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.

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.