A few days later, after my morning snooze (people seem to sleep a great deal in the afterlife) I arrive for lunch and the only person I recognise is Lisa. ‘Where is everyone?’ I say, failing to hide my disappointment until too late. She smiles nevertheless, as if she’s used to it and pulls out a seat for me. ‘Good day to you too’ she says. I sit down and I observe her for a moment. Actually, she’s intriguing but I really just wanted some easy company today just as a distraction, and easy, she is not.
‘Did you sleep well?’ she says.
‘I did. What are you reading today?’
She turns the book over to look at the spine, then slumps a little with a perplexed look on her face. ‘I don’t know really. It’s nothing like anything I’ve seen before. You have a look’ and she passes it to me, keeping her fingers in place to mark the page. I read a few lines and it seems like poetry but without any obvious structure. ‘I think it’s a description of a mythical city and all the things that go on there’ she says ‘but the weird thing is, it looks like ordinary prose, but when you read it, it just falls into this amazing rhythm all by itself’ and she takes the book back and sits up and begins reading. It takes a while for the sentences to fall into place but then quite unexpectedly it begins to sound like a song. I watch her reading, lost in the words and get quite lost myself. I can see the city with its leafy shaded squares and clamouring market day and its views over the walls, across the plain. In a café sits a beautiful Arab girl and her father, sipping coffee. I feel like I know them. I realise she has stopped reading and we both have tears in our eyes.
‘It’s marvellous isn’t it’ I say.
‘I’m glad you like it’ she says, obviously very pleased with the effect. ‘Shall we order something?’
‘Absolutely, yes. What’s on today? Shall I go and find out?’ and she smiles and I go up and look at the blackboard and try to memorise everything so I can go back and tell her. I know she’s vegetarian, and I wouldn’t mind going veggie today so that cuts down the amount I have to remember a bit.
I used to do this back home. For a moment I see myself in that pub in Fletching near the end of my life, trying to choose something to eat and having real difficulty making sense of it all and she would come up and help me. I wouldn’t have let anyone else ‘interfere’ as I called it (although they meant well no doubt). Somehow she never made me feel inadequate, my darling girl, no matter what stupid things I did or said.
I don’t know if I can stand this today. I can’t imagine ever standing it. I can see this sort of day happening over and over, without her, for all eternity. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder – just the way she would have done and I turn and Lisa is there and she says ‘I was wondering what was keeping you.’ Then she sees my face and says ‘Are you ok?’ but I don’t want to have to explain. Even if, for argument’s sake, Lisa were a woman I could love (which I’m sure she’s not), how could I ever start all over again? How could I ever think of trying to make someone new understand all over again, after so much has happened? I could never take the trouble to get to know anyone else like that, make all those plans over again, all that history again. It would feel like a cheap imitation. To say I can’t be bothered is to describe an ocean as a mere bucket full.
‘I’m not really hungry’ I say. ‘You choose’ and she studies the board and I hang back. I don’t want to be here but I don’t want to be alone either. I told Alison that I was seriously considering going over the side and getting lost but she tells me that I would have to spend that long last time drifting, simply feeling how I feel now with no hope of ever coming to terms with it until I finally dissolve into oblivion. There seems to be no way out except to distract myself if I can.
‘Come on, you must eat’ she says.
‘I’ll have whatever you’re having’ I say and she goes and orders.
We sit down together and I start to put the food in my mouth. Actually it’s ok. Food always made me feel better. It was what we used to do, when all else failed – make a nice meal and then go to bed. Lisa notes my distracted attitude and says I don’t have to eat with her if I don’t want to.
‘It’s not you’ I say weakly but she seems determined to take it personally so I suppose I’ll have to explain. I tell her about how much I miss my wife and how things remind me of her and how I’m not sure I can cope with all this afterlife ahead of me. She sits impassively throughout my explanation and observes the tears that come to my eyes dispassionately. I can see she’s weighing up whether to say something.
‘Tell me what you’re thinking’ I say.
‘Oh, it’s nothing’ she says impatiently, shaking her head as if to discourage a persistent fly.
‘I can see it’s not nothing’ I say, in my softest voice and reaching for her hand.
‘Oh, go to hell’ she snaps, snatching her hand back.
I feel like saying ‘Too late’ but it sounds melodramatic.
‘Ok’ I say and begin to get up. She sits there looking about, still looking as if she wants to say something. I stand there waiting for a while then move to go. At that moment I hear her say something very quietly. I don’t catch it.
‘I said I think you should consider yourself lucky, that’s all – to have had that.’
I sit down again, looking at her. ‘I do’ I say. ‘I think I was very lucky’ I sit and look at her a bit longer.
‘That’s all’ she says. ‘I didn’t have anything else to say. You can go now.’
‘I didn’t want to go.’
‘Why did you get up then?’
‘You told me to go to hell as I remember.’
‘And do you always do as you’re told?’
‘Ok. Whatever. I’ll see you around’ and I leave her to it, whatever it is. I’m sure she’s very hurt and I feel bad for her I really do, but I wasn’t the one who hurt her and I refuse to have it taken out on me just because I happen to be available. Probably she wouldn’t have had the courage to take it out on the one who actually did the damage so she takes it out on someone who she knows won’t hit back, ie. me. Bloody women.