‘Didn’t the other students say anything?’ says Alison next time.
I shake my head. Do people really ever say what needs to be said? Wouldn’t we all rather be ‘tactful’ or claim it’s none of our business until the other person finally cracks and falls apart completely?
I look over at her. She’s looking hard at me. She knows what’s coming. She knows that this is the breaking point of the story – the fork in the road.
‘I was wondering, do you have notes on me, on any of us, from these sessions, from previous after-lives?’ I say. I want to make her wait.
‘Some’ she says, clearly a little weary of the delay, ‘at the academy.’
‘I’ve heard of that. They keep files do they?’
‘They do. Guides should submit their files at the end of each journey.’
‘Who says you should?’
‘It’s just what we do.’
‘What happens if you don’t?’
‘Nothing. I’ve lost one or two in the past for various reasons.’
‘So why do you bother?’
‘Same reason I’m here at all – to try to help.’
‘But who organises all this? Who built the academy originally? Where did you get this boat? Actually, that’s a point. I assume the cave men and the Romans and so on went through all this too. What did they travel in?’
‘We don’t know for sure. It appears the earliest people may have done the whole journey on foot, without guides.’
‘Across the sea?’
‘There is a land route I gather, although it’s frozen for a large part. They could have swam I suppose.’
I sit and wonder at this. Technically I know of course they couldn’t die of cold or drowning but it must have been horrific for them. ‘Did many of them make it?’
‘Did they know where they were going, or that there was anywhere to go to?’
‘No. They must have just wandered around, naked of course. Many of the earliest accounts of hell are of a frozen place, not an inferno.’
‘Just wandering around forever?’
‘Or until they found somewhere to stay. Or they’d eventually come to the far ocean where they’d be reborn. Or they allowed themselves to be lost. I imagine most of them were lost.’
‘So, when did this start, all this... organisation?’
‘Since the technology, or the civilisation has existed, so it has been mirrored here. Previously it would have had a more mystical or mythical tone no doubt. Now, well, we just try to help. As long as there have been records there have been people willing to help, to act as guides.’
‘So this is just the latest version? This is the sort of well-meaning liberal psycho-therapeutic technological bureaucratic secular western version.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘So how come we can’t just fly wherever we’re going by 747? Why don’t you just look me up on a database and see what I did last time?’
‘Would you prefer that?’
‘Well, no, but...’
She looks at me intently, waiting to see what I’ll do next. There’s just the slightest trace of a supercilious smile on her face.
‘What’s wrong?’ she says ‘Don’t you believe me?’
‘I find it all a bit hard to believe to be honest.’
‘Whereas other notions of after-lives you’ve heard of seem more plausible perhaps?’
‘Well, no. They were just conveniently vague.’
‘Precisely. Gabriel, I don’t know any better than anyone else how this place runs. I do however have a better idea what it is not.’ I look quizzically at her. ‘It is obviously not, for example, a straightforward biology/chemistry/ physics sort of a place, and it seems to resist any attempts at experimentation or regulation. For example, although I shall submit your account to the library back at the academy, chances are I would not be able to locate it again if I went to look for it at a later date.’
‘So, that’s ridiculous. What’s the point?’
‘Well, as you may be aware it’s fairly impossible to keep track of anything here but there’s a good chance, at some time, that someone else will come across it and it will be useful. Some say information wants to be found. It happens a lot more often than one would expect by chance alone. So my manuscript will go into the archives when I get back and be lost, like all the other files. But one day someone may be working with a traveller like yourself, or you in another life and there's a good chance your file will be waiting for them.’
‘But you don’t have my old notes.’
‘I have a summary but the paper itself is missing. That’s fairly typical.’
‘Who wrote it?’
She smiles at me. I’m actually quite keen to know. I don’t know why. She looks at the top of the page. ‘A guy called Vincent.’
She shows it to me. ‘I remember him. He was African’ I say.
She nods and goes on ‘He references a woman called Andrea, a guy called Joe and before that another guy called Mick.’
‘Andrea’ I say, smiling and nodding my head. I knew I’d known her from somewhere.
‘You made a picture of her. Look...’
I look at it and it’s wonderful – not my drawing especially, but the way this scrap of paper has come to me now, from the other end of time. It’s miraculous. I look at Andrea’s face, cool but not unfeeling and remember how she made me feel. Magnificent cleavage.
‘Anyway’ she says, as if waking me from a reverie. ‘Tell me.’
At the time it felt like giving up or letting go. Everything was too much. It was all too much. Toward the end of that February I just kept up the pretence – to avoid hassle from parents and teachers but mainly because I didn’t want to get kicked out and have to find a job. I got up, I went to school, I attended lessons. Everybody treated me much as they always had – politely but guardedly, like I might contaminate them with whatever it was I was suffering from.
The Monday after my week AWOL everybody was carrying on as normal and I was being evasive. At the time I thought I just didn’t want to talk about it but actually I did want to talk. I just didn’t think anyone would want to listen. Anyhow, somehow it had got out, what I’d done, and people were being especially nice but extra careful at the same time. Adam just wouldn’t talk to me at all. He disappointed me. I’d thought he was different but these days he seemed extra keen to conform. He just wanted to “get on”.
Then, on the Wednesday we were all sitting having coffee in the refectory and I was trying hard to keep a normal expression on my face when Camille leaned over and said ‘You should talk to somebody.’ She had this really intense expression on her face – very serious, and then almost instantly went back to her normal urbane amused self. It was as if the room and the people and everything around me had been suddenly revealed to be a two-dimensional projection on a screen and a real three-dimensional face had emerged from behind it and spoken to me. I watched her go on talking, like nothing had happened.
At the time it didn’t seem like much but the idea took a hold. It seems silly now but it had simply never occurred to me that I could talk to someone about what was happening. Oh I could complain and make excuses and I often did. People might either pity me or tell me to buck my ideas up but what was the point? Either way I’d always assumed it was just my not trying hard enough, again, and ultimately I’d just have to get on with it, alone,as I assumed everyone else did.
It wasn’t until that evening that I realised what she had said. It implied that what I had to say was not mere whining – that maybe it was a genuine problem. Not only that, but it implied that there might be something someone could do to help, though I had no idea yet what. It was the first time I’d really seen myself as if from the outside and my first thought was ‘What the hell is going on?’
Next day I tried to get Camille on her own to ask what she’d meant but she just looked at me cryptically. I ran through all the teachers in my head and imagined trying to converse with them like a normal person. I couldn’t imagine it. I couldn’t imagine talking to anyone that way. Justine was the only person I could imagine even being vaguely sympathetic. She knew what had happened back in February and was there at the hospital when they released me. Mum was furious and dad was just silent but Justine looked confused and miserable and I didn’t want to upset her even more. She had enough to deal with in her own life. Once since then she’d taken me aside and asked what was wrong but I didn’t know where to start. I just told her what I’d told mum and dad – that I wouldn’t do it again and I’d try my hardest. I just wanted them to leave me alone and not to have to think about it any more.
I think I can point out the exact moment my life changed. I was sitting in the quiet study area – a room full of cubicles, trying to revise for a French test that was due first thing the next day. The words shifted and blurred on the page and wouldn’t sit still long enough to get a grip on. I remember I’d had a headache all day. I slapped the book closed and looked up. ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’ I said as loudly as I dared but nobody else was there to hear me. ‘How come everybody can do it except me?’ I snarled, opening the book again and glaring at the words which snarled and blurred back at me.
I looked over my shoulder to the window and the earliest of the spring sunshine was illuminating the trees outside. I considered going for another walk. It had been raining and the light sparkled dazzlingly on the drops. I knew Camille and Carly, Sally and Tina would have been here earlier, contentedly working through the pages together – relaxed and fluent, and I imagined them observing my struggle with condescension and a certain satisfaction, because, after all, I was not one of them. Well they’d finished for the day long ago and I was glad they were not here to witness my futile rage.
I went back to trying to force the words into my eyes, along my optic nerves and into the relevant part of my brain where, hopefully, something would eventually fall into place.
That was when I thought ‘Some things are hard Gabriel.’
It was not like the voices that normally crowded my head when I felt humiliated and frustrated. It was not telling me to pull myself together and not to be so pathetic. It was saying ‘No – we all have trouble. It’s nobody’s fault.’ And the voice was so full of care and sympathy that I almost wept.
I didn’t know where that voice came from (for the record it was a man’s voice – gentle and low, possibly with a slight French accent) but I understood almost straight away that this was the most important day of my life. It felt like a wide, cool, clear cavity opening up inside me, blue and light, like an underground lake reached by crawling through a low, damp, dark passage. I had no idea who he was but whoever they were they knew me and my limitations and they knew my talents. This was no mere positive thinking platitude. They were not saying 'You're wonderful. You can do anything. Everybody loves you', which was plainly not true. No, they were telling me - actually - things I already knew - that I was bright and creative and good hearted, but also that I didn't really believe that people wanted me around or that trying harder was likely to make things better. I was prone to panicking when things didn't go according to plan. When things began to go wrong I did and said stupid things and made people uncomfortable. Finally, when things got too hard, I simply absented myself, if not physically then mentally - retreating into my imagination. My family told me I was lazy and immature but now here was this other voice and it understood, and it was on my side and I was not used to that. I felt tears well in my eyes. It knew me perfectly and - there's no other word for it - it liked me. It understood. I was not alone any more. It was a completely new sensation.
I took a breath and looked around, feeling light, almost weightless. ‘Some things are hard’ I thought, and I looked down at the text book in front of me and it occurred to me that I could do this, if I wanted to. It would be hard, but I was capable of it. Hadn’t I after all got through my O levels almost without doing any work at all? Hadn't I stayed in the top ten percent of the school throughout, almost without trying?
Everybody had been going on at me about how desperately important all this was, how I would never get another chance if I didn’t pull my finger out, how my whole future depended upon what I did now and I had been paralysed with fear. I couldn’t do anything. Now suddenly I felt myself move forward.
It was getting on for four o’clock so I gathered my things up and stepped outside. The air was chill but the year was turning. Dad always used to say on June the twenty-second, ‘Oh, the nights’ll start to draw in now’, but in midwinter he never said ‘Oh the days’ll start getting longer now’. That’s what mum meant by facing up to reality I suppose – focussing on how things can only get worse. I began the walk home with the sentence ‘Some things are hard’ in my head, like a mantra. I marvelled at the fact that it was possible to say that sentence and not feel nagged and ashamed. Something had subtly altered in my thinking. I tried to think where it could have come from.
The new insights lost some of their power over the next couple of days - what with the day to day routine and mum ‘reminding’ me about what I should be doing. Dad tried to “talk some sense” into me. He’d begun to drop heavy hints about me giving up on this “time wasting exercise” of college and finding myself a job. He thought I was still at school mainly to avoid working, but that was only partly true. I was there to avoid the kind of work he and mum did but I had no clear idea what the alternatives might be. That morning he was going on again about my obligations and how I mustn’t lose touch with reality. He had this way of talking that made it sound like he was speaking for everyone in the world and that any disagreement could only be the ramblings of a deluded minority. Personal opinion was not in his vocabulary. As usual I said nothing as he went about his routine. He had to get to work by eight whilst I was only just out of bed and he almost always had to say something about that. I watched him move about the kitchen in his faded blue boiler suit and steel toecaps. I noticed he seemed smaller than I remembered. Strange how you live with your family all those years and never really look at them. Mum was moving about upstairs. I could hear her. She’d be down soon and without saying anything (unless she had a complaint), she’d eat her toast, then put on her makeup and leave at eight thirty. She and I spent that hour in a high-pitched silence, feelings too shrill to be detected by normal ears. For some reason she liked me to be about while she was there.
I was in my dressing gown still, nursing my cup of ‘proper’ coffee, prepared by myself with filter papers under dad’s baleful glances. He was pissed off because I wouldn’t drink their filthy instant coffee any more but I could hardly bring myself to sip mine until he’d gone. He had tea of course, strong and sweet. Mum had instant coffee, black, no sugar. He placed two eggs in front of me, meticulously timed, and toast, perfectly buttered. He insisted on making me breakfast every weekday morning. I wondered if when he did these things it gave him some personal satisfaction or if he believed it was just how things had to be done and personal satisfaction was irrelevant (or maybe the satisfaction came from simply doing what had to be done). I watched him and knew there would be no point asking. I opened the egg and saw it was perfectly soft in its yellow core and perfectly firm in its white. He had no opinion about how to boil eggs. This was simply how it was done. I never worked out how he did it. Someone later suggested to me he’d been a perfectionist but he wasn’t. Aspiring to perfection was for people who thought rather too much of themselves. No, things were either done right or they were done wrong. That’s all there was to it, and if you did as you were told and followed the instructions, well then there was no excuse for you not doing it right too. Wanting to do things your own way, he told me once, was like deciding to drive on the wrong side of the road – stupid, dangerous and essentially pointless.
And I had been measuring myself against this man all my life. As far as he was concerned I had only one option – to do as I should, as he did. Otherwise I would end up doing as I shouldn’t and if I wouldn’t be like him I’d inevitably end up doing as I shouldn’t. No other consequence was possible. Except now I had a sense of something else. I wasn’t sure what it was yet but one thing I did know was that a lot of what I wanted to do was not wrong. It wasn’t what he’d have done, but it wasn’t wrong. I also knew that things were a lot easier to get right if I did them because I wanted to, rather than because I thought I should. He would have had a problem with that too. He believed life should be hard. When I’d let slip that I was choosing to take Spanish because I was already good at it I saw him bluster with irritation. Neither of my parents had any time for self-confidence or natural aptitude which amounted to cheating and laziness. There was no excuse for laziness, and self-confidence was just plain bad manners.
I knew though, doing things his way, the hard way, I was failing. Even with the subjects I’d chosen – my ‘play’ subjects, it was too much. I was going to have to allow myself to be ‘lazy’ just to survive.