There’s a great deal of commotion on deck when I get up there. Everyone is leaning out over the rails running their fingers through the foliage of the reeds and palms and leathery leaved trees that reach out to us. Everywhere there seems to be life. Several large ungainly pelican-like creatures have taken up positions on the cabin roof and are clucking and cawing to each other. Their bodies seem to be covered in a white fuzz instead of ordinary feathers. A couple of pink dolphin-like animals are swimming alongside us in the muddy water and some very thickly furred monkeys keep pace with us clambering through the branches. Some passengers throw food for them, which they manage to catch in mid air whilst somehow not ending up in the water. All in all there’s quite a circus atmosphere.
After a while I get tired of standing and go to look for a place to sit. I find one on the other side of the boat where the philosophers have been saving it for me.
‘Hello young scruff’ says Ned. ‘Care to join us in a bottle of the bubbly stuff? I’m not sure there’s room for all of us, but if we empty it first...’ It takes me a moment to get his feeble joke. “Join him in a bottle...” ha ha ha. Evidently the party’s going well already. Olly and Lou are deep in discussion but it looks amicable, and there are two women at the table that Ned introduces as Sally and Melinda. Small talk and more feeble humour follow. I look about. On this side of the boat I can see the far bank more clearly, although the mist is still dense and everything is watercolour over there. In the air between and above all manner of bird life cruises or flaps about, and below, the water seethes with tiny fish flashing iridescent when they catch the sun. Occasionally something bigger and darker surfaces among them, sending them scattering. I remember those old natural history lithographs of Cuvier and Cope, of the seas writhing and boiling with life and death and I wonder if it really was like that back then, before pollution and over-exploitation took their toll - hardly room to swim. Somewhere over on the far bank something huge bellows, not quite like an elephant.
Olly is talking to one of the women. Lou looks on. I ask him about the wildlife here. He shakes his head.
‘I dare say’ he says. ‘When Darwin and Wallace and Bates and the rest were out and about I dare say they witnessed something similar, although even Darwin noted inroads and had some fears for the future. It is marvellous here though – look at that.’ He points to the pseudo-pelicans. ‘Marvellous. Definitely nothing like that on earth nowadays.’
‘Really? What are they?’
‘Well I don’t want to go all Conan-Doyle on you but they do look prehistoric. Some sort of pterosaurs is my guess.’
‘Related certainly. See they have no true feathers, just fluff.’
‘Does that mean there could be dinosaurs here?’
‘I don’t see why not. Do you remember the huge creatures that swam with us some weeks back?’
‘Yes, but not whales. I’m really no expert. Palaeontologists must have a field day here.’
We sit and look and marvel. Olly seems to have made a friend, and Lou seems contented enough. Only Ned looks a little rough perhaps. He actually seems very drunk which is not like him at all, or any of us really.
‘I was talking to my guide, Vincent about this place’ I tell Lou. I have to talk loudly because there are more and more people up here and a lot of laughing and drinking going on around us, and jazz music coming from somewhere. Actually quite a few people seem a bit pissed.
‘Oh yes. What did he have to say?’
‘He told me... Oh I can’t explain here. But I wanted to ask you, with your view on the meaning of life or lack of it, what do you make of this place?’
‘How do you mean? Hey steady on...’ Someone backs into us and almost sits on us. We decide to stand up and lean on the rail. ‘As I was saying... Er... What was I saying?’
‘You were asking me what I meant about this place.’
‘Oh yes. And?’
‘Well, like the fact that we don’t have to eat here, and yet, there is always fresh food available, and then there’s how we got here in the first place, after death, and all the other things about life here, and how we move back into the next life. I mean, doesn’t it rather challenge your world view?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, it doesn’t fit with what you...’ more people barge into us, laughing and dancing. One of them grabs my arm but I politely decline. We move further into a corner, out of the way. As we go by Lou touches Olly’s elbow and points to where we’re going. Olly gives him a cheery wave and goes back to his conversation.
‘You two seem to have made up well’ I comment.
‘Oh it was just a tiff. Nothing serious. Anyway. I know what you’re getting at but you see you’re still viewing science as this great edifice of truth and certainty when in fact it comes across things it can’t explain all the time, and that’s not a problem for science – that is science. I admit this is a bigger mystery than usual, but essentially... Oh hello, having a nice time?’
Olly appears and joins us in the corner, looking very happy. ‘Be glad to get off this thing won’t you?’
‘I suppose...’ I say. I’m really not sure. ‘Lou tells me there might be dinosaurs.’
‘Excellent. Can’t wait. Derrieres aloft!’ he says and we all toast to nothing in particular.
‘Seriously though, do you know how we’ll be travelling?’ I say.
‘I have no idea’ says Olly, looking at Lou.
‘I asked my guide – she said it’d probably be horses and carts, at least initially’ says Lou.
‘Really?’ says Olly. ‘I have to say, whoever dreamt all this up seems to be intent on imposing a certain quaint anti-technological theme don’t you think? It’s a sort of pre-industrial romantic, arts-and-crafts I don’t know what, coupled with a late twentieth century multi-cultural fusion, ethnic, woolly liberal...’
‘Do you have any idea what you’re talking about Ol?’
‘No Lou, but I know what I like, and I damn well approve. I’m going to be a guide. What do you think of that?’
‘It sounds like an excellent idea Ol. Have you asked anybody about it?’
‘I asked my guide and she said I’d probably be excellent for it, given my background.’
‘But without the bible bashing?’
I half expect umbrage, but no, Olly takes it in his stride.
‘No no. I’ve realised since I’ve been here my vocation was always about people. Had I been born in India for example, no doubt I’d have been doing much the same job, but as a Hindu.’
‘Or a Muslim’ I add.
‘Precisely.’ (Then, in a mischievous stage whisper to me) ‘I’m not entirely convinced but there you go. How is your friend by the way? I have to say you seem very popular with the ladies, what’s her name, Nicky, and then this Iranian girl...’
‘Shamim’ I remind him.
‘Ah. Very pretty name. Means “fragrant” I believe – did you know that? Do her parents approve?’
‘I think that’s a bit premature’ I say. ‘We’re just friends.’
‘Good good. Anyway. I promised to have a word with er...’ and he heads off into the crowd.
‘He’s the life and soul today’ I say. We both watch him, pushing his way politely through the throng with lots of ‘excuse me’ and ‘terribly sorry, would you mind very much?’ Then we turn and look at the water as the light begins to fail. The water has become much more tranquil and the pelicanoids suddenly take to the air on broad sail-like wings and soar off over the water toward the far bank.
‘I just think’ I say, going back to my theme ‘that this place looks even more like the work of some sort of God, or at least a designer, than the earth did. If the evidence was a bit unconvincing back then, you have to admit it does feel suspiciously like we’re being looked after here.’
Lou does not change his posture. I’m not even sure if he’s heard me. I wouldn’t be surprised because it turns out the Irish music I heard the other night was actually live and a penny whistle and a guitar have started up near by and someone is singing – someone who people have kind-heartedly neglected to tell is tone deaf.
‘I agree’ he says at last. ‘It does look that way.’
I smile and look about, somewhat chuffed at this apparent breakthrough.
‘However’ he goes on, ‘that’s precisely how the world looked to the ancients. They looked at the moon and couldn’t imagine it capable of movement without legs or wings of some sort. Now we know differently. It may just mean we don’t know much about how it works here and as usual we jump to conclusions.’
I nod thoughtfully and we clink glasses. I think we’ve probably gone as far as we can with this debate. He leans in and tells me he’s going to go with Olly at least to the academy. I’ve not heard about this and he tells me he hopes to get the chance to study there. I wish him well and we’re about to go back to our table when Nicky appears and, apparently unable to decide whether drama or coquetry is the best way to get my attention, weeps and flirts on me equally, pulling me away toward a quieter spot. Lou waves at me with a very unsubtle smile.
‘I can’t do it’ she says once we are somewhere more peaceful. She flings her arms around me and pushes her leg between mine almost without thinking about it whilst her eyes fill with tears. I find another tissue and she takes it without saying thank you. She is wearing a tight little white top that makes her cleavage impossible to avoid, and a very short skirt. It’s almost physically painful to be near her.
‘What’s wrong?’ I say. I really want to take her seriously but it’s hard. And it’s difficult as well.
‘I can’t go back. It’s too much.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know’ she says but I notice her looking at the water. Maybe it’s just drama. Maybe it’s just attention seeking. I notice Shamim across the way talking to Olly. Now I feel very uncomfortable. I take her hand and drag her round to the front where we’d been a few nights before.
‘What’s the problem?’ I say, trying not to be impatient with her.
‘You like me don’t you?’ she says.
‘Actually I do’ I say, surprised to realise it’s the truth. She looks down a moment and then falls against me and kisses me hard and deep, with lots of tongue and saliva and teeth and her body presses me hard against the rails, grinding my erection into her thigh. I turn my head away but am still holding her tightly. She stands there rigidly, not knowing what to do. Then she leans her head hard on my chest and sobs loudly. I hold her more gently and let her cry. It gives me time to think. It occurs to me that this happens a lot to me. I can think of three occasions at least. It happens when women think I’m such a nice guy and that I understand them and they can tell me anything, then they get to know me and it’s all a bit embarrassing but anyway... I see a chair and sit us down on it. The band is actually quite good. The singing has stopped and they seem to have found some percussion from somewhere. I half wish I was there with them but I can’t leave her like this and anyway it’s the old purple-headed monster trick again isn’t it. I could really do with a shag but not like this. She may be technically twenty years old but she really is like a child. I take hold, gently, of her face in my hands and look into it. It’s all snotty and wet and I find I’m out of tissues. I take my jacket off and wipe her face with the lining. I probably won’t need it after tomorrow anyway. She sniffles a bit and looks around. ‘I’m so sorry’ she says and starts to cry again and I hold her again.
After a good three quarters of an hour she begins to come out of it. We sit close, my arm around her, one of her legs over mine, her forehead resting against mine. She’s warm and fragrant and soft and all too fondlable. I resist manfully. It occurs to me we could do with a drink but I don’t want to leave her.
‘Tell me what’s happened’ I say.
‘It’s all your fault’ she says quietly. ‘I thought you were all lying before.’
‘Oh never mind. I don’t want to talk about it. You can let go now.’
I let go. I move her legs off. I sit beside her. I feel really stupid. I look over at the party, wish I were over there.
‘Do you want something to drink?’
‘Maybe’ she says and grabs my arm tightly, hanging on to it now, pulling me toward her, her head on my shoulder. My hand has nowhere to go but on her thigh – high on her soft, bare, inner thigh. Bloody hell.
‘I’m going to get some drinks’ I say. ‘What was it? Gin and tonic?’ she nods dumbly. She lets my arm go as I get up, and sits rather slumped as I move tentatively away. Then she gets up and totters after me.
Once in the crowd she’s all brave smiles, waving at people and making chat. I head down to the bar and wait to order. She doesn’t follow. I get the drinks and head back. On my return she’s flirting again with the dudes. I give her her drink and she introduces me but doesn’t pay me any more attention. I wander off to look at the band.
I find Lou and Olly dancing with Melinda and the other one. It’s like a jig so I can join in happily. ‘How’s our girl?’ shouts Olly in my ear.
‘Mad’ I yell back. ‘Actually I’m afraid she might jump.’
‘Why don’t you get her over here to dance?’ shouts Lou.
‘I don’t want to encourage her.’ They both look at me disapprovingly. ‘Ok, I’ll try’ I say. So I go over to find her and she’s still in the same place but only one of the dudes is still there and he looks bored. I go and ask her and she rather doubtfully joins us but then gets into it and we all have trouble concentrating. Poor Olly’s only about five-foot-four and has to dance with his eyes closed or risk blindness.
It’s deep into the night when we all collapse in the deck chairs and begin to doze off. Lou and Melinda appear to have found each other amenable. Olly is chatting to some other people and Nicky has collapsed on me. Shamim is sitting a little way off with another group and gives me an amused and sceptical look. I shrug hopelessly under Nicky’s considerable weight. Oh well.
In the small hours of that last morning, somewhat before dawn, and once the others had gone to bed, I took a turn around the deck, having a last look around, feeling quite sentimental and a little apprehensive. We were now some way from shore, anchored in a channel among sand banks littered with fallen trees and tangled masses of dead and dying vegetation. That was when I found Ned leaning against one of the hoists toward the rear of the ship. I didn’t notice him at first – he was in his long dark coat and hat, despite the heat and he was disguised by the twilight.
I went over and stood beside him. It was all very tranquil. The water was absolutely still and reflected the land perfectly. The only sign of life beyond us was some muffled grunting from across the water on the distant bank – some large creature moving in its sleep, trying to get comfortable.
‘Looking forward to moving on now?’ he says, without turning toward me.
‘I think so’ I say. ‘All in all. I didn’t see much of you last night.’
‘I’m not much of a one for parties these days.’
‘That’s a shame. You could have taken Nicky off my hands for a bit.’
‘Quite a handful that one.’
‘You could say that’ and we nod and smile in fellowship.
Then he hands me a small bottle of brandy. I don’t want it. I could do with a coffee though. I suggest this but he doesn’t want to move. ‘You go if you want’ he says but I want to stay. I have an odd feeling about this.
We turn and head for a pair of couches and sprawl on them. There is actually a cool, even rather chilly breeze now, coming down off the land. Maybe I should have brought a coat too.
He asks about Lou and Olly and what I think of them and I tell him my theory and how it was blown out of the water. That makes him chuckle. He takes a long swig and offers the bottle to me again. This time I take it. I need to warm up a bit. We go on to talk a little about them and other people we’ve met – how they lived and died. Eventually, as the conversation slows I find I have to ask him why he won’t tell us anything about his life. He gets up and strolls over to the railings and smiles ruefully down at the toes of his shoes where they poke out over the side. Then he looks up at the sky and closes his eyes squinting at the coming sun and gentle wind.
‘Because people make assumptions. Because people judge. Because people condemn you and no matter what they say, they do and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. I want to leave all that behind, start again. Isn’t that what all this is about? Tabula rasa? Clean slate?’
‘I know what tabula rasa means’ I say, slightly irritably.
‘Of course you do. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to patronise.’
‘It’s fine. I didn’t mean to snap.’ It’s late. I’m tired.
I go over to join him and we lean and look at the view a bit longer. Some birds glide in from somewhere and wheel and squeak over the water.
‘If you must know I used to be Edward Storey, late of Norfolk Square, Hove...’ says Ned in quiet but theatrical style. ‘...artist, philosopher, man of the road, or, if you like – alcoholic, wife-beater, and bum. Take your pick.’
I look at the birds. I hadn’t expected this of course. I turn to look at him and he’s smiling oddly at the view. ‘Weird old view this’ he says. ‘Seems to go on and on forever, now the fog has cleared...’ and he sings, a little, high pitched and nasal ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone...’ Then that tails off and he looks at me intently. ‘I know you, you know’ he says, and turns to sit down. He opens his coat and flaps it as if to air the layers underneath. I’m startled to find I can see him doing this but in much dirtier clothes, with his grubby face and singing much less inhibitedly.
‘Where from?’ I say.
‘You recognise me too don’t you.’
I look at him intently. I do know him from somewhere. It’s not a happy memory ‘Yes, I think I do.’
‘Past lives. You’ve come a long way Gabriel. I knew you would when I saw you back then. I’m happy for you.’
‘I’m sorry, really. When was this?’
‘I don’t know exactly. You were on the street too.’
‘I think you’re getting me confused...’
‘Not this last time around. Another time, before. Another life.’
I nod slowly, recalling. It’s coming back. I can feel it – being down on The Steine in the middle of Brighton – the open-air cocktail bar that was the Brighton Pavilion lawns some summer days.
‘You remember your previous lives?’ I say.
He thinks about it for a while and takes his coat off. I can see him now, like a double exposure. I expect a blast of unwashed flesh and ragged shirts, but he is simply, stylishly dressed, as we all are. ‘I’ve been thinking about it’ he says. ‘I’m not sure. What I do know is I actually remembered things from my penultimate life whilst living my ultimate life, if you catch my drift.’
I’m amazed. This is exactly what I wanted to know about. I try to think what to ask first but he pre-empts me. ‘You don’t want to know’ he says.
‘Why not? Why wouldn’t I?’
‘Because it’s too hard’ he says abruptly. ‘It’s a mess. You try but you can’t change anything. You think you can put things right, live your life again, knowing what you learned from last time but you can’t. It all just happens all over again, or you change something and you just make it worse and you have the added torment of the memory of the time before too. It’s better not to know. Trust me.’
There’s something disturbing about him now – something a little crazed.
‘Tell me about your wife’ I say and he flops about in exasperation.
‘Oh for God’s sake will you leave it alone boy’ he shouts.
‘No’ I say, also quite loudly ‘You let it slip. You don’t get out of it that easily. Did you hurt her badly?’
‘You hate me now don’t you.’
‘Why did you let it slip if you didn’t want to tell me?’
He sits down again, a bit too close. ‘I honestly don’t know why. It just came out.’ Quieter now, his voice is hollow and oddly high-pitched.
‘Have you told anyone else?’
‘What about your guide?’
‘No’ he says again, flatly. He holds his face in his hands for a while, collecting himself, drags his fingers through his hair. Finally he turns and looks at me with his head on one side and smiles crookedly. I can see him on the bench outside The Pavilion just like this as clearly as it’s happening here and now. ‘Can we get something to drink?’ he says. ‘We’ll bring it back up here.’
‘Are you going to talk to me?’
‘We’ll see’ he says.
‘I hurt someone, very badly’ he says once we are settled again. Just like that – he comes out with it. I try to suppress my agitation. ‘Has it occurred to you that you might be, indeed must be, among murderers and rapists here, all wandering around freely?’
I don’t know what to say. There’s been so much to take in. I’ve trusted everyone.
‘Not really’ I say ‘There’s been too much to...’
‘Well you are’ he says. ‘I look about me and wonder who they are, wonder if I can tell... just by the look of them, by the looks on their faces.’
‘Can you tell?’
He looks at his glass. ‘You know one good thing about this being dead business? I don’t think I actually ever realised how good booze tasted before. I just used to drink whatever rot-gut got me there quickest, but here... This is a nice drop of plonk.’
He looks intently into my eyes. ‘Would it help if I gave you the grisly details – what I did, how I did it?’ he says. I feel I should say ‘no’ but I do want to know. I’m not sure if I’m being ghoulish. I just want to know the worst. Maybe it was an accident, or self defence, or maybe it wasn’t physical hurt at all. I like Ned, or I have done. I have cared about him. He’s always seemed so affable and intelligent, albeit a little aloof. I feel I need to know.
‘Well forget it. I won’t’ he says, turning toward the sea, taking another drink. ‘I can’t. It’s all in the past now. I don’t know why I’ve even told you this much.’
‘I won’t tell anyone.’
‘Big of you’ he says, and turns his face away, hiding the expression there from me. ‘Best of luck’ he says mock brightly, toasting me with his bottle. ‘Hope you find what you’re looking for.’
I nod and take that as my cue to walk away but I can’t say I’m happy about it.