So our merry band begins the long haul up into the desert. We start the climb in fine enough fettle but it’s hard to maintain with the heat and the fact that the travelling has lost its novelty. Probably the happiest person, at least on the face of it, is Nicky, who sits up front and chats to Jeb or walks along with Muriel. I’m not totally convinced but glad to see she seems to be trying. Shamim and I are being careful around each other too. Nicky is friendly to her, but keeps her distance. Shamim’s parents are totally wrapped up in each other and seem, if anything to be growing younger. I ask Jeb about it and he says he’s never heard of people actually getting younger here but who knows.
‘Negative-entropy’ he says cryptically. I look at him with my ‘What you talkin ’bout man?’ face.
‘It’s a theory I have. You want to hear it?’ I nod equivocally.
‘It’s like, in life, things fall apart, tend to disorder.’
‘I know what entropy is.’
‘Of course you do. My apologies. But here it’s not like that. Things change but they’re just as likely to come together, rebuild themselves as collapse. You have to actively set about destroying things. The natural tendency here is for things to go back the way they were. You see what I’m getting at. Time runs in both directions. Causality goes both ways... Well, it’s a theory...’
‘Like newts’ says Mike. We turn and look at him, then at each other. What’s he on about?
‘They lose a leg and it grows back. Or so I understand.’
I can imagine there must be many objections to this theory but let it go.
Anyway, the Sadeghis smile beneficently upon Shamim and I whenever they see us together. The truth is I can’t imagine us together either – not because we don’t get on, but because I feel there’s some taboo there and I’m afraid of offending them. I don’t know if that’s racist or anything. I just don’t know what their rules are and I don’t feel like I can ask. I guess as far as they’re concerned we westerners don’t have any.
Agnes tries to spend time with Muriel but they really are very different and she’s ended up competing with her for Mike’s attention. Mike doesn’t seem to mind but Agnes is not popular. That much is clear. After one minor dust-up over who does what with the packing she came over to me and hissed in my face ‘Not everybody thinks you’re Mr Wonderful you know.’
I hadn’t been aware that anybody thought that of me, so that’s nice.
After some initial awkwardness, Nicky and I begin to relax and enjoy each other’s company. With the sexual tension more or less gone (she seems incapable of speaking in an entirely non-flirtatious manner) we can wander along, with or without Shamim and she’s actually quite entertaining company. She does a wicked impersonation of Agnes and Mike for example. It’s as if all her wit and intelligence is normally packed away because she thinks men won’t like it.
One afternoon when we’re walking off our lunch she says to me ‘You are actually a nice bloke, aren’t you’ as if it defies belief.
‘Well, I don’t know about that’ I murmur ‘but thanks anyway.’
‘My mum always said “All men are bastards and them that aren’t, aren’t worth the bother.” But then she was from Hartlepool. It really is a bit grim up there...’
We walk along a bit further. She says ‘I don’t think I ever fell in love with a nice bloke... sorry. Loads of others... I was thinking about what you said that first time we spoke – do you remember?’
‘Hard to forget.’
She smiles to herself at the memory. I watch her face, which is a good three inches above mine. She is very tall.
‘What were you thinking?’ I prompt.
‘What? Oh, right. I was thinking about men, lying. I always thought men were lying to me, do you know that?’ I shake my head. ‘It was reassuring... I always thought, if a guy came up and spoke to me and he seemed charming and nice, he’d probably turn out to be a creep. But then, if a bloke I was into started talking to me like I was dirt, and getting jealous and violent and so on I’d just think he was probably a good man on the inside and just putting on a front and I could make him change if I just stuck with it long enough. How stupid is that?’
‘Really stupid’ I agree.
We walk along a bit more.
‘And then, on the boat...’ she says.
‘Well you know. Except I was lonely and I wanted someone to talk to, and I did what I always do – hung around with a bunch of arrogant bastards and got thoroughly used. And then, when this guy I’m talking to says he’d like to get to know me better, but not like that, because he feels uncomfortable about me being so... because I look so young, and I just thought “Yeah, right. What are you after really?” or I just thought he was probably impotent or something. But he wasn’t lying was he? Because he couldn’t, could he?’
We stop to sit on a rock to let the cart pass us. Nicky fans herself with her hat. Shamim glances at us. Perhaps there is some jealousy there.
‘I was such a bitch’ she says matter-of-factly and shakes her head in disbelief. ‘I was a complete shit-head’ she says, turning to me. I have nothing useful to add.
Another day we’re all relaxing by a cold, clear pond about twenty yards across, set among the rocks near the road. The water is milky blue and fizzes slightly as you move in it. Purple tadpoles wiggle on the edge.
Once we’re pleasantly tired from swimming and diving I see Nicky sitting alone, hunched over, looking at the water and playing with her toes. I haul myself out, collect my things and sit next to her. As I towel myself off I ask her about what she said about being happy at sixteen.
‘Oh that. I was being a bit melodramatic’ she says without looking at me. ‘I was happy sometimes after that too. It really was fun sometimes. I know you don’t believe it, but it was.’ She stops talking for a while and plays with a small round stone, drops it in the water and picks up another. ‘The worst thing was if you didn’t feel like you had any choice. That and if you have totally crap taste in men like I do.’ She stops and looks around, and then laughs a little. ‘We used to do these silly gothic vampire sets with lots of black leather and red lipstick and stuff. It was a real laugh. I dyed my hair red and because I’m really pale? And I had all this fake blood on my tits and everything. I think we were in Blood Vixens, or Blood Bitches or something it was called. I can’t remember. I quite enjoyed that stuff. The more mainstream hardcore wasn’t so funny. Sometimes it was quite scary, but, like I say, checkouts, filing...’
I see the flaw in her argument ‘But those weren’t the only options were they?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, hardcore or superstore. You could have done something else.’
‘Such as?’ She says it like it’s really not occurred to her before.
‘I don’t know, anything. You could have been a lorry driver, or a paramedic, or a florist. I don’t know...’ She looks unconvinced. ‘What did you want to do? What were you good at, apart from the obvious I mean?’
‘Nothing much really’ she says, a little hopelessly. Then she slips in and swims lazily out to the middle and submerges. It must be strange to do that, having drowned, now to sink, and take in lung-fulls of water and still swim about, undead. Unfortunately the water is so cloudy there’s nothing to see down there, but it’s an interesting experience anyway. I note Jeb doesn’t go in.
When she surfaces Mike calls her over and says something that makes her laugh and she splashes him playfully. I look over at Shamim and think I really need to go over and be with her soon. I put on a face that hopefully lets her know I’m having a terrible time but she’s not fooled for a minute. She throws a rock that lands immediately in front of me and drenches all my belongings. I’ll get her back later.
Nicky reappears soon and sits down where she was, dripping copiously. She reaches for her towel and finds it soaked and I point at Shamim who pretends to look innocent. Nicky sticks her tongue out at her as she wrings it out and uses it to rub her head. I look away to avoid having to stare at her breasts jiggling. Shamim is laughing at me. She points at the space next to her and I hold up five fingers.
‘You know what I really wanted to do’ says Nicky eventually, ‘when I was at school?’
‘Don’t laugh, I really wanted to travel – not just as a tourist, I wanted to live abroad, in Asia, and see what it’s like to work there and everything, maybe teach English. I was quite good at languages at school.’
‘Which ones did you do?’
‘Well we did French and Spanish originally, but I did my A levels in Mandarin and Urdu. It seemed more useful... at the time. Actually dad paid for me to do them. God I miss him. I’d love to have done Farsi too’ she says, glancing over at our family of Iranians.
I look at her, stunned. I look over at Shamim with the same expression. She wants to know what’s happened. I gesture that I’ll tell her later.
‘Not just a pretty face’ says Nicky, giving me a silly grin.
‘Certainly not’ I say flirtatiously, deliberately trying to show her that that makes her more desirable, not less. I hope she gets that.
‘So why didn’t you do anything with that?’ I ask. ‘I’d have thought you could have done anything...’
She looks down defensively. ‘I don’t know’ she says. ‘It wouldn’t have been fair on mum I suppose. She didn’t think I was being very realistic.’
I don’t know what to say. It all seems very familiar. ‘What was your dad like?’
She shrugs. ‘He was ok. I never worked out if mum thought he was a bastard or not worth the bother, but he was ok with me. Then someone saw the photos on the internet and told my mum and that was it. I didn’t care – I was still enjoying myself at that time, but she wouldn’t speak to me for ages. Then later she told me she reckoned I should carry on because it was all I was good for.’
I flinch. ‘What happened then?’
‘She’s waiting for you’ she says, nodding at Shamim.
‘I know. What happened?’
‘Moved out, went to London, usual thing, various bastard boyfriends. I don’t know... I thought it would be different’ and she begins to weep quietly into her hands. I pass her the soggy towel. The others are watching us but I put my arms around her anyway and lean my head on hers. She just feels so big and fleshy, like a huge overgrown child. I can see Jeb and Muriel approaching, offering help.
‘How did you end up in the Thames?’ I ask quietly into her ear.
‘Bastard dumped me...’ she says, beginning to sob ‘said I wasn’t even that good in bed’ and she starts to really cry loudly and I hold her tight and begin to cry a little myself. It’s all so horrible. Poor kid.
Muriel and Jeb stand around not knowing what to do. I try to smile reassuringly at them, that she’ll be ok, that she needs to get it out of her system, but I’m really not so sure.
That night I tell Shamim what she told me, although I leave out the pornography. I simply say that she had trouble with men. Shamim shakes her head and I half expect her to say something about “The West” and our decadence but she doesn’t. She just sits behind me with her arms and legs around me with her head lying between my shoulders. It seems to be her family’s way of showing affection.
‘You don’t comfort me like that’ she says into my ear.
‘Well, to be honest, you don’t seem like you need a lot of comforting.’
‘I do’ she says, leaning back. ‘I have a loving family, and I had a good career beginning and a beautiful place to live. It was awful I tell you. Comfort me.’
How can I refuse? We swap places.
Over the weeks the climate becomes much less oppressive. If anything it’s hotter but nowhere near as humid. Everyone begins to feel better, and we walk more and the singing starts up again, this time including some “typical Iranian popular songs” which actually sound suspiciously like Arabic versions of western pop songs, but never mind. Shamim tells me her mother never had very good taste in music.
The vegetation too opens up and a lot of stunted spikey trees dot the landscape, and we can stroll along, especially early and late in the day, parallel to, but some distance away from the road, enjoying our liberty. Shamim tells me this reminds her a little of Socotra. She tells me all about her year at college studying environmental science, and the field trip they did.
Looking around I find plants here that just don’t make any sense – for instance a hideous swollen green blob about eighteen inches across, glossy in parts, scabby and peeling in others, perched up among the rocks like some mutant gout vegetable with spikey green stems sticking out of it at odd angles. I point it out to her, convinced it must be some freakish speciality of this place but she tells me that if I went to Arabia or Africa I’d see similar things. Astonishing really. I want to draw it but I have no pencils with me. Another day the landscape seems to be nothing but a mass of boulders, some as big as houses, jumbled together with our narrow road threading between them. Thorn trees and vines and massive columnar cacti sprout between them. In another place the landscape is a dreary waste of rolling hills made out of grey gravel, with colonies of short stumpy cacti, standing randomly about, leaning at odd angles or fallen over, like a colony of chain-mailed heads, severed and left lying about. The sky is overcast because of a nearby volcano. Further on, a featureless plain of red sand is decorated with evenly spaced tussocks of spiny grass, all apparently lifeless. Flat bodied, stumpy-legged lizards scoot about on their bellies among them. Shamim tells me there are indeed landscapes just like this in life, although she has only seen pictures, and I vow to get out more next time around.
I’m also surprised to learn that the tedious little plants my dad loved so much – his precious Dionysias, come from her home country, and are endangered there. She tells how, up in the mountains, in the middle of the desert, you’ll come to a cliff face and there they are, clinging there, like little green pan scourers. Apparently she had to learn to identify them as an exercise in surveying and statistics. I’m very impressed. Then she asks me again about my life and I begin to tell her, starting almost at the end, with art-college, and then telling her about the work I did before that. I avoid the rest. I can’t imagine how she’d react. I want to trust her with it, but I don’t know if I can. There’s something so calm and easy about her – I can’t imagine her being vindictive in any way. But then just occasionally I’ll catch a glance, or a movement, and for a horrible moment she looks like my wife. It’s so fleeting. I look at her properly and she’s really nothing like her, but then... I don’t know...
As the conversation tails off, and it’s beginning to feel like evening we find ourselves out of sight of the wagon and she looks at me like she is expecting something. I don’t know if it’s a word or a kiss, and I want to kiss her, and I believe I could even tell her I love her but I hesitate and the wagon appears from behind a bush and I go to greet it, a little disappointed in myself. She follows, frowning briefly, but then goes back to her normal, easy demeanour.
Once supper is over I want to talk to Jeb about something but he stands up and rattles a tin mug with a spoon to get our attention.
‘I have to tell you guys that our modus operandi is going to have to change somewhat, probably as of tomorrow.’
We are all ears. Perhaps it only occurs to us now how cosy we’ve become, because we all look pissed off at the idea that things might be different from now on, even Agnes. We all wait to see what’s coming. He stands before us, feet planted, arms folded. I can’t help thinking he looks like he’s taking us into battle.
‘The afterlife, for want of a better term, as I’m sure you have been told, is not always a nice friendly place. It’s made up of a good many different types of regions, some nice... some not so nice. You might imagine that after they die people would be mostly interested in just getting along in peace and harmony, doing a little gardening perhaps, cooking, making love...’ (he almost imperceptibly glances in our direction) ‘but this is not the case. There’s all sorts here, and some places people are drawn to have an entirely different raison d’etre.’ He moves over to the other side of the campfire, stands among us and points up at the ridge ahead.
‘You see that?’ he says, and we all look and can’t make out what he’s pointing at.
‘Look again. Let your eyes become accustomed. What do you see?’
We look and look and slowly it becomes apparent that something is indeed different, not the ridge itself but the sky above it.
‘The sky is orange’ says Nicky.
‘It is. You know why?’
‘Streetlights?’ says Mike, trying for a little humour. We laugh a little.
‘Streetlights’ says Jeb. ‘That’s exactly what it is.’
We stop laughing. Streetlights? Out here?
‘And the city that is producing that glare is at least twenty miles away, and you won’t see the actual buildings over the next ridge. It’s two ridges away.’
‘That’s a lot of street lights’ I say.
‘It is’ he says. ‘It’s a big city.’
‘So, can’t we just go around it?’ asks Muriel.
‘Do we want to?’ says Agnes. ‘I personally could do with a long hot bath at a nice hotel.’
‘We have to at least go through the outer districts’ continues Jeb, ignoring her ‘or go over the mountains... Are any of you able to ski?’ he says. Nicky and Shamim both hesitantly raise their hands.
‘I thought not. Well, in my opinion (and I’ve tried both) this is the better option. But, and this is the point, we must stay together. Personally I wouldn’t set foot in that place if I thought we had the choice, for reasons I may elaborate on as we go.’
‘What? Is it like Sin City?’ asks Nicky grinning eagerly, joking I hope.
‘Young lady, I was brought up in Baltimore, USA and I know about sin and cities and I’ve even been partial to a little sin in life. But I’d still stay out of this place, given the choice.’
We all look at each other – excited, confused, scared? Unable to sleep, that’s for sure. We sit around the fire a lot longer than usual wondering what could be waiting for us.
My question for Jeb seems a little trivial now, but it nevertheless comes up in conversation. I’m sitting there with him and Mike, talking about our lives. It’s a wistful, nostalgic moment, like going over reminiscences before battle, like we might not have the opportunity again. I mention this, jokily and notice that Jeb does not disabuse me of it. My marriage comes up and we all have a laugh again at the whole stupid clown car image, and then Mike says ‘Well, at least you’ll know who to avoid next time’ but I don’t feel optimistic. I feel maudlin and home sick and, ok, we have been drinking but it doesn’t usually affect me this badly. I spill the beans about those last six weeks with Sophie, probably in too much detail really, but who cares, for tomorrow... It all seems such a long time ago now, and a universe away, like a fabulous dream.
‘Did you tell Shamim?’ asks Jeb.
I shake my head. Why should I? ‘We’re just friends’ I say casually, but I’m fooling nobody.
‘And you’re thinking of hooking up with this girl once you get back?’
Our posture has become intense and conspiratorial. Leaning in, we get inquisitive looks from the others. I grin and raise my glass to no one in particular. I catch Shamim’s eye and I smile and wink but she knows something’s up. I note she’s talking to Nicky tonight, and they too seem deep in conspiracy.
‘Gabriel’ says Jeb, hunching lower. ‘What exactly did your guide on the boat say about you getting back with this girl in your next life?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Did he say it was likely to happen?’
‘What did he say?’
‘I don’t know. He said there was hope I think.’
‘There is hope. Absolutely. Did he say it was likely?’
‘I’m not sure’ I rack my brains ‘He said it was possible.’
‘Err...no he said possible. Why?’
‘You have thirty...what, five? ...years before you see her again? ...at best? And everything could be different. You will be different, if you remember anything at all about all this (and you may well not) you will be a different person. You may meet her and not get on. She may not like what you’ve become. She may be troubled by your insistence on getting to know her.’
‘You might push too hard’ says Mike, nodding, taking all this in.
‘Why are you telling me all this’ I say, feeling more and more bereft with every sentence. My relationship with Sophie might not have seemed very real since I got here, but it had been something to believe in, to hang onto, to work towards.
‘It’s what I tell all my travellers – don’t aim at reliving your last life. Let it go. If it happens as you hope, well and good, and I’m here to tell you that is possible. Really. But it isn’t probable. There’s a million things to deal with between now and then, and a zillion things to enjoy. Don’t waste the opportunity’ and he nods at Shamim, who is looking in our direction with concern on her face. Nicky turns to look too but she’s expressionless.
We all sit back. I have to think. Why am I always wittering on about my love life anyway? Nobody talked about this stuff when I was alive, when I actually could have done with some advice. I feel like I should be contemplating higher things here, death and God and purpose and meaning, but instead here I am, as usual, obsessing about women. And then I look around, and I see Shamim’s parents kiss, and Muriel and Mike’s hands touch, and there’s Olly and Lou and whatever was going on between them, and I wonder why I ever thought the afterlife would be about anything else. It’s about friends and lovers, intimacy and passion. Of course it is. What else is there?
I still feel like I’m being unfaithful, but hell, do I expect to live the first thirty-five years of my new life celibate? No way. And Sophie won’t have – she’ll have a daughter. I can’t just spend all that time waiting for her (although I hope so much...) But until that time comes I must live as if I never lived before. And the same goes for my time in this place. I look at Shamim and smile a little and she looks happier. I still need to think about her. There’s still her parents to consider, and I can’t imagine us being free to enter into anything lightly here. At best they will be happy for us to spend time together, maybe kiss and hold hands, but anything else will surely require some larger commitment and I’m not sure I want that. Maybe I would have been better off with a quick meaningless roll in the hay with Nicky. I have the feeling I am approaching the freedom to get very messed up indeed and possibly to cause a lot of hurt. On the other hand...
It’s at just that moment there’s a deep groaning noise in the ground – we feel it rather than hear it. Then there is a muffled boom from up over the ridge.
Jeb looks around at us. ‘Don’t wander off’ he says, and heads for his sleeping bag.