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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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.