Monday, 18 February 2013

Journey XV – Tomorrow Never Knows...

We walked for three days through a grassy rolling landscape. Small thorny trees dotted the hillside and an occasional goat-like animal stuck its head out of the long grass and watched us pass. Birds twittered, bees buzzed, and we chatted and laughed and lay on the turf and looked at the sun and bathed our feet in the streams. Shamim and I walked along and talked about nothing in particular, and Nicky mostly walked a short way ahead, occasionally looking back at us and smiling. Enayat and Amireh were almost locked together hand in hand and Muriel just seemed happy to stroll among us, singing or chatting to whoever was closest.

On the fourth day we came to a walled town set among orchards and ponds and meadows full of flowers. Entering by the main gate, I suppose I thought this must be what heaven would be like. There were narrow cobble streets and little squares with shade trees at their centres, and cafés  and there was a market happening the day we arrived. A woman came out and greeted us and asked about our travels and introduced us to some people in a café. We said we had no money but she said not to worry about that this once and all travellers were welcome.
By the evening we had been found rooms and had dinner arranged for later that night. I’m describing it as if there must be some catch coming, after all we’d been through, but there wasn’t. It was exactly the way it seemed – the people were friendly, the food excellent, and the whole feel of the place at once relaxing and lively. Enayat said it reminded him of a little place he knew in Turkey but it reminded me of Spain.
Shamim and I had separate rooms now – she stayed near to her parents and I really missed having her around (although I didn’t miss the ache in my balls from watching her wandering around in nothing but a thin white gown). I was put in a beautiful room full of richly coloured rugs and ceramics and an enormous, heavy wooden bed. When I arrived that night it was dark and I was shown to the bed by candlelight. In the morning it was just as dark until I found a massive wooden door behind a curtain, which, when opened gave a view out over the roofs to a cork-oak forest and mountains beyond.
That day none of us expected to see each other at all and I spent the day sleeping, eating delicacies and drinking fruit juices and drowsily fantasising about her.
We stayed for nearly two weeks. Shamim spent more time with her parents and I had time to explore and think about things more clearly. We tended to come together in the evenings, the six of us, at a restaurant or bar. Shamim seemed happy enough but I knew something had changed between us. Muriel was rapidly making other friends but Nicky spent most evenings with us and I noticed quite a change in her. Previously she’d have been looking around to see who she could hook up with, or prattling on about clothes. Now she sat and watched and said little, with a small, serene smile. I suddenly realised she’d become very beautiful.
In the third week we discovered that Enayat and Amireh wanted to stay, possibly forever. Shamim looked at me, watching to see how I’d react. I thought about staying with them. It didn’t seem a bad idea, but... Then she took my hand and lead me away down an alley to an opening with a view across the valley where the road ahead could be seen snaking away among the cypresses.
‘I’m going to stay’ she began ‘at least for a while’ and I thought she was going to suggest I stay and I was trying to make a decision but she put her finger to my lips and shushed me. ‘You can’t stay’ she said. I began to protest. ‘No, listen to me. You have other things to do. You have Sophie...’
‘But that’s not...’
‘And you have Nicky.’
‘What? No I haven’t. What are you talking about? I’ve never...’
She thinks for a moment. I think there might be tears in her eyes but she won’t look at me. ‘You know you told me you love her, but as a friend?’ she said.
‘Yes but...’
‘You never once told me you love me at all.’
‘But I do. You know that.’
‘But you love her more, and no, not as a friend. I’ve seen you together.’
‘But she’s like a child, she’s impossible.’
‘Nevertheless... and actually she’s not like a child at all. Not any more. She’s a remarkable young woman. And you know that. You love her very much, and you always have. You shouldn't be ashamed of that.’
We sit in silence for a while, watching the sun go away. I know she’s letting me down lightly, so I won’t have to make a decision. It’s good of her.
‘Are you going to stay forever?’ I say.
‘I don’t know. I had so much to do, to go back to, to finish, but my mother and father have had enough and I love them so much.’
‘You’re very lucky.’
‘Maybe you will be lucky next time.’

We left a couple of days later, Nicky and I. She was overjoyed at the news about Shamim and I, and did a little skippy dance in the new, very short, ‘fairy dress’ she’d bought at the market. ‘Now I can have you’ she said gleefully, embarrassing me mightily in front of a lot of strangers.
Shamim and I kissed and held each other for a long time on the stone road leading down from the main gate, and then Amireh and finally Enayat and I hugged too. Then Nicky hugged them all. Muriel had said her goodbyes the night before (‘Can’t stand a big public scene’ she said). And then we headed off down the lane together.

The final part of the journey was largely uneventful. It took us another two months or so but we took our time, strolling along, camping out under the stars, exploring woods and caves and lakes and ravines.
I had this idea that a respectable amount of time should elapse between my saying goodbye to Shamim and any overtures to Nicky but seeing her every day, dressed in nothing but that tiny pale blue sparkly silk dress, or in her orange sarong, walking along a little way ahead, showing her bottom, or falling out of her top when she bent over... Well, the situation became impossible. I knew she was doing it on purpose. She commented that sometimes the look on my face was just like a lion before it pounces. The strap slipped from her shoulder and it was all I could do not to make a meal of her then and there.

I gave in one day when I caught her bathing in a river, the bit of cloth she had on was heavy with water and she was holding it up rather ineffectually. I sat and watched for a while where the orange material clung transparently to her breasts and bum and jiggled as she moved. She looked shyly at me, as if caught in the act, turned away, then looked vulnerably at me over her shoulder, ‘accidentally’ uncovering a broad expanse of white flesh from hip to thigh. She admitted later that she knew exactly what that expression would do to me.
I took off my vest and chucked it away, kicked off my sandals and went down to her in just my shorts. She stood there, up to her thighs in the water, a little bent over, her hands over her breasts. I stood next to her and ran a fingernail over the curves of her hip and waist and I saw her close her eyes and gasp quietly. I gently ran my fingers over her belly, down her sides, down that fine crease that separates thigh from soft, pubic mound. She put her head back and turned to kiss me – at first tentatively, then fiercely, then gasped and broke away. She wrapped the wet fabric around herself. ‘Catch me’ she said, and ran bare-foot and bare-arsed up the slope to where our things were spread under a tree.
I deliberately took my time, trying to be cool. I felt predatory and hard. When I found her she had lost the sarong and was naked, pressed against a rock face on the bare hill side, and she looked frightened and terribly exposed. She was my adolescent fantasy, right there, ready to be taken. She covered her pudenda and nipples ineffectually with her hands and eyed me intently as I walked down to her. I could see her shivering slightly – with cold I hoped. I didn’t want her to be afraid of me – I wanted her to want me. I stood in front of her and watched her, quivering slightly, looking around self-consciously, and then back to my face. I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that there might be someone with a camera behind one of the rocks. Then I saw the tiniest trace of her naughty little girl smile, the one she’d warned me about and I stood against her, pressed against the rock face and she began to run her hands along my sides and over my arse and she grabbed my face and we kissed hard, biting and chewing. She grabbed my cock and rubbed it brutally hard against her leg. ‘Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me...’ she said through her teeth, ferociously glaring at me, like she was asking to be stabbed. She tugged down my shorts and turned around, still gripping my cock, and bent over a rock, her breasts dangling in the thorn bushes, and yelled at me to ‘Just fucking screw me’, and I did. I pushed her down and rammed myself into her as hard as I could, up against those jagged rocks and spiky shrubs. Once or twice there was a little cry of pain and I paused and asked if she was ok and she slapped me on the thigh and yelled at me to ‘Just fucking do it, you moron!’ So I did. I pulled her head back by her hair and sucked at her mouth. I kneaded at those heavy breasts and I fucked her as hard as I could. It was bloody wonderful.

I came very quickly – I couldn’t stop myself, and sat back on my haunches, dripping, watching her. She turned around and glared at me some more. ‘Don’t think this is over’ she said, and I thought ‘I certainly hope not.’ As she leaned there, among the rocks and plants I saw her begin to rub her vagina, smoothly at first with her right hand, and caress her scratched belly and breasts with the left. I watched her put her fingers in her mouth and taste our juices and then go on, rubbing herself, harder and faster. Then she looked down and saw that my cock was hard again and she shoved me back on the gravel and straddled me and rocked back and forward on me, scraping my back on the ground, grinding me deeper and deeper inside her. I ignored the pain and watched her furious face and her swinging breasts and felt her tight clenched vagina working on me like a fist. She was grunting and telling me what a bastard I was and how I’d get what I deserved and then as she came she leaned forward and kissed me powerfully again, crying into my mouth, still forcing our pelvises together as if it might still be possible for me to be that little bit further inside her if we really tried.
Then she collapsed on me, her gorgeous wet muddy bulk squashing me into the ground. We lay there for some time, our breathing slowly returning to normal. Eventually she rolled off and lay beside me on the hot stony ground. I saw her smile. ‘Hell I needed that’ she gasped.

I don’t have much to tell about the rest of the journey. After that first time we mauled each other we made rather slow progress I admit, but between stopping for more sex (usually less violent) we walked and chatted and enjoyed the freedom of the vast landscape we passed through. There were also several small communities and hostels that took us in along the way and we took the opportunity of a hot shower and a soft bed whenever possible.

In retrospect I don’t think we ever had a huge amount to say to one another, and I feel fairly sure we would not have made a good match in life, probably because she was too young for me, but we were easy company for that time and for those last couple of months there was something rather nice going on between us that I’ll never forget. To be fair, in retrospect, I don’t think Shamim and I would have made a good match either. Things had never been right after that conversation with her mother at the hotel. I suspect it was her beautiful mystery or something that kept me entranced, rather than the reality. And that had been the problem with Mar too. I didn’t find out what she was really like until it was far too late. No doubt Shamim is a genuinely lovely person, but who can tell? One thing I could definitely say about Nicky was that I knew exactly what she was like and I really appreciated that. I think about Sophie again and consider myself very lucky to have known her, even for such a short time.

Finally the road lead us into a busy coastal town, once again with narrow stone streets and market squares, but this time with lush tropical undergrowth rooted into the walls and roofs, and monkeys in the trees.
And the place was full of travellers from many different roads, all converging on this one place in carts and rickshaws and on horseback, all milling about, moving down to the river where it met the sea. And all along the road, there were people playing music and trying to give us food and other things to take with us. Nicky wanted to go in a bright cerise dress she saw on offer. We decided to try and find a room and a guide to take us through the final part of the journey.

Nyssa, the guide, took us up to a path above the place where people leave, where the river meets the sea – the brown river water churning with the deep grey green of the marine with each wave. Men and women in brightly coloured robes waded and dipped in the water as if practising. We waited and saw one woman swim out a little way, dip under and not reappear.
‘And that’s how it’s done’ she said.
Nicky began to cry a little ‘You promise you won’t let go?’ she said to me and I promised. I was almost in tears myself.
‘Now you must enter this with as clear a heart as possible. This journey you’ve been on I know has meant a great deal, and your future life cannot be the same as a result of it. There is no hurry. You must think on this. Think about what has happened.’

We sit and think. I don’t know what to think about first. I try to look meditative anyway.
‘You Nicky I know have been hurt...’ and Nicky begins to really cry, nodding vehemently, Nyssa takes hold of her hands ‘and it was not your fault, but you must not allow it to happen next time.’
‘But I can’t’ she howls.
‘You were young I know, but you can do it. You are strong. You can change it. Carry this knowledge with you. It can be different Nicky. It can.’
Nicky lets go of one of Nyssa’s hands and grips mine. ‘Will you come and find me Gabriel?’ she says ‘If I’m on the bridge?’
‘You won’t be, you’ll be in China, or at university studying to go. You won’t do it this time.’
‘But just in case. Will you come?’
‘It’s not as simple as that Nicky’ says Nyssa. ‘We don’t remember everything we want to. Promises are hard to keep.’
‘But say you’ll try, just in case. Please Gabriel.’
‘I promise. Where did it happen?’
‘Waterloo sunset. I always loved that song. I think it was about the ninth of August. Can you be there for a few days in case I’ve got the date wrong?’
‘Of course. I’ll be there.’
‘Bring Sophie if you like.’
‘Ok, but I still think you’ll be in China having a fantastic time.’
She smiles.
‘And you Gabriel. You have a lot to live for I know. Avoid those that try to force you to their way – you know who they are. Have faith in your way because you do know what you are doing Gabriel, however you may feel sometimes.’

We spend a couple more days sitting around, watching people, eating spicy food and drinking sweet yoghurt with rose water, and, of course, having lots of sex.

When we entered the water that last evening, wearing just the slightest of robes – her in her cerise, me in turquoise, we were sticky and ripe with each other’s juices, still pulsing from our last orgasms. We held hands all the way, stumbling down over the stones, dipping down into the chilly water, letting it trickle in between our legs, making us gasp and giggle.
I remember still holding her hand there as we let ourselves go in the murky green water and still kissing her as my body began to feel like some cloudy sexual fluid dispersing and mingling with hers. I remember thinking how blissful it was to go together like that.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Voyage XV – Life and Soul

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?’
‘Like whales?’
‘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.’
‘What about?’
‘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 nods.
‘How many?’
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.’
‘And what?’
‘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.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Vincent X – Fruition

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...’
‘Or not...’
‘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...’
‘Can you?’
‘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.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.