?’
‘And the bloody doctors. The medical council. All the bloody bureaucrats and priests... interfering busybodies...’
‘So what was it? Some sort of medical negligence?’
‘Hah. You could call it that.’
I’m confused.
‘It’s the betrayal’ he says. ‘That’s what gets me – the simple absence of loyalty.’
I look at him and try not to let on that I’ve completely lost track of his story.
‘It’s the... I mean, ok, we weren’t that close. We grew apart, as they say, my wife and I. But we’d talked about this. Christ knows we had plenty of time.’
‘Sorry – to talk about what exactly?’
‘My wishes. My living will. I was sick for years before the final prognosis. We went over it and over it. I knew though. I knew, when it came to it... they’d chicken out. I knew they’d just... fail me. Just some ridiculous excuse of a religious conviction, and they threw their hands up and just let it go on. Total abdication of responsibility. I couldn’t speak by then, couldn’t even hold a pencil. Not that they’d have been paying attention. I was just a vegetable to them, might as well have been, except vegetables don’t feel pain. They could see my eyes moving. They knew I was still in there but they chose to ignore my wishes. They thought they had it all under control. Palliative care my arse. They knew. It should have been my decision. All they had to do was flick the switch, and they couldn't bring themselves to...’
‘They kept you alive.’
‘Bloody right they did. Kept me a-bloody-live, for six years. Can you imagine?’
I hang my head. I can’t even begin to imagine.
‘All because a few unscrupulous individuals might take advantage - might exert undue pressure on the vulnerable.’
He’s standing, shouting at the room, tears streaming over his face. I sit back and let him.
‘Thousands of us condemned to years, no, decades, of unspeakable torment. Why couldn’t they just switch the bloody machine off?’
A guide appears in the doorway. I shoo him away politely. He nods and leaves. Trevor turns and slumps down.
‘You had an easy death’ he says to me. ‘A very easy death.’
‘I’m not disagreeing.’
‘How could they do that to me? I had my kids praying over me. Praying! What a time to get religion! But it was cowardice. Pure cowardice on their part. There was a will, a written will and they just chose to ignore it. Because they loved me – supposedly. It’s unforgivable. I’d have done anything for them.’
We sit a while longer. The sun is moving away. It’ll cool down soon. We can go out on deck and maybe... I don’t know what we can do.
‘I’m not going back’ he says. ‘I never want to see them again, ever.’
He opens the book, sighs and tosses it aside.
‘Thank you’ he adds, ‘for listening’ and holds out his hand. I take it and shake it and he stands and smiles, says something about checking on Bryony and heads for the door. I’m left wondering if I should go after him.

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.