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.