Even at the time I knew I’d been on the boat before, very vaguely admittedly, but I knew, and now I found myself once more up on deck, rugged up against the cold, looking at a choppy khaki-grey sea and the yellow-grey sky, and it was horribly cold. I looked back and there were more like myself, being brought up the gangplank in wheelchairs by porters obscured in thick grey coats, hats, boots and gloves. Mine sees me move and says ‘Soon have you back in the warm sir’ muffled through his collars.
As my eyes focused a sheer white cliff resolved itself, a cliff of ice and snow, or cloud, looming hugely above us, and at its base, at the other end of the jetty, where we’d come from, a hazy silver-grey archway set into the face of it, brightly lit inside, with a parade of figures, each with its own wheelchair, bringing us, the dead, out over the water, up the gang plank, along the deck, to our berths presumably, in silence, in the drifting snow and stinging frozen sea water. A million shades of grey.
I’d been here before. I remember thinking that it seemed a very long time ago. I wanted to get off. I wanted to stop. I’d been through enough.
A couple of days later I’m to be found down in the restaurant area having a coffee. The wind is really picking up outside and the boat is beginning to roll. I can see the tops of some fairly hefty waves out there. The water is a cloudy grey-green colour, quite opaque, with just a touch of foam edging each facet. Framing the window, floral curtains hang incongruously. The table I sit at has the marks of other hot cups on it, and the carpet has faded black and red chevrons. Apart from the staff chatting behind the bar I am the only one here. I woke up earlier than expected, so already I am a troublemaker. Oh well. I can’t just sit in my cabin. It feels too narrow, the bed. It’s nice enough in there but I haven’t slept alone for more than a night or two I don’t think, in nearly thirty years. It feels terrible, cold and empty, like the better part of my body has been blown away.
So this is the afterlife. I want to say it’s not what I expected but I know I’ve been here before. I wonder where they get the boats, the food, even the shower gel. It is all very strange, and kind of laughable.
I have a guide. Her name is Alison, a small, dark skinned, plumpish woman with long straight black hair and a rather intense gaze and I know her from somewhere. I have this image of the two of us sitting on a jetty by a river - I don’t know where. She seems pleasant enough but I’m really not sure I want to talk to her about anything.
And I’m never going to see my beautiful girl ever again.We’re motoring away here, across a cold sea, away from where she is, and I just think, well why not turn around? I mean why not?
I know what they’ll say. They’ll say ‘It’s not really like that’ and I’ll say ‘Well what is it like?’ and they’ll look at me, not with pity, but with compassion, because they do know after all. They know exactly what I mean. We’re all in the same boat.
This morning as I came out of my cabin there was a man standing in the corridor in his pyjamas yelling at one of the guides. He just kept shouting ‘Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?’ over and over. Then he yelled ‘I’m important. I am a very important person’ after her as she left him to it. I guess she’d been trying to help.
I saw him later, hunched over his cereal, still in his dressing gown, glaring around at everything, shovelling it in. It seems ridiculous now but I suppose we all know what he means. Everything we had back there, everything we were, is gone now.
Alison comes over with her mug of cocoa and sits down uninvited. ‘How are we feeling now?’ she says, touching my hand in a matronly sort of way.
‘Dead’ I say. ‘You?’
‘Would you care to talk, with me, or maybe with one of the others?’ She comes over as professional and to the point, but not without warmth.
‘There’s nothing to say’ I reply, but there is, there’s everything to say. I’ve left her all alone and I can’t stand it.
And yet – a selfish thought – how much worse if she’d gone first. Better here alone than back there alone.
I look in my mirror and shake my head. I still feel and move like an old man but my face is young again. I look about forty, and I looked good at forty. I had a little extra weight by then but no more than your average thirty year old. Women in their twenties still looked at me sometimes, and single mums were very keen to get to know me. But I was taken. Totally taken. No one else stood a chance.
I didn’t deserve her.
And I’m never going to see her again – not even once. Not even for a moment.
No, it just isn’t thinkable. I just can’t get that sentence to mean anything.
Time to go up on deck and get some air. Who knows – maybe I’ll get swept overboard. Huzzah!