We’ve been sailing parallel to a tree-lined coast for three days now, less than a quarter of a mile out, all of us up on deck, leaning over the rails – that first morning with considerable hubbub, now silent in wary anticipation. The forest runs on behind a pale sand beach and unbroken onto the slopes in the distance, almost without break or variation. Occasionally a rocky spit has punctuated the shore line, and here and there huge domed trees sprout from the canopy, but essentially we might as well be on a loop, going round and round. We are sick of watching but can’t seem to think of anything else to do.
‘How do you feel today Gabriel?’ says Vincent as I sit down.
‘Not too bad.’
‘How do you feel about the next part of your journey?’
‘You have a long way ahead I’m sure I don’t need to remind you. Do you have any questions you would like me to answer before we disembark?’
I search my mind for something coherent – a simple question I can extract from the chaos. I feel like I don’t know anything much at all.
‘Take your time’ he says. ‘Perhaps I should have asked you to think about it last time as preparation’ he says. I’m not sure if he means it sarcastically, but it would have been useful.
‘I suppose the question that most bothers me is what it’s going to be like going back – being born again. I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I’m stuck on things like nappy changing and breast-feeding, and I know blokes are supposed to secretly want to have sex with their mothers, but really... I’m seriously disturbed at the prospect.’
He seems amused at my discomfort. He looks at me with what I suppose is meant to be a reassuring smile, putting his papers down beside him.
‘Gabriel, I’m not sure I can help you much. Accounts of the earliest and latest parts of a person’s life remain vague, and my view is that it is that way for a reason. Suffice it to say, the fact that nobody has much memory of either when they get back here may be a blessing.’
‘But doesn’t anybody remember anything? I mean, it only struck me the other day how long I was going to have to wait to see Sophie again. Am I going to go through years of primary school, making plasticine snakes and pretending not to be able to draw a face properly so nobody cottons on to me, and how come nobody spills the beans that they’ve been here before? I can see myself going quietly insane there, or at least getting extremely bored.’
Vincent holds up his hands to quieten me. As he does so I feel our vessel slow and begin to change direction, turning toward shore. I’ve got so used to its regular forward motion – it’s like suddenly discovering what air tastes like. I half rise. I want to see what’s happening. He motions me to sit.
‘There’s plenty of time yet’ he says but I go up to the window and look out. Initially it looks like we’re turning toward a piece of beach exactly like that which we’ve been passing for the last few days, but then I notice the beach curves away up ahead and there is an inlet there, and we’re heading round into it. I want to see where we’re going but progress is painfully slow and eventually my patience gives out and I get tired of waiting. I sit down reluctantly, still agitated and certain that if I sit down I’ll miss something. On the other hand I’m very aware this is our last meeting and I want some answers.
‘As far as we know your past will come to you highly incomplete’ he says, ‘if at all. It won’t necessarily make any sense. At one extreme it will be like deja-vu, a vague sense that you have been here before, and it will be gone almost as soon as it comes. As such it will be of limited value. However, for some it comes as intimations and premonitions that may allow for a response, sometimes of a very useful nature. The origins of such premonitions are nonetheless generally obscure at the time and may be confused with other, more mundane intuitions, dreams, hopes, fantasies etcetera. Only very occasionally do people remember anything coherent about their experiences here and in previous existences, and it seems they mostly choose not to let on. I cannot say why. Perhaps they do not see it as being to their advantage...’
‘But you’d think someone’d set themselves up a new religion based on what they knew, or at least, I don’t know, write a book on it. In all the aeons people have been going through all this you’d think someone...’
‘But to what purpose?’ he says. ‘Even supposing you have someone who remembers enough to write a coherent account – what would be the point? At best others would know where your unusual fortune originated (ie, not from your own honest talents, but from some form of cheating), and at worst you would be pilloried as a lunatic.’
‘Ok, but all that hasn’t stopped people coming out with wacko mystical schemes in the past – look at David Icke, look at L.Ron Hubbard...’
‘But they sought, as I understand it, to change what happens in the world in the light of their “insights” – either to further their own careers or to benefit humanity, as they see it. What could you change by telling anyone about this? There’s no profit to be made from it and nothing you can do to prepare for it as far as I can tell. Nothing you can do in life gives you any advantage here. As far as anyone can tell there is no ultimate purpose to this place – it is just another place in which we exist. It is different, to be sure, but in no way can I see that it is in any way a goal or a reward. It simply is.’
‘But you can stay, settle somewhere here, for ever...’
‘But if you choose a place, don’t you find your heaven, or something?’ This sounds weak, I know it, but I can’t accept this, this pointlessness. ‘Surely you have to end up somewhere, and where you end up depends, somehow on what you did in life...’
‘Only in a rather trivial way. Hopefully you find somewhere you like, but your “ultimate destination” is of no more transcendent significance than where you choose to live in life.’
‘But surely some lives are better than others. Doesn’t that affect what happens here? I mean, what about the lost spirits, isn’t that about how they lived?’
‘Firstly you assume becoming a lost spirit is a bad thing. In an important sense it is about becoming one with the universe, gradually losing your identity. Certainly it tends to be the choice of those who see no good in life, often through no fault of their own, and in that sense it is not a good thing. You perhaps see this as a failure, but it can be a happy release and a perfectly good choice. Speak to them, if you get the chance...’
‘They do not leave, not just like that’ he clicks his fingers, ‘all at once. They may loose their shape, loose their solidity, or become smaller and smaller and finally disappear altogether, or else expand and dissipate into the air. They may wander lost in isolated places or they may gather near to settlements and travellers, seeking company, or trying to help. In some cases they might not go quietly. They may try to convince you or coerce you into joining them. This is the main reason why travellers are always, if possible, accompanied by a guide – because we know how to protect you from their advances.’
Vincent sits looking at me rather intently. It is a little unnerving. I feel the hull move again, grinding on the seabed by the sound of it. I get up, more casually this time to look out. Beyond the promontory I see a further bank, miles away, lost in the tropical haze and also heavily forested. We appear to be entering a channel, or maybe an estuary. I look around at Vincent. He seems simply to be waiting for me to come back.
‘And secondly?’ I say, to show him I’m keeping up.
‘Secondly you seem to assume that what you call “life” is, in some way a preparation for this, the “afterlife” – that it is in some way inferior, undeveloped, perhaps tainted. This may be a remnant of some faith you were brought up in – some ideas about the nature of earth and heaven and hell, but I assure you it is misleading. This is just as much your “life” as your time on earth. The confusion perhaps arises from the fact that you remember nothing of previous “afterlives” and so your “life” seems especially significant, or formative in some way, original, innocent, like your childhood. Or perhaps it’s that we here know about “life”, but the living know nothing, generally about this. In any case I am afraid it is a mistake.’
He sits, as if waiting for me to digest this. Actually he’s wrong about one thing. Up until now I’ve tended to think of life as the meaningful part and this as merely a temporary interruption with perhaps a debriefing. Now the idea that this is as much “it” as my time on earth leaves me with a strange feeling of being profoundly adrift. I don’t like it.
‘In many religious traditions’ he goes on, ‘the afterlife is seen as the fruition of ones existence on earth – the fruits of our labours – punishment or reward, bitter or sweet. As apes we tend to think of fruit that way – we harvest the fruit for its sweet flesh, which is nourishing and pleasant (or else bitter and deadly), but the tree does not see the fruit that way. From the tree’s point of view (in as far as a tree can be said to have such a thing) the flesh is merely a means to distribute seeds, to carry them away from the parent, to not necessarily a better place, but to a different place. This “afterlife” we travel is not a reward or a punishment but simply carries us, the seeds, on to our next lives, leaving the pulp, sweet or bitter, behind for wasps and maggots to finish off.’
I sit speechless. The idea is hideous and beautiful at the same time. If there is no end to this, no destination, no home, then what is the point? Just to go on and on?
And yet I do want to go back. I want to enjoy my childhood next time. I want to pass my exams first time and get on with life. I don’t want to be scared and angry with everything I try to do. I want to be proud of what I do, and to believe in it. I want to be happy and relaxed with friends and for them to believe in me too. I want more sex, that’s for sure, and I want to be able to tell all those wankers where to get off. I want to “make a difference” as they say. And of course I want love – probably with Sophie. And then, when I eventually do decide to stop...
‘What about when I choose to stay somewhere, forever? What does that mean? Will I be like a redwood or something – just static, seeing the universe move around me?’
‘Well, to be quite honest the tree metaphor breaks down here. But once settled you will lose your sense of what went before, and of time passing (beyond certain boundaries), and you will lose your curiosity about it. You will simply go on, like that, content or not, as far as anyone can tell, for all eternity. There is a theory that we do eventually disappear quietly and without being noticed but it is just a theory.’
‘Where would they go then?’
‘Well, as I say, we don’t strictly know that they go at all. It’s just an idea.’
We sit together for a while. I allow my mind to wander. I get up again to look outside and am amazed to see tree roots going past mere yards away, black and shiny and washed by the waves we make. Black reptiles and red crabs can be seen crawling about among them – bracing themselves for the wash and then going about their business when it’s passed. I put my head against the glass and look up at fragments of sky through the palm fronds above. I can hear too an excited murmur from the other passengers. I want to get out there and see.
‘Anyway, you will have plenty of time to ask questions of the new guide once you are on land’ he says and gets up. ‘And I wish you the very best of luck. He offers me his hand. I take it and realise I’m really going to miss him and I move forward and hug him strongly. I feel him hold back a little at first but then give in and hug me back. Then we hold each other at arm’s length and smile broadly and hug again. We’re both quite unexpectedly choked up when we part, smiling and nodding.